This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
Well, I think we can allow ourselves to enjoy the moment. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has become the first silent film to win the best picture Oscar since Wings. It also carried away best actor (for Jean Dujardin), best director, best score and best costumes. Martin Scorsese’s not-quite biopic of Georges Méliès, Hugo, was the other big story of the night, winning the same number of awards, including heavyweight gongs for cinematography and art direction as well as three technical awards: best sound mixing, best sound editing, visual effects. I’d like to think it doesn’t take anything away from Scorsese to suggest that his awards were also a tribute to Méliès himself, in recognition of his beautiful, magic films.
We all know that Hollywood loves films about the movies, and there are those who love silent film who don’t necessarily love these two films – but there is no doubt that last night was a triumphant one for fans of the silent era. Let’s not forget that the Buster Keaton-inspired The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore triumphed in the best animated short category too. And the 2012 Academy Awards capped a joyous year in which early cinema was talked about more than it had been for years.
Here’s a quick look back at how it was reported on Silent London:
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?
We are living in strange, glorious times. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicus’s silent billet-doux to Hollywoodland, has officially “swept the board” at the Baftas. Best director, best actor, best original screenplay and best picture all fell to a modern silent film, for the first time, it should go without saying, in Bafta history. The Artist also picked up much-deserved prizes for cinematography, costume and score. It has all made for an unexpectedly emotional night here at Silent London towers.
Why? The Artist isn’t the only modern silent to have been made in recent years. It isn’t even the best. But when you are as passionate about a particular corner of film history as I am, and as the readers of this blog are, it does the heart good to see it in the spotlight, with a trophy in each hand. The air has been punched, a stray tear has been wiped and now a glass of vin blanc has been poured, and raised in honour to the lovely M Hazanavicius. The Artist is a lovely film, and most quibbles I, and other early cinema enthusiasts, have with it, are impossible to untangle from its privileged position as a standard-bearer for the silent era. At some point we have to give it credit for getting into that position in the first place. So congratulations to The Artist – for earning both popularity and critical acclaim and being so damn charming with it.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won a brace of awards too: best production design and best sound (ho ho). So I’ll raise another couple of toasts: to cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, and to Martin Scorsese, a masterful director and the world’s greatest living advocate for film preservation. That’s part of the reason he won the biggest award of the night – the Bafta fellowship.
Could a silent, black-and-white film really become a box-office hit in 2011? At festival after festival around the world, critics have been raving about The Artist (2011), Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to late-1920s Hollywood. Leading man Jean Dujardin has picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes, and thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s support, the Oscar speculation has already begun. Surely this is madness, though – even the director himself says, “nobody watches silent movies any more”.
But The Artist is gorgeous enough to make anyone lose their reason: it’s lushly photographed in silvery monochrome, romantic and funny, too. Dujardin’s sparkling performance as silent star George Valentin comes across like a new Douglas Fairbanks – but incredibly, he’s more suave – and when he bumps into Bérénice Bejo’s flirtatious flapper Peppy Miller, the chemistry is irresistible. The Artist tells the story of their troubled love affair, and the way their career paths diverge when the “talkies” arrive. The scene is almost always stolen, however, by Uggy, Valentin’s dog, whose adorable tricks will charm the most silent-sceptical of audiences.
So far, so sugary, but here’s another layer to The Artist. This is a film all about cinema: about the highest achievements, and the follies, of the silent era and all the films that have come since. The silent-film references come thick and fast: from Clara Bow to Erich von Stroheim, from the Fantômas serials to Spione (1928) to The Last Command (1928). There are even a few frames from The Mark of Zorro (1920) in the mix. The talkies get a look-in too, of course. Valentin’s blonde co-star recalls Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952); his scenes with his wife riff on Citizen Kane (1941) and the score borrows liberally from Vertigo (1958). We’re so often watching a film within a film, or spotting a sly cinematic reference, that The Artist is almost a silent movie by stealth. Hazanavicius, like Dujardin, nearly always has one eyebrow raised about his own nostalgic project, sometimes to the detriment of the film. There’s a dramatic moment towards the end of The Artist that is almost entirely ruined by an intertitle gag, for example. It gets a laugh, but it’s a cheap one.
These knowing moments are dangerous, because they threaten to break The Artist‘s enchanting spell and pull the audience out of what is for the most part a dreamily seductive experience. At its best, The Artist is a triumphantly modern silent film, which shows the influence of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Frank Borzage but never looks like a relic. I loved the early sequences when Valentin and Miller first fall for each other: their backstage tapdance, and their repeated takes of the same scene (from cool, to sexy, to loving and finally collapsing into giggles) are pure silent cinema magic. When Miller is alone in Valentin’s dressing room, she snuggles up to his suit jacket, slips one arm into the sleeve and begins to canoodle with herself. It’s a wonderful piece of visual film-making, and says far more, with more charm, than dialogue ever could. Silent cinema fans will recognise the move from a scene in Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), when Janet Gaynor shrugs her lover’s jacket on to her shoulders and wraps the sleeves around her. It has to be said, though, that The Artist‘s version is a lot sexier – it’s not 1927 any more.
