Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis – By Charles Affron (1977)

Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis

By Charles Affron (1977)

The women are goddesses, the men are matinee idols; they are all stars who command devotion and veneration. The reverential and celestial vocabulary has been consecrated by decades of usage and press agentry. The cliches’ first connotations effectively separate public from performer by an expanse of astral geography. The gods reign on high, the stars blink in solar systems light-years away, and we mere mortals, worshiping at their shrines in blissful ignorance, celebrate the distance. We join cults, we become fanatics, we endow the star system with mythologies of nostalgia by collecting the stars incarnations in roles X, Y, and Z and cherishing the relics of memorable and memorized bits. “Play it, Sam.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The Actress as Metaphor: Gish in Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith spring from the turn-of-the-century theatrical milieu. The traces of theatre in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922) are not disguised, and the last two are unabashedly drawn from popular melodramas of the period. Yet these creations also display a category of film rhetoric unrelated to naturalistic theatre and prose narative. When Griffith “opens up” a play he does so by searching out the reverberations of the saga, the painting, the still photograph, the lyric.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

The patterns of Broken Blossoms are primarily those of poetry; Lillian Gish’s response to its demands reveals fundamental differences between acting as impersonation and acting governed by the fixed form of the movies. Broken Blossoms creates a tension between theatrical expectations for the stage and configurations pertinent only to the screen. It offers a field for understanding screen acting at its most specifically formal. The integrity of such acting to the cinematic text must be seen through the relationship between Gish and the film’s general structure. In Broken Blossoms the unity of performer and pattern exemplifies the metaphoric factor of screen acting. It elicits our perception of acting’s purely filmic quotient.

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

Intolerance – Babylon

Actress and director fit the medium in no film more completely than perhaps in Broken Blossoms. Histories tend to illustrate Griffith’s career with the epic and monumental; the battlefield and the ride of the Klansmen from The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the aerial shot of the Babylonian court in Intolerance (1916) are events of imagination and sweep quite characteristic of his style. The sense of spectacle in the obsessively intercut chase and/or rescue sequences and the fugal structure of Intolerance are grandiose gestures that literally stretch the theatre as far as the eye can see and brutally challenge the limits of our formal and temporal perceptions.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms appears to be a return to the stage. Most of the action is confined to two interior sets, the rooms of Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man. Griffith does nothing to trick the audience into believing that the world of these characters is broader than the space of these rooms. Indeed, he does everything to emphasize the delimiting walls and the entrapment of the characters within. The far-ranging camera of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is most glaringly absent, and whereas the earlier films taught our eyes to stretch telescopically, Broken Blossoms focuses down to the smallest detail and the minutest gesture.

These distinctions are somewhat misleading, for the memorable details of the epic films are as important as the concerted scenes. Lillian Gish and the admiring sentry in The Birth of a Nation, Mae Marsh’s acting in both films, the homecoming of Henry Walthall, “The Little Colonel,” and the wonderfully silly Babylonian lovebirds are only a few of the exquisite components we remember in Griffith’s mammoth compositions. (Indeed, miscalculated details in Way Down East and, to a lesser extent, in Orphans of the Storm are more disturbing than general structural weaknesses.) Yet, despite treasurable moments of intimacy that refine our perception, the principal design of these films belongs to the fresco, insistently calling upon the alertness of a roving glance. Broken Blossoms makes no such demands. The quality of concentration it summons fits the tauter connections and narrower limits of its frame. If the exhilaration of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is sacrificed, consistency and density take its place and inexorably draw the viewer into the pattern to be trapped in the art as Lucy is trapped in her closet. Griffith deliberately restricts the scope of the camera and denies it its most obvious advantage over the proscenium, proving that movies needn’t move over wide expanses to expose their nature. Without being unfaithful either to movies or to literature, the director adjusts the freedom of the camera to the audience’s perception of the strictest of fixed forms—the poem.


Griffith is repeatedly attracted to allegorical configurations. In the broadest sense Intolerance is an allegory, its episodes designed to represent, to dramatize the concept of intolerance through the ages. The film’s linking image of the hand rocking the cradle (Lillian Gish dimly lit) shows Griffith’s facile use of symbolic conventions. He prefers to draw generalities from character rather than to leave that task to the viewer. In as tired a vehicle as Way Down East a title proclaims that the heroine’s name is Anna, but she might just as well be called Woman.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

The grandiloquence is unsuited to a film flawed by dubious bits of crowd-pleasing “down-East” humor and melodramatic ploys that were worn out long before Griffith used them. Anna’s interest as heroine is manifested only twice: the baptism of her dying baby and the snow storm/ice floe sequences. The rest of the film degrades a register of allegory worthy of Woman.

This is not the case in Broken Blossoms. Griffith envisions the film as a dynamics of idealism, innocence, and brutality The three protagonists—the Yellow Man; Lucy, the girl; and Battling Burrows—consistently enact their ascribed characteristics, and every element of the film sustains the purity of the conceptual byplay. The names contain allegorical clues—man, girl, battling. The minor characters, Evil Eye, and Spying One, along with the title, complete the pattern. The credits reveal Griffith’s risky intention. The risk is in the notion that the reality of filming can bear the strain of allegorical textures. If Broken Blossoms lacks obvious pictorial scope, its ambitions are great nonetheless. Much of its impetus seems unrelated to the particular strengths of the medium.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

After a brief prologue in which the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is introduced previous to leaving China “to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife,” we see London’s Limehouse, the principal exterior set of the film. With this set Griffith establishes the motif of enclosure. Even outside we are inside; the space is radically – circumscribed by the opposing storefronts and the rear arches.

Broken Blossoms

The Yellow Man’s idealism has been deflated by the confines of this street, by the very bricks against which he huddles. This shot is a melancholy, reflective emblem, the straight lines and angles of which are drawn into the curved body. This linear tension draws the viewer into the Yellow Man’s reverie. The next is a closer shot, which lessens the distance and expressively uses the changed angle of the hero’s head, the chin tucking in the shoulder, to increase proximity and intimacy.

Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)
Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)

Griffith’s caricatural notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso, but he uses it throughout the film when presenting Lillian Gish as well—pensive, cowering before her father.

Lillian Gish - FEAR - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919

Fear, thought, the frailty of the heroine and the habitual attitude of the hero are expressed in a single cast of body, a spatial indication of their nearness to an interior world—one they will briefly share. They both curl in on themselves, as they seek refuge from the hostile space around them, and direct our own feelings toward the small centers of these frames that are so often limited by the irising of Bitzer’s lens.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

The degree of introspection is then heightened; Barthelmess, leaning against the brick wall, is quite literally thinking about himself dreaming while smoking opium in a “scarlet house of sin.”

