An Interview with LILLIAN GISH
By Ronald Bowers
- MAGILL’S CINEMA ANNUAL 1983
- A Survey of 1982 Films Edited by FRANK N. MAGILL
There is simply one “First Lady” of American cinema, and she is Miss Lillian Gish. Her career in motion pictures is without equal. Along with her mentor, D. W. Griffith, she was a pioneer who created her own art form. Imitated by generations of performers, she has herself always been a pioneer, never an imitator. “D. W. Griffith was the father of film form and grammar,” she explains. “The French had hinted at the possibilities of film before him, but he put it all together first.” The same could be said of Lillian Gish and her self-evolved style of screen acting.
Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio. Her father, James Lee Gish, was a traveling salesman from the Pennsylvania Dutch country, and her mother, Mary Robinson McConnell Gish, numbered among her ancestors the poet Emily Ward and President Zachary Taylor. Gish’s father’s work required the family to live in various cities before the turn of the century, and it was in Dayton, Ohio, that her sister, Dorothy, was born on March 11, 1898. Eventually, Mrs. Gish separated from her husband and took her two daughters to New York City to look for work. As Dorothy once explained in an interview: “We were practically destitute. [Mother] rented one of the old fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers. One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress [Dolores Lome], and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of East Lynne, provided she could find a small child of either sex to play the part of Little Willie. She asked Mother if she could borrow me for the role, and Mother was willing, and so, at four, I became Little Willie. Then Lillian got parts too, and so did Mother, and there we were, all three of us, actresses.”
Officially, Gish made her stage debut when she was five years old, in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a play called In Convict’s Stripes; as she recalls, “I took my first curtain call on the shoulders of the handsome leading man, Walter Huston.”
On rare occasions, the three Gishes were able to act together in the same play, but for the most part, they worked separately, with Mrs. Gish accompanying her younger daughter and Lillian being chaperoned by a family friend. During one period of unemployment, the Gishes worked at a candy concession in Brooklyn’s Fort George Amusement Park, where they were joined by another temporarily out-of-work family, the Smiths, consisting of mother Charlotte and three youngsters named Gladys, Lottie, and Jack. Gladys eventually became known as Mary Pickford.
In 1905, nine-year-old Lillian was employed as a dancer with the Sarah Bernhardt stage company, then on tour in New York City, and Gish recalls that the divine Sarah “was kind, . . . but discipline was rigid in that company.” The Gishes continued to act in road-company productions, and 1912 found both Lillian and Dorothy in Baltimore. Gish remembers: “We weren’t children, but we weren’t grown-up either. Whenever we had saved up a nickel, we would go see Biograph pictures. They were the only ones we liked. So when we saw that our friend Gladys Smith was in a movie called Lena and the Geese (1912), we went to see it. However, we thought she must be in some kind of trouble if she was in the movies instead of acting in the theater, because we didn’t think movie acting was quite legitimate then. But later we learned that Lionel Barrymore worked there, and Mother said. ‘Well, if there’s a Barrymore there, it can’t be all that bad.'” Leaving Baltimore, the Gishes returned to New York City and paid a visit to the Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th Street to see their friend Mary Pickford who by then had appeared in more than one hundred motion pictures (mostly one-reelers) and had become Biograph’s most popular actress. Pickford introduced her two friends to the formidable D. W. Griffith, and that same afternoon, Gish says, he hired them at five dollars a day and began rehearsing them. “His rehearsal consisted of chasing us around the room and firing a gun filled with blanks at the ceiling to see how we could express fright. We thought we were in an insane asylum.”
Both Gish sisters worked as extras with Griffith’s stock company, and soon they were cast as sisters in leading roles in a melodrama entitled An Unseen Enemy (1912). Griffith then chose Lillian to play the sweatshop worker who is harrassed by hoodlums in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) important as an early example of Griffith’s expert directorial technique.
While the family welcomed the money—often their weekly salary in theater had been only ten dollars—Gish’s aspirations were always for the theater. Late in 1912, she signed with David Belasco to appear with Pickford in A Good Little Devil. The play opened in January, 1913, but shortly thereafter Lillian fell ill with ‘pernicious anemia.’ As was his practice during the winters. Griffith took his Biograph players, including Dorothy, to California. Before leaving. Griffith offered Lillian fifty dollars a week to join them upon her recuperation. Gish did giving up her theater ambitions for the time being to participate in a revolutionary era in motion-picture history.
