Robert Harron: Griffith’s Boy Bobby

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This is a rather poignant interview with Robert Harron from 1918, and first published in Photoplay in April of that year.   This vintage article is included in Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities, available in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.

Griffith’s Boy – Bobby

Harron, the Screen’s Premier Juvenile.  “The Boy” in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance

Author: Elizabeth Peltret

 (Photoplay: April, 1918)

One of the most effective scenes in The Birth of a Nation is a quiet one; a scene without a trace of “dramatic punch,” but it remains vividly in your memory after many a more spectacular scene is forgotten.[1]  It is the meeting of the two boy chums in a sleepy little Southern town before the war.  They poke each other in the ribs, chase into the house, dodge around the furniture in the big hallway, and run upstairs, their arms around each other’s shoulders.  “Everyone” says of this scene that it doesn’t look a bit like acting.  Then, too, the light-heartedness of it, and the peacefulness of the little town, are in poignant contrast to the battle scene where the two boys meet again only to die in each other’s arms.  The Southern boy (Bobby Harron) crawls over to his Northern chum, and puts his arm about him.  It looks as if they are tired from too much play and are just going to sleep for a while.

Since the making of the Griffith masterpiece, Bobby Harron has seen a great deal of battle and sudden death.  Last year he was in Europe with D. W. Griffith, and Lillian and Dorothy Gish, making war scenes for the great director’s next picture.[2]  One can only surmise the number of times he must have been called upon to die, or nearly die – the story may have a happy ending – but it is possible that he is killed or wounded in this war, counting rehearsals, innumerable times.  Also, he has seen real danger, and real history in the making – among other things the arrival of General Pershing and his staff in Europe, for the Griffith party went over on the same ship – and yet with all this, he seems just the same fun-loving boy he looks to be in The Birth of a Nation.  But underneath is a keen knowledge of human nature and an equally keen sympathy.  He seems more interested in people than in events.  In discussing the war, he said more about the effect it would have on individuals than about anything else concerning it.  For example, soldiers themselves:

“It’s going to be just as hard for a lot of the fellows to come home from the war as it was for them to go,” he said.  “They’ve changed a lot, of course, the fellows who used to work in stores, and offices, and factories.  They’ve made new friends; they’re heroes – members of the military caste, you know.”  He mentioned Service’s poem, The Revelation:[3]

The same old sprint in the morning, boys, to the same old din and smut,

Chained all day to the same old desk, down in the same old rut;

Posting the same old greasy books, catching the same old train:

Oh, how will I manage to stick it all, if I ever get back again?

Don’t you guess that the things we’re seeing now will haunt us through all the years;

Heaven and hell rolled into one, glory and blood and tears;

Life’s pattern picked with a scarlet thread, where once we wove with a grey,

To remind us all how we played our part in the shock of an epic day?

 “But that won’t apply so much to the moving picture actor.  We’re funny people!  We have plenty of time evenings and between scenes, and yet we hardly ever learn anything outside our work.  Most of the fellows who go from the film will have to begin all over again, when they come back, even if they aren’t maimed or crippled.  There are quite a few moving picture actors and it’s not a bit hard to forget them.”

Probably very few persons have thought of this phase of the subject.  If there were only a few of the “thin red ’eroes” it would not make so much of a difference.  But in this war the individual is lost in the great throng of men who, while their praises are sung today, will have to come back later when the tumult and the shouting has died and people are speaking in prose again.  Nearly every young man who goes to war sacrifices something in a business or professional way, but there is before him the chance to win, in a brief time, a degree of fame that otherwise it would take him years to gain, and, whether he wins distinctive military honors or not, his war record will give him preferment and a sort of distinction.  But the motion picture actor who has won any marked degree of success is known the world over.  If war takes him away for a year or two, he must look forward to the probability that when he comes back his name will have been virtually forgotten, not only by the public but by managers as well.

Although he did not mention the fact himself, the war will possibly cost Bobby Harron much in those things everybody wants – success, income, material security and a foothold on the ladder that leads to fame.  For he has been drafted, too, and is only on leave of absence.  Although so serious a matter to him, he turned it off with a characteristic story.

“I heard of a fellow who went to a dentist and had all his teeth pulled before going up for examination.  The examining officer looked him over and said, ‘You’re exempt; you have flat feet.’

“I tell you what,” Harron said with quiet sincerity, “I’d rather leave my family, my friends, my work and my club forever – I’d rather die right now – than to be told I wasn’t wanted because my health was not good enough.  To know – absolutely know – that you are not physically fit would be worse than to go through a hundred wars.”

Although he is very slight, his clear eyes and skin and the impression he gives of buoyant vitality would seem to indicate perfect health.

“It’s a case of sooner or later with me,” he said.  “I am going when we finish this picture.  The other day, Mr. Griffith said, ‘Well, Bobby, I guess you’ll be glad when we finish these scenes,’  ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘get them right, if it takes ten years.’”

