American Political Movies – James Combs (1990)

  • American political movies : an annotated filmography of feature films
  • AMERICAN POLITICAL MOVIES
  • An Annotated Filmography of Feature Films
  • James Combs (1990)
  • GARLAND PUBLISHING, INC. NEW YORK & LONDON – 1990

Historians of the motion picture are fond of telling stories of the reactions of the earliest audiences to the new medium as it emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. We are still amused by the uncomprehending awe with which they greeted this spectacular experience. People ran from the theater in terror from trains approaching on the screen. Others ducked and screamed when a gun was fired at the audience. But most appear to have simply been transfixed, sitting and gazing in silent wonder at this visual marvel that brought worlds of sights, and very quickly stories, beyond their everyday existence. Some observers of these brave new “moving pictures” were exultant. “The universal language has been found!” exclaimed a spectator at an early Lumiére film.

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

The propaganda films made pacifists either cowards or naive fools, and associated the willingness to fight and die as the test of a “manly” patriotism that not only won battles but also women’s hearts and men’s admiration. The crucible of war not only would purge us of selfish or weak impulses, it also served a democratizing and moralizing purpose by bringing men together in egalitarian military camaraderie and offered an opportunity for moral regeneration of slackers, effete lounge lizards, and the sons of the idle rich. In other words, these films offered a vision of war that served domestic Progressive purposes of “moral democracy” making not only the world, but also America, safe for Wilson’s grand vision.

Hearts of the World

Perhaps the most ambitious of these war films, Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) is still representative enough. Shot at the behest of the British government and with Wilson’s blessing, even though he began work on it before American entry, Griffith’s story (some of it actually shot at the front) includes murderous German troops, a rape-minded German officer with designs on Lillian Gish, the mistreatment of French civilians, a French girl flogged by a boorish German sergeant, and rescue from the Hun by brave French troops. (Griffith may have overdone it: when the movie was viewed at the White House, apparently neither President nor Mrs. Wilson cared much for it.) The overall impact of these propaganda films was such that it solidified a tradition of military cooperation that would only begin to break down in the 60s.

Griffith’s famous Birth of A Nation (1915) is of interest to us here on two counts: first, because of the immediate political furor that arose over the movie, and second, because of the reactionary populism inherent in his interpretation of “progressive” history that would shape the reform program of Wilson, literally “re-forming” the State around a conception of the major political crisis of the recent past as it gave “birth” to a new society. In this view (shared in more sophisticated form by Wilson himself), the industrial North defeated the plantation South, but unleashed an uncivilized force in the freed slaves and their carpetbagger masters bent on revenge and greed. In order to restore a civilized and virtuous community, they were stopped by the vigilante action of the Ku Klux Klan, restoring the peace and virtue of community and family. The two families, one Northern and the other Southern, who reconcile and intermarry at the end stand as metaphors for the reunion of the nation founded on the natural sentiments of home and family, defeating the evils of cold-hearted-industrialism (exemplified by the Radical Republican Senator Stoneman) and alien forces (exemplified by miscegenation: villains are either mulattoes or black).

The film was an immediate sensation, and inspired protests by black and liberal groups incensed by the blatant racism of the story. With Birth, observers began to sense that the movies’ power to make a political statement and shape political consciousness was greater than anyone anticipated. Birth gave imaginative shape to not only a Progressive interpretation of the past, but also as a parable of the politics of the present. Not only did it justify the “Jim Crow” laws of the time, it also warned of the dangers of a manipulative industrial elite using power to destroy traditional bourgeois life so dear to the hearts of mythologists such as Griffith. Wilson was a spokesman for that tradition who sought, like the powerless but respectable white men of Birth, to restore a sane and understandable political order that reflected the values, and power, of the large middle class that saw itself as the backbone of the country. Birth was not only, as Wilson was supposed to have remarked, “History written in lightning”; it was also Progressive politics written in lightning, offering a parable of the righteous power of Wilson’s middle-class voting base standing for the virtue of the family-based middle against the plutocracy on the one hand and a degenerate proletariat on the other, and the possibility of a conspiratorial coalition of the two. Progressive order would now be restored, as it was in the movie, not only by concerted political action by the “good people” of the community, but by moral regeneration symbolized by the triumph of familial rectitude and the vision of pristine peace and order governed by the principles of Christ (this, recall, after bloody racial war and vigilante murder). But in the political visions of Griffith and Wilson, violence, like reform legislation, could be used both ruthlessly and morally for the Progressive cause. Birth represents something of the nostalgic and “reactionary” element in Progressivism, uniting on screen both the cinematic and political imagination of a restored and regenerate moral order.

Monte Blue – Riding to rescue Henriette Girard (Lillian Gish) – Orphans of the Storm

There is an odd sense in which the Twenties thought things foreign both a threat and a promise. For all of the audience interest in foreign aristocratic elegance, the recent bitter experience of World War I and the rise of alien doctrines such as communism in the new Soviet Union inspired moviemakers to provide negative treatment of both. The most sustained cautionary tale about the dangers of the Russian Revolution is Griffith’s parable, Orphans of the Storm (1922). Set in the French Revolution, the Revolutionaries are shown to be self-serving, vengeful, cruel, lust-crazed and murderous. The movie was shown at the Harding White House, and Griffith compared the “tyranny of small but aggressive parties” (presumably the Jacobins) who parallels a “similar condition (that) exists in Russia today.” The capitalist American fear of communism was not only economic, it was also moral, contrasting the “mobocracy” of the French Revolution as antithetical to the moderate bourgeois democracy of the United States. Russian Bolshevism, like Jacobinism before it, was characterized as an aberrant and twisted grab for power without true popular roots or legitimate purpose, a theme that would persist in political movies down to the present, justifying hostility to Soviet power and interests.

