The Enemy (Reviewed by Laurence Reid – Motion Picture News 1927)

Motion Picture News – December 31, 1927

The Enemy

Hokum, But Up to Snuff

(Reviewed by Laurence Reid)

IT takes good old peace times to promote propaganda against war. That is why “The Enemy,” a film version of the play is brought out now. Fred Niblo, who directed “Ben Hur, ” was not inspired when he wove it into picture shape, though he has done a creditable job by it. The trouble is there’s no great idea behind it. Niblo employs several studio tricks (he knows them) and by capitalizing scenes of marching feet—and the usual stock methods he makes a picture that stands up fairly well as entertainment. The story is not involved with any subtle strokes. The suspense and the climaxes are well planted. The star is Lillian Gish and, as is her custom, she acts with fine poise and restraint and yet releases an admirable suggestion of pent-up emotions. The title gets its meaning from war—a force to be avoided. The story takes up the deprivations of a family in general, and those of the young wife in particular. It is her husband who is drawn from her arms the morning after the marital ceremony.

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

Symbolism has a place in the picture, although it isn’t indicated by suggestion. But it is pointed that war causes hunger and despair—and profiteering. The subject might have been handled with more imagination and realism by the Germans. Here it is a fairly entertaining picture saturated with hokum. Ralph Forbes does a splendid piece of work in the role of the husband forced to go to war. Others who acquitted themselves with honors are Frank Currier and George Fawcett.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – The Enemy
  • Drawing Power: Star’s personality should put it over. Suitable for first runs and all types of houses.
  • Exploitation Angles: Play up as an indictment of war. Feature star and leading man.
  • THEME: Drama of war with married couple separated not to be reunited until they have suffered untold privations.
  • Produced and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
  • Length, nine reels.
  • Released, December, 1927.
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes silent film The Enemy orp
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes silent film The Enemy orp

The Cast: Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Ralph Emerson, Frank Currier, George Fawcett, Fritzi Ridgway, John S. Peters, Karl Dane, Polly Moran. Director, Fred Niblo.

Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes in The Enemy (MGM, 1927). Portrait Photo 11

Pictures and People

Inside slants on the industry

A VIGOROUS preachment against war is ”The Enemy,” which brings Lillian Gish to the Astor Theatre in the premiere of the Meek. On the stage, Channing Pollock’s play attained marked success as an argument for the brotherhood of man.

Transferred to the screen, it becomes somewhat heavy handed in spots, but, considered as a “propaganda” picture, it is very impressive. Miss Gish, forsaking her earlier mannerisms, gives a natural and satisfying performance, in some of the sequences rising to the genuine heights of tragedy. Ralph Forbes, leading man, is excellent, while George Fawcett and Frank Currier shine in character roles.

As a whole, “The Enemy” is too long and can easily be relieved of some of its repetition, such as the shots of marching feet, which rather lose their effect when the dramatic point they convey is hammered incessantly at the spectator. In the main, Director Fred Niblo has done a good job. It’s a good box-office picture.

The Enemy
The Enemy

“The Enemy” Premiere at Astor, Dec. 27

“THE ENEMY,” the Channing Pollack play which Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has transferred to the screen with Lillian Gish playing the leading role, will have its world premiere performance at the Astor Theatre on the evening of Tuesday, December 27. The new picture will succeed “The Student Prince,” which has been housed at the Astor for the last four months.

Fred Niblo directed “The Enemy,” which has Ralph Forbes and a large cast in support.

Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927
Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927

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Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis – By Charles Affron (1977)

Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis

By Charles Affron (1977)

The women are goddesses, the men are matinee idols; they are all stars who command devotion and veneration. The reverential and celestial vocabulary has been consecrated by decades of usage and press agentry. The cliches’ first connotations effectively separate public from performer by an expanse of astral geography. The gods reign on high, the stars blink in solar systems light-years away, and we mere mortals, worshiping at their shrines in blissful ignorance, celebrate the distance. We join cults, we become fanatics, we endow the star system with mythologies of nostalgia by collecting the stars incarnations in roles X, Y, and Z and cherishing the relics of memorable and memorized bits. “Play it, Sam.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The Actress as Metaphor: Gish in Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith spring from the turn-of-the-century theatrical milieu. The traces of theatre in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922) are not disguised, and the last two are unabashedly drawn from popular melodramas of the period. Yet these creations also display a category of film rhetoric unrelated to naturalistic theatre and prose narative. When Griffith “opens up” a play he does so by searching out the reverberations of the saga, the painting, the still photograph, the lyric.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

The patterns of Broken Blossoms are primarily those of poetry; Lillian Gish’s response to its demands reveals fundamental differences between acting as impersonation and acting governed by the fixed form of the movies. Broken Blossoms creates a tension between theatrical expectations for the stage and configurations pertinent only to the screen. It offers a field for understanding screen acting at its most specifically formal. The integrity of such acting to the cinematic text must be seen through the relationship between Gish and the film’s general structure. In Broken Blossoms the unity of performer and pattern exemplifies the metaphoric factor of screen acting. It elicits our perception of acting’s purely filmic quotient.

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

Intolerance – Babylon

Actress and director fit the medium in no film more completely than perhaps in Broken Blossoms. Histories tend to illustrate Griffith’s career with the epic and monumental; the battlefield and the ride of the Klansmen from The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the aerial shot of the Babylonian court in Intolerance (1916) are events of imagination and sweep quite characteristic of his style. The sense of spectacle in the obsessively intercut chase and/or rescue sequences and the fugal structure of Intolerance are grandiose gestures that literally stretch the theatre as far as the eye can see and brutally challenge the limits of our formal and temporal perceptions.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms appears to be a return to the stage. Most of the action is confined to two interior sets, the rooms of Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man. Griffith does nothing to trick the audience into believing that the world of these characters is broader than the space of these rooms. Indeed, he does everything to emphasize the delimiting walls and the entrapment of the characters within. The far-ranging camera of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is most glaringly absent, and whereas the earlier films taught our eyes to stretch telescopically, Broken Blossoms focuses down to the smallest detail and the minutest gesture.

These distinctions are somewhat misleading, for the memorable details of the epic films are as important as the concerted scenes. Lillian Gish and the admiring sentry in The Birth of a Nation, Mae Marsh’s acting in both films, the homecoming of Henry Walthall, “The Little Colonel,” and the wonderfully silly Babylonian lovebirds are only a few of the exquisite components we remember in Griffith’s mammoth compositions. (Indeed, miscalculated details in Way Down East and, to a lesser extent, in Orphans of the Storm are more disturbing than general structural weaknesses.) Yet, despite treasurable moments of intimacy that refine our perception, the principal design of these films belongs to the fresco, insistently calling upon the alertness of a roving glance. Broken Blossoms makes no such demands. The quality of concentration it summons fits the tauter connections and narrower limits of its frame. If the exhilaration of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is sacrificed, consistency and density take its place and inexorably draw the viewer into the pattern to be trapped in the art as Lucy is trapped in her closet. Griffith deliberately restricts the scope of the camera and denies it its most obvious advantage over the proscenium, proving that movies needn’t move over wide expanses to expose their nature. Without being unfaithful either to movies or to literature, the director adjusts the freedom of the camera to the audience’s perception of the strictest of fixed forms—the poem.


