One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present
A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036
THE BEST CHOICE: Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Award-Worthy Runners-Up: Betty Compson (The Docks of New York), Marion Davies (Show People), Bessie Love (Broadway Melody)
Mary Pickford was happy to vote for Janet Gaynor as Best Actress for 1927-28, and didn’t even mind that her own terrific performance in My Best Girl went unnominated. But, as the story goes, she began to feel jealous that she didn’t have a statue herself. So when she was nominated in the second year of the Academy Awards for her performance in Coquette, her first talkie and first film without her famous curls, she got serious. No longer on the voting committee, she invited the current judges to Pickfair for tea, thereby qualifying as the first star to campaign for an Academy Award. And she defeated several respected, veteran actresses, including the late Jeanne Eagels, who had died of a drug overdose after making The Letter. It was hard for the Academy to justify her victory because the film was one of the worst received of her career; it was generally recognized that she had been miscast as the Southern flirt who ruins men’s lives, a part played by Helen Hayes on Broadway.
Surely, Lillian Gish was more deserving for her riveting performance in The Wind. And even if, as many contended, the award was given to Pickford as a tribute to a great career, Gish was still the better choice. Pickford may have been the most popular actress of the silent era, but Gish was the most talented. If Academy Awards had been given out in the silent era, Lillian Gish would have won a few, having given beautifully conceived performances in such features as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm for D. W. Griffith, and The White Sister, La Boheme, and The Scarlet Letter (MGM).
Gish made her reputation as an innocent, passive heroine who undergoes much suffering. As critic Arthur Lenning wrote of Broken Blossoms’ Lucy Burrows, Lillian represented “the innocent waif sacrificed in the moral and emotional slaughterhouse of the world.” Her parts were more adult after she left Griffith, but she still sought roles that were consistent with those she played for him.
Having played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Gish again played a heroine who is an outcast in her community’ in The Wind. As in her other films Gish is initially virtuous, but learns the ways of the hard, cruel world. She endures much pain, suffering, and humiliation. Unlike her roles in the Griffith films, however, her character does waver from the path of righteousness; she does not survive with honor intact. But when, in The Wind, she is attacked by a scoundrel and ravaged by nature, her part recalls the Griffith films. The scene in which she feels trapped in the small cabin while a storm rages outside reminds one of the harrowing scene in Broken Blossoms when the terrified Lucy Burrows is locked in a closet while her brutal father stalks outside. Her hysteria in the Griffith scene was so convincing that during the filming, several people on the set became ill watching her; she is just as believable in The Wind.
Gish is dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions. At first she is carefree, later apprehensive, finally tormented; she tries to suppress her paranoia, but ultimately allows madness to replace her terrible fears. As Gish was well aware, it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through.
We sense her paranoia the first time she watches the sand swirling toward the train windows (she realizes she isn’t strong); later we see absolute fear in those eyes; finally they are blurred and unfocused and we realize she has lost her senses. As it is with her hands and her body, Gish moves her eyes (usually preceding the movement of her head) only at those moments when she wants to convey a thought. No one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress.
Gish said working on The Wind was the most difficult experience of her career because of the blowing sand, which cut into her skin and shredded her garments, and the intense heat. It was even harder than doing twenty-two takes on an ice floe with her hand in the freezing water in Griffith’s Way Down East. So the lack of studio support for the film was a great disappointment. Because it failed at the box office, Louis B. Mayer told Gish that her career needed a boost. He said he was going to invent a scandal to soil her pristine image. When she refused to go along with his scheme, he suspended her. Undaunted, she went to New York to do theater. The Wind was Lillian Gish’s last silent picture.***
No one has ever been better at playing traumatic scenes than Lillian Gish, but she outdid herself as the lonely bride driven crazy by The Wind.
*** The Wind was MGM’s last silent production as well.
One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present
A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was conceived in early 1927 by MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, the most powerful figure in Hollywood. He intended it to be both an elitist, self-honoring club, with members chosen by Mayer himself, and a union-busting labor organization that would ostensibly unite actors, directors, and writers with producers before those three groups formed their own guilds. (This ploy worked only temporarily.) There were thirty-six founding members, including Mayer, his two lawyers, actor Conrad Nagel, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director Frank Lloyd. The decision to hold an annual awards ceremony to honor films and individuals was not made until a banquet was held on May 11, 1927, during which more than three hundred of the Hollywood aristocrats paid a hundred dollars to become pioneer members of the Academy. It took another year before a voting system was in place. All members—actors, directors, producers, technicians, and writers—would cast nominating votes in their particular branches. A five-person board of judges, representing each branch, yet controlled by Mayer, would tabulate the votes to determine the nominees and then choose the winners themselves.
