The Craft of Silent Film Acting: Classical Traditions and Modern Innovations

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In this paper, I discuss the formations of concepts regarding the film actor’s craft in the context of American silent cinema between 1913 and 1916. As I argue, this period is uniquely significant for film acting historiography not only because it marks the final years of the early-cinema era, but also because it saw the earliest stages in the institution of film stardom and the rise of classical cinema. As such, actors and directors working in that period responded to new industrial and institutional conditions, and, especially in the young Hollywood system, were invested in attempts to brand film performers as artists and their craft as an art form.

Drawing on early film acting guidebooks, advice columns, and statements of film actors, this paper shall trace ideas about what properties were considered to define “good” or “proper” acting techniques in the period. In particular, my focus will be on an aspect that have thus far received little critical attention in film acting scholarship – namely, on the question of what the concept of the ‘classical’ meant with regard to silent film acting. In cinema studies, it has become customary to relate Classical Hollywood storytelling and visual style to neoclassical values of decorum, proportion and harmony; but what would these classical aesthetic notions mean to the modeling of acting techniques?

By revisiting eighteenth-century conceptions of acting from neoclassical theatre, I wish to offer a definition of what classical acting style would mean and, in turn, to examine how such notion of the classical resonated with statements about film acting in the American discourses of the mid-1910s. As I will ultimately show, it was an adherence to the classical traditions, combined with modern ideas about emotions, screen mediation, and individual personalities, which gave rise to cinematic-specific ideas of the craft of acting in the 1910s.

Doron Galili (Stockholm University)

Doron Galili is a research fellow in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University. He is the author of Seeing by Electricity: The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 (Duke University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Corporeality in Early Cinema: Viscera, Skin, and Physical Form (Indiana University Press, 2018), which came out of the 2016 Domitor conference in Stockholm.