Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): "The Picture As It Is"

Bertram Adler, known as Bert to just about everyone, contributed an article, "The Picture As It Is," to the January 28, 1911 issue of The Billboard, in which the Thanhouser publicity director rambled about various aspects of the film industry:

Not very long ago a French moving picture company produced a playlet bearing the title Making Moving Pictures, which purported to depict the everyday experiences of the new type of modern thespian, the moving picture actor. The picture presented the actor made up as a highwayman and assigned by the stage manager to rob a pretty girl on a street - a real Paris street. Just as the "footpad" stopped before the girl with the property revolver level, a pair of enlightened Parisian laborers seemed to happen along and pummel unmercifully the stage villain whose innocent intentions had deceived them.

Four days after this film was released in the United States, two moving picture actors who were holding up a property [screen prop] automobile in a patch of Long Island, New York woods were set upon by a party of well-meaning Long Island railroad laborers and beaten so badly that they had to be removed to the Queens County Hospital, where the life of one was despaired of for a time. In both the French comic picture and the authentic Long Island incident, the "rescuing" laborers did not happen to notice the nearby cameraman, the sight of whose busy machine might have caused them to pause in their headlong rush among the unfortunate picture actors.

Therefore, the lot of a picture actor is not all together an agreeable one. Even the privilege - unknown to the stage player - of being able to sit as a spectator of a play in which one's self appears does not totally recompense the picture actor for the hard knocks that he is ever receiving and the dangerous risks that he is ever running while following his peculiar profession, for peculiar it certainly is. It makes but a single, strange demand upon this devotee. First and last, it requires him to "be real." That is its keynote - "be real!" The actor must show a willingness to "be real" at the risk of life and limb every time that he is called upon - you must "be real" where it is human to be unreal, and that as often a day as the plot of the picture depends.

The average plot will call for the performance of at least one superhuman feat by the picture actor. Superhuman is the only proper term. Even on an uneventful "run" it is a superhuman task for a man accustomed to short Rialto strolls. To escape the rigors of a "chase" many a stout performer has signified willingness to act the part of the masher and human pillow in some such comedy as Mr. Masher Receives His, or as a gentleman, who, beaten by a dog, prances through the 12 scenes of Mr. Brown Gets Hydrophobia on his hands and knees.

Then there are the assignments called for by leap-for-life scenes. An hour in any nickelodeon will convince one that there are always enough of these to go around. Even the actresses must risk physical hurt for the good of the cause, for the angry wife with the horsewhip, whose husband's affections were diverted to his stenographer, is not the only character to be portrayed - there is also the stenographer.

Up to the present time the picture actor has been very fortunate in the matter of accidents. Still some serious injuries, even deaths, have followed in the wake of the demand for feats in the pictures. The latest fatality of record occurred in a Western state early this year when an actor "doing" a hero turn was bound to a railway track and the engine that was to steam up to him - steamed past him. While in point of realism, the killing was a perfect piece of work, the director overseeing the job was considerate enough to order a new and less accurate picture made.

With the universal adoption of the automobile, the actor who is a clever chauffeur possesses a substantial advantage over his fellows. The picture actor or actress who cannot at least ride or drive a horse is, with the player who cannot swim, a rarity among picture performers. An equal rarity within a short time, it is predicted, will be the unathletic actor, if the demand for feats and pictures continues to increase. A bare couple of moving picture companies are producing plays that demand only purely theatrical ability of the actors, but even these companies turn out from time to time a play which tests their performers' powers of physical endurance.

However, the producers are making a spirited attempt to reform and are calling a halt on the moving picture dramatist, who, with the public, is the root of the feat evil. Recently a picture dramatist submitted to a Philadelphia producer a plot which placed the hero in a field from which a bull was to toss him. The producer sent this note to the dramatist: "We have found the bull but can't get a hero. Can you come immediately and play the part?" The part was never played.

While to those who visit the picture exhibitions it is evident that foreign producers sometimes imitate the successful plays and arrivals, this does not hold true of the American picture makers. Few, indeed, are the producers here who will tolerate the straightforward copying of the French-Italian school. A playlet dramatist who will copy his plot from a picture that has been shown to the public will find his American market gone. It is known that American producers keep constantly in touch with each other in their fight against the duplication evil.

Long before Mr. Roosevelt left for Africa, a dramatist dashed into a New York producer's office and exclaimed: "I have it! Here it is. Handle it gently. It means a fortune to you. With Teddy in Africa, I call it. People will flock to see it." "Yes, and riot to see it," returned the producer. "I mean that. They'll riot to get inside. But there is no use. Jones, of Chicago, announced it yesterday, and I decline to duplicate." The same year our producer received 50 separate suggestions for Roosevelt in Africa pictures while the excitement attending the Colonel's departure was on. Each dramatist submitting a suggestion thought, no doubt, that the particular inspiration came to him alone.

