Another Great Picture, “The Great Love”

Man Who Created “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” has Produced Another Great Picture, “The Great Love”

INTERNATIONALLY famous as the world’s greatest exponent of the cinema art, David Wark Griffith is the creator of the screen’s most remarkable triumphs. That his genius has accomplished more to elevate the motion picture to its present high standard than any other agency, is apparent to everyone. His sensational departures in photoplay productions are film history and the mention of his name in connection with a screen offering always excites anticipation for something new in the way of advanced cinema technique. Mr. Griffith spent many months in England and France during the past year and on his return to this country, he produced “Hearts of the World which was presented with enormous success in New York. His latest offering, which deals with the great social transformation effected in England by the war, is “The Great Love”, and this will be presented at the theatre next.

Great Love Poster 2 a

The photoplay is said to be a remarkable one and that it will attract great interest here is undoubted. While the entire story has not been revealed by Mr. Griffith, enough of it is known to enable readers to get a fairly accurate idea of the theme. It deals with a young American who enlists in the Canadian army when he reads of the German atrocities in Belgium and goes to England. While training near London, he meets and loves a charming Australian girl who reciprocates his passion. When this girl falls heir to a vast fortune, an unscrupulous English baronet seeks to force her into a marriage with him, and this affair is interrupted by international complications and the operations of German spies. The girl later finds “the great love” in unremitting service for country and the cause of world’s democracy. Many famous English society women assist in the development of the story as workers in hospitals and munitions factories, and in this respect the photoplay is said to be one of the most remarkable ever produced.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - One of Lillian's favorite pictures of D.W. Griffith — with D. W. Griffith.

Born at La Grange, near Louisville, Ky., Mr. Griffith is the son of the late Brigadier General Jacob Wark Griffith, C. S. A. As an actor he first became connected with the stage, which vocation he followed for some two years. After gaining wide experience on the speaking stage Mr. Griffith, appeared in Biograph pictures. His unusual creative ability soon attracted the attention of the studio executives and it was not long before he was made a director. In this capacity, Mr. Griffith introduced innovations which changed the whole course of the motion picture art, such as the use of “close-ups,” “cut backs,” etc. Many of the players whom he trained for the screen in those days are now among the most prominent artists in the film world. Chief among these is Mary Pickford. Some of Mr. Griffith’s early triumphs are “Judith of Bethulia,” “The Escape,” “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Battle.” When “The Birth of a Nation” was released it created the greatest sensation and carried the name of D. W. Griffith, its producer, into the homes of the people of many nations. Its success was in keeping with its great merit. Following this triumph came “Intolerance,” another spectacle exceeding in magnitude anything ever staged. Mr. Griffith recently entered into an engagement with the Famous Players—Lasky Corporation to release his new productions through that organization. Under this arrangement the famous director will stage his own productions and distribute them through that corporation, which supplies the biggest attractions to the best theatres in the country.

Paramount Press Books (Jun-Aug 1918)

Press Review

DAVID W. GRIFFITH’S NEW PICTURE “THE GREAT LOVE” A REMARKABLE PRODUCTION

Many Members of High Society of Britain are Pictured and Theme of Photoplay Deals with War and Sacrifice PRESENTING what may be termed, perhaps, his most ambitious screen offering, David Wark Griffith displayed his splendid photoplay, “The Great Love,” which deals specifically with the great awakening of the wealthy and exclusive classes of England to the tremendous needs of the war, with great success at the theatre yesterday. For the first time in the history of motion pictures, Mr. Griffith portrays, in this photoplay, the activities of the leisure classes of Great Britain, during the world war; their splendid and unselfish labor in caring for convalescent soldiers and their innumerable sacrifices. It shows not merely actors made up to represent these people, but the people themselves, the very flower of England s finest womanhood engaged in the noble task of succoring the brave sons of Britain, France and the allies of all the loyal nations, in their time of great suffering and sacrifice. In his tremendously difficult task, Mr. Griffith had the assistance and encouragement of such distinguished people as Sir Frederick Treeves, head of the British Red Cross; Baroness Rothschild, owner of the railroad from Flavre to Paris; Sir Henry Stanley, whose brother is the Earl of Derby and head of the War Council; and Queen Alexandra, who personally supervised the scenes taken in Lady Diana Manner’s convalescent hospital at her country estate. The Queen appears in several scenes and it is the first time such notables have actually taken part in motion pictures for the general public. The story of the play deals largely with the fortunes of a young American, who, enraged by the German atrocities in Belgium, enlists in a Canadian regiment and is sent to the front from England. While training near London, he meets and loves a charming girl, who later falls heir to a vast fortune and then becomes the object of the strenuous attentions of a disreputable British baronet.

Lillian Gish - The Great Love (1918)
Lillian Gish – The Great Love (1918)

This love affair is interrupted by international complications and the machinations of German spies, the whole combining to form a most interesting series of situations, which, coupled with the magnificent photography, makes this picture subject one of the most attractive ever produced by Mr. Griffith. The chief roles are in the hands of capable screen players, many of whom appear for the first time under the Artcraft trademark. These include Henry Walthall, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron and others, all of whose portrayals are essentially artistic and lend much to the verisimilitude of the scenes. That “The Great Love,” as a superb picture spectacle, is destined to rank among his best productions, in no sense inferior to his great picture, “Hearts of the World,” now being successfully presented in New York, seems a certainty.

Great Love Poster 1 a

GRIFFITH TALKS OF “THE GREAT LOVE”

He Says Title of Picture Means Many Things

Referring to the title of his picture, ‘The Great Love,” David Wark Griffith, the famous picture producer said in a recent interview that it meant many things. “It may mean the love of country, then again it may mean the love of individuals,” he said. “At any rate I hope to show in this picture the remarkable transition of the butterfly life of British society, with that of the stern, sincere hard-workers in the great cause of winning the war.” Mr. Griffith said when Queen Alexandra heard of his project, that of commemorating many of the historic war scenes in England in motion pictures, she was gracious enough to come to Lady Diana Manners’ hospital and devote nearly an entire day in arranging the hospital scenes shown in the picture and appearing in them herself. This remarkable photoplay has a deeply interesting love story with numerous war situations and tense dramatic moments. The story has been admirably handled and the players are of stellar celebrity. It will be shown at the theatre on next.