Griffith is repeatedly attracted to allegorical configurations. In the broadest sense Intolerance is an allegory, its episodes designed to represent, to dramatize the concept of intolerance through the ages. The film’s linking image of the hand rocking the cradle (Lillian Gish dimly lit) shows Griffith’s facile use of symbolic conventions. He prefers to draw generalities from character rather than to leave that task to the viewer. In as tired a vehicle as Way Down East a title proclaims that the heroine’s name is Anna, but she might just as well be called Woman.

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

The grandiloquence is unsuited to a film flawed by dubious bits of crowd-pleasing “down-East” humor and melodramatic ploys that were worn out long before Griffith used them. Anna’s interest as heroine is manifested only twice: the baptism of her dying baby and the snow storm/ice floe sequences. The rest of the film degrades a register of allegory worthy of Woman.

This is not the case in Broken Blossoms. Griffith envisions the film as a dynamics of idealism, innocence, and brutality The three protagonists—the Yellow Man; Lucy, the girl; and Battling Burrows—consistently enact their ascribed characteristics, and every element of the film sustains the purity of the conceptual byplay. The names contain allegorical clues—man, girl, battling. The minor characters, Evil Eye, and Spying One, along with the title, complete the pattern. The credits reveal Griffith’s risky intention. The risk is in the notion that the reality of filming can bear the strain of allegorical textures. If Broken Blossoms lacks obvious pictorial scope, its ambitions are great nonetheless. Much of its impetus seems unrelated to the particular strengths of the medium.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

After a brief prologue in which the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is introduced previous to leaving China “to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife,” we see London’s Limehouse, the principal exterior set of the film. With this set Griffith establishes the motif of enclosure. Even outside we are inside; the space is radically – circumscribed by the opposing storefronts and the rear arches.

Broken Blossoms

The Yellow Man’s idealism has been deflated by the confines of this street, by the very bricks against which he huddles. This shot is a melancholy, reflective emblem, the straight lines and angles of which are drawn into the curved body. This linear tension draws the viewer into the Yellow Man’s reverie. The next is a closer shot, which lessens the distance and expressively uses the changed angle of the hero’s head, the chin tucking in the shoulder, to increase proximity and intimacy.

Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)
Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)

Griffith’s caricatural notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso, but he uses it throughout the film when presenting Lillian Gish as well—pensive, cowering before her father.

Lillian Gish - FEAR - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919

Fear, thought, the frailty of the heroine and the habitual attitude of the hero are expressed in a single cast of body, a spatial indication of their nearness to an interior world—one they will briefly share. They both curl in on themselves, as they seek refuge from the hostile space around them, and direct our own feelings toward the small centers of these frames that are so often limited by the irising of Bitzer’s lens.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

The degree of introspection is then heightened; Barthelmess, leaning against the brick wall, is quite literally thinking about himself dreaming while smoking opium in a “scarlet house of sin.”

Again, the linear strength of the composition draws us to the center—arm, pipe and torso form a triangle at the apex of which the drug-hooded eyes reflect inward.

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

The shots of Barthelmess leaning against the wall and smoking opium and of Gish seated on the wharf establish the film’s landscape, a conceptual and emotional one contained in the minds of the protagonists. The limited dimensions of the spatial correlatives repeatedly bring us back to the inner worlds of Lucy and the Yellow Man where the force of imagination, through the processes of metaphor, transcends their everyday prisons. If Griffith means them to be allegorical characters, they, in a real sense, use allegory to exist. They escape their intolerable reality by substituting symbols for things.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is a fifteen-year-old (Gish had grave reservations about assuming the part because of her age) and her inner life is much simpler than the Yellow Man’s, yet she accomplishes the film’s most vivid gesture of poetic transformation.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

A desperate defense against her father’s brutal domination, her finger-induced smile is a bit of “business” whose ambiguities of sentiment are extensions of its ambiguous position between the realm of representational acting and that realm of the film in which the actor becomes metaphor itself. It represents the way symbols are manipulated, the function of mask, the very root of artifice. Lucy is in constant terror of her father. This is the prevailing attitude in which the physical changes are wrought; it is a limited field upon which the richness of Gish’s invention is displayed. When Lucy sees Daddy the tiny twisted mouth echoes her hands twisting her shawl.

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

Gish plays a fifteen-year-old in mortal fear of her brutalizing father, and the actress never overreaches the character’s age and experience. The restrictions of chronology control a degree of stylization appropriate to this extraordinary mixture of face and mask. The pained eyes burn through the pitiful, forced smile; the actress unites expression and emblem. She forces our attention to that line where art is hinged on its artificial conventions and its verisimilitude. The distance between mouth and eyes helps us apprehend the link between Lucy’s specific plight and the universal burden Griffith has thrust upon her, the eternal victim.

First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)

The first encounter between Gish and Barthelmess sustains the pattern of contemplation initiated at the film’s beginning, and, again, framing devices locate and organize our simultaneous perception of event and style. We see Gish while she is being seen by Barthelmess; the window separates, connects, and delimits, and provides a spatial referent for the process of observation.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The back-lit, soft-focus, Hendrick Sartov close-up of Gish, a lovely but facile device for idealizing the heroine, was to become a cliche. But it was in Broken Blossoms that it first achieved consistency as a significant element of the vocabulary used to photograph Gish. One of the film’s tensions is in the duality of the presentation of the heroine—Lucy, as tangible victim of her father’s whip and hammering fists, and as angelic vision in the eyes of the Yellow Man. The latter kind of shot disembodies her, deemphasizing her physicality by turning her into a chiaroscuro pattern, an abstraction that favors the film’s allegorical penchant.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919 b
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

Griffith opposes this to the stark, clear photography of the violent scenes Gish plays with Donald Crisp as Battling. The camera underlines the dialectic between phenomenon and ideal—the palpable and the transcendental—demonstrating its versatility as it shifts between the two modes, truly catching these actors as they pass from the realm of nature into that of allegory. Griffith abuses this technique in subsequent films with Gish, when the idealized heroine is denied the supporting apparatus of Broken Blossoms style. Through the twenties to her last starring film at MGM, the vision retains its aura of beatitude and in La Boheme (1926) provides for some particularly cherishable shots, although it never again finds a context as congenial as Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)

