American Political Movies – James Combs (1990)

  • American political movies : an annotated filmography of feature films
  • AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVIES
  • An Annotated Filmography of Feature Films
  • James Combs (1990)
  • GARLAND PUBLISHING, INC. NEW YORK & LONDON – 1990

Historians of the motion picture are fond of telling stories of the reactions of the earliest audiences to the new medium as it emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. We are still amused by the uncomprehending awe with which they greeted this spectacular experience. People ran from the theater in terror from trains approaching on the screen. Others ducked and screamed when a gun was fired at the audience. But most appear to have simply been transfixed, sitting and gazing in silent wonder at this visual marvel that brought worlds of sights, and very quickly stories, beyond their everyday existence. Some observers of these brave new “moving pictures” were exultant. “The universal language has been found!” exclaimed a spectator at an early Lumiére film.

Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

The propaganda films made pacifists either cowards or naive fools, and associated the willingness to fight and die as the test of a “manly” patriotism that not only won battles but also women’s hearts and men’s admiration. The crucible of war not only would purge us of selfish or weak impulses, it also served a democratizing and moralizing purpose by bringing men together in egalitarian military camaraderie and offered an opportunity for moral regeneration of slackers, effete lounge lizards, and the sons of the idle rich. In other words, these films offered a vision of war that served domestic Progressive purposes of “moral democracy” making not only the world, but also America, safe for Wilson’s grand vision.

Hearts of the World

Perhaps the most ambitious of these war films, Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) is still representative enough. Shot at the behest of the British government and with Wilson’s blessing, even though he began work on it before American entry, Griffith’s story (some of it actually shot at the front) includes murderous German troops, a rape-minded German officer with designs on Lillian Gish, the mistreatment of French civilians, a French girl flogged by a boorish German sergeant, and rescue from the Hun by brave French troops. (Griffith may have overdone it: when the movie was viewed at the White House, apparently neither President nor Mrs. Wilson cared much for it.) The overall impact of these propaganda films was such that it solidified a tradition of military cooperation that would only begin to break down in the 60s.

Griffith’s famous Birth of A Nation (1915) is of interest to us here on two counts: first, because of the immediate political furor that arose over the movie, and second, because of the reactionary populism inherent in his interpretation of “progressive” history that would shape the reform program of Wilson, literally “re-forming” the State around a conception of the major political crisis of the recent past as it gave “birth” to a new society. In this view (shared in more sophisticated form by Wilson himself), the industrial North defeated the plantation South, but unleashed an uncivilized force in the freed slaves and their carpetbagger masters bent on revenge and greed. In order to restore a civilized and virtuous community, they were stopped by the vigilante action of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring the peace and virtue of community and family. The two families, one Northern and the other Southern, who reconcile and intermarry at the end stand as metaphors for the reunion of the nation founded on the natural sentiments of home and family, defeating the evils of cold-hearted-industrialism (exemplified by the Radical Republican Senator Stoneman) and alien forces (exemplified by miscegenation: villains are either mulattoes or black).

The film was an immediate sensation, and inspired protests by black and liberal groups incensed by the blatant racism of the story. With Birth, observers began to sense that the movies’ power to make a political statement and shape political consciousness was greater than anyone anticipated. Birth gave imaginative shape to not only a Progressive interpretation of the past, but also as a parable of the politics of the present. Not only did it justify the “Jim Crow” laws of the time, it also warned of the dangers of a manipulative industrial elite using power to destroy traditional bourgeois life so dear to the hearts of mythologists such as Griffith. Wilson was a spokesman for that tradition who sought, like the powerless but respectable white men of Birth, to restore a sane and understandable political order that reflected the values, and power, of the large middle class that saw itself as the backbone of the country. Birth was not only, as Wilson was supposed to have remarked, “History written in lightning”; it was also Progressive politics written in lightning, offering a parable of the righteous power of Wilson’s middle-class voting base standing for the virtue of the family-based middle against the plutocracy on the one hand and a degenerate proletariat on the other, and the possibility of a conspiratorial coalition of the two. Progressive order would now be restored, as it was in the movie, not only by concerted political action by the “good people” of the community, but by moral regeneration symbolized by the triumph of familial rectitude and the vision of pristine peace and order governed by the principles of Christ (this, recall, after bloody racial war and vigilante murder). But in the political visions of Griffith and Wilson, violence, like reform legislation, could be used both ruthlessly and morally for the Progressive cause. Birth represents something of the nostalgic and “reactionary” element in Progressivism, uniting on screen both the cinematic and political imagination of a restored and regenerate moral order.

