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

Photoplay – Vol. XIV September 1918 No. 4

Propaganda!

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

By Louella O. Parsons (Excerpts)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

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

Special Supplement to Sight and Sound

An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith

Part II: The Art Triumphant

Hearts of the World – 1918

Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947

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

Hearts of The World Program
Hearts of The World Program

THEME AND STORY

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

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

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

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

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

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

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

PRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts of The World - Adv2

World Release

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

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

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

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

CREATIVE INFLUENCE

On War Films and War Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Acting—New Talent

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

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

On Acting—Dorothy Gish

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

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

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

On Acting—Erich von Stroheim

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

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

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

On the Stage

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

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

CRITICAL SUMMARY

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

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

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

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

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

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

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

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

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

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As Lillian Gish Views Art – Written By Lillian Gish (The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928)

The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928

As Lillian Gish Views Art

“Are We Creating Art?” was the title chosen by Miss Lillian Gish for a special article on the film world which she wrote for Vossiche Zeitung the other day while in Berlin consulting with Max Reinhardt concerning the details of the film in which she will play under his direction. The Berlin newspaper headed the article by the American actress “The Most Moving Film Star on the Film.” Here it is:

“Perhaps the greatest evil afflicting the film at present is the over-enthusiasm of its champions. For they have made up their minds that the film must be ranked with the fine arts; and the film-regardless of how thankful it may be for this compliment – suffers heavily under the burden of the responsibility thus thrust upon it and suffers from the heroic endeavors it must make in order to show itself worthy of the good opinion of its champions.

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

“It seems to me that the word ‘Art’ is about the most misused in our language. Quality and beauty alone no longer satisfy the public. Some sort of big words must be attached to them; we are no longer satisfied simply to take things as they are, no matter how charming they may be, with their many-sided possibilities; we always feel the need of clothing them, as it were, to an ‘esthetic Legion of Honor.’

“How is the film art or not? We can just as easily cite evidence for it as against it. But I think such citing of evidence is useless, aside from the fact that human beings are inclined more or less to measure their own work with special yard-sticks and to attach greater importance to it than it really has.

“For what is art? Art is beauty idealized. And there are minutes – only minutes probably – when the film meets this requirement. And there are hours – unfortunately many hours – when it falls quite outside the borders of this requirement, just as do drama or painting, plastic art or music. If the film is not art because of the many thousands of trashy films that are turned out, then maybe painting isn’t art either because of the many thousands of ‘Greenwich Village’ trashy paintings and music isn’t art because of the thousands of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ that are produced.

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

“It is generally said that the theatre is art and that the film isn’t. Apparently the film is not regarded as art because it lacks the human voice – the theatre’s auxiliary. But isn’t it possible to read dramas? And furthermore, aren’t some of the most gripping and profound moments experienced in the theatre just when not a word is spoken, those moments of silence when pain and joy, the torments or the deepest emotions of human beings, speak only through their facial expressions, through their gestures?

“On the other hand, suppose we wanted to put the drama upon the screen with absolute and clear faithfulness to the text? This is quite possible, although not customary. Then we have, or rather we would have, presented a drama with silent actors to a whole house of listeners, just as, in reading, it is presented to a single person by silent actors who appear upon the stage of the readers imagination. Besides, if the film lacks the third dimension, so does painting. If is has no spiritual content, then the theatre piece called the best in the world has no more. If children can find pleasure in films, they do the same with ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Mikado.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With Max Reinhardt in Salzburg Austria — with Lillian Gish.
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish – Leopoldskron Salzburg 1928

“But let them call the film what they choose, the question is: How often, according to their own administration, does it awaken genuine feelings in the hearts and souls of sensitive persons? Not too often, I know. But you can’t judge a thing justly if you look at only its worst effects instead of its best. Finally, every mountain in the Alps isn’t a Matterhorn.

“We must remember that the first short film-like piece, “The Kiss,” appeared in 1896 and that the first real film of the sort we are acquainted with today, ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ was produced only twenty-three years ago. In these relatively few years the film has developed a hundred times more than, for example, architecture in its countless first, unoriginal centuries. So if the film cannot be called art as yet, isn’t it conceivable that it can be in the future? Isn’t a film like ‘The Last Man’ already a step along this road? Hasn’t it literal beauty, a powerful form and an impressive mental and spiritual content? Isn’t it played as well as the best theatre drama produced the same year? Isn’t it deeply rooted in human life?

Douglas Fairbanks, Max Reinhardt and Lillian Gish at train station - 1920s

“The film, like the theatre, is not a school for morals. Just as little as the drama, is it suppose to educate men and women; it ought only to make them think about things they know anyway; it ought to show them the difference between lofty and low thoughts and feelings. This is the goal of the best films, just as it is of the best theatre pieces. The battle for the film will not be easy, but I feel that there is courage and strength enough at hand to be able to venture it. There will be many difficulties; there will be many defeats; but I believe that some day the film will be victorious. It will not be victorious because somebody calls it art, or no art, but simply because it actually can work with the same means as the theatre. And besides we must remember that just now progress is being made with the talking films. And finally we must remember that if the film is at present dumb and consequently, in the opinion of many persons, cannot be called art, that Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ is dumb, just as are Tintoretto’s ‘Miracle,’ his ‘Cathedral of Beauvais,’ and his ‘Lost Son,’ and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Sunset on the Havel.’”

Lillian Gish

Max Reinhardt, Lillian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks
Max Reinhardt, Lillian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks

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Jed Harris The Curse of Genius – By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris The Curse of Genius

By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris
Jed Harris (The Curse of Genius – Cover)

A genius for Making Enemies

The legend looked like an old man dressed up to not look seedy. His thin gray hair was parted in the middle and plastered down, without concession to current style. He wore a dark ascot inside his open shirt collar. The padding of his camel’s hair sports jacket overlapped his shoulders, too wide. He fidgeted with his hearing aid and coughed, trying vainly to clear his throat between draws on a cigarette. He’d just been released from the hospital and sipped a glass of water through an L-shaped straw he’d stolen on the way out.