The physical register is signaled when Lucy, returning to serve her father a meal, quickly fixes a “smile” on her face. Then “the terrible accident”: she spills something on Burrows’s hand. Gish’s performance, to this point based on pent-up terror and control, now bursts forth in a frenzy that is one of her specialties. Her loss of restraint and her willingness to decompose the harmony of her being set a standard for the portrayal of hysteria that only she herself will match. (Griffith gives her repeated opportunities to do so in The Greatest Question, 1919, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm where her tremblings are no less unsettling for their familiarity.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The reiterated and almost unvaried master shot postulates the integrity of the space and the necessity of Lucy’s suffering within it. The same is true of the master shot of the Yellow Mans room. What is, I expect, a shooting expedient conspires to the fihii’s advantage by furnishing constants in the poetic pattern, akin to rhyme, meter, and recurrent imagery. Even the transitions recall the constancy of the setups. Lucy struggles to her feet, drags herself through the streets to the wharf (an often repeated locale), and finally she arrives at the Yellow Man’s shop.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here, the framing shafts of light provide a variation for our recognition of a set that belongs to the film’s strong series of limitations. The blossoms of the title, fragrant and so perishable, have a dual meaning. They refer to the name the Yellow Man bestows on Lucy, White Blossom, and they suggest the allegorical tradition of Renaissance love poetry that turns the beloved into a flower. They establish the stylistic linkage between the film’s hero and heroine. Conventional role-playing is altered by the fact that Lillian Gish, in her twenties, is playing a fifteen-year-old, and Richard Barthelmess, an American type to the point of caricature as later shown in Way Down East and Tolable David (1921), has assumed the role of a Chinese. The Yellow Man creates the love poem by providing the regalia and the rhetoric, but he is also within the poem as object, rendered so by Barthelmess’s version of lover. He is a blossom as well as Lucy. Actor and actress are profoundly alien to their roles; the characters are alien to their environments, and they create a space for themselves at the center of this film.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop (Broken Blossoms)

The meeting of Lucy and the Yellow Man evokes responses in Gish, Barthelmess, and Grifiith that guarantee the blossoms’ integrity. Nothing jars the internal structure of the poem. Lucy has fainted on the floor of the shop and the Yellow Man finally sees her.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop close up (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop close up (Broken Blossoms)

Gish casts her eves down and Barthelmess averts his face, both momentarily withdrawing into themselves before crossing the barrier to become intimate object and referent in a metaphoric relationship. Then their inwardness will be mutually inclusive.

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

The Yellow Man makes his room over into a temple for Lucy, and he garbs her as befits a goddess, adorning her hair with combs, offering her incense (which with childish finickiness she refuses). She admires her own transformation in a hand mirror—a reaction of superbly in-character, coquettish delight—and expresses gratitude for a small vase of flowers. It had been her wish for a flower that brought them together on the street earlier in the film. Flowers are more apt for these characters than theatrics.

The film’s motifs and attitudes prepare its most courageous scene, one in which actor and director fully meld the dictions of drama and lyric poetry. The intertitle proclaims the worst in Grriffith’s taste, his bent for overstatement, his belaboring the point the image so completely transmits without words: “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair; and all night long, he crouches, holding one grubby little hand.” Barthelmess seems to be praying at Gish’s bedside while she sleeps.

Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)
Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)

The moment is privileged, an epiphany  linking the Yellow Man’s religious ideals to his dream of love. What then occurs is a schema for the use of metaphor, its creation, and its power to fix the epiphany in time, to render it tangible through its correlatives. Barthelmess quite literally catches the moonlight in his hands, carries it across the room and showers it on Gish.

Griffith’s prose is inadequate to the flow and grace of the shot, the quality of belief shaped by a flexible actor and sustained by a patient camera. A pattern of circular arm movements that involve the whole room is followed by a third frame enlargement of Barthelmess’s hands close to his face in an ambiguous reminder of the prayer stance. Then, even at that instant when the light is released, a slight hunch of his shoulders preserves some aspect of character during his most total transport. Kneeling by the bed at the foot of his shrine, he once again projects qualities of religious and sexual ecstasy, sublimely confusing the two just as lyric poets did from the early Italian Renaissance to the English pre-Raphaelite period.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

The transition from the first frame to the second, from contemplation to prayer culminates in touch, the contact of face and hands. The whole sequence is a rapid shift of emphasis—from his hands circling to hers, and from her face bathed in the light he bestows to his own beatified by her hand. The light, which is the linking factor of these exchanges, is explicitly part of the scene’s theatrical content, and its value accrues through scarcity. Light alone, the light of a very special and personal moon cornered by the Yellow Man, breathes life into these characters. Metaphor is their only means of sustenance.

Yet if Broken Blossoms has the cast of lyric poetry, it is lyric poetry dramatized by the intrusion of other modes. Griffith creates a tension of manner that constantly places the idyll in jeopardy, forcing a confrontation between the interior, private world and the harshness of the exterior, physical one. His obsessive opposition of idealism and necessity appears in contexts ranging from the plight of his virginal heroines in Biograph one-reelers to Belshazzar’s flamboyant paradise destroyed by the barbarous Persians in Intolerance. The configurations of Broken Blossoms are particularly successful in animating conflict with paradox.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The Yellow Man gives Lucy the doll she admired in his shop window. Gish is at her prettiest here. She passes from childish delight to maternal tranquillity, expressing love for the doll surrogate that cannot be directed to the Yellow Man. The gesture with the doll’s hand on her cheek is a. structural link between this scene and the finger-smile sequences. Instead of a tortured smile, the doll’s hand induces a rapture that extends the characterization. In this shot Gish combines emblems of little-girlhood and womanhood to sustain the allegerical pattern of the film. We and the Yellow Man perceive an essence of femininity, granted shape and scope by the stylization of a woman playing a fifteen-year-old who plays at being a woman.

If in the moon sequence Barthelmess enacts the proximity of spiritual and physical love, it is now reiterated in a different, more strident key. He corrupts Gish’s child/woman portrait with a terrifying close-up of menacing lust.

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

The poles of the film are disturbingly close in this sequence, providing an ambiguous current for Griffith’s abstractive characters. One of the triumphs of Gish and Barthehiiess is the pulse they make throb beneath the conceptual surface Griffith imposes on Lucy and The Yellow Man. Broken Blossoms is most emphatically an acted poetic allegory.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

The sexual ambiguity of the Yellow Man’s gestures toward Lucy is further complicated when Battling Burrows discovers his daughter at the shop. Griffith uses precisely the same kind of terrifying close-up to express the father’s rage. By treating lust and fury similarly, Griffith throws awry the pat polarization of characters and concepts: Yellow Man/peace and Battling Burrows/war. The disorientation of these values will be finally accomplished when Barthelmess— who was to bring Buddha’s message to the West; who enshrined poor Lillian Gish in his personal temple—standing next to an illustration of prizefighters, faces down and shoots Donald Crisp.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

The hunched stance is apt for expression of both irony and menace. Up to the film’s last minutes, Griffith generates a crescendo of terror, pain, and violence following Burrows’s entrance into the love nest. The precious enclosure and the hermetic lovers are rent asunder; the words of the lyric poem are disarranged and strewn across the now familiar areas of the film. If the audience feels panic during the denouement of Broken Blossoms, it is because the elegiac rhythm and the idealized surface have been so radically altered. The stillness of epiphany is shattered by extremes of theatricality, modes borrowed from melodrama that test the integrity of the poem with the purity of their excess. Broken Blossoms is as much a clash of literary styles and shapes as a clash of ideologies.

