Though it be as perfect in outline and ornament as classic taste can make it, as simple and serviceable as the most energetic worker can desire, a costume has not business to exist, is, indeed, an embodied crime, if it deforms or weakens or tortures the body it pretends to serve. For that should be sacred: it is Gods handiwork. He made it as he wished it to be; capable, by wonderful mechanisms, of swift and easy motion; shaped in contours which artists despair of reproducing; and so responsive to our will, so varied in its capacities, so lightly moved from place to place by its own powers, that in its perfect state the soul which inhabits it is almost unconscious of its existence, and knows it only as a source of help and pleasure. —from Dress Reform,
EDITED BY ABBA GOOLD WOOLSON, Boston, 1874
American theater of those days was anything but flat—David Belasco and his colleagues had generated astonishing amounts of motion within the proscenium’s boundaries: using actors, scenery, crowds, and massive music and lighting effects.
Griffith brought all that theatrical weaponry to the movies—as Ruth St. Denis did to dance. Griffith had toured with Nance O’Neil and Julia Marlowe, played Shakespeare and melodrama, and written a play himself; he understood rhythms like Belasco’s and Belasco’s staging: his private dramas played out against the movement of the crowd. But Griffith also brought some extra-theatrical concerns to movies similar to those the first dancers brought to their art. He loved literature as Isadora Duncan did, especially the Romantic poets Tennyson, Keats, Poe—and most of all he loved Walt Whitman. Griffith was a Whitman-esque soul like Isadora: he thrived on fresh air, action, and love of his fellow man, alias his audience. Like Whitman and like Isadora, Griffith’s convictions were wedded to his physical self—his gusts of feeling determined the form of this new art of movies without previous guidelines from inside it. He made his art out of his senses and his deepest convictions, as they had theirs. On the screen he translated the passion of a story, the elan, into a cadenced flow just as Whitman had poured his physicality into the vicissitudes of words and Isadora had shaped her body around the dynamics of music.
The American health and open-air movement of the time supported this experimental physicality; Griffith’s own senses had been educated by it. He was a physical-culture man; he believed in Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of fitness and in exercise fetishes. He could have been a Ralstoner with his theories—“a man should sweat at least once a day to stay healthy,” he liked to say. Obviously Griffith’s American delight in health and Nature fed his visual sense just as it had Isadora’s and that of such Pictorial photographers as Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Anne Brigman. Griffith reproduced their effects, whether consciously or unconsciously, in his films. He was the one who took the movies out of the studios into the outdoors where there was light and air. He filmed his actors in woods, in meadows; he caught the light on grasses and aureoles of light in girls’ hair. In 1910 he was one of the first directors to try out California as a location, and there he discovered desert weather; he plunged his actors into high winds and sandstorms, capturing the resonance for his age of a human figure in Nature, which photographers and dancers also understood. On the other hand Griffith was just as richly aware of rooms, closed spaces, corners, closets, and all interiors; these two extremes of environment marked his breadth as an artist of motion and space, of the hanging symbolism of space, the stylization of space around an actor.
His grasp of space shows up in a film like The Avenging Conscience (1915), the story of a young man (Henry Walthall) struggling between love for a girl (Blanche Sweet) and a desire to kill his uncle who opposes the match. The scenes between the young man and his uncle are pictured in one closed and darkened office while the scenes with the girl happen outdoors in fields, by streams, on paths by flower hedges; Griffith even poses the two against archaic stone benches and fountains—the domain of the “classic” dance. The characters’ states of mind are portrayed through the indoor and outdoor landscapes around them. And when the story of the movie ends happily (the murder was all a dream) Griffith summarizes in a little coda of dancing, with children in Greek garb peeking out from trees like cherubimic hamadryads, and one little boy dressed as Pan playing the pipes.
Griffith’s relation to dance went beyond shared imagery; he had a keen sense of it as both a theatrical and a social art and of the place it played in people’s lives. Dance scenes appear in many of the 400-odd shorts he made for the Biograph company from 1908 to 1913. Also in these early films he began to invent his characters’ pantomimic language, which for the girls included impromptu dancing and skipping about. Some of his shorts took dance as a main subject and examined its human repercussions—something newspapers and novels of the time loved to do. Oil and Water (1912) starred Blanche Sweet as a dancer torn between career and home, and showed a dance performance which reminded the critic Vachel Lindsay of Isadora Duncan. Also in 1912, Griffith decided he needed a resident dance expert, so he lured a young dancer, Gertrude Bambrick, away from Gertrude Hoffmans Ballets Russes spectacle when it came through Los Angeles. Miss Bambrick’s first task on joining Griffith was to teach him to dance, and ragtime dancing became his favorite recreation. Next she was put to work on the dance scenes in The Mothering Heart (1912): “If nothing else it will teach cafe managers in the interior how to run a cafe,” said Griffith. She had a bigger project in 1912.
In the four-reel feature Judith of Bethulia, she led the Assyrian dancing girls in two long Orientale dances she had arranged. Judith of Bethulia, released in 1913, was the very first American feature film, and a landmark. Although Griffith had known the script of the popular stage play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, he mounted his Judith completely in film terms—with the help of dance. The actors were the ensemble of very young people who had now worked with Griffith for four years and absorbed his monumental vision of what silent acting could mean: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words,” he told them. “We’ve found a universal language—a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that. Remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”
Griffith, often accused of anachronisms and of being mired in the nineteenth century, did depend mostly on old theatrical plots. But he knew more clearly than Belasco or any theater director that those old stories were parables, and within their bounds he changed the medium of acting into a craft that was as stylized as dance, and as different as dance was from old-style stage acting. Moreover, Griffith knew how his style of acting was different; he saw that actors who came to him from the theater used “quick broad gestures,” whereas he wanted them to find a slower, more musical motion. He was trying to develop “realism” in pictures and “the values of deliberation and repose.” Realism to Griffith meant abolishing the static, pompous individual acting of bad theater in favor of lifelikeness, continuity, and the surprising rhythms of human emotions. He had a vision of ensemble acting like that of the new schools of European theater, of Eleonora Duse’s company or the Moscow Art Theater.
Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia was the first completely American version of this new theatrical style—American because in the very progression of gestures it mixed the humble, the grand, the comic, and because its characters maintained a kind of fond distance from this material. None of the actors was really grown up; their gestures seemed like play-acting and so lightened the tragic legend of Judith of the Bible, who must kill the Persian king, Holofernes, to save her people. All the acting was a collage of current attitudes: some theatrical gestures, plus Salome-dancing, Delsarte-posing, Ballets Russes impersonations, along with the latest fashionable mannerisms. The mixture made it American. Judith (Blanche Sweet) prays to her Hebrew god, or anoints herself with ashes in the grand manner of Sarah Bernhardt or Mrs. Leslie Carter, yet she is so young the gestures look softened and not so serious—playful. In the seduction scene, wearing a shimmering sheath and peacock feathers, Judith rounds a shoulder and edges out of the tent like any young lady at a Tango Tea. Blanche Sweets Judith is a keen portrait of a young girl in a crisis trying on grown-up ways to move and act. All the characters are “playing” with more serious and “artistic” models. Opposite her Henry Walthall plays a sensuous king on the Ballets Russes model, while his eunuch, an actor named Jaquel Lanot, is madly miming the attitudes of a Russian Ballet slave, just like Mikhail Mordkin, Theodore or Alexis Kosloff (or Nijinsky, who hadn’t yet been seen in America) in Scheherazade.
Lanot’s favorite pose, or Griffith’s, is a decorative one of listening, with head cocked, foot pointed back, arms thrust down, and palms flexed. And in among the pantomime close-ups we see several ensemble scenes of Assyrian dancing led by Gertrude Bambrick—an orgy of Salome-Radha snake-charmer motions. The mime and the dancing blend rhythmically with the story’s narrative sweep—the martial Persians in chariots galloping through the dust toward the doomed Bethulia, the weakened Bethulians crowding the city streets in a plea for water. Dance and mime marked pauses in the narrative and provided just the “deliberation and repose” Griffith was after. Moreover, the dancing rituals thickened the atmosphere, and the dancelike clothing, Biblical drapes, and Persian finery commented perfectly on the new fluid manners and costumes that were part of modern-day society.
Most of Griffith’s feature films after Judith included a social dance scene or a glimpse of theater dance in the course of the story. And impromptu dancing was more than ever a keynote of his girl-characters’ self-revelations to their audience. His actresses found ways of “dancing” for every part—even the fussy heroine of True Heart Susie (1920), played by Lillian Gish, skips about jerkily to show her happiness.
Dance training was crucial to Griffith’s whole idea of acting-and in fact, most of his actresses were dancers already. Blanche Sweet, born in 1896, came to Biograph in 1908 from Gertrude Hoffmans company of dancers, although she had begun in straight theater at age four with Chauncey Olcott and then turned to dance. Miss Sweet still considered herself a dancer in those first years of movies, sometimes taking time off from Griffith to tour with Gertrude Hoffman —and since Blanche Sweet appeared both in Hoffmans first burlesque of Salome and the “Spring Song” and in the first Biograph shorts, that means she was present at the American births of both dance and movies.
The other early actresses brought similar dancing-acting experience from a theater that expected all of its players, even the youngest children, to be physically agile, to sing, dance, speak monologues, and play to the ensemble. The Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy, born in 1896 and 1898, danced Highland flings in Sarah Bernhardt’s company and danced, sang, spoke, whatever was required, in many other companies. Mary Pickford, born in 1893, was a child ingenue on the touring circuit for ten years, then starred in David Belasco’s The Warrens of Virginia on Broadway just before she came to Griffith.
Mae Marsh Signed Photo
Love in the film – Mae Marsh (Intolerance – Modern Story)
Mae Marsh, born in 1895, was the only one of Griffith’s first actresses who didn’t come from the theater but learned everything from Griffith himself. But Mae Marsh was the one who in 1921 wrote a book on film acting which reveals just how close were the dynamics of early dance and movies. She talks in the book about finding “character business,” fresh ways to sit, walk, gesture, dance, that will reveal the essence of the role. She discusses the constant rhythmic awareness of silent screen actors; how close-ups, for instance, were played with more pause and restraint than the more numerous three quarter shots. These concerns are part of all good acting, but they were the core of early film art—and also the kind of dance that was invented here. To find new rhythmic gestures for character roles was Ruth St. Denis’ motive when she made up Radha and The Cobrasy and it would remain the motive for the modern dancers who followed her. Miss Ruth, like Mae Marsh, was also a specialist in slowing down; by taking direct control of the pace inside of her own body she had made herself into a close-up of a Belasco play. Dance and movies, using different emphases, different equipment, but the same skills, were exploring theatrical time and theatrical behavior at the same moment.
