Love, Laughter and Tears – My Hollywood Story (By Adela Rogers St.Johns – 1978)

Love, Laughter and Tears

My Hollywood Story

By Adela Rogers St.Johns – 1978

As I close my eyes and see it again, David Wark Griffith, credited by many as the Founding Father of Films as we know them, was what he was, a stage actor who must once himself have played the melancholy Dane, and with him comes the ideal casting for Ophelia. The fair, fragile, mythical heartbreak of Lillian Gish. If we want to transpose a lot of Shakespeare into the daily life of mad stupendous tumultuous young Hollywood, we had a clown called Fatty Arbuckle for Falstaff, to be victim of a mass mistake, Midsummer Nighfs Dream could be enacted with that little man of big talent, one Mickey Rooney, playing Puck, though Mickey had four or five wives and I don’t think Puck had any.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

The Big Four

GRIFFITH, THE STAR MAKER

All right. So I admit my memory for dates is unethical and lousy. But sometimes I can see them. Right here on my tapestry I can see the year 1919. Marie Dressier in a voluminous long skirt and hat is parading on Fifth Avenue in support of the Actor’s Equity Strike. Jack Dempsey, to become a favorite beau in Hollywood, is crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World, he first daily air mail planes, looking like something my great-grandson Bogart is wont to create with tissue paper and toothpicks, are flying between New York and Chicago.

Peace, the peace we have marched for, and prayed for, and paid for, is breaking out all over. It appears to me, looking all the way back, as a pivotal point where the teeter-totter of history is on balance. The guns of World War I, which forever ended one way of life, are silent. The Twenties which will plunge us into another — give us Prohibition, bathtub gin, gangsters and speakeasies, woman suffrage, the jazz age and the flapper—have not begun. In Paris the Big Four, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, Orlando of Italy, and our own President Woodrow Wilson, dreaming of a League of Nations, are hammering out a peace treaty meant to redesign the world.

And in Hollywood our Big Four of the Movies, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and D. W. Griffith are making film history. They form a company called United Artists in which they themselves will supervise the productions, distribute them, and divide the enormous profits. No longer will their films be dominated by bankers, producers, exhibitors, but by a girl from Canada with long golden curls, a Jewish theater actor from Denver, a music hall comedian from London, and a gentleman of the South whose family was impoverished by the Civil War but who, and mark this well for it is part of our story, was descended from kings, the Apt-Griffith Kings of Wales. In this greatest powerhouse of box office talent yet assembled the executive ability, lack of which defeats so many artists, was Mary Pickford’s, as was the money know-how. The vitality and audacity were Fairbanks’. The Art in United Artists was Chaplin, the little starving Cockney from the London gutters, who had to make an X when he signed his first contract, who was hailed as a genius of geniuses and waded through one scandal after another until Joan Barry stripped him of his last remnant of dignity.”

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

And what was to be the contribution of David Wark Griffith, ham actor, egomaniac, hypnotist, witch doctor and torchbearer, trailblazer, seer, Star Maker? For he was all those things. Oh yes, he was! D. W. Griffith, the Star Director of Star Pictures until the last frame of recorded film. Griffith whose name on a theater marquee had stellar drawing power unequaled by anyone on the dark side of the camera until Walt Disney came along. He was to contribute the great important pictures to United Artists—hadn’t President Wilson said his Birth of a Nation was “like writing history in lightning”?—as well as the stature and stability. Or so we thought at the time. How wrong we were. Even Mary Pickford, who had a prophet’s eye when it was on the dollar, could not foresee in 1919 that very shortly David Wark Griffith would be as dead at the box office as a dodo bird.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

And all because of a girl. Many years later I ran into the great D.W. in a popular grill on Hollywood Boulevard called Musso Franks. It was late, we’d been to a picture up the way at the Egyptian Theater. We were all a little embarrassed to see that the lonely, gaunt figure at the table near the back was indeed Mr. Griffith. How are the mighty fallen is always a sad refrain and to any of us in the picture business D.W. would always be the Mighty. He had very obviously had more than one too many for the road, he didn’t seem to notice us but I—I remembered him so vividly the opening night of Birth of a Nation at Chine’s (now the Philharmonic) Auditorium, I remembered the wildly cheering throngs, the elite and powerful of The Industry shoving each other every which way to be allowed to shake his hand, to touch his shoulder. I remember so well that I had to rush to get a story done about it, but first I managed to get near enough to pour out a word of congratulation—of excitement—oh, it was such excitement Hard to understand now—no, no, any opening night is a big event and any successful opening night is a glorious triumph. But an opening night the first of its kind in the world, the spectacular exultation and celebration of a first first night! And the epic it unfolded before our eyes was the most significant, tense, beyond-imagination film we’d ever seen. Gone with the Wind which tells exactly the same story and has Clark Gable in his finest role, also the benefit of color, likewise sound of battle and bugle, is nontheless not a better picture.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

