Some of the fun, at least for a film professor, is identifying all the allusions to Hollywood’s golden age. Here are a few I can recall:
–Sometimes leading man Valentin is Douglas Fairbanks dueling in The Three Musketeers.
–His marriage has a sequence of breakfast scenes that echo the deteriorating marriage in Citizen Kane
–Valentin’s dog could be Asta from The Thin Man or Mr. Smith from The Awful Truth. At one point he plays the role of Rin Tin Tin.
–At another point Valentin appears overwhelmed by close-ups of mocking mouths, recalling the doorman Emil Jennings’s humiliation in Murnau’s The Last Laugh.
–The film ends with an homage to Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1932, not only in the dance sequence but in the wonderful cross section of a set. Valentin’s and Peppy’s dancing also is reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat.
–Alcoholic hallucinations in a bar recall the delirium tremens scene in The Lost Weekend.
–Of course, his name recalls Rudolph Valentino, the hot Latin lover of the 1920’s.
–Leading lady Peppy Miller, meanwhile, appears to be modeled on Clara Bowe, the “It” Girl. She could also be the discovered actress in A Star is Born.
–Two scenes, although not in the spirit of classic American cinema, are still effective: there’s a dream sequence that harkens back to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and a scene with an actor moving from one female fantasy to another that looks as though it were lifted out of Fellini’s 8 ½.
–The film as a whole owes a great deal to the difficult transition to sound that is the subject of Singin’ in the Rain. The actor, meanwhile, reminded me of John Gilbert, who used to play opposite Greta Garbo but who, unlike her, could not cross over (and who subsequently, like Valentin, succumbed to alcohol). Indeed, Peppy at one point says, “I want to be alone,” one of Garbo’s early spoken sentences.
I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of allusions. When you see the film, send in any you notice.
In addition to being a feast for film historians, The Artist also captures that special quality that silent films have for modern viewers. It appears somewhat exaggerated at first because we’re not used to the language of pantomime but then becomes charming as we adjust. The silent cinema had an elaborate system of communication—we can call it a special grammar—and The Artist plays with this double vision.
I saw the film in a sold-out Manhattan theater. That itself is reminiscent of a time when the silver screen was more central to people’s lives than it is today. Sound at first seemed to distract from the total immersion that silent cinema commanded and that turned actresses into ethereal goddesses or lurid vamps and actors into swaggering heroes or melodramatic villains. Once audiences heard them speak, however, they never wanted to go back.
That’s understandable because sound allowed the medium to grow in marvelous ways. But it was fun to go back for a night.