when i watch old movies i’m constantly surprised by how much acting has improved. not that the acting in the classics is bad, it’s just often kind of artificial? it’s acting-y. it’s like stage acting.
it took some decades for the arts of acting and filmmaking to catch up to the potential that was in movies all along; stuff like microexpressions and silences and eyes, oh man people are SO much better at acting with their eyes than they were in the 40′s, or even the 70′s.
the performances we take for granted in adventure movies and comedies now would’ve blown the critics’ socks off in the days of ‘casablanca’.
there’s a weird period in film where you can see the transition happening. right around the fifties, I think. the example my prof used when i learned about it was marlon brando in “a streetcar named desire” - he was using stanislavski acting methods and this new hyper-realistic style and most or all of his costars were still using the old, highly-stylized way of acting. it makes it way more obvious how false it is.
i even noticed it in ‘the sting’, which was 1973. i actually think they used it on purpose to get the viewer fished in by the second layer of the con; the grifters at the bookie’s were acting like they were acting, and the grifters playing the feds were acting for reals. if you’re used to setting your suspension of disbelief at the first set’s level, then the second set are gonna blow right past you.
or possibly the guys playing the grifters playing the feds just happened to be using the realistic style for their own reason, and it coincidentally made the plot twist work better. but i like to think it was deliberate.
i was thinking about this again, and when you know what to look for, it’s really obvious: old movies are stage acting, not movie acting. it just didn’t really occur to anyone to make the camera bend to the actors, rather than the other way around. just image search old movie screenshots and clips and gifs, you’ll see it. the way people march up to their mark and stand there, the way they deliver their lines rather than inhabiting the character. the way they’re framed in an unmoving center-stage.
this is a charming little tableau, quirky and unexpected, but it’s a tableau. it lives in a box.
now, i usually watch action movies, and i didn’t think it was fair to compare an action movie with what appears to be an indoor sort of story, but i do watch some comedy tv. so i looked for a brooklyn 99 gif with a similar framing, intending to point out that the camera moves, and the characters aren’t stuck inside the box. but i couldn’t even find the framing. they literally never have all the characters in the same plane, facing the camera, interacting only within the staging area. even when they’re not traveling, they’re moving around, and they treat things outside the ‘stage’ as real and interact with them, even if it’s only to stare in delighted horror.
as for action, it took a while for the movies to figure out what, exactly they wanted to show us, and how to act it. here’s a comedy punch:
here, also, is a comedy punch:
the first one looks like a stage direction written on a script. the second one looks like your friends horsing around and being jerks to each other. the first one is just not believable. the physics doesn’t work. the reaction is fakey. everyone’s stiff. even the movement of the camera is kind of wooden. the second one looks real right down to the cringe of his shoulder, and the camera feels startled too.
i’m not saying this to dis old movies, i’m just fascinated and impressed by how much the art has advanced!
I’m going to bed, but I also want to say that I think, without actually bothering to explore it and make sure, that there’s been a similar shift in comics, probably related to the shift in acting/camera work. And I think you still see remnants of old “stage acting” comics in the three-panel style set ups (you might still see it in long form comics, but you’d probably call it bad composition)
Now can someone explain why people in old films talked Like That
Y’all, THAT’S HOW PEOPLE TALKED.
Seriously, I used to work in a sound studio, and one series of projects required us to listen to LOTS of old audio recordings. Not of anything special - just people talking.
AND THEY TALKED LIKE THAT.
It was so fucking wild to hear just a couple of people being like,
“WELL HI THERE JEANINE, HOW ARE YOU TODAY?”
“OH, NOT TOO BAD, JOE, THOUGH MY HUSBAND’S BEEN AWAY ON BUSINESS FOR A FEW WEEKS AND I MISS HIM SOMETHING TERRIBLE.”
“WELL IT’S A HARD THING, JEANINE, BUT YOU’LL GET THROUGH IT.”
“WELL I SUPPOSE I’VE GOT TO, HAVEN’T I JOE?”
All in that piercing, strident, rapid-fire style we associate with the films of the era. If you’ve watched lots of old movies you can imagine the above in that speech pattern.
I don’t know if people talked like that because it was in movies but I suspect it’s the other way around.
Same goes for the UK - When they made the TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s, they had to tell the very well spoken, privately educated Dominic West to tone down his imitation of a 1950s newsreader because being accurate would have sounded to a 2011 TV audience as if he was doing a parody. When you watch Brief Encounter they’re not speaking like that because they can’t act, they’re speaking like that because it was the norm on screen. It now sounds unnatural because it’s not the norm any more.
