In November 1960 a beautiful play came to the Belasco. Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, starred Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Colleen Dewhurst, and Aline MacMahon. It etched with feeling the impact of a young fathers death on his family. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season. In April 1930 producer Jed Harris, known as the boy wonder, returned from London and produced and directed an acclaimed revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Mrs. Ben Hecht (Rose Caylor). Harris’s direction and the acting of his sterling cast, Lillian Gish, Osgood Perkins, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli Joanna Roos, and others, made the occasion a theatrical event. A dramatization of the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders, Nine Pine Street, had a fine performance by Lillian Gish as the neurotic killer, but it only ran a few weeks in 1933. The National had a series of failures and quick bookings during 1932 and 1933 and was dark for more than a year during those gray Depression days. But on October 22, 1934, a distinguished drama opened at this theatre. It was Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates, directed by Melvyn Douglas and starring Lillian Gish as a prostitute, Bramwell Fletcher as a poet, and Moffat Johnston as a bishop. The play took place in London’s Hyde Park, and the very large cast represented the great variety of humanity who spent their days in the park.
Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide
The extraordinary part of Griffith is that he has never ceased to be a pioneer. He continues to advance. He dares to present novelties of form and novelties of material. He does not always get away with it, but he keeps right on pioneering. He is a long ways from dead, and already the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy has crawled out of its narrow cell and taken a new form in the hexagonal debate as to who invented the close-up.
the tale (Broken Blossoms) runs as written except for the very finish, with Lucy dragging out her cowering little life by the London waterside, beaten into semi-imbecility by her accidental father, picked up, reverenced, honored and enthroned by the lonely opium- eater, and at length slain in a monstrous moment of mock-virtue by the insensate chunk that caused her to come into the world. Then the beast dies before the Chinaman’s gun, the Chinaman dies upon his own knife, and the cycle is finished. There is a satisfaction in the death of all three that is an unconscious verification of both its art and its truth. Burrows the battler should not survive the weak little thing he made and slew, and for the yellow man to go on living would have been a hideous hell.
I first met Lillian Gish at the Blackstone Hotel in December 1920, when she came to Chicago for the local opening of Way Down East at the Woods Theater. I did not meet Dorothy until January 1922, when both she and Lillian came for the opening of Orphans of the Storm and occupied the box just behind mine at the Great Northern Theater.
The meeting in Chicago referred to at the end of my discussion occurred, again at the Blackstone and later at the railroad station, when Lillian and her mother stopped off between trains when she was on her way to the Coast to take up her M-G-M contract. It is interesting to reflect that of the roles I mention in my penultimate paragraph as being naturals for her, Ophelia is the only one she ever had a chance to play. This was in the famous 1936 New York stage production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, in which John Gielgud was the Hamlet and Judith Anderson the Queen. As early as 1936 however, Edward Steichen had taken a marvelous portrait of her as Ophelia.
America’s experience of film is virtually unique in that in almost every other country, the impact of film cannot be separated from the process or at least the specter of Americanization, In America, film in no sense represents something external; it is simply American. But what is American about American film?
For a decade or so after the first film exhibitions in 1895, film shows presented a grab bag of travelogues, news films, filmed vaudeville acts, trick films, and gag films. The audience for film in America was disproportionately urban and was made up of recent immigrants, largely from eastern Europe. (The extent to which that was true is a subject of some contention among film historians.) In a sense, film has been involved, even in America, in a process of Americanization – “naturalizing” recent arrivals, teaching them how Americans live (and also breaking down regional differences, a process that television has taken over with a vengeance). However, following the sudden growth of nickelodeons in 1908, exhibitions were skewed to be more “upscale.” The theatrical narrative – especially adaptations of “legitimate” novels and stage plays – became the dominant form of film in America, as it has remained to this day. Griffith’s early films made for the Biograph Company were clearly intended for an audience of Americans who, like Griffith himself, could take for granted the fact, if not the meaning, of their Americanness.
But then again, virtually all Americans either are born as non-Americans or are recent descendants of non-Americans. One might think that there could be no such thing as a specifically American culture, but that is not the case. In the nineteenth century, for example, what is called transcendentalism — the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, the stories and novels of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Henry James, the poetry of Whitman — is quintessentially American. However, this example underscores a distinctive feature of American intellectual and cultural life. There was no nineteenth-century French philosopher approaching Emerson’s stature, but had there been, young French men and women today, as part of the experience of growing up French, would be taught his or her words by heart and learn to take them to heart. But in the process of growing up American, young men and women are not taught and do not in this way learn Emerson’s words or the value of those words. Americans, as compared with the English or French or Chinese or Japanese, are unconscious of the history of thought and artistic creation in their own country – unconscious of the sources, American and foreign, of their own ideas.
