Monday, May 20, 2013

Movie Monday: The Silent Edition

People don't really pay much attention to silent films these days. To be truthful, there are people now who won't even watch black and white films. It's got to be in color, with lots of loud explosions and chase scenes and casts of thousands (even if most of the thousands are computer-generated these days, rather than being actual human beings).

On the other hand, an argument can be made in favor of black and white, silent films. This is one of those arguments, one of the best:

That is a scene from Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928), and it is amazing. I had read about this film for years and didn't believe the hype. Then, a few years ago I got to see the film in a showing on Turner Classic Movies. It was late at night. I didn't think, going in, that I would be able to stay awake for the whole movie. And then it began, and I was entranced. I can't really describe the film. You have to see it.

I'd been interested in silent films even before I saw "The Passion of Joan of Arc", but it was mostly an historical interest. I would have rather read about the silents than watched them. I mean, really. A lot of silent films are odd to watch after seeing films as they are today. But some of that sometimes has to do with technical issues, including films that are shown at different frame-per-second rates than they were filmed in, which can make the movement in them look unnatural. Additionally, the acting can look, well, silly; exaggerated and melodramatic. Part of that is the convention of the time, and part of it is probably the natural exaggeration of stage acting, which was where many film actors came from. This includes Maria (or Renee, depending on the source you consult) Falconetti, who played Joan in Dreyer's film.

Although Dreyer's next film, after "The Passion of Joan of Arc", was a sound film, it was made very much like a silent film, with little dialogue and with dialogue cards as were used in the silents. That film was "Vampyr" (1932), a horror film that is just as amazing in its own way as was "The Passion of Joan of Arc". Vampyr, with it's visual effects and story (taken from a Sheridan Le Fanu story), is a unique visual experience. Notable for the time, it was shot entirely on location rather than in the controlled environment of a studio:

Another of my favorite silent films is one I happened on quite by accident, again late one night on TCM. I started watching, intending to just watch for a little while and then go to bed. I ended up watching the whole film not that it was that long, just over an hour. This was "The Unknown", from 1927, directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney, Sr. (not to be confused with his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., who, among other roles, played the Wolf Man several times in various films).

If you recognize Browning's name, that's probably because he also directed "Dracula" (1931) - yes, that one, with Bela Lugosi - as well as the cult film "Freaks" (1932). And, if you don't recognize Lon Chaney's name, you've been missing out on some of the classics of silent film, with "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923). But those are just the most remembered of some 162 films (according to IMDB), some of them lost and only one of them a sound film, and that a remake of an earlier silent film he had starred in.

The thing about "The Unknown" is that it is incredibly dark. It is the story of Alonzo the Armless, and that's all I'll say about that because I want you to see it, and to experience it the way I did, knowing nothing about the film. Chaney's performance in the film might seem melodramatic to those of us used to seeing acting in today's films, but Burt Lancaster, not a bad actor himself, has called this performance by Chaney "the most emotionally compelling" performance ever put on film. And Joan Crawford, who starred opposite Chaney in "The Unknown", has been quoted as saying that she learned more about acting from watching him work on this film than from any other experience in her career.

Really. Go see a silent film. You can find some of them in their entirety on YouTube, including both "The Unknown" and "The Passion of Joan of Arc".

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