A White Star – By Richard Dyer (Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB)

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A White Star

Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”

By Richard Dyer

Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB

Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Starlight

There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.

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

Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Steeliness and simplicity

Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.

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

Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.

Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)
Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)

Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 7

There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.

The ideal of his dreams

The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.

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

What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.

Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.

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

Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.

The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

White magic

Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
White Star - Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)
White Star – Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)

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Conversation With Lillian Gish – Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Conversation With Lillian Gish

When Miss Lillian Gish came to London in August last year to play in Anthony Asquith s Orders to Kill (her first film in this country since she made Hearts of the World with Griffith), the most extraordinary thing about her was that she so strikingly and completely resembled-Lillian Gish. She may, as the reference books say, have played in In Convicts’ Stripes in 1902; but it is hard to believe, for she is still unmistakably ‘the Gish girl’-a little taller than we have always imagined, and certainly not so defenceless against the great steel world as the heroines she used to play, but still retaining all their calm and repose and dignity. She still clasps her hands together in front of her chin; or, in an uncertain moment, puts her right fore finger, quite unconsciously, to the corner of her mouth. Her stamina is remarkable, she has always interspersed her vigorous career on Broadway with marathon sea-trips by freighter (“the only way to travel, If you can stand it”). Following her work on Orders to Kilt she went straight to Berlin to rehearse two plays for a new arena theatre there-Wilder’s Wreck of the 5.25 and Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna, an early draft of Streetcar Named Desire, written especially for Miss Gish. After this she returns to Broadway, where she hopes to play with her sister Dorothy in a new play written for them by Clare Boothe – The Little Dipper. In an interview with SIGHT AND SOUND she recollected some of her work in the silent cinema:

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

 

Miss Gish on D.W. Griffith

In all the eight or nine years I worked with Mr. Griffith, I never saw him with anything in writing-never anything like a script, not even on Intolerance. He just seemed to have everything in his head. The only person to make any notes was Jimmy Smith, the cutter, who had to make a record of everything Mr. Griffith shot and what he wanted to do with it, of course. It was always Mr. Griffith. Around 1940 I used to see him, and then, it’s true, I sometimes called him David. Even so, I might have said David, but I always thought Mr. Griffith. He was a born general. His voice was a vo:ce of command. It was resonant, deep and full. When he came to England in 1917, Mr. Lloyd George said to Mr. Griffith, I remember, “You have the most powerful medium for propaganda the world has ever known”. He was very amused, though, when they invited him to become the head of the department of film propaganda in the U.S.S.R. It was a very strange idea. Mr. Griffith was an aristocrat to the soles of his feet. He always claimed to be descended from the Kings of Wales, you know. . . ,

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

I always wanted to do a film biography of Mr. Griffith, but it never proved possible. I did it on television, though, for Philco. I played Lillian Gish. There was one scene where I went into a producer’s office and said: You have taken an art form that was a new approach to truth and beauty, and debased it for what you can get out of it. People warned Philco that they’d be put out of business if they dared broadcast such sentiments; but they didn’t cut out the scene, I’m glad to say. And they weren’t put out of business either. Mr. Griffith was a very great director-Eisenstein, you know, acknowledged his tremendous debt to him. Since Griffith, no-one has added anything new to the film-except Walt Disney. Griffith was even one of the first to make talking pictures. Dream Street, which he made in 1921, was a talkie.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Intolerance

(1916. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish) 

Intolerance is still one of the greatest pictures ever made. Griffith wanted it to run 3-or 4 hours, you know; but he had to cut it to please the exhibitors. That race apart-exhibitors!

Of course, he should never have given way. Right at the beginning he could be very firm indeed. Later, though, he couldn’t. . . . In the long run, though, Intolerance did a disservice to the industry. It set a fashion for expensive pictures. Everybody wanted his picture to cost more than the next man’s ….

Mr. Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art wants me to re-edit Intolerance some day-to put it back to Griffith’s original idea. Of course, it would take a great deal of time.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Hearts of the World

(1918. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Robert Harron) 

When we were children in Hollywood, my sister Dorothy and I would cross the road to avoid meeting Mr. Erich von Stroheim. He had such scars. We’d never seen a man with such terrible scars. Then we came to rehearse Hearts of the World, and Mr. Griffith gave Mr. von Stroheim one of the leading parts to rehearse. Of course, we never knew whether we would finally play the parts we rehearsed in the actual picture–Mr. Griffith never told you what you were doing until the last moment. Anyway, when we came to make the picture, he didn’t give the part to Mr. von Stroheim. Mr. von Stroheim cried like a little child. He was inconsolable. Mr. Griffith told him that it was only because he was not the right height, and that he was to play another part. But it was no use; Mr. von Stroheim just cried and cried. We were most impressed. We’d seen ladies cry, of course, but never a man, not like that. And after that, we didn’t cross the road any more when we saw Mr. von Stroheim coming down the street. I never had any admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as a director, though, as I had for Mr. Lubitsch, for example.

Anyone could have shot Greed as he did, scene by scene and line by line from the book. But I shall always have the greatest admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as an actor.

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

Broken Blossoms

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous-the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned-spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and brought up his breakfast. …

The smile-where I just lift the corners of my mouth with my two fingers-that was all mine, too. I didn’t think it out; it was automatic, instinctive.

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

The Greatest Thing in Life

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

The Greatest Thing in Life was Mr. Griffith’s best film. You shouldn’t judge that man without seeing it. There’s one extraordinary scene, you know. A coloured soldier is dying; and there is a white boy with him-played by Robert Harron. The coloured boy is delirious, and calling for his mother-he wants her to kiss him. So to quieten him, the white boy bends down and kisses him, on the lips. As you know, this is a very brave thing to show in a film-two men, like that. It’s a very remarkable film.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

That was Queen Alexandra’s favourite film …. It seems a strange film for a Queen to like. She was my idea of what a Queen should be, though.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

Remodelling Her Husband

(1920. Directed by Lillian Gish. With Dorothy Gish, James Rennie) 

This was the only film I ever directed myself. Oh, I’d never do it again. Mr. Griffith had moved East, you see, and left me to make the film. “I thought that men would work better for you than for me,” he said. I had no idea of practical things, like measurements; but when the workmen asked me how high I wanted the walls of the set I told them, Oh, eight feet (or whatever it was). Well, of course, they weren’t high enough, so that the cameraman George Hill could never photograph them properly.

