PICKFORD’S CAMERAMAN

From Sloane Hall, by Libby Sternberg:

When I picked her up that evening, she was angry. Instead of slumping in the seat next to me and falling asleep, she immediately pulled out a cigarette and started nervously smoking and talking.

“He said I was looking ugly today!” She shook her head in fury. “In front of the whole cast. He said he couldn’t get the lighting to work for me!” Her foot twitched.

My impending departure made me bold.

“It’s the lights,” I said, remembering the story of Pickford’s cameraman. “And the new film they use. Makes you look older than your years.”

“Oh, really? Well, that makes me feel so much better.”

The above excerpt from my novel is a bit of interaction between chauffeur John Doyle and his starlet boss, Pauline Sloane. Pauline, a successful silent film actress, is making her first talking picture, and she’s justifiably nervous. Many a silent actor’s career ended when they had to speak and not just “emote.”

In this scene, John makes a mental reference to Mary Pickford’s cameraman, a bit of Hollywood lore he picked up from his friend, Leo, who had worked with all the old silent greats.

The Pickford reference is based on a sad story. Because the buzz of old arc lights used in silents could be picked up by microphones, talking pictures required different lighting . Quieter incandescent lights came into use with the advent of talking pictures, and with them, a new panchromatic film — as opposed to the orthochromatic film used in silents.

In fact, the first full-length sound feature film, The Jazz Singer, was shot using both kinds of lighting and film, one for the silent sections and the other for the sound sequences.

Just as actors had to adjust to speaking rather than mouthing their lines, so, too, did cameramen have to learn to use the new lighting and film to advantage. And just like the actors of the time, some didn’t make the transition well.

Such was the case with Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford’s cameraman since 1917. He shot her first sound test — even the greatest of actresses had to make sound tests now — and despite his best efforts and several attempts with and without diffusion filters, he couldn’t make the thirty-seven-year-old actress look as young as the part she was trying to play.

The result? She fired him.

Rosher eventually recovered from this setback, but others’ careers went to ashes during the shift from silent to sound. Directors, title writers, musicians and more saw their paychecks disappear as this industry was turned upside down.

This post originally appeared on my old blog which was lost when one of my accounts was taken over by hijackers.

For more information about my book, Sloane Hall, (a novel of old Hollywood inspired by Jane Eyre) peruse this blog. The book is available for pre-order at amazon.com and bn.com, among others.

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