Whenever the photoplay is mixed in the same programme with vaudeville, the moving picture part of the show suffers. The film is rushed through, it is battered, it flickers more than commonly, it is a little out of focus. The house is not built for it. The owner of the place cannot manage an art gallery with a circus on his hands. It takes more brains than one man possesses to pick good vaudeville talent and bring good films to the town at the same time. The best motion picture theatres are built for photoplays alone. But they make one mistake.
Almost every motion picture theatre has its orchestra, pianist, or mechanical piano. The perfect photoplay gathering-place would have no sound but the hum of the conversing audience. If this is too ruthless a theory, let the music be played at the intervals between programmes, while the advertisements are being flung upon the screen, the lights are on, and the people coming in.
If there is something more to be done on the part of the producer to make the film a telling one, let it be a deeper study of the pictorial arrangement, with the tones more carefully balanced, the sculpture vitalized. This is certainly better than to have a raw thing bullied through with a music-programme, furnished to bridge the weak places in the construction. A picture should not be released till it is completely thought out. A producer with this goal before him will not have the time or brains to spare to write music that is as closely and delicately related to the action as the action is to the background. And unless the tunes are at one with the scheme they are an intrusion. Perhaps the moving picture maker has a twin brother almost as able in music, who possesses the faculty of subordinating his creations to the work of his more brilliant coadjutor. How are they going to make a practical national distribution of the accompaniment? In the metropolitan theatres Cabiria carried its own musicians and programme with a rich if feverish result. In The Birth of a Nation, music was used that approached imitative sound devices. Also the orchestra produced a substitute for old-fashioned stage suspense by long drawn-out syncopations. The finer photoplay values were thrown askew. Perhaps these two performances could be successfully vindicated in musical policy. But such a defence proves nothing in regard to the typical film. Imagine either of these put on in Rochester, Illinois, population one hundred souls. The reels run through as well as on Broadway or Michigan Avenue, but the local orchestra cannot play the music furnished in annotated sheets as skilfully as the local operator can turn the reel (or watch the motor turn it!).
The big social fact about the moving picture is that it is scattered like the newspaper. Any normal accompaniment thereof must likewise be adapted to being distributed everywhere. The present writer has seen, here in his home place, population sixty thousand, all the films discussed in this book but Cabiria and The Birth of a Nation. It is a photoplay paradise, the spoken theatre is practically banished. Unfortunately the local moving picture managers think it necessary to have orchestras. The musicians they can secure make tunes that are most squalid and horrible. With fathomless imbecility, hoochey koochey strains are on the air while heroes are dying. The Miserere is in our ears when the lovers are reconciled. Ragtime is imposed upon us while the old mother prays for her lost boy. Sometimes the musician with this variety of sympathy abandons himself to thrilling improvisation.
My thoughts on this subject began to take form several years ago, when the film this book has much praised, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, came to town. The proprietor of one theatre put in front of his shop a twenty-foot sign "The Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, brought back by special request." He had probably read Julia Ward Howe's name on the film forty times before the sign went up. His assistant, I presume his daughter, played "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree" hour after hour, while the great film was rolling by. Many old soldiers were coming to see it. I asked the assistant why she did not play and sing the Battle Hymn. She said they "just couldn't find it." Are the distributors willing to send out a musician with each film?
Many of the Springfield producers are quite able and enterprising, but to ask for music with photoplays is like asking the man at the news stand to write an editorial while he sells you the paper. The picture with a great orchestra in a far-off metropolitan Opera House, may be classed by fanatic partisanship with Grand Opera. But few can get at it. It has nothing to do with Democracy.
Of course people with a mechanical imagination, and no other kind, begin to suggest the talking moving picture at this point, or the phonograph or the mechanical piano. Let us discuss the talking moving picture only. That disposes of the others.
