click to buy “The Decline of Sentiment” at Amazon.comI should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas…” Too sentimental!

– Boris (Woody Allen), as he throws out one of his poems (which is from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) in Allen’s Love and Death (1975)

But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

– T.S. Eliot (1)

Word from the Sundance Film Festival via The New York Times is that next year’s films will be more emotional, maybe even more melodramatic, than at past festivals. The 2009 event in Park City, Utah, from 15-25 January, marked the festival’s 25th anniversary. As the Times’ Michael Cieply put it: “Alienation is out. Engagement is in.” (2) The festival director described one entry, Shana Feste’s The Greatest (2009) with Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon – yet another pregnancy tale – as a “three-hankie, if not more” picture. (3) Whether this presages a tectonic shift in international film or merely a slight nudge toward the sentimental at one festival remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: sentiment is alive and well, and the films at Sundance are geared to elicit tears and sobs from an independent film crowd accustomed to cynicism, political messages and love stories that focus more on what transpires between two dysfunctional characters on the fringes of emotion than emotion itself.

Sentiment is a necessary ingredient in most works of literature and films. Even the hardest-edged works of art possess some kind of connection with the frailties that make the subjects of that art – humans and their humanness – what they are. The phrase often used to flag the good from the bad, the worthy from the forgotten, is that a work of literature or film possesses sentiment without sentimentality, a taste of human sweetness without gobs of treacle. J. Hoberman, film critic for The Village Voice, has written about Steven Spielberg:

Astoundingly attuned to mass-audience psychology, he is at once ruthlessly sadistic and cloyingly saccharine, a filmmaker who opened his first blockbuster by implicating the audience in an aquatic sex-murder committed by a giant serial-killer shark, and the only filmmaker since Disney who might sincerely employ ”When You Wish Upon a Star” (the original closing music for Close Encounters of the Third Kind [Spielberg, 1977]). Naturally privileging sentiment above reason, Spielberg’s movies are shamelessly dependent on such cues. (4)

But doesn’t much of Hollywood’s output do this? When we reach for the hankie (whether it be the first, second or third), aren’t we succumbing to the filmmaker’s successful lassoing of something inside, whether it’s called the heart, the heartstrings or something else tied to that organ that both keeps us alive and defines that aliveness? Heartrending, heartbreaking and heartwrenching all imply that the mighty organ has been struck again, set upon by elements of the story that first lured us in, then snapped shut like a rusty, heart-shaped bear trap. Sentiment is sometimes the audience’s friend, sometimes its enemy. It can also be the filmmaker’s necessary friend, otherwise we would have no reason to go to the movies and have our susceptible hearts broken all over again.

In the 1920s, writes Lea Jacobs, a professor in the department of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there came a moment when filmmakers were criticised for making pictures that were “cloying, foolishly optimistic or too intent on achieving big dramatic effects” (p. ix) – in other words, too sentimental. That moment – which Jacobs documents in her scrupulously researched but formulaic and stiffly written book – was part of a shift in taste marked by the effects of literary naturalism, the importance of sophisticated comedy (as opposed to slapstick), the male adventure story, the seduction plot and the romantic drama. This shift in taste led to the decline of sentiment in 1920s film.

Jacobs makes clear that while this slide in sentiment can be documented in the 1920s, I suspect that every decade is marked by the same kinds of shifts. Too much sentiment chases the cynics; not enough chases those who are drawn by the sentiment that brings them to the movies in the first place. Even today, in such rigorously unsentimental portrayals of lives in crisis as Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages (2007), Courtney Hunt’s debut feature Frozen River (2008) or Ryan Fleck’s minimalistic Half Nelson (2006), where sentiment is something to be avoided or at least kept in check, it creeps in at the oddest moments, inspired by a character’s plight, or glance, or a relationship that founders, not because it’s time to please the investors or because the composer cues the orchestra. The audience might still need a hankie.

Jacobs sets up her argument neatly enough. Its foundations are the emerging prominence of naturalism in literature as it began, in H.L. Mencken’s words, to “break down” the sentimental romanticism of 19th-century literature (p. 4). Jacobs writes:

the taste for naturalism encompassed both a rejection of morality as a key component of literary judgment and a rejection of those literary works that had the cock-eyed optimism to posit a morally comprehensible universe. (p. 7)

It was “a refusal to accept subject matter” that focused on

explicit descriptions of sexual urges and encounters; an interest in the body and emphasis on the primacy of the instincts; exploration of the modern city or ugly industrial milieu that bore down upon and sometimes controlled the naturalist protagonist (p. 9)

that stigmatised the sentimental.

