Silent film goes back to basics for surprise hit

In a world of 3D blockbusters and surround sound, a silent, black and white movie has taken cinemas by storm. How has something so simple and old-fashioned done so well?

For director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist was a big risk. In a world of 3D technology, special effects and computer animation, the prospects for a silent, black-and-white melodrama did not look bright.

This soundless film, however, is making a big noise. With a host of awards, rave reviews, and impressive audience figures, it is becoming more popular than its eccentric creator ever hoped.

Set in 1927, The Artist centres on George Valentin, a successful silent movie star, and unknown actress Peppy Miller. The pair embark on a romance – but as the arrival of sound in cinema makes Peppy a celebrity, the new talkies mark the end of George’s career.

In the early 20th Century, this was not an unusual story. Back in the 1920s, sound couldn’t be used in film, and silent movies were big business. Actors like Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson were huge stars, and people flocked to watch cinema’s stylised melodramas, always accompanied by live music.

People thought sound was just a fad when The Jazz Singer became the first successful talkie in 1927. But two years later, the last commercially successful silent movie had already been produced. The stars of the era – who often looked much better than they sounded – faded into obscurity.

In the years since, some 1920s gems like Fritz Lang’s surrealist sci-fi epic Metropolis have achieved a cult following. But these are exceptions, and silent film has languished at the margins of cinema – until now.

The Artist’s director believes silent movies have plenty to offer the cinema world. ‘In this genre everything is in the image, in the organisation of the signals you’re sending to the audience,’ he says.

‘It makes you tell the story in a very special way...what I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it, and be aware that’s what it is – a show’.

Freedom or limitation?

By avoiding sound, is The Artist just missing out? Filmmakers now have an amazing selection of tools, and abandoning one just restricts their ability to communicate a moving message or story. A movie without dialogue, some say, is like a cake without eggs – more difficult to make, and definitely less delicious.

Restriction, others say, actually contributes to the power of art. Ballet tells passionate stories through precise, formal movements. In a haiku huge ideas or emotions are crafted into a tight, delicate structure. In the same way, silent films use limited tools – gesture, music and visuals – carefully and creatively. By recreating life in this unfamiliar, beautiful frame, they create something more moving and artistic than special effects and explosions.

You Decide

  1. Why would anyone choose to watch a silent movie instead of one with dialogue?
  2. Do limitations help us express ourselves better?

Activities

  1. Play a game of silent movie charades. Have everyone write a scenario on a piece of paper and place it in a hat. In pairs, pick out a scenario and mime it to the rest of the class.
  2. Design your own storyboard for a silent movie, based on a plot you are already familiar with, or an original idea. Think carefully about what your want to communicate, and how it can be conveyed using limited tools.

Some People Say...

“Modern technology has ruined the art of cinema.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about silent movies?
Trust us – everyone is going to be talking aboutThe Artist. And silent movies could be getting more popular, too. Next year, a new film called Silent Life, based on the life of silent movie star Rudolph Valentino, will be released. It could be the first in a whole host of new, modern silent films.
Why bother with different forms, like silent film? Harry Potter is enough for me...
People have always felt that different artistic forms can help us to communicate and understand our experiences better. Coleridge said tight structures in poetry help it ‘check the passions’, making our emotions easier to understand. And different forms of film frame experiences and ideas in new ways, too, giving us a fresh perspective on our everyday lives.

Word Watch

Melodrama
An extravagant play or film, which exaggerates acting and emotions. In the past, melodramas were plays interspersed with music, and the word comes from the Greek melos meaning song.
Talkies
In 1927, the first commercial film with sound – or ‘talkie’ – was released. Before this, sound and pictures for films had to be played separately, and fitting the two together was very difficult. The major advances in combining the two came from fitting sound with the film reel itself.
Charlie Chaplin
In a long career that began before the First World War, Charlie Chaplin was one of the biggest actors in the world. A comedian who did well in silent films and talkies, his biggest films included The Tramp and The Great Dictator, in which he parodied Hitler.
Metropolis
Directed by Fritz Lang and released in 1927, Metropolis is a silent science fiction movie set in a futuristic city, which explores the Marxist relationship between workers and owners. In 2010, the movie was restored and rediscovered, to popular acclaim.
Haiku
A traditional Japanese poem with 17 syllables, arranged across lines in a 5-7-5 pattern. Popular amongst Western Modernist and Beat Generation poets as well as Japanese writers, the form commonly takes nature themes as a subject.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.