Talking the other day with a Prominent Business Man who had just visited an eastern moving-picture studio, he remarked that never in his life had he seen so much waste and inefficiency in a single day.
“Why, look here—” he began, and with such a pretty flow of words, told us how it could all be systematized, that we forgot for a moment that this was an old, old story. When Prominent Business Men go through moving picture studios they always come out feeling very superior and contemptuous—because they imagine that turning strips of celluloid into visible stories is as simple a matter as turning western cattle into eastern roast beef.
The real fallacy of the Business Man’s attitude lies, of course, in Vera Lafollette’s eyes. When Vera has a cold—and Vera will take cold, even when she’s under a two-hundred-thousand-dollar contract—her eyes grow red and dim just like yours and mine, and the lids swell. You can hardly blame her, when she’s in this condition, for refusing to go before the camera. She imagines that, if she does, every inch of red-eyed film will lose her one admirer, one silver dollar, one rung on the ladder she’s been climbing for years.
“Fire her!” says the Business Man with a bold air. “Why, last week when my superintendent disobeyed an order—”
But his superintendent was not the mainspring of a picture in which was tied up two hundred thousand dollars. In short, the moving picture is not a good profession for the efficiency bully. It is more often confronted with the human, the personal, the incalculable element than any other industry in the world.
But in one respect, there is much truth in the Business Man’s criticism of the movie. He wants to see centralization and authority, and he sees none. Is the responsibility with the producer? No—for he seems to be dependent on the director, who, in his turn, is apparently at the mercy of his story and his star. If in movie circles, you mention a successful picture, Tol’able David, for example, you will hear the credit for its success claimed for the producer, the director, the star, the author, the continuity writer and Lord knows how many technical artisans who have aided in the triumph. Mention a failure and you will hear the blame heaped on each one of these in turn—and finally on the public itself, for not being “intelligent” enough to like what they get.
Well, I am going to venture three opinions on the subject—three opinions that I think more and more people are coming to hold.
First—that the moving picture is a director’s business, and there never was a good picture or a bad picture for which the director was not entirely responsible.
Second—that with half a dozen exceptions, our directors are an utterly incompetent crew. Most of them entered the industry early and by accident, and the industry has outgrown them long ago.
Third—any director worth the price of his puttees should average four commercial successes out of five attempts in every year.
Let me first discuss his responsibility. In most of the big companies the director can select his own stories—the scenario departments are only too glad when a director says, “I want to do this picture and I know I can.” The director who undertakes pictures he doesn’t believe in is merely a hack—some ex-barnstormer who directed an illustrated song back in 1909 and is now hanging around Hollywood with nothing left except a megaphone.
The director chooses his cast, excepting the star, and he has control over the expenditure of the allotted money and over the writing and interpretation of the continuity. This is as it should be. Yet I have heard directors whining because they couldn’t find a story they wanted, and the whine had the true ring of incompetence. An author who whines for a plot at least has the excuse that his imagination has given out—the director has no excuse at all. The libraries are full of many million volumes ready to his hand.
In addition, directors sometimes complain of “incompetent actors.” This is merely pathetic, for it is the director’s business to make actors. On the spoken stage the director may justly cry that once rehearsals are over the acting is out of his power. But the movie director labors under no such disadvantage. He can make an actor go through a scene twenty times and then choose the best “take” for the assembled film. And in a fragmentary affair like a movie where the last scenes may be taken first, the director must do the thinking for the actor. If he is unable to, he does not belong on the platform of authority. After seeing what Chaplin did with that ex-cigarette-villain, Adolphe Menjou, and what Von Stroheim accomplished with the utterly inexperienced Mary Philbin, I believe that the alibi of incompetent acting will fall upon deaf ears.
Now directing, as the hack director understands it, is to be privy to all the outworn tricks of the trade. The hack director knows how to “visualize” every emotion—that is, he knows the rubber-stamp formula, he knows how every emotion has been visualized before. If, in a picture, the hero departs from the heroine and the heroine wants him back, the hack director knows that she must take a step after him, hold out her hands toward him and then let them drop to her side. He knows that when someone dies in the street, this is always “visualized” by having a kneeling bystander take off his hat. If someone dies in a house, a sheet is invariably drawn over his face.
Very well, let us see how Chaplin, greatest of all directors, conveyed this latter event in The Woman of Paris. He realized that the old convention was outworn, that it no longer had the power of calling the emotions to attention, so he invented a new way. The audience does not see the dying man at all; it sees the backs of the surrounding crowd and suddenly a waiter pushes his way out of that crowd, shaking his head. At once the whole horrible violence of the suicide is plain to us. We even understand the human vanity of the waiter in wanting to be first to convey the news.
We may forget that incident because the picture is full of spanking new effects but, when it is over, every bit of it, despite the shoddy mounting and the sentimentalized story, seems vastly important. Chaplin has a fine imaginative mind and he threw himself hard into his picture—it is the lazy man, the “wise old-timer,” in other words, the hack, who takes the timeworn easy way.
All I am saying comes down to this—
The chief business of a director is to invent new business to express the old emotions.
An “original” picture is not a story of a lunatic wanting the north star. It is the story of a little girl wanting a piece of candy—but our attention must be called with sharp novelty to the fact that she wants it. The valuable director is not he who makes a dull “artistic” transcription of Conrad’s Victory—give me the fellow who can blow the breath of life into a soggy gum-drop like Pollyanna.
Perhaps such men will appear. We have Griffith—just when he seems to be exhausted, he has a way of sitting up suddenly in his grave. We have Cruze, who can be forgiven The Covered Wagon if only for the amazing dream scene in Hollywood. We have Von Stroheim, who has a touch of real civilization in his make-up and, greatest of all, Chaplin, who almost invented the movies as a vehicle for personal expression. There are half a dozen others I could name—Sennett, Lubitsch, Ingram, Cecil De Mille, Dwan—who in the last five years have made two or three big successes interspersed with countless reels of drooling mediocrity, but I have my doubts about them; we must demand more than that.
As for the rest of the directors—let a thick, impenetrable curtain fall. Occasionally, a picture made by some jitney Griffith is successful because of the intelligence of self-directing stars—but beware of such accidents. The man’s next effort is likely to show the true barrenness and vulgarity of his mind.
One more remark—I doubt if successful directors will ever be found among established authors—though they may, perhaps, among playwrights and not-too-seasoned continuity men. Author-directors have a way of condescending to their audiences. Bad as Rupert Hughes’ books are, they are seldom as silly and meretricious as his pictures. I suspect that his mind is on Minnie McGlook, the girl-fan of North Dakota, and not on his work—which is—to believe in his story, to keep his whole story in his head for ten weeks and, above all, to invent new business to express old emotions. All we ask from any of them is a little imagination and a little true feeling for the joys and the hopes and the everlasting struggles of mankind.
Written circa 1924.
Published in The Romantic Egoists collection.