A Life on Stage and Screen – by STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish

A Life on Stage and Screen

By STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish - Life With Father (Stuart Oderman - book cover)
Lillian Gish – Life With Father (Stuart Oderman – book cover)

PREFACE

New York City: March 12, 1993. There were 700 mourners in attendance at St. Bartholomew’s. The pews were already filled before the start of the eleven o’clock memorial service.1 Even before it was announced in the newspapers and on radio and television, many knew that Lillian Gish had passed away in her sleep at her East 57th Street apartment, where she had lived alone for many years.
“It was what she had wanted,” James Frasher, her longtime personal manager, told the press.2 “She died at 7:03 p.m. on February 27 in her own bed. She was film. Film started in 1893, and so did she.” Film, in the days of its infancy, meant a quickly cranked black-and-white onereeler exhibited in nickelodeons for an audience of poor people, immigrants eager to plunk down their nickels for a new minutes of escapism from the factories, tenements, and drudgeries of the day. In her silent film years, Lillian had risen from a $5-a-day player hired off the street for the Biograph Company in 1912 by D.W. Griffith to co-star with her sister Dorothy in a one-reel melodrama, An Unseen Enemy, to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leading lady who, in 1927, could command a salary of $400,000, along with her choice of director, script and cast approval, and the added luxury of extra rehearsal time. She had lived long enough to see the “flickers” become “talkies,” which became multi-million dollar color extravaganzas that commanded high ticket prices, sometimes required reserved seats, and caused traffic jams.

 

Father, Dear Father

The Springfield, Ohio, where Lillian Diana Gish was born to James Leigh and Mary (McConnell) Robinson Gish on October 14, 1893, wasn’t very far removed from the wilderness of an earlier time.

Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street
Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street

If one wanted to learn of the latest births or deaths or new arrivals settling down, or attempt an honorable courtship, the church was of central importance as a proper meeting place. In Springfield and the surrounding areas, there were small churches of different denominations. To attract and maintain new and established congregants, “dinner on the ground” (a link to a time when churches were hard to find – and preachers harder) became very popular.  It was a common sight to see pioneer wives with food baskets coming to worship in the morning and then staying for the afternoon service.

Springfield Ohio - Downtown
Springfield Ohio – Downtown

Always an active theatre state, Ohio was home to touring companies featuring the likes of Jane Cowl, Maude Adams, and playwright Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, who left the security of a tailor’s job in Cincinnati to join a touring company.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

To this nomadic life, with its frustration and heartbreak, Mary Robinson Gish would have to surrender herself and her daughters if they wished to survive. The origins of James Leigh Gish were not known or easily traceable. Everyone knew that Lillian’s mother, once known as “pretty May McConnell,” could trace her solid American ancestry back to President Zachary Taylor, a poetess named Emily Ward, and an Ohio state Senator, who was their Grandfather McConnell. Even in an era when townspeople discussed their kith and kin with unabashed alacrity, nobody could speak a complete paragraph about Mary Gish’s husband. James often described himself as a travelling salesman, a “drummer.” Although the most skilled drummers (which James wasn’t) could charm their way through town after town, changing their stories and lines of patter as the occasion required, the only James Gish story about which there was complete agreement was his courtship of young, pretty May McConnell. They had met in May’s hometown, Urbana,  and were married very quickly. Thanks to Mary McConnell’s father, James was able to get a job in a grocery store with the hope that one day he and his wife would have saved enough money to open a confectionery business of their own.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mary never criticized her husband or his ideas in front of Lillian or her younger sister, Dorothy. Lillian’s retelling of what had been said to her was greeted with a stony silence. It was bad enough to subject other townspeople to drunken reveries in the subdued light of a local tavern, but to put these wandering notions into the mind of an innocent little girl? Where did he get his upbringing? When would he assume the responsibilities of a Christian, God fearing father and stop playing the role of a feckless ne’er-do-well?

Without James’ knowledge, she and her daughter joined the Episcopal church and were regular worshipers, maintaining the tradition that had begun in Springfield. Perhaps if Mary’s thoughts were spoken in proper prayer and constant Sunday devotion, there might be salvation for James. Indeed, for everyone. We must bear and forbear. Amen.

James-Leigh-Gish.jpg
James Leigh Gish

Before the summer ended, James left his family in search of business opportunities in other cities, tightening the bond between Mary and her daughters. Lillian, somehow becoming aware of James’ erratic behavior patterns, knew not to upset her mother with painful questions. Everything Lillian wanted she had found on her Aunt Emily’s farm: chickens, a cat who was always asleep, and a friendly dog. There was no need to think about an absentee alcoholic father who made her mother cry and wasted money on drink.

