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Actor: Gloria Swanson discusses DeMille,
acting technique in audio clip

Alfred Hitchcock

Publicity still from Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Script to Screen

The Ransom Center is highlighting items from different sections of its upcoming exhibition Making Movies, which is organized by filmmaking jobs (director, producer, cinematographer, and more) and by iconic film scenes with materials that show how those scenes were created.

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The contributions of the actor can be seen throughout the Making Movies exhibition. The primary and most visible interpreter of character is the actor, who interacts with or is affected by every creative artist on the production team.

The dominant style of acting in the early days of cinema came from the nineteenth-century stage, which emphasized stylized poses and standardized gestures. But the motion picture, with its ability to show subtle facial expressions and reactions and cinematic techniques such as the close up, stimulated the development of an acting style unique to the screen. This style grew out of and was profoundly influenced by an approach to acting that was being developed in the theater at the same time. “Method acting,” as it is now commonly known, was based on ideas and techniques developed by Russian-born Constantin Stanislavski. Teachers like Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Stella Adler further developed this style of acting in the United States. It emphasizes preparation, especially the careful study and interpretation of the script, as well as the use of research, experience, and the imagination to discover and reveal the inner truth of the character.

Gloria Swanson's performance as the aging film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) is now widely regarded as one of the most powerful in the history of film. The inner life of the character was first developed in the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who tailored specific details to Swanson's own life and career. But Swanson also drew on her own experience as a silent-screen film actor when she relied primarily on facial expressions and pantomime to convey emotion and action to the audience. Her perfect balance of all the aspects of Desmond's character created a truly memorable performance.

In this audio clip, Swanson talks about working with director Cecil B. DeMille and the violin players kept on the film set to help actors get "into the mood" for happy or sad scenes.

She also discusses acting technique for silent films with subtitle cards: "So the technique of being able to have emotions on the screen was to be sure that you did not react while somebody was speaking. Or [that] you, while you were speaking in the center of your speech, you not react. You saved it for either the beginning before you spoke or after you spoke, or you saved your reaction to what someone else was saying to after they had finished. Because, if you didn't know this technique, you would just stand like a stick, and you would have no emotion on the screen; you'd have it all on the cutting room floor."

This audio excerpt is just one item from the "Actor" section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.


GLORIA SWANSON: This is a continuation of the [Cecil B.] DeMille era. I'm going to try and give a picture of Mr. DeMille as contrasting, let us say, the directors of that time, the other directors. You see, Mr. DeMille was one of the first to, one of the greats to go out to California and apparently from the time he went out there and was in business with Jesse Lasky. Because remember the studio was called Famous Players-Lasky. He had always made important pictures. I don't know enough about his own career to tell you, but I'm sure he never did anything insignificant ever and started right off making great pictures.

So that everything was done in a different manner from, let us say, from the directors I had had up to that time. One was a man who recently died and who'd been with MGM when it became MGM after it was Triangle. He was the man who first put me in dramatic pictures—the picture I told you about that I had to do all the swimming—his name was Jack Conway. And after that, Al Parker.

You didn't change directors as often. When you were a star you sort of got a little unit together, and it was usually the same director, same cameraman, same writer. Once in a while, you changed a writer because somebody came in with a story, but I don't actually recall ever having a script. I don't remember taking a script home and learning it. Maybe it was a sort of an outline of what he intended to do and the number of scenes. I can't even recall having a script with Cecil DeMille. It's quite possible that I did, but this I don't remember.

I only remember getting up at six o'clock in the morning because it took three hours to get me on the set to get me ready with the hairdos that I had and the dresses and also the fittings I had for the costumes that were coming up. So, if I got to the studio at seven, I was ready by ten, and I never worked before ten o'clock with Mr. DeMille. It's possible that I worked at nine o'clock with other studios, but everything was much more elegant with Mr. DeMille. We had music on the set. A violinist who played for us, got us into the mood. If we had a sad scene and had to cry, they played sad music. They played very gay music when we had to be gay.

And I remember before starting a picture, Mr. DeMille gathered everybody concerned—the entire cast and his staff of technicians—and they were brought into his office, and they were told the story that we were going to do. I don't think anyone ever made a suggestion or opened their mouth, but when we got on the set and we talked about the scene that was about to take place, Mr. DeMille would like to have pieces of business in the silent days. It was very important, and I would always familiarize myself with the set. It was my own home. I went in and sat around in it and opened the magazines and made it look as if it had been lived-in, tried to work out in my own mind some pieces of business that might denote the mood I was in or the manner in which I moved in the room might give an indication of how I felt.

I've always been a great believer that clothes can help a scene. It's much more difficult to play a dramatic scene in a beautiful, glittering gown than it is in a black one. It's because you're playing against it. Also, the technique, if one wants to compare it to the technique of the stage, or, let us say, talking pictures, you must remember that we spoke, and we had lines to say because we couldn't say, "I'll have a cup of tea," and have it come out on the screen, "I love you." Because it would show. There's something about the camera and that lens, which gets right up close and can see whether you're sincere. I've always contended that there is one thing you cannot do on the screen, and that is be thinking one thing and saying another.

Now, you can do that on the stage. I've even had a great actor, whom I admired greatly, tell me that after he'd played a play for a while—especially one love scene that he had on the stage—he would work out his income tax. And nobody, I'm sure, would ever notice it because even the twinkle in an eye, it doesn't often carry beyond the first or second row. Or a raised eyebrow. But on the screen it does. And somehow you know when an actor felt a scene and really meant it and was sincere about it.

Now in the subtitles that we had to say, we had always to get the first sentence right and the last sentence right. It didn't matter whether the contents—the center of the statement or the scene dialog—was exactly as it had been written as long as the sense was there and the emotion was there. Because while you were saying those lines, that was the portion that was going to be cut out and would be found on the cutting room floor.

So the technique of being able to have emotions on the screen was to be sure that you did not react while somebody was speaking. Or [that] you, while you were speaking in the center of your speech, you not react. You saved it for either the beginning before you spoke or after you spoke, or you saved your reaction to what someone else was saying to after they had finished. Because, if you didn't know this technique, you would just stand like a stick, and you would have no emotion on the screen; you'd have it all on the cutting room floor.

Now lots of actors from the stage who came to motion pictures and who were superb actors would see their performance on the screen and have a fit because they'd say, "Well, there's nothing there. It's all on the cutting room floor." And it was because they could not remember to hold back an emotion until after the other person got through speaking or until after they had got through speaking.

And this is quite a different technique now. In talking pictures, you don't have to hold it back because nothing's going to be cut out, and you can see your emotion as you speak, which [is] naturally a more normal thing and a more natural thing to do than to have to restrain yourself until after the dialog was over.

So, we therefore did have lines to learn and to memorize, but not to the extent that we do in dialog in talking pictures. Therefore, we probably didn't study our scripts as one studies them now in talking pictures or for the stage.

And I would say too that in the beginning of motion pictures, the actual speed at which they would grind the camera had a great deal to do—because often it was done by hand—had a great deal to do with whether you moved very quickly. You must remember there were rather jerky movements on the screen in the old, old, old days, and that had to do with the fact that they did not take normal—they were not photographing the normal movements of persons. Nobody jumped around like Flora Finch or [John] Bunny. Nobody made such quick movements as the first Chaplin pictures unless they [unintelligible]. That was the fault of the mechanical end of it. Now, of course, everything is timed to such a point whatever you do actually on the screen now, or on the set, is photographed, and it is timed to such a fine point that it is exactly the way you've done it. So you can't blame it on the technique.

 
 

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