Bobby laughed heartily at the recollection.  It seems that the unexpected answer so surprised Mr. Griffith that he looked almost petrified, but presently a light dawned.  “I gotcha,” said the great director, “the longer we take on these scenes, the longer you live.”

“That wasn’t what you might call an especially encouraging remark to make, now was it?” remarked Bobby.

Bobby Harron has been in the pictures since 1907, when he was fourteen years old.  He started in with the old Biograph company in New York.

“I was going to a parochial school,” he said, “and one day, I asked the Brother to let me know the next time he heard of a place for a boy.  A little later the Brother sent me around to the Biograph studio.  The man in charge was named McCutcheon; his son, Wallie, is now a major in the English army.[4]  He asked the usual questions, and the upshot of it was that I went to work in the cutting room at a salary of five dollars a week.  After I had been working in the cutting room about two months, he took me out and gave me a small part in a picture.  It was a comedy named Dr Skinnum (sic).[5] Anthony O’Sullivan was in it, I remember, the same Tony O’Sullivan who is now in charge of the “lot” over at Mack Sennett’s.  I remember thinking at the time that there was no future in that kind of work for a young fellow, and that as soon as I could I’d go and get another job.  But I never did.  I kept on when Mr. Griffith took charge; came with him to California, and have been with him ever since.”

His first leading part was in a picture called Bobby’s Kodak.[6]

“This picture gave me my first big joy in life, because it gave me the chance to be the kind of kid I had wanted to be in my dreams, but had never had the chance to be in real life.  My oldest brother and I had always had it in us to be little devils, but we lacked the teamwork of the Katzenjammers.  We always took it out in fighting to see which one was going to play the lead.  For instance, I’d come to him and propose that I play hookey and fix up a nice little story for him to tell the Brother, but he’d say, ‘Well, I don’t see why I can’t play hookey and you tell the story to the Brother,’ and so it would end by neither of us playing hookey.  It was that way with every bit of mischief we tried to do – we were great chums” there was no pause but a hurrying on of speech – “he’s dead, now – killed two years ago in an automobile accident.”

Bobby comes from a family of ten children and is the oldest of seven living; five sisters and one brother, all in school but one sister.  One brother, aged 14, has appeared in a picture with Louise Huff.

“Oh, he’s a comer, all right!” said Bobby.

Speaking of his trip to Europe, one of the first things he mentioned, referring to it with an air of tremendous pride, was that they went over with General Pershing and his staff, “taking the same high place in French history that is given to Lafayette in American history.”

“Of course the fact that the general and his staff were to accompany us was supposed to be a deep and dark secret of state.  It was quite some secret.  The first I knew of it was two days before we sailed.  I was walking down a New York street, when a fellow I knew stopped me, took me aside, and looking around to be sure there was no one who could overhear him, whispered, ‘I’ll tell you something if you’ll promise me not to tell anyone.’ Of course, I promised, and he said in a slightly lower whisper, ‘You’re going over with General Pershing and his staff.’

A little later I met a man who had booked with us for passage.  ‘Heard the news?’ he asked.  ‘No,’ I said.  ‘What is it?’ ‘General Pershing is to sail with us, but for goodness sake, don’t tell anybody.’

“After that, knowing it would make Mother feel easier to know that every care would be taken of General Pershing, I decided to tell her that he would be with us.  I knew she wouldn’t say anything about it, but nevertheless my conscience troubled me a little until just as we were going aboard, with a lot of dock hands within easy hearing distance, someone yelled at the top of his voice to a friend at the foot of the gang-plank, ‘Hey, who do you think’s on board – General Pershing!’

“Yes, it was quite some secret.”

For Bobby seasickness was not one of the horrors of war.  “I didn’t get really seasick at all,” he said, “because every time I felt there was any danger of it, I went to bed and stayed there until I felt right again.  I didn’t get up at all for the first three days out – not because I was really sick, but because the roll of the ship bothered me a little and I wasn’t taking chances.”

Speaking of taking chances, he had only been back in Los Angeles about a week when he went with a party on a little two-hour trip to Catalina Island; a trip that is nearly always disagreeable and choppy.  Everyone on board was sick – everyone, that is, with the exception of three passengers, and he was not one of those three.  He admitted that he was so sick he wanted to die and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, he has been kidded to death about it ever since.

“A lot depends on what you happen to be in,” he said in explanation.  “We went over to Catalina in a launch.  And when it’s choppy on the li’l old Pacific and you’re in a launch, you know it.  There may be more roll on the Atlantic, but then the ship we went on was as big as this –” his gesture embraced the whole Los Angeles Athletic Club where he lives.

