Griffith had been absent from Hollywood almost two years when he returned after launching hearts of the world. His next important film was to be very different. From the large canvas he turned to an intimate photoplay based on The Chink and the Child,” a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights. Like most of Griffith’s films and all of his best ones, it carried a message. The earlier picture had been his contribution to war, but this fairy tale of nonresistance in opposition to violence spoke of international tolerance. The part of the London waif might have been made to measure for Lillian Gish and the choice of Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese boy was fortunate. Work went unusually smoothly and, after the customary period of rehearsal, the film was completed in eighteen days. When Broken Blossoms appeared everyone was overwhelmed, and not only by the discretion and force with which a difficult subject had been handled. Reviewers found it surprising in its simplicity,” and hastened to explain that the photography was misty on purpose, not by accident. The acting seemed a nine days’ wonder— no one talked of anything but Lillian’s smile, Lillian turning like a tortured animal in a trap, of Barthelmess’ convincing restraint. Few pictures have enjoyed greater or more lasting succes d’estime.
By 1919 the motion picture was learning fast how to deal freely with ideas and feelings as well as with deeds, and here BROKEN BLOSSOMS, despite its rather theatrical form, played an important part by its scaling down of dramatic action and its intensification of intimate emotion. Possibly Griffith had been influenced by the somber Danish films of the period with their emphasis on atmosphere and on moral and psychological reactions, just as formerly it had been he and Ince who taught the Scandinavians to use an isolated face or gesture as a unit of expression rather than (as on the stage) the actor. In the development of the American film, Broken Blossoms marked a distinct stage. Definitely a studio picture, it emphasized a new style of lighting and photography which, though it has been abused, was valuable. In its contrasting periods of calm and of violence it borrowed something from intolerance, just as the grim finale recalls the death of Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation; but there is a sureness and perhaps a sophistication here which had not formerly been evident. Out of broken blossoms much was to come. It cannot have been without its influence in Germany; we know that it profoundly affected Louis Delluc and his disciples in France; and, but for it, we might never have had Charles Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris.
D. W. Griffith Repertory Season opened in May 1919 at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York with Broken Blossoms, followed later by The Fall of Babylon (from intolerance), “a new peace edition” of Hearts of the World, and the mother and the law (also from Intolerance). During that summer Griffith moved his company from Hollywood to Mamaroneck, New York, where the old Flagler estate at Orienta Point was converted into a studio. Costs had risen sharply and, if Griffith was particularly responsible for this, he was the first to suffer from it. The complex financial operations that had become part of film production were absorbing more and more of his time. He apparently felt the need to be constantly in or near New York, which was then as now the financial center and shop window of the industry.
Griffith, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, had founded a new joint distributing company, United Artists, The Love Flower was the second of his pictures for them, Broken Blossoms being the first; but in the meantime Scarlet Days (1919), The Greatest Question and The Idol Dancer (all of relatively minor importance) had also appeared through other distributors.
WAY DOWN EAST proved to be one of the most profitable pictures ever made. The master had once more turned the trick. The public was drawn to see an old favorite in a new guise and found its familiar melodramatic qualities heightened beyond expectation. While sticking faithfully to the bones of the play, Griffith had very rightly adapted it to suit the newer medium—notably at the beginning, by adding material to establish the background of the characters, and at the end to give full rein to the last-minute rescue, developed in purely visual terms and heightened through artful photography and cutting. It was a device which had seldom failed Griffith in the past and stood him in good stead now.
The lapse of time has made it difficult to estimate the qualities of Way Down East accurately. Much in it that was fresh and inventive at the time the film was made has since been absorbed into the general repertory of film technique and therefore seems banal. Other devices now outmoded or disused are obtrusive and irritating—the time-lapse fades within single scenes, the low comedy relief, the shots of blossoms and domestic animals interjected for sentiment’s sake. The extremely improbable plot creaks loudly, and the musical score, added when the film was re-released in the early days of sound synchronization, seems almost as dated as the Victorian morality. Yet if most of the characterizations are two-dimensional, they are handled with vigor and skill and the study of Anna is entire and convincing. Miss Gish conveys the moods and feelings of the sorely tried heroine more skillfully and with more restraint than she had done in BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Her performance is remarkable for its range, apparent spontaneity and sincerity; it could be contrasted with many contemporary performances to her advantage. Scenes such as the baptism of the dying baby and those in which Anna hears Sanderson confess the mock marriage and David Bartlett declares his love are almost as effective today as they were twenty years ago. The flight through the storm, the ice scenes, and the split-second rescue remain triumphs of direction, camera placement and editing, in which Griffith again attains though hardly surpasses the vitality of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
The period between intolerance and way down east marks the apex of Griffith’s success. A figure of international importance, he had played a signal part in founding a huge industry—he had already created a new art form—in which the United States became and remained supreme. Except for Frank Lloyd Wright, no such eminent American as he had arisen in the arts since Whitman. He was to continue active for another decade, though the most fruitful years were past. Already men trained under him were stepping into the limelight, at the same time that newcomers drawn from many walks of life and from Europe as well as from this country were likewise contributing new ideas, new techniques. Erich von Stroheim, who had been one of Griffith’s assistants as well as one of his leading actors, made two films, blind HUSBANDS (1919) and foolish wives (1921), which attracted wide attention and set a new style. His directorial career—culminating in the superb and somber greed (1924) —afterwards suffered a great eclipse rendered only the more startling by his re-emergence as an actor in the French film LA GRANDE ILLUSION in 1937. Frank Powell has already been referred to. Mack Sennett, even earlier, had graduated from acting and providing plots for Griffith to the glorious creation of Keystone comedies. Lowell Sherman, villain of WAY DOWN EAST, was to direct—among other films—Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Donald Crisp, after BROKEN BLOSSOMS, also became a director of distinction— Buster Keaton’s the navigator (1924) and Douglas Fairbanks’ DON Q (1925) are perhaps his best-remembered pictures—and today he is again a leading character-actor. It would fill many pages to enumerate the notable actors and actresses who gained their first experience under Griffith and first faced the camera with Bitzer turning. All these fed the industry with new talent. But times and taste alike were changing. From now on Griffith’s films were often criticized even by the trade press as “melodramatic.” In 1924 James Quirk *** boldly admonished Griffith in an editorial in Photoplay: “You have made yourself an anchorite at Mamaroneck . . . your pictures shape themselves towards a certain brutality because of this austerity . . . your refusal to face the world is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal . . . your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you—and to pictures.”
