How Griffith Picks His Leading Women – By Harry C. Carr (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay, December 1918

How Griffith Picks His Leading Women

By Harry C. Carr

If the myriad questions which Mr. Griffith’s public would like to ask him could be put to an individual vote, surely the winning candidate would take this one: “How do you pick your leading women?” And the questioners would doubtless be thinking of the dozen or so great actresses whom D. W. Griffith picked—among whom are those pictured in the two panels on this page.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

“Acting is not a matter of what one can do with face and hands and body” says he; “it’s the light within that puts characterization across.”

WHEN the editor of Photoplay asked me to write a story about the methods that lie behind the visible work of David Wark Griffith, and the reasons for those methods, I simply answered: “Why don’t you send me to Great General Headquarters behind the German lines for a nice little advance announcement of Ludendorff’s plans for next Spring? I feel that will be much easier to get than the Griffith stuff you want.”

Seena Owen - Courtesy Cecil B DeMille
Seena Owen – Courtesy Cecil B DeMille

Nevertheless, both the subject and the difficulty of it were fascinating. Mr. Griffith is not only remarkable because he remains year after year the supreme creator of the motion picture business; he is about the only director in it who doesn’t accompany himself to work with a jazz band and a drum-major. He is not impolite to reporters. On the contrary, he is probably the most courteous host who ever welcomed one on a lot. But he has that adroitly irritating faculty of some captains of industry : when you are sent to Pierpont Broadanwall’s office to ask him why he put up New York Central as a stake in a poker game you are astounded to be greeted by the great man himself, you get a comfortable chair, a cigar, whatever you want to drink, a talk about the weather, three funny stories—and while you’re still laughing at the last one you wake up to find yourself on the asphalt without one grain of information. Hundreds of reporters interview Griffith and vote him a great fellow, as, indeed he is; but what have they gotten for their publics?

Miriam_Cooper_from_Stars_of_the_Photoplay

Photo: Miriam Cooper

Mr. Griffith says quite frankly that a man should be judged by his work; not by his own talk about it. Theoretically he is absolutely correct, but he doesn’t take into account the great human frailties of hero-worship and curiosity. When a man becomes as extraordinary in his kind as Mr. Griffith he is, in the public mind, a superman, and a superman has—to quote Mr. Cobb — no more privacy than a goldfish. If the myriad questions which Mr. Griffith’s public would like to ask him could be put to an individual vote, I Chink the winning candidate would be this one: “How do you pick your leading women?”

Mae Marsh 1912

Photo: Mae Marsh

It was this interrogative forlorn hope that I led out to the Sunset Boulevard studio on a bright September morning. I had already picked a soft place to fall, but I ventured to tell him that the man who had first upborne Mary Pickford, made Blanche Sweet great, discovered the forlorn pathos of Mae Marsh, unveiled the gentle melancholy of Miriam Cooper and the bright white beauty of Seena Owen, found Constance Talmadge and developed the shy elusive talents of the Gishes was to most women the most interesting man in the world; that while no one expected him to publish the formulas of his laboratory he might at least get acquainted . . . give them a general idea . . . speak at least a few words to people who had been imploring a word for many years.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

It was no talent of mine that made him talk. I think he spoke, rather, to defend himself from being flatulently acclaimed a genius of selection. He seemed to feel that impending.

“The art of acting is at once very simple—and altogether impossible,” he said.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 5
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of girl wearing short sleeves and head band view 2]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3481

Photo: Dorothy Gish

“It isn’t what you do with your face or your hands. It’s the light within.

“If you have that light, it doesn’t matter much just what you do before the camera. If you haven’t it—well, then it doesn’t matter just what you do, either.

“Before you give, you must have something to give. This applies to emotions as well as money.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

“All art is the same. The orator, the sculptor, the painter, the writer and the actor all deal with the same divine fluid. The only difference is the mechanical mould by which they express it. One pours it into one mould; one into another. “I am not sure but what the concrete expression of art is about the same, too. Athletes tell me that all games of physical skill depend on an instinctive knowledge of time and distance. The aviator, the boxer, the runner, the fencer, the baseball player — even the jockey — succeed or fail in exact proportion as they have this instinct. So I dare say that the successful artist is one in whom this strange instinct is combined with the inward illumination.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Photo: Lillian Gish

“Now, you have asked me about women:

“Certainly there are a few mechanical characteristics that have a certain importance. For instance, deep Knes on the face of a girl are almost fatal to good screening, for on – the screen her face is magnified twenty times, and every wrinkle assumes the proportions of the Panama Canal. It is important that her face have smooth, soft outline.

