Not So Long Ago
By Lloyd Morris – 1949
Life’s but a walking shadow
The Old Master (D.W. Griffith)
The man who eventually undertook this task had been engaged in making movies for five years when Howells wrote his article. In the autumn of 1907, the celebrated matinee-idol, James K. Hackett,· ventured into theatrical production, bringing to the Columbia Theater in Washington a new play: A Fool and a Girl. Fanny Ward, was returning to the stage after an interval of absence. The author of this romantic drama of the California hop-fields was an actor; the kind of actor who found his engagements only with touring companies, never on Broadway. For professional purposes he had adopted the name Lawrence Griffith.
A Kentuckian, proud, sentimental, idealistic and very ambitious, he was determined not to become known by his real name, David Wark Griffith, until he had won fame. But, not withstanding the prestige of its producer and its star, audiences in the capital were cool to A Fool and a Girl, and after a fortnight’s run Hackett prudently closed it. It had earned neither money nor fame for its author. Disgruntled, very nearly broke, he went up to New York to look for work. Griffith was thirty-two years old, and had cherished the dream of becoming a successful, famous playwright from the age of eighteen. He was tall and lean, and he carried himself with a lordly air; not because he was an actor, but because he considered himself an aristocrat and believed himself to be a genius. People usually remembered this effect of assurance, somehow emphasized by his large head, big aquiline nose, wide mottth and long chin. Some of them thought him a man consumed by restless energy, full of ideas, always occupied in trying to work them out. Others thought him rather aloof from the bustling, everyday world, as if his real life was. carried on in some interior sphere of calm. Both of these contradictory impressions were true. His father had been a colonel in the Confederate Army; the family, originally people of means, were ruined by the war. A sensitive, bookish child, Griffith’s mind was nourished on tales of the Old South; a land of columned mansions, delicate brave women, gallant gentlemen; a land of chivalrous actions and noble manners; a land of romance. As a boy, he read widely in Victorian poetry and fiction. At the age. of sixteen, he went to Louisville to find work; he ran an elevator, did some reporting for a newspaper, clerked in a drygoods store, took a job in a bookshop. He saw his first Broadway play, brought to Louisville by a touring company: Appropriately, it was a dramatization of George Eliot’s novel, Romola; the heroine’s role was played by Julia Marlowe, a talented and beautiful young actress, soon to become one of the great stars of the American stage. This experience fired Griffith’s lifelong ambition to write for the theater. He immediately set to work on a play; he was to continue working on it, at intervals, for nearly a half century. But when a friend assured him that all great playwrights had learned their craft as actors, he left his job in the bookstore to join a traveling stock company. For the next ten years, he barnstormed with various touring companies, writing constantly during his free time, infrequently selling a poem or short story to some magazine. On one of these tours, he was stranded in California. He found work as a hop-picker and, characteristically, began at once to write a play based on this experience. When the play was accepted by Hackett, Griffith knew that he had reached a decisive turning point in his career. His intuition proved to be correct. But his subsequent course was one that he had not foreseen, nor would he have chosen to follow it if he had. In New York, after the failure of his play, Griffith saw one of the early story films. Being in urgent need of money, he decided to try and sell a story idea to the Edison Company. All the film-makers were pirating plots, so Griffith wrote a brief synopsis of Sardou’s famous melodrama, La Tosca. Opera goers, that winter, were thronging the Metropolitan to hear Puccini’s setting of it interpreted by Emma Eames, Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti. At the Edison Company, Griffith saw Edwin S. Porter, who refused his script but offered him a job acting for the camera. To be seen in pictures, as Griffith realized, was to aclmowledge that he wasn’t good enough for the stage; actors who worked in the movies when “at leisure” tried to conceal their disgraceful employment. But, since he was stone broke, Griffith had no choice. He went to work for Porter. After some months, he. learned that the Biograph Company was paying its actors five dollars a day, and often paid as much as fifteen dollars for story suggestions. He applied for a job, and was hired. By this time he had married, and presently his wife, Linda Arvidson, was also taken on as an actrcis. In addition to turning out picture plots and acting, Griffith continued to write; his poems and short stories began appearing in several major magazines; he carefully kept secret the source of his livelihood.
