Where She Danced – By Elizabeth Kendall – 1979

Where she danced

Where She Danced

By Elizabeth Kendall – 1979

Though it be as perfect in outline and ornament as classic taste can make it, as simple and serviceable as the most energetic worker can desire, a costume has not business to exist, is, indeed, an embodied crime, if it deforms or weakens or tortures the body it pretends to serve. For that should be sacred: it is Gods handiwork. He made it as he wished it to be; capable, by wonderful mechanisms, of swift and easy motion; shaped in contours which artists despair of reproducing; and so responsive to our will, so varied in its capacities, so lightly moved from place to place by its own powers, that in its perfect state the soul which inhabits it is almost unconscious of its existence, and knows it only as a source of help and pleasure. —from Dress Reform,


Diane of The Follies - Lillian Gish
Diane of The Follies – Lillian Gish


American theater of those days was anything but flat—David Belasco and his colleagues had generated astonishing amounts of motion within the proscenium’s boundaries: using actors, scenery, crowds, and massive music and lighting effects.

Griffith brought all that theatrical weaponry to the movies—as Ruth St. Denis did to dance. Griffith had toured with Nance O’Neil and Julia Marlowe, played Shakespeare and melodrama, and written a play himself; he understood rhythms like Belasco’s and Belasco’s staging: his private dramas played out against the movement of the crowd. But Griffith also brought some extra-theatrical concerns to movies similar to those the first dancers brought to their art. He loved literature as Isadora Duncan did, especially the Romantic poets Tennyson, Keats, Poe—and most of all he loved Walt Whitman. Griffith was a Whitman-esque soul like Isadora: he thrived on fresh air, action, and love of his fellow man, alias his audience. Like Whitman and like Isadora, Griffith’s convictions were wedded to his physical self—his gusts of feeling determined the form of this new art of movies without previous guidelines from inside it. He made his art out of his senses and his deepest convictions, as they had theirs. On the screen he translated the passion of a story, the elan, into a cadenced flow just as Whitman had poured his physicality into the vicissitudes of words and Isadora had shaped her body around the dynamics of music.

Where she danced

The American health and open-air movement of the time supported this experimental physicality; Griffith’s own senses had been educated by it. He was a physical-culture man; he believed in Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of fitness and in exercise fetishes. He could have been a Ralstoner with his theories—“a man should sweat at least once a day to stay healthy,” he liked to say. Obviously Griffith’s American delight in health and Nature fed his visual sense just as it had Isadora’s and that of such Pictorial photographers as Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Anne Brigman. Griffith reproduced their effects, whether consciously or unconsciously, in his films. He was the one who took the movies out of the studios into the outdoors where there was light and air. He filmed his actors in woods, in meadows; he caught the light on grasses and aureoles of light in girls’ hair. In 1910 he was one of the first directors to try out California as a location, and there he discovered desert weather; he plunged his actors into high winds and sandstorms, capturing the resonance for his age of a human figure in Nature, which photographers and dancers also understood. On the other hand Griffith was just as richly aware of rooms, closed spaces, corners, closets, and all interiors; these two extremes of environment marked his breadth as an artist of motion and space, of the  hanging symbolism of space, the stylization of space around an actor.

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet

His grasp of space shows up in a film like The Avenging Conscience (1915), the story of a young man (Henry Walthall) struggling between love for a girl (Blanche Sweet) and a desire to kill his uncle who opposes the match. The scenes between the young man and his uncle are pictured in one closed and darkened office while the scenes with the girl happen outdoors in fields, by streams, on paths by flower hedges; Griffith even poses the two against archaic stone benches and fountains—the domain of the “classic” dance. The characters’ states of mind are portrayed through the indoor and outdoor landscapes around them. And when the story of the movie ends happily (the murder was all a dream) Griffith summarizes in a little coda of dancing, with children in Greek garb peeking out from trees like cherubimic hamadryads, and one little boy dressed as Pan playing the pipes.

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

Griffith’s relation to dance went beyond shared imagery; he had a keen sense of it as both a theatrical and a social art and of the place it played in people’s lives. Dance scenes appear in many of the 400-odd shorts he made for the Biograph company from 1908 to 1913. Also in these early films he began to invent his characters’ pantomimic language, which for the girls included impromptu dancing and skipping about. Some of his shorts took dance as a main subject and examined its human repercussions—something newspapers and novels of the time loved to do. Oil and Water (1912) starred Blanche Sweet as a dancer torn between career and home, and showed a dance performance which reminded the critic Vachel Lindsay of Isadora Duncan. Also in 1912, Griffith decided he needed a resident dance expert, so he lured a young dancer, Gertrude Bambrick, away from Gertrude Hoffmans Ballets Russes spectacle when it came through Los Angeles. Miss Bambrick’s first task on joining Griffith was to teach him to dance, and ragtime dancing became his favorite recreation. Next she was put to work on the dance scenes in The Mothering Heart (1912): “If nothing else it will teach cafe managers in the interior how to run a cafe,” said Griffith. She had a bigger project in 1912.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

In the four-reel feature Judith of Bethulia, she led the Assyrian dancing girls in two long Orientale dances she had arranged. Judith of Bethulia, released in 1913, was the very first American feature film, and a landmark. Although Griffith had known the script of the popular stage play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, he mounted his Judith completely in film terms—with the help of dance. The actors were the ensemble of very young people who had now worked with Griffith for four years and absorbed his monumental vision of what silent acting could mean: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words,” he told them. “We’ve found a universal language—a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that. Remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

Judith from Bethulia 7
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith, often accused of anachronisms and of being mired in the nineteenth century, did depend mostly on old theatrical plots. But he knew more clearly than Belasco or any theater director that those old stories were parables, and within their bounds he changed the medium of acting into a craft that was as stylized as dance, and as different as dance was from old-style stage acting. Moreover, Griffith knew how his style of acting was different; he saw that actors who came to him from the theater used “quick broad gestures,” whereas he wanted them to find a slower, more musical motion. He was trying to develop “realism” in pictures and “the values of deliberation and repose.” Realism to Griffith meant abolishing the static, pompous individual acting of bad theater in favor of lifelikeness, continuity, and the surprising rhythms of human emotions. He had a vision of ensemble acting like that of the new schools of European theater, of Eleonora Duse’s company or the Moscow Art Theater.

Judith from Bethulia 6
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia was the first completely American version of this new theatrical style—American because in the very progression of gestures it mixed the humble, the grand, the comic, and because its characters maintained a kind of fond distance from this material. None of the actors was really grown up; their gestures seemed like play-acting and so lightened the tragic legend of Judith of the Bible, who must kill the Persian king, Holofernes, to save her people. All the acting was a collage of current attitudes: some theatrical gestures, plus Salome-dancing, Delsarte-posing, Ballets Russes impersonations, along with the latest fashionable mannerisms. The mixture made it American. Judith (Blanche Sweet) prays to her Hebrew god, or anoints herself with ashes in the grand manner of Sarah Bernhardt or Mrs. Leslie Carter, yet she is so young the gestures look softened and not so serious—playful. In the seduction scene, wearing a shimmering sheath and peacock feathers, Judith rounds a shoulder and edges out of the tent like any young lady at a Tango Tea. Blanche Sweets Judith is a keen portrait of a young girl in a crisis trying on grown-up ways to move and act. All the characters are “playing” with more serious and “artistic” models. Opposite her Henry Walthall plays a sensuous king on the Ballets Russes model, while his eunuch, an actor named Jaquel Lanot, is madly miming the attitudes of a Russian Ballet slave, just like Mikhail Mordkin, Theodore or Alexis Kosloff (or Nijinsky, who hadn’t yet been seen in America) in Scheherazade.

Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911
Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911

Lanot’s favorite pose, or Griffith’s, is a decorative one of listening, with head cocked, foot pointed back, arms thrust down, and palms flexed. And in among the pantomime close-ups we see several ensemble scenes of Assyrian dancing led by Gertrude Bambrick—an orgy of Salome-Radha snake-charmer motions. The mime and the dancing blend rhythmically with the story’s narrative sweep—the martial Persians in chariots galloping through the dust toward the doomed Bethulia, the weakened Bethulians crowding the city streets in a plea for water. Dance and mime marked pauses in the narrative and provided just the “deliberation and repose” Griffith was after. Moreover, the dancing rituals thickened the atmosphere, and the dancelike clothing, Biblical drapes, and Persian finery commented perfectly on the new fluid manners and costumes that were part of modern-day society.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Most of Griffith’s feature films after Judith included a social dance scene or a glimpse of theater dance in the course of the story. And impromptu dancing was more than ever a keynote of his girl-characters’ self-revelations to their audience. His actresses found ways of “dancing” for every part—even the fussy heroine of True Heart Susie (1920), played by Lillian Gish, skips about jerkily to show her happiness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Dance training was crucial to Griffith’s whole idea of acting-and in fact, most of his actresses were dancers already. Blanche Sweet, born in 1896, came to Biograph in 1908 from Gertrude Hoffmans company of dancers, although she had begun in straight theater at age four with Chauncey Olcott and then turned to dance. Miss Sweet still considered herself a dancer in those first years of movies, sometimes taking time off from Griffith to tour with Gertrude Hoffman —and since Blanche Sweet appeared both in Hoffmans first burlesque of Salome and the “Spring Song” and in the first Biograph shorts, that means she was present at the American births of both dance and movies.

The other early actresses brought similar dancing-acting experience from a theater that expected all of its players, even the youngest children, to be physically agile, to sing, dance, speak monologues, and play to the ensemble. The Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy, born in 1896 and 1898, danced Highland flings in Sarah Bernhardt’s company and danced, sang, spoke, whatever was required, in many other companies. Mary Pickford, born in 1893, was a child ingenue on the touring circuit for ten years, then starred in David Belasco’s The Warrens of Virginia on Broadway just before she came to Griffith.

Mae Marsh, born in 1895, was the only one of Griffith’s first actresses who didn’t come from the theater but learned everything from Griffith himself. But Mae Marsh was the one who in 1921 wrote a book on film acting which reveals just how close were the dynamics of early dance and movies. She talks in the book about finding “character business,” fresh ways to sit, walk, gesture, dance, that will reveal the essence of the role. She discusses the constant rhythmic awareness of silent screen actors; how close-ups, for instance, were played with more pause and restraint than the more numerous three quarter shots. These concerns are part of all good acting, but they were the core of early film art—and also the kind of dance that was invented here. To find new rhythmic gestures for character roles was Ruth St. Denis’ motive when she made up Radha and The Cobrasy and it would remain the motive for the modern dancers who followed her. Miss Ruth, like Mae Marsh, was also a specialist in slowing down; by taking direct control of the pace inside of her own body she had made herself into a close-up of a Belasco play. Dance and movies, using different emphases, different equipment, but the same skills, were exploring theatrical time and theatrical behavior at the same moment.

Where she danced

In terms of the movies’ growth, 1915 was the perfect time for Ruth St. Denis to arrive in Los Angeles with a dance school. D. W. Griffith responded to Denishawn’s arrival by sending seven of his actresses including the Gish sisters over for lessons twice a week (said the New York Dramatic Mirror, May 13, 1916), and the connection between the school and Griffith’s studio grew. Griffith himself went to watch Denishawn classes; that is where he first saw the young Carol Dempster, who became his star of the late teens and twenties. It is striking how closely Griffith’s Babylon matched the look of Orientale discovered simultaneously in America by such figures as Ruth St. Denis and in Europe by people like Paul Poiret, and echoed and elaborated by Gertrude Hoffman in vaudeville and by the various Russian dancers on the concert stage. Babylon with its great towers also prefigured the mammoth Manhattan skyline of the twenties, and the gorgeous air of revelry that took over that city in its heyday.

Where she danced

However, if Griffith’s visual sense was modern and cosmopolitan in tone, his view of dancing was American, like Ted Shawn’s. He valued dance not for its choreographic patterns but for the rhythmic and sensual mood it evoked on the screen, a mood that carried an unbearable freshness for Americans.

Where she danced

To his vast dance sequences Griffith added close-ups in Intolerance of the “Babylonian Virgins of the Sacred Fire”; these emerged as a kind of adagio movement to the whole. According to history, certain Babylonian girls gave themselves ritualistically to men who came to the Temple of Ishtar to worship; they were pictured in Intolerance in beautiful slow-motion shots, sculpted in light and shadow and incense smoke. The wonderful vivacity of the whole Babylonian episode arose from Griffith’s profound imaginative belief in his own metaphor.


That these Virgins really had existed was important to him, but his Virgins were clearly American girls dressed up in antique array, meeting the camera with unobstructed innocence and sweetness. This appeal matched Denishawn’s; the pseudo-antique ceremonies served as frame for the revelation of the grave good will, the clean and unknowing sensuality, of the American girl. The Sacred Virgin sequences gave the audience repose in a bath of atmosphere and a long satisfying exchange with the performers, a precious glimpse of their inner beings, intimate but not pornographic. Lillian Gish described Griffith’s intentions in her 1969 book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me: Mr. Griffith wanted to show these young Virgins in costumes that would be seductive yet in no way offensive. All the young girls were dressed in floating chiffons and photographed in motion, not dancing but moving rhythmically and sensually to music. Some of the scenes were shot through veiling or fountain sprays to add to the erotic yet poetic effect.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget - Belshazzar
INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

Intolerance , though it wasn’t as popular as Griffith’s famous 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, highlighted an era of grand antique spectacles whose premieres in big cities cost two dollars a seat—as much as theater openings. All of these, movies like Thomas Ince’s Civilization, Cecil DeMille’s ]oan the Woman (with Geraldine Farrar), and Fox Studio’s Daughter of the Gods (starring Annette Kellerman), included scenes of dancing girls and dancing orgies. They corresponded to the live pageants that seized the country’s imagination at the same time—of which Denishawn’s 1916 Egypt, Greece and India was the prime example. In the same way that Denishawn’s pageant echoed the spectacle-extravaganzas of the 1890s, movie spectacles also called forth old theatrical grandeur. The Vamp, for instance, was film’s rediscovery of the grand actress, for whom a full spectacle was required. Movie vamps were the heirs of Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Carter; Theda Bara at Fox in 1916—1917 remade a number of these actresses’ star roles for the screen— Cleopatra, Under Two Flags (a Belasco hit of 1902), Camille, Du Barry. Louise Glaum was the Vamp at Triangle Studios; she played in The Idolators, and for Sex (1917), she borrowed a peacock costume from Ruth St. Denis. Sex was one of the many spectacles that featured scenes with Denishawn dancers. (Some others were: The Lily and the Rose, 1915; The Victoria Cross, 1916; A Little Princess, Conscience, The Legion of Death, Joan the Woman, Cleopatra, all in 1917; Hidden Pearls, Wild Youth, Bound in Morocco, 1918; Pettigrew’s Girls and Backstage, 1919.)

Where she danced

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Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

Louise Brooks

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars

By Louise Brooks

Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England

Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing ” Women in Films”which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.

Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost starof the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.

THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan 2

But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.


1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.

The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!

Greta Garbo 1

At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.

Greta Garbo.

From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.

Greta Garbo Queen Christina 1933

Lillian Gish

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.

Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Lillian Gish – The Enigma of The Screen – article By James R. Quirk

Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”

With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . 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. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. 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.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”

In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”

Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg

Ramon Novarro - Greta Garbo - Mata Hari

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 Ross Verlag Germany

Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.

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

With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.

Back in charge she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that MGM held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to· Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, MGM said, she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. MGM had let her go because she got 8,000 a week! And, he developed, without a blush, all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures.

Stigmatised, a grasping silly sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow – a world of shadows.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926


There is something fateful now in remembering that after Gish ran Costa Berling to look at Lars Hansen for The Scarlet Letter, she said that she had faith in Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Even less could she have guessed that uprooting her as a chaste reproach in the new paradise of sex films would become less imperative than getting her out of Garbo’s meditative sight. Before The Torrent started, while the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot (we’re paying you, aren’t we?) making publicity stills, she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence she had learned in Europe, Garbo saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production.

Greta Garbo Anna Karenina

The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying “I will be glad when I am a ‘beeg’ star like Lillian Gish. Then I will not need publicity and to have ‘peectures’ taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” But no amount of the studio’s calculated ‘dumb Swede’ publicity could alter the fact that Garbo could read the box-office figures in Variety and get exactly the same answers Louis B. Mayer got. La Boheme and The Torrent opened the same week in February, 1926, on Broadway. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got $400,000 a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got 16,000 a year.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

After The Temptress, when Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” Quirk was compelled to write in his December editorial: “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week. Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after signing a new MGM contract in May, 1927. After the long hold-out off salary, her business triumph over the studio was collecting with stunning impact on seven months of nation-wide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on defeat and its consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation had rocked all Hollywood. In the fury of the battle, Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay: “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June.” The revelation of this pressure was later masked by the invention of the “I ‘tank’ I go home” gag. Because, if Garbo had really wanted to go home, she would have gotten her 7,500 a week – and double. But she dared not risk even a scheming departure. For two years she had worked at MGM in that climate of worship and service which had secured the purity of her art. And, as well as she knew that she was Queen of all movie stars then and forever – she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering tarnished star like all the rest.

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

How well she knew her genius was revealed to me when I met her one Sunday in the summer of 1928 at the house of the writer Benjamin Glazer. His wife, Alice, was a witty, outrageous woman perfectly suited to Garbo’s shyness and my sulky discontent. Apart from the other guests clattering through lunch in the patio, Garbo and I sat with Alice drinking coffee in a little breakfast room. The subject of the conversation, of course, was Alice’s and therefore personal. I had divorced Eddie Sutherland in June, and while Alice poked into my private life with ribald questions and the worst possible assumptions, Garbo and I sat laughing and looking at each other. And it was then in that free and happy moment that Garbo seemed to condense, as it were, into a crystal of gracious joy in herself. Remembering the distillation of the whole of her beauty and art in that lovely moment, makes me wonder at the meanness of the human mind which still believes the most obviously ridiculous of all Garbo myths. Photoplay gave it birth in the same April article that carried the deportation threat. “Metro wanted Stiller, and Miss Garbo, his find, was signed reluctantly at a sliding scale of 400, 600 an $750 a week for three years, more to please him than anything else.” Metro wanted Stiller? He never made a single picture there. Knowing his temper, the studio let him play interpreter and assistant director for his find until, engulfed with rage, he settled his contract and fled. Mayer wanted to please Stiller? They hated each other from the day they met – Stiller because he knew Mayer viewed his work with indifference, Mayer because of the coarse indignities Stiller inflicted upon his majesty. As for Garbo’s salary; in 1925, any time an untried actress got more than $300 a week the studio was really yearning for her. And nobody seems to remember how, after her arrival, Mayer kept Garbo in isolation in New York for three months trying unsuccessfully to force her to substitute a new contract for the Berlin agreement which would not hold up in American courts.

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.

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB)-19

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB) Burton - Bloom

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City Bestows Accolade On a Cheerful Miss Gish (The New York Times – Oct. 18, 1973)

Lillian Gish receiving Handel Medallion from NYC Mayor Lindsay
Lillian Gish receiving Handel Medallion from NYC Mayor John Lindsay
Actresses Jacqueline Bisset (left) and Lillian Gish join Mayor Lindsay at the opening of the 11th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. September 29, 1975
Actresses Jacqueline Bisset (left) and Lillian Gish join Mayor Lindsay at the opening of the 11th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. September 29, 1975. (Photo by Jerry EngelNew York Post Archives (c) NYP Holding

City Bestows Accolade On a Cheerful Miss Gish

The New York Times – Oct. 18, 1973

Lillian Gish, who has criticized herself for living too much in “tomorrows,” enjoyed a yesterday that she said she would remember always. “This is a tremendous honor, Your Honor,” said, the actress of the silent screen, smiling at Mayor Lindsay as he awarded her the Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts.

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish promoting book 1973
1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish promoting book 1973

“I’ve never enjoyed giving this medal more,” responded. Mayor Lindsay, who has bestowad the honor seven times this year. Addressing the small group that had accompanied Miss Gish to his office in City Hall for the ceremony, he read the inscription on the medal: “To Dorothy and Lillian Gish, for the joy they have given to generations of Americans.”

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times B
1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times

Miss Gish, who says she is “one decade older than the century,” looked delicate but vibrant and full of energy. “Oh, my beloved sister,” she said after hearing the inscription addressed to her and her late sister. “She was the talent in the family. I didn’t have her gift of comedy.”

City Bestows Accolade On a Cheerful Miss Gish - NY Times 1973
City Bestows Accolade On a Cheerful Miss Gish – NY Times 1973
Lillian Gish promoting her Dorothy and Lillian Gish book in 1973 - New York
Lillian Gish promoting her Dorothy and Lillian Gish book in 1973 – New York
Lillian Gish - candid by New York Post 1973
Lillian Gish – candid by New York Post 1973

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Charles Chaplin, Mayor of NY John Lindsay, Lillian Gish, Oona O'Neill 1970's
Charles Chaplin, Mayor of NY John Lindsay, Lillian Gish, Oona O’Neill 1970’s
Dorothy And Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish (Scribners)
Dorothy And Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish (Scribners) Sleeve – Cover

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Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish (New York Times – June 11, 1966)

Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish

New York Times – June 11, 1966

THE slender, ethereal woman with the rust-colored hair strode center stage of the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday afternoon. She wore a green suit, white gloves and a double strand of pearls around a patrician neck. A burst of applause greeted her. The woman was Lillian Gish, and she was there Woman to tell members of In the the Actors Fund of America how to raise funds to build a hospital for needy performers. The group was holding its 83d annual meeting. Miss Gish’s participation in the meeting was in keeping with her philosophy of at least one new horizon a day. Her suggestion that prominent performers produce a show for television and turn over the profits to the fund was warmly greeted. The actress, who looks dreamy, fragile and wistful, is always in the forefront of causes in behalf of the theater. She has long argued that a Minister of F.ine Arts should sit in the President’s Cabinet and that Government should help boost the arts. She once said that while in this country dogs get “blue ribbons” and heroes “iron crosses,” an American who writes a fine book goes to Scandinavia to get a prize. A long-time friend of the actress said yesterday: “I’m always puzzled by her. She’s completely independent and never burned up about her image.

George Abbott anya
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya

“What’s the reason? I think she has no vanity. She’s a wonderful and loyal girl. She’s an American institution and no one would take a crack at her anymore than they would at Casey Stengle.” After six decades as an actress, Miss Gish hasn’t even a glimmer of thought about retirement. “Retire? If you want to die, retire and die of boredom,” she says. At 67, she is as trim as a lass, energetic and constantly on the move. “I haven’t altered my wearing apparel since the 20′ s,” she says. She expects to leave for Italy soon to complete her biography of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering motion-picture director.

Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya
Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya

Why Italy? ”There’s too much distraction here,” she explains. The book is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1967 by Prentice Hall. Miss Gish became an actress at the age of 6, not for love of theater, but for want of money. We were very poor and the job paid $10 a week,” she recalls. Now, she says, she is an actress not for survival, but for love of her art. She was born in Springfield Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1898 ***. She does not remember her debut at all. Her parents brought her and her younger sister Dorothy, to New York, where the father had a candy store. When the parents separated, her mother turned to acting to support the children. One day Mrs, Gish agreed to let Lillian. golden-haired and wide-eyed go on the road in a blood-and-thunder melodrama called ”Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time, Dorothy,  then 4, was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy in “East Lynne.”

Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65

Eventually, the mother and the two girls were able to get work in the same touring show. We grew up this way, Miss Gish recalled, ”We learned to read and write in dressing rooms over the country.” Miss Gish has had no regrets about her early, uncertain days. She once noted: “From my mother we got great security-the security ot 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 characters.” As children Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith, who later changed her name to Mary Pickford. It was in a Mary Pickford movie that Lillian made her film debut and it was Miss Pickford who introduced her to Mr. Griffith.

From New York, Miss Gish followed Mr. Griffith to California, where she was a member of his company from 1913 to 1922. She emerged as a star from such films as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Hearts of the World,” “Broken Blossoms,”  “Way Down East, and “Orphans of the Storm” In the nineteen twenties she appeared in such post-Griffith romances as “The White Sister,” “Romola,” “La Boheme,” ”The Scarlet Letter” and “The· Wind.”

She successfully returned to Broadway in “Uncle Vanya” and then went on to other memorable plays and performances in the theater – “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father.” She last was seen on Broadway in “Anya,” the musical version of the play “Anastasia”, last year.


Miss Gish, who never married, lives on East 57th Street. She is looking forward to more acting assignments, but her current preoccupation is finishing the Griffith book.

Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish - NYTimes June 11 1966
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish – NYTimes June 11 1966
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – candids by Peter Warrack

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Doug and Mary and Others – A book by Allene Talmey (1927)

Doug and Mary and Others

A book by Allene Talmey

Woodcut portraits by Bertrand Zadig

New York – 1927

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

MARY and Doug, driving tandem, are hitched to the same star. With resulting great financial reward, Douglas Fairbanks brought to the movies the precepts of the Y. M. C. A., glorifying physical strength. For almost twenty years Mary has delightedly demonstrated the charm of keeping one’s skirts up and one’s hair down. The screen has had athletes and romantic actors, has had its child impersonators; but only in Fairbanks has romance been so completely welded to athlete, only in Pickford has childhood eternally flourished. Out of the thrilling grace of a balcony jump, out of a zooming slide down windblown sails, Douglas Fairbanks built himself his throne. He has showmanship, aesthetics, and knowledge. And by his side sits Little Mary. Both wear halos, cut for them by a devoted public, halos a trifle binding, a fraction cocked, which Douglas industriously keeps shining brightly. To preserve that glitter, Fairbanks exercises several wise gestures.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Mary does nothing. She is sanity. Hers is a soft low snicker of sense in the midst of treble hysteria. In a business where all, including her husband, collect eccentricities as though they were pearls of great price, Mary stands alone, unadorned, simple. She is dowdy, old-fashioned, her skirts too long, and her hair still piled in those golden unconvincing curls which were so admired in 1915 when Biograph’s “Little Mary” was growing into “America’s Sweetheart”. A comfortable soul who forgets rouge and lipstick, Mary sloshes about on rainy days in rubbers a size too large, a big umbrella over her head.

Mary Pickford XSF
Mary Pickford

There is something untouched about this woman who has nourished her loveliness throughout her troubles, throughout the fight to eminence. Compared with her showman husband, alive with jokes, Mary, always by his side, fades a little. The showman has a dark brown face with a sharp straight blackness of brow and mustache, a block of white that is his smile, forever on view, keeping abreast of his enthusiasms. He boosts. He is the public-apostle of light, possessing a mental nimbleness as acrobatic as his body. Enthusiasm swings out from him, whirling ideas as on a pin wheel. So excited is his speech that the words are flung out in the irregular rhythm of a woman beating a rug. He loves phrases, full bosomed phrases to choke up a dribbling conversation. “I go to Europe to sit on the veranda of the world,” he told a reporter once, adding, “New York is all right to live in if you do not let it live in you.” In the gallery of his gestures rests a pleasant fallacy, publicly encouraged, that he has no head for business. Poor old Fairbanks, his attitude goes, what would he do without Mary and her cash register brain, mental arithmetic Mary.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Mary is acknowledged exceedingly smart in business, but Fairbanks refuses credit for any practicality. What he does not mention is that his fortunate business inability led him to invest much of his money in properties which immediately rose high in value, that it induced him to become a director in the Federal Trust and Savings Bank of Hollywood, that it led to the inveigling of Joseph Schenck into the chairmanship of United Artists. That weak head for finance also brought him so tremendous a fortune that the name of Douglas Fairbanks stood at the top of the movie list when the income tax reports were published several years ago. At the directors’ meetings of United Artists, at the lawyer conferences, Fairbanks quietly absorbs, apparently a blank at the table, perhaps asking a few questions. He goes for a short walk. On his return, the words straining against his larynx in a submerging flow of synonyms and explanatory phrases, Fairbanks offers a particularly acute suggestion. He loves to play dead because he makes such a smart ghost.

Doug and Mary - Pickfair
Doug and Mary – Pickfair

Doug and Mary are, of course, the King and Queen of Hollywood, providing the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain. Cornerstone layings, dinners, openings are duties; they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry. Loved and indispensable, Pickford and Fairbanks have constructive minds, actuated by a deep and earnest desire to aid the business in which they have won their name and fortune. Throughout their years of screen life, they have studied technique, and are now ready to turn to experimentation. As color photography interested Fairbanks, he produced “The Black Pirate”, a picture done in the mellowed old tones of a Rembrandt, with scenes apparently aged in the wood, yellowed with time. Experimentation meant the gathering of experts to aid him.

Dwight Franklin, an authority on buccaneer life and paintings, worked in one corner; in another Carl Oscar Borg, the Swedish artist, sketched settings. Anchored on the sidelines were the poet Robert Nichols, writers, thinkers, artistic persons of importance to whom Fairbanks talked and talked and talked. He wanted, for instance, a scene in which 120 soldiers with cutlass in mouth and swords at side would submerge a galley, swim in formation, and under water at a great depth, and then without breaking ranks rise to the surface in perfect order. The action of this episode was too dramatic to be eliminated merely because it seemed impossible to photograph. Fairbanks called a conference of the painters, the engineers, the chemists, and out of that came a method, devised to take that swimming scene without any water at all.

The preparations consisted in painting a background representing a cross section of the sea. From the top of the set, wisps of tissue paper were suspended giving the illusion of seaweed. A crane was brought in, and then the 120 extras in their dark green costumes were hung by 120 piano wires from the crane. In this midair position, lying on their backs, they went through the motions of the breast stroke as though they were 120 giant crabs struggling to turn themselves over. The crane carried them along. In printing the negative, the scene was reversed, and audiences marveled at soldiers swimming at the bottom of the sea, and once more Douglas Fairbanks had contributed to movie mechanics and aesthetics.

Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926
Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926

With a Rotarian instinct for slogans, Fairbanks reduces his ten or twelve reel movies to a ten word motto. All through “Don, Son of Zorro”, he tapped out “Truth crushed to earth will rise again, if you have the yeast to make it rise”. It was his delight to formulate “Happiness must be earned” for “The Thief of Bagdad”. Every one’s advice is asked about the mottoes. Fairbanks loves to theorize about the movies. His mind is like a cotton table cloth, the theories rubbing off as though they were lint. In the process Fairbanks snags new theories, all working beautifully toward a more glowing Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad

The decadence of the films is a source for constant discussion at Pickfair, where Doug and Mary have asked movie criticism from the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the Duchess of Sutherland, the King and Queen of Siam, Otto Kahn, Charles Schwab and Babe Ruth. Doug and Mary are the supreme social successes of the movies.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad

As a wit once remarked of them, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year”. The rotogravure editors can always fill a spare corner with a new picture of Fairbanks putting grand dukes and belted earls at their ease. When both were in Madrid, causing great demonstrations every time they stepped out of their hotel, the King of Spain requested their attendance at court. Under the chaperonage of the American ambassador Fairbanks went ready with one of his most graceful speeches. “How’s Fatty Arbuckle?” asked the King. Fairbanks spent hours anticipating the meeting, just as he always does, dramatizing the life and times of Douglas Fairbanks. Everything is a situation, and he plays for the big moment, then snaps the curtain. There are no third acts for him. Dressing in the morning is a situation. Tall, slim hipped, he wanders between his four closets, full of clothes, unable to decide which of the forty suits he will wear, which one of the dozens of ties, shirts and socks. Mary comes in for consultation. At last the decision is made, and, handsomely dressed, he goes to the studio where he immediately changes into his old white flannels and shirt. At the studio there are two more tremendous closets, bulging with suits, hats, boxing gloves, balls, canes, rackets, and it is his careless habit to leave the doors open, revealing the tangle. When important guests arrive, Mary runs ahead to shut away that spectacle, closing the door with an apologetic giggle. The guests are always shown his rare and lovely collection of perfumes, and then his elaborate equipment for keeping down the Fairbanks figure, the padded boards for massage, the exercising machines, the swimming pools, the showers, the steam baths. An ounce of fat means starvation for a week to him, but on the weekends he goes on food jags. It is his Sunday morning practice to take the unwary over the long hard trail behind his house, leading over the mountains.

Doug and Mary - outside Pickfair
Doug and Mary – outside Pickfair

At the end of that walk is a small house to which he sends by car his cook and butler and there breakfast in fabulous quantites is served; and so back to Pickfair. Pickfair is a luxurious home in which Douglas Fairbanks lived before his marriage to Mary. After the ceremony Mary moved in, bringing with her a few of her possessions. The place has the famous oyster shell shaped swimming pool to which only the friends of the pair come, for there, high on their hill, they receive, never going out except when the movie business demands its king and queen. Everybody comes to them, eager for a dinner party at Pickfair. Mary sits a quiet gracious woman whose adult mind looks with amusement upon the constant flow of Doug’s practical jokes. And after dinner the Fairbanks’ entertainment is a movie. Slumped in a deep chair, Doug, the king at ease, home from the studio, and Mary, the grave queen, home from a cornerstone laying, slip back their haloes, and chew peanut brittle.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Lillian Gish

The sturdiness of yellow kitchen crockery lies concealed in the tea cup delicacy of Lillian Gish. She is at once the oak and the vine. Courageously, gallantly, the oak has made of wistfulness a fortune itself. Through all the most outrageous incidents, the gentle Gish has most amazingly preserved her unique quality of facial innocence as fresh as “rain on cherry blossoms”. Above all the undertow of dirt, Lillian Gish has tranquilly swept the surface until she can now attend Hollywood parties, chastely charming, sweetly decorous in her primly flowing gown. “While others dance, she sits a picture of innocence and maiden purity, this sensible worldly woman whose deliberate front is aloofness and unbelievable virgin beauty. There never was so much concentrated innocence as in those pale blue eyes of hers, shaded by star pointed lashes, as in that little mouth posed as though repeating “prunes” and “prisms”. But Lillian Gish, the enigma of Hollywood, knows what is to be known. She has no illusions about the movies. Her fragility makes men protective, yet no woman in Hollywood needs or takes less protection.

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

Her interest travels beyond acting, direction, costuming, into the box office. The American Duse keeps a mild blue eye on the cash box. It is her own admission that the little hands have fluttered too often, but that the public loves the flutter of those pathetic white hands.

There are many who moan not only at the hand flutter, but at the other funny little screen habits which have aided in the formation of the pretty Gish tradition. They ache at those scenes in which she runs bewildered, frantic into the night, in which the little feet go pitter patter, in which she chases birds or butterflies around the sunlit rose bushes, aided by the glinting photography, the hidden studio lights touching up eye and hair and lip. One sickened critic asked plaintively if she ever expected to catch that bird. All these are set into her pictures, but once through, Miss Gish goes triumphantly on. For years she has been winning her way with whimpers. She has never resorted to the crudities of bawling. Her whimpers have been hushed for the most part, a suggestion of whimper. The crystal clarity of her face required only a breeze to whip into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons. It is all perhaps because Miss Gish, in those magnificent Griffith days, learned to act with her underlip, her eyes, her lashes.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

By the very perfection of her performances, she bas proved and to her own dismay, the limited appeal of screen perfection. For although she has reduced her audiences to murmuring audibly, “That is wonderful acting”, she has not reduced them to the obviously greater state of uncomfortable dumbness. Miss Gish is too perfect for that. She commands the mind and eye, but the heart retains its placid beat; just another manifestation of the idea that emotion and analysis will not stride together; that you cannot continue to cry while wondering about the tear ducts. With never the pulling thrill of the sweep of turbines whirling in power houses she acts in the perfect but pleasant rhythm of watch wheels. That touch of perfection, that pleasant placidity follows into her private life. She is a solitary woman who has cloaked her solitude with a shawl of mystery, receding much like Duse and Maude Adams, those idols for whom she lights a taper. From Duse came her screen credo, from Maude Adams the example of completely divorcing public and private life.

Lillian Gish Diane of The Follies - mid shot C

Like Miss Adams, she refuses interviews, and has now begun experimenting with film itself. The private lives of Duse, Adams and Gish are not for public knowledge. Much has been squeezed out of that life until there remains only work and a series of great and sincere performances. The essentials of her life can be folded like an accordion into these few points. She started acting when she was just a golden haired child, chased by Chinamen through melodramas. From those classic scenes, she entered a convent school; but left there so early that the majority of her knowledge has been self gathered. A visit to her friend of the melodrama days, Mary Pickford, at the Fourteenth Street studio in 1912 led to those years of Griffith direction in “The Birth of a Nation”, “Hearts of the World”, “Broken Blossoms”, “Intolerance”.

When she slipped away from Griffith, it was believed that without his hypnosis she could do nothing. But the stubborn strength of Lillian Gish was mated with ability. After various connections, she settled down with Inspiration Pictures which led to the famous trial which she attended, sitting in the courtroom looking like one of Sir John Tenniel’s drawings of bewildered Alice in wonder land.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

The pale Lillian nibbled throughout on carrots, and ever since then the columns of the tabloids have known her simply as “Carrots” Gish. Then came the move to the studios of MetroGoldwyn-Mayer, and her performances as Hester Prynne, as Mimi, as Annie Laurie. None of that has touched her smothered existence.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

Working hard with long hours, Miss Gish lives with her beloved sick mother in a charming but not elaborate home managed by her secretary, once the secretary of Mrs. Oliver Belmont. In that home she spends her hours. She is an excellent horsewoman, a good swimmer, but she rides alone, swims alone, refusing to be known as an athletic woman. She does charitable work, being kind to animals, scene shifters and little extra girls. Tired, languid, taking no part in parties, Lillian Gish goes to bed early except on those nights when she entertains at small dinner parties for authors visiting Hollywood. Authors, in particular ;Joseph Rergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, Carl Van Vechten, F. Scott Fitzgerald, delight in this woman who looks like only a pretty blonde person, but who is serious, desires to be serious. Although they do not discover her with the Phaedras, Religio Medici or Rasselas, they do find her with Cabell, Shaw and Wells, the pages cut. She tells them bits about herself, that “all pretty young women like her, but that old ugly ones hate her”.

