Art of the Moving Picture, The



The stage is dependent upon three lines of tradition: first, that of Greece and Rome that came down through the French. Second, the English style, ripened from the miracle play and the Shakespearian stage. And third, the Ibsen precedent from Norway, now so firmly established it is classic. These methods are obscured by the commercialized dramas, but they are behind them all. Let us discuss for illustration the Ibsen tradition.

Ibsen is generally the vitriolic foe of pageant. He must be read aloud. He stands for the spoken word, for the iron power of life that may be concentrated in a phrase like the "All or nothing" of Brand. Though Peer Gynt has its spectacular side, Ibsen generally comes in through the ear alone. He can be acted in essentials from end to end with one table and four chairs in any parlor. The alleged punch with which the "movie" culminates has occurred three or ten years before the Ibsen curtain goes up. At the close of every act of the dramas of this Norwegian one might inscribe on the curtain "This the magnificent moving picture cannot achieve." Likewise after every successful film described in this book could be inscribed "This the trenchant Ibsen cannot do."

But a photoplay of Ghosts came to our town. The humor of the prospect was the sort too deep for tears. My pastor and I reread the William Archer translation that we might be alert for every antithesis. Together we went to the services. Since then the film has been furiously denounced by the literati. Floyd Dell's discriminating assault upon it is quoted in Current Opinion, October, 1915, and Margaret Anderson prints a denunciation of it in a recent number of The Little Review. But it is not such a bad film in itself. It is not Ibsen. It should be advertised "The Iniquities of the Fathers, an American drama of Eugenics, in a Palatial Setting."

Henry Walthall as Alving, afterward as his son, shows the men much as Ibsen outlines their characters. Of course the only way to be Ibsen is to be so precisely. In the new plot all is open as the day. The world is welcome, and generally present when the man or his son go forth to see the elephant and hear the owl. Provincial hypocrisy is not implied. But Ibsen can scarcely exist without an atmosphere of secrecy for his human volcanoes to burst through in the end.

Mary Alden as Mrs. Alving shows in her intelligent and sensitive countenance that she has a conception of that character. She does not always have the chance to act the woman written in her face, the tart, thinking, handsome creature that Ibsen prefers. Nigel Debrullier looks the buttoned-up Pastor Manders, even to caricature. But the crawling, bootlicking carpenter, Jacob Engstrand, is changed into a respectable, guileless man with an income. And his wife and daughter are helpless, conventional, upper-class rabbits. They do not remind one of the saucy originals.

The original Ibsen drama is the result of mixing up five particular characters through three acts. There is not a situation but would go to pieces if one personality were altered. Here are two, sadly tampered with: Engstrand and his daughter. Here is the mother, who is only referred to in Ibsen. Here is the elder Alving, who disappears before the original play starts. So the twenty great Ibsen situations in the stage production are gone. One new crisis has an Ibsen irony and psychic tension. The boy is taken with the dreaded intermittent pains in the back of his head. He is painting the order that is to make him famous: the King's portrait. While the room empties of people he writhes on the floor. If this were all, it would have been one more moving picture failure to put through a tragic scene. But the thing is reiterated in tableau-symbol. He is looking sideways in terror. A hairy arm with clutching demon claws comes thrusting in toward the back of his neck. He writhes in deadly fear. The audience is appalled for him.

This visible clutch of heredity is the nearest equivalent that is offered for the whispered refrain: "Ghosts," in the original masterpiece. This hand should also be reiterated as a refrain, three times at least, before this tableau, each time more dreadful and threatening. It appears but the once, and has no chance to become a part of the accepted hieroglyphics of the piece, as it should be, to realize its full power.

The father's previous sins have been acted out. The boy's consequent struggle with the malady has been traced step by step, so the play should end here. It would then be a rough equivalent of the Ibsen irony in a contrary medium. Instead of that, it wanders on through paraphrases of scraps of the play, sometimes literal, then quite alien, on to the alleged motion picture punch, when the Doctor is the god from the machine. There is no doctor on the stage in the original Ghosts. But there is a physician in the Doll's House, a scientific, quietly moving oracle, crisp, Spartan, sophisticated.

Is this photoplay physician such a one? The boy and his half-sister are in their wedding-clothes in the big church. Pastor Manders is saying the ceremony. The audience and building are indeed showy. The doctor charges up the aisle at the moment people are told to speak or forever hold their peace. He has tact. He simply breaks up the marriage right there. He does not tell the guests why. But he takes the wedding party into the pastor's study and there blazes at the bride and groom the long-suppressed truth that they are brother and sister. Always an orotund man, he has the Chautauqua manner indeed in this exigency.

