Silent film histories: The Player of Games – James Card’s “Seductive Cinema”

The first entry in an occasional series in which I look at writings on silent film from a twenty-first-century perspective.  As they say, hindsight is 20/20 …

James Card was instrumental to the formation of the film archive at George Eastman House, and promotion of silent films in general. His book Seductive Cinema (1994) is great fun to read—an intriguing blend of film history and personal memoir that reads at a cracking pace. His prose is crisp and frequently witty, and he does a great job of conveying his passion for film and the excitement of being a film collector and archivist in the Wild West days of the archiving movement; there’s also a lot of great film historical information. Card has a strong personality and he is not afraid to express his opinions and take the opportunity to settle a few scores. There are therefore two levels on which to enjoy this book: as a source of information on silent cinema and its archival life, and as a portrait of James Card and his idiosyncrasies. I find him wrong-headed in some ways, and I wouldn’t have got along well with him, but there’s no denying that he had a lot of style.

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Matters of opinion

Some of Card’s opinions have worn well: he rightfully punctures the myth of Edison as cinematic hero, giving due credit to the Frères Lumière and devoting several pages to Eadweard Muybridge.  Further, he spends some page space discussing Bolesław Matuszewski, who famously proposed the idea of a film archive in his 1898 publication Une nouvelle source de l’histoire, though his status as a film archival/historical pioneer was not acknowledged in the Anglophone literature until much after the fact.  (Side note: Matuszewski’s text was republished in English translation in the journal Film History in 1995—I’ve always wondered if this was a result of it being mentioned in both Card and Penelope Houston’s books, each published in 1994).

His appraisal of early cinema looks pretty good in this Domitorian era: he locates the pioneers as Muybridge, Méliès, the Lumières and Williamson.  He punctures a bunch of the myths around D.W. Griffith, taking particular glee in quoting a series of pretentiously overblown reviews of Intolerance (1916). I appreciate the way he rails against Stroheim and Griffith being considered the sine qua non of silent cinema, especially when he singles out the films of Asta Nielsen and Urban Gad as one place to view “a genuine sense of the history of silent cinema”. Card correctly identifies Caligari as a post-WWI film rather than the pre-WWII it has often been read as (thanks to Siegfried Kracauer, who posited in his book From Caligari to Hitler that the expressionist German cinema somehow acted as an artistic foreshadowing of National Socialism). He is also right to insist on correct projection speeds for silent film, as even Josef von Sternberg eventually acknowledged to him, as Card relates concerning a screening of The Docks of New York.

Some of Card’s views, however, can only be described as quirky. In the midst of a discussion of the uptake of cinema in several countries, we get a brilliantly apocryphal pronouncement like this:

Only in Ireland did they seem indifferent to the furor of moving pictures.  The everyday lives of the Irish were so filled with magic and illusions, with the commonplaces of banshees, pixies, gremlins and leprechauns, that they found nothing particularly remarkable about the illusory images of cinema. It is said that one who ventured inside a hopeful nickelodeon in Dublin to have a look at the vaunted new wonder of the world reported to one of the few idly curious Irishmen loitering outside with the comment “Aw, it ain’t nothin’. Just a bunch of people walkin’ on the walls.”

Hmmm … sure, James. He also goes onto goofy, if entertaining tangents.  Regarding cinematic clichés:

Water long remained the movies’ wonder drug. The heroine faints—“Get a glass of water.”  In Dinner at Eight Lionel Barrymore has a heart attack, and the doctor, Edmund Lowe, orders, “Get me a glass of water.”  Bebe Daniels breaks her ankle in 42nd Street—the house doctor’s first aid is “Get me a glass of water.”  Come to think of it, you never see the doctor give the water to the ailing person—he must just want it for himself.

And sometimes he is just a flat-out crank, such as when he claims a different starting date to WWII than that commonly agreed by historians:

The history books are wrong—as usual. The invasion of Poland began, not on September 1, 1939, as we invariably advised, but rather on August 14, 1939. I know. I was there.