Ross Verlag 3424-1 - Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi - German Postcard MGM
Ross Verlag 3424/1 – Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi – German Postcard MGM

There is little nonsense about her, and just as she has suppressed all else about her, she represses her neat wit. If occasionally it breaks through in that quiet voice, it comes out as though she were exceedingly displeased with herself.

“Wit is for men”, says Lillian Gish. And while the life of Hollywood goes violently on, budding scandals, marriage, birth, deaths and divorces, up in her hill home Lillian Gish lives blandly in harmony with her face. Nothing can startle its subdued contours. She is good composition. Tranquilly, Lillian Gish sits, dressed in white organdie with her ash blonde hair down her back, relaxed on the window seat looking out for hours into the depths of the California night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?” Mrs. Gish has asked for years.

“Nothing, mother, just looking.”

And she continues gazing out into space, a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard, a white fingered maiden who has deliberately, harshly, washed her life with gray.

Lillian Gish at Six

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Screen Acting – Its Requirements And Rewards – By Inez And Helen Klumph – 1922




It is difficult to step from behind the motion picture screen and tell those who have always sat in front of it how and why we who make pictures do the things we do. It is even harder to tell those who want to become one of us, how they may do so, as it is hard, always, to put the telling of things in the place of actual experience. What can be done in this way, I feel that this book can do, for I know its authors, and am assured of their knowledge of their subject and their sincerity in presenting it.

There is only one place where a motion picture actor can develop his art, and that is in a motion picture studio. But many a person who sees only the glamor of the work and knows nothing of the hardships it entails can learn much by reading all that he can obtain on the subject. In that way he can get an idea of whether or not he is suited to this profession.

When you have read this book, and see the motion picture screen through news eyes, you may lose your desire to join the company of those who act before the camera. But if your desire to follow this profession still persists, then I can only say good luck to you !

(Lillian Gish – Mamaroneck, New York)

Lillian Gish ca 1920 LA X

Some Demands of The Work

“It doesn’t pay to let people know that you don’t get tired; they always leave your close-ups till the very last, when everyone else is worn out. But you have to be strong, of course, especially if you work with Mr. Griffith. He can wear a strong man out, you know, before he’s even tired himself. He says that Mary Pickford and I are the only people he’s ever worked with who didn’t give up absolutely long before he was ready to stop.” Lillian Gish was speaking, her subject the first thing which you absolutely must have if you are going to act in motion pictures strength. She doesn’t look so very strong, of course; in fact, people are always speaking of her fragility, her ethereal appearance. But she has made strength and health for herself, because, when she left the stage and went into pictures, she realized that they were absolutely necessary if she was to succeed. Acting in pictures makes demands on you that you can not understand until you have at least played the part of an extra for a day or two. Then you begin to see why the stars have to rush off for a rest when a picture is finished, why most of them go home and go to bed the moment the day’s work is done. You must have strength not only to act, but not to act. You must be able to get into costume and make up, and then sit and wait all day long, perhaps, before you do anything.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Screen Acting

When David W. Griffith is directing a big emotional scene, with but one or two persons, he builds in all the atmosphere for the actors. He suggests the things which are not seen at the moment, which have caused the action. When Miss Lillian Gish was making the scene in “Broken Blossoms,” in which she is locked in the closet, he was the only other person present, except the camera man, of course. He talked to her, not telling her what to do, but creating a state of mind for her, if one can call it that, though the expression is not accurate. Perhaps it is better to say that he supplied the “atmosphere.” “Your father is breaking down the door he is going to kill you you can’t escape he will drag you out and beat you to death you are going to be killed ” by such suggestions he made for her the necessary environment. She forgot that she was in a little three-sided enclosure of rough boards, from which she could have stepped at a moment’s notice. She forgot that the man who was playing her father, Donald Crisp, had finished his scenes and gone south on a fishing trip. She didn’t even realize what she was doing. “How did you happen to think to turn round and round like that?” I asked her afterward. “It was exactly what a child that age would have done in such circumstances.”

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

“I didn’t know I did it till I saw myself on the screen in the projection room afterward,” she answered. “I wasn’t thinking of what I was doing I was thinking of what I was being” Of course, as a rule a director confines himself more to telling you what to do. He would talk your action over with you beforehand, and then run through it once or twice, till you got your bearings. This is especially important if you are in a scene with several other people. You must know just where you are to go and what you are to do. You must not stand in front of one of the principals, you see. You must not step outside the chalked lines on the floor which mark the range of the camera, or you will be outside the picture. Perhaps the director will follow your action through the scene “Turn and speak to him, Jones; now Sally, stamp your foot and leave the room ; Jones, look after her slowly now back to William again. Now, slam the book down on the table and leave the room.” You see, it is all founded on obedience obedience to your own mind, first of all, so that your body goes through the action which it decrees and that mind obeying the director. You must know how to do exactly what you are told, or you cannot hope to act in pictures.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford



Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish were on a shopping trip its object, the purchasing of a birthday present for Mrs. Gish. They left Lillian’s car at the motor entrance of one of the New York shops, and hurried to the elevator, but despite their haste, a few persons recognized them on the way, and followed. While they shopped, more people caught sight of them, and knew them instantly. And by the time that they returned to the first floor, their way was blocked.

They had to fairly hurl themselves against people, to get out to the street, and there a cheering mob stood between them and the car, clamoring for a glimpse of their favorites.

“Oh, Mary, how do you stand it?” gasped Lillian, when they were at last settled in the car and had left the crowd behind. “People don’t usually know me but they always know you.”

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

“I don’t ever quite get used to it,” Mary answered. “It’s always a bit of a surprise to me, to have the crowds gather this way.” She has had plenty of experience of this sort, of course; frequently Douglas Fairbanks has had to pick his pretty little wife up and carry her on his shoulder through the cheering mobs. But one of the very qualities which has made her “America’s Sweetheart” is responsible for her not getting accustomed to her own popularity and that is her modesty. The instant a prayer begins to feel important, and think that the public really owes him a great deal, his popularity begins to wane. We all know how such an attitude on the part of an acquaintance makes us feel. It’s the same with a star. Look back on those who were popular in the beginning and have lasted there aren’t many, but they are bigger today than ever. And they all have that feeling that the public is bigger than they are, that they must serve the public, must try to please it. Mary Pickford has that feeling. Always she wants to serve, to make a good picture, one that will mean something to the people who go to the theater because they want to see her. It’s almost like the feeling of a hospitable hostess, who doesn’t want her friends and guests to be disappointed. That feeling governs her studio.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

