Seventy Years of Cinema (Orders to Kill) – By Peter Cowie – 1969

Seventy Years of Cinema

By Peter Cowie – 1969

Celluloid had been in existence since the 1860s. A French anatomist, Etienne-Jules Marey, developed the “fusil photographique,” an elongated, blunderbuss shaped antecedent of the movie camera of today. During the eighties, he also manufactured film strips.

Eadweard Muybridge, an Englishman resident in California, was fascinated by the movement at speed of animals and people, and he took thousands of closely linked photographs to analyze this. When projected in sequence, these obviously did (and still do) look like a stuttering motion picture film.

Between 1885 and 1887, Louis Aimi Augustin LePrince apparently projected moving pictures in a New York workshop, by means of a single-lens camera cum projector. A tablet in Leeds (England) commemorates him as making a camera and projector in 1888 and taking pictures in that year on Leeds Bridge. In October, 1889, Thomas Edison is said to have screened moving pictures in a New Jersey laboratory. Edison relied heavily on his assistant, William K. L. Dickson, and made no significant advances on his own.

Kinetoscope-2

But he was a skillful business man who knew how to exploit rights and patents. In August 1891 he was granted a patent for his perforated film camera, and in 1894 he patented his Kinetoscope, which employed celluloid for commercial purposes. Mention should also be made of Emile Reynaud, whose elaborate Praxinoscope attracted thousands of Parisians to the Musee Grivin during the nineties.

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Paul Massie MI

ORDERS TO KILL

Britain. Script: Paul Dehn, from an original story by Donald C. Downes. Direction: Anthony Asquith. Photographv: Desmond Dickinson. Editing: Gordon Hales. Music: Benjamin Frankel.

Art Direction: John Howell. Players: Paul Massie, Irene Worth, James Robertson-Justice. Eddie Albert, Lillian Gish, Leslie French. Production: Lynx Films (Anthony Havelock-Allan) . (111 mins.)

A war background and the problem of personal honor enter into Anthony Asquith’s masterpiece, Orders to Kill. The story concerns an ex-pilot (Paul Massie) who, sent to Paris in 1944 to kill a traitor, is mentally ruined by the ordeal. He turns to drink, and only regains his poise when he realizes that his is not such an individual guilt after all. “The two moral points that arise from the film,” says Asquith, “are that there is really no difference between dropping a bomb and killing an innocent man, and that you’re just as likely to kill an innocent person with a bomb as you are with vour hands.”

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Miki Iveria - missing scene

Orders to Kill is one of the most persuasive of British films. It is a thriller that contributes a portrait of its leading character as profound as M in Fritz Lang’s film or Johnny McQueen in Odd Man Out. Massie’s playing is excellent, veering from the youthful flippancy of his approach to training in England, to his impassioned remorse when he has killed his victim Laffitte. Irene Worth gives a bitter, gallant performance as the Resistance agent, and Eddie Albert is unexpectedly sensitive as the American commander. Asquith’s technical command, too often expended on whimsical and sentimental material in the past, brings to the film an enduring glitter and resolution. His compositions—the close-up of the bloodstained hand at the start, the terrifying illusions of “The Tunnel of Love” in which Massie has to kill dummy Nazis, the inspired shots of his hiding Laffitte’s money in the Montparnasse cemetery—are characteristic of the self-effacing talent first glimpsed in the twenties.

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Paul Massie 2

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A White Star – By Richard Dyer (Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB)

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A White Star

Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”

By Richard Dyer

Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB

Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Starlight

There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.

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

Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Steeliness and simplicity

Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.

Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)
Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)

Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 7

There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.

The ideal of his dreams

The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.

Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.

The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.

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

Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.

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

White magic

Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
White Star - Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)
White Star – Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)

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Conversation With Lillian Gish – Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Conversation With Lillian Gish

When Miss Lillian Gish came to London in August last year to play in Anthony Asquith s Orders to Kill (her first film in this country since she made Hearts of the World with Griffith), the most extraordinary thing about her was that she so strikingly and completely resembled-Lillian Gish. She may, as the reference books say, have played in In Convicts’ Stripes in 1902; but it is hard to believe, for she is still unmistakably ‘the Gish girl’-a little taller than we have always imagined, and certainly not so defenceless against the great steel world as the heroines she used to play, but still retaining all their calm and repose and dignity. She still clasps her hands together in front of her chin; or, in an uncertain moment, puts her right fore finger, quite unconsciously, to the corner of her mouth. Her stamina is remarkable, she has always interspersed her vigorous career on Broadway with marathon sea-trips by freighter (“the only way to travel, If you can stand it”). Following her work on Orders to Kilt she went straight to Berlin to rehearse two plays for a new arena theatre there-Wilder’s Wreck of the 5.25 and Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna, an early draft of Streetcar Named Desire, written especially for Miss Gish. After this she returns to Broadway, where she hopes to play with her sister Dorothy in a new play written for them by Clare Boothe – The Little Dipper. In an interview with SIGHT AND SOUND she recollected some of her work in the silent cinema:

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

 

Miss Gish on D.W. Griffith

In all the eight or nine years I worked with Mr. Griffith, I never saw him with anything in writing-never anything like a script, not even on Intolerance. He just seemed to have everything in his head. The only person to make any notes was Jimmy Smith, the cutter, who had to make a record of everything Mr. Griffith shot and what he wanted to do with it, of course. It was always Mr. Griffith. Around 1940 I used to see him, and then, it’s true, I sometimes called him David. Even so, I might have said David, but I always thought Mr. Griffith. He was a born general. His voice was a vo:ce of command. It was resonant, deep and full. When he came to England in 1917, Mr. Lloyd George said to Mr. Griffith, I remember, “You have the most powerful medium for propaganda the world has ever known”. He was very amused, though, when they invited him to become the head of the department of film propaganda in the U.S.S.R. It was a very strange idea. Mr. Griffith was an aristocrat to the soles of his feet. He always claimed to be descended from the Kings of Wales, you know. . . ,

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

I always wanted to do a film biography of Mr. Griffith, but it never proved possible. I did it on television, though, for Philco. I played Lillian Gish. There was one scene where I went into a producer’s office and said: You have taken an art form that was a new approach to truth and beauty, and debased it for what you can get out of it. People warned Philco that they’d be put out of business if they dared broadcast such sentiments; but they didn’t cut out the scene, I’m glad to say. And they weren’t put out of business either. Mr. Griffith was a very great director-Eisenstein, you know, acknowledged his tremendous debt to him. Since Griffith, no-one has added anything new to the film-except Walt Disney. Griffith was even one of the first to make talking pictures. Dream Street, which he made in 1921, was a talkie.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Intolerance

(1916. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish) 

Intolerance is still one of the greatest pictures ever made. Griffith wanted it to run 3-or 4 hours, you know; but he had to cut it to please the exhibitors. That race apart-exhibitors!

Of course, he should never have given way. Right at the beginning he could be very firm indeed. Later, though, he couldn’t. . . . In the long run, though, Intolerance did a disservice to the industry. It set a fashion for expensive pictures. Everybody wanted his picture to cost more than the next man’s ….

Mr. Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art wants me to re-edit Intolerance some day-to put it back to Griffith’s original idea. Of course, it would take a great deal of time.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Hearts of the World

(1918. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Robert Harron) 

When we were children in Hollywood, my sister Dorothy and I would cross the road to avoid meeting Mr. Erich von Stroheim. He had such scars. We’d never seen a man with such terrible scars. Then we came to rehearse Hearts of the World, and Mr. Griffith gave Mr. von Stroheim one of the leading parts to rehearse. Of course, we never knew whether we would finally play the parts we rehearsed in the actual picture–Mr. Griffith never told you what you were doing until the last moment. Anyway, when we came to make the picture, he didn’t give the part to Mr. von Stroheim. Mr. von Stroheim cried like a little child. He was inconsolable. Mr. Griffith told him that it was only because he was not the right height, and that he was to play another part. But it was no use; Mr. von Stroheim just cried and cried. We were most impressed. We’d seen ladies cry, of course, but never a man, not like that. And after that, we didn’t cross the road any more when we saw Mr. von Stroheim coming down the street. I never had any admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as a director, though, as I had for Mr. Lubitsch, for example.

Anyone could have shot Greed as he did, scene by scene and line by line from the book. But I shall always have the greatest admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as an actor.

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

Broken Blossoms

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous-the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned-spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and brought up his breakfast. …

The smile-where I just lift the corners of my mouth with my two fingers-that was all mine, too. I didn’t think it out; it was automatic, instinctive.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

The Greatest Thing in Life

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

The Greatest Thing in Life was Mr. Griffith’s best film. You shouldn’t judge that man without seeing it. There’s one extraordinary scene, you know. A coloured soldier is dying; and there is a white boy with him-played by Robert Harron. The coloured boy is delirious, and calling for his mother-he wants her to kiss him. So to quieten him, the white boy bends down and kisses him, on the lips. As you know, this is a very brave thing to show in a film-two men, like that. It’s a very remarkable film.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

That was Queen Alexandra’s favourite film …. It seems a strange film for a Queen to like. She was my idea of what a Queen should be, though.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

Remodelling Her Husband

(1920. Directed by Lillian Gish. With Dorothy Gish, James Rennie) 

This was the only film I ever directed myself. Oh, I’d never do it again. Mr. Griffith had moved East, you see, and left me to make the film. “I thought that men would work better for you than for me,” he said. I had no idea of practical things, like measurements; but when the workmen asked me how high I wanted the walls of the set I told them, Oh, eight feet (or whatever it was). Well, of course, they weren’t high enough, so that the cameraman George Hill could never photograph them properly.

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

Way Down East

(1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

It was terrible doing the location shooting at Mamaroneck; four people lost their lives one way or another during the filming of Way Down East. I was the only one the insurance company passed as being completely fit; and I think I had to put up with more than anybody else during that dreadful winter. There was one day when I had been facing the blizzard practically the whole time; everyone else, of course, had their backs to the wind, and even then some of them had had to give up. My face was covered in icicles and I was frozen. “Get that face, Billy! Get that face!” Mr. Griffith yelled (to G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, the cameraman). Then I collapsed. They had to carry me back to the studio after the day’s shooting was finished. When we filmed the baptism of the dying child, no-one could speak. We had a real baby, you remember; and its father had brought it to the studio. Of course, during the scene, I had my back to the camera. I was half-way through the scene when I heard a thud. I couldn’t think what it was; afterwards I discovered the baby’s father had fainted. He just couldn’t take it.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

La Boheme

(1926. Directed by King Vidor. With Lillian Gish and John Gilbert) 

How I chose Mr. Vidor to direct that film was very simple. Mr. Thalberg and Mr. Mayer asked which director I would like. They showed me a number of new films, including just one reel from an uncompleted picture called The Big Parade. I decided at once, and took not only Vidor, but other people from that wonderful film-John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, for instance. When I finally came to the death scene, they were all terrified, all the people on the set. I just stopped breathing; and I was so still and pale and I stopped breathing for so long, they thought I really had died. Mr. Vidor describes it in his book. But there is one thing I cannot forgive him. He says I stuffed my cheeks with cotton wool. It’s quite untrue. I did no such thing. While I was studying the part, I used to go to a hospital for consumptives, to find out what it was like when they had their paroxysms of coughing, and how their necks went, and so on. I got the priest in charge to take me, and he explained to them why I was there. They were all terribly excited and interested. They would say: “Oh, so-and-so died this morning, and she was like this, and went like this .. . . ” Just as if they were giving you the recipe for their favourite cake or something.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

The Scarlet Letter

(1926. Directed by Victor Sjostrom. With Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson) 

I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: “Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It is an American classic, taught in all our schools”. Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom, who had arrived at M.G.M. some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

[Some years ago Miss Gish wrote: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . . The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression”.]

