Thursday, January 29, 2015

Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia

Frederick Palmer - Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia (1922)

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Title suggested by Jeremy G. Butler (Television Style).

A 1922 guide to writing screenplays?  If nothing else it shows how little has changed in the past 90 years, despite sound, color, widescreen and digital.  Frederick Palmer was pretty much identical to Robert McKee and his ilk, making sweeping generalizations about storytelling so that people who will never sell a screenplay will think that they can.  (Though probably no one since Palmer has referenced Schiller and Nerval in their preface.)  His Palmer Plan consisted of several small-ish books designed to tell the secrets of photoplay writing, sold by mail order and heavily advertised in magazines.  The board of advisors listed Cecil DeMille and Lois Weber.  Unlike McKee, Palmer has decent IMDB credits and from the report in one article (Advertising & Selling, August 2, 1919) that's likely just partial.  The Palmer Plan hasn't been entirely forgotten - David Bordwell has referenced it and Anne Morey included a chapter about it in Hollywood Outsiders: The Adaptation of the Film Industry, 1913-1934 (2003).

This particular volume breaks down the basic types of stories (well according to Palmer anyway) and then how they might be told.  There's a lengthy section detailing many recent films and the way they fit into that scheme.  (The Jack Ford who directed The Craving is better known now as John Ford. Though such plans always seem a little silly (and McKee even had to resort to a miscellaneous category to make his work) that's partly the nature of organizing material in a teachable way.  Stephen King's comment that to be a writer you have to read a lot and write a lot may be the only accurate path but it's not particularly useful and doesn't help with what most writing students (whether screenplays or MFA) really want to know - how do I sell what I write?

I'll have to find another Palmer book to see if he shows how silent screenplays actually looked.  For the past few decades scripts have been written to a rigid standard designed to fit a highly regulated production method but it's easy to imagine silent scripts being more open and descriptive, much like Alan Moore's comics scripts (or maybe more to the point one of the collaborative ones developed by Marvel).  It would also be interesting to know whether anybody who went through even part of the Palmer Plan ever had a produced script.  I'll see what the Anne Morey book has to say about this.