Survivors of a golden age
talk about the movies
before the movies learned to talk…
The Parade’s Gone By … (Kevin Brownlow – 1968)
THEY SPEAK in this book—the pioneering directors Henry King, William Wellman, Josef von Sternberg, Clarence Brown, the stars and producer stars Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, the cameramen and script writers, the film editors, the stunt men and the creative giants of the silent screen.
With frames and photographs you’ve never seen before, with pungently alive first hand recollections, The Parade’s Gone By… recreates the earliest days of the movies, how the first moving pictures were actually shot, how the first film makers improvised, evolved— indeed invented— the techniques that we take for granted today and turned a crude, fumbling gimmick into an art.
Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf THE PARADE’S GONE By. .. is an indispensable book of film history, acclaimed by critics as the best book on its subject in forty years, a vivid, nostalgic, immediate portrait of the cinema’s golden age.
Griffith enacted each part for his players. An ex-actor himself, he enjoyed this immensely. He was a ham, but his overacting was an inspiration; with such an example the most timid player would feel I a surge of confidence. Katherine Albert, who played in The Greatest Question, recalled Griffith’s technique:
“I remember once he was doing the mother role and, his long, horselike face turned heavenwards, he called out, ‘My son, my son, can you hear me there in heaven? Say that you hear me—speak to me.'”We were spellbound, but I realize now that it was pretty bad, pretty melodramatic acting. As he finished, quite pleased with himself, he happened to glance at my mother. She has a grand sense of humor and she was amused at Griffith’s acting and showed it in her eyes.”Sensitive, quick to see any play of emotion, Griffith realized that she knew it was phony. He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. ” ‘Well, something like that,’ he said, and sat down.”
The people who worked with Griffith all acknowledge the hypnotic power of his voice. It was as effective as a musical instrument in its molding of the emotions. The tone, the resonance, the sudden harshness, the softening—all this had a profound effect on the performance. Miss Albert recalled that during a rehearsal in the bare projection room, without costumes or props, she felt utterly wretched.
“I thought for a brief second that I should die right then, but I had read interviews about what being a trouper meant. Then, suddenly, a strange thing seemed to happen. Griffith’s voice, a rich, deep, very beautiful voice, droned on telling us what we were to do. ‘Now you stop by a tree. It’s an apple tree. You pick up an apple, Bobby, and hand it to her. Don’t forget you love her very much,’ etc., etc. And the projection room and all those people seemed to fade away and I found myself actually on a Kentucky road, actually under an apple tree, not acting a part, not being spoken to by the great Griffith but living, really being, the girl I was playing. Bobby Harron stooped and handed me the imaginary apple. He took an imaginary knife from his pocket and peeled it. I took the peelings from him and threw them over my left shoulder. Griffith suddenly stopped me; ‘What are you doing?’
” ‘Why, you see,’ I explained, ‘you throw the apple peeling over your left shoulder and it falls in the shape of an initial. That’s the initial of the man you’re going to marry,’ “Griffith smiled. He turned to Lillian Gish, who sat on his right, and said, ‘The kid’s got it.’
Such details pleased Griffith immensely. Dorothy Gish recalled that when in England for Hearts of the World, she and Griffith were walking in the Strand when they noticed a streetwalker sauntering along in front of them. “Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she had the damdest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.” Griffith constantly sought advice. He would ask for it from the actors, the assistants, the cutters, and even the property men and studio hands. Every member of his company felt they were contributing to the final result, and no one minded when they worked long hours or had to go without lunch. When shooting started, Griffith’s technique moved into its second stage. He blocked his scene in long-shot and mid-shot, much as a painter sketches an outline. The players, thoroughly rehearsed, generally found little difficulty in satisfying their director. The atmosphere was relaxed, and good-humored banter indicated the comparative lack of stress. If a scene went awry, Griffith would break the atmosphere. On one occasion, in the middle of a take, he began chatting to the actors about Lloyd George. He explained afterward that they were beginning to act—he wanted to confuse them, to jolt them out of the idea that they were doing something of importance.
“He knows just the instant an actor is spiritually reaching out for the life line,” wrote Harry Carr. “At that instant he will speak the lines for them. ‘Go to hell!’ he will yell, as the hero defying the villain. It is wonderful to see the effect of this on the actors. It is just like an experienced jockey letting a horse feel the touch of his hand on the rein.”
