Period piece. Costume drama. Historical epic. Any way you slice it, it’s been around about as long as cinema itself. Of course, in those days what we now consider quintessential period drama was practically contemporary – the Lumière brothers patented their cinématographe in 1895, which is only as distant from Austen’s last novel as the Second World War is from us. Turning this wonder of technology to life in the present – rather than the past – was a more immediate concern.
That’s not to say that film ignored the past for thirty years before the invention of talking pictures – but the sudden explosion of sound invited the complexities and potential of literature on to the screen in entirely new ways. With sound came dialogue, and filmmakers grabbed books from their shelves with both hands.
The roll call for ’30s and ’40s period drama is impressive – Austen, Brontë, Shakespeare, Dumas, Tolstoy, Dickens, Alcott, Hemingway, Wilde, even Puccini. Such was the demand for fiction on film that a single book might appear at the box office twice in a decade. Original period pieces from this time are rare – in 1940 film was still only 45 years old, the baby of the media family, and writers and directors wanted the shine of celebrated classics to rub off on their ‘populist dross’.
Period dramas in their youth can be seen to straddle a huge period of cinematic change – between silent and sound, between black-and-white and Technicolor, and between two very different styles of acting. With no dialogue to express story, and casts who had invariably learnt their craft in the theatre, cinematic acting in this period had a very specific feel: huge gestures, clipped enunciation, big-eyed women and strong-jawed men.
This classic Hollywood style presents itself in 1944’s Jane Eyre and its leads, Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. Somewhere between naturalism and artifice, the overwrought gestures (of Fontaine especially) were designed for audiences at the back of a theatre rather than a cinema, an overhang from a time when the extreme closeup was non-existent. It gives the films of this period a heightened level of passion; every emotion is visible on the face and in the body, in dramatic gestures and whiplash-sharp turns. Whilst it lacks the subtlety afforded today, it’s oddly pleasing. Combined with the prevalence of the soundstage, where the moors of Brontë’s Yorkshire became painted backdrops and smoke machines, the costume dramas of this period combined heart-on-the-sleeve emotion with almost total artifice, lending them an atmosphere that would never be repeated again.
These early days were also the height of “faith to the text”. The aforementioned snobbery that puts books above films, combined with the heavy censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code, translated into the canon; books might be adapted two or three times in a short period, but the only noticeable changes would be technological rather than interpretational – a burst of sound here, a touch of colour there. Directors and writers were handling precious artifacts, not getting their grubby paws all over them and smashing them to pieces. Watch a black-and-white period film: if it happens on screen then it happened in the book, and it will happen in the Technicolor version released ten years later.
The way around this? Twenty years before the French New Wave coined the term, filmmakers were applying auteurship to classics in order to navigate faith to the text – stamping their marks on the artifacts rather than dismantling them. Take David Lean’s Great Expectations, starring John Mills and Alec Guinness and released in 1946. Though period dramas had been adopting colour as far back as Becky Sharpe in 1935, Lean’s adaptation of Dickens’ novel is shot in harshly contrasting black-and-white. The result is a masterclass in lighting – even if in these BluRay days it highlights Mills’ wrinkles and obscenely heavy makeup.
Taking the novel to screen for the second time in twelve years, Lean breathed life into it with his trademark style of light and dark, black and white, and ambiguous morality. Unlike the bosom-heaving breathlessness of an Austen, Lean produced a haunting descent into hell that escaped the censors with its creeping, crawling chill. The shadows of Miss Haversham’s Satis House are made deeper by the over-bright light of flickering candles, producing a ghost world that other period pieces could never quite match.
Lean wasn’t the only one working as an auteur, but others had more leeway with their texts. The Grand Duke of 1940s cinema, Laurence Olivier had already played period heroes Heathcliff and Mr Darcy by the time he brought Shakespeare to the screen in 1944. In the middle of a decade ravaged by war, his adaptation of Henry V was designed to lift the spirits of a downtrodden British nation – motivation acceptable enough to tamper with the greatest literary artifact of all.
Working as propaganda, Olivier’s film does the opposite of Lean’s by employing impossibly bright and clean colour palettes, replacing Lean’s hellish greyscale with idyllic Technicolor. The Battle of Agincourt is (literally) a walk in the sunshine and the moral ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is transformed into Richard the Lionheart levels of heroism. Henry’s murder of his friend Bardolph is cut entirely, whilst references to rape and pillage are swiftly excised. Total faith to the text – unless it doesn’t pass the censors or make your star look good. It’s the same reason Rebecca (contemporary then, a retroactive period piece now) makes a major change from the book, lending a moral boost to yet another Olivier performance.
Restrained by a combination of technology and prudishness and set free by talent and ingenuity, this first explosion acted for the period drama much as the first wave did for feminism – the most obvious, most immediate approach came first. Buffeted by a changing landscape of technology, pierced through the middle by the single bloodiest conflict in history, and breathing sound into famous dialogue for the first time (or second, or third), these films are their own little island in the history of film – and the first complete chapter in the ongoing story of the period drama.