“The White Sister”—Inspiration – Pros and Cons

“The White Sister”—Inspiration

Lillian Gish, away from the guiding hand of Griffith, proves to be as moving as ever. In an emotional race with Vesuvius in eruption she captures all the honors. In her support she has a tragic but uplifting story, real Italian scenery, and a charming new leading man named Ronald Colman.

Excerpts from – The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Signed Promotional Photo - Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman - The White Sister
Signed Promotional Photo – Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister

Some Souvenir Postal Cards.

Agnes Smith (Known MGM – professional hired – hater)

Lillian Gish went to Italy to make “The White Sister,” and the result is some beautiful scenes showing native life and some shots of that great dramatic star, Mount Vesuvius. Miss Gish’s error was, not in going to Italy, but in taking a scenario of F. Marion Crawford’s novel with her. Of all the aggravating and annoying plots in the world, “The White Sister” is the worst, except maybe a few by Hall Caine. Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies and by making a lot of fuss about the difference between worldly and spiritual love. And then he turned on the soft music of Italian scenery to ease the story over on the public.

Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out. Unless you handle it with care, the Catholics are apt to be offended while, on the other hand, a great many non-Catholics can get none too excited over the girl who takes the veil. I am not trying to imply that “The White Sister” will stir up feeling, I am only saying that there are certain rational aspects of the public mind that demand consideration from producers. Most fans are apt to look at “The White Sister” merely as florid and romantic melodrama. The postal card views of Italy have a certain charm and the unreal story works itself up into a good thrill climax. Dear old Vesuvius jumps into action and obligingly kills off some of the characters. However, the hero, in the midst of the eruption, for some strange reason goes and gets drowned. A dambursts and floods the city. It seemed an unnecessary trick to bring in the flood and a nasty crack at the destructive talents of Vesuvius besides. The incident was as foolish as though I should get mixed up in an earthquake and die of hay fever.

Miss Gish gives Vesuvius and the flood a winning race for the honors. The girl has a habit of breaking my heart. Once she gets that heart-broken, woebegone look on her face, I am simply overcome by emotion. Miss Gish has a perfect technique, combined with the face of an angel. She deserves more reliable material than “The White Sister.” Her new leading man, Ronald Colman, breaks all records by playing an Italian role without imitating Valentino. He gives a splendid, sincere and truly convincing performance, even though he is called upon to do all sorts of ridiculous things. A recruit from the stage, he is an addition to the screen. And he has such a way with him in love scenes that I suppose he’ll have to engage a secretary to answer his fan mail.

The White Sister - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)
The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)

THE production of “The White Sister” on which Lillian Gish worked for seven months in and near Rome, will not be released until fall. So, for consolation, Picture-Play offers in the meantime, this exquisite photograph of her in the role.

The White Sister 2 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 2 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

This glimpse of one of the early scenes in “The White Sister,” Lillian Gish’s first picture for the Inspiration company, holds rare promise of beauty, for it seems to haye caught in its very backgrounds her ephemeral charm.

The White Sister 3 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 3 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Only in Italy could be found such exquisite and time-worn walls as those which provide settings for some of the scenes in ”The White Sister.” Of all her portraits, the one above is Lillian Gish’s favorite. In this famous old Italian garden which has been visited hy scores of Americans traveling abroad, “The White Sister” meditates upon the spiritual life and seeks to crowd out of her consciousness the tragedy that sent her to seek the solace of the convent.

The White Sister 4 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 4 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Ever since the first announcement almost a year ago that Lillian Gish was going to play this widely known heroine of F. Marion Crawford’s there has been keen interest in this production. For such quiet power and spiritual beauty as hers suits the character of the little romantic girl who enters a convent when her sweetheart disappears. In ‘ the scene shown above, the three nuns are played by three old and famous character actresses of the Italian stage.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Concerning “The White Sister.”

The most interesting feature of your magazine to me is the review department by Agnes Smith. I always read the reviews first and usually find that I not only agree with Miss Smith, but wish that I might have thought of expressing my judgment in her delightful way. Naturally, I was eager to see her review of “The White Sister,” for Lillian Gish, it seems to me, is by far the most important person on the screen. Miss Smith’s flippant and disparaging remarks were a distinct shock. I cannot understand her point of view when she says “Most fans are apt to look on ‘The White Sister’ merely as florid and romantic melodrama.”

I do not know on what Miss Smith bases her opinion on what the fans are going to think. I only know that both times I saw the picture the strangers all about me were sincerely and deeply moved. Two women, sitting near me, who looked as though they could ill afford the price of the tickets, murmured several times during the course of the picture that they had never seen anything so exquisitely beautiful.’ The people were so real that they forgot it was a plot and not life that they were watching. Now, if you will permit me the space, I would like to comment on a few points that Miss Smith raised. She says, “Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies.”

Mr. Crawford may have shown poor taste and been artificial sometimes in his writings, but I am not so sure that the sentiment he aroused was artificial. I think that it was sincere just as the sentiment aroused by George Cohan’s flag-waving and other bits of hokum is sincere. “The difference between worldly and spiritual love” will, I believe, continue to be one of the most engrossing themes in all literature in spite of Miss Smith’s disapproval.’

“Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out,” she continues. When the world ceases to be interested in faith, it has ceased to be interested in the most vital and important factor in human life. The faith of “The White Sister” may not be mifaith ; in fact, I was enraged by her insistence that her vows to her church were more binding than her promise to the man she loved. But, any sincere and convincing presentation of another person’s beliefs commands my respect, at least. It was reassuring to find that even though she was thoroughly out of sympathy with the story, Miss Smith was deeply moved by the work of the star and Ronald Colman, the gifted and magnetic young leading man. I do wish, though, that her review, which is sure to influence many people, had not shown such a strong personal bias. – Joice Marie Sidman – Ansonia Hotel, New York City.

The White Sister
The White Sister

 

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Way Down East, a “b’gosh” Drama – By Peter Milne (Picture Play Magazine – 1920)

Picture Play Magazine – Volume XIII December 1920 No.4

The Screen in Review

By Peter Milne

DEEP-ROOTED in the traditions of the American stage is the “b’gosh” drama. This type of rural play, headed by such classics as “Way Down East,” and “The Old Homestead.” and runningdown the line to cruder copies of these, was prominently in vogue a decade or two ago. The term “b’gosh” was fastened on these plays rather condescendingly. It implied more than the mere expression of the amazed squire who exploded “b’gosh” at various moments throughout the play; it implied the squire’s false whiskers, the villain in riding boots, the simpleton hero, the barnyard scene with its painted backdrop, and the becurled ingenue whose manicured finger nails reflected the footlights. It never was great art, but it had a deep and abiding appeal. It has remained for the motion picture to eliminate some of the “b’gosh” element from the rural drama. Under the magic of the camera the squire’s whiskers have long since taken on an aspect of reality. The riding boots of the villain are not quite so obvious. Charles Ray and some few others have endowed the country heroes with a very sincere human note. The ingenue milks the cow in a real rural setting. The barnyard scene with its painted backdrop gives way to beautiful pastoral photographs. The camera reflects true rural life.

