Filming Broken Blossoms – Billy Bitzer (His Story) 1973

The tests had all been made for my experimental method of photography for Broken Blossoms. This was to be an inexpensive project. The sets were simple and there would be few actors, so the actual shooting time would be fast. In fact, we made the entire picture in eighteen days.

For the first day’s shooting, I had placed the lights for the actual taking, but we hadn’t gone ahead because so much time had been spent on rehearsing. Lillian Gish was exhausted when the time came for the usual shooting, and Griffith decided to make the shots early next morning after Lillian had rested.

My assistant, Karl Brown, was waiting for me at my gate next day. “Gee, everyone’s waiting for you on the set. Mr. Griffith is there, too, and he won’t go ahead without you,” Karl Brown said. We got there and I rushed in, shedding my coat. The camera, film, and everything were in position, Karl had seen to that; all I had to do was focus. I didn’t even take time out to say good morning, but looked hurriedly through the ground glass at Lillian, seated in position, dressed in the finery Cheng Huan (Dick Barthelmess) had decked her out in. I could see just a beautiful face, I hadn’t noticed the hair or anything else about her, except her eyes, and on them I focused, making sure only one light reflected in the pupil of her eyes. I closed the camera.

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

“Lights!” I called to the gaffer. “All ready, Mr. Griffith.”

“Camera! ” he gave the command for action.

I had ground out but a few feet when Karl, who looked at the lens marks, said nervously, “You forgot to stop your lens!

“Shut up!” I cautioned. “We’ll take it over again anyway.”

“But, Mr. Bitzer,” Karl insisted, pulling at my sleeve. “You started before all the lights were on. All those top lights you figured out so carefully yesterday were not lit, and some others.”

Then I saw I would have to pay more attention or someone, like Sartov, would make me look bad: Anyway, the scene stayed in as it was, and Mr. Griffith did not take it over. He just said at the finish, “Come on, let’s move along.”

Now the lens I was using was a 3-inch Dallmeyr F.I.9 with a large aperture. It was a lens I never would have used wide open, because of its depth and general fuzziness and uncertainty. This was the fast lens, however, and with the low-key lighting from directions I would not use ordinarily, and my focus on the eyes as I saw them—all this combined with that element of luck made the first beautiful soft-focus head on the screen.

As we developed tests of every scene taken, favorable reports came back. We had a beautiful new atmospheric effect never before seen on film, something that would lend itself to the dull gold sheen I had desired. Throughout the rest of Broken Blossoms, I went right on duplicating the lighting and photography.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Lillian’s acting was quiet and unemotional. She was an excellent pantomimist, who used her body to express emotion. In Blossoms she made her sad, fearful smile by using her fingers to turn up the corners of her mouth when commanded by the sadistic Battling Burrows, her father (Donald Crisp), to smile. For her “trapped animal” scene, when she is cornered in the closet, terrified that Battling Burrows will kill her, Griffith closed off the set so just we three, Griffith, Lillian, and the camera, were present. “Load the camera with plenty of film, Billy,” Griffith said. “I’m going to shoot this scene without stopping, even if it takes all day to do it.” Then turning to Lillian, he said, “Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Griffith” was her obedient reply, as she walked into the three-frame closet set.

In a frenzy, Lillian’s eyes fair popped out of her head. I began to grind the film, for I could sense that this was it. She began to shake, and the muscles of her face quivered in abject fright. I almost wept at seeing her suffering, while Griffith leaned forward in his director’s chair, relishing every moment of it.

I kept cranking the film through the camera until the entire thousand feet were finished and there was no more film. As Lillian came from the closet, Griffith rushed to her and caught her before she slipped into a faint. “Get her maid, Billy, and that will be all for today.”

Then to Lillian he spoke words of comfort: “You were just great, Lucy, you were great.” The greatest compliment was calling her Lucy, the character’s name. I left them alone as I went for her maid.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Griffith thought only in terms of picture-making. His instincts and knowledge worked together. His eyes saw everything, noted everything, with the skill of an artist. He seemed to feel no emotion, no pain, no pity. To be other than dispassionate in this artificial setting would have ruined the performance. All that interested the professional in him was that the performance should have shock value and still seem natural.

The finished picture was a tribute to his dedicated skill, and many writers consider it his best. Broken Blossoms was a departure from the tried-and-true formulas. As such it was shocking and needed the soft tones of gold on the prints and the soft focus Sartov created. When shown at the George M. Cohan theater in New York, it was surrounded on the stage frame by Chinese-blue lantern light, giving it soft Oriental tones. While containing none of the spectacular qualities of The Birth, it gave us an insight into Lillian’s dramatic artistry not seen before and established her as & great dramatic discovery.

When it opened in May 1919, Broken Blossoms received rave notices. It made more money in proportion to cost than any picture Griffith ever made, except The Birth of a Nation.

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911
Billy Bitzer, His Story – cover

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