By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, movies had established themselves as a new king of entertainment, a pleasant way to spend an evening or an afternoon. But most movies were still relatively crude, unimaginative things immensely dependent on the stage conventions that they had unwittingly inherited. Scenes were depicted in long, single shots from a single perspective; stories were simple and either mawkish in their sentimentality or obvious in their contrivances, or both. The movies were popular, but they were still only a faint glimmer of what they might one day be. Between 1910 and 1920, two men did more to reshape the medium than anyone else ever would. One gave it a grammar and a syntax: a range of techniques which lifted the use of the camera out of theatrics into film art. The other, the first and greatest star of them all, made the screen come alive with a poetry and a pathos never before known and never since recaptured. Between these two men, the movies took on a new stature and significance. A novelty became an art.
In 1924, Griffith wrote the following lines (Colliers, May 3, 1924):
The motion picture is a child that has been given life in our generation. As it grows older it will develop marvelously. We poor souls can scarcely visualize or dream of its possibilities. We ought to be kind with it in its youth, so that in its maturity it may look back upon its childhood without regrets.
Read today, the lines ring with a fine irony. Because of Griffith, the movies rose far beyond what anyone in the first decade could have believed possible. Moreover, he —more than any director of the period — made it possible to look back upon the childhood of the movies “without regrets” and better, with wonder and awe. The curious thing about this greatest of all directors and innovators of the American film is that he never really wanted to get too involved in movies. As a part-time actor and would-be writer, the young Griffith looked upon movies much as other stage actors and writers did at the time: as a crass novelty, without a future, without either substance or the possibility of sub- Stance, Indeed, Griffith used the name Lawrence Griffith throughout his early movie career He was convinced that one day he would step out of films and make a great name for himself as a writer. Only then would he begin to use his real name. Griffith was the fifth child of an impoverished Kentucky family. He grew up amid an aging but still powerful Victorian system of beliefs—Southern romanticism and a haughtiness that would affect all of his work, often marring the best of it. The young Griffith worked as a sales clerk, a newspaper reporter, and, most assiduously, as an aspiring writer.
He published an occasional story or play, but was not very successful. He also dabbled in acting. In New York City in 1907, an actor friend suggested that he work temporarily for Biograph. Griffith applied and attempted to sell a story to Edwin Porter. Porter turned down the story but offered Griffith the lead role in his next picture. Griffith took it, and, unwittingly, began one of the greatest careers in the industry.When Griffith was first offered an opportunity to direct a movie, he was reluctant. Should he fail at that, he thought, he would be out of an acting job. But, after a few pictures, it became apparent that Griffith’s metier in the movies was not acting, or even writing, but directing. Griffith improvised, invented, polished, and experimented endlessly. Between 1908 and 1912, he fashioned, single-handed, a new range of expression for the movies. He transformed editing from the stage-dominated succession of scenes to a visual dynamic that shuttled time and space to achieve dramatic impact. He made the close-up a standard technique of movie making. He developed editing principles that made it possible to jump back and forth between scenes at a quickening pace, thereby achieving a dramatic momentum never known before in the movies. He experimented with lighting, to achieve tonal qualities and mood. He lured good actors from the stage and—something hardly known in movies at the time—made them rehearse before shooting a scene, thus creating a fresh realism.
The success of The Birth of a Nation hardly stemmed Griffith’s desire to make more movies, even larger in scope and conception than what was already acclaimed as his masterpiece. At 39, he felt his future as a filmmaker was before him. He had changed his name (shortly after leaving Biograph) to D. W. Griffith and accepted film as his chosen career. In preparing his next project— a multi-episodic movie based on the theme of intolerance—he said, “If I approach what I am trying to do in my coming picture, I expect a persecution even greater than that which met The Birth of a Nation.” Intolerance was a daring film. Its structure was unique, its conception original, its cost extravagant. The film was to include four separate stories: “The Mother and the Law,” based on the then-prominent Stielow case; the fall of Babylon; the story of Christ; and the massacre of the Huguenots on the Eve of St. Bartholomew. Each story was to be separate, but interlinked in theme (and editing) with the others. As Griffith explained, the stories “will begin like four currents looked at from a hilltop. At first the four currents will flow apart, slowly and quietly. But as they flow, they grow nearer and nearer together, faster and faster, until in the end, in the last act, they mingle in one mightly river of exposed emotion.”
Production of Intolerance was so expensive that it forced Griffith to go heavily into debt. At $2,000,000, it was clearly one of the most expensive films of the silent era and, at 13 reels, one of the longest. The film opens with a statement of the theme and the image (which recurs throughout it) of a mother cradling her child—for Griffith, the symbol of people victimized by intolerance. Each story is told only in part, then abruptly followed by the proportionate aspect of another story. Through this technique, Griffith intended to use editing to show the thematic similarities between the stories—how intolerance is the same in every age. His technique is superlative: the film is full of startling juxtapositions that bring out the comparisons he wanted. As Jesus weaves his way to Calvary, the film cuts to a girl rushing to forewarn Balthazar that the priests have betrayed him. As the Huguenot battles through the streets to rescue his lover, the wife of a condemned convict rushes to the prison with a pardon.
Intolerance – DW Griffith
Intolerance – set
Intolerance – set
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance
Griffith uses tension and suspense in the film as they were never used before: to propel the action to ever spiraling heights, holding the audience captive with the images rushing across the screen. The production was opulent. The gates of Babylon stood hundreds of feet high while thousands milled below. In the banquet scene of the Balthazar story, Griffith spent a reputed $25,000 for the lavish effects. The cast was enormous, the sets magnificent. And as ever, Griffith’s cameras recorded not only the scope but the minor details that gave even greater credibility and meaning to the scene: the faces, the costumes, the finely-honed spear points. Griffith used a number of techniques which had been anticipated in earlier films.
Now, he gave them greater scope and development than ever before. He experimented throughout with various framing devices: irises to concentrate on a face or an action, wipes that moved across the screen in specific relationship to some object on the screen (one, for example, began at the monstrous Babylonian gate and moved outward, parallel to the gate). He used tracking shots often; one traveled for several hundred feet, from a distant shot of the entire Babylonian set to a medium shot of one scene.
Nonetheless, Intolerance was an uneven film: in some ways, the greatest of Griffith’s movies, in other ways the most faulted. The enormous sets, particularly in the Babylonian sequence, tended to distract from the story. As a reviewer for Photoplay remarked, “The fatal error of Intolerance was that in the great Babylonian scenes you didn’t care which side won. It was just a great show.” Moreover, of the four stories that Griffith promised, he only delivered two—the contemporary story (the best developed) and the Babylonian story—more of an epic spectacle, really, than a story. The narrative in the Christ and Huguenot episodes was weak, and audiences tended to wait out those episodes to find out what was really happening in the exciting stories. Finally, Griffith’s own sentimental bias hurt the film. He used names such as “Little Dear One” and “Brown Eyes” for characters—something that had generally vanished from filmmaking before Griffith left Biograph. Some of the violence—such as cutting off a head—was downright gory and gratuitous.
Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that, with Intolerance, there was more at stake: that Griffith was reaching for further degrees of experimentation, struggling to find some new unifying principle to advance the art of film, much as he had in Birth of a Nation. If Griffith did fail, it was perhaps partly because of the enormous distance between what the audiences could cope with and the limits to which Griffith wanted to test the manipulation of form. The failure that crippled Griffith most brutally, though, was not the film’s artistic failure, but the fact that it flopped so badly in the commercial market. It would take him years of work on movies without total creative independence to repay the debts incurred by Intolerance. With the loss of his creative freedom, Griffith lost much of his enthusiasm for endless experimentation. Eventually, despite glimmers and sometimes brilliant moments of creative achievement, Griffith’s work sank to the level of cheap potboilers. By the mid-twenties, he was turning out cheaply produced, barely cared for movies that suggested only dimly the creative talent of the man who had made them.
The decline of Griffith is a sad epoch in film history, but one that reveals something about the precarious relationship between art and industry in filmmaking. The Griffith of the Biograph years, of Judith of Bethulia, of The Birth of a Nation, of Intolerance, was a creative, experimental spirit searching for the best ways to use the medium to communicate powerfully to audiences. The later Griffith was far more concerned with fame and wealth and recognition; he seemed to care less about what he did with a film than how boldly his name was printed on it, and with the money a film would make. There were other reasons behind Griffith’s decline. His Victorian sentimentality, which had marred earlier films, now seemed even more pronounced—and more obviously out of step with the changing tastes of audiences.
Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
His interest in film itself declined; he spent more time writing on various themes like the future of movies, planning extravagant projects that never materialized and speaking on various subjects to whomever would listen. Griffith made two features during World War I: Hearts of the World and The Great Love, both of which were thin reflections of his talents and barely shaded forms of propaganda. After the war, he returned to the type of films he had been doing: soft, melodramatic romances, which of course had lost virtually all their appeal for postwar audiences. The industry at large was foundering, searching out new subjects for film; Griffith, too, foundered. For a time, he wandered between production companies.
United Artists Corporation – Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists
Then, in 1919, he became part of the organization that formed—with Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks—United Artists Corporation. The prominent names that formed United Artists guaranteed it financial backing. But it also forced the company to aim its products straight at the box office, a quality tacitly present in the films of the other three, but dangerous for Griffith. Griffith’s first movie for United Artists was Broken Blossoms (1919).
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms
It was also his last major movie. Broken Blossoms is a film that vacillates between a genuine poignancy and a number of novel effects and gimmicks that Griffith included largely to guarantee its commercial success. The story of a Chinaman’s affection for a badly treated girl, Broken Blossoms uses sets in a quiet, natural way both to achieve a sense of realism and to evoke mood. Lillian Gish, playing the girl, acts with a gracious naturalness and believability. The editing in some of the sequences—such as the brutal beating of Gish—belongs among the best of Griffith’s work. Broken Blossoms was received well. The New York Times called it “a masterpiece” and the New York Evening Telegram described it with the statement: “It is as if Dickens had spoken by means of the camera.” The film’s success, both critical and commercial, did a great deal to improve Griffith’s sagging reputation. But it also convinced Griffith that he was everything the critics and public said he was: “Our Greatest Poet,” the “Shakespeare of the movies.” He began announcing even greater things: a film 72 reels long; a chain of theaters bearing his name. Griffith the filmmaker had become Griffith the publicist — and a self-publicist at that. The films he made seemed to lack his imagination, and were gradually either delegated to others or made with peremptory speed and with as little imagination and innovation as possible. Yet Griffith had made film history. He had taught the movies to move, to expand beyond the limits imposed upon them by the stage, and to speak with an eloquence and a power never known before. For that Griffith cannot be forgotten.
