“ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT” Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - One Romantic Night 1930 — with Lillian Gish and Rod LaRocque.

Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

“ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT”

It is difficult to realize the size of the catastrophe resulting from the sudden production of talking pictures, even of pictures with “sound effects,” as many of them were, at first. Some of them really talked—better, or worse, than others. No matter; every picture theatre in New York, and most of them on the road, were presently being “wired for sound.” All the millions (possibly billions) of dollars’ worth of silent pictures, shrunk in value at a ghastly rate. The Eastern Hemisphere, the only market for them presently, was comparatively unimportant. Hundreds of pictures were useless; picture players found themselves “out of a job.” Stars began to pale and disappear. On the other hand, ill as was the wind, it dispensed benefits. Stage players out of employment found market for their trained speech. Their feet warmed the way to Hollywood. A good many were already there. As the months passed, the screen showed more of the old familiar faces. Broadway to the rescue. Even the great succumbed. George Arliss, master of diction, joined the procession, Ruth Chatterton—eventually, Lillian.

one romantic night, lillian gish, rod la rocque, 1930 everett collection inc

Not willingly. She still believed in the silent film. She had objected even to the lip movement, the simulated speech insisted upon by the directors. To her, the perfect picture must be pure pantomime—with music—appropriate music, as in “Broken Blossoms.” It would never be that, now. Beautiful Evelyn Hope was dead. There is no help for such things. Tears, idle tears. Since the beginning of time, grief has never repaired a single loss. One might as profitably wail over the sunken Atlantis. She still had her contract with the United Artists, and by its terms must make at least one picture before she could cancel it. She had hoped to get out of it altogether; but while it did not mention talking pictures, she was advised to abide by the terms.

one romantic night, from left, lillian gish, o.p. heggie, 1930

“It would involve me in a suit with the United Artists, and I had had suits enough. As it was, I barely avoided another: The company had agreed to let me do Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Strange Interlude,’ if I could get it for a reasonable sum—I could have it to take the place of the Reinhardt picture. I came East in April (1929), to see Mr. Madden, O’Neill’s agent. I could have it for $75,000. This suited Mr. Joe Schenck. It suited Mr. O’Neill. We had the papers drawn up. I was to sign them that morning, and it was only because I was protected by an angel that I didn’t do it. On that very day, a woman brought suit against O’Neill, for plagiarism. Had I signed that contract, I should have been involved in the suit. She was beaten, and had to pay costs, but the damage to O’Neill was more than that, in fees.

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan

“Meantime, Dorothy had gone to Germany and brought Mother to London. Mother was tired of sanatoriums and hotels. She wanted a home, and I decided to have one. I joined them, and Dorothy and I went to Paris, to collect furniture for an apartment. I had most of it made, copies of old French pieces.

“I came home in August, and all through that month looked for a place to live. It was a terrible search in the heat. When I saw this apartment, with its outlook on the river, its quiet air and sunshine, I knew that it was what we wanted.

“My friend, Mr. Paul Chalfin, kindly looked after the decoration, and I started at once for California, to do the picture we had selected, ‘The Swan.’ This was during the latter part of September, 1929. The apartment would not be ready before November.”

Lillian Gish Promotional for The Swan
Lillian Gish Promotional for The Swan
  • Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
  • Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish – Leopoldskron, Salzburg

In California, Lillian lived with Madame de Grésac, at Beverly Hills. There was just then a good deal of talk about kidnapping, and she was advised against living alone. Josephine, her Austrian maid, had remained in Los Angeles, but met her at the station, with flowers and tears. Careful preparation for “The Swan” began. Lillian was admirably suited to the rôle, that of the fair Princess Alexandra, her voice quality and diction needed only slight adjustment. Melville Baker had written the script for “The Swan,” adapting it from his translation of the original play by Ferenc Molnar. She thought very well of it, and hoped for the best. She wrote Reinhardt of her decision, and received a gracious reply. Both artistically and from the business point of view, it (“The Swan”) ought to be a success, he said, and added:

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

In spite of all those rather disagreeable experiences I had to go through in Hollywood, I have kept the time I spent there in most agreeable remembrance. To have been together with you, your undeviable artistic spirit, blossoming there like a rare lonely flower, and the pureness of your conviction, made me happy and will remain for me an unlosable experience for all time to come….

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Making a picture now was a different matter from those very recent old days. Then, a set where action was in progress, was about the noisiest place on the lot. Stagehands and various bosses shouting to one another, the director shouting at the players—noise, noise, no end to it. Now, all was silence. Every sound, even the feeblest rustling, was recorded by the microphone. Except for the actors, their laughter, their breathing, the accessory beat of rain, or hail, the stillness was perfect. The sound stage was a padded cell.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

“With the preparation and all,” Lillian said, “I worked about three months on ‘One Romantic Night,’ as they called the picture later. Mary Pickford has a bungalow on the lot, and lent it to me. I used it as a dressing-room, sometimes I slept there, when I had to be on the lot very early. I had Georgie, my dog, and Josephine. It would have been well enough, but they were building soundstages all about, which made a great deal of noise, all night long. It was a complete little house. Josephine cooked for me when we stayed there.

“I arrived in New York Christmas morning, with a wild turkey, which I got in Arizona. It had been brought to the train by some friends of a little girl who had done my hair out there. They had often sent turkeys to me, to California. It was all dressed, and all the way across the continent, cooks on the diners kept it in their refrigerators. They were very much interested.

“We had dinner in our new apartment, our first real home. Mother was delighted with it, and has seemed better and more contented ever since. Her pleasure in it makes us all so happy.”

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

“One Romantic Night” was a photographically beautiful picture, with a distinguished cast. Lillian, as Princess Alexandra; Rod La Roque, as the Prince (sent, against his will, to woo her); Marie Dressler, as her designing mother; Conrad Nagel, as a tutor, in love with Alexandra; O. P. Heggie—altogether a fine company. Yet it has been called a poor picture, and Lillian today is not proud of her part in it. It was by no means a failure. Never had she looked more lovely. No longer a victim of tyranny, brutality and betrayal, but a Princess, as rare as any out of a fairy tale, with a palace and a rose garden and suitors, with a lilting, perfectly-timed voice, Lillian appeared to have come into her own.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Her acting and beauty furnished no surprise, but her voice and laugh did; she had been silent, and sad, so many years. The audience followed her through a presentation, in itself seldom more than mildly exciting, and not always that. The tutor’s astronomy at times wearied, not only the Prince, but, unhappily, the audience. Marie Dressler’s broad comedy was highly amusing, but there were moments when one got the impression that the play was not only very light comedy, as apparently it was meant to be, but a good farce gone wrong.

(one romantic night) de paul l. stein 1930 usa avec lillian gish et rod la rocque couple, balcon, uniforme d'apres la piece de ferenc molnar

Only, that fairy princess in the rose garden—on a terrace under the stars, or leaning from a balcony to her Prince, was not quite farce material. And the ending helped: the Prince and Princess, in a properly ordered elopement, in quite a royal car, swinging under the castle walls, out of the picture, into the night, to the notes of a marvelously musical klaxon, added a touch that brought the story back to the realm of pure romance, leaving a lovely impression.

Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish 1932

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

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Camille – 1932 (A Life on Stage and Screen By Stuart Oderman)

Camille (La Dame aux Camelias) opened in New York on November 1, 1932. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the production:

“The Camille in which Lillian Gish is acting has a strange, quaint sort of magic …. If it is not Camille, it is Lillian Gish who remains one of the unworldly mysteries …. Miss Gish moves delicately and quietly through the part. She is frail and her features are exquisitely modeled. Her voice is as innocent as a star of the evening. In the death scene her voice is pathetically childish. Her gestures are limp. Throughout her performance her miniature chaste little Camille seems quite unaware of a courtesan’s perquisites, duties, and prerogatives. She is as detached from worldly turmoils as a vagrant wisp of cloud. And yet when you have noticed all of these aspects of Camille you still have the idealized spirit of Miss Gish to contend with. Even in the part to which she is unsuited, she can still silence a first night audience. Her company is of no great assistance. Some of them overact to the point of burlesque. Some of the make-ups are bad. Camille has a sort of distant charm…. And Miss Gish has reminded us that the tenuous quality of her acting is not to be imprisoned in a midnight review.”

