Segues in reel time

Mark Jud­dery sees par­al­lels be­tween present- day fears over cin­ema’s fu­ture and the last gasp of the silent era

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WITH all our new toys — Xbox, the web, house­hold plasma screens — it’s be­com­ing tougher for the film in­dus­try to lure au­di­ences to the cin­ema. Af­ter all, it’s sim­ple ( if un­eth­i­cal) to down­load the latest films and watch them on our big- screen tele­vi­sions with­out pay­ing a cent. Re­mark­ably, box- of­fice tak­ings have risen since 2005, but how long can the in­dus­try sus­tain this? The fu­ture of film is any­one’s guess.

Still, Hol­ly­wood has been through it all be­fore, 80 years ago. Dur­ing the 1920s, au­di­ences were dis­tracted by a new toy, the ra­dio. Mean­while, moral cam­paign­ers, fum­ing about the de­prav­ity of film, were scaring fam­i­lies from the cin­ema. Spec­u­la­tion was strong that, af­ter 25 years, film was on the way out.

Des­per­ate to re­tain their au­di­ences, stu­dios em­braced the tech­nol­ogy at great ex­pense. Look­ing at the profit- loss de­tails, you could as­sume that Warner Bros was nearly bank­rupt by 1926. In fact, the stu­dio was in­vest­ing in talk­ing pic­tures, adding a sound­track to the pre­vi­ously silent medium.

In all, it would spend $ 5 mil­lion de­vel­op­ing this tech­nol­ogy, the equiv­a­lent of about $ 62 mil­lion to­day. The first talkie, the cel­e­brated The Jazz Singer ( 1927), was ba­si­cally a silent film with a few mo­ments of syn­chro­nised sound and im­pro­vised di­a­logue.

But ev­ery­thing changed in 1928, per­haps the most im­por­tant year in film his­tory. Warner’s first all- talk­ing film, Lights of New York , was a huge suc­cess. The Singing Fool , its most pop­u­lar film at that time, in­tro­duced Al Jol­son’s song Sonny Boy . It sold an un­prece­dented three mil­lion copies, sug­gest­ing films could sell records just as eas­ily as ra­dio.

Other stu­dios fol­lowed Warner’s lead: they were wired for sound and the stars pro­vided with di­a­logue coaches.

To­day, as in 1928, stu­dios are em­brac­ing new tech­nol­ogy. The ris­ing box- of­fice tak­ings of the past two years are due partly to ef­fects- driven block­busters, and Star Wars cre­ator Ge­orge Lu­cas led the push for cine­mas to go dig­i­tal. Yet the in­dus­try des­per­a­tion made 1928 an im­por­tant year for an­other rea­son, as Hol­ly­wood at­tempted to lure au­di­ences with an­other gim­mick: qual­ity. It even de­vised the Academy Awards to pro­mote qual­ity cin­ema.

There was plenty of qual­ity on of­fer as the silent era pro­vided its fi­nal mas­ter­pieces. Ideally, the 1928 Os­car nom­i­nees would have been much like the latest crop, with a group of gloomy but su­perb films com­pet­ing for best pic­ture: King Vi­dor’s The Crowd , Vic­tor Seas­trom’s The Wind , Carl Dreyer’s The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc . Any of them would have been a de­serv­ing win­ner, but not one was nom­i­nated.

Just as the 2008 Os­cars hon­oured Mar­ion Cotil­lard’s por­trayal of Edith Piaf, the 1928 awards should have awarded an ob­scure French­woman for play­ing a great French­woman. The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc was Re­nee Fal­conetti’s first ( and, sadly, her only) film per­for­mance, con­sist­ing mainly of close- ups as she por­trayed Joan’s fi­nal hours with tor­tured in­ten­sity.

Bri­tish critic Ken Wlaschin later called it ‘‘ the great­est sin­gle per­for­mance in the his­tory of the cin­ema’’, adding ( with good rea­son) that Dreyer’s film was ‘‘ the great­est work of the silent era’’.

Nat­u­rally, the Academy ig­nored it, and would have done so even if it hadn’t been French. Ea­ger to pro­mote a fam­ily- friendly im­age, it avoided any­thing so de­press­ing. This year’s best pic­ture, No Coun­try for Old Men, wouldn’t have stood a chance. If you pre­fer com­edy, 1928 was still a great year: Char­lie Chap­lin’s The Cir­cus , Buster Keaton’s The Cam­era­man and Steam­boat Bill Jr , Harold Lloyd’s Speedy . Two of the best satires turned the cam­eras on Hol­ly­wood. Josef von Sternberg, not known for his hu­mour, di­rected The Last Com­mand, star­ring the great Ger­man ac­tor Emil Jan­nings as a Tsarist gen­eral re­duced to play­ing Hol­ly­wood ex­tras.

Mean­while, Vi­dor di­rected Show Peo­ple , prov­ing that he could do com­edy as well as drama. In this ob­ser­vant satire of ’ 20s Hol­ly­wood ( com­plete with nu­mer­ous star cameos, 65 years be­fore The Player ), the won­der­ful Mar­ion Davies plays a pre­ten­tious star­let, do­ing un­canny im­per­son­ations of other Hol­ly­wood stars with­out say­ing a word. In an­other year, Show Peo­ple might have been Hol­ly­wood’s best com­edy. In 1928, it was just one of the master­works.

Of course, not all the ac­tion was in Hol­ly­wood. In a man­i­festo, the Ad­vent of Sound Film, lead­ing Soviet direc­tors warned that cin­ema would turn into bad theatre, though they con­ceded that it could work if film­mak­ers ex­er­cised a ‘‘ bru­tal con­cor­dance of sound and im­age’’.

The ar­ti­cle’s most renowned au­thor, Sergei Eisen­stein, re­leased the pow­er­ful Oc­to­ber that year. It was made for the 10th an­niver­sary of the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion, but ex­tra work — such as re­duc­ing 49km of footage to 2km and tak­ing out all ref­er­ences to Leon Trot­sky — had de­layed it.

The Wed­ding March , Street An­gel , The Docks of New York , Zvenig­ora , even Mickey Mouse’s first film, Plane Crazy : 1928 stands out as a vin­tage year for movies, as film­mak­ers sought to prove their worth, brac­ing them­selves for the in­evitable tran­si­tion to talkies. Many would do equally well in the sound era, but film­mak­ing now be­longed to newer tal­ent. Theatre ac­tors and direc­tors struck movie deals in 1928, while noted writ­ers and play­wrights came to Hol­ly­wood to an­swer the new call for di­a­logue.

Among them was Up­ton Sin­clair, rid­ing on the suc­cess of Oil! , his 1927 novel. Per­haps it was deemed too dis­turb­ing for cin­ema au­di­ences in 1928. It would not be filmed for an­other 79 years, some­what mod­i­fied, as There Will be Blood .

It is too early to say how his­tory will judge the latest crop of films, but crit­ics al­ready look at 2007 with fond­ness. Any year in which many crit­ics ad­mit­ted ‘‘ I don’t care which nom­i­nee wins the best film Os­car; they all de­serve it’’ couldn’t be so bad.

It’s al­most as though, as in 1928, film­mak­ers have no­ticed that films prob­a­bly won’t stay the same for long and have given us some fine works just be­fore ev­ery­thing changes.

Ac­claimed per­for­mance: Os­car- win­ning French ac­tor Mar­ion Cotil­lard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose

Silent saint: Re­nee Fal­conetti in The Pas­sion of Joan of Arc

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.