After a year, Biograph offered to promote him to directing pictures. He discovered how to show two or more courses of action occurring in different places, whether simultaneously or not, and keep all threads of a story constantly before his audience. The collective effect of Griffith’s many innovations was to extend both the range, and dramatic intensity, of motion pictures. This had an important social result. Within a few years, it multiplied the audience many times. In so doing, it completely changed the character of the public that attended the movies. Griffith not only created the modern movie, but helped to make it a universal entertainment. He did not foresee this achievement, or deliberately plan it.
It was one of the unpredictable consequences of a conflict that always raged within him. He believed that he was a genius, or wanted to believe it. He was proud of the social superiority that his forebears had taken for granted. Yet he saw himself trapped by poverty in an occupation unworthy of an artist, and inadmissible by a gentleman. He was working only for money enough to buy his freedom from detested drudgery. But the more money he made, the more he seemed to need; he squandered it recklessly, perhaps because he could never take it seriously as an end in itself. Since money was the public measure of success, his vanity was nourished by setting a low value on it. Meanwhile, self-reproach kept pace with his mounting success. He scorned himself for not quitting the movies, for being unable to quit them. For what had he surrendered his integrity? Why had he compromised his ideals, abandoned the only aim he genuinely cherished? He had no plausible answers; the questions continued to torment him, sometimes embittering his triumphs. He never completely overcame his contempt for his professioμ., or the feeling that, for him, success in it was a kind of failure. But the restlessness induced by his conflicting emotions found an outlet in continuous experiment. To shatter the stereotyped formulas that every other maker of pictures accepted as binding; to undertake fearlessly what nobody had ever attempted before: this gave Griffith a perverse satisfaction.
It enabled him to give rein to his exorbitant ambition. However obliquely, it expressed his contempt by demonstrating his refusal to be bound by established practice. In a sense, it appeased his uneasy conscience. Each of his experiments was more revolutionary and hazardous than its predecessors, and in time they became more and more costly. So they met with increasing opposition, not only from the technicians who had to execute them, but from the businessmen who were footing the bills. But opposition merely strengthened Griffith’s determination to carry them through. He had no respect for the medium in which he was working, but his temperament compelled him to treat it as if it were an art. The result was that he made it one. Yet even world acclaim could not persuade him to believe, whole heart that this was true. From the very outset, Griffith’s methods proved disconcerting to his associates. His first assignment was a sentimental story of kidnapping, The Adventures of Dolly; it was shown at Keith and Proctor’s Union Square Theater in New York City on July 14th, 1908, and was liked by audiences throughout the country. Needing a leading man, and not satisfied by any of the actors employed by Biograph, Griffith saw his desired hero in a passer-by on the street, promptly accosted the stranger and hired him.
The unknown, Arthur Johnson, soon became one of the earliest of America’s anonymous screen idols. The completed film ran to approximately the length of Porter’s The Great Train Robbery; about two-thirds of a reel. When Griffith had it projected, his cameraman objected that it was too long. Thirty years later the cameraman, G. W. (“Billy”) Bitzer, then long famous in the industry because of his subsequent association with Griffith, truefully recalled this early criticism. “In the light of a completed scenario today,” he remarked, “I can readily say that Griffith was years ahead of us.” The incident was typical of the opposition provoked by every innovation that he ventured. Almost immediately, Griffith came into conflict with his superiors on the issue of the kind of story being offered to the public.
Simple, obvious melodramas involving a “chase” were the principal staple; Griffith considered them absurd, felt certain that the nickelodeon public would accept something better, but was condemned to grind out several hundred of these naive yams. In the process, however, he developed methods of increasing their suspense. Delighted by this victory over conservatism, Griffith immediately embarked upon a far more dangerous project. This was a two-reel “psychological study” of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The cautious businessmen who controlled Biograph were horrified. Was this appropriate entertainment for the illiterate masses? But they could not afford to dispense with the maverick director who, by breaking all established precedents, seemed to be doubling and trebling their profits. They were not pleased when Griffith’s sober, philosophical picture-dramatizing the eternal conflict between intelligence and brute force-proved to be a sensational success. Man’s Ascent aroused enthusiasm everywhere.
“The audience, mechanical Americans fond of crawling on their stomachs to tinker with their automobiles, are eager over the evolution of the first weapon from a stick to a hammer,” the poet Vachel Lindsay reported some years later. “They are as full of curiosity as they could well be over the history of Langley or the Wright Brothers.” But among the magnates of Biograph-the most respectable and wealthy group in the industry–curiosity took an anxious tone. Where was all this nonsense going to lead? Pictures were made and sold by the foot. The business was a mass production industry, and the product could be made most cheaply if it was standardized. The trust could make the public accept whatever it chose to give them. Griffith’s insistence upon “better films” didn’t fit into this scheme of operation. It promised to raise expenses, and who would pay the price? Motion pictures were-and were bound to remain-a show for the poor and ignorant. This fact Griffith seemed obstinately determined to ignore.
