Billy Bitzer – HIS STORY (1973)
*Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer— Billy Bitzer to the film world—was one of the first and greatest men to stand behind a movie camera. The early Biograph films, one of the high marks in the history of photography, were his work. Bitzer, who was at Biograph before D. W. Griffith, taught the novice director and learned from him; together they made an unbeatable team. With Griffith, Bitzer went on to the superb, Brady-like Civil War camera work of The Birth of a Nation, the spectacular photography of Intolerance, and later triumphs.
*In October 1913 Mr. Griffith resigned from the Biograph staff and signed with Harry Aitken’s Reliance-Majestic. In December I, too, resigned and agreed to go with him. Practically every one of the Biograph players went with us. From December 1913 to March 1914, we photographed in five reels The Battle of the Sexes with Owen Moore, Lillian Gish, Fay Tincher, Donald Crisp, and Robert Harron. We had already photographed the principal scenes of The Escape, based on Paul Armstrong’s play, with Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, and Owen Moore in the new studio in a loft building not far from Union Square. The Escape was not released by Aitken until June 1914. We were going out to California. Mr. Griffith knew what he wanted to do—a big Civil War picture in twelve reels.
*This was not just another picture for Griffith. He was fighting the old war all over again and, like a true Southerner, trying to win it or at least to justify losing it. Old Colonel “Jake” Griffith had schooled his son well with yarns of his fighting days. As we followed the story—there was no written script, it was all in Griffith’s head—this passion consumed him. He lived every minute of it, blaming the carpetbaggers for seeking to profit from the South’s sufferings and glorifying the clansmen for rescuing those fair flowers of the South, Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh).
In the battle scenes of The Birth, which we did first, Mr. Griffith directed practically single-handed. I was cameraman for the entire picture and shot every foot of it, though I had help from my assistant, Karl Brown, who was then in his teens. He wanted to learn about cameras and he certainly did, becoming one of the best in the business and a fine director, too.
For mob scenes we used hundreds of extras, who were organized in groups under leaders like George Siegmann, Elmer Clifton, Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, Christy Cabanne, and others. We had no loudspeaker system then. Griffith used a megaphone and it wasn’t always easy to hear a command. For the battle scenes, the units were assigned numbers for firing shots, and we had to be careful because each volley of our precious blanks cost money.
*Lillian Gish was given a part no one envied. She had been a star in The Birth and was resting on her laurels. Now she was cast as the hand which rocks the cradle of life eternal. Quote: “Endlessly rocks the cradle, uniter of Here and Hereafter.” Griffith wanted this to be symbolic of endless time, connecting his four stories. The shot appeared five or six times throughout the picture. It gave me the opportunity to develop my new LG lens, especially built for me by Zeiss-Tessar. All Lillian need do was sit and let me worry about making her beautiful. This business of rocking that old cradle spoiled the picture somewhat, for people could not understand it.
Lillian was ever without emotional show. Griffith conditioned her to the part she was to play, and once she had the action in mind, she wouldn’t forget or deviate by so much as a flicker of the eye. Her interpretation would be as directed, without waste of precious film; standing immobile, her face expressionless, in deep concentration until she heard the call “Action!” She was our first thin woman. She was around six-Intolerance teen when she came to us with her younger sister, Dorothy. She had pale blue eyes and a clinging-vine appeal. Her seeming helplessness took everyone off guard, covering up her inner strength. Her hobby at that time was collecting watches. To me Lillian spoke of her few tiny watches or of the poems she had read which her idol, Griffith, had recommended. Her adoration of him was no secret and never had been.
I had to put a halo light behind her hair to get that angelic look. She would stand or sit so long without moving, waiting for the signal. As I never could get a subject to be so patient, I began to get some very beautiful effects with her. In the end her patience and ladylike behavior were rewarded.
*All Griffith pictures after 1913 were made with a Pathe camera, including Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation. First, this was the cheapest camera procurable, and second I found it more to my liking. I could build things with it, such as wash-drawing effects, which were originated by me and afterward copied by other cameramen with more elegant cameras. In those days camera-builders and lens-makers never put anything in front of a lens. Until recently, even Kodak cameras had no sun shield on the front of the lens. Zeiss, the German optical firm, built a special lens for me later, when I had enough money to afford it. I called it my LG lens, because I never used it except for special photography of Lillian Gish. I carried it with me, carefully nested in my vest pocket, as I considered it a most precious possession.
Hearts of the World
*Early in 1917, Griffith sailed for England. He was tired and felt dried out from the exhausting hours spent on The Birth and Intolerance, both of which were being shown successfully in London. England and France were fighting a hard war with Germany and needed help; naturally they looked to the United States, but Woodrow Wilson and the whole country wanted to stay out of it. It would take much propaganda to succeed in enlisting our aid. Prime Minister Lloyd George of England consulted with his allies. Neither a book nor a play could reach enough people in this emergency, but a motion picture . . . D. W. Griffith, the world’s foremost director, was the one man who could tell a story that all—Americans especially —would understand. In London a group of VIP’s called on Griffith at the Savoy Hotel, where he had taken up residence. They laid out their plans before him and pressed him into accepting. Then he was invited to meet the Prime Minister at No. 10 Downing Street. Then, in April 1917, the United States declared war against Germany, but it was decided to make the film anyway. Griffith sent at once for Lillian Gish and her mother.
*I was back in Hollywood, waiting to hear from Griffith, who, I thought, would soon be back in harness in California. Otherwise I would have accepted outside offers, for I disliked being idle. Added to that was an unhappy home life. Nora was out of touch with life, lonely for the past, and felt her usefulness had come to an end. Her smile was sardonic, her tongue was bitter, she quarreled with Maysie Redford and sent her back to New York. The doctor wanted Nora to take the Keeley cure. She would have to go away for the treatment and was terror-stricken at the prospect, so I hadn’t the heart to force the issue. She begged for just one more chance and 1 couldn’t refuse.
Then came D.W.’s cablegram from overseas; he had been commissioned by the Allies to make a war propaganda picture. My instructions were to come at once and bring Dorothy Gish and Bobby Harron with me. I directed all serious thought to putting things in order in case of my non-return. First, I gave away my jewelry—the diamond ring Mary Pickford had given me, the gold wristwatch Griffith had given me, another gold pocket watch from the camera staff, a pearl stickpin—they all represented some epoch in my career. As for friends with whom I had invested money for their enterprises, I now turned over full ownership.
Way Down East (Robert Harron)
*On opening night of Way Down East, we repaired to the theater for the premiere as usual. Bobby Harron was missing that night. He had shot himself accidentally in his rooms at the Algonquin Hotel. While unpacking his dress suit, he was fatally wounded by a revolver that he had wrapped in his coat. A report went out that he had been unhappy over the roles he was getting, or not getting, and his death was suicide. But I know better.
He lived a couple of days, long enough to make his confession and receive the sacraments from Father William Humphrey, who rushed to his bedside when he heard the news. This was the priest who had brought him as a boy to the old Biograph studio on Fourteenth Street. Bobby would not have lied to him as he saw death approach.
His death marked the end of an era. With Bobby’s passing, some thread of unity seemed to leave us. A feeling of guilt lay heavy on all of us. It was a falling away and breaking up of our former trust and friendship. We felt that Bobby had brought us luck when he came to us so young and eager. I can still see his face as I photographed Bobby’s Kodak early in 1908, when Lawrence Griffith was merely the name of another actor. After Bobby’s death in 1920, it was never the same again.
As we left, one by one, Griffith seemed quite alone and isolated. I think it was this isolation more than anything—money or fame—that gave him trouble, although it may have simply been the changing times and the beginning of a new era.