Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Importance of Silents and Pre-Code Talkies

I will not go into what precipitated it, but yesterday on Twitter a group of us discussed the importance of a knowledge of silent films and pre-Code talkies to classic film connoisseurs. While everyone will have different tastes in film and not every era of film will appear to every classic movie buff, it seems to me that to truly be a classic film connoisseur one must have a working knowledge, if not an appreciation, of silent movies and early talkies.

The plain fact is that silent films and the early sound films hold an importance in cinematic history that will never,e ever be matched, let alone surpassed. It was during the silent era that the language of film was established. It was during the Silent Era that editing and cinematography were perfected. It was very early (The Great Train Robbery dates to 1903) that filmmakers learned how to shoot and edit film so that it not only told a narrative, but that it could do so with maximum emotional impact. By the late Teens and into the Twenties, which I think could be considered the Golden Age of Silent Film, the silent movies had become an art form.  It was during this period that such masterpieces as  Nosferatu (1922), The Gold Rush (1925), The General (1926), The Crowd (1928), and Die Büchse der Pandora (1929). And while much of the language of film had already been established by the mid to late Twenties, there was a still a good deal of innovation, particularly with regards to the genres of film. The General was not only one of the first of the big budget blockbusters (the direct ancestor of Gone With the WindThe Great Escape, and the Star Wars movies), it was also possibly the first action comedy. The Crowd could be considered a forerunner of the kitchen sink dramas of the British, the French Nouvelle Vague, and Italian neorealism. Even the Western genre would be developed during the Silent Era, with such films as The Covered Wagon (1923).

While the Silents before them would establish much of the language of film with regards to cinematography and editing, it would be the pre-Code talkies that would establish the use of sound in film. Here I must point out that this went far beyond the use of sound effects, as it also included the musical score. Perhaps no film was more influential in establishing the importance of the music score than King Kong (1933). The score Max Steiner composed for the film was like none other composed for film. Not only did music punctuate many of the key scenes in the film, but Mr. Steiner made use of leitmotifs and even gave the primary characters their own themes. Quite simply, it was the first modern film score. And while the Silent Era would see the emergence of such film genres, it would be in the days of the pre-Code talkies that such genres as the musical (impossible during the Silent Era), the horror film (it had existed all throughout the Silent Era, but was perfected in the pre-Code era), and the gangster film (like horror movies it had existed all throughout the Silent Era, but was perfected in the pre-Code era) would be developed or refined.

Indeed, in my opinion to dismiss silent films or pre-Code talkies is essentially to dismiss some of the greatest films ever made. Many films of the silent era are works of art that could probably be appreciated by modern audiences if they were only given a chance. As pointed out earlier, The General is both one of the early blockbusters (while it did poorly at the box office, it did cost a mint) and possibly the first action comedy. It is a rather sophisticated film that combines comedy with poignancy, romance, and action. The Crowd could well be as close to kitchen sink drama as the United States ever came, following a young New York City office employee as he gets married and then struggles with financial problems, marital difficulties, and tragedies. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is best known for director Sergei Eisenstein's innovative use of montage, but it would also prove influential in the development of action films. Even today Metropolis (1927) is a technical marvel to behold, but it was also one of the first (if not the first) science fiction film about a futuristic dystopia.

I rather suspect modern audiences might actually appreciate many of the pre-Code talkies than many of the films made later in the Thirties. Free of the strictures that would come with the rigorous enforcement of the Hays Code, filmmakers were free to deal with subjects that would later be forbidden under the Code, not to mention to tell their stories in a much more realistic fashion. Indeed, it is for this reason that many  of the talkies made between 1930 and 1934 seem much more modern than films even made ten years later. During this period when film was relatively free of the Code, several classic films emerged. Indeed, it was during this period that the horror film, a genre that had been around since the 1890s, really came into its own. James Whale's classic Frankenstein (1931) would not only establish the look of Gothic horror films for decades, but it would also establish many of the tropes of the horror genre as well. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) may well be the best adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale ever made. Not only did the film have the benefit of Fredric March's incredible performance, but it was able to include some fairly strong sexual content (mostly in the form of Miriam Hopkins' character, Ivy Pearson) that one does not see in the 1941 film made just ten years later. Many of these early horror films are intense even by today's standards. Island of Lost Souls (1933), an adaptation of H. G.Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, caused a furore in the United States when first released. It remained banned in the United Kingdom until 1958, when the BBFC finally passed it with an "X" certificate.  Much like horror movies, gangster films had existed in the Silent Era, but they really came into their own in the pre-Code era. Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Scarfare (1932) all became classic and also established many of the tropes of the genre.

While the horror film had existed since the 1890s and gangster films nearly as long, it was with sound that the musical became possible. The genre swiftly came into its own. In fact, by 1933 one of the greatest musicals of all time would be made--42nd Street. This is the musical that established the cliché of a girl from the chorus emerging as a star after the lead breaks her ankle. Despite having created this and other tropes of musicals, 42nd Street feels fresher than many musical made in the past twenty years. There are classic songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. There is choreography by Busby Berkeley. And there is a screenplay filled with witty dialogue, one-liners, and sexual innuendo that would vanish from the screen for the next thirty years. 42nd Street was not the only classic musical to emerge during the pre-Code Era, as there was also Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), and Let's Fall in Love (1933).

In the end, many might be surprised by the number of classic films that were released in the pre-Code years. Beyond those named above, there was also Duck Soup (1933), The Front Page (1931), Baby Face (1933), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Red Dust (1932), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Design for Living (1933), and many others. Both the Silent Era and the pre-Code era produced many great films that modern audience really should see.

Of course, I realise that everyone has different tastes. Silent films require the reading of title cards, something everyone may not particularly like doing. And I know everyone may not care for the lack of spoken dialogue. I also realise that not every pre-Code talkie is necessarily going to be a great film, even when it may be well known. In the early days of talkies the film industry was still learning how to deal with sound. For that reason many films seem rather static for this reason. A perfect example of this is Dracula (1931), which almost comes off like a filmed stage play. Here I have to ask people to give silents and pre-Code talkies a chance. One can learn to appreciate title cards and the lack of spoken dialogue. And I must point out that not every early talkie is Dracula.

It was during the Silent Era and the pre-Code era that film became a true art form. It was during this period that much of what we take for granted today in movies was developed. It was also during this period that many truly great films were made. If one truly wishes to be a connoisseur of classic film, then I think he or she must really seek out and see such films. I also think he or she must develop an appreciation of them. Even if he or she prefers films made a little later, he or she must appreciate the fact that it was with the silents and the pre-Code talkies that film came into its own. Without them we would not have the classics from later years.


Jonas Nordin said...

Spot on! Great post!

VP81955 said...

Couldn't agree more with what you wrote. And let's not forget that the genesis of the screwball comedy began in the pre-Code era, as both "It Happened One Night" and "Twentieth Century" were released in the first half of 1934. Many of the themes of screwball probably would have remained had the Code not been strictly imposed, though the female characters might have been clad in fewer clothes.

Mythical Monkey said...

Great post! I wholeheartedly agree. A silent film like The Passion of Joan of Arc is as relevant as the day it was made, maybe more so. And a Buster Keaton comedy is as funny as anything ever made.