Geoffrey Macnab / “Introduction” and “1. Of Knights and Clowns” / Searching For Stars: Rethinking British Cinema / 2000

Sir Herbert Tree, father of Carol Reed, in Macbeth, 1916.

INTRODUCTION. “British film star” is seen as oxymoronic. This book will cast light on a few forgotten faces, consider industry’s faltering attempts to nurture its own stars, assess link between British stars and genres, assess music hall and West End stage’s influence on acting, look at stock types, and track a few careers from 1905 to 1960, when contract system collapsed.


FILM and DIGNITY. American and French perception of lack of dignity of film vs theatre. 1914, Sarah Bernhardt, French actor: “From a theatrical point of view, it remains as far way from beauty and dramatic grandeur as ever” (Bioscope) Washington Times, 1909: “The moving picture machine has only one opponent in this country, and that is the actor.” American debate, “whether or not an actor impairs his ‘dignity’ by working in front of a moving picture camera,” same year. Gladys Sylvani, by late 1911, was Britain’s first film star. Sylvani magazine profile: “There is no-one who can give so thoroughly a delightful portrayal of the ‘English girl’ as Miss Sylvani, and, added to her facility for being sweet and fresh and charming, she has a reserve or restrained force.” [Note emphasis on ENGLISHNESS and RESTRAINT.] “Her manner is absolutely free from all stage artifice… she does not go through the gesticulating ritual, so indispensable a part of some actresses’ creed,” review of A Girl Alone (1912). Hepworth films at beginning WW1: “Hepworth’s films are almost almost always beautifully ‘balanced,’ and by skillful direction he has accentuated or toned down individual performances, til each bears a harmonious and perfectly adjusted relation to the whole” (Bioscope 1912) [FORM and CONSENSUS]. Sylvani set template. Melodramatic theatre -> “realist.” Hepworth direction: “Do it simply, naturally, just like you would at home.” [naturalization, shift of performance to private rather than public style.] Hepworth and DW Griffith similar style, both admired Dickens. Naturalize acting with detail. Hepworth stars seldom wore makeup (he disapproved makeup). Bioscope re Tilly and the Dogs, 1912: “What perfectly delightful young persons the Tilly girls are, as presented by Chrissie White and Alma Taylor! Positively it does one as much good to watch them as a draught of the Moorland breezes. They are so refreshingly young, and real, and full of life. There is nothing theatrical or picture-postcardy about them.” [language of rational recreation movement, “doing one good.” Theatre vs reality dialectic.] Hepworth fan magazine: Stewart Rome, colonially produced lead, effete Englishman hardened in Australia, where “the hardships of rough life in a new country taught him the ways and motives of a powerful man that a colony produced.” Hepworth’s Hamlet, quintessential British heritage film. Silent film, so stage actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson compensates: “He grimaces, rolls his eyeballs, and pounds the skies with his fists, accentuating every movement on the hope that his sheer animation will compensate for the deadly quiet that accompanies his soliloquies.” [compare with oft-cited “rolling eyeballs” of Robert Newton] 1992, Roberta Pearson noted: 1909-1912, “actors moved from a performance style heavily influenced by theatrical melodrama to a style allied to ‘realist’ movements in literature and theatre.” Theatrical style was a “conscious system of conventional signs for portraying characters’ emotions.” [What does the rolling eye signify? See Roberta Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Styles in the Griffith Biograph Films, 1992.] Contemporaries blasted “stagey”/theatrical acting in print. Sir Herbert Tree played Svengali in Trilby, very unsubtle role, looks exactly like Fagin in Lean’s Oliver Twist. Tree plays it grandiloquently, “rolling his eyeballs.” Forbes-Robertson obituary, 1937: “A fore-destined hero of romance. But an artistic temperament, in the true sense of that over-worked and much abused phrase, saved him from being merely a darling of the public.” Herbert Tree is Carol Reed’s father. [!!!; see Odd Man Out. Parallel Algernon Newton and Robert Newton with Herbert Tree and Carol Reed.] See Orwell essay, “The Art of Donald McGill,” North versus South, working men’s clubs and music halls versus genteel theatre, comedy versus drama, earthly physical humor versus cerebral wit.

DRINK and CELEBRITY CULTURE. Look for roots in Music Hall tradition, 1850-1860. George Leybourne, the original “Champagne Charlie.” Tails, top hat. Former engine fitter, turned clog-dancer. Contract: travel by horse and coach. Wine merchants stocked him with free champagne, and insisted he make a show of drinking, see Bratton 1985, Music Hall: Performance and Style [Making a show of drinking – see Newton.] Died early death.


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