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

“Way Down East” is a production in which D. W. Griffith has taken advantage of this refining influence of the camera on the rural melodrama. He has taken this old classic and turned out an astounding production, one which is already placed beside “The Birth of a Nation” in the elements of human interest, thrill, and spectacular effect. It is Griffith’s first “big” picture since “Hearts of the World.” By it he demonstrates his right to be placed above all others of his craft as the wizard who knows the hearts of the majority of picturegoers, a right which during the past two years might justly have been questioned. But though Griffith nods at times and perhaps dozes a bit his reawakenings are marked by such epics as “Way Down East.” So we can easily forgive him his little lapses.

Way Down East Wedding Salon Hotel

The first part of “Way Down East” concerns itself with the tragedy of the betrayal of Anna Moore by Lennox Sanderson, the city villain. It is melodramatic only in its fundamental situation. For the rest it is a brilliant characterization by Lillian Gish, who portrays the role of the girl. The persecuted heroine of the present production is by far the greatest role created by this actress. The heights to which she builds through her nervous, intensifying emotional ability are superb. Her romantic scenes, when she hears Sanderson’s false avowal of love, and believes the mock marriage ceremonial true, are touched with a beautiful appeal. Her sudden awakening, the realization that the man she held most dear has betrayed her, are terrific. The depths of despair to which she sinks after the death of her baby—pitifully baptized by its frenzied mother — sound a note of tragedy that is tremendously potent.

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

The second part of the story concerns itself with the development of Anna’s real romance with David, the squire’s son—a role played by Richard Barthelmess who is shown with Miss Gish’ in a scene from the play in the picture above. Here Griffith has trotted out many of the “b’gosh” incidents of the original play, and even exaggerated them. The comedy is rough and jars in its tremendous contrast with the beautifully done major action. There are plenty of genuine light scenes, pretty and amusing, but the horse play of Martha Perkins, Sterling, and Whipple strike discordant notes. But it is in this part of the picture also that the power of the camera over the theater stage asserts itself. The photography of the rural landscapes is wondrously beautiful.

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

Then comes the long sequence of climactic action—the greatest thrill ever shown. Anna’s past is revealed, and the wrath of the squire descends upon her. A brief moment of triumph is hers when she denounces Sanderson before the farmer folk who have held him a gentleman. This moment, incidentally, is Miss Gish’s triumph as well as the character’s. It is the rarest piece of acting that the screen has offered in all its years.

Anna, having denounced Sanderson, goes out into the driving snowstorm, toward the river and oblivion. At length she falls exhausted on the river ice. In the meantime David is wildly searching for her and finally comes to the river just as the great ice break begins! The ice cracks and swirls in the waters and starts its way down the current to the falls. Anna lies unconscious on a jagged piece which is soon caught in the current and hurled recklessly on.

Horrified, David begins his pursuit, leaping from one ice cake to another, nearing his goal, only to have the gap widened again the next moment by some eccentricity of the ice break, or the river current. But he keeps on, making dangerous leaps, sometimes slipping —once, indeed, he immersed himself in the water only to scramble on again in a mad frenzy to save the girl of his heart from destruction.

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

And just as the ice bearing Anna touches the very brink of the falls, David, by one final, superhuman effort, reaches her side, snatches her from certain death, and then beats back against the ice floe to the shores of safety. Griffith is a wizard when it comes to the building of such a climax and in holding the suspense. The quick flashes from Anna to David, the numerous shots of the falls, the terrific struggle waged by David, despite his seemingly hopeless task, all bespeak the hand of a master craftsman. It is a thrill that equals anything else that even Griffith has done, not excepting the ride of the clansmen in “The Birth of a Nation” or the finale of “Hearts of the World,” in which the hero dashes to the rescue of the heroine. The ice floe is more relentless than the Hun.

Way Down East - filming the "Ice Floe Scene" (Lillian Gish)
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

I think Griffith has gone too far in his realism on various occasions throughout “Way Down East.” The flash of Anna that suggests the tortures of childbirth might better be omitted. And it is hard to understand why an artist such as Griffith must needs introduce such minor vulgarities as the Sanderson orgy and the scene in the bedroom, in which the bed is the center of attention, just after the mock marriage of Anna and Sanderson. Realism with a capital “r” is unnecessary. But no minor exceptions can dim the praise that is Griffith’s for “Way Down East” as a whole. In his fine work he has been aided by Miss Gish’s wonderful performance, by the upright work of Richard Barthelmess as David, by the polished performance of Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, and by Burr Mcintosh’s characterization of Squire Bartlett.

Griffith in Way Down East - Picture-Play Magazine (Dec 1920)
Griffith in Way Down East – Picture-Play Magazine (Dec 1920)

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An Illustrious Sister Act – The art of Lillian Gish -By Malcolm H. Oettinger (Picture Play Magazine 1925)

Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola High Resolution Promotiona 2l
Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola – Promotional

Picture Play Magazine Volume XXII July, 1925 No. 5

An Illustrious Sister Act

An appraisal of the art of Lillian Gish, who is about to begin a new phase of her long career, with a few words about her sister Dorothy.

By Malcolm H. Oettinger

IF you or some other curious person were to stop me some summer morning and ask point blank: “Who is the best actress unrolling her talents on celluloid?” I- should, -without quibbling, cast my two or three votes—for such is the system in Pennsylvania — in favor of Lillian Gish. When serious thinkers and cynical souls of all sexes begin to crown the baby art with wild raspberries it is always possible to exact a temporary reprieve for the films by mentioning Lillian Gish. Such reluctant optimists as George Jean Nathan and Joseph Hergesheimer have dedicated psalms to Lillian; aloof fellows, they have abandoned their usual frapped poise to compose veritable paeans of praise in her honor. No one can doubt the sincerity of these testimonials; no one can question the worthiness of the recipient.

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

Her work in “Broken Blossoms” alone is sufficient evidence. Those who refuse to consider one count as final are referred to “The White Sister,” in which the Gish sincerity made one forget the glucose sentimentality: “Way Down East,” in which her poignant characterization gleamed like a diamond in a popcorn ball; “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Griffith blended her gifts with a moving symphony of tremendous power.

Lillian Gish 1925 - Bettmann
Lillian Gish 1925 – Bettmann

Lillian Gish could wring my heart even if she played Little Eva or Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model; she has the steadily glowing spark of genius. Her great performances are not occasional, they are consistent. Nor is hers an art that must, like virtue, be, to some extent, its own reward. Unfortunate contractual agreements have handicapped her, but that her box-office value has remained intact was shown by the line-up of producers who, glowering at each other, stormed the lobby of her hotel upon the recent announcement that a Federal judge had declared her free from all claims of her late impresario, and open to new offers. As you probably know, she decided, after weighing all offers, to sign with Metro-Goldwyn.

Detail CR Gish, Lillian (Way Down East)_022
Detail Anna Moore – Lillian Gish (Way Down East)

Ordinarily it is simple to write of the ladies of the screen. They are bound to be beautiful, in varying degree ; they are likely to be engaging, if only as a concession to their great public ; occasionally they turn out to be clever. Writing of Lillian Gish is more difficult. Standing head and shoulders above her sister players, she is to be pointed out as the one artiste of the silver so-called sheet. Nazimova was mentioned in the same breath until she began to look upon picture making as a Ford owner looks upon a one-man top. Now it is Lillian Gish alone. (The Negri of “Passion” flashed across the horizon and disappeared, never, apparently, to return.

