Like all creative artists who venture away from the beaten tracks, D. W. Griffith is impelled and guided by a big force—a force which he himself, perhaps, does not understand.
By Louise Williams
INCENSE floated out from the stage, while the notes of a balalaika orchestra threaded a plaintive melody back and forth through the fabric that was being woven in the mind of the audience. Far back in a corner of one of the upper boxes sat D. W. Griffith, hat drawn down over his eyes, chin sunk deep in his overcoat collar, watching unobtrusively to see how New York would take “Broken Blossoms,” the result of his last straying from the beaten paths of picture making, and the first picture of his repertoire series. “I wonder,” thought I as I watched him, “whether you really knew, when you began this picture, what you were going to achieve—or whether you’re a marionette ?” For the big, creative geniuses, you know, are often like marionettes, obeying the guiding hands of invisible puppeteers, which pull the strings that make them perform. Ibsen, for example, said that his great allegory, “Peer Gynt,” was written in response to a mighty impulse, and that not until the work had been completed for several months did he understand and appreciate w hat he had done.
That Griffith was, after this manner, a marionette,” mysteriously impelled, I learned to my intense satisfaction a few morning’s later, when he invited a small group to attend a special showing of the new picture. The party was composed of Nevinson, the official British War artist, who was in the States for two weeks, and who had illustrated Burke’s “Limehouse Nights,” an art critic, a musician and dramatic critic, and myself.
“We didn’t have any idea that this picture would take hold in the way it has,” Griffith remarked with the most unassuming frankness as we stood, discussing the picture, after the showing was over. “It was originally intended to be just a regular picture, so far as presentation was concerned. But something impelled ne—the story, in the first place. I believed in it. Personally, I think that Thomas Burke is about the only writer doing anything original nowadays, and his ‘Chink and the Child,’ from which we made this picture, has a big message, which ought to do much toward internationalizing human sympathy. Of course, we broke all the rules when we did this story ; it has a yellow man for a hero, instead of a white one ; it’s tragedy throughout ; there are no quick, snappy bits ; the story moves very slowly. But I believe that it shows convincingly that we’re wrong when we labor under the delusions that Americans are superior to those they call ‘foreigners.’ No nation can-do that—just as no nation can afford to think that it represents all the beauty and heroism and ideals in the world.” As he talked on I began to see how the strings that moved him have been pulled in other cases. Take “The Birth of a Nation,” for instance ; the idea of making an enormous, spectacular production held him there.
“Intolerance” was the most vivid sort of pageantry, with a besetting sin of all nations linking the ages together. “Hearts of the World” was inspired by the idea of making a war picture on the battlefields. “True Heart Susie” dares to be commonplace, despite the fact that to see dramatic possibilities in everyday life is a difficult thing for most of us. Yet Griffith does not look like the sort of man whose life is swayed by big ideas, or, perhaps, not like we’d expect such a man to look. He is as little of a poseur as any hardware merchant. Genuinely interested in making motion pictures that will more nearly approach the highest standards than those which we now have, he is ever ready to accept suggestions, perfectly straightforward in acknowledging his own shortcomings, and quite willing to laugh at himself. Rather English in appearance, and very friendly in manner, he seemed to me to be just the material that something tremendous worked with—just a marionette.
“I don’t know exactly what to say,” he remonstrated when asked how he succeeded in teaching an actor to “put over” a character as vividly as those in “Broken Blossoms” are portrayed. “Of course I know Chinamen and have lived among them; I tried to put what I know of them into that picture. “But you must remember that the camera can’t lie; it seems to bore through superficial features and pull the character to the surface. So an actor must have in him some of the essentials of the character he’s portraying, and my part in helping an actor to play a role is just to give him the idea of it. Then he works out the part as he sees it, and I talk it over with him and help him to get his idea expressed—to crystallize it, you might say. Of course we build up a picture—this was especially true of ‘Broken Blossoms’—not word by word, but emotion by emotion.
And an actor must have faith in his ability to build up a role in this way, and in his director’s ability to help him, if we’re going to make really good pictures.” He said nothing of the faith which it takes to produce a picture that fairly tempts Fate in its defiance of the usual standards or to put through a brand-new idea, such as that of the repertoire theater for motion pictures. “Broken Blossoms” last May began Mr. Griffith’s repertoire season at the Cohan Theater in New York; followed by the Babylonian episode from “Intolerance,” it includes “The Mother of the Law,” a drama of simple home life, which might be classed with “True Heart Susie,” and revivals of some other former Griffith successes. That was the program at this writing. It marks a new departure in motion pictures, though only after the season is over can one say whether it will be a successful one or not, but those who read as they run declare that its existence is just another of the signboards which Mr. Griffith follows when he turns aside from the beaten path. Curiosity as to how he helped those who work with him to create a role in this way led me straight to Lillian Gish; I wanted to see if she, too, caught the big ideas that govern her director.
“Why, I don’t know; ‘Broken Blossoms’ was such an easy picture to do,” she said in answer to my question, after we’d visited a bit. “Mr. Griffith always talks over a character with you, of course, and then when you are making the scene he stands by and sort of fills it in; tells you what’s going on. For instance, in that scene where I was locked in the closet and my father was trying to break down the door and kill me—it wouldn’t have done for me to remember that Mr. Crisp, who played the part of my father, had finished his scenes and gone fishing, would it?” She stopped to laugh a moment, and I wished the screen could show how blue her eyes are and how yellow her hair is. “So Mr. Griffith stood there by the camera, and said: ‘He’s going to kill you ; he’ll surely break down the door; now he’s got an ax, and he’ll break in and you can’t escape—and he’ll kill you with that whip he’s beaten you with——’ Not exactly those words, of course, but things like that that would fill in the mental picture for me.”
