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Drama and Melodrama: The Genre Film

films silent american

For the most part, silent dramatic features failed to take advantage of their added length in any but the most peripheral ways. Continuing to operate in the melodramatic tradition that had worked so well during the nickelodeon era, they simply added larger quantities of information on plot, locale, and characterization. The world thus created was far more dense than that suggested by the one- and two-reelers: the illusionistic power of the narrative was increased without altering the main ingredients of plot and characterization, which remained highly conventionalized.

There were good reasons for melodrama to take hold so firmly in the pre-1914 cinema. As a dramatic style, it dominated the American stage at a time when Ibsen, Shaw, and even Pinero were considered too radical for the mass audience. Less sophisticated filmgoers could hardly be expected to patronize more subtle entertainments at their local nickelodeon. In addition, the limited narrative capabilities of the silent short film severely restricted what might be accomplished in terms of characterization or thematic development. Early filmmakers inevitably turned to the melo-dramatic tradition for instant characterization of heroes and villains, simple dramatic confrontations that could be powerfully sketched in visual terms, and familiar the-matic structures invoking traditional nineteenth-century ideals. 42

A film such as THE LONELY VILLA , directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909, makes effective use of all these elements. Only 750 feet in length, it plays on the audience’s familiarity with stock villains and heroes, the theme of the family endangered, and the ultimate victory of good over evil. The effective use of crosscutting in the final “race to the rescue” demonstrates Griffith’s ability to adapt or invent cinematic devices capable of increasing the emotional impact of such conventions.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION , released in 1915, was twelve reels long, or sixteen times the length of THE LONELY VILLA . Nonetheless, the film could hardly be described as anything more than a super-melodrama, offering the same heroes and villains, the same image of the family endangered, and the same inevitable victory of good over evil, all driven by the filmmaker’s growing command of his medium. What Griffith did gain from this added length is a richness of detail that allows his narrative an almost Dickensian texture. We learn how his characters walk and talk, what their streets and houses look like, what they wear, and what they eat (the historical accuracy of the film is another matter). While Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, and George Siegmann still play the conventionalized hero, heroine, and villain of a Biograph one-reeler, Griffith’s skilled assemblage of milieu detail provides their characters with great richness and resonance. The famous homecoming scene, in which “The Little Colonel” suddenly realizes how the war has devastated the culture of the South, depends on our knowledge and understanding of that culture, not on our recognition of this character as in any way emotionally or psychologically “real.”

Instead of psychological realism, what this film offers are characters who are true to type. Over twelve reels, Walthall’s character experiences a host of traumatic episodes, but the effect of these episodes is seen in his face, not his spirit. He does not and cannot change. The nobility of his character is a fixed point, like Siegmann’s duplicity or Gish’s innocence. Yet this accomplishment on Griffith’s part is a major achievement because he demonstrated that the most powerful effects of the short narrative form could successfully be amplified in a feature-length work. Many other early filmmakers, both before and after THE BIRTH OF A NATION , failed completely in their efforts to deal with the expanded form, losing plots and characters in a meaningless welter of extra footage.

Melodrama continued to represent the dominant stylistic mode in Hollywood all through the silent period. Only a few directors—King Vidor, Erich von Stroheim, and William deMille among them—attempted to offer a vision of life more complex and multidimensional than that to be found in UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1918), BLUE JEANS (1918), or WAY DOWN EAST (1920).

The dominance of melodrama can be seen in the high percentage of genre films produced in this period. These films utilized recurrent situations, locales, and characters and were perfectly suited to an age that saw most of its dramatic conflicts in highly conventionalized terms. The most popular of silent genres was unquestionably the Western, which flourished throughout the period in shorts as well as features, in low-budget films as well as spectacles, and created some of the era’s greatest stars. 43 Cecil B. DeMille’s first film, THE SQUAW MAN (1914), was the screen version of a popular stage Western, and DeMille soon followed it with THE VIRGINIAN (1914), THE ROSE OF THE RANCHO (1914), and THE GIRL GOLDEN WEST (1914). William S. Hart, who had appeared in some of these shows onstage, made a career of presenting the screen westerner in what he considered a more accurate and realistic light. When Hart first appeared in films, in 1914, Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Page 183  Anderson, an eastern “dude” obviously uncomfortable on a horse, was still the screen’s best-known cowboy. But Tom Mix had also preceded Hart onscreen and by the 1920s would eclipse Hart’s own popularity by substituting a circus riders bag of tricks for the dour realism offered by Hart. The change in public taste was predictable, because Westerns had moved from the serious plateau of the early DeMille pictures to a genre clearly intended for children. The form ultimately became so degraded that Westerns were the only genre segregated from the balance of a studio’s product line (as in “… and eight Westerns”). The surprising success of THE COVERED WAGON in 1923 initiated a small flurry of Western epics whose appeal was somewhat more adult, but no silent Western ever approached the maturity of the best examples produced in the 1940s and 1950s. The low status of most silent Westerns made them useful entry points for a number of young directors, most notably John Ford and William Wyler, both of whom began their careers at the studio most heavily involved in such productions, Universal.