In the Hollywood television studio, Pat Burroughs, his forty-year-old girlfriend, stood and watched beside one of the cameramen. The Dick Cavett Show was usually taped in New York, but when Jed Harris heard that Cavett was in Los Angeles, he telephoned. He had a book to publicize. He was penniless and ill and desperate for it to succeed.

Cavett introduced him as “legendary, the golden boy of our theater’s golden age,” and Harris peered up from beneath lids that, once notoriously hooded, now just seemed eighty years’ heavy. He said nothing. Cavett, stagestruck since childhood, was excited by a chance to interview the Jed Harris he’d heard so much about; the Jed Harris he had thought was dead. He arranged for a studio and crew and now Pat Burroughs looked on apprehensively. Beside the preppy production assistants she appeared gauche in her white orlon sweater and gray gabardine slacks, but she was more concerned with Harris’s hearing and alertness. The medication made him so groggy. He had been the subject of her doctoral thesis. They’d been together tor several years now. The relationship had never been placid, but this last stretch had been actively acrimonious.

They had stayed with her mother in Winston-Salem, the seventy-nineyear-old former golden boy not embarrassed to be dependent on his girlfriend’s sixty-five-year-old mother. Though he complained about everything else, he never complained about this final and ludicrous deposit. A lifetime earlier he had declared international celebrity something he put little stock by. Apparently he had meant it. Then, always fleeing somewhere, he told Pat they were going to California. She scraped up two thousand dollars, bought a used Thunderbird, and while he dozed she drove from one TraveLodge Motel to the next. They wound up in a sorry one-bedroom Malibu garden apartment. Now Cavett smiled smartlv at the camera and recited Harris’s credits as a theatrical producer and director. These were faded and spiritless references to forgotten glories. Cavett seemed to realize, as he spoke, that the play titles would mean little to most people and so he abbreviated the list in midstream. Yet he was awed, he said, by the presence of Harris and he kept using that word, “legend.”

Videotape made it possible to come back from the grave. Months after Harris died the interviews were broadcast. After thirty years of oblivion, he had five nights on television, more time than Cavett had ever offered anyone. Old enemies watched with contempt for Harris’s deviousness, his dishonesty, his malevolence to the end. Old friends watched with admiration for his courage in carrying off “The Jed Harris Show” just one last time, and in plain sight of death. Now, as they all watched, he was dead.

Jed Harris - the wolf of Broadway
Theater Producer Jed Harris “the wolf of Broadway”

 

Uncle Vanya

Ruth Gordon found a splendid apartment in New York. She always found splendid apartments. This one was at 36 West 59th Street overlooking Central Park. Although they were now more or less together, Jed kept his place at the Madison Hotel. That bothered Ruth, and she said so, but he had the upper hand. Strolling through Shubert Alley one day, she ran into Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan. The actress and the critic were secretly engaged. There was no reason for the secrecy other than Miss Gish’s feverish modesty. She hasn’t seen Ruth Gordon in a year. Of course nobody had. The two actresses scurried to each other, the sparrow and the hummingbird, and pecked one another’s cheek. Ruth said she’d been in Paris, drinking wine, and had tasted “some stuff called Clos Vougeot and it was sen-jo-tional.”

Nathan knew the wine. He said it was a superlative Burgundy but hard to find. “I’ve got a great idea,” Ruth said. “I know a guy who it’s his favorite wine too. He’s dying to meet you, Lillian, so I tell you what. The first one that finds a bottle of Clos Vougeot, let’s all have dinner together.”

Ruth was a woman of many combinations, none of them foolish. She knew that it wouldn’t hurt Jed to befriend a critic, but Lillian was even more important. Chekhov on Broadway needed a box office attraction and Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most glittering movie stars. Ruth found the bottle of wine first because she already had it. One evening not long after, they all met at her apartment. Nathan and Harris talked drama while the actresses listened respectfully, which probably was not an easy thing for Ruth Gordon to do.

“Until then,” Miss Gish remembered, “I had thought George knew more about the theater than anyone I’d ever met. You’d go to a play and there was a certain scene that you liked; he could tell you five or six other plays where they had the same idea and then say how they played that scene.

Theater Producer Jed Harris
Theater Producer Jed Harris

“Jed was beyond that. I never heard anyone talk about the theater with the intelligence and the excitement and the interest that that man had. When I got up to get my coat to leave I said to Ruth, I’d work for that man for nothing if he ever had anything for me.'”

Three weeks later she received the script of Uncle Vanya. She probably would have gotten it even faster but I farris had to rethink the play. The role he wanted Lillian to play, a heartless flirt, was hardly one with which she would have been immediately associated. “Elena,” he later wrote, “seemed to me a rather old-fashioned portrait of a ‘teaser.’ I decided to modify, to suggest a beautiful and desirable woman, chilled beyond hope of recovery by marriage to a withered windbag of a professor.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

It was a novel interpretation, even a radical one. In most productions of Uncle Vanya,  Elena is still played as a man-eater. Gish agreed to do it immediately. She wouldn’t discuss salary and there was no sense in it anyhow. Jed could hardly give her the ten thousand dollars a week she was paid by Griffith. Anything, she said, would do.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

He cast the other major roles with actors he’d worked with before. Walter Connolly, his old pal from the Applesauce days, “would make a perfect Vanya. And [Osgood] Perkins, even without the romantic beauty and distinguished style of Stanislavsky who created the part, might make an interesting thing of Dr. Astrov.”

Did he know what he was talking about?

