‘Soundies’: post-silent-era silents from City Lights to The Artist
This is a guest post for Silent London by Amber Butchart, author of Theatre of Fashion
“[Talkies] are spoiling the oldest art in the world – the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence.” – Charlie Chaplin to Motion Picture Magazine, 1929
The phenomenal success of The Artist has sparked an understandable resurgence of interest in silent film. The success at the Baftas and the Golden Globes was a foreshadow of last night’s Oscar triumph, where the film bagged, as hoped, statuettes for best picture, director, actor, costume and score. A number of projects have developed in recent years that disregard dialogue in the quest to tell a story, from Silent Life – a silent film about Valentino currently in post-production, to a Charlie Chaplin musical set to open on Broadway this year and Louis, a silent film about Louis Armstrong complete with live score that had its European premiere last year at the Barbican. This interest, reductively dubbed the rise of ‘Retrovision’ by the Guardian, is more than just a passing fad. Creating silent films in a post-silent era, while unusual, isn’t unique: from Chaplin in the 30s to Jacques Tati in the 50s and Mel Brooks in the 70s, many directors have embraced the challenges of creating a narrative based on images rather than speech. It’s often the lament of film composers that their work is considered successful only when the audience is oblivious to it; when it forms such a seamless continuity between emotion and story that the viewer barely notices it’s there. But with ‘Soundies’ – films that have synchronised music and sound effects, but limited speech, the sound paradoxically reaches an elevated level. In fact, such ‘Soundies’ often use their score as a fundamental part of the narrative in a more progressive and successful way than most regular films, and the sound itself becomes a character in the action. In celebration of The Artist’s Oscar success, here’s an introduction to a few of my favourite post-silent-era silent films.
At the core of the narrative of The Artist is the issue of sound itself; the seminal point in Hollywood history where film transitioned from silents to talkies. Hollywood itself has long been enamoured with this era, and classics such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) have both helped to mythologise this process. The descent of silent stars as talkies were developed has become part of Hollywood folklore, but in reality it was more often the case that moguls used the coming of sound to renegotiate or break contracts with stars they wanted to lose – it was used as as a purging process to usher in fresh meat for cinema audiences.
As pointed out on Woman’s Hour, Clara Bow – who is often held up as the ultimate symbol of a star who fell from grace with the advent of ‘squawkies’ – not only had a range of personal problems that were encroaching on her professional life, but her Flapper-esque characters tended to move around a lot onscreen, which meant the technicalities of miking her for static sound films didn’t run in her favour. According to Adolph Zukor’s biography, her broad Brooklyn accent – long believed to have led to her downfall – wasn’t an issue for the studio or her fans. In the UK the careers of actresses such as Mabel Poulton and Anny Ondra were cut short when talkies arrived, but in other countries and cultures the distinction between silent and sound was less clear cut. Between 1908-1911 Brazilian film was dominated by ‘fitas cantatas’ – film operettas and musicals with live singers performing behind a screen, while in Japan silent film was popular well into the 30s due to the tradition of the benshi – a live narrator who accompanied screenings, as well as rensageki performances that mixed filmed sequences with live action.
The power of sound is so immense in films that use it sparingly that it’s not even the emergence of dialogue that moved me to tears in The Artist, but the first time you hear George and Peppy breathing after the exertion of their triumphant dance sequence at the end of the film. As with the other big Oscar winner, Scorsese’s Hugo, the film is undeniably a love letter to the history of film-making itself, and the narrative arc travels from silents to early talkies to Busby Berkeley and Fred and Ginger movies of the 30s, complete with synchronised dancers and a stylised Deco set. The canny use of sound is intrinsic to the plot, from George’s nightmare scene and his near-suicide, to the use of Pennies From Heaven (the only song with lyrics in the score) to establish Peppy’s stardom. The song itself is an interesting choice; the use of Rose Murphy’s version (much less well known than that of Billie Holiday or Bing Crosby) is breathless and high-pitched, exactly what you didn’t want from an early talkie-era actress, where rudimentary microphones were more flattering to guttural tones such as the infamous Dietrich drawl.
