Picture Play Magazine – November 1921 Vol. XV No.3
Flashing Back to Romance
In which you are taken to see D.W. Griffith’s next huge production, a screen adaptation of “The Two Orphans,” now in the making; and to meet an actor, new to the screen, who is likely to be the sensation of the coming season.
By Malcolm H. Oettinger
TWO gleaming swords flashed in the golden sunlight as two nobles of the court of Louis XVI faced each other, the while courtiers and ladies clustered round in excitement. At the foot of the marble stairway they fenced, parrying and thrusting with fierce intensity, yet consummate grace. At one side a golden-haired country girl, beautiful as any of the towering belles of the court without a suggestion of their artificiality, watched the encounter with hope and anxiety staring from her wide eyes. “We shall see who receives the final rites, M’sieur’ Chevalier !” “Touche!”
A cry of approval goes up from the gayly costumed throng. A sea of white wigs nod in pantomimed conversation. The two nobles, proud in their gay, brocaded coats, their rich, silken breeches, their beribboned stockings, lunge at each other with quickened ardor. Blades clashing, eyes flashing, the men circle swiftly about, never looking anywhere but in each other’s eyes. Again they have started the wary circling, again—and the little Chevalier steps adroitly forward, feints, and with the speed of a tiger runs his glittering sword into his opponent’s breast. A shriek of horror, a general rush toward the swooning victim, a fantastical hubbub.
The slender, panting Chevalier has grasped the gentle blond girl’s hand, and together they dash up the marble steps. “All right, boys,” says a quiet, sonorities voice. “Let’s do it again. After you’ve stuck him, Mr. Schildkraut, I wish you’d remember to wait until he drops his sword before escaping with Miss Gish. He might be fooling you and stab you in the back.” With a soft chuckle D. W. Griffith resumed the camp chair, from which he had arisen to deliver his criticism. An energetic assistant herded the ladies and courtiers back to the side lines, whence they were to rush once the duel started again. The contestants leaned upon their swords and joked with one another. “Let me kill you this time,” suggested the unfortunate victim of fate and the scenario.
After the overwhelming success of ” ‘Way , Down East” it was not surprising that the master of the perpendicular platform should have turned to another tried and tested stage success for his next feature opus. And in turning, it was even less startling that he should have selected “The Two Orphans,” a universally popular romance of the days when knights were bold and women helpless, when feminism was as unheard of as Freudian complexes and Fordian Simplexes, when swords were sharper than words—Shaw had still to be born!—and when, in short, action was more to be desired than epigrams. A period obviously that writes itself dramatically. Of such colorful pattern is “The Two Orphans.” Sentiment, thrills, villainy, romance, and heroism, all are here, woven adeptly, slyly, into a splashy, effective entertainment, luscious meat, if ever there was any, for the movies. And clearly Grififith is relishing his task. In transposing the duel scene to the celluloid, he sat and rocked with chuckles of approbation, his sign, oddly enough, of complete satisfaction. During one of Miss Lillian Gish’s most tragic scenes, later in the day, he laughed happily throughout, a sympathetic laugh.
‘Tis a joy to do a thing that you are almost certain will be popular,” he said with a smile. “It was a joy, of course, to do ‘Blossoms,’ but then the joy faded. Not so with ‘ ‘Way Down East.’ And this, I think, is a story of equal power, and, in addition, considerably greater pictorial appeal.” He pointed silently to the slender, silvered trees with their crystal leaves, to the marble stairway gleaming in the sunlight, to the chaste statuary gracing the greensward here and there. A fountain tinkled softly behind us. Across its plashing surface the triumphant Chevalier was looking soul fully into the eyes of a red-lipped, alabaster- shouldered, blushing extra girl. She was smiling confusedly. “Le Chevalier stays in character,” I suggested. Lillian Gish, sitting beside the director, smiled. Her flowerlike hands fluttered amusedly. “The whole office force is wild about him,” she said. “Extra girls are just human, too. And the telephone operator—the first morning he came I met her dashing up to her office board with her eyes fairly shining. ‘Isn’t he simply—beautiful ?’ she gasped. And I agreed that he is.
