“The Silent Roar” at Film Forum (thru Feb 06)

by on November 28, 2011Posted in: Essay

 
 

WHEN MOVIES WERE SILENT, movie-making was anything but. No one called for “quiet on the set” while the cameras cranked. The director would talk his actors through the filming of difficult scenes, guiding every turn of their heads, coaxing every slowly lifted gaze. Most productions had musicians on hand to set the mood and pace — or at least minimize the distraction of studio carpenters banging away on nearby sets — and many actresses had favorite songs they depended on to make them cry. When you watch a silent movie, you can see the traces of this music in the actors’ rhythms: the lilting fluidity of the action, the dance-like stylization of emotion. You can see faces and bodies translating words into moving pictures.

 

The movies in “The Silent Roar,” Film Forum’s ongoing Monday-night series of silent masterpieces from MGM studios, all date from 1924 to 1929, the glorious last half-decade before the coming of sound. While the series includes some director-dominated films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and The Merry Widow, the line-up consists mainly of star vehicles constructed around singular personalities: Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney, and Lillian Gish. Each of these icons presents a case study in silent acting, and taken together, “The Silent Roar” makes for an excellent primer in this lost art. (Or perhaps I should say, nearly lost?) By looking at each of these four actors in turn, we can harness their star wattage to illuminate a few aspects of this rich performing tradition.

 

Few actresses embody the mystery of star power like the enigmatic Swedish beauty Greta Garbo: she gave herself fully to the camera while maintaining a sculptural repose that was as remote as it was magnetic. Buster Keaton was not only a stunningly acrobatic comedian but one of the era’s most mechanically gifted directors, and the two sides of his genius met in his special rapport with the camera; performance and cinematography fuse inseparably in his work. The tragedienne Lilian Gish fused naturalism with the operatic stylization of melodrama to create an electrifying conduit of emotion from screen to audience. Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his uncanny ability to disappear into film make-up and bring to life unforgettable, otherworldly figures. The tragic grotesques he specialized in were the flip side of Hollywood’s sublime beauties; the great silent stars remained always alien, each alone of their kind.

 

 

MGM built its image as the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven,” but it also produced more fallen stars than any other. With its iron-fisted regimentation and often crass efforts to control and reshape actors’ images, MGM blighted the careers of three of the above actors (the fourth died young), and greased the skids for John Gilbert, the most spectacular casualty of Hollywood’s transition to sound.

 

The revolution of the talkies is often misremembered through its comic recreation in Singin’ in the Rain, which, for all its nostalgic affection, made silent films seem antediluvian and silly. Silent-movie acting had been a subject of satire even in the silent era (as in Film Forum’s two screenings of delightful Marion Davies comedies), but the stereotype of overwrought mugging obscures the foundational importance of silent acting, the root from which all film acting grows. Pantomime has always existed, but acting for the camera was an entirely new art, and it developed with stunning rapidity during the pre-sound era. Silent performances run the gamut from frenzied posturing to low-key naturalism, presenting an array of responses to the same challenge: how to speak without making a sound.

 

GRETA GARBO

 

“I would take a scene with Garbo—pretty good,” recalled Clarence Brown, director of Flesh and the Devil (screening November 28th). “I would take it three or four times. It was pretty good, but I was never quite satisfied. When I saw that same scene on the screen, however, it had something that it just didn’t have on the set. Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn’t see until you photographed it in close up. You could see thought.”

 

What’s striking about this comment is how often the gist of it has been repeated by other directors speaking about other actors. Orson Welles later said the exact same thing about Gary Cooper, Richard Fleischer said it about Robert Mitchum, and Byron Haskin said it about Joel McCrea. Each recalled seeing nothing happen on the set, then running the dailies and watching the apparently blank, inert actors fill the screen and “knock you off your seat.” This description goes to the heart of what makes a movie actor: one who understands how to play to the camera, how to use the qualities of the motion picture — magnification, lighting, focus, pacing — to create, rather than merely record, a performance.

