SCREEN ACTING – ITS REQUIREMENTS AND REWARDS
By INEZ and HELEN KLUMPH – 1922
It is difficult to step from behind the motion picture screen and tell those who have always sat in front of it how and why we who make pictures do the things we do. It is even harder to tell those who want to become one of us, how they may do so, as it is hard, always, to put the telling of things in the place of actual experience. What can be done in this way, I feel that this book can do, for I know its authors, and am assured of their knowledge of their subject and their sincerity in presenting it.
There is only one place where a motion picture actor can develop his art, and that is in a motion picture studio. But many a person who sees only the glamor of the work and knows nothing of the hardships it entails can learn much by reading all that he can obtain on the subject. In that way he can get an idea of whether or not he is suited to this profession.
When you have read this book, and see the motion picture screen through news eyes, you may lose your desire to join the company of those who act before the camera. But if your desire to follow this profession still persists, then I can only say good luck to you !
(Lillian Gish – Mamaroneck, New York)
Some Demands of The Work
“It doesn’t pay to let people know that you don’t get tired; they always leave your close-ups till the very last, when everyone else is worn out. But you have to be strong, of course, especially if you work with Mr. Griffith. He can wear a strong man out, you know, before he’s even tired himself. He says that Mary Pickford and I are the only people he’s ever worked with who didn’t give up absolutely long before he was ready to stop.” Lillian Gish was speaking, her subject the first thing which you absolutely must have if you are going to act in motion pictures strength. She doesn’t look so very strong, of course; in fact, people are always speaking of her fragility, her ethereal appearance. But she has made strength and health for herself, because, when she left the stage and went into pictures, she realized that they were absolutely necessary if she was to succeed. Acting in pictures makes demands on you that you can not understand until you have at least played the part of an extra for a day or two. Then you begin to see why the stars have to rush off for a rest when a picture is finished, why most of them go home and go to bed the moment the day’s work is done. You must have strength not only to act, but not to act. You must be able to get into costume and make up, and then sit and wait all day long, perhaps, before you do anything.
When David W. Griffith is directing a big emotional scene, with but one or two persons, he builds in all the atmosphere for the actors. He suggests the things which are not seen at the moment, which have caused the action. When Miss Lillian Gish was making the scene in “Broken Blossoms,” in which she is locked in the closet, he was the only other person present, except the camera man, of course. He talked to her, not telling her what to do, but creating a state of mind for her, if one can call it that, though the expression is not accurate. Perhaps it is better to say that he supplied the “atmosphere.” “Your father is breaking down the door he is going to kill you you can’t escape he will drag you out and beat you to death you are going to be killed ” by such suggestions he made for her the necessary environment. She forgot that she was in a little three-sided enclosure of rough boards, from which she could have stepped at a moment’s notice. She forgot that the man who was playing her father, Donald Crisp, had finished his scenes and gone south on a fishing trip. She didn’t even realize what she was doing. “How did you happen to think to turn round and round like that?” I asked her afterward. “It was exactly what a child that age would have done in such circumstances.”
“I didn’t know I did it till I saw myself on the screen in the projection room afterward,” she answered. “I wasn’t thinking of what I was doing I was thinking of what I was being” Of course, as a rule a director confines himself more to telling you what to do. He would talk your action over with you beforehand, and then run through it once or twice, till you got your bearings. This is especially important if you are in a scene with several other people. You must know just where you are to go and what you are to do. You must not stand in front of one of the principals, you see. You must not step outside the chalked lines on the floor which mark the range of the camera, or you will be outside the picture. Perhaps the director will follow your action through the scene “Turn and speak to him, Jones; now Sally, stamp your foot and leave the room ; Jones, look after her slowly now back to William again. Now, slam the book down on the table and leave the room.” You see, it is all founded on obedience obedience to your own mind, first of all, so that your body goes through the action which it decrees and that mind obeying the director. You must know how to do exactly what you are told, or you cannot hope to act in pictures.
WHAT MAKES A POPULAR FAVORITE TODAY?
