The Lily and The Rose – Reviewed by Neil G. Caward (Motography 1915)

MOTOGRAPHY November 20, 1915.

Some Current Releases Reviewed

The Current Triangle Bill

This Week’s Offerings From Ince and Griffith Studios

Reviewed by Neil G. Caward

Over at the Studebaker theater this week Manager Knill is offering his patrons a program of Triangle films that, as a whole, surpasses any week’s bill up to date. It includes “Aloha Oe” from the Ince studios, “The Lily and the Rose” from the Griffith forces and two Keystone side splitters entitled “A Janitor’s Wife’s Temptation” and “The Village Scandal.” The laughs begin at about the second sub-title of “A Janitor’s Wife’s Temptation” and come thick and fast from then on. Fred Mace as the janitor of an apartment house has a role that’s just to his liking, and the things he does and the way he does them beggar description. Marta Golden as the janitor’s wife has troubles of her own, and Harry Gribbon, as the artist who lives on the floor above, proves himself a clever dodger of both his landlord and his bills. The final scenes in the restaurant, when Mace is bouncing about like a rubber ball in the fountain, are guaranteed to cure the worst grouch that ever attacked a man. Del Henderson is responsible for the production.

The Lily and The Rose (1915) - Lillian Gish
The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish

The Lily and The Rose – Reviewed by Neil G. Caward

Lillian Gish and Rozsika Dolly are the featured personages in “The Lily and the Rose” and rightfully so, for it is about them that the story centers. Paul Powell is given credit for the direction of the piece and the story is most carefully developed from the opening scene up to the tragic climax which brings it to an end. Mary Randolph is a most innocent, and, as the boy who loves her says, “adorable” Lily, as interpreted by Lillian Gish, and one can scarcely blame Jack Van Norman, played in a dignified fashion by Wilfred Lucas, for falling in love with her.

The Lily and The Rose (1915) - Lillian Gish
The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish

That the Lily ever became so sophisticated as she finally grows to be seems wonderful when you behold Miss Letty Carrington and Miss Molly Carrington, her maiden aunts, who were responsible for her bringing up. Loyola O’Connor and Cora Drew each have a chance for some wonderful character “bits” in these two roles and Elmer Clifton is equally convincing as Allison Edwards, a bookworm who lives next door to the Lily. To Rozsika Dolly, recruited from the musical comedy stage, falls the interpretation of the Rose, and she plays it masterfully.

The Lily and The Rose (1915) - Lillian Gish
The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish

In the wonderfully tinted scenes at the seashore, where she dances on the beach for Jack, Miss Dolly was particularly good, and, while proving her ability to dance, in the theater scenes, she demonstrated also that she can get over an emotional scene by the way she acted upon discovering Jack’s suicide. Mary Randolph, raised from childhood by two maiden aunts, and loved by Allison Edwards, who lives next door, one day meets and is wooed by Jack Van Norman from the city. She later becomes his wife, only to learn that, in secret, he is paying attention to the Rose, a dancer in musical comedy. Leaving him, Mary returns to the home of her childhood, where a child is soon afterwards born to her. Jack goes to Rose, but later, in his absence from the city, the dancer entertains other men and is discovered. Jack ends his misery in suicide, and Mary, months later, finds happiness at last with Allison Edwards, who is still faithful. (Neil G. Caward – 1915)

The Lily and The Rose (1915) - Lillian Gish
The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish

Directed by Paul Powell

Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) D.W. Griffith…(story) (as Granville Warwick)

Cast (in credits order)

Lillian Gish Mary Randolph Wilfred Lucas Jack Van Norman Rosie Dolly Rose (as Rozsika Dolly) Loyola O’Connor Letty Carrington Cora Drew Molly Carrington Elmer Clifton Allison Edwards Mary Alden Mrs. Fairfax William Hinckley Ted Lamb Rest of cast listed alphabetically: Alberta Lee Undetermined role (uncredited) Frank Mills Undetermined role (uncredited) Starring: (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Lillian Gish – Mary Alden – Wilfred Lucas – Rozsika Dolly

The Lily and The Rose (1915) - Lillian Gish
The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish
Motography 1915 - The Lily and The Rose
Motography 1915 – The Lily and The Rose

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

THE GREAT LOVE (Paramount-Artcraft, 1918) Selected Film Criticism

Selected Film Criticism

THE GREAT LOVE (Paramount-Artcraft, 1918)

Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 7, No. 2 (October 1918), page 77

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

P. S.–We’ve just caught David Griffith’s latest, The Great Love. Griffith credits a British army captain as the author, just as he named M. Gaston de Tolignac as the creator of Hearts of the World. But, in both cases, we suspect Griffith’s own hand in the writing. Jim Young, an American, goes to England in 1914 and enlists on the side of democracy at the start of the great war. Jim meets and comes to love a young Australian girl living near the big training camp. But a youthful tiff and a sudden shift of Jim’s regiment to the front, cause the sweetheart to waver and finally marry a titled Englishman, who is not only a rake, with a cast-off favorite and the inevitable baby waiting on his doorstep, but a traitor as well.

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

But she never really becomes his wife and, when hubby commits suicide on facing exposure, she tumbles into Jim’s khaki arms. No, it isn’t much of a story. It is ahead of the average feature in handling but it isn’t anything to add to the Griffith laurels. The director is at his best in the idyllic early love scenes between Jim and Sue, at his worst in trying to achieve a height of suspense in the Zeppelin invasion of England. Here Jim upsets the Hun signals and causes the aircraft to blow up an empty field instead of Britain’s biggest munition storehouse. This is entirely too long drawn out.

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

The Great Love is merely a modern story of the war told in the terms of the old Biograph melodrama. Lillian Gish overdoes the kittenish tricks of Sue but she has several really poignant moments. Robert Harron is — Robert Harron, while Henry Walthall makes the very villainous villain at least subtle. But Walthall isn’t at his best here.

–Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 7, No. 2 (October 1918), page 77.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Movie Star – A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood – By Ethan Mordden (1983)

The First Star and the Greatest Star

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish by Charles Albin Cca 1919

Hollywood in the 1920s was seething with inventive directors both American and foreign. Griffith had cast a spell of self-willing individuality: everyone wanted to do something special. But an actress pays for superb direction with her liberty, and this Pickford could not do. Even with Lubitsch, whom she admired (and disliked) and who was to become, as she foresaw, one of Hollywood’s unique talents, Pickford at one point had to take her director aside and point out that she owned the picture from script to rushes, that he was working not only with her but for her, and that in controversy she would cast the telling vote.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Pickford’s fellow Biograph player and lifelong friend Lillian Gish never had that problem. She stayed with Griffith to make some of the greatest films ever made in America, left him when their association had reached its natural end, worked with the brilliant Henry King on two foreign ventures, and became one of the biggest stars at the biggest studio, working with King Vidor and Victor Seastrom.