 

Cinema acting had existed for around thirty years when Garbo made Flesh and the Devil (1926), her first film with Brown and the film that made her an international superstar. Brown’s style exemplifies the sophistication that had become standard by the height of the silent era: the exhilarating freedom of the constantly tracking camera; the rhythm and expressiveness of the cutting; the visual wit and economy of means. This mature silent style supported the best silent acting, conveying plot points without the need for pantomime or title cards, freeing actors to be more natural and restrained. An example is the film’s famous dueling scene, in which two figures in silhouette—Garbo’s husband and lover—march off either side of the screen, leaving an empty field under two small puffs of smoke; the next thing we see is Garbo, smiling slyly as she tries on mourning veils. Such pithy visuals abound, as in the scene that precipitates the duel, which is neatly reduced to a view of the husband’s hand, clenching in rage, blotting out the camera’s view of the startled lovers.

 


 

Flesh and the Devil’s love scenes are justly legendary. Even today, when the publicity hype about Garbo and John Gilbert’s on-set coup de foudre and tempestuous affair have been long forgotten, the scenes are still surprising in their natural, sensual intimacy: from the palpitating tension of the first through the caressing languor of the second to the fire-lit angst of the third. However passionate Garbo and Gilbert may have been, the scenes owe as much to their lighting: who could fail to fall in love in the dappled grove where leaves shimmer like strings of pearls? When Gilbert strikes a match, throwing a hot white light on their two faces, they literally burn with the desire to kiss.

 

Flesh and the Devil was shot by William Daniels, the cameraman on more than twenty of Garbo’s American films. Here was a magician in the service of an enchantress. Any actor can be lit well, but to be able to absorb and use that light, so that it appears to come from the face, rather than be projected on it, is a rare gift, which no one possessed to a greater degree than Garbo. It’s hard to analyze such a seemingly mystical quality, but Garbo had, in addition to an expert knowledge of how to present herself to the camera, an elevated and by all accounts exhausting concentration that made her the radiant center of every scene. When she stands by a window and the shadows of raindrops run over her skin, she acts through the effect, both maximizing its seductiveness and savoring its suggestion of Scandinavian melancholy.

 

 

The love scenes in Garbo’s films are in a way like the dances in Astaire-Rogers movies, verdant islands rising above an ocean of choppy and tedious plot. But Garbo never found an actor who could provide the perfect rapport that Astaire found in Rogers — not even in Gilbert. Her tendency to make men look ridiculous diminishes her love stories; Garbo’s leading men spend much of their time drawing themselves up rigid and staring bug-eyed at her. That they are out of their depth is almost the whole point. The real subject of Garbo’s films is not love, in any sense that ordinary mortals experience it, but a kind of ecstasy (half-sexual, half-spiritual) that Garbo alone achieves. She’s so magnificently alien, so out of all proportion with her foolish and hackneyed settings, that she wears from the outset a fundamental separateness and solitude.

 

This aloofness was implicit in Garbo’s performances before it was made overt in her famous line from Grand Hotel, “I want to be alone,” and long before her post-film career as a camera-shunning recluse. Garbo’s silent films devised various would-be tragic reasons for her to not wind up with her leading men, but no scripted scenario could admit to the real tragedy: Hollywood’s inability to produce an actor who was her equal. Though handsomely crafted, Garbo’s MGM silents are, with few exceptions, pure tripe. They follow a dispiritingly repetitive pattern, as she is forced to suffer and sacrifice herself for the moth-like males who blame her for their singed wings. Flesh and the Devil has the most ludicrously punitive ending of all, but its creaking Victorian sentimentality and prurient misogyny are par for the course.
 