THE NICKELODEONS, as the first movie theatres were called, in no way resembled the luxurious picture palaces of today, but what an aura of magic and mystery, of laughter and tears clung to them! There, to the sounds of a tinkling and appropriately emotional piano, Pearl White faced her perils, Francis X. Bushman caused fluttering hearts, Theda Bara wrecked homes, Chaplin and Arbuckle and Mack Sennett set zany standards, never to be excelled, and a host of beautiful ladies smiled and wept and were alluring. It was a realm of fantastic and childish make-believe situated in a never-never land called Hollywood, but gradually the whole world came to treasure its heroes and heroines and clowns.
Whatever role the silent screen has played in our social history—and I believe it was an important one—no one can underestimate the enormous pleasure the films of this era gave to audiences everywhere. It has been my thought in compiling this book to recall the varied and fascinating personalities and photoplays of the years from the earliest films to the advent of the sound screen, when stars were really stars, when the fashions and activities of the Hollywood greats echoed around the world and 100,000 people could gather in London and even in Moscow to greet Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on their triumphal tour of Europe. Here was an art peculiarly American and yet universal. Its essence was entertainment; its success, financial and otherwise, was stupendous. Perhaps today, in a more troubled age, we can look back on these people and their films not only with nostalgia but also with a sincere desire to learn what made glamor so glamorous and laughter so hearty, and the world a happier place to live in. It was a memorable age, and I hope I have captured some of its quality to preserve in this book.
1913 – Meanwhile companies were exploiting and contracting stars. Vitagraph, where Lillian Walker and Earle Williams were favorites, signed Clara Kimball Young, a stock company actress, and her husband, James Young. Her first film was “Anne Boleyn.” Mary Pickford, a big box office draw, had returned to Biograph bringing with her two young actress friends, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, who had appeared with her in road companies. Their first important film appearance was in “The Unseen Enemy.” Alice Joyce and Carlyle Blackwell were Kalem’s top stars. Kathlyn Williams and Tom Mix headed Selig’s stars, while J. Warren Kerrigan was America’s best bet. King Baggot was Imp’s attraction. Florence Lawrence, still popular, had left Lubin for the newly formed Victor Company. Edison released “What Happened to Mary?” starring favorite Mary Fuller. It was a series of pictures and a forerunner of the serial. Each of the series was independent and complete, and one was released each month. G. M. Anderson and his Broncho Billy pictures were gaining in popularity and so was Francis X. Bushman at Essanay. Beverly Bayne, a Minneapolis society girl, became Bushman’s leading lady and soon they were the most popular team in films. Essanay also starred “Baby Parsons,” little daughter of Louella O. Parsons, who later as Harriet Parsons became the top woman producer in the industry.
1915 – The outstanding event of the year was D. W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation,” probably the world’s greatest silent motion picture, if greatness is measured by fame. The story was taken from a four act play “The Clansman” which ran for 51 performances on the stage of the Liberty Theatre, New York, in 1906, and which the Rev. Thomas Dixon had fashioned from his own novel of the same name. It had its world premiere at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles, February 8, 1915, under the title of “The Clansman,” but Thomas Dixon, the author, thought the title was too tame, and at his suggestion, it opened at the same Liberty Theatre, New York, where it had been performed as a play, on March 3, 1915, as “The Birth of A Nation.” In twelve reels it was released by the Epoch Film Corporation, an outfit newly formed by Mr. Griffith himself to exploit it independently as a road show. Following its New York success, twelve road showings of the film swept the country at two-dollar top prices and broke all theatre records, not only in the United States, but in all the world capitals where it was eventually shown. The cast, with names that were to become world famous, included Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Wallace Reid, Miriam Cooper, Robert Harron, Mary Alden, Elmer Clifton, Ralph Lewis, Donald Crisp, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aiken, Walter Long, George Seigmann, Jennie Lee, J. A. Beringer, John French, Joseph Henabery, Howard Gave and Raoul Walsh, who later became a well-known director.
1916 – The price of two dollars a seat for a motion picture, which Triangle had inaugurated, was now becoming an established price for films that were shown in legitimate theatres about the country. “Intolerance,” “Ramona,” “Civilization,” “The Fall of A Nation” and “A Daughter of The Gods” were all in this category. “Intolerance,” which was D. W. Griffith’s second large-scale production, was not a worthy successor to his “Birth of A Nation.” It opened at the same Liberty Theatre, New York, on September 6, 1916, and its critical reception was decidedly mixed. The cast included Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Seena Owen (then known as Signe Auen), Constance Talmadge, Alfred Paget, Sam de Gross, George Siegmann, Bessie Love, Ralph Lewis, Tully Marshall, Joseph Hennaberry, George Walsh and Eric Von Stroheim. Among the bit players who later achieved prominence were Goleen Moore, Elmo Lincoln, Alma Rubens, Monte Blue, Carmel Myers, Pauline Starke, Mildred Harris, Carol Dempster, Jewel Carmen, Winifred Westover and Natalie Talmadge. Constance Talmadge had her first success as the Mountain Girl and Von Stroheim, who had been acting as stunt man and bit player in other Griffith films, played the second Pharisee. The film took twenty months to make and ran three and one-half hours on the screen.
1918 – “Mothers of France,” a French ” propaganda film starring Sarah Bernhardt, had been circulating in the United States in 1917 when we entered World War I, but it was nearly a year later before our entry into the war was reflected in our films. The country became flooded with such propaganda films as “To Hell With The Kaiser,” “The Kaiser’s Finish,” “Lafayette, We Come,” “The Woman The Germans Shot” (later changed to “The Cavell Case”), “The Beast of Berlin,” and a parody of it called “The Geezer of Berlin.” Germany was our enemy. Margarita Fischer dropped the “c” from her name, Alfred Vosburgh changed his to Alfred Whitman, and Norman Kaiser became Norman Kerry. The U. S. Government also made propaganda pictures. The Treasury Department asked the stars to help sell Liberty Loans. Such major screen personalities as Pickford, Hart and Fairbanks became active salesmen for Uncle Sam. Clara Kimball Young and Pearl White gave their time for recruiting purposes. Film actors who had “joined up” included Bobert Warwick, Bert Lytell, Tom Forman, Bichard Travers, S. Bankin Drew, Kenneth Harlan, Norman Kerry, Earle Metcalf, Bex Ingram and others. D. W. Griffith went abroad during the war and in France filmed “Hearts of the World,” a tale of a village behind the lines. While the industry was contributing patriotism and propaganda, it was also providing the populace with entertainment. Metro proudly announced it had signed “The Great Nazimova.” Edith Storey, the Dolly Sisters, and Bert Lvtell became Metro stars.
1919 – D. W. Griffith’s productions included “The Girl Who Stayed At Home,” “Scarlet Days,” “Trueheart Susie” and one of his most famous, “Broken Blossoms.” In this Lillian Gish had great success, and it put Richard Barthelmess on the road to fame and fortune. Glarine Seymour, another Griffith discovery, who scored a great success in “The Girl Who Stayed At Home,” was on that same road when she died a year later during an emergency operation. Carol Dempster and Ralph Graves were two other Griffith discoveries of the year. Alice Joyce, Earle Williams and Corinne Griffith continued as top Vitagraph stars. Marie Doro was making successful films in England and Italy.
1920 Among the preeminent attractions were D. W. Griffith’s film “Way Down East” and a foreign importation, “Passion,” which brought Pola Negri, a Polish actress, and Ernst Lubitsch, a German director, to the attention of the American public. Doris Keane and Otis Skinner filmed their great stage successes, “Romance” and “Kismet” respectively. Florence Lawrence, after an absence of five years, made an unsuccessful return to the screen in “The Enfoldment,” an independently produced film.
The man who eventually undertook this task had been engaged in making movies for five years when Howells wrote his article. In the autumn of 1907, the celebrated matinee-idol, James K. Hackett,· ventured into theatrical production, bringing to the Columbia Theater in Washington a new play: A Fool and a Girl. Fanny Ward, was returning to the stage after an interval of absence. The author of this romantic drama of the California hop-fields was an actor; the kind of actor who found his engagements only with touring companies, never on Broadway. For professional purposes he had adopted the name Lawrence Griffith.
A Kentuckian, proud, sentimental, idealistic and very ambitious, he was determined not to become known by his real name, David Wark Griffith, until he had won fame. But, not withstanding the prestige of its producer and its star, audiences in the capital were cool to A Fool and a Girl, and after a fortnight’s run Hackett prudently closed it. It had earned neither money nor fame for its author. Disgruntled, very nearly broke, he went up to New York to look for work. Griffith was thirty-two years old, and had cherished the dream of becoming a successful, famous playwright from the age of eighteen. He was tall and lean, and he carried himself with a lordly air; not because he was an actor, but because he considered himself an aristocrat and believed himself to be a genius. People usually remembered this effect of assurance, somehow emphasized by his large head, big aquiline nose, wide mottth and long chin. Some of them thought him a man consumed by restless energy, full of ideas, always occupied in trying to work them out. Others thought him rather aloof from the bustling, everyday world, as if his real life was. carried on in some interior sphere of calm. Both of these contradictory impressions were true. His father had been a colonel in the Confederate Army; the family, originally people of means, were ruined by the war. A sensitive, bookish child, Griffith’s mind was nourished on tales of the Old South; a land of columned mansions, delicate brave women, gallant gentlemen; a land of chivalrous actions and noble manners; a land of romance. As a boy, he read widely in Victorian poetry and fiction. At the age. of sixteen, he went to Louisville to find work; he ran an elevator, did some reporting for a newspaper, clerked in a drygoods store, took a job in a bookshop. He saw his first Broadway play, brought to Louisville by a touring company: Appropriately, it was a dramatization of George Eliot’s novel, Romola; the heroine’s role was played by Julia Marlowe, a talented and beautiful young actress, soon to become one of the great stars of the American stage. This experience fired Griffith’s lifelong ambition to write for the theater. He immediately set to work on a play; he was to continue working on it, at intervals, for nearly a half century. But when a friend assured him that all great playwrights had learned their craft as actors, he left his job in the bookstore to join a traveling stock company. For the next ten years, he barnstormed with various touring companies, writing constantly during his free time, infrequently selling a poem or short story to some magazine. On one of these tours, he was stranded in California. He found work as a hop-picker and, characteristically, began at once to write a play based on this experience. When the play was accepted by Hackett, Griffith knew that he had reached a decisive turning point in his career. His intuition proved to be correct. But his subsequent course was one that he had not foreseen, nor would he have chosen to follow it if he had. In New York, after the failure of his play, Griffith saw one of the early story films. Being in urgent need of money, he decided to try and sell a story idea to the Edison Company. All the film-makers were pirating plots, so Griffith wrote a brief synopsis of Sardou’s famous melodrama, La Tosca. Opera goers, that winter, were thronging the Metropolitan to hear Puccini’s setting of it interpreted by Emma Eames, Enrico Caruso and Antonio Scotti. At the Edison Company, Griffith saw Edwin S. Porter, who refused his script but offered him a job acting for the camera. To be seen in pictures, as Griffith realized, was to aclmowledge that he wasn’t good enough for the stage; actors who worked in the movies when “at leisure” tried to conceal their disgraceful employment. But, since he was stone broke, Griffith had no choice. He went to work for Porter. After some months, he. learned that the Biograph Company was paying its actors five dollars a day, and often paid as much as fifteen dollars for story suggestions. He applied for a job, and was hired. By this time he had married, and presently his wife, Linda Arvidson, was also taken on as an actrcis. In addition to turning out picture plots and acting, Griffith continued to write; his poems and short stories began appearing in several major magazines; he carefully kept secret the source of his livelihood.
