What Makes Them Cry – By Frederick James Smith (PHOTOPLAY 1923)

PHOTOPLAY Vol. XXIII May, 1923 No.6

What Makes Them Cry

By Frederick James Smith

What Moves the Stars to Tears

  • Mary Pickford by Massenet Elegie
  • Pola Negri by Grieg’s Lament
  • Bill Hart by “Sweet Bunch of Daisies”
  • Theda Bara by Gabriel-Marie’s “La Cinquantaine”
  • Betty Compson by “Aloha”
  • Dorothy Dalton by “Kiss Me Again”
  • Mae Busch by “Home Sweet Home”
Judith from Bethulia 7
Judith from Bethulia

SINCE Blanche Sweet wept the first sensational real screen tear, as Judith in David Wark  Grifiith’s “Judith of Bethulia,” many a tear has been shed before the remorseless film lens. Unfortunately the public has come to look upon most of them as a matter of glycerine. That is a part of the film fan’s general present suspicion of all things cinematic. In reality, most of the studio tears these days are real. It is no longer a matter of emulsion rather than emotion. After all, why shouldn’t the tears be the genuine thing? The average star has only to think of what the papers say about that last picture, or the sad fashion the studio staff receives his—or her—flashes of genius. Any one of these things is guaranteed to open the ocular sluice-gates.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Seriously, tears are largely a matter of temperament. They come comparatively easy to stars like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Just a suggestion can make Jackie Coogan weep giant tears. Pola Negri, on the other hand, approaches her tear duct interludes from an emotional angle, rather than from the path of pathos. She must come to the tears logically as the climax of carefully developed emotional scenes. And she must have music. Indeed, it is surprising, when you come to consider the sob moments, how important a part music plays in the “shooting” of our photoplays. It is impossible to say definitely just when and where music entered the silver-sheet field as a tear persuader, but legend has it that Grifiith called in a violinist at the old Biograph studio, away back in 1909, to play for Florence Lawrence. Maybe the honor is deserved elsewhere but, since “D. W.” created most of the innovations which in time became part of the technique of the photoplay of today, we pass the wreath to Griffith and move on. True, Griffith uses music less than any director we know.


He has found that mobs in big scenes are especially responsive to music and, in “Intolerance,” he used a military band for three days during the filming of the battle scenes. Archaeologists would have been surprised to see the legions of Cyrus repulsed from the walls of Babylon to the stirring strains of a Sousa march or “Tipperary.” In the scenes of Belshazzar’s feast in “Intolerance” the dancers received their cues from music of this same hardworking band. In the intimate scenes of his productions, however, Griffith uses no music. Indeed, Griffith has told me that he would never employ a player who could not feel a role enough to weep at rehearsals. Right here let us say that Griffith himself will not do a story that does not move him to the point of tears at the mere telling. More than once we have watched tears come to Griffith’s eyes as he merely outlined the details of a screen story. This reveals something of the Griffith method of making a photoplay. He will work over his story until he achieves at least one or two big moments. Then he will turn and twist the synopsis—indeed, throw the story out the window—to get the most out of these few seconds. These moments develop at the extended rehearsals of the entire story which always precede the “shooting” of a single foot of film. Usually they come forth as a player reveals an unusual touch of feeling. Think back over any Griffith drama and you will instantly recall certain moments that stand out with cameo clarity.

Consider the slavey’s hysterical fear in the tiny closet of “Broken Blossoms,” the broken Yellow – Man hovering tenderly over the figure of the girl in the same classic, the death of the baby in ” ‘Way Down East,” or the moment when Henriette hears the distant voice of the lost and blind Louise in “Orphans of the Storm.” All immortal celluloid flashes of genius—and all achieved in this careful fashion.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette

The Griffith method of developing these scenes is essentially unique. It can honestly be described as savoring of hypnotism. Griffith has a voice of odd dramatic timbre. On the stage it may sound forced and theatrical but in the studio it becomes a musical instrument to play upon an actor’s emotions. The very qualities that made Griffith an indifferent actor seem to make for directorial greatness.

