Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When Actors Make Dramatic Moving Pictures Talk

This article appeared in the Washington Post and, like the article posted yesterday from the New York Times, it documents the practice of "talking pictures" with actors behind the screen. As mentioned yesterday, by 1911, this practice was decidedly on the decline—though it had once been quite popular, peaking sometime in 1908. Its decline was at least partially a function of cost—actors require wages and the shows, in 1908 at least, required rehearsal. The acting company featured in the article below and in the 1910 article from the New York Times, on the contrary, seemed to work more or less as many pianists at the time did—by watching a film once, getting a basic sense of it, and then improvising. The reporter in fact seems a bit surprised by how effective the troupe was: while far from perfect, the synchronization seemed at least passable. In any event, the practice never did make a resurgence. When after 1910 exhibitors invested in live entertainment, they tended to hire vaudevillians or to augment their orchestra.
When Actors Make Dramatic Moving Pictures Talk

The Stage in the little 5-cent moving-picture theater, into which the usual audience had begun to drift slowly, was just big enough for the three chairs necessary for the members of the company. Only a few feet in front of the chairs was the sheet on which the moving-picture machine was now making a great circle of light. The stage behind the curtain was strewn with rubbish.

It was the usual type of moving-picture theater—a gilded box office outside, inside a large room almost bare but for the chairs and the white sheet at the further end. As the piano player began to beat out the preliminary ragtime overture the company appeared, coming through a side door which led out into an arcade.

First came the former vaudeville star, and manager of the company, a rather large woman, who possibly belonged to the Mrs. Leslie Carter type when younger. She explained that she had only to run across the street from her flat, and therefore hadn’t dressed up at all, but had simply thrown on an ulster. A tall, rather attenuated man, who talked with a decidedly English stage accent, and looked as if he had played heavy tragedy parts once, was next to appear. Without saying a word, he climbed up the little steps to the platform behind the curtain, and took his seat with an oh, have I got to do it again expression. Just at the last minute the third member of the company appeared. He was a younger man, rather nattily dressed, and looking like a real actor.

“Guess they’re about ready, boys,” remarked the former vaudeville star, as she climbed up on the platform rather ponderously.

“The Great Drummer.”

Picking her way over the rubbish heaps, she took her seat in the largest of the three wooden chairs ranged behind the curtain. It held her comfortably, but that was all. The former vaudeville star, it was plain, had begun to lose her figure, and also her former agility. You began to see the reason for her present occupation.

Just as she got seated the piano player in front of the sheet gave a final bang as the wind-up of his ragtime piece, and started some soft, slow music. The machine at the other end of the hall began to sputter and the light to flicker fitfully on the sheet, so you knew the show was about to commence.

“The Gallant Drummer” suddenly stared at you from the curtain and you heard the audience on the other side give a gurgle of delight.

“Remember it, I hope, boys,” said the former vaudeville star, cheerfully, getting up for a second to throw off her ulster. “My! but it’s hot back here.”

There was no doubt that it was hot. In the gloom you could just discern the former tragedian mopping his face with his handkerchief. All three had their eyes fixed intently on the curtain in front, waiting for their cues. All three had something of a strained look as they waited. Evidently their occupation was not altogether easy.

Bang! went the ragtime man in front, and the curtain, swaying slowly in a gentle breeze, suddenly took on animation. It was a hotel office. A clerk stood behind the desk. Bellboys appeared and disappeared. The door opened and guests began to arrive from the bus.

“A room and a bath, please. I don’t want to go above the third story.”

You jumped. It was the man right beside you sitting there in the dim light that came through the curtain, the former tragedian, who had spoken. All the time his eyes closely followed the action of the arriving guest whose lips you noticed moving.

“Guess this will fix you up all right, Front!”

The smaller man sitting next to the former vaudeville star was doing the talking for the hotel clerk, speaking in a loud voice and distinctly so that his words would issue out beyond the curtain as if coming from the pictures the audience was watching. Gazing at these pictures, sitting there in the dark, you noted the door of the hotel office open again. This time a woman rushed in breathlessly, carrying a hat and a bag.

“I want a bedroom and sitting room, and please see that I get my trunk at once. And oh, by the way, where’s the mail? I’m expecting a letter, a very important letter.”

