Hollywood has been called “the dream factory” and “tinsel-town,” but the name is also synonymous with American filmmaking and its powerful ability to create myths which have left an indelible stamp on the American consciousness. And from the birth of the film to the present day, Hollywood has been fascinated with the Catholic Church. For many Americans, the only priest or nun they have ever seen close-up, has been on the screen. The film is indeed a teacher; it is in a true sense the Hollywood catechism.
The Epic Film – Saints, sinners and spectacles
When (D.W.) Griffith turns to the history of Catholicism in his (Intolerance) Judean and French episodes, he raises the whole question of history and its treatment in film. Griffith was well aware, as he wrote in the Boston Journal in April of 1915, that “one man’s orthodoxy is another man’s heterodoxy” and that “one man’s judgment is another man’s prejudice.” For all his evocations of the past, Griffith plumbed the depths of libraries and frequently even footnoted sources in title cards. Yet the selection of details and their interpretation were always his; for all the authenticity of decor, there was still the necessity of a point of view in the narrative. A good example of this comes in his presentation of Catherine de Medici and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance.
In her autobiography, Lillian Gish details the far-reaching research that went into Intolerance. Although her role was brief, she was very involved in the film and frequently discussed characters with Griffith. She felt “too young and unworldly” to understand Catherine de Medici, so she asked the director about the best interpretation. Griffith told Gish: “Don’t judge. . . . Always remember this, Miss Lillian, circumstances make people what they are. Everyone is capable of the lowest and the highest. The same potentialities are in us all—only circumstances make the difference.” Yet in Intolerance Griffith has Josephine Crowell play Catherine as such a grotesque monster that most critics fault her performance. William Everson is quite correct when he asserts that “the fault is Griffith’s as much as hers.” The power-mad Catholic Catherine obviously was meant to balance the insanely jealous Miss Jenkins. Each uses morality as a cloak for her real motivations.
A major theme in earlier war melodramas involves the choice between life in the world of heroes and battlefields and life in the cloister, a world of sacrifice and prayer. The various adaptations of Francis Marion Crawford’s immensely popular 1909 romance The White Sister suggest how important this theme was in American films of the twenties and thirties. Catholic mystic Henry King directed Lillian Gish in the best known, most widely acclaimed version of The White Sister, which was released at the peak of America’s disillusionment with World War I in 1923. The plot of The White Sister involves an Italian heiress Angela Chiaromonte, who thinks her betrothed, Captain Giovanni Severi (Ronald Colman in the 1923 version), has died in battle and dedicates her life to God by entering the convent. Her lover returns, however, and she must choose between God and man.
The White Sister represented a daring gamble on the part of both director King and star Gish, for the film was an independent production under the aegis of the aptly named Inspiration Pictures, and the feature’s heavy emphasis on the rubric of Roman Catholicism almost blocked its distribution, since exhibitors feared a Protestant backlash. Discussing the film in her memoir, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Miss Gish recalls that in the silent era, religious stories from the Bible were easily marketed, but exhibitors shied away from The White Sister, which she considered “the first modern story, based on Catholicism.” In Gish’s interpretation, the exhibitors’ motives for refusing to show The White Sister were more economic than sectarian; she remembers that “the big companies who owned the theaters said the public could get religion free on Sundays, so they’re not going to pay for it during the week.” (Miss Gish’s analysis suggests an interesting reversal of the earlier encounter between an impecunious exhibitor, Adolph Zukor, and a censorious priest who feared religion in the movies would challenge the Church’s hegemony.) To circumvent this impasse between Inspiration Pictures and the major exhibitors, producer Charles H. Duell, director Henry King, and star Lillian Gish opened The White Sister themselves at the George M. Cohan Theater in New York City. The premiere was a gala affair, which the reviewer for the New York Times, seemingly incognizant of the behind-the-scenes difficulties, described in great detail. In the critic’s words, the audience was “a most interesting assembly, which included persons prominent in society, distinguished politicians, well-known authors and writers, screen celebrities, and heads of the motion picture industry,” and this opening for The White Sister was an occasion, the journalist opined, which “revealed the standing of the films possibly more than any other photoplay presentation.” The White Sister, it seems, brought both American film and American Catholicism to a new social standing.
Within days, everyone recognized that The White Sister was box office magic in New York City, and Nicholas Schenk of Metro Pictures took over distribution. Even in its later national distribution, however. The White Sister was handled with special care because of its Catholic theme. Theater owners were instructed to inform local Protestant clergy about the film’s inspirational tone and its markedly Catholic orientation, in the hope that local ministers would encourage their congregations not to avoid the film just because of its unique religious orientation. The Exhibitors Trade Review for September 22, 1923, tried to assure theater owners that this story of a soldier desperately in love with a nun is one “that will stir the non-churchman,” and “to those who follow the creed of any denomination and, of course, the Catholics especially, the impress must be multiplied manyfold.”
Director King had actually increased the Catholic focus in The White Sister manyfold. On his way to Italy to shoot the film. King happened to meet the papal delegate to Washington; after a brief chat about the film’s treatment of the sister’s final vows, the papal delegate arranged for the head ceremonial director of the Vatican to show the company all the intricacies of an Italian nun’s traditional wedding with Christ. Lillian Gish recalls that the company was allowed to film a sacred ceremony “that had never been filmed before, with the bride in all her finery being married to the church . . . just before dawn.” Director Henry King assured Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By that everything in the sequence was authentic; he watched the papal adviser stage the ceremony and then “shot the entire thing while it was fresh in my mind, without a scene of it being written down.”
King did have one big problem in his script, however. In the original novel the lovers eventually marry. As Gish recalls the project, this was “an impossible situation for a successful film”: “You can’t care about a character you see taking solemn vows before God at eight o’clock and then by nine changing her mind.” This is especially true if the most interesting visuals in your film picture her eternal marriage to Christ. To resolve this dilemma, the film of The White Sister introduces an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which kills Captain Giovanni and thus frees Sister Angela of any qualms about her oath whatsoever.
Chicago Tribune – Monday, November 12, 1923 – Page 21
‘White Sister’ Photoplay of Rare Appeal
‘One of Most Exquisite Ever Screened’
“The White Sister”
Produced by Inspiration Pictures
Directed by Henry King
Presented at the Great Northern
Angela Chiaromonte ……………….. Lillian Gish
Capt. Giovanni Severi ….….…. Ronald Colman
Marchesa di Mola ………………….….. Gail Kane
Monsignor Saracinesca ……. J. Barney Sherry
Prince Chiaromonte ………………. Charles Lane
Madame Bernard ……..….. Juliette La Violette
Prof. Ugo Severi ……………………… Sig. Serena
Filmore Durand ……………….. Alfredo Bertone
Count del Ferice …………..…….. Ramon Ibanez
Alfredo del Ferice ……….… Alfredo Martinelli
Mother Superior ……………………. Carloni Talli
General Mazzini ………….….. Giovanni Viccola
Alfredo’s Tutor …………………… Antonio Barda
Solicitor to the Prince …….. Giacomo D’Attino
Solicitor to the Count ….….….. Michele Gualdi
Archbishop ………………..……. Giuseppe Pavoni
Professor Torricelli ……….. Francesco Socinus
Bedouin Chef ……………………. Sheik Mahomet
Lieutenant Rossini ………………….. James Abbe
Commander Donato …..…. Duncan Mansfield
By Mae Tinee
Good Morning! Regardless of church or creed, it seems to me that every honest person who views “The White Sister” will pronounce it one of the most exquisite photoplays ever screened. The power, the beauty, the realism, the pathos of it MUST strike home. It was adapted from the story by F. Marion Crawford from which a play was also made. The latter, I believe had a happy ending. Book and picture dare the world.
At that, in many instances, the film departs from the original tale. In essentials, however, the tragic story of little Angela, who, believing her lover dead, becomes a nun, refusing, after she has discovered he lives, to break her vows to the church, is the same.
For the first reel or so you are dubious. You have seen better photography and makeup. THEN the acting which achieves the distinction of appearing to BE NOT acting grips you. Your emotions are swept along with those so vividly pantomimed before you. By the time the twelfth reel is over you have forgotten all faults of technique, for in pictures, as in people, it is the subtle something that “gets” you or DOESN’T get you.
A high note of ecstasy runs through even the most painful moments of the film. You are never depressed, though, heaven knows, following the fated footsteps of Angela from the moment she is sent unjustly from her home till the eruption of Vesuvius, which is the final dramatic visitation, by all laws of cinemaology (new word), you should be innumerable times.
Speaking of this eruption and the storm that comes in its wake, this part of “The White Sister” is typically Griffithnonian. Who’s behind this “Inspiration Pictures” company, anyway? Henry King is a clever director, but don’t tell me that David Wark Griffith wasn’t hovering somewhere in the background during the time mentioned. I also suspect him of being much there when Angela goes through the final impressive ceremony that makes her a “White Sister.”
There is only one place when you are frankly bored, and that is during the long drawn out death scenes of the jealous half sister of Angela. Before she finally passes on a horrible fear obsesses you that she will prove to have nine lives. She certainly doesn’t stop living until she gets what she wants.
As a rule I am not greatly impressed by the work of Miss Lillian Gish. This time though, I admire her with all my heart. She is lovely throughout and does “bits” of most excellent acting. Ronald Colman as her lover is immense. J. Barney Sherry as a priest is so good at times that he threatens to run away with the piece. Juliette La Violette as Angela’s governess is an intensely human sort of person.
“The White Sister” was photographed in Italy, so its obvious that the “atmosphere” is all it should be.
And now I leave the production to your consideration – which may or may not be tender.
See you tomorrow.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday January 6, 1924 – Page 52
Dear Mae Tinee. Whenever I read one of your reviews on a Lillian Gish picture I get absolutely sick. For goodness sake, why don’t you ever give her the credit due her? You know she is the greatest actress on the screen today and has been for the last few years. Why not admit it? Also, why force your personal prejudice on the public? Anybody with half an eye knows, from reading your reviews of Lillian Gish pictures, that you have a personal dislike for her. I suspect that at some time or other when she was in Chicago she failed to call on you or ignored you in some way. Your pride thus injured, you decided to get revenge.
After reading your review of “Orphans of the Storm” I was ready for a battle. I feel the same today, for I saw “The White Sister” last night. Lillian Gish is the most exquisite being in the world and the greatest actress. She expresses so much with – O, what’s the use?
In a recent review you said “As a rule I am not greatly impressed by the work of Lillian Gish. [By the way, you have said that before.] This time though, I admire her with all my soul. She is lovely throughout and does bits of most excellent acting.”
That’s all right – but what I am kicking about is you couldn’t let the matter rest there, as you should have, but had to remove the entire effect of your merger compliment by, “J. Barney Sherry as a priest is so good that at times he threatens to run away with the piece.”
Never give a compliment with a question mark; it doesn’t mean a darn thing. M.F.
Admin note: David W. Griffith had no contribution to White Sister’s production, not even as tech advisor. Behind “Inspiration Pictures” company was Charles H. Duell, the famous lawyer-owner-lover who attacked Lillian Gish in court for breach of contract. Above article is remarkable by mentioning James Abbe (the photographer) in a small part as Lieutnant Rossini. On the other hand, the author should have been ashamed for obvious unjust criticism, (unfortunately manifested in other articles as well), not to be expected from a professional journalist.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, March 20, 1927 – Page 43
Lillian Gish Plays Hawthorne Heroine
“The Scarlet Letter”
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Victor Seastrom. Presented at the Chicago theater TOMORROW.
Hester ……………………..…..…………. Lillian Gish
Reverend Dimmesdale …………… Lars Hanson
Roger Prynne …….………….. Henry B. Walthall
Giles …………………………..………..…… Karl Dane
Governor ………………………. William H. Tooker
Mistress Hibbins ……….…….. Marcelle Corday
Jailer ………………..…………….…….. Fred Herzog
Beadle ……………………….…………. Jules Cowles
Patience ……………………..………… Mary Hawes
Pearl ……………………………………….. Joyce Coad
French Sea Captain ……….…. James A. Marcus
By Mae Tinee
Good Morning; Lillian Gish looks like a saint and Lars Hanson looks like Paul Ash in this much “adapted” version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story. And I reckon why the film isn’t being presented at the Oriental is because Messrs. Balaban and Katz know the Oriental fans could never bear to see Paul suffer. SO – because Mr. Hanson, who looks like Mr. Ash, has so much to endure as Rev. Dimmesdale – he’s at the Chicago. (Maybe.)
Those of you who haven’t read the book may find the film version of “The Scarlet Letter” to your liking. But if you are familiar with the story of Hester Prynne, I’m afraid you’re going to be up on your ear over the liberties that have been taken. The screen production is a life sized portrait of a movie magnate showing Nathaniel Hawthorne how.
There has been much bristling officiousness and the result is the most ordinary sort of melodrama instead of a picture of power and subtlety. “The Scarlet Letter” SHOULD have been one of the great pictures of the day.
Though Lillian Gish is truly beautiful in her doctored role and gives a thoughtful and finished performance, she is as different as possible from the author’s conception of his heroine who was – “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes … characterized by a certain state of dignity.
17th February 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) is punished for bearing a child out of wedlock in the film ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a 17th century melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom.
Hester Prynne and Rev.Dimmesdale – The Scarlet Letter – 1926 (Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson)
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
A Story of Old Salem
Hester Prynne was a seamstress in Salem, a New England settlement of early Puritan days. The place, you know, where they burned the witches and made Sunday such a bugaboo that no descendant of a Puritan father has to this day entirely shaken off the influence of those Sunday Morning Blues to which his forefolks clumped their mournful way to meeting along around the close of the seventeenth century.
She bore a child out of wedlock, refusing to name the father, who, the picture almost immediately shows you, was the young, earnest, and greatly beloved minister of the community. For her sin she was ordered by the town fathers to wear always and forever on the bosom of her meek and proper dress the scarlet letter “A,” which should stamp her for all beholders to see as a woman taken in adultery.
(I’m going to write in the present tense if you don’t mind. It’s easier, somehow or other.)
The minister, who loves her deeply, begs to be allowed to declare his own guilt and share her shame. This, Hester steadfastly refuses to let him do, declaring that her greatest punishment would be to know that she had interfered with his work and destroyed his influence. Besides, she is aware of what he is not, that the man to whom she had been married in England – an old surgeon – but whose wife she had never been, has arrived in Salem and, under an assumed name, is hovering about them like a black and leisurely vulture, biding his time to pounce.
This sinister, implacable, waiting man is present through the entire original story. In the picture he appears near the end providing a “WHO-IS-THIS-MAN!”, “STOP-HE-IS-MY-HUSBAND!” scene. That poor Yorick of the melodramas which you know so well.
Little Pearl, the Only Bright Spot
The tragedy develops amid the stern, monotonous, petty routine of the Blue Law ridden settlement, the only bright spot in the lives of these three actively unhappy people being little Pearl, that “child of sin,” who, by some strange rank of Fate is a joyous madcap, utterly uncowed by the outcast condition of her mother and herself.
The denouement, as you can imagine, is a dramatic one. The picture ends sadly where the book does not – which amazes me – for the author provides a comparatively happy ending, and WHEN before have the movie makers rejected a happy ending? As a rule they will make one for themselves if the story writer has not been so considerate as to provide a fadeout that will send audiences forth smiling.
In the novel little Pearl, it is told, becomes one of the richest heiresses in England and Hester Prynne, having seen her darling cared for, returns to the scene of her shame and becomes a woman generally beloved. In the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s bitterness and became a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too. And as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities and besought her counsel as one who herself had gone through a mighty trouble.
Passing Up Some Fine Chances
To this “tall woman in a gray robe” there came from England letters with armorial seals … “and once Hester was seen embroidering a baby garment with such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have raised a public tumult had any infant thus appareled been shown to our sober-hued community.” …
Can you FEATURE how any movie maker ever passed up the chances offered in those last three paragraphs? Mi-gosh, I can’t.
So much for the stories – Mr. Hawthorne’s and Mr. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s.
The acting throughout is splendid. I foretell great popularity for the Ash-en Mr. Hanson. Sets and costumes are picturesque and of the period. Such scenery as there is lovely and the photography is everything in the world it should be. Also there are some comedy situations which I sincerely hope you may enjoy.
In closing, fans dear, may I remark regarding this film that
“If with joy you’d on it look,
Prithee, do not read the book!”
See you tomorrow!
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne – Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter – Vanity Fair Magazine August 1926
Lillian Gish changed her director and her company and went away from America to make The White Sister, but her screen sufferings remain unabated still. Her trials and tribulations as the heroine of this movie are absolutely heartrending.
After a brief half-reel of happiness, as the petted daughter of an Italian aristocrat, her father is killed whilst hunting and the poor little soul’s sorrows begin. And they have no ending, though she finds something like peace for a while in a beautiful white hospital in a little town hard by Vesuvius.
Quite early in the film ” Angela ” is defrauded of her name and position by her malevolent half-sister, and of her soldier lover by a none too well-staged African expedition. In despair, she becomes a nun, a ” White Sister,” incidentally providing some thoroughly interesting views of the ceremonies attending the taking of her final vows.
After which the hero, who was not dead, but imprisoned in the desert, escapes, and returns home just too late. There is real drama in the unexpected meeting of the unhappy lovers in the hospital to which he has come seeking news of his brother. The message is brought to him by ” Angela ” herself, ignorant, of course of his identity. Then the poor heroine suffers further anguish when she refuses to ask for a Papal dispensation so that she can go to her lover.
At this point the spectator’s feelings are harrowed unto breaking point. and even the lava in Vesuvius rises to protest. Contrary to expectations it does not engulf everybody in its relentless flow, though it and a burst reservoir realistically destroy the village. The soldier hero dies bravely, after helping others to escape; the sinful sister also dies (but confesses first) and the film ends with an impressive open-air mass and a final glimpse of the heroine’s tear-filled eyes contemplating her lover’s bier.
It is an interesting movie, though a bit ” slow ” at times, for it was made entirely in Italy and boasts of some fine photography and scenery. There are views of Naples, and some shots of an Italian garden that is poem, with its terrace and tall cypresses; an imposing chateau, many picturesque streets, and actual pictures in colour of Vesuvius in action.
Picture Play Magazine – November 1926 Vol. XXV No. 3
The Screen in Review
By Norbert Lusk
Salaam (The Scarlet Letter)
Lillian Gish’s performance in “The Scarlet Letter” recaptures all the praise ever bestowed on her, and by the same token should erase all memory of the shortcomings charged against her. For her Hester Prynne is shimmering perfection, and is completely her own. The scenario of “The Scarlet Letter” is not wholly, however, the story of Hawthorne’s novel, though the liberties taken with it could scarcely offend the most captious. As you see this beautiful picture on the screen it occurs to you that there was no need to have followed the letter of the book at all. What has come from it is fine and true.
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter – Vanity Fair Magazine August 1926
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne – Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
The spirit of Puritan days has been preserved with reverence and, at times, humor, while Frances Marion’s story is a model of screen technique and skillful compromise with the censors. Behind the story of the ill-starred lovers is a sharply etched study of the habits, customs, and psychology of our forefathers, yet it is never merely a presentation of detail but takes its proper place in unfolding the story of the seamstress who loved the Reverend Dimmesdale and who sacrificed herself that the towns people might never lose their ideal of his goodness. Lars Hanson, the Swedish actor who makes his first American appearance as Dimmesdale, might easily have stolen the picture from an actress of lesser gifts. His is a magnificent performance—poise, repression, and spirituality being blended into a character as dominating as it is appealing. The slow, gathering intentness of Hanson’s gaze is one of his most potent means of expressing thought and emotion. It is amazing on the screen.
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter1972
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter1972
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)
But for that matter the entire cast with a single exception is of the highest order. Henry B. Walthall as Roger Prynne, Hester’s sinister husband, plays with repressed power, and Karl Dane and William H. Tooker offer lifelike characterizations.
The one exception to me was Joyce Coad as Pearl, Hester’s daughter. Here was a hearty, black-eyed child with a length of limb that nearly brought her up to Miss Gish’s shoulder, wholly unlike the frail flower my imagination created as the offspring of Hester and Dimmesdale. When Miss Gish carried her, the full force of a sacrifice to art came to me, and I hoped she wouldn’t break under the muscular strain.
Victor Seastrom’s direction is that of a master, and the Scandinavian’s sympathy with the traditions of our rock-bound New England is strongly manifested in every scene.
Based on Interviews by David Shepard and Ted Perry
Copyright 1995 by Directors Guild of America, Inc.
It is ironic in this day of home video and cable television, when we have virtually every existing motion picture within easy grasp, that we seem ever more in danger of allowing film history to fade away. Too many of the greatest artists of the medium are today nearly unknown. Twenty years ago the works of Griffith, Keaton, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Ford and Hawks were taught in college cinema courses as a matter of routine. Today you can throw a stone on any college campus without hitting a student who has even heard of Foolish Wives or True Heart Susie or Sherlock Jr. If the acknowledged masters of the cinema are in danger of being neglected, what of the brilliant craftsmen whose careers have cried out for rediscovery: Herbert Brenon, Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Henry King? Of these, King is undoubtedly the best known, yet appraisal of his career has always seemed particularly problematic. In the Twenties, with acclaimed masterworks such as ToVable David (1921), The White Sister (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925) under his belt, King was considered among the pantheon of American directors, a worthy successor to Griffith. But his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox, beginning in 1930 and lasting until his retirement, muddied the waters a little. Still highly regarded critically, particularly for his serious dramas like Twelve O’clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950), King’s creative signature became so intertwined with the Fox aesthetic that, during his lifetime, he was regarded more as a supremely commercial filmmaker than an artist.
Rediscovery has seemed imminent at several points in the last two decades. Late in his life, King received tributes at film festivals and museums and a few articles were written about his oeuvre but, by and large, film scholars passed King by in favor of more “personal” artists. As historian William K. Everson wrote in his book American Silent Film, “For directors of the past to be rediscovered by contemporary critics, they usually have to have been off-beat, ahead of their time, or even abysmally bad but at the same time interesting in a bizarre way. But King fits into none of these categories. Far from being ahead of his time, he was exactly of his time.”
To me, motion pictures are less about art than about story telling. The moment I started making pictures, I started looking at pictures to see what they were all about because I hadn’t seen many before. D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914), with Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, really stood out in my mind. The thing that impressed me about this one was that it definitely told its story better than any of the pictures that I had seen. I didn’t particularly notice the form or method Griffith used. The story stood out and he told it well. A motion picture director is a story teller. If he knows how to punctuate and accentuate, he knows the art of telling stories. One night in the Thirties at Twentieth Century-Fox, I was at a dinner at which Irwin Cobb was giving a talk. I don’t remember precisely what story he told — probably one of his “Judge Priest” tales — but the way he told it was just dynamic, it was very, very funny. There was an audience of about 150 people and when he finished his story, he got a standing ovation. About a month later I heard someone else tell the same story and it was the dullest thing I ever heard in my life. From that I learned that sometimes it’s the way you tell a story rather than the story itself that makes it effective. When I was filming The White Sister in Italy in 1923, I was in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Rome waiting for someone. I saw an Italian, who looked very much the part of a nobleman — so well dressed, so immaculate — go over to greet a beautiful lady who had just come down the stairs. He bowed and, very gallantly, he kissed her hand. Moments later an elderly man got off the elevator and came over to them. He took out his handkerchief and rubbed her hand off before he kissed it; he rubbed off the other man’s kiss. Later, when I was doing The Woman Disputed (1928) with Norma Talmadge, that incident popped into my mind, and I found a situation in which to use it. In the theater it got a terrific laugh, it was very, very funny. And it was real.
One day Charlie Duell asked me, “What would you think if we could bring Lillian Gish into the company?” I didn’t know that he was a little bit sweet on her. I said, “I think it’d be a great asset. But what’s she going to do?”
“That’s what I want to ask you,” Charlie said. Like a flash in my mind, I remembered an old play, The White Sister, that had come around when I was in stock. I hadn’t played in it, but I had read it. It was from Marion Crawford’s book and Viola Allen had played it on the stage to tremendous success. I said to Charlie, “The White Sister seems to me a great thing for Lillian Gish.”
THE WHITE SISTER (1923)
[Lillian Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, an Italian woman whose half sister usurps their late father’s estate. Angela joins a convent when her fiance Soverini (Ronald Colman) is reportedly killed in a war in Africa. Soverini (** Giovanni Severi – original film character) returns home alive, and tries in vain to convince Angela to renounce her vows. Soverini gives his life to save his townspeople from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.]
I had used my free time on the Nearis to re-read The White Sister. In my little berth, I was reading it in bits and pieces. It wasn’t as good as I had remembered. When I met Charlie Duell and Lillian Gish in Boston, they had both read it and were just thrilled to death. They thought it was a good story. I said, “I think it’s terrible and I’ll tell you why.” We were in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and I started in telling them this awful story and about two-thirds of the way through I stopped. “It strikes me,” I said, “that I’m telling you a pretty good story.”
Lillian said, “That’s what I was thinking. If you’re telling us a bad story, we need more bad stories like it.”
I turned to Charlie. “Buy it,” I said. He bought the rights to the play for $16,000 and two weeks later William Randolph Hearst wanted to buy it for Marion Davies. The rights owners could have made a lot more from Hearst than from selling it to us. Charlie Whittaker wrote the first screen treatment of The White Sister, but I didn’t find it satisfactory. Then Eddie Goulding said to me, “I can do the greatest screenplay of this.” I said, “Go ahead.” He wrote it in ten days and when I read it I dropped it right in the waste paper basket. He had been writing these pictures for Robert Z. Leonard and Mae Murray [Broadway Rose, Fascination and Peacock Alley; all 1922] and had turned The White Sister into a pure Mae Murray, one of those flippant, fluttering little butterflies. So I threw it away. Eddie got so mad he didn’t know what to do and it sort of left me in the lurch. I had the story and Lillian Gish but I didn’t know exactly which way to go. I went over to the Lamb’s Club for lunch and saw George Hobart sitting there. I asked him to have lunch with me. George was a very capable man. He wrote the Follies for thirteen consecutive years and he wrote many of Lillian Russell’s plays like Wild Flower. I said, “George, how would you like to work with me on a screenplay?”
“I’ve seen very few pictures in my life,” George said.
“I don’t know, pictures never appealed to me.” I took him up to the Capitol Theater, to impress him. I said, “Theaters like this show motion pictures.” He didn’t know such things existed. The Follies always played at the New Amsterdam Theater, so he only knew the little theaters around 42nd Street; the Capitol was way uptown. He was awestruck. I asked George, “What will you take to work with me for a couple of weeks?”
“For $765,” he replied, “I’ll commit murder, if it isn’t too obvious. I’m in desperate straits right now.” They had just foreclosed on his house. I said, “I’ll give you $1,000 if you work with me this next week.” Went down to Atlantic City, where he lived, and started working. He had brilliant ideas. We worked from eight o’clock until noon, had lunch, took a walk on the boardwalk, went back and worked until about six thirty in the evening and he would go home. We did that every day for, I think, eight days. When I left, I had the entire story on twelve sheets of paper. And that was the script the way it was shot. We went to Italy to make a feature from twelve pages of script!
When I was planning The White Sister I was desperate to get a man to play Giovanni. Everybody, in fact, was trying to help me cast the picture. Eddie Small called me and said, “I have a woman playing at the Empire Theatre [Ruth Chatterton in La Tendresse] who I think you should see to play Lillian Gish ‘s half-sister.” He said, “I’ll send over two tickets for you to see it tonight. And I’m sending two other tickets so that you can see her in the first act at the Empire, then go right around the corner to the 39th Street Theater. There’s a man that I want you to see for Giovanni’ My wife and I went to the Empire Theatre that night and watched the first act. I saw the woman I was supposed to see and when the act was over we got up and went out into the lobby. My wife said, “You know, I’ve seen the first acts or the last act of almost every show in New York. I haven’t seen one show all the way through. Why don’t we stay and see Act Two? You don’t want to get around there until the third act, anyway.”
“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do that.” We walked back into the theater and the curtain went up on the second act. There was a knock at the door, the leading lady opened it — the play was about a clandestine affair — and in walked a man and he played through this act. When her husband returned, the adulterer went out the window and the curtain came down. My wife said, “Now there’s the man you’re looking for. Let’s stay and see the next act.” I agreed that he looked very good. I looked at the program and saw his name: Ronald Colman. We stayed and saw the last act, and he wasn’t in it at all — he was just in that one act. The next day there was an agent in my office and I asked him, “Do you know an actor named Ronald Colman?” He said, “Yes, I represent him.”
“Well,” I said, “I’d like to talk to him.” He brought Mr. Colman over to my office and Mr.
Colman was very appreciative and said that he had had a screen test in England and was told that he didn’t photo graph well. “I came to the United States on the recommendation of one of the directors from Paramount.”
I said, “I think we’ll just have you make a test.”
“I’d love to make a test’ he said, “but I hate to waste your time and money. Mr. [Gilbert] Miller put me in this show and I think I’d better stay where I belong — the theater.”
I made a test. I just set the camera up and asked him embarrassing questions to take his mind off the camera, so he was only thinking about me. Soon, the real man was coming out. I asked him to answer me absolutely honestly — I can tell when anything is honest or when it’s a little bit strained — so he did some of his best acting in this scene. He was natural, he was himself, he answered sincerely, you believed everything he said. When we finished this first scene, I said, “Go out, do something with your hair.” He wore it in a kind of pompadour. We parted his hair, slicked it down and combed it and I made another 400 feet. He was going to play an Italian army officer, so I took a retouching pencil and put a little mustache on him. When we got finished with all these tests I said, “Mr. Colman, you are 90% on the way I don’t want to make any decisions until I actually see the film but, from my judgement, you’re the man I’m looking for.” I called Duell and said, “I think I have the man I want but I want you to see the film with me tomorrow morning. Let’s have Lillian Gish there, too, and see what she thinks of him. She has to work with him, after all.” At ten o’clock the next morning the three of us met in the projection room and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. You could see the development from the first test to the next — the hair, the mustache, that made him Giovanni. Lillian said, “The only objection I can think of is that he’s an Englishman and Englishmen are awfully stiff.”
I said, “I don’t think this one will be.”
I called his agent and signed him up for $450 a week plus expenses. There never was a man so surprised as Ronald Colman. He couldn’t believe it. He was able to get out of his contract with Gilbert Miller and ten days later we were on the ocean liner Providence, headed for Italy. All the time I was in Rome I was in touch with the Cardinal. He came to the hotel a couple of times to have tea. Lillian Gish invited him over a few times. Everybody at the hotel thought we were the greatest dignitaries in the world — Cardinals don’t run around with just anybody! From that time on, everyone at the hotel jumped to do our bidding because we knew the Cardinal.
THE WHITE SISTER (1923) Inspiration/Metro Pictures. Presented by Charles H. Duell. Scenario: George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker. Titles: Will M. Ritchey and Don Bartlett. Camera: Roy Overbaugh. Editor: Duncan Mansfield. Cast: Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane, J. Barney Sherry, Charles Lane.
[Romola, based on an 1862 novel by George Eliot, re-teamed Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman in Italy, and also starred Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The story is about the daughter (Lillian Gish) of a blind scholar who marries an unscrupulous magistrate (Powell). After the magistrate betrays and angers the populace, a mob chases him to the river, where he drowns. Romola finds happiness with a sculptor (Colman).] I found the Italians to be tremendously serious in what they’re doing. They want things to be exactly right. They bend over backwards to have things exactly right and they know what they’re doing. We learned some of the most valuable things from them, especially when we were doing Romola.
In Romola we were trying to duplicate the Davanzati Palace, which is one of the great palaces of Florence — it stands there today. These people went down to the Davanzati Palace and plastered over it and made a cast. Then they took the cast off and nailed the stone up and it duplicated exactly all the detail in the world, like a mask. When Bob Haas and I came back to Hollywood we used that technique. We were the first people in the United States to use it and it’s been copied ever since. In Florence there was a studio that covered about forty acres. It had two small stages, nothing like the ones we had in Hollywood, but large enough for the interiors. They had just finished shooting some huge costume picture and the sets covered seventeen acres. Robert Haas was again my art director. He and I went up to see these standing sets and realized that all we had to do was peel off the fronts and change it to anything we wanted.
We rebuilt fifteenth century Florence on that back-lot. One building, the set for II Duomo, was 274 feet high. Our sets matched the real buildings perfectly, thanks to the Italian workmen. I made some scenes in front of the real Duomo and the real Campanile. They matched so well you couldn’t tell the difference. We needed galley ships for the picture and they were built for us at Livorno, a port south of Florence, by Tito Neri. He took the hulls of existing boats and put new superstructures on top so that they would look like authentic Italian ships of the period. We named the ships the Liliano and the Dorothea, after the Gish sisters. While filming The White Sister I had begun to take one-hour Italian lessons. I built up enough vocabulary to get along as long as you didn’t complicate things too much. The Italians have six forms of the verb “to be” and keeping track of those was enough to keep me busy. So on Romola I was beginning to speak a little Italian and that scoundrel Bill Powell — he went over without one word of Italian and within two months was speaking the language as fluently as he spoke English. When I was returning to Italy to film Romola, I called my friend Alfredo Berniggi and told him that there was an actor I wanted to meet in Rome. I said, “Get in touch with him and ask him to meet me at the Majestic Hotel.” The next morning, Alfredo picked me up and drove me to the Majestic. When we got within about a block of the hotel, there was a crowd of about a hundred and fifty people standing on the sidewalk.
“Are they here to see me?” I asked.
Alfredo grinned. “Yes, Mr. King.”
I said, “Alfredo, I wanted to see one actor. My God, you’ve got all the actors in Rome here!”
“Mr. King,” Alfredo said, “these people don’t want a job. All they want to do is just say, ‘Bon giorno, Signor King. They love you.” Well, I felt like a heel. As I got out of the car they formed a “V” and said together, “Bon giorno!” I thought, if they can do this for me, I can do the same for them. I started at the end of the line and called each one by name and shook hands with every one of them and said, “I’m glad to be back” or some other greeting in my little Italian. They applauded like everything. When I got into the hotel, Alfredo, a big husky man, was standing at the ban nister of the stairs, crying like a baby. He said, “Mr. King, any man in that group — you want somebody killed, he kill him for you.” That’s how much they loved me. They’d kill anybody for me.
ROMOLA (1925) Metro-Goldwyn. Scenario: Will M. Ritchey. Art Director: Robert M. Haas. Production Manager: Joseph C. Boyle. Shipbuilder: Tito Neri. Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William H. Powell, Ronald Colman, Charles Lane, Herbert Grimwood.
Henry King remained an active and creative man for the rest of his life. At 94, he passed a pilot’s physical, making him the oldest licensed pilot in the United States. He attended tributes to his remarkable career at the Telluride Film Festival in 1976 (he flew his own plane to the event), the British Film Institute in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA, both in 1980. He also, in the last decade of his life, granted several in-depth interviews with film scholars, including those which form the basis for this book. He died on June 29, 1982 at his home in Toluca Lake, California at the age of 96.
Photographs by Raymond Stagg, and scenes from the play
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the spectacular, factful conclusion of Mr. Gordon’s story on the career and achievements of David Wark Griffith. “Intolerance” has already been produced in the metropolis, and the cool New York critics have spun far more ardent typewriter rhapsodies about it than Mr. Gordon has here woven. Photoplay feels tint even as “Intolerance” itself is the most sensational artistic achievement of the year, so this story —an authoritative, unduplicated narrative by the man who knows Griffith better than anyone else—is the greatest magazine story of the month, anywhere. Do not mistake this for Photoplay’s critical review of the work. Next month Julian Johnson will give it an elaborate analysis and description as a feature of “The Shadow Stage.”
OFTEN in my atrabiliar moods when I read of pompous ceremonials.” writes Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, . . . “and how the ushers, macers, and pursuivants are all in waiting; how Duke this is presented by Arch Duke that, and Colonel A by General B, and innumerable Bishops, Admirals, and miscellaneous Functionaries are advancing gallantly to the Anointed Presence : and I strive in my remote privacy to form a clear picture of that solemnity,—on a sudden as by some enchanter’s wand the,—shall I speak it? the Clothes fly off the whole dramatic corps; and Dukes, Grandees, Bishops, Generals, Anointed Presence itself, every mother’s son of them, stand straddling there, not a shirt on them : and I know not whether to weep or laugh.”
That quality of seeing mankind stripped of its concealments which Herr Teufelsdrockh had in company with Rabelais, is the fearless theme of D. W. Griffith’s latest, and he says his last, photodrama,—'”Intolerance.”
“The Birth of a Nation” made him a rich man; money, gold, at once began to flow toward him, over his shoulders,—would it submerge him?
Would it drown the poetry which he had coined into tremendous dividends?
Could he write a second camera epic?
There is no provision that can determine the event of an effort which depends on the mood and perception of the vast many; “Intolerance” when this is printed will have made itself, or will have unmade Griffith, judged by the peerless jury of dollars in the box-office. Judged by the tables of Verity and of Art, it stands as a terrific arraignment of fustian humanity, under the indictment brought by implacable Fact.
Those seventy-five millions of people out of the hundred millions of our population who are writing at scenarios, will be interested in knowing where and how this theme was written.
It never was written.
It was created by suffering.
I have told you of Griffith’s combat with hypocrisy and imperious traditional Boetianism from the day he stepped forth from that impoverished manse of the Kentucky plantation, to and through his struggle for the survival of “The Birth of a Nation” ; of how in one community the creations of the negro vote, and in others where the negro was not maintained in his odor of martyrdom, the decayed prejudices of the Civil War were venomously injected into the controversy for artistic survival.
