Not-So-Trivial Pursuits: The Wrong Plot

By James Cross Giblin

Sometimes you think you’ve finished the research for a key section in a nonfiction book, and then something occurs that makes you realize you’ve got it all wrong. This happened to me recently in connection with a book I’m working on about silent screen star Lillian Gish and her discoverer and director, D.W. Griffith.

The two met in 1912 when nineteen-year-old Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy came to the Biograph movie studio in New York City to visit their friend and fellow actress Mary Pickford. She introduced them to Griffith, who invited them to audition for a new short film, a melodrama titled An Unseen Enemy that he was rehearsing later that day. He explained that they would play orphaned sisters trapped in their home by thieves out to rob the family safe.

Gish in her autobiography and Griffith in his unpublished autobiographical notes recounted in detail what happened during the rehearsal. At one point, to get the young actresses in a suitably terrified mood, Griffith without warning shot off a live pistol over their heads. Apparently they performed to his satisfaction because he cast both of them in the movie and told them to report back to the studio the next day. Gish and Griffith then go on to describe in lesser detail the finished film.

I decided to use the story of the rehearsal and the eventual film as examples of how movies were made in the early days. I didn’t take into account the fact that because they were silent, movies then had no written scripts, only story outlines, and these often changed during the course of filming. I tried to see the movie, but it didn’t appear in any of the compilations of Griffith’s Biograph shorts that I located. Not until November 2010, during a MoMA retrospective on Lillian Gish, was I finally able to view An Unseen Enemy in an “incomplete print.”

It was complete enough, however, to show me that my synopsis of the story was seriously inaccurate. When I got home, I made notes of all the differences. Now I could rewrite the episode, confident that the plot was correct. And I wouldn’t have to face the communication that every nonfiction writer dreads — the sentence in a review or the letter from a reader that points out a major error in the book’s content.

James Cross Giblin’s latest book is The Rise and Fall of Senator Joe McCarthy (Clarion). From the March/April 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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