(Please note that this essay, originally intended to be second of two on Marion Leonard and Biograph, is still a work in progress. I’ve decided to put this unfinished bit out once it became clear that it was going to be much longer than originally planned, to the extent that once Part 2 is complete (as it nearly is), a “part 3” will be needed to summarize, tie up loose ends, and to include in Part 3 more information on the career of Marion Leonard after Biograph. New online sources have made available to the average researcher much more in the way of primary source material from the period of both the Biograph and post-Biograph phases of her film career, and this additional information will be prominent in the “Part 3” to come. As always, your comment and corrections are welcomed!)
A Few Words on Early Film Acting
At the beginning of “Marion Leonard, The Beauty and The Biograph (Part 1),” I pointed out the false perception most people have of acting in silent film — that it consists of broad physical gestures and pantomime and is crude bordering on the absurd. This perception is based on the assumption that acting is “best” when it is most “natural” stylistically. With the popular arts in general (and western culture as a whole), the perception is that the most recent is the best and the best is that which is most natural and refined — two of the most meaningless words that could possibly be used to define or describe an art form.
The gestural approach to acting has its origins in 18th century France in a form of live theater known as melodrama, and became popular in Britain and America in the first half of the 19th century. Acting in melodrama relied on physical gestures — facial expression, movement of head, limbs and torso of the actor as of means of signifying the emotions, intentions, actions and reactions of the character the actor was portraying. It is understandable that early film actors and filmmakers would gravitate toward this approach because its inherent physicality seemed well-suited to a medium with no spoken dialog.
The study of early film acting and its evolution is complicated by two developments. First, the films themselves. Moviemaking was undergoing a fundamental change between the peak of the “Nickelodeon” era, roughly 1906-1907, and the emergence of what came to be called “feature” films — longer films of three or more reels, with each 1000 foot reel running 10 to 15 minutes — around 1912-1913, beginning with imported Italian historical “epics,” and then the American films and filmmakers influenced by them.
During this transition period, documentary/reality films (“actualities”) and “trick” films were replaced by narrative film, movies that told a story. Filmmakers had to learn, by trial and error, what methods of film construction worked best to “put across” (a term much used at the time) a story — to make it understandable to the audience. Making this difficult was the lack of dialog. Filmmakers could construct a film to make the story understandable, but the other element equally important was the ability of film actors to make themselves — their characters — understood. Their motivation, actions and reactions all had to be made plain to the audience without the benefit of sound. (This might be one reason so many early story films were “chase” films. They required little or no acting).
However, audiences tired of “chase” films as quickly as they had actualities or films dependent upon “trick” photography. They wanted what the literary and performance art forms had given them for three thousand years: stories. Stories in film required acting. Photography and editing, no matter how technically impressive, were not sufficient to grab and hold an audience, and the written word in silent film could be only used in a very limited way.
The second development was external to the world of film, but would profoundly affect it. By the last two decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, a sort of revolution was occurring in live theater. Acting had moved toward a style referred to as “verisimilitude,” which could be summed up as, “truth in acting.” That is not to say that the stylized acting of melodrama was now “false,” but the newer method relied on the actor drawing from inner emotions and expressing those on stage in a manner that both actors and audiences saw as closer to reality. And “realism” was the big buzzword in the arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — in painting, in literature and in the theater. By the time D. W. Griffith began working at Biograph, for all practical purposes “melodramatic” acting was “out” and “verisimilitude” was “in.” And although Griffith as a director may not have felt the full direct effect of this, his actors, many of whom worked for Biograph only occasionally in between “real” acting gigs, were experiencing the change themselves in live theater. Marion Leonard and Mary Pickford almost certainly were aware of it, having worked in live theater immediately before entering movies and on and off during alternating periods of employment in the theater and with Biograph.
Griffith, a writer and an actor himself, although “old school” in his training as an actor, understood the problem facing actors in silent film: they had to make their characters understood without words, yet the very nature of film required much less physicality in acting, less gesture than was necessary or appropriate for the stage, at least as it was practiced in melodrama. Even before close-ups became common, the camera was much closer than the audience in live theater, making it easy for the theater-trained actor to overact in front of the camera without realizing it.
