In combination, Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, Chaplin, The Last Tycoon, and Silent Movie provide an unparalleled lesson on the early days of cinema. Although the releases of the movies themselves span nearly fifty years, the films’ observations on the trials and triumphs of the invention and perfection of this “seventh art” speak to the power of the medium. After all, who better to talk about Hollywood than the movies themselves?
Singin’ in the Rain: Changes
This classic Gene Kelly musical shows the transition from silent films to talkies with hilarity and sensitivity. Focusing on the faux-romance between onscreen lovers Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lena LaMont (Jean Hagen) and the conflicting romance that develops between Lockwood and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), this 1952 film was produced recently enough after the advent of sound in movies that it offers an invaluable perspective on the problems – technical and personal – that accompanied the new technology. A mis-dubbed scene where LaMont and Lockwood’s voices get mixed up is particularly memorable.
Sunset Boulevard: The Rise and Fall of Silent Stars
Most people can quote at least one line from this famous film by Billy Wilder without even having seen it: “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille.” The film, however, gives a wonderful close-up not only of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, but also of the decline of the silent film era in Hollywood, when faces were replaced by words.
Keep a special eye out for the scene with the Waxworks, which includes a special appearance by an older Charlie Chaplin, as well as Max, the butler, who is in fact played by one of Swanson’s former directors, Erich von Stroheim. Of course, the clips of the young Desmond’s silent films (which are, in reality, Swanson’s films) are not to be missed. A must-see for any film lover!
Chaplin: Portrait of an Actor
This 1992 film features stand-out performances by Robert Downey Jr. in the title role and Anthony Hopkins as the (invented) editor of Chaplin’s autobiography. Tracing the rise and fall of Charlie Chaplin’s career, the story shows his childhood in England, his move to Hollywood, and his many romances. Adapted in part from Chaplin’s autobiography, the film also gives a very personal picture of what it was like to be on the cutting edge of a young industry.
The Last Tycoon: Hollywood as a Business
Based on the famous unfinished book by F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Love of the Last Tycoon), The Last Tycoon is notable not just as an adaptation but also as the second collaboration between director Elia Kazan and producer Sam Speigel, who had worked together on the historic On The Waterfront. The film features many familiar faces (Robert De Niro as the hero, Monroe Star, as well as Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, Jack Nicholson, and Jeanne Moreau) and allegedly took the inspiration for Stahr from noted MGM film executive Irving Thalberg, also known as “The Boy Wonder.” A beautiful examination of the industry in the 1930s.
Silent Movie: Hollywood as a Punchline
A parody of the silent films that preceded it by almost forty years, Mel Brooks’ 1976 Silent Movie features numerous stars – from Dom DeLuise to Liza Minnelli, Sid Caesar to Paul Newman – with the most memorable role going to mime Marcel Marceau, who ironically has the film’s only spoken line. The humorous soundtrack to the film accentuates the slapstick-like gags and the importance of music in early cinema. As has often been noted, silent films were never really silent!