All the hoopla surrounding The Artist and its unstoppable ride to Oscar glory has got me thinking about the first Oscars, that one and only time in which the awards were concentrated on silent movies. Despite its enormous charm, shimmering black and white, and authentic-looking late-1920s filmmaking techniques, I found The Artist to be disappointingly slight, more an audacious and accomplished stunt than an example of the power and wonder of silent film. A little Singin’ in the Rain, a lot of A Star Is Born, The Artist’s plot is both flimsy and too familiar, and, with regard to the main character’s career decisions, it doesn’t even make sense. The only great scene is its dream sequence, which got me very excited because it made me think that the movie was going to keep me delightfully off-balance, continuing to play in comparable ways with sound and silence. Alas, it doesn’t really do that, at least not as inventively as in this one scene. I much prefer Hugo as the year’s richest and most transporting look back at our film heritage.
If you want to see some truly extraordinary silent movies from those final years of that era, you need go no further than the three films for which Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar, despite my feeling that Gaynor was no actress. She did, however, manage to star in this marvelous trio, which made her supplant Lillian Gish as the movies’ supreme waif. The most popular of these films is 7th Heaven (1927), which also won a directing Oscar for Frank Borzage. Delicately rendered and intimately affecting, 7th Heaven features Gaynor’s finest performance. In no other film is she this effective, so radiant, so beguiling, so poignantly understated. It’s love in the slums of Paris for Gaynor and sewer worker Charles Farrell (he, too, was never better). Inside his seventh-floor garret, they discover a true and undying connection. Even World War I can’t put a damper on the power of their bond. Overtly sentimental yet lovely, 7th Heaven remains one of the essential Hollywood love stories. The Artist tipped its hat to this classic when Berenice Bejo puts herself inside Jean Dujardin’s jacket, a memorable moment, yes, but nowhere near as touching as when Gaynor embraced herself with Farrell’s jacket.
By far the best of the Gaynor trio is F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which is also the one least dependent on her contribution. Simply one of the masterpieces of silent film, Sunrise is an everlastingly innovative work, even though its center is a basic, even banal, tale of adultery with a simplistic morality (anti-city, pro-country). However, Murnau’s execution is so visually astounding and ceaselessly imaginative that the drama develops a throbbing intensity. The imagery is so vivid and sophisticated that the film could play easily without title cards. George O’Brien plays the husband, Gaynor the wife, and Margaret Livingston the Louise Brooks-style vamp. It’s O’Brien story, that of a man who moves from lustful and despairing to renewed and redeemed. His nighttime tryst with Livingston is one of the more visually voluptuous and potent sequences in movie history. Sunrise also unexpectedly turns a murder plot into a second honeymoon.
Street Angel (1928), the last to be released of the trio, was also directed by Borzage, who did another masterful job of combining inspired images with tender storytelling. With the silent era so close to its finish, this is one of the final high points of American silent film (though it does have sound effects). Set against a superb and huge recreation of the streets of Naples, the melodrama is moldy but the roving camera consistently astonishes. Gaynor does her by-now patented waif/victim routine, finding refuge in the circus and, of course, with Charles Farrell, this time a painter. Street Angel melds the sentimental romanticism of 7th Heaven with the darker and more expressionistic look of Sunrise. Gaynor is little more than an object in Sunrise and Street Angel, with only 7th Heaven offering her an opportunity to touch her audience as an individual (rather than as a type). It was for 7th Heaven that she merited Oscar’s attention, despite her being cited for all three films.
Gaynor surprisingly went on to become a big star of early talkies, though I cannot bear her simperingly childlike voice, her obvious self-consciousness regarding her ”cuteness,” and her inarguable limitations as an actress. Devoid of depth or nuance, and hampered by that squeaky helium voice, Gaynor somehow charmed Depression audiences, with Farrell often still working alongside her. Her best talkie is State Fair (1933), though she stands out as the weak, inauthentic link in a film noted for its freshness, adult treatment, and honest charms. Of course, her most famous film is A Star Is Born (1937), which brings us back to The Artist and their shared plots of two film careers moving in opposite directions (yet joined by the thread of romance). The 1937 film feels like a sketch for the superior and far more textured and blistering 1954 version. It is ironic that you don’t believe that Gaynor, a big star in real life, has the “star quality” to play A Star Is Born‘s rising sensation. Nothing about her seems star-worthy, making her rise in the picture seem not only ridiculously easy but utterly unfathomable. It’s a most unimpressive performance.
Even after it is sanctified with a Best Picture Oscar, The Artist, for all its beauty and pleasures, still won’t rate even passing comparison with Gaynor’s glorious one-two-three last gasp of silent artistry.