Stage three began in the projection room. Running the dailies, Griffith would work out, simply by intuition, by the feel of the scene, where the close-ups should go—and where he should hit emotional climaxes. The blocking-in process was over; the master now added the rich details. Emotional climaxes in Griffith’s films, even more than spectacular crowd shots, were known as “big scenes.” “Griffith approaches a big scene carefully,” said Frederick James Smith. “Mellowing preliminary—or ‘working up’—scenes are shot for days preceding. Then the day comes. Someone has said that a cathedral hush settles upon the studio. Griffith goes to his room and rests for an hour. The player goes to his or her room and rests. Then the moment arrives. Stage carpenters’ hammers are stilled. Griffith begins to talk to the player. He gives emotionally in direct ratio to the actor’s response. Lillian Gish could reach an emotional climax easily. When the Broken Blossoms scene in the closet—still the screen’s highest example of emotional hysteria—was shot in Los Angeles, the screams of Miss Gish, alternating with the cries of Griffith, could be heard in the streets outside. It required most of the studio staff to keep the curious from trying to invade the studio. “-
Carol Dempster was not so pliable. A brilliant actress, she unconsciously put up a resistance to Griffith’s hypnotic direction. It once took six solid hours’ work for Griffith to induce Miss Dempster to cry. Refusing to resort to glycerine, Griffith had to work on her until she had achieved real tears. Few people were allowed to witness the filming of these intense scenes. An actress being reduced to tears or hysteria does not enjoy being stared at by gaping bystanders, so Griffith would generally close the set. Harry Carr, however, was present when the scene with Lillian Gish and the dying baby was made for Way Down East:
“Griffith always gives me the feeling that it is his mind in the actor’s body that is doing the work. I was the only one there behind the little fenced-in place, except the cameraman. I could feel the tenseness of a strange force. Something I had never felt before. It was impossible to endure it for long. I had to leave. I could feel myself literally slipping away.”
During the troubles at Mamaroneck, Griffith was understandably less enthusiastic about his work, and his preoccupied manner unsettled his actors. Alfred Lunt, appearing in Sally of the Sawdust (1925), said that he had very little contact with Griffith, and practically no direction:
“He’d set up the scene and that was it. It was all ad lib and I never saw a script. It was quite paralyzing, to tell the truth—I’d come from the theater, where I’d been brought up in a different way. Griffith was very pleasant, but he just didn’t seem to bother. I remember in the grocery-store scene I said, ‘What do I say to the grocer?’ “And he said, ‘Oh, say anything—ashcans, tomato cans, ketchup. Just keep talking.'”
But in Sorrows of Satan (Paramount, 1926), Griffith returned to his former methods to induce some shattering scenes from Carol Dempster. Again and again, throughout the film, a long-held close-up of Miss Dempster plays havoc with the audience’s emotions. Seeing the film absolutely silent, with no music to help it, and just this lovely face in close-up on the screen, you can still feel something of the electricity that passed between director and actress and generated this extraordinary performance.
“I recall vividly making The Sorrows of Satan,” said Ricardo Cortez. “He took an awfully long time. I went to California for eight weeks and made Eagle of the Sea while he kept going with Lya de Putti, Adolphe Menjou, and Carol Dempster. “Griffith was a strange sort of man—very quiet. There seemed to be an invisible barrier around him. You couldn’t get near him. I was under the impression that he was a very lonely man—although I got to know him quite well. I felt terribly sorry for him and would visit him at his hotel—the Astor.
“He would go out for a walk, and end up at the Pennsylvania railroad station, where he’d sit on a bench and just watch people. “During the making of the picture, I was playing in one of the attic scenes. We’d been working for six weeks, not getting very far, and for just thirty seconds I lost my temper. “He had said, ‘If you knew anything about acting you wouldn’t do that.’ ” ‘I don’t know a thing about acting,’ I snapped, ‘which was why I wanted to be directed by you!'”
“I always think of him as Mr. Griffith,” said Dorothy Gish. “I get so shocked when anyone calls him by his first name; I never did and never can. When I grew up, directors used to ask me if I disliked them. ‘You never call me by my first name—it’s always mister,’ they used to say. “But I cannot think of Mr. Griffith as anything but Mr. Griffith. We all had such respect for him. Oh, he’d get mad—and you’d just go quietly away and stay out of the storm until it had blown over. He was just marvelous.”
Carmel Myers began her career at Triangle, with the Griffith apex. She was profoundly impressed by the care taken in setting up each production and felt that the rehearsals were one of Griffith’s prime contributions. “At Universal I missed the spirit of D. W. Griffith. He was the umbrella that shaded us all. A fantastic man.” Anita Loos regarded Griffith as a poet, one of the few able to extemporize with film. But in her view, there was only one person on the Triangle lot who was really dedicated to motion pictures—and that was not D. W. Griffith.
“He was always longing to go away and write plays,” she said. “No, I think the only person who could really be called dedicated at that time was Lillian Gish.” Lillian Gish agreed that writing plays was his real ambition. “His film career didn’t give him the happiness that it ought to have done. I suppose I was dedicated—I knew the financial burden he was carrying. The others didn’t. Griffith trusted me, I think, more than most. He wasn’t a very trusting man with his business affairs. “But it was a dedicated life then. You had no social life. You had to have lunch or dinner, but it was always spent talking over work if you were with anyone—talking over stories or cutting or subtitles or whatever.
