Broken Blossoms – Iris Barry (1965)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

BROKEN BLOSSOMS

Griffith had been absent from Hollywood almost two years when he returned after launching hearts of the world. His next important film was to be very different. From the large canvas he turned to an intimate photoplay based on The Chink and the Child,” a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights. Like most of Griffith’s films and all of his best ones, it carried a message. The earlier picture had been his contribution to war, but this fairy tale of nonresistance in opposition to violence spoke of international tolerance. The part of the London waif might have been made to measure for Lillian Gish and the choice of Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese boy was fortunate. Work went unusually smoothly and, after the customary period of rehearsal, the film was completed in eighteen days. When Broken Blossoms appeared everyone was overwhelmed, and not only by the discretion and force with which a difficult subject had been handled. Reviewers found it surprising in its simplicity,” and hastened to explain that the photography was misty on purpose, not by accident. The acting seemed a nine days’ wonder— no one talked of anything but Lillian’s smile, Lillian turning like a tortured animal in a trap, of Barthelmess’ convincing restraint. Few pictures have enjoyed greater or more lasting succes d’estime.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

By 1919 the motion picture was learning fast how to deal freely with ideas and feelings as well as with deeds, and here BROKEN BLOSSOMS, despite its rather theatrical form, played an important part by its scaling down of dramatic action and its intensification of intimate emotion. Possibly Griffith had been influenced by the somber Danish films of the period with their emphasis on atmosphere and on moral and psychological reactions, just as formerly it had been he and Ince who taught the Scandinavians to use an isolated face or gesture as a unit of expression rather than (as on the stage) the actor. In the development of the American film, Broken Blossoms marked a distinct stage. Definitely a studio picture, it emphasized a new style of lighting and photography which, though it has been abused, was valuable. In its contrasting periods of calm and of violence it borrowed something from intolerance, just as the grim finale recalls the death of Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation; but there is a sureness and perhaps a sophistication here which had not formerly been evident. Out of broken blossoms much was to come. It cannot have been without its influence in Germany; we know that it profoundly affected Louis Delluc and his disciples in France; and, but for it, we might never have had Charles Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris.

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

D. W. Griffith Repertory Season opened in May 1919 at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York with Broken Blossoms, followed later by The Fall of Babylon (from intolerance), “a new peace edition” of Hearts of the World, and the mother and the law (also from Intolerance). During that summer Griffith moved his company from Hollywood to Mamaroneck, New York, where the old Flagler estate at Orienta Point was converted into a studio. Costs had risen sharply and, if Griffith was particularly responsible for this, he was the first to suffer from it. The complex financial operations that had become part of film production were absorbing more and more of his time. He apparently felt the need to be constantly in or near New York, which was then as now the financial center and shop window of the industry.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in “Broken Blossoms”

Griffith, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charles Chaplin, had founded a new joint distributing company, United Artists, The Love Flower was the second of his pictures for them, Broken Blossoms being the first; but in the meantime Scarlet Days (1919), The Greatest Question and The Idol Dancer (all of relatively minor importance) had also appeared through other distributors.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Way Down East – Iris Barry (1965)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York

WAY DOWN EAST proved to be one of the most profitable pictures ever made. The master had once more turned the trick. The public was drawn to see an old favorite in a new guise and found its familiar melodramatic qualities heightened beyond expectation. While sticking faithfully to the bones of the play, Griffith had very rightly adapted it to suit the newer medium—notably at the beginning, by adding material to establish the background of the characters, and at the end to give full rein to the last-minute rescue, developed in purely visual terms and heightened through artful photography and cutting. It was a device which had seldom failed Griffith in the past and stood him in good stead now.

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

The lapse of time has made it difficult to estimate the qualities of Way Down East accurately. Much in it that was fresh and inventive at the time the film was made has since been absorbed into the general repertory of film technique and therefore seems banal. Other devices now outmoded or disused are obtrusive and irritating—the time-lapse fades within single scenes, the low comedy relief, the shots of blossoms and domestic animals interjected for sentiment’s sake. The extremely improbable plot creaks loudly, and the musical score, added when the film was re-released in the early days of sound synchronization, seems almost as dated as the Victorian morality. Yet if most of the characterizations are two-dimensional, they are handled with vigor and skill and the study of Anna is entire and convincing. Miss Gish conveys the moods and feelings of the sorely tried heroine more skillfully and with more restraint than she had done in BROKEN BLOSSOMS. Her performance is remarkable for its range, apparent spontaneity and sincerity; it could be contrasted with many contemporary performances to her advantage. Scenes such as the baptism of the dying baby and those in which Anna hears Sanderson confess the mock marriage and David Bartlett declares his love are almost as effective today as they were twenty years ago. The flight through the storm, the ice scenes, and the split-second rescue remain triumphs of direction, camera placement and editing, in which Griffith again attains though hardly surpasses the vitality of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

