Friday Facts

The Birth of a Nation PosterPoster for The Birth of a Nation

Hello, and you are very welcome to the third part of the article ‘The Birth of  Era’ by the Great Silent Film actor Lillian Gish. I’m nearly a week late with it, but study called for a couple of Post-Grad Exams earlier this week and sure I’m back on top of things now. Anyway, this article has been a wonderful insight into the life of an actor, and indeed the crew, of one of the great silent film classics during the pioneering days of Hollywood. From little acorns like this grew the vast forest that is Hollywood and the film industry of the 21st century. I hope you enjoy this third part of this wonderful article. If you haven’t read the first two sections you can find them in the category ‘Friday Facts‘, which is on this WordPress website.

Billy BitzerBilly Bitzer

“The cameraman for The Birth of a Nation was Billy Bitzer, who, together with Mr. Griffith, was the inventor of the various new devices employed in the photography of the picture – devices never used before, and innovations in the art of motion-picture photography. Among us actors he was famous for his accurate eye, and he left his mark on everything his lens faced by bringing to accurate vision on the screen many things the eye itself could not discern. This was wonderful for battlefields, but most trying on faces. We used to beg for our close-ups to be taken just after dawn or before sunset, as the soft yellow glow was much easier to work in than the hard, overhead sun of midday.”

Henry B. WalthalHenry B. Walthall, or Wally, as he was affectionately called, came from Alabama, and was everything in life that his character of the Little Colonel was on the screen: patient, dear, and lovable, but with little idea of time. Consequently all during the filming of the picture there was a man hired for the sole purpose of getting him into make-up and to work on time, which in those days was around seven in the morning (that meant getting up at five and working steadily, sometimes without lunch, until sundown).”

The Birth of a Nation SceneThe Birth of a Nation Scene

“Sometimes, while Griffith was making scenes we were not in, he would send us to practice walking, first with comedy, then with drama, with pathos, or with tragedy. When he was satisfied with that, we would have to learn to run in these different manners. Then we would have to do it with subtlety, for when the camera would be close to us, then broader, for when the camera would be in the distance (which would necessitate acrobatics); all this with complete body control and balance, as it might have to be done on a sea wall or on a mountain top. You had to know how to dance and handle horses, or if you didn’t, these had to be learned outside of studio hours.”

The Wind machine is on overdriveThe Wind Machine on Overdrive

“It is very strange in those old pictures to watch the wind blowing through the rooms, when the property man had forgotten to tack down curtains, tablecloths, and such tell-tale properties.”

The Birth of a Nation ExtrasSome of The Birth of a Nation extras dressed up as Ghosts

“In The Birth of a Nation we used as many as six hundred people, and the complete cost of the picture was ninety-one thousand dollars. It was the first motion picture to run for two hours, and to be shown in a legitimate theatre twice a day at theatre prices. Its first run in New York was for forty-seven consecutive weeks at the Liberty Theatre. When it was shown in Boston it caused race riots and the firemen had to be called out in assisting the police in dispersing the mob.”

President WilsonPresident Wilson

Mr. Griffith had his reward, however, when President Wilson saw it at the White House and said: ‘It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.’ When this news flashed through the country, and it was learned that a mere motion picture had the power to stir feelings so deeply, The Birth of a Nation‘s reputation was made, and motion pictures took their place as an important part of daily life.”

The end credits

And so, that’s that for another edition of Friday Facts. It’s quite a number of days late, but I’ll be back soon with another post of Friday Facts and you’ll never know what I could dig up. This has been a hugely interesting article by Lillian Gish, which was originally published back in 1937 in an old magazine called the State Magazine. I’ve learned an awful lot of what was life like on the early sets of Hollywood through this article and I hope to have some more interesting facts for you for next week. Also if you have any facts from the Silent Era you want to share with us, please drop us a line by filling out our Contact Us form, or just leave a message in the Comment field below. Bye for now  …   and that’s a Wrap!

Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee

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Friday Facts

The Birth of a NationThe Birth of a Nation Title

Hello and welcome back to Friday Facts. I’m currently looking through an article that was written by Lillian Gish in 1937, so here are some more extracts from the article The Birth of a Era by Lillian Gish from the State Magazine. The focus of this article was, if you remember based around the production of The Birth of a Nation and the experiences Lillian Gish had on the set with D. W. Griffith, amongst others.

