Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers! Close this tab on your browser. Go to the cinema and watch The Artist. Then we can talk…
The Oscars are looming now, and The Artist is still the frontrunner for the biggest awards, which is one of the most exciting triumph-of-the-underdog stories Hollywood has produced in years. So the chances are, lots of people who would never have thought to watch a silent movie have now done so, and fingers crossed, they’re hungry for more. If you’re one of those people, read on. The Artist gives nostalgia, and film geekery, a good name, and whether you think it matches up to the films it pays tribute to or not, it’s the perfect prelude to a movie marathon. But where to begin, especially if you’re new to silent cinema?
In interviews, Hazanavicius has said that when he first thought of making a silent film, he wanted to remake Fantômas, the action-packed French spy serials made between 1913 and 1914. He sidelined that idea, it’s true. But remember the dashing masked hero that George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) plays in the movie that opens The Artist? He’s got more than a soupcon of René Navarre’s gallic charm about him, n’est-ce pas? For a film that reminds you of the overall look of The Artist, that steel-sharp cinematography, try another espionage thriller: Fritz Lang’s epic Spione (1928).
Shocking as it may seem, some viewers of The Artist did not walk out of the cinema talking about the cinematography. The breakout star of the movie was undoubtedly Uggie, Valentin’s faithful Jack Russell. He won more hearts, and it seems, did more media promotion, than the rest of the cast combined. Now Uggie has retired, if we want to get our fix of his doggie charms, we have to look elsewhere. When we think of dogs in the silent era, the first thing that comes to mind is heroic German Shepherds such as Rin Tin Tin, but Uggie is a very different beast. Instead, I’d recommend Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918), in which The Little Tramp teams up with a winsome mongrel terrier called Scraps. The scene in which Chaplin first rescues Scraps from a dogfight is a real treat – dogs of every description running riot across the screen. Sausage-loving Scraps himself is just as tricky and charming as his new master – surely, Uggie must have watched this film before rehearsals began.
I’ll be honest. When I first saw The Artist, I thought that Bérénice Béjo didn’t quite look the part as flapper ingenue Peppy Miller. The long limbs, the immaculate makeup, the neatly sculpted hairdo. I was expecting Clara Bow, but what I saw was a thoroughly modern, more elegant, revamp. Then I was reminded of Our Dancing Daughters, a 1929 romantic comedy starring Joan Crawford – and three things struck me. One, Béjo, or at least the way she is styled for The Artist, is a dead ringer for Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters. Two, Joan Crawford is a good model for Peppy’s character: she started out as a fresh face in the last days of the silent era and, famously determined, made the transition to talkies then went on to become a grande dame of Hollywood. The date of this film is important too – the consequence of it emerging at the end of the 1920s was that the studio slapped a soundtrack (a score, a popular song and a stray line of dialogue) on it to jazz it up for the talkie-hungry public. Remind you of anything?
One of The Artist’s best scenes is played by Béjo alone in Valentin’s dressing room, nuzzling up to his tuxedo. It’s a sensual, funny moment, and utterly unreliant on dialogue. It’s also an update of a scene in Frank Borzage’s much-loved melodrama Seventh Heaven (1927). Janet Gaynor, alone in her apartment, sits in a chair and shrugs her boyfriend’s coat on to her shoulders. Then she slips her arms inside the sleeves and hugs herself tight. What’s clever about The Artist‘s replay of this scene is that it injects a bit of sex into the move, as Hazanavicius acknowledges that his film may be retro but his audience isn’t, and they have 21st-century expectations. What’s disappointing is that in the following love scene, The Artist cuts away from the big kiss and Peppy’s flirtation with Valentin’s tuxedo is about as raunchy as it gets. Silent-era films weren’t necessarily that coy, and if you watch Seventh Heaven, you’ll see that it may not be risqué, but it’s bursting with passion.
All this Oscar anticipation reminds us that Hollywood does love a film about Hollywood: which is one of the areas where The Artist should score highly. You can’t fail to be reminded of Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard or the various versions of A Star is Born, but Tinseltown’s self-reflexive tradition goes back further than that: from Chaplin’s A Film Johnnie (1914) to the melodrama Souls for Sale (1923) and the comedy Show People (1928). You’ll find, for example, a glancing reference to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928) in The Artist: that Napoleon who refuses to come out of character recalls Emil Jannings’s Russian general who washes up in Hollywood playing a Tsarist officer in a war movie.
That’s a great film and a good visual exemplar for the kind of late Hollywood silent Hazanavicius is trying to emulate, but I’d rather point you in the direction of The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (1928). This is a short film, an art film really, about ambition, paranoia and trying to make it in the movies. It has two connections to The Artist. First, its steep expressionist angles and skewed composition to draw us into the hero’s sweaty desperation, just as in the newer film’s third act. Second, the cinematography is by Gregg Toland, who was just starting out in the 1920s, but hit his stride in the 1930s and his best known these days for his work on Citizen Kane (1941). Now, I know you didn’t miss the breakfast-table Kane ‘homage’ in The Artist …
There are two points of reference here. ’Wild Bill’ Wellman’s aviation epic Wings (1927), and FW Murnau’s heartbreaking fable Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), which both won big prizes at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929: the former for Outstanding Picture and the latter for Unique and Artistic Production. Both those labels sound like a way of saying Best Picture, but when that category was introduced it was retrospectively applied to the first award, not the second, which is a pretty blunt way of the Academy affirming the kind of films it does and doesn’t like. Wings is a big, patriotic, effects-laden blockbuster – heavy on spectacle rather than characterisation. Sunrise is a delicate, beautifully shot piece about a relationship in crisis. Its humour comes from whimsy rather than wisecracks.
Hollywood’s entrenched preference for scale, spectacle and novelty is why it leapt so gladly towards the flashy distraction of synchronised sound, and left so many hapless Valentins on the scrapheap. And that’s just one of the many reasons why, if Hazanavicius’s gentle, pretty, nostalgic film wins the Best Picture Oscar on Sunday night, I will be celebrating. The triumph of The Artist should be a triumph for artistry too.