Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen – 1927

Masters and Masterpieces of the Screen – 1927

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Will H Hays
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Will H Hays



ENTERTAINMENT is the moving picture’s primary purpose—its importance in that regard being measured only by the imperative necessity of entertainment of the people. Make no mistake about the importance of entertainment. Life and relaxation from life are the real essentials to human happiness. But the motion picture does not stop there. For two other great things are possible to the moving picture—It can and will instruct—a truly noble function. It brings the people of the earth to know each other—to understand; and when men understand they do not hate, and when they do not hate they do not make war.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 3
Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 3

Because of these diverse possibilities the moving picture business is a unique business, utterly different from any other business in the world. The making and displaying of motion pictures is, of course, a commercial enterprise. It must be, as every other business must be, in order to progress and endure. But the ware in which we deal is not a dead and inanimate thing, like a pair of shoes or a hat. Nor is it a few thousand feet of celluloid ribbon on which, with whatever skill we possess, we register a series of photographs. It is almost a living, breathing thing, with immeasurable influence upon the ideas and ideals, the customs and costumes, the hopes and the ambitions of countless millions of people. (No more potent factor extant wields quite the influence of the screen, excepting only the home and the church.) No story ever written for the screen is more dramatic than the story of the screen. Ever since the first moving picture was shown there has been a steady improvement in quality of production.

Comique Theatre (nickelodeon)

Just thirty years ago on Broadway at Thirty-fourth Street in New York, in Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, the first moving picture was shown publicly. It was a shuddering image of a serpentine dancer who waved yards of silk and it lasted a few seconds. Ten years ago the moving picture was still crude, with the nickelodeon built in the old store buildings, still predominating as the scene for its showing. To-day in this country alone 20,233 moving picture theaters provide amusement for 90,000,000 men, women and children each week. Approximately 235,000 persons are permanently employed and $125,000,000 was spent in 1925 in the production of 823 feature pictures and 20,150 short subjects, exclusive of the news reels. American pictures were shown in 70 countries and captions were translated into thirty-seven different languages. Some idea of the magnitude of the business is gained when I tell you that approximately 25,000 miles of motion picture film are handled, examined and stored, and shipped every day by the employees of exchanges of members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. Ownership of the industry rests in the hands of 59,157 different persons who own the 11,331,394 shares of stock listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In the early days, the industry was, to a degree at least, chaotic, even as the first photoplays were faulty in the light of present-day achievements. This is no longer true.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 1
Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 1

Indeed the progress of the moving picture as an art or as an industry is without analogy in either field. When dramatic art was a thousand years old its players were bedded in barns and spoke their lines in stable yards. Twelve years ago producers were startling the public by giving them their first views of stories that were more than two reels long. The quickest development has been in those phases more easily adaptable to the motion picture— photography, costuming, staging, lighting, construction of scenery, and acting. Nearly any unprejudiced student will say that the best acting in the theater to-day is found in motion pictures. The camera is pitiless. The actor cannot imitate— he must BE. The greatest actors are appearing in motion pictures. Not only the stars, but the player who has the smallest bit—are actors in the fullest sense of the word. They cast their spell by action—not by words or by a beautiful voice.

Regent Theatre NY
Regent Theatre NY

Motion picture producers are taking experienced writers into the studios and teaching them the technique of motion picture composition. Many of them have prospered. Actors, newspaper men, dramatists, stage directors, artists, photographers, men whose training would best make them adaptable for motion picture directing are being given every opportunity to learn this new art. Within the industry itself order has succeeded chaos and the industry is operating along the sound, common-sense lines which govern other great industries. In 1922 the men who make and distribute motion pictures associated themselves together to do jointly those things in which they are mutually interested, having as the chief purposes of such organization two great objectives—I quote verbatim from the articles of association filed at Albany, New York:

“To establish and maintain the highest possible moral and artistic standards of motion picture production, and develop the educational as well as the entertainment value and the general usefulness of the motion picture.”

Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 2
Masters and masterpieces of the screen : a comprehensive survey 2

With these purposes in mind, the industry has eliminated extravagance and mismanagement and become a substantial business enterprise, favored by bankers, praised by astute economists. Supplementing our own efforts to perfect the industrial conditions at the studios, we asked the Russell Sage Foundation to make a survey. This resulted in a recommendation for a free agency for the employment of the extras to supplement the agencies to which these extras were paying thousands of dollars every month. This was done. We inaugurated such a free employment agency this year, and during the first six months it provided positions for an average of 632 persons every day without any cost to them. Schools for child actors have been opened on the studio lots. Advertising and publicity are conducted on a plane in keeping with the high purposes of the industry to serve the public wisely and well. The producers have made possible the careful selection of submitted story-material and have been able to bring to the screen those themes it considers most fitting for picturization.

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911
Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911

Teaching films, which some day will occupy every classroom, are well on the way, as are pictures for the churches. The screen, moreover, has become the mirror of history and as if by thaumaturgical power has been able to breathe life into the past. In settling its trade disputes by arbitration, the industry, although one of the youngest in the world, has become preeminently the outstanding example of the use of arbitration in the business world. Last year 11,192 cases were arbitrated with seventeen only requiring the seventh arbitrator.

44th Street Theatre
44th Street Theatre

Everywhere moving pictures are bettering living conditions. Especially is this true of the small towns. No longer is the boy from the small town the butt of jokes because of his clothes. He knows how to dress and how to act in the company of any one. No longer does the girl wonder what the styles are going to be in the coming months, for she has seen on the screen styles direct from the fashion centers and she knows what to expect. Above this, is the realization that the imaginative powers of the world are being roused by the screen and that in many in whom such power has been dormant, imagination has been fed and stimulated for the first time. With increasing public appreciation, with added technical knowledge, and with continued striving after the best in art, the moving picture’s future becomes as far-flung as all the to-morrows. The motion picture to-day challenges the best in science and art, in literature and business, in religion and the humanities. It is drawing from every corner of the world the greatest artists and artisans to aid in its service to the world. Hollywood may be physically situated in this country, but it is an international enterprise. American films may predominate in every country of the world, but every country is contributing to them. Great numbers of those in the key creative positions are direct from supreme accomplishment in other countries. The artists who heretofore have been able to reach thousands can now with this new medium reach millions. This extension of possible service commands them. In another few years Hollywood may very well be the art center of the world. As the picture is the universal language, so will it be written for the universe. This opportunity measures our responsibility. The progress in motion pictures has been like an Arabian Nights story—yet tremendous new developments are now imminent. And its really great advancement is not in its commercial growth nor in its artistic progress, but in its movement as a mighty force in the lives of the people of the world—for their amusement, their instruction, their inspiration, and their understanding.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 presentation
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 presentation

A comprehensive survey of the Motion Pictures, from the early development to the present. The dramatic, artistic and educational phases; the outstanding successes and leading personalities. Being presented for the most part pictorially. A striking panorama of this dominant influence in modern life.

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


This unusual actress was developed by Griffith and had the part of Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” and the feminine lead in “Broken Blossoms.” She has since been starred and now appears in such productions as “La BohSme” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1896. Five feet four inches tall. Blonde hair and blue eyes.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Broken Blossoms
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Broken Blossoms

The Murderer Realizes His Position – “Broken Blossoms”

This amazingly beautiful picture was suggested by a story of the Limehouse District in London, by Thomas Burke. Mr. Griffith’s direction and the acting of Lillian Gish as the pitiful young girl, with that of Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman, and of Donald Crisp as the villain, make the picture far more important than the original story, as sometimes happens with true picture stuff.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Mourner - Broken Blossoms
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Mourner – Broken Blossoms

The Chief Mourner – “Broken Blossoms”

It is the Chinaman who has befriended her that avenges the dead child and takes her body to beautiful surroundings before he follows her in death. “Broken Blossoms” is one of the pictures little affected by age.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Scarlet Letter
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 Scarlet Letter

In The Stocks For Punishment-“The Scarlet Letter”

A scene from a new film version of Hawthorne’s classic, with Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne, Lars Hanson as the Reverend Dimmesdale, and Henry B. Walthall as the wronged and vindictive husband, Roger Prynne. The childhood scene here is a part of effectively produced atmosphere.

Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 cover
Masters and masterpieces of the screen 1927 cover

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WOMEN IN MOTION: Dance, Gesture and Spectacle in Film, 1900-1935 – by Elizabeth Ann Coffman (1995)   


Dance, Gesture and Spectacle in Film, 1900-1935

Elizabeth Ann Coffman 1995

A modern woman, filled with the modern spirit. . . . she is no virgin, silly and ignorant of her destiny; she is an experienced but pure woman, in rapid movement like the spirit of the age, with fluttering garments and streaming hair, striding forward. . . . That is our new divine image : the Modern . (Modernism – Malcolm Bradbury /James McFarlane)

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)




The emotional projection of the dancer is an extremely delicate matter, since the acting element of the dance art is not its dominant feature. It cannot be simply an abbreviated realism or it falls [short] of being either dancing or acting; nor can it be a wholly stylized concept without becoming lifeless and cold. It must be complete, compressed, refined, eloquent, but unobtrusive.  In the nineteenth century actors were taught balance and movement by dancing masters, so that a good deal of silent film behavior–with its air of grace and refinement, its flexibility and sentimental lyricism—seems vaguely related to classical ballet; thus Gish has an erect posture and a quality of delicacy mixed with strength that might have been learned in a dancing class. . . . Lillian Gish said once that she thought Dorothy Scarborough’s novel would make a perfect movie because “It was pure motion. “Victor Seastrom’s The Wind (1928) is also a perfect movie with which to develop a theory for reading gestural style in silent film because of the lack of much symbolic direction (there are very few intertitles) and the specific nature of Gish’s own performance style. The film opens with Lillian Gish’s character, Letty Mason, travelling on a train through a deserted Western landscape. Shots of Letty on the train are intercut with shots of the train in motion through the landscape. These shots of the landscape soon include indexical proof of the wind that whips up the desert sand, and deposits it in Letty’ s lap through the train window. Other shots within the interior of the train include glance/glance reverses between Letty and the male antagonist, Wirt Roddy. In a rather short period of time, Gish manages to portray a range of emotions that include nervousness, f lirtatiousness, and fear with only slight adjustments of her face and body.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind’s opening scene provides a metaphor that connects technology (the train and the camera) , the Western frontier (the desert and the wind), and the woman’s body (that attempts to negotiate these uncomfortable crossings) This important opening sequence establishes a relationship between Letty and the types of movement that act on her—the train that carries her, the wind that covers her, and the man who tries to seduce her. Wirt Roddy, who later rapes Letty and is then killed by her, says about the wind in this opening scene: “Day in, day out–whistlin’ and howlin’ — makes folks go crazy–especially women!” In this scene, one of the few where Gish reacts directly to language, Letty responds to Roddy ‘ s comments by making her eyes grow large and glazed, her lips part slightly in a typically melodramatic stare, shot in close-up. This look of fear appears on her face frequently throughout the film as she reacts to the forces that move her. Equally as expressive as her face, however, is Gish’s bodily movement, which responds to the force of the wind with a frenetic dance-like quality that sweeps Letty across the frame and back. Significantly, the quality of Gish’s movements begins to change as Letty takes a more active role in her environment.

Miss Lillian Gish - still frame (The Wind)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)

Because generalizing about film acting is such a slippery task, I wish to remain as textually and historically specific as possible. In other words, I am not assuming that the gestural style which I identify in The Wind appears in other Gish performances. However, it is my hope that other critics will corroborate the existence of the specific gestural phenomena that I find in The Wind in other texts of the period.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

How does bodily gesture signify in film? Trying to theorize how gesture communicates meaning has long been a difficult contradiction for philosophers and semioticians Since the early days of film, but especially by the 1920s, directors, actors, and physical culturalists published books on acting for the cinema. Recently, film theory has begun to acknowledge the impact of these early writings and manuals on changes in gestural styles in the cinema. However, most theories of gesture and acting have tended to view film acting in a rather linear fashion, projecting a fairly straight development from nineteenth century theatrical melodrama towards the more subtle or “realist” approach that cinematic framing seems to demand. Naremore continues to argue throughout his book, using Lillian Gish’s performance style as an example, that what at first glance may seem to conform to a “realist” aesthetic may, on closer inspection, turn out to be the result of a highly constructed and heavily symbolic performance.

Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish - The Wind)
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)

The theories of Soviet filmmakers, such as Lev Kuleshov and Stanislavsky, are helpful for understanding comparatively the complications of a gestural style which may purport to be one thing on paper and then look to be another thing entirely on film. Positions of these theorists help to elucidate the debate which developed in the 1920s throughout Europe and America and for the next several decades about the relative merits of a German expressionist style as opposed to the “nonacting” of certain American, Italian, and French films. Delsarte’s methodology was consistently associated with a more constructed, emotionally expressive acting style. Konstantin Stanislavsky is most known for developing “method” acting, a style which teaches actors to search their interior experience in order to become the character. The Method is supposed to be more realistic than earlier melodramatic methods because the actor is not trying to express an emotion, but is experiencing the emotion while portraying it, resulting in a transparent and less heavily coded style. Kuleshov disagreed with Stanislavsky’s approach, however, arguing that “one must construct the work of film actors so that it comprises the sum of organized movement, with ‘reliving’ held to a minimum.” Kuleshov, reflecting the Futurist influence which sees the body as a kind of machine, approaches the film set as a three dimensional grid. He theorizes an imaginary “metrical spatial web” within which the actor determines the direction and timing of their body. Kuleshov ‘s visualization of a symmetrically fragmented body was directly influenced by Delsarte’s work. In an echo of Delsarte’s ideas, Kuleshov says that a gestural “task should be broken down into a series of elementary, smaller tasks. ” But he warns that while Delsarte’s techniques are useful “as an inventory of the possible changes in the human mechanism, ” they are not finally useful as a method for acting. Even though Kuleshov rejected Stanislavsky’s approach to bodily performance, he still valued a “natural” or “realistic” acting style. In fact, he chides the Stanislavsky system for producing a large scale, melodramatic gestural style. The irony here is that the “method” claiming to be the most realistic turns out to look equally melodramatic on film. What develops out of these two dramatically different theories and training methods may result in performances which look remarkably the same.

The Wind

Another important development drawing upon Delsarte, which affects silent film performance style and Lillian Gish’s in particular, is the development of modern dance.

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan – Grande Marche

Isadora Duncan was the first to use Delsarte to make a transition from the salon to major performance halls. She, along with the choreographers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, added drama to ordinary movements and took what is now known as modern dance out of the salon and vaudeville acts and into the category of “high art.” These choreographers believed that “In everyday life as well as in the danced representation of life, interior feelings guided the movements of the body into forms that could be identified by the serious student of human movement.” Modern dancers in the United States concentrated on movement as a form of self expression and took their inspiration from “ordinary” movements, ethnic and native dance traditions, and theater.

Where she danced

Dancers such as St. Denis and Shawn firmly believed that the body has a language of its own, one that is more closely associated with music than with language, but one that nevertheless could express desire, regret, mourning, ecstasy, without the context of a narrative frame. A transformation of Delsarte was already apparent in the training that Ted Shawn, one of Gish’s teachers, developed out of Delsarte between 1905-1910. Shawn’s Delsarte training is not as formulaic as the histrionic style that Pearson identifies in 1908 in Biograph films. Shawn, in a 1910 book on Delsarte, contrasts his own interpretation of Delsarte influenced dance and gesture with other interpretations: One of the vital and important differences lies in the recognition of the torso as the source and main instrument of true emotional expression—and equally important, the use of successions, beginning in the torso and spreading outwards and downwards throughout the entire body.

Where she danced

Shawn describes a more fluid style of movement than Steele MacKaye’s or Genevieve Stebbins’s interpretation of Delsartean attitudes. MacKaye and Stebbins emphasized poses, rather than movement in time. The Delsarte influenced acting style that Pearson identifies as histrionic comes from an interpretation of Delsarte that emphasizes tableau and movements that lead from still pose to still pose. Ted Shawn is using Delsarte in a very different way; the torso generates movement that progresses through “the use of successions” that spread “throughout the entire body.” The torso is the seat of emotional expression and one key to a more fluid gestural style that remains expressive without looking “histrionic.” In the upcoming analysis of Lillian Gish’s movements, the fluid use of the torso will be an important distinguishing marker of a gestural style that reflects its exposure to modern dance.

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – by Dick Moore (1984)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Copyright © 1984

by Dick Moore.

“but don’t have sex or take the car”

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the c
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – Cover


At eleven months, I landed my first job. Most of my peers were three or four years old. Others were jobless until eight or ten. Some of us were local kids. Others descended on Hollywood from Detroit or Cleveland or London or Atlanta. A number spent several years developing their talents before tackling Hollywood. Usually, they took their families with them. In the main, we were Depression kids who supported our families, frequently our studios, occasionally the entire movie industry, and at least once—according to President Franklin Roosevelt—the nation. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple,” FDR reportedly said, “we will be all right.” The 1930s and early 1940s in America were a throwback to the Dickensian era a century earlier, when children were perceived as little adults. Important to Hollywood’s economy and to the public’s need for escape, each of us was a representation, a cliche: Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were irrepressible little adults who could accomplish more than real adults, and solve their problems.

Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple
Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple

Jane Withers was the tough kid who broke the rules; Elizabeth Taylor, the symbol of beauty and serene perfection; Jackie Coogan, the little ragamuffin who broke your heart; Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew expressed intelligence and refinement; Stymie of “Our Gang” was the little “pickaninny,” the only black among us; Spanky, the fat boy of the Gang, was intended to be laughed at. I was Dickie Moore, innocent and pure, who specialized in reconciling wayward parents and bringing enlightenment to folks like Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood stars were the closest thing to royalty America produced. So as children we tasted a life immensely privileged, but laced with deprivation. All of us were extraordinary people at a very early age. All of us shared common lives and times, huge responsibilities, and salaries that shriveled fathers’ egos. Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car - Dickie Moore
Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car – Dickie Moore

Fade In

Crisis gripped the set. The scene called for the actors to give the crying infant a bottle filled with wine. Mother hadn’t been aware of that. “You’re not going to give my little Dickie wine,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” the director said. “It’s only Coca-Cola. We wouldn’t give wine to a baby.”

“You’re not going to give him Coca-Cola, either. He’s only eleven months old,” said Mother.

So production stopped, one hundred people stood around on salary. Paralysis, Hollywood’s most dread disease, suddenly quarantined the set because Mother was protecting my digestion.

John Barrymore, star of the film, who just happened to be on the set that day (he wasn’t in this scene), came over to see what the commotion was about. He peered into the crib at me, the kid with the big brown eyes, then announced majestically, “Jesus Christ, it’s an owl!”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 5
dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish

Our Pay and What Happened to It

Money was the only reason that Lillian and Dorothy Gish—two of the most celebrated actresses ever to appear in theater and films—began acting as children. Tiny, delicate, astonishingly beautiful at eighty-eight, Lillian Gish poured tea for me in her New York apartment as she reminisced about her life when Theodore Roosevelt was President. To support the girls, their mother, who had never worked, got a job in a department store. “She gave Papa the money to pay the man when he came for the furniture we were buying on the installment plan. But he didn’t pay it, so she said, ‘Well, look, I can support three people, but I can’t support four. You go out and get a job, and when you can support us, you come back.’ ” Miss Gish spoke precisely.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

To supplement her earnings, her mother rented out the girls’ bedroom to two actresses, who encouraged her to try the stage. The Proctor’s Stock Company hired her as leading ingenue. An actress with a company that needed a four-year-old girl took Lillian with her on the road. Another actress took Dorothy. Each girl earned ten dollars a week; their mother, fifteen dollars. They saved enough to get them through the summer, when theaters closed; air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Came summer, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother visited Aunt Emily in Ohio: In Ohio, hotels had signs saying: “No actors or dogs allowed.” We asked Mother why. We thought actors were such nice people. Mother said it was because actors often got stranded and had no money to pay their hotel bills, so they slid down the water pipe at night and left without paying their bills.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

After I went into the movies, Griffith [D. W. Griffith, in whose films the Gish girls starred] ran out of money while we were filming Birth of a Nation. He had only fifty thousand dollars and the picture cost sixty-one thousand. We all worked without salary because we knew he was honest, and we wanted to help. Mother had saved three hundred, which was a fortune for us, and she went to Mr. Griffith and offered to put it into the picture. But he said, “No, I won’t take it. You might lose it all.” I earned a thousand a week in the movies. Mother said, “You think you’re getting a thousand a week? You’re getting fifty dollars, five percent. See that you live on that.” Mother put the rest away for us.

Jane Powell close up
Jane Powell close up

Sex Can Wait?

Marriage was a way for us to prove that we had grown up. Children don’t get married, right?

Wrong! But we didn’t know it then. Not surprisingly, nearly all of us entered into at least one marriage that failed: Jane Powell, Donald O’Connor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Gene Reynolds, Peggy Ann Garner, Bobs and Delmar Watson, Cora Sue Collins, Gloria Jean, Sidney Miller, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Stymie, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Kathleen Nolan, Ann Rutherford, Darryl Hickman, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Dean Stockwell, Spanky McFarland, Diana Cary, me. Mickey Rooney was married the first time when he was twentyone, to Ava Gardner. “I needed to be married like you need to paint Shea Stadium at midnight,” Mickey told me. “But I’m happy I did it, because it was part of growing up.” Lillian Gish is among a handful of former child stars who were never divorced. Miss Gish believes that “an actress shouldn’t ruin a good man’s life by marrying him,” so she never married anybody.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs. It was not that way for us. Homeroom was a clutch of tiny, sometimes solo classes strewn from Culver City to Burbank. Spelling and arithmetic spanned whole careers. Our lives touched each other’s, drew apart, touched again, receded—waves hissing on a beach. From Lillian Gish to Margaret O’Brien, ours was a class of intimate strangers bound by the common experience of being child stars.

Baby Peggy
Baby Peggy

Baby Peggy (her real name was Diana Cary) was, in the early 1920s, Hollywood’s first four-year-old self-made millionaire. Her parents probably hold the distinction of running through her money fastest. She was broke at six.

Jackie Coogan
Jackie Coogan

Then came Jackie Coogan, who shares with Shirley Temple the greatest, most enduring fame ever achieved by a child at any age at any time. He was the first child to be merchandised on a national scale. There were Jackie Coogan clothes, Jackie Coogan candy bars, toys—even a Jackie Coogan haircut, which, while copied around the world, could not command a royalty.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple

Shirley was the first child to carry the full weight of a talking, full-length, “A” picture on her small but willing shoulders. Her every motion picture was a “Shirley Temple picture.” It wasn’t just a film in which Shirley Temple starred. When I bestowed her first screen kiss, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world was watching—literally. The event was recorded on the front page of every major newspaper. My timid peck on her cheek was the symbolic loss of the world’s most beloved and famous child, the little girl whose energy, pluck, and irrepressible good cheer allowed folks to forget the Great Depression—at least for ninety minutes. There will never be another Shirley Temple. Today, there are kids who make a splash, but they will never command the lifelong recognition we still have. Their films are not rerun on television. The continuity of product isn’t there. And, in Jackie Coogan’s words, “There’s nothing charming about children anymore.” Our group is still around. Try today to track the people you shared first grade with. Most have evaporated, raindrops in a desert.

Perennially visible, we have no place to hide.

Shirley Temple Postcard
Shirley Temple Postcard

Fade Out

Life on the fast track is the seven o’clock news. When you’re the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another story breaks, you might as well be dead. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with you. Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so indispensable, until the director yells, “Cut!” and I am whisked into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?

Even on the set when two or three years old, I must somehow have been aware that this shattering contrast between darkness and spotlights was unnatural. But you can’t handle such emotions at so early an age. So, belatedly, I found myself fighting back the tears.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the car
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – back cover

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Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith – By HOWARD THOMPSON (New York Times – April 18, 1969)

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

New York Times – April 18, 1969

Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith


“Do you realize that film is our only native art form?” said Lillian Gish. “There’s jazz, of course, but that came from Africa. Film is the most powerful medium of communication in the world today.” At the age of 69, after 64 years of trouping on stage, screen and television, the actress speaks authoritatively. The energetic Miss Gish, who has two new projects under way, was speaking in her East Side apartment. “There’s a force and immediacy; about film today,” she continued, “almost like a car wreck.” Last night she appeared on the stage of Columbia University’s McMillin Theater as commentator for “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a new 90-minute program of screened excerpts from silent-film classics, Including highlights of her own career. Sponsored by the university’s School of the Arts, the event was a benefit for a scholarship fund commemorating D. W. Griffith, the pioneer director with whom Miss Gish was associated for nine years in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Way Down East.” She will tour with the program in the fall.

first time on lecture platform 1932

A Pair of Projects

On Sunday Miss Gish is to leave on a cross-country promotional tour for her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” which Prentice-Hall is publishing Monday. At the McMillin Theater at Broadway and 16th Street last night, more than 1,200 people saw and heard Miss Gish and her film compilation. Unruffled anticipation stood in contrast to the events at the adjacent Philosophy Hall, where rebel students had taken over the premises. In even further contrast were the spring-like, bower appointments in another nearby school building where a reception was being prepared for Miss Gish. The McMillin assembly included many young people as well as older spectators, among them Katharine Hepburn, Anita Loos, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley, Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote and Brooks Atkinson.

Uncle Toms Cabin Truck

A Standing Ovation

Davidson Taylor, director of the School of the Arts, introduced Miss Gish, after noting that Columbia was the first American university to offer a course in film. “We are here tonight because we love Lillian Gish,” he said. To a standing ovation, the actress appeared on the stage. Clad in a white, long-sleeved evening gown, she sat at a stage-left lectern and conversationally read a commentary on the screen cavalcade that flickered a few feet away, spanning 1900-1928, to a muted musical recording.

Miss Gish’s comments were informal, enlightening, witty and knowledgeable, and the responsive audience was entirely hers. Most of the segments, and the array of familiar faces from the past, drew applause, and often hearty chuckles, with the actress joining in. Of a bit from the primeval “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when a bloodhound repeatedly whisked past, Miss Gish said, “Three cuts of the same dog not much imagination there” and the audience laughed delightedly. She spoke fondly of her childhood friend Mary Pickford, shown angelically in “Mender of Nets,” and indicated the technical development of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, as an actor and in “Birth of a Nation” and “Way Pown East.”

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

These two lengthy excerpts, with the famous battle scenes and the homecoming sequence from the first, and Miss Gish’s sequence with a baby and her famous rescue from an icy river by Richard Barthelmess in the second picture, stole the show.

Like her audience, Miss Gish was carried away a bit with the realism of “Way Down East” as she hurtled toward the waterfall on an ice floe.

“Oh look,” she said, pointing, “there I am-that dark spot over there.”

After the applauded fadeout, she said, “I don’t know how Dick ever rescued me.”

More applause greeted Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in a scene from “Blood and Sand.” The siren gripped the bullfighter’s “arm of iron” and the actor rolled his eyes to the audience’s uncontrollable laughter, including that of Miss Gish. The auditorium lights brightened and Miss Gish drew another standing ovation from an audience that obviously wanted still more.


The Formative Years

At her apartment the other day, Miss Gish elaborated on her new activities: “The program at Columbia, which we’ve already tried out unofficially in several places, represents the industry as I knew it during those formative years when Griffith gave it form and grammar and punctuation,” she explained.

Near the actress in the elegant book-lined living room hung a huge oil painting ot the late, invalid mother she idolized. Miss Gish’s younger sister, Dorothy, with whom she rose to world renown in the Griffith features, died last vear .

Miss Gish, with her soft auburn hair, firm mouth and alert, friendly manner, is very much of the present.

“I have in there two letters I got today from two youngsters, 13 and 14, wanting to know how to get certain old films,” she said. “Today it’s the youngsters that are actually buying these old prints so they can study them-not just show ’em.

miss lillian gish in her new york apartment, photographed in 1972 by allan warren

“They’re also making their own movies. Isn’t that marvelous? They’re the ones who realize the lasting value of what people like Griffith and Chaplin and Keaton were doing. At first the kids used to follow me for autographs. Now it’s for information,” she beamed, her unlined face, with its pink complexion, remarkably the same as when it lighted the early screen with a girlish glow.

Director at the Center

Her book started 12 years ago with an idea proposed by Reader’s Digest then expanded under Miss Gish’s own pen during three Swiss vacations (“the same hotel, where nobody else spoke English”) and culminated in a collaboration with a professional writer, Ann Pinchot.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - 1930 detail — with Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish.

“It’s my own story,” she continued, “but Griffith is the center of it-with his innovative techniques of the camera, and all the heart, taste and feeling you don’t see in films today. I didn’t want the book to be just another exploitation book. I’ve read some of those,” she added wryly. “Colleen Moore’s is a delightful exception.”

Like many others, she concedes that movies today are primarily a director’s medium. “But back then they belonged to everybody involved. We were in everything-the writing, costumes, photography, even the editing,” said the actress who personally edited “The White Sister” in 1923.

The White Sister
The White Sister

“At one time I also directed, wrote scripts and even built my studio. It’s in the book,” she added, twinkling. “Today it’s all packaged impersonally.” “True,” she continued, “it’s a business like everything else. Maybe real beauty has gone out of the world. Disney’s gone, of course, but there are men of vision-like Satyajit Ray of India, those beautiful Japanese pictures, and Fellini and Zeffirelli with his ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Men like these convey the human spirit, something I’ve always believed in with my Lutheran Episcopal background.”

Romeo and Juliet (1968) Directed by Franco Zeffirelli Shown on the set, at right: director Franco Zeffirelli

She smiled bleakly. “But what do we get today? All this filth, nudity and violence. Yes, I go; but I can’t believe it’s so popular. The other afternoon I went to one – never mind which – with only 12 or 13 people in the audience and this man dropping In front of me then falling sound asleep. I thought, $2.50-to nap?”

Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith NY Times Friday April 18 1969
Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith NY Times Friday April 18 1969

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Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Review by ARTHUR MAYER, New York Times, 1969)

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

Lillian Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.


Published: June 8, 1969

Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.

The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.

Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with great affection and they in turn, loved him.”

Although Miss Gish gave the appearance of frailty, no task could daunt her. When she was on location for “Way Down East” the temperature never rose above zero, but at her own suggestion, she says, she lay on an ice floe drifting toward the falls with a hand and her hair trailing in the water. “My face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.” Characteristically, Griffith shouted to his cameraman Bitzer above the howling storm, “Billy, move in! Get that face! Get it!” “l will,,. Billy answered, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Working for other picture makers, however, she was occasionally prepared to admit weariness. One of her most revelatory stories (omitted for some unknown reason from her book) tells of an experience with Charles Laughton when he was directing “Night of the Hunter.” He required her to make at least a dozen takes. Finally she keyed her acting higher than she thought it ought to go and asked, “Is that what you want?” Laughton answered, “No, the first take was fine. I just wanted to see how many different ways you could do it.” “Well,” she answered, “if you want to waste your money on useless takes, that is all right with me, but I do get tired.”

Griffith’s dedication to his career and to the medium which he had so unexpectedly discovered to be his métier and his mission, matched her own. Although he married twice, no marriage to a man who habitually worked 16 hours a day, taking time off only to eat and sleep, could possibly prove successful. As for Miss Gish, she never even attempted it, though as Anita Loos once remarked, “Men were always marrying her in absentia.” She regarded matrimony as a “24-hour-a-day job.” Her films, she said, were her children.

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

What they shared, above all else, was their abiding faith in this “new uncorrupted art.'” Griffith would frequently say, “We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

A Wedding
Lillian Gish in Altman’s “A Wedding” 1978

Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, currently conducts film courses at Dartmouth and other colleges.

The New York Times Book Review

We all adore her, and the affection is returned Lillian Gish NYTimes June 8, 1969-2
We all adore her, and the affection is returned – Lillian Gish – NYTimes Book Review June 8, 1969 – page 2

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Admin note: Personal opinion – Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, skilled writer, tends to forget that Miss Gish was an actress, not a novelist. Therefore her book was seen from the stage, blinded by Klieg lights. As an actress, Miss Gish wasn’t concerned – when was the Censor Board founded in all American states – she was not working in a statistical office. Bringing up the rehearsal (The Night of the Hunter) when she admits that she’s tired, I believe it’s childish to compare Way Down East (1920), with The Night of the Hunter (1955), when Miss Gish was 62 years old.

I am very grateful to Mr. Mayer for his statement, despite the fact he considered “the biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” – disappointing. The reason Miss Gish broke her “engagement” to Mr. Nathan was because “Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship.” 

“We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

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

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Brief Reviews – LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH (The New York Times – October 30, 1932)

Miscellaneous Brief Reviews

The New York Times – October 30, 1932, Section BR, Page 20


By Albert Bigelow Paine. Illustrated. 303 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

LILLIAN GISH had her first dramatic try-out, made her first triumphant entrance upon any stage, at the age of 3 in Baltimore on the shoulder of Nat Goodwin. He was serving as Santa Claus for a big Christmas tree on the stage of Ford’s Theatre, and needing a particularly angelic-looking child to perch on his shoulder and distribute the gifts, little Lillian Gish was chosen. Three years later she bad become, under stress of economic necessity, a little trouper playing in a barnstorming company which was presenting melodrama in one-night stands. Through several seasons she traveled with this and other companies, economizing on food to the edge of hunger, sleeping on telegraphic desks in cold stations, riding all night in day coaches, rarely having rest in a real bed.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

During the Summers her mother had a candy and popcorn stand at the Fort George amusement grounds in New York City, and Lillian, in a timorous little voice, would try to help sales by saying gently to the passers–by. “Wouldn’t you like to buy some popcorn?” But her sister Dorothy stood on the counter and joyfully did “ballyhoo” for the enterprise by calling “out, “This way for the best taffy and popcorn in New York” The Smith family, mother, two daughters and son, afterward to become famous as the Pickfords, were living with Mrs. Gish and her little girls in her apartment, and then and afterward the two families were very close in friendship and work.

Lillian Gish at Six

The narrative of Lillian Gish’s life reads like a fairy story. American biographical literature is full of marvelous tales of material success wherein poor boys starting out with nothing but good heads, willing hands and determined wills win through to high achievement and heaps of gold. But heretofore not many of them have been about women. And among these few there has been none so wonderfully fairylike in material and texture and denouement as the story of Lillian Gish. Albert Bigelow Paine, veteran author and man of letters, with perhaps two score of books of varied kinds to his credit, tells the story with a sensitiveness to its peculiar quality and a sympathetic response to its heroine’s appeal to eye and heart and mind that intensify the likeness. He tells it in straight narrative form that deals almost wholly with environment and conditions of life and Lillian’s share in them, with privations and struggle and hard work and dazzling achievements. But throughout he does enable the reader to envisage her “ln the round” whether as child trouper, young girl dashing on horseback over Oklahoman plains with an Indian girl playmate and trying hard to get an education in the intervals of work on the stage, successful movie actress, gaining world-wide fame on both screen and stage.

It is a complete story from her birth in 1896 to the present time, and although it does deal mainly with the outward aspects ot its heroine’s life, Mr. Paine endeavors to portray the outlines of her character and give the reader some understanding of her aloofness, her quiet serenity under all conditions, her orderly mental processes, her sense of duty. The book is the outcome of long talks with Miss Gish in which she went over with him her recollections of her life from her earliest years and of information obtained from her family and friends. Mary Pickford has made many contributions to the story of the period in which they were much together in their home and in their movie work. It was Miss Pickford who opened the doors for her entrance into the film world.

The biography is written in the romantic temper and in the spirit of a connoisseur of beautiful things who holds in his hand some piece of glass or gold or cloisonne and regards its exquisite loveliness with admiration and reverence. His feeling is not only for the nunlike, elusive beauty of her countenance, but also for the artistic qualities and the impressive, haunting beauty of her characterizations. Toward the end of the book there are some attempts to estimate the value of Lillian Gish’s contribution to dramatic art and some quotations from her conversations with him disclosing her ideas about the comparative values of the silent and the sound film, and the film and the stage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

Kindly access the link below to download the PDF format of “Life and Lillian Gish” book, by Albert Bigelow Paine – Macmillan,1932

Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine 1932 – entire book in PDF format

Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television – By William Torbert Leonard – London 1981 (ANASTASIA)

Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television

By William Torbert Leonard – London 1981


A play in three acts by Marcelle Maurette, English adaptation by Guy Bolton (1953)


Former Don Cossack General and Aide-de-Camp to Tsar Nicholas II, Prince Arcade Arcadievitch Bounine, becomes intrigued in 1926 with a hospital patient’s story. Claiming she is the youngest daughter, the Royal Princess Anastasia Nicolaevna, and lone survivor of the massacred Russian royal family in an Ekaterinburg cellar on July 16, 1918, Bounine takes the ill woman to his Berlin home after preventing her contemplated suicide in the Landwehr Canal. Bounine conspires with his White Russian friends, Chernov and Petrovin, to prove to residing exiled Russian royalty, including the late Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and her grand nephew, Prince Paul, that the woman Anna Bronin is in reality the Princess Anastasia. Intent on sharing the late Tsar’s millions, deposited in foreign banks, the plotters are astounded to discover Anna’s improving health brings recall of little known facts about the Romanov family. Prince Paul accepts her as Anastasia, his childhood sweetheart, while the Dowager Empress maintains rigid cynicism about the presumed imposter. After relating a childhood episode known only to the regal old lady and her granddaughter, the Dowager Empress accepts Anna. Bounine and his accomplices become believers. A massive reception is arranged to present Anna to the public as the Royal Princess Anastasia Nicolaevna Romanov and announce her forthcoming marriage to Prince Paul. As the Dowager Empress, Prince Paul and Bounine prepare to enter the ballroom, the maid Varya enters carrying Anna’s royal gown. Anastasia/Anna Bronin, Princess/imposter, has gone, possibly to meet Dr. Michael Serensky, her former lover who had visited her earlier pleading for her to return to him in Budapest.

Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965

Comment and Critique

Parisian playwright Marcelle Marie Josephine Maurette’s exciting play Anastasia was first produced at the Theatre Antoine in Paris in 1951. Presented on television in England in 1953, the English translation of the play by Guy Bolton was optioned by Sir Laurence Olivier, who produced it at St. James’s Theatre in London on August 5, 1953. The play was received with acclaim for 117 performances. Seventy-nine-year-old actress Helen Hayes, who had spent fifty-five of those years on the English stage, was praised for her striking performance as the Dowager Empress, a role that became her greatest triumph in the English theatre.

The riddle, or mystery, of Anna Chaikovski, later known as Anna Anderson, has long fascinated writers and the world. After her release from Dalldorf Mental Hospital, her friend, Mrs. van Rathlef-Keilman, published a biography, Anastasia, in 1929. Glen Botkin, son of the Romanov family physician, wrote The Real Romanovs in 1931, followed by other documentations of Anna’s life.

No recounting of her story, nor her claim to being the surviving youngest daughter of the late Russian Tsar, supported her unsuccessful years of fighting for recognition (and the Romanov fortune) in the German courts. During the years of her struggle for recognition, Anna lived in a shack of a home in Stuttgart, Germany, given to her by her cousin Prince Frederick of Saxe-Altenburg. Today, the woman known as Anna Chaikovski Anderson, or Anastasia, lives in comparative seclusion as the wife of a wealthy Virginian in Charlottesville, Virginia. Anna Anderson’s personal account of her life, I, Anastasia, was published in January 1957 by Harcourt, Brace & Company.

Anastasia was written by Marcelle Maurette, whose play Madame Capet was translated into English by George Middleton and produced at the Cort Theatre in New York on October 25, 1938. Marcelle Maurette was born November 14, 1903, in Toulouse, France and in 1937 became the Comtesse de Decdelievre. Mme. Maurette received the Prix du Cercle de Paris in 1934 for La Bague au Doigt; the Cours de la Pifece en un acte de Socidtfi des Auteurs et Compositeurs for her play Printemps in 1937; France’s 1939 Prix National de Litterature and, in 1964 was made an Officier de la Legion d’Honneur Titre Exceptionnel for playwrighting. Guy Bolton’s absorbing English translation of Mme. Maurette’s play Anastasia opened at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on December 29, 1954, to play 272 performances.

Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times) wrote, “Whatever the truth may be of the Anastasia mystery, the drama about it is superb. “

Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65

A decade later, Anastasia was adapted and set to music of Rachmaninoff by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who had performed the same service in 1953 by converting Alexander Borodin’s music into the colorful musical Kismet. Unfortunately, despite all excellent cast, production and the Rachmaninoff themes, the musical translation of Anastasia, called Anya, expired after two weeks at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre.

Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes - Anastasia
Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes – Anastasia

Twentieth Century-Fox’s British-made screen version of Anastasia returned the supremely talented Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman to cinema acclaim after virtual isolation following the overblown and over-publicized scandal of her affair, and later marriage, with Italian film director, Roberto Rossellini. Miss Bergman’s superb performance as Anastasia was properly rewarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as 1956’s Best Actress of the Year. Films and Filming admired the “wonderfully controlled” performance of Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress and Anatole Litvak’s smooth direction. (The Deutschen-London film Anastasia–Die Letze Zaren – tochter, released in Germany in 1956, was not based on Marcelle Maurette’s play but on historical data.) Eugenie Leontovich and Viveca Lindfors appeared on Ed Sullivan’s television program, The Toast of the Town, in the recognition scene from the play on January 23, 1955. Hallmark Hall of Fame’s March 17, 1967, telecast of the play starred Julie Harris and Lynn Fontanne and drew critical raves. Variety opined that the two actresses gave the play “the stature of a classic” and that the Hallmark production was “on the magnificent side. “


St, James’s Theatre, London, England, opened August 5, 1953. 117 performances. Produced by Laurence Olivier; Director, John Counsell; Settings, Hal Henshaw; Costumes, Michael Ellis Mary Kerridge (Anna Broun); Helen Hayes (Dowager Empress of Russia); Ralph Michael (Prince Paul); Laurence Payne (Piotr Petrovsky); Peter Illing (Boris Chernov); Anthony Ireland (Prince Bounine); Ruth Goddard (Lady-in-Waiting); Michael Godfrey (Felix Oblensky); Verena Kimmins (Antonia); Michael Malnick (Sergei); Geoffrey Tyrrell (Sleigh Driver); Susan Richards (Charwoman)

Lyceum Theatre, New York, opened December 29, 1954. 272 performances. Produced by Elaine Perry; Director, Alan Schneider; Settings, Ben Edwards Viveca Lindfors (Anna); Eugenie Leontovich (Dowager Empress of Russia); Hurd Hatfield (Prince Paul); David J. Stewart (Pe- trovin); Boris Tumarin (Boris Chernov); Joseph Anthony (Prince Bounine); Dorothy Patten (Baroness Livenbaum); Sefton Darr (Varya); William Callan (Sergei); Carl Low (Counsellor Drivinitz)- Stuart Germain (Sleigh Driver); Michael Strong (Dr. Serensky); Vivian Nathan (Charwoman)

Road Company (1955). Produced by Elaine Perry; Director, Alan Schneider; Settings, Ben Edwards Dolly Haas (Anna); Eugenie Leontovich (Dowager Empress); John Emery (Prince Bounine); Robert Duke (Prince Paul); Carl Don (Chernov); Kurt Richards (Petrovin); Stanley Pitts (Sergei); Sefton Darr (Varya); George Cotton (Counsellor Drivinitz)- John Hallow (Dr. Serensky); Lili Valenty (Baroness Livenbaum); Frances Ingalls (Charwoman); Allen Joseph (Sleigh Driver)

Kleines Theatre im Zoo, Frankfurt, Germany, opened April 30 1955 Produced and directed by Fritz Remond; Translation by Ernestine Costa; Settings, Lothar Baumgarten; Costumes, Johann Jansen Inge Langen (Anastasia); Else Heims (Dowager Empress)- Herbert W. Boehme (Prince Bounine); Thomas Vallon (Prince Paul); Christian Schneider (Petrovin); Viktor Stephan Goertz (Chernoff)- Reinhold Kalldehoff (Obelenski); Wilhelm Schmidt (Sleigh Driver)

Road Company (1956). Produced by S. M. Handelsman; Director, Albert Lipton; Settings and costumes, Charles Evans Signe Hasso (Anya); Gale Sondergaai’d (Dowager Empress)- Stiano Braggiotti (Prince Bounine); John Hallow (Prince Paul); Boris Marshalov (Chernov); Jan Kalionzes (Varya); Charles Randall (Petrovin); Ted Gunther (Sergei); Ullo Kazanova (Baroness Livenbaum); Simon Oakland (Dr. Serensky); Mervin Williams (Counsellor Drivinitz); Ludmilla Toretzka (Charwoman); Charles P. Thomp¬ son (Sleigh Driver)

Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn., opened August 13, Produced by Lawrence Langner, Armina Marshall and John C. Wilson; Director, Boris Tumarin; Sets and lighting, Marvin Reiss Dolores Del Rio (Anastasia); Lili Darvas (Dowager Empress); Stephen Elliott (Bounine); Alan Shayne (Prince Paul); Boris Tumarin (Chernov); Ellen Cohn (Vanya); Paul Stevens (Petrovin); Clark Warren (Sergei); Hal Gerson (Counsellor Drivinitz); Frank Marth (Dr. Serensky); Sylvia Davis (Baroness Livenbaum); George Ebeling (Sleigh Driver); Clarice Blackburn (Charwoman)

Cambridge Theatre, London, England, opened September 22, 1976. Produced by Robert Sidaway and Mark Furness;Director, Tony Cra¬ ven; Settings, Pamela Ingram; Costumes, Hugh Durrant; Lighting, Howard Eaton Nyree Dawn Porter (Anya); Elspeth March (Dowager Empress); Peter Wyngarde (Prince Bounine); Brian Poyser (Plouvitch); Ray Gatenby (Drivinitz); Ron Alexander (Sergei); David Nettheim (Boris); Brian Poyser (Dr. Michael Serensky); John Locke (Prince Paul); Jo Anderson (Baroness Livenbaum); Jeanette Lewis (Peasant Woman); David Griffin (Piotr Petrovin)

George Abbott anya
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya

ANYA, Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, opened November 29, 1965.

16 performances. Produced by Fred R. Fehlhaber; Director, George Abbott; Scenery, Robert Randolph; Costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting, Richard Casler; Dances and musical numbers, Hanya Holm; Book, (based on the play Anastasia), by George Abbott, Guy Bolton; Musical director, Harold Hastings; Orchestrations, Don Walker;

Music (based on themes by Rachmaninoff), and lyrics, Robert Wright, George Forrest

Constance Towers (Anya); Lillian Gish (Dowager Empress); John Michael King (Prince Paul); Ed Steffe (Petrovin); George S. Irving (Chernov); Michael Kermoyan (Bounine); Margaret Mullen (Baroness Livenbaum); Irra Petina (Katrina); Boris Aplon (Josef); Lawrence Brooks (Count Drivinitz); Adair McGowan (Count Dorn); Jack Dabdoub (Sergei); Walter Hook (Yegor); Karen Shepard (Genia, the Countess Hohenstadt); Laurie Franks (Olga); Rita Metzger (Masha); Lawrence Boyll (Sleigh Driver); Elizabeth Howell (Anouchka); Barbara Alexander (Tinka); Maggie Task (Mother); Michael Quinn (Father); Elizabeth Howell (Countess Drivinitz); Bernard Frank, Lawrence Boyll (Policemen); Howard Kahl (Police Sergeant); Patricia Hoffman (Nurse); Konstantin Pioulsky (Balalaika player); Barbara Alexander, Ciya Challis, Patricia Drylie, Juliette Durand, Kip Andrews, Steven Boockvor, Randy Doney, Joseph Nelson (Dancers); Laurie Franks, Patricia Hoffman, Rita Metzger, Mia Powers, Lourette Raymon, Diane Tarleton, Maggie Task, Darrel Askey, Lawrence Boyll, Les Freed, Horace Guittard, Walter Hook, Howard Kahl, Adair McGowan, Richard Nieves, J. Vernon Oaks, Robert Sharp, John Taliaferro, Bernard Frank (Singers)

1965 Press Photo Lillian Gish - Little Hands
1965 Press Photo Lillian Gish – Little Hands


Anya; A Song from Somewhere; Vodka, Vodka!; So Proud; Homeward; Snowflakes and Sweethearts; On That Day; Six Palaces; Hand in Hand; This Is My Kind of Love; That Prelude!; A Quiet Land; Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?; Leben Sie Wohl; If This Is Goodbye; Little Hands; All Hail the Empress

Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya
Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya


20th Century-Fox, released December 14, 1956. Produced by Buddy Adler; Director, Anatole Litvak; Screenplay, Arthur Laurents; Camera, Jack Hildyard; Art directors, Andrei Andreiev, Bill Andrews; Music, Alfred Newman; Russian music arranged by Michel Michelet; Assistant director, Gerry O’Hara; Costumes, Rene Hubert; Dialogue assistant, Paul Dickson; Editor, Bert Bates; Set decorator, Andrew Low Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia); Helen Hayes (Dowager Empress); Yul Brynner (Prince Bounine); Akim Tamiroff (Chernov); Martita Hunt (Baroness von Livenbaum); Felix Aylmer (Russian Chamber- lain); Sascha Pitoeff (Petrovin); Ivan Desny (Prince Paul); Natalie Schafer (Lissenskaia); Gregoire Gromoff (Stepan); Karel Stepanek (Vlados); Ina de la Haye (Marusia); Tamara Shayne (Zenia); Peter Salles (Grischa); Olga Valery (Countess Baranova); Polycarpe Pauloft (Schiscken); Katherine Kath (Maxime); Hy Hazell (Blonde Lady)

SONG: Anastasia by Alfred Newman; Lyrics, Paul Francis Webster

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman – Anastasia

ANASTASIA, DIE LETZE ZARENTOCHTER, Deutschen-London Film, released 1956. Produced by Max Koslowski; Co-producer, ALFU- Corona-Hansa; Director, Falk Harnack; Screenplay, based on historical data, by Herbert Reinecker; Camera, Friedel Behn-Grund; Settings, Fritz Naurischat, Ernest Schone, Arno Richter; Camera and lighting, Georg Mahr, Felix Lehmann; Assistant director, Fritz Martin Lang; Choreography, Tatjana Gsovsky; Music, Herbert Trantow; Editor, Kurt Zeunert Lilli Palmer (Anastasia); Ivan Desny (Gleb Botkin); Susanne von Almassy (Mrs. Stevens); Dorothea Wieck (Grand Princess Olga); Tilla Durieux (Mother of Czar Nicholas II); Margot Hielscher (Crown Princess Cecilie); Ellen Schwiers (Princess Katharina); Adelheid Seeck (Princess Irene); Franziska Kinz (Duchess of Leuchtenberg); Otto Graf (Duke of Leuchtenberg); Hans Krull (Prince of Sachsen-Altenburg); Kathe Braun (Frau von Rathleff- Keitmann); Eva Bubat (Gertrud Schanzkosky); Emmy Burg (Ple- gerin Schwarzkopf); Erika Dannihoff (Frau von Pleskau)

Julie Harris and Lynn Fontaine - Hallmark 1967
Julie Harris and Lynn Fontaine – Hallmark 1967


Hallmark Hall of Fame, televised March 17, 1967. NBC. 90 minutes. Produced and directed by George Schaefer; Television adaptation, John Edward Friend

Julie Harris (Anastasia); Lynn Fontanne (Dowager Empress);

Charles D. Gray (Prince Bounine); Brenda Forbes (Baroness von Livenbaum); George S. Irving (Chernov); David Hurst (Petrovin); Paul Robeling (Prince Paul); Robinson Stone (Drivinitz); Robert Burr (Dr. Serensky)

Anastasia Romanov - Romanov Family - Russia
Anastasia Romanov – Romanov Family – Russia

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GRIFFITH – by Sergei Eisenstein (Essay date – 1949)

Twentieth – Century Literary Criticism – Vol.68

Editor: Scot Peacock


Sergei Eisenstein (Essay date – 1949)

SOURCE: “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” in Film Form: Essays in Film Theory and The Film Sense, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, Meridian Books, 1957, pp. 195-255.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Eisenstein explores Griffith’s innovative use of montage as well as film techniques which can be traced in literary form to the works of Charles Dickens. ]


“The kettle began it. . . .”

Thus Dickens opens his Cricket on the Hearth.

“The kettle began it. . ..”

What could be further from films! Trains, cowboys, chases . . . And The Cricket on the Hearth? “The kettle began it!” But, strange as it may seem, movies also were boiling in that kettle. From here, from Dickens, from the Victorian novel, stem the first shoots of American film esthetic, forever linked with the name of David Wark Griffith. Although at first glance this may not seem surprising, it does appear incompatible with our traditional concepts of cinematography, in particular with those associated in our minds with the American cinema. Factually, however, this relationship is organic, and the “genetic” line of descent is quite consistent. Let us first look at that land where, although not perhaps its birthplace, the cinema certainly found the soil in which to grow to unprecedented and unimagined dimensions. We know from whence the cinema appeared first as a world-wide phenomenon. We know the inseparable link between the cinema and the industrial development of America. We know how production, art and literature reflect the capitalist breadth and construction of the United States of America. And we also know that  American capitalism finds its sharpest and most expressive reflection in the American cinema. But what possible identity is there between this Moloch of modern industry, with its dizzy tempo of cities and subways, its roar of competition, its hurricane of stock market transactions on the one hand, and . . . the peaceful, patriarchal Victorian London of Dickens’s novels on the other?

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

Let’s begin with this “dizzy tempo,” this “hurricane,” and this “roar.” These are terms used to describe the United States by persons who know that country solely through books—books limited in quantity, and not too carefully selected. Visitors to New York City soon recover from their astonishment at this sea of lights (which is actually immense), this maelstrom of the stock market (actually its like is not to be found anywhere), and all this roar (almost enough to deafen one). As far as the speed of the traffic is concerned, one can’t be overwhelmed by this in the streets of the metropolis for the simple reason that speed can’t exist there. This puzzling contradiction lies in the fact that the high powered automobiles are so jammed together that they can’t move much faster than snails creeping from block to block, halting at every crossing not only for pedestrian crowds but for the counter-creeping of the crosstraffic. As you make your merely minute progress amidst a tightly packed glacier of other humans, sitting in similarly high-powered and imperceptibly moving machines, you have plenty of time to ponder the duality behind the dynamic face of America, and the profound interdependence of this duality in everybody and everything American. As your 90-horsepower motor pulls you jerkily from block to block along the steep-cliffed streets, your eyes wander over the smooth surfaces of the skyscrapers. Notions lazily crawl through your brain: “Why don’t they seem high?” “Why should they, with all that height, still seem cozy, domestic, smalltown?” You suddenly realize what “trick” the skyscrapers play on you: although they have many floors, each floor is quite low. Immediately the soaring skyscraper appears to be built of a number of small-town buildings, piled on top of each other.

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

One merely needs to go beyond the city-limits or, in a few cities, merely beyond the center of the city, in order to see the same buildings, piled, not by the dozens, and fifties, and hundreds, on top of each other, but laid out in endless rows of one- and two storied stores and cottages along Main Streets, or along half-rural side-streets. Here (between the “speed traps”) you can fly along as fast as you wish; here the streets are almost empty, traffic is light—the exact opposite of the metropolitan congestion that you just left—no trace of that frantic activity choked in the stone vises of the city. You often come across regiments of skyscrapers that have moved deep into the countryside, twisting their dense nets of railroads around them; but at the same rate small-town agrarian America appears to have overflowed into all but the very centers of the cities; now and then one turns a skyscraper corner, only to run head on into some home of colonial architecture, apparently whisked from some distant savannah of Louisiana or Alabama to this very heart of the business city. But there where this provincial wave has swept in more than a cottage here or a church there (gnawing off a corner of that monumental modern Babylon. “Radio City”), or a cemetery, unexpectedly left behind in the very center of the financial district, or the hanging wash of the Italian district, flapping just around the corner, off Wall Street—this good old provincialism has turned inward to apartments, nestling in clusters around fireplaces, furnished with soft grandfather-chairs and the lace doilies that shroud the wonders of modern technique: refrigerators, washing-machines, radios.

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

And in the editorial columns of popular newspapers, in the aphorisms of broadcast sermon and transcribed advertisement, there is a firmly entrenched attitude that is usually defined as “way down East”—an attitude that may be found beneath many a waistcoat or bowler where one would ordinarily expect to find a heart or a brain. Mostly one is amazed by the abundance of small-town and patriarchal elements in American life and manners, morals and philosophy, the ideological horizon and rules of behavior in the middle strata of American culture. In order to understand Griffith, one must visualize an America made up of more than visions of speeding automobiles, streamlined trains, racing ticker tape, inexorable conveyor-belts. One is obliged to comprehend this second side of America as well—America, the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial. And then you will be considerably less astonished by this link between Griffith and Dickens. The threads of both these Americas are interwoven in the style and personality of Griffith—as in the most fantastic of his own parallel montage sequences. What is most curious is that Dickens appears to have guided both lines of Griffith’s style, reflecting both faces of America: Small-Town America, and Super-Dynamic America. This can be detected at once in the “intimate” Griffith of contemporary or past American life, where Griffith is profound, in those films about which Griffith told me. that “they were made for myself and were invariably rejected by the exhibitors.” But we are a little astonished when we see that the construction of the “official,” sumptuous Griffith, the Griffith of tempestuous tempi, of dizzying action, of breathtaking chases—has also been guided by the same Dickens! But we shall see how true this is. First the “intimate” Griffith, and the “intimate” Dickens.

The kettle began it. . . .

As soon as we recognize this kettle as a typical close-up. we exclaim: “Why didn’t we notice it before! Of course this is the purest Griffith. How often we’ve seen such a close-up at the beginning of an episode, a sequence, or a whole film by him!” (By the way. we shouldn’t overlook the fact that one of Griffith’s earliest films was based on The Cricket on the Hearth)

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

Certainly, this kettle is a typical Griffith-esque close-up. A close-up saturated, we now become aware, with typically Dickens-esque “atmosphere.” with which Griffith, with equal mastery, can envelop the severe face of life in Way Down East, and the icy cold moral face of his characters, who push the guilty Anna (Lillian Gish) onto the shifting surface of a swirling ice-break. Isn’t this the same implacable atmosphere of cold that is given by Dickens, for example, in Dombey and Son? The image of Mr. Dombey is revealed through cold and prudery. And the print of cold lies on everyone and everything—everywhere. And “atmosphere”—always and everywhere—is one of the most expressive means of revealing the inner world and ethical countenance of the characters themselves. We can recognize this particular method of Dickens in Griffith’s inimitable bit-characters who seem to have run straight from life onto the screen. I can’t recall who speaks with whom in one of the street scenes of the modern story of Intolerance. But I shall never forget the mask of the passer-by with nose pointed forward between spectacles and straggly beard, walking with hands behind his back as if he were manacled. As he passes he interrupts the most pathetic moment in the conversation of the suffering boy and girl. I can remember next to nothing of the couple, but this passer-by. who is visible in the shot only for a flashing glimpse, stands alive before me now—and I haven’t seen the film for twenty years! Occasionally these unforgettable figures actually walked into Griffith’s films almost directly from the street: a bit-player, developed in Griffith’s hands to stardom: the passer-by who may never again have been filmed; and that mathematics teacher who was invited to play a terrifying butcher in America—the late Louis Wolheim — who ended the film career thus begun with his incomparable performance as “Kat” in All Quiet on the Western Front. These striking figures of sympathetic old men are also quite in the Dickens tradition; and these noble and slightly one-dimensional figures of sorrow and fragile maidens: and these rural gossips and sundry odd characters. They are especially convincing in Dickens when he uses them briefly, in episodes. The only other thing to be noticed about [Pecksniff] is that here, as almost e\er\ where else in the novels, the best figures are at their best when they have least to do. Dickens’s characters are perfect as long as he can keep them out of his stories. Bumble is divine until a dark and practical secret is entrusted to him. . . .

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

Micawber is noble when he is doing nothing; but he is quite unconvincing when he is spying on Uriah Heep. . . . Similarly, while Pecksniff is the best thing in the story, the story is the worst thing in Pecksniff. . . . [G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, The Last of the Great Men] Free of this limitation, and with the same believability; Griffith’s characters grow from episodic figures into those fascinating and finished images of living people, in which his screen is so rich.

Instead of going into detail about this, let us rather return to that more obvious fact—the growth of that second side of Griffith’s creative craftsmanship—as a magician of tempo and montage; a side for which it is rather surprising to find the same Victorian source. When Griffith proposed to his employers the novelty of a parallel “cut-back” for his first version of Enoch Arden {After Many Years, 1908), this is the discussion that took place, as recorded by Linda Arvidson Griffith in her reminiscences of Biograph days [When the Movies were Young]:

When Mr. Griffith suggested a scene showing Annie Lee waiting for her husband’s return to be followed by a scene of Enoch cast away on a desert island, it was altogether too distracting. “How can you tell a story jumping about like that? The people won’t know what it’s about.”

“Well,” said Mr. Griffith, “doesn’t Dickens write that way?”

“Yes, but that’s Dickens; that’s novel writing;

that’s different.”

“Oh. not so much, these are picture stories; not

so different.” But, to speak quite frankly, all astonishment on this subject and the apparent unexpectedness of such statements can be ascribed only to our—ignorance of Dickens.


All of us read him in childhood, gulped him down greedily, without realizing that much of his irresistibility lay not only in his capture of detail in the childhoods of his heroes, but also in that spontaneous, childlike skill for story-telling, equally typical for Dickens and for the American cinema, which so surely and delicately plays upon the infantile traits in its audience. We were even less concerned with the technique of Dickens’s composition: for us this was non-existent—but captivated by the effects of this technique, we feverishly followed his characters from page to page, watching his characters now being rubbed from view at the most critical moment, then seeing them return afresh between the separate links of the parallel secondary plot. As children, we paid no attention to the mechanics of this. As adults, we rarely re-read his novels. And becoming film-workers, we never found time to glance beneath the covers of these novels in order to figure out what exactly had captivated us in these novels and with what means these incredibly many-paged volumes had chained our attention so irresistibly.

Apparently Griffith was more perceptive . . . But before disclosing what the steady gaze of the American film-maker may have caught sight of on Dickens’s pages, I wish to recall what David Wark Griffith himself represented to us, the young Soviet film-makers of the ‘twenties.

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

To say it simply and without equivocation: a revelation. Try to remember our early days, in those first years of the October socialist revolution. The fires At the Hearth sides of our native film-producers had burnt out, the Nava’s Charms [Nava’s Charms (by Sologub) and At the Hearthside, two pre-Revolutionary Russian films, as is also Forget the Hearth. The names that follow are of the male and female film stars of this period.] of their productions had lost their power over us and, whispering through pale lips, “Forget the hearth,” Khudoleyev and Runich, Polonsky and Maximov had departed to oblivion; Vera Kholodnaya to the grave; Mozhukhin and Lisenko to expatriation. The young Soviet cinema was gathering the experience of revolutionary reality, of first experiments (Vertov), of first systematic ventures (Kuleshov), in preparation for that unprecedented explosion in the second half of the ‘twenties, when it was to become an independent, mature, original art, immediately gaining world recognition. In those early days a tangle of the widest variety of films was projected on our screens. From out of this weird hash of old Russian films and new ones that attempted to maintain “traditions,” and new films that could not yet be called Soviet, and foreign films that had been imported promiscuously, or brought down off dusty shelves—two main streams began to emerge. On the one side there was the cinema of our neighbor, post-war Germany. Mysticism, decadence, dismal fantasy followed in the wake of the unsuccessful revolution of 1923, and the screen was quick to reflect this mood. Nosferatu the Vampire, The Street, the mysterious Warning Shadows, the mystic criminal Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, reaching out towards us from our screens, achieved the limits of horror, showing us a future as an unrelieved night crowded with sinister shadows and crimes. . . .

