HENRY KING – Director From Silents to ‘Scope (1995)

HENRY KING – Director

From Silents to ‘Scope

Based on Interviews by David Shepard and Ted Perry

Copyright 1995 by Directors Guild of America, Inc.


Henry King, noted director, producer, actor, writer and editor of film.
Henry King – 1937 (Bettmann Collection) – noted director, producer, actor, writer and editor of film.

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.

1925 - Alice Terry and director Henry King
1925 – Alice Terry and director Henry King

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.”

Henry King and Ronald Colman - MGM The Magic Flame
Henry King and Ronald Colman – MGM The Magic Flame

On Filmmaking

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.

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

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
The White Sister


[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.]

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The White Sister 1923 — with Lillian Gish.

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!

The White Sister
The White Sister (Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman)

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.”

The White Sister
The White Sister (Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman) – promotional

“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.”

The White Sister
The White Sister (Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish)

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.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

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.


Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

ROMOLA (1925)

[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.

Romola 1924 - scene from film - Lillian Gish
Romola 1924 – scene from film – Lillian Gish

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.

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

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 - Baja California 1965
Henry King – Baja California 1965



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.


Henry King, director : from silents to ʼscope
Henry King, director : from silents to ʼscope – cover

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The Real Story of “Intolerance” – By Henry Stephen Gordon (Photoplay Nov. 1916 Vol. X)

Photoplay Magazine – November 1916 Vol. X No. 6

The Real Story of “Intolerance”





By Henry Stephen Gordon

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.”

Intolerance - Huge set comparing to a man

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?

He has.

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.

Billy Bitzer filming Intolerance with his Pathe camera

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!

In the court of Prince Belshazzar

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.

Intolerance - Griffith and Bitzer filming Belshazzar orgy

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.

Griffith - On Set (Intolerance)

“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.

Intolerance - Rawhide towers of Cyrus

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


Jewish Period:

  • 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.”

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

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.

Photoplay (Jul - Dec 1916)

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.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

“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.

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

“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.

Photoplay (Jul - Dec 1916)

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Romola (Motion Picture Magazine May 1925)

Motion Picture Magazine May 1925


Geo. M. Cohan Theater.

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

Opened December 1, 1924. A picturization of George Eliot’s story of the fifteenth century in Italy, featuring Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

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.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

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.

Lillian Gish - Romola

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!

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish - Romola
Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish – Romola
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

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INTOLERANCE By Hector Ames (Motion Picture Classic Vol. 3, 1916)

Motion Picture Classic Vol. 3 1916

Intolerance Original Program 2



Up and down thru the centuries, thru a muck of blood and self-righteous guilt, stalks that murderous specter of envy and self-love-Intolerance. Apparently inspired by hatreds—religious, political or social underneath all its sickening pretense and sham lies the desire for advancement of self and lust of power.

Intolerance Original Program 1

Age after age has written, with a finger dipped in blood: “Sorrow and death to those who think not as we do.” And advancing time but furnishes us a repetition of history, for always there be with us “certain hypocrites among the Pharisees” who thank their God that they be not as other men. Emerson has described the scourge in his immortal words:

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

“If we would not be marplots with our miserable interferences, the work, the society, letters, arts, science, religion of men would go on far better than now, and the heaven predicted from the beginning of the world, and still predicted from the bottom of the heart, would organize itself, as do now the rose and the air and sun.” Yet, thru all the ages. Time, endlessly rocking its cradle, brings forth the same passions, the same hates and sorrows. Such is the power of the demon-Intolerance.


Nearly two thousand years ago there lived in Babylon a certain high priest of Bel, the god of the Assyrians. And of all the citizens of the world’s most powerful state, he was second in influence only to Belshazzar himself. How it happened that certain of the citizens set up altars to other gods within the city, and the fires of Bel burned without sacrifice, and the high priest was dismayed and feared his crown of power was slipping from his grasp. The people of Babylon worshiped most at the shrines of the goddess Ishtar, and the devotion was sanctioned by Belshazzar.


Thus, day by day, the high priest grew more jealous for Bel, but most of all for himself. Then suddenly – came Cyrus the Persian, storming at the gates of the city, for with her fall the world lay at his feet. For weeks the siege went on : the people sacrificed and prayed to Ishtar, while Belshazzar and his armies hurled down their enemies from the walls. At last the wearied Persian horde withdrew, and the city was delivered. Whereat there was great rejoyicing in Babylon, and the praise of Ishtar rose higher then before, and the altars of Bel were neglected.


Then the wily Cyrus secretly sent word to the high priest that should the city be given over to him, to Bel should be the honor, and worship of no other god tolerated. So the high priest opened the gates to the Persian hosts, while Belshazzar and his nobles sat feasting. And a great cry went thruout the world: “Babylon is fallen-is fallen !” Thus a great civilization fell, and a great people were treacherously sold into slavery by the grasping intolerance of a narrow mind.


Some half-century later there was a marriage in Cana of Judea, and a certain poor guest, a Nazarene, made a miracle, turning jugs of water into wine. Then some among the Pharisees, who were hypocrites, began to fear Him. They said that they held Him in contempt because He consorted with publicans and sinners, and yet they feared Him, and therefore persecuted Him. He went His way, preaching a doctrine of love and peace; so they said to one another : “Behold ! this man is threatening our power; his words shame us before the multitudes, for we cannot answer them. Let us set him from our path.” So they circulated lying tales of Him, and angered the people against Him so that later they took Him to a certain hill, and there He was crucified, for His thoughts were not their thoughts. Did it matter that. angry lightnings played about the cross? Did it matter that Calvary was shaken by an ominous thunder, or that future generations should rain condemnations on their act? The cry of the centuries rose from the throats of the groaning multitude : “Sorrow and death to those who think not as we!”

Intolerance - Medici

Yet again, in a later age, when that church which He died to hand down to posterity was divided within itself-when France, under Charles IX, was a hotbed of internal intrigue-that serpent of Florence, Catherine de Medici, used that same religion, founded on tenets of love and peace, as a cloak for the vilest, bloodiest wholesale murder that the world has ever known. The Huguenots were becoming too powerful as a political factor. Catherine and her aids hectored the half-crazed king until he signed an order for their massacre. On St. Bartholomew’s Eve the great bell of St. Germain tolled out the death-knell of the thousands of innocent Huguenots in Paris. Men, women and children were butchered in their beds.

Intolerance Massacre Medici

Those who fled to the streets fell only on the pikes and swords of their ruthless assailants. The gutters ran with blood, and high above the screams and clamor came the solemn tolling of the great bell. The Due de Guise rode to the house of Coligny, and, standing up in his stirrups, cried: “Fling down the carrion ! I would see whether he be truly dead !” And all that was left of the great leader fell upon the upturned weapons of the mercenaries. He had wished to live in peace with his fellow men, but-he thought not as they.

And now we see this same spirit in our own age–the age of the intolerance of wealth for poverty. Here we have a certain group of women who seek, under the pretense of social uplift and moral reform, prominence for themselves at the expense of the happiness of others. Organizing a powerful charitable foundation, they proceed to clean up a modern city, entering environments and dealing with conditions, altho they possess neither the mentality nor the experience to cope with them, and forcibly inflicting their opinions on a class which adjusts itself to its problems far better without their aid. Still, they get personal advertisement and prominence, which is really the desired result. Envious, self-seeking, narrow-minded, and only too eager to see evil in others, in spite of his disguise of civilization we see in them the latest phase of the blighting specter – Intolerance.


Motion Picture Classic Vol. 3 1916.pdf

Motion Picture Classic Vol. 3 1916.pdf

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

Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish)

By Charles Affron (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Wedding
A Wedding

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

A Wedding
A Wedding

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

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

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

Hambone and Hillie
Hambone and Hillie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - Whales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish in Whales of August

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

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life

By Charles Affron – 2001

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

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The White Sister (Motion Picture Classic – 1923) – Laurence Reid Review

The Celluloid Critic

Laurence Reid Reviews the Latest Picture Plays

Motion Picture Classic – 1923

The parade of big pictures across New York screen goes on apace. It begins to look like a celluloid landslide and the season has hardly begun. Marion Davies and George Arliss have had their innings with “Little Old New York” and “The Green Goddess,” respectively, and now comes Mary Pickford in “Rosita,” Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” and Lon Chaney in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

The White Sister

There is a lyric quality to Lillian Gish’s acting in “The White Sister” (Inspiration) which has never been recognized before. In that respect Henry King who directed this tragic story of broken romance has brought forward a talent which Griffith neglected in order to create an emotional outburst, of pent-up floods of passions and fear. As the frail, tender misguided child of fate, Miss Gish makes poignant appeal. It is heart-rending to see this tormented soul taking her separation from her lover with such courage and when learning of his death, turning her back on the world and finding peace and sanctuary in the Church.

