Excerpted from The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson, published in October 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by David Thomson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.
Chapter 1: A Cheap Form of Amusement
In 1911, William de Mille heard that a promising Canadian stage actress lately seen in The Warrens of Virginia (1907) was making the mistake of her life. He told the impresario David Belasco, “The poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously… I remember what faith you had in her future… and now she’s throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement.”
The actress was eighteen, and for the moment she was Gladys Smith— but the name Mary Pickford awaited her, along with perhaps the greatest success and fortune any woman has yet achieved in the movies. William was the older brother of Cecil B. DeMille and as disapproving as possible of Cecil’s own urge to give up theater for this new, trashy sensation. Fraternal superiority seldom works. C.B. was on his way as not just an epic figure in the business being made but also, he hoped, an immense force for good and improvement. (The de Milles were the sons of a preacher who had become a playwright. Around the turn of that century, there were so many new technologies winning the minds of people.)
The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The longing for improvement and the fear of waste and worse—it is a pattern still with us, and maybe it speaks to the medium’s essential marriage of light and dark, or as Mary Pickford put it in her autobiography (published in 1955), Sunshine and Shadow. Light and dark were the elements of film, and they had their chemistry in film’s emulsion. They had a moral meaning, too. But not everyone appreciated that prospect, or credited how it might make your fortune.
At one of their first film screenings in Paris, in the 1890s, the Lumière brothers told Georges Méliès, a stage magician captivated by what the cinematograph might do for him, to put away his money: “It is an invention without a future.” Yet Thomas Edison, a businessman to be sure, wrote in Moving Picture World, a trade paper, in 1907, that “nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone.” But Dr. Anna Shaw, a “feminist reformer,” believed that a policeman should be posted everywhere movies were shown because “These places are the recruiting stations of vice.” In Boston, a girl, Irene Mayer, realized that her father, Louis B. Mayer, was in the picture business and doing so well that they were about to move to California! But years later she was still asking herself, “How could a man of my father’s innate conservatism have chosen show business?”
Her answer was that Pop was “as emotional as he was”—a simple statement that requires constant examination. My experience with movie people is that nothing is more pressing or perilous in their lives than their headstrong identification with the emotion in the stories they tell. Other people in Mayer’s life might have put it differently. Louis B. Mayer, once known as Lazar Meir, and born outside Kiev in 1885, was a small bull of a man who had grown strong heaving scrap iron. He was barely educated, yet he would be a shaper of minds. He was conservative but outrageous, high-minded and given to low blows, a pirate and a prison guard. As the dominant power at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for over twenty-five years, Mr. Mayer felt he owned the souls of his stars as well as their moving photographs on seven-year contracts. He had a cruel side, a violent temper, an unbridled ego. In urging his own properties to be “good,” to respect their mothers, their Americanness, and his advice, he could move himself to tears. His daughter Irene admitted that she regularly confused him with God, and hardly noticed that she didn’t believe in a god. Some observers decided Mayer was a fraud, the “greatest actor on the M-G-M lot.” This misses a more disarming truth: he cried real tears; he was moved by his own dreams. There are still people who think they run the media who are swept away by that great hope.
When Mayer was an infant still, his father, Jacob, took the family to England simply to escape pogroms and poverty. That setting forth showed some means as well as the courage that every emigrant requires. Jacob was in the scrap business, but he could not prosper in England. So in 1892 they all moved on to St. John, New Brunswick, the town where Louis Mayer was raised.
Similar stories could be told about most of the founding fathers in the picture business. Adolph Zukor (the future chairman of Paramount) was born in Hungary in 1873. Samuel Goldwyn was from Poland, born in 1879. Carl Laemmle (the founder of Universal) was born in Germany in 1867. William Fox was born in Hungary in 1879. The eventual Warner brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) had their family origins in Poland. Harry Cohn’s father, Joseph, was born in Russia—and Cohn and a brother would form Columbia, the company that employed the logo of the famous statue holding a torch up for those huddled masses, beckoning them into movie houses.
They were all Jewish. The only native-born Americans among the movie pioneers were Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, and maybe that’s why that pair worked together to make The Squaw Man (1914), allegedly the first feature-length picture produced in Hollywood. The Jewishness cannot be underestimated. The people who established the business were outsiders, anxious to be regarded as Americans, as well as people who had suffered every kind of ethnic prejudice from disdain to pogrom. When Victor Fleming (born in Pasadena) took over the directing of Gone With the Wind in 1939, he barely disguised his dislike of Jews (such as David O. Selznick, who produced the picture). So movies were made into a business by people who had recently escaped their own huddled masses, from families that did not always speak English. Against that set of anxieties, these early moviemakers were accustomed to storytelling, sentimental narrative theater, broad comedy, and the miracle of wondrous things never seen before: the dream that comes true. California was the embodiment of that change in life, the steady sunshine that followed European overcast.