The period between intolerance and way down east marks the apex of Griffith’s success. A figure of international importance, he had played a signal part in founding a huge industry—he had already created a new art form—in which the United States became and remained supreme. Except for Frank Lloyd Wright, no such eminent American as he had arisen in the arts since Whitman. He was to continue active for another decade, though the most fruitful years were past. Already men trained under him were stepping into the limelight, at the same time that newcomers drawn from many walks of life and from Europe as well as from this country were likewise contributing new ideas, new techniques. Erich von Stroheim, who had been one of Griffith’s assistants as well as one of his leading actors, made two films, blind HUSBANDS (1919) and foolish wives (1921), which attracted wide attention and set a new style. His directorial career—culminating in the superb and somber greed (1924) —afterwards suffered a great eclipse rendered only the more startling by his re-emergence as an actor in the French film LA GRANDE ILLUSION in 1937. Frank Powell has already been referred to. Mack Sennett, even earlier, had graduated from acting and providing plots for Griffith to the glorious creation of Keystone comedies. Lowell Sherman, villain of WAY DOWN EAST, was to direct—among other films—Mae West’s SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Donald Crisp, after BROKEN BLOSSOMS, also became a director of distinction— Buster Keaton’s the navigator (1924) and Douglas Fairbanks’ DON Q (1925) are perhaps his best-remembered pictures—and today he is again a leading character-actor. It would fill many pages to enumerate the notable actors and actresses who gained their first experience under Griffith and first faced the camera with Bitzer turning. All these fed the industry with new talent. But times and taste alike were changing. From now on Griffith’s films were often criticized even by the trade press as “melodramatic.” In 1924 James Quirk *** boldly admonished Griffith in an editorial in Photoplay: “You have made yourself an anchorite at Mamaroneck . . . your pictures shape themselves towards a certain brutality because of this austerity . . . your refusal to face the world is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal . . . your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you—and to pictures.”

*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A Short History of the Movies (INTOLERANCE) – Gerald Mast 1971

  •     A short history of the movies
  •     Gerald Mast, Formerly of the University of Chicago
  •     © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  •     FIFTH EDITION REVISED BY Bruce F. Kawin
  •     University of Colorado at Boulder
  •     1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  •     Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

Intolerance was not one story, but four. In Belshazzar’s Babylon (sixth century b.c.), the evil high priest conspires against the wise and just ruler, betraying the city to the Persian conqueror, Cyrus; by the end of this story, every “good” character is dead. In Judea, the close- minded Pharisees intrigue against Jesus; ulti¬ mately, the gentle savior is sent to the cross. In Reformation France (sixteenth century a.d.), ambitious courtiers persuade the Catholic king to slaughter all the Protestant Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, a massacre that includes the rape and murder of a young Protestant and the killing of her fiance. In twentieth-century America (the “Modern Story,” which used to be The Mother and the Law), strikers are gunned down, a Boy is falsely convicted of murder, and his wife loses her baby thanks to the meddling of a group of reformers; the facts eventually surface to save the Boy from the gallows.

Intolerance

Instead of telling one story after the other, as in Home, Sweet Home, Griffith tells these stories all at once, interweaving them—and 2,500 years of history—into an intellectual and emotional argument, a demonstration that love, diversity, and the little guy have always had to struggle against the overwhelming forces of hypocrisy, intolerance, and oppression. Because the colliding, streaming, juxtaposed fragments of these stories implied an idea that went beyond the “moral” of each individual story, making the whole greater than and different from the sum of its parts, Intolerance is recognized as the cinema’s first great Modernist experiment in what Sergei Eisenstein would later call intellectual (or dialectical) montage. Indeed, Griffith’s editing influenced the Soviets as much as his psychological lighting and control of mise-en-scene influenced the Germans; if The Birth of a Nation set the course for the American cinema, Intolerance did so for the Soviet cinema and Broken Blossoms for the German. The next American film to be organized this complexly would be Citizen Kane (1941); the next to be structured as a dialectical montage would be The Godfather Part II (1974).

Intolerance

The four stories are tied together by their consistent theme: the machinations of the selfish, the frustrated, and the inferior; the divisiveness of religious and political beliefs; the constant triumph of injustice over justice; the pervasiveness of violence and viciousness through the centuries. Also tying the stories together is Griffith’s brilliant control of editing, which keeps all the parallels in the stories quite clear, and which creates an even more spectacular climax than that of The Birth of a Nation.

In Intolerance, there are four frenzied climaxes; the excitement in each of the narrative lines reinforces the others, all of them driving furiously to their breathtaking conclusions. Griffith’s last-minute rescues cross-cut through the centuries.

And finally, tying the four stories together, much as Pippa did, is a symbolic mother-woman, rocking a cradle, bathed in a shaft of light, representing the eternal evolution of humanity through time and fate (the three Fates sit behind her), fulfilling the purpose of the creator. This woman, inspired by Whitman’s lines, “Endlessly rocks the cradle, Uniter of Here and Hereafter,” is a figure of peace, of light, of fertility (flowers bloom in her cradle at the end of the film), of ultimate goodness that will eventually triumph. She is played by Lillian Gish, who assisted Griffith in the editing of Intolerance.