From the very beginning of their association. Griffith never told Gish, or any of his performers, how to act. Gish says, “He never taught us how to act. He simply said study the human race. And he was right. That’s the best way to learn. And also one should play ever) game, like tennis, that one can. I took fencing lessons and all kinds of dancing lessons so that I learned to control the way my body moved. But nobody can teach acting. Just speak loud and clear and learn to have absolute control over your body and voice.”
From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for thepictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”
Gish perfected her craft in picture after picture, and in 1912 alone she appeared in three films with Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, most notably The New York Hat, which was based on the first screenplay written by the inimitable Anita Loos. Gish and Loos remained lifelong friends, and Gish recalls: “We called her Mrs. Spinoza’ because she was so wise; we didn’t open our mouths around her. She wrote stories and subtitles and was a talented, beautiful, and funny lady.”
Pickford soon left Griffith to establish her unique place in silent films, but she and Gish remained lifelong friends. “Mary always credited me with her successful career playing a child,” says Gish, “I told her to play a child. I had seen her play Essex the child in Little Lord Fauntleroy and I suggested she do a full-length film about a child. At the time, Marguerite Clark was successful playing children on the screen because she was tiny four feet, ten inches] and weighed only about ninety pounds. But Marguerite was dark and a different type, so I told Mary she should try it also. And she did.”
Many years later, the mature, retired Mary Pickford announced that she was going to burn the prints of all of her old films. Gish heard about it and intervened: “I told her she had no right to destroy her films. They don’t belong to you,’ I said. They belong to the world.’ And thank heavens she listened.” In 1913, Griffith starred Gish in a picture developed expressly for her talents — The Mothering Heart—then cast her as the young mother in his four reel epic, Judith of Betluilia ( 1913). When he left Biograph at the end of 1913, Lillian and Dorothy followed him to the Mutual Company. Gish quickly grew in popularity with the American public, and consequently Griffith cast her as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), a part originally intended for Blanche Sweet. The film remains a hallmark in American motion-picture history and in Gish’s career. “We shot that picture in nine weeks. We rehearsed it extensively and then shot it—every scene but one— in one take. We had to shoot Mae Marsh’s death scene twice because she forgot to wrap the Confederate flag around her waist.”
It had become Griffith’s practice to rehearse his actors repeatedly to save both money and film when shooting time came. “We rehearsed extensively and never with a script,” remembers Gish. “Nothing was written down. He called the part out to us, and it was up to us to find the character. During those nine weeks on The Birth of a Nation, we stopped only here and there so he could go out and get some more money. That film cost sixty-one thousand dollars, and he had only fifty thousand dollars, so he would borrow from anyone he could. One day Mother offered him three hundred dollars, andhe asked how much money she had in all. She said just that three hundred, and he refused to accept it. He always considered others before himself. And when he died, even though he was broke, he owed no one a penny. He was a true Southern gentleman.”
Thereupon followed Gish’s star years with Griffith: Intolerance (1916); Hearts of the World (1918), with her sister, Dorothy; Broken Blossoms (1919); Way Down East (1920) ; and Orphans of the Storm (1921). again with Dorothy.
In Intolerance, Gish’s part was a small but pivotal one. Swathed in white, she was the mother rocking the cradle in the scene which linked the four part story together. Hearts of the World was a popular and important film, but Gish’s favorite among her films is Broken Blossoms, in which she starred to great acclaim with Richard Barthelmess. It was in this film that she gave her highly personal lyrical style its fullest expression. By this time in their association, Griffith had complete confidence in Gish’s talent; “I give her an outline of what I hope to accomplish and let her work it out her own way. When she gets it, she has something of her own. Of course she is imitated. A dozen actresses copy whatever she does and even get themselves up to look like her, which obliges her to change her methods.”
Gish worked in two more Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, and then, by mutual consent, she struck out on her own. It was simply a matter of economics. She was worth more than Griffith could pay her, and as he had done with other actresses before her who had gained stardom under his aegis—Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh — he suggested that Gish should seek the fortune and acclaim she so richly deserved. “Thus,” she says, “in the most friendly way, an artistic and business association of many years was broken off as casually as it had begun.” In 1922, Gish signed an eight-year contract with Inspiration Pictures for $1,250 a week plus fifteen percent of the profits and story approval. Her first Inspiration film was The White Sister (1923), directed by Henry King. Gish played a nun, and the picture was shot in Italy during a period of seven months.
