An earnest consideration of the inestimable part being played by the Motion Picture in the Great War.
By Louella O. Parsons (Excerpts)
If German vandalism could reach overseas, the Kaiser would order every moving picture studio crushed to dust, and every theatre blown to atoms. There has been no more effective ammunition aimed at the Prussian empire than these picture stories of Germany’s atrocities.
First because the moving picture reaches such an enormous audience. Where the novel eight times out of ten presents a more logical discussion of the cause, and the stirring patriotic play has more claim to pur attention it only reaches the thousands, where the film is seen and absorbed by millions. Moving pictures encircle the globe in every inhabited city, and are shown at a price which makes it possible for everyone to see them. These followers of the cinema have seen with their own eyes how German militarism is waged against civilization.
They have seen the rape of Belgium, the devastation of France and the evil designs against America, Italy and France. They have lived over with these unfortunates this tragedy against helpless women and children, and with tears in their eyes and horror in their hearts have cried aloud for vengeance against this soulless nation. And while these film plays have been raising the temperature of the Allies’ patriotism to blood heat, Germany has been gnashing its teeth. The natural question, Why doesn’t Germany meet these attacks with similar moving pictures? brings back an answer attacking one place where Germany’s widely touted efficiency is at fault. We do not doubt for the minute that Germany is making a strong attempt to come back at us with its own moving picture propaganda, but we who have studied the film situation since long before the war know that the kaiser’s domain is not equipped to circulate any such productions as we have been viewing the last twelve months. And if it were it would not have an American audience to reach. We with our cosmopolitan population of mixed races are able to reach the very people Germany ‘is struggling to get into its clutches.
And again, if it had studio facilities, there is no story it could tell to gain sympathy. The allies have never invaded a Belgium, nor destroyed a France, nor waged any unholy war against defenseless women and children. The powers at Washington realized what a factor the screen would be in the war against William Hohenzollern. The declaration of war was not a week old when President Wilson sent for W. A. Brady to co-operate with him in getting the moving picture industry in line. What the fifth estate did in the way of starting the ball rolling with its four-minute men, its patriotic strips of film and with the active assistance of the three Liberty Loan Campaigns is too well known to need further comment. But the big thing the film producer has done was to create within the year over sixty pictorial propagandas, or more than one a week. Not all of these moving pictures have been intelligently constructed. Some of them have been absurd and impossible; others have been written too obviously for financial gain, but the strong argument is, that they have all sent people home thinking and planning of some way to be of service to the government. The government too, has been able to use the screen as a school of instruction, a sort of military text book. By following the weekly films, the mothers at home, the fathers and the younger children have been able to get a very fair idea of what the sailors and soldiers are doing in the military training camps. Every open phase of military life has been narrated in a most entertaining fashion on the screen. England and France have not been slow to realize the value of following America by presenting their righteous cause in a pictured story.
An invitation was sent to David Wark Griffith to come to the fighting fronts and make a moving picture of the conflict for the English government. Mr. Griffith was asked to give a cinematic argument of why German militarism, like a cancerous growth, should be cut away before it further menaces civilization by its malignant presence. The adventures of David Griffith on those foreign shores are like a wonder tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp. If I had not heard the story from Mr. Griffith’s own lips I might have accused someone of flirting with the truth. Conservative England received him as they might have received a visiting potentate. Lloyd George personally appeared before the camera with him; Queen Alexandria expressed a desire to meet the American whose magic would bring the war home to so many indifferent hearts, and social England, devoted to the war stricken country, helped by facing the camera. Such women as Lady Diana Manners, Mrs. Buller, Elizabeth Asquith, and the Duchess of Beaufort turned moving picture actress to have a part in the British war film. Government aid and official escort did not make the filming of this picture as simple as it sounds. To get the great panorama of battle in action, the moving picture camera had to be carried into the front line trenches. Shot and shell and gas explosions became a part of the daily Griffith menu. After the camera was blown to bits on one occasion, care was taken to make a facsimile of every battle scene filmed, so a retake could be made in the California studios if it should be necessary.
The last time I talked with Mr. Griffith, he was greatly upset at the reports that the Germans were planning to invade Ham, Amiens, Ypres and Chalnes. “Some of those villages,” he said, “are the very spots in which I established my temporary studios. The villagers were deeply interested in the moving picture which was to carry a message to the outside world. Old men., women and children left at home gave freely of their hospitality. This eighteen months’ work in France and England resulted in a combination romance and history. The bleak desolation of “No Man’s Land” with the grim, smoke-stained soldiers are the “supers,” who played in this picture as earnestly as they “play” “over there” in the big war drama for your freedom and for mine. The great stretch of devastated territory, with its accoutrements of war, its trenches and barbed wire fences, are all pictured as accurately as though we were standing there, gazing at the tangible result of German kultur.
It is difficult to discriminate and say which film has done the most to aid the fight. Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘Mothers of France,” which should have been titled “Mothers of the World,” has probably called forth the most tears. Madame Bernhardt, with a brave spark burning in her feeble body, stood knee deep in the trenches and offered herself a living sacrifice to her beloved France. The tears are not only for the bereaved mothers, but also for the pathetic old woman, lame and sick, who forgot her own discomfort to try and stir the other women of the world to action. The motive of this picture glorifies it. No one who ever saw Bernhardt and her silent plea that we give our loved ones gladly and proudly to the cause will ever forget her message. Herbert Brenon made a stepchild to the war films in a screen play featuring Rasputin and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. This and his English birth brought forth an invitation from the English government for him to make an historical film record for the British archives. Mr. Brenon is now in England working on this mission. There have been many official war films, some of them actually photographed at battles which have now gone down in history as decisive moments in the great world’s war. Among those which have occupied the screen during the past year are: “The Retreat of the Germans at the Battle of Arras,” “The Italian Battlefronts,” “The Battle of the Ancre,” and “Heroic France and the German Curse in Russia.” The last named is more of a pictorial discussion of the Russian situation than a moving picture of any specific battle scene. All of these war time pictures have been received with enthusiasm with the exception of a few which had been better left unfilmed. These are hectic dramas using the war as a reason for their existing, and made with no high patriotic purpose, but with a thinly veiled camouflage to make money. They have offended both the individual patriot and the government. The very fact that some of the producers have taken advantage of war time has induced the government to put every patriotic picture released under strict surveillance, with a trained corps of men to pass upon their fitness to serve as propaganda.
Some of these features, while harmless enough, are so badly done, that even the heavy Teutonic nature must have found them amusing. But the good done by the screen has far outweighed any evil effects of these ridiculous war films. The President has congratulated the moving picture industry on the help it has given the nation at this time, and he and the other men now at the helm in Washington have gone on record as saying these pictorial propagandas are among the most valuable war-time assets United States owns.
Based on Interviews by David Shepard and Ted Perry
Copyright 1995 by Directors Guild of America, Inc.
It is ironic in this day of home video and cable television, when we have virtually every existing motion picture within easy grasp, that we seem ever more in danger of allowing film history to fade away. Too many of the greatest artists of the medium are today nearly unknown. Twenty years ago the works of Griffith, Keaton, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Ford and Hawks were taught in college cinema courses as a matter of routine. Today you can throw a stone on any college campus without hitting a student who has even heard of Foolish Wives or True Heart Susie or Sherlock Jr. If the acknowledged masters of the cinema are in danger of being neglected, what of the brilliant craftsmen whose careers have cried out for rediscovery: Herbert Brenon, Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Henry King? Of these, King is undoubtedly the best known, yet appraisal of his career has always seemed particularly problematic. In the Twenties, with acclaimed masterworks such as ToVable David (1921), The White Sister (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925) under his belt, King was considered among the pantheon of American directors, a worthy successor to Griffith. But his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox, beginning in 1930 and lasting until his retirement, muddied the waters a little. Still highly regarded critically, particularly for his serious dramas like Twelve O’clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950), King’s creative signature became so intertwined with the Fox aesthetic that, during his lifetime, he was regarded more as a supremely commercial filmmaker than an artist.
