Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis – By Charles Affron (1977)

Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis

By Charles Affron (1977)

The women are goddesses, the men are matinee idols; they are all stars who command devotion and veneration. The reverential and celestial vocabulary has been consecrated by decades of usage and press agentry. The cliches’ first connotations effectively separate public from performer by an expanse of astral geography. The gods reign on high, the stars blink in solar systems light-years away, and we mere mortals, worshiping at their shrines in blissful ignorance, celebrate the distance. We join cults, we become fanatics, we endow the star system with mythologies of nostalgia by collecting the stars incarnations in roles X, Y, and Z and cherishing the relics of memorable and memorized bits. “Play it, Sam.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The Actress as Metaphor: Gish in Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith spring from the turn-of-the-century theatrical milieu. The traces of theatre in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922) are not disguised, and the last two are unabashedly drawn from popular melodramas of the period. Yet these creations also display a category of film rhetoric unrelated to naturalistic theatre and prose narative. When Griffith “opens up” a play he does so by searching out the reverberations of the saga, the painting, the still photograph, the lyric.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

The patterns of Broken Blossoms are primarily those of poetry; Lillian Gish’s response to its demands reveals fundamental differences between acting as impersonation and acting governed by the fixed form of the movies. Broken Blossoms creates a tension between theatrical expectations for the stage and configurations pertinent only to the screen. It offers a field for understanding screen acting at its most specifically formal. The integrity of such acting to the cinematic text must be seen through the relationship between Gish and the film’s general structure. In Broken Blossoms the unity of performer and pattern exemplifies the metaphoric factor of screen acting. It elicits our perception of acting’s purely filmic quotient.

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

Intolerance
Intolerance – Babylon

Actress and director fit the medium in no film more completely than perhaps in Broken Blossoms. Histories tend to illustrate Griffith’s career with the epic and monumental; the battlefield and the ride of the Klansmen from The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the aerial shot of the Babylonian court in Intolerance (1916) are events of imagination and sweep quite characteristic of his style. The sense of spectacle in the obsessively intercut chase and/or rescue sequences and the fugal structure of Intolerance are grandiose gestures that literally stretch the theatre as far as the eye can see and brutally challenge the limits of our formal and temporal perceptions.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms appears to be a return to the stage. Most of the action is confined to two interior sets, the rooms of Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man. Griffith does nothing to trick the audience into believing that the world of these characters is broader than the space of these rooms. Indeed, he does everything to emphasize the delimiting walls and the entrapment of the characters within. The far-ranging camera of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is most glaringly absent, and whereas the earlier films taught our eyes to stretch telescopically, Broken Blossoms focuses down to the smallest detail and the minutest gesture.

These distinctions are somewhat misleading, for the memorable details of the epic films are as important as the concerted scenes. Lillian Gish and the admiring sentry in The Birth of a Nation, Mae Marsh’s acting in both films, the homecoming of Henry Walthall, “The Little Colonel,” and the wonderfully silly Babylonian lovebirds are only a few of the exquisite components we remember in Griffith’s mammoth compositions. (Indeed, miscalculated details in Way Down East and, to a lesser extent, in Orphans of the Storm are more disturbing than general structural weaknesses.) Yet, despite treasurable moments of intimacy that refine our perception, the principal design of these films belongs to the fresco, insistently calling upon the alertness of a roving glance. Broken Blossoms makes no such demands. The quality of concentration it summons fits the tauter connections and narrower limits of its frame. If the exhilaration of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is sacrificed, consistency and density take its place and inexorably draw the viewer into the pattern to be trapped in the art as Lucy is trapped in her closet. Griffith deliberately restricts the scope of the camera and denies it its most obvious advantage over the proscenium, proving that movies needn’t move over wide expanses to expose their nature. Without being unfaithful either to movies or to literature, the director adjusts the freedom of the camera to the audience’s perception of the strictest of fixed forms—the poem.

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

Griffith is repeatedly attracted to allegorical configurations. In the broadest sense Intolerance is an allegory, its episodes designed to represent, to dramatize the concept of intolerance through the ages. The film’s linking image of the hand rocking the cradle (Lillian Gish dimly lit) shows Griffith’s facile use of symbolic conventions. He prefers to draw generalities from character rather than to leave that task to the viewer. In as tired a vehicle as Way Down East a title proclaims that the heroine’s name is Anna, but she might just as well be called Woman.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The grandiloquence is unsuited to a film flawed by dubious bits of crowd-pleasing “down-East” humor and melodramatic ploys that were worn out long before Griffith used them. Anna’s interest as heroine is manifested only twice: the baptism of her dying baby and the snow storm/ice floe sequences. The rest of the film degrades a register of allegory worthy of Woman.

This is not the case in Broken Blossoms. Griffith envisions the film as a dynamics of idealism, innocence, and brutality The three protagonists—the Yellow Man; Lucy, the girl; and Battling Burrows—consistently enact their ascribed characteristics, and every element of the film sustains the purity of the conceptual byplay. The names contain allegorical clues—man, girl, battling. The minor characters, Evil Eye, and Spying One, along with the title, complete the pattern. The credits reveal Griffith’s risky intention. The risk is in the notion that the reality of filming can bear the strain of allegorical textures. If Broken Blossoms lacks obvious pictorial scope, its ambitions are great nonetheless. Much of its impetus seems unrelated to the particular strengths of the medium.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

After a brief prologue in which the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is introduced previous to leaving China “to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife,” we see London’s Limehouse, the principal exterior set of the film. With this set Griffith establishes the motif of enclosure. Even outside we are inside; the space is radically – circumscribed by the opposing storefronts and the rear arches.

Broken Blossoms

The Yellow Man’s idealism has been deflated by the confines of this street, by the very bricks against which he huddles. This shot is a melancholy, reflective emblem, the straight lines and angles of which are drawn into the curved body. This linear tension draws the viewer into the Yellow Man’s reverie. The next is a closer shot, which lessens the distance and expressively uses the changed angle of the hero’s head, the chin tucking in the shoulder, to increase proximity and intimacy.

Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)
Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)

Griffith’s caricatural notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso, but he uses it throughout the film when presenting Lillian Gish as well—pensive, cowering before her father.

Lillian Gish - FEAR - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919

Fear, thought, the frailty of the heroine and the habitual attitude of the hero are expressed in a single cast of body, a spatial indication of their nearness to an interior world—one they will briefly share. They both curl in on themselves, as they seek refuge from the hostile space around them, and direct our own feelings toward the small centers of these frames that are so often limited by the irising of Bitzer’s lens.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

The degree of introspection is then heightened; Barthelmess, leaning against the brick wall, is quite literally thinking about himself dreaming while smoking opium in a “scarlet house of sin.”

Again, the linear strength of the composition draws us to the center—arm, pipe and torso form a triangle at the apex of which the drug-hooded eyes reflect inward.

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

The shots of Barthelmess leaning against the wall and smoking opium and of Gish seated on the wharf establish the film’s landscape, a conceptual and emotional one contained in the minds of the protagonists. The limited dimensions of the spatial correlatives repeatedly bring us back to the inner worlds of Lucy and the Yellow Man where the force of imagination, through the processes of metaphor, transcends their everyday prisons. If Griffith means them to be allegorical characters, they, in a real sense, use allegory to exist. They escape their intolerable reality by substituting symbols for things.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is a fifteen-year-old (Gish had grave reservations about assuming the part because of her age) and her inner life is much simpler than the Yellow Man’s, yet she accomplishes the film’s most vivid gesture of poetic transformation.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

A desperate defense against her father’s brutal domination, her finger-induced smile is a bit of “business” whose ambiguities of sentiment are extensions of its ambiguous position between the realm of representational acting and that realm of the film in which the actor becomes metaphor itself. It represents the way symbols are manipulated, the function of mask, the very root of artifice. Lucy is in constant terror of her father. This is the prevailing attitude in which the physical changes are wrought; it is a limited field upon which the richness of Gish’s invention is displayed. When Lucy sees Daddy the tiny twisted mouth echoes her hands twisting her shawl.

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

Gish plays a fifteen-year-old in mortal fear of her brutalizing father, and the actress never overreaches the character’s age and experience. The restrictions of chronology control a degree of stylization appropriate to this extraordinary mixture of face and mask. The pained eyes burn through the pitiful, forced smile; the actress unites expression and emblem. She forces our attention to that line where art is hinged on its artificial conventions and its verisimilitude. The distance between mouth and eyes helps us apprehend the link between Lucy’s specific plight and the universal burden Griffith has thrust upon her, the eternal victim.

