The Enemy (Reviewed by Laurence Reid – Motion Picture News 1927)

Motion Picture News – December 31, 1927

The Enemy

Hokum, But Up to Snuff

(Reviewed by Laurence Reid)

IT takes good old peace times to promote propaganda against war. That is why “The Enemy,” a film version of the play is brought out now. Fred Niblo, who directed “Ben Hur, ” was not inspired when he wove it into picture shape, though he has done a creditable job by it. The trouble is there’s no great idea behind it. Niblo employs several studio tricks (he knows them) and by capitalizing scenes of marching feet—and the usual stock methods he makes a picture that stands up fairly well as entertainment. The story is not involved with any subtle strokes. The suspense and the climaxes are well planted. The star is Lillian Gish and, as is her custom, she acts with fine poise and restraint and yet releases an admirable suggestion of pent-up emotions. The title gets its meaning from war—a force to be avoided. The story takes up the deprivations of a family in general, and those of the young wife in particular. It is her husband who is drawn from her arms the morning after the marital ceremony.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - Wedding - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – Wedding – The Enemy

Symbolism has a place in the picture, although it isn’t indicated by suggestion. But it is pointed that war causes hunger and despair—and profiteering. The subject might have been handled with more imagination and realism by the Germans. Here it is a fairly entertaining picture saturated with hokum. Ralph Forbes does a splendid piece of work in the role of the husband forced to go to war. Others who acquitted themselves with honors are Frank Currier and George Fawcett.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – The Enemy
  • Drawing Power: Star’s personality should put it over. Suitable for first runs and all types of houses.
  • Exploitation Angles: Play up as an indictment of war. Feature star and leading man.
  • THEME: Drama of war with married couple separated not to be reunited until they have suffered untold privations.
  • Produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
  • Length, nine reels.
  • Released, December, 1927.
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes silent film The Enemy orp
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes silent film The Enemy orp

The Cast: Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Ralph Emerson, Frank Currier, George Fawcett, Fritzi Ridgway, John S. Peters, Karl Dane, Polly Moran. Director, Fred Niblo.

Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes in The Enemy (MGM, 1927). Portrait Photo 11

Pictures and People

Inside slants on the industry

A VIGOROUS preachment against war is ”The Enemy,” which brings Lillian Gish to the Astor Theatre in the premiere of the Meek. On the stage, Channing Pollock’s play attained marked success as an argument for the brotherhood of man.

Transferred to the screen, it becomes somewhat heavy handed in spots, but, considered as a “propaganda” picture, it is very impressive. Miss Gish, forsaking her earlier mannerisms, gives a natural and satisfying performance, in some of the sequences rising to the genuine heights of tragedy. Ralph Forbes, leading man, is excellent, while George Fawcett and Frank Currier shine in character roles.

As a whole, “The Enemy” is too long and can easily be relieved of some of its repetition, such as the shots of marching feet, which rather lose their effect when the dramatic point they convey is hammered incessantly at the spectator. In the main, Director Fred Niblo has done a good job. It’s a good box-office picture.

The Enemy
The Enemy

“The Enemy” Premiere at Astor, Dec. 27

“THE ENEMY,” the Channing Pollack play which Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has transferred to the screen with Lillian Gish playing the leading role, will have its world premiere performance at the Astor Theatre on the evening of Tuesday, December 27. The new picture will succeed “The Student Prince,” which has been housed at the Astor for the last four months.

Fred Niblo directed “The Enemy,” which has Ralph Forbes and a large cast in support.

Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927
Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927

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”Way Down East”- Camera (1920)

Camera – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23. 1920

”Way Down East”

Griffith comes back again with his screen version of “Way Down East,” and, as usual, the critics have little to report save good regarding one of his big productions. As has been the case in some of his previous pictures, this old melodrama will henceforth be more popular as a Griffith offering than it has proven during the many years that it has been an old standby on the boards.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

Never before have such photography and light effects been accomplished for the screen. These, combined with the unusual settings which proclaim aloud their genuineness, render “Way Down East” the season’s most artistic production by far.

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

The original plot of the play has been elaborated upon and much invaluable human interest business has been inserted. The performances of the cast are very good and the New England types are excellent. Their action is materially assisted by the music score.

Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Lowell Sherman is exceptionally well cast as the heavy, Lennox Sanderson, whom he interprets cleverly. His work is convincing enough to gather for him the complete loathing of any audience.

Richard Barthelmess does David Bartlett, the well remembered ideal young New Englander, with all of his old time juvenile appeal. His characterization is equally good in its tender and its dominant moments.

Burr MackIntosh - Scene from Way Down East
Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

Burr Macintosh and Kate Price are beautifully cast as Squire and Mrs. Bartlett. It is the home atmosphere that means so much in Griffith pictures.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Mary Hay makes her screen debut in the role of Kate Brewster, the refreshing little ingenue. She is headed toward Dorothy ‘s port with her eccentric comedy mannerisms. Her relief is timely.

Way Down East Cast and Director
Way Down East Cast and Director

Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong and George Neville occasion the more hilarious amusement of the play in the rural characters, Martha Perkins, Jack Setholand and Reuben Whipple. Josephine Bernard, Mrs. Morgan Belmont and Patricia Fruer are somewhat amateurish as the Tremonts, but their footage is limited and consequently means little.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and the eccentric aunt

Florence Short, however, creates a type worthy of mention in her four or five scenes as their eccentric aunt. Edgar Nelson as Hi Holler, and Emily Fitzroy as Maria Poole, complete the cast.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

The remarkableness and thrill of the ice jam and break scenes, which forms the climax, has never been rivaled. It is as spectacular a sequence as has been filmed, even by this  director.

Other producers might follow Mr. Griffith’s example by including many big brains in their organizations, to the advantage of’ their productions and resultantly their own material success.

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The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry


The University of Chicago Press – Chicago and London 1980

Recent social historians have used innovative methods to show that there was a measurable change in morals among the urban middle classes between 1900 and 1920. Yet the convergence of that change with issues of power remained obscure. For example, the active communications and close relationship maintained between civic leaders and filmmakers, specifically with regard to the sexual revolution, was overlooked. Fearing that the rise of industrial empires threatened the traditional moral order, each believed that it was necessary to combat that threat. Nevertheless, by the 1920s urbanites had forged a new culture, a culture that was supported by all the modern institutions of leisure, sports, nightclubs, popular music, amusement parks, including the movies, to regenerate popular visions of progress and middle-class success. The result was that a profound alteration in American identity was first born at the turn of the century. Movies were a key element in that transformation, helping to foster the shift from a producer’s to a consumer’s democracy. Centered in the large cities, the cultural revolution had an independent life. Of course, elites tried to control that process, but in spite of their efforts, filmmakers helped to reorient democratic individualism in an organized age and created models for a leisure realm that helped ease fears of social disruption. Though the promise of a richer life was often distorted in the tension, the strongest urge was to generate private fulfillment to counter an often alienating, bureaucratic society. Precisely because consumerism supplied ideals for the political economy, producers tried to link their product to the democratic tradition by having politicians serve in the industry. Political leaders often accepted, hoping to link their programs to popular aspirations carried by the media, its leisure institutions and personalities. Much of that symbiosis has been a shadowy element, but it became overt in 1980. In the presidential campaign of that year Ronald Reagan promised to regenerate the modern American dream of consumption and economic growth, a dream that he dramatized on and off the screen for more than twenty years as a movie star. The political and artistic reality behind that synthesis has often eluded us, but this Study suggests that it has been a powerful and permanent part of our culture since the turn of the century.

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

Chapter Four




Do you know that we are playing to the world? What we film tomorrow will strike the hearts of the world. And they will know what we are saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language — a power that can make men brothers and end wars forever. Remember that, remember that when you go before the camera.


