Meet “Battling” Burrows
By Ruth Kingsley
Motion Picture Magazine – 1919
POWER—endless, ceaseless power—a rushing cataract of inspirations, the agility of the jaguar and the lean muscularity of a tiger, a voice that carries far into the night, a screen producer to be reckoned with these past nine years—a dynamo of the cinematograph, whose name illumines many introductory subtitles, whose personality is submerged under and sacrificed to occasional repellent characterizations—an ex-light opera star—in a word, Donald Crisp.
A first glimpse of Mr. Crisp revealed him teaching a deft spring, up the steps of an old English chapel, to Bryant Washburn. The set seemed an ideal one for the director’s personality, for he blinked at the fogs of old London thru his lively brown eyes the very first time he opened them, and tho he boasts of enough “hot Scotch” to account for the “Donald” in his name, and while he felt perfectly at home on the veldts of Africa during strenuous service in the Boer War, where he obtained a captaincy and recommendation because of bravery, Mr. Crisp still cherishes the thought — “For it’s greatly to his credit, And ne’er will he regret it, That he is an Englishman.” Besides, he looks English with those little “side-boards,” his very ruddy complexion and athletic build. Donald Crisp was champion runner of England for a time, was graduated from Oxford, was a very renowned amateur wrestler.
Donald Crisp at “Athletic Club”, where he exercised constantly, still takes his daily plunges, punishes the bag, and enters into all the sports and entertainments offered by that very flourishing club.
“Talk of the past? Oh, no, I’d rather not, if you please. It’s all so dead—to me the only live thing is the present.
Why dig up the entombed and try to make mummies attractive to readers? I don’t believe in it. I’d rather just talk about my work in ‘Broken Blossoms’ with Lillian Gish. It was an artistic sacrifice. I do not believe a man who had any hope of becoming a popular favorite, a star, or a hope of advancing as a screen actor, would have dared to play ‘Battling Burrows.’ The role is so repellent, so horrible in all of its conceptions, that it would kill a man in the eyes of the public. One sees villains, or perhaps one might better say plain crooks, like, for instance, the man of the ‘Whispering Chorus,’ who have redeeming traits. They say the very worst criminal has one good point. Careful study and dissection of the character of ‘Battling’ showed up not a single element of love, morality, religion, kindness or decent motive. He had ambition, yes, he was the greatest boxer in England, he terrorized all the tenement folk of old Limehouse, and, like Chanticleer, he believed that the world depended upon his prowess. For him the sun rose and set in brute force. “For two weeks I had sent Mr. Griffith heavies, and he sought them on his own account also. Not one man could play the part. I was directing Mr. Washburn and working night and day to hurry thru our picture. We were in despair—when Bryant took the flu and I laid off the entire company for one month.
“Mr. Griffith had an inspiration. He sent one of his men over to ask me to play the part, now that our company would not be working. I replied that it would be impossible for me to take it. I would be only half-way thru his picture when my own company must start work again. “Mr. Griffith did me the honor of driving over in his limousine to beg me to take the part. I really felt I could not refuse. You see, I had worked with him since the old Majestic Reliance days, had directed under his supervision over eight years ago, and felt that I owed him a great deal.
“So I studied the character thoroughly. I tried out a number of make-ups until I got just what suited me. After that, it was really a trying matter to put on that make-up, for I had to gum down my ears to show the ‘cauliflower’ ear of the pugilist,’ make one cut in the left nostril-for, you see, sooner or later all prizefighters receive a cut nose—put –several deep scars on my face and otherwise thoroughly disfigure myself. For hours after taking off the gum my ears would ache severely. It was a hard role to play merely from the standpoint of physical inconvenience.
“But that was not the worst of it. I was compelled to begin directing our own company again, and the change from being with sweet, gentle girls, like Lois Wilson, and refined young gentlemen, including Mr. Washburn, all day, to assuming a brutish nature and working nearly all night—since Mr. Griffith had to undertake night scenes on my account—was extremely hard on one.
