D.W. Griffith has revived “The Two Orphans” (Photoplay November 1921)

Photoplay Vol. XX November 1921 No.6

Romance from Moth-Balls

D.W. Griffith has revived “The Two Orphans”

There was a moon. It shone upon the women in their high white wigs and their widespread skirts of silk or satin and their shining shoulders; upon the men in their gorgeous brocaded coats and curled wigs. It shone upon the three silvery fountains, and the marble statues, and upon the trees, which were after Corot. To the tinkling strains of an old minuet, they danced.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

It was France, of the last Louis. They were curtsying and bowing, their tiny toes twinkling and the silver buckles on their slippers gleaming — “Just a little more life, boys and girls,” came a voice from somewhere. “Just a little more life, children!” It was Mr. Griffith speaking.

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

He was on top of a very high platform, with a megaphone—yes, they do use them once in a while—and three cameramen and six assistants. He was enjoying himself. He was watching the lovely, lighted scene witli as much pleasure as though he hadn’t directed it all himself.

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

In fact, Griffith is going to do it again. He is. Once more, making a costume picture. And if he doesn’t beat the Germans at their own game—making old-time romance live again—quite a few people will be very much surprised. He is resurrecting that noble old story “The Two Orphans,” by Adolphe d’Ennery, with a cast that includes Lillian and Dorothy Gish as Henriette and Louise, the title roles; Joseph Schildkraut. the great young European actor, as the Chevalier Maurice de Vaudrey; Creighton Hale as Picard; Lucille LaVerne as Madame Frochard; Sheldon Lewis as Jacques; and Frank Puglia as Pierre. It ought to make a pretty good picture!

Theda Bara
Theda Bara

And Theda Bara.

Theda Bara in FOX Production - The Two Orphans 1918
Theda Bara in FOX Production – The Two Orphans 1918

Yes. Theda was there to see “The Two Orphans” being done right. You know she did it for Fox some time ago. And she asked to meet Lillian Gish, who was an adorable Little Orphan in a rose-and-lavender costume — one of those demure things that only Lillian can wear and she asked Lillian how on earth she ever made up that way.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Orphans of The Storm 1922 — with Lillian Gish2.

You see Miss Gish uses very little makeup. Theda couldn’t understand it. because she always, if you remember, blacks her eyes and—oh, well, you remember. They say that Dorothy Gish is doing her finest work as Louise, the little blind girl. Everybody is glad that she has left her black-wig comedies and is playing a part that will give her an opportunity to do something besides pout. And she’s doing it. Hers is really the fat part of the picture, and nobody feels better about it than Lillian.

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo
Photoplay (Nov 1921) No 6 Orphans of the Storm
Photoplay (Nov 1921) Orphans of the Storm

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Dorothy Gish—Her Story By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1918

Dorothy Gish—Her Story

Told as it could be only by a friend and admirer.

By Marguerite Sheridan

THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.

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The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!

"Parting of Ways" finally a high resolution - From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s
“Parting of Ways” finally a high resolution – From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s

I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.

It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.

Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.

1920's DOROTHY GISH RPPC PHOTO POSTCARD

Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.

Lil Dorothy tennis

When not working at the studio, Lillian and Dorothy seek characteristic amusements. Perhaps Lillian will adorn her ivory-and-blue brocade chaiselongue while she reads. No chaiselongue for Miss Dorothy. It’s a linen skirt and smock, large shady hat and canvas shoes, and several vigorous games of tennis with some of her athletic friends on her own court, which adjoins the beautiful white stucco Gish home on Serrano Avenue.

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

The Fine Arts Studio, where the girls are now working, is five miles from their home. Lillian walked it one day, and Dorothy says she will take her word for the distance. So, instead of lunching at home, they cruise across Sunset Boulevard to a now famous little lunch stand, forever glorified in the D. Gish eyes by the never-failing supply of lemon cream pies. Every time I see a pie of that persuasion, I think of Dorothy Gish. It’s her greatest weakness in the gastronomic line, and she has been known to lunch exclusively on this delicacy for many days in succession.