MGM’s The Wind – No hype received
Ironically, the best picture of the year, and a film whose greatness has not diminished, was also made at MGM. However, The Wind didn’t receive any of the hype given Broadway Melody, and America’s last silent masterpiece (Chaplin’s films had soundtracks) was completely ignored when pictures were nominated. Looking for a starring vehicle to fulfill her MGM contract, Lillian Gish wrote a four-page treatment of Dorothy Scarborough’s book The Wind, and got the go-ahead from (Irving) Thalberg to produce the film herself. She hired scriptwriter Frances Marion (who later admitted it was the last screenplay she put her heart into), Swedish director Victor Seastrom (Sjostrom in his native country), and Lars Hanson, Sweden’s most popular stage actor, to be her male lead. The four had just worked together on the impressive The Scarlet Letter.
The Wind, which was shot in 120-degree temperatures in California’s Mojave Desert, is the story of an unmarried, gently bred young woman from Virginia who comes to live on a ranch with her male cousin and his family in the harsh, windswept Texas dustbowl. When her cousin’s jealous wife forces her out, and the “gentleman” (Montagu Love) who has courted her turns out to be married, the penniless woman agrees to marry – a kindly neighbor, Hanson. But she is unable to give him or the hostile land a chance. She feels completely isolated and the constant, howling winds drive her toward madness. While her husband is away rounding up wild horses, hoping to make enough money to send her back to Virginia, Love rapes her. She kills him and buries him in the sand. As originally filmed, the crazed woman then walks off into the wilderness to die. But when exhibitors refused for several months to show such a depressing picture, MGM had no choice but to reshoot the ending: This time Gish declares her love for Hanson, and tells him she will stay with him because she is no longer afraid of the winds.
The Wind is an ahead-of-its-time feminist drama about a woman without money or opportunities who tries to survive in a man’s world. The only chance Gish has for an “easy life” is to become the mistress of Love, but she refuses to demean herself. Most interesting is how Marion deals with the relationships Gish has with the film’s other female, her cousin’s wife, and with Hanson. We dislike the cousin’s wife because of her cold treatment of Gish and for imagining her a rival for his affections. However, though she is a bitter woman she is no villain. She dearly loves her husband and without him, in this harsh world, she has no life, no options, so she holds on to him desperately. But as much as she wants Gish out of her life, she won’t abandon her to the lecher Love. Hanson is another interesting character. He falls in love with Gish but doesn’t want to dominate her (he won’t force himself on her). Instead, he wants equality, whereby he and Gish would work together and love each other. He realizes, and Gish comes to understand at the end, only together can they tame the winds.
The Wind is beautifully acted by Gish and the talented, handsome Hanson. His most touching scene occurs when his new wife is disgusted by his attempt to embrace her and he assures her she need not fear his trying again. The picture is also exquisitely photographed (by John Arnold), with much emphasis on motion. Outside, the wind constantly blows (eight airplane propellers were used) as trains, wagons, and men on horseback force their way across the terrain. Seastrom creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia with repeated shots of the sand swirling toward windows and penetrating everything within Hanson’s cabin, including Gish’s clothes and long hair. When the door opens, sand rushes inside, making it impossible for Gish to keep the cabin tidy (Hanson doesn’t expect her to), and making her feel further trapped. The increasing disorder in the house represents Gish’s deteriorating mind.
The eerie scene in which her mind wanders with distorted, mad, hallucinatory images caused by the mobile camera that follows her through the dark, shadowy cabin, and a fantasized image of a white horse charging through the skies outside, reminds one of Seastrom’s Swedish horror classic, The Phantom Carriage. The reshot finale may seem a little hokey (she recovers awfully quickly from her mad spell once Hanson enters the cabin), but Seastrom’s last shot is a gem: The couple stands in the open doorway of their home, arms wrapped around each other, looking out into the wilderness without fear. Not only have the winds been conquered by love, but the wild (nature) and the domestic (the house), and this woman and this man, are as one.
Eventually, Jack Cohn may run out of material for his Screen Snapshots, but just at present he continues to go along at a high rate of speed, this issue maintaining the standard set in the other releases of the series. Beyond doubt, the offering will hold the attention of live picture fans, for it is made up of the sort of material they like, is titled in a manner that maintains the proper light atmosphere and brings to the fore the personalities of film people of prominence.