Monte Blue – Riding to rescue Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) – Orphans of the Storm

There is an odd sense in which the Twenties thought things foreign both a threat and a promise. For all of the audience interest in foreign aristocratic elegance, the recent bitter experience of World War I and the rise of alien doctrines such as communism in the new Soviet Union inspired moviemakers to provide negative treatment of both. The most sustained cautionary tale about the dangers of the Russian Revolution is Griffith’s parable, Orphans of the Storm (1922). Set in the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries are shown to be self-serving, vengeful, cruel, lust-crazed and murderous. The movie was shown at the Harding White House, and Griffith compared the “tyranny of small but aggressive parties” (presumably the Jacobins) who parallels a “similar condition (that) exists in Russia today.” The capitalist American fear of communism was not only economic, it was also moral, contrasting the “mobocracy” of the French Revolution as antithetical to the moderate bourgeois democracy of the United States. Russian Bolshevism, like Jacobinism before it, was characterized as an aberrant and twisted grab for power without true popular roots or legitimate purpose, a theme that would persist in political movies down to the present, justifying hostility to Soviet power and interests.

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Both Wilson and Griffith were essentially imbued with the romantic sentimentality at the core of popular Victorianism, so dealing with the onslaught of modern urban and industrial change was difficult but compelling for them. Much of Griffith’s work deals with the tensions wrought by modernity, always coming to a resolution in which traditional morality is upheld even in the roughest of circumstances. Griffith’s subsequent work represents some of the periodic political tensions that emerged with the fear, shared by rural folk and urban reformers, that modernity would bring chaotic consequences. Many of his films, from the early Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to “The Mother and the Law” section of his masterpiece Intolerance (1916) and subsequent films such as Way Down East (1920), deal with the “postlapsarian” world of modernity and how the moral order of “prelapsarian” tradition can be saved from ruin.

Mae Marsh – Modern Story

What is fascinating to the political observer of the times is that both Wilson and Griffith were eclipsed by events, Wilson by World War I and the impulse toward modern life that the war speeded up, and Griffith as an anachronism in the Twenties making movies about the very pastoral life and morality that the Progressive Era and the war had done so much to destroy. Intolerance is of interest not only because it is one of the greatest of all films, but also because of its immediate political eclipse and subsequent political influence. Griffith’s theme is injustice through the ages, in which innocent ordinary folk are subjected to the abuses of the powerful and haughty. His populist roots show in his depiction of the social tension between wealthy industrialists and their “society” wives against the innocent pursuits and urban travails of the new working class. But his Wilsonian ties also are clear, in that both ancient and modern rulers can be just if they are on the side of popular morality, including familial autonomy from a meddlesome, elite-sponsored welfare state and protection from the predatory powers of both industrial magnates and vice lords.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Griffith, like Wilson, still retained a kind of sentimental idealism that suggested a political coalition between benevolent authority and the virtuous individual could produce social harmony without disturbing the actual concentration of power in industrial and social elites. Still, one reason given for the box office failure of Intolerance was that the new urban middle classes just discovering movie going didn’t like the theme of industrial strife which placed culpability clearing on the shoulders of greedy and hypocritical industrialists. Too, Intolerance not only included some of the more explosive Progressive criticisms of the arrogance of power, it also proceeded on pacifist sentiment and concluded with a moving Utopian vision of a world without war. When Griffith began making the film in 1915, much of the public agreed with this sentiment, and Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the claim of moral superiority over the warring nations of Europe, declaring that we were “too proud to fight.” But by the time the film was released late in 1916, the public mood and political realities had changed to a bellicose and interventionist stance, and Griffith’s views seemed curiously and outdated.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Lillian Gish in Griffith movies – Photo Gallery

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

American Plays and Musicals on Screen – THOMAS S. HISCHAK (2005)

  • American Plays and Musicals on Screen
  • 650 Stage Productions and Their Film and Television Adaptations
  • THOMAS S. HISCHAK
  • McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers Jefferson, North Carolina, and London
  • ©2005 Thomas S. Hischak. All rights reserved

The movies have been borrowing from Broadway since the first film studios on Long Island were cranking away at one-reel moving pictures and coercing stage stars and directors to cross the East River and provide their services. When the movies got longer, film-makers needed more substantial plots to sustain the action, so they started borrowing stories as well as personnel from Broadway. For a short time it was possible to work in both media: shoot movies during the day and perform on stage at night. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were making the film of The Cocoanuts in 1929 while playing evenings and matinees in Animal Crackers on Broadway. Had the movie capital remained in the New York City area, America’s film industry today would be similar to Great Britain’s, where top artists can do theatre and make films (and television) without leaving the London metropolis. But it was not to be. In the United States, with Hollywood and the movies on one coast and Broadway on the other, the crossover between the two involved geography as well as career transitions. Everyone agrees that plays and films are different, but no one has ever found an unshakeable explanation of exactly why something works in one medium but not the other. Yes, theatre is verbal and movies are visual. But many great plays depend on visuals, while some movie classics are beloved primarily for their talk. It is a commonplace that stage actors need to have a voice while movie stars need to have a look. Yet many performers make the transition easily from one medium to the other. Another generality: Broadway directors create pictures on a stage, while Hollywood directors choose what to focus on. But there are as many ways to direct a movie as there are theories on acting and directing. If a foolproof formula existed that could distinguish what elements of a play would be sure to work on the screen, there would be fewer mistakes and fewer embarrassing results. But there is no formula, and the history of plays-to-films is filled with inexplicable duds and triumphs.