Rediscovery has seemed imminent at several points in the last two decades. Late in his life, King received tributes at film festivals and museums and a few articles were written about his oeuvre but, by and large, film scholars passed King by in favor of more “personal” artists. As historian William K. Everson wrote in his book American Silent Film, “For directors of the past to be rediscovered by contemporary critics, they usually have to have been off-beat, ahead of their time, or even abysmally bad but at the same time interesting in a bizarre way. But King fits into none of these categories. Far from being ahead of his time, he was exactly of his time.”
To me, motion pictures are less about art than about story telling. The moment I started making pictures, I started looking at pictures to see what they were all about because I hadn’t seen many before. D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914), with Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, really stood out in my mind. The thing that impressed me about this one was that it definitely told its story better than any of the pictures that I had seen. I didn’t particularly notice the form or method Griffith used. The story stood out and he told it well. A motion picture director is a story teller. If he knows how to punctuate and accentuate, he knows the art of telling stories. One night in the Thirties at Twentieth Century-Fox, I was at a dinner at which Irwin Cobb was giving a talk. I don’t remember precisely what story he told — probably one of his “Judge Priest” tales — but the way he told it was just dynamic, it was very, very funny. There was an audience of about 150 people and when he finished his story, he got a standing ovation. About a month later I heard someone else tell the same story and it was the dullest thing I ever heard in my life. From that I learned that sometimes it’s the way you tell a story rather than the story itself that makes it effective. When I was filming The White Sister in Italy in 1923, I was in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Rome waiting for someone. I saw an Italian, who looked very much the part of a nobleman — so well dressed, so immaculate — go over to greet a beautiful lady who had just come down the stairs. He bowed and, very gallantly, he kissed her hand. Moments later an elderly man got off the elevator and came over to them. He took out his handkerchief and rubbed her hand off before he kissed it; he rubbed off the other man’s kiss. Later, when I was doing The Woman Disputed (1928) with Norma Talmadge, that incident popped into my mind, and I found a situation in which to use it. In the theater it got a terrific laugh, it was very, very funny. And it was real.
One day Charlie Duell asked me, “What would you think if we could bring Lillian Gish into the company?” I didn’t know that he was a little bit sweet on her. I said, “I think it’d be a great asset. But what’s she going to do?”
“That’s what I want to ask you,” Charlie said. Like a flash in my mind, I remembered an old play, The White Sister, that had come around when I was in stock. I hadn’t played in it, but I had read it. It was from Marion Crawford’s book and Viola Allen had played it on the stage to tremendous success. I said to Charlie, “The White Sister seems to me a great thing for Lillian Gish.”
THE WHITE SISTER (1923)
[Lillian Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, an Italian woman whose half sister usurps their late father’s estate. Angela joins a convent when her fiance Soverini (Ronald Colman) is reportedly killed in a war in Africa. Soverini (** Giovanni Severi – original film character) returns home alive, and tries in vain to convince Angela to renounce her vows. Soverini gives his life to save his townspeople from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.]
I had used my free time on the Nearis to re-read The White Sister. In my little berth, I was reading it in bits and pieces. It wasn’t as good as I had remembered. When I met Charlie Duell and Lillian Gish in Boston, they had both read it and were just thrilled to death. They thought it was a good story. I said, “I think it’s terrible and I’ll tell you why.” We were in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and I started in telling them this awful story and about two-thirds of the way through I stopped. “It strikes me,” I said, “that I’m telling you a pretty good story.”
Lillian said, “That’s what I was thinking. If you’re telling us a bad story, we need more bad stories like it.”
I turned to Charlie. “Buy it,” I said. He bought the rights to the play for $16,000 and two weeks later William Randolph Hearst wanted to buy it for Marion Davies. The rights owners could have made a lot more from Hearst than from selling it to us. Charlie Whittaker wrote the first screen treatment of The White Sister, but I didn’t find it satisfactory. Then Eddie Goulding said to me, “I can do the greatest screenplay of this.” I said, “Go ahead.” He wrote it in ten days and when I read it I dropped it right in the waste paper basket. He had been writing these pictures for Robert Z. Leonard and Mae Murray [Broadway Rose, Fascination and Peacock Alley; all 1922] and had turned The White Sister into a pure Mae Murray, one of those flippant, fluttering little butterflies. So I threw it away. Eddie got so mad he didn’t know what to do and it sort of left me in the lurch. I had the story and Lillian Gish but I didn’t know exactly which way to go. I went over to the Lamb’s Club for lunch and saw George Hobart sitting there. I asked him to have lunch with me. George was a very capable man. He wrote the Follies for thirteen consecutive years and he wrote many of Lillian Russell’s plays like Wild Flower. I said, “George, how would you like to work with me on a screenplay?”
“I’ve seen very few pictures in my life,” George said.
“I don’t know, pictures never appealed to me.” I took him up to the Capitol Theater, to impress him. I said, “Theaters like this show motion pictures.” He didn’t know such things existed. The Follies always played at the New Amsterdam Theater, so he only knew the little theaters around 42nd Street; the Capitol was way uptown. He was awestruck. I asked George, “What will you take to work with me for a couple of weeks?”
“For $765,” he replied, “I’ll commit murder, if it isn’t too obvious. I’m in desperate straits right now.” They had just foreclosed on his house. I said, “I’ll give you $1,000 if you work with me this next week.” Went down to Atlantic City, where he lived, and started working. He had brilliant ideas. We worked from eight o’clock until noon, had lunch, took a walk on the boardwalk, went back and worked until about six thirty in the evening and he would go home. We did that every day for, I think, eight days. When I left, I had the entire story on twelve sheets of paper. And that was the script the way it was shot. We went to Italy to make a feature from twelve pages of script!
When I was planning The White Sister I was desperate to get a man to play Giovanni. Everybody, in fact, was trying to help me cast the picture. Eddie Small called me and said, “I have a woman playing at the Empire Theatre [Ruth Chatterton in La Tendresse] who I think you should see to play Lillian Gish ‘s half-sister.” He said, “I’ll send over two tickets for you to see it tonight. And I’m sending two other tickets so that you can see her in the first act at the Empire, then go right around the corner to the 39th Street Theater. There’s a man that I want you to see for Giovanni’ My wife and I went to the Empire Theatre that night and watched the first act. I saw the woman I was supposed to see and when the act was over we got up and went out into the lobby. My wife said, “You know, I’ve seen the first acts or the last act of almost every show in New York. I haven’t seen one show all the way through. Why don’t we stay and see Act Two? You don’t want to get around there until the third act, anyway.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do that.” We walked back into the theater and the curtain went up on the second act. There was a knock at the door, the leading lady opened it — the play was about a clandestine affair — and in walked a man and he played through this act. When her husband returned, the adulterer went out the window and the curtain came down. My wife said, “Now there’s the man you’re looking for. Let’s stay and see the next act.” I agreed that he looked very good. I looked at the program and saw his name: Ronald Colman. We stayed and saw the last act, and he wasn’t in it at all — he was just in that one act. The next day there was an agent in my office and I asked him, “Do you know an actor named Ronald Colman?” He said, “Yes, I represent him.”
“Well,” I said, “I’d like to talk to him.” He brought Mr. Colman over to my office and Mr.
Colman was very appreciative and said that he had had a screen test in England and was told that he didn’t photo graph well. “I came to the United States on the recommendation of one of the directors from Paramount.”
I said, “I think we’ll just have you make a test.”
“I’d love to make a test’ he said, “but I hate to waste your time and money. Mr. [Gilbert] Miller put me in this show and I think I’d better stay where I belong — the theater.”
