Pantomime and Modernism: Silent Film Pantomime

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

PDF version of the entire book.

Figure 119: A scene from the Swedish silent film “The Saga of Gösta Berling” (1924), directed by Mauritz Stiller, Karin Swanström (seated) as Gustafva Sinclaire. Photo: Swedish Film Institute.

Silent Film Pantomime

Motion picture technology allowed pantomime to operate in a medium other than theater, largely because motion picture technology until the late 1920s lacked the capacity to imprint sound to the image. Actors, screenwriters, and directors could not rely on voices to tell cinematic stories; actors therefore had to develop pantomimic actions to communicate emotions or to define the characters they played. In adapting to the new technology, pantomime became less dependent on the qualities that had defined and shaped it in the theater, and as a result, it acquired a modernist aspect defined by the new technology, although, as has been remarked earlier, pantomime actually anticipated the silent cinema, such as in the melodramatic scenarios of Audinot and Cuvelier and in the ancient Roman pantomime, where the interpellator functioned in a manner similar to the use of intertitles in silent films. While many actors with theatrical backgrounds developed careers in silent films, pantomimic actors from the theater hardly ever ventured into the new medium, and those who did were most likely as much dancers as pantomimes: Grete Wiesenthal, Grit Hegesa, Anita Berber, Rita Sacchetto, Leni Riefenstahl, Anna Pavlova, Stacia NapierkowskaCharlotte WiehéGeorges Wague, Séverin. It was therefore largely performers without a background in pantomime as it had evolved in the theater who shaped pantomimic styles of acting in silent film, and many performers did not even have a background in theater. Moreover, it was not only the actors who shaped cinematic pantomimic performance. Film is an image medium, not a contrived reality. As such, pantomimic performance on film unfolded as a close relationship between the performing body and camera placement, photographic lighting, editing, and varieties of scenic environment, with many pantomimic scenes taking place in natural or “real” spaces or in specifically designed studio sets that were impossible to reproduce in a theater. 

            Silent films required pantomimic forms of signification that accommodated the spectator’s peculiar relation to the screen image. This relation evolved rapidly as actors and film directors quickly introduced visual devices for intensifying the spectator’s engagement with the image. In Eloquent Gestures (1992), Roberta Pearson described this evolution in terms of a tension between “histrionic” and “verisimilar” codes of pantomimic signification. Up until 1911-1913, she contends, a histrionic code dominated silent film acting, after which the verisimilar code prevailed. She bases her argument on the evidence of acting in Biograph short films directed between 1908 and 1912 by D.W. Griffith (1875-1948), who spent several years in theatrical touring companies before entering the film production business. The histrionic code refers to a self-consciously theatrical system of gestures, movement conventions, and physical expressions so that the pleasure of theatrical performance resulted from watching performers “ostentatiously playing a role rather than pretending to be another person” (Pearson 1992: 21). To signify a particular emotion, like anger, required the actor to apply the corresponding or “correct” gesture, such as clenched fists and trembling arms and torso. In applying the histrionic code, the actor adhered to a kind of dictionary of gestures—to which Pearson assigns authorship to Delsarte—to be consulted in relation to the particular emotions the character needed to communicate at a particular moment in the performance. The verisimilar code refers to gestures that are similar to what the character would perform in “reality” as it is understood by the audience or society. Gestures in the verisimilar code are unique to the character, not to the emotion signified. Different characters may signify anger differently, and even the same character may signify anger differently: heavy breathing or a fist slammed against a surface or a violent stare or a lunging at the source of anger. Verisimilar acting entails the accumulation of gestural details that are peculiar to the character constructed by the actor rather than to any discrete set of emotions, and often these details produce ambiguity rather than clarity about the emotions signified (28-32). Pearson associates the histrionic code with “non-psychological” narratives in which the story requires characters to act in prescribed ways for the story to be satisfying; the verisimilar code she associates with “psychological” narratives in which the characters motivate the story and cause things to happen (54). The histrionic code, she contends, finds its strongest application in stage melodrama, while the verisimilar code operates most emphatically in naturalistic performances meant to dissolve distinctions between life and representation. Pearson’s explanation of a fundamental shift in pantomimic performance in the early years of silent film is accurate and persuasive. Svend Christiansen introduced similar observations in Klassisk skuespillkunst (1975) regarding the presence of old acting conventions in early Danish silent films from 1910-1911 (341-354). However, in the Danish films he saw in what Pearson calls the verisimilar code in the Biograph films remnants of a histrionic code that was much larger and more complex than the histrionic code Pearson associates with the late nineteenth century melodrama. The verisimilar code from his perspective was not an invention of cinema and even long preceded the advent of the melodrama; one might assign it to the “restrained” and subtly detailed performances of pantomimes like Deburau and Séverin, and, indeed, by the 1880s, the theater of realism and naturalism, adopting the verisimilar code, was in ascent and melodrama in the histrionic mode in steep decline. The “shift” around 1912 from the histrionic to the verisimilar code in film was not altogether decisive: histrionic elements remained in much film acting well into the 1920s, and verisimilar elements appear in conjunction with histrionic elements well before 1908. Georges Méliès’s L’affaire Dreyfus (1899), though it frames each scene as if the camera is watching a play, contains pantomimic actions performed with a kind of documentary accuracy of detail that is remote from the histrionic mode of performance that otherwise prevails entirely within this director’s work. The actors in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), shot largely outdoors, perform almost completely in the verisimilar code. Attitudes toward theater defined the tension between histrionic and verisimilar codes in cinema. As long as audiences expected theater to create its own reality independent of the world outside of the theater, then the histrionic code prevailed and audiences evaluated the performances of actors according to how well they mastered the code the society had assigned for the communication of emotions so that the audience would not confuse the emotions of the character with those of the actor. Thus: “Audiences and critics condemned as inadequate those who did not demonstrably act: the pleasure derived not from participating in an illusion but from witnessing a virtuoso performance” (Pearson 1992: 21). In effect, the histrionic code prevents actors from intensifying the emotions of the audience, because the purpose of the performance is to stimulate approval of the code, not to stimulate in the spectator the emotions felt by any character or any emotions that arise within the spectator as a result of comparing the simulation of emotion on stage with the signification or experience of that emotion “in reality.” The prevalence of the histrionic code in early silent cinema was most likely due to the unwillingness of filmmakers to present scenes of simulated actions that audiences might confuse with photographed, documentary depictions of “real life.” Such confusion might lead to destabilizing “misunderstandings” about “real life” itself that could precipitate social disorder. For this reason, in France, the government banned the showing of L’affaire Dreyfus, and in 1910, the Danish film Afgrunden, with its unprecedentedly naturalistic acting, particularly in a sadomasochistic dance scene, faced censorship problems in several countries, including the United States. But by 1911, it was obvious that audiences much preferred to compare acting to “reality” than to an insular, self-contained semiotic system designed to clarify emotions that “in reality” could be confused with other emotions.  

