Chicago Tribune – October, Sunday 13, 1929 – Part 7, Page 58
Lillian Gish Ready to start on a Talkie
Chooses “The Swan” as Her First Venture
By Rosalind Shaffer (Chicago Tribune Press Service)
Hollywood Cal. – [Special Correspondence] – Lillian Gish is about to begin rehearsals on her first talking picture “The Swan,” from the play by Ferenc Molnar. Looking extremely well after her prolonged vacation occasioned by the giving up plans to make “The Miracle Woman,” by Reinhardt, some months ago, Miss Gish is most interested with the idea of doing a talkie.
“I really have done about everything I could for silent pictures,” she said. “I have made all the faces I know; I even went to insane asylums to try to get a few new ones. It’s rather nice to be going to make a new sort of thing.”
Voice Work Under Maurel
A couple of years ago, Lillian Gish had been thinking of doing stage work and had had some excellent voice training under the tutelage of Victor Maurel, now dead, who lived in New York at the time Miss Gish knew him.
Maurel was an opera singer, so important in his day that the prologue for “Pagliacci,” by Leoncavallo, was written especially for him to sing to induce him to play the role in its original presentation. He had argued that the part was too light in tone and suggested the prologue to give it weight.
Maurel was a well known artist in his later years and it was as such that Miss Gish went to him to get lessons in his hobby. He only asked as pay that she pose for him. Then he became interested in her dramatic work and daily he took scenes from the then current “Way Down East” of Miss Gish and tried to gain the same emotional effect in an empty room with her voice that she had gotten on the screen with her acting.
Thus, while Miss Gish has never had a voice test, she feels not unprepared for her talking work in “The Swan.” The role is a radical departure from the fluttery parts that first brought her to popularity with D.W. Griffith as her director.
While Miss Gish keeps her long hair, she has been as radical as Mary Pickford in changing her parts for films, for in “The Swan” she plays a modern lightly sophisticated role. In the cast will be Conrad Nagel, Rod LaRocque and Marie Dressler.
“The Star Wagon” came to the Chicago stage as welcome relief from the Lenten drougth in drama. It was the first new play, except for two WPA contributions of minor interest, to open here in four weeks, and its premiere was notable for cordiality of audience response. It brought an admirable cast, with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as co-stars; and it told a diverting and unusual story of American life with overtones of philosophic brooding over the mystery of life and time and destiny.
After adventures into the past with his “time machine,” the old inventor who is the central figure in the tale [acted with humor and quiet emotional touches by Mr. Meredith] brings down the curtain with the following speech, which expresses the spirit in which Maxwell Anderson approached his fantastic theme:
[After singing two stanzas of “The Holy City”]: “I never believed much in a golden city, back there in the choir. I don’t believe it now. But they were right about one thing, the old prophets – there is a holy city somewhere. A place we hunt for, and go forward, all of us trying and none of us finding it. Because our lives are like the bird, you remember, in the old reader that flew in from a dark night through a room lighted with candles, in by an open window, and out on the other side.
We come out of dark, and live for a moment where it is light, and then go back into the dark again. Some time we’ll know what’s out there in the black beyond the window where we came in, and what’s out there in the black on the other side, where it all seems to end.”
Bloomers and Trousers of 1902
The second act of “The Star Wagon” is a study in American small town manners in 1902, and as such it contains the exaggerations, tending toward caricature, which are generally found in theatrical reconstructions of the past. Miss Gish’s bloomer costume for bicycle riding has almost a “Hollywood” quality in the extremeness of its design. I can easily remember thousands of bloomer girls of 1902 or earlier, and none of them looked like that. Furthermore, in 1902, the nation had become blasé to bloomers and and they were rapidly going out of fashion.
The automobile of which Mr. Meredith was the proud creator is patterned after designs that were archaic in 1902. The men’s clothing is truer to the comic sketches of the period that to the suits, hats, neckties and collars actually worn by the average male at the time.
Songs used in plays of this type are often anachronisms. For example, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” used in the film in “Old Chicago,” was composed years after the date of the Chicago fire. Eager to fix such a “time machine” error on “The Star Wagon,” I dipped into the history of “The Holy City,” but lost my bet. This song was composed in 1892; music by Stephen Adams, words by F.E. Weatherly.
Walking along Sixth Avenue the other afternoon, we bumped into Guy Bolton, the playwright and a friend of long standing, and he suggested that we accompany him to a rehearsal of “Anya” – a musical version of “Anastasia,” the highly successful drama he wrote some years ago in collaboration with Marcelle Maurette. For the musical, he told us, he collaborated on the book with George Abbott, who is also directing the new production. “We’re putting it on at the Ziegfeld, and I’m rather happy about that, since I was the co-author of “Rio Rita,” the play that got the theatre going, on February 2, 1927,” he said. As a matter of fact, I directed the first rehearsal of the first play there, because John Harwood, the director of ‘Rio Rita,’ became so emotional over the death of his dog that he couldn’t handle the initial run-through. Incidentally, a portrait of my wife-to-be adorned the cover of the program of ‘Rio Rita,’ so both she and I feel pretty sentimental about the old stand. I’m sorry to say that after the run of “Anya” – a long one, I hope – the Ziegfeld won’t be with us anymore. Billy Rose, who owns the place, is going to have it torn down and replaced by an office building. Or so he told me. Maybe if ‘Anya’ goes on and on – permit me to dream – he’ll be tempted to maintain it as a theatre. You know, with all this building activity around New York, I sometimes think I should have stuck to architecture, which was my original profession – I had a hand in designing some houses on the East Side – but when I was nineteen I sold a story to the Smart Set, and it wasn’t long afterward that I decided to make writing my life work. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
“Ever since” is quite a while, for Mr. Bolton, a grave, sturdy, well-tailored, and handsome man who could readily be mistaken for a middle-aged diplomat, has just celebrated his eighty-first birthday. In his theatrical career, he has turned out a spate of plays and musicals, mostly in collaboration, although such independent creations as “Sally” and “Polly Preferred” were as popular as any of the works for which he shared the author’s credits. Of the men he has worked with, Mr. Bolton has found P. G. Woodehouse one of the most congenial, and as we strolled up the avenue he informed us that Mr. Woodehouse, who is a neighbor of his in Remsenburg, Long Island, sometimes shames him with his energy. “I don’t find it hard to work twelve hours a day, but Plum Woodehouse, who is older than I am, seems to be in perpetual literary motion” he said. “Still, he’s been that was as long as I’ve known him. I guess that’s why the Princess musicals, which we wrote together – ‘Oh, Boy,’ ‘Leave It to Jane,’ ‘Oh, Lady! Lady!,’ and so on – were turned out so speedily. George Abbott is another whirlwind of industry, but after all, he is only seventy-eight.”
By this time, we had arrived at the Ziegfeld, and Mr. Bolton paused for a moment to survey the street outside the theatre, which has been boarded over because of some subway construction beneath the surface. “We’ve been assured that the roadbed will be back to normal before we open, but I’ve learned over the years never to be certain about anything,” he remarked. “I suppose I should have a tolerance for digging of any kind, since my father did a lot of it around Manhattan. He was a civil engineer, and his avocation was seeking Indian artifacts. He also made a hobby of collecting buttons that fell off soldiers’ uniforms during the Revolutionary campaigns hereabouts. He was intensely interested in this region, and was the author of “Indian Paths in the Great Metropolis,” among other things. I’ve never been able to concentrate on any region with his sort of enthusiasm, and I’m just as much at home in London as I am here, which is as it should be, since my roots in England go deep. Of my various ancestors, I’m proudest of Prior William Bolton, who is said to have designed the Chapel of Henry VII, in Westminster Abbey. But before I begin to sound as worshipful as a Chinese about bygone Boltons, let’s proceed to the rehearsal hall.”
The hall, it developed, adjoins the offices of Billy Rose, atop the Ziegfeld. It is an area almost as large as a basketball court, and when we visited it, was crowded with folding chairs, folding tables, an ancient upright piano, and the cast of “Anya,” which is also large. On a folding chair to the left of the door, as we entered, we saw Mr. Abbott, who looked tall and authoritative even while sitting down. Some of the actors were lost in reverie; others were bustling about, as was Hanya Holm, the gray-haired choreographer of “Anya,” who, at seventy or so, is still as agile as a ballerina. Among those seated along the wall to the right of us was noticed Lillian Gish, looking as winsome as she did when she was an orphan of the storm. We remarked on this to Mr. Bolton, and he said, “Lillian will soon be seventy, and she has skin that an ingénue would envy. She doesn’t sing in “Anya,” but she does a few recitatives against a musical background.”
“Quiet!” Mr. Abbott suddenly shouted, and he emphasized his command by clapping his hands and blowing a whistle. Miss Gish, who plays the last Dowager Empress of Russia in “Anya,” and Constance Towers, who plays her purported grand-child, took their places before Mr. Abbott and launched into a scene in which the grandchild tries to convince the Dowager Empress that she is indeed the surviving daughter of Nicholas II. The scene went along smoothly until Mr. Abbott gently interrupted Miss Gish in the middle of a speech.
“You jumped a line, Lillian,” Mr. Abbott pointed out.
“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry,” Miss Gish said.
A prompted supplied the missing line, and the scene went to its conclusion. No sooner had Miss Gish and Miss Towers made their way to the sidelines that Mr. Abbott again called for quiet, clapped his hands, and blew his whistle. “Next scene!” he said.
Mr. Bolton told us, sotto-voce, that he was going to step outside. “I’ve got to think over a scene I want to discuss with George, and I want to think it over without distraction,” he said.
“Are the rehearsals always this untroubled?” we inquired as we accompanied him into the corridor.
“There’s a good deal of experience involved here, and that’s always a help,” Mr. Bolton replied. “And, just to keep that element of experience powerful, Robert Wright and George Forrest, who are collaborating on the music and lyrics, are basing their score on themes from Rachmaninoff. You know, I’ll be glad when “Anya” is on its way. I’ve got a novel I want to finish soon.”
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
The Twenties began with D. W. Griffith apparently firmly in command of his position as both master innovator and master showman. Broken Blossoms and Way Down East had both been highly profitable, and he had moved from Hollywood to the East Coast, where in his new Mamaroneck Studios he was presumed to have both artistic and economic freedom.
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Orphans of The Storm Set – Mamaroneck
Mamaroneck – Sets for Orphans of the Storm
Unfortunately, Griffith made his move—an expensive one—at a time when the film industry was undergoing radical changes and when audience demands were making a great shift because of the new sophistication of the post-war years. Griffith had no sympathy with this change. He doubtless felt that it was of a transient nature, and that audiences would swing back again to the kinds of films he had always made and intended to go on making. It was a major error in gauging audience taste—which made it an equally major business error. Griffith had never been a good businessman, nor had he any real interest in amassing profits—except to pour them back into making more films. Moreover, with some justification, he had a certain amount of vanity in his make-up. He knew what he had done for the movies; his name was always used in the advertisements as the major guarantee of quality and prestige. His optimism, based on faith in his own ability and the power of his name, caused him to continue operations and to pay for his new studio with a series of bank loans. By the early twenties, he was so heavily in debt to the banks that only an unbroken string of successes could have rescued him. The amount of indebtedness was so great that total ownership and control of his films virtually slipped through his fingers. If he defaulted on payments or failed to finish a film by a given time, the banks had the right to take over, and to change or finish the film in any way they saw fit in order to salvage their investments. The only positive aspect of all of these complicated financial dealings was that the negatives of the Griffith films became tangible physical assets and were protected far more carefully than they might have been had Griffith been in better financial health or working as a contract director for a major studio. Through the care given them for purely financial reasons, all but four of the Griffith films did survive.