Lillian was going to be a challenge. Her last theatrical experience had been as an adolescent, seventeen years earlier. Her voice had never been a powerful instrument. George was of no help, in fact he was antagonistic to the project. He told Lillian a bit of period stage nonsense—that it was essential for a star to have the last speech in a play. The last speech in Uncle Vanya was not Elena’s but Sonya’s. If she did the play, he warned, she might never have another job in the theater or even in the movies.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish knew why her fiance was so negative. Jed was planning to open Uncle Vanya in April, and she had promised to go to Europe with George in June. And, Nathan was an insecure man, jealous of Jed’s magnetism, jealous even of Lillian’s concern for her ailing mother. Acceding to these pressures but embarrassed to tell Harris the truth, Lillian said only that she would have to leave the production after six weeks in order to take her mother to a spa in Germany. He calculated the time it would take to recover the production cost and, presuming that Lillian would be a sell-out attraction, agreed to her limited engagement. Harris wrote:

. . . she came to rehearsal in a palpable state of fright. As she had not been on the stage since early childhood, this was not altogether unnatural. “All these people in the company are so wonderful,” she said mournfully after the first session. “I really don’t think I’m good enough to be on the same stage with them.” I laughed. “They’re not that wonderful,” I said. And I told her that Helen Hayes was so nervous during the first week she rehearsed Coquette that she broke out in a painful rash. “And Helen,” I added, “hasn’t been off the stage since she learned to walk.” If this was meant to reassure Miss Gish, it failed utterly. Her eyes clouded over with compassion, she murmured, “Oh that poor, poor girl.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish recalled an early rehearsal at which Harris rose from his aisle seat and strolled to the stage. “Lillian,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean over the footlights to hear him. “Just do this as if you were in a movie. Don’t worry about projection. Don’t worry about the size of performance.

My only advice is: the woman you’re playing is the pivotal figure in the play. If they believe her, everything else will be believed. And remember, she isn’t merely a woman. You’re playing every man’s idea of a woman. Try and keep that in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it. You’re going to be wonderful.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

As rehearsal proceeded, some were less than convinced of that. Harris let his assistant, Worthington Miner, assume more responsibilities. Some days, he didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. Osgood Perkins suspected that Jed might be having trouble with his hearing, but nobody paid much attention to that.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Photo: Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish

When the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 15, 1930, it was triumphant. The reviews were gaudy. Jed recovered his nine-thousand-dollar investment in six weeks—almost to the day Gish left the company—and the production ran another three weeks on momentum, giving him a small profit on the risky presentation of a classic on Broadway.

These were fine rewards, but none to compare with the observations that critic Stark Young made about the production in The New Republic. Stark Young was the most intellectual critic of the era. Few among those who have practiced the profession of drama criticism have been better equipped for it, or better at it, than he. And Chekhov was Stark Young’s specialty. Soon after this production of Uncle Vanya he would publish his own translations of the playwright’s works, and they would for many years remain the standard versions.

Observing the directorial debut of Jed Harris, Mr. Young wrote, “Writing criticism about a production so careful and intelligent is a pleasure and a form of cooperation with the producer. . . . The whole directing is felt out with naturalness, brains and confidence.”

It was almost miraculous that Harris could have accomplished such a feat with so little preparation. His natural gift had to have been astonishing. Pity he would, in his career, do only two other classics and neither of them in a league with Uncle Vanya. They would be Gogol’s The Inspector General and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He would never attempt Shakespeare, or even his beloved Shaw.

His return to Broadway, then, was a glittering one. It had even enhanced his image: quality, intellect and art had been added to the reputation for commercial infallibility. The dust from the Wall Street crash had cleared and The Meteor had survived.

Not so the romance of George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish. They returned from Europe to learn that his mother was mortally ill. Lillian visited her in the hospital. On the way home she asked George whether he was Jewish. He repeated what he had told her before: that he was from a Main Line and decidedly Episcopalian Philadelphia family. The mother Lillian had seen in the hospital had not struck her as a society Christian. She asked George’s sister-in-law about it, and Marguerite roared.

“If George’s brother is Jewish,” she said, “I might suppose he would be too.” Lillian was disgusted. She hardly cared who was Jewish. Practically everyone in Hollywood was. But she did care—or rather, did not care — about people who denied what they were. That was the end of her secret engagement to George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922
Jed Harris, the curse of genius
Jed Harris, the curse of genius – cover

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Lillian Gish Marks Time – By Aileen St. John Brennon (Picture Play Magazine – September 1928)

Picture Play Magazine – September 1928

Manhattan Medley

By Aileen St. John Brennon

Latest gossip of comings and goings of screen personalities glimpsed in Manhattan and the rejuvenated Eastern Studios

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

Lillian Gish Marks Time.

Lillian Gish continues to keep her diminutive person in the playgrounds of Europe, but she has her eye and her mind on her work. We learn that she is deep in the throes of working on a scenario, written for her by Hugo von Hoffmanstal and Max Reinhardt. Upon Joseph Schenck’s recent arrival in Europe, Professor Reinhardt, who will direct Miss Gish’s next production, gave a dinner party for his future star, at Schloss Leopoldskron, whereafter the wizard of Leopoldskron took occasion to settle much of the speculation as to the future plans of himself and Miss Gish.

Douglas Fairbanks, Max Reinhardt and Lillian Gish at train station - 1920s

“I hope to be able to start on the screening of Miss Gish’s picture in Hollywood, in the early part of December,” said the Herr Direktor. “While both Miss Gish and myself would like to make the picture, which is as yet unnamed, on this side of the Atlantic, technical considerations make American production preferable.

“I am going to produce this one American film, to see whether I am competent to remain in the motion picture field. If the experiment is reasonably successful, I shall embark upon production in Germany, with the help, I hope, of my American friends and collaborators.

