Photoplay Vol. XIV June, 1918 No. 1
HEARTS of the WORLD
A Review of Mr. Griffith’s New Photodrama.
By Julian Johnson
No motion-picture production under any auspices, with any star, would prove a superior first-night attraction to a premier by the celebrated gentleman whom Potash and Perlmutter refer to as “Mr. Grifficks.” Notwithstanding few recent appearances in the squared circle of the silver-sheet, David Wark Griffith is still heavy-weight champ of the movies, and Spring’s largest single interest is undoubtedly his new war play, “Hearts of the World,” first publicly presented at the Auditorium, Los Angeles, in March and viewed by many Allied notables. “Hearts of the World” is, as the programme states, the story of a village. I suspect that there is considerable camouflage in the accredited authorship. Screen and programme allege that the scenario was written by one Gaston de Tolignac, and translated by Captain Victor Marier. Why give Mr. Griffith two extra names?
The camera provides a full evening’s occupation, first unrolling the intimacies of a French village in time of peace, and then displaying the lurid scroll of its destruction, occupation by and final recovery from its rabid northern neighbors, the Huns. As an apotheosis, the triumphant Frenchmen, holding a festival of reunion with their wives, sweethearts and children, behold the first of Pershing’s columns swinging into the end of the long street. You may imagine that this epilogue of Americana, and what follows, causes the audience to resemble nothing but an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration before we- became safe and sane. There is no name, real or imaginary, to suggest any particular sector along the warfront. While large masses of troops and famous leaders are introduced from time to time, the story concerns no part of the great conflict but those phases which have to do with the little town. This is characteristic Griffith simplicity, in fine contradistinction to the screeching ambitions and booming platitudes of those ruthless kings and people’s leaders chucked lavishly about in the average war film. As a drop of water epitomizes the ocean, so one of her little towns epitomizes France, and the happiness or sorrow of a single family, the joy or tragedy of one pair of sweethearts, sums up the tranquilities of peace or the terrors of tyranny.
While “Hearts of the World” covers great areas and contains large scenes and many people it is not, primarily, a spectacle, as was “Intolerance.” It is not even as much of a spectacle as “The Birth of a Nation.” It has not the irresistible dramatic unity and power of “The Birth of a Nation”—that perfect picture!—nor the splendor of imagination and bewildering variety introduced in that noble mystery, “Intolerance.” But it has warm humanities, great sincerity and sweetness, those delectable touches of intermingled laughter and tears which are the hallmark of genuine art, and—as we have indicated—subject-matter which comes rousingly home to every man on earth who has not been mechanically deprived of his virility or born with his foot under the neck of an infallible monarch. I think the main secret of Griffith’s clutch at people’s hearts is his patient preliminary exposition of every detail of his characters’ lives. It doesn’t jar you to read that private ‘arry ‘opkins, of the New Zealand Fusileers, has been gassed to a horrible death in Flanders. You don’t know ‘arry and you recognize only that he died for the sake of liberty and to uphold the government which sent him there. But Charlie Smith, the enthusiastic college boy who lived next door, and sat on your front porch to read the Sunday paper, and whittled your kiddie a wooden dog, and brought his girl around so your wife could pass on her—Charlie loses a couple of fingers in a little skirmish on the Chemin des Dames, and, somehow, it breaks you all up and you hope they’ll invalid him home right away.
So in our little French village we see Douglas Hamilton, an artist who has adopted France as his home, in the varied channels of his life and occupation; we see also Marie Stephenson, chasing her stray gosling into Hamilton’s backyard—and in that funny meeting altering the lives of both of them; Hamilton’s father and mother, comfortable folk accepted in the village as though they had always lived there; the girl’s mother and her placid old grandfather, unswerving in his childlike faith that nothing can harm France; the gay-ferocious M’sieur Cuckoo, village clown, yet something finer than that; the Little Disturber, demoiselle whose practical philosophy is that if she can’t get what she wants to want what she can get; the village-carpenter, a lovable Gallic rube; the idolizing wee brother of Douglas.
When the horde of the Potsdam Attila strikes, it is with throat a bit tightened that we see Marie put away the wedding clothes she had “sewed with white thread and whiter thoughts;” observe the grotesque ends of the girl’s mother and grandfather, and Hamilton’s father; witness the enslaving of Marie; the decline and pitiful death of Douglas’ mother; the destruction of the village we have learned to love, and the all-but-death of Douglas Hamilton himself. When the French retake these stone heaps—once homes in which we saw love and laughter—it is as personal as if someone had saved the relics of our own home town after a German uprising.
The two most significant portrayals are Robert Harron’s, as Douglas Hamilton; and Dorothy Gish’s, as “The Little Disturber.” Young Mr. Harron has come to mature stature in acting without losing a whit of his lovable, boyish personality. He makes Hamilton the prototype of the liberty-loving young man of the world today—gentle, tender, yet an implacable and ferocious soldier when his loved ones are menaced. Dorothy Gish, as a little twelve-o’clock girl in a nine-o’clock town, jumps clear out of all Gish tradition. Saucy and startling, bewitching inspite of her pertness, she and her swing-walk (descendant of the Mountain Girl’s stride?) are to be seen rather than described.
Lillian Gish, as Marie, is called upon for possibly the hardest and most continuous work of the piece, and, for the first time in her career, is drafted for the most extreme emotions. The intelligence land sincerity she manifests throughout remark her misfortune in not having the magnetic personality of her younger sister—who gets much bigger effects with a minimum of endeavor.
Robert Andersen seems to be the Griffith find of the year, playing that glorious fool, M’sieur Cuckoo, the town boob of comic love and grand heroism. Smaller parts fall to that jewel among actors, George Fawcett, playing the carpenter; to George Siegmann, as Von Strohm; to Ben Alexander, playing a most lovable little boy. The portentous moment of the picture (to me, at least) was that episode in which Hamilton’s mother, a delicate woman forced into the hardest sort of service by the German occupation, fails and finally dies in the cellar she and her three little boys inhabit. Whereupon the little fellows, sprung from babyhood to manhood in a day by the fearful elixir of war, resolutely dig her grave in the floor of their one-room habitation and lay her where they can be sure no Saxon ghoul will disturb her rest. This scene, simply written, realistically acted and directed by the hand of genius, is Tolstoy literature.
“Hearts of the World” is the most timely photoplay that could possibly be devised. It should be a tremendous box-office attraction in every country in the world—save one.