D.W. Griffith – An American Life
By Richard Schickel – 1984
Griffith! Before him, the movies were a nickelodeon novelty, after him, they were an international art form and a powerful, glamorous American industry He was the first to codify the rules and techniques of screen storytelling, the first to establish the conventions by which the unique capacities of the movies for both sweeping spectacle and profound intimacy could be employed in long, complex narratives, the first to assert the director’s claim to primary authorship of a film Above all, it was Griffith who imagined the future of his medium, and with his driving energy, his taste for the grandiose and his flair for publicity, propelled that medium toward that future—only to be crushed by the very forces he had unleashed.
His story is, in huge measure, the story of how the movies as we know them came to be. It is also a great and archetypal American story. The poor Southern farm lad, nurturing his romantic nature on the legends of The Lost Cause and drawing on them to make The Birth of a Nation, the first film masterpiece—yet also a work deeply tainted by the racism that was a tragic part of his heritage, the turn-of-the-century touring actor and failed playwright, desperate for fame, power and artistic glory, bending the movies to his dream and achieving it with such legendary works as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East; the would-be plutocrat risking all—and losing all—by trying to establish his own studio, the sensualist whose powerful sexual obsessions helped drive him to the heights—and hasten his downfall, the lonely and embittered old man, shunned by the industry he had been instrumental in creating, turning into the ghost of Hollywood’s banquet years. All of these are Griffith, and all of them live in the pages of this masterful biography. But “D.W. Griffith An American Life” is more than one man’s story. His life intertwined with the lives of almost every great figure in the formative years of the movies. Louis B. Mayer cheated him, Lillian Gish loved him, Erich von Stroheim, Mack Sennett and Raoul Walsh learned from him, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin were his business partners, Lionel and John Barrymore were his friends, W C Fields and Alfred Lunt co-starred for him, Adolph Zukor tried to rescue his career, Anita Loos and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote for him, Jean Renoir was his admirer And the crowded canvas of his life stretched from Jack London’s San Francisco to Woodrow Wilson’s White House, from the trenches of World War I to Hearst’s San Simeon, from Number 10 Downing Street to Weimar Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In a work of scrupulous scholarship, brilliant critical insight and powerful historical narrative, Richard Schickel, Time film critic and author of The Disney Version, has captured this life in all its vivid dimensions. This long-awaited and definitive masterpiece is the first and only book worthy of its subject, which is not only Griffith himself, but the birth and rise of the art form that more than any other has shaped the way we see the world in our times.
About the Author
Richard Schickel combines three careers He has been a film critic for Time since 1973, having previously served Life in the same capacity He is the author of many books, including The Disney Version, His Picture in the Papers and a well received novel. Another I, Another You. Most recently he published Gary Grant: A Celebration, and he has just completed a study of the celebrity system and its effect on American life. Finally, for the last decade he has been producer, writer and frequently director of many television specials Among them are the acclaimed PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies,” “Life Goes to the Movies,” “Into the Morning: Willa Gather’s America ” and, most recently, a film biography of James Gagney and a history of the Star Wars saga.
A persistent sub-flowering of shame and guilt. The phrase summarizes the most important aspect of Griffith’s feelings when they were aroused by “good” (and always very young and very innocent) women almost as perfectly as the incident involving “the Snow Angel” prefigures emotions he would obsessively explore in his films. As Tyler says, he had a very “forthright” conception of the premarital “single instance” : “rape or the marriage proposal.”Quite obviously he (or his surrogate) could bring himself to no such definitive action in this incident and so retreated to a romanticized passivity, a passivity that would be duplicated by his camera as it mooned over such Griffith favorites as Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster in later years.
