What Will Griffith Do Now? – By Gerrit Lloyd (Picture Play Magazine – September 1925)

Picture Play Magazine – September 1925 Vol. XXIII No.1

What Will Griffith Do Now?

After several years of experience as an independent producer, the great D. W. has joined Famous Players, and this important turning point in his career lends new interest to his future work.

By Gerrit Lloyd

Much Has Been Written about D. W. Griffith, but nothing we have ever read about “the big bull elephant” approaches in brilliance or interest this remarkable study of the characteristics of the master of all motion picture directors. The author of this article has been closely associated with Mr. Griffith for several years, and this close association has made it possible for him to write with a knowledge and authority that could never be attained by the casual interviewer.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

THE Big Bull Elephant of the Films has joined the herd again. After launching along strange leadings that twisted at times far from the box-office and the minds of man in frivolous mood, the untamed one has returned to the proven pastures. For Griffith the Bold is not unlike the big bull elephant. He seems to have an ancient and independent wisdom in piloting his personal career, uninfluenced by the school-book efficiencies of the minute. He scandalizes the newest accountants and shocks the most recent graduates from the efficiency seminaries, he puzzles and bewilders and exasperates those who would train him to roll their own little logs, and carry their own little pet freight. Great is the roaring and the turmoil when the big bull elephant starts forth alone ; the crash of barriers tossed aside, the splash of soft footing where the new way is insecure, the rumble and trumpet of intense bulk of purpose on its way. And when he has gone through, there may be no pretty boulevard all hedged and trimmed behind him, but there is a new way broken for others to come along in ease. Through this new land of motion pictures they have come : first, Griffith, the Elephant, sagacious, determined and courageous, with the vitality to make a vehicle of his curiosity. Then comes De Mille, the Royal Tiger, graceful, deft and decisive, stalking the public’s fancy with infallible thrift; and then shyly, with gorgeous smoothness, comes Ingram, the Deer, agile and speedy, with frail aggressiveness ; and Cruze, the Moose, forceful and merry, capering along inviting waterways, pulling forth lily pads of entertainment ; and Von Stroheim, the matchless Leopard, fiercely licking blood, and cynically snarling his contempt for the weaker stomachs. Perhaps no one but Barnum ever felt entirely at ease with a big bull elephant among his assets. And since the individual of yesterday is succeeded by the organization of to-day, probably Famous Players-Lasky has sewed into its vast canopy the mantle of Barnum, and welcomes Griffith back into the pasture again.

Feature photo Griffith

Griffith returns this time along a trail paved with mortgages. He is heavy laden with debts, with his services sold for a year to the welfare of his creditors. His savings from all his vast work are shrunk to the boundary posts of a small California ranch, which is yet undecided whether to take up the white man’s burden of becoming a toiling lemon ranch, or cling to the ease of a scenic spot primeval. A grand adventurer, this man, taking his food where he found it, and struggling on alone ; but now he is back again with a bench for himself at the biggest dinner table in filmland. Behind him there is the roar of money, louder than the snores of Midas. Before him there is a reservoir of trained talent, eager to serve as a thousand fingers to his able hand. For let this be remembered : No creative worker in great enterprise ever has worked so alone as has D. W. Griffith. While others of his trade have had splendidly trained staffs at their command, Griffith selected his own stories, generally without sufficient funds to buy other than those rejected by his competitors; he has written the scenarios ; cast the stories from talent not considered worthy of contract by the larger companies, except his leading man and woman ; financed the costs in grotesque and merciless scrambles with the money lenders ; selected his costumes ; laid out his sets, chosen his locations, supervised all construction; directed every inch of action in the films; edited it; titled it, and then worked out the presentation as to running time and music for delivery to the exhibitors. Yet he has regularly produced more pictures than any other director making comparable productions.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks - United Artists
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

D. W. Griffith knows the motion picture more thoroughly than any other person. His reputation for extravagance has girdled the gossip of the world, a legend founded on malicious exaggeration. At least twenty directors have spent more actual money on single pictures than Griffith ever dreamed of doing. But his reputation with money is established now, and nothing will ever change it. False it is, and false it can be proven, yet some day you will find it smugly recorded in his epitaph on the tomb of Filmdom. It began ancient of days, far away when he wished to raise the salary of Mary Pickford from thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars a week. His employers insisted on discharging Mary “because no girl is worth that much in pictures and besides, she has a large, square head that looks too big for her body.” The record, however, is that the salary of Mary Pickford was raised and that she continued in motion-picture work with some degree of success.

