Hollywood in 1905, before the invasion. We are looking down on Hollywood Boulevard, which runs along the centre. The road on the right is Orange Drive, and the house with the oriental cupola became the home of Conway Tearle. More recently, it passed into the hands of the American Society of Cinematographers, who have carefully preserved it—the only building in the picture to survive. Apartment and office blocks now stretch to the horizon.
by Kevin Brownlow
ALFRED A. KNOPF – NEW YORK, 1979
Talk to people who saw films for the first time when they were silent, and they will tell you the experience was magic. The silent film, with music, had extraordinary powers to draw an audience into the story, and an equally potent capacity to make their imagination work. They had to supply the voices and the sound effects, and because their minds were engaged, they appreciated the experience all the more. The audience was the final creative contributor to the process of making a film.
The films have gained a charm and other-worldliness with age but, inevitably, they have also lost something. The impression they made when there was no rival to the moving picture was more profound, more intense; compared to the easily accessible pictures of today, it was the blow of a two-handed axe, against the blunt scraping of a table-knife.
The films belong to an era considered simpler and more desirable than our own. But nostalgia should not be allowed to cast a Portobello Road quaintness over the past, for it obliges us to edit from our mind the worst aspects of a period and embrace only those elements we admire. The silent period may be known as ‘The Age of Innocence’ but it included years unrivalled for their dedicated viciousness. In Europe, between 1914 and 1918 more men were killed to less purpose than at any other time in history. In America, men who stood out from the herd—pacifists, anarchists, socialists —were rounded up and deported in 1919, and were lucky to avoid being lynched. The miseries of war culminated in the miseries of disease when the Spanish flu swept Europe and America and killed more civilians than the war had killed soldiers. With peace came the Versailles treaty—collapse and starvation in Central Europe—the idealism of Prohibition—gangsterism in America.
The benefit of the moving picture to a care-worn populace was inestimable, but the sentimentality and charm, the easily understandable, black-and-white issues were not so much a reflection of everyday life as a means of escape from it. Again and again, in the publications of the time, one reads horrified reactions against films showing ‘life as it is’.
Pioneers are people of exceptional energy—-a quality that sets them apart. An example of this occurred at the Sun Valley Western Conference in 1976, which David Gill and I attended. We encountered the director, Henry King, who had once been a pilot. He was known as the Flying Director.
I asked him if he still flew from time to time. “I flew in this morning,” he said. “Oh, I realise that,” I said, thinking of the twin-engined boneshaker which had transported us all across the mountains. “But do you ever fly your own plane?”
“I flew in my own plane this morning,” he replied. We could only blink in astonished admiration—for King’s career goes back almost as far as powered flight.
“I’m a pioneer,” said fellow-director King Vidor, when I told him this story, “I’ve been in this business for years.
But even when I first got to Hollywood, Henry King was going strong.”
It is impossible to listen to these people without marvelling; they are so extraordinary in their old age… what must Hollywood have been like when they were all young? (Kevin Brownlow)
IN other arts, millions are expended to preserve a work in its original state. In the movies, the money is spent to prevent the film remaining in its original state, because that state is highly dangerous. It is therefore hard to judge the true value of the films of the silent era, since copies are generally travesties. This is particularly true in the case of D. W. Griffith. Not only has the delicate quality of the photography been debased; Griffith s own attitudes have become so archaic that his work is greeted today as much by laughter as applause.
Nevertheless, it is a tribute to his genius that seventy years after he began work as a director, his major films are still regarded as masterpieces. Griffith himself is still regarded as the innovator of the language of film. So much has been written about him, however, that his work has been submerged by praise, and the expectation of an audience for a Griffith film is thus unnaturally high. Few artists, however talented, can retain their reputation through generation after generation—and in an art subject to such violent change as the motion picture, the mortality rate for genius is high.
To appreciate what Griffith did without romanticising his achievements, it is necessary to strip some of the legends away. Like Edison, Griffith was blessed (or cursed) by the talent of top-flight press agents. They conducted their campaigns in a curious manner, treating their subject with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the deceased. They poured into their advertisements quotations one might see carved on a statue: “The most sane and imaginative American who ever revolutionized the theatre when it needed an emancipator.” . . . “He has far exceeded the power of the written word. It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them.” . . . “D. W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!”
The campaign was mounted when Griffith left the Biograph Company, with the publication in the New York. Dramatic Mirror of a celebrated advertisement: “D. W. Griffith, producer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing the Motion Picture Drama, and founding the modern techniques of the art. Included in the innovations which he introduced and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers are: the use of large closeup figures, distant views, as reproduced first in ‘Ramona’, the ‘switchback’, sustained suspense, the fade-out’ and restraint in expression, raising motion picture acting which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.
Although the word ‘introduce’ is marginally less arrogant than ‘invent’, Griffith was not responsible for the close-up or the fade-out nor would it have made the slightest difference if he had been. What counted was how such devices were used. Griffith used them efficiently, sometimes brilliantly, and the tendency is to credit him with everything possible in the cinema. The trouble is, that by piling all these offerings on Griffith’s altar, one obscures the true object for admiration : the quality of Griffith’s direction.
