WAY DOWN EAST proved to be one of the most profitable pictures ever made. The master had once more turned the trick. The public was drawn to see an old favorite in a new guise and found its familiar melodramatic qualities heightened beyond expectation. While sticking faithfully to the bones of the play, Griffith had very rightly adapted it to suit the newer medium—notably at the beginning, by adding material to establish the background of the characters, and at the end to give full rein to the last-minute rescue, developed in purely visual terms and heightened through artful photography and cutting. It was a device which had seldom failed Griffith in the past and stood him in good stead now.
The lapse of time has made it difficult to estimate the qualities of Way Down East accurately. Much in it that was fresh and inventive at the time the film was made has since been absorbed into the general repertory of film technique and therefore seems banal. Other devices now outmoded or disused are obtrusive and irritating—the time-lapse fades within single scenes, the low comedy relief, the shots of blossoms and domestic animals interjected for sentiment’s sake. The extremely improbable plot creaks loudly, and the musical score, added when the film was re-released in the early days of sound synchronization, seems almost as dated as the Victorian morality. Yet if most of the characterizations are two-dimensional, they are handled with vigor and skill and the study of Anna is entire and convincing. Miss Gish conveys the moods and feelings of the sorely tried heroine more skillfully and with more restraint than she had done in BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Her performance is remarkable for its range, apparent spontaneity and sincerity; it could be contrasted with many contemporary performances to her advantage. Scenes such as the baptism of the dying baby and those in which Anna hears Sanderson confess the mock marriage and David Bartlett declares his love are almost as effective today as they were twenty years ago. The flight through the storm, the ice scenes, and the split-second rescue remain triumphs of direction, camera placement and editing, in which Griffith again attains though hardly surpasses the vitality of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.
The period between intolerance and way down east marks the apex of Griffith’s success. A figure of international importance, he had played a signal part in founding a huge industry—he had already created a new art form—in which the United States became and remained supreme. Except for Frank Lloyd Wright, no such eminent American as he had arisen in the arts since Whitman. He was to continue active for another decade, though the most fruitful years were past. Already men trained under him were stepping into the limelight, at the same time that newcomers drawn from many walks of life and from Europe as well as from this country were likewise contributing new ideas, new techniques. Erich von Stroheim, who had been one of Griffith’s assistants as well as one of his leading actors, made two films, blind HUSBANDS (1919) and foolish wives (1921), which attracted wide attention and set a new style. His directorial career—culminating in the superb and somber greed (1924) —afterwards suffered a great eclipse rendered only the more startling by his re-emergence as an actor in the French film LA GRANDE ILLUSION in 1937. Frank Powell has already been referred to. Mack Sennett, even earlier, had graduated from acting and providing plots for Griffith to the glorious creation of Keystone comedies. Lowell Sherman, villain of WAY DOWN EAST, was to direct—among other films—Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Donald Crisp, after BROKEN BLOSSOMS, also became a director of distinction— Buster Keaton’s the navigator (1924) and Douglas Fairbanks’ DON Q (1925) are perhaps his best-remembered pictures—and today he is again a leading character-actor. It would fill many pages to enumerate the notable actors and actresses who gained their first experience under Griffith and first faced the camera with Bitzer turning. All these fed the industry with new talent. But times and taste alike were changing. From now on Griffith’s films were often criticized even by the trade press as “melodramatic.” In 1924 James Quirk *** boldly admonished Griffith in an editorial in Photoplay: “You have made yourself an anchorite at Mamaroneck . . . your pictures shape themselves towards a certain brutality because of this austerity . . . your refusal to face the world is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal . . . your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you—and to pictures.”
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
Intolerance was not one story, but four. In Belshazzar’s Babylon (sixth century b.c.), the evil high priest conspires against the wise and just ruler, betraying the city to the Persian conqueror, Cyrus; by the end of this story, every “good” character is dead. In Judea, the close- minded Pharisees intrigue against Jesus; ulti¬ mately, the gentle savior is sent to the cross. In Reformation France (sixteenth century a.d.), ambitious courtiers persuade the Catholic king to slaughter all the Protestant Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, a massacre that includes the rape and murder of a young Protestant and the killing of her fiance. In twentieth-century America (the “Modern Story,” which used to be The Mother and the Law), strikers are gunned down, a Boy is falsely convicted of murder, and his wife loses her baby thanks to the meddling of a group of reformers; the facts eventually surface to save the Boy from the gallows.