Unfortunately, Jacobs stumbles early on. By the second chapter, on Hollywood naturalism, she establishes a predictable rhythm in her writing that soon grows tiresome. Momentum is lost and soon, I’m afraid, is the reader. In describing film after film, we get an often too-long description of the plot followed by numerous (and sometimes overly long) citations from the trade press, which in the 1920s was writing for distributors who were looking for clues about how a picture would do in their theatres. To her credit, Jacobs also includes snatches of criticism from The New York Times and The New Yorker (which began publication halfway through Jacobs’ decade) and other publications. These provide all-too-brief draughts of cool water after the dry journey through most of the descriptions of the films under study.

Isn’t Life Wonderful

Jacobs’ treatment of D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) is a case in point; it also represents one of the strengths of the book, when we get to hear Jacobs’ voice rise above the chorus of trade-press writers. It is a rare occurrence. “In my view the more far-reaching pessimism of Greed [Erich von Stroheim, 1924] is a function of the conception of character and the motivation of the action” (p. 59), she writes. Across the decade, though, naturalism did not have the influence on Hollywood film in the 1920s as much as it did on individual examples of Hollywood film: “one finds praise for simple over complex plots, for de-dramatized scenes and situations, and for restrained modes of storytelling” (p. 77), Jacobs says. Her opinion matters, and I was often puzzled why we didn’t hear more of it. Apparently, Griffith’s film was made in response to von Stroheim’s monumental Greed, which was based on Frank Norris’ 1899 novel, McTeague. We hear from Variety, Film Daily, Moving Picture World, Exhibitors Trade Review and Motion Picture News, whose reviewer praised Griffith’s emphasis on “characterization, rather than the mechanics of plot” and his telling of “an extremely human story in a very human way. […] There is a total absence of ‘hokum’” (p. 58). Poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote film reviews for the Chicago Daily News from 1920 to 1928 (5), cited a “low percentage of bunk and hokum” in Greed (p. 56). Both were to be avoided if a film were to escape the label “too sentimental”.

Jacobs comes into her own – and uses her own voice more frequently – when she writes about the male adventure story. “The 1920s seems to be the decade in which sentimentality began to be judged to be inappropriate for masculine action stories,” (p. 128) she writes. But she also observes, in a passage that would please Steven Spielberg (or at least his character, Indiana Jones), “a presumed masculine appeal and an emphasis upon action in a film did not necessarily preclude the inclusion of sentimental elements.” (p. 131) This kind of bet-hedging might prompt cries of inconsistency, but it keeps Jacobs’ argument afloat: while sentiment was booed by the writers of Variety and other publications, it remained – and remains – a necessary element in films even today.

The groundbreaking play What Price Glory by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, which emphasised the use of the vernacular and its new approach to representing World War I, is a touchstone for Jacobs. She places it in the continuum initiated by literary naturalism in its treatment of language, the war and sex. It spawned two well-known movie versions, King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory (1926), which moved the male adventure story “in a decisively unsentimental direction” (p. 136). Reviewers did not find The Big Parade overly sentimental, despite its departure from earlier war movies. Exceptional Photoplays found the characters earthy and human.

Carl Sandburg wrote in the Chicago Daily News:

What Price Glory violates every maxim in the screen director’s guidebook and literally bowls over the very people for whom these guidebooks were prepared. […] Here is the secret for the incredible popular triumph of What Price Glory on the screen. It rises above the appeals of patriotism, sentiment, humor and romance – although it has all those things – to shake the whole emotional structure of spectators with an epic portrait of two fascinating and violent men. It rises to the heights of doing the professional soldier as he has waited 5,000 years to be done, without gloves, without patronage and with sure certain truthfulness. (6)

Jacobs would have profited from including Sandburg’s comments in her discussion of What Price Glory. He gets to the heart of the film’s sense of organic harmony and its seeming right-on-cue reinforcement of her argument about the decline of sentiment. But she uses his reviews to illustrate just two films: Greed and Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925). This may help explain the central difficulty in Jacobs’ book. By choosing to defend her argument with a comprehensive review of how the Hollywood trade press covered the films of the 1920s, she limits herself to its a cappella voice, its relentless singing in unison, its opining on how the pictures would play to certain audiences, how women and men would react (but never how a human being would react) and whether a film would appeal to a more (or less) sophisticated crowd, depending how close to a large metropolitan area the film was screened.

