ADVENTURES WITH D. W. GRIFFITH
By Karl Brown (1973)
by KEVIN BROWNLOW
Karl Brown was an eyewitness to the most momentous occasions in the history of the cinema—the making of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. As assistant cameraman to the great G. W. Bitzer, Karl Brown was on the firing line of all the D. W. Griffith pictures from 1913 until Broken Blossoms and Griffith’s departure for New York. Following his years with Griffith, Karl Brown joined Famous Players-Lasky and gained a firm place in the history books for his remarkable photography of The Covered Wagon (a second volume is in production dealing with Famous Players, James Cruze, Roscoe Arbuckle . . .). Fie turned director in 1926, and it was his first directorial assignment, Stark Love, that led indirectly to the writing of this book.
Stark Love was a documentary-style feature, shot entirely in the mountains of North Carolina, among a people scarcely aware of civilization. The film had been lost in America, but it had been preserved by Myrtil Frida of the Czech Film Archive. He considered it one of the finest silent films ever made. I shared his enthusiasm and wrote an article for Finn magazine entitled “How Could We Forget a Film Like This.” The Czech archive eventually presented its original print to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a result of my article, the museum called me at the American Film Institute in California; could I find out if Karl Brown was still alive. The people I checked with were uncertain, but the American Society of Cinematographers were of the opinion that he had died in the nineteen thirties. Karl Brown was someone I had dreamed of meeting ever since I first saw a tinted print of The Covered Wagon; his breathtaking photography (so despoiled in grainy dupes) combined qualities of Mathew Brady and Frederic Remington. Having spent months hunting directors and cameramen of the silent era in Hollywood, I was convinced that were Karl Brown alive, someone would have told me. I reported back to the museum that I had no positive news, and soon afterward returned to England. When the American Film Institute presented Stark Love at its Washington theater, archivist David Shepard tried to find out about Karl Brown for himself.
He contacted historian George Mitchell, who, as a former army intelligence officer, did the obvious thing. He simply looked him up in the Los Angeles telephone directory. There was one Karl Brown. The number, however, was disconnected. Was it the same Karl Brown And was he still alive. Mitchell succeeded in tracing the assistant cameraman on Stark Love, Robert Pittack, who confirmed that he had been in touch with Brown four years earlier. Mitchell was hard at work on a film, however, and since he lived some distance from Los Angeles, he had no opportunity to continue the search. When I returned from England, he suggested I take up the hunt. From that point, in December 1969, I subordinated all other activities to the search for Karl Brown, which was as frustrating and as obsessive as the one in Citizen Kane. The ending, however, was considerably more rewarding. It turned out that Karl Brown was living with his wife in North Hollywood. He had retired after fifty years in the motion-picture business, having achieved his aim: “obscurity on a comfortable income.” If I feel little remorse at having shattered this obscurity, it is because he proved such a gold mine of vital information. Every visit with a tape recorder produced astonishing material. It soon became clear, however, that no amount of interviewing would result in the fidelity and precision that Brown could provide himself. If only he could be persuaded to write a book … I remembered with gloom his remark that he had abandoned writing and that he used his typewriter only for his checks. Nevertheless, at the urging of historian Jay Leyda, I mentioned the matter in a letter. As usual, Karl Brown was way ahead of me. His reply was a carefully thought-out list of chapters and their contents. The project was under way almost before I had gathered the courage to bring it up. This pattern continued as the book was written: Brown always seemed to know what was happening before I had told him. He turned the book out in record time. Each chapter arrived on its own, impeccably typed, and so carefully structured that the term “editing” became a euphemism for a cozy afternoon’s read. “I am keeping away from all cinema research,” he wrote, “for the simple reason that I want to keep my memory ‘pure,’ if that’ makes sense. I cannot permit this book to be a pastiche of carefully rewritten quotes. What’s the thing we used to say about that? ‘Steal from one and it’s plagiarism; steal from two and it’s research; steal from fifty and it’s scholarship.’”
Brown asked me to correct whatever howlers there might be with extensive footnotes, but his extraordinary memory provides few opportunities for additions or corrections. He has provided so much new information that most published sources are rendered obsolete. The book is indisputably authentic. In my opinion, it represents the most exciting, the most vivid, and the most perceptive volume of reminiscence ever published on the cinema. (It is also one of the few that bears no trace of a ghost writer.) Instead of reciting bare facts. Brown has given the events the kind of vitality that Griffith would have admired. His word portraits bring the people to life in such a way that film history will never seem the same again. The book will have a particular appeal to those setting out to make their own films. For this is a dramatic, and often hilarious, story of a boy trying to cope with a complex technical process and helping to make history. It will have a much wider appeal than the majority of film books, for it is basically about people. And above all, like the best films, it is extremely entertaining. Everyone who loves the cinema should be profoundly grateful that when D. W. Griffith was working on his greatest pictures, Karl Brown was there—on our behalf.
