Ike and Mama and the Once in a Lifetime Movie – By Carol Snyder – 1981

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

Ike and Mama and the Once in a Lifetime Movie

By Carol Snyder – 1981

The movie matinee is the high point of the week for Ike Greenberg and his friends on East 136th Street in the Bronx. Even the newsreel is full of surprises now that it’s 1920 and the war is over. So when Herbie loses his two cents’ admission, the other boys think up a scheme to sneak him into the movie without paying. Somehow things go wrong, and Ike, his cousins and his friends Danny Mantussi, Tony Golida, James Higgins and the Murphy brothers are in big trouble.

When Mama tells them they must put matters right, Ike has to come up with another plan, one that will earn them all some money. Then he remembers that the great director D.W. Griffith is actually making a movie only a bike ride away.

Ike and his friends bring their scheme to a triumphant conclusion, surprising and delighting their families, in a funny and heartwarming story. The lively illustrations are by Charles Robinson.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie


The Once in a Lifetime Movie

Ike almost gave them all away with a shriek of joy when he saw what was sitting on the three tall wooden legs. It looked like three boxes sitting one on top of the other, with a big, thick rubber band stretched along the side. But Ike knew it was the Pathe movie camera. His heart beat with excitement. At least he’d gotten to see a real camera. One dream had come true. He’d worry about getting home in this snow a little later. It couldn’t hurt to watch for a little while. And maybe they could still be extras and earn a dollar-fifty each. That was a lot of money. A dollar and fifty cents could buy 600 pounds of potatoes, even, Ike figured. But what would make Mr. Griffith choose them? Ike wondered, waiting for an idea.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

Morton Weinstein poked Ike and pointed, “Look at that beautiful lady,” he gasped. “Isn’t that the lady with the sad eyes. The one from the busted movie . . . Busted Flowers?” “You mean Lillian Gish, the star of Broken Biossoms?” Ike had barely said the words when he realized Morton was right. It was Lillian Gish, and next to her, standing at the doorway, was a man Ike knew must be “a somebody of importance” because even Miss Gish listened to him, saying, “Yes, Boss.” Ike had never seen such clothes. The tall man wore a heavy camel coat with a thick belt with double holes in it and big cuffs. He had striped knit gloves on his hands, and he smoked a cigarette. His wide-brimmed hat, his nose and his finger all seemed to point in the same direction.

“That’s gotta be Griffith,” Ike whispered to James Higgins. Ike’s mouth stayed open. He couldn’t believe he was really seeing the famous Mr. Griffith from the Pathe newsreel, the man in charge, the man with the money . . . and Lillian Gish, yet, a real live movie star. Wow!

“Yeah,” James answered, shivering with excitement as well as cold. He buttoned his top button.

“Shoot it, Billy!” Griffith spoke to the cameraman through a megaphone, and Ike and the boys jumped at the loud sound.

“What the heck is that?” Bernie grumbled. “It looks like a witch’s hat with a hole at the point.”

Ike looked at the megaphone, then his attention turned again to the camera and he listened to its comforting whirring sound.

“Build a fire, Billy,” Mr. Griffith shouted. “Build it under the camera so the oil in the camera doesn’t freeze.”

And Billy listened, yelling, “Yes, Boss.”

Everyone listened to Mr. Griffith.

Then, Ike noticed that other people had walked from that distant car he’d seen and now stood near the camera. But they were not filming and they were not acting. They, too, were watching, and there were kids among them.

“Hey, guys,” Ike said, pointing to some other boys. “Looks like we’re not the only ones who want to be extras. How are we gonna get Mr. Griffith to ask us.7” Putting the problem into words made Ike think of an answer. “Let’s help that man, Billy, build the fire.” So they politely offered to help. But still, no one asked them to be extras.

A man on the crew clapped a piece of wood on top of a slate and said, “TAKE NUMBER ONE.”

Miss Gish was already standing at the side of a building which was painted to look like a general store. She had a dark cape wrapped around her and a kind of stocking cap on her head. And she carried a basket.

“Silence!” Mr. Griffith’s voice bellowed through the megaphone, “Not even a word!” he added, pointing his finger at the onlookers, then touching it to his lips.

Ike thought the way he said that sounded like Mama. So he was sure everyone would listen. And they did … all except Morton Weinstein who thought he was whispering to Ike.

“If we hang around, maybe they’ll play a love scene,’’ Morton said.

Dave poked Morton in the ribs with his elbow. “And maybe you’ll be in it,’’ Dave said. Sammy made a kissing noise.

Mr. Griffith did notice the boys, but he did not ask them to be extras. He asked them to be quiet. Then he smiled and waved at the other onlookers as if he knew them. They waved back.Ike figured he and his friends didn’t have a chance to be extras. Mr. Griffith would surely choose the people he knew. He shivered and took out the scarf Mama had stuffed in his pocket. He wrapped it around his neck, waiting for an idea.Behind Ike, the trees struggled with the wind, and the chains that held them rattled and pulled taut. Ike could see his footprints in the snow, and worry about the ride home zigzagged through him. But this was so interesting. Just a little while longer wouldn’t matter.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

“Now!” Mr. Griffith got everyone’s attention with one word . . . just like Mama, Ike thought. “In the next scene, remember Miss Gish, you’re shopping for the barn dance party. MEES GEESH, do you hear me?” Mr. Griffith joked with her name. “Swing your basket,” he instructed, “and walk like a young girl. Hop around.”

“Young girls don’t do that,” Miss Gish said.

“How else can I get the contrast between you and older people if you don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” Mr. Griffith answered.

Then Ike and Tony and Morton and James and all the other boys couldn’t believe their eyes . . . Mr. Griffith, this big, tall, somebody, hopped around shaking his head as if he had curls. Ike wasn’t sure who got the idea first, but one by one the boys all hopped around shaking their heads like Mr. Griffith, hoping he would see how well they’d listened and what good actors they were. Then he’d choose them for extras for sure.

But Mr. Griffith didn’t notice. He was busy watching Lillian Gish. “That’s a DARB!” he said, and laughed, raising his arm and making a circular O.K. sign with his thumb and finger.

“What’s a darb?” Danny whispered to Ike.

“Sounds like a part from a chicken,” Ike muttered.

“It must mean something is O.K.,” Morton added. “Look at Mr. Griffith’s fingers.’’

“It must mean something is even better than O.K.,” Ike said. “Look at his smile. To me this snow is a darb!” he added, enjoying the word as he lifted a handful of snow and licked it, wishing he had syrup to pour over it. The snow felt good and tasted so clean. This was going to he a real snow. They hadn’t had one all winter. They hadn’t had a single snow’ ball fight either. As they watched the cameras and the actors, Ike made a snowball, but he didn’t throw it. He put it down next to him. The snow was getting deep very fast, he noticed. How would they get home? But he decided they would stay just a little longer.

Then Mr. Griffith was pointing at him. “What’s your name?’’ he said to Ike.

Ike coughed to clear his throat. “Ike Greenberg,’’ he said.

“Well, Ike Greenberg . . . You want to earn some money?”

Ike almost choked with excitement. This was the big moment. They’d he extras for sure. Then Ike laughed as he remembered Papa’s voice saying the same words. “Someone is going to reach out and say ‘You want a job, Ikey Greenberg?’ In a factory you earn money.” He couldn’t believe it. For once, Papa was wrong.

“Yes,” Ike said, looking up at Mr. Griffith, “I’d like to earn money.” Then he looked at his friends.

“Come here,” Mr. Griffith said, starting to walk.

He didn’t stop walking, so Ike walked fast to catch up with him. Ike’s heart thumped. He wanted to ask Mr. Griffith if the other boys could he in the movie, too, hut what if Mr. Griffith got mad? Finally Ike got the words out nice and loud. “Can my friends earn money, too, Mr. Griffith?” he said, feeling very brave—and very generous at including his friends as extras in the movie. He was sure Mr. Griffith had seen them walking with a hop and had liked how they’d acted, too.

“Of course they can help,” Mr. Griffith said. He looked up at the sky and said, “Looks like there will be a lot to do.”

Ike couldn’t understand what the sky had to do with it, hut he was very happy as he called his friends. The hoys crowded around and Ike told them the good news. They slapped him on the back, their way of thanking him for including them.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

Then, Mr. Griffith signaled to his crew, and much to Ike’s surprise there were … no cameras … no action . . . just three men handing out shovels to Ike and his friends as Mr. Griffith shouted to the boys, “Clear a path so we can put the camera on the platform with wheels. I’ll pay you each a nickel.” Then he yelled, “Billy! Move in! Get that face on Miss Lillian! Get that snow on her lashes. Real tears now, Miss Gish—for the sad scene before the ice floe. You can’t make viewers cry with make-believe tears! Don’t act it . . . Feel it!”

“Shovels!” Danny Mantussi muttered giving Ike a dirty look. “We rode all the way to Mamaroneck to shovel snow?” This time Danny didn’t give Ike a thank-you slap on the shoulders. He gave him a swat!

Ike felt terrible. He was sure he’d figured out how to get to be an extra. “Well, anyway, we’ll still earn money,” he said, looking on the brighter side. “Five cents is not a dollar-fifty but it’s something.” That’s all he could think of to say. He felt so disappointed. Shoveling they could do on East 136th Street. The sanitation department always hired them to shovel the snow down the manholes so the streets would be clear for traffic. And they paid a lot of money— twenty-five cents an hour.

Ike pushed the shovel in. This was not what the hoys had dreamed they’d be doing in the first big snow. They’d waited all winter to have the East 136th Street snowball fight. A lump the size of a snowball grew in Ike’s stomach as he and the boys shoveled the path clean. He ached to bend down, put the shovel aside and take a handful of that glistening white miracle and make the most perfect snowball. He forced himself to finish the job. But after the last shovelful, unable to stop himself, Ike dropped the shovel, grabbed a handful of snow, rolled it, patted it and then—as if the snowball had a mind of its own—it flew out of his hand and zoomed right at tall Danny Mantussi, always the first target in the East 136th Street snowball fight because . . . well, how could anyone miss such a big target?

Okay, so they wouldn’t be in the movies, Ike thought,* but they wouldn’t miss the fun of the first snowball fight. At least they would have a good time.

Before anyone knew what was happening, snowballs were flying left and right. Sammy threw one at Ike, and as it slithered down his neck, Ike shivered and pulled his scarf tighter. Tony Golida’s black jacket had white marks all over the back, where snowballs hit as he hid his face. Morton was screaming his usual, “Watch out for my glasses,” and James Higgins threw the biggest snowball of them all.

The boys were too busy to notice the whirr of the movie camera and Mr. Griffith shouting orders. “Billy, don’t miss the kid with the snow down his neck. Quick! Get the kid with the glasses. Get them all, Billy. That’s it! Get them all. What a darb! What an absolute DARB of a snowball-fight scene!”

Finally the boys were satisfied and snow covered. They looked up.

“Now that’s what I call acting!” Mr. Griffith said. “Here’s a dollar-fifty for each of you.” He reached into his pocket and paid each very snow-covered and surprised boy. Then he gave them each another nickel for shoveling.

At first Ike was speechless. He’d never seen so much money! The boys yelled “Thanks” and patted Ike on the back, a friendly pat. “What a good idea you had, Ikey,” they yelled.

“See, I told you I’d think of something,” Ike said, and he looked up at the sky, through the snowflakes and waved to someone higher.


The boys jumped up and down in the snow yelling, “We’re in the movies! We’re stars!’’ And James Higgins felt the dollar bill between his thumb and middle fingers the way Mama always felt cloth. “We’re rich!” he yelled. “We can take all our folks to the movies and our brothers and sisters, too!”

“We’ll fill up the whole theater,” Ike added. “And wait until the usher sees all of us paying customers.” Then he looked around at the piled-up snow . . . “If we ever get home.”

He wanted to stay some more to watch the camera and all, but he knew this snow meant business. After all, it had been saved in that cloud up there for three months.

“We better get on our way,” he shouted.

“Let’s break—a short break,” Mr. Griffith bellowed through the megaphone. “I’m hungry! Let’s eat,” he said. “And Miss Gish, pull your cape tightly closed . . . I’m cold.”

Ike wondered if he was thinking of Mama waiting and worrying at home or did Mr. Griffith really talk just like her.