It was against this background, and needing a solid commercial hit to sustain the success of Way Down East, that Griffith in 1921 launched Orphans of the Storm. Like Way Down East, it was based on an old barnstormer of a play The Two Orphans. Griffith liked the basic theme but thought it was too mild to stand unsupported. So he plunged it wholesale into a story of the French Revolution, weaving its fictional characters into actual events and bringing them into contact with Danton, Robespierre, and other historical figures. When the film opened with a grand-scale premiere at the Apollo Theatre in New York, Arthur James, editor-in-chief of The Moving Picture World, wrote an unprecedented full-page editorial rave (quite separate from the publication’s equally enthusiastic regular review), which was headed “Mr. Griffith Rises to a Dizzy Height” and said, in part:
It is a triumph for D. W. Griffith to eclipse his own great productions which led the screen into new and finer realms, but with this picture he has succeeded in doing it. No more gorgeous thing has ever been offered on the screen. It has motion within motion, action upon action, and it builds up to crashing climaxes with all that superb definition which makes Mr. Griffith first and always the showman. No man of the stage or screen understands so well the art of exquisite torture for his spectators. He takes their heartstrings, one by one, then stretches them out until they are about to snap, ties little bowknots in them, and finally seizes them by handfuls and twists them until they quiver in agony. Then he applies myrrh and aloes and sweet inguents and sends the spectators away happy in the memory of attractive sufferings that they can never forget. His detail is perfection, and its grandeur is the sum total of many perfections. Its massed scenes surpass the greater of the European spectacles thus far of record. The rest of the press responded with like enthusiasm. The Motion Picture News stated: “The standard bearer of the celluloid drama has again demonstrated that he has no superior as a painter of rich and panoramic canvasses,” while the Exhibitors Trade Review remarked, “A great work of art. It has the sweep of The Birth of a Nation, the remarkable tragic drive of Broken Blossoms, the terrific melodramatic appeal of Way Down East, and a warning written in fire and spoken in thunder for all Americans to heed.”
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Henrietta (Lillian Gish as Henriette Girard in Orphans of The Storm)
While time and perspective must convince us that Orphans of the Storm is a lesser film than The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, the reviews at the time were quite genuine in feeling that it was Griffith’s finest work. The lay press was equally enthusiastic, and the above reviews from the trade press are cited only because they definitely represent trade opinion. Exhibitors looked to Griffith for certain profits; producers regarded him as a prestigious figure-head for their industry; directors either learned from him or stole from him. Within just a few years, however, the trade would reverse these accolades, and their criticism of Griffith would be equally unrestrained. Griffith appeared at the premiere and spoke at some length to the audience. Stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, seated in a proscenium box, also greeted the audience, and Lillian made a speech following the screening. It was a gala affair, but a good deal of its thunder was stolen by Universal’s ballyhoo for Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. This film had received so much exploitation during the preceding months, and had already earned a great deal of word-of-mouth notoriety even before the preview, so that it was very much the film event of January 1922. Its premiere, attended by scores of notables, was set for a week after that of Orphans of the Storm, and it stole most of the limelight. Coincident with Griffith’s premiere. First National suddenly released an Italian version of The Two Orphans. With brazen effrontery, they pointed out to exhibitors that audiences were clamoring for this kind of film, and they even billed it as “The production with a million dollars’ worth of publicity behind it.”
While it did well, Orphans of the Storm was not the box-office blockbuster that Griffith expected, and needed badly. Because it was neither a financial landmark nor an aesthetic advance over his previous films, it is usually dismissed far too casually by most historians ( even the few responsible ones) as representing “Griffith in decline”—a most unfair and inaccurate generalization. The “decline” of Griffith has been dated from any number of periods, depending on the “historian,” his knowledge of film, and most influential of all, his dislike of Griffith. Some historians would even have us believe that the decline began with A Corner in Wheat ( 1909). Decline inevitably occurred, but much later, and not necessarily for the reasons usually cited. Of course, all film-makers tend to decline in their later years. Even Charles Chaplin and Carl Dreyer, who were never forced to surrender their freedom and adapt to studio contractual requirements (as Griffith was), were unable to keep their later films from representing a decline from their creative peaks. At worst, Orphans of the Storm can be said to represent Griffith the artist-showman rather than Griffith the artist-innovator. Here the old maestro was out primarily to make a good picture that was also a “money” picture. To this end, he studied audience reaction carefully in its initial New York run and made several changes—deleting some of the more physically harrowing scenes (close-ups of rats crawling over Dorothy Gish, detail shots in the execution scenes), reviving Frank Puglia from an apparent death scene to take part in an happy ending tableau, and, more ill-advisedly, building up the comedy footage of Creighton Hale.
However, such commercial considerations in Orphans of the Storm were backed by all the technical mastery that Griffith had achieved in the preceding years. If there were no new innovations, the old ones were re-employed, polished, and developed. The detail shots in the battle scenes (troops moving into formation, close-ups of pistols being loaded and fired ) gave them a documentary quality which made them explicable as well as exciting. The notable lack of such shots (or even of many close-ups ) in the similar battle scenes in Rex Ingram’s Scaramouche a year later was one of the major factors contributing to the surprising dullness of those otherwise spectacular scenes. Griffith’s frequent habit of “pulling back” from the action—to view a battle as framed through the draperies of a window—literally made the audience a spectator through a window on history. The fast, rhythmic editing in the bacchanal sequence, as the prisoners were released from the Bastille, smoothly intercutting brief and increasingly large shots with moving camera shots that always cut oflf just before one had time to absorb them fully, was one of the finest episodes ever created by Griffith.
It was a tremendously exciting sequence, quite superior to the more famous machine-gun sequence in Eisenstein’s much-later October—a dazzling sequence certainly, but a mechanical and contrived one. Its fast cutting was functionally creative in that it intensified the emotions of the spectator, but it was dramatically far less honest than the cutting of Griffith’s bachannal. And if the climatic mob scenes and the race of Danton’s troops through the streets seem to be a repetition of the climax of The Birth of a Nation, what wonderful repetition it is—especially since it had to be shot entirely in the studio at Mamaroneck, with a greater stress on low-angled shots and a tighter cutting pattern to create the illusion of a mad dash through all of Paris instead of past the relatively few street sets that Griffith had constructed. Next to Intolerance, Orphans of the Storm is Griffith’s biggest spectacle, though its large sets are not always generously served by the fickle sunshine.
Some of the biggest scenes of the film’s climax were shot on a weekend, the only time when Griffith could enlist all the locals as extras. On those occasions the sun resolutely refused to shine, resulting in a downcast atmosphere from which it was impossible to extract the brightly-lit clarity that Griffith wanted. An MGM unit would merely have scrapped the day’s work and reassembled the unit when the sun was shining. Griffith, however, without outside backing and faced with the enormous upkeep of his studio, could not afford such a luxury. In any case, the excitement of these climactic episodes is such that nature’s uncooperative attitude was probably not even that apparent.
Having made the decision to fuse the old Italian stage (and screen) perennial with the new blood of the French Revolution, Griffith as usual went whole hog, re-creating many actual events and characters, and utilizing his beloved “historical facsimilies” based on old paintings or engravings. Authorities in both this country and France were called upon for advice, and the works of such noted historians as Paine, Guizot, and Abbott were consulted. Thomas Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution was, however, the Bible of the whole venture. Lillian Gish has remarked that every leading member of the cast had a copy of it and read it from cover to cover until they were thoroughly imbued with the proper sense of period. Another book that Griffith turned to often was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Several reviews of the time added an erroneous credit by listing the film as being “based on the novel by Dickens.” Dickens was a great personal friend of Carlyle and drew most of his research material from him, including the incident of the Marquis’ carriage killing the child and his inquiry after the welfare of the horses. This incident, used both by Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities and by Griffith in his film, was later picked up by MGM in their sound version of A Tale of Two Cities and was obviously modeled on Griffith’s staging of it. Dickens’ peculiarly cinematic style, with parallel plots and a form of cross-cutting, and a rich bravura that excused the excesses of coincidence, had always fascinated Griffith, who admitted Dickens’ influence quite openly. This influence affected not only the dramatic structure of Griffith’s films but also the content. It may have been the strong flavor of Dickens in so many of the Griffith films that caused him to be widely dismissed as Victorian and old fashioned.
Alfred Cheney Johnston – Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish wearing an extras costume in Orphans of the Storm
Lillian Gish wearing an extras costume in Orphans of the Storm
orphans of the storm – lillian gish is henriette girard
It may, admittedly, make moments of Orphans of the Storm seem a little quaint. For example, Griffith seems less worried about Lillian Gish’s being unjustly thrown into prison on a trumped-up charge by the aristocrats than he is by “the greater injustice” that has her sent to the prison for fallen women. There is a delightful moment later in the film when Robespierre reminds her of this prison sentence; as Sartov catches her in a lovely and innocent close-up, Lillian admits it and says, in title, “Yes, monsieur—but I was not guilty.” However, there is a major difference between injecting a Victorian flavor (which Griffith did well ) and propagating Victorian morality ( which he decidedly did not). It’s odd that Orphans of the Storm should often be called “old-fashioned,” while such accusations were never leveled against Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Henry King’s Romola. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a good if stilted and over-measured film, while Romola was visually superb but dramatically mediocre. Both had Dickensian plots, and structures that would have delighted Griffith—parallel plots, class conflicts, dramatic separations, and personal stories set against turbulent historical backgrounds. What both films lacked, in addition to keeping these diverse elements closely woven, was sweep, passion, the surge of history, and (Chaney’s performance excepted in the Hunchback) life-size emotion. Griffith could have worked wonders with both films; Romola, especially, needed him badly.
Griffith’s detractors who assail Orphans of the Storm for being out of date are baffled when confronted with the film’s political content and usually choose to ignore it completely. Griffith had never made any secret of his opposition to “kingly tyrannies,” and Orphans of the Storm not only afforded him the luxury of dramatizing his views but also gave him the chance to attack something he felt even more strongly about—Bolshevism. His original synopsis for the film read, in part:
. . . scenes are shown of the exaggerated luxury of those last days of the tottering omnipotence of the monarchy. The orgies and tyrannies of a section of the old French aristocracy is shown as it affects the common people. . . . Then comes the rolling of the ‘Ca Ira,’ the crashing of the Marseillaise, and the madness which we now call Bolshevism. Orphans of the Storm shows more vividly than any book of history can tell that the tyranny of kings and nobles is hard to bear, but that the tyranny of the mob under blood-lusting rulers is intolerable. The opening titles of Orphans of the Storm were climaxed by this still very timely line: “We in the United States with a democratic government should beware lest we mistake traitors and fanatics for patriots, and replace law and order with anarchy and bolshevism.” Later in 1922, Griffith, referring to Robespierre’s Committee of Public Safety, stated: “Robespierre uses it as a weapon for destroying all who do not think as he does. This condition was not unlike that in Russia today. Some may see in it a lesson for our own people. . . .
