Who would have thunk it? Two films about the world of silent movies, showing in theaters at the same time.
We have Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s mesmerizing 3-D adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the graphic novel/kid’s book about an orphan living in a in a Paris train station who encounters a toy store proprietor with a mysterious past. The boy uses a robot that his late father gave him to find out the secret of the toy salesman, who turns out to be none other than—SPOLIER ALERT!—Georges Melies, the French pioneer of early fantasy and science fiction films.
Then there’s The Artist, the delightful, heavily praised silent black-and-white picture from French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius, in which dashing silent screen star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) fears his career may be in danger when talkies are introduced in the late 1920s. At the same time, a female fan (Berenice Bejo) with aspirations of becoming a movie actress finds her stock rising as his descends in the new era of sound motion pictures. Any similarities between the lead character and real actor John Gilbert are probably not coincidental.
Is it pure coincidence that both odes to good ol’ days were issued in the same year? Or is there something more to it, a cinematic call for simpler times in these tech-savvy days of 3-D, IMAX, streaming video and digital downloading?
Only the 69-year-old Scorsese and Hazanavicius, who is half of Scorsese’s age, know what the true impetuses were for their inspiration. While they can be applauded for their appreciation of the silent form–and already are being awarded for it as well—they are not the first filmmakers to take a look back at the days before the movies talked, days when silence was truly golden.
Of course, the story of The Artist bears a resemblance to Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain, one of the greatest musicals ever made. In this classic 1952 tuner, a production company and its stars struggle to make the transition from silents to sound. Interspersed with the Hollywood-based story is a romance between leading man Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring young actress, eventually called on to voice double for silent star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose screechy voice elicits laughs from a test audience. With energetic support from Donald O’Connor as Lockwood’s close pal Cosmo, a knowing sense of Hollywood lore, and a score that mixes a gallery of old songs with lyrics penned by producer Arthur Freed (including the title track) and a couple of new tunes (including “Be a Clown”…er…”Make ‘em Laugh”), the film stands as a colorful delight loaded with good times, great songs, memorable dance sequences and a knowing snapshot of Hollywood on the verge of a revolution.
Like The Artist, The Comic is about a silent film star who has a hard time adjusting—here, not only to the sound era, but to success as well. Co-written and directed by Carl Reiner, the 1969 effort showcases Dick Van Dyke as Billy Bright, a silent-era comedian who has breakout success, then sees his life crashing down around him thanks to his arrogance, heavy drinking and infidelity. The life and career of Buster Keaton provided the inspiration for Bright’s story, although Van Dyke’s slapstick routines also serve as salutes to Stan Laurel, his idol. Michele Lee is the wife he neglects, Cornel Wilde the director from whom Van Dyke stole Lee, and Mickey Rooney his ally and screen sidekick. There’s more than a tinge of sadness to the proceedings here, with Van Dyke impressive in both the dramatics and physical comedy. Unfortunately, the film has not been made available on DVD.
Speaking of Keaton, 1957’s The Buster Keaton Story offers Singin’ in the Rain co-star O’Connor as the stone-faced comic in a rarely seen film that is not available on DVD. Future best-selling novelist Sidney Sheldon, of all people, helmed this warts-and-all Tinseltown tale that is heavily fictionalized, although Keaton himself served as a consultant on the project. O’Connor fares well with the serious stuff and he proves nimble enough for the stunt-driven slapstick. Ann Blyth plays the sweet love of his life (although there were three in actuality), and Rhonda Fleming the temptress, while Peter Lorre is on hand as a director and producer-director Cecil B. DeMille cameos as himself.
DeMille also played himself in Sunset Blvd., Billy Wilder’s jet-black 1950 satire of Hollywood and its discontent. Here, Gloria Swanson– the real-life star of such silent as Sadie Thompson and Queen Kelly, whose career waned when talkies were introduced– played Norma Desmond, a forgotten Hollywood luminary who believes she can make a comeback in a sound production of Salome that she wants DeMille to direct. She thinks that down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) will help her realize her dream, so she “keeps” him in her dilapidated mansion. This creepy, masterfully realized film is chockfull of allusions to the silent era—including a great supporting turn by actor-director Erich von Stroheim as Max, Swanson’s oddly subservient servant, and cameos by Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner and others—and offers a biting commentary about how those in the present forget the past.
Peter Bogdanovich is certainly not one to have us forget the past. The former film critic, sometime actor and current blogger has spent a good portion of his filmmaking career reinventing and reinvigorating the form of movie genres past, be they grandiose musicals, screwball farces or Depression-era dramas. He’s also gone to the well twice in saluting silent films. 1976’s Nickelodeon works as an amiable homage to the early days of picture-making, with Ryan O’Neal as a lawyer-turned-screenwriter-turned- director plying his new trade with leading man-cowpoke-stuntman Burt Reynolds during the unpredictable days of emerging Hollywood. Inspired by Bogdanovich’s conversations with one-time silent directors Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh and John Ford, the affectionate comedy proved to be a box-office fiasco–even with nickel admission prices charged during opening weekend.