            The histrionic code derived from a system of bodily signification formulated in the pre-cinema theater culture of the mid-nineteenth century, which applied the system most overtly in the performance of melodrama and well before Delsarte’s disciples had transmitted his teachings through numerous publications in the latter half of the century. The relation between Delsarte’s system and the histrionic code is muddled. Delsarte intended to develop in students the confidence to present themselves to audiences, to address audiences; theatrical acting as such, the pretending to be another identity, was never a goal of his pedagogy. But many persons who became silent film actors studied Delsartean techniques to develop the expressive powers of their bodies. As a result, the temptation may arise to believe that the “technique” of silent film acting is congruent with Delsartean techniques for signifying emotions. Hilary Hart, for example, has examined scenes in Griffith films from 1915, 1919, and 1921 in which the actress Lillian Gish (1893-1992) applies gestures and facial expressions that Hart says copy gestural exercises found in Delsartean manuals: Genevieve Stebbins, Delsarte System of Expression (1892) and Marion Lowell, Harmonic Gymnastics and Pantomimic Expression (1895). Griffith, according to Suzanne Shelton, required his actresses to attend lessons given by the Denishawn School, founded in 1915 in Hollywood by Ruth St. Denis and her partner Ted Shawn, and where many actresses developed movement skills that supposedly enabled them to “create a language of silent film gesture based solidly on Delsarte” (Shelton 1990: 137). In The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gish plays Elsie, a virginal white woman, who is the object of obsession by a mulatto politician, Silas Lynch, played by George Siegmann (1882-1928). Frustrated by Elsie’s refusal to accept his proposals, Lynch attacks her. “To express the extremity of the situation Gish draws upon the more emphatic Delsartean performance signs. […] Gish has tilted her head back and rolled her eyes skyward with the whites showing beneath the iris. Her mouth is open and gagged and her face is largely slack beneath the eyes.” These significations closely resemble the instruction in Lowell, “the “head thrown back” expresses the mind “in a passional prostration or despair,” and the assertion in Stebbins that “the head thrown back midway between the shoulders” signifies “exaltation, explosion from self as a centre, a lifting to the universal” (Hart 2005: 190; Lowell 1895: 71; Stebbins 1892: 133). Hart sees Gish performing variations on this “head thrown back” gesture in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Orphans of the Storm (1921) (191-193). However, the Delsartean manuals do not say that, to signify horror at a sexual assault, the actress should throw the head back and raise the eyes; they simply say that when performing this gesture, people will likely read it as an expression of despair (Lowell) that can also be confused with exaltation (Stebbins). The manuals exist to make students aware of how people are likely to ascribe emotional values to particular gestures. How else or better could an actress signify that the character “has ceased fighting and certainly appears to have abandoned herself to her fate” than through the head thrown back and the body plunging into a kind of deathly passivity? Well, perhaps she could slump her body downward and hang her head heavily so that she appears as a dull, cumbersome weight in the arms of her attacker. But is this a better or more dramatic choice? In other words, the Delsartean manuals may include significations derived as much from observations of “real life” as from a histrionic code unique to the theater or performance for an audience. 

