|In order to save his love interest (Virginia Cherrill) in City Lights, Chaplin has|
to put up his dukes and "be a man."
While a lot of focus is given to interpreting the repression and liberation of women in film, that of the male archetype seems to be less thoroughly examined, at least in terms the facets of masculinity as reflections of/on society. The reason for this could very well be the lazy perception that "a man, is a man, is a man," which is a theory many may humorously, and perhaps correctly (to a certain extent), agree with. It is not the "male mystique" that continues to plague and baffle the opposite sex, yet this does not mean that the more "predictable" sex is any less complicated and nuanced than his fairer opposite. As such, his presentation on the silver screen and its metamorphosis over the years creates quite a broad portrait of just what it means to be a man. What makes a good man? A bad man? An attractive man? And what on earth is masculinity? Are the depictions of the different shades of the complex male conundrum-- the lover, the fighter, the cave man, the villain, the hero-- influenced by or influential of contemporary society? Probably a little bit of both.
|Eugene Sandow gives good bicep in an early silent clip. A famous|
Austrian body builder, he was Schwarzenegger before anyone
knew what a Schwarzenegger was.
During the initial stages of silent cinema, men were, quite simply, just men. They weren't polished, they weren't pristine, they weren't products. They weren't, in fact, even acting. The more studied performers of the stage rebuffed the hackneyed gimmick of the "motion picture" as it groped its fledgling way into a fully grown, full-fledged business. Thus, the gratuitous appeal of the original flicker shows, which portrayed human beings naturally, as they really were, whether the image of the man projected was sneezing, boxing, flexing his muscles, or kissing May Irwin, was the documentary style of the medium. It was simple: point and shoot. Then, point and shoot with costumes on. The storytellers on the screen were regular guys looking for work. As movies became shorts, which became features, as 1 reel lengthened to 8, as plot lines became more complicated, so too did the requirements of the leading men become more intricate. Trained actors, who had performed on the stage and in vaudeville, soon began migrating toward the cinema, less to achieve fame-- as it didn't exist yet-- then to make ends meet and take the jobs that their contemporaries still poo-pooed. Many were innovators that saw the potential others overlooked, and some were merely wooed by the opportunity its opportunists. As a result, some of the great personalities of the 20th century would present themselves on the silver screen-- Chaplin, Keaton, Chaney, Fairbanks, Reid-- and the words "movie star" would be born.
The interesting thing about these personalities is that, while they were better trained than the initial rookie actors of cinematic minor leagues, they were still fairly regular guys, the prettiest of them belonging to the Wallace Reid (left) variety, who with his boyish good looks and overgrown child charms was both the son and lover to his leading ladies. He and Douglas Fairbanks both presented a masculine archetype that was bristling with the energy of immaturity-- Wally with his speed racing, and Doug with his nonchalant embrace of danger. In these cases, the women and romantic interests were always secondary to the major action within the story, with both men more invested in being "wild and wooly" than responsible. Meanwhile, the leading ladies performing opposite them tried their best to domesticate them, all while accepting that they never really could. "Boys will be boys..." Wally was, admittedly, much more sexual, which is why he could easily vacillate between the daredevil driver of The Roaring Road and the smitten love interest of The Golden Chance with ease.
|Doug defends all of mankind's honor with the mightiest of phalluses, |
his saber! (The Black Pirate)
|Gilbert succumbs to the succubus, Garbo, in|
Flesh and the Devil.
Interestingly, it was Garbo who usually suffered in the end (at least in the silent era), being punished for her erotic witchcraft in Flesh and Love, for example. After escaping the soul-sucking power of the vamp, who sought only to bleed a man dry of his potent juices, the man was supposed to reclaim his soul, embrace his manhood, curse the bitch, and settle into a relationship that would place him back in a position of power. Gilbert's characters, therefore, would find solace in more dependable women who would be faithful, loyal, and submissive, and also allow him to peaceably engage in the boyish hijink's he'd temporarily forgotten while under the spell of forbidden sex. Though, it should be noted, that when Gilbert fell for a "good girl," such as Eleanor Boardman's heroine in Bardelys the Magnificent, the romance was indeed consummated. His more worldly character having already certainly experienced the ego and heart bruising of a Garbo-like woman in the past, this guy was out for an innocent wife to protect with his well-situated manliness. He had come of age before the storyline started.