A Wedding
A Wedding

And while Pickford made her last film in 1933 and never acted again, Gish is still active, having played a key role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and made a presentation on the 1981 Academy Awards show. It is, without rival, the longest star career in history. It began like Pickford’s, with mother, fatherless sibling (Dorothy), and the regional stage. The Gishes met the Smiths on one of their tours and one day at the movies spotted Gladys in a Biograph, Lena and the Geese (1912). Eager to see their old friend, Lillian and Dorothy sought her out at Biograph, where Griffith beheld Lillian and saw in her all the conflicting romances of the Victorian gentleman—for mate, mother, and angel—made manifest. Blanche Sweet, another Biograph principal, observed that Griffith was so affected by Gish’s beauty that he had to struggle to keep his composure. What Gish felt for Griffith, besides an epic loyalty and admiration, has never been made clear. It was a unique collaboration, astonishingly concentrated. A generation later, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich would duplicate this interdependent eloquence, but their films are almost entirely about Dietrich’s image, whereas in his Gish films Griffith creates an entire world. Actually, he believed he was describing the world as it is, and to many he was: a world in which beastly men and gallant men vie with each other for the chance to debauch or protect women. Gish, with her rosebud mouth, tumbling locks, fragile body, and wide, seeing eyes, was the absolute Griffith heroine; but more: the ultimate Griffith star, for no other better suited his way of working.

The Gish sisters folded nimbly into the Biograph stock company, so that we find them in 1912 playing the leads in their first film, An Unseen Enemy, as two girls terrorized by burglars; and as extras later that year in The New York Hat, strolling merrily through a village scene. The New York Hat marked Mary Pickford’s farewell to Griffith, as a girl pilloried by gossips because the town minister (Lionel Barrymore) has made her the present of an expensive hat. At length it is revealed that the gift is a bequest of the girl’s mother, who died exhausted by a skinflint husband and wanted her daughter to enjoy a luxury. Griffith tacks on a marriage at the end for Pickford and Barrymore, but what he’s really after is a sense of smalltown life, with its misers and snoops as well as its goodness. Pickford had had enough of getting locked into these increasingly well-detailed friezes of American life—plus she wanted more money. But Gish found herself in her element helping Griffith open his camera upon the world, and money was not an issue with her. She enjoyed his lengthy rehearsals, preparing a film as if it were a play, perfecting the whole thing before taking a shot, and didn’t miss not having name billing. Indeed, Griffith couldn’t tell Lillian from Dorothy at first, and directed An Unseen Enemy by the color of their hair ribbons: “Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you’re scared, too. Look toward me, where the camera is.”

This appears to contradict Blanche Sweet’s report on Griffith’s obvious attraction to Lillian from minute one, but it is sure that at some point early in there Griffith and Lillian Gish locked eyes, and she figured heavily in his mythopoeia from then on. In a lead role in The Birth of a Nation (1915) Gish is already well on the way to defining the Griffith heroine* and already a surprising actress. At first you think, What’s all this stuff she’s doing? What’s this mannerism? Then, looking more closely, you recognize the “mannerism” as the gestures of life, and it’s all so natural that an actor who would get by quite nicely in some other film would look like something out of a home movie next to Gish. Certain of her bits in The Birth of a Nation are famous—her goodbye to her brothers as they leave to fight the Civil War on the northern side, when she worries and flirts and jokes all in a matter of a few seconds; the way she fidgets when,  ending her wounded southern beau in a hospital, his mother comes in; her habit of drawing back from men she likes, as if their sexual power is something she can feel and fear; or her imperious palm that breaks up hostilities between her beau and an unctuous carpetbagger.


Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Yet, again, Griffith is not featuring any one person but pulling the parts of a world together into a story. His actors must be this naturalistic, all of them, and this expressive, or he can’t pull it off. If we are to believe in his nobility, his villainy, his world where beauty dies in a day because the rats never stop coming, that world must seem to be the true world, at least while the film is running. You can rehearse for a year, but in the end you can’t act it: you must dwell in it. That was the Griffith training. That’s why, when films were shorts and only a few people attended them, his films were the best films, and that’s why, when he began to make full-length films, everyone in the country became a moviegoer. That’s also why Little Mary had enough of Griffith fast. She didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s world, nor did she regard film as morally as Griffith did. Typically, it was Gish who talked Pickford out of destroying her films. Pickford thought of them as timely art that would lose its effectiveness when fashions changed; Gish thought of them as an ageless force for community, a ritual like that of the old Greek stage. Griffith’s good guys will always be on the right side if you’re as good as they are, and his bad is always bad, no matter what current opinion maker is selling what particular brand of snake oil. Good is fairness. Bad is rape, stealing, murder, making business monopolies, fomenting civil disorder, and passing laws to invade other people’s lives. No wonder some people find Griffith so awesome. Can so moral a code survive a jazz age?

Even as early as 1919, when Griffith joined Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin in United Artists, many thought he was played out. But in Broken Blossoms (1919) he and Gish proved that their way was still vital—so much so that the entire film consists of a thread of story involving a helpless waif (Gish), her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and the Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) who chastely adores her. We don’t need a whole world this time. This is Griffith’s cameo tragedy, his little gem. Everybody dies. Crisp beats Gish to death, and Barthelmess avenges her and kills himself.

Griffith had made Broken Blossoms for Adolph Zukor, but when Zukor screened it he thought it insultingly depressing; and Griffith, in perhaps the only sound business deal of his life, bought the negative back from Zukor for $250,000 and took it to United Artists for their first release, as a top-price road show. It grossed millions. Clearly, Griffith and Gish were not yet outmoded. In fact, their vision of protective man and defenseless woman reached its apex in Way Down East (1920), “a simple story of plain people.” Its source, an old melodrama, had been a staple of second-rate regional stock but a joke in the city centers, yet Griffith paid an unheard-of $175,000 fo the rights.

Now he must be mad. The story is familiar: a country girl seduced by a city slicker finds shelter with good country people and love with their son; she is unmasked and thrown out into a blizzard. The son saves her from death in the icy river. With city wags and town characters, mansions and barns, Griffith would again produce his microcosmic allegory, and with Barthelmess again paired with Gish, young American love would find its ideal representation in his sturdy grasp of events and her touching inability to cope with them. True, 1920 saw American art nearing the age that liked women who could cope and which had lost interest in rustic chivalry.

Still, Griffith held an ace in the river rescue—no one filmed a suspense chase finale as well as he—and he managed to renew the old tale with that typical Griffithian commitment to what it says. For Griffith and Gish did not care about time. They cared about what they believed, about what is true, not what is successful. In a world ruled by gruff country squires, vile seducers, and comic constables and filled out with wise, forgiving mothers and self-righteous spinster reformers, Gish as Anna Moore delivers her most fulfilled portrayal. In his opening titles, Griffith tells us that man’s “greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy.” But man is fickle, and Griffith shows “the suffering caused by selfishness.” His heroine is basic: “We call her ‘Anna’—we might have called her Woman.” No surprise then that Gish is so finely textured here: she’s carrying the weight of her entire sex.

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

Broken Blossoms has the most famous Gish touches—the pathetic smile she makes by forking her fingers into her upper lip, for instance, or the hysterical fit she suffers in a closet, whirling around out of control as her father breaks in to kill her. Way Down East doesn’t dazzle that way; the world doesn’t dazzle. Even Gish’s most famous scene, the baptism of her dying infant, is not the aria we expect from hearing it described, but another mere fast bad moment in Anna Moore’s life. Not till, exposed in her “shame,” she exposes her betrayer at a populous dinner does she at last release the frustration and outragepent up in her. It’s a terrific sequence: mingled fury and tears in a back-lit close up,* then Barthelmess smashing a plate and going for the blackguard who made Gish miserable . . . then the realization that in the melee Gish has fled the house. The ice chase follows. One thing that sets silent days apart is silent actors’ willingness to take bald risks if the action called for it. They didn’t do all their own stunts, not even Douglas Fairbanks. But Swanson’s bout with the lion and the serial queens’ acrobatics are typical, and so is the participation of Gish and Barthelmess in Way Down East’s finale on the ice floes, which still gets cheers today. Griffith intercut a few shots of Niagara Falls, but most of the footage was shot in a blizzard at White River Junction, Vermont. It was so cold the ice on the water had to be dynamited each day to produce the plates that Gish lies on and Barthelmess leaps to and from to rescue her; the camera froze; some of the crew came down with pneumonia. And, of course, Gish thought of the last touch of realism, letting her hand trail in the water as the floes glide along. (The hand still bothers her occasionally today.)

