Picture Play Magazine September 1919 Vol. XI No.1
Like all creative artists who venture away from the beaten tracks, D. W. Griffith is impelled and guided by a big force—a force which he himself, perhaps, does not understand.
By Louise Williams
INCENSE floated out from the stage, while the notes of a balalaika orchestra threaded a plaintive melody back and forth through the fabric that was being woven in the mind of the audience. Far back in a corner of one of the upper boxes sat D. W. Griffith, hat drawn down over his eyes, chin sunk deep in his overcoat collar, watching unobtrusively to see how New York would take “Broken Blossoms,” the result of his last straying from the beaten paths of picture making, and the first picture of his repertoire series. “I wonder,” thought I as I watched him, “whether you really knew, when you began this picture, what you were going to achieve—or whether you’re a marionette ?” For the big, creative geniuses, you know, are often like marionettes, obeying the guiding hands of invisible puppeteers, which pull the strings that make them perform. Ibsen, for example, said that his great allegory, “Peer Gynt,” was written in response to a mighty impulse, and that not until the work had been completed for several months did he understand and appreciate w hat he had done.
That Griffith was, after this manner, a marionette,” mysteriously impelled, I learned to my intense satisfaction a few morning’s later, when he invited a small group to attend a special showing of the new picture. The party was composed of Nevinson, the official British War artist, who was in the States for two weeks, and who had illustrated Burke’s “Limehouse Nights,” an art critic, a musician and dramatic critic, and myself.
“We didn’t have any idea that this picture would take hold in the way it has,” Griffith remarked with the most unassuming frankness as we stood, discussing the picture, after the showing was over. “It was originally intended to be just a regular picture, so far as presentation was concerned. But something impelled ne—the story, in the first place. I believed in it. Personally, I think that Thomas Burke is about the only writer doing anything original nowadays, and his ‘Chink and the Child,’ from which we made this picture, has a big message, which ought to do much toward internationalizing human sympathy. Of course, we broke all the rules when we did this story ; it has a yellow man for a hero, instead of a white one ; it’s tragedy throughout ; there are no quick, snappy bits ; the story moves very slowly. But I believe that it shows convincingly that we’re wrong when we labor under the delusions that Americans are superior to those they call ‘foreigners.’ No nation can-do that—just as no nation can afford to think that it represents all the beauty and heroism and ideals in the world.” As he talked on I began to see how the strings that moved him have been pulled in other cases. Take “The Birth of a Nation,” for instance ; the idea of making an enormous, spectacular production held him there.
“Intolerance” was the most vivid sort of pageantry, with a besetting sin of all nations linking the ages together. “Hearts of the World” was inspired by the idea of making a war picture on the battlefields. “True Heart Susie” dares to be commonplace, despite the fact that to see dramatic possibilities in everyday life is a difficult thing for most of us. Yet Griffith does not look like the sort of man whose life is swayed by big ideas, or, perhaps, not like we’d expect such a man to look. He is as little of a poseur as any hardware merchant. Genuinely interested in making motion pictures that will more nearly approach the highest standards than those which we now have, he is ever ready to accept suggestions, perfectly straightforward in acknowledging his own shortcomings, and quite willing to laugh at himself. Rather English in appearance, and very friendly in manner, he seemed to me to be just the material that something tremendous worked with—just a marionette.
“I don’t know exactly what to say,” he remonstrated when asked how he succeeded in teaching an actor to “put over” a character as vividly as those in “Broken Blossoms” are portrayed. “Of course I know Chinamen and have lived among them; I tried to put what I know of them into that picture. “But you must remember that the camera can’t lie; it seems to bore through superficial features and pull the character to the surface. So an actor must have in him some of the essentials of the character he’s portraying, and my part in helping an actor to play a role is just to give him the idea of it. Then he works out the part as he sees it, and I talk it over with him and help him to get his idea expressed—to crystallize it, you might say. Of course we build up a picture—this was especially true of ‘Broken Blossoms’—not word by word, but emotion by emotion.
And an actor must have faith in his ability to build up a role in this way, and in his director’s ability to help him, if we’re going to make really good pictures.” He said nothing of the faith which it takes to produce a picture that fairly tempts Fate in its defiance of the usual standards or to put through a brand-new idea, such as that of the repertoire theater for motion pictures. “Broken Blossoms” last May began Mr. Griffith’s repertoire season at the Cohan Theater in New York; followed by the Babylonian episode from “Intolerance,” it includes “The Mother of the Law,” a drama of simple home life, which might be classed with “True Heart Susie,” and revivals of some other former Griffith successes. That was the program at this writing. It marks a new departure in motion pictures, though only after the season is over can one say whether it will be a successful one or not, but those who read as they run declare that its existence is just another of the signboards which Mr. Griffith follows when he turns aside from the beaten path. Curiosity as to how he helped those who work with him to create a role in this way led me straight to Lillian Gish; I wanted to see if she, too, caught the big ideas that govern her director.
“Why, I don’t know; ‘Broken Blossoms’ was such an easy picture to do,” she said in answer to my question, after we’d visited a bit. “Mr. Griffith always talks over a character with you, of course, and then when you are making the scene he stands by and sort of fills it in; tells you what’s going on. For instance, in that scene where I was locked in the closet and my father was trying to break down the door and kill me—it wouldn’t have done for me to remember that Mr. Crisp, who played the part of my father, had finished his scenes and gone fishing, would it?” She stopped to laugh a moment, and I wished the screen could show how blue her eyes are and how yellow her hair is. “So Mr. Griffith stood there by the camera, and said: ‘He’s going to kill you ; he’ll surely break down the door; now he’s got an ax, and he’ll break in and you can’t escape—and he’ll kill you with that whip he’s beaten you with——’ Not exactly those words, of course, but things like that that would fill in the mental picture for me.”
And looking at that slim, pretty girl, with her childish mouth that shows a hint of the roguishness that makes her sister Dorothy such a charming comedienne, I wondered more than ever how she had been able to portray Lucy’s dull little mind and the great, tearing fear that fairly leaped out from the screen and caught the audience in its grasp.
“You see,” she went on after a moment’s thought, “it’s getting the idea of a part that helps most—if you have that well in your head it moves everything you do. I knew Lucy so well after reading Burke’s story that it didn’t seem as if I myself did anything at all. Mr. Griffith gave me the main ideas for my work, and then—well, I just went ahead.” So apparently his idea had been pulling the strings that moved Lillian Gish as well. And Richard Barthelmess, who plays the Chinaman, quite frankly admitted that something—he didn’t exactly know what—had governed his playing of Cheng Huan.
“I didn’t really know whether I was being Chinese or just being different,” he told me with a worried look in his brown eyes. “You see, somebody else had been rehearsing that part, and then one day Mr. Griffith said he’d like to see me do it, so I did, and he cast me for it. But I’d just been doing light-comedy roles with Dorothy Gish, you know, and of course this was so different that—but then Mr. Griffith emphasizes character a lot, you know, more than anything else. And he gave me the idea of that role so clearly that it wasn’t at all hard to do.”
There you are again. Mr. Griffith gave him the idea, and it was the idea behind the work of Griffith himself that made the picture. So that last little talk seemed to complete the circle of marionettes—with the big conception of new things for the screen, which always, in one form or another, sways Griffith as the power that sets them all in motion.