The Artist: Homages, tributes and shoutouts

In my 2011 Year-End List, I chose The Artist as one of the 2011 movies I was dying to see but couldn’t until 2012. Well, I did get to see it — twice! — and I have to say it’s one of my favorite movies of last yearthis year…any year. I even modified my banner…yeah, it’s that good.

The film offers a special thrill for fans of classic movies, because it pays tribute to them, yet it’s thoroughly modern. Without giving too much away, I noted homages to classics like Sunset Boulevard, A Star Is Born, and Singing in the Rain (see below). Director Michel Hazanavicius shot at 22 frames per second, instead of the standard 24, to give the film a little of the jumpiness so characteristic of silent movies. Music is used more centrally than in a sound film, to emphasize moods or events. But the way sound is used and the way shots are framed are thoroughly 21st century. Also, it is a rare silent that has the high contrast of the deep blacks and crisp whites that Hazanavicius and his DP, Guilllaume Schiffman, were able to produce. I don’t want to say too much because I want everyone to see this movie on the big screen if possible…but even at home, it’ll still be stunning.

I so love seeing a movie made by people who love classic movies that I decided to try to put all the references I could think of together. NB: I have a complex about spoiling things for people…I hate to do it! So: There may be spoilers below…if you haven’t seen The Artist you might want to wait until you see it…and then come back and add the movie references you find! I know I’ve missed some.

Poster - A Star Is Born (1937)

The basic idea that propels the film is familiar to viewers of all three versions of A Star Is Born: a young woman who wants to be an actress (Peppy Miller, played by Bérénice Bejo) works her way up from extra to top-billed talent, aided greatly by an established actor (George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin), whom she meets in a chance encounter. Her career skyrockets while his is fading. TCM is running the 1937 and 1954 versions of Star on Feb. 26, so if there are any more specific points in common I’ve missed, I might be able to pick them up then.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) and Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in the screening room

The Artist shares a thread with Sunset Boulevard: The proud (though faded) star who is disdainful of change and has a kind chauffeur. Like Norma Desmond (silent star Gloria Swanson), George Valentin has no use for talkies. Both like to relive their pre-talkie glory days by watching their old movies. I can see him nodding vigorously in agreement as she declaims, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” or “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Unlike the protagonists in the above-named films, thank goodness George is ultimately a more sane and hopeful figure.

The Artist takes place at around the same time Singin’ in the Rain is set, and in the same context, and there are quite a few similarities between the two films. Like Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), George has an acting partner, Constance (Missi Pyle), whose transition to talkies was rough. Her sound test reminded me a lot of the work done by Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin’ (above). Kelly as an actor seems to have been a major influence. Dujardin gives George the same athletic style of movement as Kelly. I wish I could have found a still of Dujardin in the swordfight scene; with the thin moustache. he really resembles Kelly as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1948) or in The Dueling Cavalier (the movie within a movie in Singin’).

Early in The Artist, the scene where George is having breakfast with his disapproving soon-to-be ex-wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) references the breakfast montage in Citizen Kane. Hazanavicius’ use of mirrors reminds me a lot of Kane. Also, when George finds a room full of belongings that he had to sell (that’s all I’m going to say), it reminded me of the shot at the end of Kane, depicting the dead man’s vast and largely meaningless collection of stuff.

In Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life, The Little Tramp’s dog is always getting his human out of a jam, as is George’s dog (played by Uggie). I know there are probably references to other silent films, especially the staircase scene where George, on his way down, meets Peppy, on her way up. I have a lot to learn about silents though, so I will have to discover them as I work through them. Many thanks to @tpjost, for his help with this post. If you want to learn or talk about silents, definitely follow him on Twitter.

UPDATE: From sharp-eyed and knowledgeable film fans @caralluch and @Kinetograph (you really should follow them :)): The dance number at the end of The Artist is a lot like Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell’s tapdance to “Begin the Beguine” in The Broadway Melody of 1940. Also, @caralluch alerted me to Hazanvicius’ use of mirrors, which recalls Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. And, though @Kinetograph wasn’t the first to notice the use of part of Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo score in the scene where Peppy drives frantically across town to save George, he did give me the heads-up on that and also similarities with 7th Heaven, which I haven’t seen. So there are more specifics in the works.

UPDATE: Vincent from Carole & Co (dedicated to the fabulous Lombard) has written a great review of The Artist that includes some similarities that I missed.