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

Mr. Schenck and I are in complete accord as to the necessity for international cooperation in making pictures which should have an international appeal. Both of us want to place the whole on an artistic basis.

“In my opinion, some system of permitting players to talk on the screen, in a manner that will prove satisfactory throughout the world, will be perfected before long. What it will be, and how similar to existing devices, I cannot say at present, but vocal pictures are here to stay.

”I want to emphasize that my present, and possibly my future, film plans do not in any sense mean I shall neglect European theaters in general, and the Salzburg festival in particular.”

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D.W. Griffith might be the richest man – By Frederick J. Smith (Photoplay – Dec. 1926)

Photoplay Magazine December 1926

He Might Be the Richest Man in the World

By Frederick James Smith

If D.W. Griffith had thought of himself first he would be a millionaire today

David Wark Griffith
David Wark Griffith

Suppose D. W. Griffith had protected his pioneer screen devices with patents. Today the whole film business would be paying tribute. The fade-out and the soft focus would be bringing him a million dollars apiece each year. Suppose he had put his famous film finds under long term contracts. But he didn’t. So today Griffith lives quietly in a Broadway hotel. He hasn’t earned a cent for two years because he is paying old debts.

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

“I am not a bad business man,” says D. W. Griffith. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. When I both directed and managed, I got along all right”

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

Suppose the pioneer motion picture devices had been patented as everything has been patented in the more modern field of radio. David Wark Griffith would be one of the richest men in the world, and the empire of films would be turned topsy-turvy. “Suppose I had patented the fade-out,” Griffith told me sadly the other day. “I would be drawing at least a million a year in royalties. The dissolve-out is absolutely necessary to the smooth telling of a story. Try counting the number of times it is used in a single picture. “To eliminate it would make necessary the abrupt beginning and ending of scenes. It would jar and distort the whole observation of a film drama.

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

” Yes, I might have patented it. You can patent anything derived from a mechanical device. I just didn’t realize its significance then. We were all pioneers— and I wanted to help the business.

“I might have patented the shooting of scenes through gauze. Sometimes it is called soft focus. They used to call it ‘mist photography’ in the old times. That is another mechanical device.

Mary Pickford is one of D. W. Griffith’s most famous discoveries. She flashed across the screen when Griffith was laying the foundations of pictures at the old Biograph studio

“The revenue from the gauze appliance would have been good for another million easily each year. Only the other day I patented a new application of this device, so I know that I could have protected the original. “It wouldn’t have been possible to patent the flash-back or the close-up,” Griffith went on. “Those are ideas of technique. But, with the other two devices under patent, I wouldn’t have needed them. I would have my millions, anyway.”

D.W. Griffith - late 1930's
D.W. Griffith – late 1930’s

The man who laid the foundation of motion pictures looked about his hotel room. He has a little suite of living room and bedroom in a Times Square hotel. Its windows look across the west side tenements to the Hudson and to Fort Lee, the pioneer Jersey Hollywood of the films. The living room is piled high with books and manuscripts. The remainder of the Griffith records repose in the hotel basement.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios

“I’m not a bad business man,” Griffith continued. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. In California in the old days, when I both directed and managed, I got along all right. It was only when I came to Mamaroneck and turned over my business handling to others that I became involved.

“Of course, the collapse of everything at Mamaroneck nearly broke my heart. We missed success so narrowly. Bad management and bad releasing contracts caused the destruction. But, when we failed, I made up my mind that the stockholders would be paid back. That’s why I took the contract at Famous Players—to earn enough to pay back every cent.

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

“Right at this moment I have earned enough to pay back 4 ½ of every 12 cents I owe each stockholder. I will have the whole thing paid in another year.

D. W. Griffith believes that Lillian Gish is the great actress of the screen. Even in view of her more recent films and their adverse criticism, he asks: “Who is greater?”

“I’m not earning a cent for myself. Actually, I’m working for nothing. Last year, in fact, I went behind fifteen thousand dollars. But I will be out of servitude in another twelve months.”

David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg
David-Wark-Griffith-and-Billy-Bitzer.jpg

Another source of a possible fortune came up. Suppose Griffith had signed his various film discoveries to long term contracts, following the custom of today. Griffith found Mary Pickford, the Gishes, Constance Talmadge, Blanche Sweet, Richard Barthelmess and others. Suppose he had tied them up to lengthy contracts. “It couldn’t be done,” Griffith told me. “Did you ever try to work with an actor who is unhappy? Did you ever try to direct an actor who thought himself underpaid, who felt that he ought to be a star? I have. It’s a horrible experience. I wouldn’t have a restless player under contract for the world. I value my peace of mind too much.”

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

Sometime Griffith is going to write the story of his life. It will be after he finishes directing, if he ever does. Griffith wants to write. “Writers are the only ones who can express their ego,” he says. “Directors can’t, because pictures must be made to please the majority. We can’t deal with opinions. All we can do is to weave a little romance as pleasantly as we know how.”

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

Griffith naturally doesn’t like to express .comparisons. I did ask him to name the greatest actor he had ever directed.

Arthur V Johnson
Arthur V Johnson

He thought a while. “Arthur Johnson, I guess,” he said. “Yes, Arthur Johnson. Henry Walthall was excellent in romantic roles. Perhaps a little florid. Lionel Barrymore was vivid in those old Biograph days. But Johnson was matchless in everything — modern, romantic, comedy. He would have been a great film leader had he lived.”

Griffith did not commit himself so exactly about the greatest actress he had ever directed. He obviously seems to consider Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster the greatest. I asked him about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles. He countered. “Who is greater?”

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

Griffith doesn’tbelieve that the public is fickle about its stars. “Stars do not slip quickly,” he says, “despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by the big favorites—who are still favorites. No, the public does not like to revise its estimates. It doesn’t want to go to the trouble of seeking new idols any more than the average man likes to seek a new object for his affections.” Griffith does not hold the German technique in awe.

