19 April 2012

The Cars of 'The Artist': Film misses the mark

Hollywood filmmakers rolled the dice when they created “The Artist” – and not because they couldn’t be sure if audiences would warm to a silent film. Clearly, they guessed correctly on that one; “The Artist” won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2011.

But did they actually think they could sneak “incorrect” cars past an intelligent and passionate collector car community? Not a chance. As the film received an avalanche of praise from around the world, automobile historians shook their collective heads and said, “Not so fast, my friend.”

“The Artist” takes place during the five-year period from 1927-1932, at the dawn of a new Hollywood era when silent films became obsolete and “Talkies” were all the rage. The filmmakers did an impressive job of bringing the era to life, paying close attention to every detail … except when it came to choosing cars for the film.

In case you’re one of the few people who haven’t seen the movie, here’s a quick synopsis. The main character, George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), is a silent film star – perhaps the biggest of his day. At the premiere of Valentin’s new movie, he meets a wannabe actress, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), whose attraction to the dashing leading man is obvious. But just as a friendship begins to bloom, “Talking Pictures” take Hollywood by storm and their roles suddenly reverse. Miller becomes a star; Valentin slips into obscurity. Their paths cross again several times, often painfully so as director Michel Hazanavicius paints a realistic picture of the gut-wrenching spiral shared by many silent film stars.

Too bad they missed the mark on the cars. The “limousine” featured early in the film when Valentin was a superstar and could have owned any automobile on the market (perhaps even a Duesenberg?) is a 1931 Lincoln Model K. Nice car, yes, and not a poor choice for a movie star of Valentin’s stature… except it first appears on screen during a scene we’re told is set in 1928. Not possible, unless there was a time travel element we’re not aware of.

Our experts say the tell-tale characteristics that reveal the vehicle’s identity and year – and confirm that it is neither a Packard nor a Pierce-Arrow, as some bloggers  suggested – include the greyhound radiator/hood ornament, the flat plate glass headlights and the two-bar grille with a wider “mouth-like” opening in the center that was typical of 1931 models. Pre-1931 Lincolns featured a two-bar opening at the center with single bars on each side.

Later in the film, when Peppy Miller is a star, she is chauffeured in a gorgeous Cadillac. Some suggested the vehicle was a 1932 LaSalle phaeton. But the distinctive hood ornament confirms it’s a Caddy. But what year is it?

We contacted the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights, Mich., and asked if someone there would take a close look at the car. Just a few days later, GM’s Jim Vehko answered with certainty: “It's a 1935 Cadillac convertible sedan.” Mystery solved. Except there’s one little problem – the scene that featured the Cadillac was supposed to be set in 1932, three years before this car hit the market. More time travel, apparently.

To most movie goers, the time-traveling cars in “The Artist” don’t detract from the award-winning film. And yes, the filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for a job well done. But collector car enthusiasts know that just like the cars that we love, the movie wasn’t perfect.

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