Griffith believed that no film could be a success without that “pleasing presentation for which all men yearn.” We are not likely to understand the tremendous artistry Griffith poured into this vision if we forget the sources of Griffith’s emotional stance toward women. He idealized his family, especially his mother; and this admiration infused his attitude toward the female characters in his photoplays. Although he never found a woman “to duplicate the memories of perfection we all have within us,” there was one woman whom mankind might love without thoughts of sensuality. “We all know that the beauty of our mothers is no myth.” In seeking to revive that memory on the screen, heroines were less objects of passion than reminders of all the spiritual values embodied in the family. No wonder the player who portrayed this type in numerous Griffith films, Lillian Gish, confessed that her mentor was an essentially lonely man who loved his screen images but feared real women. Consequently, his female players were not the “buxom, voluptuous form popular with the Oriental mind,” but the frail, innocent girl who was the “very essence of virginity.” It was not just Griffith’s camera but the entire environment of film making that infused his heroines with the proper purity. He started by making his studio a Victorian home writ large. Running it like a “stern father,” he never allowed his players long hours or even the “taint of scandal.” He dismissed potential female players who did not look “clean,” or those who had blemishes on their faces, since these skin defects indicated jealousy, greed, or sexual vice. Heroines were usually chaperoned on the set, forbidden to have men in their dressing rooms, and prevented from actually kissing during love scenes. When a passionate embrace did appear in a Griffith film, he suggested that a caption explain that the girl’s mother was present. His favorite actress, the thin and frail Lillian Gish, was perfectly cast for this female ideal. As a girl in the Midwest, she lived in a convent and hoped to become a nun. When working for Griffith, she and her sister Dorothy remained constantly supervised by their mother. She recalled that her director had a “mania” for cleanliness and a body free of germs, and lectured to his cast that “women aren’t meant for promiscuity. If you’re going to be promiscuous, you will end up with some disease.”

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

Griffith used film to make his ideal of saintly womanhood come alive. Whatever taints of the earthly that remained after Griffith’s vigorous efforts and exhortations had to be eradicated by the camera itself. First came “exercise, cosmetics, self-denial” and the “right kind of thinking.” Then women faced screen tests which magnified the actress’s face “twenty times” until he found the look of “perfect health.” Through a series of cinematic techniques, this heroine finally became a heavenly vision on the screen. One of the most famous Griffith innovations was “hazy photography,” caused by a white sheet beneath the player’s feet. A powerful bright light from above would illuminate the body. “We must erase imperfections,” he recalled, “and it was in doing this that I invented the hazy photography … the camera is a great beauty doctor.” With all human imperfections removed, Griffith would then film a scene over and over until he achieved just the right effect. The resulting close-up became one of his most famous technical triumphs. Griffith explained that the goal was a face where the skin radiated a smooth soft outline. So with the eyes. . . . Every other physical characteristic is of insignificance compared with the eves. If they are the window to your soul, your soul must have a window it could see through. The farther the motion picture art progresses, the more important does this become. At the heart of Griffith’s drama was the struggle of mankind to protect this female ideal. He highlighted this tension through a series of masterful editing techniques. In making over three hundred films, he learned that the way in which strips of celluloid were arranged could determine the emotional rhythms of the audience.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

By alternating between characters lighted “like archangels or devils,” the director would personalize the good and evil at work in the world. Building his story around these contrasts, he might arouse the audience to identify with righteousness. Then the director showed the heroine suddenly threatened by men who embodied greed, lust, or tyranny. The climax of his films was the rescue. Cutting back and forth from evil pursuer to endangered innocence, the director built a crescendo of fear and hope as the hero rushes to save her. In one great finale, virtue and sin would struggle in the “battle of human ethics common to all consciousness.” As the hero triumphs, the audience sees the “consummation of all romantic and adventurous dreams.” To reach this emotional explosion, Griffith explained, the pace must be quickened from beginning to end. That is not however a steady ascent. The action must quicken to a height in a minor climax which should be faster than the first, and retard again and build to the third w hich should be faster than the second, and on to the final climax where the pace should be the fastest. Through all the big moments of the story, the pace should build like an excited pulse. Ultimately, Griffith saw the struggle between virtue and vice infusing the major political and moral reforms of the day. He did not see his techniques as serving the designs of a master mover manipulating the minds of the lowly. Rather, he identified deeply with his audience, believing that in expressing his own feelings, he expressed theirs as well. Unlike the Republican reformers who had censored the movies, early viewers were workers and small property owners who generally belonged to the Democratic party so dear to Griffith. The director, too, was only one step removed from the experiences of his patrons. He had been a former worker, and an independent businessman, sharing with the movie goers a hostility to monopolists who thwarted economic autonomy. Although his films were not explicitly political, they did express a broad cultural outlook which appealed to the “producers” of all classes and backgrounds. As Griffith explained, “No matter how contorted, one way or another, the soul may be, the man is still a man, and with recognizable traits common to all men . . . tramps, artists, iron workers, writers, all of us are alike in our souls.”

D W Griffith late 1890s
D W Griffith late 1890s

Transcending any artificial barriers was the ability of all peoples to realize the morals embodied in the Victorian home. Griffith used his aesthetics to carry this faith in his films. They were of two general types: lessons and warnings. Either heroes triumphed, or they were destroyed by their failure to live up to the ideal. A typical warning film was The Avenging Conscience (1914). It opens on a father insisting that his son prepare himself for a “great career.” Yet the boy likes a girl the father calls “common,” and finds himself attracted to the amusements of Italian immigrants, who are portrayed as having less restrained sexual habits. The patriarch forbids such behavior. In his rage, the boy contemplates patricide. Despite an apparition of Christ warning of damnation, the youth kills his father. The act is seen by an Italian who blackmails the boy and turns him over to the police. In prison he goes insane, and his girlfriend commits suicide. Yet the film has a happy ending: it is all only a dream. Nevertheless, the warning is clear: men cannot deviate from the work ethic, or indulge in what are perceived as immigrant vices, lest they forsake the goals of progress passed on by the fathers. From this parental code came the deeds of his heroes who carried out a specific historical mission—that of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. This was demonstrated in a classic lesson film, Mans Genesis (1912). Dramatizing the eternal struggles that face the human being, Griffith took his audience to the beginning of time. Amid a desolate landscape, a caveman, “Weak Hands,” loves a pure girl, “Lily White.” But their spiritual union is endangered by an older, lusty villain, “Brute Force.” In response, the youth invents mankind’s first tool, a club, with which he conquers the villain. He then marries his sweetheart, and they create a community grounded in fa milial harmony. The hero is the leader of a classless tribe where love transcends all selfish interests. Hut the “producers” must strive continually, for Brute Force returns with a mob armed with stolen clubs. To put down this threat to their women, Weak I lands invents an even better weapon, a bow and arrow. Victory once again restores the peaceful community. In the triumph of reason over animality, success is not achieved for money or pleasure, but to elevate society above lust and tyranny.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

Following creation, this battle informed the dynamics of world history as well. In his films of the French and American Revolutions, westward expansion, and Biblical epics, “Brute Force” is incarnated in aristocrats, monopolists, or the unruly mob. The struggle is carried into the present, in films of industrial conflict. A Corner on Wheat (1909) shows a grain speculator hoarding wheat to increase the price while workers, farmers, and small shopkeepers starve. The Song of the Shirt (1908) shows a poor girl suffering at a sewing machine in a sweatshop, while her boss takes the fruits of her labor to live a decadent life. These films condemned the immoral rich; but others condemned the unruly poor. The Voice of the Violin (1909) portrays a rich man forbidding his daughter to marry a poor boy. But when the boy turns to a “revolutionary group imbued with the false principles of Karl Marx, the promoter of the communist principles of socialism which in time and under the control of intemperate minds becomes absolute anarchy,” he learns that his comrades w ant to rape his sweetheart and burn her fathers factory. In response, he turns against these evil doers, and for his efforts wins the hand of the girl he loves. At the same time, the dominant motif for films set in the modern era echoed the beliefs of the vice crusaders: women were in danger and had to be protected. In Griffith’s films, heroines moved around the city unchaperoned, working in new tasks as clerks, telephone operators, and laborers. This did not mean they had “fallen.” Rather, as heroes guarded them in the public realm, these men were even more inspired to conquer the forces of vice.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

A film such as Home Sweet Home (1914) shows a hero drinking and going to dance halls. When he falls to Hell, his sweetheart becomes an angel with wings and flies into Hades to rescue him, and carries him up to Heaven. On earth, such heroines would not be tempted by saloons, foreigners, or men who offer them empires. Rather than submit, women are willing to die. In several climactic Griffith scenes, heroes, believing that villains are about to overtake them, hold guns to the heads of their pure women—final efforts to protect them from a fate literally worse than death. Final shots of rescue are filled with religious images, such as Christ hovering above the characters. By 1913, Griffith’s art and popularity signaled that the hopes of reformers were at high tide. Instead of movies and mass culture eroding Victorianism, the most advanced film maker of the day had reoriented the industry toward social reform. His films depicted historical events and current life, exposing viewers to an expanded realm of experience. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon culture was portrayed as eternal truth. With its values spreading to a growing audience, motion pictures could inspire the population to unite in a crusade against evil. Women might occupy new positions outside the home without losing their virtue; challenges of modern life would spur them on to uphold motherhood and virginity, and inspire men to protect women and liberate themselves from lusty monopolists, vice lords, and corrupt politicians. Griffith gave this historical dynamic power and passion through innovative techniques, and made it seem as though all parties and groups could unite to transform modern society, without a great social upheaval. It appeared that reformers of all persuasions could still come together around this battle for a classless and blessed order. Ironically, the first crack in this consensus came as the result of Griffith’s greatest success, the making of his masterpiece and the most popular film of the era,


