Lillian Gish

Way Down East (1920)

Way Down East 1920In dire need of money, Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a young, sheltered girl from the country, is sent by her mother to visit her wealthy family members in the big city and ask for money. Once she arrives, her snobby cousins are hardly thrilled to have their lower-class relative hanging around. But Anna does catch the eye of Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a rich playboy who loves nothing more than a beautiful girl. Anna is thrilled to be getting attention from someone like Lennox and it’s her first real romantic infatuation.

Lennox will stop at nothing to win over a girl he’s after and when it becomes clear that Anna is the type of girl who wants marriage, he proposes to her, but tells her to keep their engagement a secret. The reason for this is because he doesn’t plan to actually marry her; he’s arranged a phony marriage to make Anna think they’re married. But when Anna ends up pregnant, Lennox reveals the truth, leaving her completely devastated. Her mother dies shortly afterward, leaving poor Anna completely alone in the world.

Anna leaves town and gets a room in a boarding house. She gives birth to a baby boy, but it isn’t long before he becomes ill and dies. The owners of the boarding house and the other tenants are not happy to have an unwed mother staying in the house and once again, Anna is forced to find another place to stay. She makes her way to Squire Barltett’s (Burr McIntosh) farm and gets a job working there. Squire’s son David (Richard Barthlemess) immediately falls in love with Anna, but he’s supposed to be marrying Kate (Mary Hay) and Anna is afraid that David would reject her because of her past.

Much to Anna’s dismay, she finds out Lennox is in town and living close to the Bartlett’s farm. He’s there in pursuit of Kate and wants Anna to leave, but she refuses and agrees not to say anything about their past. Unfortunately, when a gossipy woman in town finds out the truth about Anna’s past, it isn’t long before Squire hears about it. He kicks her out of the house in the middle of a blizzard, leaving her to wander in the woods. She becomes unconscious and falls onto an ice floe floating down the river. David rushes out to find her and rescues her just in the nick of time before she goes over a waterfall.

Like most D.W. Griffith movies, Way Down East is a bit overly long and very heavy on the drama. But despite being about 15-20 minutes too long, I still consider it my favorite feature-length D.W. Griffith movie. Way Down East‘s runtime of 2 hours and 25 minutes is pretty taut compared to Intolerance‘s three hours, it’s not wildly offensive like The Birth of a Nation, and it’s an example of how good of a storyteller Griffith could be without being bogged down by larger than life sets and controversy. The famous ice floe scene wasn’t part of the original play the movie was based on and it was a good way to interject just enough of the action and drama that’s synonymous that Griffith was famous for. Plus, it’s an excellent vehicle for Lillian Gish, who is simply incredible as Anna.

What’s on TCM: October 2015

Ida Lupino

Happy October, everyone! Get yourself a cup of coffee (or other caffeinated beverage of your choice) and free up some space on your DVR because October is going to be one amazing month on TCM.

First of all, every Tuesday and Thursday night in October, TCM will be spotlighting trailblazing women filmmakers ranging from the days of Alice Guy-Blaché through Ava DuVernay. Speaking of Alice Guy-Blaché, October is going to be a good month for silent movie lovers because not only is there a night of silent films all directed by women, on the 18th, there’s going to be a night of silent movies that were thought to be lost but have been rediscovered, including Harry Houdini’s The Grim Game from 1919. There are also birthday tributes to Lillian Gish and Jackie Coogan, so there are plenty of silent films on during the daytime this month, too.

David Niven is October’s star of the month and his movies will be shown every Monday night this month. Lastly, no October line-up would be complete without horror movies. Lots and lots of horror movies. Stay tuned on Friday nights, plus all day long on October 30th and 31st, for plenty of classic horror films.

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What’s on TCM: October 2013

Vincent PriceHappy October, everyone!  I hope you’re ready for plenty of classic horror movies because TCM is going all out for Halloween this year. Not only will Friday Night Spotlight be all about classic horror movies, we also get Vincent Price as October’s Star of the Month.  Even though not every Vincent Price night focuses on horror movies, there are a couple that do, including the most important night — Halloween.

