Silent Quote: “In the time of silent film there used to be a lot of good pictures. Now that’s all come to an end.”

I ran across this little gem over the weekend and just had to share it. By 1935, silent films were considered creaking jokes by most of Hollywood, fit for punchlines and little else. Comedies got a bit more respect but dramas bore the brunt of the scorn. Charlie Chaplin was the lone holdout for silence. Some of the former silent stars tried to defend their art but others conveniently forgot that such films ever existed. It was the Golden Age, the Code was in force and sound was there to stay.

Into this environment stumbled Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, a pair of Ukrainian authors and two of the funniest men who ever put pen to paper. Their sparkling wit was displayed in the oft-filmed The Twelve Chairs and its lesser-known sequel, The Golden Calf. In 1935, Ilf and Petrov plunged into travelogue with their engaging tale of their motor trip across the United States.

Highly recommended reading.
Highly recommended reading.

Ilf & Petrov’s American Road Trip has all the humor one could expect from the authors and it also has some sharp observations. In the case of the chapter on Hollywood, the humor hits right between the eyes. Ilf and Petrov neatly outline a core sample of the sugary offerings that comprised much of mid-thirties entertainment. Poor girl trying to make it in the chorus but most of the movie is actually about naked legs and endless musical numbers. Wunderkinder: A child (usually Shirley Temple) solves grownup problems. Hurray, hurray. For counter-programming, beautiful gangsters with handheld machine guns. (Actually, I think Tommy Guns were restricted to good guys after the Code but carry on.) And did you know that American movies time their kisses?

I enjoy the quote because it really gets to the meat of why I love silent films. They were full of experiments, life, ideas. Even if the ideas were nutty, they were still put on the screen for all to see. There’s excitement in these films, the like of which would never be seen again in the movies.

Modern films and Golden Age films both have their own charms (in varying degrees) but the silent era has been so unfairly maligned that a little bit of sardonic humor aimed at the talkies is very tasty indeed. Ilf and Petrov’s hyperbole is just what the doctor ordered. Is it unfair? A bit, perhaps. But considering the venom and scorn thrown on the silents, I would say that turnabout is fair play.

(That being said, no tu quoque responses regarding Russia, please. It’s Monday and I can’t deal with such tedium so early in the week. But, no, you can’t do it on Friday either.)

10 Replies to “Silent Quote: “In the time of silent film there used to be a lot of good pictures. Now that’s all come to an end.””

  1. People scorn silent films without even watching one. I see no issue with these complaints at all! 😉 It’s also fascinating to know that there were always people deriding “modern” films; it’s not a phenomenon started after the classic Hollywood period came to an end.
    You know, the more I watch silent films, the more I start despising stuff like Singin in the Rain. I still enjoy the Broadway melody portion and certain numbers, but it’s had such a negative influence on the perception of silent film that my admiration for it has cooled considerably.

    1. Yes, I agree. That film has done so much damage. While Sunset Boulevard is definitely critical of Hollywood, it does have basis in fact and I think that most people who see it are curious about the real Gloria Swanson’s career. Singin’ in the Rain is so confidently smug that I just want to shake it.

      1. Unlike SITR, Sunset Blvd does not treat silent cinema like a dusty footnote or inherently flawed. It was simply a popular art form which passed; there is a sense of melancholy when we see that footage of Queen Kelly or when the camera glides over the floor where Valentino did the tango and the pool once enjoyed by other silent film stars. While it does not argue for a return to that era, it does have a sense of elegy and mystique. SITR just treats everything about silent film like it’s a joke, from the acting to the sort of films which were popular in the 1920s. Because every film from the 1950s has aged so gracefully!

  2. I like that quote. I have recently been watching a number of early talkies. Many seem to be moving backward as to technical aspects of film, story, writing and even acting at times. I know there were technical difficulties re synchronization and sound cameras but it must have looked from a film aficionado point of view at the time as a backwards step. And with sound film became more difficult to be viewed across language boundaries. Hence the quote makes a lot of sense to me on many levels.

    1. I agree. There were some real masterpieces in early sound (M comes to mind) but there was also a lot of laziness, sloppiness and incompetence. The beauty of conveying thought and emotion through purely visual means was lost. It’s never really come back.

      1. I actually just finished writing a post about this, but it’s never came back because Hollywood is terrified that purely visual storytelling will bore audiences, that they’re too shallow and easily distracted to appreciate such a manner of doing things.

      2. Yeah, that’s half the work of watching a silent film. You have to completely retrain your mind. Of course, the problem is that once you DO get your brain in gear for silents, a lot of talkies and modern films are unspeakable dull and flat.

      3. And he incorporated sound in a brilliant manner, making it part of the texture of the film instead of “Hey, let’s have a SONG” or whatever Hollywood was doing.

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