The rest of the ladies—Swanson, Pickford, Talmadge—hold no claim to greatness save as tremendously popular favorites.) There is no hocus pocus to encounter and overcome before gaining an audience with Lillian Gish. Granted a reasonably good phone connection, a taxi, and an elevator, and you stand at her door without further ado. And very likely she will open it.

She is delicately beautiful, with haunting eyes set far apart, dainty nose verging on the retrousse, and lips that a more pyrotechnical phrasemaker would term rosebud. They are small and curved and shy. But in describing her you are certain to come back to her eyes—soulful, wistful, fine eyes that seem to say, “I am a little disillusioned, a little weary, a trifle sad, but tomorrow may be brighter.” Her manner is reserved, almost timid. Her poise extends to the point of placidity. She is balanced and calm and thoughtful In her opinions. Her conversation further reveals her underlying tolerance regarding all things. When we discussed the theater—and she had seen everything from “The Miracle” to “Abie’s Irish Rose”—she was kindly in her judgments, speaking well of most plays and performers, maintaining a significant silence to indicate disapproval. “How fine it would be,” she remarked, “if the Theater Guild were to create a sister organization that would function through motion pictures ! The Guild has done so many splendid things. The screen could well afford such a group of artistic producers.” She spoke of the cruel necessity for condensing pictures to meet standard theater requirements. “After we’ve put months and months into the planning and making and careful cutting of a picture play,” she said, “it hurts terribly to see it slashed mercilessly until it is inside the two-hour limit. Jumps appear, continuity ceases … what have you? … I always feel a personal loss when a scene is hacked away, a scene that may have represented days of careful work. . . . Yet I realize the practical necessity for reducing a feature picture to regular running time.” She sighed, and a helpless little frown appeared. “That is. where we are so handicapped.

Silver Halide Photo Cca 1920 Lillian Gish - detail

We must always bow to practical demands. The sculptor does not. The author does not. No one dictates to the poet or the sincere playwright. Yet the artist working in the medium of films is permanently hobbled by certain restrictions and fetishes and unwritten laws.” When she talks it is quietly, briefly. The quotations you are reading did not flow forth. They are a series of observations gathered, assorted, and bound together. I had seen Lillian Gish at Mamaroneck in 1921 when she was engaged in making “Orphans of the Storm.” Seeing her again reminded me how little she had changed. To my notion, the remarkable thing is her utter lack of affectation, her absolute sincerity, her genuine simplicity and naturalness. After all, when you pause to consider that here is the great actress of the screen, worthy of being ranked among the great stage figures of her time, the absence of pomp and importance is a bit amazing. She has nothing of that charming artificiality or artificial charm, if you will, characteristic of so many actresses. She has charm alone. Midway during my visit Dorothy Gish joined us. Were one to search the seven seas one could find no contrast more complete than the sisters Gish. Together they form the last word in opposite temperaments. Dorothy Gish is the modernist, fresh from shopping on Fifth Avenue, luncheon at Pierre’s, and Dorothy Gish is the the latest in shingles ; Lillian – is the classic-modernist, impetuos, observant, thoughtful, reserved. Dorothy is impetuous, fleeting, impulsive, flip; Lillian pensive, deliberate, calculating”, practical.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

The little disturber is typical of the young American; Lillian, Old World, aristocratic. Dorothy spoke glowingly of the Duncan sisters, “The Firebrand,” Heifetz, Nurmi, Robert Edmond Jones, and the weather ; Lillian listened, smiling. (“I’ve seen ‘Rain’ nine times,” Dorothy exclaimed. “Whenever it comes near New York I see it over and over. Jeanne Eagles, grows better every time I see her. She’s marvelous, wonderful, superb!”) Dorothy is an opportunist, reckless perhaps, but gay, and ever on the go.

Lillian Gish - JOHN ENGSTEAD
Lillian Gish – JOHN ENGSTEAD

Lillian is the planner, cautious, even reluctant in taking decisive steps. Well she may be. From a purely commercial viewpoint hers has been a heart-breaking career. Time after time fortune has hovered above her head, only to fade into thin air before becoming a reality. Griffith never was able to pay huge salaries because of the reckless manner in which he mounts his pictures and the leisure with which he completes them. The Frohman Corporation signed her as a high-salaried star, then promptly dissolved. And latterly Inspiration Films had proven inspired only in so far as acting has been concerned. Both Dick Barthelmess and Henry King had legal difficulties over the trying matter of remuneration, and then Miss Gish was obliged to resort to courts for adjustment of her affairs with them. Her last picture with Inspiration was “Romola,” in which Dorothy shares honors.

Lillian Gish - 1924 (Romola promotional)
Lillian Gish – 1924 (Romola promotional)

“We spent six months in Italy on ‘Romola,’ ” said Lillian. “We were completely absorbed in it. A beautiful story. I had always had my heart set upon doing it. “We worked night and day. While light permitted we would And locations and take exteriors. At night at the hotel we would rewrite the script, adjusting it in many instances to local conditions.” The fact that Lillian Gish has directed pictures and is fully conversant with the technical side of the studio increased her cares tenfold. There were huge dynamos to he imported from Rome, trucks to be located, currents to be converted, licenses to be obtained.

“There were a hundred and one difficulties to overcome.” Her slender white hands fluttered in a descriptive gesture. “The places for backgrounds that were in reach of lighting equipment. Extras. Dependable technical assistants. The authorities were most kind, but there were so many obstacles.

 

The Gish Sisters (Romola)
The Gish Sisters (Romola) Lillian and Dorothy

“I loved Florence, though,” said Dorothy. “So did Ronald Colman and Henry King.” “We saw them in Hollywood recently,” Lillian interposed. “We went out for the opening of ‘Romola.’ They said they wanted more Florence and less Hollywood. . . . How that little town has changed. I hadn’t seen it for years and years. . . . Since ‘Intolerance.’ It was a nice little country town then. Make-shift. Delightful. Now it’s … it’s so grown-up !” Dorothy was reminded of Michael Aden,, a favorite of the moment. Lillian expressed her admiration for the new Burke autobiography, “The Wind and the Rain.” Both of the blond sisters had enjoyed Milne’s inimitable “When We Were Very Young.” They were curious regarding the Sinclair Lewis novel, “Arrowsmith.”

Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola High Resolution Promotional
Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola High Resolution Promotional

Although you would never learn such things from Lillian herself, it is true that she- has made tremendous sacrifices for her various successes. In “Way Down East” she played in a raging blizzard until she collapsed before the camera. Her hands were frozen. During the making of “Broken Blossoms” she lost thirteen pounds in ten days as a result of the high emotional tension under which she was laboring. For “The White Sister” she worked night and day all of the final week to complete it on time. Despite all this she looks youthful and fresh, twenty-five perhaps, pink and white, ethereal. There is nothing of the theater about her even though she has devoted something over fifteen years to stage and screen.

Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Promotional session Romola 4
Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Promotional session Romola
Lillian Gish - Promo CCa 1923
Lillian Gish – Promo CCa 1923

“The trying part of picture making,!’ she confessed gently, “is the combining art and business. You are expected to create just as one creates a painting or a symphony, yet you must submit to efficiency men, time clocks, schedules, and manufacturers’ methods. It strikes me as incongruous. . . . Yet I can see perfectly why it is so. But until things undergo a distinct change it will remain an herculean task to lift pictures above the machine-like standards of “program features.'” By the time these lines appear, Lillian Gish should he in Los Angeles, at work on “The Outsider.” But wherever her present—and I trust, more gratifying—contract may take her, Lillian Gish still will remain the great actress of the screen.