At this point in the film the particular strengths of Lillian Gish are given their greatest and most fulfilling challenge. Torn from her bed and thrown to the floor, she witnesses her father’s destruction of the room with only a hint of the expression of fear that she will eventually summon.

Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)

Still clutching the doll, she is dragged down those familiar streets, home through the fog. Then Crilfith cuts back to Barthelmess and his discovery of the wreckage and her absence.

Barthelmess’s despair and anguish, his sell-abandonment, prepare for Gish’s great scene. All of their acting in miniature, in repose—acting that aimed toward the private center of their poetic existence— is now reversed, and the walls no longer seem adequate to contain their performances. As the world breaks in upon them, each responds with frantic extensions of their beings into the physical universe. Barthelmess’s hysteria is stylized Chinese; Gish’s version goes beyond recognizable style.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A particularly inspired invention locates her explosion of hysteria in a closet, the film’s smallest space. The general pattern of containment is both respected and supremely violated, This most circumscribed area, suited to the interiority of the lyric poem, provides a frame for the screen’s rawest manifestation of unchecked emotion and frenzy . Gish presses herself to the closet wall. Then begins a confrontation between actress and closet, and an assault on our collective claustrophobia that set a standard for any subsequent scene of enclosure. The space is delimited by body, hands, eyes, and face.

A sense of duration unfortunately is not conveyed by the frame enlargements. The camera relentlessly records Gish, and she spares the audience nothing, forcing it to share the plenitude of her suffering. The sequence is finally modulated; Gish reassumes the crouching position, drawing herself into a corner, while Crisp hacks at the door. When he reaches through the opening he has made, the conflict between their worlds is conveyed in purely spatial terms.

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

All the confines are breached as Lucy is pulled through that same opening, her spirit raped as she passes from one realm into another. Griffith is fiendishly inventive in scenes of menace, as Broken Blossoms demonstrates. The final beating features a tapping motion with the phallic whip handle, a disquieting prelude to the fatal strokes that we do not see.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)
Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is left alone to die. Isolated now by her pillow, she still clutches the doll that links her to the Yellow Man, but also veyr much her father’s daughter, she composes her final “smile.”

Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)

In a shot that seems to be held forever, her death connects the various attitudes and spaces of Broken Blossoms: the peace of the Yellow Man’s room, the agonizing smile-poem, and the bruises inflicted by Battling Burrows.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in "Broken Blossoms"
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”

The stillness is interrupted by the confrontation of the Yellow Man with Burrows, but it is resumed in the final sequence by an ineffable cadence of echoes of posture and placement. Lucy is returned to her altar to be venerated along with the other icons, and her death is consecrated through the joy and passion of Barthelmess’s suicide.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Peace is restored and the pattern is completed by the sublime tilt of the head, which forms the proper closure of the poem that was begun when the Yellow Man first leaned against the brick wall. Between these wedded images Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess act out the impossible, escaping from themselves through a refinement of gesture and stance to incarnate a totality of being that ranges from the most exquisite presence of flesh and pain to the airy reaches of aureoles and karma. That is the scope of Broken Blossoms.

Cheng Huan's suicide (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s suicide (Broken Blossoms)

Gish was always Griffith’s little girl/very young lady. Her vulnerability to menace was sublimely appropriate to the complex of reverence and sadism that qualified Woman in his imagination.

Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover
Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover

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Jed Harris The Curse of Genius – By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris The Curse of Genius

By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris
Jed Harris (The Curse of Genius – Cover)

A genius for Making Enemies

The legend looked like an old man dressed up to not look seedy. His thin gray hair was parted in the middle and plastered down, without concession to current style. He wore a dark ascot inside his open shirt collar. The padding of his camel’s hair sports jacket overlapped his shoulders, too wide. He fidgeted with his hearing aid and coughed, trying vainly to clear his throat between draws on a cigarette. He’d just been released from the hospital and sipped a glass of water through an L-shaped straw he’d stolen on the way out.

In the Hollywood television studio, Pat Burroughs, his forty-year-old girlfriend, stood and watched beside one of the cameramen. The Dick Cavett Show was usually taped in New York, but when Jed Harris heard that Cavett was in Los Angeles, he telephoned. He had a book to publicize. He was penniless and ill and desperate for it to succeed.

Cavett introduced him as “legendary, the golden boy of our theater’s golden age,” and Harris peered up from beneath lids that, once notoriously hooded, now just seemed eighty years’ heavy. He said nothing. Cavett, stagestruck since childhood, was excited by a chance to interview the Jed Harris he’d heard so much about; the Jed Harris he had thought was dead. He arranged for a studio and crew and now Pat Burroughs looked on apprehensively. Beside the preppy production assistants she appeared gauche in her white orlon sweater and gray gabardine slacks, but she was more concerned with Harris’s hearing and alertness. The medication made him so groggy. He had been the subject of her doctoral thesis. They’d been together tor several years now. The relationship had never been placid, but this last stretch had been actively acrimonious.

They had stayed with her mother in Winston-Salem, the seventy-nineyear-old former golden boy not embarrassed to be dependent on his girlfriend’s sixty-five-year-old mother. Though he complained about everything else, he never complained about this final and ludicrous deposit. A lifetime earlier he had declared international celebrity something he put little stock by. Apparently he had meant it. Then, always fleeing somewhere, he told Pat they were going to California. She scraped up two thousand dollars, bought a used Thunderbird, and while he dozed she drove from one TraveLodge Motel to the next. They wound up in a sorry one-bedroom Malibu garden apartment. Now Cavett smiled smartlv at the camera and recited Harris’s credits as a theatrical producer and director. These were faded and spiritless references to forgotten glories. Cavett seemed to realize, as he spoke, that the play titles would mean little to most people and so he abbreviated the list in midstream. Yet he was awed, he said, by the presence of Harris and he kept using that word, “legend.”

Videotape made it possible to come back from the grave. Months after Harris died the interviews were broadcast. After thirty years of oblivion, he had five nights on television, more time than Cavett had ever offered anyone. Old enemies watched with contempt for Harris’s deviousness, his dishonesty, his malevolence to the end. Old friends watched with admiration for his courage in carrying off “The Jed Harris Show” just one last time, and in plain sight of death. Now, as they all watched, he was dead.