His guilty sexuality however, would have more significant consequences than that. It severely limited his range when he was dealing with romantic love. He could be free, even humorous with women who did not arouse strong emotions in him. Dorothy Gish, for example, was easily turned into a hoydenish comedienne by him, and other actresses, ranging from Mae Marsh (once his infatuation with her ended) to Lupe Velez, were allowed an expressive range that his special favorites were denied (Gish, of course, often conquered his limits; Miss Dempster was incapable of so doing). These limits—frequently ascribed to, and no doubt influenced by, the Victorian sentimentality that was so much a part of Griffith’s sensibility—played a role in his fall from favor with audiences in the 1920s, when his endless preoccupation with fates worse than death came to seem to many rather laughably anachronistic. This capacity—this need, really—to despoil childish innocence, innocence of the unguarded, sleeping kind that he wrote about so vividly in his memoirs, he embodied, instead, in the bestial villains, most notably.
Lynch and Gus, the mulatto and the black who threaten, respectively, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation, but also in characterizations like those by Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms and by Lionel Barrymore in America. Without wishing to seem too schematic about it, one can say that Griffith was never able to integrate the conflicting demands of the light and dark sides of his sexual nature, either in life or in his films.
As Griffith formed his professional manner, he was creating the elements of future failure as well as future success. His secretiveness would grow, and his inability’ to develop, among his coworkers, critics whom he could freely trust would result in a dangerous isolation and, in time, it would seem to even so sympathetic a friend as Lillian Gish that there was no one near him “who loved him enough to be able to say ‘no’ to him.”
In general, the quality of his work remained high; consistency at this time being one of his great virtues. But for the most part he was not reaching out, stretching his talent and the medium’s range as he previously had. His best film of the spring, for example, was The Usurer, but it was essentially a remake of A Corner in Wheat. This time, as the title implies, the central figure was a moneylender and not a grain dealer, but there was the same crosscutting between his machinations and their effect on plain people, and he came to much the same end as the earlier villain—instead of being suffocated in a grain elevator, he was suffocated in a safe in which he was accidentally locked. (Griffith must have been something of a claustrophobe, for from The Sealed Room in 1909 to Lillian Gish’s celebrated entrapment in a closet in Broken Blossoms, suffocation, as a suitably terrible end for villains and as an awful peril for heroes and heroines, recurs.
The Mothering Heart
Griffith had found another project that seemed to him worth more than a reel. Shot under the title “Mother Love” but released as The Mothering Heart, it was to provide the first really strong vehicle for Lillian Gish. There is some dispute as to the circumstances of her arrival in California. Her role in The Good Little Devil had required her to do a bit of flying (by means of wires and a harness) and in Baltimore the wires had come undone and she fell rather than flew off a five-foot wall. When the play reached New York, Gish settled into a rented room and, determined to save at least $10 a week to send to her mother and sister, she subsisted on an unbalanced diet and grew more than usually ethereal in appearance. Belasco began to fear for her health—or so the story goes—and also to fear that her apparent illness might be traced to the onstage fall and subject him to a lawsuit. He proposed a vacation in warmer climes and, finally, she decided to visit the rest of her family in California. This account may be true enough as far as it goes, but it would be a mistake not to enter Miss Gish’s shrewdness and ambition into the equation of this decision. Her friend Pickford had the lead in this production and she faced a lonely winter’s run in a part that afforded her few opportunities. In the meantime, on the Coast, Griffith was operating without his greatest star, Mary Pickford, with Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet not quite able to fill certain sorts of romantic roles. In short, convenience and opportunity- coincided.
And The Mothering Heart proved to be, as Gish says, “a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Initially Griffith thought her too youthful for the role and rejected her at the first rehearsal. Miss Gish, however, was determined to try to “play old” and she showed up at a second rehearsal wearing falsies to give her a more matronly figure and won the part, that of a wife rejected during pregnant” by her husband, who favors a cabaret dancer. She bears her child alone, it dies, and in a famous bit of business, she wanders into a garden, picks up a stick and, in her grief, beats all the blossoms off a rose bush—the kind of pantomime only Griffith was capable of creating at this time.