Brooks Atkinson – New York Times (1932)

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 3
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.149

“The critics weren’t as ecstatic as they had been in Colorado, but those Colorado people were also praising the restoration of the theatre to its former days of glory in the 1860s when they had some touring company pass through. The Colorado engagement was a double package: the restoration of the theatre, and then the play. Lillian’s Camille was a real “ticket printer” as they used to call a success. A real “ticket printer.” I don’t think anybody would consider the play in the same league as a Eugene O’Neill evening. That would be impossible. The pre-New York reviews contained words we had anticipated: oldfashioned, which it was; melodrama, which it was; creaky, it was; and the phrase that spelled doom – showing its age. The older reviewers called it solid theatre. Everyone praised Lillian’s performance. What New York audiences were going to see was grand old theatre, the kind of theatre our grandparents saw. Of course, by modern standards, it wasn’t sophisticated. Dumas, like any writer, was writing for the audiences of his generation. That the play survived his generation, and spoke to generations afterward was the reason the play became a classic. Nothing becomes a classic if it only has limited appeal.”

Blanche Sweet

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian, and Raymond Hackett] [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.176

Amongst the supporting cast she had auditioned and chosen was Raymond Hackett, as Armand Duval, Marguerite’s lover. Hackett was the husband of Lillian’s long-time friend, actress Blanche Sweet, who reminisced about the production in Colorado:

“Robert Edmond Jones, an important set designer, found enough standing of the Central City Opera House, built in 1860, to want to restore it, thinking it would be a nice place to present plays and develop a regular theatregoing audience, as well as a tourist trade. He presented his idea to some sort of council, and they went for it. Immediately all of the citizens in the area went digging in their cellars and attics, looking for anything they could contribute, when they heard the first production was going to star Lillian Gish. Everybody knew Camille. It was a very popular melodrama. Sarah Bernhardt had toured in it for years. She also filmed it. That theatre was loaded with things people were glad to get rid of: furniture, rugs, lamps, little insignificant things like old antimacassars that must have covered the arms of their grandmother’s sofa. What was finally chosen for the sets became a matter oflocal pride. It certainly brought in people who must have attended just to see their furniture come to life on that stage. That sofa Miss Gish is sitting on belonged to our aunt, sort of thing.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin 2 - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.308

By the dress rehearsal, when everything had been assembled, we didn’t believe that anything had been recreated. What we saw on that stage had simply been maintained and dusted before they rang up the curtain. That’s how authentic it looked. You only had to look at that set and you yourself were back in 1860, and it was the current day! People came from miles away to attend the opening: on horseback, in haywagons, stagecoaches. And they were dressed in the clothing of the day! Even with all of the help, we were told the cost of the restoration was over $200,000. A hefty sum for those days.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille, Central City, Colorado. First Production in the Old Opera House
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian, [And] Raymond Hackett [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.193

What better choice for a Marguerite Gautier than Lillian Gish? Who could be better? Lillian certainly knew how to play a death scene. Everybody always said Broken Blossoms after her name was announced. That’s how she had fixed herself in everyone’s mind out there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, that opening night – or during any of the performances that followed. Even the ushers wept. You saw them at the beginning of the play, and then they came back for the last minutes, just to watch that death scene. Marguerite was a role Lillian was born to play. I wish I had the handkerchief concession!”

Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen

By STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish in Camille, Central City, Colorado 2
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

Central City Opera House Reopening on July 16, 1932

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

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“ROMOLA” by Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set

“ROMOLA” Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Reports from “The White Sister” showed that it was going to make record runs—that returns from it would be very large. Catholics and Protestants alike approved it. Father Duffy, of the Fighting Irish 69th Regiment, of New York, wrote:

I wish to nominate “The White Sister” for a high place on the White List of dramatic performances…. It is religion struggling with human passions, as in real life, and gaining its victory after storm and stress. Chicago society deserted the opera on the opening night of “The White Sister,” and similar reports came from elsewhere. Lillian’s personal tribute—her “fan” mail—assumed mountainous proportions: offers of engagements, protection, marriage, requests for loans… what not?

Vanity Fair Nov 1923 - Lillian Gish Romola
Vanity Fair Nov 1923 – Lillian Gish Romola

Meantime, one must get on with the next picture. King was already in Italy, making a pirate ship scene. Lillian finished cutting down “The White Sister,” for road use, an arduous, delicate work, and with Mrs. Kratsch, sailed in November. Dorothy was to be in “Romola,” and with her mother had sailed a little earlier. To Genoa, then Florence, where they put up at the Grand Hotel on the Arno, with an outlook on the Ponte Vecchio, all that the heart could desire, if the weather had only been a little more encouraging. It began to rain, and it continued to rain—“about nineteen days out of twenty,” Dorothy said. Dorothy thought the rain not very wet rain—not at all like English and American rain—not so solid—light, like ether. But one evening, the rain stopped, and when they woke in the night, there was a strange silence. In the morning, there was another sound—also strange—strangely familiar. Dorothy looked over at Lillian.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

“If we were in America, I should say they were shoveling snow.” They hopped out of bed, and to the window. It was shoveling, and it was snow. “Very unusual,” they were assured later. But then, winters in Southern Europe quite often are unusual. Even sunshiny ones. The picture of “Romola” follows the main incidents of George Eliot’s novel. Lillian, of course, had the part of Romola, Dorothy that of Tessa, Ronald Colman that of Carlo Bucelline. To William H. Powell was assigned the part of Tito; Herbert Grimwood was given the part of Savonarola, and looked so much like him that when he walked along the streets of Florence, children would point him out. Altogether, the cast was a fine one. They had expected to use a number of real scenes in Florence—the Duomo, the Piazza Signoria, etc., but found that modern innovations—telegraph wires and poles, street car tracks, and the like—made this impracticable. On their big lot in the outskirts of the city, they built an ancient Florence, a very beautiful Florence, of the days of Savonarola. They did use the Ponte Vecchio, the ancient bridge, though a second story had been added a generation later than the period of their picture.

Lillian Gish - Romola

And they used the Arno in several scenes. Rain or no rain, their lot became a busy place. They brought the “White Sister” equipment from Rome, and a small army of artisans and laborers began to work wonders. In a brief time, a quaint old street sprang up—along it shops of every sort, just as they might have been four hundred years before … real shops, in which were made every variety of paraphernalia required for the picture: costumes, harness, basketry, hats, footwear, furniture—everything needed to restore the semblance of a dead generation. They even set up a little restaurant, and ate their luncheons there. Animals—dogs and cats—walked about, or slept in the sun. Flocks of pigeons were in the air, or on the house-tops. During the brief visit of the year before, they had asked that these be raised on the lot. It was all realistic, and lovely. Wood-carvers were at work on the rich interiors, some of them more beautiful, even, than those of “The White Sister”: a great church interior, and a banquet hall, for Romola’s wedding. At one side of the lot were small buildings, where the distinguished artist, Robert Haas, with his staff, worked at the drawings. For the great wedding feast, they could not get period glasses in Florence, so sent a man to Venice, and had them specially blown. Lillian remembers the banquet hall as very rich, exquisite in detail—the scene as a whole, one of peculiar distinction.

Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish
Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish

“We had for it a lot of titled people of Florence, who were eager to be in the picture. We had very little trouble to get anything we needed in the way of extras. In some of the scenes, we had hundreds of them. “One thing we did not get so easily: For the wedding, we needed 15th Century priest robes. We heard of some up in the hills, but we could get them only on condition that we engage four detectives to guard them, two by day, two by night. “We had to guard ourselves, for that matter. Florence has many Americans, and they have not much to do. If we had let in all who called, we should have had a perpetual sequence of social events, with very little work. We had many invitations, but could not accept them. I think we went out just once, for dinner. When we had a little time in the afternoon, we liked to go to Doni’s, for tea, or to shop a little, for linens and laces. Whatever of such things we have now, Mother bought that winter In Florence.