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
And looking at that slim, pretty girl, with her childish mouth that shows a hint of the roguishness that makes her sister Dorothy such a charming comedienne, I wondered more than ever how she had been able to portray Lucy’s dull little mind and the great, tearing fear that fairly leaped out from the screen and caught the audience in its grasp.
“You see,” she went on after a moment’s thought, “it’s getting the idea of a part that helps most—if you have that well in your head it moves everything you do. I knew Lucy so well after reading Burke’s story that it didn’t seem as if I myself did anything at all. Mr. Griffith gave me the main ideas for my work, and then—well, I just went ahead.” So apparently his idea had been pulling the strings that moved Lillian Gish as well. And Richard Barthelmess, who plays the Chinaman, quite frankly admitted that something—he didn’t exactly know what—had governed his playing of Cheng Huan.
“I didn’t really know whether I was being Chinese or just being different,” he told me with a worried look in his brown eyes. “You see, somebody else had been rehearsing that part, and then one day Mr. Griffith said he’d like to see me do it, so I did, and he cast me for it. But I’d just been doing light-comedy roles with Dorothy Gish, you know, and of course this was so different that—but then Mr. Griffith emphasizes character a lot, you know, more than anything else. And he gave me the idea of that role so clearly that it wasn’t at all hard to do.”
There you are again. Mr. Griffith gave him the idea, and it was the idea behind the work of Griffith himself that made the picture. So that last little talk seemed to complete the circle of marionettes—with the big conception of new things for the screen, which always, in one form or another, sways Griffith as the power that sets them all in motion.
The Great Love (Artcraft, 1918) Lillian Gish Robert Harron – Artcraft Poster
Picture Play Magazine – Vol. IX September 1918 No.1
When England Woke
IT was in a base hospital in London that the idea came to D. W. Griffith out of which grew the big war story of the awakening of England’s social butterflies, soon to be released under the title, “The Great Love.”
“Here is the message American women need,” Griffith exclaimed, as he watched a titled Englishwoman ministering to a wounded soldier. Immediately he set to work to get the pictures of the society and noblewomen who have plunged themselves into war work. Both Queen Mary and the Dowager Queen Alexandra consented to pose for him, the latter appearing in the photograph, taken while on an errand of mercy and cheer to one of England’s fighters. In the picture below are Bettina Stuart-Wortley, Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, the most famous beauty in English society, and Violet Asquith, daughter of the ex-premier of England.
The cast of “The Great Love,” headed by Henry B. Walthall, includes Lillian Gish, George Fawcett, Robert Harron, George Seigmann, Mansfield Stanley, Rosemary Theby, Gloria Hope, and other players who appeared in “Hearts of the World.”
Excerpts from Picture Play Magazine March – July, 1929
Lillian In New Phase.
Lillian Gish’s career, suspended for more than a year, is to be resumed. She will be directed by Max Reinhardt, the famous European stage producer, in a picture called “The Miracle Girl.” Lillian has just returned to Hollywood after a many months’ absence. She has sojourned part of the time in New York, which she likes, and the rest in Europe, which she loves even more. As regards Hollywood, it does not occupy the leading spot in Lillian’s affections, but she confesses that it is, after all, about the best place to make pictures. And she has tried various other localities during her experience.
Lillian begins virtually a new stage of her professional life with the undertaking of “The Miracle Girl.” It will be her first film under her contract with United Artists. After many years, she will once again work on the same lot as Mary Pickford, as they did in the old Griffith Biograph days.
To … talk or not to talk?
Lillian Gish must feel a little like an animal trainer who returns from a trip to find that the gentle little lion that she reared as a cub has become a raging beast.” “But what is she going to do about it ?”
“I don’t know exactly. But you can count on it that she and Max Reinhardt working together won’t turn out one of these strange hybrids that are neither good stage technique, nor good movie. Lillian’s voice should be very interesting. She studied three or four years ago for the stage, and even before she went for vocal training, her voice had a soft, resonant quality that was touching.”
“Pictures change so fast,” I remarked, and even as I said it, I realized that we used to object strenuously, because they were always the same. Nevertheless, I am sorry the inventor of sound devices wasn’t strangled at birth. I long for the days of the good, old, silent drama, even though dialogue films have made it possible to film my pet murder stories.
HOLLYWOOD simply can’t become highbrow.
Every time the film colony tries to soar to empyreal aesthetic heights, a constitutional ailment develops. Then some famous visitor’s feelings are hurt, and he goes home in a huff. The latest to take his departure in haste and disgust is Max Reinhardt, the famous German stage producer. Brought over here some six months ago to make a Lillian Gish starring picture, he never so much as shot a single scene.
Difficulties over story and contract, and uncertainty about talking pictures and other problems, reputedly came to the fore while he was preparing the production, and finally an agreement to disagree was reached between him and the studio executives. He sailed for Europe a few weeks ago. Reinhardt can console himself with the fact that others who came and saw, but did not wholly conquer, included at various times Maurice Maeterlinck, Sir Gilbert Parker, Michael Aden, William J. Locke, who just recently left, not to speak of numerous lights of the New York literary and show world. It would seem oftentimes that the picture realm likes to toy with great reputations, and that’s what occasionally gives Hollywood a name closely synonymous with Boobville.