The Birth of a Nation (1915). This epic film began when Griffith left Biograph, and Aitken brought him The Clansman (1905), a novel which had been made into a hit Broadway play in 1908. The story was written by Thomas Dixon, a former Democratic politician who became a Baptist minister and then quit the clergy for the “wider pulpit” of popular art. The Clansman, however, was hardly an original conception. It merely put into story form the Democratic party ideology of the Civil War era. The plot condemns the Radical Republicans who during Reconstruction imposed a corrupt regime on Dixie. Using the freed slaves’ voting power, they disenfranchised the white citizens and unleashed a reign of terror. 36 While none of these events actually took place, they did express Southerners’ fears of what would hap pen when the corrupt industrial North aligned with Southern blacks.  In fact, Griffith’s own family included politicians who believed this and doubtless used the same rhetoric to mobilize the South against Northern tyranny in the 1870s. As Griffith meticulously recreated the atmosphere of the Civil War years, he wrote, Stronger and stronger came to me the traditions I had learned as a child, all that my father had told me. That sword I told you about became a flashing vision. Gradually came back to my memory the stories one Thurston Griffith had told me of the ku Klux Klan and the regional impulse that comes to men from the earth where they had their beings stirred. It had all the decisive emotionalism of the highest patriotic sentiment.


The Birth of a Nation 1915 1The film began its official run at the Liberty Theater in New York, and quickly became an enormous financial and critical success. Every crisis of the film revolved around threats to the family. In the opening scenes, Griffith portrays the ideal domestic life on the Cameron plantation. Shot in a soft haze, these scenes show a perfect laissez-faire world. As harmony envelops parents, children, and slaves, neither the state nor hierarchical religions are needed. The Civil War comes, disrupting this ordered paradise. During Reconstruction, a Northern white Radical, Senator Stoneham, lives with his mulatto mistress, and she spurs him to unleash his lust for gain on the defeated South. He gives the vote to former slaves, who use their power against the good white people of the South. Stripped of their property and political rights, the whites watch helplessly as rowdy blacks pass intermarriage laws. When this culminates in the attempted rape of the Cameron women, the brothers form the Ku Klux Klan, uniting Southerners of all classes. As they ride to the rescue of their “Aryan birthright,” the screen comes alive with Griffith’s perfected editing techniques. After the climactic battle, the South is liberated. And even the Northerners recognize the folly of miscegenation. Symbolizing the return to unity, the Cameron son marries Stoneham’s daughter. Now the familial bonds restore order to the stricken land, and Christ rises in the sky to announce the beginning of the millennium in America.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

The Birth of a Nation touched a sensitive political nerve. In its message, the film called for an alliance of the common folk from the formerly warring sections to overthrow a tyranny based on North ern commercial corruption. This was indeed a relevant theme for the Democratic constituency in 1914. As the film was made, the first Southern Democratic president since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, had united the various elements of the party—Northern workers, Southerners, small farmers, and property owners—into a crusade for a “New Freedom.” These were the same groups that had mobilized against leaders of Radical Reconstruction in 1876. In contrast to the defeated ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson promised to break up trusts and restore the open economy. True to this spirit, Griffith filled the film with quotations from Wilson’s historical writings. No doubt this was done to give credence to the events on the screen. But it was also done to make history relevant to the present. Here was shown what would happen to whites who let monopolists strip them of their property and corrupt the political process. As they fell from grace, they would become vulnerable to tyranny from above and below. Giving power to this metaphor, Thomas Dixon used his friendship with Woodrow Wilson to have the film shown at the White House. Whether or not the President approved of the film, there was no question in Dixon’s mind that it would make Northerners “Democrats for life.” As Dixon later recalled, I told him I had a great motion picture he should see not merely because his classmate had written the story, but because this picture made clear for the first time that a universal language had been invented. That in fact was a process of reasoning which could overwhelm the will with conviction.  Not everyone shared this acclaim, however. In fact, the film generated such a fierce controversy that it practically crippled the National Board of Review, and shattered the consensus of reformers who had hailed movies as a beneficial medium. Although people like Jane Addams and Frederic Howe shared Griffith’s sentiments about the Victorian home, they could not tolerate his racial attitudes. Unlike Griffith, most of his critics were heirs to an abolitionist tradition. Mounting a fierce protest, they joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and convinced the National Board of Review to cut key racist sections of the film. But this did not solve the problem. Frederic Howe was so disturbed by the movie, even after it was censored, that he resigned as president of the Board. 44 And Griffith attacked his critics, arguing that he was not a racist, and pointing out that loyal black servants were portrayed heroically whereas others had been corrupted by Northern Radicals.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation

He also correctly pointed out that none of his previous works had been anti-Negro, and that his family had always cared for them as “children.” Nevertheless, it was clear that Griffith was heir to the white racist beliefs of the South. Although his black characters did not have a monopoly on evil traits—plenty of w hites were lustful as well—Negroes were seen as innately dangerous: in spite of their potential for noble deeds, they could never really be trusted. Griffith thus forbid any “black blood” among the players who might have to touch white actresses. Those actors were always whites in blackface. Likewise, when the NAACP condemned the film, Griffith attacked them in the press as a “pro-intermarriage” group, bent on repealing miscegenation laws. In Griffith’s mind, however, the racial controversy was less important than the economic issue. A common loyalty to domestic values could not overcome this gulf either. The fact that the Board that censored The Birth of a Nation included Republican reformers was not lost on Griffith or his audience. Sitting conspicuously in judgment were those very rulers who were often condemned in his films: puritanical paternalists of New England, and industrialists who threatened to make whites into propertyless, dependent men, no better than blacks. Now the evils of Reconstruction had invaded the North, and Griffith saw himself as a chief victim, for the censors were “malignant pygmies” who had grown into “black Calibans” and denied him his rights of free speech and property. Before the people knew it, claimed Griffith, they would lay their hands on “Miss Liberty” and thwart his creativity even further: You could not even portray the drama of the days of 49 to ’70 in the golden west. If you tell the story of this period, you must show the atrocities committed by the Indians against the whites. Some public seeking fanatic would protest that it was an injustice to the Indians and might raise feelings against them. . . . These people revel in objections.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

In order to defeat these forces, Griffith felt he had to inspire the masses once again. Using his most powerful weapon, film, he now poured all the money he had made on The Birth of a Nation into making the most elaborate and expensive film of his career. His extravaganza coincided with the 1916 election, and espoused the ideology that would presumably help Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats defeat the Republicans.

Intolerance (1916) was a new creation, “from my own head,” as the director phrased it. This “sun play of the ages” would carry quotes from Wilson, Emerson, and Mill, relating them to a “universal theme running through the various eras of the race’s history . . . events are to flash through the mind seeking to parallel the life of different ages and today. Through all the eras, time brings forth the same passions, the same joys and anxieties.” To show this, Griffith alternated three ancient tales which depicted the Medici who ruled sixteenth-century France, the Priests of Baal in Babylon, and the Pharisees of Jerusalem in the time of Christ as greedy men who tyrannized the innocent. In France the Medicis unleashed terror against the Huguenot families, in Jerusalem the Pharisees crucify Christ, in Babylon the priests destroy Balthazar’s benevolent state. Griffith does not condemn power per se> for Balthazar is shown as a good ruler. He did not inherit his kingdom, nor did he maintain it through privilege. Gaining the loyalty of the people solely through his military prowess, he abolished religious establishments and protected economic independence. Eventually his own spiritual family life radiated through the polity, creating unity. But the priests conspired with a foreign prince and destroyed the kingdom. Although Griffith believed in progress, the portion of Intolerance set in the modern era showed that the sins of the past had been reborn with the “autocratic industrial lords” and their social-worker allies. In scenes designed to duplicate the environs of the New York “Four Hundred,”

Griffith shows a wealthy manufacturer and his reformer wife policing the innocent amusements of the workers. At the same time, the industrialist cuts wages and uses the proceeds to hold an elaborate “charity ball.” In protest, the laborers go out on strike. Now the screen fills with labor management battles modeled on the great strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Yet since the rich have the support of the government, they used the national guard to quell the outburst. With the poor impoverished and their families destroyed, the heroic “boy” and “girl,” unbeknownst to each other, head for new opportunity in the city. But they find the opposite of their dreams. With few jobs available, the “boy” goes to work in a vice den for a “musketeer of the slums, ” clearly a machine politician. Although he is attracted to “loose women” and the hist life, redemption comes when he meets the “girl.” As they fall in love and marry, the hero quits his old job and begins to “go straight,” in the path of upward mobility. Yet the good home is still not free from evil authorities. His old boss corrupts the judiciary and sends him to jail for a crime he did not commit. As the villain then tries to seduce the hero’s wife, social workers attempt to take away her child. Finally the “girl” secures a confession from the real criminal, and the stage is set for Griffith’s greatest climactic scene. In accelerating parallel shots, the girl chases after the governor’s train with the new evidence. Quickly the director interjects scenes depicting the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, and the slaughter of the Huguenots. Over and over again, these patterns force the audience to ask, will innocence be crucified again? Is progress doomed to fail? No, for the girl catches the governor, just as the noose is being put around the boy’s head. With the governor’s swift pardon, the audience learns that in modern America, law is on the side of the good citizen. The state has proved effective in saving the home. Although the industrial system remains intact, the hero is free to transcend it through individual effort and social mobility.

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

And as he had done in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith again hails the millennium with a vision of Christ rising in the sky. In this elaborate, multi-layered film, we can see the full implications of Griffith’s art. The hero and heroine were clearly cast as Irish laborers. Yet their universality was not tied to any class or ethnic group. Never were they connected to the Catholic Church or the pre-industrial culture protected by the urban machine. Nor does Griffith’s assault on the industrialists contain a criticism of capitalism. His heroes do not advocate class conflict, unions, or labor parties. Rather, they are in rebellion against selfishness in high places. Presumably, if a self-made man like Balthazar rules, the force of his personality would encourage class harmony and open opportunity. In the modern story, the democratic state serves as this just and benevolent ruler, not by overthrowing the factory owners or “moral paternalists,” but by saving the virtuous individual. Free labor was not a myth for Griffith, but a living reality. In his commitment to autonomy, during the making of the film he aligned himself with Los Angeles reformers to ban unions from the studios. Symbolic of his entire outlook, when the actor who had played Christ was arrested and deported for sexual misconduct, Griffith struck his name from the credits of Intolerance. The film’s reception was a great disappointment, for it was Griffith’s first critical and financial failure. This was in part due to the fact that it was four hours long and contained four different stories all mixed together. As one critic remarked, viewing was a “real task and the person who tries to find meaning must feel something like dramatic indigestion after seeing the picture.” But it was more than this. The tremendous success of The Birth of a Nation brought movies squarely into the middle-class market. It was crucial to draw this affluent audience to recoup the enormous financial investment Griffith had poured into Intolerance. These new viewers may have liked the opulence displayed on the screen, the magnificent sets, and the historical themes, but they were not receptive to the antagonism toward the rich that the film portrayed. They did not want to see that the “poor are oppressed, and forced into an environment which ruins their lives, and this merely for the purpose of producing additional funds for the wealthy, which the latter uses to advertise themselves as reformers of the poor, who in actuality they repress.” As this Philadelphia critic concluded, the “interest of the community will be served by our friends staying away from the theaters where Intolerance is shown.” Ironically, Griffith recalled being labeled a “communist” for making the film. Obviously, Griffith was no communist. In fact, as Heywood Broun of the New Republic correctly observed, the film advocated “laissez faire,” the “battle cry of a lost cause.” Broun suggested that with the failure of Intolerance Griffith’s career may have been doomed. While that prediction was premature, the events surrounding the making of the film shattered the reformist unity.

Never again would Griffith produce a film that advocated the transformation of the industrial system through a mass movement. Nor would the National Board of Review, composed of his former allies, have the same strength to impose its will on mass culture. Several members had resigned in the wake of censoring The Birth of a Nation. Now the remaining prominent members of the Board realized they had lost power; few would agree to serve on its executive committee. Soon other motion picture producers would find it unnecessary to have films sent to the Board for its seal, for now that the movies had been legitimized, that seal was no longer needed. As the weakening of the Board was reported in the press, the consensus that had existed in the industry prior to 1914 lay in ruins. Yet the coming of World War I gave rise to a temporary revival. Under the threat of outside attack, reformers called the nation to unite in a crusade which was seen as the peak rather than the end, of Progressivism. The state drafted the movies into the war effort, making the industry at last a full-fledged partner in patriotism. This allowed Griffith to make a flurry of patriotic films that kept him in the limelight for a few more years. Hearts of the World (1918), for example, was a successful propaganda film for the Allies, which he personally dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. This film earned him an invitation to London’s 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Lloyd George. Later, when Russia was in Communist hands and strikes erupted all over America, Griffith made Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Using the French Revolution as a metaphor for the modern danger of Bolshevism, this film portrays Reds as lustful and violent, similar to the Huns and blacks of earlier films. This highly political film was shown at Harding’s White House. As Griffith said of its message, A similar condition exists in Russia today. It is also a great lesson for our own government. Recently here in the United States we find that a small but aggressive minority seems to be able to get almost any kind of laws passed they desire. It is well for us to keep our eyes open, as it is not impossible that we may lose our democratic form of government, just as the people in France did at the time, and come under the tyranny of small but aggressive parties that could hold all government and run things for themselves, while the rest of the people are asleep. Afterwards, Griffith’s worst fears materialized in his own life. But the threat did not come from the political world. Industrialists in the post-War period associated Reds with the labor strikes spreading over the country. As the Wilson administration deported radicals and suppressed labor unrest, motion picture producers broke strikes in their own companies.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Griffith supported these measures, but this boost to business expansion also paved the way tor consolidation. Gradually, eight large firms began to absorb the smaller companies. Griffith tried to resist by establishing his own studio in long Island, and financing his own films. But by the mid-twenties, he too was forced to sell out and come to Los Angeles, a city he hated for its “dissipating” atmosphere. Part of that dislike was due to the fact that Griffith had finally joined what he always fought against, a large firm where access to the top was closed and employees had to punch a time clock.

No longer was the great director autonomous, an artist who supervised his labor force, hired and fired players, and wrote many of his own films. His loyal cameraman Billy Bitzer echoing Griffith’s sentiments, explained what it was like:

Neither Griffith nor I could be his own man. Everything was taken over by efficiency. We belonged to the corporation, the very thing we had fought at Biograph, and the reason we had left there.

The business office was on top again. Not too surprisingly, the master’s later films reveal a deepening pessimism. Starting with True Heart Susie (1919) and Broken Blossoms (1919), the “boy” and “girl” become defenseless against brutal men and women, or they succumb to the temptations of urban nightclubs and sexual allure.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

In Dream Street (1921), a seductive jazz musician rips off his mask to reveal himself as the Devil Lucifer. Now that the spirit of reform had waned, Griffith no longer maintained faith that the evil forces could be conquered. Heroes and heroines in these films had to retreat to small town life for salvation. His last film reveals the source of the problem.

The Struggle - DW Griffith
The Struggle – DW Griffith

The Struggle ( 1931 ) portrays a man trapped on an automobile assembly line, often out of work and destroying himself and his family by drink and decadence. These themes were not popular in the 1920s; and Griffith had lost his talent for making successful films. This was not so much the result of declining abilities as the fact that he had outlived his era. Explaining why studios no longer hired the great director, one critic noted:

Mr. Griffith you have reached the point w here your abilities are at a standstill. . . . You cannot be the evangelist of the screen. You refuse to face the world as it is. . . . I’m not recommending that you acquire a set of puttees or a squad of Jap valets. Yet if I had my own way, I would imprison you with Cecil B. DeMille and loan you all of his Hollywood trappings, each and every one of them. Let someone else take charge of your soul for a while.

The Struggle - D.W. Griffith
The Struggle – D.W. Griffith

Needless to say, Griffith never did. The man who dressed like a plain businessman and continually poured profits back into his own works was alienated from the “mad influx of post-War foreign influences.” Equally hostile to the political world, he wrote letters to newspapers and politicians arguing that mobility was thwarted by the income tax which confiscated the earnings of the “producing classes,” while the rich remained untouched. 57 By the thirties and forties, he appeared as a lonely wanderer often seen inebriated in the bars of Hollywood, presenting roses to female acquaintances. Occasionally, he revived the old spirit. During the thirties, he finally divorced and then married a young Kentucky woman in the old Mount Tabor Church. He tried his hand at land speculation in Los Angeles. Then in 1934 he built a large marble monument over his parents’ graves. On the enormous marker, he inscribed a memorial to his father’s Civil War heroism and his mother’s service while her husband was in battle. In a remarkable statement, the great director wrote, “I take more pride in this than in anything I have done or as far as I am concerned, anything anyone else has done.” In essence, Griffith remained loyal to the past. That familial loyalty generated his earlier creativity; but it ultimately proved to be his cage. When he, too, was buried in that same Methodist cemetery, an old colleague remarked, “You could tell Mr. Griffith by his conversation. Everything he lived and breathed was his pictures. He was in touch with his times . . . but the box office receipts were indicative of the popularity of his films. They were the things people wanted to see at that particular time. He realized that, and by the same token that may have been his downfall. . . . He pursued that course to where it was no longer popular. At that time he was perhaps outmoded.

D W Griffith
circa 1925: David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948), American film director. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Griffith, however, was not the only one who was outmoded. By the 1920s, almost all the early independents and their cinematic themes had disappeared. Yet from 1908 to 1914, Griffith’s artistry had expressed the aesthetics and social goals of a great movement, hoping to include elite reformers, an expanding urban audience, and independent Protestant film makers. Holding these strange bedfellows together and sparking Griffith’s great creativity was a commitment to saving Victorianism in the face of major external threats. In Griffith’s hands, this common belief in individualism and family harmony fit his commitment to Wilsonian Progressivism. At the same time, it also legitimized movies, bringing the former pariah institution into the American mainstream. However, because the defense of the old culture, particularly sexual ethics, was so strong, it precluded any questioning of nineteenth-century  values. What entrepreneurs like Griffith needed was an alliance with other groups who shared their hostility to big business. But Griffith’s art suggests that their antagonism to workers, blacks, or foreigners, who represented group power and sexual chaos, prevented this coalition. Thus Griffith and others who were committed to ascetic individualism watched helplessly as the corporate order emerged in the nation as well as in the motion picture industry.

Such was the real tragedy of D. W. Griffith’s life. As the world view of the early film makers collapsed, something new was already emerging to take its place.

Screening out the past the birth of mass culture and the motion - 1980
Screening out the past the birth of mass culture and the motion – 1980

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Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

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Playing to the Camera – 1998 (Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Playing to the Camera – 1998

(Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Edited by Bert Cardullo, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, and Leigh Woods

If the film is the director’s work, then, when we think ofgood films, why do we think of actors as often as of directors? When I remember Way Down East, certainly I recall Griffith’s mastery, but equally I think of Lillian Gish’s body language as her life and status change.

The Silent Performance

Griffith’s authoritarian qualities were doubtless strengthened by his fondness for hiring, and then molding, actresses sometimes even younger and less experienced than Marsh. One of these was Lillian Gish, who began working with him while still a young girl and whose exposure to him influenced the rest of her career. In capturing Griffith’s passion for demonstrating effects, Gish makes it clear in her narrative that he possessed a highly developed narrative sense, which he drilled into novices and seasoned professionals alike. By doing so, he helped her and others generate a full – bodied style, capable of expressing emotion without making it seem grotesque. This style, at its best, distinguishes acting in silent films from the acting in films with sound, which was typified by greater restraint.

Stanley Kauffmann

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me

Excerpt from Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 84-86, 96-102, 279. Copyright © 1969 Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot.

Before a movie was filmed a player would often get a chance to rehearse each part in the film under [D. W. Griffith’s] supervision. As casting was not decided on until shortly before filming, we were obliged to be familiar with all the roles we had rehearsed. This system taught us range and flexibility. . . .

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

Once the parts were awarded, the real work would begin. At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden kitchen chair, the actors fanning out in front of him, and, as he called out the plot, they would react, supplying in their own words whatever was appropriate for the scene. As rehearsals continued, Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in the ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time that we had run through the story several times, he had viewed the action from every conceivable camera angle. Then he would begin to concentrate on characterization. Often we would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect. If we still failed, he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later moderate in us. . . .

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

In rehearsals we were expected to visualize the props—furniture where none stood, windows in blank walls, doors where there was only space. Our physical movements became automatic and our emotions completely involved. Most rehearsals were open—that is, the whole staff, actors, workmen, and the men from the laboratory were free to come and watch. Often there would be visitors on the set. Mr. Griffith loved the presence of an audience while his company rehearsed—and rehearsed so effectively that at the end of the scene, the onlookers would be in tears. Later, we learned to withhold, not to give as much as we would if the camera were operating. Film was expensive, and a scene was shot only once, so we conserved our strength for that one take. . . .

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

During lunch he would help those who happened to be eating with him. If an actor did not know what to do with a character, if he was baffled and could not get insight, Mr. Griffith would say: “Well, haven’t you seen someone like this in your life? Go find him. Go get an idea from someone, and bring it back to me, and let me see if it’s any good. I can’t think of everything! I’m writing the whole story. You have only one character to worry about, so you try to round it out and make it real and whole!” . . .

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

I would often be called in to rehearse parts for the more experienced actresses, who would sit by and watch me to see how the story unfolded. They thus gained perspective on their roles. Afterward I was allowed to stay while the more experienced players took over. Changing places in this way proved to be beneficial both to the craftsman and the novice. I often saw the scene again in the darkroom, thus learning how to correct my mistakes and profiting bv the skill of the others. . . . I won the role in The Mothering Heart, ancl it turned out to be a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction. During the filming I worried that I was overplaying. But when I looked at the rushes during a lunch break, I asked Mr. Griffith why none of it showed on the screen. He explained: “The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time—so half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normally to come over with full effect to your audience.” He taught us that false emotions never move an audience, that you cannot make viewers cry with make-believe tears. “The first thing an actor needs is soul,” he said. “The actor with soul feels his part, he is living his role, and the result is a good picture.” . . .

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette

He made it clear to us that acting required study. “No matter where you are, watch people,” he told us. “Watch how they walk, how they move, how they turn around. If you’re in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.” Whenever he saw some behavior pattern that intrigued him, he would use it at an appropriate moment in one of his pictures. “Catch people off guard,” he reminded us continually. Sometimes, at the end of a shooting session, he would talk with those of us who remained to watch the rushes. “Too many of us walk through life with blinders on our eyes. We see only what concerns us, instead ofwhat goes on around us. Let’s take a scene that is played again and again every day—one that we see and yet do not see. Let us imagine ourselves standing on a street corner. A pretty girl is waiting at the curb for a bus. A commonplace, undramatic event. Nearly every corner has a pretty girl waiting for a bus. But suppose we already know one fact—if the girl misses her bus, she’ll be late for work. If she’s late, she’ll be fired. Let us begin then in the morning, when she comes awake abruptly in her room. We close in on the face of the clock to see the time. We watch her dressing with frantic haste. We see her drinking coffee. We show the hand holding the cup. It is trembling. We are becoming involved in the multitude of details which clothe every human event. When the girl leaves the house it is raining; she rushes back for an umbrella. Then we see her last-minute dash through the rain puddles for the bus. All of this, mind you, set against a montage of the hands of the clock moving and a backdrop of the office she is trying to reach. If we saw all this, we would be reliving our own tensions in similar circumstances, simply because we have been made to see it in all of its parts.” And he would repeat the familiar cry, “I am trying to make you see!” To learn about human nature and to build our characterizations, we visited institutions normally closed to young people. At insane asylums, for example, we were escorted through wards by nurses or the doctors themselves. . . .

Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes
Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes

I sympathized deeply with all the patients. They may have been aware of my compassion, for one day when the nurse left the ward for a moment a young woman shuffled over to me. She whispered: “I’m no more insane than you are. My relative put me in here for a purpose. Here’s my mother’s telephone number. Call her and tell her to come and get me. I’m unjustly confined.” She sounded completely rational. Her appeal touched me, and I took the number. Just then the doctor entered and looked at her shrewdly. “Mary, why did you break the window this morning,” he asked, “and then take the glass and cut your leg?” She regarded him innocently. “But I had no pen. And I had to write with something.” Later, when I was faced in a film with a scene that required knowledge of insanity, I had seen enough of its physical manifestations to convey the necessary range of emotions. During the filming of The White Sister many years afterward, I drew on my knowledge of epilepsy for one scene; it proved an effective way to register shock. Whenever I had doubts about the appropriate reactions to certain situations, I would consult an expert on the subject.

Mr. Griffith always emphasized that the way to tell a story was with one’s body and facial expressions. “Expression without distortion,” he always said. He meant, “Frown without frowning.” Show disapproval without unsightly wrinkles. The only makeup he suggested was a golden tone, an idea he borrowed from Julia Marlowe, with whom he had acted and whom he admired tremendously. I learned from him to use my body and face quite impersonally to create effects, much as a painter uses paint on canvas. Later on, when I worked with other directors, I would hang a mirror at the side of the camera, so that in a closeup I could see what effect I was producing. Mr. Griffith kept constantly at his young players: “Let me see you walk with happiness. No, not gaiety, that’s something else. That’s better. Now, with sadness—not sorrow. Now—with comedy, tragedy, sickness, blindness. Now. let me see you run in all these ways. Some of you move like wooden Indians. Must I open a dancing school to teach you flexibility?” He and I used to have a constant argument on one point. When I played a young girl, he used to have me hop around as if I had St. Vitus Dance. “Young girls don’t do that,” I complained. “How else can I get the contrast between you and older people, ifyou don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” he asked. Then, imitating a young girl, he would get up and hop about, shaking his balding head as if it had a wig of curls. A stranger would have thought him mad. We were encouraged to train our bodies for acrobatic pantomime, which was particularly useful when the camera was shooting from a distance. We were also called upon to perform the most dangerous stunts. None of us ever objected; it did not occur to us to object. I studied fencing with a teacher named Aldo Nadi. He approved of my good eyesight and long legs and told me that in two years he could have me ready for the Olympics. But I was interested in fencing only as an adjunct to acting. I alsojoined the Denishawn Dancing School, studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, whose pupils—among them Martha Graham—have since won acclaim for their great talents. Their large living room had been converted into a studio with mirrors and practice bars, and later, while Miss Ruth and Mr. Ted were on tour, Mother rented it so that we could practice early in the morning and late at night. Within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or an athlete. Mr. Griffith also encouraged us to take voice lessons to develop strength and proper breath control. His studio was certainly no training camp for weaklings; the working hours were unlimited, the demands unpredictable. Under Mr. Griffith’s tutelage, some of the younger girls of the company also had a small, impromptu class. Strindberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — we read them all with earnest, patient concentration. We might not have absorbed all the ideas, but we tried awfully hard. I myself was seldom on the set without a book under my arm. During that time I developed an admiration for anyone who knew more than I did, and I must confess that the feeling is still part of me. We also were expected to search for possible story material, reading everything in the public domain. We would find promising stories, change the locales, and use the characters and situations in our films. Mr. Griffith urged us to mingle with audiences in movie theaters to observe their reactions. “It doesn’t matter how you feel when you’re playing,” he said. “I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what you make an audience feel. You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you’re not making the audience feel that way, you’re not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they’re held by what you’re doing, you’ve succeeded as an actress.” I have often sat in the balcony, staring at faces to measure the effect of a scene. More than once I’ve put my face directly in front of a spectator’s face; instead of being distracted, I found, he would move his head aside in order not to miss a second of what was happening on the screen. Then I would know that I had achieved what I was striving for. . . .

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

The essence of virginity—purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul, and body—is the stuff out of which, under [Mr. Griffith’s] prompting, I created heroines. He made me understand that only governments and boundaries change, that the human race remains the same. . . .

. . . Before Mr. Griffith would begin filming any production, he would rehearse the entire film from beginning to end. Other directors, I discovered, simply rehearsed each individual scene before it was filmed. I wanted full rehearsals on La Boheme; I had never worked without them. Through them an actor could develop his character, grow used to his partners, time his scenes, and set his tempo. This approach wasn’t known at M.G.M., nor was my method of rehearsing. It didn’t take me long to see that the other players were greatly amused by my actions—opening doors that weren’t there, going up and down stairs that didn’t exist. When they tried to imitate my actions, they simply became embarrassed. I could not impose my kind of rehearsal on the others, nor could I object when they wanted music for their scenes. I had never had music before, and I simply had to close my ears and continue working. The music was fine, of course, when I wasn’t trying to concentrate on a scene.

Playing to the camera : film actors discuss their craft
Playing to the camera film actors discuss their craft

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“When we said Lillian is cutting “Romola,” we meant it” (Screenland – 1924)

Screenland – December 1924

Behind The Screen

“When we said Lillian is cutting “Romola,” we meant it”

Lillian Gish was much surprised the other day to discover that she had gone to France at the request of composer Charpentier (no relation to Georges) to appear in a silent screen version of his celebrated opera, “Louise;” she had gone to Germany to appear in a continental company’s production of “Faust,” as Marguerite; she had signed with Famous Players to take Elsie Ferguson’s place in the title role of the filmization of Molnar’s play, “The Swan;” she had made a new contract to star in a series of pictures for Metro-Goldwyn.

Lillian Gish and William Powell - Romola
Lillian Gish and William Powell – Romola

Lillian was surprised because she was the last to hear about these reported activities. None of them is true. As a matter of cold, hard, businesslike fact, Miss Gish is just at present completing the editing and cutting of “Romola,” the picture which she and her sister Dorothy made in Italy, and wondering what she is going to do next. Her managers have not yet decided and meanwhile the Gishes are keeping their well-known eyes open for new stories.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set

By the way, when we said Lillian is cutting “Romola,” we meant it. Many stars superficially supervise their productions. But we met Lillian the other day coming out of a stuffy little projection room where she had been viewing thousands of feet of film herself, and giving directions as to the actual cutting. Her long career as a Griffith heroine gave her valuable experience along these lines, for D. W. always called his leading lady in to watch the “rushes” and to give him advice as to what bit should stay in and what sequence should be ruthlessly amputated.

In fact, Lillian is one of the few stars in pictures interested in something besides her own close-ups.

Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish
Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish

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Picturing “La Boheme” – By John Gilbert (Screenland July 1926)

Screenland July 1926 “The Spirit of The Movies” Vol. XIII No.3

Books For Fans

Picturing “La Boheme”

By John Gilbert

Whenever an actor is given a book to read that he knows will be made into a picture in which he will play, he looks at it with different eyes, than if he were merely reading it for pleasure.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

I remember, when I was a kid I used to lie abed at night reading Murger’s “La Vie de Boheme”. The gay, carefree lives that these people led intrigued me immensely and I was heartily in sympathy with them. Rudolphe particularly fascinated me and it was my delight to dramatise bits from the book in which Rudolpe played the hero.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

It was just a few months ago that I was told here at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio that I was to play Rudolphe on the screen and that the adaptation was to be taken from Murger’s book, rather than from Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme”.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

Did you ever re-read a book that thrilled you when you were a child? It is strange how vague memories of that time when you first read the story come back to you and you experience something very akin to that first thrill over a fascinating novel.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)1

Many of those old emotions came back to me as I re-read “La Vie de Boheme”. But I always had to keep in mind the fact that these situations and incidents must be portrayed on the screen in terms of action. It is up to the actor to absorb as much of the atmosphere as he can. He must read the book, not for the story itself, but he must feel the thing that the author has in mind. He is then like an illustrator who must interpret in black and white and in length and breadth the thoughts of the man who has written the book.

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

That is why the reading of the book from which a picture is made is so essential to an actor. It is that book that gives him an inspiration that the script alone can never give. The scenario writer must interpret the author’s thoughts the way he sees them. The actor must also inject both his own and the author’s personality into the portrayal of a character.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

Rudolphe is a type. He is Bohemia itself and any book that dealt with the life lived in Paris in the Latin Quarter at that time would have been an inspiration for me to play the part. Because Murger had done his story so well and had put so much spirit and life and gayety into the pages of his book, that was all I needed to read. Everything was there.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)3

As I re-read the book I heard again the laughter of those carefree folk. I felt their disdain for authority. I realized how little it mattered whether they ate or not, so long as they lived.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play

During the making of the picture I read passages of the book again and again. I also read Du Maurier’s “Trilby”. He deals with Paris at another time, but he, also, portrays the spirit of the Latin Quarter. Strangely enough, we are most of us so saturated with contemporary literature, so many books that are written now, we forget these other stories that are so engrossing.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

I am very glad that a new popular priced edition of Murger’s “La Vie de Boheme” is being published. This will, no doubt, tempt many to read it who have neglected to do so before.

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Screenland (Jul 1926) La Boheme
Screenland (Jul 1926) La Boheme

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ORPHANS OF THE STORM—D. W. Griffith – Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish (Promo for Orphans of The Storm)
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish (Promo for Orphans of The Storm)

Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

Photoplay’s selection of six best pictures of the month

The Shadow Stage


THIS production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper. Griffith has come back with a bang. After “Dream Street,” this great historical masterpiece brings again the Griffith of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” but with an added charm, a new softness, a fresh appeal. He tells an old, old story—the story of “The Two Orphans.” He has retitled it and remade it. Against the bloody background of the French Revolution, Griffith has painted a beautiful picture: a tender portrait of devotion and sacrifice. He has recreated history as no other living man has done. And this is his greatest triumph. It is massive, but it is human.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

And let us comment on the very curious fact that the French Revolution is perennial. Somehow it takes hold of the human imagination as can no other great social upheaval in human affairs. Compared with events that have followed, the turbulent period of the Reign of Terror is not on a particularly grand scale: e. g., the Napoleonic wars, and our own great Civil conflict, not to mention the recent World war, and the cruel and bloody Russian revolution.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

But it fascinates. Griffith was wise in his choice of a theme for this production. It is spectacular, but it has little moments of very personal appeal—tiny, heart-throbbing seconds on the screen during which you hold your breath for fear you will break the charm and the magic picture will vanish.

You are Henrielte and Louise, or you are the Chevalier de Vaudrey and Danton. You are awaiting the embrace of Madame Guillotine; you are a part of that unforgettable page in the book of the world. No history ever written can begin to compare with this photoplay for genuine instruction. Every child in the world should see it. True, it takes liberties with actual dates and events; but the spirit is there. There are, we said, moments of surpassing beauty — greater than anything ever put on the screen or the stage.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

One, the love scene of Henriette and the Chevalier: touching, tender, true. Another, the most dramatic of all celluloid climaxes: the almost-meeting of the two orphans. The thrills come when the heroine is rescued from the guillotine — and this is not the best part of the drama. But much may be forgiven a director who can reach out from the screen and put a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Orphans of The Storm 1922 — with Lillian Gish2.

As for the acting — it is superb. First honors go to Miss Lillian Gish. Each new Gish portrayal is finer than the one before. The actress works. With a rare beauty and personal charm, she is not content. Her Henriette is sublime.

Dorothy Gish - Orphans of the Storm

Her sister, Dorothy, as Louise, has the second-best role, which she performs with exquisite art. Joseph Schildkraut, as the Chevalier, is charming. But Monte Blue, as Danton, the outstanding figure of the Revolution, is the best man in the cast.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue

Of heroic mold, he plays magnificently and proves himself one of our few fine actors. Honorable mention to Lucille La Verne, Frank Puglia, Sheldon Lewis, Morgan Wallace, Frank Losee, and the gentleman who played Robespierre so splendidly. The musical score is appropriate.

Once more—don’t miss this.

Photoplay (Jan - Jun 1922) cover March
Photoplay (March 1922) cover

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The Scarlet Letter – By Nathaniel Hawthorne (Screenland – May 1926)

Screenland – May 1926

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

This masterpiece of literature contains a number of passages so great and complete that a thrilling short story in Hawthorne’s own words is made by their narration, A few connecting explanations are added.

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. . . .

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_02
17th February 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) is punished for bearing a child out of wedlock in the film ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a 17th century melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom.

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. . . . Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison. . .

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days. . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike. . . . than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. . . . Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modeled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer. . . . was the Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself. . . .

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 2

The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff. “Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name!” cried he. “Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her ‘ brave apparel, from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”

So, in one of the most moving passages of all literature, Hawthorne introduces us to the young matron Hester Prynne who, having left her aged husband in England some two years before and come to the New World, stood now upon the scaffold of the marketplace, with her nameless baby girl in her arms and on her breast the significant scarlet “A” which proclaimed her shame to all beholders.

The curious throng of neighbors and former friends gathered around as Hester took her place there, with little Pearl in her arms, pressed closer as that eminent divine, the Rev. John Wilson, the oldest minister of Boston, exhorted her to reveal the name of the sharer of her guilt. But Hester was silent under Mr. Wilson s pleading; silent under the gentler exhortation of her own clergyman, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. She would not purchase permission to remove that letter from her breast by revealing the identity of him for whose sake she bore it; and at last, the duration of her punishment in the market-place being over, the young woman who was henceforth to walk as an outcast among her kind, was allowed to return to the prison; the crowd dispersed and life in that stern Puritan community resumed its accustomed course.

There were, however, two hearts — in addition to the sorely troubled heart that beat beneath the scarlet letter in which the events of the day had left a deep impression.

Henry B Walthall - The Scarlet Letter
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter

Hester’s husband, arriving in the colony in time to witness that scene in the marketplace, had not seen fit to claim his wife before the crowd, but followed her to the prison and gained admission to her as Roger Chillingworth, a physician, whose skill would be of assistance to her in her present state of nervous collapse and exhaustion. “Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, or how, thou hast fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy, on which I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly, and thy weakness. I — a man of thought — the book-worm of great libraries — a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge — what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own! Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! Men call me wise. If sages were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have forseen all this. I might have known that, as I came out of the vast and dismal forest, and entered this settlement of Christian men, the very first object to meet my eyes would be thyself, Hester Prynne, standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people. Nay, from the moment when we came down the old church steps together, a married pair, I might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!”

“Thou knowest,” said Hester — for, depressed as she was, she could not endure —this last quiet stab at the token of her shame “thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”

“True,” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. . . .”

“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.

“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?”

“Ask me not!” replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face. “That thou shalt never know!”

“Never, sayest thou?” rejoined he with a smile of dark and self-relying intelligence. “Never know him! Believe me, Hester, there are a few things — whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought — few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery. … I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!” The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her, that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest he should read the secret there at once. “Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,” resumed he, with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at once with him. “He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart. Yet fear not for him! Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven’s own method of retribution, or to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of human law. Neither do thou imagine that I shall contrive aught against his life: no, nor against his fame, if, as I judge, he be a man of fair repute. Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!”

“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered and appalled. “But thy words interpret thee as a terror!”

“One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,” continued the scholar. “Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine. There are none in this land that know me. Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or hate; no matter whether of right or wrong! Thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray me not!”

“Wherefore dost thou desire it?” inquired Hester, shrinking, she hardly knew why, from this secret bond. “Why not announce thyself openly, and cast me off at once?”

“It may be,” he replied, “because I will not encounter the dishonor that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman. It may be for other reasons. Enough, it is my purpose to live and die unknown. Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one already dead, and of whom no tidings shall ever come. Recognize me not, by word, by sign, by look! Breathe not the secret, above all, to the man thou wottest of. Shouldst thou fail me in this, beware! His fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!”

“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.

“Swear it!” rejoined he. And she took the oath. Mercy or the most refined cruelty? No wonder Hester was perplexed at the old scholar’s attitude. But she had given her promise and would keep it. So, after her release from the jail, for seven years she went about the village with two secrets locked in her breast. Bitterness, at first, was hers, and suffering, as she watched her child grow, almost as the wild things of the forest, knowing no companionship other than her mother’s. Pearl became a pretty little girl, elfin and fairylike, but the great “A” which seemed to Hester to burn ever deeper into her very flesh, set Pearl apart from the normal life of the village as it set her mother apart from it. Yet, little by little, the attitude of those who had so bitterly condemned the mother changed. Accepting her ostracism as a means of atoning for her sin, Hester made no effort to regain her former social position. She went her way unobtrusively, gaining a livelihood for herself and child with her clever needlework, always ready to nurse the sick or prepare the dead for burial a self-appointed sister of mercy, winning, by her self-sacrificing devotion, the grudging admiration of the townspeople. But what of Roger Chillingworth — and that unknown other?

Chillingworth had attached himself to the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale seemed, indeed, greatly in need of a physician’s services. He had grown ever thinner and paler since the day when he had reluctantly added his exhortations to those of the Rev. John Wilson on the market-place scaffold, and he had contracted a habit of placing his hand over his heart as if some secret sorrow rankled there — as if, as in the case of Hester Prynne, some brand, though unseen by the eyes of men, burned ever deeper into his flesh. Chillingworth’s herbs seemed to have no effect upon his health. Chillingworth’s pleased that he discuss whatever was troubling him with his physician were as unavailing.

