Acting for the motion picture camera, particularly its origins and development, is one of the least understood aspects of motion pictures, not only among average moviegoers and home theater enthusiasts, but among writers, critics and historians. The assumption seems to be that real acting — “serious” acting culminating in “The Method” and Marlon Brando — began with sound, with “talking” pictures, and is an outgrowth or extension of acting in live theater. The inference is that “whatever” came before was inept, comical, campy or just plain archaic and was best forgotten once actors with coaching in dialog and proper elocution replaced the wordless expression of “pantomime” of silent cinema.
That might be a valid conclusion if silent film acting had never been anything more than the distorted image most people have of silent movies: grotesque pantomime performed by actors twirling fake mustaches, gesturing spasmodically while mouthing unheard profanities understood only by lip-readers watching a flickering screen while a local church lady pounds out a clichéd musical accompaniment on a tinny, out-of-tune, upright piano.
I believe that acting is one of the two most misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of silent film (the other being projection speed), even among those who are supposed to be, or purport to be knowledgable about silent film. Why is this? I can think of two basic reasons: one, it requires research and reading of contemporary sources — discussions, arguments, debates of what constitutes “good” acting — in newspapers, books, magazines and trade periodicals from the end of 19th century to the beginning of sound film, in order to gain an accurate understanding of how the critics, academics, industry professionals and movie audiences perceived it at a time when film acting was new, and a subject of considerable debate.
Today, with online resources such as the Internet Archive’s Media History Digital Library, much of this kind of information is readily available to anyone with internet access, so excuses are rapidly dwindling. There have been some excellent recent studies of the subject that greatly aid our understanding, such as Roberta Pearson’s “Eloquent Gestures” (sources and bibliographies can be found at the end of this post, and at the “Bibliography Page” just beneath the top header image).
Second, it requires viewing as much early film as is available of “narrative” or “story-telling” movies. Around 1904-05, story films began to overtake reality-based documentary-style films, often referred to as “actualities,” and “trick” movies, which depended on manipulation of the camera, the film or editing for special effects.
Story film began to flourish, then dominate production after the deep recession of 1907 and the 1908 “truce” among combatants and litigants in the motion picture patent wars. Film producers who had been paralyzed by a depressed economy and the instability of their own industry were now willing to risk the higher costs required to make story films, and they began to devote most of their production to them. Among audiences — who had lost or were rapidly losing interest in actualities and trick movies — story films reversed the decline in audience interest and attendance, and the movies began their evolution into a cultural cornerstone.
The largest single collection of motion pictures that survive from the early period of narrative film can be found in the Library of Congress, but in a format largely inaccessible to the general public: the Library of Congress Paper Prints Collection which contains much of the works of D. W. Griffith at The American Biograph and Mutoscope Company, more conveniently referred to in 1908 as simply “The Biograph.”
Of these 400 or so films, mostly one reel short films, made from 1908 to 1913, the majority exist in the form of paper prints — rolls of photographic paper onto which each frame of a movie was printed. These prints were submitted to the U.S. Patents Office by Biograph when applying for copyright protection for their new movies. Other film producers, including Biograph’s main rival, Edison, applied for copyright as well, but not as consistently as did Biograph. Actual film, celluloid with a silver nitrate coating will disintegrate long before these paper prints, and they’ve been used for recopying onto film stock, first on 16mm, then 35mm, since the 1950s. Appearing in 90 of those films from 1908 to 1910 for The Biograph, was an actress named Marion Leonard.
Marion Leonard is one of the key players in the development of early film acting, someone who bridged the era where the stage — live theater — which had once been the primary, non-sports, entertainment medium — began to be supplanted by a different form of theater, of story-telling: images of black, white and shades of gray recorded on coated celluloid and projected like the magic lanterns of antiquity, with a burning element — a fiery hot stick of lime or an incandescent coil inside a vacuum tube — a light bulb. It was the beginning of electronic entertainment, dependent as much on electricity and the electro-mechanical as earlier forms depended purely on physical labor and sweat.
Marion Leonard, born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1881, had a background in theater typical of early film actors, though more successful than most. She was already well-known among enthusiasts of popular melodrama across America, and though she was not among the “Who’s Who on the Stage” (a popular guide to the “A-list” stage stars of the day), she wasn’t more than a rung or two below them on the ladder of theatrical success and acclaim. As a veteran of live theater, she had to be able to do it all — drama, melodrama (something we would think of as “live soap opera” if we saw it), comedy, light drama/romantic comedy, and the extended “sketch comedies” that were especially popular in more upscale venues of vaudeville, where it seems she first attracted attention in New York City just after the turn of the 20th century.
She also knew well the grind and exhausting travel, the seedy hotels and rat-infested fire-trap theaters that dotted the nation: those dots were connected by travelling, touring theater companies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of which she was part; tours that were the bread and butter of the average professional actor, and of the A-list stars as well (though the biggest “stars” had a bit more control of their own schedule, with fame and guaranteed box office as leverage in pre-production negotiations with the impresarios, producers and various underwriters of live theater).