Miss Gish, alone of the Biograph players, took an intense interest in those aspects of filmmaking which did not involve acting. It was her habit to look at the rushes every day, even to go into Jimmie Smith’s cutting room to see, from his point of view, what worked and what did not in a performance. In the course of this activity – during The Mothering Heart, she concluded that she was overacting and asked Griffith about it.
“The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time,” he said. ”So half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normal to come over with full effect to your audience.”
The Battle of the Sexes
Griffith quickly turned to another work, a novel, The Single Standard, which was retitled The Battle of the Sexes and went before the cameras starring Lillian Gish, Owen Moore, Mary Alden, Fay Tincher, Donald Crisp and Bobby Harron. “This is a potboiler,” Griffith told his cast at their first rehearsal and he shot it as such in five hectic days and nights, the long hours finally taking their toll on Miss Gish; Bitzer found he could not bring his camera in for close-ups because her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. A few hours’ rest cured that condition and the film turned out to be commercially quite successful when it was released the following April, so successful, indeed, that in 1928, his career in decline, searching for something that looked like a sure box-office bet, Griffith returned—unfortunately—to this story of a philandering middle-aged, middle-class husband and the effect his transgressions have on his family with Jean Hersholt in the lead.
This, however, was the only movie Griffith was personally able to complete in New York. Since his name was already worth something, especially in light of the publicity campaign about him that Aitken was beginning to orchestrate, he agreed to act as ”supervisor” on productions actually directed by such contract workers—and Griffith disciples—as Christy Cabanne, Marshall Neilen and James Kirkwood, among others.
Lillian Gish has recalled that Griffith drew her aside one afternoon during a break in shooting one of his program pictures, requesting that she stay on after work. It was not an unusual request; Griffith often held after-hour rehearsals for a forthcoming project while another work was in progress and a sizable percentage of those who would eventually have featured roles in the finished film assembled with Miss Gish to hear him announce his plans for The Clansman. She remembers only two unusual facts about this small beginning to a mighty project. The first was that she had observed for some days that Griffith’s pockets were overflowing with notes as well as scraps of printed material. She therefore correctly assumed that he was brooding about a work of unusual scale, since he carried no aide-memoire when working on films of routine length. The other was that on that first night he swore his actors to secrecy about his intentions. He might control rights to Thomas Dixon’s novel, but he owned no patent either on the Civil War or Reconstruction, and it would have been a simple matter for a competitor to cobble something together and beat him to market with a picture taking up the themes he regarded as his by birthright.
According to Miss Gish, Griffith did not make his final casting decisions until rehearsals were well along and he had seen more than one player essay most of the larger roles. The center of this nocturnal activity was the extras’ makeup room on the Griffith lot, ”a make-shift building of cheap, rough pine,” where everyone sat on hard kitchen chairs, because Griffith felt that if anything more easeful were provided, ”You were apt to get too comfortable and lean back, instead of keeping busy.” The rehearsals went well. And despite the director’s determination to keep his options open, there seems to have been no doubt as to who would play the central role in this drama, that of Ben Cameron, the ‘Tittle Colonel.” From the start it appears that Henry Walthall had the part, despite the fact that he was somewhere between 36 and 38 years old (the year of his birth is in dispute) and thus a trifle old for the part, and more than a little intemperate in his drinking habits. His age could be de-emphasized, Griffith thought, by having him wear wide-brimmed hats whenever possible, thus softening the light on his face. Since “Wally” was a well-liked member of the company, there would be no dearth of volunteers to see to it that he arrived on time, and in a reasonably sober state, for each day’s shooting. Slight of build, with long, curly hair and sometimes a romantic mustache, he carried something of the air of a poet about him, this actor who could, as his friend director Raoul Walsh said, “speak volumes with his eyes.”His seeming fragility and his natural gentleness of spirit would render his heroics on the battlefield and as the Klan leader more exciting and, of course, they would also enhance his many tender moments in the film. Indeed, so right was he for the part that after the actor’s death in 1936, Griffith told a reporter that his demise should effectively quell all talk of a remake. “I can never imagine any actor taking his place,'” the director said.
