not in our stars, but in ourselves
NOTE: This is the last “chapter” of my senior “thesis,” written many years ago and in dire need of a makeover. You’ll see. But I like the general idea, and may try to work some of it into my subsequent book idea…if I ever get around to it. As you’ll see, it’s certainly not good enough for a scholarly work, but it’s about good enough for a blog post.
It is a favorite cliché of film critics, in discussing talking pictures, to say that we cannot go back. In effect, they suggest that, because technical progress has given us sound, all films must be talkies and will continue to be so forever. Such statements reveal a radical misconception of the nature of progress and the nature of art. As well say that, because there is painting in oils, there must be no etchings; or that because speech is an integral part of a stage play, dialogue must be added to ballet. To explore the possibilities of the non-talking film, to make of it a new and individual art form, would not be a retrograde step, but an advance.
– Winston Churchill, “Everybody’s Language” (1935)
I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.
– Norma Desmond, Sunset Blvd. (1950)
For better or for worse, Churchill’s dream of silent cinema’s resurgence did not take place. With unrest roiling beneath the surface in India, Fascism baring its fangs across Europe, and the obvious dominance of talkies, the 1930s must have been a trying decade indeed for poor Winnie. All flippancy aside, his idea is interesting, although it obviously came to nothing. Sound roared into the film industry, and now a silent movie – in the traditional sense, with intertitles, pantomime, and gloriously rich black and white film – is downright inconceivable.
And this is neither good nor bad. It is what it is. The advent of sound meant huge, sweeping changes for Hollywood (and other filmmaking capitals around the world, of course). Stars who had been adored and worshipped as silent actors found themselves forgotten and alone with the ghosts of their fame, Norma Desmond-style. In some cases, they were foreign stars whose exotic looks and demeanors had filmed wonderfully, but who had failed to learn how to speak English well enough. In other cases, the primitive early sound recording devices did not register the stars’ voices as anything more than flat whines, and so audiences stopped going to their pictures. In still other cases, audiences simply decided that their voices did not sound the way the audiences had imagined their voices would sound. Thus such luminaries as Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Pola Negri, Buster Keaton, and others fell from favor. People still know who they are, but their films are not regularly screened even on the so-called “classic film” channels on cable television. They – and their films, blockbusters in their time – are frequently ignored, considered obscurities.
Quite simply, it is sad. It is sad to know that such talent, such charisma and cinematic magic often go unappreciated. Even the films we have examined here, generally regarded as masterpieces, are seldom shown anymore. These were the trailblazers, the vanguards, the innovators of cinema – and if you ask the average non-film student if he’s seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, he’ll be likely to um and er and say he hasn’t – was that the one with Milla Jovovich? And that is, in many ways, sad.
However, it is to be expected. Silent cinema remains a rare pearl among the other glittering arts: beautiful, glowing, subtle and lovely. But it is only one jewel of many. With sound, cinema lost some of its gentle radiance, but it gained a sparkle and a snappiness that had never before been possible. After the clumsy transitory period in the late 1920s and very early 1930s, talkies began to display their own kind of inventiveness and subtlety. In Fritz Lang’s M (1931), for example, sound becomes a crucial plot device when the murderer’s nervous whistle gives him away. In Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), the two leads are linked by the song “Isn’t It Romantic?” – first sung by Maurice in his Parisian tailor shop, and relayed through France to lonely Jeanette in her chateau in the French countryside. And of course, the need for decent dialogue (intertitles did tend to be terribly silly) led many brilliant young writers, many of them newspaper men, to inject Hollywood pictures with a bit more gritty humor than they had ever had previously.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating the past. The best silent films are, to this day, extraordinary to watch. Drawn into that dream world of mime and dance, with effulgent lights illuminating the stars as if they radiated from within, the modern viewer can perhaps understand why so many were dismayed to see that art fall by the wayside. If there is one thing to be learned from that silent icon, the Little Tramp himself, it is that it does no good to grieve what has passed. Times change; technology razes old art forms and necessitates new ideas; some people adapt and move forward, while others stagnate and are left behind. D.W. Griffith continued to make films through the 1920s, but as time went by, he grew increasingly bitter with the industry that he had helped to found, that was evolving in ways that he did not understand or like. Weimar-era cinema, with all its infinite shades of grey and its divine decadence, came to a screeching halt in January 1933, when Hitler took power. Sergei Eisenstein came to Hollywood for a brief period of time, where his highly intellectualized approach to filmmaking was generally dismissed as impossible. Falconetti was mostly forgotten and died an alcoholic. Louise Brooks never found another director who so clearly understood how to mold her as G.W. Pabst, and after years of living in quiet obscurity, became a writer. Charles Chaplin grew increasingly political, sentimental, and cranky in his films; and in the 1950s, accused by the FBI of being a Communist, he fled America and settled in Switzerland, never again to recapture the magic of his Little Tramp.
Norma Desmonds, one and all? Not quite. Some of their stories are like that of Billy Wilder’s created sleepwalking diva, true; others’ stories are legitimately tragic; and still others’ have lovely silver linings. In any event, we still have the films. We still have those shimmering black and white beauties, and so all is not lost.