He ignored all sound, businesslike procedures. Rapidity of output was essential, and other directors, taking the brief scripts prepared for them by writers, went before the camera without wasting time on any preparation. Not so Griffith. He wouldn’t use a script, in any case. He never had anything written down, never had a word on paper for any of his pictures; he developed his stories as he went along. Sometimes, after rehearsing a story all day, he would chuck it as no good, and begin another. For, uniquely, he insisted on rehearsing in sequence the scenes of every picture until each scene dovetailed smoothly into the next, and the acting satisfied him perfectly. He worked out his story by using his actors as if they were chessmen; that was how his wife described it. He always knew precisely what he wanted, and the camera never began to grind until every little detail had been perfected to a degree that satisfied him. But in spite of these idiosyncrasies, his output was enormous; exhibitors clamored for Biograph pictures; and mail began coming into the company from the movie public. praising thase which Griffith had directed a new and surprising phenomenon. At the Biograph factory, housed in an old brownstone mansion on Fourteenth Street east of Fifth Avenue, the executives didn’t know whether to rejoice in having Griffith under contract, or look forward apprehensively to what might come of it. If only he could be relied on to leave well enough alone!
This was precisely what Griffith couldn’t do. Things as they were never suited him. Thus, for example, he was always looking about for new actors and actresses. The kind of acting practised on the Broadway stage he considered all wrong for the films. On the screen, the human figure was magnified many times; exaggerated postures and gestures, which the vast distances of a theater made necessary, became ludicrous when enlarged by the projector. Griffith wanted naturalness in acting. For the hard, implacable eye of the camera, he wanted youth and freshness. He began to search for these qualities among the ill-paid youngsters who toured, as he had, with traveling stock companies. He thought they might also prove versatile. For they knew the harsh necessity of playing all kinds of parts perstiasively and with conviction; they had to please their unsophisticated audiences, or starve. One spring morning in 1909. Mrs. Griffith came into the front hall of the factory and noticed a little girl sitting, patiently waiting to see Griffith. She looked to be no more than fourteen. “She wore a plain navy-blue serge suit, a blue-and-white striped lawn shirtwaist, a rolled brim Tuscan straw sailor hat with a dark-blue ribbon bow. About her face, so fresh, so pretty and so gentle, bobbed a dozen or more golden curls – such perfect little curls as I had never seen.”
Anita Loos continued writing for the films; many years later, her satirical novel, Gentlemen Prefer ·Blondes, delighted readers the world over. Another early Pickford picture, The Little Teacher, brought twenty or more letters daily to the Biograph Company. The writers, enchanted by the child actress, asked for the name of “Little Mary” or “the girl with the long curls.” These letters went into the waste-basket unanswered; Biograph refused to reveal the names of its actors and actresses. The term “fan mail” hadn’t yet been invented, but the business executives at Biograph took a dim view of this novel corresponqence; public recognition might inspire the young actress to demand more money, and would certainly inflate her self-esteem. Having seen some of the pictures made in California by the fugitive independents, Griffith was seized by a desire to exploit its picturesque backgrounds. In the winter of 1910, he took a company of Biograph players-including Mary Pickford-to Los Angeles, and set up a temporary studio on the outskirts of the city. To feature Mary Pickford, he devised a story, The Thread of Destiny, which used the San Gabriel Mission as a romantic setting. He also featured her in Ramona, which Biograph advertised as the most costly picture ever made-a claim partly warranted by the fact that Griffith had paid the unprecedented fee of one hundred dollars to film Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel. These pictures established the young actress-still anonymous to her public-as the most popular of all players with motion-picture audiences. The other pictures which Griffith made in California were principally based on historical subjects. He had become eager to interpret, for twentieth-century Americans, an American past of which many of them were either ignorant or forgetful. But the contemporary social scene also fascinated him. Oil had recently been discovered; a migration to the new California fields had begun. In two films, Griffith attempted to record the surge of pioneers, from all parts of the country, to this latest frontier – Eldorado.
