Blackmail, Blacklist, and Injustice for all …

Louis B. Mayer had a talent for taking hopeful young actresses and turning them into the glamorous movie queens that audiences associated with his MGM studios. Few in those audiences realized that those carefully created, pampered stars were the most bullied women in Hollywood. The MGM Girls raised the velvet curtain and revealed the real story of life on the movie lot that Hedy Lamarr called “heaven and hell all contained in five acres.”

The Executive War on Stars (Louise Brooks – 1959)

Louis B Mayer cca 1930
Louis B Mayer cca 1930

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country. (Louise Brooks)

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

“Mr. Mayer wants you right now!”

“But I’m not through here,” Lillian protested.

“He said right now!”

Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power. (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown – 1983)

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain

Interviewing for Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown book began in the fall of 1978 with a wide ranging session with one of the earliest MGM Girls, Lillian Gish. Interviews followed with Debbie Reynolds, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, the late Dore Schary (the former MGM production chief, who submitted to eight hours of interviews), Jane Powell, George Gukor, silent film expert and author Kevin Brownlow, Kathryn Grayson, MGM archivist Dore Freeman, Henry Rogers (founder and head of the large Rogers and Gowan public relations network), John Springer (former publicist for Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Grawford), former MGM publicist Esme Ghandlee, Harriet Parsons (daughter of Hollywood’s foremost gossip columnist, Louella Parsons), columnists Dorothy Manners and Dorothy Treloar, Vincent Minnelli, Gonnie Francis, and Lana Turner. Of particular help were the interviews conducted by Los Angeles Times arts editor Gharles Ghamplin as part of his cable show, ”Gharles Ghamplin On the Film Scene.”

Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

Lillian Gish – Stageography

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

Unhappy Critics or Paid Assassins?

Public Execution of Lillian Gish and Attacks Targeting Her Theatre Career long after she left MGM.

The Enigma of the Screen

What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Is she a Genius or Mechanic?

By James R. Quirk

Photoplay Magazine, March 1926

Numerous actresses of sirenic charm and inscrutable pasts have been paraded from time to time as “enigmas,” but the real enigma of the motion picture constellation is Lillian Gish. And the most baffling question of the hour is. What of her future?

Miss Gish is a screen pioneer, Commencing her career with Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and the Talmadges, yet she has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. We can estimate the popularity of Gloria Swanson, of Mary Pickford, of Norma Talmadge and Pola Negri almost to the decimal point. But Miss Gish’s remains a problem.

She has given great performances in great pictures, and yet curiously we regard each new endeavor as a test of her. She appears a wraith hovering on the borderland between oblivion and reality, a mystical creation whose power hypnotizes us momentarily and then leaves us wondering if it is not an illusion. How much of this fragile crystal figure has been created about Miss Gish by the Griffith tradition, so skillfully and deliberately worked?

I recently attended a dinner where a light wine was served. No one remarked its flavor until the hostess observed that it was forty years old and came from the cellars of a Russian palace. Immediately there were ecstatic exclamations as to its bouquet, its rare flavor and the mystic gold of its color. Stars in motion pictures seldom succeed alone. Behind them you invariably find certain guiding geniuses who infuse them with the power of their own genius. Is Miss Gish a genius or is she but the worthy student of the magic Griffith? An electrician watching her at work one day suddenly exclaimed “That girl ain’t an actress—she’s a mechanic.” He could give no explanation for his observation aside from a mumbled, “She knows her stuff.”

Examining Miss Gish’s characterizations you find that she achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion—namely, hysteria. And she knows precisely the method of it. “It is expressed by the arm from the elbow to the fingers,” she says scientifically “and depends entire on rhythm”  the gradual quickening of movement up to the point desired.” In other words, it is a physical lashing into frenzy. Every actress of the Griffith school has employed it. Miss Gish more skillfully than the rest. And it has been for each of them the most effective gesture, but it could not have been without Griffith’s skill in contriving a situation for it. Mr. Griffith has said that the greatest screen climax is not attained through the actors but through the forces of nature. Miss Gish is always the helpless, tossed victim of a stormy fate, an overwhelming brutal destiny.