If the talking moving picture becomes a reliable mirror of the human voice and frame, it will be the basis of such a separate art that none of the photoplay precedents will apply. It will be the phonoplay, not the photoplay. It will be unpleasant for a long time. This book is a struggle against the non-humanness of the undisciplined photograph. Any film is correct, realistic, forceful, many times before it is charming. The actual physical storage-battery of the actor is many hundred miles away. As a substitute, the human quality must come in the marks of the presence of the producer. The entire painting must have his brushwork. If we compare it to a love-letter it must be in his handwriting rather than worked on a typewriter. If he puts his autograph into the film, it is after a fierce struggle with the uncanny scientific quality of the camera's work. His genius and that of the whole company of actors is exhausted in the task.
The raw phonograph is likewise unmagnetic. Would you set upon the shoulders of the troupe of actors the additional responsibility of putting an adequate substitute for human magnetism in the phonographic disk? The voice that does not actually bleed, that contains no heart-beats, fails to meet the emergency. Few people have wept over a phonographic selection from Tristan and Isolde. They are moved at the actual performance. Why? Look at the opera singer after the last act. His eyes are burning. His face is flushed. His pulse is high. Reaching his hotel room, he is far more weary than if he had sung the opera alone there. He has given out of his brain-fire and blood-beat the same magnetism that leads men in battle. To speak of it in the crassest terms, this resource brings him a hundred times more salary than another man with just as good a voice can command. The output that leaves him drained at the end of the show cannot be stored in the phonograph machine. That device is as good in the morning as at noon. It ticks like a clock.
To perfect the talking moving picture, human magnetism must be put into the mirror-screen and into the clock. Not only is this imperative, but clock and mirror must be harmonized, one gently subordinated to the other. Both cannot rule. In the present talking moving picture the more highly developed photoplay is dragged by the hair in a dead faint, in the wake of the screaming savage phonograph. No talking machine on the market reproduces conversation clearly unless it be elaborately articulated in unnatural tones with a stiff interval between each question and answer. Real dialogue goes to ruin.
The talking moving picture came to our town. We were given for one show a line of minstrels facing the audience, with the interlocutor repeating his immemorial question, and the end-man giving the immemorial answer. Then came a scene in a blacksmith shop where certain well-differentiated rackets were carried over the footlights. No one heard the blacksmith, unless he stopped to shout straight at us.
The phonoplay can quite possibly reach some divine goal, but it will be after the speaking powers of the phonograph excel the photographing powers of the reel, and then the pictures will be brought in as comment and ornament to the speech. The pictures will be held back by the phonograph as long as it is more limited in its range. The pictures are at present freer and more versatile without it. If the phonoplay is ever established, since it will double the machinery, it must needs double its prices. It will be the illustrated phonograph, in a more expensive theatre.
The orchestra is in part a blundering effort by the local manager to supply the human-magnetic element which he feels lacking in the pictures on which the producer has not left his autograph. But there is a much more economic and magnetic accompaniment, the before-mentioned buzzing commentary of the audience. There will be some people who disturb the neighbors in front, but the average crowd has developed its manners in this particular, and when the orchestra is silent, murmurs like a pleasant brook.
Local manager, why not an advertising campaign in your town that says: "Beginning Monday and henceforth, ours shall be known as the Conversational Theatre"? At the door let each person be handed the following card:—
"You are encouraged to discuss the picture with the friend who accompanies you to this place. Conversation, of course, must be sufficiently subdued not to disturb the stranger who did not come with you to the theatre. If you are so disposed, consider your answers to these questions: What play or part of a play given in this theatre did you like most to-day? What the least? What is the best picture you have ever seen anywhere? What pictures, seen here this month, shall we bring back?" Here give a list of the recent productions, with squares to mark by the Australian ballot system: approved or disapproved. The cards with their answers could be slipped into the ballot-box at the door as the crowd goes out.
It may be these questions are for the exceptional audiences in residence districts. Perhaps with most crowds the last interrogation is the only one worth while. But by gathering habitually the answers to that alone the place would get the drift of its public, realize its genius, and become an art-gallery, the people bestowing the blue ribbons. The photoplay theatres have coupon contests and balloting already: the most popular young lady, money prizes to the best vote-getter in the audience, etc. Why not ballot on the matter in hand?