Intolerance

The film’s bigness is obvious: the high walls of Babylon, the hugeness of the palace (and the immense tracking shot that Griffith uses to span it), the battle sequences, the care with each of the film’s periods and styles. The costumes, the lighting, the acting styles, the decor, and even the intertitles are so distinct in each of the four epochs that viewers know exactly whether they are in the squalid, drab poverty of a contemporary slum, the elegant tastefulness of the French court, or the garishness of ancient Babylon. But as with The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a big film that works because of its little, intimate moments. The film revolves around the faces of women—from the bubbling, jaunty, comically vital face of the Mountain Girl in the Babylonian Story to the luminous, tear-stained, soulful faces of Brown Eyes in the French Story and the little Dear One in the Modern Story. Intolerance makes it perfectly clear that social chaos takes its toll on the women, who are the helpless sufferers of its violence. Significantly, Griffith’s mother-symbol of historical continuity is also necessarily a woman. Along with the close-ups of faces, the film is equally attentive to close-ups of hands, particularly in the Modern Story: the Dear One’s wrenched hands as the callous court pronounces judgment on her husband; her hand grasping her imprisoned husband’s cap, a tender memory of his warm presence; her hand clutching one of her baby’s booties after the social uplifters have carried the infant away.

Love in the film – Mae Marsh (Intolerance – Modern Story)

The film is also rich in the same kind of metaphoric detail found in The Birth of a Nation. The Dear One shows her humanity and tenderness as she lovingly throws grain to her chickens; when she moves to the oppressive city she keeps a single flower in her flat, a metaphor for all that is beautiful and natural and alive. (Flowers become the same kind of symbol of love and beauty in Broken Blossoms.) Yet another touching detail is the little cart pulled by two white doves in the Babylon sequence—a metaphor for the tender, fragile love between Belshazzar and his queen and for the peaceful ways of their court. After the two and the Mountain Girl have been slain, Griffith hauntingly irises out to a shot of the tiny cart and doves, a touching evocation of a beauty that was but is no longer.

Intolerance

Griffith’s technique is as effective at conveying hatred as it is at evoking tenderness. A deeply felt film, Intolerance makes it clear what Griffith detests: those who meddle and destroy, those who take advantage of the poor, schemers, hypocrites, and monsters of lust and power. One of Griffith’s devices of caricature is the cross-cut—particularly effective in the sequence in which he captures the cold inhumanity of the factory owner. Griffith cuts from the shots of the workers being mowed down by military or hired gunfire (violent, quick cutting, frenetic) to a shot of the owner of the factory sitting alone in his vast office (a long shot, perfectly still, that emphasizes the size of the office and the moral smallness of the big business man). The contrast clearly defines the man’s unsympathetic inhumanity to his slaughtered workers. Nine years later Eisenstein would build a whole film, Strike, out of such cross-cuts.

Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl – Intolerance)

Although Griffith’s dislikes are clear, the intellectual cement uniting the four stories (and the rocking cradle) is a bit muddy. The film could as easily have been called “Injustice” or “Intrigue” as Intolerance. Griffith was interested in the word “intolerance” because he felt himself the victim of it. But in none of the four stories does intolerance seem so much the cause of evil as blind human selfishness, nastiness, and ambition (exactly as in The Birth of a Nation). And when the film ends with its almost obligatory optimistic vision—more superimposed angels in the heavens; the fields of the prison dissolve into fields of flowers; flowers bloom in the cradle—we once again witness an interpolated wish rather than a consequence of the film’s action. Though there may be hope in the Boy’s last-minute reprieve, it hardly seems enough to balance a whole film of poverty, destruction, suffering, and injustice.

Intolerance – Babylon

The audience of 1916 found the film confusing and unpleasant. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance aroused no social protest; worse, it aroused little audience interest of any kind. Perhaps the film was unpopular because it asked too much from its audience. Or perhaps the film was a victim of historical accident, its obviously pacifistic statement being totally antipathetic to a nation preparing itself emotionally to send its soldiers “Over There.” Thomas Ince’s pacifist bombast, Civilization, had made money only six months earlier. Whatever the reason, Intolerance was a financial disaster, costing Griffith all his profits from The Birth of a Nation. The failure of Intolerance began Griffith’s financial dependence on other producers and businessmen, from which he would never recover.

Intolerance – making of, crew and sets

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Filming Broken Blossoms – Billy Bitzer (His Story) 1973

The tests had all been made for my experimental method of photography for Broken Blossoms. This was to be an inexpensive project. The sets were simple and there would be few actors, so the actual shooting time would be fast. In fact, we made the entire picture in eighteen days.

For the first day’s shooting, I had placed the lights for the actual taking, but we hadn’t gone ahead because so much time had been spent on rehearsing. Lillian Gish was exhausted when the time came for the usual shooting, and Griffith decided to make the shots early next morning after Lillian had rested.