As with all of Griffith’s historical epics, in Orphan of the Storm, every effort was made to document the facts and episodes presented. Thus, any errors were usually deliberate errors of omission, committed in the name of showmanship or dramatic license. For instance, one gets the impression at the end of the film that the French Revolution is all but over, and since Danton is one of the heroes of the film, no mention is made of his own subsequent execution. When Lillian Gish is rescued from the guillotine, the scores of other poor aristocrats denied a last minute rescue are conveniently irised-out, and the fact that the Reign of Terror is still very much in progress is somehow lost. But for the most part, the film remains remarkably factual, even to details. During the carmagnole orgy scene, the original musical score for the film featured “Ca Ira,” the frenzied tune sung by the Paris hoodlums of the time. ( The score was arranged by Albert Pesce. ) Griffith also made a point of stressing Robespierre’s effeminate, mincing walk. (Griffith’s titles term him “the original pussy-footer!” ) Like all of the big Griffith films, Orphans of the Storm was shot without any scenario, but was rehearsed carefully in advance. Lillian Gish has mentioned that most of the rehearsals took place in the New York theater still housing the successful run of Way Down East—and that the only written word referred to was Carlyle’s history. Much of the dialogue that was improvised in the course of these rehearsals was remembered, and later incorporated into the titles of the film.
Way Down East, made in 1920, had been a fife-saver for Griffith—and still was. The overhead of the new Mamaroneck studios was enormous, especially for an individual producer-director making as few films as Griffith. The popular Richard Barthelmess had been on salary for a long time after his last completed film for Griffith, and finally left to form his own company. Dream Street, a very pretentious pseudo-Broken Blossoms, was doing poorly, and receipts were negligible.
( Strangely, despite its “arty” flavor, it was well-liked by exhibitors—but not by audiences. ) The receipts from Way Down East had to support Griffith, maintain his studio, pay his salaries, and help pay for Orphans of the Storm too. Because of this, and because it was such a popular film, Griffith raised the rental rates on Way Down East, thereby losing good will among exhibitors, which, in turn, at least, partially accounted for the disappointing returns on Orphans of the Storm.
Other factors were involved, too. Audiences of the early 1920’s were turning cynical and jaded; they were getting caught up in the jazzy and increasingly superficial tempo of the times. And they wanted films that reflected those times. Films like Orphans of the Storm, which dramatized what are loosely termed “the old values,” were considered far more out-of-date then than they would be even today. By 1922 this attitude was only beginning to develop. But by 1924 it was in full bloom, and thus audiences had no time for Griffith’s sincere patriotism in America, which dealt with the Revolutionary War. They turned instead to the slick, jazz-oriented films of the day—the kinds of films that Griffith himself had no interest in, but was finally compelled to make, merely to keep active—but not before one last grand, disastrous, and wonderful essay in real film-making: Isn’t Life Wonderful?
Another factor contributing to the disappointing performance of Orphans of the Storm was probably its lack of a strong, popular male star. Initially Griffith had planned to use Barthelmess, who, though unsuited to the role of the aristocratic Chevalier, would certainly have been valuable box-offce insurance. While Joseph Schildkraut was fine in his first American film role, he lacked the virility and sincerity that Barthelmess would have provided. Dorothy Gish, a shrewd and witty observer, pointed out that, especially with the French period make-up, Schildkraut bore an uncanny resemblance to Priscilla Dean throughout the film, “and in the love scenes with Lillian, looked prettier than she did!” However, if there is one serious criticism that can be leveled against the film, it is the obtrusive comedy of Creighton Hale. Griffith, who never regarded one of his films as finished, and continued to tamper with them for revival showings years thereafter, added much of the Hale foolishness after the film was premiered, in the belief that it was needed to lighten the tension. Unfortunately, it became more than a device to pause and relieve tension. It was comedy relief for its own sake, foolish and unfunny, and injected right where it was least needed—in the middle of the escape from the Bastille!
Orphans of the Storm had a pronounced influence on the European spectacles that followed it, notably the French and German, but also, to a lesser degree, the Russian cinema. The famous use of what Seymour Stern has termed “symbolic space” when Griffith, to show omnipotent power, shows the Committee of Public Safety (photographed from above) in the center of a huge, cold, otherwise empty room, was copied intact by Eisenstein in October to show Kerensky installing himself in the Winter Palace. ( This symbolic shot was actually first devised by Griffith for use in a similar context in Intolerance. ) Pudovkin, too, appears to have borrowed from Orphans of the Storm just as he had earlier borrowed from Way Down East.
It is a matter of some interest (and surprise) that Orphans of the Storm was the only Griffith historical spectacle without a villain. Robespierre, and the peasant-turned-judge, Jacques Forget-Not, fulfill all the functions of villainy, but because their transgressions have political and emotional rather than personal roots, Griffith tends to play down their melodramatics and lets them go unpunished at the end—save for a title referring to Robespierre’s own eventual execution. The lecherous Marquis, who, “inflamed by Henriette’s virginal beauty,” kidnaps her and thus separates her from the blind Louise, is a good heavy in the grand manner, but he acts mainly as a plot motivator and vanishes after the first third of the film. The same is true of Sheldon Lewis and the wonderful Lucille LaVerne, who give a couple of grand barnstorming performances, but whose unspeakable evil is unproductive of any real tragedy; they, too, escape without harm. If most of these comments have focused on the film rather than on its stars, it is because Orphans of the Storm is more notable as a Griffith than as a Gish film. This is not to minimize the lovely and sensitive performances of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, or the incredible compositions and lightings of cameraman Sartov, whose close-ups of Lillian have a radiance and beauty unsurpassed in any of her other films. As opposed to Way Down East and even Hearts of the World, acting opportunities in Orphans of the Storm are somewhat subordinated to the surge of melodrama.
Sheer “trouping,” the maintenance of astonishing physical stamina, and the ability to look both fragile and lovely at all times are the main requirement of the roles of the orphans. When a chance arises for sensitivity, or for high-powered acting, it is seized avidly by both sisters. Especially memorable are the gracefully played scenes of the orphans’ departure for Paris, a charming little episode with touching pantomime and some especially lovely close-ups; and the still-poignant scenes in the climactic episodes, when the girls meet again at Henriette’s trial and are separated on the way to the guillotine.
One bravura sequence is the mid-picture reunion that doesn’t come off, with Lillian—hearing her blind sister singing in the street below and being led away—and being arrested, despite her protestations of innocence, before she has a chance to effect a rescue. Griffith never milked a non-action sequence for suspense quite as much as he did this one; indeed, both of the Gishes were of the opinion that it was much overdone. In normal context, it certainly would have been. Since it came immediately before the intermission, however, it must have provided an overpoweringly effective climax to the first half of the film.
Considering the enthusiastic reviews that it had garnered, the disappointing box-office performance of Orphans of the Storm must have been especially galling to Griffith. Even though not the box-office blockbuster he’d hoped for – it was not a failure, however. Thus it became somewhat of a landmark: it was the last Griffith film to be successful both artistically and commercially.
Music for silent films is a fundamental part of the films themselves. Preservation of the scores and cue sheets should go hand-in-hand with preservation of the films. Unfortunately, this music has been too long neglected by film archives overwhelmed with the burden of transferring thousands of nitrate films to more durable safety stock before they deteriorate. The Music Division of the Library of Congress has performed an outstanding service by microfilming the silent film music of two very important collections, their own and that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Music Division should be congratulated for its efforts to make music scores for the silent film more widely available. We hope the present publication will make it possible for silent films to be presented throughout the world in the way that they were originally shown, with musical accompaniment. This will lead to a better understanding of the art of the silent film, which we all know was never really silent.
Curator, Department of Film – Museum of Modern Art
D.W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation, and Way Down East
D.W. Griffith was one of the first American directors to maintain careful control over the selection and distribution of the musical accompaniment for his films. They premiered in only one city at a time. He travelled with the film and the orchestral parts to each new theater, overseeing the whole presentation of each new premiere. He participated in the selection of the music, and then organized the images, the music, and the sound effects for his film presentations. He firmly established the practice of using a full orchestral accompaniment in American movie theaters. Musically, he also may have been the most knowledgeable of the early directors. Karl Brown in Adventures with D. W. Griffith tells many stories about Griffith’s knowledge of music: Griffith’s personal habits of shadowboxing, dancing whenever Miss Geesh [LillianGish] was available, or singing at the top of his lungs went on as usual. Up to this picture he had been content to sing the most effective parts of the more flamboyant operatic arias. Canio’s famous “Vesti la giubba,” from I Pagliacci, got a thorough working over, but only in open tones, not Italian. He would sometimes also observe, in full voice, that the stars were brightly shining, this from Tosca. Another time Griffith’s obsession with music showed itself was when we took a very long shot of the battlefield strewn with dead and with Lillian Gish running from corpse to corpse, looking for her beloved. Correction: she fluttered from corpse to corpse. A lot of little quick steps, a pause, a look, then some more quick little fluttering steps, another look, and so on. It was during the making of this scene that Griffith exclaimed, with a sense of sudden inspiration, that the Lohengrin Wedding March, the familiar “Here comes the bride,” was in exactly the same time and rhythm of the equally familiar Funeral March from the Chopin sonata. It seemed to astonish him that two such opposite sentiments, the extreme of happiness and extreme grief, should be couched in exactly the same musical terms, except that one was in the major mode, the other in the minor.
On the opening night of The Birth of a Nation (1914), Brown heard both of these tunes in the accompaniment for this scene. Griffith not only knew a lot about music, he knew enough to be able to articulate his desires to composer Joseph Carl Breil during the production of The Birth of a Nation. The two men had many disagreements over the scoring of the film. “If I ever kill anyone,” Mr. Griffith once said, “it won’t be an actor but a musician.” The greatest dispute was over the Klan call, which was taken from “The Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner. Mr. Griffith wanted a slight change in the notes. Mr. Breil fought against making it. “You can’t tamper with Wagner!” he protested. “It’s never been done!” This music wasn’t primarily music, Mr. Griffith explained. It was music for motion pictures.
Art historian Irwin Panofsky elegantly summarized these problems of collaboration: It might be said that a film, called into being by a cooperative effort in which all contributions have the same degree of permanence, is the nearest modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral .. .And if you speak to any one of [the] collaborators he will tell you, with perfect bona fides, that his is really the most important job—which is quite true to the extent that it is indispensible…
Karl Brown, apprentice cameraman to D. W Griffith during the shooting of The Birth of a Nation, had read Thomas Dixon’s novel, The Clansman, upon which the movie is based.
Throughout the shooting he had doubted that Griffith could make this racist story into a successful film. However, his account of opening night speaks worlds about the impact of a musical accompaniment (although his description may be in error on certain points):
My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary.
Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture. Not that I hadn’t known about a special score having been prepared for the production. Joseph Carl Breil had been around the studio a lot, talking with Griffith, so I knew what was up. But Carl Breil was no Beethoven. Thus far he had produced only one song, “The Song of the Soul,” which had become a great favorite among those who like that kind of music, but he was no great shakes as a composer in the grand manner. Oh, he was capable enough in his own limited way. He was a musician, there was no denying that. He could arrange, he was good at instrumentation, and he could conduct. He could do just about anything known to music except think up tunes. Well, maybe Griffith had supplied that lack. We’d soon find out, because the orchestra pit was crammed to overflowing with the finest performers in Los Angeles and more, many more instruments of different kinds than I had seen anywhere before except at fulldress, all-out symphony concerts. He had the big doghouses, as we called the double basses, and a lot of little doghouses, as the cellos were called, with as many fiddles as there was room for and enough brass to make up a full brass band all by itself. And as for the kitchen, or hardware shop, as the drum section was called, there was everything known to percussion, while at the console of the massive pipe organ sat a little man lost in a maze of stops and manuals, ready to turn on the full roar of that monster at the tip of a baton. Yes, it was a complete orchestra, all right, I even glimpsed two or three banjos in that crowded orchestra pit, but what they could be doing there was more than I could imagine.
The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise. The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same moment Breil’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before… The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to assure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then . . . the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, . . . What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this and to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another, and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps. I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest bloke, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.
The Confederate charge was simply magnificent. Once again, there was nothing choppy about it, no sense of scenes being cut into another. That whole line of men simply flowed across the field, stumbling and dropping as they ran somehow into solid sheets of rifle fire from the Union entrenchments, while bombs, real bombs and not Fireworks Wilson’s silly little powder puffs, burst with deafening roars among these charging heroes. Oh yes; I knew. I knew perfectly well that the backstage crew was working furiously to create these explosion effects just behind the screen, but I was too caught up in the magnificence of the spectacle to care how it was achieved.
And that scene with Walthall snatching up the flag and racing forward with it: holding it high and waving it defiantly as he ran with it in one hand and his drawn sword in the other straight at the cannon, to mount the parapet, and then— in a single, magnificent, overwhelming glimpse of one man, alone against a sky full of bursting bombs, thrusting that standard down the cannon’s throat and shouting his defiant yell, while the trumpets in the orchestra split the air. Nor were those trumpets alone. I think every man in that packed audience was on his feet cheering, not the picture, not the orchestra, not Griffith but voicing his exultation at this man’s courage— defiant in defeat, and all alone with only the heavens for his witness. . .
I was forced to admit to myself over again how pitifully little I knew about anything at all. There was that scene of Lillian Gish fluttering and running, fluttering and running over the death strewn battlefield looking for her beloved, not as any human being would make such a search but as a ballet dancer might pictorialize it. I thought it was awful when it. was being shot. But it was heartbreakingly effective on that night upon that screen before that particular audience, especially with the orchestra, that beautiful orchestra, interweaving the twin themes of love and death, just as Griffith had thought of them at that one magic moment on the battlefield. For she wasn’t a woman at all but a spirit, a will-of-the-wisp, floating over the field of death. She was even more than that: she was the spirit of all the women of the Civil War, who still lived in the memories of their daughters and granddaughters, whose hearts had been searching among the dead for the living after every one of the many major battles . . .
And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove gray, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine?… Since this was an army hospital, there had to be a sentry on guard… Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed.
In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene . . . Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter . . ,
Brown cites a number of other such examples and then concludes: Somewhere in this welter of… images came a new concept of Griffith . . .What he really was—it seemed odd to think so—was a great composer of visual images instead of notes. What I had seen was not so much a motion picture but the equivalent of Beethoven’s Eroica or his Fifth. That picture had been perfectly orchestrated and the instrumentation flawless.
In 1914 The Birth of a Nation established the use of a full orchestra for film accompaniment in the United States. The East Coast premieres had a score that was a combination of original music by Breil and arrangements of popular and classical music. The score on the West Coast was by Carli Elinor and although it is lost, it must have contained a similar combination of music.85 Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) also had a specially fitted score that: didn’t consist of the usual hackneyed, thumb-worn numbers. Most of it seemed to have been written for the production, except the old tunes directly called for. Scores are apt to be slapped together in a hurry, a mechanical routine of publishers’ lists and cardindexes. The storm and ice music was the weak spot— bald and crude of content.
The fragments from Flying Dutchman and Les Preludes were the only blood and thunder touch in the score. There should have been the maximum sonority, but that of a symphonic orchestra—whirring strings relieving the boiler-factory din of the brass, and easing up on the huskies back-stage. The gatling-guns and bombs still surviving behind (or before) the scenes in some houses are a public menace. Otherwise the music was a marvel of repose and placidity. No lashing of tempos, blurring of passage-work, hurrying-to-catch-a-train spirit. This hectic, neurasthenic style has a bad effect on the individual and collective playing of orchestra and organists. The pause was used often and effectively. The picture being well directed, it was possible to have a smooth and flowing score. The leit-motif system was used to advantage, although it is capable of unlimited development, following the interweaving of emotions and mental states. A motif can be varied in instrumentation, introduced stealthily and subtly in one part, like the baleful movements of the villain. But the course of this story is simple and direct, far from metaphysics or psychoanalysis. The gossip’s theme was characteristic and expressive. Especially appealing were the several themes for the mishaps and tribulations of Anna. The youthful Innocence motif was delightful. How much better than using some sentimental melody already played to death . . .
Way Down East
The music of “Way Down East” seemed written for this play alone; the next time we went the play seemed written for the music. The music and the story were like ivy clinging to a tree. The score was always on the job, fitting the action, like skin-tights, all the time, not like a hoop-skirt, touching only here and there. Score-makers, conductors, and organists, should throw themselves into the work as the great actors do, and make themselves the creators of the characters and story, till it becomes a living flesh and blood organism. But they need better pictures to project themselves into… The natural evolution of the picture business then points to a renaissance of the Greek drama, with Wagnerian music-setting. The screen reveals the actors, dialogue, and stage-settings, the orchestra gives a continuous tonal version of the story.
Clearly, the carefully chosen and well synchronized music of William Frederick Peters and Louis Silvers, although rather lightweight musically, was refreshing and impressive to a musically sensitive, frequent filmgoer. One can infer from this account that the constant reuse of the same music was common and tedious and that sloppy synchronization or abrupt transitions between keys detracted at least a little from some people’s enjoyment, A British presentation of Way Down East in 1923 elicited a totally negative reaction to the music: most of the music was of such undistinguished character that [ Mr. Albert Marchbank, conductor of the orchestra at the Tower Cinema, Rye Lane, Peckham, London] had to practically rescore the musical fitting. . .The music for the big storm-scene especially was bad, and this was replaced entirely by him. In addition to the music being of a low standard, the score is “peppered” with leit-motifs for each of the six main characters. The airs of “I love you” and “Believe me” are scored each time the heroine appears. There is a further theme announcing the arrival of the chatterbox neighbour, and this theme alone appears forty times in the original score. If this is supposed to be the latest advancement in film-music, I look with apprehension to its future! It is appalling to see these blundering attempts at imitating great masters. Truly, a little knowledge is dangerous. I am glad Mr. Marchbank refused to perform this rubbish and made a clean sweep of both the music supplied with the film and the innumerable cues which appeared about every ten bars or so. The inevitable result was a veritable musical victory, for the house has been playing to capacity night after night and thousands of people had to be turned away as there was no further accommodation. This success was due in a large measure to the masterly musical setting by Mr. Marchbank. The storm-music provided the greatest sensation, and this, together with the wonderful effects supplied with the film, absolutely “brought the house down.” There were, for instance, realistic lightning effects for which a special electric installation had been laid on.
This lightning Mr. Marchbank—like Zeus—controlled (from the organ), evoking thunderous replies from the lower regions of the orchestra. There were also ice-breaking machines, waterfall, rain, wind effects and what-not. All these effects, manipulated in the right way, combined with the wonderful setting of the music, played superbly by the orchestra, as a musical illustration of the drama on the screen, produced a whole which was a stunning triumph of perfect film-presentation and worthy of the highest praise.
D.W. Griffith never could leave any of his pictures alone. After their initial release, he constantly cut and rearranged them. (Even after he gave his collection to the Museum of Modern Art, he still recut the films in the projection booth after each screening until finally the Museum ordered the projection booth locked.) By 1923, probably as much as 25 percent of Way Down East had been cut or changed. Cut marks through the score and parts testify to the constant tinkering. In all probability, the score no longer fit the 1923 version like “skin-tights” or “ivy clinging to a tree,” and Mr. Marchbank was well advised to use different music. Although the tastes in the two reviews differ with respect to the Peters-Silvers score, the ideal for film music is the same—”continuous tonal version of the story” and “musical illustration of the drama on the screen.” The scores for D. W. Griffith’s films were compiled, arranged, and created by knowledgeable composers, but the majority of the scores for his films relied heavily on arrangements of preexisting music. Intolerance (1916), for example, uses an entire chorus from Verdi’s Aida (twice), a vocal quartet version of “My Wild Irish Rose,” and music from Delibes’s ballets. By comparison, the commissioning of totally original scores, especially for feature films, became increasingly common in the 1920s. It led to such landmark scores as Mortimer Wilson’s for The Thief ofBagdad (1924), William Axt’s for Don Juan (1926) and Leo Pouget and Victor Alix’s for La Passion de Jean D’Arc (1928).
A play in three acts by Marcelle Maurette, English adaptation by Guy Bolton (1953)
Former Don Cossack General and Aide-de-Camp to Tsar Nicholas II, Prince Arcade Arcadievitch Bounine, becomes intrigued in 1926 with a hospital patient’s story. Claiming she is the youngest daughter, the Royal Princess Anastasia Nicolaevna, and lone survivor of the massacred Russian royal family in an Ekaterinburg cellar on July 16, 1918, Bounine takes the ill woman to his Berlin home after preventing her contemplated suicide in the Landwehr Canal. Bounine conspires with his White Russian friends, Chernov and Petrovin, to prove to residing exiled Russian royalty, including the late Tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and her grand nephew, Prince Paul, that the woman Anna Bronin is in reality the Princess Anastasia. Intent on sharing the late Tsar’s millions, deposited in foreign banks, the plotters are astounded to discover Anna’s improving health brings recall of little known facts about the Romanov family. Prince Paul accepts her as Anastasia, his childhood sweetheart, while the Dowager Empress maintains rigid cynicism about the presumed imposter. After relating a childhood episode known only to the regal old lady and her granddaughter, the Dowager Empress accepts Anna. Bounine and his accomplices become believers. A massive reception is arranged to present Anna to the public as the Royal Princess Anastasia Nicolaevna Romanov and announce her forthcoming marriage to Prince Paul. As the Dowager Empress, Prince Paul and Bounine prepare to enter the ballroom, the maid Varya enters carrying Anna’s royal gown. Anastasia/Anna Bronin, Princess/imposter, has gone, possibly to meet Dr. Michael Serensky, her former lover who had visited her earlier pleading for her to return to him in Budapest.