If the cards are sent out by the big producers, a referendum could be secured that would be invaluable in arguing down to rigid censorship, and enable them to make their own private censorship more intelligent. Various styles of experimental cards could be tried till the vital one is found.
There is growing up in this country a clan of half-formed moving picture critics. The present stage of their work is indicated by the eloquent notice describing Your Girl and Mine, in the chapter on "Progress and Endowment." The metropolitan papers give their photoplay reporters as much space as the theatrical critics. Here in my home town the twelve moving picture places take one half a page of chaotic notices daily. The country is being badly led by professional photoplay news-writers who do not know where they are going, but are on the way.
But they aptly describe the habitual attendants as moving picture fans. The fan at the photoplay, as at the baseball grounds, is neither a low-brow nor a high-brow. He is an enthusiast who is as stirred by the charge of the photographic cavalry as by the home runs that he watches from the bleachers. In both places he has the privilege of comment while the game goes on. In the photoplay theatre it is not so vociferous, but as keenly felt. Each person roots by himself. He has his own judgment, and roasts the umpire: who is the keeper of the local theatre: or the producer, as the case may be. If these opinions of the fan can be collected and classified, an informal censorship is at once established. The photoplay reporters can then take the enthusiasts in hand and lead them to a realization of the finer points in awarding praise and blame. Even the sporting pages have their expert opinions with due influence on the betting odds. Out of the work of the photoplay reporters let a superstructure of art criticism be reared in periodicals like The Century, Harper's, Scribner's, The Atlantic, The Craftsman, and the architectural magazines. These are our natural custodians of art. They should reproduce the most exquisite tableaus, and be as fastidious in their selection of them as they are in the current examples of the other arts. Let them spread the news when photoplays keyed to the Rembrandt mood arrive. The reporters for the newspapers should get their ideas and refreshment in such places as the Ryerson Art Library of the Chicago Art Institute. They should begin with such books as Richard Muther's History of Modern Painting, John C. Van Dyke's Art for Art's Sake, Marquand and Frothingham's History of Sculpture, A.D.F. Hamlin's History of Architecture. They should take the business of guidance in this new world as a sacred trust, knowing they have the power to influence an enormous democracy.
The moving picture journals and the literati are in straits over the censorship question. The literati side with the managers, on the principles of free speech and a free press. But few of the æsthetically super-wise are persistent fans. They rave for freedom, but are not, as a general thing, living back in the home town. They do not face the exigency of having their summer and winter amusement spoiled day after day.
Extremists among the pious are railing against the moving pictures as once they railed against novels. They have no notion that this institution is penetrating to the last backwoods of our civilization, where its presence is as hard to prevent as the rain. But some of us are destined to a reaction, almost as strong as the obsession. The religionists will think they lead it. They will be self-deceived. Moving picture nausea is already taking hold of numberless people, even when they are in the purely pagan mood. Forced by their limited purses, their inability to buy a Ford car, and the like, they go in their loneliness to film after film till the whole world seems to turn on a reel. When they are again at home, they see in the dark an imaginary screen with tremendous pictures, whirling by at a horribly accelerated pace, a photoplay delirium tremens. Faster and faster the reel turns in the back of their heads. When the moving picture sea-sickness is upon one, nothing satisfies but the quietest out of doors, the companionship of the gentlest of real people. The non-movie-life has charms such as one never before conceived. The worn citizen feels that the cranks and legislators can do what they please to the producers. He is through with them.
The moving picture business men do not realize that they have to face these nervous conditions in their erstwhile friends. They flatter themselves they are being pursued by some reincarnations of Anthony Comstock. There are several reasons why photoplay corporations are callous, along with the sufficient one that they are corporations.
First, they are engaged in a financial orgy. Fortunes are being found by actors and managers faster than they were dug up in 1849 and 1850 in California. Forty-niner lawlessness of soul prevails. They talk each other into a lordly state of mind. All is dash and experiment. Look at the advertisements in the leading moving picture magazines. They are like the praise of oil stock or Peruna. They bawl about films founded upon little classics. They howl about plots that are ostensibly from the soberest of novels, whose authors they blasphemously invoke. They boo and blow about twisted, callous scenarios that are bad imitations of the world's most beloved lyrics.
