A gentle soul, a beauty among the beasts of Biograph. Not even the director’s wife can find a seat that isn’t next to a hooligan. At least she won’t block anyone’s view with her awful hat. Those Awful Hats, Biograph, 1909, dir. D. W. Griffith.
Tuesday, April 20, 1909 in the Biograph studio was the second day of a normal six-day work week for their film director, D. W. Griffith. On Monday, Griffith had completed the first day of a two-day shoot — typical for a Biograph single reel — by filming interior scenes for What Drink Did, an extension of the temperance theme begun in a prior film, A Drunkard’s Reformation. He also began pre-production for a future film project, Pippa Passes, testing a teenage stage actress fresh from an 18 month run in a major Broadway production by David Belasco. Although she would not be cast as “Pippa,” she would be hired at the end of the day and return the next morning to begin a career in film that in a handful of years would have this young Canadian hailed as “America’s Sweetheart.” On that Tuesday morning Griffith assigned Mary Pickford to play the bit part of a ten-year old girl in a five-minute, split-reel comedy, Her First Biscuits, the latest installment in the enormously popular comedy series known informally by movie audiences as “The Joneses,” featuring Biograph’s most popular performer, Florence Lawrence.
Rabid fans of Lawrence, not knowing her real name, had taken to calling her the “Biograph Girl.” Though Griffith’s name was also not known publicly, the nascent film trade press and the mainstream newspapers that covered motion pictures on a regular basis had noted in the past six months the rise in quality of Biograph’s film product to the point of it being consistently superior to that of their competitors, a period in which, not coincidentally, Biograph’s new director Griffith had increased in skill and confidence with each passing week.
Needing a costume to make Pickford look even younger than she already did, Griffith asked one of his actresses to take Mary shopping — not a bad way to start her first day on a new job:
“‘Linda, go over to Fifth Avenue and buy this child a linen and lace dress, size ten, and shoes, socks, and hat to match for the role she’s going to play.'” (Mary Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow, Doubleday, 1954).
“Linda” was the director’s wife of three years, Linda Arvidson Griffith. The daughter of Swedish immigrants, she was born in San Francisco in 1879 (most sources and bios give 1884 as her birth year, and the 1920 U.S. census records her age as 39, but in several international passenger records Arvidson reports 1879 as her birth year). Linda had worked since her teens as an actress in local theater, and had survived that city’s quake after being rolled out of bed in the apartment she shared with her sister in the wee hours of April 18, 1906. She had met David Wark Griffith in 1905 when he arrived in San Francisco with a touring theater company that hired Linda for a bit part. Being the only woman who would sit and listen raptly as he recited his poetry, she won his affection. They were married in Boston in May, 1906, just weeks after she evacuated the quake-devastated city of San Francisco when Griffith wired her money for the trip back East — money he had earned at least in part as a seasonal laborer in the hop fields of central California.
It was Linda’s gentle, but firm and persuasive argument in favor of staying in New York in the spring of 1908, rather than leaving for Connecticut and summer stock, that convinced Griffith to remain at Biograph, and turned “Larry” Griffith, itinerant actor and playwright, into D. W. Griffith the future towering figure of cinema. And it was Linda to whom he turned to dress for her first film the pint-sized Canadian girl late of the legitimate theater, the equally important future film figure, Mary Pickford.
In the ensuing years, Linda Arvidson Griffith would not come close to achieving the artistic heights of her husband or Pickford. Yet Linda’s recollection of her days with Biograph in her 1925 memoir, “When The Movies Were Young,” gives us a truly unique window on Biograph, Griffith, Pickford, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett and more, and should not be overlooked by anyone with more than a casual interest in early film. Though some have felt the book is tainted by the bitterness of their failed marriage (they were separated when she wrote it, but were not divorced until many years later), Linda’s view of Griffith and the “Biographers” through a slightly jaundiced eye prevents the tale from being overtaken by the warm glow of nostalgia with which the book begins. Her account brings the old Biograph studio to life, particularly the Griffiths’ first months there in 1908. In her book, their co-workers all appear as quite human, not “legends.”
