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D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company

The historical record indicates that many people perceived Griffith as the prime mover behind verisimilarly coded acting, while the film record indicates that the Biograph actors gradually adopted a new acting style. But what evidence helps us to assess Griffith's involvement and influence in the transition to the verisimilar code? One might be inclined to treat Griffith's claims in The New York Dramatic Mirror and subsequent interviews with some skepticism, for to do otherwise risks succumbing to the "great man, great artist" theory of film history. But unilaterally discounting the historical personage "David Wark Griffith" when investigating Biograph performance style would be just as simpleminded.

This is not the place to rehearse yet again the weary debate on auteurism, auteur-structuralism, or whatever term now disguises an approach to film studies designed to let people watch their favorite movies without guilt. Having raised the specter of the author, however, perhaps I should specify what this chapter will not do. In "Authorship and Hollywood," Stephen Crofts lists the four major conceptions of authorship current in film studies:

1. Author as expressive individual

2. Author as constructed from the film or films

2.1 as thematic and stylistic properties impressionistically and unproblematically read off from the film or films

2.2 as a set of structures identifiable within a body of films by the same author.

2.3 as a subject position within the film.


3. Author as social and sexual subject.

4. Author as author-name, as function of the circulation of the film or films.[1]

We can immediately dismiss categories 2 and 4, which deal only with the film texts, since the previous chapter has already offered a structural analysis of the Biographs. Category 1 looks promising, including as it does "the real, live, tangible person who is conventionally identifiable as someone on set near the camera with a loud voice,"[2] but who in practice has been conflated with category 2.1. Most scholars have reduced the "author as expressive individual" to a bundle of "thematic and stylistic properties," constructed solely from the film texts, ignoring both the conditions of production and the historical context. Very few have interpreted the "expressive individual" as "someone on the set" making decisions that may partially determine textual signifiers. Hence, category 1 tends to be as textually oriented as category 2. Category 3 seems to consider the "real, live, tangible person." In fact, however, an admirable focus on intertextual, social, and historical determinants has thrown out of focus the director as a specific individual with specific ideas working in specific circumstances.

As presented by Crofts, auteurism either deals only with the texts or leaps directly to the historical and cultural context, skipping in the process an important intermediary step. This chapter attempts to take that step by looking at the historical David W. Griffith, considering his background and experiences, his ideas about film acting, and the institutional framework within which he worked. The relevant questions are: (1) What were Griffith's theatrical experiences? What acting style(s) might he have been exposed to? (2) What acting style(s) did Griffith himself employ both on stage and in film? (3) What do we know about Griffith's involvement in the preparation for and actual shooting of the Biographs? Who else at Biograph might have been involved in decisions affecting acting style? (4) What were Griffith's ideas about an appropriate film acting style and about the relationship of film to stage acting?

Griffith's Theatrical Experiences

The ephemeral nature of theatrical acting largely precludes precise knowledge of the acting styles of all but the most prominent actors, and even then the scanty evidence necessitates informed speculation. In the case of a relatively minor actor such as Griffith, evidence is elusive and, for the most part, nonexistent. Griffith, speaking of his touring days, admitted that "we acted in true 'high-falutin style.'"[3] Marshall Neilan, who in 1905 appeared with Griffith in The Financier , said that Griffith "played the villain and he was lousy."[4]


By "high falutin," Griffith presumably referred to the unchecked histrionic code, but what did Neilan mean by "lousy"? That Griffith employed the histrionic code which was by then passé, or that he employed the histrionic code inadequately even by the standards of those accustomed to the old performance style? Beyond these two comments and a few brief reviews, very little evidence about Griffith's theatrical acting survives.

George Pratt and Russell Merritt have, however, managed to piece together a fairly detailed record of Griffith's professional activities from the summer of 1895 through the winter of 1907.[5] Griffith spent most of this period touring with a variety of small, undistinguished companies that presented everything from Shakespeare to such popular standards as East Lynne and Camille . He usually had supporting roles and is only occasionally mentioned in reviews, none of which says much about his acting. The zenith of Griffith's stage career occurred in 1906 when he joined the company of Nance O'Neil, a well-known leading lady. Griffith stayed with O'Neil from February through May of 1906.

Merritt uses these data about Griffith's theatrical career to make a psychoanalytically inflected argument concerning Griffith's expression of biographical impulses in his Biograph films: "I will be arguing that by the time Griffith made his first film, he had gone through an adolescence marked by feelings of unexpressed anger, acute humiliation, and fear of women. His early experience in the theatre . . . generally intensified these emotions. Not until he discovered film did he find a way effectively to channel and redirect them."[6] Merritt, then, is not concerned with attempting to reconstruct Griffith's own acting style, a task I seek to accomplish by adducing information about the performers with whom Griffith worked as well as about the staging of his play A Fool and a Girl .

As he migrated from company to company, what kind of acting might Griffith have seen? Because many of the companies and actors with whom he was associated were fairly obscure, this is a difficult question, though one can assume that most actors in most second-rate touring companies at the turn of the century probably employed the histrionic code. Judging by his frequent mentions of O'Neil's name, Griffith seems to have considered the time spent with the O'Neil company as his most prestigious theatrical accomplishment. Luckily for us, her productions received extensive publicity, as she played major roles in major cities, and reviews and other sources provide a fairly clear picture of O'Neil's performance style. Both favorable and unfavorable critics often compared her with actors of the histrionically coded school. Reviewing her production of Ibsen's Rosmersholm , in which Griffith played Brendel, The Boston Transcript said: "She really is a survival from a past generation of acting. . . . She illustrates emotions as the players of an elder day used to picture them."[7] The same paper had earlier directly linked her with Delsarte:


From her beautiful arms and hands and the most exquisite use of the wrist and the open fingers in gesture . . . one could construct all the figures of the traditional poses, as given in Delsarte and the old French works for the expression and heightening of all the various passions and emotions. As with the arms and hands, so with the whole superb figure, all of its movements were "express and admirable."[8]

The Evening Sun , unimpressed by this throwback to an earlier style, accused O'Neil of "ranting, shouting, tearing and strutting about in awkward poses and impossible attitudes, with all of the airs and very few of the graces of the tragedy queens of fifty years ago."[9]

O'Neil herself summed up the critics' assessment when she said that they thought that "I am inclined to rant, to assume the ultra melodramatic which has gone out and was never artistic."[10] Her interpretation of Lady Macbeth would certainly seem to have verged on the "ultra melodramatic." Recalling seeing her in this role, Henry Goddard reported that "in the scene where she welcomes Duncan to the castle, she seized his hand and bent over it effusively." At the close of the banquet scene she "drops at her husband's feet as he sits, burying her face in his lap and sobbing convulsively as the curtain falls." In the ultimate test of any Lady Macbeth, the sleepwalking scene, she "starts backward so swiftly as to strike against the pillar at the corner of the stage . . . so violently that it awakens her. Glaring at the two attendants she utters a shrill scream."[11] Here we see the self-consciousness, the deliberate theatricality, and the attitude-striking of the histrionic code.

