Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish) – By Charles Affron – 2001

Final Close-Ups (Lillian Gish)

By Charles Affron (2001)

Lillian, who had not abandoned hope of returning to the big screen, was overjoyed at being considered for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s A Family Plot. “My heart skipped a few beats at receiving such good news I am second to none in my admiration for your work. Nothing could give me more happiness than being a part of a film you are directing.,, Before she wrote the note to Hitchcock she had already lost the part to Cathleen Nesbitt. Two short religious films and four features would complete the Gish filmography. She would close her career in the medium that had first made her a star.

Lillian Gish in Hitchcock's Body in the Barn
Lillian Gish in Hitchcock’s “Body in the Barn”

“I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.” True to her Episcopalian background, Lillian was a longtime parishioner of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Her schoolgirl fascination with the religious life had resurfaced in her fervent assumption of the leading roles of nuns in The White Sister and The Joyous Season. At one point, she expressed the desire to write a book about religion. When in June 1974, at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Lillian recorded Helen Keller’s My Religion for the blind, she was struck by Keller’s writing on Swedenborg.

Lillian agreed to appear as a Swedish matron who, while sitting for her portrait, tells of having witnessed one of Swedenborg’s visions, in a short 16mm film produced for the Swedenborg Foundation, Swedenborg: The Man Who Had to Know (1978). In this cameo role, she never moves from her chair. Johnny Appleseed and the Frontier Within (1981), another thirty-minute film sponsored by the organization, casts Lillian as “a charming woman of pioneer origins in the parlour of her 1871 Cincinnati home with her pompous nephew/’ She provides the frame for the story of Johnny Appleseed and his “reverence for the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg in what appears to be an under-rehearsed, hastily shot scene, Lillian looks remarkably youthful but sounds like an old lady having difficulty with her lines. In Johnny Appleseed, however, she is not the only actor whose delivery is hesitant.

Robert Altman - Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)

There is nothing halting about her acting in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). Here was Lillian Gish at age eighty-five, as close as anyone had been, literally and metaphorically, to the creation of movie narrative, engaged by a director who had successfully defied narrative conventions with M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). “It’s a new thing for me and I’m a pioneer at heart. I love new ventures and to arrive on the scene and not have a script and not have a word written that I’m supposed to speak is so new to me but like all new things I like it.” In fact, unlike much of the dialogue in Altman’s films, Lillian’s lines were scripted. And some of her habits could not be broken: “No matter how many times Altman said, ‘Call me Bob,’ the dignified leading lady of D. W. Griffith films insisted on calling him ‘Mr. Altman.'”

A Wedding
A Wedding

Lillian plays Nettie Sloan, the family matriarch, who, having orchestrated a complicated wedding, raises her eyes to the heavens, utters, “Thank you, God,” and dies without so much as a sigh or a movement of the head. The image of her peaceful face reappears a number of times during A Wedding.

A Wedding
A Wedding

The characters talk to her, some as if she were alive, others knowing that she is dead. The role’s few lines are spoken in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, Lillian, her hair spread on the pillow as if she were a young girl, is a still, perfect image in a willfully chaotic narrative. As a contrast to the wayward family at the center of the plot, Lillian is the icon of good breeding. So much of an icon is Lillian that she is called upon to play dead through most of the film. For Altman it is a death specific to Lillian. “Nettie’s death is the death of a silent screen star.”

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

Would that she had played dead rather than accept the offer of Hambone and Hillie, a movie that gives her top billing and shows her to exceptionally poor advantage. In addition to the lure of financial gain (a guarantee of $20,000) and a starring role, the project may have appealed to Lillian’s love of animals. After Georgie, the wirehaired terrier, a gift from George Jean Nathan, there was a King Charles spaniel named Gwyn, the subject of a lawsuit in 1928. (Valued at $5,000, Gwyn was lost, then recovered by Charles Comora, a tailor. Mr. Comora was arrested for not returning the dog.) In Scotland for the tryout of The Old Maid, Lillian accepted Malcolm, a West Highland white terrier, a present from Sir Ian Malcolm. Passionate on the subject of dogs, Lillian, as usual, spoke up. Her 1952 address to the New York Women’s League for Animals about canine health recommended no more  than two baths a year and a pinch of Epsom salts in the drinking water. Lillian also had a pet bird, Johnny Boy. At his death in 1950, she noted the burial of her “dear feathered friend” in the Bird Sanctuary. Lillian established her credentials among cat lovers by writing the foreword to theatre historian and curator George Freedley’s Mr. Cat: “How strange is the accident of birth and the gift of tongues. Speaking several languages, most of them poorly, I do pride myself on speaking cat and dog rather well, probably because of the patient training I have received from many fur friends.” (“Several” and “poorly” were somewhat generous assessments of Lillian’s skills in French and German, despite her many lessons.)

Hambone and Hillie
Hambone and Hillie

With its Lassie Come Home premise, Hambone and Hillie accidentally separates the beloved dog, Hambone, from his aged mistress, Hillie (Lillian). The action depicts the animal’s cross-continental adventures in search of her. Given the careless direction, which explains Lillian’s hesitant line readings, and her altogether inappropriate costumes (a bright red pants suit is perhaps the most egregious example), it is a blessing that most of her few scenes are brief. She had no trouble evaluating her contribution to Hambone and Hillie: “It’s all about four-legged actors, and I’m sorry to report they’re much better in the movie than the two-legged actors, because we two-legged actors didn’t have much to do. The dogs have all the good parts, and of course Hambone is the best. I’m going to proselyte for an Oscar for him.”

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal a

Lillian’s screen time was even shorter in Sweet Liberty (1986), written and directed by its star, Alan Alda. He plays a history professor and author of a best-seller about the Revolutionary War; Lillian is his aged mother. Entirely peripheral to the action, Lillian’s three short scenes are devoted to her portrayal of an adorable, eccentric old lady, a role she had played onstage (The Curious Savage, All the Way Home) and screen (Follow Me Boys!, Warning Shot).

Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine - Sweet Liberty 1986
Alan Alda, Lillian Gish and Michael Caine – Sweet Liberty 1986

Under the end credits, she is seen in a wheelchair, waving her arms with exaggerated enthusiasm, quite clearly out of control. Lillian was nearly ninety-two at the completion of Sweet Liberty. With that knowledge, viewers would have had every reason to think her as incapacitated and addled as the old woman she was impersonating. But any such notion would be dispelled by her next and final movie.

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

The Whales of August, conceived at least seven years before it went into production, originated in producer Mike Kaplan’s friendship with Lillian which dated from the late 1960s, when Kaplan worked as a publicist for The Comedians. Kaplan couldn’t understand why Lillian had been “hidden from movie audiences for many years.” He wanted to find a role that would present her as a star, not as a supporting actress. Among the various possibilities, Lillian was enthusiastic about Abraham Polonsky’s novel Xenia’s Way. Her profound political differences with the once blacklisted director-novelist presented no difficulty. In fact, she made known to Kaplan, decades after the fact, of course, her distaste for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, which had destroyed the career of Polonsky and many others. Mary Steenburgen was to play Lillian’s younger self in a story whose episodes were set in Europe during the Holocaust and later in a Palestinian camp in Israel. Kaplan remembers Lillian toasting the project with him and Polonsky in her New York apartment, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The financing did not materialize and Xenia’s Way was shelved.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for 'The Whales of August'
Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

Kaplan saw David Berry’s play The Whales ofAugust during its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. He thought first of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the roles of the two elderly sisters. When Davis refused the offer, Kaplan approached Katharine Hepburn, then Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom declined. In the meantime, Davis suffered a stroke and underwent an operation for cancer. Very much weakened, she returned to work in a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hayes, then recovered some of her strength and changed her mind about The Whales of August, attracted by its setting in her beloved New England. Lucille Ball passed on the third woman’s role, which went to Ann Sothern. Lillian expected to be reunited with John Gielgud, who was under contract for the part of Mr. Maranov, but he had to be replaced by Vincent Price at the last moment when the production for television’s War and Remembrance went over schedule. Price was happy to act something different from the “mad doctors” that had so long been his specialty. Lillian was offered an advance of $75,000, with an equal amount deferred. Her five net points of the producer’s share earned her nothing since, as of June 1988, the film showed a loss of $2.5 million.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (1987)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (1987)

The Whales of August is about the relationship between two widowed, aged sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis). The action transpires in and near Sarah’s summer house, on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Twenty-four hours test the dynamics of dependence and independence of Sarah, still strong and optimistic, who cares for the blind, embittered, and domineering Libby. The crux of the action is Sarah’s desire to install a picture window so as to enhance the view. Libby, the affluent one, crankily refuses. Their old friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) offers Sarah a haven away from the ill tempered Libby and suggests that she sell the house; Maranov, a courtly Russian emigre, comes to dinner. The next morning, the sisters renew their commitment to each other. Sarah agrees to stay and Libby orders the picture window.

