Silent Cinema – By Joel W. Finler (1997)

  • Silent Cinema – World cinema before the coming of sound
  • By Joel W. Finler
  • First published in Great Britain 1997 © Joel W. Finler 1997

You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life – in the life of writers… (But) the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace… (Leo Tolstoy, interviewed in 1908)

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on the hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities that rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. (Walter Benjamin The Work ofArt in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – 1936)

David Wark – D.W. Griffith

Biograph, however, was transformed by the arrival of D. W. Griffith. He began as an actor, then became a writer and director and soon took over responsibility for virtually the entire output of the studio during the years 1908—1913. The most prolific and influential of all the American film-makers at this time, he turned out over 450 short films (mainly one-reelers) of remarkable quality and diversity. They ranged from comedies and Westerns to chase and action movies and suspense thrillers, along with many dramas characterized by their moral elements and narrative clarity. Such films as “A Drunkard’s Reformation” and a version of Robert Browning’s “Pippa Passes,” both filmed in 1909, reflected the cinema’s current aspirations towards a new respectability. At the same time he assembled his own stock company of favourite actors and especially actresses, most of whom were quite young and just starting in films, and who would mature and develop under his guidance. Best known of this group were Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Henry Walthall and Robert Harron.

Hollywood, the pioneers – Griffith and Bitzer 1912

But most important of all was his creative role in extending and developing the expressive qualities of the cinema, demonstrating a remarkable mastery of narrative technique. He made special use of intercutting, parallel action and a mobile camera, also sophisticated lighting techniques devised by his favourite cameraman, Billy Bitzer, and an imaginative use of locations, while encouraging his actors to develop a new, distinctively cinematic style of acting. Among the features Griffith made for Artcraft were “Hearts of the World”, his World War I anti-war picture completed late in 1917, “A Romance of Happy Valley,” filmed in 1918, followed by “Broken Blossoms” and “True Heart Susie” in 1919. All starred his favourite and most talented actress discovery, Lillian Gish, and proved that the director was still capable of turning out original and entertaining works filmed with relatively modest budgets.

Victor Sjostrom (Seastrom)

Victor Sjostrom, however, was one of the few foreign directors who managed to cope with the studio pressures for a ante. Having signed with the Goldwyn Company, he found himself at MGM-in 1924, where he provided the new studio with one of its first successful star vehicles, “He Who Gets Slapped” a circus drama from the play by the Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev, with Lon Chaney, John Gilbert and Norma Shearer. But his most memorable pictures date from near the end of his stay at the studio, including a Garbo vehicle, The Divine Woman (1927), The Scarlet Letter (1927), adapted from the Hawthorne novel, and a harrowing Western drama, The Wind (1928), which is regarded as his one American masterpiece. These two latter were given a special lift by the performances of Lillian Gish, towards the end of her career as a silent film star, while the Swedish actor Lars Hanson co-starred.

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

In her autobiography Lillian Gish recalls that the original, novel, The Wind, ‘excited my imagination. Its main character is a wind which constantly blows sand, indoors and out, and finally drives the heroine to madness.’ However, working on the film turned out to be ‘one of my worst experiences in film-making. Sand was blown at me by eight airplane propellers… I was burned and in danger of having my eyes put out…’ She is seen here with co-star Lars Hansan, in their primitive cabin home, on their unhappy wedding eve.

D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish

The impressive sets in Intolerance (1916) were conceived and designed by the talented Walter L. Hall. As recalled by Karl Brown, ‘Some of his pencil sketches of Babylon at the moment of its greatest glory were breathtaking… studies for a tremendous panorama.’

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Although Lillian Gish only had smallish roles in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, during the following years she emerged as Griffith’s leading star. Under his guidance, as Ephraim Katz has noted, ‘she developed into the most capable actress of the silent screen, an  extraordinary creative and dedicated performer whose work could uplift the most commonplace vehicle.’ Miss Gish’s autobiography titled “The Movies, Mr Griffith & Me,” first published in 1970***, paid a belated tribute to her famous mentor and was peppered with such remarks as, ‘Mr Griffith always emphasized that the way to tell a story was with one’s body and facial expressions’ and ‘I learned from him to use my body and face quite impersonally to create effects, much as a painter uses paint on canvas.’

Here she is seen in three of her most celebrated roles, as the young Lucy, terrorized by her brutal father (Donald Crisp) in Broken Blossoms, filmed in 1918 and followed immediately by a contrasting, lighter weight performance as True Heart Susie (1919) with Robert Hqrron. Finally, the celebrated blizzard climax of Way Down East (1920) in which she played another long-suffering heroine.

*** Admin note – Actually, Lillian Gish’s autobiography title is “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” By Lillian Gish & Ann Pinchot (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 1969) then was the first print, NOT in 1970. Also in 1969, an event took place – Live on Stage LILLIAN GISH AND THE MOVIES – Rare Early Films. In October 17, 1971, Nathan Kroll produced and presented another “Lillian Gish and The Movies” event, that took place in New York, Washington and San Francisco, (The Walnut Street Theatre).

Silent Cinema – World cinema before the coming of sound By Joel W. Finler First published in Great Britain 1997 © Joel W. Finler 1997

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