Hollywood: The Golden Era by Jack Spears (1971)

Hollywood: The Golden Era

In a series of colorful excursions into the golden era of Hollywood, Jack Spears nostalgically recaptures the romance of motion pictures from silents to Cinerama. Hollywood: The Golden Era is a collection of sprightly, intelligent, and entertaining essays on motion picture history and film personalities that will delight every fan.

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Fine Arts was in financial hot water at the time. To meet the needs of his distribution contract with Triangle (in which he was partnered with Thomas H. Ince and Mack Sennett), Griffith had set up several units turning out cheap program pictures. Production details were left to his story editor, Frank E. Woods, and a group of promising young directors, mostly Griffith protégés — Chester Withey, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning, Paul Powell, Elmer Clifton, and Donald Crisp. With a fortune sunk in the unpopular Intolerance, Griffith was harassed with financial and legal problems which kept him absent from California for months at a time. In March, 1917, he sailed for England with Lillian Gish and her mother to make a propaganda picture for the Allies, Hearts of the World.

The Fine Arts studio was a collection of bungalows and barn-like structures at the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, and Colleen (Moore) and her grandmother rented a small house a half-block away. Another Fine Arts starlet, Carmel Myers, lived nearby, and the two would walk to work each morning, giggling and chattering about the handsome leading men. At the studio she met a number of other promising youngsters — Pauline Starke, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Mildred Harris (with whom she shared a tiny dressing room), as well as such established stars as Lillian and Dorothy GIsh, Robert Harron, and Constance Talmadge.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

After a hurried trip to California, where his Fine Arts Company had collapsed in bankruptcy, Griffith returned to England for The Movies of World War I. In March, 1917, accompanied by Lillian Gish and her mother.

Two months later they were joined by cameraman G. W. Bitzer (whose German background was the subject of an exhaustive security check), Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and several other performers. Another passenger on their ship was General Pershing. Hearts of the World was partially filmed in Great Britain and France, but most of it was shot later in Hollywood.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

The Gish girls were terrified by the air raids in London and Cambridge, but were enormously heartened by the courage and determination of the British people. In France some scenes were made at Compiegne and Senlis, only a few miles from the front and within sound of enemy guns. The ruined villages, strewn with the debris of war and human suffering, made Impressive backgrounds. Griffith and Bitzer waded the mud of the front-line trenches to shoot authentic scenes, but most of these were found to be unusable. The director was lectured by a British officer for exposing himself to enemy fire—or so the publicity releases said.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

By the time of its premiere in New York on April 4, 1918, much of the propaganda value of Hearts of the World had been lost. Its now familiar plot was trite and sentimental, and much footage was given to a commonplace love story (there was even a mild triangle). The war scenes, although rather sketchy, were extremely realistic and well constructed—and also contained some stock shots from a German propaganda picture, for which Griffith had paid $16,000.

Lillian in the hands of a German - Hearts of The World
Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

A typical Griffith climax had a last minute rescue of the girl from the Huns by her soldier sweetheart. Lillian Gish scored a great personal triumph as the distraught heroine of Hearts of the World, She had an unforgettable scene In which, dazed and carrying her wedding dress, she wanders among the village ruins and shell-pocked fields. Robert Harron was fine as the sensitive American artist who Is so stirred by the war that he enlists In the French army, and Dorothy Gish scored as “The Little Disturber,” a comic role with many moments reminiscent of Mae Marsh In The Birth of a Nation.

Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World

Erich von Strohelm was assistant director and technical director, and may be glimpsed in a few scenes as a German officer. George Siegmann, who had menaced Lillian Gish In The Birth of a Nation, was the loathsome Von Strohm, a prototype of the Hun propaganda beast. Hearts of the World was originally shown In better theatersat Increased admissions up to $1.50. It was not seen in smaller towns and theaters until mid-1919, six months after the Armistice, when war-weary audiences gave it an indifferent reception.

By that time Griffith had reluctantly agreed, at Adolph Zukor’s urging, to cut out four reels—mostly scenes that would arouse hatred for the Germans—which gave it an uneven tempo. On the basis of reconstructed prints of the original twelve-reel version, Hearts of the World has come to be recognized as a fine and sensitive, if unappreciated, Griffith picture.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

Griffith shot 86,000 feet of film for Hearts of the World, and some of the unused footage was incorporated into three other war films which he made — The Great Love and The Greatest Thing in Life, both starring Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, and The Girl Who Stayed at Home, with Bobby Harron, Richard Barthelmess, Carol Dempster, and Clarine Seymour.

motion picture lobby card for the greatest thing in life (library of congress)

The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron - Artcraft Poster
The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron – Artcraft Poster

The Great Love (’18) was about a Canadian soldier who falls in love with an English girl. While he is at the front she marries a man who turns out to be a German spy. The picture also purported, as Griffith said, “to show the remarkable transition of the butterfly life of British society to that of stern, sincere, hard workers in the great cause of winning the war.” He induced several members of royalty and nobility—including Queen Alexandra, Lady Diana Manners, Lady Elizabeth Asquith, and Countess Maserine—to make token  ppearances.

motion picture lobby card for the greatest thing in life cve detail2 (library of congress)

The Greatest Thing in Life (’18), which Lillian Gish believes to have been Griffith’s best picture, showed how war brought together a conceited young soldier and an idealistic girl devoted to a worthless man. It contained a famous scene in which a white soldier kisses the cheek of a dying Negro soldier. Griffith was accused by cynical critics of an insincere attempt to offset the racial bigotry of The Birth of a Nation.

Because of the lingering effects of anti-German propaganda in America, these films were not entirely successful. They helped pave the way for John Ford’s Four Sons (’28), which aroused pro-German sympathy with Its story of a Rhine mother who sacrifices three of four sons to Ludendorff’s war machine, and Fred Niblo’s The Enemy (’28), in which Lillian Gish played a young Austrian bride to whom the war brings tragedy and intolerable hardships. Sympathy for the Germans was also reflected in such lesser pictures as Young Eagles (’30), in which a German ace was depicted as an honorable enemy who kills only through patriotic motives, and Dog of the Regiment (’27), in which a German girl and an American boy are sweethearts before the war. Later, he becomes a flying officer and is shot down near her farm. The girl (and Rin-Tin-Tin) help him to escape, and the lovers are reunited after the Armistice.

“Women can be good directors,” Frances Marion said. “Ida Lupino has proved that—but there are too many factions in the studios that believe otherwise.” She regrets that Hollywood quickly forgot the competent movies made before 1920 by such women directors as Lois Weber, Alice Blache, Ida May Park, Elsie Jane Wilson, Mrs. Sidney Drew, and later by Dorothy Arzner. Lillian Gish also tried her hand at directing, and so did several other early actresses—Cleo Ridgely, Grace Cunard, Helen Holmes and Mabel Normand. “It was a wonderful era of happy-go-lucky togetherness,” Miss Marion says.

Jack Spears (1971)

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Hollywood: the Golden Era - by Jack Spears (1971)
Hollywood: the Golden Era – by Jack Spears (1971)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page