Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Elegant Silent Type

In his 1975 book, "The Silent Clowns", film critic Walter Kerr make the strong argument that when considering the top four silent comedians (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon) a fifth should and must be added.  That man is Raymond Griffith.

While his contemporaries costumed and positioned their characters as vagrant to middle class, Griffith adopted the upper crust persona of white tie, tails and silk top hat.

“The things that happen to a man in a soft hat may be humorous or tragic, as the case may be; the same things happening to a silk-hatted individual are excruciatingly funny . . . Why? I don't know exactly. Maybe because it is incongruous. Maybe it is because we have a prejudice against snobbishness or the qualities the silk hat suggests.” - From Motion Picture Magazine, 1925.

The talkie revolution sent the denizens of Hollywood scurrying like nothing before or since.  Who could record well and who couldn't.  Who would successfully make the transition and who wouldn't.  I was utter pandemonium.  But not for Raymond Griffith.
See, despite his great stardom with the Lasky Company in the silent era, he had no illusions of continuing his career in the talkers.

Griffith was born with grease paint in his veins on January 23, 1895 in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, James Henry Griffith, was an actor from San Francisco, California. Mary Guichard, his mother, was a stage actress who was born in France. Griffith's grandfather, Gerald Griffith had also been an actor, as was his great grandfather Thomas Griffith.  He was fifteen months old when he made his stage debut, playing a baby in his parents' stage company. When he was seven years old, he starred as Little Lord Fauntleroy. He even played “the little girl” in a production of Ten Nights In a Barroom at the age of eight.

Everything was Jake for the child performer until he contracted respiratory diphtheria.  A common childhood disease of the era, the diphtheria bacterium could enter the body through the nose or mouth. A membrane would form over the throat and tonsils. If untreated, this disease can be fatal or cause paralysis. In Griffith's case, diphtheria permanently damaged his vocal chords, and for the rest of his life he was unable to speak in a volume above a hoarse whisper.

It's ironic then that his swan song in front of the camera was a talkie, and would be his most remembered role!

A harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness that Universal's "All Quiet On The Western Front" becomes at once a money picture.  Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women. Here exhibited is a war as it is, butchery.- Daily Variety, May 6, 1930

Lew Ayers as Paul Baumer and Raymond Griffith as Gerard Duval.

  In a poignant scene, Grifftiths' Duval is killed by Lew Ayres' character Paul Baumer. As Duval lays dying, Baumer realizes the horror of the war. Griffith's wordless cameo performance was a highlight of the movie.  The film won the Academy Award for best picture of 1930.  The Variety review went on to say, "Raymond Griffith is the Frenchman stabbed and who died in the trench. He didn't have to talk for Griffith died as no one else has on the screen."

...and scene.

As they say in business, diversification is the key.  Around the same time as 'Western Front'  Griffith hired his friend Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) construct a Produce Market for him.  The modernism style of the now demolished structure was seen a precursor to both the Googie architectural style and the modern strip mall.

Now if you're thinking he turned away from the industry and just sold fruits and vegetables for the rest of his life, let me ally your concerns.  The vegetables were just a sideline.

Ray quickly became a go to 'script doctor' around town and was soon tucked firmly under the wing of Darryl Zanuck.  By the mid 30s he was a full fledged Producer under Zanuck at Fox and gave us hours of fun, music and merriment in films starring, The Ritz Brothers, Sonja Henie, and Miss Shirley Temple.

Griffith grabbed his top hat and cane and headed for Fabulon in 1957.  While dining with friends at "The Masquers Club"  he choked to death on his dinner.

1 comment:

normadesmond said...

wow, choked on dinner...and he wasn't dining alone!

his pleas probably went unheard, with that hoarse whisper and all.

another grand post!!