Shooting a scene from Way Down East, Griffith seated below the camera D. W. Griffith, American film master
Shooting a scene from Way Down East, Griffith seated below the camera

The chaos of multiple exposures, of over-fluid dissolves, of split screens, was more characteristic of the later ‘twenties (as in Looping the Loop or Secrets of a Soul), but earlier German films contained more than a hint of this tendency. In the over-use of these devices  as also reflected the confusion and chaos of post-war Germany. All these tendencies of mood and method had been foreshadowed in one of the earliest and most famous of these films. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), this barbaric carnival of the destruction of the healthy human infancy of our art, this common grave for normal cinema origins, this combination of silent hysteria, particolored canvases, daubed flats, painted faces, and the unnatural broken gestures and actions of monstrous chimaeras. Expressionism left barely a trace on our cinema. This  painted, hypnotic “St. Sebastian of Cinema” was too alien to the young, robust spirit and body of the rising class.

D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Painting; D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Art Print for sale

It is interesting that during those years inadequacies in the field of film technique played a positive role. They helped to restrain from a false step those whose enthusiasm might have pulled them in this dubious direction. Neither the dimensions of our studios, nor our lighting equipment, nor the materials available to us for makeup, costumes, or setting, gave us the possibility to heap onto the screen similar phantasmagoria. But it was chiefly another thing that held us back: our spirit urged us towards life—amidst the people, into the surging actuality of a regenerating country. Expressionism passed into the formative history of our cinema as a powerful factor—of repulsion. There was the role of another film-factor that appeared, dashing along in such films as The Gray Shadow. The House of Hate, The Mark of Zorro. There was in these films a world, stirring and incomprehensible, but neither repulsive nor alien. On the contrary—it was captivating and attractive, in its own way engaging the attention of young and future film-makers, exactly as the young and future engineers of the time were attracted by the specimens of engineering techniques unknown to us, sent from that same unknown, distant land across the ocean. What enthralled us was not only these films, it was also their possibilities. Just as it was the possibilities in a tractor to make collective cultivation of the fields a reality, it was the boundless temperament and tempo of these amazing (and amazingly useless!) works from an unknown country that led us to muse on the possibilities of a profound, intelligent, class-directed use of this wonderful tool.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The most thrilling figure against this background was Griffith, for it was in his works that the cinema made itself felt as more than an entertainment or pastime. The brilliant new methods of the American cinema were united in him with a profound emotion of story, with human acting, with laughter and tears, and all this was done with an astonishing ability to preserve all that “learn of a filmicallv dvnamic holiday, which had been captured in The Gray Shadow and The Mark of Zorro and The House of Hate. That the cinema could be incomparably greater, and that this was to be the basic task of the budding Soviet cinema—these were sketched for us in Griffith’s creative work, and found ever new confirmation in his films. Our heightened curiosity of those years in construction and method swiftly discerned wherein lay the most powerful affective factors in this great American’s films. This was in a hitherto unfamiliar province, bearing a name that was familiar to us, not in the field of art, but in that of engineering and electrical apparatus, first touching art in its most advanced section—in cinematography. This province, this method, this principle of building and construction was montage. This was the montage whose foundations had been laid by American film-culture, but whose full, completed, conscious use and world recognition was established by our films. Montage, the rise of which will be forever linked with the name of Griffith. Montage, which played a most vital role in the creative work of Griffith and brought him his most glorious successes. Griffith arrived at it through the method of parallel action. And, essentially, it was on this that he came to a standstill. But we mustn’t run ahead. Let us examine the question of how montage came to Griffith or—how Griffith came to montage. Griffith arrived at montage through the method of parallel action, and he was led to the idea of parallel action by—Dickens! To this fact Griffith himself has testified, according to A. B. Walkley, in The Times of London, for April 26. 1922, on the occasion of a visit by the director to London. Writes Mr. Walkley: He [Griffith] is a pioneer, by his own admission, rather than an inventor. That is to say. he has opened up new paths in Film Land, under the guidance of ideas supplied to him from outside. His best ideas, it appears, have come to him from Dickens, who has always been his favorite author. . . .

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

Dickens inspired Mr. Griffith with an idea, and his employers (mere “business” men) were horrified at it: but. says Mr. Griffith. “I went home, re-read one of Dickens’s novels, and came back next day to tell them they could either make use of my idea or dismiss me.” Mr Griffith found the idea to which he clung thus heroically in Dickens. That was as luck would have it. for he might have found the same idea almost anywhere Newton deduced the law of gravitation from the fall of an apple: but a pear or a plum would have done just as well. The idea is merely that of a “break” in the narrament a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group. People who write the long and crowded novels that Dickens did. especially when they are published in parts, find this practice a convenience. You will meet with it in Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Meredith, Hardy, and, I suppose, every other Victorian novelist. . . . Mr. Griffith might have found the same practice not only in Dumas pere, who cared precious little about form, but also in great artists like Tolstoy, Turgeniev, and Balzac. But, as a matter of fact, it was not in any of these others, but in Dickens that he found it; and it is significant of the predominant influence of Dickens that he should be quoted as an authority for a device which is really common to fiction at large. Even a superficial acquaintance with the work of the great English novelist is enough to persuade one that Dickens may have given and did give to cinematography far more guidance than that which led to the montage of parallel action alone. Dickens’s nearness to the characteristics of cinema in method, style, and especially in viewpoint and exposition, is indeed amazing. And it may be that in the nature of exactly these characteristics, in their community both for Dickens and for cinema, there lies a portion of the secret of that mass success which they both, apart from themes and plots, brought and still bring to the particular quality of such exposition and such writing. What were the novels of Dickens for his contemporaries, for his readers? There is one answer: they bore the same relation to them that the film bears to the same strata in our time. They compelled the reader to live with the same passions. They appealed to the same good and sentimental elements as does the film (at least on the surface); they alike shudder before vice, they alike mill the extraordinary, the unusual, the fantastic, from boring, prosaic and everyday existence. And they clothe this common and prosaic existence in their special vision. [The author adds in a footnote: “as late as April 17, 1944, Griffith still considered this the chief social function of film-making. An interviewer from the Los Angeles Times asked him, ‘What is a good picture? Griffith replied, ‘One that makes the public forget its troubles. Also, a good picture tends to make folks think a little, without letting them suspect that they are being inspired to think. In one respect, nearly all pictures are good in that they show the triumph of good over evil.’ This is what Osbert Sitwell, in reference to Dickens, called the ‘Virtue v. Vice Cup-Tie Final.'”]

D.W. Griffith - Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East
D.W. Griffith – Ice floe Scenes (Vermont) Way Down East

Illumined by this light, refracted from the land of fiction back to life, this commonness took on a romantic air, and bored people were grateful to the author for giving them the countenances of potentially romantic figures. This partially accounts for the close attachment to the novels of Dickens and, similarly, to films. It was from this that the universal success of his novels derived. In an essay on Dickens, [in Three Masters: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky] Stefan Zweig opens with this description of his popularity: The love Dickens’s contemporaries lavished upon the creator of Pickwick is not to be assessed by accounts given in books and biographies. Love lives and breathes only in the spoken word. To get an adequate idea of the intensity of this love, one must catch (as I once caught) an Englishman old enough to have youthful memories of the days when Dickens was still alive. Preferably it should be someone who finds it hard even now to speak of him as Charles Dickens, choosing, rather, to use the affectionate nickname of “Boz.” The emotion, tinged with melancholy, which these old reminiscences call up. gives us of a younger generation some inkling of the enthusiasm that inspired the hearts of thousands when the monthly instalments in their blue covers (great rarities, now) arrived at English homes. At such times, my old Dickensian told me, people would walk a long way to meet the postman when a fresh number was due. so impatient were they to read what Boz had to tell. . . . How could they be expected to wait patiently until the latter-carrier, lumbering along on an old nag, would arrive with the solution of these burning problems? When the appointed hour came round, old and young would sally forth, walking two miles and more to the post office merely to have the issue sooner. On the way home they would start reading, those who had not the luck of holding the book looking over the shoulder of the more fortunate mortal; others would set about reading aloud as they walked; only persons with a genius for self-sacrifice would defer a purely personal gratification, and would scurry back to share the treasure with wife and child. In every village, in every town, in the whole of the British Isles, and far beyond, away in the remotest parts of the earth where the English speaking nations had gone to settle and colonize, Charles Dickens was loved. People loved him from the first moment when (through the medium of print) they made his acquaintance until his dying day. . . .

“The kettle began it. . . .”

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

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