Special Supplement to Sight and Sound
An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith
Part II: The Art Triumphant
Hearts of the World – 1918
Compiled by Seymour Stern, May, 1947
Produced by D. W. Griffith, Inc. Original story and scenario by “M. Gaston de Tolignac” (D. W. Griffith). “Translated into English by Capt. Victor Marier ” (D. W. Griffith). Directed by Griffith. Photography: G. W. Bitzer. Music: score composed and arranged by Carl Elinor and D. W. Griffith. Technical advisor on, and supervisor of, military detail: Erich von Stroheim. Shooting time, about 9 months. Editing and subtitles: Griffith. Cutters: James and Rose Smith. Release length: 12 reels, about 12,000 feet. Running-time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Released by D. W. Griffith, Inc.: Thursday, April 4, 1918, at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City.
THEME AND STORY
What is the basic content, what is the theme, of the first film, Hearts of the World, which Griffith directed on European soil ? The theme of Hearts of the World may be described as follows: Democracy, based on individual freedom, is the best way of life, hence it is desirable. Autocracy, the opposite to democracy, rests on slavery and leads inevitably to war and conquest, hence it is undesirable. Therefore, Germany and her allies, representing autocracy and seeking conquest, must and shall be defeated by France and her allies, defending freedom and democracy.
From subtitles in the film, all of which were written by Griffith, as well as from his public speeches and statements at this time, this, for Griffith, was the underlying cause of the First World War. The evidence does not indicate that he doubted or questioned the fundamental beliefs, concepts or values of the civilizations of America and Europe, or so-called Christendom. Quite the contrary, he appears to have accepted the supposedly “Christian” nations and their cultures “as is”, castigating them at times, as in Broken Blossoms, for their enormous brutality and hypocrisy—but accepting them, nevertheless. And when these nations were attacked by their historic semi-Asiatic foe—murderous, barbaric Germany, Griffith without hesitation joined in the effort to save the victims. Neither in the images nor in the subtitles of this film does Griffith suggest that he viewed the conflict as an “imperialist war” or a “fight for markets”. Therein lies perhaps the fundamental, if not the principal, difference between Hearts of the World and Soviet films based on, or dealing with, World War I. On the contrary, Griffith makes unmistakably clear his belief and conviction that victory by the Kaiser’s Germany would have spelled the doom of Western civilization—the triumph everywhere of the most absolute and inhuman autocracy. The word “totalitarian” had not been coined in 1917, but Griffith’s exhortations to the American people were dire warnings against what is nowadays categorically termed “totalitarian dictatorship”.
Autocracy was attacking democracy; democracy, innocent, was defending itself. Economic and political causes to the contrary notwithstanding, this was the crucial fact of the conflict; this was its basic issue and its meaning. For Griffith, as for the peoples of the democracies, the war had no other reality. As already indicated, Griffith did not believe in an economic interpretation of history, but rather in an emotional and a moral one. He believed in emotion as the fundamental motivation of human behaviour, or, as Denison put it, in “emotion as the basis of civilization”. It is only too plain, as evidenced from the story and content of his film, that Griffith was not concerned with the material or economic causes of the war, but with the ideological values which must perish or survive, depending on the war’s outcome. The two principal values of his concern, both of them based on, and related to, the democratic way of life, were: personal liberty and romantic love. Here, these are threatened with extinction by the armed might of Imperial Germany—Prussian autocracy; and so, here again, as in The Birth of a Nation and in the mediaeval French story of Intolerance, Griffith’s basic and fundamental theme comes to light—crucifixion of the hearts of the world by the world. The two world-forces which grind like millstones the hearts in this as in the other Griffith films are (1) history—a process; and (2) intolerance—an emotion or passion. The forces like demons are embodied here in the nation-states of the modern Western world; their conflict is the battle of the nations. Viewed in such a world-perspective, America—England—France, the “little countries” of western Europe—all these represented the democratic way of life, “the Good”, all were popularly and properly “free” societies. And Griffith was at pains to make clear, that his advocacy of the Allied cause was no mere professional assignment, it was more than mere obedience to duty; it was a matter of principle, of simple conviction. This principle, the belief in democracy, was his theme. Hearts of the World bears the qualifying subtitle, “The Story of a Village”. Much of the action, both before and during the sequences of World War I, is laid in a French village behind the Allied lines. Some action is shown in the trenches, both Allied and German; some is laid in the Moquet Farm sector, France, at the headquarters of Prussian officers behind the German lines; the rest is devoted to scenes of actual warfare. The picture features many battle panoramas and combat sequences. Yet, despite these martial and spectacular scenes, Hearts of the World originally was advertised and known as a film, “not about the war, but about people to whom the war came”. The New York “Times”, in its review of the film the morning after the premiere, summarized the story as follows:
“There is a young girl living with her old grandparents. And there is a young man living with his parents and three little brothers. Monsieur Cuckoo, the Little Disturber, the Village Carpenter, a Deaf and Blind Musician, and many others, are village characters with their happiness and little difficulties that do not matter. “The Girl and the Boy love each other. The Little Disturber, delightful little devil of a flirt, loves the boy, but he loves the other girl and angrily spurns her. The Disturber at last turns to Monsieur Cuckoo, who has been pursuing her from the first. . . . The scenes of this French village suggest all that had been known by travel and books of provincial France before the war. . . . “Into such an atmosphere and environment, the war bursts. First a German spy inspecting possible fortifications appears with sinister suggestion. Then, just before the set wedding day of the Boy and the Girl, the town crier startles the village with a mobilization order. The whole peaceful arrangement of life is violently shattered. The men rush off to war and the women stay behind to worry and wonder. “The Germans advance against the village; many of the inhabitants flee in confusion, while shells do their destruction around them; others remain behind and seek shelter in cellars and crypts and vaults. Certain characters in the play are killed; others survive to face the fearful future. After furious fighting, the Germans take possession of the town and Prussion brutality reveals itself in a number of vivid scenes. “The horrors of German occupation are shown, chiefly as they affect the persons in the play, the Girl and the Disturber, who become companions in misery. There is a great deal of detail, both of actual fighting and of play plot, and finally the boy, whom the Girl had left for dead on the battlefield, enters the village disguised in the uniform of a Prussian officer and finds his sweetheart, who escapes with him from the clutches of a Prussian officer to a garret room, where a struggle that has all the thrill of melodrama takes place. But this little clash of individuals is not long continued. Soon the French troops retake the town and more of the action of real war is seen. “The conclusion shows the characters of the play, lovers reunited, on a furlough, and as they are dining American troops pass outside. The Stars and Stripes enter — and at the very end ultimate victory for the Allies is symbolically forecast” The last sentence refers to Griffith’s screen prediction of the Armistice, one year before it happened.
The production of Hearts of the World began as a result of the exhibition in England of Intolerance. Like Intolerance, and like The Birth of a Nation, it was privately produced by Griffith, and was made in entire independence of the American film industry. Griffith sailed for England on March 17, 1917. Several weeks later, when Intolerance was privately shown at Buckingham Palace to the King, the Queen and the Royal Family, the overnight became the toast of the British public and the lion of all London. He had brought the cinema, a cultured revolution and a gift of the American democracy, from the New World to the mother-country, in the hour of the mother’s need; he became, therefore, an object of admiration, curiosity and esteem unlimited. At the London premiere at the Drury Lane Theatre, he was invited to the box of the Dowager Queen, Alexandra, who invited him to spend a week-end at Windsor Palace. Griffith recalls that he did not go, because he was already too busy conferring with England’s leaders.
Griffith, at a party given in his honour at the Duchess of Devonshire’s, was formally presented to such notables as Lloyd George, Winston Churchiil, Lord Beaverbrook, Asquith, the Earl of Derby and others. Here he learned that his name already had been proposed by the literary giants of England—Shaw, Barrie, Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton and others—in a conference with Lloyd George on ways and means of bolstering public morale, had so long played. This was the second major American film — The Birth of a Nation (under its original title, The Clansman) having been the first, the premiere of which was held, not in New York City, but in Los Angeles. On April 2, the New York “Times” featured front-page headlines: LONDON ANNOUNCES THAT AMERICAN FORCES ARE READY. On Thursday, April 4, the “Times” headlines read, in part: GERMANS LAUNCH HEAVY GAS ATTACK AT AMERICAN TROOPS. The same night, America’s answer came to the gas attack: Hearts of the World opened at the 44th Street Theatre, New York City. The management of this distinguished, so-called legitimate theatre had previously announced that the premiere would be a “private invitation” presentation … for prominent officials of the United States and the Allied Governments, municipal and State officials, and prominent citizens” (N. Y “Times”, April 1, 1918).
