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Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel, Lesson 3

This series follows the film course Understanding Movies by Raphael Shargel. To view all the parts I completed, visit this page.

In Part 3 of Understanding Movies, we move from silent pictures to full-sound pictures and learn how storytelling changed as demonstrated with the movie Stagecoach.

In the 1920s, we are ready to move into the world of talking pictures.  But, when movies first integrated sound into their soundtracks, it wasn't originally to hear spoken dialogue.  Movies with sound first featured sounds of the musical score.  Silent films were always accompanied by music, either a full orchestra or even one musician for a small theater.  Eventually, they eliminated the live music in favor of a movie soundtrack.  During the time when the movie soundtrack first came to be, the method of using pantomime and over-exaggerated facial expressions was still totally acceptable.  After watching several of the silent films, I must say that I respect the genre a lot more now.
It is impressive how the silent film actors could say so much with their faces.  While it does seem silly sometimes when you watch it compared to the movies today, I can see how screenwriters have come to rely much more heavily on dialogue to tell stories.  My favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock, used the term "pure cinema," to identify those moments in film where words are unnecessary because of the power of the shot.

Luckily as we move into the talking picture period, the directors continued to use powerful shots to tell stories.  But more on that later.  The first move with spoken dialogue was The Jazz Singer (1927).  A wonderful movie.  It was actually a mostly silent film, with a few talking sequences.  Two years after the Jazz Singer came out, the silent movie era was dead, except for a few films by Charlie Chaplin.

 As can be expected, the first films with talking sound in them had an awkwardness about them.  Directors were working out the kinks of how the talking pictures could be made.  Where should they put the microphones?  How far could they move away from the microphones and still be heard?  What about background noise?  Actors who were famous for the silent pictures looked silly talking and using pantomime.  Foreign actors and actresses sometimes could not star in the Hollywood pictures because of their accents.  Some careers began and some ended.

I watched a couple of these films, but I must admit, did not watch most of them in their entirety because they were not so entertaining.  The first I watched was Hallelujah (1929) directed King Vidor.  This was the first all-black cast film made.  The film was full of musical numbers, which were fun.  The people in the film used music as a way to express themselves.  It seems perfectly natural to us that they are singing as they work in the fields and go to the nightclubs.  This was a fun movie, no doubt.  The main character, Zeke, a sharecropper, is supposed to go into town and sell their cotton crop and bring the money back, as well as gifts for the family.  Instead, he meets a dancer named Chick and is so smitten with her that he follows her into town and allows himself to be talked into playing a rigged craps game.  He loses all the money.  The rest of the movie is a traditional redemption story, with Zeke towing the line between doing the right thing and the wrong thing.  Which will prevail in the end?  This is a clip on youtube of the Swanee Shuffle.  The sound for this film is actually quite good when compared to most films made during this period, especially on the musical number. 

I also watched Applause (1929) directed by Rouben Mamoulian.  This was a somewhat sad film about a mother-pair.  The mother works in a burlesque show and in the beginning gives birth to a lovely baby girl.  Despite the mother's best efforts, the daughter finds herself drawn into the world of performing and stripping for men.  We think the daughter is going to get out because she is good and pure, but forces are against her.  To me, this movie was quite a downer, but I can understand why it was mentioned.  The story is mesmerizing and we relate to this girl's attempt to stay above the fray.  We also see that although momma is weak and ineffectual as a mother, she does love her daughter and tries to protect her the best she knows how.  The clip I am sharing here is 8 minutes long and a little disturbing at the end.  This is when the daughter first comes to town.  She has been staying at a nunnery and goes to live with her mother.  She thinks momma is an actor, but finally learned what momma does for a job.  The montage at the end makes me very uncomfortable.  Things I admire are the picture quality on this very old film and the use of the tight cuts to show the girls' anxiety level rising.

Also during this period, we have the rise of the film studio as a power entity.  The film studio was born.  Film studios had actors or actresses on contract.  They would be assigned certain movies, so actors would make many films a year.  The only problem for the actor is that he cannot make movies with another studio until his contract ends.  As you can imagine, it was much more financially secure to be under contract.  This is why many times an actors also plays a certain type of character, like the belligerent old man, or the stodgy old maid.

As demonstrated by films such as Applause, the first talking pictures didn't always have the cleanest content.  To clean up the pictures, film studios created the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code.  This was a set of rules that dominated what could and could not be in movies until the adoption in 1968 of the film rating system (G, PG, PG-13, etc.).  With the movie production code, studios had certain things they would show and certain things they would not show in movies.  For instance, if an onscreen movie couple had a scene in a bedroom, the couple was shown as having two separate beds next to each other, instead of having one bed.  Bathrooms did not have toilets.  The bad guy could never win in a movie.  The good guy always wins.  Sexual acts were not shown.  Shargel is quick to say, though, when a culture becomes dominated by rules, it forces people to become creative.  The films created during this period were wonderfully creative, and, as a bonus, most of them are clean by anyone's standards.  Films could be enjoyed as a family.  Directors used creative ways to talk about unmentionable things.  In the movie Stagecoach, which is the main example we will look at this time, one of the characters is a prostitute.  However, this is never said out loud.  We just know because of the way people are treating her and they way she is dressed.  She is not dressed in anything skimy, just very loud and lots of accessories like feather boas and the like.

Stagecoach is a classic film from this golden age of Hollywood.  In the movie, John Wayne and a group of characters from various social circles travel together on a state coach from a town in Arizona to Lordsburg in New Mexico Territory.  As they travel in the coach we get to know their weaknesses, as well as their strengths as individuals.  Also, as they travel, in general, characters become more sympathetic, and we like them even more.  The movie is directed by John Ford, a mastermind.  Ford perfected several film techniques that are notable in this film.

One of them is the dissolve.  This is a technique where one scene in the movie fades out and another fades in at the same time.  Ford was the master of the dissolve.  This technique is used to show that time passes.  It is often used, too, to show panoramic scenes of nature, like the wide open prairie.  For an example of a dissolve see clip below.  Dissolve happens 56 seconds into clip.

The other is called separation.  Separation is when a director shows two characters together to establish they are next to each other or nearby.  This scene lets the audience see how far they are sitting apart to establish relationship.  Then the director cuts back and forth between the characters with close-up shots.  First one character, then another.  Even though we can't see the other character, we remember where they are and how far they are sitting apart.  The director has already established the scene, so now he can get closer to the characters and build tension.  This technique is usually used for characters that are not seeing things they same.  They are divided somehow, either by choice or circumstance.  For instance, in Stagecoach, Ringo (John Wayne) is sitting on the floor while the Southern gentlemen is sitting on the coach seat.  They clearly don't like each other.  Ford uses the technique of separation to allow them to have dialogue while demonstrating, without words, that they are not seeing things eye to eye.  It's fascinating, isn't it?  We don't realize how our minds are being lead by a director's use of these techniques, but they are universal, fascinating, and fool-proof.

The characters in Stagecoach do most of their relating through non-verbal cues.  Dallas, the prostitute, and Ringo fall in love while on the coach.  It is not until halfway through the movie that they even speak to one another, and when they do, it is to talk about getting married.  Yet, we aren't surprised, because we have seen them looking at each other and instinctively know they love one another.  Now that is powerful cinema.

In Chapter 4, we will talk about Citizen Kane.