If Academy Awards had existed long ago Mary Pickford would have received the first for a leading lady in a feature, just as she won the first Best Actress Oscar for a talkie back in 1928-29. As it would be during Hollywood’s chaotic switchover to sound, the industry’s conversion to longer, multi-reel movies in 1913-14, curtailed the careers of many established screen stars while a host of new favorites emerged from the ranks, reshuffling the movie firmament. The staying power of America’s Sweetheart throughout all the upheaval seemed reassuring somehow. Little Mary was famous as ‘the Girl With the Golden Curls’ even before it became company policy to credit actors, and it was the box office draw of such stars that forced the resistant studios to begin placing the names of their players up in lights. Mary Pickford’s preeminence so personified the fledgling star system that an Oscar for her seems a foregone conclusion, but fate nearly intervened. After five years, the actress had abandoned films to return to Broadway in A Good Little Devil, prompting Adolph Zukor to lure her back in order to record her stage success for his Famous Players Film Co. It would be her fifth film for him however which would cement Pickford’s fame as the most popular actress in movies. In fact Tess of the Storm Country proved such a pivotal film in her career that it would be the only one of her early hits she ever remade. Edwin S. Porter, her director in this original version, hadn’t kept pace with the progress made by other film pioneers in the decade since The Great Train Robbery and his lack of creative imagination (Tess includes no close-ups) brings nothing to the actress’ performance. Pickford possesses raw star presence of her own however, and when she defiantly marches into the middle of Sunday service to baptize her dying baby, she anticipates similar tear-stained scenes in the movies of D.W. Griffith, Porter’s immediate successor.
Pickford had been discovered by Griffith herself, but the best performance of 1913-14 was actually given by another of his actresses. And rather than coming off the worse for her direction, Blanche Sweet’s playing in Judith of Bethulia was eloquently enhanced by it. Based on the non-canonical text, Griffith’s ambitious first feature was adapted from Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s play which had starred Nance O’Neil on the stage. The classical subject had inspired verse poems and paintings and the director intended to set his feature debut in that same prestigious, artistic tradition.
The film concerns the siege of the fortified city of Bethulia which guards passage to the holy land. Unable to force her gateway during battle, the Assyrian army led by Holofernes (Henry B. Walthall buried beneath bushy whiskers) entrenches itself nearby, waiting to starve out the inhabitants. Witnessing her people’s suffering, the devout widow Judith (Blanche Sweet) receives a message from God that she should bedeck herself in finery and go to the Assyrian encampment. Only by sacrificing herself to Holofernes can Bethulia be saved. Expecting to encounter a warmongering barbarian, she is instead flattered by his courtesy and romantic overtures. Judith soon finds herself torn between the tempting future Holofernes holds out and her original intention to behead him.
Like most Griffith movies, Judith of Bethulia hinges on the heroine’s imperiled virtue, but the risk here arises from Judith’s own wavering desire to willingly allow the Assyrian to ‘cross her threshold.’ Sweet creates dramatic tension that her indecisive, soft-hearted heroine (“Judith’s heart bled at the distress of her people…”) will give in to her weakness, succumb to her ‘natural’ feminine longings, allowing Holofernes’ blandishments to batter down her resistance and sway her from her path. Enacting the character’s complex psychological shifts affords Sweet some of her most stirring moments as Judith wrestles with her heart, struggling “to cast away her sinful passion.”
Her mind wandering to inappropriate thoughts of Holofernes even in the midst of daily prayer, she retreats in revulsion at her throbbing heart which has a mind of its own and operates independently of her will. Prostrating herself, she implores the Lord God of Israel to give her strength in her hour of need. The actress makes it clear that Holofernes represents an oasis in the desert of Judith’s existence which has been barren ever since her husband’s death. Closing her eyes in rapture while listening to his description of what their life together could be, Sweet’s expressive face makes it sound like such bliss mere dialogue could never approximate what we imagine she’s hearing.
Having set out to sacrifice only her body to save Bethulia, Judith ends up forfeiting her heart as well. Repeatedly faltering in her resolution, the character comes perilously close to betraying her city for love of Holofernes, handing him the keys to her kingdom rather than his head to Bethulia on a silver platter. Even after she’s reduced him to a drunken stupor to anesthetize the pain during decapitation, Sweet’s performance walks the razor’s edge, keeping viewers in agonies of suspense as to whether she’ll actually go through with the daring deed despite her reservations. Trembling with uncertainty at her exploit, each time Sweet raises the saber a twinge of misgiving or a movement from insensate Holofernes drives home the enormity of her betrayal, arresting her in the act of bringing down the blade. When she drops the heavy weapon in defeat, acknowledging she can’t go through with it, it’s only a mental flash of her people perishing that brings her back round, steeling her resolve. This is a magnificently played scene. Because her character has been conceived as an experienced widow instead of Griffith’s typical ingénue, the danger that Judith may indeed cave is treated as a very real possibility. As Marjorie Rosen pointed out in Popcorn Venus “…few of Griffith’s films are at all concerned with heroines not of the nubile and virginal variety. Judith of Bethulia (1913) is one of the rare exceptions… Unique among Griffith’s heroines in her strength of purpose and in her overt sexuality, Judith, as portrayed by Blanche Sweet, is neither frail nor young. Nor is she, after inadvertently falling in love with the general, deterred from her original mission. More likely than not, Griffith, as well as the audience, was oblivious to his radically profeminist approach; and none of his female characters after Judith was allowed her independence or power.”