It was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before th~ camera, of course; and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we all were tremendously moved by it.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

The Film Actor

I think you can learn most from primitive things- from birds and animals- that was what Mr. Griffith advised us. You see, we silent actors had to be able to speak to an international audience-we had to be able to get over to Oriental peoples, for example, who didn’t know anything of our customs or conventions. And that gave our acting a great universality. We tried to perfect a kind of Esperanto of the arts, and we were on the verge of it when sound came …. The most perfect silent film, of course, was The Last Laugh, in which Murnau at last dispensed entirely with titles. My mother was my hardest critic and a great help to me. She only came to the studio once; and she was so horrified to see the things that were done to her daughters that she never came near again. . . . I remember once in our earliest days we rushed home, terribly pleased because people had recognised us and turned round to look at us in the street. “If you walked down the street with a ring in your nose, they’d turn and look at you just the same”, she said. I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.

Sight and Sound – Winter 1957 – 8

The Film Quarterly

Sight and Sound (1958-01)(BFI)(GB).pdf

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Glimpses of a Legend – By Kevin Brownlow (Sight and Sound – April, 1984 BFI England)

Glimpses of a Legend

By Kevin Brownlow

Sight and Sound – April, 1984 BFI England

Imagine it is 1930. The silent era has passed and you want to pay tribute to its greatest actress. Who would you choose? You would consider Garbo, but hers is a relatively new face. The actress you would have to select, an actress who has worked on the screen consistently since 1912, whose pictures include the cinema’s greatest classics, is Lillian Gish.

That such a tribute could still be staged in 1983 is astonishing. And those who were there, at the Thames Silents in the Dominion Theatre at the end of the London Film Festival will remember it for the rest of their lives.

For Lillian Gish was not only by common consent the greatest actress of the silent era, she personified it. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period. And there can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to her credit: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, all directed by the man she calls the Father of Film, David Wark Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics-The White Sister and Romola-and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.

Hers has always been the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish has associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois (she succeeded) and Abel Gance (she failed) to helping to promote the reconstructed versions of Napoleon and A Star Is Born. And somehow she still finds time to act. Thames Television’s association with the silent era began with the Hollywood TV series. David Gill, director, Carl Davis, composer, and I had worked together on all thirteen programmes, and David and Carl wanted to celebrate transmission by staging a silent film in a West End theatre with live orchestra. They selected Broken Blossoms, but at the time no one at Thames thought it a good idea. So we had to wait until the new head of Thames, Bryan Cowgill, in an inspired moment, launched the first showing of the reconstructed Napoleon with orchestra. The success was unprecedented and David Gill has sustained the momentum, heading a small team which not only stages the films for the public but prepares them for Channel 4. When we first put the idea of the tribute to Lillian Gish, she was as enthusiastic as we had hoped. She promised that she would be there, ‘so long as my filming commitments permit.’ Ideas tend to generate themselves, and the Cinematheque Francaise decided to hold a Lillian Gish retrospective in Paris. Unhappily, Paris did not know of our plans, nor we of theirs, and they settled on early October, meaning Lillian Gish had to fly to Paris, return to New York, then fly back again at the end of November She had only recently finished acting in Hambone and Hillie, in California. She had endured a very demanding schedule. We wondered how she would stand up to another.

Sight and Sound (1984-04)(BFI)(GB).pdf
Sight and Sound (1984-04)(BFI)(GB) Glimpses of a Legend (Lillian Gish)

Saturday, 26 November 1983

The weather forecast was a litany of gale warnings. The Thames car hire people rang me to say the plane was due half an hour early; evidently the tailwinds were tremendous. A white Mercedes picked me up and whisked me to the airport. En route, the driver expressed great interest in Lillian Gish. He liked watching old films on TV. Had I seen a series called Hollywood? It had taught him that silent films were not accompanied by a piano, but in the big theatres by orchestras. I told him he could experience just such an event next weekend. I scanned the crowd of passengers emerging from customs. One stopped me, recognising me from a Barbican show of Napoleon. He was an off-duty immigration officer. When he heard who I was waiting for, he reached into a shoulder bag, pulled out a camera, and joined us on our side of the railings. I saw an official pushing a wheelchair. Whoever it was, I told myself, it wouldn’t be Lillian Gish. But then I recognised something about the colour of the clothes. My morale plummeted. I rushed up, and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish 1983

‘We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,’ said her manager, James Frasher, following behind with a trolley piled high with suitcases. ‘We expected a golf cart,’ he whispered. ‘Lillian said, “This’ll scare them to death. They’ll think I’m an invalid.” ‘ As it happened, he added, she had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.

‘We read about the newspaper strike,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ I said. ‘We’ve lost our publicity campaign.’ And I showed her the magazines, which no one would see, of the Mail on Sunday big spread with photo-and the Sunday Times-a long article with a photo by Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ‘We’ll do lots of radio,’ she said. ‘We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.’

At the suite at the Savoy, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited Lillian Gish. ‘I first came here in 1917 ,’ she said, looking out at the view of the river. ‘Our suite was just like this, and Mr Griffith held all our rehearsals here for Hearts of the World. We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk [Cleopatra’s Needle]. There was no warning-just a sudden bang. Mother was doing her hair. Dorothy and I ran down. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe twelve people were killed.’ She looked at the porters who had brought up the luggage. ‘That was the First War. You don’t even remember the Second!’ I showed her the printed programme for the Tribute. She seemed delighted with it. ‘How is the music for Broken Blossoms?’ ‘It’s the original Louis Gottschalk score,’ I said, ‘which Carl Davis has adapted.’ ‘Tell them not to forget the Chinese gongs,’ she said. ‘They are very important to the meaning of the picture.’ For someone who should have been suffering from jet lag, Lillian Gish was remarkably ebullient. She examined the press coverage which had escaped the strike, and James Frasher skittishly showed her an item illustrated by three pictures-two of her and one of the vast female impersonator Divine. ‘I like this picture of you best,’ he said. Lillian Gish looked at him reproachfully. ‘Oh, Jim.’ Then she examined it again. ‘It looks as if I’d eaten a lot,’ she said.

1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France - Henri Langlois)
1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France – Henri Langlois)

Tuesday 29 November

The television monitor in the Thames Silents office was tuned in to A-Plus, which was setting up in the studio. I saw Lillian Gish, dressed in a striking pink suit, taking her seat, and almost at once heard her directing the lighting. ‘Camera high, light low,’ she explained. She checked the result on a nearby monitor. One could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes. ‘Eyes are so important,’ she told the cameraman. ‘I believe that’s why Dallas is such a success around the world … you can see their eyes so clearly. The story is just repetitive, but human beings love seeing themselves looking so attractive.’ Suddenly the cameraman zoomed in. Lillian Gish saw at once what he was doing. ‘Don’t come so close,’ she warned. ‘You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.’ They settled for what she wanted. ‘Honestly,’ said Mavis Nicholson, the presenter, ‘you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.’ ‘

I was born this way,’ said Lillian Gish, with a chuckle. ‘I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colours, you know-brown, black, white, blonde. It’s still me.’ The opening of the show, which had been pre-recorded, was run. It ended with a scene from The Wind. Lillian Gish said, ‘But to match that face sixty years later! I did my best this morning with make-up. But you can’t perform miracles. You have to help it with lights.’ ‘Only a little,’ said Mavis Nicholson.

‘Oh, it’s not for me-that’s vanity-it’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say, “Oh, how awful!”

During the interview, Lillian Gish spoke about acting. She gestured at the lens. ‘This camera teaches you what not to do. I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in your mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.’ That evening, the Guardian lecture was held at the National Film Theatre. All the seats had been sold. Despite the cold, a crowd hovered at the entrance. When Lillian Gish arrived, in a black fur coat and black cap, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing and even a man with an old-fashioned cine camera trying vainly to get a steady shot of Lillian Gish as she was escorted through the foyer to the Green Room. After a brief extract from Broken Blossoms, Sheridan Morley came on stage and introduced ‘The first lady of the American cinema.’ And he asked: ‘Once you had settled in Hollywood in 1913, what were the films that first established you out there, that made you feel you were the beginnings of an industry?’

‘We didn’t know that,’ she answered. ‘We were too young. It was just something that we were working in to make a living until we were old enough to be accepted in the theatre as ingenues. At that time photography was so terrible that an old hag of eighteen was passe.

She was a character woman. They had to have young faces. Once we went in to the studio, and there was an audience scene, and under the lights-those Cooper Hewitt lights-they all looked as if they’d been dead for three weeks.’

At the end of the evening, questions were invited from the audience. Someone asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ‘Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,’ she said to laughter from the audience. ‘Seventy-five per cent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard.’ There was more laughter. ‘They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them “ga-ga babies”.’

Her humour was direct, her vitality extraordinary. At the end, she received a standing ovation. Outside, the crush was so severe it was hard to reach the Green Room, and by the time I got there it was like Groucho Marx’s cabin. Later, James Frasher organised a path through the crowd so that Lillian Gish could sign autographs. And then she was swept out through a barrage of flashbulbs to the white Mercedes, and as it drove away we all felt the cold again.

Interviewing-Lillian-Gish
Interviewing-Lillian-Gish

Thursday, 1 December

Rehearsal this afternoon for Broken Blossoms at the Dominion. Contemporary reports of the film’s premiere all referred to the elaborate Chinese decoration of the theatre. In particular, they described ‘an unearthly mauve light’. Griffith discovered a lighting system by accident, when he projected the film with the theatre lights still burning from the prologue and saw the flattering effect on the screen. He used it extensively during the first run and later patented the device. David Gill, in charge of staging these events, felt that we should pay lip service to the idea. Pat Downing, head of Thames Design, contrived . a set of Chinese panels to fit either side of the screen, and a lighting display was organized by Lou Bottone to accompany the overture. It was no more than a hint of Griffith’s Grand Plan, but the print, from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, was lavishly and richly toned and any attempt to play light on the screen during projection would have been superfluous. Lillian Gish dropped in for a few minutes during the rehearsal. As she arrived, the sequence on the screen-Cheng Huan discovering Lucy-was toned a rich brown. ‘I don’t like that sepia print they’ve sent,’ she said. ‘It was a black and white film.’ I was flabbergasted. The print had been produced at colossal expense from a toned nitrate original. And even allowing for the print at the premiere being black and white, Griffith’s lighting scheme would have added colour. ‘My scenes were black and white, because I was meant to look pale and ill. The tinting makes me look sunburnt.’ Yet Broken Blossoms was renowned for its colour effects, so I confess I was bewildered, not to mention downcast. It did not bode well for the big show. ‘By the way,’ she added, as she was climbing into the white Mercedes, ‘you won’t forget the gongs, will you?’

We did not, but at rehearsal the gong had sounded like a saucepan. ‘Where are we going to find a replacement?’ asked Carl Davis. I suggested Chinatown-Gerrard Street, Soho-and Colin Matthews remembered a Chinese instrument shop at Cambridge Circus, so we raced out to find it. Through the door we saw an assistant playing an amber flute, just like Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms. We explained our predicament and were shown a gong which sounded superb. ‘It’s £1,000-you could hire it at £100 a day plus VAT.’ We settled for a much cheaper version, and handed out free tickets for the evening show … which was now almost upon us.

