On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review) By Armond White – 2015

  • On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review)
  • By Armond White – February 18, 2015 5:00 AM

Why the smug critics of D. W. Grffith’s epic are doomed to repeat its faults.

One hundred years ago on this date, February 18, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation —​ the first movie epic — was shown at the White House. That screening occasioned President Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “It’s like writing history with lightning” — an accurate description of a problematic movie that is, upsettingly, full of hysterical historical fabrications. Wilson’s response to Griffith’s still-amazing innovations of cinematic storytelling was also an ideological endorsement of then-commonplace racial attitudes.Today, Wilson’s endorsement (not the darkest part of his own regrettable legacy) is scoffed at because of modern distaste for the film’s Civil War and Reconstruction drama — for its scurrilous depiction of black slaves while it lionizes the creation of the white-supremacist mob known as the Ku Klux Klan. The two myths, double-barreled offenses, have lived in the American consciousness partly through Griffith’s film — an indelible work of art and so an ongoing test.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

But in the decades since The Birth premiered, we should have learned more than that we are superior to it. That self-serving attitude has been the point of several recent articles recognizing the film’s centenary, as if the shameful or honorable social events (lynchings, legal reforms, and incremental civil-rights developments) that followed The Birth force single-minded dismissal of the film for its embarrassing and enraging faults.To approach this as a political as well as a cultural problem: Any attempt to erase The Birth —​ and rewrite movie history — also threatens our own presumably enlightened social standards. The trouble is, present-day smugness loses sight of The Birth’s aesthetic brilliance, which is the basis of its powerful challenge to our moral sense — not simply the necessary rejection of racist attitudes but the too-easy disavowal of the prejudiced reflexes and bigoted ideology still embedded in our national institutions and social habits.

*      *      *

Watching The Birth in 2015 (as on last week’s helpful C-SPAN broadcast) makes the movie more real than recent “not-me” renunciations allow; more real, in some ways, than current movies and TV dramas that boast “progressive” attitudes on race and American history. The Birth’s iconographic representation of timeless human experience is overwhelming for its glories and its insufficiencies: Griffith’s powerfully homiletic subtitle “War’s Peace” before a shot of dead bodies; the Little Colonel’s movingly discreet homecoming; the sexual frankness of Lillian Gish’s bedpost-stroking frustration (and the Altmanlike moment of a Union soldier eyeing her at a hospital); the startling battle scenes emulating Mathew Brady’s photographic realism but adding clouds of white and black smoke rolling kinetically across the battlefields; the combining of actual black bit players with white actors in blackface, following and flipping minstrel tradition; the intense expression of fear in the women’s barricade sequence; and, yes, the unsettling yet undeniably vibrant ride to the rescue by the Klan — a moment that sweeps you up in its fervor as all mob-related hysteria does even to this day. Think of it all as an epic — and dangerous — metaphor.

“As a film it’s astonishing, as a social history it’s still astonishing but in a different way,” Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress told C-SPAN. The Birth offers that unique quality vintage photography has of engaging your awe and fear, of past lives being made vivid alongside the simultaneous specter of mortality. But the film’s second half (its Reconstruction falsehoods, with lynch-mob scenes and Klan mythologizing) starts to pull away from you, offending basic sensitivities the same way as the caricature of criminal blacks in Liberty Heights (1999), or as Halle Berry’s degraded black mother in Monster’s Ball (2002), or as Precious and her mother’s being made into ghetto monsters in Precious (2007), or as the patronizing ghetto clichés in HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), among other post-Griffith examples of Hollywood defamation.

It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media, to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous — a way to fend off honest self-examination.

Few Birth detractors (call them anti-Birthers?) concede any validity to Griffith’s presentation of white American personality or admit that it’s more insightful than his neurotic caricature of blacks. Griffith includes an inadvertent (easily ignored) truth in the character of the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall); the “gallant” Southerner shown as inventing the Klan parallels the likable “good people” who harbor racist thoughts and actions. Almost Dickensian in sentiment as well as psychological and social ramification, Griffith is more authentic than the strictly moralizing, largely partisan ideas of good/bad behavior found in today’s “enlightened” media work, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, or The Help.

That self-flattering mainstream-media perspective was typified when The New Yorker claimed: “The worst thing about [The Birth] is how good it is.” That’s all wrong, an example of liberal sophistry wrought to distance and patronize white racism. The fact is: The best thing about The Birth is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea Intolerance (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist. To say otherwise is intellectual censorship. But as Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, advised C-SPAN: “We should not ban this film. We should not be afraid of this discourse.”

Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

Black Americans, well familiar with the calumnies the media use against them, are sometimes bemused even while recognizing the vile intent. For instance, one high point of The Birth’s racist hysteria has a young white girl (Mae Marsh) escape submitting to a lecherous black villain by jumping off a cliff. A subtitle proclaims: “We should not grieve that she found sweet the opal gates of death.” In my experience, both Black Panther and Columbia Graduate Film School colleagues found such absurdly racist sentimentality — including ludicrous scenes of free blacks’ buffoonery in the Reconstruction legislature — offensive and laughable, equally. It’s part of the process of getting accustomed to white racism and defying it — armoring oneself against it wherever and whenever possible.During film school, classmates and I laughed at a documentary where Lillian Gish insisted “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro.” At that time, I had a dream of being kidnapped by Griffith and forced to watch new footage he had recently filmed. Orson Welles burst into the dream to rescue me, but I resisted his tug, pointed at the screen, and urged him: ”Look! Look how beautiful it is!” Welles sat down and enjoyed the show.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

I have always felt it essential to reckon with the paradox of Griffith’s genius and his racism, just as a critic must reckon with the racism of lesser present-day filmmakers and do-gooder hypocrites, as when the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name from its annual awards in 2000, a misguided act of politically correct self-righteousness.

The beauty and ugliness, the truth and lies of The Birth of a Nation haunt all Americans. How it haunts us is valuable and should never be forgotten.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Lillian Gish – Handwritten inscription defending D.W. Griffith & “Intolerance”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

American Political Movies – James Combs (1990)

  • American political movies : an annotated filmography of feature films
  • AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVIES
  • An Annotated Filmography of Feature Films
  • James Combs (1990)
  • GARLAND PUBLISHING, INC. NEW YORK & LONDON – 1990

Historians of the motion picture are fond of telling stories of the reactions of the earliest audiences to the new medium as it emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. We are still amused by the uncomprehending awe with which they greeted this spectacular experience. People ran from the theater in terror from trains approaching on the screen. Others ducked and screamed when a gun was fired at the audience. But most appear to have simply been transfixed, sitting and gazing in silent wonder at this visual marvel that brought worlds of sights, and very quickly stories, beyond their everyday existence. Some observers of these brave new “moving pictures” were exultant. “The universal language has been found!” exclaimed a spectator at an early Lumiére film.

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

The propaganda films made pacifists either cowards or naive fools, and associated the willingness to fight and die as the test of a “manly” patriotism that not only won battles but also women’s hearts and men’s admiration. The crucible of war not only would purge us of selfish or weak impulses, it also served a democratizing and moralizing purpose by bringing men together in egalitarian military camaraderie and offered an opportunity for moral regeneration of slackers, effete lounge lizards, and the sons of the idle rich. In other words, these films offered a vision of war that served domestic Progressive purposes of “moral democracy” making not only the world, but also America, safe for Wilson’s grand vision.

Hearts of the World

Perhaps the most ambitious of these war films, Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) is still representative enough. Shot at the behest of the British government and with Wilson’s blessing, even though he began work on it before American entry, Griffith’s story (some of it actually shot at the front) includes murderous German troops, a rape-minded German officer with designs on Lillian Gish, the mistreatment of French civilians, a French girl flogged by a boorish German sergeant, and rescue from the Hun by brave French troops. (Griffith may have overdone it: when the movie was viewed at the White House, apparently neither President nor Mrs. Wilson cared much for it.) The overall impact of these propaganda films was such that it solidified a tradition of military cooperation that would only begin to break down in the 60s.

Griffith’s famous Birth of A Nation (1915) is of interest to us here on two counts: first, because of the immediate political furor that arose over the movie, and second, because of the reactionary populism inherent in his interpretation of “progressive” history that would shape the reform program of Wilson, literally “re-forming” the State around a conception of the major political crisis of the recent past as it gave “birth” to a new society. In this view (shared in more sophisticated form by Wilson himself), the industrial North defeated the plantation South, but unleashed an uncivilized force in the freed slaves and their carpetbagger masters bent on revenge and greed. In order to restore a civilized and virtuous community, they were stopped by the vigilante action of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring the peace and virtue of community and family. The two families, one Northern and the other Southern, who reconcile and intermarry at the end stand as metaphors for the reunion of the nation founded on the natural sentiments of home and family, defeating the evils of cold-hearted-industrialism (exemplified by the Radical Republican Senator Stoneman) and alien forces (exemplified by miscegenation: villains are either mulattoes or black).