After a year, Biograph offered to promote him to directing pictures. He discovered how to show two or more courses of action occurring in different places, whether simultaneously or not, and keep all threads of a story constantly before his audience. The collective effect of Griffith’s many innovations was to extend both the range, and dramatic intensity, of motion pictures. This had an important social result. Within a few years, it multiplied the audience many times. In so doing, it completely changed the character of the public that attended the movies. Griffith not only created the modern movie, but helped to make it a universal entertainment. He did not foresee this achievement, or deliberately plan it.
It was one of the unpredictable consequences of a conflict that always raged within him. He believed that he was a genius, or wanted to believe it. He was proud of the social superiority that his forebears had taken for granted. Yet he saw himself trapped by poverty in an occupation unworthy of an artist, and inadmissible by a gentleman. He was working only for money enough to buy his freedom from detested drudgery. But the more money he made, the more he seemed to need; he squandered it recklessly, perhaps because he could never take it seriously as an end in itself. Since money was the public measure of success, his vanity was nourished by setting a low value on it. Meanwhile, self-reproach kept pace with his mounting success. He scorned himself for not quitting the movies, for being unable to quit them. For what had he surrendered his integrity? Why had he compromised his ideals, abandoned the only aim he genuinely cherished? He had no plausible answers; the questions continued to torment him, sometimes embittering his triumphs. He never completely overcame his contempt for his professioμ., or the feeling that, for him, success in it was a kind of failure. But the restlessness induced by his conflicting emotions found an outlet in continuous experiment. To shatter the stereotyped formulas that every other maker of pictures accepted as binding; to undertake fearlessly what nobody had ever attempted before: this gave Griffith a perverse satisfaction.
It enabled him to give rein to his exorbitant ambition. However obliquely, it expressed his contempt by demonstrating his refusal to be bound by established practice. In a sense, it appeased his uneasy conscience. Each of his experiments was more revolutionary and hazardous than its predecessors, and in time they became more and more costly. So they met with increasing opposition, not only from the technicians who had to execute them, but from the businessmen who were footing the bills. But opposition merely strengthened Griffith’s determination to carry them through. He had no respect for the medium in which he was working, but his temperament compelled him to treat it as if it were an art. The result was that he made it one. Yet even world acclaim could not persuade him to believe, whole heart that this was true. From the very outset, Griffith’s methods proved disconcerting to his associates. His first assignment was a sentimental story of kidnapping, The Adventures of Dolly; it was shown at Keith and Proctor’s Union Square Theater in New York City on July 14th, 1908, and was liked by audiences throughout the country. Needing a leading man, and not satisfied by any of the actors employed by Biograph, Griffith saw his desired hero in a passer-by on the street, promptly accosted the stranger and hired him.
The unknown, Arthur Johnson, soon became one of the earliest of America’s anonymous screen idols. The completed film ran to approximately the length of Porter’s The Great Train Robbery; about two-thirds of a reel. When Griffith had it projected, his cameraman objected that it was too long. Thirty years later the cameraman, G. W. (“Billy”) Bitzer, then long famous in the industry because of his subsequent association with Griffith, truefully recalled this early criticism. “In the light of a completed scenario today,” he remarked, “I can readily say that Griffith was years ahead of us.” The incident was typical of the opposition provoked by every innovation that he ventured. Almost immediately, Griffith came into conflict with his superiors on the issue of the kind of story being offered to the public.
Simple, obvious melodramas involving a “chase” were the principal staple; Griffith considered them absurd, felt certain that the nickelodeon public would accept something better, but was condemned to grind out several hundred of these naive yams. In the process, however, he developed methods of increasing their suspense. Delighted by this victory over conservatism, Griffith immediately embarked upon a far more dangerous project. This was a two-reel “psychological study” of the Darwinian theory of evolution. The cautious businessmen who controlled Biograph were horrified. Was this appropriate entertainment for the illiterate masses? But they could not afford to dispense with the maverick director who, by breaking all established precedents, seemed to be doubling and trebling their profits. They were not pleased when Griffith’s sober, philosophical picture-dramatizing the eternal conflict between intelligence and brute force-proved to be a sensational success. Man’s Ascent aroused enthusiasm everywhere.
“The audience, mechanical Americans fond of crawling on their stomachs to tinker with their automobiles, are eager over the evolution of the first weapon from a stick to a hammer,” the poet Vachel Lindsay reported some years later. “They are as full of curiosity as they could well be over the history of Langley or the Wright Brothers.” But among the magnates of Biograph-the most respectable and wealthy group in the industry–curiosity took an anxious tone. Where was all this nonsense going to lead? Pictures were made and sold by the foot. The business was a mass production industry, and the product could be made most cheaply if it was standardized. The trust could make the public accept whatever it chose to give them. Griffith’s insistence upon “better films” didn’t fit into this scheme of operation. It promised to raise expenses, and who would pay the price? Motion pictures were-and were bound to remain-a show for the poor and ignorant. This fact Griffith seemed obstinately determined to ignore.
He ignored all sound, businesslike procedures. Rapidity of output was essential, and other directors, taking the brief scripts prepared for them by writers, went before the camera without wasting time on any preparation. Not so Griffith. He wouldn’t use a script, in any case. He never had anything written down, never had a word on paper for any of his pictures; he developed his stories as he went along. Sometimes, after rehearsing a story all day, he would chuck it as no good, and begin another. For, uniquely, he insisted on rehearsing in sequence the scenes of every picture until each scene dovetailed smoothly into the next, and the acting satisfied him perfectly. He worked out his story by using his actors as if they were chessmen; that was how his wife described it. He always knew precisely what he wanted, and the camera never began to grind until every little detail had been perfected to a degree that satisfied him. But in spite of these idiosyncrasies, his output was enormous; exhibitors clamored for Biograph pictures; and mail began coming into the company from the movie public. praising thase which Griffith had directed a new and surprising phenomenon. At the Biograph factory, housed in an old brownstone mansion on Fourteenth Street east of Fifth Avenue, the executives didn’t know whether to rejoice in having Griffith under contract, or look forward apprehensively to what might come of it. If only he could be relied on to leave well enough alone!
This was precisely what Griffith couldn’t do. Things as they were never suited him. Thus, for example, he was always looking about for new actors and actresses. The kind of acting practised on the Broadway stage he considered all wrong for the films. On the screen, the human figure was magnified many times; exaggerated postures and gestures, which the vast distances of a theater made necessary, became ludicrous when enlarged by the projector. Griffith wanted naturalness in acting. For the hard, implacable eye of the camera, he wanted youth and freshness. He began to search for these qualities among the ill-paid youngsters who toured, as he had, with traveling stock companies. He thought they might also prove versatile. For they knew the harsh necessity of playing all kinds of parts perstiasively and with conviction; they had to please their unsophisticated audiences, or starve. One spring morning in 1909. Mrs. Griffith came into the front hall of the factory and noticed a little girl sitting, patiently waiting to see Griffith. She looked to be no more than fourteen. “She wore a plain navy-blue serge suit, a blue-and-white striped lawn shirtwaist, a rolled brim Tuscan straw sailor hat with a dark-blue ribbon bow. About her face, so fresh, so pretty and so gentle, bobbed a dozen or more golden curls – such perfect little curls as I had never seen.”
Anita Loos continued writing for the films; many years later, her satirical novel, Gentlemen Prefer ·Blondes, delighted readers the world over. Another early Pickford picture, The Little Teacher, brought twenty or more letters daily to the Biograph Company. The writers, enchanted by the child actress, asked for the name of “Little Mary” or “the girl with the long curls.” These letters went into the waste-basket unanswered; Biograph refused to reveal the names of its actors and actresses. The term “fan mail” hadn’t yet been invented, but the business executives at Biograph took a dim view of this novel corresponqence; public recognition might inspire the young actress to demand more money, and would certainly inflate her self-esteem. Having seen some of the pictures made in California by the fugitive independents, Griffith was seized by a desire to exploit its picturesque backgrounds. In the winter of 1910, he took a company of Biograph players-including Mary Pickford-to Los Angeles, and set up a temporary studio on the outskirts of the city. To feature Mary Pickford, he devised a story, The Thread of Destiny, which used the San Gabriel Mission as a romantic setting. He also featured her in Ramona, which Biograph advertised as the most costly picture ever made-a claim partly warranted by the fact that Griffith had paid the unprecedented fee of one hundred dollars to film Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel. These pictures established the young actress-still anonymous to her public-as the most popular of all players with motion-picture audiences. The other pictures which Griffith made in California were principally based on historical subjects. He had become eager to interpret, for twentieth-century Americans, an American past of which many of them were either ignorant or forgetful. But the contemporary social scene also fascinated him. Oil had recently been discovered; a migration to the new California fields had begun. In two films, Griffith attempted to record the surge of pioneers, from all parts of the country, to this latest frontier – Eldorado.
Five years after he began making pictures, Griffith’s prestige in the booming industry was unrivaled. By 1913, he was acknowledged to be the mast original and successful maker of pictures in environment that had shaped them. Conceiving his picture on an epic scale-it was to fill twelve reels, more than any picture had ever used-Griffith quietly proceeded without any script, building it experimentally as he went along. Six weeks of continuous, careful rehearsal preceded the camera’s first shot. Griffith taught his cast how to act, move and walk for the camera; told them, with respect to every scene, precisely how many feet of film they could use to secure the needed dramatic effect. In this period, too, he substituted an actress for the one originally chosen to play the heroine’s role; the change in large part accounted for the picture’s eventual success. Hundreds of “extras” were required, arrangements had to be made for their housing and food. Horses had to be procured, and vast quantities of cotton goods to cloak the Klansmen; both were difficult to obtain because of the war in Europe, which was draining away all types of commodities. An enormous acreage had to be rented to stage the great rides and battle scenes. All the responsibilities of management fell on Griffith, and so did the burden of raising money.
