Hollywood 1920-1970 Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)

  • Hollywood 1920-1970
  • Edited by Peter Cowie (1977)
  • New York and South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes and Company London: The Tantivy Press

The true achievement of Hollywood is only now being acknowledged. For years the prodigious output of the major studios and producers was damned with faint praise by the pundits. But during the past decade a reassessment has taken place. Critics as well as thousands of film buffs are aware of the enormous influence Hollywood has exerted on the social fabric not only of the US, but of the world.

At its best — in the work of Lillian Gish or Garbo or Barthelmess or Keaton or in unpredictable flashes of brilliance in Valentino — screen acting for silent films had developed into an art, new and unique, which was lost when pictures spoke. Actors were obliged to develop new means of expression. The silent actors were serious about their work. Lillian Gish starved for days before she shot the fmal scene of La Bohéme. Mary Pickford studied to achieve the deportment of a girl who had spent her youth carrying smaller children about. Their methods of innervation, of working themselves into the mood and feeling of a role had all the intensity and sincerity of the Stanislavski studios. Mack Sennett re-called that Mabel Normand “‘insisted on working on a stage to the accompaniment of the loudest jazz syncopation the record library could provide.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

Griffith

A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity. In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic medium — the paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognised masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century — its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s mono-graph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright. Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism. The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.”

But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing his latter film (The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas of Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords un-comfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)

Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time busy working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously. True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal — a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable. The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in love with her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances. Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration.

Way Down East – Lobby Card

He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson – Hester Prynne and Rev Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter

In Lillian Gish) Sjostrom found his ideal actress. The Scarlet Letter. (1926) was her suggestion: “I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It’s an American classic, taught in all our schools.’ Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom (actually in America Sjostrom was known as Seastrom), who had arrived at M-G-M some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom. “Tt was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before the camera, of course, and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we were all tremendously moved by it.” On another occasion Miss Gish wrote with characteristic perception: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . (The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression.” a Again Sjostrom was able to exercise his power for lyricism and his feeling for landscape. Two years later he was able to work again with Gish on The Wind, a film unjustly neglected, and Sjostrom’s American masterpiece.

William Orlamond, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish and Edward Earle in “The Wind”

From Wine of Youth (1924) all Vidor’s silent films were made for M-G-M, where an early and trying experience was a collaboration with Elinor Glyn, on His Hour (1924). Vidor’s reputation was finally and firmly established with The Big Parade (1925), a massive, exemplary spectacle, at the centre of which was sensitively, if also sentimentally observed the experience and suffering of one, ordinary young man. It was a noble e indictment of war; and no less a great piece of mise-en scene with Vidor using the movement of troops and vehicles in a dramatic fashion hardly attempted, even by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. After this he was requested as the director of La Bohéme by its star, Lillian Gish, whose rehearsal methods, learned from Griffith, caused the director some embarrassments; but ‘‘as the making of the film got under way we found ourselves subjected to Lillian’s will.” Vidor was impressed by the star’s complete commitment to the role, by the terrifying realism of her death scene. One of the many M-G-M films that have not seen the light of day since their first release, this must be worth revival, for the sake of Gish alone.

Lillian Gish (film director) – Remodeling Her Husband

It is worth recalling that Lillian Gish directed a film, Remodeling Her Husband, scripted by Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (Lillian Gish), and starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie. Griffith persuaded her to do it, since he “thought that men would work better for you than for me’’. It was a pity that Miss Gish, with her high intelligence and sensitivity, never repeated the experiment, which in this case seemed to have been simply handicapped by technical inexperience.

The Gish girls have never retired, though after the arrival of talking pictures they returned to the stage, where their careers had begun. They were brought to Griffith in 1912, by Mary Pickford who had acted with them in theatres soon after the turn of the century. LILLIAN GISH was a heroine straight out of the romantic poets Griffith knew and loved so well. Her extraordinary fragility, her spiritual vibrance, her unique, strange beauty often uplifted the more commonplace concepts of Griffith’s Victorian sentiment. It is impossible to imagine Broken Blossoms or Way Down East without Gish: they would certainly not have survived as they have without her marvellous performances.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It is an interesting indication of Gish’s creative approach to her acting to learn that she herself devised the form of the closet scene in the former film: ‘“You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and ‘round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned — spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and threw up his breakfast . . .”’ (interview with the author, published in Sight and Sound).