Rather than the hero racing to the rescue, it’s the heroine herself, symbolic figurehead of the nation (Judith and Bethulia being inextricably linked by both title and subtext), who defends the honor of her own city. Because Holofernes decides to bide his time, a strangely passive way to conduct warfare, Judith is forced to become the aggressor in their standoff, which Griffith reduces to a battle of the sexes on par with his lost 1914 title. Instead of sitting back and waiting for her gate to be forced and city infiltrated by the invading army, Judith takes the initiative with a preemptive strike. Her decisive action in severing Holofernes’ head from his body before he can enter her reverses the dynamics of this sexualized assault on Bethulia, saving the city from her own symbolic ‘rape.’
Though Theda Bara wouldn’t popularize screen vamping for another year yet, Sweet foretells the trend by playing what may be Griffith’s lone vamp lead. She shows us how Judith “spoke cunningly to Holofernes, promising to deliver all Judea into his hands,” twisting him around her finger with her feminine wiles while plying him with drink to dull his senses. Having “decked herself bravely to allure the eyes of all men that should see her,” she moves with a sinewy sensuousness evident even beneath her shapeless shift gowns and tunics. Though her blonde locks are hidden under a hideous horsehair wig, Sweet’s headdress and full train mirrors the vainglorious fanning peacock that precedes her appearance in Holofernes’ camp.
But withal she remains a good girl and if not the complete sexual innocent of most Griffith movies, the director still stresses the sacrifice Judith must make by emphasizing her piousness, introducing her at prayer. So when she receives her command from God (“Hear me and I will do a thing which shall go through all generations.”), what he asks seems to be leading her down the same wayward path of sexual debasement as the heroine of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves.Still, it paves the way for Sweet’s finest moment when, in one of Griffith’s luminous, intimate close-ups, Judith garbs herself in sackcloth and scourges her exposed flesh with ashes while raising weeping, imploring eyes up to heaven. Her self-flagellation transfigures the excruciating humiliation of the sacrifice God asks of her with a beatific spiritual grace, divine degradation. Griffith was the cinema’s first great ‘woman’s director’ and in the three-part documentary Father of Film, Sweet eloquently speaks of the Svengali-like sway he held over his impressionable young actresses. Yet film histories tend to gloss over the fact that Blanche Sweet was Griffith’s first important actress of the feature film era as well as his preferred leading lady during this crucial transitional period. She had already proven her dramatic potential in the scores of shorts directed by him for Biograph, and remained the director’s most trusted muse as he ventured into feature filmmaking. Sweet would be cast opposite Henry B. Walthall in nearly all Griffith’s preliminary releases during 1913-14. She was originally slated for the lead in The Birth of a Nation as well, and in her autobiography The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, Lillian Gish, who would eventually take the part, admits that by rights it should have been Sweet’s. Starring in The Birth of a Nation would have proven the pinnacle of the actress’ careerunder Griffith’s auspices, but it wasn’t to be.
Her widely praised performance in Judith of Bethulia prompted a contract offer from the fledgling Lasky startup, inducing her to star in Cecil B. Demille’s similar, Civil War-set Warrens of Virginia instead. Released a spare week after The Birth of a Nation, Sweet’s performance in this film offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.Having parted Griffith’s company immediately before he began his legendary epic, the actress has been largely eclipsed in memory by the likes of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh and even Carol Dempster. Too, this may be because her subsequent career, like that of many contemporaries from Griffith’s stock who left to strike out on their own, tended to languish. With the exception of her acclaimed version of Anna Christie, which Eugene O’Neil is said to have seen and admired, Sweet’s post-Griffith performances failed to leave as deep an impression as her early work under his hand.
Contention with the front office over the length and expenditure on Judith of Bethulia, which Griffith had hoped would prove his superiority to the Italian imports then garnering glowing praise, instead signaled the end of his association with Biograph. Not quite knowing what to do with the finished film, the studio shelved it for a year before releasing it to widespread critical acclaim following the director’s departure. This reception earned its star Moving Picture World’s applause as “one of the greatest emotional actresses in the silent drama” and the chapter devoted to her in Anthony Slide’s The Griffith Actresses relates the reaction of a columnist for Picture Play magazine present at a Hollywood party as late as 1927 when a print of the film was screened.
He “noted, ‘Blanche Sweet was a revelation in her potent dramatic power and personal beauty.’ So little had screen acting progressed – if it ever has progressed – since Blanche’s performance in 1913.” Even today, more than a century hence, the power of her playing remains undimmed. While Judith of Bethulia gave the world an inkling of greater things to come from Griffith, for Sweet it capped her illustrious association with him. Rather than regarded as simple prelude to the director’s coming spectacles then, Judith of Bethulia should be celebrated for capturing “one of the early American cinema’s supreme acting achievements,” enduring testament to the towering talent of Griffith’s first great actress of the feature film era.