The Cat’s Meow, another saga of life in silent era Hollywood from the director, was done on a much smaller and, at times, more effective scale. Based on a stage play and filmed with signs of its theatrical pedigree intact, The Cat’s Meow adds lots of conjecture to the Hollywood legend of what occurred on a 1924 luxury yacht journey with newspaper mogul Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), actress Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), author Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) and subsequently influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly). Jealousy, suspicions of philandering and professional politics run amuck. As the ship’s journey ends abruptly during its trek back to San Pedro, the death of the principal guests would become a scandal that has long transfixed the public.
Of course, Richard Attenborough’s sadly overlooked 1992 film Chaplin gives Charlie a lot more screen time. If there was little doubt Robert Downey, Jr. could carry an entire film at that moment in time, it was immediately dissipated with his Oscar-nominated tour de force as “The Little Tramp.” The film recounts the comedian’s astonishing, controversy-filled life and career backwards, as Downey’s Chaplin fills in the gaps of his autobiography when quizzed by fictionalized editor George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins). We get a stylishly quick-paced primer on his life, from his childhood struggles with a mentally unstable mother (Geraldine Chaplin, playing her own grandmother), his early years in vaudeville, and the magical moment he witnessed movies for the first time. Also explored were his love for (too) young women (played by Milla Jovovich, Diane Lane and Moira Kelly), the creation of United Artists, the governmental pursuit of his “Communist ties” and exile from America by J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) and relationships with Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) and Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline). Cramming all the details into a 143-minute film was a challenge, and even though key events occasionally get short-shrifted here, it’s Downey’s impressive, multi-faceted work that holds Chaplin together.
Icons of the silent cinema, of the macabre variety, were the basis of two enjoyable films from different eras. In 1958’s Man of A Thousand Faces, directed by TV vet Joseph Pevney, James Cagney gets a chance to don makeup, playing Lon Chaney enacting such legendary roles as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera and the ominous jester in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. The Man of a Thousand Faces was a childhood favorite, with its affectionate behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood and its affecting depiction of Chaney’s childhood– being raised by two hearing impaired parents—as well as his relationship with his son Creighton, who became Lon Chaney, Jr.
Meanwhile, the real and reel fuse in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, directed with style, appropriate ominousness and wit by experimental filmmaker E. Elias Merhige. The story details the production history of the legendary silent vampire opus Nosferatu, and the relationship between perfectionist director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) and Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the mysterious actor enlisted to play the film’s bald bloodsucker. Murnau and other cast and crew members realize that Schreck may have real vampiric tendencies himself, when it’s announced he will only work at night, will only appear on set in full makeup and takes an interest in human blood when an actor cuts himself.
While Max Schreck may have been obsessed with blood, the late Ken Russell painted screen lover Rudolph Valentino as a man obsessed with fruit—oranges in particular. According to Russell’s loony 1977 biopic Valentino, all Rudy wanted to do was own an orange grove in California. This explains why he’s shown handling the fruit at regular intervals. Dancer Rudolph Nureyev plays Valentino, one of the greatest of cinema’s sex symbols, as a man conflicted about his sexuality and whose masculinity was always put to a test. We watch the actor’s life unveil itself during his funeral, when the women in his life (played by Felicity Kendal, Carol Kane, Leslie Caron and Michelle Phillips) speak of their experiences with him as wee see highlights—usually fictionalized, often campy—about his life. Studio honcho Jesse Lasky (played by Bowery Boy Huntz Hall) , disgraced silent clown Fatty Arbuckle (William Hootkins), bisexual actress Alla Nazimova (Leslie Caron) and Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (Anthony Dowell) are among the real folks who played a part in Rudy’s life and get the typically over-amplified Ken current here.
For something completely different that delves into the making of silent films, there’s the tough-to-find Good Morning, Babylon, a 1987 saga from Italy’s Taviani Brothers (Padre, Padrone). The handsomely produced film centers on two cathedral-building brothers (Vincent Spano and Joaquim de Almeida) who leave their native Tuscany in hopes of getting work as stonemasons in America. They land in California where they work on an elaborate exhibit for the Universal Exposition in San Francisco, and eventually are recruited by D.W. Griffith (Charles Dance) to bring their skills to his 1916 epic Intolerance. They then travel to Hollywood, where they work on building elephants for the huge Babylon set.
Good Morning, Babylon is far from a perfect film. It is overly sentimental and somewhat cold when it should be warm, especially in regard to the siblings’ relationship. But there’s magic in the air and magic in the art of moviemaking as depicted in Good Morning, Babylon, as there is in Hugo, The Artist and the other movies here.
And it’s for this reason that silents can indeed be golden.