Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film

By Ben Brewster; Lea Jacobs | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Pictorial Styles and Film Acting

THE study of theatre history, at least as regards the nineteenth century, consists in the reconstruction of performances we cannot directly know. But in the case of film we have access to the performances, a fact which sets the historian new problems of analysis, and complicates the process of comparing the two in so far as it involves comparing disparate kinds of evidence. The seeming disadvantage of theatre history, that our sense of performance style must be derived largely from contemporary accounts and reviews, is also an advantage in that the evidence comes to us filtered and to an extent interpreted by viewers already imbued with a sense of the theatre and the performance practices that we seek to reconstruct. If a reviewer says that Sarah Bernhardt 'gets the full plastic as well as histrionic value of a situation', one is justified in assuming that he recognized poses in what he saw her doing on stage, even if more research is necessary to try and determine what those poses were, and why they were singled out for praise. In the case of cinema, however, we are frequently left on our own to describe and analyse the performance which has been reproduced in such detail; we need to isolate its significant moments, to find ways of becoming sensitive to the parameters of a style quite remote from present-day film acting. The real difficulty of learning how to watch the acting of this period, evident to anyone who has tried to teach 1910s cinema, is indicative of this historical distance.

When we do have contemporary accounts of film acting, these are usually found in the trade press. (The respectable cultural press largely ignored film until the end of the 1910s.) Such accounts demand much more careful reading than they have been accorded by most modern commentators. Much of the discussion of acting in the trade press turns out to be impossibly vague when examined closely, and this problem is confounded by the fact that the trade press is, precisely, a corporate press. It hopes to advance the cause of the cinema as a whole, not to champion some of its products and damn the rest. Every article praising an aspect of the films of one production company will always be balanced by a matching article praising those of another equally strongly. Moreover, from very early there is a tendency to champion film over theatre and, in the USA, with some exceptions such as the early Film d'Art productions, to champion American films over those

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Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Molly's Book v
  • Preface vi
  • Contents ix
  • Technical Note xi
  • 1: Introductory 1
  • Chapter 1: Pictures 3
  • Chapter 2: Situations 18
  • 2: The Tableau 33
  • Chapter 3 the Stage Tableau in Uncle Tom's Cabin 37
  • Chapter 4: The Fate of the Tableau in the Cinema 48
  • 3: Acting 79
  • Chapter 5: Pictorial Acting in the Theatre 85
  • Chapter 6: Pictorial Styles and Film Acting 99
  • Chapter 7 the Pictorial Style in European Cinema 111
  • 4: Staging 139
  • Chapter 8: Pictorial Staging in the Theatre 145
  • Chapter 9: The Cinematic Stage 164
  • Chapter 10: Staging and Editing 188
  • Conclusion 212
  • Appendix: Plot Summary of Uncle Tom's Cabin 217
  • Bibliography 219
  • Filmography 229
  • Index 233
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