Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS -- The Closet Scene





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Uploaded on May 11, 2010

The famous "closet scene" from BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919) became a benchmark for sheer terror in cinema, and its preeminence in that regard would not be seriously challenged for over forty years, until Hitchcock gave us PSYCHO.

In the movie, Gish's father has dragged her character home and is preparing to horsewhip her to death. Terrified, she dives into the closet and locks the door against him, listening in raw terror to his angry ravings and then his battering down of the door with a hatchet, THE SHINING-style. Alone in the dark, the doomed young girl has plenty of time to contemplate what is about to happen to her.

On the day it was to be shot, Griffith ran Gish ragged until 2 a.m., trying to get her into an exhausted state conducive to losing herself in the moment. What he didn't know was that she had been rehearsing the scene in private "almost without sleep" for three days and nights, striving to come up with the perfect pantomime for terror, some action or gesture that would pierce the audience like a knife in the heart:

"I worked that out myself. I never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he'd have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child.
Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I planned -- spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale."

It remains, for all of the advances we've had in technology, an electrifying scene. "I have seen every actress of America and Europe during the last half-century," the famous actor Rudolph Schildkraut said at the time. "Lillian Gish's scene in the closet, where she is hiding in terror from her brutal father, is the finest work I have ever witnessed."

Normally during a shoot, Griffith's highest praise after a scene was to murmur with soft content, "That is very fine." But on this night, after Lillian Gish had screamed for long minutes like a banshee and twirled around in the enclosed closet space like a feral animal, Griffith's response was "My God -- why didn't you warn me you were going to do that?" One suspects that he said this with a huge smile, for cameraman Billy Bitzer reports that, while Gish was immersed in her throes of terror, he snuck a glance over at Griffith and saw that he was "leaned forward in his directors chair, relishing every moment of it."

FOR CONSERVATIVE MOVIE LOVERS is the name of an ongoing series of written essays on cinema appearing at BIG HOLLYWOOD, a leading conservative website focused on reforming America's poisoned popular culture:


Join conservative cinéaste Leo Grin as he journeys through the history of the greatest art form of our time, highlighting the intellectual, mythological, and cultural importance of the discipline from a right-wing perspective. Read penetrating essays on each film, explore a host of accompanying links to further reading, find information on buying and renting the discussed movies, and add your comments to the ongoing film-club discussion.


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