The American and foreign roots of nineteenth-century American philosophy and literature cannot be disentangled: This is part of what makes that work so American, as is the fact that it takes the identity of America to be a central subject. What America is, where it has come from, and what its destiny may be are central themes through which American culture has continually defined itself. In the crucial period from 1908 to the country’s entrance into World War I, the period when narrative film was taking root, American film took up this question of America’s identity, culminating in The Birth of a Nation, the film that definitively demonstrated to the American public the awesome power that movies could manifest. Indeed, in the work of D. W. Griffith, the dominant figure of American film during those years, America’s destiny and the destiny of film were fatefully joined.
Griffith started out with an idealistic vision: America’s destiny was to save the world, and film’s destiny was to save America. By the time of The Birth of a Nation, however, he had drawn closer to the more ambiguous, darker vision of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. He had made the disquieting discovery that in affirming innocence, the camera violates innocence; however idealistic their intention, movies touch what is base as well as what is noble in our souls. This knowledge, with which he struggled his entire career, is Griffith’s most abiding — if least recognized – legacy to American film.
Griffith’s attitude toward modern ideas, especially concerning the role of women, was ambivalent. That ambivalence was most pointedly expressed in the tension between his flowery, moralistic intertitles and the dark mysteries he conjured with his camera. Griffith combined a Victorian conviction that it was proper for women to be submissive with a profound respect for the intelligence, imagination, and strength of the women in his films. And what remarkable women he had the intuition to film! As I ponder Griffith’s spellbinding visions of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and others, I am struck equally by the voraciousness of his desire for women and his uncanny capacity to identify with them.
After the war, the American film industry grew to international dominance. The postwar Hollywood in which Griffith struggled fruitlessly to reclaim his preeminence clearly allied itself with the libertarian spirit of the “Jazz Age.” But with all their glamor and spectacle, their Latin lovers, flappers, and “It” girls, Hollywood films of the twenties never really made clear what that spirit was, nor its sources, nor the grounds of its opposition to orthodox ideas, nor the identity of the orthodoxy it was opposing. Following the withdrawal or repression of Griffith’s seriousness of purpose, the years from the end of the war to the late twenties are the obscurest period in the history of American film.
We are taught that that was the “Golden Age of Silent Film,” the age when film became a glorious international art and language. Yet those were also the years when Hollywood’s power over the world’s film production, and its hold on the world’s film audiences, came closest to being absolute. Strangely, except for the occasional cause celebre, such as von Stroheim’s Greed, the magnificent comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, and Murnau’s Sunrise (which, together with Chaplin’s City Lights, provided the swan song for that era), no American film of that period still has an audience (beyond a core of hardened film buffs), even among film students.
Coming at a time of creative crisis, the simultaneous traumas of the new sound technology and the Great Depression (which brought about changes in studio organization and ownership) disrupted the continuity of American film history. There was an influx of personnel — directors, actors, writers, producers – from the New York stage (and, increasingly, from abroad, as political conditions worsened in Europe). By and large, the Broadway imports (unlike the Europeans) were unlettered in film. They approached the new medium with ideas whose sources were to be found elsewhere than in the history of earlier film achievements. Then again, “the talkies” were a new medium for everyone, even for movie veterans for whom filmmaking had been their education.
When Hollywood movies began to speak, no one could foresee the new genres that would emerge. It took several years of experimentation, of testing the limits, before a new system of production was securely in place and a stable new landscape of genres and stars became discernible.
American political movies : an annotated filmography of feature films
AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVIES
An Annotated Filmography of Feature Films
James Combs (1990)
GARLAND PUBLISHING, INC. NEW YORK & LONDON – 1990
Historians of the motion picture are fond of telling stories of the reactions of the earliest audiences to the new medium as it emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. We are still amused by the uncomprehending awe with which they greeted this spectacular experience. People ran from the theater in terror from trains approaching on the screen. Others ducked and screamed when a gun was fired at the audience. But most appear to have simply been transfixed, sitting and gazing in silent wonder at this visual marvel that brought worlds of sights, and very quickly stories, beyond their everyday existence. Some observers of these brave new “moving pictures” were exultant. “The universal language has been found!” exclaimed a spectator at an early Lumiére film.
The propaganda films made pacifists either cowards or naive fools, and associated the willingness to fight and die as the test of a “manly” patriotism that not only won battles but also women’s hearts and men’s admiration. The crucible of war not only would purge us of selfish or weak impulses, it also served a democratizing and moralizing purpose by bringing men together in egalitarian military camaraderie and offered an opportunity for moral regeneration of slackers, effete lounge lizards, and the sons of the idle rich. In other words, these films offered a vision of war that served domestic Progressive purposes of “moral democracy” making not only the world, but also America, safe for Wilson’s grand vision.
