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.
“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)
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.
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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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,
The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
Lillian Gish’s acting career has spanned more than seventy years and includes over ninety films, numerous stage plays, and radio and television appearances. Born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio, she began acting at the age of five years in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a traveling stage company melodrama. Her mother and her younger sister, Dorothy, also turned to acting with various touring companies, and thus the family supported itself. In 1912, through an introduction to D. W. Griffith by their friend Mary Pickford at the Biograph Company studios at 11 East Fourteenth Street in New York, Lillian and Dorothy were launched on film careers. They quickly became regular performers for the Biograph Company under D. W. Griffith’s direction.
Lillian Gish left Griffith briefly late that year to perform in David Belasco’s stage play A Good Little Devil but returned to Biograph in 1913 and appeared in numerous films, among them The Mothering Heart and Griffith’s western The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. When Griffith left Biograph to join the Mutual Film Corporation, Lillian and Dorothy moved with him. Established as a star in the part of Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Lillian Gish played a small but key role in Intolerance (1916) as the woman whose rocking of a cradle ties the four stories together. Thereafter, she appeared only in parts tailored to her talents. During World War I, she, her mother, and Dorothy traveled to England and France with D. W. Griffith to make a war film, Hearts of the World (1917). In 1918 she appeared in a Liberty Bond short and two more war pictures, The Great Love and The Greatest Question. Still under Griffith’s direction, she appeared in 1919 in two romantic dramas, A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie, before portraying Lucy in Broken Blossoms, in what has been considered her best performance.
After directing a movie on her own, Remodeling Her Husband (1919), and appearing in the celebrated Way Down East (1920), she left Griffith for a time. She returned in 1921 when they did their last film together, The Two Orphans. Under contract with Inspiration Pictures, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924). In 1925 she signed a contract with MGM to make six films in two years, of which five were completed. Notable were The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Seastrom. Her first talkie was One Romantic Night, released in 1930 as part of a contract with United Artists for three talking films to be chosen by her. Disappointed by the first film, she asked to be released from her contract and returned to the stage in Jed Harris’s revival of Uncle Vanya.
She never returned to full-time film acting but has devoted her talents primarily to the stage and some radio and television work. She has appeared in fewer than fifteen films since 1930, among them His Double Life (Paramount, 1933), Miss Susie Slagle’s (Paramount, 1946), Duel in the Sun (Selznick- United Artists, 1947), Night of the Hunter (United Artists, 1955), Orders to Kill (UMPO, 1958), and The Comedians (MGM, 1967).
Lillian Gish was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun. His Double Life was selected by the New York Times as one of the Best Ten films of that year, and All the Way Home, a stage play in which she appeared in 1960, won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Award. She has been awarded honorary degrees from Rollins College and Mount Holyoke College. She collaborated with Albert Paine Bigelow on Life and Lillian Gish, a book published in 1932. In 1969, with Anne Pinchot, she wrote Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith & Me. This was followed in 1973 by Dorothy and Lillian Gish.
The audience watched in silence. There was no sound, except the music; the applause broke out only after the two girls had left. Then the people departed; they did not stay to see the flower show; neither did I. I think I was the last one to leave; I wanted to hold that image as long as possible. From then on, I always saw these two stars as I had seen them in person, in that garden, in reality – not as I saw them in the gray shadows of the screen.
Their names were Lillian and Dorothy Gish.
Now, fifty years later, Lillian Gish has written her autobiography. It is a remarkable document; it presents the story of the birth of American motion pictures.
Molly Haskell was born and grew up in Richmond, Virginia, and was educated at Sweet Briar College. A sharp observer of the movies that have shaped attitudes toward women. Ms. Haskell has written for New York, The Village Voice, Ms., Vogue, Film Comment, Saturday Review, Mademoiselle, and other publications. She is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.
In many ways, the vessels of purity played by Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, Griffith’s rearguard heroines, experienced more sexual mishap and took more sexual abuse (always of course rebounding in the end) than those brazen shockers, the flapper and the party girl. It is the sexual chastity of Bow rather than of Gish that we understand today, because it is hidden beneath the bravado of a woman of the world.
Alongside Lillian Gish, and expressing different registers of the idealized woman, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and Bessie Love were all chiseled from the same stone—pure-white alabaster.
