In director Michel Hazanavicius’ 2011 film “The Artist,” similar to 1952’s “Singing in the Rain,” nostalgia for the days of silent films is depicted through the eyes of a handsome screen idol whose career threatens to implode when the innovation of “talkies,” or films with sound and spoken dialogue, is introduced and rapidly begins the death knell of those who failed to adapt. Unlike in Vincent Minnelli’s earlier musical, however, the protagonist in “The Artist,” George Valentin, never does adapt, preferring instead to remain true to his roots in silent pictures. While he is ultimately saved from ignominy and destitution by Peppy Miller, the young beautiful upstart (“Make way for the young!”) whose ascent in the film world contrasts with George’s decline, he maintains what he considers his integrity and fealty to the age of silent film by agreeing to produce sound in a “talky” solely through his feet – in effect, through his tap dancing.
Prior to his “redemption,” however, George persistently renounces the introduction of sound in movies. Symbolically, his lines (lip-synced and accompanied in the final production by subtitles, as was done in silent films) in one of his silent movies encapsulates his mood: “I won’t talk! I won’t say a word!” As Norma Desmond declared in the 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard,” about an aging former star of the silent screen failing to come to terms with her diminished relevance in the age of sound, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And this, in a manner of speaking, is behind the concept of “Show, don’t tell.” Actors and actresses in the silent film era were required to employ a more extravagant method of acting in the absence of dialogue, with exaggerated movements and facial expressions. Many of them firmly believed in the artistic superiority of their performances when such movements and expressions represented the entirety of their efforts. “Don’t tell me what you can do, show me.”
The concept of “Show, don’t tell” did not disappear with silent films. On the contrary, many writers and directors continue to employ this philosophy, preferring images to spoken dialogue. Images can convey meaning in a more visceral way than communicating a message or concept through words. That is the meaning behind George Valentin’s obstinance regarding the transition of the film industry from silent movies to those with sound. His refusal initially leads to his professional and financial ruin. His reemergence in film, however, occurs on his terms.