Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – by Dick Moore (1984)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Copyright © 1984

by Dick Moore.

“but don’t have sex or take the car”

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the c
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – Cover

Foreword

At eleven months, I landed my first job. Most of my peers were three or four years old. Others were jobless until eight or ten. Some of us were local kids. Others descended on Hollywood from Detroit or Cleveland or London or Atlanta. A number spent several years developing their talents before tackling Hollywood. Usually, they took their families with them. In the main, we were Depression kids who supported our families, frequently our studios, occasionally the entire movie industry, and at least once—according to President Franklin Roosevelt—the nation. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple,” FDR reportedly said, “we will be all right.” The 1930s and early 1940s in America were a throwback to the Dickensian era a century earlier, when children were perceived as little adults. Important to Hollywood’s economy and to the public’s need for escape, each of us was a representation, a cliche: Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were irrepressible little adults who could accomplish more than real adults, and solve their problems.

Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple
Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple

Jane Withers was the tough kid who broke the rules; Elizabeth Taylor, the symbol of beauty and serene perfection; Jackie Coogan, the little ragamuffin who broke your heart; Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew expressed intelligence and refinement; Stymie of “Our Gang” was the little “pickaninny,” the only black among us; Spanky, the fat boy of the Gang, was intended to be laughed at. I was Dickie Moore, innocent and pure, who specialized in reconciling wayward parents and bringing enlightenment to folks like Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood stars were the closest thing to royalty America produced. So as children we tasted a life immensely privileged, but laced with deprivation. All of us were extraordinary people at a very early age. All of us shared common lives and times, huge responsibilities, and salaries that shriveled fathers’ egos. Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car - Dickie Moore
Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car – Dickie Moore

Fade In

Crisis gripped the set. The scene called for the actors to give the crying infant a bottle filled with wine. Mother hadn’t been aware of that. “You’re not going to give my little Dickie wine,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” the director said. “It’s only Coca-Cola. We wouldn’t give wine to a baby.”

“You’re not going to give him Coca-Cola, either. He’s only eleven months old,” said Mother.

So production stopped, one hundred people stood around on salary. Paralysis, Hollywood’s most dread disease, suddenly quarantined the set because Mother was protecting my digestion.

John Barrymore, star of the film, who just happened to be on the set that day (he wasn’t in this scene), came over to see what the commotion was about. He peered into the crib at me, the kid with the big brown eyes, then announced majestically, “Jesus Christ, it’s an owl!”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 5
dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish

Our Pay and What Happened to It

Money was the only reason that Lillian and Dorothy Gish—two of the most celebrated actresses ever to appear in theater and films—began acting as children. Tiny, delicate, astonishingly beautiful at eighty-eight, Lillian Gish poured tea for me in her New York apartment as she reminisced about her life when Theodore Roosevelt was President. To support the girls, their mother, who had never worked, got a job in a department store. “She gave Papa the money to pay the man when he came for the furniture we were buying on the installment plan. But he didn’t pay it, so she said, ‘Well, look, I can support three people, but I can’t support four. You go out and get a job, and when you can support us, you come back.’ ” Miss Gish spoke precisely.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

To supplement her earnings, her mother rented out the girls’ bedroom to two actresses, who encouraged her to try the stage. The Proctor’s Stock Company hired her as leading ingenue. An actress with a company that needed a four-year-old girl took Lillian with her on the road. Another actress took Dorothy. Each girl earned ten dollars a week; their mother, fifteen dollars. They saved enough to get them through the summer, when theaters closed; air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Came summer, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother visited Aunt Emily in Ohio: In Ohio, hotels had signs saying: “No actors or dogs allowed.” We asked Mother why. We thought actors were such nice people. Mother said it was because actors often got stranded and had no money to pay their hotel bills, so they slid down the water pipe at night and left without paying their bills.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

After I went into the movies, Griffith [D. W. Griffith, in whose films the Gish girls starred] ran out of money while we were filming Birth of a Nation. He had only fifty thousand dollars and the picture cost sixty-one thousand. We all worked without salary because we knew he was honest, and we wanted to help. Mother had saved three hundred, which was a fortune for us, and she went to Mr. Griffith and offered to put it into the picture. But he said, “No, I won’t take it. You might lose it all.” I earned a thousand a week in the movies. Mother said, “You think you’re getting a thousand a week? You’re getting fifty dollars, five percent. See that you live on that.” Mother put the rest away for us.

