Picture Play Magazine Volume XXII July, 1925 No. 5
An Illustrious Sister Act
An appraisal of the art of Lillian Gish, who is about to begin a new phase of her long career, with a few words about her sister Dorothy.
By Malcolm H. Oettinger
IF you or some other curious person were to stop me some summer morning and ask point blank: “Who is the best actress unrolling her talents on celluloid?” I- should, -without quibbling, cast my two or three votes—for such is the system in Pennsylvania — in favor of Lillian Gish. When serious thinkers and cynical souls of all sexes begin to crown the baby art with wild raspberries it is always possible to exact a temporary reprieve for the films by mentioning Lillian Gish. Such reluctant optimists as George Jean Nathan and Joseph Hergesheimer have dedicated psalms to Lillian; aloof fellows, they have abandoned their usual frapped poise to compose veritable paeans of praise in her honor. No one can doubt the sincerity of these testimonials; no one can question the worthiness of the recipient.
Her work in “Broken Blossoms” alone is sufficient evidence. Those who refuse to consider one count as final are referred to “The White Sister,” in which the Gish sincerity made one forget the glucose sentimentality: “Way Down East,” in which her poignant characterization gleamed like a diamond in a popcorn ball; “The Birth of a Nation,” in which Griffith blended her gifts with a moving symphony of tremendous power.
Lillian Gish could wring my heart even if she played Little Eva or Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model; she has the steadily glowing spark of genius. Her great performances are not occasional, they are consistent. Nor is hers an art that must, like virtue, be, to some extent, its own reward. Unfortunate contractual agreements have handicapped her, but that her box-office value has remained intact was shown by the line-up of producers who, glowering at each other, stormed the lobby of her hotel upon the recent announcement that a Federal judge had declared her free from all claims of her late impresario, and open to new offers. As you probably know, she decided, after weighing all offers, to sign with Metro-Goldwyn.
Ordinarily it is simple to write of the ladies of the screen. They are bound to be beautiful, in varying degree ; they are likely to be engaging, if only as a concession to their great public ; occasionally they turn out to be clever. Writing of Lillian Gish is more difficult. Standing head and shoulders above her sister players, she is to be pointed out as the one artiste of the silver so-called sheet. Nazimova was mentioned in the same breath until she began to look upon picture making as a Ford owner looks upon a one-man top. Now it is Lillian Gish alone. (The Negri of “Passion” flashed across the horizon and disappeared, never, apparently, to return.
The rest of the ladies—Swanson, Pickford, Talmadge—hold no claim to greatness save as tremendously popular favorites.) There is no hocus pocus to encounter and overcome before gaining an audience with Lillian Gish. Granted a reasonably good phone connection, a taxi, and an elevator, and you stand at her door without further ado. And very likely she will open it.
She is delicately beautiful, with haunting eyes set far apart, dainty nose verging on the retrousse, and lips that a more pyrotechnical phrasemaker would term rosebud. They are small and curved and shy. But in describing her you are certain to come back to her eyes—soulful, wistful, fine eyes that seem to say, “I am a little disillusioned, a little weary, a trifle sad, but tomorrow may be brighter.” Her manner is reserved, almost timid. Her poise extends to the point of placidity. She is balanced and calm and thoughtful In her opinions. Her conversation further reveals her underlying tolerance regarding all things. When we discussed the theater—and she had seen everything from “The Miracle” to “Abie’s Irish Rose”—she was kindly in her judgments, speaking well of most plays and performers, maintaining a significant silence to indicate disapproval. “How fine it would be,” she remarked, “if the Theater Guild were to create a sister organization that would function through motion pictures ! The Guild has done so many splendid things. The screen could well afford such a group of artistic producers.” She spoke of the cruel necessity for condensing pictures to meet standard theater requirements. “After we’ve put months and months into the planning and making and careful cutting of a picture play,” she said, “it hurts terribly to see it slashed mercilessly until it is inside the two-hour limit. Jumps appear, continuity ceases … what have you? … I always feel a personal loss when a scene is hacked away, a scene that may have represented days of careful work. . . . Yet I realize the practical necessity for reducing a feature picture to regular running time.” She sighed, and a helpless little frown appeared. “That is. where we are so handicapped.
