Vintage Cars in “The Artist” – The Roaring Twenties Go Silent
‘The Artist’ is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a happy-go-lucky movie actor who is at the top of his fame. The character is perhaps modelled on Douglas Fairbanks Sr., the popular hero of action epics in the silent movie era.
Valentin is driven by his faithful chauffer and valet Clifton (James Cromwell) in a 1931 Lincoln Model K 7-passenger limousine. The grille and bumper helps to identify the year. Unfortunately, it’s 1928 at the latest, when we first see this car in the story. Oops!
The Lincoln is most likely a 7-passenger limousine with enclosed chauffer’s compartment and a divider window between it and the rear compartment.
The Lincolns through most of the 1920s were the Model L, which used the V-8 chassis first developed by Henry Leland and his son Wilfred in 1920. Leland senior was famous for his precision engineering, developing tools and techniques that created mechanicals with finer tolerances than any in the industry.
It was he who took over as chief engineer of Henry Ford’s second auto company in 1902 after Ford left. The car was re-named Cadillac, after the French explorer who discovered the Detroit area.
Leland’s work led to Cadillac becoming a quality car, if not a luxury one. The Dewar Trophy for scientific achievement was awarded to Cadillac in 1908 after a demonstration of parts interchangeability. Three cars were stripped before judges, their parts intermixed, then re-assembled and started. They each ran perfectly, proving the quality and accuracy of their mechanical parts.
Leland went on to lend his expertise to the war effort as his new company manufactured high-quality aero engines for the United States Army Air Corp and Allied forces. He had named his company after the U.S. president he admired above all – Abraham Lincoln.
After World War I, Henry Leland was ready to put his engineering talents into making his own quality car. Launched in 1920, it was of course, also named for the U.S. president of the Civil War years.
The Depression of 1920-21 and a Federal Government demand for back taxes crippled the new venture, and it would have gone under had it not been for the intervention of Edsel Ford, Henry’s son. Edsel recognised that the Ford motor company would have to expand into other car markets sooner or later.
Lincoln Motor Company was duly acquired by Ford and the Lelands were soon ousted. Production was rationalised with Ford methods allowing for asking prices to be dropped by about $1,000 with no loss in quality. Styling improved from the formal but boxy originals, and the high standard of precision engineering was not interfered with.
Powered by Lincoln’s staggered 358 cid (5.8 Litre) V-8 engine (the banks are 80 degrees apart) and clothed in fine coachwork by the big names in body-building such as Dietrich, Judkins, Murphy, Locke and others, (who could personalise each Lincoln to the customer’s requirements), Lincoln flourished throughout the Roaring Twenties.
A Lincoln was the car of choice for gangsters and bootleggers who wanted a reliable, quick getaway car, and also of the police who fought them. With about 90 bhp, Lincolns could achieve 85 mph by 1923, coupled with rapid acceleration.
The Model L Lincoln V-8 was increased to 384 cid (6.3 Litre) in 1928 for incrementally more power but the game changed with Cadillac’s new V-16 of 1930 and V-12 of 1931. Lincoln responded for 1931 with the Model K, a refinement of Leland’s V-8 now boosted to 120 bhp @ 2800 rpm and new, lower bodies on a longer 145” wheelbase chassis. It still used the Ford-mandated torque tube drive with floating rear axle and mechanical brakes. A new free-wheeling transmission allowed for cruising with the engine at idle speed, and for gear changing without resorting to the clutch.
The Artist’s Lincoln is a typical luxury, closed car model of this time. Though the actual car used in the movie is a 1931 model, it is more or less indistinguishable from the 1929-1930 Model Ls. The V-8 was still not among the most powerful, with about 120 bhp, but the car was faster, handled better and was undeniably smooth and quiet, and the latter qualities were what the majority of American luxury car buyers demanded.
So far, so good.
The other leading character in ‘The Artist’ is the ardent fan of George Valentin, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo). George gives her a small role in one of his films and she is ‘discovered’ and launched on her own solo career as one of the new wave of young movie stars who can act – and speak – in the new talkie movies that are sweeping the box office as the Twenties draw to a close.
As Peppy Miller’s star rises, George Valentin’s falls. His pride prevents him from changing with the times and leads him to a precipitate drop as yesterday’s movie idol. Peppy admires and loves him, but she cannot help George unless it’s without his knowledge. As Peppy Miller becomes an established star, she buys an appropriate car – it looks like a 1934 or later Cadillac or LaSalle convertible sedan.
For the Oscar presentations, ‘The Artist’ director Michel Hazanvicius and wife Berenice Bejo (Peppy Miller) arrive in a 1935 Cadillac convertible sedan which led some classic car observers to conclude that this was the car used in the movie. But though it looked similar, it was not Peppy’s car.