American producers rejoiced when several large vaudeville theatres in New York and other cities dropped vaudeville in favor of moving pictures; but that our picturemen are seeking still other fields is plain from a moving picture journal's recent editorial prediction of a coming "art" theatre in Broadway, near Times Square, "devoted solely to the high class in moving pictures." This prophecy also carries a promise that our best playwrights will create the plots of the pictures shown in the "art" theatre, just as Gabriele d'Annunzio, Edmond Rostand, Paul Hervieu, Camille Saint-Saëns, Georges Hue, and Jean Richepin devote their energies to the construction of pictures for the leading French producers.

While it may be stated from the best of authorities that the story of the offer of $50,000 to Maude Adams to play before the camera was purely a press agent's tale, it is a fact that one very prominent American star was approached by a New York producer, and that he might have secured her services had he been willing to pay the compensation she asked. The particular compensation was so high, the story goes, that the picture man was groggy when he left the office of the star's manager. But someday he will meet that compensation, when the stars will reduce their rates to fit his purse, for in time we are certain to have our pick of the theatrical profession playing before the camera. Why? Because on the main, the Paris picture producers have enlisted the services of the best of the stage lights of the Old World and have shouted "your move!" across the ocean to the American picture men. That move must come. Sarah Bernhardt, Rejane, Hading, Coquelin, and Severin have added to the glory of the foreign moving picture. Who will have uplifted the American moving picture before the year expires?

There has been a growing disposition of late on the part of sundry members of the theatrical profession to treat with contempt their brothers who play before the camera and to give them an imaginary stage status which is an especially low one. The professional picture actors incline to hold this disposition as unfair and unwarranted. He figures, with reason, that he is better paid if anything than the average Broadway actor - his playing to the camera offers him $35 a week to the Broadway man's $25.

Of course a Broadway star would lose money playing in a moving picture stock company at ordinary picture star's wages. Still, considering everything, the present-day picture stars receive good compensation, and many "fair" Broadway players have presented themselves to the picture producers, showing special adaptability to playing before the camera, and tripled their incomes instantly. The salary of the picture stars at present range from $70 to $100 a week. Even the moving picture super [extra] is well paid; $5 a day is the general wage.

With the fact that his actions go down into time accompanied by his words, making his playing appear largely like mimic in the picture, the actor is required to make his actions clear to the audience to the point of simplicity. It is essential to the success of the picture that his every move be easily and instantly understood. He is taught to realize that if an audience stops to ponder over the meaning of a puzzling scene, all is lost. It has been said in all seriousness that he must make his very thoughts apparent to the audience.

As concerns playing ability, therefore, the man who "makes good" before the camera has small reason to acknowledge any deterioration from a visionary Rialto standard. The producers say that whatever professional contempt for the picture actor does exist is held wholly by Rialto loungers, who, unemployed for the hot spell, thought themselves to pick up some money in front of the camera, and whose applications were rejected.

Under the auspices of the People's Institute of New York a board of distinguished censors meets weekly in the metropolis for the purpose of passing final judgment on the picture plays before release. All the producers submit their new plays to the censors' inspection, and those that are thought undesirable are ordered out of circulation. With the cost of producing a play ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, the picturemen have grown adverse to turning out the objectionable subject which is sure to meet death at the hands of the censors.

Yet the censorship is not what it should be and undoubtedly will be. There is a crying need for a central board of censors with national powers. While most of the cities are willing to abide by the censorship of the so-called National Board of Censors of New York, there is occasionally a police board, like that of Chicago, which will undertake to improve on the judgment of the People's Institute, educators, and public people - which improvement on the New York censorship comes quite high to the puzzled producer. Already there is vigorous agitation for national picture censorship, and each time a board of policemen go the enlightened People's Institute censors one better, fuel is added to the flame.

The nickelodeons, it is curious to note, have enjoyed their greatest growth and prosperity in the recent period of business depression. There are numerous instances on record of families with members in a certain industry who lost their means of livelihood through the curtailing of expenses which followed the money stringency of 1907 - instances in which a father, son and daughter were dropped from a payroll all together. In several such instances a father invested his savings in a small nickelodeon, had his son instructed in the art of turning the crank of a picture projection machine, and installed the daughter in a tiny box office as ticket seller. The head of the family himself would act as manager and usher; and in the majority of instances he hired a self-playing piano to accompany the pictures until he thought himself able to employ a piano player and singer - finally his entire outside salary expense. In a large city one will run across many such nickelodeons operated in the family that have made those families independent beyond their fondest hopes. Of course, luck varies within this as in other businesses, and many a man has lost his all in a nickelodeon that didn't draw.

There are 600 nickelodeons Note large and small in New York City, and a Manhattan producer's careful account of the exhibitors of the nation makes them 12,000 strong. Producers who ought to know say that 35 million dollars would be a conservative estimate of the amount of capital invested in nickelodeons in this country. Four years ago barely one-tenth of this amount was invested in this branch of the amusement business. The question of whether its renaissance has been reached or is yet to come will mean much to the thousands that have backed the picture to win. At any rate, there is no indication at the present time of any widespread public notion to pass up motion picture exhibition.


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.