O'Neil was a theatrical atavism who nonetheless tackled the dramatic realists for whose work she seems to have been singularly unsuited. In a daring move, she played Ibsen's Hedda Gabler in New York at the same time that Mrs. Fiske, the female exemplar of the new style, appeared in the role in a nearby theatre. Mrs. Fiske garnered rave reviews, while O'Neil's interpretation was uniformly judged inferior. But though the critics may have objected, there were still audiences who appreciated the old style. Reviewing Rosmersholm, The Boston Transcript noted that "the subtleties and suggestions of modern psychological acting would probably baffle and weary them [the audience] as much as Miss O'Neil's forthright playing of the obvious gives them pleasure."[12]

In later life, Griffith would mention O'Neil but express profound admiration for Mrs. Fiske. Yet when he wrote his first play, A Fool and a Girl , his sympathies seem to have lain more with the O'Neil school, as suggested by a few of the stage directions:

Effie throws herself across chair, clutching wildly at his coat.

Effie catches hold of his hands as he takes her and throws her off.

Crouching on floor by door moaning.

Wearily picks up receiver [of telephone] then sinks to a heap on floor.[13]


Publicity stills from the play's only production (one week in Washington, one week in Baltimore) indicate that the actors used the conventional gestures and attitude-striking of the histrionic code, though whether at the playwright's behest or that of James K. Hackett, the producer and director, is unknown. In what appears to be a climactic confrontation, five men and two women stand on stage, the women in the center. The leading lady, Fannie Ward, later to star in deMille's The Cheat (1915), stands facing Allison Skipworth. Ward holds her right arm extended backward at a forty-five degree angle as she points at Skipworth with her left arm fully extended. Skipworth holds out her right hand, arm fully extended to Ward, while her left hand is placed on her hip. The gentlemen stand stiffly, hands at sides or on hips, or in one case leaning on knuckles on a table. In another photo of Ward, Skipworth, and a male actor, Ward sits on a fallen tree, one hand in her lap and the other hand pointing at a gentleman who sits at her feet.[14] The first photograph, especially, could well be a frame enlargement from a 1908 Biograph.

Griffith's Film Acting

The little evidence available leads to the conclusion that most of the performers with whom Griffith worked used the histrionic code, as did Griffith himself, though Griffith, as an aspiring man of the theatre, must at least have attended verisimilarly coded performances. Eyewitness accounts and films provide evidence of Griffith's notions of appropriate cinematic acting in 1907 and 1908.[15]

After the failure of A Fool and a Girl , a financially desperate Griffith became involved for the first time with the film industry, selling story ideas, appearing as an extra, and even playing a few leads. Between December 1907 and July 1908, Griffith appeared in twenty-three films that we know of, twenty-one at Biograph and two, Rescued from an Eagle's Nest and Cupid's Pranks , for Edison.[16] Wallace McCutcheon, who directed Griffith in his Biograph films, summed up his actor's talents in two words: "He stinks!" McCutcheon continued to employ Griffith not for his thespian abilities, but because he had story ideas and suggested "bits of business for other performers."[17] Henry Marvin, Biograph's vice-president and general manager, also worried about the skills of Biograph's new acquisition. In his unpublished memoirs, Billy Bitzer discusses Griffith's first film appearances:

In the spring of 1908 when Mr. Griffith first got before the camera as an extra when my boss . . . Mr. H. N. Marvin . . . saw the picture . . . he could not help but notice that the character Mr. Griffith was playing, an innkeeper or bartender, in a picture with a "What Ho, what'll it be me Hearties" attitude accompanied with a swinging gesture of his arms . . . that the arms were a blur, looked more like fans than arms, for which I was blamed . . . It would take a shutter of a hundredth of a second to stop the waving arms and some of the other quick movements of . . .


Rescued from an Eagle's Nest:  Griffith's 
superfluous gesture.

Griffith. I figured the only thing to do would be to place this Griffith to the side of scenes and then if his gestures were wild, I could move the camera ever so slightly and he could do his waving out of the scene. [Griffith said later], "Why didn't you tell me to slow down. I thought action had to be exaggerated the way I had seen them do it in Vitagraph pictures."[18]

From this comment we can infer that in his initial appearances Griffith thought it necessary to adapt his stage acting style to the new medium, which he did by speeding up the fully extended, heavily stressed movements of the unchecked histrionic code.

Close analysis of Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (J. Searle Dawley, director, Edison Studios, 1908) and At the Crossroads of Life (Wallace McCutcheon, Jr., director, Biograph, 1908) reveals that it was not blurred arms that set Griffith apart from his fellow film performers but rather an intensely self-conscious theatricality combined with the making of narratively superfluous movements. In Rescued , Griffith plays a woodsman whose child is stolen by an eagle and carried to its nest. In the film's second shot, Griffith and two others cut down a tree. The situation makes histrionically coded gestures unnecessary: all the actors have to do is saw. But Griffith nonetheless pauses to gesture to his fellow workmen and then point at the tree, as if exhorting them to greater effort, though they seem to be working hard enough. In the sixth shot, Griffith and friends cut down another tree. After it falls, Griffith extends his left arm and swings it back and forth while smiling in what seems an entirely meaningless gesture contributing neither to story nor characterization. At this point, his wife rushes in and tells him about the kidnapping. She gestures upward, and he points upward three times in succession before leading the group offscreen with much arm-waving. Griffith and company chase the eagle until they reach the top of a cliff on the side of which the eagle resides. The men tie a rope around Griffith and lower him over the side. As he begins


Left:  At the Crossroads of Life:  Griffith pleads with his beloved (Museum of Modern Art Film
Stills Archive). 
Right: At the Crossroads of Life:  Griffith as rejected suitor (Museum of Modern Art Film 
Stills Archive).

his descent, and then again as he disappears, he raises his right hand in a wave, the gestures all but meaningless. After landing on the cliff ledge, Griffith kneels screen right over his stolen child and then, seeing the eagle, assumes an extremely theatrical posture. He looks around and extends his right arm fully before rising with both arms extended outward, right leg bearing his weight, knee slightly bent, and his left leg back, knee bent as if to kneel, then puts both hands to his head and holds the pose. Having killed the eagle, he kicks it over the cliff edge, accompanying the kick with a sweeping outward gesture of the right arm. As the eagle falls, he leans over and shakes his fist at it.