Instead of telling one story after the other, as in Home, Sweet Home, Griffith tells these stories all at once, interweaving them—and 2,500 years of history—into an intellectual and emotional argument, a demonstration that love, diversity, and the little guy have always had to struggle against the overwhelming forces of hypocrisy, intolerance, and oppression. Because the colliding, streaming, juxtaposed fragments of these stories implied an idea that went beyond the “moral” of each individual story, making the whole greater than and different from the sum of its parts, Intolerance is recognized as the cinema’s first great Modernist experiment in what Sergei Eisenstein would later call intellectual (or dialectical) montage. Indeed, Griffith’s editing influenced the Soviets as much as his psychological lighting and control of mise-en-scene influenced the Germans; if The Birth of a Nation set the course for the American cinema, Intolerance did so for the Soviet cinema and Broken Blossoms for the German. The next American film to be organized this complexly would be Citizen Kane (1941); the next to be structured as a dialectical montage would be The Godfather Part II (1974).
The four stories are tied together by their consistent theme: the machinations of the selfish, the frustrated, and the inferior; the divisiveness of religious and political beliefs; the constant triumph of injustice over justice; the pervasiveness of violence and viciousness through the centuries. Also tying the stories together is Griffith’s brilliant control of editing, which keeps all the parallels in the stories quite clear, and which creates an even more spectacular climax than that of The Birth of a Nation.
In Intolerance, there are four frenzied climaxes; the excitement in each of the narrative lines reinforces the others, all of them driving furiously to their breathtaking conclusions. Griffith’s last-minute rescues cross-cut through the centuries.
And finally, tying the four stories together, much as Pippa did, is a symbolic mother-woman, rocking a cradle, bathed in a shaft of light, representing the eternal evolution of humanity through time and fate (the three Fates sit behind her), fulfilling the purpose of the creator. This woman, inspired by Whitman’s lines, “Endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter,” is a figure of peace, of light, of fertility (flowers bloom in her cradle at the end of the film), of ultimate goodness that will eventually triumph. She is played by Lillian Gish, who assisted Griffith in the editing of Intolerance.
The film’s bigness is obvious: the high walls of Babylon, the hugeness of the palace (and the immense tracking shot that Griffith uses to span it), the battle sequences, the care with each of the film’s periods and styles. The costumes, the lighting, the acting styles, the decor, and even the intertitles are so distinct in each of the four epochs that viewers know exactly whether they are in the squalid, drab poverty of a contemporary slum, the elegant tastefulness of the French court, or the garishness of ancient Babylon. But as with The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a big film that works because of its little, intimate moments. The film revolves around the faces of women—from the bubbling, jaunty, comically vital face of the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian Story to the luminous, tear-stained, soulful faces of Brown Eyes in the French Story and the little Dear One in the Modern Story. Intolerance makes it perfectly clear that social chaos takes its toll on the women, who are the helpless sufferers of its violence. Significantly, Griffith’s mother-symbol of historical continuity is also necessarily a woman. Along with the close-ups of faces, the film is equally attentive to close-ups of hands, particularly in the Modern Story: the Dear One’s wrenched hands as the callous court pronounces judgment on her husband; her hand grasping her imprisoned husband’s cap, a tender memory of his warm presence; her hand clutching one of her baby’s booties after the social uplifters have carried the infant away.
The film is also rich in the same kind of metaphoric detail found in The Birth of a Nation. The Dear One shows her humanity and tenderness as she lovingly throws grain to her chickens; when she moves to the oppressive city she keeps a single flower in her flat, a metaphor for all that is beautiful and natural and alive. (Flowers become the same kind of symbol of love and beauty in Broken Blossoms.) Yet another touching detail is the little cart pulled by two white doves in the Babylon sequence—a metaphor for the tender, fragile love between Belshazzar and his queen and for the peaceful ways of their court. After the two and the Mountain Girl have been slain, Griffith hauntingly irises out to a shot of the tiny cart and doves, a touching evocation of a beauty that was but is no longer.
