June 15, 1994
Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film
By James Card
Illustrated. 319 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
Reviewed by Margo Jefferson
"We had faces, then!" cries Norma Desmond, the dethroned and deranged silent-movie actress played by Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard." They did, and they had bodies, too, alive to every flicker of expression. Watching "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" in 1926, Virginia Woolf thought the film got at something beyond the grasp of any novelist: "some secret language, which we feel and see, but never speak." Having watched it again and again between the 1920's and the 90's, James Card remains in thrall, not just to the demonic graphics of "Caligari," but also to the entire medium of silent film. He is a film historian who for nearly 30 years was the director of the film department at the prestigious George Eastman House of Photography in Rochester. "The Seductive Cinema" is his tale of a medium and a passion. By the end, you too will be a willing captive.
The tale begins in Cleveland in 1920. Houses had phonograph records and player pianos, but only the downtown district had movie theaters: 147 in all, and by the mid-1920's, averaging five films a week, Mr. Card had sat in just about every one. He had got his first hand-cranked home projector in 1921. By high school, he was renting Douglas Fairbanks's "Robin Hood" and John Barrymore's "Tempest," and showing them to local audiences.
Movies were still considered a low passion. They begged and borrowed from theater, painting and photography. They were "a mixture of science, physiology and illusion," Mr. Card recalls. And they were cheap. Imagine, he says, "an entertainment that was immediately accessible to the illiterate, to the immigrants who hadn't yet learned the language of their new home but were perfectly able to understand the nuances of pantomime that they encountered in the nicolets, the nickelodeons, those unpretentious little halls where the movies first met their public."
Mary Pickford in "The New York Hat": a small-town girl in a homemade suit, putting a vast plumed hat on her head and walking stiffly back and forth, trying to make sure she can hold her head high and hold onto her gloves at the same time. John Gilbert and Greta Garbo with profiles that seemed to have been lifted from a coin and placed on a screen for "Flesh and the Devil," their faces drenched in light before they kissed. Laborers understood. Dowagers understood. Merchants and small children understood.
By the time he came to the Eastman House in 1948, Mr. Card had a personal collection of some 800 films. His department built a major archive, and he does not conceal his glee over the fact that in 1952 the illustrious Museum of Modern Art, which had been collecting films since 1935, began to borrow and exhibit his holdings. A certain museum official had dismissed him as a "buff" who preferred trivia to art. Perhaps that official was right, Mr. Card writes crisply, "but hundreds of great films that exist today would not be available but for our buffdom." He never forgets a slight, but he never forgets a film frame either. His temper can be short, but his taste is catholic and his judgment is fine.
"The Seductive Cinema" could have been subtitled "Adventures in the Film Wilds," for buffs and historians track down films and stars as relentlessly as explorers once claimed and named territories. When Mr. Card visited Cecil B. DeMille in 1953, DeMille was planning the second version of "The
10 Commandments." The jawbone of an ass was lying on the desk of his "Mussolini-sized office"; he picked it up and brandished it, "showing me how Samson, even without the direction of Cecil B. DeMille, could have wielded it as lethally as did Victor Mature," but refused to let the Eastman House staff make copies of his films on the grounds that writers who viewed them might steal his plots.
Gloria Swanson came to Florida to participate in a festival of her films. She had the lighting reset, a staircase rearranged and repainted, and when audiences began to drop off, she gave orders that the entire population of a nearby nursing home be brought in. She told Mr. Card, "Those people will remember me!" And they did.
Anecdotes are unfurled and facts are corrected. D. W. Griffith did not shoot the first close-up, as he claimed. The first close-up was shot by James Williamson in the 1901 British film "The Swallow," in which a man approached the camera, appeared to swallow it and the photographer, then retreated, munching on both.
Mr. Card reappraises the legendary (Griffith, Barrymore, Erich von Stroheim), and he reintroduces the obscure.
How could one not want to see the director Monta Bell's "Lady of the Night," in which the usually decorous Norma Shearer, as a prostitute just out of prison, applied her makeup using the glass window of a hearse as her mirror?
How nice to learn that the vibrant Clara Bow, often patronized as all id and no craft, could give her director a lesson in film making. While she was making "It," Clarence Badger told her to gaze at her sweetheart with an expression of "lingering calflike longing." The calflike longing was followed by a look of lurid passion, then one of chaste appeal. Badger stopped the camera and asked what was going on. Bow explained that the first expression was for "the lovesick dames," the second for the boys and their papas and the third for the old women, who would decide that she was pure after all, "and having got me mixed up with the character I'm playing, they'd come again when my next picture showed up."
Mr. Card reminds us that silent film was, and always should be, accompanied by music. It is not silent; it is speechless. And it can leave you breathless.
Copyright 1994 The New York Times
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