The 1928 Carole Lombard, in the midst of her tenure at Mack Sennett, playing the title role in the two-reeler "The Campus Vamp." It's no secret Lombard learned a lot about comedic timing as part of Sennett's troupe, but it's hard to get a grip on what kind of career she would have had if talking films had never arrived; not only did Carole never have a silent feature-length vehicle, but in most of those features she played supporting or bit roles. She had the feminine lead in her first Fox film, 1925's "Marriage In Transit," but it's been lost for decades. (The frustration over evaluating Lombard's silent-era career is examined at http://mythicalmonkey.blogspot.com/2011/10/not-appearing-in-this-film-silent-movie.html, one of the entries in the Lombard blogathon this site sponsored last October.)
As you might guess from the subject header, this is a lead-in to a discussion of the silent that's on everyone's tongue these days (talk, pardon the pun, about a mixed metaphor!), "The Artist," a film that has the impudence to be (largely) silent, in black and white, and with the traditional 1.33:1 screen ratio:
I finally saw the film yesterday (it didn't arrive in my mid-sized Virginia city until this weekend, though the multiplex it was shown in -- which has a bit of an art-house bent -- had been trying to procure for some time), and well, add another member to "The Artist" army. It was delightful.
Most of you probably know its plot by now: Set in Hollywood as movies make their fateful transition, it's about silent star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) whose shortsightedness about sound leads to his downfall, coinciding with the rise of actress Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) -- whose career he inadvertently jumpstarts -- from extra to stardom. Valentin, now professionally in the past tense, loses his wife (Penelope Ann Miller) and his valet (James Cromwell, whose father John directed the Lombard movies "Made For Each Other" and "In Name Only").
George eventually hits rock bottom, comforted only by his dog:
Incidentally, Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier, is one of the best things about this film, although the dog's handler says it's retiring from movies after this. Too bad, because I'd like to see more of this worthy canine successor to Moose (Eddie from "Frasier").
As you might expect, there's redemption at the end, but you'll have to go see it to find out how it gets there.
Although "The Artist" is a French production and its two leads are Europeans, virtually all of the film was shot in Los Angeles, and it makes great use of vintage sites -- many of them with ties to classic-era stars. For example, the house Valentin lives in at the start of the film is behind a home that can be seen in exteriors for Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid," while the house Peppy Miller calls home after she vaults to stardom is on Fremont Place -- and its real-life occupant in 1918-19 was none other than Mary Pickford. Later on, Uggie races to a policeman for help, in front of a home once owned by Paul Muni of "Scarface" and "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" fame.
The theater used in the opening sequence, showing Valentin as a Douglas Fairbanks type (interpolating some actual Fairbanks footage from "The Mark Of Zorro")? It's the Orpheum in downtown L.A., not far from the Los Angeles Theater, where Valentin's failed silent "Tears Of Love" was seen shown. (That's technically an anachronism, as the fictional film was released in October 1929, but the theater didn't open until 1931 -- with a silent, Chaplin's classic "City Lights.") More on the locations in the first of a five-part series, with links to the other four, http://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2011/12/29/the-artist-locations-chaplin-and-pickford.
There's already been some backlash against "The Artist," notably for its appropriating (or ripping off, as you will) part of Bernard Herrmann's famed score for "Vertigo," but you can find homages to all sorts of movies during the course of the film -- "Singin' In The Rain" (in which the Lina Lamont equivalent delivers the same salute rapper M.I.A. gave the world at the Super Bowl), "Citizen Kane" (George and his wife at the breakfast table), "The Crowd" and many more. Heck, it has something in common with the original "D.O.A.," "Blade Runner" and other films -- use of the iconic Bradbury Building interior, here doubling as a movie studio office (Peppy's career is moving up, George's heading down):
Some things, such as the sudden rise of talkies (George laughs over his former co-star's ludicrous showing in a talkie test), are oversimplified for cinematic sake, and the ending, which is set in 1933 but uses music sounding more from the swing era later that decade, are out of tune, pardon the pun. But these are fictional characters, and so we take it as part of the story; we don't expect complete verisimilitude. This isn't like the film "Gable And Lombard," which commits the awful historical faux pas of having Clark in the Army before Carole's death.
"The Artist" is hardly a perfect film, but its merits certainly outweigh its faults; most of the readers should at least like it, if not love it. "The Artist" and fellow best picture contender "Hugo" by Martin Scorsese (a tribute to pioneer filmmaker Georges Melies) surely give classic movie fans a rooting interest at the Oscars on Feb. 26, as does Michelle Williams' turn as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week With Marilyn." There are many in the movie blogosphere who resent this, as stated in a recent post at the fine blog "Self-Styled Siren" (http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-siren-will-be-doing-on-night-of.html).
All I can say to them it's that it's unfortunate that people tend to ignore history, then add the "it's human nature" perspective. As the 1930s went on and silent movies largely receded from both memory and visibility, chances are even people like Lombard looked upon them as relics, the way most folks today view anything that's shot in black-and-white (or doesn't feature incessant explosions and CGI effects). Unfortunate, but true.
The week after the Oscars, TCM resumes its "Silent Sunday Nights" feature with Greta Garbo's second American film, "The Temptress" (1926). Perhaps a best picture win by "The Artist" might make a few more viewers examine what's on the reel each Sunday night.