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Alexander Payne, Silent Film Aficionado

Features
by Leonard Maltin
January 30, 2012 1:00 AM
11 Comments
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Alexander Payne on location during filming of 'The Descendants'. Fox Searchlight

Alexander Payne is once again an Oscar-nominated director, for his wonderful film The Descendants (still my favorite picture of 2011), but you may not be aware that his love of cinema runs deep. When he agreed to introduce Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped at last year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, he talked about his lifelong passion, and his love of silent film, with such eloquence that I later asked if he would allow me to reprint his speech. This seems as good a time as any.

Like most of you, I fell in love with silent film as a child, even as my exposure to them, in 1960s and '70s Omaha, was limited. And I’m sure that like many of you, I spent all of my allowance money for years on 8mm prints of silents—and most of that money sent, in money orders purchased at the drug store, to Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa. Blackhawk allowed me, for example, to screen at age 12 The Phantom of the Opera to my father, who’d seen it in 1925, and to have him recall his initial reaction at age 10.

Later, at UCLA Film School, I found that my professor of silent film had curated the Blackhawk collection, and again in this room it’s an honor to be in the presence of David Shepard.  It was he who in great part, a dozen years before meeting him, had permitted my earliest film education to include Chaplin and Griffith and Keaton and Turpin and of course Chaney; and to be able to watch those films over and over again. Also a tremendous honor to be in the presence of Mr. Brownlow, and in the presence of all of you who, like me, adore silent film, the bulb of the tulip.

John Gilbert and Norma Shearer morn Lon Chaney in 'He Who Gets Slapped'.

There’s little if anything I can tell the people in this room about the specifics of this well-known and widely admired film. The program notes are terrific, so I’ll leave it to you to read them or research about the Leonid Andreyev play on which it’s based—I read it, by the way, and I think the adaptation is a big improvement—or about the careers of Chaney or Victor Sjostrom, or how this was MGM’s first production and the first appearance of the lion. You’ll see for yourself the beauty of the visuals and the discipline of the filmmaking.

Anyway, I suspect that when they invite people like me to introduce a film, they’re perhaps more interested in hearing how a contemporary practitioner might view the film, so please allow me to share some personal thoughts about Chaney and a film such as this. He Who Gets Slapped gets me thinking about two things: the performer as auteur, and the importance in movies of dream.

A beautiful thing about cinema is that the very greatest film actors—no matter the director, no matter the studio, even no matter the screenplay—are  capable of creating, even over a relatively short time, a body of work expressing a world view, or at least a posture toward the world, nearly as cohesive and compelling as a director’s. Bogart, Mastroianni, Nicholson, Dietrich. Chaney is one of the first of these and one of the very greatest.

He wrote, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback, such as The Phantom of the Opera, He Who Gets Slapped, The Unholy Three, etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”

In 'He Who Gets Slapped' (l to r) Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney and John Gilbert. That's Ford Sterling behind Gilbert. Erik Stocklassa is the Ringmaster.

But how he did it says something very deep not just about his career but about cinema in general and silent cinema in particular.

In Mr. Brownlow’s documentary about Chaney, Ray Bradbury says, “He was someone who acted out our psyches. He got into the shadows inside our bodies; he was able to nail down some of our secret fears and put them on-screen.”

"The history of Lon Chaney is the history of unrequited loves. He brings that part of you out into the open, because you fear that you are not loved, you fear that you never will be loved, you fear there is some part of you that's grotesque, that the world will turn away from.”

I’m far from the first one to say this, but one of cinema’s greatest uses or values lies not just in its ability to capture reality, but to capture or suggest dream. And silent film excelled from the start at fully embracing the weirdness of real life and dream and how the two can be combined into a story the likes of which I think we’ve not seen in talkies—at least not in quantity. I think we find represented in silent film a fuller, weirder totality of human experience.

Director Alexander Payne on set of 'The Descendants'. Fox Searchlight

Other narrative arts could be related to dream as well, but only the cinema is able to do it with actual images corresponding mysteriously to reality and without a single spoken word—the language of dream. By “dream,” I don’t mean just actual dream representation but also the Jungian and Freudian senses of unconscious imagery revealing the psyche.

One often glimpses more in silent film, experiences more in silent film, the qualities and expressions and language of dream. And this is the level at which I am drawn to view so much of Chaney’s work and where I see an incredibly strong through-line in so many of his films—certainly this one and the [Tod] Browning’s. It’s no accident that a presence such as Chaney’s emerged so vigorously in silent film.