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

Way Down East

(1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

It was terrible doing the location shooting at Mamaroneck; four people lost their lives one way or another during the filming of Way Down East. I was the only one the insurance company passed as being completely fit; and I think I had to put up with more than anybody else during that dreadful winter. There was one day when I had been facing the blizzard practically the whole time; everyone else, of course, had their backs to the wind, and even then some of them had had to give up. My face was covered in icicles and I was frozen. “Get that face, Billy! Get that face!” Mr. Griffith yelled (to G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, the cameraman). Then I collapsed. They had to carry me back to the studio after the day’s shooting was finished. When we filmed the baptism of the dying child, no-one could speak. We had a real baby, you remember; and its father had brought it to the studio. Of course, during the scene, I had my back to the camera. I was half-way through the scene when I heard a thud. I couldn’t think what it was; afterwards I discovered the baby’s father had fainted. He just couldn’t take it.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

La Boheme

(1926. Directed by King Vidor. With Lillian Gish and John Gilbert) 

How I chose Mr. Vidor to direct that film was very simple. Mr. Thalberg and Mr. Mayer asked which director I would like. They showed me a number of new films, including just one reel from an uncompleted picture called The Big Parade. I decided at once, and took not only Vidor, but other people from that wonderful film-John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, for instance. When I finally came to the death scene, they were all terrified, all the people on the set. I just stopped breathing; and I was so still and pale and I stopped breathing for so long, they thought I really had died. Mr. Vidor describes it in his book. But there is one thing I cannot forgive him. He says I stuffed my cheeks with cotton wool. It’s quite untrue. I did no such thing. While I was studying the part, I used to go to a hospital for consumptives, to find out what it was like when they had their paroxysms of coughing, and how their necks went, and so on. I got the priest in charge to take me, and he explained to them why I was there. They were all terribly excited and interested. They would say: “Oh, so-and-so died this morning, and she was like this, and went like this .. . . ” Just as if they were giving you the recipe for their favourite cake or something.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

The Scarlet Letter

(1926. Directed by Victor Sjostrom. With Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson) 

I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: “Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It is an American classic, taught in all our schools”. Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom, who had arrived at M.G.M. some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

[Some years ago Miss Gish wrote: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . . The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression”.]

It was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before th~ camera, of course; and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we all were tremendously moved by it.

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

The Film Actor

I think you can learn most from primitive things- from birds and animals- that was what Mr. Griffith advised us. You see, we silent actors had to be able to speak to an international audience-we had to be able to get over to Oriental peoples, for example, who didn’t know anything of our customs or conventions. And that gave our acting a great universality. We tried to perfect a kind of Esperanto of the arts, and we were on the verge of it when sound came …. The most perfect silent film, of course, was The Last Laugh, in which Murnau at last dispensed entirely with titles. My mother was my hardest critic and a great help to me. She only came to the studio once; and she was so horrified to see the things that were done to her daughters that she never came near again. . . . I remember once in our earliest days we rushed home, terribly pleased because people had recognised us and turned round to look at us in the street. “If you walked down the street with a ring in your nose, they’d turn and look at you just the same”, she said. I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.

Sight and Sound – Winter 1957 – 8

The Film Quarterly

Sight and Sound (1958-01)(BFI)(GB).pdf

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INTOLERANCE (1916) – By Seymour Stern – Special Supplement to Sight and Sound 1946

Special Supplement to Sight and Sound

An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith

By Seymour Stern – September 1946

INTOLERANCE (1916)

Produced at the Fine Arts Studios, Hollywood, by the Wark Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith). Directed by D. W. Griffith. Original idea and scenario : Griffith. Scenario of the ” Modern Story (The Mother and the Law) : adapted by Griffith, in part, from the Report of a Federal Industrial Commission ; and in part, from the records of the Stielow murder case. Under the personal supervision of D. W. Griffith, each of the following items : settings ; costume designs ; photographic style and technique ; research ; architectural conceptions of the City of Babylon (with motifs suggested by the sun-buildings and causeway of the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, 191 5). Research on the Judean story : Rabbi L. Myers.* Construction supervisor and chief engineer on the Babylonian sets : Frank Wortman. Photography  G. W. Bitzer and Karl Brown. Assistant directors : George Siegmann, W. S. Van Dyke, Joseph Henaberry, Erich von Stroheim, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning. Chief second assistant directors : Ted Duncan, Mike Siebert.

Editing : Griffith. Cutters : James and Rose Smith. Music : original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith. Total production-time : 22 months, 12 days, divided as follows : shooting-time—20 months, 12 days ; editing—2 months. Release length : app. 13,700 feet (13! reels) or in old-time, silent film running-time, 3 hours.f World premiere and release under auspices of Wark Distributing Corporation (D. W. Griffith): Tuesday, September 5, 1916, Liberty Theatre, New York City.

Intolerance
Intolerance

THEME AND CONTENT

The Historical-Philosophy of Intolerance

Briefly stated, the theme of Intolerance is the emotional basis of history—or, more specifically, intolerance is the cause of wars and is a prime mover of the world in all ages. Intolerance is explicitly defined in sub-titles as the hatred and rejection of others, who fail to “think as we do” (sub-title from the Medieval Story). It is depicted as the emotion, the policy, and also the weapon, of fanatical rulers, dictators, individuals and masses; of power-loving priesthoods and ruling classes; of revolutionary, counter-revolutionary and other insurgent groups, in all ages, and everywhere. It is further depicted as being opposed to democracy, freedom of thought and to liberalism—above all, to democracy.Thus the motivation of human affairs, of world history, is, according to Griffith, basically emotional; and the motivating emotion is intolerance. To intolerance must be attributed, therefore, certain major actions of mankind —for example, massacre and persecution and torture and war. Other causes, political or economic, or both, as the case may be, being equal, intolerance still is the deciding factor in its primeval power over the behaviour of men and the course of events.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Intolerance is named and picturized as the fundamental force, the emotional evil, which hardens men’s hearts and paralyzes their minds; it plays its chief role in the zero-hours of history, the hours of decision, when it casts the die, other things being equal, for or against the wars, which determine the fate of empires, nations, peoples, individuals, societies, of whole civilizations. This force, timeless and universal, is a thing of basic evil and basic power, or, as a sub-title in the Medieval Story puts it, it is “Intolerance, burning and slaying”. And in the Babylonian story, Cyrus repeats the “world-old prayer (of intolerance) … to kill, kill, kill …”

The role of intolerance in shaping human destiny through the ages, amid all peoples, is inescapable.- Its recognition as a prime mover of the world-process is essential, therefore, to a correct understanding of the meaning and method of history. Hence, the tragedy of history is the conquest by intolerance of the one and only significant counter-force opposed to it—love, in its broader meaning. The epic of intolerance, therefore, is also the drama, to cite a thematic sub-title, of “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”.

The above summarizes the theme of Griffith’s film, as expressed in its content, both the images and the subtitles. Or, as Huntly Carter wrote, “In Intolerance, we have Griffith’s favourite theme of intolerance of human beings to human beings.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The Four Stories

To illustrate the philosophy of history as thus outlined, Griffith chose four stories, separate in time and space, but interrelated by the common theme, and projected through cross-cutting in parallel sequence. The four stories of Intolerance are as follows:

  • (1) The Judean story, or the life of Jesus of Nazareth; originally entitled, The Nazarene (27 A.D.);
  • (2) the Medieval Story, or the war between the Catholics and the Huguenots, in sixteenth century France (1572 A.D.);
  • (3) the Fall of Babylon, in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar—an epic of the Ancient World (539 B.C.);
  • (4) the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), dramatizing the conflict between Capital and Labour in modern times (c. 1914);
  • (5) at the end of the four stories, a prophetic epilogue.