The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall

BRITISH WOMEN ARE PATRIOTIC

Half at No Sacrifice as Shown in “The Great Love” THE noble sacrifices made by the most distinguished women in the higher circles in England, are adequately shown in David Wark Griffith’s remarkable photoplay, “The Great Love,” which will be shown at the theatre next Since the beginning of the great war, England has sent the flower of its nobility to the front and untold thousands have laid down their lives upon the ensanguined battlefields of France and Belgium. At home the women and men have united in the great work of caring for the wounded and in prosecuting the relief activities so essential to the successful conduct of the war.

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

This is the awakening that is portrayed with startling fidelity in “The Great Love.” Among those who for the first time appear in the photoplay are such well-known distinguished personages as Queen Alexandra, Lady Diana Manners, Countess Masserene, Elizabeth Asquith, Lady Lavery and others. In the cast of players are Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, George Fawcett, George Seigmann, Gloria Hope and others.

The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron - Artcraft Poster
The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron – Artcraft Poster

MAIL CAMPAIGN

For the Exploitation of “The Great Love ’

DEAR MADAM:

The announcement that David W. Griffith’s first picture production for Artcraft, “The Great Love,” a remarkable photoplay in which Queen Alexandra and many women of the British nobility are pictured, is to be presented at our playhouse next …….. has caused a profound sensation among our clientele. This is the first time that the great productions of Mr. Griffith, the man who created “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Hearts of the World” and other screen triumphs, are available to the general public at regular prices, and for the first time also, Mr. Griffith’s famous stars, including Lillian Gish, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, George, Fawcett and others, are seen in Artcraft pictures.

“The Great Love” is in every respect a splendid photoplay of love, war and national devotion to the service of country and world democracy. It is a production fully up to the high standard of artistry for which the name of Griffith stands and for which he has become famous in the field of the silent drama. We know of no cinema production that surpasses in beauty and popular interest those bearing the Griff ith-Artcraft trade mark and we recommend “The Great Love” to you with the firm conviction that you will acclaim it one of the very best spectacles ever displayed at our theatre.

Hoping to see you at the premier, we beg to remain.

Yours sincerely.

Manager

Paramount Press Books (Jun-Aug 1918)
Paramount Press Books (Jun-Aug 1918)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain – 1983

The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain – 1983

Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown

Louis B. Mayer had a talent for taking hopeful young actresses and turning them into the glamorous movie queens that audiences associated with his MGM studios. Few in those audiences realized that those carefully created, pampered stars were the most bullied women in Hollywood. The MGM Girls raises the velvet curtain and shows the real story of life on the movie lot that Hedy Lamarr called “heaven and hell all contained in five acres.”

The Irving Thalberg building on the MGM

Interviewing for this book began in the fall of 1978 with a wide ranging session with one of the earliest MGM Girls, Lillian Gish. Interviews followed with Debbie Reynolds, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, the late Dore Schary (the former MGM production chief, who submitted to eight hours of interviews), Jane Powell, George Gukor, silent film expert and author Kevin Brownlow, Kathryn Grayson, MGM archivist Dore Freeman, Henry Rogers (founder and head of the large Rogers and Gowan public relations network), John Springer (former publicist for Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Grawford), former MGM publicist Esme Ghandlee, Harriet Parsons (daughter of Hollywood’s foremost gossip columnist, Louella Parsons), columnists Dorothy Manners and Dorothy Treloar, Vincent Minnelli, Gonnie Francis, and Lana Turner. Of particular help were the interviews conducted by Los Angeles Times arts editor Gharles Ghamplin as part of his cable show, ”Gharles Ghamplin On the Film Scene.”

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

Daddy’s little girls

It seemed so easy, as easy as getting quick cash from a loan shark. For years, as long as Joan did as Mayer wished, her own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated her by reminding her how often MGM had come to her rescue. Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. Nobody knew this better than Lillian Gish, who had been greeted at MGM with a glorious reception after she finally bowed to Mayer’s entreaties and signed a term contract with the studio. She was probably the most respected screen actress in the world at the time. Having been film pioneer D. W. Griffith’s favorite actress, Lillian’s face was known on sight after her starring roles in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, and a dozen others.

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

When she arrived at MGM, she found that the greater suburban neighborhood around the MGM lot had been converted into one huge celebration of her arrival. Banners stretched between buildings, portraits of Lillian in her most famous roles were plastered on the side of buildings, and a wagon full of roses awaited her at the studio gates. But Lillian felt a slight chill as the welcome became even more hysterical. ”Looking at it all, I said a silent prayer that they would be equally warm in farewell.” Her premonitions weren’t unfounded. While she was making La Boheme, a series of sinister threats were made against the actress, although they were kept hidden from her.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

“I was vaguely aware of a strange behavior of almost everyone in the house,” Lillian said later. “The Irish chauffeur disappeared overnight and a new man took his place.” (Though she didn’t know it, he was a policeman.) The affair had started with a threat over the telephone that was intercepted by Lillian’s secretary. The secretary took a taxi to MGM and tried to get in to see Mayer.

“Sorry,” said Mayer’s receptionist.

“Look,” said Lillian’s secretary. “This concerns the safety of Miss Gish, and, since you’re paying money to her, I should think Mr. Mayer would be interested.”

Even after she was admitted to the great one’s office, it took her half an hour to interest him. “Then it seemed to dawn on him that there was considerable money wrapped up in the  picture. Then he called the police. About halfway through her contract with MGM, Mayer decided that Lillian should star in a million-dollar film based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Lillian was on the set of another film when a page ran up to her and said, “Mr. Mayer wants you right now!”

“But I’m not through here,” Lillian protested.

“He said right now!”

Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power.

Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose.jpg
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

But Not on the First Date!

The problem started with Lillian Gish, the star of stars in the monumental silent pictures of D. W. Griffith. She had been hired through a process that offered her MGM’s first million-dollar contract. Unfortunately, it guaranteed her approval of everything from the lace on her underwear to the use of her lips. When she arrived at the Culver City lot she found a banner soaring above MGM and across two streets, Lillian Gish is now an MGM star, said the banner under which paraded bands, a cart of roses, and lines of executives to greet her. Since it was her choice, she selected the tragic La Boheme for her first production, with the studio’s top-line director King Vidor to guide her. Lillian, pampered and convinced of her invincibility by D. W. Griffith, introduced a few bizarre practices to the lot—including full rehearsal. There were some grumbles until Vidor told Mayer that Lillian’s system was helping them bring in the picture under budget and ahead of schedule.

