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3— The Histrionic and Verisimilar Codes in the Biograph Films
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The Histrionic and Verisimilar Codes in the Biograph Films

The Histrionic Code

Film scholars may increasingly supplement textual analysis with knowledge of how a particular text both relates to other texts and functions in the larger culture, but close formalist analysis still remains an important methodology in cinema studies and other disciplines. Even Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott, who believe that the text is "an inconceivable object," nonetheless do not suggest that "texts have no determinate properties—such as a definite order of narrative progression—which may be analyzed objectively."[1] In this chapter and the next, I shall focus on these "determinate properties"; in chapter 3, looking at the ways the Biograph actors employed the histrionic and verisimilar codes in the construction of their characters, and in chapter 4, theorizing a model of the interaction among the signifying practice of performance and other textual signifying practices and showing the workings of this interaction in the films themselves.

It may help to begin by formulating some general principles about the actors' use of the histrionic code at various points in the early Biographs. Most shots in these films fall into one of five categories: (1) the tableau; (2) everyday activity; (3) conversations; (4) heightened emotions and action scenes with more than one performer; and (5) gestural soliloquies in which an actor emotes while alone in the frame.[2] As a rule, the performances in these categories tend to range from the checked to the unchecked histrionic code.

Modified Tableau

Although the Biographs borrowed the tableau from the stage melodrama, they somewhat modified its usage. In the theatre, per-


formers used the tableau to convey intense emotions in nonverbal form, freezing in place with arms fully extended outward, downward, or upward at an act's climax. A contemporary print depicting the second act of East Lynne shows the actors in the act-ending tableau: In the center a man sits in a chair, hands clasping head in an agony of despair. A young girl kneels at his feet, her right hand reaching up in supplication. To the left, an elderly gentleman has both hands raised high above his head in an appeal-to-heaven posture. To the right, a stern woman points at the girl with her left hand, while her right hand is held perpendicular to her body, the finger pointing to the door in one of the most parodied of all histrionic gestures.[3]

Obviously, the Biographs retained the goal of expressing strong emotion in nonverbal fashion but somewhat modified the technique. The actors eschewed fully extended gestures and kept their arms close to their bodies, expressing emotional intensity through a comparative lack of movement rather than absolute stillness. The only motionless tableau in the Biographs occurs in A Corner in Wheat (1909) at the moment when the poor line up to buy the overpriced bread and become perfectly motionless, contrasting with the frenzied activity of the Wheat King's party.

Usually, the actors make small gestures that contrast markedly with the more common broad gestures of the histrionic code and thus convey the impression of relative motionlessness. In the last shot of A Drunkard's Reformation , Arthur Johnson and Linda Arvidson sit in front of the fire with their little girl. The child sits on the floor before her father's chair, the mother sits on the arm of the chair. Arvidson has her arm around Johnson, and they hold hands. With his free hand, Johnson gestures to the girl, as if to credit her with his reformation.

Everyday Activity

In scenes of everyday activity characters are shown going about their normal routine prior to the introduction of narrative disequilibrium. They might be shown at work, like the farmers plowing their fields in the opening shot of A Corner in Wheat , or at home, like the happy family at the beginning of The Lonely Villa (1909). In these shots, gesture helps to establish a character and that character's relation to other characters. The characters often handle props, such as books, or the tools of their trade, that prevent fully extended outward movements.[4] Gestures tend to be close to the body, fairly slow, unstressed, and not held for any significant time.

In the first shot of Lady Helen's Escapade (1909), Florence Lawrence portrays a bored, wealthy woman. She sits in a chair beside a table on which her arm rests, her hand dangling loosely over the front. When a maid offers food, she rejects it with a languid wave of the hand. Then she heaves a sigh, shoulders visibly moving, and yawns. All her gestures are slow, and with the exception of the wave, her arms and hands stay close to her body.


