A Short History of the Movies (Home Sweet Home) – Gerald Mast 1971

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • FIFTH EDITION REVISED BY Bruce F. Kawin
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The way to improve film acting was not just to make the actors underplay but to let cinematic technique help the actors act. A camera can move in so close to an actor’s face that the blinking of an eye or the flicker of a smile can become a significant and sufficient gesture. Or the field of view can cut from the actor to the subject of the actor’s thoughts or attention, thereby revealing the emotion without requiring a grotesque, overstated thump on the chest. Film acting before Griffith—and before his greatest star, Lillian Gish—not only in the Film d’Art but in Melies and Porter and Hepworth as well, had been so bad precisely because the camera had not yet learned to help the actors.

Home Sweet Home

One of Griffith’s program pictures for Mutual, Home, Sweet Home, showed where Griffith had been and indicated where he was to go. Like the later Intolerance, Home, Sweet Home uses four strands of action. Unlike the later film, Griffith does not weave the strands together but keeps them separate, using only the leitmotif of the song, “Home, Sweet Home,” to unite the four stories, just as the wandering Pippa’s song unites the incidents of Pippa Passes, in the framing story of Home, Sweet Home, the composer of the famous song, John Howard Payne, deserts home, mother, and sweetheart for the big city. There he falls to wenching, drinking, degeneracy, and poverty, summoning up just enough of his old home spirit to write his famous song. Payne later dies of unspecified causes in a foreign land, and his hometown sweetheart dies at the same time, presumably from ESP.

Home Sweet Home

The second story in the film is the most delightful. An Eastern slicker falls in love with the earthy, out-west hashslinger, Apple Pie Mary, played energetically by Mae Marsh. Griffith adds a human, comic touch when Mary first sees the slicker; she immediately starts pulling the curlers out of her hair, revealing her attraction to him. When he later returns to her, she goes through the curler business again. In this section, the Easterner is about to reject Apple Pie Mary (two different worlds) when he hears a fiddler playing “Home, Sweet Home.” He rushes back to her—a delightful reunion scene with her crawling under the bed to hide from him—and they marry to live happily ever after. Interestingly, this section, the comic, earthy, rural sequence of the film, is the most entertaining part of it; Griffith repeatedly demonstrates that his best film subjects are those he intimately knew and loved.

The third section of Home, Sweet Home is a melodramatic Cain-and-Abel story in which brother murders brother. Their mother, about to commit suicide after the dual slaughter, hears another fiddler playing “Home, Sweet Home.” She gives up her thoughts of suicide and continues living, now resigned to life. The fourth section of the film is a domestic tale of potential marital infidelity. A young wife flirts with a lascivious admirer; as she is about to run off with him to a sinful amour, she hears a fiddler playing “Home, Sweet Home.” (Those fiddlers are everywhere.) She rejects the lover and returns to her husband, and in the next shot we see the happy couple, aged and gray, surrounded by a bushel of kids.

Lillian Gish – promotional – Home Sweet Home

The implication of all three stories is clearly that Mr. Payne’s song, despite his faulty life, did great good. The film’s epilogue picks up this moral nail and drives it home. We return to Payne in some unclear locale; he is either slaving away in Hell or fighting in a foreign war in which he met his death. Payne’s hometown sweetheart (played by Lillian Gish) appears to him as a white diaphanous angel, superimposed in the heavens. Her image multiplies until there are many images of her fluttering and floating and beckoning from up there; Payne’s image flutters up to join hers. The point Griffith makes is obviously that the results of the man’s work cancel out the depravity of the man’s life; furthermore, that Payne had the potential for good in him (he could write such a song), but the potential was corrupted by decadent, big-city life. There is obviously much that is soft-headed in the film. Griffith announces with his opening title that the film is allegorical and not biographical; but the slender, melodramatic stories and the artificial unifying device (that fiddle) cannot support the film’s ponderous theme.

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