“I don’t make films to reproduce reality, I’m not a naturalistic director. What I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is, a show. I am interested in the stylization of reality, the possibility of playing with codes.” – Hazanavicius.
As regular readers of Silent London will know, watching silent movies was far from a silent experience, and the extensive cinema orchestra at the beginning of The Artist typifies this. Musical accompaniment had been a feature of cinema since the Lumiere Brothers’ first screenings in 1895; music was used in the production of films on set and was present at the point of consumption in the form of orchestras, pianists or organists –some Wurlizers could provide sound effects as well as a soundtrack. From around 1915 with Birth of a Nation it became usual for big-budget movies to provide their own score to accompany viewings, and some films even had orchestras traveling with them to play meticulously crafted scores that served to heighten the emotional experience of the film. Music filled the void left by people’s voices, it aided the narrative and mood in ways the intertitles alone couldn’t suffice.
Creating silent films (films without dialogue) when sound technology was available stretches back to the beginning of Talkies themselves. City Lights (1931) was one of the top financial and artistic successes of Charlie Chaplin’s career, as well as one of his personal favourites, and despite the coming of sound four years earlier Chaplin stuck to his winning silent formula. The circumstances of its creation are echoed in The Artist – it had to adapt to meet the coming of sound as well as the Wall Street Crash, as with Valentin’s fateful film. But unlike films such us Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), the film wasn’t completely recast as a talkie. Chaplin, arguably the only director who could sustain the popularity of silent films in the decade after talkies gained dominance, and notorious for his perfectionism, took more than twice as long to make City Lights as it did to build the Empire State Building. He decided early on that dialogue would ruin the Little Tramp – who had such universal appeal that he even inspired the character of Mickey Mouse. As such, the only ‘talking’ in the film is a councillor’s speech that is comprised of a series of squeaks, succinctly summing up Chaplin’s opinion of politicians. Another unfortunate similarity with The Artist lies in the controversy surrounding the score. Chaplin lost a lawsuit to the Spanish composer José Padilla whose song La Violetera he used as a leitmotif for the blind flower girl. While the score borrowed from many areas (as with Bource’s score for The Artist), it was essentially composed by Chaplin, in the same way that with his fully silent films he supervised the music sheets to accompany the films when screened live.
Chaplin’s films differed to other silent films, fitting more comfortably in the tradition of mime and pantomime. His Tramp character is rarely seen to speak at all, while for most silent films dialogue was an intrinsic building block of the film, despite not being heard. Hazanavicius noted that Chaplin films couldn’t be used as a reference for The Artist as they operate in a different way to other silent films, drawing on Chaplin’s background in live entertainment and applying those techniques to film. It was a shrewd decision to keep the Little Tramp silent, and Chaplin recognised this, disregarding experimentation with dialogue in the run up to his second ‘soundie’, Modern Times (1936).
Modern Times was Chaplin’s first overtly political film, dealing with social issues during the Great Depression stemming from what he perceived as the inherent problems of industrialisation and the Fordist production line. Chaplin’s political beliefs were a point of contention throughout his life, early on he created his own ‘Economic Solution’ – a Utopian idea reliant on a fairer distribution of wealth and labour – a leftwing notion that led to his investigation throughout the 1950s by MI5 and the FBI resulting in a knighthood being blocked for nearly 20 years due to concerns over his political persuasions. (When, in Modern Times, the Little Tramp gets incarcerated after being mistakenly identified as a Communist leader it presages these problems that would result in Chaplin’s exile to Switzerland.) This was to be the last outing for the Little Tramp, who made his first appearance two decades earlier and had already become an icon of 20th-century popular culture. The use of sound in Modern Times makes the explicit point that in an industrialised society, machines are valued above humanity. The structure of working life is created through sound – alarms and horns break the monotony of the working day throughout the film, and the majority of human voices are mediated through machines – screens or radio. The genius of the faux Franco-Italian gibberish in the Nonsense Song further proves that Chaplin doesn’t need words to communicate. Despite further issues with plagiarising, this time involving the plot, Modern Times remains one of the greatest films of the last century and Chaplin’s score plays no small part in this.