 

A small improvement is 1929’s The Kiss (January 30th), Garbo’s last silent film and, indeed, the last silent studio program picture made in America. This stylish if trite little movie serves as nothing more than a frame for Garbo, and she wears it like a gown. Just twenty-three, she is infinitely weary and worldly, her eyelids drooping under the weight of their lashes, tiny furrows of pain continually coursing beneath her marble face. In addition to a jealous, gouty older husband and a young lover (the pallid Conrad Nagel), Garbo’s idle socialite Irene Guarry must contend with the puppyish ardor of a college boy (Lew Ayres, in his film debut, was only three years younger than Garbo, but on screen the gap between them seems enormous.) When she magnanimously bestows a goodbye kiss on him, the besotted youth loses his head, and her husband walks in to witness a less innocent-looking tussle.

 

When Irene goes on trial for killing her husband (we don’t find out until the end who really did it), a montage of newspaper photographs and courtroom sketches conveys her notoriety while playing on the spellbinding power of her movie-star image. The real masterpieces of Garbo’s career were not any of her films but the portraits of her made by Clarence Sinclair Bull, Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton. These men — like William Daniels, Mauritz Stiller (her first mentor and Svengali), and the MGM costume designer Adrian — all formed, refined and captured her image, without touching her essential aloofness. Beaton’s photographs, made in his Plaza Hotel suite in 1946, half a decade after she left the screen, capture better than any the paradox of her need to both hide and display herself, to seduce and to withdraw. In his lens she alternately blossoms in the warmth of her own desirability and retreats behind the frozen perfection of her profile, a haunting spectacle of unbroachable solitude.

 

Garbo finds the stillness at the heart of moving pictures, bringing time to a swooning, intoxicated halt. She’s not an artist of action, but of being. Her physicality, her tactile and sensual immediacy, are overwhelming, yet she is the most immaterial of movie stars, a pure creature of light and shadow. A shot from The Kiss, with Garbo in tight close-up gazing into the camera as into a mirror, applying her make-up, is meaningless yet breathtaking, as the camera is nearly swallowed up in the luminous depths of her face. What Garbo did to the camera—or was it what the camera did to Garbo?—is one of cinema’s enduring mysteries.

 

BUSTER KEATON

 

If Garbo responded to the camera as to a lover, for Buster Keaton the camera was an alter ego. He had an innate affinity for the machine, from the first time he visited Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Manhattan movie studio in 1917 and “all but climbed inside” the Bell & Howell (in the words of biographer Rudi Blesh), taking the apparatus apart and reassembling it until he understood its inner workings. Arbuckle once said that Keaton “lived in the camera.” Despite his stage background, he had a singularly cinematic imagination; his reserved, economical acting style and intuitive genius for lucid, streamlined action were made for the camera. As a result, the qualities of Keaton as a performer are exactly the same as the qualities of his movies.

 

He made a valentine to the machine he loved in 1928’s The Cameraman (December 26th), his first film at MGM — after his producer, Joseph Schenck, dissolved his independent studio and sold his contract — and his last masterpiece. He plays a street tintypist who buys a beat-up movie camera and struggles to become a newsreel photographer, all in the hopes of impressing a pretty secretary (Marceline Day). In this role Keaton obeys the dictate of the Soviet avant-gardist Dziga Vertov: “The man with the camera…must exert his powers of observation, quickness and agility to the utmost to keep pace with life’s fleeting phenomena.” Like all of Keaton’s silent films, The Cameraman is a watchmaker’s ballet, revealing timing as not only the essence of comedy, but the expression of inner grace.

 

When cameras were muffled to shoot talkies, Keaton said he missed the rhythmic grinding of the crank, which he had used as a metronome. (His rhythm is also in the cutting of his films, which Keaton did himself.) As he scrambles down the stairs of his boarding house, or trudges dejectedly back up, all of his soul is in the pace of his feet and the angle of his body. His meticulously choreographed actions are enhanced by the way the camera follows him up and down on the specially-built cutaway set: gesture, staging and cinematography work in three-part harmony to create the scene and get the laugh. A phone call releases him into an ecstatic, arrow-in-flight sprint through the streets of Manhattan, bringing him to his girl’s doorstep before she’s hung up the receiver. Silent film allowed time to be elastic, subordinate to Keaton’s own timing. The absence of sound made pratfalls look weightless, and enabled crystalline refinements of slapstick, as in the film’s famous changing-room scene, a precise pas de deux of mounting chaos and frustration. With sound, physical comedy became the “dumb” brother of smart talk, but silent comedians like Keaton display intelligence in action.