According to Charles Edward Hastings, in his press-book biography of Griffiths the following notable persons were among the guests at the New York City premiere : “Ambassador James W. Gerard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles B. Alexander, Mrs. Arthur Scott Burden, Otto Kahn, Adolph Ochs, Mr. and Mrs. H. J. Whigham, Mr. and Mrs. W. Bourke Cochrane, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Hastings, Enrico Caruso, Admiral Nathaniel Usher and staff, Mr. and Mrs. Henry G. Gray, Mrs. Parker Beacon, Maj.-Gen. William A. Mann, Mr. and Mrs. David Belasco, Mr. and Mrs. Conde Nast, Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Collier, James Montgomery Flagg, Gatti-Casazza, Mr. and Mrs. George F. Baker, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. James A. Burden, Miss Ruth Twombly, Miss Harriet Post, Marquis and Marchioness Aberdeen, Mrs. May Wilson Preston, John Moffat, Mr. and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, Edward Ziegler, Pasquale Amato, E. H. Sothern, Julia Marlowe, Rennold Wolf, Edgar Selwyn, Carl Laemmle, Jesse L. Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Daniel Frohman, Mrs. Morris Gest, George M. Cohan, Marshall Neilan, William Elliott, Florenz White, F. Ray Comstock and Madame Alda.
“The representatives of the British and Canadian Governments and British and Canadian Army and Navy officers included: Major Norman Thwaites, M.C.O.; Consul – General Bailey and staff; Henry Goode and Geoffrey Butler and staff; Commander Blackwood, R.N.; Provost Marshal Colonel Hunter; Colonel Gifford and staff; Sir Connop Guthrie and staff; Major Brooman White, Capt. V. H. McWilliam, Capt MacDonald, Lieut. Sharp, John McKenna Lawson, Lieut. Chevalier, Lieut. W. P. Mclvor, Lieut. -Col. C. A. Warren, Lieut. G. Sherries, Capt. W. E. Brown, Colonel J. S. Dennis, Capt. Sise, Lieut. Grossmith and Lieut. Cresswell”.
Douglas Fairbanks also was in the audience, but was so moved and stirred that he had to leave after the first half. The New York premiere of Hearts of the World was the most important one held to date for any motion picture. It marked the beginning also of the use of the distinguished 44th Street Theatre, of theatrical history, for the initial exhibition of important films. Here the film ran, accompanied by a large symphony orchestra, twice daily, at scheduled performances, 2.15 and 8.15 p.m., at admission prices not exceeding $ 1 for matinees or $ 1.50 for evening performances. It played at the 44th Street until October 5: on the 6th it moved over to another so-called legitimate theatre, the Knickerbocker, also located in the Times Square district, where the same prices and the same schedule continued. On October 21, accompanied by another symphony orchestra, the film began a simultaneous first-run engagement at the Standard Theatre at 90th Street and Broadway, at scheduled performances, twice daily, and at the same admission prices as at the Knickerbocker, for two weeks only. It ended its initial run at the Knickerbocker and the Standard simultaneously, with the evening show on Saturday, November 2, 1918.
The total record for the first run of Hearts of the World from April 4, until November 2, is as follows: 33 consecutive weeks, of which 27 weeks were spent at the 44th Street Theatre, 4 weeks at the Knickerbocker and 2 weeks (simultaneously) at the Standard. Thus the 33-week first-run fell short of that of The Birth of a Nation, but exceeded that of Intolerance;, either way, by 11 weeks. Paine gives glimpses of its phenomenal popularity. On the night after the invitational premiere at the 44th Street, when the theatre was opened to the public, he relates “seats sold by speculators brought as high as five and ten dollars. There were long runs everywhere. In Pittsburgh, the picture broke all records for any theatrical attraction in that city”. Exhibitors who recall the past still refer to the Pittsburgh run of Hearts of the World as one of the truly golden moments of American box-office history.
In 1919, after its temporary withdrawal from the screens, due to the cessation of hostilities and the over-night rejection by the public of war themes, Griffith brought forth a “Peace Edition” of the film, which he distributed with considerable success throughout the nation. It included an epilogue, “visualizing the League of Nations and future world peace” (advertisement and programme-note). The New York “Times” of August 11 wrote that “the spectators applauded its spectacles regardless of their military meaning”. The gross intake of Hearts of the World by 1920 was estimated to be in excess of $5,000,000, representing a profit of about $4,850,000.
In 1931 , the film was revised and re-issued, again with big financial results, by United Artists. Its all-time gross is $7,000,000. The story of the American exhibition of Hearts of the World would scarcely be complete without at least a passing mention of the advertising and exploitation campaign.
This established a new watermark in the technique of motion picture or theatrical publicity.
The newspaper advertisements, preceded by months of mysterious published “hints” and rumours of Griffith’s activities abroad, whipped up interest to a fever pitch. Gigantic horizontal or vertical half-page advertisements in the New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Boston papers exhorted the public in the name of democracy and freedom to see the “Miles of Artillery—March of Legions—Squadrons of Airplanes—Fleets of Zeppelins, the ‘Eyes of the Allies’—The Destruction of Cities—The Charge of the Tanks” and sundry other horrible and horrifying wonders of the First World War, as revealed in Griffith’s new film.
The New York “American” and other leading papers carried spectacular advertisements, featuring photographs of Griffith, helmeted, in the front line trenches. These advertisements, written by Griffith, stressed the twin themes of freedom and democracy. In a particularly sensational one, Griffith indulged in a bit of period showmanship when he announced that the “only ‘supers’ used were German soldiers, prisoners of war, filmed back of the firing line, tickled to death they were in such good hands with D. W. Griffith to direct them”!
Hearts of the World opened on Tuesday, June 25, 19 18, at the Palace Theatre, accompanied by the Palace Orchestra, in London. It was presented by Alfred Butt. The London opening-run ended on Saturday, September 7—exactly, to quote the final advertisement in the London “Times” “… as presented before Their Majesties the King and Queen”.
After the war, Hearts of the World enjoyed extremely successful runs on the Continent, where public interest in war themes did not abate so completely or so quickly as in the United States.
There is no record to hand that it was ever publicly shown in the Soviet Union, but it was privately viewed and studied in later years by the emergent Soviet film directors —Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, Trauberg, et al. Although each of these directors set new standards of realism, and achieved greater complexity and depth of interpretation than Griffith in depicting the war (although not necessarily therefore greater ultimate truth), the influence of Griffith’s film is evident, nevertheless, in all their works and may be seen in a myriad of images of the classic Soviet films on the First World War.
On War Films and War Propaganda
Hearts of the World was, in effect and in essence, the first real film depicting the First World War.
Although several such films had already been rushed to the screens by the Hollywood companies—J. Stuart Blackton’s The Battle Cry of Peace; Ince’s Civilization; Dixon’s The Fall of a Nation; Empey’s Over the Top; Carl Laemmle’s The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin; Metro’s To Hell with the Kaiser; Warner Brothers’ My Four Years in Germany, etc.—presumably to “cash in” on the war while it was still profitable to do so and at the same time to jump the gun on Griffith, these were of an unusually inferior quality, being incredibly childish or crude, if not wholly incompetent, in the actual depiction of the conflict. Here, on the contrary, was a war film, conceived on a big scale and executed with documentary realism.
The trade envied Griffith’s opportunity; it envied his official sponsorship by the Allied governments; and still more it envied the success of the film itself. Every American film producer knew that only the ending of the conflict, which resulted in the immediate and total loss of public interest in war themes, in November, 1918, had prevented Hearts of the World from being even more successful than it was. Accordingly, the trade studied this film more than any other made to date, except only The Birth of a Nation. Even Hollywood could ill-afford to ignore the new cinematic methods and techniques which Griffith had here brought to the screen. Press comment on it was often more in the nature of news than of criticism or review. “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe”, reads an unsigned article-review in the New York “Times”. “The pictures of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, the demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches, are impressively realistic”. Proudly, the advertisements claimed “real trenches, real battles; real war scenes, taken amid the fire and smoke of conflict; here are no moving picture ‘supers’, such as one sees in a studio picture, but real, flesh and blood soldiers of France, of England, fighting with their last drop of blood in defence of civilization. . . . No papier mache scenery, no studio ‘props’, no supers, no artificialities of any kind figured in filming this wonderful new Griffith masterpiece. ” These claims were for the most part quite truthful, and so was the general opinion, that the “trench fighting was terribly realistic”, as Lillian Gish put it. In fact, Paine further quotes Miss Gish as stating that when she saw the film again, in 1931, she “thought it better than many of those made to-day. . . . There was more sincerity of intention—more earnest work”. Indeed, Hearts of the World was the first big film of modern war: it was war as only the screen could show it. There were immense battle panoramas, with troop and truck movements, “squadrons of airplanes” and with panel-shots, showing “miles of artillery”, intercut with full screen detail close-ups of the wounded and the dying; there were country-wide vistas, showing the “march of legions” or whole armies locked in combat, intercut, as in The Birth of a Nation, with intimate glimpses of the lives and tragedies of the civilian population behind the lines; there was an arsenal of pictorial effects (“psycho-visual impacts”, to put it in the language of contemporary psychology), achieved through a combination of photography, direction and editing, and counterpointed with, or heightening, the documentary realism, drama and propaganda.
