If you have ever seen some of the old TV comedies there is a chance you may have seen an episode or two where they spoof silent movies. In general the parody consists of a lot of title cards and plenty of melodramatic acting.
In many instances they were not that far off the mark. Some silent films because of the story or a director that lacked imagination would use a ton of title cards to get the narrative across.
Sometimes it’s a contest to find out what you will see more of the actor’s on the screen or the dialogue cards. It’s a given with the nature of silents that there must be a certain amount of explanation so audiences could understand what was going on.
However people like Charlie Chaplin showed what was possible. Chaplin was able to make feature length films let alone shorts with the minimum of title cards hereby demonstrating the power of pantomime to carry the narrative.
And his pantomime did not really consist of wild overblown gestures with bug-eyed facial expressions. Charlie Chaplin’s acting could be as naturalistic as any actor that came after him.
The same goes for America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford. She foregoes many of the melodramatic tendencies and hones in on more true to life style. Pickford like Chaplin would from time to time exaggerate their countenance as well as body language but more often than not it was done to create a certain effect and then it was back to the natural.
Douglas Fairbanks goes back and forth between these two worlds in Mark Of Zorro. In one scene Fairbanks as the mild mannered Don Diego Vega meets up with some villainous soldiers who demonstrate to him what they are going to do if they ever catch up with Zorro.
Fairbanks’s reaction is filled with great body movement and understated facial expressions. Nothing over the top which makes it even more comical. A few scenes later there he is back at his layer gesturing wildly to his faithful servant about his plans to make the forces of evil pay for their misdeeds. In fact watching Fairbanks’ movies before he became The Swashbuckler you come to the conclusion that besides being a tremendous comedian much of his acting was of the naturalistic variety.
Sessue Hayakawa really raised the bar on this side of the Atlantic with his portrayal of Hishuru Tori in Cecil B DeMille‘s The Cheat from 1915. His looks and gestures many done with the minimum of effort illustrate his power as an actor but also his knowledge of what this medium was capable of. Surrounded by a cast that was for the most part practicing melodrama like it was their religion Hayakawa stands out with his ability to give the camera just enough and let it take care of the rest.
While this site and article focuses on old Hollywood, it should be pointed out that European actors were also working on the same wavelength. The list of great stars across the pond is too many to count but one in particular who achieved an incredible level of fame in early cinema was Asta Nielson.
On stage she was just another face in the crowd. The movies made Nielson a superstar. She discarded many of the overt mannerisms that were prevalent and honed in on a more naturalistic quality. You can see this clearly in movies like Afgrunden from 1910, Poor Jenny and others.
While everyone else was still by and large playing to the balcony, Nielson seemed to grasp instinctively that a minimalist approach was ideally suited for screen acting. Regarded as the first international star of the movies, Asta Nielson is the touchstone for bringing this style of pantomime to the big screen.
Melodrama had been on the stage for eons so it stands the reason it would carry over into film. There was and is nothing wrong with it. Melodrama in the hands of a skilled performer can be electrifying to watch.
But the movies like the theater had more than one form of acting to offer. In the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse the Rex Ingram masterpiece we see different styles working side by side to great effect.
Naturalism is not something that started when sound came to Hollywood or Method acting became all the rage. As more than a few of the great silent movie actors demonstrated it was always there like melodrama, just looking for the right artist to take hold and utilize it.