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Reassessing the Legacy of Mary Pickford through Lillian Gish

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

Part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon. Please check out the other entries!

First of all, I am not sure if this title is even appropriate for this entry. As a warning, it may be one long ramble with no specific point, but I hope that you will enjoy it nevertheless. Maybe in the future, I will revise this entry and have a more focused argument.

Onto the article!


Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish became friends before they became involved in moving pictures and it was Pickford who introduced the Gish sisters to movie making and Biograph Studios. I do not know what the relationship was between Pickford and Dorothy Gish, but Lillian Gish and Pickford were friends until Pickford’s death. Their friendship was so close that Gish was one of the few people that Pickford saw as she aged and drew away from the public eye.

People who know even just a little bit of film history or have an interest in film know of Gish. Her place in cinema history has been secured through her ties with D.W. Griffith, such as through her role as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915). While Gish has starred in many films that are highly acclaimed now — Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1928), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955) — it is her role in The Birth of a Nation that people associate her with.

It is interesting that both stars who worked for D.W. Griffith became famous and that they had a certain label to them throughout the peak of their cinematic careers and what their legacy is at the moment. Pickford is largely forgotten despite her association with D.W. Griffith, mostly because she did not star in his currently well-known films even though she starred in numerous Biographs and was the one who negotiated her salary due to her awareness of her popularity. It was through the sheer number of films that Pickford starred in that helped her, and as she said, “I got what no one else wanted, and I took anything that came my way because I early decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known and there would be a demand for my work.”1
Despite being the most famous actress in America in the silent film era, Pickford is a name known only to fans of film history and rarely discussed by film buffs. On the other hand, Lillian Gish is given more attention even now yet this attention is mostly focused on the feature films she made with Griffith, just like how Pickford is known as an actress who played simpering sweet roles despite her varied oeuvre. In regards to Gish as an actress, one thing that remained constant since the peak of her career until now is that she was and still is considered a great actress. During the height of her career, she was known as the “Duse of the screen” (quote: “Mary Pickford is greatly loved but she is seldom called the Duse of the screen, as Lillian Gish is apt to be.”)2 and current movie fans still consider her acting to be sublime. Pickford was seen as a great actress in her day with some critics and fans waffling between Pickford as an actress and Pickford as a star (which I think is closer to being a personality and something beyond being considered as a legitimate actress) but currently, she is seen more as a personality and an embodiment of sickeningly saccharine roles (even though few roles, if at all, can be considered as such) that would have only been swallowable in the age of innocence. To top this off, I do think that it says something when Lillian Gish’s official website says, “If Mary Pickford was the silent cinema’s greatest personality, Lillian was its greatest actress.”3

The quote made me wonder what made Gish the great actress and Pickford just a personality. When someone calls an actor a “personality”, I see them as something like a reality TV star with not much talent yet brings great joy to the audiences due to their antics or a persona that they create. While I strongly believe that Pickford did create a public persona for herself, I would say that she is also an actress in her own right and was as gifted as Gish when it came to acting.
It is difficult to compare the actresses because I think that both had acting techniques that were different and both played roles that were different from each other. And yet when I see these actresses in close ups when they are portraying a highly emotional and sensitive moment, they are successful in twisting the audience’s hearts and astounding the viewers with how much emotion they can render with only a small movement. Whenever I watch close ups that make me feel this way, it reminds me of my favourite Jean Epstein quote:

I will never find the way to say how much I love American close-ups. Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy is anatomical. The decor of the fifth act is this corner of a cheek torn by a smile. Waiting for the moment when 1,000 meters of intrigue converge in a muscular denouement satisfies me more than the rest of the film. Muscular preambles ripple beneath the skin. Shadows shift, tremble, hesitate. Something is being decided. A breeze of emotion underlines the mouth with clouds. The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theater curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis. Crack. The mouth gives way, like a ripe fruit splitting open. As if split by a scalpel, a keyboard-like smile cuts laterally into the corner of the lips.
The close-up is the soul of cinema.

