I was recently talking to a much, much younger work colleague about a movie I saw that I thought he would be interested in. As I was describing it, he interrupted me and asked if it were in black and white. When I told him it was, he told me to forget it. He just couldn’t possibly watch it. It really threw me. A movie is a movie, I thought. Eventually, I realized that there are certain art forms that present hurdles to those who are not familiar with them. Opera is impenetrable to the uninitiated, a point I understand intellectually, but as a 40 year veteran of operamania, it just doesn’t resonate with me emotionally. It has been so long for me since the conventions of opera and their attendant weirdnesses were new to me, that I find it hard to remember how it was (perhaps) difficult on first exposure.
This made me think of silent films. Even people who consider themselves cinephiles often have a blind spot for silent. Having been devoted to film even longer than I have been devoted to opera, I get the conventions of silent films that might seem inscrutable or even ludicrous to the uninitiated. The broader acting styles, the intertitles and the general ancientness of the whole genre require getting used to. I also realize that the silent films that most people are exposed to are the silents that are ‘important’, the ones that are ‘good for you’. For example, in any film appreciation class, people are forced to watch The Battleship Potemkin or at least the famous Odessa Steps scene.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the silent Soviet stuff. But it is interesting and not necessarily fun, as are most of the silents that people are exposed to. The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birth of A Nation, Vampyr are all sublime in their own ways, but they aren’t fun, per se.
Realizing this, I decided to draw up a list of five silent films that are guaranteed pleasures to watch and would be a good entrée into a deeper appreciation of the genre:
1. Show People (1928) dir. King Vidor. This delightful comedy tells the story of rich girl from the sticks who has designs on being a great dramatic film actress with the support of her loving but equally clueless father. The beauty of the film is the triumph of comedy, as our heroine realizes what her true forte is. The film stars Marion Davies, a very talented comic actor who is nowadays unfortunately identified with the very untalented Susan Alexander of Citizen Kane. Davies was Hearst’s mistress much as Alexander was Kane’s, but the similarity ends there. Davies knew what she was doing. She excelled in light comedy and this film is a good sampling her talents. Plus, for the film buff there are lots of inside jokes about the Hollywood figures of the time.
2. Foolish Wives (1922) dir. Erich Von Stroheim. What lamenters of the silent era lament most is the pinnacle of storytelling art that movies achieved before sound. Once sounds began, the whole production seemed to be concerned about the placement of the microphone above everything, making a very static art form out of one that was thrilling fluid and visually sophisticated just a few years previously. It took talkies a few years to catch up. Foolish Wives represents silent filmmaking at its peak. The director and star was the mad genius Erich Von Stroheim (see my previous post on his work). Watching this film has all the joys of reading a rich, complex and slightly perverse novel. Stroheim pushed the limits in set design (building an exact replica of the casino at Monte Carlo on the back lot), story telling and naturalistic acting. It would be years before Hollywood would see a production of this caliber again. The characters are nuanced, the humor is adult, the relationships are titillating. Plus it has a terrific story.
3. My Best Girl (1927) dir. Sam Taylor. During the silent era, no actress was more beloved or more powerful than Mary Pickford. An extraordinarily shrewd business person as well as a magnetic screen presence, Pickford first specialized in heart-wrenching films about put-upon waifs and eventually graduated to adult comedy roles, of which this is among the best. Mary works in a department store with a charming young man who, unbeknownst to her is the boss’s son (the gorgeous Buddy Rodgers, soon to be Mr. Pickford) trying to learn the business from the ground up. Her family is delightfully dysfunctional and she is trying to hold everything together. Heaven will protect the working girl! The perfect light touch of this film might betray the influence of the great Lubitsch. It is a delight from start to finish.
4. One Week (1920) dir. Buster Keaton. Comedy is always a good way to ease into a new art form, and the films of Buster Keaton are a sublime way to ease into silent films. The jaw-dropping ingenuity of his visuals are enough to convert anyone. In this short, Keaton and his new bride try to build themselves a do-it-yourself house from a kit, but things gets complicated as his old rival appears intent on making sure nothing goes smoothly for the young couple.
5. Un Chien Andalou (1929) Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Nothing before or since has been like this surreal masterpiece. While at the Magritte exhibit currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, I realized that one of the things that makes the surrealists so appealing is that, in addition to being really creepy, they are howlingly funny. It’s all here. The slit eye, the priests tied to dead donkeys, peripatetic armpit hair, everything that makes the surreal the surreal. Twenty-one minutes of controlled insanity to a rollicking tango and Wagner score.
P.S. It premiered on my birthday (well not on my actually birthday but a few decades before.)
So watch these five films and let me know what you think. Then you’ll be ready for the Soviets, I promise.