Griffith’s technique is as effective at conveying hatred as it is at evoking tenderness. A deeply felt film, Intolerance makes it clear what Griffith detests: those who meddle and destroy, those who take advantage of the poor, schemers, hypocrites, and monsters of lust and power. One of Griffith’s devices of caricature is the cross-cut—particularly effective in the sequence in which he captures the cold inhumanity of the factory owner. Griffith cuts from the shots of the workers being mowed down by military or hired gunfire (violent, quick cutting, frenetic) to a shot of the owner of the factory sitting alone in his vast office (a long shot, perfectly still, that emphasizes the size of the office and the moral smallness of the big business man). The contrast clearly defines the man’s unsympathetic inhumanity to his slaughtered workers. Nine years later Eisenstein would build a whole film, Strike, out of such cross-cuts.
Although Griffith’s dislikes are clear, the intellectual cement uniting the four stories (and the rocking cradle) is a bit muddy. The film could as easily have been called “Injustice” or “Intrigue” as Intolerance. Griffith was interested in the word “intolerance” because he felt himself the victim of it. But in none of the four stories does intolerance seem so much the cause of evil as blind human selfishness, nastiness, and ambition (exactly as in The Birth of a Nation). And when the film ends with its almost obligatory optimistic vision—more superimposed angels in the heavens; the fields of the prison dissolve into fields of flowers; flowers bloom in the cradle—we once again witness an interpolated wish rather than a consequence of the film’s action. Though there may be hope in the Boy’s last-minute reprieve, it hardly seems enough to balance a whole film of poverty, destruction, suffering, and injustice.
The audience of 1916 found the film confusing and unpleasant. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance aroused no social protest; worse, it aroused little audience interest of any kind. Perhaps the film was unpopular because it asked too much from its audience. Or perhaps the film was a victim of historical accident, its obviously pacifistic statement being totally antipathetic to a nation preparing itself emotionally to send its soldiers “Over There.” Thomas Ince’s pacifist bombast, Civilization, had made money only six months earlier. Whatever the reason, Intolerance was a financial disaster, costing Griffith all his profits from The Birth of a Nation. The failure of Intolerance began Griffith’s financial dependence on other producers and businessmen, from which he would never recover.
Filled with little known facts and personal remembrances of the stars of the silent screen, Silent Players profiles the lives and careers of the hundred best, brightest, or most unusual silent film actors and actresses Anthony Slide shows that the unlikely plot twists in many silent films are nothing compared to the strange and often sad, lives led by many of the men and women whose images flickered onscreen.
There is a title that describes Lillian Gish’s title character in Romola (1925) as “learned of books but of the world untaught.” That probably provides the shortest, and best, word portrait of Lillian Gish as seen on screen and as she exists in the public psyche. She certainly loved books, and her apartment was crowded with titles, many first editions signed by their famous authors. The Gish characters were generally ethereal, unworldly and unsuspecting of the evils of society, of which they were often made abruptly and dangerously aware. Be it the mulatto Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation (1915), von Strohm, the Hunnish soldier in Hearts of the World (1918), a brutal father in Broken Blossoms (1920), the debauched Lennox Sanderson in Way Down East (1920), or the revolutionary mob in Orphans of the Storm (1922), Lillian Gish faced considerable danger on screen. She won out through a strength of character that is symbolic of Lillian Gish in real life. She was always strong, always a fighter, taking up causes as varied as the isolationist America First prior to World War Two, a commemorative stamp for her mentor D.W. Griffith, or the need to preserve America’s newsreels. As a child, Lillian had been told by her mother to project her voice in order that it might be heard in the theatre by those seated in the furthest row. She never ceased projecting her voice and her image as a legendary actress on screen and on stage.
Lillian was always the consummate professional. As a young actress, she faced horrific working conditions, extreme cold, and extreme heat in Why Down East (1920) and The Wind (1928) and never complained. At a time of scandal in the film industry, Gish told The Moving Picture World (March 4, 1922), “I have heard that there are terrible people in the movies, but I never see them. And there are terrible people everywhere for that matter. Why even the weather is not always what it should be.” In later life, she never openly groused about a location or work demand, at times to the irritation of younger actors and actresses, who saw no reasons to extend the harsh circumstances of early filmmaking through to the present. She was always on time, always knew her lines—just as mother taught her. “Speak clearly-and loudly otherwise another little girl will get the part,” said Gish’s mother, and I am sure that Lillian always worried about that other little girl waiting in the wings.