Linda Arvidson Griffith appeared in more than a hundred films for Biograph, from April of 1908 to 1916. The vast majority (approximately 99) were directed by her husband, and nearly all of those before 1912. Thus Arvidson is an important figure at Biograph for almost four years, two more than Marion Leonard, three more than Florence Lawrence. Arvidson also appeared in at least of handful of mutoscopes — the slightly risqué, peep show “flickers” printed on cards rather than film and viewed in a hand cranked apparatus. Biograph ceased making mutoscopes not long after the Griffiths began working there and, sadly, none of Linda’s mutoscopes have survived.
When the Griffiths arrived at Biograph, there was no stock company of actors as such, just a handful of semi-regular character players. There were no designated leading players or ingenue types. Casting appears to have been left largely to chance: whoever happened to appear at the studio on East Fourteenth Street between stage gigs would be guaranteed $5 per day (and a single-reel film rarely took more than two days to shoot). But what the stage players liked best about working for Biograph was the flexibility. If you needed a couple of hours off (even an entire day) for an audition or to meet with a producer, agent or manager, no problem, they’d work around you in the meantime. It was this flexibility with the guarantee of that five-dollar voucher each day that attracted the Griffiths to Biograph, not the promise of permanence or any aspirations of artistic achievement.
Arvidson’s acting debut with Biograph was a bit part in When Knights Were Bold, shot April, 22, 1908. It was her only appearance with her husband also acting, excluding his bit as the cop in A Calamitous Elopement (which is visible in the regular header image for this site). Within a few weeks, there arrived one of those stage actors between jobs, Marion Leonard. Possibly the most successful stage actress to appear in a Biograph film to that point, Leonard made her film debut the first week of June in At the Crossroads of Life, also with D. W. Griffith as an actor — her “co-lead” in fact. It was directed by Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., an actor in musical/comedy and future husband of serial star Pearl White, substituting for his father, the company’s regular director Wallace “Old Man” McCutcheon, Sr. The elder McCutcheon’s illness, combined with young Wally’s lack of interest and ability in directing, would force Biograph managers to take a chance on the inexperienced Griffith as their interim “house” director.
“No one had much chance to get puffed up, for an actor having finished three days of importance usually found himself on the fourth day playing ‘atmosphere,’ while he decorated the backdrop. No one minded.”
It was the beginning of a system that squared perfectly with Biograph’s fiscally conservative management and Griffith’s desire to ensure that no individual performer became more important than a role, a film, or the art Griffith that would strive to create.
When he assumed the task of director, it was on a trial basis. He had only two readily available regulars capable of handling the female leads, one of whom was his wife:
“In the beginning Marion Leonard and I alternated playing ‘leads.’ She played the worldly woman, the adventuress, and the melodramatic parts, while I did the sympathetic, the wronged wife, the too-trusting maid, waiting, always waiting, for the lover who never came back. But mostly I died.” (Arvidson, When the Movies Were Young.)
But in the earliest period of Griffith’s interim directorship he found one combination that clicked literally from day one: his wife Linda, and a tall young man he met walking down Broadway one afternoon, and hired over drinks.
Griffith had been given his first directorial assignment, a scenario for something called The Adventures of Dollie. It was considered by the regulars and technicians to be a turkey. Studio gossip also said that rookie Griffith was going to be stuck with some “lemons” for actors. “Dollie” required only four actors and a small child. Two were character roles, “Gypsies.” Any of the regular or semi-regular players that Biograph employed could play such roles. But Griffith needed stronger male and female leads. He had acted with Linda in When Knights Were Bold earlier, but the two had no scenes together and neither had ever seen the finished product. When Griffith saw her in another Biograph film just prior to “Dollie,” he told her, “You’re good — quite surprised me.” He now had his leading lady, the film’s “wife,” “Dollie’s” mom. But when it came to a leading man, the scuttlebutt was true: what may have been available for leading men at the studio were “lemons.” Rather than passively accept what Biograph gave him, Griffith went looking for his own actor.
