Writing the Photoplay

Lasky Studios

There’s growing interest in the study of silent film screenplays, particularly at the moment in Britain where so few silent film screenplays have survived, which only adds to the challenge. Charles Barr’s work on Eliot Stannard, Hitchcock’s scenarist in the silent era, has been followed by the ongoing research of Ian McDonald at University of Leeds, who is conducting a survey of extant British silent film scripts.

All of which preamble introduces the latest addition to the Bioscope Library, J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds’ Writing the Photoplay, first published 1913 and then in a revised version in 1919. It is the latter that is available from Project Gutenberg.

It is a standard ‘how to’ guide, published by the Home Corresspondence School of Springfield, Mass. (odd how Springfields keep turning up these days), so presumably it ended up being read by those more optimistic than talented. Nevertheless, it says all the right things (“Action is the most important word in the vocabulary of the photoplaywright”), and it goes into great detail about the process of producing a screenplay, covering its component parts, how a script should look, the mechanical production of a film script, devising a scenario, delineating characters, the use and misuse of titles, and how to market a screenplay. There is an example of a completed screenplay, Everybody’s Girl (adapted from an O. Henry story and released by Vitagraph in 1918). There is also some amusing advice on what not to try and include in your screenplay (expensive scenes like the sinking of ships, ‘trick animals’, special costumes), and advice on what not to include in your screenplay owing to the attentions of the censor (“Write as your conscience and a sense of decency as an individual and as a good citizen dictate”).

It’s all sensible stuff, with interesting insights throughout and plenty of incidental comments on the routine of film production that is useful to the researcher now. There are some good photographs on studio production, and Gutenberg have most helpfully provided hyperlinks not only for chapters and illustrations, but for the index at the back. E-books just get better and better. It’s available from Project Gutenberg in HTML (747KB) and plain TXT (624KB).