The recurrent transition between the separate stories, which rotate alternately one with the other in cross-cutting and parallel-action, is accomplished in the early reels of the film by the use of a symbolic image of the Woman Who Rocks the Cradle, which appears in connection with the lines of Walt Whitman: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and “… endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter”. In the later sequences, the lighting in this symbolic refrainshot somewhat changes, and the figures of three old women—the Three Fates, seated at their cosmic spinning-wheel, appear sharply visible, as emergences out of Space, in the background.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) - The Cradle Endlessly Rocking
Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

The Woman continues in the foreground, rocking the Cradle of Humanity, unaware of the Fates behind her. However, toward the climax, as the tempo rises and the inter-scene changes become more abrupt, this shot ceases to appear: the transition from each one of the four parallel stories to the other becomes direct, quick and violent: it is freed of all and any connective or intermediary shots. It is accomplished then without recourse to fades, lap-dissolves, “mix” photography, wipe-offs or any other conscious transitional device—simply by direct cutting from one story to the other, all four stories being now markedly parallel in action and essential content. The Judean story depicts the conflict of Jesus with the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbinate and with Rome. The organized opposition of the rabbinate against the “Man of Men” (subtitle) with his revolutionary “New Law”, is cited as an example of ecclesiastical intolerance, affecting the lives of future millions of people. The Medieval story dramatizes the strife in the sixteenth century between the Catholic hierarchy of France and the rising Protestant movement; it culminates in a bloody climax—the massacre of the Huguenots, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 A.D. Religious intolerance. Babylon falls in Griffith’s history as the result of an act of treason by the established theological hierarchy under the dictatorship of the High Priest of Bel. The High Priest fears and fights the introduction into Babylon of new religions from without and of new, liberalizing political or social ideas from within. Accordingly, when the State-religion of Babylon is threatened with rivalry; when it no longer can dictate, unchallenged, the pattern of the national culture, then the High Priest and his cohorts among the hierarchy betray Belshazzar’s empire-city to Cyrus, emperor and war-lord of the Persians, world-conqueror. Imperialistic-political, religious, and racial (Cyrus, the Persian vs. Babylon) intolerance.

Intolerance The Dear One

Finally, the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), the opening sequences of which are the first to appear in Intolerance, dramatizes the struggle between Capital and Labour (class hatred), in the early years of the twentieth century, in the United States. Economic and social intolerance. Throughout these panels run four separate personal stories. The Babylonian, Medieval and Judean stories, all end tragically: in the first, the Mountain Girl and her lover, the Poet-Rhapsode, agent of the High Priest of Bel, die in the fighting, when Babylon falls at last to the advancing Persian hordes; in the latter, the lovely Huguenot girl, Brown Eyes, is raped and killed by a mercenary, during St. Bartholomew’s massacre. Prosper, with her body in his arms, is shot; he dies by her side. Simultaneously, Christ is crucified on the cross, in the Judean story.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Of the four stories, only the Modern Story, laid in America, has a happy ending: the Boy, falsely convicted of a murder which he did not commit, is saved at the last minute from the hangman’s noose. He is reunited with his wife, the Dear One, amid scenes suggesting, that in the world oftwentieth-century America, there may be at least a possibility or chance that freedom and justice may prevail.

INTOLERANCE
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY

“And so the four stories alternate with one another”, until, at the end, “they seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity”, which rises to a common, vast quadruple climax: the Boy is led to the hangman’s cell; Jesus is crucified; the Huguenots are massacred; Belshazzar is betrayed—Babylon falls; the peoples of the earth throughout the ages are stricken; the world is overrun with catastrophe and doom … In a word, Intolerance triumphs. “… the Inquisition is dead, but its soul goes marching on”. Upon the conclusion of the four stories, there follows an epilogue, in which Griffith prophesies in spectacular imagery a future Armaggedon or war for the world; the bombing of New York City in an unnamed conflict of the future; weird modern instruments of war; the ultimate downfall of all worldly tyrannies; the elimination of prisons and other places of incarceration; the ultimate liberation of all men and all nations from every form of bondage; the advent of universal peace through universal love: and, at the climax of climaxes, an apocalyptic vision. This final imagery follows the subtitle: “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore”.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

PRODUCTION

An Independent Film

Intolerance, like The Birth of a Nation, was produced and exhibited in entire independence of the Hollywood film industry. Although made in Hollywood, it was not of Hollywood. It bore no relation to the character, level, quality or purpose of the typical output of the American film industry of the period—or, for that matter, of any period. On the contrary; beyond the fact of geographic location, Hollywood had nothing whatever to do with its being made not its being shown. financing came from private sources, all of them unrelated to the American film industry, which had by this time fallen into the hands of commercially minded men of the lowest type. Griffith later poured his own huge profits from The Birth of a Nation into the filming of Babylon. Here again, as with the Civil War-Reconstruction film, so with Intolerance, Griffith formed an independent producing-company—the Wark Producing Corporation; later, he formed the Wark Distributing Corporation to release the film. H.E. Aitken at first was president of both corporations, but when Griffith later bought out his backers and became the sole owner of Intolerance, Aitken resigned. Griffith then became not merely the president of each company, but the company itself. The negative and prints of Intolerance have ever since belonged personally to Griffith.

The production of Intolerance really began in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation was made but before it was released, with the filming of The Mother and the Law. The Mother and the Law was originally made as a separate feature film to be released by Mutual (see Griffith Index: Part I), but for reasons which will be cited elsewhere in the Index, it was temporarily shelved. It was not until after the New York premiere of The Birth of a Nation was held, in March, 1915, that production was resumed on Intolerance. Then it was launched on a tremendous scale.

