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it. The fault of the play was that it had to confine itself to a few scenes, and the epic quality of Becky's life was lost. What the screen can give us, if it chooses, is the epic quality. But that is for the future. It means, too, very careful selection of subject.
The vulgarization of the novel, in screen versions, is almost inevitable, save for a chosen few, as I have tried to indicate. But vulgarity is there, even in the original plays. Again, I fancy that is not so much a matter of necessity as of the easiest way. People have been so pampered by 'stunts' on the screen that they expect, they demand, thrills. The drama of real life is not apt to be expressed in quick getaways over roofs, leaps from cliff to cliff, or even the achievement of freedom by means of a racing car. But those make a convenient way to thrills. Contrasts, too, just because the moving picture is such an excellent medium for them, are overdone. Too much is pushed off on them; they are made too crude, too violent. The chance for vivifying contrasts whether of past scenes with present, or of character with character, or of one person's background and situation with another's is one of the moving picture's greatest assets, artistically speaking. As is also lapse of time, that most difficult thing in the world for the novelist to manage gracefully and plausibly. Juxtapositions and antitheses (antithesis is the root of all style'), which call for the greatest technical skill of an author who is restricted to words and the architectonics of the novel, are easily achieved for him in the pictures.
My own notion is, you see, that there is a perfectly legitimate field in art for the picture-play; and that only by taking it as a different genre, and exploiting its own vast possibilities, can the best results be got. If the tendency to vulgarity is there, even in the original
plays, I fancy that is because the makers of them are still feeling for the right convention. It is too new an art for its laws to have been completely tabulated. I think people must get away from the idea that the movie scenario is at all the same thing as a play; or that any good book can be made into a good film. I do not mean by this that the material of screen plays is restricted. I do not think it is, any more than that of any other genre. But I believe that there is still a great deal to learn about the proper exploitation of this new medium, and that a great deal of the vulgarity of films comes from too narrow a view of what can be done and too great ignorance, as yet, of how to do it. The danger is that the easiest way will prevail, and that the moving-picture art will degenerate before it has had a chance to grow up. The plea that the movie audience can understand nothing that is not emotionally cheap and easy is ridiculous. A large number of our immigrants have been used to better stuff, dramatically, than Broadway gives them. Shakespeare knew perfectly, you may be sure, how successfully Hamlet would hit the groundlings. He was just as consciously writing great melodrama as he was consciously writing great poetry. The movie audience that surrounds me when I go is not, for the most part, a cultivated or an educated audience. But it prefers the better movies to the worse ones. And I think - excellent indication that it shows signs of revolting against the jokes from the Literary Digest.
One of the great foes to improvement in moving-picture art would seem to be the close-up. The close-up, I take it, is still the approved field of such 'mental movement' as appears in a play. Now, I have not seen all the great
movie stars. But I have seen half a doz en of the best-known movie actresses, and the simple fact is that, when they register emotions in a close-up, they all look precisely alike. They grimace identically. Either it seems to me they have not learned how to use the close-up properly for dramatic purposes, or there is something the matter with the close-up itself, and it should be gingerly dealt in. I incline to believe that it is a matter of imperfect technique. These women move differently, act differently, 'suggest' differently, in the body of the play. It is only when you stare into their tearful or triumphant faces, made colossal, that they all become alike. It may be that makeup has something to do with it. But the fault is there. The men are nearly as bad, but not quite. I suppose all heroes do not have to have cupid'sbow mouths, for one thing. People do not have such fixed standards for male charm. Both men and women need more subtlety in this matter of closeups. I believe there are too many closeups, anyhow; but I am sure that the close-up has possibilities which many of our stars have not mastered. I know, because I have several times seen Sessue Hayakawa.
I am so little an authority on movie stars that I do not wish to name names in this essay. Though I have seen a good many of the most famous, I have not seen them all. Those I have seen, I have not seen enough times. But I have and and and (more than once, some of them), who are at the very top of popularity and fame. (I am omitting entirely, for the present, the slap-stick stuff, and speaking only of serious plays.) And if I had not seen Sessue Hayakawa, I should think, perhaps, the subtle, the really helpful close-up was well-nigh impossible. Hayakawa has proved to me that it is not; that great acting, of
the quiet sort, can be done on the screen. I have seen his immobile profile describe a mental conflict as I have never seen it done on the real stage except by Mrs. Fiske in Rosmersholm. I have always thought that Mrs. Fiske's silent profile, conveying to an audience the fact that incest had been unwittingly committed, was one of the greatest pieces of acting I have ever seen. I did not suppose it could be easily matched on the real stage, and I should never have dreamed it could be done at all on the screen. But I believe that, if necessary, Hayakawa could do it. Each play that I have seen 'the Jap' in was worse than the last, and I have begun to be afraid that he is going to be forced — why, I do not know-into the contortionism, the violence, the eventual absurdity, that must, I suppose, always be waiting to engulf the emotional screen actor. But I shall never forget the first simple little play I saw him in, where the setting amounted to nothing, the characters were few and humble, and the acting was supremely quiet and very great. It can be done. And as this is a discussion of movie possibilities simply, not of movie achievements up to date, that is all we need to know. I am not saying that others have not done it. I can only say, out of my small experience, that he is the one who has proved to me most conclusively that it is just as possible to have great acting on the screen as on the stage.
