By G. Michael Dobbs
The last silent films that were made for general distribution in this country were released in 1930. By that time, they were viewed as cheap productions that were meant to fill out double bills in undiscriminating theaters.
Aside from Charles Chaplin’s features such as “Modern Times” and “City Light” that kept sound to a minimum, many essentially viewed the silent film at best as the first version of cinema, one that was bested with the advent of synchronized sound.
The most recent silent film until “The Artist” that I can remember being distributed to theaters was the restored version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” that came out in 2010.
Like that film, “The Artist” will be viewed by some as more of an event than a movie and more of a curiosity than a legitimate film.
Although the average movie fan might not think so, the silent era was a remarkably rich time that was characterized by technical innovations, strong performances and sophisticated storytelling. I can only hope this new film encourages people to seek out silent films and discover their charms.
I saw “The Artist” last week, and I loved the film, despite some minor flaws. It was fascinating to sit in a theater, which at first, the audience had no idea how to react to a silent film. Some people were talking through it at first before being asked to keep quiet.
“The Artist” is an unabashed love letter to Hollywood that conjures up both the reality and the fantasy of a filmmaking era of nearly a century ago. Funny, sad and ultimately sweet, the film is something I’d recommend all dedicated film fans to see.
Jean Desjardin plays George Valentin, a star who is at the top of his game in 1927. Valentin is a composite character. Part of the character is a swashbuckler not unlike Douglas Fairbanks Sr., a comic sophisticate such as Raymond Griffith and a dancer, with a strong Gene Kelly vibe.
Valentin is equally at home with drama and comedy and is also known for his ever-present Jack Russell terrier. He clearly has a healthy ego, but he is also kind to his co-stars and crew.
Director Michel Hazanavicius has also given the character a look that strongly resembles John Gilbert, the great silent film leading man whose career was negatively impacted by the coming of sound.
Valentin befriends a young actress with the delightfully improbable name of Peppy Miller. He gives her some good advice and a job. Although the two are clearly attracted to one another, they do not act on any romance as Valentin is married.
Valentin rejects the coming of sound, walking away from his studio to produce and direct his own film, which comes out as a silent film among sound releases and as the stock market crashes. As his career falls down, Miller’s star is ascending.
Bérénice Bejo plays Miller and she is a delight. Her character cleverly evolves from being a wide-eyed innocent to a star who is willing to use her clout.
The film references “A Star is Born” and “What Price Hollywood?” as it chronicles Valentin’s decline and Miller’s continued efforts to help him.
The art direction is impeccable and the musical score, which uses Bernard Herrmann’s score from “Vertigo” with permission is very effective.
“The Artist” walks a thin line very well. It would be easy to produce a parody of silent films, but Hazanavicius clearly takes his characters and narrative more seriously than that. Yet, there is an altered reality to the film that resembles some silent films. Valentin’s dog provides most of those moments. In true Rin Tin Tin fashion, he appears much smarter than most children and capable of even trying to talk his master out of suicide.
This element of near fantasy when combined with the numerous homages and references makes “The Artist” a memorable movie.
If you see the film and are so inclined to be just a little more adventurous exploring silent film, then consider viewing comedies by Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, try the restored “Metropolis,” and adventure films with Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
You may find out that films lacking recorded dialogue have a power of their own.
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