Silent Movie Bookshelf: Motion Picture Directing by Peter Milne

So far the 1922 motion picture correspondence course has covered acting and screenwriting. But what about that man (or woman!) with the megaphone? Directing movies also has its own volume in the series and it by far my favorite. The writing is smart and wisecracking, just the sort of prose to make you feel very 1920-ish indeed.

While paper copies are available readily, this book is in the public domain and, like the other volumes in this series, it is available to read online for free.

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What is it?: This book explains the tricks of the trade for a would-be silent movie director. Technique is covered and there are chapters dedicated to individual influential directors circa 1922, such as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Willian deMille, Erst Lubitsch, Marshall Neillan and Frank Borzage. The more technical chapters discuss how to prepare for a production, the use of music while filming, the importance of acting ability in a director and individual genres like slapstick comedy and serials.

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Pictures: Like the other books in this series, there are glossy photo plates. Most of them are behind-the-scenes pictures of directors plying their trade.

Favorite advice: On killing one’s villain:

The fight on the edge of a high precipice waged between the hero and the villain of the story is a favorite scene of every director’s. It is usually terminated when the hero mustering all his strength, lands on the jaw of the villain and tumbles him off the precipice into the nothingness below.

Now, of course villains are expensive commodities, often calling for five hundred dollars a week and more and no director can afford to let one drop over a cliff now and then just for the sake of a thrill. Furthermore, they are usually happily married with large families and these families would be inclined to feel some venom for the director if he permitted the villains to go over the precipices. So the following course is decided upon as the next best thing to actually killing the villain.

The author goes on to explain how trick photography may be employed to make the villain die without killing the actor.

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Favorite chapter: Chapter 22 on directorial conventions, aka cliches.

On college films:

Then there are the horrible directorial conventions regarding college life. A motion picture college is full of snobs, its dormitories are made up of rooms wall-papered with pennants and peopled with thirty-five year old actors in bulky sweaters who never stir without a pipe with a tremendous bowl and a mandolin or some stringed instrument.

The more things change…

On to the western:

There are, too, the wearisome conventions of western mining camp life as shown on the motion picture screen. Perhaps censor boards and writers have contributed in producing these conventions; chief of which is the fact that every dance hall queen is virtue personified, a Pollyanna in spangles, but they are conventions and unreal ones, nevertheless.

And then there is a long rant about how the practice of associating cigarette smoking with villainy may cause smoking to disappear from society. Sigh. If only…

Best directed pictures: The last part of the book is dedicated to the best directed pictures. What I found interesting about this list is how many of these films are still considered to be the best of the silent era. The Kid, Way Down East, Miss Lulu Bett, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Tol’able David

Interestingly, the author also puts himself outside the norm and lavishly praises The Indian Tomb, that wonderful (and wonderfully long) German film starring Conrad Veidt. Milne praises Mia May’s acting, Joe May’s direction, and claims that May will surely eclipse Lubitsch in reputation. We all know how that turned out but it is fun to read some contemporary praise for a film that did not get too much respect in America.

In fact, I enjoyed the list so much that I did a breakdown of every film. You can read the first part here. I cover which films survive, which are available on home media and my opinions if I have seen the film.

This book is grand fun and highly recommended!

☙❦❧

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