British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Gods and Idols

Bringing the Past to Life
Playful images can thus reveal subtle manoeuvres in the way stars were used to locate cinema’s place in the history of art, beauty and culture, effectively backdating its cultural value back to the beginnings of Western civilisation. As one 1918 editorial in Photoplay magazine put it: ‘The motion picture is not really new. It is a thing as old as the world, cast in a new mold … it is the first and only amalgamation of science and art.. [science] found the immemorial picture a changeless image—and gave it the breath of life’.’ The magazine here alludes to the Greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion, whose sculpture of the beautiful Galatea was brought to life. This was one of the most popular myths in late 19th century visual culture, and an influence on the late 19th century visual culture from which cinema emerged, as Lynda Nead’s fascinating The Haunted Gallery: Painting, Photography, Film c.1900 (Yale University Press, 2007) has indicated. In these images of Swanson, Crawford and Arlen, the stars themselves are positioned as if a prized art object in their own right, and yet somehow surpassing the cold marble statue in having ‘come to life’ through the Pygmalionesque technology of cinema.

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra circa 1891 (Image: Library of Congress / CC attribution).

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra circa 1891 (Image: Library of Congress / CC attribution).

As Ana Carden-Coyne has shown in her book Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (OUP, 2009), classicism met with modernism to produce an ‘aesthetic of healing’ that was appropriated in sculpture, memorials and even cosmetic surgery during and after the war. Yet, as the broken Venus in Swanson image quietly suggests, this is an aesthetic that does not fully cover the scars of the past and is rather a fluid framing of loss and recovery. Such images also responded to the fascination for antiquity that followed a series of archaeological discoveries in the 1920s, including the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. In this way, references to classical gods, and more specifically their representations in Greek and Roman art, were a significant means of popularising the appeal of stars, and indeed cinema itself, to various national and international audiences.

Films associated with ancient literary settings or sources afforded possibilities for spectacle beyond the restrictions of the stage, and as cinema emerged from the sideshows, the opportunity to exhibit ostensibly edifying entertainment to all classes as a ‘respectable’ art form. The extraordinary 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was an immersive historical spectacle whose influence is still felt on contemporary epics. (The wonderful Thames Television restoration is commercially available, yet rather ignominiously, as an extra feature on the Warner Home Video DVD and Blu-ray releases of the 1959 remake.) Mexican-born Ramón Novarro played the galley slave who rises to become, as one inter-title puts it, the ‘idol of Rome’. Fittingly, at this moment in the film Novarro’s Ben-Hur subtly adopts the contrapposto pose familiar from Hellenistic sculpture, as if the idols of past and present were momentarily exchanging pedestals.

The AHRC Research Leave scheme funded one of several visits to consult scripts and studio files in Los Angeles at the Margaret Herrick Library as well as the Cinema-Television Library at USC. What particularly interested me was the way the film’s script was developed in parallel with M-G-M’s carefully groomed image of Novarro to add ancient gravitas to a rising idol. Picture-Play’s rather paradoxical ‘The Greek God from Mexico’ is typical; it imagines a twofold line of ancestry for the star that uses an ‘Aztec’ past to suggest Pre-Cortés ‘American’ authenticity, and yet reaches back to Greece for a note of classicising desirability but also an ethnicity more palatable to the xenophobic views of the period. Other articles cleverly enunciate the star’s closeted homosexuality for a sub-cultural audience willing to discern it, references to Alexander the Great and the Emperor Hadrian’s famously beautiful male lover, Antinous.

‘Divinised’ stars had been seen in the theatre, but cinema magnified their images and rendered them, as Dyer and John Ellis (Visible Fictions) have argued, both more cinematographically present before the viewer, but also elusive as figures that dissipate into fragments outside the cinema. There’s something particularly evocative about the ruins of antiquity, the remnants of its now-lost gods and architecture, that seems mythically conducive to cinema’s phantasmagorical art, and in particular its stars.

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