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.