Then “the affair of the kiss” began, almost bringing the picture down with it. As the lover of the doomed heroine, Mimi, MGM had of course provided the dashing John Gilbert, a man whose reputation was based on a sexy walk, a perfect body, languid eyes, and an ability to kiss equaled only by Valentino.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

Vidor was leisurely plotting an outdoor scene one afternoon when Lillian walked up with her script. ”Look at this, Mr. Vidor, there’s a kiss and an embrace planned during these scenes. Now that is simply not right. Rodolphe [Gilbert] will demonstrate the powerful love he bears for Mimi if he doesn’t embrace her at all—and he certainly shouldn’t kiss her.”

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

Known as ”the great lover of the silent screen,” John Gilbert was incensed and ran to Mayer’s office. “This is a love story … a love story! Does she realize that?”

“What are you talking about?” Mayer asked.

“Lillian refuses to kiss me.”

“What?” Mayer yelled.

“You heard me. She says the audience will believe our love more poignantly if we don’t even touch,” Gilbert said.

”Leave it to me,” said Mayer. Through a series of negotiations that would have strained a secretary of state, Mayer convinced Lillian that John Gilbert’s career might truly be hurt if he simply mooned around making eyes at Mimi. And after three days of love scenes, Vidor managed to coax the actress closer and closer to John’s embraces. He was achieving about one usable kiss every eight hours.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

On the way home, Lillian complained to her chauffeur: ”Oh, dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Protestations aside, Lillian must have been doing something right: John Gilbert proposed to her twice before they wrapped up filming. Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies.

Hester Prynne - My Wedding Ring - The Scarlet Letter

“No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

Lillian never really threw her lips into those MGM pictures, but she did given them a sensuality that has endured long after the great wet kisses of Mae Murray, Pola Negri, and Gloria Swanson—the busiest lips of the twenties.

Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown – 1983

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

PRESS STORIES “A Romance of Happy Valley”

EXHIBITOR’S PRESS BOOK – PRESS STORIES

CHARLES KENMORE ULRICH, Editor

Pertinent Notes on David W. Griffith’s New

“A Romance of Happy Valley”

RANKING among the first of American producers of stupendous cinema spectacles, David Wark Griffith, creator of “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Hearts of the World,” “The Great Love” and other gigantic motion picture productions, deservedly has won world wide fame. Mr. Griffith long ago demonstrated his artistry and mastery of cinema technique, but in none of his pictures are these qualifications so completely in evidence as in his latest Artcraft picture, “A Romance of Happy Valley.” This is a charming theme delightfully handled, and it doubtless will win its way into the hearts of an appreciative public. That it will be acclaimed a pastoral classic second to none produced in recent years, seems to be assured.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish
A Romance of Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

THE PLAYERS

As is customary with Mr. Griffith, he has supplied the best procurable screen players to interpret the various roles of “A Romance of Happy Valley.” Chief among these is Lillian Gish, a charming Griffith player who scored so notable a triumph in “The Great Love Robert Harron, a prominent young leading man and George Fawcett, a veteran player of great popularity, who created a deep impression by his portrayal of the German- American in “The Hun Within,” have the leading male roles. Kate Bruce, a talented actress, also has a fine role. Others in the cast include George Nicholls, Bertram Grassby, Porter Strong, Adolphe Lestina, Lydia Yeamans Titus, Andrew Arbuckle and Frances Parks.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish
A Romance of Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

THE STORY

NESTLING in the hills along the Ohio, is Happy Valley where life is lived in calico gowns and denim breeches, John L. Logan, a prosperous farmer, runs a boarding house. His wife is a religious devotee, while his son, John Logan, Jr., is a growing lad who learns of the delights of city life from a chance boarder and who as a result, wants to go to New York. John is in love with Jennie Timberlake, who has metropolitan notions as regards dress and who seeks to monopolize John’s attentions. Mrs. Logan prays that her boy may be converted and his idea of going to the wicked city be banished forever from his mind. She is successful, for John accepts the faith and becomes engaged to Jennie. But while plowing one day, he backslides and defiantly announces that he is going to New York and after one year, when he hopes to have acquired his fortune, he will return to claim his bride. He goes to New York, and vainly devotes his inventive genius to the perfection of a jumping frog. He fails to return home at the end of the year, but nevertheless Jennie is primped up awaiting him. Eight years pass before John returns. Meanwhile affairs have gone badly at home, but mother and Jennie are there to give him a warm welcome Happy Valley becomes happy once more, but how, the picture itself reveals. The finish is a remarkable one in every respect and the story truly is filled with thrills, expectancy and irresistible heart appeal.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish
A Romance of Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

HOMESPUN HUMANITY

FOR the first time in five years Mr. Griffith has wrapped his film around homespun humanity; and he has found a classic in its folds, vivid in action, laughable in details and tense in effect. With his repeated triumphs in great productions, many persons have associated Mr. Griffith with tremendous spectacles, thunderous dramas and the sweep and rage of battle. But in “A Romance of Happy Valley” his genius is engaged in chronicling simple American life, and he has accomplished his task with superb accuracy and unrivaled charm.

PERTINENT REMARKS

EXHIBITORS are sure to find “A Romance of Happy Valley” one of the strongest box office attractions ever booked by them. The reputation of Mr. Griffith as a producer is in itself an asset that is bound to bring heavy returns to wide awake exhibitors. Mr. Griffith’s name is not associated with any failure and this is an additional assurance that “A Romance of Happy Valley” is likely to rival “Way Down East” in popularity. Liberal exploitation is urged, and the use of the original press matter and accessories supplied in this Press Book should not be overlooked.