But for an overbearing, interfering father, Mary Astor might have found herself cast in the same mold. In A Life on Film, she tells the story of doing a screen test for him at the kind arrangement of Lillian Gish. The two women were friends in the early days in New York, when Griffith’s stock company in Mamaroneck was the dream of every serious movie actor.
Lillian Gish, the least modern of Griffith’s heroines, is in many ways the most emotionally resourceful and intense. She is flowerlike and naive, delicate as a figurine but durable as an ox, and her fascination arises from a contradiction between the two, between her daintiness and the ferocity with which she maintains it. Her movements—her agitated gestures and flutteriness—can be more erotic than the explicit semaphore of the vamp, since they suggest the energy of pent-up sexuality engaged in its own suppression. And yet she is more often tragic than gay. As the miserable waif of Broken Blossoms, she must use her hands to force her lips into a smile. The images in Way Down East of a young mother cradling her dead baby in her arms and later seeking destruction on the ice-covered river are as primal as anything in our film consciousness; they are expressions of a life-and- death force that is both greater than man or womankind, yet altogether female.
Mae Marsh is already several degrees more sophisticated, more “grown up,” more urban. She looks at the world with a candor and sense of humor lacking in the sublimely chaste Gish. She is closer to being a “working woman ’ and is the halfway heroine between Gish and Carol Dempster, the leading lady of Griffith’s later films, done at a time when the vestal virgin was in box-office decline and he had to make his bid to keep up with the fashions.
Dempster, more modern and self-sufficient than Gish, is a heroine most people feel more comfortable with today. She is the driving force that keeps a poverty-stricken family alive in Isn’t Life Wonderful? In Sorrows of Satan, she is actually an authoress, living in rags in a garret and writing away by candlelight. And yet, it is not always the “working ’ women who have, simply by definition, the greatest character and sense of self. Dempster is a working girl, but her vivacity and initiative seem willed into being—probably because Griffith himself isn’t convinced. Gish’s old-fashioned resilience, on the other hand, springs from a character more subtle and rounded, more complete within herself. Similarly, in the thirties, Loretta Young’s and Ruth Chatterton’s politicians and executives would be less genuinely forceful than stronger actresses in less exalted positions—Barbara Stanwyck’s housewife or Jean Arthur’s secretary or Carole Lombard’s lowly but spirited manicurist. The mistake is, first, to assume that only in “male” roles can women fulfill themselves, and, second, to take labels and conventions at face value. Although professions and plot synopses are important, they convey little of the sense of identity transmitted through personality.
So often the artist who idealizes woman—whether he be filmmaker or poet—is re-creating her in an image that will do honor to him, to his exquisite sensibility. The focus, in Chaplin, or even Truffaut, is on the anguished worship of the protagonist, the artist or artist-surrogate. But with Griffith, the emphasis is on the woman herself. Yes, she is the Holy Grail, but not just as an abstract principle for which man journeys forth, but as a living being, with her own life, to whom he can return.
For all his vaunted Victorianism, Griffith dealt more explicitly with sex than any other director of the period. Although the emphasis was on their suffering rather than on their sensuality, his women did become pregnant and have babies, even out of wedlock. The usual practice, even in the more rakish melodramas, was to redeem any indiscretion with the revelation that the straying couple had actually been married all along. Even in the heavy-breathing romances—the Valentino sagas, for example—the affair was consummated with no more than a kiss, and the audience was left to complete the picture in its own fantasies, or satisfy itself that the kiss was all there was to it. Griffith catered to no such fill-in-the-blank wish fulfillments. He created an artistically whole universe, where the impulse to degrade his Galateas was inseparable from the impulse to elevate them.
Implicit in the conventions of Victorian melodrama that appealed to both Griffith and Mary Pickford, but in different ways, are the fears and fantasies of a child’s world: the violent vicissitudes of family relationships, the fear of being orphaned, or of being an adopted rather than a natural child, magnified into the nightmare of inheriting a wicked stepfather or stepmother; the drama of instant wealth or poverty; the impulse to run away from home and be on one’s own, and the conflicting sense of dependency. Griffith projected these primitive feelings into an adult arena, where they acquired their peculiar erotic and universal dimension. With Mary Pickford, on the other hand, they remained in the asexual world of a child, in a little girl’s self-glorifying day dreams.
