Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Artist" and Hollywood's Golden Age

I enjoyed “The Artist,” which is the favorite to win best picture tonight at the Oscars.  I’m not sure if it should win the Academy Award, but it is an innovative film that harkens back to the “Golden Age of Hollywood” in the 1920s and 1930s.  Motion pictures emerged as a dominant part of the pop culture in this time and eventually moved from silent movies to “talkies” with sound.

D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” which premiered in 1915, is generally considered the first feature film.  Though there had been movies in the first decade of the 20th century, “Birth” used new techniques that give it an almost modern feel.  Griffith took several weeks to make “Birth of a Nation,” at a time when most movies were filmed in a week.  Unfortunately, the film’s historical significance is how it depicted Reconstruction as a time when law and order broke down in the recently defeated Confederacy because freed blacks held political sway.  The climax of the film shows the Ku Klux Klan emerging to defend virtuous white womanhood while restoring calm to the South.  Griffith’s work provided a popular audience for the conventional historical interpretation of Reconstruction at the time—that its “failure” revealed blacks were not ready for citizenship and that racial change must come gradually. 

“The Artist” begins in 1927, with the movie industry thriving during the economic expansion of the “Roaring 20s.”  20,000 new theaters were constructed, as movie houses became a central part of downtowns in major cities across the country.  Furthermore, attendance grew as the number of tickets sold rose from 40,000 in 1922 to 100,000 by 1930, when 65 percent of the country attended films on a weekly basis, an all-time record (Leuchtenburg, 195; Pautz, p. 1).  

The central character of “The Artist” is George Valentin, whose name is likely an homage to Rudolph Valentino, a major star of the silent film era.  The movie shows Valentin and his love interest, Penny Miller, working directly for the Hollywood studios.  Under the “studio system” of the period, production companies signed real-life actors and actresses to contracts to appear in a certain number of films. This arrangement prevailed throughout the industry until legal challenges eventually brought about its end in the early 1960s.

“The Artist” shows Valentin as dismissive of the dialogue in movies when first introduced to “talkies” in 1929.  In fact, Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” premiered as the first “talkie” two years earlier, in 1927.  “The Jazz Singer” is mostly a silent film, but features two major scenes with talking and song and dance numbers.

The film also shows how Valentin’s career, like many silent stars, was damaged by the change to audio.  To add insult to injury, Valentin is financially devastated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression.  Propelled by the “talkies,” however, the movie industry as a whole did fairly well during the 1930s, as Americans needed an inexpensive distraction from their troubles. The film then follows Valentin’s descent into obscurity as he refuses to adapt to the new reality, while the younger Miller thrives in “talkies.” 

“The Artist” mythologizes the late 1920s and 1930s, which many look back upon as the peak years of the movie industry.  Indeed, films dominated American popular culture before the arrival of television in the late 1940s.  Subsequently, though, movie attendance began a two-decade long decline that would only be reversed with the arrival of the summer blockbusters in the 1970s.  For more, see

Sources: William Leuchtenburg, Perils of Prosperity, 1914-32 (1958)
                Michelle Pautz, "The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930-2000,"  Issues in Political Economy, 2002, vol. 11

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