Griffith's excessive theatricality is even more apparent in At the Crossroads of Life , where at times he seems to be almost intentionally parodying the histrionic code. In his first scene in this film, he comes to visit his lover. As he enters through a curtained doorway, he looks right, then left toward the woman. He pauses to assume an "I love you" pose, both hands reaching out toward her. He advances toward her with hands still extended, takes her hands and kisses one, then holds her hand with his right hand while pointing toward the door with his left in a "come away with me" pose. He then takes both her hands in his again and leans in so that his face is next to hers. When a servant enters, they separate, Griffith holding his right hand extended sideways, the arm slightly bent, and the other hand near his chest, again striking an attitude. After the servant leaves, he kisses the woman again. She breaks away, but he keeps both arms extended toward her then drops his hands to his sides as he walks out. At the door he pauses again, points at her, talks, turns to leave, and clenches the hand that had been pointing, so that he exits with one arm extended backward and fist clenched. Later, at the denouement, the woman rejects him. He shakes hands with her, turning his head momentarily, then turns back thrusting his chin forward in a "noble" pose. He kisses her hand, steps


back, still holding her hand and looking at her, and, turning away from her, he brings his hand up to his chest and then down again in a conventional gesture of rejection.

These two films illuminate Marshall Neilan's comment about Griffith's acting. It was not simply that Griffith used the histrionic code, it was that he used it inadequately. Judging both by his fellow performers in these films and by other films featuring histrionically coded performances, Griffith was a bad actor by the standards of the histrionic code. He took the self-consciousness and theatricality inherent in histrionically coded acting and exaggerated it, giving each gesture and pose a great and unnecessary emphasis.

Director Griffith

During the spring of 1908, the Biograph front office, facing a shortage of directors, offered Griffith the chance to make a film. Though Griffith had by this time been writing scenarios and acting in films for six months, he still felt less than sure of his directorial abilities and agreed only with the assurance that he be retained as an actor should his directorial debut fail. Originally hired as director simply to rehearse the actors, Griffith soon found himself, as Bitzer tells us, involved in all aspects of the films' production:

Before his [Griffith's] arrival, I, as cameraman, was responsible for everything except the immediate hiring and handling of the actor. Soon it was his say whether the lights were bright enough or if the make-up was right. . . . A cameraman had enough to do watching the rapidity of the action and keeping the hand-cranked camera going at a steady pace to prevent the film from buckling.[19]

The evolution of studio organization remains a disputed point among film historians. Bitzer's comment may be taken to lend support to Staiger's chronology, set forth in The Classical Hollywood Cinema . Prior to 1907, according to Staiger, one person, the cameraman, had control of all aspects of film production, from the selection of the subject to the final editing. As distributors and exhibitors clamored for more film, the studios instituted division of labor, switching from a "cameraman" system of production to a "director" system. Under this system, the cameraman retained control over technical matters such as lighting, but a variety of workers such as outside scriptwriters, stage managers, property men, and wardrobe mistresses took over his former jobs. The director, at this time often called the producer, oversaw the whole production and became recognized as the chief authority. By 1909 the film studios began to institute the "director-unit" system to meet the exhibitors' need for twenty to thirty new reels a week. Under this system the studios employed several directors, giving each his own cast and crew and requiring him to turn out one reel a week.[20]


According to Tom Gunning, "It is not certain how relations between cameraman and director had evolved at Biograph prior to Griffith's first films," though "it seems that Biograph had employed a director-cameraman team for dramatic films . . . for several years before Griffith appeared."[21] At any rate, Griffith was the sole director from June 1908 through December 1909, when the first non-Griffith unit began operation. By the time Griffith left in the fall of 1913, six directors were shooting Biograph films under Griffith's supervision.[22]

Charles Musser, who proposes a modification of Staiger's chronology, believes that Griffith may have had more authority at Biograph than did most directors at the time. Musser asserts that a collaborative system, in which films were codirected by cameramen and/or producers, and/or directors, "dominated American cinema until 1907 or 1908."[23] Around these years, a shift occurred to a hierarchically organized central-producer system, which Musser dates several years earlier than does Staiger.[24] Staiger's intermediary "director-unit" system, according to Musser, "simply never existed."[25] Musser argues that Griffith at Biograph is a unique case from which historians have drawn inaccurate generalizations.

Griffith's role at Biograph represented a somewhat unusual variation of the central producer system, not some distinct interim category. This was a conjunction of at least two factors. First the subordination of Bitzer or Marvin to Griffith conformed more readily to preexisting practices at Biograph than at some studios. Secondly . . . his ability to work efficiently . . . meant that he could produce and direct two reels of film per week. . . . Soon he produced and directed some Biograph films while supervising the direction of others. Biograph thus allowed for a concentration of titles and responsibilities in one person.[26]

What precise responsibilities did Griffith have with regard to "the hiring and handling of actors" and other matters impinging on performance? What restrictions did the front office impose, and what input might other Biograph employees have had? Let us examine these issues by proceeding step by step through the production process, beginning with the matter of personnel. The front office seems to have granted carte blanche with respect to hiring, and Griffith established his own personal stock company, which remained remarkably stable over the years, given the mobile nature of the acting profession. The stock company began to be developed almost as soon as Griffith began directing. When Florence Lawrence started at Biograph in July 1908 there were only "three or four regularly employed actors and actresses who were paid on a weekly guarantee." But four or five months later Griffith had established a company[27] and continued to seek new talent throughout his Biograph years. One of his first acquisitions was a leading man for The Adventures of Dollie . Making the rounds of the theatrical agencies (with which he must have been all to familiar), Griffith encountered Arthur Johnson and entered into a


two-year working relationship over a couple of drinks.[28] After this successful experience, Griffith made a habit of looking for new (to film) talent. He found Frank Powell at a theatrical agency. Meeting James Kirkwood at the Lamb's Club, he persuaded him to visit the studio and then persuaded him to accept employment.[29] Shortly after this, Kirkwood's fellow Lamb, Henry Walthall, came visiting and found himself acting in his first film. When the Gishes came to visit Mary Pickford they also made their cinematic debut at Griffith's behest, appearing in An Unseen Enemy (1912).[30] During the Biograph years, Griffith had an unerring instinct for acting talent and the requisite charm to convince the actors to enter the new medium. After a few years at the Fourteenth Street studio, many of Griffith's discoveries went on to great success in the film industry, and the Biograph Company boasted an impressive array of talent amongst its alumni.