The more traditional family melodrama also flourished on the silent screen, often as the direct adaptation of some tent-show classic. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was filmed eight times in the silent period, and despite the derision of some critics, WAY DOWN EAST proved to be Griffith’s second-biggest moneymaker. Scorned for trying to “develop ‘The Old Oaken Bucket’ into grand opera,” Griffith not only opened up his elaborate adaptation of this warhorse with a set-piece ice-floe sequence, but successfully updated the show’s moral posture as well. BLUE JEANS , UNDER THE GASLIGHT (1914), LENA RIVERS (1914), and KATHLEEN MAVOURNEEN (1919) were also filmed, although with less overall success. Their concern with false marriage and illegitimacy was no longer so compelling to audiences, although the filial-ingratitude plot proved a crowd-pleaser throughout the 1920s. HUMORESQUE , OVER THE HILL, and STELLA DALLAS, clever screen adaptations of sentimental novels or poems on this theme, were sensational box-office hits. The key to bringing the family melodrama to the screen in this era lay in understanding the rapid changes buffeting the American family, especially in the years following World War I. By exploiting such painful new issues as the growing gap between the generations, this genre was able to maintain its prominent position with its traditional audience. 44

An offshoot of the family melodrama, especially evident after 1920, was the society melodrama. These films typically dealt with tribulations in the lives of the rich and famous and served as showcases for glamorous costumes and settings. Often a working-class character, usually female, would be introduced into upper-class society by some twist of the plot. This allowed the filmmakers to demonstrate the moral superiority of the working class while lavishing attention on the glamorous life-styles of the wealthy. Gloria Swanson made a career of such films: she appeared as both an upper-class heroine (WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE ?, 1920) and a working-class girl thrust into gilded society (MANHANDLED , 1924). Society melodramas were a fixture at the Paramount Astoria studio, where their production often necessitated lengthy wintertime junkets to Palm Beach and other millionaires’ playgrounds. 45

The 1935 Variety headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix” marked the collapse of the once-popular subgenre of rural melodrama. Especially successful in the small-town and country theaters, which constituted the bulk of American cinemas, this subgenre celebrated the fast-vanishing world of small-town America and the endangered value system it represented. A few stars, notably Charles Ray, worked almost exclusively in rural melodrama, but the majority of these films lacked either big names or big budgets. King Vidor’s early independent studio, Vidor Village, produced films like THE JACK KNIFE MAN (1920), in the spirit of James Whitcomb Riley, but it closed when audiences began to tire of such pictures. 46 After the early 1920s, rural melo dramas were generally relegated to unsophisticated venues, but they continued to be produced by studios like Universal that could sell them to the same houses that bought their serials and two-reel Westerns. At their best, as in Griffith’s A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY (1919) and TRUE HEART SUSIE (1919), these films were gentle, unpretentious, and not always nostalgic efforts to capture on film an already disappearing way of life (helped on its way, in part, by the proliferation of movie theaters). Once almost as common as Westerns, rural melodramas essentially expired with a few valedictory pieces in the 1940s and 1950s by such silent-era directors as Henry King and Clarence Brown.

There was no horror or science-fiction genre in films of this period, although pulp fiction of this kind was already prevalent. Instead, a generalized “thriller” genre included mysteries, crime and detective pictures, and occasional “dark house” films in which the secrets were never supernatural. “Crook films” such as A LIAS JIMMY

VALENTINE (filmed in 1915, 1920, and 1929) or RAFFLES , THE AMATEUR CRACKSMAN (1917, 1925, and 1930) often had a touch of society melodrama about them, especially after the Hays Office began to frown on crime as a theme after 1922. Detective heroes were not uncommon, and Sherlock Holmes made several appearances (most notably in 1916 with William Gillette and in 1922 with John Barrymore), while Charlie Chan reached the screen in a 1926 serial. Following a wave of Broadway successes, THE BAT (1926) and CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) introduced clutching hands and mock supernaturalism, and made good use of the growing influence of German film style. 47 Considering the decade’s obsession with mysticism and the occult, it is puzzling that the supernatural had almost no part in American films of the 1920s. Tod Browning’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927) featured a vampire ultimately revealed as a hoax, while the German N OSFERATU did not even reach American art theaters until the end of 1929. Universal’s decision to film DRACULA (1931) marked a significant departure from established thriller conventions of the silent period.