Lillian Gish at play with a dog appears in the opening bit of footage, after which the manner in which a scene on a ship is staged is shown. The latter portion has been reproduced nicely, the scene being shown first as it will appear in the production under way, after which the spectator is carried further back so that he may perceive the deception. Mary Pickford occupies the center of the screen just long enough to be seen accepting one of her numerous presents, a little bale of cotton, and is followed by a scene at the Christie studios. Maurice Tourneur and Hope Hampton are seen for a while later on and to close it, Max Linder, the French comedian, engages in some fisticuffs with the director. Reels of this sort, which incidentally are similar to a series released not long ago by another concern, while not necessarily big drawing cards, are just the things to help build up a steady neighborhood patronage.
If the standard truism about america being a nation of immigrants is even close to the truth, it was never more so than in the years before World War I. In Europe, royalty was living out the last moments of what social historian Frederic Morton called “A Nervous Splendor.” In America, the upper and middle classes alike were enjoying what Mark Twain had rightly called “The Gilded Age.” Under a succession of presidents frankly power brokered by kingmakers like Marcus Hanna, American industry and its gospel of the dollar began to spread across the world, even as the country fell into an aesthetic trough. The theater was moribund, subsisting on threadbare melodramas as vacuous as they were popular, marking time until Eugene O’Neill’s poetically morbid meditations on human frailty made later writers like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee possible.
The Scarlet Letter (VS.A., 1926), with Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, directed by Victor Seastrom. By the time she made “The Scarlet Letter” time and tide were both running against Lillian Gish, for it was the era of the flapper, of the carefree Clara Bow. At Gish’s own studio, the exotic Greta Garbo was the new sensation. At the age of thirty-two, Lillian Gish was about to be fobbed off as a prissy antique, in spite of the tact that she was doing some of her finest work. Gish insisted on the Swedish emigre Seastrom as director because she believed his Scandinavian temperament was aptly suited to Hawthorne’s powerful morality tale of Puritan repression. Gish proved to be as astute a production executive as she was an actress. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) ***
A genius of innuendo, a crafty careerist, Lubitsch immediately assumed the role he instinctively felt Americans expected of a European, the naughty sophisticate. In a series of social comedies for Warner Brothers, most of which took their blase attitude from C’haplin’s A Woman of Paris, Lubitsch satirized sex, fidelity, and bad faith in intimate relations. Mostly, Lubitsch appreciated elegant manners.
The Swedish cinema was very nearly decimated by the departure of art director Sven Gade, directors Victor Seastrom (1879-1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928), and leading man Lars Hanson (1887-1965). When Stiller set sail for America, he was accompanied by his protegee and leading lady, a tall, somewhat horsy young actress who photographed like a goddess from Olympus—Greta Garbo, nee Gustafson. Stiller’s protegee did better than he did. Driven, high-strung, he was fired by MGM after ten days’ shooting on his first picture. He went over to Paramount and made the intense Hotel Imperial (1927) with Pola Negri. Stiller made one more film in the town that he felt had betrayed him. Then, a sick, defeated man, he went back to Sweden to die.
Of the Swedish enclave, it was Seastrom who seemed to acclimate himself most comfortably, successfully directing stars as varied as Lon Chaney, Garbo, and Lillian Gish. Seastrom’s films were notable for their unrelenting psychological intensity and painstaking character development that never became mere clinical observation (3—12). This avuncular, well-liked man appears to have been one of those lucky people who could achieve success at whatever they turned their hand to. Shortly before his death, Seastrom starred in Wild Strawberries (1957) for his friend and idolater Ingmar Bergman. The undemonstrative but palpable humanity that Seastrom achieved in his directing was revealed to be a function of his own personality, as he provided the vital spark for one of the normally dour Bergman’s warmest works.
*** Admin Note: By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)
Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)
Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:
The nickelodeon era—an art for the masses. Cinema’s first genius: D. W. Griffith. Griffith’s Biograph shorts: 1908-1913. Evolving a film grammar: the art of editing. The Griffith stable of actors and technicians. Lillian Gish: the screen’s first great actress. Attempt by the Patents Company to monopolize motion picture production. The first moguls: Carl Laemmie, William Fox, and Adolph Zukor. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the screen’s first feature film masterpiece. Racial controversy. Griffith’s monumental Intolerance (1916) introduces thematic editing. The westerns of William S. Hart. Thomas Ince, the founder of the American studio system. Early works of Cecil B. De Mille, showman. Mack Sennett establishes the Keystone Studio, specializing in slapstick comedies. Early screen clowns: (Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle.
