Thursday, July 12, 2012

Commenting on "The Rapture of the Silents"

From The New York Review of Books / May 24, 2012

Above: Jean Dujardin (George Valentin) and Bérenice Béjo 
(Peppy Miller) in their triumphant finale in "The Artist." *

In his article on page 15 of the May 24, 2012 issue, "The Rapture of the Silents," 
Geoffrey O'Brien attempts to analyze the recent success of "The Artist" directed
by Michel Hazanavicius which swept this year's Oscar awards.* * O'Brien describes
it as "an almost entirely black and white film ... made with care so loving as to be
almost didactic in spirit ... a primer in the appreciation of silent movies ... the-run-
of-the-mill movie palace fodder of the late 1920s ... Hazanavicius was determined
to make the old devices work again, and he succeeded."

* See my blog "Why I voted for 'The Artist" as Best Picture
** O'Brien reviews two other films in his article. Since I saw neither, they will not
enter into this discussion.

Unfortunately, O'Brien does not appear to know much about silent films and judges
them by unrelated standards. Regretably, he overlooks the association of silent films
with vaudeville. Vaudeville houses were some of the first venues in which motion
pictures were presented. A vaudeville performance was a precursor to viewing every
silent film through the 1930s and sometimes into the 1940s.

Above: Regent Theater, Harlem, New York, the first American movie palace
opened in 1912. Photo circa 1915

O'Brien misreads the audience and how they experienced viewing films. He
says "... wordy intertitles that brought the film to a dead halt while the slowest
readers in the audience were given time to absorb them - and famously, there
was the style of acting built on a vocabulary of gestures and postures and gazes
... " If he were aware of early film's vaudeville heritage, he might understand
and appreciate these exaggerated actions.

His most egregious omission was failing to recognize the presence of sound
accompaniments. Every silent film was presented with live performers 
(orchestras, pianists and organists) providing their personal enhancements to 
what appeared on the screen. Silent films were not "silent." Although generically
accepted, that is a naive misnomer. They were films without spoken dialogue
having periodic blocks of text appearing on the screen that suggest dialogue.

Motion picture music advertisement, circa 1925. 

O'Brien intimates that film audiences were the unwashed and semi-literate new
immigrants and small town residents of the early twentieth century who made
the nickelodeons prosper. There was a connection. Nickelodeons were one the
first forms of successful mechanized mass entertainment.  As cash cows, they
financed early film studios. Adolph Zukor, the owner of a New York nickelodeon,
became head of Paramount Pictures. However, in order to fill the vast new movie
palaces with several thousand seats, it was necessary to attract both uneducated
immigrants, and former farmers who populated the cities as well as the newly minted
middle class second generation Germans, Irish and Jews. In 1913,  Moving Picture 
World, said, “Such theaters as the Regent are what we all hope for... They are the
best friends the motion picture industry has ... We will all  go back to the Regent,
and we are glad to know where to conduct the next stranger who asks us."

Million Dollar Theatre, Los Angeles, interior. Los Angeles' first 
movie palace, it opened in 1918 as the Grauman.

Viewing a film, silent or sound, in one of the grand old movie palaces
was, and still is,  a form of participatory spectacle - perhaps like watching
a football or basketball game where the crowd interacts with the players.
People would clap and stomp their feet when the hero triumphs and boo
when the villan  appears. Since moving to Los Angeles and becoming a
member of the Los Angeles Conservancy's Last Remaining Seats committee,
I have been privileged to experience films shown in historic theatres and to
have been among the audience reacting.

When "Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood" was shown recently at the 
Los Angeles Orpheum Theatre, I prepared the program notes which appear
below. I offer this as an antidote to Geoffrey OBrien's inaccuracies. In passing,
it should be noted that Fairbanks began his career in vaudeville. Seeing
his film in this venue with the mighty Wurlitzer bellowing out Robert
Israel's scene and gesture sensitive accompaniment, was an early twentieth
century spectacle brought to life in the twenty-first.

"Douglas Fairbanks in Robinhood" (LRS Program Notes)
Everyone who saw Michel Hazanavicus’ Academy Award winning The Artist 
immediately recognized its nostalgic evocation of Doulas Fairbanks and his 
films. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood is the third in a quartet of silent action 
/ adventure films produced by Fairbanks that transformed the motion picture 
industry: The Mark of Zorro - 1920, The Three Musketeers -  1921, Douglas 
Fairbanks in Robin Hood - 1922, and The Thief of Bagdad - 1924.

Although the legendary Robin Hood is famous for stealing from the rich and 
giving to the poor, that is not the theme of this film; it is an action oriented 
romance seasoned with good guy / bad guy plots providing ample opportunities 
for Fairbanks to display his energetic athletic prowess and amazing acrobatic / 
balletic movements.

The plot is set in the court of Richard The Lion-Hearted (England, 1189 - 1199). 
As the film opens, Richard is preparing to depart on The Third Crusade. Among 
the nobles who are to accompany him are: the Earl of Huntingdon (good guy) and 
Sir Guy of Gisbourne (bad guy). Richard’s brother, Prince John (bad guy) is 
designated to stay behind and rule in Richard’s absence.

Prior to Richard’s departure, Huntingdon and Lady Marian Fitzwalter pledge lifelong 
devotion. As a consequence of Gisbourne’s treachery, Richard imprisons Huntingdon. 
The entourage departs. Huntingdon escapes. Joining a band of the dispossessed in 
Sherwood Forest, Huntingdon emerges as Robin Hood. With spectacular feats of 
bravura, Robin Hood and his Merry Men defeat Prince John and Gisbourne. Richard 
returns to claim his throne.  Robin Hood saves Lady Marian from the clutches of 
Gisbourne. With Richard again on his throne, with Prince John and Gisbourne defeated, 
the film ends as Robin Hood and Lady Marian enter their bridal chamber.
Douglas Fairbanks in  Robin Hood was made at the Pickfair Studios (Santa Monica
Blvd. and Formosa). Still standing, it is threatened by a real estate developer.

As producer, Fairbanks demanded perfection in every detail. A detailed replica of a
medieval castle was built. Ever-increasing costs caused Fairbanks older brother John 
(production financial manager) to have a stroke. Final cost was $980,042.28 - more 
than the cost of D.W Griffith’s Intolerance; Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood grossed
over $1.5 million domestically.

Douglas Fairbanks was one of the founders of the USC School of Cinematic Arts. 
A statue of him in swashbuckler attire rises from a fountain in the plaza surrounded
by buildings inscribed with the names of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas.
Below: in the courtyard of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.


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