More Than Just Words

An 81-year-old American silent movie and a current French film recently gave Michigan Theater audiences the chance to see how movies can entertain through different kinds of non-verbal communication.

At the February 4, 2008 showing of the 1927 movie Wings, Michigan organist Steven Ball helped the audience better appreciate the silent film experience, with the first movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

And a February 6, 2008 screening of the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly showed interactions between a voiceless, paralyzed man and his friends and caregivers.

Both movies presented special challenges for the directors, whose main characters would mostly have to express themselves without voices.  The actors ended up working at opposite ends of the range of physical movements—the dramatic, emotional acting styles of Wings, and the carefully posed immobility of the main character in The Diving Bell.

At the disposal of the directors were two important tools in moviemaking—faces and point of view. 

Who can forget the intensity, fear, pain and sorrow of the World War I American fighter pilots in Wings?  Director William Wellman put us right in the cockpit with these aerial warriors, as they battled German flyers in a lonely expanse of sky and clouds.

In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, director Julian Schnabel earned an Oscar nomination for his work in which he showed the different people in the life of the main (and real-life) character Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric). After suffering a stroke, Bauby could see through only one eye, and his view of friends and caregivers showed their concern, confusion, love, and commitment to his health and happiness.  I know how everyone complains of Oscar snubs, but I’m amazed that no acting nominations were earned by this film.

Imagination and Memory

In Diving Bell, you often heard the imagined thoughts of the main character, who amazingly narrated a book about his experiences through eyelid movements that indicated the letters of each word.  Bauby said that his imagination and his memory weren’t paralyzed, and that helped him survive.

You might say that imagination and memory helped viewers enjoy Wings

Their imagination helped them flesh out the personalities of the lead actors Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and Richard Arlen, whose words were limited to title cards and a few mouthed phrases that were easy to understand. And memories of other movies helped them see how Wings built creatively on the basic plots of other movies.

Both movies plunged the viewer into unimaginable worlds of horror, followed by heroic efforts to survive.  And both films had emotionally wrenching death scenes, with poignant goodbyes.

The endings of both movies brought a feeling of finality that I often don’t experience at the theater. 

After Diving Bell, I realized that I would never again see such an emotionally powerful and unique story. And after the roars of applause for Steven Ball’s dynamic and thoughtful music for Wings, I thought: As good an experience as we had tonight, it was only about a year or two later that silent movie experiences like Wings were outdated, with the advent of talking pictures.   

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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