Excerpts from Hollywood High Lights (Edwin and Elza Schallert), Over The Teacups, Picture Play Magazine March – July, 1929
The latest news of what the film folk are doing out there in the movie town.
By Edwin and Elza Schallert
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes – The Wind
Lillian Gish in a Hurricane.
“The Wind,” Lillian Gish’s next picture, promises to be unusually interesting. The story deals with the terrible Texas gales, such as have recently wrought such disaster. Miss Gish has never made a film of quite the same character. Many of the scenes have been filmed on location in the Mohave Desert, and she underwent the hardship of acting in driving sandstorms induced by huge wind machines that succeeded in stirring up the sand in a most amazingly realistic way. The technical crew on the production could wear goggles while working, but Miss Gish, of course, had to go through her part, without glasses, in the very midst of the artificial hurricane. There are several big roles in the film. Lars Hanson has the male lead, and Montagu Love is the heavy.
The Wind – Photo Gallery
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind
Lars Hanson Promotional The Wind
The Wind Proposal
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) and Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)
The Wind – Lillian Gish
circa 1922: Lillian Diana Gish, originally Lillian de Guiche (1893 – 1993), made her stage debut at the age of 5. She played a lot of waif type heroines during her silent film career but never quite made the successful transition to talking pictures. She returned to the stage in 1930. An Academy Award was presented to her in 1971.
The Wind – Saw dust and smokepots
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish (Rear) – The Wind
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, publicity photo for The Wind (Letty Mason and Lige Hightower)
Lillian Gish – The Wind (1928) – Nov 27 USA
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portriat of Lillian Gish in profile]; ca. 1930; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.467
Picture Play Magazine Volume XXII July, 1925 No. 5
An Illustrious Sister Act
An appraisal of the art of Lillian Gish, who is about to begin a new phase of her long career, with a few words about her sister Dorothy.
By Malcolm H. Oettinger
IF you or some other curious person were to stop me some summer morning and ask point blank: “Who is the best actress unrolling her talents on celluloid?” I- should, -without quibbling, cast my two or three votes—for such is the system in Pennsylvania — in favor of Lillian Gish. When serious thinkers and cynical souls of all sexes begin to crown the baby art with wild raspberries it is always possible to exact a temporary reprieve for the films by mentioning Lillian Gish. Such reluctant optimists as George Jean Nathan and Joseph Hergesheimer have dedicated psalms to Lillian; aloof fellows, they have abandoned their usual frapped poise to compose veritable paeans of praise in her honor. No one can doubt the sincerity of these testimonials; no one can question the worthiness of the recipient.
Her work in “Broken Blossoms” alone is sufficient evidence. Those who refuse to consider one count as final are referred to “The White Sister,” in which the Gish sincerity made one forget the glucose sentimentality: “Way Down East,” in which her poignant characterization gleamed like a diamond in a popcorn ball; “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Griffith blended her gifts with a moving symphony of tremendous power.
Lillian Gish could wring my heart even if she played Little Eva or Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model; she has the steadily glowing spark of genius. Her great performances are not occasional, they are consistent. Nor is hers an art that must, like virtue, be, to some extent, its own reward. Unfortunate contractual agreements have handicapped her, but that her box-office value has remained intact was shown by the line-up of producers who, glowering at each other, stormed the lobby of her hotel upon the recent announcement that a Federal judge had declared her free from all claims of her late impresario, and open to new offers. As you probably know, she decided, after weighing all offers, to sign with Metro-Goldwyn.
Ordinarily it is simple to write of the ladies of the screen. They are bound to be beautiful, in varying degree ; they are likely to be engaging, if only as a concession to their great public ; occasionally they turn out to be clever. Writing of Lillian Gish is more difficult. Standing head and shoulders above her sister players, she is to be pointed out as the one artiste of the silver so-called sheet. Nazimova was mentioned in the same breath until she began to look upon picture making as a Ford owner looks upon a one-man top. Now it is Lillian Gish alone. (The Negri of “Passion” flashed across the horizon and disappeared, never, apparently, to return.
The rest of the ladies—Swanson, Pickford, Talmadge—hold no claim to greatness save as tremendously popular favorites.) There is no hocus pocus to encounter and overcome before gaining an audience with Lillian Gish. Granted a reasonably good phone connection, a taxi, and an elevator, and you stand at her door without further ado. And very likely she will open it.
She is delicately beautiful, with haunting eyes set far apart, dainty nose verging on the retrousse, and lips that a more pyrotechnical phrasemaker would term rosebud. They are small and curved and shy. But in describing her you are certain to come back to her eyes—soulful, wistful, fine eyes that seem to say, “I am a little disillusioned, a little weary, a trifle sad, but tomorrow may be brighter.” Her manner is reserved, almost timid. Her poise extends to the point of placidity. She is balanced and calm and thoughtful In her opinions. Her conversation further reveals her underlying tolerance regarding all things. When we discussed the theater—and she had seen everything from “The Miracle” to “Abie’s Irish Rose”—she was kindly in her judgments, speaking well of most plays and performers, maintaining a significant silence to indicate disapproval. “How fine it would be,” she remarked, “if the Theater Guild were to create a sister organization that would function through motion pictures ! The Guild has done so many splendid things. The screen could well afford such a group of artistic producers.” She spoke of the cruel necessity for condensing pictures to meet standard theater requirements. “After we’ve put months and months into the planning and making and careful cutting of a picture play,” she said, “it hurts terribly to see it slashed mercilessly until it is inside the two-hour limit. Jumps appear, continuity ceases … what have you? … I always feel a personal loss when a scene is hacked away, a scene that may have represented days of careful work. . . . Yet I realize the practical necessity for reducing a feature picture to regular running time.” She sighed, and a helpless little frown appeared. “That is. where we are so handicapped.