I made a test. I just set the camera up and asked him embarrassing questions to take his mind off the camera, so he was only thinking about me. Soon, the real man was coming out. I asked him to answer me absolutely honestly — I can tell when anything is honest or when it’s a little bit strained — so he did some of his best acting in this scene. He was natural, he was himself, he answered sincerely, you believed everything he said. When we finished this first scene, I said, “Go out, do something with your hair.” He wore it in a kind of pompadour. We parted his hair, slicked it down and combed it and I made another 400 feet. He was going to play an Italian army officer, so I took a retouching pencil and put a little mustache on him. When we got finished with all these tests I said, “Mr. Colman, you are 90% on the way I don’t want to make any decisions until I actually see the film but, from my judgement, you’re the man I’m looking for.” I called Duell and said, “I think I have the man I want but I want you to see the film with me tomorrow morning. Let’s have Lillian Gish there, too, and see what she thinks of him. She has to work with him, after all.” At ten o’clock the next morning the three of us met in the projection room and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. You could see the development from the first test to the next — the hair, the mustache, that made him Giovanni. Lillian said, “The only objection I can think of is that he’s an Englishman and Englishmen are awfully stiff.”
I said, “I don’t think this one will be.”
I called his agent and signed him up for $450 a week plus expenses. There never was a man so surprised as Ronald Colman. He couldn’t believe it. He was able to get out of his contract with Gilbert Miller and ten days later we were on the ocean liner Providence, headed for Italy. All the time I was in Rome I was in touch with the Cardinal. He came to the hotel a couple of times to have tea. Lillian Gish invited him over a few times. Everybody at the hotel thought we were the greatest dignitaries in the world — Cardinals don’t run around with just anybody! From that time on, everyone at the hotel jumped to do our bidding because we knew the Cardinal.
THE WHITE SISTER (1923) Inspiration/Metro Pictures. Presented by Charles H. Duell. Scenario: George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker. Titles: Will M. Ritchey and Don Bartlett. Camera: Roy Overbaugh. Editor: Duncan Mansfield. Cast: Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane, J. Barney Sherry, Charles Lane.
[Romola, based on an 1862 novel by George Eliot, re-teamed Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman in Italy, and also starred Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The story is about the daughter (Lillian Gish) of a blind scholar who marries an unscrupulous magistrate (Powell). After the magistrate betrays and angers the populace, a mob chases him to the river, where he drowns. Romola finds happiness with a sculptor (Colman).] I found the Italians to be tremendously serious in what they’re doing. They want things to be exactly right. They bend over backwards to have things exactly right and they know what they’re doing. We learned some of the most valuable things from them, especially when we were doing Romola.
In Romola we were trying to duplicate the Davanzati Palace, which is one of the great palaces of Florence — it stands there today. These people went down to the Davanzati Palace and plastered over it and made a cast. Then they took the cast off and nailed the stone up and it duplicated exactly all the detail in the world, like a mask. When Bob Haas and I came back to Hollywood we used that technique. We were the first people in the United States to use it and it’s been copied ever since. In Florence there was a studio that covered about forty acres. It had two small stages, nothing like the ones we had in Hollywood, but large enough for the interiors. They had just finished shooting some huge costume picture and the sets covered seventeen acres. Robert Haas was again my art director. He and I went up to see these standing sets and realized that all we had to do was peel off the fronts and change it to anything we wanted.
We rebuilt fifteenth century Florence on that back-lot. One building, the set for II Duomo, was 274 feet high. Our sets matched the real buildings perfectly, thanks to the Italian workmen. I made some scenes in front of the real Duomo and the real Campanile. They matched so well you couldn’t tell the difference. We needed galley ships for the picture and they were built for us at Livorno, a port south of Florence, by Tito Neri. He took the hulls of existing boats and put new superstructures on top so that they would look like authentic Italian ships of the period. We named the ships the Liliano and the Dorothea, after the Gish sisters. While filming The White Sister I had begun to take one-hour Italian lessons. I built up enough vocabulary to get along as long as you didn’t complicate things too much. The Italians have six forms of the verb “to be” and keeping track of those was enough to keep me busy. So on Romola I was beginning to speak a little Italian and that scoundrel Bill Powell — he went over without one word of Italian and within two months was speaking the language as fluently as he spoke English. When I was returning to Italy to film Romola, I called my friend Alfredo Berniggi and told him that there was an actor I wanted to meet in Rome. I said, “Get in touch with him and ask him to meet me at the Majestic Hotel.” The next morning, Alfredo picked me up and drove me to the Majestic. When we got within about a block of the hotel, there was a crowd of about a hundred and fifty people standing on the sidewalk.
“Are they here to see me?” I asked.
Alfredo grinned. “Yes, Mr. King.”
I said, “Alfredo, I wanted to see one actor. My God, you’ve got all the actors in Rome here!”
“Mr. King,” Alfredo said, “these people don’t want a job. All they want to do is just say, ‘Bon giorno, Signor King. They love you.” Well, I felt like a heel. As I got out of the car they formed a “V” and said together, “Bon giorno!” I thought, if they can do this for me, I can do the same for them. I started at the end of the line and called each one by name and shook hands with every one of them and said, “I’m glad to be back” or some other greeting in my little Italian. They applauded like everything. When I got into the hotel, Alfredo, a big husky man, was standing at the ban nister of the stairs, crying like a baby. He said, “Mr. King, any man in that group — you want somebody killed, he kill him for you.” That’s how much they loved me. They’d kill anybody for me.
ROMOLA (1925) Metro-Goldwyn. Scenario: Will M. Ritchey. Art Director: Robert M. Haas. Production Manager: Joseph C. Boyle. Shipbuilder: Tito Neri. Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William H. Powell, Ronald Colman, Charles Lane, Herbert Grimwood.
Henry King remained an active and creative man for the rest of his life. At 94, he passed a pilot’s physical, making him the oldest licensed pilot in the United States. He attended tributes to his remarkable career at the Telluride Film Festival in 1976 (he flew his own plane to the event), the British Film Institute in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA, both in 1980. He also, in the last decade of his life, granted several in-depth interviews with film scholars, including those which form the basis for this book. He died on June 29, 1982 at his home in Toluca Lake, California at the age of 96.
Hollywood in 1905, before the invasion. We are looking down on Hollywood Boulevard, which runs along the centre. The road on the right is Orange Drive, and the house with the oriental cupola became the home of Conway Tearle. More recently, it passed into the hands of the American Society of Cinematographers, who have carefully preserved it—the only building in the picture to survive. Apartment and office blocks now stretch to the horizon.
by Kevin Brownlow
ALFRED A. KNOPF – NEW YORK, 1979
Talk to people who saw films for the first time when they were silent, and they will tell you the experience was magic. The silent film, with music, had extraordinary powers to draw an audience into the story, and an equally potent capacity to make their imagination work. They had to supply the voices and the sound effects, and because their minds were engaged, they appreciated the experience all the more. The audience was the final creative contributor to the process of making a film.
The films have gained a charm and other-worldliness with age but, inevitably, they have also lost something. The impression they made when there was no rival to the moving picture was more profound, more intense; compared to the easily accessible pictures of today, it was the blow of a two-handed axe, against the blunt scraping of a table-knife.
The films belong to an era considered simpler and more desirable than our own. But nostalgia should not be allowed to cast a Portobello Road quaintness over the past, for it obliges us to edit from our mind the worst aspects of a period and embrace only those elements we admire. The silent period may be known as ‘The Age of Innocence’ but it included years unrivalled for their dedicated viciousness. In Europe, between 1914 and 1918 more men were killed to less purpose than at any other time in history. In America, men who stood out from the herd—pacifists, anarchists, socialists —were rounded up and deported in 1919, and were lucky to avoid being lynched. The miseries of war culminated in the miseries of disease when the Spanish flu swept Europe and America and killed more civilians than the war had killed soldiers. With peace came the Versailles treaty—collapse and starvation in Central Europe—the idealism of Prohibition—gangsterism in America.
The benefit of the moving picture to a care-worn populace was inestimable, but the sentimentality and charm, the easily understandable, black-and-white issues were not so much a reflection of everyday life as a means of escape from it. Again and again, in the publications of the time, one reads horrified reactions against films showing ‘life as it is’.
Pioneers are people of exceptional energy—-a quality that sets them apart. An example of this occurred at the Sun Valley Western Conference in 1976, which David Gill and I attended. We encountered the director, Henry King, who had once been a pilot. He was known as the Flying Director.
I asked him if he still flew from time to time. “I flew in this morning,” he said. “Oh, I realise that,” I said, thinking of the twin-engined boneshaker which had transported us all across the mountains. “But do you ever fly your own plane?”