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

The suspicion of extravagance was confirmed when “this wasting fool, Griffith,” insisted on hiring twentyfive horsemen instead of five in taking the first “long shot” of a line of cavalry. It must be admitted that the reputation rests on a very broad base in the studio census since nearly every player can convince you that Griffith is unscrupulously extravagant because he doesn’t hire that particular player, and because he does hire the players he uses ; and nearly every director can prove Griffith must be extravagant because he makes good pictures and only the waste of money could account for the difference between Griffith’s pictures and their own. When Griffith began making motion pictures, fifty dollars was the maximum to be spent on a film. Now, five hundred thousand dollars is the minimum for a big special. He spent an average of six hours in making his first films ; now he must spend six months. Though I do not speak with the sensitive accuracy of one who has supplied him with money, I do believe in the presence of more proof than any other person ever has had the opportunity of observing, that D. W. Griffith is the most frugal of all directors ; that he gets more into the film for every dollar used than any other director. In ten years, the only film he has made without raveled finance, is “Way Down East.” That work made Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess so popular that he immediately lost them to other producers. The first returns from this picture had to go toward repaying a loan, and this most extravagant of directors began his next picture with exactly seventeen thousand dollars to finance it ; although “Way Down East” ultimately earned more than four times its cost.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The picture born with the seventeen-thousand-dollar spoon in its mouth was “Dream Street.” With that money, he couldn’t well enter into very serious conversation with any stars ; so he tagged a most likable young hopeful named Ralph Graves for the leading male part. And Graves gave of his best, even to the premium of reading his Bible before the taking of every scene, to the most talkative disdain of an atheist who was an electrician on the set.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

But now there was no money for the rest of the cast, and no scenes could be taken without the presence of the second male part. So this mad waster of wealth, Griffith, solved that by hiring a property boy, raising his wages from thirty-five to fifty dollars a week, and creating for the films a very fine actor indeed—Charles Emmett Mack. So it went during the lean years while the big bull elephant was away from the herd. And now he is back standing with expectant feet, where the plot and money meet, in the powerful organization of Famous Players-Lasky ; trained as no other director is trained to make big films ; experienced in the resources of poverty, and now flooded with wealth in support of his talent; backed by the most perfect organization of its kind in the world.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh - Reunion 2 - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

What will he do now?

Three things he has in the superlative : Imagination, courage, and industry. When film characters were but far figures distinctively dressed, he conceived the audacity of showing their faces to reveal the emotional progress of the drama, though his camera man quit in protest at such lunacy and the first audiences hissed their reproach for being disturbed by something new. He recognized the fecundity of film language and bred it from a tight little roll of five hundred feet up to a group of twelve reels of one thousand feet each. He sensed that films should be freighted with a nobler treasure than novelty and fun and drama ; that the camera could lens the scenery of a nation’s soul ; and in black and white he photographed the first epic, known wherever there are human eyes, as “The Birth of a Nation.” It pictured the voiceless instincts of peoples more vividly than the stripes on a gingham dress. Then he confused and affronted this world which stands dreaming from a balcony and imagines itself thinking from a mountain top, by a comet-thrust of his imagination which reduced itself to the film title, “Intolerance.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

And he took the welts of as sound a drubbing as ever was given a bull elephant for wandering away from log rolling. It pinched his savings from a six-figure fortune to an I O U. That work frightened picturedom as Rockefeller’s fortune frightened a country bank. With imagination, he has courage. He dared to recognize the blood soldiers ever under arms in the veins of the people white and the people black in watchful feud at a time when every one was saying “Good little black man, good little white man, be nice together, for you are brothers ;” but he showed it as a stitch in a nation’s heartache and not as box-office bait.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

Again he showed a white soldier kissing a black one, in his film, “The Greatest Thing in Life.”

He made a Chinaman a hero when all the legends of the theater and films were that a Chinaman must always be a villain. Nor did he do it coweringly ; but with such a spring of passion as to irritate an editor into sewing his ideas with a Greenwich Village thimble and devoting a column to rebuking Griffith as a Sadist.

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

Incidentally, that film, a tragedy, called “Broken Blossoms,” started a sleek-haired young leading man in comedies into becoming a world-famous actor of authentic talent, known as Richard Barthelmess. Several directors have made one tragedy, and then have gone forever galloping after the black figures in the bank book. Griffith began years ago—even before his film, “Sands o’ Dee”—making them again and again ; even unto these recent days of his pernicious financial anaemia, when he told of the flat bellies and full hearts of some Germans in “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” with the beauty and pride of an artist who was speaking his impressions rather than the dividend-bitten formula: “Bust and leg and silken gown ; palatial sets, somewhere a clown; a naughty scheme, a lover’s cheat ; a knock-out scene, an ending sweet.” The big bull elephant was far from the log rolling that time ; and he certainly skewered his kosher with the exhibitors. Courage and imagination he has, and his industry is as plain as a pig’s knuckle. What will he do with them now?