In terms of the movies’ growth, 1915 was the perfect time for Ruth St. Denis to arrive in Los Angeles with a dance school. D. W. Griffith responded to Denishawn’s arrival by sending seven of his actresses including the Gish sisters over for lessons twice a week (said the New York Dramatic Mirror, May 13, 1916), and the connection between the school and Griffith’s studio grew. Griffith himself went to watch Denishawn classes; that is where he first saw the young Carol Dempster, who became his star of the late teens and twenties. It is striking how closely Griffith’s Babylon matched the look of Orientale discovered simultaneously in America by such figures as Ruth St. Denis and in Europe by people like Paul Poiret, and echoed and elaborated by Gertrude Hoffman in vaudeville and by the various Russian dancers on the concert stage. Babylon with its great towers also prefigured the mammoth Manhattan skyline of the twenties, and the gorgeous air of revelry that took over that city in its heyday.
However, if Griffith’s visual sense was modern and cosmopolitan in tone, his view of dancing was American, like Ted Shawn’s. He valued dance not for its choreographic patterns but for the rhythmic and sensual mood it evoked on the screen, a mood that carried an unbearable freshness for Americans.
To his vast dance sequences Griffith added close-ups in Intolerance of the “Babylonian Virgins of the Sacred Fire”; these emerged as a kind of adagio movement to the whole. According to history, certain Babylonian girls gave themselves ritualistically to men who came to the Temple of Ishtar to worship; they were pictured in Intolerance in beautiful slow-motion shots, sculpted in light and shadow and incense smoke. The wonderful vivacity of the whole Babylonian episode arose from Griffith’s profound imaginative belief in his own metaphor.
That these Virgins really had existed was important to him, but his Virgins were clearly American girls dressed up in antique array, meeting the camera with unobstructed innocence and sweetness. This appeal matched Denishawn’s; the pseudo-antique ceremonies served as frame for the revelation of the grave good will, the clean and unknowing sensuality, of the American girl. The Sacred Virgin sequences gave the audience repose in a bath of atmosphere and a long satisfying exchange with the performers, a precious glimpse of their inner beings, intimate but not pornographic. Lillian Gish described Griffith’s intentions in her 1969 book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me: Mr. Griffith wanted to show these young Virgins in costumes that would be seductive yet in no way offensive. All the young girls were dressed in floating chiffons and photographed in motion, not dancing but moving rhythmically and sensually to music. Some of the scenes were shot through veiling or fountain sprays to add to the erotic yet poetic effect.
Intolerance , though it wasn’t as popular as Griffith’s famous 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, highlighted an era of grand antique spectacles whose premieres in big cities cost two dollars a seat—as much as theater openings. All of these, movies like Thomas Ince’s Civilization, Cecil DeMille’s ]oan the Woman (with Geraldine Farrar), and Fox Studio’s Daughter of the Gods (starring Annette Kellerman), included scenes of dancing girls and dancing orgies. They corresponded to the live pageants that seized the country’s imagination at the same time—of which Denishawn’s 1916 Egypt, Greece and India was the prime example. In the same way that Denishawn’s pageant echoed the spectacle-extravaganzas of the 1890s, movie spectacles also called forth old theatrical grandeur. The Vamp, for instance, was film’s rediscovery of the grand actress, for whom a full spectacle was required. Movie vamps were the heirs of Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Carter; Theda Bara at Fox in 1916—1917 remade a number of these actresses’ star roles for the screen— Cleopatra, Under Two Flags (a Belasco hit of 1902), Camille, Du Barry. Louise Glaum was the Vamp at Triangle Studios; she played in The Idolators, and for Sex (1917), she borrowed a peacock costume from Ruth St. Denis. Sex was one of the many spectacles that featured scenes with Denishawn dancers. (Some others were: The Lily and the Rose, 1915; The Victoria Cross, 1916; A Little Princess, Conscience, The Legion of Death, Joan the Woman, Cleopatra, all in 1917; Hidden Pearls, Wild Youth, Bound in Morocco, 1918; Pettigrew’s Girls and Backstage, 1919.)
On a recent Thursday, a small miracle occurred at Columbia University. While students were protesting in Philosophy Hall a quiet, fragile woman, Lillian Gish, delivered a wonderful program about her life in the movies during the D.W. Griffith era. Her running commentary accompanied a showing of many of the early films in which she starred, as well as some others.
The McMillin Theater was crowded to capacity with movie buffs from all over. Miss Gish stood during the entire two hours of her talk, reading from a lectern, and interspersing a most informative lecture with humorous asides and stories about the early movie “greats” that delighted the audience. The audience itself was an autograph hunter’s dream. To mention a few, Katharine Hepburn (fresh from an Oscar award), Lauren Bacall Ilka Chase, Truman Capote, Robert Whitehead, Myrna Loy, Brooks Atkinson, and many, many more.
But it was all “Miss Lillian’s” show that night; the audience gave her a standing ovation, and, after the show, autographing her new book, she was surrounded by admirers. It must have been a great strain that evening, but Miss Gish never let down. She was gracious to everyone and a look, flashed from her wonderfully large expressive eyes, made one realize the magnetism that had won her such great audiences over the years. If she ever was “My Lillian” to Mr. Griffith in the past, she certainly became “Our Lillian” the other night in New York.
Imagine it is 1930. The silent era has passed and you want to pay tribute to its greatest actress. Who would you choose? You would consider Garbo, but hers is a relatively new face. The actress you would have to select, an actress who has worked on the screen consistently since 1912, whose pictures include the cinema’s greatest classics, is Lillian Gish.
That such a tribute could still be staged in 1983 is astonishing. And those who were there, at the Thames Silents in the Dominion Theatre at the end of the London Film Festival will remember it for the rest of their lives.
For Lillian Gish was not only by common consent the greatest actress of the silent era, she personified it. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period. And there can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to her credit: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, all directed by the man she calls the Father of Film, David Wark Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics-The White Sister and Romola-and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.
actress lilian gish invited to present extracts of her films in french film archive by his manager henri langlois on june 21, 1969 – famous actress lillian gish_ in paris for homage ev
Hers has always been the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish has associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois (she succeeded) and Abel Gance (she failed) to helping to promote the reconstructed versions of Napoleon and A Star Is Born. And somehow she still finds time to act. Thames Television’s association with the silent era began with the Hollywood TV series. David Gill, director, Carl Davis, composer, and I had worked together on all thirteen programmes, and David and Carl wanted to celebrate transmission by staging a silent film in a West End theatre with live orchestra. They selected Broken Blossoms, but at the time no one at Thames thought it a good idea. So we had to wait until the new head of Thames, Bryan Cowgill, in an inspired moment, launched the first showing of the reconstructed Napoleon with orchestra. The success was unprecedented and David Gill has sustained the momentum, heading a small team which not only stages the films for the public but prepares them for Channel 4. When we first put the idea of the tribute to Lillian Gish, she was as enthusiastic as we had hoped. She promised that she would be there, ‘so long as my filming commitments permit.’ Ideas tend to generate themselves, and the Cinematheque Francaise decided to hold a Lillian Gish retrospective in Paris. Unhappily, Paris did not know of our plans, nor we of theirs, and they settled on early October, meaning Lillian Gish had to fly to Paris, return to New York, then fly back again at the end of November She had only recently finished acting in Hambone and Hillie, in California. She had endured a very demanding schedule. We wondered how she would stand up to another.
Saturday, 26 November 1983
The weather forecast was a litany of gale warnings. The Thames car hire people rang me to say the plane was due half an hour early; evidently the tailwinds were tremendous. A white Mercedes picked me up and whisked me to the airport. En route, the driver expressed great interest in Lillian Gish. He liked watching old films on TV. Had I seen a series called Hollywood? It had taught him that silent films were not accompanied by a piano, but in the big theatres by orchestras. I told him he could experience just such an event next weekend. I scanned the crowd of passengers emerging from customs. One stopped me, recognising me from a Barbican show of Napoleon. He was an off-duty immigration officer. When he heard who I was waiting for, he reached into a shoulder bag, pulled out a camera, and joined us on our side of the railings. I saw an official pushing a wheelchair. Whoever it was, I told myself, it wouldn’t be Lillian Gish. But then I recognised something about the colour of the clothes. My morale plummeted. I rushed up, and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.
‘We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,’ said her manager, James Frasher, following behind with a trolley piled high with suitcases. ‘We expected a golf cart,’ he whispered. ‘Lillian said, “This’ll scare them to death. They’ll think I’m an invalid.” ‘ As it happened, he added, she had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.
‘We read about the newspaper strike,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ I said. ‘We’ve lost our publicity campaign.’ And I showed her the magazines, which no one would see, of the Mail on Sunday big spread with photo-and the Sunday Times-a long article with a photo by Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ‘We’ll do lots of radio,’ she said. ‘We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.’
At the suite at the Savoy, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited Lillian Gish. ‘I first came here in 1917 ,’ she said, looking out at the view of the river. ‘Our suite was just like this, and Mr Griffith held all our rehearsals here for Hearts of the World. We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk [Cleopatra’s Needle]. There was no warning-just a sudden bang. Mother was doing her hair. Dorothy and I ran down. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe twelve people were killed.’ She looked at the porters who had brought up the luggage. ‘That was the First War. You don’t even remember the Second!’ I showed her the printed programme for the Tribute. She seemed delighted with it. ‘How is the music for Broken Blossoms?’ ‘It’s the original Louis Gottschalk score,’ I said, ‘which Carl Davis has adapted.’ ‘Tell them not to forget the Chinese gongs,’ she said. ‘They are very important to the meaning of the picture.’ For someone who should have been suffering from jet lag, Lillian Gish was remarkably ebullient. She examined the press coverage which had escaped the strike, and James Frasher skittishly showed her an item illustrated by three pictures-two of her and one of the vast female impersonator Divine. ‘I like this picture of you best,’ he said. Lillian Gish looked at him reproachfully. ‘Oh, Jim.’ Then she examined it again. ‘It looks as if I’d eaten a lot,’ she said.