After Lillian Gish, Marsh was Griffith’s most txpressive actress. Where Gish worked with her entire body. Marsh’s main instruments were her eyes and hands. Where Gish seemed an ageless young woman, Marsh’s pixie features seemed to categorize her as an adolescent. Where Gish had a core of strength. Marsh had a quality of worn desperation. Perhaps her finest performance is in the modern story from Intolerance (1916), which Griffith released in an expanded version three years later as The Mother and the Law.
Griffith’s achievements in these years were not merely technical. Rather, technique served his passion for the gesture, the moment that would reveal a human soul. In The Mothering Heart (1913), Lillian Gish plays a young wife whose child has just died because of the neglect of her husband. Stunned to the point of catatonia, she wanders alone in a garden. Suddenly, she picks up a dead branch and begins thrashing madly at the foliage around her, the explosion of motion betraying the sublimated, seething emotion, a woman overcome by death trying to destroy the strong green life around her.
Piquant, often playful, always persecuted but with undreamt of reserves of strength, Gish (1893-1993) was Our Lady of Constant Sorrow to a generation of filmgoers. Among silent screen leading ladies, she was the only one who could legitimately claim to the title great actress. A relation ship of ambiguous intensity with her mentor, Griffith, made her the perfect transmitting medium for his view of femininity—and, for Griffith, his view of woman was his view of the world. It was a partnership whose revelations of dignity truth, and inescapable pain would not be matched for over forty years, until the partnership of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. (United Artists)
One of Griffith’s most astonishing gifts was his ability to make intimate epics. Battle scenes aside, the moments one remembers in The Birth of a Nation are the small ones: Lillian Gish emerging from a hospital visit where a sentry, gasping at her in unalloyed ecstasy, sighs in doglike devotion; a title proclaiming “War’s Peace,” followed by a medium closeup of a dead soldier, young, unshaven, and as terribly still as one of the dead in the war photographs of Brady or Gardner.
Or, most movingly, the oft-cited scene in which Henry Walthall, in one of the delicate, understated performances that Griffith habitually coaxed from his male leads, returns home to the South after Appomattox. He finds a devastated house. His younger sister runs out to meet him. They look at each other for what seems forever. She notes his tattered uniform; he notes her use of cotton wool to imitate ermine. She begins to cry and he holds her, kissing her hair, a mournful, faraway look in his eyes. The shot changes and Walthall and his sister walk up the steps to the house as two arms reach out from behind the door, the unseen mother enfolding her children, welcoming the hunter home from the hill.
With financiers waving money at him, Griffith made what was probably a psychological error: He tried to top himself He surrounded The Mother and the Law with three other stories—the massacre of the Huguenots by the Catholics in sixteenth – century France, the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylon, and, just for good measure, the story of Christ. All four stories were partially linked by titles and, more importantly, by the symbolic image of Lillian Gish gently rocking a cradle, an image Griffith took from Whitman: “… out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, Uniter of here and Hereafter.”
To this fragile, grim fairy tale, Griffith imparted a remarkable sense of mood and visual poetry and mixed in two performances of purity and the most delicate sincerity from Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Except for some atmospheric shots of Chinese jonks crossing a river in the moonlight and some breathtaking shots of the Limehouse slums cloaked in a shifting river mist, the film is entirely a studio product, and as such it deeply influenced a generation of European and domestic filmmakers.
After Broken Blossoms, Griffith’s only critical and popular success was Way Down East (1920), a ridiculous old play made less ridiculous by a superior performance by the redoubtable Gish and some of Griffith’s most spectacular cutting. In the film’s climax, Gish, marooned on an ice floe that’s drifting toward the edge of a waterfall, is rescued by Barthelmess even as they are going over the precipice.
The close relationship between Griffith and Gish extended past that of director and actress at least to the realm of confidants, the director relying on her opinions and invariable good judgment. In 1920, awash in plans to open his own studio at Mamaroneck, New York, but still responsible for the supervision of a slate of program pictures, Griffith asked Gish to direct Remodeling Her Husband, a light comedy vehicle for her sister Dorothy that is, unfortunately, no longer extant. Although modestly successful, it was an experience the elder sister had no desire to repeat. For one thing, the film caused stress between the two sisters; for another, as she explained it, “directing is no job for a lady.”