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Report is he will make first “The Sorrows of Satan,” Marie Corelli’s opulent highway of emotionalism along which to crank a camera. To estimate the things Griffith will do, one must first know the things that are Griffith. To the clan that bagpipes through the highlands of picturedom, Griffith is a spiral mystery, up which they gaze with wonder or disdain to behold ever new turnings. A man of mystery, they call him! Yet where is there another man, in boots or under tomb, about whom it is so easy to be informed accurately? Around every celebrity, much is written, largely inaccurate perhaps, as succeeding generations of commentators cynically expose. In this regard, Napoleon has been most liberally attended. But greater than all the books on Napoleon, than the massed volumes discussing Shakespeare; greater even than the page-piled heights discussing Lincoln, is the library about the man Griffith—and one incorrigibly accurate. In it there are no myths, anecdotes, hearsay, questioned records or chance letters. It is one vast and true revelation of the man’s innermost tide of life stroke.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Here the man’s soul unpockets its whims, beliefs, ambitions, and experiences, its joys, its strengths and its agonies. It is the truest confession ever read; and read by hundreds of millions. This library is composed of the motion-picture films published under the design “D. W. G.,” numbering in all more than a thousand. The successful productive author may average perhaps thirty novels—a little grove compared to Griffith’s forest of expression. A poet may publish one hundred poems, mostly short, and generally rivered along one narrow channel. A painter may hang one hundred canvases, often a single character study in portrait, or a landscape, or a scene to high-light some definite phase of humanity. Griffith has told his opinions, his understandings and sympathies regarding thousands of characters. Over and over again he has twined the hearts of lovers, from the shy tremors of first love to the flood throws of passion. He has swaggered with the bold and the ambitious; jested with the lofty and sneered with the degenerate; schemed with the connivers and skulked with assassins ; bowed in prayer with the humble ; grieved with the unfortunate; sung with the happy ; wept with the sorrowful ; and died with heroes and cowards. Again and again, he has told it all. To the world he has flown aloft the strange banner of a human soul — a soul literally photographed.

Griffith Early Biograph career
Griffith Early Biograph career

And all as part of a hard day’s work. All of Griffith is in his pictures. And the films that are of Griffith, are directed by a barefooted boy of LaGrange, Kentucky. Who is he, this lad who has seized an empire in the world of shadows? His father was a bold, life-spending Confederate cavalryman, forever hot upon the hazards ; always ready for a toss, whatever the risk. He roused to war’s pageant, enjoyed its honors, and suffered its penalties. The material rewards were some fifty-four wounds which incapacitated him for active work; and the ruin of his finances. Colonel Jacob Wark Griffith was Irish and Welsh, and a Southern gentleman. His reputation given me by a stout old Scotchman is that he entertained and drank and danced with a grace and flourish that enslaved the countryside until the sexton stopped him for their material engagement. His mother was Scotch of the Scotch, of the family of Oglesby; with the sturdy practicality, vigor, and mystic and poetic ideals of that race. Her daughter says that her mother never stopped working, praying, and dreaming.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

There you have Griffith—a romantic warrior locked up in Scotch idealism with the patient, thrifty caution of a Scotch tradesman, and the picturesque gambling audacities of a Welsh-Irish cavalier. The Scotchman looks after his time and work ; the Irish-Welshman spends his money. Destiny punished David W. Griffith with the luxuries of a perfect motion-picture education. Since there were no motion pictures then, the conditions might not be considered luxuries by another standard. In his father’s house were many mansions ; such as the mansions of hospitality and good taste in social values that feed the decencies in life. Few were the books in the neighborhood ; and the few were the older classics. Every one worked while there was sun. Candles were an important item of expense. So the neighbors would gather in one household to benefit by the expenditure of a single candle. The elders exercised the privilege of reserving the chairs. The children were on the floor, often thriftily under the table when guests were numerous, as they always were. Then would the classics be read aloud.

Griffith on the ice floes - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
DW Griffith on the ice floes – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

Here was the ideal motion-picture school in session—the imaginative, dreamy boy lying in the dark comfortably on his back, listening to all the great deeds and emotions of man told with the splendor and force of the greatest masters. And the boy pictured them in his dreams, never reducing these immortals in their flights of love, adventure, and strife, to the pinched and squinty confines of inked type.

Henry B. Walthall in "The Birth of a Nation"
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

When the elders tired of reading, or the candle appropriated for the night was done, they would talk. With their thoughts still stiff from the saddles of the wars, they talked of battles. And lying in the dark, with the vivid mystery which darkness inspires, there flashed through the imagination of the little boy-director lying there, the deeds of battle, the rush and flare of gun-driven conflict. For him no mental bruise of reading the schoolbook- summary of war by clock in school. He saw the battles, heard the “thunder, and struggled in the hot strife. The belch of cannon were the footlights for his vast stage of dreams. The tale of a troop of weary cavalry onwarding under command grew in his vital dreams to a sky sewn with horsemen thundering with golden banners on to victory. Wise little director under the table in the dark ! Already he had been to the wars. Then were first given wing the visions that later were caught again in dramatic permanence as part of the film, “The Birth of a Nation.” They lived again in “Intolerance,” and were revised in “Hearts of the World.” The greatest battle scenes ever made have been done by Griffith, and they were created before he was ten years old. One night he shuddered to the local story of a drunken negro who had pursued a white girl ; and the “chilling” terror of that night later throbbed in scenes in “The Birth of a Nation” that shook Mae Marsh from freckled girlhood into screen immortality, if such there lie. His sister, Mattie, read and reread for him his favorites, the great love stories of the ages. The dreamy boy in denim, with a conqueror’s imagination, feasted upon these treasures of faithful hearts. He pictured these heroines apart from the neighbor girls he knew, something distant, shadowy, sublime, something less than angels, something beyond the flesh. And when he looked the first time upon the motion-picture screen in later years, he saw there the shadowland in which his dream heroines might live again. Always you find something of this dream girl in every Griffith heroine, the gentle, faithful, ideal of the little boy in Kentucky, who spoke poetry to her as he went through the woods in the twilight bringing home the cows from the pasture.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