The producers do not realize the mass effect of the output of the business. It appears to many as a sea of unharnessed photography: sloppy conceptions set forth with sharp edges and irrelevant realism. The jumping, twitching, cold-blooded devices, day after day, create the aforesaid sea-sickness, that has nothing to do with the questionable subject. When on top of this we come to the picture that is actually insulting, we are up in arms indeed. It is supplied by a corporation magnate removed from his audience in location, fortune, interest, and mood: an absentee landlord. I was trying to convert a talented and noble friend to the films. The first time we went there was a prize-fight between a black and a white man, not advertised, used for a filler. I said it was queer, and would not happen again. The next time my noble friend was persuaded to go, there was a cock-fight, incidental to a Cuban romance. The third visit we beheld a lady who was dying for five minutes, rolling her eyes about in a way that was fearful to see. The convert was not made.
It is too easy to produce an unprovoked murder, an inexplicable arson, neither led up to nor followed by the ordinary human history of such acts, and therefore as arbitrary as the deeds of idiots or the insane. A villainous hate, an alleged love, a violent death, are flashed at us, without being in any sort of tableau logic. The public is ceaselessly played upon by tactless devices. Therefore it howls, just as children in the nursery do when the awkward governess tries the very thing the diplomatic governess, in reasonable time, may bring about.
The producer has the man in the audience who cares for the art peculiarly at his mercy. Compare him with the person who wants to read a magazine for an evening. He can look over all the periodicals in the local book-store in fifteen minutes. He can select the one he wants, take this bit of printed matter home, go through the contents, find the three articles he prefers, get an evening of reading out of them, and be happy. Every day as many photoplays come to our town as magazines come to the book-store in a week or a month. There are good ones and bad ones buried in the list. There is no way to sample the films. One has to wait through the first third of a reel before he has an idea of the merits of a production, his ten cents is spent, and much of his time is gone. It would take five hours at least to find the best film in our town for one day. Meanwhile, nibbling and sampling, the seeker would run such a gantlet of plot and dash and chase that his eyes and patience would be exhausted. Recently there returned to the city for a day one of Griffith's best Biographs, The Last Drop of Water. It was good to see again. In order to watch this one reel twice I had to wait through five others of unutterable miscellany.
Since the producers and theatre-managers have us at their mercy, they are under every obligation to consider our delicate susceptibilities—granting the proposition that in an ideal world we will have no legal censorship. As to what to do in this actual nation, let the reader follow what John Collier has recently written in The Survey. Collier was the leading force in founding the National Board of Censorship. As a member of that volunteer extra-legal board which is independent and high minded, yet accepted by the leading picture companies, he is able to discuss legislation in a manner which the present writer cannot hope to match. Read John Collier. But I wish to suggest that the ideal censorship is that to which the daily press is subject, the elastic hand of public opinion, if the photoplay can be brought as near to newspaper conditions in this matter as it is in some others.
How does public opinion grip the journalist? The editor has a constant report from his constituency. A popular scoop sells an extra at once. An attack on the wrong idol cancels fifty subscriptions. People come to the office to do it, and say why. If there is a piece of real news on the second page, and fifty letters come in about it that night, next month when that character of news reappears it gets the front page. Some human peculiarities are not mentioned, some phrases not used. The total attribute of the blue-pencil man is diplomacy. But while the motion pictures come out every day, they get their discipline months afterwards in the legislation that insists on everything but tact. A tentative substitute for the letters that come to the editor, the personal call and cancelled subscription, and the rest, is the system of balloting on the picture, especially the answer to the question, "What picture seen here this month, or this week, shall we bring back?" Experience will teach how to put the queries. By the same system the public might dictate its own cut-outs. Let us have a democracy and a photoplay business working in daily rhythm.