Blanche Sweet is the wife of a businessman (H. B. Walthall) who has gambled and lost all the money he had embezzled from his company. He has called his wife to inform her that he is committing suicide. His partner in business, who is also in love with the wife, has covered the embezzlement with his own funds, and he now races to the office in a last-ditch effort to prevent the deed while the wife keeps her suicidal husband on the phone. Death’s Marathon (Biograph, 1913), directed by D. W. Griffith.
[This article is ‘Part Three’ of an ongoing series on the film career of one of the most important early film actresses and a major star of the 1910s and 1920s, Blanche Sweet. The first two parts are Blanche Sweet, Iconoclast and Blanche Sweet, ‘A Higher Plane of Art.’]
Blanche Sweet declined D. W. Griffith’s invitation to join the Biograph company for their California excursion in January of 1910. At the time, she preferred dance over acting for the camera. Not making the same mistake twice, Sweet rejoined the company out west the following winter, where Griffith gave her several important opportunities that season, including The Lonedale Operator and The Last Drop of Water. But Griffith had shown no preference for her over his other actresses, or that he yet had a clear idea of a particular type of character for which she might be ideal. The simple truth was that Blanche Sweet was not his ideal.
Griffith’s personal preferences always seemed to come back to the smaller, slender, even frail-looking women. But there was another element in the equation, not just a physical or emotional type. It was a prerequisite for his all his actors, but most noticeable with his actresses. That prerequisite was personal loyalty to the director. Not to Biograph, not even to the new art of motion pictures, but to Griffith. Not sexual, necessarily, although that was almost certainly true in some cases. And Griffith’s favored type above all — the ones he drew closest to professionally and personally — were girls.
As many have commented, including those with first-hand knowledge, these were young actresses who were more likely to be open to his ideas, who had less experience and fewer ingrained habits or ideas of their own about film acting, or life in general. Few actors working in 1908 had significant experience in motion pictures. Griffith and his wife Linda were able to succeed almost immediately in their first small parts before the camera at Biograph. In those earliest days, Griffith wasn’t yet sold on any notion that film required a different kind of acting. But as he made his first films, he realized he was in new and uncharted territory, with no blueprint, few rules and no real precedent or job description for the position of “director.” The future of the artist and his art was his to write.
Griffith’s first lead actress at Biograph was Marion Leonard, a ten-year stage veteran with significantly more theatrical success than her new director. She was 27 — an adult woman. His first “discovery” was Florence Lawrence, at age 22 an experienced stage performer who already had a couple of films on her resume when she was hired by Griffith. Lawrence developed a romantic relationship with, and then married Griffith’s actor friend and Biograph colleague Harry Solter; Leonard became involved with Biograph scenarist Stanner E. V. Taylor, and they married in 1910. Neither woman appeared to see Griffith as their ticket to success in the movies, although in fairness to him, both left Biograph to pursue far more lucrative opportunities with other film producers. The loss of Lawrence in particular might have been devastating, except for one thing. The arrival of seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford at Biograph in April, 1909 changed everything — in Griffith’s favor.
Mary Pickford was undoubtedly the greatest natural talent with whom Griffith would ever work. She also had an ego to match his own. It is rare that two such egos can work together for long, if at all It is almost unthinkable that together they could produce as important a body of work as they did over a period of several years. Griffith told an interviewer several years later that he and his actors learned their new art together. Griffith and Pickford had a synchronicity unmatched. As Blanche Sweet would later tell it, “Once he [Griffith] had Mary, he was spoiled.” But Pickford saw the future: her name in lights. She wasn’t hesitant to say so in front of her fellow “Biographers,” to their considerable astonishment. As Pickford grew as an artist, she outgrew Biograph, the single reel film and Griffith. But Griffith’s concept of the art of film had grown as well, and he saw himself as one of its most important artists. That made it essential for him to find talent that he could shape without the constant, emotionally draining conflict between the two that both he and Pickford would later describe.