“Not to change the subject at all,” he went on, “we landed at Liverpool and I, for one, went through a regular third degree.  And I knew that one wrong answer would result in my being shipped right back again.  Most of the questions were posers.  For instance, I was asked if I had been invited to come or had come of my own accord.  I took a chance and answered that Mr. Griffith had send for me.  It turned out to be the right answer.  If I’d said that I had come of my own accord, they would have ended the interrogation right there.  Then I was asked why Mr. Griffith had sent for me and not for someone else?  Was I, then, absolutely indispensable to Mr. Griffith, and, if so, why?  Couldn’t someone already in England do the same work I was brought over to do?  Why not – it was awful.

“Of course, I knew that women were doing everything in England.  But one thing that gave me a shock, was that, just as we stepped off the train in London, a young woman ran up to me and, touching the little visored cap she wore, said, ‘Carry your grip, Sir?’

“Coming back, the ship we were on was camouflaged – painted in green and grey blotches to make it indistinct – and exactly the same secrecy was observed as we had going over.  For instance, whenever we mentioned the name of the ship, even to each other, it was always in a whisper.  We didn’t even know exactly when we were to sail until almost the last minute.  When I went to see about my passport, the room was full of people, so when the official asked me the name of the ship I was going to sail on, I leaned across his desk and whispered, ‘Adriatic.’ ‘ADRIATIC’ he bawled in a voice loud enough to carry a block.  ‘When does she sail?’”

He made a valiant attempt to curl the ends of a very diminutive moustache.  He was able to get hold of it, and that was about all.

“How do you like my moustache?” he asked.  “I’ll tell you what I was going to do:  I was going to get a lot of English clothes, with a cane and a monocle and all that stuff, and walk into the club here just as I’ve seen other fellows do after a trip ‘Abroad,’” he put on a very supercilious expression to illustrate – “and I was going to keep it up, accent and all, for about three days until I had everybody saying ‘Well, will you look at that?’ and ‘What do you think he thinks he is?” but I couldn’t do it.  The first person I met was Jack Pickford and we’ve been chums for so long that it was too much for me.  Perhaps I’ll do it next time only a little differently.  I’ll miss this club when I go to war, but it would be fun to walk in here with a waxed up military moustache and a long beard. That’s exactly what I’m going to do to!” With a flash of inspiration, “Just after peace is declared – no, better still – I’ll have the ruling powers inform me of that even in advance so I’ll have plenty of time; I’m going to grow a beard.  Then I’ll strut in here with a good long one, to say nothing of the moustache, a member of the ‘military caste,’ don’t you know?”

He wore his own moustache in Intolerance.[7]

“It’s the only way to do,” he said.  There was just a suggestion of pride that he was able to grow one at that time.  “Not even actors – fellows who ought to have known better – thought it was my own.  There’s a man up here who can make such good ones.  But any kind of a false moustache is hard to get on, and if you don’t take it off at lunch time, you’re always eating hair.”

The little moustache evidently brought out a resemblance to his father none of the family had noticed before.

“I had always thought that I looked a little like both my parents.  It was a big surprise to me when my father told me that a woman had stopped him on the street – that was in New York – and said ‘I beg your pardon, but aren’t you Mr. Harron?’ He admitted that he was, and she explained, ‘I recognize you by your son on the screen.’

“Do people often come up and speak to you on the street?” he was asked.

“Oh, no, not often,” he answered.  “Those who do are mostly middle-aged women.  It’s different with Chaplin, though.  Everybody recognises him.  We used to run around quite a bit together and wherever we’d go someone would be sure to say ‘Oh, look, there’s Charlie Chaplin,’ and kids would run up to him and say ‘Hello, Charlie.’

“I’d like to be a comedian – wouldn’t you?”

[1] The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915)

[2] Hearts of the World (D. W. Griffith, 1918)

[3] The Revelation by Robert William Service (1874-1958)

[4] Wallace McCutcheon Sr (1858-1918) and Wallace McCutcheon Jr (1884-1928)

[5] Dr Skinum (Wallace McCutcheon, 1907)

[6] Bobby’s Kodak (Wallace McCutcheon, 1908)

[7] Intolerance (D. W. Griffith, 1916)

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Silent Voices: Vintage Interviews with Silent Film Personalities (book announcement)

silent voices new size

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of a book I have been putting together for some time!

Around a hundred years ago, film fan magazines were emerging from their infancy to become some of the most-read periodicals of their day. These were places where cinema-goers could read with anticipation about new releases, as well catch up on Hollywood gossip, see glamourous pictures of their favourite actors and actresses, and read interviews with (and articles by) some of the great stars and directors of the day.

“Silent Voices” collects together twenty-eight of these interviews and articles (many out of print since their original publication in the 1910s and 1920s), covering a dozen different screen personalities of the period: Renée Adorée, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Carol Dempster, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Robert “Bobby” Harron, Johnny Hines, F. W. Murnau, George O’Brien, and Jack Pickford.

The book is available in both paperback and kindle editions from Amazon.

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