Raiders of the Lost Archive

Card is at his best when he is relating film collecting adventures: Indiana Jones-style missions to recover or transport unique films, rescuing forgotten films from a disused room in the Eastman Theatre building, taking Maurice Chevalier out for a midnight cheeseburger. His passion really comes through with his quest for Peter Pan, of which he rescued the only known copy at the time. (I am unsure if any other prints were ever discovered). Another great tale is Card describing safeguarding the only extant print of The Docks of New York by physically escorting it on a transatlantic crossing, during which a fire occurred (luckily the print did not suffer any damage). Considering that Card’s personal collection became the nucleus of the Eastman House archive, all silent film lovers owe him a massive debt.

He has the good taste to be a big fan of Gloria Swanson. As has often been observed, while not a traditional beauty, Swanson nonetheless has a great screen presence; Card speaks at length about her career and acting skills. There is also a photo of him looking rather dazed while she pins a rose to his lapel, smiling smoothly. Card notes, “When I met her in 1952, Gloria was a smooth, slick-looking, sexy woman who looked about twenty-eight to thirty-three.” Well, La Swanson was well ahead of the curve on reducing sugar intake, no doubt that helped her skin look great … but Card’s (self-admitted) dazzlement is obvious. Card has great taste in female actresses, identifying Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, and Gloria Swanson as extraordinary screen presences. I also like that he praises Pola Negri for playing strong characters that were sexy without being “caricatures of either evil or purity”.

Card devotes chapters to several directors and actors. His commentary on John Barrymore is vivid and insightful, and I really enjoyed his take on Cecil D. DeMille. In general, Seductive Cinema focuses on American cinema, although Card briefly surveys films from other countries in one of the end chapters of the book. One thing that stood out—in the early nineties when Card was writing, apparently only two Japanese films were available for viewing: Ozu’s I Was Born, But … (1932) and Kinugasa’s A Page out of Order (1926; more commonly known as A Page of Madness). Card states that “two films are not enough for a rational appraisal”, and wonders what other treasures of Japanese silent cinema there might be. How lucky we are today, to be easily abole to buy almost a dozen of Ozu’s silents on DVD!

Race and film

On the downside, Card’s approach to race leaves something to be desired. His attitude is retrograde in a typical old-school way; he probably thought of himself as progressive on racial issues, but without a lot of reflection or deep analysis of how racism is perpetuated and disseminated through media. For example, he seems to decry racism generally, but then talks about how Richard Barthelmess’ yellowface appearance and performance in Broken Blossoms (1919) was “perfectly acceptable as a nineteenth-century theatrical cliché”; Griffith’s mistake was not the stereotypical portrayal itself, but rather the way that “surrounding Barthelmess with real Chinese” showed up this artifice. I see the point about cultural context that he is gesturing toward, but I don’t agree with him.

He also takes pains to describe non-caricatured black characters in films The Headless Horseman (1922) and Man, Woman and Sin (1927). This is interesting to read about; neither film is particularly well-known even today, and it is important (and refreshing) to note that not all depictions of black characters in popular American films of the silent era were derogatory. However, I found the following paragraph off-putting:

Such noncaricaturized use of a black character [in The Headless Horseman] is without parallel in American movies before Monta Bell’s Man, Woman and Sin. Strange that neither of these films was mentioned by Peter Noble in his monograph for Sight and Sound (“The Negro in American Films”). For many years the British enjoyed castigating Americans for their cultural mistreatment of blacks—through the years before the wholesale immigration of Indians to the British Isles.

There is a lot (a lot!) to criticize about British imperialism, but is Card really comparing twentieth-century Indian immigration to the UK to the legacy of slavery in the USA? He could have made his point more effectively through a different comparison. I’m also unimpressed by the way that Card seems to be telling off a critic, who was writing in 1947, for not knowing about obscure films to which he had no access, and also for implying that these two isolated examples should be a significant part of the discussion of Black people on film. No doubt discussion of these films would have been a valuable addition to Noble’s monograph, but Card simply comes across as disingenuous here. (And for the record, Card does not ever mention, for example, African-American film pioneers like Oscar Micheaux or Paul Robeson).

