Read an Excerpt
AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICSAn Anthology From the Silents Until Now
The Library of AmericaCopyright © 2006 Literary Classics of the United States
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVachel Lindsay
The Bard of Springfield, Illinois, Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) crisscrossed the United States three times in his twenties, selling his rhymes for bread, hobo-style, and spreading what he called "the gospel of Beauty." He later became a celebrity of the lecture circuit, reciting the aurally bravura, jazz-rhythmic poems such as "The Kalyope Yell," "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" and "The Congo" that made him famous and earned him a permanent place in poetry anthologies. In addition to his twelve volumes of poetry, Lindsay wrote the first work of film aesthetics in America, The Art of the Moving Picture, a summary of what the movies had done so far as of 1914 and were capable of in the future. He divided films into categories such as the Action Film, the Intimate Film, and the Film of Splendor. Lindsay was an enthusiastic pitchman for the movies, and sought to legitimize them by comparing each category to the traditional visual arts (Sculpture-in-Motion, Painting-in-Motion, Architecture-in-Motion) and to literature (the drama, the lyric, the epic). He was guilty of rhapsodic exaggeration at times; yet, as can be seen in the chapter below, "The Photoplay of Action," he was alsoclear-sighted and funny about the genre's limitations, which he described in vigorous, peppery prose.
Decades after the poet's death, film scholar Myron Lounsbury discovered, along with scattered articles of film criticism, a second, unpublished manuscript by Lindsay, a sequel to The Art of the Moving Picture written in 1925 which he called The Greatest Movies Now Running (and which Lounsbury retitled The Progress and Poetry of the Movies), from which the second entry is excerpted. In it Lindsay lambastes the country's "beehive" conformity while singling out Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith as harbingers of a new American Renaissance.
* * *
The Photoplay of Action
Let us assume, friendly reader, that it is eight o'clock in the evening when you make yourself comfortable in your den, to peruse this chapter. I want to tell you about the Action Film, the simplest, the type most often seen. In the mind of the habitue of the cheaper theatre it is the only sort in existence. It dominates the slums, is announced there by red and green posters of the melodrama sort, and retains its original elements, more deftly handled, in places more expensive. The story goes at the highest possible speed to be still credible. When it is a poor thing, which is the case too often, the St. Vitus dance destroys the pleasure-value. The rhythmic quality of the picture-motions is twitched to death. In the bad photoplay even the picture of an express train more than exaggerates itself. Yet when the photoplay chooses to behave it can reproduce a race far more joyously than the stage. On that fact is based the opportunity of this form. Many Action Pictures are indoors, but the abstract theory of the Action Film is based on the out-of-door chase. You remember the first one you saw where the policeman pursues the comical tramp over hill and dale and across the town lots. You remember that other where the cowboy follows the horse thief across the desert, spies him at last and chases him faster, faster, faster, and faster, and finally catches him. If the film was made in the days before the National Board of Censorship, it ends with the cowboy cheerfully hanging the villain; all details given to the last kick of the deceased.
One of the best Action Pictures is an old Griffith Biograph, recently reissued, the story entitled "Man's Genesis." In the time when cave-men-gorillas had no weapons, Weak-Hands (impersonated by Robert Harron) invents the stone club. He vanquishes his gorilla-like rival, Brute-Force (impersonated by Wilfred Lucas). Strange but credible manners and customs of the cave-men are detailed. They live in picturesque caves. Their half-monkey gestures are wonderful to see. But these things are beheld on the fly. It is the chronicle of a race between the brain of Weak-Hands and the body of the other, symbolized by the chasing of poor Weak-Hands in and out among the rocks until the climax. Brain desperately triumphs. Weak-Hands slays Brute-Force with the startling invention. He wins back his stolen bride, Lily-White (impersonated at Mac Marsh). It is a Griffith masterpiece, and every actor does sound work. The audience, mechanical Americans, fond of crawling on their stomachs to tinker their automobiles, are eager over the evolution of the first weapon from a stick to a hammer. They are as full of curiosity as they could well be over the history of Langley or the Wright brothers.
The dire perils of the motion pictures provoke the ingenuity of the audience, not their passionate sympathy. When, in the minds of the deluded producers, the beholders should be weeping or sighing with desire, they are prophesying the next step to one another in worldly George Ade slang. This is illustrated in another good Action Photoplay: the dramatization of The Spoilers. The original novel was written by Rex Beach. The gallant William Farnum as Glenister dominates the play. He has excellent support. Their teamwork makes them worthy of chronicle: Thomas Santschi as McNamara, Kathlyn Williams as Cherry Malotte, Bessie Eyton as Helen Chester, Frank Clark as Dextry, Wheeler Oakman as Bronco Kid, and Jack McDonald as Slapjack.