            Gestures are histrionic because of their intensity, their bigness, and their evident simplicity. Perhaps the most obvious type of histrionic signification is pointing and various types of arm waving, arm folding, arm raising, and arm sweeping: actors, especially on stage, have to make more efficient and expressive use of their arms than people in “real life” if they are to avoid appearing uninteresting. The histrionic code is largely about translating ideas or words into arm and hand signals. “Please, come into my house” may be translated as: hands pressed together (“Please”), a beckoning wave of the left hand toward the respondent (“come”), followed by the right hand placed on the chest (“my”), then a broad sweep of the left arm backwards to indicate a place behind the gesturer (“house”). Much of pantomime in early cinema consists of this kind of gestural signification. The signification of “big” emotions like rage, despair, and joy often involves an exaggerated pressing of the arms and hands into the body to produce a convulsed or upwelling movement of the whole body. These significations are effective when 1) the camera sees the performer’s whole body as if seeing it on a theater stage and without any closer view of it; 2) the film story is no more than ten or twelve minutes long and cannot depend on intertitles to explain any character motivation, as in early Biograph shorts, although one finds examples of the style in a rare long film, Ferdinand Zecca’s La vie et la passion de Jesus (1903); 3) the production time for producing the film is very short (no more than a few days) and actors and directors do not have the time to develop “detailed” physical significations of character; 4) filmmakers cannot rely on actors from the theater to perform in films, because many theater actors prior to 1908 doubt the “legitimacy” of film for their talents, and so filmmakers recruit actors who can be quickly taught “the code” that allows them to perform various brief scenes before the camera. But even by 1908, acting in the cinema was not consistently histrionic, for many scenes showed people communicating verbally, and the actors actually spoke the conversation, even though the audience never heard their words: the actors mimed conversing rather than translated the words they spoke into physical gestures (cf. Griffith’s The Romance of a Jewess [1908]). The histrionic code in early cinema is closer to dance than to conventional stage acting of the time, a choreographed artificiality of signification that prevails in the many fantasy and trick photography films dominating the production of fictional stories up to 1908 especially in France, in the films of Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Ferdinand Zecca (1864-1947), and Albert Capellani (1874-1931) (cf. the delightful mixing of histrionic and dance movement in Capellani’s La légende de Polichinelle [1907]) and continuing grandiosely in Italian historical spectacles like Luigi Magi’s Nero (1909) and, most peculiarly, Giuseppe de Liguoro’s L’Inferno (1911), an adaptation of Dante’s poem (1317), in which a large number of actors consistently signify in an extravagantly histrionic manner that seems quite remote from Delsartean semiotics and more aligned with a self-conscious effort to produce a “medieval” idea of a dignified nobleman surveying bodies living in eternal torment. As filmmakers moved toward fictional stories set in contemporary times, the histrionic code became more subdued or “economical,” due perhaps more to the influence of directors seeking a documentary-like illusion to their storytelling than to the desire of actors to observe actions as they are performed in “real life.” The director Allan Dwan (1885-1981), who worked under Griffith, explained: “What fascinated me about Griffith? Well, I think his lack of long gesture, his simplicity, and his use of facial expression. He developed a strange new pantomime. I like pantomime anyway, but I don’t like extreme pantomime. […] Other actors exaggerated to make up for not having words. His players used short little gestures to get over their point—they were much more realistic. And I saw Griffith was expressing vividly a lot of things with very little effort” (Brownlow 1968: 98). 

            Griffith abandoned the convention of filming the action as if one were seeing it performed on a stage. He brought the camera closer to the actors, so that the actors had to communicate entirely with their faces or upper bodies. Movements had to be small and subtle, not only to fit within the image frame, but to “match” each other when shot from different distances and angles and then edited together. Large or violent gestures had to be performed in relation to a guiding idea of dramatic effect built out of the contrast between small or “detailed” gestures and big, disruptive gestures (strong emotions) that challenged the capacity of the camera to frame them and thus moved the narrative in a different direction. Pantomimic performance included more than the actor’s performance; it also included how the camera saw the performer and the interaction between various views of the performer (long shot, mid-shot, close up). As the camera came closer to the performer, the performance became more “intimate,” and as the performance became more intimate, it strengthened the spectator’s engagement with the image. This technological organization of performance made Delsarte’s system an inadequate basis for a “technique” of silent film acting. Delsartean pedagogy always stresses gestures, not actions; it isolates significations of emotions from each other; it does not deal with the handling of props or the performance of tasks; it detaches the body and gesture from any scenic context or specific dramatic situation; it ascribes no significance to physiognomy, class, or personal circumstances in the “correct” performance of gestures; and it achieved perfection through a set of exercises structured in relation to received ideas about how emotions look when performed rather than in relation to any empirical evidence of how people actually signified their feelings or how they respond to images of actors signifying emotions. But the Delsarte system was eminently teachable, and anyone could learn it easily with diligent practice. However, what was useful for teachers and schools was not especially helpful in understanding the aesthetics of motion picture pantomime. 

            Nevertheless, the idea of a unique technique for silent film acting persisted. In 1901, Charles Aubert (1851-?), a writer and performer of pantomimes in Paris, published L’Art mimique, which applied Delsartean techniques specifically to the learning of “the art of pantomime” and “dramatic movements” of the body. In her introduction to the 1927 English translation, Sybil Baker, Director of the Community Center for Public Schools in the District of Columbia, remarks that, “The moving picture screen may gain much from this treatise with its lavish and illuminating diagrams” (Aubert 1927: x). Aubert did not focus on how to signify particular emotions; rather, he showed how a person may use the body and face to translate specific words or perceptions into gestures and expressions. He discussed gestures in relation to conditions, phrases, verbs (“the life and wealth of pantomime”), adjectives, and sequenced significations: “For the final word, then, let the spectacle of a pantomime be a series of moving pictures which each gesture changes every moment, but not incessantly, for they must contain short moments of immobility when they hold the pose” (201). Aubert used 200 facial and body diagrams to illustrate the relation between words or conditions and movements. Under each illustration he described variations that extended the possible meanings of a template positioning of the body. For example, under Figure 33, “To bend the body, assists the expression of:

            Timidity.               Dissimulation.

            Hypocrisy.            Physical suffering.

            Premeditation.      Humility.

            Old age.                Remorse.