The White Sister
The White Sister

There is a splendid clash of emotions when the girl takes the veil – an unforgettable scene – and daring in its execution. Then when the lover returns to find his sweetheart a nun the story releases a deeper poignant note. Here is Lillian Gish of wistful charm and poise, suffering the anguish which comes from conflict in her heart.

The White Sister
The White Sister

There are some irrelevant touches and the climax is too orthodox to ring genuine. We have the play of elements from all sides – nature releasing its unbounded fury, and the human puppets are swept aside like so many toy figures. The finish is regulation movie stuff. But the picture earns respect because of its spiritual quality – its poignant touches – its sweep of passion.

The White Sister
The White Sister

It strikes deep with its conflict of distressed souls and one emerges from the theater with a feeling of exhaustion – the tensity of scene when the girl takes the veil and when her soldier-lover returns to claim her, holding one in a tight embrace.

The White Sister
The White Sister

A newcomer is Ronald Colman who plays the broken-hearted lover and he gives a performance of quiet force and dignity. He never seems to be acting, which makes his expression all the more natural and genuine.

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Motion Picture Classic (1923-1926)
Motion Picture Classic (1923) The Celluloid Critic – White Sister

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lost Hollywood – By David Wallace – 2001

Lost Hollywood

Lost Hollywood

By David Wallace – 2001

The generic “thing” we think of as Hollywood likes to destroy and bury its past. Most traces of the original la-la-land are dead, buried, and gone. But now the maestro of entertainment history, David Wallace, has unearthed real treasures. Archaeology is a passion of mine. And so are the movies: the history of the movies, the making of movies, and the stars we have all known, loved, or hated. This book combines both of my passions, examining the priceless and fascinating past of Hollywoodland.

Hollywoodland was the original lettering of the famous sign that hovers, iconlike above the Hollywood Hills. Today it exists simply as “Hollywood,” but what a tale Wallace has to tell of how this great symbol fell into disrepair and was almost obliterated altogether.


Here we get the foibles, follies, houses, yachts, cars, studios, and restaurants of the glorious and glamorous yesterdays when stars really caught the public s imagination. This was America s beginning love affair with the cult of celebrity. These were the early silent years when flicks were the opium of the masses and audiences believed every word written in Photoplay and Modern Screen. There was the invention of sound and every other technical achievement one could dream of. But chiefly there were stars and star makers. Can you think of anyone famous today who would lure ten thousand people to a funeral? Princess Diana comes to mind, but in the early screen days William Desmond Taylor lured them because he had been murdered. The silent-screen beauty Mary Miles Minter was implicated in this still unsolved death, and she fainted at his funeral. Lost Hollywood is crammed with such stories.

Cinema old

Ghosts exist.

In film, images (ghosts) of people we love or hate do the things we fantasize about or recoil from in stories and settings equally phantasmal.

The ghosts of Hollywood embody and animate our collective and individual consciences, our ethics, our relationships, our dreams, and our darkest sides. The stories that flicker on the silver screen, and the people who bring them to life—the actors, producers, directors, crews, and publicists—have shaped the way we live. It has been said that the real challenge for a storyteller in relating a pre-Christian tale is to remove Christian values from the characters’ motivations and actions. I believe that for a storyteller a few centuries down the way, it will be even harder to remove values of the movie era from today’s civilization. Film, in its century, has changed civilization as profoundly as Christianity shaped Western culture in the previous nineteen centuries.


Art, architecture, fashion, design, literature, music, dance, social behaviors—even religion itself—have all been consumed by him and changed. Gods and goddesses far more dynamic and powerful than any in ancient mythology have been raised up and cast down.

It was all an accident; Hollywood, that is. The town that would become so proficient at creating fake accidents to amuse, fascinate, or terrify a future audience numbering in the billions was itself a serendipitous product of the right timing and the right location. It was neither a transportation nexus like the river town of Pittsburgh nor a harbor city like San Francisco (or Hollywood’s neighbor, the Los Angeles harbor city of San Pedro) nor a railroad town like Omaha or even nearby San Bernardino. In the beginning, it was nothing.