The film was an immediate sensation, and inspired protests by black and liberal groups incensed by the blatant racism of the story. With Birth, observers began to sense that the movies’ power to make a political statement and shape political consciousness was greater than anyone anticipated. Birth gave imaginative shape to not only a Progressive interpretation of the past, but also as a parable of the politics of the present. Not only did it justify the “Jim Crow” laws of the time, it also warned of the dangers of a manipulative industrial elite using power to destroy traditional bourgeois life so dear to the hearts of mythologists such as Griffith. Wilson was a spokesman for that tradition who sought, like the powerless but respectable white men of Birth, to restore a sane and understandable political order that reflected the values, and power, of the large middle class that saw itself as the backbone of the country. Birth was not only, as Wilson was supposed to have remarked, “History written in lightning”; it was also Progressive politics written in lightning, offering a parable of the righteous power of Wilson’s middle-class voting base standing for the virtue of the family-based middle against the plutocracy on the one hand and a degenerate proletariat on the other, and the possibility of a conspiratorial coalition of the two. Progressive order would now be restored, as it was in the movie, not only by concerted political action by the “good people” of the community, but by moral regeneration symbolized by the triumph of familial rectitude and the vision of pristine peace and order governed by the principles of Christ (this, recall, after bloody racial war and vigilante murder). But in the political visions of Griffith and Wilson, violence, like reform legislation, could be used both ruthlessly and morally for the Progressive cause. Birth represents something of the nostalgic and “reactionary” element in Progressivism, uniting on screen both the cinematic and political imagination of a restored and regenerate moral order.

Monte Blue – Riding to rescue Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) – Orphans of the Storm

There is an odd sense in which the Twenties thought things foreign both a threat and a promise. For all of the audience interest in foreign aristocratic elegance, the recent bitter experience of World War I and the rise of alien doctrines such as communism in the new Soviet Union inspired moviemakers to provide negative treatment of both. The most sustained cautionary tale about the dangers of the Russian Revolution is Griffith’s parable, Orphans of the Storm (1922). Set in the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries are shown to be self-serving, vengeful, cruel, lust-crazed and murderous. The movie was shown at the Harding White House, and Griffith compared the “tyranny of small but aggressive parties” (presumably the Jacobins) who parallels a “similar condition (that) exists in Russia today.” The capitalist American fear of communism was not only economic, it was also moral, contrasting the “mobocracy” of the French Revolution as antithetical to the moderate bourgeois democracy of the United States. Russian Bolshevism, like Jacobinism before it, was characterized as an aberrant and twisted grab for power without true popular roots or legitimate purpose, a theme that would persist in political movies down to the present, justifying hostility to Soviet power and interests.

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Both Wilson and Griffith were essentially imbued with the romantic sentimentality at the core of popular Victorianism, so dealing with the onslaught of modern urban and industrial change was difficult but compelling for them. Much of Griffith’s work deals with the tensions wrought by modernity, always coming to a resolution in which traditional morality is upheld even in the roughest of circumstances. Griffith’s subsequent work represents some of the periodic political tensions that emerged with the fear, shared by rural folk and urban reformers, that modernity would bring chaotic consequences. Many of his films, from the early Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to “The Mother and the Law” section of his masterpiece Intolerance (1916) and subsequent films such as Way Down East (1920), deal with the “postlapsarian” world of modernity and how the moral order of “prelapsarian” tradition can be saved from ruin.

Mae Marsh – Modern Story

What is fascinating to the political observer of the times is that both Wilson and Griffith were eclipsed by events, Wilson by World War I and the impulse toward modern life that the war speeded up, and Griffith as an anachronism in the Twenties making movies about the very pastoral life and morality that the Progressive Era and the war had done so much to destroy. Intolerance is of interest not only because it is one of the greatest of all films, but also because of its immediate political eclipse and subsequent political influence. Griffith’s theme is injustice through the ages, in which innocent ordinary folk are subjected to the abuses of the powerful and haughty. His populist roots show in his depiction of the social tension between wealthy industrialists and their “society” wives against the innocent pursuits and urban travails of the new working class. But his Wilsonian ties also are clear, in that both ancient and modern rulers can be just if they are on the side of popular morality, including familial autonomy from a meddlesome, elite-sponsored welfare state and protection from the predatory powers of both industrial magnates and vice lords.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Griffith, like Wilson, still retained a kind of sentimental idealism that suggested a political coalition between benevolent authority and the virtuous individual could produce social harmony without disturbing the actual concentration of power in industrial and social elites. Still, one reason given for the box office failure of Intolerance was that the new urban middle classes just discovering movie going didn’t like the theme of industrial strife which placed culpability clearing on the shoulders of greedy and hypocritical industrialists. Too, Intolerance not only included some of the more explosive Progressive criticisms of the arrogance of power, it also proceeded on pacifist sentiment and concluded with a moving Utopian vision of a world without war. When Griffith began making the film in 1915, much of the public agreed with this sentiment, and Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the claim of moral superiority over the warring nations of Europe, declaring that we were “too proud to fight.” But by the time the film was released late in 1916, the public mood and political realities had changed to a bellicose and interventionist stance, and Griffith’s views seemed curiously and outdated.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Lillian Gish in Griffith movies – Photo Gallery

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Birth of a Nation – How a Filmmaker and a Editor Reignited America’s Civil War – By Dick Lehr (2014)

  • The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
  • By Dick Lehr
  • Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr

IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

PROLOGUE

January 2, 1915

David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.

Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.

Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.

The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.

Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.

Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”

It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.

Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.

D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.

The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”

D.W. Griffith’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ Program

1914

Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.

The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.

The Curtain Falls

William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Civil War on the screen by JACK SPEARS (1977)

  • The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays by JACK SPEARS
  • © 1977 by A. S. Barnes and Co., In’ .

 Hollywood’s colorful treatment of the most tragic period in American history is traced in fascinating detail in The Civil War on the Screen and Other Essays. From D, W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation to Clark Gable’s picaresque Captain Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of dozens of Civil War movies. He explores the many screen impersonations of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and other figures of history, including the infamous guerrilla chiefs Quantrill and Morgan. An entertaining look at the espionage drama, crinoline love stories, lighthearted comedies (Buster Keaton’s The General), and authentic battle epics is en-livened with many personality sketches of the captivating stars of the silents and talkies. There is a penetrating analysis of the social influences of the racist film and the historical inaccuracies of most Civil War motion pictures. The originality and freshness of this intelligent study will delight every film fan and Civil War student.

Milestone and Masterpiece: The Birth of a Nation

One of the screen’s lost films is Kinemacolor’s The Clansman (1912), which was never completed. No fragments of this picture are known to exist. Presumably, the few scenes that were shot have been destroyed, or have long since crumbled into dust with the deterioration of its nitrate film stock. The only significance of The Clansman is that a portion of its story later formed the basis for the last half of D. W. Griffith’s milestone of motion-picture history, The Birth of a Nation. Kinemacolor was a subsidiary of the British company of the same name that spent several years in developing a pioneer process of color motion-picture photography using a color wheel. Its films of The Royal Visit to India and the colorful The Durbar at Delhi in 1911 were a sensation, and the company moved to establish the process in the United States. After a series of frustrating differences with the powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, which did not want color films marketed in America, Kinemacolor was forced to set up its own studios—first at Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then at Whitestone Landing, New York. A California studio with three production units was established in Hollywood in 1912, using a crude building at the corner of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards previously occupied by the Revier Film Processing Company. Kinemacolor sold this studio the following year to the Aitken interests, and it was here that Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and other pictures. During the early part of 1912, Kinemacolor contracted with a stage impresario named George H. Brennan to film The Clansman, a lurid novel of the Reconstruction era by Thomas W. Dixon, a Southern clergyman. Several years earlier, in 1906, Brennan had produced a dramatization of the work (also by Dixon) on Broadway with Holbrook Blinn, Sydney Ayres, and DeWitt Jennings in the leads. Although this heavy-handed play was roundly panned by reviewers after its premiere at the Liberty Theatre, it became a popular vehicle for traveling stock companies, particularly those touring in the South and West. Brennan sold Kinemacolor officials on the unique idea of using the performers of such a company—the Campbell MacCullough Players—to repeat their roles in a film version of The Clansman. As the troupe moved through the South, scenes would be shot in authentic locales—plantations, antebellum homes, battlefields, and historical sites—using period furnishings and costumes, and utilizing local citizens as extras. William Haddock, who had directed for Edison, Méliés, and I.M.P. (and also for Kinemacolor at its Whitestone Landing studio) was assigned to direct. He found it difficult to do any shooting with the company jumping from town to town in a series of one-night stands. Finally, he persuaded MacCuilough to lay off for two weeks in Natchez, Mississippi, where some scenes were photographed. The picture was far from complete when Mac- Cullough insisted upon resuming the tour. Only a little more than a reel of film had been obtained when production on the ambitious project was abruptly halted. Reportedly, $25,000 was lost on the project. Haddock offered to take over The Clansman, but he could not find financial backing to complete it. Finally, he went to court to secure $1,155 due him in unpaid wages. Haddock later insisted The Clansman was made in an early sound process? (In 1907, he had directed several films for the Cameraphone Company, in which the actors mouthed words to records; the device was not successful and was demonstrated in only a few theaters.) There are conflicting accounts for the reasons for the abandonment of The Clansman. One story is that the color photography by inexperienced technicians was so poor that a usable print could not be obtained. However, the cameraman, Gerald MacKenzie, was known as a competent craftsman and had photographed several pictures in the Kinemacolor process. Another report says that Haddock’s direction was inept, and the acting by the stock company performers so exaggerated and amateurish as to be ludicrous. Yet another account blamed the script, which underwent several re-visions, including a complete rewrite while the picture was actually before the cameras. The original idea of using Dixon’s play-script verbatim was dropped after Kinemacolor executives perceived that it was too static for motion pictures. Another account of the ill-fated The Clansman says that all scenes were completed, which is unlikely, but that the film was never edited because of its mediocre quality. To compound the confusion, it has also been reported that the film was made without Dixon’s knowledge, and alleges that he stopped its release by threatening a lawsuit for violation of copyright. (A contrasting story has it that Dixon was actually a partner with Brennan in the project.) Perhaps the most believable explanation is that the backers, already stuck with $25,000 worth of unusable film, simply decided to suspend shooting and take their losses. One of the several writers on The Clansman was Frank E. Woods, who was paid $200 for his efforts. Originally a pioneer film critic for The Dramatic Mirror, he wrote titles and many scripts for D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Woods left the company in 1912, but soon rejoined Griffith’s unit after brief and frustrating associations with Universal and Kinemacolor. He followed Griffith to Reliance-Majestic, nominally as scenario editor but functioning increasingly as a production executive. He was largely responsible for the inexpensive program pictures turned out while Griffith was busy with more important features. An imposing but kindly man, Woods was for a considerable time the most influential of Griffith’s associates. D. W. Griffith did not make an auspicious beginning at Reliance-Majestic. The company was beset by financial problems and squabbling among its executives. To raise ready cash, Griffith hurriedly directed two undistinguished pictures for release in 1914, The Battle of the Sexes (made in only four days) and The Escape, as well as producing eight cheap potboilers directed by others.