In Mamaroneck, where he had also made Way Down East, Griffith made the almost entirely satisfactory Orphans of the Storm (1921), very much the mixture as before but energized with undiminished vitality and brio. The story was a Dickensian saga of the French Revolution with a patented ride to the rescue by Danton himself. As in many of his major films, Griffith experimented with the frame size of the image itself, masking off the top and bottom of the frame in several shots, leaving the center section in a ratio identical to that of CinemaScope. Griffith’s experiments were almost certainly the genesis for Abel Gance’s Polyvision of a few years later. In scenes depicting the Revolution, Griffith took one shot from a balcony, with a hat and coat casually thrown on a settee in the foreground of the shot, as if the occupant of the balcony had just left the frame because of the street riot raging in the background. The effect is of a startling immediacy, history observed.
More than he probably wished to admit, Griffith had been hurt by allowing—encouraging actually—Lillian Gish to leave his stewardship. He replaced her with Carol Dempster, whose talent was elusive and whose appeal was nonexistent. A few unsuccessful, indifferent pictures later, Griffith was back at United Artists, but under very different circumstances than eight years before, when he had been a founding partner. This time he was an employee making an employee’s films.
Sound didn’t really seem to faze him. His first talkie, Abraham Lincoln (1930), contains fine things, kinetic and deeply felt moments. Nobody with a feeling for motion picture history can fail to be moved by the presence of old Griffith actors like Henry B. Walthall, once again called upon to play a gracious Southern officer. But one disastrous film later, Griffith entered an embittered, often alcoholic exile from which he never escaped. He died in 1948, a gray ghost on the edges of a town that could never have been built without him.
Naive? Yes. Pretentious? Certainly. But magnificently audacious as well. This was no small man. Lillian Gish said it best: “To us, Mr. Griffith was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.”
Griffith Forgets the War and Puts Over a Heart Interest Winner
D. W. Griffith presents “A Romance Of Happy Valley” – Artcraft
DIRECTOR D. W. Griffith.
AUTHOR Mary Castleman.
CAMERAMAN G. W. Bitzer.
AS A WHOLE Beautiful production filled with human touches, genuine comedy and irresistible heart appeal.
STORY Simple narrative of country folk; natural up to final sequences which run into some unexpected drama.
DIRECTION Characteristic of Griffith in perfection of treatment of situations and handling of players.
LIGHTINGS Superb; artistic effects that suggest the paintings of a landscape artist.
CAMERA WORK On a par with the lightings and photography.
PLAYERS Lillian Gish, Robert Harron and George Fawcett give notable performances; remainder of cast up to Griffith standard.
EXTERIORS Couldn’t be better in carrying the atmosphere of a country town.
INTERIORS Always in the tone of the action.
DETAIL Shows genius in picking out the trifles that give significance to life.
CHARACTER OF STORY Refreshing, sympathetic and wholesome.
LENGTH OF PRODUCTION 590S feet.
The war is over. Griffith has demobilized his soldiers, converted his trenches into corn fields and stacked his guns in an armory. He is back again among simple, peaceful folk whose problems and struggles are in their own hearts. He is doing more superbly than ever, what he has done so surpassingly well in the past. Recall Griffith’s early Biographs: then consider the great advance made in photoplay technique since those days, also the development in the screen impressiveness of such players as Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron; take into account the improvement in the art of the master director, imagine a de-luxe version of one of his little masterpieces, and you will have an idea of the type of picture issued under the title of “A Romance of Happy Valley”.
As an accomplishment in photography, beautifully artistic lightings and settings perfectly in harmony with the story, Griffith has done few things better than several reels of this production. But important as these elements are in making the picture interesting, they are not relied upon to compensate for the lack of other qualities. Using a story that in itself is not extraordinary Griffith has supplied such a wealth of significant incident in the characterizations, that instead of being commonplace parts of the film stand out as a masterpiece of story-telling art through screen impersonation. There have been many scenes in country churches, but don’t recall any with an appeal equal to that dealing with the bringing of Bobby Harron into the fold. It has atmosphere galore and is delightfully played by all the characters, particularly Lillian Gish, as the shy heroine, who prays that the Lord may save her sweetheart from “the devil and New York”. This sequence marks one of the high spots of the film. In its essentials, up to the concluding reels, the plot merely concerns the romance of a little country girl and a farmer boy who longs for the greater opportunity offered in a big city. His family look with dread upon his leaving, as does the girl, who in her compelling way uses simple acts to make him stay on the Kentucky farm. When Bobby goes it is with the understanding that he will return within a year, and each evening the lonesome little Lillian marks off a day. At the end of seven years, with tears in her eyes, she writes herself down an old maid.
