PHOTOPLAY Vol. XXIII May, 1923 No.6
What Makes Them Cry
By Frederick James Smith
What Moves the Stars to Tears
- Mary Pickford by Massenet Elegie
- Pola Negri by Grieg’s Lament
- Bill Hart by “Sweet Bunch of Daisies”
- Theda Bara by Gabriel-Marie’s “La Cinquantaine”
- Betty Compson by “Aloha”
- Dorothy Dalton by “Kiss Me Again”
- Mae Busch by “Home Sweet Home”
SINCE Blanche Sweet wept the first sensational real screen tear, as Judith in David Wark Grifiith’s “Judith of Bethulia,” many a tear has been shed before the remorseless film lens. Unfortunately the public has come to look upon most of them as a matter of glycerine. That is a part of the film fan’s general present suspicion of all things cinematic. In reality, most of the studio tears these days are real. It is no longer a matter of emulsion rather than emotion. After all, why shouldn’t the tears be the genuine thing? The average star has only to think of what the papers say about that last picture, or the sad fashion the studio staff receives his—or her—flashes of genius. Any one of these things is guaranteed to open the ocular sluice-gates.
Seriously, tears are largely a matter of temperament. They come comparatively easy to stars like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. Just a suggestion can make Jackie Coogan weep giant tears. Pola Negri, on the other hand, approaches her tear duct interludes from an emotional angle, rather than from the path of pathos. She must come to the tears logically as the climax of carefully developed emotional scenes. And she must have music. Indeed, it is surprising, when you come to consider the sob moments, how important a part music plays in the “shooting” of our photoplays. It is impossible to say definitely just when and where music entered the silver-sheet field as a tear persuader, but legend has it that Grifiith called in a violinist at the old Biograph studio, away back in 1909, to play for Florence Lawrence. Maybe the honor is deserved elsewhere but, since “D. W.” created most of the innovations which in time became part of the technique of the photoplay of today, we pass the wreath to Griffith and move on. True, Griffith uses music less than any director we know.
He has found that mobs in big scenes are especially responsive to music and, in “Intolerance,” he used a military band for three days during the filming of the battle scenes. Archaeologists would have been surprised to see the legions of Cyrus repulsed from the walls of Babylon to the stirring strains of a Sousa march or “Tipperary.” In the scenes of Belshazzar’s feast in “Intolerance” the dancers received their cues from music of this same hardworking band. In the intimate scenes of his productions, however, Griffith uses no music. Indeed, Griffith has told me that he would never employ a player who could not feel a role enough to weep at rehearsals. Right here let us say that Griffith himself will not do a story that does not move him to the point of tears at the mere telling. More than once we have watched tears come to Griffith’s eyes as he merely outlined the details of a screen story. This reveals something of the Griffith method of making a photoplay. He will work over his story until he achieves at least one or two big moments. Then he will turn and twist the synopsis—indeed, throw the story out the window—to get the most out of these few seconds. These moments develop at the extended rehearsals of the entire story which always precede the “shooting” of a single foot of film. Usually they come forth as a player reveals an unusual touch of feeling. Think back over any Griffith drama and you will instantly recall certain moments that stand out with cameo clarity.
Consider the slavey’s hysterical fear in the tiny closet of “Broken Blossoms,” the broken Yellow – Man hovering tenderly over the figure of the girl in the same classic, the death of the baby in ” ‘Way Down East,” or the moment when Henriette hears the distant voice of the lost and blind Louise in “Orphans of the Storm.” All immortal celluloid flashes of genius—and all achieved in this careful fashion.
The Griffith method of developing these scenes is essentially unique. It can honestly be described as savoring of hypnotism. Griffith has a voice of odd dramatic timbre. On the stage it may sound forced and theatrical but in the studio it becomes a musical instrument to play upon an actor’s emotions. The very qualities that made Griffith an indifferent actor seem to make for directorial greatness.
Griffith approaches a big scene carefully. 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 dressing 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.
