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June 1995, Week 2


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Barbara Bernstein <[log in to unmask]>
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Barbara Bernstein <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 8 Jun 1995 21:17:29 EDT
text/plain (45 lines)
In his odd but fascinating book "Seductive Cinema," James Card takes
D. W. Griffith (not a favorite of his, to say the least) to task for
combining two modes of presentation in the same film, often the same
frame: "theatrical" mimicry of other racial groups by white actors on
the one hand, the presence of actual members of those groups on the
Card writes (p. 40) about Broken Blossoms:
"...his (Griffith's) theatrical orientation lured him into a major
aesthetic error that militates against one's acceptance of the film
today as a great work.  Richard Barthelmess, cast as a Chinese in
London's Limehouse district, is made up as a stereotyped stage
Chinaman, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves
and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps.  All perfectly
acceptacle as a nineteenth-century theatrical cliche.  But Griffith
made the mistake of surrounding Barthelmess with real Chinese, none of
whom looked anything like the chief protagonist.  In The Birth of a
Nation, Griffith was betrayed by this stagecraft into the same
aesthetic error.  His principal players cast as blacks are white
actors and actresses, their faces smeared not too carefully with
blackface madeup . . .Well and good had he been producing a minstrel
show, but again, extras in the film are real blacks bearing no
resemblance to Tom Wilson, George Siegmann or Walter Long."
The movies quickly learned to tone down the makeup conventions that
had traditionally indicated that an actor was "playing" black or
Asian, but the reluctance to use actual, non-Caucasianized performers
of other races, especially in romantic roles, persisted until quite
(I hope it's okay to post quotes to the Net without the author's
permission; it seems to me like a citation in a book, but correct me
if I'm wrong).
Barbara Bernstein                       email: [log in to unmask]
Kinexis, San Francisco,  CA
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