At the Dominion, a flurry of excitement as silent star Bessie Love arrived, signing the statutory autographs and posing for pictures. She was followed by John Gielgud … Anna Neagle … Emlyn Williams, who had played the Barthelmess part in the 1934 remake of Broken Blossoms, and as it filled up the theatre (built in 1929) began to look more and more like a picture palace. Nevertheless, David and I were extremely apprehensive. How would the audience take to this strange, poetic fable from another age? They laughed in places at An Unseen Enemy, the 1912 nickelodeon film, in which the Gish sisters made their debut. The atmosphere changed as soon as Lillian Gish herself appeared on stage to introduce the main film, and explain the background. (Luckily, she didn’t refer to the tinting!) It was astonishing to see an actress on film in 1912, then to see her walk-on the stage in 1983. A hush descended as the richly coloured lights played on the screen and the orchestra began to play the overture. I sat next to Lillian Gish. The atmosphere grew stronger, and on to the screen came the first shot of the gong. The musician spotted his cue too late. The gongs were mute. ‘Where’s the gong?’ asked Lillian Gish. ‘That’s the essence of the meaning of the film.’ I explained that the cue had been missed, but I recalled in acute embarrassment the number of times she had reminded us. Fortunately, at each of its later appearances, the gong was loud and clear. And Carl’s adaptation of the original 1919 score, orchestrated by Dave Cullen, was surprisingly touching.

The experience of watching the film was transformed by the music (and, of course, the presence of a large and receptive audience). I had seen 16mm prints of dismal quality of Broken Blossoms, sometimes silent, sometimes with a piano, and the emotion had remained buried, like a flower beneath the snow. I had often wondered at the film’s high reputation, and looked upon it myself somewhat patronisingly, as the cinematic equivalent of a Victorian sampler. As soon as the music began, the picture took on a new life. The Gottschalk score was of no great merit in itself, but it was intelligent. It had been supervised by Griffith himself (who composed the ‘White Blossom’ theme for Lillian Gish). It thus belonged intrinsically to the film. The fusion of music and picture, like carbon arcs coming together, created an effect of extraordinary intensity. Gestures and expressions gained fresh significance; when Cheng Huan (Barthelmess) finds his home destroyed and Lucy gone, he cries out and collapses to the floor. Slightly risible when seen silent, this gesture gained great poignancy with the music. Even the performance of Donald Crisp, perhaps the most overacted villain in all silent films, assumed an operatic stature with the Wagner theme. As for Lillian Gish, her part seemed exceptional even when viewed under the worst film society conditions. Now her performance radiated the same electricity as it had in 1919, and it reduced many to tears. ‘I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,’ a man said to me in the foyer. ‘This has been my greatest evening.’

Lillian Gish in the 80's

Saturday, 3 December

A telephone call from James Frasher. Lillian Gish had hurt her ankle again and would not be able to introduce the last show of The Wind this evening. But she would try to be there for the end. This added suspense to the proceedings, and a sense of drama which, I must admit, was not unwelcome. (Fortunately, she had seen the first performance yesterday.) I remember seeing The Wind for the first time many years ago at the old NFT, and there were seven in the audience. This time, we had 1,362 and the house was nearly full. But as I said to David, how good a picture do we have to show, how great an actress do we have to bring over, and how long must she have worked in the cinema, before we fill the house? The BFI has over 30,000 members who profess an interest in the cinema-where are they when we need them? Foreigners put the British to shame on these occasions. Historian J. B. Kaufman had flown in from Kansas, a large group had come from Paris, including King Vidor’s daughter, and an actor from Napoleon, Harry-Krimer, who had seen Broken Blossoms sixty-four years ago, had travelled by Hovercraft from France.

The audience reaction was noticeably different from that to Broken Blossoms. The Wind, for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comedy relief, and this received a lot more laughter than I anticipated. I suspected that some did not realise it was supposed to be funny; one or two people tittered at dramatic moments. Again, the music exercised its power. Soon, the laughter ceased altogether. The score, composed by Carl Davis himself, was of a more sophisticated order than the one for Broken Blossoms. So was the film. The story of a young girl from Virginia who comes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas was full of psychological nuance, and depended heavily on Lillian Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance. But however effective the film might be seen silent-and there can be no doubt that it is effective-the addition of music provided far more than mere accompaniment. The girl’s dilemma suddenly becomes much more vivid. One not only feels for her, one feels profound sympathy for the well-meaning clod of a cowboy she has been forced to marry. And one feels much more strongly the pressures of her new life, and the emotional tug of her memories of Virginia. With the storm scene, the score reverted entirely to percussion, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theatre, a sound so loud it was almost painful, dragging one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the girl-one seemed to be inside her head. This musique tempete climax, orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, and with it the pounding of the orchestra, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience which had apparently held its breath for more than half a reel. ‘The most terrifying cinematic moment of 1983,’ wrote Geoff Brown in The Times. ‘No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.’

Sight and Sound (1984-04)(BFI)(GB).pdf
Sight and Sound (1984-04)(BFI)(GB) Glimpses of a Legend (Lillian Gish)

After taking several curtain calls, to tremendous applause, Carl Davis returned and announced, ‘If you’ll give us a few minutes, Miss Gish will be with us.’ A very few minutes later, Lillian Gish stepped into the spotlight with scarcely a sign of a limp. She was greeted by a standing ovation. Like the trouper she has always been, she insisted on giving the audience full value. ‘We worked out in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, in temperatures which were seldom under 120°. I was the only woman in the troupe, except for the wife of the assistant, who was very large. So I had no double. I did . all my own stunts, like falling off the horse. And there were eight [she actually said eighteen, but it was an emotional evening!] airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress, but luckily not in my eyes. Cold I can stand, but not heat, so The Wind was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures. I hope you enjoyed it, and let me say how wonderful I thought the orchestra was. The music was 75 per cent of the excitement you have just experienced.’ Later, at a reception, she toasted everyone who had a hand in the 1983 Thames Silents, and said ‘May this be our unhappiest moment.’ The reactions to The Wind could not have been more positive-some people thought it even more powerful than Napoleon. We transmitted these reactions when we said farewell to Lillian Gish at the hotel. She and James Frasher were busy packing. She wore a white flowered dressing-gown, and her long blonde hair hung loose to the waist. The soft lights glowed on her skin and hair and I have never seen her look more beautiful. The rest of us were exhausted; she was suffering no obvious effects from a schedule which had included endless interviews and an appearance at every performance. Over tea, she acknowledged that the tinted Broken Blossoms had looked better at the performance. ‘You must have put more light behind it,’ she said. But she insisted that it had originally been black and white. We left her in her suite, which was full of flowers and fan mail. ‘When I get back to New York,’ she said, ‘I’m going to bed and I won’t wake up until 1984. So when you think of me, think of me horizontal.’

When we think of Lillian Gish from now on, the great actress will come second to the enchanting woman herself. She may have the stubbornness of a pioneer, but there is a quality one can only describe as sweetness which transcends any role she ever played.

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand - The Wind
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Hearts of the World – 1918 – Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947 (Special Supplement to Sight and Sound)

Special Supplement to Sight and Sound

An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith

Part II: The Art Triumphant

Hearts of the World – 1918

Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947

Produced by D. W. Griffith, Inc. Original story and scenario by “M. Gaston de Tolignac” (D. W. Griffith). “Translated into English by Capt. Victor Marier ” (D. W. Griffith). Directed by Griffith. Photography: G. W. Bitzer. Music: score composed and arranged by Carl Elinor and D. W. Griffith. Technical advisor on, and supervisor of, military detail: Erich von Stroheim. Shooting time, about 9 months. Editing and subtitles: Griffith. Cutters: James and Rose Smith. Release length: 12 reels, about 12,000 feet. Running-time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Released by D. W. Griffith, Inc.: Thursday, April 4, 1918, at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City.

Hearts of The World Program
Hearts of The World Program

THEME AND STORY

What is the basic content, what is the theme, of the first film, Hearts of the World, which Griffith directed on European soil ? The theme of Hearts of the World may be described as follows: Democracy, based on individual freedom, is the best way of life, hence it is desirable. Autocracy, the opposite to democracy, rests on slavery and leads inevitably to war and conquest, hence it is undesirable. Therefore, Germany and her allies, representing autocracy and seeking conquest, must and shall be defeated by France and her allies, defending freedom and democracy.

From subtitles in the film, all of which were written by Griffith, as well as from his public speeches and statements at this time, this, for Griffith, was the underlying cause of the First World War. The evidence does not indicate that he doubted or questioned the fundamental beliefs, concepts or values of the civilizations of America and Europe, or so-called Christendom. Quite the contrary, he appears to have accepted the supposedly “Christian” nations and their cultures “as is”, castigating them at times, as in Broken Blossoms, for their enormous brutality and hypocrisy—but accepting them, nevertheless. And when these nations were attacked by their historic semi-Asiatic foe—murderous, barbaric Germany, Griffith without hesitation joined in the effort to save the victims. Neither in the images nor in the subtitles of this film does Griffith suggest that he viewed the conflict as an “imperialist war” or a “fight for markets”. Therein lies perhaps the fundamental, if not the principal, difference between Hearts of the World and Soviet films based on, or dealing with, World War I. On the contrary, Griffith makes unmistakably clear his belief and conviction that victory by the Kaiser’s Germany would have spelled the doom of Western civilization—the triumph everywhere of the most absolute and inhuman autocracy. The word “totalitarian” had not been coined in 1917, but Griffith’s exhortations to the American people were dire warnings against what is nowadays categorically termed “totalitarian dictatorship”.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Autocracy was attacking democracy; democracy, innocent, was defending itself. Economic and political causes to the contrary notwithstanding, this was the crucial fact of the conflict; this was its basic issue and its meaning. For Griffith, as for the peoples of the democracies, the war had no other reality. As already indicated, Griffith did not believe in an economic interpretation of history, but rather in an emotional and a moral one. He believed in emotion as the fundamental motivation of human behaviour, or, as Denison put it, in “emotion as the basis of civilization”. It is only too plain, as evidenced from the story and content of his film, that Griffith was not concerned with the material or economic causes of the war, but with the ideological values which must perish or survive, depending on the war’s outcome. The two principal values of his concern, both of them based on, and related to, the democratic way of life, were: personal liberty and romantic love. Here, these are threatened with extinction by the armed might of Imperial Germany—Prussian autocracy; and so, here again, as in The Birth of a Nation and in the mediaeval French story of Intolerance, Griffith’s basic and fundamental theme comes to light—crucifixion of the hearts of the world by the world. The two world-forces which grind like millstones the hearts in this as in the other Griffith films are (1) history—a process; and (2) intolerance—an emotion or passion. The forces like demons are embodied here in the nation-states of the modern Western world; their conflict is the battle of the nations. Viewed in such a world-perspective, America—England—France, the “little countries” of western Europe—all these represented the democratic way of life, “the Good”, all were popularly and properly “free” societies. And Griffith was at pains to make clear, that his advocacy of the Allied cause was no mere professional assignment, it was more than mere obedience to duty; it was a matter of principle, of simple conviction. This principle, the belief in democracy, was his theme. Hearts of the World bears the qualifying subtitle, “The Story of a Village”. Much of the action, both before and during the sequences of World War I, is laid in a French village behind the Allied lines. Some action is shown in the trenches, both Allied and German; some is laid in the Moquet Farm sector, France, at the headquarters of Prussian officers behind the German lines; the rest is devoted to scenes of actual warfare. The picture features many battle panoramas and combat sequences. Yet, despite these martial and spectacular scenes, Hearts of the World originally was advertised and known as a film, “not about the war, but about people to whom the war came”. The New York “Times”, in its review of the film the morning after the premiere, summarized the story as follows:

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

“There is a young girl living with her old grandparents. And there is a young man living with his parents and three little brothers. Monsieur Cuckoo, the Little Disturber, the Village Carpenter, a Deaf and Blind Musician, and many others, are village characters with their happiness and little difficulties that do not matter. “The Girl and the Boy love each other. The Little Disturber, delightful little devil of a flirt, loves the boy, but he loves the other girl and angrily spurns her. The Disturber at last turns to Monsieur Cuckoo, who has been pursuing her from the first. . . . The scenes of this French village suggest all that had been known by travel and books of provincial France before the war. . . . “Into such an atmosphere and environment, the war bursts. First a German spy inspecting possible fortifications appears with sinister suggestion. Then, just before the set wedding day of the Boy and the Girl, the town crier startles the village with a mobilization order. The whole peaceful arrangement of life is violently shattered. The men rush off to war and the women stay behind to worry and wonder. “The Germans advance against the village; many of the inhabitants flee in confusion, while shells do their destruction around them; others remain behind and seek shelter in cellars and crypts and vaults. Certain characters in the play are killed; others survive to face the fearful future. After furious fighting, the Germans take possession of the town and Prussion brutality reveals itself in a number of vivid scenes. “The horrors of German occupation are shown, chiefly as they affect the persons in the play, the Girl and the Disturber, who become companions in misery. There is a great deal of detail, both of actual fighting and of play plot, and finally the boy, whom the Girl had left for dead on the battlefield, enters the village disguised in the uniform of a Prussian officer and finds his sweetheart, who escapes with him from the clutches of a Prussian officer to a garret room, where a struggle that has all the thrill of melodrama takes place. But this little clash of individuals is not long continued. Soon the French troops retake the town and more of the action of real war is seen. “The conclusion shows the characters of the play, lovers reunited, on a furlough, and as they are dining American troops pass outside. The Stars and Stripes enter — and at the very end ultimate victory for the Allies is symbolically forecast” The last sentence refers to Griffith’s screen prediction of the Armistice, one year before it happened.