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were on a shopping trip its object, the purchasing of a birthday present for Mrs. Gish. They left Lillian’s car at the motor entrance of one of the New York shops, and hurried to the elevator, but despite their haste, a few persons recognized them on the way, and followed. While they shopped, more people caught sight of them, and knew them instantly. And by the time that they returned to the first floor, their way was blocked.
They had to fairly hurl themselves against people, to get out to the street, and there a cheering mob stood between them and the car, clamoring for a glimpse of their favorites.
“Oh, Mary, how do you stand it?” gasped Lillian, when they were at last settled in the car and had left the crowd behind. “People don’t usually know me but they always know you.”
“I don’t ever quite get used to it,” Mary answered. “It’s always a bit of a surprise to me, to have the crowds gather this way.” She has had plenty of experience of this sort, of course; frequently Douglas Fairbanks has had to pick his pretty little wife up and carry her on his shoulder through the cheering mobs. But one of the very qualities which has made her “America’s Sweetheart” is responsible for her not getting accustomed to her own popularity and that is her modesty. The instant a prayer begins to feel important, and think that the public really owes him a great deal, his popularity begins to wane. We all know how such an attitude on the part of an acquaintance makes us feel. It’s the same with a star. Look back on those who were popular in the beginning and have lasted there aren’t many, but they are bigger today than ever. And they all have that feeling that the public is bigger than they are, that they must serve the public, must try to please it. Mary Pickford has that feeling. Always she wants to serve, to make a good picture, one that will mean something to the people who go to the theater because they want to see her. It’s almost like the feeling of a hospitable hostess, who doesn’t want her friends and guests to be disappointed. That feeling governs her studio.
“I’m Mary Pickford,” she will say to a new director. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re to treat me differently than you do everyone else. You’re not. We’ve got to make a good picture, and that’s the most important thing of all. Anyone who doesn’t fit in and make the studio harmonious anyone who makes trouble on purpose must go, no matter who it is.” . There must be, in a favorite who is going to last in the affections of the public, a certain sweetness of nature, a love of people not just one’s friends, but of people in general. Mary Pickford has it; Lillian Gish has it. So has Norma Talmadge, who served her apprenticeship to stardom by playing sweet young mother parts. Douglas Fairbanks has a fine-wholesome democracy about him, a genuine liking for men. One day, during the filming of “Orphans of the Storm,” I was lunching with the Gish girls at the lunchroom of the Griffith Studio. Near us sat a man who looked like anex-prize fighter, and probably was one. Dorothy had been reminiscing about the old days on the Coast, and laughing at the way she and Lillian used to go to the movies, and at the people who had been their favorites. But she paused a moment to tilt her head toward our husky neighbor. “If Douglas Fairbanks were here he wouldn’t pay any attention to us,” she remarked. “He’d be chumming around with that man, showing him his stunts and tricks, and getting the man to show him his.” It is this real love of people which makes a star appealing. And when one appeals to a certain class of people, it is usually because one has a liking for the people of that class, and also for the things which they like. Elsie Ferguson, exquisitely gowned, knowing women from A to Z and portraying their motions so perfectly on the screen, appeals strongly to them, especially to city women. Viola Dana appeals to the flapper the girl in her ‘teens who could chum with Viola if they were acquainted. And so it goes. A popular favorite today must love work, too. The girl who goes to the studio wearily and thinks it a bother to wait for hours to be called, is not going to hold the public. We rarely succeed at a thing we hate we must learn first not to hate it. And this is especially true with screen work.
