THE “I” OF THE CAMERA – Judith of Bethulia (1913) – by William Rothman

Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics

William Rothman

© Cambridge University Press 1988

Judith of Bethulia (1913) was D. W. Griffith’s first feature-length film. Griffith devoted extraordinary energy and attention to its making. Indeed, he broke irrevocably with the Biograph management, for whom he had directed over five hundred short films, by his refusal to shorten it or to release it as two separate two-reelers. The last film of Griffith’s long and productive association with Biograph, it remained, in his own estimation, one of his very best films.

Everything points to the conclusion that Judith of Bethulia is a key film in Griffith’s career. Indeed, it is a film of considerable compositional complexity, thematic directness, and cinematic artistry. In addition, it highlights a fundamental strain in Griffith’s filmmaking, perhaps carrying it to the furthest extreme of any of his films. Thus, Judith of Bethulia helps provide a perspective on Griffith’s work as a whole. Yet the film has received virtually no critical attention.

Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

I shall proceed by first sketching the film’s narrative (the division into sections is my own).

I. Idyllic Prologue: The film begins with a prologue depicting the life of the peaceful community of Bethulia. The first shots are of the well outside the city’s walls. We see, for example, the innocent flirting of the young lovers, Naomi and Nathan (Mae Marsh and Robert Harron). Then the stout walls of the city are shown, and only then the marketplace within the walls of the city. Judith, the widow of the hero Manasses, is introduced. This prologue ends with a shot of the great “brazen gate” that guards the entrance to the city.

II. The Assyrian Threat: The Assyrians, led by Prince Holofernes, capture Bethulia’s well. Naomi is among the prisoners taken. The Assyrians attempt to storm the walls, but are repelled. In the Assyrian camp, Holofernes is enraged. He is not placated by the bacchanalian revel staged to please him. There is then a renewed all- out attempt to storm the city’s walls and penetrate its gate. A pair of shots (one of the defenders and one of the attackers) is repeated three times, then followed by a shot of Judith watching and then a shot of Holofernes waiting. Then a new pair of shots of defenders and attackers – closer and more dynamic – is intercut with the shot of Judith, now visibly more excited, and the shot of the intent Holofernes. We then get still closer and more violent shots of defenders and attackers, and a wild fusillade of shots encompassing all the setups thus far used in the sequence. Finally the shot of Judith is followed by the image of a giant battering ram brought into place against the gate. Yet the gate holds.

Judith from Bethulia

III. The Siege: Holofernes takes counsel. The Assyrians lay Bethulia under siege. There are scenes of suffering within Bethulia (for example, doling out water to thirsty Bethulians). The people come to Judith, imploring her to lead them. She is in despair, but then she has a vision of “an act that will ring through the generations.” (We are not shown Judith’s vision.) She dons sackcloth and ashes and then bedecks herself in her “garments of gladness.” At the Assyrian camp, Holofernes takes out his impatience and frustration on his captains. Judith, veiled, leaves for the Assyrian camp to carry out her mysterious plan.

Judith from Bethulia

IV. The Seduction: Judith enters Holofernes’ tent and begins the process of seducing him. Enticingly evading his touch, she finally leaves his tent (“… his heart ravished with her”). There is prayer in the Bethulian marketplace. Holofernes’ eunuch comes to Judith’s tent to announce that Holofernes is ready to see her and that she should prepare herself. A title tells us what we can in any case see: Judith is aroused by the prospect of the impending encounter. Shots of Holofernes are intercut with other shots: Judith in excited anticipation; a desperate Pickett’s Charge—like attempt by the Bethulians to reach the well, leading to renewed fighting at the walls; the separated Naomi and Nathan. Holofernes dismisses his erotic slave dancers (“… Famous Fish Dancers from the illustrious Temple of Nin”). Judith, faltering in her resolve, catches sight of her loyal old retainer and prays for strength. The eunuch summons Judith. In Holofernes’ tent, Judith seductively entices Holofernes to drink, refilling his chalice until he collapses, dead drunk. Seeing him helpless, she hesitates, momentarily cradling his head. Then Griffith cuts to images of dead Bethulians, fallen in the attempt to retake the well, and suffering in the marketplace of Bethulia. Griffith cuts back to Judith, who raises Holofernes’ sword to strike; then Griffith cuts to the exterior of the tent.

V.The Bethulians’ Triumph: When the Assyrians discover that their leader has been killed, there is chaos in their ranks. In the marketplace of Bethulia, Judith triumphantly unwraps the severed head of Holofernes. The Bethulian soldiers, transformed, pour out of the city’s gate, defeat the Assyrians, and raze their camp. Naomi and Nathan are reunited.

VI. Epilogue: Judith passes through the marketplace. The Bethulians bow before her. She walks out of the frame.

Judith from Bethulia

Any discussion of Judith of Bethulia might well begin with a reflection on the character of Judith, in particular, her sexuality. In the context of Griffith’s work, Judith’s sexuality is noteworthy in two general ways: its “womanliness” and its “manliness.” In contrast, for example, to Lillian Gish’s “girls,” Judith is very much a woman, although Blanche Sweet was only fifteen years old at the time. Judith’s womanliness has three aspects.

1. Judith’s womanly beauty. Griffith presents Judith’s womanly beauty directly to the viewer. Griffith gives us images of Judith that are neither his Victorian “Madonna” idealizations nor his patented depictions of “dear” girlish behavior (jumping up and down with enthusiasm, and the like). Nor are they the “familiar” representations so common in Griffith’s work (the presentation of Nathan and Naomi is, in this sense, “familiar,” with the camera asserting a patriarchal authority over its subjects, exposing their tender cores, treating them as children). In the shots of Judith in sackcloth and ashes, the usual dematerializing effect of Griffith’s makeup is eliminated in shots that anticipate Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc in their acknowledgment that a woman’s face is covered with skin. Certain shots of Judith preparing to seduce Holofernes, and engaged in that seduction, reflect a frank acknowledgment (again, rare in Griffith s images of women) that a woman has a body made from flesh that includes, say, armpits and breasts.

Judith from Bethulia

2. Judith’s knowledge of sexuality. Complementing Judith’s beauty are her knowledge and mastery of every stage of seduction. Her womanly confidence in her own sexuality is manifest in her peacocklike strutting, dressed in her “garments of gladness” in the full ensemble, her beauty enticingly veiled, and in the knowing way she parts her veil. Judith’s hands, especially, become instruments of seduction. The focus on hands, effected by the use of the frame line as well as costuming and gesture, is one of the main strategies of the film. Judith’s womanhood is expressed in her hands, and Holofernes’ manhood is concentrated in his. For example, when he comes to the entrance of Judith’s tent, he enters the frame hands-first. When Judith enters his tent for the first time, each stage of the seduction is registered in a pose or gesture of their hands. The erotically charged images of Holofernes’ hand reaching for Judith’s tantalizingly withheld hand are intercut with the Bethulians, begging for water, imploringly holding out their hands. When Judith kills Holofernes, his death is registered by the cessation of movement of his hands (shades of Hitchcock’s Blackmail). It is Judith’s hands, now transformed, that wield the sword.

3. Judith’s desire. When the Assyrians make their all-out attempt to penetrate the great brazen gate, the battle is imaged in clearly sexual terms as an attempted rape: Bethulia is, as it were, a woman threatened with violent penetration. The title summing up the sequence makes the underlying parallel all but explicit: “Yet Holofernes could not batten down the brazen gate nor make a single breach. The climax of the sequence is the appearance of the terrible, revelatory image of the giant battering ram. The shots of fighting, cut in a crescendo of intensity, are intercut with repeated shots of Holofernes waiting in his tent and Judith watching the battle from her window. The shots of Judith and Holofernes are linked in their composition.