When Mary Pickford left Biograph for the first time at the end of 1910, Griffith had already been accumulating depth in his company of actors by gradually acquiring the services of additional, and usually young, actresses. Dorothy Bernard (the daughter of a stage acquaintance), Stephanie Longfellow, Vivian Prescott, Florence LaBadie (who would become a star at Thanhouser before her early and tragic death), were all given opportunities. However, none possessed the required combination of looks, talent and a committment to place themselves in his hands as professional film actors. Neither did Blanche Sweet. One gets the impression that having turned down the chance to go west with Griffith in 1910, she had to work twice as hard to earn his respect as an actor. And she did. She also had something that none of his actresses since Marion Leonard and Florence Lawrence had, and that was a physicality, a sexual presence always very near the surface. Whatever, “languorous capabilities,” Mary Pickford had, remained only in “her eyes,” as Griffith noted years later. He never fully explored those capabilities, at any rate. They remained untapped. (It could also be argued that Mabel Normand had these qualities, but Griffith seems to have typecast her in his mind as a comedienne, lost interest and left her to Mack Sennett and his comedy unit at Biograph where she thrived, along with Vivian Prescott — and occasionally, Blanche Sweet.)
Blanche Sweet turned sixteen shortly after the Biograph company returned from their third California season in May, 1912. Griffith must have seen “languorous capabilities” in her as well, and finally chose to use them. They are on abundant display, or as much as they could be displayed in 1912, in a film made in California before the Griffith company returned east to make The Painted Lady with Sweet in the lead. This earlier, California film was called One is Business; The Other Crime (an awkward title that would be butchered unintentionally in the press, and the only movie to my knowledge with a semi-colon in its title). It is far less important a role, and less important as a film, than The Painted Lady, but it allows us an early glimpse of the softer, sensual side of Sweet.
Griffith had a predilection for “morality plays” long before making any of his epic feature films. The morality play was ideally suited to the short film format, the one reel drama that dominated the first years of narrative film. Mack Sennett, present for and part of the development of early film with Griffith at Biograph, observed that the short film was ideal for comedy, whereas drama was at a clear disadvantage within the limits of a single reel. One intuitively agrees with Sennett and cringes at the prospect of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy distilled to less than fifteen minutes. But that ignores other forms such as verse or melodrama, the latter being a descendant of the medieval morality play.
Griffith and other filmmakers of the first two decades of narrative film frequently turned to verse for cinematic material. Griffith adapted Pippa Passes, Enoch Arden, The Sands of Dee, the works of Poe, and many more. But the morality play with its clearly drawn characters, situations and plot resolutions — the very basics of melodrama — also fit the single reel film quite well within the inherent limitations of the format, and provided the basis of numerous works in the short form by Griffith.
The single reel gave just enough time to flesh out the characters and plot in these morality plays that were by nature minimalist. It was also perfect source material for the laboratory-like experiments in the basic film storytelling by Griffith in which he deduced how to condense pages of dialog into a few minutes with judicious editing, camera placement, character blocking, even set design. Having inventive scenarists such as Frank Woods and Stanner E. V. Taylor made his job easier, as well.
By 1912, Griffith had directed more than three hundred short films, the vast majority being dramas. As I’ve noted elsewhere with just a little exaggeration, because the plots have been reduced to their essence, it almost takes longer to give a synopsis of these films than it does to watch them. Fortunately, Griffith allows the camera to linger a bit longer in some films, and when it lingers on the young Blanche Sweet, as it does in One is Business; The Other Crime, one almost forgets there is a plot.
We see two young, married couples one appearing to be working class, the other wealthy. The wealthy husband gains political influence through his wealth, the working class husband loses his job and not finding another, becomes desperate. The wealthy husband is offered a bribe from a local corporation if he endorses their bid for a new mass transit franchise. He initially accepts the money. The transaction is witnessed by the unemployed husband. In his desperation the poor man decides to break into the wealthy man’s home to steal the money, only to be caught and held at gunpoint by the wealthy man’s wife.
However, the wife finds with the money the letter that offered the bribe. The husband enters, and attempts to call the police, but is halted by his wife who demands an explanation from her husband. She convinces him to let the would-be thief go, and demands that he reconsider their future together. Her husband comes to his senses, returns the bribe money and goes to the home of the unemployed, would-be thief and offers him a job with his company.
The reviewer of One Is Business; The Other Crime in The New York Dramatic Mirror noted the “particularly bold” character played by Sweet, and the solid performances of all the actors.
” . . . the terrible fact dawns upon her that her husband is no better than this man cringing before her revolver. It must be confessed, however, that she seemed a particularly bold young woman at this point. . . With caustic rebukes she flays [her husband] for his weakness in accepting the bribe, and . . . the accusation that he can regard himself on the same plane with the burglar. . . Four of the most capable Biograph actors have the principal roles.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, May 11, 1912.