DW Griffith in France 1917 D. W. Griffith, American film master
DW Griffith in France 1917

PRODUCTION

The production of Hearts of the World began as a result of the exhibition in England of Intolerance. Like Intolerance, and like The Birth of a Nation, it was privately produced by Griffith, and was made in entire independence of the American film industry. Griffith sailed for England on March 17, 1917. Several weeks later, when Intolerance was privately shown at Buckingham Palace to the King, the Queen and the Royal Family, the overnight became the toast of the British public and the lion of all London. He had brought the cinema, a cultured revolution and a gift of the American democracy, from the New World to the mother-country, in the hour of the mother’s need; he became, therefore, an object of admiration, curiosity and esteem unlimited. At the London premiere at the Drury Lane Theatre, he was invited to the box of the Dowager Queen, Alexandra, who invited him to spend a week-end at Windsor Palace. Griffith recalls that he did not go, because he was already too busy conferring with England’s leaders.

Griffith and the Great War 3
Griffith and the Great War 3

Griffith, at a party given in his honour at the Duchess of Devonshire’s, was formally presented to such notables as Lloyd George, Winston Churchiil, Lord Beaverbrook, Asquith, the Earl of Derby and others. Here he learned that his name already had been proposed by the literary giants of England—Shaw, Barrie, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton and others—in a conference with Lloyd George on ways and means of bolstering public morale, had so long played. This was the second major American film — The Birth of a Nation (under its original title, The Clansman) having been the first, the premiere of which was held, not in New York City, but in Los Angeles. On April 2, the New York “Times” featured front-page headlines: LONDON ANNOUNCES THAT AMERICAN FORCES ARE READY. On Thursday, April 4, the “Times” headlines read, in part: GERMANS LAUNCH HEAVY GAS ATTACK AT AMERICAN TROOPS. The same night, America’s answer came to the gas attack: Hearts of the World opened at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City. The management of this distinguished, so-called legitimate theatre had previously announced that the premiere would be a “private invitation” presentation … for prominent officials of the United States and the Allied Governments, municipal and State officials, and prominent citizens” (N. Y “Times”, April 1, 1918).

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

According to Charles Edward Hastings, in his press-book biography of Griffiths the following notable persons were among the guests at the New York City premiere : “Ambassador James W. Gerard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Alexander, Mrs. Arthur Scott Burden, Otto Kahn, Adolph Ochs, Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Whigham, Mr. and Mrs. W. Bourke Cochrane, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hastings, Enrico Caruso, Admiral Nathaniel Usher and staff, Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Gray, Mrs. Parker Beacon, Maj.-Gen. William A. Mann, Mr. and Mrs. David Belasco, Mr. and Mrs. Conde Nast, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Collier, James Montgomery Flagg, Gatti-Casazza, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Baker, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James A. Burden, Miss Ruth Twombly, Miss Harriet Post, Marquis and Marchioness Aberdeen, Mrs. May Wilson Preston, John Moffat, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Edward Ziegler, Pasquale Amato, E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, Rennold Wolf, Edgar Selwyn, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, Mrs. Morris Gest, George M. Cohan, Marshall Neilan, William Elliott, Florenz White, F. Ray Comstock and Madame Alda.

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

“The representatives of the British and Canadian Governments and British and Canadian Army and Navy officers included: Major Norman Thwaites, M.C.O.; Consul – General Bailey and staff; Henry Goode and Geoffrey Butler and staff; Commander Blackwood, R.N.; Provost Marshal Colonel Hunter; Colonel Gifford and staff; Sir Connop Guthrie and staff; Major Brooman White, Capt. V. H. McWilliam, Capt MacDonald, Lieut. Sharp, John McKenna Lawson, Lieut. Chevalier, Lieut. W. P. Mclvor, Lieut. -Col. C. A. Warren, Lieut. G. Sherries, Capt. W. E. Brown, Colonel J. S. Dennis, Capt. Sise, Lieut. Grossmith and Lieut. Cresswell”.

Griffith and the Great War 4
Griffith and the Great War 4

Douglas Fairbanks also was in the audience, but was so moved and stirred that he had to leave after the first half. The New York premiere of Hearts of the World was the most important one held to date for any motion picture. It marked the beginning also of the use of the distinguished 44th Street Theatre, of theatrical history, for the initial exhibition of important films. Here the film ran, accompanied by a large symphony orchestra, twice daily, at scheduled performances, 2.15 and 8.15 p.m., at admission prices not exceeding $ 1 for matinees or $ 1.50 for evening performances. It played at the 44th Street until October 5: on the 6th it moved over to another so-called legitimate theatre, the Knickerbocker, also located in the Times Square district, where the same prices and the same schedule continued. On October 21, accompanied by another symphony orchestra, the film began a simultaneous first-run engagement at the Standard Theatre at 90th Street and Broadway, at scheduled performances, twice daily, and at the same admission prices as at the Knickerbocker, for two weeks only. It ended its initial run at the Knickerbocker and the Standard simultaneously, with the evening show on Saturday, November 2, 1918.

Griffith and the Great War 6
Griffith and the Great War 6

The total record for the first run of Hearts of the World from April 4, until November 2, is as follows: 33 consecutive weeks, of which 27 weeks were spent at the 44th Street Theatre, 4 weeks at the Knickerbocker and 2 weeks (simultaneously) at the Standard. Thus the 33-week first-run fell short of that of The Birth of a Nation, but exceeded that of Intolerance;, either way, by 11 weeks. Paine gives glimpses of its phenomenal popularity. On the night after the invitational premiere at the 44th Street, when the theatre was opened to the public, he relates “seats sold by speculators brought as high as five and ten dollars. There were long runs everywhere. In Pittsburgh, the picture broke all records for any theatrical attraction in that city”. Exhibitors who recall the past still refer to the Pittsburgh run of Hearts of the World as one of the truly golden moments of American box-office history.

In 1919, after its temporary withdrawal from the screens, due to the cessation of hostilities and the over-night rejection by the public of war themes, Griffith brought forth a “Peace Edition” of the film, which he distributed with considerable success throughout the nation. It included an epilogue, “visualizing the League of Nations and future world peace” (advertisement and programme-note). The New York “Times” of August 11 wrote that “the spectators applauded its spectacles regardless of their military meaning”. The gross intake of Hearts of the World by 1920 was estimated to be in excess of $5,000,000, representing a profit of about $4,850,000.

In 1931 , the film was revised and re-issued, again with big financial results, by United Artists. Its all-time gross is $7,000,000. The story of the American exhibition of Hearts of the World would scarcely be complete without at least a passing mention of the advertising and exploitation campaign.

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

This established a new watermark in the technique of motion picture or theatrical publicity.

The newspaper advertisements, preceded by months of mysterious published “hints” and rumours of Griffith’s activities abroad, whipped up interest to a fever pitch. Gigantic horizontal or vertical half-page advertisements in the New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston papers exhorted the public in the name of democracy and freedom to see the “Miles of Artillery—March of Legions—Squadrons of Airplanes—Fleets of Zeppelins, the ‘Eyes of the Allies’—The Destruction of Cities—The Charge of the Tanks” and sundry other horrible and horrifying wonders of the First World War, as revealed in Griffith’s new film.

The New York “American” and other leading papers carried spectacular advertisements, featuring photographs of Griffith, helmeted, in the front line trenches. These advertisements, written by Griffith, stressed the twin themes of freedom and democracy. In a particularly sensational one, Griffith indulged in a bit of period showmanship when he announced that the “only ‘supers’ used were German soldiers, prisoners of war, filmed back of the firing line, tickled to death they were in such good hands with D. W. Griffith to direct them”!

Hearts of The World - Adv2

World Release

Hearts of the World opened on Tuesday, June 25, 19 18, at the Palace Theatre, accompanied by the Palace Orchestra, in London. It was presented by Alfred Butt. The London opening-run ended on Saturday, September 7—exactly, to quote the final advertisement in the London “Times” “… as presented before Their Majesties the King and Queen”.

After the war, Hearts of the World enjoyed extremely successful runs on the Continent, where public interest in war themes did not abate so completely or so quickly as in the United States.

There is no record to hand that it was ever publicly shown in the Soviet Union, but it was privately viewed and studied in later years by the emergent Soviet film directors —Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Trauberg, et al. Although each of these directors set new standards of realism, and achieved greater complexity and depth of interpretation than Griffith in depicting the war (although not necessarily therefore greater ultimate truth), the influence of Griffith’s film is evident, nevertheless, in all their works and may be seen in a myriad of images of the classic Soviet films on the First World War.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

CREATIVE INFLUENCE

On War Films and War Propaganda

Hearts of the World was, in effect and in essence, the first real film depicting the First World War.

Although several such films had already been rushed to the screens by the Hollywood companies—J. Stuart Blackton’s The Battle Cry of Peace; Ince’s Civilization; Dixon’s The Fall of a Nation; Empey’s Over the Top; Carl Laemmle’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin; Metro’s To Hell with the Kaiser; Warner Brothers’ My Four Years in Germany, etc.—presumably to “cash in” on the war while it was still profitable to do so and at the same time to jump the gun on Griffith, these were of an unusually inferior quality, being incredibly childish or crude, if not wholly incompetent, in the actual depiction of the conflict. Here, on the contrary, was a war film, conceived on a big scale and executed with documentary realism.