            Self-distrust.         Terror.

            Shame.                 Apprehension.

The abdomen drawn in intensifies the expressions signified by the bowed body” (46) [Figure 120]. Aubert’s book was like a dictionary of facial and bodily movements for performing Parisian pantomime in the 1890s. “To sit, legs apart, chest forward and elbows resting on your knees, gives the picture of a rough person without education” (27). But by 1927, the book was probably more useful to people involved with community theaters than to those seeking to decipher the mysteries of motion picture pantomime. Like Delsarte, Aubert sought to construct a system of bodily signification that integrated speechless performance within a nineteenth century notion of social order, in which the display of emotions had its “correct” place within a larger ideology of self-improvement, whereby a person would perform successfully by following instructions and copying templates. But in 1922, a German actor, Oskar Diehl, published a book on Mimik im Film that resembled Aubert’s approach with far fewer illustrations and somewhat more complex exercises. Like Aubert, he did not describe or analyze any performances he had seen in film or on the stage. Motion picture pantomime, however, undermined the whole idea of a system of bodily signification. This freedom from system, which begins with Pearson’s verisimilar code, is what made pantomime in the movies modern.

Figure 120: Illustration from Charles Aubert, L’Art mimique (1901) showing a gesture that may signify Timidity, Dissimulation, Hypocrisy, Physical suffering, Premeditation, Humility, Old age, Remorse, Self-distrust, Terror, Shame, or Apprehension. From Aubert (1901: 46). 

The concept of a technique or system for motion picture pantomime was completely absent from one of the earliest books on the subject, Motion Picture Acting (1913), by Frances Agnew (1891-1967), herself an actress and screenwriter. The young author instead identified “qualities” requisite for success as a film actor. These include above all: good health (stamina), appearance, determination and ambition, and a photogenic “personality” (Agnew 1913: 29-33). For the good health that actors need to shoot films daily throughout the year, she recommends a disciplined regime of physical exercise, supplemented with breathing exercises. “Physical self-control paves the way for the assertion of [a dormant] personality” (37). Unlike Delsarte, Agnew never refers to any gestural system for signifying emotions, characters, or ideas. Instead, she suggests what none of the Delsarteans or Aubert ever considered: a person wanting to learn motion picture pantomime should imagine a little story and try to perform all the characters in the story, perhaps the most astute advice yet given following the proliferation of exercise-ridden manuals of Delsartean semiotics (41). She also claims that, “The school of observation is among the best one can attend,” by which she means that one should watch often and carefully the performance of actors on the screen. The student actor should try to perform what the actor on the screen has done without copying it, “for in imitation one loses individual touches and personality” (43). The key to success on the screen is the revelation of a unique “personality,” a distinctive way of moving and signifying. For Agnew, personality and physical appearance are closely linked, although physical appearance was by no means synonymous with beauty or gracefulness: it was, rather, a “neat, magnetic presence,” an awareness of how to display oneself to advantage regardless of physiognomy—one of her examples is the corpulent comic actor John Bunny (1863-1915). In addition, persons seeking to become film actors should familiarize themselves with the film industry: agents, working conditions, salaries, and people who manage film companies. Instead of template images of generic figures performing movements or expressions, Agnew inserted photos of actors, including herself, in studio poses or in scenes from films. Her book avoids altogether the moralizing that pervades the Delsartean treatises, because for her, the study of film acting is not about finding one’s place within society; it is about living a life that is separate from the life lived by the rest of society. The film actor Arthur Johnson (1876-1916) espoused a similar view: “Conventional pantomime was first attempted, but it soon gave way to a less artificial style of acting. To-day we aim to make our efforts as nearly approximate [to] real life as we can using few conventional gestures and absolutely none of the old pantomimic modes of expression” (Lusk 1914: 44). 

            Filmen dens midler og maal (1919), by the Danish film director Urban Gad (1879-1947), discussed motion picture pantomime from the perspective of a film director. Gad began his film career directing the famous Danish film Afgrunden (1910) and a couple of other melodramas in Denmark, but he shot most of his many productions in Germany (1911-1922), including nearly thirty starring his much more famous wife, Asta Nielsen (1881-1972). His book covers the entire process of film production, distribution, and exhibition. In the section on film acting, he, like Agnew, concentrates on qualities of an actor that are unique to performance on the screen. The physical appearance of the actor is decisive in the casting of roles for a film, because the “film apparatus” cannot disguise discrepancies of age and physiognomy between character and actor as the theater can. The director evaluates physical appearances in relation to “types” of characters in stories. However, in regard to the actor’s performance of a character, Gad expresses skepticism toward schools and even theatrical training, for film acting is effective, not because of the application of a technique, but because of a keen understanding of the medium (Gad 1919: 151). “A widespread but totally erroneous belief is that the film requires large movements, vivid gestures [and] the use of big movements from the old-fashioned pantomime technique.” Film creates an intensely “intimate” art that requires actors to signify with greater restraint than occurs in the theater without succumbing to “bland immobility.” Because the tempo of films is faster than in the theater, gestures must be swifter and subtler, and actors must be aware of the signifying power of fingers, eyebrows, lips, and head turns. In conversational scenes, actors must indicate how they listen while another character speaks, even though the audience cannot hear the words, and the ineffectiveness of actors in performing as listeners is apparently a persistent problem for directors. Because film production entails different “takes” of brief scenes, actors and directors can correct mistakes and shape scenes with greater freshness than occurs in the theater, where constant rehearsal and repetition of scenes tends to “lengthen” gestures and produce a more artificial atmosphere. Otherwise, “it is of course impossible to give any general advice on acting,” for film does not require any special technique of pantomimic performance (160). What is important is that the actor “feel the situation personally. Is he able to empathize with the character and the action in the given moment he performs? Does he glow and rejoice like it was nobody but himself?” The actor must signify “so strongly and personally […] that he or she must feel as if it were one’s own child who was dying, as if it were one’s own beloved, which was lost, as if it were one’s own future, which was ruined” (155). In other words, the director does not look for the actor to apply a codified signifying practice to the performance of a character; he wants to see gestural choices that are unique to the actor yet persuasive qualities of the character. So: along with Agnew, he implies that motion picture pantomime develops, not in relation to a unified or “universal” mode of signification, but in relation to increasingly individual or “personalized” disclosures of feeling achieved through the convergence of physiognomy, “intimate” awareness of the camera, and an acute sense of the moment of performance (the “take”) rather than its repetition.