If Lillian Gish was the prototype and most gifted incarnation of the diminutive child-woman created by Griffith, Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” was the most beloved, as cheerful as a month of Sundays. Although there is more saccharine and fluorescence than sweetness.
New York and South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes and Company London: The Tantivy Press
The true achievement of Hollywood is only now being acknowledged. For years the prodigious output of the major studios and producers was damned with faint praise by the pundits. But during the past decade a reassessment has taken place. Critics as well as thousands of film buffs are aware of the enormous influence Hollywood has exerted on the social fabric not only of the US, but of the world.
At its best — in the work of Lillian Gish or Garbo or Barthelmess or Keaton or in unpredictable flashes of brilliance in Valentino — screen acting for silent films had developed into an art, new and unique, which was lost when pictures spoke. Actors were obliged to develop new means of expression. The silent actors were serious about their work. Lillian Gish starved for days before she shot the fmal scene of La Bohéme. Mary Pickford studied to achieve the deportment of a girl who had spent her youth carrying smaller children about. Their methods of innervation, of working themselves into the mood and feeling of a role had all the intensity and sincerity of the Stanislavski studios. Mack Sennett re-called that Mabel Normand “‘insisted on working on a stage to the accompaniment of the loudest jazz syncopation the record library could provide.
A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity. In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic medium — the paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognised masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century — its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s mono-graph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright. Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism. The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.”
But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing his latter film (The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas of Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords un-comfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)
Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time busy working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously. True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal — a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable. The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith.
The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in love with her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances. Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration.
He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.
In Lillian Gish) Sjostrom found his ideal actress. The Scarlet Letter. (1926) was her suggestion: “I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It’s an American classic, taught in all our schools.’ Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom (actually in America Sjostrom was known as Seastrom), who had arrived at M-G-M some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom. “Tt was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before the camera, of course, and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we were all tremendously moved by it.” On another occasion Miss Gish wrote with characteristic perception: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . (The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression.” a Again Sjostrom was able to exercise his power for lyricism and his feeling for landscape. Two years later he was able to work again with Gish on The Wind, a film unjustly neglected, and Sjostrom’s American masterpiece.
From Wine of Youth (1924) all Vidor’s silent films were made for M-G-M, where an early and trying experience was a collaboration with Elinor Glyn, on His Hour (1924). Vidor’s reputation was finally and firmly established with The Big Parade (1925), a massive, exemplary spectacle, at the centre of which was sensitively, if also sentimentally observed the experience and suffering of one, ordinary young man. It was a noble e indictment of war; and no less a great piece of mise-en scene with Vidor using the movement of troops and vehicles in a dramatic fashion hardly attempted, even by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. After this he was requested as the director of La Bohéme by its star, Lillian Gish, whose rehearsal methods, learned from Griffith, caused the director some embarrassments; but ‘‘as the making of the film got under way we found ourselves subjected to Lillian’s will.” Vidor was impressed by the star’s complete commitment to the role, by the terrifying realism of her death scene. One of the many M-G-M films that have not seen the light of day since their first release, this must be worth revival, for the sake of Gish alone.
It is worth recalling that Lillian Gish directed a film, Remodeling Her Husband, scripted by Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (Lillian Gish), and starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie. Griffith persuaded her to do it, since he “thought that men would work better for you than for me’’. It was a pity that Miss Gish, with her high intelligence and sensitivity, never repeated the experiment, which in this case seemed to have been simply handicapped by technical inexperience.
The Gish girls have never retired, though after the arrival of talking pictures they returned to the stage, where their careers had begun. They were brought to Griffith in 1912, by Mary Pickford who had acted with them in theatres soon after the turn of the century. LILLIAN GISH was a heroine straight out of the romantic poets Griffith knew and loved so well. Her extraordinary fragility, her spiritual vibrance, her unique, strange beauty often uplifted the more commonplace concepts of Griffith’s Victorian sentiment. It is impossible to imagine Broken Blossoms or Way Down East without Gish: they would certainly not have survived as they have without her marvellous performances.
It is an interesting indication of Gish’s creative approach to her acting to learn that she herself devised the form of the closet scene in the former film: ‘“You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and ‘round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned — spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and threw up his breakfast . . .”’ (interview with the author, published in Sight and Sound).