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

The trade envied Griffith’s opportunity; it envied his official sponsorship by the Allied governments; and still more it envied the success of the film itself. Every American film producer knew that only the ending of the conflict, which resulted in the immediate and total loss of public interest in war themes, in November, 1918, had prevented Hearts of the World from being even more successful than it was. Accordingly, the trade studied this film more than any other made to date, except only The Birth of a Nation. Even Hollywood could ill-afford to ignore the new cinematic methods and techniques which Griffith had here brought to the screen. Press comment on it was often more in the nature of news than of criticism or review. “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe”, reads an unsigned article-review in the New York “Times”. “The pictures of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, the demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches, are impressively realistic”. Proudly, the advertisements claimed “real trenches, real battles; real war scenes, taken amid the fire and smoke of conflict; here are no moving picture ‘supers’, such as one sees in a studio picture, but real, flesh and blood soldiers of France, of England, fighting with their last drop of blood in defence of civilization. . . . No papier mache scenery, no studio ‘props’, no supers, no artificialities of any kind figured in filming this wonderful new Griffith masterpiece. ” These claims were for the most part quite truthful, and so was the general opinion, that the “trench fighting was terribly realistic”, as Lillian Gish put it. In fact, Paine further quotes Miss Gish as stating that when she saw the film again, in 1931, she “thought it better than many of those made to-day. . . . There was more sincerity of intention—more earnest work”. Indeed, Hearts of the World was the first big film of modern war: it was war as only the screen could show it. There were immense battle panoramas, with troop and truck movements, “squadrons of airplanes” and with panel-shots, showing “miles of artillery”, intercut with full screen detail close-ups of the wounded and the dying; there were country-wide vistas, showing the “march of legions” or whole armies locked in combat, intercut, as in The Birth of a Nation, with intimate glimpses of the lives and tragedies of the civilian population behind the lines; there was an arsenal of pictorial effects (“psycho-visual impacts”, to put it in the language of contemporary psychology), achieved through a combination of photography, direction and editing, and counterpointed with, or heightening, the documentary realism, drama and propaganda.

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

This passionate synthesis of spectacle, love story and documentary came as an antidote to the cheap and hysterical depictions of the war or what Hollywood thought was the war, which were occupying the current screens—forgotten films such as the Laemmle film; the Empey folderol; the Benjamin Chaplin serial, The Son of Democracy; or, worst of all, Cecil B. De Mille’s false and blatantly “super-patriotic” efforts, The Little American and My Own United States, with Arnold Daly. Griffith had demonstrated anew the capacity of the screen to project both history and current events on a high level of creative imagination and ideological interpretation; he had fashioned a new standard or yardstick of art and propaganda. And he had summarized the avowed aim and objective of the war in the very opening subtitle of the film: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Inevitably, Hearts of the World became the model for later attempts by the trade to recapture on celluloid the reality and scope of World War I. Its influence on this score is perhaps nowhere more obvious or more traceable than in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925).

The Big Parade - Karl Dane, John Gilbert
The Big Parade – Karl Dane, John Gilbert

Several years ago, in New York City, I attended a Museum revival of The Big Parade, which I had previously seen many times. Then, in the Spring of 1945, I was privileged to witness, in company of Mr. Griffith and the Gish sisters, a private showing of Hearts of the World, which I had also previously seen, in the projection-room of the University of Southern California. Although I have never considered Hearts of the World among Griffith’s topmost achievements—its story, which often becomes submerged in the war scenes and documentation, has been justly and severely criticized as “weak”, I was nevertheless rather dumfounded to note, after a lapse of many years, the astonishing similarity of Vidor’s scenes of the big American offensive against the Germans, during the climax of The Big Parade, to Griffith’s immense images, in reels five, nine and eleven, of the Anglo-French counter-offensive against the “Hun invaders” (subtitle).

Again, I noted further the striking similarity of the scene in Vidor’s film, in which the American troops are shown from a height, advancing by night in waves across a deforested No-man’s land, to the panoramic and aerial shots in Hearts of the Wirld of the Allied forces advancing, similarly in waves, under aerial protection, on the German-held Mouquet dugout sector, immediately after the subtitle, “The Struggle of Civilization”. I then realized, perhaps for the first time very consciously, that the cine-pictorial pattern of showing World War I on the screen had been established in Hearts of the World for future directors to study and copy as they chose. Vidor had learned well, but Griffith’s treatment was better. Griffith depicted the war on the Western front in many aspects. He remembered to include some of the elected leaders, representatives or spokesmen of the Western democracies. Thus, in the scenes depicting the House of Parliament, August 4, 1914, at 3 p.m., Sir Edward Grey and other British governmental figures are represented; at No. 10, Downing Street, the same date, at 10.55 P-ni., “awaiting Germany’s answer to the ultimatum” (subtitle), are Asquith, Grey, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; and in the French Chamber of Deputies, the same date at 3 p.m., Rene Viviani, Premier of France and other governmental leaders, are shown on the screen.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Similarly, Griffith also remembered to show the enemy. Immediately after the subtitle: “The German Militarists plan the dastardly blow against France and civilization”, he cuts to a group-shot, followed by several excellent characterization-close ups, of the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Mackensen, Von Moltke, and other members of the German High Command. Nor does he forget the military might of Germany in action. Such subtitles as: “The Shadow. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, representing War’s ideal of all races and ages, the ruling of weaker nations and people by the Power of Might”, cutting into the Kaiser as the head of the High Command, and again, in review of his troops; “The Prussian hordes massed for the attack”, cutting into immense shots of German infantry and artillery concentrations; “Beneath the risen moon”, cutting into the night-landscapes of death, destruction and terror, after the bombardment; “War’s gift to the common people”, cutting into unforgettable and heart-rending scenes of devastation, ruin and starvation in war-ravaged villages of northern France; “Poison gas”, cutting into shots of the first use of poison gas by the Germans; “Hun trenches”; “The Hun counterattack overwhelms the trench”; “The Germans”, and many others—all barely hint at the content of the related and surrounding images through which Griffith brought home to the American public this burningly vivid composite and comprehensive sum-image of the “Struggle of Civilization”.

The Big Parade seems increasingly with time the poorer for not possessing the equivalent to the stupendous and climatic panel-shots in which Griffith shows the Kaiser’s armies pouring in “never-ending flood” (subtitle) across the highways of Belgium and the horizons of France. This is more than spectacle: it is the very essence and reality and smell of World War I.

I will not, of course, dispute the superior popularity of The Big Parade. Vidor’s film has a more appealing romance, a better story; its characterizations are less typed and are more humanly believable; and it, too, from a cinematic as well as dramatic standpoint, is superbly directed. It is, indeed, a worthy film to have scored the world’s record for the single-theatre run of any motion picture: The Big Parade ran as a two-dollar, two-a-day attraction, beginning in November, 1925, at the Astor Theatre, New York City, for 97 consecutive weeks, thus surpassing the single-theatre runs of both The Birth of a Nation and The Covered Wagon.

Nevertheless, despite these impressive facts and also despite the big scenes of the trucks moving-up and the Americans moving-in, Vidor’s film fails to attain the breadth or scope of Griffith’s teeming 12-reel panorama of burning cities, massed armies, mechanical Armageddon and “miles of artillery”.

For that matter, subsequent films based on World War I fall even shorter of the mark: What Price Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, to name the two best-known ones, the former noteworthy only for basic mediocrity, the latter only for its novelized story, not for any distinctive merit which it may have been thought to possess as a film. What Price Glory, a compound of sex, slapstick and sticky sentiment, directed by one of Griffith’s earlier actors and first-assistant directors, Raoul Walsh, is almost wholly imitative in its cinematic and directional treatment; and All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone, has been quite objectively appraised by Eisenstein, Theodore Huff, Dwight MacDonald and other critics. Perhaps MacDonald’s comment sums up the others. “Even so absurd a war film as Griffiths Hearts of the World”, he writes, criticizing the story, “contains passages better than anything in All Quiet. I refer to certain panoramic shots, mostly at the beginning of reel five, epic in their sense of mass and distance and God’s-eye-scope. This is pure cinema —a matter of visual values entirely—and this is where Milestone is weakest”.

Need it be added, demonstrable and historic fact that it is, that this also is where most of the rest of the motion picture especially in Hollywood, has long since been weakest ? Finally, the effectiveness of Griffith’s film as propaganda was complete; more than any books, plays or public speeches, it served to bring home to the American people not only the fighting war but the reason for fighting it—namely, the iron necessity of defeating Imperial Germany. For this very reason, when it was revived nationally in 1931, Hearts of the World was laughed at by a new generation of filmgoers, who had been taught to believe that the first World War had been fought in vain, that the United States had been “tricked” into defending France and England, and that the idea of saving such democracy as existed in 1914 among the Western nations was a “fallacy”.

Some twenty-two years after its initial run, it also became a target of attack by political film critics and “historians” who, apparently feared that the new audiences witnessing the revival showings might be turned by it against Germany, after Soviet – Nazi collaboration had begun. Thus it was branded by one such critic as “absurdly exaggerated”, and by a whole coterie of fellow-travellers among the anti-Griffith film critics and self-styled “historians” with similar epithets.

Yet to-day, after the world’s recent and second experience with Germany in the Second World War, nothing in Griffith’s depiction of the “legend of Hunnish crime on the book of God” (subtitle) seems in the least “absurd” or “exaggerated”, as it may have done in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era of disillusionment and pacifism; on the contrary, ironically enough, it begins to appear in our new perspective almost as a generalized and pallid understatement. To-day, in the light of Germany’s gruesome national record of atrocities and mass-murders and sadism in Poland and Norway and Russia; the blitz-bombings of Rotterdam and Coventry and London; the chronicles of horror and cannibalism, rising like a stench from the ashes of Buchenwald and Dachau and the Brown-Houses of Berlin—a record of degeneracy, insanity, murder and terror—to-day, the only thing about the film or its portrayals of the Huns which may seriously be considered as “absurdly frightful” is the frightfully absurd contempt and vilification heaped upon it and upon its maker by the exponents of political ideologies and party-lines. None of this cultural politicalizing need mislead the student, however. The fact is, that the elemental truth about Germany and the First World War is far more closely approximated in Griffith’s thirty-year-old “propaganda film” than in the whole contemporary school of its political traducers. Remember, again: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Hearts of the World stands as a permanent and splendid example of the best uses of propaganda to which the screen can be put.

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

On Acting—New Talent

Hearts of the World brought to the screen some new players and some fine performances by old ones. It marked the screen debut of Ben Alexander, Griffith’s latest ” discovery” in child actors, who later played in Penrod and in All Quiet on the Wester?! Front; also, of Noel Coward, whom Griffith had met in London and who is here seen as a young man with a wheelbarrow and later as a young villager, keeping company with The Little Disturber. (Griffith recalls that Coward seemed to have some good ideas, but that he, Griffith, was too busy to listen much!) In addition, it united the Gish sisters in their first important film together since Home, Sweet Home (1913. See Griffith Index: Part I, p. 18).

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

On Acting—Dorothy Gish

Unquestionably, the acting honours go to Dorothy in a short black wig as The Little Disturber. With her perky, comic and flip performance, she ran away with the picture and created a role that was long remembered. This was also something of an achievement for Griffith, who had long been criticized for failing in “humour”. Yet the conception and direction of The Little Disturber were entirely his. The use of many clever gestures and trick “business”, all in a few feet at a time; Dorothy’s jaunty strut or walk; the self-satirical but taunting “sex-appeal” of her mannerisms and postures; and the comic scenes to the strains of Anna Held’s old “hit”, Its Delightful to be Married—all this stamped Griffith as a comedy director of genuine promise, and Dorothy as a comedy virtuouso. Griffith was encouraged by it in later years to try his hand again at conceiving comedy roles and even at directing feature-length film comedies (Sally of the Sawdust, etc.). Dorothy, on her part, unwittingly created a vogue among American girls of the period to cultivate in their lighter moments the jaunty walk or strut of The Little Disturber.

The effect of this incidental and probably unexpected success was to start Dorothy Gish off in her own “starring” films—the celebrated “Black Wig” comedy series of the early I920’s.