There are, in The Spoilers, inspiriting ocean scenes and mountain views. There are interesting sketches of mining-camp manners and customs. There is a well-acted love-interest in it, and the element of the comradeship of loyal pals. But the chase rushes past these things to the climax, as in a policeman picture it whirls past blossoming gardens and front lawns till the tramp is arrested. The difficulties are commented on by the people in the audience as rah-rah boys on the side lines comment on hurdles cleared or knocked over by the men running in college field-day The sudden cutbacks into side branches of the story are but hurdles also, not plot complications in the stage sense. This is as it should be. The pursuit progresses without St. Vitus dance or hysteria to the end of the film. There the spoilers are discomfited, the gold mine is recaptured, the incidental girls are won, in a flash, by the rightful owners.
These shows work like the express elevators in the Metropolitan Tower. The ideal is the maximum of speed in descending or ascending, not to be jolted into insensibility There are two girl parts as beautifully thought out as the parts of ladies in love can be expected to be in Action Films. But in the end the love is not much more romantic in the eye of the spectator than it would be to behold a man on a motorcycle with the girl of his choice riding on the same machine behind him. And the highest type of Action Picture romance is not attained by having Juliet triumph over the motorcycle handicap. It is not achieved by weaving in a Sherlock Holmes plot. Action Picture romance comes when each hurdle is a tableau, when there is indeed an art-gallery-beauty in each one of these swift glimpses: when it is a race, but with a proper and golden-linked grace from action to action, and the goal is the must beautiful glimpse in the whole reel.
In the Action Picture there is no adequate means for the development of any full grown personal passion. The distinguished character-study that makes genuine the personal emotions in the legitimate drama, has no chance. People are but types, swiftly moved chessmen. More elaborate discourse on this subject may be found in chapter twelve on the differences between the films and the stage. But here, briefly: the Action Pictures are falsely advertised as having heart-interest, or abounding in tragedy. But though the actors glower and wrestle and even if they are the most skilful lambasters in the profession, the audience gossips and chews gum.
Why does the audience keep coming to this type of photoplay if neither lust, love, hate, nor hunger is adequately conveyed? Simply because such spectacles gratify the incipient or rampant speed-mania in every American.
To make the elevator go faster than the one in the Metropolitan Tower is to destroy even this emotion. To elaborate unduly any of the agonies or seductions in the hope of arousing lust, love, hate, or hunger, is to produce on the screen a series of misplaced figures of the order Frankenstein.
How often we have been horrified by these galvanized and ogling corpses. These are the things that cause the outcry for more censors. It is not that our moral codes are insulted, but what is far worse, our nervous systems are temporarily racked to pieces. These wriggling half-dead men, these over-bloody burglars, are public nuisances, no worse and no better than dead cats being hurled about by street urchins.
The cry for more censors is but the cry for the man with the broom. Sometimes it is a matter as simple as when a child is scratching with a pin on a slate. While one would not have the child locked up by the chief of police, alter five minutes of it almost every one wants to smack him till his little jaws ache. It is the very cold-bloodedness of the proceeding that ruins our kindness of heart. And the best Action Film is impersonal and unsympathetic even if it has no scratching pins. Because it is cold-blooded it must take extra pains to be tactful. Cold-blooded means that the hero as we see him on the screen is a variety of amiable or violent ghost. Nothing makes his lack of human charm plainer than when we as audience enter the theatre at the middle of what purports to be the most passionate of scenes when the goal of the chase is unknown to us and the alleged "situation" appeals on its magnetic merits. Here is neither the psychic telepathy of Forbes Robertson's Caesar, nor the firebreath of E. H. Sothern's Don Quixote. The audience is not worked up into the deadly still mob-unity of the speaking theatre. We late comers wait for the whole reel to start over and the goal to be indicated in the preliminary, before we can get the least bit wrought up. The prize may be a lady's heart, the restoration of a lost reputation, or the ownership of the patent for a churn. In the more effective Action Plays it is often what would be secondary on the stage, the recovery of a certain glove, spade, bull-calf, or rock-quarry. And to begin, we are shown a clean-cut picture of said glove, spade, bull-calf, or rock-quarry. Then when these disappear from ownership or sight, the suspense continues till they are again visible on the screen in the hands of the rightful owner.
In brief, the actors hurry through what would be tremendous passions on the stage to recover something that can be really photographed. For instance, there came to our town long ago a film of a fight between Federals and Confederates, with the loss of many lives, all for the recapture of a steam-engine that took on more personality in the end than private or general on either side, alive or dead. It was based on the history of the very engine photographed, or else that engine was given in replica. The old locomotive was full of character and humor amidst the tragedy, leaking steam at every orifice. The original is in one of the Southern Civil War museums. This engine in its capacity as a principal actor is going to be referred to more than several times in this work.