The documented film career of Marion Leonard begins with her appearance in a short film made by Biograph in the first week of June, 1908, “At the Crossroads of Life.” It is likely her first appearance in motion pictures, but this is not certain. What is certain is that it was the first of her 90 or so appearances in films made by “The Biograph,” and that D. W. Griffith was not her director in this effort — he was her “co-star,” although that phrase had yet to enter the language. Griffith also authored the story, the “scenario” — there were no scripts as such because there was no dialog — the scenario was a story in outline form, a basic blueprint for the plot of a short silent film. The director was Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., son of long-time Biograph and Edison Company director, Wallace “Old Man” McCutcheon, Sr., for whom “Wally” Jr. was substituting due to the illness of his father who was a genuine pioneer of early filmmaking in America, along with Edwin S. Porter, J, Searle Dawley, J. Stuart Blackton and William Heise, all of whom worked in the cottage industry of the movies before the 20th century.
She subsequently appeared in three more one-reel Biograph films, all of them now directed by D. W. Griffith and shot during the first two weeks of July, 1908 (before Griffith’s first directorial effort, “The Adventures of Dollie,” had even been released): “The Bandit’s Waterloo,” “The Tavern-keeper’s Daughter,” and ‘The Greaser’s Gauntlet,” the last of which Tom Gunning in his examination of narrative structure in the Griffith Biograph films, “D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film,” considers as the first example of extended parallel editing — showing simultaneous events by cutting back and forth between each — in a Griffith film (see the Bibliography Page, or “suggested further reading,” at the end of the post). Later that month, she joined the company of the stage melodrama,”Life of An Actress,” on a lengthy tour and would not return to movies and “The Biograph” until November.
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In late September, 1908, more than halfway into the tour schedule of “Life of An Actress,” while booked to play in Pittsburgh, she and actress Corinne, starring as “Lola in Berlin” (sounds rather interesting, even a bit decadent, doesn’t it?) also appearing in Pittsburgh at another venue, decided to have a little fun PR and raise money for charities during the celebration of the City’s “sesquicentennial” or the 150th anniversary of the founding of Pittsburgh at the site of the old British Fort Pitt, in 1758. After Corinne was approached by a newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press, and asked to sell papers for charity (buyers of the penny-a-copy newspaper were expected to “pay” for each copy purchased from the actress with a somewhat higher donation), she was “challenged” by Marion Leonard (via letter from Marion’s agent) to a contest to see who could sell the most papers for charity between the two “stars of the stage.” (Click on each thumb below to read the articles in their entirety.)
When all was said and done, the actresses raised a grand total of $71.38, distributed equally to 2 charities: a local hospital and an orphanage for boys. (Keep in mind that in 1908, $1 spent wisely could feed a small family for a week — people could actually cook meals themselves back then using cheap staples bought in bulk, like flour, potatoes, eggs, butter, milk, . . . believe it or not!)
An interesting observation is that while she was recognized as a leading actress of the day by the local media, there was no mention of her film work. It is likely that the four Biograph productions in which she had already appeared were seen in Pittsburgh. That city had been the site of one of the first demonstrations of the Biograph film format (originally 65mm) and projector twelve years earlier, in September of 1896, when G. W. Billy Bitzer and Biograph executives first toured the northeast to promote their equipment and film product.
Pittsburgh was home to the concept of the “Nickelodeon,” a small venue with permanent seating exhibiting motion pictures from noon until midnight at least six days a week. It was christened within the motion picture industry as, “The Pittsburgh Idea,” and spread like wildfire across the country — everywhere except New York City (where the mayor had shuttered store-front movie houses as a public nuisance).
In Pittsburgh, for the growing immigrant population, many of whom worked odd shifts at local mills and furnaces, the movies were a cheap, convenient form of entertainment, even an aid in learning a new language, English, and new customs, American. Pittsburgh was as vibrant a home to movies and movie culture as any in the first decade of the 20th century. Yet the name “Marion Leonard” (consistently misspelled as “Marian” in the newspapers in Pittsburgh and other cities) was known only in connection with theater, and as can be seen by the local headlines, was well known in that regard. And even though it is likely that the locals had already seen Marion in at least one of the four films in which she had appeared, they would need sharp eyes to spot her and make the identification — Biograph did not release or even publicly divulge or credit the names of their actors, or for that matter their technicians, including their new director, D. W. Griffith. None of the other film studios did either, until 1910.
Instead, fans of the performers in early movies would coin their own nicknames for them, “The Biograph Girl,” “The Vitagraph Girl,” “Little Mary,” “The Beauty.” Two of those names would be used in connection with Marion Leonard, leading to some confusion years later among historians. But there was no confusion about the result of Biograph’s ban on the use of actors (and directors) names in their credits, a ban that existed several years after other film producers began to publicize their “star” players — the most successful would leave for more money and top-billing. Marion Leonard would be one of them.
Upon returning to New York in late fall, she appeared in several more Griffith directed shorts, including a role in an episode of the popular “Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” series of comedy shorts, shot the week before Christmas, and released in February, 1909.
