FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – third edition

  • LOUIS GIANNETTI (Case Western Reserve University) /SCOTT EYMAN
  • © 1996, 1991, 1986 by Prentice-Hall. Inc. Simon & Schuster / A Viacom Company
  • Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632

The nickelodeon era—an art for the masses. Cinema’s first genius: D. W. Griffith. Griffith’s Biograph shorts: 1908-1913. Evolving a film grammar: the art of editing. The Griffith stable of actors and technicians. Lillian Gish: the screen’s first great actress. Attempt by the Patents Company to monopolize motion picture production. The first moguls: Carl Laemmie, William Fox, and Adolph Zukor. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the screen’s first feature film masterpiece. Racial controversy. Griffith’s monumental Intolerance (1916) introduces thematic editing. The westerns of William S. Hart. Thomas Ince, the founder of the American studio system. Early works of Cecil B. De Mille, showman. Mack Sennett establishes the Keystone Studio, specializing in slapstick comedies. Early screen clowns: (Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

After Lillian Gish, Marsh was Griffith’s most txpressive actress. Where Gish worked with her entire body. Marsh’s main instruments were her eyes and hands. Where Gish seemed an ageless young woman, Marsh’s pixie features seemed to categorize her as an adolescent. Where Gish had a core of strength. Marsh had a quality of worn desperation. Perhaps her finest performance is in the modern story from Intolerance (1916), which Griffith released in an expanded version three years later as The Mother and the Law.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Griffith’s achievements in these years were not merely technical. Rather, technique served his passion for the gesture, the moment that would reveal a human soul. In The Mothering Heart (1913), Lillian Gish plays a young wife whose child has just died because of the neglect of her husband. Stunned to the point of catatonia, she wanders alone in a garden. Suddenly, she picks up a dead branch and begins thrashing madly at the foliage around her, the explosion of motion betraying the sublimated, seething emotion, a woman overcome by death trying to destroy the strong green life around her.

Lillian Gish in – The Mothering Heart – 1913

Piquant, often playful, always persecuted but with undreamt of reserves of strength, Gish (1893-1993) was Our Lady of Constant Sorrow to a generation of filmgoers. Among silent screen leading ladies, she was the only one who could legitimately claim to the title great actress. A relation ship of ambiguous intensity with her mentor, Griffith, made her the perfect transmitting medium for his view of femininity—and, for Griffith, his view of woman was his view of the world. It was a partnership whose revelations of dignity truth, and inescapable pain would not be matched for over forty years, until the partnership of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. (United Artists)

Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

One of Griffith’s most astonishing gifts was his ability to make intimate epics. Battle scenes aside, the moments one remembers in The Birth of a Nation are the small ones: Lillian Gish emerging from a hospital visit where a sentry, gasping at her in unalloyed ecstasy, sighs in doglike devotion; a title proclaiming “War’s Peace,” followed by a medium closeup of a dead soldier, young, unshaven, and as terribly still as one of the dead in the war photographs of Brady or Gardner.

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

Or, most movingly, the oft-cited scene in which Henry Walthall, in one of the delicate, understated performances that Griffith habitually coaxed from his male leads, returns home to the South after Appomattox. He finds a devastated house. His younger sister runs out to meet him. They look at each other for what seems forever. She notes his tattered uniform; he notes her use of cotton wool to imitate ermine. She begins to cry and he holds her, kissing her hair, a mournful, faraway look in his eyes. The shot changes and Walthall and his sister walk up the steps to the house as two arms reach out from behind the door, the unseen mother enfolding her children, welcoming the hunter home from the hill.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance

With financiers waving money at him, Griffith made what was probably a psychological error: He tried to top himself He surrounded The Mother and the Law with three other stories—the massacre of the Huguenots by the Catholics in sixteenth – century France, the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylon, and, just for good measure, the story of Christ. All four stories were partially linked by titles and, more importantly, by the symbolic image of Lillian Gish gently rocking a cradle, an image Griffith took from Whitman: “… out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, Uniter of here and Hereafter.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

To this fragile, grim fairy tale, Griffith imparted a remarkable sense of mood and visual poetry and mixed in two performances of purity and the most delicate sincerity from Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Except for some atmospheric shots of Chinese jonks crossing a river in the moonlight and some breathtaking shots of the Limehouse slums cloaked in a shifting river mist, the film is entirely a studio product, and as such it deeply influenced a generation of European and domestic filmmakers.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

After Broken Blossoms, Griffith’s only critical and popular success was Way Down East (1920), a ridiculous old play made less ridiculous by a superior performance by the redoubtable Gish and some of Griffith’s most spectacular cutting. In the film’s climax, Gish, marooned on an ice floe that’s drifting toward the edge of a waterfall, is rescued by Barthelmess even as they are going over the precipice.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

The close relationship between Griffith and Gish extended past that of director and actress at least to the realm of confidants, the director relying on her opinions and invariable good judgment. In 1920, awash in plans to open his own studio at Mamaroneck, New York, but still responsible for the supervision of a slate of program pictures, Griffith asked Gish to direct Remodeling Her Husband, a light comedy vehicle for her sister Dorothy that is, unfortunately, no longer extant. Although modestly successful, it was an experience the elder sister had no desire to repeat. For one thing, the film caused stress between the two sisters; for another, as she explained it, “directing is no job for a lady.”

Orphans of the Storm

In Mamaroneck, where he had also made Way Down East, Griffith made the almost entirely satisfactory Orphans of the Storm (1921), very much the mixture as before but energized with undiminished vitality and brio. The story was a Dickensian saga of the French Revolution with a patented ride to the rescue by Danton himself. As in many of his major films, Griffith experimented with the frame size of the image itself, masking off the top and bottom of the frame in several shots, leaving the center section in a ratio identical to that of CinemaScope. Griffith’s experiments were almost certainly the genesis for Abel Gance’s Polyvision of a few years later. In scenes depicting the Revolution, Griffith took one shot from a balcony, with a hat and coat casually thrown on a settee in the foreground of the shot, as if the occupant of the balcony had just left the frame because of the street riot raging in the background. The effect is of a startling immediacy, history observed.

Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

More than he probably wished to admit, Griffith had been hurt by allowing—encouraging actually—Lillian Gish to leave his stewardship. He replaced her with Carol Dempster, whose talent was elusive and whose appeal was nonexistent. A few unsuccessful, indifferent pictures later, Griffith was back at United Artists, but under very different circumstances than eight years before, when he had been a founding partner. This time he was an employee making an employee’s films.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

Sound didn’t really seem to faze him. His first talkie, Abraham Lincoln (1930), contains fine things, kinetic and deeply felt moments. Nobody with a feeling for motion picture history can fail to be moved by the presence of old Griffith actors like Henry B. Walthall, once again called upon to play a gracious Southern officer. But one disastrous film later, Griffith entered an embittered, often alcoholic exile from which he never escaped. He died in 1948, a gray ghost on the edges of a town that could never have been built without him.

Naive? Yes. Pretentious? Certainly. But magnificently audacious as well. This was no small man. Lillian Gish said it best: “To us, Mr. Griffith was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.”

DW Griffith in 1943

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