Roots of the Rich and Famous – by Robert R. Davenport (1998)

  • Roots of the Rich and Famous
  • Copyright © 1998 by Robert R. Davenport
  • TAYLOR PUBLISHING COMPANY
  • Dallas, Texas

Lillian Gish

Film pioneer and Oscar-winning actress Lillian Gish proudly hung a painting of her cousin President Zachary Taylor in her living room to commemorate her relationship to the hero of the Mexican War, without whom the United States wouldn’t have California or Hollywood.

Zachary Taylor almost didn’t accept the nomination to be president while he was fighting in Mexico, because the letter sent to notify him arrived postage due, and he refused to accept it!

Incumbent President James Polk, alarmed that he would lose the election to Taylor (who was winning battle after battle in Mexico), used dirty tricks that would make Nixon look like a choirboy. He reduced the size of Taylor’s army, hoping he would be defeated in battle. However, Taylor still managed, although greatly outnumbered, to soundly defeat the Mexican general Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista, and that victory swept him into the White House. As a point of interest, a street in Los Angeles named after that battle later became the home of Walt Disney Studios, and today various subdivisions of the company bear the name Buena Vista.

Noteworthy: Lillian Gish’s ancestor, the Reverend Benjamin Gish, went west with the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, the grandfather of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and settled in Abilene, Texas.

President Zachary Taylor

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Admin notes:

“Sometimes Mother took us to the national cemeteries, and we looked for the names of our ancestors on tombstones. Among Mother’s ancestors were English who came to America in 1632; the head of the family, Francis Barnard, decided to settle in Hadley, Massachusetts. His descendants intermarried with Scots, Frenchmen, and Irishmen. By the time Mother was born, the McConnells had migrated to Ohio. Mother’s maternal grandfather was Samuel Robinson, a state senator and influential Ohio politician.

Our father was James Leigh Gish. When we were older, we learned that Professor J. I. Hamaker, who taught biology at Randolph-Macon College and whose mother was a Gish, was writing a book, Mathjas Gish of White Oaks. The Professor traced the family back to 1733, when Mathias first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When I asked him once if we had lowered the family standards by becoming actresses, he replied: “Oh, that’s all right.

I’m only bringing it up to the time of your grandmother, Diana Waltz Gish.”

There were so many family names to remember: McConnell, Ward, Robinson, Taylor, Nims, Barnard, Waltz. Our Great-Aunt Carrie Robinson was always interested in the past, and she told us about our ancestor Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States. All those names were sometimes confusing.

Mother, for instance, was originally Mary Robinson McConnell, later Mrs. James Leigh Gish. When she first went on the stage, she did not want to disgrace her family by using their real names, so she took the name of Mae Barnard. Dorothy and I were usually billed as “Baby” Something or even as “Herself,” much as a dog or cat would be identified on the program.

But the little girl whose face looked back at me from the train window knew who she was.

She was Lillian Diana Gish.

Mother and her sister, our Aunt Emily, were left motherless quite young. Their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Homer took Emily, and Mother remained with Grandfather McConnell. She was feminine and pretty, with a high, rounded forehead and delicate features. She was sensitive and took after her grandmother Emily Ward, the poet. Our father, James Leigh Gish, clerked for a wholesale grocery firm in Springfield, Ohio. On a business trip to Urbana, he met Mother. He was handsome, his features regular, his eyes blue, his skin and hair even fairer than Mother’s were. They were immediately attracted to each other and were married soon after. He was only twenty, and she was eighteen.

Father left his job and with his savings bought a small confectionery business in Springfield. The young couple was living with Grandmother Gish at the time of my birth, a little more than a year later. I was born with a caul, which Grandmother Gish said would bring me luck. My life did not begin with much promise, however; at three weeks I had an attack of membrane croup. When I was about a year old, Father decided that he would do better in the candy business in Dayton, and it was there that Dorothy was born. If Mother was anxious about my health, she must have been considerably cheered by her second born, who was, in the words of her adoring family, “a dimpled darling.” Relatives who remembered us as babies have told me that I had ash blond hair, very pale skin, and a fragile body.

Dorothy’s curls were reddish blonde, and, although her skin was pale, she did not freckle as I did. Memories of Mother and Father together are few. I do remember waking up one night to see them standing over my bed. They were evidently going to a party. Mother was in red satin with a long train. Father in a dark suit. They looked so beautiful that the image has not entirely faded from my memory even now. Father was gay and lively; he loved people and gatherings. Mother, with her taste and beauty, charmed everyone who met her. I believe they were happy then. While we were still living with Grandmother Gish, I developed a habit that annoyed my father. Whenever a grownup left his chair. Father could never stay in one place for very long. Whether this restlessness was caused by a gypsy temperament or by a fear of being unable to fulfill his responsibilities was not clear to Mother. We moved from Dayton to Baltimore, where he went into partnership with a Mr. Edward Meixner, again in the candy business. But after two years of Baltimore Father again yearned for fresh horizons. Selling his share of the business to his partner, he set out to find the better life in New York City. Mother remained behind, working for Mr. Meixner. She had a flair for packaging, but unfortunately profits were not enough to support two families. Father sent her money but not enough. She decided to go to New York.

In New York Mother rented a flat on West Thirty-Ninth Street near Pennsylvania Station. She found a job as a demonstrator in a Brooklyn department store, bought furniture “on time,” and rented a room to two young actresses. I cannot recall Father being with us immediately, but he was there for a time. I still remember his fair hair and golden beard. He had evidently lost his job, yet Mother managed. I marvel now at her strength. She was not twenty-five, yet she worked to support us, laundered and mended our clothes, and sewed until late in the night—all the while creating an atmosphere of serenity and love. She made all the clothes we wore. Dorothy and I played on the streets, sometimes joining other children, other times watching the organ grinder and his fascinating monkey. Mother had bought some rather shoddy maple bedroom furniture, obligating herself to pay the furniture company $3 a week. A darkbrowed individual known to us as “the Collector” appeared each week to pick up the money, which Mother left with Father. One day, when Dorothy and I were cutting out paper dolls in the dining room, a couple of men arrived and repossessed the bedroom pieces. Father had evidently taken the money and put it to other uses. He disappeared from our lives shortly afterward, although for the next few years he did appear at various times and places when we were on the road. Once, I remember, he was wearing a Van Dyke beard, a cape, and a flowing tie. Perhaps he thought that this theatrical attire would appeal to Mother. He would talk about coming back so that we could be a complete family again, but she would reply that she had tried it too many times to be fooled again. Sometimes he would threaten to take one or both of us with him. Our greatest fear was of being taken away from Mother. She gave us security, Father insecurity. As I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God. Somehow, through exposure to insecurity, you learn to do for yourself and not to count on the other fellow to do it for you. Wherever Mother was there was love, peace, and sympathy, yet without insecurity the blessings Mother offered might have left our characters weak and helpless.