Margaret Cameron in The Birth of a NaationMargaret Cameron in The Birth of a Nation

There was a standard call for rehearsal whenever there was rain or the sun disappeared, as at such times all cameras stopped, since it was before the days of artificial lights. During the rainy season there would be weeks of rehearsals, with Mr. Griffith outlining stories to be filmed far into the future. Some of them, including Faust and Joan of Arc, never reached the screen. We were rarely assigned parts, and the younger members of the company always rehearsed for the older members when the story was being developed, as all the ‘writing’ was done by Griffith as he moved groups of characters around a room.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 1The Birth of a Nation Scene 1

When the story was ready to go before the camera, the older players who were to play the parts on the screen came forward and acted the parts they had been watching us rehearse for them. This method gave them the advantage of not being over-rehearsed, and also of watching the story quietly unfold before their eyes, giving them ideas that might have escaped had they not been kept fresh for the actual creation. It also taught the more inexperienced members what eventually would be expected of them.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 2The Birth of a Nation Scene 2

At first I was not cast to play in The Clansman. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed, this being a big picture, that the main assignments would go to the older members. But one day while we were rehearsing the scene where the colored man picks up the northern girl gorilla-fashion, my hair, which was very blond, fell far below my waist, and Griffith, seeing the contrast in the two figures, assigned me to play Elsie Stoneman (who was to have been Mae Marsh). My sister, a child at the time, was to have played the girl of twelve, little sister to the Colonel.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 3The Birth of a Nation Scene 3

Very often we would play episodes without knowing the complete story, or in which film Griffith was going to use them, as he shrouded his ideas in great secrecy for fear another studio would hear of them and get them on the screen first. Only Griffith knew the continuity of The Birth of a Nation in its final form. There was much anxiety, and many tears shed, over the assignment of parts, as we all wanted to prove our worth before it was too late, and with photography in its undeveloped state we knew we would be paseé by the time we reached eighteen.”

The Birth of a Nation Scene 4The Birth of a Nation Scene 4

And that’s all for this week’s Friday Facts. Thank you for reading and don’t forget to check in next week for the concluding part of the article The Birth of an Era by Lillian Gish. But also, please, if you have any facts from the silent-era you want to pass onto us, let us know by contacting us on our Contacts page. Good-luck for now then!

A Quote on Thursday

ver_hardy_&_Mrs_HardyOliver Hardy about to be chastised by the Mrs in Blockheads

Oliver Hardy in Blockheads (1938):

Oliver Hardy: But, Dear, I haven’t seen Stan in 20 years.
Mrs. Hardy: I couldn’t see him in a hundred years.

dore_schary_portrait_lgDore Schary

MGM Production Chief  Dore Schary when asked who he thought were the great Hollywood Pioneering Directors :

D. W. Griffith, Rex Ingram, Cecil B. DeMille, and Erich von Stroheim – in that order.”

Playwright Robert SherwoodRobert Sherwood working through all the hardships of having a painter over his shoulder

Playwright Robert Sherwood on Rex Ingram and Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

… the grandiose posturing of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille appear pale and artificial in the light of this new production.

stan_laurel___sons_of_the_desertStan Laurel in Sons of the Desert

Stan Laurel:

You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.

 

D. W. GriffithD. W. Griffith

D. W. Griffith:

I am fond of depicting the lives of young folks for one thing, and if you don’t have parts for girls or young men, you must absolutely have young people to fill them – that is generally acknowledged now.”

Lillian Gish

 

Lillian Gish with her ‘Come and get me eyes!’

Lillian Gish:

Young man, if God had wanted you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your bellybutton.”

 

Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee

Midweek Matinee

Acting Styles 1
BE NATURAL

One of the biggest problems people have with silent films is the acting style.

Lee StrasbergThe growing naturalism of the sound era culminated in the Method of Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. Derived from the Russiona theatre director and theorist Stanislavski, the Method emphasised inner life and emotional truth. If that truth expressed itself sometimes in muttering and uncertainty, then that was a fair price for truth.

Actors like Brando, Newman, Clift, Burstyn, Dean and Karl Marden moved far beyond the stage-school approach which made early sound films look like a slow day in Noel Coward’s living room. These guys were allowed to mumble. They were required to bump into the furniture.

If the upright style of Grant and Gable now looked old-fashioned, then the gesticulations of the silent era seemed positively antique. But even in that time, there were visionaries of naturalism. Some were actors, most notably Lillian Gish. One was a director, now forgotten, called Alice Guy-Blaché. Guy-Blaché’s cry was “BE NATURAL”. She had the motto hung on her studio wall.For more information on Ms Guy-Blaché, and for a chance to support a new film about her career, visit the Kickstarter site by following the link here!

And be natural.Lillian Gish

Posted by Kevin McGee

Friday Facts

Gillian GishLillian Gish

In 1937, Lillian Gish wrote an account in the Stage Magazine about her experiences when filming The Birth of a Nation, and her time under D. W. Griffith. These are some of the extracts from that article:

Birth of a NationScene from The Birth of a Nation

As I look back upon the making of the picture, the chief difficulty seems to have been finding the money to go with the ideas Mr. Griffith had in his head – or perhaps I should say in his heart, as he was from Kentucky, the son of Roaring Jake Griffith, a colonel in the Confederate Army. He firmly believed that the truth of the Civil War had never been told, and he was quite willing to dip into his heart’s blood to tell, through this new medium of the silent screen (in many ways his own invention), the story he believed in above all else in the world. I am sure it seemed more real to him than the World War, which was then taking place.”

