Quiet please: Exploring the revival of silent cinema

From the Golden Globes to the Baftas, The Artist has dominated this year’s awards – and could do the same at Sunday’s Oscars. But its success is part of a bigger phenomenon, says Alison Kerr

SILENCE is golden. Or it is for The Artist, at least, which won eight Baftas last week and now looks set to repeat some of that success at the Oscars on Sunday.And yet the film is one of only a small group of silent films made since 1927.

Silent movies didn’t completely die out with the advent of “talkies”. Charlie Chaplin, who understood that part of his screen persona’s universal appeal was the fact that he didn’t talk, continued to make partly silent films well into the 1930s, while the French comedy genius Jacques Tati developed a highly effective and successful system of sounds for such hit comedies as Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), in which his characters made noises but didn’t speak as such.

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The difference with The Artist is that there is no obvious reason for it to have been made without dialogue, apart from the fact that its story – about a silent screen star’s traumatic transition to talkies – was already familiar to audiences as a sound picture, and not just any sound picture: it bears an uncanny resemblance to the film regarded as the best musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain.

Making it as a silent film is refreshing, and adds interest and a novelty factor to what is otherwise a pretty slight although undoubtedly beautiful-looking, film. (Kim Novak was spot-on when she said that the use of Bernard Herrmann’s heartbreakingly poignant love theme from Vertigo, at a key point in the film, was entirely responsible for providing emotional depth which would otherwise have eluded it.)

But The Artist isn’t the only silent film to have been released recently. Just three months ago, I attended the premiere, at the London Jazz Festival, of a film entitled Louis, a silent movie celebrating the childhood of a jazz great, Louis Armstrong.

On paper, the idea sounds bonkers. Celebrate a music legend with a soundless film? But seeing that film – or rather experiencing the film which was accompanied by a live band – was an unforgettable treat. As much a loving homage to silent cinema as a tongue-in-cheek evocation of the myths about early jazz, Dan Pritzker’s film may not be a brilliant movie – the characters (like those in The Artist) are pretty one-dimensional, the storyline a little simplistic and some of the scenes a bit self-indulgent. But taken as an experience, rather than as a film or as a concert, it was wonderful. At the end, the audience leapt to its collective feet, all of us aware that we had been part of a unique event.

It’s that uniqueness that has led to a resurgence of interest in silent cinema in recent years, thinks Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, which was a popular and critical success when it launched last year.

“There’s a constant push for people to have new cinema experiences,” says Strauss, “whether it’s innovations like the IMAX screen or Smellovision or 3D or whether it’s one of these immersive experiences like Secret Cinema [a pop-up movie club which has been gaining momentum over the last couple of years] where people dress up; there’s a demand for new cinema experiences.

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“Silent cinema for me is like an ultimate cinema experience because you’ve got this relationship between the film that’s on the screen and the audience – which, of course, you always had, but you’ve also got the third element, which is the live music and it really creates the magic. It’s an experience you don’t get if you go to a regular new release that’s been churned out. That gives it the uniqueness that I think people are looking for from the cinema, it elevates it. You know, you can walk into any multiplex and see what’s being released that week and it would be the same if you were in any Cineworld in any part of the country. But when you’ve got live music – particularly if, as is the case at our festival, it’s being played by a musician who has scored it specially – then it’s a completely unique experience.”

Of course, writing new scores for films from the silent era is nothing new. Carl Davis has been doing it for years, and some of the best silent movie experiences I’ve ever had were in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in the 1990s, when the RSNO played Davis’s scores while Greta Garbo and John Gilbert steamed up the big screen in Flesh and the Devil, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr buckled his swash in The Thief of Bagdad.

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But there is undoubtedly an appetite for silent cinema in the 21st century, as the success of the Hippodrome festival highlights. Strauss reckons that there’s a new awareness – triggered, possibly by the likes of Martin Scorsese, whose recent film Hugo celebrated the pioneer of early cinema, Georges Méliès – of the fact that many of the great film-makers of the 20th century began during the silent era.

“In our festival, we have work by some directors who are best known for their work in the sound era,” says Strauss. “It makes sense for people who are interested in film to look back at all of their work. Why stop at 1929? So, Yasujiro Ozu for example, he’s most famous for a film he made in 1953, Tokyo Story, but he was working during the silent period… I think that this is why some directors, like Scorsese, are looking back to the silent era. They’re interested in the whole of film language and development, and by the end of the silent era, there had been 30 years of development.”

The idea of revisiting films from the silent era and revivifying them with new scores seems to tie in with a broader cultural phenomenon which the writer Simon Reynolds has christened Retromania – a need to return to the past. He reckons 21st-century popular culture is increasingly “chronically addicted to its own past”. But surely this has always been the case? Just as in fashion, where certain trends from earlier decades come round every ten or 20 years, and are given a contemporary twist, so the pop culture of earlier decades floats in and out of vogue and is, often, enriched and expanded each time.

The current mania for The Artist, and reborn fascination with the silent cinema era, seems to me to belong to a 2010s love affair with the Jazz Age, which has so far manifested itself in Martin Scorsese’s TV series Boardwalk Empire, in this season’s vogue for flapper dresses, in the revival of the bob (which, like the flapper dress fad is being fuelled by the images being released of Carey Mulligan as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming movie of the classic 1920s novel The Great Gatsby) and in the number of speakeasies springing up all over the place.

It’s easy to dismiss “Retromania” as less worthy of attention than new art movements, but had it not been for this sort of phenomenon, many masterpieces would be undiscovered and many great artists would now be forgotten. Such kings of silent cinema as Buster Keaton were languishing in near-obscurity until the 1960s when their work was rediscovered and made fashionable by the first generation of film students.

That resurgence of interest prompted the preservation and restoration of their films, and the first wave of commissions of scores to accompany them. It also ensured that they received the recognition that they deserved; recognition that often eludes great innovators at the time of their most important work.

The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema runs from March 16-18. For information and tickets, call 01324 506850 or visit www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/silentcinemafest

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