Throughout the film, in fact, the left side of the frame tends to be dominated by either Judith’s presence or Holofernes’ presence, implying the bond between them.

The spectacle, climaxing in the image of the battering ram, fills Judith with ever-increasing excitement. When Judith subsequently places herself in Holofernes’ hands, pretending to offer herself, but really meaning to kill him, she finds herself sexually drawn to his majestic, bull-like presence. He has inflamed her passion even before they meet. Despite Judith’s intentions, she is sorely tempted not to kill Holofernes but to make passionate love to him. It is not that, in her intoxication with her enemy, she is motivated by the idea that he is good (as is, for example, the Mountain Girl, infatuated with Belshazzar, in the Babylonian story of Intolerance}. A title declares.”… And Holofernes became noble in Judith’s eyes,” but Griffith is using “noble” in accordance with the pseudobiblical language characteristic of most of the titles in the film (“Nathan could scarce refrain from going to the succor of Naomi” is among the more risible examples) and means nothing more than “splendid.” In Holofernes’ tempting presence, Judith does not think in moral terms at all, and it is not any idea of marriage or family that inflames her.

Judith from Bethulia

That the wiles of the “paint-and-powder brigade” have the power to tempt and/or deceive good men is a basic fact of life in Griffith’s narrative universe. It is the strategy of these worldly women to excite eligible men, while at the same time presenting a falsely innocent face to the world. In True Heart Susie (1919), William is disillusioned when he learns Bettina’s true nature. It is perhaps only in The White Rose (1923) — arguably the Griffith film that is most fully worked out thematically – that Griffith presents a good man inflamed by the erotic presence of a woman he knows to be “bad.” But the presentation of the good Judith drawn to the splendid yet brutal Holofernes is perhaps unique in all of Griffith’s films in its acknowledgment, and acceptance, of the dark side of a woman’s sexual desire.

Judith is every inch a woman, yet the second noteworthy aspect of her sexuality is that the people of Bethulia call upon her to act as their leader – that is, as Griffith understands it, to assume a man’s role. While Judith watches the spectacle of the battle, she is visibly aroused, as though part of her desires the Assyrians’ penetration. But she is also racked with guilt. She wants to answer the Bethulians’ call, but she feels powerless to lead them in battle. It is in this state, compounded of arousal and despair, that Judith has her first vision – a vision that, significantly, Griffith withholds from the viewer, although the presentation of holy visions is one of his specialties (as witness, for example. The Avenging Conscience, Home Sweet Home, and even The Birth of a Nation}.

Acting on her vision, Judith puts on her “garments of gladness” and goes to Holofernes as though she were his bride. To complete her envisioned act, she must harden herself, conquering her own desire. Thus, a fateful struggle takes place in Holofernes’ tent. How is the outcome of this struggle determined?

Judith from Bethulia

Providentially, Judith catches sight of her loyal old retainer. This is nicely presented in a deep-focus shot with Judith in the left foreground, the retainer in the background, and a smoking censer in the right foreground. Visually, the censer is linked with the well outside Bethulia’s gate – directly by its shape and inversely by the water/fire opposition that runs through the film. This shot is intercut with the representation of a simultaneous event: the ambush of a group of brave Bethulians who try to draw water from the captured well. This kind of crosscutting in Griffith’s work implies a virtual psychic connection. Although Judith cannot actually see this display of barbarism, the sight of the retainer at this moment is functionally equivalent to such a view, serving to make Judith mindful of her people’s suffering. A spasm of disgust passes through Judith – disgust for her own body sinfully drawn to the agency of her people’s suffering, I take it. She prays to the Lord for strength.

Judith talks Holofernes into dismissing his eunuch so that she can be his sole “handmaid” for the night. Alone with Holofernes in his tent, she finds herself again inflamed with desire. Repeatedly, she fills his chalice and goads him into drinking himself into a state of intoxication. For a moment, she cradles his head in her arms, but then a second vision comes to her. The cinematographer Karl Brown describes this moment:

His highest objective, as nearly as 1 could grasp it, was to photograph thought. He could do it too. I’d seen it. In Judith of Bethulia, there was a scene in which Judith stands over the sleeping figure of Holofernes, sword in hand. She raises the sword, then falters. Pity and mercy have weakened her to a point of helpless irresolution. Her face softens to something that is almost love. Then she thinks, and as she thinks, the screen is filled with the mangled bodies of those, her own people, slain by this same Holofernes. Then her face becomes filled with hate as she summons all her strength to bring that sword whistling down upon the neck of what is no longer a man but a blood-reeking monster.

Actually, what Griffith shows here is not, as it were, natural thought, but a God-given vision. When Judith is transformed by this second vision, the manhood passes out of Holofernes’ hands and animates hers. In Griffith’s imagery, the city of Bethulia itself undergoes a parallel sexual metamorphosis. The climactic image of the rout of the Assyrians is a shot of the triumphant Bethulians pouring out of the brazen gate. In reversal of the earlier images of Bethulia as a woman, Griffith here images the city as a potent man. Judith of Bethulia centers on the dramatic struggle within Judith — spiritual, yet imaged in sexual terms and mirrored by the armed struggle between the Bethulians and the Assyrians — to perform an act that appears to deny her womanly nature. How can this struggle, and specifically its triumphant and liberating resolution, be reconciled with the affirmation, fundamental to Griffith’s work, of an order in which sexuality can be fulfilled naturally only through love within a marriage?

To begin to answer this question, it is necessary to reflect on Griffith’s understanding of the natural history of a woman. When a woman grows from an infant and baby and becomes a girl, she simultaneously starts to play with dolls and begins to develop (at first unaware) the ability to attract men. When she comes of age and blossoms into a young woman, the change is twofold. Unless tutored in the wily ways of the paint-and-powder brigade (as is, for example, Mae Marsh in The White Rose; Lillian Gish, by contrast, is constitutionally unable to master the simplest wile), she continues to act in public as a girl. But she knows that her girlishness now veils her womanhood, a mystery never to be betrayed.

In defending her “trust” — her virgin womanhood — she is prepared to fight like a man. Only within the privacy and sanctuary of a marriage may she reveal herself as a woman. Her mystery now revealed, what follows naturally is that she becomes transformed into a mother. Her womanhood fulfilled, her trust now passes from her own body to the walls of her home, which enclose and protect her baby, as her womb once did. Evil threatens, no longer rape, but its equivalent, violence to her baby. Now she will fight like a man to protect her home.

The paint-and-powder brigade is made up of women who display their womanhood in public, although what they reveal is not womanhood in all its mystery and beauty but only a monstrous caricature: When a woman betrays her trust, she loses her true beauty. It follows logically that womanliness in Griffith’s films – unlike girlishness, manliness, or motherhood – is ordinarily invisible, or at least out of bounds for the camera. How can womanliness be filmed, without violating its sanctity? But then what makes Griffith’s presentation of Judith possible?

As a childless widow, Judith is no longer a girl, and she is no virgin: She has been initiated into the life of marriage, has revealed her womanhood and given her trust. (If a Griffith virgin were granted Judith’s vision, she would not understand it.) Yet she remains childless, denied that natural fulfillment of a woman.

Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

Is Holofernes the man who can fulfill Judith? Griffith takes great pains to present Holofernes as a majestic figure. In general, Griffith’s visual treatment of men, the ways in which his camera differentiates among, for example, Henry Walthall, Robert Harron, Richard Barthel- mess, Lionel Barrymore, Donald Crisp, Joseph Schildkraut, Ivor Novello, and Walter Huston, is as crucial to his filmmaking as his treatment of women. It was no mean feat to transform slight Henry Walthall into such an imposing figure. This is attested to by Karl Brown. At his first meeting with Billy Bitzer, the cinematographer of Judith of Bethulia, Bitzer at first scoffed when Brown offered himself as an assistant. As Bitzer and Griffith were about to depart. Brown pleaded: “‘Please, Mr. Bitzer! I know I’m not wanted, but before you go, will you please tell me how you managed to make Hank Walthall look so big in Judith of Bethulia?’ He stopped and stared at me. I continued recklessly. ‘… If you’ll please tell me, I won’t ever bother you any more, honest I won’t.’ His face softened into kindness. ‘Sure, be glad to. But it’ll take a little time. Report for work at nine tomorrow and I’ll show you what you have to do.'”

Holofernes bull-like majesty and the power of his armies — crystallized in the image of the giant battering ram – arouse Judith. If Holofernes is fully a man – one who can take the place of her dead husband – then he can fulfill Judith in the natural way, and she need not carry out her plan. But, of course, Holofernes does not pass this test. If he were fully a man, he would have succeeded in penetrating the gate of Bethulia.

When Judith succeeds in enticing Holofernes to drink himself into a stupor, she knows that he cannot satisfy her. (For Griffith, any man who drinks to intoxication always thereby exposes a weakness of character that is also a sexual weakness.) Her realization of her power over him shatters the illusion of Holofernes’ manhood and frees Judith from her temptation.

For a moment, she cradles his sleeping head in her arms, as if her womanly nature tempts her to view him as the child she so passionately desires, or to imagine bearing his child. This temptation cannot be defeated by any display of power over him, but only by another God-given vision: a vision of the death and suffering that Holofernes has wrought on Bethulia.

Once Holofernes’ monstrousness is exposed, Judith’s womanhood no longer protects him from her. She becomes transformed. Wielding the sword like a man, she slays the monster and cuts off his head, symbolically castrating him. (Like Judith’s first vision, this unnatural act is not — cannot be — framed by Griffith’s camera.) When she displays the severed head in the marketplace, she acts as Bethulia’s triumphant leader, revealing – to her people and to us – that she has assumed her dead husband’s place. This revelation is the climax of the film.

By surrendering herself to her visions, Judith assumes a woman’s role, as Griffith understands it, in relation to the power that grants her vision. The moment at which she unmasks Holofernes, the moment at which she gives herself completely to this higher power, is the moment of her fulfillment as a woman. Yet, paradoxically, this is also the mo¬ ment at which she performs a man’s act, is transformed into a man. This paradox is fundamental to Griffith’s understanding of what it is to be a woman. When her trust is threatened, a true woman reveals that she possesses a man within her.

The man within Judith is Manasses. But although their marriage proves still to be alive, does it remain issueless? Is she left unfulfilled as a woman after all? The film’s answer is that Judith’s act gives life to the city itself. Judith has become the mother of Bethulia.

Reborn, the city is transformed. Bethulia’s soldiers have at last become men: They storm out of the city’s gate to rout the disordered Assyrian forces. Naomi and Nathan are reunited, their fruitfulness assured. This rebirth in turn transforms Judith. Her transformation is reflected in the final shot of the film. In the marketplace, within Bethulia’s walls, she passes into, through, and out of the frame. No one looks directly at her. Everyone bows before her. She no longer lives in the city, whose inhabitants are now all as her children. She dwells in a higher realm. She is no longer even the camera’s subject.

Judith from Bethulia

This final shot invokes the characteristic closing of a Griffith film: a family united within its home – except, of course, that at the end of Judith of Bethulia the mother and father are both absent from the frame. This final shot also completes the series of equations between Judith’s sexuality and the city of Bethulia. Bethulia is no longer a woman threatened by violation, and no longer a man; it is finally a home (whose walls are the symbolic equivalent of its mother’s fulfilled sexuality).

Thus, the film’s dramatic struggle is articulated in terms that are, after all, consistent with the laws of Griffith’s narrative universe, and the character of Judith can be accounted for in Griffithian terms. Nonetheless, the film’s drama, particularly in its resolution, remains extraordinary in Griffith’s work. This is reflected in the fact that Judith’s act, though inspired by holy visions, is in no sense Christian.

The general point that the film’s resolution is not Christian — is, indeed, specifically pre-Christian – is crucial to understanding the place of this film in Griffith’s work. Judith of Bethulia is Griffith’s major Old Testament film.

The grounding of Judith of Bethulia in Old Testament tradition and morality is everywhere manifest. The central strategy of identifying a woman’s sexuality with a city, for one thing, is familiar from the Old Testament. But also, the outcome of Judith’s struggle is not that she softens and forgives Holofernes, redeeming the tyrant through love; her act of retribution for her people’s suffering equals Holofernes’ acts in its harsh cruelty. The film’s eye-for-eye spirit may be seen, at one level, to determine the system of doubling — with symbolic equivalences and reversals — so characteristic of the film. The Assyrians cut off Bethulia from its water supply, and their tents are razed by flames. Holofernes attempts to penetrate Bethulia’s gate with his battering ram, and Judith slays him with the sword. Judith’s retainer doubles Holofernes’ eunuch. And so on. This system of doubling in turn is linked to the doubling of the Judith/Holofernes and the Judith/Manasses pairs, and by the doubling of both by the Naomi/Nathan pair, by the doubling of the city and its captured well, and, most important, by the doubling of Judith and Bethulia.

Judith’s consciousness serves as a field of battle for higher forces; up to a point, this reflects the general Griffith dramaturgy, laid out most explicitly in Dream Street (1921). Under the all-seeing Morning Star, the symbolic drama of Dream Street unfolds, motivated by the figures of the demonic violinist (whose mask of sensual beauty hides a face only an orthodontist could love) and a beatific preacher. The former’s mad fiddling has the power to whip mortals into a Dionysian frenzy, whereas the latter’s calm voice speaks in Apollonian strains.

The pre-Christian world of Judith of Bethulia, however, has no Morning Star to oversee it. This world is ruled by the Hebrew deity, who calls upon Judith to perform an act of violence, not an act of forgiveness; to harden, not soften.

Judith’s motherhood is unnatural, for Griffith, in the sense that it is not Christian. It is perhaps only in Abraham Lincoln (1930) that Griffith presents a heroic act true to both Old Testament and New Testament morality: The modern-day Abraham gives birth to a nation, not through a liberating, triumphant, but unnatural sexual fulfillment, but through a Christian act of sacrifice.

The presentation of an un-Christian act as heroic is unusual in Griffith’s work, but it does not in itself undermine the Christian identity of Griffith’s camera. In telling this story of a pre-Christian world, Griffith’s camera is freed from certain constraints, because the characters are not Christians, but other constraints remain. Thus, Griffith can film Judith in all her womanliness without betraying his principles, but he cannot show us her vision of the act that will “ring through the generations,” or the unnatural act itself.

Of course, by refraining from showing us that vision or that act, Griffith at the same time strongly serves the interests of his narrative, investing the film with a central enigma (What is Judith planning to do?) and suspending its solution (What has Judith done?), intensifying the film’s climax.