Lindsay Anderson, whose direction of This Sporting Life (1963) and If . . . (1969) had helped define Britain’s “angry young man” cinema, was not the most likely candidate for this nearly plotless, atmospheric piece, but he was a friend of Kaplan’s, had met Lillian, and was eager to work with her. He demanded, however, that David Berry alter the conclusion of The Whales of August. In the play, the sisters decide to separate. Their reconciliation in the movie gives extra dimension to the role of Libby, which must certainly have pleased Bette Davis.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August (the last scene)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (the last scene)

Shot on Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine, in September and October 1986, the movie’s production conditions were difficult. When it was over, Lillian wrote, “Well, we are back alive from the very rough, tough shoot in Maine of The Whales of August and it was a long, hard haul with weather to and fro and the interior of the house so small that it took forever to move the camera and re-light but that part of the film is done.” Then there was the age and physical condition of the actresses, who had some difficulty negotiating the steep, uneven paths of the location. And for the final shot of the two sisters, standing on a point of land overlooking the ocean, the wind was so strong that Lillian’s manager, Jim Frasher, and an assistant director had to squat out of the camera’s view to anchor the feet of Lillian and Bette to the ground. As a result of a serious stage accident in which she had suffered a broken back, Ann Sothern walked with a heavy limp. Lillian’s medical certificate, signed on July 29, 1986, indicates that she was in fine health, five feet three inches tall (three inches shorter than when she was a young adult), weighing 115 pounds, had blood pressure at 140/90, and a pulse of 70. But even allowing for the birth date of October 14, 1899, which lopped six years off her life, she was still a very old woman whose hips had been replaced. Her costar, partially paralyzed from her stroke and painfully thin, had undergone a mastectomy. And for most of her career, Bette Davis, famous for her temper and sharp tongue, had been a demanding, often unpleasant colleague. Bette’ s enfeebled condition had not brought her to turn over a new leaf.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis (The Whales of August)

During the first, unfortunate working encounter between the costars, Lillian was sitting in the only available chair when Bette entered. She addressed her as “Bette”; Bette addressed Lillian as “Miss Gish.” Lillian offered the chair to Bette, fifteen years her junior. Bette was offended. From then on, a palpable tension settled between the two women. Ann Sothern speculated, “I think that she [Bette] felt intimidated by Lillian because Lillian is motion pictures. Who could ever criticize Lillian Gish? It’s like criticizing the Statue of Liberty!”

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis - The Whales of August, 1987
Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August, 1987

According to cast member Harry Carey Jr., “Lillian just closed her mind to Bette and went her own merry way; Bette had no effect on her.” Near the end of shooting, Jim Frasher made dinner for the stars, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Kaplan. Bette made no secret of her displeasure when Kaplan, tending to production problems, arrived somewhat late.

Bette Davis - The Whales of August
Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Bette’s temperament and her talent thrived on contention and rivalry; for Lillian, diplomacy was the key to the negotiation of her life and her career. But Lillian would not have survived so long if she had been a pushover. When things were not going smoothly with Bette, diplomacy prompted Lillian to feign difficulty in hearing her costar’s lines, a problem miraculously solved as soon as the atmosphere changed for the better. The conflict between the two stars reflected the contrast between the sisters they were playing and certainly added much needed energy to the final product, for which both Lillian and Bette were thankful. They were, after all, great movie actresses, eager to do their best.

In one scene, Libby wakens from a nightmare and vents her desperation on Sarah. “Although Miss Davis’ dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’ energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.” Lillian’s reaction: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today.” Bette was able to overcome her animosity long enough to express her admiration of Lillian’s acting in the quarrel scene, one of the movie’s turning points. “After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, ‘We must do this again.’ And Bette replied: ‘Mm.’ “

american actress lillian gish with indian-born british director lindsay anderson attend the 1987 cannes film festival to present his movie the whales of august. (photo by john van hass
American actress Lillian Gish with indian-born british director Lindsay Anderson attend the 1987 Cannes film festival to present his movie The Whales of August. (photo by John Van Hass)

The commercial failure of The Whales ofAugust and its brief run in Los Angeles probably robbed Lillian of the Oscar nomination that a combination of her talent and voter sentiment might have earned her. She did manage a tie with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review.

Belying her ninety-three years, Lillian, as Sarah, is energetic throughout The Whales of August. If her step is not exactly sprightly, it is certainly firm, and thereby expressive of the core of her character as it is of the actress. Much to the annoyance of the blind and sedentary Libby, she hangs the clothes, sets the table, dusts, prepares meals. For the first half of the movie, Lillian is sweet and compliant in the “old lady” mode she had so often been obliged to adopt for her movie roles. But here there is something more. As protagonist and star, she has the opportunity to develop the character through time, to reveal layers of individuality beneath the conventional surface of the “good” sister.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - Whales

Sarah’s strength emerges in the scene of the argument, when she defies Libby’s objection to inviting Maranov for dinner. During the rest of the film, Lillian deploys the reserves of emotional depth denied the movie screen for so many years. It had been a long time since The Wind. And while Duel in the Sun, The Comedians, and The Unforgiven, among Lillian’s talkies, had bravura moments, only The Night of the Hunter contained durations sufficiently long to reveal the character’s inner life, to follow the actress within herself. Lillian’s Sarah is particularly moving when she is alone with her memories and the movie camera, drawing us into the past as we plumb the image of the present. It is Sarah’s forty-sixth wedding anniversary.

Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Wearing a long blue dress, she sets the table with a glass of wine, a white rose “for truth,” a red one “for passion,” and her dead husband’s photograph. With Lillian’s customary directness, Sarah speaks to her absent beloved of the day’s events, then goes to an old Victrola and puts on the record of a tenor sweetly singing the sentimental World War I ballad “Roses of Picardy.” Here, Lillian somehow manages to connect the fullness of the memories with the vibrancy of her life. Perhaps she simply lets the moment speak for itself, the context providing the specific meanings required by the plot, while Lillian Gish, so much a representative of the past in the present, coats the situation with her generous sensibility.

Lillian Gish in "The Whales of August" (1987)
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August” (1987)

She had not lost her talent for the high degree of disclosure that had always been her special gift. Old Sarah is not old Lillian, yet viewers familiar with the actress’s iconography must have had an eerie reaction to shots that placed Lillian with photographs of her family posing as Sarah’s: Mary Gish and Lillian as a baby, James Leigh Gish, and most unsettling of all, Lillian and Dorothy in the 1930s, the face of Bette Davis superimposed over Dorothy’s. Actors often lend their personal memorabilia in such occasions, a spectacular example being Sunset Boulevard, where photographs and a film clip contrast the young Gloria Swanson and the mature actress who plays Norma Desmond. There is, obviously, no hint of Dorothy’s character in Bette Davis’s portrayal of Libby. Nor is there any way to know that the fictional sibling relationship of a strong and healthy older sister who cares for a weak and ailing younger one had particular resonance for Lillian while she was making The Whales ofAugust. Certainly, few in the audience would have made the connection.

Final scene - real photographs of Lillian Gish's relatives (The Whales of August)
Final scene – real photographs of Lillian Gish’s relatives with some add ins suited for “The Whales of August”

Whatever its source, Lillian drew a performance compelling for an actress of any age, let alone one ninety-three years old. Yet Lillian’s great age does raise some intriguing questions. Has anyone as venerably old ever sustained a leading role in a movie? Edith Evans, who was a mere seventy-eight when The Whisperers was released, went on for another nine years in character parts.

The Whales of August must have lulled filmmakers into thinking Lillian eternal. Claude Lelouch offered her a part in his Cache-Tampon (Hide and Seek), to be shot just outside Paris, starting in May 1989. But Lillian had already fulfilled her last professional commitment—an appearance at the world premiere of The Whales of August, in New York, on October 14, 1987, her ninety-fourth birthday.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish - The Whales of August
Vincent Price and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

In retirement, the once indefatigable traveler did not become a recluse. She was simply more and more homebound. The seven-room apartment, 13A, at 430 East Fifty-seventh Street, which she had occupied since 1948, had ” smallscale traditional furnishings” and the autographed books Lillian treasured. Movie and theatre memorabilia were absent. There were many photographs of family and close friends. Among the pictures in the gallery constituted by one wall were those of John Gielgud (signed “Hamlet John”) and George Jean Nathan; D. W. Griffith claimed the central spot. Lillian, who had paid close attention to her health for so long, was rewarded with relative serenity in her final years. Of course, a woman well on the far side of ninety could not expect every day to be perfect. Elizabeth Ross was saddened at her last visit, about 1990, when she found Lillian unaware of how much she had declined. “It wasn’t Lillian sitting there that day. It was not somebody who could conquer the world, or so she thought. . . . She needed care, and Lillian never needed care.” Eva Marie Saint last saw her in bed, after she had fractured her hip. But, until the end, Lillian was lucid, able to speak, even to read. James Frasher was at her side when she died, peacefully, in her own bed, at 7 p.m. on February 27, 1993. Fifty years previously, Lillian had left instructions that she wished to be cremated. She hoped Ruth Gordon would “say a few words and Paul Robeson recite the ‘Twenty-Third Psalm” She had outlived them both. At the “Celebration for the Life of Lillian Gish” held at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church two weeks after her death, there were tributes from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her godson, James MacArthur, the son of Helen Hayes. Irene Worth read a selection from Milton’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Her ashes were interred at St. Bart’s alongside those of Mary and Dorothy Gish.

Lillian Gish in Whales of August

Lillian’s considerable estate, largely composed of stocks and bonds, and property in Beverly Hills, was valued at more than $10 million. Her personal effects, paintings, and furniture had been appraised at $232,000 in 1980. Approximately $1 million was distributed among family and friends, with the largest of these bequests going to James Frasher. The bulk of Lillian’s fortune was placed in a trust whose income constitutes the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts. Lillian stated the purpose of the prize in her will: “As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (As if to demonstrate that Lillian’s criteria give no particularly priority to the performing arts, the first recipient of the $250,000 award was architect Frank O. Gehry.) In her prescription for the awardee, Lillian might have been describing herself: “The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path.” She, who had served the arts so faithfully throughout her long life, both as performer and proponent, found a way for her fervor to survive her death.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life

By Charles Affron – 2001

The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet
The Whales of August & Other Lot (Alive Films, 1987). One Sheet

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D.W. Griffith – An American Life (By Richard Schickel – 1984)

d-w-griffith

D.W. Griffith – An American Life

By Richard Schickel – 1984

Griffith! Before him, the movies were a nickelodeon novelty, after him, they were an international art form and a powerful, glamorous American industry He was the first to codify the rules and techniques of screen storytelling, the first to establish the conventions by which the unique capacities of the movies for both sweeping spectacle and profound intimacy could be employed in long, complex narratives, the first to assert the director’s claim to primary authorship of a film Above all, it was Griffith who imagined the future of his medium, and with his driving energy, his taste for the grandiose and his flair for publicity, propelled that medium toward that future—only to be crushed by the very forces he had unleashed.

1-dw_griffith_(1875-1948)
D.w. Griffith (1875-1948) – on set with Wilhelm Gottfried “Billy” Bitzer

His story is, in huge measure, the story of how the movies as we know them came to be. It is also a great and archetypal American story. The poor Southern farm lad, nurturing his romantic nature on the legends of The Lost Cause and drawing on them to make The Birth of a Nation, the first film masterpiece—yet also a work deeply tainted by the racism that was a tragic part of his heritage, the turn-of-the-century touring actor and failed playwright, desperate for fame, power and artistic glory, bending the movies to his dream and achieving it with such legendary works as Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East; the would-be plutocrat risking all—and losing all—by trying to establish his own studio, the sensualist whose powerful sexual obsessions helped drive him to the heights—and hasten his downfall, the lonely and embittered old man, shunned by the industry he had been instrumental in creating, turning into the ghost of Hollywood’s banquet years. All of these are Griffith, and all of them live in the pages of this masterful biography. But “D.W. Griffith An American Life” is more than one man’s story. His life intertwined with the lives of almost every great figure in the formative years of the movies. Louis B. Mayer cheated him, Lillian Gish loved him, Erich von Stroheim, Mack Sennett and Raoul Walsh learned from him, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin were his business partners, Lionel and John Barrymore were his friends, W C Fields and Alfred Lunt co-starred for him, Adolph Zukor tried to rescue his career, Anita Loos and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote for him, Jean Renoir was his admirer And the crowded canvas of his life stretched from Jack London’s San Francisco to Woodrow Wilson’s White House, from the trenches of World War I to Hearst’s San Simeon, from Number 10 Downing Street to Weimar Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. In a work of scrupulous scholarship, brilliant critical insight and powerful historical narrative, Richard Schickel, Time film critic and author of The Disney Version, has captured this life in all its vivid dimensions. This long-awaited and definitive masterpiece is the first and only book worthy of its subject, which is not only Griffith himself, but the birth and rise of the art form that more than any other has shaped the way we see the world in our times.

dw griffith 8

About the Author

Richard Schickel combines three careers He has been a film critic for Time since 1973, having previously served Life in the same capacity He is the author of many books, including The Disney Version, His Picture in the Papers and a well received novel. Another I, Another You. Most recently he published Gary Grant: A Celebration, and he has just completed a study of the celebrity system and its effect on American life. Finally, for the last decade he has been producer, writer and frequently director of many television specials Among them are the acclaimed PBS series “The Men Who Made the Movies,” “Life Goes to the Movies,” “Into the Morning: Willa Gather’s America ” and, most recently, a film biography of James Gagney and a history of the Star Wars saga.

D.W. Griffith - Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)
D.W. Griffith – Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)

Griffith …

A persistent sub-flowering of shame and guilt. The phrase summarizes the most important aspect of Griffith’s feelings when they were aroused by “good” (and always very young and very innocent) women almost as perfectly as the incident involving “the Snow Angel” prefigures emotions he would obsessively explore in his films. As Tyler says, he had a very “forthright” conception of the premarital “single instance” : “rape or the marriage proposal.”Quite obviously he (or his surrogate) could bring himself to no such definitive action in this incident and so retreated to a romanticized passivity, a passivity that would be duplicated by his camera as it mooned over such Griffith favorites as Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster in later years.

Carol Dempster 1920s
Carol Dempster 1920s

His guilty sexuality however, would have more significant consequences than that. It severely limited his range when he was dealing with romantic love. He could be free, even humorous with women who did not arouse strong emotions in him. Dorothy Gish, for example, was easily turned into a hoydenish comedienne by him, and other actresses, ranging from Mae Marsh (once his infatuation with her ended) to Lupe Velez, were allowed an expressive range that his special favorites were denied (Gish, of course, often conquered his limits; Miss Dempster was incapable of so doing). These limits—frequently ascribed to, and no doubt influenced by, the Victorian sentimentality that was so much a part of Griffith’s sensibility—played a role in his fall from favor with audiences in the 1920s, when his endless preoccupation with fates worse than death came to seem to many rather laughably anachronistic. This capacity—this need, really—to despoil childish innocence, innocence of the unguarded, sleeping kind that he wrote about so vividly in his memoirs, he embodied, instead, in the bestial villains, most notably.

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

Lynch and Gus, the mulatto and the black who threaten, respectively, Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation, but also in characterizations like those by Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms and by Lionel Barrymore in America. Without wishing to seem too schematic about it, one can say that Griffith was never able to integrate the conflicting demands of the light and dark sides of his sexual nature, either in life or in his films.

As Griffith formed his professional manner, he was creating the elements of future failure as well as future success. His secretiveness would grow, and his inability’ to develop, among his coworkers, critics whom he could freely trust would result in a dangerous isolation and, in time, it would seem to even so sympathetic a friend as Lillian Gish that there was no one near him “who loved him enough to be able to say ‘no’ to him.”

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

In general, the quality of his work remained high; consistency at this time being one of his great virtues. But for the most part he was not reaching out, stretching his talent and the medium’s range as he previously had. His best film of the spring, for example, was The Usurer, but it was essentially a remake of A Corner in Wheat. This time, as the title implies, the central figure was a moneylender and not a grain dealer, but there was the same crosscutting between his machinations and their effect on plain people, and he came to much the same end as the earlier villain—instead of being suffocated in a grain elevator, he was suffocated in a safe in which he was accidentally locked. (Griffith must have been something of a claustrophobe, for from The Sealed Room in 1909 to Lillian Gish’s celebrated entrapment in a closet in Broken Blossoms, suffocation, as a suitably terrible end for villains and as an awful peril for heroes and heroines, recurs.

The Mothering Heart

Griffith had found another project that seemed to him worth more than a reel. Shot under the title “Mother Love” but released as The Mothering Heart, it was to provide the first really strong vehicle for Lillian Gish. There is some dispute as to the circumstances of her arrival in California. Her role in The Good Little Devil had required her to do a bit of flying (by means of wires and a harness) and in Baltimore the wires had come undone and she fell rather than flew off a five-foot wall. When the play reached New York, Gish settled into a rented room and, determined to save at least $10 a week to send to her mother and sister, she subsisted on an unbalanced diet and grew more than usually ethereal in appearance. Belasco began to fear for her health—or so the story goes—and also to fear that her apparent illness might be traced to the onstage fall and subject him to a lawsuit. He proposed a vacation in warmer climes and, finally, she decided to visit the rest of her family in California. This account may be true enough as far as it goes, but it would be a mistake not to enter Miss Gish’s shrewdness and ambition into the equation of this decision. Her friend Pickford had the lead in this production and she faced a lonely winter’s run in a part that afforded her few opportunities. In the meantime, on the Coast, Griffith was operating without his greatest star, Mary Pickford, with Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet not quite able to fill certain sorts of romantic roles. In short, convenience and opportunity- coincided.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

And The Mothering Heart proved to be, as Gish says, “a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Initially Griffith thought her too youthful for the role and rejected her at the first rehearsal. Miss Gish, however, was determined to try to “play old” and she showed up at a second rehearsal wearing falsies to give her a more matronly figure and won the part, that of a wife rejected during pregnant” by her husband, who favors a cabaret dancer. She bears her child alone, it dies, and in a famous bit of business, she wanders into a garden, picks up a stick and, in her grief, beats all the blossoms off a rose bush—the kind of pantomime only Griffith was capable of creating at this time.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Miss Gish, alone of the Biograph players, took an intense interest in those aspects of filmmaking which did not involve acting. It was her habit to look at the rushes every day, even to go into Jimmie Smith’s cutting room to see, from his point of view, what worked and what did not in a performance. In the course of this activity – during The Mothering Heart, she concluded that she was overacting and asked Griffith about it.

“The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time,” he said. ”So half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normal to come over with full effect to your audience.”

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)

The Battle of the Sexes

Griffith quickly turned to another work, a novel, The Single Standard, which was retitled The Battle of the Sexes and went before the cameras starring Lillian Gish, Owen Moore, Mary Alden, Fay Tincher, Donald Crisp and Bobby Harron. “This is a potboiler,” Griffith told his cast at their first rehearsal and he shot it as such in five hectic days and nights, the long hours finally taking their toll on Miss Gish; Bitzer found he could not bring his camera in for close-ups because her eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep. A few hours’ rest cured that condition and the film turned out to be commercially quite successful when it was released the following April, so successful, indeed, that in 1928, his career in decline, searching for something that looked like a sure box-office bet, Griffith returned—unfortunately—to this story of a philandering middle-aged, middle-class husband and the effect his transgressions have on his family with Jean Hersholt in the lead.

Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes
Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes

This, however, was the only movie Griffith was personally able to complete in New York. Since his name was already worth something, especially in light of the publicity campaign about him that Aitken was beginning to orchestrate, he agreed to act as ”supervisor” on productions actually directed by such contract workers—and Griffith disciples—as Christy Cabanne, Marshall Neilen and James Kirkwood, among others.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

The Clansman

Lillian Gish has recalled that Griffith drew her aside one afternoon during a break in shooting one of his program pictures, requesting that she stay on after work. It was not an unusual request; Griffith often held after-hour rehearsals for a forthcoming project while another work was in progress and a sizable percentage of those who would eventually have featured roles in the finished film assembled with Miss Gish to hear him announce his plans for The Clansman. She remembers only two unusual facts about this small beginning to a mighty project. The first was that she had observed for some days that Griffith’s pockets were overflowing with notes as well as scraps of printed material. She therefore correctly assumed that he was brooding about a work of unusual scale, since he carried no aide-memoire when working on films of routine length. The other was that on that first night he swore his actors to secrecy about his intentions. He might control rights to Thomas Dixon’s novel, but he owned no patent either on the Civil War or Reconstruction, and it would have been a simple matter for a competitor to cobble something together and beat him to market with a picture taking up the themes he regarded as his by birthright.

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation 2
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

According to Miss Gish, Griffith did not make his final casting decisions until rehearsals were well along and he had seen more than one player essay most of the larger roles. The center of this nocturnal activity was the extras’ makeup room on the Griffith lot, ”a make-shift building of cheap, rough pine,” where everyone sat on hard kitchen chairs, because Griffith felt that if anything more easeful were provided, ”You were apt to get too comfortable and lean back, instead of keeping busy.” The rehearsals went well. And despite the director’s determination to keep his options open, there seems to have been no doubt as to who would play the central role in this drama, that of Ben Cameron, the ‘Tittle Colonel.” From the start it appears that Henry Walthall had the part, despite the fact that he was somewhere between 36 and 38 years old (the year of his birth is in dispute) and thus a trifle old for the part, and more than a little intemperate in his drinking habits. His age could be de-emphasized, Griffith thought, by having him wear wide-brimmed hats whenever possible, thus softening the light on his face. Since “Wally” was a well-liked member of the company, there would be no dearth of volunteers to see to it that he arrived on time, and in a reasonably sober state, for each day’s shooting. Slight of build, with long, curly hair and sometimes a romantic mustache, he carried something of the air of a poet about him, this actor who could, as his friend director Raoul Walsh said, “speak volumes with his eyes.”His seeming fragility and his natural gentleness of spirit would render his heroics on the battlefield and as the Klan leader more exciting and, of course, they would also enhance his many tender moments in the film. Indeed, so right was he for the part that after the actor’s death in 1936, Griffith told a reporter that his demise should effectively quell all talk of a remake. “I can never imagine any actor taking his place,'” the director said.

Intolerance

It is impossible to say what the story of The Mother and the Law was, in detail, when Griffith first went to work on it, for after he conceived the notion of integrating it into Intolerance, he did a great deal of reshooting. But in final form it tells the story of the Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh) who meet and marry in the slum they are forced to live in after his father has been killed and her father has lost his job, as the result of a strike at the nearby Jenkins mill.

Intolerance The Dear One

Prior to his marriage the Boy has engaged in a life of petty crime as the lieutenant of a gang leader known as the Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), who in turn is jealously loved by a mysterious young woman known as the Friendless One (Miriam Cooper). Married, the youth attempts to go straight, but the Musketeer, angry at his desertion, plants stolen goods on him and he is sent to jail. At this point, social workers employed by a foundation established by Jenkins, the mill owner—a nice irony there—take the young couple’s child away. The ground is that the wife of a convict must, per se, be an unfit mother. Despite an extraordinarily moving courtroom scene, in which the Dear One pleads to retain her child, the deed is done. With her husband in prison the Musketeer begins to insinuate himself with the Dear One, promising that he can help her regain her child. His intentions are anything but honorable, and the jealous Cooper character, seeing him enter the Dear One’s apartment, informs the Boy, now released from prison.