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
It occurs to me that perhaps a brief outline, somewhat personal, of D. W. Griffith as I knew him in my sixteen years of association might bring out some facets of his real personality, instead of the glorified descriptions handed out by press agents. Nothing I have read even does justice to his personal traits of character.
Giving was one of his deepest virtues. Not only would he give the applicant the first bill he extracted from his pocket, but if the case was more than trivial, he would detail one of his assistants to follow up and help someone in trouble. It was not show-off stuff or ego.
His kindly efforts to produce results were incredible. He might chide the one making a mistake in a gentle manner. “What were you thinking of?” he would ask. “You knew we had to have that article here.” Then a full stop, a pause long enough for the error to sink in, which would hurt more than if he had flown into a rage.
Perhaps at most only a half-dozen times did I ever see him in a rage, and like most extremists, he was over it at once.
To prevent outbursts, he would act very quickly. If outsiders on location tried to cause a disturbance, he would walk up and ask them to desist, and if that didn’t stop them, he would reach in his pocket and pay them to get out. I saw many instances where this was abused, and I stubbornly suggested I wouldn’t have paid, only to hear his logical reasoning: “The delay would cost us much more than I paid.”
Once he had made up his mind to get results, whether of portrayal in acting or some photographic effect, he would keep at it from all angles until successful.
Even when handling big situations, such as mob scenes, with things going awry, he would break out in snatches of song, a bit of psychology that seemed to calm the excited performers, causing them to be less tense. His bag of tricks was enormous, and if one trick did not work, he would try another. If you did not possess the ability he was searching for, you weren’t fired, just demoted. He did it by easy stages, until you realized for yourself you didn’t fit and just let yourself out. Although he called his players children, he was a stern parent if crossed. He would allow the one in error to talk to a finish, during which time he would not say a word. Then, “Well, you know better, of course,” after which he would remain silent as a sphinx, leaving you guessing whether you had really won the debate or not.
Photo Gallery – D.W. Griffith and W.G. (Billy) Bitzer
Intolerance was not one story, but four. In Belshazzar’s Babylon (sixth century b.c.), the evil high priest conspires against the wise and just ruler, betraying the city to the Persian conqueror, Cyrus; by the end of this story, every “good” character is dead. In Judea, the close- minded Pharisees intrigue against Jesus; ulti¬ mately, the gentle savior is sent to the cross. In Reformation France (sixteenth century a.d.), ambitious courtiers persuade the Catholic king to slaughter all the Protestant Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, a massacre that includes the rape and murder of a young Protestant and the killing of her fiance. In twentieth-century America (the “Modern Story,” which used to be The Mother and the Law), strikers are gunned down, a Boy is falsely convicted of murder, and his wife loses her baby thanks to the meddling of a group of reformers; the facts eventually surface to save the Boy from the gallows.
Instead of telling one story after the other, as in Home, Sweet Home, Griffith tells these stories all at once, interweaving them—and 2,500 years of history—into an intellectual and emotional argument, a demonstration that love, diversity, and the little guy have always had to struggle against the overwhelming forces of hypocrisy, intolerance, and oppression. Because the colliding, streaming, juxtaposed fragments of these stories implied an idea that went beyond the “moral” of each individual story, making the whole greater than and different from the sum of its parts, Intolerance is recognized as the cinema’s first great Modernist experiment in what Sergei Eisenstein would later call intellectual (or dialectical) montage. Indeed, Griffith’s editing influenced the Soviets as much as his psychological lighting and control of mise-en-scene influenced the Germans; if The Birth of a Nation set the course for the American cinema, Intolerance did so for the Soviet cinema and Broken Blossoms for the German. The next American film to be organized this complexly would be Citizen Kane (1941); the next to be structured as a dialectical montage would be The Godfather Part II (1974).
The four stories are tied together by their consistent theme: the machinations of the selfish, the frustrated, and the inferior; the divisiveness of religious and political beliefs; the constant triumph of injustice over justice; the pervasiveness of violence and viciousness through the centuries. Also tying the stories together is Griffith’s brilliant control of editing, which keeps all the parallels in the stories quite clear, and which creates an even more spectacular climax than that of The Birth of a Nation.
In Intolerance, there are four frenzied climaxes; the excitement in each of the narrative lines reinforces the others, all of them driving furiously to their breathtaking conclusions. Griffith’s last-minute rescues cross-cut through the centuries.
And finally, tying the four stories together, much as Pippa did, is a symbolic mother-woman, rocking a cradle, bathed in a shaft of light, representing the eternal evolution of humanity through time and fate (the three Fates sit behind her), fulfilling the purpose of the creator. This woman, inspired by Whitman’s lines, “Endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter,” is a figure of peace, of light, of fertility (flowers bloom in her cradle at the end of the film), of ultimate goodness that will eventually triumph. She is played by Lillian Gish, who assisted Griffith in the editing of Intolerance.
