Friday, July 25, 2014

An Introduction to the Fabulous World of Silent Cinema

I love silent cinema. Or maybe I should say that I love cinema period, and can't understand why most movie lovers, even classic film buffs, are reluctant to watch silent films. Today, "silent" has become a designation of genre, despite the fact that silent cinema is enormously varied, and most people who watch silent films are specifically silent film fans. This is a great pity because there are literally hundreds (and there would be thousands if more had survived) of great silent films out there to discover and most people have seen, at most, The Artist, a pastiche of silent film techniques that exaggerates and mocks, reinforcing common stereotypes about silent cinema, poking fun at what may be antiquated, but is hardly ridiculous or kitschy. I wouldn't even call The Artist a true silent film; it's rather a sound film made without sound.

The best way to start exploring silent cinema is to start watching comedies. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were the two greatest comic actors of the silent era (and frankly of cinema since its exception). Anyone who thinks that silent film acting lacks subtlety need only watch the expression in Keaton's eyes when his long-lost father bullies him in Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Chaplin covering his smile in the final heart-wrenching scene of City Lights. Both actors created personas that they portrayed across films and both were masters of physical comedy and pantomime. My personal favorite Chaplin film is The Kid, but City Lights and Modern Times are not far behind, while as for Buster Keaton, whom I absolutely adore, I recommend Our Hospitality, The General, and Sherlock, Jr.

Another hugely popular film genre of the silent era was the swashbuckler and the greatest swashbuckling star was undoubtedly the rakishly handsome and insanely athletic Douglas Fairbanks, who epitomized the genre and is still being copied in films like Pirates of the Caribbean today. Fairbanks would star in a number of Dumas adaptations, but the best (and also his last silent film) is The Iron Mask, a suspenseful adventure film (costarring Eugene Pallette, familiar to classic movie fans for his extraordinarily gravelly voice). Fairbanks's best pirate feature is The Black Pirate, an enormously influential film with stunts that still impress by today's standards, while The Thief of Bagdad, filmed on the biggest set in Hollywood history, is a stunning example of creative story-telling, gorgeous color tinting and magnificent sets and costumes, and a lot of footage of a shirtless Fairbanks.

America's sweetheart during the silent era was Mary Pickford, her only real rival to the title being D. W. Griffiths's favorite, Lillian Gish. Pickford was an extremely gifted actress, her slim physique allowing her to convincingly play children until well into adulthood. In fact, it was Pickford, along with fellow film stars Gish and Janet Gaynor, that pioneered a naturalistic acting style, one that continues to influence cinematic acting technique today. Her films are extremely varied, from lighthearted comedies to melodrama, but she often played characters with considerable spunk. My personal favorites are Daddy-Long-Legs, a lovely film about a young orphan girl given the chance to go to college, and The Love Light, an exciting wartime melodrama set in Italy.

With The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffiths profoundly changed the course of cinematic history. He also made one of the most deeply racist films ever granted the title of classic. I personally find the politics of The Birth of a Nation too abhorrent to permit to recommend the film, but Griffiths was a very gifted filmmaker and many of his other films are well worth watching. Broken Blossoms is my especial favorite, with Lillian Gish in a heartbreaking and ultimately terror-inducing performance. The film tells the story of an abused young girl (played by Gish) who takes refuge from her drunken father with a gentle Chinese immigrant. While it is unfortunate that Richard Barthelmess - a white actor - plays the role of Cheng Huan, Griffiths almost seems to be apologizing for the racist politics of his earlier film by making his Asian protagonist a deeply positive force against the utter evil of Gish's (white) father. Other great films by Griffiths include Orphans of the Storm, set during the French Revolution, and the massive Intolerance.

World War I inspired filmmakers to confront the enormity of the conflict from which the world was still reeling. The most iconic of these is The Big Parade, which has recently been beautifully restored. Much of the visual vocabulary of war films was established in this stirring and politically ambivalent drama about a young American soldier who meets and falls in love with a pretty French girl. The very first Best Picture winner, Wings (also recently restored) is about rival pilots and features extraordinary aerial footage of dog-fighting. It's also a chance to see silent film icon Clara Bow. Both of these films have comedic exposition and then move on to shockingly realistic war footage, of a sort that wouldn't be seen again until Kubrick's Paths of Glory, released in 1957. In 1918, Griffiths directed his war film, Hearts of the World, at the front, including actual footage of battles he witnessed. Unfortunately, this film is not widely available.

Thus far, I've concentrated on American silent cinema, but great films were being produced all over the world. In Sweden, Victor Sjostrom directed The Phantom Carriage, a morality tale with some of the most impressive special effects photography of the time. In France, Germaine Dulac directed her experimental film, The Smiling Madame Beudet, widely credited as the first feminist film ever produced. In 1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer filmed The Passion of Joan of Arc, in my opinion, the greatest film of all time. In Germany, Fritz Lang directed the first feature length science fiction film, Metropolis, a stunning Art Deco depiction of a disturbing dystopian world, and F. W. Murnau directed his devastating masterwork, The Last Laugh. In Russia, filmmakers like Eisenstein, director of the exhilarating Strike! and the influential and stirring Battleship Potemkin, and Dovzhenko, director of the kaleidoscopic masterpiece, Earth (sometimes referred to in in English by its Russian title, Zemlya), were revolutionizing the new cinematic medium with experiments in montage and narrative technique.

But to finish up this all-too-short introduction to silent cinema, I would like to tout G. W. Pabst's 1929 masterpiece, Pandora's Box, one of my all-time favorite films. Starring Louise Brooks as Lulu, a seductive woman whom no one, man or woman, can resist, the film is a fascinating exploration of female sexuality, power, and male fear. But this is just the beginning - the marvels of silent cinema are numerous and varied. One only needs to start watching!

1 comment:

  1. Another great silent classic is the Francis X. Bushman version of "Ben Hur". It's hard to believe, but that chariot race is every bit as exciting and thrilling as the later one with Charlton Heston. I always find it amazing that so many silent films hold up as well as they do, despite the years. The storytelling in the best of them was really top notch, and the images entice you to dream along with the characters, I think.