(This blogger does not claim to offer original thinking or opinion on these subjects but rather a composite of others’ observations noted through the years.)
Why do we idolize our cinema favorites? Which faces (and personalities) have the greatest and most lasting appeal? Finally, are Americans more prone to celebrity worship than others?
Before attempting to answer, let’s consider that all nations have their particular histories and ethnic identities—from which emerge distinct myths, folk epics and legends with their heroes and villains (though many seem to share common elements), and from which are derived works of artistic expression and popular culture such as cinema.
So, while other countries and cultures have made their own, important contributions to cinema, American cinema and the Hollywood phenomenon have made a unique imprint—as has American popular music, for example—going beyond mere flavor or style.
And though many different cultures repeat familiar themes such as fighting tyranny and evil, or questing for romance, fame, fortune, freedom, survival, adventure, spiritual or artistic fulfillment—distinctly American themes have undoubtedly emerged from our own political and social environment that is characterized by a sense of equality, freedom, youthfulness, vigor and innocence. This is befitting a New World civilization, yet unscarred by the endless wars and classism that afflicted the older ones (although still confronting its own “sins” of racism—but more on that later). A look backward, into our history and that of cinema, seems in order.
Indeed, a writer for the New York Times observed that (in the silent film era), “the importance of American influence was obvious. In 1920, one French critic, typically intertwining scorn and envy wrote: “The Americans are primitive and at the same time barbarous, which accounts for the strength and vitality that they infuse into their cinema.”In that Times writer’s analysis, silent film developed three major “preoccupations” each associated with a particular genre:
- The body (associated with comedy)
- The landscape (associated with the western)
- The face (associated with melodrama)
Speaking of the body, he wrote: “Harry Houdini, with his escapes and daredevil feats, demonstrated the rebellion in the flesh; he owned a film production company and attempted futilely to become a movie star. Douglas Fairbanks, before whom the royalty of Europe deferred, (consider, in fairness, the plethora of film stars knighted in recent times) was the true Houdini of the screen. He overcame all physical limitations, swooping, leaping, jesting, undercutting all pretense. Meanwhile, Buster Keaton (whose parents were friends of Houdini) paid tribute to the liberational possibilities of film itself as he demonstrated the creation of a new American identity.”
As for landscape, the Times writer “made a good case that silent cinema helped shape popular images of the American West.” (It could also be argued that those films of western landscapes with their breathtaking vistas and limitless horizons also helped boost America’s image as one of boundless opportunity and optimism.)
In fact, the writer suggested, “the silent film version of America is saturated with sensation and physical energy, playful inventiveness and human possibility. These were the qualities associated with the great stars of the era, ranging from Mary Pickford to Rudolph Valentino, who themselves began in poverty and replicated, at least publicly, the triumphs of their characters.”
Increasing attention to the face in silent film appears to have represented not so much a separate genre but as, especially in the close-up, a device of enhancing drama and intimacy that became a pervading influence of its own on most cinema of the time.
Film historians have pointed out that early audiences were at first intimidated by close-ups but that studios and stars were quick to take advantage of their power, one writer claiming that “the technique was one of the foundation stones of modern-day celebrity.”
D.W. Griffith, has been cited as a racist as well as an early exploiter of the close-up in his epics, “Intolerance” and “Birth of a Nation”, having his actors “wear the most ludicrous make-up to exaggerate and emphasize their features” –many of which deliberately stereotyped blacks as savages.
One modern filmmaker has concluded—succinctly: “The power of film is an actor’s face.” He also believes stage actors perform more naturally in close-up because they are better able to “inhabit a character for hours at a time.” Another interesting insight was that offered by the British actor Jeremy Irons who, after he confessed (blaming his “typical British reserve”) an initial reluctance to expose, in close-ups, his “emotional nakedness”, was later persuaded to do so by his American counterpart in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Meryl Streep (a supposed exemplar of “typical American audacity”).
(A final thought about faces in the silent era: without sound and dialogue to enhance dramatic impact, faces would have needed to be especially suggestive of qualities and traits as well as expressive in conveying emotion. And most early silent film actors would have been trained stage actors also (because originally that’s all there was)—which goes to the previous point of their being more into the character and therefore more naturally
Thus, the types of faces other than those of sheer symmetrical beauty must have great appeal to a mass audience who in the midst of a more egalitarian culture could perhaps relate more readily to the “ordinary-looking” person on the screen.
The appeal of a fresh-faced, innocent and plain-faced ‘girl or boy next door’ in American films may have begun with the likes of Mary Pickford and Lillian and Dorothy Gish who projected a waiflike vulnerability—in contrast to stars like Theda Bara and later Mae West who played the vamp—the latter, more for laughs.
Indeed, the myth of the indomitable American “everyman” is perhaps best personified in its comedic actors where lampooning of puffery and convention made careers for the likes of Charlie Chaplin (A Brit— like Bob Hope—who became an American folk hero), Harold Lloyd, the aforementioned Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers, to mention only a few of the best known.
Actually, clowns and buffoons, per se, were well established on the European and British stage, but here they seemed to operate with peculiarly American ‘thumb in your eye’ outrageousness in their flouting of authority.