By Monte Lazarus
Run; don’t walk, to see this movie. It’s advertised as a “silent”, but it’s not quite. There are a few sounds, and a continuous musical background. Other than that there’s no real dialog. On its surface the film appears simply to be a tribute to the silent movie era. However, that’s only the façade.
Few of us remember silent movies. They dominated the screen until the late twenties when “The Jazz Singer” opened the new dimension of sound, and revolutionized the business. Yes, the film tells a story of a matinee idol of the silent days. He has slick-backed hair, sparkling teeth, a pencil thin mustache and a winning style. Of course, he keeps his high beam smile on at all times for his adoring crowd. He also has an adorable, very smart dog, played to perfection by a Jack Russell terrier that goes by the name “Uggi” in his off stage life.
The matinee idol is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), and the surname is more than coincidentally related to the hero of the silents – Rudolph Valentino. Valentin lives in a Beverly Hills mansion with his dog and very unappealing wife (Penelope Ann Miller). Our hero helps out an aspiring young singer/actor, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) and, as we may recall from a score of Hollywood movies, she skyrockets to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, George refuses to join in the movement to sound, and goes broke by making a big silent production. What happens between George and the very appealing Peppy is the surface of the movie.
There’s a lot going on in this film. Yes, it pays tribute to the heroes of the silent era. Director Michel Hazanavicius strategically adds sly references to such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Clark Gable (in his early, early days), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and a few others. But, the film is much more than the venerable and wonderful “Singin’ in the Rain”. It’s a story of the very human resistance to change while demonstrating the artistry and power of the old movies without words. The film has allusions to more in life than the old “Hollywoodland” (these days shortened to “Hollywood”) dominating the Los Angeles hills. There’s clear reference to the pain of the Great Depression on so many lives, and even photos of Calvin Coolidge on the walls of studio offices.
The two stars are remarkable. They are physical, graceful and comical. They dance beautifully. They light up the screen, even without saying a word. Dujardin is well known in France for his comic turns in a number of spoofs. He’s dashing and charming, and equally funny. Bejo is sweet and unspoiled at the outset. As several years elapse she evolves into a strong, sure and sophisticated star. But, she never forgets the dazzling hero who gave her a boost when she tried desperately to get into the movies. In real life, Bejo, is married to the film’s director.
John Goodman has an excellent turn as a cigar chomping producer/director, while James Cromwell is excellent as the ever-faithful chauffeur.
It’s amazing how these fine actors adapted to the times when exaggerated expressions were the norm in silents. They altered just about everything they ever learned about acting to bring this film to life. And, they do it remarkably well.