            Two years later, a British book appeared, How to Become a Film Artiste: The Art of Photoplay Acting (1921), by Fred Dangerfield, editor of a film magazine, and Norman Howard, a film actor. Like Gad, Dangerfield and Howard present an overview of the film production process, although their description is much less detailed, comprehensive, and thoughtful than Gad’s. The authors devote only a few pages to film acting, and, as expected by now, they discuss qualities rather than performance techniques of the actor, offering common sense but hardly insightful remarks: The actor “must possess a vivid imagination [… and] be a master of deportment, a good dancer, be able to swim, dive, ride, fence, box, motor, and do practically everything that comes to his hand.” “A pair of dark eyes, full of meaning and expression, are absolutely invaluable. […] The eyes are everything” and the key to “personality,” which “counts more in moving picture work than on the stage” (Dangerfield 1921: 33-34). Film acting is an art of “restrained pantomime” requiring exceptional “thought-concentration.” Contradicting Gad, the authors claim, “The action should never be hurried. […] You must act more slowly in film drama, because the camera absorbs action […] Your deportment, or the way you move about, must be perfectly easy and natural, free from jerks and ungainly strides” (39-40). While the actor must be able to “depict” a very wide range emotions, the “depicting of the fine shades of expression is extremely difficult” (43). The authors, however, provide no suggestion about how to “depict” any emotion, nor do they describe how any actor performed a particular emotion on the screen. Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is a collection of statements by film actors and producers from different countries; they present delightful anecdotes about the peculiarities of being a film actor without offering any explanations about film acting as a signifying practice. Motion picture pantomime thus appears as a mysterious, amorphous phenomenon, governed by nebulous concepts like “personality” and seriousness of purpose, without any system, without any network of devices that can be taught, for the system the actor must learn is the system of motion picture production, the mode of industrial production. 

Figure 121: Cover photo of actress Marjorie Daw (1902-1979) for the January 7, 1922 issue of the weekly American film magazine “Pantomime,” based in New York and devoted to short articles about new films, films in production, and biographical details of film stars and film production personnel. Photo: Alfred Cheney Johnston (1885-1971). Photo source: the Internet Archive.

            In the new Soviet Union, however, the idea of a system for film acting retained some appeal during the era of Constructivism (1921-1929). Beginning in 1922, the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) developed a system of “biomechanics” for creating a non-realistic performance aesthetic opposed to the psychological realism that prevailed at the Moscow Art Theater under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938), who, from 1909, had developed his own system of acting, whereby an actor “became” a character by living “as if” he experienced life as his character experienced it. Biomechanics was a system of physical training that treated the body as if it were a machine from which a director could “engineer” an elaborately athletic performance that was neither danced nor infected with “bourgeois” habits of “natural,” stifled movement. It was not a semiotic system in which particular movements signified particular emotions or “attitudes.” Rather, it revealed the body as a “construction” of mechanical parts that a director could juxtapose or set in counterpoint to the spoken language of a text and thus create a modernistic, “scientific,” and “industrial” form of performance for a wide range of plays. Consisting entirely of exercises (“etudes”), biomechanics was not an end in itself and therefore not a form of pantomime. It aided actors in the construction of stunts and the acrobatic speaking of texts, but, unlike dance or pantomime, it was incapable of sustaining audience interest on its own, even with musical accompaniment, although Meyerhold did film a few exercises (cf. Thomas 2013; Meyerhold 2008). 