Freed from every possible control or restraining influence by the Hollywood overlords—cultural, economic, political, psychological or social, Griffith, in June, 191 5, two months after his triumphant return from the New York opening launched production simultaneously on each of the three historic stories — Babylon, Jerusalem and Paris.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

No Script

Although all Hollywood was astonished, and indeed the film colony for months remained agog with excitement and speculation over the unprecedented sets which began to tower in its midst, nevertheless, the nature of the film that Griffith was making, from the first day of “shooting” to the day the picture was first shown, was successfully kept a secret. As Terry Ramsaye later described it, “About it all was a hush of mystery. No one knew what Griffith was doing, but everyone learned that he was doing a lot of it”. The secret of the success of this secrecy consisted in the fact that there was never a written scenario or shooting script for Intolerance-, there was no “screen treatment”, no paperwork, no writing of any kind, such as might have furnished a clue to the contents or the continuity. When he had first conceived of the idea, Griffith made many notes, but as the time for actual production drew near, he had already mentally changed so much of the contents and treatment, that he began to find the volume of notes confusing, so much so that he destroyed all of them. As a result, Intolerance, the most massive and complex film ever made, was shot from beginning to end without recourse to one single written note. Needless to say, it was Griffith’s method of directing which made possible the perfection of such secrecy : the policy of no-script or of ” shooting off the cuff,” as popular studio vernacular has it, was extended to include the players, too. For although all the scenes were rehearsed, the players knew nothing either of the particular story in which they appeared or of the content and nature of the film as a whole. However, since the majority of screen actors and actresses, then as now, had not the slightest understanding of the film medium, this method offered many advantages, both to Griffith and to the film, and secrecy was merely one, and a typically practical, benefit in kind.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

The Sets

The settings of Griffith’s Intolerance, especially the fabulous sets of the Babylonian story, are celebrated throughout film history. The sets for Babylon, ” Belshazzar’s empire-city,” were erected on a site of 254 acres, near the present junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, in Hollywood. The terrain consisted then of a combination of rolling fields and semi-desert or sand wash. Babylonia’s outlying walls were erected one mile distant, north of the main camera-station. The Babylonian sets of Intolerance are probably the greatest ever constructed for a motion picture—the highest, largest, most massive, the vastest in area. In 1916, the topmost towers at the corners of the ancient city formed the seventh tallest structure in the county of Los Angeles, and could be seen, with the great walls, for miles distant across town. Such, indeed, was the extent of Babylon, that Griffith, to film the Judean story, had the buildings, city-walls, and streets of ancient Jerusalem—themselves bigger than any previously known film-sets—built elsewhere, on a site three miles west of the Fine Arts Studios. The cobblestoned alleys and battle-turrets of Paris, 1572 a.d., being similarly crowded out by the Babylonic acreage, were built on the back lot at Inceville, some fifteen miles to the west. The set for Paris accommodated 2,000 “extras,” besides the assistants, camera crews, manual workers, etc. ; the set for Jerusalem accommodated 3,000. But the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Feast—accommodated over 4,000 ” extras,” besides tie army of assistants and workers. ” The new Griffith picture beggars all description,” wrote Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in the London Times,* upon his return from America. Yet for all its titanic dimensions, the really significant feature of Griffith’s Babylon was the fact that it was unplanned : none of the final architecture or lay-out was foreseen. Bitzer is enlightening on this point: ” Imagine,” he writes, ” laying out what were to be the mammoth, stupendous sets for ‘ Intolerance,’ without sketches, plans or blueprints at the beginning … we (Mr. Griffith, ‘ Huck ‘ Wortmann and myself) would have a pow-wow as to how low the sun might be, its approximate arc-position months hence, etc.—and that was the beginning of a set for ‘ Intolerance,’ to which, as it progressed and became a fifty-foot high structure, a hundred or more feet long, Mr. Griffith kept continually adding.

Intolerance
Intolerance

So that eventually these walls and towers soared to a height of well over a hundred and fifty feet, although at the beginning their foundations were intended only for a fifty-foot height. Huck had to continually reinforce their bases for the ever-increasing height, which perturbed Huck a whole lot, and also shot my light-direction plans all to pieces.” Week after week, long after the initial ” shooting ” had begun, annexes and wings to the rambling structures of metropolitan Babylon were added, until finally, from the desert and fields that lay between Los Angeles proper and its then rural suburb, Hollywood, a veritable and splendid city arose. Barracks and tents housed armies of workmen : these numbered seven hundred-odd carpenters, electricians, linemen, sculptors and skilled workers of various categories. Beyond the workers’ quarters, an encampment of bungalows was later added to house several thousand of ” extras,” who lived ” out of town ” or too far across the city to commute ; the players’ camera-call each day was for 7 a.m. The Pacific Electric Railway System of Southern California laid tracks to the main entrance of Babylon (the ” Great Gate of Imgur-Bel “). The tracks served both the Pacific Electric Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad (one of the great transcontinental railroads of the United States), both of which lines transported food, materials and such livestock as was featured in the film — elephants and horses.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

But the ” massive grandeur ” of Griffith’s Babylon reached its apogee in the ” Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast.” This fantastically enormous set, a masterpiece of filmic architecture, truly ” imaged after the splendour of an olden day,” as a subtide expressed it, consisted of an immense outdoor court or square in the heart of Babylon, centred in terraced steps and lion-headed balustrades, and colonnaded on opposite sides with overtowering, over-life-size sculptured elephants, which were poised, forelegs aloft, on columnar bases fifty feet above the set-floor. The hall was designed to accommodate, without crowding, five thousand persons at a time. The surrounding city-walls were jammed with hundreds of ” extras “—” Babylonian spectators,” who appear in the film, gazing down at the festivities and orgy, which occur more than a hundred feet below.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

This is the most celebrated set of film-history, and derives its name from the action which unfolds upon it when first shown on the screen—Belshazzar’s Feast. ” His sets, particularly those for the Babylonian scenes, are breath-taking,” wrote Frank Nugent in the New York Times,™ during the March, 1936, revival of Intolerance, and added : ” . . . completely out-De Milling De Mille even in his most lavish mood.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

The longevity of the Babylonian sets of Intolerance, like their magnitude, is unequalled in the cinema. The principal buildings and walls were constructed of wood, “staff,” and adobe. Solidity was essential, for the walls encircling the city were made ” broad enough for chariots to pass three abreast.” Furthermore, the topmost towers at the city-corners rose to a height of more than 200 feet above the set-floor ; they were erected, ” massive as the pillars of Karnak,” on bases of stone. In consequence of the exceptional durability and quality of these building materials, the Babylonian sets remained standing long after Intolerance was released. The sets of Jerusalem were demolished ; so, too, was the city of Paris, two years later, including the magnificent and richly detailed reproduction of the court of Catherine de Medici ; but most of Babylon—specifically, the great Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast, the encircling city walls and the gigantic statue of Ishtar, ” goddess of Love sacred of the Babylonians ” (subtitle)—was left standing. Years afterwards, the Pacific Electric Railway and the Los Angeles City bus lines scheduled the Babylonian sets as a sightseeing spot for tourists. Then, in 1920, certain parts of Babylon were at last removed. However, the greater part still was left standing, and in 1923 Paramount leased the south and east walls and their adjacent sections for reconversion into Egyptian backgrounds for use in Biblical films. ” Fan ” magazines and trade journals referred in later years to the reconversion of Griffith’s Babylon into Biblical or Egyptian sets for the Biblical prologue to Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, and again for Raoul Walsh’s The Wanderer, a Biblical film (Paramount : 1925), but these passing assertions of reference or reminiscence have never been verified.