“I don’t see how any human being worked the way he did. Never less than eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. They say he saw other people’s pictures, and took ideas from the Europeans. He never saw other pictures. He never had the time. If you insisted, he’d borrow a print of something outstanding, like The Last Laugh, and run it at the studio, but that was very rare. He didn’t have time to see pictures; he was too busy making them.” Nevertheless, one of the most profound influences on Griffith’s determination to make big pictures was the Italian epic Quo Vadis? “Mr. Griffith and I went over to the theater in New York to see it,” recalled Blanche Sweet—although Griffith always denied having seen it. “He was very impressed by the production and by its size. His attitude was, ‘We can make as big productions as they can!’ I’m sure that picture influenced him because it wasn’t long after that that he came up with the idea of Judith of Bethulia. We had never done as long or as large a picture, and at first the heads of the company turned him down cold. But he finally won.” And Owen Moore, interviewed in 19 19, remembered that Griffith had a deep admiration for French films. “Once he brought over a two-reel Coquelin film—a lovely little thing it was—an adaptation of La Tosca. He ran it off in the projection room for all of us as a model of pantomime. But when we began the next picture we were all trying to act like the French actors and the result was awful. Griffith never showed those films to us again. “
Griffith was well aware of his own contributions to motion pictures. He once said he loved Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, “and particularly loved the ideas he took from me.” While Griffith remained at the technical level he had evolved for himself by 1916, other directors took up his reins and swept onward. The 1920’s were years of frustration and anxiety. He was no longer the industry’s leader. Project after project was announced, then postponed or canceled. In 1922 he went to England, ostensibly for the premiere in London of Orphans of the Storm, but also to talk over with H. G. Wells a project for filming The Outline of History. The British government asked him to make a spectacular production in India, which they could use as an effective answer to Gandhi. Griffith announced plans for Faust with Lillian Gish, for The White Slave with Richard Barthelmess . . . When he went to Paramount, he was assigned An American Tragedy, a project that was later given to Eisenstein and several other directors before it was completed by Josef von Sternberg. He intended to do Show Boat, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Romance of Old Spain, and Sunny (with Constance Talmadge). He hoped to reissue Intolerance as a talkie with a new modem episode, and, in England, to remake Broken Blossoms. Despite frustrations, Griffith continued to make pictures. But most of his films of the twenties were modest in both theme and execution and have led historians to complain of an artistic decUne. Anything following Intolerance—still the biggest picture ever made—was liable to be anticlimactic. Griffith, saddled with debt, was forced to make smaller-scale, commercial productions. But he was still able to make pictures of the scale, and of the quality, of Hearts of the World and Orphans of the Storm. If America was a disaster, he fully compensated for it the same year when he took his company to Germany to make the exquisite and moving Isn’t Life Wonderful? And if Sally of the Sawdust meanders somewhat aimlessly, the rich, vigorous Sorrows of Satan is almost entirely rewarding. Griffith declined only in the sense that his opportunities decreased. In 1926, after his box-office disappointment with Sorrows of Satan, he retreated into writing his autobiography. (It was never completed.) “Writers are the only ones who can express their ego,” he said. “Directors can’t, because they have to please the majority. We can’t deal with opinions. All we can do is to weave a little romance as pleasantly as we know how.” The irony of this understatement makes a bitter contrast with the heroic statements of the old Griffith advertisements. It recalls the phrase of Louis Gardy: “It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them.” Our gratitude to D. W. Griffith will always be mingled with shame. For while his genius has gone, the spirit that destroyed him remains as strong as ever in our industry.
- “Motion Picture Magazine, May 192j, p. 116.
- Photoplay, Oct. 1931, p. 37.
- Dorothy Gish to author, New York, March 1964.
- ‘Motion Picture Magazine, May 1923, p. 116.
- Photoplay, May 1923, p. 34.
- Motion Picture Magazine, May 1923, p. 116.
- ”Alfred Lunt to author, London, April 1965.
- ‘ Ricardo Cortez to author, London, Oct. 1965.
- Carmel Myers to author. New York, March 1964.
- Anita Loos to author, New York, March 1964.
- Lillian Gish to author. New York, March 1964.
- ‘ Blanche Sweet to author, London, Sept. 1963.
- ‘ Photoplay, Dec. 1919, p. 58.
- Goodman: Decline and Fall, p. 10.
- Photoplay, Dec. 1926, p. 30.
- New York Call, quoted in WID’s Year Book, 1919, p. 151.