A couple of patterns seemed to be emerging with Griffith’s handling of Blanche Sweet. She had become his go-to actress when gun-play was required. She had brandished a wrench “gun” at the robbers in The Lonedale Operator, ducked bullets in The Last Drop of Water; she had disarmed and turned the gun on her crazed admirer in A Country Cupid, held the burglar in “One is Business” at gunpoint, and would confront and kill her burglar/lover in The Painted Lady. Clearly Griffith saw her as anything but a frail or timid young waif. He also began to make use — cinematically, that is — of her fleshy sexuality.
In One is Business; The Other Crime, Blanche Sweet resembles nothing so much as a proto-Marilyn in the scenes where she has changed into her robe after her husband has gazed intently and approvingly at her fully dressed form. Remember that this is 1912, and Blanche Sweet is just a few weeks shy of sixteen when the film was made and released. The filmmaker was not about to take things any further than this. This was also one time where Biograph’s policy of keeping secret their employee’s biographical information was prudent. I doubt that anyone, unless otherwise informed, would believe a fifteen year old girl could possibly be the immensely appealing physical presence that is Blanche Sweet in One is Business; The Other Crime.
Advertisement for new Biograph releases, including One is Business; The Other Crime, plus two “split-reel” comedy shorts. The New York Dramatic Mirror, April 24, 1912.
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Before leaving for California in January, 1913, Griffith and the Biograph company closed up shop at the old studio on East Fourteenth Street, locking the doors behind them. (It remained in use for several more years by Klaw and Erlanger who would eventually acquire Biograph, and by the midwest distributor for Biograph, George Kleine, when he began producing his own movies in 1914.) In the summer of 1913, Biograph moved to their new, spacious and state-of-the-art facilities out in the country — the Bronx. Mary Pickford had completed her last film for Biograph, The New York Hat, in November 1912. For Griffith, it would also close the first chapter of his career in motion pictures. Before 1913 was out, Griffith, too, would leave Biograph. In a few short years, Biograph would cease to exist, the casualty of an outdated business model and shortsighted management in an industry that was experiencing rapid, dynamic change.
On their final California trip, Griffith’s Biograph company spent nearly six months working out west; when they returned to New York in early July, they would begin production at the new studio in the Bronx. But in California Griffith produced several important films, including the two-reel western, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch and the four-reel Judith of Bethulia, a “Biblical” epic based upon the Apocrypha. “Judith” was the first Biograph feature film, and the last film completed by Griffith with his first employer in motion pictures. But several key short dramas were also made, and through the years their reputation has grown brighter while that of the longer Biograph “epics” has not.
Lillian Gish had her breakout performance as the young mother abandoned by her husband in The Mothering Heart, a role that would do for her career what The Painted Lady did (and Judith of Bethulia would do as well) for Blanche Sweet. But a week or two before commencing work on the Gish film, Griffith paired Sweet with his top actor, Henry B. Walthall, in the tense drama, Death’s Marathon. Sweet portrays a beautiful young woman pursued by two young business partners who are close friends, one conservative, one reckless. The opening shot of Sweet shows her sitting in a garden, reading, smiling serenely. (Some commentators have described this image as the daydream of each of the two suitors of their love.)
Not surprisingly, Sweet chooses the more adventurous suitor, Walthall. They marry and have their first child. But Walthall’s character is a drinker and a gambler. His temper when drunk is frightening, and at times he threatens her. He gambles and loses money that he has embezzled from his company, and becomes suicidal. His partner, the conservative one who failed to win the hand of Blanche, covers the embezzlement with his own funds to protect his friends from scandal and prison.
From his office, Walthall calls Sweet to say “goodbye” forever. His partner races to the office to stop Walthall, while the wife attempts to keep her husband on the phone until his partner can arrive, even putting their baby next to the receiver to dissuade him from the selfish act he is about to commit. Their efforts are in vain. In the final scene, the friend brings a bouquet of flowers, comforting the grieving widow as the film ends. We are given just enough to allow us to believe that the two of them will rekindle an old relationship, and love will bloom from tragedy.