By 1899, Louis Mayer was in St. John still, and Canadian (his father had taken citizenship), a teenager in the scrap business. It was in 1904 that he crossed the border and went to Boston. His purpose was to observe the familial duty of getting married. The Mayers had learned of a Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher in Boston ready to be wed—letters and photographs had been the means of courtship (you can marry a photograph; at the movies you can fall in love with it). Margaret, according to their daughter, was “astonished by his single-mindedness and ardor.” But others reckoned Mayer simply wanted to get to America.
This ardor, ambition, and naïveté fell on moving pictures. In 1907, Mayer learned he could purchase a six hundred-seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the Gem (known locally as the Germ), for $600. He moved his family from Boston to Haverhill, refurbished the house, called it the Orpheum, and opened for business at Thanksgiving, with “clean, wholesome, healthy amusement.” On Christmas Eve he ran a double bill, two-reeler films (twenty to thirty minutes each) of The Passion Play and Bluebeard—Christian salvation and mass murder.
He had two daughters by then, and a rapidly growing business. “Never mind now,” he told his family, “this is short. It is the future that counts; the future is long.” He bought other theaters. He had an orchestra at the Orpheum. He hired live acts, too, and even a little bit of opera. The family moved back to Boston, and in March 1912, Louis Burrill Mayer took American citizenship. He elected to move into distribution, and for $4,000 he got the New England rights to DeMille’s The Squaw Man. Then, in 1915, with money acquired from a syndicate, he put up $20,000 to get the New England rights to The Birth of a Nation. For everyone in moving pictures it was the turning point.
With Mayer, we are talking about a businessman, albeit one obsessed with the value of content. David Wark Griffith, who conceived of The Birth of a Nation, and made it, deserves to be considered an artist, even if the thing his film gave birth to was more a business than anything else. He was also someone who developed a future technology that would restore the past.
Griffith was born on a farm near La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of man who had fought all through the Civil War for the Confederacy and been wounded twice. David was a country boy, in awe of a father who had difficulty expressing love. He was wistful and dreamy, and in his autobiography he recalled this childhood feeling about media to come: “I have thought what a grand invention it would be if someone could make a magic box in which we could store the precious moments of our lives and keep them with us, and later on, in dark hours, could open this box and receive for at least a few moments, a breath of its stored memory.” He was in love with nostalgia, and blind to the astonishing dynamics of the future he helped create.
The father died when Griffith was ten, and the family was left poor. The boy grew up tall and handsome, albeit with a soulful expression, and in Louisville he took up acting and singing. He joined a theatrical company; he had parts, and for a few years he was a touring actor—who never seems to have impressed anyone who saw him. He wrote stories, poetry, and plays—one of them, A Fool and a Girl, was produced, and flopped. He applied to the Biograph movie company in New York as an actor, and when they deemed him an unimpressive performer, they asked was he prepared to “direct.”
In 1908, directing was still a stooge’s job. In the mass of very short, sensationalist movies (many of them just ten minutes, few more than twenty), the stress was on getting an adequate camera exposure (catching the light), having enough action (to avoid boredom), showcasing prettiness in its human forms (the embryonic age of stardom), and being wholesome. If you feel there’s a contradiction between sensationalism and wholesomeness, don’t let any glib argument dissuade you. Without any understanding of how it worked, or where it might go, the medium had let loose the alchemy of the real and of fantasy. A director presided over the shooting, without truly analyzing, let alone controlling it. He called “Action” and “Cut,” or their equivalents, and he may have guided the actors. (Sometimes actors did the directing.) But scenarists, actors, and bosses had louder voices, and the cameraman was a small god with a machine no one else understood. A part of us now regards this condition as primitive, or unformed. If film is going to be an art—and some of us have longed for that—don’t we need an artist? But time and again over the years the director’s authority and glamour have receded. Ask yourself who directed which episode of The Sopranos.
In his five years at Biograph, Griffith directed more than four hundred short films, torn between the possibilities of a twentieth-century medium and the sentiments of popular Victorian theater. It’s not that he alone invented every fresh way of looking or the grammar of cutting shots together. Mauritz Stiller in Sweden and Louis Feuillade in France were two men working out the same problems, and as creative figures they often seem more interesting now. In a few years, in Russia and Germany, explosive attitudes would change everyone’s mind about what this medium could be. But these ideas were not American, and American business power was determining the character of the new show (and promoting America to the rest of the world). Movies had access to the most available and eager crowd, the new city people crying out for escape and amusement.