Blogger Jerry Garrett (www.jerrygarrett.wordpress.com.au) and his subscribers have puzzled over the identity of the car and concluded with his readers that it’s a 1933 LaSalle convertible sedan.
I don’t agree with this conclusion.
A quick view of part of the ‘LaSalle’ script on the steering wheel boss helped with this erroneous identification by a Jerry Garrett subscriber, though whether this was the ‘La’ in ‘LaSalle’ or the ‘la’ in ‘Cadillac’, was not specified.
When I watched the movie, I saw the headlamps mounted high on each side of a tall, thin grille, and front mudguards that were definitely a pontoon type. I thought immediately of the Cadillac / LaSalle family of the 1934-37 generation.
Anything previous carried fenders that were streamlined with teardrop-style curved lines, but were open sided. Fenders were skirted for the first time by Cadillac / LaSalle in 1933. I saw neither design on the screen in ‘The Artist’.
Consider the styling of these cars in the ads and photos included here.
As the junior partner to the Cadillac, the LaSalle of the 1930s always was styled to look closely related. Since the scenes with the car were so brief, I could not be sure which make it was. I don’t remember the porthole-like hood vents of the 1934 and 1935 LaSalle, so that leaves 1936. It could be any of the 1934-37 Cadillacs, since again, it was too brief to identify for certain.
The LaSalle used only one engine at a time. During the 1934-36 generation, this was a side-valve, straight-eight based on the Oldsmobile unit. If it was a Cadillac, there’s a choice. I wondered at the time what engine was under the bonnet: was it a V8, V12 or V16? Only the length of the body and chassis and some minor badges would tell.
Whatever it is, this car too, is driven by Clifton, who Peppy hired as chauffer, after George Valentin let him go because he could no longer pay him. Now Clifton and Peppy both observe George Valentin’s crumbling life with growing concern.
This is a fundamental problem with the timeline of the story, since it cannot be said to stretch beyond about 1933.
With the filming location what it is, it would have been easy to find a correct car for the timeline. It seems a shame that more effort (and not a whole lot more would have been necessary) was not made to find a star car of the correct time period.
It just goes to show how much innovation and change there was in the automotive world in those desperate Depression days. The cars of 1930 and 1935 are only five years apart, yet look unmistakeably different. We can say the same thing about the 1950s, but could we say the same thing about the 1990s?
1930s Cadillacs and LaSalles used synchro-mesh transmission, allowing for gear changing with single de-clutching, or with free-wheeling engaged, with no clutching at all. These cars were early users of fully skirted fenders and bullet-shaped headlamp pods, from 1933.
By 1934, a new generation of Cadillac and LaSalle car design introduced the pontoon fender to automotive design, in a different interpretation of streamline styling. This theme was successful commercially, unlike the Chrysler Airflow models introduced the same year.
In the first half of the 1930s, Cadillac marketed their cars with a choice of engine choices: a V-8, a V-12 and even a V-16. The Twelve and Sixteen were more advanced overhead valve engines, while the V-8 continued from before as a side-valve unit. LaSalle had used a side-valve V-8 developed from Cadillac’s, and in a cost-cutting measure, adopted Cadillac’s own 353 cid engine. The V-8 Cadillacs in turn used the former LaSalle 134” wheelbase chassis, but were priced $500 above their lesser counterparts. These three Cadillac series (plus LaSalle) enabled GM’s premier division to survive the Depression with cars priced in the lower to uppermost luxury price brackets.
There was a brief period of LaSalle straight-eights in 1934-36, lending themselves to long, elegant bonnets and knife-edge vertical grilles. Based on Oldsmobile engines, these eights were dropped for 1937 to return LaSalle to the V-8 fold, which configuration it used until it was wound up as a marque in 1941. By then, LaSalle had served its purpose as a lower priced, companion make to Cadillac in the expansive Twenties and challenging Thirties.
The background cars in the movie are mostly Ford Model Ts and Model As and Chevrolets, which is authentic enough for the times. A mid-1920s Hollywood touring bus appeared, and George Valentin appears to race a Bugatti sports car in the climax of his silent action movie ‘A Russian Affair’.
Peppy’s Cadillac / LaSalle convertible sedan has its own highlight scene as Peppy throws it around the boulevards of Hollywood in a race against time to save George Valentin from what might be his ultimate last bow – his suicide. Is the car fast enough? Will she be in time?
In the end, the story was otherwise authentic, and charming, and so moving, that I’m willing to forgive the mistake with the hero cars. Roaring thirties rather than roaring twenties? I’ll just put an admonition out there to the production designers of the film industry to do better next time.