From the archives: The silent cinema speaks again (2011)

July 16, 2012

The American Conservatory Theater is currently staging Once in a Lifetime (through October 16th), a revival of the madcap George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart comedy about the time when the movies learned to talk. When first staged in 1930, this entertaining play about changes in the entertainment industry was a big hit. Then, the New York Times described it as one of the “funniest of the season’s pranks” and a “hard, swift satire – fantastic and deadly, and full of highly charged comedy lines.” Recently, in the pages of San Francisco Chronicle, critic Robert Hurwitt gave it an equally good review. He concludes his write-up by calling this new production “almost always charming and at times irresistible.”

Despite it being a comedy, Once in a Lifetime reflects a time of both artistic and economic anxiety. In the play, a trio of down-on-their-luck East Coast vaudevillians head West intending to pull off something of a con. In Hollywood, they pose as vocal coaches who offer to help silent film actors train their speaking voices for the new medium of talking pictures.

Accompanying the play is “Words on Plays,” an A.C.T. produced 44-page booklet which offers background on the original play and current production as well as on the tumultuous period in movie history which it satirizes. The booklet essays on this transitional period are worth reading, especially if you are unfamiliar with the changes brought about by the then new sound technology.

Coincidentally, an acclaimed new film whose themes are also rooted in this transitional period is set to show in the Bay Area. On October 16th, the 34th Mill Valley Film Festival comes to a close with the screening of The Artist. The film has already generated a good deal of buzz, not only because of its sprightly performances, but because this contemporary black-and-white film was shot as a silent – without spoken dialogue.

In The Artist, French performer Jean Dujardin (who took this year’s Best Actor honors at Cannes) dazzles as Douglas Fairbanks’ look-alike George Valentin, the reigning superstar of 1927 Hollywood who resists the transition to sound. This clever French production co-stars Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller, a beautiful movie extra whose own star rises as Valentin’s wanes. The film echoes both A Star Is Born and Singin’ in the Rain, two earlier films which look back to an earlier Hollywood. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is already being described as a “new silent classic for the ages.” The supporting cast includes John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell – as well as a captivating canine performer who calls to mind Rin Tin Tin.

The famous dog is himself undergoing a revival of late thanks to Susan Orlean’s acclaimed Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend(Simon & Schuster). Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, appears in person on October 9th at a San Francisco Film Society sponsored event to celebrate the release of her new book about the cinema’s greatest animal actor. One of Rinty’s classic silent films, Clash of the Wolves, will screen following an illustrated introduction by Orlean. The author will also be speaking at Book Passage in Corte Madera on October 30th.

Another recent book, by a local film historian, offers a revisionist history of the silent cinema.

Film historian William M. Drew lives in the south bay, and hislatest book, The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films on American Screens in the 1930s (Scarecrow Press) was released last year, but to little fanfare. That is a shame, because it is one of the more significant books of film history published in the last few years. Why is it significant? Because it rewrites film history.

The standard histories report that with the coming of sound in the late 1920s, silent film died out. But did it?

The Last Silent Picture Show looks at the little known history of the silent cinema in the decade after its reported demise. Though talkies overtook the industry, the silent cinema survived the onslaught of sound through continued exhibition in diverse venues including universities, art houses, ethnic theaters, tent shows and distant small town theaters not yet wired for sound; they were also screened at political meetings and during well-publicized, big city revivals of the silent era’s most popular films.

The Last Silent Picture Show details a period of transition in the movie industry, when one art form gave way to another. The public discussion which arose around the exhibition of silent film in the 1930s led, notably so, to some of the earliest efforts at film preservation, and eventually to the birth of film studies.

Mark Twain once quipped that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated. And so were reports of the demise of the silent film. With all that’s going on today, it seems to be alive and kicking.

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