Archive for d. w. griffith

Summer Silents – Some final thoughts on Lillian Gish

Posted in Books, Silent Film with tags , , , , on July 5, 2009 by leclisse

Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life (2002)I accompanied my Lillian Gish marathon with Charles Affron’s 2002 biography, Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life.  Before deciding on this particular volume, I was a bit apprehensive about its accuracy given the rather lukewarm reviews it had gotten on Amazon.  It seemed that the main criticism concerned the author’s apparent antagonism toward much of Lillian’s body of work.  I was prepared for a heavy-handed assessment of some of the most famous films in the silent canon.  What I read instead was an eloquent, level-headed look at not only the life of Gish, but also the history of the movies starting from its infancy as an art form (indeed, even before it was considered to be “art” at all).

Like many actresses, Lillian was known for shaving a few years off her birth date.  She entered film at a time when an actresses’s youth was perhaps her most important asset.  Under the harsh lights of the early Biograph studios, Lillian knew it was in her best interest to not only appear as youthful as possible, but also make sure that those around her believed in this youth as well.  The mythology of D. W. Griffith and the pioneering days of cinema were subjects that Lillian held close to her own personal mythology for the rest of her life.  She seized every opportunity to educate an increasingly fickle public about Griffith (as she called him, the “father of film”) and his revolutionary contributions to film.  She maintained the luminous virginality of her public image to the very end.  Gish never married, but she had several rumored engagements.  One, to Charles Duell, her would-be producer and business manager in the early 1920s, ended in years of litigation.  The publicity did little to damage her saintly reputation with the public, however.  While Lillian cultivated an image of fragility, she was anything but.  Physical health was very important to her (she lived to be 100), and her steely will bolstered her through an incredible career that lasted almost until her death.

Affron’s examinations of Lillian’s films reveals an author who believes completely in Gish’s talents as not only an actress, but a grand tragedienne.  What appear to be stinging commentaries on significant entries in her early work are actually fair assessments by a man who knows that Lillian’s talent far outpaces her material.  The little girl acts that she performs for Griffith are a particular point of criticism, but this is only because Lillian’s talents would be much better served with roles that truly challenged her skills.  Affron affords Gish ample praise for her inimitable performances in Broken Blossoms (1919), The White Sister (1923), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and the masterful The Wind (1928).  This book is not the product of a man who has tired of his muse; rather, it is an evaluation that has the benefit of hindsight and the tempered respect and admiration cultivated after spending years in the company of one such as Lillian Gish.

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Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on July 3, 2009 by leclisse

Lillian Gish as Henriette in Orphans of the Storm (1921)Orphans of the Storm (1921) was the last movie that Lillian made with D. W. Griffith, and following its completion she left his production company.  This was not the first time she had left Griffith — after Way Down East (1920) wrapped, Griffith urged her to go because she commanded too high a salary for his uncertain finances.  Her box office power was such that now, after an almost ten-year partnership, she was a bigger draw for audiences than Griffith was.  Orphans of the Storm would be the last critical triumph for Griffith, and the fact that it was also his last collaboration with Lillian punctuates this point rather well.

