Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Making Plays While You Wait

Some things apparently never change. Here is a New York Times' article from 1910 purporting to stumble on the "talking picture" (actors behind the screen) as though it were something rather new but just in time to announce its demise. By 1910, the talking picture craze had passed, as its novelty wore off and its economics proved unviable over the long term; the practice was now confined, as the article notes, to the cheaper theaters (that had not always been the case, a fact the article neglects to mention).

Nevertheless, the article mentions a number of interesting details about the practice, including that the cast numbered two (a male and a female), that these talking pictures apparently remained very popular (the theater is described as "overcrowded"), and that, like cinema musicians of the time, the actors had little time for rehearsal (this differs from earlier attempts at such talking pictures, where troupes were carefully rehearsed for a particular set of pictures and they were then sent from theater to theater on a circuit).

Today's post initiates an eight-part series on the practice of producing talking pictures by placing actors behind the screen.

Making Plays While You Wait
Some Odd Experiences of the Audible Illustrator.

Everyone is familiar with the moving picture, the director, the machine and the actor, but few seem to know the audible illustrator. That unseen voice belongs to one of he cleverest of entertainers, and gives an example of what wit combined with concentration really means. A man and woman usually work together in a picture, the man playing, of course, all the male roles, and the woman playing everything from a six-months-old baby to a decrepit old woman.

This can be done only by voice imagination, for to time the voice to the action is little opportunity for imitation. In the talking picture, situations suggest dialogue, while the written story would suggest the situation.

The mind reversing has the peculiar effect of entertainment. It never antagonizes the listener. Whatever the situation presented to him may be, he accepts the dialogue as natural and logical. It is not generally conceded, however, as an improvement to the story on the screen to explain it by dialogue, but whether or not this be true is a matter that will solve itself according to the demand.

The man who directs the action of a moving picture may be an artist in his line, but he has time to rehearse his art, time to drill his actors, select his locations, costumes, and props. Each individual actor is rehearsed in his scene and has his one character to portray, but the man who vivifies the screen is nothing more or less than a human phonograph, attached to a piece of canvas, colored by the camera.

The talking picture man may be an inferior actor, a poor photographer, and an uninteresting conversationalist, but when placed behind the screen, if he succeeds in an acceptable dialogue, he may well be labeled the artist of spontaneity. The talking picture has found favor only in the cheaper houses, and whether or not it will ever reach a high standard of entertainment, depends more upon the picture than the artist who gives audible life to it.

The applicant for moving picture dialogue is at a disadvantage from the start. The picture is run off only once and must be lucid in the extreme for him to be courageous enough to invent the probable lines of the actors.

His try out, or first performance, is usually his best one for him, fortunately, as from this he secures his engagement. As he has from four to six performances a day, he is liable to become careless with his characters, varying their language to suit his mood.

One night the picture talker was interpreting the joke of an inebriate who tried to move to pity the heart of a shrewish wife, who had turned him out of the apartment, by writing all over the wall of the hall that he had gone to commit suicide. He usually shambled down the stairs, weeping and begging for pity, but one night the temporary author endowed his character with Shakespeare, and made a rollicking Falstaff out of him.

This is no way seemed to fit the situation, but it suited the mood of the monologist. The policeman on deck, discovering the clothing of the would-be suicide, was sometimes a weak-voiced Cockney and at others a stentorian-toned Irishman. The companion that led the inebriate into the saloon was sometimes a hale, hearty good fellow in the afternoon and a surly dog in the evening, but whatever he was he talked incessantly on the screen with two of his companions—each companion having a voice quite unlike the other, but gauged in volume and temperament by the man who interpreted the picture.

To read the scenario of a story and act in it under the author’s direction in, for example, the woods, fields, and streets of a town in New Jersey bears not the slightest resemblance to sitting in the audience on Third Avenue in the overheated, overcrowded house and seeing one’s self on the screen repeating lines that in his wildest imagination, never entered the actor’s head. Knowing the company at the time of rehearsing and playing the picture and being familiar with their separate tones of voice, makes the rapid dialogue in a strange voice come to one’s ears in the nature of a shock.

Upon several occasions circumstances have forced men and women of ability to the position of “dialogue” behind the moving picture screen, and it was not so much of a surprise to the audience as to the manager of the house to listen to a plucky little woman give a dialogue between a French lady and an Irish laundress in a dialect that was nothing short of unmistakable art.

A young man whose great ambition was excelled only by his sense of humor and run of hard luck was told that he might prepare to talk for a Roman picture that afternoon, and as there was no time for running off the picture previous to the performance they gave him a short synopsis. After the ordeal was over he walked out of the narrow hallway and met a friend on the street.

“How did you get along, Jim?” asked the friend.

“Oh, all right, I guess,” he replied rather dubiously. “I had no trouble with the Roman lovers and the angry father, but when they flashed Nero and the burning of Rome on the screen I found it rather difficult to make a noise like a mob.”

The extemporaneous speaker may be great in his line. He may have his subject well in mind and speech, the leading townsman on one side of him, a pitcher of water on the other, and audience hanging breathless on his sliver tones, but the extemporaneous playwright has nothing around, above, or beside him but his ready wit timed to electric action, without a pause for applause or second thought, or a drink of water in the case of choking.
Source: “Making Plays While You Wait,” New York Times 30 January 1910, SM6.