“Stars cannot act. It has never been required of them.”
That blunt and pithy statement was made by the great movie expert Iris Barry in a book she wrote in 1926.
The quote is used by author Dr. Chris O’Rourke in his recent book Acting for the Silent Screen to emphasize his point that “producers preferred to cast according to type.” Barry blamed the Hollywood star system for promoting typecasting, thereby limiting the quality of film performance.
O’Rourke is certainly right to use this quote, but unfortunately he does not give us the fact Barry was one of the founding members of the London Film Society in the 1920s. This would have put her quote in context, as she was much more than just a critic. The references also get the title of her book wrong: Let’s Go to the Movies, not Let’s Go to the Pictures.
The author takes a close look at the seedy side of the British film business, such as the potential exploitation of would-be actors. “The safety of women in London’s film business,” he writes, “remained an inflammatory issue” throughout the 1920s. The era saw the growth of ‘cinema schools’ where people (often young and inexperienced women) would pay to take acting lessons. One such woman, Chili Bouchier, wrote her memoirs in 1996. She relates that at cinema school, a dummy camera was cranked while she played various scenes. “I thoroughly enjoyed myself although it was beginning to dawn on me that this was a phoney setup.”
She was lucky enough to do some real professional work later, but most of the aspiring actors and actresses never appeared on screen. The author quotes the Daily Express film critic G. A. Atkinson, who described “the anxious procession of unemployed beauty that wanders in and out of agency waiting rooms.” The social danger was obvious, which is where both Hollywood and the British film industry got a bad reputation, euphemistically known as the ‘casting couch.’ There were scandals galore, such as when “the young stage actress Billie Carlton died of a drug overdose in 1919” Another film actor admitted supplying Carleton with cocaine. That was a century ago, and very little has changed! The travails of Carlton and others actually began the craze for novels in the 1920s that luridly described the horrors awaiting those whose path to stardom ended in the ditch.
Nonetheless books such as the 1921 How to Become a Film Artiste and the 1922 book How to Get Film Work were wildly successful, and O’Rourke gives us a great insight into this as well. He shows us that many in this era combined both stage and film work. One example is the noted actor Briane Aherne, born in Birmingham in 1902, who began his film career in 1924 after 14 years on the stage. It was not until the 1930s, when he went to Hollywood, that Aherne became a full-time film actor, leaving his theatrical career behind him in England. He is pictured here in a 1928 film role.
Today we have star search programs on television. In the teens and 20s, the British public was lured by their own star searches, as announced in magazines. O’Rourke gives us an expose on these, especially the 1922 contest, “the most controversial British star search of the decade.” It elicited open hostility from the British film trade, which proclaimed that experienced actresses were being ignored in favour of finding a new star “in the laundries and factories of this country.”
O’Rourke does an excellent job of using not just printed sources but archival material such as letters in the British Film Institute collection. A delightful and insightful book that goes behind the silent silver screen, which, like all silver, tarnishes easily.
This book is part of a tremendous 45-title series on Cinema and Society, published by I.B. Tauris. Many of the books examine specific time periods or aspects of British cinema; another one that looks at the silent era is British National Identity and Film in the 1920s, a 1999 book by Kenton Bamford.
Acting for the Silent Screen: Film Actors and Aspiration between the Wars is $120 from IB Tauris.