Sister Act 1 - Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)
Sister Act 1 – Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)
Sister Act 2 - Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)
Sister Act 2 – Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)
Sister Act 3 - Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)
Sister Act 3 – Picture-Play Magazine (July 1925)

 

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The Filming of “Way Down East” – By Charles Gatchell (Picture Play Magazine August 1920)

Griffith Studios - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
Griffith Studios – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

Picture Play Magazine August 1920 Vol. XII No.6

The Filming of “Way Down East”

For six months D. W. Griffith has been at work on what promises to be another of his monumental productions. The following is an impression of the immensity of the undertaking, and of the peculiar method by which the dean of directors works.

By Charles Gatchell

ON the north shore of Long Island Sound, not far from New York City, there is an estate of sloping lawns shaded by giant elms, on which Henry M. Flagler, the former Florida railroad magnate once planned to have erected what he hoped would be the most beautiful country home in America. It was to have been a monument to the success of a multimillionaire, as distinctively the last word in dwellings of its kind as the Woolworth Building and tower was the last word in its type of city architecture. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith is now completing a film production which I believe will be, in, its way, a monumental work, the last word in a certain phase through which motion pictures are passing; a phase which is marked by the purchase, at fabulous prices, of the great stage successes of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of time and care and money into plays for the screen. The play in question is “Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavor, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for the screen rights stands, at this writing, as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is, to me, even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but  I am going to endeavor to show something of the infinite pains with which the work is being done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.

It was a day set apart for work on interior scenes, which were to be filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home of the Bartlett family.

The set, which stood in the center of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. The fire-stained pots and kettles hung above the charred logs that lay across the andirons. All the rustic properties from the Seth Thomas clock to the farmer’s almanac had been carefully put in place as indicated on the detailed sketch. Twelve of these sketches had been made, from which but one was to be chosen ; twelve finished pieces of work, each a different design, combining, together, all of the most characteristic bits of home atmosphere which Mr. Griffith’s art director, an Oxford-trained authority on architecture and design, had found in a trip through New England. I was later to learn that before this set finally had been decided upon as satisfactory, four other sets previously had been built and torn down. Any one accustomed to the methods of other producers would have concluded, from the appearance of the studio, that everything was ready for action. From overhead, the set was bathed in the diffused light of the Kliegs. Through the open doorway at the right entrance came a flood of yellow sunshine thrown by that marvelous invention, the sun-ray arc, whose beams reproduce so literally those from which they take their name that if they shine upon you for long you will be burned as you would be by midsummer sunshine. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion-picture cameras, manned by the camera men and their assistants, while nearby was stationed the “still” photographer with his big bellows camera.

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

As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, Mr. Griffith, who was personally directing the production, had taken his position in the open space between the cameras and the front of the set—a distinctive figure—his rugged height accentuated by the short raincoat which hung, cape-wise, over his broad shoulders, and by the large derby hat which, tipped far back on his head, vaguely suggested the pictures of the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland.”

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

But no command was given to the waiting camera men. There was no expectant hush, as when a conductor mounts the dais before an orchestra. The members of the cast, fully costumed and made up, knowing the methods of their chief, stood or sat about in little groups, as they had for several days, patiently waiting. The studio orchestra, for no particular reason was softly playing “Turkey in the Straw,” to which Martha Perkins, a prim and severe-looking New England spinster, was executing, with grotesque solemness, a very creditable, though strangely incongruous, buck-and-wing shuffle. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organization, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, forever, if need be. “I don’t quite like that door,” said Griffith, suddenly breaking the silence he had maintained for several minutes. He called for one of the decorators. “It looks too new,” he explained. “The edge of it, don’t you know, in a house like this, would be worn down, and the paint darkened near the knob by years of use.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - filming Way Down East - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – filming Way Down East – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

The decorator nodded understandingly and started for his tools. “Be careful not to batter it up any,” Griffith called after him. “I don’t want anything to look mistreated, but to have just the appearance of long years of careful use.”

“Now, how about those chairs?” he went on, addressing the art director this time. He walked on to the set, seated himself in a rocker, rose, and returned. “That chair’s comfortable enough, but it doesn’t look comfortable enough for the effect I want. I want this room to radiate from every last touch the feeling of being homelike—a home of comfort and welcome and coziness. Let’s get some cushions for the backs of the chairs.” The art director groaned. “A hundred dollars’ more time to be charged up while we put them on,” he began. “But we’ll do it,” he added hastily, as Griffith gave him a look that said, “Huh — a lot I care about a hundred dollars’ worth of time, or ten hundred dollars’ worth, if I get the result I’m after.” “Now let’s see,” he went on. “There’s something lacking—something—I know. It’s flowers ! Oh, Miss Gish, how does the idea of having some flowers on the table or on the mantelpiece strike your feminine taste?”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - in a scene from Way Down East
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – in a scene from Way Down East

Lillian Gish, who has had some experience of her own as a director, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then voiced her approval. By this time several decorators were at work again on the set, making the changes that had been suggested. But Griffith was not yet satisfied. I am not going to attempt the tedious task of recounting in detail the suggestions that followed, but for the rest of the morning—the work had begun at about ten o’clock —one thing after another was criticized, discussed, and debated ; scarcely a detail of the set was overlooked.

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

The floor, it was decided, was a shade too light, and the painters were set to work on it again. The bunches of seed corn were taken down from the ceiling beam on which they had hung, and were tried in almost every possible place from which they could be suspended. The pots in the broad fireplace were rearranged. The figured tablecloth was removed and replaced by a plain white one. And not until the technical staff had received enough instructions to last them until late into the afternoon did Griffith consent to consider the work as even temporarily completed. “This business of getting the exact pictorial effect is of the greatest importance,” he said when at last he left off, and walked over to where I had stood watching him work. “And it might interest you to know that I believe that to be a matter to which the average dramatic critic who is sent out to review pictures is somewhat blind. “Your dramatic critic obviously doesn’t pay much attention to stage pictures,” he went on, speaking earnestly and with emphasis. “In the spoken drama the pictures are only incidental. At the best they are poor reproductions of nature, mere backgrounds which may even be dispensed with. So your critic devotes his attention—and rightly so—to the play—the drama—the story, if you will.

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

“But a moving-picture production is a different thing. It lacks the chief element of the stage play—the spoken word. It is—or should be—as its very name implies, a series of wonderful moving pictures. The values you see are completely reversed. But does your dramatic critic recognize that? Usually he does not. He comes and views our work with but one of his two eyes. He looks upon it from the same point of view from which he considers a stage play.

“Take, for example, my picture, ‘The Idol Dancer.’ ” There was a note of impatience in his voice. “We went to such great trouble and expense to reproduce a certain phase of nature and of life, and I think we succeeded in our attempt. But the reviewers, many of them, dismissed that succession of beautiful screen paintings with a word, and spoke disparagingly of the story. Perhaps the story was not unusual, perhaps it was slight. Should they, on that account, dismiss the entire production as of little consequence?” Moved by the eloquence of the Griffith argument, I shook my head in mute agreement—though I could not help thinking, at the same time, that I had heard a good many persons who were not dramatic critics speak disparagingly of “The Idol Dancer” and many another production, finely wrought from a pictorial standpoint, because the story had not satisfied them. But I was of no mind to argue the matter; moreover, I felt, at least, respectfully inclined toward this point of view, which, it occurred to me, I had never given much consideration. “For myself,” Griffith went on, after a moment’s pause, “I hold that if we but reproduce beautifully one single effect of the movement of the wind upon the water, the swaying branches of a tree, or even an etching on the screen of the wrinkled face of an old man in the shadows, we have done something that the stage, at its best, cannot do, and something which, in itself, is an artistic achievement. “I do not mean to disparage in the least the value of a good story,” he added, “I merely offer a protest against the ignoring of every other phase of a production by some of our reviewers. Do I make myself clear ?” he concluded abruptly, with a smile and a whimsical bow, as though apologizing for having delivered so serious a lecture.