First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)

The first encounter between Gish and Barthelmess sustains the pattern of contemplation initiated at the film’s beginning, and, again, framing devices locate and organize our simultaneous perception of event and style. We see Gish while she is being seen by Barthelmess; the window separates, connects, and delimits, and provides a spatial referent for the process of observation.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The back-lit, soft-focus, Hendrick Sartov close-up of Gish, a lovely but facile device for idealizing the heroine, was to become a cliche. But it was in Broken Blossoms that it first achieved consistency as a significant element of the vocabulary used to photograph Gish. One of the film’s tensions is in the duality of the presentation of the heroine—Lucy, as tangible victim of her father’s whip and hammering fists, and as angelic vision in the eyes of the Yellow Man. The latter kind of shot disembodies her, deemphasizing her physicality by turning her into a chiaroscuro pattern, an abstraction that favors the film’s allegorical penchant.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919 b
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

Griffith opposes this to the stark, clear photography of the violent scenes Gish plays with Donald Crisp as Battling. The camera underlines the dialectic between phenomenon and ideal—the palpable and the transcendental—demonstrating its versatility as it shifts between the two modes, truly catching these actors as they pass from the realm of nature into that of allegory. Griffith abuses this technique in subsequent films with Gish, when the idealized heroine is denied the supporting apparatus of Broken Blossoms style. Through the twenties to her last starring film at MGM, the vision retains its aura of beatitude and in La Boheme (1926) provides for some particularly cherishable shots, although it never again finds a context as congenial as Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)

The physical register is signaled when Lucy, returning to serve her father a meal, quickly fixes a “smile” on her face. Then “the terrible accident”: she spills something on Burrows’s hand. Gish’s performance, to this point based on pent-up terror and control, now bursts forth in a frenzy that is one of her specialties. Her loss of restraint and her willingness to decompose the harmony of her being set a standard for the portrayal of hysteria that only she herself will match. (Griffith gives her repeated opportunities to do so in The Greatest Question, 1919, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm where her tremblings are no less unsettling for their familiarity.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The reiterated and almost unvaried master shot postulates the integrity of the space and the necessity of Lucy’s suffering within it. The same is true of the master shot of the Yellow Mans room. What is, I expect, a shooting expedient conspires to the fihii’s advantage by furnishing constants in the poetic pattern, akin to rhyme, meter, and recurrent imagery. Even the transitions recall the constancy of the setups. Lucy struggles to her feet, drags herself through the streets to the wharf (an often repeated locale), and finally she arrives at the Yellow Man’s shop.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here, the framing shafts of light provide a variation for our recognition of a set that belongs to the film’s strong series of limitations. The blossoms of the title, fragrant and so perishable, have a dual meaning. They refer to the name the Yellow Man bestows on Lucy, White Blossom, and they suggest the allegorical tradition of Renaissance love poetry that turns the beloved into a flower. They establish the stylistic linkage between the film’s hero and heroine. Conventional role-playing is altered by the fact that Lillian Gish, in her twenties, is playing a fifteen-year-old, and Richard Barthelmess, an American type to the point of caricature as later shown in Way Down East and Tolable David (1921), has assumed the role of a Chinese. The Yellow Man creates the love poem by providing the regalia and the rhetoric, but he is also within the poem as object, rendered so by Barthelmess’s version of lover. He is a blossom as well as Lucy. Actor and actress are profoundly alien to their roles; the characters are alien to their environments, and they create a space for themselves at the center of this film.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop (Broken Blossoms)

The meeting of Lucy and the Yellow Man evokes responses in Gish, Barthelmess, and Grifiith that guarantee the blossoms’ integrity. Nothing jars the internal structure of the poem. Lucy has fainted on the floor of the shop and the Yellow Man finally sees her.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop close up (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop close up (Broken Blossoms)

Gish casts her eves down and Barthelmess averts his face, both momentarily withdrawing into themselves before crossing the barrier to become intimate object and referent in a metaphoric relationship. Then their inwardness will be mutually inclusive.

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

The Yellow Man makes his room over into a temple for Lucy, and he garbs her as befits a goddess, adorning her hair with combs, offering her incense (which with childish finickiness she refuses). She admires her own transformation in a hand mirror—a reaction of superbly in-character, coquettish delight—and expresses gratitude for a small vase of flowers. It had been her wish for a flower that brought them together on the street earlier in the film. Flowers are more apt for these characters than theatrics.

The film’s motifs and attitudes prepare its most courageous scene, one in which actor and director fully meld the dictions of drama and lyric poetry. The intertitle proclaims the worst in Grriffith’s taste, his bent for overstatement, his belaboring the point the image so completely transmits without words: “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair; and all night long, he crouches, holding one grubby little hand.” Barthelmess seems to be praying at Gish’s bedside while she sleeps.

Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)
Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)

The moment is privileged, an epiphany  linking the Yellow Man’s religious ideals to his dream of love. What then occurs is a schema for the use of metaphor, its creation, and its power to fix the epiphany in time, to render it tangible through its correlatives. Barthelmess quite literally catches the moonlight in his hands, carries it across the room and showers it on Gish.

Griffith’s prose is inadequate to the flow and grace of the shot, the quality of belief shaped by a flexible actor and sustained by a patient camera. A pattern of circular arm movements that involve the whole room is followed by a third frame enlargement of Barthelmess’s hands close to his face in an ambiguous reminder of the prayer stance. Then, even at that instant when the light is released, a slight hunch of his shoulders preserves some aspect of character during his most total transport. Kneeling by the bed at the foot of his shrine, he once again projects qualities of religious and sexual ecstasy, sublimely confusing the two just as lyric poets did from the early Italian Renaissance to the English pre-Raphaelite period.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

The transition from the first frame to the second, from contemplation to prayer culminates in touch, the contact of face and hands. The whole sequence is a rapid shift of emphasis—from his hands circling to hers, and from her face bathed in the light he bestows to his own beatified by her hand. The light, which is the linking factor of these exchanges, is explicitly part of the scene’s theatrical content, and its value accrues through scarcity. Light alone, the light of a very special and personal moon cornered by the Yellow Man, breathes life into these characters. Metaphor is their only means of sustenance.

Yet if Broken Blossoms has the cast of lyric poetry, it is lyric poetry dramatized by the intrusion of other modes. Griffith creates a tension of manner that constantly places the idyll in jeopardy, forcing a confrontation between the interior, private world and the harshness of the exterior, physical one. His obsessive opposition of idealism and necessity appears in contexts ranging from the plight of his virginal heroines in Biograph one-reelers to Belshazzar’s flamboyant paradise destroyed by the barbarous Persians in Intolerance. The configurations of Broken Blossoms are particularly successful in animating conflict with paradox.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The Yellow Man gives Lucy the doll she admired in his shop window. Gish is at her prettiest here. She passes from childish delight to maternal tranquillity, expressing love for the doll surrogate that cannot be directed to the Yellow Man. The gesture with the doll’s hand on her cheek is a. structural link between this scene and the finger-smile sequences. Instead of a tortured smile, the doll’s hand induces a rapture that extends the characterization. In this shot Gish combines emblems of little-girlhood and womanhood to sustain the allegerical pattern of the film. We and the Yellow Man perceive an essence of femininity, granted shape and scope by the stylization of a woman playing a fifteen-year-old who plays at being a woman.

If in the moon sequence Barthelmess enacts the proximity of spiritual and physical love, it is now reiterated in a different, more strident key. He corrupts Gish’s child/woman portrait with a terrifying close-up of menacing lust.

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

The poles of the film are disturbingly close in this sequence, providing an ambiguous current for Griffith’s abstractive characters. One of the triumphs of Gish and Barthehiiess is the pulse they make throb beneath the conceptual surface Griffith imposes on Lucy and The Yellow Man. Broken Blossoms is most emphatically an acted poetic allegory.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

The sexual ambiguity of the Yellow Man’s gestures toward Lucy is further complicated when Battling Burrows discovers his daughter at the shop. Griffith uses precisely the same kind of terrifying close-up to express the father’s rage. By treating lust and fury similarly, Griffith throws awry the pat polarization of characters and concepts: Yellow Man/peace and Battling Burrows/war. The disorientation of these values will be finally accomplished when Barthelmess— who was to bring Buddha’s message to the West; who enshrined poor Lillian Gish in his personal temple—standing next to an illustration of prizefighters, faces down and shoots Donald Crisp.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

The hunched stance is apt for expression of both irony and menace. Up to the film’s last minutes, Griffith generates a crescendo of terror, pain, and violence following Burrows’s entrance into the love nest. The precious enclosure and the hermetic lovers are rent asunder; the words of the lyric poem are disarranged and strewn across the now familiar areas of the film. If the audience feels panic during the denouement of Broken Blossoms, it is because the elegiac rhythm and the idealized surface have been so radically altered. The stillness of epiphany is shattered by extremes of theatricality, modes borrowed from melodrama that test the integrity of the poem with the purity of their excess. Broken Blossoms is as much a clash of literary styles and shapes as a clash of ideologies.

At this point in the film the particular strengths of Lillian Gish are given their greatest and most fulfilling challenge. Torn from her bed and thrown to the floor, she witnesses her father’s destruction of the room with only a hint of the expression of fear that she will eventually summon.

Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)

Still clutching the doll, she is dragged down those familiar streets, home through the fog. Then Crilfith cuts back to Barthelmess and his discovery of the wreckage and her absence.

Barthelmess’s despair and anguish, his sell-abandonment, prepare for Gish’s great scene. All of their acting in miniature, in repose—acting that aimed toward the private center of their poetic existence— is now reversed, and the walls no longer seem adequate to contain their performances. As the world breaks in upon them, each responds with frantic extensions of their beings into the physical universe. Barthelmess’s hysteria is stylized Chinese; Gish’s version goes beyond recognizable style.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A particularly inspired invention locates her explosion of hysteria in a closet, the film’s smallest space. The general pattern of containment is both respected and supremely violated, This most circumscribed area, suited to the interiority of the lyric poem, provides a frame for the screen’s rawest manifestation of unchecked emotion and frenzy . Gish presses herself to the closet wall. Then begins a confrontation between actress and closet, and an assault on our collective claustrophobia that set a standard for any subsequent scene of enclosure. The space is delimited by body, hands, eyes, and face.

A sense of duration unfortunately is not conveyed by the frame enlargements. The camera relentlessly records Gish, and she spares the audience nothing, forcing it to share the plenitude of her suffering. The sequence is finally modulated; Gish reassumes the crouching position, drawing herself into a corner, while Crisp hacks at the door. When he reaches through the opening he has made, the conflict between their worlds is conveyed in purely spatial terms.

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

All the confines are breached as Lucy is pulled through that same opening, her spirit raped as she passes from one realm into another. Griffith is fiendishly inventive in scenes of menace, as Broken Blossoms demonstrates. The final beating features a tapping motion with the phallic whip handle, a disquieting prelude to the fatal strokes that we do not see.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)
Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is left alone to die. Isolated now by her pillow, she still clutches the doll that links her to the Yellow Man, but also veyr much her father’s daughter, she composes her final “smile.”

Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)

In a shot that seems to be held forever, her death connects the various attitudes and spaces of Broken Blossoms: the peace of the Yellow Man’s room, the agonizing smile-poem, and the bruises inflicted by Battling Burrows.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in "Broken Blossoms"
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”

The stillness is interrupted by the confrontation of the Yellow Man with Burrows, but it is resumed in the final sequence by an ineffable cadence of echoes of posture and placement. Lucy is returned to her altar to be venerated along with the other icons, and her death is consecrated through the joy and passion of Barthelmess’s suicide.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Peace is restored and the pattern is completed by the sublime tilt of the head, which forms the proper closure of the poem that was begun when the Yellow Man first leaned against the brick wall. Between these wedded images Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess act out the impossible, escaping from themselves through a refinement of gesture and stance to incarnate a totality of being that ranges from the most exquisite presence of flesh and pain to the airy reaches of aureoles and karma. That is the scope of Broken Blossoms.

Cheng Huan's suicide (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s suicide (Broken Blossoms)

Gish was always Griffith’s little girl/very young lady. Her vulnerability to menace was sublimely appropriate to the complex of reverence and sadism that qualified Woman in his imagination.

Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover
Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover

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Love in the Film – By William K. Everson (1979)

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Love in the Film

By William K. Everson (1979)

The two plot elements most common to all film are love and crime. Love is an emotion; crime a physical act. Between them, singly and more often jointly, they provide the motivation—and the linking narrative thrust—of most films, whether they be comedy, horror, science-fiction, or from any other genre. Even when history is put on the screen, its facts are often reemphasized (or totally rewritten, as in Suez) so that love is frequently the force which changes the destiny of nations. And political decisions, in actuality formed by expediency, economics or patriotism, are frequently diverted and debased, becoming the criminal acts of greedy individuals. There are films which contain neither love nor crime, but they are rare and if one were to make up a list of such films, one would probably find it heavily weighted in favor of the documentary —the only genre that might totally avoid both ingredients, although one might argue that the documentary is frequently utilized to protest “social crime,” and that that kind of injustice is as dramatic as straightforward lawbreaking.

If the word “love” is ambiguous, then the phrase “love story” as related to film (or play or novel) is more ambiguous still, and frequently overlaps into what one can only term the territory of the “romantic” film (or play or novel). A great love story is usually made “great” by the power of its theme or the passion of its playing; a great “romantic” film, however, depends far more on a welding of those elements with others—particularly the elegant stylistics of writing, directing and photography.

I suspect that the further evolution of love in film will be increasingly more clinical and correspondingly less romantic, and I shall be happy to leave the updating of this volume to other less sentimental hands.

Mary Pickford Blanche Sweet
Mary Pickford Blanche Sweet

The Teens

Two factors continued to work against the development of the genre at least until 1920. One of course was the Victorian sense of romance and melodrama that still pervaded the movies—and the phrase “Victorian” is meant not in a critical sense, but in a purely descriptive one, for the Victorian age had literally passed into history only a few years earlier. The movies, and the stories and novels on which they were frequently based, were still concerned with simple and well-defined virtues and vices. The virtuous heroine was juxtaposed with the dynamic and aggressive vamp; between them, they could offer pure love—or impure sex. But there was no shading, no mingling of the two extremes. This did not preclude the making of good movies, but it did rather shift the emphasis into the areas of romance, or straight drama. Mary Pick-ford’s Stella Man’s (1918) is both a very good and an incredible film—the latter because it chose to fly in the face of Pickford’s popularity, and present a decidedly grim story. It’s about wasted love and thwarted love rather than fulfilled love.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

At the other end of the spectrum one finds a film like A Cumberland Romance (1920) starring Pickford’s leading rival, Mary Miles Minter. It’s appealing because of its very simplicity and “prettiness”—lovely outdoor locations, superb photography, and a magnificent use of tinted and toned stock. Between these two extremes, there were the Cinderella romances of Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, the heavier romantic dramas of Norma Talmadge, and the frothy romantic comedies of her sister Constance. There was nothing wrong with these films. They were escapist and they were entertaining; they more than met the demands of fans and exhibitors; and because the industry was not yet geared to aggressive competition (it had no need to be, since it was the entertainment medium, with radio still in the future, and television but a science- fiction dream) the films deliberately cultivated a “sit-back-and-be-entertained” manner, and rarely came to grips with life in the way necessary to produce a really moving love story.

Then there was a second factor to be taken into consideration. The enormous success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 eased, and even encouraged, the segue into much longer films. But it also, unwittingly, dictated their shape too. Producers, impressed by the money it had made, and directors, in awe of Griffith’s filmmaking genius, used it as a pattern, and at least until 1920, the majority of films were made in its image. There were subplots to cut away from—and to; interwoven characters; flashbacks; spectacular climaxes that were built mathematically. This made for some extremely lively films, but it didn’t help the cause of good acting—or the creating of sustained characters, so essential in a love story. One of the reasons that Mary Pickford was such a reigning star in the teen years was that she was one of the few female stars big enough to control her own image and the construction of her own films. With all their variety (comedies, dramas, westerns, costume pieces, tragedy), she remained the point of focus throughout. She was able to build and sustain a characterization that was not fragmented by the demands of a narrative where editing and cross-cutting were the paramount concerns. True, the fast pacing of films in this period did not prevent great performances.

Love in the film - Mae Marsh (Intolerance - Modern Story)
Love in the film – Mae Marsh (Intolerance – Modern Story)
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Mae Marsh’s acting as the young wife and mother in Intolerance (1916) is both brilliant and moving; but it is even more so in the source film. The Mother and the Law (1914), which Griffith cut and reshaped and used as the centerpiece for Intolerance, surrounding it with French, Biblical and Babylonian stories. Griffith’s later Hearts of the World (1918) had all the potential for being a really tender love story as well as a war spectacle, in its depiction of a young love torn asunder by the war, during the course of which the young bride is driven to temporary insanity.

Lillian Gish’s performance was her subtlest and most mature to that point, but all too often, having reached peaks of emotion or hysterical intensity, the film just drops her, reverts to action and melodrama, and by the time it picks her up again, the momentum is lost. The movies’ pre-1920 years are by no means barren ones. The films of those years have youth, innocence, vitality and optimism—both in their plot content, and in their own style, for they are made by directors possessed of those same qualities, and excited by what they are discovering about film. But basically, the films of those years appeal to the senses rather than to the emotions. While the selection of only two films to illustrate this period is obviously arbitrary, it is perhaps significant that both are the result of the collaboration between two of the foremost artists of the period—D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

The Mothering Heart

  • American Biograph, 1913.
  • Directed by D. W. Griffith. Camera: G. W. Bitzer.
  • With: Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Viola Barry, Charlie Murray, Kate Bruce.

It is not at all unusual to find exceptionally strong dramatic stories in the one- and two-reel pre-feature films of 1910 to 1913. The sheer number of them, and the need to maintain as much variety as possible, meant that some pretty offbeat material was offered, accepted and produced, merely because of the need to keep up a steady stream of production. Too, the star system was not realty established as yet, so that audiences would not be disappointed or dismayed if a favored player turned up in an unsympathetic role, or in a tragic one. Finally, the mass audience for movies was still an essentially working-class one, bolstered by the still very large waves of immigrants. While one might have assumed that this kind of audience was the one for which escapist entertainment would have been most in demand, at the same time the more progressive directors—and certainly D. W. Griffith headed the list—also felt that the audience would respond emotionally to problems and situations it knew and understood on its own merits.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

The Mothering Heart—a film that runs for only about sixteen minutes—is hardly a permanent classic. But in a comparative sense it is; for 1913 it is daring both in its content and in its faith in the ability of an audience to recognize all its subtleties. Griffith’s short films for Biograph between 1907 and 1913 can very roughly be divided into two groups: the chase films, melodramas, Civil War stories and Westerns which he made primarily to develop and polish new methods of editing and the staging of action, and those other films—ranging from Tolstoy’s Resurrection to Norris’s A Corner in Wheat—where theme was more important than technique. A number of the latter group had included quite strong little emotional stories, usually involving redemption in one form or another (particularly the reformation of the alcoholic), but there were relatively few bona fide love stories.

One exception was the the already mentioned 1912 The Mender of Nets, in which the hero (Charles West) loves the beautiful fisherman’s daughter (Mary Pickford) but in an earlier liaison has made another girl pregnant—this latter role played surprisingly well by Mabel Normand, her normal vivacity covered by nondescript clothing and makeup which makes her look plump and relatively plain. (The parallel with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun is quite striking.) The wronged girl’s father tries to kill the erring lover, but is prevented from doing so by Pickford, who, sacrificing her own happiness, persuades the boy that his duty is to marry the other girl. The film concludes with a lovely close-up of Mary Pickford, sitting outside her hut atop a cliff, helping her father with his fishing nets and, with a sigh of wistful resignation, remarking that ‘”Somebody has to mend other people’s broken nets.” With its maximum use of rugged outdoor land- and seascapes, striking closeup images and dramatic editing, A Mender of Nets was one of Griffith’s most sophisticated films to 1912. It is a measure of the incredibly rapid strides he was making at that time that The Mothering Heart, made only the following year, seems infinitely more mature.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

It starred Lillian Gish and Walter Miller, a romantic duo that Griffith used in a number of films of the period (The Musketeers of Pig Alley and An Unseen Enemy were others). As in his later romantic teaming of Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, the feminine role was the stronger and more dramatic one. The male’s role was to be weak, passive, sometimes even unsympathetic.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

In The Mothering Heart, Lillian Gish and Walter Miller are a young, happily married couple. On a visit to a nightclub, however, the husband attracts the attention of a flirtatious woman at a nearby table, and is infatuated with her. In the ensuing weeks, he deceives his wife and carries on an affair with the woman, totally under her spell, though to her he is merely a passing adventure. He is away from home so much that he is unaware that their young baby is ailing. The baby in fact dies, and in a most remarkable scene, Lillian Gish, as the distraught mother, wanders almost somnambulistically into their garden and then, in a frenzied paroxysm of destruction, seizes a hoe and hits out at all the plants and young trees, seeking to kill them.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Then, returning to her trancelike state, she returns to the house where the husband—chastened by the discovery of the death of his child, thrown over by the other woman who has gone on to another affair—is waiting for her. At first the wife is hard and unforgiving; then, unwittingly, she finds the dead child’s pacifier in the crib. There is a full screen closeup of her hand fondling the head of the pacifier—the borders of the screen blacked out to emphasize the action, which must be one of the first examples of explicit sexual symbolism on the screen. Then she almost thrusts the pacifier at her husband. The climax is thus not so much one of a happy reunion, but almost one of desperation, the wife suggesting that only via another child does their love, and their marriage, stand a chance of survival.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

As if fully understanding the psychological depth and importance of his story, Griffith gives The Mothering Heart quite surprisingly elaborate production values. The nightclub is exceptionally spacious, yet in keeping with the kind of enlarged roadhouse that it would have been in its suburban California setting. The details of decor and clothing (particularly in respect to the contrasting hats and dresses of the two women) are carefully thought out, and the bit players well chosen. The tall, handsome, muscular uniformed doorman of the nightclub seems to have been cast just for the effect of one scene towards the end. Initially, since he always opens the door for the straying husband and his new paramour, he seems to symbolize the glamour of the new lifestyle he has assumed. But when the husband is finally tossed aside by his temporary mistress, the action takes place outside the club doors. The husband’s shame is compounded by the contempt of the doorman, who smiles superciliously at this expected turn of events. Because he is a tall, striking figure—much taller than the husband —it is possible for that all-important smile of scorn to register without Griffith going into a closeup to underline it.