The movie companies considered his project crazy, and none would finance it. He had estimated the cost of his super-picture at approximately one hundred thousand dollars, enough to pay for ten “feature” pictures. Even after production was actually under way, the need for money became so urgent that all work was stopped while Griffith went to Los Angeles to secure it-from personal friends, local tradesmen, lawyers, anyone whom he could persuade to grant him a loan. Yet despite all difficulties, Griffith-according to “Billy” Bitzer, his cameraman remained calm; and long afterwards his leading woman remembered that “everythjng was always under control because he always was.” Six months passed before the picture was finally completed. But not a single scene had ever been re-taken; a permanent and unique record in picture-making. The leading actors in the picture had all worked for Griffith at Biograph. Their names, previously unknown to audiences, were announced on the film of The Birth of a Nation, and most of them were soon elevated to stardom. But a peculiar glory suddenly invested the players to whom Griffith assigned the roles of hero and heroine; nothing like it had ever before occurred, on so wide a scale, in the United States. Requests for autographs and.photographs poured in on them by the thousands. Unknowingly, they established new patterns of appearance, fashion and behavior.
Young men imitated the haircut, the style of collar, the suits and neckties shown in portraits of the “Little Colonel”; they tried to adopt the gentle but superbly gallant manner which, on the screen, made him universally appealing to women. And American girls quickly cultivated a new look. Plumpness, previously in vogue, ceased to be fashionable. For “Elsie Stoneman” was petite, slim, fragile; her golden hair cascaded below her waist; she was demure, wistful, but magnificently courageous. All over the land, young women strained for slenderness; patiently tried to behave like clinging vines, but also suggest a pure white fire of passion; dressed demurely, and practised shaking down their hair for the beguiling, perilous moment yet to come. The players who aroused this idolatry later found that it exacted its own strange penalty. So far as the public could exercise its compulsion, they were required to perpetuate the ideal images that had captivated the American imagination.
The new king of hearts, Henry B. Walthall, was never to escape this stem necessity; when he was supplanted by another type of hero, he disappeared abruptly from the screen, and returned only after many years to play minor roles. He was born in Alabama, of impoverished parents, and was put to work as a child in the cotton fields. The books loaned him by a clergyman uncle took the place of formal schooling, but later he managed to spend six months at Howard College. He served in the Spanish-American War and, after being discharged from the army, went to New York to seek work as an actor. By 1909, when a friend took him to the Biograph Company, Walthall had acquired considerable experience.
Griffith hired him at once. Small, slender, with a very expressive face, he proved to be a skillful pantomimist, and Griffith was soon using him for romantic roles–most notably in Ramona, with Mary Pickford, and thereafter in a long series of films. The heroine of The Birth of a Nation was to have a far more distinguished and spectacular career than Walthall. The Gish sisters-Lillian and Dorothy-were brought to Griffith in 1912 by their long-time friend, Mary Pickford. Like her, they had been on the stage almost from infancy. Like her, they had had no real childhood. They received their early education in the stuffy dressing rooms of cheap provincial theaters, in jolting day coaches and the rooms of third-class hotels patronized by the touring melodrama companies in which they acted children’s roles. They were constantly haunted by fears of the Gerry Society, a philanthropic organization whose commendable object was to prevent the exploiting of children.
“Before I could understand what it was all about,” Lillian Gish noted long afterwards, “I knew of subterfuges and evasions and tremendous plottings to keep myself and my sister acting, so that the very necessary money might be earned.” Their obscurity kept them safe, and they remained obscure for a simple reason: “When we were ambitious and went into better productions, the plays seemed to fail.” But Lillian Gish graduated from a role in Her First False Step-which brought audiences “the awe-inspiring rescue of a child from a den of savage African lions”-to the part of a child dancer in the company of Madame Sarah Bernhardt, who in 1905 was making her usual farewell tour of the United States. Some years of formal schooling followed. When Mary Pickford brought the Gish Sisters to Griffith, motion pictures were eliminating the melodrama road companies, and they were glad to accept his offer to take them on as extras. Gradually they worked into leading roles; Dorothy in comedy, Lillian in romantic and dramatic parts. Long after both sisters became celebrated stars, Griffith recorded his early impressions of them: “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal and patiently sought to realize it. Genius is like that: the ideal becomes real to it.” During a rehearsal for The Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish was “standing in” for the actress assigned to the heroine’s role. Seeing that she perfectly embodied his conception of the part, Griffith impulsively substituted her for the other actress. Her performance of the role more than justified this hasty decision.
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation
Night before the Boston opening, Negro clergymen, teachers and lawyers in Massachusetts violently denounced the film. Public emotion soon reached the boiling point, and on the film’s first night a disturbance broke out in front of the theater. It rapidly assumed the proportions of a large-scale race riot; the police were incapable of restoring order, and the Boston fire department was hastily summoned to help disperse the rioters. On the following morning, this outbreak of violence made headlines in the press throughout the United States. The immediate result was to provoke a demand for the picture from all parts of the country; the Boston riot was frequently duplicated elsewhere; and the American people flocked to box-offices, eagerly paying regular stage prices for the privilege of seeing a film capable of inciting such widespread disorder.
Meanwhile, indignation at the social implications of The Birth of a Nation developed quickly. President Emeritus Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University condemned it as having “a tendency to perversion of white ideals.” From Hull House, in Chicago, Miss Jane Addams announced that she was “painfully exercised over the exhibition.” And in the columns of The Nation Oswald Garrison Villard-grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, the first Abolitionist-forthrightly denounced it as “a deliberate attempt to humiliate ten million American citizens.” More significantly, the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People published, and widely circulated, a pamphlet entitled Fighting a Vicious Film; A Record of Protest Against “The Birth of a Nation.” The Association was headed by Moorfield Storey, a Boston patrician and an eminent attorney; seventy-one years old, and long honored both as a reformer and leader of the American bar, Storey exercised a powerful influence in mobilizing Northern sentiment against the picture. Yet Storey was soon to demonstrate that N orthem humanitarians were no less capable of ironical inconsistency than Southerners like Griffith and Senator Watson. For despite his vigorous championship of the cause of the Negro, Storey one year later furnished leadership to the forces which bitterly opposed the appointment of Louis D. Brandeis to the Supreme Court-both because Brandeis was a “reformer” and because he was a Jew-and, as the historian Henry Steele Commager pointed out long afterwards, Storey likewise opposed the admission of Jews to Harvard University. Specifically replying to Storey’s attack, Griffith issued a pamphlet provocatively entitled The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America. In this, he argued heatedly for “the freedom of the screen” and “the fundamental rights of expression.” Presently, an acrimonious and passionate controversy over these novel issues was being carried on in American newspapers and magazines. Griffith himself, according to Miss Lillian Gish, was deeply hurt by the antagonism that his picture had aroused, and resented the objections urged by its opponents. Privately, he protested that the film portrayed “bad white people as well as bad Negroes,” showing that the Negroes were “bad only because the white people made them so.” That his picture had inflicted an irreparable damage on ten million citizens, in addition to humiliating them; that it had inflamed and sanctioned vicious prejudices; that it had been capable of so doing only by virtue of its immense power as dramathese facts Griffith could not bring himself to acknowledge. The critics and journalists who acclaimed it as a great work of art were in a scarcely less equivocal position. For the most part they were Americans of sensitive conscience, advocates of civic morality, presumably eager to see a “better life” for all made possible under democratic institutions. Was socially evil influence compatible with high esthetic significance? The complex social and ethical problems which The Birth of a Nation projected were to affiict educators, social theorists, the clergy, lawmakers, and motionpicture-executives until the middle of the century. The controversy which his picture has exploded confirmed Griffith’s earlier intuition that the American public was ready to accept films undertaking the serious discussion of major social issues. His literary tum of mind predisposed him to seek significant themes, and he perceived that many of the conflicts occurring in an industrial society provided them; but only a genius for the particular medium in which he was working could have suggested reinforcement of the contemporary illustration by parallels from earlier epochs in human history.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
Classics of the Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)
Intolerance – 1916
In characterizing it as “the greatest film of all time” and “the only film fugue,” the late Professor Theodore Huff, one of the world’s leading film historians, went on to say that Intolerance was perhaps the only film entitled to take its place as an individual work of art alongside Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the works of Michelangelo, and so on.
These are big statements — but statements not made without a great deal of thought. Is it possible to single out any one film, and say “This is the greatest”? Frankly I don’t know. But if I were asked, “What film is greater than Intolerance?” I couldn’t provide an answer.
Intolerance never was, and probably never will be, a popular box office film. It was way ahead of its time in 1916. It’s still ahead of its time today. And certainly no director exists today with the genius and vision of D. W. Griffith, who conceived and directed Intolerance.
Even if one did, it is unlikely that any studio would back him up and give him a really free hand. It has been reliably estimated that to remake Intolerance today just the way it was made in 1916, but with the addition of a sound track, would cost in excess of thirty million dollars!
In this mighty thirteen-reel film (cut down from many times that length) Griffith attacked intolerance and bigotry through the ages. He did so via four separate stories. A modern story, based on an actual case of labor troubles and the problems of a young couple (Mae Marsh and Robert Harron) came to its climax with the husband condemned to death for a murder he didn’t commit. A biblical story concerned the betrayal and -crucifixion of Christ. France in the Middle Ages provided the setting for a third story (starring Marguery Wilson and Eugene Pallette) of religious intolerance under the regime of Catherine De Medici. And the fourth and foremost story was concerned with the enmity of Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Persian, and culminates in the Fall of Babylon. Constance Talmadge, Seena Owen, Elmo Lincoln, Wallace Beid, Elmer Clifton, Alfred Paget, Tully Marshall and many other big-stars-to-be were featured in this episode.
Griffith didn’t tell his stories episodically, one by one, but told them simultaneously, in parallel action. He began by devoting long stretches of film to each story, to establish the period and the characters. Then as the film progressed, he cut more rapidly from story to story to emphasize the injustices common to all eras. And as all four stories reached their climaxes, he cut with fantastic fluidity from one story to another—from Cyrus’ chariots racing to destroy Babylon to Catherine’s troops about to massacre the Huguenots, and back to the modern story with the condemned boy starting his walk to the gallows. Not only was the idea vast in conception, but it was magnificent in execution, each cut almost mathematically planned long shot of one story to long shot of another, closeup to close-up, and so on. The rhythm and tempo increased until, in the words of Iris Barry, it was “like watching history pour across the screen like a cataract.”
