Silents in the Sound Era

There have been a handful of silent movies made over the past several decades that were released commercially. These pictures received good reviews and did well at the box office. Reviewers and fans wondered, each time, if this mightn’t be signaling a resurgence of interest in silent movies and the making of silents.

It didn’t.

Over the two years that followed the release of The Artist (2011) during my show intros or Q&As I would ask the audience how many people were at the show because they’d seen The Artist and now wanted to see more silent film. Zero hands went up. Ever.

Hmm. That’s weird. We all thought that this film sure looked like the silent movies we love, and it did well at the box office. People we knew who never saw a silent movie before went to see it. The film won Oscars™ and BAFTAs et al. This sure looked like it would be The Thing that would win over our friends who we couldn’t drag to see Buster Keaton and who would now be coming along with us to screenings or festivals, or stay up late on Sundays to watch TCM.

It wasn’t.

The Artist, along with Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories (1989) and Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976) and any others I can’t think of at the moment sure seemed like silent movies. (Ah, yes…there was one by Guy Maddin, and there was The Call of Cthulhu (2005), and there’s the unfinished silent with Lenny Bruce called The Leather Jacket (1955).) They were referred to as silent movies in their promotional materials and in reviews, The films were told in pantomime, they had wall-to-wall musical scores, they had intertitles. They did well in their releases, perhaps in varying degrees.

Then why do they seem to be remembered more like novelties to the public who are not silent movie fans? Why are they ‘the one with the little dog’ or ‘the one where Kim Novak complained about the music’? Or ‘the one where Marcel Marceu talks’, or ‘that movie that was like Chaplin’s The Kid’? The people who worked on these films, Hazanavicius, Brooks and Lane, worked really hard on them.

Just getting financing for a new silent movie must have been a huge uphill battle. Lane’s film was a low-budget indie, Brooks’ seemed like its own plot was a meta version of how Brooks got the film made, getting his celebrity friends to make cameos in it. Hazanavicius said in a press screening I attended that it wasn’t until they hit upon the idea of setting the film in the 1920s, and as a tribute to silent movies, that they were able to get money people on board with the idea of making a new silent.

And yet, none of these filmmakers have gone on to make another silent movie, although I can’t say I blame them. More importantly, no other filmmaker picked up the reins the year after any of these were released and tried their hand at it.

My theory is that these silent movies do not quite inhabit the Silent Film universe. They come close, they look like they ought to, but they don’t. Not in terms of the way I’ve been exploring and trying to define it. Some of it is about the basic aesthetics, and some is that in the writing and making of the films some of the elasticity of logic, storytelling and physics aren’t explored or utilized as much as they might have been.

Has anyone thought about the storytelling and visual language as much as it’s been covered in these 60-or-so posts? I don’t know. Anyone who’s made a theatrical silent feature in the last five decades gets a pass for this. And everyone totally gets a pass on the undercranking-speedup thing. I became aware of it and started talking about it maybe a dozen years ago, and I’m still working on getting the word out.

But it’s the combination of the monochrome film (even if tinted), the silence and the speed-up (and physical adjustments to it), that set and allow for the otherworldliness of what Silent Film is.

Star and director Charles Lane in Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Silent Movie is filmed in real-time at 24 fps, except for some of Marty Feldman’s gags, and is in color. I have a feeling, though, that Brooks may have faced the same opposition from studio and money people about B&W that Bogdanovich did when he made Nickelodeon (1976, same year as Silent Movie). Silent Movie’s intertitle style is in a contemporary style, which I appreciated. Sidewalk Stories is B&W but filmed in real-time, as is Blancanieves (2015). The Artist was barely undercranked, filmed at 22 fps. Their research showed that most dramatic films made at the end of the silent era were being cranked at that speed; but they forgot or ignored the fact that most silent films were being shown around 27 fps or faster, and should have filmed at 20 or 21.

I’m not trying to give these films or their filmmakers a hard time. Making any movie is incredibly difficult, and making a silent when these were made must have been even more so. Even if you didn’t have to memorize dialog or wait for airplanes to go by for your audio. I’m saying that as good these post-talkie silents were, because all of the Silent Film language and aesthetics were not in 100% full force the public was able to enjoy these but was not quite able to enter the world of the films’ stories the same dream-state way they do when the universe of Silent Film is present.

(Again, I’m giving the filmmakers a pass on the factors I’ve outlined – especially the speeds – that they may not have been aware of or been able to utilize.)

And perhaps that is why the films aren’t as well remembered or revived as they ought to or deserve to be. These were movies that were silent, but were more pantomime films in the tradition of Silent Film.

Some thoughts on and suggestions for making new Silent Film are on tap for the next few posts in this series.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#60) to this one is here.
The next post “So, You Want to Make a Silent Movie…” is here.

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Rex Fermier

I wanted to see The Artist because I had previously seen so many silent films, and that’s what drew me to the theater.