BLANCHE SWEET (Part Two), “A Higher Plane of Art.”

Blanche Sweet is the “Older Daughter,” the girl no one notices, the one who doesn’t paint her face with makeup, who doesn’t draw looks from anyone until she meets the stranger with an ulterior motive.  The Painted Lady (Biograph, 1912), directed by D. W. Griffith.

In her four part memoir in Photoplay Magazine (Nov 1914- Feb 1915), Florence Lawrence describes D. W. Griffith’s exhortation to his actors during their scenes to work “Faster, Faster!”  According to Lawrence, “slow” acting, that is, actors taking the time within a scene to portray emotion with more intimacy and subtlety than standard gestures of melodrama or pantomime, was strongly discouraged, if not forbidden outright at the Biograph Company during most of her tenure (1908-09) at the studio.  Although one suspects that Griffith, not being completely secure in his position (or having yet to decide that the movies rather than the stage were to be his life’s work), held fast to the Biograph policy of cranking out two reels every week of saleable entertainment to the exhibitors with as much action as possible crammed into each 1,000-foot reel.  (Bear in mind that in 1908, exhibitors were purchasing films, not renting, by the foot, and that the terms of Griffith’s contract with Biograph provided that he was to be paid a royalty: a fraction of a percent for each foot of film sold.)

For some observers, several dozen feet of Florence Lawrence gazing heavenward in Resurrection (1909), might have been great art.  For Biograph executives it was wasted space on a reel.  But Griffith allowed Lawrence in her last, best work for Biograph to spend a bit more time “slow” acting.  There are at least a couple of reasons for this.  As an artist working in a new medium, Griffith came to the realization that this was a new art form, one that he could define on his terms, a definition that was developing along with his confidence to convince Biograph management that he indeed knew what he was doing.  The film sales figures and box office receipts confirmed this:  Griffith’s new-found confidence in his own work was backed up by results visible on Biograph’s balance sheet.  His immersion in what he now saw as a new art form spurred him to experiment with camera placement, lighting and lenses, innovations that produced a subtler, more intimate form of filmmaking.  Griffith was willing now to take chances and accept the consequences himself, should they succeed or fail.  He encouraged his technicians, Billy Bitzer most notably, in this regard.  And he had begun to similarly encourage his actors to experiment with their technique.

Griffith was for many years credited with inventing the close-up shot, though he has long since been discredited for this cinematic device.  But discussions of primacy ignore more important matters, such as the contemporary definition of “close-up,” as well as its purpose.  What we now refer to as a medium or a full shot, i.e., the entire body of an actor, standing, from head to sole, or from above the knees to the crown, was then thought of as a “close” shot.  What we now think of as a “close-up,” a full-face shot filling an entire screen was the extreme form of close shot, and Griffith used it rarely, and almost exclusively in his later, feature films after he had departed Biograph in 1914.  For Griffith, the close shot or close-up was never a bravura shot or a special effects shot or novelty.  It served a narrative purpose.

One of the most memorable close shots in the Biograph films, and famous in its day, was that of Blanche Sweet as Judith of Bethulia, purifying her soul with ashes and sack-cloth prior to her mission to decapitate the invading enemy of her people.  This shot was thought to be extraordinary for many reasons, but what was often commented upon was the fact that it was such a tight, close shot (though technically not a full-face shot, as it included shoulders) that one could plainly see the tears streaming from her eyes.  This was new, and something that was impossible with anything less than a close-up shot of the actress.

The close-up reveals intimate subtleties of acting, and intimate acting makes the close-up effective.  One facilitates the other.  The camera moves in to capture reality, or Griffith’s artistic rendering of reality.  The standard complaint of film executives and accountants, echoed by some in the press and public, was that such camera work cheated the viewer by “cutting off” parts of the actors.  But Griffith’s work showed that rather than losing content, the film narrative actually gained complexity and substance by judicious use of closer shots.

Griffith did not invent this technique, he experimented with it, discovering where it worked and why, and where it did not and why not.  The Griffith films with Biograph constitute a virtual laboratory in which techniques are developed and refined in more than 400 films over a period of five years.  None of his films is dominated by close-ups (or for that matter, any one specific film technique).  They occur rarely and serve a distinct, specific and rarely repetitive function in the narrative when they do appear (one wonders what Griffith thought of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s close-up fest, The Passion of Joan of Arc, in 1928).  Griffith was not concerned with abstract technical innovations in filming or in acting, only that which would advance his art and his conception of “realism” within that art.  And as the months, then years, went by at Biograph, Griffith wholeheartedly and with a sense of finality adopted film, and not theater, as his art.

