Exposing Raymond Griffith

From Picture Play, January 1927, pages 32-33, 106-107

This evasive gentleman wouldn't tell you about himself for the world, but the little man with the whispering voice has seen more of life than you'd think.  Some interesting things are here revealed - both past and present.

By William H. McKegg

Every morning while the production was under way he used to walk about in rather an agitated manner, his top hat tilted to one side, slightly resting on his left ear, his opera cloak nearly slipping off his shoulders.  Nervous, irritated, he used suddenly to spin round on his heels, thrust his hands into his trousers pockets, then pull one hand out again and start biting his nails or his lips, or tugging at his toothbrush mustache.  Still walking up and down, he used to keep up these agitated gyrations in the center of the huge bicycle track which had been constructed for the production until Paul Bern and the rest of the company came fro the projection room to start another day's work, after having viewed the early-morning "rushes."

This was the first impression I had of Raymond Griffith - a short, agitated, solitary figure in the center of the huge track that was used in "Open All Night."  Ray's antics, however, always amused me.  His refusal to see any "rushes" of the previous day's work, and his obvious timidity while the rest of the company did, used to amuse Jetta Goudal, too.  "Ray, why did you not come?" her throbbing voice would inquire.  "On the whole your scenes were splendid."

Goudal's candid praise seemed to relieve Griffith as well as surprise him, which only amused Jetta the more, especially as her favorable verdict would ring to his face one of those radiant Griffith smiles.  He used to make no comment, being a man of few words, but his eyes would open side, as much as to say, "Really?" and then, with a toss of his head, he would snap his fingers vigorously, to show his delight at hearing such news, as though it were quite unexpected.

"Ray, why won't you ever come?" Jetta used to insist.

Ray refused to say.  Instead, he used, with comic, exaggerated gallantry, to kiss one of Goudal's slender hands and skip away.  But never could any one cajole him to enter the dreaded projection room and see the "rushes" - nor can any one do it to this day.

There are many intimate facts about Ray Griffith's past life that are unknown to the great majority of movie fans, so while he is nervously waiting for the rest of the company to come from the projection room, let us glance at some of the earliest chapters of his life.

We see Ray a young actor and singer.  To-day his passionate love for the theater has become but a sad remembrance of a thwarted desire.  For while on the stage, Griffith in some strange way hurt his voice.  How he lost its power is not exactly known.  He now always speaks as though he had a severe cold.  Whether he strained his voice, as one legend goes, while screaming in "The Witching Hour," or ruined the vocal chords in an attempt to scale a high C in a musical comedy, remains a myster.  He is even an evasive fellow on all intimate topics relating to himself.  This accident to his voice, however, whatever it was, forced Griffith to leave the stage - the one thing that his whole heart and soul were wrapped up in.  Irony played a high hand and won.

Let us turn a few pages to another chapter.  We now come across Griffith in Europe, a member of a troupe of French pantomimists.  Strolling players - pagliacci - wandering all over the Continent.  In pantomime voices are not needed.  It has always struck me that there is ever an ineffable note of tragedy about all pantomimists - the bitter irony of being laughed at when you want to be serious!  Maybe in that tragic-comic atmosphere Ray got over his sorrow.  He came back to American and became a dancer invaudeville, touring to California.

In another chapter let us follow Griffith to the Sennett lot.  Being intellectual and a proficient writer, he got a job as gag man on Sennett's staff.  Mack Sennett, being Irish, was a hard taskmaster.  Whenever he was called into the gag men's conference toom it took the greatest persuasion to prove to him that any gag offered by them was any good at all.  Ray was made official demonstrator by his confreres, for no matter how trivial or ordinary a gag might be, if Griffith went through it in pantomime, it always seemed better than it really was.  Whether the gag necessitated a fall downstairs, or a custard pie thrown in the fac, Ray acted it to perfection and Sennett never failed to O.K. its acceptance.

Later, Griffith directed a comedy which those who saw it declare to have been the most perfect example of screen comedy ever filmed.  In brief, Ray was allowed to do everything but act - the one thing he longed to do.  Finally, however, his chance came, and he acted in comedies he himself wrote and directed.

While reviewing this same period we might glance at another chapter, the action of which takes place in Hoffmann's - a famous café in Los Angeles - ten or twelve years ago.  It was at Hoffmann's, so we read, that many players used to gather in the evening at what they called the Round Table.  Such celebrities, to mention a few, as Bill hart, Mickey Neilan, Connie Talmadge, her sister Natalie, sometimes Norma, and others used to while away many an evening there before salaries and Hollywood increased in size.  Ray was also a prominent figure at the Round Table.  At that time he had very large ideas on everything.  Whatever he spoke of doing held his listeners spellbound by its prodigious nature; yet there was nothing of the braggadocio about him.  He was always equal to his expectations.

