Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Best Actor Of The Silent Era: Charles Chaplin (Part One: "And The Nominees Are ...")

Decades after the demise of silent movies, one star from that era remains instantly recognizable: Charles Chaplin. And when it came time to choose the best actor of the Silent Era, I didn't hesitate. I'm a Chaplin man, through and through.

My feelings on this matter, however, are not universally shared, nor should they be, this being a democracy of aesthetic preferences rather than a tyranny of objective certainties. But I think I can explain my choice in a way that will at least show it's an informed one.

First, let's run through the nominees one by one.

Arguably, Emil Jannings was the most respected dramatic actor of the Silent Era and in fact, he won the very first Oscar for his performances in The Last Command and The Way Of All Flesh (early Oscars were awarded for a body of work in a given year rather than for a specific performance).

But you don't hear much about Jannings anymore—and not just because he returned to Hitler's Germany in the early 1930s and became an ardent Nazi. As I have written before, silent movies didn't lend themselves to straight drama and watching Jannings work now is, in my opinion, strictly for film students.

Another fine dramatic actor was John Barrymore, a handsome matinee idol known as "The Great Profile." Still, to my mind, his best performances (until alcoholism destroyed his career) came during the early days of the sound era.

Then there's Rudolph Valentino, the male pin-up star of the Silent Era. He made thirty-eight movies, The Sheik being the best known. Frankly, though, Valentino was more of an icon than an actor—pleasing eye candy if that's your idea of a good time—and his appeal lies more in the idea the name evokes than in any actual performance.

Equally famous in his day was Douglas Fairbanks. He was in some fine movies, co-founded United Artists and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1940. But fairly or unfairly, I think of Fairbanks primarily as the Silent Era's greatest stunt man and swashbuckler than its greatest actor.

The strongest choice for best actor of the Silent Era not named Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin would be Lon Chaney, forever known, thanks to his brilliant makeup jobs and varied characterizations, as "The Man of a Thousand Faces." The title roles he played in the silent versions of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera are among the most indelible in the history of motion pictures.

Nevertheless, as great as Chaney was, there are only two real possible choices for title of Best Actor of the Silent Era: Charles Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

Next up, Part Two: "Chaplin Or Keaton: The Never-ending Argument"


kenny8blog said...

Hi M.M. like your angle on silents.Buster great but not so multi dimensional as Chaplin.So,Chas gets my vote,Ken

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks for the support. I think a lot of others prefer Keaton these days. But after recently re-watching The Kid, The Gold Rush and The Circus on the one hand, and The General, Sherlock Jr., Our Hospitality and The Navigator on the other, I stand by my choice of Chaplin.

Tomorrow I'll have Part Two of this essay up. It runs nearly a thousand words (okay, so I went a little nuts).

Entertainment Blog said...

Two thumbs up!