— Author: Charley Brady —
I was ridiculously pleased – but then again it doesn’t take much to make me happy! – when, just before Christmas, I received a newspaper clipping from a friend in the States. He thought that I would be interested in an article by a journalist called Tim Page and headlined: A Classic of Spare and Silent Realism. It was a short but effective study of King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd, and what made this interesting to me was that it was not appearing in a specialist publication but in The Wall Street Journal. It’s not a newspaper that I would have supposed to be of much interest to non-investors or which itself has been interested in the silent cinema, but I guess that times have changed. And a very good article it was too.
The Crowd only made a small profit, the polar opposite of Vidor’s previous film of three years before, the phenomenally successful The Big Parade. It suffered from being a very realistic film at a time when a ground-down public had no appetite for such fare. Indeed, Mr. Page quotes from a Brooklyn, New York newspaper of the day. The Standard Union:
Why should folks delight to pay to see a drama or a photoplay that throws back to them the ordinary familiar exasperations and vicissitudes, hopes and fears of their troubled existence?
This statement rather makes me suspect that such questions are timeless. Mr. Page himself comes back with a declaration that I would be in complete agreement with:
The answer, at least in the case of The Crowd, is that it was and remains a classic of the first order – perhaps the most powerful silent drama made in the U.S., with tender and vivid performances by the lead actors and Expressionist cinematography that rivaled the best of the European avant-garde.
And here’s one for all of your trivia and pub quiz fans out there in the dark. Hitchcock’s Psycho is often mentioned as being the first film to show a toilet. Not so. King Vidor had gotten there more than thirty years previously – although Psycho was, I believe, the first time that we heard a toilet flush. Now – aren’t your lives enriched by knowing that?
I enjoyed reading this piece because I’ve enjoyed watching silent movies for over fifty years now, and it does my heart good to see so many younger film enthusiasts all over the world becoming interested in the history of the art form that has claimed their passion. You need only look at the attendance and the cross-section of people at Galway’s Silent Cinema each week to see that.
Another indicator of how healthy the current global interest in the silents is are the sheer abundance of websites devoted to them. There are far too many to list here but I’ll just mention two - Silent Era and Silents are Golden. And I single them out simply because they are recommended by my favorite movie blogger: the exquisite, insanely knowledgeable, and deliciously witty Brooklyn gal who calls herself Self-Styled Siren.
And if you want even just a single example of why I love the Siren so much then take a look at the review of Allan Dwan’s 1924 Gloria Swanson vehicle, Manhandled. There is barely a sentence that doesn’t drip with information. AND she’s funny.
I wonder if she’s married.
The big event for me this month is the opening in Ireland of Damien Chazelle’s three-hour and nine-minute epic, Babylon, which chronicles those difficult transitional years when the silents were giving way to talking pictures. Starring Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, it has proved an enormously divisive film in the States, but if you are interested in a candid review then you can read my thoughts, for what they are worth, in Silent Cinema’s film review section.
And since I started this with Tim Page and The Crowd, let me finish with a quote on that film from him:
There is no better introduction to silent film. While teaching a master class in writing about the arts, I discovered that most of my college students had never seen a full silent drama… A majority of them had never even seen a film made in black and white except for the opening minutes of The Wizard of Oz.
And now I was presenting them with 100 minutes of a medium that was both very old and utterly new to them. There was some grumbling as I made, even more, surer than usual that cell phones were silenced… But the students soon found that nothing was missing, and when they all gasped aloud during a particularly powerful scene – involving a shocking incident with the couple’s daughter – I knew they had been captured.
Speaking for myself, I was captured a long, long time ago. But it’s nice to see others now going down that same pleasurable route.