There's a moment in the 1976 comedy "Silent Movie" in which Mel Brooks, playing a Hollywood director, calls the French mime Marcel Marceau and offers him a part. Brooks asks the question through title cards — it's a silent movie, after all — only to have Marceau, a man expected to be mute under any circumstances, audibly reply, "No!"
I thought of that gag Saturday at the Pageant of the Masters when the "living picture" models, who typically hide behind makeup and lighting and look as non-lifelike as possible, broke character and moved. The first time, I thought it had been a flub: Harold Lloyd, dangling from a clock tower in an image from "Safety Last!", lost his hat to the wind or some unknown force and grabbed at it futilely. In the next tableau, Charlie Chaplin dismounted his scenery and pulled the curtain shut, and the motif became apparent.
At the Pageant of the Masters, is a moving actor as jarring as a mime talking in a silent film? Yes — and even though it's not the first time the pageant has used motion, it illustrates an important point in a program about cinema history.
Human eyes get used to anything, and it may take a show like "The Big Picture," the pageant's 80th-anniversary production, to remind us how revelatory movies were at the beginning. Two years ago, a pair of Oscar-winning films, Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" and Michel Hazanavicius' "The Artist," provided an engaging flashback to the years when filmmaking was in its infancy.
Still, we looked at those movies through our jaded 2010s perspective. Even while the characters in "Hugo" gasped at Lloyd hanging from the clock, we experienced the movie itself in state-of-the-art 3D. Watching "The Big Picture" spring to life midway through makes us feel what viewers must have felt a century ago — the feeling of astonishment at the very concept of moving pictures.
Indeed, context is key throughout "The Big Picture," whose lineup — encompassing Renaissance art, Edward Hopper, lobby cards and even the statue of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima — makes its title almost an understatement. For a movie-themed pageant, it would be easy enough to sort through Hollywood classics and string together a few dozen iconic images. "The Big Picture," though, doesn't take a greatest-hits approach to cinema. Rather, it's like watching the art form itself come into being.
To further that effect, the show begins in the distant past, with replicas of classic paintings and sculptures presented in tableau style. Each of these scenes bears a movie connection, though some feel more tenuous than others: Frederic S. Remington's "A Dash for the Timber" serves as a fascinating glimpse of the visual style that inspired the Western, but it's safe to say that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting has greater renown than the Charlton Heston film about its creation.
With "A Dash for the Timber," the pageant gives a behind-the-scenes look at how it creates a tableau: The cast members walk in and take their positions and props, the backdrop lowers, and then the lights go out before brightening again on the still image. After that, movement becomes part of the finished product instead of the preparation. The 1878 photo sequence "Horse in Motion," created as a motion-picture experiment by Eadweard Muybridge, screens above the stage, followed by the replicas of silent-film moments.
Later, a pair of pageant cast members impersonate Laurel and Hardy in a short film, while a live actress plays a blond starlet who walks up a red carpet to claim a statuette.
You may have guessed by now that "The Big Picture" plays to a decidedly older (or at least more erudite) crowd of filmgoers, with Busby Berkeley musicals and Alfred Hitchcock classics favored over the Netflix era. Anyone who goes to the Irvine Bowl expecting a scene from "The Avengers" will be sorely disappointed.
But the show reminds us that, for all the leaps and bounds cinema has made in the last century, it's still a relatively new form — and one whose influence may extend any number of ways. Just last year, a Los Angeles Times story lamented the tastes of young film students who yawn at "The Godfather" and other anointed classics.
If Michelangelo can remain on his pedestal after 500 years as an inspiration for modern movies, well, that bodes well for Michael Corleone too.