“I flew in my own plane this morning,” he replied. We could only blink in astonished admiration—for King’s career goes back almost as far as powered flight.
“I’m a pioneer,” said fellow-director King Vidor, when I told him this story, “I’ve been in this business for years.
But even when I first got to Hollywood, Henry King was going strong.”
It is impossible to listen to these people without marvelling; they are so extraordinary in their old age… what must Hollywood have been like when they were all young? (Kevin Brownlow)
IN other arts, millions are expended to preserve a work in its original state. In the movies, the money is spent to prevent the film remaining in its original state, because that state is highly dangerous. It is therefore hard to judge the true value of the films of the silent era, since copies are generally travesties. This is particularly true in the case of D. W. Griffith. Not only has the delicate quality of the photography been debased; Griffith s own attitudes have become so archaic that his work is greeted today as much by laughter as applause.
Nevertheless, it is a tribute to his genius that seventy years after he began work as a director, his major films are still regarded as masterpieces. Griffith himself is still regarded as the innovator of the language of film. So much has been written about him, however, that his work has been submerged by praise, and the expectation of an audience for a Griffith film is thus unnaturally high. Few artists, however talented, can retain their reputation through generation after generation—and in an art subject to such violent change as the motion picture, the mortality rate for genius is high.
To appreciate what Griffith did without romanticising his achievements, it is necessary to strip some of the legends away. Like Edison, Griffith was blessed (or cursed) by the talent of top-flight press agents. They conducted their campaigns in a curious manner, treating their subject with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the deceased. They poured into their advertisements quotations one might see carved on a statue: “The most sane and imaginative American who ever revolutionized the theatre when it needed an emancipator.” . . . “He has far exceeded the power of the written word. It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them.” . . . “D. W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!”
The campaign was mounted when Griffith left the Biograph Company, with the publication in the New York. Dramatic Mirror of a celebrated advertisement: “D. W. Griffith, producer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing the Motion Picture Drama, and founding the modern techniques of the art. Included in the innovations which he introduced and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers are: the use of large closeup figures, distant views, as reproduced first in ‘Ramona’, the ‘switchback’, sustained suspense, the fade-out’ and restraint in expression, raising motion picture acting which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.
Although the word ‘introduce’ is marginally less arrogant than ‘invent’, Griffith was not responsible for the close-up or the fade-out nor would it have made the slightest difference if he had been. What counted was how such devices were used. Griffith used them efficiently, sometimes brilliantly, and the tendency is to credit him with everything possible in the cinema. The trouble is, that by piling all these offerings on Griffith’s altar, one obscures the true object for admiration : the quality of Griffith’s direction.
The travelling shots, the dynamic editing and the colossal sets are all incidental beside this element. It is not always apparent. Some of Griffith’s films—Home Sweet Home (1914), Dream Street (1921)— are completely lacking in any sign of outstanding direction. But take the scene in Orphans of the Storm (1921), when Lillian Gish hears the distant voice of her long-lost sister, begging in the street below. Griffith holds Lillian Gish’s ethereal face in close-up; her blonde hair is illumined by a halo of light. The electricity between Griffith and Lillian Gish is so hypnotic that the audience finds itself straining to catch the merest movement of an eyelash. Miss Gish hesitates, moves her head slightly—“no” . . . one can see her dismiss the thought. . . “that cannot be my sister ”. But the voice reaches her again. Her eyes flash with wild hope, then the lustre fades as she attributes the sound to her imagination. When the voice recurs, and she realises she is not mistaken, the tears well in her eyes—and in ours. One reaches the climax of the scene sharing with Lillian Gish a sense of love and desperation instilled by direction of brilliance.
All his other achievements are overshadowed by this ability to transfer to a length of celluloid the most poignant degree of emotion. Here is something which can survive the centuries. However skilful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture.
The Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish had suggested to Griffith during production that the scenes with the Klan, and the explicit racial elements, might cause the picture to be stopped. “I hope to God they do stop it,” replied Griffith. “Then you won’t be able to keep the audiences away with clubs!” He undoubtedly recalled that Dixon’s play had sparked riots in 1908.
Despite this brutal remark, Griffith was probably as surprised as anyone at the power of his film. “The fact that the showing of The Clansman started riots and put blood on the streets,” said Karl Brown, “was proof beyond proof that it was a great and powerful picture. Regardless of what any critic might have to say about it, the proof was there.”
Griffith sent his assistant Joseph Henabery to persuade the workmen to join the company. By this time the Exposition was over, and the people who had built it had left. But Henabery rounded up three of the craftsmen who had worked on the intricate Italian section. Griffith s associates have steadfastly insisted there was no art director; Griffith showed pictures to his boss carpenter, Frank Huck Wortman, and the sets were built accordingly. But Karl Brown remembered Walter L. Hall, an English theatrical designer, who translated Griffith’s vision into reality. Once Babylon towered over Sunset Boulevard, Griffith had to work out how to shoot it. A tall camera tower was an obvious answer, but Griffith had been impressed by those subtle camera movements in Cabiria. Could he make the camera move from that height?
A balloon was tried, but it made Bitzer sick and was not a stable camera platform. Griffith asked Allan Dwan, an engineer albeit an electrical one, and he suggested a mobile tower with an elevator. It was constructed to move on mining rails. No photograph of this monster is known to exist but the scenes that it filmed are so full of mystery and magic that perhaps it’s as well to preserve that mystery. The eye of the audience is guided softly out of the clouds above Babylon and down to examine the Bacchanalian feast below. At a certain season of the year,” said Karl Brown, “Southern California is visited by a windstorm, a Santa Ana. This wind, blowing out of a cloudless sky, comes in off the San Fernando Valley, which at that time was raw desert. Clouds of dust come over the mountains and through the valley, and a strong wind which would reach forty or fifty knots, so much so that it was hard to walk against.
We had put up the walls of Babylon which were about 150 feet long and 90 feet high—that’s a considerable area to expose to a wind as any man knows who’s used to square-rigged vessels. When the Santa Ana hit that tremendous expanse, the walls were just moving in and out. We thought we d lost the entire set, but Huck Wortman, our master builder, said ‘Well, it ain’t no use looking at her, let’s get some line on her.’ So we did. The boys went aloft on that swinging structure and fastened hawsers, which were made fast and covered with what they called dead men. Those dead men saved our lives, because the hawsers held, the wind subsided and we went to work.”
A unique picture of Griffith at work in the Biograph Studios, New York, 1912. Griffith stands behind flowers. Another Biograph director, Dell Henderson, stands in shirtsleeves next to Bobby Harron (seated), with Mae Marsh next to him. In the background is Olive Fuller Golden. Charles Hill Mailes behind Harron, and, at far right, Christy Cabanne, a future director. Compare the faces of the actors with those of the technicians. Orthochromatic film registered skin tones much darker than they were in reality, and actors had to wear the heavy make-up which gives them, in stills, the look of the mortician’s parlour. Some directors dispensed with make-up altogether, but the habit was not relaxed until the general acceptance of panchromatic film in the late ’twenties, and the introduction of incandescent lights. To this day, male actors often wear make-up for colour film and television.
In Griffith’s autobiographical notes, he wrote: “I remember one day in the early summer going through the gloomy old hall of the Biograph studio, when suddenly all gloom seemed to disappear.
His eyes had fallen on two young girls, Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
He brought both to stardom, but while Dorothy proved a comedienne of great talent, Lillian became a great dramatic actress. Here is a rare photograph of Griffith together with his favourite star.
Lillian Gish writes: “I certainly look like a frump in that dress. Have no idea whether it was taken in New York or Hollywood, but could you burn my half of the photograph? And about those shoes . . . ???”.
Lillian Gish, at the time of Way Down East (1920). Her fragile beauty is apparent from this photograph, but you have to see such films as Orphans of the Storm and The Wind to appreciate her brilliance as an actress. She was able to convey intense emotion by little more than a quiver. D. W. Griffith trained Lillian, and her sister, Dorothy, an outstanding comedienne.