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

Subtle, underplayed acting was a trademark of the better Griffith Biographs; Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh and others had all, by this time, given performances which even today, hold up by virtue of their sensitivity and restraint and need no apologies or explanations. Even so, the three lead performances in The Mothering Heart are quite exceptional. Although only in her mid-teens, Lillian Gish is utterly convincing as the more mature mother—as convincing as she was as the naive teenager in True Heart Susie, which she was to make for Griffith some six years later. Moreover, she manages to downplay her own beauty, to make the mother serious, even a little dowdy, so that the husband’s straying to the exciting other woman becomes understandable. Walter Miller, as the husband, is likewise restrained and sincere, and suggests that he might well have become a major actor had not his striking good looks and virility sidetracked him into a career as a serial hero, where he developed a series of poses and mannerisms that stayed with him until the end of his career in the early 1940s.

Viola Barry (The Mothering Heart)
Viola Barry as The ‘Idle Woman’ / Outside Club (as Peggy Pearce)

But perhaps the most exciting performance of all is that of Viola Barry as the adventuress. She wasn’t the first screen vamp—Helen Gardner had beaten her to the punch—nor was she the most famous since, from 1914 on, Theda Bara assumed that role. But in 1913, she was certainly the best, and her interpretation so modern and subtle that it works even today. Facially, she had the finely-chiseled features of Mary Astor—but coupled to the voluptuous body of that twenties vamp, Nita Naldi. Her low cleavaged gown was worn with tremendous style, as though she was totally unaware of the effect it was having on her victims. Moreover, there was nothing obvious or “sinful” about her vamping approach. She was able to snare Walter Miller’s attention (and ours) with a glance. Her attraction was enhanced by the fact that Griffith did not see fit either to condemn her as an “evil woman” or to punish her. She merely goes on to another adventure at the end of the film; it is Miller, the husband, who has “sinned” and is punished. In the rather clear-cut separation between “good” woman and “bad” that characterized American movies of the teen years, Viola Barry would have had rather tough sledding. She was too healthily sexy to fit into the fashionable niche for screen heroines, yet too attractive to play vamps, who had to come off second-best to the virginal heroines. Fortunately, she was married to up-and- coming director Jack Conway, and a career was not uppermost in her mind—though her beauty, casual elegance and real acting style in this film suggest that her lack of ambition was a major loss to the silent screen.

In any event, whether one classifies The Mothering Heart as a love story, a romance, or an emotional drama, it is an almost Freudian film, and very probably the first American film that can make that claim.

 

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

  • Paramount-Artcraft, 1919.
  • Directed by D. W. Griffith.
  • Scenario; Marian Fremont.
  • Camera: G. Bitzer.
  • With: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Loyola O’Connor, Walter Higby, George Fawcett, Clarine Seymour, Kate Bruce, Carol Dempster, Robert Cannon.

One of a group of films loosely referred to as “rural romances,” True Heart Susie came, in one sense, midway in Griffith’s career. The initial spectacles. The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Hearts of the World, were behind him; the big spectacles of the 20s (America, Orphans of the Storm) lay ahead. At this particular time, Griffith was trying to retrench financially—his entrapment by bank loans and other debts had already begun—and also to put the war behind him, and deal with the people and the landscapes of his childhood in Kentucky in a series of less ambitious but often lyrical little films. True Heart Susie is one of the best of these, and certainly the most romantic, but one sees it today under a disadvantage. No original negative or prints appear to have survived, and all circulating copies in this country and elsewhere seem to derive from a copy held by the British Film Institute in London—itself far from a really good print. The interiors of the film now seem black and shadowy, and the exteriors lack the radiance of the sunshine. Fortunately, a similar if lesser Griffith film, 1920’s The Greatest Question, does survive in the form of one or two good prints made from the original negative, and by studying that, with its superb lighting and dramatic use of landscape, one can at least mentally project True Heart Susie with all the pictorial beauty it once had. It is quite a tribute to the film, and the sensitivity of the performances by Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, that it plays as well as it does despite the handicap of dark and lackluster prints several generations away from the original.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Griffith, ever the showman (though he often pretended not to be), was aware that after his earlier spectacles audiences expected something “Big” from him, constantly tried to add stature to these smaller films by portentous opening titles. True Heart Susie opens with a title claiming that every incident in it is taken from life, and goes on to dedicate itself to all the women of the world who wait for the great love that never comes. Actually, 1919 audiences might have been equally impressed had Griffith just leveled with them and admitted that True Heart Susie was an amalgamation of themes from Charles Dickens, the author whose influence (both structurally and thematically) was to dominate Griffith’s work. Most specifically, True Heart Susie derives from Great Expectations and the latter portions of David Copperfield.

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

 

Its underlying theme is quite simple. Susie, very much in love with William—who only halfheartedly reciprocates—scrimps and saves to put him through college. He is unaware of her sacrifices, thinking his benefactor to be a stranger from the city who once passed through their rural community and promised to help. When he returns from college, ready to take a position as minister, Susie assumes that they’ll marry, and misinterprets several of his remarks as a confirmation of that. However, his attention goes to the gaudy Bettina—all paint, powder and silk stockings—and it is she that he marries.

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

Bettina however, only wants the security of the marriage, and after the wedding is a poor wife, who looks slovenly about the house, won’t cook hot meals, and complains of boredom. Both Susie and William think wistfully of what might have been, but never confide their thoughts to each other—and when Susie realizes that Bettina is deceiving William, she keeps quiet about it. On one occasion, Bettina sneaks away to a wild party with her friends, on the way collecting a book that her husband needed. The party breaks up late, and Bettina is drenched in a torrential downpour. She contracts pneumonia, and William feels responsible, knowing nothing of the party and thinking that it was all brought about by her thoughtful act in collecting the book for him.

Lillian Gish and Clarine Seymour - True Heart Susie
Lillian Gish and Clarine Seymour – True Heart Susie

On her deathbed, Bettina is about to confess, but William prevents her and, to quote a rather lovely Griffith subtitle, “She dies as she lived—a little unfaithful.’’ Despite the previous emptiness of his marriage, William is so moved that he vows never to love or marry again, and Susie is too loyal to him to tell him the truth. Inadvertently however, the truth does come out, and, belatedly, William and Susie are married. It is a simple story, simply told, with no need for the subplots or intercutting of Griffith’s more ambitious works. (Actually, Griffith’s cutting in the post-intolerance period tended to remain innovative in conception, but to get increasingly slipshod in execution—and True Heart Susie offers early evidence of Griffith’s carelessness in this direction, although the non matching cuts are not as serious or as obvious as they would be in the following year’s Way Down East.)

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

The film really wins one over by its sincerity and by the strength of its performers. Its beginning is not too promising. Lillian Gish’s Susie seems so much the innocent trusting child that marriage to her would seem to offer very little. (Comedian Harry Langdon seems to have based many of his expressions and pantomimic gestures on Lillian Gish’s performance in this film, and occasionally— through no fault of hers—one has the uncanny feeling of watching Langdon rather than Gish, which also tends to downplay the romantic involvement.) Robert Harron is first seen as a rather gawky youth, and his metamorphosis into a far more mature man (aided by a moustache to which he calls attention by constantly preening it) shows again what a remarkably subtle actor Harron could be. But his slighting of Susie gains him little audience sympathy; one can hardly blame him for choosing the more exciting Bettina, and yet at the same time one feels that in a way they deserve each other.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

It is at this point that the film shifts gears, and stops telling its story only in terms of incident. From here on in there are far more close-ups of both Gish and Harron in which their sadness and isolation is conveyed by the subtlety of facial expression and Bitzer’s lighting. Perhaps too, in this latter portion of the film, there is more drawing upon the original plot construction of Dickens, who, quite unknowingly of course, manipulated people and details in a decidedly cinematic manner.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - With Robert (Bobby) Harron in True Heart Susie 1919 — with Lillian Gish and Bobbie Harron.

Whatever the reasons, the film becomes both touching and moving in its final third, and many of the apparent loose ends of the opening suddenly fall into place. Earlier it had been established that Susie and William never quite managed to kiss—even when he was going away to college. Both tried, sincerely but clumsily, and both withdrew before the kiss could be accomplished. This awkwardness is maintained until the penultimate scene, when William approaches Susie to admit his love and propose marriage. Even here, Griffith keeps them apart: Susie is seen at the window of her cottage, leaning out to water flowers; William is shown only as a hesitant shadow.

Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (Harron as a shadow on the wall)
Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (Harron as a shadow on the wall)

The final scene is a repeat of one of their years- earlier walks down a country lane, and a closing title hopes that they’ll be happy, and asks the audience to imagine their rekindling the love of their earlier, innocent years. There’s no doubt that it’s a happy ending—yet the sense of possible separation, and the shadow of the unhappy marriage to Bettina, is retained. It’s a subtle and mature ending to a minor Griffith classic which offers a great deal more sophistication and emotional depth than, might at first seem apparent.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - True Heart Susie FF
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie
Love in the film
Love in the film – cover

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Empire of Dreams (The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille) – By Scott Eyman (2010)

Empire of Dreams

The Epic Life of CECIL B. DEMILLE

By Scott Eyman (2010)

Best known as the director of such spectacular films as The Ten Commandments and KingOf Kings, Cecil B. DeMille lived a life as epic as any of is cinematic masterpieces. As a child DeMille learned the Bible from his father, a theology student and playwright who introducedCecil and his older brother, William, to the theater. Tutored by impresario David Belasco,DeMille discovered how audiences responded to showmanship: sets, lights, costumes, etc. He took this knowledge with him to Los Angeles in 1913, where he became one of the movie pioneers, in partnership with Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). Working out of a barn on streets fragrant with orange blossom and pepper trees, the Lasky company turned out a string of successful silents, most of them directed by DeMille, who became one of the biggest names of the silent era. With films such as The Squaw Man,Brewster’s Millions, Joan the Woman, and Don’t Change Your Husband, he was the creative backbone of what would become Paramount Studios. In 1923 he filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments and later a second biblical epic, King of Kings, both enormous box-office successes. Although his reputation rests largely on the biblical epics he made, DeMille’s personal life was no morality tale. He remained married to his wife, Constance, for more than fifty years, but for most of the marriage he had three mistresses simultaneously, all of whom worked for him. He showed great loyalty to a small group of actors who knew his style, but he also discovered some major stars, among them Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, and later, Charlton Heston. DeMille was one of the few silent-era directors who made a completely successful transition to sound. In 1952 he won the Academy Award for Best Picture with The Greatest Show on Earth. When he remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, it was an even bigger hit than the silent version. He could act, too: in Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard, DeMille memorably played himself. In the 1930s and 1940s DeMille became a household name thanks to the Luce Radio Theater, which he hosted. But after falling out with a union, he gave up the program, and his politics shifted to the right as he championed loyalty oaths and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. As Scott Eyman brilliantly demonstrates in this superbly researched biography, which draws on a massive cache of DeMille family papers not available to previous biographers, DeMille was much more than his cliched image. A gifted director who worked in many genres; a devoted family man and loyal friend with a highly unconventional personal life; a pioneering filmmaker: DeMille comes alive in these pages, a legend whose spectacular career defined an era.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille

In the years after World War I, propriety was less attractive than the promise of freedom. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would inevitably give way to Clara Bow and Louise Brooks — a transition anticipated by DeMille. The DeMille films manage to have it both ways — they confront the anxieties implicit in abandoning old behavior patterns, but they tend to reaffirm the original marital transaction. At the same time, they’re problem pictures in which the premise carries more weight than the characters; DeMille doesn’t give his women the room for authentic emotion as would directors who came out of a different cultural tradition such as Lubitsch or Josef von Sternberg.

American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille - 16 dec 1958
American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille – 16 dec 1958 (Lillian Gish first from the left)

Ramping up a studio from a standing start entails a vast amount of work and money, especially when it comes to story material. “Do you want to buy best sellers by popular authors or cheaper originals and older stories?” inquired Ella Adams. DeMille would have preferred gilt-edged properties, but there were money issues. “We are short on material for women,” he wrote back. “We need eight feminine vehicles and we only have four.”

Then there was the problem of stars. Lillian Gish wired DeMille to say that she had been told he was interested in her: have YOU A representative here in new YORK THAT I COULD TALK WITH OR COULD YOU WIRE ME ABOUT ANY PLANS YOU MIGHT HAVE AFFECTING MY FUTURE WHICH IS STILL UNSETTLED?

DeMille responded with a flurry of telegrams: I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH TO HAVE YOU AS A MEMBER OF MY NEW COMPANY AS I BELIEVE I CAN DO MORE FOR YOU THAN ANYONE AT present IN the field. He told his New York man to “call upon Gish immediately, tell her I would like [to] make four pictures a year with her that I will personally supervise and in which she would be starred. Or possibly three starring pictures and have her appear in one of my personally directed productions each year. . . .

If she mentions [Gish’s lover, the drama critic] George Jean Nathan you can say that I have the highest regard for Mr. Nathan and would be glad to associate him in some way with her pictures. That at the same time if she is to have the benefit of my direction and supervision naturally the choice of stories and matters of that sort must be left in my hands.”

DeMille’s agent reported back that three or four companies were bidding for Gish’s services, for what he thought was a minimum of $5,000 a week, and she wanted a definite offer. A couple of days later, he asked DeMille, “would you take Nathan if signing Gish depended on it?” The negotiations with Gish went no further; she signed with MGM. That wasn’t the only disappointment. DeMille was anxious to sign the silk hat comedian Raymond Griffith, and was willing to trade Bebe Daniels, with whom he had worked out a contract memo. But Daniels changed her mind about working for DeMille because her boyfriend was going to be working in the East and she wanted to follow him there. This left DeMille with nothing to offer of comparable value for Griffith.

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

On July 27, 1948, DeMille had attended the funeral of the largely forgotten, alcoholic D. W. Griffith. Lillian Gish remembered that only six people came to the funeral home the night before the funeral; one was DeMille, another was John Ford. For the funeral itself, where there were sure to be cameras, there was a crowd.

Sitting there, DeMille must have thought about the meaning of Griffith’s life, and the circumstances of his death, about roads not taken, and why he, alone of all the directors of his generation, maintained a preeminent position in the industry.

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford, Evelyn Baldwin Griffith and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

Martin Scorsese once wrote that what moved him about DeMille was his sense of wonder. “DeMille presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life. The marvelous superseded the sacred. What I remember most are the tableaux vivants, the colors, the dreamlike quality of the imagery, and of course the special effects. . . .

“DeMille’s legacy is . . . putting on a giant show for people who were working class people, who don’t have much money to go and see a film in a theater. They are told it’s a spectacle and they really do see a spectacle. He wouldn’t let the audience down at all, and it always paid off in that beautiful flow of poetic and dream-like images.”

Alone among the survivors of a bygone era, DeMille persisted in constructing vast pieces of silent music: Pre-Raphaelite, pre-Freudian images that rendered dialogue irrelevant. His silent films have maintained DeMille’s reputation as a great director by those lucky enough to see them, and the enormous spectacles have kept his name alive for audiences more than fifty years after his death. Years after DeMille’s death, Gloria Swanson visited Palm Springs, where William Holden was living. Holden was in Africa, so Swanson left a note for him on a toilet seat.

“Dear Joe,” [his character’s name in Sunset Boulevard]

I’m leaving this note where I know you’ll find it.

“Where is Max? Where is DeMille? Where is Hedda? Where has everybody gone?

“Love, Norma Desmond.”

Once, when DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia was a little girl, she asked him what he did for a living. He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “I tell stories,” he said.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille - cover
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille – cover

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”Way Down East”- Camera (1920)

Camera – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23. 1920

”Way Down East”

Griffith comes back again with his screen version of “Way Down East,” and, as usual, the critics have little to report save good regarding one of his big productions. As has been the case in some of his previous pictures, this old melodrama will henceforth be more popular as a Griffith offering than it has proven during the many years that it has been an old standby on the boards.

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

Never before have such photography and light effects been accomplished for the screen. These, combined with the unusual settings which proclaim aloud their genuineness, render “Way Down East” the season’s most artistic production by far.

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

The original plot of the play has been elaborated upon and much invaluable human interest business has been inserted. The performances of the cast are very good and the New England types are excellent. Their action is materially assisted by the music score.

Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.

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

Lowell Sherman is exceptionally well cast as the heavy, Lennox Sanderson, whom he interprets cleverly. His work is convincing enough to gather for him the complete loathing of any audience.

Richard Barthelmess does David Bartlett, the well remembered ideal young New Englander, with all of his old time juvenile appeal. His characterization is equally good in its tender and its dominant moments.

Burr MackIntosh - Scene from Way Down East
Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

Burr Macintosh and Kate Price are beautifully cast as Squire and Mrs. Bartlett. It is the home atmosphere that means so much in Griffith pictures.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Mary Hay makes her screen debut in the role of Kate Brewster, the refreshing little ingenue. She is headed toward Dorothy ‘s port with her eccentric comedy mannerisms. Her relief is timely.

Way Down East Cast and Director
Way Down East Cast and Director

Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong and George Neville occasion the more hilarious amusement of the play in the rural characters, Martha Perkins, Jack Setholand and Reuben Whipple. Josephine Bernard, Mrs. Morgan Belmont and Patricia Fruer are somewhat amateurish as the Tremonts, but their footage is limited and consequently means little.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and the eccentric aunt

Florence Short, however, creates a type worthy of mention in her four or five scenes as their eccentric aunt. Edgar Nelson as Hi Holler, and Emily Fitzroy as Maria Poole, complete the cast.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

The remarkableness and thrill of the ice jam and break scenes, which forms the climax, has never been rivaled. It is as spectacular a sequence as has been filmed, even by this  director.

Other producers might follow Mr. Griffith’s example by including many big brains in their organizations, to the advantage of’ their productions and resultantly their own material success.