“Every night we literally prayed that the next day would dawn clear and bright, so that we might make up our lost time. But no! Maybe, as Dorothy said, the Italian ‘dispenser of weather,’ didn’t understand English.

“One cannot too highly praise the Italian workmen. Over and over, ours would work on a set that it might be the exact replica of a 15th Century design. Italian workmen are willing to be told, and possess an astonishing ambition to do a thing exactly as it should be done.”

Romola - Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish
Romola – Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish

They began “shooting” the scenes. They had no regular scenario. They worked, as it were, inspirationally. They did not know very exactly what they were going to do when they began a scene, and they were not quite sure what they had done when they finished it. The element of accident sometimes produces happy results, but it is unsafe to count on it. “Romola” developed into a kind of panorama—a succession of lovely pictures, without very definite climaxes. They worked hard. For one thing, they were experimenting with a new film, the panchromatic, which had never been used for an entire picture, and they did their own developing. One of the chief beauties of “Romola” is the richness of its photography. What with the weather and all, the making of “Romola” was hardly what the French call “gai.” There were lighter moments: In the scene where Dorothy is supposed to drown in the Arno, she tried for an hour to sink in that greasy, unclean river. She couldn’t swim, so it had to be done in shallow water. She didn’t like to pop her head under, either, but they told her if she would fill her lungs with air and hold her breath, there would be no danger. She was plump, and her bones were small. Being filled with air made her still more buoyant. Also, she had on a little silk skirt that got air under it and ballooned on top of the water. Dorothy simply couldn’t drown. When she popped her head under, the little skirt stuck up in a point like the tail of a diving duck. Such an effect would never do for a picture like “Romola.” From their window in the Grand Hotel, Mrs. Gish and Lillian, watching through a glass, laughed hysterically at Dorothy’s efforts to drown. Dorothy finally struck: she could stand no more of the Arno water. The scene was finished one chilly day in America—in Long Island Sound. Dorothy had a cold at the time, and they thought she would contract pneumonia. But that was a poor guess. When she came out of the water, the cold was gone. Clean, salt water, Dorothy said. In the picture, Dorothy, as Tessa, has a baby.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

They borrowed the cook’s baby, the youngest of nine, a fat, robust bambino, strapped to a board, Italian fashion; easy enough to carry, properly held, but not handy for cuddling. Juliana was her name, and as lovely as one of Raphael’s cherubs—lovely, even among Italian children, all of whom have little madonna faces, because for generations expectant mothers have knelt ardently before altars and wayside shrines. Lillian and Dorothy became fond of Juliana, took walks with her, carrying her, board and all—a burden which increased daily as Juliana got fatter and fatter. They wished Juliana would not grow quite so fast; there were scenes where they had to run with her. Italian babies are seldom warm, in winter. One day, Juliana broke out with a rash, which at first they thought was measles, but was only the result of the studio heat, heat from the great Klieg lights. Lillian had a maid named Anna, a large, lovely soul, but a menace. If one got an ache or a pain, Anna came running with an enormous Italian pill, the size of those on the Medici coat-of-arms. After a day at the studio, in the strained “Romola” poses, Lillian once mentioned having a back ache.

Anna commanded her to undress and lie down. A very little later she came bringing a bath towel, and a flat-iron, the latter quite definitely warm. Then, turning the world’s darling face down, she spread the towel on her back and proceeded to iron her. It was drastic, but beneficial. The ironings became a part of the daily program. Anna decided that her mistress needed blood, and cooked for her apples in red wine. They were delicious. “Romola” was finished near the end of May. The last scene was the burning of Savonarola, terribly realistic. Lillian got so near the fire that she was scorched. A few days later they saw the rushes and she was ready to go. The great Italian episode was over. It was unique, and remains so. Big companies do not go on foreign locations any more. They build Italy or any part of the universe on their lots in Hollywood. Lillian in America found that she had been chosen by Sir James Barrie for the picture version of “Peter Pan.” No one could have been better suited to the part, and it greatly appealed to her. But there were complications. Regretfully she put it aside. Pleasant things happened: Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski modeled busts of her; Nicolai Fechin did her portrait, as Romola. The last was given a special exhibition in the Grand Central Art Galleries, with a reception to Lillian and the artist under the patronage of Cecelia Beaux and New York’s social leaders. It was bought by the Chicago Art Institute and today hangs in the Goodman Theatre of that city.

Poster_-_Romola
Poster_-_Romola

“Romola,” released through the Metro-Goldwyn Company, had two great premières: at the George M. Cohan Theatre, New York, on Monday, December 1st, 1924, and at the Sid Grauman Theatre, Hollywood, on the following Saturday. Lillian and Dorothy, with their mother, managed to attend both. The Los Angeles opening was so much more a part of the “picture” world that we shall skip to it, forthwith.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian
Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

It was unique. Manager Grauman had stirred up all Los Angeles and Hollywood over the return of the Gish girls with a new picture. They had anticipated no reception at the train. King was already in Los Angeles; he might be there … a few friends, maybe, not more. But when the train drew in, they noticed a great assembly of expectant people, most of them wearing badges—a rally of some sort, a convention. Lillian and Dorothy stepped to the train platform, and were greeted with a shower of rose-buds, thrown by gay little girls who had baskets of them; a vigorous and competent band struck up; a siren began to blow; everybody shouted and pushed forward; all those badges had on them the word GISH; all the battery of cameras that began to grind was turned on them; the rally was their rally—a welcome—welcome home to Los Angeles. Producers and directors were there. Irving Thalberg, handsome, youthful-looking, pressed forward. Mrs. Gish, thinking him from the hotel, handed him her checks, and a moment later was apologizing. But he said it was all right—he was always being taken for his own office boy. John Gilbert was there, and Norma Shearer, and Eleanor Boardman, and ever so many more. A crowd of students from the Military Academy rallied around; also, a swarm of “bathing beauties” from the Ambassador, and a fire engine came clanging up, for the Fire and Police Departments had been called out. A news notice says:

A squad of motorcycle policemen and fast cars of the Fire Department, made an escort for the automobile provided for Lillian Gish, Dorothy and their mother, through the downtown district. Sirens and bells added to the noise of welcome. Not much like the old days, when with Uncle High Herrick, they had landed with “Her First False Step” at a one-night stand. They drove to the Ambassador Hotel. Mary Pickford had not been at the train, but they found her standing in the middle of their “flower embowered drawing-room”—never more beautiful in all her life, Lillian thought. By and by, Mary, Lillian and Dorothy, motored out to the old Fine Arts Studio, where “The Birth of a Nation” and so many of Griffith’s other pictures, had been made. They found the old place hidden behind a brick building. “Intolerance” had been made there, and “Broken Blossoms.”

Egyptian Theater -1922
Egyptian Theater -1922

Douglas Fairbanks and many others had begun, there, their film careers. They recalled these things as they looked about a little sadly, at what had once been their film home.

Manager Sid Grauman had gone to all the expense and trouble he could think of to make this a record occasion. “Romola” was following Douglas Fairbanks’ “Thief of Bagdad.” It must not fall short.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

“A première without a parallel. A night of all nights. The most gala festivity Hollywood has ever known. An opening beside which other far-famed Egyptian premières will pale into insignificance.” These are a few bits of Manager Grauman’s rhetoric, and he added: “Every star, director and producer, will be there to pay homage to Lillian and Dorothy Gish.” They were there. The broad entrance to the Egyptian was a blaze of light and gala dress parade. The crowds massed on both sides to see the greatest of filmland pass. Doug and Mary (who had already run “Romola” in their home theatre), Charlie, Jackie … never mind the list, they were all there. High above, the name of LILLIAN GISH blazed out in tall letters. When she arrived, and Dorothy, and their mother, their cars were fairly mobbed. Cameras were going, everybody had to pause a moment at the entrance for something special in that line.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian
Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

Manager Grauman was photographed between the two stars of the evening, properly set off and by no means obliterated, small man though he was, by the resplendent gowns. After which, came the performance. Manager Grauman had fairly laid himself out on an introductory feature. There were ten numbers of it, each more astonishing than the preceding:

Lillian Gish Profile Romola

“Italian Tarantella,” “Harlequin and Columbine,” “The Eighteen Dance Wonders,” but why go on? It was a gorgeous show all in itself. After which, the beautiful processional effects of Romola’s story. There was no lack of enthusiasm in the audience. When the picture ended and the lights went on, and Lillian and Dorothy appeared before the curtain, the applause swelled to very great heights indeed. And when a speech was demanded, Lillian, in her quiet, casual way, said:

“Dear ladies and gentlemen, both Dorothy and I do so hope you have liked ‘Romola.’ If you have, then, dear, kind friends, you have made us very happy, very happy indeed … and you have made Mr. King, who directed ‘Romola,’ very happy, too.”

