Film Art Is Not a
Question of Nation,
But of Who
Of all the types of photoplay enthusiasts in this country, the most curious and the most difficult to understand is that class which persists in belittling American actors and acting and giving high praise to the foreign companies. This is a class, by the way, which has been the very last to recognize the motion picture as a branch of the acting art and which has only acknowledged that art exists in the foreign films. There have recently been several discussions in periodicals devoted to pictures and theatricals, of this phase of the subject, evoked by the constant receipt in the United States of reports from abroad regarding American films. Many of these reports, written by American consuls, brand American acting as crude and make comparisons that are unfair and uncalled for.
To many American minds there are several "sacred European institutions," none of which is more “sacred" than the European "institution of art." It is a common understanding that Europe surpasses America in art. Hence, it is argued, when it comes to motion pictures Europe surpasses America in art. The critics of American pictures have forgotten several things in their criticisms.
A common definition of acting is That it holds up the mirror to nature. If this is true of the stage, with its many limitations, how much more true does it become when motion picture acting is referred to? And if we hold up the mirror to nature, it is only natural to suppose that the reflection will be nature. Now, the human being is the most various creature, in outward appearance, of all the world's inhabitants. The Frenchman, the German, the Spaniard, the Italian, the Englishman - all of them are people of different tastes, different appearance, and a different view of things. Suppose an American company should produce an American play, with characters made up as Frenchmen or Spaniards? Characters that would through their parts in the explosive, gesticulatory way the people of these nations conduct their affairs? What would be the result? The film would be absolutely ridiculous.
In the matter of appearance, there is quite a difference between the French or Spanish and the American. Take the matter of beards. In the Latin countries, when a man marries and becomes the head of a family, it is regarded as the proper thing for him to wear a beard to add dignity to his appearance. And the beards sometimes grow long. The family man in the French film is easily distinguished by his beard before any of the action of the play definitely places him. And the Latin peoples also always clothe their professional men in beards. The Latins do not run much to putting their hands in their pockets. The Americans do. The careless American with his hands in his pockets and his smooth face is a type that is distinct, and there isn't a Frenchman in the world who can get it – except perhaps the inimitable Max Linder.
A large part of the difficulty some people find in recognizing the art of American actors and actresses lies in the unfamiliarity of these people with good American films. Where the foreigners have their Linders and Novellis in single editions, the Americans have dozens of people well qualified to enact the parts that are chosen for them - better qualified than Novelli or Linder would be to act the same parts.
It has been recognized for a long time by theatrical managers that European dramatic productions must be Americanized before success attends production here. There are some playwrights like Arthur Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones, Barrie, Doyle, etc., whose work is not necessarily changed to fit the taste of the American people. But the average foreign play, be it a tragedy or a comedy, must be changed to enable the American audience to properly understand and appreciate it. In the same way American plays are changed when they go to Europe. And some distinctly American plays, like "Rip Van Winkle" for instance, Europe won't have under any consideration.
The reason for this is the different habits of mind of the people of different parts of the world. It is not possible for a Frenchman, or even an Englishman, to grasp the American idea and counterfeit it on the stage. It is absolutely essential that it shall be done by an American. Anyone who has seen a European attempt an American type can appreciate what this means.
In the early days of the motion picture industry there was some reason to claim artistic superiority for the foreign films. The European took to it quicker than we did. M. Gaumont, who set the pace for his associates, achieved a triumph in pictures before the American Continent contained a single stock producing company. And in all parts of Europe and some parts of Asia and Africa the Cinema Theatre of the present day was known when Americans were still going to penny arcades and being astonished by the peep show kinetoscope exhibitions of forty or fifty feet of film. With this much start the Europeans were the first to see the picture possibilities and improve upon them.
But the American industry was not slow in catching up, and it is now ahead of Europe in many particulars. Where Europe has one or two individual actors and actresses who have attained international renown, America has Mary Pickford, King Baggot, Mary Fuller. Francis Bushman, Arthur Johnson, Florence Turner, Alice Joyce, Gertrude Mc-Coy, Marguerite Snow, the Gish girls, Blanche Sweet, Pauline Bush, John Bunny, Broncho Billy Anderson, Gene Gauntier. Leah Baird, Warren Kerrigan, Carlyle Blackwell, and a host of others who are as well known in Europe as they are in America. There is probably not a country in the world where Bunny and Anderson and Mary Pickford are not known. There is scarcely a corner of the world to which their pictures have not penetrated, and where they do not represent to the various audiences that see them the most desired of all actors and actresses. This cannot be said of any of the European actors with the probable exception of Linder, who is probably one of the greatest geniuses the screen has produced anywhere, for "Max" is known where ever there is such a thing as a projection machine the world over.
It is, therefore, not only unfair, but untrue, to say that American acting and American films do not measure up in artistic value to the European quality. As a matter of fact they do. There are a number of American films, of course, that are far behind not only European quality, but any standard of real quality. And many of these films have gone to Europe and have been cast aside. But the output of the recognized companies of the General, Mutual or Universal programs are well received abroad, and are being received in increasing quantities every year. The American is no more crude than the European actor is flamboyant. The truth is the American is American, and the European is European - that's all. G. M. (Washington Times, Jul. 25, 1914)