Obviously there were people with regional accents and who didn’t speak in a heightened manner, but they didn’t get to be on TV or in movies unless they were villains. (And usually the villains were putting it on, like Richard Attenborough in Brighton Rock. Sure, he was Richard Attenborough, but he was brought up in the Midlands, and by the on-screen standards of the time, that was common.)
Even the Queen’s very posh accent has changed over the last 50 years and become “more common" - check out newsreel footage etc for proof - and recordings of her father are almost like someone from a foreign country (well, it is the past).
There is, for many film historians/critics, an actual turning point from mannered, theatrical, or “overplayed” acting on screen to naturalistic/American Method realism on screen. It happens in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, during a traveling shot in which Marlon Brando’s character and Eva Marie Saint’s character are walking together. Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops her glove in the middle of the scene. Marlon Brando instinctively picks it up as his character, and continues the dialog, all the while playing with the glove–turning it about, trying it on, etc. Eva Marie Saint stuck with him, never broke, and the director didn’t call “cut.”
Before that scene in that movie, if an actor dropped a prop by accident, they would have re-shot the scene–because Brando mostly disappeared out of frame as he bent down to pick up the glove, and (as is explained above) movies were framed to keep the people in the scene in the frame. I
t’s a pretty famous scene in movies because Brando’s character doesn’t give the glove back, but instead uses it to amplify what the two characters are experiencing, naturally and without artifice. It is, for all intents and purposes, the exact moment that screen acting changed.
Okay, but here’s the thing about television specifically: given the size of TV screens when they first came out? Stage acting was the only thing that could be READ. Watch Star Trek: TOS on a modern screen and it looks absurdly overacted. Film of the same era is not, and yet the TV is.
And that’s not a fault of the actors; they were all very capable of naturalistic film acting (yes, even Shatner) – as the later movies would bear out. It’s because they were acting for the small screen, not the big one.
Stage acting and stage makeup is what it is because people are far enough away from the stage that you have to cake on the makeup garishly and exaggerate the hell out of your for it to be VISIBLE. And in early television? Yeah, those constraints actually very much applied. You could move the camera, sure, but the quantity of visual information you could send was just damned limited.
Here’s another example of that.
Watch some Classic Dr Who. You may or may not notice it without watching for it, but every shot of the TARDIS is taken from the same angle.
The TARDIS was, at that time, a stage set. The camera was behind the fourth (Sixth?) wall. It was fixed. And most TV sets were built like this. They had a specific fourth wall and everything was filmed from that angle.
Fast forward to the new series, and you’ll see that the TARDIS is being filmed from different angles all the time, including following the actor around.
Three things have changed:
1. Cameras have become much smaller.
2. Set building for TV has developed as an art. Those early sets were built by people who were trained to build stage sets.
3. Overall technological improvement resulting in things being cheaper.
The TARDIS set that was just retired? Each of its walls was designed to slide out. So you could put the camera anywhere you wanted. Presumably this is the case with the new one too. They couldn’t imagine doing that back in the day. Nor could they afford the complexities of a set like that.
It’s actually my opinion that TV has very much matured as an art form…this century. This decade. We are doing and seeing things that couldn’t be done ten years ago, twenty. Heck, even five.
Going back to speech patterns for a moment – I was a young child in the 80s, so my memories of the norms of the time period are limited (especially because I was incredibly sheltered), but the books I read at the time and the popular movies of the time all have this kind of – whimsical, sardonic speech pattern going on. Think John Waters dialogue.
I always thought it was kind of stylized. But then I ended up in a weird part of YouTube one night and found someone’s home video of just walking aroud a 7-11 convenience store at midnight talking to people in Orlando, Florida. Just trying out their new camcorder for shits and giggles, talking to other customers, talking to the cashier, etc. And you know what? They all talked like a goddamn John Waters movie. It was the weirdest thing, like I was watching outtakes from The Breakfast Club or Say Anything. I expected one of the Cusacks to walk into frame any second.
Anyway, so I think it’s super cool how human speech and interaction shifts over time, and if you’re living through the shift, you don’t really notice it as it happens.
The cameras they were using back in the 1940s-1970s were enormous and heavy. Moving them was a chore, and you had to have track built to move a camera that big. Getting the camera in close to the subject was very difficult.