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Both Wilson and Griffith were essentially imbued with the romantic sentimentality at the core of popular Victorianism, so dealing with the onslaught of modern urban and industrial change was difficult but compelling for them. Much of Griffith’s work deals with the tensions wrought by modernity, always coming to a resolution in which traditional morality is upheld even in the roughest of circumstances. Griffith’s subsequent work represents some of the periodic political tensions that emerged with the fear, shared by rural folk and urban reformers, that modernity would bring chaotic consequences. Many of his films, from the early Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) to “The Mother and the Law” section of his masterpiece Intolerance (1916) and subsequent films such as Way Down East (1920), deal with the “postlapsarian” world of modernity and how the moral order of “prelapsarian” tradition can be saved from ruin.

Mae Marsh – Modern Story

What is fascinating to the political observer of the times is that both Wilson and Griffith were eclipsed by events, Wilson by World War I and the impulse toward modern life that the war speeded up, and Griffith as an anachronism in the Twenties making movies about the very pastoral life and morality that the Progressive Era and the war had done so much to destroy. Intolerance is of interest not only because it is one of the greatest of all films, but also because of its immediate political eclipse and subsequent political influence. Griffith’s theme is injustice through the ages, in which innocent ordinary folk are subjected to the abuses of the powerful and haughty. His populist roots show in his depiction of the social tension between wealthy industrialists and their “society” wives against the innocent pursuits and urban travails of the new working class. But his Wilsonian ties also are clear, in that both ancient and modern rulers can be just if they are on the side of popular morality, including familial autonomy from a meddlesome, elite-sponsored welfare state and protection from the predatory powers of both industrial magnates and vice lords.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Griffith, like Wilson, still retained a kind of sentimental idealism that suggested a political coalition between benevolent authority and the virtuous individual could produce social harmony without disturbing the actual concentration of power in industrial and social elites. Still, one reason given for the box office failure of Intolerance was that the new urban middle classes just discovering movie going didn’t like the theme of industrial strife which placed culpability clearing on the shoulders of greedy and hypocritical industrialists. Too, Intolerance not only included some of the more explosive Progressive criticisms of the arrogance of power, it also proceeded on pacifist sentiment and concluded with a moving Utopian vision of a world without war. When Griffith began making the film in 1915, much of the public agreed with this sentiment, and Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 with the claim of moral superiority over the warring nations of Europe, declaring that we were “too proud to fight.” But by the time the film was released late in 1916, the public mood and political realities had changed to a bellicose and interventionist stance, and Griffith’s views seemed curiously and outdated.

INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

Lillian Gish in Griffith movies – Photo Gallery

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New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – Richard Alleman (2005)

  • New York : the movie lover’s guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York
  • New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide
  • Richard Alleman (2005)
  • Broadway Books New York

An original trade paperback edition of this book was published in 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It is here reprinted by arrangement with Richard Alleman.

MoMA Museum of Modern Art

THE ULTIMATE INSIDER TOUR OF MOVIE NEW YORK

Believing that film was “the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century,” former MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. established the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, and immediately sent curator Iris Barry on a special mission to Hollywood to drum up support for his innovative undertaking. There, at a party given by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair, their lavish Beverly Hills estate, Miss Barry met industry heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Walt Disney, Jesse Lasky, and Mack Sennett. Returning to New York with what the Los Angeles Times reported to be “more than a million feet” of film, Miss Barry had the beginnings of MoMA’s collection. But one old-timer who was not as forthcoming as many of his Hollywood colleagues was D. W. Griffith, who refused to donate his own films to the museum, reportedly saying that nothing could convince him that films had anything to do with art. Ultimately MoMA enlisted the aid of Griffith’s friend and former star actress, Lillian Gish, who eventually persuaded him to hand over to history his collection of films, music, still photographs, and papers. It seems, however, that it was the lure of the tax write-off that was really responsible for Griffith’s change of heart.

Sir John Gielgud with (left to right) Irene Worth, Mrs. (Blanchette) Rockefeller III, and Lillian Gish at Lillian Gish birthday party and celebration for Anita Loos at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)

For the movie lover, the best thing about MoMA’s film collection is that it is constantly on view. The museum has two theaters—one with 460 seats, the other with 217—which together are used to present some two dozen screenings a week. The Department of Film and Media-MoMA also cosponsors, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New Directors/New Films festival, which is held every year in March/April. In addition to showing films, the Department of Film and Media-MoMA maintains a library of film books, screenplays, reviews, publicity material, and four million stills that is an important research center for students, authors, and historians.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH – New York – 109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH

109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

This exotic neo-Byzantine Episcopal house of worship—with a columned Romanesque entrance salvaged from the church’s former 24th Street location—strikes a handsome pose on Park Avenue. Indeed, even though it’s used only as background, it’s still easy to spot in such recent films as Maid in Manhattan (2003), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Serendipity (2001). It plays much meatier roles in two earlier films, however. Ironically, each involves a wedding that doesn’t come off. In Arthur (1981), Dudley Moore jilts Jill Eikenberry at the St. Bart’s altar, whereas fifteen years later Steve Guttenberg does the same thing to bride- from-hell Jane Sibbett (featured on Friends as Ross’s ex-wife) in favor of Kirstie Alley in It Takes Two (1995).

Former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary.