My assistant, Karl Brown, was waiting for me at my gate next day. “Gee, everyone’s waiting for you on the set. Mr. Griffith is there, too, and he won’t go ahead without you,” Karl Brown said. We got there and I rushed in, shedding my coat. The camera, film, and everything were in position, Karl had seen to that; all I had to do was focus. I didn’t even take time out to say good morning, but looked hurriedly through the ground glass at Lillian, seated in position, dressed in the finery Cheng Huan (Dick Barthelmess) had decked her out in. I could see just a beautiful face, I hadn’t noticed the hair or anything else about her, except her eyes, and on them I focused, making sure only one light reflected in the pupil of her eyes. I closed the camera.

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

“Lights!” I called to the gaffer. “All ready, Mr. Griffith.”

“Camera! ” he gave the command for action.

I had ground out but a few feet when Karl, who looked at the lens marks, said nervously, “You forgot to stop your lens!

“Shut up!” I cautioned. “We’ll take it over again anyway.”

“But, Mr. Bitzer,” Karl insisted, pulling at my sleeve. “You started before all the lights were on. All those top lights you figured out so carefully yesterday were not lit, and some others.”

Then I saw I would have to pay more attention or someone, like Sartov, would make me look bad: Anyway, the scene stayed in as it was, and Mr. Griffith did not take it over. He just said at the finish, “Come on, let’s move along.”

Now the lens I was using was a 3-inch Dallmeyr F.I.9 with a large aperture. It was a lens I never would have used wide open, because of its depth and general fuzziness and uncertainty. This was the fast lens, however, and with the low-key lighting from directions I would not use ordinarily, and my focus on the eyes as I saw them—all this combined with that element of luck made the first beautiful soft-focus head on the screen.

As we developed tests of every scene taken, favorable reports came back. We had a beautiful new atmospheric effect never before seen on film, something that would lend itself to the dull gold sheen I had desired. Throughout the rest of Broken Blossoms, I went right on duplicating the lighting and photography.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Lillian’s acting was quiet and unemotional. She was an excellent pantomimist, who used her body to express emotion. In Blossoms she made her sad, fearful smile by using her fingers to turn up the corners of her mouth when commanded by the sadistic Battling Burrows, her father (Donald Crisp), to smile. For her “trapped animal” scene, when she is cornered in the closet, terrified that Battling Burrows will kill her, Griffith closed off the set so just we three, Griffith, Lillian, and the camera, were present. “Load the camera with plenty of film, Billy,” Griffith said. “I’m going to shoot this scene without stopping, even if it takes all day to do it.” Then turning to Lillian, he said, “Are you ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Griffith” was her obedient reply, as she walked into the three-frame closet set.

In a frenzy, Lillian’s eyes fair popped out of her head. I began to grind the film, for I could sense that this was it. She began to shake, and the muscles of her face quivered in abject fright. I almost wept at seeing her suffering, while Griffith leaned forward in his director’s chair, relishing every moment of it.

I kept cranking the film through the camera until the entire thousand feet were finished and there was no more film. As Lillian came from the closet, Griffith rushed to her and caught her before she slipped into a faint. “Get her maid, Billy, and that will be all for today.”

Then to Lillian he spoke words of comfort: “You were just great, Lucy, you were great.” The greatest compliment was calling her Lucy, the character’s name. I left them alone as I went for her maid.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Griffith thought only in terms of picture-making. His instincts and knowledge worked together. His eyes saw everything, noted everything, with the skill of an artist. He seemed to feel no emotion, no pain, no pity. To be other than dispassionate in this artificial setting would have ruined the performance. All that interested the professional in him was that the performance should have shock value and still seem natural.

The finished picture was a tribute to his dedicated skill, and many writers consider it his best. Broken Blossoms was a departure from the tried-and-true formulas. As such it was shocking and needed the soft tones of gold on the prints and the soft focus Sartov created. When shown at the George M. Cohan theater in New York, it was surrounded on the stage frame by Chinese-blue lantern light, giving it soft Oriental tones. While containing none of the spectacular qualities of The Birth, it gave us an insight into Lillian’s dramatic artistry not seen before and established her as & great dramatic discovery.

When it opened in May 1919, Broken Blossoms received rave notices. It made more money in proportion to cost than any picture Griffith ever made, except The Birth of a Nation.