“A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY”

An Appreciation of David Wark Griffith’s Superb Photoplay

By the Rev. Edward Hinson

I have seen an amazing thing. I have seen a church service that was not a church service, yet was greater than any I ever witnessed. I have seen art that almost surpasseth my understanding, it was so simple, so wonderful. Reluctantly I went to David W. Griffith’s studios in Hollywood, near Los Angeles. I had heard a church service was to be a part of the action in a film drama Mr. Griffith was making. The play was called “A Romance of Happy Valley.” I wished to see these church scenes in a studio, for I had my doubts about their propriety. The interior of the church had been constructed in the studio. Stained windows glowed under a gentle light. The pews looked old, with an air of having served sinner and saved one many times. In front was a pulpit, simply and strongly built. It was such a one as I had steadied my hand upon that day I delivered my first sermon in a little church in the South. And to one side was a plucky little organ that had suffered much in the past, a brave, sturdy little instrument. The choir, two men and two women, were seated nearby. I had seen the players outside before Mr. Griffith came. They were laughing and talking gayly. Then I met Mr. Griffith, a slender active man with a marvellously expressive face. He explained to me that the story he was producing dealt in part with a young man suddenly finding sanctuary in the House he had often visited. The organ was playing “Rock of Ages.” The tune drifted over to us as we stood in a distant part of the studio. Then we went over to the “set” as they called it. Over the players a change had come. Gone was the give-and-take of their talk.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Robert Harron and Lillian Gish
A Romance of Happy Valley – Robert Harron and Lillian Gish

They entered the portal quietly, I believe, humbly. The choir stood and sang the words of the hymn, with the congregation joining. At that time, I had a feeling that perhaps this shouldn’t be, that it was wrong to hold so realistic a service ; yet it did not offend—more, it appealed. They sang the hymn over and over. The day was warm. A spirit of peace, and good-will and earnestness seemed to enter that strange room. Then the man who played the part of the minister, addressed those who seemed so certainly his flock. Mr. Griffith stood near him speaking the words he was to repeat. I understand Mr. Griffith had a very thorough religious training in his youth. I am sure of it. Not a note of irreverence was sounded, not a breath of mockery prevailed. I stayed there for hours, while the scene was rehearsed again and again. They continued to sing “Rock of Ages.” Memories had come to those players. They were living scenes they knew of old and loved. It was late when the climax came. I can only describe what happened. I did not think to argue why or how. For certainly the spell was on me. Mr. Griffith was talking. His deep vibrant voice transported a message of goodness, of kindness, of doing what one thinks is right. He talked to Robert Harron, for Mr. Harron was playing the part of the boy. It was beautiful, it was simple, it was superb. I think Mr. Griffith would have been one of the greatest of our ministers and evangelists had he felt the call. There were tears in the eyes of the players when he ended. There were tears in mine. One woman, yielding  completely to her emotions responded with an “Amen” to one of his remarks. And gone from that body was all pretense, gone was all mimicry. Surely we were all children at our devotions. Indeed, tears were in our eyes, and our throats were full. When the choir sang “Rock of Ages” then we caught up the tune with triumphant eagerness. We sang those noble words and we meant every, word of what we sang. When I looked up, I saw tears in Mr. Griffith’s eyes, wonderful grey eyes that belong to the crusader. That was all. But I shall never forget that day. I had a new vision of what art may be ; of what Mr. Griffith’s art is.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish
A Romance of Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

“A ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY”

             The Cast

  • Jennie Timberlake      Lillian Gish
  • John L. Logan, Jr.         Robert Harron
  • John L, Logan              George Fawcett
  • Mrs. Logan                  Kate Bruce
  • William Timberlake (the father) George Nicholls
  • The City Man              Bertram Grassby
  • The Funny                    Waiter Porter Strong
  • Jim Darkly                   Adolphe Lestina
  • Auntie Smiles              Lydia Yeamans Titus
  • The Minister               Andrew Arbuckle
  • Topsy                           Frances Sparks
A_Romance_of_Happy_Valley_(1919)_-_Ad_1
A Romance of Happy Valley – Lillian Gish

 

A Delightful Artistic Success

You Ever Hear of Happy Valley, Cradled in the Hills Along the Ohio? You Should See This Charming Photoplay in Which Sweet Lillian Gish Plays the Chief Role EVER hear of Happy Valley? A quiet place, just a cradle in the hills down along the Ohio River, where the Logans ran the boarding house, and the Timberlakes lived down the road a bit Quite a romance happened there, and it was dramatic too. Nothing much was said about it in the papers, and the whole story never was told until now. It’s about the Logans and the Timberlakes and old Auntie Smiles and some others. D. W. Griffith found out all about it, and he called it “A Romance of Happy Valley.”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Confidences Off-Screen “What a World We Live In” 1925

Confidences Off-Screen

By W. Adolphe Roberts

“What a World We Live In”

Motion Picture Magazine January 1925

Going to see Lillian Gish isn’t just another interview with a popular star. It is a privilege and a rare pleasure. For she is the heart-breaking girl of Broken Blossoms—the screen’s greatest actress, in my opinion. She is a tragedienne with power to evoke beauty by means of tenderness, pity, and a quality of glamour that defies all analysis. Her genius, as understood and developed by Griffith, stands as our best assurance that motion pictures are a new art, not merely an industry. And in saying this, I do not overlook the contribution made by Charlie Chaplin.

He is very great. But tragedy, inevitably, is more lofty than farce. He would be the first to admit it. When I went up to Lillian Gish’s suite at the Ambassador, do you know what I found her doing? In a mood of wondering delight, she was playing with her first radio set, a portable contrivance finished to resemble a suitcase, which she had placed on a chair beside an open window.

“Ah, Mr. Roberts! Look at this, listen to it!” she cried. “Voices from the air. Sounds and music that have always been about us, but that we’ve only just learned how to hear. What a world we live in!”

She sat down then on a divan, her hands crossed in her lap, like an exquisite child, and we talked of the magic kingdom of art. One of the most admirable things about her is the complete sincerity with which she takes her work. She would never lend herself to the making of a picture that pretended to be what it was not. The scene of Romola, for instance, is in Florence at the height of the Renaissance, and had it been asked of her she would have refused to do the film with sets fabricated in a Hollywood studio.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

“It’s possible to reproduce an old street, or to build a seemingly perfect copy of a palace where men and women have loved and died, and yet fail utterly to capture the spirit of the place,” she says. “The very stones of Florence have individuality. The sun shines there, and the rain falls, thru an atmosphere tinted otherwise than ours. The human throng moves to a different rhythm.”

She told me she had dreamed for years of making The White Sister, for the sake of the scene in which she takes the veil as the bride of Christ. The initiation of a nun is literally a wedding, a mystic ceremony of great beauty. As Miss Gish shows it, no detail is faked. She steeped herself in the ritual before she was willing to use it as an actress. And she declined to give the picture the conventional happy ending that would have meant having the nun escape from her vows and marry the lover who had lost her thru no fault of his own. It would have cheapened the whole conception, she says. Miss Gish is now planning to do Charpentier’s opera Louise as a motion picture. Final arrangements have not been made, but if the project goes thru the public has an artistic treat in store for it. You see, Paris—the real Paris of poets arid artists—has never been portrayed on the screen except in the most faky manner. Louise is the masterpiece that furnishes the best pictorial opportunities, and with Lillian Gish as the heroine we may be sure that none of its poignancy will be lost. It will gain, in fact. She will add to it her own incomparable charm.