Then Mr. Griffith thanked the boys and asked them where they were from and how they would get home in this blizzard.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

Carol Snyder was born and raised in Brooklyn and attended Brooklyn College. In addition to writing, she teaches a writers’ workshop and lectures in the New Jersey young authors’ conferences. She is the author of two previous books about Ike and Mama, Ike and Mama and the Once-a-Year Suit and Ike and Mama and the Block Wedding, which was the winner of the 1979 Association of Jewish Libraries Book Award. Ms. Snyder and her husband live in New Jersey with their two daughters.

Ike & Mama and the once-in-a-lifetime movie

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Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish) – By Charles Affron – 2001

Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish)

By Charles Affron (2001)

Lillian, who had not abandoned hope of returning to the big screen, was overjoyed at being considered for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s A Family Plot. “My heart skipped a few beats at receiving such good news I am second to none in my admiration for your work. Nothing could give me more happiness than being a part of a film you are directing.,, Before she wrote the note to Hitchcock she had already lost the part to Cathleen Nesbitt. Two short religious films and four features would complete the Gish filmography. She would close her career in the medium that had first made her a star.

Lillian Gish in Hitchcock's Body in the Barn
Lillian Gish in Hitchcock’s “Body in the Barn”

“I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.” True to her Episcopalian background, Lillian was a longtime parishioner of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Her schoolgirl fascination with the religious life had resurfaced in her fervent assumption of the leading roles of nuns in The White Sister and The Joyous Season. At one point, she expressed the desire to write a book about religion. When in June 1974, at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Lillian recorded Helen Keller’s My Religion for the blind, she was struck by Keller’s writing on Swedenborg.

Lillian agreed to appear as a Swedish matron who, while sitting for her portrait, tells of having witnessed one of Swedenborg’s visions, in a short 16mm film produced for the Swedenborg Foundation, Swedenborg: The Man Who Had to Know (1978). In this cameo role, she never moves from her chair. Johnny Appleseed and the Frontier Within (1981), another thirty-minute film sponsored by the organization, casts Lillian as “a charming woman of pioneer origins in the parlour of her 1871 Cincinnati home with her pompous nephew/’ She provides the frame for the story of Johnny Appleseed and his “reverence for the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg in what appears to be an under-rehearsed, hastily shot scene, Lillian looks remarkably youthful but sounds like an old lady having difficulty with her lines. In Johnny Appleseed, however, she is not the only actor whose delivery is hesitant.

Robert Altman - Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)

There is nothing halting about her acting in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). Here was Lillian Gish at age eighty-five, as close as anyone had been, literally and metaphorically, to the creation of movie narrative, engaged by a director who had successfully defied narrative conventions with M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). “It’s a new thing for me and I’m a pioneer at heart. I love new ventures and to arrive on the scene and not have a script and not have a word written that I’m supposed to speak is so new to me but like all new things I like it.” In fact, unlike much of the dialogue in Altman’s films, Lillian’s lines were scripted. And some of her habits could not be broken: “No matter how many times Altman said, ‘Call me Bob,’ the dignified leading lady of D. W. Griffith films insisted on calling him ‘Mr. Altman.'”

A Wedding
A Wedding

Lillian plays Nettie Sloan, the family matriarch, who, having orchestrated a complicated wedding, raises her eyes to the heavens, utters, “Thank you, God,” and dies without so much as a sigh or a movement of the head. The image of her peaceful face reappears a number of times during A Wedding.

A Wedding
A Wedding

The characters talk to her, some as if she were alive, others knowing that she is dead. The role’s few lines are spoken in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, Lillian, her hair spread on the pillow as if she were a young girl, is a still, perfect image in a willfully chaotic narrative. As a contrast to the wayward family at the center of the plot, Lillian is the icon of good breeding. So much of an icon is Lillian that she is called upon to play dead through most of the film. For Altman it is a death specific to Lillian. “Nettie’s death is the death of a silent screen star.”

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

Would that she had played dead rather than accept the offer of Hambone and Hillie, a movie that gives her top billing and shows her to exceptionally poor advantage. In addition to the lure of financial gain (a guarantee of $20,000) and a starring role, the project may have appealed to Lillian’s love of animals. After Georgie, the wirehaired terrier, a gift from George Jean Nathan, there was a King Charles spaniel named Gwyn, the subject of a lawsuit in 1928. (Valued at $5,000, Gwyn was lost, then recovered by Charles Comora, a tailor. Mr. Comora was arrested for not returning the dog.) In Scotland for the tryout of The Old Maid, Lillian accepted Malcolm, a West Highland white terrier, a present from Sir Ian Malcolm. Passionate on the subject of dogs, Lillian, as usual, spoke up. Her 1952 address to the New York Women’s League for Animals about canine health recommended no more  than two baths a year and a pinch of Epsom salts in the drinking water. Lillian also had a pet bird, Johnny Boy. At his death in 1950, she noted the burial of her “dear feathered friend” in the Bird Sanctuary. Lillian established her credentials among cat lovers by writing the foreword to theatre historian and curator George Freedley’s Mr. Cat: “How strange is the accident of birth and the gift of tongues. Speaking several languages, most of them poorly, I do pride myself on speaking cat and dog rather well, probably because of the patient training I have received from many fur friends.” (“Several” and “poorly” were somewhat generous assessments of Lillian’s skills in French and German, despite her many lessons.)

Hambone and Hillie
Hambone and Hillie

With its Lassie Come Home premise, Hambone and Hillie accidentally separates the beloved dog, Hambone, from his aged mistress, Hillie (Lillian). The action depicts the animal’s cross-continental adventures in search of her. Given the careless direction, which explains Lillian’s hesitant line readings, and her altogether inappropriate costumes (a bright red pants suit is perhaps the most egregious example), it is a blessing that most of her few scenes are brief. She had no trouble evaluating her contribution to Hambone and Hillie: “It’s all about four-legged actors, and I’m sorry to report they’re much better in the movie than the two-legged actors, because we two-legged actors didn’t have much to do. The dogs have all the good parts, and of course Hambone is the best. I’m going to proselyte for an Oscar for him.”

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal a

Lillian’s screen time was even shorter in Sweet Liberty (1986), written and directed by its star, Alan Alda. He plays a history professor and author of a best-seller about the Revolutionary War; Lillian is his aged mother. Entirely peripheral to the action, Lillian’s three short scenes are devoted to her portrayal of an adorable, eccentric old lady, a role she had played onstage (The Curious Savage, All the Way Home) and screen (Follow Me Boys!, Warning Shot).

Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine - Sweet Liberty 1986
Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine – Sweet Liberty 1986

Under the end credits, she is seen in a wheelchair, waving her arms with exaggerated enthusiasm, quite clearly out of control. Lillian was nearly ninety-two at the completion of Sweet Liberty. With that knowledge, viewers would have had every reason to think her as incapacitated and addled as the old woman she was impersonating. But any such notion would be dispelled by her next and final movie.

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

The Whales of August, conceived at least seven years before it went into production, originated in producer Mike Kaplan’s friendship with Lillian which dated from the late 1960s, when Kaplan worked as a publicist for The Comedians. Kaplan couldn’t understand why Lillian had been “hidden from movie audiences for many years.” He wanted to find a role that would present her as a star, not as a supporting actress. Among the various possibilities, Lillian was enthusiastic about Abraham Polonsky’s novel Xenia’s Way. Her profound political differences with the once blacklisted director-novelist presented no difficulty. In fact, she made known to Kaplan, decades after the fact, of course, her distaste for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, which had destroyed the career of Polonsky and many others. Mary Steenburgen was to play Lillian’s younger self in a story whose episodes were set in Europe during the Holocaust and later in a Palestinian camp in Israel. Kaplan remembers Lillian toasting the project with him and Polonsky in her New York apartment, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The financing did not materialize and Xenia’s Way was shelved.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for 'The Whales of August'
Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

Kaplan saw David Berry’s play The Whales ofAugust during its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. He thought first of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the roles of the two elderly sisters. When Davis refused the offer, Kaplan approached Katharine Hepburn, then Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom declined. In the meantime, Davis suffered a stroke and underwent an operation for cancer. Very much weakened, she returned to work in a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hayes, then recovered some of her strength and changed her mind about The Whales of August, attracted by its setting in her beloved New England. Lucille Ball passed on the third woman’s role, which went to Ann Sothern. Lillian expected to be reunited with John Gielgud, who was under contract for the part of Mr. Maranov, but he had to be replaced by Vincent Price at the last moment when the production for television’s War and Remembrance went over schedule. Price was happy to act something different from the “mad doctors” that had so long been his specialty. Lillian was offered an advance of $75,000, with an equal amount deferred. Her five net points of the producer’s share earned her nothing since, as of June 1988, the film showed a loss of $2.5 million.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (1987)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (1987)

The Whales of August is about the relationship between two widowed, aged sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis). The action transpires in and near Sarah’s summer house, on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Twenty-four hours test the dynamics of dependence and independence of Sarah, still strong and optimistic, who cares for the blind, embittered, and domineering Libby. The crux of the action is Sarah’s desire to install a picture window so as to enhance the view. Libby, the affluent one, crankily refuses. Their old friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) offers Sarah a haven away from the ill tempered Libby and suggests that she sell the house; Maranov, a courtly Russian emigre, comes to dinner. The next morning, the sisters renew their commitment to each other. Sarah agrees to stay and Libby orders the picture window.

Lindsay Anderson, whose direction of This Sporting Life (1963) and If . . . (1969) had helped define Britain’s “angry young man” cinema, was not the most likely candidate for this nearly plotless, atmospheric piece, but he was a friend of Kaplan’s, had met Lillian, and was eager to work with her. He demanded, however, that David Berry alter the conclusion of The Whales of August. In the play, the sisters decide to separate. Their reconciliation in the movie gives extra dimension to the role of Libby, which must certainly have pleased Bette Davis.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (the last scene)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (the last scene)

Shot on Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine, in September and October 1986, the movie’s production conditions were difficult. When it was over, Lillian wrote, “Well, we are back alive from the very rough, tough shoot in Maine of The Whales of August and it was a long, hard haul with weather to and fro and the interior of the house so small that it took forever to move the camera and re-light but that part of the film is done.” Then there was the age and physical condition of the actresses, who had some difficulty negotiating the steep, uneven paths of the location. And for the final shot of the two sisters, standing on a point of land overlooking the ocean, the wind was so strong that Lillian’s manager, Jim Frasher, and an assistant director had to squat out of the camera’s view to anchor the feet of Lillian and Bette to the ground. As a result of a serious stage accident in which she had suffered a broken back, Ann Sothern walked with a heavy limp. Lillian’s medical certificate, signed on July 29, 1986, indicates that she was in fine health, five feet three inches tall (three inches shorter than when she was a young adult), weighing 115 pounds, had blood pressure at 140/90, and a pulse of 70. But even allowing for the birth date of October 14, 1899, which lopped six years off her life, she was still a very old woman whose hips had been replaced. Her costar, partially paralyzed from her stroke and painfully thin, had undergone a mastectomy. And for most of her career, Bette Davis, famous for her temper and sharp tongue, had been a demanding, often unpleasant colleague. Bette’ s enfeebled condition had not brought her to turn over a new leaf.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)

During the first, unfortunate working encounter between the costars, Lillian was sitting in the only available chair when Bette entered. She addressed her as “Bette”; Bette addressed Lillian as “Miss Gish.” Lillian offered the chair to Bette, fifteen years her junior. Bette was offended. From then on, a palpable tension settled between the two women. Ann Sothern speculated, “I think that she [Bette] felt intimidated by Lillian because Lillian is motion pictures. Who could ever criticize Lillian Gish? It’s like criticizing the Statue of Liberty!”

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August, 1987

According to cast member Harry Carey Jr., “Lillian just closed her mind to Bette and went her own merry way; Bette had no effect on her.” Near the end of shooting, Jim Frasher made dinner for the stars, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Kaplan. Bette made no secret of her displeasure when Kaplan, tending to production problems, arrived somewhat late.

Bette Davis - The Whales of August
Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Bette’s temperament and her talent thrived on contention and rivalry; for Lillian, diplomacy was the key to the negotiation of her life and her career. But Lillian would not have survived so long if she had been a pushover. When things were not going smoothly with Bette, diplomacy prompted Lillian to feign difficulty in hearing her costar’s lines, a problem miraculously solved as soon as the atmosphere changed for the better. The conflict between the two stars reflected the contrast between the sisters they were playing and certainly added much needed energy to the final product, for which both Lillian and Bette were thankful. They were, after all, great movie actresses, eager to do their best.

In one scene, Libby wakens from a nightmare and vents her desperation on Sarah. “Although Miss Davis’ dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’ energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.” Lillian’s reaction: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today.” Bette was able to overcome her animosity long enough to express her admiration of Lillian’s acting in the quarrel scene, one of the movie’s turning points. “After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, ‘We must do this again.’ And Bette replied: ‘Mm.’ “

american actress lillian gish with indian-born british director lindsay anderson attend the 1987 cannes film festival to present his movie the whales of august. (photo by john van hass
American actress Lillian Gish with indian-born british director Lindsay Anderson attend the 1987 Cannes film festival to present his movie The Whales of August. (photo by John Van Hass)

The commercial failure of The Whales ofAugust and its brief run in Los Angeles probably robbed Lillian of the Oscar nomination that a combination of her talent and voter sentiment might have earned her. She did manage a tie with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review.

Belying her ninety-three years, Lillian, as Sarah, is energetic throughout The Whales of August. If her step is not exactly sprightly, it is certainly firm, and thereby expressive of the core of her character as it is of the actress. Much to the annoyance of the blind and sedentary Libby, she hangs the clothes, sets the table, dusts, prepares meals. For the first half of the movie, Lillian is sweet and compliant in the “old lady” mode she had so often been obliged to adopt for her movie roles. But here there is something more. As protagonist and star, she has the opportunity to develop the character through time, to reveal layers of individuality beneath the conventional surface of the “good” sister.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - Whales

Sarah’s strength emerges in the scene of the argument, when she defies Libby’s objection to inviting Maranov for dinner. During the rest of the film, Lillian deploys the reserves of emotional depth denied the movie screen for so many years. It had been a long time since The Wind. And while Duel in the Sun, The Comedians, and The Unforgiven, among Lillian’s talkies, had bravura moments, only The Night of the Hunter contained durations sufficiently long to reveal the character’s inner life, to follow the actress within herself. Lillian’s Sarah is particularly moving when she is alone with her memories and the movie camera, drawing us into the past as we plumb the image of the present. It is Sarah’s forty-sixth wedding anniversary.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Wearing a long blue dress, she sets the table with a glass of wine, a white rose “for truth,” a red one “for passion,” and her dead husband’s photograph. With Lillian’s customary directness, Sarah speaks to her absent beloved of the day’s events, then goes to an old Victrola and puts on the record of a tenor sweetly singing the sentimental World War I ballad “Roses of Picardy.” Here, Lillian somehow manages to connect the fullness of the memories with the vibrancy of her life. Perhaps she simply lets the moment speak for itself, the context providing the specific meanings required by the plot, while Lillian Gish, so much a representative of the past in the present, coats the situation with her generous sensibility.

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August" (1987)
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August” (1987)

She had not lost her talent for the high degree of disclosure that had always been her special gift. Old Sarah is not old Lillian, yet viewers familiar with the actress’s iconography must have had an eerie reaction to shots that placed Lillian with photographs of her family posing as Sarah’s: Mary Gish and Lillian as a baby, James Leigh Gish, and most unsettling of all, Lillian and Dorothy in the 1930s, the face of Bette Davis superimposed over Dorothy’s. Actors often lend their personal memorabilia in such occasions, a spectacular example being Sunset Boulevard, where photographs and a film clip contrast the young Gloria Swanson and the mature actress who plays Norma Desmond. There is, obviously, no hint of Dorothy’s character in Bette Davis’s portrayal of Libby. Nor is there any way to know that the fictional sibling relationship of a strong and healthy older sister who cares for a weak and ailing younger one had particular resonance for Lillian while she was making The Whales ofAugust. Certainly, few in the audience would have made the connection.

Final scene - real photographs of Lillian Gish's relatives (The Whales of August)
Final scene – real photographs of Lillian Gish’s relatives with some add ins suited for “The Whales of August”

Whatever its source, Lillian drew a performance compelling for an actress of any age, let alone one ninety-three years old. Yet Lillian’s great age does raise some intriguing questions. Has anyone as venerably old ever sustained a leading role in a movie? Edith Evans, who was a mere seventy-eight when The Whisperers was released, went on for another nine years in character parts.

The Whales of August must have lulled filmmakers into thinking Lillian eternal. Claude Lelouch offered her a part in his Cache-Tampon (Hide and Seek), to be shot just outside Paris, starting in May 1989. But Lillian had already fulfilled her last professional commitment—an appearance at the world premiere of The Whales of August, in New York, on October 14, 1987, her ninety-fourth birthday.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Vincent Price and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

In retirement, the once indefatigable traveler did not become a recluse. She was simply more and more homebound. The seven-room apartment, 13A, at 430 East Fifty-seventh Street, which she had occupied since 1948, had ” smallscale traditional furnishings” and the autographed books Lillian treasured. Movie and theatre memorabilia were absent. There were many photographs of family and close friends. Among the pictures in the gallery constituted by one wall were those of John Gielgud (signed “Hamlet John”) and George Jean Nathan; D. W. Griffith claimed the central spot. Lillian, who had paid close attention to her health for so long, was rewarded with relative serenity in her final years. Of course, a woman well on the far side of ninety could not expect every day to be perfect. Elizabeth Ross was saddened at her last visit, about 1990, when she found Lillian unaware of how much she had declined. “It wasn’t Lillian sitting there that day. It was not somebody who could conquer the world, or so she thought. . . . She needed care, and Lillian never needed care.” Eva Marie Saint last saw her in bed, after she had fractured her hip. But, until the end, Lillian was lucid, able to speak, even to read. James Frasher was at her side when she died, peacefully, in her own bed, at 7 p.m. on February 27, 1993. Fifty years previously, Lillian had left instructions that she wished to be cremated. She hoped Ruth Gordon would “say a few words and Paul Robeson recite the ‘Twenty-Third Psalm” She had outlived them both. At the “Celebration for the Life of Lillian Gish” held at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church two weeks after her death, there were tributes from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her godson, James MacArthur, the son of Helen Hayes. Irene Worth read a selection from Milton’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Her ashes were interred at St. Bart’s alongside those of Mary and Dorothy Gish.

Lillian Gish in Whales of August

Lillian’s considerable estate, largely composed of stocks and bonds, and property in Beverly Hills, was valued at more than $10 million. Her personal effects, paintings, and furniture had been appraised at $232,000 in 1980. Approximately $1 million was distributed among family and friends, with the largest of these bequests going to James Frasher. The bulk of Lillian’s fortune was placed in a trust whose income constitutes the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts. Lillian stated the purpose of the prize in her will: “As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (As if to demonstrate that Lillian’s criteria give no particularly priority to the performing arts, the first recipient of the $250,000 award was architect Frank O. Gehry.) In her prescription for the awardee, Lillian might have been describing herself: “The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path.” She, who had served the arts so faithfully throughout her long life, both as performer and proponent, found a way for her fervor to survive her death.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life

By Charles Affron – 2001

The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet
The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet

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D.W. Griffith – An American Life (By Richard Schickel – 1984)


D.W. Griffith – An American Life

By Richard Schickel – 1984

Griffith! Before him, the movies were a nickelodeon novelty, after him, they were an international art form and a powerful, glamorous American industry He was the first to codify the rules and techniques of screen storytelling, the first to establish the conventions by which the unique capacities of the movies for both sweeping spectacle and profound intimacy could be employed in long, complex narratives, the first to assert the director’s claim to primary authorship of a film Above all, it was Griffith who imagined the future of his medium, and with his driving energy, his taste for the grandiose and his flair for publicity, propelled that medium toward that future—only to be crushed by the very forces he had unleashed.

D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) – on set with Wilhelm Gottfried “Billy” Bitzer

His story is, in huge measure, the story of how the movies as we know them came to be. It is also a great and archetypal American story. The poor Southern farm lad, nurturing his romantic nature on the legends of The Lost Cause and drawing on them to make The Birth of a Nation, the first film masterpiece—yet also a work deeply tainted by the racism that was a tragic part of his heritage, the turn-of-the-century touring actor and failed playwright, desperate for fame, power and artistic glory, bending the movies to his dream and achieving it with such legendary works as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East; the would-be plutocrat risking all—and losing all—by trying to establish his own studio, the sensualist whose powerful sexual obsessions helped drive him to the heights—and hasten his downfall, the lonely and embittered old man, shunned by the industry he had been instrumental in creating, turning into the ghost of Hollywood’s banquet years. All of these are Griffith, and all of them live in the pages of this masterful biography. But “D.W. Griffith An American Life” is more than one man’s story. His life intertwined with the lives of almost every great figure in the formative years of the movies. Louis B. Mayer cheated him, Lillian Gish loved him, Erich von Stroheim, Mack Sennett and Raoul Walsh learned from him, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin were his business partners, Lionel and John Barrymore were his friends, W C Fields and Alfred Lunt co-starred for him, Adolph Zukor tried to rescue his career, Anita Loos and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote for him, Jean Renoir was his admirer And the crowded canvas of his life stretched from Jack London’s San Francisco to Woodrow Wilson’s White House, from the trenches of World War I to Hearst’s San Simeon, from Number 10 Downing Street to Weimar Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In a work of scrupulous scholarship, brilliant critical insight and powerful historical narrative, Richard Schickel, Time film critic and author of The Disney Version, has captured this life in all its vivid dimensions. This long-awaited and definitive masterpiece is the first and only book worthy of its subject, which is not only Griffith himself, but the birth and rise of the art form that more than any other has shaped the way we see the world in our times.

dw griffith 8

About the Author

Richard Schickel combines three careers He has been a film critic for Time since 1973, having previously served Life in the same capacity He is the author of many books, including The Disney Version, His Picture in the Papers and a well received novel. Another I, Another You. Most recently he published Gary Grant: A Celebration, and he has just completed a study of the celebrity system and its effect on American life. Finally, for the last decade he has been producer, writer and frequently director of many television specials Among them are the acclaimed PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies,” “Life Goes to the Movies,” “Into the Morning: Willa Gather’s America ” and, most recently, a film biography of James Gagney and a history of the Star Wars saga.

D.W. Griffith - Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)
D.W. Griffith – Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)

Griffith …

A persistent sub-flowering of shame and guilt. The phrase summarizes the most important aspect of Griffith’s feelings when they were aroused by “good” (and always very young and very innocent) women almost as perfectly as the incident involving “the Snow Angel” prefigures emotions he would obsessively explore in his films. As Tyler says, he had a very “forthright” conception of the premarital “single instance” : “rape or the marriage proposal.”Quite obviously he (or his surrogate) could bring himself to no such definitive action in this incident and so retreated to a romanticized passivity, a passivity that would be duplicated by his camera as it mooned over such Griffith favorites as Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster in later years.

Carol Dempster 1920s
Carol Dempster 1920s

His guilty sexuality however, would have more significant consequences than that. It severely limited his range when he was dealing with romantic love. He could be free, even humorous with women who did not arouse strong emotions in him. Dorothy Gish, for example, was easily turned into a hoydenish comedienne by him, and other actresses, ranging from Mae Marsh (once his infatuation with her ended) to Lupe Velez, were allowed an expressive range that his special favorites were denied (Gish, of course, often conquered his limits; Miss Dempster was incapable of so doing). These limits—frequently ascribed to, and no doubt influenced by, the Victorian sentimentality that was so much a part of Griffith’s sensibility—played a role in his fall from favor with audiences in the 1920s, when his endless preoccupation with fates worse than death came to seem to many rather laughably anachronistic. This capacity—this need, really—to despoil childish innocence, innocence of the unguarded, sleeping kind that he wrote about so vividly in his memoirs, he embodied, instead, in the bestial villains, most notably.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

Lynch and Gus, the mulatto and the black who threaten, respectively, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation, but also in characterizations like those by Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms and by Lionel Barrymore in America. Without wishing to seem too schematic about it, one can say that Griffith was never able to integrate the conflicting demands of the light and dark sides of his sexual nature, either in life or in his films.

As Griffith formed his professional manner, he was creating the elements of future failure as well as future success. His secretiveness would grow, and his inability’ to develop, among his coworkers, critics whom he could freely trust would result in a dangerous isolation and, in time, it would seem to even so sympathetic a friend as Lillian Gish that there was no one near him “who loved him enough to be able to say ‘no’ to him.”

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

In general, the quality of his work remained high; consistency at this time being one of his great virtues. But for the most part he was not reaching out, stretching his talent and the medium’s range as he previously had. His best film of the spring, for example, was The Usurer, but it was essentially a remake of A Corner in Wheat. This time, as the title implies, the central figure was a moneylender and not a grain dealer, but there was the same crosscutting between his machinations and their effect on plain people, and he came to much the same end as the earlier villain—instead of being suffocated in a grain elevator, he was suffocated in a safe in which he was accidentally locked. (Griffith must have been something of a claustrophobe, for from The Sealed Room in 1909 to Lillian Gish’s celebrated entrapment in a closet in Broken Blossoms, suffocation, as a suitably terrible end for villains and as an awful peril for heroes and heroines, recurs.

The Mothering Heart

Griffith had found another project that seemed to him worth more than a reel. Shot under the title “Mother Love” but released as The Mothering Heart, it was to provide the first really strong vehicle for Lillian Gish. There is some dispute as to the circumstances of her arrival in California. Her role in The Good Little Devil had required her to do a bit of flying (by means of wires and a harness) and in Baltimore the wires had come undone and she fell rather than flew off a five-foot wall. When the play reached New York, Gish settled into a rented room and, determined to save at least $10 a week to send to her mother and sister, she subsisted on an unbalanced diet and grew more than usually ethereal in appearance. Belasco began to fear for her health—or so the story goes—and also to fear that her apparent illness might be traced to the onstage fall and subject him to a lawsuit. He proposed a vacation in warmer climes and, finally, she decided to visit the rest of her family in California. This account may be true enough as far as it goes, but it would be a mistake not to enter Miss Gish’s shrewdness and ambition into the equation of this decision. Her friend Pickford had the lead in this production and she faced a lonely winter’s run in a part that afforded her few opportunities. In the meantime, on the Coast, Griffith was operating without his greatest star, Mary Pickford, with Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet not quite able to fill certain sorts of romantic roles. In short, convenience and opportunity- coincided.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

And The Mothering Heart proved to be, as Gish says, “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.” Initially Griffith thought her too youthful for the role and rejected her at the first rehearsal. Miss Gish, however, was determined to try to “play old” and she showed up at a second rehearsal wearing falsies to give her a more matronly figure and won the part, that of a wife rejected during pregnant” by her husband, who favors a cabaret dancer. She bears her child alone, it dies, and in a famous bit of business, she wanders into a garden, picks up a stick and, in her grief, beats all the blossoms off a rose bush—the kind of pantomime only Griffith was capable of creating at this time.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Miss Gish, alone of the Biograph players, took an intense interest in those aspects of filmmaking which did not involve acting. It was her habit to look at the rushes every day, even to go into Jimmie Smith’s cutting room to see, from his point of view, what worked and what did not in a performance. In the course of this activity – during The Mothering Heart, she concluded that she was overacting and asked Griffith about it.

“The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time,” he said. ”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 normal to come over with full effect to your audience.”

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)

The Battle of the Sexes

Griffith quickly turned to another work, a novel, The Single Standard, which was retitled The Battle of the Sexes and went before the cameras starring Lillian Gish, Owen Moore, Mary Alden, Fay Tincher, Donald Crisp and Bobby Harron. “This is a potboiler,” Griffith told his cast at their first rehearsal and he shot it as such in five hectic days and nights, the long hours finally taking their toll on Miss Gish; Bitzer found he could not bring his camera in for close-ups because her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. A few hours’ rest cured that condition and the film turned out to be commercially quite successful when it was released the following April, so successful, indeed, that in 1928, his career in decline, searching for something that looked like a sure box-office bet, Griffith returned—unfortunately—to this story of a philandering middle-aged, middle-class husband and the effect his transgressions have on his family with Jean Hersholt in the lead.

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

This, however, was the only movie Griffith was personally able to complete in New York. Since his name was already worth something, especially in light of the publicity campaign about him that Aitken was beginning to orchestrate, he agreed to act as ”supervisor” on productions actually directed by such contract workers—and Griffith disciples—as Christy Cabanne, Marshall Neilen and James Kirkwood, among others.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

The Clansman

Lillian Gish has recalled that Griffith drew her aside one afternoon during a break in shooting one of his program pictures, requesting that she stay on after work. It was not an unusual request; Griffith often held after-hour rehearsals for a forthcoming project while another work was in progress and a sizable percentage of those who would eventually have featured roles in the finished film assembled with Miss Gish to hear him announce his plans for The Clansman. She remembers only two unusual facts about this small beginning to a mighty project. The first was that she had observed for some days that Griffith’s pockets were overflowing with notes as well as scraps of printed material. She therefore correctly assumed that he was brooding about a work of unusual scale, since he carried no aide-memoire when working on films of routine length. The other was that on that first night he swore his actors to secrecy about his intentions. He might control rights to Thomas Dixon’s novel, but he owned no patent either on the Civil War or Reconstruction, and it would have been a simple matter for a competitor to cobble something together and beat him to market with a picture taking up the themes he regarded as his by birthright.

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation 2
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

According to Miss Gish, Griffith did not make his final casting decisions until rehearsals were well along and he had seen more than one player essay most of the larger roles. The center of this nocturnal activity was the extras’ makeup room on the Griffith lot, ”a make-shift building of cheap, rough pine,” where everyone sat on hard kitchen chairs, because Griffith felt that if anything more easeful were provided, ”You were apt to get too comfortable and lean back, instead of keeping busy.” The rehearsals went well. And despite the director’s determination to keep his options open, there seems to have been no doubt as to who would play the central role in this drama, that of Ben Cameron, the ‘Tittle Colonel.” From the start it appears that Henry Walthall had the part, despite the fact that he was somewhere between 36 and 38 years old (the year of his birth is in dispute) and thus a trifle old for the part, and more than a little intemperate in his drinking habits. His age could be de-emphasized, Griffith thought, by having him wear wide-brimmed hats whenever possible, thus softening the light on his face. Since “Wally” was a well-liked member of the company, there would be no dearth of volunteers to see to it that he arrived on time, and in a reasonably sober state, for each day’s shooting. Slight of build, with long, curly hair and sometimes a romantic mustache, he carried something of the air of a poet about him, this actor who could, as his friend director Raoul Walsh said, “speak volumes with his eyes.”His seeming fragility and his natural gentleness of spirit would render his heroics on the battlefield and as the Klan leader more exciting and, of course, they would also enhance his many tender moments in the film. Indeed, so right was he for the part that after the actor’s death in 1936, Griffith told a reporter that his demise should effectively quell all talk of a remake. “I can never imagine any actor taking his place,'” the director said.


It is impossible to say what the story of The Mother and the Law was, in detail, when Griffith first went to work on it, for after he conceived the notion of integrating it into Intolerance, he did a great deal of reshooting. But in final form it tells the story of the Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh) who meet and marry in the slum they are forced to live in after his father has been killed and her father has lost his job, as the result of a strike at the nearby Jenkins mill.

Intolerance The Dear One

Prior to his marriage the Boy has engaged in a life of petty crime as the lieutenant of a gang leader known as the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), who in turn is jealously loved by a mysterious young woman known as the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). Married, the youth attempts to go straight, but the Musketeer, angry at his desertion, plants stolen goods on him and he is sent to jail. At this point, social workers employed by a foundation established by Jenkins, the mill owner—a nice irony there—take the young couple’s child away. The ground is that the wife of a convict must, per se, be an unfit mother. Despite an extraordinarily moving courtroom scene, in which the Dear One pleads to retain her child, the deed is done. With her husband in prison the Musketeer begins to insinuate himself with the Dear One, promising that he can help her regain her child. His intentions are anything but honorable, and the jealous Cooper character, seeing him enter the Dear One’s apartment, informs the Boy, now released from prison.

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

He arrives in time to join in the defense of his wife’s honor, but the Friendless One has, in the meantime, stolen the Boy’s gun and in the struggle fires through a window, killing the Musketeer. She then throws the revolver into the room and this evidence is enough to convict the Boy of murder. He is on his way to the gallows when his wife, aided by a sympathetic policeman, confronts the Friendless One and wrings a confession from her. There is then a wild—and enthrallingly shot—chase as the Dear One and the police officer commandeer a high-speed car and pursue a train on which the Governor is riding, in order to place this new evidence before him and secure a stay of execution. Then it is on to the prison to deliver the stay before the Boy is executed. He is on the scaffold, the black cloth already covering his face, when his rescuers arrive. In the finished film this story is not the most spectacular visually, but of the four stories Griffith wove together in what he was to subtitle, “A Sun Play of the Ages,” it remains the most affecting emotionally-and the most suspenseful. The climactic chase is a summary of all the rides to the rescue Griffith had shot for Biograph and Mutual, a brilliant example of superbly executed, basic moviemaking. The realism of his strike sequences and the slum background, the sensitive performance of Mae Marsh and the scarcely less fine work of Bobby Harron—all of these represent Griffith at the top of his form, working with material to which he brought firsthand knowledge both of milieu and of emotion. Pauline Kael has correctly remembered, for example, a sequence in which Marsh, deprived of her child, becomes a kind of voyeur of other people’s familial happiness, spying on other mothers at loving play with their children.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Edward Wagenknecht has cited Marsh’s unbearably poignant courtroom scene—which Griffith shot four times at widely separate intervals as he kept reconsidering it—and the scene where she and her husband are reunited after the last-minute rescue from the gallows as among the most privileged moments in film history, and it is a sound judgment. How much of the quality of The Mother and the Law was visible in the early version of it, which was ready for release sometime in spring or early summer of 1915, is problematical. Lillian Gish recalls a screening of it for studio employees and notes “we all agreed with him that the film was too small in theme and execution to follow The Birth. Karl Brown recalls that studio gossip at the time held that the picture was unreleasable and therefore likely to be shelved, though, of course, that possibility was remote, given the precarious condition, at the time, of its producer of record, The Majestic Film Corporation. About his plans for the picture, Griffith kept his own counsel and, indeed, for a time, in the months to come, studio workers at Brown’s level were under the impression that the stories that were eventually melded with it in Intolerance were separate projects; indeed, they were given separate production numbers (The Mother was F-1, the F standing for feature, and the others were, naturally, F-2, F-3 and F-4).

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

In short, Griffith literally did not know what to do next. Thus Intolerance was a mighty improvisation, an attempt to salvage what would have been, pre-Birth, a more-than-acceptable little picture, turning it eventually into the sort of spectacle he—and the public—expected of America’s premier director. Yet there were distractions beyond those involved with the release of, and the continuing controversy over Birth with which to contend. He could not fully turn his attention to the business of recasting The Mother and the Law in grander form until the fall of 1915.

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

The end …

Sometime in the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was seized by an agonizing pain. He staggered from his rooms to the lobby of his hotel, where he asked for help and then collapsed. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was taken to the Temple Hospital in Hollywood, and his nearest kin, his nephew, Willard, and his niece, Ruth, were summoned to his bedside. He did not regain consciousness and he was pronounced dead at eight twenty-four the next morning.

David Griffith Dies
David Griffith Dies

Only a few people called at the funeral parlor where he lay in state, and the only famous one to do so was Cecil B. DeMille. The rest of the industry would wait for the formal services on the twenty-seventh. These were held at the Hollywood Masonic Temple. The friends were there, and many who owed the beginnings of their careers to him. Some, like Searle Dawley and Lionel Barrymore, Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, went back to the Biograph and before with him; some, like Richard Barthelmess and Walter Huston, entered his chronicle later; some, like Raoul Walsh and von Stroheim, had been at his side when he was defining the nature of the director’s art on the job, on the set. Some, like Walter Wanger and Jesse Lasky, might not have been entirely welcome on this occasion had Griffith had anything to say about it. Some, like Herb Sterne, avoided the company of such other honorary pallbearers as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn because they could have given Griffith something to do with his final years and did not. But if any were needed, the proof that the history of his life was the history of the movies in America up to then was gathered here.

Death Takes DW Griffith
Death Takes DW Griffith

The floral tributes were heaped high around the casket. Members of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir were observed by early comers to be giggling as they rehearsed their hymns. As the time for the service drew near, only about half the seats in the auditorium were filled, so the crowd that had gathered outside to watch the celebrities come and go—as if this were a premiere and not an ending—was invited in to fill the empty places. The occasion struck Gerrit Lloyd as cold, perhaps in part because one of the two eulogists, Charles Brackett, the screenwriter who was serving a term as president of the Motion Picture Academy, had never known Griffith. He found it difficult to achieve the right tone, veering from the emptily melodramatic (his last years were characterized as “a frenzied beating on the barred doors”) to the banal (“Griffith gave the public what it wanted”) to the “self-congratulator” (for Griffith’s honorary’ Academy Award ) . Overall, Jay Leyda, the film historian who was present, thought Brackett achieved, at best, “a polite note of regret.”

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

Donald Crisp did better, daring at least to chastize the film people for their neglect of Griffith. “It was the tragedy of his later years that this active, brilliant mind was given no chance to participate in the advancement of the industry. Difficult as it might be for him to have played a subordinate role, I do not believe that the fault was entirely his own. I cannot help feeling that there should always have been a place for him and his talents in motion pictures. . . .”

And then, as Leyda was to recall it, someone sobbed loudly, inarticulately. But it sounded as if he or she had cried out, Yes, yes—why not!” “This one note of genuine emotion overturned the passive insincerity of the occasion,” he wrote. When Crisp tried to go on, his voice broke, and as he struggled to regain control and proceed, “the emotions of the speaker and the audience were loosed and real”—until “the efficiency of the memorial service took over again, and the boys’ choir singing ‘Abide with Me’ drowned out the sobs.”

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

And then it was over. Griffith’s remains were flown home to Kentucky, where he was buried in the graveyard beside the Mount Tabor Methodist Church, where his family had worshiped when he was a boy. A rail fence, said to have been created from wood taken from the Griffith farm, surrounds the gravesite, which has been marked, since 1950, by a stone contributed by the Directors Guild of America, and bearing its insignia. The fence is rough-hewn; the stone is sleek. The congruence of the nostalgic and the modeme is curious but somehow correct. They are like the elements in a simple montage, resonating to each other, suggesting by their juxtaposition fleeting metaphors, hints of meanings, greater than the sum of those elements. We have new ways of seeing and thinking and perhaps even being which literally did not exist until the man who lies buried here began his work. And began that chain of artistic invention which has enabled us to see the world through fresh eyes, in a new light.

Admin note: Given the number of pages (680), only some fragments were placed in this web presentation. The titles used as separators, are not part of Mr. Richard Shickel’s original work. Thus, the web article is altered. Thank you for your understanding.

D.W. Griffith : an American life
D.W. Griffith an American life – cover

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Griffith’s Cameraman, Billy Bitzer – An Interview by Beaumont Newhall (1965)

D.W. Griffith, American Film Master – by Iris Barry (MoMa 1965)

Billy Bitzer cca 1919
Billy Bitzer cca 1919

Griffith’s Cameraman, Billy Bitzer

An Interview by Beaumont Newhall

When Griffith joined Biograph he was fortunate to find in the studio G. W. Bitzer, who had been with the company since 1896, first as electrician, but soon as a jack-of-all-trades —cameraman, property man, scenic designer and director. The two at once became companions, and for sixteen years Bitzer almost single-handedly realized on film the action that Griffith directed. They worked together so closely that it is virtually impossible to separate their technical contributions.

Bitzer, when interviewed in 1940, vividly recalled this remarkable teamwork. His mechanical ingenuity enabled him to realize some of Griffith’s revolutionary ideas. But Bitzer remembered with humor that some of the devices Griffith used so effectively were stumbled upon by accident.

The Studio on Fourteenth Street (Billy Bitzer Story)
The Studio on Fourteenth Street (Billy Bitzer Story)

The Mutograph camera used by Biograph in the early 1900’s was a clumsy instrument. One of its great drawbacks was that film could not be re-rolled for a double exposure. This meant that the company could not make trick films, which were then very popular. Perhaps this purely mechanical deficiency of equipment made Griffith’s ideas particularly attractive to the Biograph financiers, for it offered them a way to meet competition through novelty. Bitzer recollects that this camera was used for a long time in the Biograph studio. It could be driven by hand or by a motor. Raw film, without the familiar marginal perforations of today, was put into the camera; during the shooting two holes per frame were punched out, and the celluloid disks fell through the bottom of the camera case onto the ground in a steady stream.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

Bitzer could easily duplicate a camera set-up by putting his tripod over the little pile of celluloid disks. Static electricity, generated by the friction feed of the film, caused trouble; to overcome it the interior of the camera was heated with a shielded bicycle lamp which burned alcohol. But in cold weather, when static was most severe, the heat brought fur ther trouble—condensation on the lens. The film scratched easily, and these scratches showed up so prominently in sky areas that it was necessary to exclude as much sky as possible in the composition of the shots. Yet out of this crude equip ment came some of the finest photography seen on the screen, and the catalog of innovations is staggering. Many of these innovations began as accidents which Bitzer turned into practical techniques. A less imaginative and courageous director than Griffith would have hesitated to recognize their esthetic and dramatic value. This is not the place to discuss priority; the importance of these devices lies in their functional, almost automatic, origin and in their brilliant exploitation.

DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)
DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)

Slow film which is “unbacked” —which has not been coated with an opaque light-absorbing substance on its re verse side—is prone to exaggerate highlights in a most distressing way. Points of light seem to spread and to eat up adjacent darker details. This halation can be partially pre vented by shading the lens with a tubular hood. Photographing one day by electric light in his basement, Bitzer improvised such a lens hood from an old glue pot. The results were fine, so fine that he took his home-made gadget on location. But when the film was processed the corners of each frame appeared rounded olf in darkness. Bitzer had forgotten an elementary optical fact—that the iris diaphragm in the lens which controls the amount of light falling on the film also affects the focus. Like the human eye, the iris of the camera eye is wide open in dim light and constricted in bright light. Objects near and far are sharp when the camera iris is small. Inadvertently, by closing the camera iris to the small diameter demanded by brilliant sunlight, Bitzer had brought the end of his lens hood into focus. When Griffith saw the projected film he was far from disappointed. “He got very excited,” Bitzer told the writer, “and asked me how I’d got ten the new effect. I said that I’d been working on it quietly for the last six months !”


The logical step was to contrive a lens hood which could be adjusted to give more pronounced effects. A large iris diaphragm from a still camera was added to the hood. To adjust it more easily a handle was fastened to the flimsy setting. This led to another accident. During the shooting the weight of the handle closed the iris gradually; the dark corners of the frame grew until the image was entirely blotted out. Again technical failure resulted in recognition by Griffith of a new device, the fade-out. “This was just what we needed,” pointed out Bitzer. “The climax of all these films was the kiss. We couldn’t linger over the embrace, for then yokels in the audience would make cat-calls. We couldn’t cut abruptly—that would be crude. The fade-out gave a really dignified touch; we didn’t have a five-cent movie any more.”

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

But the vignette mask was not always satisfactory; it cut out part of the scene. To subdue the corners of the frame and direct the eye towards the principal action the gauze mask was developed —simply a couple of layers of black chiffon fastened over the hood with a rubber band. Holes were burned in the gauze with the end of a cigarette where the image detail should be distinct. Further experiments were made with iris diaphragms made of translucent celluloid, with graduated filters and with “barn doors” —a box with four sliding members which could be pushed in at will to change the rectangular proportions of the frame. The front of Bitzer’s camera became notorious, and rival cameramen would bribe actors to give them detailed reports on his latest gadget.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

Bitzer claims that the birth of a nation was shot with just one camera. It seems incredible, but the program credit bears him out. “It was a $300 Pathe machine,” he reminisced, “with a 3.3 two-inch lens interchangeable with a wide-angle lens— that is, you had to screw one out and screw the other into its place. None of your turrets like they have today, where the cameraman presses a button and the six-inch lens pops into place! It was a light camera, and it was easy to pick it up and come forward for a close-up, back for a long shot, around for a side angle. But there were times when I wished that Mr. Griffith wouldn’t depend on me so much, especially in battle scenes. After all, a fellow doesn’t want to spend all his time in dusty California adobe trenches. The fireworks man shooting smoke bombs over the camera—most of them exploding outside the camera range and D. W. shouting ‘Lower, lower, can’t you shoot those damn bombs lower?’ ‘We’ll hit the cameraman if we do,’ answered the fireworks brigade, and bang!, one of them whizzed past my ear. The next one may have gone between my legs for all I knew. But the bombs were coming into the camera field so it was O.K.

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

“All we had was orthochromatic film. Perhaps this old stock with its limited range of tones really helped the Birth of a  Nation photography —it sort of dated the period not only in the battle scenes but in the historical events like Lee’s surrender.”


This realistic quality has often been remarked. Individual shots have been compared to Brady’s Civil War photographs. The similarity is not accidental, for Bitzer, bribing a librarian with a box of chocolates, got hold of some photographic copies of the famous Civil War series for Griffith’s use. Be sides the quality of the slow orthochromatic film, light played a very important part in the picture. Daylight was used exclusively in the Birth of a Nation, except in the night shots lighted by flares. Throughout his career Bitzer has used daring lighting, even to the extreme of allowing light to fall directly on the lens. Reflectors were used to soften shadows, bringing out their detail, but always in a subdued way so that their presence is unnoticed in the film. These reflectors were soft —they were of cloth, not casting the harsh light of a polished metal, tin-foil or other “hard” reflector. Bitzer likes to tell about how he stumbled on back, or reverse, lighting. During a lunch hour on Fort Lee location he playfully turned his lens on Mary Pickford and Owen Moore as they were eating sandwiches, and ground out a few feet of film without their knowledge. The two were between the camera and the sun, but Bitzer went ahead—after all, the sequence was intended only as a joke, to liven up the projection room audience. Enough light happened to be reflected into their faces to hold the detail, and when it was screened Griffith was more than amused—since it indicated a new approach to lighting.

Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer
Gregory Peck and Berndt with Pathe Camera once owned by Billy Bitzer

Fate had not dealt kindly with Billy Bitzer when we inter viewed him at the request of Iris Barry eight years before his death. He was no longer a working cinematographer and his contribution to our film heritage was then hardly known. We shall ever remember his pride of craftsmanship and his affection for ‘D.W.” His pioneer achievements rank among the most significant and remarkable in film history. (Beaumont Newhall)

Billy Bitzer cca 1916

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Griffith in the Twenties – (Orphans of the Storm) – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

Griffith in the Twenties

(Orphans of the Storm)

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

The Twenties began with D. W. Griffith apparently firmly in command of his position as both master innovator and master showman. Broken Blossoms and Way Down East had both been highly profitable, and he had moved from Hollywood to the East Coast, where in his new Mamaroneck Studios he was presumed to have both artistic and economic freedom.

Mamaroneck – Sets for Orphans of the Storm

Unfortunately, Griffith made his move—an expensive one—at a time when the film industry was undergoing radical changes and when audience demands were making a great shift because of the new sophistication of the post-war years. Griffith had no sympathy with this change. He doubtless felt that it was of a transient nature, and that audiences would swing back again to the kinds of films he had always made and intended to go on making. It was a major error in gauging audience taste—which made it an equally major business error. Griffith had never been a good businessman, nor had he any real interest in amassing profits—except to pour them back into making more films. Moreover, with some justification, he had a certain amount of vanity in his make-up. He knew what he had done for the movies; his name was always used in the advertisements as the major guarantee of quality and prestige. His optimism, based on faith in his own ability and the power of his name, caused him to continue operations and to pay for his new studio with a series of bank loans. By the early twenties, he was so heavily in debt to the banks that only an unbroken string of successes could have rescued him. The amount of indebtedness was so great that total ownership and control of his films virtually slipped through his fingers. If he defaulted on payments or failed to finish a film by a given time, the banks had the right to take over, and to change or finish the film in any way they saw fit in order to salvage their investments. The only positive aspect of all of these complicated financial dealings was that the negatives of the Griffith films became tangible physical assets and were protected far more carefully than they might have been had Griffith been in better financial health or working as a contract director for a major studio. Through the care given them for purely financial reasons, all but four of the Griffith films did survive.

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 …

It was against this background, and needing a solid commercial hit to sustain the success of Way Down East, that Griffith in 1921 launched Orphans of the Storm. Like Way Down East, it was based on an old barnstormer of a play The Two Orphans. Griffith liked the basic theme but thought it was too mild to stand unsupported. So he plunged it wholesale into a story of the French Revolution, weaving its fictional characters into actual events and bringing them into contact with Danton, Robespierre, and other historical figures. When the film opened with a grand-scale premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Arthur James, editor-in-chief of The Moving Picture World, wrote an unprecedented full-page editorial rave (quite separate from the publication’s equally enthusiastic regular review), which was headed “Mr. Griffith Rises to a Dizzy Height” and said, in part:

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

It is a triumph for D. W. Griffith to eclipse his own great productions which led the screen into new and finer realms, but with this picture he has succeeded in doing it. No more gorgeous thing has ever been offered on the screen. It has motion within motion, action upon action, and it builds up to crashing climaxes with all that superb definition which makes Mr. Griffith first and always the showman. No man of the stage or screen understands so well the art of exquisite torture for his spectators. He takes their heartstrings, one by one, then stretches them out until they are about to snap, ties little bowknots in them, and finally seizes them by handfuls and twists them until they quiver in agony. Then he applies myrrh and aloes and sweet inguents and sends the spectators away happy in the memory of attractive sufferings that they can never forget. His detail is perfection, and its grandeur is the sum total of many perfections. Its massed scenes surpass the greater of the European spectacles thus far of record. The rest of the press responded with like enthusiasm. The Motion Picture News stated: “The standard bearer of the celluloid drama has again demonstrated that he has no superior as a painter of rich and panoramic canvasses,” while the Exhibitors Trade Review remarked, “A great work of art. It has the sweep of The Birth of a Nation, the remarkable tragic drive of Broken Blossoms, the terrific melodramatic appeal of Way Down East, and a warning written in fire and spoken in thunder for all Americans to heed.”

While time and perspective must convince us that Orphans of the Storm is a lesser film than The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, the reviews at the time were quite genuine in feeling that it was Griffith’s finest work. The lay press was equally enthusiastic, and the above reviews from the trade press are cited only because they definitely represent trade opinion. Exhibitors looked to Griffith for certain profits; producers regarded him as a prestigious figure-head for their industry; directors either learned from him or stole from him. Within just a few years, however, the trade would reverse these accolades, and their criticism of Griffith would be equally unrestrained. Griffith appeared at the premiere and spoke at some length to the audience. Stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, seated in a proscenium box, also greeted the audience, and Lillian made a speech following the screening. It was a gala affair, but a good deal of its thunder was stolen by Universal’s ballyhoo for Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. This film had received so much exploitation during the preceding months, and had already earned a great deal of word-of-mouth notoriety even before the preview, so that it was very much the film event of January 1922. Its premiere, attended by scores of notables, was set for a week after that of Orphans of the Storm, and it stole most of the limelight. Coincident with Griffith’s premiere. First National suddenly released an Italian version of The Two Orphans. With brazen effrontery, they pointed out to exhibitors that audiences were clamoring for this kind of film, and they even billed it as “The production with a million dollars’ worth of publicity behind it.”

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

While it did well, Orphans of the Storm was not the box-office blockbuster that Griffith expected, and needed badly. Because it was neither a financial landmark nor an aesthetic advance over his previous films, it is usually dismissed far too casually by most historians ( even the few responsible ones) as representing “Griffith in decline”—a most unfair and inaccurate generalization. The “decline” of Griffith has been dated from any number of periods, depending on the “historian,” his knowledge of film, and most influential of all, his dislike of Griffith. Some historians would even have us believe that the decline began with A Corner in Wheat ( 1909). Decline inevitably occurred, but much later, and not necessarily for the reasons usually cited. Of course, all film-makers tend to decline in their later years. Even Charles Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who were never forced to surrender their freedom and adapt to studio contractual requirements (as Griffith was), were unable to keep their later films from representing a decline from their creative peaks. At worst, Orphans of the Storm can be said to represent Griffith the artist-showman rather than Griffith the artist-innovator. Here the old maestro was out primarily to make a good picture that was also a “money” picture. To this end, he studied audience reaction carefully in its initial New York run and made several changes—deleting some of the more physically harrowing scenes (close-ups of rats crawling over Dorothy Gish, detail shots in the execution scenes), reviving Frank Puglia from an apparent death scene to take part in an happy ending tableau, and, more ill-advisedly, building up the comedy footage of Creighton Hale.

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

However, such commercial considerations in Orphans of the Storm were backed by all the technical mastery that Griffith had achieved in the preceding years. If there were no new innovations, the old ones were re-employed, polished, and developed. The detail shots in the battle scenes (troops moving into formation, close-ups of pistols being loaded and fired ) gave them a documentary quality which made them explicable as well as exciting. The notable lack of such shots (or even of many close-ups ) in the similar battle scenes in Rex Ingram’s Scaramouche a year later was one of the major factors contributing to the surprising dullness of those otherwise spectacular scenes. Griffith’s frequent habit of “pulling back” from the action—to view a battle as framed through the draperies of a window—literally made the audience a spectator through a window on history. The fast, rhythmic editing in the bacchanal sequence, as the prisoners were released from the Bastille, smoothly intercutting brief and increasingly large shots with moving camera shots that always cut oflf just before one had time to absorb them fully, was one of the finest episodes ever created by Griffith.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …

It was a tremendously exciting sequence, quite superior to the more famous machine-gun sequence in Eisenstein’s much-later October—a dazzling sequence certainly, but a mechanical and contrived one. Its fast cutting was functionally creative in that it intensified the emotions of the spectator, but it was dramatically far less honest than the cutting of Griffith’s bachannal. And if the climatic mob scenes and the race of Danton’s troops through the streets seem to be a repetition of the climax of The Birth of a Nation, what wonderful repetition it is—especially since it had to be shot entirely in the studio at Mamaroneck, with a greater stress on low-angled shots and a tighter cutting pattern to create the illusion of a mad dash through all of Paris instead of past the relatively few street sets that Griffith had constructed. Next to Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm is Griffith’s biggest spectacle, though its large sets are not always generously served by the fickle sunshine.

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

Some of the biggest scenes of the film’s climax were shot on a weekend, the only time when Griffith could enlist all the locals as extras. On those occasions the sun resolutely refused to shine, resulting in a downcast atmosphere from which it was impossible to extract the brightly-lit clarity that Griffith wanted. An MGM unit would merely have scrapped the day’s work and reassembled the unit when the sun was shining. Griffith, however, without outside backing and faced with the enormous upkeep of his studio, could not afford such a luxury. In any case, the excitement of these climactic episodes is such that nature’s uncooperative attitude was probably not even that apparent.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

Having made the decision to fuse the old Italian stage (and screen) perennial with the new blood of the French Revolution, Griffith as usual went whole hog, re-creating many actual events and characters, and utilizing his beloved “historical facsimilies” based on old paintings or engravings. Authorities in both this country and France were called upon for advice, and the works of such noted historians as Paine, Guizot, and Abbott were consulted. Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution was, however, the Bible of the whole venture. Lillian Gish has remarked that every leading member of the cast had a copy of it and read it from cover to cover until they were thoroughly imbued with the proper sense of period. Another book that Griffith turned to often was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Several reviews of the time added an erroneous credit by listing the film as being “based on the novel by Dickens.” Dickens was a great personal friend of Carlyle and drew most of his research material from him, including the incident of the Marquis’ carriage killing the child and his inquiry after the welfare of the horses. This incident, used both by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities and by Griffith in his film, was later picked up by MGM in their sound version of A Tale of Two Cities and was obviously modeled on Griffith’s staging of it. Dickens’ peculiarly cinematic style, with parallel plots and a form of cross-cutting, and a rich bravura that excused the excesses of coincidence, had always fascinated Griffith, who admitted Dickens’ influence quite openly. This influence affected not only the dramatic structure of Griffith’s films but also the content. It may have been the strong flavor of Dickens in so many of the Griffith films that caused him to be widely dismissed as Victorian and old fashioned.

It may, admittedly, make moments of Orphans of the Storm seem a little quaint. For example, Griffith seems less worried about Lillian Gish’s being unjustly thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge by the aristocrats than he is by “the greater injustice” that has her sent to the prison for fallen women. There is a delightful moment later in the film when Robespierre reminds her of this prison sentence; as Sartov catches her in a lovely and innocent close-up, Lillian admits it and says, in title, “Yes, monsieur—but I was not guilty.” However, there is a major difference between injecting a Victorian flavor (which Griffith did well ) and propagating Victorian morality ( which he decidedly did not). It’s odd that Orphans of the Storm should often be called “old-fashioned,” while such accusations were never leveled against Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Henry King’s Romola. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a good if stilted and over-measured film, while Romola was visually superb but dramatically mediocre. Both had Dickensian plots, and structures that would have delighted Griffith—parallel plots, class conflicts, dramatic separations, and personal stories set against turbulent historical backgrounds. What both films lacked, in addition to keeping these diverse elements closely woven, was sweep, passion, the surge of history, and (Chaney’s performance excepted in the Hunchback) life-size emotion. Griffith could have worked wonders with both films; Romola, especially, needed him badly.

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

Griffith’s detractors who assail Orphans of the Storm for being out of date are baffled when confronted with the film’s political content and usually choose to ignore it completely. Griffith had never made any secret of his opposition to “kingly tyrannies,” and Orphans of the Storm not only afforded him the luxury of dramatizing his views but also gave him the chance to attack something he felt even more strongly about—Bolshevism. His original synopsis for the film read, in part:

. . . scenes are shown of the exaggerated luxury of those last days of the tottering omnipotence of the monarchy. The orgies and tyrannies of a section of the old French aristocracy is shown as it affects the common people. . . . Then comes the rolling of the ‘Ca Ira,’ the crashing of the Marseillaise, and the madness which we now call Bolshevism. Orphans of the Storm shows more vividly than any book of history can tell that the tyranny of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but that the tyranny of the mob under blood-lusting rulers is intolerable. The opening titles of Orphans of the Storm were climaxed by this still very timely line: “We in the United States with a democratic government should beware lest we mistake traitors and fanatics for patriots, and replace law and order with anarchy and bolshevism.” Later in 1922, Griffith, referring to Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, stated: “Robespierre uses it as a weapon for destroying all who do not think as he does. This condition was not unlike that in Russia today. Some may see in it a lesson for our own people. . . .

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

As with all of Griffith’s historical epics, in Orphan of the Storm, every effort was made to document the facts and episodes presented. Thus, any errors were usually deliberate errors of omission, committed in the name of showmanship or dramatic license. For instance, one gets the impression at the end of the film that the French Revolution is all but over, and since Danton is one of the heroes of the film, no mention is made of his own subsequent execution. When Lillian Gish is rescued from the guillotine, the scores of other poor aristocrats denied a last minute rescue are conveniently irised-out, and the fact that the Reign of Terror is still very much in progress is somehow lost. But for the most part, the film remains remarkably factual, even to details. During the carmagnole orgy scene, the original musical score for the film featured “Ca Ira,” the frenzied tune sung by the Paris hoodlums of the time. ( The score was arranged by Albert Pesce. ) Griffith also made a point of stressing Robespierre’s effeminate, mincing walk. (Griffith’s titles term him “the original pussy-footer!” ) Like all of the big Griffith films, Orphans of the Storm was shot without any scenario, but was rehearsed carefully in advance. Lillian Gish has mentioned that most of the rehearsals took place in the New York theater still housing the successful run of Way Down East—and that the only written word referred to was Carlyle’s history. Much of the dialogue that was improvised in the course of these rehearsals was remembered, and later incorporated into the titles of the film.

Orphans of The Storm Lillian Gish 2 Mamaroneck X

Way Down East, made in 1920, had been a fife-saver for Griffith—and still was. The overhead of the new Mamaroneck studios was enormous, especially for an individual producer-director making as few films as Griffith. The popular Richard Barthelmess had been on salary for a long time after his last completed film for Griffith, and finally left to form his own company. Dream Street, a very pretentious pseudo-Broken Blossoms, was doing poorly, and receipts were negligible.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish - Orphans - Vanity Fair November 1921
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – Orphans – Vanity Fair November 1921

( Strangely, despite its “arty” flavor, it was well-liked by exhibitors—but not by audiences. ) The receipts from Way Down East had to support Griffith, maintain his studio, pay his salaries, and help pay for Orphans of the Storm too. Because of this, and because it was such a popular film, Griffith raised the rental rates on Way Down East, thereby losing good will among exhibitors, which, in turn, at least, partially accounted for the disappointing returns on Orphans of the Storm.

Orphans of The Storm Lillian Gish Trial X

Other factors were involved, too. Audiences of the early 1920’s were turning cynical and jaded; they were getting caught up in the jazzy and increasingly superficial tempo of the times. And they wanted films that reflected those times. Films like Orphans of the Storm, which dramatized what are loosely termed “the old values,” were considered far more out-of-date then than they would be even today. By 1922 this attitude was only beginning to develop. But by 1924 it was in full bloom, and thus audiences had no time for Griffith’s sincere patriotism in America, which dealt with the Revolutionary War. They turned instead to the slick, jazz-oriented films of the day—the kinds of films that Griffith himself had no interest in, but was finally compelled to make, merely to keep active—but not before one last grand, disastrous, and wonderful essay in real film-making: Isn’t Life Wonderful?

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo

Another factor contributing to the disappointing performance of Orphans of the Storm was probably its lack of a strong, popular male star. Initially Griffith had planned to use Barthelmess, who, though unsuited to the role of the aristocratic Chevalier, would certainly have been valuable box-offce insurance. While Joseph Schildkraut was fine in his first American film role, he lacked the virility and sincerity that Barthelmess would have provided. Dorothy Gish, a shrewd and witty observer, pointed out that, especially with the French period make-up, Schildkraut bore an uncanny resemblance to Priscilla Dean throughout the film, “and in the love scenes with Lillian, looked prettier than she did!” However, if there is one serious criticism that can be leveled against the film, it is the obtrusive comedy of Creighton Hale. Griffith, who never regarded one of his films as finished, and continued to tamper with them for revival showings years thereafter, added much of the Hale foolishness after the film was premiered, in the belief that it was needed to lighten the tension. Unfortunately, it became more than a device to pause and relieve tension. It was comedy relief for its own sake, foolish and unfunny, and injected right where it was least needed—in the middle of the escape from the Bastille!

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

Orphans of the Storm had a pronounced influence on the European spectacles that followed it, notably the French and German, but also, to a lesser degree, the Russian cinema. The famous use of what Seymour Stern has termed “symbolic space” when Griffith, to show omnipotent power, shows the Committee of Public Safety (photographed from above) in the center of a huge, cold, otherwise empty room, was copied intact by Eisenstein in October to show Kerensky installing himself in the Winter Palace. ( This symbolic shot was actually first devised by Griffith for use in a similar context in Intolerance. ) Pudovkin, too, appears to have borrowed from Orphans of the Storm just as he had earlier borrowed from Way Down East.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – the trial

It is a matter of some interest (and surprise) that Orphans of the Storm was the only Griffith historical spectacle without a villain. Robespierre, and the peasant-turned-judge, Jacques Forget-Not, fulfill all the functions of villainy, but because their transgressions have political and emotional rather than personal roots, Griffith tends to play down their melodramatics and lets them go unpunished at the end—save for a title referring to Robespierre’s own eventual execution. The lecherous Marquis, who, “inflamed by Henriette’s virginal beauty,” kidnaps her and thus separates her from the blind Louise, is a good heavy in the grand manner, but he acts mainly as a plot motivator and vanishes after the first third of the film. The same is true of Sheldon Lewis and the wonderful Lucille LaVerne, who give a couple of grand barnstorming performances, but whose unspeakable evil is unproductive of any real tragedy; they, too, escape without harm. If most of these comments have focused on the film rather than on its stars, it is because Orphans of the Storm is more notable as a Griffith than as a Gish film. This is not to minimize the lovely and sensitive performances of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, or the incredible compositions and lightings of cameraman Sartov, whose close-ups of Lillian have a radiance and beauty unsurpassed in any of her other films. As opposed to Way Down East and even Hearts of the World, acting opportunities in Orphans of the Storm are somewhat subordinated to the surge of melodrama.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Henriette and Louise (Orphans of The Storm)
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Henriette and Louise (Orphans of The Storm)

Sheer “trouping,” the maintenance of astonishing physical stamina, and the ability to look both fragile and lovely at all times are the main requirement of the roles of the orphans. When a chance arises for sensitivity, or for high-powered acting, it is seized avidly by both sisters. Especially memorable are the gracefully played scenes of the orphans’ departure for Paris, a charming little episode with touching pantomime and some especially lovely close-ups; and the still-poignant scenes in the climactic episodes, when the girls meet again at Henriette’s trial and are separated on the way to the guillotine.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish - departing to Paris - Orphans of the Storm
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – departing to Paris – Orphans of the Storm

One bravura sequence is the mid-picture reunion that doesn’t come off, with Lillian—hearing her blind sister singing in the street below and being led away—and being arrested, despite her protestations of innocence, before she has a chance to effect a rescue. Griffith never milked a non-action sequence for suspense quite as much as he did this one; indeed, both of the Gishes were of the opinion that it was much overdone. In normal context, it certainly would have been. Since it came immediately before the intermission, however, it must have provided an overpoweringly effective climax to the first half of the film.

Orphans - Chevalier March - Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters
Orphans – Chevalier March – Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters

Considering the enthusiastic reviews that it had garnered, the disappointing box-office performance of Orphans of the Storm must have been especially galling to Griffith. Even though not the box-office blockbuster he’d hoped for – it was not a failure, however. Thus it became somewhat of a landmark: it was the last Griffith film to be successful both artistically and commercially.

Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921
Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921

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The Cast - Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922
The Cast – Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922

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INTOLERANCE (American Silent Film – By William K. Everson, 1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

A Survey

Lonely Villa (1909)
Lonely Villa (1909) Biograph

As if aware that future chroniclers would want to deal in neatly packaged periods of time, with traceable progressions of titles and dates, the history of the motion picture conveniently managed to slice itself up into a series of ten-year dynasties. Moreover, it even had the foresight to see that its key innovations and structural changes occurred within the year prior to the beginning of a new decade—so that 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 could launch themselves without fumbling or hesitation, their new image already fully formed. We are perhaps too close to the fifties and sixties to extend that generalization to those years as well, but it is an uncanny coincidence that it was the ninth year of each preceding decade that produced the artistic, technological, or commercial developments that were to shape and dominate the coming ten years.

Griffith Early Biograph career
Griffith Early Biograph career

In 1909, two short films by David Wark Griffith—A Corner in Wheat (with its social criticism) and The Lonely Villa (with its advanced editing patterns)—laid the early blueprints for the full flowering of Griffith’s art with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance a few years later.

1929 was the year of the changeover to the sound film, a year in which a whole new grammar of film had to be evolved. And in 1939, following years of increasing Hays Office pandering to “family entertainment” and rigid adherence to Production Code rules, the movies suddenly took themselves in hand again.



Griffith’s own hopes and plans for a follow-up to The Birth of a Nation were never announced. That film had so wholly consumed his time and energies—not only in production but in the constant seeking out of new capital—that thoughts of the future could only be dreams rather than planned realities. Moreover, Griffith had no conception of the incredible financial success that awaited The Birth of a Nation. The possibilities of capitalizing on success were there, but so were the equally strong probabilities of having to retrench and recoup possible losses.

When Intolerance (1916) did emerge as the next Griffith film, it was the result not so much of a desire to top the spectacle of The Birth of a Nation as to provide a weapon against the critics of the Civil War film and to justify the movie medium’s right to freedom of expression by proving that with freedom came artistic expansion. Griffith described his conception: “The purpose of the production is to trace a universal theme through various episodes of the race’s history. Ancient, sacred, medieval and modern times are considered.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

Events are not set forth in their historical sequence or according to the accepted forms of dramatic construction, but as they might flash across a mind seeking to parallel the life of the different ages.”

As his base, Griffith took the already completed The Mother and the Law, a modern story with strong elements of social criticism, with Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, and Miriam Cooper in the leads. Started before The Birth of a Nation, it was—and is—one of Griffith’s most mature works, although it would not be seen separately from Intolerance until 1919. To this film, GriflBth added a story of ancient Babylon at the time of its overthrow by Cyrus the Persian; a story of France in the Middle Ages, climaxing with the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre engineered by Catherine de Medici; and a fourth story, utilized mainly for counterpoint, dealing with Christ and His crucifixion. This Biblical story was the shortest of the four, and unlike the Babylonian and French episodes, contained no fictional characters or elements interwoven with fact. All four stories were linked by the symbolic image of a woman (Lillian Gish) rocking a cradle, a visualization of Walt Whitman’s lines, “. . . out of the cradle endlessly rocking, Uniter of Here and Hereafter.”


Griffith further explained his method: “The stories will begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents will flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, and faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mighty river of expressed emotion.” While this analysis clearly and accurately describes the structure of the film, it is most hkely not Griffith’s own wording, though it is always ascribed to him. His prose was often clumsy and heavy-handed (though not without a certain rough-hewn poetry), so it seems dubious that he could, or would, have described such a monumental venture in such restrained terms. Almost certainly, his own description would have been more florid. The use of the river as a symbol was to remain a favorite device of his, to be returned to frequently in such films as The Greatest Question and Way Down East (both of 1920). Intolerance has been termed the movies’ only film fugue—which it probably is-and the only film capable of being regarded as a separate, independent work of art, comparable with the works of a Rodin, a Michelangelo, or a Beethoven. This latter summarization, though understandable at the point in film history at which it was made, is hardly supportable, since it implies the same artistic perfection ascribed to the works of painting or music with which it has been equated. While Intolerance is an innovative masterpiece, and in many ways one of the formal masterpieces of all cinema, it is still very much of a flawed masterpiece—a contradiction in terms that somehow seems justifiable in the world of film if not in the other arts.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

In terms of sheer size, scope, and the splendor of its sets. Intolerance has probably never been equalled. The huge Babylonian set sprawled over more than 250 acres of Hollywood at the junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards—a landmark later partially taken up (in the twenties) by the Charles Ray Studios, which eventually became the Monogram/ Allied Artists Studio and was finally turned into a television station. Much of the interior work was done at the old Fine Arts Studio, and stretches of studio wall and the studio gate can be seen in the industrial and strike sequences in the modem story. (The Fine Arts Studio was later absorbed into the Columbia Pictiu-es complex and eventually burned down.) Incredibly, the massive battle scenes (which include a couple of beheadings, one obviously “rigged,” the other less so ) were organized and staged without the participation of second unit directors or experienced stunt men, and despite all the carnage and the falls, no one was injured. But the physical size of the production is perhaps one of the least imposing of its many accomplishments. In terms of technique—both the innovations of Griffith and the mechanical means to implement those innovations—the film is a virtual textbook, containing forerunners of glass shots, an ingenious improvised camera crane which even foreshadowed the effects of the zoom lens in certain shots, the most sophisticated use yet of toning and tinting, coupled with mood lighting, for dramatic effect; some astonishingly “modern” performances, especially from Mae Marsh and Miriam Cooper; and, of course, a pattern of editing, or montage, which was to be of profound influence on the Soviet films of the twenties.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

Certainly the most astonishing, if not the most important, aspect of these innovations is that Griffith shot and cut the entire film instinctively, without recourse to either script or notes, and did it while maintaining his responsibilities as the third arm (the others: Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett) of the Triangle Studio, the new production/ distribution complex that Griffith had just joined as a partner. In 1916, the year of the release of Intolerance, Griffith was also responsible for the production of some fifty other full-length features, including a dozen Douglas Fairbanks films. Admittedly, in many cases his responsibility was limited to suggestions and decisions rather than physical participation; on the other hand, several Triangle releases of that year clearly show signs of his personal supervision. Hoodoo Ann, a charming Robert Harron-Mae Marsh romance, was even written by Griffith under the pseudonym Granville Warwick, and contained enough authentic Griffith touches to confirm his personal involvement in production. Any distractions from the task of conceiving and controlling a project such as Intolerance would be notable; the “distraction” of running a studio and providing a solid year’s output of films (many of them of real quality ) is almost inconceivable.


The editing of Intolerance, both cumulatively and within individual sequences, remains a tour de force. Griffith seems to have learned a great deal about the successful structuring of a film just by studying his own The Birth of a Nation, which started slowly and methodically, built to its first climax, relaxed, and then built to a second, greater, and more prolonged climax. Intolerance, though of the same length, rearranges the structuring to its advantage. It starts in the same methodical way, introducing its characters and establishing its theme. It withholds the Babylonian sequence until substantially into the early portion of the film, the size of its set—introduced via an iris from the bottom left of the screen, slowly opening to reveal the exterior walls of the city—renewing audience interest in a film that seemed to be taking its time getting down to business. (However, Griffith cannily still withheld the most overpowering shots of Babylon—those overhead shots taken both from a camera-crane and a moored balloon—until the bachannal sequence in the second half of the film, thus providing new visual thrills right after the midway battle sequence, when the audience must have assumed that the film had reached its spectacular zenith and was now being wrapped up.


Moreover, while The Birth of a Nation (perhaps of necessity, because of the chronological sequence of events) placed its slowest section at the beginning of the second half, spending some three reels establishing milieu and historical background before building to the second climax, Griffith, in Intolerance, places all of the historical and other background data in the early portion of the film. Thus, the first climax, of Babylon’s initial victory over Cyrus the Persian, comes two thirds of the way through the film. Part Two very quickly picks up the threads of all four stories, and within one reel marshals them into position for the bravura climax—some three reels of sustained action in which Griffith cuts from story to story and period to period with increasing rapidity, at first continuing to use the Woman Rocking the Cradle as a linking device, and then dispensing with her entirely so that all four stories erupt and pour across the screen simultaneously—cutting from long shot to long shot, from chariot wheels to train wheels, in a display of editing that could not have been more precise had it been mathematically planned on a story board.