Jane Wyatt, who appeared with Lillian on Broadway in 1954 in Philip Barry’s The Joyous Season, told me, “I remember coming to the first rehearsal. We were all in awe of her, and she was so mysterious. She came in with a great coat to the floor and a hood. And she knew all her lines! Then she impressed me because she didn’t have a theatre maid, and everybody had a theatre maid.”
There is no question that even contemporary audiences could sometimes find a Lillian Gish performance irritating. “Lillian Gish weeps like a fish, wrote one disgruntled fan. “The mood in which to go to the theatre is one of naive vacuity, expecting nothing,” opined Robert Benchley in the old Life humor magazine. Try to look like a close-up of Lillian Gish.” In the December 1926 edition of Photoplay, editor and publisher James R. Quirk wrote a most outspoken attack on an actress, whose salary at MGM was at the time the highest paid to any performer and, in reality, over $7,000 a week:
“Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of six thousand bucks every week. Even as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, she proves conclusively that babies are brought by storks. I d pay triple admission to see her play Madam Bovary.
“In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attack of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians and 999 conscienceless men about town. Some day I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.”
I first met Lillian Gish on August 30, 1969. She was in London to present her one-woman show, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me, and I had prepared the printed program handed out to the audience. We meet at the Connaught Hotel, where Lillian always stayed when in England, and she inscribed for me a copy of her autobiography, which has the same title as her show. She also spent a couple of hours talking about various aspects of her career, an interview in which she was surprisingly frank in view of our never having previously met, and one which is often quoted by other authors.
The Lillian Gish career scarcely needs recording here. There can be few who are not aware of her devastating performances for D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have first become aware of the unique quality of her acting when he directed her at American Biograph. Lillian and younger sister Dorothy made their debut there in The Unseen Enemy, released on September 9, 1912, a one-reel suspense drama featuring the pair. The Mothering Heart, a two-reeler, released on June 21, 1913, first demonstrated the emotional intensity of which Lillian was capable. As a wife who has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and, later, lost her baby, Lillian’s anguish is almost unbearable to watch as she walks in the garden, destroying all the flowers and plants around her. As she and husband (Walter Miller) are reunited, a title asks, “Forgiveness—Is there any greater act?” It would appear not from a viewing of this, arguably the most moving of the American Biograph shorts.
After leaving Griffith, Lillian continued as a major star of the silent screen, appearing in The White Sister (1923), Romola (1925), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), and others. With the coming of sound, her importance in the industry dwindled. She is good in His Double Life (1932), but not as good as Grade Fields is as the same character in the 1943 remake, Holy Matrimony. Gish’s comeback role in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) is hardly worthy of consideration, and many of her later films were not really worth the effort. In a way, she returned triumphantly to the screen not in the 1940s but in 1955 under Charles Laughton s direction in The Night of the Hunter. Here, Lillian is the mother figure, suffering the little children to come unto her, harsh at times, sometimes angry, but always loving and forgiving. Sensibly Laughton chooses to end the film with Lillian, symbolic of her burgeoning status as a legend, a link not only with the past in which the film is set but also the past as represented by a directorial and pictorial style heavily influenced by both D.W. Griffith and German expressionism.
Lillian, of course, was never a mother, and, as one perceptive female viewer pointed out to me, she was obviously uncomfortable with infants. In Way Down East, in which she baptizes her dying child, the actress has no idea how to hold the baby.
Followers of the Gish screen career might be concerned as to how it would end after watching her playing worthless roles in worthless films such as Hambone and Hillie (1984) and Sweet Liberty (1986). When in 1987 it was announced that she was to co-star with Bette Davis in Mike Kaplan’s production of The Whales of August, enthusiasm was mingled with anxiety when Lindsay Anderson was hired as the director. How could the man responsible for such raw, naked drama as This Sporting Life and If… handle Lillian Gish? Surprisingly well. He controlled whatever troubling mannerisms Gish and Davis might have adopted during their long careers, kept both under control, and gave Lillian one last great movie scene. On the 46th wedding anniversary of her character, Sarah, she sits at a table, with a white rose “for truth’’ and a red rose “for passion,’’ and with a glass of wine in hand talks to her long dead husband of the day’s happenings. It is a screen moment as intense in its dramatic simplicity as anything D.W. Griffith could have contemplated.
