Monday, 25 July 2016

Dumb Talkies

In the Editor’s Confidence
From MacLean’s Magazine, 15 July 1934
Dumbness of the Talkies!
LACEY AMY is a Canadian novelist who, generally speaking, is content with life. In the summer he dwelleth at Colborne by the side of the cool waters of Lake Ontario. In the winter he basks in the warmly advertised sunshine of Florida or Algiers or Italy or Spain or the South of France. He is a mellow, gentle soul.
Until one subject is mentioned. Then he breathes fire. That subject is the Talking Picture industry of Hollywood. So far as the Great Shining Stars are concerned, if you can picture a press agent gone suddenly into reverse, converting every superlative into a masterpiece of derogation, you have but a pale image of Lacey Amy. And as for directors!
On page seven we have Mr. Amy’s answer to our invitation to express his views in print. Our personal opinion is that there is a great deal of truth in what he says in “The Dumbness of the Talkies.” You may be inclined to disagree. If you are a rabid movie fan you may be seized with the urge to heave a slab of pavement at Mr. Amy. We’ll be glad to hear from you.
(and they did hear from the readers!!!/drf)

Dumb Talkies
LACEY AMY
INHERENTLY—and financially—I’m a talkie fan. Factually, I yawn at the talkies and then go home to brood over the pulp value of my stock certificates.
If you ask me what is wrong with the talkies I counter with the query: What, beyond the mechanics of photography, is right with them?
As wearisome film follows film, I count the cost in time and money of sitting through the puerile efforts of empty-headed actors to interpret entertainingly and convincingly the dull output of parochial scenarists put on by stupid or blind producers. Productions of picture studios that never learn, extravagant organizations that have a camera for a heart, an emotion chart for their lifeblood, and a close-up for a tongue; a soulless, brainless machine that in time will destroy itself.
The camera, by this time, does its work almost automatically. But consider its field.
It was Lillian Gish, I believe, who introduced the emotion chart, with a switchboard of buttons at the producer’s elbow to assure a standard expression for every emotion, whether for George Arliss or for, say, Ruby Keeler. Press button sixteen and you have fear, press button eleven for joy, eighteen for grief, and so on—a performance of stage robots but with a less amusing display of intelligence.
And for fear the wires cross, the robot’s face is blasted across the footlights, screen-wide, like a charge of gunpowder. They call it, euphoniously, a close-up.
It was close-ups that spelled the doom of movies. Closeups are impoverishing the lifeblood of talkies. Do producers admit a histrionic weakness in their expensively publicized stars that requires interrupting the continuity of the scene to fill the stage with a facial expression? Must Greta Garbo brood all over the theatre, and Ginger Rogers swallow the screen in a cavernous and unsightly mouth, and Constance Bennett sidetrack the play in a futile endeavor to look superior twelve feet square? What would happen to an actor who, after drawing the curtain, advanced to the audience to weep on its shirt-front?
Nothing makes me despair of the future of the talkies so much as the clumsy, inartistic vision of parallel curves of scarlet lipstick, topped by a pair of flaming nostrils, two staring eyes, and a broken line of expressionless mascara. What matter that a double row of preposterous glycerine tears rolls over pits that, on reflection, must be skin-pores, or that those glaring ovals are the eyes of fear?
It would be useless, I suppose, to ask a producer which is more important, the scene or the star’s make-up. He’s that kind of a man.
To continue contributing one’s forty or sixty cents for feeble entertainment, one must beware of analyzing the essentials of the average picture. When I see Clark Gable don and doff his coat a dozen times as a vital feature of a single film, or William Powell flirt his cigar and his eyes until I reel with dizziness, or Ruth Chatterton light enough cigarettes to poison her, or Norma Shearer audibly draw a tragic breath and wheel broken-heartedly away so often that her suffering becomes merely ludicrous, or Kay Francis weep oily globules on my cravat until I raise my collar in self-protection, I realize that something radical must alter in the talkies or my dividends won’t.
Bored to Somnolence
THE UTTER monotony of recent films bores me to somnolence. Mae West is so wearisomely Mae West that I know in advance every sway of her hips and every wisecrack. When I see Greta Garbo’s name before a theatre and the deepest impression she makes on me is that she seems to succeed in putting it over some of my friends I know exactly what the producer is going to do with her and the number of pores in her chin. And it’s as certain as election slander that Katharine Hepburn will bare her teeth in precisely the same way for sorrow or for amusement—the one breach in the emotion chart. I have even reached the point where I can sit through a George Arliss film with closed eyes and see him wearily repeating himself through “Disraeli” and “Voltaire” and “Rothschild.”
The monotony extends even to scenes. “Fashions of 1934,” for instance, is so reminiscent that my wife and I sat through several scenes convinced that we had seen it before—the dead telephone, the seized furniture, the incurable crook as the hero.
The casting is often a disaster. Who but a director would imagine that Norma Shearer, at her age, could play the sweet sixteen of “Smilin' Through”? Who else would sacrifice Dorothea Wieck in such a weak story as "Miss Fane’s Baby is Stolen”? But then it appeared in a national magazine. Why waste what ability and looks Jessie Matthews has on a trifling medium like “Friday the 13th”? Did it not expose the true Greta Garbo that she insisted on John Gilbert playing opposite her in “Queen Christina?” And some of us were unfortunate enough to pay real money to see Mary Pickford in “The Taming of the Shrew” and in “Secrets.”
How dreary those endless undressing scenes! Filth condemns itself, though only through the box-office. But it seems that when a producer suspects flagging grip in a story he inserts a girl or two parading in her lingerie, until one sees it as stage property. Miss Wieck in the “Miss Fane” story prepares for a bath that has no bearing on the plot, and Miss Matthews bares her legs so determinedly and unnecessarily in “Friday the 13th” and in “The Good Companions” that one can only conclude she considers her figure her fortune.