In a sense, THE BIRTH OF A NATION was the culmination of a vogue for Civil War military melodrama that ran back to the early nickelodeon days, but World War I soon offered a more topical replacement. While the conflict raged, American producers handled it in strictly propagandistic terms, first with preparedness sagas like THE BATTLE CRY OF PEACE (1915), then with full-scale battle-action films like THE HEART OF HUMANITY (1918). Immediately after the war, some films already in the production pipeline appeared as “vengeance pictures,” but audiences soon lost interest in such diatribes. Serious views of the war, notably THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921), THE BIG PARADE (1925), WHAT PRICE GLORY ? (1926), and WINGS (1927), were among the top-grossing films of the 1920s. These occasionally attempted to humanize the enemy and even to question the value of the crusade itself, a stark change from the earlier wartime efforts. THE BIG PARADE, while establishing such war-film conventions as the variegated platoon (with its assorted character types), actually moved away from melodrama in its realistic characterization of the film’s hero. 48

Films looking back at the war after five or ten years were, in fact, period, even costume, pictures. As such, they could say things about contemporary society in the guise of a discussion of the past. Costume pictures were very much a part of the early feature scene and provided an excuse for lavish scenic displays in films such as INTOLERANCE and A DAUGHTER OF THE GODS (1916). Griffith’s use of related historical narratives to comment on contemporary life was sometimes directly copied, as in Maurice Tourneur’s WOMAN (1918) or Cecil B. DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1923), but more often the parallels were less explicit. The general popularity of costume pictures wavered considerably during the 1915—1928 era, and when asked, audiences usually expressed no enthusiasm for such films. Nonetheless, many of the most popular films of the era were costume pictures, including all of Fairbanks’ films after THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1921). Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Marion Davies, and even Buster Keaton frequently appeared in costume films, but available box-office figures indicate that they were often better received in contemporary stories. Marion Davies’ problems with costume films are well known, but history has forgotten the sad story of Charles Ray. In an attempt to move away from rural melodrama, Ray financed and starred in an extravagant version of THE   COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH (1923). He invested his entire fortune in the film, and its failure destroyed him personally as well as professionally. He was never again able to recapture his position as a major star. 49 Nor was Ray the only star to lose money on costume films. It is unclear whether the drive to produce such films was entirely the result of Fairbanks’ success with the genre or simply a desire on the part of a few big stars to create lavishly appointed dream environments for themselves.

One final genre that should be mentioned is the social-problem film. Most prominent as a major force during the Progressive era, such films had gradually been pushed to the periphery of the industry by the late teens. Lois Weber, the director most associated with these films, had an active social agenda that she sought to promote through the medium of screen melodrama. For birth control and against abortion, against capital punishment and for child labor laws, she was surprisingly silent on the issue of women’s suffrage. Here, the void was filled by films sponsored by various lobbying organizations that also cast their agenda in the most effective film style available, melodrama. The demise of this genre as a potent force in the market (Weber’s WHERE ARE MY CHILDREN ? 1916 had been a great box-office success) resulted from the unhappy conjunction of two forces: growing censor pressure to avoid topics of controversy, and the public’s eventual distaste for direct sermonizing. By the end of the war, if a filmmaker had a message to send, he or she generally took Sam Goldwyn’s advice and used Western Union. 50

The above categories refer to the product of major film producers operating within the purview of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America. But apart from this world were parallel cinemas, sharing the technology, the audience, and the narrative impulse of the Hollywood cinema but little else. Al Di Lauro and Gerald Rabkin, in their study of the American stag film, indicate that this form had become conventionalized as early as 1915. Unlike the pornographic loops that developed much later, stag films of this era employed a traditional narrative format and even attempted to offer some dramatic motivation for the graphic hard-core couplings that followed. Men-only smokers and stag parties were the typical venues for such material, which was even available in animated cartoon form. While it is impossible to ascertain the exact quantity of such films produced, the surviving footage at the Institute for Sex Research (the Kinsey Institute) indicates an increase in production during the mid 1920s coinciding with the introduction of 16-mm film. While industrial, advertising, and other varieties of nonfiction film were also making use of 16-mm, it seems probable that pornographic films were the first fictional “genre” to use this new technology for both production and distribution. 51