Thus, although Griffith does not violate his Christian morality in the depiction of Judith’s struggle and the resolution of that struggle, that morality does not by itself account for the film, for the nature of Griffith’s implication in this pre-Christian world (and the implication of his camera) remains to be determined. But that determination cannot be achieved apart from a critical account of the relationship, in Griffith’s work, between his Christian moralizing and his violent eroticism. The latter emerges in a uniquely pure form in Judith of Bethulia, in part because it is his major film that asserts no Christian moral. But Griffith could never, in any case, negate his violent eroticism simply by asserting a moral. The tense and complex relationship between these conflicting strains dominates Griffith’s work. It manifests itself in various guises: as an opposition between the theatrical and the poetic/transcendental; between the realistic and the dreamlike; between the representation and the symbolization of events; between the extreme linearity of the parallel-edited suspense sequences and a film’s organic composition as a whole. It is this tension, above all, that engenders the specific density and texture of Griffith’s films and accounts for their form.

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The Movies – 1970 (1957) Revised

The Classic History Of American Motion Pictures

  • By Richard Griffith And Arthur Mayer
  • with the assistance of EILEEN BOWSER
  • Copyright © 1957, 1970 by Arthur Mayer and The Estate of Richard Griffith

The First Movies

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was Edison’s first important rival, the Mutoscope being a peep-show machine similar to the Kinetoscope, while the Biograph was a projector operating on principles nearly identical with Edison s but artfully varied to circumvent his patents. On the page opposite, the cumbrous Biograph camera photographs the Pennsylvania Limited running at sixty miles an hour,” while the equally ponderous Biograph projector throws it on the screen. Audiences of 1896 shrieked in fear when they saw the train speeding upon them. It was an experience not repeated until the advent of Cinerama and 3-D in 1953. Audiences soon grew used to snippets of faked “news” and faked adventure, wonderful as they seemed at first. By 1900, moving pictures were relegated to the closing act on the bill in the vaudeville houses where they were shown. A scientific toy in the eyes of its own inventor, a “chaser” to the variety tycoons, the film seemed headed for the limbo of outworn novelties.

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”


Between 1909 and 1916, David Wark Griffith created the art of screen narrative almost single- handed. After Intolerance, there was no significant addition to film syntax until the advent of sound and of the wide screen, both mechanical rather than artistic innovations, although of course they affect the art. Acknowledging his influence, Cecil B. De Mille recently said that there is something of Griffith in every film made since his day. His contemporaries regarded him with awe, called him “The Master,” and predicted an unlimited future for him after what was thought of as the temporary and accidental failure of Intolerance. Yet this “enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure” never fully succeeded in delivering what he had to say through the medium of which he was the virtual creator. His dream of picturing a vast screen mosaic of the American and French revolutions and the birth of modern liberty was incompletely realized; neither Orphans of the Storm, 1922, nor America, 1924, achieved the impact of The Birth of a Nation.

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Beset by financial troubles, he was forced to turn out potboilers which boiled the pot less and less frequently. His last important film, the little masterpiece Isn’t Life Wonderful?, 1924, revealed the source of his difficulties. The incisive realism of this study of the effects of economic inflation in Germany had small appeal to a nation hell-bent on pleasure. The 1920s, engrossed in a sort of witch hunt against everything “Victorian,” regarded Griffith suddenly as dated. Why did he insist on filming social problems, why was he so obsessed with “patriotic” themes at a time when patriotism was all but a dirty word? Hard pressed for money, Griffith tried to obey his critics, but his attempts at Jazz Age films seemed the fumbling efforts of an amateur compared to the work of De Mille and his disciples. Though still nominally the dean of his profession, Griffith in the later Twenties was given the sort of respect we accord the dead.

His revenge is Time’s. As fashion follows fashion with ever-accelerating speed, as the films of the Twenties and Thirties begin to look flat and superficial, Griffith’s greatness emerges. His faults— flowery language, black-and-white morality, naive cultural pretensions—we no longer judge by today’s standards. Now they belong to the past, to a period in which their romanticism is appropriate. Now we can see beyond them to the profound humanity of Griffith’s films—see also what we have meantime lost, a direct, naked, firsthand approach to character, psychology, and emotion. Griffith’s camera searched the human countenance for “the motions of the spirit” itself.

Intolerance – Babylon


What had loomed over the bungalows of Sunset Boulevard was the palace of Belshazzar, King of Babylon, setting for the Feast of Belshazzar on the eve of Cyrus of Persia’s conquest of the city. Griffith s opulent and untutored imagination festooned this vast set with Egyptian bas-reliefs and Hindu elephant gods as well as Babylonian bearded bulls. To take it all in, he sent Bitzer and his camera aloft in a captive balloon, slowly drawn back to earth in the first equivalent of the modern crane shot. Until Douglas Fairbanks’ castle set for Robin Hood in 1922, it remained the largest backdrop for a movie scene, and neither has ever been topped.

The attacks on The Birth of a Nation had resolved Griffith to turn The Mother and the Law into an epic sermon, a mighty purge for hypocrisy through the ages, called Intolerance. The slums of today, Renaissance France, Belshazzar’s Babylon, and the Crucifixion itself should all speak of man’s inhumanity to man in the name of virtue. Hollywood was awed as Griffith flung up halls in which men looked like flies, walls on which an army could march. Extras were hired in regiments. When Griffith’s backers faltered, he bought them out with long-term notes which he did not finish paying off until the early Twenties. The picture reached a length of 400 reels, with no end in sight, but Griffith went grimly on. “If I approach success in what I am trying to do in my coming picture,” he said, “I expect an even greater persecution than that which met The Birth of a Nation.”

Intolerance – The Nazarene Story


The Nazarene story. Howard Gaye as Jesus, Erich von Stroheim as the shorter of the two Pharisees.

In adding three more stories to that of The Mother and the Law to make up the film Intolerance, Griffith, as Variety said, departed “from all previous forms of legitimate or film construction. . . In Pippa Passes, Judith of Bethulia, and Home Sweet Home he had made four-part films. Now the attraction he felt for this form led him to attempt something entirely new. He told all four stories simultaneously, uniting them by the constantly repeated shot of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, an image derived from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.” In Griffith’s own words: “The stories begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, and faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion.”

Lillian Gish “Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.” – the woman rocking a cradle, in the symbolic scenes linking the separate stories

As such, Intolerance is, in Terry Ramsaye’s words, “the only film fugue,” and as such it entirely failed to win public favor. In spite of the splendor of its spectacle, in spite of its incredible cast—among those who played minor roles were Constance Talmadge, Monte Blue, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Carmel Myers, Colleen Moore, Carol Dempster, and Douglas Fairbanks—audiences were cold to it. Two years after its release, Griffith, realizing the inevitable, released the modem and Babylonian episodes as two separate films, but even their receipts did relatively little to relieve him of the burden of debt with which Intolerance had saddled him.

Intolerance – filming set

Many reasons have been advanced for the failure of this great and unique film. The commonest and most probable is that audiences found it simply too overwhelming, that they could not follow, or become emotionally involved in, these stories which wove in and out of one another with such awesome speed. It has also been suggested that the pacifism which was a leading motif of Intolerance was hardly the note to strike in a year when America was preparing to enter World War I. No one has ever imitated the formal idea on which Intolerance was based, but its spectacle has been in Cecil B. De Mille’s mind ever since, and but for it Eisenstein might never have made Potemkin, Chaplin The Gold Rush, or Von Stroheim Greed. Equivocal, inconclusive, naive, Intolerance yet marks the furthest advance of screen art.