All the Way Home

November 30, 1960 (Belasco Theatre), a drama by Tad Mosel. Cast: Arthur Hill (Jay Follet), Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet), Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch), John Megna (Rufus), Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch), Lylah Tiffany, Dorrit Kelton, Art Smith, Tom Wheatley, Georgia Simmons. Director: Arthur Penn. Producers: Fred Coe, Arthur Cantor. 334 perfor-mances.

Pulitzer Prize. (Paramount 1963). Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman, Jr. Cast: Robert Preston (Jay Follet), Jean Simmons (Mary Follet), Helen Carew (Mary’s Mother), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Aline MacMahon (Hannah), John Cullum, Michael Keanrey. Director: Alex Segal. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1971). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Joanne Woodward (Mary Follet), Richard Kiley (Jay Follet), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Eileen Heckart (Hannah), Shane Nickerson, James Woods, Barnard Hughes, Betty Garde. Director: Fred Coe. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1981). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Sally Field (Mary Follet), William Hurt (Jay Follet), Ned Beatty (Ralph Follet), Polly Holliday (Hannah), Ellen Corby, Jeremy Licht, Betty Garrett, Michael Horton. Director: Delbert Mann. Producer: Charles Raymond.

James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family has more characterization than plot and the stage version was deemed by some critics more static than theatrical. Yet the portrayal of a family dealing with the sudden death of the father in a car accident was quite stirring on stage, particularly because of the superior cast. Much the same can be said about the film and two television versions of the work. Robert Preston gives a surprisingly subdued performance as the father in the 1963 movie and Jean Simmons is just as effective as his young wife. An out-standing cast was assembled for the 1971 television production though it lacked the atmosphere of the film. The 1981 television remake struck some critics as more melodramatic than tragic though some of the performances were commendable.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace

January 10, 1941 (Fulton Theatre), a comedy by Joseph Kesselring. Cast: Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer Brewster), Boris Karloff (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Edgar Stehli, Helen Brooks. Director: Bretaigne Windust. Producers: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. 1,444 performances.

(Warner 1944). Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein. Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason. Director-producer: Frank Capra.

(TV 1969). Cast: Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster), Lillian Gish Martha Brewster), Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster), Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster), David Wayne (Teddy), Sue Lyon, Richard Deacon, Jack Gilford, Billy De Wolfe. Director: Robert Scheerer.

One of the longest-running plays in the American theatre, this farce continues to please not because its characters or dialogue are of any interest but because of its wacky premise: two sweet old ladies murder off a series of old gentlemen who seem unhappy with life. Legend has it that Joseph Kessel-ring wrote the piece as a serious thriller and that producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse rewrote it as broad comedy. For decades the dark comedy has remained a fa-vorite with all kinds of producing groups, from Broadway to high schools. Frank Capra’s 1944 screen version opened the story up somewhat and kept the piece moving in a broad, rapid manner. Cary Grant, as the nephew Mortimer who discovers what his two elderly aunts are up to, gives a fever-pitch performance filled with so many double takes that he seems like a cartoon; possibly his best and worst comic portrayal. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts on stage and on screen and they are the glue that holds the story together. The film also boasts a variety of delightful character actors in playful supporting roles. A very abridged version of the play was shown on television in 1955 and in 1969 the comedy was reset in the 1960s and clumsily altered. (Newspaper drama critic Mortimer became a television critic.) It is indeed unfortunate that this version was so misguided for it had a first-rate cast, including Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the aunts.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

The Clansman

January 8, 1906 (Liberty Theatre), a play by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Cast: Holbrook Blinn, George Bee Jackson, Joseph Woodburn, Albert Lovern, Henry Riley, Grayce Scott, Samuel Hyams. Director. Frank Hatch. Producer: George H. Brennan. 51 performances.

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith 1915). Screenplay: D. W. Griffith, etc. Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegman, Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Eugene Pallette. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith. In a Southern town during Reconstruction, an African American rabble rouser joins with some carpetbaggers to get the recently freed Negroes to terrorize the community. But the Ku Klux Klan organizes and puts down the rebellion, in turn terrorizing the blacks. During the play’s modest run, an African American group objected to the stilted melodrama, calling it “evil propaganda.”

But even that notoriety was not enough to interest playgoers and the play pretty much disappeared from memory. In 1915 D. W. Griffith turned to the Thomas Dixon, Jr. novel the play was based on as the inspiration for his feature length film The Birth of a Nation, the cinema’s first and most influential movie epic. The screenplay covers the story of two families during the Civil War and only the last reels are close to the stage play. African Americans protested then, and have continued to object, to the racist treatment of Negroes in the film, several of them played by white actors in blackface. As in the play, the Ku Klux Klan is seen as the savior of the white race and that also has bothered many over the decades. Yet there is no denying the power of the film and the many innovations it made in moviemaking. As for the original play, it remains forgotten. Footnote of interest: when the film was first released it was titled The Clansman, it’s more grandiose title came a little later.