Intolerance abandoned set

Gigantic fragments of Griffith’s Babylon still were standing as late as 1930 or ’31. Today, although the last of the city-walls has been torn down to make way for apartment houses and a post-office, there may yet be found on the back lots of Monogram and the old Disney studios, which now occupy the site of Location No. 4—” Northeastern Babylon,” the surviving remnants of those elephantine and leonine backgrounds or ” props,” with which Griffith and his artisans of old re-created ” Babylon, that great and mighty city . . . (the) glittering jewel of antiquity”. (Subtitle).

Intolerance
Intolerance

Mobs

Architecture is not the only feature in which Intolerance is rated as the screen’s supreme spectacle. In regard to mass-scenes, this film, except for newsreels, stands unequalled in the cinema. Its nearest rivals are The Birth of a Nation, Ten Days that Shook the World, Potemkin, The Thief of Bagdad and Monna Vanna, but none of these really touches it. As has already been mentioned, the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Hall of Feasting—embraced and featured 4,000 players at a time in one single shot. However, this was by no means the total number of ” extras ” that appeared in the Babylonian story, least of all in the film as a whole.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Eight thousand other ” extras ” were employed to represent Cyrus’s armies, while in the famous mass-shot of the Persians’ final and successful advance on Babylon (end of the Babylonian story : reel 12)—the climatic shot of a vast, undifferentiated mass, a horde solid and unbroken as far as the eye can see—16,000 ” extras ” appear at one time on the screen. This is commonly conceded to be the largest mob-scene and the greatest single mass-shot ever staged for any film. Uncounted thousands of ” extras ” were employed for the night battlescenes. The moving siege-towers of the Persians each held from fifty to one hundred combat-troops and sling-throwers ; and the attacking troops hurled against the Great Gate of Imgur-Bel and the adjacent walls numbered 5,000. On the walls themselves, thousands of others are shown, as they meet the oncoming human and mechanical tide of Persia’s might, and throw it back. Besides these, 3,500 ” extras ” appear in the Judean story ; 2,500 in the Medieval Story, and 1,000 ” extras ” in the combined courtroom and strike scenes of the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law). The total number of ” extra ” players that appeared in Intolerance at varying times in its almost two years of production has been set both by Griffith and Bitzer as about 60,000. Ofthese, the largest number to appear at one time in a single image on the screen is the 16,000 ” Persians ” in the mass-shot above described.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Cost

The total cost of the production of Intolerance, including that of the earlier production of The Mother and the Law, was $1,750,000. An additional $250,000 was spent on exploitation and publicity, making the total cost of the film $2,000,000.

Intolerance was not merely the most expensive film made up to 1916, but it remained for thirteen years (until HelVs Angels) the high watermark in production outlay for a motion picture. Ramsaye relates that ” Griffith’s payrolls for actors and extras ‘ in Intolerance for long periods ran as high as $12,000 a day.” But Griffith himself recounts that, in the Babylonian mass-scenes, the daily payroll often exceeded $20,000.

” Extras ” were paid $2 a day for eight hours, plus a 6c-cent free lunch. This remuneration was higher than that obtaining in the Hollywood film industry—indeed, it forced the regular film producing companies to raise the daily wage-rate for ” extras,” and it was regarded by the ” extras ” themselves in that vanished era of low living costs and non-union labour as fair compensation.

Some $550,000 were spent on Belshazzar’s Feast and on related scenes of the Babylonian story. Of this sum, $250,000 went into the set alone. The Princess Beloved’s feast costume cost $8,oco. The elegant reproduction of the court of Charles IX cost $100,000, while the rest of the Medieval Story cost an additional $150,000. The Judean story cost upwards of $300,000.

The rest of the costs of Intolerance went into The Mother and the Law (cost unknown, but probably about $12,000 or about the same as that of Judith of Bethulia) ; and into the architecture and mass-scenes of Babylon—the reproduction of the city, the Persian camp, the Persian attacks, the pagan festivals in the Temple of Love, the orgiastic celebration of the resurrection of Tammuz, and other material separate and apart from the battle-scenes proper Belshazzar’s Feast. It is hardly to be wondered that for almost two years the production of Griffith’s vast, mysterious film was referred to in the local papers as ” one of Los Angeles’ leading industries “! Griffith relates that in 1936, twenty years after its original release, Intolerance was budgeted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in an effort to estimate its cost if made under current conditions. The estimate revealed that if the same film were made in that year by that studio, shot-by-shot as it had been made in 1915-1916, but with union labour, ” stars’ ” corresponding salaries, and with the sole addition of sound, the production cost would be either $10,000,000 or $12,000,000. On a relative scale, therefore, Intolerance remains the most expensive film produced in the history of the screen.

Lighting and Exteriors

One of the chief production features of Intolerance was the shooting of all exteriors out-of-doors by sunlight. There were no interior sets ” dressed-up ” as exteriors. The Babylonian exteriors, in particular, were taken without recourse to artificial lighting whatever ; and although there was little, if any, of the so-called ” Rembrandt fighting ” effect, certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, were made without recourse even to sun reflectors. The sun itself was the principal lighting for Intolerance.

Intolerance
Intolerance – DW Griffith

Editing

Two months were required to edit 300,000 feet of film, which then were finally composed into a finished film of thirteen and three-quarter reels. In old-time, silent film running-time, this ran to three and a half hours. It was possible for Griffith to perform this editorial feat in only two months, because the production method which he used consisted more or less in editing the picture as he went along while shooting. This method has been known ever since to the film industry as ” cutting in the camera.”

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

CREATIVE INFLUENCE

On Film Technique

Production Methods

Not all of the directorial or production methods used by Griffith in making Intolerance were new; some few already had been tried quite successfully in filming The Birth of a Nation. But some were new, and those which were not were used far more extensively and more maturely than they had been in the previous film. The outstanding methods and policies of production and direction were as follows:

No script.—As has already been mentioned, the policy of filming the entire picture from beginning to end without a scenario, shooting script or paperwork of any kind, was the key to Griffith’s working method—indeed, more than this, it was basic and essential to his whole approach to the motion picture as a directorial rather than a literary medium: an art of, by and for directors, over and above, and separate and apart from, writers or playwrights. Griffith is in this vital respect far more closely related to the documentary picture makers of the present than he ever has been to stock-in-trade craftsmen or “professionals” who make “moving-pictures” (sic) in the major commercial film studios. Griffith never used a script on any of his films, and in the light of the overwhelming complexity and the dimensions of Intolerance, both as regards scenario and physical magnitude, his no-script policy here attains the zenith of perfection and realization.

