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Monday, December 16, 2013

HISTORY LESSON: Man Enough? Part 1 - The Silents

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)
Doug was never "in it" for love. Ever. His heroes, like D'Artagnan of The Three Musketeers and his Robin Hood were more enthralled with the opportunity for adventure than the sentimental pull of romance. Therefore, as an unspoken "hit 'em and quit 'em type"-- however optimistically he portrayed himself-- he wasn't about putting down roots but exploring man's liberty. The message both figures presented was that men weren't meant to be chained. They must be able to exercise their need for freedom. Women just had to be ready to catch them when they wore themselves out. Most of their stories possessed a wink at the female audience of, "Yeah, we don't need you, but we really do." The little lady in an apron was always the true brains behind the operation, running the man's life, all while he thought he was indeed running wild. This perpetuated the paternal society's definitions of gender roles within a marriage: women, keep the home fires burning, men... burn rubber!

Gilbert succumbs to the succubus, Garbo, in
Flesh and the Devil.
This isn't to say that there were no men with emotive eloquence. Two Romeos with such all consuming passion were John Gilbert and Rudolph Valentino, both of whom were inhumanly handsome and intensely virile. While inheriting in some ways the fairly adolescent charisma of the aforementioned brand of man-boy, the inciting incident in their lover storylines was not that which would attract them to adventure or the fight of good over evil. The inciting incident was the appearance of Eve in their Edens. Whatever extraneous business was happening otherwise was pure background noise. Each man followed only the beating of his heart, or perhaps better yet, the compulsion of his loins. These guys were victims to their passion. However selfishly they may have behaved in the past, meeting the girl was enough to instantly change them from selfish boys to helpless fools for love, and consequently drive them insane with desire. Gilbert was most memorably paired with Garbo in his romantic career. His intoxicated devotion to her, which nearly destroyed him every time (and sometimes did), portrayed for women the man of their dreams. He gave his undivided attention to his muse, for whom he would do anything, and he would not rest until he possessed her. This was enough to leave ladies fanning themselves in their seats, if not passing out in the aisles. 

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.
In truth, the only true lovers of the silent era came from the fools and clowns-- sometimes literally. When looking at the selfless devotion of Chaplin or the innocent but maladministered and attracted pursuit of Keaton, one witnesses some of the greatest examples of romance in all of cinema, period. The Tramp would send himself into further despair, isolation, or poverty to rescue the woman he loved from even minor devastation (The Circus, City Lights), while Keaton's many lovable but bumbling wooers would do anything to impress a potential bride only to fail-- as in his refused enlistment in the army in The General. Neither was reaching for the moon. They just wanted nice girls to settle down with and have an ordinary life. They also always had competition: bigger men, stronger men, better looking men, and richer men. The Tramp was undeserving, because he was poor; Keaton, because he wasn't macho. The latter would only accidentally become a worthy hero when presented with the challenges of extreme circumstances, be they wartime, weather affected, or even hallucinatory. The notion was that these men were, indeed, good guys. But good guys rarely get the girl, which is why the majority of the time, these two did nothing but suffer. The image of the man as the strong provider and savior still continues to be the divisive factor in what makes a man a man. 

Chaplin continues his voyage as the loner, lovelorn loser in
The Circus-- a telling title.
Unlike Fatty Arbuckle, who was able to win the day almost totally due to his imposing size and the clever swiftness of his actions and schemes, he was a bit of the selfish prankster that Fairbank and Reid represented but in the comic genre. Contrastingly, Chaplin and Keaton were diminutive, sensitive, emotionally aware, but mostly uncomfortable with themselves. Confidence is key, and they guys didn't have it. Thus, Chaplin's victory was primarily only ever the reward of selfless love-- sending the girl of his dreams off to live with the man of hers-- while Keaton was more often allowed to end in wedded bliss because, despite his size and social ignorance, he was able to prove his masculinity through his unbelievable, life-saving acts of prowess. He had thus earned his place in man-dom. Chaplin's silent hero never received applause for the secret aid he gave to his lovers in need. These comic gems were the underdogs of society, who thus gave such equally aching, hidden Lotharios a voice. However, they were still the butt of their own jokes; not real men, but men in training. They weren't what any woman was looking for, and furthermore, they were holding the steam engine of the growing American powerhouse back by begging on street corners instead of getting "real jobs." In a capitalist society, one who isn't chasing coin or engaging in the game of business is looked upon as a chump, just another sad cog in the wheel of the money machine. Invisible heroes aren't heroes.

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.

Chaney's depiction of the ultimate man's man in Tell It to the Marines is
pretty much the definitive portrait of masculinity. Hard-broiled, weather-
worn, and built of discipline and duty, he is the man all new enlistees
are meant to emulate. His one error is the depth and honesty of his feelings,
which is why he loses the girl to the less emotionally and more erotically
focused William Haines (boy-man). His heart is read as a flaw, yet his 
surrendering of it in the end makes him a hero. Real men don't fall for 
that love stuff. They get the job done.
The absolute torment of bearing such a full, martyred heart, one so desperate to love, made Lon's heroes immediate victims. When playing a purely sexual avenger in Victory or The Wicked Darling, he still didn't get the girl, but he represented more fully the man's man that could at least get a tramp and could make it in society, even if by the skin of his corrupt teeth. His predators with their ulterior motives and potent sex drives spoke to the beast in male viewers. He was their dark side, something immediately relatable, just as in his opposing roles he represented their good side-- strangely an even darker, dirtier secret. In either case, as the extreme in both contrasting levels of the internal, male, emotional world, he rarely walked away the winner-- literally and figuratively. His sinister villains had to be destroyed for the sake of order in society as well as in the protection of virginal women, and his hideous poets had to be eliminated in some fashion so that the virgins could be defiled by more righteous men-- less emotive, good looking, and not from the dregs of society. 

Thomas Meighan as the bored husband in Why Change Your Wife?
Perhaps the best representative of the silent movie, "regular" man would be Thomas Meighan. Handsome but not pretty, masculine but not action oriented, his characters were generally average guys, which is to say that they held down jobs, were crossed and sometimes victorious in love, and were composites of flaws and virtues. He was sexual and desirous of love but not overly emotive about it. He had feelings, but he played them close to his chest. He may have started out a con man in The Miracle Man, but he cleaned up his act and went straight by the end. When watching his performance in Male and Female, we see that he is indeed a man of character with both primal and romantic desires-- directed at Gloria Swanson-- but these qualities are only exhibited after the characters are stranded on a desert isle, and he is allowed to indulge his instincts without fear of social scrutiny. When he returns to life, so too do these instincts become buttoned up and forgotten. A real man knows how to walk a straight line, keep his romance a secret, keep sex in the bedroom, and pay his taxes. The sturdy and reliable Meighan, in all the varieties of his characterizations, provided such a portrait, still while allowing light to be cast on different aspects of man's character that the actual average man would never have allowed to be seen.

Love's a gag, something that Fatty Arbuckle showcased best-- here
alongside constant co-star Marbel Normand in Fatty's Married Life.
Fatty cared for his women, but womanhood was something he
generally had to put up with while out getting into more interesting 
trouble or making it. Marriage is a drag, but the ball and chain was
never going to stop Fatty from being Fatty!

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...

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