Nagpur Today Theatre: One question of fundamental importance remains for consideration. When we witness a film, do we anticipate something we should not expect from a stage performance, and, if so, what effect has this upon our appreciation of film acting? At first, we might be tempted to dismiss such a query or to answer it easily and glibly. There is no essential difference, we might say, save in so far as we expect greater variety and movement on the screen than we do on the stage; and for acting, that, we might replay, is obviously the same as stage acting although perhaps more established in type form. Do we not see Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Ernest Thesiger, and Elizabeth Bergner now in the theatre, now in the cinema? To consider further, we might say, were simply to indulge in useless and uncalled for speculation.
Scene from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
Nevertheless, the question does demand just a trifle more of investigation. Some few years ago a British producing company made a film of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. This film, after a few exciting shots depicting the dark streets of a Balkan town, the frenzied flight of the miserable fugitives and the clambering of Bluntschli onto Raina’s window terrace, settled down to provide what was fundamentally a screen-picture of the written drama. The dialogue was shortened, no doubt, but the shots proceeded more or less along the dramatic lines established by Shaw and nothing was introduced which he had not originally conceived in preparing his material for the stage. The result was that no more dismal film has ever been shown to the public. On the stage Arms and the Man is witty, provocative, incisively stimulating; its characters have a breath of genuine theatrical life; it moves, it breathes, it has vital energy. In the screen version all that life has fled, and, strangest, things of all, those characters–Bluntschli, Raina, Sergius–who are so exciting on the boards, looked to the audience like a set of wooden dummies, hopelessly patterned. Performed by a third-rate amateur cast their life-blood does not so ebb from them, yet here, interpreted by a group of distinguished professionals, they wilted and died-died, too, in such forms that we could never have credited them with ever having has a spark of reality. Was there any basic reason for this failure?
THE CAMERA’S TRUTH
The basic reason seems to be simply this–that practically all effectively drawn stage characters are types and that in the cinema we demand individualization, or else that we recognize stage figures as types and impute greater power of independent life to the figures we see on the screen. This judgment, running so absolutely counter to what would have been our first answer to the original question posited, may seem grossly distorted, but perhaps some further consideration will demonstrate its plausibility. When we go to the theatre, we expect theatre and nothing else. We know that the building we enter is a playhouse; that behind the lowered curtain actors are making ready, dressing themselves in strange garments and transforming their natural features; that the figures we later see on the boards are never living persons of king and bishop and clown, but merely men pretending for a brief space of time to be like these figures.
Dramatic illusion is never (or so rarely as to be negligible) the illusion of reality : it is always imaginative illusion, the illusion of a period of make-believe. All the time we watch Hamlet’s throes of agony we know that the character Hamlet is being impersonated by a man who presently will walk out of the stage–door in ordinary clothes and an autograph-singing smile on his face. True, volumes have been written on famous dramatic characters–Greek, Elizabethan English and modern Norwegian–and these volumes might well seem to give the lie to such assumptions. Have not Shakespeare’s characters seemed so real to a few observers that we have on our shelves books specifically concerned with the girlhood of his heroines–a girlhood the dramas themselves denied us?
These studies, however, should not distract us from the essential truth that the greatest playwrights have always aimed at presenting human personality in bold theatric terms. Hamlet seizes on us, not because he is an individual, not because in him Shakespeare has delineated a particular prince of Denmark, but because in Hamlet there are bits of all men; he is a composite character whose lineaments are determined by dramatic necessity, and through that he lives. Fundamentally, the truly vital theatre deals in stock figures. Like a child’s box of bricks, the stage’s material is limited; it is the possibilities in arrangements that are well-nigh inexhaustible. Audiences thrill to see new situations born of fresh sociological conditions, but the figures set before them in significant plays are conventionally fixed and familiar. Of Romeos there are many, and of Othellos legion.
Character on the stage is restricted and stereotyped and the persons who play upon the boards are governed, not by the strangely perplexing processes of life but by the established terms of stage practice. Bluntschli represents half a hundred similar rationalists; the idealism of thousands is incorporated in Sergius; and Raina is an eternal stage type of the perplexing feminine. The theatre is populated, not by real individuals whose boyhood or girlhood may legitimately be traced, but by heroes and villains sprung full-bodied from Jove’s brain, by clowns and pantaloons whose youth is unknown and whose future matters not after the curtain’s fall.
In the cinema we demand something different. Probably we carry into the picture-house prejudices deeply ingrained in out beings. The statements that “the camera cannot lie” has been disproved by millions of flattering portraits and by dozens of spiritualistic pictures which purport to depict fairies but which mostly turn out to be faintly disguised pictures of ballet-dancers or replicas of figures in advertisements of night-lights. Yet in our heart of hearts we credit the truth of that statement. A picture, a piece of sculpture, a stage-play – these we know were created by man; we have watched the scenery being carried in back stage and we know we shall see the actors, turned into themselves again, bowing at the conclusion of the performance. In every way the “falsity” of a theatrical production is borne in upon us, so that we are prepared to demand nothing save a theatrical truth. For the films, however, our orientation is vastly different.
