The Norman Transcript

September 14, 2013

Silver screen stars: Then and now


The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Movies are in the business of making money, they hope. However, the primary purpose of movies is to provide entertainment in good times, and diversion in troubled times.

For sheer amusement, the silent movies are, in the vernacular of old timers, a “hoot” and worth watching. You will be bludgeoned over the head and the brain will be rendered numb with the “gawd awful” quality of acting and scripts back then. In the silent movie era, exaggerated mugging was referred to as acting. It was melodrama á la two-year old toddlers because emotions were conveyed without the benefit of sound. In other words, the acting was a true porker, smoked and hammy.

The old movie studios would be filming as many films as there were movie sets available, all at the same time. Consequently, it is probably a blessing that the movies were silent; otherwise, the cacophony of sounds from the movies in progress would have been migraine-inducing nightmares.

The makeup for the silent movies was nearly as exaggerated as for stage actors. The difference being that stage actors had to be visible to everyone, even the folks in the back row or nosebleed balconies. Since movies use close ups, there was no need for makeup by the pound.

Since both men and women wore Pricilla, Queen of the Desert makeup in the silent as well as talking films, it was hard to tell if a guy was manly or not. Except for the über curly hairdos of the women and the slicked-back greasy hair of the men, with all that makeup, including heavy eyeliner, it was a challenge to distinguish the men from the women.

Why they utilized such androgynous makeup back then is a mystery because everything was filmed in black and white. Aside from shadow and light, the heavy makeup made little or no difference in black and white films. Unless, the intention of the director was clownish as opposed to natural appearance of the actors and actresses.

So, when it comes to makeup and acting quality, those early actors and actresses of the silent movies had a long road to hoe. This critique is not meant to imply that with talking pictures the acting improved.

Quite the contrary. Some of the old westerns were exhausting when you counted the number of times the good guys and the bad guys went around the same boulder in a chase scene. The lines were still spoken with the emotional range of a cover on a coffin.

Aside from the aforementioned “flaws” of the movies as they evolved over time, we cannot overlook the male physique back then compared to the buff, six-pack abs sported by today’s male actors.

“The Black Swan” was a 1942 swashbuckler filmed in Technicolor starring Tyrone Power. He was a nice looking man, almost pretty man, but he really should have kept his shirt on. His pasty white skin made no sense since pirates were constantly exposed to the sun and other weather conditions. Not even Technicolor helped Tyrone look good shirtless.

Not a discernible abdominal or any other kind of toned muscle was noticeable on old Tyrone. Again, one wishes to be kind but for the sake of authenticity, pirates should have visible muscles. After all, they haul those sails up and down and do all the heavy lifting on the ship. And yet, the physique of every male in that movie was tolerable to paunchy.

The script must have been written by a ventriloquist, stiff and wooden at best and laughable in general.

There have been actors such as Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who looked fit. However, compared to today’s slim and six or eight-pack abs-enhanced male movie stars, the pasty and paunchy look in the “Black Swan” was not sexy.

If women thought otherwise, they had no awesome abdominal physique available for comparison in those “good old days.”

Elizabeth is a freelance writer and author. Her novels “The Dionysus Connection” and “The Marathon Man” are available on amazon.com. Website: www.elizabethcowan.com.