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5— D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company
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Griffith's Acting "Philosophy"

Although the recollections of associates offer glimpses of Griffith at rehearsals and filming, it is hard to extract Griffith's fully elaborated "philosophy" of acting (if such existed) from this scattered evidence. This must come from the interviews Griffith granted after his departure from Biograph. When Griffith "went public," by which time the verisimilar code was fully in place, he espoused the fundamental tenet of the literary and dramatic realists that the best art was an accurate reproduction of reality: "The motion picture technique is what technique really means, a faithful picture of life. . . . You violate the real essence of technique when you do not do it as it is . . . done in real life. The motion picture . . . should be a picture of real life . . . and emotions should be depicted as they would be in real life."[96] Griffith felt that the best actors should be instinctively capable of realistic emotions. They "just go ahead and do it as though it were a part of their really and truly experience in life."[97] Griffith actors had to know how to "feel their parts" and to "express any single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles."[98] But the actor's face and body should be reflecting an inner feeling rather than creating feeling from the outside in. The greatest sin a Griffith actor could commit was to be caught "acting."[99] Griffith once instructed Mae Marsh, "Now feel it. Don't act. I don't want actors on my set. I want human beings. Always remember in your acting you're never to act but to feel it."[100]

Griffith did, however, believe in the external construction of a character through mannerisms and appropriate bits of business, sharing the literary and dramatic realists' opinion that accurate reproduction could be achieved by painstaking observations of people in their day-to-day activities. He often urged his actors to base their performances on the mannerisms of real people: "'No matter where you are, watch people,' he told us. 'Watch how they


walk, how they move, how they run around. If you're in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.'"[101] Griffith told an interviewer in 1913 that he and Bitzer were in the habit of visiting various parts of New York City and taking photographs. By comparing these photographs with his actors' performances, Griffith hoped to ascertain "how truthfully his people had depicted various emotions."[102] Mae Marsh claimed that Griffith sent her into the slums of New York on an observation tour.[103] Lillian Gish visited a mental hospital to "learn about human nature and build our characterizations."[104] Before the filming of the death-house scenes in Intolerance , Griffith arranged a special tour of death row at San Quentin.[105]

Coupled with the classic realists' concern for facts and details, Griffith had a rather mystical notion of the "essence" of a good performance or performer, an intangible "something," which some possessed and others did not. Griffith once referred to this essence as "soul," that quality that enabled an actor to experience her character's emotions: "the first thing needed is 'soul.' By that I mean people of great personalities, true emotions and the ability to depict them before the camera. . . . The actor with the soul feels his part, he is living his part." It required this special quality of "soul" to face the "grim, cold-blooded, truth-in-detail telling camera lens which will register every quiver of the facial muscles, every gleam of the eye, every expression of the face, every gesture."[106]

Put simply, then, Griffith thought that actors experienced emotions, their faces and bodies reflected these emotions, and the camera captured the externalized feelings. The closer the camera, the better the chance of filming emotions: "the near view of the actors' lineaments conveys intimate thoughts and emotions better than can ever be conveyed by the crowded scene."[107]

Finally we come to the close-up, often thought to be one of Griffith's major contributions, perhaps his single most important contribution, to a "new" style of film performance. Griffith himself placed great emphasis upon the closer camera, often equating the larger-scale shot with the verisimilar code:

We were striving for real acting. When you saw only the small, full length figures it was necessary to have exaggerated acting, which might be called "physical" acting, the waving of the hands and so on. The close-up enabled us to reach real acting, restraint, acting that is a duplicate of real life.[108]

Griffith certainly did not "invent" the close-up. Indeed, the Biographs contain very few close-ups in the modern sense of the term referring to a tight shot of the head. Though I have compiled no statistics on the Biographs, as a matter of comparison we can note that The Birth of a Nation in its entirety contains only eleven true close-ups and only a few more medium close-ups (head and shoulders). But Griffith did insist on bringing the camera closer to the action and apparently did so against the resistance of everybody else at


Biograph. Bitzer suggested that the actors did not want closer shots because they did not want to be recognized and have their theatrical careers jeopardized.[109] The camera itself was hard to focus at the closer range, and if the players gesticulated "too wildly" the shot would show a "displacement blur of arms, etc." "It seemed to us all except Mr. Griffith that the result [of the closer camera] would certainly seem foolish."[110] The front office at first "definitely vetoed" the closer shots, but Griffith persisted and "finally even the front office stopped griping."[111]

