Art of the Moving Picture, The



The Patriotic Picture need not necessarily be in terms of splendor. It generally is. Beginning the chronicle is one that waves no banners.

The Typhoon, a film produced by Thomas H. Ince, is a story of the Japanese love of Nippon in which a very little of the landscape of the nation is shown, and that in the beginning. The hero (acted by Sessue Hayakawa), living in the heart of Paris, represents the far-off Empire. He is making a secret military report. He is a responsible member of a colony of Japanese gentlemen. The bevy of them appear before or after his every important action. He still represents this crowd when alone.

The unfortunate Parisian heroine, unable to fathom the mystery of the fanatical hearts of the colony, ventures to think that her love for the Japanese hero and his equally great devotion to her is the important human relation on the horizon. She flouts his obscure work, pits her charms against it. In the end there is a quarrel. The irresistible meets the immovable, and in madness or half by accident, he kills the girl.

The youth is protected by the colony, for he alone can make the report. He is the machine-like representative of the Japanese patriotic formula, till the document is complete. A new arrival in the colony, who obviously cannot write the book, confesses the murder and is executed. The other high fanatic dies soon after, of a broken heart, with the completed manuscript volume in his hand. The one impression of the play is that Japanese patriotism is a peculiar and fearful thing. The particular quality of the private romance is but vaguely given, for such things in their rise and culmination can only be traced by the novelist, or by the gentle alternations of silence and speech on the speaking stage, aided by the hot blood of players actually before us.

Here, as in most photoplays, the attempted lover-conversations in pantomime are but indifferent things. The details of the hero's last quarrel with the heroine and the precise thoughts that went with it are muffled by the inability to speak. The power of the play is in the adequate style the man represents the colony. Sessue Hayakawa should give us Japanese tales more adapted to the films. We should have stories of Iyeyasu and Hideyoshi, written from the ground up for the photoplay theatre. We should have the story of the Forty-seven Ronin, not a Japanese stage version, but a work from the source-material. We should have legends of the various clans, picturizations of the code of the Samurai.

The Typhoon is largely indoors. But the Patriotic Motion Picture is generally a landscape. This is for deeper reasons than that it requires large fields in which to manoeuvre armies. Flags are shown for other causes than that they are the nominal signs of a love of the native land.

In a comedy of the history of a newspaper, the very columns of the publication are actors, and may be photographed oftener than the human hero. And in the higher realms this same tendency gives particular power to the panorama and trappings. It makes the natural and artificial magnificence more than a narrative, more than a color-scheme, something other than a drama. In a photoplay by a master, when the American flag is shown, the thirteen stripes are columns of history and the stars are headlines. The woods and the templed hills are their printing press, almost in a literal sense.

Going back to the illustration of the engine, in chapter two, the non-human thing is a personality, even if it is not beautiful. When it takes on the ritual of decorative design, this new vitality is made seductive, and when it is an object of nature, this seductive ritual becomes a new pantheism. The armies upon the mountains they are defending are rooted in the soil like trees. They resist invasion with the same elementary stubbornness with which the oak resists the storm or the cliff resists the wave.

Let the reader consider Antony and Cleopatra, the Cines film. It was brought to America from Italy by George Klein. This and several ambitious spectacles like it are direct violations of the foregoing principles. True, it glorifies Rome. It is equivalent to waving the Italian above the Egyptian flag, quite slowly for two hours. From the stage standpoint, the magnificence is thoroughgoing. Viewed as a circus, the acting is elephantine in its grandeur. All that is needed is pink lemonade sold in the audience.

The famous Cabiria, a tale of war between Rome and Carthage, by D'Annunzio, is a prime example of a success, where Antony and Cleopatra and many European films founded upon the classics have been failures. With obvious defects as a producer, D'Annunzio appreciates spectacular symbolism. He has an instinct for the strange and the beautifully infernal, as they are related to decorative design. Therefore he is able to show us Carthage indeed. He has an Italian patriotism that amounts to frenzy. So Rome emerges body and soul from the past, in this spectacle. He gives us the cruelty of Baal, the intrepidity of the Roman legions. Everything Punic or Italian in the middle distance or massed background speaks of the very genius of the people concerned and actively generates their kind of lightning.

The principals do not carry out the momentum of this immense resource. The half a score of leading characters, with the costumes, gestures, and aspects of gods, are after all works of the taxidermist. They are stuffed gods. They conduct a silly nickelodeon romance while Carthage rolls on toward her doom. They are like sparrows fighting for grain on the edge of the battle.

The doings of his principals are sufficiently evident to be grasped with a word or two of printed insert on the films. But he sentimentalizes about them. He adds side-elaborations of the plot that would require much time to make clear, and a hard working novelist to make interesting. We are sentenced to stop and gaze long upon this array of printing in the darkness, just at the moment the tenth wave of glory seems ready to sweep in. But one hundred words cannot be a photoplay climax. The climax must be in a tableau that is to the eye as the rising sun itself, that follows the thousand flags of the dawn.