Movie lovers may wish to make a special visit to pay their respects to silent-screen star and former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary. Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, also had an impressive stage and post-silent-film career, making her final screen appearance at the age of ninety-one (or ninety-four, if we are to believe the dates—1893-1993—incised on her crypt), opposite Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in The Whales of August (1987). Today, an anonymous admirer sends flowers to the Gish crypt every year on her birthday, October 14.

Lillian Gish NY Apart Architectural Digest

LILLIAN GISH APARTMENT 430 East 57th Street

For over half a century, this basic-brick Sutton Place apartment building was Lillian Gish’s Manhattan home. An extraordinary woman whose film career began in 1912 with D. W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, Lillian Gish appeared in such landmark silent pictures as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and The Scarlet Letter (1925). When her film career slowed down in the 1930s, it was not, as it was for many of her contemporaries, on account of the talkies, but rather because Hollywood’s taste in heroines had changed, and virtuous virgins like Miss Gish were no longer in fashion. The actress dealt with this turn of events by concentrating on the Broadway stage, where she had a string of successes in classical roles.

Her film career was far from over, however, for she went on to triumph as a character actress in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, from David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) to United Artists’ Night of the Hunter (1955). And La Gish went on and on. Witness her roles in A Wedding (1978), Sweet Liberty (1986), and The Whales of August (1987). The actress, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine—although she only admitted to ninety-six—once said she liked living in the Sutton Place area because “it is like a village where everyone knows you.”

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was the rather exotic name of one of the first motion-picture companies to mount a serious challenge to Thomas Edison’s monopolistic hold on the early film industry. Biograph produced initially a better-quality image (by using larger-sized film) and enjoyed the participation of W. K. L. Dickson, a former—and the most influential—player on the team that developed motion pictures at Edison. Biograph’s first studio was on the roof of the Hackett Carhart Building, a great Victorian fortress with ornate columns, pediments, and turrets that still stands on the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. Similar to the Black Maria studio that Dickson had built for Edison in West Orange, Biograph’s rooftop facility was mounted on tracks and revolved with the sun. The foundations of this primitive studio are still in place atop the restored Hackett Carhart Building.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Unfortunately, the site of some of Biograph’s greatest cinematic triumphs—a brownstone studio at 11 East 14th Street to which it moved in 1906—was razed in the 1960s to make way for a big boring brick apartment building. It was at the Union Square studio that D. W. Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Griffith went on to become the studio’s top director and brought such talents as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, and Mack Sennett into the Biograph fold. When Griffith left the studio in 1913 for the Mutual Film Corporation, Biograph’s status fell quickly, and in 1915 the company was dissolved. Many of its films survive, however, thanks both to Griffith, who saved copies of all his productions, and to the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired Griffith’s collection in the mid-1950s for its then new film department.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

In 1975, a plaque was dedicated by former Biograph beauties Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet at the site of the historic town- house studio at 11 East 14th Street. The day after the ceremony, however, the plaque mysteriously disappeared, and there have been no further efforts to put up a new one. There should be. And while we’re talking about plaques, there also ought to be one at Biograph’s original studio site at 841 Broadway.

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

In 1919, D. W. Griffith was at the height of his wealth, his fame, his power—and his hubris. It was the year that Griffith had joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form the revolutionary United Artists Corporation, which gave its star founders control over both the production and distribution of their films. It was also the year that Griffith decided to leave Hollywood and set up his own studio back east. The place Griffith chose for his operation was the former estate of Standard Oil/Florida real-estate millionaire Henry Flagler, which occupied a secluded spit of land jutting out into the Long Island Sound near Mamaroneck. Besides making films here, Griffith planned to live on the estate, too—a situation which many felt fulfilled the Southern-born director’s fantasies of being master of the plantation. Others who knew Griffith well also pointed out that the seclusion of Orienta Point would enable him to carry on his various romantic liaisons with young actresses far away from the prying New York press.

Griffith’s first major film at his grand Mamaroneck estate- studio was Way Down East (1920), which was a big hit. Other ventures, such as Dream Street (1921), in which Griffith pioneered synchronized sound some six years before Warners released its first Vitaphone picture, were less successful. As for Dream Street’s sound system, Griffith became its biggest critic and discontinued its use immediately after the picture opened. In fact, Griffith eventually became one of the industry’s most vocal anti-talkie spokesmen: “It puts us back to Babel,” he once told Lillian Gish. “Do you realize how few people in the world speak English? If we make pictures that talk, we can’t send them around the world. That’s suicide.”

Way Down East – Mamaroneck filming sets

Next to Way Down East, Griffith’s most important film from his Mamaroneck period was Orphans of the Storm. (1921). For this epic story of the French Revolution, enormous sets depicting eighteenth-century Paris were constructed at Mamaroneck—and Griffith deliberately scheduled the filming of major crowd scenes for weekends in order to use as many of the locals as extras as possible.

Orphans of the Storm – Mamaroneck filming sets

After Orphans of the Storm, however, it was all downhill for the great director, and by 1924 he was forced to abandon independent producing, signing on with Paramount to do pictures at Astoria. That same year, Griffith put his Mamaroneck estate up for sale, and in early 1925 a developer bought most of the property for the purpose of subdividing it.