Griffith had less freedom with respect to stories than he did with personnel. When Griffith arrived at Biograph, the studio already had a story department, in the person of Lee Dougherty and an inhouse writer, Stanner E. V. Taylor, Griffith's immediate predecessor as director. Even though the director was authorized to purchase story ideas, Griffith never had sole control over the subject matter of Biograph films but always consulted one or both of these men. Linda Arvidson recalled that Dougherty would read story submissions first, then go over them with Griffith to make the final selections.[31] According to Taylor, he, Dougherty, and Griffith would go to a rathskeller (probably Luchow's near the studio on 14th Street) every Sunday afternoon and "go over possible stories . . . scene by scene and what actors. Dougherty always sat in on story conferences for selection of stories."[32]

Whether or not these story ideas were turned into formal scripts that guided Griffith during the filming remains subject to debate. It was, during the nickelodeon era, standard industry practice for staff writers to prepare the script, often without consulting the director. Lawrence McCloskey, writer for the Lubin studios, said in 1913, "Now the director does not see the scenario until it is handed to him for production, complete in every detail. Should he disagree with the idea or about anything in the script, the point is agreed and settled before the play is begun."[33] But Griffith's associates have always adamantly denied that Griffith ever used a written script, or even notes, asserting that he kept complicated shot structures entirely in his head. "David never used a script," his wife flatly stated.[34] Even Mary Pickford, not the most enthusiastic of Griffith boosters, said, "D. W. Griffith never adhered to a script. In most cases, at least in the old Biograph days, I don't think such a luxury had even made its appearance in the studios."[35]

But scripts seem to have appeared at the Biograph studios before Griffith did. Taylor said, "Scripts at Biograph we always had. . . . There was always a script, 12, 15, 18 scenes."[36] Patrick Loughney has substantiated Taylor's claim by discovering five pre-1908 Biograph scripts in the Library of Congress


archives. The scripts were deposited for copyright protection, but Loughney believes that they predated the films rather than being written after production. With a film such as Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son , logistics alone would have necessitated a script, given the involvement of twenty-two actors, rapid shifts between interiors and exteriors, and a shooting time of just one day. Moreover, the script contains material that is missing from the released film, the differences resulting not from someone writing a script based on the completed film but from someone encountering difficulties in filming the script. As further evidence, after the time of the earliest script discovered (Personal , 1904), the Biograph Bulletins get longer, perhaps as a result of the preexisting scenarios making the promotional writers' task easier.[37] Loughney has concluded that "the Edison and Biograph companies may have been using rudimentary screenplays as early as 1902."[38] Gunning believes that the logistical complexities of discontinuous shooting would have required Griffith to use "some form of shooting script."[39] On the evidence, it seems that scripts existed at Biograph both before and after Griffith's arrival and that Griffith deliberately kept the actors from seeing the scripts, suggesting to them that no scripts existed. That Griffith would deny he ever used a script is consistent with his penchant for self-promotion, lack of a prewritten script emphasizing his artistic autonomy and contributing to his construction of the myth of the great director.[40]

But why does it matter whether or not scripts existed and whether or not Griffith used them? First, the early Biograph scripts contain stage directions, including specific movements. In The Nihilists (1905), a man is "flung half dead upon a table, from which he falls, writhing in his agony to the floor." Later in the film, actors "stagger and stumble in their weakness," and at the denouement, the heroine, "with arms raised to heaven . . . gives thanks for the success of her efforts."[41] These directions clearly call for histrionically coded performances, but might not writers who submitted narratives of psychological causality have included suggestions for verisimilarly coded acting in their scripts? Frank Woods, who wrote as "The Spectator" of The New York Dramatic Mirror and was a vocal advocate of the verisimilar code, authored several scenarios for Biograph, beginning with After Many Years . If Woods had been involved in the development of scripts, one would expect that his firm convictions about appropriate cinematic acting would have found their way into the stage directions. Were this the case, Woods and many other writers may have significantly contributed to the transition to the verisimilar code. However, resolution of all this speculation must await further archival discoveries.

Second, it was customary at most studios to provide at least the principal players with scripts in advance of rehearsal and shooting. "The principals have probably read the play, and have done some rehearsing before a mirror but minor people depend upon instruction and rehearsal to learn their move-


ments and expressions and to interpret a story they may never know."[42] Making the minor players totally dependent upon the director was standard operating procedure. "Only the leading members of a company prepare for their roles in advance. . . . The minor members . . . know nothing of the story until called for rehearsal. . . . The director explains the story, and tells the players how he wants to proceed."[43] But without scripts, Griffith's leading players would have been as ignorant of the story as the merest spear carrier. Griffith's withholding of scripts from his actors may be interpreted as a desire for absolute control over their performances. Because only Griffith knew the entire story, which he would disclose slowly during rehearsals, his actors would have been entirely dependent on him, even the leads lacking sufficient information to mount a convincing argument for their own interpretations.

While all directors rehearsed their actors, the time allocated to rehearsal seems to have depended upon the studio. In 1909 a studio visitor noted that the players sometimes received only one or two hours of rehearsal.[44] In 1911 Moving Picture World columnist E. W. Sergent commented that "the number of times that a scene is rehearsed varies with the director and with the intricacy of the action, five to ten times being an average."[45] At the time Griffith acted at Biograph one gets the impression that the studio did not encourage lengthy preparations. Arvidson describes the rehearsal that preceded Griffith's first Biograph screen appearance as a rather perfunctory matter, unduly hasty even for readying a very minor extra such as Griffith: "After a short rehearsal, an explanation of 'foreground' and instructions about keeping 'inside the lines' and 'outside the lines,' the camera opened up."[46]

By mid-1909, Griffith was already willing to devote half a day or more to rehearsal,[47] a good idea since the cost of film prohibited more than one take.[48] By 1911, "Griffith would rehearse six or even seven stories months ahead with various people doing the same parts."[49] He took up to a week to rehearse a one-reeler before production and rehearsed Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) for ten days.[50] Bitzer spoke of Griffith "repeatedly rehearsing, sticking to it for hours, until he had the effect or some semblance of what he desired."[51]

Griffith became increasingly concerned with rehearsals during his Biograph years, and Biograph actors' reminiscences of the actual production process tend to center on rehearsals. We have more information about the company's preparation for shooting than we do about any other aspect of the production process. This is fortunate, for the rehearsals were a crucial factor in the transition from the histrionic to the verisimilar codes, giving Griffith a place to try out his ideas, to learn from his more experienced actors, and to train his neophytes. In 1911, when the verisimilar code became dominant, Griffith and his actors were using rehearsals to work out bits of business, to experiment with props, and to develop the psychologized, individuated characters associated with the new acting style.[52]


But when Griffith first began directing, rehearsals did not concentrate on the development of characterization, for the Biograph front office demanded quickly paced performances using the unchecked histrionic code. "Deliberation and repose would have been out . . . in the early days of the Biograph pictures as the films were sold for fourteen cents a foot and Mr. Griffith was told that the buyers would positively not pay for a foot of film that did not have action in it."[53] The actors objected in vain to this economic exigency, and Florence Lawrence devoted a section of her Photoplay memoirs to this issue, worth quoting at length for their valuable insight—running counter to Griffith's carefully constructed image—into Griffith's early career.