Why did these people go through all this? Certainly not for the money. Griffith paid the lowest salaries going. Foolish as it sounds, they simply believed in what he was doing. So did the public, who made Way Down East a vast success and boosted Griffith back up to the eminence he held at the time of Birth of a Nation five years earlier. One wonders what Mary Pickford, Griffith’s fellow United Artist and Gish’s close friend, thought of Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, of the Griffith-Gish collaboration in general. After all, she might have been the “Griffith Girl” if her temperament hadn’t led her down her own road. Even apart from Griffith and Gish, however, Little Mary belongs to them and they to her. The three of them together encapsulate the value system of silent audiences, from city proles in the nickelodeons to fashionable New Yorkers who paid ten dollars a head to attend Way Down East’s first night. Griffith fixed and enforced the moral code, laying down role models for manly heroism; Little Mary and Gish complementarily shaped the ideal of womanhood, independent and sexually adult (Little Mary) and weak and unknowing (Gish).

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Little Mary’s would seem the more adaptable prototype, especially in the 1920s, but Pickford found herself hemmed in by the expectations of an audience which suddenly had the Colleen Moore flapper to admire for grit. From Little Mary they wanted sentiment.

Carol Dempster 1920s
Carol Dempster 1920s

Gish’s problem was that critics (and presumably the public; producers made that assumption) began to tire of her persona, though she brought it off flawlessly every time. Another problem was that Gish and Griffith had gone as far as they could together. Even before Way Down East the director had begun breaking in the next Griffith Girl, Carol Dempster. Gish made one last film with her mentor, Orphans of the Storm (1921), with her sister Dorothy as foster sisters caught up in the French Revolution, and then moved on—sadly, it appears, but then Griffith habitually fledged youngsters and then launched them forthfrom the nest onto the money and the fame. Gish needed neither. But, as she must have realized, she also didn’t need Griffith.

Gish had always had a knack for picking stories ripe for film treatment; and, pulling together everything she had learned with Griffith, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), for Inspiration Pictures, both directed by Henry King with advice from Gish. The heroine of The White Sister is an epitome of the Griffith heroine: a nun who dismisses lover Ronald Colman (whom Gish more or less discovered” for the two films) to honor her vows, though she only took them in the first place because she mistakenly believed Colman dead.

Romola, from George Eliot’s novel set in Renaissance Florence, has more than a touch of Griffith about it, in the score by Louis F. Gottschalk (a Griffith regular) and the Intolerance-like detail work in the sets. Moreover, here were two propositions that Hollywood simply could not see—one heroine is a nun! and the other runs around Renaissance Florence in these gigantic snoods!—just as Hollywood couldn’t see Griffith’s ambitious ideas (till they made fortunes). But The White Sister attracted such notice when Gish premiered it in New York that Metro picked it and Romola up, signed Gish to a contract, and, reformed as MGM, set the wheels in motion to make her their biggest woman star. But Gish was no Theda Bara, no Mae Murray, no Nazimova. You couldn’t fool or coddle or flatter her. And look what she says: “The only time I had a personal press agent was when I . . . hired Richard Mitchell to keep my name out of the papers without hurting anyone’s feelings.” Out of the papers! Nor was Gish eager to adapt to studio methods when her own would make the art longer.

Still, the MGM stint started well. For her debut Gish suggested Henri Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, the novel about starving artists in Paris that became Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Gish wanted the director and stars of The Big Parade, a war film she had screened in rough cut. She asked for Hendrik Sartov, from the Griffith days, as cameraman, and she urged the studio to use the new panchromatic film that she had tried on The White Sister and Romola—much easier to light for and photograph on than the standard Hollywood stock. To all this, her producer, Irving Thalberg, assented.

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

So Gish was in effect her own Little Mary, her own Griffith, her own person: and queen of the lot. She convinced La Boheme’s director, King Vidor, to let her show the cast how to rehearse the entire film before shooting, in the Griffith manner, talked the front office into letting her play a virginal Mimi who loved but was never seen to kiss her Rodolphe, John Gilbert, and played such a convincing death scene that Vidor thought she had got carried away and really died. In the end, Gilbert (who was being built up as The Great Lover) had to kiss his Mimi, and Gish obligingly suffered the clammy retakes, but otherwise La Boheme (1926) shows the profit of letting Gish have her way. How many others could march into a rising, already sinfully powerful studio and have their way almost to the nth? When Griffith yelled, “Feel it!” at you every day for years, you learned to feel; this more than anything marks Gish’s MGM features, because she’s feeling down into the bald truth of character and most of the others are big gullible puppets.

Similarly in control on The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), Gish was the last actress to make a series of truly great films in Hollywood at her pleasure, without reference to what was currently popular. Thalberg thought The Wind dreary. Its tale of a gentle Virginian maiden whose marriage tragically disintegrates in the unstable Texas climate built up to a rape attack, detailed her murder of the rapist and her ensuing madness as the wind blows away the sand with which she covered his body and seems to jerk him back to life to terrorize her all over again. Thalberg plunked a happy ending onto it—the man who comes into the house at the end is not the dead rapist but Gish’s roughhewn husband (Lars Hanson)—proving that independence is finite. Furthermore, a pair of MGM features that Gish neglected to plan herself did not come off well. Still, while MGM believed her hot enough to take her advice in order to release her pictures, she managed, quite smoothly, to make totally satisfying films, something Mary Pickford did at this time with some difficulty. No public clamored for a Little Lillian, no Lubitsch marred Gish’s sense of self, no lingering identity as a big spender will threaten her in the hard times just around the corner, as it will Gloria Swanson.

What makes a star? More exactly, what gives a star power? Little Mary’s favorite director, Marshall Neilan, ticked off “The Six Great Essentials” for women stars in a Photoplay article: beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style, and the ability to wear clothes. Neilan did not require these as a whole. Rather, the ideal star emphasized one above the others. For examples, he cited Pickford for personality, Swanson for the clothes, and so on. Lists like these are shallow and misleading, but so were many perceptions about stardom in 1922, when Neilan unveiled his recipe, and virtually all stars of the day covered all six points nicely. (True, Pickford’s roles put her into rags and pinafores more often than not, and Gish counted the dress parade as the least absorbing essential of acting. Still, they both filled gowns nicely when asked to.) If one must choose one thing that set Pickford and Gish apart from others it was Pickford’s lovability and Gish’s concentration, but the closest thing on Neilan’s list to either element — thinking grandly, now—is temperament, and for that Neilan cited Norma Talmadge. Who?

