When America went to war in 1917, Hollywood—motivated by a mix of patriotism and profit motive—went to war with it. Some made propaganda pictures (Mary Pickford's The Little American and Winsor McCay's The Sinking of the Lusitania), some made serious drama (Thomas Ince's Civilization), Chaplin even made a classic comedy (Shoulder Arms). And everybody made one-reel shorts promoting the purchase of war bonds.
So it's no surprise that D.W. Griffith—still regarded in 1918 as the world's greatest director—should also enter the fray. And he would seem to have been a natural for the job. He was already a proven master at staging battle scenes. His fame gave him and his cameras access to the front lines. And you would think that a man so devoted to Victorian morality would have something to say as war daily blasted the Old Order into dust.
Too bad, then, that the resulting movie, Hearts of the World, is such a lousy picture.
Griffith billed the movie in an early intertitle as "[a]n old fashioned play with a new fashioned theme." He wasn't lying as it turned out. Hearts of the World is not my first D.W. Griffith movie—including the Biograph shorts, this was in fact my 70th—and I can tell you that the story of a young couple torn apart by war is cobbled together from the plots of several early Griffith films, particularly The Unseen Enemy, In The Border States, Swords and Hearts and, of course, The Birth of a Nation.
The result is stale, overly sentimentalized and unconvincing.
The couple in question is played by Robert Harron and Lillian Gish as two Americans living with their respective families in a small French village on the Franco-German border. War breaks out days before the couple's impending nuptials, which proves inconvenient for everyone involved—the Boy volunteers for the French army, is soon wounded in battle and is presumed dead; the Girl is trapped behind enemy lines and put to work in the fields; and the conflict that consumed all of Europe is reduced to the question of whether the Boy can rescue the Girl before the evil German officer "von Strohm" has his way with her.
This wasn't the first (or last) time Griffith reduced a complex historical event to a question of who would get into Lillian Gish's underpants first, and as propaganda, the rallying cry of "Quick, boys, join the Army and save Lillian's virginity!" pales next to such classics as "The Yanks Are Coming" and "Uncle Sam Wants You!"
Hearts of the World does not represent Gish at her best. I've praised her at length before (in my review of The Wind, for example), but here she uncharacter- istically overacts. Rather than allowing her pain and suffering to well up gently from some hidden inner source, as she did in the wonderfully understated manner of Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and The Wind, Gish offers up a grotesque pantomime of grief, panic and temporary insanity.
Her co-star, Robert Harron, is, if anything, even worse. In previous pictures such as Judith of Bethulia, Hoodoo Ann and Intolerance, Harron was highly effective playing a young man in love, but in those movies, he was paired with Mae Marsh, not Gish, and while Marsh could never match Gish's ability to project pain and anguish—no one could—she had a mischievous light in her eye that made her good girls exciting. Marsh made Harron seem much more interesting than he really was—he must have something on the ball, the viewer figures, to send Marsh into such a tizzy—and when he falls for her and fights for her, it's to his credit. But by 1918, Marsh had moved on to greener pastures, and against Gish's reticence and rectitude, Harron could strike no spark.
Hearts of the World might have overcome the limitations of its bland central romance, though, if the battle scenes had lived up to their claim of authenticity. As a short prologue trumpets, the British government had allowed Griffith and his cameras unprecedented access to the front lines, but aside from some brief documentary footage of tanks, dirigibles and trench mortars, the battle scenes are flat and with no sense of the realities of trench warfare. Armies run back and forth as easily as school boys playing Capture the Flag, and with a cavalry charge, a bayonet thrust and the toss of a grenade, the bloody stalemate that in reality lasted for years and cost millions of lives is decided—and just in the nick of time. Hooray!
If you want to see how to do it right, I'd suggest either The Big Parade (1925) or All Quiet On The Western Front (1930).
And yet for all its flaws, there's a story worth telling hidden in Hearts of the World in the form of Dorothy Gish—Lillian's little sister—who here provides the film's comic relief. "The Little Disturber," as she is called, is a traveling street musician who takes a fancy to Robert Harron on the eve of his betrothal. Like the actress who played her, the Disturber is a gawky free spirit, funny and flirty and full of life. She knows what lips and hand grenades are for, and she does plenty of kissing and killing in her twenty minutes or so of screen time.
In fact, Dorothy reminded me a bit of another war film heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, and it occurred to me that the problem with D.W. Griffith as his career wore on is that he was the kind of guy who would read Gone With The Wind and think the story was about Melanie.
What Lillian did well, she did better than anybody, but she couldn't play a conventional romantic lead and anyway, nobody could play Griffith's idea of a Victorian dream woman, part saint, part virgin goddess. It's a consistent failing of Griffith's that he failed to see that the "bad" girl was more interesting than the "good" one. Like a grumpy grandpa hectoring the kids to "get off the damn lawn," Griffith's insistence that girls who wear perfume and lipstick and fashionable hats are harlots luring our pure boys away from the joys of wholesome domestic drudgery was already comically out of date by 1918. By the height of the Jazz Age, it would be downright archaic.
Fortunately, audiences could see what Griffith couldn't. Her supporting performance made Dorothy a star in her own right and in 1919, she was offered a $1 million contract to do five films. (She turned it down, saying, "At my age all that money would ruin my character.")
Like Lillian, Dorothy's off-screen personality matched her on-screen persona: she was funny and roguish and fun, and mostly played in comedies during the silent era. Despite their different temperaments, though, the two sisters remained close and never considered themselves rivals.
When talkies came in, Dorothy departed Hollywood for the stage where she performed for the rest of her life. She made only four sound movies and a smattering of television, making her final appearance in Otto Preminger's 1963 film, The Cardinal. After a long illness, Dorothy died in Italy at the age of seventy.
Artistically, Hearts of the World was Griffith's first serious stumble, and though he would right himself with such classics as Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm, the writing was on the wall. Increasingly, the public found Griffith's Victorian morality tales stuffy and old-fashioned and his audiences melted away. Griffith made his last film in 1931.