From the applause that followed, it was clear that there was no question as to the importance of the occasion—all the more so, had they known that, for Hollywood, at least, it was the last public appearance of these two together. The critics did not know what to make of “Romola”—did not quite dare to say what they thought they felt. To William Powell, as Tito, nearly all gave praise; some regretted that Ronald Colman did not have a better part. Dorothy, as Tessa, had given a good account of herself, they said, and Charles Lane, as Baldassare. Of Lillian’s spirituality and acting there was no question, but there were those who thought the part of Romola unequal to her gifts. As to the picture, one ventured to call it “top-heavy,” whatever he meant by that. One had courage enough to think it “a bit dull.” Another declared that it contained all the atmosphere and beauty of the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici. “Romola” was, in fact, exquisite tapestry, and the dramatic interest of tapestry is a mild one.

Life And Lillian Gish

Albert Bigelow Paine

New York, The Macmillan Company – 1932

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes
lillian-gish-gleb-derujinsky-sculpture
Lillian Gish and Gleb Derujinsky’s sculpture – Romola

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THE GREAT LOVE (Paramount-Artcraft, 1918) Selected Film Criticism

Selected Film Criticism

THE GREAT LOVE (Paramount-Artcraft, 1918)

Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 7, No. 2 (October 1918), page 77

The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall

P. S.–We’ve just caught David Griffith’s latest, The Great Love. Griffith credits a British army captain as the author, just as he named M. Gaston de Tolignac as the creator of Hearts of the World. But, in both cases, we suspect Griffith’s own hand in the writing. Jim Young, an American, goes to England in 1914 and enlists on the side of democracy at the start of the great war. Jim meets and comes to love a young Australian girl living near the big training camp. But a youthful tiff and a sudden shift of Jim’s regiment to the front, cause the sweetheart to waver and finally marry a titled Englishman, who is not only a rake, with a cast-off favorite and the inevitable baby waiting on his doorstep, but a traitor as well.

Lillian Gish - The Great Love (1918)
Lillian Gish – The Great Love (1918)

But she never really becomes his wife and, when hubby commits suicide on facing exposure, she tumbles into Jim’s khaki arms. No, it isn’t much of a story. It is ahead of the average feature in handling but it isn’t anything to add to the Griffith laurels. The director is at his best in the idyllic early love scenes between Jim and Sue, at his worst in trying to achieve a height of suspense in the Zeppelin invasion of England. Here Jim upsets the Hun signals and causes the aircraft to blow up an empty field instead of Britain’s biggest munition storehouse. This is entirely too long drawn out.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

The Great Love is merely a modern story of the war told in the terms of the old Biograph melodrama. Lillian Gish overdoes the kittenish tricks of Sue but she has several really poignant moments. Robert Harron is — Robert Harron, while Henry Walthall makes the very villainous villain at least subtle. But Walthall isn’t at his best here.

–Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 7, No. 2 (October 1918), page 77.

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Movie Star – A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood – By Ethan Mordden (1983)

The First Star and the Greatest Star

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish by Charles Albin Cca 1919

Hollywood in the 1920s was seething with inventive directors both American and foreign. Griffith had cast a spell of self-willing individuality: everyone wanted to do something special. But an actress pays for superb direction with her liberty, and this Pickford could not do. Even with Lubitsch, whom she admired (and disliked) and who was to become, as she foresaw, one of Hollywood’s unique talents, Pickford at one point had to take her director aside and point out that she owned the picture from script to rushes, that he was working not only with her but for her, and that in controversy she would cast the telling vote.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Pickford’s fellow Biograph player and lifelong friend Lillian Gish never had that problem. She stayed with Griffith to make some of the greatest films ever made in America, left him when their association had reached its natural end, worked with the brilliant Henry King on two foreign ventures, and became one of the biggest stars at the biggest studio, working with King Vidor and Victor Seastrom.

A Wedding
A Wedding

And while Pickford made her last film in 1933 and never acted again, Gish is still active, having played a key role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and made a presentation on the 1981 Academy Awards show. It is, without rival, the longest star career in history. It began like Pickford’s, with mother, fatherless sibling (Dorothy), and the regional stage. The Gishes met the Smiths on one of their tours and one day at the movies spotted Gladys in a Biograph, Lena and the Geese (1912). Eager to see their old friend, Lillian and Dorothy sought her out at Biograph, where Griffith beheld Lillian and saw in her all the conflicting romances of the Victorian gentleman—for mate, mother, and angel—made manifest. Blanche Sweet, another Biograph principal, observed that Griffith was so affected by Gish’s beauty that he had to struggle to keep his composure. What Gish felt for Griffith, besides an epic loyalty and admiration, has never been made clear. It was a unique collaboration, astonishingly concentrated. A generation later, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich would duplicate this interdependent eloquence, but their films are almost entirely about Dietrich’s image, whereas in his Gish films Griffith creates an entire world. Actually, he believed he was describing the world as it is, and to many he was: a world in which beastly men and gallant men vie with each other for the chance to debauch or protect women. Gish, with her rosebud mouth, tumbling locks, fragile body, and wide, seeing eyes, was the absolute Griffith heroine; but more: the ultimate Griffith star, for no other better suited his way of working.

The Gish sisters folded nimbly into the Biograph stock company, so that we find them in 1912 playing the leads in their first film, An Unseen Enemy, as two girls terrorized by burglars; and as extras later that year in The New York Hat, strolling merrily through a village scene. The New York Hat marked Mary Pickford’s farewell to Griffith, as a girl pilloried by gossips because the town minister (Lionel Barrymore) has made her the present of an expensive hat. At length it is revealed that the gift is a bequest of the girl’s mother, who died exhausted by a skinflint husband and wanted her daughter to enjoy a luxury. Griffith tacks on a marriage at the end for Pickford and Barrymore, but what he’s really after is a sense of smalltown life, with its misers and snoops as well as its goodness. Pickford had had enough of getting locked into these increasingly well-detailed friezes of American life—plus she wanted more money. But Gish found herself in her element helping Griffith open his camera upon the world, and money was not an issue with her. She enjoyed his lengthy rehearsals, preparing a film as if it were a play, perfecting the whole thing before taking a shot, and didn’t miss not having name billing. Indeed, Griffith couldn’t tell Lillian from Dorothy at first, and directed An Unseen Enemy by the color of their hair ribbons: “Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you’re scared, too. Look toward me, where the camera is.”

This appears to contradict Blanche Sweet’s report on Griffith’s obvious attraction to Lillian from minute one, but it is sure that at some point early in there Griffith and Lillian Gish locked eyes, and she figured heavily in his mythopoeia from then on. In a lead role in The Birth of a Nation (1915) Gish is already well on the way to defining the Griffith heroine* and already a surprising actress. At first you think, What’s all this stuff she’s doing? What’s this mannerism? Then, looking more closely, you recognize the “mannerism” as the gestures of life, and it’s all so natural that an actor who would get by quite nicely in some other film would look like something out of a home movie next to Gish. Certain of her bits in The Birth of a Nation are famous—her goodbye to her brothers as they leave to fight the Civil War on the northern side, when she worries and flirts and jokes all in a matter of a few seconds; the way she fidgets when,  ending her wounded southern beau in a hospital, his mother comes in; her habit of drawing back from men she likes, as if their sexual power is something she can feel and fear; or her imperious palm that breaks up hostilities between her beau and an unctuous carpetbagger.