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SCREENING OUT THE PAST By LARY MAY (1980)

The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry

By LARY MAY

The University of Chicago Press – Chicago and London 1980

Recent social historians have used innovative methods to show that there was a measurable change in morals among the urban middle classes between 1900 and 1920. Yet the convergence of that change with issues of power remained obscure. For example, the active communications and close relationship maintained between civic leaders and filmmakers, specifically with regard to the sexual revolution, was overlooked. Fearing that the rise of industrial empires threatened the traditional moral order, each believed that it was necessary to combat that threat. Nevertheless, by the 1920s urbanites had forged a new culture, a culture that was supported by all the modern institutions of leisure, sports, nightclubs, popular music, amusement parks, including the movies, to regenerate popular visions of progress and middle-class success. The result was that a profound alteration in American identity was first born at the turn of the century. Movies were a key element in that transformation, helping to foster the shift from a producer’s to a consumer’s democracy. Centered in the large cities, the cultural revolution had an independent life. Of course, elites tried to control that process, but in spite of their efforts, filmmakers helped to reorient democratic individualism in an organized age and created models for a leisure realm that helped ease fears of social disruption. Though the promise of a richer life was often distorted in the tension, the strongest urge was to generate private fulfillment to counter an often alienating, bureaucratic society. Precisely because consumerism supplied ideals for the political economy, producers tried to link their product to the democratic tradition by having politicians serve in the industry. Political leaders often accepted, hoping to link their programs to popular aspirations carried by the media, its leisure institutions and personalities. Much of that symbiosis has been a shadowy element, but it became overt in 1980. In the presidential campaign of that year Ronald Reagan promised to regenerate the modern American dream of consumption and economic growth, a dream that he dramatized on and off the screen for more than twenty years as a movie star. The political and artistic reality behind that synthesis has often eluded us, but this Study suggests that it has been a powerful and permanent part of our culture since the turn of the century.

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

Chapter Four

APOCALYPTIC CINEMA:

D. W. GRIFFITH AND THE AESTHETICS OF REFORM

 

Do you know that we are playing to the world? What we film tomorrow will strike the hearts of the world. And they will know what we are saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language — a power that can make men brothers and end wars forever. Remember that, remember that when you go before the camera.

DAVID WARK GRIFFITH, 1914

Griffith believed that no film could be a success without that “pleasing presentation for which all men yearn.” We are not likely to understand the tremendous artistry Griffith poured into this vision if we forget the sources of Griffith’s emotional stance toward women. He idealized his family, especially his mother; and this admiration infused his attitude toward the female characters in his photoplays. Although he never found a woman “to duplicate the memories of perfection we all have within us,” there was one woman whom mankind might love without thoughts of sensuality. “We all know that the beauty of our mothers is no myth.” In seeking to revive that memory on the screen, heroines were less objects of passion than reminders of all the spiritual values embodied in the family. No wonder the player who portrayed this type in numerous Griffith films, Lillian Gish, confessed that her mentor was an essentially lonely man who loved his screen images but feared real women. Consequently, his female players were not the “buxom, voluptuous form popular with the Oriental mind,” but the frail, innocent girl who was the “very essence of virginity.” It was not just Griffith’s camera but the entire environment of film making that infused his heroines with the proper purity. He started by making his studio a Victorian home writ large. Running it like a “stern father,” he never allowed his players long hours or even the “taint of scandal.” He dismissed potential female players who did not look “clean,” or those who had blemishes on their faces, since these skin defects indicated jealousy, greed, or sexual vice. Heroines were usually chaperoned on the set, forbidden to have men in their dressing rooms, and prevented from actually kissing during love scenes. When a passionate embrace did appear in a Griffith film, he suggested that a caption explain that the girl’s mother was present. His favorite actress, the thin and frail Lillian Gish, was perfectly cast for this female ideal. As a girl in the Midwest, she lived in a convent and hoped to become a nun. When working for Griffith, she and her sister Dorothy remained constantly supervised by their mother. She recalled that her director had a “mania” for cleanliness and a body free of germs, and lectured to his cast that “women aren’t meant for promiscuity. If you’re going to be promiscuous, you will end up with some disease.”

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Griffith used film to make his ideal of saintly womanhood come alive. Whatever taints of the earthly that remained after Griffith’s vigorous efforts and exhortations had to be eradicated by the camera itself. First came “exercise, cosmetics, self-denial” and the “right kind of thinking.” Then women faced screen tests which magnified the actress’s face “twenty times” until he found the look of “perfect health.” Through a series of cinematic techniques, this heroine finally became a heavenly vision on the screen. One of the most famous Griffith innovations was “hazy photography,” caused by a white sheet beneath the player’s feet. A powerful bright light from above would illuminate the body. “We must erase imperfections,” he recalled, “and it was in doing this that I invented the hazy photography … the camera is a great beauty doctor.” With all human imperfections removed, Griffith would then film a scene over and over until he achieved just the right effect. The resulting close-up became one of his most famous technical triumphs. Griffith explained that the goal was a face where the skin radiated a smooth soft outline. So with the eyes. . . . Every other physical characteristic is of insignificance compared with the eves. If they are the window to your soul, your soul must have a window it could see through. The farther the motion picture art progresses, the more important does this become. At the heart of Griffith’s drama was the struggle of mankind to protect this female ideal. He highlighted this tension through a series of masterful editing techniques. In making over three hundred films, he learned that the way in which strips of celluloid were arranged could determine the emotional rhythms of the audience.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

By alternating between characters lighted “like archangels or devils,” the director would personalize the good and evil at work in the world. Building his story around these contrasts, he might arouse the audience to identify with righteousness. Then the director showed the heroine suddenly threatened by men who embodied greed, lust, or tyranny. The climax of his films was the rescue. Cutting back and forth from evil pursuer to endangered innocence, the director built a crescendo of fear and hope as the hero rushes to save her. In one great finale, virtue and sin would struggle in the “battle of human ethics common to all consciousness.” As the hero triumphs, the audience sees the “consummation of all romantic and adventurous dreams.” To reach this emotional explosion, Griffith explained, the pace must be quickened from beginning to end. That is not however a steady ascent. The action must quicken to a height in a minor climax which should be faster than the first, and retard again and build to the third w hich should be faster than the second, and on to the final climax where the pace should be the fastest. Through all the big moments of the story, the pace should build like an excited pulse. Ultimately, Griffith saw the struggle between virtue and vice infusing the major political and moral reforms of the day. He did not see his techniques as serving the designs of a master mover manipulating the minds of the lowly. Rather, he identified deeply with his audience, believing that in expressing his own feelings, he expressed theirs as well. Unlike the Republican reformers who had censored the movies, early viewers were workers and small property owners who generally belonged to the Democratic party so dear to Griffith. The director, too, was only one step removed from the experiences of his patrons. He had been a former worker, and an independent businessman, sharing with the movie goers a hostility to monopolists who thwarted economic autonomy. Although his films were not explicitly political, they did express a broad cultural outlook which appealed to the “producers” of all classes and backgrounds. As Griffith explained, “No matter how contorted, one way or another, the soul may be, the man is still a man, and with recognizable traits common to all men . . . tramps, artists, iron workers, writers, all of us are alike in our souls.”

D W Griffith late 1890s
D W Griffith late 1890s

Transcending any artificial barriers was the ability of all peoples to realize the morals embodied in the Victorian home. Griffith used his aesthetics to carry this faith in his films. They were of two general types: lessons and warnings. Either heroes triumphed, or they were destroyed by their failure to live up to the ideal. A typical warning film was The Avenging Conscience (1914). It opens on a father insisting that his son prepare himself for a “great career.” Yet the boy likes a girl the father calls “common,” and finds himself attracted to the amusements of Italian immigrants, who are portrayed as having less restrained sexual habits. The patriarch forbids such behavior. In his rage, the boy contemplates patricide. Despite an apparition of Christ warning of damnation, the youth kills his father. The act is seen by an Italian who blackmails the boy and turns him over to the police. In prison he goes insane, and his girlfriend commits suicide. Yet the film has a happy ending: it is all only a dream. Nevertheless, the warning is clear: men cannot deviate from the work ethic, or indulge in what are perceived as immigrant vices, lest they forsake the goals of progress passed on by the fathers. From this parental code came the deeds of his heroes who carried out a specific historical mission—that of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. This was demonstrated in a classic lesson film, Mans Genesis (1912). Dramatizing the eternal struggles that face the human being, Griffith took his audience to the beginning of time. Amid a desolate landscape, a caveman, “Weak Hands,” loves a pure girl, “Lily White.” But their spiritual union is endangered by an older, lusty villain, “Brute Force.” In response, the youth invents mankind’s first tool, a club, with which he conquers the villain. He then marries his sweetheart, and they create a community grounded in fa milial harmony. The hero is the leader of a classless tribe where love transcends all selfish interests. Hut the “producers” must strive continually, for Brute Force returns with a mob armed with stolen clubs. To put down this threat to their women, Weak I lands invents an even better weapon, a bow and arrow. Victory once again restores the peaceful community. In the triumph of reason over animality, success is not achieved for money or pleasure, but to elevate society above lust and tyranny.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

Following creation, this battle informed the dynamics of world history as well. In his films of the French and American Revolutions, westward expansion, and Biblical epics, “Brute Force” is incarnated in aristocrats, monopolists, or the unruly mob. The struggle is carried into the present, in films of industrial conflict. A Corner on Wheat (1909) shows a grain speculator hoarding wheat to increase the price while workers, farmers, and small shopkeepers starve. The Song of the Shirt (1908) shows a poor girl suffering at a sewing machine in a sweatshop, while her boss takes the fruits of her labor to live a decadent life. These films condemned the immoral rich; but others condemned the unruly poor. The Voice of the Violin (1909) portrays a rich man forbidding his daughter to marry a poor boy. But when the boy turns to a “revolutionary group imbued with the false principles of Karl Marx, the promoter of the communist principles of socialism which in time and under the control of intemperate minds becomes absolute anarchy,” he learns that his comrades w ant to rape his sweetheart and burn her fathers factory. In response, he turns against these evil doers, and for his efforts wins the hand of the girl he loves. At the same time, the dominant motif for films set in the modern era echoed the beliefs of the vice crusaders: women were in danger and had to be protected. In Griffith’s films, heroines moved around the city unchaperoned, working in new tasks as clerks, telephone operators, and laborers. This did not mean they had “fallen.” Rather, as heroes guarded them in the public realm, these men were even more inspired to conquer the forces of vice.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