Jed Harris - the wolf of Broadway
Theater Producer Jed Harris “the wolf of Broadway”


Uncle Vanya

Ruth Gordon found a splendid apartment in New York. She always found splendid apartments. This one was at 36 West 59th Street overlooking Central Park. Although they were now more or less together, Jed kept his place at the Madison Hotel. That bothered Ruth, and she said so, but he had the upper hand. Strolling through Shubert Alley one day, she ran into Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan. The actress and the critic were secretly engaged. There was no reason for the secrecy other than Miss Gish’s feverish modesty. She hasn’t seen Ruth Gordon in a year. Of course nobody had. The two actresses scurried to each other, the sparrow and the hummingbird, and pecked one another’s cheek. Ruth said she’d been in Paris, drinking wine, and had tasted “some stuff called Clos Vougeot and it was sen-jo-tional.”

Nathan knew the wine. He said it was a superlative Burgundy but hard to find. “I’ve got a great idea,” Ruth said. “I know a guy who it’s his favorite wine too. He’s dying to meet you, Lillian, so I tell you what. The first one that finds a bottle of Clos Vougeot, let’s all have dinner together.”

Ruth was a woman of many combinations, none of them foolish. She knew that it wouldn’t hurt Jed to befriend a critic, but Lillian was even more important. Chekhov on Broadway needed a box office attraction and Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most glittering movie stars. Ruth found the bottle of wine first because she already had it. One evening not long after, they all met at her apartment. Nathan and Harris talked drama while the actresses listened respectfully, which probably was not an easy thing for Ruth Gordon to do.

“Until then,” Miss Gish remembered, “I had thought George knew more about the theater than anyone I’d ever met. You’d go to a play and there was a certain scene that you liked; he could tell you five or six other plays where they had the same idea and then say how they played that scene.

Theater Producer Jed Harris
Theater Producer Jed Harris

“Jed was beyond that. I never heard anyone talk about the theater with the intelligence and the excitement and the interest that that man had. When I got up to get my coat to leave I said to Ruth, I’d work for that man for nothing if he ever had anything for me.'”

Three weeks later she received the script of Uncle Vanya. She probably would have gotten it even faster but I farris had to rethink the play. The role he wanted Lillian to play, a heartless flirt, was hardly one with which she would have been immediately associated. “Elena,” he later wrote, “seemed to me a rather old-fashioned portrait of a ‘teaser.’ I decided to modify, to suggest a beautiful and desirable woman, chilled beyond hope of recovery by marriage to a withered windbag of a professor.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

It was a novel interpretation, even a radical one. In most productions of Uncle Vanya,  Elena is still played as a man-eater. Gish agreed to do it immediately. She wouldn’t discuss salary and there was no sense in it anyhow. Jed could hardly give her the ten thousand dollars a week she was paid by Griffith. Anything, she said, would do.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

He cast the other major roles with actors he’d worked with before. Walter Connolly, his old pal from the Applesauce days, “would make a perfect Vanya. And [Osgood] Perkins, even without the romantic beauty and distinguished style of Stanislavsky who created the part, might make an interesting thing of Dr. Astrov.”

Did he know what he was talking about?

Lillian was going to be a challenge. Her last theatrical experience had been as an adolescent, seventeen years earlier. Her voice had never been a powerful instrument. George was of no help, in fact he was antagonistic to the project. He told Lillian a bit of period stage nonsense—that it was essential for a star to have the last speech in a play. The last speech in Uncle Vanya was not Elena’s but Sonya’s. If she did the play, he warned, she might never have another job in the theater or even in the movies.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish knew why her fiance was so negative. Jed was planning to open Uncle Vanya in April, and she had promised to go to Europe with George in June. And, Nathan was an insecure man, jealous of Jed’s magnetism, jealous even of Lillian’s concern for her ailing mother. Acceding to these pressures but embarrassed to tell Harris the truth, Lillian said only that she would have to leave the production after six weeks in order to take her mother to a spa in Germany. He calculated the time it would take to recover the production cost and, presuming that Lillian would be a sell-out attraction, agreed to her limited engagement. Harris wrote:

. . . she came to rehearsal in a palpable state of fright. As she had not been on the stage since early childhood, this was not altogether unnatural. “All these people in the company are so wonderful,” she said mournfully after the first session. “I really don’t think I’m good enough to be on the same stage with them.” I laughed. “They’re not that wonderful,” I said. And I told her that Helen Hayes was so nervous during the first week she rehearsed Coquette that she broke out in a painful rash. “And Helen,” I added, “hasn’t been off the stage since she learned to walk.” If this was meant to reassure Miss Gish, it failed utterly. Her eyes clouded over with compassion, she murmured, “Oh that poor, poor girl.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish recalled an early rehearsal at which Harris rose from his aisle seat and strolled to the stage. “Lillian,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean over the footlights to hear him. “Just do this as if you were in a movie. Don’t worry about projection. Don’t worry about the size of performance.

My only advice is: the woman you’re playing is the pivotal figure in the play. If they believe her, everything else will be believed. And remember, she isn’t merely a woman. You’re playing every man’s idea of a woman. Try and keep that in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it. You’re going to be wonderful.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

As rehearsal proceeded, some were less than convinced of that. Harris let his assistant, Worthington Miner, assume more responsibilities. Some days, he didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. Osgood Perkins suspected that Jed might be having trouble with his hearing, but nobody paid much attention to that.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Photo: Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish

When the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 15, 1930, it was triumphant. The reviews were gaudy. Jed recovered his nine-thousand-dollar investment in six weeks—almost to the day Gish left the company—and the production ran another three weeks on momentum, giving him a small profit on the risky presentation of a classic on Broadway.

These were fine rewards, but none to compare with the observations that critic Stark Young made about the production in The New Republic. Stark Young was the most intellectual critic of the era. Few among those who have practiced the profession of drama criticism have been better equipped for it, or better at it, than he. And Chekhov was Stark Young’s specialty. Soon after this production of Uncle Vanya he would publish his own translations of the playwright’s works, and they would for many years remain the standard versions.

Observing the directorial debut of Jed Harris, Mr. Young wrote, “Writing criticism about a production so careful and intelligent is a pleasure and a form of cooperation with the producer. . . . The whole directing is felt out with naturalness, brains and confidence.”

It was almost miraculous that Harris could have accomplished such a feat with so little preparation. His natural gift had to have been astonishing. Pity he would, in his career, do only two other classics and neither of them in a league with Uncle Vanya. They would be Gogol’s The Inspector General and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He would never attempt Shakespeare, or even his beloved Shaw.

His return to Broadway, then, was a glittering one. It had even enhanced his image: quality, intellect and art had been added to the reputation for commercial infallibility. The dust from the Wall Street crash had cleared and The Meteor had survived.

Not so the romance of George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish. They returned from Europe to learn that his mother was mortally ill. Lillian visited her in the hospital. On the way home she asked George whether he was Jewish. He repeated what he had told her before: that he was from a Main Line and decidedly Episcopalian Philadelphia family. The mother Lillian had seen in the hospital had not struck her as a society Christian. She asked George’s sister-in-law about it, and Marguerite roared.