No one worked as much as Griffith; and no one else built a career and let the whole medium ride along on his wagon. Despite his roots in coarse theater, Griffith saw that camera positions could be varied, and made subtle with angle; he divined the power of close-ups in showing what people were feeling and to draw audiences into the suspense; he identified cross-cutting strategies that persist to this day—a way of saying “at the same time” or “meanwhile,” so that a story develops. He saw that film stories needed to accelerate, to rise, and to grip more tightly. He made the chase a function of narrative and moral force. He used sets (and he liked them to be accurate to period), but he had a rural eye for real places and natural light. To the modern viewer looking back at the surviving Griffith shorts, the sunlight and the human glance may be the most endearing things.
History acclaims him for his big pictures and the establishment of a business. But he was not always at his best with grandiose, epic narratives. He told short stories very well, alert to the interaction of people and place, of ordinary movement and the way we look at each other (the secret in cross-cutting and the way it could lead to inward thoughts, as opposed to feelings put on display). Many of his shorts have a facility and charm that is smothered in the big pictures. So A Corner in Wheat (1909, and only fourteen minutes) is a glimpse of rural life and big-city exploitation. The New York Dramatic Mirror praised Biograph for doing it, and said, “It is another demonstration of the force and power of motion pictures as a means of conveying ideas.” But it did not mention Griffith—no one knew enough yet to notice who had delivered the ideas.
So the failed actor built a company of players and worked with them so often that they became film actors. Lillian and Dorothy Gish are the best known now, and Griffith was more interested in looking at women than at men, but there were others: Robert Harron, Donald Crisp, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, and Mary Pickford. Many of them became stars, but in Griffith’s work they seem like supporting players—and in American film that is often a mark of honor. Stars are American, to be sure, but they are not a sign of all men and women being equal. So the fond, respectful regard for “supporting players” may be closer to many American ideals.
In his quiet but firm way, Griffith educated actors. Lillian Gish (his greatest project, his model, and perhaps his goddess) once called films “flickers” in his hearing, and Mr. Griffith, as she spoke of him, told her, “Never let me hear that word again in this studio. Just remember, you’re no longer working in some second-rate theatrical company. What we do here will be seen tomorrow by people all over America—people all over the world.”
We know he was right, but his earnestness was driven by hope and his own memories of failure in second-rate theatricals. So in 1913, Griffith left Biograph and began to make longer films: Judith of Bethulia was an hour long, and terribly archaic in its biblical material and attitudes. He felt challenged by feature-length films coming from Italy and France— ornate costume dramas fixed on re-creating the past and throwing spectacle at the audience. Given a machine that would shape the future, many early filmmakers elected to revive the past—so Griffith dreamed of a remade Civil War.
His best biographer, Richard Schickel, has observed that, despite Griffith preparing to change the world, he was unworldly to a degree. He knew next to nothing about the latest steps in literature, music, or painting. And his pioneering looks nearly childlike when put beside his exact contemporaries: Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) (just think of the depth in “The Dead”); the dynamics of Cubism; and the music of Mahler. But more than those artists, D. W. Griffith identified and enlisted the American crowd. He shone the light in the public face and he set off a mass medium—the first. Moreover, a mass medium carried a challenge: that the select media, the arts, might be redundant. Wasn’t it nearly a democratic ideal that if there was something that was funny, moving, or exciting, it might work on everyone?
This was underlined by a real-world disaster that made everyone feel caught under the same gun: Griffith began shooting his big picture on July 4, 1914—war was weeks away. But his thoughts were of the war that had marred his own life and experience, the Confederacy against the Union. For his material, he chose—alas—Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. This is a big, baggy book, full of romance, but Griffith was not shy of saying that he smelled movie when he imagined the clansmen riding in flying white robes.
When Light Burned Into the Silver
The Clansman had been published in 1905, to success and notoriety. Dixon believed in segregation and the inferiority of blacks, and he dramatized this without mercy, often in situations where white women were sexually threatened. There had been an adaptation for the stage, as successful as the novel. Griffith and his partner Harry Aitken sought the film rights. Dixon asked for $25,000, which was far beyond the filmmakers’ means. Then he dropped his price to $2,000—but against 25 percent of the producers’ gross income (trust the future, or gamble on it). Aitken was so pressed for funds that the $2,000 check was delivered to Dixon on Friday after the banks had closed, allowing the producer two more days to secure the money.
The film was shot in California from July through November, and it required horses, uniforms, guns, and several hundred extras—all of whose numbers were exaggerated by the time the film opened amid that other innovation, “hype.” (Eighteen thousand extras were claimed.) California was winning the battle to be the center of the film business, after everything had been New York, New Jersey, or New England at first. Going west brought better light and more of it; it distanced operations from the Motion Picture Patents Company that sought to license all equipment and film stock; and it meant a new world, days away from crowding and controls. The picture business helped establish California in America, which is one reason why the giant label HOLLYWOOD still looms over Los Angeles, even if local children hardly know what it means.
