Silent Players – Anthony Slide (2002)

  • A biographical and autobiographical study of 100 silent film actors and actresses
  • Silent Players – Anthony Slide
  • Copyright © 2002 by The University Press of Kentucky

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.

Lillian Gish – The Joyous Season

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.

1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

“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.

Alan Alda – Lillian Gish

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.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

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.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

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.

Lillian Gish (film director) – Remodeling Her Husband

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.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

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Lillian Gish in Romola (Program)

Lillian Gish in Romola

Her every characterization is attempted with her own persuasive charm and wistful beauty … Always she reveals suffering and sacrifice, not of the flesh but of the spirit … Never has Lillian Gish failed to create a role which did not become a classic.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

Wherever motion pictures are shown in the world over, the name GISH stands for pre-eminence. In six of the nine or ten truly great pictures thus far made, Lillian Gish created roles which will live forever. What an artiste! Never will the world forget her inspired acting. In two of these immortal classics, “Hearts of the World” and “Orphans of the Storm,” her talented sister, Dorothy Gish, shared the honors. In “Romola,” they are together again, and they are more wonderful than ever before.

There never was such a praise!

“I like ‘Romola’ better than ‘The White Sister’ (Louella O. Parsons in NY American)

“Lillian Gish’s ‘Romola’ is a beautiful portrait.” (Peter Milne in N.Y. Morning Telegraph)

“Fine Work that – work that brought a cheer from the audience.” (Mildred Spain in N.Y. Daily News)

“Amazingly wondrous to behold! … To the end, the charm of the Gishes holds one.” (Allene Talney in N.Y. World)

“Romola is a touching story … a delicate, beautifully-shaded pastoral.” (N.Y. Evening Post)

“Lillian Gish in the title role seems to step out of an artist’s canvas … while Dorothy Gish is excellent as the peasant girl.” (Rose Pelswick in N.Y. Eveining Journal)

“Lillian Gish brings to ‘Romola’ all the wistful charm and the indefinable sense of pathos which make her unique among film stars.” (Helen Bishop in N.Y. Evening Journal)

What the great of Europe say about “Romola”

Georges Clemenceau, former premier of France: “Such a work of art merits every success.”

Dr. Guido Biagi, director of the Laurentian Library Florence: “As editor of the novel ‘Romola’ I desire to express my appreciation that you came to Florence where the scenes of the book actually were laid and here reproduced them for the screen. I congratulate you upon the beauty and sumptuousness with which the production has been staged.”

Leonce Benedite, director of the Luxembourg Museum and the Rodin Museum, Paris: “It is notable for its settings, its costumes and its vibrant semblance of reality.”

Santiago Alba, former minister of Fine Arts in Spain: “It is a page of the most delicate art and appeals like few other films.”

Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence: “In the film ‘Romola’, the costumes, the principals and the ensembles seem to have been studied with the greatest possible care. Bravo for the beautiful work of Inspiration Pictures.”

Firmin Gemier, director of the Odeon National Theatre, Paris: “I must tell you how marvelous I think ‘Romola’ is. Your reconstruction of the golden age of Florence gave me one of the greatest surprises of my life. It is a glorious moment from an epoch in which all true artists, all people of culture, all those who have loved and thought passionately, would like to have lived.”

P. Bonnard, one of the greatest living French painters: “It will awaken longings for the glorious past and enthuse all souls that follow ideals.”

“The scenes in ‘Romola’ are so beautiful that they in themselves are worth instant one spends viewing this picture.” Mordaunt Hall in N.Y. Times.

