THAT sharp, penetrating voice, the screen presence that silences any number of fools - these are the trademarks of Bette Davis, one of the legendary stars of Hollywood. Tonight she is being honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Fifty years ago, in 1939, the Monitor asked Miss Davis and two other ``stars'' - director Frank Capra and producer Harry Warner - to write about their work in the movies.
Because interest in movies and stars, past and present, is an American habit, the Monitor is publishing excerpts from their 1939 essays - Bette Davis today, Frank Capra on Tuesday, and Harry Warner on Wednesday. Many critics today insist that 1939 was the Year of Years for movies, because ``Gone With the Wind,'' ``The Wizard of Oz,'' ``Goodbye Mr. Chips,'' and a host of other memorable films were produced.
When Miss Davis wrote her essay, she was only months away from winning an Academy Award for her role in ``Jezebel.'' Today many of Davis's colleagues would disagree with her feeling that stage and screen acting have little to contribute to each other. Switching between the two disciplines has become fairly common. Clearly Davis's exclusive focus on acting in movies was no mistake; she is one of the few stars to earn legendary status.
SEVERAL of the top-ranking players on the screen today have had no stage experience. When I say top-ranking I mean just that, and in all sincerity. They are players who stand high in popular esteem, and they are also fine technicians.
Their very presence at the top of the ladder in filmdom proves one thing so clearly that it can never be disputed. Screen success of the highest order, popular and artistic, may be attained without any background of stage acting whatsoever.
If it meant nothing more for me, it gave me confidence to face the terrifying ordeal of early screen tests and those first trials before camera and microphones in regular production. Fortunately, I was young in years, and my stage technique was still in a fluid, experimental stage. Nothing had become a fixed habit with me. So, unlike players I knew at the time who brought far better stage experience than mine to the screen, I was able to adapt some of the things I had learned to the new medium. Frankly, I don't think stage training can do much more than that for the player who is striving for success in motion pictures. You see, the two techniques are utterly different in every respect. As different as swimming and skiing....
Why this difference between stage and screen? Oh, so many reasons! Pantomime in the two media, for example. On the stage it's necessarily broad. It mustn't be so subtle or minute that the man in the far corner of the lower floor or the last row of the gallery can't interpret it.
On the screen it may be as minute and subtle as this: a slight pressure of a hand on another's, or the lowering of an eyelid by a 16th of an inch! The gigantic close-up shows the smallest change of expression, such as a mere tightening of the lips.
Just as the close-up and the mobility of the camera change utterly the elements of the old art of pantomime, so the microphone changes line-reading technique. In pictures, dialogue is read in normal tones and volume, words are pronounced correctly, and no special accent is required to make sure that fellow way up there near the roof hears you. It isn't necessary to bellow loud conversation and whisper like a steam engine. The microphone, regulated by sound experts, does all that for you.
IS this more or less difficult than stage technique? Personally, I think motion picture technique is less difficult but more exacting. Doing a good job of acting, holding a mood and creating an illusion while you gesture so widely and speak so loudly, stage fashion, is undoubtedly difficult in extreme. But the very facilities the screen's mechanical aids open up increase your scope and therefore your responsibilities. The camera ``sees'' your broad, free gestures, and it also sees the twinkle in your eyes. All of them must be under control and delivering their message when you act before the camera....
To me, certainly there is as great a satisfaction in doing good work in pictures as there could be in doing equally good work on the stage. One of my particular satisfactions is the thought that I am limited in expression only by my own ability. The ability of the motion picture medium to record and pass on whatever I am able to express is infinite. That is more than one can say of the stage-play medium. Another satisfaction is the thought that one is working, not for a little group, a class, a clique - but for a vast and varied audience of Americana.
First of three parts. Tomorrow, Frank Capra; Wednesday, Harry Warner.