Griffith’s Musical Secrets – Picture Play 1922

A New York music critic analyzes Mr. Griffith’s methods of building up his musical settings for such productions as his “Orphans of the Storm,” now being widely shown.

By Charles D. Isaacson

Author of ”Face to Face with Great Musicians,” etc.

Lillian Gish and the music representing her (Kenneth Alexander)

Did you ever realize to what extent music can be used to create additional illusion to that produced by a picture play?

Piano Player Silent Movies

You probably have if after having always seen pictures at some “Little Gem” or “Bijou” theater where they were ground out to the tiresome accompaniament of a thumpy player piano or an untrained piano player, you have had your first opportunity to visit a picture palace with a splendid orchestra – or better still – a Griffith picture, properly presented in a large theater by one of Griffith’s own companies.

New York 1916 (Griffith advert upper right)

For just as Griffith leads all other producers in sounding the farthest depths of human emotions through the screen, he is a master at placing his pictures in the kind of musical setting best calculated to play upon the feelings of his spectators – and audience.

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

He was, you may remember, the pioneer producer to send out his own music with his pictures. He started the practice with “The Birth of a Nation,” and it was the talk of the entertainment world – how the Ku-Klux-Klan was ever accompanied by that weird cry in the orchestra. Even when the fighters didn’t appear on the screen, the muffled repetition in the music told the frightened audience that they were close by – in hiding.

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

Recently I went to see Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm.” I had been present in the studios during the making of part of that production, and now, if Mr. Griffith doesn’t mind, I am going to tell some of his musical secrets, for I have talked with him about music, found him a great lover of it, and being utterly immersed in the subject myself I have come to look upon David Griffith as an important element in American music.

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

For the purpose of pointing out the growing possibilities of screen music, I want to attempt a brief analysis of the score of “Orphans of the Storm” and then to show how by a reverse process how a similar picture would be “musicalized” by the David W. Griffith method.

Griffith’s musical secrets are threefold.

  1. He realizes that he can foretell the actual dramatic idea with an appropriate and familiar bit of melody.
  2. He knows that there is a memory sense in his audience which permits him to further enhance the characterizations of his player by giving each a distinctive musical theme which always accompanies that person.
  3. He has acquired the ability to give voice to the action, the mood, the idea which dominates each episode, and thus to intensify each mood.
The Greatest Question - Sheet Music
The Greatest Question – Sheet Music

Let us see what each of these secret amounts to, what it points to, and how it can be used in other connections.

By means of the first idea Griffith places his audience in a certain state of mind in advance of the screen demonstration, and so makes it easier for the screen to create its atmosphere. In “Orphans of the Storm” the secret is used in several instances. At the opening of the show the orchestra plays an overture, composed of French popular airs familiar in the days of the drama. Then comes a dead pause; the house becomes pitch dark.

Cinema old

We expect to see the title flash on the screen – but it doesn’t come. A thunder roll by the drums and the entire orchestra predicts turmoil, excitement, plunder. This roll is used to show tyranny and selfishness. It puts the audience in the mood of watching a great masterpiece built around the French revolutionary period.

In Griffith’s “Way Down East,” at this juncture, you may recall that a plaintive violin solo played “Home, Sweet Home.” It was so unexpected, so simple, so familiar and tender, that the whole audience felt like crying, remembering the old days of home, sweet home. The device could not have been bettered. Its very simplicity provided the genius of the creator. Consider the situation. The audience, excited, eager to see this great masterpiece which it was heard so much about, ready to criticize, to find fault, and to underestimate is suddenly grabbed by the heartstrings, and told by the subtlest of processes: “This is a simple, home story.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith directing Lillian in Way Down East — with D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.

Scene from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
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

And so, when the screen lights up after about two minutes of this sort of music, and  there is disclosed a little country street, a small house, and the parlor of an old fashioned home, the atmosphere is already established. The scene becomes idealized, intensified, made heroic in its way.

