Griffith’s desire to make longer films was thwarted by Biograph. Determined to make the greatest movie ever produced, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and soon set to work on a film version of Thomas Dixon’s novel of the Civil War, ‘The Clansman’. The result of his labors was The Birth of a Nation, which exploded on the screen in 1915. Filmed at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars, the three-hour epic was enormously popular and equally controversial; it is still regarded as one of the key films in cinema history. The film’s depiction of leering, bestial blacks created a furor throughout the country, and much to Griffith’s surprise and dismay the movie was roundly condemned by many fair-minded Americans. But although Griffith’s view of history and race relations was deplorable, his artistry was undeniable. It was, as critic Bosley Crowther has written, “as though a superb symphony had burst from the muck of primitive music within two decades after the invention of the horn. . . .
People were simply bowled over by its vivid pictorial sweep, its arrangements of personal involvements, its plunging of the viewer into a sea of boiling historical associations. . . .”
Any follow-up to The Birth of a Nation should have been anticlimactic, but Griffith’s next film, Intolerance was even more monumental. The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.
Despite Griffith’s ability to focus on intimate scenes in the midst of staggering spectacle, and despite his brilliant use of crosscutting to heighten tension and involvement, Intolerance was a commercial failure. Audiences found it confusing and unappealing. Griffith was both heartbroken and financially- ruined.
In 1915 Griffith had founded the Triangle Film Corporation, a partnership involving two other men who rank high among the innovators of early Hollywood.
While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.'” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.
Way Down East (1920), famous for its scenes of Gish and Barthelmess leaping from ice floe to ice floe just a few feet from the edge of a gigantic waterfall, and Orphans of the Storm (1922) were both popular melodramas. But from that point on Griffith pleased neither critics nor public. Unable to cope with the new financial realities of big-business Hollywood, he was also loathe to eschew the sentimentality that was so out of fashion. When, desperate for income, he attempted to pander to public tastes by aping the successes of others, the results were disastrous. He worked only sporadically in the late twenties, and his last film was made in 1931. He lived in a rented room in Hollywood for seventeen more years and died in 1948, a bitter old man largely forgotten by the industry he had helped to create.
Forgotten too, by then, were many of the major stars of the silents, their careers terminated by the arrival of sound movies. “We didn’t need voices,” says Gloria Swanson, playing a reminiscing silent screen star in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces then.” Faces, and distinctive personalities, and talent, and enormous egos.
Norma Talmadge, leading lady of the First National studio, specialized in playing heroines who aged during a film’s progress. Married to producer Joseph Schenck, who nurtured her career, she is not well known today because many of her films have been lost. Nonetheless, she was one of Hollywood’s top stars. Her sister Constance, also popular in the twenties, played vibrant, comic roles, but Norma’s fans wanted to see her suffer—and suffer she did in such films as The Sacrifice of Kathleen, The Branded Woman, and Love’s Redemption.
Another pair of sisters, Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”
Santa Cruz Evening News, Volume 41, Number 150, 25 April 1928
LILLIAN GISH WINS HER SUIT
LOS ANGELES, April 25. (AP) Several years of legal effort by Charles Duell, motion picture producer to exact damages from Lillian Gish has come to naught today. A jury in superior court here returned a verdict for the film star, defendant, yesterday, after the court had decided that all the issues of the case had been settled previously in the federal courts of New York. “Oh what a relief,” Miss Gish said when she learned that the $5,000,000 suit her one time employer had brought against her had been decided again in her favor. “I am very happy.”
Santa Cruz Evening News, Volume 35, Number 123, 26 March 1925
Lillian Gish Eschews Carrots in Federal Court
NEW YORK, March 26. George W. Newgass, once personal attorney of Lillian Gish, motion picture actress, had an uncomfortable time of it in Judge Mack’s court yesterday, under the sarcastic, rapid-fire cross examination of Max Steuer, representing Miss Gish, who is seeking to have her contract with Charles H. Duell, motion picture producer, annulled. Newgass was Miss Gish’s attorney from 1920 until last September. On the stand he insinuated that Miss Gish was a film star only when under the direction of a master mind, and that any other grade of producer would be taking chances with her. Recalled at the request of Steuer, Newgass found himself unable to answer many of Steuer’s questions. He displayed a loss of memory regarding dates, figures and other things about which he was questioned. Steuer finally lost patience with him and openly charged him with evading the questions. Judge Mack took a hand at this juncture and began repeating Sleuer’s questions. Miss Gish, who had been bored at the beginning of the hearing, began to take notice and as her former attorney became more and more discomfited she smiled, first sweetly, and then laughed until tears ran. down her face. Steuer forced Newgass to admit that while he had been working for Miss Gish he had actually been on the payroll as Duell’s lawyer, he also admitted that he had not advised Miss Gish to the importance of her contract with Duell.
