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By MARK TURNER
There are many who would have been stunned when they heard that a silent movie won for best picture in 2012 at the Oscars. Okay, I admit I was one of those people. But after having had the chance to see the film it made me think that perhaps Hollywood granted the award for two reasons: one, because it is a great film and, two, because it is a love note to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The film is about the career of silent screen idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a swashbuckling/dancing/sly grinning matinee idol if there ever was one. When the film starts George is at the top of his game and the biggest box office draw around. Along with his pet pooch he's the talk of the town and a hit with everyone.
One day while signing autographs he literally bumps into a young woman named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). At first surprised, he passes it off with a laugh and the two go on their way. Except that now the press is all abuzz wondering who this mystery woman is, something that Mrs. Valentin (Penelope Ann Miller) isn't pleased with.
As the film progresses the paths of George and Peppy cross once more when they meet on the set of his next film where she's an extra. They playfully dance back and forth much to the displeasure of the head of the studio (John Goodman). When he attempts to toss her off the lot, George steps in and defends her. This is much to her good fortune as the roles she receives increase and her popularity grows as well.
The same can't be said of George. When Goodman shows him the latest thing to hit Hollywood, sound, George laughs it off and gloats that he's never needed sound to reach an audience. When the studio switches to sound only, George is tossed aside as old. He promises to show them how great silent films are by starring in, directing, writing and producing his next film. Opening the same day as the new Peppy Miller film, it draws a few people against the lines waiting to see her film.
Down and out and nearly penniless after the stock market crash, George's wife leaves him. Only his trusted chauffer Clifton (James Cromwell) stays by his side until George finally fires him due to no money with which to pay him. George sells off everything he has and finds little to keep him going.
At the same time the fortunes of Peppy Miller are skyrocketing. Little known to George so are her emotions for him. It will only be a matter of time before these star-crossed lovers finally meet once more.
It seems like such a simple story, perhaps a bit of A STAR IS BORN, tossed in as well. But this is no remake and yes, the story is quite simple. But that doesn't make it the least bit boring. Instead, it's a tremendous piece of storytelling that makes the viewer use their eyes to get the story. The music enhances the action on the screen just as it was in the silent era. The composition of what we are viewing is something we could take for granted or perhaps we have the chance to see how visually stimulating it can be, even in black and white.
The film ends with a dance number straight out of the old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers playbook. Unfortunately there will be far too many viewers who won't even know who Astaire and Rogers were which is kind of sad because there are so many great movies that just aren't the thing these days. Younger viewers ignore films that are black and white. They have no desire to watch a film that is "silent" (even though the score to this movie is fantastic). It's much easier to watch a movie with tons of explosions or sparkling vampires than it is to invest oneself in a love story like this one.
That's a big loss for this generation. They don't know about the high-flying adventures of Captain Blood or the deeply romantic loss felt by Rick in a town named Casablanca. They'll never know the charm of Nick and Nora Charles as they solve crimes or the horror displayed by an actor named Karloff. This movie might change that, though. Perhaps after watching and enjoying this film the younger generation might be interested enough to seek out those classics. One can only hope. And if not, at least they'll be entertained by this film. It deserved the attention it received.
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