Romola – photo gallery

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Romola – Wid’s Weekly 1924

Wid’s Weekly – The Film Authority – Published in Hollywood

Thursday, December 25, 1924

This is Beautiful But Blaa as Drama. Watch Your Step


Inspiration—Metro-Goldwyn Length 14 Reels

Lillian Gish and William Powell – Romola (Wedding Scene) detail
  • DIRECTOR.Henry King
  • AUTHOR.George Eliot’s story, adapted by Will Ritchey.
  • CAMERAMEN.Roy Overbaugh, William Schurr and Ferdinand Risi.
  • GET ’EM IN.I can’t see this for big box office values, except where you make rash promises, which I would advise you not to do.
  • PLEASE ’EM.The atmospheric background is beautiful, but this misses entirely as entertainment. There are a few good moments, but on the whole it doesn’t stir you.
  • WHOOZINIT.Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Ronald Colman, and a lot of Italian players.
  • STORY VALUES…. There were good situations here, but they tried to tell too much story, and as told, none of it carried a wallop.
  • TREATMENT.I believe the evident struggle of photographing abroad, under baffling conditions, hampered the director and players in getting across what they were striving to register.
  • CHARACTERIZATIONS.William Powell dominated. Lillian Gish, as the sweet, sad-faced child, and Dorothy Gish, as the slapstick roughneck, did their well-known stuff, but instead of impressing as characterisations, it was rather an effect of the Gish girls running around in a lot of foreign atmosphere.
  • ARTISTIC VALUES.Certainly this is impressive as an artistic achievement, figured from the composition and photographic viewpoint.

When they have to tell you how to pronounce a title, I believe that the title is a flop. Before I saw this film I was ready to say that it was going to be a tough job to get the customers past the box office, because of the exploitation angles available. I knew that if the picture was big enough it could pull, in spite of these handicaps. Unfortunately, the picture is not big enough.

Henry King is a darn good director, but Henry here was undoubtedly licked before he started by conditions necessary to be faced in eleven months of knocking around Italy, grinding atmosphere.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

I never read this book. I am willing to display my ignorance. I am willing to go on record with the statement that about 90 per cent of the prospective ticket purchasers will not only never have read this book, but will not be impressed with the fact that it was written by George Eliot. At least I knew about George, and when I discovered that it was her book, then I was interested.

There were some excellent situations in this yarn. Unfortunately, as visualized, these situations do not register. I attribute that principally to conditions under which the film was shot, and afterwards, conditions under which it was edited, since friction existed, during that period, between the director and the company for whom it was made. I still feel that possibly some of the failure to make this story register was due to the fact that they did not build a continuity which would high spot certain big moments and bridge over the routine mechanics.

Romola – Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish

This thing, as it is, just drifts and drifts and drifts. It runs too much in the same tempo. Too much attention is paid to the doings of people who really mean nothing to the audience. Savonarola and his career might be of interest if this had been figured as a study of Italian history, but where we were supposed to be following the adventures of a quartette of young people, the priest’s trials and tribulations failed to get a rise, although they took up an awful lot of footage.

There was a great situation where the young willun’s foster-father loomed up at-the banquet, but they let it flop. As Frank Tinney always said, they put it over but it laid there.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

I have liked the work of Lillian Gish, and I have liked the work of Dorothy Gish in many things. I couldn’t become the least enthused about either of them in this. A lotta Dorothy’s stuff was too broad, and too evidently a request for a laugh, to fit in smoothly. Lillian seemed to be taking herself too seriously. Throughout the picture I got the reaction that you were expected to consider that Lillian was giving a great characterization, just because she was Lillian Gish. Each of the girls pulled, upon occasion, their whirl gig run and dash stuff, which has caused some people to dub them the “Windmill Sisters.”

Lillian Gish – Romola

They opened this up with a sequence showing a pirate attack upon a merchant vessel. Once more we had the galley slave action on the screen. This sequence was rather well done photographically, but really did not give you a thrill. There were a good many mob sequences in the picture, but none of them meant much. It was an odd thing as a reaction, but on the first night’s showing in the Egyptian Theatre here the only spontaneous applause, excepting the introduction of the players at the first, came when on the screen appeared the leaning tower of Pisa, looming up at the back. To be sure that no one missed this tower, they put in a terribly crude title explaining its presence. Many other titles were decidedly crude, although at the end they didn’t even attempt to explain how hero Colman, in a rather mysterious manner, managed to get out of jail, where he had been languishing through considerable footage.

Egyptian Theater -1922

On the whole, I got rather the impression from ‘this of watching a lotta college students seriously doing Shakespeare before the marvelous buildings of their university. Everyone seemed so thoroughly to feel the weight of the undertaking.