“The Truth? What is Truth?” asked Pontius Pilate.
And all through the centuries since, you and I and the other fellow have been shouting.
“Truth is what I believe.”
After he had won the scrap and “The Birth of a Nation” pictured the registering of gold, Griffith determined to do one more photodrama.—and he said then, and says now. only one more.—and in that he would give some manner of response to Mr. Pilate.
He did not look over the card indices of scenarios which Frank Woods had listed, though he did think of the Bible and of the temperamental incident that happened between Cain and Abel because of jealousy and thereby hatred.
But a report of a Federal Industrial Commission fell into his hands and therein he found a large part of his never written scenario. In that report was a mention of a certain combination of chemical factories,—a business combination under the control a man who was fervid in charity, acrobatically zealous in ecclesiastical activity.
He did not wear a halo in public, but he was invested with one by all the financial secretaries of Societies for the Propagation of Piety Among the Humble Poor, or for the gratuitous distribution of Tracts to the Hungry.
This official report went on in the coldly mechanical style of an adding machine to tell the profits of this Chemical Trust ; the public had previously had described to it how generously the head of the concern used his share for promulgation of Beneficence accompanied by brass tablets bearing the name of the Founder of the particular Beneficence.
With no particular emphasis the report said among other minutia that the laborers in the plants of the company were paid $ 1.60 a day; that living conditions had altered may or may not have been indicated, but the workmen wickedly refused to be comforted because their overlord gave hundreds of thousands of the dollars they had aided in the making, to an Evangelical Society for Enlightening Natives of Boroboolaa Gha with Warming Pans. Those workmen had no objections to the Overlord spending his pocket money for Tracts or Warming Pans or Brass Tablets, but they wanted $2.00 for slowly stifling their souls in the vats of his works.
The Overlord said them nay, and they struck, and the Overlord employed Goths and ostrogoths in the guise of deputy sheriffs and constables as is the custom of Overlords since the trade in Hessians and Swiss mercenaries has gone into desuetude; and the wage scale of $1.60 a day was maintained, and the men all came back to work in submission,—all except nineteen.
These nineteen could not testify to their humble change of view because the Overlord’s little army of private grenadiers had exercised the military basic principle of Frightfulness ; the missing nineteen had had their heads shot off and had thus escaped the righteous punishment of being sent to jail for ingratitude.
George W. “Billy” Bitzer, and the remarkable camera which ground in the gigantic scenes of “Intolerance,” “Static” is the peculiar electric manifestation which causes flashing white spots in the film; it is a bane of the business. Static is caused by cold, and the gentle heat from the attached bicycle lamp has obviated it in this great picture. Under Mr. Bitzer’s left hand is his original “diaphragm fade-out” appliance, directly attached to the lens. Everyone who knows anything about camera operation is of course well aware that Mr. Bitzer is the Griffith of camera men, even as Mr. Griffith is the Bitzer of directors!
On that feeble incident of ignorance of man’s kinship, of hatred of gentleness and right, Griffith built the theme of “Intolerance;” he cast back five thousand years into the supreme civilization of Babylon and there planted one of his incidents ; he walked down the aisles of Time to that St. Bartholomew’s Day when hatred and fear cut the throat of the best thought and patriotism of France, and there he planted another romantic incident ; with the living Christ in Nazareth he finds a living theme; and then to yesterday, or today or tomorrow as you like, he came and rooted there another, making the quadripartete of romance, of truth, and ingenuous fearlessness of the evil that is in all hearts ; the substance of his unanswerable charge is that all the evil, cruelty and wrong of the world comes from man’s implacable belief that what each man believes to be true, is true, and all else is false, wicked, and should be destroyed.
In making his first big picture Griffith while using no scenario, did have the memory of reading the Thomas Dixon novel to guide his progress, though, as you will remember, the picture is far from following the details of the story. In this “Intolerance” he had little more than his own idea of the incident in the Industrial Commission’s report on the Christian charity of its Overlord, and the intolerable audacity of those nineteen laborers, who were blinded by their intolerance of believing they were entitled to more of Life than $1.60 a day would buy.
At the first “runoff” of this picture in the little projecting room of his studio, Griffith had as audience one of the foremost war correspondents of this era.—a man with not a shred of emotion left to him ; a night editor of thirty years dealing with the dramatic of life, and to whom the dramatic had become a puerile everyday incident ; a city editor who was on intimate terms with all the grinning skeletons of a big city, and a writer of a long life spent in chronicling most of the tragedies and comedies of a huge country, with the machinery of the stage direction of them at his fingers tips.
Filming the most stupendous festival ever recorded. Beside Griffith, with the megaphone, stands George Bitzer and his vision-embalming camera. The subject is that Feast of Belshazzar described in Scriptures and history – it was the premier orgy of the ancients.
When the last foot of film had passed these sat silent, the fibre of their natures torn and ravelled ; they could say nothing : one rose and without phrase grasped Griffith’s hand.
Those four world-worn men had been shown not only the futile hypocrisy of the rest of the world, but their own as well.
And then from the darkness of the little room came the sound of the voice of Griffith; possibly he felt from the silence of his audience that the picture had failed to impress ; possibly he was moved himself : he is as facile in betraying his emotions as the Sphynx.
He told of his last visit to his Kentucky homestead : of an admirable, gentle-hearted, Christian-spirited, high-bred woman of near relationship, of deep orthodox belief ; of how this woman whenever she saw a well-known Christian Scientist of the place approaching, would cross the street ; of how a Catholic priest had installed a chapel of his faith there and of how all of all the other creeds combatted his work.
It was an epitome of the story of Babylon we had just seen; the glorious city of a glorious civilization where one of the first and one of the best Bibles had originated,—and all of it made the victim of hate and jealousy and greed.
Remembering that this later picture attacks with the precision of mathematics all intolerance, the result of its effect in the “tryouts” in neighboring places to where it was produced might give the Devil a richer idea than ever of the comedy of human seriousness.
So far none of the creeds, theories, or sociological ideas which the picture eviscerates has had its followers respond with a single protest ; each sees the picture and goes away thoroughly satisfied that it is not his pet belief which is assailed, but that of the fellow who believes differently ; in the secret now, of the photoplay’s success or failure.
When it is plain as a pike staff that intolerance of prohibition is a feature of the drama, what are we to think of prohibition leaders in prohibition Riverside praising the picture?
When it is equally an assault on money bending thought and creed to its devices, what deduction follows when a millionaire who has endowed colleges of sectarian type found the picture when shown at Pomona altogether admirable?
When in one appalling scene Protestants are shown savagely slaying Catholics and in another the murders of St. Bartholomew’s Day are depicted in ghastly reality and Protestants and Catholics both have found the picture to their taste, what can you think?
Nothing can be thought save that the great drama shown has undisturbed our universal capacity of seeing only that side of the shield which reflects ourselves.
“Is this truly to be your last picture:” Griffith was asked.
“It is,” he replied; “intolerance that I have met with and fought with in my other picture makes it impossible to ask investment of the tremendous sums of money required for a real feature film with the result dependent on the whim or the lack of brains of a captain of police.”
At that “runoff” showing, after the four spectators of fishy capacity for emotion had found their feet again firmly fastened in the clay of the commonplace, one said, “You’ve made a wonderful picture but you did have to pull the ‘old stuff’ to send ’em away with a good taste in their mouth.
“You’re plucky but you didn’t dare finish the picture true to life, and have The Boy executed, as he would have been in real life ; Carlyle might well have written your scenario up that finale ; but there you allowed the Despot of the stage to rule and you saved The Boy simply to satisfy the lust for comfort which audiences demand.”
