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Amid tarnished talk, silence is golden

October 21, 2005|Abigail Tucker | Baltimore Sun

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 has been charming moviegoers the past few weeks. 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 at using the absence of sound to be heard. The list of not-so-quotable notables includes:

Charlie Chaplin

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, including Rowan Atkinson's blundering Mr. Bean and the inimitable Teller from the magic act Penn & Teller, can trace their roots to him.

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Michael Myers

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 a little light on dialogue.

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

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Maggie Simpson

OK, so she said "Daddy" once. But 16 years of silence on "The Simpsons" has 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.

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Mini-Me

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.

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Boo Radley

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 the Chief in Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," whose creepy silence conceals an inner sweetness.

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Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

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.

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Lassie

"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.

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Vanna White

What person, place or thing could resist screaming "Come on, big money!" now and then? But this 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" nightly love White no matter what she (never) says.

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Blue Man Group

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 -- and still not a peep out of them!

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