Norma Desmond, the silent film star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard who has retreated into the dreams and confines of her Hollywood-Baroque mansion, is forgotten by the world. The shocking thing to realize is that the coming of sound, that event that severed the world of Desmond and Valentino and Fairbanks and Pickford from the ‘today’ of the film’s 1950, happened little more than 23 years before. Yet, the sundering of the two worlds is complete and final. The legendarily glamorous hey-day of the Silent Era seems as distant to the contemporary characters as the French Revolution.
Consider what was in theaters 23 years ago. Ghost, Home Alone and Pretty Woman hardly seem like relics of a distant past. Even the films released 23 years prior to that, such as The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde are still highly accessible and seem to be of our time.
The Silent Era is even more remote to us than it was in 1950. The giants of the era, such as Garbo, are remembered for their Sound Era films only , if at all. Yes, the silhouette of The Little Tramp is immediately recognizable, and we all have seen Harold Lloyd hanging from that clock in Safety Last, but the vast body of silent films are unknown.
In the ensuing 86 years since the advent of sound, the vast majority of filmgoers have lost the skill of watching silent movies. There will be the obligatory viewing of The Gold Rush or Battleship Potemkin (alas, only the Odessa Steps scene) but no one knows classics like The Big Parade and Sunrise or even delightful, fluffy entertainments like My Best Girl or Show People.
My recommendation for activating an appreciation of Silents would be to watch and revel in the films of Erich Von Stroheim. Born to a lower middle-class Jewish family, Stroheim remade himself into a fallen Austrian nobleman, picking up the aristocratic ‘Von’ somewhere between Europe and Ellis Island.
He learned the craft of filmmaking by working as an extra and assistant director to D.W. Griffith, and came of age as a director in the mid-1920s, the zenith of the Silent Era. He is best known for a film that no one alive has seen in its entirety. His ten-hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ realist classic Mcteague, shot under the title Greed, was continually whittled down by the studio until only about two hours of film remained. Not too long ago a reconstruction of the ‘complete’ Greed was created by splicing what remains of the film together with a treasure trove of recently discovered production stills. This, however, is ‘caviar to the general’ and will hardly be pleasurable for the Silent novice.
Instead, your starting point should be the stupendous Foolish Wives. Made in 1922, it is the perfect example of MGM luxury and glamor combined with Von Stroheim’s obsession with accuracy. It is said that his mania for detail even extended to insisting that his characters should be wearing correct underwear, even though it never appeared on screen! A full-scale replica of the casino at Monte Carlo is just one of the things that pushed the budget of this film past the one million mark, a first in film history.
MGM made a virtue of necessity by bragging in the ads for the film that it was directed by Erich Von $troheim.
Foolish Wives is the story of an innocent American wife abroad, prey to the decadence of European aristocracy manqué. It is a strange theme for a film of 1922 since World War I had all but annihilated the very world that Von Stroheim was critiquing. The film is novelistic in its portrayal of character and plot. The fascinating Austrian Count Karamzin (Von Stroheim) and his ‘cousins’ inhabit a seaside vipers’ nest from which they cynically and ruthlessly prey on anyone naive enough to cross their paths. Watching their gleeful amorality and inevitable downfall is as satisfying as reading a big juicy 19th Century Novel by Trollope or Dickens.
The Austrian aristocracy also comes in for scrutiny in the heartbreakingly beautiful film The Wedding March starring a pre-King Kong Fay Wray.
Stroheim’s directorial career came to an abrupt end when Gloria Swanson had her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy shut down the production of the film Queen Kelly she was starring in and Von Stroheim was directing. Swanson finally had enough of the demands of this mad director and took exception to the creepy fetishisms of the film. Queen Kelly survives as a fragment and it is fascinating. An extra level of creepiness is that it is the film Norma Desmond is showing to Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. In a queasy-making confluence of fact and fiction, the butler Max von Mayerling, who is acting as film projector, is played by none other that Von Stroheim himself.
So, please dig up a copy of Foolish Wives and let me know what you think. There is a nice edition on Kino that also features the interesting documentary The Man You Love To Hate. Then try The Wedding March.