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The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies

David Thomson

At first, film was a waking dream, delivered for a nickel to huddled masses sitting in the dark. But soon movies began transforming our societies and our perceptions of the world.

Excerpted from The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies by David Thomson, published in October 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by David Thomson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: A Cheap Form of Amusement

In 1911, William de Mille heard that a promising Canadian stage actress lately seen in The Warrens of Virginia (1907) was making the mistake of her life. He told the impresario David Belasco, “The poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously... I remember what faith you had in her future... and now she’s throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement.”

The actress was eighteen, and for the moment she was Gladys Smith— but the name Mary Pickford awaited her, along with perhaps the greatest success and fortune any woman has yet achieved in the movies. William was the older brother of Cecil B. DeMille and as disapproving as possible of Cecil’s own urge to give up theater for this new, trashy sensation. Fraternal superiority seldom works. C.B. was on his way as not just an epic figure in the business being made but also, he hoped, an immense force for good and improvement. (The de Milles were the sons of a preacher who had become a playwright. Around the turn of that century, there were so many new technologies winning the minds of people.)

The longing for improvement and the fear of waste and worse—it is a pattern still with us, and maybe it speaks to the medium’s essential marriage of light and dark, or as Mary Pickford put it in her autobiography (published in 1955), Sunshine and Shadow. Light and dark were the elements of film, and they had their chemistry in film’s emulsion. They had a moral meaning, too. But not everyone appreciated that prospect, or credited how it might make your fortune.

At one of their first film screenings in Paris, in the 1890s, the Lumière brothers told Georges Méliès, a stage magician captivated by what the cinematograph might do for him, to put away his money: “It is an invention without a future.” Yet Thomas Edison, a businessman to be sure, wrote in Moving Picture World, a trade paper, in 1907, that “nothing is of greater importance to the success of the motion picture interests than films of good moral tone.” But Dr. Anna Shaw, a “feminist reformer,” believed that a policeman should be posted everywhere movies were shown because “These places are the recruiting stations of vice.” In Boston, a girl, Irene Mayer, realized that her father, Louis B. Mayer, was in the picture business and doing so well that they were about to move to California! But years later she was still asking herself, “How could a man of my father’s innate conservatism have chosen show business?”

Her answer was that Pop was “as emotional as he was”—a simple statement that requires constant examination. My experience with movie people is that nothing is more pressing or perilous in their lives than their headstrong identification with the emotion in the stories they tell. Other people in Mayer’s life might have put it differently. Louis B. Mayer, once known as Lazar Meir, and born outside Kiev in 1885, was a small bull of a man who had grown strong heaving scrap iron. He was barely educated, yet he would be a shaper of minds. He was conservative but outrageous, high-minded and given to low blows, a pirate and a prison guard. As the dominant power at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for over twenty-five years, Mr. Mayer felt he owned the souls of his stars as well as their moving photographs on seven-year contracts. He had a cruel side, a violent temper, an unbridled ego. In urging his own properties to be “good,” to respect their mothers, their Americanness, and his advice, he could move himself to tears. His daughter Irene admitted that she regularly confused him with God, and hardly noticed that she didn’t believe in a god. Some observers decided Mayer was a fraud, the “greatest actor on the M-G-M lot.” This misses a more disarming truth: he cried real tears; he was moved by his own dreams. There are still people who think they run the media who are swept away by that great hope.

When Mayer was an infant still, his father, Jacob, took the family to England simply to escape pogroms and poverty. That setting forth showed some means as well as the courage that every emigrant requires. Jacob was in the scrap business, but he could not prosper in England. So in 1892 they all moved on to St. John, New Brunswick, the town where Louis Mayer was raised.

Similar stories could be told about most of the founding fathers in the picture business. Adolph Zukor (the future chairman of Paramount) was born in Hungary in 1873. Samuel Goldwyn was from Poland, born in 1879. Carl Laemmle (the founder of Universal) was born in Germany in 1867. William Fox was born in Hungary in 1879. The eventual Warner brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack) had their family origins in Poland. Harry Cohn’s father, Joseph, was born in Russia—and Cohn and a brother would form Columbia, the company that employed the logo of the famous statue holding a torch up for those huddled masses, beckoning them into movie houses.