One evening during one of those periods when Father was not with us, Dolores Lome, a young actress, comforted Mother: “Mary, you work for so little money. With your looks, you should be on the stage. I bet Proctor’s could use you. With luck, you could do well—and educate your children properly.” That was how Mother became an actress. She found work as the ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company in New York for $15 a week. Evenings she tucked us into bed before going off to the theater. I can still vaguely see a small room with a table, chairs, and a mattress placed on the floor to protect us from bumps in case we fell out of bed. On matinee days she took us to her dressing room, where we played quietly while she was on stage.

Then one day an actress friend of hers, Alice Niles, came backstage and told Mother that she had been offered a good part in a touring company.

“The only hitch,” she said, “is that I must find a little girl to play with me. What about Lillian? She’s just the right age.” I was five years old at the time. Mother was reluctant at first, but Alice persisted. She pointed out that my salary would be $10 a week and that I could live on  3. The savings would certainly be enough to tide us over the summer when Proctor’s did not operate. Besides, she promised, she would personally look after me; I would be safe with “Aunt” Alice. Her arguments finally prevailed.

It was, oddly enough, a great period for children in the theater. In most melodramas the heroine had a child or two or perhaps a little sister. Not much was demanded of the children; few of the roles were speaking parts of any consequence. Not long after I went on the road with my first play, Dorothy found her first acting job. Mother wrote me that Dolores Lome had taken Dorothy to play Little Willie in East Lynne. The Gish sisters were on the road.

(Excerpts from “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” by Lillian Gish)

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The Birth of a Nation – How a Filmmaker and a Editor Reignited America’s Civil War – By Dick Lehr (2014)

  • The Birth of a Nation – How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
  • By Dick Lehr
  • Copyright © 2014 by Dick Lehr

IN 1915, TWO MEN—One a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker—incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights.

Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry—including Roaring Jack Griffith, D. W.’s father—fled for their lives. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.

Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.

PROLOGUE

January 2, 1915

David Wark Griffith watched intently as curious residents of Riverside, California, filed into the Loring Opera House for a Saturday evening preview of a new movie promoted as the “Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever.” The moviegoers crowded the ornate thousand-seat theater, which first opened in 1890 to showcase opera and musicals and had only just begun to present the new medium of film.

Excitement was building. Griffith, the motion picture’s director, had personally arranged the eight p.m. screening. He had even persuaded many of the film’s stars to attend the sneak preview: among them the enchanting Lillian Gish, doe-eyed Mae Marsh, and popular leading man Henry B. Walthall. The director had wanted to get away from the hubbub of his Holl5rwood studio, choosing this young city sixty miles inland from the expansive, big-sky locations in the California hills where he’d filmed some of the movie’s panoramic battle sequences. As was his custom for test screenings, Griffith settled into a seat at the back of the theater, not far from the booth where projectors were hand cranked. The operator had to find a frames-per-second speed that would satisfy Griffith: The pace had to suit both the fury of galloping horses and the solemnity of a death scene. His secretary and film editor—then called a film cutter—by his side.

Griffith was at once studying the film and gauging the audience’s reaction, dictating notes for additional edits. “Every single subtitle, every situation, every shift in scene or change in a sequence that is made in editing a film, has to go before an audience for its test before being accepted as part of the complete product,” the director said about his process. Griffith was fanatical about his finishing touches. He was preparing for the premier in Los Angeles the next month, with even bigger things to come afterward, including a trip to Washington DC, to show the movie to President Wilson in what would be the first-ever film screening inside the White House.

The Kentucky-born director was to celebrate his fortieth birthday in three weeks, but the personal milestone paled in comparison to the impact his film was going to have on the history of American cinema. For Griffith, 1915 marked the culmination of a professional journey that had begun in earnest at the turn of the century with his arrival in New York City as a raw, aspiring actor. He turned to directing in 1908, but nothing he’d made so far came close to the production quality of his new movie that took up twelve reels, or about 12,000 feet of film, consisting of more than 1,300 shots and 230 separate titles.

Griffith drew on his repertory experience in theater to assemble a quasi company for his film work. He recruited actresses, actors, and other talent to work regularly with him. The former stage actor Henry B. Walthall joined Griffith in 1909; he played an associate of the greedy “Wheat King” in A Corner of Wheat. Unsurprisingly, early on at Biograph Griffith often cast his wife, Linda, but their marriage faltered and the couple would split in 1911. He was impressed instantly with a young Canadian actress named Gladys Smith who, using the professional name Mary Pickford, became one of his regulars beginning in 1909. Within a couple of years, Pickford’s friends, sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, had joined Griffith’s stable, along with Mae Marsh and Blanche Sweet—all of whom became stars under his direction. With his own acting experience to draw on, he was adept at demonstrating for his players what he was after in a particular scene. Beyond the actors, Griffith developed an affinity with one of the company’s scenarists, a former newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania named Frank E. Woods. Griffith came to rely on Woods for many of the scenarios he filmed.

Then in April 1911 Griffith became aware of the New York premiere on Broadway of Quo Vadis?, an eight-reel Italian film with a running time of two hours. The historical drama, set in Rome during the rule of the emperor Nero and featuring elaborate sets with hundreds of actors, was a box office hit. In its review, the New York Times hailed Quo Vadis? as “the most ambitious photo drama that has yet been seen here.”

It was as if a gauntlet had been issued. Insatiably ambitious, Griffith was determined to make his mark in American motion picture production. Lillian Gish, for one, seemed to detect this during filming that very same month of The Mothering Heart, a story about a pregnant woman whose husband abandons her. Griffith insisted he needed two reels—almost 30 minutes—to fully convey the drama. “With two reels to work with,” Gish said later, “Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction.” Griffith was demanding more and more leverage as a filmmaker, a course that was soon incompatible with his station in the Biograph system.

Back in California in the winter of 1913, D. W. Griffith began a new season of cranking out films for Biograph at his characteristic breakneck pace—nine in January and February alone. But now, in his sixth year with the company, he was also determined to follow his storytelling instincts and began mixing into his output films that ran longer than one reel and were ever more sophisticated. A benefit of working three thousand miles away from Biograph’s executives in New York City was that he had the independence to go off in ways he might not have been able to under the close scrutiny of studio bosses.