What seemed to annoy us . . . and to hold us back from achieving greater artistic success was the speed and rapidity with which we had to work before the camera. Mr. Griffith always answered our complaint by stating that the exchanges and exhibitors who bought our pictures wanted action, and insisted that they get plenty for their money. . . . There was no chance for slow or "stage" acting. The moment we started to do a bit of acting in the proper tempo we would be startled by the cry of the director. "Faster! Faster! For God's sake hurry up! We must do the scene in forty feet. . . ." In real life it would have taken four minutes to enact the same scene. . . . The buyers of the films saw their money being wasted if there was a quiet bit of business being portrayed. They didn't want, as Mr. Griffith had said, "illustrated song slides. . . ." Following the appearance of the Film d'Art pictures, nearly all of the Biograph players asked Mr. Griffith to be allowed to do slow acting, only to be refused. He told us it was impossible since the buyers would not pay for a foot of film that did not have action in it.[54]

Mary Pickford's report of arguing with Griffith over performance style corroborates Lawrence's. Pickford states, with an annoying self-satisfaction, that she had sworn never to overact, a "revolutionary" concept at this time. Her declaration that she would not "exaggerate" precipitated, she says, one of many squabbles between actor and director, presumably because Griffith insisted on a rapid tempo.[55]

Both Lawrence's and Pickford's memoirs indicate that Griffith by no means began directing fully committed to the holy cause of bringing a new performance style to the screen. Indeed, at the start, Griffith seems to have been prohistrionic and anti-verisimilar, a position in accord with his theatrical training, his own film acting, and his economic situation. As we have seen, Griffith's stage career had exposed him mainly to actors of the old school. As for his own film acting, despite Bitzer's remonstrations the front office kept him on, giving him no reason to think they found his style unacceptable. One imagines that the front office's opinions played a large part in Griffith's calculations at this time. So uncertain of himself that he agreed to direct only after being assured of job security, he was unlikely to confront the money men on issues


of artistry at such a tenuous point in his career. Not until later did Griffith feel confident enough to risk challenging not only the front office, but the exchanges, exhibitors and, possibly, the audience:

The Biograph's first experiments along this line [deliberation and repose] were undertaken with no little hesitation and fearsome doubt. Those having the responsibility for the change felt that they were treading on thin ice. So deeply rooted was the opinion that speed was the thing, that the experimenters were fearful that their attempts to introduce real acting into the films would be met with derisive laughter.[56]

When rehearsals became an integral part of Biograph productions, they were a multistep process, which a variety of sources enables us to reconstruct. At the "first reading," Griffith would assemble his troupe and outline the story to them. Mary Pickford reported that "we were taken aside and intelligently explained the theme of the story and the dramatic possibilities of it." This would be followed by tentative role assignments and preliminary rehearsals, during which players "walked through the scenes to get our positions." Not until after the first "few rough rehearsals" did Griffith make final decisions about casting.[57]

At most times during the Biograph years, Griffith had available several actors capable of playing the leads, and "no one had a cinch on a line of good parts."[58] An actor might play the lead in one film and appear as an extra at a garden party in the next. Preventing any one or two actors from becoming the "stars" of the company may have been part of the front office's economically motivated resistance to the impending star system, but such a strategy also fit well with Griffith's methods. Griffith constantly created jealousy and competition among his employees and somewhat capriciously handed out the plum assignments as a technique for controlling his actors, for punishing and rewarding them: "In their eagerness to get a good part in a movie, the actors behaved like hungry chickens being fed nice, yellow corn, knocking and trampling each other in their mad scramble for the best bits."[59] When making Man's Genesis in 1912, Griffith went to each of his ingenues and asked her to play the part of the young cave girl. Because the girl was to wear a grass skirt, showing her bare legs and feet, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Bernard, and Mable Normand all refused. Griffith assigned the role to Mae Marsh, announcing at the same time that she would play the lead in The Sands of Dee , a part that all the other young women coveted.[60] For the same film, Griffith chose Joe Greybill over Edwin August for the male lead, having had a disagreement with the latter. The front office intervened, demanding that August be cast, and saying that he was to be in every romantic and society drama.[61] This is the only recorded instance of front office interference in Griffith's casting decisions.

After the final casting, rehearsals began in earnest. At first, the actors


walked through their parts on a bare stage with nothing but wooden kitchen chairs, going through the action again and again while Griffith decided about lighting, editing, camera positions, and the placement of props.[62] By the time Griffith had satisfied himself with respect to these technical matters the actors' blocking would be automatic, and both they and the director would be ready to concentrate on characterization and emotions.[63]

This was the stage of the rehearsals in which players and director constructed the characters we see in the Biographs. What did Griffith actually do during these rehearsals? The answer depends to some extent on the source, but the general impression is that Griffith possessed the ability to obtain the best performances from his people, varying his tactics to suit the actor. Mary Pickford said, "Griffith knew the strengths and weaknesses of all his players and devised ways and means of bringing the actors out of themselves by his clever psychological handling. He could make an actor express himself in dramatic performances."[64]

Having explained the story and described the characters' actions and emotions, Griffith started rehearsals by trusting his performers' instincts. "You understand the situation. Now let us see what you would do with it. After giving the matter careful consideration, she [the actor] plays the scene after her own ideas. Mr. Griffith gives the actress a chance."[65] Allowing the actor some latitude of interpretation, Griffith at first offered only praise or gentle corrections: "He was your audience . . . he'd cry, laugh—he'd simply draw it out of you—his enthusiasm was infectious: 'That's fine, that's dandy—do it some more. . . .' He had the faculty of getting it out of you—He was magnetic."[66] Sometimes he would offer more specific suggestions in an attempt to make the performer feel her character's emotions. Gish tells of rehearsing for The Mothering Heart:

As I rehearsed the scene, Mr. Griffith fed me the reactions of the injured wife: "You feel that you've been humiliated by your husband in public. You think that he doesn't love you any longer because you're carrying his child. You're afraid that he wants to get rid of you."