This passionate synthesis of spectacle, love story and documentary came as an antidote to the cheap and hysterical depictions of the war or what Hollywood thought was the war, which were occupying the current screens—forgotten films such as the Laemmle film; the Empey folderol; the Benjamin Chaplin serial, The Son of Democracy; or, worst of all, Cecil B. De Mille’s false and blatantly “super-patriotic” efforts, The Little American and My Own United States, with Arnold Daly. Griffith had demonstrated anew the capacity of the screen to project both history and current events on a high level of creative imagination and ideological interpretation; he had fashioned a new standard or yardstick of art and propaganda. And he had summarized the avowed aim and objective of the war in the very opening subtitle of the film: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Inevitably, Hearts of the World became the model for later attempts by the trade to recapture on celluloid the reality and scope of World War I. Its influence on this score is perhaps nowhere more obvious or more traceable than in King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925).
Several years ago, in New York City, I attended a Museum revival of The Big Parade, which I had previously seen many times. Then, in the Spring of 1945, I was privileged to witness, in company of Mr. Griffith and the Gish sisters, a private showing of Hearts of the World, which I had also previously seen, in the projection-room of the University of Southern California. Although I have never considered Hearts of the World among Griffith’s topmost achievements—its story, which often becomes submerged in the war scenes and documentation, has been justly and severely criticized as “weak”, I was nevertheless rather dumfounded to note, after a lapse of many years, the astonishing similarity of Vidor’s scenes of the big American offensive against the Germans, during the climax of The Big Parade, to Griffith’s immense images, in reels five, nine and eleven, of the Anglo-French counter-offensive against the “Hun invaders” (subtitle).
Again, I noted further the striking similarity of the scene in Vidor’s film, in which the American troops are shown from a height, advancing by night in waves across a deforested No-man’s land, to the panoramic and aerial shots in Hearts of the Wirld of the Allied forces advancing, similarly in waves, under aerial protection, on the German-held Mouquet dugout sector, immediately after the subtitle, “The Struggle of Civilization”. I then realized, perhaps for the first time very consciously, that the cine-pictorial pattern of showing World War I on the screen had been established in Hearts of the World for future directors to study and copy as they chose. Vidor had learned well, but Griffith’s treatment was better. Griffith depicted the war on the Western front in many aspects. He remembered to include some of the elected leaders, representatives or spokesmen of the Western democracies. Thus, in the scenes depicting the House of Parliament, August 4, 1914, at 3 p.m., Sir Edward Grey and other British governmental figures are represented; at No. 10, Downing Street, the same date, at 10.55 P-ni., “awaiting Germany’s answer to the ultimatum” (subtitle), are Asquith, Grey, Lloyd George and Winston Churchill; and in the French Chamber of Deputies, the same date at 3 p.m., Rene Viviani, Premier of France and other governmental leaders, are shown on the screen.
Similarly, Griffith also remembered to show the enemy. Immediately after the subtitle: “The German Militarists plan the dastardly blow against France and civilization”, he cuts to a group-shot, followed by several excellent characterization-close ups, of the Kaiser, Ludendorff, Mackensen, Von Moltke, and other members of the German High Command. Nor does he forget the military might of Germany in action. Such subtitles as: “The Shadow. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, representing War’s ideal of all races and ages, the ruling of weaker nations and people by the Power of Might”, cutting into the Kaiser as the head of the High Command, and again, in review of his troops; “The Prussian hordes massed for the attack”, cutting into immense shots of German infantry and artillery concentrations; “Beneath the risen moon”, cutting into the night-landscapes of death, destruction and terror, after the bombardment; “War’s gift to the common people”, cutting into unforgettable and heart-rending scenes of devastation, ruin and starvation in war-ravaged villages of northern France; “Poison gas”, cutting into shots of the first use of poison gas by the Germans; “Hun trenches”; “The Hun counterattack overwhelms the trench”; “The Germans”, and many others—all barely hint at the content of the related and surrounding images through which Griffith brought home to the American public this burningly vivid composite and comprehensive sum-image of the “Struggle of Civilization”.
The Big Parade seems increasingly with time the poorer for not possessing the equivalent to the stupendous and climatic panel-shots in which Griffith shows the Kaiser’s armies pouring in “never-ending flood” (subtitle) across the highways of Belgium and the horizons of France. This is more than spectacle: it is the very essence and reality and smell of World War I.
I will not, of course, dispute the superior popularity of The Big Parade. Vidor’s film has a more appealing romance, a better story; its characterizations are less typed and are more humanly believable; and it, too, from a cinematic as well as dramatic standpoint, is superbly directed. It is, indeed, a worthy film to have scored the world’s record for the single-theatre run of any motion picture: The Big Parade ran as a two-dollar, two-a-day attraction, beginning in November, 1925, at the Astor Theatre, New York City, for 97 consecutive weeks, thus surpassing the single-theatre runs of both The Birth of a Nation and The Covered Wagon.
Nevertheless, despite these impressive facts and also despite the big scenes of the trucks moving-up and the Americans moving-in, Vidor’s film fails to attain the breadth or scope of Griffith’s teeming 12-reel panorama of burning cities, massed armies, mechanical Armageddon and “miles of artillery”.
For that matter, subsequent films based on World War I fall even shorter of the mark: What Price Glory and All Quiet on the Western Front, to name the two best-known ones, the former noteworthy only for basic mediocrity, the latter only for its novelized story, not for any distinctive merit which it may have been thought to possess as a film. What Price Glory, a compound of sex, slapstick and sticky sentiment, directed by one of Griffith’s earlier actors and first-assistant directors, Raoul Walsh, is almost wholly imitative in its cinematic and directional treatment; and All Quiet on the Western Front, written by Erich Remarque and directed by Lewis Milestone, has been quite objectively appraised by Eisenstein, Theodore Huff, Dwight MacDonald and other critics. Perhaps MacDonald’s comment sums up the others. “Even so absurd a war film as Griffiths Hearts of the World”, he writes, criticizing the story, “contains passages better than anything in All Quiet. I refer to certain panoramic shots, mostly at the beginning of reel five, epic in their sense of mass and distance and God’s-eye-scope. This is pure cinema —a matter of visual values entirely—and this is where Milestone is weakest”.
Need it be added, demonstrable and historic fact that it is, that this also is where most of the rest of the motion picture especially in Hollywood, has long since been weakest ? Finally, the effectiveness of Griffith’s film as propaganda was complete; more than any books, plays or public speeches, it served to bring home to the American people not only the fighting war but the reason for fighting it—namely, the iron necessity of defeating Imperial Germany. For this very reason, when it was revived nationally in 1931, Hearts of the World was laughed at by a new generation of filmgoers, who had been taught to believe that the first World War had been fought in vain, that the United States had been “tricked” into defending France and England, and that the idea of saving such democracy as existed in 1914 among the Western nations was a “fallacy”.
Some twenty-two years after its initial run, it also became a target of attack by political film critics and “historians” who, apparently feared that the new audiences witnessing the revival showings might be turned by it against Germany, after Soviet – Nazi collaboration had begun. Thus it was branded by one such critic as “absurdly exaggerated”, and by a whole coterie of fellow-travellers among the anti-Griffith film critics and self-styled “historians” with similar epithets.