There are innumerable similar anecdotes of the extraordinary intensity of Gish’s playing before the camera: how the baptism of the dying child in Way Down East was so real and affecting that the child’s real, off-screen father fainted; how Vidor and everyone else on the set of La Bohéme thought she really had died when they shot the death scene. Gish is by any standards a very great actress.) Seeing such a performance in The Wind, it is interesting, but bitter, to speculate what wonders she might have achieved if her career had carried on without interruption into the era of sound. But a new star eclipsed her at M-G-M which in 1925 had given her an $800,000 contract. After Garbo came, the studio put Miss Gish into routine chores, and then happily let her go before her contract was fulfilled. ‘‘Stigmatised as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure,”’ wrote Louise Brooks, not quite accurately, for in recent years Miss Gish has occasionally appeared in character roles in films, with notable distinction.
Duel in the Sun
Most of the action takes place on Spanish Bit, the Texas ranch of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Laurabelle (Lillian Gish). Their two sons, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) are a Western Cain and Abel: Lewt, amoral, attractive, seduces Pearl (Jennifer Jones), a halfbreed relative of Laurabelle’s. Eventually, to save the upright Jesse from Lewt’s murderous designs, Pearl shoots her lover during a protracted encounter in which she is also killed; they die in each other’s arms.
Large of gesture, florid and monumental, Duel in the Sun had an almost operatic quality, each bravura set-piece shot, edited and scored for maximum kinetic effect: Pearl’s runaway horse, exhilaratingly filmed as it canters unrestrained across the Texan landscape; the celebrated summoning of the station-hands, a tremendous montage of galloping horses and riders massing to the accompaniment of reverberating bells; the subsequent confrontation between Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey at the barbed-wire fence, a mob of Chinese coolies trembling at the expectation of violent death; and the final duel, preceded by Jones’s desert trek, a wordless chorus accompanying her as the inescapable sun shines full into the camera. This was film-making in the grand manner, utterly self-confident and self-sufficient, its plastic splendour ultimately cancelling out its colossal lack of taste.
Although Vidor directed most of the picture, with some sequences done by Sidney Franklin and Otto Brower, William Dieterle was responsible for possibly its greatest scene, Tilly Losch’s dance: on a raised platform in the centre of the gigantic Presidio Saloon, Losch as a wanton Indian gyrated to throbbing drums and screeching brass, while all around her milled the pleasure-seekers of the West. Here, and throughout the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score added immeasurably to the excitement: martial, sentimental or sensual, it was exotically orchestrated and played under the composer’s direction with impassioned intensity.
The Night of the Hunter
Old-fashioned elements were employed in a sophisticated manner for another of the maverick movies, The Night of the Hunter (1955), the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gave his finest performance as the insane preacher, lusting for money and also for vengeance against the sinful. The primitive situations were given metaphorical power by Laughton’s defiant use of throwback styles, including the “iris-out,” reminiscent of Griffith, and the strong black-and-white contrasts of light and shadow, a heritage of expressionist cinema. The floating hair of Shelley Winters, dead at the bottom of a river, and the lyrical yet terrorized flight of two children across a horizon viewed patiently by the preacher, were but two examples of Laughton’s relish for the image. And his major set piece, which haunts the memory, had Lillian Gish joining Mitchum in ironic religious duet (“Leaning—leaning—leaning on the everlasting arms”): she indoors with a shotgun at dead of night, wakefully protecting the children in her charge, while he sat in the open across the way, biding his time. It was sad that Laughton should have waited so long to show us that he could command the screen as a director, more powerfully than he had done at the peak of his career as an actor. For an actor to direct was regarded in Hollywood as a maverick activity in any case, although some actors persevered.
Dorothy Gish was invited to work in Britain in the 1920s. When she made Nell Gwyn in 1926, a different kind of screen persona came to the fore. She was out of the shadow of her more illustrious sister—and out of the glare of Hollywood. She did not return to America right away. The same could be said for Louise Brooks in Germany and France in the late 1920s, Gloria Swanson making her favorite film, Madame Sans-Gene, in France in 1925, and the Griffith actress Mae Marsh in Britain in the early 1920s. Finally, even D. W. Griffith went abroad. He did so once to make a contribution to the war effort in 1917 called Hearts of the World: a second time, ironically, in 1924 to make amends for that one-sided view of reality. That was something for Griffith to do, and others would do it too.