NEW YORK, March 26. – Lillian Gish did not munch carrots in federal court today. The film actress disappointed a throng of stenographers who jammed the tiny courtroom in which the suit of Charles H. Duell, motion picture producer, seeking to restrain Miss Gish from making pictures for others is being heard. Taking advantage of a lull in the proceedings, however, Miss Gish explained to newspaper men that she chewed carrots because of their value as “food for the complexion” and to allay her nervousness in the courtroom.
By Paul O’Dell (with the assistance of Anthony Slide)
First published in 1970
A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. Castle Books – New York
David Wark Griffith has tended to become in recent years, a figure in cinema history attributed with innovation in film technique; the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting have all appeared in connection with his name. And so it is that he is now in danger of achieving a widespread reputation merely as technician: an inventor of cinematography. This does justice neither to Griffith himself nor to his work. It may very well be that he did “invent” all these ideas of pictorial presentation – but there is much evidence to suggest that he did not – and if he did not, then he certainly developed their use to startling effect. But these ideas, these techniques were for him only a means towards an end; never the ultimate distinguishing factor of his pictures. Nor was he dependent on these techniques in order to produce a film which stood above all contemporary works. Many of his early pictures contain no close-ups, no flashbacks, no camera movement, no complicated editing techniques, and no innovations. But nevertheless they are indisputably films of high artistic quality. Many post-Intolerance films also contain few, if any, of the “innovations” attributed to Griffith, and yet they are outstanding works nonetheless.
It is unfortunate – indeed it could be tragic – that a man who strove so hard to perfect the cinema as a medium for the stimulation of ideas should also have been the one who recognized the real potential of an embryo art form. The fact remains that while the technical achievements of D.W. Griffith have become the main reason for his importance in film history, his purely artistic achievements, the very reason why he ever made films at all, have tended to become relatively obscured.
The work of an artist is a door to his soul; whatever we see written about the artist, we will never get closer to the man himself than through his work. David Wark Griffith produced a tremendous volume of work during the twenty-three years he spent making motion pictures. It is via these films – those that remain – that we can come to a real understanding of Griffith, because in these films he poured all his ideas.
6. Into the Twenties: Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm
In terms of cinema history, Griffith was the man who fired the starting-pistol. It was he who gave the medium what it required to develop and expand. There came a time when he inevitably appeared to have “left behind,” a “non-starter.” It was to happen that he would be attacked again and again for his refusal to participate in the race. “Your refusal to face the world,” wrote one critic, “is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal … your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you – and to pictures.” Thus wrote James Quirk in 1924, cruelly cutting down the man who had virtually furnished him with a job (inasmuch as Griffith had given to the movies what no other individual had ever come near to possessing). What Quirk failed to recognize was that Griffith was not a man to be swept along in the tide of fashion. Why should he follow others? How could he follow others, when in effect they were following his precepts? ***
Way Down East
It was Griffith’s longest picture since Intolerance, and ran for more than three hours. In terms of construction, it relies on finely interwoven detail rather than the more instantly recognizable cross-cutting that distinguished his early work. In the opening sequences for example, when Anna is tricked into an illegal marriage to Sanderson, the ceremony itself is full of visual commentary, with the ring falling to the floor, cutting to Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess) waking suddenly from a nightmare – and this before any knowledge on anyone’s part of their two fates and the way they will eventually come together.
Lillian Gish as Anna has received much deserved praise for her work in this picture, especially for her superhuman feats among the ice-floes in the climatic sequences of the picture. The manner she receives the news of her false marriage, in the knowledge that she is pregnant, is yet another triumph for her ability under Griffith. The scene in which she baptizes her own child as it is dying also comes close to being one of Griffith’s supreme cinematic achievements. She also adds a sense of frightening realism to the scene in which she is told that her baby is dead. For a second or two she stares blankly into space, then slowly begins to shake her head from side to side. Suddenly, as if the news strikes her like some physical blow, she throws her head back, and, as if going into an epileptic fit, her whole body stiffens and she sits choking and screaming.
