Monday, December 31, 2018

Why isn't this film more highly regarded? Thoughts on Griffith's 'Hearts of the World'

Sheet music to go with D.W. Griffith's WWI drama 'Hearts of the World' (1918).


That's the reaction of an audience of about 70 people to 'Hearts of the World' (1918), a seldom-screened D.W. Griffith drama that I accompanied yesterday at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

The picture really blew our collective socks off. Really! Like Griffith's other pictures fro the same time, it held the screen and then some. And having both Gish sisters, Lillian AND Dorothy, in major roles, didn't hurt.

Again: Wow!

And an added element of edge-of-your-seat suspense came when I previewed the film just prior to the screening, and the disc we were using (the only one I had) began freezing and pixellating in the climactic final 15 minutes. Youch!

I found I could get it to run in a Blu-ray machine rather than the old DVD player I use in my office, but still... At the theater, we really didn't know if the movie would play all the way through, but it did, adding an extra note of triumph.

So one more time: Wow!

I was wondering if 'Hearts of the World' would work 100 years after its release, and the answer was a resounding YES. It's cut from the same cloth as Griffith's other big melodramas: a story that hooks an audience early, intense emotional confrontations, a thrilling race-to-the-finish climax, and scenes of Lillian Gish losing her mind.

Robert Harron prepares to shoot his sweetheart, Lillian Gish, rather than allow her to fall into the hands of the Huns, in 'Hearts of the World.'

As with most of the early Griffith features, it took time to really get going. But once underway, the two-hour picture (short for Griffith at this time) played like a house afire. Our audience applauded, cheered, and reacted strongly throughout.

So the question is: why isn't this film more highly regarded? Why isn't it better known? Griffith made it right after 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and just before 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) and 'Way Down East' (1920), all acknowledged as among his greatest achievements.

I'd have to guess that it's partly due to the reputation of 'Hearts of the World' as a propaganda film. And true, it WAS made at the request of the British government, which allowed Griffith access to the front lines in France. And it's true, the Germans are portrayed as animals, but that's no different from the heavies in other Griffith melodramas.

Also, from what I've read, good and complete prints of the film have been hard to come by. (The version we used, which seemed to be complete, was a transfer of a 16mm print to DVD by Grapevine Video of Phoenix, Ariz.)

But now, a full century after its release, maybe it's time to reassess 'Hearts of the World.' Maybe it's time to move beyond the textbooks (which largely ignore 'Hearts' anyway) and give it credit for being a prime example of Griffith during his peak as an influential director.

I'd never encountered it before. And at yesterday's screening, I asked for a show of hands from those who'd already seen it. Not one!

So to our fresh eyes, the film was able to make a very strong impression. Griffith's knowledge of how to structure a story and manipulate the collective emotions of an audience was very much in evidence.

Also, it was another example of how difficult it is to know how a silent film will play unless you screen it the way it was intended to be shown: in a theater, on a big screen, with live music, and with an audience.

The British connection: D.W. Griffith greeted by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

So, rediscovery? Well, not solely on the basis of one very successful screening in a small theater in rural New Hampshire, even though quite a few people came up to afterwards to say how much they enjoyed the experience.

But I have to say, I would say 'Hearts of the World' holds its own against any of the other big Griffith blockbusters of the era. It has all the ingredients in place to pull along an audience with an inevitability not unlike the ice floe in 'Way Down East' that carries Lillian Gish to the waterfall.

If you get a chance to see it in a theater, do so! Just make sure the disc gets checked before the show.

This is my final post of 2018, so let me extend thanks to all whom I've encountered this year in the ongoing adventure of creating live music for screenings of silent films.

Looking forward to a 2019 filled with further discoveries as I continue collaborating with people both dead and alive. (Cue the joke about sometimes not being to tell the difference. Har!)

Even as we move further in time from the era when cinema did not include a recorded soundtrack or dialogue, interest in the films from that time continues to persist, and even seems to be growing.

So thank you to all who play a role in supporting and enjoying the art of silent film with live music.

See you next year!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Ending 2018 with 'Hearts of the World,'
D.W. Griffith's rarely screened WWI drama

Propoganda or good old-fashioned melodrama? Or both? You decide!

Back online after several weeks of radio silence. The holidays, you know? And lots of other non-musical things going on.

I'll be back at the keyboard in late January with a performing schedule that includes silent film screenings in Topeka, London, and possibly Berlin, Germany.

But I do have one end-of-the-year gig coming up this weekend: it's D.W. Griffith's 'Hearts of the World' (1918), a rarely screened drama that I'm accompanying on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre in beautiful downtown Wilton, N.H.

I'm curious about this film, which I've never worked with before. It's right from the middle of Griffith's most period of work: before it came 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Intolerance' (1916); after it came 'Broken Blossoms' (1919) and 'Way Down East' (1920).

So what about 'Hearts of the World?' Why is it so little known? Why is it so little shown? (I sound like Dr. Seuss!)

I gather a major reason is that it's viewed as a "propaganda" film. And it's true—Griffith made the movie at the invitation of the British government, and it portrays Germans (the enemy!) in the worst possible light.