The film’s bigness is obvious: the high walls of Babylon, the hugeness of the palace (and the immense tracking shot that Griffith uses to span it), the battle sequences, the care with each of the film’s periods and styles. The costumes, the lighting, the acting styles, the decor, and even the intertitles are so distinct in each of the four epochs that viewers know exactly whether they are in the squalid, drab poverty of a contemporary slum, the elegant tastefulness of the French court, or the garishness of ancient Babylon. But as with The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a big film that works because of its little, intimate moments. The film revolves around the faces of women—from the bubbling, jaunty, comically vital face of the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian Story to the luminous, tear-stained, soulful faces of Brown Eyes in the French Story and the little Dear One in the Modern Story. Intolerance makes it perfectly clear that social chaos takes its toll on the women, who are the helpless sufferers of its violence. Significantly, Griffith’s mother-symbol of historical continuity is also necessarily a woman. Along with the close-ups of faces, the film is equally attentive to close-ups of hands, particularly in the Modern Story: the Dear One’s wrenched hands as the callous court pronounces judgment on her husband; her hand grasping her imprisoned husband’s cap, a tender memory of his warm presence; her hand clutching one of her baby’s booties after the social uplifters have carried the infant away.
The film is also rich in the same kind of metaphoric detail found in The Birth of a Nation. The Dear One shows her humanity and tenderness as she lovingly throws grain to her chickens; when she moves to the oppressive city she keeps a single flower in her flat, a metaphor for all that is beautiful and natural and alive. (Flowers become the same kind of symbol of love and beauty in Broken Blossoms.) Yet another touching detail is the little cart pulled by two white doves in the Babylon sequence—a metaphor for the tender, fragile love between Belshazzar and his queen and for the peaceful ways of their court. After the two and the Mountain Girl have been slain, Griffith hauntingly irises out to a shot of the tiny cart and doves, a touching evocation of a beauty that was but is no longer.
Griffith’s technique is as effective at conveying hatred as it is at evoking tenderness. A deeply felt film, Intolerance makes it clear what Griffith detests: those who meddle and destroy, those who take advantage of the poor, schemers, hypocrites, and monsters of lust and power. One of Griffith’s devices of caricature is the cross-cut—particularly effective in the sequence in which he captures the cold inhumanity of the factory owner. Griffith cuts from the shots of the workers being mowed down by military or hired gunfire (violent, quick cutting, frenetic) to a shot of the owner of the factory sitting alone in his vast office (a long shot, perfectly still, that emphasizes the size of the office and the moral smallness of the big business man). The contrast clearly defines the man’s unsympathetic inhumanity to his slaughtered workers. Nine years later Eisenstein would build a whole film, Strike, out of such cross-cuts.
Although Griffith’s dislikes are clear, the intellectual cement uniting the four stories (and the rocking cradle) is a bit muddy. The film could as easily have been called “Injustice” or “Intrigue” as Intolerance. Griffith was interested in the word “intolerance” because he felt himself the victim of it. But in none of the four stories does intolerance seem so much the cause of evil as blind human selfishness, nastiness, and ambition (exactly as in The Birth of a Nation). And when the film ends with its almost obligatory optimistic vision—more superimposed angels in the heavens; the fields of the prison dissolve into fields of flowers; flowers bloom in the cradle—we once again witness an interpolated wish rather than a consequence of the film’s action. Though there may be hope in the Boy’s last-minute reprieve, it hardly seems enough to balance a whole film of poverty, destruction, suffering, and injustice.
The audience of 1916 found the film confusing and unpleasant. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance aroused no social protest; worse, it aroused little audience interest of any kind. Perhaps the film was unpopular because it asked too much from its audience. Or perhaps the film was a victim of historical accident, its obviously pacifistic statement being totally antipathetic to a nation preparing itself emotionally to send its soldiers “Over There.” Thomas Ince’s pacifist bombast, Civilization, had made money only six months earlier. Whatever the reason, Intolerance was a financial disaster, costing Griffith all his profits from The Birth of a Nation. The failure of Intolerance began Griffith’s financial dependence on other producers and businessmen, from which he would never recover.
For his own independent project for 1914, Griffith chose a novel by Thomas Dixon, The Clansman. The book appealed to Griffith for several reasons. It was a vast story, covering the final years in the graceful life of the old South before the Civil War; the turbulent, violent years of war; and the painful, political years of Reconstruction, during which the Ku KIux Klan arose to defend the rights of the whites. Griffith also used material from the stage version of The Clansman and from another Dixon novel, The Leopard’s Spots, all of which were extremely racist. Griffith, a Southerner whose father served in the Confederate Army, was attracted by Dixon’s slant. Dixon, also a Southerner, saw the Reconstruction era as a period of chaos in which the “civilized” white South, presented as the gallant underdog, struggled but survived. It was this film, with dangerous social and political implications, that Griffith set out to make. Shooting began on the Fourth of July, 1914.
No one on the set knew exactly what Griffith’s film was all about. Griffith used no shooting script, creating all details of the vast cinema pageant out of his head as he went along. The players only knew that the project was vast: It took six weeks to rehearse and nine weeks to shoot, an incredible amount of time in an era when most films were cranked out in a week. It required thousands of men and animals and countless huge and detailed indoor sets. Its cost, $110,000, was the most ever invested in a motion picture. At the film’s official premiere in Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, audiences finally saw how huge Griffith’s plan and project were. The thirteen-reel film was still called The Clansman at that opening. When the author of the novel finally saw the film, however, Dixon told Griffith, in his enthusiasm, that the original title was too tame. Griffith should call his film The Birth of a Nation. His point was that the nation was truly born only when the whites of the North and South united “in defense of their Aryan birthright.”