When an ill-wind comes hissing from the box offices, scolding against sentiment in his heroines, the Scotch that is in Griffith will roll down her silk stockings, wave her hair, indeed style her to the rising ripple of the moment’s fad, but she is the same girl—sister to all those heroines of youthful dreams, Little Nell, Virginia, Marguerite, Ophelia, Ruth, and all those sweethearts of the masters old. Sometimes she is blonde, and the long-age dreams open like a fan into the screen personality that is Lillian Gish. Again she is dark, and the world knows her as Carol Dempster, vital, buoyant, and fascinating. A strange girl, this Griffith heroine ! She is the sweetheart’s signal song at twilight, the lover’s moon, the evening star, all spun into young womanhood, virgin shy, yet passionate as a puckered mouth, and practical in the progress of mating as a schatchen’s guide.

CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan - Photo 1926
CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan – Photo 1926

These Griffith heroines have fruited the greatest moments in all screen literature ; have made the smug and the callous tremble with sympathy and glow with tears. And this Griffith heroine is one definite and undeniable influence that changed the standard of womanly beauty in this country from the Oriental preference of opulent bust and matronly hips to the slender stature that is universally a favorite to-day. The exact date of the change in public taste is the time when the Griffith heroine made her first appearance in the films. The little Kentucky dreamer has done more to erase sensuality from the appearance of the American woman than a hundred years of preaching or a thousand edicts from the fashion makers. So the things that are Griffith include the imaginative genius of the boy who has never grown up ; the deft, perfected skill of a patient and ever-working craftsman, so expert in technique that for sheer deviltry in fingering his magic, he distilled suspense from potatoes ; these, and the showmanship of a successful and experienced ruler of audiences, who understands their wayward traits and frank simplicities. These make up the institution that is Griffith : the force that has become the big bull elephant of the films, now back with the herd again. What will he do? Once he wrote a subtitle. It was in “Hearts of the World.” It said: “If you can’t get what you want, then want what you can get.”

What Will Griffith do Now - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925)
What Will Griffith do Now – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925) Sketch drawn by K.R. Chamberlain

 

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A Tribute To “The Birth Of A Nation” – By Rupert  Hughes (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

A Tribute To “The Birth Of A Nation”

By Rupert  Hughes

United Artists Pressbook, 1915

When a great achievement of human genius is put before us, we can become partners in it, in a way, by applauding it with something of the enthusiasm that went into its making. It is that sort of collaboration that I am impelled to attempt in what follows.

When I saw “The Birth of a Nation” the first time, I was so overwhelmed by the immensity of it that I said:

“It makes the most spectacular production of drama look like the work of village amateurs. It reduces to childishness the biggest things the theatre can do.”

For here were hundreds of scenes in place of four or five; thousands of actors in place of a score; armies in landscape instead of squads of supers jostling on a platform among canvas screens. Here was the evolution of a people, the living chronicle of a conflict of statesmen, a civil war, a racial problem rising gradually to a puzzle yet unsolved. Here were social pictures without number, short stories, adventures, romance, tragedies, farces, domestic comedies.  Here was a whole art gallery of scenery, of humanity, of still life and life in wildest career. Here were portraits of things, of furniture, of streets, homes, wildernesses; pictures of conventions, cabinets, senates, mobs, armies;  pictures of family lif e, of festivals and funerals, ballrooms and battlefields, hospitals and flower-gardens, hypocrisy and passion, ecstasy and pathos, pride and humiliation, rapture and jealousy, flirtation and anguish, devotion and treachery, self-sacrifice and tyranny.  Here were the Southrons in their wealth,   with their luxury at home, their wind-swept cotton fields; here was the ballroom with the seethe of dancers, here were the soldiers riding away to war, and the soldiers trudging home defeated with poverty ahead of them and new and ghastly difficulties arising on every hand. Here was the epic of a proud, brave people beaten into the dust and refusing to stay there.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

The pictures shifted with unending variety from huge canvasses to exquisite miniatures.  Now it was a little group of refugees cowering in the ruins of a home. A shift of the camera and we were looking past them into a great valley with an army fighting its way through.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

One moment we saw Abraham Lincoln brooding over his Emancipation Proclamation ; another, and he was yielding to a mother’s tears; later we were in the crowded theatre watching the assassin making his way to and from his awful deed. The leagues of film uncoiled and poured forth beauty of scene, and face and expression, beauty of fabric and attitude and motion.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

“The Birth of a Nation” is a choral symphony of light, light in all its magic ; the sun flashing through a bit of blown black lace and giving immortal beauty to its pattern; or quivering in a pair of eyes, or on a snow-drift of bridal veil, or on a moonlit brook or a mountain side. Superb horses were shown plunging and rearing or galloping with a heart-quickening glory of speed down road and lane and through flying waters. Now came the thrill of a charge, or of a plunging steed caught back on its haunches in a sudden arrest. Now followed the terror of a bestial mob, the hurrah of a rescue, streets filled with panic and with carnival. Life is motion and here was the beautiful moving monument of motion.