“Motion pictures haven’t changed,” he declares. “The technique of telling your story varies with passing vogues, but the photoplay remains essentially the same. It has remained unchanged since the Biograph days.

“Yes, I know it has become the custom to say that the Germans are pioneers in a new technique. Why, they are doing the things that we discarded long ago. A certain primitive virility comes of that, but it is absurd to talk of a new technique. They do things long prohibited over here. Mugging, for instance. Long scenes played right at the camera. We did all that in the beginning. “The fact that this primitive stuff has been – dressed up with superb camera work has confused observers. The Germans have a fine mechanical mind. They have perfected the camera. In fact, after the war, we found that they had gone beyond us in cameras and camera equipment. In lighting, too. ” But this new German technique is all bosh.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

We make better pictures in America. Sacha Guitry. the French playwright-producer, once said that the Biograph film drama revolutionized the stage. The effect of films upon the spoken drama must be obvious to everyone.

The Germans haven’t revolutionized our screen play—not yet, anyway.”

Griffith has been called a recluse. He was for a time, when collapse confronted him at Mamaroneck. He goes to many films but seldom to screen premieres. His amusement tastes are various. I have seen him dancing happily after the theater. I have seen him enjoying himself as a ringsider at big prize fights. But I have never seen him enjoy himself so completely as he does when he is directing. Griffith says he would like to spend his days in a sailboat on the Chesapeake. But I know he is kidding himself. He likes pictures too much.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

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The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary – By Julian Johnson (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay Magazine Vol. XIV No.3 – August 1918

The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary

Preconceived notions are invariably wrong – particularly so in Gish Case.

By Julian Johnson

Most people have a preconceived notion of Lillian Gish, just as they have of the Kaiser, business hours on a submarine, a big party in old Rome, summer at the North Pole, what a Chinaman is thinking about, the origin of the American Indian, Theda Bara’s private life, Mary Miles Minter’s real age, or Mr. Griffith’s next picture. Like the Hun philosopher’s idea of a camel—he never saw one, but evolved a picture from his inner consciousness—preconceived notions are almost invariably wrong. And never more so than in the Gish case.

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There is a growing suspicion that the word ”Gish” is an adjective rather than a proper name. In so far as it applies to Lillian. It must be admitted that there is ground for this suspicion.

It has been Lillian Gish’s privilege to rise to world-wide celebrity as a figurante of innocence, maidenhood and springtime love in the photoplays of D. W. Griffith—and, in one frock or another, out West or back East, down South or over in France, she has never played anything else. Lace and lavender, roses” in moonlight, gentle kisses, old tunes pianissimo, a mystic Rocking Cradle, flower-hung garden walls—these are the things you unconsciously associate with Lillian Gish. Fresh blood on new-fallen snow is a terrible thing to see, much more terrible than blood on ground. So Mr. Griffith makes Lillian Gish the snowy background for the blood of his battles: rapine coils at her feet, the bat wings of murder flap past her head, the red hands of atrocity and terror reach toward her out of the murk—and never quite touch her.

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That’s why the picture populace has considered and does consider Lillian a pale, perfumeless lily, off as well as on.

The yardstick on a woman’s brain is her sense of humor. Women are naturally a little more flexible than men, they are more facile and more adroit, and when they can give and take a joke they become the real sovereigns of the earth. Of course it is a popular tradition that no ingénue can possibly have a sense of the ridiculous—else she would laugh at herself and automatically go out of the ingénue business. Perhaps because she is one of the greatest professional ingenues in the world, Lillian Gish artfully locks her sense of humor up in her dressing room when called onto the set. In fact, knowing when not to laugh, and never laughing in the wrong place, is laughter’s Scottish Rite. So far, Lillian of the lillies has never untied so much as a wan smile—in public—which has not been of the sub-deb order.

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But on Serrano avenue in Los Angeles there is another sort of Lillian: an ingenue in appearance, still, but a rather suave and well-poised woman in reality, in spite of the fact that she is scarcely over the top of twenty years. She is the studious rather than athletic type of girl—she leaves the muscle stuff to the “Little Disturber” in the same household—a girl who despises the shams of society, a girl who is much more at home with Balzac and Thackeray and Dickens and Galsworthy than with Chambers or Owen Johnson, a girl who has just returned from Europe more intensely devoted to America than ever.

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

To begin with, Lillian Gish is an enthusiast about the war. She is very much of an optimist, and she sees from the chaos of destruction the supreme reorganization of the world.

“I think this is a wonderful age to live in!” she declares. “It seems to me the world was going to sleep in selfishness—not a part, but all of it. America was quite sure that its inventions were the most wonderful things of history, England was all tied up in social traditions and class distinctions, and Germany, the supremely selfish thing of the Universe, was headed for a reincarnation of the old Roman Empire.

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

“When this is all over, the world is going to quit being provincial. We’ll be less citizens of the Loire, or Kent, or California, and we’ll be more citizens of the world. We’ll understand each other.

