The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
Fortunately for film historians, films, reviews, written reminiscences, and production records from the D. W. Griffith years have survived. This period is recalled in Erik Barnouw’s article on Arthur Sintzenich (“Snitch”), who was one of Griffith’s cameramen from 1923 to 1926, in Jean Tucker’s oral history of the early filmmaker based upon the observations of Lillian Gish and others who worked with him on Intolerance, and in Paul Spehr’s production study of the early years of the Biograph Company. Jean Renoir, in My Life and My Films, wrote that films are an emotional, not an intellectual experience. Griffith also expressed this nonverbal universality of films in his 1924 article, “The Movies 100 Years from Now”: It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the pictures. This is true because the very nature of films foregoes not only the necessity but the propriety of the spoken voice. Music—fine music—will always be the voice of the silent drama. . . . In the year 2024 each motion picture theater will have symphonic orchestras of greater proportions than we now dream of employed for moods to fit the sublime and the grand. In a way this prediction has come true.
We do have the finest orchestras performing for films, only not in the theater pit. But what would Griffith have thought of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and multiplane cameras and Fantasia and Fantasound and the magic that Disney’s musicians, animators, and technicians produced. Jon Newsom recounts, in his article on music for animated films, how this “magic” was created. The same technology for synchronizing sight and sound which was so finely applied to animation was handled less imaginatively in a series of 1930s films starring opera singers. David Parker, in his article on singerfilms, proves that certain film genre can survive despite, or possibly because of, their ridiculous plots, miscasting, and faulty production techniques. Based on another 1924 prediction, one would suspect that Griffith would have approved of Peter Pan’s “Flight to Neverland” on screen and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk on television in spite of the presence of “the spoken voice”: One hundred years hence, the airplane passenger lines will operate motion-picture shows on regular schedule. … Almost every home of good taste will have its private projection room where miniatures, perhaps of the greater films will be shown to the family. I close with my favorite Griffith prediction, hoping it was not his most fantastic. In the year 2024 the most important single thing which the cinema will have helped in a large way to accomplish will be that of eliminating from the face of the civilized world all armed conflict.
Voices from the Silents
by Jean E. Tucker
The origins of the motion picture as an art form can be traced to the turn of the century. Since the late 1800s, motion pictures have drawn what they have needed from the other arts— music, literature, and the theater—and have attained an artistic maturity of their own in a relatively short period of time. The artistic attainment has been accompanied by a coincidental evolution of motion picture technology. The development of a historical record of the motion picture has not kept pace with the advancement of the art and technology, however. Indeed, the history of the motion picture, particularly silent film, was neglected until the mid- 1960s and the early 1970s. It is fortunate that film scholars are now beginning to pay attention to the historical development of the art and that more and more people who worked in silent pictures are writing memoirs and consenting to taped interviews, thus sharing their experiences and knowledge. As a consequence, the history of the silent movies is being more fully documented in the voices and words of living persons who were directly involved in devising, developing, and perfecting the acting and production techniques that have become the art of the motion picture. Oral history especially lends itself to the study of silent film. Taped interviews make it possible to record or reconstruct events which occurred during the silent film era of the motion picture. Interviews enable participants to tell their own particular story and include specific facts about the birth of an industry that might otherwise be lost. They can replace or supplement written documents and clarify differing views of the same event, revealing personality in ways which cannot be represented in written form. The quality of information revealed in interviews depends upon the analysis made of it. After comparing the information to other interviews and written sources, it can be elaborated, explained, and interpreted, so as to supplement and validate known information and create original documents.
