Where She Danced
By Elizabeth Kendall – 1979
Though it be as perfect in outline and ornament as classic taste can make it, as simple and serviceable as the most energetic worker can desire, a costume has not business to exist, is, indeed, an embodied crime, if it deforms or weakens or tortures the body it pretends to serve. For that should be sacred: it is Gods handiwork. He made it as he wished it to be; capable, by wonderful mechanisms, of swift and easy motion; shaped in contours which artists despair of reproducing; and so responsive to our will, so varied in its capacities, so lightly moved from place to place by its own powers, that in its perfect state the soul which inhabits it is almost unconscious of its existence, and knows it only as a source of help and pleasure. —from Dress Reform,
EDITED BY ABBA GOOLD WOOLSON, Boston, 1874
American theater of those days was anything but flat—David Belasco and his colleagues had generated astonishing amounts of motion within the proscenium’s boundaries: using actors, scenery, crowds, and massive music and lighting effects.
Griffith brought all that theatrical weaponry to the movies—as Ruth St. Denis did to dance. Griffith had toured with Nance O’Neil and Julia Marlowe, played Shakespeare and melodrama, and written a play himself; he understood rhythms like Belasco’s and Belasco’s staging: his private dramas played out against the movement of the crowd. But Griffith also brought some extra-theatrical concerns to movies similar to those the first dancers brought to their art. He loved literature as Isadora Duncan did, especially the Romantic poets Tennyson, Keats, Poe—and most of all he loved Walt Whitman. Griffith was a Whitman-esque soul like Isadora: he thrived on fresh air, action, and love of his fellow man, alias his audience. Like Whitman and like Isadora, Griffith’s convictions were wedded to his physical self—his gusts of feeling determined the form of this new art of movies without previous guidelines from inside it. He made his art out of his senses and his deepest convictions, as they had theirs. On the screen he translated the passion of a story, the elan, into a cadenced flow just as Whitman had poured his physicality into the vicissitudes of words and Isadora had shaped her body around the dynamics of music.
The American health and open-air movement of the time supported this experimental physicality; Griffith’s own senses had been educated by it. He was a physical-culture man; he believed in Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of fitness and in exercise fetishes. He could have been a Ralstoner with his theories—“a man should sweat at least once a day to stay healthy,” he liked to say. Obviously Griffith’s American delight in health and Nature fed his visual sense just as it had Isadora’s and that of such Pictorial photographers as Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Anne Brigman. Griffith reproduced their effects, whether consciously or unconsciously, in his films. He was the one who took the movies out of the studios into the outdoors where there was light and air. He filmed his actors in woods, in meadows; he caught the light on grasses and aureoles of light in girls’ hair. In 1910 he was one of the first directors to try out California as a location, and there he discovered desert weather; he plunged his actors into high winds and sandstorms, capturing the resonance for his age of a human figure in Nature, which photographers and dancers also understood. On the other hand Griffith was just as richly aware of rooms, closed spaces, corners, closets, and all interiors; these two extremes of environment marked his breadth as an artist of motion and space, of the hanging symbolism of space, the stylization of space around an actor.
His grasp of space shows up in a film like The Avenging Conscience (1915), the story of a young man (Henry Walthall) struggling between love for a girl (Blanche Sweet) and a desire to kill his uncle who opposes the match. The scenes between the young man and his uncle are pictured in one closed and darkened office while the scenes with the girl happen outdoors in fields, by streams, on paths by flower hedges; Griffith even poses the two against archaic stone benches and fountains—the domain of the “classic” dance. The characters’ states of mind are portrayed through the indoor and outdoor landscapes around them. And when the story of the movie ends happily (the murder was all a dream) Griffith summarizes in a little coda of dancing, with children in Greek garb peeking out from trees like cherubimic hamadryads, and one little boy dressed as Pan playing the pipes.
Griffith’s relation to dance went beyond shared imagery; he had a keen sense of it as both a theatrical and a social art and of the place it played in people’s lives. Dance scenes appear in many of the 400-odd shorts he made for the Biograph company from 1908 to 1913. Also in these early films he began to invent his characters’ pantomimic language, which for the girls included impromptu dancing and skipping about. Some of his shorts took dance as a main subject and examined its human repercussions—something newspapers and novels of the time loved to do. Oil and Water (1912) starred Blanche Sweet as a dancer torn between career and home, and showed a dance performance which reminded the critic Vachel Lindsay of Isadora Duncan. Also in 1912, Griffith decided he needed a resident dance expert, so he lured a young dancer, Gertrude Bambrick, away from Gertrude Hoffmans Ballets Russes spectacle when it came through Los Angeles. Miss Bambrick’s first task on joining Griffith was to teach him to dance, and ragtime dancing became his favorite recreation. Next she was put to work on the dance scenes in The Mothering Heart (1912): “If nothing else it will teach cafe managers in the interior how to run a cafe,” said Griffith. She had a bigger project in 1912.