D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

By spring he dispatched his crew to the nearby San Fernando Valley to construct his most ambitious and costly set yet—one that did not consist simply of flat storefronts to create an illusion, but was tantamount to a genuine western frontier town. Griffith wanted a three-dimensional set so that he could position cameras to film different angles, and then, when editing, be able to cut back and forth from the various perspectives to ramp up the action. The movie he shot there.

The Battle of Elderbush Gulch, showed off his maturing technical skills and his ability to interweave several story lines. The narrative threads included two sisters (one portrayed by Mae Marsh); their uncle and his family; a young couple and their missing baby (the wife played by Lillian Gish); and a local Indian tribe and the killing of the chief’s son. The story climaxes with an Indian attack on the town, an action-packed assault that appears fatal for the sisters and other town folk until the US Cavalry, sabers drawn and pistols firing, come riding on horseback to the rescue. Griffith used high-angle shots to capture the chaos and terror of the siege—as Indians storm the town, women and children run in all directions, some men fire wildly at the attackers—and do so to such great effect that when the film opened one viewer exclaimed, “The audience went into a frenzy of delight. ‘Come on, come on, come on!’ they called. That troop of cavalry hit those Indians with the impact of a huge sea swell bursting over a rock.”

D.W. Griffith’s ‘Home Sweet Home’ Program

1914

Walking across the set one spring afternoon, D. W. Griffith leaned in to Lillian Gish and whispered that he had some news he wanted to share with her at the end of the day. He and his company were in the middle of making a film at the Sunset Boulevard studio of Reliance-Majestic. Based on the life of John Howard Payne, a nineteenth-century American actor who wrote the lyrics for the 1823 “Home! Sweet Home!,” and titled after the famous song, the drama was a five-reeler, nearly an hour long. But Griffith was bubbling with excitement about a new project, bigger than Home Sweet Home, bigger than anything they’d ever attempted.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

That evening he told Gish and other principal actors—Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Walter Long, and Henry Walthall, to name a few—that he and Harry Aitken had acquired the rights to Dixon’s The Clansman. The negotiations had been touch and go: Dixon first had demanded $25,000 (or nearly $600,000 in 2014 dollars), then lowered his price to $10,000, which was still too costly, given that Griffith had informed Aitken he expected to need up to twelve reels and a budget of about $40,000 to do the story justice. Fortunately, Dixon ended up coming down further and agreed to take a payment of $2,500 along with a 25 percent stake in the movie’s profits. The director excitedly explained to his actors that he aimed to use the novel as a vehicle “to tell the truth about the War between the States.” He said, “It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in the war ever gets to tell its story.” Rehearsals and set construction would begin on his fresh acquisition, Griffith told the company, as soon as they finished up Home Sweet Home and made one more film.

The story for the new movie was indeed big—the Civil War and Reconstruction—and would be largely built around two families: the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South. The epic would track their intersecting lives during and after the war, dramatizing their suffering and losses and, through the families’ experiences, convey the suffering of a nation. It would re-create history on a grand scale—with Civil War battles, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as saviors of the southern tradition. Interestingly, the home state chosen for the Camerons was South Carolina: where, forty-nine years earlier, Griffith’s father had been stationed as the invading Union army— an occupying force that included James T. Trotter of the 55th Massachusetts Infantry—closed in to help end the Civil War.

The Curtain Falls

William Monroe Trotter died in 1934; David Wark Griffith died of a cerebral hemorrhage, on July 23, 1948—each long out of the national spotlight at the time of their respective deaths. The epic film that was at the center of their protracted fight, however, was another matter. During subsequent engagements and reissued versions, protesters and pickets often accompanied the film. For a while the NAACP continued to seek bans, and, teaming up with Trotter once again, succeeded to briefly stop it in Boston in 1921. But despite chasing after it the way a police agency might a fugitive from justice, the chimerical effort to stamp out The Birth of a Nation ultimately failed. The movie endured—a cornerstone of American filmmaking and a milestone, if an ugly one, in American race relations. It has staying power, anchoring most any college class today on the history of film, with 2015 marking its centennial. In 1947, the year before Griffith died, a festival of film classics began in Los Angeles, and The Birth ofa Nation was selected to open the event. Announcing the choice, movie historian and organizer Raymond Rohauer honored Birth as “one of the earliest films of any consequence that is still worth seeing and discussing,” a statement still true today, with one caveat: that any such discussion be taken expansively and include race in America. That’s the complete legacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation—a masterpiece that, due to its bigoted slant, became a dramatic flash point in 1915 for a changing America in mass media and marketing, civil rights, and civil liberties.

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Double exposure, take two – by Roddy McDowall (1989)

  • Double exposure, take two
  • Compiled and photographed by Roddy McDowall – 1989
  • William Morrow and Company Inc. New York
  • “A gallery of the Celebrated with commentary by the Equally Celebrated”
Lillian Gish by Roddy McDowall – 1989 (book)

Lillian Gish by Lily Tomlin

On the night Nine to Five opened in New York, it was December and freezing and very windy. I had sent a car to take Lillian to the theatre and then to the party at Luchow’s later. After the movie, the street outside was jammed with fans (mostly Lillian’s) and cars; they rushed Jane and Dolly and me out the door and threw us into a Limo which was sitting there waiting – Lillian’s limo! I thought, “Oh, no, where’s Lillian?” Outside the window, I saw this tiny, graceful figure fighting her way up the street, holding onto her hat, the wind whipping around her skirts. Lillian! I watched her wave down someone approaching in an old Pontiac Firebird; she climbed in and peeled out. I thought, “She’ll never speak to me again.” All the way to Luchow’s, I was beside myself. When I walked into the restaurant, the first person I saw was – Lillian! She’d beaten me to the party and was rushing toward me with her arms outstretched; she threw them around me and said, “Oh, Lily, this movie is going to be such a big hit. Tell me you have a percentage and, please, tell me it’s not net.”

Lillian Gish by Roddy McDowall – 1989 (book page)
Lillian Gish, Robert Altman and Lily Tomlin – 1976

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Documentary Film Classics – By William Rothman (1997)

  • Documentary Film Classics
  • By William Rothman
  • University of Miami
  • © Cambridge University Press 1997

Movies, too, may be said to bring “real life” to the screen. For example, in Griffith’s True Heart Susie, a film contemporaneous with Nanook of the North, the character Susie and the world she inhabits may be imaginary, but it is the real-life Lillian Gish who is the subject of the camera. And so-called “documentaries,” too, may be said to bring the life of the imagination to the screen, as we shall be reminded throughout this book.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie

Griffith’s camera is capable of making no revelations about the fictional Susie that are not also revelations about the real woman who incarnates her, revelations that emerge through, that express and thus reveal, the relationship between the camera and Lillian Gish. True Heart Susie’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real. Or we might say that its fiction is that Lillian Gish is only acting, rather than revealing herself, when she incarnates Susie in the face of the camera, that the character Susie is only a mask she can put on or take off at will or upon direction.