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

He arrives in time to join in the defense of his wife’s honor, but the Friendless One has, in the meantime, stolen the Boy’s gun and in the struggle fires through a window, killing the Musketeer. She then throws the revolver into the room and this evidence is enough to convict the Boy of murder. He is on his way to the gallows when his wife, aided by a sympathetic policeman, confronts the Friendless One and wrings a confession from her. There is then a wild—and enthrallingly shot—chase as the Dear One and the police officer commandeer a high-speed car and pursue a train on which the Governor is riding, in order to place this new evidence before him and secure a stay of execution. Then it is on to the prison to deliver the stay before the Boy is executed. He is on the scaffold, the black cloth already covering his face, when his rescuers arrive. In the finished film this story is not the most spectacular visually, but of the four stories Griffith wove together in what he was to subtitle, “A Sun Play of the Ages,” it remains the most affecting emotionally-and the most suspenseful. The climactic chase is a summary of all the rides to the rescue Griffith had shot for Biograph and Mutual, a brilliant example of superbly executed, basic moviemaking. The realism of his strike sequences and the slum background, the sensitive performance of Mae Marsh and the scarcely less fine work of Bobby Harron—all of these represent Griffith at the top of his form, working with material to which he brought firsthand knowledge both of milieu and of emotion. Pauline Kael has correctly remembered, for example, a sequence in which Marsh, deprived of her child, becomes a kind of voyeur of other people’s familial happiness, spying on other mothers at loving play with their children.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Edward Wagenknecht has cited Marsh’s unbearably poignant courtroom scene—which Griffith shot four times at widely separate intervals as he kept reconsidering it—and the scene where she and her husband are reunited after the last-minute rescue from the gallows as among the most privileged moments in film history, and it is a sound judgment. How much of the quality of The Mother and the Law was visible in the early version of it, which was ready for release sometime in spring or early summer of 1915, is problematical. Lillian Gish recalls a screening of it for studio employees and notes “we all agreed with him that the film was too small in theme and execution to follow The Birth. Karl Brown recalls that studio gossip at the time held that the picture was unreleasable and therefore likely to be shelved, though, of course, that possibility was remote, given the precarious condition, at the time, of its producer of record, The Majestic Film Corporation. About his plans for the picture, Griffith kept his own counsel and, indeed, for a time, in the months to come, studio workers at Brown’s level were under the impression that the stories that were eventually melded with it in Intolerance were separate projects; indeed, they were given separate production numbers (The Mother was F-1, the F standing for feature, and the others were, naturally, F-2, F-3 and F-4).

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

In short, Griffith literally did not know what to do next. Thus Intolerance was a mighty improvisation, an attempt to salvage what would have been, pre-Birth, a more-than-acceptable little picture, turning it eventually into the sort of spectacle he—and the public—expected of America’s premier director. Yet there were distractions beyond those involved with the release of, and the continuing controversy over Birth with which to contend. He could not fully turn his attention to the business of recasting The Mother and the Law in grander form until the fall of 1915.

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

The end …

Sometime in the morning of July 23, 1948, Griffith was seized by an agonizing pain. He staggered from his rooms to the lobby of his hotel, where he asked for help and then collapsed. He had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He was taken to the Temple Hospital in Hollywood, and his nearest kin, his nephew, Willard, and his niece, Ruth, were summoned to his bedside. He did not regain consciousness and he was pronounced dead at eight twenty-four the next morning.

David Griffith Dies
David Griffith Dies

Only a few people called at the funeral parlor where he lay in state, and the only famous one to do so was Cecil B. DeMille. The rest of the industry would wait for the formal services on the twenty-seventh. These were held at the Hollywood Masonic Temple. The friends were there, and many who owed the beginnings of their careers to him. Some, like Searle Dawley and Lionel Barrymore, Mack Sennett and Dell Henderson, went back to the Biograph and before with him; some, like Richard Barthelmess and Walter Huston, entered his chronicle later; some, like Raoul Walsh and von Stroheim, had been at his side when he was defining the nature of the director’s art on the job, on the set. Some, like Walter Wanger and Jesse Lasky, might not have been entirely welcome on this occasion had Griffith had anything to say about it. Some, like Herb Sterne, avoided the company of such other honorary pallbearers as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Goldwyn because they could have given Griffith something to do with his final years and did not. But if any were needed, the proof that the history of his life was the history of the movies in America up to then was gathered here.

Death Takes DW Griffith
Death Takes DW Griffith

The floral tributes were heaped high around the casket. Members of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir were observed by early comers to be giggling as they rehearsed their hymns. As the time for the service drew near, only about half the seats in the auditorium were filled, so the crowd that had gathered outside to watch the celebrities come and go—as if this were a premiere and not an ending—was invited in to fill the empty places. The occasion struck Gerrit Lloyd as cold, perhaps in part because one of the two eulogists, Charles Brackett, the screenwriter who was serving a term as president of the Motion Picture Academy, had never known Griffith. He found it difficult to achieve the right tone, veering from the emptily melodramatic (his last years were characterized as “a frenzied beating on the barred doors”) to the banal (“Griffith gave the public what it wanted”) to the “self-congratulator” (for Griffith’s honorary’ Academy Award ) . Overall, Jay Leyda, the film historian who was present, thought Brackett achieved, at best, “a polite note of regret.”

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford, Evelyn Baldwin Griffith and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

Donald Crisp did better, daring at least to chastize the film people for their neglect of Griffith. “It was the tragedy of his later years that this active, brilliant mind was given no chance to participate in the advancement of the industry. Difficult as it might be for him to have played a subordinate role, I do not believe that the fault was entirely his own. I cannot help feeling that there should always have been a place for him and his talents in motion pictures. . . .”

And then, as Leyda was to recall it, someone sobbed loudly, inarticulately. But it sounded as if he or she had cried out, Yes, yes—why not!” “This one note of genuine emotion overturned the passive insincerity of the occasion,” he wrote. When Crisp tried to go on, his voice broke, and as he struggled to regain control and proceed, “the emotions of the speaker and the audience were loosed and real”—until “the efficiency of the memorial service took over again, and the boys’ choir singing ‘Abide with Me’ drowned out the sobs.”

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

And then it was over. Griffith’s remains were flown home to Kentucky, where he was buried in the graveyard beside the Mount Tabor Methodist Church, where his family had worshiped when he was a boy. A rail fence, said to have been created from wood taken from the Griffith farm, surrounds the gravesite, which has been marked, since 1950, by a stone contributed by the Directors Guild of America, and bearing its insignia. The fence is rough-hewn; the stone is sleek. The congruence of the nostalgic and the modeme is curious but somehow correct. They are like the elements in a simple montage, resonating to each other, suggesting by their juxtaposition fleeting metaphors, hints of meanings, greater than the sum of those elements. We have new ways of seeing and thinking and perhaps even being which literally did not exist until the man who lies buried here began his work. And began that chain of artistic invention which has enabled us to see the world through fresh eyes, in a new light.

Admin note: Given the number of pages (680), only some fragments were placed in this web presentation. The titles used as separators, are not part of Mr. Richard Shickel’s original work. Thus, the web article is altered. Thank you for your understanding.

D.W. Griffith : an American life
D.W. Griffith an American life – cover

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Griffith in the Twenties – (Orphans of the Storm) – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

Griffith in the Twenties

(Orphans of the Storm)

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

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.

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.

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 …

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:

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

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.”

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.”

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

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.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish (Promo for Orphans of The Storm)
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish (Promo for Orphans of The Storm)

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.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …

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.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue

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.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

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.

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.

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

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. . . .

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue

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.

Orphans of The Storm Lillian Gish 2 Mamaroneck X

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.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish - Orphans - Vanity Fair November 1921
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – Orphans – Vanity Fair November 1921

( 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.

Orphans of The Storm Lillian Gish Trial X

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?

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo

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
Orphans of the Storm

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.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – the trial

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.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Henriette and Louise (Orphans of The Storm)
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Henriette and Louise (Orphans of The Storm)

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.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish - departing to Paris - Orphans of the Storm
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – departing to Paris – Orphans of the Storm

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.

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

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.

Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921
Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921

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The Cast - Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922
The Cast – Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922

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Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915-us-1921-reissue-lobby-card

Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)

As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.

The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 b
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 EU

Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.

