Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Movie Actor in 1913?

Almost as soon as movies became mainstream entertainment in their own right, correspondence courses were launched to help amateurs break into the industry. The advice in these courses range from sensible to ridiculous and they are a valuable time capsule of their era.

The elaborately-titled Motion Picture Acting; How to Prepare for Photoplaying, What Qualifications Are Necessary, How to Secure an Engagement, Salaries Paid to Photoplayers by Frances Agnew is significant because it was published in 1913, when feature films were just starting the gain traction in the United States. Let’s take a look at the author’s qualifications for success in the movies:

Talent: Optional

“This is a most necessary qualification, of course, but it pales into insignificance in comparison with some of the other necessary attributes. Do not understand that one can succeed without talent to a degree, but it has been proven in many cases that even remarkable histrionic ability is not in itself adequate. Talent, with the added force and wise direction of other qualifications, spurred on by patient ambition, cannot fail to win success.”

Health: Invincibility Preferred

“The actor, more than any other, perhaps, should be almost immune to illness. In legitimate work he may have an understudy to take his place. However, every part is not understudied, especially the stellar roles, and if the actor in the part cannot go on it often necessitates canceling the performance, causing financial loss to each and every member of the company as well as to the management. In the studio it is the same. Perhaps a player is working in a picture which has been continued from the day before. He is expected at the studio at a certain hour and everything is in readiness for work. Should illness prevent his reporting, the director cannot even resort to the understudy system.

Examine yourself carefully in this particular. Are you normal in every way? lips red, eyes clear, flesh firm, appetite good, nerves steady? If not, why not? Your mode of living affects your health. Many can trace bad health to certain habits or extravagant methods of living which they insist on retaining, though the advice of their physician is but a repetition of personal knowledge which they could follow themselves if they but had the courage and self-control.”

Intelligence: Have It

“It has often been said, maliciously, that actors neither need nor possess brains, but are as so much human clay in the hands of the directors. This is a gross insult to the entire profession of acting, no matter in what branch. The mental power of a large percentage of the world’s Thespians is not only far above the average, but in many cases remarkable. Genius has been employed in the creation of some of the wonderful characters which have been unfolded to us both on the stage and on the screen. Originality and depth in a characterization are the products of mental force as well as feeling, and no true artist is lacking in that capacity. He who succeeds must be normal mentally. Not all players are marvels of intellect, ’tis true, but in this work, as in all lines of endeavor, talent amounts to little unless its “side partner” is good common-sense.

Then, too, a fair education, coupled with good common sense, THE essential point, carries with it a certain amount of business ability which is a coveted asset and a most beneficial possession in the field of art and literature. It is a deplorable fact, but nevertheless true, that few players have a natural or trained commercial intelligence.”

Personal Appearance: Try to Be a Brunette

“Generally speaking, large facial features make a much better impression both in stage and screen work. This does not mean abnormally large, but rather more than mere doll features.

Both blondes and brunettes, fair and dark complexions, are engaged in picture playing, but the latter are given the preference since it has been found through experience that except in rare cases the brunette photographs better for the screen. A normally healthy person possesses the physical development of his age, height, etc. No more is required, though it is obvious that physical exercise would enhance and strengthen this development.”

Personality: Have One

“This qualification is the embodiment of talent, health, mental and commercial ability and personal appearance. It is an almost indefinable “something” which lures or repels. When it attracts it might be called “charm” and in this meaning it is a wonderful asset in stageland or screenland. Without ambition and average mentality one hasn’t the bubbling enthusiasm of an alluring personality. It is personality which wins popularity.”

Age: Just a Number

“No fixed rule could be made governing the age of the beginner in screenland. The profession today includes those of all ages from the cradle to 60 or more. This depends almost entirely upon the individual.”

Patience, Pluck, Perseverance, Plus Ambition

“Extra good doses of the three P’s patience, pluck and perseverance must be added to these qualifications, and topping it all one must possess a strong determined ambition which knows no discouragements. In anything you undertake whether it be to become a successful photoplayer or to enter any other profession let the star of hope be an instigator to the “keep on a-tryin'” habit, and when dark clouds of disappointment interpose ‘twixt you and that star, when ambition seems in vain and you think “Oh, what’s the use,” tighten the screw to your courage, apply a little physical “punch” to your efforts and start again. Cling to hope! When it is lost your ambition begins to melt and failure is the inevitable result.”

Are you a plucky brunette with a head for business and a bit of talent? Congratulations, you just might make it in the movies!


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