Though some have assumed a unidirectional causality between the closer camera and performance style, both Griffith's and Bitzer's comments indicate that the reverse may have been true. Griffith said, "we were striving for real acting," implying that the verisimilar code may have evolved during rehearsals, prior to Griffith's realization that this acting style would benefit from larger-scale shots. And Bitzer hints that the histrionic code precluded the closer camera because of the technical difficulties caused by excessive gesticulation. Modification of performance style must have preceded at least the first experiments with closer shots. Further evidence for this comes from J. Stuart Blackton, one of the founders of the Vitagraph Company, who writes in his memoirs that one of the leading matinée idols of this period, Maurice Costello, "brought something to the screen that it had lacked. He was able to convey a mood by the process of thought instead of facial contortion and pantomime. . . . It was in the scenes nearest the camera that Costello's personality was most evident. At the time the front line was twelve feet from the lens. We changed it to nine feet."[112]

We shall probably never know whether the close-up preceded the change in performance style or vice versa, but we do know that by 1913 Griffith had fully pledged himself to the verisimilar code, the new style that was to win for motion-picture acting "recognition as a genuine art." Art had not been a consideration in 1908 when Griffith strove to elicit enough action from his performers to justify the fourteen-cents-per-foot price of the Biographs. Viewing his film employment as a temporary stopgap, Griffith let economic exigencies dictate to him as he cranked out yet another reel. In the intervening five years, Griffith became more and more committed to the new film industry, no longer harboring visions of himself as a great dramatist or stage actor.

As Griffith began to see film as his life's work, his self-image as a great and inspired artist required that film be a proper medium for the embodiment of his artistic inspirations and aspirations. One method for elevating film in his own, as well as the popular, mind was to denigrate the stage. In all his claims about the "realism" of the new acting art, Griffith compared stage acting unfavorably to film acting. As we have seen, the common practice was to advocate the verisimilar code by attacking the histrionic code, but Griffith went a step further by making the histrionic code and stage acting synonymous. This strategy served the double purpose of legitimizing his new profes-


sion and making his old profession unworthy of him, so that the failure was the theatre's rather than his own.[113] Griffith fought for the employment of the verisimilar code in his films in conscious opposition to all that the stage represented for him, barely acknowledging that the new style had actually originated in the theatre. At the same time, he must have known that artistic respectability could be gained by espousing and practicing the tenets of realism, since literary and dramatic realism was the dominant movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, already becoming passé in advanced intellectual circles by the time Griffith converted to the cause.

Let us look at two Biographs that appear to reflect Griffith's opinions about the relative merits of film and stage acting. Griffith asserted that the stage, bound by tradition and convention, was incapable of attaining the true realism that came so easily to the motion picture:

The motion picture is an art, a distinct art, and in many ways a greater art [than the theatre] since it approaches more closely real life. . . . They [theatre people] say that we picture directors do not know the rules, the technique of the drama. We know enough of the rules and the technique to avoid them for real life is not run by "rules."[114]

Griffith repeatedly and flatly denied that film actors had anything to learn from stage actors, the former being vastly superior to the latter, who were wedded to the histrionic code.

Moving pictures can get nothing from the so-called legitimate stage. . . . We need to depend on the stage for actors and actresses least of all. How many of them make you believe they are real human beings? No, they "act," that is they use a lot of gestures . . . such as are never seen . . . anywhere else. For range of delicacy, the development of character, the quick transition from one mood to another, I don't know an actress on the American stage . . . who can begin to touch the work of some of the motion picture actresses.[115]

Griffith claimed that stage training was a positive detriment for those hoping to act in motion pictures: "It [film acting] does not require any training in the legitimate stage for the reason that kind of acting is so bad, so far away from human life, and so unreal as to appear ridiculous in moving pictures."[116] Because stage players, unlike film actors, were incapable of studying and duplicating "real life," Griffith would not "have the average stage player in a production of mine."[117]

What was Griffith's view of the "average stage player"? To answer this question, we turn again to A Drunkard's Reformation (1909) and Brutality (1912), but it is the stage plays attended by the characters in the films that concern us here. The "real" characters in A Drunkard's Reformation employ the histrionic code as do the "stage actors," while in Brutality the "real"


A Drunkard's Reformation:  The theatrical actors.

characters use the verisimilar code and the "actors" the histrionic. In both cases, however, Griffith seems to have wanted a clear distinction in performance style between the framing story and the play. The "actors" in the earlier film employ a more unchecked version of the histrionic code than do the "real" characters, while in the later film, the distinction becomes more marked as the "actors" continue to employ the unchecked histrionic code while the "real" characters use the verisimilar. The depiction of the "average stage player" in these two films squares with Griffith's public pronouncements about the outmoded nature of theatrical acting, for the "actors" seem markedly retrograde compared to the "real" characters.