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911
Billy Bitzer, His Story – cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Romola – Wid’s Weekly 1924

Wid’s Weekly – The Film Authority – Published in Hollywood

Thursday, December 25, 1924

This is Beautiful But Blaa as Drama. Watch Your Step

LILLIAN AND DOROTHY GISH in Romola

Inspiration—Metro-Goldwyn Length 14 Reels

Lillian Gish and William Powell – Romola (Wedding Scene) detail
  • DIRECTOR.Henry King
  • AUTHOR.George Eliot’s story, adapted by Will Ritchey.
  • CAMERAMEN.Roy Overbaugh, William Schurr and Ferdinand Risi.
  • GET ’EM IN.I can’t see this for big box office values, except where you make rash promises, which I would advise you not to do.
  • PLEASE ’EM.The atmospheric background is beautiful, but this misses entirely as entertainment. There are a few good moments, but on the whole it doesn’t stir you.
  • WHOOZINIT.Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Ronald Colman, and a lot of Italian players.
  • STORY VALUES…. There were good situations here, but they tried to tell too much story, and as told, none of it carried a wallop.
  • TREATMENT.I believe the evident struggle of photographing abroad, under baffling conditions, hampered the director and players in getting across what they were striving to register.
  • CHARACTERIZATIONS.William Powell dominated. Lillian Gish, as the sweet, sad-faced child, and Dorothy Gish, as the slapstick roughneck, did their well-known stuff, but instead of impressing as characterisations, it was rather an effect of the Gish girls running around in a lot of foreign atmosphere.
  • ARTISTIC VALUES.Certainly this is impressive as an artistic achievement, figured from the composition and photographic viewpoint.

When they have to tell you how to pronounce a title, I believe that the title is a flop. Before I saw this film I was ready to say that it was going to be a tough job to get the customers past the box office, because of the exploitation angles available. I knew that if the picture was big enough it could pull, in spite of these handicaps. Unfortunately, the picture is not big enough.

Henry King is a darn good director, but Henry here was undoubtedly licked before he started by conditions necessary to be faced in eleven months of knocking around Italy, grinding atmosphere.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

I never read this book. I am willing to display my ignorance. I am willing to go on record with the statement that about 90 per cent of the prospective ticket purchasers will not only never have read this book, but will not be impressed with the fact that it was written by George Eliot. At least I knew about George, and when I discovered that it was her book, then I was interested.

There were some excellent situations in this yarn. Unfortunately, as visualized, these situations do not register. I attribute that principally to conditions under which the film was shot, and afterwards, conditions under which it was edited, since friction existed, during that period, between the director and the company for whom it was made. I still feel that possibly some of the failure to make this story register was due to the fact that they did not build a continuity which would high spot certain big moments and bridge over the routine mechanics.

Romola – Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish

This thing, as it is, just drifts and drifts and drifts. It runs too much in the same tempo. Too much attention is paid to the doings of people who really mean nothing to the audience. Savonarola and his career might be of interest if this had been figured as a study of Italian history, but where we were supposed to be following the adventures of a quartette of young people, the priest’s trials and tribulations failed to get a rise, although they took up an awful lot of footage.

There was a great situation where the young willun’s foster-father loomed up at-the banquet, but they let it flop. As Frank Tinney always said, they put it over but it laid there.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

I have liked the work of Lillian Gish, and I have liked the work of Dorothy Gish in many things. I couldn’t become the least enthused about either of them in this. A lotta Dorothy’s stuff was too broad, and too evidently a request for a laugh, to fit in smoothly. Lillian seemed to be taking herself too seriously. Throughout the picture I got the reaction that you were expected to consider that Lillian was giving a great characterization, just because she was Lillian Gish. Each of the girls pulled, upon occasion, their whirl gig run and dash stuff, which has caused some people to dub them the “Windmill Sisters.”

Lillian Gish – Romola

They opened this up with a sequence showing a pirate attack upon a merchant vessel. Once more we had the galley slave action on the screen. This sequence was rather well done photographically, but really did not give you a thrill. There were a good many mob sequences in the picture, but none of them meant much. It was an odd thing as a reaction, but on the first night’s showing in the Egyptian Theatre here the only spontaneous applause, excepting the introduction of the players at the first, came when on the screen appeared the leaning tower of Pisa, looming up at the back. To be sure that no one missed this tower, they put in a terribly crude title explaining its presence. Many other titles were decidedly crude, although at the end they didn’t even attempt to explain how hero Colman, in a rather mysterious manner, managed to get out of jail, where he had been languishing through considerable footage.

Egyptian Theater -1922

On the whole, I got rather the impression from ‘this of watching a lotta college students seriously doing Shakespeare before the marvelous buildings of their university. Everyone seemed so thoroughly to feel the weight of the undertaking.

My hunch about this would be that if you think it wise to occasionally hand your gang something about which in your exploitation you can high-hat them a little bit, then this will serve your purpose. You will have to do some plugging to get them in, but that may be accomplished. I have a feeling that while they will not particularly like it, they will be afraid to attempt to argue about it or pan it.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Women Film Directors – Gwendolyn Audrey Foster 1995

  • Women Film Directors
  • An International Bio-Critical Dictionary
  • Gwendolyn Audrey Foster 1995
  • Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut • London

Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary is a reference book designed primarily for use by students, historians, film critics, and film enthusiasts. The entries are arranged alphabetically and include biographical information, critical essay, selected filmography, and selected bibliographic information. Filmmakers were chosen on the basis of availability of information.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

GISH, LILLIAN (1896-1993). United States. Lillian Gish is well known as an early screen actress who worked closely in collaboration with D. W. Griffith. Born in Springfield, Ohio, Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, are perhaps the best-known screen actresses from the silent film period. Lillian Gish usually played the victimized heroine in early Griffith films, the embodiment of Victorian notions of feminine sexual purity and, as Richard Dyer notes, the essence of “whiteness.” Gish starred in The Mothering Heart (1913), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and many more films until 1987, when she acted in The Whales of August. Gish may have been passive in front of the camera in her early roles, but she was active behind the camera and behind the scenes on many of her films. She not only was active as a producer and collaborator but also directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920).