I Never Sang for My Father

January 25, 1968 (Longacre Theatre), a play by Robert Anderson. Cast: Hal Holbrook (Gene Garrison), Alan Webb (Tom Garrison), Lillian Gish (Margaret Garrison), Teresa Wright (Alice), Sloane Shelton, Matt Crowley, Allan Frank, Daniel Keyes. Director: Alan Schneider. Producer: Gilbert Cates. 124 performances.

(Columbia 1970). Screenplay: Robert Anderson. Cast: Gene Hackman (Gene Garrison), Melvyn Douglas (Tom Garrison), Dorothy Stickney (Margaret Garrison), Estelle Parsons (Alice), Elizabeth Hubbard, Lovelady Powell, Daniel Keyes, Conrad Bain. Director-producer: Gilbert Cates.

This domestic drama about a man who can never quite reconcile himself to his difficult father was regarded as polished soap opera by some critics, deeply felt drama by others. But everyone agreed that the acting was distinguished, particularly Hal Holbrook and Alan Webb as son and father and Lillian Gish and Teresa Wright as mother and daughter. While none of the cast appeared in the 1970 film, it was pretty much a carbon copy of the play and also divided critics on its merits. Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, as son and father, led the strong cast and they are all commendable, even if the material tends to depress rather than exhilarate.

Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore

Mr. Sycamore

November 13, 1942 (Guild Theatre), a comedy by Ketti Frings. Cast: Stuart Erwin (John Gwilt), Enid Markey (Estelle Benlow), Lillian Gish (Jane Gwilt), Russell Collins (Rev. Dr. Doody), Otto Hulett, Leona Powers. Director: Lester Vail. Producer: Theatre Guild. 19 performances.

(Capricorn 1975). Screenplay: Pancho Kohner. Cast: Jason Robards (John Gwilt), Sandy Dennis (Jane Gwilt), Jean Simmons (Estelle Ben-bow), Mark Miller, Jerome Thor. Director-producer: Pancho Kohner.

This must be the most oddball entry in this book. Mailman John Gwilt is so disgusted with life that he decides he’d rather be a tree. His loving wife Jane helps him dig a hole in the backyard and, taking off his shoes and socks, John plants his feet in the dirt. Neighbors mock him but Jane brings John a chair to make him comfortable and food to eat until he takes root. John gets discouraged and almost gives up the idea but one day he turns into an actual tree so Jane spends the rest of her days sitting in its shade and chatting with the transformed John. Ketti Frings adapted Robert Ayre’s story for the stage and the prestigious Theatre Guild produced it, though it only lasted a few weeks. As bizarre as the play is, it is even more bizarre that thirty-three years later the piece was rediscovered and made into a movie. Jason Robards played John in the 1975 film with Sandy Dennis as his wife and Jean Simmons as the local librarian who gives John the idea when she reads a poem to him. Despite the stars attached to the project, the movie seems to have disappeared without anyone much noticing it. But it is available for viewing and it is a curiosity, to say the least. Neither funny enough to be a comedy nor reasonable enough to be taken serious, the allegorical tale is a real puzzle, and not a puzzle easy to sit through.

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

The Trip to Bountiful

(TV 1953). Teleplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), John Beal (Ludie Watts), Charles Slader, Will Hare, Dennis Cross. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producer: Fred Coe. November 3, 1953 (Henry Miller Theatre), a play by Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Jo Van Fleet (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), Gene Lyons (Ludie Watts), Will Hare, Frank Overton. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producers: Theatre Guild, Fred Coe. 39 performances.

(Bountiful Film Partners 1985). Screenplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Geraldine Page (Mrs. Watts), Carlin Glynn (Jessie Mae), Rebecca de Mornay (Thelma), John Heard (Ludie Watts), Richard Bradford, Kevin Cooney. Director: Peter Masterson. Producers: Horton Foote, etc.

The elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts is so unhappy living with her son and his scolding wife that she boards a bus back to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, where she revisits old haunts and comes to realize the past is dead. Texas playwright Horton Foote wrote this character drama for television in 1953 and that same year it showed up on Broadway with Lillian Gish reprising her poignant performance as Mrs. Watts. While all the acting in the Broadway production was estimable, the play was too uneventful for playgoers and the drama only lasted a month. But interest in the play was kept alive with various regional productions and thirty-three years later it was filmed with Geraldine Page giving a moving performance as Mrs. Watts, winning an Oscar for her efforts. This time the piece was better received by audiences and the quiet little drama was a modest box office hit. The filmis slow and atmospheric yet the fine acting throughout makes it interesting enough.

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

Way Down East

February 7, 1898 (Manhattan Theatre), a play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer. Cast: Phoebe Davies (Annie Moore), James O. Barrows (Squire Bartlett), Howard Kyle (David Bartlett), Minnie Dupree, George Backus, Homer Granville. Producers: William A. Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld. 152 performances.

