Maybe Norma Desmond was right

Thanks to online streaming, I’ve been indulging in late-night marathons of sumptuous movie epics, sexy comedies and tragic romances featuring famous stories, amazing clothes, stylish sets, stunning cinematography and magnetic stars.

I’m talking about movies that are nearly 100 years old.

The French film The Artist, a mostly silent mobir that pays homage to the pre-1927, pre-talking motion picture era, was the critical darling of 2011 and just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

Locally, Contra Costa Musical Theatre is presenting a magnificently staged musical version of Sunset Boulevard, originally a 1950 Billy Wilder film about one-time movie goddess Norma Desmond mourning her silent film glory and pining for a comeback — or “return,” as Norma insists on saying.

Meanwhile, film critics nationwide are buzzing about this weekend’s screening of the restored 1927 French epic Napoleon at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. This Abel Glance film of “towering ambition,” says the New York Times, has been out of circulation for more than 30 years, having been repeatedly subject to tinkering and cutting by studio chiefs wanting to re-imagine it for new generations of audiences. Francis Ford Coppola presented a version of it at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, an occasion that was described as the film event of that year. The San Francisco Film Festival presents a restored 5 ½-hour version at Paramount this weekend and the following weekend. 

San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle says Napoleon encapsulates “the greatness of the silent era and anticipated many of the methods and styles of modern filmmaking.” 

New Yorker film critic David Denby took the occasion of The Artist‘s Oscar attention, as well as the Napoleon screening to pen a February 27 essay about silent films and their “lost style” of acting. He explains the silent era was nothing if not prolific. Lasting fewer than 20 years,from 1912 to 1929, it produced more than 10,000 features in the United States. 

Wilder made Sunset Boulevard a little more than 20 years after Hollywood started making talkies. Like The Artist’s George Valentine, Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond sees her career flame out when she’s unable to adapt to the new technology and changing consumer tastes.


In the film and stage versions of Sunset Boulevard, Norma declares that an entertainer like her once had the “eyes of the whole world.” Artists such as Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino or Norma herself “didn’t need words,” she says. “We had faces!” Studio chiefs trampled on “what was divine,” Norma says. “They threw away the gold of silence.”

Denby and other critics suggest that Norma Desmond, though portrayed as vain, deluded and tragic, also had a point.

The arrival of “moving pictures,” as they were also known, really changed the world, says Denby. They hit “like a hurricane,” he explains, “destroying elite notions of culture overnight.”

It  happens that movies emerged as mainstream entertainment at a time when centuries-old institutions and ideologies faced serious challenges to their once absolute authority. Just before and after the turn of the 20th century, God was declared dead, science was shaking up conceptions of the universe and human origins, and revolutions and a world war were poised to overthrow monarchies, geographical boundaries, class structures and political systems.  Photography and movies were part of the much larger revolution in how people shared culture and information.

“Seen properly, the best early movies were a revelation,” Denby says. “Particularly the sight of actors in close-up—filling a screen 50 feet or more across the diagonal, they presented a new landscape of flesh that astonished viewers,” he says.

The great silent films still have the power to astonish and entertain, Denby and other critics say.  I  agree.

Long interested in film history, I’ve tried to watch silent films every once in a while. Some I’ve watched out of duty and curiosity: D.W. Griffith’s “masterpieces” Intolerance (1916) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), with its misguided and sympathetic view of the Ku Klux Klan; the German Expressionist-infused horror curiosity, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

Others I have watched with delight, including a few I viewed recently. Denby acknowledges that silent films are an acquired taste. Contemporary audiences have to get over the sometimes exaggerated gestures of actors as well as stories and special effects that look and feel old-fashioned.

At the same time, there is something powerful and riveting about the really great silent films. Denby writes: “From the beginning, the silent cinema was an art devoted to physical risk and to primitive passions, to rage, lust, ambition, and obsession (silence made emotions more extreme in many ways), and it produced obsession in its huge audience.”

Visually, they can be stunning. In their sets and camera work, some display the influence of the visionary art movements of the time. In addition to German Expressionism, they are also heavy into Art Deco, futurism, Surealism and avant-garde. It should also be noted that CCMT’s Sunset Boulevard pays tribute to the story’s silent film backdrop, featuring costumes and a set, in blacks, whites and sepia, that create the illusion that you are watching a black and white film, according to Contra Costa Times’ theater critic Pat Craig.

Speaking of costumes, silent films are eye-candy for lovers of design and fashion. There is nothing like watching Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks or Norma Shearer flounce around in drop-waist gowns or lounge seductively in bias-cut dresses that hug their forms, freed of the corsets that encased an earlier generation of less empowered Victorian-era women.

And, no, the plots are not entirely dated. Some can be  surprisingly edgy and modern, with heroines juggling careers and romance or having sex outside marriage, and directors confronting pressing social issues: revolution, the dehumanizing effect of technology, war and social hypocrisy. 

Martin Scorsese calls the Napoleon screening a “major event.” Carl Davis will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony in his original music to accompany the film. 

Alas, if you don’t have the day to invest in going to see one of the four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount, but you are interested in seeing if you have a taste for silent films, they are available on DVD or online streaming. Mick LaSalle offers a slide show recommendation of “Great Enjoyable Silent Films” on his Maximum Strength Mick blog.

Among his recommendations are some that are available on Netflix:  Metropolis and Diary of a Lost Girl, both which came out of  1920s Weimar Germany and from pioneering directors Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst, respectively. The latter stars Louise Brooks, one of the great screen beauties. I also checked out It, a romantic comedy about a plucky shop girl who sets her cap on her handsome and rich employer. It stars a very appealing Clara Bow, one of cinema’s original sex symbols. 

Also available on Netflix: Sergei Esenstein’s Russian Revolution saga, Battleship Potemkin (1925), which features the famous sequence of a baby carriage rolling down the Odessa steps during a fictive massacre by Tsarist troops. John Barrymore, Drew Barrymore’s grandfather, hams it up a bit in Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (1920), but you can also see what a magnetic  leading man he was — before he lost his health, looks and charisma to alcoholism. 

No longer available on Netflix is a film that is more curiosity than entertainment. However, it has a killer backstory involving a Kennedy and a link to Sunset Boulevard.

It is called Queen Kelly (1929). Gloria Swanson, who plays Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard, produced it, thanks to the financial backing of her lover Joseph Kennedy, the father of JFK, RFK and Teddy. Queen Kelly is a costume epic, set in a middle European kingdom and involves the romance of a convent school girl (Swanson) and a prince, betrothed to a crazy, alcoholic queen. Swanson hired the pioneering Erich von Stroheim to direct, but he massively overspent and took the film in a strange, macabre direction — involving a brothel in Africa — that Swanson didn’t like. She fired him, the film was never finished, and Von Stroheim never directed a major motion picture again.

Fans of the film Sunset Boulevard should recall how Stroheim shows up in the film, playing Norma Desmond’s loyal butler Max, who has a strange, sordid past of his own. 

Contra Costa Musical Theatre’s “unblinking” and thoroughly satisfying debut of Sunset Boulevard plays through April 15 at the Lesher Center for the Arts. For tickets, go to

The four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre are at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1. 

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