They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

His immediate aim was to keep the studio going and to meet the payrolls, and to do this he turned out a quartet of very presentable features utilizing Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish. All of them were better than Judith of Bethulia, and the best of them. The Avenging Conscience, a film that Seymour Stern once appropriately described as “an Edgar Allan Poe mosaic,” was quite remarkable in many ways. However, none of the four could be said to equal the best feature production of the day. Still, Griffith knew that he was marking time, and as features designed purely for commercial needs and to make an immediate profit. they were well above average standards. Perhaps of more interestnow, in retrospect, if not then—were the one- and two-reelers being produced by Griffith’s protege directors. So well did these men understand Griffith’s methods, and know what would meet with his approval, that the one-reelers seemed almost like polished extensions of the Biograph shorts, while some of the two-reelers even seemed a blueprint of elements in Griffith features yet to come. Today, it is difficult to know for sure exactly how much personal supervision on Griffith’s part was involved. If one can accept the similar period of Triangle in 1916 as a criterion, however, it is highly possible that, despite his busy schedule, Griffith did in fact find time not only to approve stories but also to involve himself in shooting and editing. It is also possible, however, that his directors were by now so skilled at making films in his image that Griffith had enough confidence in them to afford them relative autonomy, and even at times to benefit from their initiative and incorporate some of their ideas into his own work.

The Doll House Mistery
The Doll House Mistery

A good example of work by a Griffith protege is The Doll House Mystery, an unusually expert little melodrama co-directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin. On the surface, it was almost a definitive Griffith two-reeler, building suspense steadily, opening up the chase in the final sequences to include a locomotive and an automobile, and climaxing with a shoot-out in a deserted cabin, its location allowing for extensive overhead panoramic shots. Yet, unlike similar Griffith shorts, the story was not just an excuse for an exercise in excitement and editing skill. It is important in its own right, and more time than usual is spent in establishing the story and its characters before the plot gets underway. The characters, particularly a socialite wife (played by Marguerite  Marsh, Mae’s sister) and the son of an ex-convict, well played by the child actor George Stone, are far more rounded than the average protagonists of the earlier Griffith Biographs. The final chase scenes even involve some locations and specific camera placements that Griffith copied precisely in the climax to the modern segment of Intolerance. Not many of the Reliance-Majestic shorts from this period survive, but those that do are indicative of a rapidly advancing sophistication. Even the comedies, despite the proven popular appeal of Mack Sennett’s frenzied slapstick, are relatively gentle, human, and even satiric. Cupid Versus Cigarettes is not only a pleasing little comedy on its own terms but also remarkably up-to-date on two counts—as a hard-hitting if genially presented attack on the physical harm of cigarette smoking and as a staunch advocate of equal rights for women. It would be quite fair to suggest that the short films made under Griffith’s supervision at Reliance, and directed by men like the Franklins, represent some of the most sophisticated technique on view in 1914, whereas the features directed by Griffith personally in that year must be considered less advanced than those of Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. On the other hand, Tourneur selectively and DeMille prolifically (he directed seven full features in 1914 and was to accelerate his pace to twelve in 1915) were working at the peak of their artistic capabilities for that time. Griffith, on the other hand, worked hurriedly, efficiently, but without marked artistic inspiration in the first half of 1914, so that he could devote his full energies to The Birth of a Nation.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)

The Battle of the Sexes was followed by The Escape, for many years now an apparently lost film. Even if Griffith used this film to mark time, it is perhaps indicative of his faith in the medium and of his over-generous estimation of audience intelligence and taste that he would have selected this story—from a Paul Armstrong play—as having commercial potential. For The Escape, despite an ultimately happy ending for two of its protagonists, is an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death—the last including both a baby ( crushed to death by its drunken father ) and a kitten. If nothing else. The Escape might well qualify as the first feature-length film noir, just as Griffith’s 1909 one-reeler In the Watches of the Night might be considered the very first foray into what is generally regarded as a filmic style of the forties.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home, which followed The Escape, was an all-star film—Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Owen Moore, Blanche Sweet, and most of the other Griffith players. It was a naively symbolic tale, too consciously striving for “meaning” and artistic pretension, a weakness that was to mar such later Griffith films as Dream Street ( 1921 ) . However, audiences liked the film far more than The Escape, and critics were kindly disposed toward its somewhat over-wrought filmic poetry. In at least three ways, the film resembled elements of the later Intolerance. It was an episodic film, its separate stories linked by a none-too-sturdy device—a much exaggerated and even falsified account of the life of John Howard Payne, writer of the lyrics of the title song.

'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921) lobby card

( In Intolerance, the titular theme was the linking device, even though the film was only partially about intolerance.) And as in Intolerance, the Mae Marsh-Robert Harron-Miriam Cooper sequence was actually planned (and even released) as a separate entity, then recalled, reshaped, and inserted into the body of a more ambitious film. The last of Griffith’s 1914 quartet. The Avenging Conscience, is one of the most fascinating and bewildering of films, by turns innovative and mature, naive and listless. Some of the usage of Poe material is justified, other material pointlessly dragged in. The film does substitute psychological tension for physical action; the ghostly apparition that accompanies the killer’s guilt pangs is smoothly done; cross-cutting for emotional suspense rather than thrill is often quite creative ( especially in a Raskolnikov /Porfiri-like encounter between a detective and the man he is sure is a murderer ) ; and at times, the film has much of the doom-laden power of the celebrated German films of the twenties. Its dream ending is quite modern, too, and much in the manner of Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944); the nightmarish story is brought to a conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. The revelation that it was all a dream—a less common device in 1914—provided an appropriate sense of relief but was in no way merely a convenient resolution of an otherwise insoluble plot dilemma (as was frequently the case in melodramas in the forties). The main problem with The Avenging Conscience is its lack of cohesion and general untidiness. One would like to think that the film’s strongest element, its brooding power, is there by design. But if so, then the shortcomings of the rest of the film are inexcusable. In any event, if it is not quite the milestone film that Griffith’s admirers would like it to be, its flaws at least throw into stark relief the enormous advances made by Griffith during the latter part of 1914.

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

When The Avenging Conscience premiered in New York on August 2, 1914, Griffith, Bitzer, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh were already at work on The Birth of a Nation. It is virtually impossible today to appreciate fully the impact that The Birth of a Nation made on audiences, on film-makers, and on both the art and industry of movies when it premiered in February 1915. So controversial has it always been because of its racial content—a controversy often artificially created and sustained—that its artistic and innovative qualities have frequently been acknowledged almost grudgingly, as a lesser asset that did not compensate for the film’s inflammatory qualities. Yet no other single film in movie history has ever done what The Birth of a Nation did : established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight, and influenced the manner of narrative story-telling in American films for at least the next six years. Griffith’s methods were not new, but prior to The Birth of a Nation they were neither understood nor considered important enough to be worth copying. The incredible financial success of the film “justified” Griffith’s techniques, and at least through the end of 1920 the film was copied (lazily) by the lesser directors and instinctively—and out of a sense of homage—by the newer and more talented directors (John Ford, Henry King).

d-w-griffith-director-of-the-birth-of-a-nation-1915

Probably more acting and directorial talent was nurtured among the film’s cast and crew than that of any other film, with the possible exception of Griffith’s own subsequent Intolerance. The film established and justified the practice of raised admission prices, taking the motion picture forever out of the ten-cent category. It has almost certainly become the industry’s top-grossing box-office champion. While this claim is not necessarily a criterion of artistic achievement—many of the industry’s top grossers are of singularly negligible value artistically—it is an incredible achievement for a film that was made in 1915 and has been in constant exhibition, including commercial exhibition, ever since. Admittedly, it might be a hard claim to support in terms of dollars and cents. Existing financial records can only prove a minimum income from the film, since Griffith did not have national distribution in 1915 and sold the film on a state’s rights basis. This means that records exist only on the flat or percentage payments made to Griffith for distribution rights to given territories, not on the gross income from those territories. Nevertheless, existing figures do indicate a minimum return over the years of 50 million dollars. If it were no more than that, it would be an incredible profit for a film that was estimated to cost between $65,000 and $112,000. These two figures represent production cost and the final cost up to presentation, including a substantial sum for advertising and such added niceties as a full, live orchestral score.