Five years after he began making pictures, Griffith’s prestige in the booming industry was unrivaled. By 1913, he was acknowledged to be the mast original and successful maker of pictures in environment that had shaped them. Conceiving his picture on an epic scale-it was to fill twelve reels, more than any picture had ever used-Griffith quietly proceeded without any script, building it experimentally as he went along. Six weeks of continuous, careful rehearsal preceded the camera’s first shot. Griffith taught his cast how to act, move and walk for the camera; told them, with respect to every scene, precisely how many feet of film they could use to secure the needed dramatic effect. In this period, too, he substituted an actress for the one originally chosen to play the heroine’s role; the change in large part accounted for the picture’s eventual success. Hundreds of “extras” were required, arrangements had to be made for their housing and food. Horses had to be procured, and vast quantities of cotton goods to cloak the Klansmen; both were difficult to obtain because of the war in Europe, which was draining away all types of commodities. An enormous acreage had to be rented to stage the great rides and battle scenes. All the responsibilities of management fell on Griffith, and so did the burden of raising money.
The movie companies considered his project crazy, and none would finance it. He had estimated the cost of his super-picture at approximately one hundred thousand dollars, enough to pay for ten “feature” pictures. Even after production was actually under way, the need for money became so urgent that all work was stopped while Griffith went to Los Angeles to secure it-from personal friends, local tradesmen, lawyers, anyone whom he could persuade to grant him a loan. Yet despite all difficulties, Griffith-according to “Billy” Bitzer, his cameraman remained calm; and long afterwards his leading woman remembered that “everythjng was always under control because he always was.” Six months passed before the picture was finally completed. But not a single scene had ever been re-taken; a permanent and unique record in picture-making. The leading actors in the picture had all worked for Griffith at Biograph. Their names, previously unknown to audiences, were announced on the film of The Birth of a Nation, and most of them were soon elevated to stardom. But a peculiar glory suddenly invested the players to whom Griffith assigned the roles of hero and heroine; nothing like it had ever before occurred, on so wide a scale, in the United States. Requests for autographs and.photographs poured in on them by the thousands. Unknowingly, they established new patterns of appearance, fashion and behavior.
Young men imitated the haircut, the style of collar, the suits and neckties shown in portraits of the “Little Colonel”; they tried to adopt the gentle but superbly gallant manner which, on the screen, made him universally appealing to women. And American girls quickly cultivated a new look. Plumpness, previously in vogue, ceased to be fashionable. For “Elsie Stoneman” was petite, slim, fragile; her golden hair cascaded below her waist; she was demure, wistful, but magnificently courageous. All over the land, young women strained for slenderness; patiently tried to behave like clinging vines, but also suggest a pure white fire of passion; dressed demurely, and practised shaking down their hair for the beguiling, perilous moment yet to come. The players who aroused this idolatry later found that it exacted its own strange penalty. So far as the public could exercise its compulsion, they were required to perpetuate the ideal images that had captivated the American imagination.
The new king of hearts, Henry B. Walthall, was never to escape this stem necessity; when he was supplanted by another type of hero, he disappeared abruptly from the screen, and returned only after many years to play minor roles. He was born in Alabama, of impoverished parents, and was put to work as a child in the cotton fields. The books loaned him by a clergyman uncle took the place of formal schooling, but later he managed to spend six months at Howard College. He served in the Spanish-American War and, after being discharged from the army, went to New York to seek work as an actor. By 1909, when a friend took him to the Biograph Company, Walthall had acquired considerable experience.
Griffith hired him at once. Small, slender, with a very expressive face, he proved to be a skillful pantomimist, and Griffith was soon using him for romantic roles–most notably in Ramona, with Mary Pickford, and thereafter in a long series of films. The heroine of The Birth of a Nation was to have a far more distinguished and spectacular career than Walthall. The Gish sisters-Lillian and Dorothy-were brought to Griffith in 1912 by their long-time friend, Mary Pickford. Like her, they had been on the stage almost from infancy. Like her, they had had no real childhood. They received their early education in the stuffy dressing rooms of cheap provincial theaters, in jolting day coaches and the rooms of third-class hotels patronized by the touring melodrama companies in which they acted children’s roles. They were constantly haunted by fears of the Gerry Society, a philanthropic organization whose commendable object was to prevent the exploiting of children.