Above left:  Lady Helen's Escapade:  A languid wave of the hand. 
Above right:  The Voice of the Violin:  The conversational gesture. 
Lower eft: A Summer Idyl:  The conversational gesture.



In the Biographs, conversations among characters involve a great many gestures of a type we might call, to use a semantic term, "diectic" or "anaphoric"—the gestural equivalent of verbal "shifters," personal pronouns and words indicating place, such as here and there .[5] In the films, these meanings are expressed by inward movements, indicating I or here , and outward movements, indicating you, there , or similar ideas. In A Convict's Sacrifice (1909), the released convict, James Kirkwood, talks to a laborer, Henry Walthall, who is eating his lunch. Kirkwood points to the food and to himself and Walthall hands him the dinner pail. Then Walthall asks his boss to hire Kirkwood, pointing at himself and then the convict, as if to vouch for his behavior.

Conversational gestures usually fall somewhere between the contained stillness of the tableau and the frantic extended movement of the gestural soliloquy. In The Voice of the Violin (1909), Arthur Johnson proposes to Marion Leonard. He declares himself with both hands on his chest, then extends his arms one on either side of the woman. No, she says, with her hand on her chest, then points to him, then puts her hand back on her chest. We can see the gradual modifications in the histrionic code by looking at another marriage proposal, from a film released the following year: In A Summer Idyl (1910), Walthall proposes to a society woman (Stephanie Longfellow), who rejects


him. He leans closer to her, his hand on his chest, then extends his other hand to her palm up. Then he takes her hand in both of his. She says no, and he pleads with right hand extended to her, left hand on his chest, the fingers relaxed. All his motions are slow and graceful, and his arms are never fully extended outward like Johnson's.

Because Walthall stresses his gestures less than Johnson, the performance does not connote the same degree of theatricality. This becomes clear in comparing the way each actor places his hands on his chest. Johnson uses both hands with the palms flattened, to modern eyes parodying a lover declaring himself, as the pose absolutely reeks of theatricality. Walthall places one hand lightly on his chest, the palm slightly raised and fingers slightly cupped. Though Walthall employs a conventional gesture, the lack of emphasis reduces the deliberate self-consciousness of the histrionic code.

Heightened Emotions and Action Scenes

Categories 4 and 5 most closely resemble the stereotyped ideas of "melodramatic" acting, as performers tend to resort more to the unchecked histrionic code. The arms are fully extended upward, outward, or downward, the gestures are often more heavily stressed and quickly performed than in everyday activities or conversation, and poses are held longer. In A Test of Friendship (1909), Arthur Johnson receives the news that he has been ruined (financially, not morally, this latter being a woman's prerogative). His hands clutch his head and then come down, fingers spread, as his arms are held straight out to his sides. He bows his head, and his hands drop to his sides. He then looks up and clenches his fists.

In The Call of the Wild (1908), we see two performers enacting heightened emotions. A woman (Florence Lawrence) rejects the proposal of a "civilized Indian" (he wears a suit and attends parties). The veneer of civilization immediately vanishing, the rejected suitor (Charles Inslee) leads an Indian band on the warpath, captures his beloved, and proceeds to work his will upon her. He kisses her, and she falls to her knees, arms outstretched. Her left hand points to her chest and then to heaven, while her right hand points to him. He points to his Indian followers, as if to say, "I am one of them." She points to heaven again, her arm straight up and fully extended. Finally seeing the light, he raises both arms, sinks to his knees, lowers his head on his arms. She then points off screen right, as if to say, "Come back with me." Here we see a mixture of the diectic gesture and the unchecked histrionic code.

