After all this time, I was finally able to see this much lauded film about a Silent Era actor who falls from Hollywood grace during the transition to sound films. The film pretends to be a modern recreation of a silent film as shot in the 1920's with no voice & no environmental sounds. It does have a full music score accompaniment, but unlike the experience an average audience would get with a simple piano, we get the full orchestra treatment. I've seen a fairly good number of silent films. Some are interesting simply for historic reasons, some are fabulously artistic, especially those made leading up to the Sound Era (and I'm really fond of the German ones). The film makers of the day understood their medium and its limitations and they used it to great effect to make some very memorable films. It makes me wonder what the produces were thinking in creating this flop. Yes, I said it. I know the French made it, I know we're all supposed to fawn over it simply because its French, but really, this is just one long, boring, stupid film. I don't care if the guy says it with an accent, it's still crap.
This albatross clocks in around an hour and a half long. Most silent films are less than 60 minutes, a lot around the half hour mark. Why? Because no one wants to play a piano or read lips and the occasional title card for that long. They did get the soft lens effect done, but what they didn't do was get the lighting. In a way, this was shot as if it were color. Lighting, camera angles, set design, and wardrobes were all used to create moods or impart the story. This film could have highlighted the various styles and techniques being pioneered at the end of the Silent Era, but the director opted for the mundane and lifeless. As for the story, well, there really isn't one. At least it isn't obvious there is one until the very end.
The film boasts some very familiar American actors in minor supporting parts. I don't know why they are included except to play to the racist notion that somehow Americans are too stupid to watch anything foreign. The two central characters are played by a French actor and actress, who don't speak English very well at all. How do I know this? You can tell the way they flap their lips that they aren't pronouncing anything correctly. The look of these two characters is not consistent with the era, especially the woman. She might be considered attractive now, but she would be relegated to the back chorus line then. Remember, this film was being touted as an homage to the era, a modern film to make us fall in love again with the silent films and a way to bring those films to the modern audience. They should have tried harder to find people who could represent that, especially for the starring roles.
There were some fantastic multi-talented people in film at one time, and those talents were often showcased regularly. These two central players couldn't dance at all (almost a requirement at the time) and I'm not convinced they are that great as actors. The male character is supposed to be one of those charismatic actors who can flash a great smile. The actor plays it like a caricature of a caricature from another comedic movie. He was so over the top it was painful to watch. The female is supposed to be bubbly and cute, and what was paraded onscreen was mostly vapid and annoying. She didn't come off as genuine, just someone play acting her cuteness, which simply doesn't work for the character. I kept expecting her to turn into the evil hag of the story who drops the cute act at the penultimate moment. The way she moved wasn't right. Maybe they didn't put all the undergarments on her, so she could move freely, but she just looked wrong for the era. She had no poise or ease of movement that an actress would convey on screen. Her dancing was atrocious, even her super easy jiggle dance looked more like a convulsion.
I shouldn't even get into the wardrobe, but I will. It was all wrong, from the length of the dresses to the shoes. There were some flashy outfits of the day, none of them looked trashy. His clothes often didn't fit him right. They were cut too large, as if he were playing a comedy where the ill-fitting suit was part of the act. Not all, but enough to catch the eye. The worst was the lead actress's dresses. All of her dresses were way too short for the era. You could maybe get away with that with a set dress, but an everyday dress would have been socially unacceptable. For someone familiar with the era on film, this was quite jarring to see.
Spoiler Alert! The worst part of this film is the ending. There is a dance scene where we are treated to a pretty good musical number featuring our untalented players stomping at the floor in a pitiful attempt at a dance. Both are pretty bad, but the guy is the absolute worst and he has his baggy suit on again, probably to help hide his lack of talent. You can see the actress obviously looking for cues so she can get her steps right, unlike real talent. At the very end, the film switches to full sound, since that is what they are filming in the story, and we finally hear our main actor speak with a heavily accented answer. Surprise America! Now we know why he lost work as an actor (and why they chose American actors for the supporting roles). He was a foreigner. Gasp! Evil Americans are so prejudice that they only use other Americans to portray people of different nationalities! Only, that's not what really happened at the time and, well, we aren't the British during the big Colonial push. We're a nation full of foreigners, whose parents, grandparents, friends, and other families were often foreigners at one time or other. What really happened to ruin careers during the switchover was either voice tone (or lack thereof), a distinct lack of voice acting skills (since a person spent their lives practicing visual acting), and an inability to transition from visual acting to both. Those who could quickly made the transition to keep working (like Melvyn Douglas), those who couldn't found themselves pushing a broom or working regular theater where visual acting skills play such an important role. No grand conspiracies, overbearing nationalism, or the vagaries of Dumb Americans. Simply normal transitional difficulties when new technology comes on the scene.
Unfortunately, this seems to be the point of this film. A nice, in-your-face slam, couched in a supposed homage to the Silent Era. People familiar with silent films wondered why a more compelling story wasn't used, and I think the answer is simply that it wasn't needed or wanted. This movie isn't about telling a compelling story or illustrating the amazing things that happened once sound recording had advanced to the point where it became common, it's about Social Justice and the need to blame someone else (or another nation) for your woes in life. The reason why this got rave reviews in a town known to shun some very good movies simply because there aren't enough big bangs in it is because it does play to the notion that most Americans are dumb, ignorant, unworldly morons, who hate everyone not like themselves. In a nation that openly welcomes any people from anywhere in the world to become one of us, that has adopted and made our own many of the great traditions and food of other nations, this really is one of the greatest lies to be perpetrated about and through 20th century America into today. Pride, dignity, self-determination and national identity have become ideas that are openly attacked in Hollywood (and in other powerful circles) because it creates a people who refuse to be dominated by elitists unaffected by their own rules. Yeah, free people suck that way and that's why today Americans suck. I'm all right with that. I'd rather be a despised & ridiculed free American than one of the oppressed and loved "masses".
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