In the New York performance, and presumably in other large cities, there was also an orchestra. Behold then, one layer of great photoplay, one layer of bad melodrama, one layer of explanation, and a final cement of music. It is as though in an art museum there should be a man at the door selling would-be masterly short-stories about the paintings, and a man with a violin playing the catalogue. But for further discourse on the orchestra read the fourteenth chapter.

I left Cabiria with mixed emotions. And I had to forget the distressful eye-strain. Few eyes submit without destruction to three hours of film. But the mistakes of Cabiria are those of the pioneer work of genius. It has in it twenty great productions. It abounds in suggestions. Once the classic rules of this art-unit are established, men with equal genius with D'Annunzio and no more devotion, will give us the world's masterpieces. As it is, the background and mass-movements must stand as monumental achievements in vital patriotic splendor.

D'Annunzio is Griffith's most inspired rival in these things. He lacks Griffith's knowledge of what is photoplay and what is not. He lacks Griffith's simplicity of hurdle-race plot. He lacks his avalanche-like action. The Italian needs the American's health and clean winds. He needs his foregrounds, leading actors, and types of plot. But the American has never gone as deep as the Italian into landscapes that are their own tragedians, and into Satanic and celestial ceremonials.

Judith of Bethulia and The Battle Hymn of the Republic have impressed me as the two most significant photoplays I have ever encountered. They may be classed with equal justice as religious or patriotic productions. But for reasons which will appear, The Battle Hymn of the Republic will be classed as a film of devotion and Judith as a patriotic one. The latter was produced by D.W. Griffith, and released by the Biograph Company in 1914. The original stage drama was once played by the famous Boston actress, Nance O'Neil. It is the work of Thomas Bailey Aldrich. The motion picture scenario, when Griffith had done with it, had no especial Aldrich flavor, though it contained several of the characters and events as Aldrich conceived them. It was principally the old apocryphal story plus the genius of Griffith and that inner circle of players whom he has endowed with much of his point of view.

This is his cast of characters:—

Judith Blanche Sweet
Holofernes Henry Walthall
His servant J.J. Lance
Captain of the Guards H. Hyde
Judith's maid Miss Bruce
General of the Jews C.H. Mailes
Priests Messrs. Oppleman and Lestina
Nathan Robert Harron
Naomi Mae Marsh
Keeper of the slaves for Holofernes Alfred Paget
The Jewish mother Lillian Gish

The Biograph Company advertises the production with the following Barnum and Bailey enumeration: "In four parts. Produced in California. Most expensive Biograph ever produced. More than one thousand people and about three hundred horsemen. The following were built expressly for the production: a replica of the ancient city of Bethulia; the mammoth wall that protected Bethulia; a faithful reproduction of the ancient army camps, embodying all their barbaric splendor and dances; chariots, battering rams, scaling ladders, archer towers, and other special war paraphernalia of the period.

"The following spectacular effects: the storming of the walls of the city of Bethulia; the hand-to-hand conflicts; the death-defying chariot charges at break-neck speed; the rearing and plunging horses infuriated by the din of battle; the wonderful camp of the terrible Holofernes, equipped with rugs brought from the far East; the dancing girls in their exhibition of the exquisite and peculiar dances of the period; the routing of the command of the terrible Holofernes, and the destruction of the camp by fire. And overshadowing all, the heroism of the beautiful Judith."

This advertisement should be compared with the notice of Your Girl and Mine transcribed in the seventeenth chapter.

But there is another point of view by which this Judith of Bethulia production may be approached, however striking the advertising notice.

There are four sorts of scenes alternated: (1) the particular history of Judith; (2) the gentle courtship of Nathan and Naomi, types of the inhabitants of Bethulia; (3) pictures of the streets, with the population flowing like a sluggish river; (4) scenes of raid, camp, and battle, interpolated between these, tying the whole together. The real plot is the balanced alternation of all the elements. So many minutes of one, then so many minutes of another. As was proper, very little of the tale was thrown on the screen in reading matter, and no climax was ever a printed word, but always an enthralling tableau.

The particular history of Judith begins with the picture of her as the devout widow. She is austerely garbed, at prayer for her city, in her own quiet house. Then later she is shown decked for the eyes of man in the camp of Holofernes, where all is Assyrian glory. Judith struggles between her unexpected love for the dynamic general and the resolve to destroy him that brought her there. In either type of scene, the first gray and silver, the other painted with Paul Veronese splendor, Judith moves with a delicate deliberation. Over her face the emotions play like winds on a meadow lake. Holofernes is the composite picture of all the Biblical heathen chieftains. His every action breathes power. He is an Assyrian bull, a winged lion, and a god at the same time, and divine honors are paid to him every moment.

Nathan and Naomi are two Arcadian lovers. In their shy meetings they express the life of the normal Bethulia. They are seen among the reapers outside the city or at the well near the wall, or on the streets of the ancient town. They are generally doing the things the crowd behind them is doing, meanwhile evolving their own little heart affair. Finally when the Assyrian comes down like a wolf on the fold, the gentle Naomi becomes a prisoner in Holofernes' camp. She is in the foreground, a representative of the crowd of prisoners. Nathan is photographed on the wall as the particular defender of the town in whom we are most interested.

