Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Do you move your lips when you read?

I recently put together a birthday gift for my friend Tim, some home-crafted objets d'art that I thought might appeal to his unique combination of taste and wit. In one of those classic-film photo books I'm always cutting up, I found a handful of silent-movie title cards, reproduced to serve as thumbnail sketches of an era. I mounted them on pretty paper and dropped them into funky little glass frames, to make attractive paperweights or bookcase accent pieces or whatever Tim decides to use them for. They came out very cute, in my humble opinion.

I mention this because I think they tell us something interesting about the experience of going to the movies in the pre-talkies era; something not captured in all the stills of Gloria Swanson and John Barrymore and Alla Nazimova. One of the cards said (I'm paraphrasing, because I didn't think to write all this down before I gave them away), "Please be patient while the operator changes a reel." I paired it with another request: "Please read the titles to yourself -- loud reading annoys your neighbors." A simple request, but totally revealing, no? It communicates something concrete about the everyday experience of going to the movies in the pre-talkies era, a detail that isn't part of the official film-history account and is therefore not part of anybody's mental image of what moviegoing was like in its early years, even though it seems totally obvious now that I think about it. Of course people read the titles out loud! They didn't have cell phones, so they had to do something to annoy each other. And if I'd been a blogger in 1919, I would have been complaining about it regularly, I'm sure.

The others are interesting from a women's-studies perspective: "Ladies! Please remove your hats" was accompanied by a cartoon of a frustrated man seated behind a woman wearing a very large hat. (I recall a sketch on Sesame Street that found Bert in a similar predicament, although I don't quite remember the punch line. Did the woman have very large hair beneath the hat?) And I love the one that says, "Please refrain from smoking -- it disturbs the ladies." And how.

The theme I'm getting at here -- the difficulty of seeing the past clearly through the distorting prism of the present -- is explored (delightfully, I think) in Richard Greenberg's play The Violet Hour, and I'm reminded in particular of this moment from the very last scene (not a paraphrase; I looked it up):
JESSIE: Well, I don't know about you, but I would like to get to the theater early for a change --

GIDGER: Oh, absolutely. Because eighty years from now, there are going to be signs in the lobby that say WARNING: THIS PLAY CONTAINS CIGARETTE SMOKING, so we don't have a minute to lose.

(Everybody but John laughs, gaily, as in a twenties play.)

MTC's 2003 production of that play contained very little that was bright or effective. But Greenberg's spooky joke paid off, because at that very moment, just such a sign was on display in the lobby of the Biltmore.

No comments: