The Never Land
In 1915 Hollywood was a small town adjacent to—and a world apart from—the city of Los Angeles. Tucked between the towering Hollywood Hills and the Pacific Ocean, it had been developed some years earlier by three real estate operators who bought up farm land and laid out streets in the hope of attracting some of the Easterners coming out in increasing numbers every winter to bask in Southern California’s warm sunlight. Some Easterners came, but not to bask in the sun. To work in it. To write and act in and direct and produce a new art form that was changing the dreams of the world—motion pictures.
Lillian Gish is one of the most wonderfully warm and generous women I have ever known, beautifully and unbelievably educated self-educated, because she never went beyond the third grade in school—a dedicated actress, strongly career-minded, yet feminine to her very soul. Lillian Gish was the real femme fatale in Hollywood. Not Jean Harlow or any of the other sex symbols on the screen. I think men were embarrassed when they went out with Harlow. I do know she never had any really big-time beaus. None of the sex symbols did—the Theda Baras, the Clara Bows, the Barbara Lamarrs. They sat home on Saturday night while girls like Lillian Gish and Janet Gaynor and Bessie Love and Norma Shearer had dates with all the big producers and directors and the wealthy and social Easterners. They were the kind of girls men wanted to be with and be seen with. The list of men whose hearts Lillian Gish captured is a long one. And an impressive one. Colonel Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune said she was the most fabulous woman he had ever known and asked her to marry him. George Jean Nathan spent an entire summer in Europe with Lillian begging her to marry him. Nathan’s co-editor of the American Mercury, Henry L. Mencken, was mad about her. Joseph Hergesheimer’s heroines were all Lillian Gish. He couldn’t have her, so he mooned over her on paper. Read Cytherea. The girl is Lillian. Jack Gilbert, when he was playing opposite her in La Boheme, said she was “the elusive dream girl.”
King Vidor, who directed the picture, said, “She represents the woman every man hopes to find.” Joseph Medill Patterson, Colonel McCormick’s cousin and owner of the New York Daily News, was enchanted with her. He said she was the most intelligent woman he ever knew, as well as the most romantic. There were more. And she wouldn’t marry any of them. Because of David Wark Griffith? I don’t know. I doubt that anyone ever will. There was much speculation in Hollywood my first years there about Lillian and Mr. Griffith. People said this was one of the greatest love stories in movie history. Yet they were very formal with each other on the set. He always called her Miss Gish, and she always addressed him as Mr. Griffith. Whenever they went on location, Lillian’s mother and sister Dorothy went along. So nobody really knew for sure how things stood between them.
They did have between them a dedication to work that has seldom been equaled. Richard Barthelmess, who played opposite Lillian in Way Down East, told me years later that in the scenes where Lillian is floating on a piece of ice dangerously near the falls, Mr. Griffith let her do the scene without using a double. In another scene she insisted, in behalf of greater realism, on lying on the ice until her lips were blue and her face frosted with snow. Lillian told me once that Griffith asked her to marry him, but she would not say why she refused him—whether it was because she didn’t love him or because she had made up her mind that marriage and a career didn’t mix.
Whatever happened between them, Griffith soon began courting a young woman named Carol Dempster, who had played a bit part in Intolerance and small parts in some of his other pictures. More significant in the long run, he began giving Carol Dempster starring roles—roles that should have gone to Lillian. No one, least of all the formula-loving movie public, could understand his interest in this new girl. She was not at all the soft, feminine, innocent-looking creature who was the Griffith type. She was nice-enough looking, but she had an angular body and a thin, sharp face. Her eyes were beautiful—big and brown—but not much expression showed in them on the screen.
Griffith became infatuated with her, lost his head over her. He lost his perspective as well. When anyone in public life, from politics to pictures, begins to believe his own press, his downfall is in the making. Griffith had read so much about his ability to discover talent, he became convinced he could make another Lillian Gish out of Carol Dempster. It was a fatal error. She couldn’t act, and he was unable to teach her to do so.
