One of the things that struck me rewatching THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) was how effectively director George Cukor uses our eyes.
There’s a scene, for instance, where Mac (Jimmy Stewart) is checking out the array of high-priced wedding gifts in Tracy’s house. As he toys with some of them, we see (and he notices) the butler watching him warily in case he pockets something. He waits a second then withdraws, conscious he’s been pushing the envelope. There’s no dialogue; it’s all in the two men’s expressions and body language.
Later in the film, when Mac proposes to Tracy, the camera cuts to both Dex (Cary Grant) and Liz (Ruth Hussey), both of them startled and alarmed as that’s not at all what they want. Again, the visuals to the work.
Jeanine Basinger’s commentary track points out how different some of this is from the Broadway play the film is based on. Cukor can focus the camera on Dex’s face, then Liz; in the theater, we’d be looking at the whole tableau or more likely Tracy and Mac. Cukor’s camera use not only breaks up what might be stage-bound scenes (when Dex and Tracy rehash their marriage, the camera keeps cutting to the reluctant witness Mac) but makes sure we see what we need to see.
With print fiction, it’s a mix. Our words function like a camera; we can use them to point readers’ attention at whatever it needs to pay attention to. On the other hand, we can’t impart visuals as effortlessly. To show Liz and Dex reacting, we’d either have to tell their feelings (which is perfectly legitimate) or strain to focus on their expression (“Behind Mac, Liz’s face froze in a mask of alarm.”). Neither is as smooth as just pointing the camera.
Likewise, the sumptuous luxury of the household, the elegant gowns and suits, we’d have to describe them instead of effortlessly showing them.
Then again, it’s not really effortless. Sure, the images hit our eyes without any trouble or exposition, but it takes a shit-ton of hard work behind the scenes for that to happen. We don’t need set crews, set decorators or props to build a fantastic, beautiful mansion. Just words. And we don’t have to worry about casting.
It’s one reason I’m happy to work in print.
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