Perhaps the most ambitious of these war films, Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) is still representative enough. Shot at the behest of the British government and with Wilson’s blessing, even though he began work on it before American entry, Griffith’s story (some of it actually shot at the front) includes murderous German troops, a rape-minded German officer with designs on Lillian Gish, the mistreatment of French civilians, a French girl flogged by a boorish German sergeant, and rescue from the Hun by brave French troops. (Griffith may have overdone it: when the movie was viewed at the White House, apparently neither President nor Mrs. Wilson cared much for it.) The overall impact of these propaganda films was such that it solidified a tradition of military cooperation that would only begin to break down in the 60s.
Griffith’s famous Birth of A Nation (1915) is of interest to us here on two counts: first, because of the immediate political furor that arose over the movie, and second, because of the reactionary populism inherent in his interpretation of “progressive” history that would shape the reform program of Wilson, literally “re-forming” the State around a conception of the major political crisis of the recent past as it gave “birth” to a new society. In this view (shared in more sophisticated form by Wilson himself), the industrial North defeated the plantation South, but unleashed an uncivilized force in the freed slaves and their carpetbagger masters bent on revenge and greed. In order to restore a civilized and virtuous community, they were stopped by the vigilante action of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring the peace and virtue of community and family. The two families, one Northern and the other Southern, who reconcile and intermarry at the end stand as metaphors for the reunion of the nation founded on the natural sentiments of home and family, defeating the evils of cold-hearted-industrialism (exemplified by the Radical Republican Senator Stoneman) and alien forces (exemplified by miscegenation: villains are either mulattoes or black).
The film was an immediate sensation, and inspired protests by black and liberal groups incensed by the blatant racism of the story. With Birth, observers began to sense that the movies’ power to make a political statement and shape political consciousness was greater than anyone anticipated. Birth gave imaginative shape to not only a Progressive interpretation of the past, but also as a parable of the politics of the present. Not only did it justify the “Jim Crow” laws of the time, it also warned of the dangers of a manipulative industrial elite using power to destroy traditional bourgeois life so dear to the hearts of mythologists such as Griffith. Wilson was a spokesman for that tradition who sought, like the powerless but respectable white men of Birth, to restore a sane and understandable political order that reflected the values, and power, of the large middle class that saw itself as the backbone of the country. Birth was not only, as Wilson was supposed to have remarked, “History written in lightning”; it was also Progressive politics written in lightning, offering a parable of the righteous power of Wilson’s middle-class voting base standing for the virtue of the family-based middle against the plutocracy on the one hand and a degenerate proletariat on the other, and the possibility of a conspiratorial coalition of the two. Progressive order would now be restored, as it was in the movie, not only by concerted political action by the “good people” of the community, but by moral regeneration symbolized by the triumph of familial rectitude and the vision of pristine peace and order governed by the principles of Christ (this, recall, after bloody racial war and vigilante murder). But in the political visions of Griffith and Wilson, violence, like reform legislation, could be used both ruthlessly and morally for the Progressive cause. Birth represents something of the nostalgic and “reactionary” element in Progressivism, uniting on screen both the cinematic and political imagination of a restored and regenerate moral order.
There is an odd sense in which the Twenties thought things foreign both a threat and a promise. For all of the audience interest in foreign aristocratic elegance, the recent bitter experience of World War I and the rise of alien doctrines such as communism in the new Soviet Union inspired moviemakers to provide negative treatment of both. The most sustained cautionary tale about the dangers of the Russian Revolution is Griffith’s parable, Orphans of the Storm (1922). Set in the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries are shown to be self-serving, vengeful, cruel, lust-crazed and murderous. The movie was shown at the Harding White House, and Griffith compared the “tyranny of small but aggressive parties” (presumably the Jacobins) who parallels a “similar condition (that) exists in Russia today.” The capitalist American fear of communism was not only economic, it was also moral, contrasting the “mobocracy” of the French Revolution as antithetical to the moderate bourgeois democracy of the United States. Russian Bolshevism, like Jacobinism before it, was characterized as an aberrant and twisted grab for power without true popular roots or legitimate purpose, a theme that would persist in political movies down to the present, justifying hostility to Soviet power and interests.
Both Wilson and Griffith were essentially imbued with the romantic sentimentality at the core of popular Victorianism, so dealing with the onslaught of modern urban and industrial change was difficult but compelling for them. Much of Griffith’s work deals with the tensions wrought by modernity, always coming to a resolution in which traditional morality is upheld even in the roughest of circumstances. Griffith’s subsequent work represents some of the periodic political tensions that emerged with the fear, shared by rural folk and urban reformers, that modernity would bring chaotic consequences. Many of his films, from the early Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to “The Mother and the Law” section of his masterpiece Intolerance (1916) and subsequent films such as Way Down East (1920), deal with the “postlapsarian” world of modernity and how the moral order of “prelapsarian” tradition can be saved from ruin.
