AN EVENING’S ENTERTAINMENT:
THE AGE OF THE SILENT FEATURE PICTURE 1915-1928
By Richard Koszarski 1990
The silent cinema was America’s first modern entertainment industry, a complex social, cultural, and technological phenomenon that swept the early years of the twentieth century with unprecedented force. Audiences in the lavish new movie palaces were thrilled by such landmark films as THE BIRTH OF A NATION, The Gold Rush, and Nanook of the NORTH, and soon they were eagerly following the on- and off-screen activities of a host of glamorous media celebrities.
But there is more to this story than glamour and glitz. In An Evening’s Entertainment, The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915- 1928, Richard Koszarski examines the underlying structures that made the silent-movie era work. From the operations of eastern bankers to the problems of neighborhood theater musicians, he offers a new perspective on the development of a major industry and art form, and provides a revealing new context for the creative contributions of such screen icons as D. W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, and Mary Pickford.
To one observer, Lillian Gish was “a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard.” To another, “She seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Lillian Gish has long inspired her admirers to flights of romantic metaphor, with visions of pale blossoms and fluttering doves recurring over the decades as new audiences discover the rare delicacy and spirit in her performances.
But those who worked with her tend to remember another Gish: a committed artist so intensely wrapped up in her work that her very life might ebb before the cameras if the scene required it. King Vidor, who directed Gish in La Boheme (1926), recalls with trepidation her ability to stop breathing while she played the death of Mimi. Arriving on the set parched and gray, she announced that “she had succeeded in removing all saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquids for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums even in her sleep.” When she breathed her last in the scene, Vidor could only think, What will the headlines say?”
Gish was, of course, a disciple, some say a creation, of D. W. Griffith. From the time she and her sister, Dorothy, first appeared at the Biograph studio in 1912 (to visit their friend Mary Pickford) Lillian Gish was Griffith’s most important performing tool. From short films like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), through nearly all of his great features, Gish delivered the needed balance of strength and fragility. The heroines Griffith offered might have appeared helpless in the face of melodramatic onslaught, but they were not about to whimper and collapse. Sustained by an inner strength, they justified Griffith s vision of a world in which spiritual values always overcame the forces that threatened them. The vision found its greatest exponent in Lillian Gish.
This notion was writ large in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Hearts of the World (1918), and Orphans of the Storm (1922). But consider Gish’s work in True Heart Susie (1919), a nostalgic pastoral where her sacrifices go unnoticed and her opponent is only an uncaring city vamp. The same strength of character serves her here, and without the distractions of rides to the rescue, the clarity and sophistication of her performance are all the more evident.
Gish had remained with Griffith through the production of Orphans of the Storm, but he sent her out on her own when her fame began to exceed his financial resources. For Inspiration Pictures she made two lavish costume romances in Italy The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1925). Then, in 1925, she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for two years at $8,000 per week. From Griffith she had learned the importance of personally supervising each detail of her films, and the attention she lavished on her MGM pictures was soon the talk of Hollywood. She had left the West Coast five years earlier to work with Griffith in New York and had continued her career in Europe. Returning to Hollywood, she was shocked at the rigidity of studio production; the few films she supervised were made with such personal care and conviction that even then they seemed handcrafted and pre-industrial.
Her contract gave her not only the right to choose stories and directors but the ability to rehearse the entire film in advance, as Griffith did, and to employ such technicians as Henrik Sartov, the cinematographer whose gauze work enhanced her ethereal screen presence. Such working methods were far from standard at MGM, and Mayer and Thalberg seemed unhappy, especially when the returns on her pictures proved disappointing.
Griffith had created for her an image of virginal purity, but at MGM Gish began to explore more mature characterizations. While her conception of the love scenes in La Boheme (1926) was based on keeping the lovers always apart (playing on what she called their “suppressed emotion”), the next subject she selected was The Scarlet Letter (1926). Gish notes in her autobiography how this novel had found its way onto a censorial blacklist, and only her personal reputation silenced the pressure groups opposing the filming.
Choosing a Swedish director, Victor Seastrom, and a Swedish co-star, Lars Hanson, Gish succeeded in giving the picture the aura of the early Swedish cinema classics. Time and place became powerful characters, compensating for the necessarily delicate handling of the adultery theme. Gish continued with Seastrom and Hanson on The Wind, now considered one of the finest of silent features but barely released in 1928 during the transition to sound. By then MGM was actively trying to rid itself of Gish’s contract.
In a controversial discussion of MGM’s handling of Greta Garbo and Gish, Louise Brooks suggests that MGM tried to build up the Swedish actress (over whom they had more effective control) in an effort to damage Gish’s position in the industry. Not only was Gish earning a fabulous salary, but she was exercising the sort of control over her pictures that the studio preferred to reserve for itself. At one point, Louis B. Mayer asked her to sign, without legal consultation, a release that would take her off salary until the studio found a suitable vehicle for her. When she demurred, Mayer threatened, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you. ” Gish made one last, ineffective film for MGM, then signed with United Artists for $50,000 a picture, a small fraction of her previous salary.
She returned to the stage, and to a social circle that included Joseph Hergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Carl Van Vechten. Although her later film appearances were few, she continued working into the 1990s as the last great survivor of her generation. Most remarkable of all, Lillian Gish became a roving ambassador for the silent cinema, traveling to distant campuses and film festivals with only one purpose—to bear witness to the “universal language” of film, so powerfully developed by her great director and friend, D. W. Griffith.