Several periodicals, it is true, have endeavored to let us into the secrets of the moving-pictures industry and a few favored spectators have been permitted to make the rounds of the studios; but from ninety per cent of the audience the actual methods employed in the preparation of a film remain far off and dimly realized. “New York,” we are told, struts when it constructs a Rockefeller Center. A small town chirps when it finishes a block of fine cottages. The government gets into the newspapers for projects like Boulder Dam. It takes Hollywood approximately three days to build Rome and a morning to effect its fall, but there is very little hurrah about it. The details are guarded like Victorian virtue.
There is sound reticence on the part of a community that is usually articulate about it successes. Hollywood is in the business of building illusion, not sets . . . The public likes to feel that the stork brought The Birth of a Nation. It likes to feel that a cameraman hung in the clouds-mid-Pacific-the day that Barrymore fought the whale.
That audience, accordingly, carries its prejudices with it intact. “The camera cannot lie” – and therefore, even when we are looking at Marlene Dietrich or Robert Montgomery, we unconsciously lose sight of fictional surrounding and interpret their impersonations as “real” things. Rudolph Valentino became a man who had had innumerable Sheikish adventures, and into each part she took the personality of Greta Garbo was incorporated. The most impossible actions may be shown us in a film, yet Laurel and Hardy are, at their best, seen as individuals experiencing many strange adventures, not as virtuoso comedians in a vaudeville act.
How true this is was demonstrated by a film, Once in a Blue Moon, which has been shown only in a few theatres. The general tone of Once in a Blue Moon was burlesque. In it was a “take-off” of certain Russian films, incidental jibes at a few popular American examples, and occasional skits directed at prominent players; Jimmy Savo took the role of Gabbo the Great while one of the actresses made up to look like Katherine Hepburn. The result was dismal. In Charlie Chaplin’s free fantasy there is life and interest; throughout the course of Once in a Blue Moon vitality was entirely lacking. Nor was the reason far to seek.
We cannot appreciate burlesque in the cinema because of the fact that in serous films actor and role are indistinguishable; on the stage we appreciate it since there, in serous plays, we can never escape from separating the fictional character and its creator. Stage burlesque is directed at an artistic method, generally the method employed by an individual player in the treatment of his parts. To caricature Irving was easy; hardly would a cinematic travesty of Arliss succeed. The presentation of this single film proved clearly the difference in approach on the part of cinema and theatre public respectively. These, so generally considered identical, are seen to be controlled by quite distinct psychological elements.
Charlie Chaplin’s free fantasy has been referred to above. This, associated with, say, the methods of Rene Clair, might well serve to demonstrate the true resources of the film; comparison with the erring tendencies of Once in a Blue Moon brings out clearly the genuine frontiers of the cinematic sphere. In The Ghost Goes West there was much of satire, but this satire was directed at life and not at art and, moreover, was kept well within “realistic” terms. Everything introduced there was possible in the sense that, although we might rationally decide that these events could not actually have taken place, we recognized that, granted the conditions which might make them achievable, they would have assumed just such forms as were cast on the screen.
The ghost was thus a “realistic” one, shown now in the guise of a figure solid and opaque and now in that of a transparent wraith, capable of defying the laws of physics. In a precisely similar way is the fantasy of a Chaplin film bound up with reality. We know that the things which Charlie does and the situations in which he appears are impossible but again, given the conditions which would make them possible, these are the shapes, we know, they would assume. Neither Rane Clair nor Charlie Chaplin steps into the field occupied by the artistic burlesque; neither are “theatrical.” The former works in an independent world conceived out of the terms of the actual, and the latter, like George Arliss in a different sphere, stands forth as an individual experiencing a myriad of strange and fantastic adventures.
The individualizing process in film appreciation manifestly demands that other standards than those of the stage be applied to the screen-play. In the theatre we are commonly presented with characters relatively simple in their psychological make-up. A sympathetically conceived hero or heroine is devoted in his or her love affairs to one object; at the most some Romeo will abandon a visionary Rosaline for a flesh-and-blood Juliet. For the cinema, or the other hand, greater complexity may be permitted without loss of sympathy.
The heroine in So Red the Rose is first shown coquetting with her cousin, suggestion is provided that she has not been averse to the attention of a young family friend, she sets her cap at a visiting Texan and grieves bitterly on receiving news of his death, and finally she discovers or rediscovers the true love she bears to the cousin. All this is done without any hint that she is a mere flirt; her affections are such as might have been those of an ordinary girl in real life and we easily accept the filmic presentation in this light. On the stage the character could not have been viewed in a similar way; there we should have demanded much simpler and less emotionally complicated pattern if our sympathies were firmly to be held.
The strange paradox, then, results : that, although the cinema introduces improbabilities and things beyond nature at which any theatrical director would blench and murmur soft nothings to the air, the filmic material is treated by the audience with far greater respect (in its relation to life) than the material of the stage. Our conception of life is Chicago Gangsterdom and in distant China are all colored by films we have seen. What we have witnessed on the screen becomes the “real” for us. In moments of sanity, maybe, we confess that of course we do not believe this or that, but, under the spell again, we credit the truth of these pictures even as, for all our professed superiority, we credit the truth of newspaper paragraphs.
Normally, however, verse forms will be alien to the film. Verse in itself presupposes certain remoteness from the terms of ordinary life and the cinema, as we have seen, usually finds its most characteristic expression in the world that immediately surrounds us. The close connection, noted by Babette Deutsch, between cinematic expression and tendencies in present-day poetry will declare itself, not in a utilization of rhythmic speech but in a psychological penetration rendered manifest through a realistic method.
By Sanjay Wankar