Home Sweet Home

In February 1914, he moved his unit from New York to the new studio in Hollywood, where he immediately turned out Home, Sweet, Home—an episodic film based in part upon incidents in the life of composer John Howard Payne—and The Avenging Conscience. The latter, a psychological drama constructed from two stories by Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee”) , had many arty touches foreshadowing the innovations of the German cinema of the twenties. With the financial tension easing, Griffith set Frank E. Woods to searching for a property that could be made into an important feature.

Woods showed him the script he had written for Kinemacolor’s The Clansman and proposed a new version of Dixon’s play. With its background of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the restoration of white supremacy through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the story had enormous appeal for Griffith. He was soon engrossed in the monumental film that became The Birth of a Nation. The first step was to buy the rights to the play and novel from Reverend Dixon, for which the clergyman demanded a whopping $25,000 (the figure is sometimes reported as $10,000). Eventually, Dixon settled for $2,500 cash and a share of the profits, which were to bring him a fortune. With some assistance from Woods, Griffith fleshed out a dramatic outline of the plot, but at no time was there a written script or continuity—it was all in Griffith’s head. He preferred to work this way, feeling it gave a greater flexibility and freshness to his work, and associates marveled at his mental ability to keep track of all the scenes. The extent of Woods’s contribution is not known, but it was sufficient for Griffith to give him screen credit. Much of Griffith’s time went into a detailed research to assure historical accuracy, and at one time he employed four persons to check on the minutest details of period dress, settings, and military and social customs. He often came to the studio with an armload of books and his pockets bulging with notes.

The cast of The Birth of a Nation was largely drawn from the Griffith stock company, performers whom he had discovered and developed at Biograph, and with whom he felt comfortable. There were auditions and try-outs for some parts. Blanche Sweet, his reigning star, was expected to be cast as the heroine, Elsie Stoneman, but Griffith felt a more petite and less full-bodied actress was needed. Mae Marsh was considered, but the role finally went to the fragile Lillian Gish, with Miss Marsh being wisely switched to the key role of the little sister. The thirty-six-year old Henry B. Walthall was an ideal choice for the Southern hero, Ben Cameron, combining striking good looks with an intelligent and usually restrained style of acting. Others cast by Griffith included Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Donald Crisp, George Siegmann, Josephine Crowell, Howard Gaye, Spottiswoode Aitken, and Raoul Walsh (as John Wilkes Booth). In an unusual departure from custom, Griffith put his players through six weeks of intensive rehearsals before shooting began. The Birth of a Nation went into production on July 4, 1914 and was completed on October 31. In the interim it weathered a series of acute financial crises that promised to (and at one bad point actually did) suspend filming altogether. Griffith persuaded Harry Aitken to allocate a record budget of $40,000 for the picture, but this sum was expended on the panoramic battle scenes alone, which were completed first. Most of it went for uniforms and hundreds of horses and extras. When Reliance-Majestic’s Board of Directors refused further financing, Griffith and Aitken personally took over the project. Their own funds were soon exhausted, and they raised money in small amounts here and there. Several of the cast and crew, including Lillian Gish and cameraman G. W. Bitzer, loaned their savings and went without salary. Griffith was unwilling to make any compromises to reduce the cost, and eventually $110,000 was spent on The Birth of a Nation, at the time a staggering investment for a single motion picture. (His four preceding films had cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.) In its final version after last-minute cuts following the premiere, the picture ran twelve reels, an unheard-of length, and many exhibitors and industry leaders predicted that it could not be profitably shown.

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Whatever reservations Griffith’s competitors may have had about it, The Birth of a Nation was a sensation when it opened on February 8, 1915 at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles (where it ran for seven months). The critics were ecstatic after its New York premiere at the Liberty Theatre a month later, and it was shown in key cities on a reserved-seat basis for $2 per admission. Griffith’s ambitious picture, executed with superb artistry, was an enormous hit with audiences everywhere. Its drama and spectacle were deeply moving, and unlike anything yet seen on the screen. Following a showing at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson was reported to have said that the film was “like writing history with lightning.” (Later, after The Birth of a Nation came under attack for its racist bigotry, a Wilson aide denied that the President had made any comments of approbation.) The financial success of The Birth of a Nation made Griffith a millionaire, although he lost much of his fortune on the ill-fated Intolerance of the following year. Miss Gish, Bitzer (who had loaned $7,000) , and other investors also reaped astronomical returns. Aitken and Griffith were both naive in motion-picture economics and failed to realize what a valuable property they had. After its road-show engagements, they foolishly sold regional distribution rights to various independent exchanges for relative pittances.

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

One of the lucky purchasers was Louis B. Mayer, a Massachusetts exhibitor and distributor, who bought the New England franchise for $50,000 against ten percent of the net profits. This investment brought his company a return of a million dollars, enabling Mayer to branch into production and provide the stepping stone to the gigantic Loew’s Incorporated and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer combine. Aitken later alleged privately that Mayer cheated him of substantial sums by understating the box-office receipts. Griffith originally planned to center the plot of The Birth of a Nation on Reconstruction and its effects upon a proud Southern family devastated by the Civil War. As his enthusiasm grew, he added a long section of battle scenes and historical incidents, including Sherman’s march through Georgia, the burning of Atlanta, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The essential story concerns two families —the Camerons of the South and the Stonemans of the North—whose friendship is ruptured by the Civil War. They are eventually reconciled after many hardships and personal tragedies.

Although Griffith was careful to show the war wreaked its havoc on both North and South alike—sons of both families die on the battlefields—the sympathies of the film are clearly with its Southern protagonists, who are portrayed as decent and God-fearing people in spite of being slave owners. Villainy is symbolized by the character of Austin Stoneman, the crippled leader of the United States House of Representatives, who keeps a black mistress and vows “to crush the White South under the heel of the Black South,” as a title puts it. (Stoneman is based upon Thaddeus Stevens, the Civil War Congressional power known as “The Great Commoner.’’) The Griffith concept of Stoneman’s final punishment is when a mulatto carpetbagger, whom he had made Lieutenant-Governor of South Carolina, asks for the hand of his daughter in marriage, and, failing to obtain it from the horrified father, attempts to rape her. In a parallel climax, the young sister of the Southern hero throws herself from a cliff rather than submit to a black renegade. These outrages are viciously avenged by the militant Ku Klux Klan, which is made to appear as a savior force. Inevitably, The Birth of a Nation was bitterly attacked as a racist picture, and its showing was accompanied by numerous demonstrations and incidents, and by editorial protests in newspapers and magazines. Griffith seemed surprised at the furor his film created, and insisted that he bore no ill-will toward blacks, and that he had only shown conditions in the South as they actually existed during and after the Civil War. In all probability, he did not set out to make a bigoted picture—his friends consistently denied that he had race prejudice—but nonetheless it remains viciously racist in tone with blacks shown as objects of contempt and depravity. Those who were favorably portrayed— the family servants who came to the rescue of their former master—were caricatures from the Uncle Tom school, and were injected largely for comic relief.

The controversy over The Birth of Nation raged for years, and the bitterness that it caused has never been erased. Even today, it is seldom shown publicly, and then mostly to film scholars. Except for the glossy battle sequences done with great emphasis upon heroism and glory, The Birth of a Nation provides only a sketchy glimpse of the Civil War itself. The Birth of a Nation is filled with a succession of moving scenes, all marked in one way or an-other with Griffith’s perceptive talent. The impressive battle sequences and the stirring ride of the Klans cannot be discounted, but the meat of the drama lies in the more intimate passages. These include Lillian Gish’s brave good-bye to her brothers as they leave for war (only to collapse in tears in the lap of her black mammy), Mother Cameron’s appeal to Abraham Lincoln for her son’s life, the parting of Miss Gish and Walthall at the hospital door (with its mooning sentry) , the electrically charged confrontations in Stoneman’s quarters, and the heartbreaking death of the little sister.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Most of all, there is the famous return of Walthall to his war-scarred home, in which he is received by a grown-up little sister in a worn dress adorned with raw cotton; the final scene of this episode, with the mother’s arms reaching out from the doorway, is of classic proportion. Of the action sequences, the guerrilla raid on Piedmont has a documentary quality that gives it a pulsating life and naturalness unmarred by theatrical heroics. Only occasionally does Griffith fail, as in the archaic epilogue in which a shot of the symbolical god of war dissolves into a vision of Jesus Christ (played by Wallace Reid). It is a scene that dramatically does not age well. The restrained acting in The Birth of a Nation set new standards of perfection, and few films have been so perfectly cast.