Again, the linear strength of the composition draws us to the center—arm, pipe and torso form a triangle at the apex of which the drug-hooded eyes reflect inward.

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

The shots of Barthelmess leaning against the wall and smoking opium and of Gish seated on the wharf establish the film’s landscape, a conceptual and emotional one contained in the minds of the protagonists. The limited dimensions of the spatial correlatives repeatedly bring us back to the inner worlds of Lucy and the Yellow Man where the force of imagination, through the processes of metaphor, transcends their everyday prisons. If Griffith means them to be allegorical characters, they, in a real sense, use allegory to exist. They escape their intolerable reality by substituting symbols for things.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is a fifteen-year-old (Gish had grave reservations about assuming the part because of her age) and her inner life is much simpler than the Yellow Man’s, yet she accomplishes the film’s most vivid gesture of poetic transformation.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

A desperate defense against her father’s brutal domination, her finger-induced smile is a bit of “business” whose ambiguities of sentiment are extensions of its ambiguous position between the realm of representational acting and that realm of the film in which the actor becomes metaphor itself. It represents the way symbols are manipulated, the function of mask, the very root of artifice. Lucy is in constant terror of her father. This is the prevailing attitude in which the physical changes are wrought; it is a limited field upon which the richness of Gish’s invention is displayed. When Lucy sees Daddy the tiny twisted mouth echoes her hands twisting her shawl.

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

Gish plays a fifteen-year-old in mortal fear of her brutalizing father, and the actress never overreaches the character’s age and experience. The restrictions of chronology control a degree of stylization appropriate to this extraordinary mixture of face and mask. The pained eyes burn through the pitiful, forced smile; the actress unites expression and emblem. She forces our attention to that line where art is hinged on its artificial conventions and its verisimilitude. The distance between mouth and eyes helps us apprehend the link between Lucy’s specific plight and the universal burden Griffith has thrust upon her, the eternal victim.

First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)

The first encounter between Gish and Barthelmess sustains the pattern of contemplation initiated at the film’s beginning, and, again, framing devices locate and organize our simultaneous perception of event and style. We see Gish while she is being seen by Barthelmess; the window separates, connects, and delimits, and provides a spatial referent for the process of observation.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The back-lit, soft-focus, Hendrick Sartov close-up of Gish, a lovely but facile device for idealizing the heroine, was to become a cliche. But it was in Broken Blossoms that it first achieved consistency as a significant element of the vocabulary used to photograph Gish. One of the film’s tensions is in the duality of the presentation of the heroine—Lucy, as tangible victim of her father’s whip and hammering fists, and as angelic vision in the eyes of the Yellow Man. The latter kind of shot disembodies her, deemphasizing her physicality by turning her into a chiaroscuro pattern, an abstraction that favors the film’s allegorical penchant.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919 b
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

Griffith opposes this to the stark, clear photography of the violent scenes Gish plays with Donald Crisp as Battling. The camera underlines the dialectic between phenomenon and ideal—the palpable and the transcendental—demonstrating its versatility as it shifts between the two modes, truly catching these actors as they pass from the realm of nature into that of allegory. Griffith abuses this technique in subsequent films with Gish, when the idealized heroine is denied the supporting apparatus of Broken Blossoms style. Through the twenties to her last starring film at MGM, the vision retains its aura of beatitude and in La Boheme (1926) provides for some particularly cherishable shots, although it never again finds a context as congenial as Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)

The physical register is signaled when Lucy, returning to serve her father a meal, quickly fixes a “smile” on her face. Then “the terrible accident”: she spills something on Burrows’s hand. Gish’s performance, to this point based on pent-up terror and control, now bursts forth in a frenzy that is one of her specialties. Her loss of restraint and her willingness to decompose the harmony of her being set a standard for the portrayal of hysteria that only she herself will match. (Griffith gives her repeated opportunities to do so in The Greatest Question, 1919, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm where her tremblings are no less unsettling for their familiarity.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The reiterated and almost unvaried master shot postulates the integrity of the space and the necessity of Lucy’s suffering within it. The same is true of the master shot of the Yellow Mans room. What is, I expect, a shooting expedient conspires to the fihii’s advantage by furnishing constants in the poetic pattern, akin to rhyme, meter, and recurrent imagery. Even the transitions recall the constancy of the setups. Lucy struggles to her feet, drags herself through the streets to the wharf (an often repeated locale), and finally she arrives at the Yellow Man’s shop.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here, the framing shafts of light provide a variation for our recognition of a set that belongs to the film’s strong series of limitations. The blossoms of the title, fragrant and so perishable, have a dual meaning. They refer to the name the Yellow Man bestows on Lucy, White Blossom, and they suggest the allegorical tradition of Renaissance love poetry that turns the beloved into a flower. They establish the stylistic linkage between the film’s hero and heroine. Conventional role-playing is altered by the fact that Lillian Gish, in her twenties, is playing a fifteen-year-old, and Richard Barthelmess, an American type to the point of caricature as later shown in Way Down East and Tolable David (1921), has assumed the role of a Chinese. The Yellow Man creates the love poem by providing the regalia and the rhetoric, but he is also within the poem as object, rendered so by Barthelmess’s version of lover. He is a blossom as well as Lucy. Actor and actress are profoundly alien to their roles; the characters are alien to their environments, and they create a space for themselves at the center of this film.

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

The meeting of Lucy and the Yellow Man evokes responses in Gish, Barthelmess, and Grifiith that guarantee the blossoms’ integrity. Nothing jars the internal structure of the poem. Lucy has fainted on the floor of the shop and the Yellow Man finally sees her.

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

Gish casts her eves down and Barthelmess averts his face, both momentarily withdrawing into themselves before crossing the barrier to become intimate object and referent in a metaphoric relationship. Then their inwardness will be mutually inclusive.

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

The Yellow Man makes his room over into a temple for Lucy, and he garbs her as befits a goddess, adorning her hair with combs, offering her incense (which with childish finickiness she refuses). She admires her own transformation in a hand mirror—a reaction of superbly in-character, coquettish delight—and expresses gratitude for a small vase of flowers. It had been her wish for a flower that brought them together on the street earlier in the film. Flowers are more apt for these characters than theatrics.

The film’s motifs and attitudes prepare its most courageous scene, one in which actor and director fully meld the dictions of drama and lyric poetry. The intertitle proclaims the worst in Grriffith’s taste, his bent for overstatement, his belaboring the point the image so completely transmits without words: “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair; and all night long, he crouches, holding one grubby little hand.” Barthelmess seems to be praying at Gish’s bedside while she sleeps.

Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)
Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)

The moment is privileged, an epiphany  linking the Yellow Man’s religious ideals to his dream of love. What then occurs is a schema for the use of metaphor, its creation, and its power to fix the epiphany in time, to render it tangible through its correlatives. Barthelmess quite literally catches the moonlight in his hands, carries it across the room and showers it on Gish.

Griffith’s prose is inadequate to the flow and grace of the shot, the quality of belief shaped by a flexible actor and sustained by a patient camera. A pattern of circular arm movements that involve the whole room is followed by a third frame enlargement of Barthelmess’s hands close to his face in an ambiguous reminder of the prayer stance. Then, even at that instant when the light is released, a slight hunch of his shoulders preserves some aspect of character during his most total transport. Kneeling by the bed at the foot of his shrine, he once again projects qualities of religious and sexual ecstasy, sublimely confusing the two just as lyric poets did from the early Italian Renaissance to the English pre-Raphaelite period.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

The transition from the first frame to the second, from contemplation to prayer culminates in touch, the contact of face and hands. The whole sequence is a rapid shift of emphasis—from his hands circling to hers, and from her face bathed in the light he bestows to his own beatified by her hand. The light, which is the linking factor of these exchanges, is explicitly part of the scene’s theatrical content, and its value accrues through scarcity. Light alone, the light of a very special and personal moon cornered by the Yellow Man, breathes life into these characters. Metaphor is their only means of sustenance.

Yet if Broken Blossoms has the cast of lyric poetry, it is lyric poetry dramatized by the intrusion of other modes. Griffith creates a tension of manner that constantly places the idyll in jeopardy, forcing a confrontation between the interior, private world and the harshness of the exterior, physical one. His obsessive opposition of idealism and necessity appears in contexts ranging from the plight of his virginal heroines in Biograph one-reelers to Belshazzar’s flamboyant paradise destroyed by the barbarous Persians in Intolerance. The configurations of Broken Blossoms are particularly successful in animating conflict with paradox.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The Yellow Man gives Lucy the doll she admired in his shop window. Gish is at her prettiest here. She passes from childish delight to maternal tranquillity, expressing love for the doll surrogate that cannot be directed to the Yellow Man. The gesture with the doll’s hand on her cheek is a. structural link between this scene and the finger-smile sequences. Instead of a tortured smile, the doll’s hand induces a rapture that extends the characterization. In this shot Gish combines emblems of little-girlhood and womanhood to sustain the allegerical pattern of the film. We and the Yellow Man perceive an essence of femininity, granted shape and scope by the stylization of a woman playing a fifteen-year-old who plays at being a woman.

If in the moon sequence Barthelmess enacts the proximity of spiritual and physical love, it is now reiterated in a different, more strident key. He corrupts Gish’s child/woman portrait with a terrifying close-up of menacing lust.

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

The poles of the film are disturbingly close in this sequence, providing an ambiguous current for Griffith’s abstractive characters. One of the triumphs of Gish and Barthehiiess is the pulse they make throb beneath the conceptual surface Griffith imposes on Lucy and The Yellow Man. Broken Blossoms is most emphatically an acted poetic allegory.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

The sexual ambiguity of the Yellow Man’s gestures toward Lucy is further complicated when Battling Burrows discovers his daughter at the shop. Griffith uses precisely the same kind of terrifying close-up to express the father’s rage. By treating lust and fury similarly, Griffith throws awry the pat polarization of characters and concepts: Yellow Man/peace and Battling Burrows/war. The disorientation of these values will be finally accomplished when Barthelmess— who was to bring Buddha’s message to the West; who enshrined poor Lillian Gish in his personal temple—standing next to an illustration of prizefighters, faces down and shoots Donald Crisp.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

The hunched stance is apt for expression of both irony and menace. Up to the film’s last minutes, Griffith generates a crescendo of terror, pain, and violence following Burrows’s entrance into the love nest. The precious enclosure and the hermetic lovers are rent asunder; the words of the lyric poem are disarranged and strewn across the now familiar areas of the film. If the audience feels panic during the denouement of Broken Blossoms, it is because the elegiac rhythm and the idealized surface have been so radically altered. The stillness of epiphany is shattered by extremes of theatricality, modes borrowed from melodrama that test the integrity of the poem with the purity of their excess. Broken Blossoms is as much a clash of literary styles and shapes as a clash of ideologies.

At this point in the film the particular strengths of Lillian Gish are given their greatest and most fulfilling challenge. Torn from her bed and thrown to the floor, she witnesses her father’s destruction of the room with only a hint of the expression of fear that she will eventually summon.

Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)

Still clutching the doll, she is dragged down those familiar streets, home through the fog. Then Crilfith cuts back to Barthelmess and his discovery of the wreckage and her absence.

Barthelmess’s despair and anguish, his sell-abandonment, prepare for Gish’s great scene. All of their acting in miniature, in repose—acting that aimed toward the private center of their poetic existence— is now reversed, and the walls no longer seem adequate to contain their performances. As the world breaks in upon them, each responds with frantic extensions of their beings into the physical universe. Barthelmess’s hysteria is stylized Chinese; Gish’s version goes beyond recognizable style.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A particularly inspired invention locates her explosion of hysteria in a closet, the film’s smallest space. The general pattern of containment is both respected and supremely violated, This most circumscribed area, suited to the interiority of the lyric poem, provides a frame for the screen’s rawest manifestation of unchecked emotion and frenzy . Gish presses herself to the closet wall. Then begins a confrontation between actress and closet, and an assault on our collective claustrophobia that set a standard for any subsequent scene of enclosure. The space is delimited by body, hands, eyes, and face.

A sense of duration unfortunately is not conveyed by the frame enlargements. The camera relentlessly records Gish, and she spares the audience nothing, forcing it to share the plenitude of her suffering. The sequence is finally modulated; Gish reassumes the crouching position, drawing herself into a corner, while Crisp hacks at the door. When he reaches through the opening he has made, the conflict between their worlds is conveyed in purely spatial terms.

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

All the confines are breached as Lucy is pulled through that same opening, her spirit raped as she passes from one realm into another. Griffith is fiendishly inventive in scenes of menace, as Broken Blossoms demonstrates. The final beating features a tapping motion with the phallic whip handle, a disquieting prelude to the fatal strokes that we do not see.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)
Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is left alone to die. Isolated now by her pillow, she still clutches the doll that links her to the Yellow Man, but also veyr much her father’s daughter, she composes her final “smile.”

Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)

In a shot that seems to be held forever, her death connects the various attitudes and spaces of Broken Blossoms: the peace of the Yellow Man’s room, the agonizing smile-poem, and the bruises inflicted by Battling Burrows.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in "Broken Blossoms"
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”

The stillness is interrupted by the confrontation of the Yellow Man with Burrows, but it is resumed in the final sequence by an ineffable cadence of echoes of posture and placement. Lucy is returned to her altar to be venerated along with the other icons, and her death is consecrated through the joy and passion of Barthelmess’s suicide.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Peace is restored and the pattern is completed by the sublime tilt of the head, which forms the proper closure of the poem that was begun when the Yellow Man first leaned against the brick wall. Between these wedded images Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess act out the impossible, escaping from themselves through a refinement of gesture and stance to incarnate a totality of being that ranges from the most exquisite presence of flesh and pain to the airy reaches of aureoles and karma. That is the scope of Broken Blossoms.

Cheng Huan's suicide (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s suicide (Broken Blossoms)

Gish was always Griffith’s little girl/very young lady. Her vulnerability to menace was sublimely appropriate to the complex of reverence and sadism that qualified Woman in his imagination.

Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover
Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover

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Empire of Dreams (The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille) – By Scott Eyman (2010)

Empire of Dreams

The Epic Life of CECIL B. DEMILLE

By Scott Eyman (2010)

Best known as the director of such spectacular films as The Ten Commandments and KingOf Kings, Cecil B. DeMille lived a life as epic as any of is cinematic masterpieces. As a child DeMille learned the Bible from his father, a theology student and playwright who introducedCecil and his older brother, William, to the theater. Tutored by impresario David Belasco,DeMille discovered how audiences responded to showmanship: sets, lights, costumes, etc. He took this knowledge with him to Los Angeles in 1913, where he became one of the movie pioneers, in partnership with Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). Working out of a barn on streets fragrant with orange blossom and pepper trees, the Lasky company turned out a string of successful silents, most of them directed by DeMille, who became one of the biggest names of the silent era. With films such as The Squaw Man,Brewster’s Millions, Joan the Woman, and Don’t Change Your Husband, he was the creative backbone of what would become Paramount Studios. In 1923 he filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments and later a second biblical epic, King of Kings, both enormous box-office successes. Although his reputation rests largely on the biblical epics he made, DeMille’s personal life was no morality tale. He remained married to his wife, Constance, for more than fifty years, but for most of the marriage he had three mistresses simultaneously, all of whom worked for him. He showed great loyalty to a small group of actors who knew his style, but he also discovered some major stars, among them Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, and later, Charlton Heston. DeMille was one of the few silent-era directors who made a completely successful transition to sound. In 1952 he won the Academy Award for Best Picture with The Greatest Show on Earth. When he remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, it was an even bigger hit than the silent version. He could act, too: in Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard, DeMille memorably played himself. In the 1930s and 1940s DeMille became a household name thanks to the Luce Radio Theater, which he hosted. But after falling out with a union, he gave up the program, and his politics shifted to the right as he championed loyalty oaths and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. As Scott Eyman brilliantly demonstrates in this superbly researched biography, which draws on a massive cache of DeMille family papers not available to previous biographers, DeMille was much more than his cliched image. A gifted director who worked in many genres; a devoted family man and loyal friend with a highly unconventional personal life; a pioneering filmmaker: DeMille comes alive in these pages, a legend whose spectacular career defined an era.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille

In the years after World War I, propriety was less attractive than the promise of freedom. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would inevitably give way to Clara Bow and Louise Brooks — a transition anticipated by DeMille. The DeMille films manage to have it both ways — they confront the anxieties implicit in abandoning old behavior patterns, but they tend to reaffirm the original marital transaction. At the same time, they’re problem pictures in which the premise carries more weight than the characters; DeMille doesn’t give his women the room for authentic emotion as would directors who came out of a different cultural tradition such as Lubitsch or Josef von Sternberg.

American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille - 16 dec 1958
American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille – 16 dec 1958 (Lillian Gish first from the left)

Ramping up a studio from a standing start entails a vast amount of work and money, especially when it comes to story material. “Do you want to buy best sellers by popular authors or cheaper originals and older stories?” inquired Ella Adams. DeMille would have preferred gilt-edged properties, but there were money issues. “We are short on material for women,” he wrote back. “We need eight feminine vehicles and we only have four.”

Then there was the problem of stars. Lillian Gish wired DeMille to say that she had been told he was interested in her: have YOU A representative here in new YORK THAT I COULD TALK WITH OR COULD YOU WIRE ME ABOUT ANY PLANS YOU MIGHT HAVE AFFECTING MY FUTURE WHICH IS STILL UNSETTLED?

DeMille responded with a flurry of telegrams: I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH TO HAVE YOU AS A MEMBER OF MY NEW COMPANY AS I BELIEVE I CAN DO MORE FOR YOU THAN ANYONE AT present IN the field. He told his New York man to “call upon Gish immediately, tell her I would like [to] make four pictures a year with her that I will personally supervise and in which she would be starred. Or possibly three starring pictures and have her appear in one of my personally directed productions each year. . . .

If she mentions [Gish’s lover, the drama critic] George Jean Nathan you can say that I have the highest regard for Mr. Nathan and would be glad to associate him in some way with her pictures. That at the same time if she is to have the benefit of my direction and supervision naturally the choice of stories and matters of that sort must be left in my hands.”

DeMille’s agent reported back that three or four companies were bidding for Gish’s services, for what he thought was a minimum of $5,000 a week, and she wanted a definite offer. A couple of days later, he asked DeMille, “would you take Nathan if signing Gish depended on it?” The negotiations with Gish went no further; she signed with MGM. That wasn’t the only disappointment. DeMille was anxious to sign the silk hat comedian Raymond Griffith, and was willing to trade Bebe Daniels, with whom he had worked out a contract memo. But Daniels changed her mind about working for DeMille because her boyfriend was going to be working in the East and she wanted to follow him there. This left DeMille with nothing to offer of comparable value for Griffith.

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

On July 27, 1948, DeMille had attended the funeral of the largely forgotten, alcoholic D. W. Griffith. Lillian Gish remembered that only six people came to the funeral home the night before the funeral; one was DeMille, another was John Ford. For the funeral itself, where there were sure to be cameras, there was a crowd.

Sitting there, DeMille must have thought about the meaning of Griffith’s life, and the circumstances of his death, about roads not taken, and why he, alone of all the directors of his generation, maintained a preeminent position in the industry.