D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a silent film produced in 1916 by the Wark Producing Company, has been particularly neglected by film historians and critics since its release. No definitive work on the film has been published. No one directly involved with the production of the film has written more than a chapter or two about it. And, until the time I began a search for persons associated with the film, no one had recorded a collection of taped conversations with individuals who took part in its production. The inspiration for this search came from Lillian Gish. I first met and talked briefly with her at the Library of Congress in 1969 at a presentation of her film-lecture Lillian Gish and the Movies; the Art of Film, 1900-1928. She made a lasting impression. She seemed so interested and enthusiastic about everyone and everything around her. Her devotion to silent film and D. W. Griffith and her desire to tell his story were clearly genuine. After a second meeting nearly a year later, I wanted to learn more about the woman who seemed to epitomize the silent screen. I quickly discovered she had been sorely neglected by biographers and other writers. I read all I could find, looked at existing films in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, and eventually interviewed her. The Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress (now part of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division) accepted for its collections a copy of the tape of my conversation with her and expressed an interest in the tapes of interviews that I might record with other film personalities. I discovered there were at least four living persons in addition to Lillian Gish who had been involved directly in the production of D. W. Griffith’s film Jntolerance and that they would be willing to talk with me—not only about the film but about the development of the motion picture, acting and directing techniques, their early careers in silent film, and their relationship with D. W. Griffith.
They were Karl Brown, cameraman; Miriam Cooper, actress; Joseph Henabery, actor, researcher, and director; and Anita Loos, who had written titles for the film.! Their stories were told within the framework of their own particular skills, experiences, and contributions. Some bias and differences of opinion were inevitable. The value of the oral history approach was to bring the differing views out in the open where they could be compared. Taken together, the accounts of the experiences of the interviewees present a clearer understanding of why and how the film Intolerance was made and assist in interpreting the silent film period. None of the interviewees knew the full story of the production of Intolerance as they evaluated the film from different production aspects and degress of intimacy with Griffith. If the success or failure of the film is judged on its technical and artistic merits, the interviewees agree it was a success. They also agree that the film would never have popular general audience appeal because it is tediously long. Film historians concur. Only film students flock to see it. The interviewees express a great depth of feeling toward D. W. Griffith. Their enthusiasm is open and genuine. They share a great sense of pride in their association with him and are all devoted and loyal. They feel close to Griffith even though none of their relationships—with the possible exception of Lillian Gish—were ever on a personal level.
They had courted his pleasure and were deeply appreciative of the smallest of compliments from Griffith. They bore no resentment that he did not credit their work in his films. Griffith treated the women with dignity and courtesy and expected them to be ladies. He encouraged their creativity. In turn, they gave him their undivided loyalty and devotion and worked hard to please him. The men were equally as loyal although somewhat more willing to admit flaws in Griffith. The intense effect Griffith had on the interviewees is as complex and difficult to explain as the man himself. It can be attributed primarily to the combination of his maturity, father image, personal magnetism, and leadership qualities and his ability to inspire creativity and to generate excitement in the work and the films they produced together. During the silent film era, the interviewees did not recognize the significant contributions they were making to their craft and the industry. With the passage of time, however, they realized the magnitude of the art they helped create.
They were proud of their role and wanted to talk about it. Theirs was a time of great experimentation and development. It is remarkable that except for technical equipment advances and sound, the basic filmmaking techniques they helped develop stand today. The interviewees were completely different in temperament and personality, but some common traits—such as pride in self and work, strength of character, tenacity, aggressiveness, desire to achieve, self-confidence, sense of humor, and a respect for one another—come out in the interviews. All had a natural talent for their work. They succeeded because they seldom considered failure. Lack of formal education did not deter them. They were in movies because they wanted to be. In order to stay there, they had to be the best. They were doing something that very few of their peers were able to do because it was a disgrace in many social circles to work in the movies. But they considered themselves very special people engaged in a very special craft. They all had great confidence in their abilities. They obviously were not well acquainted with one another when they worked with Griffith but grew to respect and admire one another in old age. They enjoyed being discovered by film historians, students, and others, and liked to share their experiences. They had a sense of history and were eager to get their life stories written or preserved on tape. Miriam Cooper, Joseph Henabery, Lillian Gish, and Anita Loos all arranged for their memorabilia to be deposited either in the Library of Congress or the Museum of Modern Art. Their films have not been as well preserved and many have been lost through deterioration or destruction. Still photographs are the only remaining source of information about many of the films they were involved in producing. The taped words and voices of the interviewees provide the means to experience more closely the period of the silent film.