One of my all time favorite movies is Billy Wilder's 1950 classic, "Sunset Boulevard". In one scene, faded movie queen Norma Desmond bemoans the loss of silent movies. "I AM big. It's the PICTURES that got small", she states in one of the most famous lines of movie dialog of all time. In another passage, Norma states that it was better then because "We had FACES then, and now they've filled the theaters with words, words, WORDS!!!"
This month, Turner Classic Movies is paying tribute to the great Silent Films, and last week I gave two of them a try. Each starred two of the great leading ladies of the Silent Era.
The first movie was "It" from 1927, and it's star was Clara Bow.
"It" was a romantic comedy that involved the quality of IT. IT was that certain, indefinable quality in a person that made them special, sexy, desirable. Clara Bow was certainly attractive in her role in this movie, and it gave her an indelible nickname in the culture, "The IT Girl". No doubt about it, when you watched "It" you did so for one reason - Clara Bow's performance and charm.
The second movie was "Sadie Thompson" (1928) and its star was none other than Norma Desmond herself, Gloria Swanson, and this is how she appeared in the title role.
No question, Swanson was dynamic in this movie, and beautiful. Even watching a deteriorating, eight-six year old black and white film, Swanson was utterly captivating. I was particularly captivated by her eyes. They were startlingly clear and bright in this old film to the point that I could have sworn that they were bright blue or green, even though I was watching a black and white movie. The picture I have posted above captures that to some extent.
As for the movies themselves, you can certainly follow the story despite the absence of dialog (or words, words, words!!!), but what "dialog" there was, in the form of title cards, was really corny by today's standards. I'm with Joe Gillis, silent movies used to be big,and sorry, Norma, the pictures have not gotten small.
Clara Bow had a sad life. Her mother suffered from insanity and once nearly killed her, and Bow herself was institutionalized for depression at intervals of her life. She died in 1965 at the age of 60.
Gloria Swanson was a woman way ahead of her time. She organized her own production company so that she could control what movies she made and have some control over her own career. She served as the Producer on "Sadie Thompson" when she was only 29 years old. On the TCM intro, host Ben Mankiewicz mentioned that Swanson's career went into a bit of decline after "Sadie Thompson", and she made few movies until she returned in "Sunset Boulevard" the role for which she will be most remembered. After that she did a lot of TV work. She made her last movie in 1974, "Airport 1975". She died in 1983 at the age of 84.