When Florence Lawrence made her last appearance before the Biograph camera, in June of 1909, the closing shots of Resurrection were as close as the camera would get to her — a full or medium-full shot, far enough to allow Arthur Johnson to stand next to Lawrence in the same shot.  But it was close enough to allow for more intimate facial expression to register on film.  Thus Lawrence, as she left Biograph, had her moments of slow acting.  Between that film and beginning of the ascendancy of Blanche Sweet to starring roles at Biograph is a period of just over two years.  But the changes occurring between those two years, roughly 1910-1912, were in some ways as significant in terms of their impact on filmmaking and acting technique as was the comparable period in the development of sound film technique from 1928 to, say, 1930.  The arrival of the multi-reel film, the “feature” film and its expanded format would allow, for better or worse, depending on the skills of the filmmakers, more detail in the narrative and encourage more intimate, “slower” acting.   Stodgy, conservative Biograph lagged behind other producers, both foreign and domestic, in production of multi-reel motion pictures.  But as we have seen with Resurrection, a single reel film from 1909, Griffith was already experimenting with acting technique, well ahead of the trend to longer films.

Griffith by 1911-12 was stressing “realism” as the defining attribute that separated motion pictures from the stage as an art form (and by 1913-14, he was saying it publicly, in his first extended interviews with the press).  The most direct way to give audiences realism was to have his actors depict real human emotions as they develop onscreen in something as close to real-time as possible.  This meant intimate, emotional acting would replace the physical representation of pantomime and the signifying gestures of histrionic acting in motion pictures.  (But not completely or exclusively, for not all actors were equally adept in this form of acting, and in some films, for example, costume dramas or period pieces, the histrionic gestural style was useful to produce a different or more appropriate, alternative effect).

Griffith would essentially co-opt the trend to verisimilitude, i.e., “truth” in performance, which had already been the trend in acting on the stage for about two decades, and claim it for the movies as being unique to that new art form, though it was not.  Griffith convinced a new generation growing up on the movies — and future generations as well — that theatrical or “stage acting” was an inferior form of acting.  Yes, the camera captured the slightest nuances of performance — or at least it could when filmmakers allowed the camera to get closer to the actors.  But the stage art was, at its best, quite sophisticated and with a subtlety of performance possible by those actors capable of communicating across the wider gulf between actor and audience.  But it was a different form, not one greater or lesser.

With hindsight, Griffith’s characterisation of film acting as a superior (or potentially superior) form can be seen for what it was — a distortion by Griffith to give his new art gravitas, so to speak, and to separate it from theater where he had not been able to make the kind of success that he now felt possible for himself with motion pictures.  For acting, in motion pictures or for the stage, there is no one form or variation of style that remains the standard, the permanent blueprint or method.  Changing times and cultures will simply not allow it.

Mary Pickford, admittedly, was Griffith’s most malleable actress.  In addition to developing traits in her performances that were unique to her own on-screen persona,  it is not unreasonable to conclude that she was at least Griffith’s equal in her understanding of the techniques needed for effective film acting.  There wasn’t, I suspect, anything new Griffith could teach her that she hadn’t already figured out by the time she left for star billing and money with the independents in early 1911.  (Griffith on more than one occasion is reported to have told his actors upon their departure that there was nothing more they could learn/be taught with him — both Pickford and Sweet had similar recollections.)  When Pickford returned to Biograph in 1912, her final period with Griffith, she would produce her strongest and most assured work to date.

Mary Pickford was by now a star on film, if not yet the international superstar she would become within the next two years.  Her name was still not publicized by Biograph.  Her employers at the IMP and Majestic studios, for whom she had made 38 short films from 1911 to early 1912, had publicized their new star, and Pickford previously had been credited by name in her stage work (where, of course producer David Belasco had given the fourteen year old Gladys Smith the stage name “Mary Pickford” in the first place).  But it was the new nickname given by her movie fans and the press, “Little Mary” that stuck, years before she became “America’s Sweetheart.”   And the return of “Little Mary” Pickford to Biograph in the spring of 1912 caused considerable consternation among the young Biograph actresses who, in Pickford’s absence, had expected elevation in status within Griffith’s company of actors.  All indications are that Blanche Sweet was not among those so perturbed.

“Right away I knew I wasn’t Mary Pickford, that I was going to have to play things differently if I played them.  I remember one time . . . he [Griffith] tried me the Mary Pickford way and I said, ‘No, I’ve tried it in front of a mirror so I know.  I can do it all right, not Mary’s way.  I don’t want to do that.’”  Blanche Sweet, quoted by Kevin Lewis, “Happy Birthday Blanche Sweet,” Films In Review, March 1986.

