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COUNTERPUNCH : Apparently, History Didn’t Come ‘First’ in Taper’s Tale of Early Film

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“The First Picture Show,” a play with music about the early days of silent movies, recently opened at the Mark Taper Forum. It is bad film history, bad playwriting and bad staging.

It is bad film history because it retroactively applies the present assumption that everybody wants to direct to this century’s first

decades. Gene Gauntier, a true-life character, is portrayed in the play as primarily a director. In fact, she was mostly an actress and screenwriter and was only talked into directing by her boss, Frank Marion. She directed one film and, as she wrote in her memoirs, “The picture was successful but I did not care for directing, and refused Mr. Marion’s offer for a unit of my own.”

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Lois Weber, one of the most successful female directors of the late teens, is shown as being driven out of the business by the men who ran it, but her career declined because her morally preachy films simply did not fit in with the attitudes of the Jazz Age. And Margery Wilson was not driven out of directing, as the play implies, but in 1927 married a man who, as Ally Acker quotes her in Acker’s 1991 book “Reel Women,” “didn’t want me to do anything.” (Or at least anything in Hollywood: Wilson later wrote a series of self-help books.)

Was it too expensive to fly Acker in from Virginia or to bring over Kevin Brownlow from London to consult on the production? Fine--but why ignore the local historians? (Well, for the same reasons film historians are below the bottom rung of the Hollywood food chain: This is a town built on telling stories, and historians insist on trying to tell the truth.)

The show’s creators mentioned in interviews that they were influenced by the 1977 book “Early Women Directors.” So why not talk to its author, Anthony Slide, who lives in Los Angeles? Or to Marc Wanamaker, who knows where everything was in Hollywood. (Wanamaker was the one who told me that Lois Weber’s studio was right around the corner from what is now Los Angeles City College, where I teach film history.)

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Or, if you are going to make one of your heroines a 99-year-old former filmmaker, why not talk to a real one? Frederica Sagor Maas, who started in the story department at Universal in the late teens, recently celebrated her 99th birthday by publishing her memoirs, “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim,” which is now in bookstores. Anyone who heard Freddie talk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in June or at the Best Remaining Seats screening of Clara Bow’s “It” in July knows she is a lot sharper and more interesting than the almost-senile character Estelle Parsons is forced to play on stage.

That lack of an interesting character at the center of “The First Picture Show” is part of the bad playwriting, along with the lack of focus and the tendency of the authors to lecture us with large blocks of information.

And the staging has the actors running around pushing scenery so busily that the audience gets dizzy watching them.

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The way Weber’s 1921 film “The Blot” is used by the production sums up the problems. It is presented as part of the intermission, but projected on a curtain whose seams are showing, with stagehands pushing scenery between the projector and curtain, blocking the view. And it is not all of the film--only about 10 minutes of what was a feature.

But Weber triumphs anyway. My wife told me after the show that she found the film more interesting than the play, since it had more story and more characterization.

The third edition of Tom Stempel’s “FrameWork: A History of Screenwriting in the American Film” will be published early next year by Syracuse University Press.

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