D. W. Griffith’s melodramatic picture which reaches British screens this month will add fresh laurels to the producer’s crown. It cost over £100,000 to produce, and £35,000 was paid for the story alone ; but the resulting picture is well worth the expense. On the north shore of Long Island Sound, not far from New York City, there is an estate of sloping lawns shaded by giant elms, on which Henry M Flagler, the former Florida railroad magnate, once planned to have erected what he hoped would be the most beautiful country home in America. It was to have a monument to the success of a multi-millionaire. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith completed last year a film production which, I believe, will be, in its way, a monumental work, the last word in a certain phase through which motion pictures are passing ; a phase which is marked by the purchase, at fabulous price of the great stage success of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of tune and care and money, into plays for the screen.
The play in question is ” Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavour, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of £35.000 for the screen rights stands as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but I am going to endeavour to show something of the infinite pains with which the work was done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.
It was a day set for work on interior scenes which were filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home ol the Bartlett family. The set, which stood in the centre of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion – picture cameras, manned by the camera-men and their assistants, while near by was stationed the ” still ” photographer with his big bellows camera. As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, D. W. Griffith, who was personally directing the production, had taken his position in the open space between the cameras and the front of the set – a distinctive figure – his rugged height accentuated by the short raincoat which hung, cape-wise, over his broad shoulders, and by the large derby hat which, tipped far back on his head, vaguely suggested the pictures of the Mad Hatter in ” Alice in Wonderland.”
But no command was given to the waiting camera-men. There was no expectant hush, as when a conductor mounts the dais before an orchestra. The members of the cast, fully costumed and made up, knowing the methods of their chief, stood or sat about in little groups as they had for several days, patiently waiting. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organisation, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, for ever, if need to be.
” I don’t quite like that door,” said Griffith, suddenly breaking the silence he had maintained for several minutes. He called for one of the decorators. ” It looks too new ” he explained.
” The edge of it, don’t you know, in a house like this, would be worn down, and the paint darkened near the knob by years of use.” The decorator nodded understandingly and started for his tools.
Be careful not to batter it up any,” Griffith called after him. ” I don’t want anything to look maltreated, but to have just the appearance of long years of careful use.
” Now, how about those chairs ? ” he went on, addressing the art director this time. He walked on to the set, seated himself in a rocker, rose, and returned. ” That chair’s comfortable enough, but it doesn’t look comfortable enough for the effect I want. I want this room to radiate from every last touch the feeling of being homelike—a home of comfort and welcome and cosiness. Let’s get some cushions for the backs of the chairs.”
The art director groaned.
” A hundred dollars’ more time to be charged up while we put them on,” he began. ” But we’ll do it,” he added hastily, as Griffith gave him a look that said, ” Huh—a lot I care about a hundred dollars’ worth of time, or ten hundred dollars’ worth, if I get the result I’m after.”
Now, let’s see,” he went on. ” There’s something lacking—something—I know. It’s flowers ! Oh, Miss Gish, how does the idea of having some flowers on the table or on the mantelpiece strike your feminine taste ? “
Lillian Gish, who has had some experience of her own as a director, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then voiced her approval. By this time several decorators were at work again on the set, making the changes that had been suggested. But Griffith was not yet satisfied. I am not going to attempt the tedious task of recounting in detail the suggestions that followed, but for the rest of the morning—the work had begun at about ten o’clock—one thing after another was criticised, discussed, and debated : Scarcely a detail of the set was overlooked. The floor, it was decided, was a shade too light, and the painters were set to work on it again. The bunches of seed corn were taken down from the ceiling beam on which they had hung, and were tried in almost every possible place from which they could be suspended. The pots in the broad fireplace were rearranged. The figured tablecloth was removed and replaced by a plain white one. And not until the technical staff had received enough instructions to last them until late into the afternoon did Griffith consent to consider the work as even temporarily completed.
“While we’re waiting for the set I am going to hold a rehearsal, and if you care to see it —” Griffith said, with the courtesy and cordiality which is shared by the entire personnel of his studio.
A Griffith rehearsal was something which I had wanted to see for some time, and I followed him and the members of the cast into the old Flagler home, which would not be standing today had its former owner’s dream materialized. The rehearsal was but a variation of the Griffith method which I had previously seen applied to rearranging the details of the set in order to heighten the desired effect, or feeling. This time the action, which the players evidently had rehearsed many times before, was criticized and altered in as minute detail, with the same object in view. Each bit of business was done over time after time.
” I want this scene to be played smoothly — smoothly — smoothly,” he said to Barthelmess and Miss Gish, as’ they were working over a tiny bit of action. And I felt that I was beginning to understand, better than I ever had before, how, through his shadow pictures, he is able so skilfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed. After which we returned to the studio. But the alterations on the dining-room set were not nearly completed, so, after watching Dorothy Gish work in another part of the studio for a while, I came back and chatted with Lillian, who is as ethereal and appealing in person as she is in shadow.
” I hope,” she said, ” that the snow scenes will be worth the suffering they cost us. I don’t think I ever experienced anything so severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze.
She was interrupted by another call for the company to assemble. The workmen had finished the alterations. But the call did not include the camera-men. The scenes which had been worked over so painstakingly in the rehearsal room now were to be rehearsed again—a dress rehearsal, as it were. And, as a ‘bus was just leaving for the station, I thought it best to start back for New York.
There is something splendidly audacious about the big undertakings of Griffith, about every one ol them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist ; He knows pretty well what type of thing will catch and hold the public interest at any given time, and I have a shrewd idea : that he had his hand on the pulse of the movie –going public when he chose this vehicle for the first of his new series, and decided to “go the limit ” on it. So, without having seen a foot of the finished film, I shall venture one more prophecy that Way Down East in its revival on the screen will repeat the wonderful record which it made on the stage two decades ago. (Charles Gatchell)
Once Lillian was free of her commitment to Serlin, Lester Cowan offered her a role in Commandos Strike at Dawn. After the close of Life with Father, Lillian’s work for the AFC intensified. She stayed with Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers, at Pickfair while making the rounds of the studios, returned to New York in September, saw all the new plays and the old friends, took a New England vacation, and was back in Los Angeles on December 4. Like millions of Americans, she heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. She wrote the word “War” three times on the page in her date book. In preparation for Commandos Strike at Dawn, a movie about the Norwegian resistance, she was at the Columbia studio the morning of December 8 for makeup tests, and the day after for her screen test. The picture was not scheduled to begin production until the following summer. In the meantime Lillian read scripts for plays and substituted briefly for the ailing Dorothy on the Life with Father tour. “Bertram” (Colonel McCormick) appears frequently in her date book.
On July 27, 1942, Lillian noted, “Work for first time in 10 years before camera.” The work was excessively easy, both in the studio and on location in British Columbia. When she saw Commandos Strike at Dawn, she remarked, “It means nothing for me but gave me a nice vacation.” Lillian was correct in this assessment. Although billed just below the star, Paul Muni, her role was less important than that of two other women in the cast, Anna Lee and Rosemary DeCamp. She plays the wife of Bergeson (Ray Collins), a man arrested by the Germans after the Nazi invasion of Norway. For all that she contributed to the plot, Bergeson might just as well have been unmarried. Her brief interventions practically cease one-third of the way into the movie; we glimpse her for a second at the conclusion. None of this points to a noteworthy return to the screen. Her only gain from the venture was her $8,000 salary.
