I can’t quite be sure exactly when I fell properly in love with silent cinema, but I do remember I was hooked on the stuff when I was still at secondary school and getting up at 5:30 in the mornings just to watch old silent (and occasional B&W talkie) movie re-runs on the BBC before their breakfast programming started. Subsequently I’ve been a fan of Charlie Chaplin for a good number of years – I’ve read his biography, his autobiography, enjoyed the Richard Attenborough biopic and bought the rather expensive DVD box set.
And it’s Chaplin that clearly inspires The Artist in which silent screen star George Valentin, at the height of his fame, is forced to confront his pride and arrogance during the start of the new era of talking movies.
Chaplin suffered similar anxieties about the coming of sound, but rather than merely fade into obscurity – Chaplin embraced it – little by little, mind, but embraced it he did. Indeed, it was one scene in City Lights that a blind flower girl mistakenly identifies the Little Tramp as a rich client. To achieve that effect, Chaplin used the sound of a car door slamming as the Tramp, attempting to escape from the police, climbs through a car – going in one side and coming out the other. His early “talkies” placed priority on using sound effects and musical score way above that of any recorded dialogue, although in subsequent films (leading up to full talkies such as the likes of Limelight, The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdeoux) some dialogue can be heard.
Getting back to The Artist, our protagonist Valentin, however, is absolutely adamant that talkies aren’t for him and resigns from the studio. He even attempts to finance his own film (which he writes and directs), but all the while his former admirer Peppy Miller (love that name!) is making it big as a talkie star. While Peppy becomes more and more popular, George begins a big downwards spiral into obscurity and depression.
When the stock market of 1929 all but wipes out his finances, he is forced to sell his mansion and move into a small apartment with his butler, Clifton and his small dog (played by the wonderful Uggie). Things come to a head when he sets fire to his apartment, destroying all his old films except one (in which features him in a scene dancing with Peppy in her first ever movie role). George is eventually rescued by neighbours (after Uggie races down the street to try and alert the neighbour policeman) and is sent to hospital where Peppy hears about his fate and ends up taking him into her own home where he’s looked after by private nurses.
Peppy, all the while, had been secretly been buying up all of George’s old furniture from his mansion and keeping it safe in her own home. She even convinces the studio boss to rehire George for a talkie and sends him the script. But he is enraged – especially when he finds out about the furniture – and then in a fit of anger and depression drives to his burnt out apartment and tries to kill himself by gunshot. Peppy rushes to stop him and .. well, that would be telling.
The Artist is a masterpiece of storytelling. A visual treat combined with a wonderful orchestral score and title cards. It goes to show that you don’t need any dialogue to tell a good story.
I cannot recommend The Artist enough. I absolutely bloody love it to pieces.