The Artist’s Story

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This Sunday, the Motion Picture Academy gives out its Oscars, and the silent film “The Artist” is nominated in ten categories.  As WNYC’s Sara Fishko tells us, that film is driven by a story engine that just won’t quit.  Here is the next Fishko Files…







An Old Story is Told Again

The story: A young person with ambition meets an established star. Their positions begin to reverse as the newcomer rises and the older star-mentor declines. It often ends tragically.

Maybe one reason this story is so often told is that some version of this narrative happened to so many people in Hollywood – especially in the early days of talking pictures.

  • John Gilbert and Ina Claire: Silent actor John Gilbert (1897 – 1936) was a huge movie star, who made an awkward transition to sound films. Just as his career began to collapse, his wife Ina Claire rose to stardom in talking pictures.
  • John Barrymore (1882 – 1942) starred in over 60 films across a quarter of a century. While Barrymore’s move into talking films went relatively well, his downfall was drink. Barrymore’s quick decline and early death (at age 60) was urged along by ingesting dangerous alcoholic concoctions during Prohibition.
  • Marshall “Mickey” Neilan (1891 – 1958) was a successful actor, producer, writer, and director - who worked with stars like Mary Pickford (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Little Princess, etc.). Neilan, too, had trouble with the transition from silent films to talkies. As Smithsonian Magazine Film Blogger Daniel Eagan says, “he just couldn’t keep up with what audiences wanted.” His story was a slight variation on the theme: He and his wife Blanche Sweet both achieved a certain amount of success and they both struggled as the sound era came in, ultimately causing their careers to falter. Neilan later succumbed to alcoholism.


A similar story appears front and center in many films. A selection...


Limelight, 1952
A fading comedian (Charlie Chaplin) saves a suicidal ballerina (Claire Bloom). Her star waxes while his wanes.


Jailhouse Rock, 1957
Vince Everett (Elvis Presley) gets encouragement from his cell mate (Mickey Shaughnessy), who teaches him to play music while serving time in jail. 


Vertigo, 1958
A detective (James Stewart) becomes obsessed with an old friend’s wife (Kim Novak) – and tries to turn her into the woman he wants her to be.


Up Close and Personal, 1996
An ambitious young journalist (Michelle Pfeiffer) rises while under the wing of her first boss (Robert Redford), whose career is declining.


For more from the guest in this edition of Fishko Files...

Daniel Eagan is a critic and author. His most recent book is America's Film Legacy, 2009 - 2010. You can read Eagan's blog at Smithsonian Magazine here.


WNYC Production Credits

Executive Producer: Sara Fishko
Assistant Producer: Laura Mayer
Mix Engineer: Wayne Shulmister
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