-Jean Epstein, “Magnification”

The “extraordinary intensity” is felt several times when I watch Gish is The White Sister (1923) and when I watch Pickford in Sparrows (1926).
Epstein’s quote, for me, also renders feelings of an ephemeral and surreal nature of certain performances, and how there is some quality about cinema and acting that one cannot put our fingers on — or as Louis Deluc and Epstein puts it, “photogénie”. There is something that is so realistic about a performance that you feel emotionally connected to that moment on the screen, but there is also something that seems like it far from our grasp and is this beautiful thing that we cannot describe. I believe that similar sentiments were felt by contemporary movie fans — this one article mentioned the difference between newer and older actresses and mentioned how there was something different about older actresses, as if there was a deeper quality to them:

Mary Pickford, in the greatest picture of her career, “Coquette” comes to the Empire today for a 3 day engagement. […] She has nothing to fear in the way competitition from any of the feminine stars who have sprung up of late years. Mary started in when pictures were a pup and she is still at the head. That old guard — Mary and Lillian Gish and Norma Talmadge and a few others — have something that the newer generation of film stars lack. They have courage. They had to have, to live through those early years, when they all knew poverty and hard work and hunger. Their experiences gave them something valuable than these fluffy-brained youngsters of today will never have. It shows in their acting — this deeply human quality, this understanding of life. There is dignity about them which they have won in the battle of the long years.4

An article that the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, wrote also reflects that there is some quality to great filmic performances and a special quality that great movie actresses have:

If an actress of a certain type created a stir, there was an immediate rush to find her physical duplicate. There must have be dozens of girls destined to become Mary Pickfords because they possessed pretty blonde hair and the same general cast of countenances; but I don’t recall any of them threatening the laurels of this inimitable little actress.
Now it is quite possible that some of the candidates for screen honors were no less physically attractive than Miss Pickford. Also they may have had acting ability but the all-important point is that they did not reflect the qualities of personality, or soul. If you prefer what made America’s favorite actress what she was and continues to be.5

For Goldwyn, a pretty face does not cut it and an actress needs to be able to show something that is more than just actions on a screen but show their soul. I think the use of the word “soul” is perfect because the soul is just as intangible as the quality that Gish and Pickford’s performances have. Gish also remarked similarly about Pickford when she said, “It was always Mary herself that shone through. Her personality was the thing that made her movies memorable and the pictures that showed her personality were the best.”6

Pickford being a product of her time is a huge part of how her legacy ended up. While her highest achievements as a businesswoman also reflects how the film industry reflected female roles in society, it is the photographs of Pickford that have proven their most enduring power. Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote an article that reflected how films changed what a beautiful woman was:

The statuesque and fulsome pulchritude of a generation ago has given way to the fragile girlish type.
And above everything else, we have radically changed our ideas an ideals about feminine beauty.
In spite of the 19th Amendment, the last ten years have seen the American beauty softened, feminized, and reduced to an amazing extent.
Did it ever occur to you that this metamorphosis for which the screen abstractly and D.W. Griffith personally are almost entirely responsible?
But after consideration, I had to admit that it was true.
The screen has had an effect upon our national life that cannot be estimated.
What was then the national’s ideal of the American beauty?
The Gibson girl.
Tall, stately, impressive. Juno rather than Psyche.
Now who is America’s sweetheart?
Mary Pickford.
Mary Pickford, who stands four feet and eleven inches in her shoes.
If England or France or Italy stops to think what the beautiful woman of America is like, the ideal type, to whom do their thoughts naturally turn?
Mary Pickford and the host of their screen beauties.7

Along with this article, there were pictures of both Pickford and the Gish sisters. The caption for the Gish sisters was “Lillian and Dorothy Gish, fragile, girlish types” and the caption for Pickford’s picture was “Mary Pickford represents today’s petite ideal type of beauty”. I believe that this change in what was considered American beauty at the time also reflects the legacy of both actresses. Both Gish and Pickford are known for roles that are considered naive to modern viewers. Both actresses are known for their child-like facial features and their hair and are seen as embodiments of times where women were supposedly weaker and more subservient. Despite people’s assumptions about these actresses, it is obvious that both women were the contrary and were intelligent and savvy women who knew what they wanted for themselves and their career. I believe that Gish was smart to play more dramatic roles because they showed off her talents and Pickford purposefully played child roles because she knew that that was what sold and brought in revenue. Nevertheless, both actresses were able to exercise some form of control over what they wanted and what the public wanted — Gish directed a movie, which is wanted to do (e.g. Remodeling Her Husband, 1920), and Pickford attempted making artistic pictures that also appealed to the public (e.g. The Poor Little Rich Girl, 1917). It is fascinating how photographs of these actresses during the height of their careers dictated the image that they have for modern audiences. When they were alive, they were seen as women who changed the image of beauty, but currently, they are seen as nostalgic figures who are vastly different than the modern women. It makes me a bit sad since I strongly believe that both of these women are feminist figures.