What is fictional about True Heart Susie in other words, resides in its fiction that it is only fiction. What is fictional about Nanook of the North, by contrast, resides in its fiction that it is not fiction at all. Strip away what is fictional about the two films, therefore, and there is no real difference between them. Both equally exemplify Stanley Gavell’s maxim that in the medium of film the only thing that really matters is that the subject be allowed to reveal itself.

True Heart Susie

The opening titles of True Heart Susie likewise assert, at least rhetorically, the reality of the characters around whom Griffith’s story revolves. But in introducing Susie, the film’s protagonist, Griffith’s title also names the star who plays her (Lillian Gish), at once positing their identity (in the face of the camera, Susie simply is Lillian Gish; Lillian Gish is Susie incarnate) and acknowledging their separateness (Susie has no existence apart from True Heart Susie but Lillian Gish exists apart from her incarnation in this or any film, and, as a movie star, is capable of being incarnated as any number of different characters).

By contrast, when Griffith presents us with our first view of Susie in True Heart Susie – it is also our first view of Lillian Gish, of course – we are not authorized to take it as “documenting” a real encounter between camera and subject. As we have said, the film’s prevailing fiction is that it is Susie, not Lillian Gish, who is real, hence that there was no real encounter between camera and subject, for the camera that filmed Lillian Gish has no reality within Susie’s world.

True Heart Susie

To act as if she were Susie, Lillian Gish must act as if no camera were really in her presence. But how is it possible for Lillian Gish to have a real relationship with Griffith’s camera, a relationship through which Susie is capable of being revealed, if in the face of the camera she must act as if no real camera were present?

For Susie to act as if no real camera were present, there is no reality she must deny. For Lillian Gish to act as if no real camera were present, on the other hand, she must deny the reality of the camera that is in her presence, the camera that is really filming her. To deny the reality of this camera’s presence, Lillian Gish must relate to it, acknowledge its presence, in a particular way. And if the camera is to sustain the fiction that it is Susie who is real, it must relate to Lillian Gish in a particular way, too; it must be used in a way that at once acknowledges her presence and denies her reality.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

What makes it possible for Griffith to use the camera in a way that acknowledges Lillian Gish’s presence even as it denies her reality is the fundamental condition of human existence that real human beings are also characters, imaginary creatures of fantasy and myth, and are also actors capable of becoming who they are imagined to be. What makes it possible, in turn, for Lillian Gish to acknowledge the presence of the camera even as she denies its reality is the equally fundamental condition of the medium of film that the reality of the camera’s presence is also the reality of its absence, the absence of its reality.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)

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Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)

  • Mom in the movies : the iconic screen mothers you love (and a few you love to hate)
  • Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)
  • Copyright © 2014 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., and Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

Turner Classic Movies and film historian Richard Corliss present Mom in the Movies, the definitive, fully illustrated guide to the many ways that Hollywood has celebrated, vilified and otherwise memorialized dear old Mom. Here, you will meet the Criminal Moms, like Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama, and the eccentric Showbiz Moms, including those from Gypsy and Postcards from the Edge. You’ll also find Great American Moms, as warm and nourishing as apple pie, in movies such as J Remember Mama and Places in the Heart, along with Surrogate Moms, like Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother, Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. And who can forget the baddest mothers of all? No book on movie moms would be complete without Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. With a foreword written by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, and sidebar essays by Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell, Sam Robards and Tippi Hedren, this book is packed with an incredible collection of photographs and film stills. Mom in the Movies makes a great gift for any mom— and for anyone with a mother who oughta be, in pictures.

Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother in Griffith’s “Intolerance”

Silent Moms

If Pickford was the great female star of silent Hollywood, Lillian Gish was its greatest actress. Another child of a deserted mother who saw the theater as a way to support her family, Lillian moved in 1912 from Ohio to New York City, where Pickford introduced Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, to Griffith. Both Gish girls became popular performers, appearing together in Grifhth’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), but Dorothy was more the saucy soubrette, Lillian the elfin tragedian. Her wispy frame and doll face, dominated by soulful blue eyes, made Lillian ideal for demure young women who rise to heroism to battle life’s disasters. She played the female lead in The Birth of a Nation (1915), though the men carried that Civil War story to its controversial climax in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a film figure that interwove four stories across three millennia— think Cloud Atlas, but more wildly ambitious—Gish was the recurring figure of Eternal Motherhood, sitting next to a cradle, as Walt Whitman’s lines from Leaves of Grass (“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . uniter of here and hereafter”) crept across the screen.

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

Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) was famous for its climax: Richard Barthelmess running across the ice floes on a frozen river to save Gish (who spent so much time collapsed on the sheet of ice that her right hand never fully regained its feeling). But Gish is the real elemental sensation as the poor, saintly Anna, seduced into a fake marriage by the rich roué Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who abandons her when he learns she is pregnant. Scorned as a fallen woman at the moment her own loving mother has died, Anna is left alone to tend both the ailing baby and her social shame. “Maternity—Woman’s Gethsemane” reads one of the intertitles that link Anna’s plight with Jesus on the way to Calvary. As she realizes her infant son is dying, Anna pours a lifetime of devotion and desperation into her few moments of motherhood.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Like Pickford’s Tess, she baptizes the child (with the garishly ironic name Trust Lennox) and breathes on its cold hands in a futile fight to sustain its life. This is a performance of exquisitely balanced frenzy and subtlety; John Barrymore, the preeminent romantic classical actor of his day, called it “the most superlative exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing I have ever seen in my life.” Gish stayed with Griffith longer than his other top stars, leaving in 1921 for the company that would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she continued to suffer triumphantly in The White Sister, La Bohéme and The Wind. She was able to make The Scarlet Letter (1926) only after convincing balky Protestant groups that the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, about a fiery Puritan minister who sires a child with a member of his congregation, would not give religious offense. Gish and Frances Marion, the eminent scenarist who wrote twenty Pickford films, solved or sidestepped this problem by focusing on Hester Prynne (Gish), not the Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and by making her another in the actress’s long line of wronged women.

Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Marked with a scarlet “A” for “adulteress,” cursed and besmirched by the sanctimonious locals, Hester is every bit as unjustly ostracized as Anna was in Way Down East. This time, the love child, Pearl, gets a proper baptism—from her father the reverend—and grows into healthy girlhood. Eight years after Pearl’s birth, Hester wants to flee to Europe with her daughter and Dimmesdale; she tears off her embroidered “A” and removes her bonnet to let her long hair flow free as a signifier of her sexual liberation. But the minister must pay for his “sin.” He denounces himself before the congregation, revealing an “A” branded on his chest. In one of many Pieta images in Gish films, he dies in Hester’s arms, asking, “Is this not a better freedom than any we have dreamed of?” Well, no, but, under Victor Sjostrom’s acute directorial hand, the ending emphasizes the silent-film law that a lover’s survival is less important than a mother’s.

Photo: The Night of The Hunter (Die Nacht des Jägers), Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Sally Jane Bruce, Promotional – 1955

MOTHERS OF LOST CHILDREN

“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the miracle of mood, depredation and redemption directed by Charles Laughton and scripted by James Agee from Davis Grubb’s novel. In the West Virginia swamps of the 1930s, Rachel has no government approval, only a selfless impulse to collect unwanted children. John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), need her intervention.

lillian gish, cheryl callaway, bill chapin, mary ellen clemons, sally jane bruce – 1955 – the night of the hunter

Their father has been hanged, after first hiding his stolen money; their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), has fallen for the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who wants that money and will threaten the children or marry Willa—and worse—to get it. As seductively malevolent as Powell is, with his baritone parables and the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, so beatifically empowered is Rachel, describing herself as “a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

Lillian Gish and Gloria Castillo – The Night of the Hunter 1955

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The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL – 1974 (Life with Lillian)

  • The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL
  • Past deities of stage and screen, their roles, their magic, and their worshippers
  • EDITED By Anthony Curtis
  • Illustration consultants: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
  • St. Martin’s Press New York 1974
  • Copyright © 1974 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd.

After the First World War a new generation of idols emerged in the theatre. In this period Sandy Wilson traces the trajectory of that idol of the first magnitude, Ivor Novello, who is also, nostalgically remembered by Micheal MacLiammoir. Noel Coward’s career is discussed by Sheridan Morley, while Vivian Ellis reminds us of the importance of great impresarios such as C. B. Cochran and a host of idols from the world of musical comedy. The spotlight then turns, to Broadway where George Oppenheimer reveals the strength of the great dynasties of idols, such as the Barrymores and the Lunts, and O. Z. Whitehead recalls nostalgically life with Lillian Gish. Paris had its own way with idols and Roland Gant wanders along the boulevards in search of the cabotins, from Guitry to Arletty. Back in the West End of London, Philip Hope-Wallace looks back over a lifetime spent in the stalls and remembers many unforgettable peaks in performance.

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish in ‘Camille’ [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.2

Life with Lillian

O. Z. Whitehead

During the fall of 1930 my first term at Harvard University, my cousin, George Greene, a senior student, came to see me at my rooms one night and said, ‘I have two tickets in the first row of the balcony to see Uncle Vanya’ Fortunately, I was free to go with him. I had never seen or read a play by Anton Chekhov before.

This remarkable production by Jed Harris of Uncle Vanya had been a great success in New York the season before. His direction and everyone in the cast had received enormous praise. I can see Lillian Gish now as Helena, Serebryakov’s young wife, looking radiantly beautiful, in her first entrance, as she walked silently with much grace from the garden into the house. I can remember, too, the appealing manner in which, at the end of the second act, she said to her husband’s daughter, ‘Sonya, I have a longing for music; I should like to play something,’ and then, with much disappointment, learns from Sonya that her father would object. Lillian played Helena with fine feeling and wonderful charm. I wondered why she was no longer in films.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

In the fall of 1937, three years after I had gone on the stage myself, I went to see John Gielgud in Hamlet at the Empire Theater. Lillian was playing Ophelia. After having seen her in three silent films and in one play I did not expect to see the kind of performance that she gave in this part. In her scenes before her madness she was quiet and modest, but after that she lost all reticence. She even went so far as to roll on the ground. Lillian made the madness of Ophelia certainly disturbing. She gave a most striking performance.

After the play was over I went backstage to see John Cromwell, a friend of mine since the time when we went to the Buckley School in New York. He was playing Rosencrantz and under-studying John Gielgud. As I was on my way downstairs I saw Lillian standing outside her dressing-room. Wearing an attractive dressing-gown she was saying goodbye to an old lady who had been visiting her. She spoke to this lady in a kind, gentle tone, ‘Be careful, honey, about going downstairs.’ I looked at Lillian carefully; I could see that she noticed this. I did not expect to meet her again.

In fact I met Lillian for the first time at a small lunch party that Mrs Charles Lindley, a friend of my family’s, gave at the Colony Club during the spring of 1939. At this first meeting she struck me as having unusual quiet charm. Becomingly dressed in pastel colours, she looked younger and even more attractive than she had when I had first seen her two years and a half before in the doorway of her dressing-room. I said to her, ‘You know an old friend of mine, John Cromwell.’ ‘Oh! yes,’ she said. ‘He is a very sensitive actor. We were in Hamlet together. I would like to have seen his Marchbanks in Candida with Cornelia Otis Skinner.’ I said to her ‘I thought that he was very good.’

Although extremely intelligent and not lacking in artistic perception Mrs Lindley did not understand how actors approached their work or what they went through in between jobs. She described a little how Michael Chekhov taught acting at a school in Connecticut that her friend, Beatrice Straight, was financing. What Mrs Lindley said about his method was very strange and complicated. I do not think that anyone has ever taught like that. Holding her fingers together as if in an attitude of prayer Lillian listened calmly. At the end of Mrs Lindley’s description Lillian smiled with amusement and said nothing. Mrs Lindley became more personal and asked her, ‘Are you working now?’ Lillian answered her with subtle humour. ‘Oh! yes, I’m working very hard, I’m moving.’

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936

Eventually, I became an actor myself. Early in January of 1940 about six weeks after I had finished playing a part in John Ford’s now classic film The Grapes of Wrath from the book of the same name by John Steinbeck, Oscar Serlin, the producer, asked me to play Clarence Day Junior in a company of Life with Father that, after a week in Baltimore starting on 12 February, was to open in Chicago at the Blackstone Theatre for an unlimited engagement. The original company with Howard Lindsay as father and Dorothy Stickney as mother had already opened with enormous success almost three months before at the Empire Theater in New York. This play was adapted by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse from two books of sketches, God and My Father and Life With Father, written by Clarence Day about his childhood. Before making up two books all of the sketches had appeared in The New Yorker. Although I had never read any of the sketches I had certainly heard a great deal about them.