Gestural Soliloquies

In the gestural soliloquy, the quality of the gesture remains the same as with heightened emotions, but the quantity increases. In the previous category, no single performer enacts an elaborate series of gestures because the other actors collaborate in creating an emotional effect or in telling the story. Gestural soliloquies often occur at emotional high points


The Hindoo Dagger:  The gestural soliloquy.

in which the characters undergo emotional catharsis. The characters in this situation often have only one point to make: "I am angry," "I am grief-stricken," or "I am desperate," and employ a series of gestures (sometimes repeating the same gesture), all of which express the same state of mind. While narratively redundant, the cumulative effect of the gestures is to increase the emotional impact, in keeping with the heightened emotional states characteristic of the melodramatic form. Though this repetition runs counter to injunctions against "the useless multiplication of gesture," each gesture remains distinctly separate, preserving the digital nature of the histrionic code.

In The Hindoo Dagger (1909), a woman's lover (Harry Solter) discovers her body and, thinking he will be accused of murder, enacts his distress. Kneeling at her side, he puts both hands on top of his head, then holds the backs of his clenched fists to his forehead, then puts his hands to his throat. He raises his arms in appeal to heaven, then waves clenched fists in the air, and finishes by crossing his arms over his chest. The Tavern Keeper's Daughter (1908), like The Call of the Wild , relates a tale of lust, villainy, and redemption. This time the pursued virgin takes refuge in a cabin occupied only by a crib and a baby. The villain (George Gebhardt) charges in, overlooks the woman, but spies the baby. In best melodramatic tradition, the child precipitates a reformation, and the villain enacts a gestural soliloquy. He sinks to his knees by the crib, beats his breast, raises clenched fists in the air, puts bowed head in hands, spreads arms wide, looks up to heaven, crosses himself, and slumps forward, head in hands. Then he rises, puts one forearm to his eyes and his other hand to his chest. All these gestures could be translated into one or two verbal phrases: "I am sorry," or "Forgive me."

The gestural soliloquy was also used to trace a character's thought processes, though the verisimilar code would better suit this function. In this case, rather than simply heightening emotional effect, the soliloquies serve to ad-


vance the narrative. In A Burglar's Mistake (1909), a husband (Harry Solter) contemplates suicide. As he holds the gun, he sees a toy that his young child has left in his office. He gestures to the door with his free hand, his arm extended behind him. Then he makes a fist in the air and brings his arm sharply down and up in a semi-circle as he decides on a course of action. Note, however, that the performer's gestures might be incomprehensible without the presence of the toy, showing precisely how difficult it is to discuss performance in isolation from other signifying practices.

The Verisimilar Code

Describing the operation of the verisimilar code in the Biographs presents a more daunting task than describing the histrionic. Because the verisimilar code was intended to mimic reality and create individual characterizations, one cannot turn to mechanical formulations and prescriptions such as are found in the histrionic-code instruction manuals. Nor can one evolve general categories, illustrating each with examples, as with the histrionic code. But the discussion of the theatrical verisimilar code in the previous chapter, in conjunction with the recent work of film scholars, can point to the key characteristics of the verisimilar code in the Biograph films. As we have seen from looking at the verisimilar code in the theatre, byplay and props formed an important part of this performance style. In addition, as Gunning, Thompson, and Staiger have all asserted, use of the face and eyes constituted an extremely important component of the new style of acting in the cinema, which makes sense given the differences between the two media.[6]

The New York Hat (1912) seems a particularly appropriate starting point for the discussion of the verisimilar code, because its inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art's circulating Griffith collection made it quite well known. As one of the few Biographs in common circulation, The New York Hat contributed to Griffith's reputation among film scholars as the originator of "subtle, restrained" acting. It also features Mary Pickford, one of the "Griffith actresses" whom posterity has judged to excel at the new style, and Lionel Barrymore, a Broadway-trained actor in one of his first film roles. Both Barrymore and Pickford have scenes in which the characters' thoughts are revealed through a combination of gesture, expressions, glances, and props, so that we can begin our discussion with a look at two sequences that combine all the key components of the verisimilar code.[7]

Just before her death, Pickford's mother writes a letter requesting that her minister, Barrymore, buy her daughter an occasional gift. Barrymore buys Pickford the fancy New York hat of the title. The town gossips immediately begin to circulate slanderous rumors, and Pickford's harsh father tears up the hat. All ends happily as the misunderstanding is cleared up, and Barrymore and Pickford seem destined for a rosy future.