Yet to-day, after the world’s recent and second experience with Germany in the Second World War, nothing in Griffith’s depiction of the “legend of Hunnish crime on the book of God” (subtitle) seems in the least “absurd” or “exaggerated”, as it may have done in the 1920s and ’30s, during an era of disillusionment and pacifism; on the contrary, ironically enough, it begins to appear in our new perspective almost as a generalized and pallid understatement. To-day, in the light of Germany’s gruesome national record of atrocities and mass-murders and sadism in Poland and Norway and Russia; the blitz-bombings of Rotterdam and Coventry and London; the chronicles of horror and cannibalism, rising like a stench from the ashes of Buchenwald and Dachau and the Brown-Houses of Berlin—a record of degeneracy, insanity, murder and terror—to-day, the only thing about the film or its portrayals of the Huns which may seriously be considered as “absurdly frightful” is the frightfully absurd contempt and vilification heaped upon it and upon its maker by the exponents of political ideologies and party-lines. None of this cultural politicalizing need mislead the student, however. The fact is, that the elemental truth about Germany and the First World War is far more closely approximated in Griffith’s thirty-year-old “propaganda film” than in the whole contemporary school of its political traducers. Remember, again: “God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling”! Hearts of the World stands as a permanent and splendid example of the best uses of propaganda to which the screen can be put.
On Acting—New Talent
Hearts of the World brought to the screen some new players and some fine performances by old ones. It marked the screen debut of Ben Alexander, Griffith’s latest ” discovery” in child actors, who later played in Penrod and in All Quiet on the Wester?! Front; also, of Noel Coward, whom Griffith had met in London and who is here seen as a young man with a wheelbarrow and later as a young villager, keeping company with The Little Disturber. (Griffith recalls that Coward seemed to have some good ideas, but that he, Griffith, was too busy to listen much!) In addition, it united the Gish sisters in their first important film together since Home, Sweet Home (1913. See Griffith Index: Part I, p. 18).
On Acting—Dorothy Gish
Unquestionably, the acting honours go to Dorothy in a short black wig as The Little Disturber. With her perky, comic and flip performance, she ran away with the picture and created a role that was long remembered. This was also something of an achievement for Griffith, who had long been criticized for failing in “humour”. Yet the conception and direction of The Little Disturber were entirely his. The use of many clever gestures and trick “business”, all in a few feet at a time; Dorothy’s jaunty strut or walk; the self-satirical but taunting “sex-appeal” of her mannerisms and postures; and the comic scenes to the strains of Anna Held’s old “hit”, Its Delightful to be Married—all this stamped Griffith as a comedy director of genuine promise, and Dorothy as a comedy virtuouso. Griffith was encouraged by it in later years to try his hand again at conceiving comedy roles and even at directing feature-length film comedies (Sally of the Sawdust, etc.). Dorothy, on her part, unwittingly created a vogue among American girls of the period to cultivate in their lighter moments the jaunty walk or strut of The Little Disturber.
The effect of this incidental and probably unexpected success was to start Dorothy Gish off in her own “starring” films—the celebrated “Black Wig” comedy series of the early I920’s.
On Acting—Erich von Stroheim
But all these players together, and the best of their work, do not rate in value with the appearance here of a relatively new, unexpected actor of stellar importance—Erich von Stroheim. Stroheim began his screen career, it may be recalled, in 1915, as a technical adviser to Griffith on military detail in the filming of Old Heidelberg for Triangle. (See Griffith Index: Part II (b), p. 5). The intelligence and talent of this gifted future writer-director were quickly recognized by Griffith; and even beyond this, his potentiality as “acting material”—or, more properly for the screen, as a “player”, was clearly perceived by the old master’s phenomenal “casting eye”. Accordingly, Stroheim was given his first screen role as one of the “Pharisees” in the Judean storv of Intolerance. (See Griffith Index: Part II (c). Now one year later, he was cast by Griffith in a role which quite literally created and shaped the whole course of Stroheim’s career: that of a Prussian officer in charge of German headquarters on the Western front.
Combining military arrogance and sex appeal, Stroheim created a sensation. He became known to the American public as the “man you love to hate”. It was the real beginning of his acting career; and it was also the beginning of a new type of role, which Stroheim alone with his face and personality could fill, and which he was destined to play again and again years later in other films. The final perfection of his “Prussian officer” in Hearts of the World may be seen in Grand Illusion, where Stroheim again appears in the role of the same type of German officer in charge of a military prison. He is the one Griffith “discovery” and actor whose career and casting have come down virtually intact as Griffith created them to our own time, a phenomenon in film history.
On the Stage
Once again, as in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, so here Griffith proved the superiority of the screen to the stage in projecting history, news, realism and spectacle. Stage plays based on the war were feeble and few and were almost wholly unconvincing. The medium of the stage, resting as it does on dialogue, is physically inadequate to deal with war as a subject, and the most that any playwright can hope to achieve is to have his characters talk about war—emotionally and with the accepted standardized vocal inflections or intonations of the Broadway theatre. But he cannot show the war nor can he heighten such drama as he may create with either images or documentation.
Although it excited and thrilled people in 19 18, and was a tremendous success both during its original run and for some years afterwards, the fact is, that Hearts of the World does not stand the test of time, except in the battle panoramas, as do some of Griffith’s other famous films. On the contrary, it seems to-day a rather uneven film. Why ? There are several reasons:
First, it seems certain that Griffith was too close to the war really to grasp or understand it, least of all to view it in its proper perspective. Remember that fifty years had elapsed between Appommattox (the end of the American Civil War) and the initial appearance of The Birth of a Nation—a circumstance which accounts in part for the singular detachment, objectivity and perspective which characterize the historical sequences of this film. Here, on the contrary, the director was not only close to a great war, but in it. How was it possible to achieve under the circumstances a “proper perspective” ?
For that matter, this was true of most American war films. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1920) was an essentially romantic story with .the war-years as a background and with little in it of the war itself. The Big Parade came seven years after the Armistice yet, although it was a superb spectacle, it offers nothing by way of a perspective on the conflict deeper than Griffith’s film. And Griffith had the added disadvantage of being carried away—the inevitable price one pays for patriotism or uncritical devotion to any cause, however “noble”—by the confusion, emotions and fears of the period. No one really knew what was going on and it is extremely doubtful that Griffith himself knew all the horrors of war at this time, least of all what started the war. Hence, his preoccupation with “lovers” instead of soldiers and the forces behind them. Yet it is only just to record that Griffith can hardly be blamed for the deficiencies of this film since nobody knew anything then.
Second, as already stated, the story is weak. Toward the end it even lapses into conventional melodrama. Yet there are some extraordinary scenes in the picture, and it is worth while for the record to recall them. We have already mentioned the girl’s mad wandering over the battle ground with the bridal dress in her arms (was there a Freudian meaning to this, intended or otherwise ?) Besides this, there were the children burying their mother (immediately related to the subtitle: “Cannon fire their only requiem”) — a terrific scene; the tender love scenes (“For ever and ever”); the famous attic scene in which the boy and the girl, facing imminent death in the German attack on the village, marry themselves; the seduction scene in which Lillian Gish is pulled by Siegmann along the floor while the blind violinist plays – an action and situation used again by Stroheim in The Merry Widow; the famous scene of the refugees in the ruined church, with mothers nursing their children, while the nuns make the sign of the cross over the screaming half-dead—realism in what is now termed the documentary mode; the still-effects of high government officials waiting (impersonations of Churchill, Lloyd George, etc.), which were precisely the device and technique used fifteen years later by Dovzhenko in Arsenal and, finally, too many strangely-haunting scenes both of the war and of the story itself to be enumerated. . . . All these things may be mentioned as balancing or offsetting the weaker side of the story. For it must be repeated that despite the remarkable effect and power of these sequences and scenes, individually the story as a whole is weak.
Third, Hearts of the World was made in so many places (France, England and California), under so many conditions that were difficult at best and more often than not impossible or uncontrollable, that the film as a whole did not exactly “jell”. However, it must be emphasized as Lillian Gish has already noted, that it was sincerely felt by those who made it, and in the confusion of the period, it was soul-stirring to say the least.
Fourth, Hearts of the World is a transitional, even an experimental film. Bitzer later often related that many new things were tried out in it—all kinds of new lighting and photographic effects, as in the night scenes with lights (the Boy, returning from the battlefield, etc.); all sorts of interior lighting both for close-ups and sets; an extensive use of tinting—purple, for the twilight scenes; rose-and-blue mixed tints for early morning; green and yellow alternately for the Germans and so on.
Furthermore, although there is not exactly the soft focus of Broken Blossoms in any scenes, there is a movement in that direction along with many other kindred strange effects and lightings. Indeed, one of the more significant events which occurred during the production was that a young new cameraman, Hendrik Sartov, who had been a still photographer back in the States, was picked up over there, and it was he, not Bitzer, who did the soft-focus in Broken Blossoms.
The summation could go on indefinitely to include references to the air-shots of the battlefields, several of which are notable for imagination and skill in handling; the time-lapses through such cinematically “modern” devices as “cuts”, dissolves or time-fades, as the case may be, from new into old boots or new into rusted guns; or to some of the real poetry in the picture. The above, however, covers most of the important facts and should serve to recall the far-reaching and experimental importance of this immense film.