Intolerance was, and is, the most advanced example of film technique. Almost every device you see on the screen today came from, or was perfected in, this picture. But as entertainment it baffled and exhausted its audiences, which were not only unused to social indictments, but just couldn’t grasp the meaning of it all. Today’s audiences are better able to understand it, but they are no less exhausted by it.
In terms of purely popular entertainment, its Babylonian sequence came off best. The sheer massiveness of the sets have never been equalled. Griffith almost built a full-scale replica of old Babylon!
The big battle scenes remain the most enormous, and the most expertly directed, in all movie history. Despite a screen full of huge scaling towers and thousands of battling extras, Griffith so unerringly composed his shots that the eye of the spectator was automatically concentrated on the detail he wanted noticed. The excitement and realism of these scenes have never been surpassed—from overall grandeur to individual vignettes, such as those horribly convincing medium shots of heads being lopped off in the course of battle!
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)
Intolerance had a profound influence on film-making everywhere. The Russians, for instance, invited Griffith to come over and take charge of their entire movie industry. And, though he declined, the film was used as a sort of textbook to instruct their top directors—Eisenstein, Pudovkin, etc.—all of whom showed quite evidently in their films how much they had been influenced by Griffith, and indeed, admitted that influence quite openly.
Many of the men who worked on the film as Griffith’s assistants—W. S. Van Dyke, Erich von Stroheim, and others—went on to become top directors, while almost all of its players subsequently became top-ranking stars. Mae Marsh’s performance in it, beautifully and sensitively underplayed, remains one of the supreme performances of the silent screen. Everybody in it, from Walter Long and Miriam Cooper, to Lillian Gish (seen only as a woman rocking a cradle, in the symbolic scenes linking the separate stories), was just right, but, next to Mae Marsh, the biggest hit was Constance Talmadge.
As the rowdy mountain girl in the Babylonian sequence, she displayed the wonderful, almost Fairbanksian, sense of fun that was soon to make her one of the screen’s top comediennes. In fact, everybody benefitted from Intolerance but its creator, Griffith. The enormous production costs ate up all his profits from The Birth of a Nation, and most of his other resources as well. And it was such a resounding box office flop that he spent years paying off every nickel of the debts it incurred. Its failure would have stopped a lesser man dead in his tracks—but Griffith went right on making movies, good commercial ones to make money and the occasional film made for art alone (such as the unusual and sensitive Isn’t Life Wonderful?) which lost it all again.
Griffith had a colorful, if checkered, career ahead of him, and many more great films. But he was never again to make a film of the stature and magnitude of Intolerance. Nor, for that matter, was anyone else.
Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 – Intolerance 1
Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 – Intolerance 2
Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 – Intolerance 3
Half a century ago, when a group of film stars started their own company called United Artists, Richard Rowland, the President of Metro Pictures Corporation, said, “So the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.” Films were said to be a director’s medium, but for nearly sixty years, the actor—whose personal following exceeded the public’s interest in the story he or she was acting in—seemed to rule not only Hollywood but the world of the motion picture. On and off the set, they led conspicuous lives; made more money more quickly than captains of the industry; made and broke fashion; became the celebrities of their age: Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Garbo, Valentino, John Gilbert, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bogart, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Marilyn Monroe. Their names were known to the millions who could not name their own representatives in Congress. It’s been a long strip of celluloid. In 1910, the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence became the first publicized movie performer. Her successors today think of themselves as anti-stars who reject the life-styles of the traditional stars, who live not in Hollywood but where they want to, who don’t assign their careers to studios but let studios distribute the pictures they own, yet who, as they boast of their nakedness, may be discovering that all they have done is to alter the cut of a very old costume.
Griffith’s sentimental preferences were perfectly suited to the sophisticated equipment in use even at this early date. The camerawork, as has already been observed, had its origins in Victorian craft photography; and the lenses employed were as good as any the cinema was to develop for several decades. A face had to be youthful to withstand their scrutiny – Lillian Gish recalls that Griffith once had to return a baby which had been borrowed from an orphanage for a scene and ask for a younger looking one. He must have discovered very quickly how strongly filmgoers identified with the slips of girls in his pictures and the Victorian stories involving them. It is worth emphasizing that the sentimentality of the plots, which jars today, was then very much a fact of life for nickelodeon audiences from the back streets or immigrant ghettos where drunkenness bred brutish parents, long-lost offspring were the common price of having to leave one’s homeland, and the dying babies of melodrama had their statistical reality in the infant mortality rate.
The gratitude and devotion that Griffith’s stars later expressed for him were not unmixed by a tone of relief when they temporarily eluded his control or escaped from it for good. ‘You know that scene in the closet,’ said Lillian Gish in 1957, some thirty-eight years after she had played it in Broken Blossoms (1919) when I spin round and round in turn as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out for myself, and never told Griffith about what I was doing.’ (The secretive pride, slight guilt and rare omission of the respectful ‘Mr’ Griffith make such a confidence sound like a declaration of revolt.) ‘You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoiled it. It had to be spontaneous – the hysterical terror of a child.’ Griffith’s sensitive girls learned perfectionism, but sometimes at the expense of self expression.
All For Art – Lillian Gish
Silent stars have paid a heavy price for so many of their films being lost or in poor repair or simply being out of popular circulation for a long time. Those who have not gone out of memory have gone out of focus. They have become names by which to label a period, rather than strikingly individual identities. Their styles of acting have been confused. And stars who were simply close contemporaries are often spoken about as if they had been historical replicas.
Lillian Gish has suffered badly in this respect. She is invariably linked with Mary Pickford; but the resemblances in their careers, of which the chief was having D. W. Griffith as their mentor, are far less important than the differences. A principal one suggests itself right away. One can approach Mary Pickford’s art through any number of significant events in her life; but Lillian Gish seems to have had no life outside her art. Mary Pickford would have fitted well into a Dickens novel: one would have wished to reserve Lillian Gish for Henry James. Pickford had an early, immense and essentially popular success which drew its strength from the urban working classes whose daily load Mary’s screen pranks and resilient outlook invariably lightened. Gish was vastly successful, too, but hers was a more rarified and, as Griffith would say, spirituelle contact with her public. Pickford was the penny whistle that could sound cheerful in adversity; Gish was the flute that specialised in laments. Pickford was born to suffer and overcome in her films, Gish to suffer and be crushed. Pickford’s acting was a reaction to the world around her. Gish’s acting always seemed to be striving towards some ideal partly because the roles she played supremely well had their creative source in motherhood or chastity, both of which are ideal states.
Both stars of course were tough. Mary’s toughness showed in a self-reliant realism that lies never very far below the sentimental surface of her roles. Lillian’s toughness was marvellously at variance with the fragility of her looks, but it was there. And physically there, too, otherwise she would not have survived exposure in below-zero weather for the ice-floe rescue in Way Down East when Griffith considerately put an oil stove under his camera to stop it from freezing up but periodically had to halt the filming in order to defrost his star.
But besides dedication, Gish had a moral sternness towards her work that as she grew older drew her sympathies and some of her later roles close to the kind of pioneer stubbornness which expresses a lost American ideal. It is hard to think of another actress who could have turned on the Haitian police bullies when they assault her and her husband in The Comedians (1967) with the same force of hereditary indignation behind her – as if it was not just an outrage against her person, but against her patriotism. Not that Gish would have been confined by any role as narrow as, say, a Daughter of the American Revolution – not while the candidature for the Mother of the American Revolution remained unfilled.
It is easier to categorise Lillian Gish in the most recent stretches of her long career because the pale, frail, wistful protegee of Griffith’s day looks so insubstantial. The silent-film historian, Edward Wagenknecht, spoke the truth when he said that the effect Gish makes is ‘virtually to blot out the flesh’. To which one must immediately add that she knew the value of getting outside help in doing so. To photograph Broken Blossoms, for instance, she brought Henry Sartov to the Griffith studio – her contract gave her this power – and Sartov made use of the soft-focus photography which was still an impressive novelty in 1919. It is the effect he creates by filming her through a layer of gauze which adds an insubstantial dimension to her little London waif who is befriended by a Chinaman and beaten to death by her brutish step-father. What would have been cameo-sharp in a more corporeal conception now seems to be created out of Limehouse mist. Yet it retains uncanny clarity of pain and pity, because Gish is an artist to her literal fingertips. She works in the miniature emotions that go with the small bodies and delicate features of Griffith’s preferred type of actress. She works at the extremities of her physique, so that the child’s fluttering excitement in “broken blossoms as her fingers reach to touch the gorgeous Oriental robe the Chinaman is offering her is like that of a nervous butterfly.
It comes as no surprise that Griffith’s advice to Lillian Gish on acting was to study small animals and birds. (To Pickford, his advice was, study small children.) Neither Freud nor Jung needs to be called in to interpret her performance: just watching her movements reveals the inner message. She has the same concentrated sense of presence that a small pet engenders in its cramped world of hutch or cage, where every eye-blink or feather-flick is a miniscule disturbance relaying an emotion to the outside world. If that world is filled with some impending catastrophe prepared by God or man, then the disparity between the scale of the peril and its effect on the victim becomes itself piteous – and this was generally the case in her films for Griffith.
Her looks assisted her enormously. She had very precisely defined lips, the upper one of which fit like a long lid over the much smaller lower one and increased the wistfulness of her features. Her eyes have always had the effect of a baby’s – they seem disproportionately large for the face they are set in. (They are large even by the ophthalmic effects obtained inadvertently in the silent movies where the studio’s Klieg lights made the players stare and often forced them to drop out for a few days with eye strain, though fortunately the result in front of the cameras was simply to expose the whites and make the sufferers look more soulful and romantic than migrainy.) Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy were unlike in temperament; but when the pair of them starred together as the sisters who are wrenched apart by the French Revolution in Orphans of the Storm (1921) they were so alike in looks that some filmgoers got a sensation of parallax vision. Now twin-like looks give a slightly mysterious air of ‘apartness’ to those who share them; and it was this which must have marked out the little Gishes when they sallied forth, dressed alike, with their mother to the Biograph Studios in 1912 in order to renew acquaintance with a childhood friend, Gladys Smith, whom they had seen in one of the company’s films, Gladys turned out to be ‘Mary Pickford’ – and she introduced them to Griffith. One can only guess at the favourable effect which two of his spirituelle types must have had on him when they appeared in duplicate. He engaged them and immediately tied a blue ribbon round Lillian and a red one round Dorothy so as to tell them apart.