Griffith approaches a big scene carefully. Mellowing preliminary—or “working up”—scenes are shot for days preceding. Then the day comes. Someone has said that a cathedral hush settles upon the studio. Griffith goes to his room and rests for an hour. The player goes to his or her dressing room and rests. Then the moment arrives. Stage carpenters’ hammers are stilled. Griffith begins to talk to the player. He gives emotionally in direct ratio to the actor’s response. Lillian Gish could reach an emotional climax easily. When the “Broken Blossoms” scene in the closet — still the screen’s highest example of emotional hysteria—was shot in Los Angeles the screams of Miss Gish, alternating with the cries of Griffith, could be heard in the streets outside. It required most of the studio staff to keep the curious from trying to invade the studio.

Grifiilh’s directing becomes a veritable duel of emotions. Mae Marsh was—and is—almost as responsive as Lillian Gish under his direction. Carol Dempster is not of the same temperament. Griffith once worked steadily from eleven to five o’clock, during the making of “The Girl Who Stayed at Home,” before he evoked a single responsive tear from Miss Dempster. But, since he refuses to resort to glycerine, he kept on. These scenes are highly wearing for the actor, naturally. Yet we never saw a player respond to emotions so easily and recover herself so quickly as Lillian Gish. She has a curious knack of resting—of completely relaxing—in every spare moment. She conserves herself with the greatest care. Miss Gish once told me that she long ago learned that she could do anything if she rested properly. “Resting properly,” she went on, ‘”is relaxing every muscle.” Try it sometime. A curious instance of Griffith’s studio magnetism is told of the filming of the old fashioned revival scenes in “True Heart Susie.” The director had secured an evangelist for the scene, but somehow the crowd of extras remained cold and unmoved. The scene threatened to collapse when Griffith took the revivalist’s place on the platform—and began to really preach. He kept his place on the platform for six hours—and obtained the most remarkable shots of a revival under stress of religious fervor ever filmed. They say one could hear the extras singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” two blocks from the California studio. Indeed, a half dozen ten-dollar-a-day extras hit the sawdust trail in reality.

Mary Pickford throws herself wholehearted into a scene. “Glycerine tears and counterfeit money are in the same class;” Miss Pickford has told me. “If I can riot feel enough to weep real tears I believe I am not honest with the public.” Which, somehow, sums up the reason for Miss Pickford’s continuous leadership of the screen for so many years. She is true to her audience. Miss Pickford frequently uses music to stir her emotions. It may interest you to know that the Cadman Indian lyric, “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water,” is one of the numbers she frequently uses. And Massenet’s Elegie. She utilized the Elegie when she created that famous scene before the mirror in “Stella Maris,” when poor little Unity realized her own ugliness. On the other hand no music was required for that tender moment in the revival of “Tess of the Storm Country,” where the little waif stands before the judge. Miss Pickford says that it was the moving voice of Forrest Robinson, the old player who acted the judge, that stirred her to tears. John S. Robertson, the director, tells many stories of Miss Pickford’s quick response to sentiment. He relates an interesting story, too, of the way he achieved some of the touching moments of “Sentimental Tommy.” Remember the brief—but telling—second where May McAvoy as Grizel fought off a show of emotion although her eyes were welled with tears. Robertson achieved it with a trick. “It wasn’t honest and it wasn’t fair,” says Robertson, rather shamefacedly. “We tried the scene for some time with little success. Then the lunch hour came. When the players returned, Miss McAvoy was four minutes late. I surprised her by turning pretty harshly and demanding to know what she meant by being late. Miss McAvoy is a sensitive little person and I saw her fighting back her emotions. So we went on with the scene—and I had just what I wanted. I saw Miss McAvoy creep behind some scenery afterward to cry and I felt like a rotter. Later on, however, I told her and asked her forgiveness.” During the recent shooting of “The Bright Shawl,” the romantic story of Havana in which Richard Barthelmess starred, Robertson utilized three orchestras. One, a Spanish string orchestra, was used for the dance moments, a native negro orchestra for the Cuban dance hall scenes and a theater orchestra for the theater shots. Once or twice the Spanish orchestra was called upon lor certain emotional moments. Yet neither Barthelmess nor Robertson believe much in the use of music. The temperamental Pola Negri has a very discriminating taste in music. She uses a piano and cello and calls upon her two musicians for Tschaikowsky, Beethoven and sometimes, Wagner. Rachmaninoff’s famous prelude is one of her favorites. In achieving the highly tempestuous emotional scene of “Bella Donna,” she used the restless and moving lament of Grieg.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

