I’m three movies into the Best Picture Project, and I’ve already noticed something interesting. The first three films, Wings, Broadway Melody, and All Quiet on the Western Front show a rapid change in the way the actors relate to the camera. While I’ve not seen many silent films, I’ve noticed the acting is broader than it is in modern films. The actor must emote in a way that seems maudlin or excessive to us, because there is no dialogue to carry the emotion. Silent films can be as powerful dramas or as funny comedies as talkies, but the emotion comes from the facial expression and the music more than the dialogue cards shown onscreen.
Wings, the drama about World War One flying aces and their hometown sweetheart(s), is one of the most moving depictions of male friendship I’ve ever seen. It demonstrates a devotion on a par with that between Frodo and Sam, Captain Aubrey and Dr. Maturin, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. The broader acting actually makes the relationship between the two young men more emotionally powerful and the death of one of them at the hands of the other is absolutely devastating. All silent films have to walk a careful line to avoid straying into the grotesque. Wings does that admirably.
Broadway Melody, the first “talkie” to win for Best Picture, is not much like the 1930s musical extravaganzas by Busby Berkeley, though it is in many ways a proto-Berkeley. Director Harry Beaumont and cinematographer John Arnold stage one of the musical numbers in such a way that the dancers’ costumes play with the black-and-white medium. Berkeley will perfect the method a few years later, but the scene is striking all the same. The most interesting aspect of Broadway Melody, however, is once again the acting. This is a transition film – some of the actors are maintaining acting styles that are more appropriate to silent film than to sound films, while others seem very comfortable with the new medium. The two sisters are an excellent example of the two acting methods. Queenie is very much a silent-era actress. She is luminescent in black and white, and her character is made to seem soft and loving by taking long pauses to gaze off into the middle distance while the camera does a close-shot of her face. In a silent film, an inner-monologue dialogue card would probably be shown there. Hank, on the other hand, is all talkie. She ignores the camera entirely, and as a result her character comes across as tougher and perhaps a bit less introspective.
All Quiet on the Western Front (Best Picture, 1930)
I’ve been putting off watching this one. I read the book by Erich Maria Remarque in high school, and did not especially love it. Perhaps it’s a regrettable tendency towards escapism, but I like happy endings. I suppose a quick death by sniper might be a happy ending for a long-serving German WWI soldier, though, so I should be more open-minded.
In 1914, Paul, a German student aged 18 or 19 is in class in which the professor preaches the religion of patriotism, encouraging his students to enlist in mass for the presumably short-lived war. The class does so, and after training they head to the front, where one by one they die and/or break down. Three years later, only two or three are left in the regiment, including Paul, who has built a strong camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. After recuperating from an injury to his side, he goes home for a few days of leave. He finds his hometown still determinedly patriotic and utterly unconscious of the horrors of the actual battlefields. When he visits his former professor and finds the man still encouraging his students to enlist, Paul tells the students that at the front they live, they fight, and they try not to die. The professor is frustrated, the students accuse Paul of cowardice, and Paul loses his cool and storms out. He then lies to his parents about the length of his leave so he can return to the front, which is a world in which he now feels more comfortable. The film ends as Paul, reaching towards a butterfly, is shot by an enemy sniper.
This feels like the start of a new kind of film. The remnants of silent-era acting are almost entirely gone. Despite the remarkably small amount of dialogue for a film that lasts over two hours, the acting is expressive in nuanced and subtle ways. Two particular standouts for me are the two veterans of the regiment, Slim Summerville (playing Tjaden) and Louis Wolheim (Stanislaus Katczinsky). Their characters occasionally provided much-needed lightness to an utterly dark story, but without buffoonery or actual comedy. Those two demonstrated the ways in which humans can become accustomed to the horrors of the world. They made dark jokes about themselves and their comrades, and offered perspective to the idealistic young recruits in their regiment. The directorial staff also allowed the two elder characters to be real – to show sorrow and hunger and the way the war weighed them down, but also to show the brighter moments, from the joy of a large meal to flirting in broken French with farm women while bathing nude in a river.
The broader acting style of the silent era communicates a consciousness of the camera on the part of the actor that we now find less preferable. As the films continue to perfect the talkie, it will be fascinating to watch the changes in the actors’ relationship with the camera.
Up next: Cimarron and Grand Hotel