A second Griffith actress soon followed Marsh abroad, and again it was Herbert Wilcox who acted as catalyst. By starring in his production of Nell Gwyn, released in 1926, 28-year-old Dorothy Gish would create one of England’s finest silent features and her personal best. For Herbert Wilcox, Nell Gwyn was “a perfect story,” he said, “but needing a great vivacious actress.” Wilcox had the solution. He cabled his lawyer in New York, asking, “Is Dorothy Gish available for British film?…wonderful part.” Gish, who was free since completing her part in Maurice Tourneur’s Clothes Make the Pirate (1925), soon queried her agent, “What sort of part?” Hearing what it was—and unconcerned about the terms or script—she said “You can forget Hollywood. I’m going to England.” The trip to Britain in mid-1925 was not her first trip abroad. In 1917, the 19-year-old Dorothy Gish had starred alongside her sister in Griffith’s pro-British war film Hearts of the World. In 1924, she acted, again with her sister, in the American production Romola, which was directed by Henry King in Florence, Italy. But this role was different. In this performance, she would come out of the shadow of her more illustrious sister, alongside whom she’d appeared in two Griffith features and a handful of shorts. In Nell Gwyn, she would star alone. She would also star for the first time as the natural blond that she was. Under D. W. Griffith, she had appeared as a brunette to avoid any collision of looks with her blond sister. Restricted and frustrated as a brunette and possibly overshadowed by her sister—called the greatest silent actress of them all—Dorothy Gish discovered in her first British role the scope for uninhibited expression as an actress. Wilcox said she “radiated with the joy of life. It was humor out of the top drawer and sex appeal to boot.” Her sex appeal was a revelation. Said one observer: “It took an Englishman to discover that Dorothy Gish had legs and extremely beautiful breasts.” Gish, too, called her part, “The first really sexy role I ever had, she was the King’s mistress.” Gish’s salary was also of the highest caliber: nearly $5,000 per week—a top figure in those days, here or abroad.
By paying Gish such an enormous sum, however, Wilcox had put his picture in jeopardy. He was soon short of cash. To make ends meet, he kept everyone else in Nell Gwyn waiting for payment. He managed to finish the film with literally his last penny and then; unable to pay for an editor, edited the film himself at home. The results were impressive. Herbert Wilcox and Dorothy Gish’s 82-minute Nell Gwyn opened in early 1926. Gish played the street gamin Eleanor Gwyn, born in 1650, who first gains stardom on the London stage. She soon wins the affection of King Charles II—outmaneuvering Lady Castlemaine—and dies in 1687, faithful to the monarch and her class. Nell Gwyn led many to believe, since Griffith had often clothed Gish in costumes and rags, that they had discovered a new Dorothy Gish. “That Nell was the mistress of the King,” wrote Variety, “is not left to the imagination, even though it is not expressed in so many words in a subtitle; but the action conveys the story completely.” Wilcox, the Irish-born producer-director-writer, showed that British cinema could be exciting—and nearly flawless. “As a matter of fact,” continued the review, “there isn’t a single fault to be found in the direction of the picture in any manner.” But the greatest acclaim went to Dorothy Gish. “Superb isn’t the word that fits her performance; tremendous would possibly more actually convey the work she does. She is at once Gish, Pickford, Negri, and Swanson.” Dorothy Gish did not return to Hollywood. The success of her role allowed Gish to sign a three-picture deal with British National Films, which had been formed to control the world rights to Nell Gwyn. In the United States, Adolf Zukor of Paramount bought the American rights and proceeded to give British National $1 million so that Gish would star in three other films abroad. Herbert Wilcox, as it turned out, would direct them all within the space of a year. Each was a short 60 minutes. The next Wilcox-Gish collaboration was called London. Based on an scenario by Thomas Burke, Gish’s second British work opened in late 1926. While it was a departure from Nell Gwyn, it was a return to the roles Gish had played in Hollywood under Griffith. She starred in a Cinderella tale: a ragamuffin sold into near bondage, she manages to escape her tormentor and get help from a gentle artist. She falls in love with him and he in turn performs a sort of miracle: her transforms her into a lady. Facing a return to her former existence, she eludes her grim fate and marries her prince charming.
