Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
That was a very long time ago, in the first decades of the 20th century, before artifice and studios and the commercial paradigm of stardom finally engulfed cinema in one ravenous bite. It was a period when one could see in the centre, or, if one paid attention, around the edges of every motion picture brought forth, the dreariness of ordinary human life. It lived on the screen in film’s early days, exposing any pretence, however fitful, of opulence or period as simply that: pretence, a fundamental desire to escape reality, always erroneously attributed in the lore of motion pictures to the audience, that was in fact a desire on the part of those bankrolling a nascent medium not fully in control of itself to come to some kind of order.
Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno in It (1927)
Clara Bow and Antonio Moreno in It (1927)
Kevin Brownlow, in his 1990 book Behind the Mask of Innocence, puts paid to this still-persistent myth of unspoiled, lamblike moviegoers in a bygone republic far away, seeking fairy tales and lies anywhere they could find them. His is a staunch chronicle of a period in cinema awash in depictions of every foul condition known to the world outside the movie screen. There was, particularly in those films which trafficked in themes of vice and moral squalor, more than a hint of exploitation (a commercial medium will always bear this taint), but there was also a genuine attempt to impose justice on those who meted it out in its antiquated, institutional form. By their very nature, the early silents not-so-silently mocked established norms with archetypes whose ascendancy heralded an irreversible paradigm shift in consciousness – the enforcers of the status quo were soon depicted as bumbling, truncheon wielding extras.
Work (Chaplin, 1915)
Holy men were unceremoniously defrocked, while their doctrine of abject compliance to class-based norms was written into storylines involving grease-painted floozies, costumed villains, and snooty dowagers brought down a well-deserved notch by the drunk hobo in her drawing room. Amidst a backdrop of labour unrest and mass poverty, filmgoers of the silent era, and soon followed by the Great Depression, had a front row, fly-on-the-wall view of the plutocracy as it was helpless against a swelling tide of restless humanity. Charlie Chaplin’s itinerant labourer may have accidentally thwarted a plutocrat’s plan for world domination and/or a house renovation, just as Groucho Marx seemed to spontaneously derail a social climbing matron’s equally fierce ambitions.
Pert Kelton
Other figures existed to personify other epochs. Pert Kelton seems, on the one hand, the embodiment of the pre-Code era, and on the other, a one-of-a-kind mutation. Her body, a slim, limp noodle, dangles from her boxy head, which is carved into a startling mix of full curves and chiseled angles, like a living EC Segar drawing. When this jumbled assortment meets the All Talking Picture, a porous medium with its own ill-fitting components – “yaps”, “frails”, “pippins”, bromides”, “taxi dancers” – it’s as if a rogue’s gallery, the whole caterwauling universe that had lost its nerve in the Crash, suddenly found one language to simplify a thousand inbred tongues, understood from margin to margin across the United States. Kelton’s poise, delivery, general attitude, were not versatile. You knew what you were getting and you knew its limitations. She would not hide them. Take the voice: that Montana twang delivered sassy, supremely unimpressed responses to everything that happened, while the eyes fixed their opponent with a sparkle of triumph as if expecting the subject perused to start shrinking towards microscopic insignificance at any instant.
Pert Kelton in Lightning Strikes Twice (1934)
Pert Kelton in Lightning Strikes Twice (1934)
Of course, comic characters depend on their very inflexibility to survive, so Pert’s supposed “limitations” were really strengths. “You ever try eatin’ your cake, and havin’ it too? [pause] It’s an old Swedish custom.” Rather than chase after meaning, she bent the material to her skills. If called upon to act impressed, she would flaunt her indifference, and make us like it – “us” being an endless procession of sub-cultures slipping towards the gutter, shlumping into Dadaism. Required to show affection, she would display a more genial contempt. Nobody can do everything, so she specialised in doing as little as possible, and making it stand in for the rest. We found ourselves summoned by her stance, an attitude amounting to alchemy. An unremarkable voice that was nonetheless emblematic of a unification, smoothing over and generalising of our dialectal curiosa and cattywompus Americana. From carnivals and prisons, from jerkwater towns and city slums, we came, outcasts belching our way into movie palaces via synchronised sound technology – a living, breathing mass consciousness finding an outlet in Pert’s nasality.
By the Lumière Sisters

4 thoughts on “Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema”

  1. Well penned and (for me) very original essay with an enviable attitude. Chapters of this would be wonderful.

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