They were all Jewish. The only native-born Americans among the movie pioneers were Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille, and maybe that’s why that pair worked together to make The Squaw Man (1914), allegedly the first feature-length picture produced in Hollywood. The Jewishness cannot be underestimated. The people who established the business were outsiders, anxious to be regarded as Americans, as well as people who had suffered every kind of ethnic prejudice from disdain to pogrom. When Victor Fleming (born in Pasadena) took over the directing of Gone With the Wind in 1939, he barely disguised his dislike of Jews (such as David O. Selznick, who produced the picture). So movies were made into a business by people who had recently escaped their own huddled masses, from families that did not always speak English. Against that set of anxieties, these early moviemakers were accustomed to storytelling, sentimental narrative theater, broad comedy, and the miracle of wondrous things never seen before: the dream that comes true. California was the embodiment of that change in life, the steady sunshine that followed European overcast.

By 1899, Louis Mayer was in St. John still, and Canadian (his father had taken citizenship), a teenager in the scrap business. It was in 1904 that he crossed the border and went to Boston. His purpose was to observe the familial duty of getting married. The Mayers had learned of a Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher in Boston ready to be wed—letters and photographs had been the means of courtship (you can marry a photograph; at the movies you can fall in love with it). Margaret, according to their daughter, was “astonished by his single-mindedness and ardor.” But others reckoned Mayer simply wanted to get to America.

This ardor, ambition, and naïveté fell on moving pictures. In 1907, Mayer learned he could purchase a six hundred-seat burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, the Gem (known locally as the Germ), for $600. He moved his family from Boston to Haverhill, refurbished the house, called it the Orpheum, and opened for business at Thanksgiving, with “clean, wholesome, healthy amusement.” On Christmas Eve he ran a double bill, two-reeler films (twenty to thirty minutes each) of The Passion Play and Bluebeard—Christian salvation and mass murder.

He had two daughters by then, and a rapidly growing business. “Never mind now,” he told his family, “this is short. It is the future that counts; the future is long.” He bought other theaters. He had an orchestra at the Orpheum. He hired live acts, too, and even a little bit of opera. The family moved back to Boston, and in March 1912, Louis Burrill Mayer took American citizenship. He elected to move into distribution, and for $4,000 he got the New England rights to DeMille’s The Squaw Man. Then, in 1915, with money acquired from a syndicate, he put up $20,000 to get the New England rights to The Birth of a Nation. For everyone in moving pictures it was the turning point.

With Mayer, we are talking about a businessman, albeit one obsessed with the value of content. David Wark Griffith, who conceived of The Birth of a Nation, and made it, deserves to be considered an artist, even if the thing his film gave birth to was more a business than anything else. He was also someone who developed a future technology that would restore the past.

Griffith was born on a farm near La Grange, Kentucky, in 1875, the son of man who had fought all through the Civil War for the Confederacy and been wounded twice. David was a country boy, in awe of a father who had difficulty expressing love. He was wistful and dreamy, and in his autobiography he recalled this childhood feeling about media to come: “I have thought what a grand invention it would be if someone could make a magic box in which we could store the precious moments of our lives and keep them with us, and later on, in dark hours, could open this box and receive for at least a few moments, a breath of its stored memory.” He was in love with nostalgia, and blind to the astonishing dynamics of the future he helped create.

The father died when Griffith was ten, and the family was left poor. The boy grew up tall and handsome, albeit with a soulful expression, and in Louisville he took up acting and singing. He joined a theatrical company; he had parts, and for a few years he was a touring actor—who never seems to have impressed anyone who saw him. He wrote stories, poetry, and plays—one of them, A Fool and a Girl, was produced, and flopped. He applied to the Biograph movie company in New York as an actor, and when they deemed him an unimpressive performer, they asked was he prepared to “direct.”

In 1908, directing was still a stooge’s job. In the mass of very short, sensationalist movies (many of them just ten minutes, few more than twenty), the stress was on getting an adequate camera exposure (catching the light), having enough action (to avoid boredom), showcasing prettiness in its human forms (the embryonic age of stardom), and being wholesome. If you feel there’s a contradiction between sensationalism and wholesomeness, don’t let any glib argument dissuade you. Without any understanding of how it worked, or where it might go, the medium had let loose the alchemy of the real and of fantasy. A director presided over the shooting, without truly analyzing, let alone controlling it. He called “Action” and “Cut,” or their equivalents, and he may have guided the actors. (Sometimes actors did the directing.) But scenarists, actors, and bosses had louder voices, and the cameraman was a small god with a machine no one else understood. A part of us now regards this condition as primitive, or unformed. If film is going to be an art—and some of us have longed for that—don’t we need an artist? But time and again over the years the director’s authority and glamour have receded. Ask yourself who directed which episode of The Sopranos.

