About Silent Films
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Charlie Chaplin was a genius of the silent screen, his Little Tramp character mugging his way through some 82 films. Only 5 of them talking pictures.
His daughter Jane tells me that he lived a somewhat silent life. “My father always working and us kids having to be quiet at all times while in the house,” she recalls. “Particularly on the ground floor and first floor where over the handles of each bedroom door was a sign that read ‘Do Not Disturb.’ We couldn't speak to our parents unless they first spoke to us.”
The world of a silent film star is explored in “The Artist,” the retro movie by French director Michel Hazanavicius. This modern-day homage to the early days of Hollywood is playing at the Tropic Cinema.
What a chance for a director to take, making a black-and-white silent movie in 2011. But it works, because that period in the late ’20s and early ’30s when talkies were being introduced to moviegoers is the subject of this charming, if sometimes sad, love poem.
Comic actor Jean Dujardin (“OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” “99 Francs”) takes the lead as silent film star George Valentin, a chisel-chinned leading man who sports a pencil-thin moustache like William Powell, and has a canine sidekick who knows more tricks (like playing dead at a bang) than Asta. Opening with a film within a film, Valentin has just premiered a derring-do adventure titled “A Russian Affair” when he (literally) bumps into a wannabe actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo living up to her character’s moniker). With spit curls and a big smile, Peppy makes the papers with a headline asking Who’s That Girl?
Studio boss Al Zimmer (a gruff John Goodman) is unhappy that the pretty girl’s picture has pushed a review of his big movie to page 5, so when she shows up for an audition on Valentin’s next film, he banishes her from the set – only to be overridden by Valentin who insists she have a part in Kinograph Studios’ next production called “A German Affair.”
Yep, Valentin is smitten with the young starlet, his disapproving wife (Penny Ann Miller) and loyal chauffeur (James Cromwell) notwithstanding. He gives Peppy something to make her different from other actresses, a beauty spot made with an eyebrow pencil. And when they film a dance sequence, it requires take after take because the actor is distracted by the young beauty.
You could write the script (though perhaps not as brilliantly as Hazanavicius). Peppy Miller becomes a big star as Valentin’s own star wans. Of course, the cause of the actor’s slide into obscurity is his prideful refusal to embrace that new technological breakthrough, the talkies.
Peppy’s big hit (aptly titled “The Beauty Spot”) opens the same night as Valentin’s self-financed flop. We see him walking under a sign that proclaims Lonely Star. When his palatial furnishings and gigantic framed portrait are auctioned off, a mysterious couple (Peppy’s maid and butler) buys the objets d’art. You see, Peppy has a soft spot for George Valentin too.
Does all of this sound somewhat familiar? Talkies providing the break for a young ingénue (“Singing in the Rain”). A young protégé eclipsing the major star (“A Star Is Born”). A once-famous star clinging to memories of past glories (“Sunset Boulevard”). Hazanavicius takes all these archetypical storylines and weaves them into a new fabric. And it wears well for those who love the movies.
Like another recent film (Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”), this is a paean to film history. However, “The Artist” eschews 3-D, Technicolor, and other cinematic innovations. Hazanavicius’s story is about the advent of sound so it returns to the archaic film techniques of that era.
Sound plays a key role in this silent movie. And like Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie” where the only sound (other than music) in the entire feature is a spoken word by French mime Marcel Marceau, “The Artist” uses one scene with sound to make its point. This scene was chosen for the Unforgettable Moment Award by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.
The dialogue is displayed on cards (intertitles, they’re called) like in those early films of Chaplin and Keaton and Barrymore. The music swells throughout the film as if an orchestra were hidden in the theatre’s front-of-the-stage pit. There’s only one song on the entire soundtrack. And a key plot device is the word “Bang!” – in the end surprising the audience as if it were actually a loud noise.
Peppy hurts George Valentin’s feelings when he overhears her give an interview that labels his acting as mugging. It is. In fact, that’s the old-timey style of this entire movie, mugging its way into your heart, reminding you about the stuff dreams are made of.
Perhaps it’s a form of false nostalgia for an era before our time. (Woody Allen explained that in “Midnight In Paris.”) Nevertheless, celluloid and old nitrate prints have preserved those before-our-time movie memories for us to enjoy even today.
Jane Chaplin once told me that a lot of unseen footage by her father Charlie Chaplin is archived in Bologna, Italy. “The thing is to sort through it and decide objectively what to choose,” she says.
Director-writer Michel Hazanavicius decided to create his own silent movie footage. It’s a masterpiece, one that the London Film Critics picked as Best Film of the Year. Other critics agreed, rating it 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
"The Artist was made as a love letter to cinema,” says Hazanavicius. “It grew out of my (and all of my cast and crew’s) admiration and respect for movies throughout history. It was inspired by the work of Hitchcock, Lang, Ford, Lubitsch, Murnau, and Wilder.”
His star Jean Dujardin won Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at the Golden Globe and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival. And canine co-star Uggie won Cannes’ Palm Dog Award.
Giving his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, the 39-year-old French actor recounted how “When I was starting out they said to me, ‘You’ll never do movies. Your face is too expressive. Too big.’”
Not too expressive to mug his way through a silent movie.
This week the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that “The Artist” as been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. And Jean Dujardin is up for Best Actor.
All without having to speak a line of dialogue.