Today all of the Griffith and Flagler buildings on Orienta Point are gone, and the property—once the site of the French Revolution—is now part of an exclusive, gated community.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

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American Plays and Musicals on Screen – THOMAS S. HISCHAK (2005)

  • American Plays and Musicals on Screen
  • 650 Stage Productions and Their Film and Television Adaptations
  • THOMAS S. HISCHAK
  • McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers Jefferson, North Carolina, and London
  • ©2005 Thomas S. Hischak. All rights reserved

The movies have been borrowing from Broadway since the first film studios on Long Island were cranking away at one-reel moving pictures and coercing stage stars and directors to cross the East River and provide their services. When the movies got longer, film-makers needed more substantial plots to sustain the action, so they started borrowing stories as well as personnel from Broadway. For a short time it was possible to work in both media: shoot movies during the day and perform on stage at night. The Marx Brothers, for instance, were making the film of The Cocoanuts in 1929 while playing evenings and matinees in Animal Crackers on Broadway. Had the movie capital remained in the New York City area, America’s film industry today would be similar to Great Britain’s, where top artists can do theatre and make films (and television) without leaving the London metropolis. But it was not to be. In the United States, with Hollywood and the movies on one coast and Broadway on the other, the crossover between the two involved geography as well as career transitions. Everyone agrees that plays and films are different, but no one has ever found an unshakeable explanation of exactly why something works in one medium but not the other. Yes, theatre is verbal and movies are visual. But many great plays depend on visuals, while some movie classics are beloved primarily for their talk. It is a commonplace that stage actors need to have a voice while movie stars need to have a look. Yet many performers make the transition easily from one medium to the other. Another generality: Broadway directors create pictures on a stage, while Hollywood directors choose what to focus on. But there are as many ways to direct a movie as there are theories on acting and directing. If a foolproof formula existed that could distinguish what elements of a play would be sure to work on the screen, there would be fewer mistakes and fewer embarrassing results. But there is no formula, and the history of plays-to-films is filled with inexplicable duds and triumphs.

All the Way Home

November 30, 1960 (Belasco Theatre), a drama by Tad Mosel. Cast: Arthur Hill (Jay Follet), Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet), Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch), John Megna (Rufus), Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch), Lylah Tiffany, Dorrit Kelton, Art Smith, Tom Wheatley, Georgia Simmons. Director: Arthur Penn. Producers: Fred Coe, Arthur Cantor. 334 perfor-mances.

Pulitzer Prize. (Paramount 1963). Screenplay: Philip H. Reisman, Jr. Cast: Robert Preston (Jay Follet), Jean Simmons (Mary Follet), Helen Carew (Mary’s Mother), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Aline MacMahon (Hannah), John Cullum, Michael Keanrey. Director: Alex Segal. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1971). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Joanne Woodward (Mary Follet), Richard Kiley (Jay Follet), Pat Hingle (Ralph Follet), Eileen Heckart (Hannah), Shane Nickerson, James Woods, Barnard Hughes, Betty Garde. Director: Fred Coe. Producer: David Susskind.

(TV 1981). Teleplay: Tad Mosel. Cast: Sally Field (Mary Follet), William Hurt (Jay Follet), Ned Beatty (Ralph Follet), Polly Holliday (Hannah), Ellen Corby, Jeremy Licht, Betty Garrett, Michael Horton. Director: Delbert Mann. Producer: Charles Raymond.

James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family has more characterization than plot and the stage version was deemed by some critics more static than theatrical. Yet the portrayal of a family dealing with the sudden death of the father in a car accident was quite stirring on stage, particularly because of the superior cast. Much the same can be said about the film and two television versions of the work. Robert Preston gives a surprisingly subdued performance as the father in the 1963 movie and Jean Simmons is just as effective as his young wife. An out-standing cast was assembled for the 1971 television production though it lacked the atmosphere of the film. The 1981 television remake struck some critics as more melodramatic than tragic though some of the performances were commendable.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace

January 10, 1941 (Fulton Theatre), a comedy by Joseph Kesselring. Cast: Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Allyn Joslyn (Mortimer Brewster), Boris Karloff (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Edgar Stehli, Helen Brooks. Director: Bretaigne Windust. Producers: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse. 1,444 performances.

(Warner 1944). Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Phillip G. Epstein. Cast: Cary Grant (Mortimer Brewster), Josephine Hull (Abby Brewster), Jean Adair (Martha Brewster), Raymond Massey (Jonathan Brewster), John Alexander (Teddy), Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Peter Lorre, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason. Director-producer: Frank Capra.

(TV 1969). Cast: Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster), Lillian Gish Martha Brewster), Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster), Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster), David Wayne (Teddy), Sue Lyon, Richard Deacon, Jack Gilford, Billy De Wolfe. Director: Robert Scheerer.

One of the longest-running plays in the American theatre, this farce continues to please not because its characters or dialogue are of any interest but because of its wacky premise: two sweet old ladies murder off a series of old gentlemen who seem unhappy with life. Legend has it that Joseph Kessel-ring wrote the piece as a serious thriller and that producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse rewrote it as broad comedy. For decades the dark comedy has remained a fa-vorite with all kinds of producing groups, from Broadway to high schools. Frank Capra’s 1944 screen version opened the story up somewhat and kept the piece moving in a broad, rapid manner. Cary Grant, as the nephew Mortimer who discovers what his two elderly aunts are up to, gives a fever-pitch performance filled with so many double takes that he seems like a cartoon; possibly his best and worst comic portrayal. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair played the aunts on stage and on screen and they are the glue that holds the story together. The film also boasts a variety of delightful character actors in playful supporting roles. A very abridged version of the play was shown on television in 1955 and in 1969 the comedy was reset in the 1960s and clumsily altered. (Newspaper drama critic Mortimer became a television critic.) It is indeed unfortunate that this version was so misguided for it had a first-rate cast, including Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the aunts.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

The Clansman

January 8, 1906 (Liberty Theatre), a play by Thomas Dixon, Jr. Cast: Holbrook Blinn, George Bee Jackson, Joseph Woodburn, Albert Lovern, Henry Riley, Grayce Scott, Samuel Hyams. Director. Frank Hatch. Producer: George H. Brennan. 51 performances.