It was the arrival of the Steadicam in the 1970s that started to change everything. You could hook the camera to an individual person using a harness. For the first time the camera was liberated. Think of the walk & talks on “The West Wing” - that would not have been technologically possible in earlier film and television.
Also filming through the 1950s was mostly done on sets. A few directors like John Ford would go shoot on location for parts of their movies, but most films were made on sets because it was cheaper and easier. When the studio system began to break down in the 1960s, and cameras started becoming lighter, you saw a shift to location shooting, which reduced the proscenium staging of older movies.
ALSO, going back to how they just Talked like that in movies in the 30s and 40s. That weird accent, kind of British, but not. Think Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. It was a specifically created form of speech, created by Edith Skinner, for performers and public speakers, as the ELEGANT way For Important People to talk. It was called the Skinner Dialect, and in classical acting training FOR YEARS, it was mandatory. Which is why you see it in such bastions of the golden era of cinema, like cary grant and katherine Hepburn. It was also how your tutors taught your rich well educated babies to speak, especially in the new England states. IN FACT: the sort of “no accent” accent that most newscasters have is a watered down descendant of the Skinber Dialect.
It’s late and I’m tired, so someone may need to back me up on this, but back to the camera movement thing: I’d also like to mention how the introduction of talking pictures delayed the evolution of camera work/camera movement in a way.
Body mics were unwieldy (see that one really excellent scene in Singin’ in the Rain where they’re trying to wire Lina Lamont for sound, just *chef kiss*). When all your actors need to be within range of a large, static microphone, it sort of limits your camera options.
I could not tell you where it was from, but I distinctly remember a film class where we were shown a clip from the late 20s/early 30s as an example of this. The actors are clearly directing their speech in the general direction of a vase of flowers in the middle of the frame, which presumably has a microphone in it.
In some ways, sound tech had to develop before camera work could even think about getting more interesting.
Yes. That’s correct. Film was moving towards a developed visual language during the silent era. People were trying innovative, artsy things with the camera… And then everything got put on hold to deal with the technical challenges of sound.
We didn’t move back to long-ass silent reaction shots or sticking the camera in the place that most captured a particular character’s subjective experience for a couple of decades. A lot of the cinematic conventions we take for granted now were developed very early, dropped, and then came back.
I’m so glad someone mentioned Skinner because that was what I was thinking of. Another good example of how people talked in that heightened dialect is actually The Man from UNCLE (2015). If you notice, Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo doesn’t speak the same sort of dialect that we do nowadays and neither does his CIA boss. Cavill and his boss (played by Jared Harris–incidentally both men are Brits playing Americans) have a slightly toned down version so it’s not too startling to the modern audience but it’s still pretty damn authentic and it works because of the rest of the film. TMFU does a good job with setting up the entire world of the 1960s and so when you hear Napoleon’s voice it’s like hearing a French accent in a film set in Paris–you know it’s an accent, but it fits the world.
Oh god, the reactions to that accent made me so ANGRY. It was flawless. I have rarely heard such a good send-up of the accents from media of that era. The only time I think he slipped was one line as they’re about to enter the park bathroom. It’s literally one word out of the whole film. And yet all of the reactions were “LOL, he fucked up the American accent.” ARRRRRRGH!
Jared Harris saying ‘nazis’ the way Americans do in old movies was priceless! It’s one of my favorite details.
All of this except I just have to add that realism is itself a style. That “olde-timey” acting isn’t simply failed modern acting, it actually values very different things. Acting was a species of rhetoric, and also of dance; vocally, it had more in common with, say, black gospel preaching (think of MLK’s affected phrases: we will GO to the mountain!) than with today’s realist microexpressions; physically, its closer to dance (think of Keaton or Chaplin.) To say acting of this period is realist is almost like complaining that ballet isn’t realist–of course not, we’ve come to see people perform! And personally, I like it - e.g. I still like what Shatner is doing (which is treating Trek like Shakespeare) 1000% more than if he were being realist; in fact I think TOS is amazing because it’s NOT realist.
Can I just…pipe in and say that there’s a reason stage acting is like that? Do you know how hard it is to make your expressions and vocalizations read to the very back of a theater or auditorium? Stage acting has to be exaggerated like that because of its nature.
Also there was a comment in here about actors in film embodying characters whilst actors on stage don’t and I’ve never seen more false a statement in my life.
This. It’s like the difference between a sprint and a marathon.
@kyburg I think you’d be interested in this.
You’d be right! http://bit.ly/2IUbbrY
from Tumblr http://bit.ly/2GzYFfJ