We must always bow to practical demands. The sculptor does not. The author does not. No one dictates to the poet or the sincere playwright. Yet the artist working in the medium of films is permanently hobbled by certain restrictions and fetishes and unwritten laws.” When she talks it is quietly, briefly. The quotations you are reading did not flow forth. They are a series of observations gathered, assorted, and bound together. I had seen Lillian Gish at Mamaroneck in 1921 when she was engaged in making “Orphans of the Storm.” Seeing her again reminded me how little she had changed. To my notion, the remarkable thing is her utter lack of affectation, her absolute sincerity, her genuine simplicity and naturalness. After all, when you pause to consider that here is the great actress of the screen, worthy of being ranked among the great stage figures of her time, the absence of pomp and importance is a bit amazing. She has nothing of that charming artificiality or artificial charm, if you will, characteristic of so many actresses. She has charm alone. Midway during my visit Dorothy Gish joined us. Were one to search the seven seas one could find no contrast more complete than the sisters Gish. Together they form the last word in opposite temperaments. Dorothy Gish is the modernist, fresh from shopping on Fifth Avenue, luncheon at Pierre’s, and Dorothy Gish is the the latest in shingles ; Lillian – is the classic-modernist, impetuos, observant, thoughtful, reserved. Dorothy is impetuous, fleeting, impulsive, flip; Lillian pensive, deliberate, calculating”, practical.
The little disturber is typical of the young American; Lillian, Old World, aristocratic. Dorothy spoke glowingly of the Duncan sisters, “The Firebrand,” Heifetz, Nurmi, Robert Edmond Jones, and the weather ; Lillian listened, smiling. (“I’ve seen ‘Rain’ nine times,” Dorothy exclaimed. “Whenever it comes near New York I see it over and over. Jeanne Eagles, grows better every time I see her. She’s marvelous, wonderful, superb!”) Dorothy is an opportunist, reckless perhaps, but gay, and ever on the go.
Lillian is the planner, cautious, even reluctant in taking decisive steps. Well she may be. From a purely commercial viewpoint hers has been a heart-breaking career. Time after time fortune has hovered above her head, only to fade into thin air before becoming a reality. Griffith never was able to pay huge salaries because of the reckless manner in which he mounts his pictures and the leisure with which he completes them. The Frohman Corporation signed her as a high-salaried star, then promptly dissolved. And latterly Inspiration Films had proven inspired only in so far as acting has been concerned. Both Dick Barthelmess and Henry King had legal difficulties over the trying matter of remuneration, and then Miss Gish was obliged to resort to courts for adjustment of her affairs with them. Her last picture with Inspiration was “Romola,” in which Dorothy shares honors.
“We spent six months in Italy on ‘Romola,’ ” said Lillian. “We were completely absorbed in it. A beautiful story. I had always had my heart set upon doing it. “We worked night and day. While light permitted we would And locations and take exteriors. At night at the hotel we would rewrite the script, adjusting it in many instances to local conditions.” The fact that Lillian Gish has directed pictures and is fully conversant with the technical side of the studio increased her cares tenfold. There were huge dynamos to he imported from Rome, trucks to be located, currents to be converted, licenses to be obtained.
“There were a hundred and one difficulties to overcome.” Her slender white hands fluttered in a descriptive gesture. “The places for backgrounds that were in reach of lighting equipment. Extras. Dependable technical assistants. The authorities were most kind, but there were so many obstacles.
“I loved Florence, though,” said Dorothy. “So did Ronald Colman and Henry King.” “We saw them in Hollywood recently,” Lillian interposed. “We went out for the opening of ‘Romola.’ They said they wanted more Florence and less Hollywood. . . . How that little town has changed. I hadn’t seen it for years and years. . . . Since ‘Intolerance.’ It was a nice little country town then. Make-shift. Delightful. Now it’s … it’s so grown-up !” Dorothy was reminded of Michael Aden,, a favorite of the moment. Lillian expressed her admiration for the new Burke autobiography, “The Wind and the Rain.” Both of the blond sisters had enjoyed Milne’s inimitable “When We Were Very Young.” They were curious regarding the Sinclair Lewis novel, “Arrowsmith.”
Although you would never learn such things from Lillian herself, it is true that she- has made tremendous sacrifices for her various successes. In “Way Down East” she played in a raging blizzard until she collapsed before the camera. Her hands were frozen. During the making of “Broken Blossoms” she lost thirteen pounds in ten days as a result of the high emotional tension under which she was laboring. For “The White Sister” she worked night and day all of the final week to complete it on time. Despite all this she looks youthful and fresh, twenty-five perhaps, pink and white, ethereal. There is nothing of the theater about her even though she has devoted something over fifteen years to stage and screen.
“The trying part of picture making,!’ she confessed gently, “is the combining art and business. You are expected to create just as one creates a painting or a symphony, yet you must submit to efficiency men, time clocks, schedules, and manufacturers’ methods. It strikes me as incongruous. . . . Yet I can see perfectly why it is so. But until things undergo a distinct change it will remain an herculean task to lift pictures above the machine-like standards of “program features.'” By the time these lines appear, Lillian Gish should he in Los Angeles, at work on “The Outsider.” But wherever her present—and I trust, more gratifying—contract may take her, Lillian Gish still will remain the great actress of the screen.