And now for something a little different. This book was published in 1922 as a textbook in a correspondence course from the New York Institute of Photography. The series promised to teach the reader everything they needed to know in order to join the film industry. This volume covers the art of acting.
This book is in the public domain and can be read online for free. I got my physical copy from Alibris. Tight copies will set you back a bit but the prices generally are not sky high. The acting volume is the most expensive, generally speaking, than other books in this series.
What is it?: A book of advice on screen acting, ostensibly with tips from the stars. I am taking that with a grain of salt since it was not uncommon for studio publicity departments to manufacture quotes out of whole cloth. Still, quite interesting. And I am 99% certain that the introduction by Lillian Gish is authentic because, well, read it for yourself:
There is only one place where a motion picture actor can develop his art, and that is in a motion picture studio….When you have read this book, and see the motion picture screen through new eyes, you may lose your desire to join the company of those who act before the camera. But if your desire to follow this profession still persists, then I can only say good luck to you!
Less than enthusiastic, wouldn’t you say?
Pictures: A decent amount of glossy image plates, mostly of film publicity stills.
Favorite Advice: Sure, you want to act, but are you photogenic in the 1920s sense? Let’s see:
And the mouth must be good, not only when it is closed, but when you are smiling or laughing, as well. There is one very pretty screen star whose mouth is really ugly when she laughs a distinct drawback which she has to overcome…
…There must be length from the upper lip to the nose; if this distance is too short, you will not screen well…
…The best height for a girl that is, the one most popular with directors– is five feet two, or three inches. Five feet, five inches is acceptable, but girls who are taller than that are not likely to find their height a help, but a hindrance. Of course, there are many actresses who are taller than this who are successful on the screen– Betty Blythe for instance. But they have other assets which discount their height.
A man should be taller, of course, and broad shouldered–the heroes of the screen nowadays are husky, as a rule though Rudolph Valentino, who is slender, though muscular, and Richard Barthelmess, who is not tall, are notable examples. He should have a good figure, be athletic and in good health.
Yes, but what about acting? Here are the first entries of an emotional questionnaire:
1. Is astonishment expressed by the eyes and mouth being opened wide, and by the eyebrows being raised?
2. Does shame excite a blush when the color of the skin allows it to be visible? And especially how low down the body does the blush extend?
3. When a man is indignant or defiant does he frown, hold his body and head erect, square his shoulders and clench his fists?
4. When considering deeply on any subject, or trying to understand any puzzle, does he frown, or wrinkle the skin beneath the lower eyelids?
Quick, answer me this: As you were reading, did the skin under your lower eyelids wrinkle? Then you just may have what it takes to be a silent era film star!
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Interesting about the desirable facial structure having a long enough distance from upper lip to nose.
When I started really focusing on silents, I kept noticing a certain something about many of the faces. After a while I decided that something probably was a relatively long distance from bottom lip down to chin bone. A long chin, I guess.
Gloria Swanson would be one example, but once I had the idea in mind I kept thinking I saw it in others’ faces too. Though I was never quite sure. Could it be a small mouth/thin lips that made the chin look longer?
Fortunately, I eventually stopped noticing/imagining this when watching silents. But your post today reminded me of it.
All in my imagination, or am I on to something?
I know for sure that a tiny mouth was highly desirable, especially in the 1910s, so perhaps that is connected. Alas, while I am not entirely face blind, I do seem to process features a bit differently than the norm, so I am pretty bad about noticing this kind of thing.
So beautifully spoofed in films like ‘Ella Cinders’ and ‘Show People’!
And the granddaddy of them all, Merton of the Movies
What a find! I teach Delsarte Technique so the book is a real treasure!
After having watched silent film since I was about 7, it becomes clear who has that extra something for pantomime and who does not.
Quite so, they just light up the screen.
Do you have any idea who is that “one very pretty screen star whose mouth is really ugly when she laughs”?
My personal guess is Lillian Gish. Not that her mouth is ugly but when she laughs or cries, the much fuller natural shape suddenly emerges from this tiny cupid’s bow and it is quite alarming but I could be totally off base as they were dealing with different standards of beauty. Very full lips being considered unattractive, for example, when they are considered quite alluring to the modern eye.
I have seen more than ten Lillian Gish silent features, but I remember only one clear laughing scene. In The Wind she bursts into laughter when tossing between two men. She covers her mouth carefully with a handkerchief.
On the other hand there are lots of tragic scenes and I don’t remember her ever looking ugly.
Not the dainty, teary-eyed stuff. Anything that requires her to really open her mouth wide. (Orphans of the Storm’s guillotine scene, for example, which she fought doing.) But it’s not really super important because we don’t actually know who this actress is and it might be someone completely off our radar or, heaven forbid, an actress who has a 0% film survival rate.
Although having made only one film (‘What Price Beauty?) Natasha Rambova,
Rudy’s wife, had a notoriously un-pretty smile.
But given the date this book was written, 1922, is it likely that her name would be dropped like that? She was far more famous for her costuming.
All throughout her marriage to Rudy, she was careful about being photographed without a smile. It has nothing to do with the book, but only came to mind when unphotogenic smiles were mentioned.
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