 

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Yet, again, Griffith is not featuring any one person but pulling the parts of a world together into a story. His actors must be this naturalistic, all of them, and this expressive, or he can’t pull it off. If we are to believe in his nobility, his villainy, his world where beauty dies in a day because the rats never stop coming, that world must seem to be the true world, at least while the film is running. You can rehearse for a year, but in the end you can’t act it: you must dwell in it. That was the Griffith training. That’s why, when films were shorts and only a few people attended them, his films were the best films, and that’s why, when he began to make full-length films, everyone in the country became a moviegoer. That’s also why Little Mary had enough of Griffith fast. She didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s world, nor did she regard film as morally as Griffith did. Typically, it was Gish who talked Pickford out of destroying her films. Pickford thought of them as timely art that would lose its effectiveness when fashions changed; Gish thought of them as an ageless force for community, a ritual like that of the old Greek stage. Griffith’s good guys will always be on the right side if you’re as good as they are, and his bad is always bad, no matter what current opinion maker is selling what particular brand of snake oil. Good is fairness. Bad is rape, stealing, murder, making business monopolies, fomenting civil disorder, and passing laws to invade other people’s lives. No wonder some people find Griffith so awesome. Can so moral a code survive a jazz age?

Even as early as 1919, when Griffith joined Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin in United Artists, many thought he was played out. But in Broken Blossoms (1919) he and Gish proved that their way was still vital—so much so that the entire film consists of a thread of story involving a helpless waif (Gish), her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and the Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) who chastely adores her. We don’t need a whole world this time. This is Griffith’s cameo tragedy, his little gem. Everybody dies. Crisp beats Gish to death, and Barthelmess avenges her and kills himself.

Griffith had made Broken Blossoms for Adolph Zukor, but when Zukor screened it he thought it insultingly depressing; and Griffith, in perhaps the only sound business deal of his life, bought the negative back from Zukor for $250,000 and took it to United Artists for their first release, as a top-price road show. It grossed millions. Clearly, Griffith and Gish were not yet outmoded. In fact, their vision of protective man and defenseless woman reached its apex in Way Down East (1920), “a simple story of plain people.” Its source, an old melodrama, had been a staple of second-rate regional stock but a joke in the city centers, yet Griffith paid an unheard-of $175,000 fo the rights.

Now he must be mad. The story is familiar: a country girl seduced by a city slicker finds shelter with good country people and love with their son; she is unmasked and thrown out into a blizzard. The son saves her from death in the icy river. With city wags and town characters, mansions and barns, Griffith would again produce his microcosmic allegory, and with Barthelmess again paired with Gish, young American love would find its ideal representation in his sturdy grasp of events and her touching inability to cope with them. True, 1920 saw American art nearing the age that liked women who could cope and which had lost interest in rustic chivalry.

Still, Griffith held an ace in the river rescue—no one filmed a suspense chase finale as well as he—and he managed to renew the old tale with that typical Griffithian commitment to what it says. For Griffith and Gish did not care about time. They cared about what they believed, about what is true, not what is successful. In a world ruled by gruff country squires, vile seducers, and comic constables and filled out with wise, forgiving mothers and self-righteous spinster reformers, Gish as Anna Moore delivers her most fulfilled portrayal. In his opening titles, Griffith tells us that man’s “greatest happiness lies in his purity and constancy.” But man is fickle, and Griffith shows “the suffering caused by selfishness.” His heroine is basic: “We call her ‘Anna’—we might have called her Woman.” No surprise then that Gish is so finely textured here: she’s carrying the weight of her entire sex.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

Broken Blossoms has the most famous Gish touches—the pathetic smile she makes by forking her fingers into her upper lip, for instance, or the hysterical fit she suffers in a closet, whirling around out of control as her father breaks in to kill her. Way Down East doesn’t dazzle that way; the world doesn’t dazzle. Even Gish’s most famous scene, the baptism of her dying infant, is not the aria we expect from hearing it described, but another mere fast bad moment in Anna Moore’s life. Not till, exposed in her “shame,” she exposes her betrayer at a populous dinner does she at last release the frustration and outragepent up in her. It’s a terrific sequence: mingled fury and tears in a back-lit close up,* then Barthelmess smashing a plate and going for the blackguard who made Gish miserable . . . then the realization that in the melee Gish has fled the house. The ice chase follows. One thing that sets silent days apart is silent actors’ willingness to take bald risks if the action called for it. They didn’t do all their own stunts, not even Douglas Fairbanks. But Swanson’s bout with the lion and the serial queens’ acrobatics are typical, and so is the participation of Gish and Barthelmess in Way Down East’s finale on the ice floes, which still gets cheers today. Griffith intercut a few shots of Niagara Falls, but most of the footage was shot in a blizzard at White River Junction, Vermont. It was so cold the ice on the water had to be dynamited each day to produce the plates that Gish lies on and Barthelmess leaps to and from to rescue her; the camera froze; some of the crew came down with pneumonia. And, of course, Gish thought of the last touch of realism, letting her hand trail in the water as the floes glide along. (The hand still bothers her occasionally today.)

Why did these people go through all this? Certainly not for the money. Griffith paid the lowest salaries going. Foolish as it sounds, they simply believed in what he was doing. So did the public, who made Way Down East a vast success and boosted Griffith back up to the eminence he held at the time of Birth of a Nation five years earlier. One wonders what Mary Pickford, Griffith’s fellow United Artist and Gish’s close friend, thought of Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, of the Griffith-Gish collaboration in general. After all, she might have been the “Griffith Girl” if her temperament hadn’t led her down her own road. Even apart from Griffith and Gish, however, Little Mary belongs to them and they to her. The three of them together encapsulate the value system of silent audiences, from city proles in the nickelodeons to fashionable New Yorkers who paid ten dollars a head to attend Way Down East’s first night. Griffith fixed and enforced the moral code, laying down role models for manly heroism; Little Mary and Gish complementarily shaped the ideal of womanhood, independent and sexually adult (Little Mary) and weak and unknowing (Gish).

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Little Mary’s would seem the more adaptable prototype, especially in the 1920s, but Pickford found herself hemmed in by the expectations of an audience which suddenly had the Colleen Moore flapper to admire for grit. From Little Mary they wanted sentiment.

Carol Dempster 1920s
Carol Dempster 1920s

Gish’s problem was that critics (and presumably the public; producers made that assumption) began to tire of her persona, though she brought it off flawlessly every time. Another problem was that Gish and Griffith had gone as far as they could together. Even before Way Down East the director had begun breaking in the next Griffith Girl, Carol Dempster. Gish made one last film with her mentor, Orphans of the Storm (1921), with her sister Dorothy as foster sisters caught up in the French Revolution, and then moved on—sadly, it appears, but then Griffith habitually fledged youngsters and then launched them forthfrom the nest onto the money and the fame. Gish needed neither. But, as she must have realized, she also didn’t need Griffith.

Gish had always had a knack for picking stories ripe for film treatment; and, pulling together everything she had learned with Griffith, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), for Inspiration Pictures, both directed by Henry King with advice from Gish. The heroine of The White Sister is an epitome of the Griffith heroine: a nun who dismisses lover Ronald Colman (whom Gish more or less discovered” for the two films) to honor her vows, though she only took them in the first place because she mistakenly believed Colman dead.

Romola, from George Eliot’s novel set in Renaissance Florence, has more than a touch of Griffith about it, in the score by Louis F. Gottschalk (a Griffith regular) and the Intolerance-like detail work in the sets. Moreover, here were two propositions that Hollywood simply could not see—one heroine is a nun! and the other runs around Renaissance Florence in these gigantic snoods!—just as Hollywood couldn’t see Griffith’s ambitious ideas (till they made fortunes). But The White Sister attracted such notice when Gish premiered it in New York that Metro picked it and Romola up, signed Gish to a contract, and, reformed as MGM, set the wheels in motion to make her their biggest woman star. But Gish was no Theda Bara, no Mae Murray, no Nazimova. You couldn’t fool or coddle or flatter her. And look what she says: “The only time I had a personal press agent was when I . . . hired Richard Mitchell to keep my name out of the papers without hurting anyone’s feelings.” Out of the papers! Nor was Gish eager to adapt to studio methods when her own would make the art longer.