The New York Hat:  The verisimilar code.

In the second shot of the film, Barrymore opens the mother's letter and the packet of money that accompanies it. As he reads the letter, his mouth opens in surprise. He picks up the money with a thoughtful expression and looks straight out, almost at the camera, while holding the money. He looks at the letter again and laughs. Placing his hand flat on the desk, he mouths "I'll do it." He nods his head "yes" and looks at the letter again while smiling.

In a four-shot scene, Pickford examines her old hat, decides it won't do, and asks her father for a new one. In the first shot, the standard three-quarter shot of 1912, the father sits at his desk on the left and Pickford stands on the right side of the frame, her right hand at her side and her head slightly tilted as she looks up at a mirror on the wall next to her and straightens her jacket. In a cut to a medium shot, Pickford takes a hat off the wall and brushes off the top with a sad expression. She puts the hat on, examines her reflection, and glances in the direction of her father. An intertitle states, "Daddy, can I have a new hat?" In three-quarter shot again, Pickford stands with one hand out to her father and the other touching her hat, but he gestures her away. In another cut to medium shot, Pickford takes a pair of gloves from a hook near


a mirror, and straightens the mirror. She arranges the gloves in her left hand, smiles, and looks in the mirror. Looking doubtful, she takes the hat off, hangs it up, and shakes her head. Again she looks in the mirror, looks at the gloves, smiles and smooths her hair with her hand. Even without the intertitle, Pickford's performance clearly establishes her character's decision to ask for the hat and her shifting emotions, as she first tries to make do with the old hat and then decides to do the best she can without it.

Although the various elements of the code all work together to externalize mental processes, as in the above example, one can better understand the actual operation of the verisimilar code by isolating, insofar as possible, each component. We start by examining several examples of byplay, the small, realistic touches the actors called "bits of business," which are the performance equivalents of Barthes's realistic effect.[8]

The God Within (1912) with Henry Walthall, Lionel Barrymore, Blanche Sweet, and Claire McDowell, recounts the intertwined fates of two couples. Barrymore seduces Sweet and leaves her pregnant, while Walthall's wife, McDowell, announces to her husband that she too is expecting a child. McDowell dies in childbirth, Sweet's baby is born dead, Sweet acts as a wet nurse to the motherless child, and all turns out well as Walthall and Sweet form a family at the end. The acting of the principals is verisimilarly coded, and all four employ bits of business in their interchanges with other characters.

Near the start of the film, Barrymore comes to tell Sweet that he is leaving town. She sits alone, waiting for him, and when she hears his knock, wipes away her tears, clasps her hands in her lap, and smiles. As they talk, she stands close to him, her hand stroking his lapel, and then leans closer to whisper that she is pregnant. Barrymore rubs the back of his neck in perplexity and then gestures to the door with his thumb. As McDowell tells Walthall that she is pregnant her actions are similar to Sweet's. She takes his sleeve, fingers his collar, puts a hand on his shoulder, and whispers in his ear. When the doctor proposes to Walthall that he take Sweet into his home, Walthall scratches the back of his neck as he thinks. At the film's end, Barrymore comes to Walthall's cabin and proposes to Sweet. Walthall returns home and also proposes to her. Sweet picks Walthall, signaling her decision by taking his hand. The two men converse over the seated woman, and, as they talk, Sweet tilts her head so that her cheek touches her and Walthall's linked hands, the small gesture registering her character's fulfillment and happiness.