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

No matter how many times one has seen Intolerance, these climactic reels leave one spent and exhausted. Even if one is able to detach oneself from emotional involvement, the sheer pace and fury of the images themselves is enervating. The three historical stories have tragic endings, the modern story a happy ending—though it is by no means predictable, and since the traditional “happy ending” is not yet a Hollywood formula in 1916, its outcome still engenders tremendous suspense, which Griffith milks to the last frame of the last shot. (Even when the pardon is clearly about to be granted, the executioners’ hands tremble as they hold their knives a fraction above the ropes that, when cut, will send the doomed man through the gallows’ trap door!)

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

Griffith’s epilogue, depicting a future Utopia in which wars will be no more, and wherein “flowery fields bloom in place of prison walls,” is a valid part of the film’s structure. Griffith believed in his message sincerely, and felt that the universal language of film could help to bring about such an enviable ( if unlikely ) world state. But regardless of the validity—or naivete—of his philosophy, one needs those few minutes of placid, ambiguous epilogue to unwind and regain one’s composure after such a sustained barrage on the senses and emotions.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

In the face of such a virtuoso piece of film-making—film-making that would be incredible today, if anyone had the vision and imagination to attempt it, but that was truly astounding for a period as early as 1916—and particularly in the face of its remarkable visual beauty (G. W. Bitzer again photographed, with Karl Brown as his assistant, and most of the big scenes were covered with only one camera), it is almost blasphemous to have to admit that this Bible of filmic grammar and technique has a lot of things wrong with it. Its initial problem is that, the French episode apart, it really has nothing to do with intolerance at all, and Griffith even seems subliminally aware of this by dragging the word in whenever he can to underline his theme. (The law court is referred to as “a sometimes House of Intolerance,” and the young husband sent to prison is “intolerated away for a term.”)

As in The Birth of a Nation, the treatment of history rarely admits that there could be two sides to any question. Statements from politicians and historical figures, often quite genuine, are occasionally presented out of context and their subtitles underlined, to stress their infallibility.


As in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith frequently injects his own editorializing into historical matter, giving the audience little opportunity—or time—to separate fact from opinion. Griffith’s handling of the Babylonian sequences is masterly. Remarkably little is known about that civilization, even less certainly in 1916 than today. Yet by using instinct and imagination, and by incorporating interesting, if not entirely relevant documenary data (“. . . to the Babylonians we owe the division of the hour into sixty minutes”), Griffith builds up an astonishingly convincing picture of Babylonian life.


( Showmanship was added to what little was known of Babylonian architecture and weaponry: the elephants, as a design motif on the walls, were an element added by Griffith, as was the decision to give the Babylonians a flamethrower to aid in their battle against the Persians.) We really get a sense of how Babylonian nobility and peasantry lived, loved, relaxed, and celebrated. Universalizing his fictional characters—giving his Babylonian heroine the coquettishness of a modern American girl, and having her worry about getting a new dress—made Griffith’s history warm, human, and somehow contemporary, while the tableau-like reenactments of actual events, and the frequent citing of historical authorities, gave it an underlying scholarship, too. But Griffith’s Babylon is just that, our limited knowledge of its history somewhat “revised” to support Griffith’s theme.


His nominal hero in this sequence, Belshazzar, is depicted as a democrat and a liberal thinker, unwilling to restrict his people’s liberty in any way. Yet in contemporary parlance, he would be considered something of a “swinger,” his Babylon not too far removed from Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus ripe for downfall. Conversely, Griffith’s villain, Cyrus the Persian, with his battle cry of “Kill! Kill! Kill! And to God the Glory!”, is depicted as a pure tyrant. Yet Cyrus was no more wholly evil than Belshazzar was wholly good, and in fact his conquest of Babylon brought with it many cultural advantages. Griffith’s casual use ol history for his own ends also leads to distortion in other ways: he quotes Hammurabi’s code of justice—”An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”—as though it were purely a code of vengeance, thus minimizing a remarkable early figure whose achievements included a school system, socialized medicine, a drainage system, and a sophisticated judicial procedure. While Intolerance has some brilliant performances, it also has some very bad ones. Josephine Crowell, who was so moving and restrained as Mrs. Cameron in The Birth of a Nation, is positively grotesque as Catherine de Medici—and the fault is Griffith’s as much as hers. In many ways, too, Intolerance is an untidy film, though this may be an unfair criticism since it obviously had to be edited quite ruthlessly to bring it down to its still substantial thirteen reels. Certain awkward pieces of cutting, or unexplained facial expressions, suddenly make sense when one sees The Mother and the Law or The Fall of Babylon**


in their full separate versions. For the most part, what Griffith was forced to excise teas extraneous, but its elimination nevertheless upset the editorial flow of the film. (When we first see the great gate of Imgur-Bel, we get quick flashes of the gate in operation, but each shot is too short, an upward pan obviously being cut off before its conclusion. Later, fairly lengthy discussions of religious freedom between Belshazzar and his High Priest are condensed to a quick exchange of glances, with no explanation as to why the High Priest is suddenly scowling and displeased.)


Many cuts may have been dictated by the inevitability of ultimate protest: at one time, for example, the financier was very clearly meant to be accepted as Rockefeller! And frames of the initial version of the film, deposited with the Library of Congress, indicate that some scenes were included solely for the opportunity they provided for Griffith to attack various forms of corruption and sexual depravity. Finally, well into the release of not only this but all of his films, Griffith was wont to tamper with his original editing. Even in the 1940’s, when much of his material was being revived theatrically, adverse audience reaction to a given scene would tell him that it was cut wrong—and up he would go to the projection booth to correct it! Many of the prints extant today may well have been tampered with by Griffith in just such a fashion, their “untidiness” due not to initial mistakes but to re-cutting four decades later. In many ways, however, Intolerance does represent the peak of Griffith’s editorial practices. Thereafter, vanity and lethargy combined to reduce the effectiveness of his cuts. His conception was often brilliant, but the execution frequently lazy. Apart from the overall conception of Intolerance, inevitably bound up with its editing patterns, individual sequences illustrate some of the most complex cutting seen in any film to that time. The murder sequence (Robert Harron fights with Walter Long after rescuing Mae Marsh; Miriam Cooper shoots Long from a ledge outside the window and escapes; Harron is arrested by the police) is an incredibly frenetic barrage of images, some of them of only a few frames’ duration, which must have proved as bewildering to 1916 audiences as it was to prove stimulating to Eisenstein and other Soviet directors.


The power of Griffith’s work, however, is such that one usually doesn’t notice the mistakes of the non-matching shots until one is intimately familiar with it. Historian Arthur Lennig made a minute study in 1975 of the three versions of The Mother and the Law, the modern story of Intolerance. First was the version shot in 1914; second, the partially revised version incorporated into Intolerance; third, the original but revised and partially re-shot version ultimately released on its own in 1919. Lennig was able not only to pinpoint the cunning disguise and re-use of sets within the film but also to note specific differences in sets, furniture, hair-styles, clothing, and even players. The final print constantly intercuts shots from all three versions, and even the “middle” cut, as represented by Intolerance, has some striking lapses in continuity. Yet until Lennig drew attention to them, these all passed unnoticed; and even knowing of them, the power of the film is still so great that one is unaware of them unless specifically looking for them. Not unexpectedly, Intolerance failed to duplicate the great popular success of The Birth of a Nation. Initial reviews, and box-office figures, were promising. But once away from the metropolitan centers, the film seemed to have little appeal. Not only were audiences confused by its style, but increasingly they disagreed with its pacifist message. More and more it seemed that America would be drawn into the First World War, and the gradually increasing number of “anti-Hun” melodramas excited audiences far more than this appeal for brotherly love and peace. Even the more substantial British success of the film was minimized by that country’s involvement in the war. The film’s failure consumed most of Griffith’s profits from The Birth of a Nation and caused him to re-trench and follow a policy that, alas, other directors of integrity, such as Erich von Stroheim, never had the acumen to emulate. Following Intolerance, Griffith reverted to smaller, safer pictures, regained the confidence of exhibitors, and replenished his bankroll. Then he launched himself into another purely artistic endeavor that he really did not expect would succeed (though surprisingly, Broken Blossoms did succeed), followed up with another commercial group spearheaded by Way Down East, experiment again with Dream Street, and reverted back to box-office material, all leading ultimately to his most uncompromising and least commercial film, Isn’t Life Wonderful? In 1924. Admittedly, Griffith’s “artistic” ventures were not always as successful as he hoped, nor was he always right in his commercial judgments, but such a pattern enabled him to direct prolifically for almost a full decade following The Birth of a Nation.


Intolerance was of even greater world-wide and long-term influence than The Birth of a Nation, though that influence was less obvious. The narrative structure and melodramatic content of The Birth of a Nation made it an easy prototype for ( among others ) westerns and war films. Griffith’s own Hearts of the World (1918) was virtually a remake of The Birth of a Nation transposed to World War I: the same family structure, the same separations and reunions, the same editing patterns. A brigade of French volunteers substituted for the Ku Klux Klan, and their leader again arrived in time to save Lillian Gish from rape at the hands of George Siegmann.


Intolerance on the other hand, excited the “intellectual” directors – George Pearson in England, Maurice Tourneur in America, Carl Dreyer in Denmark, Eisenstein in Russia, Raymond Bernard in France. With the war in progress, that influence was delayed in many cases for several years, and then (as in the case of Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book ) not seen by a large “popular” audience. But in America, one had a concrete example of the film’s impact on ( if not influence on ) routine commercial directors when Frank Lloyd’s A Tale of Two Cities (1917) based its attack on the Bastille very closely on Cyrus the Persian’s attack on Babylon, with many compositions and cuts duplicated completely. Apart from the influence of Intolerance on the many directors who worked on it as actors and assistant directors—W. S. Van Dyke, Elmer Clifton, Tod Browning, Lloyd Ingraham, and others—one may perhaps assume a certain input from Erich von Stroheim, who played a small role in the film and also acted as an assistant and a tenuous, nondefined kind of art director as well. The use of sexual symbolism in the modern sequence, and especially in the decor of the room occupied by the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), was not typical of Griffith, though it was in a sense an offshoot of the animal symbolism he had used in The Birth of a Nation. Yet such symbolism was to remain a permanent adjunct to Stroheim’s films, both in those he directed and those in which he merely acted, but under the guidance of directors who respected him and would frequently give him leeway to write and/ or design his own material. Much of the sexual symbolism in Intolerance reappears more than twenty years later as decor in Stroheim’s military apartment in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, as does the motif of “The Hopeful Geranium,” used in the same poignant and symbolic way in both the Griffith and Renoir films. It’s possible that Griffith thought of these things and rejected them for later use. It’s far more likely, however, that they were devised by Stroheim, approved by Griffith (who would not instinctively re-use something not his), and re-utilized in later years by Stroheim. The actual source is unimportant. What is important is that they appeared in Intolerance, further underscoring its status as a “source” film.

Love in the film - Mae Marsh (Intolerance - Modern Story)
Love in the film – Mae Marsh (Intolerance – Modern Story)

Within three years, Griffith had made two of the most important and influential films of all time, establishing himself as both the foremost commercial film-maker and the foremost artistic innovator, even though the second film could not support both titles. With these two films, America had also established itself beyond question as the leading filmmaking country in the world. With much of Europe at war, and most European film production at both an artistic and economic standstill because of it, America—and Hollywood, in particular—was in a unique position to take that leadership and march ahead to a position of complete supremacy in the film-making hierarchy.

* The Fall of Babylon was released as a separate feature in 1919, with all the deleted material, including one or two complete sets, not otherwise seen in Intolerance, restored. Since the film was now essentially an  entertainment’ and a “spectacular,” its unhappy ending was inappropriate, and Griffith shot additional footage to build up the romance between Constance Talmadge and Elmer Clifton, eliminate her death scene, and give them a happy future in exile “in distant Nineveh” ( which in actuality had been destroyed some 200 years earlier! ) . In the intervening years, Talmadge had become a big star, primarily in romantic comedy, and her added sophistication and grooming stressed rather clearly which scenes were old and which were new.

Intolerance (Triangle, 1916). Fine. Program 2

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Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978


Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)

As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.

The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 b
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 EU

Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.

They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.