The sentimentalism to which we have referred is simply, I think, a prevalent vice of our own day, and not to be credited to movies any more than to any other form of popular art. Certainly our books are as rotten with it as our picture-plays. But books have had a long history, and novel, play, poem, and essay are established genres. They will pull up. It is because the moving-picture genre is young and as yet unsure, because it is still without traditions,
that it stands in peril of succumbing to any bad fashion that is going.
There are various attempts being made and planned, I believe, to make the movie, not only pure, but high-brow. I have never seen the results. But I wonder if the authors of these attempts are using the right methods. Are they utilizing the great, the special assets of the screen? The prime thrill in a movie is the thrill of the spectacular. Great spaces, with horsemen riding, men lying in ambush; the specks in the distance growing; flight and pursuit, wherever and whoever; the crowd, the passionate group; the contrast (as I have said) of past and present, rich and poor, happy and unhappy, hero and villain, can all be made vivid to an extent that must leave mere words (unless used by a master) lagging far behind. What one may call the processional value of the movies can hardly be exaggerated. Whereas the play must gather up its action into a few set scenes, the movie can show life in flux- people going naturally about their appointed ways, as, in the world, people do. I used to think, when I was new to film plays, that the unnatural movement of the actors was due to some law of the camera. But again, it is not so. A few weeks ago I saw a well-known male star in a not particularly interesting adaptation of a once popular novel, and the star bore himself like a human gentleman. He moved as slowly and as gracefully as he pleased. There was none of that jerky rhythm, which is so prevalent that one is sometimes tempted to think it the inevitable gait of the screen. Whether he paced the floor, or took up a book, or lighted a cigarette, or got into a motor-car, or clasped the heroine in his arms, he did it all with perfect naturalness, with the usual rhythm of well-controlled muscles. So it, too, can be done.
I believe that both the sensationalism and the sentimentalism which consti
tute movie-vulgarity can be largely checked and controlled. The genre should be exploited for its artistic possibilities, which are great, and the actors should develop variety rather than one conventional mode. There is no doubt that, at present, the most attractive films are those which use vast landscapes and numbers of people in motion. But you cannot restrict the movie-art to plays of this type. It has been proved by certain actors and actresses that 'mental movement' and natural bodily action are not impossible to 'get across.' The cheapening, the over-simplification and over-stressing of emotion, are not inevitable concomitants of filming a story. You can get your thrill quietly, subtly. The words that are reft from the actor must be made up for, by him, with more than usual significance of bodily and facial expression. But again, it can be done. And to help along, there is that immense potentiality of temporal, social, personal, emotional contrast which no other genre really possesses. Antithesis, so far, has not, I imagine, been either generally enough or subtly enough used. From the hovel to the palace is one way, to be sure; but that is cheap and easy. It does not begin to tap the possibilities. A proper contrast, properly shown, will make up for chapters of verbiage; but the contrast must be carefully made in every detail. Mere 'velvet and rags, so the world wags' will not do.
I am told that America is really responsible for the moving-picture genre: that we are the chief sponsors, if not the positive authors, of the movie. It is we who must make or mar it as an art. I know nothing about foreign films; I have never seen any outside of the United States. I do not know whence these movies come which are doing, according to unquestionable authority, such harm among the brown and yellow races. But I quite see that we have
a great responsibility on our hands. I have heard it said and corroborated, in unimpeachable quarters, that to the movies is due a large part of the unrest in India. For a decade, the East Indian has been gazing upon the white man's movie; and it is inevitable that he should ask why the people who behave that way at home should consider that they have a divine mission to civilize and govern other races. Whatever one thinks of the movie, I believe we should all agree that it does not illustrate, particularly well, the social superiority of the white race. The Anglo-Indian official and his wife may be supremely scrupulous and tactful; but the native is, of course, going to consider that the movie gives them away.