By 1913, the juxtaposition of threat and rescue had long been a common device; in fact, a genre in and of itself. The Moving Picture World review even describes the film as a “Griffithian suspense.” But Griffith was introducing new ideas within the parallel editing schemes of these kinds of films. In the case of Death’s Marathon, the threat and the victim are one and the same. There are two attempts at rescue simultaneously: the partner’s conventional race (by auto) to the scene, and the wife’s use of the telephone. The telephone also facilitates the editing: cuts are made as receivers are lifted, words spoken into them (though the use of editing within phone calls was not new, Griffith cuts far more frequently than previous films using this device). Griffith now added the elements of human psychology to the mix, giving it new life.
To one who hasn’t seen the film, it might be expected that the performances would be secondary to the intricacies of editing and pacing. But the centerpiece of the film is the phone call: the contrast between Walthall’s suicidal husband — a performance that is itself a balancing act of calm deliberation and suicidal psychosis — and the explosive emotions of Sweet’s previously serene, unflappable wife. In her desperately futile attempt to convince her selfish and pitiful husband that his life means more than just himself (even at one point thrusting their baby next to the phone), Sweet produces work that is comparable (though in a role much more limited) to her performance in The Painted Lady.
The outcome of the “race to the rescue” in Death’s Marathon was unconventional — the rescue failed. The ending, also unconventional — it is not happy, nor is it one without hope. In the final shot, we see an echo of the opening shot of Sweet in the film, sitting, almost at peace, and smiling: the narrative has come full circle.
The New York Daily Mirror observed that although the genre was anything but fresh, the “fine detail work, in the staging and the acting, the construction of the plot and trimming [editing or cutting] of the film lend it the air of completeness and strength . . . characteristic of Biograph releases.” Nevertheless, the day of the one-reel drama, regardless of specific genre or producer, was rapidly nearing its end as was Griffith’s career at Biograph.
The latest Biograph releases advertised in the New York Daily Mirror, June 4, 1913, including Death’s Marathon, with Blanche Sweet. Though still uncredited in their advertising, Biograph would soon release the names of their actors to the press.
For Blanche Sweet the release of Death’s Marathon coincided with Biograph’s long-awaited change of its policy regarding personnel credits: the names and photos of the Biograph actors were released to the media in June, 1913. And in the June issue of Motion Picture Story Magazine, one of the first of the film fan magazines (modeled on literary short story magazines of the previous hundred years), there appeared this portrait of Blanche Sweet, Biograph “Picture Player:”
But — nothing we have seen before can prepare us for Blanche Sweet as Judith of Bethulia.
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Multi-reel films, including those of three or more reels being marketed as “features,” had turned the network of American film producers and distributors on its head in late 1912 and into 1913. Griffith had likely heard and read of the Italian epics, Quo Vadis? and The Last Days of Pompeii, both of which were imported by Chicago-based film distributor George Kleine, and premiered in America in New York in April and August of 1913, respectively. If Griffith saw them it was, of course, after his return from California in the summer of 1913.
Prior to leaving for the west coast, Griffith had been unable to negotiate a new contract with Biograph. He was still working under the terms of his old agreement, one that gave him a fractional royalty for each foot of finished film product rather than what he now wanted: a percentage of the profits. Taking into account that longer films would increase his income in lieu of any profit-sharing, it is reasonable to suppose that Griffith’s motivation to make longer films was financial as well as artistic. Although Biograph may have given him some form of approval to produce at least a few two-reel films while in California, Griffith took advantage of whatever tacit approval existed, and the vast gulf of both travel and communication between coasts, to essentially move forward on his own with longer films. Back in New York, Biograph management had other problems with which to contend.
Members of the Motion Picture Patents Companies (those companies that had banded together with Edison in a business “trust” to end the constant patent litigation among them), including Biograph, found their monopoly challenged by distributors and exhibitors who desired to handle the feature film product from both foreign and domestic independent producers. One way to deal with the problem was for the MPPC members to ramp-up their own production of multi-reel films. Although praised for their product’s quality throughout the industry, Biograph was a laggard when it came to features. That had to change. After all, Biograph head Jeremiah J. Kennedy was also the chairman of the MPPC board of governors.