Even for Lillian Gish, this was a transitional film—a transitional role, somewhere between the straight heroine of The Birth of a Nation and the tragic creature of Broken Blossoms. She tries many new effects here, some of them, perhaps, not successful, but all of them indicating an attempt to experiment with new methods of pantomimic expression and new screen-playing techniques. In short, Hearts of the World, viewed from whatever angle, was a film made for a time and a purpose—a time of war and a purpose of propaganda. As such, it succeeded admirably then, and even if to-day it may not seem so great as some of Griffith’s other films, it is worth remembering its large importance, its influence both as film and as propaganda, and then the outstanding single fact about it—namely, that of this film it may be stated that it accomplished its purpose and justified its existence to the hilt. But in film history also it revealed itself in a quite startling and unexpected fashion. This can best be grasped by glancing at the music. Hearts of the World was the first important Griffith film the musical score to which included excerpts from popular “numbers” or songs of the day. The Anna Held “hit,” It’s Delightful to be Married, has already been mentioned and to it may be added the various strains taken from Chit Chin Chow and other vastly popular musical comedies of the war-years.
It may be recorded as an objective fact that although Griffith was yet to make films far superior to Hearts of the World and of the first order of magnitude, nevertheless this initial concession to mass-entertainment and mass-taste represents a downward step. Nor was the step unnoticed by the rising titans of the trade. Hearts of the World, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was one of the supreme triumphs of free enterprise in film production. As such, its virtues were carefully studied and its errors coldly appraised by the grim men who watched from the shadows of Broadway. It was a new challenge to them but one which they now felt confident of meeting. For there was no one but Griffith to oppose them, the so-called intellectuals of America still being wedded body and soul to the genteel and snobbish traditions of the so-called legitimate theatre. Yet even Griffith, mighty force that he was, could not alone or indefinitely withstand the massed attack gathering among the magnates who were working to create a monopoly through the medium of films over the minds and hearts of the world.
Special Supplement to Sight and Sound
An Index to the Creative Work of David Wark Griffith
By Seymour Stern – September 1946
Produced at the Fine Arts Studios, Hollywood, by the Wark Producing Corporation (D. W. Griffith). Directed by D. W. Griffith. Original idea and scenario : Griffith. Scenario of the ” Modern Story (The Mother and the Law) : adapted by Griffith, in part, from the Report of a Federal Industrial Commission ; and in part, from the records of the Stielow murder case. Under the personal supervision of D. W. Griffith, each of the following items : settings ; costume designs ; photographic style and technique ; research ; architectural conceptions of the City of Babylon (with motifs suggested by the sun-buildings and causeway of the Panama-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco, 191 5). Research on the Judean story : Rabbi L. Myers.* Construction supervisor and chief engineer on the Babylonian sets : Frank Wortman. Photography G. W. Bitzer and Karl Brown. Assistant directors : George Siegmann, W. S. Van Dyke, Joseph Henaberry, Erich von Stroheim, Edward Dillon, Tod Browning. Chief second assistant directors : Ted Duncan, Mike Siebert.
Editing : Griffith. Cutters : James and Rose Smith. Music : original score by Joseph Carl Breil and Griffith. Total production-time : 22 months, 12 days, divided as follows : shooting-time—20 months, 12 days ; editing—2 months. Release length : app. 13,700 feet (13! reels) or in old-time, silent film running-time, 3 hours.f World premiere and release under auspices of Wark Distributing Corporation (D. W. Griffith): Tuesday, September 5, 1916, Liberty Theatre, New York City.
THEME AND CONTENT
The Historical-Philosophy of Intolerance
Briefly stated, the theme of Intolerance is the emotional basis of history—or, more specifically, intolerance is the cause of wars and is a prime mover of the world in all ages. Intolerance is explicitly defined in sub-titles as the hatred and rejection of others, who fail to “think as we do” (sub-title from the Medieval Story). It is depicted as the emotion, the policy, and also the weapon, of fanatical rulers, dictators, individuals and masses; of power-loving priesthoods and ruling classes; of revolutionary, counter-revolutionary and other insurgent groups, in all ages, and everywhere. It is further depicted as being opposed to democracy, freedom of thought and to liberalism—above all, to democracy.Thus the motivation of human affairs, of world history, is, according to Griffith, basically emotional; and the motivating emotion is intolerance. To intolerance must be attributed, therefore, certain major actions of mankind —for example, massacre and persecution and torture and war. Other causes, political or economic, or both, as the case may be, being equal, intolerance still is the deciding factor in its primeval power over the behaviour of men and the course of events.
Intolerance is named and picturized as the fundamental force, the emotional evil, which hardens men’s hearts and paralyzes their minds; it plays its chief role in the zero-hours of history, the hours of decision, when it casts the die, other things being equal, for or against the wars, which determine the fate of empires, nations, peoples, individuals, societies, of whole civilizations. This force, timeless and universal, is a thing of basic evil and basic power, or, as a sub-title in the Medieval Story puts it, it is “Intolerance, burning and slaying”. And in the Babylonian story, Cyrus repeats the “world-old prayer (of intolerance) … to kill, kill, kill …”
The role of intolerance in shaping human destiny through the ages, amid all peoples, is inescapable.- Its recognition as a prime mover of the world-process is essential, therefore, to a correct understanding of the meaning and method of history. Hence, the tragedy of history is the conquest by intolerance of the one and only significant counter-force opposed to it—love, in its broader meaning. The epic of intolerance, therefore, is also the drama, to cite a thematic sub-title, of “Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages”.
The above summarizes the theme of Griffith’s film, as expressed in its content, both the images and the subtitles. Or, as Huntly Carter wrote, “In Intolerance, we have Griffith’s favourite theme of intolerance of human beings to human beings.”
The Four Stories
To illustrate the philosophy of history as thus outlined, Griffith chose four stories, separate in time and space, but interrelated by the common theme, and projected through cross-cutting in parallel sequence. The four stories of Intolerance are as follows:
- (1) The Judean story, or the life of Jesus of Nazareth; originally entitled, The Nazarene (27 A.D.);
- (2) the Medieval Story, or the war between the Catholics and the Huguenots, in sixteenth century France (1572 A.D.);
- (3) the Fall of Babylon, in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar—an epic of the Ancient World (539 B.C.);
- (4) the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), dramatizing the conflict between Capital and Labour in modern times (c. 1914);
- (5) at the end of the four stories, a prophetic epilogue.
The recurrent transition between the separate stories, which rotate alternately one with the other in cross-cutting and parallel-action, is accomplished in the early reels of the film by the use of a symbolic image of the Woman Who Rocks the Cradle, which appears in connection with the lines of Walt Whitman: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and “… endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter”. In the later sequences, the lighting in this symbolic refrainshot somewhat changes, and the figures of three old women—the Three Fates, seated at their cosmic spinning-wheel, appear sharply visible, as emergences out of Space, in the background.
The Woman continues in the foreground, rocking the Cradle of Humanity, unaware of the Fates behind her. However, toward the climax, as the tempo rises and the inter-scene changes become more abrupt, this shot ceases to appear: the transition from each one of the four parallel stories to the other becomes direct, quick and violent: it is freed of all and any connective or intermediary shots. It is accomplished then without recourse to fades, lap-dissolves, “mix” photography, wipe-offs or any other conscious transitional device—simply by direct cutting from one story to the other, all four stories being now markedly parallel in action and essential content. The Judean story depicts the conflict of Jesus with the Pharisees, the Jewish rabbinate and with Rome. The organized opposition of the rabbinate against the “Man of Men” (subtitle) with his revolutionary “New Law”, is cited as an example of ecclesiastical intolerance, affecting the lives of future millions of people. The Medieval story dramatizes the strife in the sixteenth century between the Catholic hierarchy of France and the rising Protestant movement; it culminates in a bloody climax—the massacre of the Huguenots, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572 A.D. Religious intolerance. Babylon falls in Griffith’s history as the result of an act of treason by the established theological hierarchy under the dictatorship of the High Priest of Bel. The High Priest fears and fights the introduction into Babylon of new religions from without and of new, liberalizing political or social ideas from within. Accordingly, when the State-religion of Babylon is threatened with rivalry; when it no longer can dictate, unchallenged, the pattern of the national culture, then the High Priest and his cohorts among the hierarchy betray Belshazzar’s empire-city to Cyrus, emperor and war-lord of the Persians, world-conqueror. Imperialistic-political, religious, and racial (Cyrus, the Persian vs. Babylon) intolerance.
