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

No comments:

Post a Comment