"The Mothering Heart" (1913) is one of the best Biograph shorts under the direction of D.W. Griffith, an American pioneer film maker. It was also the first of the Biograph films to feature Lillian Gish in a leading role. This two-reel drama begins with a young woman, played by Lillian Gish, marrying her suitor, played by Walter Miller, "against her better judgment." The young husband goes off to his job every day while the young wife keeps house and takes in laundry to help out with the household expenses. Griffith certainly did not glamorize married life in these scenes. Apparently bored of married domestic life, the husband takes his reluctant wife to a decadent nightclub. Eventually, the husband falls into an affair with a seductive woman he meets at the nightclub. His wife, who is now pregnant, becomes more and more distressed at home. She finds a woman's glove in her husband's jacket and realizes he is unfaithful to her. The wife finally leaves her husband and then gives birth to a sickly baby. The ending is very emotional.
"The Mothering Heart" is an effective drama today thanks to the outstanding performance of Lillian Gish. Unlike so many of the actors in the early days of cinema, Gish is not melodramatic. Instead, she works with facial expressions and tiny gestures to project a whole range of emotions. In fact, the strategy of controlling emotion, particularly in close-ups became a symbol of Gish's performances during the silent era. Her portrayal makes the wife totally sympathetic. Although the supporting cast is competent, this is very much Gish's film. Her scene of rage where she wildly beats all the buds off a rosebush is totally heartbreaking. The use of extreme close-ups, cross-cutting, lighting, and brisk pacing makes the film so appealing.
The film's final scene is beautifully played and still has the power to move modern viewers. Only twenty three minutes in duration, "The Mothering Heart" is a fine example of great American film-making in the early days of cinema.
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* It is interesting to note that under the direction of Griffith, Gish became the greatest screen heroine of the time and was known as "The First Lady of the Silent Screen."