THREE YEARS AGO shooting my first film, a travelogue of Cambridge called Sinister Madonna, I directed the actors from a shooting script, each scene described in detail with the exception of one which read: "Kyle sits down at his desk, removes a single-edge razor blade from a drawer, and carves the word FOOL into his wrist. Cut to... etc., etc." Occasionally during the first months of production Steve Lerner, the lead, would ask me how I intended to fake it. Finally the night before the scheduled filming, I revealed my ace in the hole--namely that we weren't going to fake it.
I had quietly stigmatized my own wrist a while before to determine whether or not I was asking too much of Steve; when I told him I'd had a fine time, and profited immeasurbaly from the experience with no visible scars, Steve reluctantly agreed to the low-level self-mutilation demanded of him. So, Johnny Hale shooting hand-held high-angle from an Adams House A-Frame, me on a second camera shooting close-ups, and a neighbor incessantly on the verge of passing out or throwing up, holding the lights, surrounded Steve at One A.M. on an April morning and began to shoot film.
When I had done it previously, having aspired to amateur calligraphy in High School, it had taken me about five minutes to carve the FOOL into my arm; Steve, having had no such aspirations, finished the job in twenty seconds flat. Well here we were--not nearly enough blood, forty seconds of film instead of six minutes, no scene whatsoever. Throwing caution to whatever one throws caution to, we tactfully suggested to Steve that he cut a little deeper into the barely perceptible lines. Realizing the essential humor of the situation, he proceeded to re-carve the word, patiently going over each stroke again and again until everyone was disgusted and the film ran out. Johnny and I reloaded inside of a minute and rushed the cameras to the bathroom to film Steve washing his wrist before the blood coagulated. We got the needed shot--blood-stained water flowing down the drain (a la Psycho)--packed up the equipment and went to sleep. We needed sleep because the next day we were going to film a scene in which Pete Jaszi, playing Sinister Butler, got hit in the knees with an easel hard enough so that it would break the easel.
Even in this decade where film has become a pedestrian academic, a kid making his first movie discovers it all for the first time, regardless of the countless hours spent watching and studying films in theatres, TV screens, or white walls. He discovers first that working behind a camera is physically exhausting; more traumatic is the realization that making a film with actors is often a ruthless procedure, one which requires making your friends take an awful lot of chances. Once you start, you can only push to the finish and hope that those same friends don't get lost here and there.
THIS DECISION is both professionally ethical and deeply moral, in that it implies a conviction for the purity of your working method, and an ultimate respect for the audience that finally affords everyone connected with any film the huge pay-off that justifies the slow process of shooting and cutting a dramatic narrative. But the film-maker's decision to put his cast through hell, perversely moral though it may be in the abstract, is supremely selfish. This cannot be divorced from the making of a first film any more than frame composition or cutting can.
I stress first films, partly because no one ever takes as many chances as they do in their first film, but mostly because the movies that represent the current professional product in America take no chances at all. Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By... recalls that Ramon Novarro and Frank Currier doing the raft scene in Ben-Hur (1926) exposed themselves for three days to freezing winds and icy water at four hour stretches, narrowly avoiding pneumonia. But, when Wyler remade Ben-Hur in 1959 when technical proficiency could have compensated for weather variables, the scene was poorly synthesized in the studio with absurd process photography.
During the 1900-1927 period treated in Brownlow's mammoth book, essentially one about the practical discovery of an art form, only the special optical effects were made artificially: actors did 90 per cent of their own stunts and those existing stuntmen were frequently killed. The many interviews that comprise two-thirds of the book share in common a true nostalgia for physical pain, for the ordeals involved in creating motion pictures honestly, unhampered by union restrictions, production supervision, and general professional laziness. Many statements, among them Nancy Carroll's memoir of shooting MGM's The Water Hole in the heart of Death Valley (the casualty rate approaching Stroheim's for Greed, the most famous horror story of Death Valley's filming), suggest strongly that the first American film-makers willingly demanded a verisimilitude unknown to most of today's artists. Brownlow quotes the great French director Abel Gance (La Roue, Napoleon):
For me the cinema is not just pictures. It is something great, mysterious and sublime, for which should not spare any effort and for which one should not fail to risk one's life if the need arises.
