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Understanding Movies, Lesson 1 Continued: More Griffith, Lillian Gish, and Charlie Chaplin

Before moving onto lesson 2, I watched a few more of the movies suggested in lesson 1. One important thing I forgot to mention is that in the beginning, films were all silent. The characters did not speak audibly. In most movies, the actors did pantomime speech, but any words that were "spoken" were done so through the use of title cards. Sometimes the title cards tell what a character is saying. Other times, they add narrative to a picture to direct the viewer to consider a particular thing. For instance, a famous title card in Griffith's The Birth of a Nation reads "War's peace." After the words, the camera pans onto the Civil War battlefield after a battle has taken place. We see dead and injured bodies. The words suggest the irony of how quiet this field is when just moments before, it was filled with bodies, guns, blood, and probably screaming.

With only the moving pictures able to tell the story, Shargel says that we are talking about a "pure cinema." The success of the movie leans heavily on the actors on screen to clearly tell the tale. Or the emphasis can be on the director (which is covered in lesson 2). This is why in early films, the acting seems so comical and over exaggerated. The actors must really use every device to tell their tale: facial expressions, body language, actions.

There are two notable people that excelled in this area: Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin.
Lillian Gish was Griffith's muse and starred in 12 of his films. She played Elsie in The Birth of Nation. She also played Lucy in Broken Blossoms. Although Elsie is probably her more well known role, you can really see her acting grow in Broken Blossoms. Gish has these mournful eyes and lips that create these stunning close ups. Bette Davis once said that Gish invented the close up. She really uses her hands and face to portray the tormented Lucy. In Broken Blossoms, Lucy plays an abused girl in Lime Street, London. Her tormentor is Battling Burrows, a prehistoric Stanley Kowalski. Lucy gets a brief respite from his abuse under the care of "the Yellow Man," a gentle soul from China who has come over to America to espouse Buddha to the Yankees. Instead he ends up spending his days in opium dens and gambling houses. Guess Griffith never grew out of that whole racist thing. Anyway, the Yellow Man sees Lucy, falls in love with her, and ends up caring for her after she is beaten to a pulp. This is a tragic tale. In this most famous scene in Broken Blossoms, Lucy hides in a locked closet while Battling knocks down the door with an ax. Notice Lucy's writhing motions. Even though the male actor looks absolutely ridiculous, Gish is a master here and this will make almost anyone feel psychologically uncomfortable.

Charlie Chaplin was also a master of movement, but he used his actions in a comic way. I have watched several of his films, but nothing has come close to astounding me like this boxing match in City Lights. Just imagine the skill, the control it must have taken to choreograph this sequence. Not just Chaplin, but the other fighter and referee, too. How could you do this without laughing all the way through? It's beyond me. Whenever given the choice of Marx Brothers (verbal comedy) vs. Three Stooges (physical comedy), I have always gone with the verbal sparring of the Marx Brothers. This sequence blows my mind, though. It's well worth the 10 minutes to watch this clip.

And that concludes chapter 1.


LC said…

I will be following your ventures into movie watching very closely as I just got the same audio course as you!

Keep up the great work! Extremely interesting how you complement the material!

Zee said…
Hi LC,
Welcome aboard. Do leave comments as you go through things. Having time to watch the movies is taking me awhile so don't expect them to come very quick. I just watched Metropolis. It was amazing. I still have 5 movies to at least look at briefly before I write about chapter 2. How did you find my blog?
LC said…
Hi Zee,

Oh by all means do take your time; I myself will have to find the time to watch the films on a regular basis let alone listen to the lectures...

I found your blog just by googling for the name of the course :) I just wanted to check whether anybody had something to say about it :)


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