Who says silence is golden? George Valentin, that’s who.
Well, he would if you could hear him. George, an actor of the late silent film era, is the Midas of silence, a master of the medium who speaks through every shrug and smile, every gesture and shuffle. His fans gasp at his athletic derring-do, swoon in the presence of his wire-thin mustache, laugh at the antics of his ever-present dog.
It’s 1927, and George must feel invincible, untouchable—a mute king in a land where silence is indeed golden.
Opening night at George’s latest film, A Russian Affair, seems fairly typical: George mugging for the cameras, fans clamoring for his attention. Then a young woman drops her pocketbook on the other side of police lines. She ducks under to get it—and finds herself face-to-face with the hunkiest guy in Hollywood. They square off as the flashbulbs pop, and George lets out a generous laugh. She preens for the camera … and plants a pucker on his cheek. The kiss winds up as the front-page picture on Variety magazine, graced with the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”
That girl is Peppy Miller, a woman with dreams of becoming a star. She earns a bit part in George’s next film (with a little help from the actor) and slowly begins to climb up the credits. By 1929, she’s almost a star, ready to make some noise.
Some literal noise.
Silent movies, you see, are on their way out along with the decade that gave them definition, dumped by studios in favor of “talkies.” It’s a new era in filmmaking, requiring new techniques, new talent. “The public wants fresh meat,” says studio boss Al Zimmer, “and the public is never wrong.” Vivacious new personalities like Peppy are in vogue. Silent hams like George? They’re yesterday’s news.
“If that’s the future, you can have it!” George hollers after seeing—and listening to—a sound-screen test.
Or he would, if you could hear him. As it is, the intertitle card speaks for George, and he storms out of the studio, full of and fury.
When Hollywood’s silent era comes crashing down, George crashes with it. He tries to produce his own silent film, believing audiences will still pay to see it. But the movie bombs at the same time as the stock market, leaving George practically destitute. His wife, Doris, throws her golden boy out on his ear … into a world that threatens to crush him.
And yet, George is not without friends.
His dog may truly be his best friend, sticking with him through the worst of times and sometimes even rescuing him, Lassie-style. The mutt personifies selfless loyalty. But it’s almost outdone in this department by Clifton, George’s incredibly loyal chauffeur. When everyone else moves on and away from George, Clifton remains. He appears to even live with George in his modest Los Angeles home, cooking dinner and driving the fabulous limo as though nothing had happened. When George asks him how long it’s been since he’s been paid, Clifton—calmly cutting veggies—says, “A year.”
George, knowing this situation can’t be good for his dependable friend and employee, fires Clifton. “Keep the car,” George says. “and find yourself another job.”
“I don’t want another job,” Clifton says as George closes the door in his face. Clifton waits outside the house for hours, hoping George will relent. Finally, though, he winds up working for Peppy, George’s third true-blue friend. Though the two had a falling out just as Peppy’s star was on the rise, she’s concerned about the well-being of her old chum. After she sees his ill-fated last silent film, she drives over to offer congratulations (though the conversation doesn’t go well). And when George is forced to sell off his belongings, Peppy’s the one who buys most of them, storing them at her house. An injury George sustains prompts her to bring him home to recuperate in her mansion. Every time George is in need, in fact, Peppy’s around to help—even threatening to quit if Al Zimmer doesn’t cast George in Peppy’s newest film.
“If only you would let me help you, George Valentin,” she sadly sighs. Prideful George won’t take Peppy’s hand. But it doesn’t diminish the fact that she never withdraws it: It’s always in George’s reach, outstretched and hopeful.
It’s telling that one of Peppy’s films—of which we see the marquee in the background—is called Guardian Angel.
Peppy traipses around in a flapper outfit featuring a somewhat revealing neckline—”cavorting” with one of George’s overcoats in his dressing room. (She sticks one of her hands in its sleeve and imagines that it’s George’s hand, moving it to caress her own thigh and hip.)
Peppy refers to some male admirers as “toys.” George dances with another man in a film for a laugh.
George was an action hero, and many of his films feature him punching, shooting or stabbing bad ‘uns. In one, we see a mad scientist send electricity shooting through his brain (à la Frankenstein). In another, George is consumed by quicksand. During a drunken hallucination, George imagines that a tiny copy of himself—along with a group of African natives—shoot guns and spears at him.