Henry B. Walthall gave admirable substance to his portrait of Ben Cameron, “the Little Colonel,” delineating the traditional qualities of Southern manhood that were somehow lacking in Leslie Howard’s faltering interpretation of Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind. Lillian Gish brought her sturdy fragility to Elsie Stoneman, but she is overshadowed by Mae Marsh as the little sister for whom war’s privations cannot diminish the exuberance of youth.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation

Ralph Lewis, an actor little appreciated, was powerful as the emotionally and physically crippled Stoneman. George Siegmann was on the whole just right as the fawning Silas Lynch, the mulatto carpetbagger, although his performance is blighted by overacting in the final rape scene. Joseph E. Henabery as Abraham Lincoln, Howard Gaye as Robert E. Lee, Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant, Raoul Walsh as John Wilkes Booth—all are as pages from a book of Civil War daguerreotypes by Brady. Perhaps the most ideally cast are Spottiswoode Aitken as the gentle Dr. Cameron and Josephine Crowell as his wife. Her performance as the bewildered mother is a masterpiece of quiet heartbreak as she weathers the long series of tragedies that strike her family. It is difficult to believe that she is the same actress who is so incredibly bad as Catherine de Medici in Griffith’s Intolerance of the following year. It is an obvious piece of serious miscasting for which Griffith must be blamed. Later in her career, Mrs. Crowell became typed as the curmudgeon battle-axe of numerous slapstick comedies of the twenties—her role as Harold Lloyd’s bossy mother-in-law in Hot Water (1924) is typical—and her superb work in The Birth of a Nation was by then all but forgotten. In later years, fan magazines would refer to The Birth of a Nation, not without considerable truth, as a jinx picture for its talented cast. Many of the players subsequently had disappointing and un-productive careers, while ill health and poor judgment led others into personal tragedy, obscurity, and death.

Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

Henry B. Walthall’s sensitive performance should have been the springboard of a long and distinguished professional life, but inexplicably it was rather a high-water mark of success from which he steadily declined. Only momentarily did Walthall, with his striking good looks, challenge such contemporary screen matinee idols as Francis X. Bushman and Harold Lockwood. He left Griffith soon after the release of The Birth of a Nation; characteristically, the great director did nothing to encourage him to remain. Walthall made the mistake of signing with the Essanay Company, a penurious and unimaginative studio lacking creative ; a leadership, which wasted his talent on a series Of cheap mediocre melodramas in 1917. A stint with ill-fated Paralta Plays, Inc. the following year (His Robe of Honor, Humdrum Brown) was even more un-productive. Walthall had his own unit, but Paralta’s unorthodox method of merchandising films netted only a fraction of the profits he was led to expect. By the 1920s, he was reduced to playing supporting and character roles, and work was less plentiful. He aged badly due to personal problems, and while still in his forties acquired a drawn and elderly appearance. Walthall was blessed with a good speaking voice, and talking pictures brought a greater demand for his services in bit parts. He died in 1936, a few months after participating in the emotionally charged ceremonies at which D. W. Griffith received a citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in recognition of his contributions to the screen.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh, the delightful but tragic little sister of The Birth of a Nation was cursed with much the same fate. The following year she gave a stunning performance in the modern sequences of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) as the bewildered young mother beset by a series of incredible adversities. Griffith then teamed her with Robert Harron, her co-star in Intolerance, in several light program pictures designed to capitalize upon the popularity of the two players. When an offer came from Samuel Goldwyn, Griffith urged Miss Marsh to accept it, saying that the lucrative contract would bring her riches that he could never pay. Her Goldwyn films of 1917-19 (Polly of the Circus, Hidden Fires) were disappointing, although her vivacious work in The Cinderella Man was widely praised. The actress proved difficult to work with, and she quarreled with Goldwyn and her directors, and made unreasonable demands. Her professional reputation suffered, and for a time few roles came her way. Miss Marsh returned to Griffith in 1923 for The White Rose, filmed in the bayou country of Louisiana. Although she gave a fine performance, it did nothing for her faltering career. After a few pictures made abroad, she quietly left the screen to raise a family. She endured a trying marriage and saw her fortune swallowed up by poor investments and the 1929 stock market crash. A few years later, Miss Marsh filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $5,250 and a 1931 model automobile worth $25 as her only asset. In 1932, Mae Marsh returned to films as the mother in Fox’s tired remake of the classic tear-jerker, Over the Hill. Only thirty-seven at the time (playing the mother of twenty-seven-year-old James Dunn), she looked twenty years older and was unrecognizable as the pert Flora Cameron of The Birth of a Nation. She needed little makeup for the part, and fans were shocked by her haggard and dowdy appearance. Over the Hill was too old-fashioned and downbeat for depression audiences, and her work went unnoticed. It was her last major role. In later years she supported herself with bits in numerous films (including many directed by old friend John Ford) before her death in 1968 at the age of seventy-three.

DW Griffith and Robert Harron

Robert Harron started with Griffith as an eleven-year-old property boy at Biograph. He had a small part as the youngest Stoneman son in The Birth of a Nation. His work in Intolerance made him a star, and his performance as the war-weary artist-hero of Griffith’s propaganda film, Hearts of the World (1918), was the best of his career. Harron reportedly began to brood when Griffith gave young Richard Barthelmess choice roles in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He felt that he had lost favor with his mentor, whom he idolized, although Griffith had agreed to supervise films for Harron’s own company. In New York on September 1, 1920, Harron was dressing for dinner when a revolver (which he had bought from a hungry actor) fell from his pocket and discharged. The bullet pierced Harron’s lung, and he died five days later. There were peristent reports that he attempted suicide, although he denied it to a priest before his death. Harron’s friends are convinced that it was an accident.

Wallace Reid signed

Handsome Wallace Reid had been in films since 1910, and was the star of many program pictures produced by Griffith’s unit for Reliance-Majestic in 1914-15 (The City Beautiful; Her Awakening; The Craven). He was seen briefly in The Birth of a Nation as a muscular young blacksmith killed in a brutal fight in the gin mill of ‘““White-Arm Joe.” Soon afterward, Reid moved to Paramount (Famous Players-Lasky) , where he won acclaim as leading man to opera star Geraldine Farrar in several spectacular films directed by Cecil B. DeMille in 1915-17 (Carmen; Maria Rosa; Joan the Woman; The Devil Stone; The Woman God For-got). By the 1920s, his popularity was enormous, stemming from his familiar role as a brash young American of the Jazz Age who uses Yankee pluck to reach his goals and win the girl of his heart (usually Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Lila Lee, or Wanda Hawley). Following an injury on the set of The Valley of the Giants (1919), Reid was left with blinding headaches and pain from a damaged spine. At his doctor’s instructions, he began to take morphine in order to continue acting, and was soon addicted. Reid’s condition was further complicated by heavy drinking. In an effort to overcome the drug addiction, he entered a sanitarium, and on January 18, 1923, died of complications of influenza and renal disease. His death led to reams of sensational publicity in news-papers and magazines, and Reid’s addiction did much to damage Hollywood’s reputation (already tarnished by the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal and the unexplained murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which involved two top stars, Mary Miles Normand) .

Elmer Clifton

Elmer Clifton, who portrayed Phil Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation, turned to directing soon afterward and in 1918-19 was responsible for a series of delightful comedies starring Dorothy Gish (Boots; Peppy Polly; ’ll Get Him Yet) and produced by the Griffith company. In 1922, he did Down to the Sea in Ships, a highly praised drama of New Bedford whalers that had a documentary quality. (It is more remembered as the film in which sexpot Clara Bow had her first important role.) Two years later, Clifton directed a creditable remake of the old Civil War spy melodrama, The Warrens of Virginia (1924), which was his last important assignment. Jobs became scarce, and, after the advent of talking pictures, Clifton was reduced to directing Westerns, serials, and sexploitation pictures made on miniscule budgets. He never realized the promise shown earlier, and seemed to have profited little by his association with D. W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Others in the cast of The Birth of a Nation had disappointing careers. Elmo Lincoln, who was “White-Arm Joe” (as well as playing several un-credited bits) , was a sensation as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero in the first version of Tarzan of the. Apes (1918). Despite his beefy appearance and a ridiculous fright-wig, Lincoln had great appeal as Tarzan, but unfortunately the public did not like him in other roles. After Romance of Tarzan (1918) and a fifteen-episode serial, Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and several serials at Universal in 1919-20 (Elmo the Mighty, Elmo the Fearless, The Flaming Disc), Lincoln got only occasional work as a bit player or stuntman, and eventually as an extra. He died in 1952, virtually penniless. George Seigmann, a gentle man who played such brutal roles as Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation, the sadistic Hun officer von Strohm in Hearts of the World, and Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), had only moderate success as an actor until his early death in 1928. He aspired to be a director, but his few attempts at directing (mostly program pictures for Griffith’s unit) went unnoticed. Ralph Lewis, Walter Long, Mary Alden, and Sam de Grasse were others appearing in Griffith’s masterpiece who played character roles in Hollywood for years without achieving more than casual recognition. Erich von Stroheim can scarcely be said to have been in the cast of The Birth of a Nation—in the raid on Piedmont he is the man who falls from the roof of a house—but did serve Griffith as a third assistant director. Stroheim went on to become one of the immortals of the screen with his silent classics of directorial genius—Foolish Wives (1922) ; Greed (1924) ; The Wedding March (1928) —only to have his career vanish after a series of bitter controversies with studio moguls. In later years, he made a precarious living as an actor, writing scripts that seldom sold, and planning a comeback that never materialized. There were a few significant exceptions to the jinx of The Birth of a Nation.