What do you all think? What did movie references in The Artist I miss? Let me know below :)

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15 responses to “The Artist: Homages, tributes and shoutouts

  1. Great write up! I saw The Artist about three weeks ago. Afterwards I said ‘this is a movie for people who love the movies’. I would love to see it again. The score is incredible and permeates the movie, as it’s necessary to help convey emotion and tone.

    • Thank you Joel! I too want to see it again, I hope to see it in the cinema one more time. I agree, you can tell a lot of love and attention went into it, and I love the score. It’s one of the best movie-music combos I’ve ever seen. Thanks for stopping by :)

  2. I’m thrilled that you LOVE The Artist as much as I do!! This is the one I’m rooting for this year and I gave it a full 5 stars! As I’m not as familiar w/ classic movies as you I didn’t pick up on the homages, etc. so it’s cool to see how many there are! Dujardin did resemble Gene Kelly so much in that photo, wow, that is uncanny!! This guy is incredible, I love how expressive his face is, perfect for silent movies!

    • I don’t know many films before 1939 so I actually missed quite a few homages! There’s actually more, some sharp-eyed people have been tweeting me more of them. I haven’t had a few minutes to update the post :)

      I know Dujardin is quite the talent, very well-suited to the silent film. He’s definitely got more to do in this one than he had in those OSS 117 movies…as much as I liked them ;)

  3. Cannot express how happy I am to know that you enjoyed this so much. As did I. (great banner by the way). You chose some great films to help compare The Artist to. And I had no idea that M.H. shot this in 22 frames per second. Thanks for that bit of trivia. I’d say that whatever he did…it was GOLD! I also have seen The Artist twice and am ready for a third viewing.

    Wonderful review Paula!

    • Hey T, thanks for your kind words :) I just saw The Artist for the third time and I still LOVE it. It’s pretty much genius…just a really special film. I have some additions to make to this post as well…some lovely people on Twitter have pointed out more homages so look for that hopefully soon. Thanks again T, always good to see you!

  4. Haven’t seen the artist yet but I still hope it wins the Best Picture Oscar. I’d rather anything win over Hugo. I did a silent film module at Uni, it was such a thrill to see what the likes of Keaton and Chaplin could do with just some moving images and some inter-titles. I feel a silent era retrospective coming on. Thanks for this Paula.

    • Oh you’re very welcome Ronan :) I am hoping for The Artist too…it’s so so good, and also it’s like a little miracle that a silent picture got made in the 21st century. That is great that you got to study the silents, I’ve been missing out until just recently. People have been helping me with it, for instance I just saw Steamboat Bill Jr. for the first time and I was really amazed…so simple, so effective.

    • That’s a great post Vincent, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing, also for your kind words. I knew that staircase looked familiar! Is it OK if I put a link to your post in this post?

      I left you a comment, I will try to visit regularly as well :)

  5. Of these, I’ve only seen Singin’ in the Rain, but I still had the feeling that The Artist was a little too “inspired” by other films. I mean, I liked it, but I had the feeling it was “just” a kind of collage of old films. Anyway, it seems you spend a lot of time on this post and it was truly interesting to read.

    • Thanks Mette, I did spend a fair amount of time on putting it together, but I had help. For me, it does its own, really modern, thing but I know many others hold your opinion :)

  6. Like Hugo, The Artist really is a love poem to the old silents. Here are a few other links that I saw of my first viewing (the DVD just came today; the movie never played where I am in Japan). The swashbuckling scene also is a shout out to Douglas Fairbanks’ The Iron Mask. In The Artist, the year Valentin is doing that movie is 1929, which is indeed the year that Fairbanks did The Iron Mask. Another connection to Fairbanks is that when Valentin is screening some of “his” old movies, one of them is Fairbanks’ 1920 The Mask of Zorro (whose character looks just like Valentin, with the pencil moustache). The connection with Kelly is a sound one too, especially as Kelly was building his character on Doug Fairbanks. –There is an intertitle quotation from Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel when Peppy asks her beau to take her home in the scene where she comes to George’s door (that looks like the cast iron grillwork at the door in Sunset Blvd in the final scene when Betty/Joe part at the end). It is Garbo’s most famous quote: “Take me home. I want to be alone.” I’m just beginning to catalog the homages and have notes about about a dozen more, some of which I need to double check. What a great movie!!

    • Wow, this is awesome…thank you so much for adding all of these…I have some more movies to watch, or in some cases, re-watch…I’ve seen some of these but didn’t make the connections. Would it be OK if I added these to the main post? I’ve been meaning to update it because I noticed some similarities with Suds (1920), of course I’ll credit you and link to whatever site you would like :)

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