By DALE McGONATHY with DIANA VREELAND
What we remember most about Hollywood
… is the glamour and the romance they gave us. How they glorified their heroes and, worshiped their heroines. Those beautiful women, those handsome men. For Hollywood, everything was larger than life, bigger than anything before or since. The diamonds were bigger, the furs were thicker; the silks, velvets, satins, chiffons were richer and silkier. There were miles of ostrich feathers, maribou, white fox, and sable; miles of bugle beads, diamante, and sequins. Hollywood was paved with glitter, shine, and glory. Everything was an exaggeration of history, fiction, and the whole wide extraordinary world. After all, nothing was too good for Hollywood, and for Hollywood nothing was too good for the people. Hollywood was the world’s back porch. At Hollywood’s height, people didn’t travel as much as they do now. But they were still curious about what was going on in the rest of the world. And they had a fantasy about what happened in history. Whoever you were, a secretary in Bavaria, a housewife in South Dakota, you went to the movies—and it was the biggest, most important thing that ever happened in your life. You paid ten or twenty-five cents and you related to Salome, Cleopatra, Camille, or Catherine, Empress of all the Russians. To hell with relating to the lady next door. That was the essence of the movies: the magic wrought by Hollywood design.
The increased importance that Griffith and De Mille gave to set decoration and costume design, however, came less as a result of the shift of movie production to the West Coast, where greater freedom in exterior shots was possible, than as a consequence of the switch from brief two-reelers to feature-length films. The breakthrough film was D. W. Griffith’s biblical feature, Judith of Bethulia, shot in 1913, but not released until a year later, when Griffith—thwarted in his ambition to enlarge the scope and length of the films—had moved to another studio. The costumes for Judith of Bethulia were little more than glorified sheets and bathrobes, but, like Griffith’s set—a walled city thrown up in the San Fernando Valley—they were made specially for the movie—a first. The costumes and sets, Griffith’s ingenious use of rapid cutting, the montage, were clearly breaks with the straight-on, plodding film-record of the stage play that had been the practice until then. D. W. Griffith was passionately involved in the evocative power of visual detail, and his studied use of closeup brought in its train a whole series of changes in film makeup and costume. However inaccurate, Griffith’s use of costume and decor was profoundly evocative. Intolerance, 1916, with thousands of “historically” garbed extras, remains the most important and influential American film in the history of movie costume.
The expansion of the movies scope
… was further enhanced by the efforts of D. W. Griffith, whose sentimentality was linked with a shrewd eye for detail and a keen sense of exploiting the technical side of moviemaking. However mawkish his sense of drama, however exaggerated his sexual and psychological involvement with young girls and their aura of innocence, he was able to evoke with realistic settings and costumes a world unimaginable in the stage-like treatments of his peers.
About his stars, Griffith told Photoplay in 1923, “When I consider a young woman as a stellar possibility, I always ask myself: Does she come near suggesting the idealized heroine of life? , . . The girl, to have the real germ of stardom, must suggest—at least in a sketchy way—the vaguely conscious ideals of every woman. Again, she must suggest—and this is equally important—the attributes most women desire.”
Somewhat after the fact, Griffith was formulating the powerful psychology that imbued his movies, a major strain in the evolution of the feminine in the film in general. “To me, the ideal type for feminine stardom has nothing of the flesh, nothing of the note of sensuousness. My pictures reveal the type I mean. Commentators have called it the spirituelle type. But there is method in my madness. . . . The voluptuous type, blossoming into the full blown one, cannot endure. The years show their stamp too clearly. The other type … ah, that is different.”
… with its sexual associations, had suggested one of Griffith’s most poignant movies. In Limehouse Stories, a volume of short stories about the Chinese slum section of London, Griffith found a short story in which the dreams of innocence and evil of the first Hollywood decade coalesced. In Broken Blossoms, 1919, taken from these stories, Griffith expressed intimately and unforgettably a theme that he approached again and again, often on a grander scale: Lillian Gish is mistreated by a drunken father.