Lillian Gish Profile Romola

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Religion in the Cinema – By Ivan Butler (1969)

Religion in the Cinema – By Ivan Butler (1969)

THE BIBLE

Film-makers were quick off the mark in realising the attractions of the religion-sex formula, and as early as 1903 one of the founders of the French cinema, Ferdinand Zecca, having already made a Prodigal Son in 1901, directed what is probably the first version of Samson and Delilah. Pathe followed with a Prodigal Son in 1907 and a Samson and Delilah (“ending with his entrance into Paradise”) in 1908. The first Biblical murder story appeared in 1905 with Melies’s Justice and Vengeance Pursuing Crime (after Proud’hon) which seems—from an extant still showing one skin-clad man fleeing across the rocks from the body of another, pursued by determined-looking angels—to have been inspired by Cain and Abel. In the year 1909 the American Vitagraph Company set out a Biblical feast consisting of a Jephthah’s Daughter, a Salome, a Judgment of Solomon (“Grand Biblical Reel for Sunday Shows”), and a Saul and David. The latter was noted as a novelty in that the characters were introduced “with individual pictures before the commencement of the Story proper.” In 1910 the Company followed these up with a five-reel Life of Moses. An Italian film on Herodias (Erodiade) appeared in 1912 with Suzanne de Labroy in the title role.

1913 saw what might now be called the first Biblical block-buster—D. W. Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia. This version of the Apocrypha story was made in Chatsworth, California, on a spectacular scale and is the first flowering of the Griffith genius, revealing already his skill in handling large vistas without losing individual interests. The cast includes most of the later Griffith repertory—Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Edwards, with Miss Bara dripping pearls prodigally as she vamps a buxom John the Baptist (Albert Roscoe) who seems to thrive remarkably well on his diet of locusts and wild honey.

Judith_of_Bethulia-Biograph poster

Priests, Ministers and the Church

A still of 1917 shows Stuart Holmes (later a famous silent heavy) emoting violently in The Scarlet Letter, with Mary Martin as Hester clinging to one arm and a coy little girl named Kittens Reichert sheltering beneath the other. The Pastor’s moustaches look strangely out of place. Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier, the team responsible for From the Manger to the Cross, were director and scenarist. But Hawthorne s classic had to await Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson before coming into its own.

One of the most famous of all silent films, The Scarlet Letter (dir. Victor Sjostrom) was produced in 1926—beautifully photographed, directed and played. Though Lillian Gish may not be quite the doughty Hester Prynne of Hawthorne’s novel, she comes much closer to it, particularly as the climax of the film approaches, than some critics have allowed. She entirely convinces us of her ability to persuade the pastor to keep quiet about the fact that he is the father of her child because of the importance of his work to the little community, and her gradual transition from the light-hearted girl to the ferocious defender of her child and her secret is completely credible and often very moving. It is throughout, as Edward Wagenknecht says, “a profound and beautiful study.” Lars Hanson power¬ fully supports her and the final scene, when, tortured by con¬ science when Hester’s lost husband returns, the pastor confesses in public and dies in her arms, is as affecting today, in a scratched and jerky print, as when the film made its note¬ worthy first appearance. The 1934 re-make (dir. Robert C. Vignola) does not stand comparison. Hardie Albright is just a pleasant young American dressed up in costume, and Col¬ leen Moore, most charming of comediennes, cannot compare in more tragic matters with Lillian Gish.

The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926
The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926

Monks and Nuns

Although portrayals of monks and the monastic life are much less frequent than those of the priesthood, several actresses have had an irresistible urge to don the nun’s robes and veil, even if in the majority of cases the stories have been only superficially concerned with the religious aspect. Generally they make use of the retreat to solve a triangular problem, or afford a Grand Renunciation scene. An early example is The White Sister, first filmed in 1915 by Essanay, with Viola Allen. The great silent star Francis X. Bushman (Ben Hur’s Messala) reputedly walked out of the studio when asked to play opposite her in support, and Richard Travers took his place.

The most famous version was that made by Inspiration in 1924, starring Lillian Gish and most sensitively directed by Henry King. Miss Gish gives one of her best performances as the young girl torn between her call to a life of religious dedication and her love for a young French officer—Ronald Colman is his first American role. It all appears very simple and naive now, but the contrast between Lillian Gish’s fragile beauty and her iron determination to follow her conscience made it the tear-jerker of its day. It was re-made with sound in 1933 but, despite a touching and sincere performance from Helen Hayes, the time and the spirit had passed.

The White Sister
The White Sister
Religion in the cinema
Religion in the cinema

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

ADVENTURES WITH D. W. GRIFFITH – By Karl Brown (1973)

ADVENTURES WITH D. W. GRIFFITH

By Karl Brown (1973)

Karl Brown on set (with Griffith)
Karl Brown on set (with Griffith)

FOREWORD

by KEVIN BROWNLOW

Karl Brown was an eyewitness to the most momentous occasions in the history of the cinema—the making of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. As assistant cameraman to the great G. W. Bitzer, Karl Brown was on the firing line of all the D. W. Griffith pictures from 1913 until Broken Blossoms and Griffith’s departure for New York. Following his years with Griffith, Karl Brown joined Famous Players-Lasky and gained a firm place in the history books for his remarkable photography of The Covered Wagon (a second volume is in production dealing with Famous Players, James Cruze, Roscoe Arbuckle . . .). Fie turned director in 1926, and it was his first directorial assignment, Stark Love, that led indirectly to the writing of this book.

Karl Brown - Stark Love 1927
Karl Brown – Stark Love 1927

Stark  Love was a documentary-style feature, shot entirely in the mountains of North Carolina, among a people scarcely aware of civilization. The film had been lost in America, but it had been preserved by Myrtil Frida of the Czech Film Archive. He considered it one of the finest silent films ever made. I shared his enthusiasm and wrote an article for Finn magazine entitled “How Could We Forget a Film Like This.” The Czech archive eventually presented its original print to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As a result of my article, the museum called me at the American Film Institute in California; could I find out if Karl Brown was still alive. The people I checked with were uncertain, but the American Society of  Cinematographers were of the opinion that he had died in the nineteen thirties. Karl Brown was someone I had dreamed of meeting ever since I first saw a tinted print of The Covered Wagon; his breathtaking photography (so despoiled in grainy dupes) combined qualities of Mathew Brady and Frederic Remington. Having spent months hunting directors and cameramen of the silent era in Hollywood, I was convinced that were Karl Brown alive, someone would have told me. I reported back to the museum that I had no positive news, and soon afterward returned to England. When the American Film Institute presented Stark Love at its Washington theater, archivist David Shepard tried to find out about Karl Brown for himself.