Comment and Critique
Parisian playwright Marcelle Marie Josephine Maurette’s exciting play Anastasia was first produced at the Theatre Antoine in Paris in 1951. Presented on television in England in 1953, the English translation of the play by Guy Bolton was optioned by Sir Laurence Olivier, who produced it at St. James’s Theatre in London on August 5, 1953. The play was received with acclaim for 117 performances. Seventy-nine-year-old actress Helen Hayes, who had spent fifty-five of those years on the English stage, was praised for her striking performance as the Dowager Empress, a role that became her greatest triumph in the English theatre.
The riddle, or mystery, of Anna Chaikovski, later known as Anna Anderson, has long fascinated writers and the world. After her release from Dalldorf Mental Hospital, her friend, Mrs. van Rathlef-Keilman, published a biography, Anastasia, in 1929. Glen Botkin, son of the Romanov family physician, wrote The Real Romanovs in 1931, followed by other documentations of Anna’s life.
No recounting of her story, nor her claim to being the surviving youngest daughter of the late Russian Tsar, supported her unsuccessful years of fighting for recognition (and the Romanov fortune) in the German courts. During the years of her struggle for recognition, Anna lived in a shack of a home in Stuttgart, Germany, given to her by her cousin Prince Frederick of Saxe-Altenburg. Today, the woman known as Anna Chaikovski Anderson, or Anastasia, lives in comparative seclusion as the wife of a wealthy Virginian in Charlottesville, Virginia. Anna Anderson’s personal account of her life, I, Anastasia, was published in January 1957 by Harcourt, Brace & Company.
Anastasia was written by Marcelle Maurette, whose play Madame Capet was translated into English by George Middleton and produced at the Cort Theatre in New York on October 25, 1938. Marcelle Maurette was born November 14, 1903, in Toulouse, France and in 1937 became the Comtesse de Decdelievre. Mme. Maurette received the Prix du Cercle de Paris in 1934 for La Bague au Doigt; the Cours de la Pifece en un acte de Socidtfi des Auteurs et Compositeurs for her play Printemps in 1937; France’s 1939 Prix National de Litterature and, in 1964 was made an Officier de la Legion d’Honneur Titre Exceptionnel for playwrighting. Guy Bolton’s absorbing English translation of Mme. Maurette’s play Anastasia opened at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on December 29, 1954, to play 272 performances.
Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times) wrote, “Whatever the truth may be of the Anastasia mystery, the drama about it is superb. “
A decade later, Anastasia was adapted and set to music of Rachmaninoff by Robert Wright and George Forrest, who had performed the same service in 1953 by converting Alexander Borodin’s music into the colorful musical Kismet. Unfortunately, despite all excellent cast, production and the Rachmaninoff themes, the musical translation of Anastasia, called Anya, expired after two weeks at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theatre.
Twentieth Century-Fox’s British-made screen version of Anastasia returned the supremely talented Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman to cinema acclaim after virtual isolation following the overblown and over-publicized scandal of her affair, and later marriage, with Italian film director, Roberto Rossellini. Miss Bergman’s superb performance as Anastasia was properly rewarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as 1956’s Best Actress of the Year. Films and Filming admired the “wonderfully controlled” performance of Helen Hayes as the Dowager Empress and Anatole Litvak’s smooth direction. (The Deutschen-London film Anastasia–Die Letze Zaren – tochter, released in Germany in 1956, was not based on Marcelle Maurette’s play but on historical data.) Eugenie Leontovich and Viveca Lindfors appeared on Ed Sullivan’s television program, The Toast of the Town, in the recognition scene from the play on January 23, 1955. Hallmark Hall of Fame’s March 17, 1967, telecast of the play starred Julie Harris and Lynn Fontanne and drew critical raves. Variety opined that the two actresses gave the play “the stature of a classic” and that the Hallmark production was “on the magnificent side. “
St, James’s Theatre, London, England, opened August 5, 1953. 117 performances. Produced by Laurence Olivier; Director, John Counsell; Settings, Hal Henshaw; Costumes, Michael Ellis Mary Kerridge (Anna Broun); Helen Hayes (Dowager Empress of Russia); Ralph Michael (Prince Paul); Laurence Payne (Piotr Petrovsky); Peter Illing (Boris Chernov); Anthony Ireland (Prince Bounine); Ruth Goddard (Lady-in-Waiting); Michael Godfrey (Felix Oblensky); Verena Kimmins (Antonia); Michael Malnick (Sergei); Geoffrey Tyrrell (Sleigh Driver); Susan Richards (Charwoman)
Lyceum Theatre, New York, opened December 29, 1954. 272 performances. Produced by Elaine Perry; Director, Alan Schneider; Settings, Ben Edwards Viveca Lindfors (Anna); Eugenie Leontovich (Dowager Empress of Russia); Hurd Hatfield (Prince Paul); David J. Stewart (Pe- trovin); Boris Tumarin (Boris Chernov); Joseph Anthony (Prince Bounine); Dorothy Patten (Baroness Livenbaum); Sefton Darr (Varya); William Callan (Sergei); Carl Low (Counsellor Drivinitz)- Stuart Germain (Sleigh Driver); Michael Strong (Dr. Serensky); Vivian Nathan (Charwoman)
Road Company (1955). Produced by Elaine Perry; Director, Alan Schneider; Settings, Ben Edwards Dolly Haas (Anna); Eugenie Leontovich (Dowager Empress); John Emery (Prince Bounine); Robert Duke (Prince Paul); Carl Don (Chernov); Kurt Richards (Petrovin); Stanley Pitts (Sergei); Sefton Darr (Varya); George Cotton (Counsellor Drivinitz)- John Hallow (Dr. Serensky); Lili Valenty (Baroness Livenbaum); Frances Ingalls (Charwoman); Allen Joseph (Sleigh Driver)
Kleines Theatre im Zoo, Frankfurt, Germany, opened April 30 1955 Produced and directed by Fritz Remond; Translation by Ernestine Costa; Settings, Lothar Baumgarten; Costumes, Johann Jansen Inge Langen (Anastasia); Else Heims (Dowager Empress)- Herbert W. Boehme (Prince Bounine); Thomas Vallon (Prince Paul); Christian Schneider (Petrovin); Viktor Stephan Goertz (Chernoff)- Reinhold Kalldehoff (Obelenski); Wilhelm Schmidt (Sleigh Driver)
Road Company (1956).Produced by S. M. Handelsman; Director, Albert Lipton; Settings and costumes, Charles Evans Signe Hasso (Anya); Gale Sondergaai’d (Dowager Empress)- Stiano Braggiotti (Prince Bounine); John Hallow (Prince Paul); Boris Marshalov (Chernov); Jan Kalionzes (Varya); Charles Randall (Petrovin); Ted Gunther (Sergei); Ullo Kazanova (Baroness Livenbaum); Simon Oakland (Dr. Serensky); Mervin Williams (Counsellor Drivinitz); Ludmilla Toretzka (Charwoman); Charles P. Thomp¬ son (Sleigh Driver)
Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, Conn., opened August 13, Produced by Lawrence Langner, Armina Marshall and John C. Wilson; Director, Boris Tumarin; Sets and lighting, Marvin Reiss Dolores Del Rio (Anastasia); Lili Darvas (Dowager Empress); Stephen Elliott (Bounine); Alan Shayne (Prince Paul); Boris Tumarin (Chernov); Ellen Cohn (Vanya); Paul Stevens (Petrovin); Clark Warren (Sergei); Hal Gerson (Counsellor Drivinitz); Frank Marth (Dr. Serensky); Sylvia Davis (Baroness Livenbaum); George Ebeling (Sleigh Driver); Clarice Blackburn (Charwoman)
Cambridge Theatre, London, England,opened September 22, 1976. Produced by Robert Sidaway and Mark Furness;Director, Tony Cra¬ ven; Settings, Pamela Ingram; Costumes, Hugh Durrant; Lighting, Howard Eaton Nyree Dawn Porter (Anya); Elspeth March (Dowager Empress); Peter Wyngarde (Prince Bounine); Brian Poyser (Plouvitch); Ray Gatenby (Drivinitz); Ron Alexander (Sergei); David Nettheim (Boris); Brian Poyser (Dr. Michael Serensky); John Locke (Prince Paul); Jo Anderson (Baroness Livenbaum); Jeanette Lewis (Peasant Woman); David Griffin (Piotr Petrovin)
ANYA, Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, opened November 29, 1965.