Four days before the first rehearsal Oscar Serlin gave me a script. I had been taking lessons from a great teacher, Boris Marshalov, for more than two years and a half. I began to work with him on my part without delay. Our first rehearsal took place on the stage of the Empire Theater on the set that the company in New York was using.

Lillian arrived at rehearsal just a little while after I did. She wore a becoming hat and an attractive sweatered dress. As always extremely beautiful, she still looked a little pale. Although I naturally felt nervous at the prospect of a first rehearsal, I could not believe that an actress of her vast experience felt the same way. She shook hands with me in such a manner as to make me think that she was glad that I was in the cast. Oscar Serlin asked Bretaigne Windhurst, the director, and the cast composed of sixteen, to sit around the diningroom table used in the play. Oscar had with him a copy of the current issue of Life magazine. He said to us ‘This issue contains an article about The Birth of a Nation.’ Lillian said with enthusiasm, ‘Oh! yes, there’s a story about it and many photographs.’ Oscar said agreeably, ‘That is very nice.’

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father -- 1940
Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father — 1940

On this first morning of rehearsal we read through the play. Our director did not believe in giving his cast much time for lunch. I think that Lillian’s consisted of a chocolate ice cream soda. The first days of rehearsal went smoothly. Percy Waram, who had obviously done a great deal of work on his part beforehand, already seemed to be just right as my father, Clarence Day Senior. The rest of us were gradually trying to understand our parts and at the same time to learn our lines and positions.

One night after rehearsal as I was crossing Sixth Avenue on the way to Fifth I met Lillian walking up Sixth Avenue with Malcolm, her West Highland white terrier.

‘Hello, John,’ she said in a rather tired, absent-minded tone.

‘You are thinking of my friend, John Cromwell,’ I said.

‘How is he?’ she asked.

‘He was very successful last year,’ I said. ‘Now he is looking for a part again. My name is Zebby,’ I added.

‘Oh! yes, dear,’ she said.

When I came close to Lillian I could see large circles under her eyes. We walked cross town together and stopped every once in a while because of Malcolm.

‘Were you out late last night?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, I went out dancing, but don’t tell on me.’

As we continued walking down the street she became a little more lively.

‘Are you looking forward to going to Chicago?’ I asked her.

‘In this play, yes.’

‘When did you decide to do it? I asked her.

‘Oh, I went to see this play during the first week that it opened and I thought that it was the darlingest play that I had ever seen. I said to myself I could be in this play, and then I went to see it again to make sure that I was right. My second visit confirmed me in my opinion. I made an appointment to see Oscar Serlin and asked him to let me tour in this play. I met Mrs Clarence Day, Howard Lindsey, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst. The next day Oscar Serlin telephoned me and offered me the part in the company going to Chicago, but I wasn’t really sure that I was going to be in it until I went into rehearsal on Monday.’ ‘When I get home,’ she added, ‘I’ll have to get hold of my sister and have her come over to mother’s apartment and cue me.’

I left Lillian at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street. She walked by herself to the apartment at 430 East 52nd Street that she and her sister, Dorothy, provided for her mother and where for the time being Lillian was also living.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm

On the afternoon of the third Monday after the company had started to rehearse, Bretaigne Windhurst said rather casually, ‘I want you to run through the whole play today without stopping. Whatever goes wrong – just go ahead with it as if nothing was the matter.’

I do not think that much character, humour or real vitality emerged from this rough rehearsal. No one seemed certain of what they were doing. At the end, after a chilling silence, a man stood up in the back of the balcony. He walked forward to the front row and looked down at us. I heard someone say, ‘It’s Howard Lindsey.’ Bretaigne Windhurst, seated in the front row of the orchestra, made no comment. The rest of us, with much concern, waited for Howard Lindsey to come up on the stage and say what he thought of us.

He criticized each member of the cast with dry humour and great severity. I feel sure that we all deserved his disapproval. After he had at last finished Lillian asked him gently, referring to his wife, Dorothy Stickney, ‘Where is Dorothy? I want her to help me on make-up.’ He replied, ‘She is resting quietly at home in preparation for the evening’s performance.’

During the last week of rehearsals in New York we gave a performance on two successive afternoons before invited audiences at the Empire Theater. Howard Lindsey, attending both of them, showed sincere satisfaction at our general improvement. Lillian said, ‘I will have to get one day in which to do business before we leave for Baltimore.’ I do not think that she managed to get more than half a day.

On Saturday morning, 10 February, two days before the opening in Baltimore, the company took the train for there. Dorothy Gish came along too. This was the first time that I had met her. She looked very tired as if she had been up late on the night before. Her bright, blonde hair made her face look like a masque. Lillian looked young and fresh beside her. Dorothy offered everyone chocolates out of a big, fine box. On Sunday night after the dress rehearsal I walked part of the way back to the hotel with Lillian and her dog. With no lack of confidence, but a little tensely, she said, ‘Now that we’ve finished rehearsing we should be ready to play it.’

The audience as well as Oscar Serlin, Mrs Clarence Day, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst, seemed pleased with the opening night’s performance. Ruth Gordon, a great friend of Lillian’s came down from New York to see it. This enormously gifted actress, talented writer and extraordinary woman, said to Oscar Serlin, ‘Thank you, it was a great treat.’ With much enthusiasm she walked on to the stage and carefully examined the set with its interesting old Victorian furniture.

During the week in Baltimore the Gish sisters spent some time with their old friend, the distinguished journalist, H. L. Mencken, whose home was in that city.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish – 1943

The sisters and I were staying in the same hotel. After the Wednesday matinee Lillian knocked on my door and asked me to join them for dinner. Still suffering from a cold that I had caught on the day after Howard Lindsey had come unexpectedly to the unfortunate rehearsal I have already referred to, I was looking forward to taking a rest and having dinner alone in my room. Despite this I could not refrain from accepting her invitation. I had so far only talked to Lillian a little and to Dorothy not at all. What were they going to be like? I tried to forget my still tired feeling and stuffed up nose in happy anticipation of finding out.

Their suite consisted of a sitting-room and two bedrooms. Lillian had not taken off her make-up. Rested by now, Dorothy looked very bright and attractive. After they had made sure that I was comfortable the sisters sat down opposite me, Lillian on a small sofa, and Dorothy on an easy chair.

What struck me most strongly at this my first meeting with them both, apart from their rare charm and feminine appeal, was their admiration and love for each other. There seemed to be no real conflict between them. Lillian obviously found whatever Dorothy said amusing and seemed content just to listen to her. Dorothy had come to Baltimore to help Lillian over what is always a trying period for an actor or actress, the opening week of a play. Enormously pleased with her sister’s performance as Vinnie Day, Dorothy certainly showed no envy that she was not playing her, only happiness at what she now felt was going to be a great success for her sister in Chicago.