But the idea of the body as a machine whose parts could be assembled or engineered to produce a performance appealed to Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s. In accordance with Communist ideology, Soviet filmmakers advocated a “revolutionary” form of cinematic narrative that told the stories of categories, classes, or “types” of people in contrast to the capitalist or bourgeois cinema, with its focus on stories of highly individualized characters or “personalities,” epitomized by an industrial cultivation of “star” performers (Pudovkin 1960: 265-268; Eisenstein 1957a: 198-203). In the revolutionary narrative, classes or types of people are in conflict with each other, and an actor plays a character representing an entire class of people, such as the proletarian son, or the ruling class official or the capitalist entrepreneur. To construct the “dialectical” conflict between classes and the characters who represent the classes, filmmakers adopted a “montage” principle for staging action, image composition, and the organization of relations between images. The director Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) defined montage as the rhythmic juxtaposition of separate images or “representations” to construct a “complete image” of a theme (Eisenstein 1957b: 69). In Mother (1926), for example, the director, Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953), juxtaposes images of river ice breaking up with images of prisoners rioting to construct the perception that the insurrection arises from natural conditions and is synonymous with an upheaval in nature. The director Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) demonstrated the theory around 1920 when he presented the so-called “Kuleshov effect,” whereby he juxtaposed the same image of the film actor Ivan Mosjoukine (1889-1939) with the images of a bowl of soup, a woman lying in a coffin, and child playing with a teddy bear, and the audience believed that the actor had changed his expression in response to each image (Sargeant 2000: 6-11). In relation to film acting, montage primarily meant the dialectical editing of manifold shots of the actor to create the perception of a larger point of view or ideological perspective shaping the character’s actions. Camera angle, image composition, camera distance, costume, physiognomy, and scenic details, when emphasized by the rapid editing of shots, theoretically carried more emotional weight than any sequencing of gestures by the actor. In effect, the performance of the character owed more to the director and the editor than to the actor. This way of thinking about film acting required only modest pantomimic skill, because all shots were very brief, and actors were largely biomechanical components of a cinematic machinery supposedly controlled more by “history” than even by the director, who was simply the agent through which history transmitted the dialectical tensions that defined it. With the montage approach, directors like Eisenstein and Pudovkin greatly expanded the range of “types” represented on the screen and were able to present many more scenes involving large numbers of people than tended to occur in the capitalist cinema focused on unique personalities. “Imitating, pretending, playing are unprofitable, since this comes out very poorly on the screen” (Kuleshov 1974: 63; Yampolsky 1996). “The film image of the actor is composed from dozens and hundreds of separate, disintegrated pieces in such a way that sometimes he works at the beginning on something that will later form a part at the end. The film actor is deprived of a consciousness of the uninterrupted development of the action, in his work” (Pudovkin 1960: 137).

 But not all subscribers to the montage theory regarded the actor as simply a mechanical component inserted into “single, unifying image that is determined by its component parts” (Eisenstein 1957b: 69). In 1921, in Petrograd, a group of film and theater artists formed a group called the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), which published a wild but little read manifesto the following year (Cavendish 2013: 203-205). The work of several authors, the manifesto emulated the loud, telegraphic, violent typography of Futurist proclamations that were a chaotic montage of screaming headlines and frenzied assertions, for:

Life Requires Art That Is


Otherwise no one will hear, no one will see, no will stop (Eccentric  Manifesto 1992: 3).

The FEKS group, guided by the directors Grigori Kozintsev (1905-1973) and Leonid Trauberg (1902-1990), sought to create a new kind of intermedial theater that integrated “devices” from music hall, film, circus, cabaret, sporting events, poster art, parades, fairgrounds, and amusement parks into a “synthesis of movements: acrobatic, gymnastic, balletic, bio-mechanic” (Eccentric Manifesto 1992: 5). After applying these devices to the production of plays by Gogol and Shakespeare, FEKS transformed into a film studio and school and began producing films, mostly comedies, including, among others, The Devil’s Wheel (1926), The Overcoat (1926), and The New Babylon (1929), all directed by Kozinstev and Trauberg. The FEKS studio developed a pantomimic style of film acting that emphasized the performance of “gags,” devices of signification, “eccentric” gesturing, idiosyncratic bits of movement, and peculiar facial expressions. The actor had to learn how to perform these devices in relation to a particular character and in relation to the unique style the director and designers had constructed for the production as a whole, for the devices and the style—“the acclimatization of gags”—that compiled them functioned, to use the term introduced by the literary theorist, screenwriter, and FEKS enthusiast Viktor Shklovsky (1893-1984), to “estrange” the spectator from the norms of signification that prevailed in highly institutionalized performances. FEKS films required sophisticated actors, in contrast to the films of Pudovkin and Eisenstein, even though Kozinstev and Trauberg shared their conviction that advanced cinematic art entailed montage and innovative image composition. The “eccentric” pantomime style is evident in the extant films that Kozinstev and Trauberg directed, perhaps most obviously in The Overcoat (1926), an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s (1809-1852) story from 1842, with a screenplay by the formalist literary scholar Yuri Tynyanov (1894-1943). The story tells of a humble middle-aged civil servant who invests his savings in the purchase of a magnificent overcoat that engulfs him with warmth when he wears it. But when a gang of thieves steals the coat from him and his efforts to recover it fail, he returns to his dismal little apartment and dies. The civil servant encounters many characters, and each actor infuses each character with “eccentric” mannerisms, strange gestural inflections in a walk, a glance, a turn of the head, a lift of the head, a movement of the hand, a sitting posture, or a buttoning of a coat. The actors do not exaggerate their gestures; they make them visible, like an accent. Many of these subtle gestures become visible because of an “accentuation” applied also to costumes, props, lighting, and the powerful, expressionistic cinematography by Andrei Moskvin (1901-1961) (Cavendish 2013: 212-216) [Figure 122]. Andrei Kostrichkin (1901-1973), the actor who played the civil servant, was, amazingly, only twenty-five years old.The Overcoat is a dark film, not really a comedy, and only occasionally grotesque, for a tone of pathos, even foreboding, pervades the entire film. It is said that the film was not a success with audiences (Youngblood 1991: 97). As usual in relation to FEKS productions, representatives of Soviet cultural policy criticized the film for its “formalism” and inadequate construction of a “modern” perspective on the material. With Kozinstev and Trauberg’s The New Babylon (1929), a drama set in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent Commune, the accusations of formalism became very intense, with much criticism leveled against the “eccentric” music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), the stylized pantomime, the tragic resolution, and the expressionist cinematography by Moskvin; the project became the object of much re-editing, mishandling, suppression, and bitter disappointment leading to the dissolution of FEKS. Yet FEKS created a unique style of motion picture pantomime; it was not a pantomime technique, but a way of thinking about gesture in film as a bodily “eccentricity” or inflection that arises out of the character’s peculiar circumstances in both the narrative and the performance environment as defined by the image composition.