Griffith recounted his early experience as a film actor at Biograph shortly after his arrival in 1908. Upon watching the first screening of a film in which he had a small part, he was surprised to see his part had been cut. He asked Biograph cinematographer Billy Bitzer why. Bitzer replied that Griffith had been flailing his arms about so wildly in his scene that all that registered on film was a “blur” of arms, and the take was unusable. Griffith, puzzled, told Bitzer that was how he thought film actors were supposed to act, and had he known differently, he would have underplayed instead.
This begs the question, where did Griffith get his knowledge of how an actor was “supposed” to act on film? One answer is that he didn’t. He merely assumed that the style of melodrama was appropriate in a medium without dialog — he was certainly not alone in that assumption. But also, several of his contemporaries, interviewed years later considered him to be something of a ham or “scenery-chewer” who physically over-acted with gesturing that was excessive even for the more physical style of melodrama.
In her 1954 autobiography, Mary Pickford (who joined Biograph in April of 1909) recalled,
“I gave considerable thought to the problem of acting in those early days. One day I made a vow that I tried never to break. I swore that, whatever the temptation, I would never overact. This was revolutionary in the early movies where actors were using the elaborate gestures of the French school of pantomime. ‘I will not exaggerate, Mr. Griffith,’ I would say in a firm voice. ‘I think it’s an insult to the audience.'”
Pickford’s statement implies that Griffith wanted “exaggeration,” or at least more than she was willing to give him. In an interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow a few years later, she elaborated:
“I refused to exaggerate my performances . . . when he [Griffith] told me to do things I didn’t believe in, I wouldn’t do them. I would not run around like a goose with its head off , crying ‘Oooooh . . . the little birds! Oooooh . . . look! A little bunny!’ That’s what he taught his ingenues, and they all did the same thing.”
Griffith had seen only a handful of films before his first job in the new medium — he didn’t think much of them, and being of the “legitimate theater,” he viewed them with condescension as did most stage actors, at least publicly. But he did act in several films with the Edison company: his performance in “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest” (Edison, 1908, directed by Edwin S. Porter), contains a fair amount of arm flailing by his character as he fights and kills the rogue eagle that had “kidnapped” his baby.
If Griffith was confused (at least initially) as to how one was supposed to act in films, and Bitzer and Porter differed in what was to them acceptable film acting, and Mary Pickford refused to “exaggerate” for Griffith, where does that leave us, a hundred years later trying to understand early film acting and its development? My answer, although likely not shared widely in academia, is that it depends at least in part on the specific film and its subject.
We don’t expect a modern action film to showcase the abilities and range of actors playing two-dimensional characters who are subordinate to the action and special effects. We expect more from actors in a “serious” drama or even a romantic comedy, but we don’t necessarily find fault with a movie set in ancient times where “Romans” speak with British accents or “Spartans” recite their lines stiffly as if reading them from a stone tablet handed down from on high.
Likewise, the films made by Griffith at Biograph exhibit different styles of acting depending on subject matter and setting of a film. Making it more complicated is the use of different styles within the same film — even by the same actor in a single scene. This could indicate, at least in those films in which it occurs, that either the actor or the director is not yet settled on a single method of acting, and therefore what we are observing is “trial and error.”
However, there is another school of thought regarding film acting and its adaptation of various acting styles of late 19th and early 20th century theater: that verisimilitude, melodrama and pantomime, are all equally valid and not “progressive” in their development. In other words, a change in style or the development of differing styles doesn’t necessarily indicate progress — the most recent “style” is not assumed to be an improvement over other older established styles of acting.
This line of reasoning allows that various types of performances and stylistic approaches to acting are each valid choices on their own terms. Of course this assumes that stylistic choices are made carefully by the actors and director, and are logical and appropriate to the work at hand, and not chaotic or random in their application. However, I still believe that at least in the early story films of this period, trial and error was the rule rather than the exception. I’m hesitant to read too much into early film — a period when story film and film acting were new and in a near-constant state of flux.
The above images from the opening scene of “Voice of the Violin” from 1909 show an economical style of acting by all three characters, they all appear to be slightly underplaying the scene, one that could be made much more broadly comic, but is excellent as is. And considering the film is actually a rather heavy-handed drama about Marxist terrorist bombers who target wealthy capitalists, underplaying of the film’s one “comic” scene is probably a wise choice by director Griffith. But in the last three sets of images do we see a change in acting styles, and a rather abrupt one, as Arthur Johnson and Marion Leonard shift in a heartbeat to a style that appears to be gestural melodrama (head and eyes cast away and downward, pointing to their chests to emphasize their “selves”).