While Chaplin uses no music in the actual making of scenes, he often slips away to a deserted comer of his studio. There he plays upon an old violin, while he works out the details of a scene. Never does he approach one of those superb scenes—where comedy is shot through with pathos—without resorting to his faithful violin. No glycerine tears for Jackie Coogan! His childish imagination needs only to be touched. We have seen him weep copiously during a mere recitation. There was a tearful scene in “Oliver Twist,” if you remember. The director merely called Jackie’s attention to a little kitten that had wandered on the set. It was a scraggly little feline waif. “That kitten’s hungry, Jackie,” said the director. “Poor little thing.” In an instant, tears were streaming down Jackie’s cheeks. They tell an interesting story in Hollywood of the night Jackie attended one of the American Legion fights given for charity. Little Jackie got into the ring and shook hands with the pugilists and, as the crowd cheered enthusiastically, his father stepped into the squared circle. Papa Coogan asked Jackie to do a little scene. “You’re just a poor little boy, Jackie,” said his father kneeling beside him on the canvas, while the great arena hushed under the glaring lights. “You’re earning a httle money selling papers but you’re tired and cold. When you come back to your little home, you find your baby sister is very sick. When you count your pennies, you realize you haven’t enough money to buy the medicine the doctor ordered. You go to her bedside. . . . Now, Jackie, do it.”

Norma Talmadge
Norma Talmadge

Without music, atmosphere or props, Jackie walked to the side of the imaginary cradle and, after trying to smile and count his fancied pennies, burst into a flood of real tears, burying his shaking head in his arms. Yes, the audience cried, too. Norma Talmadge uses music on her sets during emotional scenes but she says she does it as a screen from the studio atmosphere. Music blots out distracting things, she says. Miss Talmadge, too, insists upon absolute quiet. Tears come to her gradually, only after she has concentrated completely upon her role. Do you remember the scene in “The Miracle Man” where Thomas Meighan came to realize that he had bartered everything worth while for a handful of gold and breaks down in tears? Meighan always was a competent actor but he hadn’t cried. Somehow it seemed unmanly to him and he simply couldn’t. At least, so runs the story as George Loane Tucker once told it. For two days and two nights. Tucker kept Meighan practically without sleep and food by rushing work at the studio. By that tune Meighan’s nerves had been worn to an edge. So the two, the director and the future star, went on a long walk. Tucker talked long and earnestly of the scene. When they returned to the studio, Meighan had hardly faced the camera when he broke down and wept. The result was the scene as you saw it on the screen. Alice Terry’s tears, obtained under the direction of her husband. Rex Ingram, are earned in strenuous fashion. Miss Terry is very slow to arrive at the lachrymal moment. Some times it takes a day or two of continuous work, pressure and almost friction, before the tear comes. Larry Trimble tells an interesting story of the way he obtained tears from Rubye de Remer during the filming of “The Auction Block.” Like Miss Terry, Miss de Remer responds slowly. But Trimble resolved not to use the glycerine bottle. He told the wardrobe woman to give Rubye a pair of shoes one size too small. The desired scene was to show a young wife, heart broken by her husband’s actions, sitting on the edge of her bed in tears, sobbing, “I can’t stand any more.” Mr. Trimble kept Miss de Remer standing for hours. He had sandwiches sent in for lunch—and kept her standing to eat them. This continued all day, although Miss de Remer never realized the plot. Work continued into the night. Finally 11 o’clock came. Miss de Remer was on the edge of breaking. Her feet aching and her nerves worn out, the actress collapsed on the edge of the bed, wailing, “I can’t stand any more.” The cameraman caught the scene and Trimble explained his ruse. But they had to cut off Miss de Remer’s shoes. However, the scene established her as an actress. The use of music in the western studios was introduced at Lasky’s by Geraldine Farrar. The music of Bizet’s “Carmen” was played during the filming of that opera. When Miss Farrar did “Joan the Woman,” the Marseillaise was used as the theme of the filming music, just as it was later utilized in the incidental music written to accompany the production. For her love scenes, notably the one with Wallie Reid in this production, Miss Farrar always called for Charles Gardner’s “The Lilac.” Old fashioned tunes were popular with Bill Hart in emotional scenes, particularly an old timer called “Sweet Bunch of Daisies.” Theda Bara used to always insist upon a harpist during her tense scenes. During the shooting of “Cleopatra” and “Du Barry,” the harpist always used the same theme, which was described by the studio forces as ” an Egyptian chant dug up in an orient tomb along the Nile.” A musician happened to visit the studio one day, however, and identified the haunting melody as Gabriel-Marie’s “La Cinquantaine,” otherwise “The Golden Wedding.” Imagine Cleopatra using her wiles on poor old Marc to the tune of a golden wedding melody!  Miss Bara was highly partial to Verdi, too, and also to Massenet’s Elegie Among the directors who always employ an orchestra is Marshall Neilan. Micky has a four piece orchestra on his pay roll all the time. Here it is interesting to note that Micky is an excellent musician, although he never took a lesson. When Neilan was in New York recently, he met Irving Berlin at a party. Micky sat down to a piano and played Berlin’s “Say It With Music.” “Remarkable,” exclaimed the king of popular music. “You have the real feeling of jazz—that’s the number as I really fancied it.” On the other hand, Rupert Hughes, although he likes to play between scenes, banishes all musicians during actual shooting.