Nor would the public accept her. In 1921 he starred her in a picture called Dream Street. The picture flopped. Against all advice he starred her in another picture the following year, One Exciting Night. It, too, was a failure at the box office. Meanwhile Lillian Gish, his greatest star—and a proven moneymaker—was ignored. Lillian, fed up with Griffith’s treatment of her, left his studio to sign with another at three times the amount Griffith had been paying her. The profits Griffith had made from his Gish spectaculars were used to finance the Dempster pictures. As each picture he made with her lost money, he soon went broke. He borrowed money to finance more films. When they, too, failed, he became bankrupt. He now had no alternative but to return to Hollywood to look for work (without Carol Dempster, who retired from the screen and married somebody else).
There is an old saying still current in Hollywood that a director (or a star either, for that matter) is only as good as his last picture. No matter how many successes a director may have had, once he makes a bad film he’s on shaky ground. Two in a row can wreck his career. When Griffith arrived in Hollywood he found that the big companies were reluctant to hire him because of his recent failures.
United Artists finally let him shoot a film about the Civil War era so dear to his heart—a film called Abraham Lincoln, for which he himself had written the script. Abraham. Lincoln was a talking picture. It cost a lot of money, and money is always king in Hollywood. Critical reaction to Abraham Lincoln was mixed. Some critics said Griffith had surpassed himself, that he was reborn. Others said the parade had passed him by, that he couldn’t handle the new medium of talk. It was the reaction at the box office that really counted. The public wasn’t interested in the picture, and it was a financial failure.
Griffith made another picture called The Struggle. After its release it was found to be so bad it was recalled. Word got around that Griffith had lost his touch, that he was senile. The fact that he was drinking too much didn’t help counteract the rumors.
He wandered around like a lost soul. His whole life lay in making motion pictures, and nobody would let him make any. Producers refused to see him. When he called them on the phone, they were too busy to talk to him. People who knew him went out of their way to avoid him. Other people laughed at him. Laughed at D. W. Griffith, the man who had made all their swimming pools and their race horses possible!
Eventually the rumors and stories about him stopped, to be supplanted by something far more destructive. He was just plain forgotten. One day he was killing time walking down Hollywood Boulevard when he saw a crowd gathered in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. A young star was putting her hand- and footprints in the cement for posterity and the tourist trade. Mr. Griffith walked over to watch the ceremony. As the news cameras began rolling, he came closer and smiled at the girl. A policeman tapped him on the shoulder, saying, “Move on, buddy. No loitering.” Griffith, the man who was the father of it all, moved on.
There was one who stayed faithful. Lillian Gish. Incensed at the treatment given Griffith, she stormed the studios trying to shame them into giving Griffith a picture to direct. She never got anywhere, but she never stopped trying. Was it love for him—a making up on her part for the love she had once denied him? Or was it simply the unswerving loyalty of an old friend who believed in his genius as firmly now as she had in the bygone golden years? No one could say. No one knew. I don’t know that it matters. Whichever it was, it came to the same thing.
One night during this time Lillian asked me and a few other friends to dinner at her house. Griffith was to be there. I wanted to weep when I saw him. He was old. Not body old so much as soul old—old and empty, as if he had been beaten with discouragement until he had become devoid of any emotion whatever. Lillian must have seen him as the rest of us did, but she put on a great performance. She led him into conversation, getting him to reminisce until the light returned to his eyes, and for a brief time he became once again the strong, vibrant, imperial man he had been.
Mr. Griffith died in Hollywood in 1948 at the age of seventy-three. In the years since his death, he has been acclaimed everywhere as the Master. Honors are paid him. His films are shown in art museums around the world, where he is acknowledged to be the greatest film director who ever lived. In Hollywood there is talk of erecting a statue of him. Hollywood started acclaiming—and reclaiming—David Lewelyn Wark Griffith almost at once. Great crowds of people attended his funeral. All the big names in Hollywood were there. They were anxious to pay tribute to him. They could afford to. He was dead now. Safely dead.