(Griffith 1920). Screenplay: Anthony Paul Kelly. Cast: Lillian Gish (Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce, Mary Hay. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith.

(Fox 1935). Screenplay: Howard Estabrooke, William Hurlbut. Cast: Rochelle Hudson (Anna Moore), Henry Fonda (David Bartlett), Russell Simpson (Squire Bartlett), Slim Summerville, Margaret Hamilton, Edward Trevor, Andy Devine, Spring Byington. Director: Henry King. Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan.

Annie Moore was seduced and became pregnant but the baby died so she sets off to start life anew where no one knows her. She gets a job as a servant at the Bartlett estate but when Squire Bartlett learns of her past he turns Annie out and she makes her way through a violent snowstorm. The son, David Bartlett, has grown to love Annie so he rides out and rescues her then persuades the family to accept her. This classic melodrama had all the standard stage conventions, from the forlorn heroine to the storm, but there was honesty in the characterization and the emotional tug it created was not as manufactured as most “mellerdramers” of the day. The play was a success in New York and on the road for over twenty years and Phoebe Davies, who originated the role of Annie on Broadway, played it over 4,000 times during her career. Four screen versions were made of the tale, the first in 1908 being only a silent short. A 1914 movie told the story in more detail but it was the 1920 version by D. W. Griffith that became a silent screen classic with its famous scene of Annie, played by Lillian Gish, caught on an ice floe rushing down the river. The melodrama was filmed on a giant scale so that the story seemed almost epic in scope; clichéd or not, it is still impressive. The 1935 remake looked very old-fashioned amidst the smart, sassy movies of the Depression era and the stilted dialogue would have come across better on title cards than from the mouths of Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda as the lovers. It is also a disappointing film in its action sequences but there are some expert character actors to be found in the cast.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression – By Gene Brown (1993)

  • Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression : World War I (1914-1940)
  • By Gene Brown
  • ©1993 by Blackbirch Graphics, Inc. First Edition
  • Twenty-First Century Books A Division of Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
  • 115 West 18th Street New York, New York 10011
Unemployment Depression Crisis USA 1921

The Growth of Mass Media and Mass Culture

Movies Become an American Industry

It was between the beginning of World War I and the eve of World War II that modern America was born. American society went through major changes, not only in politics and economics, but also in the way people led their daily lives.

The Americans who elected Woodrow Wilson still thought of themselves as distant from their quarreling neighbors in Europe. And when U.S. soldiers were sent to France to fight in World War I, most Americans saw it merely as a temporary change in foreign policy. The troops would come home when the fighting stopped, many believed, and life would go back to normal.

The country that the soldiers returned to was just reaching the point where more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Statistically, people who lived in the country were just as likely not to have electricity as have it, and indoor plumbing was for many still a luxury. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners had still not appeared in large numbers, even in big cities.

When it came time to relax, Americans were more likely to play ball than go to a ballpark to watch a game. They were also more likely to play an instrument—especially a piano—or sing in groups, than listen to records. The phonograph, however, was rapidly becoming popular. Feature-length movies were new, as was the practice of following the careers and lives of particular “stars.”

Today, famous movie stars are usually in control of their careers. They know that their name on a film can often mean millions of extra tickets sold. The movie companies know it as well. But this wasn’t always the case.

Clunes Auditorium L.A.

By the mid-1920s, the movies—which were silent then—were wildly popular. Along with cheap newspapers and radio, they were the beginning of what today is called the mass media. The ideas and values expressed in films, even the fashions worn in them, reached into every corner of America and touched the lives of nearly everyone. There was almost no sizeable town that didn’t have at least one movie house. The big cities had many, some of which were called “palaces” because they were so fancy.

The movies were very much a business, with facilities for producing, distributing, advertising, and retailing their product. The movie stars were an important part of this product. Stardom on a national scale was a new thing. Live theater produced some famous names, but almost none got the attention that movie fan magazines paid to movie actors.

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

These stars were not just professional actors. They were “personalities” and celebrities, such as Mary Pickford (1893-1979), Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), and Lillian Gish (1893-1993). People wanted to know every detail of their lives. When few facts were available, fans imagined the rest.

The men who ran the movie studios knew how important this idea of stardom was. If there was not enough interesting information about the private life of a star, they might feel it necessary to “create” something, such as the “scandal” mentioned in the following selection. Scandal led to publicity and publicity meant more sales at the box office. Here were many of the public relations techniques developed by Edward Bernays in action.

The following account describes Lillian Gish’s dealings with MGM executives. At the time, Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was chief of production at the studio, and “Mr. Mayer” was Louis B. Mayer (1885- 1957), vice-president and head of MGM. David W. Griffith (1875-1948), “Mr. Griffith,” was a movie director and worked with Lillian Gish.

