Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 28-29]:
Action we repeat may be mental as well as physical. The sudden though silent realization of a girl that she has ruined her husband by extravagance is the highest form of action. It carries forward the plot many miles. This mental earthquake is far more stirring to sophisticated audiences than a realistic view of houses falling to pieces.
Interesting idea, the distinction between physical action and mental action. In the era of silent films when there was a style of acting — by today’s standards, some might consider it overacting — one can see what Loos and Emerson were getting at with this point.
Consider the 1912 film The New York Hat starring Mary Pickford, based on a scenario by Anita Loos:
Much of the action is communicated through looks and gestures, putting the ‘acting’ in action so to speak. Yet there is a valuable lesson for contemporary screenwriters: Action doesn’t have to be big to be action, it can be subtle. Consider the wonderful Carl and Ellie married life sequence from the Pixar movie Up:
The sequence works on so many levels, one of them being small actions by Carl and Ellie that contribute to the silent telling of this part of their story. One of them in particular — where they cross their heart, recalling the promise to go to Paradise Falls — becomes part of a much larger motif throughout the rest of the movie.
So when you think of action, don’t just think physical as in big action, also be aware of mental action, small bits of business characters can do to carry the moment, put the acting in action.
Next week, one last piece of advice on action from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”
If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.