Meanwhile Bobby has been working on a toy frog, with the promise that as soon as he makes it swim he will receive $10,000. The struggles of the would-be investor are handed in a way that works up quite a bit of suspense and when the frog actually swims, a real climax in the picture has been reached, in fact a more natural climax than that prepared for a melodramatic ending. During his absence Bobby’s father has lost all his money and events are so arranged that the old farmer portrayed by George Fawcett, is on the point of robbing his own son, on the night he returns with the $10000 and steals unrecognized into the home of his boyhood. The complications in the wind-up are swift and a bit illusive, demanding the closest attention on the part of an audience if they are to be correctly interpreted. At this point, Griffith trusts to suggestion and a quick mental reaction to what transpires on the screen. Whether or not the ending is artistically justifiable in a production of this stamp is debatable, but there can be no question about the excellent quality of the film in its entirety. The romance between Bobby and Lillian, of course, has satisfactory conclusion.
Play it up as a Special and You Can’t Fail to Get Business
Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor.
Having done about all that there is to do in the way of war dramas, most of your folks probably will be glad to find Griffith following his earlier style. I can’t imagine any audience that appreciates what is worth while in photoplays failing to respond to this, on account of an artistic beauty and human quality such as seldom are realized. It most certainly is worth running for at least half a week, if not a full week, for you will find that your audiences build up as the quality of the picture becomes generally known. Launch as big an advertising campaign as you can afford and take the angle that this is Griffith’s first big production of recent years that has no bearing on the war. It is needless to say that there is no danger of your overplaying the name of the famous producer, in electric lights or through whatever medium you are in the habit of using.
Folks have come to associate the players in this cast with the name of Griffith and although no one of them is billed as a star, several of the names have a star’s drawing power. Publish the cast in full whenever you can, and in instances where you are limited to a few names, use those of Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, promising that they have never done better work than in this film. George Fawcett should not be ignored and some of your old timers will recall Kate Bruce as an important figure in many of the Griffith productions. If you play this at an increased rental don’t bother much about the rest of the show, because it is strong enough to carry any program.
As a producer reporting to, but given a free hand by, (Irving) Thalberg at MGM, Lillian Gish took on the challenge of filming Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a project that had been opposed by every women’s club in the country because its plot concerns adultery with a capital A, not to mention with a clergyman. (When MGM told her “it wasn’t allowed,” she said, “What do you mean it’s not allowed? It’s an American classic, and I’m an American and I want to make it!”) When Gish visited the women’s clubs and told them she would be in charge of the project, their respect for her good taste and judgment led them to drop all opposition. To direct The Scarlet Letter (1926), she brought Victor Sjostrom (who signed his American pictures Seastrom) to Hollywood from Sweden.
Photo Gallery – “La Boheme”
The picture was a great success—as were Gish’s other productions, including the 1926 La Boheme, a silent version of Puccini’s opera. But her greatest production, and the second film Sjostrom directed for her, was The Wind (1928), based closely on the 1925 novel by Dorothy Scarborough and shot in the Mojave Desert. In this film Gish gives one of her very finest performances—her best since Way Down East and until The Night of the Hunter (1955)—as a woman driven mad by the relentless, demonic, almost sexually charged wind that drives the sand across the Texas plains and through every crack in the shack she shares with her husband. Originally ending with the same powerful scene as the novel, in which the heroine—after killing and burying the man who assaulted her—walks into the oblivion of madness and blowing sand, The Wind was given a happy ending (in which she and her husband stand together at the open door, powerfully facing the wind) at the insistence of exhibitors.
Photo Gallery – “The Wind”
One of the greatest films of the 1950s was a study of values, a literary adaptation, and a compelling story realized in purely cinematic terms: The Night of the Hunter (1955). Scripted by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb, it was the only movie ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. This hauntingly photographed, lyrically evocative film tells of two children, on the run from a killer (Robert Mitchum), who find sanctuary in the home of a tough, practical, loving woman (Lillian Gish in her best sound-film performance). In place of money and horror, the film finds value in the enduring power of love, and it does so without the least trace of sentimentality.
Photo Gallery – “The Night of the Hunter”
Note: Illustrations used are not part of Mr. Mast’s book.
Mayer had discovered that his fellow Mason, D. W. Griffith, had created a masterpiece in his new motion picture The Birth of a Nation. He was determined to be its sole distributor in New England. The film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as avenging angels, treated blacks patronizingly and exhibited a simpleminded view of the issues of the Civil War. But it was a triumph of cinematic construction and execution, and it promised to make colossal sums of money. Just seven days after Metro was formed, the trade papers reviewed the picture in terms which could only be encouraging to any exhibitor.