But I have this theory about Griffith that makes me curious about 'Hearts of the World.'

Griffith is regarded as a cinematic pioneer, and rightly so. Bringing length and depth to the American motion picture, his best films (including those above) caused tremendous excitement. More than anyone, he opened people's eyes to the possibilities of this new art form.

D.W. Griffith on set with child, hat, and megaphone.

But too often, the emphasis is on Griffith's technical achievements: his editing, his camera placement, and so on.

These are important, but I don't think they're the major reason for Griffith's impact.

What really mattered with Griffith was his ability to construct a story to hook an audience early, and then never let go.

That was Griffith's genius. You HAD to see what happened next. That's what sold tickets. More than anything else, that's what made his films so influential.

And I've seen it happen again and again. A creaky old melodrama like 'Way Down East' seems almost laughable when viewed alone.

But put it in front of an audience (which is how it was intended to be shown) and add music, and even today it snaps back to life.

People are on the edge of their seats as the story carries them along with the same inevitability of the ice floe carrying Lillian Gish to the waterfall.

Because of his prior experience directing melodrama in small town theatres, Griffith knew in his bones how to grab and audience and keep its attention.

And he had to, because if he didn't, people would throw things, or worse. Story-telling mattered.

That talent to hook an audience is a major part of what Griffith brought to the motion picture, and so I'm curious how it applies to 'Hearts of the World.'

Despite its reputation as a propaganda piece, will the story grab us and carry us along? Will the classic Griffith touch be in evidence?

There's only one way to find out, and that's to do what's rarely done: run the picture with live music in theater with an audience.

And that's where you come in. Join us for a screening of 'Hearts of the World' on Sunday, Dec. 30 at the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H.

More details in the press release below.

And Happy New Year!

* * *

A scene from D.W. Griffith's 'Hearts of the World' (1918).

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Rarely screened D.W. Griffith drama to run Sunday, Dec. 30 at Town Hall Theatre

'Hearts of the World' (1918), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish and with scenes filmed on live battlefields, to be presented with live music

WILTON, N.H.—A century-old war drama with scenes shot on location in the actual trenches of World War I is coming to the Town Hall Theatre.

'Hearts of the World' (1918), directed by D.W. Griffith for the British government, will be shown on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m.

The program will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray expenses.

'Hearts of the World' stars Lillian and Dorothy Gish, sisters who were among the most popular screen actresses of the era.

The film is also noteworthy due to its ties to Britain's World War I effort.

In an effort to change the American public's neutral stance regarding the war, in 1916 the British government contacted Griffith due to his stature and reputation for dramatic filmmaking.

Griffith and several members of his company traveled from Hollywood to Europe, where the war had been raging for three years, to film 'Hearts of the World' on location in England and France.

Set in France, 'Hearts of the World' tells the story of a young American man, Douglas Gordon Hamilton (Robert Harron), who lives in a rural French community and is love with local woman Marie Stephenson (Lillian Gish).

But their romance is interrupted when World War I dawns, and Douglas decides to join up with the French Army.

The Germans then mercilessly bomb and infiltrate Marie's village, and Douglas is injured in battle. As lecherous German soldiers close in on Marie, a recovering Douglas plans a daring rescue.

The early scenes are stolen by Dorothy Gish as "The Little Disturber," a mademoiselle of questionable morals who wreaks comic havoc with the allied troops.

Dorothy Gish steals a scene in 'Hearts of the World' (1918).

The film, Griffith's third feature-length film after 'Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Intolerance' (1916), deliberately portrays Germans as cruel and viscious war-mongers.

According to his biographer, Griffith's idea for the story came from reading a December 1915 account of French families driven from their homes by the war.

He began formulating an idea for a movie soon after, working on it in the evenings after the daytime filming of 'Intolerance.'

Once in England, Griffith made the rounds, meeting with members of the British War Office and conferring with famous writers such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, who supposedly agreed that his best contribution to the war might be "a drama of humanity photographed in the battle area."

To make 'Hearts of the World,' The British Government gave D.W. Griffith unprecedented access to locations that were otherwise restricted from journalists.

Exterior shots were largely filmed throughout England from May to October 1917. Griffith made two trips to France where he filmed footage of the trenches.

In one instance, Griffith and his film crew were forced to take cover when their location came under German artillery fire; he escaped unscathed.

The film company then returned to Los Angeles, where British and Canadian troops recreated battle scenes and other interior scenes on a stage. The scenes shot in Europe and Los Angeles were edited together with footage from stock newsreels.

On April 6, 1917, events overtook 'Hearts of the World' when the U.S. entered the war while the picture was still in production.

The completed film was released in March 1918, where it found box office success until the war ended with the Armistice of Nov. 11, 2018.

After that, the public appetite for war films fell off drastically, ending the run of 'Hearts of the World.'

In reviving 'Hearts of the World,' the Town Hall Theatre aims to show silent movies as they were meant to be seen—in high quality prints, on a large screen, with live music, and with an audience.