 

 

Keaton punctuates action with moments of perfect stillness, as when, in The Cameraman, the girl he’s just rescued goes off with his cowardly rival, mistaking him for her hero: Buster sinks to his knees, his face averted, the slump of his back articulating contained yet abject defeat. This excruciating scene is cut short before it can descend into tear-jerking: the camera saves us by pulling back to reveal Buster’s camera saving him, thanks to his clever, troublemaking monkey (the brilliant Josephine, a better actor than many humans in silent film) who cranks away, capturing the truth. But the scene leaves no doubt that Keaton could pierce hearts if he wanted to. That audiences of the time called him the Great Stone Face — or, in other countries, variations on “a blank piece of paper” or “the hole in the doughnut” — suggests that his underacting was so ahead of its time that people literally couldn’t see it. A later reaction against sentimentality and melodrama led people to praise him, wrongly, for his cool refusal of emotion.

 

But Keaton was never emotionless, he was merely able to hold his feelings at bay. It’s the tension between his stoic façade and the depth of feeling behind it that makes him moving. Stoicism lies at the heart of his humor: just as he favored wide shots over close-ups, his gaze had “that built-in distance; it keeps us at arm’s length,” as the French film critic Robert Benayoun wrote. Keaton’s face was never blank; it could express through minimal changes terror, anger, embarrassment, bliss. In The Cameraman we often see his eyes juxtaposed with a camera lens, soulful and fathomless above the unblinking aperture.

 

 

We always know what Keaton is thinking, but there’s something else in his face, an enigma that is never resolved or diminished. An interviewer in 1921 described him as “infinitely more sphinx-like than the sphinx ever thought of being.” His deadpan is impenetrable yet full, mesmerizing as the famous extended close-up at the end of Queen Christina, for which the director instructed Garbo (the “Swedish sphinx”) to think of nothing. Keaton’s silence transcends the absence of sound in his films; the technology of silent cinema becomes an expression of his character, his dogged determination to keep his own counsel.

 

The Keaton riddle baffled MGM, where no one understood his screen character, and the delicate balance of his serious comedy was fatally upset. The studio’s producers and directors looked at his face and saw the mask of a sad clown, so they painted it on him at the end of his first talkie, Free and Easy. Because he did pratfalls they concluded that he was a bumbler, a klutz; because he was short and played the underdog, they cast him as a pathetic loser. Worst of all, they refused to acknowledge that he was a director and denied him any creative control over his films. Keaton was not alone in finding MGM’s starry heavens a personal hell. When he returned to the studio as a lowly gag writer in the forties, Keaton whiled away the hours building Rube Goldberg contraptions that expressed his feelings about MGM. One smashed walnuts with a miniature pile-driver; another raised the Venetian blinds while firing off a pistol, playing “Hail to the Chief,” and hoisting a picture of Louis B. Mayer. Who knew a machine could be sarcastic?

 

LON CHANEY

 
Given MGM’s habit of mauling its stars, it is apt that in the 1924 Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped, the first movie to feature the studio’s pompous “Ars Gratia Artis” logo, Leo the lion devours an actor.