Behind them lay several years in touring stock companies which their mother had joined at the suggestion of a theatrical lodger when her husband deserted her. She had found that the popular melodramas gave plenty of employment to children, too, who were often required to play identical roles to the ones in which life had stranded them. It is easy to underestimate the conviction brought to these catastrophe-laden chronicles, on both sides of the footlights.
Griffith had his favourites at Biograph and could play them mischieviously against each other. But where acting was concerned, all that mattered was art; and his judgment was incorruptible. Dorothy Gish he described as apter at picking up his intention than Lillian, ‘quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result’. Lillian, though, ‘sought to realise an ideal’. And so, of course, did he. This was the inspirational bond between them from the very beginning; but there must have been others to produce those astonishing results on the screen. Love was one, though translated into respect and devotion. Literature was probably another. The values that both held dear had been shaped by the poetic strain in American letters, the tradition of Whitman, Longfellow, Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was part of Griffith’s sentimental education and Lillian’s classroom one. She was much better read than Pickford or the Talmadges, Constance and Norma, whose choice of stories for filming when they eventually turned independent producers betrays an early shaping by Peg’s Own Paper. (Not that this was a handicap, just the contrary: their tastes were the same as their public’s.) Lillian’s retort is well known when Louis B. Mayer expressed doubt, in 1926, that the film censor would be agreeable to a screen version of The Scarlet Letter in which she wished to play Hester Prynne, the deserted wife who bears the child of a sinful pastor. ‘It is a classic in every American classroom,’ she declared warmly, putting Hawthorne’s literary status before her own purity rating although in fact it was the latter which won the censor’s approval for the project.
Literature shaped Griffith’s film aspirations as well. The device for finking the four parallel plots in Intolerance apparently occurred to him in a flash of inspiration after reading Whitman’s fines ‘out of the cradle endlessly rocking, uniter of here and hereafter’. But it was the acute perception he had of Gish’s nature which caused him to cast her, in spite of other roles in the film open to her, as Whitman’s eternal mother, rocking the cradle of humanity, her face finking the stories, binding together the ages of intolerance. The posture of a mother with her child is not simply an emblematic one for Lillian Gish: it is a concept running through acting, even in the most maudlin plots, like a current of pure emotion.
Part of her Limehouse waif’s loneliness in Broken Blossoms comes from her isolation from both motherhood and childhood. Her own mother in the film is dead. A child-ridden neighbour warns her against the burdens of marriage. The local prostitutes warn her against sex. In fact her age in the film is oddly indeterminate. Griffith’s own characteristically lachrymose subtitle refers to ‘the child with tear-stained face’, but her interpretation has more subtlety and ambiguity than this. First seen sidling along a wharf with a ragged shawl, holes in her stockings and a hat with an absurdly wide brim which enhances the woebegone effect, she creeps home with dread in her step and a stoop that makes her look all of 50 years old. It sounds like a compilation of tear-jerking tricks and tatters, but that is not how it looks. James Agate, who was no easy touch for any player trying to ape Sarah Bernhardt, expressed his astonishment that Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms ‘should give the world an exact image of the great actress in her far-off youth’. Pickford in the same part might have felt the need to invent some comic business – like the scrubbing brushes she uses as skates in her own film Through the Back Door (1921) -to relieve the harshness of life. Gish, typically, uses gestures that accentuate it. And again and again she falls back on childhood for her emotional inspiration and technique. Ordered to smile by her bullying expugilist step-father, she inserts two fingers in her mouth, baby-like, to push her lips up into a temporary smile of strained wistfulness. This effect she devised herself, to Griffith’s intense delight, and it is repeated at the end of the film as the breath leaves her broken body. It is an emotional shorthand sign: it packs a world of pathos into a minute dimension. Gish anticipates, and brilliantly avoids, sentimental banality; so that when she takes to bed the doll that the ‘yellow man’, played by Richard Barthelmess, has given her, one of its sawdust-filled arms pushes into her cheek like the finger of an importunate baby. Again the effect is ‘arranged’, but the arrangement is the product of flawless instinct.
Even when one is well aware of Gish’s technique, her effects generally succeed brilliantly, because the intensity behind them is so genuinely experienced. The baptism of her dead baby in Way Down East was apparently so affecting that the real father of the infant who had been borrowed for the scene was overcome while watching her on the set. She could produce such moments en passant, too, not just as part of a set-piece. In The Scarlet Letter her baby falls ill and she goes for help. Casually yet touchingly, and without making it seem a conscious gesture, she moves two chairs with clothes hung on the backs of them between the baby in bed and the cottage door – to shield it from draughts while she is away. Gish has also instant recourse to motherhood in scenes to which it is not precisely applicable, yet is emotionally apposite. A love scene with Joseph Schildkraut in Orphans of the Storm leaves an afterglow of rapture. Then, abruptly, she turns to a rocking chair and, as she pushes it, her thoughts are clearly several leaps ahead of marriage and already on maternity. Gish tucks moments like these meticulously into scenes, like fuses, and primes them emotionally.
It is right to emphasise such small moments in her art, for Gish’s performances under Griffith are usually remembered for the big ones of emotional crescendo. He matched her climaxes to the destructive power of man or nature. A master of screen counter point, he sensed the effect of making this frail-looking girl a victim of overwhelmingly cruel destiny from the minute she appears on the screen looking, ominously, too gentle for the world’s pain. It is on record that Gish knew precisely how to produce her trauma effect. ‘It is expressed,’ she once said clinically, ‘by the arm from the elbow to the fingers and depends entirely on rhythm-the gradual quickening of movement up to the pitch desired.’ But this merely proves she appreciated that, in screen acting, less is more. As Allene Talmey put it, ‘her face required only a breeze to whip it into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons’.
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms
Yet when a dramatic typhoon does engulf Gish her carefully graduated loss of reason, the way she dissolves into hysteria or madness, never loses its human proportions, while the intensity expressed belies the effect of a time-and-motion study which her own dispassionate analysis of it suggests. When she shuts herself in a closet to escape from her step-father in Broken Blossoms she creates great eddies of claustrophobic panic not by pounding on the wall, but by the more disturbing means of whirling round and round. Just as a body immersed in water displaces its own volume of liquid, Gish uses space to displace her hysteria.
Her features change alarmingly under stress like the moment in Hearts of the World (1918) when, in one uninterrupted shot, she loses her reason beside the dead body of her mother, a war victim. First she kisses her, tilts back her head with the mouth open in a silent shout of grief, then suddenly snaps her mouth shut, lets her facial spasms die away into a mask of immobile incomprehension, and finally stares unseeingly straight into the camera. The carry-over effect of dislocated sanity is shattering enough to lend conviction to a plot that calls on Lillian to wander distractedly through a battlefield bombardment clutching her bridal gown and to spend what was to have been her wedding night beside her badly wounded fiance whom she takes for dead. After witnessing such a pathetic demonstration of madness one understands why Tennessee Williams wrote Portrait ofa Madonna, an early draft of A. Streetcar Named Desire, especially for Lillian Gish. Her screen personality exhibits a lot of the same desperate lyricism as Blanche Dubois: insanity and the effect of blunt reality on too unprotected a sensibility is the fate that threatens both women.
But one area of life that Gish did not touch in her apprenticeship to Griffith, which lasted till 1921 when she followed the consequences of her stardom and went to work with other directors, was the sexual one. Perhaps it fitted Griffith’s temperament not to explore it with her, even though his unfortunate racist outlook, the product of his Kentucky upbringing, which made him equate colour with lust, imparted one highly disturbing moment to Broken Blossoms. Gish has run away from home and is sleeping in the house of the Chinaman who has offered her sanctuary. At this point Barthelmess’s eyes are shown in huge close-up as he draws near the girl’s bed, followed by a medium shot of his head craning forward in a more than fond contemplation of her body. Then, abruptly, he kisses the Oriental robe he has given her – and the subtitle, ‘His love remains pure’, clinches one’s relief.
Two years later, when Griffith made Dream Street (1921), another London slum story, the Chinaman in it possessed a somewhat less pure passion. However the girl who rejects his offer of marriage and denounces him to the police with a smug, ‘After this, you leave white girls alone’, was played by Carol Dempster, a cooler protegee than Gish. Griffith’s sentimental romanticism also probably deterred him from the sexual realism that de Mille was exploring as early as 1917 in The Cheat where yet another Oriental makes a faithless white society woman part of his personal property by branding her. Fortunately Gish’s sensitivity is so complete that one never questions whether her Griffith heroines are at the age of sexual awareness or not. She interiorises love and in the process purifies it.
Nevertheless such abstention may have reinforced certain puritan aspects of her art that began to obtrude into the sentimental penumbra of films she made for other directors. The extent of her devotion to Griffith can be guessed at from the extent to which she had underpriced herself compared with what other stars were getting. She had made Orphans of the Storm for 1,000 dollars a week which Griffith ultimately found he could not afford to pay her. Once their ways parted, Gish assumed many of Griffith’s powers: the power to vet a director’s appointment, approve the script and rehearse the whole film in advance as Griffith’s training had taught her. Her betrayed wife in Romola (1924: directed by Henry King) and her nun in The White Sister (1924: also by King) whose ‘dead’ lover returns to try and claim her back from the convent, have passages where Gish’s emotional stress breaks prismatically across her face with the old Griffith magic; but it is not just the lack of her master’s voice which makes them appear slightly more self-regarding exercises. The latter film owes its warmth to Ronald Colman as the sailor lover. Gish’s rejection of worldly happiness with him in favour of the veil is meticulously played. But devoutness does not become her quite so well as defencelessness.
King Vidor in his autobiography, A. Tree Is a Tree, has given perhaps the most authoritative and insight-filled version of what it was like to work with a Griffith protegee of Gish’s lustre. He pays a slightly mixed tribute to her insistence on exhaustively – and exhaustingly – rehearsing every scene in the film, in this case La Boheme (1926), on an empty set with imaginary doors, windows and dressing mirrors. Even more illuminatingly, he recounts the masochistic lengths she was prepared to go to for Mimi’s death scene, turning up to shoot it with ‘lips curled outwards . . . parched with dryness. . . . She said in syllables hardly audible that she had succeeded in removing all saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquid for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums in her sleep.’
Impressed though he was by such artistic commitment, Vidor was disconcerted by her conception of the love affair between Mimi and Rudolph, played by John Gilbert who was then near the peak of his romantic fame. ‘Miss Gish,’ Vidor writes, ‘. . . believed that the two lovers should never be shown in physical contact. She argued that if we photographed their lips coming together in a kiss, a great amount of suppressed emotion would be dissipated. She was convinced that if we avoided this moment a surge of suppressed romance would be built up.. . . She suggested love scenes in which the two lovers were always separated by space . . . Jack (Gilbert), of course, had been exploited as the ‘Great Lover’. How was he to live up to this reputation?’