I know a very beautiful actress who rather looks down on her public. She doesn’t bother about answering her fan mail. She won’t make personal appearances, won’t meet people who have no particular claim on her. She has just finished her last picture under a contract with one of the producing companies, and has not been asked to renew it, or to sign with anyone else. Her day in pictures is done.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF SCREEN ACTING AS AN ART
Acting on the screen is not acting, it is being. It is getting into a character, fitting it as a hand fits into a glove, and then letting the public see what that character does under a given set of circumstances. When D. W. Griffith began working with the talented and experienced Joseph Schildkraut, who is the hero in “Orphans of the Storm,” he saw that the young man, governed by his training in pantomine, was doing too much and not being enough. “Don’t do so much just be still,” he told Schildkraut. And by way of making his point clear, he had “Broken Blossoms” run off in the projection room, and told Schildkraut to study Dick Barthelmess’ work in it. When it was over, Schildkraut asked to have it run again. And then he came to Mr. Griffith. “I see my mistake,” he said. You will remember the remarkable restraint with which Barthelmess played that role how few motions he would make, even in a big scene, and how very effective they were. That was because he is an accomplished actor he has developed in the new school of screen acting, and is a master of it. He dares to be still, merely to be what he is supposed to be, and let the audience accept him in that capacity. And so screen acting has become an art in itself. It is not pantomime. It is not acting as we understand the word from what we see on the stage. It comes nearer to being a projection of the trained imagination, as progressive a thing as a strain of music with the incidents of the story the instrument on which it is performed. In giving this definition I refer, of course, to the work of the great artists of the screen to Lillian Gish’s performance in certain parts of “Way Down East,” to some of Pauline Frederick’s portrayals, to bits given us by Norma Talmadge, Charles Ray, Charlie Chaplin, Colleen Moore, John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Bert Lytell, by Betty Compson in “The Miracle Man” in fact, by everyone whom you have seen in a true portrayal of a bit of life. This development in the art of screen acting is due largely to the fact that acting before the motion picture camera has become subjective, rather than objective.
Actors used to move their hands and arms and make faces to portray an emotion ; now the portrayal begins in their mind ; they are conscious of it there, they concentrate on its mental portrayal, and the human body naturally conveys that mental conception to the audience.
THE DIFFICULTIES OF SPACING MOVEMENTS
This matter of spacing movements is a difficult thing. Lillian Gish says that it is like writing on a typewriter. “You write a word and then touch the spacer; then you write another and touch the space bar again,” she told me. “Well, that’s the way it is with acting in pictures. You do a thing and then stop, then do another. Of course, the space between actions may be hardly noticeable, but it allows for a brief interval in which the audience gets the significance of that movement; in which it sees the action, and the thought of what it is and what it means travels to the mind. Action that is not properly spaced is merely confusing.” But to learn how to space is hard. It must become instinctive, of course, for when one is really in character, it won’t be possible to stop and remember such a thing as this. The matter is one of very delicate adjustment, of using spaces, or intervals, for emphasis, just as you use the loud pedal when playing the piano. To lead up to a certain moment, by movements on which not much stress is laid, then to pause for a slightly longer interval only a few seconds and then make the gesture which carries the meaning of the whole movement that is perfect spacing. The slightly longer interval adds to the suspense, creates a crescendo effect. Of course, when every inch of film is gone over time and time again to see if anything can be eliminated, because the picture has to be cut to a certain length, much of this delicate effect is lost. But some of it must remain. And the actor who masters this important detail gains greatly in technique. An instance of excellent spacing is seen in that part of “Way Down East” where Lillian Gish denounces Lowell Sherman, the man who has betrayed her. The manner in which she turns to him, then to the Squire, the way in which she gets every bit of action across, is notable.
Another master of the art of spacing action is Mary Alden. She knows exactly how to stress a slight movement, how to hold back a bit of action, and then carry it on, conveying a definite impression to an audience even when her action has to be rapid, because it is well spaced.
Spacing action in this way does not mean that it must be slow; in fact, just the opposite is true. Action which moves rapidly is more in need of proper spacing than that which is slow, for the reason that the meaning of it must be made clear to the audience at a glance. Of course, a feeling for spacing is gained after a time, and then the actor need think no more about it, but until it is so mastered, it must be studied, for it is an essential point.
THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
The motion picture star has certain tools, just as the carpenter has. They can be listed definitely, and of course each one must be carefully brought to the highest possible point of perfection. They are:
- The face.