What is fascinating to the political observer of the times is that both Wilson and Griffith were eclipsed by events, Wilson by World War I and the impulse toward modern life that the war speeded up, and Griffith as an anachronism in the Twenties making movies about the very pastoral life and morality that the Progressive Era and the war had done so much to destroy. Intolerance is of interest not only because it is one of the greatest of all films, but also because of its immediate political eclipse and subsequent political influence. Griffith’s theme is injustice through the ages, in which innocent ordinary folk are subjected to the abuses of the powerful and haughty. His populist roots show in his depiction of the social tension between wealthy industrialists and their “society” wives against the innocent pursuits and urban travails of the new working class. But his Wilsonian ties also are clear, in that both ancient and modern rulers can be just if they are on the side of popular morality, including familial autonomy from a meddlesome, elite-sponsored welfare state and protection from the predatory powers of both industrial magnates and vice lords.
Griffith, like Wilson, still retained a kind of sentimental idealism that suggested a political coalition between benevolent authority and the virtuous individual could produce social harmony without disturbing the actual concentration of power in industrial and social elites. Still, one reason given for the box office failure of Intolerance was that the new urban middle classes just discovering movie going didn’t like the theme of industrial strife which placed culpability clearing on the shoulders of greedy and hypocritical industrialists. Too, Intolerance not only included some of the more explosive Progressive criticisms of the arrogance of power, it also proceeded on pacifist sentiment and concluded with a moving Utopian vision of a world without war. When Griffith began making the film in 1915, much of the public agreed with this sentiment, and Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the claim of moral superiority over the warring nations of Europe, declaring that we were “too proud to fight.” But by the time the film was released late in 1916, the public mood and political realities had changed to a bellicose and interventionist stance, and Griffith’s views seemed curiously and outdated.
Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 1925-11: Vol 19 Iss 8
BULLETIN OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO NOVEMBER NINETEEN TWENTY-FIVE VOLUME XIX Number 8
THIRTY-EIGHTH ANNUAL AMERICAN EXHIBITION
Thirty-eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture opens on October 29, to remain in the East Wing until December 13. This exhibition is always awaited and received with great interest, for it is index of the year’s achievements. Selected on a basis of individual excellence, it works as a group representative of the various tendencies and schools which determine the direction of American painting and sculpture. The present exhibition contains at least two works which will be hung in the permanent collections of the Art Institute, for there are shown for the first time a painting purchased for the museum by the Friends of American Art, William Glackens’ “Chez Mouquin,” and Nicholai Fechin’s portrait of Lillian Gish as Romola, purchased from the Goodman Fund. Mr Fechin, a Russian by birth, an American by adoption, will be remembered for his one-man show held in 1924, when he gave proof of a highly individual technique, linked with a national tradition. In the portrait of Lillian Gish, the Russian is subordinate to the individual, and we find a double feat, a painter’s appreciation of another artist’s interpretation of her. The pathos and grace which the actress brought to her part are retained, and this added an element lacking on the screen color. The lavender gown, heavy red books, and polychrome background are used for their full decorative possibilities. “Chez Mouquin” is an early work by William J. Glackens, definitely dated as to the decade it represents, and quite different in manner from the artist’s later more dashing style.
“During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. “ (Lillian Gish)
Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract. Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches. His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.
*** Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.
New York : the movie lover’s guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York
New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide
Richard Alleman (2005)
Broadway Books New York
An original trade paperback edition of this book was published in 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It is here reprinted by arrangement with Richard Alleman.
THE ULTIMATE INSIDER TOUR OF MOVIE NEW YORK
Believing that film was “the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century,” former MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. established the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, and immediately sent curator Iris Barry on a special mission to Hollywood to drum up support for his innovative undertaking. There, at a party given by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair, their lavish Beverly Hills estate, Miss Barry met industry heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Walt Disney, Jesse Lasky, and Mack Sennett. Returning to New York with what the Los Angeles Times reported to be “more than a million feet” of film, Miss Barry had the beginnings of MoMA’s collection. But one old-timer who was not as forthcoming as many of his Hollywood colleagues was D. W. Griffith, who refused to donate his own films to the museum, reportedly saying that nothing could convince him that films had anything to do with art. Ultimately MoMA enlisted the aid of Griffith’s friend and former star actress, Lillian Gish, who eventually persuaded him to hand over to history his collection of films, music, still photographs, and papers. It seems, however, that it was the lure of the tax write-off that was really responsible for Griffith’s change of heart.
For the movie lover, the best thing about MoMA’s film collection is that it is constantly on view. The museum has two theaters—one with 460 seats, the other with 217—which together are used to present some two dozen screenings a week. The Department of Film and Media-MoMA also cosponsors, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New Directors/New Films festival, which is held every year in March/April. In addition to showing films, the Department of Film and Media-MoMA maintains a library of film books, screenplays, reviews, publicity material, and four million stills that is an important research center for students, authors, and historians.
ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH
109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue
This exotic neo-Byzantine Episcopal house of worship—with a columned Romanesque entrance salvaged from the church’s former 24th Street location—strikes a handsome pose on Park Avenue. Indeed, even though it’s used only as background, it’s still easy to spot in such recent films as Maid in Manhattan (2003), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Serendipity (2001). It plays much meatier roles in two earlier films, however. Ironically, each involves a wedding that doesn’t come off. In Arthur (1981), Dudley Moore jilts Jill Eikenberry at the St. Bart’s altar, whereas fifteen years later Steve Guttenberg does the same thing to bride- from-hell Jane Sibbett (featured on Friends as Ross’s ex-wife) in favor of Kirstie Alley in It Takes Two (1995).
Movie lovers may wish to make a special visit to pay their respects to silent-screen star and former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary. Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, also had an impressive stage and post-silent-film career, making her final screen appearance at the age of ninety-one (or ninety-four, if we are to believe the dates—1893-1993—incised on her crypt), opposite Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in The Whales of August (1987). Today, an anonymous admirer sends flowers to the Gish crypt every year on her birthday, October 14.
LILLIAN GISH APARTMENT 430 East 57th Street
For over half a century, this basic-brick Sutton Place apartment building was Lillian Gish’s Manhattan home. An extraordinary woman whose film career began in 1912 with D. W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, Lillian Gish appeared in such landmark silent pictures as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and The Scarlet Letter (1925). When her film career slowed down in the 1930s, it was not, as it was for many of her contemporaries, on account of the talkies, but rather because Hollywood’s taste in heroines had changed, and virtuous virgins like Miss Gish were no longer in fashion. The actress dealt with this turn of events by concentrating on the Broadway stage, where she had a string of successes in classical roles.
Her film career was far from over, however, for she went on to triumph as a character actress in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, from David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) to United Artists’ Night of the Hunter (1955). And La Gish went on and on. Witness her roles in A Wedding (1978), Sweet Liberty (1986), and The Whales of August (1987). The actress, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine—although she only admitted to ninety-six—once said she liked living in the Sutton Place area because “it is like a village where everyone knows you.”
BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was the rather exotic name of one of the first motion-picture companies to mount a serious challenge to Thomas Edison’s monopolistic hold on the early film industry. Biograph produced initially a better-quality image (by using larger-sized film) and enjoyed the participation of W. K. L. Dickson, a former—and the most influential—player on the team that developed motion pictures at Edison. Biograph’s first studio was on the roof of the Hackett Carhart Building, a great Victorian fortress with ornate columns, pediments, and turrets that still stands on the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. Similar to the Black Maria studio that Dickson had built for Edison in West Orange, Biograph’s rooftop facility was mounted on tracks and revolved with the sun. The foundations of this primitive studio are still in place atop the restored Hackett Carhart Building.
Unfortunately, the site of some of Biograph’s greatest cinematic triumphs—a brownstone studio at 11 East 14th Street to which it moved in 1906—was razed in the 1960s to make way for a big boring brick apartment building. It was at the Union Square studio that D. W. Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Griffith went on to become the studio’s top director and brought such talents as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, and Mack Sennett into the Biograph fold. When Griffith left the studio in 1913 for the Mutual Film Corporation, Biograph’s status fell quickly, and in 1915 the company was dissolved. Many of its films survive, however, thanks both to Griffith, who saved copies of all his productions, and to the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired Griffith’s collection in the mid-1950s for its then new film department.
In 1975, a plaque was dedicated by former Biograph beauties Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet at the site of the historic town- house studio at 11 East 14th Street. The day after the ceremony, however, the plaque mysteriously disappeared, and there have been no further efforts to put up a new one. There should be. And while we’re talking about plaques, there also ought to be one at Biograph’s original studio site at 841 Broadway.
D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck
In 1919, D. W. Griffith was at the height of his wealth, his fame, his power—and his hubris. It was the year that Griffith had joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form the revolutionary United Artists Corporation, which gave its star founders control over both the production and distribution of their films. It was also the year that Griffith decided to leave Hollywood and set up his own studio back east. The place Griffith chose for his operation was the former estate of Standard Oil/Florida real-estate millionaire Henry Flagler, which occupied a secluded spit of land jutting out into the Long Island Sound near Mamaroneck. Besides making films here, Griffith planned to live on the estate, too—a situation which many felt fulfilled the Southern-born director’s fantasies of being master of the plantation. Others who knew Griffith well also pointed out that the seclusion of Orienta Point would enable him to carry on his various romantic liaisons with young actresses far away from the prying New York press.