“You’re one of the fellows who would have stood up and answered Pilate’s question, ‘What is Truth?'” said Griffith.
“That finale is Truth, and because it is a comfortable truth you thought it false.
“If you had read the newspapers as much as you’ve written for them, you would know about the Stielow case in New York; Stielow was convicted of a murder and sentenced to die; four times he was prepared for the chair, four times he and his family suffered every agony save the final swish of the current.
“What saved him was exactly what saved ‘The Boy’ in my picture ; the murderer confessed,
the final reprieve arrived just as the man was ready to be placed in the chair, his trousers’ leg already slit for the electrode.”
And picking up the copy of the New York paper containing the account, Griffith read former president Taft’s sentence of the criminal law, “The administration of criminal law in this country is a disgrace to civilization.”
The man who objected to the conventionally happy finale did it because he fancied himself just a bit more cultured than most, and believed that Art was only true in being disagreeable.
There are no great actors in “Intolerance,” none whom you will recognize ; though Sir Herbert Tree, I am told, in one scene played an extra man’s part, just to be in the picture.
De Wolf Hopper for the same purpose in another scene was one of the hundreds in a mob.
Tully Marshall donned the robes of a priest for one brief scene.
But of the players in general, few names will be recognized.
One of them is the woman who rock the cradle in that mournfully magnificent recurring interlude.
That is Miss Lillian Gish.
Nabonidus the King was done by an extra man.
Out of the sixty-odd thousand people who appear these are probably the ones who will be more or less known to the public.
Here, just as Herodotus and other historians describe them, are the rawhide towers of the attacking Persians, just before the assault upon Babylon. In the foreground, a net for falling wall-scalers; though it worked continuously and well, sixty men went to the hospital as a result of this encounter. Note the intrepid Ford, right at home in the domain so soon to be won by Kaiser Cyrus.
In the modern story:
Mae Marsh as The Girl.
Robert Harron as The Boy.
Fred Turner as The Father.
Sam de Grasse as Jenkins, the mill owner.
Vera Lewis, Jenkins’ sister, who creates the “Foundation.”
Walter Long, the Musketeer of the slums.
Miriam Cooper. The Friendless Woman.
Tom Wilson, The Kindly Heart.
Ralph Lewis, The Governor.
Lloyd Ingram, The Judge.
The French period:
Frank Bennett, as Charles IX.
Mrs. Crowell as Catherine de Medici
Joseph Henaberry as Admiral Coligny.
Margery Wilson as Brown Eyes.
Spottiswoode Aitken as Her Father.
A. D. Sears as The Mercenary.
Eugene Pallette as La Tour.
W. E. Lawrence as Henry of Navarre.
Babylonic period :
Alfred Paget as Belshazsar.
Seena Owen as Princess Atteraia.
George Seigmann (Griffith’s chief director) as Cyrus.
Constance Talmadge as The Mountain Girl.
Elmer Clifton as The Rhapsode.
E Lincoln as The Faithful Guard
Howard Gaye as Christ
Olga Gray as Mary Magdalene.
Lillian Langdon as Mary.
Bessie Love as The Bride.
George Walsh as The Bridegroom
William Brown as the Bride’s Father
If you have seen the picture when this appears, or when you do see it, those are about all the characters you will recognise as played by known people, if you are the most erudite “fan.” And you will see thousands on thousands of others, all apparently expert artists, all trained to the thousandth fraction of right “registering.” Griffith does not believe that an actor can make a producer a success, but he has proved that a producer can make an extra-man an actor.
Those fighting scenes of the picture were made by men trained to the same degree of ferocity that has made the killers in the Somme region turn the fields of France into human abattoirs. During the progress of the making of the picture they became known as “Griffith’s Man-Killers.”
The story is told that later Cecil de Mille of Lasky’s wanted some foot soldiers in a fight scene he had to make, and requisitioned the Man-Killers. They were to be entrenched, and a column of cavalry was to sweep down and annihilate them. They were carefully rehearsed and all went well until the camera was placed and the action began. Then the cavalry caracoled out and spurred their horses at them. Some fellow in the trench yelled “Here they come, fellers, now show the dash-blanks what Griffith’s Killers can do!”
They did ; all the rehearsal directions vanished, they couched their lances and unhorsed every trooper, and then ran them off the field,—and spoiled the scene.
I can well believe the story, for I was a witness of one of the assaults by Cyrus on the walls of Babylon. The barbarians swept over our spear-proof safety coign, and we had to dodge arrows and javelins while scudding for the clear.
George Seigmann, a man as big as two Huns, strove to subdue their onslaught as they were driving the Babylonians too swiftly for the camera, and meanwhile the Babylonians took advantage of the relief expedition by Seigmann and retreated within the city,
Did those barbarians care ?
Only so much as to fall on each others neck and crop until there was a riot of directors.
There were only sixty calls for the ambulance that day, but the injuries when examined at the studio hospital did not exceed those pleasing black eves, bent noses and gallant contusions, which are the croix de guerre of any well-designed scrap.
There was no fatality at all in the taking of the picture, though many times several thousands of warriors had to contend with life-like verity of death.
One man was killed when it was all over.
This by a sardonic freak of late was a steeplejack employed because of his surety of foot on heights. When a small set was being dismantled after the taking of the picture this juggler with altitude was employed as one of the wrecking crew of carpenters. He was at work on a scaffold eighteen feet from the ground when he made a misstep, fell, and never knew what had happened. For weeks before he had been stationed on the perilous points hundreds of feet high and had gayly coquetted with death from a station which would make a blue-water sailor dizzy.
I believe that of all the impressiveness of this picture the recurrent scene of Rocking The Cradle will be found most enduring in its elusive poetry of symbolism.
How this came to be created illustrates a Griffith trait.
Years ago when he was in a road company with Wilfred Lucas the two were walking one day when Lucas saw a woman rocking a cradle. He called the scene to Griffith’s attention and quoted the Walt Whitman lines:
” …. endlessly rocks the cradle,
“Uniter of Here and Hereafter.”
Who wrote that?” asked Griffith.
“That’s from Walt Whitman,” said Lucas, “you’ll find it somewhere in his ‘Leaves of Grass.'”
Griffith said nothing but darted away and found a book store, bought a copy of Whitman, and it happened as he opened the book the leaves parted at that very passage.
That was twelve or fifteen years ago.
But when the idea of “Intolerance” came to his mind (Griffith recalled those lines, imagined the picture of the eternal cradle, and there you have Walt Whitman’s thought photographed. This chronicler is far from being a hero worshiper ; I have been on much too intimate terms with far too many heroes to fondle any illusions about them ; they often wear patent Leather shoes with spats, and sometimes they bandoline their hair, and often they are careless about marriage vows and going to church, and paying debts, and occasionally I’ve met the best of them who can adroitly eat peas with his knife, and a lot of them wear wrist watches, and some use perfumery, but when a man can make a camera fasten to a negative film Walt Whitman’s intellect he is none of these types but a man hero, and I kow-tow to him as being no less a poet than Whitman himself.
Beyond argument the measure of achievement today is that of money.
How much did it cost? will be the prime question about this work of beauty.
I know exactly and I will tell you exactly.
This picture of ‘Intolerance” cost five times as much as “The Birth of a Nation.”
But what the latter cost no one but those who paid the cost know. The press agents concerned, claimed all manner of figures from $250,000 up to half a million. An estimate from a number of those expert in judging, places the expenditure for “The Birth of a Nation” close to $100,000, some going as high as $200,000, none going much below the first figure. This last picture has been two years in the actual making, and work on the preparatory stages was begun over three years ago ; considerably more than sixty thousand people were engaged at one time and another in the acting, and more in the various forms of effort outside of the acting.
