“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces then.” Gloria Swanson’s character of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” (1950)
Before I begin this week’s blog, I would like to speak briefly on the passing of former professional baseball player Gary “The Kid” Carter. Sadly, on February 16, 2011, at the age of 57, Carter, a true gentleman of the game, died having lost his battle with brain cancer. Best known for his time with the Montreal Expos and New York Mets, Carter played for nearly two decades, amassing 324 home runs, 1,225 runs batted in (leading the National League in 1984 with 106), made the All-Star team eleven times, won three Gold Gloves and five Silver Slugger awards. In addition to all that, his two out hit, was the catalyst for the New York Mets improbable, but incredibly dramatic comeback win in game six of the 1986 World Series against the Boston Red Sox. Carter touched my own life, albeit briefly, in April of 1987.
I was having an early dinner with my parents in an almost empty Omei’s Chinese Restaurant in East Norwich, New York, and in walks Gary Carter. My mother is actually the one who spotted him. I looked up and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was twelve years old and up until that point I had never met a professional athlete, let alone one that I cheered for. I remember my father used to carry around this small notebook in his jacket pocket wherever he went, and I asked him if he would give me one of the blank pages in it so I could go get Carter’s autograph. My father happily obliged, and I remember my heart felt like it was about to explode out of my chest as I approached Carter’s table. I asked him if he would sign the autograph for me, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He signed the paper, spoke to me for a few minutes, and shook my hand. He even showed me, and let me touch, his shiny new World Series ring, which he had just received a few hours before in the opening day ceremonies at Shea Stadium. Gary Carter might not have made the Baseball Hall of Fame until 2003, his sixth year on the ballot, but on one evening back in April of 1987, he made one New York Mets fan, the happiest kid in the world. May his family take solace in that knowledge that he was beloved by so many, and may he rest in peace.
One of the most significant developments in the history of cinema was the incorporation of spoken dialogue into movies. In 1927, “The Jazz Singer,” which starred Al Jolson, was the first film to use both sound and dialogue; it featured six musical numbers and several spoken lines. One of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar at this year’s 84th annual Academy Awards is French director, Michel Hazanavicius’s (OSS 117: Lost in Rio) film “The Artist,” which is a fantastically created homage to the bygone era of silent movies. While a viewer, in this blogger’s opinion, will be able to appreciate what they’re watching if they’ve previously been exposed to silent films it is not a pre-requisite for the enjoyment one gets from watching the movie.
A viewer will get a first hand cinematic education in regard to what seeing a silent film entails on a stylistic level as compared with the films of the present, thanks to the acute knowledge of the era demonstrated by the director. Hazanavicius’s use of title cards to depict the actors’ dialogue is used to a minimal degree just as it was done during the silent era. In this blogger’s opinion, he knows, as did directors who worked in the medium at that time, that an overabundance of title card dialogue would hamper the rhythm of the scenes. “The Artist” was filmed in the standard full-screen ratio (1.33:1) of the era, which serves to enhance the presence of the actors thus giving them a bigger appearance on the screen. The editing and cinematography, however, are otherwise contemporary, instead of mimicking 1920s cinema, which is demonstrated by an increased number of camera movements and edits that most films of the time period did not utilize, as well as an increased number of close-ups that were not usually seen in movies from that era of cinema.
Shot entirely in black and white, the 100 minute film, which premiered in France on May 15, 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival, is set in late 1920s Hollywood. The movie begins with a swashbuckling action sequence, but then the camera pans back and reveals that we’re actually watching an audience watching a film within the film; the premiere of silent film star George Valentin’s (played by Jean Dujardin), latest picture “A Russian Affair.” The character Dujardin portrays is that of an actor and dancer, who not only exudes confidence and charm, but is also the toast of the town; he would be the equivalent of an amalgam of today’s stars such as George Clooney and Brad Pitt. He is waiting behind the screen getting ready to greet those watching the film. A sign made clear to the viewer asks those behind the screen to “please be silent,” so while “A Russian Affair,” which is the film within a film continues to remain silent, the viewer does not yet know whether “The Artist” well be devoid of talking. Adding further mystery is the accompaniment of music. Is the music coming from the film within a film, an orchestra which is showcased on the screen, or is it playing in the movie the viewer has come to see? Not until “A Russian Affair” reaches its conclusion do we truly know that the film is silent, due to the burst of unheard applause seen taking place on the screen.
