Griffith’s Musical Secrets – Picture Play 1922

A New York music critic analyzes Mr. Griffith’s methods of building up his musical settings for such productions as his “Orphans of the Storm,” now being widely shown.

By Charles D. Isaacson

Author of ”Face to Face with Great Musicians,” etc.

Lillian Gish and the music representing her (Kenneth Alexander)

Did you ever realize to what extent music can be used to create additional illusion to that produced by a picture play?

Piano Player Silent Movies

You probably have if after having always seen pictures at some “Little Gem” or “Bijou” theater where they were ground out to the tiresome accompaniament of a thumpy player piano or an untrained piano player, you have had your first opportunity to visit a picture palace with a splendid orchestra – or better still – a Griffith picture, properly presented in a large theater by one of Griffith’s own companies.

New York 1916 (Griffith advert upper right)

For just as Griffith leads all other producers in sounding the farthest depths of human emotions through the screen, he is a master at placing his pictures in the kind of musical setting best calculated to play upon the feelings of his spectators – and audience.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

He was, you may remember, the pioneer producer to send out his own music with his pictures. He started the practice with “The Birth of a Nation,” and it was the talk of the entertainment world – how the Ku-Klux-Klan was ever accompanied by that weird cry in the orchestra. Even when the fighters didn’t appear on the screen, the muffled repetition in the music told the frightened audience that they were close by – in hiding.

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

Recently I went to see Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm.” I had been present in the studios during the making of part of that production, and now, if Mr. Griffith doesn’t mind, I am going to tell some of his musical secrets, for I have talked with him about music, found him a great lover of it, and being utterly immersed in the subject myself I have come to look upon David Griffith as an important element in American music.

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

For the purpose of pointing out the growing possibilities of screen music, I want to attempt a brief analysis of the score of “Orphans of the Storm” and then to show how by a reverse process how a similar picture would be “musicalized” by the David W. Griffith method.

Griffith’s musical secrets are threefold.

  1. He realizes that he can foretell the actual dramatic idea with an appropriate and familiar bit of melody.
  2. He knows that there is a memory sense in his audience which permits him to further enhance the characterizations of his player by giving each a distinctive musical theme which always accompanies that person.
  3. He has acquired the ability to give voice to the action, the mood, the idea which dominates each episode, and thus to intensify each mood.
The Greatest Question - Sheet Music
The Greatest Question – Sheet Music

Let us see what each of these secret amounts to, what it points to, and how it can be used in other connections.

By means of the first idea Griffith places his audience in a certain state of mind in advance of the screen demonstration, and so makes it easier for the screen to create its atmosphere. In “Orphans of the Storm” the secret is used in several instances. At the opening of the show the orchestra plays an overture, composed of French popular airs familiar in the days of the drama. Then comes a dead pause; the house becomes pitch dark.

Cinema old

We expect to see the title flash on the screen – but it doesn’t come. A thunder roll by the drums and the entire orchestra predicts turmoil, excitement, plunder. This roll is used to show tyranny and selfishness. It puts the audience in the mood of watching a great masterpiece built around the French revolutionary period.

In Griffith’s “Way Down East,” at this juncture, you may recall that a plaintive violin solo played “Home, Sweet Home.” It was so unexpected, so simple, so familiar and tender, that the whole audience felt like crying, remembering the old days of home, sweet home. The device could not have been bettered. Its very simplicity provided the genius of the creator. Consider the situation. The audience, excited, eager to see this great masterpiece which it was heard so much about, ready to criticize, to find fault, and to underestimate is suddenly grabbed by the heartstrings, and told by the subtlest of processes: “This is a simple, home story.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith directing Lillian in Way Down East — with D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.

Scene from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

And so, when the screen lights up after about two minutes of this sort of music, and  there is disclosed a little country street, a small house, and the parlor of an old fashioned home, the atmosphere is already established. The scene becomes idealized, intensified, made heroic in its way.

Griffith’s secret there was in finding the keynote to his story – the “Home, Sweet Home” idea – the idyllic character of the drama, and in advance, setting his audience in the frame of mind to understand. What was coming thought of the audience? Is it war and revenge as in “The Birth of a Nation?” Is it a quavering tragedy as in “Broken Blossoms?” What is it? “Well, here it is,” says Griffith, and everybody settles back, in the proper frame of mind.

In this newer and grander picture, “It is war, hate, turmoil!” announces the orchestra, and the audience settles back, ready for it.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

This, in a certain sense is equivalent to the prologue before the big feature appears on the screen, which is so rapidly coming into wide use. Of course, “Orphans of the Storm,” being an evening’s full entertainment, is sufficient unto itself; but in the varied program, the prologue seeks to establish a state of mind in advance of the picture. (At least, it is supposed to do – though it seems to me that only the good saints above can figure out what most of the prologues are accomplishing in this direction.)

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo

This “channelizing” of the minds of the audience is not confined to the beginning of the picture. Griffith also uses it at the beginning of each important episode throughout the drama. In the “Orphans” there is pompous music for the ravishing lawn fete when the members of royalty are exhibited in their lasciviousness and lust and the introduction of Beethoven Minuet when they dance the minuet, is one of the fascinating moments of the picture and adds distinct charm and quaintness so necessary to make the particular atmosphere.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

There is sad, mournful, soulful and longing music when the beggars cringe and moan and loll about in their hunger and filth.

Orphans - Chevalier March - Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters
Orphans – Chevalier March – Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters

There is beautiful Schubert “Serenade” ever present when Chevalier de Vaudrey touchingly and tenderly makes love to Henriette Girard, which fairly makes the onlookers feel every atom of his intensity of affection for her.

Picture Play (Street & Smith, June 1922) Griffith musical secrets

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