I think him about the most beautiful man I have ever seen.” Now the tete-a-tete ” across the fountain seemed to sweep to an end with the Chevalier bending low over the slim hand he held. A kiss, a flourish, and he was rounding the fountain. Then I met the latest of Griffith’s discoveries, in this case a discovery only of the screen, already a footlighted luminary, Joseph Schildkraut. Tragic black eyes, lustrous black hair, a sensitive, aquiline nose, a quivering mouth, and a lithe, straight body of no great height. A firm handclasp, a slight accent, noticeable chiefly because of his carefully precise pronunciation, and an ingenious self-assurance. Ideals, dreams, faith, and a selfconscious trick of suddenly widening eyes to emphasive a point. Foreign to his finger tips; with a dash of Lou Tellegen, a suggestion of Charles the Fifth, a vestige of that auteur that was the youthful Napoleon’s, a tinge of out-and-out showmanship. “I had no idea of doing pictures before Mr. Griffith approached me,” he said, lighting a cigarette and inhaling slowly. “He saw me in ‘Liliom,’ however, and asked me to try camera work, with a view to doing the Chevalier. I knew that it was the director of the world who was speaking, and naturally I consented.
“Doing pictures is far more wearing than acting upon the stage. Consider a moment yourself.” An expressive hand pointed a slender finger toward the platform on which he had been fencing. “I do this fencing scene not once or twice, but perhaps twenty times. Then I do the close-ups. Then I do the retakes. And then I am finished—with this one scene ! On the stage I go to the theater at eight, I act until ten forty-five, and I am through. The waiting, the repetition, the enforced—you call it loafing—is killing to an artist.”
A passing brunette, carrying in her hand a four-foot wig of dazzling vdiite, smiled alluringly. Schildkraut looked at me quickly, then dropped his eyes. “You will pardon me for a moment?” and hurried—rather strode than hurried, for he is a romantic figure, none of whom ever hurry —over to the lingering damosel. I raised an admiring eyebrow as I watched the young man’s technique in approaching and putting—putting, I should add, his lips upon her hand. Then his luminous eyes clashed with hers. Here was no Hollywood tyro in the gentle art, here no hero by Nick Carter out of Universal City; this was Lothario in the studio. Mr. Griffith was directing Morgan Wallace, the villain of the duel, in a series of close-ups. Like Lowell Sherman, Wallace is a bad man with a sense of humor, a wicked lion among the ladies—screenically—with a wicked line among the ladies. Griffith leaned forward in his chair and taunted Wallace, while the camera clicked on.
“Ha, you a fencer ! Voila, a thrust—I will kill you ! And there is another. And another. Bah ! You are poor, friend, very poor.” And Wallace parried and countered at the air, eyes blazing evilly, lips curled sardonically, snarls of laughter crowding out the curses. Suddenly he ceased his gyrations and tossed his sword down.
“What’s the matter, Wallace?” The debonair villain looked surprised. “Didn’t you say ‘Lunch?'” Griffith laughed heartily. “No, sir. I said ‘Lunge !’ Now please lunge!” Fifteen minutes later the command telescoped into the more welcome order to sword work of a different nature, and, prying the romantic Liliom from a new and utterly bewitching creature, I started with him toward the cafeteria that is justly termed a feature of the Griffith entourage. Once seated, and dallying with a tender steak, we again took up the problems of the world, with, happily, no idea of attempting to solve them.
“What do you think of American women?” I asked him. He frowned. “Who cares?” “The public,” I replied.
And,” I added defensively, “I am merely a servant of the press that serves, in turn, the ‘public.” He did not deign to reply. “What are your ideas on love and marriage?” Again he frowned. ‘T does not concern the public whether or not I am a married man or a Mormon, a celibate, or a rounder. It is not their business whether I am middle-aged or old, whether I am stupid or intelligent. I am a public specimen only as an actor, and it is as an actor only that you have a right to consider me. If I am an artist all right. If not, too bad. But what I eat? What I drink? How much I drink? On that I have nothing to say.”