Gish apparently carried this chaste conception into her off-screen hours, too, playing the unapproachable virgin to Vidor and Gilbert. It is all evidence of how thoroughly Griffith’s training made her immerse herself in a part; but the result was that parts of La Boheme had to be re-shot, on the orders of M-G-M’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, so as to ‘bridge the gap’ between Gish and Gilbert. The experience of acting with so pains taking a player was particularly frustrating to Gilbert. He worked on mood and spontaneity, Gish on rehearsal and repetition. He later described La Boheme as ‘artistic and delicate, but never believable’.
About this time, the mid-1920s, Lillian Gish’s critics were starting to pick and scratch at her performances. ‘Griffith mannerisms’, is a reiterated phrase. ‘Gish is . . . a technician’, said James R. Quirk, whose editorial thunder in Photoplay, the most powerful of the film magazines, was dreaded by the stars. ‘Examining (her) characterisations, you find that she achieves greatness of effect through a single plane of emotion – namely, hysteria.’If Louise Brooks, a sharp observer of Hollywood politics from inside the stars’ compound, even believed there was a conspiracy between the fan magazines and M-G-M to bring down Gish’s prestige and market price – she was then getting, according to Quirk, 8,000 dollars a week. The truth is probably not that her skill was any less, but that her sensitive virgin type was looking outmoded against the social and moral freedoms of the 1920s and in comparison with the new screen image embodied by the up- and-coming Greta Garbo of the modern, neurotic woman whose sexual inclinations caused suffering wherever they led her, but whose own spiritual suffering went a long way to mitigate the disapproval of the screen’s official and lay censorship groups.
It is against this background that Gish’s determination to film the censorship-prone theme of The Scarlet Letter has to be seen. She requested Victor Seastrom to direct it; and in this, too, showed her instincts were right. She felt that the Swedish-born director would have an affinity with Hawthorne’s colonial Puritans and their God-fearing, life-denying repression of sexuality. Many years later, though, she added another reason: ‘[Seastrom] was himself an excellent actor, the best who has ever directed me.’ This provides an important clue to her art. Gish was the type of star who makes acting into a ‘dialogue’ with her director. Not necessarily a spoken dialogue, though in the case of Griffith it was all of that, a matter of talking the performances out of the cast as they had evolved the film together in rehearsal and then encouraging them vocally to give something beyond the call of craftsmanship when in front of the camera. The radar that thus flowed between them was that of actors, even though one of the actors was now called a director. Seastrom had been an actor, too, an incomparably better one than Griffith would have made: see his majestic performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958), as the aged scientist whose boyhood memories humanise him and rejuvenate him, as if a spring had spouted out of a tombstone. Charles Laughton was another ‘excellent actor’ and Gish gave the best performance of her career in the Talkies when he directed her in The Night of the Hunter (1955) – and for the same reason. It was actor ‘talking’ to actor.
And yet The Scarlet Letter, in spite of Seastrom, remains an obstinately Griffith-type movie. The Swede’s sympathy with the subject is plain to see in the tender pearliness of the woodland lighting when Gish and the pastor, played by Lars Hanson, come face to face; and the sense of budding passion is present in the couple’s discovery of their sexuality. But censorship reduced the sex to a shot of the knickers, which Gish has been washing when she meets the minister, now abandoned on a bush. And the theme of persecuted motherhood is obviously so congenial to Gish’s talents – and depicted by her so lovingly, in the manner of a practical Madonna – that one guesses the erotic would never have been prominent in the film anyhow.
But there is one astonishing moment which shows what might have been. Gish and the minister decide to face up to the community’s wrath and ripping the scarlet letter ‘A’ (for ‘Adultress’) off her dress and the constricting bonnet off her head, she lets a waterfall of long hair cascade over her face and is invested with a sudden, illicit intensity. A second later her child’s hand comes up into the frame and winsomely sticks the scarlet ‘A’ on to her bosom again – but one has glimpsed another of those vivid Gish transfigurations, from Puritan maid to Pre-Raphaelite siren.
The Wind Proposal
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
Though The Scarlet Letter was an immense popular success, it is far below the power and art of Gish’s second film with Seastrom – The Wind (1928). This is her finest film. It is among the greatest in the silent cinema. And it is the first in which Lillian Gish’s virginal heroine is shown facing up to the sexual realities of fife. She plays a girl from the lush green fields of Griffith’s Kentucky who arrives in the twilight region of barren Texas where a great wind constantly scours a landscape that is now definitely Seastrom’s country. (The whole film is thus a remarkable transitional metaphor for its actress.) The wind never lets up, not for a single scene and though unheard, it is always ‘there’. Intending only to visit a childhood friend, Gish is forced by the man’s careworn wife who is jealous of her girlish freshness into marriage with a rancher – Lars Hanson again. Seastrom turns Griffith’s familiar drama of the elements inside out, so that the wind becomes an interior, alien force in the characters’ lives. The newly-wed girl’s first night orchestrates her sexual apprehension with gritty billows rattling against the bedroom door; and when her frustrated husband bursts through it and embraces her she wipes his kiss off like a smear of dirt that the wind has blown in. But the bravura climax comes when Gish is left alone in the buffeted ranch and its walls take on a queasy, subjective roll and swell as she feels it, and her sanity, being shaken to pieces. A traveller man, resting there from an injury, attacks her. She flees out into the storm, but runs smack up against an invisible wall of wind. It hurls her back into her rapist’s arms. The bucking white stallion of Indian myth kicks up its heels in the clouds – a symbol of the unbridled libido. And Gish, in desperation, shoots her assailant. She buries him in the sand, but then with mounting derangement in her features sees the wind exposing the body till the man’s face lies on the top of the dune like a death mask.
Seastrom wanted a tragic ending, presumably Gish’s death. But M-G-M forced a happier one on him – husband and wife reunited and bravely facing windward. Fortunately it is pictorially bold enough to look like a fit conclusion and not a forced compromise. And Gish’s fearless stance presages the pioneer fortitude she later went in for in films like Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter and The Unforgiven (1959), the John Huston western in which she played a classical sonata on a concert grand in defiance of a redskin scalping party. It is as if by coming through the trauma of imperilled virginity in The Wind she had somehow braced her screen image. For by dealing exclusively with the girl’s sexual predicament the film forced Gish into an unflinching characterisation far more realistic and sustained than any she had ever attempted.
It is astonishing that the film did not make more of an impact at the time. Studio politics may be involved here. Louise Brooks has noted that although she was filming at the same time at M-G-M, she hardly heard of the remarkable picture in production next door. Perhaps M-G-M compared what Gish cost on the payroll with what Garbo was bringing in at the box-office – and knew which to let slide. Joseph Schenck placed Gish in 1925 in the second rank of stars rated by earning power along with Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, Keaton, Norma Shearer and Corinne Griffith. This seems good company, but ‘her drawing power is equal to first-rank players’ – Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, Swanson and Norma Talmadge – ‘in big films, not in small ones.’ The very psychological profundity of The Wind which put it ahead of its time caused it to lack the box-office expansiveness which ‘big films’ had built into them. The wind, after all, was an invisible production value!
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Gish successfully made the switch to sound movies, picking a version of Molnar’s play The Swan, about the cool princess who is thawed by love. After that the Broadway stage claimed more and more of her time and talent — one guesses that she found more seriousness towards acting here than in the Hollywood regime of the 1930s. For the truth is that Lillian Gish approached acting the way some other women approach the veil. It was a semi- mystical vocation that exacted total dedication.
Such a star does not usually acquire, much less seek out the amplifying dimension of scandal and sensation in her private life to dramatise her public image. The alleged breach of promise suit brought against Gish in the mid-1920s by an importunate producer who was himself married at the time is an odd episode and probably had to do with contracts other than the marriage one. It was so out of character that it neither blemished nor burnished her reputation. She has never married and she has never retired. ‘Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career,’ she once reflected. ‘[You must] not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you leave it.’
The echo one hears in this is Griffith. When he shaped Gish, the greatest of his stars, he showed the age he belonged to by putting duty and obedience high on the list of desirable virtues. Once learnt, these never left her. The stars who followed her had drive and determination which sprang from the will to succeed. But somehow, as if an era had begun and ended in Gish, these were never the same as her ideals. They sprang from the will to serve.
In reprimand for his secretive making of Judith of Bethulia, Biograph took Griffith off directing and gave him a job supervising other productions. Griffith balked, checked out some other film companies, then quit He joined a younger outfit, Mutual (Majestic-Reliance). The work there was unexciting, but the money ($1,000 per week) was necessary for what Griffith saw as his major picture. During 1913 and early 1914, he began organizing the project. It would be based, somewhat loosely, around Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. It would be long, longer than any previous film ever made. It would be an epic, a romance, a historical drama of sweeping scale and momentum. Griffith took many of his original Biograph company with him. He began active production in 1914. His cast and technicians were astounded that he used no shooting script. War shortages made production difficult—Griffith had a hard time getting the horses he needed for some of the battle scenes—but eventually he completed production. The film came in at a cost of about $100,000, an unheard-of figure for making a movie. More staggering was the length of the film: 12 reels. Distributors refused to handle a movie of such awkward size, and Griffith was forced to establish his own distribution outlets.
In February, 1915, The Birth of a Nation was released. Although the admission was a seemingly outrageous two dollars, crowds gathered to see the movie that critics and newspapers were hailing throughout the country as the greatest movie ever made. President Woodrow Wilson saw the film and described it as “like writing history in lightning.” The skeptical movie industry watched aghast as Griffith’s monumental film not only made a fortune, but made history.
In technique and in narrative, The Birth of a Nation was advanced far beyond anything yet to appear on the screens of movie theaters. The story centered around two families, the Stonemans from Pennsylvania and the Camerons from South Carolina. The boys from the families all enlist to fight in the Civil War, and several are killed. Captain Phil Stoneman, of the Union Army, takes over the Cameron estate and holds Ben Cameron prisoner. Meanwhile, Captain Stoneman’s father, Austin, an influential Congressman, fights for punishment of the South. After Lincoln’s assassination, Congressman Stoneman comes South with his mulatto protege, Silas Lynch, a man whom he has ordained a leader in South Carolina. The Camerons are astounded and horrified, and through their activities we see the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.
