One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley got to see an unusual show before D.W. Griffith’s new film, The Greatest Thing in Life:
The prologue is one of the most beautiful and artistic spectacles of the sort that the stage has seen. So far as its meaning is concerned, a part of its artistry lies in the fact it settles nothing for you. What do you think is the greatest thing in life? is the query which trails the showing of the beauties of life and love and comradeship and self-sacrifice.
Motion Picture News gave a detailed description of the half-hour long show. It opened with a dark stage, which is slowly brightened. Out of the hazy background came a voice:
“The greatest thing in life – what is the greatest thing in life?”
Second voice: “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
First voice: “the greatest thing in life is-is-is (soft music) wait-wait-wait, here come the singers and dancers, they know what life is. Light hearts of the world—music, dancing, wine, women, life itself-that is the greatest thing in life.’
After a tenor solo, the first voice said “Ah, the search for love eternal—that is the greatest thing in life, ” then a couple performed a modern dance. This was followed by an “ultra” jazz number, then four soldiers representing duty and heroism, then more dancers, representing shadows from the “land of the silver sheet” as a bridge to the film itself.
Motion Picture News said the piece entitled Voices got eight minutes of applause and calls from the audience of 3000 on opening night. Now the prologue is remembered, if at all, because of one of the forty performers. Rudolpho Di Valentina did that modern dance with Clarine Seymour. MPN had reported earlier “Rudolpho Di Valentina continues the merry dance in Griffith’s prologue to The Greatest Thing in Life, and the big audience applauds him at every program.”
In 1918, Valentino was an aspiring actor who’d arrived in Hollywood the year before. He’d had a few bit parts in films but his career didn’t take off until 1921 after he streamlined his name and starred in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. If you’re interested in his early career, you can find an extract about it from Dark lover: the life and death of Rudolph Valentino by Emily W. Leider in The Guardian. To learn more about Valentino in general, visit Donna Hill’s site, Falcon Lair.
After seeing the prologue, Kingsley chatted with Lillian Gish and learned that she
entertains ambitions to go on the stage. But she’s very backward about discussing it, approaching the possibility in most modest fashion. “I don’t think,” she said, “I could possibly be ready for so great an undertaking before I’m 30—so I have some years to go. But—yes—I really want to go on the stage, and I really mean to do it when I feel I’m ready. In the meantime I’m studying, studying.”
This surprised me, because Gish had been a stage actress from 1902 to 1912: it was nothing new for her. After her film career slowed down, she did go on the stage. However, it wasn’t until seven years after she turned 30, in 1930, when she appeared in her first production after becoming famous, Uncle Vanya. But it seems like her stage career wasn’t second-best to being in films – she planned it.
This week, several film executives came back to Hollywood, and each and every one of them had big plans for expansion for their businesses in 1919.
- S.L. Rothapfel said wanted to build theaters in Paris and London that would be similar to his New York theaters, the Rialto and the Rivoli. He said “There is no doubt American films will be more popular even than before the war, and there is no doubt that the thousands of photoplays now reposing on the shelves of American producers will be eagerly welcomed by the people of the allied countries.” (bad news for writers trying to sell new material!)
- Samuel Goldfish (still not yet Goldwyn) told her that his studio would make fewer, but better pictures, taking more time and care with each of them. He hoped to add a number of new stars to his roster.
- Winfield Sheehan, the general manager at Fox, said “To me, the outlook is splendid. I look forward to 1919 with every feeling that it will be one of the greatest in the history of the industry. The Fox Film Corporation is laying plans for the biggest year of its career. We not only intend to improve the high standard of our pictures, but we are going to make more of them. After four years of war, people must have amusement.”
- Cecil B. De Mille concluded “in the five years that I have been producing I have never found conditions more satisfactory, nor promising a more brilliant future for the entire industry.”
Lucky for them, their optimism was well-founded: the industry did recover. 1919 was a much better year all around, but the troubles of 1918 weren’t quite finished.
People were still coming down with the flu. Actress Ruth Roland was ill at home with it, and work on her current serial had stopped until she recovered. Happily, she did. According to O’Leary, the number of new cases in Los Angeles was declining rapidly in December with a small resurgence after holiday celebrations. The epidemic was almost over.
They weren’t done with war movies, either. Kingsley reported on the audience reaction to Me und Gott, at the Alhambra:
That it strikes a popular chord was testified to yesterday by the applause and hisses that marked its devious progress. It has some really breathless moments, particularly that in which we wait for the munitions plant to blow up.
Unfortunately, the film was trying to teach people that German-Americans weren’t the enemy. It seems like the audience didn’t get the message, they just were there for spectacle.
“Griffith Himself Stages Prologue for ‘Greatest Thing in Life’ in Los Angeles, Motion Picture News, February 4, 1919, p. 88.
(“News,” January 18, 1919, p. 410)
Pieter M. O’Leary, “The 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic in Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly, v.86 no.4 (Winter 2004), pp. 397-8
A symbolic prologue dramatizes the invasion of an American home by German troops who are admitted to the house by a butler who has bound his master and abused the master’s daughter. In the main story, the American-born son of an ex-Prussian officer wants to atone for the wrongs done by people of his own blood when he realizes what America means to him.