Until quite recently it has been the habit of most writers and stage producers of consequence to decry the motion picture as a medium quite unworthy their artistic endeavor. Of late, however, the motion picture, in spite of the slings and arrows of outraged highbrows, has attained such vast importance artistically and commercially that these same writers and producers, with compassion in their hearts and an eye for the main chance, have stepped forward, and in a few well-chosen words of apology have condescended to give the movies a boost—to reach them a helping hand on their wobbly journey toward the Haven of Art.
All this is very nice and very helpful and reminds one of the efforts of a sulphur match to light up the Aurora Borealis.
We hereby rise to remark that the movies need no apology. Leaving out of consideration the mental stimulus and instructive value of the educational and topical pictures, and confining ourselves to the story-telling qualities of the cinema, it seems fairly obvious that an art form which supplies emotional food and exercise to three million people daily is certainly worthy of the best and most serious efforts of any artist, however great and divinely endowed he might be.
Throughout the history of the civilized world, the emotional food and exercise to be derived from the Arts have been available only to the wealthy and semi-leisure classes. The drama, the opera, and nearly all types of musical entertainment have been, because of their cost, beyond the reach of the poor, except as events requiring considerable sacrifice for their occasional enjoyment. Not until the movies spread their benignant light over the millions of the earth, were the poor able to afford a daily thrill to lighten the somber reality of their daily work.
It would therefore seem that an art of such magnificent purpose and unlimited influence as the motion picture, should be approached by its devotees in a spirit of great humility—the spirit which has always and everywhere animated that greatest genius of the art—the man who gave to the motion picture the honor of producing what is certainly, to date, the nearest approach to the Great American Drama, “The Birth of a Nation.”
As to the material available and usable for the motion picture story, it is as broad and limitless as life itself. The motion picture is undoubtedly the most elastic medium that has ever been put into the hands of an artist, and, by the same token, it is the medium that nearest approaches life. There is no reason in the world why the author should pick his characters out of the thin air of his imagination.
Movies are life, and the best place to go for life is to the living. Let us pick our hero out of the house next door, or find our heroine in the upstairs flat. Then, when we have found them, let us make them do what real, honest, living people would do, without the aid of the false moustache, the old mill, the hidden papers, the strawberry mark on the hero’s chest, or any other of the time worn, hackneyed plots.
But, on the other hand, let us avoid the fault of many authors who, in attempting to deal in realities (and this is true of the stage as well as the movies) mistake commonplaceness for dramatic realism. This is a fault that is almost as bad as that of relying on the false moustache for one’s plot. No photoplay or drama will ever be effective merely because it tells a truthful incident in the life of Maggie Manicure. To have drama one must have conflict, and no ordinary string of incidents will ever make real drama just because it is told in a truthful manner. Let us make our people act as human beings, yes—but let us not imagine that we are making drama unless we mix them up in a conflict that is as great as our theme will permit. Truth of itself will never be drama, but, once we have caught our drama, we must add truth to it or it will be merely melodramatic bunk.
A great many budding authors are led astray by the fact that they often see very ordinary stories on the screen and say to themselves, “I could write as good a story as that,” which may be very true. But let us give you the history of the production of the average “ordinary” story and the reason why that very same story would never have been bought had it come through the mail to the scenario department.
The supply of good stories has never come anywhere near to meeting the demand. But producing companies have their contracts for a certain number of pictures to be released, and they MUST make them. Now, every company has its staff of scenario writers who have been chosen because of extraordinary ability, but who could not pretend to keep up with a regular pace of extraordinary stories, with original plots and situations.
So, like other literary workers, they have a certain number of pot boilers to turn out, which they do, on salary. If one of these stories came into the department from the outside, the firm would never think of paying out extra money for it, when just as good a story could be written by one of the staff who was on regular salary. So it is very unwise for the ambitious amateur to look to the ordinary production for his inspiration—look to the best—the very best pictures that are produced today—then get busy and try to write a better one, and you will be on the right track, at least.
It is a foolish waste of time for the writer of stories for the screen to bother himself about the working script of the photoplay. There is a very complicated technique in photoplay writing as in all other arts and a successful photo-playwright cannot be developed without practical training. There could be no more be a natural photoplaywright than there could be a natural violinist, who would play upon the instrument the first time he took it into his hands. However, this need not in the least discourage beginners who have original talent. Any time a genuinely original idea comes into a scenario office, everyone from the president of the company down gets on his knees and offers up a prayer of thanks. This happens perhaps once or twice a year, if it is a good year.
Sometimes a script will come in with a trite plot, but somewhere hidden away in it is a single and original incident that, had the author realized it, could have been made the theme of the whole play. Many scenarios are bough for this one reason. If the author has an original idea (and by this we do not mean a mere situation) no matter how much he is lacking in technical knowledge, his idea will be eagerly bought, and if he keeps his pace, he is certain of a chance to land in a studio where he can learn the actual technical working out of the photoplay and so develop into a recognized playwright.
After a short experience in a scenario office, a reader soon comes to know the worth of a script almost immediately upon opening the envelope. If the author sends a two or three page letter saying that he or she is submitting a scenario that is original in plot, startling in theme, full of action and absolutely unlike anything that he or she has ever seen, and from there goes on with a chatty history of his or her life and states that the reason why he or she wishes to make a little extra money is to help keep an aged aunt in Hindustan—it is a safe bet that the story is rotten.
The best scripts that come into the office, come in without any heralding, and nothing but the author’s name, address and return envelope. The best story we ever got was not even signed, and we scrambled around for months before we found out that it was dashed off by a young reporter in Chicago, who had forgotten to put his signature and address on it. We do not advocate emulating this young man’s carelessness, although his reticence concerning his personal history and that of his family and connections is admirable.
In conclusion let us say that many years spent in professional life have forced upon us the conviction thag half the misery in this world is caused by people desiring to make their living by selling something they haven’t got—people trying to sell their voices, when their voices are not worth listening to; or to sell acting ability, when they have no acting ability to deliver, and would-be scenarioists trying to make a living selling ideas, when they have no ideas to sell.
We are quite sure that no man in his senses would think that he could successfully run a grocery store unless he had groceries to sell, or that he could supply the community with dry goods from empty shelves—and yet thousands upon thousands of people have become indignant because their efforts at trying to bunko a purchaser into buying something they haven’t got, failed.
So we would say to aspiring scenario writers—make sure first that you have something to sell. Then, write it up in as neat and concise and clear a manner as possible, without any attempt at the technical form of a working script, and send your product out to the market knowing that there is a hungry purchaser to snatch up any crumb of originality at a very fair price.
Originally published in Photoplay Magazine, February 1918