Archive for Summer Silents

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Sparrows (1926)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by leclisse

Mary Pickford (center) as Molly, with brood in tow Sparrows (1926) presented a radical departure from what audiences of the day expected from a Mary Pickford film.  The looming influences of German Expressionism cast a deathly pallor over Pickford’s usual bouquets of dimples and cheer, so much so that Variety groused, “There isn’t a ray of brightness.  For once, a Pollyanna is submerged, smothered and muffled in sinister gloom.  There are reeks of agonies and the cumulative effect is oppressive.”  Members of the public even complained, with some questioning the safety of the film’s child actors.

Pickford and husband Douglas Fairbanks visited Berlin, Germany in 1925, and the effects of this visit reverberate in nearly every aspect of this film.  Sparrows‘s cinematographer, Charles Rosher, was hired by Germany’s UFA studios to serve as photographic consultant on F. W. Murnau’s  Faust (1926), and he went on to serve as one of the photographers on the magnificent Sunrise (1927).  Aside from the hunching, grotesque character of Mr. Grimes, the film’s sets convey the aged and exaggerated settings of a nightmare world.  The swamps and baby farm appear as the products of some terrible dream; the wholly evil world that Mary and the children inhabit is one the exists in the absence of God or goodness of any kind.  The use of Expressionism in the film extends to the minutest of details, even down to Mary’s and Gustav von Seyffertitz‘s makeup.  Mary is almost a ghostly (or saintly, if you prefer) white, while von Seyffertitz is painted in shadows.

Mary Pickford as "Mama" MollyMary plays “Mama” Molly, a teenaged orphan who cares for a troupe of grubby urchins in the Southern swamp.  The lot of them are under the thumb of Mr. Grimes (von Seyffertitz), a satanic villain in the mold of Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).  The dichotomies of good and evil are as clearly established as the struggle between Rachel (Lillian Gish) and Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) in Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece, Night of the Hunter.  Molly, as the earth mother, bears the weight of childish goodness as she keeps the baying hounds of hell at bay (literally, at several points she protects the children from Grimes’s vicious, bloodthirsty dog).  Molly and the other children are forced laborers on the Grimes farm, trapped by surrounding swamps and the menacing figure of Grimes himself.  Tragedy is no stranger to Molly, who finds comfort in the words of the Bible. 

The children are so malnourished and overworked that, inevitably, one of them dies.  The child slips away while being cradled in Molly’s arms.  This scene is a splendid example of the Silent era’s achievements in film technology.  The barn wall that Molly faces while rocking the dying child fades away to reveal Christ in a sheep pasture.  He steps out of the picture, toward the dozing Molly, and gingerly takes the child away in his arms.  Molly stirs, unsure of what has just happened.  In one movement, she conveys a sense of wonder while still groggy with sleep; effortlessly, she regains a hold on her surroundings and glances down at the dead child in her lap.  Her sorrow is diverted toward feelings of peace as she realizes that her dream was no dream at all, and her countenance takes on a position of relief at the safety of one more child from the clutches of the Grimes farm.

The escape of Molly and the other children is one of the most harrowing scenes in any Pickford film to date.  Having escaped the danger of quicksand and the swamps, they must now shimmy their way across an unstable tree branch, hanging perilously low over a pack of snapping aligators.  The shot was achieved through a double exposure, with Pickford and the children shuffling across the tree branch, well away from the hungry aligators who were actually filmed in a separate scene and spliced together to achieve a seamless vision of terror.

A lighter moment: Molly ramming Ambrose GrimesIt can be easy to overlook the comic elements of Sparrows in consideration of the weight of its misery.  Molly must referee the intermitent bickering amongst the children, and also protect them from the bullying of Grimes’s son, Ambrose (Spec O’Donnell).  In one scene, Molly is about to wallop him with a farming tool, when the elder Grimes comes on the scene.  The only way out is to pretend she’s using the object to swat flies, and she skips away, pretending to hunt the pesky insects.  Pickford’s touches of slapstick lend the film a fairy tale quality, and serve to temper the more sobering moments of dreariness.  Sparrows is a superb blend of the best of Pickford’s earlier comedic achievements with the stunning maturity of silent film by this time in 1926.  It is a technical achievement of the first order, and the performances of not only Pickford but the entire cast are totally effective and dynamic.

Summer Silents – Mary Pickford and Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Posted in Silent Film with tags , , , on July 11, 2009 by leclisse

Insert poster for Daddy Long Legs (1919) Daddy-Long-Legs (1919) is a delight from start to finish.  The film came at a propitious moment in Mary Pickford’s career; tired of the bullying tactics resorted to by the studios through block booking, Mary, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would soon break away from this control and engineer the creation of United Artists in 1920.  Although Daddy-Long-Legs was released through First National, it was the first picture on which Mary acted completely independently as producer.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of an orphaned baby, Jerusha “Judy” Abbott (Pickford), who is found in a trashcan swaddled in newspaper.  She is brought to a spartan orphanage that is run by Mrs. Lippett (Milla Davenport), a shrewish woman with sadist tendencies that are reminiscent of Valeska Gert’s matron in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929).  In one scene, she reprimands the mischevious Judy for an infraction by scorching her finger on a hot stove.  She admonishes Judy with “God will punish little girls who steal; He will send them into a burning hot hell….”  All this seriousness is outweighed by Pickford’s comic antics.  Judy joins forces with a fellow orphan and declares the “Great Prune Strike.”  Mrs. Lippett is not amused.  Ordered outside with no supper, the two are fed by some sacks of food and a jug of hard cider that is thrown over the wall by someone outside.  This scene reaches slapstick proportions when both Judy and her co-conspirator, clearly intoxicated, stumble back inside the orphanage, leaving the remaining contents of the jug overturned.  An unsuspecting dog feeds his curiosity, and in the next shot we see it walking on two legs, trying to maintain its balance against the wall of the orphanage.  These comic vignettes are balanced by some very poignant scenes, especially when Judy is shown tending to some of the children who are too ill to join the others.  One little girl even dies in her arms; the tragedy inherent in scenes such as this serve to showcase the brilliant range of Pickford as an actress, as well as lending her adolescent characters a very adult capacity for sorrow.

Mary PickfordThe film follows Judy through the rest of her childhood and moves into her young adult life.  She is given a college education, financed by a mystery benefactor, whom Judy calls her “Daddy Long Legs.”  She has no idea who the man is, but faithfully writes him of her progress throughout the ensuing four years.  Director Marshall Neilan makes an appearance as the amorous Jimmie McBride, who competes with the much older Jarvis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) for Judy’s affections.  Neilan was said to have been Pickford’s favorite director, and his skill in bringing out the best in her work is evident in every inch of this film.  Mary’s ability to move from childhood to maturity not only displays her comedic brilliance, but also shows her to stunning physical advantage.  Her famous curls are abundantly displayed, framing her face in a lustrous halo.

At the time of its release, Daddy-Long-Legs was a smash hit at the box office.  Mary knew she could not go wrong with such material; the public clamored for her in these well-loved roles from children’s literature, and her uncanny ability to play children has hardly been matched by any actress since.  Pickford’s collaboration with director Neilan delivers a film that is all at once sweet, disarming, narratively fluid from beginning to end.  This is probably my favorite Pickford film to date.

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.

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.