In his five years at Biograph, Griffith directed more than four hundred short films, torn between the possibilities of a twentieth-century medium and the sentiments of popular Victorian theater. It’s not that he alone invented every fresh way of looking or the grammar of cutting shots together. Mauritz Stiller in Sweden and Louis Feuillade in France were two men working out the same problems, and as creative figures they often seem more interesting now. In a few years, in Russia and Germany, explosive attitudes would change everyone’s mind about what this medium could be. But these ideas were not American, and American business power was determining the character of the new show (and promoting America to the rest of the world). Movies had access to the most available and eager crowd, the new city people crying out for escape and amusement.

No one worked as much as Griffith; and no one else built a career and let the whole medium ride along on his wagon. Despite his roots in coarse theater, Griffith saw that camera positions could be varied, and made subtle with angle; he divined the power of close-ups in showing what people were feeling and to draw audiences into the suspense; he identified cross-cutting strategies that persist to this day—a way of saying “at the same time” or “meanwhile,” so that a story develops. He saw that film stories needed to accelerate, to rise, and to grip more tightly. He made the chase a function of narrative and moral force. He used sets (and he liked them to be accurate to period), but he had a rural eye for real places and natural light. To the modern viewer looking back at the surviving Griffith shorts, the sunlight and the human glance may be the most endearing things.

History acclaims him for his big pictures and the establishment of a business. But he was not always at his best with grandiose, epic narratives. He told short stories very well, alert to the interaction of people and place, of ordinary movement and the way we look at each other (the secret in cross-cutting and the way it could lead to inward thoughts, as opposed to feelings put on display). Many of his shorts have a facility and charm that is smothered in the big pictures. So A Corner in Wheat (1909, and only fourteen minutes) is a glimpse of rural life and big-city exploitation. The New York Dramatic Mirror praised Biograph for doing it, and said, “It is another demonstration of the force and power of motion pictures as a means of conveying ideas.” But it did not mention Griffith—no one knew enough yet to notice who had delivered the ideas.

So the failed actor built a company of players and worked with them so often that they became film actors. Lillian and Dorothy Gish are the best known now, and Griffith was more interested in looking at women than at men, but there were others: Robert Harron, Donald Crisp, Henry B. Walthall, Harry Carey, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, and Mary Pickford. Many of them became stars, but in Griffith’s work they seem like supporting players—and in American film that is often a mark of honor. Stars are American, to be sure, but they are not a sign of all men and women being equal. So the fond, respectful regard for “supporting players” may be closer to many American ideals.

In his quiet but firm way, Griffith educated actors. Lillian Gish (his greatest project, his model, and perhaps his goddess) once called films “flickers” in his hearing, and Mr. Griffith, as she spoke of him, told her, “Never let me hear that word again in this studio. Just remember, you’re no longer working in some second-rate theatrical company. What we do here will be seen tomorrow by people all over America—people all over the world.”

We know he was right, but his earnestness was driven by hope and his own memories of failure in second-rate theatricals. So in 1913, Griffith left Biograph and began to make longer films: Judith of Bethulia was an hour long, and terribly archaic in its biblical material and attitudes. He felt challenged by feature-length films coming from Italy and France— ornate costume dramas fixed on re-creating the past and throwing spectacle at the audience. Given a machine that would shape the future, many early filmmakers elected to revive the past—so Griffith dreamed of a remade Civil War.

His best biographer, Richard Schickel, has observed that, despite Griffith preparing to change the world, he was unworldly to a degree. He knew next to nothing about the latest steps in literature, music, or painting. And his pioneering looks nearly childlike when put beside his exact contemporaries: Joyce’s Dubliners (1914) (just think of the depth in “The Dead”); the dynamics of Cubism; and the music of Mahler. But more than those artists, D. W. Griffith identified and enlisted the American crowd. He shone the light in the public face and he set off a mass medium—the first. Moreover, a mass medium carried a challenge: that the select media, the arts, might be redundant. Wasn’t it nearly a democratic ideal that if there was something that was funny, moving, or exciting, it might work on everyone?

This was underlined by a real-world disaster that made everyone feel caught under the same gun: Griffith began shooting his big picture on July 4, 1914—war was weeks away. But his thoughts were of the war that had marred his own life and experience, the Confederacy against the Union. For his material, he chose—alas—Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. This is a big, baggy book, full of romance, but Griffith was not shy of saying that he smelled movie when he imagined the clansmen riding in flying white robes.

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