VORKAPICH, Slavko






Special Effects Technician and Director. Nationality: Yugoslav. Born: Slavko Vorkapic in Dobrna, 17 March 1895. Education: Belgrade, Budapest, and Paris. Military Service: Served in a student regiment during World War I. Career: 1920—settled in the United States; 1922—first film work as actor in Rex Ingram films; 1927—codirector of The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra ; then worked in providing montage sequences for RKO and, from 1933 to 1939, for MGM; 1949–51—head of film department, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; lectured in Europe in the 1950s, and artistic adviser, Avala Film Studios, Belgrade, and teacher, Belgrade Academy of Art; 1959–60—editor of TV series John Gunther's High Road . Died: Of diabetes in Mijas, Spain, 20 October 1976.


Films as Director of Montage Sequences:

1930

Safety in Numbers (Schertzinger)

1931

Girls about Town (Cukor); I Take This Woman (co)

1932

The Conquerors ( The Pioneer Builders ) (Wellman); What Price Hollywood? (Cukor)

1933

No Other Woman (Ruben); Christopher Strong (Arzner); Turn Back the Clock (Selwyn); Dancing Lady (Leonard); The Past of Mary Holmes (co)

1934

Viva Villa! (Conway); Manhattan Melodrama (Van Dyke); Crime without Passion (Hecht and MacArthur); The President Vanishes ( Strange Conspiracy ) (Wellman)

1935

David Copperfield (Cukor)

1936

Romeo and Juliet (Cukor)

1937

The Good Earth (Franklin); Maytime (Leonard); The Firefly (Leonard); The Broadway Melody of 1938 (Del Ruth); The Last Gangster (Ludwig)

1938

Test Pilot (Fleming); Yellow Jack (Seitz); Three Comrades (Borzage); The Shopworn Angel (Potter); Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke); Port of Seven Seas (Whale); Sweethearts (Van Dyke); Of Human Hearts (Brown); The Girl of the Golden West (Leonard)

1939

Idiot's Delight (Brown); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra); Air Waves (short)

1940

The Howards of Virginia ( The Tree of Liberty ) (Lloyd)

1941

Meet John Doe (Capra)

1942

Moscow Strikes Back (Varlamov and Kopalin) (ed. of US version of Razgrom nemetzkikhy voisk pod Moskvoi )

1945

A Song to Remember (C. Vidor)

Films as Director (shorts):

1942

Private Smith of the U.S.A. ; Conquer by the Clock ; Moods of the Sea (co)

1943

Lieutenant Smith ; Sailors All

1944

Mail Call

1945

New Americans ; T.V.A.

1946

Fingal's Cave

1947

Forest Murmurs

Films as Actor:

1922

The Prisoner of Zenda (Ingram); Trifling Woman ( Black Orchid ) (Ingram)

1923

Scaramouche (Ingram)

Other Films:

1927

The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra ( The Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra ) (co-d + co-sc, ph, ed)

1948

Joan of Arc (Fleming—full-length) (assoc d)

1955

Hanka (d+ co-sc, ed—full-length)

1961

The Mask ( The Eyes of Hell ) (Roffman—full-length) (co-sc)

Publications

By VORKAPICH: articles—

"Cinematics," in Cinematographic Annual 1930 , Hollywood, 1930.

"Towards True Cinema," in Film Culture (New York), April 1959.

Film Culture (New York), Fall 1965.

Making Film in New York (New York), June 1970.

"A Fresh Look at the Dynamics of Film-Making," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1972.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1973.

" The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra ," (script) in Framework (Norwich), Summer 1983.


On VORKAPICH: books—

Goodman, Ezra, The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood , New York, 1961.

Whittemore, Don and Cecchettini, Philip Alan, Passport to Hollywood: Film Immigrants Anthology , New York, 1976.


On VORKAPICH: articles—

American Cinemeditor (Los Angeles), Spring 1972.

Farber, Stephen, in Film Comment (New York), September 1972.

Films in Review (New York), June-July 1975.

Petric, Vlada, in American Film (Washington, D.C.), March 1978.Brown, Geoff, "Vorkapich around Vorkapich," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1981.

Ekran (Ljubljana), vol. 7, nos. 3–4, 1982.

Zecevic, B., and Richard Allen, "Archaeology of Film Theory 7: Slavko Vorkapich—a Hollywood Extra," in Framework , no. 21, Summer 1983.

Dakovic, N., "Recent Books from Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon), no. 2, 1995.