The most remote of the biggest silent names, unknown to today’s young movie buffs, who have at least caught a clip of vamping Bara in some retrospective or checked out Nazimova’s Salome curio, Norma Talmadge is virtually never seen, and when mentioned she is usually dismissed as a soap opera conceit who couldn’t act. Yet she spans the silent years, from the freewheeling Patents Trust days right into the front end of studio power and the talkie, and in many ways is the most representative of all stars. Like Pickford, Gish, and countless others she entered film young as the breadwinner for a fatherless family. Like Pickford she had a stage mother; like Gish she had a sister also in films. Like most stars she worked with great directors (like Herbert Brenon and Allan Dwan), okay directors (Frank Borzage and Clarence Brown), and hacks (Sam Taylor). Without stage experience, Talmadge wandered into the onereeler at the age of thirteen, grew up playing everything, worked for D. W. Griffith, and married mogul Joseph M. Schenck, who made her the star of the kind of films which historians and critics neglect and which fans and buffs savor: stunning costumes, romance, suffering, and the heroine’s sad, sad yearning gaze off into somewhere. Her coworkers liked her, the public adored her, she made a fortune, her films rotted away in vaults, and who now knows what she was? Who knew then? For here was the apogee of the banal. Talmadge had beauty and the ability to wear clothes, but she had the personality of melting sherbet and the style of a pizza waitress. Temperament? Farrar had temperament. Nazimova had temperament. Negri had temperament. Talmadge had hairdos. Yet she is central. Her popularity tells us so. She stands at the crossroads of parts that were to prove key for decades: her New Moon (1919) was remade by Grace Moore, her Smilin’ Through (1922) by Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald, her Secrets (1924) and Kiki (1926) by Pickford, her Camille (1927) followed Nazimova’s and preceded Garbo’s, her Dubarry, Woman of Passion (1930) succeeded versions by Bara and Negri. There may well be only one Great Essential for stardom: to be in the right place at the right time.

One Romantic Night - United Artists
One Romantic Night – United Artists

Maybe no one can avoid being typed, if only because anyone who is worth noticing has character, and character is what “type” is, from role to role. But to survive for more than an era, a star must avoid being what one might call typed by time: limited to one role useful to the culture in one age and not useful thereafter. Swanson’s clotheshorse and Colleen Moore’s flapper, for instance, were trapped by their eras, which is why they couldn’t work much beyond 1929, when the era turned over. Sound didn’t hurt them; history did, transformation, from jazz into Depression.

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942
Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942

We left Little Mary and Lillian Gish at the plateau of 1929—Wall Street or the sound track, depending on how you read it—and it will be interesting to see how these two key characters weather the changed times. Pickford has less to worry about, as she owns her work. Gish, at MGM, is vulnerable. How long can a PR-resistant woman stay famous in this increasingly PR-devoted era? How long will Mayer and Thalberg permit their prima donna to tell them what she wants? What’s this business about rehearsing films as if they were plays? Throw her out! Mess her up so the competition won’t grab her. Use sound—maybe she’ll talk funny. Give her the worst director in Hollywood. Make her sing, make her Charleston. Throw them all out, that bunch who thought they owned Hollywood! Swanson, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, Talmadge, the united schmartists. This is the age of the studio, producer power. Fit in or get out.

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

Possibly Gish noticed the change in the air when Thalberg offered to invent a romantic scandal for her, to focus public sympathy on her. She may simply have longed to try the stage again. She may have heard about Mayer’s plans to sabotage John Gilbert’s career to make an example of him (if we’re willing to mash our own biggest star, at a cost of millions of dollars, then there’s no one we can’t mash, and they’ll all know it) and left Hollywood in horror at the kind of people she was dealing with. She had grown close to the viciously witty theatre critic George Jean Nathan, who hated the movies; perhaps he talked her into heading for Broadway. Whatever her reasons, Gish left on her own initiative.

But, though she didn’t know it, she was in the process of being edged out at MGM, and out of Hollywood altogether. Her time had come; that simple. It had taken a very heavy decade to do it, but the very world that Griffith had used to create the American film—film as the American collection of heroic and romantic sagas and film as industry—was gone by 1929. Gish and Little Mary had to go with it. So, tragically, did Griffith, who made two clumsy talkies and was definitively pastured while his successors set to rewriting the sagas. Griffith’s—and Gish’s and Pickford’s—models for fine men and courageous or holy women were renovated for a post-jazz age America; and no one, not filmmakers and not filmgoers, wanted to give the old hands a chance to take part. How different talkies will be from silents!—and not only, not even mainly, because of the dialogue. It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did. And suddenly Griffith was out and Pickford was out and Gish was out; and the men were a little dirty or cowardly or selfish, and the women were a little stupid or cowardly or trivial. Okay, our mythology could use a little naturalism, and naturalism dissipates heroism and wisdom. But it’s sad for the heroes. One can understand how easily studio power toppled Griffith and Gish.

The director had hopelessly overextended himself in his business dealings, never to come out from under the debts he assumed in making Intolerance in 1915. And Gish, as a Hollywood dissenter, would go quietly. But how could Little Mary have gone down, with her millions of fans and her share of United Artists? Share? Those who were there recall the UA board meetings as being largely a tug of war between businessmen who had no grasp of film and Pickford, who had forgot more about film and business than anyone will learn. Chaplin was as ignorant of business strategy as Griffith, and Fairbanks was a jerk. It was Pickford who made the studio make sense. They’d all talk, and she’d listen, then she’d cut in with “No, gentlemen, I don’t agree,” and proceed to demolish all that had been said with the logic of experience and vision. Which suggests that Little Mary should have been the one woman to weather the timechange. But she didn’t. Having, she thought, prepared the way for a Big Mary in Dorothy Vernon and My Best Girl, she played the heroine of a southern middle-class tragedy in Coquette (1929), winning the first talkie Oscar as Best Actress.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Great. But the public had been clamoring for a Doug and Mary picture, remember? She pulled off a walk-on dream lady in Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1927), not unlike Elizabeth Taylor’s Helen of Troy in Richard Burton’s Doctor Faustus, but in 1929 the Fairbankses went all the way in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sam Taylor. If they had to do a film together, this was a good choice. Petruchio would provide Fairbanks with his brash rogue shtick, and Katherine would test Little Mary with a new part. He could only be Fairbanks and she liked a test, so it should have worked. Instead, it killed her. Taylor, one of Hollywood’s worst drudges, was Fairbanks’ man, and he colluded with the increasingly unsure actor at Pickford’s expense. The set was run along Fairbanks lines, with late starts each day, no retakes, plenty of time out for exercise sessions or snowing visiting VIPs or just loafing, and Pickford had no help from either man. The film looks good, but it’s a disaster and Pickford knew it. Fairbanks sounds like a potato chip talking, Taylor’s edition of Shakespeare is illiterate, and Pickford flounders. One longs for Lubitsch.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Little Mary’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this. But, like her characters, she thought of a solution and applied it. She would film a story that exploits the Little Mary heroine yet is timeless, working with her most sympathetic director, Marshall Neilan. A sound plan. But alcohol had dulled Neilan’s brain; and the subject, Norma Talmadge’s Secrets, the story of a pioneer couple, didn’t seem timeless so much as historical. At some point late in the production, Pickford took stock, realized it couldn’t work, and closed the production down.

She was so angry she burned the negative. Nothing else she tried worked, either. Nothing flopped, precisely, but she needed a smash. Kiki (1931), a Parisian backstager directed by the relentless Sam Taylor, was more Big Mary, and her second try at Secrets (1933), this time with a fine director, Frank Borzage, and Leslie Howard as her husband, opened just after Franklin Roosevelt’s bank holiday, when nobody was in a movie mood. And that was the end of Little Mary.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.


Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood
Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood

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Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter) – Lillian Gish (1984)

Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter)

General Editor: Marc Wanamaker (1984)

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

In 1913, Cecil B. De Mille took the westbound train to the end of the line, and found himself in Hollywood. It was not, at first sight, a cataclysmic discovery, merely a ranch that had grown into a small pastoral town in the Southern Californian desert. Where there was irrigation, there were groves of oranges and avocados. Where there wasn’t, there was sand. Hardly the place you would expect to become the headquarters of the world’s greatest dream factory. Yet, in seven short years, the major studios had established themselves in the wilderness and the production schedules ran to 800 films a year.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Lillian Gish

With a certain beauty, even in her eighties, gracious in an old fashioned way, but also tough and incredibly hard working, Lillian Gish has been described as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen” and “Lady” is an apt word for her.

Her father, a ne’er do well, died before he was 30 and part of a dedication in one of her books reads: “To my father who gave me insecurity”. Penniless, Gish’s mother overcame her deep shame at the very prospect and went on stage, her daughters Dorothy and Lillian following her—as Baby Dorothy and Baby Lillian. But always they were in plays that their mother deemed to be of a sufficiently high moral tone.

“We were good children,” Gish later said. “Mother taught us good manners, to think of others before ourselves. We never learnt to play, we got into the habit of work.”

Shameful profession

The Gish girls made friends with the Smiths, another hard-up theatrical family, but when Gladys Smith made her screen debut Mrs Gish was appalled: to her mind appearing in films was even more shameful than going on stage. “What terrible misfortune can have befallen Mrs Smith that Gladys should be in the movies?”

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

However, Gladys’s new film name was Mary Pickford, and not only was she destined to become a superstar herself, she introduced the Gish family to the same possibility. It was while waiting for her in the Biograph Studios that they were spotted by D.W. Griffith, who put Mrs Gish, Lillian and Dorothy into An Unseen Enemy (1912), labeling the girls with red and blue ribbons so that he could tell them apart.

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

From there, he took Dorothy and Lillian to Hollywood, making them stars in films like Birth ofa Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) which stand among the greatest achievements of silent Hollywood. Over the next decade Lillian Gish went on to feature in over fifty D.W. Griffith films.

Exciting footage

“It was hard work, working for Mr Griffith,” Gish has said with her characteristic mixture of understatement and politeness. Five of the cast died of exposure when they were making Way Down East. “Mr Griffith kept shouting ‘Look into the camera’ but I couldn’t —I had icicles on my eyelids.”

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

Gish herself was nearly killed when an ice-floe she was standing on unexpectedly broke away and sped down-river towards a waterfall, but she was rescued by Richard Barthelmess, the leading man. Griffith, typically, stood by—making sure that the cameras were still turning so that he could use the exciting footage.

Spaghetti with Valentino

The same rigorous standards applied on other films too. “Once, when I was filming in the desert sun, I went to a studio car to change. 1 touched the door handle—and left half the skin of my hand on it. It was dangerous. But we never questioned it. We would never use stand-ins,” Gish later said.

In Hollywood Gish was surrounded by admirers but kept herself aloof from the sordid scandal-mongering that was all around. She was friendly with Rudolph Valentino, the man for whom women killed themselves or spent their lives in mourning. “Rudi was a nice boy,” she once said. “He used to come up and cook spaghetti for Dorothy and me.”

She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and has said that that is why she never married. “Somehow marriage seemed like a full time job and I never had that kind of time. I had a lot of good men friends, but I thought why ruin their lives by marrying them?

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

I never wanted to possess anybody.”

Unlike some other silent performers whose voices proved unsuitable for the “talkies”, Gish was driven out of Hollywood by changing styles. Her almost ethereal beauty was too subtle for an age ready for the more overt sex appeal of heroines like Garbo and Dietrich. Lesser spirits might have given up, but the complex, stubborn and intelligent Gish returned to Broadway, in classic plays like Hamlet and Uncle Vanya. Broadway critic George Jean Nathan tried hard to persuade her to marry him, but she claimed that she was too busy for such a commitment.

Fighting back

She continued to work at a furious pace, touring the world with retrospectives of her work, writing (her book on Griffith is acknowledged as the best description of his methods and influence), and making films—notably Duel in the Sun (1946) and Night of the Hunter (1955). At 80 she appeared in a cameo role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978).

“I’ve never known what to do except work; if you start acting when you are five there isn’t a lot of point in trying to do something else when you’re 84,” she told an interviewer. “I expect I’ll still have a couple of days shooting to do when they bury me.”

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish 1954
Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish
The Hollywood reporter star profiles
The Hollywood reporter star profiles

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A Timely Interception (1913) Biograph

A Timely Interception - Lillian Gish Biograph
A Timely Interception – Lillian Gish Biograph

A Timely Interception (1913)

Directed by  D.W. Griffith
Release date: June 7, 1913 /Re-released July 9, 1915

Writing Credits (in alphabetical order)  

Christy Cabanne (writer)

Cast (in credits order)  

The Farmer W. Chrystie Miller The Farmer
The Farmer’s Daughter Lillian Gish The Farmer’s Daughter
The Farmer’s Adopted Son Robert Harron The Farmer’s Adopted Son
Uncle James – The Farmer’s Brother Lionel Barrymore Uncle James – The Farmer’s Brother
May – Uncle James’s Daughter Lucille Hutton May – Uncle James’s Daughter
The Oil Syndicate Prospector Joseph McDermott The Oil Syndicate Prospector
The Oil Syndicate Officer William J. Butler The Oil Syndicate Officer
The Oil Syndicate Officer Alfred Paget The Oil Syndicate Officer
First Oil Rig Foreman Frank Evans First Oil Rig Foreman
Second Oil Rig Foreman Frank Opperman Second Oil Rig Foreman
Uncle James’s Friend Adolph Lestina Uncle James’s Friend
The Policeman Charles Gorman The Policeman
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Undetermined Secondary Role (uncredited) Christy Cabanne Undetermined Secondary Role (uncredited)
Undetermined Secondary Role (uncredited) Mae Marsh Undetermined Secondary Role (uncredited)
Cinematography by G.W.Bitzer
A Timely Interception - Lillian Gish - Biograph
A Timely Interception – Lillian Gish – Biograph


After a hard struggle the old man has just saved enough money to justify the marriage of his daughter and adopted son, when word comes from the oil fields nearby that his brother has lost his job, the little girl is very ill, and there is no money in the house. The sacrifice is a big one, but it has to be made. The wedding is postponed. One day his brother rides over on a bicycle to pay a visit to his benefactors, but does not bring the money. The little family is at a desperate pass; the house has been put up for sale. An oil prospector discovers oil on the premises and takes an option on the property, then hastens away to form a syndicate. The old man’s brother and the boy go out in a field to dig postholes, and strike oil. The importance of the discovery is appreciated by the former oil man, and the pair rush off to the house. On the way they fall into a disused well, from which the boy contrives to escape. The oil syndicate is on the way in a fast motor car when they are intercepted by a traffic policeman who has seen a little girl clinging to the back of the car. She is the old man’s niece, who has risen from her sick bed, put on her roller skates, and gone on a lark. The oil men bundle the half-fainting girl into the car, rush to the house, and are forcing the old man to sign the papers when the boy enters and stops the transaction. The syndicate is foiled, and the great event takes place after all, some days later.