Eric Von Stroheim-1933-Hello Sister
Eric Von Stroheim -1933

On Acting—Erich von Stroheim

But all these players together, and the best of their work, do not rate in value with the appearance here of a relatively new, unexpected actor of stellar importance—Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim began his screen career, it may be recalled, in 1915, as a technical adviser to Griffith on military detail in the filming of Old Heidelberg for Triangle. (See Griffith Index: Part II (b), p. 5). The intelligence and talent of this gifted future writer-director were quickly recognized by Griffith; and even beyond this, his potentiality as “acting material”—or, more properly for the screen, as a “player”, was clearly perceived by the old master’s phenomenal “casting eye”. Accordingly, Stroheim was given his first screen role as one of the “Pharisees” in the Judean storv of Intolerance. (See Griffith Index: Part II (c). Now one year later, he was cast by Griffith in a role which quite literally created and shaped the whole course of Stroheim’s career: that of a Prussian officer in charge of German headquarters on the Western front.

Combining military arrogance and sex appeal, Stroheim created a sensation. He became known to the American public as the “man you love to hate”. It was the real beginning of his acting career; and it was also the beginning of a new type of role, which Stroheim alone with his face and personality could fill, and which he was destined to play again and again years later in other films. The final perfection of his “Prussian officer” in Hearts of the World may be seen in Grand Illusion, where Stroheim again appears in the role of the same type of German officer in charge of a military prison. He is the one Griffith “discovery” and actor whose career and casting have come down virtually intact as Griffith created them to our own time, a phenomenon in film history.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

On the Stage

Once again, as in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, so here Griffith proved the superiority of the screen to the stage in projecting history, news, realism and spectacle. Stage plays based on the war were feeble and few and were almost wholly unconvincing. The medium of the stage, resting as it does on dialogue, is physically inadequate to deal with war as a subject, and the most that any playwright can hope to achieve is to have his characters talk about war—emotionally and with the accepted standardized vocal inflections or intonations of the Broadway theatre. But he cannot show the war nor can he heighten such drama as he may create with either images or documentation.

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

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Although it excited and thrilled people in 19 18, and was a tremendous success both during its original run and for some years afterwards, the fact is, that Hearts of the World does not stand the test of time, except in the battle panoramas, as do some of Griffith’s other famous films. On the contrary, it seems to-day a rather uneven film. Why ? There are several reasons:

First, it seems certain that Griffith was too close to the war really to grasp or understand it, least of all to view it in its proper perspective. Remember that fifty years had elapsed between Appommattox (the end of the American Civil War) and the initial appearance of The Birth of a Nation—a circumstance which accounts in part for the singular detachment, objectivity and perspective which characterize the historical sequences of this film. Here, on the contrary, the director was not only close to a great war, but in it. How was it possible to achieve under the circumstances a “proper perspective” ?

For that matter, this was true of most American war films. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) was an essentially romantic story with .the war-years as a background and with little in it of the war itself. The Big Parade came seven years after the Armistice yet, although it was a superb spectacle, it offers nothing by way of a perspective on the conflict deeper than Griffith’s film. And Griffith had the added disadvantage of being carried away—the inevitable price one pays for patriotism or uncritical devotion to any cause, however “noble”—by the confusion, emotions and fears of the period. No one really knew what was going on and it is extremely doubtful that Griffith himself knew all the horrors of war at this time, least of all what started the war. Hence, his preoccupation with “lovers” instead of soldiers and the forces behind them. Yet it is only just to record that Griffith can hardly be blamed for the deficiencies of this film since nobody knew anything then.

Second, as already stated, the story is weak. Toward the end it even lapses into conventional melodrama. Yet there are some extraordinary scenes in the picture, and it is worth while for the record to recall them. We have already mentioned the girl’s mad wandering over the battle ground with the bridal dress in her arms (was there a Freudian meaning to this, intended or otherwise ?) Besides this, there were the children burying their mother (immediately related to the subtitle: “Cannon fire their only requiem”) — a terrific scene; the tender love scenes (“For ever and ever”); the famous attic scene in which the boy and the girl, facing imminent death in the German attack on the village, marry themselves; the seduction scene in which Lillian Gish is pulled by Siegmann along the floor while the blind violinist plays – an action and situation used again by Stroheim in The Merry Widow; the famous scene of the refugees in the ruined church, with mothers nursing their children, while the nuns make the sign of the cross over the screaming half-dead—realism in what is now termed the documentary mode; the still-effects of high government officials waiting (impersonations of Churchill, Lloyd George, etc.), which were precisely the device and technique used fifteen years later by Dovzhenko in Arsenal and, finally, too many strangely-haunting scenes both of the war and of the story itself to be enumerated. . . . All these things may be mentioned as balancing or offsetting the weaker side of the story. For it must be repeated that despite the remarkable effect and power of these sequences and scenes, individually the story as a whole is weak.

Third, Hearts of the World was made in so many places (France, England and California), under so many conditions that were difficult at best and more often than not impossible or uncontrollable, that the film as a whole did not exactly “jell”. However, it must be emphasized as Lillian Gish has already noted, that it was sincerely felt by those who made it, and in the confusion of the period, it was soul-stirring to say the least.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Fourth, Hearts of the World is a transitional, even an experimental film. Bitzer later often related that many new things were tried out in it—all kinds of new lighting and photographic effects, as in the night scenes with lights (the Boy, returning from the battlefield, etc.); all sorts of interior lighting both for close-ups and sets; an extensive use of tinting—purple, for the twilight scenes; rose-and-blue mixed tints for early morning; green and yellow alternately for the Germans and so on.

Furthermore, although there is not exactly the soft focus of Broken Blossoms in any scenes, there is a movement in that direction along with many other kindred strange effects and lightings. Indeed, one of the more significant events which occurred during the production was that a young new cameraman, Hendrik Sartov, who had been a still photographer back in the States, was picked up over there, and it was he, not Bitzer, who did the soft-focus in Broken Blossoms.

The summation could go on indefinitely to include references to the air-shots of the battlefields, several of which are notable for imagination and skill in handling; the time-lapses through such cinematically “modern” devices as “cuts”, dissolves or time-fades, as the case may be, from new into old boots or new into rusted guns; or to some of the real poetry in the picture. The above, however, covers most of the important facts and should serve to recall the far-reaching and experimental importance of this immense film.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Even for Lillian Gish, this was a transitional film—a transitional role, somewhere between the straight heroine of The Birth of a Nation and the tragic creature of Broken Blossoms. She tries many new effects here, some of them, perhaps, not successful, but all of them indicating an attempt to experiment with new methods of pantomimic expression and new screen-playing techniques. In short, Hearts of the World, viewed from whatever angle, was a film made for a time and a purpose—a time of war and a purpose of propaganda. As such, it succeeded admirably then, and even if to-day it may not seem so great as some of Griffith’s other films, it is worth remembering its large importance, its influence both as film and as propaganda, and then the outstanding single fact about it—namely, that of this film it may be stated that it accomplished its purpose and justified its existence to the hilt. But in film history also it revealed itself in a quite startling and unexpected fashion. This can best be grasped by glancing at the music. Hearts of the World was the first important Griffith film the musical score to which included excerpts from popular “numbers” or songs of the day. The Anna Held “hit,” It’s Delightful to be Married, has already been mentioned and to it may be added the various strains taken from Chit Chin Chow and other vastly popular musical comedies of the war-years.

Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World

It may be recorded as an objective fact that although Griffith was yet to make films far superior to Hearts of the World and of the first order of magnitude, nevertheless this initial concession to mass-entertainment and mass-taste represents a downward step. Nor was the step unnoticed by the rising titans of the trade. Hearts of the World, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was one of the supreme triumphs of free enterprise in film production. As such, its virtues were carefully studied and its errors coldly appraised by the grim men who watched from the shadows of Broadway. It was a new challenge to them but one which they now felt confident of meeting. For there was no one but Griffith to oppose them, the so-called intellectuals of America still being wedded body and soul to the genteel and snobbish traditions of the so-called legitimate theatre. Yet even Griffith, mighty force that he was, could not alone or indefinitely withstand the massed attack gathering among the magnates who were working to create a monopoly through the medium of films over the minds and hearts of the world.

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

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INTOLERANCE (1916) – By Seymour Stern – Special Supplement to Sight and Sound 1946

Special Supplement to Sight and Sound

An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith

By Seymour Stern – September 1946

INTOLERANCE (1916)

Produced at the Fine Arts Studios, Hollywood, by the Wark Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith). Directed by D. W. Griffith. Original idea and scenario : Griffith. Scenario of the ” Modern Story (The Mother and the Law) : adapted by Griffith, in part, from the Report of a Federal Industrial Commission ; and in part, from the records of the Stielow murder case. Under the personal supervision of D. W. Griffith, each of the following items : settings ; costume designs ; photographic style and technique ; research ; architectural conceptions of the City of Babylon (with motifs suggested by the sun-buildings and causeway of the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, 191 5). Research on the Judean story : Rabbi L. Myers.* Construction supervisor and chief engineer on the Babylonian sets : Frank Wortman. Photography  G. W. Bitzer and Karl Brown. Assistant directors : George Siegmann, W. S. Van Dyke, Joseph Henaberry, Erich von Stroheim, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning. Chief second assistant directors : Ted Duncan, Mike Siebert.

Editing : Griffith. Cutters : James and Rose Smith. Music : original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith. Total production-time : 22 months, 12 days, divided as follows : shooting-time—20 months, 12 days ; editing—2 months. Release length : app. 13,700 feet (13! reels) or in old-time, silent film running-time, 3 hours.f World premiere and release under auspices of Wark Distributing Corporation (D. W. Griffith): Tuesday, September 5, 1916, Liberty Theatre, New York City.

Intolerance
Intolerance

THEME AND CONTENT

The Historical-Philosophy of Intolerance

Briefly stated, the theme of Intolerance is the emotional basis of history—or, more specifically, intolerance is the cause of wars and is a prime mover of the world in all ages. Intolerance is explicitly defined in sub-titles as the hatred and rejection of others, who fail to “think as we do” (sub-title from the Medieval Story). It is depicted as the emotion, the policy, and also the weapon, of fanatical rulers, dictators, individuals and masses; of power-loving priesthoods and ruling classes; of revolutionary, counter-revolutionary and other insurgent groups, in all ages, and everywhere. It is further depicted as being opposed to democracy, freedom of thought and to liberalism—above all, to democracy.Thus the motivation of human affairs, of world history, is, according to Griffith, basically emotional; and the motivating emotion is intolerance. To intolerance must be attributed, therefore, certain major actions of mankind —for example, massacre and persecution and torture and war. Other causes, political or economic, or both, as the case may be, being equal, intolerance still is the deciding factor in its primeval power over the behaviour of men and the course of events.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Intolerance is named and picturized as the fundamental force, the emotional evil, which hardens men’s hearts and paralyzes their minds; it plays its chief role in the zero-hours of history, the hours of decision, when it casts the die, other things being equal, for or against the wars, which determine the fate of empires, nations, peoples, individuals, societies, of whole civilizations. This force, timeless and universal, is a thing of basic evil and basic power, or, as a sub-title in the Medieval Story puts it, it is “Intolerance, burning and slaying”. And in the Babylonian story, Cyrus repeats the “world-old prayer (of intolerance) … to kill, kill, kill …”

The role of intolerance in shaping human destiny through the ages, amid all peoples, is inescapable.- Its recognition as a prime mover of the world-process is essential, therefore, to a correct understanding of the meaning and method of history. Hence, the tragedy of history is the conquest by intolerance of the one and only significant counter-force opposed to it—love, in its broader meaning. The epic of intolerance, therefore, is also the drama, to cite a thematic sub-title, of “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”.

