One Last Spectacular Contribution: April 1-15, 1922

One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley announced a highly anticipated film opening in Los Angeles:

Orphans of the Storm will have its local premier next Wednesday at the Mission Theater. This elaborate film, having as its background the French revolution, is D.W. Griffith’s latest spectacular contribution to screen drama.

This was all she got to say about the film; more and more she was being relegated to reviewing movies that weren’t considered serious. However, she never let any annoyance show. I think she still loved her job.

The early trade ad didn’t even mention the story or the stars–Griffith’s reputation was enough

People in Los Angeles had been hearing about Orphans of the Storm for quite a while. It opened in Boston on December 28, 1921 and in New York City on January 3, 1922, where the L.A. Times’ New York correspondent, Frederick James Smith, saw it. He was fairly impressed:

For half its length it has no compelling force and it is not until the second half that the tragedy of the two orphans—separated and alone in hunger-torn Paris—accumulates a compelling strength. Here the Griffith genius—and I may add the Lillian Gish genius—flashes…We doubt if Orphans of the Storm will ever make the money attracted to the box office of Way Down East, but in even perfection of workmanship it stands some planes ahead of most Griffith efforts, but several below Broken Blossoms. Yet there was a wild reception for Mr. Griffith and Lillian Gish who were called upon for speeches. Reports from Boston indicate that Orphans of the Storm is doing a land-office business there. You never can tell.

Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm

Other reviewers were much more glowing; John S. Spargo in Exhibitors’ Herald set expectations almost impossibly high:

To say that Orphans of the Storm is a great picture—or even a great Griffith picture—is giving but mild praise to this wonderful photoplay. It is a living, moving, almost breathing triumph of pictorial perfection, and it gives to posterity a new historical viewpoint from which to study one of the most turbulent and trying times in the world’s history—the French Reign of Terror. As a photoplay it is a masterpiece; as a box-office attraction it has few limitations.

When Los Angeles Times film editor Edwin Schallert saw it in April, he was nearly as impressed:

He has done daring and outrageous things with history, but he has made a magnificent picture. He has visioned France from his own perspective, but he has made his visioning beautiful. He has given you familiar tricks and subterfuges, but he has told you a story that touches the heart strings and makes them vibrate to the more thrilling harmonics of conflict and struggle and life. Therefore, Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith’s romance of the French revolution, peals forth a revelation of his comprehension and his genius.

Now we know that Orphans was Griffith’s last wildly successful film, both artistically and at the box office. The following week, the Times reported that it was an overnight sensation, “playing to capacity houses at the Mission Theater.” However, even at the time people realized that nothing lasts forever. Schallert’s review predicted what happened next:

The question of Griffith’s prestige has within the past year or so become a matter of some doubt, especially here. The picture business is far from being a one-man affair any more. Yet the respect for the Griffith skill and flair still persist. He is still reckoned the greatest, although the race is on.

The poster didn’t try to fool people into thinking it was an art film

Some of that respect for Griffith did last for the rest of the decade, even when a critic didn’t like the film he was writing about. Frederick James Smith reported from New York that Griffith’s next film, One Exciting Night, was:

a mere potboiler—a fair average program picture. One Exciting Night is highly disappointing coming from the workroom of Mr. Griffith. You see, we expect so much…We see the film as merely another dire Dream Street.

Mae Marsh and Neil Hamilton

The White Rose fared somewhat better. In May 1923, a different New York correspondent, Helen Klumph, reported that the general opinion from preview audiences was that “Griffith is still our most effective director,” even if she thought the film was to long. Edwin Schallert concurred in his review:

The beauty of the natural settings and the work of the principals under the Griffith guidance are what make the picture—this and a story simply told…There is, to be sure, a certain endlessness to the manner in which the story is told. In fact, there is not enough story really for so long a play.

None of those films were the sort of big-budget epics the Griffith was best known for. The real test came in 1924, when America opened. Its Los Angeles premiere was at a brand-new theater, the Forum, which despite its location away from the downtown theater district, Schallert called “a dazzling, glittering blazing focal point of interest.” It was as star-studded as the opening of Intolerance in 1916:

I have been to a dozen theater openings and premieres in the past year, but with the possible exception of one or two right in the downtown district, this was the most exciting. The people literally rushed the doors of the theater and crowded around the approaching automobiles to obtain a glimpse of Norma Talmadge, Corinne Griffith, Pola Negri, Charles Chaplin, or any other of the celebrities who attended the premiere.