The highest type of Action Picture gives us neither the quality of Macbeth or Henry Fifth, the Comedy of Errors, or the Taming of the Shrew. It gives us rather that fine and special quality that was in the ink-bottle of Robert Louis Stevenson, that brought about the limitations and the nobility of the stories of Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and the New Arabian Nights.
This discussion will be resumed on another plane in the eighth chapter: Sculpture-in-Motion.
Having read thus far, why not close the book and go round the corner to a photoplay theatre? Give the preference to the cheapest one.
The Artistic Position of Douglas Fairbanks and The Thief of Bagdad Production
Douglas Fairbanks is an interesting and approved figure, interesting because of the merit and energy of his enterprises, approved in general by the motion picture world, approved in a special way by the author of this book because he is not "incorporated." He has had an individual career as an actor and producer, when even the best movies had a department-store atmosphere and the technical methods of a "Board of Control." Movies, like skyscraper-architecture, at best have a suggestion of the factory.
There is much to say for Douglas Fairbanks that I will not put down in this chapter. He had a long preliminary career as a kind of giant, superhuman flea, jumping hurdles with a Billy-Sunday agility in a costume of modern, Arrow-collar cool correctness. The time was when he seemed to be turning out these productions every two weeks. This is the first Douglas Fairbanks period, and there is much more to be said for it than these light words might indicate. He put into it the genius of columnists like Stoddard King, Franklin P. Adams, Don Marquis, Christopher Morley, Ted Robinson, and worked as fast.
His second period, which now continues with increasing glory, began with a costume production called The Mark of Zorro. This was a Spanish, Old California swashbuckling play, which I remember as being as adequate and interesting as any sword show I ever beheld on the stage. The main merit of the movie was that it was a direct challenge to all the Hollywood moralizers who said there was no such thing as a successful costume show. This aphorism cheerfully wiped out history as ruthlessly as the sword of Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun. The sword of Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro was a definite challenge to the wisdom of Hollywood. As a motion picture, it was generally praised by the critics, though the moral victory was not especially emphasized.
Next came The Three Musketeers, a better production than any stage version I have seen, and I have seen Salvini the younger in his prime, if we think of the general principles of movie construction, and the unbroken law that the race-the hurdle race-is the fundamental plot, it is easy to see why The Three Musketeers is better for the screen than for the stage. It starts on the highway, with an inn scene, and goes galloping down the highway, with pursuits through the woods of France, the streets of Paris, across to England and back, one immortal hurdle race-the last thing that can be done on the stage, but the fundamental thing that can be done with a photoplay plot.
Douglas Fairbanks, in The Three Musketeers, again defied Hollywood's mandate that history is a failure and costumes are an abomination to the American people, even though these same are endorsed by The Saturday Evening Post and Henry Ford. Evidently this was Fairbanks' own decision. There is too clearly the thought of one man for two men to have thought it out. We have further evidence that Douglas Fairbanks is his own master in the third costume play, Robin Hood, the production of which, as a moral action in the lace of the despisers of history, is to be even more praised, because to continue in a good action is more difficult than to begin.
Of the three productions, I myself could least approve of Robin Hood. It was on the borders of department-store splendor. Fairbanks was not sufficiently an orchestra leader. The thing seemed to fall apart of its own weight, though in general the critics approved of this pageant as of the other more energetic productions, and it certainly did not fail of popular appeal. There were many interesting episodes, fine passages, but Robin Hood remains in my memory more as evidence of the tenacity of purpose of Douglas Fairbanks, the good public citizen, than as an item in motion picture history. But things have reached the point in America where anyone, living a national life, who can survive the beehive tendency, is, indeed, a sturdy soul. So, now when the fourth production appears-The Thief of Bagdad, in my opinion the greatest movie so far in movie history-still the choice of Douglas Fairbanks, obviously representing his personal policy, I am very much thrilled by the victory of the young amateur statesman in the face of massive formulas and over-organized bee-hive corporations. There are only a few men alive in American politics who are themselves-not patented. Al Smith, the Governor of New York, emerges as a person, and not a copyrighted character, not an advertisement, not a formula, not a corporation. William Allen White emerges as an editor, who is as much his own man as editors were in the days of Andrew Jackson. When Douglas Fairbanks has the initiative to put on his fourth production with a policy that represents his own pride and not the acquisitiveness of a Board of Control, he puts himself in a class with Andrew Jackson, or Al Smith or William Allen White, or any other statesman whose name means individuality.
Excerpted from AMERICAN MOVIE CRITICS Copyright © 2006 by Literary Classics of the United States . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.