 

Karl Brown - Stark Love 1927 poster
Karl Brown – Stark Love 1927 poster

He contacted historian George Mitchell, who, as a former army intelligence officer, did the obvious thing. He simply looked him up in the Los Angeles telephone directory. There was one Karl Brown. The number, however, was disconnected. Was it the same Karl Brown And was he still alive. Mitchell succeeded in tracing the assistant cameraman on Stark Love, Robert Pittack, who confirmed that he had been in touch with Brown four years earlier. Mitchell was hard at work on a film, however, and since he lived some distance from Los Angeles, he had no opportunity to continue the search. When I returned from England, he suggested I take up the hunt. From that point, in December 1969, I subordinated all other activities to the search for Karl Brown, which was as frustrating and as obsessive as the one in Citizen Kane. The ending, however, was considerably more rewarding. It turned out that Karl Brown was living with his wife in North Hollywood. He had retired after fifty years in the motion-picture business, having achieved his aim: “obscurity on a comfortable income.” If I feel little remorse at having shattered this obscurity, it is because he proved such a gold mine of vital information. Every visit with a tape recorder produced astonishing material. It soon became clear, however, that no amount of interviewing would result in the fidelity and precision that Brown could provide himself. If only he could be persuaded to write a book … I remembered with gloom his remark that he had abandoned writing and that he used his typewriter only for his checks. Nevertheless, at the urging of historian Jay Leyda, I mentioned the matter in a letter. As usual, Karl Brown was way ahead of me. His reply was a carefully thought-out list of chapters and their contents. The project was under way almost before I had gathered the courage to bring it up. This pattern continued as the book was written: Brown always seemed to know what was happening before I had told him. He turned the book out in record time. Each chapter arrived on its own, impeccably typed, and so carefully structured that the term “editing” became a euphemism for a cozy afternoon’s read. “I am keeping away from all cinema research,” he wrote, “for the simple reason that I want to keep my memory ‘pure,’ if that’ makes sense. I cannot permit this book to be a pastiche of carefully rewritten quotes. What’s the thing we used to say about that? ‘Steal from one and it’s plagiarism; steal from two and it’s research; steal from fifty and it’s scholarship.’”

Adventures with D. W. Griffith

Brown asked me to correct whatever howlers there might be with extensive footnotes, but his extraordinary memory provides few opportunities for additions or corrections. He has  provided so much new information that most published sources are rendered obsolete. The book is indisputably authentic. In my opinion, it represents the most exciting, the most vivid, and the most perceptive volume of reminiscence ever published on the cinema. (It is also one of the few that bears no trace of a ghost writer.) Instead of reciting bare facts. Brown has given the events the kind of vitality that Griffith would have admired. His word portraits bring the people to life in such a way that film history will never seem the same again. The book will have a particular appeal to those setting out to make their own films. For this is a dramatic, and often hilarious, story of a boy trying to cope with a complex technical process and helping to make history. It will have a much wider appeal than the majority of film books, for it is basically about people. And above all, like the best films, it is extremely entertaining. Everyone who loves the cinema should be profoundly grateful that when D. W. Griffith was working on his greatest pictures, Karl Brown was there—on our behalf.

Kevin Brownlow

1-dw_griffith_(1875-1948)
D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Painting; D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) Art Print for sale

Few Selections “Adventures With D.W. Griffith”

“These rehearsals, in which everything was not only worked out but thought out to the finest detail, told everybody everything about everything. Huck came away knowing exactly what sets to build and how to build them. De-Lacey had a clear picture in his mind of everything that would be needed. He could set about ordering the stuff to be sent out at any time. This would call for hunting and rummaging in secondhand shops, pawnshops, or even cellars and attics of old-timers who had such things cluttering their barns and outbuildings. Even Bitzer had ample foreknowledge of the sort of scenes he would have to light, and he could begin to plan how to go about it, what he might need in the way of extra equipment, and everything else. Sometimes Bitzer would say, “Mr. Griffith, with Miss Marsh crowded into a corner like that we won’t be able to see her face.” Griffith never resented intelligent questions. “Let’s see, now,” he’d answer musingly. “If we see her face, it will be Mae Marsh washing dishes. If we see only her back and arms, it will be every woman in the audience washing dishes. We’ll play it with her back to the camera.”

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

Griffith’s dialect, if such it could be called, fascinated me. His was not the regional speech of Kentucky, which has a recognizable quality all its own. It was more of a personal idiom. Lillian Gish was spoken of as Miss Geeesh, very long-drawn-out. A bomb was always a boom, and a girl was always a gell. In normal conversation his voice was low, slow-paced, and assured, but at the times when he was directing and needed a certain amount of overstatement in a scene, he would become histrionic, almost hammy in his utterances.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

 

The Clansman aka The Birth of a Nation

A villain was labeled, “This is a villain: hate him,” as clearly as though he had worn a sign to that effect around his neck. Walter Long became a terrifying monster as Gus, the black rapist-murderer. Walter made no effort to look like a real Negro. He put on the regular minstrel-man blackface makeup, so there could be no mistake about who and what he was. Lillian Gish was the perfection of Wordsworth’s poetic dream of the dawn, like a nun, breathless with adoration.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh was her own adorable self, a prankish little hoyden cute as a bug’s ear, the sort of kid sister everyone would love to have. Elmer Clifton was a gay young blade in his brave blue-and-gold, the beau ideal of the gallant youth of song and story. Walthall was nobility personified, representing all the best in human nature, untainted by the slightest stigma of the worst. The Little Colonel would fight, yes, but only in defense of his sacred homeland. He never killed anyone, even in the heat of battle. He was content to charge the enemy, ram the flag into their cannon’s mouth, and then retire to his ruined mansion, covered with honor and with very little else, such being the fruits of defeat. But he bore his disaster bravely as a gentleman should, never complaining, never repining. And so on throughout the length of the picture.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 3

Type-casting absolutely, not because Griffith wanted it so but because his audience, that million-headed but single-hearted monster, had to have its villains and its heroes clearly labeled so it could know whom to cheer for and whom to hiss. I now felt secure about Griffith and his Clansman, however revolting the original story might be. Griffith controlled his studio and everyone in it. There was no doubt of that. But the peanuts-and-popcorn audience controlled Griffith, and as long as he lived, thought, and had his being with the strictest of compliance with their unspoken wishes, he could do no wrong.