With his intense voice coaching me, I felt the heroine's agony.[67]

Griffith would more actively intervene if the performers failed to meet his expectations: "if you weren't getting the scene as he felt you should, he would show you how it should be done."[68] Again and again, actors speak of Griffith acting out the parts, regardless of age and sex, showing his players the specific gestures and facial expressions with which to externalize thoughts and emotions. Given Griffith's limitations as a thespian, one may wonder at the efficacy of these performances, but his actors apparently found them inspiring. Blanche Sweet said that, "He'd show you so beautifully that you felt, 'Oh, I'd never be able to do it that way.'"[69] Others offer a more realistic assess-


ment: "He was not very good, I am afraid what we call 'hammy.'"[70] Though Griffith had apparently not rid himself of his excessive theatricality, he did have an excuse for his performance style. "Griffith was hammy in showing what to do. . . . He said he exaggerated to show what he meant."[71] Having shown the players what he wanted, he then worked with them until he reached the desired effect: "he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later modify in us."[72]

When praise, gentle criticism, and example all failed to elicit an acceptable performance, Griffith resorted to rougher tactics, willing to use any means to produce the necessary emotion. Thinking that Mary Pickford was giving a less than spirited performance, he began to badmouth her lover, Owen Moore. "As her eyes filled with angry tears, Griffith looked away, grimly satisfied. This was the look he wanted in the scene we were going to film. 'Camera,' he called."[73] Griffith even resorted to physical intimidation of a sort. When he tried out the Gish sisters for An Unseen Enemy (1912) he "pulled a real gun from his pocket and began chasing us around the room, shooting it off."[74] Desiring a frightened reaction from Mae Marsh, he would have a shotgun fired off a few feet away.[75]

As most of the above suggests, it would seem that Griffith paid most of his attention to his female actors, the "child-women" to whose thespian training he devoted himself. Claire McDowell, an older member of the troupe, contrasted Griffith's direction of her with his handling of the "girls": "I was a good dependable actress. He used to say I was a rest for him as he did not have to work so hard directing me. All the other girls were younger and without stage experience and he had to teach them every mood and move."[76] Anita Loos suggests that Griffith deliberately sought inexperienced youngsters to whom he could teach the "Griffith style": "Blanche Sweet seemed rather unsure of herself, as did all Griffith's young actresses; he wanted no positive traits to prevent them from being passive instruments on whom he could improvise."[77] Christy Cabanne, a Biograph actor/director, asserted that Griffith "showed Mary [Pickford] every move she made, same as with the others."[78] Pickford herself worried that Griffith was totally dominating her: "I was getting to be a machine under Mr. Griffith. I got to be an automatic doll. If he told me to move my left foot, I moved it. When he said, 'Look up' I did that just as unquestioningly."[79] According to Mae Marsh's description of Griffith's direction of her in Man's Genesis (1912), he did indeed treat her like an automatic doll, telling her exactly what to do and when to do it. On the first day's shooting he told her to go sit next to Bobby Harron and look at him as if she were very much in love. "He said, 'Just think that you're terribly in love and look up at him shy-like.' So I did, and he said, 'Look up at him again and then put your head down,' which I did. Then he said, 'Now get up and run away.' So I got up and ran away."[80]

Anyone wishing to mount an argument for Griffith as the "auteur" of the


Biograph verisimilar code would do well to concentrate upon the "Griffith actresses," but even here one must exercise caution. Remember that Mary Pickford in her autobiography claims to have argued with Griffith over performance style. It would be a mistake to paint Griffith as a directorial Svengali with a cast full of compliant Trilbys. On this point, let Griffith speak for himself: "I did not 'teach' the players with whom my name has been linked. We developed together, we found ourselves in a new art and as we discovered the possibilities of that art we learned together."[81] There is evidence that Griffith actually encouraged his casts' participation in the construction of their performances. Many of the actors recalling their Biograph years mentioned that Griffith willingly accepted suggestions and actively solicited their advice, sometimes calling the company from the dressing room and asking for their input.[82] Often, when a scene was not jelling properly, he left the studio, instructing the actors to solve the problem. On one occasion he told them that if they succeeded, he would ask the front office for a five-dollar pay raise. In the scene, the actors played guests at a bachelor party who were to toast the prospective bridegroom, Owen Moore. When Griffith returned, they lifted Moore up, set him on a table, raised their glasses, turned to Griffith and shouted, "Biograph! Hah! Hah! Hah! Ten Dollars, Ten Dollars, Rah! Rah! Rah!" They got the raise.[83]

The rehearsal process permitted the actors to devise bits of business that would flesh out their characters: "He couldn't bother with asking why you did this or that, or telling you about your character—what kind of walk you should use, what kind of clothes. It was up to you. You had to be creative. . . . We tried things out in rehearsal. If it was good, Griffith said 'Keep it in.'"[84] One of the most famous shots in a Griffith film originated in this fashion. During the rehearsal of the courtroom scene in Intolerance , Mae Marsh unconsciously twisted her handkerchief, and Griffith said "Keep it in"[85] The next chapter more fully investigates the contribution of the actor to Biograph performance style.

By the time of the actual shooting, little remained to be done. The cameraman's assistant put down the "lines," using nails and cord to surround the area that would be in the frame, and there would be a quick, final rehearsal for positioning.[86] When the camera began to crank, the actors were expected to do exactly what had been agreed upon in rehearsals. Improvisations were forbidden.[87] Griffith himself watched quietly, occasionally offering suggestions. "Not so much, not so much. Less, less—simple, simple, true. Don't act it, feel it; feel it, don't act it." And then, "More, more, we need more!"[88]

Sometimes after the day's filming, Griffith and certain members of the company screened the rushes from previously shot films.[89] While watching, Griffith talked to cast and crew offering his views on acting,[90] providing, one imagines, valuable opportunities to evaluate and reconsider performance style for all concerned. Only one of these sessions has been described, by Mary


Pickford, who reports that Griffith complained about her makeup in the final close-up of Friends . Pickford responded that "there's too much eyebrow pencil and shadowing around my eyes."[91] Griffith agreed, and presumably retook the shot. Griffith not only watched his own films but kept an eye on the competition, making the rounds of the nickelodeons every Sunday.[92] During one of these excursions, in the summer of 1908, he saw a Vitagraph film starring Florence Lawrence and decided to hire her.[93] When Griffith met his new actor, he told her, "You were very good in that—it was a good picture"[94] Griffith's filmgoing might also have had another purpose. Lillian Gish tells us that Griffith told his actors to go to movie houses and observe audience reactions. "You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you're not making the audience feel that way, you're not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they're held by what you're doing, you've succeeded as an actress."[95]

Griffith's Acting "Philosophy"

