This behind the scenes story on how silent picture actresses produce tears on cue by Gordon Gassaway appeared in PhotoPlay magazine in September of 1915.
Ever since a certain famous director filmed a certain famous star with real tears coursing down her cheeks and splashing mournfully on a ham sandwich she happened to be holding in her hand out of the vision of the curious camera lens, tears have been the rage. No self-respecting five-reeler appears without them. A feature film, without a close-up on tearful thoughts, is like Southern California without sunshine, almost impossible and dour to contemplate.
“Register tears 1” directors are shouting at our best known film queens, and the same BKDFQ’s are promptly registering the same in a space of a few minutes or a few hours or a few seconds.
It took Blanche Sweet twenty-four hours, once, to “get tears” — but that is another story.
How do they do it? Is it an easier thing to do for the camera than for an audience in a theater? What does an actress think about while she looks so sad?
These questions and more are best answered by the moving-picture stars themselves. Some of them are the champion weepers of the film world — not because they are sad by nature, no, but because they are super emotional, perhaps — and to these I turned for a woman’s most sacred thoughts — the things she cries about!
I began my painless extraction interview plan on Mary Alden, at David Griffith’s picture shop in Hollywood, with a phrase which was meant to sound something like this: “Oh, why do you weep, my pretty maid?” — thinking, of course, that the subject was (quite delicate and required arbitration. Not at all.
Mary Alden is one of those who have taken time to give subjects like “tears and why” and “how to be happy though hungry” some serious consideration. In other words, she is a psychologist and it shows in her working. Which proves, moreover, that brains are not fatal to talent, and that a few more in the heads of the World’s Most Beautiful Women would make Benedicts of us all!
“Tears?” inquired Mary Alden. “Tears? Easiest thing in the world. Want me to make you some?”
Into her eyes came a far-away look, as though she were witnessing a vision cut-in of the death of a young and harmless child. She seemed to be going gently but firmly into a trance. I was alarmed and took her by the arm. I was not ready for tears. I had not wanted to see tears — I had merely meant to ask about the things, and not to take part in any lachrymose demonstration there in front of several hundred extra men and women. I think I shook her. just a little. She came back to us from that cut-in vision of the young and harmless, and started to talk.
“Tears,” she said, “are a part of every actress’ stock in trade. Any woman can cry if she sets her mind to it. The more emotional she is, the easier she can make the tears come, and it happens that the most emotional women are on the stage or before the cameras. But there is a unique angle to the tear business in moving-pictures. Here an actress is not given time to work under the skin of a heavy part, consecutively.
“On the stage she will work toward the sniffling part of her scene from the rise of the curtain on the third act, and she has the whole act to arrive at the crying point. When the time for the tears arrives she is ready with a handkerchief and an overflowing reservoir of dampness. She is psychologically tuned for the exhibition. She is ‘in her part,’ and for the moment she actually is the person who is supposed to be crying.
“But in the moving pictures, such scenes are usually taken separately. Films, as every one knows, are taken in small sections and then fitted together in the cutting room. One of those sections will show an actress crying. That was probably caught one bright morning in June out back of a set on the stage representing a festive ballroom.
“Imagine there the actress sitting on an upturned box. Five or six feet in front of her is a large and very black camera fondled by a camera man with a week-end growth of beard on his face and a cigar butt in the other hand. He is thinking, painfully, of the party of the night before. A director is there, and is also thinking, hopefully, of the party of the night to come. The actress is there, and also thinking — but what is she thinking?
‘All right,’ says the director, ‘give us the tears.’
‘You are in scene 425 of “Why Men Wear Polkadot Ties” and you are very sad. I want large tears, please, and raise your chin a little so they will roll, not splash.’
“If the actress is fit, or unfit, as the case may be, the director will have his tears, for any person who is in tune with emotion and is used to displaying the fact, can cry at will. She will sit there and think about why she is sad in scene 425 of ‘Why Men Wear Polkadot Ties” until she works herself up to the tear stage — the camera will begin to click and before you know it there will be caged twenty or thirty feet of the best possible tears. The film is taken to the developing room. The actress goes to lunch. The camera man lights the cigar butt, the director telephones a friend.
“The camera leaked. The light was wrong, after all. The film was a dismal failure. A half hour has passed. ‘Call in Miss Lightfoot. We’ll have to take it over.’ In comes Miss Lightfoot with a hot-dog bun in one hand, a glass of milk in the other.
“You’ll have to do it again,’ says the director. She takes a last bite of her bun, a gulp of milk, puts them under the box she is sitting on, wipes a crumb from the corner of her mouth, very carefully because of the grease paint, and goes through the same performance. The tears come, and thank heaven, they are caught by the camera this time, not by a handkerchief.”
Here I interrupted Miss Alden. I asked her if she meant to say that any actress can stand still in a brickyard or a three-ringed circus and cry real tears. I asked her if she would do it now for me, as most of those curious extra people had gone to lunch.
She answered the one and did the other. I have lost a great deal of faith in women’s tears.
“What were you thinking when you cried just now ?” I asked when it was over.
“I was thinking.” she said, “of some old soldiers — any soldiers who are veterans of the Civil war. I pictured them marching today in a parade. They are playing the fife and drum, the very music they played when they marched, as little boys, into the Battle of Gettysburg. Their old legs are tottering, but they are marching with heads up. Their withered fingers tremble, but that music shrills and beats in martial time — they fought for my country, and they are about to pass away.
“I could cry.” she said, “looking at Charlie Chaplin, if I would think of my old soldiers.”
And as she spoke, tears, real tears, sprang into her eyes, and I turned away. My own eyes were damp.