Tuesday 29 November
The television monitor in the Thames Silents office was tuned in to A-Plus, which was setting up in the studio. I saw Lillian Gish, dressed in a striking pink suit, taking her seat, and almost at once heard her directing the lighting. ‘Camera high, light low,’ she explained. She checked the result on a nearby monitor. One could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes. ‘Eyes are so important,’ she told the cameraman. ‘I believe that’s why Dallas is such a success around the world … you can see their eyes so clearly. The story is just repetitive, but human beings love seeing themselves looking so attractive.’ Suddenly the cameraman zoomed in. Lillian Gish saw at once what he was doing. ‘Don’t come so close,’ she warned. ‘You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.’ They settled for what she wanted. ‘Honestly,’ said Mavis Nicholson, the presenter, ‘you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.’ ‘
I was born this way,’ said Lillian Gish, with a chuckle. ‘I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colours, you know-brown, black, white, blonde. It’s still me.’ The opening of the show, which had been pre-recorded, was run. It ended with a scene from The Wind. Lillian Gish said, ‘But to match that face sixty years later! I did my best this morning with make-up. But you can’t perform miracles. You have to help it with lights.’ ‘Only a little,’ said Mavis Nicholson.
‘Oh, it’s not for me-that’s vanity-it’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say, “Oh, how awful!” ‘
During the interview, Lillian Gish spoke about acting. She gestured at the lens. ‘This camera teaches you what not to do. I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in your mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.’ That evening, the Guardian lecture was held at the National Film Theatre. All the seats had been sold. Despite the cold, a crowd hovered at the entrance. When Lillian Gish arrived, in a black fur coat and black cap, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing and even a man with an old-fashioned cine camera trying vainly to get a steady shot of Lillian Gish as she was escorted through the foyer to the Green Room. After a brief extract from Broken Blossoms, Sheridan Morley came on stage and introduced ‘The first lady of the American cinema.’ And he asked: ‘Once you had settled in Hollywood in 1913, what were the films that first established you out there, that made you feel you were the beginnings of an industry?’
‘We didn’t know that,’ she answered. ‘We were too young. It was just something that we were working in to make a living until we were old enough to be accepted in the theatre as ingenues. At that time photography was so terrible that an old hag of eighteen was passe.
She was a character woman. They had to have young faces. Once we went in to the studio, and there was an audience scene, and under the lights-those Cooper Hewitt lights-they all looked as if they’d been dead for three weeks.’
At the end of the evening, questions were invited from the audience. Someone asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ‘Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,’ she said to laughter from the audience. ‘Seventy-five per cent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard.’ There was more laughter. ‘They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them “ga-ga babies”.’
Her humour was direct, her vitality extraordinary. At the end, she received a standing ovation. Outside, the crush was so severe it was hard to reach the Green Room, and by the time I got there it was like Groucho Marx’s cabin. Later, James Frasher organised a path through the crowd so that Lillian Gish could sign autographs. And then she was swept out through a barrage of flashbulbs to the white Mercedes, and as it drove away we all felt the cold again.
Thursday, 1 December
Rehearsal this afternoon for Broken Blossoms at the Dominion. Contemporary reports of the film’s premiere all referred to the elaborate Chinese decoration of the theatre. In particular, they described ‘an unearthly mauve light’. Griffith discovered a lighting system by accident, when he projected the film with the theatre lights still burning from the prologue and saw the flattering effect on the screen. He used it extensively during the first run and later patented the device. David Gill, in charge of staging these events, felt that we should pay lip service to the idea. Pat Downing, head of Thames Design, contrived . a set of Chinese panels to fit either side of the screen, and a lighting display was organized by Lou Bottone to accompany the overture. It was no more than a hint of Griffith’s Grand Plan, but the print, from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, was lavishly and richly toned and any attempt to play light on the screen during projection would have been superfluous. Lillian Gish dropped in for a few minutes during the rehearsal. As she arrived, the sequence on the screen-Cheng Huan discovering Lucy-was toned a rich brown. ‘I don’t like that sepia print they’ve sent,’ she said. ‘It was a black and white film.’ I was flabbergasted. The print had been produced at colossal expense from a toned nitrate original. And even allowing for the print at the premiere being black and white, Griffith’s lighting scheme would have added colour. ‘My scenes were black and white, because I was meant to look pale and ill. The tinting makes me look sunburnt.’ Yet Broken Blossoms was renowned for its colour effects, so I confess I was bewildered, not to mention downcast. It did not bode well for the big show. ‘By the way,’ she added, as she was climbing into the white Mercedes, ‘you won’t forget the gongs, will you?’
We did not, but at rehearsal the gong had sounded like a saucepan. ‘Where are we going to find a replacement?’ asked Carl Davis. I suggested Chinatown-Gerrard Street, Soho-and Colin Matthews remembered a Chinese instrument shop at Cambridge Circus, so we raced out to find it. Through the door we saw an assistant playing an amber flute, just like Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms. We explained our predicament and were shown a gong which sounded superb. ‘It’s £1,000-you could hire it at £100 a day plus VAT.’ We settled for a much cheaper version, and handed out free tickets for the evening show … which was now almost upon us.
At the Dominion, a flurry of excitement as silent star Bessie Love arrived, signing the statutory autographs and posing for pictures. She was followed by John Gielgud … Anna Neagle … Emlyn Williams, who had played the Barthelmess part in the 1934 remake of Broken Blossoms, and as it filled up the theatre (built in 1929) began to look more and more like a picture palace. Nevertheless, David and I were extremely apprehensive. How would the audience take to this strange, poetic fable from another age? They laughed in places at An Unseen Enemy, the 1912 nickelodeon film, in which the Gish sisters made their debut. The atmosphere changed as soon as Lillian Gish herself appeared on stage to introduce the main film, and explain the background. (Luckily, she didn’t refer to the tinting!) It was astonishing to see an actress on film in 1912, then to see her walk-on the stage in 1983. A hush descended as the richly coloured lights played on the screen and the orchestra began to play the overture. I sat next to Lillian Gish. The atmosphere grew stronger, and on to the screen came the first shot of the gong. The musician spotted his cue too late. The gongs were mute. ‘Where’s the gong?’ asked Lillian Gish. ‘That’s the essence of the meaning of the film.’ I explained that the cue had been missed, but I recalled in acute embarrassment the number of times she had reminded us. Fortunately, at each of its later appearances, the gong was loud and clear. And Carl’s adaptation of the original 1919 score, orchestrated by Dave Cullen, was surprisingly touching.
The experience of watching the film was transformed by the music (and, of course, the presence of a large and receptive audience). I had seen 16mm prints of dismal quality of Broken Blossoms, sometimes silent, sometimes with a piano, and the emotion had remained buried, like a flower beneath the snow. I had often wondered at the film’s high reputation, and looked upon it myself somewhat patronisingly, as the cinematic equivalent of a Victorian sampler. As soon as the music began, the picture took on a new life. The Gottschalk score was of no great merit in itself, but it was intelligent. It had been supervised by Griffith himself (who composed the ‘White Blossom’ theme for Lillian Gish). It thus belonged intrinsically to the film. The fusion of music and picture, like carbon arcs coming together, created an effect of extraordinary intensity. Gestures and expressions gained fresh significance; when Cheng Huan (Barthelmess) finds his home destroyed and Lucy gone, he cries out and collapses to the floor. Slightly risible when seen silent, this gesture gained great poignancy with the music. Even the performance of Donald Crisp, perhaps the most overacted villain in all silent films, assumed an operatic stature with the Wagner theme. As for Lillian Gish, her part seemed exceptional even when viewed under the worst film society conditions. Now her performance radiated the same electricity as it had in 1919, and it reduced many to tears. ‘I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,’ a man said to me in the foyer. ‘This has been my greatest evening.’
Saturday, 3 December
A telephone call from James Frasher. Lillian Gish had hurt her ankle again and would not be able to introduce the last show of The Wind this evening. But she would try to be there for the end. This added suspense to the proceedings, and a sense of drama which, I must admit, was not unwelcome. (Fortunately, she had seen the first performance yesterday.) I remember seeing The Wind for the first time many years ago at the old NFT, and there were seven in the audience. This time, we had 1,362 and the house was nearly full. But as I said to David, how good a picture do we have to show, how great an actress do we have to bring over, and how long must she have worked in the cinema, before we fill the house? The BFI has over 30,000 members who profess an interest in the cinema-where are they when we need them? Foreigners put the British to shame on these occasions. Historian J. B. Kaufman had flown in from Kansas, a large group had come from Paris, including King Vidor’s daughter, and an actor from Napoleon, Harry-Krimer, who had seen Broken Blossoms sixty-four years ago, had travelled by Hovercraft from France.
The audience reaction was noticeably different from that to Broken Blossoms. The Wind, for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comedy relief, and this received a lot more laughter than I anticipated. I suspected that some did not realise it was supposed to be funny; one or two people tittered at dramatic moments. Again, the music exercised its power. Soon, the laughter ceased altogether. The score, composed by Carl Davis himself, was of a more sophisticated order than the one for Broken Blossoms. So was the film. The story of a young girl from Virginia who comes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas was full of psychological nuance, and depended heavily on Lillian Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance. But however effective the film might be seen silent-and there can be no doubt that it is effective-the addition of music provided far more than mere accompaniment. The girl’s dilemma suddenly becomes much more vivid. One not only feels for her, one feels profound sympathy for the well-meaning clod of a cowboy she has been forced to marry. And one feels much more strongly the pressures of her new life, and the emotional tug of her memories of Virginia. With the storm scene, the score reverted entirely to percussion, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theatre, a sound so loud it was almost painful, dragging one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the girl-one seemed to be inside her head. This musique tempete climax, orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, and with it the pounding of the orchestra, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience which had apparently held its breath for more than half a reel. ‘The most terrifying cinematic moment of 1983,’ wrote Geoff Brown in The Times. ‘No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.’
After taking several curtain calls, to tremendous applause, Carl Davis returned and announced, ‘If you’ll give us a few minutes, Miss Gish will be with us.’ A very few minutes later, Lillian Gish stepped into the spotlight with scarcely a sign of a limp. She was greeted by a standing ovation. Like the trouper she has always been, she insisted on giving the audience full value. ‘We worked out in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, in temperatures which were seldom under 120°. I was the only woman in the troupe, except for the wife of the assistant, who was very large. So I had no double. I did . all my own stunts, like falling off the horse. And there were eight [she actually said eighteen, but it was an emotional evening!] airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress, but luckily not in my eyes. Cold I can stand, but not heat, so The Wind was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures. I hope you enjoyed it, and let me say how wonderful I thought the orchestra was. The music was 75 per cent of the excitement you have just experienced.’ Later, at a reception, she toasted everyone who had a hand in the 1983 Thames Silents, and said ‘May this be our unhappiest moment.’ The reactions to The Wind could not have been more positive-some people thought it even more powerful than Napoleon. We transmitted these reactions when we said farewell to Lillian Gish at the hotel. She and James Frasher were busy packing. She wore a white flowered dressing-gown, and her long blonde hair hung loose to the waist. The soft lights glowed on her skin and hair and I have never seen her look more beautiful. The rest of us were exhausted; she was suffering no obvious effects from a schedule which had included endless interviews and an appearance at every performance. Over tea, she acknowledged that the tinted Broken Blossoms had looked better at the performance. ‘You must have put more light behind it,’ she said. But she insisted that it had originally been black and white. We left her in her suite, which was full of flowers and fan mail. ‘When I get back to New York,’ she said, ‘I’m going to bed and I won’t wake up until 1984. So when you think of me, think of me horizontal.’