Technical Specifications:

Runtime 17 min (16 fps)
Sound Mix Silent
Color Black and White
Aspect Ratio 1.33 : 1
Film Length 305 m (1 reel) (USA)
Negative Format 35 mm
Cinematographic Process Spherical
Printed Film Format 35 mm

Produced by Biograph, distributed by General Film Company 1913

Filmed in Nogales – Arizona and California USA

Aside from its dramatic qualities, “A Timely Interception”, the fifth Biograph re-issue of subjects directed by D.W. Griffith, offers the many followers of W. Chrystie Miller an opportunity to see “the grand old man,” as he is called, in one of the deepest bits of acting he has ever done before the camera.

A Timely Interception - 2 Biograph
A Timely Interception – Biograph

The story tells of an old man who has saved enough money to justify the marriage of his daughter and adopted son when word comes from the old man’s brother that he had lost his job, his little girl is very ill and there is no money in the house. The sacrifice is a big one, but it has to be made. This postpones the wedding and eventually leads to the home being placed on sale. Later, the adopted son and the old man’s brother are digging post-holes on the farm when they discover oil, and in their haste to tell the old man of the lucky strike, they fall into an old abandoned oil well. In the meantime, a prospector for an oil syndicate was busy with the old man in a effort to force him to sell the farm, and had fairly well succeeded when the boy rushes into the house and stops the transaction. A short while after, the great event takes place with far more pomp than it would have otherwise.

The situations of the story are well constructed, there is plenty of action, and the acting of W. Chrystie Miller, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Lionel Barrymore, Jos McDermott and Wm. J. Butler is up to the usual high standard to be expected of these players. (Biograph Program)

A Timely Interception - Biograph
A Timely Interception – Biograph

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Code of the Screen – Photoplay – October 1926

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Code of the Screen

Photoplay – October 1926

It is enforced more strictly by the motion picture industry than the Eighteenth Amendment is by the whole Revenue Service. Here it is told for the first time.

There are five primal items on this unwritten moral code.

The first law

concerns what are usually termed immoral relations. There is a curious dividing line here. The films were not permitted to film Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat,” in which a reckless woman was promiscuous —and enjoyed it. Yet the screen frequently shows a young woman being forced into immorality, either through physical force or to get money for a sick relative. Yet the films can not show immorality as a moral weakness or a psychological case.

The second law

revolves around the color line. The films cannot show the love of a negro for a white, or the reverse. The same law applies to the yellow and the brown races. Yet the stage’s biggest dramatic hit this year is “Lulu Belle,” which presents the progress of a wholly immoral negro cabaret dancer from Harlem to the Paris apartment of a dissolute French nobleman. “Lulu Belle” will never reach the screen.

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

 It is interesting to point out that one of the most highly praised films ever made, “Broken Blossoms,” violated this rule. In Thomas Burke’s Limehouse story—and, in the subsequent film made by D. W. Griffith—a Chinaman loved a white girl. The canny Mr. Griffith tempered this by painting the Yellow Man as a young dreamer out of tune with harsh realities. into the innermost problems of humanity. The screen apparently can not do this without crashing against the censors of America.

The real facts of everyday life come under this ban. The three events of existence are birth, marriage and death. Only once have the films shown childbirth. That was the famous scene in D. W. Griffith’s “Way Down East.” I was present at the various conferences held by Mr. Griffith before ” Way Down East ” was released. Most of the conferences concerned this scene. Griffith was advised by most of his staff to cut it from the picture. He refused—and the scene brought down a storm of protests. It was the principal cause of the severe cutting of “Way Down East” in Pennsylvania, Ohio anil other censorridden communities.

No picture ever received so many cuts as did “Way Down East.” Griffith said he was going to film a special scene for these sections, showing Lillian Gish, as the heroine of the New  England melodrama, finding her baby under a cabbage leaf. Marriage, in the films, is usually the fade-out finish of a story. Its problems are avoided. Death, coming under the ban of unhappy endings, is generally taboo.

 THE Birth of a Nation,” the pioneer film to encounter this canon, was barred in many localities for years. It was looked upon as a breeder of race riots although, as far as I know, there isn’t a single record of a riot caused by this film epic. But this superstition discouraged Griffith from carrying out one of his pet dreams, the filming of ” Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

The third law

concerns the presentation of crime. Some of the world’s most fascinating fiction has been built upon the lives of dashing criminals. The films can not show crime for is own sake. “The Unholy Three,” for instance, was an absorbing melodrama of three side show crooks, but it aroused a lot of opposition during its progress through the country’s film theaters. It was looked upon as dangerous in many quarters. You may never have noticed the fact, but the actual commission of a crime is barred pretty generally. A man may be shot, but the actual firing of the weapon may not be shown. You may see the murderer start to aim his gun, but that’s all. This, too, goes for stabbing. You will see the start of a blow but not the finish.

The fourth law

bars the facts of life. The spoken drama and the published story have delved The fiflh canon is a religious one. The films must not concern themselves with religious controversies. Furthermore, ministers are barred as principal characters. The screen does not permit the presentation of a minister erring seriously in any way. The man of God who reforms the harlot and himself slips has long been a theme of the stage and of literature. It was the story of “Rain,” another footlight play barred by the films. The minister is barred, except to marry the heroine and the hero in the final fade-out. Or he can be a kindly old adviser. There it ends.

The screen long dodged “The White Sister” because of fancied religious complications. The recently produced version of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is an example of dodging this issue. Will Hays, the czar of filmdom, has just added a new canon to the code of the screen. Drinking is prohibited on the theory that the national prohibition laws have made it illegal. Reformers have claimed that films have flaunted both bootleggers and the public’s disregard of the Volstead amendment.

THERE is the law –

— concerning the political aspects of films. This centers principally around the Mexican bandit. Mexico is sensitive about the wicked greaser and it is not possible to use him to any extent without arousing government complications. And this goes as well for any country resembling Mexico. When Joseph  Hergesheimer wrote ” Flower of the Night ” for Pola Negri, he had the silver mines of Mexico as his locale. In fact, he made a special trip to Mexico to get the correct color and atmosphere. But, before the film was made the whole story was rewritten, first to an imaginary country and then to California in mining days of ’49. There are certain other restrictions, not of moral character. One is against fantasy. Producers, largely from experience, believe that whimsy is not popular. Maurice Tourneur’s “Prunella” and “The Blue Bird” were pioneer flops at the box office. “A Kiss for Cinderella” was a more recent one. “Peter Pan” was an exception. Producers are against dual roles, too, and against tragic endings, of course. And it takes a lot of persuasion to get them to forget their ban on costume stories. All this, of course, is beside the moral issues with which this article is concerned. Aside from the three stage successes, “Lulu Belle,” “The Green Hat” and “Rain,” already referred to, there are several other stage plays on the proscribed list.


The films, for instance, will not be permitted to do the footlight hits, “The Shanghai Gesture,” and “Sex.” “The Shanghai Gesture” deals with the vengeance of a woman known as Madame Goddam, wronged years before by a British trader. The woman maintains the largest brothel in the Orient. The ultimate vengeance comes when this man is shown his own daughter dangling in a gilded cage and offered for immoral purposes to whosoever can pay the highest price. There is another sensational scene in Madame Goddam’s lupanar, when a semi-nude girl is offered for sale on a platter to a host of Chinese customers. This play has been severely condemned in New York. The moral code of the films bars it. “They Knew What They Wanted” is another drama which will not be filmed. Although this won the Pulitzer prize, as the best drama of two years ago. Will Hays turned his thumb down. This concerns an old Italian winegrower who had his legs broken in an accident upon his wedding day. The bride promptly has an affair with another man that night. There is a baby. The old man forgives the transgression, largely because he has always longed for children. “White Cargo” is reported to be barred. This violates rule Number Two, concerning the color line. It is a story of a man’s moral collapse in the tropics. “Sex,” another current shocker, is a straightaway story of a harlot. “One Man’s Woman,” still another Broadway play, comes among the dramas violating the screen’s moral code.