In his unpublished memoirs, Griffith recalled seeing a tall, good-looking young man leaving a Broadway casting office one afternoon. He stopped and asked the six-foot-plus gentleman if he was an actor. “Well some say ‘yes,’ but most say ‘no,” was his deadpan response. Griffith explained that he was looking to hire an actor for a film. The man’s name was Arthur Johnson, and he knew little of motion pictures. Though he had seen a few, he had never worked in one. Griffith tried to sell the job by describing the kind of pictures that Biograph made as being “different” from the others (which at this point was a flat-out lie). Johnson’s laconic reply, “Judging by the pictures I have seen, it would be a pretty good idea to make them different,” was a classic and must have endeared him to the novice director, who at this point had not much more knowledge of the medium than did Arthur Johnson. They decided to discuss it over drinks and, after a few, Griffith secured his services for Biograph and “Dollie.”
Linda’s account of the “world’s premier” of “Dollie” is touching — the nostalgic glow she gives to that first night in Union Square is one of the high points of her memoir. Although “Dollie” was a financial success (it sold more copies than any Biograph release to that point), it succeeds as a film only on a very elemental level, with no allowance for characterization by the actors — in fact the camera never gets close enough to allow that. It looks as if it could have been made by anyone pointing a camera at a group of actors, for the most part, although the film does capture the feel of the landscape of turn of the century, rural Connecticut. It does not help that no good 35mm print of “Dollie” exists — working copies have been made from the paper prints held by the Library of Congress, originally deposited by Biograph for copyright.
However, as can be detected in the series of shots above, from A Calamitous Elopement, made only three weeks after “Dollie,” (and where it is obvious that Griffith was quickly grasping the essentials and beyond of filmmaking), Linda Arvidson and Arthur Johnson had what I think is a special chemistry, and arguably stronger than we see between any other pairing of actor and actress in Griffith’s early Biographs. It was a chemistry that remained as long as Johnson was with Biograph — it was still abundantly visible two years later in the wonderful series of shots on the beach at Santa Monica in “The Unchanging Sea” from the 1910 Biograph California trip. Why we don’t see much more of this pairing between those two films and those two years is likely due to a one, two, three punch — the hiring of Florence Lawrence, the return of Marion Leonard, and the arrival on Biograph’s front steps of Mary Pickford — over the next nine months. It was a series of personnel changes that left Mrs. Griffith a distant fourth, somewhere between occasional leading lady and character player. And sometimes not more than a prop in films in which she “mostly died.”
In August of 1908, Marion Leonard left Biograph to tour in the theatrical company of The Life of an Actress, which would keep her from motion pictures until November. Griffith quickly needed to find another female lead. It is at this point that Griffith makes his first female “find,” and it is here where a career-long pattern for Griffith (and Arvidson) would begin. He “found” his new actress at a rival studio, Vitagraph. But almost the only thing that Arvidson and other accounts agree upon is her first name: Florence.
There were two at Vitagraph: Turner and Lawrence. Griffith had spotted Turner in films and wanted to hire her for his vacant female lead. He sent a “feeler” out to Turner at Vitagraph in the person of Harry Solter, a Biograph actor, an old theater acquaintance of Griffith’s, who was also a former employee of Vitagraph and knew Florence Turner. Solter also knew and was in love with (or otherwise close to) the other Florence, Lawrence.
Whether Solter ever passed along the “feeler” to Turner is uncertain, but when he reported back to Griffith that the other Florence, Miss Lawrence, was very talented (she could ride a horse!) and very interested, Griffith agreed to meet her. Before meeting her, he made a point of seeing one of her movies playing near their apartment. Linda recalls,
“Our director, already on the lookout for a new type, heard of a clever girl out at the Vitagraph, who rode a horse like a western cowboy . . . He wanted to see her on-screen before an audience . . . in a store on Amsterdam Avenue and 160th Street was a little motion picture place . . . advertising “The Dispatch Bearer,” a Vitagraph with Florence Lawrence. So, living near by, after dinner one night we rushed over to see it.“
Lawrence in that film seems to have impressed Griffith as much by “her direction” as her ability, at least that’s how Linda describes his reaction to Lawrence on-screen. Linda saw through that, or at least she did when she told the tale with the advantage given by two decades of hindsight and a failed marriage. He told Linda that he “would like to work with Mr. Ranous,” who was Lawrence’s director at Vitagraph, not mentioning whether he would similarly “like to work with” Miss Lawrence. No such meeting of the two directors seems to have occurred. But one with Lawrence — and her mother — did. Griffith made Florence Lawrence an offer superior to her situation at Vitagraph and she accepted. There is no record of how Mr. Ranous at Vitagraph felt about that.