We must always bow to practical demands. The sculptor does not. The author does not. No one dictates to the poet or the sincere playwright. Yet the artist working in the medium of films is permanently hobbled by certain restrictions and fetishes and unwritten laws.” When she talks it is quietly, briefly. The quotations you are reading did not flow forth. They are a series of observations gathered, assorted, and bound together. I had seen Lillian Gish at Mamaroneck in 1921 when she was engaged in making “Orphans of the Storm.” Seeing her again reminded me how little she had changed. To my notion, the remarkable thing is her utter lack of affectation, her absolute sincerity, her genuine simplicity and naturalness. After all, when you pause to consider that here is the great actress of the screen, worthy of being ranked among the great stage figures of her time, the absence of pomp and importance is a bit amazing. She has nothing of that charming artificiality or artificial charm, if you will, characteristic of so many actresses. She has charm alone. Midway during my visit Dorothy Gish joined us. Were one to search the seven seas one could find no contrast more complete than the sisters Gish. Together they form the last word in opposite temperaments. Dorothy Gish is the modernist, fresh from shopping on Fifth Avenue, luncheon at Pierre’s, and Dorothy Gish is the the latest in shingles ; Lillian – is the classic-modernist, impetuos, observant, thoughtful, reserved. Dorothy is impetuous, fleeting, impulsive, flip; Lillian pensive, deliberate, calculating”, practical.
The little disturber is typical of the young American; Lillian, Old World, aristocratic. Dorothy spoke glowingly of the Duncan sisters, “The Firebrand,” Heifetz, Nurmi, Robert Edmond Jones, and the weather ; Lillian listened, smiling. (“I’ve seen ‘Rain’ nine times,” Dorothy exclaimed. “Whenever it comes near New York I see it over and over. Jeanne Eagles, grows better every time I see her. She’s marvelous, wonderful, superb!”) Dorothy is an opportunist, reckless perhaps, but gay, and ever on the go.
Lillian is the planner, cautious, even reluctant in taking decisive steps. Well she may be. From a purely commercial viewpoint hers has been a heart-breaking career. Time after time fortune has hovered above her head, only to fade into thin air before becoming a reality. Griffith never was able to pay huge salaries because of the reckless manner in which he mounts his pictures and the leisure with which he completes them. The Frohman Corporation signed her as a high-salaried star, then promptly dissolved. And latterly Inspiration Films had proven inspired only in so far as acting has been concerned. Both Dick Barthelmess and Henry King had legal difficulties over the trying matter of remuneration, and then Miss Gish was obliged to resort to courts for adjustment of her affairs with them. Her last picture with Inspiration was “Romola,” in which Dorothy shares honors.
“We spent six months in Italy on ‘Romola,’ ” said Lillian. “We were completely absorbed in it. A beautiful story. I had always had my heart set upon doing it. “We worked night and day. While light permitted we would And locations and take exteriors. At night at the hotel we would rewrite the script, adjusting it in many instances to local conditions.” The fact that Lillian Gish has directed pictures and is fully conversant with the technical side of the studio increased her cares tenfold. There were huge dynamos to he imported from Rome, trucks to be located, currents to be converted, licenses to be obtained.
“There were a hundred and one difficulties to overcome.” Her slender white hands fluttered in a descriptive gesture. “The places for backgrounds that were in reach of lighting equipment. Extras. Dependable technical assistants. The authorities were most kind, but there were so many obstacles.
“I loved Florence, though,” said Dorothy. “So did Ronald Colman and Henry King.” “We saw them in Hollywood recently,” Lillian interposed. “We went out for the opening of ‘Romola.’ They said they wanted more Florence and less Hollywood. . . . How that little town has changed. I hadn’t seen it for years and years. . . . Since ‘Intolerance.’ It was a nice little country town then. Make-shift. Delightful. Now it’s … it’s so grown-up !” Dorothy was reminded of Michael Aden,, a favorite of the moment. Lillian expressed her admiration for the new Burke autobiography, “The Wind and the Rain.” Both of the blond sisters had enjoyed Milne’s inimitable “When We Were Very Young.” They were curious regarding the Sinclair Lewis novel, “Arrowsmith.”
Although you would never learn such things from Lillian herself, it is true that she- has made tremendous sacrifices for her various successes. In “Way Down East” she played in a raging blizzard until she collapsed before the camera. Her hands were frozen. During the making of “Broken Blossoms” she lost thirteen pounds in ten days as a result of the high emotional tension under which she was laboring. For “The White Sister” she worked night and day all of the final week to complete it on time. Despite all this she looks youthful and fresh, twenty-five perhaps, pink and white, ethereal. There is nothing of the theater about her even though she has devoted something over fifteen years to stage and screen.
“The trying part of picture making,!’ she confessed gently, “is the combining art and business. You are expected to create just as one creates a painting or a symphony, yet you must submit to efficiency men, time clocks, schedules, and manufacturers’ methods. It strikes me as incongruous. . . . Yet I can see perfectly why it is so. But until things undergo a distinct change it will remain an herculean task to lift pictures above the machine-like standards of “program features.'” By the time these lines appear, Lillian Gish should he in Los Angeles, at work on “The Outsider.” But wherever her present—and I trust, more gratifying—contract may take her, Lillian Gish still will remain the great actress of the screen.