Lillian Gish portrait Close-up Cca 1925 Photographer Fred Hartsook - LA
Lillian Gish portrait Cca 1925 Photographer Fred Hartsook – LA

“So with the eyes. Every other physical characteristic is of insignificant importance compared with the eyes. If they are the windows of your soul, your soul must have a window it can see through. The farther motion picture art progresses the more important does this become. In the early days, screen actors put over effects with elaborate and exaggerated gestures. Every year the tendency is more subdued in this regard. Actors make less and less fuss with their hands, and tell more and more with their eyes.

Photo: Constance Talmadge

“But a good pair of eyes and a smooth face of proper contour will not suffice to make a motion picture actress. “There are plenty of horses with legs for derby winners who are pulling milk wagons. They have the legs, but they haven’t the fighting heart.

“In other words, they lack the inward illumination.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

“History has one very striking instance of a light that went out. Napoleon had an instinct for mathematics that made him a great artillery officer. He had the divine vision for strategy and logistics. But what made him the transcendent military genius of all time was the feeling within his heart that nothing could beat him. After his divorce from Josephine, and the Russian campaign, the light flickered and went out. He still had the same instinct for strategy, the same genius for artillery fire. But he became a second-rate general. When the time came in which he lost faith in himself his military science availed him nothing. His light had gone out.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Photo: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, D.W. Griffith

“I don’t pretend to know why it is, but you either have it, or you haven’t it. If you have it, you can polish up the tools and make them more effective; but if you haven’t it no amount of study will bring this queer illuminative elf to you. “Any director can squirt glycerine tears over a pretty face and tip over a few chairs, break up a table or two and have some sort of imitation tragedy. That isn’t real. Real tears aren’t always real, if you get my meaning. It is the feeling behind the tears that can open the beholder’s heart. “Now don’t understand me to say that a girl is born a heaven-sent genius or a predestined failure. Nothing could be a more ghastly untruth. “Remember what I said about having something to give, as a preliminary necessity for giving?

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

“The only woman with a real future is the woman who can think real thoughts. “Some get these thoughts by reading and study; others by instinct. Sometimes deep analytical thought seems born in one.”

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

Presently we went onto the set, and Griffith went to work. His first subject was Ben Alexander, the tiny boy in “Hearts of the World.” They made him a bed of straw over in the corner of the little French dug-out. The lights were low, and the shadows were playing queer gaunt tricks as the wind caught the candle-flame. Outside there came a muffled roar of artillery that re-echoed dully against the studio walls.

The megaphone was at Gnffitn s lips. “Now, Baby,” he said, quietly.

Little Ben sat up rubbing his eyes.

“You’re frightened,” said D. W. Abject terror spread over the baby features, as though someone had lowered a dark curtain over his face. “Now sleepy again.” The terror faded. The little head dropped back to the straw. Griffith turned to the little group behind the camera. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the forgotten art of tragedy. You have just seen a very fine example of it.”

“But a good deal of it was not the baby, but Griffith,” I suggested.

“On the contrary,” resumed the director, “nobody told the baby what to do. I told him he was frightened, and that look of terror came into his eyes. When he grows up he may be able to add certain mechanical tricks, but he will never really do any better acting, at seven or seventy.

“I dare say our friends the theosophists would say that personalities like this baby have old souls that have been here on earth before, and are drawing upon the subconscious experiences of their previous lives.

“I don’t know anything about that. But I am sure that this little soul-light is usually born with the child. Some feed it into a lambent flame; others let it die into gray ashes.”

“The only woman with a real future is the woman who can think real thoughts. Some get these thoughts by reading and study; others, by instinct. Sometimes deep analytical thought seems born in one.”

“Every other physical characteristic is of insignificant importance compared with the eyes. If they are the windows of your soul, your soul must have a window it can see through. The farther motion picture art progresses the more important does this become. Every year actors make less fuss with their hands, and tell more and more with their eyes.”

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