Movies in America - Birth of a Nation
Movies in America – Birth of a Nation

Grosses in terms of dollars mean very little anymore, when contemporary grosses are invariably inflated by the casual use of the $5 admission charge. The only fair estimate of a film’s success, in the long run, should be the number of paid admissions, an unchanging guide to a film’s popularity. On that score, there can be no question of the leadership of The Birth of a Nation. In the first six months of its release, it was seen by more people than had attended all the plays presented in the United States in the previous few years! It was this obvious competition and commercial threat that caused the theatre to hit back by coining the phrase “the legitimate stage” as a deliberate insult to the medium of film. At twelve reels, or a running time of three hours, The Birth of a Nation was at least twice as long as that of the average American feature of the day. It represented the tremendous faith of GrifiBth, who was forced to subsidize the film by raising completion money himself, when the estimated budget was depleted. Part One ( slightly more than a third of the total film ) dramatizes the events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-65 and the war itself, including the surrender of Lee and the assassination of Lincoln.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2

Also included in this section is a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century and the rise of the Abolitionist movement 150 years later. Despite the brilHant crescendo of cross-cutting in the climax of the second half, the first half is certainly better. It is here that Griffith’s ability to humanize history is seen at its best. His story is told through the interaction between two families, one Northern and one Southern, showing the heartbreak of the Civil War in personal as well as ideological terms. The head of the Northern family, Austin Stoneman ( played by Ralph Lewis ) , is actually a thinly disguised portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican Congressman proponent of harsh approach to Southern Reconstruction, while such key figures as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, John Wilkes Booth and Senator Charles Sumner naturally appear under their own names. So adept is the interweaving of factual and fictional characters that it would be quite possible to edit out most of the romantic and fictional elements of the film and still be left with a virtual documentary.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

Many of the most striking images occur in the first half: the tragedy of war is as poignantly portrayed by a single shot of a dead soldier, half curled up as if in sleep, and preceded by the subtitle “War’s Peace,” as it was to be later by that bravura crane-shot pullback of the entire Atlanta square filled with the dead and dying in Gone With the Wind. One of the first outstanding examples of “painting with light” in film can be seen in the brief sequence of Sherman’s march to the sea. A small group of refugees ( probably a family whose home has been burned) huddle at the left of the screen in a stylized and partially painted set suggesting the wreckage of a house. The camera moves across to a panoramic overhead long shot of Sherman’s troops marching away from the camera, past a burning building. There is an insert to a closer view, then a cut back to the end position of the previous pan, and the camera retraces its move back to the pathetic refugees. Within a few seconds, apart from the narrative point made by the poignant scene, one sees the welding of stylized and harshly documentarian styles, close-shot and extreme long shot separated by two kinds of lighting and composition, yet linked emotionally by a cause-and-effect motif and physically by a camera movement.

Another superb moment in Part One is the homecoming of Colonel Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) to his mother (Josephine Crowell) and sister (Mae Marsh) after capture, imprisonment, and a sojourn in a military hospital. In the scenes immediately prior to the reunion, Griffith creates a mood that is first joyful (the happy preparations for his return) and then sad (the realization of the poverty thrust on them by the South’s defeat).

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915-uk-programme
The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

The reunion itself, starting with a long shot of the tattered soldier entering the frame at the end of the street and climaxing with his embrace of his sister at the door, and then being drawn into the house by the arms of his mother ( who is otherwise not shown) is a beautifully tender and underplayed scene. Further, it indicates a great respect for the audience’s ability to inject its own emotions into a scene, to accept suggestion rather than outright statement, and to imagine actions ( and the conclusion of the scene ) taking place off screen. Although this scene has been imitated (knowingly and otherwise) many times, perhaps most effectively by John Ford in a 1933 talkie, Pilgrimage, the original has somehow never been surpassed; even out of context, as a film “clip,” it still has the power to be intensely moving. Incredibly, the superb underplaying and meticulous timing of this sequence were achieved through careful rehearsals designed not so much to perfect the actors’ performances as to get the scene completed within a specific time. This occurred partly because, even while shooting, Griffith could envision the rhythm of the completed film, and partly because of economics; he could not afford the luxury of reshooting.

The Birth of a Nation - Massive troop movements wide shot D. W. Griffith, American film master
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

Towering over all else in Part One of The Birth of a Nation were the monumental battle scenes (shot in the area now totally covered by Universal Studios ) , which may since have been surpassed in terms of sheer size but have certainly never been equalled in terms of realism or excitement. Deliberately patterned after Matthew Brady photographs, subdirected by a group of unit directors who were able to turn the “huge” armies into masses of individuals rather than tableau-like mobs, these battle scenes, staged with extreme camera mobility and the usual Griffith juxtaposition of close detail shots with panoramic long shots, have vitality, savagery, and an incredible sense of spontaneity. No matter how many times one has seen these sequences, one tends to jump along with the extra, who is clearly surprised when a mortar bomb explodes behind his back, or to be moved by the destruction of a tree hit by a shell. (Griffith had an astonishing ability to crystallise the awful, massive destruction of war into shots of simple symbolism or metaphor. Despite the grimness of the often authentic war scenes in his World War I film Hearts of the World, its most moving single shot is of a brace of swans, with their cygnets, swimming away from the ripples in their pond caused by falling dirt from a bomb explosion.)

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

Part Two of The Birth of a Nation traces the exploitation of the newly emancipated Southern Negroes by Northern bankers and industrialists (carpetbaggers) and by political fanatics of both North and South ( scalawags ) . It dramatizes the struggle against, and ultimate defeat of, a vengeful movement by these elements to “crush the White South under the heel of the Black South” (quoting from Woodrow Wilson) and to rule the defeated South through a Northern-controlled economic, political, and racial dictatorship. It was this second portion of the film, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of that period, that has caused most of the film’s problems. Not only does this section of the film draw heavily on the writings of Thomas Dixon but because of the elimination of most of the authentic historical characters, and the involvement of the Thaddeus Stevens parallel in much of the fictional melodrama, it is more open to questions of historical distortion.

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

It was, of course, the dynamic quality of The Birth of a Nation that caused—and still causes—the film problems on racial grounds. No movie with such imagination and persuasive power had ever been seen before. With no disrespect to the remarkable early films of Tourneur and others, it was as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to the works of Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand. Yet audiences were, understandably, not yet sophisticated enough to understand film technique, or how it was manipulating them. It is extremely unlikely that even Griffith fully understood the awesome power of the film medium. In Griffith’s eyes, The Birth of a Nation did tell the truth; however, it was only one side of a truth. The assertive style of the film left no option for another side.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Audiences, confronted with an overpowering flow of images, often connected by fully documented and undeniably accurate titles, had no way of knowing how the linkage and arrangement of shots could lead the spectator to the film-maker’s point of view. Thus, Griffith introduces a sequence, backed up by historical references, showing the passage of a bill permitting the inter-marriage of blacks and whites. But he follows it with a quick shot of a young black looking up lecherously, and then a shot of a white girl and her companions ( presumably parents ) shuddering and drawing back as they watch the proceedings from a balcony. There is nothing in the film to prove that the black man is looking at the white girl, yet from the arrangement of shots, the implication is obvious. Here, historical reconstruction slides unobtrusively into pure editorializing.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

At another point in the film, the mulatto villain Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann ) confronts Colonel Cameron on the street and tells him, “The sidewalk belongs to us as much as to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” There is nothing unreasonable in his statement or even in his manner, but the insertion of the quotes around the word “Colonel” in the title immediately injects a note of insulting derision. Ironically, the use of the same filmic method that Griffith evolved to tell his story has been in part responsible for the effectiveness of the campaign against the film ever since. A David Wolper television documentary of the 1960’s, Hollywood, The Golden Years, told the history of the silent period in superficial but generally acceptable terms, considering the non-scholastic mass audience it was aimed at. However, it sustained and enlarged on the myth of the riots that were supposed to have greeted The Birth of a Nation on its initial showing in Boston.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman trapped

(There were protests and demonstrations, but of a small-scale and well controlled nature.) After the narrator set up the “massive” nature of the protests, the screen was filled with montages of newspaper headlines, some of which may even have been authentic, but superimposed over unidentifiable shots of huge rioting mobs sweeping through city streets which definitely had no connection whatsoever with the opening of the film in Boston. Yet, quite logically, audiences assumed it to be a bit of “truthful” reportage. Through the years, The Birth of a Nation has constantly been harassed by the NAACP, which has bombarded announced showings of the film with masses of “protest” letters, evenly divided into three different and always word-for-word styles, indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.

