Love in the Film
By William K. Everson (1979)
The two plot elements most common to all film are love and crime. Love is an emotion; crime a physical act. Between them, singly and more often jointly, they provide the motivation—and the linking narrative thrust—of most films, whether they be comedy, horror, science-fiction, or from any other genre. Even when history is put on the screen, its facts are often reemphasized (or totally rewritten, as in Suez) so that love is frequently the force which changes the destiny of nations. And political decisions, in actuality formed by expediency, economics or patriotism, are frequently diverted and debased, becoming the criminal acts of greedy individuals. There are films which contain neither love nor crime, but they are rare and if one were to make up a list of such films, one would probably find it heavily weighted in favor of the documentary —the only genre that might totally avoid both ingredients, although one might argue that the documentary is frequently utilized to protest “social crime,” and that that kind of injustice is as dramatic as straightforward lawbreaking.
If the word “love” is ambiguous, then the phrase “love story” as related to film (or play or novel) is more ambiguous still, and frequently overlaps into what one can only term the territory of the “romantic” film (or play or novel). A great love story is usually made “great” by the power of its theme or the passion of its playing; a great “romantic” film, however, depends far more on a welding of those elements with others—particularly the elegant stylistics of writing, directing and photography.
I suspect that the further evolution of love in film will be increasingly more clinical and correspondingly less romantic, and I shall be happy to leave the updating of this volume to other less sentimental hands.
Two factors continued to work against the development of the genre at least until 1920. One of course was the Victorian sense of romance and melodrama that still pervaded the movies—and the phrase “Victorian” is meant not in a critical sense, but in a purely descriptive one, for the Victorian age had literally passed into history only a few years earlier. The movies, and the stories and novels on which they were frequently based, were still concerned with simple and well-defined virtues and vices. The virtuous heroine was juxtaposed with the dynamic and aggressive vamp; between them, they could offer pure love—or impure sex. But there was no shading, no mingling of the two extremes. This did not preclude the making of good movies, but it did rather shift the emphasis into the areas of romance, or straight drama. Mary Pick-ford’s Stella Man’s (1918) is both a very good and an incredible film—the latter because it chose to fly in the face of Pickford’s popularity, and present a decidedly grim story. It’s about wasted love and thwarted love rather than fulfilled love.
At the other end of the spectrum one finds a film like A Cumberland Romance (1920) starring Pickford’s leading rival, Mary Miles Minter. It’s appealing because of its very simplicity and “prettiness”—lovely outdoor locations, superb photography, and a magnificent use of tinted and toned stock. Between these two extremes, there were the Cinderella romances of Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, the heavier romantic dramas of Norma Talmadge, and the frothy romantic comedies of her sister Constance. There was nothing wrong with these films. They were escapist and they were entertaining; they more than met the demands of fans and exhibitors; and because the industry was not yet geared to aggressive competition (it had no need to be, since it was the entertainment medium, with radio still in the future, and television but a science- fiction dream) the films deliberately cultivated a “sit-back-and-be-entertained” manner, and rarely came to grips with life in the way necessary to produce a really moving love story.
Then there was a second factor to be taken into consideration. The enormous success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 eased, and even encouraged, the segue into much longer films. But it also, unwittingly, dictated their shape too. Producers, impressed by the money it had made, and directors, in awe of Griffith’s filmmaking genius, used it as a pattern, and at least until 1920, the majority of films were made in its image. There were subplots to cut away from—and to; interwoven characters; flashbacks; spectacular climaxes that were built mathematically. This made for some extremely lively films, but it didn’t help the cause of good acting—or the creating of sustained characters, so essential in a love story. One of the reasons that Mary Pickford was such a reigning star in the teen years was that she was one of the few female stars big enough to control her own image and the construction of her own films. With all their variety (comedies, dramas, westerns, costume pieces, tragedy), she remained the point of focus throughout. She was able to build and sustain a characterization that was not fragmented by the demands of a narrative where editing and cross-cutting were the paramount concerns. True, the fast pacing of films in this period did not prevent great performances.
Mae Marsh’s acting as the young wife and mother in Intolerance (1916) is both brilliant and moving; but it is even more so in the source film. The Mother and the Law (1914), which Griffith cut and reshaped and used as the centerpiece for Intolerance, surrounding it with French, Biblical and Babylonian stories. Griffith’s later Hearts of the World (1918) had all the potential for being a really tender love story as well as a war spectacle, in its depiction of a young love torn asunder by the war, during the course of which the young bride is driven to temporary insanity.