Her performances are not remembered for polished, symphonic continuity but for piercing moments of crescendo where emotion was expressed in physical terms of hysteria verging on madness. It has been said that great parts make great actors. Great situations have made Miss Gish. She depends more on material than any actress of the screen. Gloria Swanson can toss colored trifles in the air, play with them as with balloons and entertain solely by the charm of her gestures as a literary stylist charms with his play of words. Charlie Chaplin extracts the most interesting moments from trivialities. Pola Negri is not remembered for any single moment but, on the contrary, for the infinite variety of her moods. Lillian Gish has been termed the Duse of the screen, and yet she is utterly unlike Duse in method. The Italian genius was so quiet in her naturalness as to appear repressed, so highly sensitized that she responded poignantly to every mood and situation, as delicately and mysteriously attuned as a radio instrument.

Miss Gish thus far has been lacking in range. From the moment she steps on the screen there is the feeling of inevitable doom. Too gentle for this world’s pain, her only hope of happiness appears in death or the cloister. And so obviously is this fate written in her every aspect that suspense is lessened The emotion she arouses in one is that of an infinite and poignant pity. Pity is akin to love but it can never be love, even though it is heart rending. Miss Gish is a student, she does not rely on inspiration. There is nothing spontaneous in her work. It is carefully motivated, studied and timed. This in no way detracts from her worth as an artist, or a possible genius. Leonardo da Vinci fashioned the smile on the face of Mona Lisa as mathematically as Lillian Gish has drawn a similar smile on her own likeness.

Like her, also, he was divinely detached and unemotional. He would follow a man to the gallows to catch the expression on his face that he might express the anguish later on his canvas. Miss Gish has that infinite capacity for taking pains that the greatest artists have had. Unfortunately she is not a free artist as is the painter, the sculptor or the writer who relies only on his implements. She works in a medium that requires collaboration. A film cutter can ruin utterly the finest masterpiece. A director or a scenario writer without understanding of her peculiar gift can fail in providing her with the proper sitting for it. A supervisor with a set commercial formula can, by applying it to her pictures, make of her a commercial failure. As a classic, Lillian Gish may be commercially successful, but as a regular commercial routine star, grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen.

More than any other star, Miss Gish must be her own producer. Whether or not she has the capacity remains to be seen, and whether or not she is permitted to be is still another matter. Her stellar power has been tried in but two pictures, “The White Sister” and “Romola,” a success and a failure.

Her performance in “The White Sister” was as fine as anything she ever gave the screen. Her story and her character were carefully devised. In ” Romola” she was but a figure on a moving tapestry, and as such she is no more effective than many other actresses. She was not as big as her reputation. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in “La Boheme” felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different.

Gilbert works on mood. Lillian would film a scene only after it had been rehearsed several times. When the time came that the scene was actually being photographed she knew exactly the effects she was going to create and when and where. Gilbert was loud in his praise of her. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method. During the first and second rehearsals of the scene his work would be magnificent. After the fifth or sixth repetition of it, he was stale. The term “technician” should not be disparaged, provided it is properly employed to signify one who gains effects mentally rather than emotionally. It is what the screen requires.

The camera does not wait on heaven for moments of inspiration, and no human being could go on feeling his part through several rehearsals and a half-dozen “takes.” It has to be felt first over the script and then mathematically planned for effect if chances are not to be taken. Miss Gish is perhaps the greatest student among motion picture actresses. A humorous story is told of how she learned to swim. An instructor had told her that she should learn to float first if she wanted to be the best swimmer. Water terrified her, but she bravely clamped a clothes pin on her nose and went floating for days until she was proficient. Today she is a mermaid. That is Lillian Gish — thoroughness, conscientiousness, perseverance. Will she overcome all limitations, her own and those artificially imposed? Will she prove to be, as many believe she will, the greatest actress of an immortal screen? Personally I feel that she is going to be either one of the enduring great or a complete failure. A half-way position for her is impossible.

By James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay, March 1926

 

Lillian Gish in Camille, Central City, Colorado
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.87

The New Yorker – October 22, 1932

Shouts and Murmurs

Camille at Yale

HERE are some program notes set down by one who is uneasily aware that he has already become an Old Playgoer. At least I feel a growing kinship with the aged banker who once wrote me that, beginning with Samuel Phelps at Clerkenwell, he had seen seventy-eight Macbeths and that, as I could well imagine, ‘Valter Hampden was the worst of the lot. There comes a time when such a one totters off to a fresh revival with the acquisitive eagerness of a maniacal philatelist in pursuit of a fugitive Nicaraguan. In short, he goes only to complete his set. Thus I suspect it was chiefly as an irrational collector of theatrical memorabilia that I hied me to New Haven one day last week to see the tear-stained relic which the young man who wrote it called “The Camellia Lady.” The audience was recruited to a considerable extent from the undergraduate body at Yale. Then Boardman Robinson was there because his son was playing a footman in Act One – a footman who, by Act Four, had joined the jeunesse doree and, unless my eyes deceived me, was dancing heartlessly in the gambling hell on the night of Marguerite’s great humiliation. Also present – in New Haven, that is, not in the gambling hell-was Thornton Wilder, there because he had never chanced to see the play before. But scattered throughout the theatre were enough of us incorrigible old-timers to have justified some such notice in the program as “Wheel-chairs at Eleven.”