He turned upon his steak savagely. “The public over here is too inquisitive.” This closed the subject, and a moment later found him discussing his European training with Max Reinhardt, with Lubitsch in pictures, and with Pola Negri. “I have worked in all of the best Continental drama,” he said. “Molnar, Wedekind, Shaw, Hauptmann, Wilde. Bahr, Schnitzler ” “You played Anatol?” I interrupted. “Of course. Many times. Schnitzler himself directed our rehearsals. A second Anatol, by the way. A dandy, a beau among the ladies, a philanderer. And who,” he suddenly added, “who that can be is not?” At that precise moment the waitress was gazing at him in undisguised adoration. “Huckleberry pie or apple. Mr. Schildkraut ?” she cooed languishingly.
“Cofifee, Marie,-‘ he replied, and she flew off toward the kitchen with starlit eyes. He had remembered her name!
“No, I have no desire to star,” he admitted after a number of leading questions. “After coming over here from my European success, I did ‘Pagans,’ which, although a failure, brought me wonderful press notices. Belasco, Hopkins, and the Shuberts all offered immediately to star me, but it was the combination of having done ‘Liliom’ already in Vienna, and the Theater Guild —the most artistic producing group in America—that induced me to do ‘Liliom’ here. I have absolutely no wish to see my name in electrics. That means nothing to an artist.”
Since Schildkraut is to be so prominent in this next Griffith opus, I may tell you that he was born in Bucharest, Roumania, twenty-five years ago, and first appeared, at five, in Buenos Aires, in support of his father, Rudolph Schildkraut, famous actor of New York’s old Irving Place Theater. His father, incidentally, is his severest critic. Recently the old gentleman visited his son at Mamaroneck, and after watching him act proceeded to the main building on the old Flagler estate to see some “rushes” of the previous day’s work. Only father and son saw the projected film. They remained closeted in the projection room for a long hour. When they came out all traces of cockiness had fled from the youthful Joseph’s face. Traces of tears were apparent. “Papa says I’m rotten,” he murmured sadly. But in this case I would not “Ask dad.” The Griffith stamp of approval is reassuring.
While we lunched, I spied Morgan Wallace and the good-looking Creighton Hale at a near-by table, with two charming young things whom I later found were cousins of the Gish sisters, getting their first chance to be movie queens in this huge spectacle play. The one cousin, a striking pippin, with dark hair and chiseled profile, confided to me that extra-girling il: was hard on one’s brogans. “We stand about so much,” she said. “But I’m going to stick to Mr. Griffith any time he will give me the chance. And I’ll have to finish high school first, too. Tell the world it’s wonderful, but awfully hard work.” She looked like a Gainsborough painting come to life, the costume having been an inspiration of the encouraging, sympathetic Lillian’s. I asked Lillian herself what chances she thought the beginner had. She thought for a few moments, then spoke haltingly, gently.
“The beginner has a hard road to travel,” she said slowly. “I told the girls what a task it was to be an extra. I warned them. Now if they are anxious to stay in the pictures, I think they should turn out fairly well. They are eager to succeed surely. And that, coupled with beauty and grace, helps tremendously.” Recalling the flood of letters that I had seen in Picture-Play last month electing her one of the Eight Eye Fillers, I mentioned the fact to her.
Dropping her eyes, she smiled in embarrassment. “I never knew that I was a beauty. But it is wonderful to be appreciated. I don’t think any one realizes how I love the letters sent me. They mean so very much—especially now.” Her voice softened.