I have no doubt that the worst films, not the best, are shipped to the remoter continents. Japan is overrun with foreign movies, as well as India. I do not know about China, but certainly the Dutch East Indies, Indo-China, the Straits Settlements are invaded. Read the guide-books. Mr. J. O. P. Bland, who has been observing alien races in their own habitat, for many years, with patient precision, avers that the American (and perhaps European) movie is doing incalculable harm to the mixed populaces of the South American republics. To take only one instance: we can perfectly see that to the Hindu and the Mohammedan, the Japanese, and the South American of Hispano-Moorish social tradition, the spectacle of the movie-heroine who is not only unchaperoned but scantily dressed, who more or less innocently 'vamps' every man within striking radius, who drives her own car through the slums at midnight, who places herself constantly in perilous or unworthy contacts, yet who is on the whole considered a praiseworthy and eminently marriageable young woman, is not calculated to enhance the reputation of Europe or the United
States. She violates every law of decency, save one, that is known to the Hindu, the Japanese, or the mestizo of South America. It is scarcely conceivable to them that anyone but a prostitute should behave like that. Yet they have it on good authority- the film that she is the daughter of the American millionaire or the British peer, who considers himself immeasurably the poor Hindu's, the poor Jap's, the poor peon's superior.
Nor do I believe that Charlie Chaplin is destined to spread the doctrine of the White Man's Burden very successfully. We deal, in these other continents, with peoples to whom unnecessary bodily activity is not a dignified thing. You cannot possibly explain Charlie Chaplin to them correctly. You just cannot. They simply think that official AngloSaxons are minuetting in the parlor for diplomatic reasons, and that Charlie Chaplin is the Anglo-Saxon 'out in the pantry.' Paris is as keen, I understand, on 'Charlot'as England and the United States. But compared with Asia, Africa, and South America, France and England and we are, as it were, one flesh.
This particular problem is none of my affair. But it might be well, all the same, not to present ourselves as totally lacking in social dignity at the very moment when we are being so haughty about the Monroe Doctrine and Japanese exclusion and the White Man's Burden in general. The people who are told that we are too good to mess up with them in a league of nations must wonder a little when they look at Charlie Chaplin, having previously been told that he is the idol of the American public. I have taken Charlie Chaplin merely because of his positively world-wide popularity. The love of slap-stick is not confined to the Anglo-Saxon tribe, though I believe no other tribe likes it one half so much. Personally, I am bored to tears by Charlie.
But as a public, there is no doubt that we adore him. We understand perfectly that our peculiar sense of humor in no wise prevents us from carrying on an enlightened form of government with a good deal of success. Slap-stick has always been in the Anglo-Saxon's blood. But I can see that the Brahmin or the Samurai, who gazes on Charlie and the custard pie, might legitimately wonder whether, after all, Charlie was intended by the Deity to govern the whole planet; cannot you?
That was, in a sense, a digression. For what I really had set myself to do was to indicate what, it seemed to me, were some of the possibilities of the moving picture
the moving picture the moving picture
as an artistic genre, that is. I have no means of knowing what technically may be achieved in another decade or two: what marvels of color, of sceneshifting, and the like. But all that is stage-managing, not the play itself. I fancy, being largely Anglo-Saxon still in our make-up, we shall go on with slapstick to the end of the chapter. Probably the alien among us will be more quickly educated to slap-stick than to any other of our ideals. It will be the first step in Americanization. I do not see how you can develop slap-stick except along the line of least resistance. It can only go a little further all the time, and become a little more so.
But the movie drama has a more serious and varied future than that. It is important. It must chuck — it ought to chuck the Aristotelian unities overboard. The three unities have long since ceased to be sacred, yet the memory of them has overshadowed the whole of European play-writing. Our
serious drama has violated them, but it has never positively contradicted them
flung them out of court. Unity of action has at least been kept, in mest cases. Even unity of time has often been stuck to; and in rare cases of late, unity of place. There has been no virtue in discarding the three unities, except the virtue that is made of necessity. But the screen-play must discard them, in order to find itself. Unity of time and unity of place alike would kill the movie. Even unity of action is by no means necessary to it. At least, so it seems to me; but then I am very strong for the picaresque, the epic movie. Certainly, unity of action in the strictest dramatic sense is not a virtue in the screen-play. It is precisely the movie's chance to give the larger, looser texture of life itself. It does not, at its best, have to artificialize and recast life as does the well-made play. Its motto not only is, but ought to be, 'Good-bye, Aristotle!' This may seem a superfluous saying, since we have been bidding that gentleman farewell so vociferously for so long. Yet the drama has, up to our own time, been on speaking terms with him. The drama, I fancy, will have to continue to be on speaking terms with him; and I am not sure that the one-act play, which has so much vogue at present, has not actually invited him to come back and have a cup of tea.
The movie is another matter. It has its own quite different future; and producer, director, actor, and author will all have to pull together to make that future artistically as well as commercially brilliant. More power to their elbows!