“If George’s brother is Jewish,” she said, “I might suppose he would be too.” Lillian was disgusted. She hardly cared who was Jewish. Practically everyone in Hollywood was. But she did care—or rather, did not care — about people who denied what they were. That was the end of her secret engagement to George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922
Jed Harris, the curse of genius
Jed Harris, the curse of genius – cover

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Lillian Gish (Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe – 1959)

Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, more than any other star, has always symbolized the silent screen heroine. Of course, she was more than just a “heroine” and all that that hackneyed word implies. An actress of fragile beauty and astonishing sensitivity, she was not only the first lady of the screen, but one of the great actresses of all time.

Lillian Gish - Ice Floe Scene - Way Down East
Lillian Gish – Ice Floe Scene – Way Down East

John Barrymore, excited over her work in Way Down East, wrote to her that she had even surpassed the work of Duse. And Griffith (several years after Miss Gish had made her last film for him), when asked if he really thought that she was the screen’s foremost actress, shrugged his shoulders and replied:

“Who is greater?” Initially it seemed that Lillian Gish was more valuable to Griffith for her looks than for her acting ability. She had (and in fact still has) that ethereal, not-ofthis-world look, a birdlike fragility from which emerges sudden, unexpected strength.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

She was the epitome of what Griffith wanted in a heroine visually. But, in the early Biograph days at least, and through the Triangle period (until 1917) it was Mae Marsh who was the better actress. Or at least, it was Mae who was given the roles that demanded acting ability rather than a beautifully wistful and expressive face.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912

In early one-reelers like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and The Mothering Heart, Lillian was exceptionally fine, but she really began to mature as an actress after 1917, in films like Hearts of the World (the scene in which she wanders through a war-torn battlefield, clutching her bridal veil, searching for the body of the boy who was to have been her husband, was heart-rending), and the lovely little rural romance True Heart Susie, one of the unsung classics of the American screen.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Then came Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, which, by 1920, quite firmly established her as the screen’s foremost actress. Strangely enough however, although she had learned so much -from Griffith, and was so devoted to him, some of her best work came after she left him. To Griffith, the story was the thing—and for him, it was the right way to work. His pictures justified his methods.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

And those methods did not include “showcases” for virtuoso performances, although Way Down East, with a simpler story-line than usual, and more stress on the one character of Anna Moore (played by Miss Gish) came closest to being a star vehicle.

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

Lillian’s scenes with her dead baby are still among the most poignant moments to be found anywhere on the screen. Miss Gish of course had no complaints against Griffith’s methods, and went on to make Orphans of the Storm for him. But it was obvious that as an actress she could develop no further in Griffith’s films, and so the two, quite amicably, came to a parting of the ways. Miss Gish’s films thereafter were more infrequent, and more carefully selected.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

Not all were wisely selected, and Romola, despite a huge budget and lengthy location work in Italy, was a cold and stodgy film, lovely to look at, but little else. Miss Gish’s role gave her little to do but look exquisitely lovely in Renaissance costumes. The earlier The White Sister had been an enormous popular success, of course. Moving to M-G-M, Miss Gish was more than just the highest-priced feminine star on the lot. She had very definite ideas about the art of the film, and managed to imprint these ideas quite positively into her films. King Vidor and others who directed her were impressed. Even when they sometimes disagreed, they respected her integrity and creativity. Most of all, they respected her devotion to the art of acting, and her endurance of hardship and discomfort in the interests of a finer performance. In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree, King Vidor describes at great length the rather appalling ordeal Miss Gish subjected herself to in order to simulate death so convincingly in La Boheme.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)3

Miss Gish’s best M-G-M films, La Boheme, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind presented her with strikingly mature roles, in contrast to the innocent and girlish roles which had fallen to her under Griffith. And yet, of course, so much of that innocent charm remained.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

Who could resist Lillian sitting placidly and uncomplainingly in the stocks (in The Scarlet Letter), forcing a smile while her wide eyes were filling with tears, or entreating a pawnbroker (in La Boheme) to pay just a little more for her mittens, so that she can pay her rent?

Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi at the pawnshop
Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi at the pawnshop

( Of course, how anybody could refuse an unspoken plea from Lillian’s eyes, let alone be inhuman enough to be mean to her, is a point that often bothered me as I watched her suffering so beautifuly in so many silents!) Miss Gish was devoted to the silent screen, and felt that it had just about perfected a universal language of the arts when sound came along to destroy it. She has made many talkies and has always been superb. But now that the silent screen has gone, her main love is the theatre—and what a rare privilege it is to watch such an outstanding artist at work today! Styles and standards have changed, “The Method” and other modernizations have come and will probably go. Amid all the mumbling that passes for acting today, Lillian Gish’s power and sensitivity and force remains a vibrant and living link with an acting school that has never been surpassed—the school of silent cinema.

Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 cover
Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 cover

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”Way Down East”- Camera (1920)

Camera – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23. 1920

”Way Down East”

Griffith comes back again with his screen version of “Way Down East,” and, as usual, the critics have little to report save good regarding one of his big productions. As has been the case in some of his previous pictures, this old melodrama will henceforth be more popular as a Griffith offering than it has proven during the many years that it has been an old standby on the boards.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

Never before have such photography and light effects been accomplished for the screen. These, combined with the unusual settings which proclaim aloud their genuineness, render “Way Down East” the season’s most artistic production by far.

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

The original plot of the play has been elaborated upon and much invaluable human interest business has been inserted. The performances of the cast are very good and the New England types are excellent. Their action is materially assisted by the music score.

Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Lowell Sherman is exceptionally well cast as the heavy, Lennox Sanderson, whom he interprets cleverly. His work is convincing enough to gather for him the complete loathing of any audience.

Richard Barthelmess does David Bartlett, the well remembered ideal young New Englander, with all of his old time juvenile appeal. His characterization is equally good in its tender and its dominant moments.

Burr MackIntosh - Scene from Way Down East
Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

Burr Macintosh and Kate Price are beautifully cast as Squire and Mrs. Bartlett. It is the home atmosphere that means so much in Griffith pictures.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Mary Hay makes her screen debut in the role of Kate Brewster, the refreshing little ingenue. She is headed toward Dorothy ‘s port with her eccentric comedy mannerisms. Her relief is timely.

Way Down East Cast and Director
Way Down East Cast and Director

Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong and George Neville occasion the more hilarious amusement of the play in the rural characters, Martha Perkins, Jack Setholand and Reuben Whipple. Josephine Bernard, Mrs. Morgan Belmont and Patricia Fruer are somewhat amateurish as the Tremonts, but their footage is limited and consequently means little.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and the eccentric aunt

Florence Short, however, creates a type worthy of mention in her four or five scenes as their eccentric aunt. Edgar Nelson as Hi Holler, and Emily Fitzroy as Maria Poole, complete the cast.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

The remarkableness and thrill of the ice jam and break scenes, which forms the climax, has never been rivaled. It is as spectacular a sequence as has been filmed, even by this  director.