DW Griffith in 1943
The movies – 1970 – The Classic History Of American Motion Pictures

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A Cannes Notebook – By Roger Ebert – 1987

Two Weeks in the Midday Sun

A Cannes Notebook By Roger Ebert – 1987

By evening, a certain controlled hysteria was growing in the press corps, as the Friday visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales drew closer. Every reporter in Cannes hoped to be included on the guest list, which was being selected by some sort of secret process involving the British delegation and the festival press office.

Charles and Diana were scheduled to arrive on Friday morning, accept the keys to the city at noon, take a guided tour of the marketplace displays (easily the tackiest and most depressing sight Cannes had to offer), and then be present in the evening at a dinner in honor of Sir Alec Guinness. I ran into Peter Noble, who repeated his claim that some of the London dailies were offering £1,000 for press credentials to the dinner. He also speculated that the royal couple had timed their arrival to come the day after the screening of the most prestigious British entry in this year’s festival, Prick Up Your Ears, the story of the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his homosexual lover.

“It’s not the sort of thing they want the royals connected with,” Noble explained.

“What will they be seeing?”

“ The Whales of August. Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Most eminently respectable. The dodgiest part of their whole visit will be when they go down into the Palais basement to visit the marketplace. I imagine they have an advance team mapping out a route to get them from Canada to Australia to New Zealand without passing any porno displays. ”

The movie was by Lindsay Anderson, the British director, whose elderly cast included Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Ann Southern. It takes place near the end of the season in the Maine cottage where Gish and Davis, sisters, have summered for years. Now they are facing a momentous question: Can Gish still find the strength to care for her blind sister? Price plays an indigent European count who explains, “I have spent my life as the guest of friends.” His latest friend has died, and now he is looking for a new home. Southern has her eye on him.

The movie is sort of an On Golden Pond about really old people (Gish is ninety-two). The actors and their characters are so old they they have passed beyond age and into a sort of status somewhere between survivors and saints. Anderson’s camera lovingly explores their faces, which are wrinkled and old but luminous. Davis, finally stripped of the mask of makeup she has adopted in her old age, looked especially beautiful.

Bette Davis Whales of August

Lillian Gish was in splendid form later in the afternoon, at her press conference in the Palais. She was A wearing a print dress and a floppy straw hat, and when the audience stood up and cheered her entrance, she looked as if she thought she deserved every moment of the ovation, which of course she did. This was the woman who starred in The Birth of a Nation, and whose presence at Cannes represented the whole life span of the feature film as an art form. Never married, rumored to still be carrying a torch for D.W. Griffith after all these years, Gish revealed some surprising memories, like the time Louis B. Mayer offered to boost her career by involving her in a scandal.

“Lillian,” she said Mayer told her one day in 1929, “you’re way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares. Let me knock you off. I know I can help your career—let me arrange a scandal for you. ”

Miss Gish paused for dramatic effect. “Well,” she remembered replying, “I’ve never had a scandal, Mr. Mayer. I ve never done anything that wasn’t public knowledge. The rest of the time, I spend with my mother and my sister Dorothy. ”

But Mayer was insistent, Gish said, and so she finally answered, “Give me three days. ” At the end of the three days she told Mayer she did not want to have her career helped by a scandal, and Mayer said, “I can ruin you! ” So, she said, she packed up and returned to Broadway—where she appeared on the stage for six years. Miss Gish nevertheless found time to make about 106 movies in a career that began with Griffith at the dawn of the feature film, and still continues, even though she lamented the fact that actresses seem to age faster than actors in Hollywood.

“When I was very young, I played the child of Lionel Barrymore. Some years later, I played the woman he loved. A few years after that, I played his wife. And I promise you, if Lionel Barrymore had lived long enough—I would have ‘ played his mother. ”

Nobody asked her what sort of scandal L.B. Mayer had in mind.

The press conference for Gish was an example of what has become an art form at Cannes, the ritualized confrontations between the stars, the directors, and the press. Most ofthe press conferences take place in the Salon du Presse, inside the Palais, but the biggest stars, like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, or James Stewart, are moved upstairs to the Ambassadeurs nightclub to accommodate the overflow.

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The Swashbucklers – 1976

The Swashbucklers

© Copyright 1976 James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke

  • Editor: T. Allen Taylor
  • Research Associates:
  • Earl Anderson, John Robert Cocchi
  • Michael R. Pitts, Florence Solomon

Introduction by Hal B. Wallis

Thankfully, movies have always been behind the times. Take military science. While aircraft carriers and machine guns were making the old ways of warfare obsolete, one doughty band of mounted swordsmen continued to flail away. These were the Swashbucklers—heroes of a thousand exciting films from silents to CinemaScope. Knighted by their king, embraced by their one true love, acclaimed by adoring peasants, they nevertheless worked their derring-do without proper recognition—until now. Entertainment historians James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke searched the secret archives of Hollywood . . . viewed hundreds of movies. ..braved a thousand dangers—anything to bring you these men of daring, up close.

Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister – behind the scenes

Movie director Henry King and his star, Lillian Gish, were hunting for an actor to play the part of the Italian prince in The White Sister (Metro, 1923). Inspiration Pictures (headed by Charles H. Duell and Boyce Smith), the producing company, had booked passage to Italy where the film would be photographed. As the sailing date came closer, the search for a dark-haired actor became frantic. Then, photographer James Abbe told King that he had seen La Tendresse and that there was a young Englishman in the cast who would be perfect as the prince.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” (At a Portrait Exhibition)

After seeing the play, King and Miss Gish went backstage and asked Ronald if he would make a test for them the next morning. Miss Gish has said in her autobiography. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice-Hall, 1969), “Once we had run the test we knew our search was over. Ronald Colman was perfect for the part.” Miss Gish sent Henry Miller, the star-producer of La Tendresse, a note begging him to release Ronald from the run-of-the-play contract, “and that gracious gentleman, knowing what an opportunity it was for Mr. Colman, let him sail with us forty-eight hours later.” Since The White Sister was the first of the big American films to be made in Italy, there was a paucity of adaptable studio facilities and equipment. Needed items had to be purchased and rushed from Germany, while the company sought locations. During this period, Ronald sent for his wife. She joined him in his quarters at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, but the move was a mistake. (Mrs. Colman was given a small part in the feature to keep her occupied.) Their marriage was never too successful and the squabbles that came with their reunion were either witnessed or heard about by the entire company. Miss Gish wrote in her book, “Once Thelma Colman ran down the hotel corridor crying, ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Some of the company ran in to find Ronnie on the floor. When he came to, he said, ‘I must have fallen and hit my head.’ ” A short time later they had another fierce quarrel at a party that resulted in Thelma’s immediate departure for England.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish – The White Sister

For one scene in the film, Ronald, as the prince, was required to kidnap his love (Gish), who had become a nun after thinking that he had been killed in Africa. “To get him to play with the passion and abandon necessary for the kidnapping scene, Henry King plied him with whiskey. Ronnie actually said ‘damn’ during the scene. It was a great surprise to all of us.” They worked all night on the scene, but the next day Ronald was not able to remember what had happened. According to Miss Gish, “Ronnie looked like an aristocrat; he could make you believe that he was a prince. But he had all the reserve of an English gentleman.”