Lillian Gish – Vanity Fair April 1925 detail
Lillian Gish Master for Way Down East cover, here in ROMOLA (photo 1925) detail
Lillian Gish Inspiration Pictures Romola High Resolution Promotional
William Powell lends a much-needed note of humanness and charm to those abused screen characters.
By Nadeyne Fergus
WHEN I had five stage failures in one year I decided it was about time to think of making a decent living again.” Thus did William Powell concisely and eloquently explain the question of how it all happened. I had met this fascinating screen intriguer in a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, than which there seems no place more outlandishly isolated to the New Yorker. And after we started talking and Mr. Powell began to radiate something that must be the “It” Elinor Glyn talks about, I forgot that I had planned to stay only long enough to collect a few facts and rush back to civilization. What cared I if I were two hours late for dinner? You don’t meet “It” every day. But, you are probably thinking, if William Powell is so charming as all that, why such a disastrous stage record? Alas, it isn’t only being a good actor or an attractive personality that matters nowadays. As a matter of fact William Powell was a clever, capable actor with ten years’ stage training in all kinds of parts. But his experience is typical of a curious situation that now exists on the stage. Plays open in New York constantly and with much trumpeting. Plays die out in New ‘ York almost as constantly, but without the trumpeting. And when they die in New York,- that is the end of them. “There is practically no road any more,” said Mr. Powell. “Whether it’s the movies, or the radio, that has killed it, is hard to say. But the stage actor to-day can depend really only upon the New York runs, and there are so many miserable plays that open only to flop that even that is becoming more hazardous all the time. Why, I know any number of clever, responsible actors who are hanging around the Lambs Club and other places, without jobs, pretty nearly broke.
“So when I realized that the stage wasn’t what it used to be and that I would have to do something to insure a livable income, I thought of the movies. Luckily, white I was still on the stage, I had played a small part in “Sherlock Holmes” with John Barrymore, who had seen me in “Spanish Love” and asked me to appear in the picture. That served as an introduction, and I have been on the screen now for over two years.” In talking with him you become conscious that he is just the sort of person to play characters with a dash of devilment. Not that he is devilish, but in his rather strange blue eyes there is a potentiality of adventure, a promise of impetuous romance, that is very effective in arousing feminine interest and that seems particularly suited to such parts. He has just the thing we need to make our so-called villains more like the human and all-too-likable persons such characters very often are in real life. His performance of Tito in “Romola” brought forth much praise from the critics and caused considerable wonderment within the industry as to how it managed to slide through the cutter’s fingers.
Many persons who saw the production when it first appeared criticized Lillian Gish for making a picture in which she was almost a negligible figure, and in which the villain—of all persons—had the best acting part and most of the spotlight. But Mr. Powell explained that neither Miss Gish nor the director, Henry King, really wanted to go ahead with the picture. It was the choice of Charles Duell, president of the company, who, apparently, had power to overule every one else. Struggle as they would with the scenario, they could not fix it so that Miss Gish would have the chief interest, as a star naturally should. So it became a case of trying to save what story there was, let the interest fall where it would. Which is how it happened that William Powell was permitted to offer such a perfectly charming and magnetic sketch of an unscrupulous character that he snatched most of the sympathy and interest from a very fine and well-known cast. Usually, such things never get past the cutting room. When I saw him Mr. Powell was playing a hero—for the first time in pictures—in a film called “White Mice,” taken from the Richard Harding Davis adventure. His tall figure was clothed in a modern Palm Beach suit, which seemed rather a pity, for he is one of those rare actors who has a genuine flair for wearing costumes. And, even worse, the debonair mustache which seems so much a part of his personality, had been shaved off at the request of the company. They were afraid, perhaps, that the audience might not recognize him as the hero.
“Do you find much difference between playing heroes and villains?” I asked him. “No difference at all,” he answered promptly. You know, that’s the important thing about screen acting. You have to be careful not to grow type-conscious, and to have a certain set of tricks for a heavy role and another set for a hero. No matter what kind of a part I play, I just try to act like that particular human being and let the story explain whether I’m good or bad.”
This is rather a novel attitude for a film actor. And as has been said before, the secret of everything is in the attitude. That, probably, is what makes William Powell such a refreshing addition to any picture. You can always be sure that there will be a gleam of magnetism, a note of difference, in anything he does. Like Erich von Stroheim and Lew Cody he can play unscrupulous and even despicable characters so charmingly that you are anxious to forgive him and start all over again. Which, I have always thought, is the great test of screen personality. Later, after all our talk of acting, he suddenly surprised me by saying, “The more I see of picture making, the more I think that it is nine-tenths direction. The actor seldom has the chance he should to get really inside his part. I so often have a sense of bewilderment, a feeling that I haven’t really been able to grasp a scene, and I think that if I could have had a little more time to absorb it beforehand I would do so much better.
“You see, one of the hardest things about movie acting is keeping up with the new ideas the director gets overnight. You go to the studio in the morning, and discover that a scene you never heard of is going to be shot. You must jump right in and act it without any preliminary thought or preparation, and with only a sketchy outline from the director. You can see that an actor can’t get much satisfaction out of that system. “But it’s a fascinating game just the same. Even though there are a lot of things you wish were different, you keep right on. And then there is the credit side of the situation. On the stage you don’t have the variety of parts or contracts, the interesting side diversion. Neither do you have long trips to Italy, in which you can manage to see a good part of Europe in between times.’ And of course, with all that, you have a very nice salary.” William Powell so far has confined his screen activities to New York.