In the four-reel feature Judith of Bethulia, she led the Assyrian dancing girls in two long Orientale dances she had arranged. Judith of Bethulia, released in 1913, was the very first American feature film, and a landmark. Although Griffith had known the script of the popular stage play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, he mounted his Judith completely in film terms—with the help of dance. The actors were the ensemble of very young people who had now worked with Griffith for four years and absorbed his monumental vision of what silent acting could mean: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words,” he told them. “We’ve found a universal language—a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that. Remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”
Griffith, often accused of anachronisms and of being mired in the nineteenth century, did depend mostly on old theatrical plots. But he knew more clearly than Belasco or any theater director that those old stories were parables, and within their bounds he changed the medium of acting into a craft that was as stylized as dance, and as different as dance was from old-style stage acting. Moreover, Griffith knew how his style of acting was different; he saw that actors who came to him from the theater used “quick broad gestures,” whereas he wanted them to find a slower, more musical motion. He was trying to develop “realism” in pictures and “the values of deliberation and repose.” Realism to Griffith meant abolishing the static, pompous individual acting of bad theater in favor of lifelikeness, continuity, and the surprising rhythms of human emotions. He had a vision of ensemble acting like that of the new schools of European theater, of Eleonora Duse’s company or the Moscow Art Theater.
Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia was the first completely American version of this new theatrical style—American because in the very progression of gestures it mixed the humble, the grand, the comic, and because its characters maintained a kind of fond distance from this material. None of the actors was really grown up; their gestures seemed like play-acting and so lightened the tragic legend of Judith of the Bible, who must kill the Persian king, Holofernes, to save her people. All the acting was a collage of current attitudes: some theatrical gestures, plus Salome-dancing, Delsarte-posing, Ballets Russes impersonations, along with the latest fashionable mannerisms. The mixture made it American. Judith (Blanche Sweet) prays to her Hebrew god, or anoints herself with ashes in the grand manner of Sarah Bernhardt or Mrs. Leslie Carter, yet she is so young the gestures look softened and not so serious—playful. In the seduction scene, wearing a shimmering sheath and peacock feathers, Judith rounds a shoulder and edges out of the tent like any young lady at a Tango Tea. Blanche Sweets Judith is a keen portrait of a young girl in a crisis trying on grown-up ways to move and act. All the characters are “playing” with more serious and “artistic” models. Opposite her Henry Walthall plays a sensuous king on the Ballets Russes model, while his eunuch, an actor named Jaquel Lanot, is madly miming the attitudes of a Russian Ballet slave, just like Mikhail Mordkin, Theodore or Alexis Kosloff (or Nijinsky, who hadn’t yet been seen in America) in Scheherazade.
Lanot’s favorite pose, or Griffith’s, is a decorative one of listening, with head cocked, foot pointed back, arms thrust down, and palms flexed. And in among the pantomime close-ups we see several ensemble scenes of Assyrian dancing led by Gertrude Bambrick—an orgy of Salome-Radha snake-charmer motions. The mime and the dancing blend rhythmically with the story’s narrative sweep—the martial Persians in chariots galloping through the dust toward the doomed Bethulia, the weakened Bethulians crowding the city streets in a plea for water. Dance and mime marked pauses in the narrative and provided just the “deliberation and repose” Griffith was after. Moreover, the dancing rituals thickened the atmosphere, and the dancelike clothing, Biblical drapes, and Persian finery commented perfectly on the new fluid manners and costumes that were part of modern-day society.
Most of Griffith’s feature films after Judith included a social dance scene or a glimpse of theater dance in the course of the story. And impromptu dancing was more than ever a keynote of his girl-characters’ self-revelations to their audience. His actresses found ways of “dancing” for every part—even the fussy heroine of True Heart Susie (1920), played by Lillian Gish, skips about jerkily to show her happiness.
Dance training was crucial to Griffith’s whole idea of acting-and in fact, most of his actresses were dancers already. Blanche Sweet, born in 1896, came to Biograph in 1908 from Gertrude Hoffmans company of dancers, although she had begun in straight theater at age four with Chauncey Olcott and then turned to dance. Miss Sweet still considered herself a dancer in those first years of movies, sometimes taking time off from Griffith to tour with Gertrude Hoffman —and since Blanche Sweet appeared both in Hoffmans first burlesque of Salome and the “Spring Song” and in the first Biograph shorts, that means she was present at the American births of both dance and movies.
The other early actresses brought similar dancing-acting experience from a theater that expected all of its players, even the youngest children, to be physically agile, to sing, dance, speak monologues, and play to the ensemble. The Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy, born in 1896 and 1898, danced Highland flings in Sarah Bernhardt’s company and danced, sang, spoke, whatever was required, in many other companies. Mary Pickford, born in 1893, was a child ingenue on the touring circuit for ten years, then starred in David Belasco’s The Warrens of Virginia on Broadway just before she came to Griffith.