The Birth of a Nation (Griffith 1915). Screenplay: D. W. Griffith, etc. Cast: Henry B. Walthall (Col. Ben Cameron), Lillian Gish (Elsie Stoneman), Mae Marsh (Flora Cameron), Miriam Cooper (Margaret Cameron), Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegman, Donald Crisp, Raoul Walsh, Eugene Pallette. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith. In a Southern town during Reconstruction, an African American rabble rouser joins with some carpetbaggers to get the recently freed Negroes to terrorize the community. But the Ku Klux Klan organizes and puts down the rebellion, in turn terrorizing the blacks. During the play’s modest run, an African American group objected to the stilted melodrama, calling it “evil propaganda.”

But even that notoriety was not enough to interest playgoers and the play pretty much disappeared from memory. In 1915 D. W. Griffith turned to the Thomas Dixon, Jr. novel the play was based on as the inspiration for his feature length film The Birth of a Nation, the cinema’s first and most influential movie epic. The screenplay covers the story of two families during the Civil War and only the last reels are close to the stage play. African Americans protested then, and have continued to object, to the racist treatment of Negroes in the film, several of them played by white actors in blackface. As in the play, the Ku Klux Klan is seen as the savior of the white race and that also has bothered many over the decades. Yet there is no denying the power of the film and the many innovations it made in moviemaking. As for the original play, it remains forgotten. Footnote of interest: when the film was first released it was titled The Clansman, it’s more grandiose title came a little later.

I Never Sang for My Father

January 25, 1968 (Longacre Theatre), a play by Robert Anderson. Cast: Hal Holbrook (Gene Garrison), Alan Webb (Tom Garrison), Lillian Gish (Margaret Garrison), Teresa Wright (Alice), Sloane Shelton, Matt Crowley, Allan Frank, Daniel Keyes. Director: Alan Schneider. Producer: Gilbert Cates. 124 performances.

(Columbia 1970). Screenplay: Robert Anderson. Cast: Gene Hackman (Gene Garrison), Melvyn Douglas (Tom Garrison), Dorothy Stickney (Margaret Garrison), Estelle Parsons (Alice), Elizabeth Hubbard, Lovelady Powell, Daniel Keyes, Conrad Bain. Director-producer: Gilbert Cates.

This domestic drama about a man who can never quite reconcile himself to his difficult father was regarded as polished soap opera by some critics, deeply felt drama by others. But everyone agreed that the acting was distinguished, particularly Hal Holbrook and Alan Webb as son and father and Lillian Gish and Teresa Wright as mother and daughter. While none of the cast appeared in the 1970 film, it was pretty much a carbon copy of the play and also divided critics on its merits. Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, as son and father, led the strong cast and they are all commendable, even if the material tends to depress rather than exhilarate.

Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore

Mr. Sycamore

November 13, 1942 (Guild Theatre), a comedy by Ketti Frings. Cast: Stuart Erwin (John Gwilt), Enid Markey (Estelle Benlow), Lillian Gish (Jane Gwilt), Russell Collins (Rev. Dr. Doody), Otto Hulett, Leona Powers. Director: Lester Vail. Producer: Theatre Guild. 19 performances.

(Capricorn 1975). Screenplay: Pancho Kohner. Cast: Jason Robards (John Gwilt), Sandy Dennis (Jane Gwilt), Jean Simmons (Estelle Ben-bow), Mark Miller, Jerome Thor. Director-producer: Pancho Kohner.

This must be the most oddball entry in this book. Mailman John Gwilt is so disgusted with life that he decides he’d rather be a tree. His loving wife Jane helps him dig a hole in the backyard and, taking off his shoes and socks, John plants his feet in the dirt. Neighbors mock him but Jane brings John a chair to make him comfortable and food to eat until he takes root. John gets discouraged and almost gives up the idea but one day he turns into an actual tree so Jane spends the rest of her days sitting in its shade and chatting with the transformed John. Ketti Frings adapted Robert Ayre’s story for the stage and the prestigious Theatre Guild produced it, though it only lasted a few weeks. As bizarre as the play is, it is even more bizarre that thirty-three years later the piece was rediscovered and made into a movie. Jason Robards played John in the 1975 film with Sandy Dennis as his wife and Jean Simmons as the local librarian who gives John the idea when she reads a poem to him. Despite the stars attached to the project, the movie seems to have disappeared without anyone much noticing it. But it is available for viewing and it is a curiosity, to say the least. Neither funny enough to be a comedy nor reasonable enough to be taken serious, the allegorical tale is a real puzzle, and not a puzzle easy to sit through.

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

The Trip to Bountiful

(TV 1953). Teleplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Eileen Heckart (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), John Beal (Ludie Watts), Charles Slader, Will Hare, Dennis Cross. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producer: Fred Coe. November 3, 1953 (Henry Miller Theatre), a play by Horton Foote. Cast: Lillian Gish (Mrs. Carrie Watts), Jo Van Fleet (Jessie Mae Watts), Eva Marie Saint (Thelma), Gene Lyons (Ludie Watts), Will Hare, Frank Overton. Director: Vincent J. Donehue. Producers: Theatre Guild, Fred Coe. 39 performances.