James Leigh Gish
James Leigh Gish

 

The Road to Biograph and Mr. Griffith

At the end of the engagement, Mrs. Gish took her daughters to East St. Louis, where she managed an ice cream parlor, assisting the wife of her recently deceased brother. The workday was long, sometimes twelve to fourteen hours. It left her little time to spend with Dorothy or Lillian. Lillian, never an outgoing person, especially needed to be helped. She had been maturing into a young lady and hadn’t received the benefits of an education or childhood experiences. When not acting on stage, she preferred to be alone, spending those quiet hours looking out of the window or curled in a chair, reading books. Sometimes she helped her mother.

streets-of-st-louis-missouri-1900s
streets-of-st-louis-missouri-1900s

To provide a place for Lillian to play and receive a much wanted education, the Ursuline Academy would supply properly cooked meals, a room, and schooling for twenty dollars a month. It would be a financial burden, but Mary Gish acquiesced to Lillian’s please. With an education, she could play “serious, grown-up parts,” and perhaps read better for a director. Without the right education, she would always sound like a little girl. After the initial weeks of adjustment to convent life, Lillian welcomed the opportunity to be removed from the pressures of touring, the lack of constancy, and the nomadic existence of a stage player. The Ursuline Academy provided her with the first stability she had ever received.

St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)
St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)

Something called “flickers” was beginning to affect the attendance at theatres. While some stage veterans might have viewed these primitive entertainments as the latest novelty for the lower classes and recent non-English speaking immigrants, it did not take producers long to realize that the nickel price for a program of short films and  newsreels, accompanied by a pianist whose melodies could soften the noise of the hand-cranked projector and underscore the action on the screen, was less than the dime needed for a seat in the upper gallery. Suddenly, “live” players didn’t mean that much. “Flickers” could be shown over and over, from the early morning until the very late evening. There would always be a steady stream of customers.

Cinema old

In 1903, a twelve minute one-reeler in fourteen scenes called The Great Train Robbery, filmed by the Thomas Edison Studios in West Orange, New Jersey, was causing a sensation -whether exhibited in formerly empty storerooms with hastily assembled screen and chairs or in specially built nickelodeon parlors. By 1908, the year of the release of D. W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, 8 there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons across the United States.

griffith david wark_737

D. W. Griffith’s American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was a typical New York brownstone of the 1850s: four stories with a commercial basement that opened onto the street. Originally, the brownstone had been a private home prior to being tenanted by the Steck Piano Company. When Steck vacated the premises, the basement stores were rented, and the building was leased to Biograph for five thousand dollars. Because some stage actors had scruples about being recognized entering a place that manufactured such low entertainment, they reported to work through a basement store that served as a rented tailor’s shop. Their fear was not of being seen by the public, but by fellow stage professionals who might spread the scandalous news that they knew someone who had to resort to the “flickers” to pay their room rent or feed their (obviously destitute)  families.

the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio

From his first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908 ), Griffith proved he was the master showman. The Adventures of Dollie contained all of the elements of melodrama that would appeal to an audience: a child is kidnapped by villains, imprisoned in a barrel, and sent down the river, over the waterfalls, and rescued in the final minutes by a group of boys fishing in a stream.

An Unseen Enemy

  • continued the pattern set by The Adventures of Dollie. By constantly changing the point of view, the audience could not avoid being drawn into the plight of the Gish heroines. Like good storytelling worthy of his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, Griffith successfully utilized Poe’s short story techniques of presenting the main character and a particular problem, then adding further complications that leads to the climax and denouement. “Scare ’em,” and then “save ‘e m.”

Despite the successes of earlier Biograph arrivals Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, Lillian in her first film, An Unseen Enemy, would prove to be Griffith’s romantic notion of the perfect heroine. Through film after film, she would maintain, no matter how great the danger, a vision of spiritual purity worthy of the respect one would show to one’s mother or sister. It was an innocence that did not yield to desire. You wanted nothing to happen to her. You wanted to save her, to cherish her, to protect her from corruption and the evils of the world she might encounter if she left the house. She would rise above any negative environment like an angel heaven-bound. Beneath her outer fragility was the undying strength of iron. Off screen, Lillian had the same aura, recalled Hearst journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who began her long newspaper career in 1913, one year after the arrival of the Gish sisters. Lillian knew how to present herself. She always created her own atmosphere. She had none of the features you would associate with the “vamps” or the bad girls. She had blonde hair and big blue eyes, which we would  associate with the fairy tale princess illustrations or the little dolls girls would play with. Lillian was always radiant, like the children you see in holy pictures: not of this earth, and very ethereal. Because she moved with such elegance and grace, like a trained ballet dancer, I think she intimidated men. She would look them directly in the eye and then turn away very demurely. Men loved it. They respected her. Respect for any lady in Hollywood was very rare. Yet Lillian inspired respect. Even in her Griffith days, in an era before women had the right to vote, men would stand up when she approached their table.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

 

The Last Reel

On her birthday in October 1990, the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, was rededicated after extensive repairs that included the installation of a 35 millimeter projector with surround sound, replaced floor and wall coverings, more Gish memorabilia in the gallery, new lighting, and plush red seats. Each seat had a name plate on the back, acknowledging Lillian’s and Dorothy’s friends and admirers who helped the theatre Lillian called “a little jewel” glitter with even more warmth.