The aspect I love most in regards to the relationship between the two actresses is how they affected each other’s career. If Pickford never introduced the Gish sisters to D.W. Griffith, then the world would have never known one of the most powerful silent film actresses. If Gish didn’t prevent Pickford from disposing her films, Pickford would have become even more obscure and would have joined the ranks of actors that current movie fans know about but have limited or no access to films made by these once famous stars.
Did you know that it was probably Gish who influenced Pickford to take on more child roles? In a feature on The Ladies’ Home Journal, Pickford said:

I have become identified with child characters, which have been more cordially received than any other type that I have played so far. Only once in all my early picture work did I play a child, and that was in a film called The Foundling, and this was only in one scene–a flash-back to the childhood of a grown-up character.
When Lillian Gish saw The Foundling she said: “Why not play a little girl throughout a picture?”
I protested: “The public would never be interested in a story without a love theme.” Lillian told me that she liked the child incident better than anything she had ever seen me do.
I am really indebted to her for the suggestion, which I followed some years later with considerable success.8

From this quote, I inferred that Pickford wasn’t the only one who was in tune with the movie industry and artistic merit, but that Gish herself was as well. As she grew older, Gish became a proponent of the art of silent films and did talks, which makes me admire her even more because she was speaking from first hand experience. I always found it a shame that Pickford, who was very much active in the movie industry, became a recluse. What a dynamic duo they would have been if they did talks together about an art that is no more. It is no wonder that it was Gish who stopped Pickford from carrying on her plan to destroy her works:

Mary Pickford, who once willed that all her films be destroyed upon her death, has now decided to sanction a rare revival of one of her classics, “The Taming of the Shrew,” co-starring Douglas Fairbanks.
The 73-year-old star’s decision to sanction the revival has surprised some of her friends, who recall her earlier desire a few years ago to buy up negatives of her old films and prevent their reissue. Indeed, she added a codicil to her will requiring that these negatives be burned upon her death.
“She felt that she belonged to an earlier generation,” one acquaintance said. “That’s why she wanted to destroy her films and why she rarely appears in public any more.”
Reached by phone today, Miss Pickford explained in a high, reedy voice that she felt at the time that her old films would be “compared unfavorably” with modern films for technical reasons.
She added: “My friend, Lillian Gish, gave me a terrible argument. She said, “You can’t destroy then,’ I said, ‘Why not? I made them.’ She said, ‘But they’re not yours to destroy’.”
Ulimately friends persuaded her to change her mind, Miss Pickford said, and to donate her negatives to the Library of Congress and some prints to the Eastman House Archives in Rochester, N.Y.9

It is interesting that Pickford saw herself as something old and compared her films to newer films, when I strongly believe that comparing old films and new films is like comparing apples and oranges (I’ll be honest here, I do it too though!) Thank goodness for Gish’s intervention and her love for silent films. I loved that Gish saw Pickford’s films, and silent films as a whole, as cultural and historical property that must be preserved. Ironically it is Pickford’s keen eye that knows the public and film industry too well that almost made her films lost to the future generation. Pickford addressed the “aging” of her films and the flux nature of cinema even as early as 1917. In an article, she said:

“Fifty years from now,” prophesied Miss Pickford, “present day pictures will be looked upon with curiosity. They will merely represent a single period in the development of the screen. No one will care to refer to them except, perhaps, students and artists, while the public will flee from them. That generation will either be educated up to better things or the films will have died before then.
“My plays will not be popular,” she continued modestly, “nor will any other prominent player of the present live over again in the future through the films with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin. I believe his work has permanences. It wouldn’t surprise me if in later years some enterprising man should ressurect the Chaplin comedies and begin a Chaplin vogue all over again. He is truly a good comedian and a great artist.”10

If it weren’t for Lillian Gish, most likely many of Pickford’s features would have been gone, which would have made her a mysterious star. It was Gish who helped Pickford’s films be preserved and not destroyed, which in turn helped movie fans of all generations appreciate an actress who was truly great. Thank you, Miss Lillian Gish, for seeing silent films as an art that is special in its own way and not see silent films as a “curios”. As a Pickford and silent movie fan, I salute you, Miss Gish!