Jane Powell close up
Jane Powell close up

Sex Can Wait?

Marriage was a way for us to prove that we had grown up. Children don’t get married, right?

Wrong! But we didn’t know it then. Not surprisingly, nearly all of us entered into at least one marriage that failed: Jane Powell, Donald O’Connor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Gene Reynolds, Peggy Ann Garner, Bobs and Delmar Watson, Cora Sue Collins, Gloria Jean, Sidney Miller, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Stymie, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Kathleen Nolan, Ann Rutherford, Darryl Hickman, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Dean Stockwell, Spanky McFarland, Diana Cary, me. Mickey Rooney was married the first time when he was twentyone, to Ava Gardner. “I needed to be married like you need to paint Shea Stadium at midnight,” Mickey told me. “But I’m happy I did it, because it was part of growing up.” Lillian Gish is among a handful of former child stars who were never divorced. Miss Gish believes that “an actress shouldn’t ruin a good man’s life by marrying him,” so she never married anybody.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs. It was not that way for us. Homeroom was a clutch of tiny, sometimes solo classes strewn from Culver City to Burbank. Spelling and arithmetic spanned whole careers. Our lives touched each other’s, drew apart, touched again, receded—waves hissing on a beach. From Lillian Gish to Margaret O’Brien, ours was a class of intimate strangers bound by the common experience of being child stars.

Baby Peggy
Baby Peggy

Baby Peggy (her real name was Diana Cary) was, in the early 1920s, Hollywood’s first four-year-old self-made millionaire. Her parents probably hold the distinction of running through her money fastest. She was broke at six.

Jackie Coogan
Jackie Coogan

Then came Jackie Coogan, who shares with Shirley Temple the greatest, most enduring fame ever achieved by a child at any age at any time. He was the first child to be merchandised on a national scale. There were Jackie Coogan clothes, Jackie Coogan candy bars, toys—even a Jackie Coogan haircut, which, while copied around the world, could not command a royalty.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple

Shirley was the first child to carry the full weight of a talking, full-length, “A” picture on her small but willing shoulders. Her every motion picture was a “Shirley Temple picture.” It wasn’t just a film in which Shirley Temple starred. When I bestowed her first screen kiss, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world was watching—literally. The event was recorded on the front page of every major newspaper. My timid peck on her cheek was the symbolic loss of the world’s most beloved and famous child, the little girl whose energy, pluck, and irrepressible good cheer allowed folks to forget the Great Depression—at least for ninety minutes. There will never be another Shirley Temple. Today, there are kids who make a splash, but they will never command the lifelong recognition we still have. Their films are not rerun on television. The continuity of product isn’t there. And, in Jackie Coogan’s words, “There’s nothing charming about children anymore.” Our group is still around. Try today to track the people you shared first grade with. Most have evaporated, raindrops in a desert.

Perennially visible, we have no place to hide.

Shirley Temple Postcard
Shirley Temple Postcard

Fade Out

Life on the fast track is the seven o’clock news. When you’re the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another story breaks, you might as well be dead. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with you. Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so indispensable, until the director yells, “Cut!” and I am whisked into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?

Even on the set when two or three years old, I must somehow have been aware that this shattering contrast between darkness and spotlights was unnatural. But you can’t handle such emotions at so early an age. So, belatedly, I found myself fighting back the tears.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the car
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – back cover

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Brief Reviews – LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH (The New York Times – October 30, 1932)

Miscellaneous Brief Reviews

The New York Times – October 30, 1932, Section BR, Page 20

LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH.

