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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: 100 years ago, Hollywood saw its then-biggest...

Screen Grabs: 100 years ago, Hollywood saw its then-biggest ‘Event’

When the Gishes met Griffith, an overblown epic was born. Plus: A QAnon-Epstein-satanic horror? You bet.

A century ago, movies were no longer in their infancy, but growing up fast. Virtually every developed nation had its own industry by then, and the medium was clearly here to stay, grudgingly admitted as at least a sometime art form by those who’d eagerly dismissed as a cheap, lowbrow fad just a few years earlier.

1921 is perhaps the first annum in which a modern viewer might find more things familiar than antiquated onscreen, with everybody from Tarzan, Felix the Cat and Sherlock Holmes to Keaton, Lloyd, John Ford, Murnau, Lubitsch, Dreyer, Lois Weber, Laurel & Hardy (paired for the first time), and Lon Chaney duly represented. “Hollywood” was already an object not just of popular fascination, but popular criticism, even if what would stand as its worst scandal that decade (which ruined the career of comic Fatty Arbuckle, see details here) actually took place that fall at a hotel in San Francisco.

The Oscars didn’t exist yet, so there were no awards campaigns or year-end “prestige” releases. Nonetheless, exactly 100 years ago on December 28, the annum culminated in what surely some saw as its biggest and almost certainly most expensive, celluloid Event: D.W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, a lavish costume epic based on a stage melodrama that had been highly popular since the 1870s. It had already been filmed several times, and would continue to be (almost always under the play’s title of The Two Orphans) as late as 1976, everywhere from Mexico to Egypt. But Griffith’s remains the only version anyone remembers, with real-life sisters Lillian and Dorothy Gish famously cast as foundlings raised to genteel young adulthood by kindly provincials, only to become caught up in bloody chaos of the French Revolution.

Griffith was still the near-only celebrity director of the day (excluding multitasking stars like Charlie Chaplin, whose feature directorial bow The Kid premiered earlier in the year), credited with almost singlehandedly raising movies from crude novelty to higher ambitions and craft. Though loathed since—and in some quarters even then—for its racist, revisionist view of the Civil War, 1915’s The Birth of a Nation was an unprecedented phenomenon, its narrative breadth and technical sophistication making it a “must-see” cultural experience even among those who’d hitherto shunned the vulgar “flickers.” (It remained officially the highest-grossing film ever until Gone With the Wind came along a quarter-century later.)

Nonetheless, he was stung by denunciations from the NAACP and other critics, such that his next major endeavor was Intolerance—though not so much as penance for expressing/inciting bigotry, as because he felt he had been treated with prejudice. This was a nearly four-hour colossus set in four epochs, including the ancient Babylonian court. But in contrast to the prior year’s Birth, it was a costly financial disappointment, forcing him to scale back with safer projects going forward.

He retained professional stature with a series of still-expansive melodramas starring Lillian Gish, including Hearts of the WorldBroken BlossomsTrue Heart SusieWay Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. That last would, however, be their final collaboration: Reportedly when Griffith went over-budget, he informed his favorite star that some of those overruns would have to come out of her contracted salary. Already avidly sought by other producers, Gish responded by signing with another company, accepting a lower salary than some competing bids in exchange for script approval.

She was considered the screen’s greatest actress by many then, and for some years to come, though probably Orphans isn’t the greatest illustration of why—nor does it suggest Griffith’s steady fall from popular favor afterward was a great injustice. A tremendous influence on other filmmakers, he was already being surpassed by some of them at this point; such debtors as Sergei Eisenstein would soon make his innovations look old-hat. This 150-minute Storm is often imposing in the scale of its sets and crowds. Yet they are employed over-theatrically, movement blocked within a stationary frame. There is not enough camera movement, and on the other hand too much gesticulatory movement from the actors, not excluding the frequently hair-clutching, Heavens-imploring Gishes. Some scenes of French court decadence are notably outre, though this primly disapproving director can’t bring himself to actually revel in the excesses depicted, as DeMille or von Stroheim would.

Titular orphans Henriette (Lillian) and Louise (Dorothy) are given leave by their guardians to travel to Paris in order to find a cure for Louise’s sudden-onset blindness. But as they enter the city, they unfortunately attract the lustful attention of a corrupt noble (Morgan Wallce). He has Henriette kidnapped, while distraught, helpless Louise is “helped” by a hairy-lipped hag in gypsy garb (Lucille La Verne as “Mother Frochard”) who keeps her as a sort of begging tool. Henriette is saved from a presumed “fate worse than death” (this movie manages to suggest predation while staying well shy of the dread s-e-x) by a good noble (Joseph Schildkraut). Their attempts to find her sister are frustrated, however, not least by the eruption of the French Revolution.

Griffith, no political progressive, has intriguingly conflicted feelings about that uprising—condemning a societal order that permits fabulous wealth to a few while letting the masses starve, but also terribly suspicious of the unwashed, grabby mob. From the very start, intertitles warn against the dangers of revolutionary “Bolshevism,” though that concept and term wouldn’t exist until over a century after the events depicted. (Nor were Americans in 1921 anywhere near united yet against a newly Tsar-free Russia’s supposed Communist threat, as they would be during the Red Scare era one generation later.)

