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.
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.)