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

Hearts of the World

Another time Griffith’s obsession with music showed itself was when we took a very long shot of the battlefield strewn with dead and with Lillian Gish running from corpse to corpse, looking for her beloved.* Correction: she fluttered from corpse to corpse. A lot of little quick steps, a pause, a look, then some more quick little fluttering steps, another look, and so on.

Hearts of The World Program
Hearts of The World Program

It was during the making of this scene that Griffith exclaimed, with a sense of sudden inspiration, that the Lohengrin Wedding March, the familiar “Here Comes the Bride,” was in exactly the same time and rhythm of the equally familiar Funeral March from the Chopin sonata. It seemed to astonish him that two such opposite sentiments, the extreme of happiness and the extreme of grief, should be couched in exactly the same musical terms, except that one was in the major mode, the other in the minor. These are the sort of peripheral observations that somehow cling to the mind.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Another was the time when I went to the camera room for something and found Bitzer there with Frank Woods, Barry, and that man of mystery, Harry Aitken. I don’t know what had gone before, but Bitzer was saying, “Oh sure. Why not. The money’s doing you no good. Get it for you soon as the bank opens in the morning.” I think it must have been Aitken who asked, “Why not give us a check now.” Save you all that trouble.” “I don’t have a checking account. It’s all in savings. Don’t worry. I’ll get you the ten thousand tomorrow morning and that’s a promise.” “We need it now, for the payroll.” Bitzer shook his head. “Sorry. It’s past four. Bank’s closed.” “We’ll open it. Come on. Let’s go.” They hustled him out toward the car waiting outside. It struck me then, for the first time, that there was more to making a picture than shooting long shots and close-ups. There was also the matter of finding the money to pay for everything that went into the making of a picture, and this could be a severe problem with a producer like Griffith throwing money right and left with both hands.

Hearts of The World - Adv2

 

Daphne and the Pirate

The expansion of the studio accelerated at an explosive rate. More directors, more cameramen came and went with dizzying frequency. Billy Fildew was taken out of the projection room and given a camera. I was with him on his first picture, serving as second, or back-up, cameraman.

Daphne and the Pirate
Daphne and the Pirate

The picture was Daphne and the Pirate, starring, of all people, Lillian Gish! It seemed unimaginable that so sensationally successful a beautiful young star could be cast in a swashbuckling sea story directed by Christy Cabanne, but there it was. I think the decision to make this particular picture was influenced by the fact that there were two old square riggers available from the Ince company. One, the Alden Bessie, was a round-bottomed whaler, the other a sharp-prowed clipper, the John C. Fremont.

Daphne and the Pirate
Daphne and the Pirate

So we put to sea, not in a pea-green boat but with pea-green complexions that everyone developed as soon as the ground swell caught these empty old hulks and started them well on their way toward a new world’s record for plain-and-fancy rolling. Few if any experiences can be less enjoyable than rolling under a broiling sun in an ancient whaler, reeking of the fishiest of stenches, that of whale oil that had gone rancid fifty years ago and that was becoming more and more rancid by the minute.

Daphne and the Pirate
Daphne and the Pirate

One incident that impressed me as being typical of our sudden change from the lowly movie to the lofty cinema was the time when Cabanne asked our leading man, Elliott Dexter, to walk the plank as called for in the script. Whereupon our hero spoke with crushing dignity, “I was engaged as a personator, sir; not as an acrobat!” Whereupon Tom Wilson, playing a bandanned, ear-ringed pirate, spoke contemptuously, “Aw, hell, we’ll do it. Gimme his clothes.” The change was made, the scene was shot, and nobody knew the difference when the scene reached the screen.

Daphne and the Pirate
Daphne and the Pirate

 

Intolerance

Constance Talmadge, who had played a fancy dressed-up part in the French episode, was playing a rough, tough, onion-chewing hoyden in this one. She was so wonderfully well liked that nobody ever thought of calling her Miss Talmadge. She was Connie, and she loved it. Connie had to drive her chariot all over everywhere in a wild ride to the rescue of someone, somewhere, who seemed to be in a lot of trouble, nobody knew just what.

Anyway, we got the rides to the rescue all safely on film and maybe later Griffith would come up with someone in dire need of rescuing. We ran the Assyrian army forward, backward, sideways, and crosswise. We shot them in close-ups and long shots, on the land and splashing through the water. I even took a chance on shooting one onrushing scene with a K-3, or deep-yellow filter, and then double-exposing a crescent moon into the resultantly dark sky, together with a wisp of cloud moving over the moon. Luckily everything balanced out and the shot went into the picture.

When we ran out of things to do with the Assyrian army, we went back to the studio and did some shots of Lillian Gish rocking a cradle, all to the tune of Walt Whitman’s poetry, which Griffith recited with great feeling and surprisingly good delivery, considering how outstandingly lousy he was as an actor. It must have been one of his good days. Then we did shots of the Three Fates, hooded old women sitting in a row. One spins a web of yarn from a whirling distaff, the second measures it out more or less at random, while the third snips the cord with a pair of sheep shears. This was Life itself, in the making, the living, and the ending.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

Woodbury knew the names of all three, but I could remember only the name of the third, which was Atropos, whose snipping shears made such a gruesome sound that Griffith exclaimed, “Gahhhd! If we could only get that sound. He had said that very same thing once before, when the cross was lying flat on the ground in the Biblical story, and the Nazarene, spread-eagled, was being nailed with heavy spikes driven by a heavy hammer into the solid timbers, which gave out a deep-ringing sound that still makes my flesh crawl whenever I remember that moment.

Intolerance
Intolerance

“Gahhhd! If we could only get that sound!” Well, he could have had it. Everyone could have had it. Sound came first, with the Edison phonograph. Pictures with sound came second when Edison tried, unsuccessfully, to coordinate the two. The two had been joined by others, and the sound-and-picture combination had been demonstrated many years earlier. Yes, and color, too. But nobody wanted it. Pictures were selling well as they were. Let well enough alone . .

Intolerance Original Program 1

10-Adventures-with-Griffith

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present – Ally Acker (1991)

REEL WOMEN – Ally Acker

Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present (1991)

we know about Griffith, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Scorcese. But what about Blache, eber, Dulac, Lupino, and von Trotta? These women were just as essential and transformative to the cinema and yet their story has remained untold — until now.