My hunch about this would be that if you think it wise to occasionally hand your gang something about which in your exploitation you can high-hat them a little bit, then this will serve your purpose. You will have to do some plugging to get them in, but that may be accomplished. I have a feeling that while they will not particularly like it, they will be afraid to attempt to argue about it or pan it.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

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Women Film Directors – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster 1995

  • Women Film Directors
  • An International Bio-Critical Dictionary
  • Gwendolyn Audrey Foster 1995
  • Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut • London

Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary is a reference book designed primarily for use by students, historians, film critics, and film enthusiasts. The entries are arranged alphabetically and include biographical information, critical essay, selected filmography, and selected bibliographic information. Filmmakers were chosen on the basis of availability of information.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

GISH, LILLIAN (1896-1993). United States. Lillian Gish is well known as an early screen actress who worked closely in collaboration with D. W. Griffith. Born in Springfield, Ohio, Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, are perhaps the best-known screen actresses from the silent film period. Lillian Gish usually played the victimized heroine in early Griffith films, the embodiment of Victorian notions of feminine sexual purity and, as Richard Dyer notes, the essence of “whiteness.” Gish starred in The Mothering Heart (1913), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and many more films until 1987, when she acted in The Whales of August. Gish may have been passive in front of the camera in her early roles, but she was active behind the camera and behind the scenes on many of her films. She not only was active as a producer and collaborator but also directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920).

D. W. Griffith was initially slated to direct Remodeling Her Husband, starring Dorothy Gish, but at the last moment, for reasons that are still obscure, Griffith turned the direction of the film over to Lillian Gish. Dorothy Gish herself chose the story for the film, which was based on a cartoon in a magazine depicting a husband’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s appearance. Dorothy Parker wrote the comic subtitles for the film, which was her first Hollywood writing job. Unfortunately, Remodeling Her Husband appears to be a lost film, but if the plotline of the cartoon upon which the film is based is any indication, Remodeling Her Husband is a feminist critique of patriarchal gender expectations. The idea of making such a film must have attracted the Gish sisters, who were well aware of their iconic status as the quintessentially objectified women of the silent cinema. Remodeling Her Husband is a clever comedic subversion of male and female codes of beauty, which includes a scene of the leading man’s having his nails filed at a barbershop. Dorothy Parker’s subtitle for the scene reads, The divinity that shapes our ends,” a typical Parkeresque jab at masculine pomposity.

Remodeling Her Husband depicts an unfaithful husband whose wife goes to work to punish him for his actions. It seems appropriate that the Gish sisters, the penultimate screen “beauties,” irreverently mocked male attitudes so blatantly in Remodeling Her Husband. The film was a critical and box-office success. Budgeted at $50,000, the film made over $460,000 and was one of Gish’s most successful comedies. Despite this acclaim, after Remodeling Her Husband, Gish said she “never wanted to direct another film” (Gish, 226).

Lillian Gish describes the making of the film in detail in The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Not only was Gish responsible for directing Remodeling Her Husband in the winter of 1919, but Griffith also left her in charge of building a studio in his absence, while he went on location to shoot another film in Florida. Perhaps if Gish had not been saddled with the excess responsibility of overseeing construction on top of directing her first film, she may not have turned completely against the idea of film directing. Instead, Gish returned to acting and had one of the most famous and long-running careers in Hollywood. In 1970***, she earned the Academy Award for her Life Achievement in films. She was also awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Gish pioneered “naturalistic” acting and leaves a formidable legacy in motion picture history. It seems odd that Gish’s one feminist directorial effort is lost, given the fervor with which Griffith is obsessively archived by film historians. ***


Remodeling Her Husband (1920)

*** 1971 – Academy Awards, USA – Honorary Award – For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.

*** Kindly search this website with the key word “remodeling”. The results are conclusive.

Remodeling Her Husband – Photo Gallery

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Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Presentation Book (Australia) 1924

Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Presentation Book (Australia) 1924

The collection of The Museum of Modern Art – Department of Film

During the coming year you will receive from Metro-Goldwyn something like One Hundred first-class productions, most of which I have seen. It is the purpose of this book to give you, by means of pictures and type, some idea of the solidity, strength and progressive policy of Metro-Goldwyn and of the infinite variety and worth of our product—the product, which has, in less than a year of active output placed Metro-Goldwyn pre-eminent in the field.

