Hedda Hopper’s Memories of Early Movies and D.W. Griffith (Chicago Tribune, 1952)

Chicago – Tribune Wednesday September 03, 1952 – Page 23

From Under My Hat

Hedda Hopper’s Memories of Early Movies and D.W. Griffith

Instalment IX

By Hedda Hopper

Hollywood, the pioneers – Griffith and Bitzer 1912

When D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” hit the screen it gained many converts and fans for the movies from the legitimate theatre stars, who, up till then, had looked upon motion pictures as a not quite bright member of the entertainment family who should be kept out of sight when the aristocracy of the stage came to call.

So when Douglas Fairbanks was approached by D.W. Griffith to come to Hollywood and star in “The Lamb,” he quickly said yes. Wolfie, like the others, had an offer for a year in Hollywood with options. The offer came over the telephone, but he insisted that the man bring the contract to Siasconset for his signature. He and the fellow players who signed along with him entered on a period of having their eyes opened. Wolfie’s chief asset was his voice, but unfortunately the pictures were silent.

Doug Fairbanks’ first wife, Beth, found a home for us in Hollywood and engaged a Japanese couple to run it. The Fairbankses also had a Japanese couple, so when either of us entertained we pooled servants. And such a service! Doug, dispensing with a chauffeur, drove his own car. It was several years before he started to make real money.

The Studio on Fourteenth Street (Billy Bitzer Story)

There were three major studios then: D.W. Griffith’s, Thomas Ince’s and Mack Sennett’s, but few independents. The Christie boys were still making two reelers. There were rivalries but no rapier jealousies like those of today. Feuds weren’t as much fun then. You were in the same business, the studios were close together, and sometimes you were in the same pictures. You kept running into your rival each day. If you went to a party, there he was, and you couldn’t avoid speaking. I’ve remedied that situation today. I can look right thru ‘em and not see ‘em. But in the early days no false fin lines were drawn; no social hoop-de-do, and no better than Wrestler Bull Montana.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

D.W. Griffith was the father of our industry. Many men have tried to claim that title since, but it was due to Griffith that Hollywood grew great. He was one of the great pioneers of the business in developing screen technique, but his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, and not Griffith, as is so widely supposed, invented the close-up.

After giving us “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” and “Broken Blossoms,” Griffith started to grow old, and upstart producers said his usefulness was at the end. In his latter years he lived at the Knickerbocker hotel. Griffith didn’t need money; he needed a job to uphold his pride. There was nothing left for him to do in the art form he had largely perfected. He wandered around Beverly Hills and Hollywood, drinking in one tavern, then going on to the next bar.

circa 1925: David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948), American film director. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I went to several bigwigs in the business. “You must find something for that man to do; give him back his faith in life.” “What could we do?” they asked me. They had the face to ask that question! “The industry has passed him by!” Passed by the man who made it possible for every one of them to be where they were! In Hollywood gratitude is Public Enemy No.1.

I also talked to the executives of the Motion Picture Relief Fund Country home. “Give him a job,” I begged. “Let him go over the lists of applicants – he will give understanding to people who, like himself, have grown old in this business and are now on the shelf. Make the money nominal – $50 a week – D.W. doesn’t want or need charity; but give him back his sense of belonging.” Well, they didn’t quite see how it could be done.

Death Takes DW Griffith

Finally, on June 23, 1948, Griffith died. Could it be because he no longer had the will to live, and just loosed his grasp, opened his hand and let life fall away from him?

It was a fine funeral. The flowers were abundant. Why not, when the studio controllers could O.K. the bills as necessary business expense! I made it my business to arrive early for the services, and took a front seat where I could see everyone and they could all see me. All the big brass was there. I had a little list and checked them off as they walked past. Then I stared at them until they were forced to look me in the eye. A more sheepish looking crowd I never expect to see in Hollywood.

David Griffith Dies

Charles Brackett, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who never knew Griffith personally, read the eulogy. Among other things, he said: “There was no solution for Griffith but a kind of frenzied beating on the barred doors of one day after another. Fortunately, such miseries do not endure indefinitely. When all the honors a man can have are past honors, past honors take on their just proportion. The laurels are fresh again and the applause loud. He lies here, the embittered years forgotten, David Wark Griffith, the Great.”

A few months after Griffith’s death I had occasion to lunch with Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who was very pleased with himself.

“Hedda,” he said, “You’ll be happy to know that the producers are going to build a great monument to D.W. Griffith over his grave in Kentucky.”

I looked at him. “Are they out of their minds? The men who would do nothing for him while he lived are now to show their generosity by buying a shaft of granite to mark his resting place?”

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

In May 1950 three famous stars of the silent screen – Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – went to La Grange, Ky., and dedicated a dignified and honest memorial to the man they loved. It’s a simply inscribed seven foot Georgia marble memorial. Near the cemetery is the white frame church where Griffith attended Sunday school.

(Copyright 1952: Hedda Hopper)

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford, Evelyn Baldwin Griffith and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

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