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

“What could the stage give to rival all this?” I thought. “What could the novel give? or the epic poem?” The stage can publish the voice and the actual flesh ; yet from the film these faces were eloquent enough without speech. And after all when we see people we are merely receiving in our eyes the light that beats back from their surfaces; we are seeing merely photographs and moving pictures. I had witnessed numberless photoplays unrolled, pictures of every sort and condition of interest and value. I had seen elaborate “feature-films” occupying much time and covering many scenes. But none of them approached the unbroken fascination of “The Birth of a Nation.”

The realism of this work is amazing; merely sit at a window and actuality rolls by. The grandeur of mass and the minuteness of detail are unequalled in my experience. And so the first impression of my first view of this was that it was something new and wonderful in dramatic composition and in artistic achievement.

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

In his novel “The Clansman,” the Rev. Thomas Dixon had made a fervid defence of his people from the harsh judgments and condemnations of unsympathetic historians: With this book as a foundation, David W. Griffith built up a structure of national scope and of heroic proportions.

Of course, size has little to do with art. A perfect statuette like one of the exquisite figurines of Tanagra is as great in a sense as the cathedral of Rheims. A flawless sonnet of Milton’s need not yield place to his “Paradise Lost.” A short story of Poe’s has nothing to fear from a cycle of Dumas novels, nor has “The Suwannee River” anything to fear from the Wagnerian tetralogy. And yet we cannot but feel that a higher power has created the larger work, since the larger work includes the problems of the smaller : and countless others. The larger work compels and tests the tremendous gifts of organization, co-ordination, selection, discipline, climax.

One comes from this film saying: “I have done the South a cruel injustice, they are all dead, these cruelly tried people, but I feel now that I know them as they were: not as they ought to have been or might have been, but as they were: as I should probably have been in their place. I have seen them in their homes, in their pride and their glory and I have seen what they went back to. I understand them better.” And after all what more vital mission has narrative and dramatic art than to make us under­ stand ‘one another ‘better ?

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

Hardly anybody can be found today who is not glad that Slavery was wrenched out of our national life, but it is not well to forget how and why it was defended, and by whom: what it cost to tear it loose: or what suffering and bewilderment were left with the bleeding wounds. The North was not altogether blameless for the existence of slavery, nor was the South altogether blameworthy for it or for its aftermath. “The Birth of a Nation” is a peculiarly human presentation of a vast racial tragedy. There has been some hostility to the picture on account of an alleged injustice to the negroes. I have not felt it: and I am one who cherishes a great affection and a profound admiration for the negro. He is enveloped in one of the most cruel and insoluble riddles of history. His position is the more difficult since those who ardently endeavor to relieve him of his burdens are peculiarly apt to increase them.

“The Birth of a Nation” presents many lovable negroes who win hearty applause from the audiences. It presents also some exceedingly hateful negroes. But American history has the same fault and there are bad whites also in this film as well as virtuous. It is hard to see how such a drama could be composed without the struggle of evil against good. Furthermore, it is to the advantage of the negro of today to know how some of his ancestors misbehaved and why the prejudices in his path have grown there. Surely no friend of his is to be turned into an enemy by this film, and no enemy more deeply embittered.

original-souvenir-birth-of-a-nation-1915

“The Birth of” a Nation” is a chronicle of human passion. It is true to fact and thoroughly documented. It is in no sense an appeal to lynch-law. The suppression of it would be a dangerous precedent in American dramatic art. If the authors are never to make use of plots which might off end certain sects, sections, professions, trades, races or political parties, then creative art is indeed in a sad plight.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has had a long and influential career. Perhaps no book ever written exerted such an effect on history.  It was denounced with fury by the South as a viciously unfair picture. It certainly stirred up feeling, and did more than perhaps any other document to create and set in motion the invasion and destruction of the southern aristocracy. Yet it was not suppressed because of its riot-provoking tendencies.  And it is well that it was not suppressed.

“The Birth of a Nation” has no such purpose. It is a picture of a former time. All its phases are over and done, and most of the people of its time are in their graves. But it is a brilliant, vivid, thrilling masterpiece of historical fiction. Thwarting its prosperity would be a crime against creative art and a menace to its freedom. The suppression of such fictional works has always been one of the chief instruments of tyranny and one of the chief dangers of equality.

Poster - Birth of a Nation, The_05

I saw the play first in a small projecting room with only half a dozen spectators present.   We sat mute and spellbound for three hours. When I learned that it had to be materially condensed it seemed a pity to destroy one moment of it.  The next time I saw it was in a crowded theatre and it was accompanied by an almost incessant murmur of approval and comment, roars of laughter, gasps of anxiety and outbursts of applause. It was not silent drama so far as the audience was concerned. The scene changed with the velocity of lightning, of thought. One moment we saw a vast battlefield with the enemies like midgets in the big world, the next we saw some small group filling the whole space with its personal drama : then just one of two faces big with emotion. And always a story was being told with every device of suspense, preparation, relief, development, and crisis. I cannot imagine a human emotion that is not included somewhere in this story, from the biggest national psychology to the littlest whim of a petulant girl; from the lowest depths of ruthless villainy to the utmost grandeur of patriotic ideal.

