This time around, Caitlin brought us a silent film, though not the first (thanks, Passion of Joan of Arc!) nor even the second (thanks, Metropolis!), nor even the third (thanks, The Last Laugh!) silent film we’ve shown. It was, however, certainly the most recent (2011 – a year not known for its silent films, you know, except for the one that won Best Picture).
To make up for the novelty of this film Caitlin brought us a short which I believe is the oldest film we have ever shown at Cinema 1544 – George Méliès’ extremely famous 1902 offering Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon). You’ve seen the iconic shot of the rocketship hitting the Man In The Moon in the eye – now watch the whole thing!
The film follows the familiar plot line: Professor decides to go to the moon, professor devises gigantic gun to launch rocket to moon, professor and company exit rocket on moon to find a hospitable atmosphere and pleasant environment (if you can ignore the snow storm and the moon men that explode when you hit them with umbrellas), professor and company escape moon by pushing rocket off edge of cliff, allowing rocket to fall back to earth. It’s rather silly, but like Bilbo Baggins it’s eleventy-one years old and you kind of have to quietly put up with a few eccentricities.
One hundred and nine years after the release of this week’s short came the release of our feature film (The Artist). That will probably mark the longest gap between short and feature that we ever see at Cinema 1544, so if you weren’t there, you missed history. Also notable is the fact that both this film and our most recent film (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies) share the same director (Michel Hazanavicius) and the same leading couple (Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo). I wanted to say this was the first time that had happened – allowing the exception of the Man With No Name movie marathon – but then I remembered that old friend Denise Cook coordinated back-to-back showings of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Again, related movies. Not so for The Artist and OSS 117, I’ll tell you.
The year…is 1927. The place…is Hollywood. George Valentin finds himself (and his sidekick terrier) the biggest star of the silent film era – though I imagine that they just called them “films” those days. It’s good to be on top, even if you have to be a bit of an egotist to do it.
At a self-congratulatory function, a young onlooker named Peppy Miller accidentally finds herself on the wrong side of the human barrier keeping the teeming masses away from Hollywood’s biggest star. A bit flustered, she ad-libs and kisses Valentin on the cheek before taking her place back in the anonymous crowd.
The unorchestrated moment becomes a bit of a Hollywood sensation, and Peppy decides to try leveraging her newfound lack of anonymity into a Hollywood career. It turns out that despite being on the front page of Variety, she’s not exactly the most recognizable face in the crowd, though she does make her way onto a film set as a dancer.
Unfortunately for Peppy, not everybody is happy about her high-profile kiss, and that includes studio boss Zimmer, who is concerned about the negative publicity for Valentin. Also unfortunately for Peppy, the set she ends up on is that of Valentin’s next film. When Valentin recognizes her, Zimmer realizes who she is, and throws her out of the studio.
I mean, he tries to, but Valentin objects, and, well, he’s the star. So the girl not only stays, but gets a pretty plum dance cameo.
Also not happy about this publicity: Valentin’s wife. She’s kind of a grump. I mean, it’s kind of hard to effectively give someone the silent treatment before they invented talking, but she manages to do it.
After the film’s shoot, Peppy comes to Valentin’s dressing room to thank him for giving her career a start, and as he’s out, she takes her starry eyes and initiates a famous dance with his tuxedo. It’s worth the price of admission, really and honestly, though I think they did show the best bits of it during the Oscars ceremony.
Over the next two years, Peppy begins to work her way up the Hollywood ladder, and when the Talkies Revolution occurs, the studios turn to her as the new face of the new medium. Not wanted in the new medium: George Valentin.
But Valentin, who in his pride scoffs at the talkies as much as the talkies scoff at him, digs into his personal fortune to finance another silent film, produced by, written by, directed by, and starring himself. It flops, though to be fair Peppy secretly attends the opening despite the fact that it’s just down the street from her own significantly-better-attended premiere, and she thinks the film is wonderful.
But the flop of the film, combined with the 1929 stock market crash and the grumpy wife finally throwing him out leads Valentin to some hard times. He sells all of his effects at auction (and you know that the mysterious buyer is doing it for Peppy, right? Right?) and moves to a smaller residence where, unemployed, he drinks himself through his misery.
He even has to fire his chauffeur, whom he hasn’t paid in over a year. The chauffeur loves him so much that he sulks like a sad puppy at being let go, then heads off to work for Peppy. That would seem to be a good way to eventually get back into the good graces of his former employer.
Apparently nobody ever had Valentin watch Cinema Paradiso, because in the throes of his despair, he takes practically every film he owns off of the shelf, out of their reels, and strews them around the room. Then, he pulls out his Zippo and lights them on fire. Duh! Acetate! Highly Inflammable!
Don’t worry – even though he can’t escape the fire, his dog saves the day, fetching a police officer who drags him from the conflagration. Valentin is definitely the worse for wear here, but Peppy, having heard of his trouble, leaves the set to see him at the hospital. He’s unconscious, but being Hollywood’s biggest star she’s able to convince the hospital staff to let her take Valentin to her home to recuperate. He does eventually wake up, but rather than accept her offer to have him star in a film with her, he heads off to his burnt-out home to solomiserate again.
Unconvinced of Peppy’s sincerity and insensate to his dog’s pleas to stop, he finds a gun and places it into his mouth. Meanwhile Peppy, who has discovered he has bolted and can’t find the chauffeur, takes the car herself and drives recklessly (and probably unlicensed, the scamp!) to find him, narrowly missing several accidents. But just as she is approaching Valentin’s home…
But it’s not the gun. It’s Peppy wrecking the car outside, interrupting Valentin from his grim intent. She runs into the house, and there is hugging and kissing and that eventually leads to this:
No, not a baby, silly! That comes from the stork! It leads to a tap-dancing film! And everybody would appear to live happily ever after. The end.
My favorite part of this movie was its snappy dialogue.
But seriously, great film. Now that it’s been 100% spoiled for you, go out and see it. It’s simple, but it just works.
Of course, watching it a second time brings to mind so many other great films, that part of the reason it works might just be because it tugs at your memory strings so hard. The plot is a mixture of Sunset Blvd. and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight – in fact the scene at the beginning where Valentin hams it up in front of the closing curtain to the exclusion of his co-star was shot from the same angles and just conjures up the feel of a similar scene at the end of Limelight. The estate sale, though under different circumstances, can’t help but recall Citizen Kane. There’s the already-obliquely-referred-to callback to Cinema Paradiso and the flammability of acetate film. And finally Valentin’s recuperation, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, was oddly reminiscent of The Fall – another actor with one failed suicide under his belt whose goal during recuperation is to try, try again. I have no idea how many of these are intentional homages, and I’m sure there are many more I forgot or missed altogether, but they bring a sense of this unified history of film-making that just ties the whole thing together.
Also on a funny side note – the “Peppy” in Peppy Miller is of course short for “Penelope”, which is quite amusing considering that the actress cast to play Valentin’s wife was…Penelope Ann Miller.