Anna eventually recovers and goes away to a town in which no one (she believes) can possibly be aware of her tragic situation, a situation which will also be regarded as shameful. She meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and he, like many other characters in Griffith pictures, is here identified with doves in one sequence. The truth will be out however, and especially in a small town. Unknown to Anna, Sanderson is to reappear, and her secret is to become common knowledge. Bartlett is undeterred, although the rest of the town immediately brand her an evil woman. The scene in which Anna is ordered out of the house by the Squire has been excused by some who explain that it needs dialogue for its effectiveness. On the contrary, this scene is of great emotional intensity, and this intensity is achieved simply by Griffith’s editing technique. Once again, he uses visual commentary on the basic situation to replace long sequences where there should be dialogue.
Anna is sent out into the blizzard, and David runs after her. There follows some really remarkable photography, shots in which Anna’s cape seems to vanish and reappear behind trees and snowdrifts, close-ups of Anna, whose eyelashes seem to have icicles on them, and this sequence leads directly to the chase on the ice-floes.
Orphans of the Storm
It appears, looking at Orphans of the Storm today, that once more Griffith was having to work within imposed conditions. However, as in the case of the Biographs, this does not make Orphans of the Storm an imperfect picture, and here again can be seen Griffith’s faultless gift for re-creating a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia and beyond.
The sequences that seem the most successful are those in which the poverty of the age is most obvious. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given in the perfect setting of course, and as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles … that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license.”
The familiar “Last Minute Rescue” towards the end of reel twelve is as exciting and as beautifully executed as we have by now come to expect from Griffith. Cutting between the guillotine and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Danton (Monte Blue) racing on horseback with her pardon, the sequence is a perfect example of “stretched action,” in which the time taken for Lillian Gish to walk three paces, for example, in the completed sequence, now intercut with other action, takes twice or maybe three times as long. This serves to build the suspense inasmuch as it creates an almost unbearable sense of impatience.
The crowd scenes have been likened to those of The Birth of a Nation, and the emotional effect they create is certainly valid.
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass 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.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
LILLIAN GISH is back in New York after a long stay abroad, waiting to make “The Swan.” She’s living at a quiet little hotel on a side street—going to the theater now and again with George Jean Nathan, who seems as devoted as ever.
Oddly enough, she came back on the same ship with her former boss, Charles H. Duell, who sues her for millions every now and then, and spent most of the trip avoiding him, to hear her tell it. Her mother, Mrs. May Gish, is in London, carefully tended by Sister Dorothy.
Mrs. Gish’s health is a little improved. She’s been an invalid now for some years, you remember.
DOROTHY, by the way, has had a successful voice test made in England and will appear in a British talkie, “Wolves.”
Funny, but Dorothy has her best luck in England. She made her best picture, “Nell Gwyn,” over there, and the British public adores her. A few months ago Dorothy told me that she was afraid to have a voice test made, in spite of her success on the stage. But she doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything in London!
Tragedy and misfortune have stalked many who “Got their chance with Griffith”
WHEN a movie star kneels down in his little nightie and offers up a prayer he says—”Please let me do a picture with Griffith. Amen.” Ever since “The Birth of a Nation” these fervent prayers have been wafted skyward.
All actors were firm in the belief that David Wark Griffith, THE Great Griffith, THE Master Director, would get the utmost from them—more than any other director could achieve. It was, and is, true. Popular favorites of the screen have offered to work for nothing in his pictures just to gain the advantage of his training. Griffith stars were the most envied people on the screen. It meant much to be hailed as a Griffith “discovery.” It was almost an assurance of success. To appear in a Griffith picture meant as much as to appear in a Belasco play. Actors who played extra roles in “Intolerance” boasted of being Griffith “discoveries.”
There are about as many people in Hollywood today who will tell you impressively that they were with Griffith as there are descendants of “Mayflower” Pilgrims in the United States. Griffith was a man of magic. He had the rare quality of revealing the souls of his people.
His heroines were delicate, fluttering girls, helpless and virtuous. His heroes were noble and pure, and poetic looking. Other directors did not want fluttering girls, and too poetic men. And usually, unfortunately for the players, Griffith’s stamp was indelible.