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

Rehearsals.—In accord with the no-script policy, the method of rehearsing players before each scene was taken was used throughout. Usually, the scene was rehearsed as a whole before it was shot; then, the individual and separate scene-shots—medium shots, two-shots, close ups, etc., came to the players as repetitions, thus ensuring perfection of acting-detail or so-called finesse.

Organization and direction of crowds.—All persons from the days of The Birth of a Nation on who have ever witnessed Griffith direct crowds, have noted that Griffith organized and directed his mob-scenes like a veritable field-marshal. Griffith organized the mobs into sections or squads, to each of which he assigned an assistant director. To the latter, in turn, he assigned a corps of sub-assistants. All the assistants were in costume; they participated in the action as players, and simultaneously directed the surrounding groups of “extras”, to whom they had been assigned. At the beginning of each new major scene or bloc of “takes” Griffith conferred with the first-assistants, explained his directions and then despatched them into the field to relay the orders to the corps of sub-assistants. This method was augmented in the larger scenes by the use of improvised loud speakers or megaphones, which operated as sort of a primitive radio field-telephone or broadcasting system. Griffith’s method of the organization and distribution of mobs, with its distribution of assistant directors, field-telephones, loud speakers and auxiliary aids to mass-organisation, is the most efficient and extensive system of its kind used in any film production of which we have record. It served as a model to other directors in filming mass-scenes of magnitude in later films.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Sun-shooting.—As has already been mentioned, one of the chief creative policies in filming Intolerance was to shoot all exteriors outdoors by sunlight. There were no studio “fakes” or interior sets “dressed-up” as exteriors. In particular, the Babylonian exteriors were virtually all taken without recourse to any artificial lighting whatever; and in certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, even the use of sun-reflectors was limited and, in a few instances, dispensed with. The sun was the principal source of lighting throughout the picture. Even the beam falling on the cradle, in the metaphorical transition-image of the Cradle, was the sun!—from a hole in the roof of a darkened set (Bitzer) ! It was this omnipresent and unrestricted use of the sun as the principal source of lighting for Intolerance that inspired Griffith to give the film its thematic sub-title, “A Sun Play of the Ages”.

Intolerance Original Program 1

Balloons.—To film the Feast of Belshazzar in its entirety from a central point directly above, Griffith took his camera and crew up in an observation balloon, which sky-moored over the vast set. Photoplay, October, 1916, reproduces a production-still of Griffith in the basket of the balloon, bawling orders through a great megaphone to the mobs in the court below. Balloons had no doubt been used previously in filming news-reels, but this is the first time of which we have record that a balloon was used as a camera-station in fiJming a regular (feature) film, or special production.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

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Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

Louise Brooks

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars

By Louise Brooks

Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England

Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing ” Women in Films”which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.

Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost starof the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.

THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan 2

But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

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1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.

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

She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.

The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!

Greta Garbo 1

At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.

Greta Garbo.

From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.

Greta Garbo Queen Christina 1933

Lillian Gish

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Lillian Gish – The Enigma of The Screen – article By James R. Quirk

Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”

With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”

In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”

Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg

Ramon Novarro - Greta Garbo - Mata Hari

In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.

Greta Garbo Ross Verlag Germany

Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.

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

With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.

Back in charge she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that MGM held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to· Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, MGM said, she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. MGM had let her go because she got 8,000 a week! And, he developed, without a blush, all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures.

Stigmatised, a grasping silly sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow – a world of shadows.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

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There is something fateful now in remembering that after Gish ran Costa Berling to look at Lars Hansen for The Scarlet Letter, she said that she had faith in Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Even less could she have guessed that uprooting her as a chaste reproach in the new paradise of sex films would become less imperative than getting her out of Garbo’s meditative sight. Before The Torrent started, while the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot (we’re paying you, aren’t we?) making publicity stills, she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence she had learned in Europe, Garbo saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production.

Greta Garbo Anna Karenina

The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying “I will be glad when I am a ‘beeg’ star like Lillian Gish. Then I will not need publicity and to have ‘peectures’ taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” But no amount of the studio’s calculated ‘dumb Swede’ publicity could alter the fact that Garbo could read the box-office figures in Variety and get exactly the same answers Louis B. Mayer got. La Boheme and The Torrent opened the same week in February, 1926, on Broadway. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got $400,000 a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got 16,000 a year.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

After The Temptress, when Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” Quirk was compelled to write in his December editorial: “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week. Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after signing a new MGM contract in May, 1927. After the long hold-out off salary, her business triumph over the studio was collecting with stunning impact on seven months of nation-wide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on defeat and its consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation had rocked all Hollywood. In the fury of the battle, Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay: “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June.” The revelation of this pressure was later masked by the invention of the “I ‘tank’ I go home” gag. Because, if Garbo had really wanted to go home, she would have gotten her 7,500 a week – and double. But she dared not risk even a scheming departure. For two years she had worked at MGM in that climate of worship and service which had secured the purity of her art. And, as well as she knew that she was Queen of all movie stars then and forever – she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering tarnished star like all the rest.

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

How well she knew her genius was revealed to me when I met her one Sunday in the summer of 1928 at the house of the writer Benjamin Glazer. His wife, Alice, was a witty, outrageous woman perfectly suited to Garbo’s shyness and my sulky discontent. Apart from the other guests clattering through lunch in the patio, Garbo and I sat with Alice drinking coffee in a little breakfast room. The subject of the conversation, of course, was Alice’s and therefore personal. I had divorced Eddie Sutherland in June, and while Alice poked into my private life with ribald questions and the worst possible assumptions, Garbo and I sat laughing and looking at each other. And it was then in that free and happy moment that Garbo seemed to condense, as it were, into a crystal of gracious joy in herself. Remembering the distillation of the whole of her beauty and art in that lovely moment, makes me wonder at the meanness of the human mind which still believes the most obviously ridiculous of all Garbo myths. Photoplay gave it birth in the same April article that carried the deportation threat. “Metro wanted Stiller, and Miss Garbo, his find, was signed reluctantly at a sliding scale of 400, 600 an $750 a week for three years, more to please him than anything else.” Metro wanted Stiller? He never made a single picture there. Knowing his temper, the studio let him play interpreter and assistant director for his find until, engulfed with rage, he settled his contract and fled. Mayer wanted to please Stiller? They hated each other from the day they met – Stiller because he knew Mayer viewed his work with indifference, Mayer because of the coarse indignities Stiller inflicted upon his majesty. As for Garbo’s salary; in 1925, any time an untried actress got more than $300 a week the studio was really yearning for her. And nobody seems to remember how, after her arrival, Mayer kept Garbo in isolation in New York for three months trying unsuccessfully to force her to substitute a new contract for the Berlin agreement which would not hold up in American courts.

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB)-19

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB) Burton - Bloom

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ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT – Kinema Guide – January 12th to 18th, 1931 (London)

Weekly kinema guide London suburban reviews and programmes – 1931

Kinema Guide – January 12th to 18th, 1931

ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

THIS picture is played by an amazingly brilliant cast that includes Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Conrad Nagel, Marie Dressler and O. P. Heggie, which fact alone should appeal to many of our readers. The film is full of lavish spectacles, dramatic moments and romantic situations.

