The Movies in the Age of Innocence – By Edward Wagenknecht (1962)
D.W.Griffith Presents …
“It is the best book on films I have ever read.”
Griffith’s next “big” picture after Intolerance was Hearts of the World (1917), which he visited the trenches to make, at the invitation of the British government. It is the only one of Griffith’s leading films which I have been unable to review for the purpose of this book ; I can, therefore, only speak of it on the basis of what I remember from many years ago. It is hardly necessary to say that Hearts of the World presented World War I in terms of black against white, and if it was not quite so bad as those monuments of American culture To Hell with the Kaiser and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, it was not far behind. In any case I think it not unfair to say that it did more to advance the careers of both Lillian and Dorothy Gish than it did for Griffith’s own. Lillian had, I suppose, done other things before that were as fine as her rustic French girl here, but she had done nothing else quite so elaborate and certainly nothing that had been presented in so effective a showcase as was at her disposal in this film. As for myself, though I had seen her many times, I had not, as it now appeared to me, seen nearly as much of her as I ought to have seen or intended to see in the future, and I had certainly not been fully awake to the depth and power of her art.
From Hearts of the World on I knew that she started acting where other people left off and that I was hers forevermore. Dorothy, as the black-wigged “Little Disturber” (she learned the walk after many tears by following and imitating a London street girl), furnished vigor and brilliant comedy relief — and entered forthwith upon a new phase of her career. Whether Griffith himself was at all troubled in his mind over the contradiction between what he had said about war in Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation and what he was saying here I do not know; perhaps, like so many others at the time, he thought the Allies were “fighting for peace.’
From Hearts of the World, Griffith went on to a series of less ambitious program pictures released through Paramount-Artcraft. Three of these — The Great Love (August, 1918), The Greatest Thing in Life (November, 1918), and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (March, 1919)—were war pictures; and though the lastnamed represented a certain shift of emphasis, as its title indicates, there were still so many war scenes in it as to suggest that he had agood deal of material on hand to be used up. A Romance of Happy Valley (January, 1919) and True Heart Susie (July, 1919) provided a refuge from wartime strains by returning to an earlier, somewhat idealized, bucolic America, while Scarlet Days (December, 1919) harked back to a still older and more specialized period, the Bret Harte frontier.
The Great Love (Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Henry Walthall, George Fawcett, etc.) was made—partly at least—in England, with the idea of showing how English society faced up to the war, a circumstance which perhaps misled Lewis Jacobs into making the erroneous statement that the film was shown only in England. The Greatest Thing in Life turned out to be brotherhood, and an aesthetic young snob (Robert Harron) learned it through the fellowship of the trenches. Aside from an abundance of spies, suspense, and melodrama, the film was notable for David Butler’s character role as the enormous, garlic-eating Monsieur Baby and for an attempt, not followed up in later films, to turn Lillian Gish toward somewhat boisterous comedy (in one scene she did a beautiful cartwheel).
The Girl Who Stayed at Home gave us a French girl betrothed to a nobleman but in love with an American for whom she was unwilling to break her troth and an American cabaret dancer in love with an American college boy. Lillian Gish was not in this film; in her place Griffith introduced, as the two girls mentioned, Carol Dempster and Clarine Seymour. Miss Seymour was a real discovery. A tiny girl with enormous eyes, she was as dark and vivacious as most Griffith heroines had been blonde and wistful, a delightful girl, of excellent character, whom everybody in the studio loved ; but she died on April 25, 1920, on the threshold of what would almost certainly have been an important film career. After Lillian Gish’s departure in the interest of her own starring engagements, Miss Dempster became Griffith’s leading actress, but her cold personality did not attract a great following, and few of Griffith’s admirers were willing to accept her at his valuation. Richard Barthelmess, too, made his first appearance for Griffith in The Girl Who Stayed at Home.