The Gish Film Theater

 

On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.

 

Epilogue 

“Any artist has just so much to give.

The important thing is to give it all.

Sometimes it’s more than you think.”

Lillian was just making another disappearance.

 

Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater

 

  • Note: The original illustrations from Stuart Oderman’s book are placed in the photo gallery below:

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Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father
Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father

 

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LEADING LADIES – 1976 (Electa Clark)

An Affectionate Look at American Women of the Twentieth Century

ELECTA CLARK

Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association's support for Bristow-Mondell amendment
Horse drawn float declares National American Woman Suffrage Association’s support for Bristow-Mondell amendment

The 1900s

THE DEAR LITTLE WOMAN

 

“Humanity marches on into the new and glorious 20th century!” exults a daily paper in its first issue of 1901. “Come, oh century, child of hope!” begins a long poem on page one. Another column trills, “We are 20th century women … with the dower of privilege and responsibility which enriches women in this wonderful era!”

Philadelphia Journal 1900
Philadelphia Journal 1900

The quotations are from the Republican, of Columbus, Indiana, then the center of population of the United States. All across the country, journalists, preachers, and ordinary folk rejoiced with the same exuberance. The nation was rich and would grow richer! Railroads were faster and better every day, factories were busier, cities were larger, people were cleverer, life was more stimulating than ever before!

Of course a few evils remained to be righted: child labor, sweat- shops, epidemics—but the greatest country in the world would quickly set those right.

Americans believed in America.

Votes for Women
Votes for Women

Women were pleased with themselves. “Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” boasts the Republican, “were handicapped in girlhood by a thousand prejudices and cast-iron traditional rules from which we are emancipated.”

Sanger On Court Steps
Sanger On Court Steps

Among the new freedoms was the freedom to join clubs, if their papas or husbands permitted. Most of these were self-improvement clubs in which the ladies read works of Browning or Dante, enjoyed the hostess’s tea and cookies, and returned refreshed to their family duties.

Prohibition W2
Prohibition W2

The 1920s – CALL IT A SPADE 

‘Behind a Veil of Silver Chiffon”

 

In a grim World War I story. Company K, author William March has a soldier in the muck and misery of the trenches draw a framed magazine picture of Lillian Gish from a pocket every night and every morning to study the sweet pictured face. Knowing that something pure and good still existed in the world was the talisman that preserved his sanity through the war.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

Lillian Gish had a similar effect on millions who saw her in the movies. She was not only talented, she had a unique quality: pure, ethereal, elusive. As if she acted in whispers. As if in her hands, the definite blurred into the indefinite. It was drama critic George Jean Nathan who described her as being “behind a veil of silver chiffon.” He courted Lillian for years, but she eluded marriage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

She had two great loves: her sister Dorothy and her mother. Her father had deserted his family when the girls were babies. Mrs. Gish, a loving, gentle, sympathetic woman, was not the stereotype mother of actresses; she did not storm her way into producers’ offices or manage her children as if they were properties. She was simply there, warm- hearted and protective.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

The bond between Lillian and Dorothy Gish never weakened. How different they were! Dorothy was mischievous, fun-loving, and irresponsible. She never reached such heights of stardom as Lillian, but she had her followers, who delighted in her gift of comedy. At the same time, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. “Miss Apprehension,’’ her sister and mother called her. Again and again she played major roles in successful plays, and at rehearsals was always her rowdy self, and the cast never guessed her hidden fears; but by each opening night her conviction of failure was so acute that she was nearly ill.

Lillian, who never had Dorothy’s skylarking, slapstick moods, was always grave and dignified. Fans often wrote asking why she smiled so seldom in her movies; yet she had a serenity denied the mercurial Dorothy. In early years, the three Gishes lived together whenever the girls’ engagements were in the same city; but in later life they gave up this practice. Dorothy was too riotously untidy for the fastidious Lillian.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

Miriam Cooper, an actress who later married director Raoul Walsh, tells the story of an evening when she, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, and other young members of a “Hens’ Club” held a meeting in Dorothy’s room. Lillian was not one of the group. Aloof and studious, she was considered too standoffish. On this evening, as the party became more and more high-spirited, the Hens acted on an impulse, ran across the hall to Lillian’s room, and threw open the door shouting, “Surprise!”

Then they stopped, abashed. Lillian lay on her bed in a filmy negligee, golden hair outspread on a pillow. She looked up from the Shakespeare she was reading, and annoyance flashed across her face. But with instant good manners she stood up, welcomed her guests, and talked cordially as long as they stayed—which wasn’t long. They backed out, discomforted by the difference between this room, which only Dorothy had seen before, and her sister’s room.

Lillian Gish brushing her hair - Nell Dorr 1930
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish standing and brushing her hair]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3506

Dorothy’s room contained only three or four pieces of shabby Mission oak furniture, but Lillian’s had velvet draperies, gilt-framed mirrors, and lace-trimmed pillows. They were astonished too at the difference between this seductive woman and the sexless girl who walked around the studio with a book under her arm and was ignored by the men on the set.