It is impossible to say what the story of The Mother and the Law was, in detail, when Griffith first went to work on it, for after he conceived the notion of integrating it into Intolerance, he did a great deal of reshooting. But in final form it tells the story of the Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh) who meet and marry in the slum they are forced to live in after his father has been killed and her father has lost his job, as the result of a strike at the nearby Jenkins mill.
Prior to his marriage the Boy has engaged in a life of petty crime as the lieutenant of a gang leader known as the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), who in turn is jealously loved by a mysterious young woman known as the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). Married, the youth attempts to go straight, but the Musketeer, angry at his desertion, plants stolen goods on him and he is sent to jail. At this point, social workers employed by a foundation established by Jenkins, the mill owner—a nice irony there—take the young couple’s child away. The ground is that the wife of a convict must, per se, be an unfit mother. Despite an extraordinarily moving courtroom scene, in which the Dear One pleads to retain her child, the deed is done. With her husband in prison the Musketeer begins to insinuate himself with the Dear One, promising that he can help her regain her child. His intentions are anything but honorable, and the jealous Cooper character, seeing him enter the Dear One’s apartment, informs the Boy, now released from prison.
He arrives in time to join in the defense of his wife’s honor, but the Friendless One has, in the meantime, stolen the Boy’s gun and in the struggle fires through a window, killing the Musketeer. She then throws the revolver into the room and this evidence is enough to convict the Boy of murder. He is on his way to the gallows when his wife, aided by a sympathetic policeman, confronts the Friendless One and wrings a confession from her. There is then a wild—and enthrallingly shot—chase as the Dear One and the police officer commandeer a high-speed car and pursue a train on which the Governor is riding, in order to place this new evidence before him and secure a stay of execution. Then it is on to the prison to deliver the stay before the Boy is executed. He is on the scaffold, the black cloth already covering his face, when his rescuers arrive. In the finished film this story is not the most spectacular visually, but of the four stories Griffith wove together in what he was to subtitle, “A Sun Play of the Ages,” it remains the most affecting emotionally-and the most suspenseful. The climactic chase is a summary of all the rides to the rescue Griffith had shot for Biograph and Mutual, a brilliant example of superbly executed, basic moviemaking. The realism of his strike sequences and the slum background, the sensitive performance of Mae Marsh and the scarcely less fine work of Bobby Harron—all of these represent Griffith at the top of his form, working with material to which he brought firsthand knowledge both of milieu and of emotion. Pauline Kael has correctly remembered, for example, a sequence in which Marsh, deprived of her child, becomes a kind of voyeur of other people’s familial happiness, spying on other mothers at loving play with their children.
Edward Wagenknecht has cited Marsh’s unbearably poignant courtroom scene—which Griffith shot four times at widely separate intervals as he kept reconsidering it—and the scene where she and her husband are reunited after the last-minute rescue from the gallows as among the most privileged moments in film history, and it is a sound judgment. How much of the quality of The Mother and the Law was visible in the early version of it, which was ready for release sometime in spring or early summer of 1915, is problematical. Lillian Gish recalls a screening of it for studio employees and notes “we all agreed with him that the film was too small in theme and execution to follow The Birth. Karl Brown recalls that studio gossip at the time held that the picture was unreleasable and therefore likely to be shelved, though, of course, that possibility was remote, given the precarious condition, at the time, of its producer of record, The Majestic Film Corporation. About his plans for the picture, Griffith kept his own counsel and, indeed, for a time, in the months to come, studio workers at Brown’s level were under the impression that the stories that were eventually melded with it in Intolerance were separate projects; indeed, they were given separate production numbers (The Mother was F-1, the F standing for feature, and the others were, naturally, F-2, F-3 and F-4).
In short, Griffith literally did not know what to do next. Thus Intolerance was a mighty improvisation, an attempt to salvage what would have been, pre-Birth, a more-than-acceptable little picture, turning it eventually into the sort of spectacle he—and the public—expected of America’s premier director. Yet there were distractions beyond those involved with the release of, and the continuing controversy over Birth with which to contend. He could not fully turn his attention to the business of recasting The Mother and the Law in grander form until the fall of 1915.