Still, the MGM stint started well. For her debut Gish suggested Henri Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme, the novel about starving artists in Paris that became Puccini’s opera La Boheme. Gish wanted the director and stars of The Big Parade, a war film she had screened in rough cut. She asked for Hendrik Sartov, from the Griffith days, as cameraman, and she urged the studio to use the new panchromatic film that she had tried on The White Sister and Romola—much easier to light for and photograph on than the standard Hollywood stock. To all this, her producer, Irving Thalberg, assented.

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

So Gish was in effect her own Little Mary, her own Griffith, her own person: and queen of the lot. She convinced La Boheme’s director, King Vidor, to let her show the cast how to rehearse the entire film before shooting, in the Griffith manner, talked the front office into letting her play a virginal Mimi who loved but was never seen to kiss her Rodolphe, John Gilbert, and played such a convincing death scene that Vidor thought she had got carried away and really died. In the end, Gilbert (who was being built up as The Great Lover) had to kiss his Mimi, and Gish obligingly suffered the clammy retakes, but otherwise La Boheme (1926) shows the profit of letting Gish have her way. How many others could march into a rising, already sinfully powerful studio and have their way almost to the nth? When Griffith yelled, “Feel it!” at you every day for years, you learned to feel; this more than anything marks Gish’s MGM features, because she’s feeling down into the bald truth of character and most of the others are big gullible puppets.

Similarly in control on The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), Gish was the last actress to make a series of truly great films in Hollywood at her pleasure, without reference to what was currently popular. Thalberg thought The Wind dreary. Its tale of a gentle Virginian maiden whose marriage tragically disintegrates in the unstable Texas climate built up to a rape attack, detailed her murder of the rapist and her ensuing madness as the wind blows away the sand with which she covered his body and seems to jerk him back to life to terrorize her all over again. Thalberg plunked a happy ending onto it—the man who comes into the house at the end is not the dead rapist but Gish’s roughhewn husband (Lars Hanson)—proving that independence is finite. Furthermore, a pair of MGM features that Gish neglected to plan herself did not come off well. Still, while MGM believed her hot enough to take her advice in order to release her pictures, she managed, quite smoothly, to make totally satisfying films, something Mary Pickford did at this time with some difficulty. No public clamored for a Little Lillian, no Lubitsch marred Gish’s sense of self, no lingering identity as a big spender will threaten her in the hard times just around the corner, as it will Gloria Swanson.

What makes a star? More exactly, what gives a star power? Little Mary’s favorite director, Marshall Neilan, ticked off “The Six Great Essentials” for women stars in a Photoplay article: beauty, personality, charm, temperament, style, and the ability to wear clothes. Neilan did not require these as a whole. Rather, the ideal star emphasized one above the others. For examples, he cited Pickford for personality, Swanson for the clothes, and so on. Lists like these are shallow and misleading, but so were many perceptions about stardom in 1922, when Neilan unveiled his recipe, and virtually all stars of the day covered all six points nicely. (True, Pickford’s roles put her into rags and pinafores more often than not, and Gish counted the dress parade as the least absorbing essential of acting. Still, they both filled gowns nicely when asked to.) If one must choose one thing that set Pickford and Gish apart from others it was Pickford’s lovability and Gish’s concentration, but the closest thing on Neilan’s list to either element — thinking grandly, now—is temperament, and for that Neilan cited Norma Talmadge. Who?

The most remote of the biggest silent names, unknown to today’s young movie buffs, who have at least caught a clip of vamping Bara in some retrospective or checked out Nazimova’s Salome curio, Norma Talmadge is virtually never seen, and when mentioned she is usually dismissed as a soap opera conceit who couldn’t act. Yet she spans the silent years, from the freewheeling Patents Trust days right into the front end of studio power and the talkie, and in many ways is the most representative of all stars. Like Pickford, Gish, and countless others she entered film young as the breadwinner for a fatherless family. Like Pickford she had a stage mother; like Gish she had a sister also in films. Like most stars she worked with great directors (like Herbert Brenon and Allan Dwan), okay directors (Frank Borzage and Clarence Brown), and hacks (Sam Taylor). Without stage experience, Talmadge wandered into the onereeler at the age of thirteen, grew up playing everything, worked for D. W. Griffith, and married mogul Joseph M. Schenck, who made her the star of the kind of films which historians and critics neglect and which fans and buffs savor: stunning costumes, romance, suffering, and the heroine’s sad, sad yearning gaze off into somewhere. Her coworkers liked her, the public adored her, she made a fortune, her films rotted away in vaults, and who now knows what she was? Who knew then? For here was the apogee of the banal. Talmadge had beauty and the ability to wear clothes, but she had the personality of melting sherbet and the style of a pizza waitress. Temperament? Farrar had temperament. Nazimova had temperament. Negri had temperament. Talmadge had hairdos. Yet she is central. Her popularity tells us so. She stands at the crossroads of parts that were to prove key for decades: her New Moon (1919) was remade by Grace Moore, her Smilin’ Through (1922) by Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald, her Secrets (1924) and Kiki (1926) by Pickford, her Camille (1927) followed Nazimova’s and preceded Garbo’s, her Dubarry, Woman of Passion (1930) succeeded versions by Bara and Negri. There may well be only one Great Essential for stardom: to be in the right place at the right time.

One Romantic Night - United Artists
One Romantic Night – United Artists

Maybe no one can avoid being typed, if only because anyone who is worth noticing has character, and character is what “type” is, from role to role. But to survive for more than an era, a star must avoid being what one might call typed by time: limited to one role useful to the culture in one age and not useful thereafter. Swanson’s clotheshorse and Colleen Moore’s flapper, for instance, were trapped by their eras, which is why they couldn’t work much beyond 1929, when the era turned over. Sound didn’t hurt them; history did, transformation, from jazz into Depression.

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942
Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (right), 1942

We left Little Mary and Lillian Gish at the plateau of 1929—Wall Street or the sound track, depending on how you read it—and it will be interesting to see how these two key characters weather the changed times. Pickford has less to worry about, as she owns her work. Gish, at MGM, is vulnerable. How long can a PR-resistant woman stay famous in this increasingly PR-devoted era? How long will Mayer and Thalberg permit their prima donna to tell them what she wants? What’s this business about rehearsing films as if they were plays? Throw her out! Mess her up so the competition won’t grab her. Use sound—maybe she’ll talk funny. Give her the worst director in Hollywood. Make her sing, make her Charleston. Throw them all out, that bunch who thought they owned Hollywood! Swanson, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, Talmadge, the united schmartists. This is the age of the studio, producer power. Fit in or get out.

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

Possibly Gish noticed the change in the air when Thalberg offered to invent a romantic scandal for her, to focus public sympathy on her. She may simply have longed to try the stage again. She may have heard about Mayer’s plans to sabotage John Gilbert’s career to make an example of him (if we’re willing to mash our own biggest star, at a cost of millions of dollars, then there’s no one we can’t mash, and they’ll all know it) and left Hollywood in horror at the kind of people she was dealing with. She had grown close to the viciously witty theatre critic George Jean Nathan, who hated the movies; perhaps he talked her into heading for Broadway. Whatever her reasons, Gish left on her own initiative.