Although the recollections of associates offer glimpses of Griffith at rehearsals and filming, it is hard to extract Griffith's fully elaborated "philosophy" of acting (if such existed) from this scattered evidence. This must come from the interviews Griffith granted after his departure from Biograph. When Griffith "went public," by which time the verisimilar code was fully in place, he espoused the fundamental tenet of the literary and dramatic realists that the best art was an accurate reproduction of reality: "The motion picture technique is what technique really means, a faithful picture of life. . . . You violate the real essence of technique when you do not do it as it is . . . done in real life. The motion picture . . . should be a picture of real life . . . and emotions should be depicted as they would be in real life."[96] Griffith felt that the best actors should be instinctively capable of realistic emotions. They "just go ahead and do it as though it were a part of their really and truly experience in life."[97] Griffith actors had to know how to "feel their parts" and to "express any single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles."[98] But the actor's face and body should be reflecting an inner feeling rather than creating feeling from the outside in. The greatest sin a Griffith actor could commit was to be caught "acting."[99] Griffith once instructed Mae Marsh, "Now feel it. Don't act. I don't want actors on my set. I want human beings. Always remember in your acting you're never to act but to feel it."[100]

Griffith did, however, believe in the external construction of a character through mannerisms and appropriate bits of business, sharing the literary and dramatic realists' opinion that accurate reproduction could be achieved by painstaking observations of people in their day-to-day activities. He often urged his actors to base their performances on the mannerisms of real people: "'No matter where you are, watch people,' he told us. 'Watch how they


walk, how they move, how they run around. If you're in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.'"[101] Griffith told an interviewer in 1913 that he and Bitzer were in the habit of visiting various parts of New York City and taking photographs. By comparing these photographs with his actors' performances, Griffith hoped to ascertain "how truthfully his people had depicted various emotions."[102] Mae Marsh claimed that Griffith sent her into the slums of New York on an observation tour.[103] Lillian Gish visited a mental hospital to "learn about human nature and build our characterizations."[104] Before the filming of the death-house scenes in Intolerance , Griffith arranged a special tour of death row at San Quentin.[105]

Coupled with the classic realists' concern for facts and details, Griffith had a rather mystical notion of the "essence" of a good performance or performer, an intangible "something," which some possessed and others did not. Griffith once referred to this essence as "soul," that quality that enabled an actor to experience her character's emotions: "the first thing needed is 'soul.' By that I mean people of great personalities, true emotions and the ability to depict them before the camera. . . . The actor with the soul feels his part, he is living his part." It required this special quality of "soul" to face the "grim, cold-blooded, truth-in-detail telling camera lens which will register every quiver of the facial muscles, every gleam of the eye, every expression of the face, every gesture."[106]

Put simply, then, Griffith thought that actors experienced emotions, their faces and bodies reflected these emotions, and the camera captured the externalized feelings. The closer the camera, the better the chance of filming emotions: "the near view of the actors' lineaments conveys intimate thoughts and emotions better than can ever be conveyed by the crowded scene."[107]

Finally we come to the close-up, often thought to be one of Griffith's major contributions, perhaps his single most important contribution, to a "new" style of film performance. Griffith himself placed great emphasis upon the closer camera, often equating the larger-scale shot with the verisimilar code:

We were striving for real acting. When you saw only the small, full length figures it was necessary to have exaggerated acting, which might be called "physical" acting, the waving of the hands and so on. The close-up enabled us to reach real acting, restraint, acting that is a duplicate of real life.[108]

Griffith certainly did not "invent" the close-up. Indeed, the Biographs contain very few close-ups in the modern sense of the term referring to a tight shot of the head. Though I have compiled no statistics on the Biographs, as a matter of comparison we can note that The Birth of a Nation in its entirety contains only eleven true close-ups and only a few more medium close-ups (head and shoulders). But Griffith did insist on bringing the camera closer to the action and apparently did so against the resistance of everybody else at


Biograph. Bitzer suggested that the actors did not want closer shots because they did not want to be recognized and have their theatrical careers jeopardized.[109] The camera itself was hard to focus at the closer range, and if the players gesticulated "too wildly" the shot would show a "displacement blur of arms, etc." "It seemed to us all except Mr. Griffith that the result [of the closer camera] would certainly seem foolish."[110] The front office at first "definitely vetoed" the closer shots, but Griffith persisted and "finally even the front office stopped griping."[111]

Though some have assumed a unidirectional causality between the closer camera and performance style, both Griffith's and Bitzer's comments indicate that the reverse may have been true. Griffith said, "we were striving for real acting," implying that the verisimilar code may have evolved during rehearsals, prior to Griffith's realization that this acting style would benefit from larger-scale shots. And Bitzer hints that the histrionic code precluded the closer camera because of the technical difficulties caused by excessive gesticulation. Modification of performance style must have preceded at least the first experiments with closer shots. Further evidence for this comes from J. Stuart Blackton, one of the founders of the Vitagraph Company, who writes in his memoirs that one of the leading matinée idols of this period, Maurice Costello, "brought something to the screen that it had lacked. He was able to convey a mood by the process of thought instead of facial contortion and pantomime. . . . It was in the scenes nearest the camera that Costello's personality was most evident. At the time the front line was twelve feet from the lens. We changed it to nine feet."[112]

We shall probably never know whether the close-up preceded the change in performance style or vice versa, but we do know that by 1913 Griffith had fully pledged himself to the verisimilar code, the new style that was to win for motion-picture acting "recognition as a genuine art." Art had not been a consideration in 1908 when Griffith strove to elicit enough action from his performers to justify the fourteen-cents-per-foot price of the Biographs. Viewing his film employment as a temporary stopgap, Griffith let economic exigencies dictate to him as he cranked out yet another reel. In the intervening five years, Griffith became more and more committed to the new film industry, no longer harboring visions of himself as a great dramatist or stage actor.

As Griffith began to see film as his life's work, his self-image as a great and inspired artist required that film be a proper medium for the embodiment of his artistic inspirations and aspirations. One method for elevating film in his own, as well as the popular, mind was to denigrate the stage. In all his claims about the "realism" of the new acting art, Griffith compared stage acting unfavorably to film acting. As we have seen, the common practice was to advocate the verisimilar code by attacking the histrionic code, but Griffith went a step further by making the histrionic code and stage acting synonymous. This strategy served the double purpose of legitimizing his new profes-


sion and making his old profession unworthy of him, so that the failure was the theatre's rather than his own.[113] Griffith fought for the employment of the verisimilar code in his films in conscious opposition to all that the stage represented for him, barely acknowledging that the new style had actually originated in the theatre. At the same time, he must have known that artistic respectability could be gained by espousing and practicing the tenets of realism, since literary and dramatic realism was the dominant movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, already becoming passé in advanced intellectual circles by the time Griffith converted to the cause.