“You know, we’ve got into a terrible habit over here: we think that the first thing to do to win is to call the Kaiser all the names we can think of—and the rest will be easy. They’ve passed that stage in England and France. The French and English are giving the devil his due just to beat him at his own game! It was only when I had been there quite awhile that I began to see that this spirit of sizing up murderous German ambition and soulless German accomplishment in a cool, dispassionate way was just about the worst thing that could happen to the Germans. When people get angry they lose their heads and call names. When they’re perfectly calm, and patient even in suffering, and just quietly determined to win—then they’re awfully dangerous!”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

And Miss Gish has some right to be a war critic, for she has been in the battle line in France, and went through eight air raids in London. “Almost always,” she declares, “there were warnings—the aircraft guns in the distance, then nearer; finally, the deep, heavy boom of the falling bombs. Only once was our fright very sudden and intensely real. It had been a quiet evening, with no thought of an impending raid. We were living in the Hotel Cecil. Suddenly the biggest noise in the world came from the courtyard and street below. In the tremendous roar of the explosion the whole hotel rocked as though in an earthquake. I was flung from my chair, and in the dark—it is almost a criminal offense to turn on the lights in an air-raid—people rushed about like little ants in a hill you’ve just stepped on. The most dreadful part was the screams and groans of the wounded and dying in the street below, for the bomb had struck a party in carriages. One cannot venture into the street when the anti-aircraft guns are barking, for the spray of shrapnel is even more dangerous than German high explosive—and there they lay, begging for aid, for fifteen full minutes, under our windows! It seems hours. As soon as the guns ceased of course almost everyone in the hotel rushed to them . . . not many were living, then … I shall never forget it.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“Another thing, that I wish I could forget, was my visit to the homes of a lot of poor mothers after a school had been bombed by a German squadron at midday, flying at the great height of 18,000 feet. I saw one woman whose little brood of three had all been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.”

Mr. Griffith, it seems, was the bane of the party’s existence — he and Billy Bitzer, the cameraman, but Bitzer was not quite as venturesome. “Bobby Harron was fairly tractable,” says Lillian. “In other words, if there was a lot doing, he’d take us — or get us where we could see, if possible.

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

But Mr. Griffith — ! He might be at dinner with a general, and if the air-guns began to sound he grabbed his hat like a little kid at the first shouts of a ball-game, and vanished. Lots of times he didn’t come home till the following day! He was always in the street — he actually chased the darned things, as if trying to make them drop a nice sample bomb on him! One of Mr. Griffith’s peculiar studies for future years was collected in a camouflaged camera-nest near the Opera, in Paris. Here, for an hour or so on a number of days, Bitzer ground steadily and unobserved on the countenances of passers-by: the soldier, the widow, the old man, the Englishman, the bride, the child, the American, the coquette, the poilu’s wife — he has a record of the unconscious war-face of every manner of human being in Paris. Lillian Gish, with Dorothy, started her acting career as a child in the melodramas of Blaney and Al Woods. Later on she attracted Belasco’s attention, and played principal fairy—or something like that — in ”The Good Little Devil,” with Mary Pickford. But she says that she was utterly unsuited to this role — hadn’t enough experience for it in any way.

March 18 1922 CCCS

Then she went to the Biograph, and under Mr. Griffith’s direction, where she has remained ever since. The sisters Gish — Lillian and Dorothy — have always lived with their mother, Mrs. Mae Gish, yet have not escaped the customary quart and a half of rumors of engagement and impending marriage — little Dorothy being perhaps an especial victim. So far, neither of them has any matrimonial intention in reality.

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Serrano avenue, and their home, is not twenty minutes ride from the old Fine Arts studio which has modestly draped the birth of numerous masterpieces. Lillian, in her odd moments of neither working nor reading, is essaying swimming, French and piano.

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Dorothy — when not hopping about the country in her new enclosed car — is swimming to beat the band. And Dorothy, being a selfish little sister, clips the end off her sister’s interview: “Want to know where the ‘Little Disturber’ character really came from? Well, she was a little cockney girl; she’s English, not French at all. Mr. Griffith saw her on the Strand one day, freshness, wig-wag walk and all. He followed her for hours — or rather, we did, and then I thought he was dreadful to make me play her. I couldn’t. Besides, I didn’t like her. I thought she was crazy! But Mr. Griffith insisted, and then I cried. He insisted some more, and — and I did. And I’m glad, now.”

Think you that Lillian brooked or cared for the Little Disturber’s interruption? She wound up the party herself after all. “When I’m thirty,” she announced, “I’m going back to the stage. I want to play real women—not impossible heroines, or namby-pamby girls. I should like to play Becky Sharp—just to let you know how I feel about parts!”

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

Personally, I think Lillian Gish is going to play a lot of very real women before she leaves the screen — if she ever leaves it. She has the capability, the perception, and the intelligence.

By Julian Johnson, 1918

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Griffith—and the Great War – By Paul H. Dowling (Picture-Play Magazine March 1918)

Picture-Play Magazine March 1918

Griffith—and the Great War

America’s foremost producer is preparing a film spectacle, based on the world contest, which is expected to eclipse his past masterpieces.

By Paul H. Dowling

Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish - in the ruins of Babylon
Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish – in the ruins of Babylon

The massive walls of the lathand-plaster Babylon were crumbling away slowly or being razed to the ground by scores of workmen. A fighting tower, swayed by the combined strength of half a hundred arms, bearing away at tackles and pulleys, toppled and crumpled into bits on the brown field of stubble, raising into the dear air a cloud of dust and plaster and fine-chopped splinters. Babylon had fallen for the last time.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

In the shadow of a city wall, where men had fallen in the battles of ”Intolerance,” a small band of players were enacting a scene from a great drama. There were only a few in the group, and they—already hidden away as if in a corner of the ruins of some old Pompeii, were further protected from the gaze of the curious by canvas reflectors. There I found David W. Griffith, shortly after his return from Europe’s battlefields, directing a scene in the shadow of Babylon’s wall. With him were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, apparently none the worse in youthful sweetness, health, and charm for their experiences in bomb-frightened London and amid the shattered ruins of Belgium and France, and with them Bobby Harron, camera-genius Bitzer, George Siegemann, and others. It was just a small particle of a scene ; but the production of which it was a part is expected to be greater than the story of Babylon, greater than “The Birth of a Nation,” for it was a bit of Griffith’s forthcoming production based on the most stupendous drama of all history — the present war.