The Parade's Gone By..., then, is a history of the American film from its genesis through a period of fertile collaborative art (roughly defined as the Silent period) to an eventual corruption, blamed on the shift of power from directors to producers and, most evil, the premature advent of the sound film.
The book is weakest when Brownlow editorializes--the coming of sound after all did not represent a general disintegration of quality for more than four or five years. And the organization by subject leads to the inclusion of material which over-represents Brownlow's personal proclivities regardless of objective importance. For example, "The Curse of Melodrama" degenerates into Brownlow's none-too-enlightened theories about hateful genre succeeding at the expense of blessed naturalism.
But the bulk of The Parade's Gone By..., reflective memoirs of the pioneers and people close to them, brilliantly recreate the innovative bent of the entire industry during its initial experimental development towards a polished craftsmanship we still associate with Hollywood. Joseph Henabery, Griffith's first assistant in Intolerance, offers a valuable portrait of Griffith's working methods, as well as stories about the problems of manipulating hundreds of extras while the newly-formed IWW tried to create unions; his delight at foiling their wicked socialist endeavors may be repellent to today's reader, yet serves as invaluable documentation of the transitional period when people just went out and made pictures, before restrictions boosted costs and took all the fun out of everything. At least five interviews mention the ease with which insert close-ups and re-takes could be made by anyone--an assistant cameraman or even a star--and lament the red tape existing now which makes this informal kind of moviemaking legally and financially prohibitive.
In discussing the coincidental case with which they rose to prominent positions and the freedom they afforded themselves and others, these artists reveal a sublimely naive attitude toward their business, if not their craft. They are often unwilling to acknowledge the development of American film into a major mass-produced consumer product thriving on standardization. They know they were great: that their best cameraman could light like Rembrandt and did, that their designers recreated detail with unsurpassed fidelity, most of all that the degree of collaborative improvisation they enjoyed produced high art and certainly America's greatest screen comedy. The joy with which they took chances, the willingness to sacrifice themselves, the interest in experimentation makes itself evident throughout the primary source material in the book, as does the sadness of having had these options slowly removed during the late '20's and destroyed when sound arrived.
To some extent their retrospective feelings reveal a degree of reaction which had to be replaced by healthier attitudes. Magaret Booth, once MGM's top editor, says:
Directors... like to edit. They like to get into the cutting room and play around with their own pictures. This is bad, I think. Everyone should be allowed to do their own work. Directors want to contribute to the editing part of it, but most of them are bad editors.
But Brownlow's material finally convinces us that changes were basically detrimental, at least those resulting from production supervision and over-industrialization. A superb chapter on Producers shows how surprised the autonomous directors were when corporate heads unleashed these "supervisors" on them. Maurice Tourneur, an early film-maker of indescribable importance, refused initially to allow his first Producer on the set. The studio finally explained to him that Producers were a permanent fixture and Tourneur returned immediately to France, never to make another film.
A conclusion: film students, in or out of accredited college courses, are bombarded by esthetic theory and unenlightened history. This enables them to become cinema-literates without having much practical value on their overall outlook or on the films that they make. The enormous relevance of The Parade's Gone By... to students is the direct link between the spirit of the pioneers and that of a kid fighting to get his first film completed. We need not reject the traditions of American narrative film-making, only those of Hollywood since Wall Street took over; Brownlow's emphases on the almost mystical forces that drew these early film-makers to their calling with such a vengeance serves as example, justifying to an extent our own feelings that proper values can be restored, that we must take chances to put conviction in our own films and, as Karen Morley said of her director, King Vidor (in Our Daily Bread), that we must learn to think with our eyes.
Enough said. The Parade's Gone By ... proves a sorely needed text in a field glutted by Citadel's The Films Of ... series and Zwemmer's inaccurate historical catalogues masquerading as critical history. The stories are fast and funny, the cast of characters incomparable: Brownlow discusses many people of whom we knew much too little -- Allan Dwan, Charles Rosher, Louise Brooks (who was I think the screen's most beautiful actress), Abel Gance, and Josef von Sternberg, to name a few. The many fascinating production stills are superbly reproduced, largely hitherto unanthologized, and consequently render the book an invaluable as well as significant reference