Shortly after Pickford’s first departure, Blanche Sweet had joined Biograph, focussed on acting for motion pictures rather than her other love, dancing.  1911 was her “rookie” year, and she had impressed Griffith enough for him to elevate her, but gradually, to increasingly important roles and films.  The Lonedale Operator and The Last Drop of Water (both 1911) allowed her enough camera time in roles big enough to carry a film (as in “Lonedale“), and to stand out memorably in an ensemble cast of veterans (in “Last Drop“).  She showed she could hold the screen — she had a presence before the movie camera.  She was not necessarily Griffith’s favorite, nor is it evident from her work in that first year that she was being “fast-tracked” compared to others in his stock company.   His actresses were a competitive group.  Griffith fostered competition and outright jealousy to spur his young “pupils” to do better work (and maybe play as well).  But Sweet was not the Griffith “type.”

At sixteen, Blanche Sweet was voluptuous — in some stills, downright plump — having bulked up on the cream puffs and bacon sandwiches provided by her one-woman entourage, grandmother Cora Blanche Alexander, while on location in Southern California.  Upon returning to New York, Griffith began work on two productions.  One, Bobby The Coward, would be shot on the teeming streets of the Lower East Side, the other, A Country Cupid, would take advantage of the farmland and meadows of rural Westfield, New Jersey.  The latter would give Blanche Sweet the lead role in a film that was a more complex twist on the formulaic “chase and rescue” film, with the idyllic country one-room schoolhouse the setting for a tale of a schoolboy crush gone wrong.

Blanche Sweet is Edith, the pretty country schoolteacher beloved by fiance, Jack (Edwin August) and her pupils, particularly little Billy (played by eleven-year-old child actress Edna Foster), another unnamed and overgrown boy (Edward Dillon) and a third, person, a grown man known only as “The Half-Wit” (Joseph Graybill).  The Half-Wit has a violent temper soothed only by his love of flowers, a bunch of which he presents to Edith awkwardly, of course, while she is on her way to school.  Later, Edith and fiance Jack have a spat, witnessed by little Billy.  Billy sees Edith writing a note of apology to her fiance, which she decides not to send and discards.

Billy, the selfless “cupid” of the story, retrieves the discarded note and mails it to Jack.  After school, while grading papers, Edith is confronted by the love-crazed Half-Wit who threatens murder suicide if she does not submit to his advances.  Quick thinking enables Edith to distract Half-Wit with the flowers he had given her earlier, and snatch the gun from him, which slows him only temporarily as he presses Edith to kill him.

Jack has received the note of apology written by Edith but, unknown to him, mailed by Billy.  Jack happily jogs toward the schoolhouse in eager anticipation of his reunion with Edith, joined by local children, including Billy, along the way.

Jack reaches the schoolhouse just in time to stop Half-Wit from an atrocity.  Edith learns that it was Billy who saved her life by mailing the letter, and at the film’s end all three embrace in group hug.

Read a review of “A Country Cupid,” MPW, Aug. 12, 1911.(Opens in NEW Tab.)

With A Country Cupid, Griffith had taken the one-reel rescue film as far as anyone could or should.  He had placed the story in a nostalgic, idyllic setting, varied the protagonists and antagonists accordingly, added rudimentary psychological elements, balanced with comedy, and made the outcome hinge on a lovelorn little boy whose self-sacrifice allows the heroine to live happily ever after with someone else.  Instead of a suspenseful chase to rescue a tormented female, Griffith altered the formula to contrast her torment with a leisurely rescue and doubled the suspense in the process (you can almost hear the audiences of 1911 screaming, “hurry, you idiot, your girlfriend is about to be splattered all over the blackboard!”).  Griffith’s quest for realism, and his growing interest in psychology, would place Blanche Sweet in a completely different role within a few months.  Psychology would be not just an element, but the core of this film starring Sweet, The Painted Lady.

Ad for new Biograph releases both with Blanche Sweet (though of course she is not named), “A Country Cupid” and, “The Last Drop of Water,” in the New York Dramatic Mirror, July 26, 1911.  (Click to view full size — Opens in NEW Tab.)