Finally, the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law), the opening sequences of which are the first to appear in Intolerance, dramatizes the struggle between Capital and Labour (class hatred), in the early years of the twentieth century, in the United States. Economic and social intolerance. Throughout these panels run four separate personal stories. The Babylonian, Medieval and Judean stories, all end tragically: in the first, the Mountain Girl and her lover, the Poet-Rhapsode, agent of the High Priest of Bel, die in the fighting, when Babylon falls at last to the advancing Persian hordes; in the latter, the lovely Huguenot girl, Brown Eyes, is raped and killed by a mercenary, during St. Bartholomew’s massacre. Prosper, with her body in his arms, is shot; he dies by her side. Simultaneously, Christ is crucified on the cross, in the Judean story.
Of the four stories, only the Modern Story, laid in America, has a happy ending: the Boy, falsely convicted of a murder which he did not commit, is saved at the last minute from the hangman’s noose. He is reunited with his wife, the Dear One, amid scenes suggesting, that in the world oftwentieth-century America, there may be at least a possibility or chance that freedom and justice may prevail.
“And so the four stories alternate with one another”, until, at the end, “they seem to flow together in one common flood of humanity”, which rises to a common, vast quadruple climax: the Boy is led to the hangman’s cell; Jesus is crucified; the Huguenots are massacred; Belshazzar is betrayed—Babylon falls; the peoples of the earth throughout the ages are stricken; the world is overrun with catastrophe and doom … In a word, Intolerance triumphs. “… the Inquisition is dead, but its soul goes marching on”. Upon the conclusion of the four stories, there follows an epilogue, in which Griffith prophesies in spectacular imagery a future Armaggedon or war for the world; the bombing of New York City in an unnamed conflict of the future; weird modern instruments of war; the ultimate downfall of all worldly tyrannies; the elimination of prisons and other places of incarceration; the ultimate liberation of all men and all nations from every form of bondage; the advent of universal peace through universal love: and, at the climax of climaxes, an apocalyptic vision. This final imagery follows the subtitle: “And perfect love shall bring peace forevermore”.
An Independent Film
Intolerance, like The Birth of a Nation, was produced and exhibited in entire independence of the Hollywood film industry. Although made in Hollywood, it was not of Hollywood. It bore no relation to the character, level, quality or purpose of the typical output of the American film industry of the period—or, for that matter, of any period. On the contrary; beyond the fact of geographic location, Hollywood had nothing whatever to do with its being made not its being shown. financing came from private sources, all of them unrelated to the American film industry, which had by this time fallen into the hands of commercially minded men of the lowest type. Griffith later poured his own huge profits from The Birth of a Nation into the filming of Babylon. Here again, as with the Civil War-Reconstruction film, so with Intolerance, Griffith formed an independent producing-company—the Wark Producing Corporation; later, he formed the Wark Distributing Corporation to release the film. H.E. Aitken at first was president of both corporations, but when Griffith later bought out his backers and became the sole owner of Intolerance, Aitken resigned. Griffith then became not merely the president of each company, but the company itself. The negative and prints of Intolerance have ever since belonged personally to Griffith.
The production of Intolerance really began in 1914, after The Birth of a Nation was made but before it was released, with the filming of The Mother and the Law. The Mother and the Law was originally made as a separate feature film to be released by Mutual (see Griffith Index: Part I), but for reasons which will be cited elsewhere in the Index, it was temporarily shelved. It was not until after the New York premiere of The Birth of a Nation was held, in March, 1915, that production was resumed on Intolerance. Then it was launched on a tremendous scale.
Freed from every possible control or restraining influence by the Hollywood overlords—cultural, economic, political, psychological or social, Griffith, in June, 191 5, two months after his triumphant return from the New York opening launched production simultaneously on each of the three historic stories — Babylon, Jerusalem and Paris.
Although all Hollywood was astonished, and indeed the film colony for months remained agog with excitement and speculation over the unprecedented sets which began to tower in its midst, nevertheless, the nature of the film that Griffith was making, from the first day of “shooting” to the day the picture was first shown, was successfully kept a secret. As Terry Ramsaye later described it, “About it all was a hush of mystery. No one knew what Griffith was doing, but everyone learned that he was doing a lot of it”. The secret of the success of this secrecy consisted in the fact that there was never a written scenario or shooting script for Intolerance-, there was no “screen treatment”, no paperwork, no writing of any kind, such as might have furnished a clue to the contents or the continuity. When he had first conceived of the idea, Griffith made many notes, but as the time for actual production drew near, he had already mentally changed so much of the contents and treatment, that he began to find the volume of notes confusing, so much so that he destroyed all of them. As a result, Intolerance, the most massive and complex film ever made, was shot from beginning to end without recourse to one single written note. Needless to say, it was Griffith’s method of directing which made possible the perfection of such secrecy : the policy of no-script or of ” shooting off the cuff,” as popular studio vernacular has it, was extended to include the players, too. For although all the scenes were rehearsed, the players knew nothing either of the particular story in which they appeared or of the content and nature of the film as a whole. However, since the majority of screen actors and actresses, then as now, had not the slightest understanding of the film medium, this method offered many advantages, both to Griffith and to the film, and secrecy was merely one, and a typically practical, benefit in kind.
The settings of Griffith’s Intolerance, especially the fabulous sets of the Babylonian story, are celebrated throughout film history. The sets for Babylon, ” Belshazzar’s empire-city,” were erected on a site of 254 acres, near the present junction of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, in Hollywood. The terrain consisted then of a combination of rolling fields and semi-desert or sand wash. Babylonia’s outlying walls were erected one mile distant, north of the main camera-station. The Babylonian sets of Intolerance are probably the greatest ever constructed for a motion picture—the highest, largest, most massive, the vastest in area. In 1916, the topmost towers at the corners of the ancient city formed the seventh tallest structure in the county of Los Angeles, and could be seen, with the great walls, for miles distant across town. Such, indeed, was the extent of Babylon, that Griffith, to film the Judean story, had the buildings, city-walls, and streets of ancient Jerusalem—themselves bigger than any previously known film-sets—built elsewhere, on a site three miles west of the Fine Arts Studios. The cobblestoned alleys and battle-turrets of Paris, 1572 a.d., being similarly crowded out by the Babylonic acreage, were built on the back lot at Inceville, some fifteen miles to the west. The set for Paris accommodated 2,000 “extras,” besides the assistants, camera crews, manual workers, etc. ; the set for Jerusalem accommodated 3,000. But the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Feast—accommodated over 4,000 ” extras,” besides tie army of assistants and workers. ” The new Griffith picture beggars all description,” wrote Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, in the London Times,* upon his return from America. Yet for all its titanic dimensions, the really significant feature of Griffith’s Babylon was the fact that it was unplanned : none of the final architecture or lay-out was foreseen. Bitzer is enlightening on this point: ” Imagine,” he writes, ” laying out what were to be the mammoth, stupendous sets for ‘ Intolerance,’ without sketches, plans or blueprints at the beginning … we (Mr. Griffith, ‘ Huck ‘ Wortmann and myself) would have a pow-wow as to how low the sun might be, its approximate arc-position months hence, etc.—and that was the beginning of a set for ‘ Intolerance,’ to which, as it progressed and became a fifty-foot high structure, a hundred or more feet long, Mr. Griffith kept continually adding.
So that eventually these walls and towers soared to a height of well over a hundred and fifty feet, although at the beginning their foundations were intended only for a fifty-foot height. Huck had to continually reinforce their bases for the ever-increasing height, which perturbed Huck a whole lot, and also shot my light-direction plans all to pieces.” Week after week, long after the initial ” shooting ” had begun, annexes and wings to the rambling structures of metropolitan Babylon were added, until finally, from the desert and fields that lay between Los Angeles proper and its then rural suburb, Hollywood, a veritable and splendid city arose. Barracks and tents housed armies of workmen : these numbered seven hundred-odd carpenters, electricians, linemen, sculptors and skilled workers of various categories. Beyond the workers’ quarters, an encampment of bungalows was later added to house several thousand of ” extras,” who lived ” out of town ” or too far across the city to commute ; the players’ camera-call each day was for 7 a.m. The Pacific Electric Railway System of Southern California laid tracks to the main entrance of Babylon (the ” Great Gate of Imgur-Bel “). The tracks served both the Pacific Electric Railway and the Southern Pacific Railroad (one of the great transcontinental railroads of the United States), both of which lines transported food, materials and such livestock as was featured in the film — elephants and horses.