Figure 122: Film technology during the silent era allowed for a fragmentation of pantomimic performance that emphasized physiognomic peculiarities and the expressive value of small physical actions. Soviet montage theory of the cinematic image connected this fragmentation to a critique of social and class constructions of identity, as in this scene from Kozinstev and Trauberg’s The Overcoat (1926). 

Internationally, then, motion picture technology freed pantomime from the perception of it imposed by theater, which, to preserve its own hierarchy of performance categories, in the early 1900s continued to subordinate pantomime to the long-decadent image of Pierrot and a heavily institutionalized aesthetic of communication built around the authority of simple, “unambiguous” gestural signification—“the long gesture.” Motion picture technology showed the extraordinary expressive power of the body in performing all manner of gestures, actions, and movements, sometimes with almost imperceptible subtlety. Pantomime in the new medium was without any special technique, without system. Each actor and each director had to develop a unique relationship between gesture and the camera; as the medium matured, it could accommodate an immense, ever expanding diversity of pantomimic styles or “personalities,” without suffering any internal or external pressure to establish its credibility or appeal by adopting a standardized or unifying code of signification. With silent film, pantomime became a technological performance that was as much about the relation of the body to image technology as it was about the relation of characters to each other in a story. The relation of images to each other determined the “meaning” of pantomimic performance more than the performance of the gesture itself, as Kuleshov observed. The technology created the perception that the body could release a vast profusion of “meanings” and could be interpreted “freely,” a situation, of course, that Delsartean semiotics discouraged. Even when theater pantomimes moved into the cinema, they adopted signifying practices that created a new kind of pantomimic performance. Ariane Martinez has analyzed early films featuring Séverin and Charlotte Wiehé, l’Empreinte oula main rouge (1908) and La Main (1909). She argues that before the camera these performers made expressive use of the hands in a way that was unique to the medium—theatrical gestures, dancing gestures, speaking gestures, and pictorial gestures—and she concludes that “what today captures attention” is not the clarity or unity of signification but its “plurivocity”: “Not the ease of their movements, but their manner of closing and tensing the body; not the individual style of their play, but their ability to play resonantly with all the elements inscribed in the frame field. Far from relying on gestural language to replace speech, the interest of mimic art for cinema was based on the ability of mimes to borrow alternately from the theater (whose reversals lead to visible dynamic postures, from dance (which eroticizes bodies by dazzling the eye), and from painting (where the balance of forms prevails)” (Martinez 2008b: 145). Elsewhere, however, Martinez discusses Michel Carré’s efforts to turn his popular 1890 stage pantomime L’enfant prodigue into a film in 1907 and again in 1916. Both films featured Georges Wague, who had played Pere Pierrot in the stage version. The archival material about the stage version shows that both films closely followed the staging, the décor, and gestural qualities “realized by the epoch of the Cercle Funambulesque,” with stereotyped movements and rigid postures. These films were among “numerous” filmed adaptions of stage pantomimes involving Pierrot that, especially during the war years, when French film production operated under much constraint and austerity, enjoyed considerable popularity. But by the end of the war, the “excessive mimicry” of these films lost their appeal, as audiences began to expect cinema to provide a new image of humanity (Martinez 2008a: 166-167). Wague, who appeared in many films, contended that film created a new kind of pantomime in which performance for the camera allowed for the “localization” of gesture, which in effect mostly meant the magnification of small gestures of the hand, the eye, the head, the shoulder, and the lips (171). In so many cases, though, this localization occurred in scenes where characters mimed conversation rather than conversed through mime. But a vast amount of pantomimic action in films consisted of characters performing actions that had nothing to do with people in dialogue with each other: ironing a shirt, bathing a child, firing guns, walking down streets, stepping onto and off of trains, opening doors, looking out windows, lighting cigarettes, smelling flowers, and innumerable other seemingly mundane actions given a magnified expressive power by the performer and the camera. Much of film acting was about the performance of actions, in the Mensendieck sense, than the performance of gestures, and the performance of actions often required, for comic or dramatic effect, an exaggeration that the medium did not encourage for the performance of gestures. For example, a man or woman dancing while ironing a shirt might produce a humorous or delightful effect; a more somber or dramatic effect might result when a man or woman stands perfectly still except for the monotonous movement of the arm pushing the iron back and forth and gazes straightaway at something distant and unseen, as if thinking about something far more important than the task at hand. Cinema was not hostile to physical exaggeration; it was hostile to gestural codes that assumed the spectator understood the “meaning” of particular signs developed for the convenience of audiences in large theater spaces. In 1926, Wague claimed that cinema had killed theatrical pantomime, because of its power to “change scenes” and create the illusion of a much larger or more open space in which bodily performance occurs (175-176). Indeed, after 1920, it feels as if pantomime in the theater has become an irreparably diminished art, flirting with extinction, and utterly incapable of imagining a new aesthetic for itself that might compete with film, even after film had pervasively adopted sound technology by the early 1930s and by the 1940s had become saturated with verbosity and an extravagant addiction to talk. 