“I would rather act than direct, of course. The reason? Oh, I always forget myself utterly when acting and simply drown myself in the part. I cant live, think or feel anything but that one part. When one directs, it’s a case of assembling, deciding on dramatic values, comparing, acting a dozen different parts — for perhaps you’ve noticed that I act every part in every scene before I allow one of my company to try it. This robs one of the individuality which a singleness of purpose and concentration upon a certain role provides. Yes, I’d much rather act!”
“Have you played anything but villains, heavies or juveniles years ago?”
“Oh, yes,” smiled Mr. Crisp, with a delightful twinkle in his eye. Then, seriously, “Would you believe it, I have played dear, indulgent, tender-hearted papas?” “It does seem a pity that Mr. Crisp had to do such a horrible part as in “Broken Blossoms,’ ” chimed in Mrs. Crisp, who is taking a part in “Love Insurance,” now featuring Bryant Washburn.
Mrs. Crisp was Marie Stark before her marriage, and is a pretty brunette whose eyes follow her husband with intense admiration. “I was at the Griffith studio while they were shooting that drama and one day Lillian Gish said to me, ‘Mrs. Crisp, I do wish people in the East who know you’ve married Donald could have seen him as he is—for I’m afraid all your relatives will think you’ve married a horrible brute. They wont believe that anyone could act like this unless he really had something in his make-up to enable him to look and feel as he does. And then—they know he’s a wrestler; they’ll begin to pity you, dear !'”
“The peculiar part of it was that I did act it all so realistically that Lillian Gish was truly afraid of me. She used to cry and cry—her nerves got all unstrung, especially when we were shooting that awful scene in which I beat her head in with a whip-handle. “All thru the play I am beating her just for pleasure. She’s not done anything wrong—it’s merely a vent for my joy to beat her. Even my voice was gruff—for I not only assumed the change of voice, but it was made easier for me because of a whole day spent mega-phoning before I went to the Griffith lot,” continued Mr. Crisp. “Miss Gish was afraid some day my fist would slip too hard, or the whip would come down too near her, and so she really did feel that she might suffer an injury inadvertently.
“Nothing could excuse the gorilla nature of ‘Battling.’ There was nothing to remember but horror. That is why I say it is a screen sacrifice, one which not many men would dare to make—certainly not one who had a career to carve out which depended on the fan-following he inspired. As I’m evidently destined to remain a director, it was possible for me to undertake the role—but I’m afraid no one will believe that I’m half-way decent and a pretty easy chap to live with. No ordinary mortal could understand a character like ‘Bull’ But I contend that there are such natures, because, you see, I lived so long in London, sang in St. Paul’s Cathedral and visited Limehouse Row continually, especially when I grew up.
“I hobnobbed with costermongers, donned old clothes to throw off suspicion studied their methods, their songs, enjoyments, villainies. Why, do you know that if one had more buttons on his coat than another they would indulge in a Sunday fistic encounter which almost knocked one of them over into Kingdom Come?
They were primal natures— children of the world, with passions uncontrolled, with little spirituality anywhere. “To show the light, one must have the shadow. Some contend that happiness is sufficient; one needs no opposite to teach just what happiness is, to teach gratitude for it. I believe that the contrasts are as necessary in this life as the shady side of the street is alluring to a pedestrian on a hot day. I was the black background for the loveliness of the ‘Broken Blossom.’ You’ve noticed the ‘still life’ even in the modern fruiterer’s window?
The gold frame, the black velvet background, then the daintily arranged fruit? Isn’t it far more apt to be remembered than the tray of apples which the old woman carries on the corner? Life is filled with tragedies—why deny their expression on the screen? I can see these plays in which all ends happily—for all of us know that happiness is an elusive weight, not easily handcuffed, save by screen lovers!
“But there are compensations—for if I can’t be a leading man I at least have the satisfaction of showing him—or a star like George Beban, whom I used to direct—just how he should ‘wrestle’ with the “faire ladye”. So while we poor directors don’t get the lovely hymns of praise from adoring fans which gladden the waste-baskets of all popular players, we’ve the satisfaction of knowing that, without our efforts to give them all possible advantage in a production, they would be very little better known than the man behind the camera.”
Ruth Kingsley – 1919