It somehow lacks a reality that was Griffith’s trademark. No, since that first opening back sometime around 1915 when stars and lights and crowds jammed what is today Pershing Square in Los Angeles, I have seen nothing that I can call a greater motion picture. Nor one that swept us and moved almost hysterical audiences to such love and tears. Only a few times has it happened that I am so taken over by comedy or drama that I find it almost impossible to return to the here and now and my seat in the theater. All the others except That’s Entertainment were within the limitations of the stage. Katharine Cornell in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Helen Hayes in Victoria Regina, and Olivier in Richard HI—I flew across the Atlantic to see that one and it was worth it. We lived in and with Birth of a Nation to an extent that was startling as we came out of it. There too we saw for the first time the power of Lillian Gish to enthrall and transport as I do not believe any other star had or has today. And at the center of it all was D. W. Griffith who had just made the First Great Movie.

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

Now here in Musso Franks was that same man, he needed a shave, he needed a clean shirt—it hurt me, it hurt terribly for all of us as though we had let this happen. But I knew, I knew, how hard we had tried, I knew the number of chances he’d been given and the—yes, the money that had been invested in trying to give him a comeback. So—as I went over and sat down opposite him at that back table in that restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, when I realized most of the bright young things coming in had no idea who this old man was, I wanted to cry.

David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg
David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg

I didn’t have to ask the question. Perhaps he saw it in my eyes, on my face, or read my mind—the actors who used to work under his superlative direction always told me that he could read your mind. He was a mind reader, they said, and a sorcerer. He used white magic and Aladdin’s lamp, he used black demonology and voodoo—in his heyday that was, maybe he could still do it. Oddly enough I remember the voice better than I do the face and its expressions. It must have been the voice, I thought, that swayed and moved them, lifted them up to greater performances than have ever been given since—Mae Marsh in Intolerance, Lillian Gish in Way Down East, Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms, Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm—I saw audiences lifted out of their seats and he didn’t depend on catastrophe and violence. No no—a mother whose child is taken from her, a pair of young lovers on an ice floe, a frail little girl and a gentle Chinaman, a blind girl searching for her sister—we were torn by human emotions we all shared.

Magic.

Remember it seemed magic to us—that silent silver screen, with its moving figures and its moving faces. We had the full impact that can never be repeated except to each child who sees his first movie! And there sat the man who had given it to us, who had soared to find it, alone and unrecognized. He was still too great an artist of human beings and human behavior to banter small talk or meaningless greeting. He said, “I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me.” I swear the restaurant rocked—like another California earthquake. It didn’t seem possible that he could say that sentence. Oh I wanted to be kind, I wanted to be gentle, I didn’t want to kick a man when he was down down down—but — my father had told me as the very essence of all decision that must be made there is Truth, maybe you can’t get the whole truth but at least nothing but the truth as far as you can. Marsh, Norma Talmadge’s immensely talented little sister Constance, extended his royal good wishes, utterly confident that he had only to wave his hand to mold bigger and better stars.

Lillian Gish, despite other offers, stayed on. Because he was, after all, the Master? Yes, I think so, and because she was, well, because she was Lillian, that truly great artist sans ego. And so came about what were to be called by Griffith historians “the Gish years,” and they were the most dazzling of all. After Broken Blossoms Griffith made Way Down East again with Gish and Barthelmess. It was a smash success; he had converted a mediocre melodrama into a masterpiece, with, as the critics pointed out, the help of his stars. So he let Barthelmess go—to make the incredibly successful ToVable David under the direction of Henry King. And now only Lillian remained. Lillian—and Carol Dempster, Let us set the stage carefully for the crucial act. It is 1921, two years only have passed since the founding of United Artists. David Wark Griffith makes Dream Street starring Carol Dempster. The audience turns thumbs down, but silently Griffith refuses to accept their verdict.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