  • The first director to tell a story on the screen was a woman.
  • The highest paid director in the days of silent films was a woman.
  • Even Helen Keller produced and starred in her own film in 1919.
  • The first film editor to receive solo screen credit was a woman.
  • The pioneer of social consciousness in film was a woman.
Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

ACTRESSES TURNED DIRECTOR/ PRODUCER

Lillian Gish (1896 – ……..)

“I never had a double or a stand-in,” Lillian Gish remarked to me proudly, “I did it all myself. The blizzard (in Way Down East [1920]—I was facing it. The wind on the peninsula was terrible. The snow as it came against my face melted, and on my eyelashes— icicles! And Griffith yelled at the cameraman, ‘Billy, Billy get that face!’ And he said, ‘I will if the oil in the camera hasn’t frozen,’ and he got that face!” And thus, is told the story behind how D. W. Griffith filmed his very first close-up. “But why did you do it if you knew you might have died?” I asked. Her look at me was one of kind impatience.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

“Because the camera would know it!” she said as though it were self-evident. “That camera is more dissecting than anything that’s ever been invented. You stay in front of it long enough, and it tells, as John Barrymore said, what you had for breakfast. You can’t fool it! And had it been another person lying on that ice, you’d know it from the way they moved. It would tell on you.”Such characteristics mark the pioneer. Actions born out of necessity.

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

But aside from doing her own stunt work (something that wasn’t unusual for either women or men of the early silent era), Lillian Gish was put in the director’s seat by D. W. Griffith in 1920 with a picture called remodeling her husband (1920). The picture starred and was written by Lillian’s sister Dorothy. Griffith believed that, since Lillian and Dorothy were all but linked at the hip, Lillian would be able to extract a kind of able, insightful, comedic performance out of her sister that might elude even Griffith. “He confidently assured Lillian,” says Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, “that because she was a woman, she’d be in a better position to deal with financial and production hassles than he was.”

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband

All lapses in such logic aside, he seemed to be right—especially when you consider Griffith’s well-publicized, poor reputation for handling finances. Gish brought the picture in on time and under budget. It cost $50,000 and saw a sweet return of $460,000. It ultimately became the second biggest money-maker of all of Dorothy Gish’s comedies. Given a totally free hand at their choice of material, they decided on a funny piece of business that Dorothy had spotted in a magazine. The story told of a husband who accuses his wife of being too dowdy. Says Marjorie Rosen: No more than an amusingly expanded one-liner, in the hands of a female director and star, this film evolved into a novel approach to handling masculine dissatisfaction and feminine pliability. . . . How many male directors would have permitted — or utilized—a story which, though light, mocked men and their eccentric notions of beauty? Although the picture was a moderate success, Lillian Gish said, “Directing is no career for a lady.”

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

Apparently, the  administrative hassles were more than she cared to handle. Yet don’t let this Victorian modesty fool you—for that’s exactly what it was. Griffith left a number of pictures in the able hands of Gish. She produced many of her own films after 1920, even if she didn’t always take the credit. After her official directorial debut, Gish then starred in several major films of minor companies that gave her control over scripts and choice of directors. She received the same privileges when she joined MGM in 1925 and chose King Vidor and Victor Seastrom to direct her in “La Boheme” [1926] and “The Scarlet Letter” [1926] respectively.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
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

When she was doing “Orphans of the Storm” (1922), she had to come down the steps from the guillotine, after she was released from a beheading, and she met her sister: “I hadn’t cared for the way Griffith had rehearsed and done it,” said Gish, “He used to tease me by calling me Miss ‘GEEESH.’

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

“Apparently Miss ‘GEEESHE’ (she mimicks Griffith) doesn’t like what- we’re doing.” “Oh, it’s as good as a scene in any of your other films, Mr. Griffith. I just think more is expected of you.” He says, “If you’re so smart, get up there and do it better!” Well, I got down the steps and played it the way I felt it should be played. There were fifty to a hundred extras there. He got down on both knees and kissed my hand and said, “She’s always right!”

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

As his number one box-office attraction, Griffith would be foolish not to listen to what Gish had to say. He once remarked, “She is not only the best actress in her profession, but she has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”Fortunately, they respected each other mutually as artists and as people and were able to work out a collaboration that would benefit the entire world for generations to come. Although Gish was wed countless times on the screen, she never married in real life. The reaction to such independence and loyalty to her career was the rise of nasty rumors of an incestual relationship with her sister, Dorothy. Resolved to keep her private life private, she was nonetheless hounded, quite unsuccessfully, by one George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

She later confessed: What kind of wife would I have made? A good wife is a seven day a week, twenty-four-hour-a-day job. I was devoted to the studio. I loved many beautiful men but I never ruined their lives. Not unlike women in other time-consuming lines of work, women in film seem to feel that marriage to your work precludes any other type of personal allegiances. Gish won a special Oscar for her cumulative work in 1970.

After a long screen absence, she returned for a special appearance in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978), and kept on going with her 104th film in “The Whales of August” (1987) with Bette Davis. At the time, Gish was ninety-one.

Above: “A Wedding” photo gallery, below – “The Whales of August” 1987

Ally Acker  – 1991

Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present
Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

 

Black & White & Red – By David Denby (The New Yorker) 2012

The New Yorker Critic’s Notebook – January 9, 2012 Issue

Black & White & Red 

By David Denby – January 2, 2012

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, the adulterous heroine of “The Scarlet Letter,” was a grand, serious, and reserved young woman, but, in the great 1926 silent movie based on the novel (screening Jan. 9 at Film Forum), directed by Victor Sjöström (or Seastrom, as he was known in Hollywood), Lillian Gish takes the role in surprising directions: she allows Hester some touches of conventional vanity; she’s even coquettish at times. Meeting her lover, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), in the woods, she rips off the scarlet “A,” removes her cap, shakes loose a magnificent pile of hair, and primps for a second. The most liquid of actresses, Gish goes from stillness to seething moments of anxiety and fear, with a few shafts of pure defiant pleasure thrown in. Sjöström’s production, shot at M-G-M, has a richness of austerity—the black-and-white Puritan-era costumes are almost abstract in their simplicity; the rooms are stern, bare, uncomfortable. But, outside, the woods offer a kind of stippled erotic paradise.

David Denby – January 2, 2012

 

Back to Lillian Gish Home page