1 Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow
2 Katherine Mason Hill, “New Pickford Picture At California: ‘My Best Girl,’ Happy Fairy Tale of Dime Store Life, Is Latest Feature”, San Francicsco Chronicle, 1/14/1920
3 Lillian Gish Official Website, http://www.lilliangish.com
4 “Coquette”, Clipping from Syracuse, NY, 6/27/1929
5 Samuel Goldwyn, “The Camera Photographs The Soul”
6 Films of Yesterday, http://filmsofyesterday.blogspot.com/2012/04/happy-birthday-mary-pickford.html
7 Adela Rogers St. Johns, “New American Beauty”, Photoplay Magazine, 6/1922
8 The Ladies’ Home Journal, 8/1923
9 Peter Bart, “A Pickford Film To Be Reissued: Actress Approves Revival of ‘Taming of the Shrew’”, New York Times, 10/13/1966
10 W.K. Hollander, “Mary Pickford Says in Fifty Years Current Pictures Will Be Mere Curios”, Chicago News, 2/17/1917


Picture credits:

Die Frau im Feuer ; 1924

Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Because this blog is a free for all, I decided to post about my movie related travels.

For my last semester in college, I decided to undertake a research project related to Asta Nielsen and Mary Pickford and was able to travel to Germany and Denmark to dig through the archives and also do an internship. Some of the things I found were things that I didn’t find readily on the internet, so I thought I’d share.

In this entry, I’m posting the Illustrierter Film-Kurier for the presumed lost Nielsen film, Die Frau im Feuer. I found this on microfilm at the Deutsche Kinemathek. I am so glad that these Film-Kuriers exist because they are probably the only ties that we have in regards to Nielsen’s lost films.

What was most surprising about my finds was that Nielsen is rarely seen in fan magazines and the only time she is mentioned in fan magazines is when a new film of hers is released; I saw more of Jenny Jugo than anyone else. However, Nielsen was mentioned quite often in trade journals, especially in the late 1910s and early 1920s, except my German sucks so I have no clue what they are saying for the most part. One day I will master the language, ONE DAY!!!

Click here for the rest!

Den sorte drøm (The Black Dream) ; 1911

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Director: Urban Gad
Actors: Asta Nielsen, Valdemar Psilander, Gunnar Helsengreen
Country: Denmark

Another long-winded Steph post. If you can stand it, feel free to read it. You can skip on to the “Thoughts/Analysis” section if you don’t want much of the film to be spoiled.

Asta Nielsen plays a circus performer, Stella, who has two admirers: Waldberg (Valdemar Psilander) and Hirsch (Gunnar Helsengreen). Stella at first does not care about her admirers and probably just sees them as fans. When Waldberg follows her and he walks her to her apartment, Stella leaves him at the door. She realizes that she does like Waldberg and their romance starts when she lets him into her house. Hirsch is a wealthy jeweler who wants Stella for himself and in the beginning, she has no opinion about him and even eats at his table at a dinner party. Hirsch finds out about her relationship with Waldberg and tries to rape her (or so it seems) but Waldberg comes to save Stella. Hirsch challenges Waldberg to a cards duel and Stella tells Waldberg to not play. Nonetheless Waldberg plays cards and loses all his money and owes Hirsch a large sum. Waldberg becomes depressed and decides to commit suicide but Stella intervenes when she finds out that he has a gun and takes it away from him. Hirsch promises Stella jewelry and she uses this as a way to help Waldberg. She tells Waldberg that she has an expensive necklace that he could pawn and she goes off to meet Hirsch to get the necklace. Stella understands the implications of receiving Hirsch’s gift and instead of choosing an item, she steals a pearl necklace while Hirsch is looking away. But what Stella doesn’t know is that Hirsch sees her actions from a mirror. Hirsch lets Stella leave with the necklace but later confronts her after she gave the necklace to Waldberg and makes her promise to meet him at 12. Stella and Waldberg are later together in her dress room and Stella doesn’t tell Waldberg where she is going. When she leaves, he has a jealous fit and gets the gun Stella took from him. When he opens her purse, he sees the note about the 12:00 meeting and in a jealous rage, he goes to Hirsch’s house. Stella is obviously disgusted with Hirsch and tries to pull away from his advances. Right when Hirsch pushes Stella onto a couch and gets on top of her, Waldberg enters. After a small skirmish, Stella comes between them to make them stop and Waldberg shoots her. While dying, Stella gives him a note that explains why she is there and Waldberg regrets his actions. Stella dies in his arms after they kiss.

I did not expect much from this film because the other two Nielsen films were somewhat of a disappointment, but I actually enjoyed this film!
Maaike commented on one of my previous entries about Nielsen’s films and she brought up a great point.

Also something which I think might explain the… badness of those films, basically, is that not only did Asta’s films not really need to be good since they sold on star power alone, but also in the early 1910s it was rare for directors to really see their medium as an art form or to have any ambition in that direction. Obviously there were exceptions, but most directors considered it a job really, like I presume writers of crappy romance novels also don’t care about the quality of the entertainment they churn out.

