The Scent of Silence

Jean Dujardin & Berenice Bejo in The Artist

I wonder how many of you currently enjoying the Oscar-winning movie The Artist recall that historic episode of Parkinson during which Barry Humphries remorselessly baited poor old Gloria Swanson, stamping on her every line and never allowing her a word in edgeways. Later publicly rebuked he remarked unabashed, “but I was told she was a silent star”. It was probably the first time in her life that Swanson had been upstaged. Perhaps more than any other of her contemporaries she came to personify what the silent screen was all about: but hers was a survivor’s perspective: she had a good voice, made the cross-over to talkies and retrospectively defined old-time stardom in Sunset Boulevard; this kind of became her act for the next 30-odd years – being a (ostensibly sane) survivor from Jurassic Hollywood.

A factoid cliche claims that sound killed the careers of all the great silent stars just as the meteor finished the dinosaurs: their voices were all wrong, it is said. Not so: Valentino was already prematurely dead; Chaplin continued to work without sound; Joan Crawford, Dietrich,Mary Astor, Ronald Colman, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Myrna Loy and especially Garbo thrived in the silents and became even bigger stars in the talkies. Others like Clara Bow and John Gilbert staggered on for years in the new medium. After all, there was such a profession as voice coach even then. No, it was the changing times, the Zeitgeist, that put paid to the careers of the more outre and extravagant personalites.

The breadlines,soup kitchens and dance marathons of America in the Depression had no interest in the eccentricities and extravagances of Mae Murray (twice married to European aristocracy but who fell into such poverty that she ended sleeping on a park bench); Barbara LaMarr “The Girl who is too Beautiful” who like Mabel Normand drugged herself to death; Corinne Griffith,who forgot who she was; the ethereal intellectualism of Lilian Gish or the play-pretend infantilism of Mary Pickford. The USA grew up as fast as Wall St collapsed and was looking for a new grittiness in its entertainments: and the world took its lead (as ever) from America.

And perfumes changed too. They sobered up, cleaned up, freshened up for the 1930’s. Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden put up floral bouquets in lieu of such baroque splendours as Caron‘s Narcisse Noir, Pois de Senteur de Chez Moi, Nuit de Noel and the late lamented Patou extravaganza, Chaldee. (Long before Marilyn’s experiments with Chanel, Josephine Baker danced nude except for clouds of Chaldee). Scents of the silents were intricate, perverse, bizarre: they expressed and emoted like the divas who wore them and whose acting manner, far more than their voices, dated them once the studios were miked.

Twenties perfumes needed huge colourful eccentric personalities to carry them off: they pioneered the use of leather and tobacco; they revelled in overdoses of gardenia (try the Isabey version) jasmine, tuberose and all the brilliantly scented synthetics and chemicals then inspiring the leading perfumers of the day. Their perfumes complemented the wearing of fur, feathers, metallic beaded dresses of sequins and golden mesh, thickily brilliantined cropped hair and garish makeup. Scents unfolded slowly, like the stately pace of silent movies; you can’t rush a silent, nor a silent star’s scent. It will last while you see the programme round again.

A final note on Gloria …remember those obituary headlines? “Sic transit Gloria mundi”. Narcisse Noir was always said to be her signature, and it was already a best-seller when she was still a girl in Chicago. But the immortal Narcisse Noir deserves a Wedge all to itself at a future date.

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