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