Lillian Gish’s performance was her subtlest and most mature to that point, but all too often, having reached peaks of emotion or hysterical intensity, the film just drops her, reverts to action and melodrama, and by the time it picks her up again, the momentum is lost. The movies’ pre-1920 years are by no means barren ones. The films of those years have youth, innocence, vitality and optimism—both in their plot content, and in their own style, for they are made by directors possessed of those same qualities, and excited by what they are discovering about film. But basically, the films of those years appeal to the senses rather than to the emotions. While the selection of only two films to illustrate this period is obviously arbitrary, it is perhaps significant that both are the result of the collaboration between two of the foremost artists of the period—D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.
The Mothering Heart
- American Biograph, 1913.
- Directed by D. W. Griffith. Camera: G. W. Bitzer.
- With: Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Viola Barry, Charlie Murray, Kate Bruce.
It is not at all unusual to find exceptionally strong dramatic stories in the one- and two-reel pre-feature films of 1910 to 1913. The sheer number of them, and the need to maintain as much variety as possible, meant that some pretty offbeat material was offered, accepted and produced, merely because of the need to keep up a steady stream of production. Too, the star system was not realty established as yet, so that audiences would not be disappointed or dismayed if a favored player turned up in an unsympathetic role, or in a tragic one. Finally, the mass audience for movies was still an essentially working-class one, bolstered by the still very large waves of immigrants. While one might have assumed that this kind of audience was the one for which escapist entertainment would have been most in demand, at the same time the more progressive directors—and certainly D. W. Griffith headed the list—also felt that the audience would respond emotionally to problems and situations it knew and understood on its own merits.
The Mothering Heart—a film that runs for only about sixteen minutes—is hardly a permanent classic. But in a comparative sense it is; for 1913 it is daring both in its content and in its faith in the ability of an audience to recognize all its subtleties. Griffith’s short films for Biograph between 1907 and 1913 can very roughly be divided into two groups: the chase films, melodramas, Civil War stories and Westerns which he made primarily to develop and polish new methods of editing and the staging of action, and those other films—ranging from Tolstoy’s Resurrection to Norris’s A Corner in Wheat—where theme was more important than technique. A number of the latter group had included quite strong little emotional stories, usually involving redemption in one form or another (particularly the reformation of the alcoholic), but there were relatively few bona fide love stories.
One exception was the the already mentioned 1912 The Mender of Nets, in which the hero (Charles West) loves the beautiful fisherman’s daughter (Mary Pickford) but in an earlier liaison has made another girl pregnant—this latter role played surprisingly well by Mabel Normand, her normal vivacity covered by nondescript clothing and makeup which makes her look plump and relatively plain. (The parallel with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun is quite striking.) The wronged girl’s father tries to kill the erring lover, but is prevented from doing so by Pickford, who, sacrificing her own happiness, persuades the boy that his duty is to marry the other girl. The film concludes with a lovely close-up of Mary Pickford, sitting outside her hut atop a cliff, helping her father with his fishing nets and, with a sigh of wistful resignation, remarking that ‘”Somebody has to mend other people’s broken nets.” With its maximum use of rugged outdoor land- and seascapes, striking closeup images and dramatic editing, A Mender of Nets was one of Griffith’s most sophisticated films to 1912. It is a measure of the incredibly rapid strides he was making at that time that The Mothering Heart, made only the following year, seems infinitely more mature.
It starred Lillian Gish and Walter Miller, a romantic duo that Griffith used in a number of films of the period (The Musketeers of Pig Alley and An Unseen Enemy were others). As in his later romantic teaming of Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, the feminine role was the stronger and more dramatic one. The male’s role was to be weak, passive, sometimes even unsympathetic.
In The Mothering Heart, Lillian Gish and Walter Miller are a young, happily married couple. On a visit to a nightclub, however, the husband attracts the attention of a flirtatious woman at a nearby table, and is infatuated with her. In the ensuing weeks, he deceives his wife and carries on an affair with the woman, totally under her spell, though to her he is merely a passing adventure. He is away from home so much that he is unaware that their young baby is ailing. The baby in fact dies, and in a most remarkable scene, Lillian Gish, as the distraught mother, wanders almost somnambulistically into their garden and then, in a frenzied paroxysm of destruction, seizes a hoe and hits out at all the plants and young trees, seeking to kill them.
Then, returning to her trancelike state, she returns to the house where the husband—chastened by the discovery of the death of his child, thrown over by the other woman who has gone on to another affair—is waiting for her. At first the wife is hard and unforgiving; then, unwittingly, she finds the dead child’s pacifier in the crib. There is a full screen closeup of her hand fondling the head of the pacifier—the borders of the screen blacked out to emphasize the action, which must be one of the first examples of explicit sexual symbolism on the screen. Then she almost thrusts the pacifier at her husband. The climax is thus not so much one of a happy reunion, but almost one of desperation, the wife suggesting that only via another child does their love, and their marriage, stand a chance of survival.