In June of 1913, D. W. Griffith was shooting the last of his California films, and at the beginning of July, returned to New York to finish up work on Judith of Bethulia, a film based upon a play with origins in the Old Testament Apocrypha, The Book of Judith. To his astonishment, Kennedy had just announced a major deal between Biograph and theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger to make two feature films a week based upon plays they owned. (The fact that it was difficult enough for Biograph to make the equivalent of two reels of finished product per week lends credence to the complaints of critics and audiences that the sudden surge in new “features” from many producers were giving them quantity without a corresponding increase in quality.) Griffith was expected to “supervise” these productions, but not personally direct them. Given that Griffith had met resistance from Biograph management in his own efforts to make longer films, he took this as his cue to leave the company. But before he did, there was a film to finish.
Whether or not Griffith had heard of the feature film plans of Biograph while still in California is open to debate. However, he shot enough footage out west to make a six reel feature of Judith of Bethulia without Biograph’s explicit approval, and had built elaborate outdoor sets for both “Judith” and the two-reel Battle of Elderbush Gulch over their objections. If Biograph believed he was flouting their authority and considered him insubordinate, it could explain his treatment by his employer — he was “too big to fire,” but not too big to humiliate by allowing others to direct the company’s forthcoming feature films. The cold slap in the face when he returned to New York in July convinced him to complete the film, and then depart. He finished shooting interiors for the film at the new Biograph studio in the Bronx during July, then, at Biograph’s insistence, whittled the final product down to four reels, the longest film he would make for them.
D. W. Griffith had a prior personal connection to Judith of Bethulia — as a play produced by a former theatrical associate, Nance O’Neil, in whose company he had worked a decade earlier. Griffith had landed in San Francisco in 1905 attempting to book his one-act play, In Washington’s Time, on the west coast vaudeville Orpheum Circuit. Although this plan fell through, San Francisco gave him the opportunity to spend time with future wife Linda Arvidson, and to be hired into Miss O’Neil’s repertory company, one of the most respected in the country. The O’Neil company produced a wide variety of works ranging from the modern classics to the avant-garde, including then-popular theatrical spectacles. Among them was Thomas Aldrich’s play Judith of Bethulia, itself an adaptation of an earlier Italian work, Giuditta, by the Italian dramatist Paolo Giacometti. The Aldrich version was originally produced in Boston in 1904, and then by O’Neil in San Francisco in 1905. Griffith did not appear in this particular O’Neil production. However, when choosing a subject that would befit his first feature-length film, the combination of Biblical-Apocryphal source material and high-brow, stage spectacle must have been irresistible to Griffith.
In the tale of this Judith, Bethulia is a small city on the border of Judea, under siege by an Assyrian army led by Holofernes, a general of Nebuchadnezzar. Judith is a widow — her husband, a general, was killed in battle with the Assyrians, and the enemy is now starving her people to the brink of surrender. Judith prays to God and is inspired to make a sacrifice on behalf of her people. She will give herself to the Assyrian commander — but once she has done so, she will kill him and deliver her people from their plight. Complicating her decision is the love she begins to feel for Holofernes — it gives substance to a plot line that might otherwise be little more than a mission of intrigue and assassination.
The role of Judith required an actress to exhibit a wide array of emotions within a relatively brief story arc: sorrow for the loss of her husband, compassion for the suffering of her people, sincerity and piety in asking God for guidance, strength in carrying out her mission; the doubt and hesitation caused by the human feelings of love even for the enemy. Griffith saw that Blanche Sweet was capable of displaying such a range of feeling on camera, as proven by her success in The Painted Lady and Death’s Marathon. But the conviction he had in her to succeed as Judith is clearly shown by his invitation to Nance O’Neil to visit him on the set of Judith in Los Angeles in June 1913 to watch him direct his own company of actors.
Griffith biographer Richard Schickel, who had interviewed Blanche Sweet extensively, transcribes the scene as Sweet remembered it, where O’Neil watches Griffith direct her as Judith:
“Among the scenes Miss O’Neil witnessed was one in which Miss Sweet, dressed in sackcloth and ashes, mimed her grief at widowhood. Before beginning it, Griffith approached the young actress and said, ‘show her,’ show the great lady from the stage, that is, what a movie actress, one of the director’s most apt pupils could do.”
Of course, as Schickel emphasizes in his account, Griffith was trying to impress his former associate from the “legitimate” theater of his importance and stature in his world of the art of motion pictures. But it is telling that Griffith would whisper to Sweet, “Show her” what a good film actor can do — he had that level of confidence in her and knew she would not fail him.