16 performances. Produced by Fred R. Fehlhaber; Director, George Abbott; Scenery, Robert Randolph; Costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting, Richard Casler; Dances and musical numbers, Hanya Holm; Book, (based on the play Anastasia), by George Abbott, Guy Bolton; Musical director, Harold Hastings; Orchestrations, Don Walker;
Music (based on themes by Rachmaninoff), and lyrics, Robert Wright, George Forrest
Constance Towers (Anya); Lillian Gish (Dowager Empress); John Michael King (Prince Paul); Ed Steffe (Petrovin); George S. Irving (Chernov); Michael Kermoyan (Bounine); Margaret Mullen (Baroness Livenbaum); Irra Petina (Katrina); Boris Aplon (Josef); Lawrence Brooks (Count Drivinitz); Adair McGowan (Count Dorn); Jack Dabdoub (Sergei); Walter Hook (Yegor); Karen Shepard (Genia, the Countess Hohenstadt); Laurie Franks (Olga); Rita Metzger (Masha); Lawrence Boyll (Sleigh Driver); Elizabeth Howell (Anouchka); Barbara Alexander (Tinka); Maggie Task (Mother); Michael Quinn (Father); Elizabeth Howell (Countess Drivinitz); Bernard Frank, Lawrence Boyll (Policemen); Howard Kahl (Police Sergeant); Patricia Hoffman (Nurse); Konstantin Pioulsky (Balalaika player); Barbara Alexander, Ciya Challis, Patricia Drylie, Juliette Durand, Kip Andrews, Steven Boockvor, Randy Doney, Joseph Nelson (Dancers); Laurie Franks, Patricia Hoffman, Rita Metzger, Mia Powers, Lourette Raymon, Diane Tarleton, Maggie Task, Darrel Askey, Lawrence Boyll, Les Freed, Horace Guittard, Walter Hook, Howard Kahl, Adair McGowan, Richard Nieves, J. Vernon Oaks, Robert Sharp, John Taliaferro, Bernard Frank (Singers)
Anya; A Song from Somewhere; Vodka, Vodka!; So Proud; Homeward; Snowflakes and Sweethearts; On That Day; Six Palaces; Hand in Hand; This Is My Kind of Love; That Prelude!; A Quiet Land; Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?; Leben Sie Wohl; If This Is Goodbye; Little Hands; All Hail the Empress
20th Century-Fox, released December 14, 1956. Produced by Buddy Adler; Director, Anatole Litvak; Screenplay, Arthur Laurents; Camera, Jack Hildyard; Art directors, Andrei Andreiev, Bill Andrews; Music, Alfred Newman; Russian music arranged by Michel Michelet; Assistant director, Gerry O’Hara; Costumes, Rene Hubert; Dialogue assistant, Paul Dickson; Editor, Bert Bates; Set decorator, Andrew Low Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia); Helen Hayes (Dowager Empress); Yul Brynner (Prince Bounine); Akim Tamiroff (Chernov); Martita Hunt (Baroness von Livenbaum); Felix Aylmer (Russian Chamber- lain); Sascha Pitoeff (Petrovin); Ivan Desny (Prince Paul); Natalie Schafer (Lissenskaia); Gregoire Gromoff (Stepan); Karel Stepanek (Vlados); Ina de la Haye (Marusia); Tamara Shayne (Zenia); Peter Salles (Grischa); Olga Valery (Countess Baranova); Polycarpe Pauloft (Schiscken); Katherine Kath (Maxime); Hy Hazell (Blonde Lady)
SONG: Anastasia by Alfred Newman; Lyrics, Paul Francis Webster
ANASTASIA, DIE LETZE ZARENTOCHTER, Deutschen-London Film, released 1956. Produced by Max Koslowski; Co-producer, ALFU- Corona-Hansa; Director, Falk Harnack; Screenplay, based on historical data, by Herbert Reinecker; Camera, Friedel Behn-Grund; Settings, Fritz Naurischat, Ernest Schone, Arno Richter; Camera and lighting, Georg Mahr, Felix Lehmann; Assistant director, Fritz Martin Lang; Choreography, Tatjana Gsovsky; Music, Herbert Trantow; Editor, Kurt Zeunert Lilli Palmer (Anastasia); Ivan Desny (Gleb Botkin); Susanne von Almassy (Mrs. Stevens); Dorothea Wieck (Grand Princess Olga); Tilla Durieux (Mother of Czar Nicholas II); Margot Hielscher (Crown Princess Cecilie); Ellen Schwiers (Princess Katharina); Adelheid Seeck (Princess Irene); Franziska Kinz (Duchess of Leuchtenberg); Otto Graf (Duke of Leuchtenberg); Hans Krull (Prince of Sachsen-Altenburg); Kathe Braun (Frau von Rathleff- Keitmann); Eva Bubat (Gertrud Schanzkosky); Emmy Burg (Ple- gerin Schwarzkopf); Erika Dannihoff (Frau von Pleskau)
Hallmark Hall of Fame, televised March 17, 1967. NBC. 90 minutes. Produced and directed by George Schaefer; Television adaptation, John Edward Friend
Charles D. Gray (Prince Bounine); Brenda Forbes (Baroness von Livenbaum); George S. Irving (Chernov); David Hurst (Petrovin); Paul Robeling (Prince Paul); Robinson Stone (Drivinitz); Robert Burr (Dr. Serensky)
James Agee’s elegiac and touching novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously by McDowell, Obolensky two years after his death from a heart attack in New York City on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-five. The novel, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, was adapted as a play in 1960 by Tad Mosel (George Ault Mosel, Jr.). Mosel won the Pulitzer Prize for his play in 1961, marking the first time in the forty-five-year-old history of the awards that a play adapted from a Pulitzer Prize novel was also the recipient of the award. The play opened to general critical acclaim but was ignored by the public. Three days after the opening, the closing notice went up. The author, producers, director and other personnel waived their royalties and salaries; the Shuberts reduced the theatre rental and the published announcement of the play’s clos¬ ing added public support. Again the closing notice went up for Saturday April 22, 1961, but on Tuesday, April 18 the play was given the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best Play of the Year and, again, survived. The flux of audience absenteeism and hopeful honorariums won the beleaguered play the synonym of “The Miracle on 44th Street.” In the superlative cast assembled for the play, Colleen Dewhurst (who won the “Tony” Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama), Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Aline Mac- Mahon, Art Smith and others, was an 81-year-old woman who played the role of Great-Great-Granmaw, Lylah Tiffany, who for eleven years supported herself by playing the accordian on the sidewalk out¬ side of Carnegie Hall. Miss Tiffany repeated her role of the 102- year-old Great-Great-Granmaw in the film version of the play.
Belasco Theatre, New York, opened November 30, 1960. 334 performances. Produced by Fred Coe (in association with Arthur Can¬ tor); Director, Arthur Penn; Settings and lighting, David Hays; Cos¬ tumes, Raymond Sovey; Assistant director, Gene Lasko Arthur Hill (Jay Follet); Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet); Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch); Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch); Art Smith (Father Jackson); Lenka Peterson (Sally Follet); Clif¬ ton James (Ralph Follet); Edwin Wolfe (John Henry Follet); Thomas Chalmers (Joel Lynch); Tom Wheatley (Andrew Lynch); Georgia Simmons (Jessie Follet); Dorrit Kelton (Aunt Sadie Follet); Lylah Tiffany (Great-Great-Granmaw); John Megna (Rufus); Christopher Month (Jim-Wilson); Larry Provost, Jeff Conaway, Gary Morgan, Robert Ader (Boys)
ANYA, Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, opened November 29, 1965.
16 performances. Produced by Fred R. Fehlhaber; Director, George Abbott; Scenery, Robert Randolph; Costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting, Richard Casler; Dances and musical numbers, Hanya Holm; Book, (based on the play Anastasia), by George Abbott, Guy Bolton; Musical director, Harold Hastings; Orchestrations, Don Walker; Music (based on themes by Rachmaninoff), and lyrics, Robert Wright, George Forrest Constance Towers (Anya); Lillian Gish (Dowager Empress); John Michael King (Prince Paul); Ed Steffe (Petrovin); George S. Irving (Chernov); Michael Kermoyan (Bounine); Margaret Mullen (Baroness Livenbaum); Irra Petina (Katrina); Boris Aplon (Josef); Lawrence Brooks (Count Drivinitz); Adair McGowan (Count Dorn); Jack Dabdoub (Sergei); Walter Hook (Yegor); Karen Shepard (Genia, the Countess Hohenstadt); Laurie Franks (Olga); Rita Metzger (Masha); Lawrence Boyll (Sleigh Driver); Elizabeth Howell (Anouchka); Barbara Alexander (Tinka); Maggie Task (Mother); Michael Quinn (Father); Elizabeth Howell (Countess Drivinitz); Bernard Frank, Lawrence Boyll (Policemen); Howard Kahl (Police Sergeant); Patricia Hoffman (Nurse); Konstantin Pio- Ulsky (Balalaika player); Barbara Alexander, Ciya Challis, Patricia Drylie, Juliette Durand, Kip Andrews, Steven Boockvor, Randy Doney, Joseph Nelson (Dancers); Laurie Franks, Patricia Hoffman, Rita Metzger, Mia Powers, Lourette Raymon, Diane Tarleton, Maggie Task, Darrel Askey, Lawrence Boyll, Les Freed, Horace Guittard, Walter Hook, Howard Kahl, Adair McGowan, Richard Nieves, J. Vernon Oaks, Robert Sharp, John Taliaferro, Bernard Frank (Singers)
SONGS: Anya; A Song from Somewhere; Vodka, Vodka!; So Proud; Homeward; Snowflakes and Sweethearts; On That Day; Six Palaces; Hand in Hand; This Is My Kind of Love; That Prelude!; A Quiet Land; Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?; Leben Sie Wohl; If This Is Goodbye; Little Hands; All Hail the Empress
Arsenic and Old Lace
Ford Theatre’s telecast of the play on April 11, 1949, remains the best video production with Josephine Hull and Boris Karloff reprising their stage roles. Best of Broadway’s January 5, 1955 telecast of Arsenic and Old Lace, according to Variety, was excellent, “Miss Hayes was a complete delight. Karloff and Lorre made the perfect murderous pair, relishing every line. Bean added comedy-relief of his own in fine double-take fashion.” Hallmark Hall of Fame’s experiment with the comedy in 1962 was found wanting by Variety, The wit and fantasy of the Kesselring original were swamped by several earthbound actors.” Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick. as the administering spinsters, were considered too real to be fun while Tony Randall as Mortimer was excessively clownish. The American Broadcasting System produced a two-hour color-special of Arsenic and Old Lace on April 2, 1969. that Variety found “was still almost as good for laughs as it was 28 years ago. Acting was good and professional. But you’d expect that from a cast of pros headed by Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the murderous but well meaning little old Brewster sisters.” At the end of the telecast, eleven of& the thirteen “bodies” emerged from the cellar to take bows with the “live” cast–as had been done on the stage.
ABC Color Special, televised April 2, 1969. ABC. 2 hours. Producer, Hubbell Robinson; Television adaptation, Luther Davis; Director, Robert Scheerer
Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster); Lillian Gish (Martha Brewster); David Wayne (Teddy Brewster); Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster); Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster); Sue Lyon (Elaine Harper); Bob Dishy (Officer Sampson); Jack Gilford (Dr. Einstein); Billy De Wolfe (Mr. Witherspoon); Victor Kilian (Mr. Gibbs); Frank Campanella (Officer Klein); Bernard West (Benner)
in 1882 playing The Lady of the Camelias. Abandoned after the surge of the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Robert Edmond Jones restored the acoustically perfect theatre and in July 1932 reopened the Central City Opera House on its fiftieth anniversary with Edna and Delos Chappell’s translation of Dumas’ play. Staged by Robert Edmond Jones, Camille starred Lillian Gish. The Colorado production was transferred to Broadway on November 1, 1932, at the Morosco Theatre for fifteen performances. Robert Garland (The New York World-Telegram) found Lillian Gish played the lady of the ca- melias “in just the proper key … a charmingly artificial resurrection of a charmingly artificial play, a museum piece from the half-forgotten eighties, staged by Robert Edmond Jones, who adores such things and acted in its leading role by an anachronistic lady who seemed somehow to belong.”
Morosco Theatre, New York, opened November 1, 1932. 15 performances. Produced by Delos Chappell, Inc. ; Directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones; Translation of play by Alexandre Dumas, Edna and Delos Chappell, Robert Edmond Jones; Music, Macklin Marrow
Lillian Gish (Marguerite Gautier); Raymond Hackett (Armand Duvall); Moffat Johnston (M. Georges Duval); Frederic Worlock (Baron de Varville); Cora Witherspoon (Prudence Duvernoy); Helen Freeman (Olympe); Robert Le Sueur (Saint-Gaudens); ’ian Van-Wolfe (Comte de Diray); Lewis Martin (Gaston Rieux); Mary Morris (Nanine); Leona Boytel (Nichette); Ian Van-Wolfe (Gustave)- Paul Stephenson (Arthur); Moffat Johnston (Doctor); Edna James (Anais); Harriett Ingersoll, Betty Upthegrove, Lillian Bronson, William James, Bartlett Robinson, Richard Kendrick (Guests Servants)
Crime and Punishment
The Rodney Ackland stage version opened in New York at the National Theatre on December 22, 1947, but survived only 64 performances. Time magazine felt Dostoievsky’s novel defied dramatization, a concept that was popular from the late eighteen-hundreds. While admiring John Gielgud’s “brilliantly mannered performance” the play was dismissed as a gloomy bore. Variety determined that Ackland’s adaptation lacked theatrical form without concept of set acts and scenes. Lillian Gish’s performance as Katerina was called “superb” and John Gielgud’s portrayal of Raskolnikoff judged as … “possibly the finest performance of his distinguished Broadway career…. ” Critic George Jean Nathan announced, “The present version by Mr. Ackland has its points, but, like all the others, is hardly satisfactory to respecters of the novel. The result is a play that, save in one or two scenes, merely skims some of the plot elements of the novel and leaves the cream of its body untouched. . .. Everything considered, I fear that the exhibit is best critically described, to borrow Dorothy Parker’s reply to the author of a drugstore murder novel who asked her to supply him with a title, as Crime and Punishment, Jr.”