The “Joneses” were an ongoing series of comedy shorts directed by Griffith, with Lawrence and Cumpson in the lead roles. It is not a stretch to call it the birth of sitcom, by a man credited with many things not his invention, and not known for his sense of humor and comedy, but this appears to be one of his genuine “firsts” for which he is deserving and has not been given credit.
“At the Altar,” shot in late January, 1909, opens with a broadly comic portrayal of a boisterous family of Italian immigrants — or at least Biograph and Griffith’s conception of a family of Italian immigrants — in the middle of a raucous, argument-filled dinner, in which their eldest daughter, Minnie, portrayed by Marion Leonard, at right in each frame, is pursued in vain by her admirer, Grigo (Charles Inslee), who apparently doesn’t like hearing “No” for an answer. Providing a bit of comic relief is the dinner “guest” at far left of each frame, who seems to enjoy watching Grigo makie an ass of himself. The “guest” is played by future comedy legend Mack Sennett.
While the Minnie pines for her true love, Giuseppe (Herbert Yost), who finally appears near the end of their feast, pleasing Minnie no end as he proposes marriage to her on the spot in front of her relatives, Grigo, sick with rejection, plots his twisted revenge. (Below): booby trapping the altar in the church where they will marry so that when both kneel to say their vows, a spring-loaded gun stashed inside the altar will go off. Grigo conveniently commits suicide, and having left word of his treachery in his suicide note, the device is found before it is too late.
During this second period of working for Griffith at Biograph, one of her most memorable roles is in a film created by Griffith, his quick-to-adapt company of players and one of the most important figures in early film, cinematographer G. W. “Billy” Bitzer. Bitzer’s ground-breaking use of backlighting, i.e., pointing the camera directly into the source of light — the sun — while his subject, the actors, are approaching the camera with the harsh light behind them, creates a near-sillouette effect. The film was “Politician’s Love Story,” a light drama/comedy filmed in mid-January 1909 on the day of an early morning snow and ice storm that had blanketed New York and the outdoor setting for the film, Central Park. (Many more images and information on this film can be found in an earlier post, “A Politician’s Love Story,” from March 2011).
Below: Outraged political party boss Tim Crogan (modeled after real New York City political “bosses” of the time and played by Mack Sennett), goes looking for the newspaper cartoonist “Peters” of the daily cartoon “Peter’s Corner,” who has “slandered” Crogan who has decided to take matters into his own hands and has brought a gun to the newspaper office.
Cartoonist “Peters” turns out to be an attractive woman (Marion Leonard) who completely disarms Crogan without laying a hand on him, and while “admiring his gun” gently slides it from his hands to hers. In her presence, the politically powerful Crogan is as helpless as a kitten up a tree.
End of Part I
Part II to follow: silent film acting: different styles for different film subjects, “The Sealed Room,” Marion Leonard and Mary Pickford as co-stars, as Mary fills the void left by the departure of Florence Lawrence; the final films for Marion Leonard at Biograph: breaking new ground in California, 1910.
Suggested further reading:
Roberta E. Pearson, “Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films,” University of California Press, (1992, 1997, paperback, print-on-demand);
Tom Gunning, “D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film,” University of Illinois Press (1991, 1994 paperback);
Scott Simmon, “The Films of D. W. Griffith,” Cambridge University Press (1993, 1998 paperback).
“D. W. Griffith, Director (Volumes 1 through 6)”, Grapevine Video, www.grapevinevideo.com, covers select films of Griffith at Biograph, 1908 to 1910. Quality varies with the source material, but it is the only way for the average person to see the films from 1908 and first half of 1909 (The KINO and Image Entertainment anthologies, listed below, largely neglect the first two years, although they have superior source material in general).
“D. W. Griffith as an Actor, 1908,” Grapevine Video, www.grapevinevideo.com, covers the first appearance of Griffith as an actor in Biograph films from the first half of 1908 (plus the Edison film, “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest”) before he was asked by Biograph to fill in for the ill Wallace McCutcheon, Sr. Quality varies due to source material, but it’s the only game in town for these films, including, “At the Crossroads of Life,” with Griffith and Marion Leonard as “co-stars.”
D. W. Griffith, Years of Discovery, 1909 to 1913,” Image Entertainment, 1991, 1993. Excellent source material, with notes and some commentary optional with the films. Only one film with Marion Leonard, “The Sealed Room,” is on this anthology.
“Griffith Masterworks, 1909-1913, Biograph Shorts, Special Edition,” KINO Video, 1992, 2002, Nearly the same selection of films with the same quality level as the “Image” series, with “Sealed Room” as the only example of a Marion Leonard, Griffith directed Biograph film.
“Edison: The Invention of the Movies,” KINO Video, MoMA. From the earliest (1889-91) W.K.L. Dickson experimental films, through the Kinetoscope “actualities,” trick films, freak films, and early narrative films such as “Life of an American Fireman” and “The Great Train Robbery,” by Edwin S. Porter, it is the best survey of the earliest American films, until someone decides to do the same with the Biograph pre-Griffith output of the same period.