Having purified herself through the ritual, Judith dons the garb in which she will enter the camp of the Assyrians and gain introduction to their general, Holofernes.
Holofernes (Henry B. Walthall), intrigued, is taken with the beautiful widow. Judith overcomes her nerves by sharing wine with the general. Soon she gets him quite drunk, and he falls into a stupor.
Alone with the unconscious Holofernes, Judith sees her opportunity . . . but she hesitates.
She had feelings for the man and puts down the weapon . . . until she hears the wails of her people, suffering the starvation and thirst that the siege has brought upon them.
She regains the nerve and does the duty of her people and the Will of God.
Without their leader, the Assyrians are routed by the Bethulians, who hail Judith as their salvation.
Of interest to those who view Griffith as the quintessential Victorian-era prude in matters sexual, is that the two primary literary sources for Judith of Bethulia, the Giacometti and Aldrich works, both have Judith remaining completely chaste with Holofernes before she assassinates him. Griffith depicts Judith as having a genuine emotional involvement and physical desire for the Assyrian leader, and the director seizes on this internal tug-of-war to create genuine suspense and doubt about her willingness to follow through with the assassination as she nears the final moments of her mission, and of the film.
Judith of Bethulia was first released by Biograph in Great Britain in the fall of 1913. Biograph in America was stumbling along with its efforts to ramp up production of the Klaw and Erlanger features, and seemed to hold “Judith” hostage (as Holofernes failed to do) while Griffith made public his availability to other producers. It didn’t matter at this point. Griffith had made up his mind to move elsewhere, and was already negotiating with both Adolph Zukor and Harry Aitken at the time “Judith” was released abroad. By March, 1914, Griffith had already signed with Aitken, and Judith of Bethulia, under a distribution arrangement with the General Film Company, premiered in New York to rave reviews, none more so than that of Louis Reeves Harrison of The Moving Picture World.
“A fascinating work of high artistry, ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice. It has a signal and imperative message, and the technique displayed throughout an infinity of detail, embracing even the delicate film tinting and toning, marks an encouraging step in the development of the new art.” The Moving Picture World, March 7, 1914.
Reviewer Harrison fully noted the sexual tension involved in Judith’s ultimately selfless act:
“The entire vigorous action of the play works up to the personal sacrifice of Judith . . . She dares expose herself to overwhelming humiliation and dishonor in a challenge of beauty to strength, struggles through a conversion of sentiment that . . . sets at defiance [of] the ‘better-death-than-dishonor’ platitude, escaping both through that all-conquering combination in a woman, great physical beauty joined to lofty intelligence.” Louis Reeves Harrison, “Judith of Bethulia,” The Moving Picture World, March 7, 1914.
Though Harrison does not mention Blanche Sweet by name — it was still not the norm for reviewers to do so when critiquing the performance of a film actor — he does credit her performance, particularly in the climactic scene:
“Judith’s terrible triumph . . . is pictured without loss of force or charm by extreme delicacy of treatment. Beauty is constantly asserted by almost reckless prodigality in the matter of costume, and by the appeal of delightful acting. The feminine sweetness and shyness of the lovely Judith are intensified by her advances and retreats in measuring her sex attractions against his formidable power.” Harrison, The Moving Picture World, March 7, 1914.
The New York Dramatic Mirror, originally a theater trade periodical that grew its coverage of film as features began to seriously compete with (and then dominate) the live stage for “an evening’s entertainment,” mirrored the reaction of the MPW in its review.
“This offering brings to a fine focus the parts of screen workmanship that are best, and having assembled them with a total disregard for the cost, releases the product as finished and beautiful an offering as has been accomplished to the present day. The hour-long film is a resume and a concentration at once of all that has been found best in the past. . . Truly, this is a remarkable story . . . reproduced in a truly remarkable way. . . it brings it out upon the screen all the artistry and reality that modern experience and means have found possible.” The New York Dramatic Mirror, “Feature Films of the Week,” March 18, 1914.