Grifiilh’s directing becomes a veritable duel of emotions. Mae Marsh was—and is—almost as responsive as Lillian Gish under his direction. Carol Dempster is not of the same temperament. Griffith once worked steadily from eleven to five o’clock, during the making of “The Girl Who Stayed at Home,” before he evoked a single responsive tear from Miss Dempster. But, since he refuses to resort to glycerine, he kept on. These scenes are highly wearing for the actor, naturally. Yet we never saw a player respond to emotions so easily and recover herself so quickly as Lillian Gish. She has a curious knack of resting—of completely relaxing—in every spare moment. She conserves herself with the greatest care. Miss Gish once told me that she long ago learned that she could do anything if she rested properly. “Resting properly,” she went on, ‘”is relaxing every muscle.” Try it sometime. A curious instance of Griffith’s studio magnetism is told of the filming of the old fashioned revival scenes in “True Heart Susie.” The director had secured an evangelist for the scene, but somehow the crowd of extras remained cold and unmoved. The scene threatened to collapse when Griffith took the revivalist’s place on the platform—and began to really preach. He kept his place on the platform for six hours—and obtained the most remarkable shots of a revival under stress of religious fervor ever filmed. They say one could hear the extras singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” two blocks from the California studio. Indeed, a half dozen ten-dollar-a-day extras hit the sawdust trail in reality.
Mary Pickford throws herself wholehearted into a scene. “Glycerine tears and counterfeit money are in the same class;” Miss Pickford has told me. “If I can riot feel enough to weep real tears I believe I am not honest with the public.” Which, somehow, sums up the reason for Miss Pickford’s continuous leadership of the screen for so many years. She is true to her audience. Miss Pickford frequently uses music to stir her emotions. It may interest you to know that the Cadman Indian lyric, “From the Land of the Sky Blue Water,” is one of the numbers she frequently uses. And Massenet’s Elegie. She utilized the Elegie when she created that famous scene before the mirror in “Stella Maris,” when poor little Unity realized her own ugliness. On the other hand no music was required for that tender moment in the revival of “Tess of the Storm Country,” where the little waif stands before the judge. Miss Pickford says that it was the moving voice of Forrest Robinson, the old player who acted the judge, that stirred her to tears. John S. Robertson, the director, tells many stories of Miss Pickford’s quick response to sentiment. He relates an interesting story, too, of the way he achieved some of the touching moments of “Sentimental Tommy.” Remember the brief—but telling—second where May McAvoy as Grizel fought off a show of emotion although her eyes were welled with tears. Robertson achieved it with a trick. “It wasn’t honest and it wasn’t fair,” says Robertson, rather shamefacedly. “We tried the scene for some time with little success. Then the lunch hour came. When the players returned, Miss McAvoy was four minutes late. I surprised her by turning pretty harshly and demanding to know what she meant by being late. Miss McAvoy is a sensitive little person and I saw her fighting back her emotions. So we went on with the scene—and I had just what I wanted. I saw Miss McAvoy creep behind some scenery afterward to cry and I felt like a rotter. Later on, however, I told her and asked her forgiveness.” During the recent shooting of “The Bright Shawl,” the romantic story of Havana in which Richard Barthelmess starred, Robertson utilized three orchestras. One, a Spanish string orchestra, was used for the dance moments, a native negro orchestra for the Cuban dance hall scenes and a theater orchestra for the theater shots. Once or twice the Spanish orchestra was called upon lor certain emotional moments. Yet neither Barthelmess nor Robertson believe much in the use of music. The temperamental Pola Negri has a very discriminating taste in music. She uses a piano and cello and calls upon her two musicians for Tschaikowsky, Beethoven and sometimes, Wagner. Rachmaninoff’s famous prelude is one of her favorites. In achieving the highly tempestuous emotional scene of “Bella Donna,” she used the restless and moving lament of Grieg.
While Chaplin uses no music in the actual making of scenes, he often slips away to a deserted comer of his studio. There he plays upon an old violin, while he works out the details of a scene. Never does he approach one of those superb scenes—where comedy is shot through with pathos—without resorting to his faithful violin. No glycerine tears for Jackie Coogan! His childish imagination needs only to be touched. We have seen him weep copiously during a mere recitation. There was a tearful scene in “Oliver Twist,” if you remember. The director merely called Jackie’s attention to a little kitten that had wandered on the set. It was a scraggly little feline waif. “That kitten’s hungry, Jackie,” said the director. “Poor little thing.” In an instant, tears were streaming down Jackie’s cheeks. They tell an interesting story in Hollywood of the night Jackie attended one of the American Legion fights given for charity. Little Jackie got into the ring and shook hands with the pugilists and, as the crowd cheered enthusiastically, his father stepped into the squared circle. Papa Coogan asked Jackie to do a little scene. “You’re just a poor little boy, Jackie,” said his father kneeling beside him on the canvas, while the great arena hushed under the glaring lights. “You’re earning a httle money selling papers but you’re tired and cold. When you come back to your little home, you find your baby sister is very sick. When you count your pennies, you realize you haven’t enough money to buy the medicine the doctor ordered. You go to her bedside. . . . Now, Jackie, do it.”