Nothing, that is, except a place of gentle hills rolling southward below a number of canyons that carried winter runoff from the slopes of the yet-to-be named Santa Monica Mountains near a wide pass that led to the also unnamed San Fernando Valley.

Death Takes DW Griffith
Death Takes DW Griffith

Griffith died on July 24, 1948, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in that lonely room where, to keep them cool, he often stored apples and sodas on the sill of the window from which he could see his past. (Not far from Griffith’s room Elvis Presley later lived and was inspired to write “Heartbreak Hotel.”)

American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille - 16 dec 1958
American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille – 16 dec 1958

The only celebrity who visited the funeral home was a director whose fame also stemmed from creating popular epics: Cecil B. DeMille. A few more of Hollywood’s famous, some of whom, like Lionel Barrymore and Mack Sennett, owed their film-career starts to him, showed up for the funeral in the half-filled Masonic Temple. Some, like Mary Pickford, whose career was launched by Griffith when she was sixteen, didn’t show up at all. Many of the funeral guests shunned honorary pallbearers like Louis B. Mayer (who, after his career change from junk dealer to film exhibitor, made a fortune from The Birth of a Nation) and Samuel Goldwyn, both of whom could have given Griffith work in his later years but didn’t.

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

When he was laid to rest in a tiny, rural graveyard in his native Kentucky, next to his father who first entranced him with the tales of Confederate derring-do that would inspire much of The Birth of a Nation, only one star of the many who owed their careers to him was there: Lillian Gish.

It was a four-hanky story Griffith would have loved filming.

D.W. Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, in La Grange, Kentucky. His father, Jacob, died when David was ten, after a life spent as a sometime politician, full-time farmer, and passionate Confederate loyalist. Davids mother, Mary, was the quiet, affectionate anchor of the family.

Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98
Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98

Griffith wanted to be an actor from an early age, and for a number of years trod the boards in Louisville and on the road. In 1905, he first visited Los Angeles, cast as an Indian in a stage adaptation of Helen Hunt Jacksons then-popular novel Ramona (Griffith would later use it for a him). The following year he married a fellow actor, Linda Arvidson, and moved to New York City where he tried his hand unsuccessfully as a playwright and looked for acting work. At the suggestion of a friend he ran into in the old Forty-second Street Automat, Griffith decided to look into films—not as an actor but as a scenario writer—to tide himself and Linda over the winter. (Before scripts, demanded by sound, writers wrote scenarios.) It was as an actor that he was hired, first by Edwin Porter (who four years earlier had made The Great Train Robbery) to play the lead in a forgettable him, and then, at age thirty-three, by the Biograph Company as both scenarist and actor. The job changed his life.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Biograph was by 1907 already the best of the early film makers, but like most, it was a small, informal community of largely anonymous talent grinding out two one-reelers a week from its studio in an East Fourteenth Street brownstone. Among those talents was cameraman Billy Bitzer, who, when Griffith’s stage-trained acting proved too overdone for the intimacy of him, suggested that Griffith step in for a sick director. It was also Bitzer who explained to the rookie director how to make his first film, laying out the scenario on a piece of laundry shirt-cardboard. Never, even in the glory days to come when Bitzer and Griffith would essentially write filmmaking’s first grammar, would Griffith work from a written scenario.

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

And what days they were as commercial success made taking chances possible. Most of Griffith’s hundreds of films for Biograph (141 in 1909 alone!) made a lot of money, largely because he somehow knew what the relatively unsophisticated audience of the time wanted and how to deliver it.

One thing Griffith believed was that audiences wanted longer films, films that told a more complete story. So in 1913, spurred by the example of the large-scale films being turned out in Italy, and permanently settled into making movies in the Southern California sun, he made Judith of Bethulia near the present Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It was a four-reel biblical epic and one of the first to star the talent who would become Griffith’s most famous discovery; Lillian Gish. It also went overbudget by 100 percent, causing such a row between Griffith and the Biograph management that he formed his own company—and took many of Biograph’s leading talents along with him. Announcing his new company in a now famous advertisement, he took credit for introducing the fade-out (apparently true, although some him historians differ), the close-up, the long shot, crosscutting, and something called “restraint in expression,” certainly related to his earlier troubles toning down his stage gestures for him.