When we think of Lillian Gish from now on, the great actress will come second to the enchanting woman herself. She may have the stubbornness of a pioneer, but there is a quality one can only describe as sweetness which transcends any role she ever played.
An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith
Part II: The Art Triumphant
Hearts of the World – 1918
Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947
Produced by D. W. Griffith, Inc. Original story and scenario by “M. Gaston de Tolignac” (D. W. Griffith). “Translated into English by Capt. Victor Marier ” (D. W. Griffith). Directed by Griffith. Photography: G. W. Bitzer. Music: score composed and arranged by Carl Elinor and D. W. Griffith. Technical advisor on, and supervisor of, military detail: Erich von Stroheim. Shooting time, about 9 months. Editing and subtitles: Griffith. Cutters: James and Rose Smith. Release length: 12 reels, about 12,000 feet. Running-time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Released by D. W. Griffith, Inc.: Thursday, April 4, 1918, at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City.
THEME AND STORY
What is the basic content, what is the theme, of the first film, Hearts of the World, which Griffith directed on European soil ? The theme of Hearts of the World may be described as follows: Democracy, based on individual freedom, is the best way of life, hence it is desirable. Autocracy, the opposite to democracy, rests on slavery and leads inevitably to war and conquest, hence it is undesirable. Therefore, Germany and her allies, representing autocracy and seeking conquest, must and shall be defeated by France and her allies, defending freedom and democracy.
From subtitles in the film, all of which were written by Griffith, as well as from his public speeches and statements at this time, this, for Griffith, was the underlying cause of the First World War. The evidence does not indicate that he doubted or questioned the fundamental beliefs, concepts or values of the civilizations of America and Europe, or so-called Christendom. Quite the contrary, he appears to have accepted the supposedly “Christian” nations and their cultures “as is”, castigating them at times, as in Broken Blossoms, for their enormous brutality and hypocrisy—but accepting them, nevertheless. And when these nations were attacked by their historic semi-Asiatic foe—murderous, barbaric Germany, Griffith without hesitation joined in the effort to save the victims. Neither in the images nor in the subtitles of this film does Griffith suggest that he viewed the conflict as an “imperialist war” or a “fight for markets”. Therein lies perhaps the fundamental, if not the principal, difference between Hearts of the World and Soviet films based on, or dealing with, World War I. On the contrary, Griffith makes unmistakably clear his belief and conviction that victory by the Kaiser’s Germany would have spelled the doom of Western civilization—the triumph everywhere of the most absolute and inhuman autocracy. The word “totalitarian” had not been coined in 1917, but Griffith’s exhortations to the American people were dire warnings against what is nowadays categorically termed “totalitarian dictatorship”.
Autocracy was attacking democracy; democracy, innocent, was defending itself. Economic and political causes to the contrary notwithstanding, this was the crucial fact of the conflict; this was its basic issue and its meaning. For Griffith, as for the peoples of the democracies, the war had no other reality. As already indicated, Griffith did not believe in an economic interpretation of history, but rather in an emotional and a moral one. He believed in emotion as the fundamental motivation of human behaviour, or, as Denison put it, in “emotion as the basis of civilization”. It is only too plain, as evidenced from the story and content of his film, that Griffith was not concerned with the material or economic causes of the war, but with the ideological values which must perish or survive, depending on the war’s outcome. The two principal values of his concern, both of them based on, and related to, the democratic way of life, were: personal liberty and romantic love. Here, these are threatened with extinction by the armed might of Imperial Germany—Prussian autocracy; and so, here again, as in The Birth of a Nation and in the mediaeval French story of Intolerance, Griffith’s basic and fundamental theme comes to light—crucifixion of the hearts of the world by the world. The two world-forces which grind like millstones the hearts in this as in the other Griffith films are (1) history—a process; and (2) intolerance—an emotion or passion. The forces like demons are embodied here in the nation-states of the modern Western world; their conflict is the battle of the nations. Viewed in such a world-perspective, America—England—France, the “little countries” of western Europe—all these represented the democratic way of life, “the Good”, all were popularly and properly “free” societies. And Griffith was at pains to make clear, that his advocacy of the Allied cause was no mere professional assignment, it was more than mere obedience to duty; it was a matter of principle, of simple conviction. This principle, the belief in democracy, was his theme. Hearts of the World bears the qualifying subtitle, “The Story of a Village”. Much of the action, both before and during the sequences of World War I, is laid in a French village behind the Allied lines. Some action is shown in the trenches, both Allied and German; some is laid in the Moquet Farm sector, France, at the headquarters of Prussian officers behind the German lines; the rest is devoted to scenes of actual warfare. The picture features many battle panoramas and combat sequences. Yet, despite these martial and spectacular scenes, Hearts of the World originally was advertised and known as a film, “not about the war, but about people to whom the war came”. The New York “Times”, in its review of the film the morning after the premiere, summarized the story as follows:
“There is a young girl living with her old grandparents. And there is a young man living with his parents and three little brothers. Monsieur Cuckoo, the Little Disturber, the Village Carpenter, a Deaf and Blind Musician, and many others, are village characters with their happiness and little difficulties that do not matter. “The Girl and the Boy love each other. The Little Disturber, delightful little devil of a flirt, loves the boy, but he loves the other girl and angrily spurns her. The Disturber at last turns to Monsieur Cuckoo, who has been pursuing her from the first. . . . The scenes of this French village suggest all that had been known by travel and books of provincial France before the war. . . . “Into such an atmosphere and environment, the war bursts. First a German spy inspecting possible fortifications appears with sinister suggestion. Then, just before the set wedding day of the Boy and the Girl, the town crier startles the village with a mobilization order. The whole peaceful arrangement of life is violently shattered. The men rush off to war and the women stay behind to worry and wonder. “The Germans advance against the village; many of the inhabitants flee in confusion, while shells do their destruction around them; others remain behind and seek shelter in cellars and crypts and vaults. Certain characters in the play are killed; others survive to face the fearful future. After furious fighting, the Germans take possession of the town and Prussion brutality reveals itself in a number of vivid scenes. “The horrors of German occupation are shown, chiefly as they affect the persons in the play, the Girl and the Disturber, who become companions in misery. There is a great deal of detail, both of actual fighting and of play plot, and finally the boy, whom the Girl had left for dead on the battlefield, enters the village disguised in the uniform of a Prussian officer and finds his sweetheart, who escapes with him from the clutches of a Prussian officer to a garret room, where a struggle that has all the thrill of melodrama takes place. But this little clash of individuals is not long continued. Soon the French troops retake the town and more of the action of real war is seen. “The conclusion shows the characters of the play, lovers reunited, on a furlough, and as they are dining American troops pass outside. The Stars and Stripes enter — and at the very end ultimate victory for the Allies is symbolically forecast” The last sentence refers to Griffith’s screen prediction of the Armistice, one year before it happened.
The production of Hearts of the World began as a result of the exhibition in England of Intolerance. Like Intolerance, and like The Birth of a Nation, it was privately produced by Griffith, and was made in entire independence of the American film industry. Griffith sailed for England on March 17, 1917. Several weeks later, when Intolerance was privately shown at Buckingham Palace to the King, the Queen and the Royal Family, the overnight became the toast of the British public and the lion of all London. He had brought the cinema, a cultured revolution and a gift of the American democracy, from the New World to the mother-country, in the hour of the mother’s need; he became, therefore, an object of admiration, curiosity and esteem unlimited. At the London premiere at the Drury Lane Theatre, he was invited to the box of the Dowager Queen, Alexandra, who invited him to spend a week-end at Windsor Palace. Griffith recalls that he did not go, because he was already too busy conferring with England’s leaders.
Griffith, at a party given in his honour at the Duchess of Devonshire’s, was formally presented to such notables as Lloyd George, Winston Churchiil, Lord Beaverbrook, Asquith, the Earl of Derby and others. Here he learned that his name already had been proposed by the literary giants of England—Shaw, Barrie, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton and others—in a conference with Lloyd George on ways and means of bolstering public morale, had so long played. This was the second major American film — The Birth of a Nation (under its original title, The Clansman) having been the first, the premiere of which was held, not in New York City, but in Los Angeles. On April 2, the New York “Times” featured front-page headlines: LONDON ANNOUNCES THAT AMERICAN FORCES ARE READY. On Thursday, April 4, the “Times” headlines read, in part: GERMANS LAUNCH HEAVY GAS ATTACK AT AMERICAN TROOPS. The same night, America’s answer came to the gas attack: Hearts of the World opened at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City. The management of this distinguished, so-called legitimate theatre had previously announced that the premiere would be a “private invitation” presentation … for prominent officials of the United States and the Allied Governments, municipal and State officials, and prominent citizens” (N. Y “Times”, April 1, 1918).
According to Charles Edward Hastings, in his press-book biography of Griffiths the following notable persons were among the guests at the New York City premiere : “Ambassador James W. Gerard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Alexander, Mrs. Arthur Scott Burden, Otto Kahn, Adolph Ochs, Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Whigham, Mr. and Mrs. W. Bourke Cochrane, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hastings, Enrico Caruso, Admiral Nathaniel Usher and staff, Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Gray, Mrs. Parker Beacon, Maj.-Gen. William A. Mann, Mr. and Mrs. David Belasco, Mr. and Mrs. Conde Nast, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Collier, James Montgomery Flagg, Gatti-Casazza, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Baker, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James A. Burden, Miss Ruth Twombly, Miss Harriet Post, Marquis and Marchioness Aberdeen, Mrs. May Wilson Preston, John Moffat, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Edward Ziegler, Pasquale Amato, E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, Rennold Wolf, Edgar Selwyn, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, Mrs. Morris Gest, George M. Cohan, Marshall Neilan, William Elliott, Florenz White, F. Ray Comstock and Madame Alda.