The message seems to be that freedom is theoretically good, but someone must still keep the rabble in order, because they surely will not do it themselves. The revolution here soon devolves into peasants can-can dancing in the streets and howling for well-born blood. The climax quite literally puts Lillian Gish’s neck on the line, unfairly sentenced to the guillotine as Danton himself (who with Robespierre had earlier been seen asking her “Aren’t you the little girl who lost her sister?”) riding to the rescue in a scene unnervingly like the KKK’s “triumphant” arrival in Birth of a Nation. We’re assured at the end that the Reign of Terror is over and “Real Democracy” can now be installed. But it is telling that the Gishes are left not just intact, but ensconced in an aristocratic idyll quite worthy of amateur gardener Marie Antoinette, still wearing the Hummel-figurine shepherdess duds they’d sported throughout.

Orphans of the Storm (which is readily available for viewing at the Internet Archive, on YouTube, MUBI, and in various home-format releases) was one of the top-grossing films of 1921. Its grosses came in just behind films from newly minted superstar Rudolph Valentino, the aforementioned Chaplin, swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, and fellow spectacle-monger Cecil B. DeMille. But given its great expense, it may not have been successful enough, and proved the last hit for Griffith.

Soon thereafter he left United Artists, the independent production company he’d founded with Mary Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks. His directorial career hobbled on for just a decade after Orphans; his style had begun to be considered old-fashioned well before the arrival of talkies turned nearly all silent-era giants into dinosaurs. Dying in semi-obscurity at age 73 in 1948, he was more or less ejected from the industry he’d done so much to build when still in hale middle-age.

The Gish sisters fared far better: Fabled Lillian and lesser-remembered Dorothy (most appreciated as a comedienne) each remained stars through the 1920s, then shrugged off Hollywood’s drastically changing fashions by returning to the stage with great success. Each recommenced their screen careers after WW2, as character actresses, Lillian remaining active until not long before her death at 99 in 1993. On her final movie, 1987’s senior-legend roundup The Whales of August, she supposedly drove reliably rude costar Bette Davis nuts by pretending to be deaf—albeit only when that lady was speaking to her.

The sometimes hamfisted conflation of political and moral messaging that would expedite D.W. Griffith’s decline has many bizarre equivalents in our current cultural landscape. For the most part, movies have only begun to grapple with the new, poker-faced absurdism mistaken for reality in many quarters, with recent examples ranging from the genre allegories like The Feast (interesting) or Red Pill (awful) to the big, bloated, ’n’ starry Netflix satire Don’t Look Up.

One oddity worth a look for the adventurous is Dasha Nekrasova’s The Scary of Sixty-First, which is exactly as peculiar and WTF as that not-quite-grammatical title. She’s an actress (a semi-regular on Succession) who co-wrote this very independent feature with costar Madeline Quinn. The latter plays Noelle, who with aspiring-actress friend Addie (Betsey Brown) moves into a Manhattan apartment that apparently hasn’t been inhabited for a while. Rather strangely, its former residents seem to have left everything behind, from furniture to (as our disgusted protagonists soon discover) rotting refrigerator food and ominous mattress stains. Hey, it’s a cheap flat in NYC—one can adjust.

But things only get creepier when a third woman who never quite gets around to giving her name (Nekrasova) turns up, claiming to be a realtor with some unfinished business as she pushes her way in. She drops that pretense fast enough, revealing that the place was formerly owned by none other than Jeffrey Epstein, who probably used it as one of his “orgy flophouses,” suggesting she herself might be a past victim. Or, at least, she’s a “researcher” looking into how that late rich pedophile’s deeds tie into an endless conspiracy-theory spiral that also encompasses the royals, the Clintons, CIA mind control, and whatever else comes to mind.

Strangely, Noelle finds herself in total agreement with this paranoid line of thought, becoming inseparable from Whatsername. Their platonic (to a point) new BFF-ship pointedly excludes Addie, who for her part is preoccupied with d-bag boyfriend Greg (Mark H. Rapaport). That is, before she becomes possessed by some malevolent “cursed apartment” spirit, to everyone’s eventual peril.

The Scary of Sixty-First flirts with horror and anarchic black comedy, but is too eccentric for any easy classification. More a series of scene ideas than a coherent concept, it can feel pointless and indulgent. Yet it is also consistently, unpredictably off-kilter enough to hold attention. Few sequences are quite so bell-ringing as a hilarious visit to a “magickal apothecary.” But the general air of daft frenzy has its own inner logic, such that we don’t really question why it all ends in violent mayhem—where else would it go? A straightforward suspense score by composer Eli Keszler underlines the seriousness with which these characters find themselves going down a series of outlandish, very-possibly-imaginary rabbit holes.

What would D.W. Griffith have made of this? He would have been appalled and baffled, of course. Yet in its uneven but singular way, Scary taps our 21st-century, QAnon-addled zeitgeist by soliciting exactly those responses. It is bonkers in a way that currently makes as much “sense” as anything. The film is currently playing limited theaters (Bay Area dates as yet TBA), and available on Digital and On Demand platforms.

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