He makes Orphans of the Storm starring Lillian Gish. It is hailed as “a work of art,” shown to President Warren G. Harding at the White House with Griffith and the Gish sisters in attendance. Of Lillian the critics write, “She has a way of reaching right in and straining at your heart strings.” It is now that Griffith suggests they go their separate ways. Carol Dempster is waiting in the wings. Will Griffith risk all the money he can get, his own included, his prestige, his name, on his furious conviction that he can force her on an unwilling, what-the-hell-is-this public? He does. He makes One Exciting Night starring Carol Dempster, the public passes again. D. W. Griffith never makes another box office success. There was more to it than that, of course. Times had changed. D. W. Griffith no longer bestrode a narrow world of infant movies. William Fox had Tom Mix, and Westerns were booming. The alert, artistic Goldwyn brought such height of his fame as the theater’s most loved and applauded actor, and never at any time backward with the ladies, wrote a revealing note to D. W. Griffith: I have not the honor of knowing Miss Gish personally, and I am afraid that any expression of feeling addressed to her she might consider impertinent. I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing I have ever seen in my life. I remember seeing Duse when she was at the height of her powers, and Sarah Bernhardt, and for sheer brilliancy and great emotional projection, done with an almost uncanny simplicity and sincerity of method, it is great fun and a great stimulation to see an American actress equal them if not surpass them. I wonder if you would be good enough to thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do our best in the theater. No critic to this day was more difficult to please than George Jean Nathan. He was one of the legion who wished to marry her, of no one did he ever write such unstinted praise as he bestowed on Lillian Gish. “The smiles of the Gish girl are the tears Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes. The secret of this young woman’s unparalleled acting rests in her carefully devised and skillfully negotiated technique of playing always behind a veil of silver chiffon.” A leading novelist of that time was the magnificent Joseph Hergesheimer who wrote his best-selling Cytherea around Lillian, Cytherea being another name for Aphrodite, Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.

Would you not think that even King David might have said to this goddess, “Together we reached these heights, greater lie ahead. Share with me both the credit and the profit of all we shall do, you are as much a part of our work as I am”? He didn’t. Instead he said, not mentioning Carol Dempster, of course, “You should go out on your own, your name is of as much value as mine with the public. I think in your own interest you should capitalize on it while you can.” I still think her own explanation of why he did what he did that day is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever heard.

“I think he just got tired of seeing me around,” Lillian Gish said.

As it turned out, Lillian went on to make The White Sister, The Scarlet Letter and Romola in which she brought to the screen a young English actor named Ronald Colman and a stage actor named William Powell. Griffith, as we know, never made another picture that mattered.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

Slowly, as we sat in the back of Musso Franks cafe on Hollywood Boulevard when D.W. was an old man and had been cut off from Lillian Gish for years, slowly, quietly, with a depth I had never heard in his voice before even when he was directing her as she rocked the cradle in Intolerance, he said, “She was my luck, she was my light—I never had any of either after I lost her. Oh God—man can be his own worst enemy, can he not? Can he not?”

Love, laughter, and tears : my Hollywood story
Love, laughter, and tears my Hollywood story 1978

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adela Rogers St. Johns went to work on the San Francisco Examiner when she was eighteen, “a good time to go to work,” she once declared. She became a star feature writer for the Hearst newspapers and was sent to cover almost every big news story of the mid-twentieth century. One day William Randolph Hearst asked her to cover sports for him, saying he felt it had become too specialized. She not only won acceptance on the traditional man’s beat, but made fast friends of great sportswriters like Ring Lardner, Damon Runyon, and Paul Gallico. She also became a lifelong baseball fan. From newspapers she moved into magazines, where her work has been in demand for nearly forty years. Her byline is well-known to millions of Americans who have read her work in magazine serials. She has written more than 200 short stories. She has written some of the best stories ever used in films, and spent a number of years “trouble-shooting” for Louis B. Mayer at M-G-M in Hollywood. Her book, FINAL VERDICT, first published in 1962, was an enormous bestseller, giving a vivid account of her father, Earl Rogers, the most famous trial lawyer of his time — a story written uncensored, as she had promised her father it would be. She is also author of the fascinating biography, THE HONEYCOMB, SOME ARE BORN GREAT, and the bestselling novel, TELL NO MAN, all in Signet paperback. When she is not writing, Mrs. St. Johns spends much time with her family. She is the mother of five children, grandmother of eighteen, and now many times a great-grandmother.

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