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

The story is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play “The Swan,” seen on the stage in London, quite recently, at St. James Theatre and is “Ruritanian” in nature.

We all know what that means.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Romance built round handsome and beautiful princes and princesses with a virtuous commoner thrown in the whole liberally sprinkled with colonels and counts and served, if possible, with music.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Let it be understood that this galaxy of stars is by no means wasted in an inadequate play. The picture is a good one. as convincing as such a story can be, directed and played very well indeed.

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan

Lillian Gish has a freshness that is not common among the goddesses of Hollywood. Conrad Nagel and Rod la Rocque look and play their parts excellently well. O. P. Heggie makes a splendid and knowing “Father Benedict” and Marie Dressler again gives of her genius.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

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“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” FULL OF BEAUTY By Edward Weitzel (May 31, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD)

May 31, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD

“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” FULL OF BEAUTY

Fragrant with the Poetry of Pure Ideals and a Great Love That Endures Until Death, D. W. Griffith’s Latest Picture Marks the Highest Altitude of Screen Art

By Edward Weitzel

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

IDEALIZED realism, spiritual beauty springing up in the midst of sordid surroundings, the fragrance of a great love that endures until death—all are found in “Broken Blossoms,” D. W. Griffith’s latest picture. So well has the director wrought that his work marks the highest altitude yet reached in screen art and placei his photoplay on a plane with the masterpieces of painting, sculpture and music. The picture is a tragedy and it cleanses the soul of the onlooker as did the tragedies of the old Greeks, marching relentlessly to the death and destruction of those who defied the gods. In “Broken Blossoms” a father defies heaven in his treatment of his illegitimate child and ends by killing her. His punishment is swift and sure. Moving side by side through this grim tale is a revelation of supreme devotion, a holy flame of pity and adoration that beautifies the entire picture and fills it with sweet incense.

The manner of its making is also a revelation to those who are familiar with the creations of its maker. Much always is expected of D. W. Griffith; “Broken Blossoms” betters anticipation.

Broken Blossoms

A Missionary from the East.

Thomas Burke, whose book,. “Limehouse Nights,” contains a short story, “The Chink and the Child,” furnished the screen with a new theme; in bare outline a simple enough tale is told practically by three characters, but one that will cause the complacent and superior dweller in this Christian land to regard the almond-eyed followers of Confucius with new interest and to find much food for thought after the immediate effects of the picture have faded from his mind. There is a broad humanity running through the tale which consorts fittingly with the spirit of the times and the drawing together of men of many creeds for the moral advancement of the world. A treaty port in China steals slowly through a shimmering curtain of blue and the first scene of the picture transports the spectator to the Orient. The impression is complete. That curious sense of reality that reality alone can convey to the uninitiated is here in full. One important fact is brought out while the action continues in China : A young Chinese poet, learned in the wisdom of his land and the teachings of his faith, is anxious to go to a far country and share his knowledge with those who have never had his advantages. He is gentle, kindly and a dreamer who veils his feelings with the inscrutable repression of his race. The blessing of his god is besought for his mission, and the sound of temple bells is in his ears as he sails away.

The Limehouse Slums.

Contrast at once startling and repellent, ushered in through a curtain of sinister hue, a dull red that is in keeping with the reek and gloom of the region, is found in the next location of the story. The Limehouse district of London, that part of the mighty city near the docks where foreigners of the East touch elbows and yellow men predominate, is the place. Sandaled feet shuffle silently down narrow streets and disappear under distant arches. A place of foreboding, of mysterious happenings behind closed doors. And real in every brick in its walls and every stone that lines its gutters ! And the impression is complete !

Here the Chinese missionary is found. His dreams have been rudely shattered. No one will listen to him, so Cheng Huan has ceased trying to deliver his message. But he still broods over the good he might accomplish, as he leans against the wall outside his little curio-shop

Cheng Meets His Goddess.

One day – he finds a new mission in life: the dedication of his homage to a shrinking bit of humanity—a young girl, hardly more than a child, whose beauty of face and purity of soul cannot be hidden from his sj-mpathetic gaze, although slow starvation, cruel blows and vile language have done their best to efface both. Cheng is attracted to the girl when he sees one of his countrymen try to detain her as she leaves the shop where she has gone to purchase her father’s meal. He interferes in her behalf and she hurries oflf. It is the first act of kindness she has ever known and she cannot comprehend why such a thing should happen to her. The girl’s way home takes her through a narrow alley and along a dock where river craft are moored, and weatherbeaten sail-lofts face the Thames. Turning the corner of a building she enters fearsomely, and finds her father there. He is in a rage because his meal is not ready. Battling Burrows is the title he woii in the prize ring. A great hulking brute of a man without one decent instinct, he beats the girl and leaves her to starve while he spends his time drinking with some drab at a public house—another of the wrecks of womanhood to whose unholy ranks his child’s mother belonged. Why he ever kept the ill-starred mite when its mother left it in his lodgings just before she sought forgetfulness in the river must have puzzled the prizefighter himself. Now that the girl is able to slave for him and take her pay in blows, he suffers her to share his hovel. Here again is deep penetration into things as they are—stark realism that is terrible to behold, accompanied by fixed purposes and the presence of unseen forces that are guiding the seeming blind injustice of this child’s fate.

The Blossom is Broken.

While Burrows is busy training for a coming prize fight, the girl meets Cheng for the second time. She pauses to look into the window of his shop and sees him inside. He smiles at her. One night her father gives her a harder beating than ever before, and she staggers out into the street, wandering on until she reaches Cheng’s shop. He finds her in a dead faint on the floor when he returns. Gathering her slight form in his arms, he takes her to the room above. To him she is the incarnation-of all that is lovely and he is ready to worship her. He places her on a couch and when she is restored to consciousness and given his choicest food, he has her robe herself in a gorgeous garment from his native land and decorate her hair with flowers. The room itself he turns into a bower for his goddess and is rewarded by seeing a wan smile on her lips. All night he kneels at her side, holding her hand. She is too weak to leave the next day, and the strange delight of being tenderh- cared for holds her a willing captive. Events move rapidly from here on.

Her father learns where his daughter is just as he is going into the ring. At the finish of the fight he rushes to the shop. Cheng has gone out. Burrows reaches the room above and smashes every breakable object and drags the child home. They have barely gone when Cheng returns. His mute anguish as he gazes at the ruin of his temple and its shattered altar and realizes his goddess is not there is one of the great moments of the story. Arming himself he rushes to the girl’s home. He is too late. Her dead form is stretched across a low cot. Her father has beaten her to death. The scene of the killing is carried out with uncompromising realism, but here also the hidden forces that are watching over the little victim give her death the beauty of martyrdom. Cheng’s vengeance is quick. He shoots down Burrows as the prizefighter picks up an axe, gathers the lifeless form of the girl in his arms and bears her back to his desecrated temple. The gorgeous robe is again wrapped about her and she is placed upon the couch. The shattered altar is picked up from the floor and Cheng goes through his service for the dead. A second later he buries a knife in his breast and his soul follows the child’s.