By Albert Bigelow Paine. Illustrated. 303 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

LILLIAN GISH had her first dramatic try-out, made her first triumphant entrance upon any stage, at the age of 3 in Baltimore on the shoulder of Nat Goodwin. He was serving as Santa Claus for a big Christmas tree on the stage of Ford’s Theatre, and needing a particularly angelic-looking child to perch on his shoulder and distribute the gifts, little Lillian Gish was chosen. Three years later she bad become, under stress of economic necessity, a little trouper playing in a barnstorming company which was presenting melodrama in one-night stands. Through several seasons she traveled with this and other companies, economizing on food to the edge of hunger, sleeping on telegraphic desks in cold stations, riding all night in day coaches, rarely having rest in a real bed.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

During the Summers her mother had a candy and popcorn stand at the Fort George amusement grounds in New York City, and Lillian, in a timorous little voice, would try to help sales by saying gently to the passers–by. “Wouldn’t you like to buy some popcorn?” But her sister Dorothy stood on the counter and joyfully did “ballyhoo” for the enterprise by calling “out, “This way for the best taffy and popcorn in New York” The Smith family, mother, two daughters and son, afterward to become famous as the Pickfords, were living with Mrs. Gish and her little girls in her apartment, and then and afterward the two families were very close in friendship and work.

Lillian Gish at Six

The narrative of Lillian Gish’s life reads like a fairy story. American biographical literature is full of marvelous tales of material success wherein poor boys starting out with nothing but good heads, willing hands and determined wills win through to high achievement and heaps of gold. But heretofore not many of them have been about women. And among these few there has been none so wonderfully fairylike in material and texture and denouement as the story of Lillian Gish. Albert Bigelow Paine, veteran author and man of letters, with perhaps two score of books of varied kinds to his credit, tells the story with a sensitiveness to its peculiar quality and a sympathetic response to its heroine’s appeal to eye and heart and mind that intensify the likeness. He tells it in straight narrative form that deals almost wholly with environment and conditions of life and Lillian’s share in them, with privations and struggle and hard work and dazzling achievements. But throughout he does enable the reader to envisage her “ln the round” whether as child trouper, young girl dashing on horseback over Oklahoman plains with an Indian girl playmate and trying hard to get an education in the intervals of work on the stage, successful movie actress, gaining world-wide fame on both screen and stage.

It is a complete story from her birth in 1896 to the present time, and although it does deal mainly with the outward aspects ot its heroine’s life, Mr. Paine endeavors to portray the outlines of her character and give the reader some understanding of her aloofness, her quiet serenity under all conditions, her orderly mental processes, her sense of duty. The book is the outcome of long talks with Miss Gish in which she went over with him her recollections of her life from her earliest years and of information obtained from her family and friends. Mary Pickford has made many contributions to the story of the period in which they were much together in their home and in their movie work. It was Miss Pickford who opened the doors for her entrance into the film world.

The biography is written in the romantic temper and in the spirit of a connoisseur of beautiful things who holds in his hand some piece of glass or gold or cloisonne and regards its exquisite loveliness with admiration and reverence. His feeling is not only for the nunlike, elusive beauty of her countenance, but also for the artistic qualities and the impressive, haunting beauty of her characterizations. Toward the end of the book there are some attempts to estimate the value of Lillian Gish’s contribution to dramatic art and some quotations from her conversations with him disclosing her ideas about the comparative values of the silent and the sound film, and the film and the stage.

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

Kindly access the link below to download the PDF format of “Life and Lillian Gish” book, by Albert Bigelow Paine – Macmillan,1932

Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine 1932 – entire book in PDF format

Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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Unbreakable Blossom – By Richard Schickel (The New York Times – March 4, 2001)

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Promotional - Broken Blossoms — with Lillian Gish.

Unbreakable Blossom

By Richard Schickel

The New York Times – March 4, 2001

Overacting, fluttering feminity and D.W. Griffith went out of style, but Lillian Gish refused to go.

LILLIAN GISH

Her Legend, Her Life. By Charles Affron.

Illustrated. 445 pp. New York: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner. $35.

CHARLES AFFRON admires Lillian Gish’s life, as who does not? It is in most respects admirable, even exemplary, particularly in her refusal to surrender to old age. She started acting in 1902 when she was 9 years old and continued, seemingly immune to all the vagaries of her profession — bad roles, bad reviews, public controversies and private disappointments — until she was, astonishingly, 94. She outlived most of her show business colleagues, outworked them all with the possible exception of John Gielgud and, always the uncomplaining trouper, rarely missed a day because of illness, not a minute because of egomania.