As if fully understanding the psychological depth and importance of his story, Griffith gives The Mothering Heart quite surprisingly elaborate production values. The nightclub is exceptionally spacious, yet in keeping with the kind of enlarged roadhouse that it would have been in its suburban California setting. The details of decor and clothing (particularly in respect to the contrasting hats and dresses of the two women) are carefully thought out, and the bit players well chosen. The tall, handsome, muscular uniformed doorman of the nightclub seems to have been cast just for the effect of one scene towards the end. Initially, since he always opens the door for the straying husband and his new paramour, he seems to symbolize the glamour of the new lifestyle he has assumed. But when the husband is finally tossed aside by his temporary mistress, the action takes place outside the club doors. The husband’s shame is compounded by the contempt of the doorman, who smiles superciliously at this expected turn of events. Because he is a tall, striking figure—much taller than the husband —it is possible for that all-important smile of scorn to register without Griffith going into a closeup to underline it.
Subtle, underplayed acting was a trademark of the better Griffith Biographs; Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh and others had all, by this time, given performances which even today, hold up by virtue of their sensitivity and restraint and need no apologies or explanations. Even so, the three lead performances in The Mothering Heart are quite exceptional. Although only in her mid-teens, Lillian Gish is utterly convincing as the more mature mother—as convincing as she was as the naive teenager in True Heart Susie, which she was to make for Griffith some six years later. Moreover, she manages to downplay her own beauty, to make the mother serious, even a little dowdy, so that the husband’s straying to the exciting other woman becomes understandable. Walter Miller, as the husband, is likewise restrained and sincere, and suggests that he might well have become a major actor had not his striking good looks and virility sidetracked him into a career as a serial hero, where he developed a series of poses and mannerisms that stayed with him until the end of his career in the early 1940s.
But perhaps the most exciting performance of all is that of Viola Barry as the adventuress. She wasn’t the first screen vamp—Helen Gardner had beaten her to the punch—nor was she the most famous since, from 1914 on, Theda Bara assumed that role. But in 1913, she was certainly the best, and her interpretation so modern and subtle that it works even today. Facially, she had the finely-chiseled features of Mary Astor—but coupled to the voluptuous body of that twenties vamp, Nita Naldi. Her low cleavaged gown was worn with tremendous style, as though she was totally unaware of the effect it was having on her victims. Moreover, there was nothing obvious or “sinful” about her vamping approach. She was able to snare Walter Miller’s attention (and ours) with a glance. Her attraction was enhanced by the fact that Griffith did not see fit either to condemn her as an “evil woman” or to punish her. She merely goes on to another adventure at the end of the film; it is Miller, the husband, who has “sinned” and is punished. In the rather clear-cut separation between “good” woman and “bad” that characterized American movies of the teen years, Viola Barry would have had rather tough sledding. She was too healthily sexy to fit into the fashionable niche for screen heroines, yet too attractive to play vamps, who had to come off second-best to the virginal heroines. Fortunately, she was married to up-and- coming director Jack Conway, and a career was not uppermost in her mind—though her beauty, casual elegance and real acting style in this film suggest that her lack of ambition was a major loss to the silent screen.
In any event, whether one classifies The Mothering Heart as a love story, a romance, or an emotional drama, it is an almost Freudian film, and very probably the first American film that can make that claim.
True Heart Susie
- Paramount-Artcraft, 1919.
- Directed by D. W. Griffith.
- Scenario; Marian Fremont.
- Camera: G. Bitzer.
- With: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Loyola O’Connor, Walter Higby, George Fawcett, Clarine Seymour, Kate Bruce, Carol Dempster, Robert Cannon.
One of a group of films loosely referred to as “rural romances,” True Heart Susie came, in one sense, midway in Griffith’s career. The initial spectacles. The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Hearts of the World, were behind him; the big spectacles of the 20s (America, Orphans of the Storm) lay ahead. At this particular time, Griffith was trying to retrench financially—his entrapment by bank loans and other debts had already begun—and also to put the war behind him, and deal with the people and the landscapes of his childhood in Kentucky in a series of less ambitious but often lyrical little films. True Heart Susie is one of the best of these, and certainly the most romantic, but one sees it today under a disadvantage. No original negative or prints appear to have survived, and all circulating copies in this country and elsewhere seem to derive from a copy held by the British Film Institute in London—itself far from a really good print. The interiors of the film now seem black and shadowy, and the exteriors lack the radiance of the sunshine. Fortunately, a similar if lesser Griffith film, 1920’s The Greatest Question, does survive in the form of one or two good prints made from the original negative, and by studying that, with its superb lighting and dramatic use of landscape, one can at least mentally project True Heart Susie with all the pictorial beauty it once had. It is quite a tribute to the film, and the sensitivity of the performances by Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, that it plays as well as it does despite the handicap of dark and lackluster prints several generations away from the original.