The story leads to a climax in which the Klansmen come in the nick of time to save the Cameron family from Negro militiamen. The Birth of a Nation was a double-edged sword. On one hand, its technique, its narrative drive, its epic sweep, it brilliant use of the film medium, clearly made it one of the greatest of all films. At the same time, Griffith had made a film which presented the black man as little more than a stupid savage, which depicted the Civil War as the North’s vendetta against the South, and which justified—even extolled—the Ku Klux Klan. The controversy aroused by the film was no doubt partly responsible for its incredible commercial success. In many ways, the film made an appeal, and a passionate one, for recognition of the inferiority of the black man and his total segregation from white society. In a number of Northern cities, important figures denounced the film, and it became a major issue in a number of political clashes. Generally the attacks were made on Griffith, and Griffith responded. He published articles and pamphlets upholding the right to “freedom of the screen.”
Despite the undercurrent of prejudice in The Birth of a Nation, the film remains an exemplary and brilliant example of the art of the medium. There is about it not even a lingering remnant of that sense of the filmed stage play which dominated filmmaking to this time. The shots and editing coexist in a fluid relationship, and the film—for all its length—moves with a pulsating rhythm that rarely flags. Griffith seemed to be experimenting with temporal-spatial relationships in a way he never had before. During the Civil War battle scenes, for example, he opens one scene with a long shot of a field strewn with bodies. For a moment, he holds the camera, suggesting a geography of horror that only a long shot could create. Then he closes in on single figures: a man draped over a cannon, a boy whose empty eyes face the sun. Very long shots often are juxtaposed to very tight close-ups: suggesting the awful relationship between the macrocosm of war and the microcosm of the soldier.
The editing is unquestionably superior to anything that went before it, and to much of what would come after it. In the scene depicting the assassination of Lincoln, for example, Griffith builds the tension by a complex crosscutting from Lincoln, to the stage, to the assassin planning his entry into Lincoln’s box. The pace increases, and everything seems to build to that moment of which no one is aware except the assassin. The use of cinematography reached new artistic heights with The Birth of a Nation. In depicting General Sherman’s march to the sea, Griffith opens with a small iris shot of a woman weeping beside her children. The iris expands; the camera reveals a long line of soldiers marching through a land of burning and gutted houses.
A long, extended panning shot shows the length of that army, and a group of medium shots depict the pillage of specific houses, and the suffering of distinct people. Finally, the entire sequence closes with the woman and her child again, suggesting that this—and this alone—is what Sherman’s march was all about. Perhaps the most extraordinary section of the film is the climax of the Reconstruction episode, when Lynch (the mulatto) wants to marry Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish), while the Ku Klux Klan is organizing and preparing its ride. Griffith builds the suspense here with incredible skill, depicting the fierce mulatto in the room with Elsie while showing the Klan members gathering far away. As the tension among Lynch, Elsie, and Elsie’s father rises, so do the numbers of the Klan riders who are preparing to attack the town. The events are complex, and yet not difficult to follow. More important, the way in which Griffith handles them shows to what extent careful and ingenious editing can give a motion picture momentum and emotional force.
If you read in a Victorian novel that an actress who began her career in the early 1800s was still going strong in 1884, you would dismiss it as absurd. But transfer the century to our own, and the dates correspond to the career of Lillian Gish. She made her first appearance on the stage in 1901 at the age of five—as Baby Lillian—acted in her first film in 1912. and recently finished a picture that will be released this year. Lillian Gish is no ordinary actress: by common consent, she is one of the greatest of this century – You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.
Meeting her is an exhilarating experience, for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed— and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith” and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history.
She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him “the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Ration (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Right of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill (1958), and A Wedding (1978). “We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”
It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.”
Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance offscreen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.
In the film Hearts of the World she gives a heartbreaking performance as a shell-shocked girl who wanders the battlefield, in search of her lover, carrying her wedding dress. The film established her uncanny ability to portray terror and hysteria, and it established, too, the warmth and poignancy she could bring to love scenes. But Hearts of the World paled by comparison with the next major production of the partnership. Broken Blossoms (1919) had none of the usual Griffith trademarks—no cast of thousands, no epic sets. It was based on a story by Thomas Burke about the love of a Chinese man for a twelve-year-old girl. At first, Lillian Gish fought against playing the role. She offered to work with a child of the right age, but felt she couldn’t possibly play the part herself. Griffith insisted that only she could handle the emotional scenes. How right he was. Lillian Gish played the child (changed to a fifteen-year-old) with conviction. She invested the role with a quality so powerful and disturbing that a journalist—watching the filming of the scene where the girl hides in a closet as her father smashes the door with an ax—was overwhelmed: She pressed her body closer to the wall—hugged it, threw her arms high above her head, dug her fingers into the plaster. A trickle of dust fell from beneath her nails. She screamed, a high-pitched, terrifying sound, a cry of fear and anguish. Then she turned and faced the camera.
It was the real thing. Lillian Gish was there, not ten feet from the camera, but her mind was somewhere else —somewhere in a dark closet. Tears were streaming from her eyes. Her face twitched and worked in fear. . . . I have always considered myself hardboiled, but I sat there with my eyes popping out.
Lillian Gish came into pictures by accident. In 1912, she and her sister, Dorothy, visited the Biograph Studios in New York because they heard that their friend Gladys Smith was working there. (Gladys Smith had changed her name to Mary Pickford.) In the lobby, the sisters met a hawk-faced young man who asked them if they could act. “I thought his name was Mr. Biograph. He seemed to be the owner of the place. Dorothy said, ‘Sir, we are of the legitimate theater.'”
“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean reading lines, I mean, can you act?’ We didn’t know what he meant. He said, ‘Come upstairs.’ We went up there where all the actors were waiting and he rehearsed a story about two girls who are trapped by burglars, and the burglars are shooting at them. We watched the other actors to see what they were doing and we were smart enough to take our cues from them. Finally, at the climax, the man took a 22 revolver out of his pocket and started shooting at the ceiling and chasing us around the studio. We thought we were in a madhouse.” The young director was D.W. Griffith, and the film became An Unseen Enemy, the first of many one- and two-reelers to feature Lillian Gish. Thus her career began before the advent of the feature film. It was Griffith who helped to pioneer the feature film in the United States—and it was his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) that ensured its survival. I saw the rushes.” she said “Even at that early age. I was terribly interested in film, how it was made, what happened to it. I was in with the developing and printing of the film, the cutting of it, so I’d seen ‘The Clansman,’ as it was then called. The others hadn’t, and I was there that night the rest of the cast saw it for the first time.
I remember Henry B. Walthall, who played the Little Colonel: He just sat there, stunned by the effect of it. He and his sisters were from the South. Eventually they said, ‘It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen or ever imagined.'”
When Griffith visited England during the First World War, ostensibly to arrange for the premiere of his 1916 epic. Intolerance, he began to prepare for a huge propaganda film to support the Allied cause. He brought over Lillian and Dorothy Gish, traveling in the company of their mother, to play the leads. The journey across the Atlantic was dangerous enough, with constant peril from U-boats, and their stay at the Savoy Hotel in London was enlivened by German bombing raids. But Griffith decided to take them to France, and there they saw the devastation of war at first hand.
Griffith and the Great War 1
Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 6
Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 4
DW Griffith in France 1917
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
“In one of the villages on the way up front from Senlis,” said Lillian Gish, “we saw a house that had been destroyed: bits and pieces of furniture and an old coffeepot on its side. What pictures it brought up, because everyone there had been killed. As we drove up in this car to places where they wouldn’t send trained nurses—they were valuable, actresses were a dime a dozen—we saw the astonished look on the faces of all the soldiers. They couldn’t believe that these people in civilian clothes—we were dressed as we were in the film—would be up there. And we were within range of the long-distance guns.”
When she worked with the young King Vidor on La Boheme, she astonished him with her dedication. He was not accustomed to actresses who prepared themselves so thoroughly for their parts. She felt that research was part of the job. As Mimi, she had to die of tuberculosis, so she asked priest to take her to a hospital to talk to those who were really dying of the disease. She arrived on the set with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and Vidor asked what she had done to herself. She replied that she had stopped drinking liquids for three days to give her lips the necessary dryness. When he shot the death scene, he decided to call “cut” only when he saw her gasp after holding her breath to simulate death.
But nothing happened. She did not take a breath. “I began to be convinced that she was dying.” said Vidor. “I began to see the headlines in my mind: ‘Actress Plays Scene So Well She Actually Dies.’ I was afraid to cut the camera for a few moments. Finally, I did and I waited. Still no movement from Lillian John Gilbert bent over and whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. At last she look a deep breath, and I knew everything was all right. She had somehow managed to find a way to get along without breathing . . . visible breathing, anyway. We were all astounded and there was no one on the set whose eyes were dry.” Small wonder that Vidor said. “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”
The qualities in which Lillian Gish is famous were exemplified in D.W. Griffith’s production of Way Down East. The picture was based on an old theatrical melodrama so lurid that when she read the play, she could hardly keep from laughing. It tells of Anna Moore, a country girl who visits ihe city and is seduced by a wealthy playboy by means of a mock marriage. Abandoned and destitute, she gives birth to a baby that dies soon afterward.
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)
She wanders the countryside and finds a haven at a farm. But when her secret is discovered, she is turned out of the house. Staggering through a snowstorm, she collapses on the ice as it starts to break up, and is carried toward certain death over the falls. The farmer’s son, who loves her, races to the rescue, leaping from floe to floe and grasping her a split second before disaster. Griffith transformed this material into superb entertainment, and by her presence Lillian Gish gave the story a conviction and a poignancy no other actress could have provided.
“We filmed the baptism of Anna’s child at night,” she wrote in her autobiography, recently reissued, “in a corner of the studio, with the baby’s real father looking on. Anna is alone: the doctor has given up hope for her child. She resolves to baptize the infant herself. The baby was asleep, and. as we didn’t want to wake him, I barely whispered the words, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost …” as I touched the tiny temples. “There was only the sound of the turning camera. Then I heard a thud. The baby’s father had slumped to the floor in a faint. D.W. Griffith was crying. He waved his hand in front of his face to signify that he couldn’t talk. When he regained control of himself, he took me in his arms and said simply. ‘Thank you.'”
The film was made in and around Griffith’s Mamaroneck studio, on a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. The winter was so severe that the Sound reportedly, froze over. For one scene, shot during a blizzard, three men lay on the ground, gripping the legs of the tripod while Billy Bitzer ground the camera and Lillian Gish staggered into the teeth of the storm. “My face was caked with a crust of snow,” she said, “and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm Mr. Griffith shouted, ‘Billy, move in! Get that face.'”
On top of this, she had to shoot the icefloe scenes. One of her ideas for this sequence was to allow her hand and hair to trail in the water as she lay on the floe. “I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them,” she wrote. “After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long.”
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)