European Directors in America, 1922-1931 – SEASTROM

European Directors in America, 1922-1931

By Graham Petrie 1985

Most European and British film directors and stars who make any impact at all on the American market receive, at one time or another, an invitation to work in Hollywood. Many, especially actors and actresses, accept; others are tempted, but ultimately refuse, fearing that too many concessions and compromises will be demanded of them; still others resist even the temptation and remain totally indifferent from the start. Among those who accept, there are different degrees of adjustment.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Although there can have been few years that have not seen at least one European newcomer attempting to make his or her mark in America, there have been three periods over the last sixty years in which the influx of foreign talent has been particularly noticeable. The first, which forms the subject of this book, was in the 1920s, and resulted largely from Hollywood’s fear of European competition and its attempt to counter this by buying up the services of those people most responsible for the success of, in particular, the German and Scandinavian films. The second, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was primarily political in nature and brought to the United States a host of mainly French and German refugees from Nazism. Some, like Wilder and Otto Preminger, remained; others, like Rene Clair and Renoir, returned home shortly after the war was over. The third wave, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was in a sense a combination of both its predecessors, on the one hand attempting to lure some of the figures responsible for the remarkable revival of interest in European cinema that occurred during the 1960s, and on the other, bringing film-makers like Roman Polanski and Milos Forman who were unable to work freely in their native countries.

 

Victor Sjöström
Victor Sjöström

Appendix B – Film Imagery: Seastrom

by Robert Herring

There is a certain naiveté about fundamentals in these Scandinavian films which is always a stumbling-block, but it should not be allowed to hide the terrific sincerity of their makers.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian - backstage The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind

In the film which was generally released in London in October, there was Lillian Gish against The Wind. Against a destructive force. Against the type of life it produced, the type of men the life produced, and the woman she would be if she stayed, married to one of the men. The storm in her mind is produced by the storm of the wind. Inner and outer conflict, the outer in this case serving to throw up the inner. Like a chord or a subsidiary colour, an image. The wind is an image, the fields of snow are images, the roads and woods of The Scarlet Letter are images. Landscape is image in Seastrom.

All being set, consider then his imagery. But all being set, be careful not to jolt it. The landscape is not only a mauve to throw up a blue. It is a darker blue itself. It is of the same colour, it is the same mood, as that colour or mood it brings into prominence. What I said of The Wind shows this. Wind causes the psychological stress, but that stress is in terms of wind. It is in this, though it is used rationally, as psychological as Dr. Sachs showed the beetle to be in Mother, and that was used psychologically. Seastrom’s landscapes are used psychologically, but they connect logically. They could never be mistaken for ‘visual subtitles’ as the spring shots in Mother have been. He achieves this by a very subtle adjustment between conception and execution. In the first place, he sees the wind, or some other element or surrounding, as responsible for the states of mind of his characters. But, the characters having been treated as influenced by these, these things in turn have to be treated to relate to the people’s minds, in order to bring it all out. In order to express what they are, Seastrom makes them be something else. But they have to be themselves too. And because of this, because they are fact it is not always seen that they are image too. They have to partake of something of what they have caused for us to see that the results visible in the people were latent in them. In fact, ‘there is a blending of the two sets of images, the apparent and the real’.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

There is a scene in The Scarlet Letter where Hester and her lover are lying in a dell. ‘The feeling of threatened and short-lived peace so evident in this Seastrom landscape is built up by a number of small touches; rocks, sharp flags pricking up at the lovers, who are themselves at the edge of the water, and a background whose roots and undergrowth call to mind the conventions which have the lovers in their grasp’ (Herring, Films of the Year, 1927-1928). That was thought fanciful at the time. We may have progressed since then, but in any case there is this instance from The Wind.

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Lars Hansen, who has married Gish, has tried to kiss her. She has registered loathing, after he has won, with a new and sudden expression that completely renovates the incident (Seastrom nearly always gets the unsuspected out of his casts).

The Wind Proposal
The Wind – Proposal

He flings out of the room, and she, shut up, with the wind outside, starts pacing up and down. Hansen, outside, strides about. Gish is facing things and both are working something out. We only see the boards of the floor and the feet. But the boards seem to matter most. They are not quite alike, because they are run in different directions, the angle is different, so, through noticing this, we get the fact that they are both boards much more. They are there, impassively, while the feet walk about and work things out above them. Gish, of course, knows it can’t go on much longer, she is, after all, married to the man, and the man is damned if he sees why it should go on much longer, since she is, after all, married to him, and what is marriage for? He took her in a mug of cocoa when she arrived. The cup lies on his floor. The hopes he had, the kindness he was prepared to pay her. Here, drink this, I made it myself. The cup lies on the floor. Of course, he kicks it. The alternating rhythms on the still floor are broken. The act follows the mental decision and preparation for what he has decided. He goes into her room, through a door, onto another set of boards. We scarcely notice that he has left his room, because the continuity of the action has been set up in our minds by the boards. The feet meet, Gish’s draw back. Well, how important the floor has been.