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Great War Films (Hearts of the World 1918) – Lawrence J. Quirk 1994

  • The great war films
  • Lawrence J. Quirk 1994
  • A Citadel Press Book Published by Carol Publishing Group
Hearts of the World (Paramount, 1918) – Herald

Hearts of the World 1918


CAST: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Dorothy Gish, Josephine Crowell, Jack Cosgrove, Adolphe Lestina, Kate Bruce, Ben Alexander, George Fawcett, George Siegmann.

CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith (under an assumed name), screenplay; Billy Bitzer, photographer; James and Rose Smith, editors. Running time: 122 minutes.

Hearts Of The World Press Book – The Bride Gish

Established as master of war movies, D. W. Griffith took on World War I in Hearts of the World. It was made at the request of the British government in 1917-18, and is as much a propaganda film as a drama, with much newsreel footage thrown in for good measure. But its leads (Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish), its villain (George Siegmann), and an adorable child actor, Ben Alexander (who was to become a poignant, vulnerable soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front twelve years later), help greatly to put it over. And it also offers a glimpse of Noel Coward, age eighteen, pushing a wheelbarrow through a French village street.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

As always in Griffith works, the battle and skirmish scenes are handled with consummate depth and force, and Bitzer’s photography and James and Rose Smith’s editing point up the locations—many of them authentic—shot in England and France, with later photography in Hollywood. Griffith’s aptitudes with actors are also on impressive display, as he coaxes a winsome vulnerability from Lillian Gish; a manly, sensitive, but bewildered persona from Robert Harron; and a hoydenish esprit from Dorothy Gish, who plays a minxy type pursuing Harron, and whose title in the film (The “Little Disturber”) was to be her trademark henceforth and largely shape her screen characterizations through the 1920s.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

Siegmann delivers in grand style as the “Bad German”; he is up to no good here—and in spades. Siegmann was to give Erich Von Stroheim a run for his money in “Bad German” parts. Even his name, “Von Strohm,” was a takeoff on Von Stroheim’s.

Griffith never made any bones of the fact the picture was designed to effect America’s entry into the war: The project was conceived early in 1917, before the United States’ engagement in the European fracas, and released in 1918, at the height of the war. The story deals with Harron, the son of an expatriate family living in France, just before the outbreak of war, next to another American family whose daughter is Lillian Gish.

Hearts of The World

A romance develops between these two young people, but Dorothy Gish’s high-spirited singer seeks to win Harron for herself, even though his heart is permanently Lillian’s. (The romantic leads (Lillian Gish and Harron), are known throughout as “the Boy” and “the Girl.”) Just as they are to marry, the war breaks out. Though he is an American, Harron feels he should enlist on principle, and joins the French army. While Harron is off fighting, his family’s village is attacked and devastated by the Germans, and members of both expatriate families are killed. In a famous scene, Lillian, clutching her bridal gown, and deranged by her experiences, comes upon Harron—who lies seriously wounded. She sits beside him, and they spend in silence and terror (on her part) and oblivion (on his) what should have been their wedding night. When in the morning she looks for help, the Red Cross takes the wounded Harron away. She thinks him dead. Back in the village, the Little Disturber (Dorothy) now redeemed, nurses Lillian back to health.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Later, the Germans take over the village and make slave laborers of the inhabitants, including the Girl, while the Boy, who has recovered in a military hospital, becomes a spy behind German lines. He eventually makes his way back to the village in time to rescue the Lillian Gish character from a “fate worse than death” at the hands of a lustful German officer.

Such are the bones of the plot—but all is redeemed by Griffith’s authoritative handling of the suspense and terror and unpredictability of war. Masterfully he guides Gish and Harron into sharp portrayals that, despite their conventional outlines, take on a poignant individuality. And the attack on the village, and other action scenes, are riveting.