TRAGEDY has dogged the footsteps of Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Carol Dempster, Eric von Stroheim, George Walsh, Mildred Harris, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Dorothy Gish and Winifred Westover. Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess have been more successful, but their success has not been without the attendant hand-maidens, trial and unhappiness. Not many are left on the screen today from the marvelous “The Birth of a Nation” cast. Nor are there many from “Intolerance,” “Hearts of the World” and “Way Down East.” Wallace Reid achieved a vogue that no other male star has held, with the single exception of Valentino. Yet big, handsome Wally, who attracted so much attention as the heroic blacksmith in “The Birth of a Nation,” died a tragic death at the height of his career, a victim of his own weakness.
George Seigmann, the hated villain, Gus, in “The Birth of a Nation,” died while still a young man.
STRANGELY enough, one of the last appearances made by Gladys Brockwell was in a picture wherein she died. It was the tragic end of a tragic career. After her thorough Griffith training, and a brief period of fame as a vamp, Gladys almost dropped from sight.
Talking pictures brought her back. A new and greater career was at hand, but fate willed differently. She died following a dreadful automobile accident on busy Ventura Boulevard.
Lillian Gish, the greatest of the Griffith stars, had a difficult time coming back in other hands. The fragile Duse of the cinema might never have returned but for her wonderful performance in “The White Sister,” made in Europe. Even her later pictures at M-G-M were not great box office attractions. Some of the old spark had gone, and a helpless, fluttering heroine in this modern day of flappers seemed quaint and incongruous. Lillian is the enigma of the screen. Even now she may return and reveal herself again as the superb Griffith star of the past.
Dorothy Gish has never been an unqualified success away from Griffith’s guiding hand. Even there she was somewhat overshadowed by her sister, Lillian. For several years she has made pictures abroad. The few efforts to reach America were received coldly. Yet, who will forget The Little Disturber in “Hearts of the World”?
IF Henry B. Walthall had retained his health he might have been greater than John Gilbert. The Little Colonel of ” The Birth of a Nation” was a dark-eyed romantic fellow, and a marvelous actor. Yet there were many years of illness. He appeared old and ill. He was forced to play character parts, when he should have been cast as dashing heroes. He is still very much in demand for these character parts, but he has been cheated out of his rightful destiny.
The little lady who silently became famous in days when D.W. Griffith was king (of directors), comes to her first talker a different Lillian Gish. As Alexandra in “One Romantic Night,” adaptation of the Molnar play “The Swan,” she has nary a hop, skip or wiggle to bless herself with. That pleases you. BUT neither does anybody beat her, scare her out of her wits, nor starve her – and that is not so good, for it is in the depiction of stark, stare, gibbering terror that Miss Gish is at her best. Let all the world forsake her and she becomes an actress to reckon with. Minus the hops, skips, and wiggles, and the big, mean men, she appears rather at sea. She manages her entrances and exits nicely because she’s been brought up that way, but to me her performance was utterly futile. Her voice? Pleasant.
With the exception of O.P. Heggie as Father Benedict, Albert Conti as Count Lutzen, and Philippe De Lacy and Byron Sage, playing small brothers of the heroine, the picture has not been happily cast.
Rod La Rocque is princely as to uniform , but his manner and delivery are reminiscent of a soda jerker.
Marie Dressler as mother of “The Swan” has a hard time keeping her dignity and sometimes doesn’t. You feel she is keenly missing Polly Moran and that the latter may pop out at any moment from behind a noble portiere and hit her with an umbrella.
Conrad Nagel as the tutor is a fair and manly flower and that is all.
Thus cast and lacking inspired direction, the delicate point of the original satire is dulled, and beauty of scenery and settings, excellence of photography, and lines that know their way about cannot give to “One Romantic Night” what has been taken away from “The Swan.”
The action occurs in the long, long ago when the parents of young princess and princesses mapped out their marriages for them. So here you see and elderly princess endeavoring to keep the family going by marrying her fair daughter Alexandra, fondly called “The Swan” by her late father, to the heir of a throne.
The little princess is willing; the prince isn’t till Alexandra, at her mamma’s behest, is coy with her brothers’ tutor, who worships her. Then – well, the Viennese Molnar knew so well how to deal with this situation!
Personally I couldn’t get at all heat up about “One Romantic Night.” And the title on a Gish number isn’t going to fool the sidewalk crowds, for they know their Lillian.
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