Too often a feature picture is ruined by being harnessed to fill-ups that should never have been taken. These so-called comedies may amuse a child here and there and the odd half-wit, but children grow up and have to pay full price, and talkies will be dead before they create enough half-wits to be worth considering as box-office assets. The only excuse for the average “comedy” is to help the Hollywood unemployed. It would help the entire country if the films were used as fuel. A totally unemployed Hollywood, as it is at present, is the one hope for the talkies.
Hollywood Doesn’t Learn
I KNOW good films are possible, for I have lived in Europe for several years. If the better Russian and German films were given a chance in America, done as efficiently in English, Hollywood would be a great “To Let” sign in a month. With judicious cutting, even the better English films would worry the West Coast producer.
What stars has Hollywood produced in all its career, with the possible exception of Lon Chaney of the movies and Lionel Barrymore who is only being standardized by the studios, to compare with Conrad Veidt or Charles Laughton or Herbert Marshall or Emil Jannings? Place beside them Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor and Lee Tracy and Max Baer and Douglas Fairbanks and Robert Montgomery, also Ruby Keeler and Constance Bennett and Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers and Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow and Clara Bow and—well, go right through the list. The gift of Veidt and Marshall is their submergence in the scene, a talent not only anathema to Hollywood stars but infinitely beyond them.
The moment they begin projecting Marshall to the circumference of the screen he will strike the slippery slope to oblivion.
Did Hollywood ever produce a film to equal “Two Hearts in ¾ Time”?(Zwei Herzen im Dreiviertel-Takt) Though in German, it ran two years in London and one in New York, and Toronto flocked to see it. But did Hollywood learn? Not what you’d notice. There, indeed, was acting that melted into the story so completely that Hollywood stars look like what they are—parasites. There was music that pigeonholed Bing Crosby correctly—a wearisome midnight feline serenader. There was photography that, for art, made Hollywood pictures look like cartoons. And the cost of it was probably as little as a Hollywood fill-up. “Be Mine Tonight,” a more recent foreign film in English, should make Hollywood hang what head it has.
Hollywood is not so much a studio as a disease sucking the lifeblood from an industry that should be profitable and entertaining.
The reason for all this is as simple as the remedy. The Hollywood producer possesses no artistic background, instinct or training, no sense of fineness, no profitable flexibility of judgment, no submission to reason.
He hires a director whose conception of the path to success is via pretty girls—and often, pretty men—and a grotesque opinion of the publicity value of waste. He turns a blind eye to the public grin when he blathers of cost, and his mind is hermetically sealed against the encircling proof that little is sealed inside.
That’s the sort of man who selects the story to be filmed. For these stories he sees only two sources—the professional scenarist and the widely discussed page. It never endangers his mental catalepsy.
Has anything more ludicrously exposed the futility of Hollywood than the scramble for Dickens’s “The Life of our Lord,” when the story is to be found more completely and reliably told in any hotel bedroom? But probably Hollywood never heard of the Bible.
The professional scenarist’s job is to conceal his incapacity by warring against intrusion. Working and reworking old plots, stealing what he can, he snarls at the professional writer and, failing now and then to keep him out, rewrites him to unrecognizable form to justify his position. In the process, it must be admitted nothing is beyond him and the producer. Between them, they can make heaven more real and attractive on the screen than the original.
Authors have been imported to Hollywood —to sit with their feet on a mahogany desk and try to justify in their own minds a huge salary for their inactivity and their name.
Stars Thrust on Public
TALKIE STARS are what they are because of what goes before. They are not made by the public but thrust on them. The female star is the product of beauty contests or of the producer’s cosmopolitan and transitory affections. It accounts for their emptiness above the eyes. Once on the screen, her position, her longevity, in her own eyes and her manager’s, depends on her flair for publicity. How can one respect a system that is founded on Jimmy Durante’s nose, Joe Brown’s mouth, Jean Harlow’s platinum hair, Max Baer’s fists, Joan Crawford's eyes, Mae West’s hips, Richard Dix’s jaw, Chevalier’s lower lip, Clara Bow’s legs; or Marlene Dietrich’s pants, Greta Garbo’s pseudo-exclusiveness, Lee Tracy’s crudeness, Bing Crosby’s whine, John Boles’s prettiness; on a series of scandals and divorces and publicity agents’ fancies? Fatty Arbuckle and Clara Bow went just too far. Not for Hollywood, oh, no! but for an unsuspected fastidiousness in the dear gullible public.
If a census were taken of the educational attainments of these stars, a one-armed man, I suspect, could count on his fingers the number who know the significance of “x” or the place of the plural verb.
In every way the responsibility, in the final test, is the public’s—including the elaborate official welcome of great cities with motor-cycle policemen shrieking a path through the streets. Little wonder the screen star acquires a totally false idea of her importance.
At intervals Hollywood, driven to experiment, imports a foreign star, its task thereafter being to spoil his art.
And so we have the impossible combination of the uncouth director, the mechanical producer, the unimaginative scenarist and the brainless star. Result: yawns and more yawns in half a million theatres.
The remedy, I have said, is simple. Here it is: Fire the director, the producer, the scenarist, the star, and build from the bottom. No lengthy investigation there, no selection. Nothing less than a clean sweep.

Impossible? Can you believe that and recall what happened the movies? It is because the change was not radical enough then that we suffer now. Sooner or later the public is going to act. And in that day it will be as ruthless as the talkie managements are blind. As a shareholder, I’ll be left holding the bag, but better financial loss with real entertainment than loss of everything, including self-respect.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.