Robert Harron, an actor close to Griffith during his early career, was a sensitive, handsome performer who died in 1920 in a mysterious shooting accident. He was only twenty-six. His work in Hearts of the World, and his other fine performances, keep him alive for audiences and commentators alike.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding )

*** Admin note: Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were invited as guests by President Harding – April 22, 1922 Exhibitors Herald. – in Mr. Quirk’s book this photograph is captioned wrong as “Griffith (right) with Dorothy and Lillian Gish, abroad to make the film.”

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The Clamorous Era, 1910-1920 – The Movie Queens

  • The Clamorous Era
  • 1910 – 1920
  • By the Editors of TIME-LIFE BOOKS Alexandria, Virginia

America is in a period of clamor, of bewilderment, of an almost tremulous unrest. We are hastily reviewing all our social conceptions. We are profoundly disenchanted. – The New Democracy by Walter Weyl, 1912

The Movie Queens

LILLIAN AND DOROTHY GISH, two sisters who exuded a rarefied aura of crushed lavender and moonbeams (opposite), were among the first representatives of a new phenomenon in America—the movie queen. They belonged to a celebrated handful of film actresses, some demure ingenues, some femmes fatales, who had come to symbolize through their movie roles the romantic ideals of the nation. An adoring public showered them with fan letters, and girls all over America tried to emulate their clothes, their hair styles and their ways with men.

But like many silent film queens, the Gish sisters in real life were not quite what they seemed on the screen. Neither innocent nor fragile, they had already knocked about the theatrical world for almost a decade, playing children’s parts in road companies. They joined the movies in 1912, when Lillian (at left in the photograph) was 16 and Dorothy 14, after discovering that a friend, another child actress named Gladys Smith (below), was earning $175 a week at Biograph and riding around in a limousine.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

The Gishes were unruffled by Biograph’s unorthodox screen test, an unnerving 10 minutes during which the director, D. W. Griffith, chased them around the studio with a revolver, shooting off blanks. They signed up at five dollars a day and plunged into an arduous dawn-to-dusk work schedule that included frequent hardship and even danger. In one movie, Way Down East, Lillian was sent floating down Connecticut’s Farmington River on an ice pack, clad in a thin dress, her arm trailing in the frigid water, for more than 100 takes. Her prescription for surviving such ordeals was a regimen of spartan self-discipline: “Don’t eat much, take calisthenics every morning, sleep out of doors, take plenty of cold baths.”

Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East

Both sisters won kudos for acting; but Lillian achieved the greater acclaim for her outstanding work in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Hearts of the World. After her performance as a slum waif in Broken Blossoms, the theater critic George Jean Nathan rhapsodized, “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on the bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

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GRIFFITH (Hearts of the World) – Kevin Brownlow 1979

  • The War The West and The Wilderness
  • Kevin Brownlow 1979
  • Alfred A. Knopf – New York


The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of English cut, a bow tie—and a tin hat. It is David Wark Griffith, recorded by a British official cameraman on his tour of the front.

Griffith and the Great War 5

The sight of this elegant figure touring the scenes of the battle is like something out of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant afternoon outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history. A group of French soldiers ambles past the camera, some of them turning round to give a surly glance at the lens; Mr. Griffith follows them into the picture. The camera pans as he inspects a half-completed trench. French soldiers are sweating away with shovels. Griffith peers down, grins, makes a little digging gesture, and wanders out of shot. Next, he visits a heavily shelled concrete dugout. He stumbles over the rubble, awkward in his polished shoes, descends into a crater, and disappears into the dugout. Moments later he reappears to signal to the cameraman to cut.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

All the scenes have been carefully posed, and at the start of each shot, the participants wait for a moment before jerking into action, as though instructed by a director. Everyone plays the game but Griffith. As the party files through a reserve trench, they all duck their heads. Griffith, however, remains imperiously upright, spoiling a subtitle’s illusion that the enemy is but sixty yards away.