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

Martin Scorsese once wrote that what moved him about DeMille was his sense of wonder. “DeMille presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life. The marvelous superseded the sacred. What I remember most are the tableaux vivants, the colors, the dreamlike quality of the imagery, and of course the special effects. . . .

“DeMille’s legacy is . . . putting on a giant show for people who were working class people, who don’t have much money to go and see a film in a theater. They are told it’s a spectacle and they really do see a spectacle. He wouldn’t let the audience down at all, and it always paid off in that beautiful flow of poetic and dream-like images.”

Alone among the survivors of a bygone era, DeMille persisted in constructing vast pieces of silent music: Pre-Raphaelite, pre-Freudian images that rendered dialogue irrelevant. His silent films have maintained DeMille’s reputation as a great director by those lucky enough to see them, and the enormous spectacles have kept his name alive for audiences more than fifty years after his death. Years after DeMille’s death, Gloria Swanson visited Palm Springs, where William Holden was living. Holden was in Africa, so Swanson left a note for him on a toilet seat.

“Dear Joe,” [his character’s name in Sunset Boulevard]

I’m leaving this note where I know you’ll find it.

“Where is Max? Where is DeMille? Where is Hedda? Where has everybody gone?

“Love, Norma Desmond.”

Once, when DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia was a little girl, she asked him what he did for a living. He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “I tell stories,” he said.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille - cover
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille – cover

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Lillian Gish (Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe – 1959)

Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, more than any other star, has always symbolized the silent screen heroine. Of course, she was more than just a “heroine” and all that that hackneyed word implies. An actress of fragile beauty and astonishing sensitivity, she was not only the first lady of the screen, but one of the great actresses of all time.

Lillian Gish - Ice Floe Scene - Way Down East
Lillian Gish – Ice Floe Scene – Way Down East

John Barrymore, excited over her work in Way Down East, wrote to her that she had even surpassed the work of Duse. And Griffith (several years after Miss Gish had made her last film for him), when asked if he really thought that she was the screen’s foremost actress, shrugged his shoulders and replied:

“Who is greater?” Initially it seemed that Lillian Gish was more valuable to Griffith for her looks than for her acting ability. She had (and in fact still has) that ethereal, not-ofthis-world look, a birdlike fragility from which emerges sudden, unexpected strength.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

She was the epitome of what Griffith wanted in a heroine visually. But, in the early Biograph days at least, and through the Triangle period (until 1917) it was Mae Marsh who was the better actress. Or at least, it was Mae who was given the roles that demanded acting ability rather than a beautifully wistful and expressive face.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley 1912

In early one-reelers like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and The Mothering Heart, Lillian was exceptionally fine, but she really began to mature as an actress after 1917, in films like Hearts of the World (the scene in which she wanders through a war-torn battlefield, clutching her bridal veil, searching for the body of the boy who was to have been her husband, was heart-rending), and the lovely little rural romance True Heart Susie, one of the unsung classics of the American screen.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Then came Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, which, by 1920, quite firmly established her as the screen’s foremost actress. Strangely enough however, although she had learned so much -from Griffith, and was so devoted to him, some of her best work came after she left him. To Griffith, the story was the thing—and for him, it was the right way to work. His pictures justified his methods.

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

And those methods did not include “showcases” for virtuoso performances, although Way Down East, with a simpler story-line than usual, and more stress on the one character of Anna Moore (played by Miss Gish) came closest to being a star vehicle.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Lillian’s scenes with her dead baby are still among the most poignant moments to be found anywhere on the screen. Miss Gish of course had no complaints against Griffith’s methods, and went on to make Orphans of the Storm for him. But it was obvious that as an actress she could develop no further in Griffith’s films, and so the two, quite amicably, came to a parting of the ways. Miss Gish’s films thereafter were more infrequent, and more carefully selected.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

Not all were wisely selected, and Romola, despite a huge budget and lengthy location work in Italy, was a cold and stodgy film, lovely to look at, but little else. Miss Gish’s role gave her little to do but look exquisitely lovely in Renaissance costumes. The earlier The White Sister had been an enormous popular success, of course. Moving to M-G-M, Miss Gish was more than just the highest-priced feminine star on the lot. She had very definite ideas about the art of the film, and managed to imprint these ideas quite positively into her films. King Vidor and others who directed her were impressed. Even when they sometimes disagreed, they respected her integrity and creativity. Most of all, they respected her devotion to the art of acting, and her endurance of hardship and discomfort in the interests of a finer performance. In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree, King Vidor describes at great length the rather appalling ordeal Miss Gish subjected herself to in order to simulate death so convincingly in La Boheme.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)3

Miss Gish’s best M-G-M films, La Boheme, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind presented her with strikingly mature roles, in contrast to the innocent and girlish roles which had fallen to her under Griffith. And yet, of course, so much of that innocent charm remained.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

Who could resist Lillian sitting placidly and uncomplainingly in the stocks (in The Scarlet Letter), forcing a smile while her wide eyes were filling with tears, or entreating a pawnbroker (in La Boheme) to pay just a little more for her mittens, so that she can pay her rent?

Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi at the pawnshop
Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi at the pawnshop

( Of course, how anybody could refuse an unspoken plea from Lillian’s eyes, let alone be inhuman enough to be mean to her, is a point that often bothered me as I watched her suffering so beautifuly in so many silents!) Miss Gish was devoted to the silent screen, and felt that it had just about perfected a universal language of the arts when sound came along to destroy it. She has made many talkies and has always been superb. But now that the silent screen has gone, her main love is the theatre—and what a rare privilege it is to watch such an outstanding artist at work today! Styles and standards have changed, “The Method” and other modernizations have come and will probably go. Amid all the mumbling that passes for acting today, Lillian Gish’s power and sensitivity and force remains a vibrant and living link with an acting school that has never been surpassed—the school of silent cinema.

Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 cover
Classics of the silent screen by Franklin Joe 1959 cover

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”Way Down East”- Camera (1920)

Camera – SATURDAY, OCTOBER 23. 1920

”Way Down East”

Griffith comes back again with his screen version of “Way Down East,” and, as usual, the critics have little to report save good regarding one of his big productions. As has been the case in some of his previous pictures, this old melodrama will henceforth be more popular as a Griffith offering than it has proven during the many years that it has been an old standby on the boards.

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

Never before have such photography and light effects been accomplished for the screen. These, combined with the unusual settings which proclaim aloud their genuineness, render “Way Down East” the season’s most artistic production by far.