Lillian Gish played again with Robert Harron in both A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie. Clarine Seymour, too, appeared in True Heart Susie in a most unsympathetic role; she was the venal little milliner from the city who “vamped” Harron away from Lillian after the latter had secretly sold her cow to provide the means for him to study and become a minister. Late in the picture, the unworthy wife was kind enouh to die, so that true love triumphed in the end. So far as the story goes, True Heart Susie was soap opera, but the atmosphere had an attractive authenticity, and Lillian was excellent in the scenes in which she was obliged to behave like a perfect lady toward her rival even though her heart was breaking.
The opening sequence, in which she and Harron were shown as children at school, was also very charming. A Romance of Happy Valley had a weak story too, but nobody except Griffith could have given such a sympathetic picture of the Locust Grove Sanctificationist Church. “If we smile at these quaint people, let it be through tears of sympathy. We must remember that from similar places have come the very highest ideals. Sometimes they do backslide, but the dream is always upward.” You may not care for the preaching, but Griffith’s handling showed a knowledge of the rural American temperament which could not have been matched elsewhere in the cinema of his time or, I dare say, today.
Scarlet Days, which I thought a very exciting picture in its time, had Seymour, Dempster, Ralph Graves, and Barthelmess (as a Spanish bandit), but was chiefly notable for the memorable performance of the veteran screen actress Eugenie Besserer (familiar to a later generation as Jolson’s mother in The Jazz Singer) as a frontier dance-hall habitue who loved her Eastern-bred, gently reared daughter and nearly broke her heart trying to save the girl from finding out about her mother’s way of life. Griffith had stopped filming Browning, but he still held to Browning’s faith in “what a man [or woman either] may waste, desecrate, never quite lose.”
Meanwhile, in the spring of 1919, Griffith had given us the last of his three supremely great films, Broken Blossoms, made from Thomas Burke’s story, “The Chink and the Child,” in Limehouse Nights. Broken Blossoms was as intimate and brooding a film as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation had been spectacular, and in it Griffith’s capacity for using the camera to probe the hearts of his characters appeared at its best. There were only three real characters: Lucy, the Child (Lillian Gish), Battling Burrows, her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and Cheng Huan, the Chink (Richard Barthelmess). Lucy, who serves Battling as a kind of punching bag to relieve his feelings when he is disturbed, stumbles out through the streets after one particularly terrible beating and faints in the shop of the Chinaman, who had previously admired her.
He dresses her in a rich Oriental robe, surrounds her with Oriental finery, and enthrones her in a kind of private shrine above his shop. When a dirty little rat of his acquaintance discovers her there and tells her father, he is outraged, for “most of all Batttling hated those not born in the same great country as himself.” In Cheng Huan’s absence he invades and smashes the shrine and drags his daughter home. She locks herself in a closet, from which he hauls her out and beats her to death. Cheng Huan follows, shoots Battling, carries the girl back to his room, and there stabs himself to the heart. Broken Blossoms is a kind of missionary story in reverse. Cheng Huan comes to the West to carry the message of the gentle Buddha to rough Occidentals, represented to him by brawling American sailors in China. The picture opens with a long Oriental sequence.
An atmospheric river scene marks the transition to London, where we see Cheng Huan as a “Chink storekeeper” in Limehouse, his dreams wrecked and he himself become an opium smoker. Scenes in Chinese dives in London follow. These do not carry on the story; they are images, memories which flash across the screen as they pass through Chen Huan’s brain; from them we return to the Oriental temple bells which we saw at the beginning and also to the river scene. Next comes “The home of Lucy and Battling Burrows.”
A subtitle gives us their past and explains Lucy’s origin. We see Burrows drinking; a subtitle describes him as a “gorilla” and an “abysmalbrute.” We flash back to his last fight, which is shown on the screen as he thinks of it. His manager is present; one of his “chippy” friends comes in. The manager complains of his addiction to wine and women, thus putting him in a rage. Not until now do we first see Lucy, picking her way painfully along the dock ; she sits down on a coil of rope. As she thinks, flashbacks show her being warned against marriage by a woman of her acquaintance, bending over the washtub while her husband scolds, and against their profession by two girls of the street.