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

While The Birth of a Nations immense power as entertainment was grasped immediately by the critics, not all of them were as enthusiastic over its innovations: a veritable textbook of cinematic grammar, style, and devices that would remain intact until the coming of sound, and even thereafter be of continuing influence. Some critics felt it absurd that the use of the moving camera in the battle and chase scenes placed the audience in the “confusing” position of being absorbed into the action, resolutely holding to the theory that the audience should remain firmly separated, as a spectator only, in the tradition of the theatre.

The-Birth-of-a-Nation-in-theatres
Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

The shaping of the screen into iris, vignette, and other forms—even the use of horizontal panels, anticipating the CinemaScope image—likewise confused those critics who still regarded the film as an alternative to the stage. But the basic construction of the film—a methodical beginning; the establishment of time, place, and characters; the building up to an initial climax; the relaxing of tempo to repeat the process and build up to a second, longer, greater climax; the mathematical precision of editing within that climax, even to throwing in a brief, seemingly unintended “joke” so that audiences could relax, release their pent-up tensions, and draw greater excitement from the remainder of the film’s climax—all of this became a model on which the structure of American film was to be based for the next half-decade. It was to reach its purely academic peak in Intolerance, a commercial failure. But so great and long-lasting was the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation that even the failure of Intolerance, considered an artistic indulgence, was over-ridden by the phenomenal box-office success and artistic influence of what is still one of cinema’s peaks: The Birth of a Nation.

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

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

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Lillian Gish chats with Merv Griffin (The Way It Was – CBS Thu. Jan. 14, 1970)

Lillian Gish chats with Merv Griffin

The Way It Was – CBS Thu. Jan. 14, 1970

Lillian Gish, one of the major film stars of the pre-talkie era, chats with Merv Griffin about the early days of motion pictures, in “A Salute to the Silent Screen,” a special edition of “The Merv Griffin Show,” Thursday, January 14 (11:30 PM – 1:00 AM, Est) in color on the CBS Television Network.

Photo Division CBS Television Network Press Information, 51 West 52 Street, New York 10019

  • CBS 39779-R1-2a-Full
  • 12/24/70
  • Subjects: Lillian Gish, Merv Griffin
  • Program: “The Merv Griffin Show”
  • On Air: Thursday, Jan. 14
  • 11:30 PM – 1:00 AM, Est
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 detail
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 detail

“A Special Salute to the Silent Screen”, with film clips of great pictures (including “Ben Hur” with Francis X. Bushman and “Way Down East” with Lillian Gish.)
Merv’s guests are Buddy Rogers, Betty Bronson, Jackie Coogan, Richard Arlen, Laura La Plante, Neil Hamilton, Chester Conklin, Ken Maynard, Minta Durfee Arbuckle, Babe London, Beverly Bayne, Betty Blythe, Viola Dana, Eddie Quillan, Dorothy Devore, Vivian Duncan and Carter deHaven.

Runtime 1 hr (60 min)
Sound Mix Mono
Color Black and White | Color
Aspect Ratio 4:3
Negative Format Video (NTSC)
Printed Film Format Video (NTSC)
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 X
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 X
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970

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The Hollywood Studios – By Ethan Mordden (1988)

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

The Hollywood Studios

By Ethan Mordden – 1988

Ethan Mordden has revealed to us not only the studios, but a whole time and place. Full of anecdote and incident, The Hollywood Studios is both an authoritative exploration and a great celebration of Hollywood during its matchless Golden Age. Ethan Mordden was born in Heavensville, Pennsylvania, and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of eighteen much-praised books, among them works on film, opera, and theatre, including The Hollywood Musical, A Guide to Opera Recordings, Broadway Babies, and the novel One Last Waltz. He Lives in New York City.

the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio

What Is a Studio?

In the summer of 1908, the unsuccessful actor and playwright D. W. Griffith paid a call on the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company: Biograph made movies, and Griffith was looking for work. The company kept its studio in New York, at 11 East Fourteenth Street, near Union Square, and what Griffith found at that address was a typical Northeast urban stone-and-stoop affair of five floors, narrow at the face and deep at the sides, the basement peeping half a story over the street.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

This was a movie studio in the early days of the industry. Erected to house a tony family, the building had been sold and hired out commercially when Society pushed north along the swank avenues, Fifth and Madison. Stores now squatted in the lower street front. Biograph’s officers, film cutters, PR people, and shippers occupied the upper stories. Wardrobe, prop storage, and the dressing rooms shared quarters at’the back of the cellar. The former ballroom, at the rear of the piano nohile, was cluttered with rolls of canvas and pots of paint, lumber and tools, the overhead mercury lamps and the movable arc lights, and the ungainly Biograph camera itself. Here was where movies were made. This was not the entire Biograph caboodle. Developing and printing were handled extramurally by a private concern, and outdoor scenes, weather permitting, were shot in exotic, madcap Fort Lee, New Jersey, just down Fourteenth Street and across the Hudson by ferry. Studio shooting and location work were very different experiences, for the cramped and dingy insides of American Biograph, now dark as a cavern, now burning with light, meant hard labor. The field trips to New Jersey were something of a romp.

the Biograph Bronx Studio 2
the Biograph Bronx Studio 2

1200px-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer_logo.svg

Metro Goldwyn Mayer

We watch those sons-of-directors and arrogant ham stars every step of the way. The rage of Mayer. The conservative zealotry, the dire ooze of his blackmail, the unctuous sentimentality masking the tyranny. His themes were God, country, and mom’s chicken soup; his equals were such as William Randolph Hearst and Franklin Roosevelt; and the man he hated to love was Irving Thalberg, a fellow producer and, unlike Mayer, a genius at moviemaking. Thalberg was the ideas behind MGM; Thalberg produced. Mayer supervised.

Like Paramount, MGM must be regarded in its historical context. Paramount was Old Hollywood, out of the days when Griffith, Little Mary, Marshall Neilan, and Lillian Gish ran the business. Why shouldn’t they run it? They were the movies. MGM came along twelve years and—counting  Paramount’s output alone—about fifteen hundred films after Zukor. Hollywood had changed vastly. The pioneer stuff was over; the industry was wising up. In fact, MGM was formed by a combine in search of (i) picture material to fill theatres, and (2) a Savonarola to run the factory. Or no: a Tiberius to run the factory, for cinema was beauty and love and presumption. But this Tiberius was a Savonarola who thought the human comedy containable.

To enforce discipline, Mayer made deterrent examples of a few resisters. Mae Murray, an impossible silly poodle of a star, became so impossible that she wasn’t worth her grosses; Mayer not only dumped her but more or less ran her out of Hollywood on an industry-wide ban. John Gilbert was another of Mayer’s victims, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and thus a prize cautionary tale for the whole town to hear, as a series of utterly terrible pictures blasted Gilbert’s hold on the box office. Because sound killed so many silent careers and because Gilbert was the ultimate silent star, romantically demonstrative rather than naturalistic, legend holds that Gilbert was undone by his unmanly tenor. No. Gilbert was undone by Mayer for personal reasons—and because Gilbert’s million-dollar contract had been negotiated by Nicholas Schenck, of MGM’s New York office.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

This Eastern interloping grated on Mayer, who was determined to consolidate power on the supervisor level, starring himself as absolute supervisor. His grandstand coup—earlier than the Gilbert episode, back in the late 1920s, when MGM was but a few years old —involved another star with a New York contract, Lillian Gish. If Murray was a tempestuous diva and Gilbert arrogant, Gish was something far more threatening, a wise and self-willed talent, the compleat moviemaker. She was part of The History, not only the essential D. W. Griffith star but a founder of Old Hollywood. Virtually her own producer, a collaborator with her directors and writers, an expert in design and photography, she was bigger than Mayer. She must be contained.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Granted, Gish not only made films to please herself, she made fine films, commercially successful ones. But in her gently reasonable way she insisted on artistic control, and had that control written into her fancy Eastern contract—and all Hollywood knew it. More than once, as Gish recalls in her autobiography, Mayer literally threatened to ruin her if she didn’t learn how to take orders. But where Mae Murray was banned from the screen and John Gilbert was encouraged to destroy himself with alcohol and despair, Gish simply departed Hollywood for the more liberal atmosphere of the New York theatre world. She had had enough. In fact, we begin to notice that, despite Thalberg’s theatre culture, MGM works best with actors who are not strongly theatre trained.

The Hollywood studios : house style in the golden age of the movies
The Hollywood studios : house style in the golden age of the movies

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