Thanks to the extraordinary, almost hallucinatory clarity of Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Leave Her To Heaven, I just noticed, after many viewings of the film, that Mae Marsh has a brief one-line cameo in it, holding a fishing rod on a boat dock in the opening scene.
Marsh was there when the art of movies was born, playing in many films by D. W. Griffith, becoming a major star in the silent era. Later on she had small character roles, often uncredited, in scores of films right up until 1964, a few years before her death. John Ford used her often in small roles, but so did other directors.
She was like a recording angel in those fleeting later appearances, carrying the whole history of American movies in her always expressive eyes — a professional angel collecting small paychecks for doing a job she obviously loved, whatever notice it may or may not have brought her.
She persevered, as angels do.
This silent film directed by Henry King is handsomely made, with interesting location shooting in Italy where the turbulent melodrama is mostly set.
The film doesn’t have a lot of visual flair — there are only two or three memorable shots in the whole thing — but it does have Lillian Gish. Whatever she does — from standing still to walking across a room to doing a little gypsy dance to gently kissing her beloved — she electrifies the screen, makes cinema happen.
Griffith liked to emphasize Gish’s girlish quality, but she could be very womanly under the direction of other filmmakers — never quite carnal but decidedly sexual, decidedly mature — and so she is here.
The film would not add up to much without her — with her it has a miraculous dimension. She was a fine actress in her later years, in talkies and on the stage, but in silent films she was, quite simply, an artist of transcendent genius, who understood the demands and possibilities of the medium as well as any actor of the silent era, including Chaplin, Jannings and Garbo.