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

The original plot of the play has been elaborated upon and much invaluable human interest business has been inserted. The performances of the cast are very good and the New England types are excellent. Their action is materially assisted by the music score.

Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

Lowell Sherman is exceptionally well cast as the heavy, Lennox Sanderson, whom he interprets cleverly. His work is convincing enough to gather for him the complete loathing of any audience.

Richard Barthelmess does David Bartlett, the well remembered ideal young New Englander, with all of his old time juvenile appeal. His characterization is equally good in its tender and its dominant moments.

Burr MackIntosh - Scene from Way Down East
Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

Burr Macintosh and Kate Price are beautifully cast as Squire and Mrs. Bartlett. It is the home atmosphere that means so much in Griffith pictures.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Mary Hay makes her screen debut in the role of Kate Brewster, the refreshing little ingenue. She is headed toward Dorothy ‘s port with her eccentric comedy mannerisms. Her relief is timely.

Way Down East Cast and Director
Way Down East Cast and Director

Vivia Ogden, Porter Strong and George Neville occasion the more hilarious amusement of the play in the rural characters, Martha Perkins, Jack Setholand and Reuben Whipple. Josephine Bernard, Mrs. Morgan Belmont and Patricia Fruer are somewhat amateurish as the Tremonts, but their footage is limited and consequently means little.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and the eccentric aunt

Florence Short, however, creates a type worthy of mention in her four or five scenes as their eccentric aunt. Edgar Nelson as Hi Holler, and Emily Fitzroy as Maria Poole, complete the cast.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

The remarkableness and thrill of the ice jam and break scenes, which forms the climax, has never been rivaled. It is as spectacular a sequence as has been filmed, even by this  director.

Other producers might follow Mr. Griffith’s example by including many big brains in their organizations, to the advantage of’ their productions and resultantly their own material success.

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John Huston: Maker of Magic – By Stuart Kaminsky – 1978 (The Unforgiven)

John Huston: Maker of Magic

By Stuart Kaminsky – 1978

John Huston’s colorful career covers almost the entire history of sound film. Huston has been screenwriter, actor, director, and playwright. He has won Academy Awards and he has been a figure of controversy, a focus for rebellion, and a recognized artist. While his origins are shrouded in the most American of myths, his very real and early passions for horses, boxing, and writing led him to Hollywood, where he successfully transformed his gift for fantasy into film.

Huston has worked with some of the most significant people in American film history, including his father, Walter Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and many others. His films include such classics as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Red Badge of Courage, and more recently, Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King.

Stuart Kaminsky has written the first book on Huston to deal with his entire opus and the first to relate Huston’s life to his work. Huston is portrayed as a fascinating combination of fraud, genius, and tail-story teller. Kaminsky has relied upon interviews with many people who have worked with him, including Don Siegel, William Wyler, Eli Wallach, and many writers and pro- ducers in the film industry. The result is a portrait of an authentic American genius of film.


In the Shadow of the Father

JOHN MARCELLUS HUSTON was bom in Nevada, Missouri, a small town near the Kansas-Missouri border, on August 5, 1906.

At the time of his birth, both Huston’s father and mother were probably wondering what they were doing in Nevada. Walter Huston had left an unpromising career on the stage to take a post as Nevada’s engineer in charge of power and light. His wife, the former Rhea Gore, had been a successful New York City newspaperwoman when they married.

There is not much documented material available about John Huston’s beginnings. Huston himself has told many stories about his life and that of his parents — stories that may or may not be true. Huston’s love of fantasy and storytelling must be counted as much an element in his account of his biography as in his work.


The Unforgiven

Late in 1958, Huston signed a contract to direct a Western for the production company of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, whose first big hit had been the Academy Award-winning Marty. The film would star Burt Lancaster and be based on the novel The Unforgiven by Alan LeMay. Huston and Ben Maddow, with whom he had written The Asphalt Jungle, began the adaptation. To save money, the film, set in the western United States in the late 1860s, would be shot near Durango, in Mexico, a country that Huston knew well and felt happy working in.


In an interview with the Hollywood Citizen-News in 1959, Huston announced, “In The Unforgiven . . . the gross salary of any of the stars — Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster— is more than the entire cost of The Maltese Falcon, which was made for less than $300,000.“ Curtis would drop out of this cast and be replaced by Audie Murphy, but the cost of the film would not drop. It would eventually hit more than $5,000,000, making the project the most expensive Huston had done to that point in his career.


There were a number of reasons for the expense. One involved a long delay that occurred when Audrey Hepburn was injured falling from a horse — a recurrent danger in Huston films because of the director’s insistence upon using horses — and had to be hospitalized with a bad back. Another major expense was the house that had to be constructed. There are only two apparently simple houses in the film, one in which the Zachary family (Lancaster, Hepburn, Murphy, Lillian Gish, and Doug McClure) live and the other in which the Rawlins family (Charles Bickford, Albert Salmi, June Walker, Kipp Hamilton, and Arnold Merritt) live. The Zachary house, however, proved to be one of the most expensive sets Huston ever had made. Built against a fake mountain that itself had to be constructed, the house was made in specially fitted sections so it could be taken apart easily for shots at various positions. It was a marvel of engineering, supervised by art director Stephen Grimes.


“The house,” said Huston, “was almost as ingenious as the whales built for Moby Dick. It served as a studio as well as our main set because we did our film cutting right there, in the back of the house under the artificial hill.”

After each day of shooting, the color film would be flown to England for processing and then flown back to be viewed by Huston. In the finished film, which runs over two and a half hours in its uncut form, the Zachary family, led by the eldest brother, Ben (Lancaster), is in partnership with the Rawlins family in cattle ranching. The Zachary father had been killed in a Kiowa attack and the Zacharys — particularly Cash (Murphy) — bear a deep hatred for the Indians.


A mysterious figure, Kelsey (Joseph Wiseman), dressed in a Union uniform arrives one day and tells the Indians and then the Rawlins family that Rachel Zachary (Hepburn) is really a full-blooded Kiowa. The Zacharys admit that she is a foundling but deny she is Indian.

Joseph Wiseman
Joseph Wiseman

When the oldest Rawlins boy, Charlie (Albert Salmi), is killed by the Kiowa after he courts Rachel, Kelsey is brought in to be hanged for helping the Indians. He again insists that Rachel is an Indian and that he had been with the dead Zachary father when the child was found.

Joseph Wiseman - Kelsey (The Unforgiven)
Joseph Wiseman – Kelsey (The Unforgiven)

The Zacharys deny this and refuse to allow Rachel to be examined. Zeb Rawlins (Bickford) renounces his partnership and sends the Zachary family off alone to fight the Kiowas, who have vowed to take Rachel. The Zacharys find an Indian message indicating Kelsey’s story is true. Mattilda (Gish) admits the truth, and Cash denounces Rachel and leaves.