The pictures of the crowd's normal activities avoid jerkiness and haste. They do not abound in the boresome self-conscious quietude that some producers have substituted for the usual twitching. Each actor in the assemblies has a refreshing equipment in gentle gesticulation; for the manners and customs of Bethulia must needs be different from those of America. Though the population moves together as a river, each citizen is quite preoccupied. To the furthest corner of the picture, they are egotistical as human beings. The elder goes by, in theological conversation with his friend. He thinks his theology is important. The mother goes by, all absorbed in her child. To her it is the only child in the world.

Alternated with these scenes is the terrible rush of the Assyrian army, on to exploration, battle, and glory. The speed of their setting out becomes actual, because it is contrasted with the deliberation of the Jewish town. At length the Assyrians are along those hills and valleys and below the wall of defence. The population is on top of the battlements, beating them back the more desperately because they are separated from the water-supply, the wells in the fields where once the lovers met. In a lull in the siege, by a connivance of the elders, Judith is let out of a little door in the wall. And while the fortune of her people is most desperate she is shown in the quiet shelter of the tent of Holofernes. Sinuous in grace, tranced, passionately in love, she has forgotten her peculiar task. She is in a sense Bethulia itself, the race of Israel made over into a woman, while Holofernes is the embodiment of the besieging army. Though in a quiet tent, and on the terms of love, it is the essential warfare of the hot Assyrian blood and the pure and peculiar Jewish thoroughbredness.

Blanche Sweet as Judith is indeed dignified and ensnaring, the more so because in her abandoned quarter of an hour the Jewish sanctity does not leave her. And her aged woman attendant, coming in and out, sentinel and conscience, with austere face and lifted finger, symbolizes the fire of Israel that shall yet awaken within her. When her love for her city and God finally becomes paramount, she shakes off the spell of the divine honors which she has followed all the camp in according to that living heathen deity Holofernes, and by the very transfiguration of her figure and countenance we know that the deliverance of Israel is at hand. She beheads the dark Assyrian. Soon she is back in the city, by way of the little gate by which she emerged. The elders receive her and her bloody trophy.

The people who have been dying of thirst arise in a final whirlwind of courage. Bereft of their military genius, the Assyrians flee from the burning camp. Naomi is delivered by her lover Nathan. This act is taken by the audience as a type of the setting free of all the captives. Then we have the final return of the citizens to their town. As for Judith, hers is no crass triumph. She is shown in her gray and silvery room in her former widow's dress, but not the same woman. There is thwarted love in her face. The sword of sorrow is there. But there is also the prayer of thanksgiving. She goes forth. She is hailed as her city's deliverer. She stands among the nobles like a holy candle.

Providing the picture may be preserved in its original delicacy, it has every chance to retain a place in the affections of the wise, if a humble pioneer of criticism may speak his honest mind.

Though in this story the archaic flavor is well-preserved, the way the producer has pictured the population at peace, in battle, in despair, in victory gives me hope that he or men like unto him will illustrate the American patriotic crowd-prophecies. We must have Whitmanesque scenarios, based on moods akin to that of the poem By Blue Ontario's Shore. The possibility of showing the entire American population its own face in the Mirror Screen has at last come. Whitman brought the idea of democracy to our sophisticated literati, but did not persuade the democracy itself to read his democratic poems. Sooner or later the kinetoscope will do what he could not, bring the nobler side of the equality idea to the people who are so crassly equal.

The photoplay penetrates in our land to the haunts of the wildest or the dullest. The isolated prospector rides twenty miles to see the same film that is displayed on Broadway. There is not a civilized or half-civilized land but may read the Whitmanesque message in time, if once it is put on the films with power. Photoplay theatres are set up in ports where sailors revel, in heathen towns where gentlemen adventurers are willing to make one last throw with fate.

On the other hand, as a recorder Whitman approaches the wildest, rawest American material and conquers it, at the same time keeping his nerves in the state in which Swinburne wrote Only the Song of Secret Bird, or Lanier composed The Ballad of Trees and The Master. J.W. Alexander's portrait of Whitman in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is not too sophisticated. The out-of-door profoundness of this poet is far richer than one will realize unless he has just returned from some cross-country adventure afoot. Then if one reads breathlessly by the page and the score of pages, there is a glory transcendent. For films of American patriotism to parallel the splendors of Cabiria and Judith of Bethulia, and to excel them, let us have Whitmanesque scenarios based on moods like that of By Blue Ontario's Shore, The Salute au Monde, and The Passage to India. Then the people's message will reach the people at last.

The average Crowd Picture will cling close to the streets that are, and the usual Patriotic Picture will but remind us of nationality as it is at present conceived and aflame, and the Religious Picture will for the most part be close to the standard orthodoxies. The final forms of these merge into each other, though they approach the heights by different avenues. We Americans should look for the great photoplay of to-morrow, that will mark a decade or a century, that prophesies of the flags made one, the crowds in brotherhood.

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