“The representatives of the British and Canadian Governments and British and Canadian Army and Navy officers included: Major Norman Thwaites, M.C.O.; Consul – General Bailey and staff; Henry Goode and Geoffrey Butler and staff; Commander Blackwood, R.N.; Provost Marshal Colonel Hunter; Colonel Gifford and staff; Sir Connop Guthrie and staff; Major Brooman White, Capt. V. H. McWilliam, Capt MacDonald, Lieut. Sharp, John McKenna Lawson, Lieut. Chevalier, Lieut. W. P. Mclvor, Lieut. -Col. C. A. Warren, Lieut. G. Sherries, Capt. W. E. Brown, Colonel J. S. Dennis, Capt. Sise, Lieut. Grossmith and Lieut. Cresswell”.
Douglas Fairbanks also was in the audience, but was so moved and stirred that he had to leave after the first half. The New York premiere of Hearts of the World was the most important one held to date for any motion picture. It marked the beginning also of the use of the distinguished 44th Street Theatre, of theatrical history, for the initial exhibition of important films. Here the film ran, accompanied by a large symphony orchestra, twice daily, at scheduled performances, 2.15 and 8.15 p.m., at admission prices not exceeding $ 1 for matinees or $ 1.50 for evening performances. It played at the 44th Street until October 5: on the 6th it moved over to another so-called legitimate theatre, the Knickerbocker, also located in the Times Square district, where the same prices and the same schedule continued. On October 21, accompanied by another symphony orchestra, the film began a simultaneous first-run engagement at the Standard Theatre at 90th Street and Broadway, at scheduled performances, twice daily, and at the same admission prices as at the Knickerbocker, for two weeks only. It ended its initial run at the Knickerbocker and the Standard simultaneously, with the evening show on Saturday, November 2, 1918.
The total record for the first run of Hearts of the World from April 4, until November 2, is as follows: 33 consecutive weeks, of which 27 weeks were spent at the 44th Street Theatre, 4 weeks at the Knickerbocker and 2 weeks (simultaneously) at the Standard. Thus the 33-week first-run fell short of that of The Birth of a Nation, but exceeded that of Intolerance;, either way, by 11 weeks. Paine gives glimpses of its phenomenal popularity. On the night after the invitational premiere at the 44th Street, when the theatre was opened to the public, he relates “seats sold by speculators brought as high as five and ten dollars. There were long runs everywhere. In Pittsburgh, the picture broke all records for any theatrical attraction in that city”. Exhibitors who recall the past still refer to the Pittsburgh run of Hearts of the World as one of the truly golden moments of American box-office history.
In 1919, after its temporary withdrawal from the screens, due to the cessation of hostilities and the over-night rejection by the public of war themes, Griffith brought forth a “Peace Edition” of the film, which he distributed with considerable success throughout the nation. It included an epilogue, “visualizing the League of Nations and future world peace” (advertisement and programme-note). The New York “Times” of August 11 wrote that “the spectators applauded its spectacles regardless of their military meaning”. The gross intake of Hearts of the World by 1920 was estimated to be in excess of $5,000,000, representing a profit of about $4,850,000.
In 1931 , the film was revised and re-issued, again with big financial results, by United Artists. Its all-time gross is $7,000,000. The story of the American exhibition of Hearts of the World would scarcely be complete without at least a passing mention of the advertising and exploitation campaign.
This established a new watermark in the technique of motion picture or theatrical publicity.
The newspaper advertisements, preceded by months of mysterious published “hints” and rumours of Griffith’s activities abroad, whipped up interest to a fever pitch. Gigantic horizontal or vertical half-page advertisements in the New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston papers exhorted the public in the name of democracy and freedom to see the “Miles of Artillery—March of Legions—Squadrons of Airplanes—Fleets of Zeppelins, the ‘Eyes of the Allies’—The Destruction of Cities—The Charge of the Tanks” and sundry other horrible and horrifying wonders of the First World War, as revealed in Griffith’s new film.
The New York “American” and other leading papers carried spectacular advertisements, featuring photographs of Griffith, helmeted, in the front line trenches. These advertisements, written by Griffith, stressed the twin themes of freedom and democracy. In a particularly sensational one, Griffith indulged in a bit of period showmanship when he announced that the “only ‘supers’ used were German soldiers, prisoners of war, filmed back of the firing line, tickled to death they were in such good hands with D. W. Griffith to direct them”!
Hearts of the World opened on Tuesday, June 25, 19 18, at the Palace Theatre, accompanied by the Palace Orchestra, in London. It was presented by Alfred Butt. The London opening-run ended on Saturday, September 7—exactly, to quote the final advertisement in the London “Times” “… as presented before Their Majesties the King and Queen”.
After the war, Hearts of the World enjoyed extremely successful runs on the Continent, where public interest in war themes did not abate so completely or so quickly as in the United States.
There is no record to hand that it was ever publicly shown in the Soviet Union, but it was privately viewed and studied in later years by the emergent Soviet film directors —Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Trauberg, et al. Although each of these directors set new standards of realism, and achieved greater complexity and depth of interpretation than Griffith in depicting the war (although not necessarily therefore greater ultimate truth), the influence of Griffith’s film is evident, nevertheless, in all their works and may be seen in a myriad of images of the classic Soviet films on the First World War.
On War Films and War Propaganda
Hearts of the World was, in effect and in essence, the first real film depicting the First World War.
Although several such films had already been rushed to the screens by the Hollywood companies—J. Stuart Blackton’s The Battle Cry of Peace; Ince’s Civilization; Dixon’s The Fall of a Nation; Empey’s Over the Top; Carl Laemmle’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin; Metro’s To Hell with the Kaiser; Warner Brothers’ My Four Years in Germany, etc.—presumably to “cash in” on the war while it was still profitable to do so and at the same time to jump the gun on Griffith, these were of an unusually inferior quality, being incredibly childish or crude, if not wholly incompetent, in the actual depiction of the conflict. Here, on the contrary, was a war film, conceived on a big scale and executed with documentary realism.
The trade envied Griffith’s opportunity; it envied his official sponsorship by the Allied governments; and still more it envied the success of the film itself. Every American film producer knew that only the ending of the conflict, which resulted in the immediate and total loss of public interest in war themes, in November, 1918, had prevented Hearts of the World from being even more successful than it was. Accordingly, the trade studied this film more than any other made to date, except only The Birth of a Nation. Even Hollywood could ill-afford to ignore the new cinematic methods and techniques which Griffith had here brought to the screen. Press comment on it was often more in the nature of news than of criticism or review. “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe”, reads an unsigned article-review in the New York “Times”. “The pictures of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, the demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches, are impressively realistic”. Proudly, the advertisements claimed “real trenches, real battles; real war scenes, taken amid the fire and smoke of conflict; here are no moving picture ‘supers’, such as one sees in a studio picture, but real, flesh and blood soldiers of France, of England, fighting with their last drop of blood in defence of civilization. . . . No papier mache scenery, no studio ‘props’, no supers, no artificialities of any kind figured in filming this wonderful new Griffith masterpiece. ” These claims were for the most part quite truthful, and so was the general opinion, that the “trench fighting was terribly realistic”, as Lillian Gish put it. In fact, Paine further quotes Miss Gish as stating that when she saw the film again, in 1931, she “thought it better than many of those made to-day. . . . There was more sincerity of intention—more earnest work”. Indeed, Hearts of the World was the first big film of modern war: it was war as only the screen could show it. There were immense battle panoramas, with troop and truck movements, “squadrons of airplanes” and with panel-shots, showing “miles of artillery”, intercut with full screen detail close-ups of the wounded and the dying; there were country-wide vistas, showing the “march of legions” or whole armies locked in combat, intercut, as in The Birth of a Nation, with intimate glimpses of the lives and tragedies of the civilian population behind the lines; there was an arsenal of pictorial effects (“psycho-visual impacts”, to put it in the language of contemporary psychology), achieved through a combination of photography, direction and editing, and counterpointed with, or heightening, the documentary realism, drama and propaganda.
This passionate synthesis of spectacle, love story and documentary came as an antidote to the cheap and hysterical depictions of the war or what Hollywood thought was the war, which were occupying the current screens—forgotten films such as the Laemmle film; the Empey folderol; the Benjamin Chaplin serial, The Son of Democracy; or, worst of all, Cecil B. De Mille’s false and blatantly “super-patriotic” efforts, The Little American and My Own United States, with Arnold Daly. Griffith had demonstrated anew the capacity of the screen to project both history and current events on a high level of creative imagination and ideological interpretation; he had fashioned a new standard or yardstick of art and propaganda. And he had summarized the avowed aim and objective of the war in the very opening subtitle of the film: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Inevitably, Hearts of the World became the model for later attempts by the trade to recapture on celluloid the reality and scope of World War I. Its influence on this score is perhaps nowhere more obvious or more traceable than in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925).
Several years ago, in New York City, I attended a Museum revival of The Big Parade, which I had previously seen many times. Then, in the Spring of 1945, I was privileged to witness, in company of Mr. Griffith and the Gish sisters, a private showing of Hearts of the World, which I had also previously seen, in the projection-room of the University of Southern California. Although I have never considered Hearts of the World among Griffith’s topmost achievements—its story, which often becomes submerged in the war scenes and documentation, has been justly and severely criticized as “weak”, I was nevertheless rather dumfounded to note, after a lapse of many years, the astonishing similarity of Vidor’s scenes of the big American offensive against the Germans, during the climax of The Big Parade, to Griffith’s immense images, in reels five, nine and eleven, of the Anglo-French counter-offensive against the “Hun invaders” (subtitle).
Again, I noted further the striking similarity of the scene in Vidor’s film, in which the American troops are shown from a height, advancing by night in waves across a deforested No-man’s land, to the panoramic and aerial shots in Hearts of the Wirld of the Allied forces advancing, similarly in waves, under aerial protection, on the German-held Mouquet dugout sector, immediately after the subtitle, “The Struggle of Civilization”. I then realized, perhaps for the first time very consciously, that the cine-pictorial pattern of showing World War I on the screen had been established in Hearts of the World for future directors to study and copy as they chose. Vidor had learned well, but Griffith’s treatment was better. Griffith depicted the war on the Western front in many aspects. He remembered to include some of the elected leaders, representatives or spokesmen of the Western democracies. Thus, in the scenes depicting the House of Parliament, August 4, 1914, at 3 p.m., Sir Edward Grey and other British governmental figures are represented; at No. 10, Downing Street, the same date, at 10.55 P-ni., “awaiting Germany’s answer to the ultimatum” (subtitle), are Asquith, Grey, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; and in the French Chamber of Deputies, the same date at 3 p.m., Rene Viviani, Premier of France and other governmental leaders, are shown on the screen.