He brings to one's mind the tearful book, much loved in childhood, Parted at the Altar, or Why Was it Thus? And four able actors have the task of telling the audience by facial expression only, that they have been struck by moral lightning. They stand in a row, facing the people, endeavoring to make the crisis of an alleged Ibsen play out of a crashing melodrama.

The final death of young Alving is depicted with an approximation of Ibsen's mood. But the only ways to suggest such feelings in silence, do not convey them in full to the audience, but merely narrate them. Wherever in Ghosts we have quiet voices that are like the slow drip of hydrochloric acid, in the photoplay we have no quiet gestures that will do trenchant work. Instead there are endless writhings and rushings about, done with a deal of skill, but destructive of the last remnants of Ibsen.

Up past the point of the clutching hand this film is the prime example for study for the person who would know once for all the differences between the photoplays and the stage dramas. Along with it might be classed Mrs. Fiske's decorative moving picture Tess, in which there is every determination to convey the original Mrs. Fiske illusion without her voice and breathing presence. To people who know her well it is a surprisingly good tintype of our beloved friend, for the family album. The relentless Thomas Hardy is nowhere to be found. There are two moments of dramatic life set among many of delicious pictorial quality: when Tess baptizes her child, and when she smooths its little grave with a wavering hand. But in the stage-version the dramatic poignancy begins with the going up of the curtain, and lasts till it descends.

The prime example of complete failure is Sarah Bernhardt's Camille. It is indeed a tintype of the consumptive heroine, with every group entire, and taken at full length. Much space is occupied by the floor and the overhead portions of the stage setting. It lasts as long as would the spoken performance, and wherever there is a dialogue we must imagine said conversation if we can. It might be compared to watching Camille from the top gallery through smoked glass, with one's ears stopped with cotton.

It would be well for the beginning student to find some way to see the first two of these three, or some other attempts to revamp the classic, for instance Mrs. Fiske's painstaking reproduction of Vanity Fair, bearing in mind the list of differences which this chapter now furnishes.

There is no denying that many stage managers who have taken up photoplays are struggling with the Shakespearian French and Norwegian traditions in the new medium. Many of the moving pictures discussed in this book are rewritten stage dramas, and one, Judith of Bethulia, is a pronounced success. But in order to be real photoplays the stage dramas must be overhauled indeed, turned inside out and upside down. The successful motion picture expresses itself through mechanical devices that are being evolved every hour. Upon those many new bits of machinery are founded novel methods of combination in another field of logic, not dramatic logic, but tableau logic. But the old-line managers, taking up photoplays, begin by making curious miniatures of stage presentations. They try to have most things as before. Later they take on the moving picture technique in a superficial way, but they, and the host of talented actors in the prime of life and Broadway success, retain the dramatic state of mind.

It is a principle of criticism, the world over, that the distinctions between the arts must be clearly marked, even by those who afterwards mix those arts. Take, for instance, the perpetual quarrel between the artists and the half-educated about literary painting. Whistler fought that battle in England. He tried to beat it into the head of John Bull that a painting is one thing, a mere illustration for a story another thing. But the novice is always stubborn. To him Hindu and Arabic are both foreign languages, therefore just alike. The book illustration may be said to come in through the ear, by reading the title aloud in imagination. And the other is effective with no title at all. The scenario writer who will study to the bottom of the matter in Whistler's Gentle Art of Making Enemies will be equipped to welcome the distinction between the old-fashioned stage, where the word rules, and the photoplay, where splendor and ritual are all. It is not the same distinction, but a kindred one.

But let us consider the details of the matter. The stage has its exits and entrances at the side and back. The standard photoplays have their exits and entrances across the imaginary footlight line, even in the most stirring mob and battle scenes. In Judith of Bethulia, though the people seem to be coming from everywhere and going everywhere, when we watch close, we see that the individuals enter at the near right-hand corner and exit at the near left-hand corner, or enter at the near left-hand corner and exit at the near right-hand corner.

