American Literature, Silent Film, and the Story within a Story

Article excerpt

Literary works were often adapted for the silent screen using the story-within-a-story approach. Though the approach, according to one reviewer, was already "timeworn" by 1919 (variety 11 July 1919), it remained especially useful in adapting literary classics, for it helped to emphasize a film's bookish origins and therefore to enhance its respectability. As part of the outside story, a character could be shown reading a book, and then the scene could dissolve to the book's setting. The work of literature could be enacted on screen, and, at the inside story's end, the film could dissolve back to the outside story. The story-within-a-story approach gave theater-goers the illusion that, as they watched the inside story, they were engaged in an activity analogous to reading. Ironically, the approach gave filmmakers greater freedom for their adaptations. A film showing an outside-story character reading suggests that the inside story closely follows the action of the book-even when it does not. On the other hand, framing the literary work within an outside story, the filmmaker could remain faithful to the book while using the outside story to make it more comprehensible to theater-goers. After all, literary classics, then as now, seemed stodgy to many who patronized the motion picture houses. The outside story allowed the filmmaker to create a modern tale which paralleled the written work and. therefore, to convey literature's lasting pertinence.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales of Puritan times-with the exception of The Scarlet Letter-may have seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant to theater-goers, but enclosed within a modern story, their ongoing relevance could be demonstrated. One particular Hawthorne tale experienced considerable popularity on the silent screen. "Feathertop: A Moralized Legend" tells the story of an old witch who decides to make a scarecrow. She begins the task without intending to use her witchcraft. Rather, she simply attempts to create a finelydressed scarecrow. By the time she places an old pumpkin on the scarecrow's shoulders and a hat atop the pumpkin, she becomes so thrilled with her creation that she cannot help but take advantage of her supernatural powers. Using a magical pipe, she breathes life into the scarecrow, dubbing him Feathertop for the plumage which crowns his three-cornered hat. Next, she sends the pipe-smoking Feathertop into town where he meets Polly Gookin who becomes enamored with him-until, that is, they both look into the mirror and see Feathertop, not as a fine gentleman, but for what he really is, a pumpkin-headed dummy. Returning to the old witch, Feathertop removes the life-giving pipe from his mouth and becomes nothing but a heap of straw, old clothes, and pumpkin. The old witch then exclaims, "My poor, dear, pretty Feathertop! There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of worn-out, forgotten. and good-for-nothing trash, as he was! Yet they live in fair repute, and never see themselves for what they are!" (1122).

While "Feathertop" is read infrequently nowadays, in the early years of the twentieth century, it enjoyed considerable popularity, due in part to Percy Mac Kaye's successful stage adaptation, The Scarecrow. MacKaye's drama was first professionally performed in 1910 (Quinn 844), yet, unlike so many other works of American literature which were made into both stage plays and motion pictures, the earliest film version predates the first stage performance. In 1908, Edison adapted the Hawthorne tale as Lord Feathertop. During the second decade of the twentieth century, the story was made into two short films: Feather Top (Eclair, 1912) and Feathertop (Kinemacolor, 1913) (Lauritzen and Lundquist 184). Little is known about these early adaptations, but Hawthorne's tale also inspired a five-reel feature film a few years later. Though the film does not survive, the reviews provide a good indication of its contents. …