Shortly before the cast and crew were scheduled to sail for Europe, there was still no leading man. Gish recalls: “Ronald Colman was appearing on Broadway in La Tendresse, with Ruth Chatterton. The photographer James Abbe, who was going to photograph the stills for The White Sister, saw him in the play and told me about him. and so Henry and I went to see him. I thought he would be an excellent choice for the part of the Italian Captain Severi, and so we went to talk with the play’s producer, Henry Miller. That was on a Thursday. Miller graciously released Colman, and we sailed on Saturday.
“Colman was a charming man, but there was one scene which caused him difficulty. He was British to the core, and the scene called for him to lose his temper like an Italian. He was too British to unbend. So one night at dinner. I suggested to Henry that we give him too much to drink and shoot the scene that night. We did,” she laughs, “and he finally did unbend.”
Romola (1924), also with Colman, was Gish’s second and final picture for Inspiration; she had experienced contractual difficulties with Charles H. Duell, the company’s president, from the beginning. She signed an $800,000, six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the films were to be made during a two-year period, and she was to have approval of both story and director.
At M-G-M, Lillian worked closely with Irving G. Thalberg. Her first picture for them was La Boheme (1926), about which she says, “I adored Irving from the beginning. Next to Griffith, I respected him the most. Louis B. Mayer was the businessman, but it was Irving who was so sensitive and artistic. And he was greatly overworked. When I went to M-G-M, I asked him to screen The Big Parade (1925) for me, and after seeing it, I asked him to get me the director [King Vidor] and the leading man [John Gilbert] for La Boheme. I also requested photographer Hendrick Sartov, who had photographed a number of my Griffith films and who had invented a soft-focus lens which he called the ‘Lillian Gish lens.’ Irving agreed, and he let me do it my own way.
“I told my friend Madame Freddie [dramatist Madame Frederick de Gresac] to adapt the story for me [it was based on the novel The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter (1848), by Henri Murger], and she worked on it, and then Frances Marion took over and wrote the screenplay. Irving was wonderful throughout. John Gilbert couldn’t have been nicer to work with. He was never any trouble.” However, some M-G-M practices did distract her. “Griffith never used mood music on his sets, but when I went to M-G-M for La Boheme, I realized it was an accepted practice to have mood musicians playing while the actors were acting. I love music, but not when I’m working. It distracted me, but the others could not do without it. Also, I was used to extensive rehearsals before actual filming began, but they did not rehearse at M-G-M. It embarrassed them to rehearse. They would do a scene, and if it wasn’t right, they would shoot it again, and again if necessary. Since I was in the minority, I went along and did it their way.”
Years after the release of La Boheme, King Vidor wrote that he suspected that Gish had used cotton balls in her mouth for her famous death scene. Gish replies: “It was absolutely not true. I think he must have been thinking of Helen Hayes when she played Queen Victoria as an old lady, because there it was appropriate. But Mimi in La Boheme was emaciated and dying of tuberculosis. The last thing you would do would be to fill out the cheeks. They should be sunken in. I went to the county hospital with a priest to see the tuberculosis patients, and in my death scene I endeavored to imitate their thinness and their sunken cheeks, exactly the look of someone in that condition. That was simply more of studying the human race, like Griffith had advised me years before. I don’t know where Vidor got that idea, but nonetheless, he supposedly had to look away while shooting the scene because hehad tears in his eyes. He was a talented, gentle man.”
Gish’s second M-G-M feature was The Scarlet Letter (1926), and once several obstacles were overcome, her working experience with Thalberg was as always a rewarding one. The main obstacle was that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel had been banned by a number of women’s clubs and church groups.
“I went to Mr. Mayer and said I wanted to do The Scarlet Letter: he said it was impossible because of the ban. I said. ‘If I can get the ban lifted, will you let me do it? He said yes, and we did it. I went to Irving, and he screened The Story of Gosta Berling (1924) for me. The film starred Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, and when I saw Lars’s face I said. There’s my Dimsdale. I wanted Victor Seastrom as director because I had seen him direct something at M-G-M and I thought he came nearer to re-creating the tempo of our own people in 1640, which was the time period of The Scarlet Letter. People moved at a slower pace then, and he suited the Puritan image. He was a wonderful man, a beautiful director, an artist. And again Irving agreed with my every decision. I think it relieved him of some of his heavy workload.” Gish’s triumphant portrayal of Hester Prynne has been described best by critic Pauline Kael: “Her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was another, who can move like Lillian Gish: it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it!”