 

He Who Gets Slapped takes the cliché of the “sad clown” to a disturbing, pathological extreme, reducing comedy to an impulse to laugh at the sufferings of others. Chaney plays a scientist who is cheated out of his life’s work and humiliated with a slap, and who reacts by becoming a clown whose wildly popular act consists of being smacked around and degraded. The film is typical of the vivid streak of masochism that runs through Lon Chaney’s career, exhibited in his willingness to endure pain to create his effects of deformity — binding his limbs to play an amputee, wearing excruciating facial prostheses, or permanently damaging his sight by covering one eye to simulate semi-blindness. But it was also projected in the cruelty of his stories, many of which drive single-mindedly toward some moment of intense psychic torture. With director Tod Browning (Freaks) as his partner in crime, Chaney brought the lurid, morbid atmosphere of the carny to Hollywood. Has any other actor achieved such stardom by exploiting audiences’ fascination with twisted bodies, hideous faces, and the far reaches of human misery and sadism?

 

Chaney’s acting style was shaped by his trademark ability to transform his face and body, playing cripples, amputees, and the monstrously deformed. His acting in some films, like Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, has a kabuki aspect, as he uses what is essentially a rigid mask. But his own craggy, seamy face was his most spectacular special effect, and films in which it’s unencumbered by make-up allow greater range for his operatically heightened acting. There’s nothing interior or understated about his style: like the worst silent film actors, he overacts and “makes faces,” but achieves a riveting, often grotesque magnificence where others merely prompt embarrassed titters.

 

The most impressive thing about the “man of a thousand faces” was his ability to wear four or five at once. His specialty was the extended “aria” in which his expressions change like colored transparencies, overlapping to create strange blendings and collisions of emotion. Browning’s 1927 The Unknown (January 16th), which features one of Chaney’s most varied performances and arguably his most sadistic story, builds to a tour de force scene that contains the film’s whole purpose—to confront Chaney with the most savage irony imaginable and see what he does.

 

 

The gloriously weird premise has Chaney as an armless carnival performer in love with a girl who has a hysterical fear of men’s hands. In their act, he hurls knives at her with his toes, and uses a rifle to shoot off her dress. Their weird yet tender symbiotic relationship marks a high point in Chaney’s on-screen relationship with the fair sex, which consistently followed a beauty-and-the-beast template that has him losing the object of his desire to a bland rival. In The Unknown, he suffers from the dilemma of actually having arms, which he keeps tightly bound under a corset that is laced and unlaced by his devoted dwarf sidekick. He poses as Alonzo the Armless to hide the freakish double thumb that marks him as a famous criminal, but also to gain the trust of Nanon (Joan Crawford), who can’t bear to be pawed.

 

He is thus playing a man whose life is a performance, an opportunity for Chaney to play with transformations and deceptions—the false smile, the concealed sorrow, the hatred lurking beneath benevolence. Around Nanon, Alonzo is tender, vulnerable and charming: strumming a guitar with his feet, slyly offering his toe-prints to a policeman who comes to investigate one of his crimes. (A real armless man acted as a foot double for scenes in which Chaney smokes or eats with his toes.) When he realizes that it would be impossible for him to marry Nanon without giving away his secret, Alonzo decides to have his arms amputated. He returns from the operation only to find that she has overcome her phobia and plans to marry the carnival strong man.

 

As the truth dawns on him, Chaney’s face starts to twitch and contort with rage, then goes into a horrible rictus of a grin. With his teeth drawn back and his eyes glazed over with tears, he looks on stupefied as Nanon leans back into her fiancé’s arms and caresses his hands. He launches into hysterical laughter, his face creasing into a ghoulish death’s head, his eyes squeezing into slits and seeming to sink into his head, glinting with pure mania. Then his face freezes, eyes starting out with whites above the irises, mouth agape, and his teeth close and grind together, muscles working, until finally he throws his head back with a howl and collapses. Revived, he weeps, wiping his eyes with his toes, blinking bravely and looking nobly tragic.

 

 

The precision with which Chaney delineates the stages of his melt-down would be difficult to achieve with the addition of sound, which would distract from the shadings of his facial expressions and make it awkward to sustain such an elongated moment of wordless reaction. More importantly, such an eruption of feeling would be harder to take without the distance and the stylization of silence. Like opera or ballet, silent film can rise to a melodramatic intensity that, with the greater realism of sound film, would likely become ranting, abrasive or comical. It’s in the moments where words fail that silent acting blossoms. The inadequacy of words is hilariously manifest when Nanon, in response to Alonzo’s hysteria, remarks in a title card, “Alonzo is laughing at the way everything has happened.”