Even though he got to see it surrounded by famous people, Schallert managed to recognize the limitations of the film:

America is really far from being D.W. Griffith at his best in certain points, but it is certain of a big appeal because of its theme. The fact that you get to see Washington, Hancock, Adams and other characters struggles for that break which was eventually to mean a great free nation—greater than any other indeed—stirs something in the heart that cannot be repressed…There was a time, of course, when Griffith was regarded as the great pioneer, but America, from a technical standpoint, discloses none of his customary innovations or advances. In some respects his manner of the treating of the story is even antiquated.

Neil Hamilton and Carol Dempster

Griffith’s time at United Artists was coming to an end. On July 20, 1924 Schallert reported that he was working on his last feature for them, called The Dawn (it got re-named Isn’t Life Wonderful). Schallert felt that he had only two outstanding productions in the last five years, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, plus The White Rose was as interesting as those two. However, he said that Dream Street, One Exciting Night and America “are a pretty sad lot.”

Nevertheless, just because Griffith’s contributions were no longer spectacular or critically acclaimed doesn’t mean they were worthless. His biographer Richard Schickel wrote:

 Maybe Griffith’s films of this decade, even the best of them, do not compare with the works of men like Eisenstein, Gance, Murnau, Vidor, Lubitsch, all of whom, in their best films, worked at levels of technical and intellectual sophistication that were to Griffith’s new work what Intolerance had been to his competitors. But for the ordinary filmgoer his films were generally more than acceptable. And when even films as weak as One Exciting Night did reasonably well at the box office, and when his more imposing works grossed as well as Pickford’s and Fairbanks’ big films (which by and large they did), then one must argue that Griffith’s problems generally lay on the cost side of the ledger, not on the receipts side. (p.475)

D.W. Griffith

Kingsley continued to cover news about Griffith, who didn’t give up. In 1936, after she’d retired from full-time writing for the Times, she interviewed him and he was still full of plans for the future. He intended to make movies either in Hollywood or England, and said he’d turned down an offer to re-make Birth of a Nation as a sound film, because he couldn’t replace Mae Marsh and Henry Walthall. He didn’t get to direct again (his last film was The Struggle, made in 1931), and he died in 1948.

Instead of going to glitzy premiers of serious films, Kingsley had to sit through movies that sound much worse than the films Griffith made in the 1920’s, like The Night Rose. Despite the good work of its two stars, Lon Chaney and Leatrice Joy, Kingsley was tired of tales about the criminal underworld:

From the moment the really good girl is turned out of her home without a hearing by a hitherto loving mother, because she has been arrested in a café raid, through a wearisome succession of scenes in which Lon Chaney keeps her a prisoner in order to use her lover as a stool pigeon, up to the time Chaney is shot by the adventuress, you don’t believe a minute of it nor care an hang about it.

However, there were bright spots in her work day. The Night Rose played with an Al St. John short called The Studio Rube, which brought “the sunshine back” for her and the audience:

He has many wild adventures, at which the audience laughs, until the wildest one of all. When he unwittingly enters a house that’s to be blown up (for a scene, I mean), locks the door and throws away the key. He then learns what his fate is to be, tries to break through a boarded-up window, and, by some odd stroke of fate, is left standing there by the window when the rest of the house is blown to kingdom come. Then he crawls out of the window. That’s when the audience yells.

Getting paid to write about sunny two-reel comedies isn’t such a bad job! The Studio Rube has been preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. If you’d like to know more about it, Steve Massa and Ben Model showed it at their Cruel and Unusual Comedy festival in 2013, and they wrote program notes for it.

Grace Kingsley, “D.W. Griffith Tells Plans Which Include Picture Making,” Los Angeles Times, March 14, 1936.

Helen Klumph, “D.W. Renews Claim to Fame,” Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1923.

Edwin Schallert, “Forum’s Opening Brilliant,” Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1924.

Edwin Schallert, “Orphans of the Storm,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1922.

Edwin Schallert, “The White Rose,” Los Angeles Times, September 4, 1923.

Edwin Schallert, “Will Griffith Regain Sway?” Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1924.

Frederick James Smith, “Exciting, But Mostly in Name,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1922.

Frederick James Smith, “Gotham Sees Griffith Epic,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1922.

“Griffith Production Playing to Capacity,” Los Angeles Times, April 11, 1922.

“Orphans Reshows at the Alhambra,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 1922.

Richard Schickel, D.W.Griffith: An American Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

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