Willis Goldbeck, the well known scenario writer who offered a number of expert suggestions for this article, advanced the theory that, in all fairness, the rival Pollyanna code of familiar and favorite situations ought to be presented, if only as a balance to the moral code. Mr. Goldbeck’s eight always permissible situations into which all film drama may be catalogued follow:

  1. Cinderella.
  2. The clown with the breaking heart.
  3. The mother who denies her motherhood to benefit her child.
  4. The prince who must choose between throne and bourgeois beauty.
  5. The faker who sends home fake reports of his success and returns to find himself welcomed by a brass band. Thus he is forced to prove himself.
  6. The country lass who gives her heart to the worthless city chap.
  7. The coward who fights his way to manhood when the girl he loves is in danger.
  8. The wild woman who turns out to be a good girl after all.

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The Movies in the Age of Innocence – By Edward Wagenknecht (1962) I

The Movies in the Age of Innocence – By Edward Wagenknecht (1962)

D.W.Griffith Presents …

The movies in the age of innocence
The movies in the age of innocence


“It is the best book on films I have ever read.”

Lillian Gish.


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

Griffith’s next “big” picture after Intolerance was Hearts of the World (1917), which he visited the trenches to make, at the invitation of the British government. It is the only one of Griffith’s leading films which I have been unable to review for the purpose of this book ; I can, therefore, only speak of it on the basis of what I remember from many years ago. It is hardly necessary to say that Hearts of the World presented World War I in terms of black against white, and if it was not quite so bad as those monuments of American culture To Hell with the Kaiser and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, it was not far behind. In any case I think it not unfair to say that it did more to advance the careers of both Lillian and Dorothy Gish than it did for Griffith’s own. Lillian had, I suppose, done other things before that were as fine as her rustic French girl here, but she had done nothing else quite so elaborate and certainly nothing that had been presented in so effective a showcase as was at her disposal in this film. As for myself, though I had seen her many times, I had not, as it now appeared to me, seen nearly as much of her as I ought to have seen or intended to see in the future, and I had certainly not been fully awake to the depth and power of her art.

From Hearts of the World on I knew that she started acting where other people left off and that I was hers forevermore. Dorothy, as the black-wigged “Little Disturber” (she learned the walk after many tears by following and imitating a London street girl), furnished vigor and brilliant comedy relief — and entered forthwith upon a new phase of her career. Whether Griffith himself was at all troubled in his mind over the contradiction between what he had said about war in Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation and what he was saying here I do not know; perhaps, like so many others at the time, he thought the Allies were “fighting for peace.’

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

From Hearts of the World, Griffith went on to a series of less ambitious program pictures released through Paramount-Artcraft. Three of these — The Great Love (August, 1918), The Greatest Thing in Life (November, 1918), and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (March, 1919)—were war pictures; and though the lastnamed represented a certain shift of emphasis, as its title indicates, there were still so many war scenes in it as to suggest that he had agood deal of material on hand to be used up. A Romance of Happy Valley (January, 1919) and True Heart Susie (July, 1919) provided a refuge from wartime strains by returning to an earlier, somewhat idealized, bucolic America, while Scarlet Days (December, 1919) harked back to a still older and more specialized period, the Bret Harte frontier.

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

The Great Love (Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry Walthall, George Fawcett, etc.) was made—partly at least—in England, with the idea of showing how English society faced up to the war, a circumstance which perhaps misled Lewis Jacobs into making the erroneous statement that the film was shown only in England. The Greatest Thing in Life turned out to be brotherhood, and an aesthetic young snob (Robert Harron) learned it through the fellowship of the trenches. Aside from an abundance of spies, suspense, and melodrama, the film was notable for David Butler’s character role as the enormous, garlic-eating Monsieur Baby and for an attempt, not followed up in later films, to turn Lillian Gish toward somewhat boisterous comedy (in one scene she did a beautiful cartwheel).

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
Lillian Gish – The Greatest Thing in Life

The Girl Who Stayed at Home gave us a French girl betrothed to a nobleman but in love with an American for whom she was unwilling to break her troth and an American cabaret dancer in love with an American college boy. Lillian Gish was not in this film; in her place Griffith introduced, as the two girls mentioned, Carol Dempster and Clarine Seymour. Miss Seymour was a real discovery. A tiny girl with enormous eyes, she was as dark and vivacious as most Griffith heroines had been blonde and wistful, a delightful girl, of excellent character, whom everybody in the studio loved ; but she died on April 25, 1920, on the threshold of what would almost certainly have been an important film career. After Lillian Gish’s departure in the interest of her own starring engagements, Miss Dempster became Griffith’s leading actress, but her cold personality did not attract a great following, and few of Griffith’s admirers were willing to accept her at his valuation. Richard Barthelmess, too, made his first appearance for Griffith in The Girl Who Stayed at Home.

A Romance of Happy Valley - Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish played again with Robert Harron in both A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie. Clarine Seymour, too, appeared in True Heart Susie in a most unsympathetic role; she was the venal little milliner from the city who “vamped” Harron away from Lillian after the latter had secretly sold her cow to provide the means for him to study and become a minister. Late in the picture, the unworthy wife was kind enouh to die, so that true love triumphed in the end. So far as the story goes, True Heart Susie was soap opera, but the atmosphere had an attractive authenticity, and Lillian was excellent in the scenes in which she was obliged to behave like a perfect lady toward her rival even though her heart was breaking.

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

The opening sequence, in which she and Harron were shown as children at school, was also very charming. A Romance of Happy Valley had a weak story too, but nobody except Griffith could have given such a sympathetic picture of the Locust Grove Sanctificationist Church. “If we smile at these quaint people, let it be through tears of sympathy. We must remember that from similar places have come the very highest ideals. Sometimes they do backslide, but the dream is always upward.” You may not care for the preaching, but Griffith’s handling showed a knowledge of the rural American temperament which could not have been matched elsewhere in the cinema of his time or, I dare say, today.

Scarlet Days lobby card
Scarlet Days lobby card

Scarlet Days, which I thought a very exciting picture in its time, had Seymour, Dempster, Ralph Graves, and Barthelmess (as a Spanish bandit), but was chiefly notable for the memorable performance of the veteran screen actress Eugenie Besserer (familiar to a later generation as Jolson’s mother in The Jazz Singer) as a frontier dance-hall habitue who loved her Eastern-bred, gently reared daughter and nearly broke her heart trying to save the girl from finding out about her mother’s way of life. Griffith had stopped filming Browning, but he still held to Browning’s faith in “what a man [or woman either] may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.”

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

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1919, Griffith had given us the last of his three supremely great films, Broken Blossoms, made from Thomas Burke’s story, “The Chink and the Child,” in Limehouse Nights. Broken Blossoms was as intimate and brooding a film as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation had been spectacular, and in it Griffith’s capacity for using the camera to probe the hearts of his characters appeared at its best. There were only three real characters: Lucy, the Child (Lillian Gish), Battling Burrows, her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and Cheng Huan, the Chink (Richard Barthelmess). Lucy, who serves Battling as a kind of punching bag to relieve his feelings when he is disturbed, stumbles out through the streets after one particularly terrible beating and faints in the shop of the Chinaman, who had previously admired her.