White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

The White Sister premiered at New York’s Forty-fourth Street Theatre on September 5, 1923. Its thirteen reels of 13,147 feet of film were cut to ten reels and 10,055 feet for its February, 1924 national release and was subsequently edited to nine reels and 9,361 feet for its general release.^ The critics were enthusiastic about the film and its cast. The New York Times rated Ronald “splendid,” but like many another viewer of the spectacular picture, wondered just why the script had to introduce the rather incongruous flood scenes, which led to Colman’s death by drowning. For many it seemed a very overtly artificial manner of providing a means for Lillian Gish’s nun to remain true to her vows.

Lillian Gish adn Ronald Colman – The White Sister – promotional

Ronald remained in Rome to take a bit part, without billing, in a Samuel Goldwyn presentation, The Eternal City (Associated First National, 1923), a film dealing with the current political struggle in Italy between the Communists and Mussolini’s Fascists. Meanwhile, with the release of The White Sister, he was hailed as a new Valentino, and was immediately signed by Inspiration Pictures for a key role in Romola (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), again with Henry King directing and Lillian Gish starring. This film was made in Florence, where an entire replica of the fifteenth-century city was reconstructed. Also in the cast were Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The latter appeared as the villain whose acting overshadowed Ronald’s more modulated performance as the overly virtuous sculptor who adores the heroine (Lillian Gish).

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

Before Romola was released, however, Samuel Goldwyn, who had recently formed his own company in Hollywood and had seen The White Sister, cabled Ronald with an offer of the male lead in a film opposite May McAvoy. Colman accepted, and, on returning to New York, found that he had just enough time to take a role in a Selznick comedy starring George Arliss, an actor whom he greatly admired. In $20 a Week (Selznick Distributing, 1924), Ronald was cast as Arliss’ son, who challenges the older man to a bet that he cannot live on twenty dollars a week. The father takes the wager by procuring a job in a steel plant which he saves from financial ruin by uncovering an inhouse embezzler. The father is taken into the firm as a partner while the son marries the daughter (Edith Roberts) of the plant’s owner (Taylor Holmes).

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HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

Close-up : the Hollywood director

HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

  • General Editor: Jon Tuska
  • Associate Editor: Vicki Piekarski
  • Research Editor: David Wilson
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J. & London 1978
Close-up : the Hollywood director – Henry King

Henry King is a man of slightly more than average height. He looks surprisingly good wearing a hat, even if it is only a straw fedora; and were it not for the fact that his hat shields his grayish, thinning hair, you would never be able to guess how old he is from his alert, observant blue eyes and his deeply tanned skin. He is chary of revealing his age, having been born on 24 January 1896 at Christiansburg, Virginia, but then his active interest in life belies his years, as much as the fact that he still flies his own airplane and enjoys playing golf. He lives in Amelia Earhart’s former house in North Hollywood, bordered in the rear by a golf course, verdant turf spread beneath majestic trees stretching quietly in the California sun.

While King was at work on FURY (First National, 1923), featuring Richard Barthelmess (their last picture together) and Tyrone Power, Sr. , Charles Duell was taken with the idea of making a film with Lillian Gish. FURY was a sea story and King had chartered a ship for sixteen days to get the sea episodes filmed. When he docked, Duell had Lillian Gish with him. Edmund Goulding, who had done the screen play for FURY, wanted a chance to write the scenario for the Gish picture, to be titled THE WHITE SISTER. Goulding claimed he could complete it in ten days. When King saw Goulding’s treatment, he threw it out. Fortunately, King bumped into George V. Hobart, a Broadway playwright, in a restaurant. King told Hobart he would pay $1,000 a week for a good screenwriter, somewhat a measure of his hardening opinion of Edmund Goulding’s abilities. Hobart joined King in a short trip to Atlantic City to talk about the storyline. A week later they had twelve pages of story and King liked it.

The White Sister – Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish

When King returned to New York, he encountered Edward Small, who was a talent agent in those days. Small said there was a good play on Broadway at the 39th Street Theatre and that King should take a look at the actor in the second act. The play was a starring vehicle for Ruth Chatterton. Ronald Colman was the actor Small had had in mind. King was impressed by him and arranged a meeting. He wanted him for the role of the male lead, Giovanni, in THE WHITE SISTER. Colman told King that he had come from England with the hope of appearing in films, but that he photographed poorly and having been given a role in the play, felt he couldn’t leave. King insisted on doing a screen test anyway. He slicked down Colman’s pompadour and drew a moustache on him. The four-hundred-foot test was shot three times. When Gish saw the rushes–THE WHITE SISTER had been inspired by her desire to play a nun; it was the first film she was signed to make after leaving D. W. Griffith– she was enthusiastic about Colman. The picture was to be filmed in Italy. Colman agreed to play in it. He was offered $450 a week. Gish was getting $1,000 a week.

The White Sister – Lillian Gish

By modem standards, THE WHITE SISTER is one of those curious clerical dramas of the silent era, with Gish in her customary role of a sainted and vestal heroine. According to the screenplay, she falls in love with Colman. Then, believing him killed in the Great War, she decides to enter a convent. Colman shows up after she has taken her vows, and, however waveringly, Gish successfully resists him.

This film, like DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1923) with Richard Dix, requires today a suspension of the critical faculties, particularly in view of the presumed motivations prompting the actions of the principals. First National, which had been distributing Inspiration’s features, thought THE WHITE SISTER (Metro Pictures, 1923) held little box-office promise. The film was then offered to Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loew’s, Inc., the theatre chain which owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schenck was willing to distribute. The picture proved a commercial success. It had cost only $300,000 to make in spite of its location shooting in Europe. King found the Italians easy to work with and not at all the difficult and lazy bunch they were according to Fred Niblo who was working in Italy on M-G-M’s BEN HUR.

Colman so liked working in pictures that he asked King if there was a part for him in King’s next project. King wanted to make ROMOLA (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), based on the George Eliot novel. The location was again to be Italy.

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

It was to be a costume drama, a much more expensive film to make with its fifteenth-century setting, once more with a religious motif, a romantic drama played against the ravings of the fanatic Savonarola. Lillian and Dorothy Gish were the heroines. William Powell and Ronald Colman were the male leads. ROMOLA bombed. But the picture did bring Ronald Colman to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn offered Colman a contract. Colman was undecided. He felt he should stay with Henry King. But with the failure of ROMOLA, Inspiration was in financial straits. King urged him to accept Goldwyn’s offer.

Ronald Colman, William Powell and director Henry King while filming Romola

When Henry King returned to the United States, he signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. Both films were mediocre love stories, although the second one, ANY WOMAN (Paramount, 1925), made some feeble attempts at comedy.

WAY DOWN EAST (Fox, 1935) was Henry King’s last film for the old Fox regime. It was, of course, a remake of what remains perhaps D. W. Griffith’s best film after THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Epoch, 1915). King had always been impressed with Griffith’s film and he considered the remake a great challenge. Unfortunately, Fox was financially strapped. The Shirley Temple musicals, the Will Rogers pictures, and Charlie Chan were the only consistent money makers the studio was producing. King could not, as Griffith had, film the exteriors during the blizzard, crossing the river on the ice floats, on location; he was confined to the back lot at Fox’s Western Avenue studio. King wanted to simulate frozen eyelashes, such as Lillian Gish had had in the original. He couldn’t. Henry Fonda was able to jump around on the cakes of phony ice, but he was sweating when he did it.