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

I replied that he did, and it occurred to me that what he had said was worth setting down and remembering, as a means of understanding better what Griffith is striving to attain in the making of a picture. “While we’re waiting for the set I am going to hold a rehearsal, and if you care to see it ” Griffith said, with the courtesy and cordiality which is shared by the entire personnel of his studio. A Griffith rehearsal was something which I had wanted to see for some time, and I followed him and the members of the cast into the old Flagler home, which would not be standing to-day, had its former owner’s dream materialized. This rambling old mansion connects with the studio proper ; it is used for dressing rooms, and by the executive and scenario staffs. The rehearsal was to be held in the former state dining room of the late magnate, a magnificent room overlooking the sparkling waters of the Sound, its massive walls hung with dark, rich, hand-tooled leather, and its ceiling decorated by carved beams brought from Europe. And there, where groups of men representing the wealth of the nation had often gathered to dine, a company of actors ranged themselves about an imaginary table, prepared to enact a dinner scene in a humble, old-fashioned country home. They were far from being humble folk, though, these actors.

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

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, two of the regular Griffith players who have the principal roles, on the completion of this production are to begin separate starring engagements with salaries that will place them in the first rank of featured screen players. Creighton Hale, who plays a character part, has been a wellknown star. And the other members of the cast, who were engaged solely for this production, had been chosen with more care than the furnishings of the famous room in which they had gathered.  ccustomed as I was by this time to the convincing evidence of the infinite pains which were being taken in this production, it hardly seemed credible—though I was assured of this by Mr. Griffith’s personal aid—that a list of nearly one hundred actors had been considered in the selection of the man who was to play the part of Lennox Sanderson, the villain of the piece, and that before the part had finally been given to Lowell Sherman — who is playing a similar role in “The Sign on the Door,” an all-year Broadway stage success—twenty-eight other actors had actually been tried out. The rehearsal was but a variation of the Griffith method which I had previously seen applied to rearranging the details of the set in order to heighten the desired effect, or feeling. This time the action, which the players evidently had rehearsed many times before, was criticized and altered in as minute detail, with the same object in view. Each bit of business, each expression, each gesture was done over, time after time, to give everything its proper relative value and emphasis in perfecting the effect, the feeling, which Griffith had in mind, and toward which he was patiently striving.

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

He was like a composer who, having written a piece of music, was going over the score, indicating the accents, the tempo, the mood of expression. “I want this scene to he played smoothly—smoothly—smoothly,” he said to Barthelmess and Miss Gish, as they were working over a tiny bit of action. And I felt that I was beginning to understand, better than I ever had before, how, through his shadow pictures, he is able so skillfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed the rehearsal. It was a leisurely sort of “family affair,” quite in keeping with the general atmosphere of the studio. I should like to visit the Griffith studio often, just to join the company at luncheon. I sat” at a small table with Mr. Griffith’s personal aid and listened to a recital of incidents and figures concerning the filming of “Way Down East,” which would be almost unbelievable were they not backed up by the knowledge of Griffith’s former undertakings. “This picture,” said my host, “is Mr. Griffith’s first personal production for the United Artists, and, of course, we hope to see it mark another step in the development of motion pictures, as so many of Mr. Griffith’s pictures have done in the past—though, of course, the proof of the puddding is in the eating,” he added hastily, as he laid own his fork, and solemnly knocked on the underside of the table. “But if effort counts for anything ” He paused for a moment. “No one not intimately connected with this production can really appreciate the effort that is being expended on it ; yet, perhaps I can give you a tabloid impression of the mere hugeness of the undertaking. “Already more time has elapsed since we began in January than was spent on any Griffith production since ‘Hearts of the World,’ and even more time than on that one if you  liminate the months spent on the battlefields of France. Yet the picture is by no means near completion. It will not be finished before midsummer.” lie paused, while I gulped that impressive statement down with a swallow of coffee.

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

“Our vouchers show,” he went on, “that scouts traveled six thousand miles in the mere preliminary work of obtaining photographs of New England life. Pictures of every sort were taken, including photographs of about four hundred New England homes. “Eve no idea of how many scenes will appear in the completed production, but for the interior scenes alone forty-four different sets will be used. There were three, you may recall, in the stage version. “Up to date two hundred and ten reels of film have been exposed, and the greatest number of times that any one scene has been taken is only thirty-one.” He said this as though it were a mere commonplace to photograph one scene thirty-one times. “But none of the really important close-ups have been taken yet,” he added. “Those always require much more patient effort in order to get a perfect result.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – (cast and crew) – center front – D.W. Griffith

“And the cost?” I inquired feebly. “Oh, six hundred and fifty thousand dollars, according to the present budget,” he replied, as though that were the least important item. Luncheon finished, we returned to the studio. But the alterations on the dining-room set were not nearly completed, so, after watching Dorothy Gish work in another part of the studio for a while, I came back and chatted with Lillian, who is as etherial and appealing in person as she is in shadow.

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

“I hope,” she said, “that the snow scenes will be worth the suffering they cost us. I don’t think I ever experienced anything as severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze, and we had to stop work. We were out in blizzards for hours until, some nights, it was hours and hours before I felt really warm, though I was home early in the evening.” She was interrupted by another call for the company to assemble. The workmen had finished the alterations. But the call did not include the camera men. The scenes which had been worked over so painstakingly in the rehearsal room now were to be rehearsed again—a dress rehearsal, as it were. And, as a bus was just leaving for the station, I thought it best to start back for New York. I shall be interested in seeing “Way Down East,” interested in seeing what the reviewers say about it, and even more interested in seeing whether or not it will take its place as another of the Griffith milestones along the march of progress of the motion picture. For in predicting that it will be a monumental work, I do not mean to prophesy that it will mark a distinct step in picture making as did “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms.” That remains to be seen. But it must be obvious to any one who has read this account, that as an example of the present phase of frenzied scrambling and high bidding for popular plays and novels, to be turned into lavishly produced and sensationally exploited pictures, this production of “Way Down East” must tower above most, if not – all similar endeavors, at least as a huge undertaking. A strange undertaking, in a way, too ; strange that such an attempt should be made to make a monumental thing out of this simple, homely play ; it seems almost as incongruous as though some one were to try to develop “The Old Oaken Bucket” into a grand opera. But there is something splendidly audacious about these big undertakings of Griffith, about every one of them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist combined. He knows pretty well what type of thing will catch and hold the public interest at any given time, and I have a shrewd idea that he had his hand on the pulse of the movie-going public when he chose this vehicle for the first of his new series, and decided to “go the limit” on it. So, without having seen a foot of the finished film, I shall venture one more prophecy—that “Way Down East” in its revival on the screen will repeat the wonderful record which it made on the stage, two decades ago.