Even when he beats her, she props her tiny mouth into a smile with her fingers. The scenes of her terror are almost unbearable in their intensity, almost a willful assault by the director on her somewhat vacant, woebegone presence. Finally, she is rescued by a kindly Chinese who dresses her in oriental style and places her in his bed, an adored object. What follows is one of the most erotic passages in American films—her still face transformed and lighted by an emerging sexual languor; her pathetic face framed by two pouts of curls, the wistful eyes, and the trembling mouth. In Broken Blossoms, more than in Birth of a Nation, 1915, and Intolerance, 1916, Griffith had suggested the stirring of an impulse that was to create the glamour and romance of Hollywood.
…Starring Lillian Gish
Her mouth a thin line, her eyes ever grave, ever large, Lillian Gish was the prototype of D. W. Griffith’s Victorian heroines. Unlike Mary Pickford, she never overcame her troubles on the screen. She struggled and she was broken. About her, Allene Talmey, one of the wisest and wittiest writers about Hollywood, said, “her lace required only a breeze to whip it into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons.” Lillian Gish, for all of her pathos, was a supreme master of her craft with a staggering knowledge of all aspects of moviemaking. She brought Henry Sartov to the Griffith studio to photograph her in Broken Blossoms. His contribution was the soft-focus photography, unique for 1918, that spills luminously over the film, giving it its special atmosphere.
It was the effect of filming Lillian Gish through gauze that gave her London waif a dreamy and memorable eroticism. Her small body, fragile features, and intimate scale of acting gave her a presence before the camera that was unlike that of any other actress. Her training under Griffith, a collaboration really, made her unusually canny. At MGM, she had a famous feud with Erte over the costumes for La Boheme. He wanted authenticity in the garments of the Latin Quarter students: tattered and heavy garments to suggest the cold of their garrets. Lillian Gish said that silk would do much more to indicate the poverty because it would create an “atmosphere.” Erte won out, but Gish did her own costumes. At MGM, in the late twenties, she was finally supplanted by Greta Garbo, who represented a new spirituelle type, a more worldly broken blossom. So, in her thirties, trailing clouds of lily-of-the-valley perfume, Lillian Gish retired to the stage and a career that has lasted until the present.
Curiously, a majority of those early moviemakers had started out in the fashion business, manufacturing gloves, clothing, furs, and jewelry. They understood the public’s taste for vicarious luxury and they inevitably imported many of their former associates from the garment trade into moviemaking. Louis B. Mayer was a shoemaker. Samuel Goldwyn a glovemaker. Adolph Zukor was a furrier. Later, Zukor insisted on fur trimming for the costumes in his pictures: “It was good for the business.” What business, was not clear. Goldwyn even got Chanel to design for the movies—along with Patou, Lucien Lelong, Alix—now Madame Gres, Maggy Rouf, and Schiaparelli, all for Artists and Models Abroad, 1938.
Hollywood costume – Glamour! Glitter! Romance!
*** Note: Billy Bitzer used the same type of lens described in his autobiographic book as “Lillian Gish Lens”.
*** Note: Nothing new under the sun … History (always written by the victors) repeats itself. After Lillian Gish filmed “His Double Life” (1933), she didn’t make another film for ten years. When she did return in 1943, she played in two big-budget pictures, Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) and Top Man (1943). The Cobweb (1955) marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.
*** Note: Lillian Gish’s “retirement” to the stage had nothing to do with Greta Garbo. In her autobiography “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me”, and with many other occasions, Miss Gish detailed the whole chain of events (starting with her refusal of Mayer’s framed private life scandal). Mayer and Thalberg wanted to knock down Lillian from the pedestal and bring her at the same level, with the rest “decent” flappers of that time. Her well known answer, was that she has not enough energy to act in her private life, after she leaves the set. Then came “Uncle Vanya”. And then … a prodigious career that ended with Lillian’s last song – The Whales of August.