This trip to the front in May 1917 was a result of Griffith’s agreement to make a propaganda film for the British. It is perhaps ironic that Griffith should have traveled to England, ostensibly to attend the premiere of his great pacifist film Intolerance, but actually to make a film to promote the Allied cause. I owe to Russell Merritt the startling information that Griffith had already been approached by the British government before he left for England. Griffith’s own version has always been accepted as the truth: that he happened to be in England when a meeting of “the gifted men of Britain”-Barrie, Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton—decided the most effective medium for the Allied nations was not a book or a play but “a drama of humanity, photographed in the battle area.”

Griffith and the Great War 4

The new chairman of the War Office Cinematograph Committee was Lord Beaverbrook, and he had already instilled a more vigorous attitude to film-making among the Official Kinematographers. The idea of inviting Griffith to make a propaganda film was undoubtedly his, and the much-publicized meeting of the authors and playwrights probably a way of deflecting criticism from the fact that the “great director” was not British.

Griffith had left Triangle in March 1917, and a big special was part of his new contract with Adolph Zukor. By coincidence, one of the financiers of Triangle, and formerly of Mutual, was Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, who now moved to back Zukor. Otto Kahn was a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook, and despite being of German extraction, he was a naturalized British citizen who fervently supported the British war effort.

The New York Times leaked the news that Griffith’s plan was to make a motion picture history of the war—on a commission from the Allies that would take him to all the fronts—that would eventually be placed in the archives. This may have been a smoke screen for Beaverbrook’s true intention; he seems to have had a massive propaganda epic on the lines of The Birth of a Nation in mind.

Griffith and the Great War 6

The offer from the British government came at a moment when history had inspired Griffith with a sense of adventure. “In one way, this is indeed a great day to be alive,” he told reporters upon his arrival in Britain. “In another terrible. It is terrible when you see the things you must see and feel the things you must feel. It is the most terrific moment in the history of the world. We used to wish that we could have experienced the days of Caesar and Napoleon. And now incomparably greater times are taking place around us all.”

DW Griffith in France 1917

A special tour of the war zone was arranged for Griffith; he crossed the Channel in a Royal Navy destroyer and made a preliminary inspection of the front. Upon his return to England, he began to set up the production, and cabled to California for Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Billy Bitzer.

In London the company stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Billy Bitzer picked up film from Kodak—during an air raid-and then bumped into Lowell Thomas, who was on a similar mission. Thomas explained how hard it was to get film, and Bitzer told him to use his name. Thus the Griffith picture replenished the supplies of the Lowell Thomas operation, and when the two men met again, at a Press Association dinner at the Savoy, Thomas confirmed that the film was still coming through.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

The Gishes and Bobby Harron had raced up to the roof of the Savoy during the raid, and had seen the German planes returning, the pilots waving at the watchers on the roof. Lillian Gish suggested they go out to see the damage, and they discovered that a school in Whitechapel had received a direct hit. “Children and teachers were the victims,” wrote Bitzer. “When you hear the moans of the dying and see their mangled bodies, you realize what it is all about. We thought by getting to work immediately we might forget this scene. But we never did. Griffith, as a Southerner, was fascinated by the aristocracy of England. For a film concerned with the triumph of democracy, Hearts of the World was to have had a surprising amount of footage devoted to society beauties. But Griffith planned another film, Women and the War, to show how the idle rich had thrown themselves energetically behind the war effort.

Griffith introduced to Queen Alexandra 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

Dowager Queen Alexandra made an appearance and among the extras were such friends of Beaverbrook’s as Lady Lavery, Elizabeth Asquith, the Countess of Massarene, Princess Monaco, and Lady Diana Manners. The scenes were shot at Lady Ripon’s estate at Coombe Hill, Kingston, and the Army and Navy Hospital. Griffith sported his finest clothes; Bitzer was astounded at the gap between the classes, and wondered at the complacency of the working class in their support of the aristocracy. The material was eventually used in The Great Love.

Griffith and the Great War 1

Griffith was given facilities to film on Salisbury Plain, the British Army’s central maneuver area, and at Witley and Blackdown, near Aldershot. Official receipts refer to vast numbers of troops and explosives—some of which blew up by accident in storage and were the subject of an army enquiry. According to Griffith, he was also given the opportunity to return to France, with his cast. A somewhat confusing impression of the film’s production has grown up around this fact. Historians have stated that Hearts of the World was actually made at the front.