* * *

Griffith wrote the scenario for The Painted Lady.  He could have as easily and more accurately called it, “The Mind and the Mirror,” or “The Lookers.”  As Russell Merritt points out in his essay on The Painted Lady for The Griffith Project, the film consists of people looking, gazing, staring, in mirrors, over shoulders, through windows, doors, through hedges, from behind trees.   Sweet plays the girl no one notices, the one who doesn’t paint her face with makeup, who doesn’t draw looks from anyone until she meets the stranger with an ulterior motive.  She is an invisible girl who becomes the focus of attention – but only in the form of pity – in the last third of the film.  She gets to that point only after being the most isolated character ever to inhabit a film by Griffith.  She becomes a character in desolation so abject, that she can never be freed by last-minute rescue.

Blanche Sweet is the “Older Daughter” in a house that for all practical purpose is a “house with the closed shutters.”  We see little of its exterior excepting the cold stairs leading to the front door and a small window on one side.  The interior is cold and dark, as is “Her Father.”  He has money, which we see him placing in a strong box as his older daughter watches, in the beginning.  The older daughter watches with near-horror as “Younger Sister” applies makeup to her face, preparing to go out to the ice cream “social.”  “Oh, you must paint and powder to be attractive,” is her response to older sister’s disapproving looks.  With her younger vain sister out of the room, the older girl stares at the powder puff and for a second considers applying it to her face.  No.  She rejects the idea, and goes downstairs and outside to the “social.”  There she wanders, sullen, and unnoticed, except by two men who lurk suspiciously among the carefree throng.  As the older daughter drifts away from the crowd (which includes the teenage Gish sisters and Biograph office assistant Bobby Harron), one of the strangers manages to get an introduction to the daughter, and soon meets her father, who is the real focus of his interest.  Her strict father permits no more than a handshake between the man and his daughter before he sends  her back into the house, where in her room, she dons a pretty silk shawl in preparation for a clandestine meeting with her “suitor.”

Secrecy — fear of her father — demands that she meet her beau clandestinely.  She exits the house unseen through a side window.

He notices her silk shawl and that she is a “natural” beauty, without artifice.  But she reveals too much — her father is a wealthy man who does not trust others — banks — to hold his fortune.  And soon the suitor is busy carrying out his real purpose in seducing the daughter: breaking into her father’s house.

But the daughter hears a noise, after going back upstairs to get a gun (and shedding her silk shawl), she returns to confront the intruder.

In a struggle for possession of the gun, it fires accidentally, and the intruder is struck.

The family comes down to investigate the commotion, and the identity of the intruder is revealed.  Almost immediately, the daughter’s mind snaps — she tells her father how beautiful he thought she was without makeup . . .

Father attempts to comfort her by wrapping her in her favorite silk shawl.  It is an act of kindness that only drives her mind to a state of madness as she recalls how her “suitor” loved the way she looked when she wore it last . . .

She replays their assignations in her mind, at the scene of their former, furtive meetings.

The children laugh at the mad girl.

“I look too pale” she decides, and applies some powder to her face, not thinking . . .

She “meets” her beau again at their special place, and reminds him of how beautiful she appears without . . . she remembers . . . then the mirror confirms . . . she has painted her face!  Her mind, overwhelmed and weakened by her mental illness, fails and her body now follows.  She dies in her father’s arms.

* * *

There was a huge gap between A Country Cupid and The Painted Lady, between the pretty schoolteacher Edith and the repressed Older Daughter.  Though the films were made only a little over a year apart, the gulf between the two is enormous.  Both have simple plots that can be summarized in a couple of sentences each.  A Country Cupid has interesting variations on the standard chase/rescue film and only one character, The Half-Wit, is challenging to an actor, and Joseph Graybill is allowed to play the character so broadly that he is as comical as he is threatening.  The contrast between the characters played by Blanche Sweet in the two films is obvious — Edith has but one scene to test an actor’s ability, the climactic near-murder, and Sweet glides through it effortlessly — her “Lonedale Operator” was clumsy by comparison.  But the Older Daughter of The Painted Lady is unique among Griffith’s cinema protagonists, as is the film itself.

The Painted Lady is probably as bleak a film as Griffith made in his career.  As has been pointed out by Griffith scholars Russell Merritt, Scott Simmon and others, there are no subplots, no salvation nor redemption, no last-minute reprieves.  There is only human evil — the brutally repressive father, the lying, manipulative suitor.  The others in the tale are little more than shadows — the vain younger sister, a nurse who attends the ill daughter, the men who appear after she has shot the intruder are not seen before or again after the event.  There is no one to save the daughter, nor could she be saved, we suspect, even if someone had the will to do so.