Since delving a bit more into Lillian’s work with Griffith, I find that something just turns me off about Griffith’s epic films.  Way Down East struck me the same way when I saw it several months ago, but I thought it was probably just the film itself.  Now with Birth of a Nation and Orphans under my belt as well, I see that it is probably just Griffith’s grandiose ventures in general.  I got the sense that something needed to be reined in; the sort of pastoral settings that Griffith uses in his films to denote gentility and a certain feminine ideal seem to be slathered on like too much makeup.  I can’t fault him too much, however — Griffith’s creativity was molded in the style of turn-of-the-century melodrama, as well as that of Lillian Gish.  Much of the story for this film came from the play The Two Orphans by Adolphe D’Ennery an Eugene Cormon, a critical success in the repertoire of theatrical melodrama.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish as Henriette and LouiseOrphans of the Storm concerns two sisters in Pre-Revolutionary France — Henriette (Lillian), the daughter of a poor farmer, and Louise (Dorothy Gish), the daughter of a French noblewoman who married a commoner.  Henriette and Louise are not blood sisters (Henriette’s father finds the abandoned baby Louise on the steps of a cathedral), but their bond is as close as any family and Griffith shows their utter devotion from girlhood to maturity.  Louise is a victim of the Plague, bu loses her sight when she recovers.  Henriette resolves to take her on a trip to Paris in order to seek a cure.  While there, Henriette catches the eye of a wanton nobleman who kidnaps her shortly thereafter and brings her to a party (that actually borders on orgy).  Louise, alone and without the eyes of her sister, is taken in by a ragtag family of beggars.  The matriarch, Mother Frochard (Lucille La Verne), is an old hag who will do anything for money and orders Louise to sing and beg with them.  La Verne’s performance is actually one of the highlights of the film.  Her ruthlessness is tempered somewhat by her oafish drive to get more money, family be damned.  Rather than playing to the menacing aspects of such a character, La Verne seems to play for laughs as she is so ugly and so exaggerated as to be somewhat unbelieveable.

Lillian as Henriette, in the midst of aristocratic depravityPoor Henriette is rescued from this orgiastic depravity, of course, by the handsome Chevalier de Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut), and agrees to help her search for Louise.  As luck would have it, de Vaudrey is also the nephew of Louise’s mother, who is now the Countess de Linieres (Katherine Emmet).  Lillian’s best and most touching scene occurs when she meets with the Countess.  Sitting near an open window, she hears the sweet strains of Louise’s voice in song down in the street below.  Henriette hears her, but mistakes the sound for her imagintion.  She tries to put it out of her mind, but the singing persists.  Unable to stand it anymore, she springs from her chair to survey the scene on the street.  It is Louise!  She calls desperately to her sister and makes haste to hurry downstairs.  In a cruel twist of fate she is seized at the door by the police for harboring a revolutionary, Danton (Monte Blue).  Lillian’s performance in this scene displays a wrenching delicacy that simultaneously restrains her emotions and gives them a breathtaking vibrancy, as if they were fit to burst from her fine features.

Griffith condenses the revolution, showing the storming of the Bastille and immediately following it with Robespierre (Sidney Herbert) and the Terror.  Henriette is forced to sit before a revolutionary tribunal because of her association with a nobleman (de Vaudrey), and is sentenced to death by the guillotine.  After a few hair-raising moments under the gleaming blade, Henriette is saved at the last minute (one of Griffith’s favorite plot devices) by Danton, who hears of her sentence and rushes to save her because of the kindness she previouly showed him.  All ends on a note of tranquility — Louise recovers her eyesight, and Henriette (upon the approval of Louise) agrees to marry de Vaudrey.

While Orphans enjoyed considerable critical success — many believed that it was Griffith’s return to the top of his form — the premium prices placed on tickets did not assist Griffith recoup the enormous expense he lavished on the film.  This, in addition to the considerable salary that Lillian was now able to command, was too much for his precarious finances (a situation that Griffith faced on several occasions in varying degrees with past films).  While Griffith certainly had his faults, his tireless (if not financially sound) enthusiasm for the medium of cinema is truly remarkable.  His creative visions bordered on the boundless, and I can’t help but feel that it was unfortunate that they also proved to be his financial ruin.

Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and Broken Blossoms (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on June 26, 2009 by leclisse

Theatrical poster for Broken Blossoms (1919)Broken Blossoms (1919) is a significant departure for D. W. Griffith away from the prestigious epics he had produced by 1918 (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World), toward something more straightforward yet delicately ethereal.  Lillian Gish stars as Lucy, the 15-year-old daughter of prizefighter Battling Burrows (played to the sadistic hilt by Donald Crisp).  Waifish Lucy is the object of Battling’s abuse and the outlet for his anger.  Lucy cowers when she comes near him, ever fearful that she will receive yet another beating for some unknown offense.  Incredibly, Burrows reprimands her for her constant state of fear. “Why can’t you smile?” he snarls.  Ever compliant, Lucy takes two fingers and forces the corners of her mouth up in a bizarre attempt to smile for her father.  As in the climactic closet scene, Lucy is the picture of tragedy here, when we see that something so common as a smile is completely foreign to her abusive life.