But, though she didn’t know it, she was in the process of being edged out at MGM, and out of Hollywood altogether. Her time had come; that simple. It had taken a very heavy decade to do it, but the very world that Griffith had used to create the American film—film as the American collection of heroic and romantic sagas and film as industry—was gone by 1929. Gish and Little Mary had to go with it. So, tragically, did Griffith, who made two clumsy talkies and was definitively pastured while his successors set to rewriting the sagas. Griffith’s—and Gish’s and Pickford’s—models for fine men and courageous or holy women were renovated for a post-jazz age America; and no one, not filmmakers and not filmgoers, wanted to give the old hands a chance to take part. How different talkies will be from silents!—and not only, not even mainly, because of the dialogue. It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did. And suddenly Griffith was out and Pickford was out and Gish was out; and the men were a little dirty or cowardly or selfish, and the women were a little stupid or cowardly or trivial. Okay, our mythology could use a little naturalism, and naturalism dissipates heroism and wisdom. But it’s sad for the heroes. One can understand how easily studio power toppled Griffith and Gish.

The director had hopelessly overextended himself in his business dealings, never to come out from under the debts he assumed in making Intolerance in 1915. And Gish, as a Hollywood dissenter, would go quietly. But how could Little Mary have gone down, with her millions of fans and her share of United Artists? Share? Those who were there recall the UA board meetings as being largely a tug of war between businessmen who had no grasp of film and Pickford, who had forgot more about film and business than anyone will learn. Chaplin was as ignorant of business strategy as Griffith, and Fairbanks was a jerk. It was Pickford who made the studio make sense. They’d all talk, and she’d listen, then she’d cut in with “No, gentlemen, I don’t agree,” and proceed to demolish all that had been said with the logic of experience and vision. Which suggests that Little Mary should have been the one woman to weather the timechange. But she didn’t. Having, she thought, prepared the way for a Big Mary in Dorothy Vernon and My Best Girl, she played the heroine of a southern middle-class tragedy in Coquette (1929), winning the first talkie Oscar as Best Actress.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Great. But the public had been clamoring for a Doug and Mary picture, remember? She pulled off a walk-on dream lady in Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1927), not unlike Elizabeth Taylor’s Helen of Troy in Richard Burton’s Doctor Faustus, but in 1929 the Fairbankses went all the way in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Sam Taylor. If they had to do a film together, this was a good choice. Petruchio would provide Fairbanks with his brash rogue shtick, and Katherine would test Little Mary with a new part. He could only be Fairbanks and she liked a test, so it should have worked. Instead, it killed her. Taylor, one of Hollywood’s worst drudges, was Fairbanks’ man, and he colluded with the increasingly unsure actor at Pickford’s expense. The set was run along Fairbanks lines, with late starts each day, no retakes, plenty of time out for exercise sessions or snowing visiting VIPs or just loafing, and Pickford had no help from either man. The film looks good, but it’s a disaster and Pickford knew it. Fairbanks sounds like a potato chip talking, Taylor’s edition of Shakespeare is illiterate, and Pickford flounders. One longs for Lubitsch.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Little Mary’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this. But, like her characters, she thought of a solution and applied it. She would film a story that exploits the Little Mary heroine yet is timeless, working with her most sympathetic director, Marshall Neilan. A sound plan. But alcohol had dulled Neilan’s brain; and the subject, Norma Talmadge’s Secrets, the story of a pioneer couple, didn’t seem timeless so much as historical. At some point late in the production, Pickford took stock, realized it couldn’t work, and closed the production down.

She was so angry she burned the negative. Nothing else she tried worked, either. Nothing flopped, precisely, but she needed a smash. Kiki (1931), a Parisian backstager directed by the relentless Sam Taylor, was more Big Mary, and her second try at Secrets (1933), this time with a fine director, Frank Borzage, and Leslie Howard as her husband, opened just after Franklin Roosevelt’s bank holiday, when nobody was in a movie mood. And that was the end of Little Mary.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.

By ETHAN MORDDEN (1983)

Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood
Movie star : a look at the women who made Hollywood

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Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter) – Lillian Gish (1984)

Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter)

General Editor: Marc Wanamaker (1984)

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

In 1913, Cecil B. De Mille took the westbound train to the end of the line, and found himself in Hollywood. It was not, at first sight, a cataclysmic discovery, merely a ranch that had grown into a small pastoral town in the Southern Californian desert. Where there was irrigation, there were groves of oranges and avocados. Where there wasn’t, there was sand. Hardly the place you would expect to become the headquarters of the world’s greatest dream factory. Yet, in seven short years, the major studios had established themselves in the wilderness and the production schedules ran to 800 films a year.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Lillian Gish

With a certain beauty, even in her eighties, gracious in an old fashioned way, but also tough and incredibly hard working, Lillian Gish has been described as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen” and “Lady” is an apt word for her.

Her father, a ne’er do well, died before he was 30 and part of a dedication in one of her books reads: “To my father who gave me insecurity”. Penniless, Gish’s mother overcame her deep shame at the very prospect and went on stage, her daughters Dorothy and Lillian following her—as Baby Dorothy and Baby Lillian. But always they were in plays that their mother deemed to be of a sufficiently high moral tone.

“We were good children,” Gish later said. “Mother taught us good manners, to think of others before ourselves. We never learnt to play, we got into the habit of work.”

Shameful profession

The Gish girls made friends with the Smiths, another hard-up theatrical family, but when Gladys Smith made her screen debut Mrs Gish was appalled: to her mind appearing in films was even more shameful than going on stage. “What terrible misfortune can have befallen Mrs Smith that Gladys should be in the movies?”

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

However, Gladys’s new film name was Mary Pickford, and not only was she destined to become a superstar herself, she introduced the Gish family to the same possibility. It was while waiting for her in the Biograph Studios that they were spotted by D.W. Griffith, who put Mrs Gish, Lillian and Dorothy into An Unseen Enemy (1912), labeling the girls with red and blue ribbons so that he could tell them apart.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

From there, he took Dorothy and Lillian to Hollywood, making them stars in films like Birth ofa Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) which stand among the greatest achievements of silent Hollywood. Over the next decade Lillian Gish went on to feature in over fifty D.W. Griffith films.

Exciting footage

“It was hard work, working for Mr Griffith,” Gish has said with her characteristic mixture of understatement and politeness. Five of the cast died of exposure when they were making Way Down East. “Mr Griffith kept shouting ‘Look into the camera’ but I couldn’t —I had icicles on my eyelids.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Gish herself was nearly killed when an ice-floe she was standing on unexpectedly broke away and sped down-river towards a waterfall, but she was rescued by Richard Barthelmess, the leading man. Griffith, typically, stood by—making sure that the cameras were still turning so that he could use the exciting footage.

Spaghetti with Valentino

The same rigorous standards applied on other films too. “Once, when I was filming in the desert sun, I went to a studio car to change. 1 touched the door handle—and left half the skin of my hand on it. It was dangerous. But we never questioned it. We would never use stand-ins,” Gish later said.

In Hollywood Gish was surrounded by admirers but kept herself aloof from the sordid scandal-mongering that was all around. She was friendly with Rudolph Valentino, the man for whom women killed themselves or spent their lives in mourning. “Rudi was a nice boy,” she once said. “He used to come up and cook spaghetti for Dorothy and me.”

She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and has said that that is why she never married. “Somehow marriage seemed like a full time job and I never had that kind of time. I had a lot of good men friends, but I thought why ruin their lives by marrying them?

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

I never wanted to possess anybody.”

Unlike some other silent performers whose voices proved unsuitable for the “talkies”, Gish was driven out of Hollywood by changing styles. Her almost ethereal beauty was too subtle for an age ready for the more overt sex appeal of heroines like Garbo and Dietrich. Lesser spirits might have given up, but the complex, stubborn and intelligent Gish returned to Broadway, in classic plays like Hamlet and Uncle Vanya. Broadway critic George Jean Nathan tried hard to persuade her to marry him, but she claimed that she was too busy for such a commitment.

Fighting back

She continued to work at a furious pace, touring the world with retrospectives of her work, writing (her book on Griffith is acknowledged as the best description of his methods and influence), and making films—notably Duel in the Sun (1946) and Night of the Hunter (1955). At 80 she appeared in a cameo role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978).

“I’ve never known what to do except work; if you start acting when you are five there isn’t a lot of point in trying to do something else when you’re 84,” she told an interviewer. “I expect I’ll still have a couple of days shooting to do when they bury me.”

