Don't Speak! (It's a Silent Movie Thing)
Of the three movies that conclude Cinefamily’s series of silent works by master filmmakers, one stands out as less a stylistic stepping stone than a fully formed expression of its director’s metier. Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) is widely considered the original gangster movie, and inaugurates in high style what writer Robert Warshow famously designated the “Gangster as Tragic Hero.” Yet, like any von Sternberg film (most obviously his obsessive marvels with Marlene Dietrich), Underworld isn’t concerned with archetype as much as the lengths — and depths — to which passions drive us, plumbed here in a love triangle between a blustery crime lord, his moll and his faithful right-hand man. As always, the director gives good shadow, and creates such dynamic concision both between his actors and within the frame, that the intertitles are barely necessary.
In the case of Howard Hawks and Fig Leaves (1926), not only are the titles essential, they practically cry out for sound. Assiduously punctuated, enlarged for emphasis and even embellished with musical notes, they strain to give voice to the tones and tempos so crucial to the Hawks’ oeuvre — this is the man, after all, responsible for the swooping screwball rhythms of His Girl Friday, and for commanding Lauren Bacall to train her voice down into its trademark husky purr. Fig Leaves features some funny trick photography, a dazzling parade of fantastic Adrian fashions and some sharp, sassy mugging — but without that heat-seeking Hawks dialogue to even the score, this man-and-wife, war-of-the-sexes comedy tips drearily toward the director’s more tedious macho postures.
Of course, a great silent film is never really silent. In the breezy, self-assured comedy The Matinee Idol (1928), Frank Capra triggers our hearing without making a sound, calling forth a raucous din of laughter, tears, tinny pianos, tapping chorus girls, sloppy kisses and the beating and breaking of hearts. Starring the captivating Bessie Love as a rural ingenue on Broadway, the film displays Capra’s already solid grasp on the humor and poignance of upright simple folks pitted against cynical sophisticates before his heavier mantle of self-righteous sentimentality descended. Blackface warning — be prepared to cringe — but otherwise a sheer delight. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theater; Wednesdays at 8 p.m., thru Dec. 26. www.silentmovietheatre.com)
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