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

Lillian Gish was to have a long and notable career on both screen and stage. She was washed up in Hollywood by the time talking pictures arrived—many felt that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had deliberately mishandled her in a series of dreary films—but for many years she was one of Broadway’s brightest stars. She periodically returned to Hollywood to play character roles in such films as Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Unforgiven (1960), never failing to give an intelligent and often memorable performance. Miriam Cooper, the older Cameron sister, was a successful albeit lesser star for ten years, mostly in pictures directed by her husband, Raoul Walsh (The Honor System, 1916; Evangeline, 1919) . Her career abruptly declined, and she faded into obscurity after her divorce. Raoul Walsh, the superb John Wilkes Booth of The Birth of a Nation, became one of the screen’s best-known directors and was responsible for a long series of commercially successful films (What Price Glory?, 1926; In Old Arizona, 1929; The Roaring Twenties, 1939). Always done with a sense of craftmanship, they were frequently tough, punchy dramas best suited to the talents of such stars as James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

Donald Crisp

Donald Crisp, who was General Grant in The Birth of a Nation, had a lasting career as both actor and director, and was widely known for his many roles in both silent and talking pictures. (In later years Crisp would assert that he, and not Griffith, had actually directed the stunning battle scenes of The Birth of a Nation, an unfortunate allegation that was widely reprinted in Crisp’s obituaries in 1974. At most, he served as one of Griffith’s several assistants on the battle sequences.) He won an Academy Award for his role in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941) , although film buffs remember him for his portrayal of the sadistic Battling Burrows of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). Crisp became a wealthy man through his association with the Bank of America as an advisor on motion-picture industry loans. He lived to the age of ninety-three.

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish – 1954

Joseph E, Henabery, who was a realistic Abraham Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation, had some early success as director of several of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s pictures, including The Man From Painted Post (1917) and Say Young Fellow (1918). Later, he worked at Paramount and for Cecil B. DeMille’s unit at Pathé. After talkies came in, Henabery directed some early sound shorts in New York for Warner Brothers, but soon found his career at an end. Bessie Love, glimpsed briefly in The Birth of a Nation, went on to stardom in many silent hits and in the pioneer screen musical, The Broadway Melody (1929). After she was no longer suitable for ingenue roles, she worked as a character actress, mostly in British studios, up into her seventies. The real significance of The Birth of a Nation Was not in its recreation of the drama of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but in its contribution to the art of the motion picture, Griffith’s creative technique made The Birth of a Nation an uncommon work of art in itself, blending the elements of cinema into a masterpiece of film construction. His superb use of visual imagery, movement, stunning photography (including innovations in irising, close-ups, and the use of stills), intelligent and refined editing, and even music, established the artistic supremacy of the director. The influence of The Birth of a Nation was tremendous, and its impact was reflected in the best work of imaginative filmmakers around the world (particularly Eisenstein and the Russian school of the 1920s) . Griffith also gave new dimensions to the spectacle film, and with Europe poised on the brink of war, The Birth of a Nation forecast the frightening potentials of the motion picture as a weapon of propaganda. The film revolutionized distribution and exhibition with fresh concepts of merchandising that brought enormous financial returns to the motion-picture industry. With The Birth of a Nation, cinema became of age.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Bedside Hollywood : great scenes from movie memoirs (1985) – Edited by Robert Atwan and Bruce Forer

  • BEDSIDE HOLLYWOOD:
  • Great Scenes from Movie Memoirs
  • Edited by Robert Atwan and Bruce Forer
  • Foreword by Jack Kroll
  • Printed in the United States of America
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 1985

Illustrated with photographs from the Film Stills Archives of The Museum of Modern Art, Bedside Hollywood adds up to an in-depth portrait of life in the movies. As new screen memoirs appear—nearly a dozen every year—perhaps the time has come for the film industry to establish a new category at the Academy Awards Ceremony: the Oscar for Best Autobiography. Until Oscar catches up, settle down with the cast of Bedside Hollywood and mingle with what would have been the previous winners.

Lillian Gish: The Birth of “The Birth of a Nation”

One afternoon during the spring of 1914, while we were still working in California, Mr. Griffith took me aside on the set and said in an undertone, “After the others leave tonight, would you please stay.”

Later, as some of the company drifted out, I realized that a simillar message had been given to a few others. This procedure was typical of Mr. Griffith when he was planning a new film. He observed us with a smile, amused perhaps by our curiosity over the mystery that he had created.

I suspected what the meeting was about. A few days before, we had been having lunch at The White Kitchen, and I had noticed that his pockets were crammed with papers and pamphlets. My curiosity was aroused, but it would have been presumptuous of me to ask about them. With Mr. Griffith one did not ask; one only answered. Besides, I had learned that if I waited long enough he would tell me.

“I’ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I’m going to use it to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.” He paused, watching the cluster of actors: Henry Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, George Siegmann, Walter Long, and me.

“The story concerns two families—the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South.” He added significantly, “I know I can trust you.”

He swore us to secrecy, and to us his caution was understandable. Should his competitors learn of his new project, they would have films on the same subject completed before his work was released. He discussed his story plots freely only over lunch or dinner, often testing them out on me because I was close-mouthed and never repeated what anyone told me.

I heard later that “Daddy” Woods [Griffith’s scenario department head] had called Mr. Griffith’s attention to The Clansman. It had done well as a book and even better as a play, touring the country for five years. Mr. Griffith also drew on The Leopard’s Spots for additional material for the new movie. Thomas Dixon, the author of both works, was a southerner who had been a college classmate of Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Griffith paid a $2,500 option for The Clansman, and it was agreed that Dixon was to receive $10,000 in all for the story, but when it came time to pay him no more money was available. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to accept instead of cash a 25 per cent interest in the picture, which resulted in the largest sum any author ever received for a motion-picture story. Dixon earned several million dollars as his share.

Mr. Griffith didn’t need the Dixon book. His intention was to tell his version of the War between the States. But he evidently lacked the confidence to start production on a twelve-reel film without an established book as a basis for his story. After the film was completed and he had shown it to the so-called author, Dixon said: “This isn’t my book at all.” But Mr. Griffith was glad to use Dixon’s name on the film as author, for, as he told me, “The public hates you if it thinks you wrote, directed, and produced the entire film yourself. It’s the quickest way to make enemies.”

After the first rehearsal, the pace increased. Mr. Griffith worked, as usual, without a script. But this time his pockets bulged with books, maps, and pamphlets, which he read during meals and the rare breaks in his hectic schedule. I rehearsed whatever part Mr. Griffith wanted to see at the moment. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed that the major assignments would go to the older members of the group. For a while, it looked as if I would be no more than an extra. But during one rehearsal Blanche Sweet, who we suspected would play the romantic part of Elsie Stoneman, was missing. Mr. Griffith pointed to me.

FILE – This 1915 file photo shows actress Lillian Gish as she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation.” The film’s cast also included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman). (AP Photo)

“Come on, Miss Damnyankee, let’s see what you can do with Elsie.”

My thin figure was quite a contrast to Blanche’s ripe, full form. Mr. Griffith had us rehearse the near-rape scene between Elsie and Silas Lynch, the power-drunk mulatto in the film. George Siegmann was playing Lynch in blackface. In this scene Lynch proposes to Elsie and, when she rebuffs him, forces his attentions on her. During the hysterical chase around the room, the hairpins flew out of my hair, which tumbled below my waist as Lynch held my fainting body in his arms. I was very blonde and fragile-looking. The contrast with the dark man evidently pleased Mr. Griffith, for he said in front of everyone, “Maybe she would be more effective than the more mature figure I had in mind.”

He didn’t tell us then, but I think the role was mine from that moment. . . .

During his six years with Biograph, Mr. Griffith had taken strides toward his ultimate goal: filming his version of the Civil War. He had made a number of early pictures that touched on the War between the States. But it was soon obvious to everyone that this film was to be his most important statement yet. Billy Bitzer [Griffith’s master cameraman] wrote of that time: ‘The Birth of a Nation changed D. W Griffith’s personality entirely. Where heretofore he was wont to refer in starting on a new picture to ‘grinding out another sausage’ and go at it lightly, his attitude in beginning on this one was all eagerness. He acted like here we have something worthwhile.”

Although fact and legend were familiar to him, he did meticulous research for The Birth. The first half of The Birth, about the war itself, reflects his own point of view. I know that he also relied greatly on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Mathew Brady’s Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans—Eyewitnesses on Location; the Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History; and The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict 1861—1865. For the second half, about Reconstruction, he consulted Thomas Dixon, and A History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson had taught history before going into politics, and Mr. Griffith had great respect for his erudition. For Klan material, he drew on a book called Ku Klux Klan—Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by John C. Lester and D. L. Wilson. But he did not use the uniform that is worn by Klan members today. Instead he used the costumes that, according to Thomas Dixon, were worn by the earlier Klans—white and scarlet flowing robes with hood and mask to hide the features of rider and horse.