“Before I could understand what it was all about,” Lillian Gish noted long afterwards, “I knew of subterfuges and evasions and tremendous plottings to keep myself and my sister acting, so that the very necessary money might be earned.” Their obscurity kept them safe, and they remained obscure for a simple reason: “When we were ambitious and went into better productions, the plays seemed to fail.” But Lillian Gish graduated from a role in Her First False Step-which brought audiences “the awe-inspiring rescue of a child from a den of savage African lions”-to the part of a child dancer in the company of Madame Sarah Bernhardt, who in 1905 was making her usual farewell tour of the United States. Some years of formal schooling followed. When Mary Pickford brought the Gish Sisters to Griffith, motion pictures were eliminating the melodrama road companies, and they were glad to accept his offer to take them on as extras. Gradually they worked into leading roles; Dorothy in comedy, Lillian in romantic and dramatic parts. Long after both sisters became celebrated stars, Griffith recorded his early impressions of them: “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal and patiently sought to realize it. Genius is like that: the ideal becomes real to it.” During a rehearsal for The Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish was “standing in” for the actress assigned to the heroine’s role. Seeing that she perfectly embodied his conception of the part, Griffith impulsively substituted her for the other actress. Her performance of the role more than justified this hasty decision.
Night before the Boston opening, Negro clergymen, teachers and lawyers in Massachusetts violently denounced the film. Public emotion soon reached the boiling point, and on the film’s first night a disturbance broke out in front of the theater. It rapidly assumed the proportions of a large-scale race riot; the police were incapable of restoring order, and the Boston fire department was hastily summoned to help disperse the rioters. On the following morning, this outbreak of violence made headlines in the press throughout the United States. The immediate result was to provoke a demand for the picture from all parts of the country; the Boston riot was frequently duplicated elsewhere; and the American people flocked to box-offices, eagerly paying regular stage prices for the privilege of seeing a film capable of inciting such widespread disorder.
Meanwhile, indignation at the social implications of The Birth of a Nation developed quickly. President Emeritus Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University condemned it as having “a tendency to perversion of white ideals.” From Hull House, in Chicago, Miss Jane Addams announced that she was “painfully exercised over the exhibition.” And in the columns of The Nation Oswald Garrison Villard-grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, the first Abolitionist-forthrightly denounced it as “a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens.” More significantly, the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People published, and widely circulated, a pamphlet entitled Fighting a Vicious Film; A Record of Protest Against “The Birth of a Nation.” The Association was headed by Moorfield Storey, a Boston patrician and an eminent attorney; seventy-one years old, and long honored both as a reformer and leader of the American bar, Storey exercised a powerful influence in mobilizing Northern sentiment against the picture. Yet Storey was soon to demonstrate that N orthem humanitarians were no less capable of ironical inconsistency than Southerners like Griffith and Senator Watson. For despite his vigorous championship of the cause of the Negro, Storey one year later furnished leadership to the forces which bitterly opposed the appointment of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court-both because Brandeis was a “reformer” and because he was a Jew-and, as the historian Henry Steele Commager pointed out long afterwards, Storey likewise opposed the admission of Jews to Harvard University. Specifically replying to Storey’s attack, Griffith issued a pamphlet provocatively entitled The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America. In this, he argued heatedly for “the freedom of the screen” and “the fundamental rights of expression.” Presently, an acrimonious and passionate controversy over these novel issues was being carried on in American newspapers and magazines. Griffith himself, according to Miss Lillian Gish, was deeply hurt by the antagonism that his picture had aroused, and resented the objections urged by its opponents. Privately, he protested that the film portrayed “bad white people as well as bad Negroes,” showing that the Negroes were “bad only because the white people made them so.” That his picture had inflicted an irreparable damage on ten million citizens, in addition to humiliating them; that it had inflamed and sanctioned vicious prejudices; that it had been capable of so doing only by virtue of its immense power as dramathese facts Griffith could not bring himself to acknowledge. The critics and journalists who acclaimed it as a great work of art were in a scarcely less equivocal position. For the most part they were Americans of sensitive conscience, advocates of civic morality, presumably eager to see a “better life” for all made possible under democratic institutions. Was socially evil influence compatible with high esthetic significance? The complex social and ethical problems which The Birth of a Nation projected were to affiict educators, social theorists, the clergy, lawmakers, and motionpicture-executives until the middle of the century. The controversy which his picture has exploded confirmed Griffith’s earlier intuition that the American public was ready to accept films undertaking the serious discussion of major social issues. His literary tum of mind predisposed him to seek significant themes, and he perceived that many of the conflicts occurring in an industrial society provided them; but only a genius for the particular medium in which he was working could have suggested reinforcement of the contemporary illustration by parallels from earlier epochs in human history.