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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Silent films

Thanks to TCM, I've become a fan of silent films. I'm now as comfortable with them as I am with talkies.

They're a more inconic form than sound film. Last night, they showed a Garbo silent from 1926. Garbo had never done much for me. The acting was always good but the great esteemed beauty the photographers extolled just never appeared for me.

But in the silent I saw last night, the lighting was such that it de-emphasized the sharp angles of her face and softened them,, making the eyes larger and and the cheekbones softer. She looked downright sexy, a figure of dreams rather than a photography session.

A few weeks ago TCM did two minor silent Harold Lloyd pictures. The next night they showed one of his early talkies. I actually preferred him in the silents. Somehow the silence emphasized his gawky manner of walking and that rubbery face built around the nose that looks sharp enough to be a dagger.

I suppose ultimately silent film resembles dance to a large degree. The eye fastens on movement. Body language and facial expression tell the story, the dialogue cards merely setting up scene and story.

Holy moley, maybe Norma Desmond was right when she said at the end of Sunset Boulevard "We had faces then." I sure can't think of any of today's faces that would rival the ones in the silent pictures.


Blogger Jon L. Breen said...

As you know, Ed, I share your enthusiasm for silents. Kino International, that great source of foreign and classic movies, recently put out a series of DVDs of some of the great silent comics. The Harold Lloyd group is especially interesting, since some of the shorts were made before he blew off the thumb and forefinger of his right hand when a prop bomb exploded unexpectedly. He subsequently used a prosthesis, and if you didn't already know, you would probably never suspect he didn't have full use of his right hand. When you do know, however, you can figure out which shorts were made before and which after the accident. The DVD includes one of his better-known features, GRANDMA'S BOY, along with the shorts. He was an amazing performer, obviously a terrific athlete and more a sensitive actor than a pure comedian. While he, like his contemporaries Chaplin and Keaton, had the voice and acting ability to make a successful transition to sound pictures, I would agree he was at his best in silents, as were the others. While virtually all of Chaplin and a great deal of Keaton is available on video and/or DVD, relatively little of Lloyd's work is. Most of what I have of his I taped off air. (The film Lloyd did with Preston Sturges in the middle '40s, THE SIN OF HAROLD DIDDLEBOCK a.k.a. MAD WEDNESDAY, has been readily available on video, presumably because it was allowed to fall out of copyright at some point--I think it's somewhat better than reputed, and the opening sequence, combining new footage with footage from his silent classic THE FRESHMAN, is inspired.) The other Kino sets include Stan Laurel (I didn't buy this one having been warned that Laurel before Hardy wasn't all that funny), Charlie Chase (whose early talky shorts were nearly as ubiquitous as Laurel and Hardy's in local L.A. TV in the 1950s), and Harry Langdon. Langdon is often considered the fourth great silent comic, after Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. If so, he's a distant fourth. TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP, one of the silent features considered his best, has some laughs but also a lot of self-indulgence, which undoubtedly increased when he quit working with Frank Capra and went out on his own. As for the big three, I understand Keaton now has the highest reputation among cinema scholars, though of course Chaplin did for many years. One observation on the differences among the three: in Lloyd's and Keaton's films, the female leads were generally cute and capable but forgettable; in Chaplin's films, they were invariably wonderful. I wouldn't pick a favorite among the big three: my preference is whichever one I'm watching at the time.

January 27, 2005 at 3:51 PM  
Blogger Fred Blosser said...

Hi Ed.

-- SILENT FILMS: Try the 1916 French silent serial JUDEX, released on DVD in a beautifully restored print a few months ago with funding from Turner (I think it also ran on TCM, late night,and will probably show up again). A wonderful pictorial record of early 20th Century France and a great bridge between the 19th Century tradition of Dumas and the 20th Century pulps and comic books. It's a loooooooonnngg DVD, but don't try to sit through all eight hours at one time; play a chapter or two a night. There was an almost equally charming 1963 feature-film remake by George Franju that I hope someone will also rescue from oblivion.

-- ROBERT PARKER: Reached a peak with VALEDICTORY and A CATSKILL EAGLE. As Barry Malzberg wrote in a brilliant essay in MYSTERY SCENE a few years ago, EAGLE was a sort of turning point. I tried to stay with Parker after that, but following the next three books, all rather tired and formulaic, I moved on. But VALEDICTORY is one of my favorite post-Macdonald PI novels, very poignant and heartfelt.

-- SPEAKING OF TCM: The other night they ran THE SPLIT, the 1968 Jim Brown vehicle based on one of Richard Stark's Parker novels. I taped it but haven't had time to watch it yet. If memory serves, the script was pretty feeble, but a great cast (Borgnine, Oates, Sutherland, Hackman, Julie Harris, Diahann Carroll, etc). It was shot in Panavision, so the old pan-and-scan TV showings always looked dreadful; but the TCM screening should be properly letterboxed. I'm not sure that Parker fans have rated this one too highly, but it's certainly better than the screwy 1980s SLAYGROUND with Peter Coyote as the world's least convincing Parker.

January 27, 2005 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger jchess said...

Today's faces don't rival the faces of yesteryear.

And that's a good thing, I hold. It makes us appreciate the faces of the silent era that much more.

James C. Hess

January 29, 2005 at 5:38 PM  

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