I do happen to know authoritatively that much over 300.000 feet of film was used in the making and that this was cut in the “assembling” to the present limit of the picture of between 12.000 and 13,000 feet.
As for carefulness, it is a fact that the captions have been set and changed close to two thousand times.
As for Griffith himself, he has put his heart’s substance into the labor. I saw him the day before he left for New York ; he was brave, even gay mentally, jesting and debonair : but he was gaunt and excited though in thorough self command.
I asked him. “Now that your work is over what is your idea of your future? What is your next ambition?”
He looked frankly at me and said un-smilingly, ”My idea of life now is a tremendously large bed, in some place where no telephone, no messenger boy, no newspaper, no telegram, no voice, can reach me, and to sleep for a solid week, only waking very occasionally long enough to eat a good dinner, and then roll over and again sleep.”
“What will you do if ‘Intolerance’ fails?” I asked.
Blandly smiling, he said. “I’ll seek the Jersey coast and try to find one of those man-eating sharks.”
“And what if it wins?”
“I have told you before that this will be my last picture.
“That is as true as anything can be which the future holds.”
“The speaking stage, producing drama?”
“I have told you before that such was my desire ; if the picture succeeds it will not. It cannot, make the money that in fabulous fashion pictures are credited with making ; theatres cannot hold as much money as some newspapers say some pictures make.
“The matter of the money to be made is very like the fellow blowing the bassoon in the orchestra who was told to blow louder ; ‘That’s all very well.’ he replied, ‘but where is the wind to come from?’ ”
He says he intends to take up the stage next as a means of finding expression unhampered, but when asked what he would do, and how, he side-stepped.
“There will never be any combination of the speaking and the photo drama,” he added with a tang at satire, “not if audiences can help it.
“The stage is perfect now, to my mind, because it enables us to make moving pictures so much easier than it might.
“I’m sorry that Mansfield, that Daly, that Irving, are dead, but as a moving picture man I am glad, for the movies’ sake, that they are gone. If those men were now alive, we of the movies would have to work harder than we do, and I don’t know how that could be done, for I figure that now we work fourteen and fifteen hours a day, but if the stage were different we would have to work thirty-six hours in the twenty four ; so we are glad that competition with the stage is not fiercer than it is.”
“Don’t you regard the modern part of your picture as an attack on the courts, on judges?”
“I certainly do not, because it is not.
“That Stielow case in New York is exactly like the murder case in the story ; only reality goes the picture three better in the way of reprieves. Stielow and his family faced death-suffering four times, and three times the reprieve came at the very last minute.
“If I had shown scenes like that on the screen it would have made the public laugh as impossible, but the people should not laugh at the courts ; judges do not make the laws, you, I, everyone, are responsible for the laws.
“I have met several judges and have always found them very nice and often very wonderful men. Real gentlemen, in fact.
What has seemed peculiar to me about the law is that after so prolonged an experiment with the principles oi Christianity we still find as was found through all the ages that justice demands if a man kills another he in turn should be murdered.
“No, I am far from attacking the courts or judges, tor the only thing that has stood between the pictures and the censors and thereby prevented the pictures from utter extinction, has been the courts.”
Here are his reasons as dictated by himself, for making no more feature pictures:
“It appears that henceforth there will be no middle ground in the pictures ; there will be the ten, twenty and thirty cent pictures, and the big two dollar ones.
“The first classification does not attract me, and the second offers too many stupid, cruel, costly and apparently ineradicable offensives.
“Of necessity the stage must tell the truth more freely than any other method of expression. It is the only means existing today of even attempting to portray the truth.
“I do not mean the drama as it is known to Broadway, but the drama as it is known to dramatists.
“I have tried to tell the truth in my new picture.
“But I find that what we call the Movies are less free now than ever, and are more and more dependent on the censor, and on that account I feel inclined to stop.
“There are but a few means of conveying what we believe to be truth; the college is seriously handicapped, as too many of the universities are endowed by a few rich men whose brain power has been used only to acquire wealth ; these have little or no knowledge beyond their immediate needs ; they have never taken the time to gain knowledge of human nature in the little nor in the mass ; they have their own ideas of life and deride everything foreign to their own little circles ; they know little of the present and less of the past.
“There is very little doubt that most college professors’ opinions on morals, politics, and even of history, are very different in their private and their public capacities.
“Who can believe that a man dependent on a university will have an opinion for the public which is not more or less sicklied with the pale cast of thought about the men who put up the money for the institution?
“The world can hope for no boldness of verity from the colleges.
“The preacher of today is as always, swayed to some extent by the majority of the sect to which he belongs ; he can seldom speak as an individual, and of necessity he cannot launch what may seem a new truth that infringes on what was an old truth, and remain in his denomination.
“I wondered recently at the daring of a certain professor of Assyriology who said in a little-read magazine that the average normal being of today would find himself with more decent associates and in happier surroundings in Babylon, or ancient Egypt, than in any intervening period of the world’s history, up to the Eighteenth Century.
“The newspaper and magazine appeal to a certain clientele which they must please, and are forced to listen as a rule to the hydra-headed monster called Public Clamor, more than to her gentler sister, Public Opinion.
“But the producer of a feature picture depends on a much larger audience than any of these means ; he does not have to defer to what Mrs. Smith thinks, or what Mr. Jones believes, for he has a million Mrs. Smiths and a million of Mr. Jones, and he is far more certain to get a fair hearing, or he would be if it were not for the censor.
“Isn’t the folly of it all palpable? Because a new idea is expressed people are not forced to accept it. But certainly in this country there should be no objection to the discussion of all subjects.
“What kind of people, what sort of race, can continue to exist that is afraid of discussion?
“The politics of the world is founded on so much hypocrisy that everything is done, not for what is right, nor even against what is wrong, but for the effect on a majority of the people.
“That is why all Europe is slaughtering.
“That is why ‘Christian’ nations will murder Turks and crucify pagans and slay with zest ‘foreigners.’
“A ‘foreigner’ is always a man with a head so dense that he will not think as we think.
“The story for Truth as we see it has become barred from the pictures, so that anyone who has a real idea to express should not look to the moving picture as a means, but if he has enough money, to the stage.
“We of the moving picture craft admit our defeat ; it is impossible for us to take any big subject of interest without the fear of the autocrats above us taking away our property.
“I now contemplate turning to the stage in making an attempt to find freedom of expression.”
This ends what I have to tell about David W. Griffith.
Opened December 1, 1924. A picturization of George Eliot’s story of the fifteenth century in Italy, featuring Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
The drama is an extravagant passage from history, and, once the second part is introduced, it becomes completely absorbing. There is vitality in Tito’s political intrigues and in his dual love-making to Romola and Tessa, the ladies whose stations in life are so widely separated. This Tito is a sort of prototype of The Show-Off.
He builds his house on lies and carries on his -falsehoods until his lust for power brings his downfall and death. The picture, however, is not such a triumph for Lillian Gish’s art as was The White Sister. The dramatic foundation is built more upon political intrigue than romance. But Miss Gish lends a beautiful portrait as Romola — and her sister.
Dorothy, gives an animated study, one suggestive of her hoydenish roles in previous pictures. It does not carry the surging heart-beats of The White Sister. since it does not employ so much sympathy and pathos. And there are no great moving scenes, aside from the climax showing Savonarola’s execution. But one can call it a triumph of cinema art. Scenically, it is like peering at a group of rich tapestries by some artist of the Middle Ages. It is a rich, historical pageant. And what a treat for the eye!
1924: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) plays the title role in the film ‘Romola’, adapted from a novel by George Eliot and directed by Henry King for MGM.