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

After eight months spent at the front, after hours and days in the very frontline trenches, Mr. Griffith returned to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to complete his undertaking. He was a more rugged Griffith than the man who went over to London nearly two years ago to stage “Intolerance” there. He was more serious. Having done what he modestly calls his “bit,” Mr. Griffith came home, bringing with him the precious prize of eighty thousand feet of film, the only motion pictures taken at the fronts with the exception of the official war pictures taken by the allied governments and preserved for a permanent record of the events of the struggle. Mr. Griffith went to England to stage his “Intolerance’ with no thought of the work he finally undertook. It was at the request of titled personages who saw “Intolerance” and suggested that he might do something to aid in the world’s charity work that turned his attention from private business, and, armed with unheard of passports to the front, set forth on his greatest venture.

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

Not primarily for personal gain were those pictures taken. They will form the background of a great photo drama—or perhaps several photo dramas, a part of the proceeds of which are to be donated to the allied relief funds.

“The man who sees the war at first hand,” declared Mr. Griffith, “forgets that he ever had any petty ambitions of his own. He feels that this is the one great thing which is going on in the whole world. Beside that, nothing much matters now.”

It is, in fact, with great difficulty that one can get the noted film director to speak of his own work, in which he is now so engrossed. It developed, withal, that he was the first American to get into the first-line trenches in France.

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

“I was within fifty yards of the boches on the Ypres front at one time,” he said. “How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t realize what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. At one time we were inside a dugout with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes. One of our own cameras, in fact, was standing in a position exposed to fire when a shell exploded, and—but that is a story which will be told later.

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

I wore the war helmet and the gas mask, for we were within reach of the poison-gas grenades of the enemy. We witnessed and barely missed personal contact with the horrors of liquid fire; we passed hours among bursting shells, and had on eight occasions experienced the dangers of German aerial raids in London. Four of these times we were caught in the street in great peril of the rain of fire. Only a few weeks ago I was on the firing line in Flanders, where the bloodiest of the recent furious fighting took place, and it will give you some idea of the intensity of the contest to know that in the short space of time since I left it is estimated that in the small sector where my headquarters were established there have been between sixty and a hundred thousand casualties.

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

“It is very difficult getting into the front-line trenches, not so much from physical as from official obstacles. But letters from the great ones in England to the great ones in France made our path comparatively smooth.”

Mr. Griffith had the honor of being summoned to appear before the King and Queen of England, but he was in the midst of operations in France at the time, and could not leave. On his return to England, however, he was presented to the queen. Mr. Griffith’s position in England was unusual. He was given the assistance of the British government in making his pictures, and he and his camera man were permitted in territory denied to all correspondents. In London, he had the cooperation of the most distinguished women of King George’s court, many of whom have played an active part in his big charity production. Such notables as Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duchess of Rutland ; Miss Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the late prime minister, and the Princess of Monaco are all seen frequently in the film, their work gladly offered because the ultimate purpose of the film was for war relief funds. Mr. Griffith’s own perspective, after seeing so much of the actualities of war, includes both the awful elements and the hopeful significances which are to arise. But let him give his impressions of the throbbing march of events in his own words:

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

“Vimy Ridge in the spring, Ypres on that memorable September 19th, Arras —I saw those. What I saw in detail, I cannot tell, for my pledged word forbids. Without that restriction, I would not want to tell. “My ‘close-up’ of the war front is a blur of conflict, horrors, heroism, terror, sublimity — and promise. When you see the physically half dead, the mentally obscured thousands of men from the cities and slums who are shortly transformed into real men with real minds by the process of discipline and the implanting of the consuming lesson of devotion, courage, and true patriotism, you see that the war is not all unblessed. This war will, in many ways, liberate the world from itself—its worst self.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

“Speaking of the salvage of war, we may consider the fact that the death rate is now five per cent. What then of the ninety-five per cent of the men who return home? These are the men who have been through the fusing process of the melting pot of trench life. We may expect these men to return to their homes and their governments demanding a more sensible world, and being big and strong enough to make their demands respected.”

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

In the film production which he has made in the past, Mr. Griffith has proven to be a master of dramatic technique, which includes the handling of that difficult attribute—suspense. It is extremely fitting, therefore, that he should realize the dramatic values of this, the greatest drama which has yet happened. “It is a drama at the front,” he said, “for suspense is the keynote of all dramas, and the suspense at the front makes it the drama of dramas.

It gives you a dry, nervous choking; you are taut, strung tight with intricate emotions, your whole being involved at every move.”

Griffith and the Great War 1
Griffith and the Great War 1

The producer described with picturesque vividness an experience on one of the fronts where he had journeyed to take pictures : “There was a shell broken forest where we were to meet some men at the edge of the woods. We went by the sixteen-inch guns ; then the nine-inch, the six-inch, and the eighteen-pounders, the latter, of course, the nearest to the first line. Over our heads was a British plane, and the batteries were going like the furies of hell. As the day passed, we saw countless thousands of men spread over the fields as thick as the grass would have been had there been any grass. Suddenly where the men were there were no men ; they had disappeared in the trenches and communications. “We advanced to a position where there had been a crossroads and farm, but now all was obliterated in a mass of shell holes, bricks, and dust. As the shells fell, and we made slow time, there came an awful feeling of fear and a desire to go back. But no one went back, for that would have required even greater courage. On the other side of the wood, a party, including our friends, advanced. When the shells came faster, we broke for an old pill box. It was hit, and some of our party were hurt, but the shelter held. ”Then a shell broke back of the other group. A rain of shrapnel came down, and the little group divided for greater safety. We had a desire to shout at our friends to go back, but a shout could not be heard amid the awful scream of the shells. The men in the little party continued to advance. Half a dozen big shells broke, and suddenly men and battery were all obliterated. The rest was like a nightmare, with the awful sickening feeling of death near at hand. We mourned our two men. “When we had returned later to the rear, the discovery was made that our two men had been warned against going out with the party. An old war-worn captain exclaimed: I told you this morning that your people should not have gone into that wood. The boches do not like any one to walk in that wood “