Similarly, Griffith also remembered to show the enemy. Immediately after the subtitle: “The German Militarists plan the dastardly blow against France and civilization”, he cuts to a group-shot, followed by several excellent characterization-close ups, of the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Mackensen, Von Moltke, and other members of the German High Command. Nor does he forget the military might of Germany in action. Such subtitles as: “The Shadow. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, representing War’s ideal of all races and ages, the ruling of weaker nations and people by the Power of Might”, cutting into the Kaiser as the head of the High Command, and again, in review of his troops; “The Prussian hordes massed for the attack”, cutting into immense shots of German infantry and artillery concentrations; “Beneath the risen moon”, cutting into the night-landscapes of death, destruction and terror, after the bombardment; “War’s gift to the common people”, cutting into unforgettable and heart-rending scenes of devastation, ruin and starvation in war-ravaged villages of northern France; “Poison gas”, cutting into shots of the first use of poison gas by the Germans; “Hun trenches”; “The Hun counterattack overwhelms the trench”; “The Germans”, and many others—all barely hint at the content of the related and surrounding images through which Griffith brought home to the American public this burningly vivid composite and comprehensive sum-image of the “Struggle of Civilization”.
The Big Parade seems increasingly with time the poorer for not possessing the equivalent to the stupendous and climatic panel-shots in which Griffith shows the Kaiser’s armies pouring in “never-ending flood” (subtitle) across the highways of Belgium and the horizons of France. This is more than spectacle: it is the very essence and reality and smell of World War I.
I will not, of course, dispute the superior popularity of The Big Parade. Vidor’s film has a more appealing romance, a better story; its characterizations are less typed and are more humanly believable; and it, too, from a cinematic as well as dramatic standpoint, is superbly directed. It is, indeed, a worthy film to have scored the world’s record for the single-theatre run of any motion picture: The Big Parade ran as a two-dollar, two-a-day attraction, beginning in November, 1925, at the Astor Theatre, New York City, for 97 consecutive weeks, thus surpassing the single-theatre runs of both The Birth of a Nation and The Covered Wagon.
Nevertheless, despite these impressive facts and also despite the big scenes of the trucks moving-up and the Americans moving-in, Vidor’s film fails to attain the breadth or scope of Griffith’s teeming 12-reel panorama of burning cities, massed armies, mechanical Armageddon and “miles of artillery”.
For that matter, subsequent films based on World War I fall even shorter of the mark: What Price Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, to name the two best-known ones, the former noteworthy only for basic mediocrity, the latter only for its novelized story, not for any distinctive merit which it may have been thought to possess as a film. What Price Glory, a compound of sex, slapstick and sticky sentiment, directed by one of Griffith’s earlier actors and first-assistant directors, Raoul Walsh, is almost wholly imitative in its cinematic and directional treatment; and All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone, has been quite objectively appraised by Eisenstein, Theodore Huff, Dwight MacDonald and other critics. Perhaps MacDonald’s comment sums up the others. “Even so absurd a war film as Griffiths Hearts of the World”, he writes, criticizing the story, “contains passages better than anything in All Quiet. I refer to certain panoramic shots, mostly at the beginning of reel five, epic in their sense of mass and distance and God’s-eye-scope. This is pure cinema —a matter of visual values entirely—and this is where Milestone is weakest”.
Need it be added, demonstrable and historic fact that it is, that this also is where most of the rest of the motion picture especially in Hollywood, has long since been weakest ? Finally, the effectiveness of Griffith’s film as propaganda was complete; more than any books, plays or public speeches, it served to bring home to the American people not only the fighting war but the reason for fighting it—namely, the iron necessity of defeating Imperial Germany. For this very reason, when it was revived nationally in 1931, Hearts of the World was laughed at by a new generation of filmgoers, who had been taught to believe that the first World War had been fought in vain, that the United States had been “tricked” into defending France and England, and that the idea of saving such democracy as existed in 1914 among the Western nations was a “fallacy”.
Some twenty-two years after its initial run, it also became a target of attack by political film critics and “historians” who, apparently feared that the new audiences witnessing the revival showings might be turned by it against Germany, after Soviet – Nazi collaboration had begun. Thus it was branded by one such critic as “absurdly exaggerated”, and by a whole coterie of fellow-travellers among the anti-Griffith film critics and self-styled “historians” with similar epithets.
Yet to-day, after the world’s recent and second experience with Germany in the Second World War, nothing in Griffith’s depiction of the “legend of Hunnish crime on the book of God” (subtitle) seems in the least “absurd” or “exaggerated”, as it may have done in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era of disillusionment and pacifism; on the contrary, ironically enough, it begins to appear in our new perspective almost as a generalized and pallid understatement. To-day, in the light of Germany’s gruesome national record of atrocities and mass-murders and sadism in Poland and Norway and Russia; the blitz-bombings of Rotterdam and Coventry and London; the chronicles of horror and cannibalism, rising like a stench from the ashes of Buchenwald and Dachau and the Brown-Houses of Berlin—a record of degeneracy, insanity, murder and terror—to-day, the only thing about the film or its portrayals of the Huns which may seriously be considered as “absurdly frightful” is the frightfully absurd contempt and vilification heaped upon it and upon its maker by the exponents of political ideologies and party-lines. None of this cultural politicalizing need mislead the student, however. The fact is, that the elemental truth about Germany and the First World War is far more closely approximated in Griffith’s thirty-year-old “propaganda film” than in the whole contemporary school of its political traducers. Remember, again: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Hearts of the World stands as a permanent and splendid example of the best uses of propaganda to which the screen can be put.
On Acting—New Talent
Hearts of the World brought to the screen some new players and some fine performances by old ones. It marked the screen debut of Ben Alexander, Griffith’s latest ” discovery” in child actors, who later played in Penrod and in All Quiet on the Wester?! Front; also, of Noel Coward, whom Griffith had met in London and who is here seen as a young man with a wheelbarrow and later as a young villager, keeping company with The Little Disturber. (Griffith recalls that Coward seemed to have some good ideas, but that he, Griffith, was too busy to listen much!) In addition, it united the Gish sisters in their first important film together since Home, Sweet Home (1913. See Griffith Index: Part I, p. 18).
On Acting—Dorothy Gish
Unquestionably, the acting honours go to Dorothy in a short black wig as The Little Disturber. With her perky, comic and flip performance, she ran away with the picture and created a role that was long remembered. This was also something of an achievement for Griffith, who had long been criticized for failing in “humour”. Yet the conception and direction of The Little Disturber were entirely his. The use of many clever gestures and trick “business”, all in a few feet at a time; Dorothy’s jaunty strut or walk; the self-satirical but taunting “sex-appeal” of her mannerisms and postures; and the comic scenes to the strains of Anna Held’s old “hit”, Its Delightful to be Married—all this stamped Griffith as a comedy director of genuine promise, and Dorothy as a comedy virtuouso. Griffith was encouraged by it in later years to try his hand again at conceiving comedy roles and even at directing feature-length film comedies (Sally of the Sawdust, etc.). Dorothy, on her part, unwittingly created a vogue among American girls of the period to cultivate in their lighter moments the jaunty walk or strut of The Little Disturber.
The effect of this incidental and probably unexpected success was to start Dorothy Gish off in her own “starring” films—the celebrated “Black Wig” comedy series of the early I920’s.
On Acting—Erich von Stroheim
But all these players together, and the best of their work, do not rate in value with the appearance here of a relatively new, unexpected actor of stellar importance—Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim began his screen career, it may be recalled, in 1915, as a technical adviser to Griffith on military detail in the filming of Old Heidelberg for Triangle. (See Griffith Index: Part II (b), p. 5). The intelligence and talent of this gifted future writer-director were quickly recognized by Griffith; and even beyond this, his potentiality as “acting material”—or, more properly for the screen, as a “player”, was clearly perceived by the old master’s phenomenal “casting eye”. Accordingly, Stroheim was given his first screen role as one of the “Pharisees” in the Judean storv of Intolerance. (See Griffith Index: Part II (c). Now one year later, he was cast by Griffith in a role which quite literally created and shaped the whole course of Stroheim’s career: that of a Prussian officer in charge of German headquarters on the Western front.
Combining military arrogance and sex appeal, Stroheim created a sensation. He became known to the American public as the “man you love to hate”. It was the real beginning of his acting career; and it was also the beginning of a new type of role, which Stroheim alone with his face and personality could fill, and which he was destined to play again and again years later in other films. The final perfection of his “Prussian officer” in Hearts of the World may be seen in Grand Illusion, where Stroheim again appears in the role of the same type of German officer in charge of a military prison. He is the one Griffith “discovery” and actor whose career and casting have come down virtually intact as Griffith created them to our own time, a phenomenon in film history.
On the Stage
Once again, as in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, so here Griffith proved the superiority of the screen to the stage in projecting history, news, realism and spectacle. Stage plays based on the war were feeble and few and were almost wholly unconvincing. The medium of the stage, resting as it does on dialogue, is physically inadequate to deal with war as a subject, and the most that any playwright can hope to achieve is to have his characters talk about war—emotionally and with the accepted standardized vocal inflections or intonations of the Broadway theatre. But he cannot show the war nor can he heighten such drama as he may create with either images or documentation.
Although it excited and thrilled people in 19 18, and was a tremendous success both during its original run and for some years afterwards, the fact is, that Hearts of the World does not stand the test of time, except in the battle panoramas, as do some of Griffith’s other famous films. On the contrary, it seems to-day a rather uneven film. Why ? There are several reasons:
First, it seems certain that Griffith was too close to the war really to grasp or understand it, least of all to view it in its proper perspective. Remember that fifty years had elapsed between Appommattox (the end of the American Civil War) and the initial appearance of The Birth of a Nation—a circumstance which accounts in part for the singular detachment, objectivity and perspective which characterize the historical sequences of this film. Here, on the contrary, the director was not only close to a great war, but in it. How was it possible to achieve under the circumstances a “proper perspective” ?
For that matter, this was true of most American war films. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) was an essentially romantic story with .the war-years as a background and with little in it of the war itself. The Big Parade came seven years after the Armistice yet, although it was a superb spectacle, it offers nothing by way of a perspective on the conflict deeper than Griffith’s film. And Griffith had the added disadvantage of being carried away—the inevitable price one pays for patriotism or uncritical devotion to any cause, however “noble”—by the confusion, emotions and fears of the period. No one really knew what was going on and it is extremely doubtful that Griffith himself knew all the horrors of war at this time, least of all what started the war. Hence, his preoccupation with “lovers” instead of soldiers and the forces behind them. Yet it is only just to record that Griffith can hardly be blamed for the deficiencies of this film since nobody knew anything then.
