Even in an era before spoken dialogue, the screenplay was a vital piece of creating a narrative film. Think of it as the architectural blueprint or the military battle plan that you need to have before embarking on a complex and potentially expensive endeavor. While some directors held their screenplays in their heads or kept them a secret, often getting actors to evoke the right mood required them to have something to read in preparation of their performances. These could be a simple listing of camera setups or a complete novelization of the storyline.
Since we don’t have access to these original documents, this award is to a large degree a measure of the effectiveness of the narrative as it appears on screen and in intertitles. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” demonstrates an understanding of the “lost girl” narrative and brilliantly satirizes it, while “Silent Witnesses” gives us an original interpretation of that storyline that introduces class analysis to strengthen its case. The poetry of cinema reaches a new level with the words of Gabriele D’Annunzio for the intertitles of “Cabiria,”while the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe comes to life in “The Avenging Conscience.” Finally, a fascinating interpretation of the intersection between European and Native American culture is explored in the story to “The Squaw Man.”
The nominees for best screenplay for 1914 are:
- Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Hampton Del Ruth)
- Cabiria (Gabriele D’Annunzio)
- The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith)
- The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel)
- Silent Witnesses (Aleksander Vosnesenski)
And the winner is… Gabriele D’Annunzio for “Cabiria!”
Apart from the excellent adventure story set in a time largely forgotten by modern people, the words of D’Annunzio added authenticity and lyricism to the experience of watching this film, which I’ve seen three or four times now, and never get tired of. Particularly for the pagan ritual scenes, D’Annunzio connects to an emotional level rarely used for text at this time. One of the few films that really seems to overcome silence to create dialogue, Cabiria was an easy choice for this category.