May 1923 – What’s the Matter with the Movies?


There is nothing the matter with the movies that cannot be
remedied. This is indeed fortunate–for the movie has earned
an important place in the life of the American public. No one
will deny that motion pictures have been helpful, instructive
and entertaining. No one doubts that they can be a great
influence for good–or evil. And everyone knows they are too
big to be ignored. They have assumed such importance as to
incur a proportionate responsibility. And yet those entrusted
with their development choose to close their eyes to the writing
on the wall. The principal trouble with the motion picture today is that
it is an industry, not an art. It has been too highly
commercialized for its own good. Of course, the business man
is necessary to the motion picture, but not to the exclusion of
the artist.
It is right and good that Fords and locomotives and adding
machines and safety razors and lead pencils shall be
standardized and turned out according to hard and fast
specifications–and that quantity production shall cut down
overhead. It is also good business that the distributing
station be standardized and handle the usual full line of
equipment at standard prices.
But those methods are bad medicine for motion pictures.
The film made to the dollar-ruled specification, turned out on
a quantity production basis, added to the cut-and-dried program
and then released throughout the trust-controlled theatres is,
without doubt, a specimen of efficient industrial production–
but as an artistic entertainment it is a sad failure.
No one doubts that pictures can be produced under this
highly efficient business method much cheaper and faster than
by the old “hit-or-miss” artistic way–and that these pictures
can net their producers and distributors a much larger return
per dollar invested than those handicapped by artistic
But, after all, what are you spending your money in your
local moving-picture theatre for? To see artistic, fascinating
pictures or to build fortunes for those in control of the
industry? There the heart of the problem is exposed–the
average motion picture is made to fatten purses, not to
entertain the public.
Commercial motion pictures have their rightful usage, as
have also less artistic films of entertainment, just the same
as commercial art has its proper place, and commercial music
and jazz, and advertising and cheap vaudeville and burlesque.
But how would you like to discover the powers that be
insisting that you must take your art and your music and your
literature “according to our program.” Suppose you went to the
Grand Opera and heard a little factory-produced opera, then a
little jazz and then a half hour of song “plugging” flavored
with ten minutes of Galli-Curci or Chaliapin singing a nursery
rhyme. Or suppose when you purchased a set of Shakespeare you
found every other page devoted to advertising or publicity
writing or that your evening to Ethel Barrymore was four-fifths
taken up by an act of cheap melodrama, a little burlesque, a bit
from the minstral and an acrobatic squad. Suppose that when you
attempted to buy pictures for your home you discovered they
could only be shown in connection with commercial drawings.
Yet you get just about such a hodgepodge when you attend a
motion picture theatre running trust-controlled programs. And
with the trust growing stronger every day the independant
exhibitor is being driven farther and farther into the corner.
All of which is very fine for efficiency and profit, but very
bad for art and entertainment.
In my opinion 75 per cent of the pictures shown today are a
brazen insult to the public’s intelligence. The other 25 per
cent are produced by such masters as D. W. Griffith, Douglas
Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, the Talmadge
interests–and a few other independent stars and producers who
realize that the making of pictures is an art, not an industry.
Such splendid features as “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,”
“Tolerable [sic] David,” “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” “Robin Hood,”
“The Kid,” “When Knighthood was in Flower,” along with a few
other productions which rank among these, have invariably been
received in such a way as to prove that the American public
wants and appreciates artistic productions. The next thing to
do is demand them. The public always gets what it _demands_.
All of these pictures were produced by independent companies
who loathe to follow the factory cut-and-dried methods perfected
by the picture trusts.
The various stars and directors who have fought and dared
to produce films of real merit are keeping faith with you in
spite of the handicaps they face. They are courageously
battling the interests that are monopolizing not only the
production but the exhibition of motion pictures. They deserve
your unqualified support. The only hope for the future of the
moving picture lies with them. Support them and you will enjoy
pictures made by conscientious producers, from real stories,
pictures in which the artists have an opportunity to give you
the best they have.
Under the present system the actor is treated like a factory
hand–is driven helter-skelter through a picture by a director
who is afraid of the slave-driving studio manager who, in turn
is spurred to increased production by producers. And these
producers have but a single motive–profit.
Such producers established themselves by imitating, in a
superficial and insincere way, the artistic productions of D. W.
Griffith, Mary Pickford and others by cashing in on their
creative genius.
Then they were merely parasites. Now they are infinitely
worse. Instead of merely imitating, they are attempting to
crush the conscientious producer. And their method of crushing
is efficient–as is every other business scheme they have
worked out.
The blade with which they are trying to knife the producer
of aritistic pictures cuts two ways. First it hamstrings him
and then it cuts off his lines of distribution. Process No. 1
is to discredit the stars that work with him and at the same
time reduce to a minimum the value of the production on which
he is working.
The most efficient way to discredit stars is to make them
common–to belittle their work; to prevent them from expressing
their own interpretation of art; to compel them to perform
Name over to yourself a dozen of your favorite stars. When
you think of moving picture stars you think of them. Now
suppose that eight of that dozen were hired by powerful
syndicates and put to work on cheap pictures. Suppose that the
pictures they made were weak and their work was unconvincing.
Suppose each of them made four pictures, or even six or ten
pictures, to every picture one of the other four made. In other
words, suppose that of every ten pictures featuring your
favorite stars nine were weak and and the stars’ work most
disappointing. Wouldn’t you begin to feel that, after all, it
was not the star but the picture that counted?
And the method of discrediting real artistic feature
pictures is as simple. D. W. Griffith produces a marvelous
spectacle–the work of countless months of time and the genius
of true artists. It impresses you mightily. You must see the
next spectacle of that kind when it is released.