It was an entertaining melodrama to watch and although it’s Despite being a film purely for entertainment, there were some moments when I thought Gad did something interesting. One is when he frames the scenes with curtains and I thought that it brought a voyeuristic feel to the scene and made the audience aware of where the camera was placed. Also, the use of the mirror to show what was truly happening was a great plot device and I wish that there was a motif in the film with mirrors, but there isn’t. I felt like this film had so much potential especially when I saw the curtain scene, but Gad has failed me. But then again, is it really necessary to create a film that is loaded with meaning and symbolism when the film was created for entertainment (hypothetically)? I wish I knew more about Gad because at the moment, I’m just getting this feeling that he made films for entertainment. Look at what film classes have done to me! I feel empty when there isn’t something to analyze and pick apart. There are probably many things to analyze, but I’m simply too lazy for that. I’m not into theorizing much either, so how about we all just leave this film as a melodrama and that’s that?
The acting in this film was incredibly naturalistic on every actor’s part. The only time they hammed it up was when it was necessary to show some action, such as a fight. The acting was so naturalistic that it just seemed like I was people watching, but when it came to facial expressions to portray emotions, Nielsen gets the prize. I was amazed at how much she could express just with her face (particularly her eyes) during the scene when she is at the jewel store and in her dying scene.
While watching this film, I made a small observation: indoor shots are most likely a set while all outdoor shots (except maybe the circus) are shot somewhere in Denmark. I think that Danish directors used their surroundings as much as they could and I really liked seeing the outdoors and what Denmark looked like back then. If all the outdoor shots are actually sets themselves, then I’m impressed! While the indoor shots clearly look like sets, none of the outdoor shots do, which leads me to think that they aren’t.
And of course, there is the obligatory “SLUT” intertitle at the end. I thought that there wasn’t going to be one, but right before I pressed my eject button, “SLUT” came on the screen. It really didn’t help that the term “slut” sort of did fit. Well, not really, but Stella was sacrificing herself for her lover.

I recommend this film for people who can stand melodramas, like Asta Nielsen, or have time on their hands. Other than that, I don’t think this film is anything spectacular or that you’ll be missing out on something if you don’t watch this. Although I have not watched Mod lyset yet, out of the three Danish silents I have watched so far with Nielsen, this one is the best.something that I would probably not think about much in the future.

IMDb Link: Den sorte drøm
Where to buy: Danish Film Institute Net Shop, Edition Filmmuseum

Balletdanserinden (The Ballet Dancer) ; 1911

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Director: August Blom
Actors: Valdemar Møller, Asta Nielsen, Johannes Poulsen, Valdemar Psilander
Country: Denmark

I am getting a bit skeptical of Danish silents, but I suppose I am being quick to judge since I’ve only watched two. I should look for early Carl Theodor Dreyer works and see if they are in a similar style as the ones I’m watching, but sadly Dreyer directed after the films I’m watching, so maybe his films won’t be a good way to compare.
Anyway, Balletdanserinden, I found out, is directed by a famous director during the Danish golden age in cinema, and despite all this, I was disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed in the sense that I was with Ball of Fire, but this film felt so trivial and that it was a film that wasn’t worth my time. That was a bit harsh and maybe I do take that back, but this film was something that one could POSSIBLY call cute (seeing Asta Nielsen in a tutu of sorts was adorable [ref. Picture 1]), maybe this film can be called a (melo)drama, and well, in the end I was like, “Well now! That’s that?!”

