When silence was golden: As the film The Artist is tipped for Oscars, Barry Norman looks at the magical evocations of an era
Whatever the reason — a search for relief from the gloom of the economic slump, perhaps — this year’s Oscar voters, like their Bafta counterparts before them, seem to be yearning nostalgically for a simpler era, the age of the silent movie.
When the Academy Awards are handed out on Sunday evening the front-runner for trophies will be Martin Scorsese’s Hugo with 11 nominations, and right behind it, with ten nominations, Michel Hazanavicius’ film The Artist.
Both are loving tributes to the silent movie. Hugo is essentially an homage to French filmmaker Georges Melies, while The Artist, which has already scooped seven Baftas, is quite simply a silent movie itself.
Setting the scene: In the days of silent film, the pianist was vital in helping to create the mood
Full house: A packed auditorium at Birmingham's huge West End cinema in the 1900s. Spare a thought for anyone unlucky enough to be sat behind the ladies in wide-brimmed hats
The glimpses of Melies’ early films shown in Hugo bring back the wonder of a newborn medium, at the dawn of the 20th century.
The Artist, set when talkies were beginning to take over, artfully reflects a long-lost time when Hollywood appeared to be a truly magical and glamorous place where everyone was beautiful and anything was possible.
Between them, both films evoke memories of a period when Charlie Chaplin was the biggest star in the world, Mary Pickford was America’s sweetheart and Douglas Fairbanks Snr buckled swashes all over the screen, a time when — as these photographs show — cinema was coming into its own as the most popular type of mass entertainment there had ever been.
This usher and pageboy are smart enough for a sergeant-major's inspection
In those mid-1920s Chaplin made his great classic The Gold Rush, featuring the dance of the bread rolls and the starving Charlie eating his own bootlaces like spaghetti. Rudolph Valentino was making female hearts — and knees — tremble in sagas like Blood And Sand and Son Of The Sheikh.
Meanwhile Fairbanks was being ever so brave and dashing in The Three Musketeers and The Thief Of Baghdad, and Theda Bara, aka The Vamp, was flaunting voluptuous sex all over the screen.
Buster Keaton, meanwhile, starred in and co-directed one of the best of all silent movies, The General, an American Civil War story that involves a great train chase.
In 1927 came Wings, a story about World War I fighter pilots starring the ‘It Girl’ Clara Bow, which became the first — and so far only — silent movie to win the Oscar for best picture, though The Artist may well equal it.
Some of the picture palaces — or Cinematograph Theatres as they grandly called themselves — in which such films were shown were quite palatial, others more functional, but what they had in common was that they were packed. People queued around the block, sometimes for hours, clutching a few pence for their tickets, to be greeted royally by staff dressed in pristine uniforms.
Once inside, shoulder-to-shoulder and often sitting on simple wooden chairs, they watched, open-mouthed, as a huge, clumsy projector threw a flickering film onto the screen. There was no dialogue, just subtitles. A gun fired by a white-hatted sheriff at a black-hatted villain made no noise.
Round the block-buster: Hundreds of cinema-goers queue patiently in London's Strand to see 1928 gold rush film The Trail of '98 at The Tivoli
The reel deal: Despite the precautions, a projection room was a dangerous place to be in 1927. Cinemas used highly inflammable nitrate film until 1952
The only sound, depending on the grandeur of the place, came from an orchestra, an organ or sometimes just a lone pianist improvising the music — soft for the love scenes, a crescendo for the action.
What lends enchantment to the images conjured up in Hugo and The Artist and in these photographs is that they belong to a bygone age, which very few people in the world can still remember.
It was a less sophisticated age when people were more easily pleased, but whether it was a better one is open to debate. In 1927, the year when The Artist is set, World War I was over, but Britain had only just got over the General Strike and the Depression years were lurking around the corner.
Matinee fans: These Londoners waiting to see a film in 1932 would have needed cheering up – there were nearly three million unemployed and benefits had been cut
What’s more, perhaps to indicate that human nature is always unpredictable, there was a time during World War I when the Rink cinema in London’s Finsbury Park was under constant police surveillance because of ‘the indecent behaviour’ going on inside.
Since this behaviour apparently involved ‘amorous soldiers’ and ‘loose young women’ we can probably guess what it was — rather worse than people nowadays leaving their mobile phones on while watching the movie.
So perhaps we shouldn’t be too nostalgic for the silent era.