So the light in The Birth of a Nation and the terrain are not southern; they are Californian. The film cost $100,000, and it worked out to be a picture of over three hours. That entails a thing called production management—deciding what to shoot when and where as economically as possible (and Aitken was desperate about the funds all the time; Griffith and his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, put some of their own money into it). Yet Griffith was honest in the claim that he never had a script. He made the film up as he went along, which was the general method in the mass of short subjects that had prevailed. Many modern screenwriters lament that this habit or confidence has never been broken.
Still called The Clansman, the film opened on January 8, 1915, at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, under heavy criticism from the NAACP, which feared for its consequences. Without question or protest, the audience sat still for twelve reels. It is said there was a stunned silence at the film’s conclusion. (Was it over? would it go on forever?) (In December 1939, in Atlanta, there was a similar reaction to the premiere of Gone With the Wind. In both cases, some audiences felt the recent past and its tragedy had somehow been “explained.”) Then there was pandemonium, not just cheering, but that roar of elation and surprise that greets an altering event. The noise went on until Griffith appeared—it was a stage actor taking a bow at last, acclaimed by the masses as a “hero.” “He stepped out a few feet from the left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of this great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stood there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like a great wave breaking over a rock.”
In New England, as everywhere, the picture played to unprecedented crowds, and the event attracted people who had previously regarded moving pictures as too minor or soiled. But because the business was so large and novel, no one knew how to measure it—or keep track of the measurers. Louis B. Mayer is said to have made $500,000 from his deal, though it is believed he failed to report as much as $300,000 of his box office. By 1917, Epoch, the company behind Birth of a Nation, reported authenticated receipts of $4.8 million, which meant a clear profit of $1.8 million. It is reckoned that Thomas Dixon pocketed $1 million and Griffith himself at least half that amount. Richard Schickel believes that, worldwide, the film may have taken in as much as $50 million. Fortunes were built on it that allowed others to move ahead. Louis B. Mayer would form his own production company. A few years later he was in California, too. Irene Mayer reported, “My father said people lost their heads in Hollywood, whether because of the movies or all the sunshine or all the freedom…”
Try all three! And remember the light of Los Angeles. Yes, it is reliable for about three hundred days a year, and it shines on an astonishing variety of terrains—the sea, the shore, a city, suburbia, high desert and low, mountains with snow on them, sand dunes, and forest. There are a few shots of hillsides in Wuthering Heights (in California, not Yorkshire) where cameraman Gregg Toland has gorgeous triangles of light and shadow patterning the ground that are as moving as Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. Robert Towne, who wrote the L.A. classics Chinatown and Shampoo, once said the city’s winter light was as if “someone put the sun in the freezer overnight.”
There is an essay on L.A. light by Lawrence Weschler that begins with him and his daughter watching the O. J. Simpson Bronco chase of 1994. The kid sees that Dad is moved. “Did you know that guy?” she asks, and Dad says, no, it’s the light that’s getting to him: “the late-afternoon light of Los Angeles—golden pink off the bay through the smog and onto the palm fronds.” Weschler goes on to collect all kinds of light from different witnesses. David Hockney recalls the crisp shadows in Laurel and Hardy films that his dad took him to see in overcast Yorkshire. Others say it’s the weather effect of the desert abutting the ocean. Astronomers find it’s perfect for their work. And the cinematographer John Bailey (he shot American Gigolo, a fine slice of L.A. light) testifies that a sophisticated light meter gives you readings you wouldn’t expect. Strangers to the city sometimes feel that everyone there looks beautiful.
Is the light in Los Angeles really unique and lovely, or uniquely lovely? I’m not sure it isn’t just that the culture and identity of L.A. was movie light for long enough so that people took emotional possession of it. Of course, that was in the days when films were made from photographs and light burned into the silver.
Robert Irwin tells Weschler, the light in L.A. is “so radically different from day to day and then so incredibly specific on any given day.” That’s not crystal clear to me, but it sounds enough like life to give us the best explanation: in L.A. for several decades, alert people lived on light—and surely that’s a habit acquired from the screen. The movies were always about a shift in cognition, whereby looking became more important or more valid than knowing or understanding. There’s a great deal of optimism in that shift—and a terrible price to pay when Americans tired of looking and realized the other hard work that needed to be done.