IT would be a satisfaction, I thought, to see the lovelorn Marguerite played, for once in a way, by a young actress who, in her own person, would suggest the cool, sweet, fragile, phthisic courtesan that the younger Dumas had in mind when he wrote the play. That was Alphonsine Plessis who, doing business under the name of Marie Duplessis, was once, for a little time, the talk of Paris. Dumas, fils, had an affair with her which his father was able to break up without having to appeal to her better nature. He broke it up by the more prosaic device of treating his son to the expense of a trip to Spain. By the time the youth returned to Paris, his lady lay buried in Montmartre Cemetery where you can see her grave today. While he was busy covering it with camellias and himself with reproaches, the poor girl’s creditors were auctioning off the contents of her flat. Sundry agitated old gentlemen from the Faubourg St.-Germain bid high for such desks and cabinets as might conceivably shelter the letters they had been so careless as to write her. All this was noted with fine English disapproval by Mr. Dickens, who was in Paris at the time, and who, bless his heart, went off, buckety-buckety, to attend the sale.

The grief of the bereft Dumas took the form of a novel, and from that he made the play which was first acted in this country by Jean Davenport under the title of “Camille: or The Fate of a Coquette.” It was then successfully taken over by the lovely Matilda Heron, who translated her own version but still clung to the preposterous Davenport title, which has always bewildered the French. (Miss Heron’s grandson, by the way, has made a name for himself in the theatre, said name being Gilbert Miller.)

From the first, America delighted in “Camille,” and up to thirty years ago most of the actresses, foreign as well as native, played the part at one time or another—even Modjeska, despite William Winter’s plea to her that she not degrade her art by portraying a fallen woman, and despite the pitfalls of a Polish accent which necesitated her crying out “Armong, I loaf you !” The Marguerite Gautier of Dumas’s imagination was a wasted, waxen girl who died when she was twenty, but she was so often depicted in Nineteenth-Century America by robust actresses in full bloom that I suppose most people grew to think of her as one who had died of gluttony.

THEN I suspect I was drawn to the ticket booth of this latest revival by an incurable wonder about Lillian Gish. A mockingly elusive phenomenon, Miss Gish. Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? After seeing the pastel wraith which she substituted for the smouldering Helena of “Uncle Vanya,” I rather thought not. But she was so grotesquely miscast as the disastrous woman in that lovely play that I went to “Camille” with an open mind. It is still open. I do not envy the task of the reviewers who must try to make an intelligible report on that baffling performance. It will be easy enough to describe its obvious shortcomings, its emotional emptiness, the pinched little voice which reduces all her colloquies to an arid prattle. One has the illusion of watching “Camille” played by a small-town high-school girl. This is part of an abiding immaturity which one finds difficult to describe in such words as will distinguish it from arrested development. It is the immaturity of a pressed flower–sweet, cherishable, withered.

It has a gnomelike unrelation to the processes of life and death. It has the pathos of little bronze dancing boots, come upon suddenly in an old trunk. It is the ghost of something that has passed this way-the exquisite print of a fern in an immemorial rock. It is of a quality for which I can find no words. As you see.

Then, when one has said all that, how shall one find other words for certain moments of loveliness which, by sorcery, she does impart to this fond and foolish old play. All around her in the death scene there is a shining light which the puzzled electrician cannot account for. And when she retreats into the garden in Auteuil, there passes over her a shadow as delicate and fleeting as the reflection of a cloud in the mirror of a quiet lake. Or am I babbling? I really do not know how to translate into print the tantalizing mystery of Lillian Gish. I do wish America had never been wired for sound. Even so, I shall buy me a ticket when next she treads

the boards in our town in another play. Even after seeing “Camille.” Even after reading that astounding opus of Albert Bigelow Paine’s declining years, “Life and Lillian Gish,” which, insofar as I have had the strength to examine it, seems to me, in a quiet way, the most sickening book of our time. ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT.

Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932
Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932

Excerpts: Silent Star – By Colleen Moore (1968), Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (1959), The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain (1983), by Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country. (Louise Brooks)

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