D. W. Griffith was initially slated to direct Remodeling Her Husband, starring Dorothy Gish, but at the last moment, for reasons that are still obscure, Griffith turned the direction of the film over to Lillian Gish. Dorothy Gish herself chose the story for the film, which was based on a cartoon in a magazine depicting a husband’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s appearance. Dorothy Parker wrote the comic subtitles for the film, which was her first Hollywood writing job. Unfortunately, Remodeling Her Husband appears to be a lost film, but if the plotline of the cartoon upon which the film is based is any indication, Remodeling Her Husband is a feminist critique of patriarchal gender expectations. The idea of making such a film must have attracted the Gish sisters, who were well aware of their iconic status as the quintessentially objectified women of the silent cinema. Remodeling Her Husband is a clever comedic subversion of male and female codes of beauty, which includes a scene of the leading man’s having his nails filed at a barbershop. Dorothy Parker’s subtitle for the scene reads, The divinity that shapes our ends,” a typical Parkeresque jab at masculine pomposity.

Remodeling Her Husband depicts an unfaithful husband whose wife goes to work to punish him for his actions. It seems appropriate that the Gish sisters, the penultimate screen “beauties,” irreverently mocked male attitudes so blatantly in Remodeling Her Husband. The film was a critical and box-office success. Budgeted at $50,000, the film made over $460,000 and was one of Gish’s most successful comedies. Despite this acclaim, after Remodeling Her Husband, Gish said she “never wanted to direct another film” (Gish, 226).

Lillian Gish describes the making of the film in detail in The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Not only was Gish responsible for directing Remodeling Her Husband in the winter of 1919, but Griffith also left her in charge of building a studio in his absence, while he went on location to shoot another film in Florida. Perhaps if Gish had not been saddled with the excess responsibility of overseeing construction on top of directing her first film, she may not have turned completely against the idea of film directing. Instead, Gish returned to acting and had one of the most famous and long-running careers in Hollywood. In 1970***, she earned the Academy Award for her Life Achievement in films. She was also awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Gish pioneered “naturalistic” acting and leaves a formidable legacy in motion picture history. It seems odd that Gish’s one feminist directorial effort is lost, given the fervor with which Griffith is obsessively archived by film historians. ***

SELECTED FILMOGRAPHY

Remodeling Her Husband (1920)

*** 1971 – Academy Awards, USA – Honorary Award – For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.

*** Kindly search this website with the key word “remodeling”. The results are conclusive.

Remodeling Her Husband – Photo Gallery

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“The Greatest Thing In Life” – Wid’s Daily (1919)

  • Wid’s Daily – Thursday, January 2, 1919
  • The Recognized Authority

Griffith Puts Over Winner in His Latest Film. It’s Human

D. W. Griffith Presents

“The Greatest Thing In Life.” – Artcraft

Producer/Director D.W. Griffith, AUTHOR Captain Victor Marrier, CAMERAMAN G W Bitzer, SCENARIO BY Captain Victor Marrier

  • AS A WHOLE.. . . ..Splendid production with strong human interest element; war scenes presented in masterly fashion.
  • STORY Has a real theme apart from war, developed with keen comprehension of feminine nature in search of “the greatest thing in life.”
  • DIRECTION Reveals the flawless technique expected of Griffith: always avoids the superfluous and makes much of seeming trifles that spell reality.
  • PHOTOGRAPHY Always superior
  • LIGHTINGS Excellent in getting beautiful modulations of light and shadow; never permit monotony.
  • CAMERA WORK Notable for the introduction of a new and artistic close-up suggestive of an impressionistic photograph. Effects gained by what may be termed “a soft focus”
  • PLAYERS Lillian Gish vivacious and charming ; Bobby Harron registers fine characterization; David Butler and others add to story.
  • EXTERIORS Delightful to look at; largely because of excellent photography.
  • INTERIORS Richly furnished when situations demand it; always look like real thing.
  • DETAIL Includes significant incidents; subtitles give natural expression to the mood of the
  • CHARACTER OF STORY Shows Germans as “the enemy”, but doesn’t harp on atrocities.
  • LENGTH OF PRODUCTION About 6,500 ft.