Bradys photographs were constantly consulted, and Mr. Griffith restaged many moments of history with complete fidelity to them. The photographs were used as guides for such scenes as Lees surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Shermans march to the sea. He telegraphed a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, for photographs of the interior of the state capitol, which held a majority of Negro representatives after the war, and constructed the legislative chamber according to the photographs.

The largest interior was Fords Theater, the setting of the assassination scene, which was done in one day on the lot. So great was Mr. Griffiths obsession with authenticity that he unearthed a copy of Our American Cousin, which had been performed at Fords Theater on the night of the assassination, and restaged parts of it. In the actual filming, as Raoul Walsh, gun ready, steals into the Presidential box, the lines being spoken on the replica of the stage are precisely those spoken at the fateful moment on the night of April 14, 1865. This fidelity to facts was an innovation in films.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Mr. Griffith knew the terrain of the battle fields, and he hired several Civil War veterans to scout locations similar to the original ones. After exploring the southern California country, they chose what later became the Universal lot for the countryside around Petersburg, Virginia, site of the last prolonged siege and final battle of the war.

He had studied maps of the major battles of the Civil War and, with the help of the veterans, laid out the battle fields. Trenches, breastworks, roads, brooks, and buildings were constructed to duplicate those of the actual battle fields. Troop movements were planned with the advice of the veterans and two men from Vest Point Military Academy. Civil War artillery was obtained from West Point and the Smithsonian Institution, for use when the camera was close.

Mr. Griffith also sent to the Smithsonian for historical records and then went over the documents with his advisers. But in the end he came to his own conclusions about historical facts. He would never take the opinion of only one man as final.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

The street in Piedmont on which the Cameron house was located was complete with brick walls and hitching and lamp posts. A small set, it achieved scope from violated perspective—an old stage technique in which each successive house and street lamp is a little shorter, so that the setting seems to “recede” without actually taking up much space or requiring the use of expensive lumber.

We had no stage designer, only the modest genius of a carpenter, Frank Wortman, known as “Huck.” Huck, a short, rather heavyset man in his forties, with friendly blue eyes and a weakness for chewing tobacco, didn’t talk much, but listened intently to Mr. Griffith. Even before rehearsals started Mr. Griffith explained to him what he wanted in the way of sets. He would show Huck a photograph that he wanted copied, or point out changes to be made in the reproduction. They would decide how the sun would hit a particular building three, four, even five weeks from then.

Men during the Civil War era were rather small in stature (it was before the age of proper nutrition), so genuine uniforms could not be used by the later generation. Uniforms for The Birth were therefore made by a small struggling company, which has since become the famous Western Costume Company.

The Brady photographs also served as models for the soldiers’ hair styles.

To absorb the spirit of the film, we came down with a case of history nearly as intense as Mr. Griffith’s. At first, between making other films during the day and rehearsing The Birth at night, we had scant time for reading. But Mr. Griffith’s interest was contagious, and we began to read about the period. Soon it was the only subject we talked about. Mr. Griffith didn’t ask us to do this; it stemmed out of our own interest. We pored over photographs of the Civil War and Godeys Ladies’ Book, a periodical of the nineteenth century, for costumes, hair styles, and postures. We had to rehearse how to sit and how to move in the hoop skirts of the day.

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

My costumes were specially made. One of them had a tiny derby with a high plume. When I saw it, I rebelled.

But Mr. Griffith insisted that I wear it. He wanted the audience to be amused. “It’s a darb!” he said, smiling.

In filming the battles, Mr. Griffith organized the action like a general. He stood at the top of a forty-foot tower, the commander-in-chief of both armies, his powerful voice, like Roarin Jake’s, thundering commands through a megaphone to his staff of assistants. Meetings were called before each major filmed sequence and a chain of command was developed from Mr. Griffith through his directors and their assistants. The last-in-command might have only four or five extras under him. These men, wearing uniforms and taking their places among the extras, also played parts in the film.

Griffith s camera was high on the platform looking down on the battle field, so that he could obtain a grand sweep of the action. This camera took the long shots. Hidden under bushes or in back of trees were cameras for closeups.

When the din of cannons, galloping horses, and charging men grew too great, no human voice, not even Mr. Griffiths, was powerful enough to be heard. Some of the extras were stationed as far as two miles from the camera. So a series of magnifying mirrors was used to flash signals to those actors working a great distance away. Each group of men had its number—one flash of the mirror for the first group, two for the second group, and so on. As group one started action, the mirror would flash a go- ahead to group two.

Care was taken to place the authentic old guns and the best horsemen in the first ranks. Other weapons, as well as poorer horsemen, were relegated to the background. Extras were painstakingly drilled in their parts until they knew when to charge, when to push cannons forward, when to fall.

Some of the artillery was loaded with real shells, and elaborate warnings were broadcast about their range of fire. Mr. GriflBth’s sense of order and control made it possible for the cast and extras to survive the broiling heat, pounding hoofs, naked bayonets, and exploding shells without a single injury. He was too thoughtful to the welfare of others to permit accidents.

In most war films it is difficult to distinguish between the enemies unless the film is in color and the two sides are wearing different-colored uniforms. But not in a Griffith movie. Mr. Griffith had the rare technical skill to keep each side distinct and clear cut. In The Birth, the Confederate army always entered from the left of the camera, the Union army from the right.

The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

One day he said to Billy, “I want to show a whole army moving.”

“What do you mean, a whole army?” Bitzer asked.

“Everyone we can muster.”

“I’ll have to move them back to get them all in view,” Billy said. “They won’t look much bigger than jackrabbits.”

“That’s all right. The audience will supply the details. Let’s move up on this hill, Billy. Then we can shoot the whole valley and all the troops at once.”

They never talked much, but they always seemed to understand each other. People around Mr. Griffith didn’t bother him with idle talk.

When daylight disappeared, Mr. Griffith would order bonfires lit and film some amazing night scenes. Billy was pessimistic about the results; he kept insisting that they would be unsuccessful. But Mr. Griffith persisted. One big battle scene was filmed at night. The sub-title was to read, “It went on into the night.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Those of us who had time were there—the women to watch, the men to help.

Although everything was carefully organized, whenever he saw a spontaneous gesture that looked good—like the soldier’s leaning on his gun and looking at me during the hospital scene—he would call Billy over to film it.

In that scene, the wards were filled with wounded soldiers, and in the background nurses and orderlies attended their patients. In the doorway of the ward stood a Union sentry. As Elsie Stoneman, I was helping to entertain the wounded, singing and playing the banjo. The sentry watehed me lovingly as I sang and then, after I had finished and was passing him, raised his hang-dog head and heaved a deep, love sick sigh. The scene lasted only a minute, but it drew the biggest laugh of the film and became one of its best-remembered moments.

Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

The scene came about in typical Griffith fashion. We players had no one to help us with our costumes. We had to carry our various changes to the set, as we could not afford the time to run back to our dressing rooms. Those period dresses, with their full skirts over hoops, were heavy. A kind young man who liked me helped me with my props and costumes. The young man, William Freeman, was playing the sentry, and he simply stood there, listening, as I sang. Seeing his expression, Mr. Griffith said to Bitzer, “Billy, get that picture on film right away.” He knew that it would bring a laugh, which was needed to break the dramatic tension.

Since the release of The Birth of a Nation, I have often been asked by fans what happened to the sentry in the hospital. After The Birth was finished, I didn’t see William Freeman again until the first World’s Fair in New York. It was the day of the Fair’s closing. I happened to be riding on a float for charity, and there, walking toward the float, was William Freeman. I recognized him immediately.

“My son is here,” he said after we had greeted each other. “I would like you to meet him.”

He disappeared into the crowd and returned shortly with a bright four-year-old, whom he proudly introduced to me. Then we said goodbye, and I haven’t seen him since. . . .

In going through Mr. Griffith’s papers recently, I came across some “facts” about The Birth of a Nation that read like most press releases of that day. Robert Edgar Long, in his soft-cover book David Wark Griffith: A Brief Sketch of His Career, published in 1920, suggests that professors of history from at least a half-dozen universities were called upon for facts and figures, so that no errors would mar the film’s authenticity. He says that Mr. Griffith had plans to shoot some 5,000 scenes; to use 18,000 men as soldiers; to make 18,000 Union and Confederate uniforms for these men; to hire 3,000 horses; to build entire cities and destroy them by fire; to buy real shells that cost $10 apiece in order to re-enact the greatest battle of the Civil War; and to select fragments from about 500 separate musical compositions to synchronize perfectly with various scenes. Many scenes, he says, were photographed from fifteen to twenty times before Mr. Griffith was pleased with the results. He adds that the scene of Lincoln’s assassination was rehearsed at least twenty times before it was actually filmed.

I know that in later years Mr. Griffith himself was prone to exaggerations that were a press agent’s dream. Perhaps he too believed that these gross overstatements and inaccuracies would enhance the film’s prestige.

