A Pictorial History of the Movies

By Deems Taylor; Marcelene Peterson et al. | Go to book overview
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Twenty years ago, people used to excuse a bad movie by remarking that "the motion picture is in its infancy." Today, whenever a particularly bad picture swims into our ken, we say the same thing sarcastically, confident that we have thereby delivered a stinging rebuke to the unfortunate movies for not developing faster. Yet consider the motion picture's immediate ancestor, the drama. Twenty-four hundred years ago, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles were writing dramatic masterpieces that must have been the culmination of centuries of patient trial and error by long-forgotten journeymen playwrights. Fifty-four years ago ( 1943 speaking) the very first motion picture was put upon film. Forty years ago the first motion picture to tell a story, The Great Train Robbery, was released. Its producer, Edwin S. Porter, died on April 30, 1941, at the age of seventy-one. David Wark Griffith, the great pioneer of the pictures, was sixty-three years of age in 1943. Now go back twenty-four centuries. Compare the progress of the drama since the days of Sophocles with the progress of the motion picture in the half century of its existence. Do you feel a little more charitably inclined toward the shortcomings of the younger art?

For it is an art. Within the past two decades it has produced films that rank with the best work of our contemporary playwrights and producers. Viewing the average, run-of-the-mine motion picture, you may be excused for being skeptical on that point. But remember that it is an art that has the misfortune to be likewise an industry. It serves a public that is voracious and uncritical--the public that Shakespeare was serving when he wrote the bitterly-titled As you Like It (I refer to the play, not the incidental poetry of the language). There are so many thousand movie houses, and there must be pictures to show in them. Considering the assembly-line conditions under which the average picture must be turned out, the wonder is, not that there are so few good pictures, but that there are any at all. Particularly is this to be wondered at in view of the fact that the producer of a really firstrate motion picture is generally thankful if he can get his investment back, let alone make a profit.

Furthermore, here is an art that had to change its basic technique almost overnight. Up to 1927 the motion picture was pure pantomime, and had developed that art to an astonishing degree of effectiveness. Suddenly, with the production of The Jazz Singer, producers, directors, and actors were confronted with the necessity of combining pantomime with dialogue--two elements that had hitherto been considered irreconcilable. At first they floundered. The earliest talking pictures were, most of them, little more than animated photographs of stage plays. But "all-talking" pictures didn't work. The mysterious quality of personality, which so helps an actor to hold his audience, is vastly diluted in a photograph, even though the photograph may move and speak. Scenes of uninterrupted dialogue, without action, however effective they may have been in the theater, were a bore when they were transferred literally to the screen. On the other hand, the exaggerated gestures and play of facial expression, so indispensable to the silent pictures, looked ridiculous when they were accompanied by conversation. A new technique was imperative; and in an amazingly short time the makers of films worked one out. The modern motion picture is about two-fifths dialogue, three-fifths mute action. The camera technique of the silents--close-ups, half shots, long shots, variety in lighting and camera angles--is retained; but the actors move, gesture, and "mug" much less than they do on the stage. Music and sound effects are an integral part of the picture, filling in the otherwise silent sequences and sometimes serving as a background for the dialogue.

Such is the motion picture of today. This book is an attempt to trace, in visual terms, the evolution of that picture, and to show you its pres


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A Pictorial History of the Movies


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