The end …
Sometime in the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was seized by an agonizing pain. He staggered from his rooms to the lobby of his hotel, where he asked for help and then collapsed. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was taken to the Temple Hospital in Hollywood, and his nearest kin, his nephew, Willard, and his niece, Ruth, were summoned to his bedside. He did not regain consciousness and he was pronounced dead at eight twenty-four the next morning.
Only a few people called at the funeral parlor where he lay in state, and the only famous one to do so was Cecil B. DeMille. The rest of the industry would wait for the formal services on the twenty-seventh. These were held at the Hollywood Masonic Temple. The friends were there, and many who owed the beginnings of their careers to him. Some, like Searle Dawley and Lionel Barrymore, Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, went back to the Biograph and before with him; some, like Richard Barthelmess and Walter Huston, entered his chronicle later; some, like Raoul Walsh and von Stroheim, had been at his side when he was defining the nature of the director’s art on the job, on the set. Some, like Walter Wanger and Jesse Lasky, might not have been entirely welcome on this occasion had Griffith had anything to say about it. Some, like Herb Sterne, avoided the company of such other honorary pallbearers as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn because they could have given Griffith something to do with his final years and did not. But if any were needed, the proof that the history of his life was the history of the movies in America up to then was gathered here.
The floral tributes were heaped high around the casket. Members of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir were observed by early comers to be giggling as they rehearsed their hymns. As the time for the service drew near, only about half the seats in the auditorium were filled, so the crowd that had gathered outside to watch the celebrities come and go—as if this were a premiere and not an ending—was invited in to fill the empty places. The occasion struck Gerrit Lloyd as cold, perhaps in part because one of the two eulogists, Charles Brackett, the screenwriter who was serving a term as president of the Motion Picture Academy, had never known Griffith. He found it difficult to achieve the right tone, veering from the emptily melodramatic (his last years were characterized as “a frenzied beating on the barred doors”) to the banal (“Griffith gave the public what it wanted”) to the “self-congratulator” (for Griffith’s honorary’ Academy Award ) . Overall, Jay Leyda, the film historian who was present, thought Brackett achieved, at best, “a polite note of regret.”
Donald Crisp did better, daring at least to chastize the film people for their neglect of Griffith. “It was the tragedy of his later years that this active, brilliant mind was given no chance to participate in the advancement of the industry. Difficult as it might be for him to have played a subordinate role, I do not believe that the fault was entirely his own. I cannot help feeling that there should always have been a place for him and his talents in motion pictures. . . .”
And then, as Leyda was to recall it, someone sobbed loudly, inarticulately. But it sounded as if he or she had cried out, Yes, yes—why not!” “This one note of genuine emotion overturned the passive insincerity of the occasion,” he wrote. When Crisp tried to go on, his voice broke, and as he struggled to regain control and proceed, “the emotions of the speaker and the audience were loosed and real”—until “the efficiency of the memorial service took over again, and the boys’ choir singing ‘Abide with Me’ drowned out the sobs.”
And then it was over. Griffith’s remains were flown home to Kentucky, where he was buried in the graveyard beside the Mount Tabor Methodist Church, where his family had worshiped when he was a boy. A rail fence, said to have been created from wood taken from the Griffith farm, surrounds the gravesite, which has been marked, since 1950, by a stone contributed by the Directors Guild of America, and bearing its insignia. The fence is rough-hewn; the stone is sleek. The congruence of the nostalgic and the modeme is curious but somehow correct. They are like the elements in a simple montage, resonating to each other, suggesting by their juxtaposition fleeting metaphors, hints of meanings, greater than the sum of those elements. We have new ways of seeing and thinking and perhaps even being which literally did not exist until the man who lies buried here began his work. And began that chain of artistic invention which has enabled us to see the world through fresh eyes, in a new light.
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