Friday, February 25, 2011

Films with Deaf Characters - Critique #1

You'd Be Surprised
From the golden era of movies comes a film that is both a comedy and a murder mystery; it is entitled, You’d Be Surprised. This silent film was released in 1926, towards the end of that golden era, which the older generations of the Deaf community remember. The film’s director was Arthur Rosson, who directed two other films released that same year – Wet Paint (a farce) and Stranded in Paris (based on the play). B.P. Schulberg, who was, after the golden era, Head of Paramount Pictures in the 1930s, produced You’d be Surprised. Overall, a viewer of today’s generation can appreciate the work they put into the cinematography of the film. A few elements of the cinematography to discuss are the script, direction, acting, and plot. First comes the comment about the script.

A typical viewer of today would find the script of You’d Be Surprised, to be surprisingly entertaining, mysterious and comedic even upon it’s repetitiveness. A couple of phrases that were said at least four times to add humor to a seemingly serious moment were phrases such as, “Don’t touch anything! This is a case for the coroner,” as said by varying degrees of policemen and inspectors alike. There was also the daunting word, “guilty!” which was said by the bizarre jury who seemed just as keyed up to be done with the investigation as the coroner did. Their excited anticipation added superfluous humor to another, feasibly intense, moment. Another great thing about the script that a viewer might notice were the coroner’s witty statements on the title cards. It started with Aesop’s quote, then there is the playful accusation of murder to one of the women, and the coroner says, “Mayhap you did it – in a spirit of jest?” Or there is the solution to finding out who committed the crime, “…let’s offer a prize.” Other title cards are ironic, or they have the use of puns. While the script was written well, it wouldn’t be much use without the directing of the film, the second element of cinematography to be discussed.

The direction of the film seemed to be creative. It was referential to a few superstitious things such as the date, Friday the 13th, and the black cat that skulks around the houseboat. The film initially follows this cursed cat around – allowing the viewer to see different scenes of what is happening during the party before the mysterious murder. As for the acting, a viewer would find (in contrasting movies of today) gestures and expression really made up for the lack of voice or sound. Also, those who know sign language and are involved in Deaf Culture will recognize the extra effort taken for gestures and expression are especially beneficial to Deaf people’s understanding. Just as there were repetitive, comical things written in the script, similar actions were given as well.

Actions such as the coroner taking the inspector’s badge to indicate that he had solved the crime. Or there was the coroner’s corny flip of a coin to let fate decipher what would happen next. It usually worked to his advantage. Then there were the times when the policemen were told to take away the accused woman (Dorothy) and the coroner comically prevented it by his gestures and slaps. This happened three times with the inspector (Mr. Brown) and once with the deputy district attorney (Mr. Black), which provides an ironic parallel since he actually knows she did not do it. The last notable repetitive, comical action was when the coroner tries to use himself as bait, and every time he tells a man to turn off the lights, someone tries to surround him from being killed. First it’s Dorothy, then the jury, then the police officers. While this last set of actions is comedic, the resolution that follows isn’t quite as consistent.

Upon viewing the movie a second time, the viewer will notice more about the man who they arrest – Mr. Black. While he fits the character of murderer quite well with all that he says and does, the way in which he is arrested and accused is quite un-ceremonial (as compared to the interactions that happen between party guests and the playfully accusing coroner) and it is very disappointing to see that the coroner doesn’t really give him much of a hard time about being the murder. This is somewhat un-satisfying to the viewer. When something like this occurs in media, many times the viewers will observe other ways to present the same type of media to their satisfaction.

It is possible in today’s media that such a story, even to remain silent, would be a really comical and satirical skit/spoof for shows such as Saturday Night Live or Mad T.V. It would also be a good short play for high school and/or college drama programs, as I believe it would teach aspiring actors how to use more than just their voice to say what they need to say in order to portray the story. It would be very important, if the media did a re-make of You’d Be Surprised, to portray the role of the deaf butler in a more correct form, because anyone who is involved in Deaf culture will know that as a deaf character he was not portrayed correctly.

The butler was not portrayed correctly as a deaf character; they really made him seem less intelligent as they were not consistent with the idea of him having the use of his peripheral vision. Also, they seemed to direct him to have a face vacant of expression. This is another thing that misrepresents the Deaf community, as Deaf people are usually very animated in their body language and facial expression. An additional way that he was not portrayed correctly was having him hide childishly behind the chair and lastly, the fact that he was not included in the conversations, he stood as still as statue until the coroner addressed him. Even if this were how he was to act for the role of the butler, an advocate to the Deaf community would see this as an oppressive action to not include him in the conversation. Aside from the inconsistencies about the deaf character there was only two other inconsistencies that I found to be startling, first there was the positioning of Grey, the butler, when he is supposedly stabbed to his death. Then there was the fact that Grey miraculously re-appears as the deputy coroner. Let’s discuss specifically the positioning of Grey upon his “death.”

As Grey stood in the center of the room, waiting for the lights to go off, the viewer sees that he is facing the left side of the room (from the viewers perspective). When he is struck dead, he is laying facedown towards the right side of the room. Unless the murder is further investigated, this is a visual inconsistency. The viewer is to understand from this that the directionality and positioning of Grey’s body presents a sort of parallel with that of Mr. White’s dead body at the beginning of the film. This is the only real problem that a typical viewer might find within the film.

You’d Be Surprised is a witty, funny film about a murder at a dinner party, which seems like it could have been part of an influence for the game, Clue. Raymond Griffith keeps viewers on their toes for his moments of hilarity, irony, and wit. Overall, a very enjoyable silent film – especially enjoyable to those who understand the beauty of facial expression and body language. 

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