“Well David stole little ‘Florrie’ he did!” as Linda describes with bemused sarcasm the outcome of the caper of the two Florences. But what Linda could not know was that both Griffith and Lawrence would get their karmic comeuppance within twelve months. In the meantime, Lawrence would assume the bulk of the work playing the female leads, and after November would share the load with Marion Leonard while Linda became Biograph’s utility player, performing a valuable function within Griffith’s growing stock company of actors, but never rising out of the public anonymity preferred by Biograph, and by her husband.
In her memoirs, Linda never voices or displays the least resentment of Lawrence, or any of Griffith’s future “finds” (she reserves her archness, subtly, for her husband) — and it may have been her downfall both professionally and personally in her marriage. She seems to have genuinely liked Lawrence, and in her memoirs she had fond recollections of her new colleague’s enthusiasm for her job:
“She never minded work. The movies were as the breath of life to her. When she wasn’t in a picture, she was in some movie theater seeing a movie. After the hardest day, she was never too tired to see the new release and if work ran into the night hours, between scenes she’d wipe off the make-up and slip out to a movie show. Her pictures became extremely popular and soon all over the country Miss Lawrence was known as ‘The Biograph Girl.'”
She admired not only Lawrence’s work ethic, but her versatility and her fearlessness in performing occasional, sometimes dangerous stunts. If there is something missing in Linda’s account of her relationship with Lawrence, it is in the lack of an account of Lawrence’s abrupt departure, along with husband Harry Solter, in July of 1909. Her only acknowledgement of it is that “after Miss Lawrence left Biograph, Mary Pickford fell heir to the title [of The Biograph Girl].” One can only wonder at this late date how much their uncannily similar life and career situations — abusive or otherwise bad relationships, reputations faded, careers effectively over — weighed on her as she put her memories to paper in 1925, or what her thoughts were at the time of Lawrence’s suicide thirteen years later).
As the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic Arthur Johnson, Linda Arvidson gives a moving performance in a relatively small role BELOW: The reformed/recovering Johnson enjoys a quiet moment with Linda and daughter, played by Adele DeGarde. A Drunkard’s Reformation, Biograph, 1909, dir. D. W. Griffith.
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When Mary Pickford first appeared at the studio looking for work, Griffith was in the early stages of a production he felt would bolster Biograph’s growing reputation for quality films and appeal to the media and those few of the literati who thought motion pictures needed to be married with the great works not only of the stage, but literature — both prose and poetry. Griffith had his eyes on adapting Thomas Browning’s poem, “Pippa Passes,” in which an ethereal female transforms everyone she encounters as she passes by singing and playing her mandolin.
The Griffiths, for now, were operating on precisely the same wavelength. The director came over toward Arvidson and asked, “Don’t you think she would be good for Pippa?” “Ideal,” I answered.”
“She” of course being Pickford. Arvidson had spotted her earlier in the day — as had everyone else in the studio. piecing together their various and varied accounts, it seems that Pickford was studying them as much as they were her. According to Arvidson,
“Mary Pickford tucked herself away in a niche, while she quietly gave us ‘the once over.’ The boss’s eagle eye had been roving her way at intervals . . . for here was something ‘different’ — a maid so fair and an actress to boot! . . . In the dressing-room, the word went around, ‘There’s a cute kid outside; have you seen her?’ ‘No, where is she?’ ‘She’s been sitting out there in a corner by herself.’ ‘Guess I’ll take a look.’ ‘She’s cute all right; they’re taking a test.'”