An obsession with the machine age, urbanisation and the voiceless anonymity that accompanies it are brought to an apex in Esteban Sapir’s 2007 film La Antena, which also operates as an allegory for the triumph of sound over silence in movies. This hugely underrated Argentinean film pays homage to early film-makers such as Bunuel, Melies, Lang and Murnau, as well as Noir conventions and comic book textuality. The tagline ‘a city without a voice’ summarises the backdrop of the film in which all but two of the town’s inhabitants have had their voices stolen, and the plot follows one family’s quest to reclaim them. Filmic in its artificiality, the action often looks superimposed over the background while techniques such as stop-motion, vignettes and choreographed movements add to the highly stylised aesthetic. The opening scene contrasts fingers on a typewriter with the sound of a piano, perfectly symbolising the interplay and complex relationships between text, dialogue and music. Words form a vital part of the mise en scene, interspersed and interacting with the action to mimic and shape emotion. Sound effects are created visually as well as audibly, and in places where Juan Aguirre and Federico Rotstein’s tango soundtrack is faded out, the hum of a film projector emerges to add an analogue feel to the production.
Machine gun sound effects are played out onscreen in La Antena. The gunmen become a visual indicator of the Film Noir genre through a silhouette of trilby and trench coat.
La Antena draws heavily on Fritz Lang’s Expressionist classic Metropolis (1927), the dystopian vision that mirrored the rise of extreme politics in Europe. As with Modern Times, it explored the social problems inherent in capitalist systems that were seen to exploit an undervalued workforce. While Metropolis was fully silent, a score was created to accompany screenings.
What makes The Artist unique among sound-era silents is its fusion of 1920s techniques with contemporary technology. The film uses the 1.33:1 screen ratio, and cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman shot the film with 500 ASA colour stock to give a grainier texture as contemporary black-and-white film was deemed too ‘clean’. It was also shot at a slightly lower frame rate to mimic the speeded-up effect of silent films being played through modern projectors. While they didn’t go so far as to use hand-cranked cameras, the cameras on set were noisy to act as a constant reminder to the actors that they were making a silent film. For the same reason music was often played on set to create the tone, from 40s and 50s music from Hollywood to Tin Pan Alley greats, such as a Cole Porter number for the final tap dance scene. Modern techniques such as CGI are used to recreate the ‘Hollywoodland’ sign (more at the Financial Times) as well as for the visual tricks that accompany George’s downfall from his attack by a gang of miniature Zulus to being deserted by his own shadow. The locations, ranging from Mary Pickford’s mansion to the backlots of Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros serve as a fitting tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age. The score also mixes the best of old and new. Despite the offensively worded Kim Novak controversy, Ludovic Bource walked away with the Oscar and Golden Globe for best score, and his compositions and arrangements – recorded by the Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra in Brussels over the course of a week – draw on genres from early swing to waltz, Romantic-era compositions and other film scores.
The success of The Artist is a resounding victory for storytelling. Michel Hazanavicius aligns the widespread appeal with with the emotive sensuality inherent in films with no dialogue: “A lot of people think it’s very cerebral or intellectual to go see a silent movie. It’s the exact opposite… You have images and you have music and it’s all about feeling and sensation.” Films without dialogue can cross national boundaries due to their lack of speech, which raises certain issues: if The Artist was shot in its native French would it still have won best picture? If La Antena had used English text would it have gained more international recognition? But beyond these questions the real triumph of The Artist lies in its ability to show a wide audience that the art of silent film is not dead, and it still has the ability to chime with the cultural zeitgeist.