In A Drunkard's Reformation , Arthur Johnson takes his child to see what appears to be a temperance melodrama set in some vague, unspecified past time and foreign country. Twelve of the film's thirty-two shots depict action in this play, but two examples will suffice to describe the performance style, which shares with Griffith's own acting a self-conscious and excessive theatricality. In shots 21 and 23 the stage wife (Florence Lawrence) goes to the inn and pleads with her husband (David Miles) to stop drinking. The wife tries to take the drink from her husband, and they struggle, both carefully keeping faces turned to the audience. He pushes her away, and she falls. Kneeling at his feet, she raises her clasped hands to him and then puts her hands to her cheeks, alternating these actions in rapid succession as she cowers before him. Just before the husband expires, in shot 23, he staggers into his home, smashes a bottle, clutches at his throat, struggles with his wife, and tosses his little girl aside. Compared to his wild, frenzied, uncontrolled actions, Arthur Johnson's drunk is a model of propriety.

In Brutality , Walter Miller takes Mae Marsh to a vaudeville theatre where they see the famous murder scene from Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist was one of the most popular of melodramas, and the Biograph version probably resembles the performances at the popular-priced theatres that flourished in the ear-


Brutality:  The theatrical actors.

lier part of the century but faltered around the time Griffith began directing. Griffith was thus recording a vanishing performance style, the unchecked histrionic code of the full-blown popular melodrama. The presence of two performers singularly adept at the verisimilar code (Henry Walthall and Elmer Booth, the Snapper Kid of The Musketeers of Pig Alley ) makes the use of this performance style especially interesting.

In shot 37 Fagin (Walthall) tells Sykes (Booth) that Nancy has betrayed the gang. Booth sits in his chair in aggressively macho posture, legs apart and hands folded across chest. Walthall leans over him in a theatrical pose, weight on his bent front leg, his left arm, holding a cane, extended fully behind him, as he remains motionless throughout the conversation. Walthall, playing a villain in a melodrama, seems to be deliberately mimicking the attitude-striking of the histrionic code. The one pose embodies the performance style in all five shots of the play-within-the-film.

This chapter began by asking how we might assess Griffith's involvement and influence in the transition to the verisimilar code in the films of the Biograph Company. Could one make an "auteurist" argument of sorts about the probable impact of "the real, live, tangible person," David W. Griffith, whose ideas and actions may have partially shaped the signifying practices of the films? I think we can justifiably, but guardedly, conclude that Griffith may have been one among several significant factors responsible for the shift in performance style. At least in the later years of his Biograph tenure, when Griffith had overcome his initial nervousness, when the trade press frequently lauded his films, and when the front office came more and more to depend on him, Griffith seems to have had enough authority to insist on verisimilarly coded acting.

Accepting this premise leads to another, perhaps more interesting, question. Why would a man who had been primarily exposed to the histrionic code, whose acquaintances considered him a "lousy" actor, who used the


histrionic code in his own performances and initially insisted that his actors do the same, suddenly have converted to the verisimilar code? Starting with the broadest possible influence, Griffith was astute enough, as I suggested above, to realize that he could make his "new art" more respectable by allying it with the principles espoused by the literary and dramatic realists. He used the claim that film could "out-real" the theatre as part of this tactic. As we shall discuss below, most of the film industry shared Griffith's desire for respectability and believed with him that widespread acceptability could be garnered through associations with other more "legitimate" arts.

What about more direct influences in terms of day-to-day studio operations? The front office seems, for the most part, to have given Griffith carte blanche after a certain point, perhaps because his films may have saved the studio from financial disaster.[118] Hence, the money men may account for Griffith's initial adherence to the histrionic code but not for his change of heart. Scriptwriters may have made suggestions about performance style, but the historical record may never yield enough evidence to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

The historical record does, however, provide some evidence that Griffith's actors collaborated with the director in the construction of their characters, and hence in the transition in performance style. As Griffith himself said, "We developed together." In rehearsals, he would permit the actors to present their own characterizations before intervening with suggestions. He seems to have been willing enough to accept suggestions from his acting company. The older, more experienced actors, such as Claire McDowell, then, may have had frequent opportunities to contribute to the transformation in performance style. In the next chapter, we will look more closely at the work of one particular actor, Henry B. Walthall, trying to determine more precisely the nature of the mutual development of the verisimilar code.


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