The retitled version opened in New York on March 3, 1915, still thirteen reels long. But in response to social protests, Griffith deleted about nine minutes from the film (footage that has never been recovered), leaving it just over twelve reels long.
The Birth of a Nation is as much a document of American social history as of film history. Though President Wilson, a former historian at Princeton, described the film as “like history written with lightning,” its action openly praises the Ku Klux Klan. Wilson may well have offered the simile simply to help his old school chum, Dixon. The film, which contributed significantly to the resurgence of the modern Klan in this century, is a very difficult morsel for today’s liberal or social activist to swallow. It was just as difficult for the liberals of 1915. The NAACP; the president of Harvard, Jane Addams; and liberal politicians all damned the work for its bigoted, racist portrayal of the Negro. The film was suppressed in some cities for fear of race riots; politicians spoke for or against it according to their dependence on the black vote. At a revival of the film some ten years after its original opening, mobs poured into Chicago to see it as well as to attend a Ku Klux Klan convention. With all of the contro¬ versy over the film, it might be wise to look at Griffith’s handling of the black man and woman a bit more closely before moving on to the cinematic qualities of the film.
First, a close examination of the film reveals that two of the three villains—Lynch (the false reformer) and Sarah (Stoneman’s mistress)— are not pure Negroes but mulattoes. Both possess qualities that Griffith had already damned in whites—hypocrisy, selfishness, social reforming, and sexual license. That they were mulattoes indicates that Griffith’s main target was not the blacks but miscegenation—an objective of the third villain, a black soldier named Gus, when he forces his attentions on a southern white girl. (His marriage proposal—a rape in the novel—causes Flora, “the little pet sister,” to throw herself off a cliff to her death; in the novel, and perhaps in the censored footage, Gus is castrated by the KKK when they kill him.)
The miscegenation theme flows through the movie like a poisonous river—in the scenes of the lecherous black legislature, in signs at the black-dominated polling place, in Lynch’s attraction to Elsie (Lillian Gish) and Gus’s to Flora (Mae Marsh). The mixing of bloods is the source of evil. Griffith’s stance against miscegenation stems from an assumption about blacks and whites that is perhaps more central to the film’s offensiveness. For Griffith, whites are whites and blacks blacks; the white race is naturally superior; each race has “its own place.”
If Griffith’s view seems outrageous—well, it is. Not every masterpiece is “politically correct,” an surviving conclusion) was to send the blacks back to Africa.
There are good blacks and bad blacks in Griffith’s film. The good ones are the “faithful souls” who work in the fields, “know their place,” and stay with their white family after the war. Gone With the Wind, twenty-four years newer fashioned than The Birth of a Nation and still adored by the public, makes the same distinction between good and bad “darkies.” Perhaps Griffith’s most offensive scene is the one in which the empty state legislature suddenly (with the aid of a dissolve) springs to life, full of black lawmakers with bare feet on desks, swilling booze, and eating—what else?—fried chicken while they eye the white women in the gallery. But Griffith’s treatment of these blacks is not an isolated expression of racial prejudice; it is a part of his lifelong distrust of the “evils” of social change and disruption. And on a purely technical level, this legislature scene is a visual marvel!
The brilliance of The Birth ofa Nation is that it is both strikingly complex and tightly wholed part of dealing with The Birth of a Nation lies in examining, rather than explaining away, how offensive it is. Although Griffith recognized that slavery was the root of America’s racial problems, his solution (proposed in part of the censored footage, an ending originally meant to balance the all-white harmony. It is a film of brilliant parts carefully tied together by the driving line of the film’s narrative. Its hugeness of conception, its acting, its sets, its cinematic devices had not been equalled by any film before it and would not be surpassed by many that followed it. Yet surprisingly, for such an obviously big picture, it is also a highly personal and intimate one. Its small moments are as impressive as its big ones.
Though Griffith summarizes an entire historical era in the evolution of the nation in general and the South in particular, his summary adopts a human focus: two families, one from the North (the Stonemans), one from the South (the Camerons), who, despite the years of death and suffering, survive the Civil War and Reconstruction. The eventual marriage between the two white families becomes a symbol or emblem for Griffith’s view of the united nation. Love, courage, sincerity, and natural affection triumph over social movements and selfish reformers. The close observation of people and their most intimate feelings, the techniques of which Griffith had been developing for five years, propels the film, not its huge battle scenes, its huge dances and political meetings, or its detailed “historical facsimiles” of Ford’s Theater and the Appomattox courthouse. The big scenes serve as the violent social realities with which the gentle, loving people must contend.
Even in the mammoth battle sequences Griffith never deserts his human focus. His rhythmic and energetic editing constantly alternates between distant, extreme long shots of the battles and close concentration on the individual men who are fighting. Griffith takes the time for such touches as his cut from the living, fighting soldiers to a shot of the motionless dead ones who have found “war’s peace,” his cuts from the valiant human effort on the Union side to shots of a similar effort on the Confederate, including Ben Cameron’s heroic charge of the Union lines, ramming the Southern flag down the barrel of a Union cannon.
Griffith increases the power, the violence, the energy of these battle sequences with his sensitivity to cutting on contrary movement across the frame, to cutting in rhythm with the action, and to cutting to different distances and angles that mirror the points of view of the different participants. But in the midst of such violence, Griffith takes time for quiet, tender moments: the moment when the two boys, one Cameron and one Stoneman, die in each other’s arms; the moment in which a weeping mother on a hilltop views the destructiveness of the invading army in the valley.