A film such as Home Sweet Home (1914) shows a hero drinking and going to dance halls. When he falls to Hell, his sweetheart becomes an angel with wings and flies into Hades to rescue him, and carries him up to Heaven. On earth, such heroines would not be tempted by saloons, foreigners, or men who offer them empires. Rather than submit, women are willing to die. In several climactic Griffith scenes, heroes, believing that villains are about to overtake them, hold guns to the heads of their pure women—final efforts to protect them from a fate literally worse than death. Final shots of rescue are filled with religious images, such as Christ hovering above the characters. By 1913, Griffith’s art and popularity signaled that the hopes of reformers were at high tide. Instead of movies and mass culture eroding Victorianism, the most advanced film maker of the day had reoriented the industry toward social reform. His films depicted historical events and current life, exposing viewers to an expanded realm of experience. At the same time, Anglo-Saxon culture was portrayed as eternal truth. With its values spreading to a growing audience, motion pictures could inspire the population to unite in a crusade against evil. Women might occupy new positions outside the home without losing their virtue; challenges of modern life would spur them on to uphold motherhood and virginity, and inspire men to protect women and liberate themselves from lusty monopolists, vice lords, and corrupt politicians. Griffith gave this historical dynamic power and passion through innovative techniques, and made it seem as though all parties and groups could unite to transform modern society, without a great social upheaval. It appeared that reformers of all persuasions could still come together around this battle for a classless and blessed order. Ironically, the first crack in this consensus came as the result of Griffith’s greatest success, the making of his masterpiece and the most popular film of the era,

the_birth_of_a_nation

The Birth of a Nation (1915). This epic film began when Griffith left Biograph, and Aitken brought him The Clansman (1905), a novel which had been made into a hit Broadway play in 1908. The story was written by Thomas Dixon, a former Democratic politician who became a Baptist minister and then quit the clergy for the “wider pulpit” of popular art. The Clansman, however, was hardly an original conception. It merely put into story form the Democratic party ideology of the Civil War era. The plot condemns the Radical Republicans who during Reconstruction imposed a corrupt regime on Dixie. Using the freed slaves’ voting power, they disenfranchised the white citizens and unleashed a reign of terror. 36 While none of these events actually took place, they did express Southerners’ fears of what would hap pen when the corrupt industrial North aligned with Southern blacks.  In fact, Griffith’s own family included politicians who believed this and doubtless used the same rhetoric to mobilize the South against Northern tyranny in the 1870s. As Griffith meticulously recreated the atmosphere of the Civil War years, he wrote, Stronger and stronger came to me the traditions I had learned as a child, all that my father had told me. That sword I told you about became a flashing vision. Gradually came back to my memory the stories one Thurston Griffith had told me of the ku Klux Klan and the regional impulse that comes to men from the earth where they had their beings stirred. It had all the decisive emotionalism of the highest patriotic sentiment.

 

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1The film began its official run at the Liberty Theater in New York, and quickly became an enormous financial and critical success. Every crisis of the film revolved around threats to the family. In the opening scenes, Griffith portrays the ideal domestic life on the Cameron plantation. Shot in a soft haze, these scenes show a perfect laissez-faire world. As harmony envelops parents, children, and slaves, neither the state nor hierarchical religions are needed. The Civil War comes, disrupting this ordered paradise. During Reconstruction, a Northern white Radical, Senator Stoneham, lives with his mulatto mistress, and she spurs him to unleash his lust for gain on the defeated South. He gives the vote to former slaves, who use their power against the good white people of the South. Stripped of their property and political rights, the whites watch helplessly as rowdy blacks pass intermarriage laws. When this culminates in the attempted rape of the Cameron women, the brothers form the Ku Klux Klan, uniting Southerners of all classes. As they ride to the rescue of their “Aryan birthright,” the screen comes alive with Griffith’s perfected editing techniques. After the climactic battle, the South is liberated. And even the Northerners recognize the folly of miscegenation. Symbolizing the return to unity, the Cameron son marries Stoneham’s daughter. Now the familial bonds restore order to the stricken land, and Christ rises in the sky to announce the beginning of the millennium in America.

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

The Birth of a Nation touched a sensitive political nerve. In its message, the film called for an alliance of the common folk from the formerly warring sections to overthrow a tyranny based on North ern commercial corruption. This was indeed a relevant theme for the Democratic constituency in 1914. As the film was made, the first Southern Democratic president since the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, had united the various elements of the party—Northern workers, Southerners, small farmers, and property owners—into a crusade for a “New Freedom.” These were the same groups that had mobilized against leaders of Radical Reconstruction in 1876. In contrast to the defeated ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson promised to break up trusts and restore the open economy. True to this spirit, Griffith filled the film with quotations from Wilson’s historical writings. No doubt this was done to give credence to the events on the screen. But it was also done to make history relevant to the present. Here was shown what would happen to whites who let monopolists strip them of their property and corrupt the political process. As they fell from grace, they would become vulnerable to tyranny from above and below. Giving power to this metaphor, Thomas Dixon used his friendship with Woodrow Wilson to have the film shown at the White House. Whether or not the President approved of the film, there was no question in Dixon’s mind that it would make Northerners “Democrats for life.” As Dixon later recalled, I told him I had a great motion picture he should see not merely because his classmate had written the story, but because this picture made clear for the first time that a universal language had been invented. That in fact was a process of reasoning which could overwhelm the will with conviction.  Not everyone shared this acclaim, however. In fact, the film generated such a fierce controversy that it practically crippled the National Board of Review, and shattered the consensus of reformers who had hailed movies as a beneficial medium. Although people like Jane Addams and Frederic Howe shared Griffith’s sentiments about the Victorian home, they could not tolerate his racial attitudes. Unlike Griffith, most of his critics were heirs to an abolitionist tradition. Mounting a fierce protest, they joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and convinced the National Board of Review to cut key racist sections of the film. But this did not solve the problem. Frederic Howe was so disturbed by the movie, even after it was censored, that he resigned as president of the Board. 44 And Griffith attacked his critics, arguing that he was not a racist, and pointing out that loyal black servants were portrayed heroically whereas others had been corrupted by Northern Radicals.

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

He also correctly pointed out that none of his previous works had been anti-Negro, and that his family had always cared for them as “children.” Nevertheless, it was clear that Griffith was heir to the white racist beliefs of the South. Although his black characters did not have a monopoly on evil traits—plenty of w hites were lustful as well—Negroes were seen as innately dangerous: in spite of their potential for noble deeds, they could never really be trusted. Griffith thus forbid any “black blood” among the players who might have to touch white actresses. Those actors were always whites in blackface. Likewise, when the NAACP condemned the film, Griffith attacked them in the press as a “pro-intermarriage” group, bent on repealing miscegenation laws. In Griffith’s mind, however, the racial controversy was less important than the economic issue. A common loyalty to domestic values could not overcome this gulf either. The fact that the Board that censored The Birth of a Nation included Republican reformers was not lost on Griffith or his audience. Sitting conspicuously in judgment were those very rulers who were often condemned in his films: puritanical paternalists of New England, and industrialists who threatened to make whites into propertyless, dependent men, no better than blacks. Now the evils of Reconstruction had invaded the North, and Griffith saw himself as a chief victim, for the censors were “malignant pygmies” who had grown into “black Calibans” and denied him his rights of free speech and property. Before the people knew it, claimed Griffith, they would lay their hands on “Miss Liberty” and thwart his creativity even further: You could not even portray the drama of the days of 49 to ’70 in the golden west. If you tell the story of this period, you must show the atrocities committed by the Indians against the whites. Some public seeking fanatic would protest that it was an injustice to the Indians and might raise feelings against them. . . . These people revel in objections.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

In order to defeat these forces, Griffith felt he had to inspire the masses once again. Using his most powerful weapon, film, he now poured all the money he had made on The Birth of a Nation into making the most elaborate and expensive film of his career. His extravaganza coincided with the 1916 election, and espoused the ideology that would presumably help Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats defeat the Republicans.

Intolerance (1916) was a new creation, “from my own head,” as the director phrased it. This “sun play of the ages” would carry quotes from Wilson, Emerson, and Mill, relating them to a “universal theme running through the various eras of the race’s history . . . events are to flash through the mind seeking to parallel the life of different ages and today. Through all the eras, time brings forth the same passions, the same joys and anxieties.” To show this, Griffith alternated three ancient tales which depicted the Medici who ruled sixteenth-century France, the Priests of Baal in Babylon, and the Pharisees of Jerusalem in the time of Christ as greedy men who tyrannized the innocent. In France the Medicis unleashed terror against the Huguenot families, in Jerusalem the Pharisees crucify Christ, in Babylon the priests destroy Balthazar’s benevolent state. Griffith does not condemn power per se> for Balthazar is shown as a good ruler. He did not inherit his kingdom, nor did he maintain it through privilege. Gaining the loyalty of the people solely through his military prowess, he abolished religious establishments and protected economic independence. Eventually his own spiritual family life radiated through the polity, creating unity. But the priests conspired with a foreign prince and destroyed the kingdom. Although Griffith believed in progress, the portion of Intolerance set in the modern era showed that the sins of the past had been reborn with the “autocratic industrial lords” and their social-worker allies. In scenes designed to duplicate the environs of the New York “Four Hundred,”

Griffith shows a wealthy manufacturer and his reformer wife policing the innocent amusements of the workers. At the same time, the industrialist cuts wages and uses the proceeds to hold an elaborate “charity ball.” In protest, the laborers go out on strike. Now the screen fills with labor management battles modeled on the great strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts. Yet since the rich have the support of the government, they used the national guard to quell the outburst. With the poor impoverished and their families destroyed, the heroic “boy” and “girl,” unbeknownst to each other, head for new opportunity in the city. But they find the opposite of their dreams. With few jobs available, the “boy” goes to work in a vice den for a “musketeer of the slums, ” clearly a machine politician. Although he is attracted to “loose women” and the hist life, redemption comes when he meets the “girl.” As they fall in love and marry, the hero quits his old job and begins to “go straight,” in the path of upward mobility. Yet the good home is still not free from evil authorities. His old boss corrupts the judiciary and sends him to jail for a crime he did not commit. As the villain then tries to seduce the hero’s wife, social workers attempt to take away her child. Finally the “girl” secures a confession from the real criminal, and the stage is set for Griffith’s greatest climactic scene. In accelerating parallel shots, the girl chases after the governor’s train with the new evidence. Quickly the director interjects scenes depicting the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christ, and the slaughter of the Huguenots. Over and over again, these patterns force the audience to ask, will innocence be crucified again? Is progress doomed to fail? No, for the girl catches the governor, just as the noose is being put around the boy’s head. With the governor’s swift pardon, the audience learns that in modern America, law is on the side of the good citizen. The state has proved effective in saving the home. Although the industrial system remains intact, the hero is free to transcend it through individual effort and social mobility.