Mae Marsh, born in 1895, was the only one of Griffith’s first actresses who didn’t come from the theater but learned everything from Griffith himself. But Mae Marsh was the one who in 1921 wrote a book on film acting which reveals just how close were the dynamics of early dance and movies. She talks in the book about finding “character business,” fresh ways to sit, walk, gesture, dance, that will reveal the essence of the role. She discusses the constant rhythmic awareness of silent screen actors; how close-ups, for instance, were played with more pause and restraint than the more numerous three quarter shots. These concerns are part of all good acting, but they were the core of early film art—and also the kind of dance that was invented here. To find new rhythmic gestures for character roles was Ruth St. Denis’ motive when she made up Radha and The Cobrasy and it would remain the motive for the modern dancers who followed her. Miss Ruth, like Mae Marsh, was also a specialist in slowing down; by taking direct control of the pace inside of her own body she had made herself into a close-up of a Belasco play. Dance and movies, using different emphases, different equipment, but the same skills, were exploring theatrical time and theatrical behavior at the same moment.
In terms of the movies’ growth, 1915 was the perfect time for Ruth St. Denis to arrive in Los Angeles with a dance school. D. W. Griffith responded to Denishawn’s arrival by sending seven of his actresses including the Gish sisters over for lessons twice a week (said the New York Dramatic Mirror, May 13, 1916), and the connection between the school and Griffith’s studio grew. Griffith himself went to watch Denishawn classes; that is where he first saw the young Carol Dempster, who became his star of the late teens and twenties. It is striking how closely Griffith’s Babylon matched the look of Orientale discovered simultaneously in America by such figures as Ruth St. Denis and in Europe by people like Paul Poiret, and echoed and elaborated by Gertrude Hoffman in vaudeville and by the various Russian dancers on the concert stage. Babylon with its great towers also prefigured the mammoth Manhattan skyline of the twenties, and the gorgeous air of revelry that took over that city in its heyday.
However, if Griffith’s visual sense was modern and cosmopolitan in tone, his view of dancing was American, like Ted Shawn’s. He valued dance not for its choreographic patterns but for the rhythmic and sensual mood it evoked on the screen, a mood that carried an unbearable freshness for Americans.
To his vast dance sequences Griffith added close-ups in Intolerance of the “Babylonian Virgins of the Sacred Fire”; these emerged as a kind of adagio movement to the whole. According to history, certain Babylonian girls gave themselves ritualistically to men who came to the Temple of Ishtar to worship; they were pictured in Intolerance in beautiful slow-motion shots, sculpted in light and shadow and incense smoke. The wonderful vivacity of the whole Babylonian episode arose from Griffith’s profound imaginative belief in his own metaphor.
That these Virgins really had existed was important to him, but his Virgins were clearly American girls dressed up in antique array, meeting the camera with unobstructed innocence and sweetness. This appeal matched Denishawn’s; the pseudo-antique ceremonies served as frame for the revelation of the grave good will, the clean and unknowing sensuality, of the American girl. The Sacred Virgin sequences gave the audience repose in a bath of atmosphere and a long satisfying exchange with the performers, a precious glimpse of their inner beings, intimate but not pornographic. Lillian Gish described Griffith’s intentions in her 1969 book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me: Mr. Griffith wanted to show these young Virgins in costumes that would be seductive yet in no way offensive. All the young girls were dressed in floating chiffons and photographed in motion, not dancing but moving rhythmically and sensually to music. Some of the scenes were shot through veiling or fountain sprays to add to the erotic yet poetic effect.
Intolerance , though it wasn’t as popular as Griffith’s famous 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, highlighted an era of grand antique spectacles whose premieres in big cities cost two dollars a seat—as much as theater openings. All of these, movies like Thomas Ince’s Civilization, Cecil DeMille’s ]oan the Woman (with Geraldine Farrar), and Fox Studio’s Daughter of the Gods (starring Annette Kellerman), included scenes of dancing girls and dancing orgies. They corresponded to the live pageants that seized the country’s imagination at the same time—of which Denishawn’s 1916 Egypt, Greece and India was the prime example. In the same way that Denishawn’s pageant echoed the spectacle-extravaganzas of the 1890s, movie spectacles also called forth old theatrical grandeur. The Vamp, for instance, was film’s rediscovery of the grand actress, for whom a full spectacle was required. Movie vamps were the heirs of Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Carter; Theda Bara at Fox in 1916—1917 remade a number of these actresses’ star roles for the screen— Cleopatra, Under Two Flags (a Belasco hit of 1902), Camille, Du Barry. Louise Glaum was the Vamp at Triangle Studios; she played in The Idolators, and for Sex (1917), she borrowed a peacock costume from Ruth St. Denis. Sex was one of the many spectacles that featured scenes with Denishawn dancers. (Some others were: The Lily and the Rose, 1915; The Victoria Cross, 1916; A Little Princess, Conscience, The Legion of Death, Joan the Woman, Cleopatra, all in 1917; Hidden Pearls, Wild Youth, Bound in Morocco, 1918; Pettigrew’s Girls and Backstage, 1919.)