After Lillian had ordered dinner for us, Dorothy said to her, ‘I wonder how mother is?’ Lillian said, ‘We can telephone to New York now and see.’ While the operator was getting her number, Lillian explained to me, ‘Mother came to the trenches in France during the First World War, while Dorothy and I were making propaganda films for the English War Department, to encourage the war effort of this country. She has been an invalid ever since.’ Dorothy added, ‘She has done so much for us that we can never do enough for her.’ Their mother could only speak a few words, and never over the telephone.

Lillian, Dorothy and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell) – 1930’s

Miss Fairborn who had been taking care of Mrs Gish for many years, assured the sisters that their mother was fine.

Much to my concern we started back to the theatre a little late. As we were getting out of the taxi at the stage door a middle aged woman came up to us and said to the sisters, ‘You are Lillian and Dorothy Gish, aren’t you?’ They quickly admitted, ‘We are.’ She said with much enthusiasm, ‘I have admired you both all my life.’ The sisters acknowledged her remark politely.

On Saturday evening after the performance the cast and everyone connected with the production took the train to Chicago and arrived there late on Sunday afternoon. The Blackstone Hotel was situated at the comer of the impressive Michigan Avenue that faced the lake. Lillian had engaged a suite and Percy Waram a room at this hotel for as long as the play should run. Dorothy decided to live there for the two weeks that she planned to stay in Chicago. Because this hotel was very expensive I only took a room there temporarily. The Blackstone Theater where the play was going to open on the following evening was situated down a side street only a few doors from this hotel.

I did not see either of the sisters on Sunday evening. I think that they were resting like myself. A short rehearsal was called on Monday afternoon to which all the company came. Bretaigne Windhurst gave the cast a few notes.

Most actors are naturally nervous on opening nights. On this one Lillian appeared very calm. When I came downstairs ready to go on, she said brightly, ‘How do you feel, dear?’ I said, ‘All right.’ She then made some small sugges¬ tion to improve my make-up. I had plenty of time to fix it.

About five minutes before the rise of the curtain Lillian, most becomingly as Vinnie Day, a lady of New York in the 1880s, stood off stage on the landing waiting to go downstairs into the main room of the house belonging to her husband Clarence and herself. I, as their eldest son, meant to be seventeen years old, waited directly behind her and the three boys playing my younger brothers waited behind me.

As soon as the curtain had gone up on an empty stage, in a very dignified manner well suited to the character that she was playing, Lillian walked downstairs. The audience applauded her entrance with considerable enthusiasm. I could hear her first remarks in the play to Annie, the maid. Clear and distinct, her voice showed no signs of nervousness. When I followed her on the stage to greet my mother before breakfast I could quickly feel her complete assurance.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish and Percy Waram
Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

Perhaps because the distinguished actor, Percy Waram, who played Father spoke rather too loudly, which threw his performance somewhat off balance in relation to Lillian’s and the rest of the company’s, I do not think that the play went as well as it had in Baltimore. For this reason and because I was not satisfied with myself I did not feel happy after the play was over.

On my return to the hotel I saw Lillian standing in the lobby. She looked rather tired, and very serious.

‘Hello, Zebby,’ she said from a little distance. ‘I am going to a party.

Glad to be under no obligation for the evening I went by myself downstairs into the grill room and ordered scrambled eggs, toast and milk. Dorothy Gish was seated at a table nearby with a distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair whom I did not know. Deeply engrossed in her conversation, Dorothy at first did not seem to notice me. After a while, however, when she saw that I was alone, she called my name and said, ‘Come over here and sit with us.’ After I had reached her table she said ‘This is Mr H. L. Mencken. He half stood up and said warmly as if he meant it, ‘I saw your play again tonight. I thought that you were all very good. He then spoke with much enthusiasm about Lillian’s performance. ‘I think that it will be a great success here, he said. ‘That will be a relief to me,’ I said. ‘I have acted in several failures. I mentioned one that I had been in during the winter of nineteen thirty seven Oh Evening Star by Zoe Atkins, which lasted five performances at the Empire Theater.

He explained to Dorothy and me: ‘Zoe Atkins was at one time a serious writer. She even wrote beautiful verse. She was very poor. The opening of her play Declassee, starring Ethel Barrymore, was an obvious success. The evening afterwards when I was sitting in The Algonquin, Zoe walked in wearing a plumed hat and an expensive fur coat. I said to her “Zoe you look so different.” She said, “Can’t one dress up when one is opulent?” ’ Mr Mencken did not want us to leave him until he had finished all that he had to tell us. I could have listened to him indefinitely.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy and Lillian Gish standing at railing view 3]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3518

The next morning I hastened to buy all the newspapers as they came out. Each critic, Robert Poliak, Lloyd Lewis, Claudia Cassidy, Ashton Stevens and Cecil Smith, gave the play most excellent notices and the performances too, with one reservation about Lillian’s and two about Percy Waram’s. Although happy and relieved to read the notices and pleased too at what the critics had said about me, I still felt that all of us could have been much better.

In the afternoon I met Dorothy walking with Malcolm on Michigan Avenue. ‘How is Lillian today?’ I said. ‘Ah! fine. You should both be happy about the notices/ ‘Do you want to go into Woods and have ice-cream?’ I asked her. ‘Certainly,’ she said.

With no apparent sadness in her tone, Dorothy spoke about how little she had been working lately. Although people had offered her many plays she had felt compelled to turn them down either because she did not like the plays or because she did not think that the parts were right for her. During over six years and a half since my first appearance on the stage I had spent a great deal of time either in looking for parts or in waiting for one. Because of this I could well understand how Dorothy must be feeling.

Before the second night’s performance Oscar Berlin, his face temporarily twisted from nervous tension, came backstage. Waving his hands in the air, he said to the cast, ‘We’re in all right. We’re in.’

Shortly before it was time for the curtain to go up I walked out on the stage to join Lillian. Looking very relaxed and rested, she came up to me and said lightly, ‘Where did you and Dorothy go?’ She added, ‘I had to do my mail all alone.’

Although Lillian would have liked her to stay longer, Dorothy returned to New York on the second Saturday after we had opened.

