It’s difficult to think about a time when movies didn’t have the advanced sound we have today. Of course, perhaps that time may be better than the assault that some action movies give our ears. And yet, the idea of a silent film is still somewhat misunderstood. Yes, there is no audible dialogue between actors, but directors at the time still had a few tricks up their sleeves. While you can’t hear the actors speaking, there is still a score that goes with every silent film. In this score, a lot can be conveyed, even sound effects! With 1927’s The Jazz Singer, everything changed. Studios now knew that being able to hear the actors speak was no longer a technical challenge, but a very real possibility. That’s not to say that there weren’t some challenges still left to iron out or that everyone would be on board for this change. And yet, the future had arrived. This week’s two films look at what studios went through when “talkies” became the new films on the block.
Singin’ in the Rain
Length: 103 minutes / 1.72 hours
Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the most iconic musical of our time. The America’s Film Institute has placed this movie highly on its Top 100 lists, moving from #10 to #5 in the most recent iteration of their list. And while it’s famous title song has been referenced in a variety of movies (the most unfortunate of which is A Clockwork Orange (1971)), the theme of the movie has seen very few imitations or reboots. Of course, if you were to ask my paternal grandfather what he though of Singin’ in the Rain, he’d say that it was awful. Something about Gene Kelly not having enough sense to avoid standing under drain-spouts during a downpour.
When a production company makes the decision to switch to making “talkies”, they want to do so with as few changes to their actor contracts as possible. They figured, “if you can act in silent films, you can act in talking picture.” For some, the transition is easy. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the triple threat: actor, dancer, singer. His transition is simple. However, there are some, like the starlet, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who are nice to look at, but are grating to listen to. Even through the studio goes through extensive vocal coaching, it becomes obvious that in order to keep Lina, they need to replace her voice. Enter Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a relatively unknown actress who can do what Lina cannot: sing. The studio decides to just dub over Lina’s voice with Kathy’s. Everything will go as planned, as long as Lina remains oblivious of her faults. But things never quite go as planned, do they?
Length: 100 minutes / 1.67 hours
While Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t critically acclaimed at the time, The Artist has already garnered many awards, the most notable being the Oscar for Best Picture. Sweeping up four more Oscars for Costume Design, Original Score (Ludovic Bource), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), and Directing (Michel Hazanavicius) made it the darling of the 2011 awards season. Of course, its unique homage to silent films was a breath of fresh air in an already stuffy film industry. And yes, the irony about making a silent film covering the advent of the “talkies” is absolutely delicious. In this critic’s humble opinion, The Artist is the best Best Picture in perhaps the last decade (maybe longer).
George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of the most famous silent film stars. After a premier of one of his movies, a chance encounter with Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) has the entirety of Hollywood wondering, “Who is that Girl?” Of course, “that girl” is an aspiring actress who happens to be cast in an upcoming Valentin film. Then the “talkies” hit. As George becomes adamant that these films are a fad, his director, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) warns him that this new medium is the future. When George’s popularity fades, a new star rises to take his place as the sweetheart of the talkies: Peppy Miller. Through a series of unfortunate events, George finds himself at the very bottom of his luck. However, Penny hasn’t forgotten the kindness that George had showed her years ago, and sets out to help George get back on his feet.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 tributes to the talkie revolution