Finally, his anecdote about a how a Rabbi was so caught up in The Birth of a Nation (1915) that he found himself cheering on the Ku Klux Klan seems frankly bizarre to me.

Nemeses and agendas

A big attraction to me in this book is reading about Card’s interactions with others involved in the film archival movement.  For example, Iris Barry, curator of the Film Library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is a recurring character in Seductive Cinema. Card has a bit of an axe to grind regarding Barry; he is rather critical of her film choices and paints her as neither understanding American culture nor being particularly keen on US film. It’s hard to tell how much truth there is to such a statement. She may well have been somewhat of an anti-US snob, but it also pays to remember that in her role, her brief wasn’t necessarily nationalistic. However, there is an important point in there about canon formation and how strongly it can be shaped by collecting institutions, and it’s fair for Card to bring that up. He acknowledges the role Barry played in securing cinema history, but he also clearly saw himself as the Rebel to her Establishment—Barry as keeper of the high arts, him as keeper of film of the people.  Perhaps there’s an element of truth there, but I’m not fully convinced, and I think there’s a gendered undertone to Card’s writing in general. I have the impression that he ultimately saw Barry as an interloper—a (female) critic among (male) collector-archivists.

However, he reserves his true vitriol for Jerzy Toeplitz, long-running FIAF President:

I found him to be the most detestably devious, untruthful and hypocritical individual I have ever met in my entire sixty-five years of international acquaintances.

Wow! Just brilliantly blunt. I don’t know much about Toeplitz other than his history in FIAF and that he wrote the multi-volume Geschichte des Films reference work. I always assumed he was quite well-respected.

Card talks about being dispatched on a mission around various film archives in Europe; meeting with Ernest Lindgren in London, Henri Langlois was apparently suspected of being the power behind Toeplitz’s throne, and Card was to investigate the situation. It will come as no surprise that Card instantly became best friends and allies with Langlois. “Lindgren turned out to be one of the bad guys,” he writes gleefully. Lindgren was considered obstructionist by Langlois, Card, etc, at the time, but many of his decisions have aged well … better than the deliberate archival chaos engineered by Langlois.

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The ivory tower of babble

The chapter “The Movies Matriculate” is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the book.  Card is at his most cutting, and if his archness shades into smugness at times, the result is still incredibly entertaining. One can’t help but be amused at him relating the story of the head of the English department bringing her class to see The Sea Beast (1926), the John Barrymore/Dolores Costello adaptation of Moby Dick:

The professor of English suffered acutely watching the violence done to Melville in that movie. I heard that she never went to another film the rest of her life. Probably it was a good thing; she might have been tricked into seeing Moby Dick, the Warners’ second swing at Melville.  In that one there was dialogue (none of it Melville’s), and once again there was John Barrymore turning Ahab into something all his own. Now Joan Bennett was the whale’s competition for Ahab’s attention. That experience the professor might not have survived.

But what about younger scholars trained in film theory? WELL:

The real inquisition started when the university began to hire genuine professors of cinema from the outside world—graduates brought from the simmering campuses of Berkeley and Madison, Wisconsin.  These mercenaries arrived armed with doctorates backed by unintelligible dissertations and determination to destroy any real love of film their students might bring with them to their classes. They were nothing like the simple, old-school, aging professors they were replacing.  They were survivors of Jack Kerouac’s beat generation, and they had a big hand in creating the turned-off generation of the 1960s. If one had much to do pedagogically with them when they were teenagers, it will be remembered that no one of them would ever make a positive statement. Instead of saying “I’m going to get a haircut this afternoon,” they would invariably say “It’s like I’m going to get a haircut this afternoon”—except, of course, they never did get that haircut. Nothing was ever something.  Everything was always like something. They used “like” the way this generation of students uses “Uhmmm.” When they became graduate students, they discovered semiology. What a revelation to them!  Here was a philosophy that made it possible for them to use syntactics and metonymies to go right on saying everything was like something else, and nothing was really just itself, but to say it without sounding like undergraduates.