The music ended abruptly and so did the scene, and it completely did not help that Nielsen’s character, Camille, is looking at her old boyfriend Jean (portrayed by Johannes Poulsen)with longing eyes and then she sees her new (?!) boyfriend and then they are in a passionate embrace and then the intertitle “SLUT” comes up and ends all the music and the scene. Being a typical college student and being immature, I can’t help but laugh every time I think about that scene and then the “SLUT”. I guess that I will be a terrible student once I learn Danish and go to Denmark to watch Nielsen’s films.
Ok, I’m digressing, but the whole film was rather confusing. Camille falls in love with Jean and Jean supposedly loves only her yet he cheats on her with Mrs. Simon (who I assume is a very wealthy woman). Mr. Simon finds out about his cheating wife and is about to beat her with a whip (you go Mr. Simon!) *ahem* when Mrs. Simon, I assume, says that she’ll stop and all is forgiven. Alas, Mrs. Simon can’t help her urges and Camille finds out that Jean is still cheating on her with Mrs. Simon, thus Camille, in a fit of jealousy, tells Mr. Simon about everything and when Mr. Simon decides to either kill Jean or Mrs. Simon (it’s a bit unclear), Camille regrets telling Mr. Simon about the whole affair and finds Jean and Mrs. Simon, who are not-so surprisingly together, and warns them about Mr. Simon. Camille exchange clothes with Mrs. Simon so that when Mr. Simon sees Camille walk out of the house with Jean in Mrs. Simon’s clothes, he’ll think that he caught her in the act, but it’s really another woman. Camille covers her face with a veil so that her identity is not discovered by Mr. Simon. Mrs. Simon walks out when her husband is still outside and when Mr. Simon sees his wife, he chases her and kills her with a gun. When Camille finds out about this, she becomes ill, but her friend, Paul (Valdemar Psilander) takes her away to his house (sound familiar? Reference Afgrunden) and all is good since Camille gets along with his parents. The final scene confused me at first because the two male characters looked the same, but I figured it all out thanks to the BFI website. Camille is alone when she sees Jean. Jean is glad to see her and he kisses her hand when Paul sees them, but Camille all too easily leaves Jean for Paul and the film ends.

Nielsen’s performance was below-par and I thought she over-acted in some parts. I felt as if she was nothing special especially since the other actors were pretty naturalistic. The death scene with Mrs. Simon wasn’t as bad as the one in Afgrunden and overall, nothing too spectacular in the acting department.

I adored the clothes and Nielsen had THE BEST HAT EVER! That is why I screencapped it for you. Also, I screencapped the room so that you can see the beautiful furnishings yet there is the flimsy door with the painted on decoration like the one I described in Afgrunden. I am still upset with Nielsen’s performance because I felt as if she got worse in comparision to her performance in Afgrunden, which I thought was pretty good. She acted more with her body than with her eyes and face, which is probably why I am thinking this, but still, it was disappointing. And that last scene! Really! There wasn’t even a moment when Camille thought for a second before she made a choice with which man she’ll be with, but she just went from one guy to another.

Maaike commented on my other Nielsen related post saying

I’m really curious to see the film now, though what you’ve written pretty much corresponds with the other Gad films that I’ve seen, in that he is basically a crummy director who chooses stories that are kind of odd and where you can’t really tell whether there’s supposed to be a ‘message’ or not, and whose only saving grace is basically that he employed Asta and let her do whatever she wanted.

and her thoughts on Gad films reflect this film as well. Sure it’s not directed by Gad, but I didn’t think Blom was anything special and there didn’t seem to be much of a difference between the the style of Gad or Blom. I was happy that it shows Camille in a positive light since she got over her jealously and “for the sake of love” (I think that is what the intertitle said. How corny.), she tried to save Mrs. Simon and Jean and she stayed with the nicer guy. After watching one too many Korean soap operas, I do get skeptical over situations when women have to choose between the nice guy and the jerk because they always pick the jerk, but this film didn’t disappoint me in that aspect.

IMDb link: Balletdanserinden
Where to buy: Danish Film Institute Net Shop, Edition Filmmuseum

Afgrunden (The Abyss) ; 1910

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Director: Urban Gad
Actors: Asta Nielsen, Robert Dinesen, Poul Reumert
Country: Denmark

Disclaimer: After reading Neko’s post on W., I was completely blown away by how beautifully it was written and how well she laid out her points. Sorry that my post won’t be like hers, but instead, you’ll get the usual Stephany-like post with the lost-winded falderal, synopsis, thoughts, whatever. I am sorry in advance for the rather long post.