Few Selections “Adventures With D.W. Griffith”
“These rehearsals, in which everything was not only worked out but thought out to the finest detail, told everybody everything about everything. Huck came away knowing exactly what sets to build and how to build them. De-Lacey had a clear picture in his mind of everything that would be needed. He could set about ordering the stuff to be sent out at any time. This would call for hunting and rummaging in secondhand shops, pawnshops, or even cellars and attics of old-timers who had such things cluttering their barns and outbuildings. Even Bitzer had ample foreknowledge of the sort of scenes he would have to light, and he could begin to plan how to go about it, what he might need in the way of extra equipment, and everything else. Sometimes Bitzer would say, “Mr. Griffith, with Miss Marsh crowded into a corner like that we won’t be able to see her face.” Griffith never resented intelligent questions. “Let’s see, now,” he’d answer musingly. “If we see her face, it will be Mae Marsh washing dishes. If we see only her back and arms, it will be every woman in the audience washing dishes. We’ll play it with her back to the camera.”
Griffith’s dialect, if such it could be called, fascinated me. His was not the regional speech of Kentucky, which has a recognizable quality all its own. It was more of a personal idiom. Lillian Gish was spoken of as Miss Geeesh, very long-drawn-out. A bomb was always a boom, and a girl was always a gell. In normal conversation his voice was low, slow-paced, and assured, but at the times when he was directing and needed a certain amount of overstatement in a scene, he would become histrionic, almost hammy in his utterances.
The Clansman aka The Birth of a Nation
A villain was labeled, “This is a villain: hate him,” as clearly as though he had worn a sign to that effect around his neck. Walter Long became a terrifying monster as Gus, the black rapist-murderer. Walter made no effort to look like a real Negro. He put on the regular minstrel-man blackface makeup, so there could be no mistake about who and what he was. Lillian Gish was the perfection of Wordsworth’s poetic dream of the dawn, like a nun, breathless with adoration.
Mae Marsh was her own adorable self, a prankish little hoyden cute as a bug’s ear, the sort of kid sister everyone would love to have. Elmer Clifton was a gay young blade in his brave blue-and-gold, the beau ideal of the gallant youth of song and story. Walthall was nobility personified, representing all the best in human nature, untainted by the slightest stigma of the worst. The Little Colonel would fight, yes, but only in defense of his sacred homeland. He never killed anyone, even in the heat of battle. He was content to charge the enemy, ram the flag into their cannon’s mouth, and then retire to his ruined mansion, covered with honor and with very little else, such being the fruits of defeat. But he bore his disaster bravely as a gentleman should, never complaining, never repining. And so on throughout the length of the picture.
Type-casting absolutely, not because Griffith wanted it so but because his audience, that million-headed but single-hearted monster, had to have its villains and its heroes clearly labeled so it could know whom to cheer for and whom to hiss. I now felt secure about Griffith and his Clansman, however revolting the original story might be. Griffith controlled his studio and everyone in it. There was no doubt of that. But the peanuts-and-popcorn audience controlled Griffith, and as long as he lived, thought, and had his being with the strictest of compliance with their unspoken wishes, he could do no wrong.
Hearts of the World
Another time Griffith’s obsession with music showed itself was when we took a very long shot of the battlefield strewn with dead and with Lillian Gish running from corpse to corpse, looking for her beloved.* Correction: she fluttered from corpse to corpse. A lot of little quick steps, a pause, a look, then some more quick little fluttering steps, another look, and so on.
It was during the making of this scene that Griffith exclaimed, with a sense of sudden inspiration, that the Lohengrin Wedding March, the familiar “Here Comes the Bride,” was in exactly the same time and rhythm of the equally familiar Funeral March from the Chopin sonata. It seemed to astonish him that two such opposite sentiments, the extreme of happiness and the extreme of grief, should be couched in exactly the same musical terms, except that one was in the major mode, the other in the minor. These are the sort of peripheral observations that somehow cling to the mind.
