Among the films in contention this awards season, “The Artist” has one of the most appealing back stories out there. The black-and-white picture has no audible dialogue and a quaint 4:3 aspect ratio. And after charming audiences at Cannes in May and scooping up multiple end-of-year critics awards, the light comedy is being positioned as having the potential to be the first silent film to earn a best picture award since “Wings” took home the first Oscar 83 years ago.
How perfect is that as a demonstration of Hollywood coming full circle?
However, if “The Artist” had been released back in 1926, it would have been touted — lauded, even — as a groundbreaking film because it has a soundtrack that’s synched with the celluloid. A lack of dialogue didn’t mean the film was silent.
On Aug. 7, 1926, Variety published a special eight-page Saturday edition that proclaimed Warner Bros.’ “Don Juan” the first sound picture because it used the revolutionary Vitaphone, which allowed projectionists to synch a phonograph with the projector and amplify the sound for presentation. Rather than using a live orchestra to add drama to a silent film, any theater in the country with a Vitaphone could play the very best orchestral score, the way the filmmaker intended.
“What of those millions in the small towns, where a drive of from 20 to 40 miles in a flivver once a week to see the ‘movies’ is an event that is looked forward to by mother, father and the kids alike? Can you imagine what they will say when they get exactly what you have been getting on Broadway for years?”
Variety’s coverage of the Times Square premiere was effusive about the possibilities. Will H. Hays — then president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the prototype for the Motion Picture Association of America — said the Vitaphone presentation of “Don Juan” “is the beginning of a new era. It has to be more than a novelty.”
To show just how important the technology was, Hays gave his speech via Vitaphone. However, Hays was the only one who did any talking during the presentation. Variety’s reporter wrote that the Hays address was the “only demonstration of the synchronization of the speaking voice during the evening. His voice registered as clearly as though he were present in person. ”
After all the hype and the steep $11 ticket prices (not adjusted for inflation), eager cinemagoers never heard star John Barrymore speaking dialogue throughout the night. Variety did, however, take note of Barrymore’s 191 onscreen smooches: “John Barrymore is the champion kisser of all time!”
In fact, it wasn’t until 1928’s “The Jazz Singer” — the first real “talker,” which is what Variety referred to them in the day — that music, effects and dialogue accompanied a film, albeit still through Vitaphone’s format.
So “The Artist” might be a novelty for today’s audiences because of its lack of dialogue, by 1926 standards, there’s nothing “silent” about it.