Louis B. Mayer and D.W. Griffith were alike in hoping that Birth of a Nation and its money had secured respectability. For the first time, a movie was shown in the White House, and Woodrow Wilson saw it. Thomas Dixon had wangled that break because he told the president, “A new universal language had been invented.” Wilson was a Virginian and not a moviegoer, but he was so emotional after seeing it that he supposedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
No one knows quite what he meant by that last sentence, while the first showed an unexpected potential for the president as a booster. And what’s lightning but light with a kick? One result was that the Ku Klux Klan rallied from a dormant stage. Membership increased, and there were more than seven hundred lynchings a year in the period after the release of the film. Lightning can do damage. The NAACP led the way in protests over the film, but some of its own members admitted to being swept away by its narrative and the sight of blackface actors threatening the virtue of sweet white women, even to the point of the latter’s suicide.
People were swayed. In England, aged ten, Michael Powell was so stirred that he would say later, “It was David Wark Griffith who made up my mind for me that I was going to be a movie director and would settle for nothing less.” But at the age of eight, say, it’s unlikely he would have known what a movie director was.
To take just one instance of the movie business exploded by Birth of a Nation: in 1914 Cecil B. DeMille had “picturized” The Virginian, from the Owen Wister novel, with Dustin Farnum as the hero. It was a 55-minute movie and it did nicely by existing standards. It cost $17,000 and brought in $110,000. But now, the existing standards of business were in question. The lure of the blockbuster, of striking it rich or breaking the bank, set in very early.
Today we may be less certain that three hours is a guarantee of art or business. We are accustomed to shorter entertainments: a television commercial is seldom longer than thirty seconds; the average television episode in a series is twenty-five or fifty minutes. We are used to bites and to being bitten. Moreover, we are in the habit of interrupting what we are seeing—by putting it on Pause, taking a phone call, or leaving the room. Sometimes the one-reel comedies that dominated in 1915—a very cheap form of amusement—can look very modern. Samuel Beckett was an avid filmgoer as a boy. But he mistrusted the medium whenever it turned portentous. True depth of feeling, even tragedy, he felt, could be best found in brief comedies, so he loved Chaplin, Keaton, and later Laurel and Hardy. To this day, the short films of Chaplin seem so much more agile and ambivalent than his increasingly solemn feature films.
One day, as a child in London, Chaplin was watching his mother perform on a music hall stage. She was not well (she was drinking) and her voice was failing. When some soldiers started to boo her, she fled. Whereupon a stage manager took the little boy onstage so that he could perform some song-and-dance routines he had learned. It did the trick: in a moment the delighted audience was tossing coins onto the stage. Then the kid showed his genius and authority. He said he hoped the public wouldn’t mind if he interrupted his act to collect the money: “The stage manager came on with a handkerchief and helped me to gather it up. I thought he was going to keep it. This thought was conveyed to the audience and increased their laughter, especially when he walked off with me anxiously following him. Not until he handed it to Mother did I return to continue to sing. I was quite at home.”
That pattern never altered. The more assiduously he exploited the theme of the waif, the richer Charlie became. But there’s another pattern in that passage from My Autobiography (published in 1964): it’s the flex of action and reaction—the stage manager does his business, and the kid’s look signals alarm to the audience. A laugh begins. The anecdote is made into shots—and we are still following along in that line of sense.
The incident could suggest Chaplin was money-grubbing, but he was simply very poor, and as fierce at business as with film. If he had a passion close to a failing it was his dedication to sex, especially with underage girls. Of course, in his movies Charlie was gallant (until Monsieur Verdoux, in 1947, by which time he had been in court on unfounded paternity charges). If that Charlie had been exposed earlier he could have been drummed out of the business, the way Fatty Arbuckle was ruined. Los Angeles was a company town, and just because of its impact on young people, it tried to be conservative, yet there was also an undertone of abandon in the city that relied on cover-up. The split between desire and restraint replicates the lure of fantasy that tests the crowd at the movies.
Chaplin said he was born in Walworth, in South London, in 1889. (The records don’t survive for lives so humble.) He was never quite sure who his father was. (He played with the idea that he might be Jewish.) His mother’s illness meant the child had to spend time in an orphanage and the workhouse. This was a Dickensian upbringing, with fulfilled expectations beyond a novelist’s invention.
He was a child performer with minimal education who joined the Fred Karno Company (an English vaudeville group) and traveled with Karno to America in 1910 and 1912 to work onstage. He was spotted by Mack Sennett, an impresario of short comic films at Keystone, who liked Charlie’s act as a drunken toff in A Night in an English Music Hall. In Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), which is actually a Marie Dressler vehicle, Charlie is the cad and exploiter. But quite quickly Chaplin worked out a fresh image for himself in the movies: it took baggy pants, a battered bowler, a cane, a daub of mustache, and those accented sad-dog eyes. The Tramp was the eternal hard-up case, every bit as impoverished as the movie audience, but flattering them with his daintiness, his fine feelings, and the sturdy pluck that trusted good fortune.
