“WE DON’T DEAL IN WORDS HERE” The Biograph Actors on Acting.

“‘You should try films,’ Mary suggested sagely.  ‘You can always work in them while you’re looking for a play.  Now wait here, I ‘ll find our director.  ‘Oh, Mr. Griffith,’ Mary called.

‘Yes, Mary.’

“‘I’d like you to meet my old friends, Mrs. Gish and her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy.’

“That was the beginning.

‘Where are you from?’ he asked me.  ‘The theater,’ I said, ‘but we come from Massillon [Ohio].’

“‘Well, I knew you were Yankees the minute I saw you.’  He asked Mother, ‘Can they act?

“Before she could answer, Dorothy interrupted with great comic dignity, “Sir, we are of the legitimate theater!

“‘I don’t mean just reading lines.  We don’t deal in words here. . . Come up to the rehearsal hall, and I’ll soon find out.  Miss Mary, will you please send Mr. Barrymore, Mr. Walthall, Mr. Booth, and Bobby up to me. . . . We will rehearse the story of two girls trapped in an isolated house while thieves are trying to get in and rob the safe.’

“He stared at us.  ‘You’re not twins are you?  I can’t tell you apart.'”

Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, with Ann Pinchot, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1969.

(Left, filming on location a few days after their introduction to Griffith, Dorothy and Lillian Gish complete work on “An Unseen Enemy.” In the background is Biograph “office boy” Bobby Harron, gazing longingly at Dorothy, on whom he had a man-sized crush. An Unseen Enemy, Biograph, 1912, dir. D. W. Griffith.)

 * * *

“When I first began acting before the picture camera I did not realize the importance of the work I was doing.  I was totally unaware that the time would come when silent drama acting would be criticised and judged by the regular dramatic critics of the theatre as severely as that of the regular stage.

“I have seen many players lose their nerve in front of the camera — old-timers, at that, who think nothing of acting before a vast throng of people within a theatre. . . As a general rule the best actors and actresses of the stage do not make the best moving picture players because of the fact that their stage success is due too largely to a magnetism exercised by means of the voice.

“Quite recently I saw one of the best known actors in the United States in a five reel motion picture play . . [He] would strike a pose in nearly every other scene which seemed to ask, ‘Now am I not the handsome lover?’ or ‘Don’t you think I’m some hero?’  To me the picture was disgusting . . .”  Florence Lawrence, “Growing Up With The Movies,” Part 3, Photoplay, Jan. 1915.

* * *

“I don’t place much confidence in actors who rely on feeling and emotion for expression.  Inspiration is undependable.  Our way, Lillian’s [Gish] and mine, is Griffith’s method: to build systematically and tediously a structure complete in every detail that the mind can conceive and that tiresome repetition can perfect.  Thoughtful analysis of a character and concentration on minute ways of expressing it produce a more logical and sustained interpretation . . . We don’t depend on inspiration but we build.  And the more carefully your foundation is laid, the more conscientious your attention to every detail, the more solid will be your edifice.”  Henry B. Walthall, quoted by Myrtle Gebhardt in “The Unknown Quantity,” Picture Play, July 1926.

* * *

“I was sick and tired of these wishy-washy heroines.  ‘I’d like to give this mother of mine in the picture a good shake when she orders me to marry a man old enough to be my grandfather.’

‘Well, why don’t you do it, Pickford?‘ said Mr. Griffith. ‘I’ve no objection.’

“So poor Kate Bruce, my cinema mother, was grabbed by her cinema daughter and thoroughly shaken.  Mr. Griffith eyed the episode approvingly and then went up to Kate.

‘What would you do in real life if a sixteen-year-old girl shook you?’  ‘I’d grab her and spank her good and proper,’ replied Kate.  “Well, what are you waiting for?‘ said Mr. Griffith.  ‘Go ahead and do it!

“‘If you two think I’m going to submit to this nonsense you’re very much mistaken,’ I said, and I took off and ran around an apple tree, with Kate Bruce chasing after me till she accidentally stumbled and fell, whereupon I ran back, sat down, and kissed her, and we put our arms around each other.  Both the chase and that little embrace remained in the film.”  Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, Doubleday, New York, 1954.

[Mary Pickford, writing five decades after Willful Peggy, may not have had perfect recall of the episode — it appears that Mary stumbled and fell as she was being chased by Kate Bruce around the apple tree.  No matter.  Another five decades after Sunshine and Shadow, the anecdote brings life and warmth to a tale of movie-making now more than a century in the past.]

* * *

“I shall never forget the sadly amused expression my husband brought home with him, the evening of that second day [as an actor at Biograph].  Nor his comments.  ‘It’s not so bad, you know, five dollars for simply riding a horse in the wilds of Fort Lee [New Jersey] on a cool spring day.  I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to go down and see what you can do.  Don’t tell them who you are, I mean, don’t tell them you’re my wife.  It think it is better for business not to.’

“So a few days later, I dolled up for a visit to the studio.  After I had waited an hour or so, Mr. McCutcheon [the director] turned to me and said, ‘All right, just put a little make-up on; this isn’t very important.’  There was no coaching for the acting; only one thing mattered, and that was, not to appear as though hunting frantically for the lines on the floor that marked your stage, while the scenes were being taken.

“The movie [When Knights Were Bold] commemorates our only joint movie appearance.  I recall only one scene in this movie, a back-drop picturing landscape, with a prop tree, a wooden bench, and a few mangy grass mats . . . I never saw the picture and couldn’t tell much about it from the few scenes in which I played.  Linda Arvidson Griffith, “When the Movies Were Young,” E. P. Dutton & Company, New York, 1925.

* * *

“I look back fondly to those days when Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron and myself were beginning our careers . . . Those were the days of the old                                  Biograph.