The above summarizes the theme of Griffith’s film, as expressed in its content, both the images and the subtitles. Or, as Huntly Carter wrote, “In Intolerance, we have Griffith’s favourite theme of intolerance of human beings to human beings.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The Four Stories

To illustrate the philosophy of history as thus outlined, Griffith chose four stories, separate in time and space, but interrelated by the common theme, and projected through cross-cutting in parallel sequence. The four stories of Intolerance are as follows:

  • (1) The Judean story, or the life of Jesus of Nazareth; originally entitled, The Nazarene (27 A.D.);
  • (2) the Medieval Story, or the war between the Catholics and the Huguenots, in sixteenth century France (1572 A.D.);
  • (3) the Fall of Babylon, in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar—an epic of the Ancient World (539 B.C.);
  • (4) the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), dramatizing the conflict between Capital and Labour in modern times (c. 1914);
  • (5) at the end of the four stories, a prophetic epilogue.

The recurrent transition between the separate stories, which rotate alternately one with the other in cross-cutting and parallel-action, is accomplished in the early reels of the film by the use of a symbolic image of the Woman Who Rocks the Cradle, which appears in connection with the lines of Walt Whitman: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and “… endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter”. In the later sequences, the lighting in this symbolic refrainshot somewhat changes, and the figures of three old women—the Three Fates, seated at their cosmic spinning-wheel, appear sharply visible, as emergences out of Space, in the background.

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

The Woman continues in the foreground, rocking the Cradle of Humanity, unaware of the Fates behind her. However, toward the climax, as the tempo rises and the inter-scene changes become more abrupt, this shot ceases to appear: the transition from each one of the four parallel stories to the other becomes direct, quick and violent: it is freed of all and any connective or intermediary shots. It is accomplished then without recourse to fades, lap-dissolves, “mix” photography, wipe-offs or any other conscious transitional device—simply by direct cutting from one story to the other, all four stories being now markedly parallel in action and essential content. The Judean story depicts the conflict of Jesus with the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbinate and with Rome. The organized opposition of the rabbinate against the “Man of Men” (subtitle) with his revolutionary “New Law”, is cited as an example of ecclesiastical intolerance, affecting the lives of future millions of people. The Medieval story dramatizes the strife in the sixteenth century between the Catholic hierarchy of France and the rising Protestant movement; it culminates in a bloody climax—the massacre of the Huguenots, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 A.D. Religious intolerance. Babylon falls in Griffith’s history as the result of an act of treason by the established theological hierarchy under the dictatorship of the High Priest of Bel. The High Priest fears and fights the introduction into Babylon of new religions from without and of new, liberalizing political or social ideas from within. Accordingly, when the State-religion of Babylon is threatened with rivalry; when it no longer can dictate, unchallenged, the pattern of the national culture, then the High Priest and his cohorts among the hierarchy betray Belshazzar’s empire-city to Cyrus, emperor and war-lord of the Persians, world-conqueror. Imperialistic-political, religious, and racial (Cyrus, the Persian vs. Babylon) intolerance.

Intolerance The Dear One

Finally, the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), the opening sequences of which are the first to appear in Intolerance, dramatizes the struggle between Capital and Labour (class hatred), in the early years of the twentieth century, in the United States. Economic and social intolerance. Throughout these panels run four separate personal stories. The Babylonian, Medieval and Judean stories, all end tragically: in the first, the Mountain Girl and her lover, the Poet-Rhapsode, agent of the High Priest of Bel, die in the fighting, when Babylon falls at last to the advancing Persian hordes; in the latter, the lovely Huguenot girl, Brown Eyes, is raped and killed by a mercenary, during St. Bartholomew’s massacre. Prosper, with her body in his arms, is shot; he dies by her side. Simultaneously, Christ is crucified on the cross, in the Judean story.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Of the four stories, only the Modern Story, laid in America, has a happy ending: the Boy, falsely convicted of a murder which he did not commit, is saved at the last minute from the hangman’s noose. He is reunited with his wife, the Dear One, amid scenes suggesting, that in the world oftwentieth-century America, there may be at least a possibility or chance that freedom and justice may prevail.

INTOLERANCE
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

“And so the four stories alternate with one another”, until, at the end, “they seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity”, which rises to a common, vast quadruple climax: the Boy is led to the hangman’s cell; Jesus is crucified; the Huguenots are massacred; Belshazzar is betrayed—Babylon falls; the peoples of the earth throughout the ages are stricken; the world is overrun with catastrophe and doom … In a word, Intolerance triumphs. “… the Inquisition is dead, but its soul goes marching on”. Upon the conclusion of the four stories, there follows an epilogue, in which Griffith prophesies in spectacular imagery a future Armaggedon or war for the world; the bombing of New York City in an unnamed conflict of the future; weird modern instruments of war; the ultimate downfall of all worldly tyrannies; the elimination of prisons and other places of incarceration; the ultimate liberation of all men and all nations from every form of bondage; the advent of universal peace through universal love: and, at the climax of climaxes, an apocalyptic vision. This final imagery follows the subtitle: “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore”.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

PRODUCTION

An Independent Film

Intolerance, like The Birth of a Nation, was produced and exhibited in entire independence of the Hollywood film industry. Although made in Hollywood, it was not of Hollywood. It bore no relation to the character, level, quality or purpose of the typical output of the American film industry of the period—or, for that matter, of any period. On the contrary; beyond the fact of geographic location, Hollywood had nothing whatever to do with its being made not its being shown. financing came from private sources, all of them unrelated to the American film industry, which had by this time fallen into the hands of commercially minded men of the lowest type. Griffith later poured his own huge profits from The Birth of a Nation into the filming of Babylon. Here again, as with the Civil War-Reconstruction film, so with Intolerance, Griffith formed an independent producing-company—the Wark Producing Corporation; later, he formed the Wark Distributing Corporation to release the film. H.E. Aitken at first was president of both corporations, but when Griffith later bought out his backers and became the sole owner of Intolerance, Aitken resigned. Griffith then became not merely the president of each company, but the company itself. The negative and prints of Intolerance have ever since belonged personally to Griffith.

The production of Intolerance really began in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation was made but before it was released, with the filming of The Mother and the Law. The Mother and the Law was originally made as a separate feature film to be released by Mutual (see Griffith Index: Part I), but for reasons which will be cited elsewhere in the Index, it was temporarily shelved. It was not until after the New York premiere of The Birth of a Nation was held, in March, 1915, that production was resumed on Intolerance. Then it was launched on a tremendous scale.

Freed from every possible control or restraining influence by the Hollywood overlords—cultural, economic, political, psychological or social, Griffith, in June, 191 5, two months after his triumphant return from the New York opening launched production simultaneously on each of the three historic stories — Babylon, Jerusalem and Paris.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

No Script

Although all Hollywood was astonished, and indeed the film colony for months remained agog with excitement and speculation over the unprecedented sets which began to tower in its midst, nevertheless, the nature of the film that Griffith was making, from the first day of “shooting” to the day the picture was first shown, was successfully kept a secret. As Terry Ramsaye later described it, “About it all was a hush of mystery. No one knew what Griffith was doing, but everyone learned that he was doing a lot of it”. The secret of the success of this secrecy consisted in the fact that there was never a written scenario or shooting script for Intolerance-, there was no “screen treatment”, no paperwork, no writing of any kind, such as might have furnished a clue to the contents or the continuity. When he had first conceived of the idea, Griffith made many notes, but as the time for actual production drew near, he had already mentally changed so much of the contents and treatment, that he began to find the volume of notes confusing, so much so that he destroyed all of them. As a result, Intolerance, the most massive and complex film ever made, was shot from beginning to end without recourse to one single written note. Needless to say, it was Griffith’s method of directing which made possible the perfection of such secrecy : the policy of no-script or of ” shooting off the cuff,” as popular studio vernacular has it, was extended to include the players, too. For although all the scenes were rehearsed, the players knew nothing either of the particular story in which they appeared or of the content and nature of the film as a whole. However, since the majority of screen actors and actresses, then as now, had not the slightest understanding of the film medium, this method offered many advantages, both to Griffith and to the film, and secrecy was merely one, and a typically practical, benefit in kind.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

The Sets

The settings of Griffith’s Intolerance, especially the fabulous sets of the Babylonian story, are celebrated throughout film history. The sets for Babylon, ” Belshazzar’s empire-city,” were erected on a site of 254 acres, near the present junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, in Hollywood. The terrain consisted then of a combination of rolling fields and semi-desert or sand wash. Babylonia’s outlying walls were erected one mile distant, north of the main camera-station. The Babylonian sets of Intolerance are probably the greatest ever constructed for a motion picture—the highest, largest, most massive, the vastest in area. In 1916, the topmost towers at the corners of the ancient city formed the seventh tallest structure in the county of Los Angeles, and could be seen, with the great walls, for miles distant across town. Such, indeed, was the extent of Babylon, that Griffith, to film the Judean story, had the buildings, city-walls, and streets of ancient Jerusalem—themselves bigger than any previously known film-sets—built elsewhere, on a site three miles west of the Fine Arts Studios. The cobblestoned alleys and battle-turrets of Paris, 1572 a.d., being similarly crowded out by the Babylonic acreage, were built on the back lot at Inceville, some fifteen miles to the west. The set for Paris accommodated 2,000 “extras,” besides the assistants, camera crews, manual workers, etc. ; the set for Jerusalem accommodated 3,000. But the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Feast—accommodated over 4,000 ” extras,” besides tie army of assistants and workers. ” The new Griffith picture beggars all description,” wrote Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in the London Times,* upon his return from America. Yet for all its titanic dimensions, the really significant feature of Griffith’s Babylon was the fact that it was unplanned : none of the final architecture or lay-out was foreseen. Bitzer is enlightening on this point: ” Imagine,” he writes, ” laying out what were to be the mammoth, stupendous sets for ‘ Intolerance,’ without sketches, plans or blueprints at the beginning … we (Mr. Griffith, ‘ Huck ‘ Wortmann and myself) would have a pow-wow as to how low the sun might be, its approximate arc-position months hence, etc.—and that was the beginning of a set for ‘ Intolerance,’ to which, as it progressed and became a fifty-foot high structure, a hundred or more feet long, Mr. Griffith kept continually adding.