Second, as already stated, the story is weak. Toward the end it even lapses into conventional melodrama. Yet there are some extraordinary scenes in the picture, and it is worth while for the record to recall them. We have already mentioned the girl’s mad wandering over the battle ground with the bridal dress in her arms (was there a Freudian meaning to this, intended or otherwise ?) Besides this, there were the children burying their mother (immediately related to the subtitle: “Cannon fire their only requiem”) — a terrific scene; the tender love scenes (“For ever and ever”); the famous attic scene in which the boy and the girl, facing imminent death in the German attack on the village, marry themselves; the seduction scene in which Lillian Gish is pulled by Siegmann along the floor while the blind violinist plays – an action and situation used again by Stroheim in The Merry Widow; the famous scene of the refugees in the ruined church, with mothers nursing their children, while the nuns make the sign of the cross over the screaming half-dead—realism in what is now termed the documentary mode; the still-effects of high government officials waiting (impersonations of Churchill, Lloyd George, etc.), which were precisely the device and technique used fifteen years later by Dovzhenko in Arsenal and, finally, too many strangely-haunting scenes both of the war and of the story itself to be enumerated. . . . All these things may be mentioned as balancing or offsetting the weaker side of the story. For it must be repeated that despite the remarkable effect and power of these sequences and scenes, individually the story as a whole is weak.
Third, Hearts of the World was made in so many places (France, England and California), under so many conditions that were difficult at best and more often than not impossible or uncontrollable, that the film as a whole did not exactly “jell”. However, it must be emphasized as Lillian Gish has already noted, that it was sincerely felt by those who made it, and in the confusion of the period, it was soul-stirring to say the least.
Fourth, Hearts of the World is a transitional, even an experimental film. Bitzer later often related that many new things were tried out in it—all kinds of new lighting and photographic effects, as in the night scenes with lights (the Boy, returning from the battlefield, etc.); all sorts of interior lighting both for close-ups and sets; an extensive use of tinting—purple, for the twilight scenes; rose-and-blue mixed tints for early morning; green and yellow alternately for the Germans and so on.
Furthermore, although there is not exactly the soft focus of Broken Blossoms in any scenes, there is a movement in that direction along with many other kindred strange effects and lightings. Indeed, one of the more significant events which occurred during the production was that a young new cameraman, Hendrik Sartov, who had been a still photographer back in the States, was picked up over there, and it was he, not Bitzer, who did the soft-focus in Broken Blossoms.
The summation could go on indefinitely to include references to the air-shots of the battlefields, several of which are notable for imagination and skill in handling; the time-lapses through such cinematically “modern” devices as “cuts”, dissolves or time-fades, as the case may be, from new into old boots or new into rusted guns; or to some of the real poetry in the picture. The above, however, covers most of the important facts and should serve to recall the far-reaching and experimental importance of this immense film.
Even for Lillian Gish, this was a transitional film—a transitional role, somewhere between the straight heroine of The Birth of a Nation and the tragic creature of Broken Blossoms. She tries many new effects here, some of them, perhaps, not successful, but all of them indicating an attempt to experiment with new methods of pantomimic expression and new screen-playing techniques. In short, Hearts of the World, viewed from whatever angle, was a film made for a time and a purpose—a time of war and a purpose of propaganda. As such, it succeeded admirably then, and even if to-day it may not seem so great as some of Griffith’s other films, it is worth remembering its large importance, its influence both as film and as propaganda, and then the outstanding single fact about it—namely, that of this film it may be stated that it accomplished its purpose and justified its existence to the hilt. But in film history also it revealed itself in a quite startling and unexpected fashion. This can best be grasped by glancing at the music. Hearts of the World was the first important Griffith film the musical score to which included excerpts from popular “numbers” or songs of the day. The Anna Held “hit,” It’s Delightful to be Married, has already been mentioned and to it may be added the various strains taken from Chit Chin Chow and other vastly popular musical comedies of the war-years.
It may be recorded as an objective fact that although Griffith was yet to make films far superior to Hearts of the World and of the first order of magnitude, nevertheless this initial concession to mass-entertainment and mass-taste represents a downward step. Nor was the step unnoticed by the rising titans of the trade. Hearts of the World, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was one of the supreme triumphs of free enterprise in film production. As such, its virtues were carefully studied and its errors coldly appraised by the grim men who watched from the shadows of Broadway. It was a new challenge to them but one which they now felt confident of meeting. For there was no one but Griffith to oppose them, the so-called intellectuals of America still being wedded body and soul to the genteel and snobbish traditions of the so-called legitimate theatre. Yet even Griffith, mighty force that he was, could not alone or indefinitely withstand the massed attack gathering among the magnates who were working to create a monopoly through the medium of films over the minds and hearts of the world.
TO ANYONE WHO BELIEVES in the cinema’s living past, there will always be certain vital factors- a film (A Woman of Paris), a career (Rex Ingram, Rowland Brown) or a stage in a career (von Sternberg)-missing from his consideration of the cinema as a whole. There are plenty of text books to remind him of these factors. Otherwise, he must depend on his own faulty recollections of the original releases always assuming he was born in time to see them; and above all on the archives, booking agencies and film societies, who may or may not share his belief in the need of a sound sense of historical perspective. With the reclamation of von Stroheim in this country five years ago, only three main fields in the early American cinema seemed to remain in abeyance: the short career of Thomas lnce, who by 1916 was running Hollywood’s finest studios at Culver City, and whose prodigious output included dramas (The Wrath of the Gods, The Typhoon, The Coward) once regarded more highly than Griffith’s; the foreign invasion in the ‘twenties (Lubitsch, Leni, Sjostrom); and Griffith’s work during the same period. The National Film Theatre has recently gone some way towards repairing these deficiencies with its showings of Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, Isn’t Life Wonderful?, Abraham Lincoln; and (during the M-G-M season) Victor Sjostrom’s The Scarlet Letter. It’s an exciting experience, after some thirty years of controversy over D. W. Griffith’s alleged decline, to come fresh to so much first-hand evidence. Did he decline? Well of course . . . in certain respects. No director can be expected to go on erecting monuments to mankind as patently sincere and exhausting as The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance: and if, just for argument, we cite Broken Blossoms (1919) as his third masterpiece, it is worth mentioning that it is also his 415th film. In the circumstances it is both unreal and unreasonable to blame Griffith for failing to maintain, in the ‘twenties, the same innovatory influence that he had throughout the previous decade.
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish, Donald Crisp and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms”
There is no reason why loss of influence should be the corollary of artistic decline; and surely nothing unusual in the overtaking of an older, established talent by younger ones (von Stroheim, Henry King). Griffith, in fact, has had rather a raw deal, and his decline is obviously not as prolonged, steady and uncomplicated as Lewis Jacobs makes out in his Rise of the American Film. For one thing, the two later films just shown in London (Isn‘t Life Wonderful?, Abraham Lincoln) are better than the earlier Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. And for another, it does seem a trifle precipitate to start plotting the downward graph as early as 1916, when there is such a good argument to be made in favour of the lyricism and dramatic unity of a quickie like True Heart Susie (1919) as opposed to the dubious metaphysics and lumbering bulk of Intolerance.
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron in “True Heart Susie”
Admittedly, though, there no longer seems much of value, apart from Lillian Gish’s strong emotional projection, to justify the time, trouble and $175,000 in rights expended on Way Down East (1920), ‘elaborated’ by Griffith from Lottie Blair Parker’s rheumaticky melodrama about an innocent girl tricked into a mock marriage by a wealthy farmer and then abandoned, pregnant. The elaboration consists mainly of a spectacular blizzard and the celebrated ice floe sequence. And here it is difficult to take Lillian Gish’s predicament entirely seriously once one has noticed that the ice blocks speeding her to her doom belong to one river, while the waterfall awaiting her belongs quite clearly to another. A slightly earlier lapse in continuity concerns the seducer, whose distinctive high-boots stamp up the Bartletts’ front steps, change into trouser legs on entrance, and change inexplicably back again when he takes his leave. That one notices such minor distractions is some measure of the film’s shortcomings. A familiar expression of Griffith’s passionate social feeling, its dramatic validity is quickly undermined by characterisation as fiat as the photography, depressingly low comedy relief and a generally bungled coaching of actors. Lowell Sherman’s potentially able performance is cramped by the imposition of that hard-dying tradition whereby seducers carry on like female impersonators; and even Richard Barthelmess is made to pirouette. As usual, the best episodes are those giving gentler scope to Griffith’s response to human affections: Lillian, Madonna-like, baptising her dying baby; Lillian, listening to one man confess his betrayal and another his love; Lillian in the parlour alcove, quietly sewing near a roaring fire, in the only scene shot with real depth and intimacy.
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard
Way Down East – Anna Moore Detail
Cine Miroir Octobre 1922 – Way Down East – Lillian Gish – cropped detail
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)
Lillian Gish, Lowell Sherman, Richard Barthelmess, Burr Mackintosh and Kate bruce under direction of D.W. Griffith in “Way Down East”
After making Dream Street, a minor pot-boiler, Griffith returned to the kind of large-scale costume film that appealed to audiences through tried and trusted narrative devices, while assuaging his own frustrated longings to be taken seriously as a philosopher. He decided on another old play- already filmed twice, latterly as a Theda Bara vehicle and changed the title to Orphans of the Storm (1921 ). The film begins as a fairly straight adaptation, with the two devoted sisters setting out for Paris by stagecoach to seek a cure for Louise (Dorothy Gish), who is blind. Instead she is kidnapped by a fierce old woman and made to beg in the streets, while Henriette (Lillian Gish) finds herself in a palace garden, at the mercy of the decadent Marquis de Praille, during one of his orgies (ladies jumping through fountains and casting oeillades at the camera). Her rescue, and final reunion with Louise, is brought about through the love of a handsome Chevalier (Joseph Schildkraut), though not before she has spent what seems like ages stretched prone beneath a guillotine-blade. The film’s strength is Griffith’s indisputable showmanship, at its keenest in the reunion scene, with the blind girl singing in the street, and Henriette in a room above, absorbed in the Countess’s story, hearing and gradually recognising her sister’s voice, then finding herself prevented from reaching her.