Theda Bara
Theda Bara

It is possible to go on endlessly enumerating melodies that stir certain stars to tears. Betty Compson, for instance, can sob graphically for the camera if she hears “Aloha.” Dorothy Dalton, for instance, needs “Kiss Me Again.” Mae Busch wants “Home, Sweet Home.” And so it goes. Anyway, the reign of the glycerine bottle is ended. The motion picture camera is relentless in disclosing the real along with the artificial.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop close up (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop close up (Broken Blossoms)

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HOME, SWEET HOME (Reliance-Majestic/Mutual, 1914) – Selected Film Criticism

Selected Film Criticism

HOME, SWEET HOME (Reliance-Majestic/Mutual, 1914)

Reeves Harrison in The Moving Picture World, Vol. 20, No. 9 (May 30, 1914), pages 1234-1235

A photodrama of beautiful motive, of exquisite treatment, and of exposition imbued with the personality of brilliant Griffith, Home, Sweet Home, ranks among the highest screen productions’’ masterpiece” has been so indiscriminately used that it has lost all dignity, if not significance. One does not have to state that there is a ”beautiful motive” and leave it to the imagination. The immortal works of man make him akin to God, partaking of and participating in the divine purpose so far as the world is concerned. The splendid motive is sounded in the biographical sketch of Payne, as idealized by Griffith, and leading up to the composition of the imperishable song:

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

”It is something too strange to understand,

How all the chords on the instrument,

Whether sorrowful, blithe, or grand,

Under the touch of your master hand

Were into one melody blent. “


“And now, though I live for a thousand years,

On no new chord can a new hand fall.

The chords of sorrow, of pain, of tears,

The chords of raptures and hopes and fears,

I say you have struck them all;

And all the meaning put into each strain

By the Great Composer, you have made plain. “

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

The poem of Miss Wilcox seems so appropriate that it might have been written of Payne and his imperishable song, and it is, like the photoplay, an appreciation of genius by genius, though offered in general rather than individual tribute. Mr. Griffith portrays Payne in the natural and sympathetic character of man, as we know him, mortal in his weaknesses, divine only in an occasional expression of all that is fine in his personality. The composer’s story is that of a man who wandered away from his home and from the sweet-true-hearted girl to whom he was engaged, to end his days in foreign lands, after yielding quite as much to vagrant impulses as to noble inspirations.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

He broke his mother’s heart–she deemed him an unworthy son–and the girl who waited for him on earth died, constant in her love to the erring man of her choice. He was only a man, and the nearer our hearts for all that. In extenuation, he created what has come down to us through uncounted sources, that will go on in the countless centuries to come, softening other hearts as it has sweetened ours.

From the moment that the biography starts with the raising of a window upon the domestic life of Payne and his mother, to the pathetic end of this part of the play, the vast audience at “The Strand” sat spellbound. The dramaturgic skill of the director, enabling him to utilize the histrionic skill of the actors, brought out an enthralling performance, the honors going to Harry Walthall as Payne, and Lillian Gish as his sweetheart, with some dainty touches by Dorothy Gish.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

The first episode offered a delightful comedy relief and gave opportunity to one of the best comediennes ever seen in photodrama, Mae Marsh as “Apple Pie Mary.” She fascinated the audience as completely as if she had been before them in person, the thousands present laughing at her delicately-conveyed mental processes. She has the art of picturing thought to a degree that argues her own intensity and intelligent grasp of all she is required to convey, going even beyond that into spontaneous delineations of her own.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home – Lillian Gish

The story of “Apple Pie Mary” is in illustration of the power exerted by the song, Home, Sweet Home. So also is the episode in which James Kirkwood and Donald Crisp do some forceful acting, as two brothers of lifetime hatred, driving their mother insane by a double tragedy, from which condition she is restored to the remaining child by the song. So also is the third episode, in which three stars of the first magnitude, Blanche Sweet, Owen Moore and Courtney Foote, present a version of the indispensable triangle, one with a happy termination through the all-pervading influence of one man’s contribution to human enlightenment.