These kinds of small gestures can be combined to create the verisimilar equivalent of the gestural soliloquy, in which characters express intense emotions. But while the intent is the same, the nature of the gestures is vastly different. In The Lesser Evil (1911), Blanche Sweet is trapped in a boat's cabin, with only the captain standing between her and a crew of would-be rapists. She stands at the cabin door, hands around the bolt, looking upward and perfectly still except for the slight movement of her hands on the bolt. She


The Lesser Evil:  Blanche Sweet fears a fate worse 
than death.

then reloads the captain's gun, opens the door to hand him the weapon, then rebolts the door. She leans against the door, her right hand on the bolt and left hand to her face.

The impact of this scene admittedly depends on her expression as well as her gestures, but Biograph actors were fully capable of fulfilling Strindberg's wish that important scenes be acted with the back to the audience. To return to The God Within, Walthall has a gestural soliloquy at his wife's deathbed. His hat in his hand, he looks down at his wife and baby while he raises his hat to his mouth as if to stifle a sob. He turns his back to the camera, showing only about one-quarter of his face in profile, bows his head, and raises his hand to his eyes. After a moment, he turns slightly back, wipes his eyes, looks down again, and kneels at the bedside. He rests his head on his upraised hand while his fingers pull at his hair. Until he kneels, we do not get a good view of his face, and his grief is indicated by posture and hand movements alone.

The byplay in The God Within externalizes thoughts and emotions and delineates character. But "bits of business" could also directly establish character type or create psychological complexity. In The Broken Cross (1911), the residents of a boarding house include a gum-chewing, slovenly servant girl and a hip-swinging, eye-batting manicurist. In The God Within, Barrymore reveals his character's bravado and untrustworthiness by hooking his thumbs in his waistcoat pockets. In A Child's Remorse (1912), Claire McDowell plays a mother described by the Biograph Bulletin as having a "pettish nature."[9] She makes her entrance pushing back her sleeves and smoothing down her dress and then places her hands on her hips, posing for her husband's admiration. When he ignores her, she clenches her fists and gestures to herself as if to say "Look at me!" She then makes a sweeping downward gesture of both hands down the front of her skirt. In Friends (1912), Mary Pickford plays the darling of the mining town whom all the men admire. While awaiting her


The Way of Man:  The use of a prop.

beau, she smooths her curls; when he fails to arrive, she stamps her foot impatiently. In the same film, Walthall plays a fastidious prospector-dandy, who returns from the gold fields to see Pickford. Standing at the bar before going up to her, he flicks dust off his sleeves and straightens his cuffs. Earlier, upon unexpectedly encountering an old friend, he had surreptitiously brushed away a tear, an action perhaps not consonant with the dandy image but which adds depth to his character and prepares for his later good-natured renunciation of Pickford.

Byplay also entailed the use of props. In an early example from The Way of Man (1909), Florence Lawrence portrays a woman scarred by an accident who sees her fiancé with another woman. Retreating to the next room, she leans over the back of a chair for a few seconds, her arms straight down the chair back. Then she walks slowly to front center, hands at sides, staring dully ahead. She picks up a hand mirror, looks at her reflection, puts a hand over the mirror, and shakes her head. She then puts a forearm to her forehead. With the exception of the last gesture, Lawrence does not use her customary histrionic gestures but embodies her character's thoughts through body posture, a slight movement of the head, and the look in the mirror. In a scene from The Inner Circle (1912) the use of props augments the fully developed gestural byplay of the verisimilar code. An intertitle, "The Lonely Widower and his child," precedes the film's first shot. A little girl sits in a chair in a tenement room, and her father (Adolphe Lestina) enters. He walks slowly, head bowed, and carries a flower. He looks at the child, smiles slightly, sniffs the flower and turns to look at a picture on a table behind him. His hand barely raised from the table, he extends his bent index finger toward the picture, then rests his hand on the table. The father turns to his child and offers her the flower, but she is sleeping. He straightens, looks at the picture, places the flower in front of it, rests his hands on the table, and looks up, before waking and hugging the child.


The Lesser Evil:  Blanche Sweet thinks of her beau.