Another was the time when I went to the camera room for something and found Bitzer there with Frank Woods, Barry, and that man of mystery, Harry Aitken. I don’t know what had gone before, but Bitzer was saying, “Oh sure. Why not. The money’s doing you no good. Get it for you soon as the bank opens in the morning.” I think it must have been Aitken who asked, “Why not give us a check now.” Save you all that trouble.” “I don’t have a checking account. It’s all in savings. Don’t worry. I’ll get you the ten thousand tomorrow morning and that’s a promise.” “We need it now, for the payroll.” Bitzer shook his head. “Sorry. It’s past four. Bank’s closed.” “We’ll open it. Come on. Let’s go.” They hustled him out toward the car waiting outside. It struck me then, for the first time, that there was more to making a picture than shooting long shots and close-ups. There was also the matter of finding the money to pay for everything that went into the making of a picture, and this could be a severe problem with a producer like Griffith throwing money right and left with both hands.
Daphne and the Pirate
The expansion of the studio accelerated at an explosive rate. More directors, more cameramen came and went with dizzying frequency. Billy Fildew was taken out of the projection room and given a camera. I was with him on his first picture, serving as second, or back-up, cameraman.
The picture was Daphne and the Pirate, starring, of all people, Lillian Gish! It seemed unimaginable that so sensationally successful a beautiful young star could be cast in a swashbuckling sea story directed by Christy Cabanne, but there it was. I think the decision to make this particular picture was influenced by the fact that there were two old square riggers available from the Ince company. One, the Alden Bessie, was a round-bottomed whaler, the other a sharp-prowed clipper, the John C. Fremont.
So we put to sea, not in a pea-green boat but with pea-green complexions that everyone developed as soon as the ground swell caught these empty old hulks and started them well on their way toward a new world’s record for plain-and-fancy rolling. Few if any experiences can be less enjoyable than rolling under a broiling sun in an ancient whaler, reeking of the fishiest of stenches, that of whale oil that had gone rancid fifty years ago and that was becoming more and more rancid by the minute.
One incident that impressed me as being typical of our sudden change from the lowly movie to the lofty cinema was the time when Cabanne asked our leading man, Elliott Dexter, to walk the plank as called for in the script. Whereupon our hero spoke with crushing dignity, “I was engaged as a personator, sir; not as an acrobat!” Whereupon Tom Wilson, playing a bandanned, ear-ringed pirate, spoke contemptuously, “Aw, hell, we’ll do it. Gimme his clothes.” The change was made, the scene was shot, and nobody knew the difference when the scene reached the screen.
Constance Talmadge, who had played a fancy dressed-up part in the French episode, was playing a rough, tough, onion-chewing hoyden in this one. She was so wonderfully well liked that nobody ever thought of calling her Miss Talmadge. She was Connie, and she loved it. Connie had to drive her chariot all over everywhere in a wild ride to the rescue of someone, somewhere, who seemed to be in a lot of trouble, nobody knew just what.
Anyway, we got the rides to the rescue all safely on film and maybe later Griffith would come up with someone in dire need of rescuing. We ran the Assyrian army forward, backward, sideways, and crosswise. We shot them in close-ups and long shots, on the land and splashing through the water. I even took a chance on shooting one onrushing scene with a K-3, or deep-yellow filter, and then double-exposing a crescent moon into the resultantly dark sky, together with a wisp of cloud moving over the moon. Luckily everything balanced out and the shot went into the picture.
When we ran out of things to do with the Assyrian army, we went back to the studio and did some shots of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, all to the tune of Walt Whitman’s poetry, which Griffith recited with great feeling and surprisingly good delivery, considering how outstandingly lousy he was as an actor. It must have been one of his good days. Then we did shots of the Three Fates, hooded old women sitting in a row. One spins a web of yarn from a whirling distaff, the second measures it out more or less at random, while the third snips the cord with a pair of sheep shears. This was Life itself, in the making, the living, and the ending.
Woodbury knew the names of all three, but I could remember only the name of the third, which was Atropos, whose snipping shears made such a gruesome sound that Griffith exclaimed, “Gahhhd! If we could only get that sound. He had said that very same thing once before, when the cross was lying flat on the ground in the Biblical story, and the Nazarene, spread-eagled, was being nailed with heavy spikes driven by a heavy hammer into the solid timbers, which gave out a deep-ringing sound that still makes my flesh crawl whenever I remember that moment.
“Gahhhd! If we could only get that sound!” Well, he could have had it. Everyone could have had it. Sound came first, with the Edison phonograph. Pictures with sound came second when Edison tried, unsuccessfully, to coordinate the two. The two had been joined by others, and the sound-and-picture combination had been demonstrated many years earlier. Yes, and color, too. But nobody wanted it. Pictures were selling well as they were. Let well enough alone . .