Intertitle card for Broken Blossoms (1919)One day while in town shopping for the evening meal, we see that a Chinese shopkeeper, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) lets his gaze linger adoringly on little Lucy.  There is no violent sexuality or malice in his look, as might be expected from her abusive father, but rather a sort of dreamy quality.  Lucy is his vision of heaven in the pits of the grimy Limehouse district in London.  Barthelmess as the Chinese Cheng does not stoop to easy ethnic stereotypes, which are readily available from Griffith (the film’s subtitle is “The Yellow Man and the Girl”).  Some of the film’s title cards contain an interesting mixture of Anglo paternalism (one referencing Battling’s attitudes toward Cheng describes how he hates anyone not born in his own country of England) with blatant ethnic slurs (after being rescued by Cheng, Lucy asks him, “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?”).  This is a step beyond the sort of typing exhibited in Birth, but it is nonetheless very visible.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms (1919)Inevitably, Burrows goes on to beat Lucy into a senseless heap.  She struggles to make her way out of this den of violence, and wanders the fog-lined streets of Limehouse.  Exhausted, she collapses in the middle of Cheng’s shop.  In a slight opium stupor, Cheng cannot believe that this vision has come to his little cubbyhole.  Wasting no time, he carries the senseless Lucy upstairs and outfits the room into something fit for a princess so she can make a full recovery.

The climax of the film comes during the famous “closet scene.”  Burrows discovers that Lucy has been recovering in one of the upstairs rooms of Cheng’s shop.  Outraged that his daughter may have had relations with Cheng, he storms into the shop, racing upstairs and trashes the apartment.  He grabs Lucy and takes her back home, where he prepares to giver her the beating of a lifetime.  Totally given over to terror, Lucy locks herself in a closet, begging Burrows not to beat her because “t’ain’t nothing wrong.”  Lucy runs in circles within the narrow closet, her face a mask of total shock all the while clutching a little doll given to her by Cheng.  While preparing for this scene, Lillian visited a mental asylum in order to learn the true look of terror.  Her performance in this scene is nothing short of masterful, displaying the sort of tragedy that no child actor could ever achieve (Lillian initially balked at Griffith’s request that she play Lucy, because, at 25, she thought herself too old for the part).  Burrows takes a hatchet to the door, and finally kills Lucy with his rage.

The lifeless Lucy (Lillian Gish) in Broken Blossoms (1919)Of course, tragedy can be the only ending to the story of such brokenness.  Cheng finds the lifeless Lucy, and brings her back to his shop.  He lays her out on the bed she used, putting things around her as he would on a funeral pyre.  Cheng shoots Burrows, which is another tragedy in itself.  He originally came to England from China in order to spread the pacifist meassage of the Buddha.  With nothing else to live for, he then kills himself.

The photography in Broken Blossoms is some of the most beautiful that I have ever seen in a Griffith film.  Griffith makes liberal use of tinting in order to show daytime and nighttime, which further lends itself to the ethereal mood of the film.  Clocking in at only 90 minutes, the story of Blossoms is succinct and splendidly told.  Every scene has its place (which is more than I can say for the more operatic Birth) and every actor is allowed to explore the characters to the fullest extent of creativity.  This films is truly a masterful example of not only Griffith’s and Gish’s work, but of silent cinema as a whole.

Summer Silents – Lillian Gish and The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , on June 24, 2009 by leclisse

I’ve decided to get a little more thematic during the summer months since I have a break from school work.  To kickstart this project is what I’ve called “Summer Silents,” where I focus on a particular personality in silent film that I don’t know much about.  Along with viewing several of that star’s films, I’ll also be reading a biography in order to get a better understanding of the film (and star’s) evolution within the context of general film history.