Lillian 20 Garden

Lillian was known as “Mr. Griffith’s girl,” because they often had dinner together—in public, of course. But as Mr. G. had prim, Victorian standards of behavior; and as his young ladies were strictly supervised; and as everyone on the lot watched everyone else closely, there was no chance for hanky-panky, and no evidence that the Gish-Griffith affair was other than platonic.

Like Maude Adams and other fine actresses, she was sternly disciplined, and no amount of rehearsal was too much to achieve perfection. She never spared herself hardships, be they heat, desert wind, or around-the-clock labor.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

One of her early movies, made under D. W. Griffith’s direction, was the melodrama Way Down East The height of the action comes when Lillian’s inconsiderate employer, believing her to be a fallen woman, orders her out of the house into a blizzard. The silly girl doesn’t stop for hat or coat, but heads for the nearest river and begins walking the ice floes. By and by she faints and is carried downriver toward the neighborhood waterfall. Richard Barthelmess, the farmer’s son, likes the girl better than the old man does, and thinks it would be well to rescue her.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

This was a genuine Vermont blizzard, for which the cast waited a month or more, because no flimsy studio snowstorm would satisfy Griffith. Rehearsing and shooting the river scene took three weeks.

Nobody had it easy. Mr. Griffith’s face froze. Several cameramen came down with pneumonia. To keep the camera upright during the gale, three men had to lie flat in the snow, gripping the tripod legs, and a small fire was kept going directly under the camera to keep its oil from freezing.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

For her scene lying on the ice, Lillian Gish had thought up a piece of business that she was foolish enough to suggest to the director and then had to act upon. She let a few locks of hair and one hand trail through the water as she rocked her way downstream. It certainly added to the woe of the scene, but it also froze her hand, which forever after ached in cold weather. She lay on the ice about twenty times a day for those three weeks of rehearsal before the job was finished.

In the final take of the rescue scene, Richard Barthelmess got his. He wore a heavy raccoon coat, and in his cavorting from one ice floe to another he floundered onto one that was too small and tipped him into the water. He clambered out and that soggy coat must have weighed a ton, give or take a few pounds, but there was no time for a retake because now the rescue was for real. While he had fooled around under water, Lillian’s ice floe had jogged on, dangerously near the edge of that too-genuine waterfall. But he slogged on, scooped her up, and wrestled to shore with the poor girl pressed to that icy fur bosom.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish - ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Among the many fine movies that Lillian Gish made during the twenties was Orphans of the Storm, in which Dorothy Gish played the blind sister. To heighten the drama, Griffith had transposed a well-tried old plot to the time of the French Revolution. When the film was shown in France, it raised storms of fury. French pride was outraged because an American producer dared portray French history without its best dress on.

Next Lillian played in The White Sister. The whole cast went to Italy to film the story, the first American company ever to do so. Opposite Lillian Gish was a handsome new actor, Ronald Colman. When her lover is believed killed, the heroine becomes a nun, but after she has taken her solemn vows he returns, and a love scene of great power follows. An unhappy ending is arranged, however, that solves the girl’s dilemma, as he presently drowns in a flood. The White Sister was one of the great successes of the twenties.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

After that Lillian Gish played in Romola also filmed in Italy; in La Boheme, opposite John Gilbert, and in The Scarlet Letter. To speak again of France, audiences there were mystified by all that fuss over the birth of an illegitimate baby.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

In 1930 Lillian left Hollywood for Broadway and later appeared on TV. In that medium she played with Helen Hayes in the wonderfully funny Arsenic and Old Lace.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Even in old age, Lillian Gish never lost her special quality, that elusive enchantment of being afloat behind a veil of silver chiffon.

— ELECTA CLARK —

 

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Letters of Carl Van Vechten – 1987

Carl Van Vechten 1956
Carl Van Vechten 1956

Letters of Carl Van Vechten – 1987

selected, and edited by Bruce Kellner

Bruce Kellner by Van Vechten
Bruce Kellner by Van Vechten

Being intimate does not take courage, but it takes experience. . . .

I have never been anything else, writing letters or writing books.

— Carl Van Vechten to Paul Padgette, 3 November 1963

Self Portrait of Carl Van Vechten
Self Portrait of Carl Van Vechten

During a long and productive life in American arts and letters, Carl Van Vechten was widely recognized for several careers—as music and dance reviewer, literary critic, scandalous novelist, photographer, jazz enthusiast, popularizer of young black writers, and promoter of the avant garde.