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

Lillian Gish: A Screen Star Remembers

During my talks with Irving Thalberg over Anna Karenina I was suddenly sent for by Mr. Mayer, who had some papers for me to sign. I explained that I had promised my lawyer not to sign anything without his approval. Mr. Mayer grew angry and said I ought to trust him. He explained that he wanted to take me off salary until they had a story ready for me. I had gone off salary while I was in England, but since then there had been ample time for them to prepare a script for me.

“If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you,” Mr. Mayer said.

It was the second time I had heard that threat. “I’m sure you can, but I gave my word,” I said. “I can’t break that; else how could you or anyone else ever trust me again?”

Irving spoke to me about renewing my contract. “We would like to have you stay with us,” he said, “but there is something we think would be wise to do.”

Hendrik Sartov (camera) King Vidor, Irving Thalberg and Lillian Gish – behind the scenes ”La Boheme” 1926

I knew Irving was my friend, so I listened.

“You see, you are way up there on a pedestal,” he explained, “and nobody cares. If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” He added earnestly, “Let me arrange a scandal for you.”

I was startled. The irony of the suggestion made me want to laugh. What kind of scandal did Irving want to arrange? I wondered. A romantic scandal, I decided—but for what? To sell pictures? Had the public changed so much? All my life I had been taught to keep my name clean. Mr. Griffith had always maintained that one touch of scandal would finish you in pictures. What had happened to change this? And, after the scandal had died down, they would be obliged to dream up another. Could I be on stage constantly—with a prearranged scandal before the release of each new picture?

My answer was a decisive No.

I told Irving my decision, knowing that my days at M.G.M. were numbered.

Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression : World War I (1914-1940)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Wind and Young Love – Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine (1928)

  • Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20
  • Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine Volume XII No. 20 November 12, 1928

TIME CINEMA

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind

-blows without stopping all year long across the bleak pocket of the prairie to which Lillian Gish comes in her first picture in a year and a half. Her cousin’s wife, a prairie woman whose hands are almost always bloody from cutting up steers, is jealous of the influence of the visiting Gish girl over her home, her husband, her tough, irritable children. When the girl is forced to marry a cattle-rustler to get away from her cousin’s house, a drama, familiar in its conflicts but brooding, powerful, works up in the clapboard house battered by sand and by the wind which, according to Indian legend, is a ghost horse gone crazy in the sky.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Not a work of genius but far better than the average movie story, this picture gives Miss Gish the best and in fact the only opportunity she has had since Way Down East for exercising the talent which has made her famous. Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith met in Mary Pickford’s dressing-room in the old Biograph studio. Lillian Gish had left Massillon, Ohio, to go on the stage with her sister Dorothy. As a fairy in The Good Little Devil she was lifted across the stage by a wire which broke one night and dropped her on the floor. She burst into tears, later rewarded with a salary which gave each trembling drop the literal value of a pearl. Griffith made her an old woman—the pinchfaced mother in Judith of Bethulia, Intolerance; he made her an outcast girl in Way Down East, Colonel Cameron’s sweetheart in Birth of Nation. She went with him from Biograph to Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts, Artcraft, First National, United Artists. Somehow, no matter how bad the scenario was, her intelligence brought to certain moments and situations that reality which is the definition of great acting and which Miss Gish’s famous frailty, her dimples, her soft, elliptical face, and her pale hair down to her waist could not keep people from recognizing. Now under contract to Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, she is directed by Victor Seastrom.

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Dorothy Gish, the third name inscribed with that of Lillian, of Griffith, in the heart of the U. S. public was not the little girl who jumped over a cliff in Birth of a Nation. Many cinema fans, their memories bemused by thousands of flickering faces, have lost dollar bets on that fact. The girl who jumped over the cliff was Mae Marsh. Other bets have concerned the sisters’ ages. Lillian is 32. Dorothy is 30. Just as pretty as Lillian (5 ft. 4 in. tall, red-blonde hair), cleverer perhaps, certainly shrewder, Dorothy wanted romance to be concrete, loved while Lillian acted, married (James Rennie, dark-haired “legit” actor) while Lillian stayed single. In the many pictures in which the sisters have appeared together, Dorothy’s acting, always accurate, lacked the indefinable distinction of Lillian’s. Since leaving pictures in 1922 she has wanted to return to a medium where she could have the advantage of voice. Last week (see below) she appeared in Manhattan in “legit” drama.

Dorothy Gish – Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20

THEATRE

New Plays in Manhattan

Young Love.

She was the little girl | who got wet in Orphans of the Storm and wore an arresting white dress in Nell Gwyn. That has nothing to do with a play called Young Love which opened in Manhattan last week, except that Dorothy Gish, 30, is back on the stage playing opposite her husband, James Rennie, and Lillian Gish is still in the movies and still unmarried (see p. 44). Dorothy Gish is cast in Young Love as a tempestuous and idealistic latter-day maiden striving to assure marital congeniality by pre-nuptial experiment. In the first few lines, she and her fiancé ex-press satisfaction with last night’s trial. To make it doubly sure, they exchange partners with their unconsulted host and hostess. Miss Gish completes an affair with host, but fiancé quails before hostess. Then follow two acts of confessions, recriminations, door-slammings, to end with four-way felicity the way it should be (according to the movies). Despite such items as “I love him!” “Then that’s a very good reason not to marry him,” despite Miss Gish’s grotesque make-up and quaintly haphazard clothes, Young Love is adequate entertainment.