"All those elements are important parts of the silent film experience," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening.

"Recreate those conditions, and the classics of early cinema leap back to life. They all featured great stories with compelling characters and universal appeal, so it's no surprise that they hold up and we still respond to them."

Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

Upcoming programs in the Town Hall's silent film series include:

• Sunday, Jan. 27, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Last of the Mohicans' (1922). The original big-screen adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's tale about colonial settlers among the Native Americans during the French and Indian War.

• Sunday, Feb. 10, 4:30 p.m.: 'The Eagle' (1925). Rudolph Valentino's comeback film is a rousing romp set in Imperial Russia. See the silent screen idol as a soldier who catches the eye of the Czarina, only to desert his platoon when trouble brews back home.

‘Hearts of the World' will be shown on Sunday, Dec. 30 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 person to defray expenses.

For more information, visit

Sunday, December 2, 2018

In which I am mistaken for a fellow traveler, and a religious non-debate ensues

Mary Pickford approaches the baptismal font in 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922).

A full century after they were made, silent films attract an audience for reasons that are many and varied.

A cousin of mine attends because he's into antiques. He likes seeing chairs and tables and whatever else was in people's homes back then.

But last night, I was reminded that not all reasons are created equal.

We had just finished screening 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922), a great Mary Pickford melodrama, as the main attraction of a "Christmas Past" program.

Our audience at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H., seemed to enjoy it. Afterwards, I asked for questions and comments.

Mary Pickford in 'Tess of the Storm Country' (1922).

I guy I'd never seen before raised his hand.

"That film showed the America that USED to be!" he said loudly.

I didn't understand quite what he was getting at...maybe how times were simpler and people knew their roles?

"Yes, yes," I said. "It was certainly another era."

I mentioned something about how the rich family behaved like the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age (or today), and we moved on. But afterwards the guy came down to talk one-on-one.

And he said it again, as if to congratulate me: "That film showed the America that used to be," he said, and then continued. "You know, all the original 13 colonies were founded because of religion."

Ah! That's what he was getting at. He likes his America heavy on Christianity, and here was a film that showed the good old days when people feared and respected God as imagined in scripture.

Like many films of the era, 'Tess of the Storm Country' is saturated with Christian imagery and suffused with a kind of of innocent, sentimental piety. This was seen as good box office: just look at Cecil B. DeMille's 'King of Kings' (1927) to see this principle used in the most cynical fashion, with the cast required to attend Catholic Mass every day on set.

In 'Tess,' the whole story is told in a Christian framework of "Peace on Earth, good will to men." This is nice and fits the story its characters, and is one of the reasons it works as a Christmas movie, I think.

A two-page spread promoting 'Tess.'

Well, my new friend found that the world as depicted in 'Tess' matched the world he'd like to see in 2018, apparently. It's a world where rich and poor alike are subject to the judgment of Almighty God, and the fate of all was in large part determined by how dedicated they were to observing Christian scripture, i.e. the Bible.

And he continued for a bit, lecturing me about how this country was founded on religious belief and faith in God and Jesus Christ, and so on.

I like to think I'm tolerant of all points of view, and I'm grateful for any fan's support. But this guy irritated me, as he was taking this melodrama and reading into it so much that I felt just wasn't there.

Also, he was using it to justify a misunderstanding of American history and civics that borders on religious bigotry, I felt.

So when he paused, I found myself saying this:

"But we have this document called the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship, so people of all faiths are welcome and encouraged to play full roles in society. Isn't that great?"

We chatted for a bit more, and I can't recall his responses, mostly because I was tired, but also because I was no longer really interested in what he had to say.

Also, he realized that he had mistaken me for a fellow traveler. When he found out that wasn't the case, he beat a hasty retreat, presumably because I might burst into flames at any moment.

Like I said, people come to silent films for many reasons. But it's disappointing to me when the reasons involve an nostalgia for an imagined past that never was, or even worse, use them to support a worldview that endorses superiority of one religion over another.

Full disclosure: I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, but have since become a religious free-thinker. I'm officially a member of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Nashua, N.H., but have no direct involvement in the church as even that is too structured for me.

But I'm not an atheist. I find I'd like to someday take my life experiences and use them to create a spiritual system that reflects what I've encountered. I don't know for sure, but it'll probably revolve around recognizing human awareness as a sacred thing.

A good example of human awareness is our ability to recognize paradox. What other being has the ability to recognize and contemplate a paradox? Consider: a gasoline tanker truck on the side of the road, not moving. Why? It's out of gas. Paradox!

Speaking of out of gas, so am I. And it's a good time to be that way, as the silent film calendar is finally slowing down after a very busy Halloween / Armistice Day period.

Coming up: a handful of screenings through mid-January, including a rare Russian film at an Academic Convention this Friday in Boston; Harold Lloyd's 'Grandma's Boy' (1922) next Sunday (Dec. 9) in Natick, Mass.; and D.W. Griffith's rarely screening 'Hearts of the World' (1918) on Dec. 30 in Wilton, N.H.

Details on the "Upcoming Screenings" page. See you at the movies!