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Dressed : a century of Hollywood costume design – By Deborah Nadoolman Landis (2007)

  • Dressed – A Century of Hollywood Costume Design
  • By Deborah Nadoolman Landis
  • Collins (Harper Collins Publishers) 2007

From the lavish productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age through the high-tech blockbusters of today, the most memorable movies all have one thing in common: they rely on the magical transformations rendered by the costume designer. Whether spectacular or subtle, elaborate or barely there, a movie costume must be more than merely a perfect fit. Each costume speaks a language all its own, communicating mood, personality, and setting, and propelling the action of the movie as much as a scripted line or synthetic clap of thunder. More than a few acting careers have been launched on the basis of an unforgettable costume, and many an era defined by the intuition of a costume designer—think curvy Mae West in I’m No Angel (Travis Banton, costume designer), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (Jean Louis and Irene Sharaff, costume designers), Diane Keaton in Annie Nall (Ruth Morley, costume designer), or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer). In Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, Academy Award®-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis showcases one hundred years of Hollywood’s most tantalizing costumes and the characters they helped bring to life. Drawing on years of extraordinary research, Landis has uncovered both a treasure trove of costume sketches and photographs— many of them previously unpublished—and a dazzling array of first-person anecdotes that inform and enhance the images. Along the way she also provides an eye opening, behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of the costume designer’s art, from its emergence as a key element of cinematic collaboration to its limitless future in the era of CGI. A lavish tribute that mingles words and images of equal luster, Dressed is one book no film and fashion lover should be without.

Lillian Gish as Little Mother in D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” later aka “Her Condoned Sin”

Early Years

We were struck by how closely the newest Hollywood anecdotes about costume design mirror the oldest. The testimony by actors and designers at the end of this volume, in the twenty-first century, echo those at the very beginning of the twentieth. Silent-film star Lillian Gish would be all too familiar with the anxieties of present-day indie actresses. Today’s compressed production schedules parallel the earliest days of shotgun moviemaking, when actresses arrived at the set dressed to impress or were clothed from secondhand (now vintage) shops or rental house hampers. It’s irrelevant whether a costume is a manufactured or found object; it need only be right for the shop girl, the princess, the gangster, or the boy next door.

Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

Throughout the 1910s, motion picture attendance grew exponentially, with more theaters springing up around the country, creating an ever-increasing demand for more films. Studios began to standardize the way movies were made. The creation of specialized movie costume departments may be credited to D. W. Griffith, whose employment of film designers was just one of his many innovations in moviemaking. Prior to Griffith—the first filmmaker to commission costumes specifically for a single film, Judith of Bethulia—movies were costumed from a grab bag of sources. The extras in Bethulia continued to be responsible for their own costumes, wearing primitive beards created from crepe paper and cardboard. Two years later, for Griffith’s landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915), a number of the costumes were made by actress Lillian Gish’s mother. With no organized costume department yet created, there was no one to keep track of costumes. “In those days there was no one to keep track of what an actor was wearing from scene to scene,” said Gish, the film’s star. “He was obliged to remember for himself what he had worn and how his hair and makeup had looked in the previous scene. If he forgot, he was not used again.”

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

Even in these early, haphazard days, actors understood that the primary purpose of costume was to help tell the story. As Lillian Gish remembered, “In Birth of a Nation, during the famous cliff scene I experimented with a half dozen dresses until I hit upon one whose plainness was a guarantee that it would not divert from my expression in that which was a very vital moment.”

Intolerance – Babylon

For Intolerance (1916), Griffith had new costumes created for not just the lead actors but also the movie’s thousands of extras—another moviemaking first. Crowd control was an issue, as actress Bessie Love recalled, and the filmmakers devised a clever strategy to keep order on the set: “Half a dozen second assistant directors were made up in costume and mingled in shot with the crowds, inciting the mob and relaying the directions of Mr. Griffith.” After Griffith’s innovations, the restricted scale of the legitimate theater could never again compete with the depth of field and spectacle on screen.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in “Broken Blossoms”

Griffith’s commitment to costuming was legendary. His wife Linda Arvidson, often told the story of his “auditioning” practices: “I have no part for you, Miss Hart, but I can use your hat. I’ll give you five dollars if you will let Miss Pickford wear your hat for this picture.” The golden-haired Mary Pickford had been acting in a theatrical troupe since she was six years old. She had already formed the essence of her “Little Mary” character, the little girl with the long golden curls, by the time she started working with D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Pickford later recalled one of her first days in the movie business. “I played a ten-year-old girl in a picture titled Her First Biscuits … and to costume me for that one day’s work had cost all of $10.59. If I had had any doubt before, I had absolutely none now that the picture industry was mad.”

Lillian Gish as Mimi in MGM’s “La Boheme”

Determined to have the world’s best at the studio, Mayer wasted no time looking for star power to lead his costume department. In 1924, he employed renowned French stage designer Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erte. When Erte arrived in New York on February 25, 1925, the Morning Telegraph announced that his “advent into motion pictures is of special significance to the film industry as it is the first notable recognition paid to the importance of the costuming phase in motion picture production.” Erte was brought to MGM with all the fanfare afforded the biggest stars.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Renee Adoree, George Hassell, Gino Corrado – “La Boheme” MGM

Unfortunately, his tenure would not live up to the hype. Experienced with creating showy costumes for large stage revues such as the Folies Bergere, Erte brought his same sense of outsized drama to the screen. Though his fabulous showgirl costumes looked stunning from the back of a live theater, they looked awkward and ridiculous in black and white on a movie screen forty feet wide. Erte viewed actresses as mannequins for his gowns, rather than as characters in a story, and actresses in his designs appeared uncomfortable. For the tubercular seamstress played by Lillian Gish in La Boheme, Erte produced a collection of crisp calico dresses. The dresses were made of cheap fabric, and Gish argued that they would look too new on the screen. Star and designer steadfastly refused to compromise; Erte banished the star from his workshop, and Gish collaborated with Lucia Coulter, head of wardrobe at MGM, to replace Erte’s work with tattered garments of old silk that would look worn and cheap on screen. After just one year, Erte returned to Paris, brimming with nasty comments on the state of American taste.

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

Max Ree: “The designer of costumes should begin with a conception of the personality. He is at least as much an analyst as the actor who plays the part, for he must familiarize himself with the character so that the kind of thing the person in question would wear is immediately obvious.

“Changing an actress’s figure by means of her clothes came up when I designed the costumes for Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter. We wished to stress the pathos of Hester Prynne by making her small-almost immature. To give her the appearance of being shorter I broke the lines wherever possible. Across her circular skirt I put several rows of broad tucks. On her very short jacket were wide bands of black velvet edging the neck and the end. Her shoes and cap were round. All this tended to flatten her silhouette, and Miss Gish is sufficiently slender to stand the ordeal.”


Lillian Gish wearing an extras costume in “Orphans of the Storm”

Lillian Gish (actress): “For Orphans Mr. Griffith had a designer do the costumes, but for my taste they were too much in the fashion of the time. I went to Herman Tappe and told him my ideas and the two of us worked out Dorothy’s and my costumes for Orphans. All the other costumes were duplicates of those worn in the Revolutionary period.”