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

It is her legend, self-created and self-propagated, that causes — justifiably, in my opinion — a steady murmur of discontent to arise from Affron’s judicious biography, ”Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life.” The problem, as he sees it, is Gish’s excessive — not to say slightly loopy — idealization of her discoverer and mentor, D. W. Griffith. She and her sister Dorothy entered the movies under his aegis in 1912, when Lillian was 18 — not 12, 14 or 16, as she variously suggested through the years. Affron, who teaches French at New York University, calls her to rather stern account on this question, but it is more to his point that it was for Griffith she did most of the work that permanently crystallized her rather curious image.

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

She thought it necessary, beginning in the 1920’s, to exaggerate Griffith’s genius as a director, his vision of the movies as a force for world peace and brotherhood, the general superiority of silent movies over sound pictures because their pantomime made it easier for them to cross language barriers than dialogue pictures could. She was tireless — and not a little tiresome — in this matter because, as Affron puts it, ”The cult of Griffith was, after all, the path to her own artistic apotheosis. If Griffith’s legend were to die, so would her own. If his legacy was forgotten, she would lose her place in movie history.”

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

That Griffith — a father figure to many of the impressionable young actresses who worked for him, many of whom, like Gish, grew up without their actual fathers — was the great love of her life cannot be denied. Whether or not that included a sexual relationship is disputable. Affron rather thinks not; I rather think so. Whatever the case, Gish’s devotion to Griffith was willfully blind and vastly misleading. It is true that Griffith often expressed vaulting ambitions for his medium, but he was a bit of a humbug in the grandiose manner of 19th-century actor-managers, on whom he modeled the conduct of his own celebrity. His most enduring, endearing films are about life’s more quotidian dramas, and his pronouncements were rather like his taste for spectacle — forced, false, ultimately self-destructive.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 3

When you strip the big talk and the big scenes away, you come to a core obsession that was much less attractive — and completely unaddressed by Gish. It involved placing the virtue of young, blond, virginal women in peril at the hands of brutal, often rapacious, men. That was notoriously the case in ”The Birth of a Nation” (1915), in which Mae Marsh commits suicide rather than succumb to a stalking black man and Gish herself narrowly avoids rape at the hands of a mulatto. It is these scenes, even more than Griffith’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, that render the movie permanently offensive. And not just racially. Griffith tamped down (in public) his irredeemable racism, but he could never avoid his ruling sexual kink. Gish’s honor, life or both was under threat in ”Hearts of the World” (1918), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919), ”Way Down East” (1920) and ”Orphans of the Storm” (1921). Even in comedies like ”A Romance of Happy Valley” (1919) and ”True Heart Susie” (1919), Gish’s fate was patiently to await the attentions of men preoccupied by matters more pressing than her affections.

THE WIND, Lillian Gish, 1928 HC8WJ8

Eventually, that became her life strategy. Dropped by Griffith for the unattractive Carol Dempster, she remained his friend and defender, insisting that a crass industry was bent on destroying him (when, in fact, his heedless economic ways made him the auteur of his own misery). Meantime, their careers declined, his more disastrously than hers, but for related reasons. Griffith kept trapping his tremulous child-women in tight spaces with lumbering bruisers. Gish was never able to revise the image of imperiled innocence she and Griffith created. Until later in life, when she played spunky spinsters and widows, she essentially remained a sexual victim, appealingly brave in adversity — effectively so in ”The Scarlet Letter” (1926), less so in ”The Wind” (1928), the hysteria of which verges on the ludicrous.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 3

Genteel litterateurs like Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell gushed over her; many variations on Griffith’s description of her ”exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty” were offered. But the good-natured likes of Mabel Normand and Marion Davies began satirizing her, and MGM, which had expensive hopes for Gish, dropped her when it discovered Greta Garbo, whose movies depicted her as always paying the price for her adulteries but at least appearing to have a good, hotly romantic time before getting her comeuppance.

the-wind-1928-ballroom-montagu-love-detail

Gish, alas, remained hopelessly old-fashioned, wedded to a Victorian vision of anxiously fluttering femininity. She was good at it, but by the late 1920’s she had more than Garbo’s stylish sinning to contend with; there were also the careless flappers of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. Gish’s screen character became what it remains, a faintly risible antique. Another way of saying that is that she failed the most basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy. By the early 30’s, she was essentially a character actress, appearing in a few distinguished plays and few, if any, distinguished movies.