Seastrom directed Gish in another remarkable performance in The Wind (1928), which also costarred Lars Hanson, but the arrival of sound prevented that picture from gaining the audience it deserved. The arrival of sound caused Gish to reassess her career, and she ended her contract with M-G-M after The Wind, the fifth of the proposed six films.
Always a dedicated artist, Gish had described vividly the vicissitudes of an acting career in an interview in 1927: “Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career. Personal contacts and friendships must be neglected because long and irregular working hours eliminate the possibility of planned social gatherings. You must be terrifically earnest and interested in your work and not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you become it. The life of a motion-picture actress might be likened to a billowing wave in the mighty Pacific, with new waves constantly rushing on and pushing it to shore. It takes strength and sureness to successfully battle in the big pond and to keep your place there.” This dedication to acting is the primary reason why Gish never married, she never did believe that an actress would be a good wife. You’ve simply got to be one or the other — never both. I would have been a very bad wife.”
In striving to maintain her place in the “big pond.” Gish considered several projects which never materialized. She spent considerable time discussing with French director Abel Gance a production of Joan of Arc. “‘We planned to shoot it on actual locations in France, and the French government was going to finance it. but I had contract obligations which interfered, and we never got to do it. “I also worked for a year with Max Reinhardt and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal on a project called The Miracle Girl. It was the story of a peasant girl who could not even write her name but in ecstasy exhibited signs of the stigmata. It simply had to be done as a silent picture or it would have been ridiculous, so the arrival of sound prevented our ever doing it.”
Gish signed a contract with United Artists to star in three films of her choosing, making her talking debut in One Romantic Night (1930), an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play – 1920: The Swan, (1929) costarring Conrad Nagel and Rod LaRocque. Gish’s voice was immediately accepted by the critics, but the picture was not. and Gish cancelled her contract and returned to the stage.
Gish starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1930). followed by Nine Pine Street (1933) and Camille (1936). Motion pictures took second place in her career, and more plays followed: Hamlet (1936). in which she was Ophelia to John Gielgud’s melancholy Dane: Life with Father 1947), another personal triumph; and Crime and Punishment (1947).
Her occasional work in films included two supporting roles in David O. Selznick productions. In the extravagant Wagnerian Western. Duel in the Sun (1946). she played the wife of rancher Lionel Barrymore and the mother of feuding brothers played by Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck. In Portrait of Jennie (1948). she played a nun. Her role in Duel in the Sun brought Gish her only Academy Award nomination. Recalling her role in the latter. Gish observes: ‘”Years earlier Lionel Barrymore had played my grandfather, then my father, and now my husband. I suppose if he had lived long enough, he would have played my son!”
Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.”
In 1953. Gish played one of her favorite roles—the woman searching for her lost spirit in Horton Foote’s A Trip to Bountiful. Originally, she had starred in the television version for NBC-TV’s Philco Hour.
It received excellent reviews, and Gish notes that “It was the first television film that the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives.” Foote expanded the television version for the stage, and Gish repeated her role when it opened in November. 1953. to some of the best reviews of her career. The stage version costarred Jo Van Fleet and Eva Marie Saint and was directed by Vincent Donahue. Many critics called it the greatest performance of Gish’s career.
Two years later, Gish had an excellent film role as the eccentric old maid in The Night of the Hunter (1955), directed by Charles Laughton from a script by James Agee. “Charles Laughton went to the Museum of Modern Art and asked to see all of my old films with D. W. Griffith. Then he called and asked me to tea with James Agee and several others. He said, ‘When I was starting out in this business, people used to go to a movie and sit up in their seats and look at the screen. Now they go to eat popcorn. I want to sit them up in their seats again.’ After hearing that, I was convinced I should do the picture with him. Once we began work on it, we would sometimes ask him questions about what he meant by this or that, and he would exclaim, ‘Oh, oh, what am I doing wrong?’ He had no belief in himself. If he had, he would have been a great director.” Gish describes Robert Mitchum, the star of The Night of the Hunter, as a “very underrated actor; he was charming to work with.”
In 1956, Lillian and Dorothy starred together in a stage production of The Chalk Garden, and in 1960, Lillian starred in a televsion version of Truman Capote’s first play, The Grass Harp. Capote had written that play for the Gish sisters, and they both had considered appearing in its original stage production in 1953. Gish explains why that did not come to pass: “Dorothy and I were interested in starring in The Grass Harp, but the producers prevented our doing so. We met with them, and they said they had signed scenic designer Robert Edmond Jones to do the sets. We both liked Jones very much, and since the play was a kind of fairy tale, we knew he would provide the right touch. But after the meeting with the producers, we talked with Jones, and he said he had never been approached. We knew we couldn’t work with people like that, and we never did. When it was produced, they used a tree that Die Gotterdammerung could not have dominated. The production failed, but it could have been done well. Eventually I did get to appear in the television version.”