But the ” massive grandeur ” of Griffith’s Babylon reached its apogee in the ” Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast.” This fantastically enormous set, a masterpiece of filmic architecture, truly ” imaged after the splendour of an olden day,” as a subtide expressed it, consisted of an immense outdoor court or square in the heart of Babylon, centred in terraced steps and lion-headed balustrades, and colonnaded on opposite sides with overtowering, over-life-size sculptured elephants, which were poised, forelegs aloft, on columnar bases fifty feet above the set-floor. The hall was designed to accommodate, without crowding, five thousand persons at a time. The surrounding city-walls were jammed with hundreds of ” extras “—” Babylonian spectators,” who appear in the film, gazing down at the festivities and orgy, which occur more than a hundred feet below.
This is the most celebrated set of film-history, and derives its name from the action which unfolds upon it when first shown on the screen—Belshazzar’s Feast. ” His sets, particularly those for the Babylonian scenes, are breath-taking,” wrote Frank Nugent in the New York Times,™ during the March, 1936, revival of Intolerance, and added : ” . . . completely out-De Milling De Mille even in his most lavish mood.”
The longevity of the Babylonian sets of Intolerance, like their magnitude, is unequalled in the cinema. The principal buildings and walls were constructed of wood, “staff,” and adobe. Solidity was essential, for the walls encircling the city were made ” broad enough for chariots to pass three abreast.” Furthermore, the topmost towers at the city-corners rose to a height of more than 200 feet above the set-floor ; they were erected, ” massive as the pillars of Karnak,” on bases of stone. In consequence of the exceptional durability and quality of these building materials, the Babylonian sets remained standing long after Intolerance was released. The sets of Jerusalem were demolished ; so, too, was the city of Paris, two years later, including the magnificent and richly detailed reproduction of the court of Catherine de Medici ; but most of Babylon—specifically, the great Hall of Belshazzar’s Feast, the encircling city walls and the gigantic statue of Ishtar, ” goddess of Love sacred of the Babylonians ” (subtitle)—was left standing. Years afterwards, the Pacific Electric Railway and the Los Angeles City bus lines scheduled the Babylonian sets as a sightseeing spot for tourists. Then, in 1920, certain parts of Babylon were at last removed. However, the greater part still was left standing, and in 1923 Paramount leased the south and east walls and their adjacent sections for reconversion into Egyptian backgrounds for use in Biblical films. ” Fan ” magazines and trade journals referred in later years to the reconversion of Griffith’s Babylon into Biblical or Egyptian sets for the Biblical prologue to Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments, and again for Raoul Walsh’s The Wanderer, a Biblical film (Paramount : 1925), but these passing assertions of reference or reminiscence have never been verified.
Gigantic fragments of Griffith’s Babylon still were standing as late as 1930 or ’31. Today, although the last of the city-walls has been torn down to make way for apartment houses and a post-office, there may yet be found on the back lots of Monogram and the old Disney studios, which now occupy the site of Location No. 4—” Northeastern Babylon,” the surviving remnants of those elephantine and leonine backgrounds or ” props,” with which Griffith and his artisans of old re-created ” Babylon, that great and mighty city . . . (the) glittering jewel of antiquity”. (Subtitle).
Architecture is not the only feature in which Intolerance is rated as the screen’s supreme spectacle. In regard to mass-scenes, this film, except for newsreels, stands unequalled in the cinema. Its nearest rivals are The Birth of a Nation, Ten Days that Shook the World, Potemkin, The Thief of Bagdad and Monna Vanna, but none of these really touches it. As has already been mentioned, the main Babylonian set—Belshazzar’s Hall of Feasting—embraced and featured 4,000 players at a time in one single shot. However, this was by no means the total number of ” extras ” that appeared in the Babylonian story, least of all in the film as a whole.
Eight thousand other ” extras ” were employed to represent Cyrus’s armies, while in the famous mass-shot of the Persians’ final and successful advance on Babylon (end of the Babylonian story : reel 12)—the climatic shot of a vast, undifferentiated mass, a horde solid and unbroken as far as the eye can see—16,000 ” extras ” appear at one time on the screen. This is commonly conceded to be the largest mob-scene and the greatest single mass-shot ever staged for any film. Uncounted thousands of ” extras ” were employed for the night battlescenes. The moving siege-towers of the Persians each held from fifty to one hundred combat-troops and sling-throwers ; and the attacking troops hurled against the Great Gate of Imgur-Bel and the adjacent walls numbered 5,000. On the walls themselves, thousands of others are shown, as they meet the oncoming human and mechanical tide of Persia’s might, and throw it back. Besides these, 3,500 ” extras ” appear in the Judean story ; 2,500 in the Medieval Story, and 1,000 ” extras ” in the combined courtroom and strike scenes of the Modern Story (The Mother and the Law). The total number of ” extra ” players that appeared in Intolerance at varying times in its almost two years of production has been set both by Griffith and Bitzer as about 60,000. Ofthese, the largest number to appear at one time in a single image on the screen is the 16,000 ” Persians ” in the mass-shot above described.
The total cost of the production of Intolerance, including that of the earlier production of The Mother and the Law, was $1,750,000. An additional $250,000 was spent on exploitation and publicity, making the total cost of the film $2,000,000.
Intolerance was not merely the most expensive film made up to 1916, but it remained for thirteen years (until HelVs Angels) the high watermark in production outlay for a motion picture. Ramsaye relates that ” Griffith’s payrolls for actors and extras ‘ in Intolerance for long periods ran as high as $12,000 a day.” But Griffith himself recounts that, in the Babylonian mass-scenes, the daily payroll often exceeded $20,000.
” Extras ” were paid $2 a day for eight hours, plus a 6c-cent free lunch. This remuneration was higher than that obtaining in the Hollywood film industry—indeed, it forced the regular film producing companies to raise the daily wage-rate for ” extras,” and it was regarded by the ” extras ” themselves in that vanished era of low living costs and non-union labour as fair compensation.
Some $550,000 were spent on Belshazzar’s Feast and on related scenes of the Babylonian story. Of this sum, $250,000 went into the set alone. The Princess Beloved’s feast costume cost $8,oco. The elegant reproduction of the court of Charles IX cost $100,000, while the rest of the Medieval Story cost an additional $150,000. The Judean story cost upwards of $300,000.
The rest of the costs of Intolerance went into The Mother and the Law (cost unknown, but probably about $12,000 or about the same as that of Judith of Bethulia) ; and into the architecture and mass-scenes of Babylon—the reproduction of the city, the Persian camp, the Persian attacks, the pagan festivals in the Temple of Love, the orgiastic celebration of the resurrection of Tammuz, and other material separate and apart from the battle-scenes proper Belshazzar’s Feast. It is hardly to be wondered that for almost two years the production of Griffith’s vast, mysterious film was referred to in the local papers as ” one of Los Angeles’ leading industries “! Griffith relates that in 1936, twenty years after its original release, Intolerance was budgeted by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in an effort to estimate its cost if made under current conditions. The estimate revealed that if the same film were made in that year by that studio, shot-by-shot as it had been made in 1915-1916, but with union labour, ” stars’ ” corresponding salaries, and with the sole addition of sound, the production cost would be either $10,000,000 or $12,000,000. On a relative scale, therefore, Intolerance remains the most expensive film produced in the history of the screen.
Lighting and Exteriors
One of the chief production features of Intolerance was the shooting of all exteriors out-of-doors by sunlight. There were no interior sets ” dressed-up ” as exteriors. The Babylonian exteriors, in particular, were taken without recourse to artificial lighting whatever ; and although there was little, if any, of the so-called ” Rembrandt fighting ” effect, certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, were made without recourse even to sun reflectors. The sun itself was the principal lighting for Intolerance.
Two months were required to edit 300,000 feet of film, which then were finally composed into a finished film of thirteen and three-quarter reels. In old-time, silent film running-time, this ran to three and a half hours. It was possible for Griffith to perform this editorial feat in only two months, because the production method which he used consisted more or less in editing the picture as he went along while shooting. This method has been known ever since to the film industry as ” cutting in the camera.”
On Film Technique
Not all of the directorial or production methods used by Griffith in making Intolerance were new; some few already had been tried quite successfully in filming The Birth of a Nation. But some were new, and those which were not were used far more extensively and more maturely than they had been in the previous film. The outstanding methods and policies of production and direction were as follows:
No script.—As has already been mentioned, the policy of filming the entire picture from beginning to end without a scenario, shooting script or paperwork of any kind, was the key to Griffith’s working method—indeed, more than this, it was basic and essential to his whole approach to the motion picture as a directorial rather than a literary medium: an art of, by and for directors, over and above, and separate and apart from, writers or playwrights. Griffith is in this vital respect far more closely related to the documentary picture makers of the present than he ever has been to stock-in-trade craftsmen or “professionals” who make “moving-pictures” (sic) in the major commercial film studios. Griffith never used a script on any of his films, and in the light of the overwhelming complexity and the dimensions of Intolerance, both as regards scenario and physical magnitude, his no-script policy here attains the zenith of perfection and realization.
