Monday, June 27, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1917—Part One

winner: The Chaplin Mutuals (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer) (prod. Charles Chaplin)
nominees: The Poor Little Rich Girl (prod. Adolph Zukor); Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (prod. Mary Pickford); Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was (prod. Charles Magnusson); Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan (prod. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov)
Must-See Movies: The Adventurer; The Cure; Easy Street; The Immigrant; The Poor Little Rich Girl
Recommended Films: The Butcher Boy; Coney Island; Down To Earth; His Wedding Night; Oh Doctor!; Reaching For The Moon; Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm; A Romance Of The Redwoods; The Rough House; Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was; Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan; Wild and Woolly
Of Interest: Das Fidele Gefängnis a.k.a. The Merry Jail; Furcht; The Heart Of Texas Ryan a.k.a. Single Shot Parker; A Modern Musketeer; Over The Fence; Straight Shooting; Teddy At The Throttle

winner: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Roscoe Arbuckle (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts); Harry Carey (Straight Shooting and Bucking Broadway); Elliott Dexter (A Romance Of The Redwoods); Douglas Fairbanks (Wild and Woolly, Down To Earth and Reaching For The Moon); William Farnum (A Tale Of Two Cities)

winner: Mary Pickford (The Poor Little Rich Girl and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm)
nominees: Vera Karalli (Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan); Doris Kenyon (A Girl's Folly); Ossi Oswalda (Das Fidele Gefängnis a.k.a. The Merry Jail)

winner: Charles Chaplin (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Yevgeni Bauer (Umirayushchii Lebed a.k.a. The Dying Swan); Victor Sjöström (Terje Vigen a.k.a. A Man There Was); Maurice Tourneur (The Poor Little Rich Girl)

winner: Buster Keaton (The Roscoe Arbuckle Comedy Shorts)
nominees: Eric Campbell (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer); Sam De Grasse (Wild And Woolly)

winner: Edna Purviance (The Chaplin Mutuals) (Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer)
nominees: Bebe Daniels (The Harold Lloyd Comedy Shorts); June Elvidge (A Girl's Folly); ZaSu Pitts (A Little Princess); Florence Vidor (A Tale Of Two Cities)

winner: Frances Marion, from a play by Eleanor Gates (The Poor Little Rich Girl)
nominees: Anita Loos and John Emerson, story by Horace B. Carpenter (Wild and Woolly); Frances Marion, from a play by Charlotte Thompson and a novel by Kate Douglas Wiggin (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm)

George James Hopkins (Cleopatra) (Costume Design)

A Landmark Year
In the last decade of the 19th century, if you wanted to make a movie, you pretty much had to build a camera from scratch. In the first decade of the 20th century, all you had to do was buy a camera and point it at something. In either case, the product on the screen was primitive, amateurish, and with a few notable exceptions, barely distinguishable from the sort of home movies you might find these days on YouTube—except maybe not as good.

But by 1917, as film's third decade came to a close, movies had evolved into a purely professional medium. The moguls who would dominate film's Golden Age, men such as Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Jack Warner, among others, were already running Hollywood studios. With the screen debut of Buster Keaton in April 1917, the stars who would dominate the Silent Era—Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford, Gish, Chaney and even Valentino (indeed, all but Garbo and Clara Bow)—were present and accounted for.

Perhaps most importantly, the movie industry as a whole had settled once and for all on a film "language"—the methods by which directors, editors, cinematographers and actors conveyed action and information to evoke an emotional response in their audience. Since the middle of the century's first decade, directors such as D.W. Griffith had been experimenting with intercutting between different locations to show simultaneous action—for example, a thief breaking into a home, the frightened woman inside it, her savior riding to the rescue. But intercutting within the same location—to establish, say, a room and the players in it, then cutting to close-ups of the various actors as the action focused on them, all while keeping clear where each actor is in relation to each other—was relatively rare before 1917, with directors still relying heavily on what is referred to as a "tableaux" or "proscenium arch" technique, where the camera stayed locked in place and the entire set and all the actors remained visible throughout the scene.

By 1917, however, it seemed that (in America at least) every director was using set-ups and close-ups and intercutting—what is called classical Hollywood continuity editing—and what was once rare was now so commonplace, it was taken for granted.

Which is to say that, visually- and narratively-speaking at least, movies from 1917 are indistinguishable from what directors now turn out every day on television and in theaters, and from this point forward, as a critic you can no longer shrug off a film's technical incompetence as an inevitable consequence of its age.

While the production of a film hadn't yet hardened into the assembly-line approach of the studio system, and while innovators such as Orson Welles would come along to shake things up, for all intents and purposes, film's frontier was closed.

Click here to continue to Part Two, "Little Mary Takes Charge."


FlickChick said...

Yay! I am so glad Edna Purviance won a "silent" Oscar! Loved ALL of your choices. A very fun post indeed!

Mythical Monkey said...

She earned it!