Griffith remains pre-eminent on account of what he doesn’t do as well as what he does. When a scene has reached the “punch” point he uses the scissors, and the audience isn’t bothered by the loose ends of dramatic action. He doesn’t work with stereotyped characters because they are convenient; he doesn’t show a German officer assaulting a woman because it has become the custom to present brutality in war films; he doesn’t use a sledge hammer to pound home his meaning and he doesn’t hesitate to tackle a delicate situation because there is danger of its not getting over.

Get “The Greatest Thing in Life” and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll see the difference between the output of a creative artist and the work of a conscientious craftsman who learns to do well something which others have done before him. There’s a big difference and it is the difference that makes this a distinctly superior production.

Griffith took a story of character good enough to have been developed irrespective of the war angle, yet so devised that it appears to have its natural outcome in the world conflict. Lillian Gish is a French girl, vivacious to the point of seeming triviality. Living with her father, who runs a shop in New York, she seeks, under a cloak of laughter, the perfect man, the ideal love, the “greatest thing in life.”

The Greatest Thing in Life (Lillian Gish and David Butler)

Bobby Harron is the incarnation of snobbery. He detests commonness in all forms, but incongruous as he feels it is, he is fascinated by the merry Lillian, who might love him if only he were more human. David Butler, a great stupid French boy, is all human, he is everything that Bobby is not, but he has no poetry in his soul. Lillian tests him with merry talk about Rostand’s “Chantecler” and the Golden Bird. But to the French youth, a chicken is only a chicken and can never be anything else.

France calls them all—father, daughter and the dissimilar suitors—the France of shell-torn villages. Characters are tested in the crucible. The French materialist dies a valiant soldier, still declaring that a chicken is only a chicken; the snob, reborn a human being in the trenches, heads the American soldiers into the French village, occupied by the Germans to save the girl and her wounded parent. This sketchy outline of the plot may suggest nothing new. It is the wealth of incident and characterization that make it throb with feeling. At first there is contagious animation in following the flirtatious Lillian through her days at the little shop. The performance of Miss Gish is a delight, while Harron supplies a striking portrayal of the snob.

There is humor here, and humor mingled with pathos when the scene moves to France. The war phases of the production, having suspense and thrills galore, are finely harmonized with the personal elements of the story. Be it noted to Griffith’s credit that he defies precedent by not showing any assaults on defenseless women.

A high spot in the picture, one that gets over superbly despite its dangerous character, brings out the transformation of the snob, when, lying in a dugout with a dying negro soldier, he listens to the pathetic appeal of the hysterical man for one kiss from his mammy. Bobby brings happiness to the negro in his last moments by impersonating the mammy and kissing him.

Lillian Gish – The Greatest Thing in Life

Be Sure to Let Folks Know What You Have. They’ll Come to See it

Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor.

Some pictures are just artistic, some just business-getting, some are both, and I should say most decidedly that this is one of them. I don’t care what kind of a house you are running; this Griffith offering is bound to please your patrons. Don’t worry about whether or not folks are getting their fill of war films. “The Greatest Thing In Life” isn’t really a war picture; it’s a picture with a mighty interesting group of human beings who happen to get mixed up in the war. There’s a distinction here, and it’s the kind of distinction that’s going to make some productions live while others die. The name of Griffith is enough in itself to assure interest, and in addition to that you have the two Griffith celebrities, Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron, to attract the crowd that remembers “The Birth of a Nation” and “Hearts of the World,” not to mention numerous other pictures.

All that you need to do is to advertise in a big way and figure to hold the film long enough to profit by the word-of-mouth boosting which it is sure to receive. If you spend a little money with your newspapers, it ought not to be difficult to get picture layouts along with more than the usual amount of reading notices dealing with the career of Griffith and the stars he has developed. No doubt you will be supplied with plenty of effective lobby material of an artistic nature suitable to the character of the production. By all means get this if you can and don’t worry about the return on your investment.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (Dec 1918) Greatest Thing in Life advertising – posters

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“Broken Blossoms” – Wid’s Daily – 1919

Wid’s Daily – Sunday, May 18, 1919

“Broken Blossoms” is Poignant Tragedy Given a Masterly Production

D. W. Griffith Presents “Broken Blossoms”

Griffith Productions

  • DIRECTOR D. W. Griffith
  • AUTHOR Thomas Burke
  • SCENARIO BY D. W. Griffith
  • CAMERAMAN G. W. Bitzer
  • AS A WHOLE Wonderfully poetic expression of heart-gripping tragedy; production has the tone quality of a beautiful painting and the emotional force of a dramatic masterpiece.
  • STORY The spiritual romance of an idealistic Chinaman and a brutally abused white girl, ending in death.
  • DIRECTION Superb
  • PHOTOGRAPHY Many glorious effects marking a distinct advance in the impressionistic method of motion picture photography.
  • LIGHTINGS Every scene is given a tone in keeping with the mood of the action.
  • CAMERA WORK The soft focus introduced in some of Griffith’s recent productions is frequently used here; many of the close-ups are works of art.
  • PLAYERS Lillian Gish supplies a marvelously appealing portrayal of the pitiable little girl; Donald Crisp is tremendously forceful as the father and Richard Barthelmess gives a finely conceived impersonation of the Chinaman.
  • EXTERIORS Admirably devised to lend atmosphere to the story.
  • INTERIORS Appear correct even to the smallest item in the furnishings.
  • DETAIL The entire production is a composition of significant details perfectly blended; subtitles are beautifully worded in poetic passages; elaborately decorated borders and backgrounds are dispensed with and the dignity of the picture is increased as a result.
  • CHARACTER OF STORY Poetic tragedy
  • LENGTH OF PRODUCTION 6,000 feet
Broken Blossoms