She gets up and goes in for her first encounter with Burrows. Since he wants cheerful faces about him, and Lucy really has nothing to smile about, she pushes the corners of her mouth upwards with the second and third fingers of her right hand. She prepares food for him, and he wolfs it down while she stands, hungry, and watches him. He threatens to beat her, for nothing in particular, but does not; ordering his tea for five, he goes out, after which she eats a few scraps alone. Now we go back to Cheng Huan and witness his encounter with a smug English cleric whose brother is setting out as a missionary. He hands Cheng Huan a pamphlet. The title, shown in a close shot, is HELL. Cheng says, “I wish him luck.” From here we return to Lucy, who is now darning socks. She goes out to buy provisions for her father’s supper, taking along with her, in addition to money, a roll of tin foil, for which she hopes to get a flower she craves, but it turns out she does not have quite enough tin foil.
When she gets out into the street, Cheng Huan watches her through his window and stands guard to protect her if she is troubled; when Evil Eye shows signs of molesting her, Cheng Huan comes out of his shop and, walking between them, pushes Evil Eye out of the way. The second scene between Lucy and Burrows begins when she returns from shopping. The time is 4:30 p.m., and he is enraged because he has got home before her. She cries, ” ‘Tain’t five! ‘Tain’t five!” When she spills food on his hand while serving him, he pretends that she did it on purpose and beats her cruelly. She stumbles out, more dead than alive, and moves toward her first real contact with Cheng Huan. Broken Blossoms is not free of subtitles, and some of them are pretty distressing. “Dying she gives her last little smile to the world that has been so unkind.” And again: “As he smiles Goodbye to White Blossom all the tears of the ages rush over his heart.”
(In Thomas Burke, Griffith discovered, perhaps for the first time, a writer whose prose was almost as purple as his own.) But the subtitles are not needed, and can be ignored, for the real story is told by an intimate, probing camera. Take the scene in which Lucy and Cheng Huan first look at each other—he in his shop, she in the street outside. The audience looks through the eyes of each, seeing the girl as the man looks at her and the objects in the shop window as Lucy’s delighted gaze travels over them. Later he remembers the flower she had wanted and been unable to buy and brings it to her in her sanctuary. There is a delightful, subdued humor in these scenes, along with all their lyricism and danger, for the girl is still a child, and the doll Cheng Huan brings her is the climax of all her joys. The sight of the Chinaman brings her as much pleasure as that of her father had formerly awakened terror; once she starts to push up the corners of her mouth with her fingers; then she remembers that this is no longer necessary and smiles naturally. Sex intrudes’ only once—on his part, not hers — and is expressed only in an enormous close-up of his troubled eyes and in the way she shrinks from him momentarily without understanding what he wants. Then he retreats and remembers himself. “Why are you so good to me, Chinky?” she asks him once.
Lucy’s hiding place is discovered when the Spying One comes to Cheng Huan’s shop on a perfectly legitimate errand. While Cheng Huan slips out for change, he hears a noise upstairs; whereupon, being of a curious temperament, he tiptoes up the stairs to look. First we are with Lucy in the room above; then we are with the Spying One in the shop; we see him go up the stairs from the store; then we watch him come up from inside Lucy’s room; there is a close shot of his foolish, giggling, delighted face. After the sanctuary has been raided, Evil Eye gladly bears the news to Cheng Huan; Cheng Huan rushes home but arrives too late.