National Theatre, New York, opened December 22, 1947. 64 performances. Produced by Robert Whitehead and Oliver Rea; Director, Theodore Komisarievsky; Associate director, Bea Lawrence; Setting, Paul Sherifi; Costumes, Lester Polakov; Production associate, Virginia Bolen John Gielgud (Rodion Romanitch Raskoinikofi); Dolly Haas (Sonia Marmeladoff); Lillian Gish (Katerina Ivanna); Vladimir Sokoloff (Porfiri Petrovitch); Alexander Scourby (Dmitri Prokovitch Raz¬ oumikhin); Sanford Meisner (Simon Zaharitch Marmeladoff); Alice John (Pulcheria Alexandrovna); Marian Seldes (Dounia); E. A. Krumschmidt (Casimir Stanislawowitch Looshinsky); Ben Morse (Lebeziatnikoff); Betty Lou Keim (Polya); Sherry Smith (Leda); Payton Price (Ivan); Elisabeth Neumann (Amalia); Galina Talva (Nastasia); Susan Steell (Daria); Howard Fischer (Street Vendor); Wauna Paul (Anyutka, his wife); Robert Donley (Street Vendor’s Assistant); Scott Moore (Lodger); Michael Arshansky (Ex-Soldier); Mary James (Lizavieta); Richard Purdy (Zametoff); Patrick McVey (Doctor); Harry Selby (Coachman); Robert Pastene (Priest); David Elliott (Government Clerk); Cecile Sherman (His Wife); Amy Douglass (Widow); Jeri Souvinet (Her Daughter); Eugenia Woods (Old Lady); Arthur Griffin (Old Gentleman); Richard Hayes (Fomitch); Mort Marshall (A Strange Man); Mary Diveny, Mary Stuart, Marjorie Tas, Niels Miller, Robert Pastene, Graham Ferguson, John Vicari, Theodore Tenley, James Matsagas, Wil¬ liam Beal (Lodgers, Policemen, Street Musicians, Delivery Boys, Passers-by)
His Double Life
HIS DOUBLE LIFE, Paramount Pictures, released December 1933. Produced by Arthur Hopkins; Directors, William C. de Mille, Arthur Hopkins; Screenplay, Clara Beranger, Arthur Hopkins (based on Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive and his play The Great Adventure); Camera, Arthur Edeson; Editor, Arthur Ellis
Roland Young (Priam Farell); Lillian Gish (Alice Challice /Hunter); Montagu Love (Duncan Farell); Lumsden Hare (Charles Oxford); Lucy Beaumont (Mrs. Leek); Charles Richman (Mr. Witt); Philip Tonge, Oliver Smith (Leek Twins); Roland Hogue (Henry Leek); Audrey Ridgewell (Helen)
SONGS: Someday, Sometime, Somewhere; Springtime in Old Granada (James Hanley, Karl Stark)
The Late Christopher Bean
Sidney Coe Howard’s successful adaptation of the French stage play Prenez Garde La Peinture was his twelfth play, and his fifth translation of a foreign play, the others being: S.S. Tenacity (1923); Marseilles (1932) from the French; Casanova (1923), from the Spanish and Sancho Panza (1923) from the Hungarian. The role of Abby, protectress of her lover’s paintings, was played on the stage by a succession of fine actresses: Pauline Lord, Edith Evans, Charlotte Greenwood, ZaSu Pitts, Shirley Booth; on the screen by Charlotte Clasis and Marie Dressier. Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Thelma Ritter gave the role stature on television.
“Mr. Howard has written a funny comedy with a hilarious conclusion; and Pauline Lord, as the faithful drudge of the country doc¬ tor’s family, acts a comedy role with admirable lightness of touch and luminous beauty. “–Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times).
Philco Playhouse’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean, shown on February 6, 1949, featured Lillian Gish as Abby. “Televersion of Sidney Howard’s amicable little play engenders the same charm as the original. Miss Gish was extremely appealing, ” reported Variety. Helen Hayes appeared as the bedeviled Abby in Pulitzer Prize Playhouse’s telecast of the play on October 27, 1950, and “scored a complete triumph as the maid. ” Twentieth Century-Fox’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean was aired on November 30, 1955, and released the following year abroad as a feature film starring Thelma Ritter where it was found to survive “quite tolerably as an anecdote in this abridged version. Treatment is flat and one-dimensional although Thelma Ritter brings her usual decisive assurance to the part of Abby. “
Philco Playhouse, televised February 6, 1949. NBC. 1 hour. Produced and directed by Fred Coe Lillian Gish (Abby); Bert Lytell (Dr. Haggett); Helen Carew (Mrs. Haggett); Ellen Cobb Hill (Susan Haggett); Clarence Derwent (Rosen); Perry Wilson (Warren Creamer); Philip Coolidge (Tallant); Louis Sorin (Davenport)
Life With Father
National Road Company (1939 – May 24, 1941). Produced by Oscar Serlin; Director, Bretaigne Windust; Setting and costumes, Stewart Chaney; Music arranger, Edmund Thiele Percy Waram (Father); Lillian Gish (Vinnie); O. Z. Whitehead (Clarence); Peter Jamerson (John); James Roland (Whitney); David Jeffries (Harlan); Clara Joel (Margaret); Margaret Randall (Annie); Virgilia Chew (Cora); Georgette McKee (Mary); George Le Soir (The Rev. Dr. Lloyd); Aubrey Hynes (Delia); Shirley De Me (Nora); Charles Walton (Dr. Sommers); Gertrude Beach (Maggie)
Imagine it is 1930. The silent era has passed and you want to pay tribute to its greatest actress. Who would you choose? You would consider Garbo, but hers is a relatively new face. The actress you would have to select, an actress who has worked on the screen consistently since 1912, whose pictures include the cinema’s greatest classics, is Lillian Gish.
That such a tribute could still be staged in 1983 is astonishing. And those who were there, at the Thames Silents in the Dominion Theatre at the end of the London Film Festival will remember it for the rest of their lives.
For Lillian Gish was not only by common consent the greatest actress of the silent era, she personified it. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period. And there can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to her credit: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, all directed by the man she calls the Father of Film, David Wark Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics-The White Sister and Romola-and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.
actress Lilian Gish invited to present extracts of her films in french film archive by his manager Henri Langlois on June 21, 1969
actress lilian gish invited to present extracts of her films in french film archive by his manager henri langlois on june 21, 1969 – famous actress lillian gish_ in paris for homage ev
Hers has always been the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish has associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois (she succeeded) and Abel Gance (she failed) to helping to promote the reconstructed versions of Napoleon and A Star Is Born. And somehow she still finds time to act. Thames Television’s association with the silent era began with the Hollywood TV series. David Gill, director, Carl Davis, composer, and I had worked together on all thirteen programmes, and David and Carl wanted to celebrate transmission by staging a silent film in a West End theatre with live orchestra. They selected Broken Blossoms, but at the time no one at Thames thought it a good idea. So we had to wait until the new head of Thames, Bryan Cowgill, in an inspired moment, launched the first showing of the reconstructed Napoleon with orchestra. The success was unprecedented and David Gill has sustained the momentum, heading a small team which not only stages the films for the public but prepares them for Channel 4. When we first put the idea of the tribute to Lillian Gish, she was as enthusiastic as we had hoped. She promised that she would be there, ‘so long as my filming commitments permit.’ Ideas tend to generate themselves, and the Cinematheque Francaise decided to hold a Lillian Gish retrospective in Paris. Unhappily, Paris did not know of our plans, nor we of theirs, and they settled on early October, meaning Lillian Gish had to fly to Paris, return to New York, then fly back again at the end of November She had only recently finished acting in Hambone and Hillie, in California. She had endured a very demanding schedule. We wondered how she would stand up to another.
Saturday, 26 November 1983
The weather forecast was a litany of gale warnings. The Thames car hire people rang me to say the plane was due half an hour early; evidently the tailwinds were tremendous. A white Mercedes picked me up and whisked me to the airport. En route, the driver expressed great interest in Lillian Gish. He liked watching old films on TV. Had I seen a series called Hollywood? It had taught him that silent films were not accompanied by a piano, but in the big theatres by orchestras. I told him he could experience just such an event next weekend. I scanned the crowd of passengers emerging from customs. One stopped me, recognising me from a Barbican show of Napoleon. He was an off-duty immigration officer. When he heard who I was waiting for, he reached into a shoulder bag, pulled out a camera, and joined us on our side of the railings. I saw an official pushing a wheelchair. Whoever it was, I told myself, it wouldn’t be Lillian Gish. But then I recognised something about the colour of the clothes. My morale plummeted. I rushed up, and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.
‘We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,’ said her manager, James Frasher, following behind with a trolley piled high with suitcases. ‘We expected a golf cart,’ he whispered. ‘Lillian said, “This’ll scare them to death. They’ll think I’m an invalid.” ‘ As it happened, he added, she had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.
‘We read about the newspaper strike,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ I said. ‘We’ve lost our publicity campaign.’ And I showed her the magazines, which no one would see, of the Mail on Sunday big spread with photo-and the Sunday Times-a long article with a photo by Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ‘We’ll do lots of radio,’ she said. ‘We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.’
At the suite at the Savoy, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited Lillian Gish. ‘I first came here in 1917 ,’ she said, looking out at the view of the river. ‘Our suite was just like this, and Mr Griffith held all our rehearsals here for Hearts of the World. We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk [Cleopatra’s Needle]. There was no warning-just a sudden bang. Mother was doing her hair. Dorothy and I ran down. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe twelve people were killed.’ She looked at the porters who had brought up the luggage. ‘That was the First War. You don’t even remember the Second!’ I showed her the printed programme for the Tribute. She seemed delighted with it. ‘How is the music for Broken Blossoms?’ ‘It’s the original Louis Gottschalk score,’ I said, ‘which Carl Davis has adapted.’ ‘Tell them not to forget the Chinese gongs,’ she said. ‘They are very important to the meaning of the picture.’ For someone who should have been suffering from jet lag, Lillian Gish was remarkably ebullient. She examined the press coverage which had escaped the strike, and James Frasher skittishly showed her an item illustrated by three pictures-two of her and one of the vast female impersonator Divine. ‘I like this picture of you best,’ he said. Lillian Gish looked at him reproachfully. ‘Oh, Jim.’ Then she examined it again. ‘It looks as if I’d eaten a lot,’ she said.
Tuesday 29 November
The television monitor in the Thames Silents office was tuned in to A-Plus, which was setting up in the studio. I saw Lillian Gish, dressed in a striking pink suit, taking her seat, and almost at once heard her directing the lighting. ‘Camera high, light low,’ she explained. She checked the result on a nearby monitor. One could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes. ‘Eyes are so important,’ she told the cameraman. ‘I believe that’s why Dallas is such a success around the world … you can see their eyes so clearly. The story is just repetitive, but human beings love seeing themselves looking so attractive.’ Suddenly the cameraman zoomed in. Lillian Gish saw at once what he was doing. ‘Don’t come so close,’ she warned. ‘You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.’ They settled for what she wanted. ‘Honestly,’ said Mavis Nicholson, the presenter, ‘you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.’ ‘
I was born this way,’ said Lillian Gish, with a chuckle. ‘I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colours, you know-brown, black, white, blonde. It’s still me.’ The opening of the show, which had been pre-recorded, was run. It ended with a scene from The Wind. Lillian Gish said, ‘But to match that face sixty years later! I did my best this morning with make-up. But you can’t perform miracles. You have to help it with lights.’ ‘Only a little,’ said Mavis Nicholson.