(Bountiful Film Partners 1985). Screenplay: Horton Foote. Cast: Geraldine Page (Mrs. Watts), Carlin Glynn (Jessie Mae), Rebecca de Mornay (Thelma), John Heard (Ludie Watts), Richard Bradford, Kevin Cooney. Director: Peter Masterson. Producers: Horton Foote, etc.

The elderly Mrs. Carrie Watts is so unhappy living with her son and his scolding wife that she boards a bus back to her hometown of Bountiful, Texas, where she revisits old haunts and comes to realize the past is dead. Texas playwright Horton Foote wrote this character drama for television in 1953 and that same year it showed up on Broadway with Lillian Gish reprising her poignant performance as Mrs. Watts. While all the acting in the Broadway production was estimable, the play was too uneventful for playgoers and the drama only lasted a month. But interest in the play was kept alive with various regional productions and thirty-three years later it was filmed with Geraldine Page giving a moving performance as Mrs. Watts, winning an Oscar for her efforts. This time the piece was better received by audiences and the quiet little drama was a modest box office hit. The filmis slow and atmospheric yet the fine acting throughout makes it interesting enough.

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

Way Down East

February 7, 1898 (Manhattan Theatre), a play by Lottie Blair Parker, Joseph R. Grismer. Cast: Phoebe Davies (Annie Moore), James O. Barrows (Squire Bartlett), Howard Kyle (David Bartlett), Minnie Dupree, George Backus, Homer Granville. Producers: William A. Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld. 152 performances.

(Griffith 1920). Screenplay: Anthony Paul Kelly. Cast: Lillian Gish (Anna Moore), Richard Barthelmess (David Bartlett), Burr McIntosh (Squire Bartlett), Kate Bruce, Mary Hay. Director-producer: D. W. Griffith.

(Fox 1935). Screenplay: Howard Estabrooke, William Hurlbut. Cast: Rochelle Hudson (Anna Moore), Henry Fonda (David Bartlett), Russell Simpson (Squire Bartlett), Slim Summerville, Margaret Hamilton, Edward Trevor, Andy Devine, Spring Byington. Director: Henry King. Producer: Winfield R. Sheehan.

Annie Moore was seduced and became pregnant but the baby died so she sets off to start life anew where no one knows her. She gets a job as a servant at the Bartlett estate but when Squire Bartlett learns of her past he turns Annie out and she makes her way through a violent snowstorm. The son, David Bartlett, has grown to love Annie so he rides out and rescues her then persuades the family to accept her. This classic melodrama had all the standard stage conventions, from the forlorn heroine to the storm, but there was honesty in the characterization and the emotional tug it created was not as manufactured as most “mellerdramers” of the day. The play was a success in New York and on the road for over twenty years and Phoebe Davies, who originated the role of Annie on Broadway, played it over 4,000 times during her career. Four screen versions were made of the tale, the first in 1908 being only a silent short. A 1914 movie told the story in more detail but it was the 1920 version by D. W. Griffith that became a silent screen classic with its famous scene of Annie, played by Lillian Gish, caught on an ice floe rushing down the river. The melodrama was filmed on a giant scale so that the story seemed almost epic in scope; clichéd or not, it is still impressive. The 1935 remake looked very old-fashioned amidst the smart, sassy movies of the Depression era and the stilted dialogue would have come across better on title cards than from the mouths of Rochelle Hudson and Henry Fonda as the lovers. It is also a disappointing film in its action sequences but there are some expert character actors to be found in the cast.

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The Wind and Young Love – Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine (1928)

  • Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20
  • Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine Volume XII No. 20 November 12, 1928

TIME CINEMA

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind

-blows without stopping all year long across the bleak pocket of the prairie to which Lillian Gish comes in her first picture in a year and a half. Her cousin’s wife, a prairie woman whose hands are almost always bloody from cutting up steers, is jealous of the influence of the visiting Gish girl over her home, her husband, her tough, irritable children. When the girl is forced to marry a cattle-rustler to get away from her cousin’s house, a drama, familiar in its conflicts but brooding, powerful, works up in the clapboard house battered by sand and by the wind which, according to Indian legend, is a ghost horse gone crazy in the sky.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Not a work of genius but far better than the average movie story, this picture gives Miss Gish the best and in fact the only opportunity she has had since Way Down East for exercising the talent which has made her famous. Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith met in Mary Pickford’s dressing-room in the old Biograph studio. Lillian Gish had left Massillon, Ohio, to go on the stage with her sister Dorothy. As a fairy in The Good Little Devil she was lifted across the stage by a wire which broke one night and dropped her on the floor. She burst into tears, later rewarded with a salary which gave each trembling drop the literal value of a pearl. Griffith made her an old woman—the pinchfaced mother in Judith of Bethulia, Intolerance; he made her an outcast girl in Way Down East, Colonel Cameron’s sweetheart in Birth of Nation. She went with him from Biograph to Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts, Artcraft, First National, United Artists. Somehow, no matter how bad the scenario was, her intelligence brought to certain moments and situations that reality which is the definition of great acting and which Miss Gish’s famous frailty, her dimples, her soft, elliptical face, and her pale hair down to her waist could not keep people from recognizing. Now under contract to Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, she is directed by Victor Seastrom.

