Strong, Silent Types

The mute Gromit the dog and other characters prove once again that talk is cheap.


Though he's blessed with deft paws that let him pour tea and pilot airplanes, Gromit the dog was born without a mouth. He lacks even a line or an indent: Beneath a pair of googly eyes and a round black nose, his chin is as smooth and blank as a boiled egg.

Yet even without this crucial orifice, Gromit shines in Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a claymation whodunit that took first place at the box office last weekend. Critics and audiences even seem to favor the dog over his dopey master Wallace, whose own prominent mouth is often smiling stupidly or stuffed with stinking cheese.

Also, while Wallace talks and talks and talks, Gromit, out of necessity, remains mute - an unusual and endearing quality in this hyper-communicative age. To convey emotions that shift from wonder to weariness to joy, Gromit flexes a unibrow that is as elastic as a pair of human lips. He depends on the audience to pick up on these expressions, to script his lines for him, in a sense. And we feel closer to him for it.

Gromit joins the pantheon of reticent personalities that have influenced an otherwise raucous entertainment culture, in film, television, literature and live performance art. Some of these characters are as sympathetic as he is; others are funnier, or more frightening. Most are a little mysterious. All are skilled in the art of silence, and at using the absence of sound to be heard. The list of not-so-quotable notables includes:


The comedian with a cane hooked a lot of laughs sans spoken lines. Even after the age of silent films ended, Chaplin continued making successful pantomimes, and some of the surround-sound era's more laconic comics, like Rowan Atkinson's blundering Mr. Bean and the inimitable Teller from the funny-man magician act Penn & Teller, can trace their roots to him.


Whether you're stalking family members, unwary campers or a nubile Jamie Lee Curtis, silence is the best approach for any serious serial killer. The wordless Myers of the first Halloween so mesmerized audiences that seven sequels were born, all of them a little light on dialogue.

Tight-lipped villains are a cinematic favorite, perhaps because tongue-tiedness underscores their inhumanity. For instance, Hollywood favors a silent Frankenstein, even though Mary Shelley's original monster was fluent in French and quite the chatterbox.


OK, so she said "Daddy" once. But 16 years of silence on The Simpsons have drawn more attention to this child than the most precocious baby talk. She looks a little like a slug, but when she observes her dysfunctional family with rounded eyes, pacifier-sucking has never sounded so profound.


Dr. Evil's pipsqueak clone barely squeaks. The silent sidekick to the criminal mastermind of the Austin Powers trilogy, Mini-Me's reticence makes it seem like he's always scheming, as he meditatively strokes his mini-Mr. Bigglesworth.


The reclusive neighbor from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Arthur "Boo" Radley - played by Robert Duvall in the 1962 movie - is part of a literary tradition of eccentric mutes, including John Singer from Carson McCullers' The Heart is A Lonely Hunter and The Chief in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, whose creepy silences conceal an inner sweetness.


The final specter in Charles Dickens' holiday allegory, A Christmas Carol, is also the only speechless one - and the most sinister. While the first two ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge are relatively gregarious, the last is as silent as the grave that awaits Scrooge if he doesn't mend his ways.


"What is it, girl?" With a woof or two, the collie advanced increasingly elaborate plot lines on the 1950s-era television show, and America loved her for it. Must be animal magnetism.


What person, place or thing could resist screaming "Come on, big money!" every now and then? But this statuesque clap-happy hostess rarely says a word, though she spells them all night long. She told all in her 1987 autobiography, Vanna Speaks, but the besotted seniors who watch Wheel of Fortune night after night love Vanna no matter what she (never) says.


Azure-painted performers in this surrealist theater troupe eschew words, communicating with music, art and their eyes. Their silence dates to the group's origins in the late '80s, when three friends would get together and fool around in blue-face. Now more than 60 blue men star in shows worldwide (not to mention Intel commercials) - and still not a peep out of them!

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