“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” is a rare accomplishment even for D. W. Griffith. There has been nothing like it in all the annals of the screen—nothing, perhaps, that in the delicate shades of spiritual expression attains such subtle effects; nothing so tremendously, uncompromisingly tragic ; nothing so permeated with poetry and feeling; nothing so frightfully brutal and wonder by turns, as this story of a pure love that is pushed to death—the love of a Chinaman who lives a world of opium tinted dreams and a poor little white girl who never learned to smile.

Griffith has made bigger pictures, certainly he has made many more in accord with the popular taste; but ”Broken Blossoms” is as sadly beautiful as the suggestion of its title. And how much finer it is to give a picture a soul than to dress it up in costly settings.

Behind the story one detects a serious theme—a touch of satire that is well directed at the smug complacency of western civilization, steeped in materialism, yet officiously ready to convert unregenerate Orientals to the gentle practices of Christian nations. In its fundamentals the drama presents a conflict between spirit in its most refined form and matter in its dominant arrogance. The sweet natured, self-effacing Chinaman and the poor little shrinking flower of a girl represent spirit; the prize fighter typifies matter, physically virile, spiritually sterile.

Richard Barthelmess is met as a young Chinaman who is shocked by the combative spirit of American sailors on leave in a Chinese port. Fired with an ambition to spread the doctrine of kindness and charity among western peoples, he sets forth as a missionary of peace.

First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)

Years later, in the slums of London, he is an ineffectual shopkeeper, dreaming his dreams in hopeless resignation. Like ships that meet in the dark of a spiritual night, Lillian Gish, half starved, and clothed in rags, passes before his window and the Chinaman sees beauty in her sad face and appealing eyes.

Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919

Donald Crisp is Lillian’s father, a prize fighter who drinks, then vents his ugliness with unspeakable fury upon his wan little daughter. One night, after she has been beaten almost into insensibility, Lillian staggers out to the alleyway and finally falls exhausted in the Chinaman’s shop.

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

He cares for her, he gives her gorgeous garments and a doll that she holds fondly to her breast. His dreary world is transformed into a dream paradise if only he may kneel beside his princess and hold her hand.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

Donald wins the fight for which he has been training. Told of his daughter’s presence in the Chinaman’s home, he leaves the ringside to avenge his honor. For sheer tragic power and heart rending poignancy nothing could well exceed ensuing scenes that show the father dragging Lillian to their house and eventually killing her. The Chinaman follows, shoots the prize fighter and carries the body of the lifeless girl back to his rooms.

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

With infinite tenderness he places silk coverings over his princess and having performed the last rites for the dead, plunges a dagger into his heart.

Miss Gish has given many excellent portrayals, but it is doubtful if she has done anything so superlatively artistic as this interpretation of the abused child. Her expressions are irresistibly touching at all times and there are moments when she reaches emotional heights seldom attained by any actress. Also, it would be difficult to overestimate the contribution of Mr. Crisp and Mr. Barthelmess to the production.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Offers a Chance to See If the Public Will Accept a Tragic Ending

Box Office Analysis for the Exhibitor

In a brief curtain speech after the first public showing of “Broken Blossoms” at the Cohan Theater, Mr. Griffith spoke modestly of the picture and referred to vital necessity of a producer pleasing the public, His tone might be taken to indicate that he questions a wide appeal of an uncompromising tragedy, however it may be handled, a conclusion pretty much in acord with prevalent opinion. At all events, the producer had the courage of his convictions in carrying the story to its logical conclusion without resorting to the customary happy ending, the taste of the public will be put to the test, if is not accepted there is little chance for genuine tragedies, because “Broken Blossoms” is a masterpiece of its kind.

As shown under the director’s supervision, it opens with what is termed thematic overture, a sort of symbolical prologue set to music. This, of course, will be beyond the scope of smaller theaters, as will be a complete rendition of the elaborate music score; but even without such helpful auxiliaries there is no reason why the picture cannot be presented with appropriate dignity.

Passing by the more unusual and significant elements of the production and looking for something likely to appeal to a fan crowd that prefers physical to spiritual combats, you may count on the effectiveness of some cleverly handled prize fight scenes. Really, however, the picture should be accepted as a work of art without resorting to the conventional advertising appeals.

Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

“Broken Blossoms” – Wid’s Daily – 1919

Back to Lillian Gish Home page