Now another facet of his remarkable talent is available through this selection of his letters to 150 people, culled—from among the thousands he wrote—by his friend and biographer Bruce Kellner. Amusing or informative as signposts along the cultural avenues he traveled, the letters are addressed to a literary, artistic, musical, and theatrical Who’s Who, including Theodore Dreiser (who shared his bootlegger), Lillian Gish, Langston Hughes (whose career he fostered), Ellen Glasgow, James Weldon Johnson, Alfred and Blanche Knopf (his longtime publishers), Sinclair Lewis, Mabel Dodge Luhan, H. L. Mencken (who genially fought with him about music).

Lillian Gish - Beinecke Library YALE Orbis catalog
Lillian Gish – Beinecke Library YALE Orbis catalog

There is an intimacy to letters, as Carl Van Vechten knew, if only because of our own thumbs at their margins, a friend’s touch, a lover’s touch, sometimes a stranger’s, and words for us alone. A telephone call is surely more immediate, and eventually we will be facing each other for short as well as long distance communication on television phones—extensions in the kitchen to watch each other cook, plug-ins in the bath to eavesdrop on ablutions—as progress has its way. Letters will grow even rarer than they are at present, and letter writers will seem more anomalous than they now must to many people. Already the daily mail amounts largely to batches of catalogs and pleas for worthy causes. An occasional letter camouflaged among them is rare enough. A message travels faster by wire and wind, but hang up the receiver and it’s over; hang on to the letter and it’s not. Those of us lucky enough to have come in at the end of the written era were luckier still if we were on the receiving end when Carl Van Vechten wrote letters. He worked them into a busy chronology spanning the first half of the century, during which, in the best sense of an old-fashioned word, he was its leading dilettante: a lover of the arts, a connoisseur.

Lillian Gish, the American actress, was an acquaintance

through Van Vechten’s wife Fania Marinoff.

Fania Marinoff - Vogue 1923
Fania Marinoff – Vogue 1923
Fania Marinoff 1934
Fania Marinoff 1934

TO FANIA MARINOFF [24 January 1927]

Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles, California

The fun began about 5 when I went to a party at Lois Moran’s, where I met Lillian Gish, Jim Tully, Joan Crawford, and Florence Vidor. Lillian Gish pretended she remembered me from Good Little Devil days. This I don’t believe …

TO LILLIAN GISH 30 January 1936

146 Central Park West New York City

Dear Lillian, Fania read your interesting contribution to The Spiritual Woman some time ago and doubtless wrote you of her enthusiasm, but I delayed as I have been too swamped in work these last weeks for a man of my venerable years. Last night, however, I read what you had to say with pleasure, and profit. Every word glitters with wisdom and if you can strike subsidies out of hard-hearted senators by your efforts, you will have done something of historical significance. Yet it is obvious that Art should be subsidized, a fact that is readily recognized when our government sends cultural ambassadors abroad.

I am writing this on the day that Mencken died and of course all of us must think of this. However, what a BLESSING the manner of his death!

We send our best love to you. Carlo

“The fascination of Carl Van Vechten’s letters is thrilling. A time and period in our history come vividly to life— and with such nuance. Read on…”

— Lillian Gish

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Letters of Carl Van Vechten
Letters of Carl Van Vechten

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

LION of HOLLYWOOD (2005)

The Irving Thalberg building on the MGM lot, 1942

The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer

By SCOTT EYMAN

IN THE SUMMER of 1944, when he looked out his window on the third floor of the Thalberg Building, Louis B. Mayer saw a studio—his studio—that covered 167 acres. Lot 1 encompassed seventy-two acres, housed all the thirty soundstages, office buildings, and dressing rooms, the seven warehouses crammed with furniture, props, and draperies. Lot 2 consisted of thirty-seven acres of permanent exterior sets, including the town of Carvel, home of the Hardy family, and the great Victorian street from Meet Me in St. Louis. Here was the house where David Copperfield lived, there the street where Marie Antoinette rolled to the guillotine.

MGM-backlot-set-for-Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis-1944
MGM backlot set for Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis, 1944

Harry Aitken was a dervish of deals, and he couldn’t keep his figures straight. At various times, he reported that Mayer had paid either $25,000 plus 10 percent of the gross, or $50,000 plus half the net. Associate producer Roy Aitken reported that Mayer, in concert with one Daniel Stoneham, offered $50,000 for the New England rights to the picture (Birth of a Nation), half up front, with a 50-50 profit split once his costs had been recouped. He was consistent about one thing only— Mayer never sent him a dime of any percentage monies.

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

Mayer’s own version of the deal, as he recalled it ten years later for Lillian Gish, was that “I pawned everything I owned—my house, my insurance, even my wife’s wedding ring— just to get the New England states’ rights. Since then, everything’s been very pleasant. If it hadn’t been for D. W. Griffith, The Birth and you, I’d still be in Haverhill.” The figure he remembered paying was $55,000. Actually, the deal seems to have been far more clear-cut than the Aitkens claimed.