‘Oh, it’s not for me-that’s vanity-it’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say, “Oh, how awful!” ‘
During the interview, Lillian Gish spoke about acting. She gestured at the lens. ‘This camera teaches you what not to do. I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in your mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.’ That evening, the Guardian lecture was held at the National Film Theatre. All the seats had been sold. Despite the cold, a crowd hovered at the entrance. When Lillian Gish arrived, in a black fur coat and black cap, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing and even a man with an old-fashioned cine camera trying vainly to get a steady shot of Lillian Gish as she was escorted through the foyer to the Green Room. After a brief extract from Broken Blossoms, Sheridan Morley came on stage and introduced ‘The first lady of the American cinema.’ And he asked: ‘Once you had settled in Hollywood in 1913, what were the films that first established you out there, that made you feel you were the beginnings of an industry?’
‘We didn’t know that,’ she answered. ‘We were too young. It was just something that we were working in to make a living until we were old enough to be accepted in the theatre as ingenues. At that time photography was so terrible that an old hag of eighteen was passe.
She was a character woman. They had to have young faces. Once we went in to the studio, and there was an audience scene, and under the lights-those Cooper Hewitt lights-they all looked as if they’d been dead for three weeks.’
At the end of the evening, questions were invited from the audience. Someone asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ‘Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,’ she said to laughter from the audience. ‘Seventy-five per cent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard.’ There was more laughter. ‘They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them “ga-ga babies”.’
Her humour was direct, her vitality extraordinary. At the end, she received a standing ovation. Outside, the crush was so severe it was hard to reach the Green Room, and by the time I got there it was like Groucho Marx’s cabin. Later, James Frasher organised a path through the crowd so that Lillian Gish could sign autographs. And then she was swept out through a barrage of flashbulbs to the white Mercedes, and as it drove away we all felt the cold again.
Thursday, 1 December
Rehearsal this afternoon for Broken Blossoms at the Dominion. Contemporary reports of the film’s premiere all referred to the elaborate Chinese decoration of the theatre. In particular, they described ‘an unearthly mauve light’. Griffith discovered a lighting system by accident, when he projected the film with the theatre lights still burning from the prologue and saw the flattering effect on the screen. He used it extensively during the first run and later patented the device. David Gill, in charge of staging these events, felt that we should pay lip service to the idea. Pat Downing, head of Thames Design, contrived . a set of Chinese panels to fit either side of the screen, and a lighting display was organized by Lou Bottone to accompany the overture. It was no more than a hint of Griffith’s Grand Plan, but the print, from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, was lavishly and richly toned and any attempt to play light on the screen during projection would have been superfluous. Lillian Gish dropped in for a few minutes during the rehearsal. As she arrived, the sequence on the screen-Cheng Huan discovering Lucy-was toned a rich brown. ‘I don’t like that sepia print they’ve sent,’ she said. ‘It was a black and white film.’ I was flabbergasted. The print had been produced at colossal expense from a toned nitrate original. And even allowing for the print at the premiere being black and white, Griffith’s lighting scheme would have added colour. ‘My scenes were black and white, because I was meant to look pale and ill. The tinting makes me look sunburnt.’ Yet Broken Blossoms was renowned for its colour effects, so I confess I was bewildered, not to mention downcast. It did not bode well for the big show. ‘By the way,’ she added, as she was climbing into the white Mercedes, ‘you won’t forget the gongs, will you?’
We did not, but at rehearsal the gong had sounded like a saucepan. ‘Where are we going to find a replacement?’ asked Carl Davis. I suggested Chinatown-Gerrard Street, Soho-and Colin Matthews remembered a Chinese instrument shop at Cambridge Circus, so we raced out to find it. Through the door we saw an assistant playing an amber flute, just like Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms. We explained our predicament and were shown a gong which sounded superb. ‘It’s £1,000-you could hire it at £100 a day plus VAT.’ We settled for a much cheaper version, and handed out free tickets for the evening show … which was now almost upon us.
At the Dominion, a flurry of excitement as silent star Bessie Love arrived, signing the statutory autographs and posing for pictures. She was followed by John Gielgud … Anna Neagle … Emlyn Williams, who had played the Barthelmess part in the 1934 remake of Broken Blossoms, and as it filled up the theatre (built in 1929) began to look more and more like a picture palace. Nevertheless, David and I were extremely apprehensive. How would the audience take to this strange, poetic fable from another age? They laughed in places at An Unseen Enemy, the 1912 nickelodeon film, in which the Gish sisters made their debut. The atmosphere changed as soon as Lillian Gish herself appeared on stage to introduce the main film, and explain the background. (Luckily, she didn’t refer to the tinting!) It was astonishing to see an actress on film in 1912, then to see her walk-on the stage in 1983. A hush descended as the richly coloured lights played on the screen and the orchestra began to play the overture. I sat next to Lillian Gish. The atmosphere grew stronger, and on to the screen came the first shot of the gong. The musician spotted his cue too late. The gongs were mute. ‘Where’s the gong?’ asked Lillian Gish. ‘That’s the essence of the meaning of the film.’ I explained that the cue had been missed, but I recalled in acute embarrassment the number of times she had reminded us. Fortunately, at each of its later appearances, the gong was loud and clear. And Carl’s adaptation of the original 1919 score, orchestrated by Dave Cullen, was surprisingly touching.
The experience of watching the film was transformed by the music (and, of course, the presence of a large and receptive audience). I had seen 16mm prints of dismal quality of Broken Blossoms, sometimes silent, sometimes with a piano, and the emotion had remained buried, like a flower beneath the snow. I had often wondered at the film’s high reputation, and looked upon it myself somewhat patronisingly, as the cinematic equivalent of a Victorian sampler. As soon as the music began, the picture took on a new life. The Gottschalk score was of no great merit in itself, but it was intelligent. It had been supervised by Griffith himself (who composed the ‘White Blossom’ theme for Lillian Gish). It thus belonged intrinsically to the film. The fusion of music and picture, like carbon arcs coming together, created an effect of extraordinary intensity. Gestures and expressions gained fresh significance; when Cheng Huan (Barthelmess) finds his home destroyed and Lucy gone, he cries out and collapses to the floor. Slightly risible when seen silent, this gesture gained great poignancy with the music. Even the performance of Donald Crisp, perhaps the most overacted villain in all silent films, assumed an operatic stature with the Wagner theme. As for Lillian Gish, her part seemed exceptional even when viewed under the worst film society conditions. Now her performance radiated the same electricity as it had in 1919, and it reduced many to tears. ‘I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,’ a man said to me in the foyer. ‘This has been my greatest evening.’
Saturday, 3 December
A telephone call from James Frasher. Lillian Gish had hurt her ankle again and would not be able to introduce the last show of The Wind this evening. But she would try to be there for the end. This added suspense to the proceedings, and a sense of drama which, I must admit, was not unwelcome. (Fortunately, she had seen the first performance yesterday.) I remember seeing The Wind for the first time many years ago at the old NFT, and there were seven in the audience. This time, we had 1,362 and the house was nearly full. But as I said to David, how good a picture do we have to show, how great an actress do we have to bring over, and how long must she have worked in the cinema, before we fill the house? The BFI has over 30,000 members who profess an interest in the cinema-where are they when we need them? Foreigners put the British to shame on these occasions. Historian J. B. Kaufman had flown in from Kansas, a large group had come from Paris, including King Vidor’s daughter, and an actor from Napoleon, Harry-Krimer, who had seen Broken Blossoms sixty-four years ago, had travelled by Hovercraft from France.
The audience reaction was noticeably different from that to Broken Blossoms. The Wind, for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comedy relief, and this received a lot more laughter than I anticipated. I suspected that some did not realise it was supposed to be funny; one or two people tittered at dramatic moments. Again, the music exercised its power. Soon, the laughter ceased altogether. The score, composed by Carl Davis himself, was of a more sophisticated order than the one for Broken Blossoms. So was the film. The story of a young girl from Virginia who comes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas was full of psychological nuance, and depended heavily on Lillian Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance. But however effective the film might be seen silent-and there can be no doubt that it is effective-the addition of music provided far more than mere accompaniment. The girl’s dilemma suddenly becomes much more vivid. One not only feels for her, one feels profound sympathy for the well-meaning clod of a cowboy she has been forced to marry. And one feels much more strongly the pressures of her new life, and the emotional tug of her memories of Virginia. With the storm scene, the score reverted entirely to percussion, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theatre, a sound so loud it was almost painful, dragging one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the girl-one seemed to be inside her head. This musique tempete climax, orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, and with it the pounding of the orchestra, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience which had apparently held its breath for more than half a reel. ‘The most terrifying cinematic moment of 1983,’ wrote Geoff Brown in The Times. ‘No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.’
After taking several curtain calls, to tremendous applause, Carl Davis returned and announced, ‘If you’ll give us a few minutes, Miss Gish will be with us.’ A very few minutes later, Lillian Gish stepped into the spotlight with scarcely a sign of a limp. She was greeted by a standing ovation. Like the trouper she has always been, she insisted on giving the audience full value. ‘We worked out in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, in temperatures which were seldom under 120°. I was the only woman in the troupe, except for the wife of the assistant, who was very large. So I had no double. I did . all my own stunts, like falling off the horse. And there were eight [she actually said eighteen, but it was an emotional evening!] airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress, but luckily not in my eyes. Cold I can stand, but not heat, so The Wind was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures. I hope you enjoyed it, and let me say how wonderful I thought the orchestra was. The music was 75 per cent of the excitement you have just experienced.’ Later, at a reception, she toasted everyone who had a hand in the 1983 Thames Silents, and said ‘May this be our unhappiest moment.’ The reactions to The Wind could not have been more positive-some people thought it even more powerful than Napoleon. We transmitted these reactions when we said farewell to Lillian Gish at the hotel. She and James Frasher were busy packing. She wore a white flowered dressing-gown, and her long blonde hair hung loose to the waist. The soft lights glowed on her skin and hair and I have never seen her look more beautiful. The rest of us were exhausted; she was suffering no obvious effects from a schedule which had included endless interviews and an appearance at every performance. Over tea, she acknowledged that the tinted Broken Blossoms had looked better at the performance. ‘You must have put more light behind it,’ she said. But she insisted that it had originally been black and white. We left her in her suite, which was full of flowers and fan mail. ‘When I get back to New York,’ she said, ‘I’m going to bed and I won’t wake up until 1984. So when you think of me, think of me horizontal.’
When we think of Lillian Gish from now on, the great actress will come second to the enchanting woman herself. She may have the stubbornness of a pioneer, but there is a quality one can only describe as sweetness which transcends any role she ever played.