“[Griffith] may say to the actress, ‘You understand the situation.  Now let us see what you would do with it.’  After giving the matter careful consideration, she plays the scene after her own idea.  In other words, Mr. Griffith gives the actress a chance. In this way [he] draws out the best that is in his players and, by seeming to depend upon them to stand upon their own feet, maintains an enthusiasm among his players — that I have never seen equalled in any other studio.”

Mae Marsh, Screen Acting, Photostar Publishing Company, Los Angeles, 1921.

* * *

“What seemed to annoy us ‘Biographers’ very much and hold us back from achieving greater artistic success was the speed and rapidity with which we had to work before the camera.  Mr. Griffith always answered our complaint by stating that the exchanges and exhibitors wanted action, and insisted that they get plenty of it for their money.  ‘The exhibitors don’t want illustrated song slides,’ Mr. Griffith once said to us.

“So we made our work quick and snappy, crowding as much story into a thousand foot picture as is now portrayed in five thousand feet of film. . .There was no chance for slow or ‘stage’ acting.  The moment we would start to do a bit of acting in a proper tempo we would be startled by the cry of the director:  ‘Faster!  Faster!  For God’s sake hurry up!  We must do the scene in forty feet.

“In real life it would have taken four minutes to enact the same scene.  [But] the buyers saw their money being wasted if there was a quiet bit of business being portrayed.  They didn’t want, as Mr. Griffith had said, ‘illustrated song slides‘ when they had to pay so much money for the illustrated celluloid.

“About this time the Pathe company imported several one reel length pictures which they called ‘features’ since the leading actors and actresses of the prominent theatres of Paris appeared in them. . . In naturalness they were far ahead of anything yet produced in this country . . . largely for the reason that the important artists of the chief roles were allowed to do things as their training had taught them to.

“Following the appearance of [these] pictures, nearly all of the Biograph players asked Mr. Griffith to be allowed to do slow acting only to be refused.  He told us it was impossible since the buyers positively would not pay for a foot of film that did not have action in it.

“But before I severed my connection with the Biograph Company, Mr. Griffith did commence the production of pictures employing the “close-up” and slow acting.  American film manufacturers woke up to the fact that they were on the wrong track in producing pictures showing human beings doing things at about four times the speed of real life.”  Florence Lawrence, “Growing Up With The Movies,” Part 3, Photoplay, Jan. 1915.

* * *

“When I first met him [Griffith], I wasn’t impressed.  I didn’t know.  I was feeling my way around.  We were all learning.  It wasn’t just Griffith.  They didn’t know what they were doing exactly.  They were trying, and a lot succeeded.  It took a year of work with him before I suddenly realized, ‘Hey, he’s pretty good, you know.’

“Griffith would always listen to what you had to say.  If you wanted to play a certain part or do a certain thing a certain way, he would say, ‘Well, try it.’  That was what our rehearsals were for, to see what it was like.  Everybody had to cooperate, everybody.

“Once he had Mary [Pickford], he was spoiled.  Right away I knew I wasn’t Mary Pickford, that I was going to have to play things differently if I played them.”  [Asked if she could ride a horse] “I said sure, even though I had never been on a horse in my life.  So he [Griffith] said, ‘and can you shoot over a horse and not have him back up and rear?’  I said, ‘Well, certainly.’  I didn’t know anything about shooting.  But we were a new business.  We had to learn or else we’d have gone under.”  Blanche Sweet, quoted by Kevin Lewis, “Happy Birthday, Blanche Sweet,” Films In Review, March 1986.

* * *

“I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name has been linked.  We developed together, we found ourselves in a new art and as we discovered the possibilities of that art we learned together.”   D. W. Griffith, quoted by Colgate Baker, “David W. Griffith: The Genius of the Movies.”  The New York Review, Dec. 13, 1913.

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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4 Responses to “WE DON’T DEAL IN WORDS HERE” The Biograph Actors on Acting.

  1. Gene, your painstaking research with carefully selected illustrations reveals a most insteresting angle on the films, actors, and actresses from the glory days of The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Thank you for taking time to put this article together! -David W. Menefee (author of Sweet Memories, Wally: The True Wallace Reid Story, The Rise and Fall of Lou-Tellegen, Falling Stars: 10 Who Tried to be a Movie Star, Richard Barthelmess: A Life in Pictures, George O’Brien: A Man’s Man in Hollywood, The First Female Stars, The First Male Stars, “Otay!” The Billy “Buckwheat” Thomas Story, Sarah Bernhardt: Her Films, Her Recordings.

  2. Thank you. I’m just putting my “library” of movies and film books to good use, that’s all.

  3. Very nice! I’ve often wondered what the moment was like, when Mr. Griffith first saw Gish and the moment when he first saw her on film. That musta been something.

    • Thank you. Well, both Griffith and Mary Pickford gave their separate accounts of that meeting with the Gish’s — but here’s what Griffith thought when he first met them:
      “Suddenly all the gloom seemed to disappear. This change of atmosphere was caused by the presence of two young girls sitting side by side on a hall bench. They were blondish and were sitting affectionately close together. I am certain that I have never seen a prettier picture.” And of Lillian in particular he said, “When I first saw her in this dingy old hall I remember well there seemed to be a luminous glow around her that did not come from the skylight.” Pickford and Gish both recalled that he teased Mary, saying “aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls into the studio?” Lillian said Mary’s reply to him was to the effect that she wasn’t afraid of any “girls” and that they were her friends. Mary said she told him that if the Gish’s could take her job from her then she probably didn’t deserve to keep it. In fact, the relationship and frequent head-butting between those two susbstantial egos — Pickford and Griffith — is a great story in and of itself.

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