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in “Orphans of the Storm” (1921)
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue
Orphans of the Storm – the trial
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …
Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut in – “Orphans of the Storm”
Again one is struck by the sheer impudence of Griffith’s suspense draughtsmanship, and amazed at the degree of cumulative impact in all that laborious cross-cutting, solely concerned as it is with covering the same small area of plot development without showing the least inclination to advance or resolve it. If Stroheim’s interest in a fire could most characteristically express itself through detailed investigation of the fire brigade’s activities, then Griffith’s would centre with equal concentration on every possible gesture of horrified incredulity that there is a fire. Unfortunately Griffith’s political moralising, though at no time impairing his innate showmanship, is a good deal less rewarding. Carlyle is invoked, Danton becomes “the Abraham Lincoln of France,” while hysterical warnings against the menace of Bolshevism betray a familiar note of xenophobia. Like several contemporary German films, in fact, Orphans of the Storm is disfigured by its spineless attitude to the French revolution. But where they have a striking surface accuracy, lending an even uglier tone to their basically nihilistic content, Griffith’s approach is so lacking in verisimilitude, taste and reticence as to be quite innocuous.
Captions describe the aristocrats as ” kingly bosses”, and the nearest we get to a sense of democratic upheaval is “Exultant! The Revolution Almost Ready!” as if it were a milk pudding.
Isn’t Life Wonderful – lobby card 1924
Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton in D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924
D.W. Griffith’s – “Isn‘t Life Wonderful? “
After a murder mystery, One Exciting Night, and the seduction of Mae Marsh by Ivor Novello in The White Rose (the stills look pretty, especially one of fireside romance), Griffith returned to the epic form with America. Whether or not this was inspired, as Lewis Jacobs says, by the phenomenal success of Cruze’s The Covered Wagon, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow a line of argument that cites Griffith’s next film, Isn’t Life Wonderful? (1924), as further evidence of his “lack of touch with the times.” There is, on the contrary, something distinctly brave and encouraging in Griffith’s decision to go to Germany and make a film described by Jacobs as “simple to the point of bareness (which) appeared drab and out of place beside the films of glamour and elegance then in vogue.”
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster and Neil Hamilton in D.W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful
Carol Dempster 1920s
Acutely felt and finely expressed, Isn‘t Life Wonderful? describes the struggle for existence of a family of Polish refugees in post-war Germany. Historically it is important as the rounded summation of all Griffith’s earlier social exposes, beginning with A Corner in Wheat in 1909; and in its anticipation, at a time when Germany still weltered exclusively in expressionism of new trends to be indicated a year later in Pabst’s Joyless Street. Griffith’s approach is quite dissimilar, of course, being sad and romantic rather than detached and clinical; but- apart from that operetta finale in a cosy little cottage- there is an almost documentary force in his portrayal of starvation and squalor. Perhaps he is apt to make his points with newsreel brusqueness, inserting authentic battlefront scenes and haunting shots of sullen, emaciated children in something like his old tableau vivant manner. But when he does manage to assimilate this location material into the mainstream of dramatic continuity, the results are memorable. The meat queue sequence in particular, with prices soaring after every customer is served, and the girl’s growing apprehension as she keeps counting her money and studying the blackboard, is intensely moving. Actually, a lot of the film’s quality derives from its acting, and the outstanding performance of Carol Dempster, a hunted, intense little creature of touching poignancy. As her boy friend, a gassed ex-soldier, Neil Hamilton is more virile and gauntly mature than the usual run of Griffith heroes, and the restraint of his sick-bed scene carries great conviction. Best of their scenes together is the climactic pursuit through a forest at dusk, with the frightened couple mistaken for profiteers by a surly gang of labourers, she begging in vain to be allowed to keep their winter stock of precious potatoes, and finally both sinking to the ground, a year’s work wasted, their spirit momentarily broken, while the nearby river flows symbolically on.
A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)
Abraham Lincoln – lobby card
D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”
Inevitably, in a dropsical year that laboured and brought forth Monsieur Beaucaire, Beau Brummel and Dante’s Inferno, Griffith’s reproachful little pieta meant nothing at the box-office. Six minor films followed before he returned to independent production and congenial subject-matter with Abraham Lincoln (1930). His first talkie and his last available work (The Struggle, made a year later, was withdrawn after a few performances), it offers little conclusive evidence of Griffith’s potentialities as a sound film director. Admittedly it is episodic af!d often static, but this has always been Hollywood’s traditional approach to the sober, burning-the-midnight-oil school of biography. Jacobs pounces unerringly on the two blatant examples of Griffith’s weakness for pathos: the death of Ann Rutledge, played quite appallingly by Una Merkel as a simpering nanny-goat, and Lincoln’s pardon of a condemned boy soldier, glassy-eyed from his visitation by a ‘boyhood chum’. Yet .he makes no mention of all the good things: Walter Huston’s unique impersonation of Lincoln, the impeccable playing of briefly seen historical figures, Hobart Bosworth’s tragic nobility as General Lee. The crowd scenes are magnificent; there are one or two vast, busy shots of battle preparation as authentically Brady-ish as any in The Red Badge of Courage; above all, there is the assassination of Lincoln, the rightness of its off-hand, prosaic view of violence quickly brought home by the absurd figure of John Wilkes Booth popping on and off the stage ill a feeble burst of gratified exhibitionism. Griffith could be surprisingly perceptive on occasion. He could also be maddeningly obtuse. Voted the director of the year for Abraham,Lincoln, he retorted that it would have been a far better film had he not been compelled to make it “all dry history with no thread of romance.” Yet it is in his writings that one most clearly observes the hint of megalomania that contributed to his downfall. There is something of Citizen Kane about this exiled mandarin, expressing disappointment in Europe’s war damage and finding it, “viewed as drama,” less impressive than his sets for Intolerance; or railing against income tax as the path to Bolshevism; or planning to film Faust (till Lillian Gish stopped him) in 72 reels. On his own ground as a liberal, 19th century humanist, Griffith played an inestimable role in the cinema’s development. But away from his own fireside and into an earlier or a later century, the result at best was a flawed and compromised minor masterpiece (Isn’t Life Wonderful?); at worst, an outmoded soap-opera (Way Down East) or a rabid, reactionary apologia (Orphans of the Storm).
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne and Rev.Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter – 1926 (Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson)
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Henry B Walthall, Karl Dane – The Scarlet Letter
Throughout his career, Griffith’s artistic development was notoriously handicapped by his ominously strong penchant for stories concerned with the rape or general maltreatment of defenceless girls, and it is interesting to speculate on the results had he, instead of Sjostrom, been chosen to direct Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1926). Its classic line and interior conflict between austere repression and elemental law might have produced a notable extension to Griffith’s talents: for Sjostrom such a subject could only be a variation on a theme expressed many times previously in such works as Ingmar’s Sons and Love’s Crucible. None the less, Sjostrom approached the assignment with fresh sympathy and thorough professional skill, and today his film seems the most artistically satisfying of the five discussed here. His achievement is the more remarkable when one considers the talents employed on it. Frances Marion, previously Mary Pickford’s screenwriter, refined the novel into a simple, traditional folk-tale about an innocent little seamstress, Hester Prynne, in Puritan New England, her loyal devotion through years of persecution to the minister, Dimmesdale, who is the secret father of her child, and the ultimate cruelty of fate, personified by the Ibsenish figure of her long-lost husband. The isolation of the main characters is emphasised by the stylised but flexible photography of Hendrik Sartov, Griffith’s one-time cameraman, who framed his lovers within brightly lit foregrounds behind which the backdrops washed eerily away. Impressive as the New England atmosphere is-and all re-created on a Culver City lot-it is equalled by the performances.
Lars Hansen, though somewhat too rigidly open-mouthed in the middle scenes·of anguished guilt, brings welcome humour to his early embarrassment in the face of Hester’s bird-like curiosity, and real power to his final breast-beating self-denunciation on the scaffold. Henry B. Walthall as Prynne, and Joyce Coad as the child, are both perfect. But when all is said and done, it is Lillian Gish’s Hester that gives The Scarlet Letter its depth, its impact, its final touch of greatness. Sjostrom is very much an actress’s director, and from the earliest scenes of Hester’s mercurial innocence, thoughtlessly “running and playing on ye Sabbath” or leaving a forbidden scrap of laundry draped shockingly over a currant bush, to the pathos of the doom-laden finale, Lillian Gish plays with a maturity and unforced, natural eloquence denied her throughout her apprenticeship with Griffith.
Like the young Bette Davis, whom she here uncannily resembles, Lillian Gish has a surprising physical and mental toughness, an intensity in repose and an inexhaustible spirit of psychological enquiry all alien to Griffith’s narrow and arbitrary ideal of femininity. This fresh discovery allows us one last, inescapable conclusion: it was in reality Griffith, and never Sjostrom, whose acting school was one of repression.
But Actress Won’t Say if Her Opinion on War Is Changed
The New York Times – Sept. 2, 1941
Lillian Gish, stage and screen actress, announced here yesterday that she had resigned as a member of the America First Committee, which is opposed to America’s intervention in the war. Miss Gish said she had informed General Robert E. Wood, acting national chairman of the America First Committee, of her resignation in a personal conversation with him in Chicago last Thursday. She declined to reveal the reason for her resignation, nor would she say whether she has changed her opinion on the international situation.
“I just resigned.” said the actress, who has spoken publicly for the committee in Chicago, Hollywood and San Francisco.
Recently, a Hollywood trade journal reported that Miss Gish might be called to Washington to testify before a Senate subcommittee appointed to investigate alleged pro-war “propaganda” in current films. The story said there was a rumor that Miss Gish could not get screen employment because of her America First activities. In the next issue of the journal. Miss Gish vigorously denied that she would be a witness, or that any discrimination had been employed against her.
“My position still is the same, she said yesterday. “I have nothing to tell the Senate committee, and I know nothing of any discrimination against me.”
Miss Gish. who recently closed a record run of ‘”Life with Father” in Chicago, is visiting her mother, Mrs. Mary R. Gish, here. Her sister, Dorothy Gish, who toured in the same play, also is here.
Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing – ” Women in Films”– which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.
Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost star‘ of the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”
But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.
From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.
1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.
She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.
John Gilbert and Mae Murray in Merry Widow – 1925
John Gilbert, Mae Murray and Roy D’Arcy in The Merry Widow
The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!
At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.
From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.
Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” 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.
The Wind Proposal
Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?
Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – La Boheme
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”
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.
Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.
With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.
Lillian Gish 1927 – Annie Laurie Promotional MGM
Motion Picture News (Jun 1927) Annie Laurie
Back in charge she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that MGM held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to· Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, MGM said, she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. MGM had let her go because she got 8,000 a week! And, he developed, without a blush, all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures.
Stigmatised, a grasping silly sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow – a world of shadows.”