Ha! Really, there is no response to such a quality, perfectly-cut-jewel of a rant.

Suffice it to say that Card was not a fan of film studies and film history as taught by universities in the 1960s-80s. I wonder what he would have thought of the more recent turn towards film history in academia? It’s hard to say if he would have welcomed it, or whether the fine-grain focus and theoretical grounding of much of it would still have rendered it too diffuse for him.

Notable omissions!

Louise Brooks, to whom Card had an “emotional devotion” since the age of fourteen, comes up several times in Seductive Cinema. He neglects to mention the affair he had with her … but he does make a point of mentioning that Eastman House began screening Brooks’ works almost three decades before the famous Kenneth Tynan article in The New Yorker. Well, fair enough.

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Another disappointing but unsurprising absence: Card doesn’t tell about the ‘earth vault’—when he buried a huge number of nitrate films under the garden of Eastman House, apparently in protest of lack of storage space (and/or because of having a few screws loose). It is said that the grass grows greener there to this day …

In parting

I dearly hope that someone writes a biography of James Card one day. I’ll be first in line to buy it.

— — —

Image sources: Muybridge: Swedish Tekniska MuseetThe Sea Beast: Doctor Macro; Louise Brooks: Österreichisches Theatermuseum Wien.

Card, James. Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1994.

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4 Responses to Silent film histories: The Player of Games – James Card’s “Seductive Cinema”

  1. popegrutch says:

    Thank you for your review. Your knowledge of Card’s life outside of this book really adds to it. I finished reading it not long ago myself, and my goodreads review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1396750742) concurs with many of your opinions. There was, to me, something creepy about his attitudes towards women: he talks up his relationships with Swanson and Brooks (without bragging about affairs, admittedly), then only mentions his wife once, fleetingly, in the middle of the text. And he seems to have hated women, like Barry and Bowser, who involved themselves in any way with film collection, preservation, or history.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Pope. Your review is spot-on, and I’m glad that I wasn’t the only one to detect something amiss in his attitudes to women, especially those involved in film preservation/ archiving/ history. I don’t think he would have liked me much! Haha.
      His desire to valorize silent film, but also his scorn for academics (this is an attitude I’ve seen IRL too …) smacks of both a misplaced sense of ownership and childish pique. Also, I get the frustration with certain types of academic writing, but Card wrote this book in the wake of a huge reconceptualisation of early cinema – all that work in the late 70s and 80s, which surely constituted a big strand of the scholarship devoted to silent film. But maybe it’s not surprising – it’s all about the classics and the ‘high silent’ era to him. Dare I speculate that some of the feminist scholarship of the 80s might have been a bit too much for him, too?

      I’m not expert on Card’s life – I think it’s in Barry Paris’ bio of Louise Brooks where their affair is mentioned. It’s years since I read it, but I got the impression that their affair was pretty well-known and scandalous at the time. I mean, he got her to move to Rochester and all.

      Seductive Cinema really is a lot of fun, but you have take it as the film opinions/memoir of a notorious crank. I certainly hope people don’t take it too seriously as a history!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. rochestergirl says:

    Just came upon this fascinating post and comments, and hope to set at least one bit of Card’s complicated record more in line with his life and attitudes. He enthusiastically mentored female film scholars decades before many institutions did. He had strong working relationships with female archivists in European archives. He adored (and was adored by) Susan Sontag and Renata Adler. We only know these things to be true as observed, because, like him – we were there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the comment, rochestergirl! That’s a heartening thing to hear – it’s a shame that Card didn’t talk about those things in the book, which does gives the impression that he didn’t interact well with female film archiving professionals.

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