Acting correspondence courses were wildly popular during the silent era and while their advise must be taken with a grain of salt, they still provide insight into what silent era actors were expected to do.
Screen Acting: Its Requirements and Rewards is one such course. Besides obvious requirements like acting ability and photogenic looks, potential stars were advised to have multiple accomplishments up their sleeves.
Let’s look at them together and see if we modern folk have the skills for silent era acting.
Classified as a “society type” you may get occasional calls to appear as extra in a ballroom scene, but your chances are much better if you can answer “Yes” to all the questions of the casting director.
Can you dance?
You can’t expect to go far in ballroom scenes if you can’t but the book further advises most readers will answer in the affirmative “assuming that
ballroom dancing is meant. But dancing in the movies may mean anything from an Irish jig to a stately minuet or a frieze-like Egyptian effect and if you have said on your application that you can dance you may be called on to do any of these.”
Can you handle a tea service gracefully? Do you feel perfectly at ease in a big ballroom among many well-dressed people?
I mean, can’t everyone?
Can you fence?
I presume they mean sword stuff and not the selling of illicit goods but you never can tell.
Can you ride, swim, shoot, run long distances?
And this went for the women as well as the men. Silent era ladies were regularly expected to take part in action just as much as the gentlemen. Riding in particular was emphasized even for non-action, non-western stars as: “Suppose that you are playing a debutante in a society play; isn’t it likely that the director will want to show you taking your morning exercise that way, or riding to a hunt? And it is essential that you ride well, or you cannot play such a part convincingly.”
However, I should mention that it was not a deal breaker. William Boyd famously was unable to ride until he was well into his signature role as Hopalong Cassidy in the sound era.
The book further mentions that to really have a shot at the movies, you really must try to come from the right kind of family. Debutantes “can usually ride, swim, shoot, play polo, drive an automobile and they have poise that can only be acquired by association with cultured people. Further than that, most of them have been educated according to the best traditions, and have travelled abroad extensively.”
Fortunately, as stated at the beginning, these books did not always match reality and so working class people somehow managed to claw their way into the movies without once playing polo or touring the Continent.
How did you do? Do you have what it takes to be the greatest silent performer ever? And can you provide your own polo pony? Studio casting directors are eager to know.
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