Griffith, ever the showman (though he often pretended not to be), was aware that after his earlier spectacles audiences expected something “Big” from him, constantly tried to add stature to these smaller films by portentous opening titles. True Heart Susie opens with a title claiming that every incident in it is taken from life, and goes on to dedicate itself to all the women of the world who wait for the great love that never comes. Actually, 1919 audiences might have been equally impressed had Griffith just leveled with them and admitted that True Heart Susie was an amalgamation of themes from Charles Dickens, the author whose influence (both structurally and thematically) was to dominate Griffith’s work. Most specifically, True Heart Susie derives from Great Expectations and the latter portions of David Copperfield.
Its underlying theme is quite simple. Susie, very much in love with William—who only halfheartedly reciprocates—scrimps and saves to put him through college. He is unaware of her sacrifices, thinking his benefactor to be a stranger from the city who once passed through their rural community and promised to help. When he returns from college, ready to take a position as minister, Susie assumes that they’ll marry, and misinterprets several of his remarks as a confirmation of that. However, his attention goes to the gaudy Bettina—all paint, powder and silk stockings—and it is she that he marries.
Bettina however, only wants the security of the marriage, and after the wedding is a poor wife, who looks slovenly about the house, won’t cook hot meals, and complains of boredom. Both Susie and William think wistfully of what might have been, but never confide their thoughts to each other—and when Susie realizes that Bettina is deceiving William, she keeps quiet about it. On one occasion, Bettina sneaks away to a wild party with her friends, on the way collecting a book that her husband needed. The party breaks up late, and Bettina is drenched in a torrential downpour. She contracts pneumonia, and William feels responsible, knowing nothing of the party and thinking that it was all brought about by her thoughtful act in collecting the book for him.
On her deathbed, Bettina is about to confess, but William prevents her and, to quote a rather lovely Griffith subtitle, “She dies as she lived—a little unfaithful.’’ Despite the previous emptiness of his marriage, William is so moved that he vows never to love or marry again, and Susie is too loyal to him to tell him the truth. Inadvertently however, the truth does come out, and, belatedly, William and Susie are married. It is a simple story, simply told, with no need for the subplots or intercutting of Griffith’s more ambitious works. (Actually, Griffith’s cutting in the post-intolerance period tended to remain innovative in conception, but to get increasingly slipshod in execution—and True Heart Susie offers early evidence of Griffith’s carelessness in this direction, although the non matching cuts are not as serious or as obvious as they would be in the following year’s Way Down East.)
The film really wins one over by its sincerity and by the strength of its performers. Its beginning is not too promising. Lillian Gish’s Susie seems so much the innocent trusting child that marriage to her would seem to offer very little. (Comedian Harry Langdon seems to have based many of his expressions and pantomimic gestures on Lillian Gish’s performance in this film, and occasionally— through no fault of hers—one has the uncanny feeling of watching Langdon rather than Gish, which also tends to downplay the romantic involvement.) Robert Harron is first seen as a rather gawky youth, and his metamorphosis into a far more mature man (aided by a moustache to which he calls attention by constantly preening it) shows again what a remarkably subtle actor Harron could be. But his slighting of Susie gains him little audience sympathy; one can hardly blame him for choosing the more exciting Bettina, and yet at the same time one feels that in a way they deserve each other.
It is at this point that the film shifts gears, and stops telling its story only in terms of incident. From here on in there are far more close-ups of both Gish and Harron in which their sadness and isolation is conveyed by the subtlety of facial expression and Bitzer’s lighting. Perhaps too, in this latter portion of the film, there is more drawing upon the original plot construction of Dickens, who, quite unknowingly of course, manipulated people and details in a decidedly cinematic manner.
Whatever the reasons, the film becomes both touching and moving in its final third, and many of the apparent loose ends of the opening suddenly fall into place. Earlier it had been established that Susie and William never quite managed to kiss—even when he was going away to college. Both tried, sincerely but clumsily, and both withdrew before the kiss could be accomplished. This awkwardness is maintained until the penultimate scene, when William approaches Susie to admit his love and propose marriage. Even here, Griffith keeps them apart: Susie is seen at the window of her cottage, leaning out to water flowers; William is shown only as a hesitant shadow.
The final scene is a repeat of one of their years- earlier walks down a country lane, and a closing title hopes that they’ll be happy, and asks the audience to imagine their rekindling the love of their earlier, innocent years. There’s no doubt that it’s a happy ending—yet the sense of possible separation, and the shadow of the unhappy marriage to Bettina, is retained. It’s a subtle and mature ending to a minor Griffith classic which offers a great deal more sophistication and emotional depth than, might at first seem apparent.