The travelling shots, the dynamic editing and the colossal sets are all incidental beside this element. It is not always apparent. Some of Griffith’s films—Home Sweet Home (1914), Dream Street (1921)— are completely lacking in any sign of outstanding direction. But take the scene in Orphans of the Storm (1921), when Lillian Gish hears the distant voice of her long-lost sister, begging in the street below. Griffith holds Lillian Gish’s ethereal face in close-up; her blonde hair is illumined by a halo of light. The electricity between Griffith and Lillian Gish is so hypnotic that the audience finds itself straining to catch the merest movement of an eyelash. Miss Gish hesitates, moves her head slightly—“no” . . . one can see her dismiss the thought. . . “that cannot be my sister ”. But the voice reaches her again. Her eyes flash with wild hope, then the lustre fades as she attributes the sound to her imagination. When the voice recurs, and she realises she is not mistaken, the tears well in her eyes—and in ours. One reaches the climax of the scene sharing with Lillian Gish a sense of love and desperation instilled by direction of brilliance.
All his other achievements are overshadowed by this ability to transfer to a length of celluloid the most poignant degree of emotion. Here is something which can survive the centuries. However skilful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture.
The Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish had suggested to Griffith during production that the scenes with the Klan, and the explicit racial elements, might cause the picture to be stopped. “I hope to God they do stop it,” replied Griffith. “Then you won’t be able to keep the audiences away with clubs!” He undoubtedly recalled that Dixon’s play had sparked riots in 1908.
Despite this brutal remark, Griffith was probably as surprised as anyone at the power of his film. “The fact that the showing of The Clansman started riots and put blood on the streets,” said Karl Brown, “was proof beyond proof that it was a great and powerful picture. Regardless of what any critic might have to say about it, the proof was there.”
Griffith sent his assistant Joseph Henabery to persuade the workmen to join the company. By this time the Exposition was over, and the people who had built it had left. But Henabery rounded up three of the craftsmen who had worked on the intricate Italian section. Griffith s associates have steadfastly insisted there was no art director; Griffith showed pictures to his boss carpenter, Frank Huck Wortman, and the sets were built accordingly. But Karl Brown remembered Walter L. Hall, an English theatrical designer, who translated Griffith’s vision into reality. Once Babylon towered over Sunset Boulevard, Griffith had to work out how to shoot it. A tall camera tower was an obvious answer, but Griffith had been impressed by those subtle camera movements in Cabiria. Could he make the camera move from that height?
A balloon was tried, but it made Bitzer sick and was not a stable camera platform. Griffith asked Allan Dwan, an engineer albeit an electrical one, and he suggested a mobile tower with an elevator. It was constructed to move on mining rails. No photograph of this monster is known to exist but the scenes that it filmed are so full of mystery and magic that perhaps it’s as well to preserve that mystery. The eye of the audience is guided softly out of the clouds above Babylon and down to examine the Bacchanalian feast below. At a certain season of the year,” said Karl Brown, “Southern California is visited by a windstorm, a Santa Ana. This wind, blowing out of a cloudless sky, comes in off the San Fernando Valley, which at that time was raw desert. Clouds of dust come over the mountains and through the valley, and a strong wind which would reach forty or fifty knots, so much so that it was hard to walk against.
We had put up the walls of Babylon which were about 150 feet long and 90 feet high—that’s a considerable area to expose to a wind as any man knows who’s used to square-rigged vessels. When the Santa Ana hit that tremendous expanse, the walls were just moving in and out. We thought we d lost the entire set, but Huck Wortman, our master builder, said ‘Well, it ain’t no use looking at her, let’s get some line on her.’ So we did. The boys went aloft on that swinging structure and fastened hawsers, which were made fast and covered with what they called dead men. Those dead men saved our lives, because the hawsers held, the wind subsided and we went to work.”
A unique picture of Griffith at work in the Biograph Studios, New York, 1912. Griffith stands behind flowers. Another Biograph director, Dell Henderson, stands in shirtsleeves next to Bobby Harron (seated), with Mae Marsh next to him. In the background is Olive Fuller Golden. Charles Hill Mailes behind Harron, and, at far right, Christy Cabanne, a future director. Compare the faces of the actors with those of the technicians. Orthochromatic film registered skin tones much darker than they were in reality, and actors had to wear the heavy make-up which gives them, in stills, the look of the mortician’s parlour. Some directors dispensed with make-up altogether, but the habit was not relaxed until the general acceptance of panchromatic film in the late ’twenties, and the introduction of incandescent lights. To this day, male actors often wear make-up for colour film and television.
In Griffith’s autobiographical notes, he wrote: “I remember one day in the early summer going through the gloomy old hall of the Biograph studio, when suddenly all gloom seemed to disappear.
His eyes had fallen on two young girls, Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
He brought both to stardom, but while Dorothy proved a comedienne of great talent, Lillian became a great dramatic actress. Here is a rare photograph of Griffith together with his favourite star.
Lillian Gish writes: “I certainly look like a frump in that dress. Have no idea whether it was taken in New York or Hollywood, but could you burn my half of the photograph? And about those shoes . . . ???”.
Lillian Gish, at the time of Way Down East (1920). Her fragile beauty is apparent from this photograph, but you have to see such films as Orphans of the Storm and The Wind to appreciate her brilliance as an actress. She was able to convey intense emotion by little more than a quiver. D. W. Griffith trained Lillian, and her sister, Dorothy, an outstanding comedienne.