Mayer contacted the film’s backers and made an across-the-board deal for regional distribution. With the lawyer David Stoneman, his old friend the rug merchant Colman Levin, jewelers and paper-bag manufacturers, and even his secretary, who gave her life savings of $1,000, he scraped up part of the money by selling (he told Lillian Gish years later) or pawning everything he owned, including Margaret’s jewelry, cleaning out his savings and borrowing from his brothers and sister. He made a down payment of $20,000 on a $50,000 guarantee against a remittance of ten percent of the net profits received from local bookings. It took chutzpah to embark on this venture; there were threats of demonstrations against the picture in New England, but Mayer knew that this controversy would further enhance people’s desire to see it. He was busy dealing with the NAACP, headed in Boston by Moorfield Storey, which was bombarding virtually every home and office in the city with pamphlets condemning the picture. He traveled restlessly between his home in Brookline, his new offices at 60 Church Street in Boston, his apartment at Riverside Drive and his offices on Times Square, trying to deal with a hundred matters at once.
Mayer made at least $500,000 on the film. By late summer of 1915, several stars were under contract to Metro, most notably Quality Pictures’ Francis X. Bushman, who had begun his career as a sculptor’s model. In March 1912, Motion Picture Story magazine had named Bushman, then twenty-eight, the most popular screen actor in America. Vain, extravagant, this Adonis rejoiced in driving hand-tooled touring cars with gold door handles, his monogram inscribed in gold plates on the doors. He owned Bush Manor, a thirty-room mansion on 115 acres of gardens in Maryland. He had racing stables, kennels and a large collection of birds.
1924 – 1925
April 14 was a day of celebration. Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian Gish, arguably the greatest screen actress of her day, was given a lavish welcome at the studio. Mayer arranged for her to be greeted with flags and multicolored bunting; he and the other executives, Thalberg, Harry Rapf, Eddie Mannix and a new addition, thirty-year-old supervisor Hunt Stromberg, personally welcomed her. Her contract called for a total of $800,000 to be paid to her. She would have the right to select directors, stories and script writers; if she disapproved of costumes, she was permitted to reject them.
Such an arrangement was unique in Louis B. Mayer’s career, but, quite apart from Lillian Gish’s enormous power at the box office, he had never forgotten the fact that The Birth of a Nation, in which she had so admirably starred, had been the foundation of his personal fortune. Indeed, when she had visited Los Angeles the previous winter for the West Coast premiere of her film Romola, Mayer greeted her at the station with a reminder that she had played a crucial role in putting him on the motion picture map.
She was much troubled at the time; an unscrupulous lawyer, Charles H. Duell, was suing her, claiming he had an exclusive contract for her services. On April 2, Judge Julian W. Mack of the Superior Court of New York had dismissed Duell’s claims following a harrowing court hearing, and had him arrested on a charge of perjury. The next few months would be marked by further hearings, which would seriously affect Miss Gish’s sense of well-being. But, made of finest steel under her delicate Victorian surface, Miss Gish, at last, would triumph.
Shortly before Miss Garbo arrived in Hollywood, Lillian Gish was hard at work on King Vidor’s next picture, La Boheme, based more on the stories by Henri Murger than on Puccini’s popular opera. There was trouble from the beginning. Miss Gish, who had selected Vidor as her director after seeing The Big Parade, insisted on principles of work that were quite foreign to the director. When she announced that she expected to rehearse the film in full, Vidor, puzzled, since he was not directing a stage play, mocked up some scenery with Cedric Gibbons for her to act against. She looked at it aghast and announced that she would only rehearse out of doors, on the studio lawn. With tourists, actors and personnel watching in astonishment, she mimed her way through the scenes, playing to invisible props, including a dressing table, a truckle bed, a window and a wall. Vidor was bewildered; he couldn’t understand what she was doing. Finally, he talked her into working indoors.