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

And as he had done in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith again hails the millennium with a vision of Christ rising in the sky. In this elaborate, multi-layered film, we can see the full implications of Griffith’s art. The hero and heroine were clearly cast as Irish laborers. Yet their universality was not tied to any class or ethnic group. Never were they connected to the Catholic Church or the pre-industrial culture protected by the urban machine. Nor does Griffith’s assault on the industrialists contain a criticism of capitalism. His heroes do not advocate class conflict, unions, or labor parties. Rather, they are in rebellion against selfishness in high places. Presumably, if a self-made man like Balthazar rules, the force of his personality would encourage class harmony and open opportunity. In the modern story, the democratic state serves as this just and benevolent ruler, not by overthrowing the factory owners or “moral paternalists,” but by saving the virtuous individual. Free labor was not a myth for Griffith, but a living reality. In his commitment to autonomy, during the making of the film he aligned himself with Los Angeles reformers to ban unions from the studios. Symbolic of his entire outlook, when the actor who had played Christ was arrested and deported for sexual misconduct, Griffith struck his name from the credits of Intolerance. The film’s reception was a great disappointment, for it was Griffith’s first critical and financial failure. This was in part due to the fact that it was four hours long and contained four different stories all mixed together. As one critic remarked, viewing was a “real task and the person who tries to find meaning must feel something like dramatic indigestion after seeing the picture.” But it was more than this. The tremendous success of The Birth of a Nation brought movies squarely into the middle-class market. It was crucial to draw this affluent audience to recoup the enormous financial investment Griffith had poured into Intolerance. These new viewers may have liked the opulence displayed on the screen, the magnificent sets, and the historical themes, but they were not receptive to the antagonism toward the rich that the film portrayed. They did not want to see that the “poor are oppressed, and forced into an environment which ruins their lives, and this merely for the purpose of producing additional funds for the wealthy, which the latter uses to advertise themselves as reformers of the poor, who in actuality they repress.” As this Philadelphia critic concluded, the “interest of the community will be served by our friends staying away from the theaters where Intolerance is shown.” Ironically, Griffith recalled being labeled a “communist” for making the film. Obviously, Griffith was no communist. In fact, as Heywood Broun of the New Republic correctly observed, the film advocated “laissez faire,” the “battle cry of a lost cause.” Broun suggested that with the failure of Intolerance Griffith’s career may have been doomed. While that prediction was premature, the events surrounding the making of the film shattered the reformist unity.

Never again would Griffith produce a film that advocated the transformation of the industrial system through a mass movement. Nor would the National Board of Review, composed of his former allies, have the same strength to impose its will on mass culture. Several members had resigned in the wake of censoring The Birth of a Nation. Now the remaining prominent members of the Board realized they had lost power; few would agree to serve on its executive committee. Soon other motion picture producers would find it unnecessary to have films sent to the Board for its seal, for now that the movies had been legitimized, that seal was no longer needed. As the weakening of the Board was reported in the press, the consensus that had existed in the industry prior to 1914 lay in ruins. Yet the coming of World War I gave rise to a temporary revival. Under the threat of outside attack, reformers called the nation to unite in a crusade which was seen as the peak rather than the end, of Progressivism. The state drafted the movies into the war effort, making the industry at last a full-fledged partner in patriotism. This allowed Griffith to make a flurry of patriotic films that kept him in the limelight for a few more years. Hearts of the World (1918), for example, was a successful propaganda film for the Allies, which he personally dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. This film earned him an invitation to London’s 10 Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Lloyd George. Later, when Russia was in Communist hands and strikes erupted all over America, Griffith made Orphans of the Storm (1921).

Using the French Revolution as a metaphor for the modern danger of Bolshevism, this film portrays Reds as lustful and violent, similar to the Huns and blacks of earlier films. This highly political film was shown at Harding’s White House. As Griffith said of its message, A similar condition exists in Russia today. It is also a great lesson for our own government. Recently here in the United States we find that a small but aggressive minority seems to be able to get almost any kind of laws passed they desire. It is well for us to keep our eyes open, as it is not impossible that we may lose our democratic form of government, just as the people in France did at the time, and come under the tyranny of small but aggressive parties that could hold all government and run things for themselves, while the rest of the people are asleep. Afterwards, Griffith’s worst fears materialized in his own life. But the threat did not come from the political world. Industrialists in the post-War period associated Reds with the labor strikes spreading over the country. As the Wilson administration deported radicals and suppressed labor unrest, motion picture producers broke strikes in their own companies.

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

Griffith supported these measures, but this boost to business expansion also paved the way tor consolidation. Gradually, eight large firms began to absorb the smaller companies. Griffith tried to resist by establishing his own studio in long Island, and financing his own films. But by the mid-twenties, he too was forced to sell out and come to Los Angeles, a city he hated for its “dissipating” atmosphere. Part of that dislike was due to the fact that Griffith had finally joined what he always fought against, a large firm where access to the top was closed and employees had to punch a time clock.

No longer was the great director autonomous, an artist who supervised his labor force, hired and fired players, and wrote many of his own films. His loyal cameraman Billy Bitzer echoing Griffith’s sentiments, explained what it was like:

Neither Griffith nor I could be his own man. Everything was taken over by efficiency. We belonged to the corporation, the very thing we had fought at Biograph, and the reason we had left there.

The business office was on top again. Not too surprisingly, the master’s later films reveal a deepening pessimism. Starting with True Heart Susie (1919) and Broken Blossoms (1919), the “boy” and “girl” become defenseless against brutal men and women, or they succumb to the temptations of urban nightclubs and sexual allure.

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

In Dream Street (1921), a seductive jazz musician rips off his mask to reveal himself as the Devil Lucifer. Now that the spirit of reform had waned, Griffith no longer maintained faith that the evil forces could be conquered. Heroes and heroines in these films had to retreat to small town life for salvation. His last film reveals the source of the problem.

The Struggle - DW Griffith
The Struggle – DW Griffith

The Struggle ( 1931 ) portrays a man trapped on an automobile assembly line, often out of work and destroying himself and his family by drink and decadence. These themes were not popular in the 1920s; and Griffith had lost his talent for making successful films. This was not so much the result of declining abilities as the fact that he had outlived his era. Explaining why studios no longer hired the great director, one critic noted:

Mr. Griffith you have reached the point w here your abilities are at a standstill. . . . You cannot be the evangelist of the screen. You refuse to face the world as it is. . . . I’m not recommending that you acquire a set of puttees or a squad of Jap valets. Yet if I had my own way, I would imprison you with Cecil B. DeMille and loan you all of his Hollywood trappings, each and every one of them. Let someone else take charge of your soul for a while.

The Struggle - D.W. Griffith
The Struggle – D.W. Griffith

Needless to say, Griffith never did. The man who dressed like a plain businessman and continually poured profits back into his own works was alienated from the “mad influx of post-War foreign influences.” Equally hostile to the political world, he wrote letters to newspapers and politicians arguing that mobility was thwarted by the income tax which confiscated the earnings of the “producing classes,” while the rich remained untouched. 57 By the thirties and forties, he appeared as a lonely wanderer often seen inebriated in the bars of Hollywood, presenting roses to female acquaintances. Occasionally, he revived the old spirit. During the thirties, he finally divorced and then married a young Kentucky woman in the old Mount Tabor Church. He tried his hand at land speculation in Los Angeles. Then in 1934 he built a large marble monument over his parents’ graves. On the enormous marker, he inscribed a memorial to his father’s Civil War heroism and his mother’s service while her husband was in battle. In a remarkable statement, the great director wrote, “I take more pride in this than in anything I have done or as far as I am concerned, anything anyone else has done.” In essence, Griffith remained loyal to the past. That familial loyalty generated his earlier creativity; but it ultimately proved to be his cage. When he, too, was buried in that same Methodist cemetery, an old colleague remarked, “You could tell Mr. Griffith by his conversation. Everything he lived and breathed was his pictures. He was in touch with his times . . . but the box office receipts were indicative of the popularity of his films. They were the things people wanted to see at that particular time. He realized that, and by the same token that may have been his downfall. . . . He pursued that course to where it was no longer popular. At that time he was perhaps outmoded.

D W Griffith
circa 1925: David Wark Griffith (1875 – 1948), American film director. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Griffith, however, was not the only one who was outmoded. By the 1920s, almost all the early independents and their cinematic themes had disappeared. Yet from 1908 to 1914, Griffith’s artistry had expressed the aesthetics and social goals of a great movement, hoping to include elite reformers, an expanding urban audience, and independent Protestant film makers. Holding these strange bedfellows together and sparking Griffith’s great creativity was a commitment to saving Victorianism in the face of major external threats. In Griffith’s hands, this common belief in individualism and family harmony fit his commitment to Wilsonian Progressivism. At the same time, it also legitimized movies, bringing the former pariah institution into the American mainstream. However, because the defense of the old culture, particularly sexual ethics, was so strong, it precluded any questioning of nineteenth-century  values. What entrepreneurs like Griffith needed was an alliance with other groups who shared their hostility to big business. But Griffith’s art suggests that their antagonism to workers, blacks, or foreigners, who represented group power and sexual chaos, prevented this coalition. Thus Griffith and others who were committed to ascetic individualism watched helplessly as the corporate order emerged in the nation as well as in the motion picture industry.

Such was the real tragedy of D. W. Griffith’s life. As the world view of the early film makers collapsed, something new was already emerging to take its place.