Kurt Frings, who was married to the author of Mr. Sycamore, tried to woo her away from the George Volck Agency. Frings was critical of the way Volck had handled her, particularly in allowing her to return to the screen in a role as weak as that of the wife in Commandos Strike at Dawn. Volck, who was serving in the armed forces, released Lillian in February 1943. Her letter of thanks reflects the warmth of their relationship and, as late as 1943, is categorical in her feelings about the war. “I will feel lost without you both [George and his wife, Helen], as I have felt now for well over a year, as I think George left the office in November 1941 Just another and a great big reason for me to hate everything about this war, and to pray fervently for an early end to it.” Kurt Frings needed a few months to find what he considered the right opportunity for Lillian. It turned out to be even less beneficial to her career than Commandos Strike at Dawn, which was, after all, a serious, well-made movie. (Charles Affron)
COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN – 1942: Lester Cowan Productions/ Columbia Pictures; d. John Farrow; p. Lester Cowan; s. Irwin Shaw, based on story by C. S. Forester; Paul Muni, Anna Lee, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ray Collins, Robert Coote, Rosemary DeCamp, Alexander Knox, Elisabeth Fraser, Richard Derr, Erville Alderson, Barbara Everest, Rod Cameron, Louis Jean Heydt, George Macready, Arthur Margetson, Ann Carter, Elsa Janssen, Ferdinand Munier, John Arthur Stockton
Lillian went back to New York. There was no work for her in Hollywood. In July, director John Farrow offered Lillian a small part in Commandos Strike at Dawn, an anti-Nazi film being shot on the coastline of Victoria, British Columbia, although the scene of the action was a Norwegian village. Eager to be seen in anything anti-Nazi, no matter how small the part, Lillian agreed, not knowing anything about the plot, or even the name of her leading man. When she learned her leading man was Paul Muni, she was thrilled.
Mr. Muni, as he was called by his fellow professionals, was a perfectionist who stayed by himself between takes and didn’t socialize with anyone while he was on the set. Muni preferred to remain in character as much as possible. He would be playing a Norwegian patriot whose village was suffering under the invading Nazis. During the filming, Canadian troops would be utilized, as they always had to be on hand should there be any attacks from the real Germans! Commandos marked a return to the screen after a considerable absence for both Lillian Gish and Paul Muni. Happily, Lillian told The New York Times, her spoken dialogue was minimal. Working under tight wartime security during the summer of 1942 must have reminded Lillian of the risks she and Dorothy and their mother must have taken when they crossed the Atlantic on a ship fitted with black sails in 1917 to film Hearts of the World for D. W. Griffith. Lillian explained: Both Hearts of the World and Commandos Strike at Dawn were made during two different World Wars in countries open to air attacks. We never had a work schedule we could depend upon when we were shooting in Vancouver, as the Canadian troops were always on call to practice drills and maneuvers. Canada was open to the threat of constant attacks, which I am glad to say never occurred. We learned never to ask questions regarding their availability. Matters regarding wartime security were serious business. We knew why scenes we had rehearsed were suddenly dropped in favor of other scenes. Prior to the film’s January 14, 1943, New York opening, screenwriter Irwin Shaw announced that he “would not assume full responsibility for the film, as it had been tampered with by persons unknown.”
Lillian, responding in the late 50s to Shaw’s remark, had no comment, except to state that Commandos had not been a critical success, but was one of many war films made quickly for audiences who wanted to see them. Film critic Bosley Crowther, covering the picture for The New York Times, noted that Lillian had a “few fleeting moments in which to look like a Norse housewife.” While not pleased with the critical reactions to her film, Lillian felt being in any anti-Nazi film had vindicated her honor and erased her former association with the misguided America First Committee. In November 1942, both she and Dorothy were back on the boards, opening in different plays within days of each other.
Had Commandos Strike at Dawn been a success, perhaps Lillian might have been cast in 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, which utilized the talents of Commandos player Sir Cedric Hardwicke in another film about invading Nazis and Norwegian villages. Even Warner Bros. had their version of a Norwegian village under Nazi occupation in Edge of Darkness. In all of the aforementioned films, the Nazi and Norway theme didn’t totally succeed. Production offices at the three studios who made these films (Columbia, 20th Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.), believed audiences were becoming tired of pictures about war,31 particularly war films involving only the Norwegian aspect. Seeing the slightly declining grosses, musical films might be the solution to boost the morale of the military and promote patriotism. (Stuart Oderman)
In 1915 Hollywood was a small town adjacent to—and a world apart from—the city of Los Angeles. Tucked between the towering Hollywood Hills and the Pacific Ocean, it had been developed some years earlier by three real estate operators who bought up farm land and laid out streets in the hope of attracting some of the Easterners coming out in increasing numbers every winter to bask in Southern California’s warm sunlight. Some Easterners came, but not to bask in the sun. To work in it. To write and act in and direct and produce a new art form that was changing the dreams of the world—motion pictures.
Lillian Gish is one of the most wonderfully warm and generous women I have ever known, beautifully and unbelievably educated self-educated, because she never went beyond the third grade in school—a dedicated actress, strongly career-minded, yet feminine to her very soul. Lillian Gish was the real femme fatale in Hollywood. Not Jean Harlow or any of the other sex symbols on the screen. I think men were embarrassed when they went out with Harlow. I do know she never had any really big-time beaus. None of the sex symbols did—the Theda Baras, the Clara Bows, the Barbara Lamarrs. They sat home on Saturday night while girls like Lillian Gish and Janet Gaynor and Bessie Love and Norma Shearer had dates with all the big producers and directors and the wealthy and social Easterners. They were the kind of girls men wanted to be with and be seen with. The list of men whose hearts Lillian Gish captured is a long one. And an impressive one. Colonel Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune said she was the most fabulous woman he had ever known and asked her to marry him. George Jean Nathan spent an entire summer in Europe with Lillian begging her to marry him. Nathan’s co-editor of the American Mercury, Henry L. Mencken, was mad about her. Joseph Hergesheimer’s heroines were all Lillian Gish. He couldn’t have her, so he mooned over her on paper. Read Cytherea. The girl is Lillian. Jack Gilbert, when he was playing opposite her in La Boheme, said she was “the elusive dream girl.”
King Vidor, who directed the picture, said, “She represents the woman every man hopes to find.” Joseph Medill Patterson, Colonel McCormick’s cousin and owner of the New York Daily News, was enchanted with her. He said she was the most intelligent woman he ever knew, as well as the most romantic. There were more. And she wouldn’t marry any of them. Because of David Wark Griffith? I don’t know. I doubt that anyone ever will. There was much speculation in Hollywood my first years there about Lillian and Mr. Griffith. People said this was one of the greatest love stories in movie history. Yet they were very formal with each other on the set. He always called her Miss Gish, and she always addressed him as Mr. Griffith. Whenever they went on location, Lillian’s mother and sister Dorothy went along. So nobody really knew for sure how things stood between them.
They did have between them a dedication to work that has seldom been equaled. Richard Barthelmess, who played opposite Lillian in Way Down East, told me years later that in the scenes where Lillian is floating on a piece of ice dangerously near the falls, Mr. Griffith let her do the scene without using a double. In another scene she insisted, in behalf of greater realism, on lying on the ice until her lips were blue and her face frosted with snow. Lillian told me once that Griffith asked her to marry him, but she would not say why she refused him—whether it was because she didn’t love him or because she had made up her mind that marriage and a career didn’t mix.
Whatever happened between them, Griffith soon began courting a young woman named Carol Dempster, who had played a bit part in Intolerance and small parts in some of his other pictures. More significant in the long run, he began giving Carol Dempster starring roles—roles that should have gone to Lillian. No one, least of all the formula-loving movie public, could understand his interest in this new girl. She was not at all the soft, feminine, innocent-looking creature who was the Griffith type. She was nice-enough looking, but she had an angular body and a thin, sharp face. Her eyes were beautiful—big and brown—but not much expression showed in them on the screen.
Griffith became infatuated with her, lost his head over her. He lost his perspective as well. When anyone in public life, from politics to pictures, begins to believe his own press, his downfall is in the making. Griffith had read so much about his ability to discover talent, he became convinced he could make another Lillian Gish out of Carol Dempster. It was a fatal error. She couldn’t act, and he was unable to teach her to do so.
Nor would the public accept her. In 1921 he starred her in a picture called Dream Street. The picture flopped. Against all advice he starred her in another picture the following year, One Exciting Night. It, too, was a failure at the box office. Meanwhile Lillian Gish, his greatest star—and a proven moneymaker—was ignored. Lillian, fed up with Griffith’s treatment of her, left his studio to sign with another at three times the amount Griffith had been paying her. The profits Griffith had made from his Gish spectaculars were used to finance the Dempster pictures. As each picture he made with her lost money, he soon went broke. He borrowed money to finance more films. When they, too, failed, he became bankrupt. He now had no alternative but to return to Hollywood to look for work (without Carol Dempster, who retired from the screen and married somebody else).
