Monday, 8 June 2015

Father’s Day… Judith of Bethulia (1914), BFI with Wendy Hiscocks

The Variety reviewer was awestruck: "It is not easy to confess one's self unequal to a given task, but to pen an adequate description of the Biograph's production of 'Judith of Bethulia' is, to say the least, a full grown man's job."   cripes: am I “man enough” to blog this one?

Today was DW day at the BFI at the start of their month-long season celebrating “Cinema’s Great Pioneer” which will include screenings of all his major works including a tie-in with UCL’s three-day conference on Birth of a Nation: the Father of Cinema celebrated, just two Sundays before Father’s Day… Really BFI, you could have waited!

David Llewelyn Wark Griffith, probably not a descendant of  Rhys ap Gruffydd...
As befits a man little known for brevity, the day started with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s three part documentary covering the life and career of the man our Charlie called “the teacher of us all”. DW Griffith: Father of Film, narrated by Lindsay Anderson, included precious interviews with Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet, who were to feature later, along with cinematographers Karl Brown and Stanley Cortez.

The series documents Griffith’s relatively humble background on a farm – not quite the southern aristocrat he later made himself out to be: “descended from the Kings of Wales…” me too mate! He was a self-made man, self-taught with his school-teacher sister’s help and this makes his achievements all the more remarkable:  as with Chaplin he clearly had exceptional native intelligence and supernatural energy.

Lillian reaches out in The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
There are in-depth appraisals of his blockbusters and the almost unbroken run of success up to Orphans of the Storm (Lillian had me on the verge of tears yet again…) and then his attempts to replicate that success over the next decade. A decline marked by the emergence of new wave of silent-sophisticates such as Lubitsch, Vidor and Von Stroheim.
DW examining the rushes from Abraham Lincoln
But you know, decline is always far worse when viewed retrospectively – from the vantage point of ultimate failure and there are some films such as America and Lincoln that are worthy of deeper investigation.

With scarcely time to grab a sandwich, it was on to the actual films with three fascinating samples of early DW…

The Adventures of Dollie (1908)

A still from Dollie... no where near as clear as the print we saw!
This was Griffith’s first film as a director and was an amazing print: 107 years old and looking as fresh as yesterday! Gypsy tries to steal from a young mother and after being forced away by her husband takes revenge by abducting their daughter. The mean travellers hide her in a barrel which falls off the back of their cart and sails home along the river… NO children were harmed in the making of this film (probably).

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

The calm before the storm... but they did say "no dogs!"
The print quality here was not so good but it showed how far DW had come in the five years since his debut. There’s a battle in a besieged log cabin that prefigures the same in Birth of a Nation. This time the aggressors are Native Americans upset over the killing of the chief’s son. Now, personally I think they gave up on negotiations far too soon but then again, the young man was killed in an argument over whether or not he could eat two dogs belonging to the settlers.

The owner of the dogs was Mae Marsh who eventually emerges as the hero by rescuing Lillian Gish’s baby amidst the smoke and cross-cutting fury of the battle itself. Robert Harron, another Griffith regular, plays Lillian’s heroic husband wearing the kind of moustache often seen on Brookside in the late 1980’s.

Judith of Bethulia (1913)

Blanche Sweet
Marsh, Gish and Harron all re-appear in the main course, Griffith’s first four-reel film made when the director was upping his game in response to long-from competition from Europe and the Italians in particular; Quo Vadis, The Last Days of Pompeii et al.

Biblical stories gave directors more freedom of “expression” and there’s certainly a good deal of passion in this tale from exotic dancers to Judith herself (Blanche Sweet) who spends most of the time breathing in and stretching her arms up wide as she contemplates the manly charm of Assyrian Prince Holofernes (a barely-recognisable Henry B. Walthall) and what she must do to him…

The "Little Colonel" has a wee dram...
There’s also a wonderfully camp turn from J. Jiquel Lanoe as the Prince’s Eunuch Attendant and a dance troop led by Gertrude Bambrick who provides considerable distraction to the viewer if not their jaded leader.

Mae Marsh plays a young woman called Naomi who is in love with a warrior called Nathan (Robert Harron - still with that same ‘tache!) and looks years older than in the previous film. There’s an interesting comment from Lillian Gish in the documentaries about being cast as the “young girl” in Broken Blossoms; she reckoned she was too old and that they should have given the job to an actual girl “they always look five year’s older on screen” (except perhaps Mary P!). Mae Marsh was 19 at the time of filming both.
Mae Marsh thinks about irrigation techniques...
 Naomi and Nathan’s lives are turned upside down when the Assyrians attack and lay siege to their city of Bethulia. Naomi is carted off to the enemy camp whilst Nathan takes to arms as the city tries to fight off the invaders. The city walls remain intact but there is precious little water and food and the enemy will surely only have to wait.

Griffith marshals his extras well not just for the battle – which certainly shows the Italian influence – but also within the city where a long line of helpless citizens lines up into the distance. At the head of this queue of the vulnerable is a young mother (Lilian again!) who epitomises the civilian heart of Bethulia.
Lil and Blanche
The citizens look to Judith for leadership and healing but she despairs until she works out a way of saving her people… along with her maid she makes her way to the Assyrian camp and immediately begins to entrance their prince. What she didn’t reckon though was on attraction being a two-way street and as she begins to doubt her own mission in the face of burgeoning love, will she have the heart to carry out her plan?

The film is a very refined Griffith product and shows the benefit of his weeks of rehearsal time with an established company of technicians and performers. The battle scenes are again closer to what we will see in the ensuing years with Birth and Intolerance… they’re not quite Cabirian but you can feel the flames and the fury.

Judith smothers herself in dirt before undertaking her dangerous mission...
Blanche Sweet gives and impressive performance amidst all her wind-milling arms and heavenly-imploring - in the documentaries there’s a precious shot of DW showing her how to cosy up to the Prince… she does it far better! She’s actually impressively naturalistic and nuanced whilst also looking more than capable of doing the deed she must… I doubt Lillian could even wield that sword whilst Mary P just couldn’t!

Mae Marsh is also impressive here looking a little like Zoe Deschanel (is that just me?) in one of her more serious roles whilst Henry B. Walthall shows how to act through a beard: be the beard – he is the beard! There is also a fleeting appearance from Dorothy Gish as a crippled beggar, her mother Mary and some bloke called Lionel Barrymore: the Hollywood “club” was turning into a juggernaut.

Blanche leads the extras (including Lionel Barrymore?)
And there was more… as A Romance of Happy Valley was up next along with The Cricket on the Hearth but I needed to re-establish some form of contact with my family and to eat… 

The DWG show runs till the end of June and further details are available on the BFI site. There are still tickets available but they're selling fast!

You just can’t beat seeing the man’s work on screen and projected with live accompaniment. Wendy Hiscocks’s was today’s pianist and she contributed greatly to the tone and focus – capturing the mood from Dollie’s dangerous barreling to matters of life, death and love in the longer films. Every silent film musician brings their own flavour to the films and Wendy mixed post Victorian lyricism, wild-western dramatics and middle-eastern epic with consummate ease!

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