This shot, one of the most celebrated in the film, shows Griffith’s control of the masking- or irising-effect, another of the innovations he developed in his apprentice years. The iris-shot masks a certain percentage of the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention completely on a circle or rectangle or some other shape of light within the blackened screen rectangle; The iris, analogous to the theatre spotlight or today’s zoom lens, either shrinks the audience’s focus from the whole field to a single point or expands our focus from the single point to the whole field.
In The Birth of a Nation’s famous iris shot, Griffith begins tightly on the weeping mother’s face and then irises out to reveal the awesome army below her, the cause of her sorrow. This use of the mask shot to reveal cause and effect is only one of many in the picture.
Griffith often uses animals as symbols or to define his characters and their emotional states. In the early sequence depicting the gentle, peaceful life of the old South (analogous to the opening sequence of Judith of Bethulia), Griffith shows Doctor Cameron gently stroking two puppies. Significantly, one of the puppies is black and the other white; it is also significant that a kitten soon begins to play with the pups and starts a fight. The dogs become visual metaphors for Griffith’s idealized prewar South, a happy mixture of different races and social classes, able to work out their own problems; the cat is the intrusive outsider who hurts the white pup. Later in the film Griffith crosscuts between the two lovers, Elsie and Ben, gently playing with a dove while the savage Lynch mistreats a dog. The attitudes of the characters toward animals ultimately reveal their attitudes toward people.
Another of Griffith’s artistic devices is his use of the main street in the town of Piedmont as a barometer of the film’s emotional and social tensions. At the film’s opening the street is full of people and carriages: active, sociable, friendly. As the Confederate soldiers first march off to war, the street becomes a carnival: fireworks, cheering townspeople, rhythmic columns of men on horses. When “the little Colonel” (Ben Cameron) returns home after the war, the street is desolate, ruined, dusty, dead. And finally, when the town is overrun with carpetbaggers and reconstructionists, drunken gangs of black men rove the street; the street has become a very unfriendly, ungentle place. By capturing human emotion in concrete visual images Griffith successfully renders human feeling rather than a parody of feeling, as in Queen Elizabeth.
The Birth of a Nation is part mammoth spectacle and part touching human drama. It is also part melodrama and part allegorical vision. Griffith never deserts the constructional principles of his early melodramatic one-reelers as the means to keep his story moving. The suspense and excitement of Griffith’s cross-cutting create the dramatic tension of many of the sequences: the attack of a band of black renegades (significantly their captain is white) on the defenseless town and the Cameron home (and women); the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre; the rapacious Gus chasing the littlest Cameron girl through the woods until she falls to her death.
The most thrilling sequence of all is, appropriately, the final one in which Griffith gives us not one but two last-minute rescues. Not only does Griffith cross-cut from the victims to the potential agents of their rescue, he cuts between two sets of victims and their common saviors—the Ku Klux Klan—furiously galloping forth to eradicate the forces of rapine and death. Not only is this rescue sequence Griffith’s most complex up to this point, it is also his most sensitive to the kinetic excitement of editing rhythms and the moving camera.
But after the dust from the galloping climax has settled, Griffith celebrates the peaceful union of Elsie Stoneman and Ben Cameron with a superimposed allegorical pageant in the heavens. Elsie and Ben see Christ replacing the military general (Alexander the Great?); Christ cuts the Gordian knot and all humanity rejoices as the City of God replaces the Kingdoms of the Earth. There are several remarkable things about this closing vision: its audacity, its irrelevance, and the passion and sincerity of Griffith’s commitment to it. But exactly how is this City of God to become a reality? Certainly not by the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan alone. It is the evil in the human soul that must be exorcised. And once again Griffith reveals his nearsightedness in probing what he considers evil.
The evil in the film is instigated by three people. They are evil (1) because they are evil, or (2) because they have mixed blood. They succeed in doing evil because they entice the naturally good, but easily tempted, Congressman Stoneman to the abolitionist cause. His temptation stems from his vanity despite his physical deformity (Griffith brilliantly uses a club foot, parallel to the classic deformity of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and an ill-fitting wig to define these traits), and from the “fatal weakness” of being sexually attracted to his mulatto housekeeper. According to the film’s action, the chaos of the Civil War was the direct result of the nation’s Stonemans who became entangled in an evil of which they were totally ignorant or that they unwisely thought they could control. Even granting Griffith this preposterous premise, how is one to be sure the future contains no Stonemans? And how can one abolish slavery without abolition? The Birth of a Nation’s final vision is an innocent and mystical wish rather than the intellectual consequence of what preceded it. The film remains solid as human drama and cinematic excitement, flimsy as abstract social theory.
Right after The Birth of a Nation, Griffith made The Mother and the Law (1915, released 1919), a tightly constructed melodrama starring Mae Marsh (the Dear One), Bobby Harron (the Boy), and Miriam Cooper (the Friendless One); it indicted reformers and big business while telling a powerful story of love, loss, and endurance. Aitken and Griffith, who had set up their own company (Epoch) to finance and distribute The Birth of a Nation, had by now left Mutual for the Triangle Film Corporation, whose big three were Griffith, Thomas Ince, and Mack Sennett. But the controversy over The Birth led to Griffith’s pulling The Mother and the Law from Triangle’s release schedule; instead he and Aitken set up another separate company (Wark) to produce Intolerance (1916).