It seems to me, however, that the truth is a much finer tribute to Mr. Griffith’s skill. In the battle scenes there were never more than 300 to 500 extras. By starting with a close-up and then moving the camera back from the scene, which gave the illusion of depth and distance, and by having the same soldiers run around quickly to make a second entrance, Mr. Griffith created the impression of big armies. In the battles, clouds of smoke rising from the thickets gave the illusion of many soldiers camouflaged by the woods, although in actuality there were only a few.

The scene of Sherman s march to the sea opened with an iris shot—a small area in the upper left-hand corner of a black screen—of a mother holding her weeping children amid the ruins of a burned-out house. Slowly the iris opened wider to reveal a great panorama troops, wagons, fires, apd beyond, in the distance, Atlanta burning. Atlanta was actually a model, superimposed on the film.

The entire industry, always intensely curious about Mr. Griffith, was speculating about this new film. What was that crazy man Griffith up to? He was using the full repertoire of his earlier experiments and adding new ones. He tinted film to achieve dramatic results and to create mood. In the battle scene at Petersburg, the shots of Union and Confederate troops rushing in to replace the dead and wounded are tinted red, and the subtitle reads “In the red lane of death others take their places.” And, at the climax of the film, there were the thrilling rides of the Klan. These riders were beautifully handled—first, the signal riders galloping to give warning; then, one by one and two by two, the galloping hordes merging into a white hooded mass, their peaked helmets and fiery crosses making them resemble knights of a crusade.

Before the filming of this scene Mr. Griffith decided to try a new kind of shot. He had a hole dug in the road directly in the path of the horsemen. There he placed Billy and the camera, and obtained shots of the horses approaching and galloping right over the camera, so that the audience could see the pounding hoofs. This shot has since become standard, but then it was the first time it had been done, and the effect was spectacular. Billy came through safely, and so did his precious camera, as Mr. Griffith must have known it would. He would never have taken a chance with a camera; it was far too costly.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Among the obstacles that cropped up during the filming was a lack of muslin needed for Klan uniforms. There was also a shortage of horses for battle scenes. Both were war scarcities. When the war in Europe broke out, the Allies were rounding up horses and shipping them to France. Mr. Griffith found himself in competition with French, English, Russian, and Italian agents, all in search of horses. Acting as his own agent, he was obliged to rent horses at higher prices from a dealer in the West.

We had outstanding riders like the Bums Brothers, who led the Klan riders and supervised any scene involving horses. Henry Walthall was a superb horseman, as were some of the other actors. The cowboy and circus riders beneath the Ku Klux sheets did a superb job. In the mob scenes they reared their horses until clouds mushroomed, but not one of them was hurt.

What I liked most about working on The Birth was the horses. I could always borrow a horse from the set, and during my lunch hour I would canter off alone to the hills.

I saw everything that Mr. Griffith put on film. My role in The Birth required about three weeks’ work, but I was on call during the whole time that it was being filmed. I was in the studio every day—working on other films, being available for the next scene if needed, making myself useful in any way that was required.

My dressing room was just across the hall from the darkroom, where Jimmy Smith and Joe Aller worked. Whenever I had a few minutes I would join them, watching them develop the film and cut it. I would view the day’s rushes and tell Jimmy my reactions to them. I saw the effects that Mr. Griffith obtained with his views of marching men, the ride of the Klan, the horrors of war. Watching these snatches of film was like trying to read a book whose pages had been shuffled. There was neither order nor continuity. Here was a touching bit from a scene with Mae; there was a long shot of a battle. It made me realize the job that Mr. Griffith had ahead of him after the filming was done.

The shooting was completed in nine weeks, but Mr. Griffith spent more than three months on cutting, editing and working on the musical score. I still remember how hard he worked on other films during the day and then at night on The Birth. Of all his pictures up to that time, none was more beset with difficulties. Without his spirit and faith, it might never have been completed.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Hollywood 1920-1970 Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)

  • Hollywood 1920-1970
  • Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)
  • New York and South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes and Company London: The Tantivy Press

The true achievement of Hollywood is only now being acknowledged. For years the prodigious output of the major studios and producers was damned with faint praise by the pundits. But during the past decade a reassessment has taken place. Critics as well as thousands of film buffs are aware of the enormous influence Hollywood has exerted on the social fabric not only of the US, but of the world.

At its best — in the work of Lillian Gish or Garbo or Barthelmess or Keaton or in unpredictable flashes of brilliance in Valentino — screen acting for silent films had developed into an art, new and unique, which was lost when pictures spoke. Actors were obliged to develop new means of expression. The silent actors were serious about their work. Lillian Gish starved for days before she shot the fmal scene of La Bohéme. Mary Pickford studied to achieve the deportment of a girl who had spent her youth carrying smaller children about. Their methods of innervation, of working themselves into the mood and feeling of a role had all the intensity and sincerity of the Stanislavski studios. Mack Sennett re-called that Mabel Normand “‘insisted on working on a stage to the accompaniment of the loudest jazz syncopation the record library could provide.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

Griffith

A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity. In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic medium — the paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognised masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century — its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s mono-graph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright. Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism. The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.”

But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing his latter film (The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas of Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords un-comfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)

Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time busy working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously. True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal — a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable. The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in love with her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances. Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration.

Way Down East – Lobby Card

He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson – Hester Prynne and Rev Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter

In Lillian Gish) Sjostrom found his ideal actress. The Scarlet Letter. (1926) was her suggestion: “I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It’s an American classic, taught in all our schools.’ Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom (actually in America Sjostrom was known as Seastrom), who had arrived at M-G-M some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom. “Tt was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before the camera, of course, and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we were all tremendously moved by it.” On another occasion Miss Gish wrote with characteristic perception: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . (The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression.” a Again Sjostrom was able to exercise his power for lyricism and his feeling for landscape. Two years later he was able to work again with Gish on The Wind, a film unjustly neglected, and Sjostrom’s American masterpiece.

William Orlamond, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish and Edward Earle in “The Wind”

From Wine of Youth (1924) all Vidor’s silent films were made for M-G-M, where an early and trying experience was a collaboration with Elinor Glyn, on His Hour (1924). Vidor’s reputation was finally and firmly established with The Big Parade (1925), a massive, exemplary spectacle, at the centre of which was sensitively, if also sentimentally observed the experience and suffering of one, ordinary young man. It was a noble e indictment of war; and no less a great piece of mise-en scene with Vidor using the movement of troops and vehicles in a dramatic fashion hardly attempted, even by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. After this he was requested as the director of La Bohéme by its star, Lillian Gish, whose rehearsal methods, learned from Griffith, caused the director some embarrassments; but ‘‘as the making of the film got under way we found ourselves subjected to Lillian’s will.” Vidor was impressed by the star’s complete commitment to the role, by the terrifying realism of her death scene. One of the many M-G-M films that have not seen the light of day since their first release, this must be worth revival, for the sake of Gish alone.

Lillian Gish (film director) – Remodeling Her Husband

It is worth recalling that Lillian Gish directed a film, Remodeling Her Husband, scripted by Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (Lillian Gish), and starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie. Griffith persuaded her to do it, since he “thought that men would work better for you than for me’’. It was a pity that Miss Gish, with her high intelligence and sensitivity, never repeated the experiment, which in this case seemed to have been simply handicapped by technical inexperience.

The Gish girls have never retired, though after the arrival of talking pictures they returned to the stage, where their careers had begun. They were brought to Griffith in 1912, by Mary Pickford who had acted with them in theatres soon after the turn of the century. LILLIAN GISH was a heroine straight out of the romantic poets Griffith knew and loved so well. Her extraordinary fragility, her spiritual vibrance, her unique, strange beauty often uplifted the more commonplace concepts of Griffith’s Victorian sentiment. It is impossible to imagine Broken Blossoms or Way Down East without Gish: they would certainly not have survived as they have without her marvellous performances.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It is an interesting indication of Gish’s creative approach to her acting to learn that she herself devised the form of the closet scene in the former film: ‘“You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and ‘round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned — spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and threw up his breakfast . . .”’ (interview with the author, published in Sight and Sound).

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

There are innumerable similar anecdotes of the extraordinary intensity of Gish’s playing before the camera: how the baptism of the dying child in Way Down East was so real and affecting that the child’s real, off-screen father fainted; how Vidor and everyone else on the set of La Bohéme thought she really had died when they shot the death scene. Gish is by any standards a very great actress.) Seeing such a performance in The Wind, it is interesting, but bitter, to speculate what wonders she might have achieved if her career had carried on without interruption into the era of sound. But a new star eclipsed her at M-G-M which in 1925 had given her an $800,000 contract. After Garbo came, the studio put Miss Gish into routine chores, and then happily let her go before her contract was fulfilled. ‘‘Stigmatised as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure,”’ wrote Louise Brooks, not quite accurately, for in recent years Miss Gish has occasionally appeared in character roles in films, with notable distinction.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Duel in the Sun

Most of the action takes place on Spanish Bit, the Texas ranch of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Laurabelle (Lillian Gish). Their two sons, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) are a Western Cain and Abel: Lewt, amoral, attractive, seduces Pearl (Jennifer Jones), a halfbreed relative of Laurabelle’s. Eventually, to save the upright Jesse from Lewt’s murderous designs, Pearl shoots her lover during a protracted encounter in which she is also killed; they die in each other’s arms.