Despite the paucity of great film roles in the sound era, Lillian Gish was able to continue her career and endure on stage. Also, with surprising speed, she gained legendary status, something that the actress most carefully nurtured. She was always someone special; as early as 1925, one fan magazine writer commented that to interview Lillian Gish was a privilege and a pleasure. Lillian played with the truth, even changing the year of her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, from 1893 to 1896. She would recount stories of the making of her films that were not perhaps always completely accurate but which entertained and enthralled her audience. She behaved in the manner of a legend but at the same time never lost personal touch with her fans. Lillian was always overly gracious in responding to fan mail, and after a performance of her one-woman show, she would never leave the auditorium until requests for autographs from every member of the audience had been granted.
Lillian Gish always knew what to say to make one feel special. I recall she and James Frasher, her longtime manager, friend, and companion, coming to my house to pick me up. Lillian’s first words upon seeing my somewhat humble abode were, “Truly you live in beauty.” I was completely entranced but later somewhat nonplussed to discover that she said exactly the same thing upon seeing where anyone lived.
Thanks in large part to Jim Frasher, it has been my good fortune to be with Lillian on a number of special occasions. Our mutual, close friend was Herb Sterne, who double-dated with Lillian, Griffith, and Griffith’s wife Evelyn in the 1940s. Lillian and Herb corresponded on a regular basis, with most of the former’s comments directed to Herb’s cat, Squire Bartlett, and signed Anna Moore. (Way Down East was Herb’s favorite film.) When Lillian did the Blackglama advertisement, “What Becomes a Legend Most?,” she sent a copy to Squire with the inscription, “My fur vs. yours. How’s this for the cat’s meow?” It was that sort of relationship that Herb enjoyed with Lillian.
Whenever she was in town, Lillian would have lunch with Herb, and I was also lucky enough to be invited. Herb was a resident of the Motion Picture Country House and another resident, Mary Astor, also joined us on at least one occasion. At the time she directed her only feature film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), starring sister Dorothy and her husband James Rennie, Lillian also devoted an entire Sunday to directing Mary Astor’s screen test.
Mary Astor was one of the few film performers with whom Lillian was close. She really did not know many of her contemporaries. Once we stood talking in the parking lot at the Motion Picture Country House, and Mary Brian and Harriet Nelson came by. Knowing them both, I introduced them to Lillian, who obviously had no idea who they were. Lillian also had an inability to understand that other actresses were not like her. Herb Sterne remembered that once at Pickfair, Gish chastised Mary Pickford for giving a pension to an American Biograph actress. “She had the same opportunities as us,” argued Lillian. “No, we had talent,” responded Pickford.
I have a tenuous link to Lillian’s last and seldom noted contribution to film. In 1988, I was commissioned by Boss Film Corporation to write a treatment for a ten-minute epilogue to Intolerance, which was to be filmed in 70 mm and screened after a Japanese presentation of the feature. The music for the epilogue was played live by a symphony orchestra, and the only recorded words heard were those of Lillian Gish. The comments were “lifted” from various interviews, but there were a couple of potential quotes that could not be found in such sources. I wrote these in the style of Lillian Gish, as represented in her autobiography, and she recorded them in her New York apartment. A year after making The Whales of August and five years prior to her death on February 27, 1993, Lillian sounds old, but there is still strength to her voice, and, I have to admit, she did choose to add a couple of words of her own to my dialogue. What becomes a legend most asked the Blackglama advertisement. Immortality. And Lillian has certainly earned that.
Note: Lillian Gish’s papers are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.
November 23, 2020.Reading time less than 1 minute.
In fact, while the photo itself has the credit “Birth of a Nation” on the right at the very bottom of the image, this is incorrect. Although a number of sources in recent years have incorrectly attributed this to the 1915 spectacle, the photo is actually from Griffith’s next-to-last film, “Abraham Lincoln” (1930), in the memorable sequence depicting General Phil Sheridan’s ride during the Civil War. While this may be one of the more minor of the many errors plaguing the chronicling of Griffith and his legacy these days.
Her every characterization is attempted with her own persuasive charm and wistful beauty … Always she reveals suffering and sacrifice, not of the flesh but of the spirit … Never has Lillian Gish failed to create a role which did not become a classic.
Lillian and Dorothy Gish
Wherever motion pictures are shown in the world over, the name GISH stands for pre-eminence. In six of the nine or ten truly great pictures thus far made, Lillian Gish created roles which will live forever. What an artiste! Never will the world forget her inspired acting. In two of these immortal classics, “Hearts of the World” and “Orphans of the Storm,” her talented sister, Dorothy Gish, shared the honors. In “Romola,” they are together again, and they are more wonderful than ever before.