Griffith’s treatment of blacks provoked public condemnation, even riots. The criticism stung Griffith deeply, since he felt he had gone to some trouble to present good and bad blacks and whites, as he had watered down or cut out the novel’s most inflammatory, racist passages. (What he kept of Dixon’s prose included “the opal gates of death”; what he left out sounded like this, and his reasons for deleting it are obvious: “For a thick-lipped, flat-nosed, spindle- shanked negro, exuding his nauseating animal odour, to shout in derision over the hearths and homes of white men and women is an atrocity too monstrous for belief.” The KKK had permanently disbanded in 1869, and Dixon nostalgically dedicated his 1905 “historical romance,” The Clansman, to the memory of his “Scotch-Irish” uncle, a “Grand Titan Of The Invisible Empire”; unfortunately, The Birth of a Nation used the medium so powerfully that Griffith’s film unexpectedly but indisputably inspired the birth of the twentieth-century Klan in late 1915.) Griffith began defending himself against the charges of bigotry and hatred; he angrily protested the film’s suppression in several cities and wrote The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, a pamphlet that championed the “Freedom of the Screen.” Intolerance was to be his cinematic defense, his pamphlet in film form against intellectual censorship. Fortunately for Griffith, The Birth of a Nation became the first authentic blockbuster in film history, earning untold millions of dollars; he would need his entire share of that money for Intolerance, its cost nearly half a million dollars ($493,800), its release length fourteen reels (his longest film, between 13,500 and 13,700 feet [of 35mm film, which has 16 frames per foot], not all of which survives), its conception so vast that it was to The Birth of a Nation as The Birth of a Nation was to Judith of Bethulia.
Filled with little known facts and personal remembrances of the stars of the silent screen, Silent Players profiles the lives and careers of the hundred best, brightest, or most unusual silent film actors and actresses Anthony Slide shows that the unlikely plot twists in many silent films are nothing compared to the strange and often sad, lives led by many of the men and women whose images flickered onscreen.
There is a title that describes Lillian Gish’s title character in Romola (1925) as “learned of books but of the world untaught.” That probably provides the shortest, and best, word portrait of Lillian Gish as seen on screen and as she exists in the public psyche. She certainly loved books, and her apartment was crowded with titles, many first editions signed by their famous authors. The Gish characters were generally ethereal, unworldly and unsuspecting of the evils of society, of which they were often made abruptly and dangerously aware. Be it the mulatto Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation (1915), von Strohm, the Hunnish soldier in Hearts of the World (1918), a brutal father in Broken Blossoms (1920), the debauched Lennox Sanderson in Way Down East (1920), or the revolutionary mob in Orphans of the Storm (1922), Lillian Gish faced considerable danger on screen. She won out through a strength of character that is symbolic of Lillian Gish in real life. She was always strong, always a fighter, taking up causes as varied as the isolationist America First prior to World War Two, a commemorative stamp for her mentor D.W. Griffith, or the need to preserve America’s newsreels. As a child, Lillian had been told by her mother to project her voice in order that it might be heard in the theatre by those seated in the furthest row. She never ceased projecting her voice and her image as a legendary actress on screen and on stage.
Lillian was always the consummate professional. As a young actress, she faced horrific working conditions, extreme cold, and extreme heat in Why Down East (1920) and The Wind (1928) and never complained. At a time of scandal in the film industry, Gish told The Moving Picture World (March 4, 1922), “I have heard that there are terrible people in the movies, but I never see them. And there are terrible people everywhere for that matter. Why even the weather is not always what it should be.” In later life, she never openly groused about a location or work demand, at times to the irritation of younger actors and actresses, who saw no reasons to extend the harsh circumstances of early filmmaking through to the present. She was always on time, always knew her lines—just as mother taught her. “Speak clearly-and loudly otherwise another little girl will get the part,” said Gish’s mother, and I am sure that Lillian always worried about that other little girl waiting in the wings.
Jane Wyatt, who appeared with Lillian on Broadway in 1954 in Philip Barry’s The Joyous Season, told me, “I remember coming to the first rehearsal. We were all in awe of her, and she was so mysterious. She came in with a great coat to the floor and a hood. And she knew all her lines! Then she impressed me because she didn’t have a theatre maid, and everybody had a theatre maid.”
There is no question that even contemporary audiences could sometimes find a Lillian Gish performance irritating. “Lillian Gish weeps like a fish, wrote one disgruntled fan. “The mood in which to go to the theatre is one of naive vacuity, expecting nothing,” opined Robert Benchley in the old Life humor magazine. Try to look like a close-up of Lillian Gish.” In the December 1926 edition of Photoplay, editor and publisher James R. Quirk wrote a most outspoken attack on an actress, whose salary at MGM was at the time the highest paid to any performer and, in reality, over $7,000 a week:
“Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of six thousand bucks every week. Even as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, she proves conclusively that babies are brought by storks. I d pay triple admission to see her play Madam Bovary.
“In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attack of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians and 999 conscienceless men about town. Some day I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.”
I first met Lillian Gish on August 30, 1969. She was in London to present her one-woman show, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me, and I had prepared the printed program handed out to the audience. We meet at the Connaught Hotel, where Lillian always stayed when in England, and she inscribed for me a copy of her autobiography, which has the same title as her show. She also spent a couple of hours talking about various aspects of her career, an interview in which she was surprisingly frank in view of our never having previously met, and one which is often quoted by other authors.
