“this almost insane, passionate affection for film…”
Are you insane? Are you passionate?
The phrase in quotation marks is from Seductive Cinema, the art of silent film James Card who for many years was director of the Department of Film at the George Eastman House of Photography in Rochester, New York. Card is passionate, if perhaps not insane. His informative, ravishing book is not to be missed by an film buff and especially the buff drawn to silent film and interested in the real difference between talking and silent pictures. The difference is not the addition of dialogue. Rather, that is at best a superficial difference.
Card’s charming and lively book presents a brief history of the development of motion pictures — their possibilities and the deliberate limitation of those in the interest of commerce. He offers unusual glimpses into Hollywood history as he relates his museum’s relationships with various studios and studio heads. Most of his history is embedded in his narration of these relationships and in his very original descriptions of the work of certain artists (and sometimes his personal acquaintance with them) and embedded in his attacks on filmmaking giants — Griffith and Stroheim, and on writers of legendary film books: Lewis Jacobs and Terry Ramsay.
Card has his favorites and — with the exception of his excessive adulation of Joan Crawford — his favorites are among my own, so of course I am partial to his book. He is aware of the literal greatness of Mary Pickford; of the excellence of Norma Shearer (and of her power within MGM). And I am happy to find a sophisticated writer on film who recognizes and describes so well that talent and charisma of Clara Bow: “Writers have sometimes often placed Clara Now, along with Colleen Moore, Bessie Love and Marion Davies as just another flapper…But Clara Bow should more properly be compared with Greta Garbo than with any other film actress…To an almost mystical degree, the images of Clara Bow and Greta Garbo emit powerful stimuli from the motion picture screen — Garbo registering ambiguous mystery, Bow assaulting the viewer with enormous vitality and breezy sexuality…one is impressed by the positive dynamism that radiates from the shadow of Clara Bow on the screen.”
Card writes more about individuals than about individual films. He does give some space — and much admiration — to Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan; and he is good on Henry King’s Tol’able David.
Among Card’s scattered gems:
— writing about days when theaters ran the projector continuously and one walked in willy nillly, then stayed until “this is where I came in”: “Thus every movie became something of a mystery picture; one did not know what had gone on before the moment of being seated.”
— writing about the importance of seeing films more than once: “Given the illusory nature of the medium, just seeing a film once is not really enough to write about it confidently.” – “The emotional impact of a movie, especially a good one, can easily lead the observer down the primrose path of inaccuracy.”
— writing about directors’ views of their own work: “Often it is disillusioning to learn of a great director’s own favorites among his creations.” (Hear! Hear!) “Sternberg told me his own favorite work was The Devil is a Woman — a film almost totally devoid of any action, and, told entirely in flashbacks, it is without any sense of forward progression. Worst of all, Marlene Dietrich performs in it with what Louise Brooks described as ‘having the cutes.’ Dietrich herself has acknowledged this trite movie as containing her own favorite role.” (Rick’s note: Ingmar Bergman is not always that clear-eyed discussing his own work.)
— writing about The Crowd: “After seeing The Crowd, who could forget the scene where that born loser, intent on suicide, is dissuaded from the act by his small son? As they walk along the bridge over the railroad tracks, he father weeping, the little kid reaches up and takes his dad’s hand. Vittorio De Dica did that moment again at the end of The Bicycle Thief. Certainly the Vidor scenes had impressed the Italian directors. Roberto Rossellini in Open City remembered Mélisande in The Big Parade trying to hold back the truck that was rushing Jim to the front, when he had Anna Magnani in the same sort of desperate protest.”
Describing the premiere at the Warner Theatre in New York in 1926 of Don Juan with John Barrymore, Card writes that there was an accompanying stage show in which the family troupe called the Cansinos danced. He claims that daughter Rita appeared. It’s just possible. She would have been seven and a half, Rita Hayworth would.
Introducing his own book, James Card writes: “An index is provided, but you will look in vain for a section of notes of the sort that try to validate every statement the author makes throughout the text. Have faith. This writer was there.” Ah! Insanity. Passion.
SEDUCTIVE CINEMA, THE ART OF SILENT FILM by James Card. Knopf, 1994.
NEXT FRIDAY POST December 18
See you at the movies,