Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film

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The centerpiece of this collection is a reprint of Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film, by Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs first published by Oxford University Press in 1997. While previous accounts of the relationship between cinema and theatre have tended to assume that early filmmakers had to break away from the stage in order to establish a specific aesthetic for the new medium, Theatre to Cinema argues that the cinema turned to the pictorial, spectacular tradition of the theatre in the 1910s to establish a model for feature filmmaking. The book traces this influence in the adaptation and transformation of the theatrical tableau, acting styles, and staging techniques, examining such films as Caserini’s Ma l’amor mio non muore!, Tourneur’s Alias Jimmy Valentine and The Whip, Sjöström’s Ingmarssönerna, and various adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The book was based on the close analysis of a large number of films made before 1920, many of them relatively unfamiliar and (at that time) only accessible in film archives in Europe and the U.S. This meant that we could not rely on readers’ prior knowledge of the films we were discussing, and needed methods of description and illustration to make our arguments intelligible. Hence the extensive use of photographs of individual frames from the films and the detailed descriptions of sequences from films that accompany our analyses. The result was a very dense and also fairly expensive book. In this collection, we make the book freely available online and try to supplement the description and illustration that accompanied the book in a way that makes it easier for readers to appropriate our work—both to understand it, and to make use of it in research and teaching.

The book can be downloaded in parts here. Clicking on the individual illustrations in the pdfs of the parts will allow you to download them as image files (you can choose one of four sizes). Clips of sequences from some of the films that we discuss and other ancillary material may be found when browsing the collection from the link above.


Front matter
Part One: Introductory
Chapter 1 Pictures
Chapter 2 Situations

Part Two: The Tableau
Chapter 3 The Stage Tableau in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Chapter 4 The Fate of the Tableau in the Cinema

Part Three: Acting
Chapter 5 Pictorial Acting in the Theatre
Chapter 6 Pictorial Styles and Film Acting
Chapter 7 The Pictorial Style in European Cinema

Part Four: Staging
Chapter 8 Pictorial Staging in the Theatre
Chapter 9 The Cinematic Stage
Chapter 10 Staging and Editing

Back Matter


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As the title implies, Theatre to Cinema deals with the ways the live stage influenced films, particularly in the period after 1910 when films first became long enough to tell stories of comparable complexity to those audiences at the time were familiar with in the theatre. However, our aim is not primarily to trace the development from one medium to the other. Rather, we are attempting to understand the cinema of the 1910s by considering it in terms of the theatre of the previous century. To appreciate the acting in films of a Lyda Borelli, or the very different acting of a Victor Sjöström for that matter, we believe it is necessary to understand the acting in the theatre in which they were trained, and which their original film audiences knew.

Significantly, this is to go against the grain of almost all history of film written since the cinema first found historians in the 1920s. That history’s fundamental concern has always been to differentiate film from the other arts, and most especially from the theatre, since the two media might seem obviously so close. This has led to an emphasis on the study of development of film editing, since editing seems most clearly to distinguish film from theatre. It has also made the American cinema the center of attention in the first quarter of the twentieth century, since editing developed more rapidly in the U.S. than in other countries with strong film-making traditions. As a result, there have been very few attempts to investigate the influence of the theatre on filmmaking, and even fewer that see that influence as in any way benign.

Our book is attempt to redress this balance through the analysis of aspects of mise en scene in the early feature film—acting, staging, and the cinematic equivalents of the nineteenth century tableau or “stage picture.” The pictorial vocation of nineteenth-century theatre encompassed an approach to acting which emphasized the assumption of expressive and graceful attitudes or poses, often learned through the study of painting and sculpture and sometimes canonized in performance tradition. It also encompassed an approach to staging which sought to maximize the spectacular arrangement of decor and the acting ensemble—to create striking pictures at key dramatic junctures. With the rise of naturalism in the 1880s, the pictorial tendency was increasingly frowned upon in serious dramatic circles. Stanislavsky, for example, criticized his actors for posing and increasingly in the twentieth century the training of actors focused on promoting interior identification with the depicted character rather than close attention to the actor’s posture on the stage. Similarly, approaches to staging such as the Meiningers’ sought to evoke the quasi-randomized movement of actual crowds, as well as the replication of everyday tasks and attitudes. In addition, the increasing value placed on fidelity to the text in the staging of Shakespeare and other canonical works, as well as the investment in language and ideas most evident in the plays of Ibsen, Shaw and other naturalists and post-naturalists further increased intellectual suspicion of the spectacular and frankly presentational handling of mise-en-scène that we have identified as “pictorial.” Nonetheless, the pictorial traditions of acting and staging survived in many different contexts—the productions of Shakespeare mounted by English provincial touring companies, revivals of nineteenth-century melodramas such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as early twentieth century productions in the same mode, and the deliberately archaic and stylized acting employed in some symbolist works. The feature film of the 1910s provided another fertile terrain for the survival of the pictorialist theatrical tradition. Filmmakers turned to this tradition as they sought to tell longer and more complex narratives without the benefit of spoken language, and as the requirements of staging for the camera provided a whole raft of new opportunities for generating striking arrangements of mise-en-scène. We argue that an understanding of the influence of pictorial theatre is particularly important for an appreciation of the relatively slow-cut feature films of Europe as opposed to the editing-based cinema of the Americans and especially of D.W. Griffith, certainly the filmmaker with the fastest cutting in the world in the 1910s, and too often taken as indicative of the period as a whole.

We hope that the ready access to images and clips made possible by this online edition of Theatre to Cinema will make it easier to document and study the pictorial tradition that we invoke and seek to explore.