One Romantic Night promotional Lillian Gish last scene

Her situation was akin to Griffith’s. Compared to the great directors of the silent era — Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, von Stroheim, Vidor — his work was as stylistically dated as his sexual imaginings. This period, abruptly and cruelly halted by the arrival of sound, may have been the most innovative in cinema history, but Griffith was not part of it. His younger competitors are among the great modernists; he remained a 19th-century melodramatist.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

They were all, of course, thrown off course by the talkies, visually poky at first and placing a premium on urban realism as opposed to the more poetic and expressionistic silents. In this new era Griffith wandered impotently, often alcoholically, on the margins of the business. Gish’s situation was less dire. She took up with George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, kept working and, above all, tended to her mythmaking. There were biographies and autobiographies and an unending stream of interviews. Late in her life she toured in a one-woman show, playing film clips and reminiscing romantically about the silent era.

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 3
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.149

You could argue that she did no great harm with her fantasies. But Affron thinks otherwise. Bad history is, very simply, useless history. Gish’s pose as the vestal virgin, guarding cinema’s temple, was absurdly at odds with the raffish and often hugely entertaining improvisations by which early movie history was actually made. Worse, her insistence on Griffith’s (plaster) saintliness distorted both his achievements and his failures, rendering both uninstructive to posterity. Finally, her vaporings had the effect of dehumanizing herself and Griffith, and of distancing us from a movie era that is difficult enough to recapture, given the differences between its conventions and those of later times.

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

One suspects that Affron began his book thinking his story was of idealism vulgarly betrayed, but found his research leading him in quite a different direction, toward analysis of a fiction in which the teller victimizes herself, her work, her beloved master in a simpering attempt to rewrite history as — come to think of it — something like a lesser Griffith work. Affron’s chronology is occasionally confusing, but he politely, consistently refutes Gish’s line, remaining unfailingly generous to his subject’s art and indomitability, all the while fastidiously and expertly devastating the fairy tale in which she wrapped herself. If we are ever to rescue silent film from its status as a dwindling cult’s enthusiasm and restore it as a vital part of our cultural heritage, we need more work of this balanced and balancing kind.

Lillian Gish - Sold For Marriage 1916
Lillian Gish – Sold For Marriage 1916

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Lillian Gish ‘Lobbies’ for Old Newsreels (The New York Times – 1979)

The New York Times – 1979

Lillian Gish ‘Lobbies’ for Old Newsreels

June 20, 1979

WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) — Lillian Gish, whose film career spans almost the entire history of movies, urged Congress today to preserve the historic newsreels now deteriorating in vaults.

Lillian Gish photographed with Australian film producer Richard Brennan, at her Hotel Suite, at The Gazebo Hotel. September 18, 1979. (Photo by Nigel Peter Todd).Detail

Old Newsreels

“It’s powerful history, and we should preserve the living record of it,” Miss Gish told a House Government Operations subcommittee.

The threat to old newsreel footage was demonstrated last Dec. 7 when a fire at a National Archives storage facility in Suitland, Md., destroyed 12.6 million of the 28 million feet of newsreel’ film that had been donated by Universal Studios. A 1977 fire destroyed a smaller amount of film.

George Stevens, retiring director of the American Film Institute, estimated it would cost between $15 million and $30 million to recopy surviving newsreel footage on modern film that will not deteriorate.

Miss Gish, who made her stage debut in 1902 at the age of 4, has appeared in motion pictures since 1913. In recent years, she has been active as a lecturer on film preservation.

Much of the footage in Government vaults, dating from 1930 to 1951, was on nitrate film, which becomes highly flammable as it deteriorates.

Lillian Gish ‘Lobbies’ for old reels June 20, 1979 NY Times
Lillian Gish ‘Lobbies’ for old reels June 20, 1979 NY Times

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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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When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood – By Bruce Berman (The New York Times – June 19, 1977)

When Mamaroneck Upstaged Hollywood

By Bruce Berman

The New York Times – June 19, 1977

BACK in the early 1920’s when Mamaroneck was a center of movie‐making, Joseph Rigano was an employee of D.W. Grif fith’s studio at Orienta. “I was atone mason and mechanic,” the energetic 80year‐old said as we toured on foot Edgewater Point, at the top of the Orienta Peninsula.