I mentioned the intimacy of Seastrom in home scenes. The birth of the calf was not good in The Tower of Lies, but in this newer film, Gish is at work with the people she lives with, and the woman is ripping a carcass. Everyday stuff. But watch the way Gish draws her skirts as she passes the carcass to fetch an iron.

The Wind

 

You find that for the first time in weeks at a London cinema, you have a state of mind pure before you. Gish, of course, moves beautifully, even under Fred Niblo’s direction in The Enemy, and Seastrom, of course, understands motion and the waves of motion, notice the way the dance stopped, and the floor emptied and the people swept down to the cellar in The Wind, while one or two waited on the empty floor busy barricading the door and the typhoon hung over the town outside – to return, more or less literally, to the mutton; when the children came home, they ran to Gish, and the mother was left with blood on her hands and the knife; she put it down but it made no difference.

Lillian Gish in The Wind

The children were instinctively repelled, and no one knew it but she and them. When her husband came home, she smeared the blood away, but he greeted Gish over his wife’s shoulder, and she was jealous, and the carcass hung there. She could not help having to slice and scrape it. But the children turned from her, from the blood and knife part of her.

The Wind

Very simple. Three images and only small incidents. They were allowed to be small, they were not in the least Germanic, not Lupu-Pick-Wild-Duck-ish. They were not piled up till by their accumulation they became significant, as do the incidents in Czinner films. They were rather the turning over of the whole which reveals these facets as it turns. You tell a whale by the water it spurts, yet there is water all round. It isn’t the whale that makes Whale evident, but the water it has taken in from the surroundings and then spurts up.

When Gish is alone in the house, there is another instance of the peculiarly simple and potent use Seastrom makes of his imagery. Turning it over as if he were looking at it and would be very surprised but quite pleased if you noticed it too. The wind comes. It breaks a window pane. She stuffs a coat in.

She makes things fast. The shelves sway. A lamp is knocked over, it sets fire to the tablecloth. These are little things, results of the wind. To put it out she has to take the coat out of the pane. Then the wind comes in again. All this is actual, but it is one of those rare occasions when actual representation gives us state of mind more clearly than purely psychological interpretation would. Tricks, dissolves, all that. Here, we follow her, we run around, doing hopelessly small things against the wind, wondering how long it will be before the shelves fall, wishing the dog would stop barking, till we are terribly in the girl’s state of mind.

There are more symbols than images because the film progresses dramatically, but the use of the cup has interest, because as an image it links past and present, and the past scenes in a film are the horizon. The cup in The Wind was on the floor from another scene, which it led back to. It took the place of that scene and held it visible while another one went on. Seastrom’s images do this. They carry on. They represent the whole while a larger part of it than themselves is filling the attention. Stones in the foreground, rolled down from the rocks at the back. They show the scale, and however dramatically important, they remain in themselves small. His imagery rarely has close-ups. It has to be looked for. It is part of the atmosphere, the unemphasised, limpid, clear air we breathe, whose effects we feel after. There is nothing startling about it. It is either the whole background, or a feature in the foreground that relates back to it.

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His films progress dramatically, which is the thing that prevents him from ranking among the few. The thing that prevents Swedish films from being, save in part, among the few great films. Seastrom’s outlook is primarily dramatic. Swedish films are primarily dramatic. Their use, and the use they make, of stories shows this.

This lyricism, this force of ‘nuances du sentiment exteriorise par une geste ou la lumiere d’un regard’, ­(exteriorize with a gesture or light from a look) this broad landscape, these torrents that sting so, this air that cuts — all this make up their gift to the screen, bringing these things to us as they are, giving them their importance. The Swedish cinema may not be true, pure cinema; but the cinema there is in them is pure, and their own, which is why they breathe a nobility unlike any other films’ nobility – the spectacle, to quote Freud, ‘that men can offer when in the face of an elemental catastrophe they awake from their muddle and confusion, forget all their internal difficulties and animosities, and remember the great common task, the preservation of mankind against the supremacy of nature’.

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