The Artist isn’t always so cuddly. The lively, if anachronistic, score is not quite continuous; it’s brave enough to drop away for a moment’s pause, leaving the cinema in dead, unaccustomed, silence. That’s a bold move, and a self-conscious one, too. And as Valentin’s confidence takes a knock, expressionist shadows, spinning headlines, trick photography and one audacious nightmare sequence are all piled on to make us feel his pain. Sadly, it’s here that the film veers between homage and pastiche, and suffers just a little in the process. Does Hazanavicius want us to love silent cinema, or to laugh at it? Ultimately, The Artist doesn’t want to answer that question, it just wants to entertain, which it does, brilliantly.
I entered the cinema worrying about whether this film will be able to charm mass audiences or just film buffs and furrowing my brow over whether its potential success could spearhead a silent film revival. As the credits rolled I really didn’t care any more. The Artist is a joy and it doesn’t deserve to be weighed down with such responsibilities. If you’re watching it at the London Film Festival this week, you’re in for a treat.
For the rest of us, Launchingfilms.com currently lists the UK release date as 30 December 2011.
The American trailer for The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius’s love letter to silent cinema, is here. It’s beautiful, and almost note for note the same as the French trailer we saw in the spring. The only differences are that the US version doesn’t name any of the actors until the final card, and I swear they have beefed up the sound of tap shoes clicking across the floor in the dancing sequences. It’s not synched sound, and there’s definitely some of it in the French version, but there’s more now. It’s still utterly gorgeous though – I’m not sure what delights me more, Jean Dujardin’s Hollywood smile, Uggy the performing dog or Bérénice Bejo’s wardrobe.
The Artist is released in France on 12 October 2011 and in the US on 23 November 2011. No word on a UK release date yet.
This is a turnup for the books. A new silent feature film by French director Michel Hazanavicius has been added to the competition lineup for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Artist (2011), starring John Goodman, is a silent, black-and-white, 1.33:1 film about the demise of a silent star’s career during the arrival of sound – and it will be competing with titles including Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia for the prestigious Palme d’Or prize.
There’s no confirmed UK release date for The Artist yet, but this news would suggest that we’ll see it sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, your correspondent is not a Cannes delegate, but I will be keeping track of the reviews coming back from the festival, and of course, hoping that this film does justice to the era we love. The 20 films in competition include work by Aki Kaurismaki, Pedro Almodovar, Lynne Ramsay and the Dardenne brothers. Still, wouldn’t it be something if a silent film won the Palme d’Or in 2011?
People who have seen Hazanavicius’s previous films – the retro OSS-117 spy capers – say he has a sure touch with period detail. His first film, La Classe Américaine, was actually a redubbed collage of extracts from the Warner Bros archive, so it’s reasonable to assume he knows his film history. The question is whether The Artist can avoid pastiche, and satisfy silent film fans as much as the wider audience – let alone the judges at Cannes. Goodman is joined in the cast by Hollywood veteran James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, who you might remember played Edna Purviance in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic.
UPDATE:The Artist has been bought at Cannes by the Weinstein Company. The Weinsteins are saying “Oscar season release”, which we should perhaps take with a pinch of salt, not least because it means quite a long wait until we see the film in the UK. Talking about Oscars raises other questions, though. Would they be angling for a nomination for Best Picture or Best Picture in a Foreign Language? Will the intertitles be translated or subtitled outside France? Still, it’s definitely a vote of confidence in the film, and let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
You can watch some extracts here. Yes the interviews with the director and actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are in French, but as you’ll see, the language barrier is no obstacle for the clips, which demonstrate a sophisticated visual approach to film-making. From the evidence here, The Artist definitely has more than a flavour of late 1920s Hollywood, using dance and humour rather than dialogue to tell its story. Bejo talks about: “un rapport tres sensuel entre le spectateur et l’histoire”, which seems to sum it up rather well.
The Artist screens at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday 15 May.
And The Artist isn’t the only silent film screening at Cannes this year. Hugely excitingly, the festival will also host a screening of George Méliès’s La Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) – like you’ve never seen it before. A nitrate print of the elusive hand-painted colour version of the film was discovered in Barcelona in 1993 and has been salvaged, frame by frame, by Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Technicolor Foundation for Heritage Cinema. The beautiful film will be premiered at Cannes with a score by the dreamy French band Air. As soon as I hear about a chance to see this new version in London, you’ll be the very next people to know.