Consider the devices whereby the stage actor holds the audience as he goes out at the side and back. He sighs, gestures, howls, and strides. With what studious preparation he ripens his quietness, if he goes out that way. In the new contraption, the moving picture, the hero or villain in exit strides past the nose of the camera, growing much bigger than a human being, marching toward us as though he would step on our heads, disappearing when largest. There is an explosive power about the mildest motion picture exit, be the actor skilful or the reverse. The people left in the scene are pygmies compared with each disappearing cyclops. Likewise, when the actor enters again, his mechanical importance is overwhelming. Therefore, for his first entrance the motion picture star does not require the preparations that are made on the stage. The support does not need to warm the spectators to the problem, then talk them into surrender.

When the veteran stage-producer as a beginning photoplay producer tries to give us a dialogue in the motion pictures, he makes it so dull no one follows. He does not realize that his camera-born opportunity to magnify persons and things instantly, to interweave them as actors on one level, to alternate scenes at the slightest whim, are the big substitutes for dialogue. By alternating scenes rapidly, flash after flash: cottage, field, mountain-top, field, mountain-top, cottage, we have a conversation between three places rather than three persons. By alternating the picture of a man and the check he is forging, we have his soliloquy. When two people talk to each other, it is by lifting and lowering objects rather than their voices. The collector presents a bill: the adventurer shows him the door. The boy plucks a rose: the girl accepts it. Moving objects, not moving lips, make the words of the photoplay.

The old-fashioned stage producer, feeling he is getting nowhere, but still helpless, puts the climax of some puzzling lip-debate, often the climax of the whole film, as a sentence on the screen. Sentences should be used to show changes of time and place and a few such elementary matters before the episode is fully started. The climax of a motion picture scene cannot be one word or fifty words. As has been discussed in connection with Cabiria, the crisis must be an action sharper than any that has gone before in organic union with a tableau more beautiful than any that has preceded: the breaking of the tenth wave upon the sand. Such remnants of pantomimic dialogue as remain in the main chase of the photoplay film are but guide-posts in the race toward the goal. They should not be elaborate toll-gates of plot, to be laboriously lifted and lowered while the horses stop, mid-career.

The Venus of Milo, that comes directly to the soul through the silence, requires no quotation from Keats to explain her, though Keats is the equivalent in verse. Her setting in the great French Museum is enough. We do not know that her name is Venus. She is thought by many to be another statue of Victory. We may some day evolve scenarios that will require nothing more than a title thrown upon the screen at the beginning, they come to the eye so perfectly. This is not the only possible sort, but the self-imposed limitation in certain films might give them a charm akin to that of the Songs without Words.

The stage audience is a unit of three hundred or a thousand. In the beginning of the first act there is much moving about and extra talk on the part of the actors, to hold the crowd while it is settling down, and enable the late-comer to be in his seat before the vital part of the story starts. If he appears later, he is glared at. In the motion picture art gallery, on the other hand, the audience is around two hundred, and these are not a unit, and the only crime is to obstruct the line of vision. The high-school girls can do a moderate amount of giggling without breaking the spell. There is no spell, in the stage sense, to break. People can climb over each other's knees to get in or out. If the picture is political, they murmur war-cries to one another. If the film suggests what some of the neighbors have been doing, they can regale each other with the richest sewing society report.

The people in the motion picture audience total about two hundred, any time, but they come in groups of two or three at no specified hour. The newcomers do not, as in Vaudeville, make themselves part of a jocular army. Strictly as individuals they judge the panorama. If they disapprove, there is grumbling under their breath, but no hissing. I have never heard an audience in a photoplay theatre clap its hands even when the house was bursting with people. Yet they often see the film through twice. When they have had enough, they stroll home. They manifest their favorable verdict by sending some other member of the family to "see the picture." If the people so delegated are likewise satisfied, they may ask the man at the door if he is going to bring it back. That is the moving picture kind of cheering.

It was a theatrical sin when the old-fashioned stage actor was rendered unimportant by his scenery. But the motion picture actor is but the mood of the mob or the landscape or the department store behind him, reduced to a single hieroglyphic.

The stage-interior is large. The motion-picture interior is small. The stage out-of-door scene is at best artificial and little and is generally at rest, or its movement is tainted with artificiality. The waves dash, but not dashingly, the water flows, but not flowingly. The motion picture out-of-door scene is as big as the universe. And only pictures of the Sahara are without magnificent motion.