Valentino's gents were very similar in their romantic addictions. Rudy had no problem becoming the putty in the hands of Alla Nazimova's Camille or Nita Naldi's vamp in Blood and Sand. The same action ensued, with the woman generally paying the price for her forbidden, unbridled sexual nature, and the man reasserting his final dominance, either shaming her in Camille's case or foolishly allowing himself to be destroyed in the vamp case, the latter being a lesson to all men. However, Valentino's heroes possessed more danger than Gilbert's. The is partially due to the scintillating allure of the foreigner-- xenophoberotica?-- and his animalistic assertion over his prey. In both Sheik films, Rudy shamelessly kidnaps Agnes Ayres and Vilma Banky until they accept their stations as his sex slaves, with him resorting to what can only be described as rape in the second film, Son of the Sheik (see right). Naturally, he feels bad for his carnal crimes afterward and learns his lesson, thereby clinging the soiled woman to his muscled chest-- again, the "good girl"-- and reforming himself into a more civilized man (undoing his foreignness) in the process. With his dark(er), Italian appeal, he also offered more fantasy, as Rudy wasn't a real American but a strange figure from a strange land. His heroes could be tamed but not domesticated, and after his capture of chosen female, it is assumed that he would take her to a fantasy world of happily monogamous "ever afters" and over-sexed oblivion. In whichever case, the macho man had to conquer to become the King of his own identity. He must be a slave to no one and the ultimate one in charge. This begets the plague of the necessarily more submissive female.
|Keaton battles the elements in Steamboat Bill, Jr.|
|Chaplin continues his voyage as the loner, lovelorn loser in|
The Circus-- a telling title.
Lon Chaney also belongs in this category, which is further complicated by identifying these ardent, bleeding heart lovers as a fools simply for loving at all. Chaney's twisted, heartbroken soldiers were literal mutations of the male sex. The fact that he wore love on his sleeve made him a monster. "This is not what a man is supposed to be," his movies unconsciously seemed to say. This too is why he is constantly left loveless by the final reels. The Phantom of the Opera is, forgive me, "cock-blocked" by Norman Kerry's more virile Raoul when vying for Christine (Mary Philbin). The Hunchback of Notre Dame is, again, intercepted by Kerry's Phoebus when vying for the heart of Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Even when not physically misshapen, Chaney's desire and pure-hearted emotion for the women he desired sealed his fate as one who would forever do without such love's return. His obsession with Joan Crawford in The Unknown leads him to mutilate himself. His devious fixation in The Unholy Three, his love for Mae Busch/Lila Leed, is why he fails in his caper and is punished for his crimes. He is crippled by and in love in The Shock, West of Zanzibar (left), and The Penalty. He is a dunce in love in The Trap and Mockery. And, just as Chaplin, his selflessness goes unrewarded with loneliness in Tell It to the Marines and While the City Sleeps.
|Thomas Meighan as the bored husband in Why Change Your Wife?|
These actors were favorites during the silent era for all that they represented, whether their stories made them winners or losers. The interesting thing to note is how intrinsically different they were from one another. No two were the same. Each had his own fashion, his own style, his own art, and each depicted his own version of masculinity, even while all portrayals may have eventually led society down the same path of acceptable male behavior-- the best version of his gender. Perhaps because screen identities were not yet firmly established, ergo there were no cliches or gender staples to adhere to, men were allowed to step before the camera in all shapes and sizes, modes and behaviors. The early days were an incredibly diverse and liberating era for the actor/performer, and viewers were consequently introduced to a wide array of talents and depictions of what it then meant to be a man in contemporary America. While the thread of necessary male dominance always held sway, never again would the characters in the male tapestry be as mixed nor as interesting as in the silent period. At the time, it would have been more fitting to say, a man is a man in any way he can...
To Be Continued in The Studio era and Method to Modern Times...