Griffith on the ice floes - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
DW Griffith on the ice floes – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

New Lyceum Theatre Baltimore - Way Down East Program 1

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Broken Blossoms – By Peter Milne (Picture Play Magazine – 1919)

Picture Play Magazine – August 1919 Vol. X No. 6

The Screen in Review

Criticism and comment on recent releases, by one of New York’s leading authorities on matters pertaining to the screen.

 

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

Broken Blossoms

By Peter Milne

“Broken Blossoms” marks a real advancement in the motion-picture art. Mr. Griffith has instituted something new in it at every angle from which a production usually is viewed. He brings a new style of photography which creates a more artistic effect than plain flat black-and-white work. He brings a new sort of drama, a new sort of production. “Broken Blossoms” is the simple tale of the lives of three people in London’s Chinatown.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

The girl, daughter of a brutal prize fighter, who beats her mercilessly whenever he is drunk —which is often—is protected by a Chinaman who has long loved her from afar. After one particularly severe beating she receives from her father the Chinaman finds her and takes her to his room, where he bathes the poor bruised body and dresses her in the finest silks. It is the only happiness that has ever come into her life, but its coming is the heralding of her death, for her father suddenly discovers that he has “parental” rights, and, his rage unbounded, he seeks her out and spoils her little moment of satisfaction.

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

Tragic as the entire picture is, it appeals to all our finer emotions, and, with the perfectly splendid production that Griffith has given it, it deserves to rank with the finest achievements of the screen. The scenes of London’s Chinatown are marvelous in their realism. Lillian Gish fairly lives the part of the girl, and expresses the tragedy of the empty life with a wonderful characterization. Richard Barthelmess, as the Chinaman, invests the part with a touch of the mystic, of the romantic, that establishes him as a hero far better than wavy hair and good clothes ever did a matinee idol. Donald Crisp returns to the screen from directing to play the fighter, and brings out the coarse brutality of the father to a degree.

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

Photo Gallery:

Broken Blossoms – The Movie

 

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How I Saw “Hearts of the World” – By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

Picture Play Magazine Vol. VIII July, 1918 No. 5

How I Saw “Hearts of the World”

Seated beside Lillian and Dorothy Gish, their guest for the evening, the writer witnessed the first public performance of the new Griffith masterpiece. This is an account of her impressions of that event.

By Marguerite Sheridan

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

GRIFFITH Night in Los Angeles! For months to come, “Hearts of the World,” the latest and mightiest work of this wizard of the cinematographic art, will continue to shine forth in all its wonder, its pathos, and its infinite charm, through the lenses of hundreds of projection machines in every city in the country, but in no place will it be the all – important event that was the premier showing in “The City of the “Angels.” Just as the master producer gave them “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” before even staid New York and the slightly less critical Chicago were allowed a peep, so was the first glimpse of this—”the sweetest love story ever told”—staged among the ruins of war torn France, accorded to his California friends. Before I tell you of this night of nights, let us go back a few days and journey out to the studio, where we will watch Griffith at work putting the finishing touches to “The Picture,” as it was called in an most awe-struck tone by everyone around the studio. Mrs. Gish, mother of the two lovely young girls who play the leading feminine roles in ‘Hearts of the World,” telephoned me that Lillian and Dorothy were at the studio that afternoon, and we would drive out about two o’clock. The exterior of the old Mutual – Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts studio, out on Sunset Boulevard, was a keen disappointment to me. Perhaps I was looking for a cross between the San Francisco Exposition and Lincoln Park. Anyway, the huge pile of shacks, with a few Babylonian towers silhouetted against the sky, was not my idea of the proper place for D. W. Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Bobby Harron to perpetuate their art. The girls were in their dressing room, attired in their “Hearts of the World” costumes, Dorothy in her “Little Disturber” gown, and Lillian in one of her bomb shattered frocks.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

She had three copies of this same dress, each a little more dilapidated. Although they are quite unlike when you see them, still there’s a strong “family resemblance;” so Dorothy, who plays the part of a petite Parisienne, wears a short, curly black wig, while Lillian, the lovely, fragile fleur-de-lis, appears as her own beautiful blond self. I had long ago heard of David Belasco’s remark that Lillian Gish was the most perfect blonde he had ever seen; too, others have told me that none of her pictures, moving or otherwise, have done her justice; that she is far more beautiful. And I smiled and said nothing. One hears this sort of thing so often, and, anyway, I was entirely satisfied with the way Miss Gish looked on the screen—one could in the role of the Village Carpenter. A hardly ask for more. But it is true —for once the camera has failed to visualize certain facts. It is difficult to paint her exquisite daintiness, her ethereal loveliness, in cold black and white. I may be accused of rashness and all that sort of thing, but I want to go on record as saying that Lillian Gish is the most perfectly beautiful girl I have ever seen. And Dorothy – well, Dorothy is her mother’s own daughter in looks and speech and actions. She is very jolly, friendly, and clever — fairly bubbling over with fun, and her witty remarks kept us all laughing. She is very nervous, and kept chewing gum furiously—”to keep from chewing her nails,” as she expressed it. Their dressing room was very neat and pretty in black and white chintz. It is kept scrupulously clean by the “Madame,” the East Indian, who played a part in “The Birth of a Nation” – the negroes who spat and acted so dreadfully.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Hearts of The World 1918 — with Lillian Gish.

“Madame” fairly worships Mr. Griffith and calls him “her son.” The girls were waiting to do a scene or two, because Mr. Griffith had not liked the original. Retakes by the dozens he has done, so infinitely painstaking and careful is he always. Camera-Man Billy Bitzer appeared at the door and said that Mr. Griffith was calling for Miss Dorothy, and the scene was to be in the “lot,” so we went with her. This “lot” covers about two blocks of ground and is situated a block away from the studio. Out there all the exteriors, and ever so many “open interiors” such as the one Dorothy did, are taken. I spied Bobby Harron in his trench uniform, and then I looked around for the great Griffith. There was the illustrious gentleman, with his derby tilted on the side of his head and a long, black cigar in his mouth. Otherwise, he reminded me of a fine product of the old school of acting. Then I heard him speak. I have never heard such a compelling voice. It makes you think of people hurrying to obey whatever he might say. The scene was the staircase of “The Inn” in the little French village. They went over it countless times—it took an hour to get it finished, and it was the tiniest bit of action. Dorothy Gish looked as though she would drop from fatigue, but she was just as anxious as Mr. Griffith to have it perfect, so she went at it with all her might until he pronounced it satisfactory. When the scene was finished, a huge studio car rolled up and we all piled in. I had not met Mr. Griffith, and I was so impressed with being in his presence that I’m not quite sure what he said to me, except that he was very nice and cordial and wanted to know if this was my first experience and if I found it interesting. It was, and I did. Back to the studio, and this time it was an indoor set with Lillian and Robert Harron. “Mr. Griffith’s Boy ” as they call him, the hero of the play, is just the Robert Harron that you see on the screen—very serious, a little sad, quite “Griffith-like”—that’s the only word that properly describes him.

Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

We went into a dark, cold room, stumbled over lumber, cords attached to lights, people, and other impedimenta. Then I reached some sort of consciousness that lights were burning very brightly, directions were shouted, and I fell into a chair which one Mr. George Seigmann, Griffith’s right-hand man, pushed out for me. In the film, Mr. Seigmann sinks to the depths of portraying Von Strohm, German secret-service agent ; otherwise he’s a very nice man. It was very thrilling, watching Mr. Griffith direct at such close range. His methods are very simple ; he doesn’t rant and rave—I think it’s his voice that puts things over. And he’s immensely funny at times. Again the scene didn’t suit him. Down to the projection room he went to look at the scene immediately before it. Mr. Seigmann succeeded in getting the set arranged correctly. Ready! Camera ! Action ! And it was over. Mrs. Gish told me how they happened to go to Europe with Mr. Griffith. They were in New York, waiting for him to decide just what he was going to do with his contract with the British government. The government insisted on plain war stuff, and Mr. Griffith insisted just as firmly that he must have a story running through the scenes on the western front. It was finally arranged, and Mrs. Gish, Lillian, and Mr. Griffith went first. When they were three days out, they wired for Dorothy, Robert Harron, and William Bitzer, the Camera-man who has filmed all the Griffith photo plays. The latter trio went over on the ship with Pershing; and Dorothy told me that she was quite delighted with the famous general, and he told her that he knew her, too, very well ; when he was in Mexico, motion pictures were the soldiers’ chief diversions, and the Gishes entertained them frequently.

Clunes Auditorium L.A.
Clunes Auditorium L.A.

At last came the lovely spring night for which we were anxiously waiting, Clune’s Theater, an immense place, was packed to the doors before eight o’clock, and a disappointed throng was clamoring outside for admission. In the lobby were boys dressed as French poilus, British Tommies, and our own American boys. Beautiful flowers were there, too—gifts to Mr. Griffith and his players. Of course California is so full of wonderful flowers that they don’t make quite the impression they would in New York, but a floral piece to Mr. Griffith “From the Boys” made even the native sons hesitate a moment to admire. It was Dorothy Gish’s idea that they mingle with the crowd on the opening night instead of occupying the customary box.

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

“I couldn’t have all those people staring at me,” said this very democratic young miss. And it was fortunate, indeed, for me that they decided on seats on the first floor of the mezzanine floor and secured one for me, or otherwise I would have had to seek cold comfort that night at Grauman’s or the Kinema. Every seat was sold on the first day. Dear Mrs. Gish chaperoned the party, looking almost as young as her two lovely daughters in her handsome black-and-silver gown and a corsage bouquet of red roses. “The most adorable Lily” sat next to me. Her evening coat was white velvet, with a white fur collar that hung to her waist. Yards of misty white maline were draped around her golden hair, which was arranged very simply in coils around her head. She wore an orchid-colored gown veiled in silver, and her flowers were orchids. I could scarcely keep my eyes on the picture for looking at her. Which, in itself, is quite a compliment.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

Dorothy was very sweet and girlish in lavender taffeta. She hates fussy clothes. It is my opinion that if Mrs. Gish and Lillian didn’t attend to her wardrobe for her, this young lady would cling mostly to middy blouses and sport clothes. She had a birthday that week, however; so Lillian’s gift, a truly wonderful evening coat, was aired for the first time. It was a ravishing affair of lavender and gray chiffon, banded with flying squirrel, and, as Dorothy said : “I may freeze to death, but I’ll have to wear my new coat!” Robert Harron was there, looking very handsome and boyish in his evening clothes. Right next to Bobby was a vacant seat—behind a post. Oh, how I wished for one adoring Griffith satellite I knew—I am sure he would have gladly craned his neck around that post for a week just to see “The Hearts of the World.”

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Just behind us was a seat reserved for Mr. Griffith, which he didn’t occupy. I’m not sure just where the master director watched the picture ; but he turned up later, so I knew he was around somewhere.

In her box on one side of the theater, Queen Mary Pickford held court, a very lovely Mary, with a dear smile on her face and many curls on top of her head. The entire picture-play colony turned out to do Mr. Griffith homage. I doubt if there has ever been such a brilliant assemblage under one roof. There was Howard Hickman with his wife, the lovely Bessie Barriscale; Mr. and Mrs. Robert McKim ; Mildred Harris ; Seena Owen, looking more than ever “The Princess Beloved ;” Alma Rubens, the beautiful brunette from the Triangle forces, in a stunning white evening gown ; Blanche Sweet in palest gray, a very sweet and flowerlike Blanche, whom all her friends greeted Warmly. It’s been many a day since we’ve seen her face on the screen. The Talmadge family was represented by Mrs. Talmadge, Constance, a very attractive young person in brown and Natalie, who looks very much like Norma. Promptly at eight fifteen the curtain rose, and “the play was the thing.” The action was so intense and stirring that it didn’t seem half an hour, although it was really almost three hours long. It is marvelous to think how the brains and genius of one man can sway such a vast throng—they were chilled and thrilled and dissolved in tears. It was superb.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“An Old-fashioned Play with a New-fashioned Theme,” the program calls it. Yes, it is an old, old story, but it is told in the newest and most wonderful way. And far above the din of battle, massing of troops, recapturing of villages, one can always hear the love note—the thing which Griffith shows is going to save the world. Whenever the battle scenes get just a little too horrible to endure comfortably, when the action is so realistic that one can almost feel the shrapnel flying around, we are taken back to the peaceful quiet of the little French village and our nerves allowed to rest for a brief space. All the lovely, human touches that have characterized the former Griffith spectacles are present in “The Hearts of the World.” To me they are the greatest marks of the Griffith genius. As far as personal successes are concerned, Lillian Gish as Marie Stephenson is startlingly superior to anything she has ever done. Pitifully lovely she has been before, but never really so fine as in this role. With her exquisite, poignant beauty, she is the real spirit of France. Robert Harron’s Douglas Gordon Hamilton is splendid and soldierly, and, oh, how we sorrow and rejoice with him in his love affair with “The Girl !” Into the midst of this Eden comes The Little Disturber, a strolling singer, charmingly played by Dorothy Gish, and she falls in love with young Hamilton. Of course it is of no avail, but the part gives Miss Dorothy a chance to show what a remarkably clever little comedienne she is. She makes the most of every foot of film she is given—and we can’t help wishing she had several hundred more. I must say just a word about the music that was especially arranged for the production. Never before, I think, have melodies been so deftly woven throughout a picture. The music is indeed part of it—not a mere background. It was arranged after the manner that Wagner wrote.

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

THE presentation of D. W. Griffith’s love story of the Great War, “Hearts of the World,” makes it imperative that I open my remarks on recent screen offerings with a short discussion of the war picture. For there has never been anything like “Hearts of the World.” Griffith alone has been able to bring the bigness of the world conflict to the celluloid. It has overwhelmed all other directors and writers who have endeavored to touch upon it intimately. The usual product is a foolish melodrama. Neither hero nor heavy is human. But Griffith’s skill has resulted in the interweaving of a beautiful love story carried by human protagonists with the somber, relentless panorama of war in all its reality. The actual scenes he procured at the front are amazing, and the domestic scenes supplementing them even more so. The Gish sisters, Robert Harron, Robert Anderson, youthful Ben Alexander, and George Siegemann perform as they could only under the master director.

Picture-Play Magazine (July 1918) Hearts of the World
Picture-Play Magazine (July 1918) Hearts of the World
Hearts of The World Program
Hearts of The World Program

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The Great War Propaganda – By Louella O. Parsons (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay – Vol. XIV September 1918 No. 4

Propaganda!