Dorothy Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

THE SELZNICK PLAYERS – Ronald Bowers (1976)

  • THE SELZNICK PLAYERS
  • Ronald Bowers (1976)
  • Editorial Assistant:
  • C. Leigh Hibbard Church
  • SOUTH BRUNSWICK AND NEW YORK: A. S. BARNES AND COMPANY LONDON: THOMAS YOSELOFF LTD
  • (C) 1976 by Ronald Bowers

In that elite circle of independent Hollywood producers, David O. Selznick was undoubtedly the most creative. He brought to his position an innate love of the motion-picture industry, a knowledge of all aspects of film making, a genius for promotion and publicity, a nose for discovering outstanding new talent, and an executive ability to hire the best technicians and oversee every aspect of his product. Selznick cannily made use of these attributes to create that unique mosaic that is the motion picture.
While much of the myth that surrounds Hollywood men such as Irving G. Thalberg and David O. Selznick is exaggeration, it cannot be denied that Selznick’s reputation as a brilliant independent producer is justified by the merits of Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, his two most accomplished productions. Selznick hated having Rebecca compared to Gone With the Wind, and once adamantly stated, “That makes me furious. I really am furious every time I hear that. And don’t think I haven’t heard it. At least fifty people have said it to me, and each time I go into a regular rage. There is nothing that infuriates me so much. It {Gone With the Wind) was such a stupendous undertaking. Anything else, no matter what we’ll ever make, will always seem insignificant after that.’’

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

(Selznick Releasing Organization, 1948). Screenplay by Paul Osborn and Peter Bemeis from the novel by Robert Nathan. Directed by William Dieterle. Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Gotten, Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe, Florence Bates, Lillian Gish, Henry Hull, Esther Somers, Maude Simmons, Felix Bressart, John Farrell, Clem Bevans, Robert Dudley.

*** Portrait of Jennie is a 1948 fantasy film based on the novella by Robert Nathan. The film was directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, supporting cast Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. At the 21st Academy Awards, it won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects (Paul Eagler, Joseph McMillan Johnson, Russell Shearman and Clarence Slifer; Special Audible Effects: Charles L. Freeman and James G. Stewart). Joseph H. August was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography – Black and White.

*** Portrait of Jennie was highly unusual for its time in that it had no opening credits as such, except for the Selznick Studio logo. All the other credits appear at the end. Before the film proper begins, the title is announced by the narrator (after delivering a spoken prologue, he says, “And now, ‘Portrait of Jennie’”). The portrait of Jennie (Jennifer Jones) was painted by artist Robert Brackman. The painting became one of Selznick’s prized possessions, and it was displayed in his home after he married Jones in 1949.

Gregory Peck — Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun —

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Selznick’s next project for Jennifer Jones was his much publicised, expensive ($5,255,000) production of Duel in the Sun (1946), an opulent, unrelentingly brutal, grandiose Western that took over a year and a half to make and which has been called by some a Wagnerian horse opera and a Liehestod among the cactus. Like Since You Went Away, it was another exercise in Selznick’s obsession with surpassing Gone With the Wind, and he cast his prize actress-amour as Pearl Chavez, the tempestuous half-breed who comes between two brothers (Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck). The plot included prostitution, rape, suicide, attempted fratricide, and ended with a protracted gun duel between Pearl and the outlaw brother (Peck) in which both are killed. Duel in the Sun earned both Miss Jones and supporting actress Lillian Gish nominations for Academy Awards, and $11,300,000 at the box-office, despite its critical lambasting. Today it receives some of the critical attention it failed to garner at the time of its release when its merits were overshadowed by opposition to its violent content.

The picture’s director. King Vidor, observed that if he could talk Miss Jones into the mood of the part each day and keep her in that frame of mind all day long, the proper emotional reactions he needed in her performance registered clearly on her face. However, he was aware of her insecurities as an actress which at times caused her to do “strange tricks with her mouth.’’

Academy Award Nominations of David O. Selznick Productions

  • 1946 —Duel in the Sun
  • Best Actress — Jennifer Jones
  • Best Supporting Actress — Lillian Gish

*** Selznick directed some remaining scenes, William Dieterle handled a Reinhardtesque sequence in the vast bar which opens the film, and second-unit director Otto Brower the train wreck from which Lewt rides away singing, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Even Josef von Sternberg, hired by Selznick to supervise the costume tests and, hopefully, give Jennifer Jones some of the photographic glamour of Marlene Dietrich — Vidor used him as an assistant, having him douse the star with water in scenes requiring the appearance of sweat — directed one brief scene of a posse searching the McCanles house. So acute was Selznick’s obsession with his star that his visits to the set became embarrassing, the microphone picking up his heavy breathing as he watched her. Equally upsetting was a brief visit by D. W. Griffith. “Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish were incapable of speaking their script, especially Barrymore. After a moment I had to ask Mr. Griffith, ‘Would you mind leaving the set or going behind the decor?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been here too long anyway, I apologize.’ And he left very politely.”