The front refers specifically to the battle area; the opposing trenches that zigzagged six hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland were known as the front lines. The only member of the company permitted to visit the front was Griffith himself, as the Ypres reels testify. Not even his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, was allowed near the place, although he flew to Le Bourget and filmed scenes in Montreuil. The fact that his full name was Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer didn’t help, but the army refused to allow photographs to be taken in the war zone except by official cameramen. Griffith was assigned an Official Kinematographer at Ypres, Frank Bassill.

Griffith 50 yards from German trenches – The war, the West, and the wilderness

When he returned to France in October 1917, Griffith was based in Paris, and assigned a cameraman from the Section Cinematographique of the French Army. A great deal of conflicting information has been written about the adventure. Did anyone accompany Griffith? According to Lillian Gish, she, her sister and her mother, and Bobby Harron went over; the French trip was hair-raising, and over the months” the Gish family became highly nervous and lost weight. But Griffith was only in France for a matter of two weeks. Mrs. Gish suffered a serious case of shell shock—was this due to the bombardment in France or to the concussion of the air defense guns situated next to the Savoy Hotel in London? The main location was the village of Ham, near St. Quentin, on the River Somme; Griffith stated that by a strange and unpleasant coincidence, the first scenes of the second act were taken in the village of Ham, “which has only recently fallen again into the hands of the German invader.” Yet just a handful of shots in the surviving versions were taken in France, and only one of them shows a member of the cast (Lillian Gish entering a devastated house). Billy Bitzer states categorically, While it is true many scenes were taken at the battle front by cameramen, I did not go there, and neither did any other member of the company, with the exception of Mr. Griffith.” (However, the Bitzer book is very inaccurate.)

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Griffith later made a statement that, appearing out of context, makes him seem an obsessive, single-minded, and callous man: “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing.” Single-minded Griffith may have been’ but he was not callous. The quote comes from a Photoplay interview with his old friend Harry Carr, war correspondent and future Griffith press agent, and it goes on to say that everything he saw—troop trains moving away to the front, wives parting from husbands they were never to see again—precisely fitted his imagination. “All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them in the pictures for years and years that I found myself absently wondering who was staging the scene.” The front lines were lacking in visual impact. “Everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No-Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness. At first you are horribly disappointed. There is nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are standing sometimes almost to their hips in ice-cold mud.

Griffith – gas alarm 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

“It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.”

Griffith’s disappointment with the war reflected his inability to capture any more than a fleeting impression of it. By this point, artillery bombardments and mortar shelling occurred intermittently around the clock, but the kind of action Griffith hoped for—”the dash and thrill of wars of other days”—tended to take place at night.

Griffith and the Great War 2

This is pure conjecture, but so much mystery surrounds the film that I feel obliged to make a few assumptions. Once Griffith had realized the difficulty of shooting at the front, he abandoned interest in it. His remarks to Carr suggest that he was justifying to himself his work of reconstruction—the real thing, after all, had proved indistinguishable from his inspired guesswork. There was no respect for documentary per se in those days, therefore why should he not reconstruct all the action scenes at his leisure, when he could lavish his customary care on each scene?

The reason advanced by Griffith for returning to France was to make use of the devastation; yet Russell Merritt has found evidence that the War Office offered Griffith the kind of ruins he needed in England. So why the second trip to France?

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

If it was for authentic backgrounds, why did they not appear more often in the final film? Only a few brief shots were taken in France. A cable from Griffith to Zukor refers to $5,000 paid to the French for “facilities,” which may explain why Griffith did not shoot the entire film on the locations described in the story. I put forward the suggestion that the trip to France with the cast was the equivalent of the trip round the trenches; the idea of it gave the film a reputation for authenticity, and a veracity and dignity beyond all other war films. This is supported by the elaborate fiction given out by Griffith and his press agents, for example in a New York Times interview of 14 April 1918, which asserts that Bitzer, George Siegmann, George Fawcett, and the child, Ben Alexander, went to France, which they did not, and which describes the company sheltering from bombardment for four hours in a cellar and becoming the target of an air raid. Lillian Gish, in her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, gives as definitive an account of the trip as we are likely to have; she talks of shells falling “close enough to make us nervous.”

