WOMEN IN MOTION: Dance, Gesture and Spectacle in Film, 1900-1935 – by Elizabeth Ann Coffman (1995)   


Dance, Gesture and Spectacle in Film, 1900-1935

Elizabeth Ann Coffman 1995

A modern woman, filled with the modern spirit. . . . she is no virgin, silly and ignorant of her destiny; she is an experienced but pure woman, in rapid movement like the spirit of the age, with fluttering garments and streaming hair, striding forward. . . . That is our new divine image : the Modern . (Modernism – Malcolm Bradbury /James McFarlane)

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)




The emotional projection of the dancer is an extremely delicate matter, since the acting element of the dance art is not its dominant feature. It cannot be simply an abbreviated realism or it falls [short] of being either dancing or acting; nor can it be a wholly stylized concept without becoming lifeless and cold. It must be complete, compressed, refined, eloquent, but unobtrusive.  In the nineteenth century actors were taught balance and movement by dancing masters, so that a good deal of silent film behavior–with its air of grace and refinement, its flexibility and sentimental lyricism—seems vaguely related to classical ballet; thus Gish has an erect posture and a quality of delicacy mixed with strength that might have been learned in a dancing class. . . . Lillian Gish said once that she thought Dorothy Scarborough’s novel would make a perfect movie because “It was pure motion. “Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928) is also a perfect movie with which to develop a theory for reading gestural style in silent film because of the lack of much symbolic direction (there are very few intertitles) and the specific nature of Gish’s own performance style. The film opens with Lillian Gish’s character, Letty Mason, travelling on a train through a deserted Western landscape. Shots of Letty on the train are intercut with shots of the train in motion through the landscape. These shots of the landscape soon include indexical proof of the wind that whips up the desert sand, and deposits it in Letty’ s lap through the train window. Other shots within the interior of the train include glance/glance reverses between Letty and the male antagonist, Wirt Roddy. In a rather short period of time, Gish manages to portray a range of emotions that include nervousness, f lirtatiousness, and fear with only slight adjustments of her face and body.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind’s opening scene provides a metaphor that connects technology (the train and the camera) , the Western frontier (the desert and the wind), and the woman’s body (that attempts to negotiate these uncomfortable crossings) This important opening sequence establishes a relationship between Letty and the types of movement that act on her—the train that carries her, the wind that covers her, and the man who tries to seduce her. Wirt Roddy, who later rapes Letty and is then killed by her, says about the wind in this opening scene: “Day in, day out–whistlin’ and howlin’ — makes folks go crazy–especially women!” In this scene, one of the few where Gish reacts directly to language, Letty responds to Roddy ‘ s comments by making her eyes grow large and glazed, her lips part slightly in a typically melodramatic stare, shot in close-up. This look of fear appears on her face frequently throughout the film as she reacts to the forces that move her. Equally as expressive as her face, however, is Gish’s bodily movement, which responds to the force of the wind with a frenetic dance-like quality that sweeps Letty across the frame and back. Significantly, the quality of Gish’s movements begins to change as Letty takes a more active role in her environment.

Miss Lillian Gish - still frame (The Wind)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)

Because generalizing about film acting is such a slippery task, I wish to remain as textually and historically specific as possible. In other words, I am not assuming that the gestural style which I identify in The Wind appears in other Gish performances. However, it is my hope that other critics will corroborate the existence of the specific gestural phenomena that I find in The Wind in other texts of the period.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

How does bodily gesture signify in film? Trying to theorize how gesture communicates meaning has long been a difficult contradiction for philosophers and semioticians Since the early days of film, but especially by the 1920s, directors, actors, and physical culturalists published books on acting for the cinema. Recently, film theory has begun to acknowledge the impact of these early writings and manuals on changes in gestural styles in the cinema. However, most theories of gesture and acting have tended to view film acting in a rather linear fashion, projecting a fairly straight development from nineteenth century theatrical melodrama towards the more subtle or “realist” approach that cinematic framing seems to demand. Naremore continues to argue throughout his book, using Lillian Gish’s performance style as an example, that what at first glance may seem to conform to a “realist” aesthetic may, on closer inspection, turn out to be the result of a highly constructed and heavily symbolic performance.

Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish - The Wind)
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)

The theories of Soviet filmmakers, such as Lev Kuleshov and Stanislavsky, are helpful for understanding comparatively the complications of a gestural style which may purport to be one thing on paper and then look to be another thing entirely on film. Positions of these theorists help to elucidate the debate which developed in the 1920s throughout Europe and America and for the next several decades about the relative merits of a German expressionist style as opposed to the “nonacting” of certain American, Italian, and French films. Delsarte’s methodology was consistently associated with a more constructed, emotionally expressive acting style. Konstantin Stanislavsky is most known for developing “method” acting, a style which teaches actors to search their interior experience in order to become the character. The Method is supposed to be more realistic than earlier melodramatic methods because the actor is not trying to express an emotion, but is experiencing the emotion while portraying it, resulting in a transparent and less heavily coded style. Kuleshov disagreed with Stanislavsky’s approach, however, arguing that “one must construct the work of film actors so that it comprises the sum of organized movement, with ‘reliving’ held to a minimum.” Kuleshov, reflecting the Futurist influence which sees the body as a kind of machine, approaches the film set as a three dimensional grid. He theorizes an imaginary “metrical spatial web” within which the actor determines the direction and timing of their body. Kuleshov ‘s visualization of a symmetrically fragmented body was directly influenced by Delsarte’s work. In an echo of Delsarte’s ideas, Kuleshov says that a gestural “task should be broken down into a series of elementary, smaller tasks. ” But he warns that while Delsarte’s techniques are useful “as an inventory of the possible changes in the human mechanism, ” they are not finally useful as a method for acting. Even though Kuleshov rejected Stanislavsky’s approach to bodily performance, he still valued a “natural” or “realistic” acting style. In fact, he chides the Stanislavsky system for producing a large scale, melodramatic gestural style. The irony here is that the “method” claiming to be the most realistic turns out to look equally melodramatic on film. What develops out of these two dramatically different theories and training methods may result in performances which look remarkably the same.

The Wind

Another important development drawing upon Delsarte, which affects silent film performance style and Lillian Gish’s in particular, is the development of modern dance.

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan – Grande Marche

Isadora Duncan was the first to use Delsarte to make a transition from the salon to major performance halls. She, along with the choreographers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, added drama to ordinary movements and took what is now known as modern dance out of the salon and vaudeville acts and into the category of “high art.” These choreographers believed that “In everyday life as well as in the danced representation of life, interior feelings guided the movements of the body into forms that could be identified by the serious student of human movement.” Modern dancers in the United States concentrated on movement as a form of self expression and took their inspiration from “ordinary” movements, ethnic and native dance traditions, and theater.

Where she danced

Dancers such as St. Denis and Shawn firmly believed that the body has a language of its own, one that is more closely associated with music than with language, but one that nevertheless could express desire, regret, mourning, ecstasy, without the context of a narrative frame. A transformation of Delsarte was already apparent in the training that Ted Shawn, one of Gish’s teachers, developed out of Delsarte between 1905-1910. Shawn’s Delsarte training is not as formulaic as the histrionic style that Pearson identifies in 1908 in Biograph films. Shawn, in a 1910 book on Delsarte, contrasts his own interpretation of Delsarte influenced dance and gesture with other interpretations: One of the vital and important differences lies in the recognition of the torso as the source and main instrument of true emotional expression—and equally important, the use of successions, beginning in the torso and spreading outwards and downwards throughout the entire body.

Where she danced

Shawn describes a more fluid style of movement than Steele MacKaye’s or Genevieve Stebbins’s interpretation of Delsartean attitudes. MacKaye and Stebbins emphasized poses, rather than movement in time. The Delsarte influenced acting style that Pearson identifies as histrionic comes from an interpretation of Delsarte that emphasizes tableau and movements that lead from still pose to still pose. Ted Shawn is using Delsarte in a very different way; the torso generates movement that progresses through “the use of successions” that spread “throughout the entire body.” The torso is the seat of emotional expression and one key to a more fluid gestural style that remains expressive without looking “histrionic.” In the upcoming analysis of Lillian Gish’s movements, the fluid use of the torso will be an important distinguishing marker of a gestural style that reflects its exposure to modern dance.

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