One hundred years ago this week, D.W Griffith returned to Los Angeles from his trip to France and England and he dominated Grace Kingsley’s columns. She went to the station Friday evening to meet his train, and “he looked as calm and freshly groomed as though he had just returned from a tea party, instead of having taken part in the tremendous action being staged ‘over there.’” Of course he gave her an interview and described what he’d seen:
I was within fifty yards of the Roches, on the Ypres front, at one time. How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t know what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. I wore the war helmet and the gas mask. At one time we were in a dugout, with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes.
Kevin Brownlow has seen footage of Griffith at Ypres, and described it in his book The War The West and the Wilderness (p. 144). It doesn’t quite match Griffith’s story:
The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of an English cut, a bow-tie—and a tin hat. It is David War Griffith…
Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history.
Maybe the camera was off when they were under fire? Kingsley asked Griffith how he thought the war would end and he was accurate:
I could make a lot of prophecies, but I won’t. I’ll merely say that I feel sure that even if Russia drops out for the time being and Italy is beaten, Great Britain, France and the United States will win the war.
Griffith gave lots of interviews about his trip, and several of them have been collected in the Silent Film Quarterly, Spring 2017.
Kingsley also asked if the rest of the company was frightened, and he answered “Yes I guess they were pretty frightened, and Dorothy said if the soldiers were as scared as she was when she heard those cannon they’d all run into the sea and that would be the end of the war.” Sensible Dorothy! On Monday Kingsley let the Gish sisters speak for themselves, and they told her:
We passed through village after village which were partially demolished, but the inhabitants were living very contentedly* in the undestroyed parts of the towns…We traveled in automobiles, and there was a constant stream of travel, going in both directions—soldiers, ambulances, horses, cannon, trucks and trucks of provisions and ammunition.
But the air raids in London were much more exciting. A bomb burst just a short distance from the Savoy Hotel, where we were stopping, at 12 o’clock one night, just as we were retiring. It struck a trolley car and killed a dozen people…And in the morning, we found a ‘dud’ under the windows of the Savoy. If that bomb had done its duty, we wouldn’t be here to tell the tale!”
“You feel ashamed,” explained Lillian, “to think of your own petty ambitions in the face of all that. I wonder if after this war, the women of the whole world won’t rise in their might and declare there shall never be war any more?”
It’s a shame her prediction didn’t come true, too. By Tuesday Kingsley was reporting that Griffith was back to work and planning to shoot some additional scenes for his war film, maybe at the Lasky studio. Then on Thursday Kingsley wrote that he was planning to build his own studio, probably at LaBrea and De Longpre, near to Chaplin’s. He was in talks with an architect, and it was to be up-to-date in every particular. He never did build a new studio in Los Angeles; instead he used the stages at his old Fine Art studio three miles away from La Brea. He didn’t build his own studio until 1919, in in Mamaroneck, New York.
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was The Scarlet Pimpernel:
Those of us who in other days chewed our fingernails and panted over the exciting scenes of the Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel will be delighted with its excitements as transferred to the screen by Dustin Farnum, Winifred Kingston, William Burress and company…A fundamentally intriguing and effectively staged photodrama this, with much excellent photography to its credit.
That excellent photography was by Dev Jennings, who went on to be Buster Keaton’s chief cameraman. You can learn all sorts of things about him in my book, Buster Keaton’s Crew. (every home should have one!)
Kingsley gave a moral to the story that I hadn’t considered before: it “only goes to show that when you join the Knights of Pythias or the Elks, you’d better let you wife know about it.” This was first filmed version of Orczy’s novel. According to the IMDB, there have been 4 other versions completed and 3 more are currently in development. Those Frenchies will be seeking him everywhere for a long time. This version, however, is a lost film.
Kingsley related a story from “Rosalie Ashton, the clever young scenario writer at Fox Studio.” She had gotten a job application:
I am a young man of 24, five feet eleven in perfectly good stockinged feet, weigh 150 pounds, typical young American of the Douglas Fairbanks type, and my friends tell me I am robbing the screen if I do not get into the movies. I am an aesthetic dancer, light and graceful on said feet. Won’t you please give me a chance to prove that I can act?
Miss Ashton answered:
My Dear Sir: We regret to advise that at the present writing there is no vacancy…However, permit me to say that our beloved Uncle Sam is badly in need of virile, health young Americans of about five feet eleven inches, in good physical condition, and, since you are so light and graceful on your feet, you would be adept in dodging bullets.
However, the joke was on her. The day after that story appeared, Ashton was getting her own chance to serve her country: she’d been asked to go the France to be an interpreter for the government. She left for Washington, D.C. the next day. Fate laughs at smart-alecks.
Rosalie Ashton was a former New York Times and magazine writer who had a brief screenwriting career in the late teens. She co-wrote films like The Undertow, Humility and The Trail That Leads Nowhere. She wasn’t an interpreter for the government for very long: in February 1918 she was hired by Goldwyn’s scenario department.
*I’m guessing that might not have been the word the French people would have used.