So the “industrial” producers figure. Before D. W. Griffith
can produce another masterpiece they flood the theatres with
dozens of cheap imitations, each heralded as the peer of
Griffith’s best work. So grossly are they misrepresented, so
flagrantly are they mis-advertised and so miserably do they
fall below your expectations that you naturally “swear off”
spectacles for the rest of your life.
“Who suffers?” The conscientious producer. No matter how
good it may be, his next production is almost guaranteed a
failure, now.
Meanwhile the imitator flits to the next artistic production
and proceeds to copy it, cheaply. In doing so he shackles a
star to a weak part and then rushes him through the picture,
thus killing two birds with one stone. For the public feels it
has been hoodwinked by stars and features.
As real stars and real productions are all the independent
producer with the conscience has to offer, he suffers once again.
Do you wonder then, that a moving-picture actor whose hope
for the future lies in his work of today repudiates an unfair
contract rather than be a party to the ruination of good
That is why I have refused to work for picture butchers at
$7,000 a week on cut-and-dried program features, and have
offered to return to work for twelve hundred and fifty dollars
a week if a competent, conscientious director directs my work
in worth-while features.
The trusts method of curtailing the independent producer’s
distribution is also very efficient. This is accomplished
through its distributing mediums. Again we find its methods
twofold. They sell complete programs, a trick by which the
small exhibitor must show a whole year of their pictures in
order to get any at all–and then he must take the whole program,
just as it is turned out of the mills. The other method is to
secure interest or ownership in theatres and permit them to show
only trust pictures.
So it is not always the fault of the exhibitor who runs the
theatre you patronize if the ordinary program pictures you see
day in and day out are not up to your expectations. He is not
to blame any more than is the artist who appears in the picture
you take exception to. The poor exhibitor, in order to secure
a few good pictures with real box-office value, is forced to
sign the trust’s entire output for the year. And so he must
contract to rent eighty-two or more pictures, though he knows
full well that some will be so impossible he will have to
refrain from showing them and simply pocket his loss.
That is what is the matter with the movies–and that is why
the American public spent only one half as much on pictures last
year as they did the year before. And that is why they will
spend even less next year, if something is not done to remedy
the situation.
The American public wants good pictures and is entitled to
them. The conscientious producers want to produce good pictures
and should be supported in doing it. The real artist-actor
wants to give you the best there is in him. In order to do this
he must be allowed to act in high-grade pictures and take
sufficient time to make them.
Art is the only weapon with which the conscientious producer
and the artist, or star, can fight the commercialism of the
trust producers. Naturally the trust wants to discredit art and
lower the public’s idea of what the standard of pictures should
be. The lower the standards, the cheaper the pictures can be
made; the lower the overhead, the more the profit.
Now you can understand why Rudolph Valentino is not making
pictures. The merciless cutting of “Blood and Sand” threw me
into grave doubts. My experience in “The Young Rajah” verified
my fears. I realized that I was not going to be permitted to
act in real pictures or give the necessary time and study to my
Art? What did that mean to the commercial producers. They
wanted film–thousands of feet of film. And they wanted it
quickly. The quicker the film was made the less the overhead,
and the sooner the release.
So we hurried through. Night after night we worked–
sometimes until daylight. We actually finished the picture
August 10, at three in the morning. Apparently those producers
were convinced that midnight oil is conducive to genius.
I’m not going to hurry through any more pictures, and I’m
not going to be cast to parts that are unworthy of a novice or
a worn-out ham. Other movie actors have taken this stand. Some
have fallen by the way. Some have emerged victorious–Mary
Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, the Talmadge girls,
and now comes Harold Lloyd.
Forget Valentino and his little squabble–but keep your eyes
on the independent producers and on these stars. Compare their
productions with those of trust-controlled producers. Remember
that your money is the deciding vote whether the independent
producer prospers and gives you real pictures or whether the
trust monopolizes the whole industry and feeds you what profits
it best. You are to be the judge. I know what your verdict
will be.
I have been asked why the producers so mercilessly hacked
“Blood and Sand.” When the film was completed it went to the
business office. It was measured. It was too long–the most
heinous offense known to the trust–a full six hundred feet too
long. Its extra length meant a little less profit. So to the
butchering rooms it went.
Of course certain parts of it could be re-acted and
condensed and thus keep the continuity clear. But that meant
more time, more money and less profit.
So clip, clip, clip. And the very heart of the film was
cut out. How much that saved, I do not know, but it saved money.
What if the public was a little confused and disappointed here
and there? The picture would get by. Everybody knew it was
good. Why quibble about a scene or two? As a matter of fact
the picture was a lot stronger than it needed to be. And making
pictures too good was simply piling up trouble for the future.
It was spoiling the public. The better you give them the better
they want. The thing to do was to standardize picture quality.
Then they wouldn’t always be demanding the world and all for
the price of one admission.
With that philosophy in mind they made “The Young Rajah”–
and I quit.
Maybe I’m temperamental because I refuse to caper through
rot on the strength of what reputaion I may have earned. But
this I know–the “Rajah” picture was the first step down. After
that the descent would have been steady–and not so slow, either.
Maybe it is unbusinesslike to repudiate a contract that
involves you in producing films in which you cannot possibly
give the public what it is paying for, and in a process of
cheapening that would mark one as a puppet rather than as an
actor. If it is, then I’m unbusinesslike.
It just happens that I have ideals–and hopes. I am sorry
I ever acted in “The Young Rajah.” I will never act in another
picture like it.
The public wants art in pictures and I believe I can put it
there. Doug and Mary and Charlie and D. W. have done it and
I’m going to try.

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