Ray let the war terminate this acting career at Sennett's by joining the navy.  He has sailor blood in his veins and has a love for the sea second only to his love for acting.

Let us skip over the war chapters and look at events that occurred only seven years ago.  Ray was then back at the studios, doing extra work for the very company in which to-day he is the star.  But just then, no one saw any acting ability in him.  He was forced to go back to writing.  He wrote several stories for Douglas MacLean and injected hilarious, novel gags in many a dull script.  Things went on in this humdrum manner until the great day came when Marshall Neilan gave Griffith a prominent role in "Fools First".

What happened to him from that time on is common history to every fan.  In leaps and bounds he reached Lasky's ménage, making a hit there in comedy.  He shot to stardom on the crest of the comedy wave that rose to such tidal heights a couple of years ago.

But Ray's desire was, and still is, to play in drama.  He longed to enact the roleof Conrad's Lord Jim.  In fact, the Lasky officials went so far as to purchase the screen rights to the book, but decided that Griffith, after having achieved such phenomenal success with the public in comedy, was not the right type for such a tragic part.  It was given, as you know, to Percy Marmont.

Yet I am not at all sure that Griffith could not have done brilliant work in Conrad's story.  He is, in many respects, a typical Conrad character.  He could, for example, be the hero in "Victory" or in "The Arrow of Gold."  Conrad seemed always to favor short, intellectual, middle-aged heroes.  And Griffith is all of these, even to age.  He is the kind of person who can fool you as to his right age and is older than he looks.  Guessing, I should say he is about forty-one or two.  Yet he looks to be in his early thirties.

None of his attributes, however, have succeeded in winning for Griffith his wish to play drama.  "In comedy he must remain," say the high priests of Paramount, with a religious eye on the box-office.

Many, many times after I first saw him on the "Open All Night" set, I used to come face to face with Griffith in the office passageways of the old Lasky studio on Vine Street.  We used, invariably, to be walking in opposite directions.  Ray, with an exaggerated display of servility, always jumped to one side to allow me the right of way.  I used to smile.  He smiled.  Neither spoke.  No need - I being ever careful of wasting unnecessary works, he being likewise.  In fact, though we knew each other well by sight, I never spoke a word to Griffith until a few months ago - two years after I had first seen him.

You never get quite to know the real Ray Griffith behind the barrier of comic satire that he constantly keeps around himself, unless your acquaintance with him spreads over several years.

Casually meeting him in the studio, you feel he is very glad to see you; he makes you think this without any gush on his part.  The next moment, if he happens to move to another part of the set, you feel that you are thousands of miles from his mind. This gives you the impression that he is not sincere - that he regards his meeting you as just one more troublesome event in a movie actor's bored existence.  Yet when he comes to speak to you again, you are convinced that your momentary decision was entirely unfounded.

Though he has a constant joviality Griffith seems inwardly to be apart from every one else.  He is humorous because humor appeals to him.  It is as he wants you to take him.  In this way, I think, he hides a deep sensitiveness. He is a man who would hate to be laughed at when in a serious mood.

Even though he is short in stature, you notice Ray Griffith in a crowd.

Maybe Griffith's height accounts for his genuine admiration for Bonaparte.  This is Chaplin's hero, too, by the way.  Two short men with the same mental hero!  Two short men with the same mental brilliance!  There is, indeed, a great similarity between these two comedians - though Griffith has more mental stability than Chaplin.  Charlie is a genius, but knows it and lets every one else know it.  Ray is as much of a genius, but is reserved about it and never lets on how much he knows.  Take him unawares and he will reveal things that are astounding by comparison wit the average person's knowledge.

Griffith has a passionate love for great music.  Such extremes as Erik Satie's superb "Gymnopedies" and Moussorgsky's tragic "Khowantchina" are familiar to him; yet if you call attention to this, he is liable to start talking of Berlin and Gershwin.

Were you to surprise him in his book-lined rooms, you would probably discover him reading something like the "Ephesiaca" by Xenophon of Epheus, or Antonius Diogenes' "Marvelous Things Beyond Thule," or Achilles Tatius' "Clitophon and Leucippe."  Perhaps, also, Apuleius would be on view.  Works by Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Sophocles are known backward by Griffith.  Yet on the set you might see him being intently interested in something like Oppenheim's "The Blond Beast."  And he would humorously insist to you that that was the only kind of literature he ever read.

Considering how evasive he is, perhaps you will wonder, as you read this story, how I have come to know as much as I do about Raymond Griffith.  Well - it has taken a long time for me to find it all out.

Last Modified August 24, 2007