An amazing series of pictures followed that would make D. W. Griffith the most famous director in the world: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. The most famous, because it was the most infamous as well, was The Birth of a Nation.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Based on a racist jeremiad of a book and play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, the saga of a Southern family torn by the Civil War, appealed to Griffith as a chance to write history from the loser’s point of view. It was unquestionably also an emotional response based on memories of the heroic reminiscences of his father, a twice-wounded Confederate colonel. The movie was made in locations in and around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, the pine forest near Big Bear Lake, and the countryside near Whittier where the movie’s climactic ride of the Klansmen was filmed. One of the extras in that scene was John Ford, whose future career as a director nearly ended that day when, blinded by his Klan bedsheet, he was knocked from his horse by an overhanging branch; Griffith himself revived him with a shot of brandy.


The Clansman, as it was called in its early release, cost a then-astronomical one hundred thousand dollars to make and promote. Driven by notoriety (including a failed effort by the NAACP to suppress the film entirely), it would make a fortune. How much? No one will ever know exactly because of the standard financial shenanigans employed by exhibitors of the era. The best estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around nine hundred million of today’s dollars, making The Birth ofa Nation one of the all-time most successful movies ever made.

Griffith s next film was in many ways both his greatest and his clumsiest. Before the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had made a small movie based on a Dickension story of a young couple whose lives are destroyed by a strike. Called The Mother and the Law, it was never released, and the name was assigned to two new stories of injustice Griffith planned to film. Coincidently, he saw Cabiria, one of the hugely successful historical epics then being made in Italy. He was impressed by the ambitious scope of the film, which combined the intimacy of close-up shots with the panoramic grandeur of the burning of the Roman fleet and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with seemingly thousands of extras and live elephants. Somehow the idea occurred to Griffith of filming a sort of cinematic sermon condemning intolerance by intercutting four stories: the heroic resistance of the Babylonians to the Persian invaders, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the French Huguenots, the original story of the young couple torn asunder by social violence, and three tableaux from the life of Christ. Working as always without a script, Griffith quite literally had no idea when to stop or start on this gargantuan project. He just kept filming, shooting more than a hundred miles of film, which eventually was edited down to three hours and fifteen minutes. Then and for years afterward, Intolerance was the longest film ever made.


Griffith’s colleagues couldn’t figure it out, and neither could audiences, after the effect of the stupendous visuals wore off. But, the film will live as a benchmark in film history, not for the stories it tried to tell, but for the way Griffith told them. Audiences were especially stunned by the sets for the fall of Babylon, with its thirty-foot-high elephants (a direct steal from Cabiria) and its images based on familiar biblical paintings. Few who ever saw Intolerance can forget the scene where the crowded steps of Babylon are first glimpsed from a great distance, then come closer and closer as the camera descends in a gigantically long tracking shot, down and down and down, ending atop Belshazzar’s bacchanal. That sort of shot is done all the time these days with a camera crane, but when Griffith did it in 1914, they didn’t exist. How did he do it?

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

Griffith and cameraman Bitzer first tried a balloon for the camera and cameraman, but it proved too unstable. Then engineer Allen Dwan, later a director himself, suggested mounting the camera on an open elevator that was itself mounted on a narrow-gauge flatcar on tracks leading to the three-hundred-foot-deep set. So as the elevator was slowly lowered, workmen pushed the flatcar forward. It was the movies’ first crane shot and even today one of the most memorable.

By now World War I was on in all its fury, and because Griffith was easily the most famous film director alive, the British invited him to visit and film footage for use in propaganda pictures. He was the only American filmmaker to visit the front. For Griffith, however, story telling on celluloid was by then becoming more real than the real thing; he would subsequently film frontline action on the Salisbury Plain in England and back home in Hollywood.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Some of that war footage found its way into his next feature, Hearts of the World, a melodramatic look at four war-torn years in a French family’s life. The story, a pastiche of lost and found love, is mostly memorable for Lillian Gish’s wonderful mad scene as she wanders through a battlefield searching for her lover, and the terrific patriotic ending as rank after rank of American soldiers march across the screen. (One side note: In Hearts of the World, Gish’s child was played by Ben Alexander, who would become familiar to a later generation as Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet.)

Griffith’s next film, Broken Blosssoms, was something altogether different; for all intents and purposes it was the first film noir. The intimacy of its story about an abused girl (Lillian Gish) and the Chinaman who tries to rescue her with tragic consequences (Richard Barthelmess) was thrown into high relief by the epic splendor of the films that came before and after.