The story is of Magda (Asta Nielsen), who is a piano teacher and meets her fiancé, Knud (Robert Dinesen), on a trolley. Knud instantly falls in love with Magda when she steps onto the trolley and when she gets off, he follows her to a little café. They both fall in love and later on when Magda is teaching a little girl, she gets a letter from Knud that him and his parents would love to have her come to his house during summer. Magda is excited and finishes the lesson early and responds to his letter enthusiastically. At the summer home, Magda is seen as a quiet type of girl, preferring to read a book rather than go on a walk/go out with her fiancé and his family, and finally she is persuaded to at least walk with him to the gate entrance of the house. After she waves him goodbye, she sees a circus and she immediately becomes intrigued and is handed a flier. When Knud comes back, she tells him that she wants to go, but Knud brushes it off and does not want to go, but in the end, he agrees to take her to the circus. After the circus, Magda wants to see the animals and the reluctant Knud follows her and Magda wants to learn a dance she saw. One of the circus ladies teaches her the steps and one of the male performers, Rudolf (Poul Reumert), becomes attracted to Magda right away. When he tries to talk to her, Knud takes Magda away, but Rudolf follows Magda and Knud all the way to their house, possibly in hopes of recruiting her. Knud and Rudolf get into a fight and in the end, Knud and Magda just go into the house with Rudolf being angry outside. Later when Magda is in her room, alone, Rudolf sneaks into her room through the window and while Magda is surprised, they kiss after he stifles her screams. Magda runs away with him and leaves a note for Knud, telling him that she has run away with the love of her life and that Knud should forget her. Then we see Magda as an unhappy woman and Rudolf giving his attention to other women. Magda is jealous and whenever she throws a fit, Rudolf puts her in place. By coincidence, Knud finds the unhappy Magda and they decide to be together, but when Magda packs and is about to leave, Rudolf finds her and charms her again. While they are embracing, Knud walks in and then leaves, knowing that Magda won’t leave Rudolf. Then it goes to a scene where the circus troupe is performing and Magda and Rudolf do a sensual act with them as cowboys (I think) and Magda performs a highly sensual dance. It is well received by the audience, but when they go back to the wings, Rudolf goes straight for one of the other female performers and flirts. Magda is jealous and tries to come between Rudolf and the other female performer, but Rudolf pushes her away and isn’t ashamed of his actions and goes on flirting. When the girl goes on stage and performs her cancan-like routine, Magda cannot control her jealously and lashes at the girl with a stick. Rudolf and Magda are fired and eventually Magda finds a job as a piano player at an outdoor café. When her and Rudolf come to the café, she doesn’t want to work, but he forces her to play the piano while he is smoking with some buddies. By coincidence (again), Knud also comes to the café and sees Magda performing. He leaves a note with the waiter saying that “a friend” wants to meet her. When she gets the note, she is reluctant to go and is dragged by her husband to go into the private room to meet the “friend”. When she sees Knud, she is shocked and looks upset to see him, and when he talks to her, she cries. When her husband eventually walks in, he recognizes Knud and a fight ensues, and Magda pushes Knud out of the room and fights with Rudolf. Rudolf pushes her and pulls her hair and in desperation, she gets a knife and stabs him. Rudolf dies and Magda is upset and cries over his body. She won’t let go and when Knud sees what happens, he leaves. The film ends with Magda being taken away by the police and Knud being by himself.

