REMEMBERING DAVID BELASCO: BROADWAY BEFORE MODERN HOLLYWOOD

One month ago I published a post on Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide (2007). Iglesias devotes a good deal of his volume to Henry Irving (British) and David Belasco (American), both great stage-managers who shaped their local theatrical practice. Irving was, of course, also a star; for Belasco (1853-1931), in contrast, acting was just a minor aspect of his long career. Since Iglesias often refers to Belasco’s memoirs The Theatre through its Stage Door (1919) I eventually read them (see https://archive.org/details/theatrethroughits00bela). What a pleasure!!

Belasco’s engaging text is a snapshot of a transitional time when cinema was still silent and avant-garde theatre was being born. Irving and Belasco embody the kind of well-made, (pseudo-)naturalistic theatre that still pleases crowds but that is now regarded as less than artistic. To understand the limits of the magnetic Belasco’s task in Broadway, consider that he praises Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, as “the most vital and truest picture of human experience”; today this is seen as a mere period piece aimed at philistine bourgeois audiences. Belasco certainly shows himself at a loss about how to deal with the new avant-garde theatre, which prefers a few splotches of colour to generate mood rather than his very elaborate lighting effects. This is why reading his book leaves a bitter aftertaste for it is a chronicle of a lost battle for artistic acknowledgement. Although the plays he describes seem trite and even silly, I can very well imagine the immense aesthetic pleasure his productions must have been. This was, remember, the time before colour movies existed and nothing but Belasco’s productions could equal the pleasure cinema would later provide. The plays, however, are another matter…

I’ll refer here extensively to his fascinating chapter on ‘motion pictures,’ “The Drama’s Flickering Bogy.” Belasco inserts a footnote warning that his arguments are only valid for 1919 cinema: “The growth of the motion picture has been rapid and, consequently, the trend of its future development is difficult to foretell.” Unlike many of his theatrical colleagues, Belasco defends the movies, maintaining that amusement must always be welcome and that, anyway, his stage productions are not in direct competition with the then silent, black-and-white movies. He also praises the ability of the moving image to bring home the landscapes of the world, until then only accessible “on faith” from the printed page. He does realize, however, that unlike former competitors of ‘legitimate’ drama the movies “have undoubtedly come to stay.” Also, that “all inferior forms of theatrical amusement have been hard hit by the motion pictures,” particularly minstrelsy, and the cheap stock companies. Vaudeville, which tried to survive in the company of the new screens “has become their victim.” Belasco, nonetheless, has faith in the future of quality drama (and of spectacular musicals): “I have always found that the public will never ignore a good play.” Belasco highlights the educational and scientific applications of movies but remains quite sceptical about their ability to offer “spirit” rather than “surface.” He finds, above all, the lack of spoken dialogue, the dependence on inter-titles and the clumsy narrative strategies (close-ups, medium shots, sped-up action…) a serious hindrance for the movies ever to be truly artistic. You see in this appreciation the seeds of Belasco’s defeat as eventually the human voice, colour, a fluid grammar of edition, etc. conquered cinema, allowing it to fully express human emotion.

Belasco describes on the basis of first-hand experience how primitive cinema borrowed from the stage its plots, its actors, even the theatre itself to exhibit the new films: “from their very outset,” except for what we call now documentaries, “motion pictures have been a parasite feeding upon the arts of the theatre.” This is why he rightly claims that cinema can only “hope to challenge the regular drama seriously” by developing “some form of art distinctly their own, and educate their performers in an entirely new technique.” He is particularly critical of movie acting, stressing that actors only give their best when facing an audience (something that TV sit-coms still exploit); for him, the most successful movies rely on plot. In cinema “Whatever appeal the performers make to their spectators must depend upon physical attractiveness.” Um, yes, it is hard to think of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie triumphing on a stage.

What I had not quite realized is that early cinema undermined its contemporary theatre by sapping it of its best talent–the real competition, Belasco argues, was not for audiences but for actors. Hollywood could afford to pay high rates even for secondary roles, as the huge distribution networks of the movies guaranteed, as they do now, very high returns for a relatively low investment (which theatre producers like Belasco could never meet). Movies stole all kinds of talent from drama, not only, as Belasco shows, that of already famous actors, or stage-managers, but also budding talent still in need of development that chose the more profitable path of a movie career. Popular actors found “that by capitalizing the prestige they have won on the dramatic stage they can earn in the studios, in a few weeks, more money than they could command in the theatre in an entire season.” Less talented actors discovered that the far less demanding cinema allowed them to cut years of stage training. The queues of eager applicants Belasco was used to dwindled dramatically. Likewise, many playwrights were lured by Hollywood to become better paid, though much less respected, screen writers. Belasco grants that some actors are born movie actors: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford (whose career as a child actress he launched), and even vamp Theda Bara. In contrast, he cautions theatre stars not to risk their reputation for money. Belasco never contemplates combining the two media, for “No one who aspires to be an artist can hope to inhabit both.”

There is a peculiar moment when Belasco brings David W. Griffith, the great silent cinema director, into it. As he recalls, he met Griffith, “who has raised the picture spectacle to what I believe to be its highest point of interest,” as a young aspiring actor in the West “when the invention of the camera was practically new.” He applied for a position in Belasco’s company but none was available at the time. Griffith joined then Vitagraph, a movie company, soon becoming a director… Whether by accident or fate, the future of American cinema passed this way through Belasco’s hands. He shows throughout great admiration for Griffith, never regretting that he did not hire him as an actor, though Belasco feels that his movies would gain by being less full of crowds, more intimist. This is the kind of movie Belasco imagines himself directing, though he has “never felt an ambition to direct a motion-picture play.” His dream movie, with “a very human story adjusted to the simplest backgrounds,” and “very few characters” anticipates Ingmar Bergman or, in America, John Cassavettes. Funnily, Belasco thinks that emotion in movies can only work if scenes are shot in chronological order, which shows how impossible it would have been for him to triumph in Hollywood. In any case, the movie traits he wishes to avoid give a very clear impression of the weaknesses of early cinema.

“The theatre in which I live and work can never be endangered from the outside,” Belasco concludes. In the following chapter he shows how the main danger comes from the inside–from the European avant-garde. He is bitter that he himself, who pioneered many avant-garde techniques, such as the suppression of footlights, is not acknowledged as an advanced artist. Writing his memoirs aged 66, after already 50 years in the theatre and facing the last 12 years of his career, Belasco’s voice is already nostalgic–or it seems so to me in hindsight. The photos in the book reveal a mixture of incredibly advanced technology and old-fashioned acting styles which may have pleased Broadway audiences but surely set the teeth of modern 1920s spectators and avant-garde theatre artists on edge. Time, however, puts everyone in their place and Belasco occupies an undeniably important position.

I wonder what he would think of movies today and to what extent they are indebted to his constant search for technological innovation.

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