One is hard pressed to think of a character in any of his films who is less deserving of such a grim fate.  And yet she receives no consolation (her father’s one act of kindness drives her deeper into madness), no reprieve from a descent into a hell caused by an accident that came about as she attempted to protect her miserly father’s wealth from a thief – a man she believed was her true love, the only man who had ever loved her.  Far from being ignored, though, as she was in the beginning of the story, in the final third of the film she gets the attention of which she had been so long deprived.  In a cruel twist of fate, she is now constantly watched over in pity by her father and her nurse, or in jeers by the little children who mock her madness, and in the end betrayed by her own reflection in the mirror.

Two major trade papers, The New York Dramatic Mirror and The Moving Picture World had considerable praise for Sweet (though not by name in The Mirror) and the film:

Read the Review (Opens in NEW Tab).

” . . . among the most artistic accomplishments of any player before the camera, and is an answer to those who claim that subtle mental conditions cannot be expressed by means of pictures.  This actress shows the value of restraint and the remarkable results to be attained by well-judged facial expressions.  She expresses tragedy as it has seldom been expressed in a photoplay, and her method might be studied with profit by other actors in the same field.”  The New York Dramatic Mirror, October 30, 1912, p. 31.

Read the Article (Opens in NEW Tab)

“Miss Blanche Sweet’s portrayal of a mad girl in this picture seems to reach a higher plane of art than any of her previous characterizations, and she has done good work in many diverse roles.  . . we commend [The Painted Lady] as a work of art.”  The Moving Picture World, November 9, 1912, p.552.

[Note: Blanche Sweet is mentioned by name in the MPW review, although Biograph had not yet begun to release or give personnel credits.  The Moving Picture World had begun naming Sweet specifically, and also Mary Pickford, for several months prior to this review.]

For Blanche Sweet, it was the most important role of her career thus far, and arguably the single most impressive performance of an actress in a Griffith film to that point (1912).  It was exceptional not only in the performance, but in the fact that Griffith places the weight of the entire film on one character, and one actress who he obviously believed now had the ability to pull it off.  Such characters (and opportunities) for individual performers were relatively uncommon in Griffith’s work.  He would have enough confidence in Blanche Sweet in the following year, 1913, to give her the central role in a much bigger project, his first four-reel feature, his groundbreaking epic, Judith of Bethulia.  But in the meantime, Sweet would get other opportunities to impress, even if none would be quite the solo showcase that was The Painted Lady.

[Part Three will examine those roles: One is Business, The Other Crime (1912) and Death's Marathon (1913) and Judith of Bethulia, Griffith's final Biograph, released in 1914.]

Ad for new Biograph releases, “The Painted Lady” and a Mary Pickford movie, “The One She Loved,” in the New York Dramatic Mirror, October 23, 1912.  (Click to view full size — Opens in NEW Tab.)

Sources: Bibliography and periodicals.

Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: the transformation of performance style in the Griffith Biograph films, University of California Press, 1992.

De Witt Bodeen, “Blanche Sweet,” Films in Review, November 1965, p. 549-570.

Kevin Lewis, “Happy Birthday Blanche Sweet,” Films in Review, March 1986, p.130-140.

The Internet Archive (internetarchive.org) at The Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) for The Moving Picture World, Aug. 12, 1911, p. 375; Nov. 9, 1912, p. 552.

Archives of The New York Dramatic Mirror at fultonhistory.com, for The New York Dramatic Mirror, July 26, 1911, p.26 (Biograph Ad); Oct. 30, 1912, p. 31, and October 23, 1912, p. 29 (Biograph Ad).

Linda Arvidson (Mrs. Griffith), When The Movies Were Young, E.P. Dutton &, Co., New York, 1925.

Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: an American Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984; Limelight Editions, 1996 (paperback).

Scott Simmon, The Films of D. W. Griffith, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Paolo Cherchi Usai, General Editor, The Griffith Project, Volumes 5 and 6, Films Produced in 1911, and Films Produced in 1912, the British Film Institute, and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2001 and 2002.  In Volume 5, “A Country Cupid,” essay by Tom Gunning, p. 92-95; In Volume 6, “The Painted Lady,” essay by Russell Merritt, p. 151-157.

* * *

About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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3 Responses to BLANCHE SWEET (Part Two), “A Higher Plane of Art.”

  1. David W. Menefee says:

    Excellent! Thank you for your fine writing, research, and illustrations in this Part 2 article on Blanche Sweet. I appreciate your efforts, and am looking forward to reading Part 3.
    -David W. Menefee
    Author:
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    A Craving for Travel II (with Jim Strong)

  2. Kevin Lewis says:

    Thank you for augmenting the Sweet legend with your excellent analysis of her career

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