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2021 Summer Reading Challenge: The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960 (2018)

The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960 (2018) Dan Callahan

Trade paperback, 242 pages

Includes 28 photos, bibliography, index

ISBN 9781476674056

(The following images are not taken from the book.)

One of the biggest complaints I hear from audiences at my in-person and virtual classic movie discussions goes something like this: “The movie is pretty good, but the acting back then was awful!” As with most things in life, we often fail to evaluate artistic endeavors (or simply “entertainment”) in context, particularly the context of the times in which such art was made. Dan Callahan’s The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960 meets that argument head on. Not only that, he examines the uniqueness of twenty of Hollywood’s most important and legendary actors from Lillian Gish to James Dean, showing how each contributed to the evolution of acting styles and extended the boundaries of what was possible in onscreen performance.


In his introduction, Callahan begins with the large-scale acting changes that led up to Method acting practiced by such actors as Marlon Brando and others, discussing silent film, the transition to talkies, pre-Code, and the long journey to the abandonment of the Production Code. Actors continue to talk about “pre-Brando” acting, and audiences can get caught up in such conversations as well, especially well-meaning modern moviegoers who’ve seen only a handful of classic films and have already made (mostly negative) judgments on classic Hollywood as a whole. Their claims of “Nobody talks like that” and “That’s not realistic” have merit, but they miss the point, which Callahan puts into context:

They didn’t want realism. They wanted magic, and they tried to give that to people. They told what ought to be truth. These were the stars of classic Hollywood, the ones with the distinctive voices and manners, the ones who were imitated, dreamed of, and dreamed on. (p. 1)

What the actors in this book were doing was so different from what the Method actors began displaying in the 1950s, which was an essential part to taking us where acting is right now. Those earlier styles are indeed different, but no less valid. We have to accept them for what they were in the context of their time. Times change, styles change. Not only does individual choice come into play, but also actors playing to their strengths, playing away from their weaknesses, and venturing into unexplored territory.

Take Lillian Gish, who may not have been the first actor featured in a close-up, but certainly knew how to make it work in a way others had not. From the chapter on Gish, “In her big scenes, Gish can get so deeply involved in what she’s doing that sometimes she seems to surprise and frighten herself. And us. There is a danger to the way she immerses herself in emotions. She might not come out the other end of them unscathed, and there is that same risk for us in observing and feeling them with her.” (p. 5)

Gish knew how to convey her characters with pure emotion. Yet Gloria Swanson’s power came from her grandiosity, an attribute to be admired (and perhaps imitated) by her fans. “There isn’t a trace of vulnerability in her work, in spite of all the crises she acted out.” (p. 25) Although Gish and Swanson made successful transitions to the talkies, many actors did not. This is a pivotal moment in cinema, and Callahan handles it well.

This topic easily transitions to another question: Were some of these actors great, or simply strikingly different from other actors? What about the true acting merits of a Louise Brooks, a Greta Garbo, or a Marlene Dietrich? Dietrich’s chapter by itself is a fascinating look at how an actor was developed (mostly by director Josef von Sternberg), then self-maintained, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Watching any of her work with von Sternberg, audiences soon “get” Dietrich, but she’s not always easy to pin down.

And what about Bette Davis? Were her performances simply an outlet for raging emotion? Callahan compares her (and others) to Barbara Stanwyck: “Often she (Davis) overworks those eyes, sending them to the sides and around the room and up and down five or six times when just one look à la Barbara Stanwyck would do just fine. Davis preferred things good or bad and both of them big…” (p. 81)

Audiences may have loved to hate Davis in some of her wicked roles, but they really hated Katharine Hepburn, at least for awhile. Read the book and you’ll find out how Hepburn turned her acting and her career around. Throughout the book, Callahan shows us each actor’s strengths and weaknesses, how good careers might have been stellar careers, how certain actors were better working for certain directors, and why good material matters.

(By the way, if you're wondering why Callahan didn't write a chapter on Stanwyck, that's because he devoted an entire book to her.)

Of the book’s first ten chapters, nine of them are devoted to women, with John Barrymore by himself. In the second half, the roles are reversed with Kim Stanley standing alone beside James Cagney, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean. Callahan never suggests that there was a shift from female to male-centric acting, but the choice of subjects is interesting. A few quotes from some of these chapters:

“…Cagney is the first major male talking picture star.” (p. 137)

“Different eras bring different holding contexts. Could James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck have thrived in the 1970s on screen? Yes, most probably. Could Grant and his best screen partner Katharine Hepburn have done so? No, I think not.” (p. 146)

“Laughton was a character actor but a star character actor, and so his star parts were partly about his misery over not being a leading man, which in his hands seems like a vast cosmic and existential meditation on fate.” (p. 158)

“Gable was not a complicated screen presence, and that was his charm. His greatest charm, though, was looking at complicated women with intricate appreciation.” (p. 170)

There is much more that I will leave for you to discover in this fine book. Yet I must warn you that some of your favorite performances from your most beloved stars may be examined with an unflinching critical eye. But you may also find answers to the questions you've had about why certain performances from certain actors never really worked for you.

The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960 is a great book for any classic film lover, and perhaps an even better book to read with another classic movie fan, leading to many opportunities for discussion, agreement, or maybe even knock-down-drag-out arguments worthy of the Marlene Dietrich/Una Merkel fight in Destry Rides Again (1939).

Callahan has also written a second volume, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1960 to Today (2019), which I hope to pick up soon.

This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!

Next up: I don’t know… I’ve got so many choices, I can’t decide! But stay tuned.

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