 

Chaney, who made only one talkie (a remake of his terrific silent The Unholy Three) before dying of a throat infection, was famously the child of deaf parents, and attributed his gift for pantomime to his need to communicate with them. It’s this need to communicate without words that defines silent acting: when it fails, people mouth and emote frantically, as though beating against a pane of glass, unable to get their message across.

 

A few actors, like Keaton and Garbo, had a near-mystical ability to reveal their thoughts to the camera without overt pantomime. Chaney’s style, by contrast, exemplifies something like what in Indian temple dance is called abhinaya, the codified art of “carrying emotion to the audience” via minutely calibrated facial movements and gestures. In his ability to summon and maintain technical control over firestorms of emotion, Chaney resembles Lillian Gish, perhaps the greatest virtuoso of the silent aria. The directness of their appeal is unfamiliar to latter-day audiences, and it can seem simultaneously remote and uncomfortably visceral. They don’t ask much of audiences—they just want your soul.

 

LILLIAN GISH
 

The central motif of 1928’s The Wind (December 5th) is a sound effect we can’t hear. The film, beautifully directed by Victor Seastrom, uses two methods to make us “hear” the perpetually howling wind that steadily drives the heroine insane. One is shots of dust blowing against cabin walls and hurling itself against window-panes. The other is Lillian Gish widening her eyes. She uses this effect consistently throughout the film: whenever her character is conscious of the pounding wind, her upper eyelids draw back, revealing whites like those of a frightened horse, and her face freezes. The stylized reactions punctuate a performance that is remarkable for its naturalism, restraint and inwardness. The whole film follows her lead, balancing minutely detailed realism with heightened lyricism.

 

That the wind can only be “heard” by Gish is appropriate, since it represents her private torment, the acute sensitivity and emotional fragility that set her apart. Her character, Letty, is a delicate young woman from Virginia who travels to the spectacularly inhospitable desert to live with her cousin and his family. She is a woman isolated and defenseless in hostile, alien surroundings; constantly impinged on, crowded, bullied by the elements and by the people around her. Gish’s body, slender as a reed, looks almost unbearably frail and vulnerable as it is battered by wind and sandstorms and menaced by men. In fact, she was well named by Charles Laughton the “iron butterfly,” since during filming of The Wind she endured 120 degree heat and the dust-filled blasts of eight airplane motors.

 

Gish is meticulously honest about Letty’s passivity and naïvité, and though she was 36 she successfully plays much younger. She is flattered by the attentions of an obviously predatory salesman, Roddy (the continually smirking Montague Love, who in his first scene suggestively thrusts a bruised banana at her), just as she disdainful of the grubby, illiterate, but good-hearted cowboys who court her. She’s pushed into a crisis by the jealousy of her cousin’s wife, which is unfair yet understandable: in one scene, the large, dour ranch wife is butchering a steer, and watches with anguish as her children, frightened by her bloody hands, run to the pretty guest instead. Fiercely possessive of her weak husband, she forces Letty out of the house, leaving her with no choice but to marry Lige (Lars Hanson), the younger and handsomer of her two cowboy swains.

 

Their wedding night is among the most perfect scenes of silent drama. Through intimate, mundane details it builds a painful tension, and the flawless performances of Gish and Hanson tear the viewer’s sympathy between them. (Hanson, who could give stiff and overemphatic performances, was never better or more attractive.) Letty, entering the crude home of a man she barely knows, is terrified, and tries vainly to hide her revulsion with politeness. The eager and happily oblivious Lige fumbles toward the cruel realization that his bride shrinks from him. He makes coffee that she can’t drink and furtively pours into a basin. She finds dust on the bedspread. He is aroused by the sight of her combing her waist-length hair. Every gesture and movement ratchets up the anxiety as the quiet disaster builds to its inevitable conclusion.