He dresses her in a rich Oriental robe, surrounds her with Oriental finery, and enthrones her in a kind of private shrine above his shop. When a dirty little rat of his acquaintance discovers her there and tells her father, he is outraged, for “most of all Batttling hated those not born in the same great country as himself.” In Cheng Huan’s absence he invades and smashes the shrine and drags his daughter home. She locks herself in a closet, from which he hauls her out and beats her to death. Cheng Huan follows, shoots Battling, carries the girl back to his room, and there stabs himself to the heart. Broken Blossoms is a kind of missionary story in reverse. Cheng Huan comes to the West to carry the message of the gentle Buddha to rough Occidentals, represented to him by brawling American sailors in China. The picture opens with a long Oriental sequence.

Broken Blossoms

An atmospheric river scene marks the transition to London, where we see Cheng Huan as a “Chink storekeeper” in Limehouse, his dreams wrecked and he himself become an opium smoker. Scenes in Chinese dives in London follow. These do not carry on the story; they are images, memories which flash across the screen as they pass through Chen Huan’s brain; from them we return to the Oriental temple bells which we saw at the beginning and also to the river scene. Next comes “The home of Lucy and Battling Burrows.”

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

A subtitle gives us their past and explains Lucy’s origin. We see Burrows drinking; a subtitle describes him as a “gorilla” and an “abysmalbrute.” We flash back to his last fight, which is shown on the screen as he thinks of it. His manager is present; one of his “chippy” friends comes in. The manager complains of his addiction to wine and women, thus putting him in a rage. Not until now do we first see Lucy, picking her way painfully along the dock ; she sits down on a coil of rope. As she thinks, flashbacks show her being warned against marriage by a woman of her acquaintance, bending over the washtub while her husband scolds, and against their profession by two girls of the street.

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

She gets up and goes in for her first encounter with Burrows. Since he wants cheerful faces about him, and Lucy really has nothing to smile about, she pushes the corners of her mouth upwards with the second and third fingers of her right hand. She prepares food for him, and he wolfs it down while she stands, hungry, and watches him. He threatens to beat her, for nothing in particular, but does not; ordering his tea for five, he goes out, after which she eats a few scraps alone. Now we go back to Cheng Huan and witness his encounter with a smug English cleric whose brother is setting out as a missionary. He hands Cheng Huan a pamphlet. The title, shown in a close shot, is HELL. Cheng says, “I wish him luck.” From here we return to Lucy, who is now darning socks. She goes out to buy provisions for her father’s supper, taking along with her, in addition to money, a roll of tin foil, for which she hopes to get a flower she craves, but it turns out she does not have quite enough tin foil.

Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

When she gets out into the street, Cheng Huan watches her through his window and stands guard to protect her if she is troubled; when Evil Eye shows signs of molesting her, Cheng Huan comes out of his shop and, walking between them, pushes Evil Eye out of the way. The second scene between Lucy and Burrows begins when she returns from shopping. The time is 4:30 p.m., and he is enraged because he has got home before her. She cries, ” ‘Tain’t five! ‘Tain’t five!” When she spills food on his hand while serving him, he pretends that she did it on purpose and beats her cruelly. She stumbles out, more dead than alive, and moves toward her first real contact with Cheng Huan. Broken Blossoms is not free of subtitles, and some of them are pretty distressing. “Dying she gives her last little smile to the world that has been so unkind.” And again: “As he smiles Goodbye to White Blossom all the tears of the ages rush over his heart.”

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

(In Thomas Burke, Griffith discovered, perhaps for the first time, a writer whose prose was almost as purple as his own.) But the subtitles are not needed, and can be ignored, for the real story is told by an intimate, probing camera. Take the scene in which Lucy and Cheng Huan first look at each other—he in his shop, she in the street outside. The audience looks through the eyes of each, seeing the girl as the man looks at her and the objects in the shop window as Lucy’s delighted gaze travels over them. Later he remembers the flower she had wanted and been unable to buy and brings it to her in her sanctuary. There is a delightful, subdued humor in these scenes, along with all their lyricism and danger, for the girl is still a child, and the doll Cheng Huan brings her is the climax of all her joys. The sight of the Chinaman brings her as much pleasure as that of her father had formerly awakened terror; once she starts to push up the corners of her mouth with her fingers; then she remembers that this is no longer necessary and smiles naturally. Sex intrudes’ only once—on his part, not hers — and is expressed only in an enormous close-up of his troubled eyes and in the way she shrinks from him momentarily without understanding what he wants. Then he retreats and remembers himself. “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” she asks him once.

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

Lucy’s hiding place is discovered when the Spying One comes to Cheng Huan’s shop on a perfectly legitimate errand. While Cheng Huan slips out for change, he hears a noise upstairs; whereupon, being of a curious temperament, he tiptoes up the stairs to look. First we are with Lucy in the room above; then we are with the Spying One in the shop; we see him go up the stairs from the store; then we watch him come up from inside Lucy’s room; there is a close shot of his foolish, giggling, delighted face. After the sanctuary has been raided, Evil Eye gladly bears the news to Cheng Huan; Cheng Huan rushes home but arrives too late.

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

Lucy runs out when Battling arrives, but is caught by his henchmen and taken “home” through the cloaking river mist; once there, she locks herself in the closet. When Battling and Cheng Huan finally confront each other the camera moves from one to the other and to whatever feature or whatever part of the body Griffith wishes to emphasize. Cheng Huan’s pistol is under his coat; Battling is unarmed but there is a hatchet on the floor next to his foot. A closeup directs our attention to this hatchet, and Battling is shot when, after having brought it closer with his foot, he ventures to try to stoop quickly to pick it up. After Burrows’ death has been reported at the police station (the police are mulling over casualty lists and are not greatly interested), the authorities come to the flat; it is not until after this that we see Cheng Huan stab himself; next the police arrive at Cheng Huan’s; we see them go into the building, but we are not permitted to watch them invade the sanctuary.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

The film ends as it began with mist-swathed river scenes and the striking of Oriental temple bells. The enthusiasm which Broken Blossoms awakened in 1919 can hardly be overstated ; Griffith was everywhere felt to have opened up new dimensions in the cinema and raised it to the level of great tragic art. The foregoing account of the sensitiveness of his direction may, I hope, have given the reader some idea of why these things should have been felt thus, though of course there is no substitute for seeing the film itself. Fortunately the film is available, notably in the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, and to my eyes it looks as good as it ever did, except that, alas, it must now be seen in a plain black and white print without the music and the subtle coloring that heightened its effect when it was first shown.

Those who have seen Donald Crisp only of late years will have some difficulty in recognizing him in Battling Burrows. Some may find Richard Barthelmess’ Cheng Huan a little thin in Oriental coloring, but his gentleness and idealism will not, I think, leave them unmoved. But so far as the players are concerned, Broken Blossoms is Lillian Gish’s film first of all, and the deep sincerity of her terror and passion seem all the more moving and remarkable for always being conceived and projected as the terror and passion of a child. When I first met Miss Gish in 1920, I told her, with the brashness of youth, that I did not see how she could ever equal what she had done in Broken Blossoms; she received the statement, fortunately, with youth’s resiliency, accepted the compliment implied, and let the rest go by.