Griffith’s first major film at his grand Mamaroneck estate- studio was Way Down East (1920), which was a big hit. Other ventures, such as Dream Street (1921), in which Griffith pioneered synchronized sound some six years before Warners released its first Vitaphone picture, were less successful. As for Dream Street’s sound system, Griffith became its biggest critic and discontinued its use immediately after the picture opened. In fact, Griffith eventually became one of the industry’s most vocal anti-talkie spokesmen: “It puts us back to Babel,” he once told Lillian Gish. “Do you realize how few people in the world speak English? If we make pictures that talk, we can’t send them around the world. That’s suicide.”
Way Down East – Mamaroneck filming sets
Next to Way Down East, Griffith’s most important film from his Mamaroneck period was Orphans of the Storm. (1921). For this epic story of the French Revolution, enormous sets depicting eighteenth-century Paris were constructed at Mamaroneck—and Griffith deliberately scheduled the filming of major crowd scenes for weekends in order to use as many of the locals as extras as possible.
Orphans of the Storm – Mamaroneck filming sets
After Orphans of the Storm, however, it was all downhill for the great director, and by 1924 he was forced to abandon independent producing, signing on with Paramount to do pictures at Astoria. That same year, Griffith put his Mamaroneck estate up for sale, and in early 1925 a developer bought most of the property for the purpose of subdividing it.
Today all of the Griffith and Flagler buildings on Orienta Point are gone, and the property—once the site of the French Revolution—is now part of an exclusive, gated community.
The movies have been borrowing from Broadway since the first film studios on Long Island were cranking away at one-reel moving pictures and coercing stage stars and directors to cross the East River and provide their services. When the movies got longer, film-makers needed more substantial plots to sustain the action, so they started borrowing stories as well as personnel from Broadway. For a short time it was possible to work in both media: shoot movies during the day and perform on stage at night. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were making the film of The Cocoanuts in 1929 while playing evenings and matinees in Animal Crackers on Broadway. Had the movie capital remained in the New York City area, America’s film industry today would be similar to Great Britain’s, where top artists can do theatre and make films (and television) without leaving the London metropolis. But it was not to be. In the United States, with Hollywood and the movies on one coast and Broadway on the other, the crossover between the two involved geography as well as career transitions. Everyoneagrees that plays and films are different, but no one has ever found an unshakeable explanation of exactly why something works in one medium but not the other. Yes, theatre is verbal and movies are visual. But many great plays depend on visuals, while some movie classics are beloved primarily for their talk. It is a commonplace that stage actors need to have a voice while movie stars need to have a look. Yet many performers make the transition easily from one medium to the other. Another generality: Broadway directors create pictures on a stage, while Hollywood directors choose what to focus on. But there are as many ways to direct a movie as there are theories on acting and directing. If a foolproof formula existed that could distinguish what elements of a play would be sure to work on the screen, there would be fewer mistakes and fewer embarrassing results. But there is no formula, and the history of plays-to-films is filled with inexplicable duds and triumphs.
All the Way Home
November 30, 1960 (Belasco Theatre), a drama by Tad Mosel. Cast: Arthur Hill (Jay Follet), Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet), Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch), John Megna (Rufus), Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch), Lylah Tiffany, Dorrit Kelton, Art Smith, Tom Wheatley, Georgia Simmons. Director: Arthur Penn. Producers: Fred Coe, Arthur Cantor. 334 perfor-mances.
Pulitzer Prize. (Paramount 1963). Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman, Jr. Cast: Robert Preston (Jay Follet), Jean Simmons (Mary Follet), Helen Carew (Mary’s Mother), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Aline MacMahon (Hannah), John Cullum, Michael Keanrey. Director: Alex Segal. Producer: David Susskind.
(TV 1971). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Joanne Woodward (Mary Follet), Richard Kiley (Jay Follet), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Eileen Heckart (Hannah), Shane Nickerson, James Woods, Barnard Hughes, Betty Garde. Director: Fred Coe. Producer: David Susskind.
(TV 1981). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Sally Field (Mary Follet), William Hurt (Jay Follet), Ned Beatty (Ralph Follet), Polly Holliday (Hannah), Ellen Corby, Jeremy Licht, Betty Garrett, Michael Horton. Director: Delbert Mann. Producer: Charles Raymond.
James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family has more characterization than plot and the stage version was deemed by some critics more static than theatrical. Yet the portrayal of a family dealing with the sudden death of the father in a car accident was quite stirring on stage, particularly because of the superior cast. Much the same can be said about the film and two television versions of the work. Robert Preston gives a surprisingly subdued performance as the father in the 1963 movie and Jean Simmons is just as effective as his young wife. An out-standing cast was assembled for the 1971 television production though it lacked the atmosphere of the film. The 1981 television remake struck some critics as more melodramatic than tragic though some of the performances were commendable.
Arsenic and Old Lace
January 10, 1941 (Fulton Theatre), a comedy by Joseph Kesselring. Cast: Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer Brewster), Boris Karloff (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Edgar Stehli, Helen Brooks. Director: Bretaigne Windust. Producers: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. 1,444 performances.