There never was such a praise!
“I like ‘Romola’ better than ‘The White Sister’ (Louella O. Parsons in NY American)
“Lillian Gish’s ‘Romola’ is a beautiful portrait.” (Peter Milne in N.Y. Morning Telegraph)
“Fine Work that – work that brought a cheer from the audience.” (Mildred Spain in N.Y. Daily News)
“Amazingly wondrous to behold! … To the end, the charm of the Gishes holds one.” (Allene Talney in N.Y. World)
“Romola is a touching story … a delicate, beautifully-shaded pastoral.” (N.Y. Evening Post)
“Lillian Gish in the title role seems to step out of an artist’s canvas … while Dorothy Gish is excellent as the peasant girl.” (Rose Pelswick in N.Y. Eveining Journal)
“Lillian Gish brings to ‘Romola’ all the wistful charm and the indefinable sense of pathos which make her unique among film stars.” (Helen Bishop in N.Y. Evening Journal)
What the great of Europe say about “Romola”
Georges Clemenceau, former premier of France: “Such a work of art merits every success.”
Dr. Guido Biagi, director of the Laurentian Library Florence: “As editor of the novel ‘Romola’ I desire to express my appreciation that you came to Florence where the scenes of the book actually were laid and here reproduced them for the screen. I congratulate you upon the beauty and sumptuousness with which the production has been staged.”
Leonce Benedite, director of the Luxembourg Museum and the Rodin Museum, Paris: “It is notable for its settings, its costumes and its vibrant semblance of reality.”
Santiago Alba, former minister of Fine Arts in Spain: “It is a page of the most delicate art and appeals like few other films.”
Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, Florence: “In the film ‘Romola’, the costumes, the principals and the ensembles seem to have been studied with the greatest possible care. Bravo for the beautiful work of Inspiration Pictures.”
Firmin Gemier, director of the Odeon National Theatre, Paris: “I must tell you how marvelous I think ‘Romola’ is. Your reconstruction of the golden age of Florence gave me one of the greatest surprises of my life. It is a glorious moment from an epoch in which all true artists, all people of culture, all those who have loved and thought passionately, would like to have lived.”
P. Bonnard, one of the greatest living French painters: “It will awaken longings for the glorious past and enthuse all souls that follow ideals.”
“The scenes in ‘Romola’ are so beautiful that they in themselves are worth instant one spends viewing this picture.” Mordaunt Hall in N.Y. Times.
Edited and Annotated by Carl Beauchamp and Mary Anita Loos
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
Berkeley Los Angeles London 2003
ANITA LOOS (1888-1981) was one of Hollywood’s most respected and prolific screenwriters, as well as an acclaimed novelist and playwright. This unique collection of previously unpublished film treatments, short stories, and one -act plays spans fifty years of her creative writing and showcases the breadth and depth of her talent. Beginning in 1912 with the stories she sent from her San Diego home to D.W. Griffith, through her collaboration years later with Colette on the play Gigi, Anita Loos wrote almost every day for the screen or stage, or for book or magazine publication. The list of stars for whom she created unforgettable roles includes Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, and Carol Channing.
Stories from San Diego 1888 – 1915
The New York Hat gave a struggling painter named Lionel Barrymore his first starring role in pictures. It also featured Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy, as extras and was the last film Mary Pickford made for D. W. Griffith before she was lured away for twice the salary by another studio. And for Anita Loos it was the first of over fifty stories she would sell over the next two years from her home in San Diego. As Anita retold the story in later years, she got younger with each version, and some printed reports have her starting her professional writing career at the age of twelve. In reality Anita Loos was twenty-four years old when she sold her first story in 1912.
Return to Hollywood, 1931 – 1944
I only heard the sound of the waves, and I felt like I was in the midst of a bad dream.
Gently she started walking again.
“It goes back to the day I met him. Mr. Griffith, yes that’s what all of us from Lillian Gish to his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, called him, decided to give a little class to his studio by hiring a director from the theater. He was John Emerson, and Mr. Griffith himself brought him to my tacky little story editor’s office and explained that Mr. Emerson was a Broadway actor and director who was considering joining the group. ‘”He looked through the files and laughed at my purchases of your stories,'” Mr. Griffith said. “‘And laughed again when I told him that
they were too witty for words, but he enjoyed reading them.’ “John looked at me with surprise,” Anita went on. “Again, my damned tiny figure was against me. . . .”