The abrupt change to the acting devices of melodrama quickly brings the scene to a close, with an exclamation point. Keep in mind that Griffith and company were making a single-reel, 10 minute movie, and that a quick conclusion of the scene is practical and works without being overly abrupt or disconcerting.
Marion Leonard: Second phase at “The Biograph”
Regardless of whether the choice of acting styles or the mixing and matching of styles was intentional or trial and error, the “stock company” approach at Biograph allowed Griffith to take advantage of all of the skills of all his actors. There were no “stars” who demanded to be the lead player. Marion Leonard, by far the most accomplished stage actor employed by Biograph in 1908, could be used to play a comic supporting role in “The Joneses Have Amateur Theatricals,” the female lead in “Politician’s Love Story,” then a bit part in a crowd scene of “The Golden Louis,” films that were shot consecutively within a period of several weeks in December 1908 and January 1909.
Working within this system, Griffith had the luxury of being able to choose just the right actor and the appropriate style of acting for a part. For a period just shy of two years, Griffith had his pick of at least two of three of the most important actors in early film (and for a brief period in 1909, all three): Marion Leonard a star of melodrama who easily “crossed-over” to motion pictures; Florence Lawrence, an experienced, athletic vaudevillian and emerging film star at the time she signed with Biograph; and Mary Pickford, a budding star of Broadway, a “Belasco Actress” whose instinct for the camera would make her the most important person in the early development of acting for motion pictures.
With this level of talent available, any concerns or issues of acting style, type of role and subject matter were moot — none of these would prove an insurmountable obstacle for Griffith and “The Biograph.” Watching Marion Leonard, a talented, experienced, stage-trained actor, working with other actors and a director with similar backgrounds, training and experience, we can observe film acting — a new technique within a new art form — taking shape in these early narrative films.
For writers and scholars of film history, Griffith’s “The Sealed Room,” from 1909 is typically “Exhibit A” as an example of the use of gestural, histrionic acting expected of melodrama, that doesn’t fit in with the supposed restrained style of acting Griffith “pioneered” with his company of Biograph actors during this period. Griffith didn’t pioneer anything like it. But his actors may have, or they at least pressed the matter to the point where they may have simply gotten through to Griffith, or else he just realized that at least some of them were leagues ahead of him in knowledge of acting and in its practice (that’s not to say he would have given them the credit).
“Sealed Room” is a costume drama, a historical “period piece” in which outsized gesture is part and parcel of its subject and just as filmmakers of the latter 20th century utilized different performance styles to give a feel of authenticity to their historical period productions, so did those of the early 20th century.
Marlon Brando may have played in a film version of “Julius Caesar,” but he certainly didn’t sound like Stanley Kowalski of “A Streetcar Named Desire” when playing a character in a story of ancient Rome. And for many years, Tony Curtis, a native New Yorker, was teased about his portrayal of the title character in the medieval period piece “Prince Valiant,” when he spoke a line with his heavy New York squawk: “Yonda is da house o’ my faddah.” (That’s where dialog coaches come in, complete with faux English accents, just as in the early talkies, when Joan Crawford, a Texan, was made to sound like one of the British Royal Family.)
The point people miss with this particular film is that although it is a drama and a period piece, it has many lighter, even comic, moments, in the interplay between Marion Leonard and Henry B. Walthall as the illicit lovers trying to tryst discreetly, away from the (as it turns out) all-seeing eyes of the king, Arthur Johnson. There are many subtle gestures used by Marion, her hands and eyes in particular, and given that this film survives in some pretty good 35mm prints, we can actually see eye movements, especially when slowed down and viewed frame-by-frame — even with her blue eyes, which were difficult to register on the film stock used at that time. Hopefully, my reproduction of those frames does them justice, and if so, the following images are self-explanatory.
(Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images to full size:)
And after an example of subtle restrained acting here, as just another reminder, that Marion Leonard could as easily chew the scenery and spit it out with the best of them, Below: “Nursing a Viper,” Biograph 1909, directed by D. W. Griffith.