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Dorothy Gish, the third name inscribed with that of Lillian, of Griffith, in the heart of the U. S. public was not the little girl who jumped over a cliff in Birth of a Nation. Many cinema fans, their memories bemused by thousands of flickering faces, have lost dollar bets on that fact. The girl who jumped over the cliff was Mae Marsh. Other bets have concerned the sisters’ ages. Lillian is 32. Dorothy is 30. Just as pretty as Lillian (5 ft. 4 in. tall, red-blonde hair), cleverer perhaps, certainly shrewder, Dorothy wanted romance to be concrete, loved while Lillian acted, married (James Rennie, dark-haired “legit” actor) while Lillian stayed single. In the many pictures in which the sisters have appeared together, Dorothy’s acting, always accurate, lacked the indefinable distinction of Lillian’s. Since leaving pictures in 1922 she has wanted to return to a medium where she could have the advantage of voice. Last week (see below) she appeared in Manhattan in “legit” drama.

Dorothy Gish – Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20

THEATRE

New Plays in Manhattan

Young Love.

She was the little girl | who got wet in Orphans of the Storm and wore an arresting white dress in Nell Gwyn. That has nothing to do with a play called Young Love which opened in Manhattan last week, except that Dorothy Gish, 30, is back on the stage playing opposite her husband, James Rennie, and Lillian Gish is still in the movies and still unmarried (see p. 44). Dorothy Gish is cast in Young Love as a tempestuous and idealistic latter-day maiden striving to assure marital congeniality by pre-nuptial experiment. In the first few lines, she and her fiancé ex-press satisfaction with last night’s trial. To make it doubly sure, they exchange partners with their unconsulted host and hostess. Miss Gish completes an affair with host, but fiancé quails before hostess. Then follow two acts of confessions, recriminations, door-slammings, to end with four-way felicity the way it should be (according to the movies). Despite such items as “I love him!” “Then that’s a very good reason not to marry him,” despite Miss Gish’s grotesque make-up and quaintly haphazard clothes, Young Love is adequate entertainment.

Dorothy Gish

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The Birth of a Nation – How a Filmmaker and a Editor Reignited America’s Civil War – By Dick Lehr (2014)

  • The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
  • By Dick Lehr
  • Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr

IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

PROLOGUE

January 2, 1915

David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.

Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.

Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.

The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.

Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.

Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”

It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.

Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.

D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.

The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”

D.W. Griffith’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ Program

1914

Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.

The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.

The Curtain Falls

William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.

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Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

  • Documentary Film Classics
  • By William Rothman
  • University of Miami
  • © Cambridge University Press 1997

Movies, too, may be said to bring “real life” to the screen. For example, in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, a film contemporaneous with Nanook of the North, the character Susie and the world she inhabits may be imaginary, but it is the real-life Lillian Gish who is the subject of the camera. And so-called “documentaries,” too, may be said to bring the life of the imagination to the screen, as we shall be reminded throughout this book.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie

Griffith’s camera is capable of making no revelations about the fictional Susie that are not also revelations about the real woman who incarnates her, revelations that emerge through, that express and thus reveal, the relationship between the camera and Lillian Gish. True Heart Susie’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real. Or we might say that its fiction is that Lillian Gish is only acting, rather than revealing herself, when she incarnates Susie in the face of the camera, that the character Susie is only a mask she can put on or take off at will or upon direction.

What is fictional about True Heart Susie in other words, resides in its fiction that it is only fiction. What is fictional about Nanook of the North, by contrast, resides in its fiction that it is not fiction at all. Strip away what is fictional about the two films, therefore, and there is no real difference between them. Both equally exemplify Stanley Gavell’s maxim that in the medium of film the only thing that really matters is that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.

True Heart Susie

The opening titles of True Heart Susie likewise assert, at least rhetorically, the reality of the characters around whom Griffith’s story revolves. But in introducing Susie, the film’s protagonist, Griffith’s title also names the star who plays her (Lillian Gish), at once positing their identity (in the face of the camera, Susie simply is Lillian Gish; Lillian Gish is Susie incarnate) and acknowledging their separateness (Susie has no existence apart from True Heart Susie but Lillian Gish exists apart from her incarnation in this or any film, and, as a movie star, is capable of being incarnated as any number of different characters).

By contrast, when Griffith presents us with our first view of Susie in True Heart Susie – it is also our first view of Lillian Gish, of course – we are not authorized to take it as “documenting” a real encounter between camera and subject. As we have said, the film’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real, hence that there was no real encounter between camera and subject, for the camera that filmed Lillian Gish has no reality within Susie’s world.

True Heart Susie

To act as if she were Susie, Lillian Gish must act as if no camera were really in her presence. But how is it possible for Lillian Gish to have a real relationship with Griffith’s camera, a relationship through which Susie is capable of being revealed, if in the face of the camera she must act as if no real camera were present?

For Susie to act as if no real camera were present, there is no reality she must deny. For Lillian Gish to act as if no real camera were present, on the other hand, she must deny the reality of the camera that is in her presence, the camera that is really filming her. To deny the reality of this camera’s presence, Lillian Gish must relate to it, acknowledge its presence, in a particular way. And if the camera is to sustain the fiction that it is Susie who is real, it must relate to Lillian Gish in a particular way, too; it must be used in a way that at once acknowledges her presence and denies her reality.

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

What makes it possible for Griffith to use the camera in a way that acknowledges Lillian Gish’s presence even as it denies her reality is the fundamental condition of human existence that real human beings are also characters, imaginary creatures of fantasy and myth, and are also actors capable of becoming who they are imagined to be. What makes it possible, in turn, for Lillian Gish to acknowledge the presence of the camera even as she denies its reality is the equally fundamental condition of the medium of film that the reality of the camera’s presence is also the reality of its absence, the absence of its reality.