In this shot the gestures and props develop the portrait of the Lonely Widower announced by the intertitle, but Lestina communicates his sorrow for his dead wife with an upward glance, and his pity for his orphaned child by looking from the picture to her. This brings us to the second important element of the verisimilar code, the use of the eyes and the face. As in Lestina's case, the direction of the look often suffices to convey a character's thoughts (given the narrative context, that is). In another example from Friends , Walthall returns from the gold fields unaware that Barrymore has preempted his place in Pickford's affections. As he and Pickford embrace, he looks over her shoulder to see the picture of Barrymore she has left out. A dawning realization crosses his face, but the mere fact of his seeing the photo indicates that the character's suspicions have been aroused. In Her Father's Pride (1910), Stephanie Long-fellow and Charles West declare their love by look alone. After an intertitle, "The Inevitable," the two look at each other until she bows her head and walks away. His eyes follow her as he smiles. In another sexual interchange based on glances, this time in One Is Business, The Other Crime (1912), we see an early instance of the controlling male gaze that figures so largely in feminist film theory. Edwin August stands at a doorway admiring his wife, Blanche Sweet, who has completed dressing for dinner. His eyes sweep up and down her body as he looks her over, then smiles, and shakes his head as if to say, "You're really something!" She looks shyly away, averting her gaze.

As the trade press would have said, "You can really see the actors think!" Occasionally, the later Biographs devote entire shots to a character's thoughts, with the actors reflecting on the previous action and moving very little if at all. In Friends , after Pickford receives a visit from Barrymore she lets him out and remains motionless, her hand on the doorknob and her eyes moving from side to side. In a similar scene in The Lesser Evil , Blanche Sweet has just gotten a proposal from her longtime beau. She pauses at the front door of her house,


with her hands at her sides and her head down. She looks up slightly, smiles, then goes into the house. Nor is it only women mooning over their sweethearts who pause in reflection. In Friends , the doctor tells Walthall to wait outside while he goes inside to deliver the baby. Walthall stands for a moment with his hand on the doorknob, motionless except for his eyes moving from side to side as he contemplates his wife's fate.

One Is Business, The Other Crime contains an extended instance of the "reflection shot," as the four main characters, a rich couple (Edwin August and Blanche Sweet) and a poor couple (Charles West and Dorothy Bernard) all consider their futures. August has been bribed with a thousand dollars which West, unable to find employment, tries to steal, but Sweet apprehends him, in the process discovering the note offering her husband a bribe. West returns to his wife, and the poor couple thinks about their hopeless lot, while August, in his study, considers Sweet's demand that he return the money, and Sweet, in her bedroom, awaits his decision. In a sequence of eleven shots, the film cuts between Sweet, August, and the poor couple.

1. Sweet walks toward a chair in her bedroom.

2. August fingers the money, starts to put it down on the desk, but instead thrusts it into his pocket.

3. Sweet sits in a chair. She stares ahead, closes her eyes, slumps her head, and rests her arm on a table.

4. West arrives home, sits in a chair by the window, and makes a gesture rejecting something.

5. August takes the money out of his pocket, shakes his head and puts it back, then paces to the rear of the frame.

6. Sweet stands at the back of the frame, arms folded. She drops her hands to her sides, walks forward, yawns, shakes her head, and turns her back, brushing the back of the chair with her hand as she turns.

7. Bernard comes over to sit and talk with West.

8. August turns off the light and sits in a chair by the window, smoking a cigar.

9. West and Bernard sit at the window almost perfectly still.

10. As August sits quietly, "sunrise" illuminates the room. He gets up, takes the money out of his pocket, walks to the desk, and writes a note.

11. Sweet stands, hands on the back of the chair. She looks at the door angrily and exits.

As with the above sequence, many of the "thinking" and "reflection" shots cannot and should not be separated from the editing patterns of which


they are a part, nor, for that matter, from the entire narrative context. This is particularly the case with the reaction shot that reveals mental processes precisely through the accumulation of shots. With the 1911 films, the three-shot—point-of-view pattern began to be standardized, as several films feature sequences in which characters look through windows and then react to what they see, the reaction shot sometimes in closer scale than the rest of the film (The Chief's Daughter, Enoch Arden, His Mother's Scarf, The Two Sides ).