An earnest consideration of the inestimable part being played by the Motion Picture in the Great War.

By Louella O. Parsons (Excerpts)

If German vandalism could reach overseas, the Kaiser would order every moving picture studio crushed to dust, and every theatre blown to atoms. There has been no more effective ammunition aimed at the Prussian empire than these picture stories of Germany’s atrocities.

Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 2

First because the moving picture reaches such an enormous audience. Where the novel eight times out of ten presents a more logical discussion of the cause, and the stirring patriotic play has more claim to pur attention it only reaches the thousands, where the film is seen and absorbed by millions. Moving pictures encircle the globe in every inhabited city, and are shown at a price which makes it possible for everyone to see them. These followers of the cinema have seen with their own eyes how German militarism is waged against civilization.

They have seen the rape of Belgium, the devastation of France and the evil designs against America, Italy and France. They have lived over with these unfortunates this tragedy against helpless women and children, and with tears in their eyes and horror in their hearts have cried aloud for vengeance against this soulless nation. And while these film plays have been raising the temperature of the Allies’ patriotism to blood heat, Germany has been gnashing its teeth. The natural question, Why doesn’t Germany meet these attacks with similar moving pictures? brings back an answer attacking one place where Germany’s widely touted efficiency is at fault. We do not doubt for the minute that Germany is making a strong attempt to come back at us with its own moving picture propaganda, but we who have studied the film situation since long before the war know that the kaiser’s domain is not equipped to circulate any such productions as we have been viewing the last twelve months. And if it were it would not have an American audience to reach. We with our cosmopolitan population of mixed races are able to reach the very people Germany ‘is struggling to get into its clutches.

Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 5

And again, if it had studio facilities, there is no story it could tell to gain sympathy. The allies have never invaded a Belgium, nor destroyed a France, nor waged any unholy war against defenseless women and children. The powers at Washington realized what a factor the screen would be in the war against William Hohenzollern. The declaration of war was not a week old when President Wilson sent for W. A. Brady to co-operate with him in getting the moving picture industry in line. What the fifth estate did in the way of starting the ball rolling with its four-minute men, its patriotic strips of film and with the active assistance of the three Liberty Loan Campaigns is too well known to need further comment. But the big thing the film producer has done was to create within the year over sixty pictorial propagandas, or more than one a week. Not all of these moving pictures have been intelligently constructed. Some of them have been absurd and impossible; others have been written too obviously for financial gain, but the strong argument is, that they have all sent people home thinking and planning of some way to be of service to the government. The government too, has been able to use the screen as a school of instruction, a sort of military text book. By following the weekly films, the mothers at home, the fathers and the younger children have been able to get a very fair idea of what the sailors and soldiers are doing in the military training camps. Every open phase of military life has been narrated in a most entertaining fashion on the screen. England and France have not been slow to realize the value of following America by presenting their righteous cause in a pictured story.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

An invitation was sent to David Wark Griffith to come to the fighting fronts and make a moving picture of the conflict for the English government. Mr. Griffith was asked to give a cinematic argument of why German militarism, like a cancerous growth, should be cut away before it further menaces civilization by its malignant presence. The adventures of David Griffith on those foreign shores are like a wonder tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp. If I had not heard the story from Mr. Griffith’s own lips I might have accused someone of flirting with the truth. Conservative England received him as they might have received a visiting potentate. Lloyd George personally appeared before the camera with him; Queen Alexandria expressed a desire to meet the American whose magic would bring the war home to so many indifferent hearts, and social England, devoted to the war stricken country, helped by facing the camera. Such women as Lady Diana Manners, Mrs. Buller, Elizabeth Asquith, and the Duchess of Beaufort turned moving picture actress to have a part in the British war film. Government aid and official escort did not make the filming of this picture as simple as it sounds. To get the great panorama of battle in action, the moving picture camera had to be carried into the front line trenches. Shot and shell and gas explosions became a part of the daily Griffith menu. After the camera was blown to bits on one occasion, care was taken to make a facsimile of every battle scene filmed, so a retake could be made in the California studios if it should be necessary.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

The last time I talked with Mr. Griffith, he was greatly upset at the reports that the Germans were planning to invade Ham, Amiens, Ypres and Chalnes. “Some of those villages,” he said, “are the very spots in which I established my temporary studios. The villagers were deeply interested in the moving picture which was to carry a message to the outside world. Old men., women and children left at home gave freely of their hospitality. This eighteen months’ work in France and England resulted in a combination romance and history. The bleak desolation of “No Man’s Land” with the grim, smoke-stained soldiers are the “supers,” who played in this picture as earnestly as they “play” “over there” in the big war drama for your freedom and for mine. The great stretch of devastated territory, with its accoutrements of war, its trenches and barbed wire fences, are all pictured as accurately as though we were standing there, gazing at the tangible result of German kultur.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 1
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France

It is difficult to discriminate and say which film has done the most to aid the fight. Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘Mothers of France,” which should have been titled “Mothers of the World,” has probably called forth the most tears. Madame Bernhardt, with a brave spark burning in her feeble body, stood knee deep in the trenches and offered herself a living sacrifice to her beloved France. The tears are not only for the bereaved mothers, but also for the pathetic old woman, lame and sick, who forgot her own discomfort to try and stir the other women of the world to action. The motive of this picture glorifies it. No one who ever saw Bernhardt and her silent plea that we give our loved ones gladly and proudly to the cause will ever forget her message. Herbert Brenon made a stepchild to the war films in a screen play featuring Rasputin and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. This and his English birth brought forth an invitation from the English government for him to make an historical film record for the British archives. Mr. Brenon is now in England working on this mission. There have been many official war films, some of them actually photographed at battles which have now gone down in history as decisive moments in the great world’s war. Among those which have occupied the screen during the past year are: “The Retreat of the Germans at the Battle of Arras,” “The Italian Battlefronts,” “The Battle of the Ancre,” and “Heroic France and the German Curse in Russia.” The last named is more of a pictorial discussion of the Russian situation than a moving picture of any specific battle scene. All of these war time pictures have been received with enthusiasm with the exception of a few which had been better left unfilmed. These are hectic dramas using the war as a reason for their existing, and made with no high patriotic purpose, but with a thinly veiled camouflage to make money. They have offended both the individual patriot and the government. The very fact that some of the producers have taken advantage of war time has induced the government to put every patriotic picture released under strict surveillance, with a trained corps of men to pass upon their fitness to serve as propaganda.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 3
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France 3

Some of these features, while harmless enough, are so badly done, that even the heavy Teutonic nature must have found them amusing. But the good done by the screen has far outweighed any evil effects of these ridiculous war films. The President has congratulated the moving picture industry on the help it has given the nation at this time, and he and the other men now at the helm in Washington have gone on record as saying these pictorial propagandas are among the most valuable war-time assets United States owns.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

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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.

Introduction

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

THE WHITE SISTER (1923)

[Lillian Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, an Italian woman whose half sister usurps their late father’s estate. Angela joins a convent when her fiance Soverini (Ronald Colman) is reportedly killed in a war in Africa. Soverini (** Giovanni Severi – original film character) returns home alive, and tries in vain to convince Angela to renounce her vows. Soverini gives his life to save his townspeople from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.]

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.

Poster_-_Romola
Poster_-_Romola

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

 

Afterword

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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