The Lillian Gish career scarcely needs recording here. There can be few who are not aware of her devastating performances for D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have first become aware of the unique quality of her acting when he directed her at American Biograph. Lillian and younger sister Dorothy made their debut there in The Unseen Enemy, released on September 9, 1912, a one-reel suspense drama featuring the pair. The Mothering Heart, a two-reeler, released on June 21, 1913, first demonstrated the emotional intensity of which Lillian was capable. As a wife who has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and, later, lost her baby, Lillian’s anguish is almost unbearable to watch as she walks in the garden, destroying all the flowers and plants around her. As she and husband (Walter Miller) are reunited, a title asks, “Forgiveness—Is there any greater act?” It would appear not from a viewing of this, arguably the most moving of the American Biograph shorts.
After leaving Griffith, Lillian continued as a major star of the silent screen, appearing in The White Sister (1923), Romola (1925), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), and others. With the coming of sound, her importance in the industry dwindled. She is good in His Double Life (1932), but not as good as Grade Fields is as the same character in the 1943 remake, Holy Matrimony. Gish’s comeback role in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) is hardly worthy of consideration, and many of her later films were not really worth the effort. In a way, she returned triumphantly to the screen not in the 1940s but in 1955 under Charles Laughton s direction in The Night of the Hunter. Here, Lillian is the mother figure, suffering the little children to come unto her, harsh at times, sometimes angry, but always loving and forgiving. Sensibly Laughton chooses to end the film with Lillian, symbolic of her burgeoning status as a legend, a link not only with the past in which the film is set but also the past as represented by a directorial and pictorial style heavily influenced by both D.W. Griffith and German expressionism.
Lillian, of course, was never a mother, and, as one perceptive female viewer pointed out to me, she was obviously uncomfortable with infants. In Way Down East, in which she baptizes her dying child, the actress has no idea how to hold the baby.
Followers of the Gish screen career might be concerned as to how it would end after watching her playing worthless roles in worthless films such as Hambone and Hillie (1984) and Sweet Liberty (1986). When in 1987 it was announced that she was to co-star with Bette Davis in Mike Kaplan’s production of The Whales of August, enthusiasm was mingled with anxiety when Lindsay Anderson was hired as the director. How could the man responsible for such raw, naked drama as This Sporting Life and If… handle Lillian Gish? Surprisingly well. He controlled whatever troubling mannerisms Gish and Davis might have adopted during their long careers, kept both under control, and gave Lillian one last great movie scene. On the 46th wedding anniversary of her character, Sarah, she sits at a table, with a white rose “for truth’’ and a red rose “for passion,’’ and with a glass of wine in hand talks to her long dead husband of the day’s happenings. It is a screen moment as intense in its dramatic simplicity as anything D.W. Griffith could have contemplated.
Despite the paucity of great film roles in the sound era, Lillian Gish was able to continue her career and endure on stage. Also, with surprising speed, she gained legendary status, something that the actress most carefully nurtured. She was always someone special; as early as 1925, one fan magazine writer commented that to interview Lillian Gish was a privilege and a pleasure. Lillian played with the truth, even changing the year of her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, from 1893 to 1896. She would recount stories of the making of her films that were not perhaps always completely accurate but which entertained and enthralled her audience. She behaved in the manner of a legend but at the same time never lost personal touch with her fans. Lillian was always overly gracious in responding to fan mail, and after a performance of her one-woman show, she would never leave the auditorium until requests for autographs from every member of the audience had been granted.
Lillian Gish always knew what to say to make one feel special. I recall she and James Frasher, her longtime manager, friend, and companion, coming to my house to pick me up. Lillian’s first words upon seeing my somewhat humble abode were, “Truly you live in beauty.” I was completely entranced but later somewhat nonplussed to discover that she said exactly the same thing upon seeing where anyone lived.
Thanks in large part to Jim Frasher, it has been my good fortune to be with Lillian on a number of special occasions. Our mutual, close friend was Herb Sterne, who double-dated with Lillian, Griffith, and Griffith’s wife Evelyn in the 1940s. Lillian and Herb corresponded on a regular basis, with most of the former’s comments directed to Herb’s cat, Squire Bartlett, and signed Anna Moore. (Way Down East was Herb’s favorite film.) When Lillian did the Blackglama advertisement, “What Becomes a Legend Most?,” she sent a copy to Squire with the inscription, “My fur vs. yours. How’s this for the cat’s meow?” It was that sort of relationship that Herb enjoyed with Lillian.
Whenever she was in town, Lillian would have lunch with Herb, and I was also lucky enough to be invited. Herb was a resident of the Motion Picture Country House and another resident, Mary Astor, also joined us on at least one occasion. At the time she directed her only feature film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), starring sister Dorothy and her husband James Rennie, Lillian also devoted an entire Sunday to directing Mary Astor’s screen test.
Mary Astor was one of the few film performers with whom Lillian was close. She really did not know many of her contemporaries. Once we stood talking in the parking lot at the Motion Picture Country House, and Mary Brian and Harriet Nelson came by. Knowing them both, I introduced them to Lillian, who obviously had no idea who they were. Lillian also had an inability to understand that other actresses were not like her. Herb Sterne remembered that once at Pickfair, Gish chastised Mary Pickford for giving a pension to an American Biograph actress. “She had the same opportunities as us,” argued Lillian. “No, we had talent,” responded Pickford.
I have a tenuous link to Lillian’s last and seldom noted contribution to film. In 1988, I was commissioned by Boss Film Corporation to write a treatment for a ten-minute epilogue to Intolerance, which was to be filmed in 70 mm and screened after a Japanese presentation of the feature. The music for the epilogue was played live by a symphony orchestra, and the only recorded words heard were those of Lillian Gish. The comments were “lifted” from various interviews, but there were a couple of potential quotes that could not be found in such sources. I wrote these in the style of Lillian Gish, as represented in her autobiography, and she recorded them in her New York apartment. A year after making The Whales of August and five years prior to her death on February 27, 1993, Lillian sounds old, but there is still strength to her voice, and, I have to admit, she did choose to add a couple of words of her own to my dialogue. What becomes a legend most asked the Blackglama advertisement. Immortality. And Lillian has certainly earned that.