The Watching is Rooted in Detachment
There was something else. He addressed the camera and the function of the film. He implied, “Look, it’s me!” The look was winsome and coy, not challenging, but it carried an endearing confidence. (It recognized that the audience was there, and it knew why: they wanted to think of being Charlie.) It said, You can trust me, you can like me. I’m so poor, but you know I’m rich. Every politician on television now strives for that specious intimacy with voters, and it’s one reason Chaplin would inevitably become a political figure, an example to the world.
He started at Keystone in 1914 at $175 a week, and his success was so rapid that in 1915 he joined Essanay for $5,000 a week. A year later he went to Mutual for $10,000 a week. He relished the money, but depended on another aspect of his contract: the right to make his movies without interference. Chaplin would never be a movie stylist, though he became expert at filming jokes, especially if they carried a kick of malice. Without years of training or hundreds of short films, Chaplin mastered simple movie storytelling and let his narcissism flow. There were many rival comics, but Charlie dared to say, it’s me! Only a few years earlier, the infant business had been taken aback when audiences asked, “Who is that girl?” on seeing a pretty girl in a bathing suit and wanting more.
This is not to be critical of Chaplin, for his ego was natural and heartfelt. He gave himself to the camera and the world of strangers. He is the light in his own films—though those movies often have a rich sense of place and sunlight, too. This stress on light is not to be underestimated. Time and again in American film—and this is true of Chaplin in the Sierra doing The Gold Rush and of John Ford in Monument Valley making Westerns—the light is like a gift, and the movie is constantly rewarding our plea “Show me!”
Show them something they have never seen. But beware if they ever decide they have seen everything.
American films film the light: it is their energy, their optimism, and their happiness. So Chaplin turned the snowy locations of Truckee (standing in for the Klondike) into a realm of threatening beauty. The discovery of gold had made Northern California; it was the model gambling coup, and gold has its own bright light. Chaplin was fascinated by stories of those miners, especially the tragedy of the Donner Party—that’s why food is such an obsession in the picture. The Gold Rush (1925) is a comedy, but it was made at almost the same moment as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, in which the light and the Death Valley desert are metaphors for mania. Charlie stays cool and humble in The Gold Rush, but his gamble grossed $6 million (on a budget of over $900,000—or nine times the cost of The Birth of a Nation).
Chaplin was the most transforming star of early cinema and, by the early 1920s, the best-known image in the world. But his own reaction was ambivalent. For Chaplin did not look like Charlie. In life there was no mustache; he dressed fashionably; and his hair began to go white in the 1920s. He worked hard to erase his Cockney accent and make up on his education. He liked society parties and collected meetings with wise men, political leaders, distinguished writers—and women. Just as Louis B. Mayer courted Herbert Hoover, from secretary of commerce to president, Chaplin was a social climber.
There was some public resentment (and some amusement) that his pay was four times the combined income of the nine Supreme Court justices. He never applied for American citizenship. He took risks pursuing young women, yet many women wrote offering to take care of him. Something of the outsider remained, a need to defy the public that adored him. We love stars, for they tell us we can transform ourselves. But we envy their escape from anonymity, and with Chaplin, in time envy turned to hostility. From his point of view that split signaled a fickle, unpredictable public, a pressure that would help drive the richest tramp in the world out of America.
His unstoppable rise soon carried him into a diminishing run of feature-length films, pictures he labored over and hesitated with. Nothing reveals Chaplin’s authority or his economic power more than his waiting for days and weeks at a time until inspiration came along—while keeping his crew on salary. On City Lights (1931), shooting occurred on only 166 of 534 working days! Just when the film factory was insisting on tight scheduling and budgets, Chaplin behaved like Proust, brooding and experimenting until he had it “right.” But in the ending to City Lights, with its dynamic fusion of recovery and loss, Chaplin managed a moment that is piercing and eternal: his own face, a rose in his mouth, filled with joy and anguish in a ravishing close-up as beautiful as the most adoring shots of women. Charlie invited Einstein to the premiere and was proud to see the great man weeping.
These days we say “Chaplin and Keaton” in one breath, though the case is often made for Keaton as the finer clown, or the more soulful performer. Chaplin’s coyness, especially if it turns spiteful, can be grating. While Keaton’s stoic calm becomes more interesting as the years pass. He was a hit in his own lifetime, of course, and then a disaster, but Keaton nowadays looks like a poet. Is that view accurate or just a measure of our longing for poetry?
Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895 in Kansas, but it might have been anywhere, for his parents were traveling performers in vaudeville. The story goes that he was called Buster by Harry Houdini, who saw the infant fall down a flight of stairs without breaking a bone—and without crying. As a youngster, Buster was part of his father’s violent comedy routines in which the boy was the fall guy, or someone to be thrown around like a ball. Since the father was often drunk, the ball could be fumbled.
Was it a result of this treatment that Buster never had an ego like Chaplin’s? Is that why his best films are more surreal than sentimental? He had a spell in the army at the end of the Great War—Chaplin claimed he could not return to Britain to serve in the war because his picture contract forbade it (and because he was so valuable selling war bonds in the United States). Then Keaton became a supporting player to Roscoe Arbuckle, a star of comic films who was hurrying toward his date with manslaughter charges in San Francisco in 1921.
The matter of ego is significant. Keaton seldom had sole credit as a director on his features—Our Hospitality (1923), Three Ages (1923), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1926) co-credit him and a professional functionary. As a businessman, he was dominated by Joseph Schenck, his brother-in-law. (Buster married Natalie Talmadge in 1921 and Schenck was married to her sister, Norma.) He never profited from his work on the enormous scale that Chaplin enjoyed, because he never invested his own money. Yet the films—including the sublime Sherlock Jr. (1924), a forty-five-minute dream in which he is the official director—have a beguiling stylistic consistency. It entails a detached camera and elaborate physical routines (which rise above the violence and the malicious glee in Chaplin) and a lot of slapstick, all sustained by Buster’s delicate deadpan presence. We have to watch Buster, instead of identify with him. It is as if he expected failure and trusted disaster—but would not cry. This is the reserve that leaves Keaton mysterious still, as well as beyond funny. He had some instinct—vital in the history of film acting—to do less. Chaplin was desperate to move us, while Keaton understood something about cinema that was ahead of his time: that the emotional connection being advertised was indirect and a mirage. The watching is rooted in detachment.
So he never believed in being in control, and his career fell apart. Natalie divorced him. Schenck sold him to M-G-M, with a drastic loss of creative input. He followed the family line into booze and breakdown. By the late thirties he was washed up. Later, with some condescension, Chaplin offered him a cameo in Limelight (1952). At the very end, in 1965, a year before his death, Keaton worked on Film, a short written by Samuel Beckett.
By the 1950s, Chaplin was a millionaire exile in Switzerland, with a new family and a last bride, Oona O’Neill (she was eighteen and he was fifty-four when they married), and the stain of “Communist” on him. Charlie liked to be thought of as a man of the people: in The Immigrant (1917) he had celebrated the coming to America of the most humble hard-luck cases. But he was an elitist and a millionaire, too. Keaton was an uncomplaining wreck and a classic Hollywood failure—the kind of star who slipped away from glory. Chaplin had ignored sound for years before releasing his high, elocutionary voice in The Great Dictator (1940). Keaton sounded like a thick, ill-educated drunk when he spoke—and he knew sound crushed his persona. At M-G-M, Louis Mayer disapproved of Keaton’s womanizing and drinking. The clown became a reject, whereas Chaplin set his own terms. He returned at last on April 10, 1972, for an honorary Oscar, on one of the most emotional evenings ever known at the Academy. “Words are so futile, so feeble,” he said from the stage. But he stayed at the party afterward until 1:30 a.m., chatting up a storm.
Chaplin and Keaton are beyond equal, even if W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx may be the most interesting comics American film produced. But you have to hear those two (the dreamy grump and the chronic fraud), while Chaplin and Keaton were true mimes. It’s just that Chaplin made silence one more way of seeming above the world, while Keaton’s quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy. So Chaplin is silently noisy with protestation and pleas for affection, and Keaton suspects the deepest things cannot be told or uttered.
Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, Mayer, and Mary Pickford—these are giant figures from the golden age. But today, more than thirty years after her death, despite unprecedented video recovery, how many young people would recognize a picture of Mary Pickford? “America’s Sweetheart,” she was called, a mature ingénue delighting the public by playing parts half her real age, an automatic maker of hits—she was on $10,000 a week as early as 1916; she would be married to Douglas Fairbanks in the first “storybook” Hollywood union (it lasted fifteen years, better than average); and she was the most hardworking and fiscally astute partner in United Artists, the distribution company she formed with Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith in 1919 to protect the work of “artists,” and to get them a fatter slice of the cake.
People still watch Chaplin and Keaton, Lon Chaney and Valentino. There are silent-film festivals that play to packed houses, with live music and restored prints. But the “perfect” couple from that great era, Doug and Mary, are in neglect, and they may not recover. It could be the aftermath of something Alistair Cooke noted of Fairbanks in a book he wrote in 1939 (one of the first on stardom): “‘Doug’ stood for the film industry’s total respectability. He was not merely inoffensive, which is what parents were looking for: he was a positive ideal worthy of any small fry’s adulation.” Cooke added that it was the best fun to see D’Artagnan and Robin Hood playing Doug.