Let us look at two Biographs that appear to reflect Griffith's opinions about the relative merits of film and stage acting. Griffith asserted that the stage, bound by tradition and convention, was incapable of attaining the true realism that came so easily to the motion picture:

The motion picture is an art, a distinct art, and in many ways a greater art [than the theatre] since it approaches more closely real life. . . . They [theatre people] say that we picture directors do not know the rules, the technique of the drama. We know enough of the rules and the technique to avoid them for real life is not run by "rules."[114]

Griffith repeatedly and flatly denied that film actors had anything to learn from stage actors, the former being vastly superior to the latter, who were wedded to the histrionic code.

Moving pictures can get nothing from the so-called legitimate stage. . . . We need to depend on the stage for actors and actresses least of all. How many of them make you believe they are real human beings? No, they "act," that is they use a lot of gestures . . . such as are never seen . . . anywhere else. For range of delicacy, the development of character, the quick transition from one mood to another, I don't know an actress on the American stage . . . who can begin to touch the work of some of the motion picture actresses.[115]

Griffith claimed that stage training was a positive detriment for those hoping to act in motion pictures: "It [film acting] does not require any training in the legitimate stage for the reason that kind of acting is so bad, so far away from human life, and so unreal as to appear ridiculous in moving pictures."[116] Because stage players, unlike film actors, were incapable of studying and duplicating "real life," Griffith would not "have the average stage player in a production of mine."[117]

What was Griffith's view of the "average stage player"? To answer this question, we turn again to A Drunkard's Reformation (1909) and Brutality (1912), but it is the stage plays attended by the characters in the films that concern us here. The "real" characters in A Drunkard's Reformation employ the histrionic code as do the "stage actors," while in Brutality the "real"


A Drunkard's Reformation:  The theatrical actors.

characters use the verisimilar code and the "actors" the histrionic. In both cases, however, Griffith seems to have wanted a clear distinction in performance style between the framing story and the play. The "actors" in the earlier film employ a more unchecked version of the histrionic code than do the "real" characters, while in the later film, the distinction becomes more marked as the "actors" continue to employ the unchecked histrionic code while the "real" characters use the verisimilar. The depiction of the "average stage player" in these two films squares with Griffith's public pronouncements about the outmoded nature of theatrical acting, for the "actors" seem markedly retrograde compared to the "real" characters.

In A Drunkard's Reformation , Arthur Johnson takes his child to see what appears to be a temperance melodrama set in some vague, unspecified past time and foreign country. Twelve of the film's thirty-two shots depict action in this play, but two examples will suffice to describe the performance style, which shares with Griffith's own acting a self-conscious and excessive theatricality. In shots 21 and 23 the stage wife (Florence Lawrence) goes to the inn and pleads with her husband (David Miles) to stop drinking. The wife tries to take the drink from her husband, and they struggle, both carefully keeping faces turned to the audience. He pushes her away, and she falls. Kneeling at his feet, she raises her clasped hands to him and then puts her hands to her cheeks, alternating these actions in rapid succession as she cowers before him. Just before the husband expires, in shot 23, he staggers into his home, smashes a bottle, clutches at his throat, struggles with his wife, and tosses his little girl aside. Compared to his wild, frenzied, uncontrolled actions, Arthur Johnson's drunk is a model of propriety.

In Brutality , Walter Miller takes Mae Marsh to a vaudeville theatre where they see the famous murder scene from Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist was one of the most popular of melodramas, and the Biograph version probably resembles the performances at the popular-priced theatres that flourished in the ear-


Brutality:  The theatrical actors.

lier part of the century but faltered around the time Griffith began directing. Griffith was thus recording a vanishing performance style, the unchecked histrionic code of the full-blown popular melodrama. The presence of two performers singularly adept at the verisimilar code (Henry Walthall and Elmer Booth, the Snapper Kid of The Musketeers of Pig Alley ) makes the use of this performance style especially interesting.

In shot 37 Fagin (Walthall) tells Sykes (Booth) that Nancy has betrayed the gang. Booth sits in his chair in aggressively macho posture, legs apart and hands folded across chest. Walthall leans over him in a theatrical pose, weight on his bent front leg, his left arm, holding a cane, extended fully behind him, as he remains motionless throughout the conversation. Walthall, playing a villain in a melodrama, seems to be deliberately mimicking the attitude-striking of the histrionic code. The one pose embodies the performance style in all five shots of the play-within-the-film.

This chapter began by asking how we might assess Griffith's involvement and influence in the transition to the verisimilar code in the films of the Biograph Company. Could one make an "auteurist" argument of sorts about the probable impact of "the real, live, tangible person," David W. Griffith, whose ideas and actions may have partially shaped the signifying practices of the films? I think we can justifiably, but guardedly, conclude that Griffith may have been one among several significant factors responsible for the shift in performance style. At least in the later years of his Biograph tenure, when Griffith had overcome his initial nervousness, when the trade press frequently lauded his films, and when the front office came more and more to depend on him, Griffith seems to have had enough authority to insist on verisimilarly coded acting.

Accepting this premise leads to another, perhaps more interesting, question. Why would a man who had been primarily exposed to the histrionic code, whose acquaintances considered him a "lousy" actor, who used the


histrionic code in his own performances and initially insisted that his actors do the same, suddenly have converted to the verisimilar code? Starting with the broadest possible influence, Griffith was astute enough, as I suggested above, to realize that he could make his "new art" more respectable by allying it with the principles espoused by the literary and dramatic realists. He used the claim that film could "out-real" the theatre as part of this tactic. As we shall discuss below, most of the film industry shared Griffith's desire for respectability and believed with him that widespread acceptability could be garnered through associations with other more "legitimate" arts.

What about more direct influences in terms of day-to-day studio operations? The front office seems, for the most part, to have given Griffith carte blanche after a certain point, perhaps because his films may have saved the studio from financial disaster.[118] Hence, the money men may account for Griffith's initial adherence to the histrionic code but not for his change of heart. Scriptwriters may have made suggestions about performance style, but the historical record may never yield enough evidence to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

The historical record does, however, provide some evidence that Griffith's actors collaborated with the director in the construction of their characters, and hence in the transition in performance style. As Griffith himself said, "We developed together." In rehearsals, he would permit the actors to present their own characterizations before intervening with suggestions. He seems to have been willing enough to accept suggestions from his acting company. The older, more experienced actors, such as Claire McDowell, then, may have had frequent opportunities to contribute to the transformation in performance style. In the next chapter, we will look more closely at the work of one particular actor, Henry B. Walthall, trying to determine more precisely the nature of the mutual development of the verisimilar code.


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5— D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company
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