All of the seven wonders of the world were big things. I feel that David W. Griffith has done a big thing and he has a right to the garlands as well as the other emoluments.  “The Birth of a Nation” is a work of epochal importance in a large and fruitful field of social endeavor. In paying it this tribute of profound homage, I feel that I am doing only my duty by American art, merely rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.

Below, scanned PDF link (Free Download)

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

Birth Logo

The Birth of a Nation (United Artists Pressbook, 1915)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

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

Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doll House Mistery
The Doll House Mistery

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lost Hollywood – By David Wallace – 2001

Lost Hollywood

Lost Hollywood

By David Wallace – 2001

The generic “thing” we think of as Hollywood likes to destroy and bury its past. Most traces of the original la-la-land are dead, buried, and gone. But now the maestro of entertainment history, David Wallace, has unearthed real treasures. Archaeology is a passion of mine. And so are the movies: the history of the movies, the making of movies, and the stars we have all known, loved, or hated. This book combines both of my passions, examining the priceless and fascinating past of Hollywoodland.

Hollywoodland was the original lettering of the famous sign that hovers, iconlike above the Hollywood Hills. Today it exists simply as “Hollywood,” but what a tale Wallace has to tell of how this great symbol fell into disrepair and was almost obliterated altogether.

hollywoodland

Here we get the foibles, follies, houses, yachts, cars, studios, and restaurants of the glorious and glamorous yesterdays when stars really caught the public s imagination. This was America s beginning love affair with the cult of celebrity. These were the early silent years when flicks were the opium of the masses and audiences believed every word written in Photoplay and Modern Screen. There was the invention of sound and every other technical achievement one could dream of. But chiefly there were stars and star makers. Can you think of anyone famous today who would lure ten thousand people to a funeral? Princess Diana comes to mind, but in the early screen days William Desmond Taylor lured them because he had been murdered. The silent-screen beauty Mary Miles Minter was implicated in this still unsolved death, and she fainted at his funeral. Lost Hollywood is crammed with such stories.

Cinema old

Ghosts exist.

In film, images (ghosts) of people we love or hate do the things we fantasize about or recoil from in stories and settings equally phantasmal.

The ghosts of Hollywood embody and animate our collective and individual consciences, our ethics, our relationships, our dreams, and our darkest sides. The stories that flicker on the silver screen, and the people who bring them to life—the actors, producers, directors, crews, and publicists—have shaped the way we live. It has been said that the real challenge for a storyteller in relating a pre-Christian tale is to remove Christian values from the characters’ motivations and actions. I believe that for a storyteller a few centuries down the way, it will be even harder to remove values of the movie era from today’s civilization. Film, in its century, has changed civilization as profoundly as Christianity shaped Western culture in the previous nineteen centuries.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Art, architecture, fashion, design, literature, music, dance, social behaviors—even religion itself—have all been consumed by him and changed. Gods and goddesses far more dynamic and powerful than any in ancient mythology have been raised up and cast down.

It was all an accident; Hollywood, that is. The town that would become so proficient at creating fake accidents to amuse, fascinate, or terrify a future audience numbering in the billions was itself a serendipitous product of the right timing and the right location. It was neither a transportation nexus like the river town of Pittsburgh nor a harbor city like San Francisco (or Hollywood’s neighbor, the Los Angeles harbor city of San Pedro) nor a railroad town like Omaha or even nearby San Bernardino. In the beginning, it was nothing.

Nothing, that is, except a place of gentle hills rolling southward below a number of canyons that carried winter runoff from the slopes of the yet-to-be named Santa Monica Mountains near a wide pass that led to the also unnamed San Fernando Valley.

Death Takes DW Griffith
Death Takes DW Griffith

Griffith died on July 24, 1948, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in that lonely room where, to keep them cool, he often stored apples and sodas on the sill of the window from which he could see his past. (Not far from Griffith’s room Elvis Presley later lived and was inspired to write “Heartbreak Hotel.”)

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

The only celebrity who visited the funeral home was a director whose fame also stemmed from creating popular epics: Cecil B. DeMille. A few more of Hollywood’s famous, some of whom, like Lionel Barrymore and Mack Sennett, owed their film-career starts to him, showed up for the funeral in the half-filled Masonic Temple. Some, like Mary Pickford, whose career was launched by Griffith when she was sixteen, didn’t show up at all. Many of the funeral guests shunned honorary pallbearers like Louis B. Mayer (who, after his career change from junk dealer to film exhibitor, made a fortune from The Birth of a Nation) and Samuel Goldwyn, both of whom could have given Griffith work in his later years but didn’t.

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

When he was laid to rest in a tiny, rural graveyard in his native Kentucky, next to his father who first entranced him with the tales of Confederate derring-do that would inspire much of The Birth of a Nation, only one star of the many who owed their careers to him was there: Lillian Gish.

It was a four-hanky story Griffith would have loved filming.

D.W. Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, in La Grange, Kentucky. His father, Jacob, died when David was ten, after a life spent as a sometime politician, full-time farmer, and passionate Confederate loyalist. Davids mother, Mary, was the quiet, affectionate anchor of the family.

Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98
Lawrence Griffith, third from left at back, with the MeffertStock Company, Louisville, Kentucky 2897-98

Griffith wanted to be an actor from an early age, and for a number of years trod the boards in Louisville and on the road. In 1905, he first visited Los Angeles, cast as an Indian in a stage adaptation of Helen Hunt Jacksons then-popular novel Ramona (Griffith would later use it for a him). The following year he married a fellow actor, Linda Arvidson, and moved to New York City where he tried his hand unsuccessfully as a playwright and looked for acting work. At the suggestion of a friend he ran into in the old Forty-second Street Automat, Griffith decided to look into films—not as an actor but as a scenario writer—to tide himself and Linda over the winter. (Before scripts, demanded by sound, writers wrote scenarios.) It was as an actor that he was hired, first by Edwin Porter (who four years earlier had made The Great Train Robbery) to play the lead in a forgettable him, and then, at age thirty-three, by the Biograph Company as both scenarist and actor. The job changed his life.

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

Biograph was by 1907 already the best of the early film makers, but like most, it was a small, informal community of largely anonymous talent grinding out two one-reelers a week from its studio in an East Fourteenth Street brownstone. Among those talents was cameraman Billy Bitzer, who, when Griffith’s stage-trained acting proved too overdone for the intimacy of him, suggested that Griffith step in for a sick director. It was also Bitzer who explained to the rookie director how to make his first film, laying out the scenario on a piece of laundry shirt-cardboard. Never, even in the glory days to come when Bitzer and Griffith would essentially write filmmaking’s first grammar, would Griffith work from a written scenario.

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

And what days they were as commercial success made taking chances possible. Most of Griffith’s hundreds of films for Biograph (141 in 1909 alone!) made a lot of money, largely because he somehow knew what the relatively unsophisticated audience of the time wanted and how to deliver it.

One thing Griffith believed was that audiences wanted longer films, films that told a more complete story. So in 1913, spurred by the example of the large-scale films being turned out in Italy, and permanently settled into making movies in the Southern California sun, he made Judith of Bethulia near the present Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It was a four-reel biblical epic and one of the first to star the talent who would become Griffith’s most famous discovery; Lillian Gish. It also went overbudget by 100 percent, causing such a row between Griffith and the Biograph management that he formed his own company—and took many of Biograph’s leading talents along with him. Announcing his new company in a now famous advertisement, he took credit for introducing the fade-out (apparently true, although some him historians differ), the close-up, the long shot, crosscutting, and something called “restraint in expression,” certainly related to his earlier troubles toning down his stage gestures for him.

An amazing series of pictures followed that would make D. W. Griffith the most famous director in the world: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. The most famous, because it was the most infamous as well, was The Birth of a Nation.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Based on a racist jeremiad of a book and play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, the saga of a Southern family torn by the Civil War, appealed to Griffith as a chance to write history from the loser’s point of view. It was unquestionably also an emotional response based on memories of the heroic reminiscences of his father, a twice-wounded Confederate colonel. The movie was made in locations in and around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, the pine forest near Big Bear Lake, and the countryside near Whittier where the movie’s climactic ride of the Klansmen was filmed. One of the extras in that scene was John Ford, whose future career as a director nearly ended that day when, blinded by his Klan bedsheet, he was knocked from his horse by an overhanging branch; Griffith himself revived him with a shot of brandy.

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

The Clansman, as it was called in its early release, cost a then-astronomical one hundred thousand dollars to make and promote. Driven by notoriety (including a failed effort by the NAACP to suppress the film entirely), it would make a fortune. How much? No one will ever know exactly because of the standard financial shenanigans employed by exhibitors of the era. The best estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around nine hundred million of today’s dollars, making The Birth ofa Nation one of the all-time most successful movies ever made.

Griffith s next film was in many ways both his greatest and his clumsiest. Before the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had made a small movie based on a Dickension story of a young couple whose lives are destroyed by a strike. Called The Mother and the Law, it was never released, and the name was assigned to two new stories of injustice Griffith planned to film. Coincidently, he saw Cabiria, one of the hugely successful historical epics then being made in Italy. He was impressed by the ambitious scope of the film, which combined the intimacy of close-up shots with the panoramic grandeur of the burning of the Roman fleet and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with seemingly thousands of extras and live elephants. Somehow the idea occurred to Griffith of filming a sort of cinematic sermon condemning intolerance by intercutting four stories: the heroic resistance of the Babylonians to the Persian invaders, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the French Huguenots, the original story of the young couple torn asunder by social violence, and three tableaux from the life of Christ. Working as always without a script, Griffith quite literally had no idea when to stop or start on this gargantuan project. He just kept filming, shooting more than a hundred miles of film, which eventually was edited down to three hours and fifteen minutes. Then and for years afterward, Intolerance was the longest film ever made.