Intolerance
Intolerance

So that eventually these walls and towers soared to a height of well over a hundred and fifty feet, although at the beginning their foundations were intended only for a fifty-foot height. Huck had to continually reinforce their bases for the ever-increasing height, which perturbed Huck a whole lot, and also shot my light-direction plans all to pieces.” Week after week, long after the initial ” shooting ” had begun, annexes and wings to the rambling structures of metropolitan Babylon were added, until finally, from the desert and fields that lay between Los Angeles proper and its then rural suburb, Hollywood, a veritable and splendid city arose. Barracks and tents housed armies of workmen : these numbered seven hundred-odd carpenters, electricians, linemen, sculptors and skilled workers of various categories. Beyond the workers’ quarters, an encampment of bungalows was later added to house several thousand of ” extras,” who lived ” out of town ” or too far across the city to commute ; the players’ camera-call each day was for 7 a.m. The Pacific Electric Railway System of Southern California laid tracks to the main entrance of Babylon (the ” Great Gate of Imgur-Bel “). The tracks served both the Pacific Electric Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad (one of the great transcontinental railroads of the United States), both of which lines transported food, materials and such livestock as was featured in the film — elephants and horses.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

But the ” massive grandeur ” of Griffith’s Babylon reached its apogee in the ” Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast.” This fantastically enormous set, a masterpiece of filmic architecture, truly ” imaged after the splendour of an olden day,” as a subtide expressed it, consisted of an immense outdoor court or square in the heart of Babylon, centred in terraced steps and lion-headed balustrades, and colonnaded on opposite sides with overtowering, over-life-size sculptured elephants, which were poised, forelegs aloft, on columnar bases fifty feet above the set-floor. The hall was designed to accommodate, without crowding, five thousand persons at a time. The surrounding city-walls were jammed with hundreds of ” extras “—” Babylonian spectators,” who appear in the film, gazing down at the festivities and orgy, which occur more than a hundred feet below.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

This is the most celebrated set of film-history, and derives its name from the action which unfolds upon it when first shown on the screen—Belshazzar’s Feast. ” His sets, particularly those for the Babylonian scenes, are breath-taking,” wrote Frank Nugent in the New York Times,™ during the March, 1936, revival of Intolerance, and added : ” . . . completely out-De Milling De Mille even in his most lavish mood.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The longevity of the Babylonian sets of Intolerance, like their magnitude, is unequalled in the cinema. The principal buildings and walls were constructed of wood, “staff,” and adobe. Solidity was essential, for the walls encircling the city were made ” broad enough for chariots to pass three abreast.” Furthermore, the topmost towers at the city-corners rose to a height of more than 200 feet above the set-floor ; they were erected, ” massive as the pillars of Karnak,” on bases of stone. In consequence of the exceptional durability and quality of these building materials, the Babylonian sets remained standing long after Intolerance was released. The sets of Jerusalem were demolished ; so, too, was the city of Paris, two years later, including the magnificent and richly detailed reproduction of the court of Catherine de Medici ; but most of Babylon—specifically, the great Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast, the encircling city walls and the gigantic statue of Ishtar, ” goddess of Love sacred of the Babylonians ” (subtitle)—was left standing. Years afterwards, the Pacific Electric Railway and the Los Angeles City bus lines scheduled the Babylonian sets as a sightseeing spot for tourists. Then, in 1920, certain parts of Babylon were at last removed. However, the greater part still was left standing, and in 1923 Paramount leased the south and east walls and their adjacent sections for reconversion into Egyptian backgrounds for use in Biblical films. ” Fan ” magazines and trade journals referred in later years to the reconversion of Griffith’s Babylon into Biblical or Egyptian sets for the Biblical prologue to Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, and again for Raoul Walsh’s The Wanderer, a Biblical film (Paramount : 1925), but these passing assertions of reference or reminiscence have never been verified.

Intolerance abandoned set

Gigantic fragments of Griffith’s Babylon still were standing as late as 1930 or ’31. Today, although the last of the city-walls has been torn down to make way for apartment houses and a post-office, there may yet be found on the back lots of Monogram and the old Disney studios, which now occupy the site of Location No. 4—” Northeastern Babylon,” the surviving remnants of those elephantine and leonine backgrounds or ” props,” with which Griffith and his artisans of old re-created ” Babylon, that great and mighty city . . . (the) glittering jewel of antiquity”. (Subtitle).

Intolerance
Intolerance

Mobs

Architecture is not the only feature in which Intolerance is rated as the screen’s supreme spectacle. In regard to mass-scenes, this film, except for newsreels, stands unequalled in the cinema. Its nearest rivals are The Birth of a Nation, Ten Days that Shook the World, Potemkin, The Thief of Bagdad and Monna Vanna, but none of these really touches it. As has already been mentioned, the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Hall of Feasting—embraced and featured 4,000 players at a time in one single shot. However, this was by no means the total number of ” extras ” that appeared in the Babylonian story, least of all in the film as a whole.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Eight thousand other ” extras ” were employed to represent Cyrus’s armies, while in the famous mass-shot of the Persians’ final and successful advance on Babylon (end of the Babylonian story : reel 12)—the climatic shot of a vast, undifferentiated mass, a horde solid and unbroken as far as the eye can see—16,000 ” extras ” appear at one time on the screen. This is commonly conceded to be the largest mob-scene and the greatest single mass-shot ever staged for any film. Uncounted thousands of ” extras ” were employed for the night battlescenes. The moving siege-towers of the Persians each held from fifty to one hundred combat-troops and sling-throwers ; and the attacking troops hurled against the Great Gate of Imgur-Bel and the adjacent walls numbered 5,000. On the walls themselves, thousands of others are shown, as they meet the oncoming human and mechanical tide of Persia’s might, and throw it back. Besides these, 3,500 ” extras ” appear in the Judean story ; 2,500 in the Medieval Story, and 1,000 ” extras ” in the combined courtroom and strike scenes of the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law). The total number of ” extra ” players that appeared in Intolerance at varying times in its almost two years of production has been set both by Griffith and Bitzer as about 60,000. Ofthese, the largest number to appear at one time in a single image on the screen is the 16,000 ” Persians ” in the mass-shot above described.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Cost

The total cost of the production of Intolerance, including that of the earlier production of The Mother and the Law, was $1,750,000. An additional $250,000 was spent on exploitation and publicity, making the total cost of the film $2,000,000.

Intolerance was not merely the most expensive film made up to 1916, but it remained for thirteen years (until HelVs Angels) the high watermark in production outlay for a motion picture. Ramsaye relates that ” Griffith’s payrolls for actors and extras ‘ in Intolerance for long periods ran as high as $12,000 a day.” But Griffith himself recounts that, in the Babylonian mass-scenes, the daily payroll often exceeded $20,000.

” Extras ” were paid $2 a day for eight hours, plus a 6c-cent free lunch. This remuneration was higher than that obtaining in the Hollywood film industry—indeed, it forced the regular film producing companies to raise the daily wage-rate for ” extras,” and it was regarded by the ” extras ” themselves in that vanished era of low living costs and non-union labour as fair compensation.

Some $550,000 were spent on Belshazzar’s Feast and on related scenes of the Babylonian story. Of this sum, $250,000 went into the set alone. The Princess Beloved’s feast costume cost $8,oco. The elegant reproduction of the court of Charles IX cost $100,000, while the rest of the Medieval Story cost an additional $150,000. The Judean story cost upwards of $300,000.

The rest of the costs of Intolerance went into The Mother and the Law (cost unknown, but probably about $12,000 or about the same as that of Judith of Bethulia) ; and into the architecture and mass-scenes of Babylon—the reproduction of the city, the Persian camp, the Persian attacks, the pagan festivals in the Temple of Love, the orgiastic celebration of the resurrection of Tammuz, and other material separate and apart from the battle-scenes proper Belshazzar’s Feast. It is hardly to be wondered that for almost two years the production of Griffith’s vast, mysterious film was referred to in the local papers as ” one of Los Angeles’ leading industries “! Griffith relates that in 1936, twenty years after its original release, Intolerance was budgeted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in an effort to estimate its cost if made under current conditions. The estimate revealed that if the same film were made in that year by that studio, shot-by-shot as it had been made in 1915-1916, but with union labour, ” stars’ ” corresponding salaries, and with the sole addition of sound, the production cost would be either $10,000,000 or $12,000,000. On a relative scale, therefore, Intolerance remains the most expensive film produced in the history of the screen.

Lighting and Exteriors

One of the chief production features of Intolerance was the shooting of all exteriors out-of-doors by sunlight. There were no interior sets ” dressed-up ” as exteriors. The Babylonian exteriors, in particular, were taken without recourse to artificial lighting whatever ; and although there was little, if any, of the so-called ” Rembrandt fighting ” effect, certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, were made without recourse even to sun reflectors. The sun itself was the principal lighting for Intolerance.

Intolerance
Intolerance – DW Griffith

Editing

Two months were required to edit 300,000 feet of film, which then were finally composed into a finished film of thirteen and three-quarter reels. In old-time, silent film running-time, this ran to three and a half hours. It was possible for Griffith to perform this editorial feat in only two months, because the production method which he used consisted more or less in editing the picture as he went along while shooting. This method has been known ever since to the film industry as ” cutting in the camera.”

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

CREATIVE INFLUENCE

On Film Technique

Production Methods

Not all of the directorial or production methods used by Griffith in making Intolerance were new; some few already had been tried quite successfully in filming The Birth of a Nation. But some were new, and those which were not were used far more extensively and more maturely than they had been in the previous film. The outstanding methods and policies of production and direction were as follows:

No script.—As has already been mentioned, the policy of filming the entire picture from beginning to end without a scenario, shooting script or paperwork of any kind, was the key to Griffith’s working method—indeed, more than this, it was basic and essential to his whole approach to the motion picture as a directorial rather than a literary medium: an art of, by and for directors, over and above, and separate and apart from, writers or playwrights. Griffith is in this vital respect far more closely related to the documentary picture makers of the present than he ever has been to stock-in-trade craftsmen or “professionals” who make “moving-pictures” (sic) in the major commercial film studios. Griffith never used a script on any of his films, and in the light of the overwhelming complexity and the dimensions of Intolerance, both as regards scenario and physical magnitude, his no-script policy here attains the zenith of perfection and realization.

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

Rehearsals.—In accord with the no-script policy, the method of rehearsing players before each scene was taken was used throughout. Usually, the scene was rehearsed as a whole before it was shot; then, the individual and separate scene-shots—medium shots, two-shots, close ups, etc., came to the players as repetitions, thus ensuring perfection of acting-detail or so-called finesse.

Organization and direction of crowds.—All persons from the days of The Birth of a Nation on who have ever witnessed Griffith direct crowds, have noted that Griffith organized and directed his mob-scenes like a veritable field-marshal. Griffith organized the mobs into sections or squads, to each of which he assigned an assistant director. To the latter, in turn, he assigned a corps of sub-assistants. All the assistants were in costume; they participated in the action as players, and simultaneously directed the surrounding groups of “extras”, to whom they had been assigned. At the beginning of each new major scene or bloc of “takes” Griffith conferred with the first-assistants, explained his directions and then despatched them into the field to relay the orders to the corps of sub-assistants. This method was augmented in the larger scenes by the use of improvised loud speakers or megaphones, which operated as sort of a primitive radio field-telephone or broadcasting system. Griffith’s method of the organization and distribution of mobs, with its distribution of assistant directors, field-telephones, loud speakers and auxiliary aids to mass-organisation, is the most efficient and extensive system of its kind used in any film production of which we have record. It served as a model to other directors in filming mass-scenes of magnitude in later films.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Sun-shooting.—As has already been mentioned, one of the chief creative policies in filming Intolerance was to shoot all exteriors outdoors by sunlight. There were no studio “fakes” or interior sets “dressed-up” as exteriors. In particular, the Babylonian exteriors were virtually all taken without recourse to any artificial lighting whatever; and in certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, even the use of sun-reflectors was limited and, in a few instances, dispensed with. The sun was the principal source of lighting throughout the picture. Even the beam falling on the cradle, in the metaphorical transition-image of the Cradle, was the sun!—from a hole in the roof of a darkened set (Bitzer) ! It was this omnipresent and unrestricted use of the sun as the principal source of lighting for Intolerance that inspired Griffith to give the film its thematic sub-title, “A Sun Play of the Ages”.

Intolerance Original Program 1

Balloons.—To film the Feast of Belshazzar in its entirety from a central point directly above, Griffith took his camera and crew up in an observation balloon, which sky-moored over the vast set. Photoplay, October, 1916, reproduces a production-still of Griffith in the basket of the balloon, bawling orders through a great megaphone to the mobs in the court below. Balloons had no doubt been used previously in filming news-reels, but this is the first time of which we have record that a balloon was used as a camera-station in fiJming a regular (feature) film, or special production.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

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Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

Louise Brooks

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars

By Louise Brooks

Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England

Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing ” Women in Films”which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.

Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost starof the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.

THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan 2

But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.

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

From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

2

1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.

The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!

Greta Garbo 1

At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.

Greta Garbo.

From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.

Greta Garbo Queen Christina 1933

Lillian Gish

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Lillian Gish – The Enigma of The Screen – article By James R. Quirk

Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”

With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”

In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”

Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg

Ramon Novarro - Greta Garbo - Mata Hari