The Zacharys then fight the Indians through the night. Mattilda is killed and Andy (McClure) wounded. Cash returns to help at the last minute, and Rachel kills her own brother, the Indian who has led the war party to get her. Ben announces his plan to marry Rachel and the film ends. The similarity to Huston’s other films can be seen in the search for a truth hidden in the past, a truth that reveals someone has been posing as something he or she is not. This recurrent Huston theme was to be developed even more explicitly in Freud and The List of Adrian Messenger.


Again, a small group must stand alone against great odds and risk their lives for a goal or principle, for the first time in a Huston film a principle that involves a group of people held together by racial prejudice. The film is filled with Biblical dialogue and Old Testament references. “The Lord sayeth, be fruitful and multiply,” says the patriarchal Zeb. This verselike Biblical prose was to be used even more in Huston’s only other Western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.


There is a strange undercurrent of mysticism in the film. Cash, for example, has special powers and is able to sense the presence of Indians. During the siege of the family house, when he is ten miles away, he tells the Rawlins’ daughter (Walker) exactly what is hap- pening. Kelsey appears as a prophet out of the mist to forecast doom just as Elijah (Royal Dano) in Moby Dick did before the voyage, but still the characters move forward, committed to their path.

Lillian Gish in Unforgiven - Promotional Photo
Lillian Gish in Unforgiven – Promotional Photo
Burt Lancaster (The Unforgiven)
Burt Lancaster (The Unforgiven)

While the film does adhere to conventions of the Western in many ways, it also introduces some rather bizarre touches. The ghostly presentation of Kelsey throughout the film is one example, but the use of the piano may be even more striking.


Ben brings a piano back home from Wichita so that Mattilda can play Mozart. When the Indians play their war flutes — not drums — in the night during the seige, Ben moves the piano outdoors and his mother counters with light classics. The image is surreal and followed by an equally strange sequence in which six Indians are killed in a frenzied attack on the piano.


Unfortunately, while reviews were mostly good, The Unforgiven was not popular with audiences. At this point, Huston had made three films away from his home in Ireland and had thoughts about heading back there to work on his Freud project, but he was to be delayed for almost two more years by a film that took him back to the United States.

The Unforgiven - Audrey Hepburn, Lillian Gish, Burt Lancaster - Promo
The Unforgiven – Audrey Hepburn, Lillian Gish, Burt Lancaster – Promo
John Huston, maker of magic
John Huston, maker of magic – 1978

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ORPHANS OF THE STORM—D. W. Griffith – Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

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

Photoplay Magazine – March 1922

Photoplay’s selection of six best pictures of the month

The Shadow Stage


THIS production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper. Griffith has come back with a bang. After “Dream Street,” this great historical masterpiece brings again the Griffith of “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” but with an added charm, a new softness, a fresh appeal. He tells an old, old story—the story of “The Two Orphans.” He has retitled it and remade it. Against the bloody background of the French Revolution, Griffith has painted a beautiful picture: a tender portrait of devotion and sacrifice. He has recreated history as no other living man has done. And this is his greatest triumph. It is massive, but it is human.

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 …

And let us comment on the very curious fact that the French Revolution is perennial. Somehow it takes hold of the human imagination as can no other great social upheaval in human affairs. Compared with events that have followed, the turbulent period of the Reign of Terror is not on a particularly grand scale: e. g., the Napoleonic wars, and our own great Civil conflict, not to mention the recent World war, and the cruel and bloody Russian revolution.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

But it fascinates. Griffith was wise in his choice of a theme for this production. It is spectacular, but it has little moments of very personal appeal—tiny, heart-throbbing seconds on the screen during which you hold your breath for fear you will break the charm and the magic picture will vanish.

You are Henrielte and Louise, or you are the Chevalier de Vaudrey and Danton. You are awaiting the embrace of Madame Guillotine; you are a part of that unforgettable page in the book of the world. No history ever written can begin to compare with this photoplay for genuine instruction. Every child in the world should see it. True, it takes liberties with actual dates and events; but the spirit is there. There are, we said, moments of surpassing beauty — greater than anything ever put on the screen or the stage.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

One, the love scene of Henriette and the Chevalier: touching, tender, true. Another, the most dramatic of all celluloid climaxes: the almost-meeting of the two orphans. The thrills come when the heroine is rescued from the guillotine — and this is not the best part of the drama. But much may be forgiven a director who can reach out from the screen and put a tear in your eye and a lump in your throat.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Orphans of The Storm 1922 — with Lillian Gish2.

As for the acting — it is superb. First honors go to Miss Lillian Gish. Each new Gish portrayal is finer than the one before. The actress works. With a rare beauty and personal charm, she is not content. Her Henriette is sublime.

Dorothy Gish - Orphans of the Storm

Her sister, Dorothy, as Louise, has the second-best role, which she performs with exquisite art. Joseph Schildkraut, as the Chevalier, is charming. But Monte Blue, as Danton, the outstanding figure of the Revolution, is the best man in the cast.

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

Of heroic mold, he plays magnificently and proves himself one of our few fine actors. Honorable mention to Lucille La Verne, Frank Puglia, Sheldon Lewis, Morgan Wallace, Frank Losee, and the gentleman who played Robespierre so splendidly. The musical score is appropriate.

Once more—don’t miss this.

Photoplay (Jan - Jun 1922) cover March
Photoplay (March 1922) cover

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“Intolerance” Reviewed by Thomas C. Kennedy (1916 – Motography)

MOTOGRAPHY September 23, 1916.

Current Releases Reviewed


D. W. Griffith’s Beautiful and Stupendous “Sun Play.”

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

Reviewed by Thomas C. Kennedy.