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

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Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)

  • Mom in the movies : the iconic screen mothers you love (and a few you love to hate)
  • Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)
  • Copyright © 2014 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., and Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

Turner Classic Movies and film historian Richard Corliss present Mom in the Movies, the definitive, fully illustrated guide to the many ways that Hollywood has celebrated, vilified and otherwise memorialized dear old Mom. Here, you will meet the Criminal Moms, like Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama, and the eccentric Showbiz Moms, including those from Gypsy and Postcards from the Edge. You’ll also find Great American Moms, as warm and nourishing as apple pie, in movies such as J Remember Mama and Places in the Heart, along with Surrogate Moms, like Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother, Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. And who can forget the baddest mothers of all? No book on movie moms would be complete without Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. With a foreword written by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, and sidebar essays by Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell, Sam Robards and Tippi Hedren, this book is packed with an incredible collection of photographs and film stills. Mom in the Movies makes a great gift for any mom— and for anyone with a mother who oughta be, in pictures.

Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother in Griffith’s “Intolerance”

Silent Moms

If Pickford was the great female star of silent Hollywood, Lillian Gish was its greatest actress. Another child of a deserted mother who saw the theater as a way to support her family, Lillian moved in 1912 from Ohio to New York City, where Pickford introduced Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, to Griffith. Both Gish girls became popular performers, appearing together in Grifhth’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), but Dorothy was more the saucy soubrette, Lillian the elfin tragedian. Her wispy frame and doll face, dominated by soulful blue eyes, made Lillian ideal for demure young women who rise to heroism to battle life’s disasters. She played the female lead in The Birth of a Nation (1915), though the men carried that Civil War story to its controversial climax in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a film figure that interwove four stories across three millennia— think Cloud Atlas, but more wildly ambitious—Gish was the recurring figure of Eternal Motherhood, sitting next to a cradle, as Walt Whitman’s lines from Leaves of Grass (“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . uniter of here and hereafter”) crept across the screen.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) was famous for its climax: Richard Barthelmess running across the ice floes on a frozen river to save Gish (who spent so much time collapsed on the sheet of ice that her right hand never fully regained its feeling). But Gish is the real elemental sensation as the poor, saintly Anna, seduced into a fake marriage by the rich roué Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who abandons her when he learns she is pregnant. Scorned as a fallen woman at the moment her own loving mother has died, Anna is left alone to tend both the ailing baby and her social shame. “Maternity—Woman’s Gethsemane” reads one of the intertitles that link Anna’s plight with Jesus on the way to Calvary. As she realizes her infant son is dying, Anna pours a lifetime of devotion and desperation into her few moments of motherhood.

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

Like Pickford’s Tess, she baptizes the child (with the garishly ironic name Trust Lennox) and breathes on its cold hands in a futile fight to sustain its life. This is a performance of exquisitely balanced frenzy and subtlety; John Barrymore, the preeminent romantic classical actor of his day, called it “the most superlative exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing I have ever seen in my life.” Gish stayed with Griffith longer than his other top stars, leaving in 1921 for the company that would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she continued to suffer triumphantly in The White Sister, La Bohéme and The Wind. She was able to make The Scarlet Letter (1926) only after convincing balky Protestant groups that the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, about a fiery Puritan minister who sires a child with a member of his congregation, would not give religious offense. Gish and Frances Marion, the eminent scenarist who wrote twenty Pickford films, solved or sidestepped this problem by focusing on Hester Prynne (Gish), not the Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and by making her another in the actress’s long line of wronged women.

Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Marked with a scarlet “A” for “adulteress,” cursed and besmirched by the sanctimonious locals, Hester is every bit as unjustly ostracized as Anna was in Way Down East. This time, the love child, Pearl, gets a proper baptism—from her father the reverend—and grows into healthy girlhood. Eight years after Pearl’s birth, Hester wants to flee to Europe with her daughter and Dimmesdale; she tears off her embroidered “A” and removes her bonnet to let her long hair flow free as a signifier of her sexual liberation. But the minister must pay for his “sin.” He denounces himself before the congregation, revealing an “A” branded on his chest. In one of many Pieta images in Gish films, he dies in Hester’s arms, asking, “Is this not a better freedom than any we have dreamed of?” Well, no, but, under Victor Sjostrom’s acute directorial hand, the ending emphasizes the silent-film law that a lover’s survival is less important than a mother’s.

Photo: The Night of The Hunter (Die Nacht des Jägers), Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Sally Jane Bruce, Promotional – 1955

MOTHERS OF LOST CHILDREN

“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the miracle of mood, depredation and redemption directed by Charles Laughton and scripted by James Agee from Davis Grubb’s novel. In the West Virginia swamps of the 1930s, Rachel has no government approval, only a selfless impulse to collect unwanted children. John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), need her intervention.

lillian gish, cheryl callaway, bill chapin, mary ellen clemons, sally jane bruce – 1955 – the night of the hunter

Their father has been hanged, after first hiding his stolen money; their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), has fallen for the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who wants that money and will threaten the children or marry Willa—and worse—to get it. As seductively malevolent as Powell is, with his baritone parables and the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, so beatifically empowered is Rachel, describing herself as “a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

Lillian Gish and Gloria Castillo – The Night of the Hunter 1955

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The Film 100 – by Scott Smith (1998)

  • The Film 100 – by Scott Smith (1998)
  • A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the History of the Movies
  • A Citadel Press Book

The idea of ranking people in history by the influence of their accomplishments began with Michael Hart’s “The 100 over twenty years ago”

The careers of the individuals on the Film 100 are far more fascinating than can be explained in the brief space allowed by a book of this format.

D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish (excerpts)

Behind the scenes Lillian Gish, Robert Harron and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes – 1914)

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