So, the first silent movie since the first silent movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars has just won Best Picture. Read the sentence again if it’s confusing. In 1928, the film Wings won. In 2012, the film The Artist won. In between, it’s all been talkies. Which is neat since The Artist (which I have not had the chance to see yet, I should note) is about a silent film star struggling with the advent of talking pictures.
I’ve heard good things, so I’m going on the high praise and golden reviews (and I DO intend on seeing the film in theatres) so I’m kind of excited that silent films are getting a bit of the limelight. Some of my favourite movies are silent, and my favourite actor of all time had his heyday in silent films: Buster Keaton.
Musically, silent films were not devoid of sound. A live performer or band played along with the visuals. Think about that for a moment. Imagine if every theatre today had a piano or a stage, and someone watched and played along to help set the mood, enhance emotion, tell a story. When people talk about ‘lost artforms,’ that’s the first one that comes to my mind.
There are some talented men and women who still do this today. The name that comes to mind most vividly for me is Nash the Slash, who’s soundtrack to Dali’s ‘Un Chien Andalou’ is beautiful with visuals or without. He still plays live for silent films today here in Toronto.
Charlie Chaplin often wrote his own musical scores. The closest person I can think of who has a similar talent today is John Carpenter. Don’t laugh: the man wrote, directed, wrote the score, and often produced and acted (though generally uncredited). And I’m a lover of all film, so comparing Chaplin to Carpenter isn’t a stretch to me. They both made/make great movies and both wore/wear many hats.
The song ‘Smile,’ which is a part of the great songbook that most people have in their heads even if they have no idea where they first heard it, was written by Chaplin.
Even back in the 20s sound and music were everpresent. Walk through a mall today and try to find stores that don’t have music playing…if you do, I bet they’re REALLY boring stores. The number of times I’ve sat in a bar and wondered “What’s wrong here?” before I noticed that there was no music playing over the speakers…
Watching a film without sound is jarring. So despite being called silent, there was always music. And music played a pivotal role. We need feedback, we need a multi-sensory experience to be truly drawn in, to ‘suspend our disbelief.’ Someone may be crying on screen, but it’s never truly sad until the soft song starts playing.
Do me a favour. This year, watch three silent movies. I’ll even get you started: watch The General by Buster Keaton. Watch The Kid by Charlie Chaplin. And join me at some point in the next month and watch The Artist. If you’ve never put your attention to this artform before do it now. Remind yourself that, over 80 years ago, film and film music were alive and well and just as good as they are today.