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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Screen Acting As Taught Early

Mae Marsh Shows How To ... For Silent Picture Players

I didn’t know until recently that Mae Marsh wrote a book called Screen Acting back in 1921. Now having read it, I’m put to wondering if any other silent era player took serious account of the profession they chose; I mean other than whatever they said to interviewers or wrote in memoirs. Marsh would seem to be an only one who gave vent to whole of a volume (129 pages, illustrated), her emphasis on screen performing, though she draws distinction between skill as practiced for a stage and that necessitated by movies. Some of prose dates, what of those times doesn’t?, but Marsh throughout Screen Acting tells what she learned before cameras up to veteran (for her) year of 1921. By then, she had been in films a decade (age 15 the start). Seems less remarkable to modern eyes until we realize that acting for cameras was then a recent application, ten years hardly enough to graduate past infancy, and here’s Mae Marsh filling a tall order of explaining it all to us.

The book is in the Public Domain and is everywhere, online and even audio-read on You Tube. Mae Marsh is known for work with D.W. Griffith, but did plentiful star parts afterward. DWG was a cult director, as in players following his lead like terriers let in/out of a kennel daily. Marsh credits his unerring eye for falsity in performance. He liked her to pull drama from past personal experience to shade work done in a present, like The Birth Of A Nation’s cabin siege where Marsh unexpectedly laughs rather than cries as doors are being kicked in toward she and a helpless Cameron clan. This was acting way ahead of teens curve, which to that add low-key work Marsh and Henry B. Walthall self-devised where he returns home to find her in a shabby dress festooned by scraps of cotton, a sister’s pathetic attempt to keep style stripped away by war and desolation. A great moment still, and Griffith let Marsh/Walthall develop and play it their way. Based on this book, maybe it’s time we recognize DWG as truest progenitor of the Method.

Screen Acting may be an earliest detailing of Griffith technique as told by one of his stock company in a book. Marsh addresses too the use, and sometimes overuse, of close-ups, and how some players abuse the privilege. She admits all actors crave them, but often neglect to tone down for cameras drawn near. To value of story, Marsh is clear: “Motion picture actresses prosper almost in exact ratio to the inherent worth of their scenarios.” Narrative matters, folks, then, now, always. Griffith sent Mae and others on “observation tours” to taste real life before trying to recreate it on screens. That included slums and “baby hospitals” (Marsh’s stop for prepping her Intolerance part). Acting must show, she said, “a thing as it is, not as we think it ought to be.” Modern technique? Sure looks that way to me, and bear in mind Griffith was applying it early as Biograph days, his followers like Mae Marsh doing so thereafter. She had a nice stay on top, did character work for talkies, was a small-part mascot at 20th Fox for decades, same for John Ford as valued member of his thesping group. Mae Marsh lived till 1968, knowing well her worth, even if others were slow (still are) in recognizing pioneer strides her generation made in the art of film performance.


Blogger DBenson said...

One wonders if Marsh, as a seasoned veteran of talkies, considered writing another book or coached younger players on the lot. Always intrigued by one-time stars whose descent from fame led to a different but hardy tragic new life.

1:53 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thanks. This is one I am eager to read. Got a shelf of books by and about D. W. Griffith including veterans Billy Bitzer, Karl Brown. Miriam Cooper, Lillian Gish. Mae Marsh is an important addition to that list.

People fault Griffith today for presenting the attitudes of his time in THE BIRTH OF A NATION not realizing or choosing to ignore that those were the attitudes of the time. After having done that they then refuse to see any merit in his work.

This has culminated in THE GISH THEATRE debacle. .

We are not living in a good time.

5:29 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Descent from fame."

Sarah Bernhardt could play Juliet into her senior years because the theatre is and and will always have a magic that the movies can only aspire to.

The only reason Mae Marsh descended from fame is that the motion picture industry has never known how to use the people they depend upon to get us into theatres.

For example, Universal pays Bela Lugosi as little as it can get away with to star in DRACULA. Then they follow up with MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE which is a great film but which lacks the cache of DRACULA. Seeing that the film did not do the numbers of DRACULA Universal drops Lugosi who then has to fend for himself.

One of the few to understand that the system is rigged against the stars was Cary Grant who early on took charge of direction for his career. In the process he sustained that career up to the moment he decided to retire.

Lillian Gish did the same only she never retired.

Anyone who trusts the system will find themselves in exactly the same vehicle livestock finds itself in when the farmer ships them to to their final destination.

We can not control the trials that enter our life. We can choose how we react to them. Too many let themselves be beaten down.

Rudolph Valentino still gets a bum rap for standing up for himself. In doing so he made life better for the actors who followed him.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both understood the vicissitudes of their profession. These were strong women who ought to be applauded for how they both weathered the storm.

Mae Marsh accepted with grace the life she had. Which of us can do better?

It takes grace to react politely to a mother who says of her two daughters, "One is beautiful. The other looks like you."

9:02 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Reg, not everyone held those attitudes at that time.

2:51 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff considers other incidents of Griffith's mastery with players:

Dear John:

So much has been made of Griffith's technical innovation (and mastery) and his overall grasp of the tools of cinema, it is important to recognize how skilled he frequently was in guiding actors, and how many (not all) of the performances in his pictures are terribly subtle and effective. [Temptation is strong to say, "modern."] Murray, Walthall and Gish are outstanding in NATION.

But the turn in the movie that really sticks in my memory was the little bit involving a thoughtful, empathetic soldier on duty in the sequence in which Elsie and Mrs. Cameron come to Washington to petition President Lincoln to pardon Ben. It leavens a fraught scene at the military hospital and brings it to life. This actor completely steals the moment and never fails to delight audiences. I have no idea who played him -- was it William Freeman? -- but it's a great piece of acting... and reacting.

-- Griff

3:16 PM  

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