There is an old saying still current in Hollywood that a director (or a star either, for that matter) is only as good as his last picture. No matter how many successes a director may have had, once he makes a bad film he’s on shaky ground. Two in a row can wreck his career. When Griffith arrived in Hollywood he found that the big companies were reluctant to hire him because of his recent failures.
United Artists finally let him shoot a film about the Civil War era so dear to his heart—a film called Abraham Lincoln, for which he himself had written the script. Abraham. Lincoln was a talking picture. It cost a lot of money, and money is always king in Hollywood. Critical reaction to Abraham Lincoln was mixed. Some critics said Griffith had surpassed himself, that he was reborn. Others said the parade had passed him by, that he couldn’t handle the new medium of talk. It was the reaction at the box office that really counted. The public wasn’t interested in the picture, and it was a financial failure.
Griffith made another picture called The Struggle. After its release it was found to be so bad it was recalled. Word got around that Griffith had lost his touch, that he was senile. The fact that he was drinking too much didn’t help counteract the rumors.
He wandered around like a lost soul. His whole life lay in making motion pictures, and nobody would let him make any. Producers refused to see him. When he called them on the phone, they were too busy to talk to him. People who knew him went out of their way to avoid him. Other people laughed at him. Laughed at D. W. Griffith, the man who had made all their swimming pools and their race horses possible!
Eventually the rumors and stories about him stopped, to be supplanted by something far more destructive. He was just plain forgotten. One day he was killing time walking down Hollywood Boulevard when he saw a crowd gathered in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. A young star was putting her hand- and footprints in the cement for posterity and the tourist trade. Mr. Griffith walked over to watch the ceremony. As the news cameras began rolling, he came closer and smiled at the girl. A policeman tapped him on the shoulder, saying, “Move on, buddy. No loitering.” Griffith, the man who was the father of it all, moved on.
There was one who stayed faithful. Lillian Gish. Incensed at the treatment given Griffith, she stormed the studios trying to shame them into giving Griffith a picture to direct. She never got anywhere, but she never stopped trying. Was it love for him—a making up on her part for the love she had once denied him? Or was it simply the unswerving loyalty of an old friend who believed in his genius as firmly now as she had in the bygone golden years? No one could say. No one knew. I don’t know that it matters. Whichever it was, it came to the same thing.
One night during this time Lillian asked me and a few other friends to dinner at her house. Griffith was to be there. I wanted to weep when I saw him. He was old. Not body old so much as soul old—old and empty, as if he had been beaten with discouragement until he had become devoid of any emotion whatever. Lillian must have seen him as the rest of us did, but she put on a great performance. She led him into conversation, getting him to reminisce until the light returned to his eyes, and for a brief time he became once again the strong, vibrant, imperial man he had been.
Mr. Griffith died in Hollywood in 1948 at the age of seventy-three. In the years since his death, he has been acclaimed everywhere as the Master. Honors are paid him. His films are shown in art museums around the world, where he is acknowledged to be the greatest film director who ever lived. In Hollywood there is talk of erecting a statue of him. Hollywood started acclaiming—and reclaiming—David Lewelyn Wark Griffith almost at once. Great crowds of people attended his funeral. All the big names in Hollywood were there. They were anxious to pay tribute to him. They could afford to. He was dead now. Safely dead.
“I found myself saying, ‘Why this is old stuff. I have put that scene on myself so many Times – Says Mr. Griffith; “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing. As an engine it is terrific.
It was in the ruins of the Court of Belshazzar. A decayed and very tough looking lion who once graced the Imperial throne of Babylon looked down with a dizzy smile. One of the beast’s majestic hoofs had been chipped off and some graceless iconoclast, with no respect for art, royalty, or lions, had thrust the decapitated member in the lion’s mouth.
And you know that none of us could look our best with an amputated foot in our mouth. And the lion saw—what he saw. In the middle of Belshazzar’s court stood a small stage and at the edge of the stage stood a tall man with a straw sombrero punched full of holes. There was never another hat like this in motion pictures. David Wark Griffith, maker of canned wars and mimic battles, having looked upon a real war at very close range and having been in the midst of a very real battle, is back on the job again—making another war picture in the midst of the studio where ‘Intolerance” was filmed. Of all the interesting events of this great war, not the least interesting was the visit of Griffith to the front line trenches.
I have met many men who have seen the great battles of Europe face to face and I have never been able to get anything satisfactory out of them. I went to Europe as a newspaper correspondent myself and saw one of the greatest battles of the war; and I never could get anything out of myself. For months I have been waiting anxiously to hear what Griffith, maker of battles, would have to say. The question that naturally rises in every one’s mind is this: “Was the real thing like the battles of his imagining?” And that question is naturally followed by another, “Now that Griffith has seen a real war, what use will he make of the material?” I asked him and he threw up his hands and laughed. “There was a man once,” he said, “who contended that fiction was a good deal stranger than fact and a darned sight more interesting. He had some grounds for his contention.” And then he went on to explain. “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing. As an engine it is terrific. “I found myself saying to my inner consciousness all the time, ‘Why this is old stuff. I have put that scene on myself so many times. Why didn’t they get something new?’ Do you catch what I mean? “It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many, particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened.
“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.
Everything happened just as I would have put it on myself—in fact I have put on such scenes time and time again. “By rare good luck I was able to get into the front line trenches. This honor was never before accorded to any American motion picture man. “The Misses Gish, Robert Harron and the others of my company were permitted to go to one of the ruined French villages and we made the greater part of the picture there that I am now finishing here in the studio.
“The conditions under which these girls worked were exceedingly dangerous. The town was under shell fire all the time. We all feel that, as we shared their dangers, we would like to give the proceeds to alleviating the hardships of those who were left behind and have to face it through to the end. The entire proceeds of this picture will go to some war charity—probably for the benefits of the mine sweepers whose lives are sacrificed to make the seas safe for the rest of us to travel.”
I asked Griffith what the battle looked like when he got into the front line trenches. He looked at me narrowly.
“You saw a battle; what did it look like?” he countered.
“It looked like a meadow with two ditches in it and some white puffs of smoke and no signs of human life anywhere.”
Griffith laughed. “It looked something like that to me,” he said. “I said that many of the scenes of the war made me think of our own motion pictures; but not the battles—not the battles.
“A modern war is neither romantic nor picturesque. The courier who dashed up on a foam-covered charger now uses a desk telephone in a dug out.
Sheridan wouldn’t bother to dash in from Winchester twenty miles away. He would sit in front of a huge map at Winchester and rally his troops by telling two draftsmen how to arrange the figures on the scale map while a man in a corner at the phone exchange with a phone head piece would send out the orders over the wire.
“Every one is hidden away in ditches. As you look out across No Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness—of torn trees, ruined barbed wire fence and shell holes. “At first you are horribly disappointed. There is nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul sickening smells. The soldiers are standing sometimes almost up to their hips in ice cold mud. The dash and thrill of wars of other days is no longer there.
“It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. The war correspondents of today are staggered almost into silence. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. Many fine writers witnessed the charge of Pickett’s army at Gettysburg and left wonderful descriptions. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.
“Back somewhere in the rear there was a quiet Scotchman with a desk telephone and a war map who knew what was going on. No one else did. “A curious thing that everybody remarks who has seen a modern war is that the closer you get to the front, the less you know what is going on. “I know a war correspondent who was with the Austrians when they retreated before the Russians in the Carpathian Mountains in the spring of 1915. I asked him to tell me just what the rout of a modern army looked like. My friend looked sheepish and finally told me he would kill me if I ever told but—’The truth is,’ he said, I didn’t know they were retreating until I got back to London three months afterward and read about it in the files of a newspaper.’