George’s dog has been trained to play dead whenever George points an imaginary gun at him and says “bang.” The dog repeats the trick several times, including once when a real gun goes off. Peppy drives recklessly (putting others in danger) before crashing into a tree. George, frustrated and likely drunk, takes out his anger on a film projector and a mess of his old movies. He’s nearly trapped in a house fire. Doris angrily throws a paper at George and his dog.
Contemplating suicide, a man sticks a gun in his mouth.
An actress flips George off. “D‑‑n” appears on an intertitle. (Diligent lip readers might pick up a few more mouthed profanities.)
Smoking wasn’t thought to be a big deal in the 1920s and ’30s, and we see a lot of it in The Artist. George smokes cigarettes regularly, and Al’s often shown puffing away at his cigar.
George drinks quite a bit, too, and when things go sour for him, he turns to alcohol for solace. He drinks a variety of such beverages, and we see his trash can filled with empty bottles. When he runs out of liquor, he pawns his tuxedo to buy more. And it’s probable that alcohol is a factor in George toppling over a film projector and destroying most of his old movies. (Note that during this time of prohibition, buying alcohol was illegal.)
Pride goes before a fall, we’re told. In George’s case, it goes after one, too. Though often warned of this near-fatal flaw in his character, he’s quick to imagine slights where there are none or simply wallow in his own self-pity.
This may account for, at least partially, why George isn’t a sensitive soul when it comes to others. Though he helps Peppy get ahead (perhaps because he’s romantically drawn to her), he doesn’t try to show affection to his wife—nor does she try to reach out to him. In a quick montage, we see them draw ever further apart, finally getting to the point where Doris draws glasses and horns on pictures of George in magazines.
“Speak to me!” She finally screams at him, later following it up with, “I’m unhappy, George.”
“So are millions of us,” he tells her. Shortly thereafter, they split.
As the film industry begins making the exciting, frightening transition to talkies, George has a dream: He’s a man surrounded by noise. He can hear his whiskey glass clink as he puts it on a counter. He can hear the breeze in the trees. He can hear footsteps, garbled conversation, laughter.
Yet he himself can’t make a sound. He tries to talk. To scream. But nothing comes out. He is voiceless. Powerless. Silent.
The Artist is the silent story of a man trying to make sense of a new, noisy world—perhaps not too far removed from where some of us are today, in a world filled with new avenues of communication. We’re in transition (and I suppose we always are), and no matter how we may long for the days of, say, handwritten letters, we know that they’re gone. And if we’re particularly skilled at such missives, we feel that loss more deeply than most.
George, as an artist, spoke through motion and picture. Each emotion played out on his face like electricity, coursing through hands and arms like lightning. Why tell a joke when he could show one instead? Why tell the world he’s happy when he could simply smile?
The talkies seem to rob George of even this gift. As Peppy grows in popularity and becomes ever more animated, George seems to withdraw into himself—shuffling through the streets with minimal muscle, hiding behind a face frozen into a mask of resignation. No longer is he the outsized star, but a quiet, nearly motionless man. In reaction to the change around him, he seems to stifle the very traits that made him who he was.
Except for a stray middle finger, a mild profanity and a few mouthed interjections, the on-screen content in The Artist comes straight from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the days of Cary Grant and Bette Davis, of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, that was the age of talkies, not silent films, but to me, this expression of the era doesn’t feel as much like a movie from the 1920s as it does from the ’30s and ’40s—gorgeously filmed in black and white, where every shot and every scene has a story to tell.
But in the end, all of The Artist’s clever conceits—its homage, its reverence, its adherence to the craft—faithfully serve the story of George Valentin. We watch, riveted, as George reacts much as we all sometimes do when confronted with something different and uncomfortable: We push back. We rebel. And if things move on without us, we wallow. We feel as if we’ve lost our voice.
Before the credits roll on our lives, though, we must learn to push away our despair over circumstance, push past our resentment and make peace with the reality we’ve been handed. Just like George must learn. If we can’t talk like some folks or sing like others, we must still communicate—to find new and creative ways to make ourselves heard.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.