After the premiere of “A Russian Affair” concludes, while Valentin is posing for the newspaper and magazine photographers outside the theater, an accidental encounter brings him face-to-face with an admiring young fan, Peppy Miller, played by Hazanavicius’s wife, Bérénice Bejo (A Knight’s Tale), who ends up having her picture taken with the star. In true classic Hollywood fashion, Peppy is given an opportunity to be an extra in a movie, which just happens to be the next film Valentin is working on. A second chance encounter between Valentin and Miller leads to the silent star taking the young ingénue under his wing, and from there Miller’s career begins to make strides toward stardom.
During the following couple of years after they meet, silent films begin to give way to what was referred to at the time as “talkies. Valentin is steadfast in his decision to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the new medium of film and is very dismissive of its chances for success. Little does he know that in a short frame of time silent films will be deemed obsolete by a movie going public that is hungering to hear more of the spoken word during their film going experience. Conversely, Miller’s fame and popularity begin to soar as she ascends from doing extra work as a background player, to supporting actress roles, to becoming a leading lady and Tinsel Town’s new darling, our modern day version of the “it girl.” As Peppy’s fame skyrockets, Valentin’s descends rapidly and he finds himself on the outside looking in, however, there is a layer of chemistry of a romantic nature between the two as they continually meet over the years. George’s bullheaded mindset when it comes to working in the spoken medium coincides with a dismal time in American history, the 1929 stock market crash. The financial catastrophe not only leaves his hope of reinvigorating audience interest in him through a self-financed film he stars in and directs called “Tears of Love,” but leaves the once silent star in financial ruin. From that moment on in the film, I found myself rooting hard for Dujardin’s character to break free from his awful circumstances. Does he? I won’t spoil that for those of you who have not yet seen the movie.
The film, which was budgeted for an estimated $15,000,000 dollars, features both evocative cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman (The Players) and original music by composer Ludovic Bource. In addition, Bernard Herrmann’s (North by Northwest) music the Love Scene (Scene d’amour) from “Vertigo” is performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein (Cape Fear). The element of the film that truly makes this particular movie shine is its cast of both featured and supporting players. Jean Dujardin through the use of heightened facial expression, spot on comedic timing, and body language completely embodies that of vainglorious silent film idol George Valentin without a trace of irony. A less capable actor might have succumbed to self-parody, but Dujardin’s Oscar worthy performance was devoid of any such aspect. Bérénice Bejo’s vivacious portrayal of the character of young starlet Peppy Miller is a joy to watch. The supporting cast features John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) as a cigar-chomping put-upon studio head and James Cromwell as the devoted chauffeur, Clifton, in a role that is reminiscent of his Oscar nominated turn in the movie “Babe,” which while not a silent picture, his dialogue was kept to a minimum. The film also features Penelope Ann Miller’s (Carlito’s Way) Doris, in a supporting role as the character of George’s virtually ignored wife. Trivia buffs take note: Credit must assuredly be paid to Uggie, Dash, and Dude, three scene-stealing Jack Russell Terriers, who played Jack the dog. The three Terriers’ were colored prior to filming, so they would look more alike. Peppy Miller’s house in the film is the actual house belonging to prolific silent film legend Mary Pickford (Coquette), and the bed in which Valentin wakes up in Miller’s house is also Mary Pickford’s actual bed. As an aside, Mary Pickford was awarded a much deserved Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1976. Dujardin’s character of Valentin, alone in his apartment, watches a silent film that is meant to be portrayed as a movie from his body of work; it is actually “The Mark of Zorro”(1920), which stars matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks, the only alteration being that Dujardin is substituted for Fairbanks in the close-up shots.
The Artist takes a dark tone at times, but the majority of the movie is lighthearted and offers the viewer a feel good experience. Please keep in mind that the movie is not going to be for everyone. Silent films, by their very nature do require a certain amount of patience from the viewer and at 100 minutes, some particular viewers’ patience might begin to seriously wane. But for those of you who can take the time to commit to watching the film, you’re in for a real treat. For me, it was one of the most pleasant movie going experiences that I’ve personally had in the past decade. The 1927 film “Wings” was the first film, and the only silent film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Can “The Artist” once again return a silent film to prominence? Tune in to ABC this Sunday, February 26th to find out.