Lucy runs out when Battling arrives, but is caught by his henchmen and taken “home” through the cloaking river mist; once there, she locks herself in the closet. When Battling and Cheng Huan finally confront each other the camera moves from one to the other and to whatever feature or whatever part of the body Griffith wishes to emphasize. Cheng Huan’s pistol is under his coat; Battling is unarmed but there is a hatchet on the floor next to his foot. A closeup directs our attention to this hatchet, and Battling is shot when, after having brought it closer with his foot, he ventures to try to stoop quickly to pick it up. After Burrows’ death has been reported at the police station (the police are mulling over casualty lists and are not greatly interested), the authorities come to the flat; it is not until after this that we see Cheng Huan stab himself; next the police arrive at Cheng Huan’s; we see them go into the building, but we are not permitted to watch them invade the sanctuary.
The film ends as it began with mist-swathed river scenes and the striking of Oriental temple bells. The enthusiasm which Broken Blossoms awakened in 1919 can hardly be overstated ; Griffith was everywhere felt to have opened up new dimensions in the cinema and raised it to the level of great tragic art. The foregoing account of the sensitiveness of his direction may, I hope, have given the reader some idea of why these things should have been felt thus, though of course there is no substitute for seeing the film itself. Fortunately the film is available, notably in the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, and to my eyes it looks as good as it ever did, except that, alas, it must now be seen in a plain black and white print without the music and the subtle coloring that heightened its effect when it was first shown.
Those who have seen Donald Crisp only of late years will have some difficulty in recognizing him in Battling Burrows. Some may find Richard Barthelmess’ Cheng Huan a little thin in Oriental coloring, but his gentleness and idealism will not, I think, leave them unmoved. But so far as the players are concerned, Broken Blossoms is Lillian Gish’s film first of all, and the deep sincerity of her terror and passion seem all the more moving and remarkable for always being conceived and projected as the terror and passion of a child. When I first met Miss Gish in 1920, I told her, with the brashness of youth, that I did not see how she could ever equal what she had done in Broken Blossoms; she received the statement, fortunately, with youth’s resiliency, accepted the compliment implied, and let the rest go by.
I have learned since then, and she has helped to teach me, that the simulation of hysteria is not necessarily the highest form of acting, yet for all that Lillian’s hysteria in the famous “closet scene” of Broken Blossoms still seems to me a marvel to behold—inspired, impassioned, altogether beyond the bounds of normal experience, yet wonderfully infused with beauty. This was the wonder of Broken Blossoms all along the line: What might have been merely a subtly lighted, skillfully directed slum melodrama—as God knows most of its imitations have been—was lifted into an ideal world of aesthetic purity and clarity, so that the audience went away from it uplifted as well as terrified. How this was done is again, I suppose, the artist’s secret, but Broken Blossoms was in this aspect no unique phenomenon. Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists too wrought their miracles out of sordid materials, and few of the thousands who have responded to the lyric cry of Romeo and Juliet are greatly moved when they hear of a pair of lunk-headed young modern lovers who have slipped off and made an end of themselves because there are barriers in the way of their marriage.
In 1920, Griffith came out with Way Down East and three program pictures — The Greatest Question, The Idol Dancer, and The Love Flower, all released through First National. A spiritual bond between a mother and a son lost at sea during the war, a child who witnessed a murder in babyhood and was later in danger at the hands of the vaguely recollected murderers, a mother’s faith and a father’s unbelief, a ghost appearing in a graveyard at midnight in answer to prayer, and a discovery of oil as the provision of the Lord—these were the disparate elements in The Greatest Question.
Griffith never found more exquisite rural settings than in this film, and Lillian Gish and Robert Harron never struck a truer lyrical note. Eugenie Besserer and George Fawcett played powerfully as the contrasted mother and father, and Josephine Crowell was shown in endless, revolting close-ups as Lillian’s persecutor. The story was a hodgepodge, however, and the spiritualistic element seemed dragged in to what was basically a melodrama in order to satisfy the postwar interest which had been awakened by Sir Oliver Lodge and others.
“The best in this kind are but shadows;
and the worst are no worse, if imagination
A Midsummer-Night’s Dream