Note: Lillian Gish’s papers are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.
November 23, 2020.Reading time less than 1 minute.
In fact, while the photo itself has the credit “Birth of a Nation” on the right at the very bottom of the image, this is incorrect. Although a number of sources in recent years have incorrectly attributed this to the 1915 spectacle, the photo is actually from Griffith’s next-to-last film, “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), in the memorable sequence depicting General Phil Sheridan’s ride during the Civil War. While this may be one of the more minor of the many errors plaguing the chronicling of Griffith and his legacy these days.
The tests had all been made for my experimental method of photography for Broken Blossoms. This was to be an inexpensive project. The sets were simple and there would be few actors, so the actual shooting time would be fast. In fact, we made the entire picture in eighteen days.
For the first day’s shooting, I had placed the lights for the actual taking, but we hadn’t gone ahead because so much time had been spent on rehearsing. Lillian Gish was exhausted when the time came for the usual shooting, and Griffith decided to make the shots early next morning after Lillian had rested.
My assistant, Karl Brown, was waiting for me at my gate next day. “Gee, everyone’s waiting for you on the set. Mr. Griffith is there, too, and he won’t go ahead without you,” Karl Brown said. We got there and I rushed in, shedding my coat. The camera, film, and everything were in position, Karl had seen to that; all I had to do was focus. I didn’t even take time out to say good morning, but looked hurriedly through the ground glass at Lillian, seated in position, dressed in the finery Cheng Huan (Dick Barthelmess) had decked her out in. I could see just a beautiful face, I hadn’t noticed the hair or anything else about her, except her eyes, and on them I focused, making sure only one light reflected in the pupil of her eyes. I closed the camera.
“Lights!” I called to the gaffer. “All ready, Mr. Griffith.”
“Camera! ” he gave the command for action.
I had ground out but a few feet when Karl, who looked at the lens marks, said nervously, “You forgot to stop your lens!
“Shut up!” I cautioned. “We’ll take it over again anyway.”
“But, Mr. Bitzer,” Karl insisted, pulling at my sleeve. “You started before all the lights were on. All those top lights you figured out so carefully yesterday were not lit, and some others.”
Then I saw I would have to pay more attention or someone, like Sartov, would make me look bad: Anyway, the scene stayed in as it was, and Mr. Griffith did not take it over. He just said at the finish, “Come on, let’s move along.”
Now the lens I was using was a 3-inch Dallmeyr F.I.9 with a large aperture. It was a lens I never would have used wide open, because of its depth and general fuzziness and uncertainty. This was the fast lens, however, and with the low-key lighting from directions I would not use ordinarily, and my focus on the eyes as I saw them—all this combined with that element of luck made the first beautiful soft-focus head on the screen.
As we developed tests of every scene taken, favorable reports came back. We had a beautiful new atmospheric effect never before seen on film, something that would lend itself to the dull gold sheen I had desired. Throughout the rest of Broken Blossoms, I went right on duplicating the lighting and photography.
Lillian’s acting was quiet and unemotional. She was an excellent pantomimist, who used her body to express emotion. In Blossoms she made her sad, fearful smile by using her fingers to turn up the corners of her mouth when commanded by the sadistic Battling Burrows, her father (Donald Crisp), to smile. For her “trapped animal” scene, when she is cornered in the closet, terrified that Battling Burrows will kill her, Griffith closed off the set so just we three, Griffith, Lillian, and the camera, were present. “Load the camera with plenty of film, Billy,” Griffith said. “I’m going to shoot this scene without stopping, even if it takes all day to do it.” Then turning to Lillian, he said, “Are you ready?”
“Yes, Mr. Griffith” was her obedient reply, as she walked into the three-frame closet set.
In a frenzy, Lillian’s eyes fair popped out of her head. I began to grind the film, for I could sense that this was it. She began to shake, and the muscles of her face quivered in abject fright. I almost wept at seeing her suffering, while Griffith leaned forward in his director’s chair, relishing every moment of it.
I kept cranking the film through the camera until the entire thousand feet were finished and there was no more film. As Lillian came from the closet, Griffith rushed to her and caught her before she slipped into a faint. “Get her maid, Billy, and that will be all for today.”
Then to Lillian he spoke words of comfort: “You were just great, Lucy, you were great.” The greatest compliment was calling her Lucy, the character’s name. I left them alone as I went for her maid.
Griffith thought only in terms of picture-making. His instincts and knowledge worked together. His eyes saw everything, noted everything, with the skill of an artist. He seemed to feel no emotion, no pain, no pity. To be other than dispassionate in this artificial setting would have ruined the performance. All that interested the professional in him was that the performance should have shock value and still seem natural.
The finished picture was a tribute to his dedicated skill, and many writers consider it his best. Broken Blossoms was a departure from the tried-and-true formulas. As such it was shocking and needed the soft tones of gold on the prints and the soft focus Sartov created. When shown at the George M. Cohan theater in New York, it was surrounded on the stage frame by Chinese-blue lantern light, giving it soft Oriental tones. While containing none of the spectacular qualities of The Birth, it gave us an insight into Lillian’s dramatic artistry not seen before and established her as & great dramatic discovery.
When it opened in May 1919, Broken Blossoms received rave notices. It made more money in proportion to cost than any picture Griffith ever made, except The Birth of a Nation.