Intolerance
Intolerance

Griffith’s colleagues couldn’t figure it out, and neither could audiences, after the effect of the stupendous visuals wore off. But, the film will live as a benchmark in film history, not for the stories it tried to tell, but for the way Griffith told them. Audiences were especially stunned by the sets for the fall of Babylon, with its thirty-foot-high elephants (a direct steal from Cabiria) and its images based on familiar biblical paintings. Few who ever saw Intolerance can forget the scene where the crowded steps of Babylon are first glimpsed from a great distance, then come closer and closer as the camera descends in a gigantically long tracking shot, down and down and down, ending atop Belshazzar’s bacchanal. That sort of shot is done all the time these days with a camera crane, but when Griffith did it in 1914, they didn’t exist. How did he do it?

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

Griffith and cameraman Bitzer first tried a balloon for the camera and cameraman, but it proved too unstable. Then engineer Allen Dwan, later a director himself, suggested mounting the camera on an open elevator that was itself mounted on a narrow-gauge flatcar on tracks leading to the three-hundred-foot-deep set. So as the elevator was slowly lowered, workmen pushed the flatcar forward. It was the movies’ first crane shot and even today one of the most memorable.

By now World War I was on in all its fury, and because Griffith was easily the most famous film director alive, the British invited him to visit and film footage for use in propaganda pictures. He was the only American filmmaker to visit the front. For Griffith, however, story telling on celluloid was by then becoming more real than the real thing; he would subsequently film frontline action on the Salisbury Plain in England and back home in Hollywood.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Some of that war footage found its way into his next feature, Hearts of the World, a melodramatic look at four war-torn years in a French family’s life. The story, a pastiche of lost and found love, is mostly memorable for Lillian Gish’s wonderful mad scene as she wanders through a battlefield searching for her lover, and the terrific patriotic ending as rank after rank of American soldiers march across the screen. (One side note: In Hearts of the World, Gish’s child was played by Ben Alexander, who would become familiar to a later generation as Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet.)

Griffith’s next film, Broken Blosssoms, was something altogether different; for all intents and purposes it was the first film noir. The intimacy of its story about an abused girl (Lillian Gish) and the Chinaman who tries to rescue her with tragic consequences (Richard Barthelmess) was thrown into high relief by the epic splendor of the films that came before and after.

In early 1919, Griffith joined Mary Pickford, her fiance Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in forming United Artists to control the distribution of their films. For Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin it was a great success, not for Griffith, who had nothing to distribute that wasn’t previously contracted. He also decided to open the only studio he ever owned—a mistake in hindsight—in New York’s Westchester County, far away from Hollywood, which since the war had left Europe’s industries in ruins was now the world’s cinema capital.

For a while it still appeared that Griffith could do no wrong, especially when the first film made in his new studio was released in 1920. It was far grander than Broken Blossoms and hugely profitable. Way Down East is a creaky story of a wronged woman (Lillian Gish again) who overcomes social prejudice and near death to find true love (Richard Barthelmess again). The films final sequence, a tremendously long chase through a blizzard and across an ice-jammed river as Barthelmess races to rescue Gish, unconscious on an ice floe, was challenging to make (Gish claimed she was on the ice twenty times a day for three weeks and that once her hair froze solid). It was, and still is, breathtaking to watch, and in the opinion of many him scholars it still stands as one of cinemas greatest climaxes.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

For all the technical innovations, for all the spectacle and the exciting climaxes, probably the one thing that separated D. W. Griffith from everyone else—and still does—was his uncanny ability to create emotional intimacy, the genius to deliver stunning, flashing moments that bind each individual in an audience to the story on the screen. That happens in the last of his great films. It wasn’t the last him he made, for Griffith’s career was to continue for a number of years before finally petering out in the 1930s, but it was one of the best. Orphans of the Storm was less what it appeared to be (a convoluted history of the French Revolution) than a human drama, the story of a pair of sisters, one blind (Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, who played the blind sibling), separated by circumstances and the turmoil of the time.

Despite the formulistic drama (including a Griffith signature rescue chase, an improbably happy ending, and, of course, the restoration of Dorothy Gish’s sight), there is one scene when Griffith, the one-time stage actor—and, of course, Lillian Gish—incontestably proved to the world that great acting can happen in movies too. It happens when Gish’s character thinks she hears the voice of her long-lost sister begging in the street below her room. Griffith films it with one of his trademark backlit, intimate close-ups, the camera frozen as Gish first dismisses the idea and then, as her sister’s voice continues, realizes that a miracle has indeed happened. The intensity is so palpable one hardly breathes.

Griffith would make a few more films, most notably a biography of Abraham Lincoln. But Way Down East was his last box-office success. The times had moved past him. Sound, which he never really understood, arrived along with a new generation of filmmakers who took his many technical advances and streamlined them. But none were ever to improve on the many moments when his emotional lightning struck the hearts of filmgoers.

Lost Hollywood

DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A White Star – By Richard Dyer (Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB)

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A White Star

Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”

By Richard Dyer

Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB

Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Starlight

There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.

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

Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Steeliness and simplicity

Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.

Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)
Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)

Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 7

There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.

The ideal of his dreams

The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.

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

What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.

Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.

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

But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.

The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

White magic

Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
White Star - Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)
White Star – Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

 

Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Review by ARTHUR MAYER, New York Times, 1969)

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Lillian Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.

Review by ARTHUR MAYER

Published: June 8, 1969

Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.

The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.

Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with