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

After Mr. Griffith had talked of the war, his party moved to a little house across the street from the “Intolerance” settings, where the producer, together with several Frenchmen, Austrians, and Germans, who of necessity are engaged in completing the war productions, pored over hundreds of war photographs taken by a Los Angeles correspondent who had spent much time in Germany, Poland, and Russia during the early periods of the war. This study of the enemy is of extreme importance, in view of the matter of costuming of accurate details of rank, and a thousand and one other things which must be taken into consideration in the completion of a tremendous spectacle of gripping realism such as the material of this conflict must furnish. Then the party again took up its work of making pictures, this time at a pretty little garden exterior, constructed on one of the gently sloping hills a few hundred yards back of the Babylonian elephants and tottering walls. A crew of carpenters and scenic artists were removing from the vast wreckage of the time-worn settings bits of plastered boards and canvas and fastening them up to complete the exterior of what might pass for a charming little country house in Belgium. Here Dorothy and Lillian Gish shortly appeared, to sit down on the sunburned slope of the hill and wait for their scenes, which were to match up with pictures made in a ruined city of Flanders. Dorothy sighed a sigh of complete peace and relaxation as she sat with her sister and the mother of the celebrated actresses, Mrs. M. R. Gish. ”Oh, isn’t it good to be back here again !” the little lady exclaimed, with a genuineness of expression which revealed her true feelings at being able to sit down, safe and sound, on a sunny hillside in California and never have to go back again to the terrifying air raids in London and the pitiful sights in the towns of Belgium and France.

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

“I want to settle down on a farm in southern California.” Was Dorothy’s heartfelt wish. Lillian spoke up and told of Dorothy’s fright during the air raids in London.

“We were on the third floor of a family hotel,” said Lillian, and every time there was an unusual commotion outside or in the hotel, the people in adjoining apartments declared they could hear Dorothy’s knees shaking above the din and clatter of the bombing.

“No book that I have read,” declared Lillian, “has portrayed the full horror of war. It would take a superhuman writer to picture it. “The English did nothing but three cheer the American boys who first arrived, from start to finish. Naturally, as we were among the few Americans in London at this time, we were wildly excited, but those English folks showed ever bit as much enthusiasm as we did. We were in London on the day of a “parade by the first contingent of American soldiers, and the feeling displayed by the English people disproved all that has ever been told of the staid and unsentimental English.”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“It was that way in Paris, too,” Mr. Griffith added. “While a year ago Paris was a gloomy place, filled with mourners, yet at the time of our later visit, the arrival of the American soldiers had had the effect of making every one cheerful again.”

”London displays considerably more of a war spirit than does Paris,” Lillian continued. “In both cities, however, it is considered rather poor taste to wear fine clothes, or to display luxury. We did not see a really well gowned woman throughout all our travels about Europe. In Paris, every third woman wears mourning, while in London nearly every man is in uniform. They are using men that you would think had passed the age for military service. These middle-aged men, of course, are not sent to the trenches. The only amusement in London is the theater. There are no dances or society dinners.”

Dorothy Gish described the return of their party on a camouflaged ship; one, she says,  ‘daubed with every color of paint you could think of. Several times on the return trip over the Atlantic we were ordered to dress and adjust life belts, but nothing happened in the way of a U-boat attack. Of course the very thought of submarines was terrible, but after going through the air raids in London nothing was as bad, even being within range of the guns, as it was in Belgium.”

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

Lillian Gish, with a far-away and wistful look in her eyes, expressed her sympathy for the soldiers of America and the Allies who are now going into those shell-torn areas which she saw on the French and Belgian front. “I never thought or dreamed of the actuality of warfare, and I hold the hope so often expressed by the English people, that America’s entrance into the war spells an early victory.”

While the scenes were in preparation, Mr. Griffith moved about among the ruins of “Intolerance,” not unlike the devastated cities of Belgium and France, and again reflected over his experiencesof the past ten months.

”My most dangerous moment,” he said, “was at a time when I was under the guidance of a young British officer who was extremely proud of the lacquer on his boots. He wanted to avoid the mud in the trenches, so we walked outside, and ultimately had occasion to examine a map of the district we were in. This evidently attracted the attention of the Germans, who supposed we were deciding upon a site for a gun, for they at once began ‘strafing’ us. A ‘dud’—that is, a shell which doesn’t explode — dropped within five feet of us, and then the rattle of artillery came with deafening proximity until we found our way back to the trenches and rolled in, boots and all, glad to seek safety in the mud.”

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

Though Mr. Griffith did not disclose the exact nature of the films which are now being completed, it is evident that they will furnish a valuable record ; for they will contain views of every kind of mechanical device used in the present war. The spectator will know everything there is to know about the fighting devices of this war; aeroplanes, tanks, blimps, and trenches. Every position of danger, every vantage of attack, will be presented in the first production, which is to be for charity. A part of the proceeds, by the way, will go to blind soldiers and to sailors injured in the trawlers, who, Mr. Griffith declares, have one of the nastiest, meanest jobs of the whole war, taking their lives in their hands every time they venture half a mile from shore, and seldom receiving relief money for their wounded.

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

While the work of completing the film spectacles goes on at the romantic old spot where Babylon fell, the film producer walks among the ruins which recall those of the actual fighting front. And he is glad to have returned. But there is ever present a spirit of abstraction— a thought of what is going on over there, and a dream of what is going to come out of it all.

“There can be but one result,” he asserted, with intense earnestness. “It may be a long war. It promises to be a long war. But the Germans are defeated now, and will ultimately be conquered. It will be the beginning of the birth of a new world.”

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

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