She paused a moment. She walked on, and so did I.
“He took my hand and held it. And you know what happened? This handsome man took me under his wing. John asked me, a nobody, to work with him. And we worked successfully. I can tell you, a director can misuse your story and spoil it. John never let me down with what I wrote.”
New York at last, 1944 – 1981
Another Hollywood veteran who kept up a busy pace in New York was Lillian Gish, and she and Anita often went to films together. They particularly enjoyed the retrospective screenings at the Museum of Modern Art, and Mary Lea Bandy, current director of the MOMA film department, says, “They were such fixtures going in and out that everyone just took them for granted. Can you imagine?” Jim Frasher, Lillian Gish’s manager for the last thirty years of her life, looks back fondly on how Anita and Lillian enjoyed each other’s company. “I remember one day we had a long drive and Anita regaled us with raucous tales of who was doing what to whom. As soon as we de livered Anita to her apartment, Lillian turned to me and said, in no uncertain terms, ‘Now you must never repeat those stories to anyone.’ I was crushed of course so I asked her, ‘Are [the] stories not true?’ ‘Oh the stories are accurate enough,’ Lillian replied. ‘It’s the people she gets wrong.'” Jim still harbors the suspicion that the stories were deadly accurate on all counts, but what Lillian said still goes. “And whether or not they were true,” he adds, “Anita was a wonderful story teller.””
Thank you. Yes I was an extra in The New York Hat, and my sister was too. And she should be here now because she got all the wit and comedy in our family, and they always said that I was about as funny as a baby’s open brain . . . [end of sentence obscured by laughter]. I never had the privilege of working with you. You wrote The New York Hat but didn’t come into the company until a year or two later. We had never had anyone writing stories, and then in tame this httle thing with a brain hke a man. I was frightened of her. I kept my mouth shut every time she was around, but I hstened and at the time, having never gone to school, I was reading Spinoza, a great philosopher, and Shakespeare, if you remember, and her mind was so sharp that I called her Mrs. Spinoza, not to her but to other people. That became a kind of comic word for this little, dark-eyed pretty thing that had this very brilliant, comedic brain. Anyway, pretty soon John Emerson came into the company, and he was directing my sister in Old Heidelberg. I think she was about fourteen, and she played it with her hair braided on each side and no makeup. In the love scene John Emerson told her she should kiss the prince. And she said, “We don’t do that in this company,” and he said, “Well, this is a love story and you’re going to do it in this picture.” Well, she got very cross and went in to see Daddy Woods. He was a white-haired man that we took all our troubles to when any arguments came up, and she said, “Mr. Emerson has asked me to kiss an actor and you know we’re not allowed to kiss actors in this company. We don’t kiss them because we might get a disease.” So the whole company took sides for or against Mr. Emerson, and we had quite a battle. Finally Mr. Emerson had the principal’s wife call my mother and say, “Your daughter is perfectly safe kissing my husband.” So she lost the battle. That’s one of the things that brought me here because, of course, Anita later married John Emerson. And when she wrote Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, oh, I wanted to get up the courage to ask, “Who were the gentlemen and who were the blondes?” Because I heard she had people in her mind, and I would have loved to know, but I never got up the courage to ask her. And Anita, I’d still like to know. Thank you.
Wid’s Weekly – The Film Authority – Published in Hollywood
Thursday, December 25, 1924
This is Beautiful But Blaa as Drama. Watch Your Step
LILLIAN AND DOROTHY GISH in Romola
Inspiration—Metro-Goldwyn Length 14 Reels
AUTHOR.George Eliot’s story, adapted by Will Ritchey.
CAMERAMEN.Roy Overbaugh, William Schurr and Ferdinand Risi.
GET ’EM IN.I can’t see this for big box office values, except where you make rash promises, which I would advise you not to do.
PLEASE ’EM.The atmospheric background is beautiful, but this misses entirely as entertainment. There are a few good moments, but on the whole it doesn’t stir you.
WHOOZINIT.Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Ronald Colman, and a lot of Italian players.
STORY VALUES…. There were good situations here, but they tried to tell too much story, and as told, none of it carried a wallop.