“Mother is in the hospital. Dorothy and I have been terribly worried about her, and these sweet letters and tokens of admiration have just kept me buoyed up sometimes when everything was bluest.” Sweet, ethereal, dainty, this emotional prima donna is lilylike, fragrant, slender, retiring, graceful—-a far cry from many of the screen heroines who become varnished disappointments off the screen. Her dreamy eyes, her tiny, round mouth, her clear white skin, all are symbolic of the girl herself—girl, I add, rather than woman, though in experience she is indeed no longer young. As we were chatting, Mr. Griffith strolled over to explain the action of the impending scene to the blond Duse.
“And I wish you would disarrange your hair, Miss Gish,” concluded the gelatin genius, after the details had been covered. With a smile, the Annie Moore of the unforgettable ” ‘Way Down East” left us.
“This is the thing that the whole world loves,” said the creator of “The Birth,” as he calls it. “Romance! Excitement, thrills, love, and climaxes—not one, but many. When I make a picture I am making it for the world, not for myself. If I were making pictures for myself there would be more ‘Blossoms’ and fewer ‘Dream Streets,’ but”—gradually a smile appeared—”my business sense, poor though it is, tells me that ‘Dream Street’ is adjacent to Easy Street.
“I must attune my work to the masses as well as the classes. The man in the street must be fascinated just as much as the Wall Street broker and the Greenwich Village highbrow, so-called. And in ‘The Orphans’ I believe I have the universal story, with its romance, its comedy, its thrills, its heart interest, and, do not forget, far more opportunity for spreading beautiful sets than ever I have had before. Do you think that I will fail to take advantage of the opportunity?”
Dorothy Gish jumped from comedy to tragedy in this f eatvire, portraying the highly sympathetic character of the little blind girl. Creighton Hale will have the comedy moments, and, as we have already indicated, the fight for the final fade-out rests between Morgan Wallace and the talented, exotic Schildkraut. That reminds me that he told me Romeo will be his next role with the Theater Guild, opposite his present speaking-stage inamorata, Eva le Gallienne, an actress of no slight power. “What I want to do,” said Schildkraut, just before I entrained for the lights of Manhattan and a ringside seat at the Follies, “what I should love to do is Ibsen. He is the master mechanic, the complete playwright. He is so easy to do, you see, and yet one receives such extraordinary credit for doing him. Then there is always Schnitzler. And several of the English Maugham’s plays are masterly. It is my intention to stay here in America, dividing my time between the stage and screen—under the direction of the Guild in the one instance, and, of course, Mr. Griffith in the silent drama.”
On the way to the studio bus, Mr. Griffith showed me the village street in old France—Mamaroneck—complete in detail to the last cobblestone. Many of the mob scenes will be staged here, those spectacular mass effects that have placed D. W. second to none the world over. He told me that Lillian Gish was far and away the premiere actress of the silver sheet, that photography he considered second only to story, that “The Two Orphans” would take longer to make than anything he has ever done—with the possible exception of “Intolerance”—and, startling statement this, that any one can act who is not an “actor.” “Give me a plastic person who will let himself go, without thinking what he is going to look like on the screen, and I will make a real player of him. The hardest person to work with is the self-opinionated trouper with ‘ideas’ on everything from the death scene in ‘Camille’ to the off-stage shriek in ‘The Jest.’ One of the saddest losses the screen ever suffered was Clarine Seymour. Another was Bobbie Harron. Neither knew anything technical of stagecraft. They were simply born actors. And so few people are! “The born actor needs no stimulation—no music, for example. We use it very rarely. It serves only to confuse in most instances. In doing a romance like ‘The Orphans’ there’s something akin to a lyrical swing running through the whole thing—abroad, tender, appealing.” And if I were picking an artist to breathe reality into the romance of eighteenth-century France, I should not hesitate in my selection of this same David Wark Griffith. The man is as big as his ideals. There was an enthusiasm in his voice and manner that argued well, it seemed to me, for the success of the picture, and I was told, confidentially, by one of his aids that Griffith has appeared to be much happier in the making of this picture than he has for some time. All of which has made me eager and impatient to see the finished production—a feeling which I am sure that countless thousands of Griffith’s followers will soon be sharing.