The Face That Launched A Thousand Films – 1993 (Chicago Tribune)

Lillian Gish

The Face That Launched A Thousand Films

March 14, 1993|By Dave Kehr, Movie critic.

When Lillian Gish died Feb. 28 in her New York apartment, seven months short of her 100th birthday, the movies lost their last and most vital link to their beginnings-an actress who was present when the medium first began to evolve into an art form, and who continued to defend her art, as a performer, author and lecturer, until her final days.

Her first film, a one-reeler made for D.W. Griffith called “An Unseen Enemy,” was shot in 1912; her last, Lindsay Anderson’s “The Whales of August,” was released in 1987.

In terms of the intensely compressed time line of the movies, it was as if someone who had participated in the construction of the cathedral at Chartres had lived to see Philip Johnson’s post-modernist office towers, or if Geoffrey Chaucer were around to autograph paperbacks in Brentano’s window.

Miss Gish-it seems natural to call her that, just as she always referred to her mentor as “Mr. Griffith”-made relatively few feature films despite the prodigious length of her career, and fewer still of those films are likely to be known to the casual filmgoer.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

“The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s watershed epic of 1915, will probably sound familiar, if only because of the anger its ancient, sad racism continues to provoke; perhaps some will remember the climactic sequence from “Way Down East,” in which Gish, unconscious and adrift on an ice floe, is propelled toward a torrential waterfall as a rescue party struggles to save her, all without the aid of special effects or doubles.

But even a glance at the photos on these pages is enough to suggest the nature and strength of Gish’s appeal. Hers was a face made to be photographed, with a high, smooth forehead, impeccable cheekbones and a small, straight mouth-all of which served as a frame to her huge, and hugely expressive, eyes.

Photographer Vandamm - NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic's Hamlet 1936 - detail
Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936 – detail

Incapable of hiding anything, these eyes were bay windows to a soul, so clear and steady that they establish an immediate bond with whomever or whatever they brush. There is innocence and vulnerability in her gaze-Griffith made her the last of the Victorian child-women, in the line initiated by Lewis Carroll-but also willfulness and resolve. This is a woman who could be as pretty as a picture and as stubborn as a stoat.

Some of the obituaries that followed Gish’s death credited her with the invention of modern screen acting (“If Griffith was the father of the movies, Gish was the mother,” enthused one West Coast critic), which is a sentimental exaggeration.

As Roberta E. Pearson has documented in her scholarly study of acting in early films, “Eloquent Gestures” (California), Griffith’s transformation of performance style, from the histrionic exaggeration of stage melodrama to the intimate verisimilitude of the movies, had largely been completed by the time Lillian and her sister Dorothy arrived at the Biograph Studios in 1912.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

But Gish seemed to grasp the implications of Griffith’s discoveries more completely than any of his other actresses.

If Mary Pickford went on to become a more popular star during the period, her performances have dated in a way Gish’s pared down, almost passive work has not.

She does not address the audience, but allows the camera to approach and observe her; the relationship she establishes with the spectator is at once surreptitious and intimate, open and unacknowledged. Pickford presents; Gish is seen.

German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 634. Photo Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Parufamet. Publicity still for La Bohème (King Vidor, 1926).

This understanding is built into the basis of “Broken Blossoms,” the 1919 feature that was the summit of Griffith and Gish’s collaboration. Set in a bleak, Dickensian London, it is the story of a 15-year-old waif, Lucy, who is regularly beaten by her father, an alcoholic boxer (Donald Crisp). After one violent episode, she is taken in and protected by Cheng Huan, a young Chinese merchant (Richard Barthelmess), who dresses her in silk robes and jade jewelry, and watches her as she sleeps.

It is a platonic love, which means for Griffith a perfect one; he includes a disturbing scene in which thoughts of rape cross Cheng Huan’s mind (conveyed by an excruciatingly tight close-up) but subside to leave him calm and purified. Cheng is the perfect spectator, even the perfect director, costuming his actress and arranging her lighting and decor. If he has eyes only for Lucy, she has eyes only for the clothing and objects-notably, a baby doll-that he gives her.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is remote, insubstantial, impossibly delicate-a misty, unreal presence perfectly suited to this new misty, unreal medium. “Broken Blossoms”-the film is available on video, accompanied by a new recording of its original symphonic score-ends with the death of all of its major characters, as if Griffith had decided this world didn’t deserve them, that the movies were already too physical for Gish’s fragile nature.

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