- The body.
- The mind.
The first of these is discussed elsewhere, as is the last. It is the body of which we must talk now. Recently I was watching Monte Blue work in a scene of “Orphans of the Storm,” and when it was finished Mr. Griffith came over to me to discuss it. “Blue has wonderful grace of body,” he remarked. “He’s six feet three, but he handles himself so well that he never is awkward.” And grace of body is a thing that you must cultivate, if you are to work in pictures.
It is easy to see the necessity of this, of course. Have you ever walked across a room while many people were watching you? You may have felt a bit awkward, but of course if your body was well trained, and so under perfect control, you walked well, giving no trace of your embarassment. Well, on the screen you walk before thousands and how essential it is that you walk as your role demands that you should. And although there may have been many people watching you when you made the scenebefore the camera, you had to be unconscious of them, or at least had to seem so. Another thing how do you run? Lillian Gish says that running is one of the hardest things that one has to do in pictures. “You can’t just run,” she told me. “Your running has to express something. It mustn’t be pretty, if it’s done because the character is moved by great emotion when you’re running for a doctor because someone is ill, you don’t do it beautifully yet you do it expressly. “Bobby Harron could run wonderfully. When we were out at the old Biograph studio, Bobby used to take us out in the back yard and show us how to run.” She says that it took her two years to learn to run. Now, there are other things which are quite as hard to do as this, but if your body has been trained to obey you, you can teach it to do these things. Dancing is excellent training. The best kind of dancing is barefoot dancing, combined with exercises that make the body limber and supple. Not that you will always be called on to be graceful in pictures; just as the face must assume expressions which are not beautiful, so must the body. You may play a role in which you represent someone who has led a starved, unhappy life such a role as Lillian Gish’s in “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, in which she never could make a beautiful, free gesture, or such a part as John Barrymore had in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” when he played “Mr. Hyde.” Your body cannot be beautiful then, but it can be obedient to your slightest thought, so that, when you have a mental picture, your body catches that picture and makes it for the eyes of others.
THE QUESTION OF MAKE-UP
The task of applving make-up is an arduous one, but so interesting that it is worth the time which must be devoted to it. First the face is given a coating of cold cream; unless a very high collar is worn, this should extend over the neck as well. Tie your hair up tight in a towel before you begin, or, if you are a man, put on a rubber bathing cap ; the make-up must extend clear to the hair, but must be kept out of it at all cost. Rub off the cold cream, then apply the grease paint. Rub the stick lightly over the face, avoiding the eyebrows and lashes. Then spread the grease paint and blend it, with the finger tips. This is slow work it may take an hour. If the grease paint does not go on smoothly, chill the finger tips by touching them to a piece of ice; this will make a great difference. Shadows can be made to give the effect of hollow cheeks, or gauntness by blending gray grease paint with the flesh color. Lillian Gish uses this method, but Mr. Stewart prefers lavender to gray, especially for use above the eyes. The practise of drawing heavy black lines above and below the eyes, to make them look larger, is as absurd as it is ineffective. Soft, dark shadows give a much better effect. If you want to profit in your every day experience by the methods of actresses, and make your eyes look larger, buy some of the French powder, of a soft gray shade, which can be had in some beauty shops, and gently shadow the skin about the eyes with it. If you don’t know where to put lines in your face, to give the effect of fatigue, or anguish, study the faces of other people. Lillian Gish says that she studied her mother’s face before she made up for the scenes of “Way Down East,” in which she came to the Squire’s farm.
You can study the faces of people everywhere on street cars, in shops, at the theater, in the home and translate your observations straight into terms of make-up, when you need it. An ivory powder is used over light flesh colored grease paint; over other shades, it should be a color that blends with them, of course. The first coating of powder will probably be absorbed by the grease paint, and a second and third coat will have to be applied. If all traces of cold cream have not been removed before the grease paint was applied, the cream will work through the powder and darken it, so it is most important that it should be thoroughly wiped off with cheese cloth before the process of making up begins. The lashes and brows can be slightly darkened with brown or black grease paint, if one wishes; this should be rubbed on lightly, and then wiped off with the finger tips, so that the brows and lashes will not be stiff and unnatural looking.