Rehearsals.—In accord with the no-script policy, the method of rehearsing players before each scene was taken was used throughout. Usually, the scene was rehearsed as a whole before it was shot; then, the individual and separate scene-shots—medium shots, two-shots, close ups, etc., came to the players as repetitions, thus ensuring perfection of acting-detail or so-called finesse.
Organization and direction of crowds.—All persons from the days of The Birth of a Nation on who have ever witnessed Griffith direct crowds, have noted that Griffith organized and directed his mob-scenes like a veritable field-marshal. Griffith organized the mobs into sections or squads, to each of which he assigned an assistant director. To the latter, in turn, he assigned a corps of sub-assistants. All the assistants were in costume; they participated in the action as players, and simultaneously directed the surrounding groups of “extras”, to whom they had been assigned. At the beginning of each new major scene or bloc of “takes” Griffith conferred with the first-assistants, explained his directions and then despatched them into the field to relay the orders to the corps of sub-assistants. This method was augmented in the larger scenes by the use of improvised loud speakers or megaphones, which operated as sort of a primitive radio field-telephone or broadcasting system. Griffith’s method of the organization and distribution of mobs, with its distribution of assistant directors, field-telephones, loud speakers and auxiliary aids to mass-organisation, is the most efficient and extensive system of its kind used in any film production of which we have record. It served as a model to other directors in filming mass-scenes of magnitude in later films.
Sun-shooting.—As has already been mentioned, one of the chief creative policies in filming Intolerance was to shoot all exteriors outdoors by sunlight. There were no studio “fakes” or interior sets “dressed-up” as exteriors. In particular, the Babylonian exteriors were virtually all taken without recourse to any artificial lighting whatever; and in certain scenes, especially those featuring vast crowds and mass-movement, even the use of sun-reflectors was limited and, in a few instances, dispensed with. The sun was the principal source of lighting throughout the picture. Even the beam falling on the cradle, in the metaphorical transition-image of the Cradle, was the sun!—from a hole in the roof of a darkened set (Bitzer) ! It was this omnipresent and unrestricted use of the sun as the principal source of lighting for Intolerance that inspired Griffith to give the film its thematic sub-title, “A Sun Play of the Ages”.
Balloons.—To film the Feast of Belshazzar in its entirety from a central point directly above, Griffith took his camera and crew up in an observation balloon, which sky-moored over the vast set. Photoplay, October, 1916, reproduces a production-still of Griffith in the basket of the balloon, bawling orders through a great megaphone to the mobs in the court below. Balloons had no doubt been used previously in filming news-reels, but this is the first time of which we have record that a balloon was used as a camera-station in fiJming a regular (feature) film, or special production.
Dorothy Gish, Actress, Is Dead
In Theater and Films 50 Years
Starred With Sister, Lillian, in Griffith Silent Classics — Many Broadway Roles
The New York Times – June 6, 1968
RAPALLO. Italy, June 5 (AP)
-Dorothy Gish, one of the two sisters. who entertained motion picture audiences and theatergoers for more than a half-century, died here last night. She was 70 years old. Her sister, Lillian, who has been making a movie in Rome, was at her bedside. Dorothy had been in a clinic here for nearly two years. She died of bronchial pneumonia. The United States consulate in Genoa said that Miss Gish’s body would be cremated and that the ashes would be returned to the United States.
Extra in Films in 1912
Although Dorothy and Lillian often worked together and had careers that were in many ways parallel, they were not a team. In the highly competitive world of acting, they remained a harmonious pair of sisters who admired each other.
The Gish sisters reached the peak of popularity during the silent screen days, but Dorothy was only 4 and Lillian 6 when they went on stage professionally.
They started in movies in 1912 under the wing of D.W. Griffith, the grandmaster of silent-screen films. They got their job through Mary Pickford, a friend whom they only knew by her real name, Gladys Smith, when they sought her out at Griffith’s Biograph Company at 11 East 14th Street in New York. They had seen Gladys in a movie and thought they would like to try the new medium.
Griffith started them as extras. In order to ten them apart at first, he had Lillian wear a blue ribbon and Dorothy, then 14, a red one. He was so impressed with their talents that he took them to California, for his customary West Coast fall season at $50 a week, a sound wage for those silent days.
‘Familiar With Tempo’
“Mr. Griffith spent months in rehearsing his players and plots before a camera turned,” Dorothy recalled years later.
“By the time a photoplay went into actual production, an actor was thoroughly familiar with his own part as well as the tempo, approach and reactions of other members of the cast.
“Most of Mr. Griffith’s films were shot without scripts and were improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte,” she continued. “Individual scenes were staged and re-staged until a maximum effect was realized and footage was closely checked with a stop watch. This saved large sums in raw film and time and kept production cost from soaring.”
During her years in films, Miss Gish appeared in “An Unseen Enemy,” “Hearts of the World,” “ The Orphans of the Storm,” “Tip-Toes,” ”London,” “Nell Gwynn,” “Romola,” and “Madame Pompadour.” Of all her screen roles, Miss Gish preferred playing the Little Disturber in “Hearts of the World,” which Griffith made in England and France during World War I.
In 1918, she worked for a while in New York with Paramount Pictures, making “Battling Jane,” “I’ll Get Him Yet” and “Remodeling Her Husband.” The last had Richard Barthelmess (***Not James Rennie?) as her leading man and her sister as director.
After 1928 and the advent of talkies, she made only three films, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” (1944) “Centennial Summer” (1946) and “The Whistle at Eaton Falls” (1951).
As much as she was gratified by her film career, Miss Gish’s first love, as with many performers was the stage. Her string of credits through 1956, was long and respectable.
They included Fay Hilary in “Young Love,” (1928); Maria in “The Inspector General” (1930), Emily Dickinson in “Brittle Heaven” (1934), Fanny in “Autumn Crocus” (1932), Fanny Dixwell Holmes in “The Magnificent Yankee” (1946), and Mrs. Gillis in “The Man” (1950), her last Broadway role.
She succeeded Dorothy Stickney for almost a year in the starring role of Vinnie, the patient mother, in the Broadway hit “Life With Father.” In 1956,she starred in “The Chalk Garden,” at The Spa in Saratoga N.Y.
Dorothy Gish was born March 11, 1898. She once told how she came to her stage career:
“Mother came up from Massillon, Ohio, where we were born, partly to look for our father, who had left us, and partly to try to earn a living for all three of us. We were practically destitute. She rented one of the old-fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers.’
One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress, and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of ‘East Lynne,’ provided she could find a small child … to play the part of Little Willie.”
Mrs. Gish found someone – Dorothy. Four years later, in 1906, she made her debut at the Lincoln Square Theater with Fiske O’Hara in “Dion O’ Dare.”
She played juvenile parts until 1912 when she and Lillian went into the movies.
Miss Gish was once described, much later in life, by a writer who called her ”a deep-voiced woman … with an unabated zest for life, a faintly ribald sense of humor and an uncompromising faculty for self-appraisal.”
In 1951, when she was making “The Whistle at Eaton Falls,” she said that she particularly enjoyed making the film because it “reminded me so much of the way we made pictures in the old days of Mr. Griffith.” She explained further: “To me, there’s too much spit’n’ polish about today’s film technique. When Lillian and I were in silent films, we did every thing for ourselves – mother made our costumes, we did our own hair, put on our own make-up.
“Nowadays, you have a couple of people getting you into costume, another couple fussing around on your hair, others with your face. You feel, somehow, like Marie Antoinette-even with the best will in the world, rather aloof and removed.”
Miss Gish loved to travel and she stipulated that her career should not interfere with her wanderings. She lived for months in England, Italy, Yugoslavia and Africa. She also had a home at Wilson Point, near Newport, Conn.
In 1920, she and James Rennie, a New York actor, eloped to Greenwich, Conn. The marriage ended in divorce 15 years later.
*** Admin. Note: Dorothy Gish had James Rennie as her leading man in “Remodeling Her Husband,” not Richard Barthelmess.
Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars
By Louise Brooks
Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England
Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing – ” Women in Films”– which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.
Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost star‘ of the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.
THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”
But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.
From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.
1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.
She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.
The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!
At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.
From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.
Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.
Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?
Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”
With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”
In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”
In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.
Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.
With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.