TREATMENT.I believe the evident struggle of photographing abroad, under baffling conditions, hampered the director and players in getting across what they were striving to register.
CHARACTERIZATIONS.William Powell dominated. Lillian Gish, as the sweet, sad-faced child, and Dorothy Gish, as the slapstick roughneck, did their well-known stuff, but instead of impressing as characterisations, it was rather an effect of the Gish girls running around in a lot of foreign atmosphere.
ARTISTIC VALUES.Certainly this is impressive as an artistic achievement, figured from the composition and photographic viewpoint.
When they have to tell you how to pronounce a title, I believe that the title is a flop. Before I saw this film I was ready to say that it was going to be a tough job to get the customers past the box office, because of the exploitation angles available. I knew that if the picture was big enough it could pull, in spite of these handicaps. Unfortunately, the picture is not big enough.
Henry King is a darn good director, but Henry here was undoubtedly licked before he started by conditions necessary to be faced in eleven months of knocking around Italy, grinding atmosphere.
I never read this book. I am willing to display my ignorance. I am willing to go on record with the statement that about 90 per cent of the prospective ticket purchasers will not only never have read this book, but will not be impressed with the fact that it was written by George Eliot. At least I knew about George, and when I discovered that it was her book, then I was interested.
There were some excellent situations in this yarn. Unfortunately, as visualized, these situations do not register. I attribute that principally to conditions under which the film was shot, and afterwards, conditions under which it was edited, since friction existed, during that period, between the director and the company for whom it was made. I still feel that possibly some of the failure to make this story register was due to the fact that they did not build a continuity which would high spot certain big moments and bridge over the routine mechanics.
This thing, as it is, just drifts and drifts and drifts. It runs too much in the same tempo. Too much attention is paid to the doings of people who really mean nothing to the audience. Savonarola and his career might be of interest if this had been figured as a study of Italian history, but where we were supposed to be following the adventures of a quartette of young people, the priest’s trials and tribulations failed to get a rise, although they took up an awful lot of footage.
There was a great situation where the young willun’s foster-father loomed up at-the banquet, but they let it flop. As Frank Tinney always said, they put it over but it laid there.
I have liked the work of Lillian Gish, and I have liked the work of Dorothy Gish in many things. I couldn’t become the least enthused about either of them in this. A lotta Dorothy’s stuff was too broad, and too evidently a request for a laugh, to fit in smoothly. Lillian seemed to be taking herself too seriously. Throughout the picture I got the reaction that you were expected to consider that Lillian was giving a great characterization, just because she was Lillian Gish. Each of the girls pulled, upon occasion, their whirl gig run and dash stuff, which has caused some people to dub them the “Windmill Sisters.”
They opened this up with a sequence showing a pirate attack upon a merchant vessel. Once more we had the galley slave action on the screen. This sequence was rather well done photographically, but really did not give you a thrill. There were a good many mob sequences in the picture, but none of them meant much. It was an odd thing as a reaction, but on the first night’s showing in the Egyptian Theatre here the only spontaneous applause, excepting the introduction of the players at the first, came when on the screen appeared the leaning tower of Pisa, looming up at the back. To be sure that no one missed this tower, they put in a terribly crude title explaining its presence. Many other titles were decidedly crude, although at the end they didn’t even attempt to explain how hero Colman, in a rather mysterious manner, managed to get out of jail, where he had been languishing through considerable footage.
On the whole, I got rather the impression from ‘this of watching a lotta college students seriously doing Shakespeare before the marvelous buildings of their university. Everyone seemed so thoroughly to feel the weight of the undertaking.
My hunch about this would be that if you think it wise to occasionally hand your gang something about which in your exploitation you can high-hat them a little bit, then this will serve your purpose. You will have to do some plugging to get them in, but that may be accomplished. I have a feeling that while they will not particularly like it, they will be afraid to attempt to argue about it or pan it.
November 16, 2020.Reading time less than 1 minute.
Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Presentation Book (Australia) 1924
The collection of The Museum of Modern Art – Department of Film
During the coming year you will receive from Metro-Goldwyn something like One Hundred first-class productions, most of which I have seen. It is the purpose of this book to give you, by means of pictures and type, some idea of the solidity, strength and progressive policy of Metro-Goldwyn and of the infinite variety and worth of our product—the product, which has, in less than a year of active output placed Metro-Goldwyn pre-eminent in the field.