“I’ve been thinking a lot of going to the Coast,” he told me, “but” — with a rather wistful smile—”I hate to think of going so far away from the stage. You know,” he added more lightly, “we actors are always hoping that the great play will come along and that we will get the great part. And how terrible it would be to be in Hollywood if that happened!”
“Romola” came to New York about the same time that “Greed” opened. It is Lillian Gish’s latest picture but it is Miss Gish’s picture in name only. The movies are a foolish business and “Romola” proves it. Here we have a girl who is rightly considered one of the greatest actresses on the screen. Instead of choosing a story that gives her an opportunity for all of us to enjoy her great gifts, her advisers drag out a slice of insomnia by George Eliot which gives Miss Gish nothing to do but dress in a fifteenth century Florentine gown and lug great big heavy books around a handsome set. It seems plain foolishness to me and all the more incredible because it must have been consummated with the consent of Miss Gish herself.
As George Jean Nathan has told the world, Miss Gish is hot stuff at suggesting emotions rather than acting them out. The trouble with “Romola” is that she has no emotions to suggest. She has a few scenes of great acting but most of these scenes are done without the aid of any close-ups. It is great art but it is awfully rough on literal-minded audiences. They feel cheated, baffled, and enraged. “Romola” is the story of a girl of a noble Florentine house who is married by her father to a handsome young adventurer who has wormed his way into the blind man’s affections. The father dies and the husband becomes involved in Florentine politics, which were as shady then as they are now. The girl is neglected and the husband sets up a left-hand household with a pretty little half-wit.
The little half-wit is played by Dorothy Gish, who gives a performance that is sometimes excellent and occasionally perfectly trite. The main glory of the acting goes to William Powell, who has the only real part in the picture. Mr. Powell plays the role of the unscrupulous scoundrel but he plays it so lightly, so easily, and so zestfully that he runs away with all your interest and most of your sympathy. Ronald Colman is the hero who has nothing to do but sit in a corner and wait for Fate to kill off the villain. Mr. Colman grew a lovely head of bobbed hair for the part, while Mr. Powell wears a very obvious wig.
Nevertheless, Mr. Colman doesn’t even ‘get a chance to wave his hair in the breezes, so Mr. Powell romps off with the glory, wig or no wig. The direction by Henry King has moments of being great but the story is clumsily told and the characters rather muddled. However, much of this can be blamed on the difficulties of making pictures in Italy and on the hash that was wrought in this country when the right place.
For six months D. W. Griffith has been at work on what promises to be another of his monumental productions. The following is an impression of the immensity of the undertaking, and of the peculiar method by which the dean of directors works.
By Charles Gatchell
ON the north shore of Long Island Sound, not far from New York City, there is an estate of sloping lawns shaded by giant elms, on which Henry M. Flagler, the former Florida railroad magnate once planned to have erected what he hoped would be the most beautiful country home in America. It was to have been a monument to the success of a multimillionaire, as distinctively the last word in dwellings of its kind as the Woolworth Building and tower was the last word in its type of city architecture. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith is now completing a film production which I believe will be, in, its way, a monumental work, the last word in a certain phase through which motion pictures are passing; a phase which is marked by the purchase, at fabulous prices, of the great stage successes of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of time and care and money into plays for the screen. The play in question is “Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavor, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of one hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars for the screen rights stands, at this writing, as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is, to me, even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but I am going to endeavor to show something of the infinite pains with which the work is being done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.
It was a day set apart for work on interior scenes, which were to be filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home of the Bartlett family.
The set, which stood in the center of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. The fire-stained pots and kettles hung above the charred logs that lay across the andirons. All the rustic properties from the Seth Thomas clock to the farmer’s almanac had been carefully put in place as indicated on the detailed sketch. Twelve of these sketches had been made, from which but one was to be chosen ; twelve finished pieces of work, each a different design, combining, together, all of the most characteristic bits of home atmosphere which Mr. Griffith’s art director, an Oxford-trained authority on architecture and design, had found in a trip through New England. I was later to learn that before this set finally had been decided upon as satisfactory, four other sets previously had been built and torn down. Any one accustomed to the methods of other producers would have concluded, from the appearance of the studio, that everything was ready for action. From overhead, the set was bathed in the diffused light of the Kliegs. Through the open doorway at the right entrance came a flood of yellow sunshine thrown by that marvelous invention, the sun-ray arc, whose beams reproduce so literally those from which they take their name that if they shine upon you for long you will be burned as you would be by midsummer sunshine. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion-picture cameras, manned by the camera men and their assistants, while nearby was stationed the “still” photographer with his big bellows camera.
As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, Mr. Griffith, who was personally directing the production, had taken his position in the open space between the cameras and the front of the set—a distinctive figure—his rugged height accentuated by the short raincoat which hung, cape-wise, over his broad shoulders, and by the large derby hat which, tipped far back on his head, vaguely suggested the pictures of the Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland.”
But no command was given to the waiting camera men. There was no expectant hush, as when a conductor mounts the dais before an orchestra. The members of the cast, fully costumed and made up, knowing the methods of their chief, stood or sat about in little groups, as they had for several days, patiently waiting. The studio orchestra, for no particular reason was softly playing “Turkey in the Straw,” to which Martha Perkins, a prim and severe-looking New England spinster, was executing, with grotesque solemness, a very creditable, though strangely incongruous, buck-and-wing shuffle. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organization, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, forever, if need be. “I don’t quite like that door,” said Griffith, suddenly breaking the silence he had maintained for several minutes. He called for one of the decorators. “It looks too new,” he explained. “The edge of it, don’t you know, in a house like this, would be worn down, and the paint darkened near the knob by years of use.”