Director Wilcox opened the film with views of London’s slums, establishing the environment. Later there were scenes of a better life: the Henley regatta and the Paul Whiteman band at the Kit Kat Club. Gish’s character even brought some levity into her role. Having learned the finer points of life, at one point she does a particularly trim Charleston. But even more comedy would have helped, “had it been brought out,” wrote one critic. So Gish and Wilcox tried to make their next film a humorous one. To do that, Wilcox brought in Will Rogers. The film was called Tiptoes. Gish, Rogers, and Nelson Keys, all American song-and-dance vaudevillians, find themselves down and out in Liverpool and London. They devise a get-rich-quick scheme, acting as socialites in order to meet members of the British aristocracy. Gish, playing an American heiress, attempts to gain the attention of a wealthy lord with an eye toward marrying him. Tiptoes, which opened in June 1927, garnered little attention, mainly because Rogers did not do enough screen comedy. He was a man who had to be seen talking, not acting. Gish was found to look “nice at times and other times may be blamed upon the English.” So Wilcox and Gish responded by quickly putting out Madame Pompadour. Their fourth collaboration, out two months after Tiptoes, was a hit. Madame Pompadour was a return to the formula of Nell Gwyn. Giving a dignified and softened performance, Gish played the mistress of eighteen-century monarch Louis XV. However, she soon turns her atten-tion elsewhere. She falls in love, and then elopes, with the young radical artist René Laval, played by Antonio Moreno. When they are caught by the men of the jealous King, they face certain death. But Madame Pompadour saves their lives through a ruse that has a tragic catch: she must separate from her new lover forever. Wilcox used period costumes to great pictorial effect. He introduced a lavishness into the last, dramatic 15 minutes, and his directorial touches heightened the dramatic moods of the film. The result was that Madame Pompadour was called “a good one” by U.S. critics. “Almost sure-fire box-office… The Wilcox production is above British par—judging from other importations.” Once reason was that the film was supervised by the talented E. A. Dupont, the director of the smash German import Variety. In 1928, when her contract to work with Wilcox was completed, Gish left films.
“They’re kind of crazy, the things I did,” she said of her films abroad. Her four films had helped break the typecasting for which Griffith had been responsible. She stayed away from Hollywood; even the introduction of sound failed to lure her back to American films. Instead, Gish turned to the theater, dividing her time between the Broadway stage and that in London, where she joined her husband, James Rennie. In 1930, Herbert Wilcox decided to direct and produce the first British all-talking film. Around the same time, Alfred Hitchcock was making Blackmail, but that film was a silent that would be‘converted at the last minute to sound. Wilcox’s film, on the other hand, was planned as a sound film from the start, and thus he had the field to himself for a while. His first talkie was also distinguished for two other reasons. The director had lured Dorothy Gish into the age of sound, and the film costarred Charles Laughton, who was making the first full-length film of his career. The Gish-Wilcox one-hour production—its length was a trademark of theirs— was Called Wolves. The title was apt. Gish played Leila McDonald, a woman trapped in the frozen north with a group of unsavory types. The men scheme to draw lots to see who will get her. Laughton played her savior, Captain Job, who dies rescuing the heroine from an unwholesome fate. Laughton had gained the role because another actor rejected the part. With his first words, Laughton would soon earn acclaim. Ironically, he became famous for his despising of words, considering them merely appendages to his acting. Yet when it came to speaking, there were few actors who could match him. For her part, Gish performed in a stylized fashion more suitable to her silent films. Wolves did not appear in the United States until 1936, and then only in a trimmed, 35-minute version called Wanted Men. Gish, along with Laughton, ignored the American “premiere.” But an actor named Jack Osterman, playing a secondary role in the film, had a more immediate interest in Wanted Men. Having since made a name for himself on Broadway, he did not want this ghost from the past reappearing. He arranged to buy the early talkie before it opened, but on the way to pick up the film, he was mugged on the streets of New York, so Gish’s first, albeit shortened, sound film survived. Gish, who lived until 1968, made 100 films in her career. Except for her five sound films—her four American talkies debuted between 1944 and 1963—nearly all the rest are lost.
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