The photoplay is as far from the stage on the one hand as it is from the novel on the other. Its nearest analogy in literature is, perhaps, the short story, or the lyric poem. The key-words of the stage are passion and character; of the photoplay, splendor and speed. The stage in its greatest power deals with pity for some one especially unfortunate, with whom we grow well acquainted; with some private revenge against some particular despoiler; traces the beginning and culmination of joy based on the gratification of some preference, or love for some person, whose charm is all his own. The drama is concerned with the slow, inevitable approaches to these intensities. On the other hand, the motion picture, though often appearing to deal with these things, as a matter of fact uses substitutes, many of which have been listed. But to review: its first substitute is the excitement of speed-mania stretched on the framework of an obvious plot. Or it deals with delicate informal anecdote as the short story does, or fairy legerdemain, or patriotic banners, or great surging mobs of the proletariat, or big scenic outlooks, or miraculous beings made visible. And the further it gets from Euripides, Ibsen, Shakespeare, or Molière—the more it becomes like a mural painting from which flashes of lightning come—the more it realizes its genius. Men like Gordon Craig and Granville Barker are almost wasting their genius on the theatre. The Splendor Photoplays are the great outlet for their type of imagination.

The typical stage performance is from two hours and a half upward. The movie show generally lasts five reels, that is, an hour and forty minutes. And it should last but three reels, that is, an hour. Edgar Poe said there was no such thing as a long poem. There is certainly no such thing as a long moving picture masterpiece.

The stage-production depends most largely upon the power of the actors, the movie show upon the genius of the producer. The performers and the dumb objects are on equal terms in his paint-buckets. The star-system is bad for the stage because the minor parts are smothered and the situations distorted to give the favorite an orbit. It is bad for the motion pictures because it obscures the producer. While the leading actor is entitled to his glory, as are all the actors, their mannerisms should not overshadow the latest inspirations of the creator of the films.

The display of the name of the corporation is no substitute for giving the glory to the producer. An artistic photoplay is not the result of a military efficiency system. It is not a factory-made staple article, but the product of the creative force of one soul, the flowering of a spirit that has the habit of perpetually renewing itself.

Once I saw Mary Fuller in a classic. It was the life and death of Mary Queen of Scots. Not only was the tense, fidgety, over-American Mary Fuller transformed into a being who was a poppy and a tiger-lily and a snow-queen and a rose, but she and her company, including Marc Macdermott, radiated the old Scotch patriotism. They made the picture a memorial. It reminded one of Maurice Hewlett's novel The Queen's Quair. Evidently all the actors were fused by some noble managerial mood.

There can be no doubt that so able a group have evolved many good films that have escaped me. But though I did go again and again, never did I see them act with the same deliberation and distinction, and I laid the difference to a change in the state of mind of the producer. Even baseball players must have managers. A team cannot pick itself, or it surely would. And this rule may apply to the stage. But by comparison to motion picture performers, stage-actors are their own managers, for they have an approximate notion of how they look in the eye of the audience, which is but the human eye. They can hear and gauge their own voices. They have the same ears as their listeners. But the picture producer holds to his eyes the seven-leagued demon spy-glass called the kinetoscope, as the audience will do later. The actors have not the least notion of their appearance. Also the words in the motion picture are not things whose force the actor can gauge. The book under the table is one word, the dog behind the chair is another, the window curtain flying in the breeze is another.

This chapter has implied that the performers were but paint on the canvas. They are both paint and models. They are models in the sense that the young Ellen Terry was the inspiration for Watts' Sir Galahad. They resemble the persons in private life who furnish the basis for novels. Dickens' mother was the original of Mrs. Nickleby. His father entered into Wilkins Micawber. But these people are not perpetually thrust upon us as Mr. and Mrs. Dickens. We are glad to find them in the Dickens biographies. When the stories begin, it is Micawber and Mrs. Nickleby we want, and the Charles Dickens atmosphere.

The photoplays of the future will be written from the foundations for the films. The soundest actors, photographers, and producers will be those who emphasize the points wherein the photoplay is unique. What is adapted to complete expression in one art generally secures but half expression in another. The supreme photoplay will give us things that have been but half expressed in all other mediums allied to it.

Once this principle is grasped there is every reason why the same people who have interested themselves in the advanced experimental drama should take hold of the super-photoplay. The good citizens who can most easily grasp the distinction should be there to perpetuate the higher welfare of these institutions side by side. This parallel development should come, if for no other reason, because the two arts are still roughly classed together by the public. The elect cannot teach the public what the drama is till they show them precisely what the photoplay is and is not. Just as the university has departments of both History and English teaching in amity, each one illuminating the work of the other, so these two forms should live in each other's sight in fine and friendly contrast. At present they are in blind and jealous warfare.

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