At least a portion of what Jacobs reveals by her wholesale investment in comments from the trade press is her real service to our understanding of the films in the 1920s: her illumination of the sexist comments made by many reviewers, perhaps collected comprehensively for the first time? The reception of movies hinges on whether they will appeal to women because of their depiction of love scenes and the relationships between men and women or two men, or because of a film’s use of the vernacular. Variety focused on the vernacular in its assessment of Vidor’s The Big Parade, or Sidney Franklin’s Wild Orchids (1929) with Greta Garbo, which Variety said was “fundamentally a woman’s picture. It’s a feminized plot all the way. Sex is the meat and marrow of its drama, the protagonist of its characters.” (p. 250) Was this an early form of the chick flick?

The American film critic and author Molly Haskell has an answer. In her groundbreaking book from 1979, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, she writes:

She [Garbo] cast a wider net [than Marlene Dietrich], catered to no specific sexual tastes, not even masculine or feminine, whereas Dietrich catered specifically to both but not to all tastes. […] Dietrich’s irony kept men at a distance, posed questions and signaled her intelligence; Garbo’s was conspiratorial, secret – it darkened the room, excluded the world, and drew men, flattering them, deep into the womb of her mystery. […] She is the perfect metaphor for the Hollywood film, the high priestess at the holy communion of American romance, where sex is converted into love, body into spirit, and a transitory experience into an ultimate and permanent grace. […] To the extent that the love she offers is maternal and self-sacrificial, Garbo appeals to men and adherents of male supremacy. (7)

Jacobs offers a less nuanced, more down-to-earth view of Garbo’s power: “Theda Bara’s vamp roles are considered crude and overdone while Garbo’s frailty, ‘civilized’ bearing, and decorum make her enactment of the seductress more believable and presumably more compelling.” (p. 246) This kind of insight would have been impossible for the trade writers of the 1920s. In fairness, their eyes were too close to the screen for them to be able to reflect on the meaning of what they were seeing. Reviewers for Variety – writing about James McKay’s 1925 Souls for Sables, “one of those middle class society yarns that usually please the women and the shop girls” (p. 219) – and Film Daily, describing Whitman Bennet’s Love of Women from 1924 (“might appeal to your women patrons. They are always more or less interested in marriage-divorce stories”) (p. 219) – were writing for exhibitors whose livelihoods depended on filling their theatres with movies the studios hoped would fill them. Trade reviewers served as guides, like docents on a museum tour, not as critics of the culture surrounding the pictures they followed closely.

Jacobs makes her boldest points in her chapter on the romantic drama and its effects on the decline of sentiment when she says “one needs to be wary of too ready and easy an equation between femininity and sentimentality”, even as she admits that “the romantic drama was almost completely identified with women.” (p. 271) In a comment about Jack Conway’s Our Modern Maidens (1929) – a film that might play well today in America, with its endless skein of mindless movies that seem to be made more to show off product placements for the young than for their stories or cinematic prowess – Variety noted that “its youth, hot stuff and abundant appeal for the flaps [flappers] should sell it. Story is juvenile and silly, but the sort of silliness the more youthful fans gobble by the carload.” (p. 222) Jacobs concludes that

the romantic drama was at odds with other tendencies discussed in relation to sophisticated comedy and the male adventure story: their preference for downplaying or undercutting dramatic climaxes, and their evocation of the vernacular at the level of gesture and the diction of intertitles. (p. 251)

The romantic drama of the 1920s, Jacobs seems to be saying, offered little to theatregoers except an opportunity, as Variety noted in its review of Henry King’s The White Sister (1923), “for those of the women who enjoy a good cry.” (p. 238) Despite their ability to attract weeping women to matinees, the romantic drama prompted in the trade press a fusillade of criticism. “This distaste for the romantic drama constitutes a vital aspect of the decline of sentiment.” (p. 223)