Large of gesture, florid and monumental, Duel in the Sun had an almost operatic quality, each bravura set-piece shot, edited and scored for maximum kinetic effect: Pearl’s runaway horse, exhilaratingly filmed as it canters unrestrained across the Texan landscape; the celebrated summoning of the station-hands, a tremendous montage of galloping horses and riders massing to the accompaniment of reverberating bells; the subsequent confrontation between Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey at the barbed-wire fence, a mob of Chinese coolies trembling at the expectation of violent death; and the final duel, preceded by Jones’s desert trek, a wordless chorus accompanying her as the inescapable sun shines full into the camera. This was film-making in the grand manner, utterly self-confident and self-sufficient, its plastic splendour ultimately cancelling out its colossal lack of taste.

King Vidor, Lionel Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish on the sound stage of Duel in the Sun 1947 (The house of Barrymore)

Although Vidor directed most of the picture, with some sequences done by Sidney Franklin and Otto Brower, William Dieterle was responsible for possibly its greatest scene, Tilly Losch’s dance: on a raised platform in the centre of the gigantic Presidio Saloon, Losch as a wanton Indian gyrated to throbbing drums and screeching brass, while all around her milled the pleasure-seekers of the West. Here, and throughout the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score added immeasurably to the excitement: martial, sentimental or sensual, it was exotically orchestrated and played under the composer’s direction with impassioned intensity.

The Night of The Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Old-fashioned elements were employed in a sophisticated manner for another of the maverick movies, The Night of the Hunter (1955), the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gave his finest performance as the insane preacher, lusting for money and also for vengeance against the sinful. The primitive situations were given metaphorical power by Laughton’s defiant use of throwback styles, including the “iris-out,” reminiscent of Griffith, and the strong black-and-white contrasts of light and shadow, a heritage of expressionist cinema. The floating hair of Shelley Winters, dead at the bottom of a river, and the lyrical yet terrorized flight of two children across a horizon viewed patiently by the preacher, were but two examples of Laughton’s relish for the image. And his major set piece, which haunts the memory, had Lillian Gish joining Mitchum in ironic religious duet (“Leaning—leaning—leaning on the everlasting arms”): she indoors with a shotgun at dead of night, wakefully protecting the children in her charge, while he sat in the open across the way, biding his time. It was sad that Laughton should have waited so long to show us that he could command the screen as a director, more powerfully than he had done at the peak of his career as an actor. For an actor to direct was regarded in Hollywood as a maverick activity in any case, although some actors persevered.

Charles Laughton and Lillian Gish filming “The Night of The Hunter”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lulu in Hollywood By Louise Brooks (1974)

  • Lulu in Hollywood
  • By Louise Brooks
  • Copyright © 1974, 1982 by Louise Brooks

It should not come to us as a surprise that a film actress can write, but, so narrow are our expectations, it does. We are even more surprised when it turns out that the actress is one of the great beauties of all time. And we are out-and out astonished when we learn that many people think she possesses an erotic eloquence unmatched by that of any other woman ever to have appeared on the screen. It may well be that the number of beautiful, eloquently erotic film actresses who have been able to write is very, very small.

Gish and Garbo (Chapter Six)

There was a time when I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful film stars to maintain the quality of uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (an adaptation of Molnar’s The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made in the place from which, two years before, her spirit had gone forever—”forgotten by the place where it grew.” But now, after penetrating more deeply into the picture executives’ aims and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect, and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvelous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing a star and standardizing their product according to their own will and personal taste.

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers, and business was conducted in a manner to prove them. As for the public, it was taught to sneer at old pictures. People had been accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more—the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or the same Pola Negri in Passion? But Hollywood feared and believed without question that what it said was true. Even Charlie Chaplin believed—he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith alone knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly, despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that So-and-So will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately.

Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favorites—who are still favorites.” But who cared what Griffith said?

The year 1925 was when two things happened that finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the star system. First, 1925 was the terrible year when the industry suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy up to then, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and had been encouraging them to spend $250 million a year on theatre construction. But now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and discovered the studio overhead a sum of money executives added to a film budget to later split among themselves), were receiving generous shares of the once private “golden harvest” of the producers. Then, finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet but the name of a star which drew a multi-million-dollar gross at the box office, bankers were beginning to object to the abuse of stars. Naturally, the producers did not so much as consider giving up the practice of cutting salaries and firing stars—their customary way of making up their losses and refreshing their prestige.

The solution was simply to use a subtler technique, to be confirmed by box office failure. Marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish. She was the obvious choice. Of all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and self-aggrandizement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr as well, being Hollywood’s radiant symbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star.

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

The year 1925 was also the year when Will Hays succeeded in killing censorship in twenty-four states. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered—meaning New York City, where Mr. Hays had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review. The Board was “opposed to legal censorship and in favor of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” and had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs of adult pictures of sexual realism: A Woman of Paris, Greed, and The Salvation Hunters. These pictures had been tolerated by the public, too. It had accepted the new hero, with the conscienceless sophistication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert—an acceptance based on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyway. Everything was set for the collection of the treasure at the box office, where the producers’ hearts lay, when they were pulled up short by the realization that they had no heroine with youth, beauty, and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be seen as beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag-showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against  von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold. The worldly-woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor, and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to interest the public. The passionate Pola Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds—draping Barbara LaMarr in a nun’s veil to make her sympathetic, and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy.

And then, in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in the Swedish picture Gosta Berling, in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his or anyone else’s imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pietd, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive her many affairs in The Torrent, Garbo’s first American picture. At last, marriage—the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure—could be done away with! At last, here was an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls!

As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two before the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of the advent of talking pictures provided a plausible reason to give the public for the disappearance of many favorites.

But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason. Greta Garbo. From the moment The Torrent went into production, no contemporary actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole M-G-M studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway, and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at M-G-M.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind

If, by chance, one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine?” and hurry on to a subject that created less despair. A name that was never mentioned in the endless shoptalk was that of Lillian Gish. The suspicion that M-G-M had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its history. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders. The Swedish director Victor Seastrom (born Sjostrom), in his direction, shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom and Gish were meant for each other. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask the curator of Eastman House, James Card, when and where it was made. He said that it had been made at M-G-M, in Hollywood, in 1927. “In Hollywood, in 1927, at M-G-M?” I said. “Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?”

Determined to solve the mystery of its obliteration, I went at once to the files of the magazine Photoplay. I was aware that its editor, James Quirk, had seemed to weep and rage, dance and exult, with every heartbeat of the M-G-M executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay showed Lillian Gish, until after she left the M-G-M studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October, 1924, issue. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I traced Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish as if I were Sherlock Holmes.

News of her unprecedented contract—eight hundred thousand dollars for six pictures in two years—was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before the first of these pictures, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial:

What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honor or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me [Quirk] of a girlish “Whistler’s mother.” While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity,

she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalize her screen personality with one of the largest salaries. . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one?

With the release of La Boheme, in March, 1926, Quirk put the question to his more than two million readers in a long piece, “The Enigma of the Screen.”

Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. She achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion —namely hysteria. … As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. . . . Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

A “Brief Review” of La Boheme in the June, 1926, Photoplay read, “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.” In October, The Scarlet Letter was reviewed, with “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish.

But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon.”

With Gish, it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So when she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie, which she returned to find all ready to shoot—sets, costumes, and the actor Norman Kerry. Back in charge, she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that M-G-M held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed, and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, M-G-M said; she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last, Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. M-G-M had let her go because she got eight thousand dollars a week!

And, without a blush, he developed the idea that all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures. Stigmatized at the age of thirty-one as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, but not a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow—a world of shadows.”

It seems fateful now to remember that after Gish saw a screening of Gosta Berling she said that she had faith in L. B. Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Before production on The Torrent started, the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot making publicity stills, and she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication, and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence that Garbo had learned in Europe, she saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours, and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production. The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying, “I vill be glad when I am a beeg star like Lillian Gish. Then I vill not need publicity and to have peectures taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” La Boheme and The Torrent opened on Broadway the same week in February, 1926. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got four hundred thousand dollars a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got sixteen thousand dollars a year.

Women on the Hollywood screen – Greta Garbo

After The Temptress, Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” and Quirk was moved to write in his December editorial, “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week.” Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after she had signed a new M-G-M contract in May, 1927. Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay. “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June,” he wrote. As well as she knew her genius, knew that she was queen of all movie stars—then and forever—she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering, tarnished star like all the rest. She did not really want to go home. After a long hold-out over salary, she signed, for seventy-five hundred dollars a week. Her business triumph over the studio was her collecting, with stunning impact, on seven months of nationwide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on its defeat and the consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation rocked all Hollywood.

Compared to Quirk’s polished mauling of Lillian Gish, M-G-M’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job, and it was not to achieve a slick finish till after the death of Irving Thalberg, in 1936, when Mayer began restocking his stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unaffordable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art, and popularity, were Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo herself. Sixteen years passed between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old-men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 Entire film HD

D. W. GRIFFITH / HARRY E. AITKEN / EPOCH PRODUCING CORP. (distributor)  1915

CAST: Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Donald Crisp, Joseph Henabery, Raoul Walsh, Walter Long, Eugene Pallette.

CREDITS: D. W. Griffith, director; D. W. Griffith and Frank E. Woods, screenplay; based on the novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon; G. W. Bitzer, photographer. Running time: 185 minutes.

If the internet is slow please right click on player window and from the menu choose “save video as.”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page