I often called for Lillian at her suite on Sundays. The first time that we went out together she was dressed most becomingly in a blue sweatered suit, hat and veil, both of the same colour, the last just slightly over her forehead. She looked very fresh and young, hardly old enough to be playing Vinnie Day, supposedly the mother of four children, the oldest being seventeen. As we walked down Michigan Avenue towards The Auditorium to attend a concert, she said, ‘I want to see all of the United States in this play. Maybe we will run here for three months and then start to tour in June. Wouldn’t you like that?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t want to stay in this play for too long. I want to act in films.’

‘Ah!’, she said, ‘but one’s work in a film is quickly over. A play like this is very hard to find. Films are not so hard to come by.’

‘I should think that if one toured in a play for too long one would be almost forgotten.’

‘To work in a successful play like this is a career in itself, dear. I’ve waited a long time to find it.’

She looked up at me for a moment. ‘When we started to rehearse your colour was very bad, almost green,’ she said. ‘You’re looking much better now since you have been working.’

‘I have never been very strong,’ I said.

‘You must take care of yourself, dear, and become stronger,’ she said warmly. ‘Regular work will be good for you.’

One Sunday evening a few weeks after we had been in Chicago I took Lillian to see John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in which, as I mentioned before I played. Lillian liked this film. She said, ‘Mr Ford directed films in the silent days. He learned how to tell a story with plenty of movement and without the constant use of dialogue. Most of the directors nowadays make the actors talk all the time.’

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

After the film during dinner I asked her, ‘Lillian, why don’t you consider seriously going back into films?’ A fiery expression came into her eyes. She said, ‘I was the little pet out there once. Everyone did as I said. I did fine pictures that I liked and they always made money. I never did a story just because I thought that it would make money. The people out there now wouldn’t understand that kind of thinking. I would have to do just what they said and I wouldn’t want to do pictures that way.’ I asked her, ‘Couldn’t you produce with your friend, Mary Pickford?’

‘Oh! no, dear, Mary and I have very different ideas about doing films. She always did stories that she thought people would go to see, not necessarily what she liked. I am more selfish than that. Mary and I could never do pictures together. To try might end a life-long friendship.’ I understood what Lillian meant. ‘Couldn’t you produce them alone?’ I asked. ‘Not any more. No one would listen to me. Everything that you do has to get past the exhibitors and their taste is not mine.’ Despite my enthusiasm I could think of no further questions to ask on this subject.

During the first few weeks of the run in Chicago many people said that they thought our company was better than the one in New York. Although I am not sure how many members of our company agreed with this opinion still none of us failed to appreciate the compliments that most people gave us. Some said to Lillian, ‘We like your Vinnie Day even better than Dorothy Stickney’s.’ Lillian said graciously, ‘I should be better. I have been on the stage much longer than she has, thirty-five years since childhood.’

Because of quick changes that she often had to make during the play, Lillian used an improvised dressing-room hidden from the audience at the top of the set’s staircase. During moments of waiting which she experienced once in a while, she often wrote letters. Sometimes she would just lie down, with her feet high up on a chair.

The anniversary performance of our show celebrating a year’s run which took place on the evening of February 1941, was a great success. Many people who had seen the play before came again. Lillian seemed happy about it, like the rest of us.

One day, soon afterwards, I read in the newspaper that the Museum of Art was going to have a special showing of Broken Blossoms on the following afternoon. That evening at the theatre I suggested to Lillian that we go to see it. ‘Well, I might,’ she said, ‘if it’s the first time for you.’

D. W. Griffith had directed this remarkable film in 1918. I had seen it about three years later when I was around ten. Some of the scenes had stuck vividly in my memory. The next afternoon at four o’clock, Lillian and I arrived at the small auditorium of the Museum, mostly filled with women.

Lillian’s performance as the twelve-year-old girl living in London’s Chinatown with her brutal father was deeply moving. Richard Barthelmass played beautifully the pure-hearted Chinaman who tried to rescue her. Donald Crisp acted the father with much effectiveness. Lillian’s death scene with Richard Barthelmass was unforgettable.

Simple, unpretentious, in no way sordid, without a trace of vulgarity, and obviously directed by a master, the film had a fine sense of tragedy. I thought that it was a masterpiece. At the end of the showing, after a moment’s silence, the audience broke into applause. Someone asked Lillian to say a few words. She stood in front of the audience and said modestly,

‘I hope that it moved you. It did me a little.’

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

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The Film 100 – by Scott Smith (1998)

  • The Film 100 – by Scott Smith (1998)
  • A Ranking of the Most Influential People in the History of the Movies
  • A Citadel Press Book

The idea of ranking people in history by the influence of their accomplishments began with Michael Hart’s “The 100 over twenty years ago”

The careers of the individuals on the Film 100 are far more fascinating than can be explained in the brief space allowed by a book of this format.

D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish (excerpts)

Behind the scenes Lillian Gish, Robert Harron and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes – 1914)

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Grand Illusions by Richard Lawton (1983)

  • Grand Illusions
  • by Richard Lawton (1983)
  • with a text by Hugo Leckey
  • BONANZA BOOKS New York

Grand Illusions represents a selection of the most beautiful photographs to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Years. Their exquisite effects reflect the time and money lavished on every aspect of their production; the exotic beauty of their subjects speaks so tellingly of fantasies on which Hollywood balanced its success.

These photographs have been selected for their esthetic properties, and suggest where possible the range of images conjured through each decade. There has been no attempt to provide an exhaustive catalogue of movie personalities, while obviously, stars such as Lillian Gish and Marlene Dietrich are so clearly avatars, several portraits of them seemed irresistible.

Such a collection necessarily ends in the decade of the forties. After that time, the advent of candid photography and the financial decline of the big studios seldom allowed, and indeed discouraged, the calculated image-making of earlier decades. The photographs presented here were found mostly in private collections, remnants of a past whose luster is still fabulous. (Richard Lawton 1973)

Lillian Gish – Ice Floe Scene – Way Down East

Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” 1920

Lillian Gish in ‘’La Boheme’’ 1926

The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in ‘’Scarlet Letter’’ 1926

Title: WAY DOWN EAST Pers: GISH, LILLIAN Year: 1920 Dir: GRIFFITH, D.W. Credit: [ THE KOBAL COLLECTION / UNITED ARTISTS ]

Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman in ‘’Way Down East’’ 1920

Lillian Gish and Blanche Payson in ‘’La Boheme’’ 1926

Lillian Gish and Blanche Payson in ‘’La Boheme’’ 1926

The Lily and The Rose (1915) – Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish in ‘’The Lily and the Rose’’ 1915

Robert Harron and Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron 1919

Lillian Gish in ‘’Romola’’ 1924

Admin note: Some of the photographs presented in the book were replaced (above) with better resolution versions.

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