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

Mayer formed a company called Master Photoplays—he owned 25 percent of it and paid $50,000 down against 10 percent of the net after Mayer paid off his investment. Boston was excluded from Mayers territory until September 12, as the Aitkens had that area for themselves until then. In his first year of handling the film, Mayer sent Epoch $15,000 for their 10 percent of the profits. The year after that, he paid only $1,500. Mayer always said that his company made a million dollars off the picture, 25 percent of which was his, indicating he radically underpaid Epoch. However much Mayer ended up with, it was the foundation of his fortune—and his future.

Mother and Dorothy

One of their employees was a woman named Mary Gish, who ran a candy stand. Her two daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, learned to ride horses at Paradise Park. Years later, Lillian Gish would become one of the signature stars of the company L. B. Mayer would run for Marcus Loew and Nick Schenck. In 1910, the Schenck brothers purchased Palisades Park in New Jersey, across the Hudson from Upper Manhattan, where Nick built an elaborate roller coaster called the Red Devil. After it was constructed, nobody wanted to go on it because it was thought to be unsafe, so Nick went on it himself, and the ride became one of the most popular at the park.

Pallisades Amusement Park New Jersey (adv. poster)

Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927
Katherine Lewis, Fred Niblo and Lillian Gish during the filming of The Enemy, 1927

In July, Niblo had a brainstorm: “After having a long talk with Miss Lillian Gish, and showing her the MARY and JOSEPH episode on the screen, I am sure that she could be induced to play MARY if you would care to do this entire episode over again. It would not take over two weeks because we could still use the long shots that we have and put her in the close-ups.” Mayer and company decided, just this once, to simplify their lives. The footage of Betty Bronson as Mary was retained.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Mayer wasn’t in creative competition with writers, as Thalberg, in some sense, was. One of L.B. s few dictums about writers was that no original author of a play or novel should be hired to adapt that property into a movie, because they would be too rigid. But writers are by nature spiky and often disreputable, which drove Mayer crazy. “Some of these writers are getting drunk,” he complained to Thalberg, “and they have three-hour lunches in the Derby. We ought to put our foot down!”

“No, Louis, they’re signed for 52 weeks,” he replied. “If I get 42 weeks a year out of them, that’s fine with me. It’s worth it. Let them alone, they’re doing fine.”

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

Lillian Gish was welcomed to the studio with a banner across Washington Boulevard that proclaimed LILLIAN GISH IS NOW AN MGM STAR. Bands played, flowers were strewn, beaming executives welcomed her. Gish was going to be paid a great deal of money— $800,000 for six pictures, with an option for a seventh. Mayer granted her consultation rights on stories, directors, and cast. There was no morals clause, nor were there any requirements for publicity or promotional appearances.

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

For La Boheme, Gish’s first MGM picture, she was given the studio’s hottest leading man, John Gilbert, fresh from the smash hit of The Big Parade. King Vidor did his usual dramatically subtle but visually dynamic job and the picture showed a profit of $377,000.

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

When Gish told Mayer she wanted to make The Scarlet Letter as her second MGM picture, Mayer leapt to his feet and responded with a virtuoso monologue that Gish could still recall fifty years later with perfect pitch and inflection.

“You? You? You? In a story like that? Miss Gish, would you feel comfortable making a motion picture about such a woman like Hester? How are we going to show that on the screen without running into the censors? We can’t show you and that minister just holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes. This isn’t Way Down East! Motion pictures have grown up. This is the twenties, not D. W. Griffith! Audiences have grown up! They want a real love scene, especially since they know the book, as you say. They know a baby’s going to come of this lovemaking! How do you propose to show that?”

Lillian Gish - Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

Gish suggested that titles might come in handy for touchy transitions, but Mayer wasn’t having any. “Titles? They can get words from the book. We make pictures, not titles. Today’s crowd wants women to act like women, not like little innocent school girls. How do you think the churches are going to take this film? Do you think they’ll recommend it? They’ll think that Lillian Gish has betrayed their trust!”

Gish asked if Mayer would let her make it if she could get around the obviously dicey story problems, and Mayer said yes. In due time, Gish received cautious approvals, so the talk turned to who could play  Dimmesdale. Gish told her biographer Albert Bigelow Paine that by this time, “I had faith” in Mayer. “I think I have found the minister for your Scarlet Letter,” he told her one day. He told Gish to go into one of the projection rooms and look at Gosta Berling.

There was a young actor named Lars Hanson in the film, and Mayer thought he might be right for Dimmesdale. “If you like Hanson for the part, we’ll bring him over,” he concluded. She did; they did. Thalberg selected Victor Seastrom to direct.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

The Scarlet Letter flowed; Seastrom shot the film in less than two months. Lars Hanson didn’t speak English and played all his scenes in Swedish while Gish and Henry B. Walthall spoke only English, but Hanson’s emotional power and sense of character overcame the language difference. At the end of one dramatic scene, the crew spontaneously applauded; when the picture was completed, Thalberg said, “We have done a good job,” which was about as emotional as he ever got. Seastrom was given a bonus—not the usual $5,000, but $10,000. Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains the best screen version of the novel. The acting is so intense you can practically hear the voices, and Hendrik Sartov’s camera gives the story a lyricism all the other versions lack. In spite of the stark, still ending, The Scarlet Letter made a profit of $296,000, but sniper fire erupted from magazines like Photoplay, which said “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” Aileen Pringle, who was star ring at MGM contemporaneously with Gish, believed that Mayer was unhappy with Gish’s choices in material and was using Photoplay editor James Quirk as a surrogate.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian - backstage The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – “backstage” The Wind