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

There are innumerable similar anecdotes of the extraordinary intensity of Gish’s playing before the camera: how the baptism of the dying child in Way Down East was so real and affecting that the child’s real, off-screen father fainted; how Vidor and everyone else on the set of La Bohéme thought she really had died when they shot the death scene. Gish is by any standards a very great actress.) Seeing such a performance in The Wind, it is interesting, but bitter, to speculate what wonders she might have achieved if her career had carried on without interruption into the era of sound. But a new star eclipsed her at M-G-M which in 1925 had given her an $800,000 contract. After Garbo came, the studio put Miss Gish into routine chores, and then happily let her go before her contract was fulfilled. ‘‘Stigmatised as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure,”’ wrote Louise Brooks, not quite accurately, for in recent years Miss Gish has occasionally appeared in character roles in films, with notable distinction.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Duel in the Sun

Most of the action takes place on Spanish Bit, the Texas ranch of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Laurabelle (Lillian Gish). Their two sons, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) are a Western Cain and Abel: Lewt, amoral, attractive, seduces Pearl (Jennifer Jones), a halfbreed relative of Laurabelle’s. Eventually, to save the upright Jesse from Lewt’s murderous designs, Pearl shoots her lover during a protracted encounter in which she is also killed; they die in each other’s arms.

Large of gesture, florid and monumental, Duel in the Sun had an almost operatic quality, each bravura set-piece shot, edited and scored for maximum kinetic effect: Pearl’s runaway horse, exhilaratingly filmed as it canters unrestrained across the Texan landscape; the celebrated summoning of the station-hands, a tremendous montage of galloping horses and riders massing to the accompaniment of reverberating bells; the subsequent confrontation between Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey at the barbed-wire fence, a mob of Chinese coolies trembling at the expectation of violent death; and the final duel, preceded by Jones’s desert trek, a wordless chorus accompanying her as the inescapable sun shines full into the camera. This was film-making in the grand manner, utterly self-confident and self-sufficient, its plastic splendour ultimately cancelling out its colossal lack of taste.

King Vidor, Lionel Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish on the sound stage of Duel in the Sun 1947 (The house of Barrymore)

Although Vidor directed most of the picture, with some sequences done by Sidney Franklin and Otto Brower, William Dieterle was responsible for possibly its greatest scene, Tilly Losch’s dance: on a raised platform in the centre of the gigantic Presidio Saloon, Losch as a wanton Indian gyrated to throbbing drums and screeching brass, while all around her milled the pleasure-seekers of the West. Here, and throughout the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score added immeasurably to the excitement: martial, sentimental or sensual, it was exotically orchestrated and played under the composer’s direction with impassioned intensity.

The Night of The Hunter

The Night of the Hunter

Old-fashioned elements were employed in a sophisticated manner for another of the maverick movies, The Night of the Hunter (1955), the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gave his finest performance as the insane preacher, lusting for money and also for vengeance against the sinful. The primitive situations were given metaphorical power by Laughton’s defiant use of throwback styles, including the “iris-out,” reminiscent of Griffith, and the strong black-and-white contrasts of light and shadow, a heritage of expressionist cinema. The floating hair of Shelley Winters, dead at the bottom of a river, and the lyrical yet terrorized flight of two children across a horizon viewed patiently by the preacher, were but two examples of Laughton’s relish for the image. And his major set piece, which haunts the memory, had Lillian Gish joining Mitchum in ironic religious duet (“Leaning—leaning—leaning on the everlasting arms”): she indoors with a shotgun at dead of night, wakefully protecting the children in her charge, while he sat in the open across the way, biding his time. It was sad that Laughton should have waited so long to show us that he could command the screen as a director, more powerfully than he had done at the peak of his career as an actor. For an actor to direct was regarded in Hollywood as a maverick activity in any case, although some actors persevered.

Charles Laughton and Lillian Gish filming “The Night of The Hunter”

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