“I’m Mary Pickford,” she will say to a new director. “But that doesn’t mean that you’re to treat me differently than you do everyone else. You’re not. We’ve got to make a good picture, and that’s the most important thing of all. Anyone who doesn’t fit in and make the studio harmonious anyone who makes trouble on purpose must go, no matter who it is.” . There must be, in a favorite who is going to last in the affections of the public, a certain sweetness of nature, a love of people not just one’s friends, but of people in general. Mary Pickford has it; Lillian Gish has it. So has Norma Talmadge, who served her apprenticeship to stardom by playing sweet young mother parts. Douglas Fairbanks has a fine-wholesome democracy about him, a genuine liking for men. One day, during the filming of “Orphans of the Storm,” I was lunching with the Gish girls at the lunchroom of the Griffith Studio. Near us sat a man who looked like anex-prize fighter, and probably was one. Dorothy had been reminiscing about the old days on the Coast, and laughing at the way she and Lillian used to go to the movies, and at the people who had been their favorites. But she paused a moment to tilt her head toward our husky neighbor. “If Douglas Fairbanks were here he wouldn’t pay any attention to us,” she remarked. “He’d be chumming around with that man, showing him his stunts and tricks, and getting the man to show him his.” It is this real love of people which makes a star appealing. And when one appeals to a certain class of people, it is usually because one has a liking for the people of that class, and also for the things which they like. Elsie Ferguson, exquisitely gowned, knowing women from A to Z and portraying their  motions so perfectly on the screen, appeals strongly to them, especially to city women. Viola Dana appeals to the flapper the girl in her ‘teens who could chum with Viola if they were acquainted. And so it goes. A popular favorite today must love work, too. The girl who goes to the studio wearily and thinks it a bother to wait for hours to be called, is not going to hold the public. We rarely succeed at a thing we hate we must learn first not to hate it. And this is especially true with screen work.

I know a very beautiful actress who rather looks down on her public. She doesn’t bother about answering her fan mail. She won’t make personal appearances, won’t meet people who have no particular claim on her. She has just finished her last picture under a contract with one of the producing companies, and has not been asked to renew it, or to sign with anyone else. Her day in pictures is done.

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo


Acting on the screen is not acting, it is being. It is getting into a character, fitting it as a hand fits into a glove, and then letting the public see what that character does under a given set of circumstances. When D. W. Griffith began working with the talented and experienced Joseph Schildkraut, who is the hero in “Orphans of the Storm,” he saw that the young man, governed by his training in pantomine, was doing too much and not being enough. “Don’t do so much just be still,” he told Schildkraut. And by way of making his point clear, he had “Broken Blossoms” run off in the projection room, and told Schildkraut to study Dick Barthelmess’ work in it. When it was over, Schildkraut asked to have it run again. And then he came to Mr. Griffith. “I see my mistake,” he said. You will remember the remarkable restraint with which Barthelmess played that role how few motions he would make, even in a big scene, and how very effective they were. That was because he is an accomplished actor he has developed in the new school of screen acting, and is a master of it. He dares to be still, merely to be what he is supposed to be, and let the audience accept him in that capacity. And so screen acting has become an art in itself. It is not pantomime. It is not acting as we understand the word from what we see on the stage. It comes nearer to being a projection of the trained imagination, as progressive a thing as a strain of music with the incidents of the story the instrument on which it is performed. In giving this definition I refer, of course, to the work of the great artists of the screen to Lillian Gish’s performance in certain parts of “Way Down East,” to some of Pauline Frederick’s portrayals, to bits given us by Norma Talmadge, Charles Ray, Charlie Chaplin, Colleen Moore, John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Bert Lytell, by Betty Compson in “The Miracle Man” in fact, by everyone whom you have seen in a true portrayal of a bit of life. This development in the art of screen acting is due largely to the fact that acting before the motion picture camera has become subjective, rather than objective.

Actors used to move their hands and arms and make faces to portray an emotion ; now the portrayal begins in their mind ; they are conscious of it there, they concentrate on its mental portrayal, and the human body naturally conveys that mental conception to the audience.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East


This matter of spacing movements is a difficult thing. Lillian Gish says that it is like writing on a typewriter. “You write a word and then touch the spacer; then you write another and touch the space bar again,” she told me. “Well, that’s the way it is with acting in pictures. You do a thing and then stop, then do another. Of course, the space between actions may be hardly noticeable, but it allows for a brief interval in which the audience gets the significance of that movement; in which it sees the action, and the thought of what it is and what it means travels to the mind. Action that is not properly spaced is merely confusing.” But to learn how to space is hard. It must become instinctive, of course, for when one is really in character, it won’t be possible to stop and remember such a thing as this. The matter is one of very delicate adjustment, of using spaces, or intervals, for emphasis, just as you use the loud pedal when playing the piano. To lead up to a certain moment, by movements on which not much stress is laid, then to pause for a slightly longer interval only a few seconds and then make the gesture which carries the meaning of the whole movement that is perfect spacing. The slightly longer interval adds to the suspense, creates a crescendo effect. Of course, when every inch of film is gone over time and time again to see if anything can be eliminated, because the picture has to be cut to a certain length, much of this delicate effect is lost. But some of it must remain. And the actor who masters this important detail gains greatly in technique. An instance of excellent spacing is seen in that part of “Way Down East” where Lillian Gish denounces Lowell Sherman, the man who has betrayed her. The manner in which she turns to him, then to the Squire, the way in which she gets every bit of action across, is notable.

Lillian Gish in "Way Down East"
Lillian Gish in “Way Down East”

Another master of the art of spacing action is Mary Alden. She knows exactly how to stress a slight movement, how to hold back a bit of action, and then carry it on, conveying a definite impression to an audience even when her action has to be rapid, because it is well spaced.

Spacing action in this way does not mean that it must be slow; in fact, just the opposite is true. Action which moves rapidly is more in need of proper spacing than that which is slow, for the reason that the meaning of it must be made clear to the audience at a glance. Of course, a feeling for spacing is gained after a time, and then the actor need think no more about it, but until it is so mastered, it must be studied, for it is an essential point.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX


The motion picture star has certain tools, just as the carpenter has. They can be listed definitely, and of course each one must be carefully brought to the highest possible point of perfection. They are:

  1. The face.
  2. The body.
  3. The mind.

The first of these is discussed elsewhere, as is the last. It is the body of which we must talk now. Recently I was watching Monte Blue work in a scene of “Orphans of the Storm,” and when it was finished Mr. Griffith came over to me to discuss it. “Blue has wonderful grace of body,” he remarked. “He’s six feet three, but he handles himself so well that he never is awkward.” And grace of body is a thing that you must cultivate, if you are to work in pictures.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

It is easy to see the necessity of this, of course. Have you ever walked across a room while many people were watching you? You may have felt a bit awkward, but of course if your body was well trained, and so under perfect control, you walked well, giving no trace of your embarassment. Well, on the screen you walk before thousands and how essential it is that you walk as your role demands that you should. And although there may have been many people watching you when you made the scenebefore the camera, you had to be unconscious of them, or at least had to seem so. Another thing how do you run? Lillian Gish says that running is one of the hardest things that one has to do in pictures. “You can’t just run,” she told me. “Your running has to express something. It mustn’t be pretty, if it’s done because the character is moved by great emotion when you’re running for a doctor because someone is ill, you don’t do it beautifully yet you do it expressly. “Bobby Harron could run wonderfully. When we were out at the old Biograph studio, Bobby used to take us out in the back yard and show us how to run.” She says that it took her two years to learn to run. Now, there are other things which are quite as hard to do as this, but if your body has been trained to obey you, you can teach it to do these things. Dancing is excellent training. The best kind of dancing is barefoot dancing, combined with exercises that make the body limber and supple. Not that you will always be called on to be graceful in pictures; just as the face must assume expressions which are not beautiful, so must the body. You may play a role in which you represent someone who has led a starved, unhappy life such a role as Lillian Gish’s in “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, in which she never could make a beautiful, free gesture, or such a part as John Barrymore had in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” when he played “Mr. Hyde.” Your body cannot be beautiful then, but it can be obedient to your slightest thought, so that, when you have a mental picture, your body catches that picture and makes it for the eyes of others.