“So you see.” she concluded, “tears in the moving picture world are more largely a matter of mechanics than on the stage.”
Myrtle Stedman, at the Hollywood studio of the Morosco-Bosworth forces, has never had a sad thought in her life. That was fine. How then, I asked, did she make a tear, which has come to be known as first cousin to the sad thought?
“I do think of something plaintive, when I am called upon to register tears,” Miss Stedman said, “but you’d never guess in a thousand years what it is.”
I tried. I guessed all about the death of a pet canary. I guessed that somebody owed her some money. I even guessed that she owed somebody some money. None would do — she had never had a sad moment in her life. Everything was happy. That was peculiar, for Myrtle Stedman, the beautiful, the serene, is one of the five champion weepers for screen purposes.
She was once a singer, and well known, too, in light opera, and her rich contralto voice is the joy of those so fortunate to hear it at benefits or parties in Los Angeles. Her tear conductor, then, was most reasonable. She used it in “Hypocrites.”
“It is of the ‘Meditation from Thais’ I think, when a director calls for tears. If it is a bright, sunny day in the studio and I am even happier than usual, I can cry very nicely just by humming slowly to myself that ‘Meditation.’ It is infallible with me. Sometimes I think that I am very unfortunate, indeed, not to have had some one sad little thing in my life to think about and cry. Tears are such comforts. No. I have always been happy.”
Miss Stedman quietly knocked on wood.
Mary Pickford believes that weeping is purely and simply a part of an actress’ calling. Little Mary is not a weeper by nature; at least, her manager says not, and Mary herself denies it. She radiates sunshine in her new studio in Hollywood and she has a normal appetite. She can and will weep when necessary, but she says she does not think of any one thing while she does it.
“Miss Pickford is just a natural actress.” said one of her directors. “She fits herself into any character, sad or joyful, with remarkable ease. If she has any ‘artistic temperament’ she puts it into her acting — not her disposition.”
Mae Marsh, on the other hand, actually cries from joy. She is much too clever and animated to have a gloomy thought by nature, and so she explained to me how she “pulls the dewdrops for a close-up.”
“When my director wants a close-up in tears I say, ‘All right, Mister Man, you’ll get it, but I won’t think of anything sad. I’ll think happy ones,’ and so I think of the time when I didn’t know how much fun it was to be playing at making pictures. I’m sorry I was not making pictures when I was six months old. Sixteen years of my life almost, almost wasted.”
Cleo Madison, out at Universal City, was among the first to give to the screen a view of the interesting process of a woman about to cry and then doing it. Her gorgeous eyes lend themselves to pretty tears. Ordinarily a weeping woman is not a thing of beauty, nor is she a joy forever; but Miss Madison is one of the exceptions. She weeps for the camera, but she does it artistically, easily and, above all, beautifully.
“I do it by my part,” she said. “Even if the scene is remote from the period in the scenario where the emotion of sadness is called for, I place myself in character” (meaning, of course, that she imagines herself to be the girl in the story who is sad) “and the tears come. I think, honestly, that it is sympathy for the character I am playing.”
There she put her finger on the crux of the matter. People of the studios are sympathetic people. All real artists are, and their emotions are given full play when they see others in trouble. A book could be written on the subject.
But every actress cannot cry at will. It is a fact that a certain famous director resorted once to a sort of psychological ordeal for a player who is known wherever pictures are seen. During the filming of a great picture this actress could not register the emotion of nervous breakdown called for, and she could not weep. Time and again the camera was ordered, but she could not respond. Lunch time came.
“I am going to lunch,” this actress announced. “You are not going to lunch,” the director replied. “We will get this scene, and we’ll get it now!”
Dinner time, and still there had not been a turn of the crank.
“I am hungry,” the actress said, “and I am going to dinner.”
“You are not going to dinner,” the director replied. “We are going to get this nervous breakdown and those tears if it takes all night and a part of next week.”
Midnight, and still no tears.
“You are killing me,” the actress said. “You are killing me! I—I can t stand this! Oh, what will . . . Oh . . .”
The camera began to click, the director smiled, and the most remarkable example of a nervous breakdown ever filmed was taken that night by artificial light.
Now that little actress is a wonderful weeper. But there are other expert weepers.
Laura Hope Crews, one of the latest emigrants to the Hollywood studios of the Jesse L. Lasky company from the legitimate stage and who is playing now under the same shades which kept the sun from the eyes of Edith Wynne Mathison and which will soon shelter Tyrone Power, has already been called upon for a close-up on the “weeps.”
She accomplished the feat in just seven minutes, and according to the De Milles, this is a record for a newcomer.
“I have only to think of the futures of the women and children in the war-torn European countries to become sad enough for tears. That is a peculiar thing. When I was called upon to ‘make tears’ for the camera my mind seemed to be a perfect blank, and then there flashed to me the despair of those women whose children are fatherless. Does that answer your question?”
Cleo Ridgley, of the Lasky studios, says she can weep bucketfuls on any occasion.
Blanche Sweet, on the same stage, admits to a mysterious thought which she uses when she wishes to weep for the camera now. Under no circumstances would she divulge it and she blushed prettily when asked.
Another noted eye-wringer is Corinne Grant, of the Balboa company, who claims to tote water, through telepathic communication with the overwrought audience. But there is no audience, when she’s playing for the pictures, say you.
There is the cynical camera-grinder, the director and the other players. Miss Grant says she asks all present to be perfectly quiet, while she digs out from her mental archives some nice sad, wet sorrow, which being considered for a spell brings a small freshet beating on the panes of her soul. The camera man is then forced to break the telepathic circuit and whizz the crank around like mad.
One minute, says Miss Grant, is long enough for her to get the needful moisture.