 

 

Forever associated with her roles in D.W. Griffith films, Gish seemed old-fashioned by the late twenties not because of her acting style but because she embodied passive, acted-upon femininity. In her signature scenes, she cowers in a closet (Broken Blossoms), lies unconscious on a block of ice (Way Down East), or — in The Wind — huddles in a cabin during a storm. In this delirious, nightmarish scene, everything in the room shivers and rattles as the wind tries to find its way in, blasting through a pane of glass and setting the lamp swinging, causing the shadows to lurch and then blur into woozy distortion as she starts to pass out. During the storm Roddy comes back and, collapsing the allegory of the wind and threatening male sexuality, rapes her. Griffith would never have allowed Letty to shoot her attacker, as she does, leading to the film’s most iconic image, as she gazes in demented horror from the window, scraping the glass with claw-like fingers, as the wind uncovers his body in its shallow grave.

 

In The Wind’s original ending, Letty wandered off to die in the desert. Gish was deeply disappointed that the studio, responding to audience criticism, forced them to tack on an unrealistically abrupt and happy ending. This defeat was ominous. Gish had been granted considerable independence and control over The Wind, choosing the story, director and co-star. She had just made The Scarlet Letter (January 9th) with Seastrom and Hanson, whom she had chosen after seeing The Saga of Gösta Berling, the film that brought Garbo to Hollywood’s attention. But with the coming of sound, MGM sought to rein in or shed its most highly-paid and powerful stars—so at least claimed Louise Brooks in her controversial essay “Gish and Garbo.” Outmaneuvered by the studio, Gish finally and reluctantly made her talkie debut in One Romantic Night (1930), a notorious bore that sent her fleeing to the theater.

 

THE MYTH OF SILENT STARS who were undone by inadequate voices persists, but the real challenge was the change from one art form to another. The gulf between the soaring poetry of late silent films and stiff, stage-bound early talkies was too great for some to leap. Sound brought movies down to earth and up to date. Audiences who had swooned at John Gilbert’s burning eyes howled with laughter when he spoke lines like, “Beauteous maiden, my arms are waiting to enfold you,” or his death-knell, “I love you, I love you, I love you…” It was this clumsy attempt to carry over his silent persona that destroyed him, not a high-pitched voice or even the antagonism of Louis B. Mayer — though the latter surely helped. Of all the great silent stars, only Garbo was able to make the transition without any fundamental change, her mystery intact. Eventually she too found the studio warping her character, as Keaton had bitterly put it. Humiliated by the defacing of her image in Two-Faced Woman, she never made another film.

 

As talkies found their feet, they became movies again, rediscovering the art that evolved in silent film: expressive camerawork, fluid cutting, cinematic performances. Robert Mitchum once expounded on his theory of film acting, pinpointing how radically it differs from stage acting. The secret, he said, was to “steal the reality of the props and set the pace of the pictures.” The lines you say are secondary, he explained: if people believe in your reality, your interactions with your environment, they’ll believe whatever you say. The way you move and inhabit space allows you to dominate the screen.

 

This lesson was demonstrated by the first actors who learned how to be natural in front of the camera, how to let the audience read their thoughts, using the close-up as a generation of “crooners” like Bing Crosby used the microphone to communicate with the masses intimately and privately. It is embedded in the performances even of quintessential talking stars: in James Cagney’s driving tempo and staccato rhythms, in Barbara Stanwyck’s arresting stillness and the force of her unwavering gaze. Silent actors didn’t need to know how to speak, but talking actors have to know how to be silent. All movie stars have to learn what the first ones did, how to live on the screen, how to make us see music in their movements, and hear words that they don’t speak.

 

Imogen Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City.
 
“The Silent Roar: Metro Goldyn Mayer, 1924-1929” is playing at Film Forum, Mondays through February 6th.

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