The Birth of a Nation 2Ku Klux Klan Racist Scene from The Birth of a Nation

As nothing like a twelve-reel film had ever been attempted before, he naturally met with opposition on all sides. When the so-called business men of the picture industry, believing him to be an impractical dreamer, refused him financial aid, he went begging to the merchants of Los Angeles for a thousand dollars here, five thousand dollars there, another two thousand from someone else.”

The Birth of a Nation 3Abe Lincoln Scene in The Birth of a Nation

I remember my mother, having saved three hundred dollars, implored Mr. Griffith to use the money for the picture, but as it was all we had in the world he refused to take it. As we had been working without salaries for weeks, he couldn’t say when pay-checks would start coming in again. The picture actually took nine weeks to make, but there were many days during this time when work stopped and Mr. Griffith would be out trying to raise the money to continue.

The Birth of a Nation 4Battle Scene from The Birth of a Nation

At first we were told that we were going to do a moving-picture version of the play and novel by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, but anyone who has ever read either of these and has seen the picture, The Birth of a Nation, will know how far afield from the originals we went.

The Birth of a Nation 5 The Birth of a Nation Scene

As actors, our picture schooling had been similar to that which Mr. Stanislavsky so graphically describes in Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood’s fine translation of An Actor Prepares. There was never anything written for us and no scenario (any more than there were designs for sets; Mr. Griffith would explain to the head carpenter what he wanted and he would build them).

 Lillian Gish with another extraLillian Gish with an Unknown Extra

That’s all for this weeks version of Friday Facts, but if you enjoyed today’s post, please tune in next week where, I’ll re-produce more extracts from the article The Birth of a Nation by Lillian Gish from the Stage Magazine.

Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee

Friday Facts

More Silent Film FactsI love silent film facts and I’ve found another minefield of them at the WordPress belonging to Fremont Libraries. Here’s some crackers, so do enjoy:

Rudolph ValentinoThe star of Rex Ingram‘s classic, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalpyse, was Rudolph Valentino, of which was a fact that was previously covered on this Blogsite. However, what I didn’t know was that his christening name was ‘Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaelo Pierre Filibert di Valentina d’Antonguolla Guglielmi’. Now that’s a mouthful alright, but of course he was more well-known as ‘The Great Lover’. As we all know, Valentino died at a young age: 31 and his funeral was a spectacle of massive proportions. But here’s an interesting fact. Seemingly, legend has it that a mysterious Lady in Black still brings flowers to his grave every year on the anniversary of his death. Rumour has it that the current lady in black is not the original, but the identities of any of these Ladies in Black over the past 90 odd years has never been conclusively determined.

John BarrymoreOne of the great silent film actors of the day, John Barrymore was known “the Great Profile”. John was reluctant to enter the family-acting business. He actually wanted to be an artist and studied art in England to achieve that goal. He was a cartoonist for the New York Evening Journal. John Barrymore is known mostly for his portrayal of Hamlet and for his roles in movies like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Twentieth Century (1934), and Don Juan (1926), the first feature length movie to use a Vitaphone soundtrack.

Tom MixThomas Hezikiah Mix was one of the most famous of the silent film cowboys. He was well remembered for conducting his own stunts, for his lavish lifestyle, and what is claimed on the Wilkipedia website as the somewhat embroidered story of his past. One incident of his legacy states that when an injury caused football player John Wayne to drop out of USC, Mix helped him get a job moving props in the back lot of Fox Studios. Like his fellow actor, Ronald Reagan, John Wayne was hugely influenced by Tom Mix, and their acting styles as cowboys were said to be based on the silent film great.

Lillian GishBack during the silent-era, Lillian Gish was known as the ‘Iron Horse of Hollywood’, and although she appeared as a fragile creature on-screen, nothing could be further from the truth in reality. When she was four, she joined a traveling acting company to help support her family. At some stage, Mary Pickford introduced her, and her sister Dorothy, to D. W. Griffith. And so, another silent film legend began!

Theda BaraTheda Bara‘s (Theodosia Goodman) on-screen character was identified the world over as that of a ‘Vamp’. Her character was that of a wicked woman of exotic sexual appeal, who lured men into her web, only to ruin them. Although this image truly suited her character, much of her image and purported biography were created by the studio. It was popular during the silent-era to promote an actress as mysterious, with an exotic background. Bara was promoted by the studio with a massive publicity campaign, billing her as the Egyptian-born daughter of a French actress and an Italian sculptor. It was claimed that she had spent her early years in the Sahara Desert under the shadow of the Sphinx, before moving to France to become a stage actress. The truth of the matter was that Theda Bara had never been to Egypt or to France. She was called the Serpent of the Nile and she was encouraged to discuss mysticism and the occult when she was being interviewed. It is regarded by film historians that it was at this point that the birth of two Hollywood phenomena can be traced back to: the studio publicity department and the press agent, and so the great giant of Hollywood public relations was born.

PS: Don’t forget to click on the links for more info! See y’all next week.

Posted by Michael ‘Charlie’ McGee