The allegory is a spiritual phrase of great beauty, and a fitting termination to what will undoubtedly be an enduring work. The spirit of the whole play, as well as its theme and treatment, is so imaginative and artistic, while appealing to the purest sensibilities, that “poetic drama” seems to designate the production. This is meant in high praise. Drama of noble purpose that is poetic in spirit and artistic in presentation, tends to make life lovely and wonderful, to give it that stimulus which leads to progress. Home, Sweet Home is an enchantment of the screen.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home


“And nothing that ever was born or evolved,

Nothing created by light or force,

But deep in its system there lies dissolved

A shining drop from the Great Love Source;

A shining drop that shall live for aye–

Though kingdoms may perish and stars decay. “


–Louis Reeves Harrison in The Moving Picture World, Vol. 20, No. 9 (May 30, 1914), pages 1234-1235.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

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Le Spectre de La Rose … (Charles Affron – 2001)

The nearly hundred years of Lillian Gish are a measure of the arts and their relationship to public life in the twentieth century. Lillian, who was born with the cinema and grew as the medium developed, became one of the first significant talents its technology preserved. But it is to television that we owe an extraordinary document that records the essential meanings of her image. She had already turned ninety when, on May 13, 1984, the Metropolitan presented Celebration, a gala performance that marked the history of nonoperatic presentations at the Opera House. In the darkened theatre we hear Lillian’s voice as she recalls a performance of Le Spectre de la Rose with Vaslav Nijinsky that, fifty years before, she had attended in the company of sister Dorothy and Charlie Chaplin.

Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911
Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911

(It must have been much more than fifty years because Nijinsky had retired by 1919, but, after all, Lillian was always vague about dates.) She was astonished by Nijinsky, who “actually seemed to stay suspended in air, and since then, she said, she had dreamed of being in the ballet. The curtain then opens and it is the audience’s turn to be astonished, so much so that, after a moment’s hesitation, it roars its ovation.

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

There is nonagenarian Lillian in the role of the girl, in a white dress, asleep in a chair, a rose in her lap. The girl in the ballet has little to do other than recline gracefully, rapt in her dream of the specter of the rose. Patrick Dupond executes the famous Nijinsky leap through the window, dances around her, hovers near her face, and finally exits just as she stirs. With the rose in her hand, Lillian rises from her chair and moves across the stage as if searching for the specter that came to her in her dream. She opens her arms wide, smells the rose, and the curtain falls.

Lillian was coached in the part by Natalia Makarova, who had learned the role from Tamara Karsavina, who had created Fokine’s ballet along with Nijinsky in 1911, just one year before Lillian had walked into the Biograph studio on Fourteenth Street and struck D. W. Griffith with her ” exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty.” Lillian had come full circle, back to the beginning of her career. In he Spectre de la Rose, she may not perform arabesques of dance, but she incarnates arabesques of time. On the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, in the tenth decade of her life, Lillian Gish again becomes the girl first adored by Griffith, then by the world. And here, in the art of ballet, which, like pretalkie cinema, weds movement and music, she reminds us how she came to know the universal language of silent gesture so well that she taught audiences to hear words she  never spoke and, even more miraculously, to read her mind and heart.

— Charles Affron —

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Portrait of elderly Lillian Gish in field with flowing white dress 1960 by Nell Dorr - Amon Carter MTX
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of elderly Lillian Gish in field with flowing white dress]; ; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.466

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Griffith’s Musical Secrets – Picture Play 1922

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

By Charles D. Isaacson

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

Lillian Gish and the music representing her (Kenneth Alexander)

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

Piano Player Silent Movies

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

New York 1916 (Griffith advert upper right)

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

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

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

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

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

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

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

Griffith’s musical secrets are threefold.

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

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

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

Cinema old

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

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

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

Scene from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

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

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

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

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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