“Mayer didn’t get the returns he thought Lillian Gish was capable of bringing in,” Pringle told Stuart Oderman. “But he didn’t want to look like the evil man. He let Photoplay do the job. Then he could call in Lillian and show her what was being written about her. Movies have always been about money.” He was similarly uneasy about Victor Seastrom s The Wind, with Lillian Gish killing a would-be rapist. Seastrom shot the picture in the spring of 1927, at his usual efficient pace, on location in the Mojave Desert.

Seastrom remembered a particularly grim preview of the picture. When it was over, none of the MGM officials said a word to him beyond, “Good night, Victor.” To the end of his life, Seastrom remembered the horrible feeling of this experience. “It comes sometimes still to me in the middle of the night.”

Lillian Gish - burial scene - The Wind
Lillian Gish – burial scene – The Wind

As Gish recalled, Thalberg told her, “We have a very artistic film,” which she knew was a criticism. In Gish s telling, Thalberg explained that a preview audience hadn’t liked the ending, in which Gish’s character was driven insane by the omnipresent winds and wandered out into the storm to die.

“Mr. Mayer heard about the reactions and he rushed us into a happy ending,” Gish said years later. “Mr. Thalberg kept saying how artistic the film was, and Mr. Mayer kept shaking his head, repeating over and over like a broken record, ‘Ghange the ending. Ghange the ending. Ghange the ending.'”

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, publicity photo for The Wind (Letty Mason and Lige Hightower)
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, publicity photo for The Wind (Letty Mason and Lige Hightower)

That, at least, was Gish’s version; the historical record says something quite different. In fact, Gish was reciting the ending of the novel, which was never in any version of the script and was never shot. The studio clearly was nervous about the picture, not releasing it for a full year, in November of 1928. By that time, sound was a roaring freight train obliterating the softer music of silent movies, and The Wind was an orphan film.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes - The Wind
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes – The Wind

The provisionally happy ending didn’t help—the film lost $87,000, anyway. Lillian Gish had made The Scarlet Letter, La Boheme, Annie Laurie, The Enemy, and The Wind for MGM. The cumulative result for the five pictures— three financial successes and two failures (Annie Laurie and The Wind)— was $418,000 in profits. But after the successive failures of Annie Laurie and The Wind, the relationship between Gish and the studio cooled off. They had a serious argument over time off, then Thalberg asked her to cut her salary, offering her 15 percent of the gross after the studio had recouped its costs in an attempt to placate her. As always, MGM played hardball: “They all point to the harm they could do me by putting me out in bad pictures,” Gish wrote to her lawyer, “which, of course, is only too true. They also tell me that it would do them no harm, as they are so organized that they would go on just the same, but that I would suffer irreparable loss.”

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method.

‘Business is not an exact science.’

Louis B. Mayer

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Lion of Hollywood

Lion of Hollywood

The Irving Thalberg building on the MGM

 

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Ladies in Distress – Kalton C. Lahue (1971)

Introduction

As the 20th century began to unfold, the American motion picture was in its infancy. Most of the subjects captured on film had been vignettes from real life, and fictional stories had rarely found their way to the screen, except in the magical curiosities produced by Melies in France that were imported by enterprising distributors in this country. Fiction was not to become a useful adjunct to the motion picture’s success until sufficient techniques were developed to adequately employ it and even Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1902) must be considered as an early documentary.

But with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, Porter introduced the use of a fictional story line; he even crammed a few simple subplots into the single reel and the movies came to life. While Porter was not the first to attempt this, his effort was by far the most successful and historians have found The Great Train Robbery to be a convenient starting point. For the next decade, the pioneer producers concentrated on story development without identifying cast members to the public, but concurrently, a star system was being created by the very popularity of certain players. During this decade producers learned the value of the screen heroine, and the emphasis on feminine roles reached its apex with the appearance of the first serials in 1913-14, which featured the heroine who could take care of herself.

Theda Bara
Theda Bara

By the time of World War I, motion pictures had become big business, and type casting of players had proven to be a most profitable arrangement by the production companies. An actor or actress who found financial success in a particular type of role was immediately rushed into another similar nicture — Theda Bara is an outstanding example. This did not lead to art.