The first in this series is Lillian Gish.  I had already seen several of her films (Way Down East (1920), The Wind (1927), Night of the Hunter (1955)), but this really did not cover her profound partnership with D. W. Griffith.  Lillian (along with sister Dorothy) was introduced to Griffith at Biograph Studios in 1912 by actress Mary Pickford.  The sisters were hesitant to enter the immoral world of the “flickers,” as they had been performing on the “legitimate stage” for ten years by then.  Financial concerns won the girls and their mother over, however, and the Gish-Griffith partnership began.

Theatrical poster for The Birth of a Nation (1915)The Birth of a Nation  (1915) is perhaps the most controversial and discussed film in United States history.  Its reputation as a testament to the deep-seated racism of white America in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction is remembered first and foremost; it is rarely if ever popularly spoken of as a revolutionary piece of filmmaking produced while film was yet struggling to expand beyond the strictures of a few reels.  The story for Birth came to Griffith from Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), both literary bestsellers that portray the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of Southern whites.  Griffith was an appreciative audience for such characterizations.  As the son of one of the Confederacy’s decorated calvary, Jacob Griffith, the young D. W. was reared in the spirit of the Confederate South, which still simmered with resentment against their defeat.  Financing for such a technically unprecedented venture proved to be shaky.  Griffith even had to sell some personal stock in order to bring the films budget up to $110,000 — a remarkable sum for a film at that time.  Because Griffith was constantly short of much-needed funds, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother Mary Gish even invested some savings in exchange for a return of the profits.

Lillian GishLillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman in Birth rarely gives her chance to stretch her talents as an actress or a tragedienne.  Rather, her presence seems to inhabit a largely decorative purpose.  Elsie is the daughter of congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), a northern abolitionist.  She is a doting daughter and a patriotic sister who sees her brothers off to war.  Inspired by the cause, she becomes a hospital nurse.  There is even one scene where, she passes by a young sentry who longingly sighs (twice) after watching her walk by.  Her grip on the audience does not clench until the latter part of the film, when one of her father’s underlings — the mulatto Silas Lynch (George Seimann) —  asks for Elsie’s hand in marriage.  Elsie, clearly disgusted at the prospect, refuses and tries to leave his lascivious presence.  Lynch grabs her, shaking her long, touseled blonde hair with his anger.  At the last minute, Elsie is saved by the fortuitous arrival of the Klan.  She even leads the victory parade that caps the film when, triumphant, the Klan march through town to the cheers of whites crowding both sides of the street.

Title cardGriffith rather famously excluded black actors from his cast because, apparently, he did not think they were talented enough to play the film’s black characters.  White actors in blackface substituted for them instead, bringing out the worst beliefs of white racism.  They are shown as buffoons, drunks, sexual predators, simpleminded lackeys, and every other conceiveable stereotype under the sun.  Charles Affron notes in Lillian Gish: Her Life, Her Legend, that a 1916 article in Photoplay magazine rather candidly reveals that Griffith also did not want black-blooded actors to touch one of his white actresses.

Birth is credited with revolutionizing several cinematic techniques, including the use of night photography, the camera “iris” effect, the extensive use of color tinting to convey psychological moods of the characters, and many others (see Filmsite‘s exhaustive list here).  This is not to say that this was the first time these techniques were employed — Griffith used at least some of them in his prevous Biograph works, and the international film scene (specifically in Italy) had already produced some impressive historical epics.  Technical achievements aside, I tried to appreciate this film from (at least) its irrevocable place in film history.  It is hard to really understand how audiences received the film in 1915, since we are so far removed from that time.  President Woodrow Wilson famously claimed that it was his favorite movie.  The primitive state of technology is evident, but what Griffith does with it is beyond much of the output of film generated at this time.  I can’t say I would want to watch Birth again, because it struck me more than anything as an artifact of its time.