Without music, atmosphere or props, Jackie walked to the side of the imaginary cradle and, after trying to smile and count his fancied pennies, burst into a flood of real tears, burying his shaking head in his arms. Yes, the audience cried, too. Norma Talmadge uses music on her sets during emotional scenes but she says she does it as a screen from the studio atmosphere. Music blots out distracting things, she says. Miss Talmadge, too, insists upon absolute quiet. Tears come to her gradually, only after she has concentrated completely upon her role. Do you remember the scene in “The Miracle Man” where Thomas Meighan came to realize that he had bartered everything worth while for a handful of gold and breaks down in tears? Meighan always was a competent actor but he hadn’t cried. Somehow it seemed unmanly to him and he simply couldn’t. At least, so runs the story as George Loane Tucker once told it. For two days and two nights. Tucker kept Meighan practically without sleep and food by rushing work at the studio. By that tune Meighan’s nerves had been worn to an edge. So the two, the director and the future star, went on a long walk. Tucker talked long and earnestly of the scene. When they returned to the studio, Meighan had hardly faced the camera when he broke down and wept. The result was the scene as you saw it on the screen. Alice Terry’s tears, obtained under the direction of her husband. Rex Ingram, are earned in strenuous fashion. Miss Terry is very slow to arrive at the lachrymal moment. Some times it takes a day or two of continuous work, pressure and almost friction, before the tear comes. Larry Trimble tells an interesting story of the way he obtained tears from Rubye de Remer during the filming of “The Auction Block.” Like Miss Terry, Miss de Remer responds slowly. But Trimble resolved not to use the glycerine bottle. He told the wardrobe woman to give Rubye a pair of shoes one size too small. The desired scene was to show a young wife, heart broken by her husband’s actions, sitting on the edge of her bed in tears, sobbing, “I can’t stand any more.” Mr. Trimble kept Miss de Remer standing for hours. He had sandwiches sent in for lunch—and kept her standing to eat them. This continued all day, although Miss de Remer never realized the plot. Work continued into the night. Finally 11 o’clock came. Miss de Remer was on the edge of breaking. Her feet aching and her nerves worn out, the actress collapsed on the edge of the bed, wailing, “I can’t stand any more.” The cameraman caught the scene and Trimble explained his ruse. But they had to cut off Miss de Remer’s shoes. However, the scene established her as an actress. The use of music in the western studios was introduced at Lasky’s by Geraldine Farrar. The music of Bizet’s “Carmen” was played during the filming of that opera. When Miss Farrar did “Joan the Woman,” the Marseillaise was used as the theme of the filming music, just as it was later utilized in the incidental music written to accompany the production. For her love scenes, notably the one with Wallie Reid in this production, Miss Farrar always called for Charles Gardner’s “The Lilac.” Old fashioned tunes were popular with Bill Hart in emotional scenes, particularly an old timer called “Sweet Bunch of Daisies.” Theda Bara used to always insist upon a harpist during her tense scenes. During the shooting of “Cleopatra” and “Du Barry,” the harpist always used the same theme, which was described by the studio forces as ” an Egyptian chant dug up in an orient tomb along the Nile.” A musician happened to visit the studio one day, however, and identified the haunting melody as Gabriel-Marie’s “La Cinquantaine,” otherwise “The Golden Wedding.” Imagine Cleopatra using her wiles on poor old Marc to the tune of a golden wedding melody! Miss Bara was highly partial to Verdi, too, and also to Massenet’s Elegie Among the directors who always employ an orchestra is Marshall Neilan. Micky has a four piece orchestra on his pay roll all the time. Here it is interesting to note that Micky is an excellent musician, although he never took a lesson. When Neilan was in New York recently, he met Irving Berlin at a party. Micky sat down to a piano and played Berlin’s “Say It With Music.” “Remarkable,” exclaimed the king of popular music. “You have the real feeling of jazz—that’s the number as I really fancied it.” On the other hand, Rupert Hughes, although he likes to play between scenes, banishes all musicians during actual shooting.
It is possible to go on endlessly enumerating melodies that stir certain stars to tears. Betty Compson, for instance, can sob graphically for the camera if she hears “Aloha.” Dorothy Dalton, for instance, needs “Kiss Me Again.” Mae Busch wants “Home, Sweet Home.” And so it goes. Anyway, the reign of the glycerine bottle is ended. The motion picture camera is relentless in disclosing the real along with the artificial.