Other producers might follow Mr. Griffith’s example by including many big brains in their organizations, to the advantage of’ their productions and resultantly their own material success.

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Playing to the Camera – 1998 (Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Playing to the Camera – 1998

(Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Edited by Bert Cardullo, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, and Leigh Woods

If the film is the director’s work, then, when we think ofgood films, why do we think of actors as often as of directors? When I remember Way Down East, certainly I recall Griffith’s mastery, but equally I think of Lillian Gish’s body language as her life and status change.

The Silent Performance

Griffith’s authoritarian qualities were doubtless strengthened by his fondness for hiring, and then molding, actresses sometimes even younger and less experienced than Marsh. One of these was Lillian Gish, who began working with him while still a young girl and whose exposure to him influenced the rest of her career. In capturing Griffith’s passion for demonstrating effects, Gish makes it clear in her narrative that he possessed a highly developed narrative sense, which he drilled into novices and seasoned professionals alike. By doing so, he helped her and others generate a full – bodied style, capable of expressing emotion without making it seem grotesque. This style, at its best, distinguishes acting in silent films from the acting in films with sound, which was typified by greater restraint.

Stanley Kauffmann

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

Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me

Excerpt from Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 84-86, 96-102, 279. Copyright © 1969 Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot.

Before a movie was filmed a player would often get a chance to rehearse each part in the film under [D. W. Griffith’s] supervision. As casting was not decided on until shortly before filming, we were obliged to be familiar with all the roles we had rehearsed. This system taught us range and flexibility. . . .

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

Once the parts were awarded, the real work would begin. At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden kitchen chair, the actors fanning out in front of him, and, as he called out the plot, they would react, supplying in their own words whatever was appropriate for the scene. As rehearsals continued, Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in the ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time that we had run through the story several times, he had viewed the action from every conceivable camera angle. Then he would begin to concentrate on characterization. Often we would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect. If we still failed, he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later moderate in us. . . .

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

In rehearsals we were expected to visualize the props—furniture where none stood, windows in blank walls, doors where there was only space. Our physical movements became automatic and our emotions completely involved. Most rehearsals were open—that is, the whole staff, actors, workmen, and the men from the laboratory were free to come and watch. Often there would be visitors on the set. Mr. Griffith loved the presence of an audience while his company rehearsed—and rehearsed so effectively that at the end of the scene, the onlookers would be in tears. Later, we learned to withhold, not to give as much as we would if the camera were operating. Film was expensive, and a scene was shot only once, so we conserved our strength for that one take. . . .

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

During lunch he would help those who happened to be eating with him. If an actor did not know what to do with a character, if he was baffled and could not get insight, Mr. Griffith would say: “Well, haven’t you seen someone like this in your life? Go find him. Go get an idea from someone, and bring it back to me, and let me see if it’s any good. I can’t think of everything! I’m writing the whole story. You have only one character to worry about, so you try to round it out and make it real and whole!” . . .

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

I would often be called in to rehearse parts for the more experienced actresses, who would sit by and watch me to see how the story unfolded. They thus gained perspective on their roles. Afterward I was allowed to stay while the more experienced players took over. Changing places in this way proved to be beneficial both to the craftsman and the novice. I often saw the scene again in the darkroom, thus learning how to correct my mistakes and profiting bv the skill of the others. . . . I won the role in The Mothering Heart, ancl it turned out to be a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction. During the filming I worried that I was overplaying. But when I looked at the rushes during a lunch break, I asked Mr. Griffith why none of it showed on the screen. He explained: “The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time—so half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normally to come over with full effect to your audience.” He taught us that false emotions never move an audience, that you cannot make viewers cry with make-believe tears. “The first thing an actor needs is soul,” he said. “The actor with soul feels his part, he is living his role, and the result is a good picture.” . . .

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

He made it clear to us that acting required study. “No matter where you are, watch people,” he told us. “Watch how they walk, how they move, how they turn around. If you’re in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.” Whenever he saw some behavior pattern that intrigued him, he would use it at an appropriate moment in one of his pictures. “Catch people off guard,” he reminded us continually. Sometimes, at the end of a shooting session, he would talk with those of us who remained to watch the rushes. “Too many of us walk through life with blinders on our eyes. We see only what concerns us, instead ofwhat goes on around us. Let’s take a scene that is played again and again every day—one that we see and yet do not see. Let us imagine ourselves standing on a street corner. A pretty girl is waiting at the curb for a bus. A commonplace, undramatic event. Nearly every corner has a pretty girl waiting for a bus. But suppose we already know one fact—if the girl misses her bus, she’ll be late for work. If she’s late, she’ll be fired. Let us begin then in the morning, when she comes awake abruptly in her room. We close in on the face of the clock to see the time. We watch her dressing with frantic haste. We see her drinking coffee. We show the hand holding the cup. It is trembling. We are becoming involved in the multitude of details which clothe every human event. When the girl leaves the house it is raining; she rushes back for an umbrella. Then we see her last-minute dash through the rain puddles for the bus. All of this, mind you, set against a montage of the hands of the clock moving and a backdrop of the office she is trying to reach. If we saw all this, we would be reliving our own tensions in similar circumstances, simply because we have been made to see it in all of its parts.” And he would repeat the familiar cry, “I am trying to make you see!” To learn about human nature and to build our characterizations, we visited institutions normally closed to young people. At insane asylums, for example, we were escorted through wards by nurses or the doctors themselves. . . .

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

I sympathized deeply with all the patients. They may have been aware of my compassion, for one day when the nurse left the ward for a moment a young woman shuffled over to me. She whispered: “I’m no more insane than you are. My relative put me in here for a purpose. Here’s my mother’s telephone number. Call her and tell her to come and get me. I’m unjustly confined.” She sounded completely rational. Her appeal touched me, and I took the number. Just then the doctor entered and looked at her shrewdly. “Mary, why did you break the window this morning,” he asked, “and then take the glass and cut your leg?” She regarded him innocently. “But I had no pen. And I had to write with something.” Later, when I was faced in a film with a scene that required knowledge of insanity, I had seen enough of its physical manifestations to convey the necessary range of emotions. During the filming of The White Sister many years afterward, I drew on my knowledge of epilepsy for one scene; it proved an effective way to register shock. Whenever I had doubts about the appropriate reactions to certain situations, I would consult an expert on the subject.