TCM’s Story of Film series will continue this month on Monday and Tuesday nights.  I love having the chance to see so many of the movies discussed in the documentary so I’m really looking forward to see more from this series.

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1928-1929: Oscar’s Most Awkward Year

Mary Pickford Oscar

Mary Pickford with her Oscar.

As popular as the Academy Awards are, they can be a very controversial topic amongst movie lovers.  I think virtually every cinephile has their own list of movies that they think got robbed at the Oscars.  Some may even have their favorite and least favorite Academy Award years.  But one thing I think we can all agree on is that the nominees for the second Academy Award ceremony (covering 1928-1929) definitely weren’t the strongest group of movies ever nominated.

It’s not so much that 1928-1929 was a completely terrible year for movies, but the film industry had been turned completely upside down that year.  During the first Academy Award ceremony, The Jazz Singer was given an honorary award for revolutionizing the film industry.  By the following year, the impact of The Jazz Singer was undeniable.  The movies eligible for the 1928-1929 Oscars were part of the first wave of movies to come out in the wake of The Jazz Singer and the nominees that year are a better reflection of how in flux the industry was at the time than what the best movies really were.

Even though studios were scrambling to hop on the talkie bandwagon, the production of silent films didn’t come to an immediate halt.  Some truly excellent silent films were produced that year, but you’d never know it by looking at the list of nominees.  However, if some of those silent films had been nominated, that year would probably now be looked back upon more favorably.

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The Wind (1928)

Letty (Lillian Gish) leaves her life in Virginia behind to live on her cousin Beverly’s (Edward Earle) ranch in Sweet Water, Texas.  While on the train to Texas, she meets Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love), who lives near Beverly’s ranch.  All the wind in Texas is making Letty very nervous and Roddy tells her the wind often drives women out there crazy.  When she gets to the train station, she’s met by Beverly’s neighbor Lige (Lars Hanson).  Lige takes her to Beverly’s ranch and he likes her a lot, but Letty doesn’t like him at all.

Letty has no problem fitting in with the community.  She and Beverly are very close, his children love her, and  Sourdough (William Orlamond), Lige, and Roddy all want to marry her.  The only person who doesn’t like her is Beverly’s wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming).  Cora is extremely jealous of how close Beverly and Letty are and how much her children like her.  When Roddy, Lige, and Sourdough each declare their feelings for Letty, the only one she thinks is serious is Roddy.  With all these proposals Letty’s getting, Cora orders Letty to accept one and get out of her house.  She tells Roddy that she’ll marry him, but then he tells her he’s already married.  Lige and Sourdough flip a coin to decide which one will marry her (how romantic) and Lige wins.

Lige really does love Letty, but Letty still doesn’t feel the same way and yells at him when he tries to kiss her.  He promises not to touch her again and works to get enough money to send her back to Virginia.  In the meantime, she continues living with them, even though the strong winds in the area are grating her nerves.  When Lige leaves with some other cattlemen, Letty begs him to let her come with him because she needs a change of scenery.  He agrees, but along the way, she gets hurt and is brought back home.  Before too long, an injured Roddy is also brought home for Letty to care for.  He tries to go after her, but luckily Lige comes back in the nick of time.  Lige needs Roddy’s help rounding up some horses, so they head off, leaving Letty alone.  That night, there is a severe wind storm that drives Letty into madness.

The Wind is my favorite Lillian Gish movie.  It showcases exactly what made her so perfect for silent films.  She could convey such a deep inner turmoil using only her eyes.  Lillian called the production of The Wind the most uncomfortable movie set she’d ever been on (she famously burned her hand on a door handle while filming in the Mojave Desert), but her performance certainly didn’t suffer at all.  And I can’t neglect to mention the overall atmosphere of the movie. All the wind and the camerawork paired with Lillian’s performance make The Wind something you experience, not something you simply watch.  The only reason I can’t call it perfect is because I hate the happy ending MGM insisted on tacking on to it.  Lillian hated that ending too, and even said so herself in an introduction TCM includes when they show it.  But even with the forced ending, The Wind remains one of the last truly great films made during the silent film era.