* * *


To today's audiences, brought up on high-speed editing and slick narrative elisions, the pace of classic 1930s Hollywood cinema can sometimes seem ponderous. Events are too explained, too pacedout—except when, about mid-way through certain films, the action abruptly slips into a montage sequence like a sedately-flowing stream suddenly diving into a narrow canyon. Adagio turns to presto: whole pages of dull exposition are eliminated as, in a cascade of images often lasting less than a minute, months or years hurtle past, thousands of miles are traversed by road or rail, the fortunes of the hero (or of whole empires) rise or fall. The inventor and master of this telescoping technique was Slavko Vorkapich, cinema's first-ever montage editor.

After studying to be a painter, Vorkapich began his film career acting in minor roles (and working on dissolves) for Rex Ingram, whose rhapsodic imagery may have influenced the young extra. But the chief influences on the work that brought him to fame, the experimental short The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra , were those of German expressionism and the Russian school of montage. Reputedly made on a kitchen table for $96, in collaboration with Robert Florey and Gregg Toland, this was the first experimental film to gain wide distribution in the USA and Vorkapich, who had edited it as well as codirecting, found himself in demand in Hollywood as a master of the latest in editing techniques.

Hired by Paramount, and later by RKO and MGM, to construct what were initially called "transition sequences" in feature films, Vorkapich rapidly developed a technique of his own that owed little to the classic theories of the Soviet filmmakers. Where Eisenstein set out to create a dialectic through contrasted images, and Pudovkin's "linkages" aimed at guiding the thoughts and emotions of the viewer, Vorkapich's "symphonies of visual movement," as he called them, were chiefly designed to advance the story as rapidly and vividly as possible. These sequences, with their headlong, seemingly unstoppable pace, were especially well suited to depicting cataclysms both natural and man-made: the collapse of Wall Street in The Conquerors , the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in Viva Villa! , the ravages of famine in The Good Earth , and of the plague in Romeo and Juliet. When working with filmmakers of an adventurous frame of mind, Vorkapich seized the opportunity to introduce expressionist elements into his work, and some of his most imaginative effects occur in the montages he devised, working closely with cinematographer Lee Garmes, for Hecht and MacArthur's Crime without Passion. The opening credits show three winged Furies darting through the canyons of New York to seize at random upon their victims; when crooked lawyer Claude Rains shoots the dancer who is blackmailing him, the Furies emerge from a drop of her blood as it falls in slow-motion and wheel vengefully out into the night, feasting their eyes on the violence of the city.

Much of the time, though, Vorkapich's work found itself incongruously spliced into films with which, in terms of style and mood, it had little or nothing in common. His montages feature in four of the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald musicals, stranded amid the apple blossom and whipped cream of MGM's cloying prettiness. As Geoff Brown noted (in Monthly Film Bulletin of Sept. 1981), Vorkapich's "attempts to slice through this cinematic wedding cake are honourable but doomed." He would have fitted in far better with the pacy, staccato rhythms of Warner Bros.—but Warners, oddly enough, is one of the few major studios where he seems never to have worked.

As fashions in filmmaking changed towards the end of the 1930s, Vorkapich's style of montage came to seem outmoded and was decreasingly in demand. During the war he directed propaganda shorts for Frederick Ullman, Jr.'s This is America series, and afterwards returned only once more to Hollywood, dispatching Cornel Wilde's Chopin on a triumphal pan-European tour in A Song to Remember. Thereafter he withdrew into academia, taking up a teaching post at the University of Southern California. In the 1950s, he returned for a while to his native Yugoslavia, where he taught at the Belgrade Academy, acted as artistic adviser at the Avala Film Studios and directed his sole feature film, Hanka. Towards the end of his life, Vorkapich gave a series of public lectures expounding his theory of film as an autonomous visual language. They attracted large and prestigious audiences, not least for Vorkapich's iconoclastic readiness to lambaste some of the most revered names of cinema (Eisenstein, Ford, Bergman) for what he saw as technical incompetence. For a while, he was considered one of the great film theoreticians, though since his death his reputation has faded. But his influence remains strong on mainstream Hollywood editing and narrative techniques, both directly via his montage-editor successors like Peter Ballbusch and Don Siegel, and more widely on editors and cinematographers in general. To a large extent, those same slick, well-oiled narrative conventions that today's audiences take so much for granted can be traced back to Vorkapich's trailblazing work.

—Philip Kemp

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