Lea Jacobs has written an important book for film scholars, students and others whose needs will be fulfilled by her exhaustive research and deep knowledge of the subject. But for the average reader who wants to learn about the topic and who desires to be entranced by vivid, illuminating writing and a style that propels him or her into the next chapter, the book will be a disappointment. In her chapter on sophisticated comedy, Jacobs cites a New York Times review of Griffith’s Dream Street (1921) to illustrate the critical reaction to Griffith’s films:

Mr. Griffith does not seem to know the meaning of restraint. Many of his best scenes lose force because they are too intense, too long continued, too often repeated or too explicitly described in words and pictures. (p. 84)

In her zeal to be thorough, Jacobs commits similar errors. A healthy abundance of citations of trade press reviews of the films she discusses quickly becomes an embarrassment of riches. Quotes from those reviews are often too long and the reader wonders why they weren’t pared down. Plot summaries often go beyond a brief description of what’s happening in a film; do we really need a two- or three-page “summary”? Even some of the epigraphs at the top of her chapters go on too long. But the real disappointment in The Decline of Sentiment is that we rarely get to hear from Jacobs herself, so immersed is she (and the reader) in the words of others. And there’s no excuse for having so few photographs in the book. The ones she uses successfully reinforce her argument. More would have served her purpose well.

A Woman of Paris

Variety gets it right when it says of Luther Reed’s The World at Her Feet (1927), one of the many sophisticated comedies Jacobs examines, “The French are a discriminating, fastidious people, sipping their pastimes like old wine. This American people gulp their screen and stage sensations like straight redeye.” (p. 91) Jacobs devotes ten pages to one of the best known in the genre, Charles Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), yet I came away with little. Buried in her extensive coverage of this important film, she writes that it “definitively altered the way such (sophisticated) comedies were made. […] it established new strategies for adapting theatrical farce to the medium of silent film” (p. 91). She leaves the headline to Motion Picture Magazine, whose Henry Carr declared, “It was the picture that changed the entire motion picture business.” (p. 92) Carl Sandburg wrote in the Chicago Daily News that Chaplin’s first film as “author and director” “has the scope and extent of a novel, and is the most important photoplay since The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari [Robert Wiene, 1920] and The Golem [Carl Boese and Paul Wegener, 1920].” (8) He concludes his review with the kind of insight – and yes, sentiment – I kept wishing to see in Jacobs’ book:

This picture is so big hearted and simple, so fine and sure in its handling of people and laying the blame on nobody, that there will be some moviegoers a little mixed up about it; they are those who want either straight melodrama or straight comedy. And A Woman of Paris is neither; it is as dark and mixed as life or the Book of Ruth or the Book of Esther in the Old Testament. (9)

It is this mixture that is missing from Jacobs’ book. By setting such great store by her reliance on the very subject she set out to study – the trade press’ reaction to the films of the 1920s – she has perforce neutralised her own voice, so the few times it emerges it becomes an event that the reader celebrates, only to be disappointed when she retreats back to the views of writers who were, after all, in business to tell theatre owners what to expect, what to watch out for, and how the men and women in their audiences were likely to react. In the end, I wished I’d heard more from Jacobs about the decline of sentiment in American film of the 1920s: what are her reasons for such a decline? What was behind a filmmaker’s decision to rely – or not – on sentiment? And is sentiment such a bad thing after all? Valuable as her many citations from the trade press are, what’s largely missing from The Decline of Sentiment is the author’s voice. Maybe she will let us hear more of it one day.

The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, by Lea Jacobs, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2008.

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  1. T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, Methune, London, 1920.
  2. Michael Cieply, “Sundance Tilts to Heart-Tuggers”, The New York Times, December 4, 2008, p. C1.
  3. Cieply, p. C1.
  4. J. Hoberman, “Laugh, Cry, Believe: Spielbergization and Its Discontents”, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter, 2007, pp. 119-135.
  5. Phillip Lopate (ed.), American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now, The Library of America, New York, 2006, p. 18.
  6. Lopate, pp. 25-26.
  7. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1979, pp. 107-108.
  8. Lopate, p. 21.
  9. Lopate, p. 22.