What’s on TCM: August 2012

How is it already time for another round of Summer Under the Stars?!  As usual, TCM has done a great job of coming up with a nice blend of stars who are no strangers to the SUTS schedule and stars who have never been featured before.  The more I look at the schedule, the more excited I get to start my Blogging Under the Stars marathon.

Some of the days I’m most looking forward to are: Myrna Loy (August 2), Marilyn Monroe (August 4), Toshiro Mifune (August 9), Ginger Rogers (August 12), James Cagney (August 14), Lillian Gish (August 15), Jack Lemmon (August 22), Gene Kelly (August 23), Kay Francis (August 21), and Warren William (August 30).  I have seen woefully few Akira Kurosawa films, so I am really looking forward to Toshiro Mifune’s day.  As a fan of silents and pre-codes, I was thrilled to see Lillian Gish, Kay Francis, and Warren William got spots on this year’s line-up.  Lately, I’ve been really getting into Tyrone Power movies, so I’m glad to see he got a day this year.  And since I’ve always wanted to see more Jeanette MacDonald movies, I’ll definitely be tuning in a lot for her day.

The complete Summer Under the Stars schedule is available to be download here.

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The Real Hollywood Tough Guys (And Ladies)

In the 100+ year history of film, a lot of actors have wound up with tough guy images.  Mention tough guys to classic film fans, you’re probably going to hear a lot of James Cagney, Bogart, and Edward G. Robinson.  If you were to talk to someone more into modern movies, you’d probably get Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, and Vin Diesel.  Personally, I’d be hard pressed to call any of them the toughest actors of all time.  To me, I think the most unsung tough people in film history have got to be silent film actors.  Seriously, you  had to be pretty tough and fearless if you were going to make some of the most beloved movies from the silent era.  I’m pretty sure if anyone went up to Bruce Willis and told him to do some of the things that a lot of silent film actors had to do, he would say, “You have got to be kidding me.”  Now, let’s take a moment to appreciate what all these fine actors had to endure.

Harold Lloyd lost his thumb and forefinger when a prop bomb he was holding accidentally exploded.

Dolores Costello liked to refer to 1928’s Noah’s Ark as “Mud, Blood, and Flood.”  In the documentary series “Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film,” she recalled going to her dressing room on set one day and finding a very bandaged extra leaning outside of her door.  When she asked if she could help, he explained that an ambulance would come back for him since he was in better shape than most of the other extras.  A couple of extras were killed while filming the flood scene.

While filming the finale of Greed in Death Valley, director Erich von Stroheim insisted on actually filming in Death Valley.  In August.  Jean Hersholt had to be hospitalized after he lost 27 pounds from being in such extreme heat.

Lillian Gish’s hands really took a beating on sets.  While filming The Wind in the Mojave Desert, Lillian burnt one of her hands when she touched a doorknob in the 120 degree heat.  Earlier, when she was filming the famous ice floe scene in Way Down East, her right hand was permanently damaged from being left in the icy water for so long.

While making 1919’s Male and Female, Thomas Meighan carries a leopard that had recently killed a man in the zoo it was in.  Basically, Cecil B. DeMille said, “Hey, don’t put that leopard to sleep!  Let’s give it to Thomas Meighan instead!”  There is another famous scene in that movie of Gloria Swanson with real, live lions, which she insisted on doing herself.

And last, but certainly not least, there’s Buster Keaton.  I don’t think anyone loved doing stunt work more than Buster.  He insisted on doing his own stunts in all of his greatest silent movies.  Famously, he broke his neck while filming the water tank scene in Sherlock, Jr. but didn’t even know it until a long time after the fact.  The most famous scene of his entire career is probably from Steamboat Bill, Jr., where he stands in front of a house and the entire front side of the house falls down around him, but he happens to be standing where a window is.  That stunt involved a lot of precision because if his position was off by just a couple of inches, he would have been killed.  When Buster was signed to MGM, one of the things that upset him most was that MGM wouldn’t let him do his own dangerous stunts anymore.  And this is why I consider Buster Keaton to be the toughest guy to ever get in front of a movie camera.