The Code Shift

By 1912 most performers, under most circumstances, in most Biographs employed the verisimilar code, some being more adept at it than others. Using the word adept comes perilously close to making a value judgment about good and bad acting. What does adept mean in this context? Those performers skilled in the new style used smaller gestures, gave them less emphasis, and melded them into a continuous flow. The less skilled retained elements of the histrionic code: while they might not use conventional gestures, their movements tended to be larger, more emphasized, and more discrete. Skilled performers also used more byplay and bits of business to construct their characters. Those performers whom subsequent generations have valorized as good (i.e., Blanche Sweet, Bobby Harron, Henry Walthall, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh) are the ones who mastered the verisimilar code, so that it is possible in this instance to identify the components of "good acting" or at least specify what most people probably mean by "good acting" in the Biographs.

By 1912, however, the histrionic code had not entirely vanished. Actors still represented conversation with diectic gestures and the occasional conventional gesture.[10] In The Black Sheep (1912) a father warns off his daughter's suitor (Charles West). The father gestures with his thumb over his shoulder in his daughter's direction, raises his hand like a police officer halting traffic, and shakes his head. In The New York Hat , the village gossips tell Pickford's father (Charles Mailes) about the minister's purchase of the hat. Their leader (Claire McDowell) takes his arm, points offscreen, and touches her hat. The father points to his chest, then his head, looks severe, clenches his fists, nods, and says thank you.

The histrionic code persisted not only in conversations but also during emotional high points. In The New York Hat , the father comes upon his daughter wearing the new hat. He spreads his arms wide with fists clenched, as he asks where she got it. When she answers, he runs his hands across the top of his head and yells at her, raising his clenched fists in the air. In The Lesser Evil , Sweet's fiancé (Edwin August) sees Sweet being kidnapped. He raises his hands high above his head, staggers back, and waves his arms.

Perhaps it was only actors less skilled at the verisimilar code who resorted


to the histrionic at times of great emotion? This does not seem to be the case. Even such a master of the verisimilar code as Henry Walthall, capable, as we have seen, of portraying intense grief with his back to the camera, uses histrionic gestures. In The God Within , when the doctor wishes him to take his baby to Sweet, Walthall makes the standard gesture of rejection, his hand near his head, arm bent at the elbow and then brought downward and out in a thrusting-away movement. Is editing perhaps the explanatory factor? To some extent, certainly, but the histrionic code can appear in a reaction shot. In The Inner Circle , Lestina looks through a window, seeing his daughter in the house under which he has just planted a bomb. He staggers back, arms wide, clenching his fists.

Just as the histrionic code lasts into 1912, we can find traces of the verisimilar as early as 1908. In One Touch of Nature Florence Lawrence's child has died. She sits quietly staring ahead until she picks up the child's doll and gently strokes its head, the use of the prop seeming to inhibit histrionic gestures.

The presence of the two codes in films made during the same year, and, sometimes even in the same film, prevents simply declaring that the verisimilar code replaced the histrionic on a precise date in a certain film. While one can identify 1910 and 1911 as the crucial transitional years, during which the codes mingle more frequently than previously or subsequently, we cannot reduce the matter to a question of chronology, providing lengthy and tedious year-by-year descriptions of acting. Nor can we hope to identify the simple linear causality of such factors as editing patterns or a closer camera.[11] Rather than considering performance in isolation or in relation to one other signifying practice, we must take into account the complex interaction of performance with the entire textual system. As Metz says, "The intrinsic consideration of a code does not tell us how it may be articulated with other codes (or with which ones), and at what level it may play a part in the general economy of a long and complex text."[12]


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