Griffith’s secret there was in finding the keynote to his story – the “Home, Sweet Home” idea – the idyllic character of the drama, and in advance, setting his audience in the frame of mind to understand. What was coming thought of the audience? Is it war and revenge as in “The Birth of a Nation?” Is it a quavering tragedy as in “Broken Blossoms?” What is it? “Well, here it is,” says Griffith, and everybody settles back, in the proper frame of mind.

In this newer and grander picture, “It is war, hate, turmoil!” announces the orchestra, and the audience settles back, ready for it.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

This, in a certain sense is equivalent to the prologue before the big feature appears on the screen, which is so rapidly coming into wide use. Of course, “Orphans of the Storm,” being an evening’s full entertainment, is sufficient unto itself; but in the varied program, the prologue seeks to establish a state of mind in advance of the picture. (At least, it is supposed to do – though it seems to me that only the good saints above can figure out what most of the prologues are accomplishing in this direction.)

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo

This “channelizing” of the minds of the audience is not confined to the beginning of the picture. Griffith also uses it at the beginning of each important episode throughout the drama. In the “Orphans” there is pompous music for the ravishing lawn fete when the members of royalty are exhibited in their lasciviousness and lust and the introduction of Beethoven Minuet when they dance the minuet, is one of the fascinating moments of the picture and adds distinct charm and quaintness so necessary to make the particular atmosphere.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

There is sad, mournful, soulful and longing music when the beggars cringe and moan and loll about in their hunger and filth.

Orphans - Chevalier March - Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters
Orphans – Chevalier March – Music Sheet Wm Frederick Peters

There is beautiful Schubert “Serenade” ever present when Chevalier de Vaudrey touchingly and tenderly makes love to Henriette Girard, which fairly makes the onlookers feel every atom of his intensity of affection for her.

Picture Play (Street & Smith, June 1922) Griffith musical secrets

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A Picture That Was No Picnic – Motion Picture Magazine, 1927

Lillian Gish has something to say about the location tortures

accompanying the filming of “The Wind”

by Katherine Albert

from Motion Picture Magazine, October, 1927

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes - The Wind
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes – The Wind

I went on a location trip to the Mojave Desert to see some movie weather in the making. I wonder if I can make you see that location. First, let me give you just a bit of the background. “The Wind,” based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough, is a story of the Texas plains, where the wind blows constantly. The role is a departure for Lillian Gish. As Letty, she is a gently reared Southern girl who comes to the wilds of Texas where cowboys, rattlesnakes and disorder flourish. The villain in this piece is not a man but an element, the wind. Miss Gish has been pursued by many bad men. Never before has the wind been her torturer.

Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) got mad alone in the house - The Wind
Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) got mad alone in the house, watching Wirt Roddy’s grave – The Wind

From what Miss Gish told me, I fancy that the wind plays in this picture the same sort of role that the rain played in “Rain.” The ceaselessness of the element so thoroughly gets on the nerves of the heroine that she finds herself doing all sorts of things, including murder, that she would never have dreamed possible when she was in her Southern home.

Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish - The Wind)
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)

The wind billows constantly throughout the picture. It does not let up even in the interiors, for doors are swept open and windows blown shut. Outside there are not only sweeping wind storms, but tornadoes as well.

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand - The Wind
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

Making weather in a studio is more or less commonplace. Wind, rain, snow and hail have all been recreated on the large stages, but director Victor Seastrom and his staff made weather in the midst of the desert.

The Wind - Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)

I left Hollywood gaily and drove one hundred and fifteen miles to the town of Mojave, a sprawly little settlement on the edge of the desert. The cast, including the star, made their home at a country hotel there. To reach the location one had to drive from the hotel over awful dirt roads into the sweltering heat – the thermometer was never lower than one hundred and fifteen degrees all the time the company was on location – into the blinding sun, into the bleak, barren waste that is the Mojave Desert.

Even the Joshua trees – those weird monsters that infest the desert – disappear, and only the scrubby grease plants hug the sand. Seventeen miles of desert. Blazing, hot, windless desert. And then all of a sudden the location bursts upon you.

That anyone could be active in that scorching heat is almost inconceivable, yet there were cameras, generators and other studio equipment planted in that broad expanse of wasteland.