Dressed : a century of Hollywood costume design – front cover

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Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer (1996)

  • Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer
  • 1996 by Princeton University Press
  • Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
  • In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, Chichester, West Sussex

Noting that filmmakers and critics have often used motherhood as a metaphor to describe film production and the cinematic apparatus, Lucy Fischer undertakes the first investigation of how the topic of motherhood presents itself throughout a wide range of film genres. Until now melodramas have figured most prominently in discussions of maternity; these films, along with musicals and screwball comedies, have traditionally been viewed as “women’s” cinema. Fischer, however, defies gender- based classifications to show how motherhood has played a fundamental role in the overall cinematic experience. She begins by arguing that motherhood is often treated as a site of crisis—for example, the theme of the mother being blamed for the ills afflicting her offspring—then shows the tendency of certain genres to specialize in representing a particular social or psychological dimension in the thematics of maternity.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Noxious Nannies

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a work whose four part historical structure is sutured by the maternal image of Lillian Gish and by quotations from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Like the poet’s words (which conjure a musical theme), Griffith’s poignant visual trope positions the innocent madonna outside the universe of political injustice. Wallace’s verse is of a more cynical tone, implicating motherhood in the system of corrupt power. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle “shuttles” (as Whitman would have it) between these two positions: one attached to the biological mother and the other assigned to her surrogate.

Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

Silent Melodrama



With your milk. Mother, I swallowed ice. And here I am now, my insides frozen. . . . My blood no longer circulates to my fect or my hands, or as far as my head. It is immobilized, thickened by the cold. Obstructed by icy chunks which resist its flow. (Luce Irigaray)

To state that Way Down East | 1920 i is a Him about the maternal body seems an exercise in cliche. For it recounts the familiar story of Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a country girl seduced (in a mock marriage) by an urbane playboy, then left to bear his illegitimate child. While the film’s narrative connections to motherhood are abundantly clear, a maternal discourse reverberates on more submerged levels of the text, invoking its literary origins, its social context, its metaphoric structures, and its celluloid existence.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The Literary Body

[ Personally it is always pleasing to recognize . . . the fact that our cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past (Sergei Eisenstein)

Like many works of the silent era, D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East its creative “maternity” to literature. For Sergei Eisenstein, this “‘genetic’ line of descent” is a positive feature, lending cinema a prestigious “birth place”. Other critics have found this artistic lineage more problematic, with film configured as an “illegitimate” offspring. As Judith Mayne notes (in a passage reminiscent of Way Down East), “It has been stated over and over again, in condemnations of the cinema as an inferior art form, that if the cinema is heir to the novel it is a bastard child”. Retrospectively, even Eisenstein’s phrasing abounds with double meaning. His pride in a cinema “with a past” collides, in Way Down East, with the shame of a woman “with a past”—a notion that dogs the life of Anna Moore.

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

Way Down East was written in the mid- 1890s by dramatist Lottie Blair Parker. As he recounts in Showman, producer William A. Brady found her original text promising but flawed, and commissioned its “elaboration” by “play-doctor” Joseph R. Grismer. While the Manhattan premiere of the melodrama was financially disappointing, the play succeeded on the road. When the production returned to New York, it enjoyed a triumphant run. As Brady writes in “Drama in Homespun,” “The show was a repeater and it took twenty-one years to wear it out” . Ultimately, Grismer published a novelization of the play in 1900. It is this literary property that Griffith claimed (for $175,000), not from its “natural mother” (Parker), but from its “adoptive father” (Brady), who had shrewdly acquired the rights (Brady, Showman, Henderson, 215). Many were shocked by Griffith’s interest in this antique, “by-gosh” melodrama. Lillian Gish recalled that Hollywood “thought privately that [he] had lost his mind”. Griffith was to make considerable changes in the literary material. While Parker’s play begins after Anna’s tragic mistake (and slowly discloses the circumstances of her transgressive maternity), Griffith’s narrative starts with her seduction. While Parker’s play climaxes in the “sensation scene” of a winter snowstorm, Griffith concludes with Anna’s spectacular rescue from a waterfall and ice floe. Using a bodily (and Frankensteinian) metaphor for cinematic paternity, Martin Williams claims that “Griffith . . . breathe[d] new life into [the] old bones” of his literary prototype. Arthur Lennig deems this process the “birth” of Way Down East. Griffith’s faith in his source was well-founded. According to Gish, Way Down East played for more than a year on Broadway and “made more money than any other Griffith film except The Birth of a Nation.”” Significantly, his “bastard” cinematic progeny played for “legitimate” theater prices.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

The Actress -Body

All that winter, whenever Mr. Griffith saw an ice cake, he wasn’t satisfied till he had me on it. (Lillian Gish)

Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream. . . . But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bare-headed and bare-handed and without a heavy outer coat so it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from the cold. (Lee Smith)

It is not surprising that, in discussing Anna’s plight, Wexman makes reference to “Gish’s frail body,” for the production of Way Down East has become notorious in film history for its demands on its performers. Shooting the rescue sequence on location (at White River Junction, Vermont; Farmington, Connecticut; and Mamaroneck, New York), the cast and crew were subjected to harrowing winter conditions.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Gish recalls:

Again and again, I struggled through the storm. Once I fainted—and it wasn’t in the script. I was hauled to the studio on a sled; thawed out with hot tea, then brought back to the blizzard. … At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and icicles like spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm, she heard a calculating Griffith shouting to the cameraman: “Billy, move in! Get that face! that face — get that face.

Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East

Commenting on this extradiegetic melodrama, Robert Henderson wryly notes, “It must have seemed as though Griffith had turned into a Simon Legree with Lillian Gish . . . being pursued across the ice”. Griffith was all but obsessed with his snowstorm. A technical director remembers his eternally yelling, “More ice, more ice.” The crew produced some floes by dynamiting the frozen river or by cutting it with a saw (Lennig, 110). For others, he used wooden platforms or blocks of paraffin (112). When his synthetic ice was lost down the falls, he would shout, “How long would it take to build more ice?” (110-12). In addition to artificial ice, Griffith occasionally employed “simulacra” for his actors: either dummies or “doubles” for his principle players. Significantly, while Griffith was freezing Gish on the river’s ice, he was also (like Lennox Sanderson) giving her the “cold shoulder,” looking for her amorous “double.” As Wexman notes, Griffith’s condemnation of male inconstancy in the film “was especially ironic given the director’s personal situation, for he was then in the process of transferring his own affections from Lillian Gish … to Carol Dempster, whom he would star in future productions. Thus, if Gish had cause to suffer at that moment in history, it was Griffith himself who was to blame”.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer 1996 – front cover

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Lillian Gish As She Is … (Ross 1920)

Lillian Gish As She Is To Those Who Know Her

Ross Publishing Co. NY 1920

“I am so glad of this opportunity to talk with all my fan friends,” laughed Lillian Gish. “I is a treat to tell you all of my real thoughts, and how I actually live, instead of having people judge me by my expression on the motion picture screen, I hope you’ll find that I am not the ‘tragic flower’ the magazines say I am. First of all, I am not frail.”

“My engagement for motion pictures was quite by accident. Years ago Mary Pickford and her mother, and Dorothy, Mother, and myself shared an apartment in New York City as a matter of economy. Mary secured an engagement with the Biograph Company and one day out of curiosity I went down to the studio to see her work. Mr. Griffith was directing a picture at the time. He saw both Dorothy and myself and evidently thought we might become successful screen players.”

She is a girl of nature, loves flowers, particularly roses, and can be seen almost any day trimming the vines and hedges or raking the grass about her home. She has been called the “delicate flower” in the Griffith tapestries, but she is probably one of the most self-sustaining bodies in filmdom. She needs no helping hand to change her costumes and house dresses.

  • “The Little Movie Mirror Books” featuring Lillian Gish.
  • NEW YORK 1920

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