Then one day (in a scene so beautiful that it must be given in the master’s own words), the minister whom all his little world regarded as a saint and the woman who was visibly branded as a sinner, chanced to meet in the forest. Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before Hester Prynne could gather enough voice to attract his observation.

Lillian Gish - Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

At length she succeeded. “Arthur Dimmesdale!”’ she said, faintly at first; then louder, but hoarseley. “Arthur Dimmesdale!” “Who speaks?” answered the minister. . . Throwing his eyes anxiously in the direction of the voice, he distinctly beheld a form under the trees, clad in garments so somber, and so little relieved from the gray twilight into which the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had darkened the noontide, that he knew not whether it was a woman or a shadow. It may be, that his pathway through life was haunted thus, by a specter that had stolen out from among his thoughts. He made a step nearer, and discovered the scarlet letter.

“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou? Art thou in life?”

“Even so!” she answered. “In such lire as has been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”

It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread: as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. . . .

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Without a word more spoken — neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpected consent — they glided back into the shadow of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they found voice to speak, it was, at first, only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that were brooding deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and circumstances, they needed something slight and casual to run before, and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the threshold. After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s.

“Hester,” said he, “hast thou found peace?”

She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.

“Hast thou?” she asked.

“None ! — nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist — a man devoid of conscience — a wretch of coarse and brutal instincts — I might have found peace, long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it. But, as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God*s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!” Hester reminded him of the reverence with which the community regarded him —but this only increased his despair.

“You wrong yourself in this,” said Hester gently. “You have deeply and sorely repented.

Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore shall it not bring you peace?”

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 3

The unhappy man responded that of penance, self-inflicted, he had had enough, but this seemed to him unavailing. If he might have one friend with whom he might share his secret —a friend or even an enemy who knew the sin that he hid from the knowledge of those who trusted and revered him, lest the scandal of it do unutterable harm to the community.

Hester Prynne looked into his face, hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long restrained emotions so vehemently as he did. his words here offered her the very point of circumstances in which to interpose whatever she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke.

“Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,” said she, “with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!”—Again she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort—”Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!” The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. “Oh, Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity, save when thy good—thy life — thy fame—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!”

The minister looked at her for an instant with all that violence of passion which intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his higher, purer, softer qualities—was, ir fact, the portion of him which the Devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest. Never was there a blacker and fiercer frown than Hester now encountered. For the brief space that it lasted it was a dark transfiguration. But his character had been so much enfeebled by suffering that even its lower energies were incapable of more than a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground, and buried his face in his hands.

“I might have known it.” murmured he. “I did know it! Was not the secret told me in the natural recoil of my heart at the first sight of him, and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not understand? O Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame! — the indelicacy! —the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!”

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter

“Thou shalt forgive me!” cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him. “Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!” With sudden and desperate tenderness ;he threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her — for seven long years it had frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrowstricken man was what Hester could not bear and live!

“Wilt thou yet forgive me!” she repeated over and over again. “Wilt thou frown? Wilt thou not forgive?”

“I do forgive you, Hester,” replied the minister, at length, with a deep utterance, out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. “I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. . . . That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!”

“Never, never!” whispered she. “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?”

“Hush, Hester!” said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. “No; I have not forgotten!”

They sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree. Life had never brought them a gloomier hour; it was the point whither their pathway had so long been tending, and darkening ever as it stole along —and yet it inclosed a charm that made them linger upon it, and claim another and another, and, after all, another moment. The forest was obscure around them, and creaked with a blast that was passing through it. The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forbode evil to come. And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the forest-tract that led backward to the settlement, where Hester Prynne must take up again the burden of ignominy, and the minister the hollow mockery of his good name! So they lingered an instant longer. No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest. Here, seen only by his eyes, the scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of the fallen woman! Here, seen only by her eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be for one moment true! He started at the thought that suddenly occurred to him.

“Hester,” cried he, “here is a new horror! Roger Chillingworth knows your purpose to reveal his true character. Will he continue, then, to keep our secret? What will now be the course of his revenge?”

“There is a strange secrecy in his nature,” replied Hester thoughtfully; “and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of his revenge. I deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He will doubtless seek other means of satiating his dark passion.”

“And I!—how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this deadly enemy?” exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within himself, and pressing his hand nervously against his heart—a gesture that had grown involuntary with him. “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!”

“Thou must dwell no longer with this man,” said Hester, slowly and firmly. “Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye.” “It were far worse than death!” replied the minister. “But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 5

“Is the world, then, so narrow?” exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her deep eyes on the minister’s, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes, but onward, too. Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?”

“Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!” replied the minister, with a sad smile.

“Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!” continued Hester. “It brought thee hither. If thou so choose, it will bear thee back again. In our native land, whether in some remote rural village or in vast London— or surely in Germany, in France, or in pleasant Italy—thou wouldst be beyond his power and knowledge! And what hast thou to do with all these iron men and their opinions? They have kept thy better part in bondage too long already!”

“It cannot be!” answered the minister, listening as if he were called upon to realise a dream. “I am powerless to go! Wretched and sinful as I am, I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me. Lost as my own soul is, I would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare not quit my post, though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward is death and dishonor, when his dreary watch shall come to an end!”

“Thou art crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery,” replied Hester, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own- energy. “But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! . . . Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened. . . ‘. The future is yet full of trial and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. Be, if thy spirit summon thee to such a mission, the teacher and apostle of the red men. Or—as it is more thy nature—be a scholar and a sage among the wisest and the most renowned of the cultivated world. Preach! Write! Act! Do anything save to lie down and die! Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear without fear or shame. Why shouldst thou tarry so much as one other day in the torments that have so gnawed into thy life!—that have made thee feeble to will and to do!—that will leave thee powerless even to repent! Up and away!”

“O Hester!” cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, “thou tellest of running a race to a man whose

knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world alone!” It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach. He repeated the word. “Alone, Hester!”

“Thou shalt not go alone!” answered she in a deep whisper. Then all was spoken!

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish
Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

One strange loyalty to duty— one pathetic link of pride — delayed the young minister’s flight with Hester and little Pearl on the ship that even now awaited them in the harbor. He was to deliver the Election Sermon — an event of the year— and that task he resolved to perform before he left his flock forever. Before a rapt audience that filled the church and extended into the square before it, he delivered it. Never had he spoken so brilliantly. Never had his eloquence been so moving. “Thus,” (again in the author’s own words) there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale— as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could thereafter be. He stood at this moment on the very proudest eminence of superiority to which the gifts of, intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing be,side the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast! Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church door. The procession was to be marshaled thence to the town hall, where a solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

But in that moment of his triumph, Arthur Dimmesdale’s tortured spirit had found itself unable to endure its burden longer. Suddenly, as the procession moved forward, he forced his way through the crowd to the foot of the Pearl. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter. “Come, Hester, come. Support me up yonder scaffold!” The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw—unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other—that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at the clergy man, “there was no one place so secret — no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me—save on this very scaffold!”

“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.

“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?”

“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied. “Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!” “For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!” Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. . . .

Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne's partner in adultery
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)

“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a. shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe—-“ye, that have loved, me!

—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last! —at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this- woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been —wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose— it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness—and, still more, the faintness of heart — that was striving for the mastery with him. … “It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it!

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mein of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world! —and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed. “Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!” “May God forgive thee!” said the minister.

“Thou, too, hast depely sinned!” He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man and fixed them on the woman and the child.

“My little Pearl,” said he feebly — and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child—-“dear little Pearl; wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?” Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies, and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Toward her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”

“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his.

“Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright, dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?”

“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with a tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke! —the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and he is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever!

Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!”

That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit. So passed Arthur Dimmesdale.

Roger Chillingworth, we are told, withered slowly to his death as if, with Hester’s secret known and the possibility of revenge taken out of his hands, he had no further interest in living. Hester lived on, respected but aloof, in the community that had witnessed her shame and her life-long atonement. Pearl, upon reaching young womanhood, married and went to live in a kindlier and more tolerant society. And out of the sin and the suffering of these characters—whether they actually lived or were only figments of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination — has been woven one of the greatest novels which the genius of America has ever produced.

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Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 2

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