Mayer and Thalberg backed him in this. They also supported him when he argued with her about the sort of portrait lighting she wanted, with long, static close-ups. Miss Gish also demanded the use of panchromatic film, which had never been handled by the studio before. She objected to Erte’s calico dresses for the impoverished heroine Mimi, insisting on using old, worn silk and running up the clothes herself at home. She clashed with Cedric Gibbons, demanding a sordid attic in place of the lavish house he had wanted for Mimi. The worst problem was John Gilbert, cast as Mimi’s lover in the picture. He began writing her love letters; he tried to kiss her behind the scenes, when she declined to allow kissing sequences in the film. Mayer overrode her decision; he added kissing scenes later. Locked in her court struggle with Duell, who was claiming, to be her fiance, Miss Gish did not want a scandal and refused to date Gilbert. To make matters more complicated, King Vidor also tried to seduce her, but she was unattainable always. Mayer was fascinated by Miss Gish’s devotion to her work. She made no complaint when, in one sequence, actors playing Paris street revelers tossed her over their heads like a rag doll. In order to give complete realism to her death scene, she starved herself for three days. She stuffed cotton in her mouth to give the impression of puffy, unhealthy cheeks; when she passed away, she seemed already to be a ghost. Mayer, who never applauded at a preview, wept and clapped and embraced Miss Gish when he saw the finished film in the screening room. Until the advent of Marie Dressier, she was his favorite actress: the embodiment of his dream of innocent, ideal womanhood.
Miss Gish was among the stars present on October 1, 1925, to see the long-delayed shooting of the Ben-Hur chariot race. For days before, J. J. Cohn and Eddie Mannix had tested the course by driving their own chariots around, almost turning them over as they negotiated the curves. Not only did virtually every player on the M.G.M. lot dress up in Roman costume to join the throng on the Cedric Gibbons set, but Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Mrs. Fred Niblo (Enid Bennett) and John and Lionel Barrymore were there.
1925 – 1926
Mayer was in many ways still a young boy at heart, for all his ruthless capacity to weed out weak sisters from the studio operation, and his temperamental inability to deal with unreliability, bad temper and bad manners. Because his emotions were open and untrammeled he could reach out to the hearts of his performers, and they could reach out to him. Actors like John Gilbert and Mae Murray were the prodigal children. Lillian Gish, of course, satisfied him, though she had less rapport with him than with Irving Thalberg, because of his well-lettered sensibility and middle-brow intellect. Following La Boheme, she had wanted to start immediately with a version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s controversial novel The Scarlet Letter, the story of a minister who commits adultery with a beautiful woman. Mayer informed her that the book was blacklisted by members of organizations protective of public decency.
Miss Gish, with her customary boldness, wrote to each and every organization he named, insisting that this classic work should be brought to the screen. They responded immediately, telling Miss Gish that they trusted her to handle the material. Mayer at once agreed, and allowed Miss Gish to import from Sweden Lars Hanson, who had costarred with Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Bjerling, for the leading role opposite her. Mayer agreed with Miss Gish that Victor Sjostrom should direct the film.
Just before the picture ended, Miss Gish’s mother suffered a stroke in London. Mayer was moved to tears, remembering his mother’s final illness and the desperate rush he had had to get to Canada in time. He agreed that Miss Gish should go, and the picture was completed in seventy-two hours of nonstop shooting. So tight was the schedule that Miss Gish had to catch the train, after an all-night shoot, still dressed as Hester Prynne. It is typical of Mayer’s extraordinary consideration for this great star that he insisted on seeing her off, with Thalberg and Harry Rapf, at the Pasadena station. Her mother recovered, and Miss Gish returned. Her protracted lawsuit with Charles Duell continued; Duell blackmailed Miss Gish and threatened her life, but she still managed to do pickup shots. When The Scarlet Letter opened in August, it was an immediate success, one of the finest pictures M.G.M. ever made.
There was also yet another argument involving Lillian Gish, who demanded that Norman Kerry should act opposite her in her new film, Annie Laurie. Mayer wanted an unknown youth called Peter Norris, just out of the University of Southern California, to play the role. Miss Gish was adamant that she would accept no one but Kerry, and she complained about the script, despite the fact that she herself had approved it. Finally, she won her point, and Kerry was cast. But the film was a failure, and she would never discuss it afterward.
1927 – 1928
There were setbacks during the shooting of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind in 120 degrees of heat in the Mojave Desert. Mayer was unable to visit the site; he sent Irving Thalberg in his place. Playing a pioneer woman, the star, Lillian Gish, was shown with the force of nine airplane propellers driving sand in her face and hair; Thalberg cruelly added sawdust. He insisted on smoke pots, the cinders of which burned off Miss Gish’s eyelashes and scarred her hands. Herself a perfectionist, the actress put up with everything. Mayer did not like the movie when he saw the daily rushes, predicting doom for it and for the star. He turned out to be correct commercially, because the movie was too depressing, but he was shortsighted artistically, because The Wind turned out to be one of the masterpieces of the screen.