MOTION PICTURE ACTING The development of a technique of motion picture acting has progressed hand in hand with the development of the mechanical tools of the profession. As camera and microphone have evolved from their earliest crude forms, as the sound-proof blimp, the camera boom and dolly, and the directional microphone have been perfected and their operators become more facile in their handling, so the methods of expression of the actors photographed and sound-recorded have been changed to fit the new inventions.
The earliest actors and directors for the screen were drafted from the stage, with such pioneer companies as Edison, Vita graph, and Biograph assembling their own stock groups from stage talent often unwilling to admit its connection with a film industry which as yet lacked the stamp of respectability. Methods and traditions carried from the stage were translated to suit the exigencies of the camera, but the need for a revision of technique was early apparent. Instead of appealing, as the stage play, to both eye and ear, the screen's dramatic message in the days of the silents was directed solely to the eye. Thus exaggerated panto mime became the easiest, the most obvious, and the most accepted early means of conveying to the film audience the thoughts and emotions of the film characters and the action of the story.
The crudeness of this physical action matched the crudeness of the equipment and technical resources. Cameras were often turned by bicycle chains, scenery was still painted flats. Make-up con sisted of heavily-lined eyes and scarlet lips. Actors, in addition to acting, were called upon to serve as carpenters, scene painters, and set decorators. Subtleties of acting, directing, and photog raphy could develop only after the strangeness of the new me dium had been overcome. There was little basis of comparison by which to guide this new art, which had to set up its own stand ards, often improvised to meet the immediate situation.
To D. W. Griffith. who was an actor before he became a direc tor, the screen owes its first great development in acting technique, due to his use of the close-up and cut-back. He discovered the
possibilities of the close-up for emphasis, cut-backs and scene manipulation for suspense. The camera began to tell film stories in a form of its own, rather than recording whatever occurred in its focal plane in a series full-length shots.
The magnification of the face in the close-up revealed only too clearly the ludicrousness of exaggerated expression and distorted features, which immediately had to be modified for an audience which suddenly found itself almost an intimate participant in the action. With the development of the mobile camera, on wheels, on tracks, and on the dolly, or crane, the audience was metaphor ically lifted from its theatre seats and deposited in the midst of the players. "Scenery chewing" could no longer be an accepted acting style. Mary Pickford's first substantial hit in Griffith's Biograph picture, The Little Teacher, in 1908, was an example of the Griffith technique which required repression, and which others began to follow.
In the Westerns and serials, in which G. M. "Bronco Billy" An derson had led the way and in which the names of Mix, William S. Hart, William Farnum, King Baggot and Pearl White soon be came household words, the melodramatic tradition flourished, with violent physical action still the vogue. And despite the growing sensitivity of performances in other screen dramatic forms, the really first-class actors were still considered the exclusive property of the stage.
Griffith's launching of an expanded production program with The Birth of a Nation, in which Henry B. Walthall gave the screen its first delicately shaded portrait, induced Mack Sennett to vie in the comedy field with the six-reel Tillie's Punctured Romance, a milestone for Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler, both of whom were to evolve a distinctive type of mirth known and relished throughout the world, Chaplin as the tragicomic tramp, Miss Dressler as the golden-hearted bungler. Charlie Chaplin has undoubtedly been the great and individual comedian of the film medium.