I was really excited to see one of Asta Nielsen’s first films, and at that, it was my first Danish silent! Was I disappointed? Not really. It was worth a watch, but I have to say that the film was nothing special. I’m not sure if I’ve actually watched a film created earlier than this one or around this time, so it is hard for me to put this film in perspective in relation to what was going on at the time in Denmark and in cinema. Maybe some cinematic techniques were new, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t any. There were many long shots (typical of older films) and I couldn’t find anything that was innovative. On top of that, it was Urban Gad’s first film, thus as an “amateur”, I wouldn’t/don’t expect much.
In my Weimar cinema class, I learned that the lack of funds led to creative sets using unconventional materials, such as the use of canvases for Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and while the sets weren’t made of canvases for Afgrunden, it was quite obvious in some scenes that a set was built using as little materials as possible. I’m not sure about the economy in pre-war Denmark (and of course its economy wouldn’t be as terrible as post-WWI Germany), but I highly doubt that Gad would have gotten much funding for his first film. The flimsy walls of the private room are noticeable, and the doors are thin with painted on decoration to make it look as if it had some carvings. Despite the almost cheap looking sets indoors (the furnishings were nice though), the outdoor shots were rather beautiful.
The acting was incredibly realistic and the only time over-acting was seen was when Rudolf dies. I was so amused by Reumert’s exaggerated acting that I almost giggled until Asta ran and hugged his body, in which it made me a bit sad. He grabs his chest, twirls around, and sticks his leg out before he falls. It was almost cartoony, in my honest opinion. Nielsen is known for her subtle acting, such as a look telling it all, and I can definitely see the beginnings of this in Afgrunden; when she does the sensual dance; that look on her face is more erotic than her gyrating hips.
While on the topic of the “famous” sensual/erotic dance, what I noticed to be a bit odd was that the audience is on the right of the frame, yet it seems as if both the actors acknowledge the camera as if it was the audience and not the people who are not seen on the right.
It was fun to see clothes pre-1920s and the hats were FABULOUS. Asta’s clothes were beautiful as well and she looks great with a corseted waist and a long dress. Another fun thing for me to see was when she would dry the ink on letters by pressing them against some block. Since these are things that I’ve never seen (not the corseted waist, but Asta in such a dress and the ink blotter), it was all very exciting for me.
Now stepping away from the superficial aspect of this film, at first, I wasn’t even sure what I thought. It took a second for me to take it all in, and the “SLUT” intertitle at the end of the film made me confused. I was thinking, “WHAT?! Magda’s a slut?! What kind of intertitle is this? This beats Die freudlose Gasse‘s intertitle with ‘Orgy.’!” It was so odd and didn’t seem to fit with the story that I used a Danish online translator and found out it meant “Finished”, which made sense. So after I got over that confusion, I saw this film as a tale of a simple woman who has her emotions unleashed, which leads her to her ruin. Although the film starts all happy with Knud and Magda, with the intertitle to fit them “Young hearts”, everything seems all lovey-dovey and nice. But at the same time, the intertitle is like a foreshadow, implying (this is COMPLETELY my interpretation by the way so I’m not getting this from any scholarly material so take it with a grain of salt) that the relationship is like the one of young people: fleeting. The intertitle can mean that the scene is of two young people meeting and falling in love, but as the rest of the film shows, Magda’s love for Knud pretty much ends. Magda cannot exactly be called a rational woman, but she was probably a normal woman of the times, but she is also easily excited, as the viewer can see with her reaction to the invitation to her fiancé’s home. At the fiancé’s home, I saw it as a way for the viewer to see how mismatched the couple was. Magda wants to read but her fiancé wants to go for a walk; Magda wants to go to the circus and Knud goes unwillingly; Magda is interested in the circus dance and Knud is a tad disapproving of it. It already sets up for what is to happen and Rudolf sweeps her off her feet when he comes in through her window. Knud is the complete opposite of Rudolf: he is steadfast and is a “moral” person.
In the beginning of the film, Magda is seen only wearing corseted dresses, and although she is seen wearing corseted dresses later on as well, Magda’s emotions are completely released when she does her sensual dance and her non-corseted dress reflects this. She is letting go of everything and in that very scene, she also unleashes her emotions when she lashes out at the other female performer. Perhaps this can mean that a woman’s sensuality and emotions leads to a decline in character, a moral downfall, but while this is what the viewer may first think, it is also important to remember that Rudolf is a philanderer. I would be jealous and angry too if I saw my lover flirting with every other woman. I read on IMDb that eventually Magda goes into prostitution, but I did not interpret the last sequence like that at all. To me, I saw it as Magda being the breadwinner and she is forced to work by her boyfriend while he just chats with his friends. I can also see the prostitute argument because Magda does not want to see the “friend” in the private room and her boyfriend drags her there, which can imply that he is willing to sell his girlfriend’s body for money. It can go both ways and since I have not read anything about Afgrunden, I am not sure what Gad’s original intention was. In the end, Magda kills Rudolf and although this might add to the whole “SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WOMAN IS NOT RIGHTEOUS!” argument, it was completely out of self-defense, and I hope that contemporary audience sided with Magda. She doesn’t deserve to get arrested at all, but she is taken away by the police.
Knud is uneasy by what has happened and walks in and out of the room and out of the building. I interpreted his action of walking out of the room as him realizing that he could never have Magda. In the last shot, he looks at Magda and tries to reach out to her, but she is in a trance-like state and does not acknowledge him and with glazed eyes, she is led away from the building by the police. This final scene reaffirms his severed ties with Magda as she does not even look at him and perhaps he realizes that their relationship is over since he only reaches out, but never directly approaches her. Even through physical space there is a separation between the two characters.

So what is this film trying to say? Well, I don’t know. Is it a moral story? Maybe. Is it a tragic love story? Maybe. I’m not sure about the “message” of the film, but all I can do is speculate about what the scenes mean. For now, I see it as a story of a woman who goes with her passions that leads to her “downfall” (financially and emotionally). I would rather prefer not to attach any moral judgment on Magda, because is it a sin to run away with a man? To be angry at him for being a flirt? I don’t think so. I don’t see Magda as a bad person and is more upset with her staying with Rudolf. But there is no explanations for a person’s feelings, especially when it comes to “love” (or so I believe) and even though Magda may know that Knud is better for her, she still loves Rudolf nonetheless.

IMDb link: Afgrunden
Where to buy: Danish Film Institute Net Shop, Edition Filmmuseum