The Hollywood Hallucination
by Parker Tyler (© 1944)
by Richard Schickel (© 1970)
What it comes to, in essence, is this: There is the conscious movie: the one the people who created it thought they were making and the one we thought we were paying our way in to see. Then there is the unconscious movie: the one neither makers nor viewers are consciously aware of, a movie that exposes the attitudes, neuroses, desires shared by both parties. This film, if not beyond good and evil, is certainly beyond the reach of “good” reviews or “bad” reviews, beyond favorable or unfavorable criticism. It is not, however, beyond contemplation of the sort Mr. Tyler practices.
And, it should be mentioned, his style is as unique as his subject matter. He has a way of warily circling his prey, surrounding it with speculation, until, weary and frightened by an astute hunter, it falls victim to one of his quick dashes to its most vulnerable point.
I said at the beginning that I am extremely vulnerable to the charm of daring critical huntsmen of Mr. Tyler’s sort, inclined to concede them their excesses of enthusiasm, their occasional lapses (even into incomprehensibility). Implicit in their enterprise is their own vulnerability to satirical and parodistical shots of the sort that people like Vidal, with their unquestioned ability to hit the broad side of a barn, can so easily make. Most of the best screen actors and screenplays, the ones we best and most lovingly remember, are similarly vulnerable, as is much of our best literature. In the end, work of this kind lingers in the mind precisely because it opens it up, leaves it speculating, trying to apply radical formulations to new phenomena as they appear.
It is possible, of course, that some of my affectionate regard for Mr. Tyler’s work stems from the fact that most of his examples are drawn from a period (the late Thirties and the Forties) that happened to be the most formative one for me as a watcher in the shadows. They may seem obscure or distant to people under thirty-fivish. Yet, most of the genres and performer types he discusses are still very much with us. And the processes by which they were created are still very much alive and well wherever people get together and make movies. Styles may change but the basics remain constant. Mr. Tyler may have written these books as the sound film passed through adolescence—age 14-18—but the bending of the twig was by then complete and its maturity was clearly prefigured. And even if the New American Film that one now sees taking shape should totally drive the traditional commercial product from the screen (which I doubt, some form of coexistence being a much better bet) The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies would remain essential tools for understanding film history. Moreover, the mark they have made on at least some writers about film since they were published would remain indelible, even if, as is generally the case, unacknowledged.
Movies are, no matter what else they may from time to time claim to be, a mythopoetic form, and Mr. Tyler’s criticism has, appropriately enough, a poetic quality about it. The critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has lately defined the poem as an entity which “allows us to know what we know, including our illusions and desires, by giving us the language in which to acknowledge it.” That, precisely, is what Mr. Tyler was trying to do when he wrote in his strange, compelling, uniquely rewarding way about films back in the days when we knew no better than to call them “the movies” and pretend their unimportance to us.
The tradition of the somnambules in the movies is more conspicuous than those who put two and two together to make money may have noticed. It is only prudery, of course, that would prevent conceding the fact that the somnambule’s myth essentially signifies the “ritual” readying of woman for sex by depriving her of her conscious powers through hypnotism. But she does not have to get up from her bed and walk in her sleep to respond to intangible influences of desire and fear. In ordinary, “waking” terms, somnambulism in women is susceptibility to seduction by psychological tour de force.
From a scientifically analytical viewpoint, the motions of fear closely resemble those of strong desire when the emotion is unrepressed. The peculiarly artificial style of Miss Gish’s femininity (I speak of her Griffith days only) must be considered a synthesis of fear and desire: fear in the sense of timidity and virginal propriety, and desire in the sense of flirtation, an impulse to be noticed by and to please the male. These counter emotions produced their refined hieroglyph of the Gish femininity under the Svengalism of Griffith, who conceived Miss Gish as a Trilby in whom pantomime was substituted for voice. It is worth noting here that both Trilby and Lillian are making love under the direction of their masters, and, moreover, making love professionally, one as a songstress, the other as a movie actress. Consequently the element of evil in the hypnotic males involved is forced to give way to a more or less impersonal element of good: both Griffith and Svengali were teachers and taught their charges to earn a living. It is important to bear in mind the economic element in the careers of those Hollywood somnambules whom I shall discuss later.
The nervous somnambule of Lillian Gish is hard-working, although her type, considered with reference to society and to the characters she portrayed, is less competent than a very recent successor: Vivian Leigh. Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation overlap in many respects. Both had heroines victimized by the change the Civil War brought in its wake; both were brutally awakened from the feudal dream into a post-feudal reality. Both endured great physical rigors. But Scarlett O’Hara, prophetically, was much more a modern woman, a more complete psychological and social type. Miss Gish was incidental to the theme of her story, whereas the theme was incidental to the personal story of Scarlett. What is Scarlett but a feudal Eve who passed through the Lilith stage into a stage ruled over by Tallulah Bankhead as the termagant heroine of The Little Foxes? Scarlett learned to control her nerves; therefore she seems nothing but a Lillian who was initiated into a sophisticated personality by events. If Miss Gish had not been so active, she would roughly correspond to Scarlett’s counterfoil, Melanie. Miss Gish, however, was hardly more than a stylized dream, a somnambule with the jitters. Women who are ashamed of desire (and this is the generic, psychologic base of the Gish formula) cannot forever feign a pseudo-somnambulistic isolation—unless as actresses they should become figments of the romantic genre itself: dream characters, metaphysical symbols, heroines of Poe. As an artist in pantomime, Miss Gish could be as enchanting as anyone I have ever watched; her art was unimpeachable, her charm intense.
Her modern counterparts, strangely enough, are foreigners: Elizabeth Bergner and Luise Rainer. Yet in comparison with Miss Gish, these actresses are sophisticated and more human. The course of movie history dealt Miss Gish a harsh but poetical fate: her heroine of Broken Blossoms (the Gish-Griffith chef- d’oeuvre) was but the somnambule debunked—beaten rather than hypnotized into her “ideal” state of sexual readiness.
Phoenix-like, the somnambule’s myth arose from the frail, lifeless body in the Chinaman’s arms to dominate in several curious forms the sexual industry of Hollywood. Actresses from abroad have brought new styles subtly inflecting the Gish tremor and the Bara undulation of sex-consciousness.
The Human Mask
Before the talking movie appeared, American actors had a better chance to create their “human masks.” Not only did we get Chaplin then, but also Lillian Gish, as well as the romantic figures of Rudolph Valentino from Italy and John Barrymore from Broadway. Acting, with distinct but rare exceptions, was extremely bad in the first two decades of the movies. Of course, in Hollywood less was demanded of acting than on the stage. At the same time, because everything depended in those former times, so far as the actor went, on pantomime, the actor’s physical style had to be highly distinguishable, had to have some of the quality of the human mask. If nowadays we notice a relatively competent young actor, such as Robert Young, we see that physically he has no style whatsoever.