More stage vehicles followed for Gish: All the Way Home (1963), Romeo and Juliet (1965), Anya (1965), and I Never Sang for My Father (1968). She also appeared in the film version of Graham Greene’s The Comedians (1967), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Finally, she fulfilled two goals by starring in the 1968 television presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace. That was another play originally written for the Gish sisters, but their run-of-the play contracts for Life with Father had prevented them from starring in the original version. Gish happily signed to do the television version not only to finally get a chance to play the role but also because it afforded her the opportunity of costarring with one of her dearest friends, Helen Hayes.
“I met Helen through John Barrymore and playwright Edward ‘Ned’ Sheldon in 1930. One season, she, Ruth Gordon, and I were all appearing on Broadway in different plays, and on Saturday evenings after our performances we would all spend the night at Helen’s house in Nyack. I became the godmother to her son James MacArthur [Alexander Woollcott was the godfather], and years later I became godmother to Jamie’s son, Helen’s grandchild. Helen is a wonderful lady and a wonderful friend.”‘
Gish’s greatest film performances were in films made before the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and her only nomination was as Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun in 1946. Quite appropriately, the Academy Board of Governors voted her an honorary award in 1971 for “Superlative Artistry and for Distinguished Contributions to the Progress of Motion Pictures.” At the awards ceremony, Melvyn Douglas delivered the following presentation speech which had been written by screenwriter Leonard Spigelglass: “Miss Lillian, as D. W. Griffith used to call her, is the youngest human being in the theater tonight if youth be measured by zest, enthusiasm, and sheer physical strength. This beautiful woman so frail and pink and so overwhelmingly feminine has endured as a working artist from the birth of the movies to their transfiguration. For underneath this wisp of a creature there is hard steel. In the hundreds of films she has made, she and her beloved sister, Dorothy, coped with danger and peril beyond measure. . . .Miss Lillian has written a book about all this sternly called The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Note the order. In her dedication she wrote:
To my mother who gave me love, To my sister who taught me to laugh, To my father who gave me insecurity To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.
High time we dedicated something to her. And so, to Lillian Gish, who has touched all our lives with her gifts, her dignity, her funny little smile and her immense invulnerability, the members of the Academy and millions and millions of people in the audience say, You have taught and keep teaching us that time is an ally, that laughter and tears coexist, that your starring light is luminous and gentle, yet pierces the darkness. Come and get your long overdue Oscar, Miss Gish, Miss Lillian Gish, Miss Lillian.”
Two years later, on the centenary of D. W. Griffith’s birth, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor as a result of Gish’s personal campaign to have him so remembered.
Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”
In 1982, Gish was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, with President and Mrs. Reagan as host and hostess. Tennessee Williams, a former recipient, was there, and at a small, private gathering in the Red Room, Williams said, “You know, I wrote [A] Streetcar [Named Desire] for you, and now I can tell the story.”
Gish did know the story, but years earlier, when she went to see Jessica Tandy in the original stage production, she did not. She explains: “You see, he had written a one-act play called Portrait of a Madonna and dedicated it to me, but I could not appear in it because Mother was ill at the time. I was playing Ophelia in Hamlet, and I went to see a matinee of A Streetcar Named Desire. I went backstage to congratulate Jessica on her performance. When I did, she replied, I have you to thank for it.’ I didn’t know what she meant, but later that night at Club 21, Jessica’s husband, Hume Cronyn, explained to me that Streetcar was in fact a revised and expanded version of Portrait of a Madonna, which I had had to turn down.”
Gish is a youthful, vital octogenarian who, when prompted, can dispense wisdom worth noting by her juniors. Of her broken home, she remarks philosophically: “From my Mother, we got great security — the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father, we got great insecurity, and. as I grow older. I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their character.”
Of the prerequisites of her chosen profession she says: “I think the things necessary in my profession are these: taste, talent, and tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.”
Finally, and most important, of her undying zest for life and curiosity she states: “In all my years, and goodness knows how many pictures, I’ve never lost interest in acting, and I’m still learning. How can anyone learn all there is to know about the human race?”