“The most interesting and dramatic place in a modern battle is four or five miles back of the line. Back there you get something of the stir and thrill of the movie battle. Artillery is moving, ambulances come tearing down the roads with the dying screaming as they take their last ride. Streams of prisoners are marching in tatters and dejection back to the bases; wounded soldiers are making their own way. Motorcycle messengers go tearing to and from. Strange engines of war covered with camouflage are trundling by on their way to some threatened point.
“It is back there that you begin to catch the meaning of this terrific machinery of battle.
“You begin to realize that, after all, you are face to face with a drama more thrilling than any human mind could conjure up.
“The drama that is in modern machinery is not at first realized. The world of art used to bewail the passing of the picturesque old phases of life and the coming in of machinery. It took a Pennell to see the wonderful artistic possibilities of machinery. “Just so it finally comes to you that the real drama of this war lies in the engulfment of human soldiers in these terrible war monsters men have built in work shops.
“Promoters often boast of having made motion pictures for which the settings and actors cost a million dollars. The settings of the picture I took cost several billion dollars.
“When you see the picture you will see what I mean. I thought in my mimic war pictures I was somewhat prodigal for instance in the use of cannon. In my picture made at the French front, I made one scene showing thirty-six big guns standing almost wheel to wheel firing as fast as the gunners could load and fire. “I think I will be able to make good the claim that I will use the most expensive stage settings that ever have been or ever will be used in the making of a picture.” Griffith smiled and declined to state his plans for the use of this war material. This first picture is for charity,” he said. “After that, I will go on making Artcraft pictures.”
Motion picture people are looking for another spectacle from him. “Intolerance” proved to be a big hit in London and Paris and has practically paid for itself over there, without counting the receipts on this side. In the older culture of Europe, the story of Babylon was better understood and better appreciated.
In fact, it was “Intolerance” that got Griffith the rare boon of a pass to the front line trenches. His previous spectacle also made a great sensation abroad. “The Birth of a Nation” happened to go in London for the first time when the Battle of Loos was in progress. It translated the war for the Londoner into terms that the human mind could comprehend. As I have said before, no one can comprehend a modern battle any more than any human mind can comprehend the real significance of a billion dollars. You can look at a dollar and dimly realize what a billion of them mean. So they needed an epitomized battle to make them comprehend the conflict in which their husbands and sons were dying. They found this in “The Birth of a Nation.” It gave them a better idea of a battle than any one could tell; in fact a better idea than as though they had seen a real battle.
Although Griffith speaks of it lightly, he had a very narrow escape from being killed in the battle that he saw. In fact it may be said to have been a little private battle of his own. A British officer had been detailed to take him into the trenches. He had a new pair of boots and was unwilling to drag those gorgeous foot coverings into the filthy muck of the trenches. When Griffith insisted upon going into the front line, the officer started to walk along the top of the trench. Griffith had no choice but to follow him. It happened that the Britisher was carrying a map case that was very shin}’. It caught the gleam of the sun and the other end of that gleam evidentiary hit a German artilleryman in the eye. At any rate, there came the peculiar whining howl that tells you that a shell is on its way. There was a good marksman at the breech of that distant 77. The shell struck not a dozen yards away and threw up a shower of mud. It happened to be a “dud” and did not explode. Otherwise there would have been no Griffith left to tell the story. They both made a dive into the trench. It was one of the old Hindenburg trenches. Hardly had they taken refuge before the storm began. Griffith crouched down behind a cement pillar that had been part of the old German fortifications. Then it began. Shrapnel and explosive shell came like a terrific storm around them. The noise was beyond all human description. Every shell that came near threw up torrents of mud and slime.
In the middle of it, a British officer appeared on the scene and looked with astonishment at this lone civilian crouching down behind a hunk of cement while the shells rained all around him.
‘”What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I’m trying to keep out of sight,” said Griffith.
The officer was standing at the window of a shell proof that faced the other way. “I shall have to arrest you,” he said sternly. “Oh thank you; pray do,” said Griffith gratefully seeing a chance to get into the shell proof. As the British officer would have been obliged to come around in plain sight of the German to “pinch” the intruder, he evidently thought better of it and closed the aperture. Griffith had to stay there, squatting in the mud until night came and the shelling stopped. The British officers said afterward that they had never seen a fiercer artillery display than this little private battle between Griffith and the German artillery.
Since he has come home, he is the adored of all the war veterans in Los Angeles. And already there are scores of men who have done their bit and are home again from the war. A natty young Italian aviator with a war badge and a soldier from the French Foreign Legion form the first line trenches of his board of consultation. As one snap shot photograph gives a better idea of the trenches than all the words in the dictionary can possibly tell, it will not be surprising if the most accurate and comprehensive idea of this war will be given to the generations to come, not by the pages of written books but in the motion picture films that will be left by David Wark Griffith. The banging of those German guns will be crystallized in a message that millions will see. It is not the man who describes what actually happens who best tells history. It is the genius who symbolizes it for us; who puts it into doses we can take without mentally choking.
All the girls in Hollywood are mad about him. He is besieged at dances by the most alluring beauties of the screen. At “cat parties” his name ranks with reducing and bobbed hair as the chief topic of conversation. Ingenues and famous scenario writers alike grow ecstatic about his technique at love making and his irresistible way of holding a lady’s hand and his good looks. And yet—The men like him. And when men like a man in spite of the above mentioned handicaps, he is bound to be regular.
It was such a happy combination that gave Wallace Reid his amazing and lasting hold upon the affection of the public, that have combined to make Tommy Meighan the best loved and highest salaried star of today, and that now seems likely to add to the list the name of Ronald Colman, leading man for Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” and “Romola” and in George Fitzmaurice’s latest hit, “Tarnish.”
It doesn’t always follow that a man who is a success with the feminine fans is likewise a riot in his own country of Hollywood. Many a famous screen lover has languished as a wallflower among the feminine portion of the film colony. And the oldest living resident cannot remember when any man has had such an instantaneous personal triumph among them as young Colman.
It seems to have been accomplished without any effort on his part. In fact, he’s just a little embarrassed and slightly annoyed about it and doesn’t always know just what to do. And this is one of the reasons the men like him, of course. Ronald Colman,—they called him ” Mustard” Colman in his school days because his last name is spelled the same as the manufacturer of the famous mustard itself—is an Englishman, with a slight trace of Scotch in his ancestry. He is the type of “black Englishman” not so familiar in this country—his hair is jet and he has the big, black eyes that we associate more with the Italian or Spanish type. But as to temperament, disposition, and tastes he is thoroughly British.
In fact, in spite of his romantic and impetuous good looks, he’s a serious, quiet chap, fond of books and a pipe and interested in politics and sports of all kinds. To him, his work is the first and most important thing on earth. He never takes an important step without a lot of thought. He has a fund of good, solid common sense, and a lot of business ability. Yet no less an authority than George Fitzmaurice declares he registers as much romance as any man on the screen. And in his love scenes his hands are almost as expressive as those of Zasu Pitts, which is saying a lot in Hollywood. Colman is a veteran of the war, though he’s just past thirty. As a boy of twenty just out of Hadleigh-Sussex College, he enlisted in the London-Scottish Regiment when war was declared and was among those who went with the first British Expeditionary Force. He was seriously wounded in the first battle of Ypres, and when he was discharged from the hospital after many months he was placed on detached service.
He began his career as an actor shortly after the close of the war, playing the Richard Bennett role in “Damaged Goods” in London. He made a big hit, followed by several others, including “The Misleading Lady” and “Little Brother.” When Lillian Gish offered him the leading role opposite her in “The White Sister” he accepted it eagerly. Pictures appealed to him. But when he came to America after completing “The White Sister” he couldn’t get a job on the screen so went back to the stage, supporting Ruth Chatterton in “La Tendresse ” and Fay Bainter in ” East is West.”
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
With the release of “The White Sister,” critics hailed young Colman with fervent and lengthy praise, and Miss Gish signed him again for the lead in “Romola.” Then George Fitzmaurice brought him to Hollywood to play opposite May McAvoy in “Tarnish.” His ambition in life is to be a director, not an actor, so that he can earn money faster and retire forever as a gentleman farmer. This seems a worthy ambition and has at least the merit of being different.