If the mouth is pretty, it should be let alone, unless its shape must be changed for a character part. If it is to be changed, the work is done with red grease paint, matching the lips in color. The mouth can be made to look shorter than it really is by letting the rouge run not quite to the corners of the lips, and then powdering over the unrouged parts. Similarly, the lips can be made to look not quite so broad, by letting the rouge stop short of the edges, and running the powder down. The rouge should not be thick, or it will look black. However, it is usually advisable not to bother much with the lips.
After the face has been powdered, all surplus powder is removed with a baby’s hair brush, so that the face will not look blotchy on the screen. It is always advisable to use make-up of the same type as the star’s, if possible. Naturally, the lights are tempered to the star’s coloring, and those whose make-up is of the same general color will screen well, while those who aren’t may be amazingly dark on the screen, or so light that they look like Albinos.
WHAT A REHEARSAL IS LIKE
Of course, a rehearsal depends largely on the director who is making a picture. Some directors believe in many rehearsals; others prefer to talk a scene over thoroughly, run through it once or twice, and then shoot it, feeling that the actors’ feeling for it is fresher if this method is followed. D. W. Griffith rehearses a scene thoroughly before it is taken, so that every slight movement registers. I think that this is one reason why, in his productions, we rarely feel conscious of exaggeration, of having an actor almost step out and hit the audience on the head, figuratively speaking, in order to get something across. One reason why a rehearsal is necessary is the necessity for getting balanced movement. People must play up to each other; their gestures, their movements about the stage, must weave in together. Also, these movements must be within the camera lines lines indicated on the floor with chalk, which mark the limit of the camera’s focus. The actors must stay in the picture, of course.
Rehearsals also give the electricians an opportunity to try their lights, to get the best possible effect. A previously planned arrangement of lights may be found unsatisfactory, and have to be changed. Sometimes a dummy is used for the star, when the lights are tried out, or perhaps a young man or woman with much the same coloring as the star will rehearse with the lights. The tempo of a scene may have to be tried out, in different ways. Or a bit of action may have to be built up to a climax. Lillian Gish is noted for the way in which she can build up a crescendo of emotions with facial expressions alone but such a crescendo must be carefully handled, carefully worked out beforehand, unless only an insert is being made, in which but the one person shows. For of course, it would be absurd for one person to build up such a climax, if the actions of the other people in the scene did not respond, and supplement it. If you will recall some of the big emotional scenes which you have seen on the screen the one in “Way Down East,” where Miss Gish denounces the villain, the one in “The Miracle Man,” in which the little crippled boy is healed, and runs up the path, dropping his crutches as he goes, you will see the need of this. That scene caught at the heart of everyone who saw it yet if the actions of the bystanders in the picture had not been well handled, it would have lost much of its appeal. As a rule, the actors use in rehearsal, just as they do when a scene is shot, the words and tones of voice which they would use if they were on the stage. Norma Talmadge is an exception to this; she gives the right intonation, but does not raise her voice. On the other hand, Lillian Gish, when she was rehearsing the scene in “Orphans of the Storm” in which she is to be guillotined, screamed so realistically that more than one man among the bystanders had all he could do not to rush up and save her before Monte Blue got a chance to do so.
if you have decided to gamble with your future, to take some money, and some time, and all your energy and ambition and interest, and throw them on the gaming table, the stakes for which you play will be worth the effort. If you succeed, you will establish yourself in a profession that can give you a home and friends, and interesting work, and a great deal of money. If you fail and many do you will at least have had a tremendously interesting experience, and increased your knowledge of human nature a thousand fold. And that in itself will be equipment for success in another line. But once again I would say don’t try to break into the movies unless you can afford to spend the time and money necessary to learn whether you can do it or not. Be very sure of yourself before you make the break. And if you decide to make it good luck to you !