The Movies in The Age of Innocence – By Edward Wagenknecht (1962)
“The Ladies – God Bless Them”
If I speak my piece about Lillian Gish elsewhere, I must speak of Dorothy here. Film historians in general have shown a deplorable tendency to consider the career of Dorothy Gish only as a footnote to Lillian’s; this is both absurd and unjust, for Dorothy is a very gifted actress, and she would have had an important career even if she had stood quite alone. It has also frequently been declared, as if the statement were an axiom, that Mabel Normand was the screen’s greatest comedienne. I too loved Mabel Normand, and I have no desire to detract from her glory, but that she was superior to Dorothy as a comedienne I am still waiting to be shown.
I am sure that Dorothy would be more widely appreciated in this aspect if we could see again the long series of comedies which she made for Paramount after her success as the Little Disturber in Hearts of the World. Perhaps the best was that brilliant burlesque of Westerns, Nugget Nell (1919), which Mack Sennett admired and which caused so good a judge as Julian Johnson to label her a female Chaplin.
She was fine too in Remodeling Her Husband (1920), which Lillian directed; who will ever forget the brilliant scene in which, having made a bet with a husband somewhat unmindful of her charms, that she could walk down a city block and attract the attention of every man she met, she collected by the simple expedient of sticking out her tongue, while the wonderstruck male, following close behind, was simply unable to understand why all the heads turned in her direction?
But I think the climax of her brilliant career as a comedienne came with Marjorie Bowen’s Nell Gwyn (1926), produced in England under the direction of Herbert Wilcox. I recently reviewed this film at George Eastman House in company with several film specialists, none of whom had seen it before. They literally shouted, whooped, and screamed their delight in Dorothy’s performance clear through the screening.
I do not mean, of course, that Dorothy should be thought of entirely as a comedienne; even within recent years she has given many fine serious performances both on stage and screen. If we need a revival of her Paramount comedies, perhaps we need even more to review the wide variety of films she made for Mutual and Triangle between 1914 and 1917. During part of this period Lillian was absorbed by The Birth of a Nation, but Dorothy ground out film after film ; when she “returned” to the screen after two months’ absence in 1914, her employers thought it necessary to explain, in an advertisement in the trade journals, just what she had been doing and why she had been away so long! These films differed widely in character and no doubt in quality too. In his review of the year’s achievements in Photoplay for September, 1916, Julian Johnson expressed his special enthusiasm for Susan Rock the Boat, Little Menies Romance, and Betty of Greystone. The Mountain Rat was a Western; in The Little Yank she was a border girl in love with a Southern officer but loyal to the Union; in Old Heidelberg she played the Kathy everybody has come to know since with music in The Student Prince.
At the very end of the year came Orphans of the Storm, with Lillian and Dorothy Gish as the two orphans, Lucille La Verne as the hag La Frochard, and young Joseph Schildkraut as the young chevalier. This time Griffith ventured to use more hackneyed material than he had yet employed in a feature film, for not only was the play The Two Orphans as familiar as Way Down East but Selig had made it into what was then regarded as an elaborate film as early as 1911, and since then it had been directed by Herbert Brenon as a vehicle for, of all people, Theda Bara. Griffith created novelty—and fresh power—by fusing a very Dickensian French Revolution into The Two Orphans, so that he may be said to have made here his most direct and important use of the writer who had been the major influence upon his artistic life.
Orphans of the Storm was a richly mounted, very beautiful film, full of excitement and excellent acting. It began as abruptly as a Biograph with the antecedent slaying of the father of the “orphans,” creating a necessary condition for the story with the least possible expenditure of effort. Griffith surprised many people by casting Lillian Gish as the energetic Henriette and making Dorothy the pathetic blind girl Louise, which she made one of her most sensitive characterizations. The camera played lovingly over the investiture of the old regime, and when we came to the revolution even the workings of the guillotine had to be demonstrated, as the trap in the gallows floor had been tried out in Intolerance. When the revolution begins the camera moves in on a wholly empty street. One drum appears at the extreme right; the drummer is invisible. Presently it is played by a pair of hands, but we do not see the body to which they are attached ; gradually the whole screen fills up with the incipient revolutionists who have been waiting for this signal. It might be argued, however, that the “meaning” of the film is superimposed upon it rather than rising directly out of it. Like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles at the beginning of Part II, that while the French Revo-lution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license”
Griffith’s relationship to the Communists is interesting. The influence of his films upon Soviet directors has already been mentioned. Iris Barry says: “Lenin arranged to have Intolerance toured throughout the U.S.S.R., where it ran almost continuously for ten years.” Watching such scenes as those in which troops shoot down the workers, one realizes that the appeal of the film was not wholly technical, and it may be that without Intolerance, Lenin would have been slower to recognize the potentiality of the cinema as an instrument of propaganda. But Griffith’s anti-Communist stand in Orphans of the Storm left no doubt in anybody’s mind where he stood personally, and during later years left-oriented critics have persistently disparaged him; see Seymour Stern, “The Cold War against D. W. Griffith.” – Edward Wagenknecht