Essential Images: the Birth of Screen Acting

One thing I like about Fandor is “The Channel,” the screen on the site’s front page that constantly streams movies from Fandor’s ever-increasing catalog of titles. (“The Channel” is viewable only to Fandor subscribers). I often have it running on my desktop while working on other stuff, and from time to time I’ll glance at it and be startled by a scene or image flashing by. These discoveries have become an unexpected source of ideas for feature articles on the films. But I’d also like to acknowledge these small moments in themselves, with minimal commentary, letting the images speak for themselves just as they spoke to me in their fleeting wonder.

So if this proves to be the inaugural entry for what hopefully is an ongoing series of frozen moments, it’s fitting that it be about what might be a seminal moment in the development of movies as we know them today, specifically in terms of modern film acting. These three stills are from a two-second sliver of D.W. Griffiths’ 1913 action short The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch (whose climactic standoff of white settlers fending off Native American marauders while awaiting the cavalry is clearly a test-run for the nearly-identical climax in The Birth of a Nation two years later). Gish did nothing less than revolutionize movie acting, liberating it from the stuffy, confining conventions of stage theatrics and exploring new dimensions of space and gesture. Here, in a moment of sheer panic in witnessing a murder, her body practically leaps from the screen: it’s silent-era 3-D. Those feral eyes of female terror may seem over-familiar from hundreds of horror films, but can you imagine being an audience member nearly 100 years ago when nothing like this had ever been witnessed?  Watching it even now, you can still feel a jolt from the demonic intensity bursting from this petite, Victorian body. It’s a convulsive, unexpected moment that threatens to obliterate the memory of everything in the film that precedes it.

We hope to have a lengthier piece on Lillian Gish sometime later. In the meantime, you can enjoy these early performances of hers to chart her development as an actress – which is like watching the development of screen acting itself:

The Unseen Enemy (her screen debut, alongside her sister Dorothy Gish)
The Battle at Elderbrush Gulch
The Mothering Heart
The Birth of a Nation

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