The Art of Silent Film
By James Card – 1994
We have become an alarmingly endangered species, those of us who enjoyed silent films throughout the 1920s. We know that we are not alone in admiring the best of the surviving predialogue movies, but understandably, some misconceptions have crept into histories of the early period, written by those who were not around to see first-run prints of the acknowledged masterpieces, or could not have visited the resplendent palaces or the cozy neighborhood houses of more than half a century ago.
As there are today, there were those who took the existence of cinema very much for granted, saw only an occasional film because it was being discussed. And there were even a few (I never met one) who hated pictures. But there were some of us with an addiction, with fierce passion for the medium. We were militant and protective and we didn’t want it to change in any way. We loved its silence. We were devoted to the aspect ratio of the frame. As collectors, we were even enchanted by the unique scent of nitrate of cellulose. There are even fewer of us left who not only had this almost insane, passionate affection for film, but became involved in hands-on work with motion pictures, shooting, editing and screening as well as simply watching. When dialogue arrived and the silent film almost vanished, some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie.
An Art Declasse
Silent movies? Before sound films nobody called motion pictures “silent movies.” In those days the term “talkies” was already in use, but it referred only to plays on the stage to differentiate them from photoplays. As Lillian Gish never tired of pointing out, the “silent” film was never silent. Even in the primitive period, there was a pianist or an organist putting music to the film. The big downtown theatres usually began continuous showings at 10:00 a.m. Until the two evening performances, the film would be accompanied by a skillful organist seated at the mighty Wurlitzer. The evening shows boasted full orchestral accompaniment. The musicians were fine, well-paid professionals led by experts who knew very much what they were about. The top Cleveland movie orchestra was conducted by Maurice Spitalny in gleaming full dress, his exquisitely prepared profile turned toward the audience and bathed in his own special spotlight as his orchestra played the overture before the film began. Maurice was one of three Russian-born Spitalnys, all musicians. Brother Phillip conducted a famous all-girl orchestra in Manhattan. He went to Cleveland often to see his brother, whose greeting to Phillip became a local catchphrase: “Hallo, Pheel! How you fill?”
In one area Griffith did seem to be ahead of his contemporaries: by either good luck or superior perception, he was able to recruit a cadre of fantastic players. With his theatre orientation, he had confidence in even the actresses who had been professionals from childhood, so that Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters and Blanche Sweet became Biograph stars. Experience in the theatre was cachet sufficient for Griffith to hire Lionel Barrymore, Tom Ince and Mack Sennett, all of whom graduated from Biograph to major film careers that endured for many years.
There were indeed some truly impressive Biographs. As early as 1909 Griffith had Pickford, Owen Moore and James Kirkwood acting in The Restoration, an involved psychological drama concerned with memory Loss.
Along with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms of 1919 is one of Griffith’s major efforts on which much of his fame rests. The original release print of the film was elaborately colored with the use of variously tinted base stock. The Museum of Modern Art Film Library people arranged to undertake the demanding and expensive project of copying the film and restoring the delicately colored version to something very much like the original.
In a significant departure from routine filmmaking, Griffith rehearsed the cast for weeks before the camera ever turned. His aim was to create a film that he thought would be as fine and important as a great play on the stage—his first love. However well intentioned his plan, his theatrical orientation lured him into a major aesthetic error that militates against one’s acceptance of the film today as a great work. Richard Barthelmess, cast as a Chinese in London’s Limehouse district, is made up as a stereotyped stage Chinaman, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps. All perfectly acceptable as a nineteenth-century theatrical cliche. But Griffith made the mistake of surrounding Barthelmess with real Chinese, none of whom looked anything like the chief protagonist.
In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was betrayed by this stagecraft into the same aesthetic error. His principal players cast as blacks are white actors and actresses, their faces smeared not too carefully with blackface makeup. Neither of his villains, George Siegmann and Walter Long, have negroid features. Well and good had he been producing a minstrel show, but again, extras in the film are real blacks bearing no resemblance to Tom Wilson, George Siegmann or Walter Long. The unfortunate effect for Broken Blossoms is that the film is neither realistic drama nor effective theatre make-believe. The famous performance of Lillian Gish’s almost rescues the film from being a grotesquerie rather than simply a very much dated melodrama with Donald Crisp as the savage child beater, shown in enormous close-ups, grimacing in a way to rival King Kong himself. Griffith considered himself to be a poet, a dramatist and, only some what reluctantly, a film director. For this project he also became a composer and is credited as the author of the love theme of the film, a piece he titled “White Blossom.” Composing the music for the other portions of the film was entrusted to none other than Louis Gottschalk. As a music composer, Griffith thus placed himself in prestigious company. Lillian Gish’s performance as the slow-witted, much abused Limehouse district waif is one of the most praised in all her career. It was also the most parodied. ZaSu Pitts made a whole career imitating the uncertain, desperate gestures that were so touching as Lillian Gish had done them.
The Festivals of Film Artists
The 1957 festival marked his first return to Rochester and the theatre he had known so well twenty-eight years before. Mamoulian’s wife came with him. She was a gorgeous, glamorous Hollywood type, and although the Mamoulians were only to stay overnight, she brought so much ponderous luggage that it couldn’t all be squeezed into the spartan room they were assigned in the Rochester Treadway Inn. Mrs. Mamoulian ordered an immediate transfer to a more commodious hotel. Other celebrity arrivals were also not without their own problems.
At Eastman House for the second Festival of Film Artists, in 1957: James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor and Mary Pickford
In 1957 there were direct flights from Los Angeles to Rochester. It was in the good old days before hub airports. I was at the Rochester airport to meet a plane that carried more than any usual share of VIPs. On that flight were the director Frank Borzage, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who traveled with an entourage of no fewer than three comely female attendants. The plane arrived at 1:30 a.m., Rochester time. When I greeted the group, Chevalier let out a whoop and pumped Novarro’s hand. Ramon was astonished. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for years—ever since Ben-Hur.” Chevalier exulted. The two great stars not only had never met before, but had flown all the way from Los Angeles without recognizing each other. Also, they all let me know, they had had nothing to eat since before boarding the plane in California. First bit of business was to get them to food. Rochester is not known to be a swinging town after midnight. But there was a restaurant right on East Avenue, not far from the theatre itself, run by an ambitious restaurateur who thought of himself and his establishment as several cuts above the small-town reputation of Rochester. His boite he called the Five O’Clock Club, and its marquee boasted that it was “Just like New York.” I parked the car with its illustrious guests and rushed in to see if they had any food left. The owner was sitting with some friends at a booth near the door. I knew who he was—he was big in self-advertising. It was obvious at once that he didn’t know me. “We’re closed, Mac,” he snarled at me. “Can’t we just get a quick sandwich or something?” “I told you we’re closed. The chef’s gone.”
“Look, Leo, can’t you have a waiter go into the kitchen and fix three or four simple sandwiches? I have Maurice Chevalier and Ramon Novarro out here in the car. They haven’t had a thing to eat all day, and every place but yours is closed.”
The proprietor turned to his friends. “After all that trouble we had with that guy tonight, here’s another one—this one has Maurice Chevalier out in his car!”
I went back to our guests. Across the street was a White Tower hamburger place (forerunner of the MacDonald’s and Burger Kings to come). It was there that I had to take Borzage, Novarro and that noted French bon vivant and gourmet Maurice Chevalier for hamburgers. I noted that Maurice disguised his burger with a complete dousing of mustard. Without much shame, I confess to elation when, only a few months later, the Five O’Clock Club that was “Just like New York” went out of business.
Our cast on the stage of the Eastman Theatre almost made the event look like a rerun of 1955, for there, again, were Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Frank Borzage, Dick Barthelmess and Charles Rosher, but with the added attractions of Gloria Swanson, Josef von Sternberg, Janet Gaynor, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who, of course, stole the show. Chevalier’s onstage technique was unforgettable. Offstage, standing or sitting surrounded by his personal entourage, he looked almost asleep, gloomy and brooding. But in the instant before he stepped on the stage, his face would light up as though he’d turned on a set of bulbs. His whole body seemed to have been electrified; his face was flushed with energy and breezy enthusiasm. When he stepped off the stage, the appearance of somnolence fell over him like a curtain. Chevalier’s off-and-on act reminded me of Buster Keaton at the first festival. Offstage, of course, he smiled—and often. He was a cheerful, friendly charmer. And everywhere he went, both amateur photographers and newspaper cameramen would try to ambush one of those smiles. But Buster teased them with an almost supernatural sense of timing: he could sense just the instant they were about to fire their cameras, the smile would snap off his face, and the trademark, solemn Keaton look would be all they’d catch.
The second Festival of Film Artists was the last. Before we could do another, General Solbert died. As of this writing, every other actor, actress and director who won awards in those festivals has also departed. General Oscar Solbert was an exceptional individual. He exasperated me to the point ofmy resigning three times. Three times he tore up my letter of resignation. I miss him the way I miss my own father. Subsequent directors of Eastman House have tried to have festivals of film artists. But they miss the salient point of the two originals—that the artists chosen for the Georges were chosen entirely by their fellow film people. The later, spurious awards have been given to celebrities chosen by Rochester socialites.