Mr. Griffith always emphasized that the way to tell a story was with one’s body and facial expressions. “Expression without distortion,” he always said. He meant, “Frown without frowning.” Show disapproval without unsightly wrinkles. The only makeup he suggested was a golden tone, an idea he borrowed from Julia Marlowe, with whom he had acted and whom he admired tremendously. I learned from him to use my body and face quite impersonally to create effects, much as a painter uses paint on canvas. Later on, when I worked with other directors, I would hang a mirror at the side of the camera, so that in a closeup I could see what effect I was producing. Mr. Griffith kept constantly at his young players: “Let me see you walk with happiness. No, not gaiety, that’s something else. That’s better. Now, with sadness—not sorrow. Now—with comedy, tragedy, sickness, blindness. Now. let me see you run in all these ways. Some of you move like wooden Indians. Must I open a dancing school to teach you flexibility?” He and I used to have a constant argument on one point. When I played a young girl, he used to have me hop around as if I had St. Vitus Dance. “Young girls don’t do that,” I complained. “How else can I get the contrast between you and older people, ifyou don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” he asked. Then, imitating a young girl, he would get up and hop about, shaking his balding head as if it had a wig of curls. A stranger would have thought him mad. We were encouraged to train our bodies for acrobatic pantomime, which was particularly useful when the camera was shooting from a distance. We were also called upon to perform the most dangerous stunts. None of us ever objected; it did not occur to us to object. I studied fencing with a teacher named Aldo Nadi. He approved of my good eyesight and long legs and told me that in two years he could have me ready for the Olympics. But I was interested in fencing only as an adjunct to acting. I alsojoined the Denishawn Dancing School, studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, whose pupils—among them Martha Graham—have since won acclaim for their great talents. Their large living room had been converted into a studio with mirrors and practice bars, and later, while Miss Ruth and Mr. Ted were on tour, Mother rented it so that we could practice early in the morning and late at night. Within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or an athlete. Mr. Griffith also encouraged us to take voice lessons to develop strength and proper breath control. His studio was certainly no training camp for weaklings; the working hours were unlimited, the demands unpredictable. Under Mr. Griffith’s tutelage, some of the younger girls of the company also had a small, impromptu class. Strindberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — we read them all with earnest, patient concentration. We might not have absorbed all the ideas, but we tried awfully hard. I myself was seldom on the set without a book under my arm. During that time I developed an admiration for anyone who knew more than I did, and I must confess that the feeling is still part of me. We also were expected to search for possible story material, reading everything in the public domain. We would find promising stories, change the locales, and use the characters and situations in our films. Mr. Griffith urged us to mingle with audiences in movie theaters to observe their reactions. “It doesn’t matter how you feel when you’re playing,” he said. “I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what you make an audience feel. You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you’re not making the audience feel that way, you’re not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they’re held by what you’re doing, you’ve succeeded as an actress.” I have often sat in the balcony, staring at faces to measure the effect of a scene. More than once I’ve put my face directly in front of a spectator’s face; instead of being distracted, I found, he would move his head aside in order not to miss a second of what was happening on the screen. Then I would know that I had achieved what I was striving for. . . .

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

The essence of virginity—purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul, and body—is the stuff out of which, under [Mr. Griffith’s] prompting, I created heroines. He made me understand that only governments and boundaries change, that the human race remains the same. . . .

. . . Before Mr. Griffith would begin filming any production, he would rehearse the entire film from beginning to end. Other directors, I discovered, simply rehearsed each individual scene before it was filmed. I wanted full rehearsals on La Boheme; I had never worked without them. Through them an actor could develop his character, grow used to his partners, time his scenes, and set his tempo. This approach wasn’t known at M.G.M., nor was my method of rehearsing. It didn’t take me long to see that the other players were greatly amused by my actions—opening doors that weren’t there, going up and down stairs that didn’t exist. When they tried to imitate my actions, they simply became embarrassed. I could not impose my kind of rehearsal on the others, nor could I object when they wanted music for their scenes. I had never had music before, and I simply had to close my ears and continue working. The music was fine, of course, when I wasn’t trying to concentrate on a scene.

Playing to the camera : film actors discuss their craft
Playing to the camera film actors discuss their craft

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ORPHANS OF THE STORM—D. W. Griffith – Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

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

Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

Photoplay’s selection of six best pictures of the month

The Shadow Stage


THIS production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper. Griffith has come back with a bang. After “Dream Street,” this great historical masterpiece brings again the Griffith of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” but with an added charm, a new softness, a fresh appeal. He tells an old, old story—the story of “The Two Orphans.” He has retitled it and remade it. Against the bloody background of the French Revolution, Griffith has painted a beautiful picture: a tender portrait of devotion and sacrifice. He has recreated history as no other living man has done. And this is his greatest triumph. It is massive, but it is human.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

And let us comment on the very curious fact that the French Revolution is perennial. Somehow it takes hold of the human imagination as can no other great social upheaval in human affairs. Compared with events that have followed, the turbulent period of the Reign of Terror is not on a particularly grand scale: e. g., the Napoleonic wars, and our own great Civil conflict, not to mention the recent World war, and the cruel and bloody Russian revolution.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

But it fascinates. Griffith was wise in his choice of a theme for this production. It is spectacular, but it has little moments of very personal appeal—tiny, heart-throbbing seconds on the screen during which you hold your breath for fear you will break the charm and the magic picture will vanish.

You are Henrielte and Louise, or you are the Chevalier de Vaudrey and Danton. You are awaiting the embrace of Madame Guillotine; you are a part of that unforgettable page in the book of the world. No history ever written can begin to compare with this photoplay for genuine instruction. Every child in the world should see it. True, it takes liberties with actual dates and events; but the spirit is there. There are, we said, moments of surpassing beauty — greater than anything ever put on the screen or the stage.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

One, the love scene of Henriette and the Chevalier: touching, tender, true. Another, the most dramatic of all celluloid climaxes: the almost-meeting of the two orphans. The thrills come when the heroine is rescued from the guillotine — and this is not the best part of the drama. But much may be forgiven a director who can reach out from the screen and put a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Orphans of The Storm 1922 — with Lillian Gish2.

As for the acting — it is superb. First honors go to Miss Lillian Gish. Each new Gish portrayal is finer than the one before. The actress works. With a rare beauty and personal charm, she is not content. Her Henriette is sublime.

Dorothy Gish - Orphans of the Storm

Her sister, Dorothy, as Louise, has the second-best role, which she performs with exquisite art. Joseph Schildkraut, as the Chevalier, is charming. But Monte Blue, as Danton, the outstanding figure of the Revolution, is the best man in the cast.

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

Of heroic mold, he plays magnificently and proves himself one of our few fine actors. Honorable mention to Lucille La Verne, Frank Puglia, Sheldon Lewis, Morgan Wallace, Frank Losee, and the gentleman who played Robespierre so splendidly. The musical score is appropriate.

Once more—don’t miss this.

Photoplay (Jan - Jun 1922) cover March
Photoplay (March 1922) cover

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The Scarlet Letter – By Nathaniel Hawthorne (Screenland – May 1926)

Screenland – May 1926

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

This masterpiece of literature contains a number of passages so great and complete that a thrilling short story in Hawthorne’s own words is made by their narration, A few connecting explanations are added.

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. . . .

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_02
17th February 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) is punished for bearing a child out of wedlock in the film ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a 17th century melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom.

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. . . . Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison. . .