I think it’s fair to assume that Linda was describing the talk in the Ladies’ dressing room — one can only imagine, unfortunately, what the Men were saying! And at the time she wrote her memoirs, Linda most likely was unaware that her husband had asked Mary Pickford to dine with him — alone — that evening. Given that their marriage was still a secret to most, they would not be likely to arrive and depart the studio together, and a late dinner with “work associates” was probably a common excuse for Griffith’s after-hours activities during their time together as a married couple before separating years later. And the next day after wrapping up Her First Biscuits, Griffith asked Pickford to play the romantic lead in his next production, The Violin Maker of Cremona (another adaptation of a poem), with one caveat:
“Do you know anything about love-making?”
Mary Pickford, Linda Arvidson, frame detail from The Sealed Room. As Linda described in her memoirs, an actor could play a lead role one day, and the next day find themselves “playing ‘atmosphere,’ while [they] decorated the backdrop.” I believe the “decorations” here are discussing what they want to do for lunch. I’ll bet the conversation went something like this . . . Mary: “How ’bout pizza?” Linda: “I had that yesterday.” Mary: “There’s a new Chinese place just off Union Square. Let’s check it out!” Linda: “David and I had Chinese takeout last night . .” Mary: “WHOA! You mean you and Mr. Griffith . . . last NIGHT?” Linda (sheepishly): wellllll . . . I guess I’ve spoiled our little secret.” Mary: YOUR little secret? Let me clue you in — He asked ME to dine with him my first day here, . . . THEN he asked me what I knew about LOVE-MAKING! WTF!!! BELOW: The ladies storm off the set to straighten out Mr. Griffith !!!
[OK, Just having a little fun with it.]
And for the remainder of the real story, please see this prior post.
In a little more than two weeks, Pickford would make another appearance as a young girl, in The Lonely Villa (an early, outstanding example of Griffith’s use of a “cross-cutting” editing scheme to build suspense), and once again Mary would be in need of the proper costuming. That task, too, would fall again to Mrs. Griffith.
In her autobiography, Pickford notes that at this time, she had no idea that Mr. Griffith and Miss Arvidson were married. She was hardly the only one in the dark. It was only a matter of months — that August when the Biograph players decamped to shoot rural locations of upstate New York at the Cuddebackville Inn, before it became obvious that Mary Pickford and Owen Moore were now an “item,” or appeared to be in love. Yet somehow the Griffiths’ marriage remained a secret to most until weeks later. I’ve yet to read an account of the sleeping arrangements at Cuddebackville, but if the Griffiths shared the same room, it would have been hard to overlook.
Harry Solter and Florence Lawrence may have been the first to learn of it when they informed Griffith that they had just gotten married. Once they spilled their story, and with Solter being an old acquaintance, Griffith allowed that he too had been married to one of their co-workers for almost two years.
It is tempting to see Griffith’s matrimonial secrecy as a device to enable him to test the waters with others who were available and interested. For any man inclined to seek relationships outside of marriage, the world of actors, the theater or the movies provided ample opportunities, more so for someone in a position of power, which now included Griffith. But I do believe that the original intent of his secrecy — “it’ll be better for business” — was genuine at the time. Not that it excuses any later aberrant behavior.
The fact that Linda was the one person at Biograph (aside from Harry Solter) who knew Griffith when he was “Larry” Griffith, actor/scenarist who wanted to be a great writer for the stage, before he was the rising star of American filmmaking, before anyone even whispered of his “genius,” likely created more tension and distance between the two. He could not convincingly play the role of brilliant master film director in his own mind with Linda looking on, knowing that there existed a possible alternate reality, one aside from his new version or vision of it.
Griffith always saw himself as the artist, more than simply an actor or writer. He hadn’t “failed” at either of these, but he had not tasted much success, and so the world would never see the Artist. But with motion pictures, Griffith realized very early on that he had an opportunity most artists would kill for: to find a new art form and adapt, shape or even recreate it with his own hands as he imagined it should be. And in just over a year as director at Biograph he had planted the idea in the minds of many of his players and technicians that he was in this new art form its Master. The unassuming, practical, intelligent, softly persuasive Linda had no chance to keep pace with this iteration of “Larry” Griffith: David Wark Griffith the new Master Artist and Genius of Cinema. I think she realized the battle was lost before she could start to fight, had she even been so inclined. Her aggression came passively, and over the years. It doesn’t overly color her memoirs, but it is present. It did affect D. W. Griffith in his bank account, particularly after he admitted to her in a letter, no less, much later while separated but still married, that he had cheated, and with “many.”