Another thought. Many directors with the luck to start in silents retained a heightened sense of pictorialism throughout their careers, but it was Buñuel who to my mind conserved into the 1970s the oneiric sense of cinema we see in silents and very much in Chaney films like the one tonight.

Buñuel is one of my favorites directors of talkies since he remained, to my eye anyway, a silent film director all of his life both in visual sense and in his consciousness of the power of cinema to fold dream imagery into reality. I invite you sometime to watch Viridiana orLos Olvidados with the sound off.

And a connection: there’s something Spanish that I find in the grotesquerie of Chaney films, a pathos of the grotesque seen not only in Buñuel but in centuries of Spanish literature and painting. Think of that final dark period of Goya’s.

Chaney’s performance in this one is simply magnificent—utter commitment to the role and to the humanity expressed, no overacting—even he was mindful of his occasional tendency. Ford Sterling gives a lovely and for him subtle performance. The future Mrs. Thalberg is quite captivating; I actually prefer her in silents.

But both for the story and the performance, I invite you to free associate as you watch this fairly insane clown movie: images of a great intellectual suddenly converted into a masochistic clown, the attack of a lion, a heart buried in sand as crowds roar in laughter. Where is today that fabulous oneiric quality of silent film?

A final reflection at the conclusion of this terrific festival. One of my aspirations is to achieve one day in a film of my own, a passage, even a brief one—I’ll take twenty seconds—that can approach the direct and mysterious cinematic beauty we see in silent film.

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11 Comments

  • Penny Theatres | February 7, 2012 9:21 PMReply

    I am a young director who absolutely loves silent film. Here is my contribution to the silent film resurgence: The Great Lyndini http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBRY4_ZJHg8

  • Bob Giovanelli | February 2, 2012 9:41 PMReply

    Alexander makes a great point that got me thinking. When one thinks of great moments of film throughout history (and I'm thinking of my favorite moments from Kubrick, Spielberg, and other directors)....they could easily be silent-film moments. The visual is all, and of course with a great score, as many silents had at the time, albeit from some organist in the theater. With Payne, one could say that in his latest film, Clooney's frantic run around the corner in flip-flops, or his peeking over the hedges....are his own "silent-film" moments to be proud of.

  • Anne Smatla | February 1, 2012 1:54 PMReply

    What an absolutely wonderful read. Alexander Payne is an exceptional director and we were honored to have him present the Lifetime Achievement Award to David Shepard at last year's inaugural Denver Silent Film Festival. Silent film holds a special and prevalent place in cinematic history, and to have modern filmmakers present and educate moviegoers about this beautiful art is reputable and admirable.

  • Peter M | January 31, 2012 5:19 PMReply

    Thank you, Mr. Maltin, for posting this speech. I wish more people appreciated silent films.

    I too watched silent 8mm films from Blackhawk when I was a kid. Our local public library had them and I used to check them out often. And when I was a teenager in the 70s, I remember seeing Buster Keaton's The General on public television. It remains my #1 favorite movie to this day. And I'll never forget also seeing Nosferatu on public television around that time and how chilling it was!

    I'm grateful to Turner Classic Movies, too, for their Silent Sunday Night features!

  • Frank Buxton | January 31, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Mr.Payne's speech was indeed a highlight of last July's San Francisco Silent Film Festival and a nice reminder that the SFSFF has provided us with a weekend of wonder at The Castro Theater each year for 17 years. In addition to next July's event, they are presenting the landmark screening of "Napoleon" in March at the Paramount in Oakland. It's a thrill to attend anything they do.

  • Norm | January 30, 2012 9:15 PMReply

    Great Imagery..All of the Clowns surrounding the downed Chaney, Brilliant...You don't have to make silent films to show that kind of Picture...Scorsese for one..he takes the time to do it correct...

  • Hugh Rawson | January 30, 2012 6:15 PMReply

    Thanks for reprinting Payne's speech. You don't often get so much to think about in such a short talk.

  • Kay | January 30, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    GREAT article, I love this, Leonard! Thanks for sharing. I'm going to spread this around to other film buffs who may have missed it. Marvelous! Kay

  • Patrick Picking | January 30, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    I resposted this. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to seeing some great silent films at Cinefest in March!

  • Karen Snow | January 30, 2012 7:44 AMReply

    Wow. A magnificent critical analysis and commentary on my personal God, Lon Chaney (whom I did my Master's thesis on). Wish I could have written so eloquently. Thanks for reproducing this wonderful and thought-provoking speech.

  • Kevin C. | January 30, 2012 1:25 AMReply

    If any director can find that "20 seconds" it'll be Alexander Payne.

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