The decorator nodded understandingly and started for his tools. “Be careful not to batter it up any,” Griffith called after him. “I don’t want anything to look mistreated, but to have just the appearance of long years of careful use.”
“Now, how about those chairs?” he went on, addressing the art director this time. He walked on to the set, seated himself in a rocker, rose, and returned. “That chair’s comfortable enough, but it doesn’t look comfortable enough for the effect I want. I want this room to radiate from every last touch the feeling of being homelike—a home of comfort and welcome and coziness. Let’s get some cushions for the backs of the chairs.” The art director groaned. “A hundred dollars’ more time to be charged up while we put them on,” he began. “But we’ll do it,” he added hastily, as Griffith gave him a look that said, “Huh — a lot I care about a hundred dollars’ worth of time, or ten hundred dollars’ worth, if I get the result I’m after.” “Now let’s see,” he went on. “There’s something lacking—something—I know. It’s flowers ! Oh, Miss Gish, how does the idea of having some flowers on the table or on the mantelpiece strike your feminine taste?”
Lillian Gish, who has had some experience of her own as a director, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then voiced her approval. By this time several decorators were at work again on the set, making the changes that had been suggested. But Griffith was not yet satisfied. I am not going to attempt the tedious task of recounting in detail the suggestions that followed, but for the rest of the morning—the work had begun at about ten o’clock —one thing after another was criticized, discussed, and debated ; scarcely a detail of the set was overlooked.
The floor, it was decided, was a shade too light, and the painters were set to work on it again. The bunches of seed corn were taken down from the ceiling beam on which they had hung, and were tried in almost every possible place from which they could be suspended. The pots in the broad fireplace were rearranged. The figured tablecloth was removed and replaced by a plain white one. And not until the technical staff had received enough instructions to last them until late into the afternoon did Griffith consent to consider the work as even temporarily completed. “This business of getting the exact pictorial effect is of the greatest importance,” he said when at last he left off, and walked over to where I had stood watching him work. “And it might interest you to know that I believe that to be a matter to which the average dramatic critic who is sent out to review pictures is somewhat blind. “Your dramatic critic obviously doesn’t pay much attention to stage pictures,” he went on, speaking earnestly and with emphasis. “In the spoken drama the pictures are only incidental. At the best they are poor reproductions of nature, mere backgrounds which may even be dispensed with. So your critic devotes his attention—and rightly so—to the play—the drama—the story, if you will.
“But a moving-picture production is a different thing. It lacks the chief element of the stage play—the spoken word. It is—or should be—as its very name implies, a series of wonderful moving pictures. The values you see are completely reversed. But does your dramatic critic recognize that? Usually he does not. He comes and views our work with but one of his two eyes. He looks upon it from the same point of view from which he considers a stage play.
“Take, for example, my picture, ‘The Idol Dancer.’ ” There was a note of impatience in his voice. “We went to such great trouble and expense to reproduce a certain phase of nature and of life, and I think we succeeded in our attempt. But the reviewers, many of them, dismissed that succession of beautiful screen paintings with a word, and spoke disparagingly of the story. Perhaps the story was not unusual, perhaps it was slight. Should they, on that account, dismiss the entire production as of little consequence?” Moved by the eloquence of the Griffith argument, I shook my head in mute agreement—though I could not help thinking, at the same time, that I had heard a good many persons who were not dramatic critics speak disparagingly of “The Idol Dancer” and many another production, finely wrought from a pictorial standpoint, because the story had not satisfied them. But I was of no mind to argue the matter; moreover, I felt, at least, respectfully inclined toward this point of view, which, it occurred to me, I had never given much consideration. “For myself,” Griffith went on, after a moment’s pause, “I hold that if we but reproduce beautifully one single effect of the movement of the wind upon the water, the swaying branches of a tree, or even an etching on the screen of the wrinkled face of an old man in the shadows, we have done something that the stage, at its best, cannot do, and something which, in itself, is an artistic achievement. “I do not mean to disparage in the least the value of a good story,” he added, “I merely offer a protest against the ignoring of every other phase of a production by some of our reviewers. Do I make myself clear ?” he concluded abruptly, with a smile and a whimsical bow, as though apologizing for having delivered so serious a lecture.
I replied that he did, and it occurred to me that what he had said was worth setting down and remembering, as a means of understanding better what Griffith is striving to attain in the making of a picture. “While we’re waiting for the set I am going to hold a rehearsal, and if you care to see it ” Griffith said, with the courtesy and cordiality which is shared by the entire personnel of his studio. A Griffith rehearsal was something which I had wanted to see for some time, and I followed him and the members of the cast into the old Flagler home, which would not be standing to-day, had its former owner’s dream materialized. This rambling old mansion connects with the studio proper ; it is used for dressing rooms, and by the executive and scenario staffs. The rehearsal was to be held in the former state dining room of the late magnate, a magnificent room overlooking the sparkling waters of the Sound, its massive walls hung with dark, rich, hand-tooled leather, and its ceiling decorated by carved beams brought from Europe. And there, where groups of men representing the wealth of the nation had often gathered to dine, a company of actors ranged themselves about an imaginary table, prepared to enact a dinner scene in a humble, old-fashioned country home. They were far from being humble folk, though, these actors.