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



The task of applving make-up is an arduous one, but so interesting that it is worth the time which must be devoted to it. First the face is given a coating of cold cream; unless a very high collar is worn, this should extend over the neck as well. Tie your hair up tight in a towel before you begin, or, if you are a man, put on a rubber bathing cap ; the make-up must extend clear to the hair, but must be kept out of it at all cost. Rub off the cold cream, then apply the grease paint. Rub the stick lightly over the face, avoiding the eyebrows and lashes. Then spread the grease paint and blend it, with the finger tips. This is slow work it may take an hour. If the grease paint does not go on smoothly, chill the finger tips by touching them to a piece of ice; this will make a great difference. Shadows can be made to give the effect of hollow cheeks, or gauntness by blending gray grease paint with the flesh color. Lillian Gish uses this method, but Mr. Stewart prefers lavender to gray, especially for use above the eyes. The practise of drawing heavy black lines above and below the eyes, to make them look larger, is as absurd as it is ineffective. Soft, dark shadows give a much better effect. If you want to profit in your every day experience by the methods of actresses, and make your eyes look larger, buy some of the French powder, of a soft gray shade, which can be had in some beauty shops, and gently shadow the skin about the eyes with it. If you don’t know where to put lines in your face, to give the effect of fatigue, or anguish, study the faces of other people. Lillian Gish says that she studied her mother’s face before she made up for the scenes of “Way Down East,” in which she came to the Squire’s farm.

Munsey's Magazine - Lillian Gish is Anna Moore in Way Down East
Munsey’s Magazine – Lillian Gish is Anna Moore in Way Down East

You can study the faces of people everywhere on street cars, in shops, at the theater, in the home and translate your observations straight into terms of make-up, when you need it. An ivory powder is used over light flesh colored grease paint; over other shades, it should be a color that blends with them, of course. The first coating of powder will probably be absorbed by the grease paint, and a second and third coat will have to be applied. If all traces of cold cream have not been removed before the grease paint was applied, the cream will work through the powder and darken it, so it is most important that it should be thoroughly wiped off with cheese cloth before the process of making up begins. The lashes and brows can be slightly darkened with brown or black grease paint, if one wishes; this should be rubbed on lightly, and then wiped off with the finger tips, so that the brows and lashes will not be stiff and unnatural looking.

If the mouth is pretty, it should be let alone, unless its shape must be changed for a character part. If it is to be changed, the work is done with red grease paint, matching the lips in color. The mouth can be made to look shorter than it really is by letting the rouge run not quite to the corners of the lips, and then powdering over the unrouged parts. Similarly, the lips can be made to look not quite so broad, by letting the rouge stop short of the edges, and running the powder down. The rouge should not be thick, or it will look black. However, it is usually advisable not to bother much with the lips.

After the face has been powdered, all surplus powder is removed with a baby’s hair brush, so that the face will not look blotchy on the screen. It is always advisable to use make-up of the same type as the star’s, if possible. Naturally, the lights are tempered to the star’s coloring, and those whose make-up is of the same general color will screen well, while those who aren’t may be amazingly dark on the screen, or so light that they look like Albinos.

Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)



Of course, a rehearsal depends largely on the director who is making a picture. Some directors believe in many rehearsals; others prefer to talk a scene over thoroughly, run through it once or twice, and then shoot it, feeling that the actors’ feeling for it is fresher if this method is followed. D. W. Griffith rehearses a scene thoroughly before it is taken, so that every slight movement registers. I think that this is one reason why, in his productions, we rarely feel conscious of exaggeration, of having an actor almost step out and hit the audience on the head, figuratively speaking, in order to get something across. One reason why a rehearsal is necessary is the necessity for getting balanced movement. People must play up to each other; their gestures, their movements about the stage, must weave in together. Also, these movements must be within the camera lines lines indicated on the floor with chalk, which mark the limit of the camera’s focus. The actors must stay in the picture, of course.

Lillian Gish - FEAR - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms

Rehearsals also give the electricians an opportunity to try their lights, to get the best possible effect. A previously planned arrangement of lights may be found unsatisfactory, and have to be changed. Sometimes a dummy is used for the star, when the lights are tried out, or perhaps a young man or woman with much the same coloring as the star will rehearse with the lights. The tempo of a scene may have to be tried out, in different ways. Or a bit of action may have to be built up to a climax. Lillian Gish is noted for the way in which she can build up a crescendo of emotions with facial expressions alone but such a crescendo must be carefully handled, carefully worked out beforehand, unless only an insert is being made, in which but the one person shows. For of course, it would be absurd for one person to build up such a climax, if the actions of the other people in the scene did not respond, and supplement it. If you will recall some of the big emotional scenes which you have seen on the screen the one in “Way Down East,” where Miss Gish denounces the villain, the one in “The Miracle Man,” in which the little crippled boy is healed, and runs up the path, dropping his crutches as he goes, you will see the need of this. That scene caught at the heart of everyone who saw it yet if the actions of the bystanders in the picture had not been well handled, it would have lost much of its appeal. As a rule, the actors use in rehearsal, just as they do when a scene is shot, the words and tones of voice which they would use if they were on the stage. Norma Talmadge is an exception to this; she gives the right intonation, but does not raise her voice. On the other hand, Lillian Gish, when she was rehearsing the scene in “Orphans of the Storm” in which she is to be guillotined, screamed so realistically that more than one man among the bystanders had all he could do not to rush up and save her before Monte Blue got a chance to do so.

if you have decided to gamble with your future, to take some money, and some time, and all your energy and ambition and interest, and throw them on the gaming table, the stakes for which you play will be worth the effort. If you succeed, you will establish yourself in a profession that can give you a home and friends, and interesting work, and a great deal of money. If you fail and many do you will at least have had a tremendously interesting experience, and increased your knowledge of human nature a thousand fold. And that in itself will be equipment for success in another line. But once again I would say don’t try to break into the movies unless you can afford to spend the time and money necessary to learn whether you can do it or not. Be very sure of yourself before you make the break. And if you decide to make it good luck to you !

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Dorothy Gish – By ANTHONY SLIDE – 1973

The Griffith Actresses


About the Author

Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 16
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Dorothy Gish view 8]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3555

Dorothy Gish

Oh, she was such fun. — Bessie Love

“She gives people the impression that she’s an awful tomboy,” her sister says with a sigh. “I can’t help it if I do,” the accused replies, “because I do like to climb trees, and I do like to take off my shoes and stockings and go wading, and I do like to swim, and go fishing, and bait my own hooks, and . . .

“Hush, dear, people will think you’re simply terrible and it won’t do any good for me to tell them what a perfect darling you are.” The last from Miss Lillian Gish to her sister Dorothy. “Mr. Griffith,” she remarked, “I’ve often wondered how the divine Sarah would have played this part.” Before Mr. Griffith could answer, Dorothy Gish spoke up: “You mean the great French actress?” she inquired ironically. “Ah yes! She’d do it this way.”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); Dorothy Gish; ca. 1930’s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.239

The foregoing apocryphal conversation, which appeared in a 1914 issue of Reel Life, suggests the essence of Dorothy Gish’s personality. Her sense of fun and wit was well-known and appreciated by her many friends. Herbert Wilcox recalls in his autobiography: “The wittiest woman I have met is undoubtedly Dorothy Gish. Whilst in New York I took her to the Pavilion, the smartest and darkest restaurant in the city. About that time a columnist who called herself Hortense was dishing out her daily column of poison. ‘Hortense’ was universally loathed, particularly by her pet target—film stars. Whilst eating, I thought I saw her at a far table, but in the low-key lighting was not certain. ‘Isn’t that Hortense over there?’ I asked. Dorothy looked and without a flicker of a smile answered: ‘She looks perfectly relaxed to me.’”