It was the former vaudeville star who rattled this off as easily as if she had been taking the part in a real comedy with a Broadway audience hanging on her words across the footlights. Now they were all talking. Other women came in and talked to the hotel clerk. Some of them were young girls and others older. The woman who had been on the real stage never faltered, taking part after part as they appeared and changing her voice to suit the different ages, now raising it to a high girlish pitch, now imitating the quavering tones of a querulous old woman.

It was evident that she had done some hard training for this. The men, too, did the same, although their work did not seem quite as hard. Both of them sat in their chairs, rigidly erect and alert, the strain showing on their faces. The former actress took it more easily, leaning back in her chair, but always with her eyes glued to the curtain, where the pictures flickered dreadfully at times.

For five minutes the hotel scene went on, while beads of perspiration rolled down the faces of the members of the company speaking for the picture. Then there was a final sputter and the curtain was blank again. Somewhere beside you in the dark you heard a sigh expressive of relief.

“Gosh, but that was a bit stiff!” some one murmured. Turning around you saw it was one of the male members of the company. “It’s always tough when there are so many characters. Keeps you on the jump. I think I get a rest in the next one.”

Again the curtain had become animated. This time it was a railroad station.

The drummer had come to say good-by to the girl of the theatrical company he had met in the hotel. The head of the talking picture company behind the sheet, she of the portly frame and the interesting past, all of a sudden began to talk again.

The girl in the picture was broke, it appeared, the company disbanded, and she hadn’t the fare home. You saw the drummer appear on the platform and his lips begin to move, and that was the signal for the tragedian to talk. Pretty soon the former actress and the former tragedian were shooting out rapid-fire sentences at the curtain.

It Is Profitable.

“I’m awfully sorry you’re going home.”

“Are you really? Now isn’t that sweet of you. Do you know I’ve lost my purse?”

“Can’t I lend you some money?”

And so it went. From the front came the strange sounds made by a moving picture audience as it follows the story of the film. Occasionally one of the company behind the sheet got off something funny. In the strange filtered light behind the sheet it sounded rather queer when the laugh would come back, showing that the audience had caught the joke just as if the picture had said it. At times the words were considerably behind the actions of the figures on the sheet, but even then it seemed near enough the reality to entertain the crowd.

“When the last scene was over the two men jumped up and hurried out. Their woman partner took it more leisurely.

“Like it?” she said, as she put on her ulster. “Talking pictures, we call it. No it’s not altogether new. I’ve been doing it for several years in Pennsylvania, and there are a few others in New York, I believe.

“Seems quite a change from Broadway, and the real thing, but I’m making money, and for the first time in my life have something in the bank. What’s more, I’m actually keeping house right across the street. You see there’s an hour between our acts, and then I just run home.

“I’m sorry we haven’t a green room to receive company in,” she went on with a laugh. “I think talking pictures are going to be more popular, for we’re doing very well.

“I got the idea first in New York, and then I went to Pennsylvania and got together my company and went from place to place for a while. Most of my friends, of course, don’t know what I’m doing.

“How do we do it? Well, it seems hard, but really it isn’t so hard as it looks.

“We have rehearsals. That is, we see the pictures just once before the show and then I assign the parts. Then we make up what we are going to say. That picture you just saw we never had seen before today.

“I’ve made a study of the lip language and I can tell what the people in the picture are saying, for you know the people say something so that their lips will move right in the pictures. That gives us our cue.

“At first I started in to write out the parts, but that was too difficult. And there wasn’t time to memorize them properly. I found it was better just to see the pictures and make up things to go with them as you go along. I take all the women’s parts and sometimes they keep me pretty busy. It beats a phonograph, anyway. Of course, Mr. Edison says that he will soon make the pictures talk, but I doubt it.

“We get a percentage of the receipts of the house. You’ve got to be quick, but the practice you fine that you can easily think of something that will go with the part provided you’ve seen the picture once before and know a little bit of what is coming.”

The piano player out in front had begun another ragtime piece as a prelude to another set of pictures, only these were not going to talk.

“Guess I’ll run across the street to my flat,” remarked the former vaudeville favorite. “You might say talking pictures make you tired.”
Source: “When Actors Make Dramatic Moving Pictures Talk,” Washington Post 26 March 1911, MS6.