 

 

Lillian Gish by Charles Albin Cca 1919

LILLIAN GISH

Few will argue the contention that Lillian Gish stands virtually alone as the greatest of the silent screen’s heroines. A consummate actress, her cinematic performances were often artistic triumphs as well as fascinating screen entertainment; audiences seldom left a Gish picture without some new insight into the many facets of her talent. Possessing a native intuition which she brought to bear on each new role, Lillian Gish was able to succeed where other screen actresses failed. This quality, much desired by every serious actress, was a rarity given to only a few and its proper application remained an even greater rarity. Often compared by her contemporaries with Duse and Bernhardt, Miss Gish remains today as the Helen Hayes of the American screen, occupying a position in her art often sought but never attained by others. And yet it was not a great insight or artistic yearning which brought her to the screen; she and her sister Dorothy arrived at the old New York Biograph studio on East 14th Street in 1912 from simple economic necessity, as had so many others before them. The movies offered a certain security lacking in theatrical engagements — there were no slack seasons for those working in the youthful “flickers.” The fragile Gish features were heightened and emphasized on the large screen and Lillian’s delicate beauty soon became that of the archtypical Griffith heroine and her account of mastering the art of screen acting, as described in her recent autobiography (with Ann Pinchot) , The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, makes delightful reading.

Her early work for Griffith was briefly overshadowed by the presence of Mary Pickford, a friend from stage days who had invited the sisters to visit her at Biograph and whose immense popularity with audiences would rival Lillian’s artistic achievements in years to come, yet the commercial appeal of Pickford in no way detracted from Miss Gish’s accomplishments. Her films soon made their share of money, and with Mary’s final departure from (iriffith and Biograph, Lillian Gish came into her own in films like The Unseen Enemy, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Battle of the Sexes and Home Sweet Home.

Attracted to Griffith’s abundant talent by training and temperament, Lillian remained with him through his years with Mutual and Triangle. While few of her roles during this period emphasized or even required much acting ability, she managed to turn in sensitive performances in spite of the slight material handed her. Her outstanding performance as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation was Lillian’s last challenging role until Griffith left Triangle, and those years with Triangle left no particular impression on her career. Her Triangle Plays received reasonably good trade reviews at the time, but because of Triangle’s insistence that only contract theaters could play its films, her pictures were not widely distributed. But during these years, Lillian was undergoing a process of maturation in her acting and emerged a near-complete artist beginning with Hearts of the World in 1917.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - True Heart Susie 1919 — with Lillian Gish.

She gave superb accounts of herself as the rural sweetheart in True Heart Susie and the battered waif of Broken Blossoms, two very different roles. By the time she made Way Down East in 1920, Lillian Gish had no peers on the screen. It was her performance alone that kept the hackneyed old melodrama believable. Miss Gish’s association with Griffith lasted until the completion of Orphans of the Storm in 1922; beyond that point, D. W. Griffith could contribute nothing further to her career. Her mastery of screen acting had surpassed his needs, but the parting was an amicable one and she has always keenly treasured their many years of collaboration.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

After leaving Griffith her screen appearances during the twenties were much less frequent and more carefully chosen, allowing Lillian the opportunity to portray mature heroines in contrast to the saccharine sweetness and innocence of her Griffith years. Yet today, her reputation still rests heavily on the Griffith years—an interesting commentary on her career, for with Griffith, the story was the key. Few if any of his pictures could be considered as starring vehicles in the usual sense for one or two members of the cast, yet if Lillian Gish was featured in the picture, it is usually recalled as one of hers.

After completing The White Sister and Romola on location in Italy for Charles Duell, Lillian returned to the United States where in 1925 she signed a six-picture, $800,000 contract with M-G-M. Her first was a film version of Puccini’s opera La Boheme; an exceedingly fine picture in spite of the fact that it left costar John Gilbert slightly unnerved. The dashing romantic lead could not quite grasp Lillian’s conception of her role and was thus totally dismayed over her refusal to kiss him on-screen. So was Louis B. Mayer, who couldn’t see wasting Gilbert’s great talent (in view of the success of his previous picture, The Big Parade) and ordered a different ending shot.

The Scarlet Letter came next, despite Mayer’s objection to the advent of the adulteress Hester Prynne as an M-G-M heroine; it proved to be one of the finest pictures of 1926. These were followed by Annie Laurie and The Enemy, two good films but somewhat less popular than her first pair.

The M-G-M contract came to an end by mutual agreement after Lillian’s performance for Victor Seastrom (who also directed The Scarlet Letter) in The Wind, a most unusual and masterful but nevertheless depressing tale of life in the American Southwest. While Miss Gish had added a large degree of luster to the M-G-M heaven of stars, she had also become too “artistic” for its taste. Crew and cast admired and respected Miss Gish for her knowledge of their crafts and the unusually keen vigor with which she approached her work; even directors King Vidor and Seastrom were impressed with her integrity and creative interest, treating her with deference and accepting her suggestions. But in the case of The Wind, even the sales department was unsure of quite what to do with it or how it could best be marketed and as film sales were the foundation of a studio’s success, the sales people often won the day. While the film sat on the shelf awaiting some decision, sound made its appearance and finally sound effects were dubbed, a happy ending substituted for the original grim one and The Wind was released; Miss Gish had long since departed.