Films Have Rejuvenated Art of Pantomime 

 

Ancient Profession of the Mime Has Come Again Into Its

Own and Its Devotees Command Fabulous Prices.

 

By ROBERT ALLERTON PARKER.

 

   AN obscure comedian earning almost $36 a month in a Paris theatre sought employment with a motion picture concern to keep the proverbial wolf from the door. That was in 1904. To-day, as the French "King of the Movies," he is paid approximately $80,000 a year. He took a trip to St. Petersburg recently and cleared $20,000.

   Ten years ago Max Linder was pleased with the generosity of managers who paid him $9 a week for his services. In his contracts with the film manufacturers to-day he insists that they pay all his expenses. Before he left for Russia to pose for them they had to deposit 100,000 francs in his name in a Paris bank. He refused $9,000 for two weeks' work in Vienna because they would not pay his traveling expenses.

   He has now gone to Berlin, where, every evening for a month, he draws $800, with all expenses paid. Linder breaks the record with a salary of $24,000 a month.

   His face is his fortune.

   Asta Nielson, 24 years old, an insignificant slip of a Danish girl who never had the slightest stage experience, has become the foremost emotional actress for the picture plays in Europe. She poses mostly in Berlin, in pantomime plays written especially for her by the German dramatist Urban Gad. Her face is her fortune.

   Mlle. Mistinguett earns about $12,000 a year as a favorite of the Parisian stage. In her spare time she acts for the films. Her income from this work amounts to at least $20,000 a year. The face again!

   The fact is that the "movies" are creating a new art of facial pantomime. At least they are developing the technique of this art in a fashion never dreamt of in the legitimate theatre. The "close range” films, made so that the picture of a single actor or a single head enlarged to gigantic proportions is projected on the screen exact, the most realistic detail and truth in expression from the mime who is posing.

   The art of the mime is an ancient one, but it could never be adequately developed except through the medium of "movies." It has always been confined to the circus or the music halls, in which finesse was necessarily sacrificed to broad slapstick effects. The "classic" mimes invented a special vocabulary for their work. Emotions were not directly expressed. They were telegraphed, as it were, to audience, by a series of ridiculous signs. Vaudeville acrobats seem to have inherited many of these weird strange methods of communicating with an audience.

   Georges Wague, the greatest French mime, broke these artistic conventions. Severin has followed in his footsteps. The body is used as a direct medium through which Wague expresses emotions and mental states. Wague has a thin, nervous, angular face, eyes like burning coal, thin lips that are used with absolute artistry.

   Wague's hands, quivering and nervous, always expressive, are also a perfect medium of expression. His art is sober and serious, simple and sensuous, delicate and strong. Of course it is lost in the barnlike music halls; it is an art for the intimate theatre only – or the "movies."

   When you witness Asta Nielson in the mimic drama "Behind Comedy's Mask," for instance, you must notice an absolute control of expression, so great a control that the face seems almost a mask. Then, at a certain rather familiar and rather hackneyed climax, Fraulein Neilson indulges in some remarkable facial mimicry. It is "close range" work with a vengeance. Her head is enlarged to fill almost the entire screen. She weeps. She prays. She "emotes." It is wonderfully suggestive of the future possibilities in the art of pantomime.

   This microscopic realism is an entirely new thing in the theatre. It is calling for qualities and talents in actors that are hardly realized to-day. The face has really meant nothing in the history of the theatre. Rachel was ugly. Bernhardt "made up" with the brilliant tones of the impressionist painters. She was never "natural." Before the arrival of the intimate theatre an actor's face was never seen very distinctly by the great part of the audience. He could "make up" for the first rows or the last, but not for both. Absolute fidelity to life has never been possible or effective, so far as facial expression is concerned. There was a "mad riot" of futile expression.

Follow Irving's Footsteps.

   That is one of the reasons Gordon Craig gave for preferring marionettes to human actors. And it is significant to note, though it would probably be most displeasing to Mr. Craig, that the leading motion picture mimes depend for their success upon the very same qualities that he eulogized in the art of Sir Henry Irving.

   Speaking of Irving's face in his book "On the Art of the Theatre," Craig wrote: "Try and conceive for yourself that face in movement — movement which was ever under the powerful control of the mind. Can you not see the mouth being made to move by the brain, and that same movement which is called expression creating a thought as definite as the line of a draughtsman on a piece of paper * * * ? Cannot you see the slow turning of the eyes and the enlargement of them?

   "These two movements alone contained so great a lesson for the future of the art of the theatre, pointed out so clearly the right use of expression as opposed to the wrong use, that it is amazing to me that many people have not seen more clearly what the future must be. I should say that the face of Irving was the connecting link between the spasmodic and ridiculous expression of the human face as used by the theatres of the last few centuries, and the masks that will be used in place of the human face in the near future."

   Who can deny that the film theatre has tended to develop this art of facial pantomime — this art of which Irving was perhaps the greatest master? Is it not the aim of the motion picture mime to create through a series of expression thoughts "as definite as the line of a draughtsman on a piece of paper?"

It's Effect on the Theatre.

   Certainly it is evident that the film with its power to concentrate the attention of the audience upon one particular face, its power to eliminate the inessential and to emphasize the significant, has certain advantages over the legitimate theatre in awakening an appreciation of pantomime — especially of facial pantomime.

   How is this renaissance, this resurrection of the mime by the motion picture going to affect the legitimate theatre?

   Before sailing for Europe a short time ago Charles Frohman expressed the opinion that the "movies" have created a taste for rapidly moving plays, with shifting scenes and dialogue "cut to the bone." Yet if such plays, of comedy and farcical interest, are to be the fashion in the near future, it would seem that managers are running the risk of further competing with the motion picture theatres. They would be attempting to attract the public with wares that are cheaper and superior in quality in the films. The alternative would be the production of plays, spectacles, "shows" that have a distinct and different appeal from the movies."

   Plays of sentimental charm like "Peg o' My Heart" or "Kitty MacKay" do not seem to have suffered from the competition of films. Plays of compelling social interest, "Damaged Goods," for instance, have attracted enormous audiences. Also the films can never compete in the production of plays containing beautiful costumes and picturesque stage settings or plays containing poetry and music.

Many Actors Fail on Films.

   "Movie" producers will tell you that in many cases the actor of the legitimate stage is a failure before the camera. The "movie" actor is usually an abject failure on the legitimate stage. Max Linder was s nine-dollar-a-week actor at the Ambigu in Paris ten years ago, with few chances of ever being a success on the stage. Asta Nielson — the "kino-koenigin" — had absolutely no stage experience; yet she thrills thousands of people simultaneously in every civilized country.

   Thus it seems that a different set of talents — except of course in some cases — will more and more separate the profession of the actor and of the "mime." The young actor will take Miss Blanche Bates's advice and look more and more to his voice and his enunciation, while the motion picture pantomimists will more and more realize that fundamentally they are draughtsman.

   Thus the effect of this resurrection of the art of pantomime may have a truly beneficial effect both on the legitimate theatre and on the picture shows of the future. (The New York Press, Jun. 21, 1914)