(Warner 1944). Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein. Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason. Director-producer: Frank Capra.
(TV 1969). Cast: Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster), Lillian Gish Martha Brewster), Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster), Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster), David Wayne (Teddy), Sue Lyon, Richard Deacon, Jack Gilford, Billy De Wolfe. Director: Robert Scheerer.
One of the longest-running plays in the American theatre, this farce continues to please not because its characters or dialogue are of any interest but because of its wacky premise: two sweet old ladies murder off a series of old gentlemen who seem unhappy with life. Legend has it that Joseph Kessel-ring wrote the piece as a serious thriller and that producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse rewrote it as broad comedy. For decades the dark comedy has remained a fa-vorite with all kinds of producing groups, from Broadway to high schools. Frank Capra’s 1944 screen version opened the story up somewhat and kept the piece moving in a broad, rapid manner. Cary Grant, as the nephew Mortimer who discovers what his two elderly aunts are up to, gives a fever-pitch performance filled with so many double takes that he seems like a cartoon; possibly his best and worst comic portrayal. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts on stage and on screen and they are the glue that holds the story together. The film also boasts a variety of delightful character actors in playful supporting roles. A very abridged version of the play was shown on television in 1955 and in 1969 the comedy was reset in the 1960s and clumsily altered. (Newspaper drama critic Mortimer became a television critic.) It is indeed unfortunate that this version was so misguided for it had a first-rate cast, including Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the aunts.
January 8, 1906 (Liberty Theatre), a play by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Cast: Holbrook Blinn, George Bee Jackson, Joseph Woodburn, Albert Lovern, Henry Riley, Grayce Scott, Samuel Hyams. Director. Frank Hatch. Producer: George H. Brennan. 51 performances.
The Birth of a Nation (Griffith 1915). Screenplay: D. W. Griffith, etc. Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegman, Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Eugene Pallette. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith. In a Southern town during Reconstruction, an African American rabble rouser joins with some carpetbaggers to get the recently freed Negroes to terrorize the community. But the Ku Klux Klan organizes and puts down the rebellion, in turn terrorizing the blacks. During the play’s modest run, an African American group objected to the stilted melodrama, calling it “evil propaganda.”
But even that notoriety was not enough to interest playgoers and the play pretty much disappeared from memory. In 1915 D. W. Griffith turned to the Thomas Dixon, Jr. novel the play was based on as the inspiration for his feature length film The Birth of a Nation, the cinema’s first and most influential movie epic. The screenplay covers the story of two families during the Civil War and only the last reels are close to the stage play. African Americans protested then, and have continued to object, to the racist treatment of Negroes in the film, several of them played by white actors in blackface. As in the play, the Ku Klux Klan is seen as the savior of the white race and that also has bothered many over the decades. Yet there is no denying the power of the film and the many innovations it made in moviemaking. As for the original play, it remains forgotten. Footnote of interest: when the film was first released it was titled The Clansman, it’s more grandiose title came a little later.
I Never Sang for My Father
January 25, 1968 (Longacre Theatre), a play by Robert Anderson. Cast: Hal Holbrook (Gene Garrison), Alan Webb (Tom Garrison), Lillian Gish (Margaret Garrison), Teresa Wright (Alice), Sloane Shelton, Matt Crowley, Allan Frank, Daniel Keyes. Director: Alan Schneider. Producer: Gilbert Cates. 124 performances.
(Columbia 1970). Screenplay: Robert Anderson. Cast: Gene Hackman (Gene Garrison), Melvyn Douglas (Tom Garrison), Dorothy Stickney (Margaret Garrison), Estelle Parsons (Alice), Elizabeth Hubbard, Lovelady Powell, Daniel Keyes, Conrad Bain. Director-producer: Gilbert Cates.
This domestic drama about a man who can never quite reconcile himself to his difficult father was regarded as polished soap opera by some critics, deeply felt drama by others. But everyone agreed that the acting was distinguished, particularly Hal Holbrook and Alan Webb as son and father and Lillian Gish and Teresa Wright as mother and daughter. While none of the cast appeared in the 1970 film, it was pretty much a carbon copy of the play and also divided critics on its merits. Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, as son and father, led the strong cast and they are all commendable, even if the material tends to depress rather than exhilarate.
November 13, 1942 (Guild Theatre), a comedy by Ketti Frings. Cast: Stuart Erwin (John Gwilt), Enid Markey (Estelle Benlow), Lillian Gish (Jane Gwilt), Russell Collins (Rev. Dr. Doody), Otto Hulett, Leona Powers. Director: Lester Vail. Producer: Theatre Guild. 19 performances.