Fairbanks was adored in his own time. Didn’t that define stardom? Yet Louise Brooks, playing bad girls, and behaving like them, and far less successful at the time, would become a byword in our cultural appreciation of ourselves.
Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1906, the child of a lawyer. At fifteen she was a dancer with Denishawn Dancers, Ruth St. Denis’s company, and then in the Ziegfeld Follies. She was as smart as she was pretty, and even in the age of the flapper and the jazz baby, that was more than many men could tolerate. She had a wild affair with Chaplin just after he made The Gold Rush; she adored his cheerfulness, and the way he studied the dictionary while he shaved. She had made a few films, one of them, A Girl in Every Port, directed by Howard Hawks, in which she was so modern and sly that few audiences got her. She was a Paramount contract player, on $750 a week when the studio star Clara Bow was getting $7,500. She went in to see the boss, B. P. Schulberg, and took it for granted in her casual way that she’d get a raise—up to $1,000 a week. But Schulberg said no. It was stick with $750 or nothing—or was she rash enough to answer the letter from a German director, G. W. Pabst, who wanted her at $1,000 a week for Pandora’s Box?
Such a mission went against the flow of traffic. Ernst Lubitsch had come from Germany to direct Mary Pickford in 1923. His star in Germany, Pola Negri, followed later the same year. Another director, F. W. Murnau, was about to start Sunrise in America. Erich Stroheim had left Austria before the Great War (and before the “von” in his name) and been an assistant to Griffith on The Birth of a Nation. The director Mauritz Stiller and his actress Greta Garbo had been imported from Sweden by Louis B. Mayer. In April 1930, Marlene Dietrich sailed on the Bremen to New York to join the director who had picked her out for The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg. She was put under contract at the same Paramount at $1,750 a week.
Derived from works by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, Pandora’s Box is the story of Lulu, a prostitute and a reckless spirit in the German gloom. There is no daylight in the film, yet Lulu’s white body glows like a bulb with the energy that fights her fate. She is a wanton who abandons conquests as a bored lion leaves one carcass for another. The film carries her all the way from the authority figure of Dr. Schon to a pale Jack the Ripper, who rids her of her life.
Although she spoke no German, and had little idea what the film was about, Brooks is riveting—sensual, funny, tragic, all at the same time. She would say later that Pabst (with whom she had a one-night stand) dismissed sex as a myth. “It was sexual hate that engrossed his whole being with its flaming reality.” You may read the film now as a feminist statement, but who knew that at the time? What is most striking is that this is a film—impossible to be made in America because of its psychological candor and pessimism—that says, Look, look at her, look at the light on her flesh, and see this great beauty destroyed. In 1929, Pabst believed Pandora’s Box needed the spontaneity of an American actress who didn’t give a fuck for the careerism that had driven Mary Pickford.
Pandora’s Box is now regarded as one of the great silent films, deserving a place in the pantheon. As with Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), we hardly notice the lack of sound because the film’s inward life is so intense. The sensuality is its intimacy. Falconetti’s Joan is a “good girl,” but the screen presence of the two women is not so far apart. They insist on our entering their heads and their dreams. So Louise Brooks, for one film, is among the immortals because, in an age of widespread romantic posing, her very look asks, “Isn’t this about sex?”
Yet she did not even see the picture until the 1950s. She stayed in Germany for one more film with Pabst, and then limped back to America. When Pandora’s Box opened in New York late in 1929 (cut by nearly a third, with a tacked-on “happy” ending), Variety declared, “Better for Louise Brooks had she been contented exhibiting that supple form in two-reel comedies or light Paramount features.” Behave yourself!
Another review spoke of her “passive decorativeness,” which leaves one marveling at how some eyes and nervous systems malfunction. Brooks would estimate in the late 1950s that she had earned barely $100,000 from all her movies. By then she was the backstairs mistress to powerful men, a charity case, and a budding writer, ending up in Rochester, New York, alone in a small apartment, uncertain whether a new generation would rediscover her. The vexed Pabst (he wanted more than one night but was horrified by all her other lovers) had warned her she would end up like Lulu.
The director couldn’t grasp his own point. But you can see Pandora’s Box any day, and its glow is damp still, as if Lulu has just had sex. She looks at the camera in her insolent way—existing, not acting—and she guesses we’re there and what furtive, naughty dreamers we are in our dark. Amid the birth of a nation and a medium, a business and even an art, that’s why people were going to the movies: to be voyeurs in the dark beholding an orgy of their own desires burning on the screen.