Griffith_Studios,_Orienta_Point,_Mamaroneck_NY_1921
Griffith Studios, Orienta Point, Mamaroneck NY 1921

“After the studio was finally built, Mr. Griffith asked me to stay on as a set builder. Stone fireplaces were my specialty, but I worked on everything from Gothic walls to painted desert backdrops. The actors were almost always friendly, and I was getting $55 a week and drove a $1,200 Buick. What more could a young man desire?”

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

In those days the area was less the “East Coast Hollywood” than Hollywood was “the West Coast Mamaroneck.” The town boasted a distinction to which few communities could lay claim: a silent‐screen‐era movie studio. The studio built by Mr. Griffith, the most significant American director in pre‐sound films, attracted such stars as Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy and Lillian Gish.

Way Down East set filming Mamaroneck Arch
Way Down East set – filming “The Barn Dance”- Mamaroneck Archive

Mr. Griffith himself lived on the studio site in a modest cottage, built in part by Mr. Rigano, and attended to by Japanese couple. Before Mr. Griffith took over the area for the complex, which was completed in 1919, it was part of the huge summer home of Henry Flagler, the railroad and hotel leader. Before finding the site, Mr. Griffith had been looking for an alternative to shooting exteriors on California locations, having long since fled his Biograph Studios on 19th Street in Manhattan. Mamaroneck seemed the perfect alternative.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Remodeling Her Husband

The first movie shot on Edgewater Point, “Remodeling Her Husband,” was not directed by Mr. Griffith but by the young, multi‐talented actress, Lillian Gish. It starred Mae Marsh and Miss Gish’s sister, Dorothy. Mr. Griffith gave the elder of the two Gishes the assignment less to start her on a new career than to “test” the still incomplete facility while he supervised another production in Florida.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios - Orienta Point
Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

In her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me,” Miss Gish remembers the Flagler site as “a great peninsula of land jutting into Long Island Sound, and surrounded by a seawall of rocks and glorious old trees with branches chained together to withstand the sweeping winter winds. When I first worked there, it was late November and we had no heat. The weather turned so cold that we couldn’t photograph our actors without photographing their breaths. It looked as if they were smoking at each other. We hurriedly transferred to a small studio in New Rochelle while a furnace large enough to heat the large studio was installed.”

D.W. Griffith on filming set for Orphans of the Storm

Lillian Gish wearing an “extras” costume, with Joseph Schildkraut (Chevalier de Vaudrey), “Orphans of the Storm”

The Gish sisters and their mother lived in a stone and shingle house, which is still standing, on the corner of Bleeker and Walton Avenues. The house was built in 1889 by Stanford White. “Every room had a fireplace,” Lillian Gish said. “There was a spacious porch and an acre of beautiful landscaping. We loved it. We who had used trolleys for so long now had three cars in the garage—a big Cadillac, Dorothy’s sports roadster, and a small Ford for the staff.”

Mamaroneck filming sets – Orphans of the Storm

About all that remains of the moviemaking complex is a pier where supply boats once tied up, some foundation supports for the studio restaurant, and legacy as rich as anything that came out of the early days of Hollywood. Much of the complex, which was plagued by maintenance costs and poor film grosses after the box‐office smashes “Way Down East” and “Orphans of the Storm,” was razed not long after its completion. Currently, about a dozen homes dot the restricted peninsula.

Mamaroneck filming sets – Way Down East

But despite the disappearance of the Mamaroneck studio, the peninsula still maintains much of its original splendor. Flanked on three sides by the Sound, it is not difficult to imagine a bustling crew of technicians and actors under the leadership of chain‐smoking D.W., shouting directions through his megaphone. Said Mr. Rigano: “In those days we’d get people like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin visiting. Even Mr. Rockefeller Sr., would come up from the city to see Mr. Griffith at the studio. I’m not fooling when I say Mamaroneck was more exciting than Hollywood back then.”

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

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

The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928

As Lillian Gish Views Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish

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

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