Hearts of the World

It is this lurid melodrama that acts as a barrier for modern audiences. George Siegmann’s attempt to rape Lillian Gish seems somewhat less important today than the mass slaughter raging outside. While Siegmann’s behavior would have aroused audiences of 1918 to a pitch of patriotic fury—and we must always remember that people reacted to films in those days far more intensely than we do today—sixty years later audiences are merely amused. But look at the scene. It is actually very cleverly directed. It begins as a game; Siegmann sees his opportunity, locks the door, and has a bit of fun with the girl. He leans back in a chair and traps her tiny figure with his legs. At this point, Siegmann plays the scene amusingly, and his jack- booted horseplay fits his character. He is transformed to door-battering fury not by his inability to rape Miss Gish, but by the more serious matter of enemy infiltration. Bobby Harron, a French soldier in German uniform, has penetrated the building, an officer has been killed, and Siegmann’s desperation is thus dramatically legitimate.

Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, according to Russell Merritt, was horrified by the scenes of German brutality, and she conveyed her feelings, which undoubtedly coincided with those of her husband, directly to Griffith. He sent a lengthy telegram: “Spent a sleepless night and troubled day, trying to think why the play has made such an effect on you.” He blamed his excesses on the fact that the public was “a very stolid, hard animal to move or impress. We must hit hard to touch them.” Nevertheless, he agreed to eliminate a couple of scenes so that his film would “hit the masses” but would not offend “the refined and sensitive spirits such as yourself. Otherwise I shall be a very disappointed, broken individual, for my hopes and my work and prayers have been so bound up in this that, unless it is pleasing in your household, I feel that everything has been in vain.” Mrs. Wilson’s criticism evidently led to the reshooting of the scene in which the German soldier whipped Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish witnessing her mother’s death in the Hearts of The World

Griffith must have been particularly hurt by Mrs. Wilson’s reaction since he despised the pro-war propaganda pictures and was aiming at a much more elevated kind of film. Melodrama apart, the picture has some admirable scenes. Griffith never falls into the trap of romanticizing war. There are no false heroics, and the horrors of war are shown as powerfully as possible. “War’s gift to the common people” declares a title before scenes of panic and evacuation in the village. Lillian Gish’s old father refuses to leave his home. A shell explodes on the house. When Miss Gish rushes back to search for him, Griffith makes us flinch, even today, with a brief flash of the old man’s body-blown in half. And the audience has to share Lillian Gish’s agony at the death of her mother-a most moving performance- and her delirious state when she celebrates what should have been her wedding night. She finds out where Bobby Harron’s company has been fighting, and by the light of the moon, she runs out to join him. When she finds him, he is apparently dead. Wrapping herself in her wedding dress against the cold, she gently presses her body against his and joins him in sleep.

Hearts of The World – Lillian Gish with the girl’s most precious possession – her wedding dress

It is the sense of authenticity that makes the film so compelling, and yet there is very little that is authentic. The village is compounded of parts of Stanton, near Broadway, Worcestershire, and Shere, in Surrey, together with back-lot construction in Hollywood (on the old Intolerance set). The close-combat scenes resemble Gettsysburg more than Verdun. Worse still, the child, Benny Alexander, remains the same age throughout the entire four years of war. But for much of the film, it takes an expert to distinguish the reconstruction from the actuality material. Griffith included documentary scenes that are now beyond price. Almost shyly, he begins the film with a title begging the audience’s indulgence for his unusual prologue. “It has no possible interest except to vouch for the rather unusual event of an American producer being allowed to take pictures on an actual battlefield.” Griffith is shown in the trench at Cambrin, and at Number io Downing Street; Lloyd George shakes Griffith’s hand, wishing him “great success for his picture.” (He was actually saying goodbye on the day Griffith left for the United States!) “Apologies and thanks,” says a title. “The picture follows.”

Hearts Of The World Press Book – The Bride Gish – searching on the battlefield for her lover (Robert Harron)

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