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MAKING A SCENE: Sentimentalism in the Silent Cinema of Mary Pickford and Frances Marion (completed)

Research project

Fellow: Brouwers Anke

Supervisor: Liska Vivian

Duration: 01/10/2005 - 30/9/2010

While it has proven fruitful to think of cinema in this modern context, the blatant sentimentality of silent film on the level of plot (narrative structure, characterisation, motivation and theme), on the level of function or purpose (an exercise of the emotions), on the level of style (the use of sentimental This recent study has aimed to reconceptualize silent film history from the vantage point of sentimentalism, a consistently marginalized yet constitutive historical formation. The traces of sentimentalism in its various guises and incarnations -from popular literature to ethical thought and social reform- in silent cinema’s form, content, function, strategies, effects, and aesthetics have for a long time been overlooked or have been interpreted negatively in film studies. The bulk of research done on the history of silent cinema has focused on film’s relationship to modernity, a relationship that is explained as logical, inevitable, causal, and central, leaving little or no room to consider other shaping constituents not captured under the umbrella of modernism. While cinema’s material shape and technological application need to be thought as modern (both photosensitive material and its projection are modern inventions or discoveries), what it does and how it does it (and why), does not require modernity or modernist aesthetics as a dominant shaping force as either legitimation or explanation.


Strategies or embellishments such as tableaux, double-exposure, over-acting, direct address, moralizing editorial inter-titles or montage sequences), as well as on the level of women’s history (women with a decidedly sentimental “education” flocking into movie-acting, -writing and –directing) had not been investigated. Affect, sensation, passion, pathos, empathy and emotion, within a modernist framework all problematical or weighty terms, are central to early cinema and gain meaning and significance when explained from a sentimental(ist) point of view. Next to these challenging terms, it is striking to note how comparatively few (if any) in-depth studies exist on women such as Mary Pickford and Frances Marion, both instrumental in the development and evolution of Hollywood film practice on all levels of production. These are women that history and academic traditions have marginalized even if they were not, in their day, marginal themselves. A corrective in two directions was therefore warranted: a reassessment of sentimentalism vis-à-vis modernism and its contemporary and current critical reputation as well as a critical reappraisal of two important women in film history through an affirmative and constructive use of the concept of sentimentalism.

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