(Capricorn 1975). Screenplay: Pancho Kohner. Cast: Jason Robards (John Gwilt), Sandy Dennis (Jane Gwilt), Jean Simmons (Estelle Ben-bow), Mark Miller, Jerome Thor. Director-producer: Pancho Kohner.
This must be the most oddball entry in this book. Mailman John Gwilt is so disgusted with life that he decides he’d rather be a tree. His loving wife Jane helps him dig a hole in the backyard and, taking off his shoes and socks, John plants his feet in the dirt. Neighbors mock him but Jane brings John a chair to make him comfortable and food to eat until he takes root. John gets discouraged and almost gives up the idea but one day he turns into an actual tree so Jane spends the rest of her days sitting in its shade and chatting with the transformed John. Ketti Frings adapted Robert Ayre’s story for the stage and the prestigious Theatre Guild produced it, though it only lasted a few weeks. As bizarre as the play is, it is even more bizarre that thirty-three years later the piece was rediscovered and made into a movie. Jason Robards played John in the 1975 film with Sandy Dennis as his wife and Jean Simmons as the local librarian who gives John the idea when she reads a poem to him. Despite the stars attached to the project, the movie seems to have disappeared without anyone much noticing it. But it is available for viewing and it is a curiosity, to say the least. Neither funny enough to be a comedy nor reasonable enough to be taken serious, the allegorical tale is a real puzzle, and not a puzzle easy to sit through.
The Trip to Bountiful
(TV 1953). Teleplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), John Beal (Ludie Watts), Charles Slader, Will Hare, Dennis Cross. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producer: Fred Coe. November 3, 1953 (Henry Miller Theatre), a play by Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Jo Van Fleet (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), Gene Lyons (Ludie Watts), Will Hare, Frank Overton. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producers: Theatre Guild, Fred Coe. 39 performances.
(Bountiful Film Partners 1985). Screenplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Geraldine Page (Mrs. Watts), Carlin Glynn (Jessie Mae), Rebecca de Mornay (Thelma), John Heard (Ludie Watts), Richard Bradford, Kevin Cooney. Director: Peter Masterson. Producers: Horton Foote, etc.
The elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts is so unhappy living with her son and his scolding wife that she boards a bus back to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, where she revisits old haunts and comes to realize the past is dead. Texas playwright Horton Foote wrote this character drama for television in 1953 and that same year it showed up on Broadway with Lillian Gish reprising her poignant performance as Mrs. Watts. While all the acting in the Broadway production was estimable, the play was too uneventful for playgoers and the drama only lasted a month. But interest in the play was kept alive with various regional productions and thirty-three years later it was filmed with Geraldine Page giving a moving performance as Mrs. Watts, winning an Oscar for her efforts. This time the piece was better received by audiences and the quiet little drama was a modest box office hit. The filmis slow and atmospheric yet the fine acting throughout makes it interesting enough.
Way Down East
February 7, 1898 (Manhattan Theatre), a play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer. Cast: Phoebe Davies (Annie Moore), James O. Barrows (Squire Bartlett), Howard Kyle (David Bartlett), Minnie Dupree, George Backus, Homer Granville. Producers: William A. Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld. 152 performances.
(Griffith 1920). Screenplay: Anthony Paul Kelly. Cast: Lillian Gish (Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce, Mary Hay. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith.
(Fox 1935). Screenplay: Howard Estabrooke, William Hurlbut. Cast: Rochelle Hudson (Anna Moore), Henry Fonda (David Bartlett), Russell Simpson (Squire Bartlett), Slim Summerville, Margaret Hamilton, Edward Trevor, Andy Devine, Spring Byington. Director: Henry King. Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan.
Annie Moore was seduced and became pregnant but the baby died so she sets off to start life anew where no one knows her. She gets a job as a servant at the Bartlett estate but when Squire Bartlett learns of her past he turns Annie out and she makes her way through a violent snowstorm. The son, David Bartlett, has grown to love Annie so he rides out and rescues her then persuades the family to accept her. This classic melodrama had all the standard stage conventions, from the forlorn heroine to the storm, but there was honesty in the characterization and the emotional tug it created was not as manufactured as most “mellerdramers” of the day. The play was a success in New York and on the road for over twenty years and Phoebe Davies, who originated the role of Annie on Broadway, played it over 4,000 times during her career. Four screen versions were made of the tale, the first in 1908 being only a silent short. A 1914 movie told the story in more detail but it was the 1920 version by D. W. Griffith that became a silent screen classic with its famous scene of Annie, played by Lillian Gish, caught on an ice floe rushing down the river. The melodrama was filmed on a giant scale so that the story seemed almost epic in scope; clichéd or not, it is still impressive. The 1935 remake looked very old-fashioned amidst the smart, sassy movies of the Depression era and the stilted dialogue would have come across better on title cards than from the mouths of Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda as the lovers. It is also a disappointing film in its action sequences but there are some expert character actors to be found in the cast.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.