The professional drama critics from The Moving Picture World and the Dramatic Mirror were not alone in their praise for Judith of Bethulia. The film was frequently cited by champions of early cinema as “Art” with a capital “A.” The example most often cited is that of the America writer and poet Vachel Lindsay who thought “Judith” was the most important film he had seen to that date, and the performance of Blanche Sweet as “dignified and ensnaring.” Early historians of cinema such as Lewis Jacobs and Iris Barry insisted that Judith of Bethulia was among the great milestones of cinema of any era (bear in mind they were writing in the 1930s). Blanche Sweet, at seventy, looking back on her great successes at age sixteen-going-on-seventeen, gave her director all the credit. As she told writer/historian De Witt Bodeen,
“Anything he told me to do I did. Anything to gain his praise! [adding,] I’d had the greatest director of them all, the real master, Mr. Griffith.” Blanche Sweet, quoted by De Witt Bodeen, Films In Review, “Blanche Sweet,” November, 1965.
Recent opinion has not been so kind to Judith of Bethulia. The battle scenes are rather tightly pinched against the minimal construction of the “walls” of the city of Bethulia, the opposing armies scurry back and forth confusingly, Assyrians run rampant in the streets of Bethulia, making one wonder why they went back outside the walls to “lay siege” to the city at all. The paper mache beards and costumes and the art direction in general makes the then unheard of budget of $36,000 seem rather inflated. H. B. Walthall generally received praise for his performance, but he’s all beard — his expression and reactions are hidden behind facial hair. Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron are given roles created especially by Griffith for the film, and it makes sense that he was letting his entire company of actors in on the project by creating roles for them. It seems he knew he was nearing the end of the line with Biograph, and wanted to thank his loyal troupe, and hopefully to have them reciprocate by following him wherever he would decide to go — which they mostly did.
J. B. Kaufman points out in his essay on Judith in The Griffith Project, that seen side by side with Griffith’s later “epics,” Judith of Bethulia seems unimpressive, small. But he notes further that seen in context, that is, sequentially with the Griffith Biograph films that preceded it, Judith is impressive in its scope (twice the length of the longest prior Biograph), both in setting, cast, and in the sheer number of characters who are memorable aside from Blanche Sweet’s Judith: Marsh and Harron as the young lovers, Dorothy Gish in a bit as a cripple, Dorothy Bambrick (Griffith’s choreographer here and in his remaining films) as the leader of the Assyrian dancers and their “dance of the fishes,” Griffith’s nod to modern dance (which oddly doesn’t include the ex-professional dancer, Blanche Sweet), the effeminate character of Holofernes’ eunuch played by J. Jiquel Lanoe, the reliable Kate Bruce as Judith’s crusty maid servant, and a very touching performance in a minor role (everything aside from Judith and Holofernes in the film is relatively “minor”) by Lillian Gish as the young mother with a starving newborn.
According to Blanche Sweet, “the competition for the leads among ‘the Griffith girls’ was keen.” There was no consideration of going elsewhere when, for example, the inexperienced Mae Marsh was given two key roles that both Sweet and Mary Pickford had desired intensely. They were loyal, even though according to Sweet, “I didn’t have a contract. None of us did.” Sweet would take leads in several films directed by others, “supervised” by Griffith both at Biograph and with his next employer, Harry Aitken. However, Griffith was looking ahead to his next major project, one which would have a profound influence on the career of Blanche Sweet, one in which she would not appear, but one which would have another “Griffith girl” crowned as his “ideal.”
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Bibliography and periodicals.
De Witt Bodeen, “Blanche Sweet,” Films in Review, November 1965, p. 549-570.
The Internet Archive (internetarchive.org) at The Media History Digital Library (mediahistoryproject.org) for The Moving Picture World; and for Motion Picture Story Magazine.
Archives of The New York Dramatic Mirror at fultonhistory.com, for The New York Dramatic Mirror.
Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915, History of the American Cinema series, Volume 2, Charles Harpole, General Editor; University of California Press, 1990.
Richard Schickel, D. W. Griffith: an American Life, Simon and Schuster, 1984; Limelight Editions, 1996 (paperback).
Paolo Cherchi Usai, General Editor, The Griffith Project, Volumes 6 and 7, Films Produced in 1912, and Films Produced in 1913, the British Film Institute, and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, 2002 and 2003. In Volume 6, “One is Business; The Other Crime,” essay by Eileen Bowser, p. 33-35; In Volume 7, “Death’s Marathon,” essay by Tom Gunning, p. 58-66, and “Judith of Bethulia,” essays by J. B. Kaufman, p. 131-136, and David Mayer, p. 136-142.