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, two of the regular Griffith players who have the principal roles, on the completion of this production are to begin separate starring engagements with salaries that will place them in the first rank of featured screen players. Creighton Hale, who plays a character part, has been a wellknown star. And the other members of the cast, who were engaged solely for this production, had been chosen with more care than the furnishings of the famous room in which they had gathered. ccustomed as I was by this time to the convincing evidence of the infinite pains which were being taken in this production, it hardly seemed credible—though I was assured of this by Mr. Griffith’s personal aid—that a list of nearly one hundred actors had been considered in the selection of the man who was to play the part of Lennox Sanderson, the villain of the piece, and that before the part had finally been given to Lowell Sherman — who is playing a similar role in “The Sign on the Door,” an all-year Broadway stage success—twenty-eight other actors had actually been tried out. The rehearsal was but a variation of the Griffith method which I had previously seen applied to rearranging the details of the set in order to heighten the desired effect, or feeling. This time the action, which the players evidently had rehearsed many times before, was criticized and altered in as minute detail, with the same object in view. Each bit of business, each expression, each gesture was done over, time after time, to give everything its proper relative value and emphasis in perfecting the effect, the feeling, which Griffith had in mind, and toward which he was patiently striving.
He was like a composer who, having written a piece of music, was going over the score, indicating the accents, the tempo, the mood of expression. “I want this scene to he played smoothly—smoothly—smoothly,” he said to Barthelmess and Miss Gish, as they were working over a tiny bit of action. And I felt that I was beginning to understand, better than I ever had before, how, through his shadow pictures, he is able so skillfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed the rehearsal. It was a leisurely sort of “family affair,” quite in keeping with the general atmosphere of the studio. I should like to visit the Griffith studio often, just to join the company at luncheon. I sat” at a small table with Mr. Griffith’s personal aid and listened to a recital of incidents and figures concerning the filming of “Way Down East,” which would be almost unbelievable were they not backed up by the knowledge of Griffith’s former undertakings. “This picture,” said my host, “is Mr. Griffith’s first personal production for the United Artists, and, of course, we hope to see it mark another step in the development of motion pictures, as so many of Mr. Griffith’s pictures have done in the past—though, of course, the proof of the puddding is in the eating,” he added hastily, as he laid own his fork, and solemnly knocked on the underside of the table. “But if effort counts for anything ” He paused for a moment. “No one not intimately connected with this production can really appreciate the effort that is being expended on it ; yet, perhaps I can give you a tabloid impression of the mere hugeness of the undertaking. “Already more time has elapsed since we began in January than was spent on any Griffith production since ‘Hearts of the World,’ and even more time than on that one if you liminate the months spent on the battlefields of France. Yet the picture is by no means near completion. It will not be finished before midsummer.” lie paused, while I gulped that impressive statement down with a swallow of coffee.
“Our vouchers show,” he went on, “that scouts traveled six thousand miles in the mere preliminary work of obtaining photographs of New England life. Pictures of every sort were taken, including photographs of about four hundred New England homes. “Eve no idea of how many scenes will appear in the completed production, but for the interior scenes alone forty-four different sets will be used. There were three, you may recall, in the stage version. “Up to date two hundred and ten reels of film have been exposed, and the greatest number of times that any one scene has been taken is only thirty-one.” He said this as though it were a mere commonplace to photograph one scene thirty-one times. “But none of the really important close-ups have been taken yet,” he added. “Those always require much more patient effort in order to get a perfect result.”
“And the cost?” I inquired feebly. “Oh, six hundred and fifty thousand dollars, according to the present budget,” he replied, as though that were the least important item. Luncheon finished, we returned to the studio. But the alterations on the dining-room set were not nearly completed, so, after watching Dorothy Gish work in another part of the studio for a while, I came back and chatted with Lillian, who is as etherial and appealing in person as she is in shadow.
“I hope,” she said, “that the snow scenes will be worth the suffering they cost us. I don’t think I ever experienced anything as severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze, and we had to stop work. We were out in blizzards for hours until, some nights, it was hours and hours before I felt really warm, though I was home early in the evening.” She was interrupted by another call for the company to assemble. The workmen had finished the alterations. But the call did not include the camera men. The scenes which had been worked over so painstakingly in the rehearsal room now were to be rehearsed again—a dress rehearsal, as it were. And, as a bus was just leaving for the station, I thought it best to start back for New York. I shall be interested in seeing “Way Down East,” interested in seeing what the reviewers say about it, and even more interested in seeing whether or not it will take its place as another of the Griffith milestones along the march of progress of the motion picture. For in predicting that it will be a monumental work, I do not mean to prophesy that it will mark a distinct step in picture making as did “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms.” That remains to be seen. But it must be obvious to any one who has read this account, that as an example of the present phase of frenzied scrambling and high bidding for popular plays and novels, to be turned into lavishly produced and sensationally exploited pictures, this production of “Way Down East” must tower above most, if not – all similar endeavors, at least as a huge undertaking. A strange undertaking, in a way, too ; strange that such an attempt should be made to make a monumental thing out of this simple, homely play ; it seems almost as incongruous as though some one were to try to develop “The Old Oaken Bucket” into a grand opera. But there is something splendidly audacious about these big undertakings of Griffith, about every one of them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist combined. He knows pretty well what type of thing will catch and hold the public interest at any given time, and I have a shrewd idea that he had his hand on the pulse of the movie-going public when he chose this vehicle for the first of his new series, and decided to “go the limit” on it. So, without having seen a foot of the finished film, I shall venture one more prophecy—that “Way Down East” in its revival on the screen will repeat the wonderful record which it made on the stage, two decades ago.