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish 1954
Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish
The Hollywood reporter star profiles
The Hollywood reporter star profiles

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THE MOTHERING HEART (American Biograph, 1913)

THE MOTHERING HEART (American Biograph, 1913)

The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 70, No. 1803 (July 9, 1913)

When it was announced some weeks ago that the Biograph Company would release a photodrama of two-reel length a considerable stir of pleasant anticipation was experienced among those interested in the Licensed pictures. The Biograph Company has long had the enviable reputation of doing things well, and it has, at least, lived up to the reputation with The Mothering Heart. After due reflection we are convinced that it is one of the most notable productions, from an artistic standpoint, the Biograph Company has made. Lillian Gish, as the little mother, while showing extreme youth, interprets her part with pleasing taste and remarkable intelligence.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

There are moments when the pose which she is caused to assume seems to bear out too plainly a conscious purpose on her part. Some of her attitudes of a blank, unseeing nature when the heart is torn with grief, seem to be held a bit too long for the best effect. But she has sincerity and, altogether, she is charming. Walter Miller in the role of the young husband, who is led astray only to repent, and return because of parenthood properly realized, exhibits a splendid personality all his own, which is saying much when we consider the present tendency among some picture players to copy one another.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

The basic theme is not wholly new to us; we have seen it handled before in divers ways, but in such a scene as we have at the close of this picture where the two estranged parents lean over the crib where lies the cold form of the baby, we have another evidence of the Biograph’s ability to successfully manage a most delicate situation. For the girl to have accepted the man back on his first show of repentance would have been disastrous; but the need of him and his full regeneration are clearly shown in the final working out. It is note-worthy that all the principal scenes in the picture are done close up to the camera, and some of the photographic coloring is beautiful. Particularly is this true of the scene, ’’The New Light. ” One of the most remarkable scenes we have seen for atmosphere and completeness of detail is the cabaret cafe. It is a picture that grows upon one with reflection.

–G. in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 70, No. 1803 (July 9, 1913), page 28.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

The Mothering Heart (1913)

The Mothering Heart is a 1913 American short drama film directed by D. W. Griffith. A print of the film survives in the film archive of the Museum of Modern Art. Walter Miller as Joe – the Young Husband Lillian Gish as The Young Wife Kate Bruce as Young Wife’s Mother Viola Barry as The ‘Idle Woman’ / Outside Club (as Peggy Pearce) Charles West as The ‘New Light’ / Among Waiters Adolph Lestina as The Doctor / Club Patron Jennie Lee as The Wash Customer Charles Murray as Male Apache Dancer Gertrude Bambrick as Female Apache Dancer William J. Butler as Club Patron Christy Cabanne as Outside Club Donald Crisp as Undetermined Role (unconfirmed) Josephine Crowell as Woman Collecting Ironing Edward Dillon as Club Patron John T. Dillon as Club Patron William Elmer as Doorman Dell Henderson as Club Patron Harry Hyde as Outside Club J. Jiquel Lanoe as Outside Club / Club Patron Charles Hill Mailes as Club Patron Mae Marsh as Undetermined Role (unconfirmed) Joseph McDermott as Among Waiters Alfred Paget as Club Patron Gus Pixley as Club Patron W. C. Robinson as Club Patron Henry B. Walthall as Club Patron

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

The film opens by showing a young woman (Lillian Gish) in a garden. She is tender hearted, demonstrated by her appreciation of the flowers and the rescuing of a puppy. A melancholic young man (Walter Miller) woos her and she is foolishly swayed more by his pain of rejection than her love for him and eventually agrees to marry. Later in their new home together she takes in washing to help support them when her new husband has little income. Things change when he finds some success in a well paid job. He insists they celebrate at a restaurant where there is an Apache dance cabaret. He wears a new suit but she her plain street clothes. Her husband’s eye is caught by a sophisticated single woman (Viola Barry) at the next table.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Later, encouraged by the woman, the husband begins to deceive his wife and have clandestine meetings with her. She is rich and has a chauffeur-driven car at her disposal. The wife, now pregnant, as evidenced by her interest in baby clothes, discovers a glove in her husband’s coat pocket. She follows him and uncovers his deceit. After confronting her husband she leaves him and returns to the home of her mother (played by Kate Bruce) where the baby is born. We now see the husband being dropped by the sophisticated woman for a new richer male companion (Charles West). The dejected husband sitting alone at home receives a letter from the wife telling him of the birth. He resolves to make it up with her. We learn next that the baby has becomes ill and is attended by a doctor (Adolph Lestina). The husband arrives at the wife’s mother’s house and she allows him to see the wife and child.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

However the wife wants none of him and angrily rejects him. While the husband sits dejected in the garden the baby dies. The wife vents her anger on the bushes in the part of the garden in which the film opened. She returns to find her husband bent in grief over the crib. He is tenderly holding the baby’s dummy. Their hands touch and the husband sees she is still wearing her wedding ring. They are reunited in an embrace and the film ends.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

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REMODELING HER HUSBAND Paramount-Artcraft, 1920) Selected Film Criticism

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

REMODELING HER HUSBAND

(Paramount-Artcraft, 1920)

  • Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 18, No. 4 (September 1920), page 106.
  • Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News, Vol. 21, No. 26 (June 19, 1920), page 5011.

This is a woman’s picture. A woman wrote it, a woman stars in it, a woman was its director. And women will enjoy it most. It does an unusual and daring thing; it presents the feminine point of view in plot, in captions, in sets and acting. Our worthy contemporaries of the various film trade journals took a good crack at it. They have to take a good crack at something. But at the Rialto in New York, where this review was accomplished, the audience just sat back and howled–and there were men there, too. Lillian Gish has gone back to acting, but we’d like to tell her that she is almost as good a directress as she is an actress–and that’s going some. Little things count in this picture; details are not overlooked. Dorothy Gish is just–Dorothy Gish, which is enough for most people. There is no-one like her, and when she gets good stories she should lead her class. James Rennie, recruited from the legitimate, is a gratifying leading man.

–Burns Mantle in Photoplay, Vol. 18, No. 4 (September 1920), page 106.

*****

Only the presence of Dorothy Gish, with her undeniable charm and inimitable comedy, saves this piece from becoming a tiresome entertainment. We can think of no other actress who can endow the tried and true role of the young bride, whose object is to tame her husband, with so much color and personality. Whatever appeal this picture has is found in her performance, although it must be said that her leading man, James Rennie, a newcomer to the screen, gives a distinctive bit of acting. He catches the spirit of the part with true comedy insight–never for a moment losing his balance and overstepping the mark.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

The idea is indexed in the pigeon-holes of producers’ desks, who cater to farce-comedies, as Number 1. It is lugged out repeatedly, although there is never any attempt to refurbish it–or dress it up with novel headlights. In this case Remodeling Her Husband runs true to form. The pattern is complete in every particular.

Dorothy Gish - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish – Remodeling Her Husband

You have the young bride who simply adores her husband and is happy to settle down in marital bliss; you have the equally young groom who is determined to indulge in just one more fling. His flirtatious disposition carries out the conflict–which is mostly a series of scenes capitalizing his ability to alibi himself and his spouse’s efforts to bring him to account.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Remodeling Her Husband

There is a goodly amount of comedy business established in this mild but pleasant action due to the star’s sure-fire touches, coupled with appropriate dialogue. Finally she is provoked into leaving him when he simply can’t make his eyes behave. He is a trifle ashamed of her because she hasn’t the dash and style of the w. k. flapper. Well, the upshot of it is she goes into business and after being separated hubby realizes what a wonderful girl she is and becomes repentant. And thus to the final clinch. There are moments when the action drags, but for the most part Dorothy Gish is there sending out shafts of her quaint humor. The idea is hardly big enough for feature expression, but the continuity is so even, the direction so spontaneous, the acting so spirited, that the lapses aren’t unduly noticeable. Lillian Gish shows her versatility as the director and her ability to make the most of the story is a creditable achievement.

–Laurence Reid in Motion Picture News, Vol. 21, No. 26 (June 19, 1920), page 5011.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie – Remodeling Her Husband

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