The Artist (2011) and Hugo (2011) are fictional depictions of important moments in film history. In the case of Hugo, the characters are based on real people, but the story telling is on such a grand scale that the truth is buried deep beneath the surface. The Artist is a good imitation of a silent film even when the characters are verge of breaking the sound barrier. Both films serve as gateway drugs designed to entertain audiences and to introduce a new generation of moviegoers to the pioneer days of motion pictures. Martin Scorsese’s efforts to preserve our film heritage are at the root of Hugo, but this doesn’t detract from a story well told by a gifted story teller.
There were some nice attempts back in the 1970s to romanticize and revitalize the public’s interest in silent films including Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), Peter Bogdanovich’s Nickelodeon (1976), and Mel Brooks’ anachronistic Silent Movie (1976). In the 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola brought Abel Gance’s Napoleon out of moth balls and took it on the road with a full orchestra. It was back again this year under the auspices of its archival evangelist, Kevin Brownlow, with additional footage and a full orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis also made some noise back in the 1980s with a rock and roll score produced by Georgio Moroder. It was recently resurrected with additional footage found in Argentina and given the full orchestra treatment before making its way back to DVD and Blu-Ray.
In the 1990s, Richard Attenborough brought Charlie Chaplin back to life with the help of Robert Downey Jr. Chaplin (1992) probably did more for Robert Downey Jr.than it did for Chaplin. Chaplin was slow to embrace sound beyond providing syncronized musical scores and sound effects to his films. He created great silent movies well into the sound era, notably City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Joe Gillis (William Holden), a screenwriter who becomes the gigolo of silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) refers to a group of card playing silent stars as “the waxworks”. Sixty-two years later, silent film stars might as well be mummies to a teenager buying a ticket for Men In Black 3. After all, the first Men In Black movie was made somewhere between their birth and Kindergarten making it “an old movie”. Silent films are now ancient history.
If you’re just discovering the magic of Méliés and the devastating thud heard by silent stars who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk when the sound era arrived, previously illustrated in Singin’ In the Rain (1952), you can take a side trip to most of the films that I’ve listed above on DVD, Blu-Ray, digital download or by using a film streaming service like Netflix or Hulu. When you have completed your initial research, take some time to see some of the hundreds of real silent films that have survived. You might be pleasantly surprised. Many silent films are as entertaining as The Artist.