The Wind - Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)

A little shack had been built. To the left of it was an old well. To the right was a corral with twenty-five or thirty head of cattle. On all sides stretched the hot, flat desert.

Directly in front of the shack stood a little figure, and in front of her were the cameras. There was the usual number of workers, all wearing high boots in case they encountered rattlesnakes, and most of them had whitish-looking stuff smeared over their faces to keep off sunburn. Goggles, making them look like men from Mars, were worn to protect their eyes from the sand.

Filming crew protecting their eyes against the sand - The Wind
Filming crew protecting their eyes against the sand – The Wind

But there was Lillian Gish in little, low-heeled slippers, hatless and without any protection for her eyes. Banked along either side of the set, just outside the range of the cameras, were a number of weird machines made of steel and wire with airplane propellers attached in front, enormous contrivances that might have decorated an ancient torture chamber.

Lillian Gish - The Wind on set
Lillian Gish – The Wind on set

As I drove up I heard a frightful noise, and, in a second, the scene was clouded by enormous drifts of sand. The noise came from the giant machines used to created wind. The nine propellers seemed to lift the desert and blow it before the cameras. And then the cameras ground, in the midst of the terrific machine-made weather that little unprotected figure ran into the shack and out again.

Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower) and Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) - The Wind
Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower) and Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) – The Wind

In a moment someone came galloping into the scene on a bucking horse. For ten minutes the wind-machines did their dirtiest, and it was all recorded by the cameras. I was utterly exhausted by merely watching it, and I expected to see Lillian Gish carried out.

Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish (Rear) - The Wind
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish (Rear) – The Wind

“It’s a wonder you aren’t dead,” I said.

“It is, without any doubt, the most unpleasant picture I’ve ever made,” she replied. “I mean by that, the most uncomfortable to do. I don’t mind the heat so much, but working before the wind-machines all the time is never-racking. You see, it blows the sand, and we’ve put sawdust down, too, because that is light and sails along in he air, and then there are smoke-pots to make it all look even more dusty. I’ve been fortunate. The flying cinders haven’t gotten into my eyes, although a few have burned my hands.”

Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish - The Wind
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish – The Wind

Lars Hanson came riding up to the car and dismounted to talk to us. Here is another incongruity. Hanson, born and reared in Sweden, the only member of his family who did not follow the sea as a profession, creator of Shakespearian roles in his native country, plays the part of a Texas cowboy. It is a never-ending source of wonder to me that these actors can look like anything. If you didn’t hear his accent, you would imagine that he had followed the American plains all his life. Victor Seastrom, the director, is also a Scandinavian. And Montague Love is in the cast. He was born in Calcutta and reared in England. But when you begin listing paradoxes of the screen, there seems to be no end.

Miss Lillian Gish - still frame (The Wind)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)

“You must see the sights of the desert,” said Miss Gish. “Yonder in that box are two rattlesnakes that were caught yesterday, and on up the road is the camp where most of the people are housed.”

A few miles up that flat dirt road several Pullman cars and a baggage car had been placed on a siding. The cameramen, assistant director, electricians and others lived there. The baggage car was turned into a dining room, and the meals were prepared from one of the famous chuck wagons that are shipped into service whenever there is a location trip. All of the film for the camera was kept in humidors to prevent it from melting in the heat.

At night the tables were cleared away in the baggage car, and a miniature theater was set up where star, director and cast watched the “rushes,” the film which had been shot the day before, sent back to the studios, developed and returned to the company.

Then, once more, the same little figure in front of the wretched shack with the wind machines going full tilt. There was that beating sun. Hot. Hot. Hot. Fancy working in such conditions! Imagine mustering up the courage – for it really does take courage – to bring to the screen a story like “The Wind.” Picture Miss Gish, Mr. Hanson and Mr. Seastrom reading the novel and then the script, knowing what they would have to go through to bring it to the screen.

Lillian Gish - burial scene - The Wind
Lillian Gish – burial scene – The Wind

I left Miss Gish burying the man she had “murdered” in the sand. The wind kept blowing the sand away. She covered him over again and again. I have never been happier to leave anywhere.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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