The manifold wonders with which D. W. Griffith has endowed “Intolerance” sufficed to accomplish something in excess of merely fulfilling the expectations of the first-nighters at the Liberty Theater on Tuesday, September 5, when the new creation of the producer of “The Birth of a Nation” began its New York run. The audience assembled there was prepared to witness extraordinary and overpowering photographic effects and that their appetites, craving lofty and exalted exhibitions of the motion picture art, were sated speaks volumes in praise of “Intolerance.” So gigantic is “Intolerance” that the spectator’s attitude after seeing it is that of bewilderment. One is stunned by a scope and vastness which paralyzes the significance of sounding words and phrases even when written in a spirit of flushed enthusiasm. A work which consumed years in being brought to completion cannot be comprehended in its entirety in one reading, and it is difficult to detail the several miracles of this picture when they all combine to make one great impression whose features are blurred by their own dazzling brilliance. Cogitation upon what has been seen tends only to throw one into a state of wonderment at the fact that such a work could ever be accomplished, granting the ambitious one who conceived it all the time and money available to the most hale and ingenious of men.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

“Intolerance” is entirely the work of D. W. Griffith. The idea upon which the picture is based and its visualization owe their being to him. The picture can not be likened to any other work designed for the theater. Pageantry so moving and of such magnitude is something new under the sun. Described as “a sun play of the ages,” “Intolerance” is given to showing that our present society may trace its ills to that evil which proved the source of disaster in every step or age in the history of man. In depicting this theme Griffith visualizes four separate stories. The fall of Babylon, the Crucifixion of Christ, the massacre of the French Huguenots and a modern melodrama. In his scenario Griffith pays little heed to the accepted dramatic forms, his aim being to show incidents in each of the four periods as they might occur to one reasoning along these lines of comparison. The plots are developed simultaneously, thus the spectator is carried by means of the switchback from the modern to the ancient period and from there to the religious or historical age as an even unraveling of the plot thread requires.

Intolerance Elephand detailed view set

It would naturally be supposed that this manner of telling four separate stories would result not only in confusion to the spectator but also lessen noticeably the dramatic force of each. But in “Intolerance” this is not the case. For, odd as it may seen, one follows the story of each period with consummate ease and there is the most conclusive’ evidence to prove that the last ounce of dramatic effect has been wrung from the four plays treated. As a drama proceeding from the premise that civilization has been and is even now being retarded by the failure of one man to accept, or rather respect the opinions or principles of another, “Intolerance” can hardly be considered vital. We were no surer that intolerance was the one great evil after seeing “Intolerance” than before. Babylon, the mighty city which Griffith has really reconstructed and destroyed again, might have fallen before the sword of ambition as much as the poison of intolerance for all this portion of the picture proves to the contrary.

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

The Babylonian and the modern are the most striking of the four periods. Of the former all one can do is to bow one’s head and ponder at its colossal and thrilling spectacular effects and the latter is a thoroughly absorbing melodrama. But as far as the plays are concerned, it is quite probable that the same material and scenario construction if given into the hands of any other producer would fail to attain remarkable prominence over the best that the screen drama has already offered. “Intolerance” cannot fail to drive home the fact that Griffith is the supreme master of motion picture production. Also, if the scenario really worthy of his talents ever comes within his grasp, the world shall see the camera’s art completely sounded. And then new and greater treasures will be brought up from its vastly depths. But it is difficult to dwell upon “Intolerance” and remain calm and analytical of a story which holds together marvels of an undeniable allure. Those who do not make possible the opportunity to see it are guilty of an offense against their own welfare and good.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

There is one scene whose magnificent and inspiring artistry is well worth a long journey and twice the price of the rent of the choicest seat to view. This is the beginning of the march of Cyrus’s Persian hordes in their second martial advance upon Babylon. The picture seems little more than a flash, but what a flash of grandeur it is. The battle scenes in this period are equally great in their power to thrill. Strictly as battle scenes they cannot be compared with those of any other film production. They take up the pace where the best of the others left off, and, to be sure, they travel far from this advanced starting point. The pictures of ancient Jerusalem stir emotions of a more ethereal nature. They are as gorgeous as those of Babylon, but theirs is a splendor of simplicity and spirituality as against the bizarre and awe-inspiring glamour of the edifices and passions of those mighty men of the world who are reincarnated in the ancient story told by “Intolerance.”

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

The artificiality  and pomp of the court of Charles IX of France as well as scenes of the reign of terror on St. Bartholomew’s eve are reproduced in striking reality in the historical period. The modern story is quite as notable as the others. It rather bitterly attacks certain forms of organized charity in a play whose central characters are of the working class. Nor is this story without thrills. The enactment of the murder for which an innocent is sent to the very trap of the gallows is most intense. And the auto racing to catch a train carrying the only man with the power to stay the hand of a law about to be put to misuse brought the audience to the foremost reach of the theater chairs. But in accounting for the influences which make the modern period of “Intolerance” a play of intensely interesting properties the observer would prove himself quite lax were he to make no note of Mae Marsh’s acting. Just as “Intolerance” surpasses all previous attempts so too does Miss Marsh set a new standard for the greatest of the actresses who are to come to the screen by her performance here.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

The innovations which Griffith has introduced are as numerous as they are astonishing. These new devices are abstractly referred to for the simple reason that one visit to the screen holding “Intolerance” is not sufficient to enable a reviewer to point out and describe the most typical instances.

by Thomas C. Kennedy 1916

Intolerance complete cast

Intolerance complete cast 2


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In Plaid and Tartan By Norbert Lusk (Picture Play Magazine, 1927)

Picture Play Magazine, August 1927

The Screen in Review

In Plaid and Tartan

By Norbert Lusk

There are kilts and bagpipes, glens, and castles, and a great deal of bloodshed in “Annie Laurie,” but it isn’t really Scottish, for all that. Nor is it more than mildly interesting, and it’s not at all sympathetic. Too bad, because Lillian Gish is lovely to look at in the quaint, voluminous costumes of the period, and her mood is lighter and less woeful than in most of her pictures. The film just doesn’t arouse any emotion.

ANNIE LAURIE, Norman Kerry (links), Lillian Gish (Mitte), Direktor John S. Robertson, am Set, 1927
ANNIE LAURIE, Norman Kerry (links), Lillian Gish (Mitte), Direktor John S. Robertson, am Set, 1927

The story is based on the ancient feud between the MacDonalds and the Campbells, and culminates in the Glencoe massacre, in which Annie Laurie, of course, shines forth as the heroine. Perilously she climbs a cliff to light the beacon which shall warn the clan of impending attack. Honestly, I can’t remember which clan it was—the MacDonalds or the Campbells—because the feud was so long drawn out, and Lillian and some of the other characters seemed to be on civil terms with both factions.

Norman Kerry is Ian MacDonald. “A Campbell for a MacDonald !” he shouts, as he poses on a high wall, about to hurl the body of Creighton Hale into space. That is the spirit of his role, and Mr. Kerry blusters through it, an actor who realizes that here is his opportunity to run wild and go over big with the girls. He also displays his chest in extreme decollete, and is not averse to doffing every stitch above the waist. This may all be typical of a he-man Scotsman, but it looked like pure Culver City to me. So was the picture.

Special Poster 2 sheets Annie Laurie


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