Portrait of Jennie – Lillian Gish

Duel in the Sun – Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Birth of a Nation – How a Filmmaker and a Editor Reignited America’s Civil War – By Dick Lehr (2014)

  • The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
  • By Dick Lehr
  • Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr

IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

PROLOGUE

January 2, 1915

David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.

Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.

Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.

The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.

Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.

Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”

It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.

Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.

D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.

The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”

D.W. Griffith’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ Program

1914

Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.

The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.

The Curtain Falls

William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

  • Documentary Film Classics
  • By William Rothman
  • University of Miami
  • © Cambridge University Press 1997

Movies, too, may be said to bring “real life” to the screen. For example, in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, a film contemporaneous with Nanook of the North, the character Susie and the world she inhabits may be imaginary, but it is the real-life Lillian Gish who is the subject of the camera. And so-called “documentaries,” too, may be said to bring the life of the imagination to the screen, as we shall be reminded throughout this book.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie

Griffith’s camera is capable of making no revelations about the fictional Susie that are not also revelations about the real woman who incarnates her, revelations that emerge through, that express and thus reveal, the relationship between the camera and Lillian Gish. True Heart Susie’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real. Or we might say that its fiction is that Lillian Gish is only acting, rather than revealing herself, when she incarnates Susie in the face of the camera, that the character Susie is only a mask she can put on or take off at will or upon direction.

What is fictional about True Heart Susie in other words, resides in its fiction that it is only fiction. What is fictional about Nanook of the North, by contrast, resides in its fiction that it is not fiction at all. Strip away what is fictional about the two films, therefore, and there is no real difference between them. Both equally exemplify Stanley Gavell’s maxim that in the medium of film the only thing that really matters is that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.

True Heart Susie

The opening titles of True Heart Susie likewise assert, at least rhetorically, the reality of the characters around whom Griffith’s story revolves. But in introducing Susie, the film’s protagonist, Griffith’s title also names the star who plays her (Lillian Gish), at once positing their identity (in the face of the camera, Susie simply is Lillian Gish; Lillian Gish is Susie incarnate) and acknowledging their separateness (Susie has no existence apart from True Heart Susie but Lillian Gish exists apart from her incarnation in this or any film, and, as a movie star, is capable of being incarnated as any number of different characters).

By contrast, when Griffith presents us with our first view of Susie in True Heart Susie – it is also our first view of Lillian Gish, of course – we are not authorized to take it as “documenting” a real encounter between camera and subject. As we have said, the film’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real, hence that there was no real encounter between camera and subject, for the camera that filmed Lillian Gish has no reality within Susie’s world.

True Heart Susie

To act as if she were Susie, Lillian Gish must act as if no camera were really in her presence. But how is it possible for Lillian Gish to have a real relationship with Griffith’s camera, a relationship through which Susie is capable of being revealed, if in the face of the camera she must act as if no real camera were present?

For Susie to act as if no real camera were present, there is no reality she must deny. For Lillian Gish to act as if no real camera were present, on the other hand, she must deny the reality of the camera that is in her presence, the camera that is really filming her. To deny the reality of this camera’s presence, Lillian Gish must relate to it, acknowledge its presence, in a particular way. And if the camera is to sustain the fiction that it is Susie who is real, it must relate to Lillian Gish in a particular way, too; it must be used in a way that at once acknowledges her presence and denies her reality.

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

What makes it possible for Griffith to use the camera in a way that acknowledges Lillian Gish’s presence even as it denies her reality is the fundamental condition of human existence that real human beings are also characters, imaginary creatures of fantasy and myth, and are also actors capable of becoming who they are imagined to be. What makes it possible, in turn, for Lillian Gish to acknowledge the presence of the camera even as she denies its reality is the equally fundamental condition of the medium of film that the reality of the camera’s presence is also the reality of its absence, the absence of its reality.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish – 1914 (photo session)

Miss Gish is slender, with an exquisitely graceful figure, almost too girlish to affect seriously the perplexing draperies now in vogue for women. Tunics and flowing robes make her look like a young goddess. With her innocent face, large, heavily fringed blue eyes and full mouth, slightly pouting like a child’s, one almost smiles to see her so tall and stately in the classic modes of the day. But it would be difficult to imagine anything more charming than this very inconsistency – this elusive contradiction between youth an womanhood.

Miss Gish was first engaged with the Biograph, studying and training with Mr. Griffith companies; and in an amazingly brief time she was carrying important roles. When her eminent director went to the Mutual in the fall of 1913, she accompanied him. In the early winter she played several ingénue parts with much distinction and charm.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page