NXNW looks at The Artist and silent films

First aired on North by Northwest (30/06/12)

Vancouver-based writer Edward Phillips is a movie buff who's a particular fan of the classics. He sat down with NXNW host Sheryl MacKay to talk about the surprising popularity of The Artist, which recently came out on DVD, and to share some of his favourites from the era of silent films.

Asked why he thought The Artist was such a hit, Phillips said, "I think it was just really fun for a lot of people." He added that novelty was a factor too. "There isn't really much that can be novel about a silent film these days, but for people, I think the experience was novel anyway. People were surprised they could have so much fun and laugh so hard, or they were surprised that they could be really drawn into the drama of a silent film."

Phillips hopes that the success of The Artist might lead people to revisit some of the classics from the silent era." I think back in the day, cinema was a brand new idea, and filmmakers were developing these new techniques with every single project, and it was really exciting at the time," he said. "I think people who saw The Artist can go back now and go back and watch Chaplin or Keaton and Harold Lloyd and actually begin to appreciate what's so special about that era of cinema."

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are still familiar names, Harold Lloyd not so much. But he was famous in his time, particularly for a character we know as "the glasses boy," Phillips said. "He had these very distinct glasses, and that was how you recognized this shy but affable young man. Harold Lloyd wanted to develop the character more, so he started producing feature-length comedies, which at the time was a really new idea."

Phillips' favourite was a film called Grandma's Boy. "It was one of the first feature length comedy films, and it's got all the kind of slapstick-y moments you'd expect from the era."

Phillips attributes the popularity of the silent films to the fact that "there were things that you could do with a movie camera that you could never do on stage or in a theatre -- the ability to move a camera around, or to put a camera in a place that you can't take an audience."

He gave an example from Grandma's Boy. "There's a fight between the glasses boy and his main rival for the affection of the lovely young lady, and they're fighting outside a barn, and then they're inside the barn, and then they're up in the hayloft, and then they fall back down onto a pile of hay outside the barn, and then the camera's on a dolly and it tracks along as they walk away," Phillips said. Giving the audience the impression that they are part of the action was "revolutionary," he added.

"Cinema got developed as a visual medium first, and actors had honed their craft to suit that medium," he said. "So when sound did make its way into movies, there was a lot of resistance from actors who had spent a long time not just developing their careers and their craft, but also developing these characters who were recurring, who were household names. The thought of having them standing in front of a camera and suddenly have a voice was hard to fathom. I mean, it would be hard for an audience to see Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character suddenly start speaking."

The stars of the silent screen did go on to make talkies, but Phillips pointed out that "you don't really see these characters make the transition too. That's what drives the plot of The Artist. It's about a massively successful actor who is finding it hard to manage the transition to his new format."

Phillips pointed out that the advent of sound made a huge difference in how a film was made. At the time, he explained, "microphone technology was so primitive. Microphones were huge, they were immobile, they were very delicate. So they had to be right there in front of an actor's face."

In the early talkies, set directors went to great lengths to disguise microphones as props, but it was often awkward. Phillips cited a scene in one film where the characters are sitting on the caboose of a train. "There's a giant lantern hanging down between them. It's just meant to be this random prop, but it's so obvious that it's directly between their faces. How can they even be having a conversation?"

In another film, there are two people sitting side by side, with a table between them that has a huge flower planter. "It seems ridiculous and it really pulls you out of the drama," Phillips said.

He feels that, because of the size and unwieldiness of microphones, the first talkies were actually a step back in terms of drawing audiences in to the action. He stresses that it's worth revisiting the classics from the silent era. "I think people will be surprised at how much they'll laugh and how much they'll get drawn into the drama."