Such producers built their operations completely outside the established industry framework. It was possible, however, for some filmmakers to try their best to copy Hollywood models and still find themselves locked out of the established system. Thomas Cripps shows that black filmmakers, beginning with Noble Johnson’s Lincoln Film Company in 1915, tried to operate by the same rules that governed other small independents. Lincoln, and other producers that followed, aimed their products at the large number of theaters across the country that served black audiences. But their efforts faltered because of a lack of access to capital and distribution. The most successful black filmmaker of the era, Oscar Micheaux, managed to circumvent this problem to a degree by raising money door to door and distributing his films in a laborious road-show fashion. An independent spirit even within the black film community, Micheaux may have copied the prevalent Hollywood genres, but he always gave them a decidedly black twist. Not afraid to deal with such sensitive topics as lynching or charismatic religion, Micheaux was also the only American filmmaker of the silent era, black or white, to use the noted black star Paul Robeson (BODY AND SOUL , 1924). 52

The discussion of all these films in terms of their adherence to melodramatic convention does not imply that all silent narratives were melodramas or that this tradition could not be used in a highly sophisticated manner. SUNRISE (1927), voted the most important American silent film in an international critics’ poll of the 1970s, uses so many melodramatic devices that it almost seems a conscious recapitulation of the style, elegantly sculpted by director F. W. Murnau and scenarist Carl Mayer. 53 In fact, some of the most interesting silent American features begin as melodramas, whose conventionalized heroes and heroines face predictable crises, but evolve before our eyes into rich explorations of modern characters in crisis. As might be expected, the changing status of women in American society provided a focus for many of the more thoughtful filmmakers. Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, sanitized but essentially intact, reached the screen in 1923. Hollywood was behind O’Neill in this case, but not by much. It could be argued that William deMille’s MISS LULU BETT adapted from the Zona Gale novel, in 1921, had already raised previously unasked questions about the nature of marriage and the value of women in American society, and before O’Neill’s play was even written.

As a small number of women began to gain a measure of real authority within the previously all-male power structure, at least two courageous films dealt with this change in terms of sexual politics. Clarence Brown’s SMOULDERING FIRES (1924) showed a middle-aged female business magnate marrying her boyish private secretary. As was inevitable in the 1920s, the film insists that “May-December” romances are ill starred, and the businesswoman frees her young man to marry a woman his own age. What is interesting here is not just the admission of sexual longing in a woman over forty, but the fact that this character has the power to make all the decisions that impel the drama.

More radical still was Universal’s THE HOME MAKER (1925), in which a husband and wife must change roles after his failed suicide confines him to a wheelchair. She soon proves to be better at business than he, while the husband demonstrates superior skills in child-rearing and housekeeping. Just as both begin to realize true satisfaction in their new roles, the husband regains the use of his legs. THE HOME MAKER is one of the few dramatic works of the 1920s to argue unequivocally for the abandonment of stereotyped sex roles and to criticize the structure that prescribes such behavior. 54

In DANCING MOTHERS (1926), Alice Joyce (also the star of THE HOME MAKER ) is expected to adhere to traditional family values while her husband and her flapper daughter, played by Clara Bow, enjoy the liberated atmosphere of the day. The mother attempts to prevent her daughter’s unsuitable association with an older playboy and falls in love with the man herself. Challenged by husband and daughter to behave properly, she abandons them and leaves for Paris. Herbert Brenon directed the film, which was adapted from a play by Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding, a Jazz Age version of A Doll’s House (itself filmed three times between 1917 and 1922).

Few such films had major stars or budgets, and a number clearly did not even earn Page 190  back their negative cost. There were more, of course, on these and other themes, but audiences had little interest in films that raised serious questions about contemporary issues. The idea that the motion picture was essentially an escapist medium was not only accepted but celebrated. A few classic works such as G REED or T HE C ROWD are well known for their daring critique of the American dream, issued in the midst of Coolidge-era prosperity, and their artistic success and commercial reception have become familiar landmarks of the silent-picture era. 55

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