Linda Arvidson left Biograph in late 1912 by which time she was also separated from Griffith. Former Biograph actor David Miles (Mary Pickford’s crippled admirer in The Violin Maker of Cremona) had been hired by the Kinemacolor film company as a director, and was eager to pluck others from Biograph, including Linda as his new “star” at Kinemacolor, and Frank Woods, Biograph’s former publicist and scenarist (who would also write for Griffith the film adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s white-supremacy novel, The Clansman, which in 1915 became The Birth of a Nation). Linda made a move to the Klaw & Erlanger film company in 1913, along with director Miles when Kinemacolor dissolved. To make matters more complex, Biograph merged with Klaw & Erlanger that year, and at the new studio Biograph had constructed in the Bronx, Miles directed Arvidson in two period dramas, The Wife and A Fair Rebel, the latter a Civil War drama, and both films may have been supervised by D. W. Griffith. Appearing in those films with Arvidson was young (15 years old) Dorothy Gish. I mention this not only to offer a glimpse of Linda Arvidson’s post-Biograph career, but to offer the only connection, however tenuous, between her and the Gishes.
Although Lillian Gish spent a not inconsiderable amount of time during the last fifty years of her century-long life lionizing D. W. Griffith, she never worked with and may never have even met Linda Arvidson Griffith — they were employed at Biograph at the same time very briefly in 1912, and their paths may never have crossed. Yet it doesn’t prevent Gish from using icy sarcasm to described Linda’s persistency in trying to hold “D. W.” to the terms of his separation agreement which granted Linda 15% of her husband’s earnings, and required a minimum of $400 per week, even during times when he was himself first experiencing lengthy periods of directorial unemployment at the end of the 1920s.
I doubt that Griffith shared with Lillian tales of the “many” extramarital dalliances he had while with Linda. In fact the subject of Griffith’s first wife does not get a mention in Gish’s autobiography, entitled , The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, until page 319 (out of 372 pages of text). She goes on to recount Griffith’s re-marriage very shortly after Linda “finally” granted him a divorce in 1935 — a marriage to Evelyn Baldwin, an actress more than thirty years his junior, a young woman he had known, according to Lillian Gish, since he discovered her in a hotel lobby and had screen tested her in 1925 at age 15 for the part of Dickens’ “Little Nell,” for a film he never made, although she did have a leading role in his last film project, The Struggle (Griffith/UA, 1931).
I believe that Linda Arvidson deserved better in many ways, personally and professionally. I think she could have held her own longer than she did as an actress in film and although not as a star, rather as a dependable character player. Though one can point the finger of blame in part to her husband, I believe she allowed her disappointments to overtake her career as well, and ultimately it may not have meant as much to her professionally to continue a career when a certain level of satisfaction could be gained by a financial stipend from the one who had left her behind in the dust of his rise to the peak of his profession. And she may have thought back to that spring day in 1908 in their humble flat in Manhattan’s garment district when she talked him out of leaving Biograph for summer stock in Connecticut. If she hadn’t been there . . .
I’m tempted to think that the model for the career Linda Arvidson could have had was that of Claire McDowell. Both were present at the early stages of the development of film acting, both were able to attract notice with ability rather than sheer looks. McDowell had the edge (some might say more) in talent. But she also had one other important advantage: a husband in the same business (and both employed together at Biograph) who treated her as an equal and gave the necessary support during the ups and downs of their careers. Maybe Mr. Griffith would have benefited as well by a strong female presence at his side, someone he treated with the same respect he showed Lillian Gish. He needed someone who not only saw him as vulnerable and human but, more importantly, someone who was able to tell him when he was wrong. According to Gish, he never had such a person to whisper in his ear when he needed that kind of guidance from another. I beg to differ. He had that, and he threw it away. With both hands.
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[More in future installments regarding Linda Arvidson Griffith and individual films and her performances in them. For further reading, check the Bibliography page beneath the blog header image, and look for entries under “D W Griffith.”]