            A common way of thinking about silent film pantomime is to evoke the attributes peculiar to performances of a particular film star and see them as descended from the theatrical heritage of pantomime. Perhaps the most representative example of this way of thinking is the collection of insightful statements by silent film actors, entirely comics, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Max Linder, and Georges Wague, that appears in Bari Rolfe’s book Mimes on Miming (1979). Rigorous scholars of pantomime history show a fondness for designating Chaplin a summit of pantomimic art in the cinema (Martinez 2008a: 175 [following Deleuze 1983: 170-171]; Bonnet 2014: 71). In Star Acting (1977), Charles Affron describes in immense detail, and with the help of many frame stills, his responses to silent film performances by the dramatic actresses Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, and he favors the use of a rather metaphorical language to explain the mysterious “raptness” by which these star pantomime actresses hold the spectator, most often through facial expressions. Yet a focus on star performances tends to obscure the large impact of cinematic thinking on pantomime performance. Of course, Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) created a unique, globally popular film pantomimic style through the character of The Tramp (1914-1931), a vagabond figure rarely seen in close up, because Chaplin, with his music hall background, believed comic effects depended on seeing the whole body. His movements always carried a histrionic quality: delicate, polite, fussy, debonair gestures combined with abrupt swats, kicks, jolts, pivots, or stumbles, along with a carefree yet somewhat march-like strut with his feet pointing away from each other and often one hand behind his back. But as Chaplin himself acknowledged, the idiosyncratic gestures of The Tramp achieved their emotional and comic resonance only because of the costume the actor had devised for the character: “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large […] I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was” (Chaplin 1964: 145). Perhaps for some commentators on pantomime, Chaplin’s Tramp fulfills a desire for a Pierrot distinctive to the cinema. In contrast, Greta Garbo (1905-1990) perfected a dramatic style of film pantomime that was especially effective when the camera was close to her, even though she consistently played aloof personalities. Her movements were languid, reserved, calculated, poised, and sultry yet withholding until moments when a powerful emotion surged within her, causing her body to shudder, convulse, or gush exuberantly, with the famous arching or tilting of the head. But the vast majority of spectators saw a far greater range of pantomimic performances than any one star could typify as the “summit” or “essence” of silent film acting. The accumulated consumption of cinematic imagery created an idea of pantomimic performance that was much more complex than any one performer could embody.

Take, for example, the Japanese film Crossroads (Jujiro) (1928), directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), a former actor who had played female roles (onnagata) in silent films before Japanese movie studios began hiring women for these roles in 1922. The film was not especially popular in Japan, and the magazine Kinema Junpo did not even include it among the ten best Japanese films of 1928, but the film did achieve some success internationally (Matsuda 2003: 183-184; Lewinsky 1995: 56-61). It had no stars even within the Japanese market, but Kinugasa assembled a large group of highly skilled actors, most of whom had no previous experience working in film, although a couple had appeared briefly in Kinugasa’s much more experimental film A Page of Madness (1926). The film was a tragic melodrama, set in the eighteenth century, about a poverty-stricken brother and sister who come to a crisis in their relationship as a result of the brother’s debauchery in the Yoshiwara entertainment district of Tokyo; when the brother becomes blinded as a result of a fight with a rival for the favor of a prostitute, the sister must decide whether to save her brother by becoming a prostitute herself or to abandon him altogether. Kinugasa’s story was somewhat darker than many film melodramas produced by Japanese studios, but it was by no means a deeply innovative example of the genre. What is remarkable about the film is the construction of pantomimic action. The actors perform in a largely verisimilar manner, and the assertion by some viewers that the acting resembles Kabuki is perhaps comprehensible only in relation to the hairstyles and makeup worn by some of the actors. 

Figure 123: Expressionist film pantomime in Teinosuke Kinugasa Jujiro (Crossroads) (1928), with Akiko Chihaya as Okiku (the sister) and Junosuke Bando as Rikiya (the brother). 

While some actors perform scenes of intense violence, suffering, and despair, they never adopt the intensely histrionic style of Kabuki nor do their movements or gestures seem any less realistic than one might expect of a well-made melodrama produced in Europe or America at that time. But Kinugasa integrates the physical performance of the actors with an array of dramatic visual devices: he tracks toward and away from actors, he tracks with actors and between actors; he uses superimpositions with tracking shots; he uses extreme close ups of faces, hands, objects; he views numerous actions from high angles and from oblique angles; he frames actors in relation to dynamic décor designs, such as lanterns, pinwheels, kimonos, sliding screens, and silhouettes; he uses chiaroscuro, expressionistic lighting throughout; and in his editing of the film, he creates a compelling, rhythmic interweaving of long shots, mid shots, and close ups, so that the viewer always feels that the physical performance of an action carries with it more significance than can be seen at once or from any optimum angle [Figure 123]. European and American films probably influenced Kinugasa’s style for Crossroads (cf. Lewinsky 1995: 149-153). But that is the point: by 1928, internationally and in relation to conventional narrative genres, film in manifold cultures had transformed pantomime into a complicated performance that required an elaborate visual apparatus to see. Film made spectators wary of their ability to see live performance “fully” and to see the “completeness” of any gesture or movement. Films such as Crossroads implied that you don’t see movements sufficiently or entirely or accurately when you see them performed live or see them performed without mediation from cinematic technology. This ideology of mediation controlling perception of the body, the seeing of the body, became the insurmountable challenge that sank theatrical pantomime in the twentieth century.

Previous Section

Next Section


Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s