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

“Broken Blossoms” Shatters a Delusion.

A tragedy, compact and complete. A perfect action without distractions of any sort, it moves irresistibly forward without once looking backward or turning aside, and its whole history is burnt deep upon the memory, never to be forgotten. Vast panoramic themes crowded with characters and events are popularly supposed to afford the moving picture its freest and most profound expression. “Broken Blossoms” shatters this delusion. The screen, in the hartds of a true artist, can encompass all the tragedy of existence in a brief tale peopled by two men and a child, and give it overwhelming significance. Such a tale is “Broken Blossoms.” At no time is its subject beyond the skill of D. W. Griffith to interpret in pictures that glow with material truth and spiritual beauty. The color scheme of its illuminated subtitles is a piece of wizardry that sets a new standard for this important branch of picture making. Nothing draws the eye from the beautifully clear letters, which are thrown upon a background of interpretative color. The effect sought for by elaborate but obtrusive designs is here obtained by the only correct method.

Lillian Gish and Her Co-Stars.

The actors of the three characters, the girl, Cheng Huan and Burrows, are worthy the trust imposed in them. There is no higher form of praise. Lillian Gish as the victim of the prizefighter’s cruelty is a creature so crushed and broken that one’s heart aches for her. She has been so stunted in everything but a constant growth of suffering and terror her appeal is that of a little child’s. Her delight in the doll which Cheng gives her is that of a child and the horror of her pitiful death is the more distressing for the same reason. Never for an instant does she lose the character and she responds to its changes of feeling and the mounting frenzy of its dreadful crisis with ample power and admirable control. Richard Barthelmess shows surprising artistic progress as Cheng Huan. His past impersonations reach an excellent average but none of them approach the rounded perfection of his Chinese poet. Even under Griffith’s direction it is a remarkable achievement for so young a man. He breathes the very spirit of the gentle scholar of the East—a spirit hitherto never understood or portrayed on the stage or the screen.

Donald Crisp’s “Battling” Burrows is cast in all the character’s brutal realism. He is the reincarnation of Dickens’ Bill Sykes, proud of his strength and his ability to ill-treat those weaker than himself. The Crisp impersonation is rich in enlightening bits of sideplay and understanding of the nature of the prizefighter. His manner of death as he tries for a brief instant to fight off his conqueror in the only way he knows, and his final collapse—an ugly sprawl upon the floor—is one of the never-to-be-forgotten incidents of the picture.

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

Edward Peil’s acting of Evil Eye makes it a companion portrait in the group, the calm indifference with which, after trying to do wrong to the girl, he purchases a flower and pauses to smell it, being a well emphasized point.

George Beranger as The Spying One deserves his place in the cast, and Norman Selby as “Battling” Burrows’ opponent in the prize ring, coupled with Donald Crisp’s skill with his hands, causes the fight to look like the real thing.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A last word about the picture : “Broken Blossoms” is not to be measured by the height of its buildings, the number of its characters or the cost of its production. Rather should it be spoken of in terms that denote the mind and the soul of mankind and the splendid height that may be attained by the devotion of these attributes to the betterment of humanity.

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First New York Showing of “Broken Blossoms” Is a Great Artistic Triumph – By Edward Weitzel, 1919

May 24, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD

GRIFFITH OPENS HIS REPERTORY SEASON

First New York Showing of “Broken Blossoms” Is a Great Artistic Triumph for the Famous Director

By Edward Weitzel

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911

George M. Cohan’s Theatre, Tuesday evening, May 13, D. W. Griffith set up another milestone on the moving picture’s road to full recognition as an art second to none.

He also established something new in the commercial standing of the screen by opening a repertory season during which three pictures will be shown in succession, each one affording a complete bill. “Broken Blossoms,” inaugurated the season. The showing was attended by representatives of the social and artistic life of the city and by nearly every prominent moving picture star, director and producer of the metropolis.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Hundreds of the general public were turned away. Inside the theatre the spectator was greeted with a Chinese atmoshphere in the decorations and the costumes of the ushers. The first note of the music, composed by Louis Gottschalk and D. W. Griffith, struck the same atmospheric theme and during the entire production kept to a high order of merit. The curtain went up on a full stage, seen dimly as grey draperies parted slowly and the weird Chinese wail of the orchestra kept up its subdued tones. Then followed a series of beautiful light effects that were novel and in harmony with the story to follow.

Broken Blossoms

A shrine to Buddha came slowly into view on the right; next, a couch upon which lay a young girl. At the back, a distant view of buildings that came and went as if by magic crept out of the darkness and as mysteriously crept back again. On the right, to the sound of Chinese musical instruments, a suggestion of the Orient made itself felt rather than seen. Most of the lighting came from tall candles that seemed never to glow and to die out as inexplicably as they appeared. The air of brooding mystery to the tableaux was a fitting prelude to the tragic story of “Broken Blossoms.”

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Of the feature itself but one opinion was heard as the spectators were leaving the theatre : “Broken Blossoms” marks the highest altitude ever achieved by a moving picture. Adapted from a story by Thomas Burke, “The Chink and the Child,” in his “Limehouse Nights” tales, it takes rank with the class of literature that endures because of its truth and its clear insight into the soul of its subject. It is a tragedy as profound and relentless as ever has been written, and D. W. Griffith’s direction gives it a wondrous beauty by showing the flame of pure passion that burns in the midst of evil surroundings and lifts a little starved and beaten girl and a gentle heathen above the power of suffering and sin.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

The entire daily press of New York unite in this opinion.

The Times : “A screen tragedy—not a movie melodrama with an unhappy ending—but a sincere human tragedy—that is what D. W. Griffith has had the courage and the capacity to produce. . . . This bare narration of the story cannot hope even to suggest the power and truth of the tragedy that Mr. Griffith has pictured. All of his mastery of picture-making, the technique which is preeminently his by invention and control, the skill and subletly with which he can unfold a story—all of the Griffith ability has gone into the making of ‘Broken Blossoms.’ Many of the pictures surpass anything hitherto seen on the screen in beauty and dramatic force.”

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

The Mail: “All of the fine skill of Mr. Griffith’s technique, all of the subtlety of his art, have answered his commands in the building of his picture drama. His story moves forward with the force and suspense of a Greek tragedy. ‘Broken Blossoms’ is the art of the photoplay revealed at the hand of the master of that art. It is Mr. Griffith’s greatest triumph.”