It is a real joy in this “common or garden variety” world to come across such a refreshing and original character as Dorothy Gish. She is a regular girl, without the slightest doubt, and abhors anything the least bit “stagy.”

pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car
pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car

“If any one ever calls me ‘Wistful’ again, I’ll retire !” she said, with as much vehemence possible in one so absolutely “gishy.” “I loathe the word !” No, I should never call Dorothy Gish “wistful.” She has a very positive character, doing nothing by halves. When she likes a person, she does it thoroughly, and I imagine she can dislike just as whole-heartedly. I love her well developed sense of humor. It has come to her rescue in many distressing moments. For instance, on her twentieth birthday, Mrs. Gish planned a party for her. Dinner was to be served at seven. At eight-thirty, the little hostess arrived home, too tired to move, and covered with the grime of an especially trying day’s work. A lump came into her throat when she thought of the dainty dinner gown made for this gala night—she felt like crying, and crying hard. But she didn’t. With a gay little jest, she sat down at the table, radiant with spring blossoms and Cluny lace, wearing her old studio clothes, and immediately became the life of the party. “It was quite the nicest birthday I ever had,” she announced afterward. Dorothy is to appear in a number of five-reel Paramount productions this season, which is as it should be. Griffith features take many months to make, and we need frequent, very frequent appearances of Dorothy Gish to make our shadow world complete.

Dorothy Gish Cca 1930 FSF

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The Expressions Of Lillian Gish (Picture Show, 1920)

THE EXPRESSIONS OF LILLIAN GISH. (Exclusive to the “Picture Show”)

Picture Show, November 13th 1920

LILLIAN GISH

The Talented Screen Artist With the Heart of a Child

FROM the day that Lillian Gish, at the age of seven, played the part of little Willie in ” East Lynne,” her career was decided. Lillian naturally possesses a pathetic charm that is all her own, and the power to get rigflt to the hearts of her audience. The culminating point of her success was reached in her rendering of the girl in the now world-famous ” Broken Blossoms.” It was Mrs. Mary Gish, the mother of the two popular Gish girls, who paved the way for her two daughters to become the popular successes they are to-day. When only twenty-three years of age, Mrs. Gish was left a widow with two tiny girls to support.

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

Mary’s Part in Her Life Story.

A FRIEND procured for Mrs. Gish a walking-on part at the local theatre. In time she was advanced to better parts, and whilst touring round with her two little girls, they made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford. Mary was then herself playing child parts on the stage and Lillian and Dorothy were adding to the family income by playing small parts, when they were needed, in their mother’s company. Many children step from stage to the screen these days, but in the early days of the films, it was not an easy matter. The two little girls lived for six years in third-rate hotels, and moved from town to town, with the theatrical company without any hope of ever being anything more than just a member of that third-rate company.

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

Her First Screen Success.

THEN one day they visited a picture show, and recognised in the star no less a personage than the little girl with whom they had become so friendly on a previous tour, Mary Pickford. They had appeared together in one show, and the little girls had become very fond of each other. As soon as the company reached New York, the Gish girls called on their old friend, whom they had known when she was playing under her real name of Gladys Smith. Mary was genuinely glad to see them, and after getting Lillian an engagement for a small role as a fairy in ” A Good Little Devil,” in which Mary was playing an important part on the stage, she gave them an introduction to the great D. W. Griffith, and then and there he engaged Lillian to play a small part on the screen.

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A Lover of Simplicity.

FROM that day to this, Lillian has made rapid strides in her screen successes. Early plays in which you may remember her are, ” The Battle of the Sexes,” ” Home Sweet Home,” then in “The Birth of a Nation,” and ” Intolerance,” in which she took the part of the woman who rocks the cradle, ” The Greater Love.” Last but far from least is the part of the child in ” Broken Blossoms,” which is well known to every reader of the Picture Show. Lillian is just as simple in her tastes as in the characters she portrays so well on the screen. She says she owes much of her success to the simplicity of the frocks she wears. She is devoted to her library and her treasured books ; she sings a little, and one of her greatest treasures is a little ballad called “Broken Blossoms,” presented to her by the author. She says she finds genuine pleasure in singing it, and is delighted and proud that her picture is printed on the front cover.

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

Must Learn How Not To Act.

LILLIAN has a very real admiration for D. W. Griffith, the world-famous producer. She tells how Mr. Griffith trains all his players how not to act. ‘That is the very first thing on which he insists,’she says. ” We must move through our parts just as we would in real life, there must be no artificial expressions and no posing. Mr. Griffith teaches that to express an emotion, you must feel it, then the expression will be real. He is a dreamer who makes his dreams come true, and his ideals of truth and beauty are contagious. It is more difficult not to understand him than it is to understand him. His very simplicity of method and his quiet direction make for complete harmony between his players and himself.”

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

Born to Serve.

PERHAPS that is why Lillian has made such a wonderful cinema actress. She loves to be dominated; in fact, obedience is the chief trait of her character. Mrs. Gish says that both of her girls are wonderfully good, but Dorothy is wilful, and likes her own way, while Lillian can always be relied upon to do just what she is told. Lillian believes that some people are born to rule and some to serve, and she places herself among those who serve.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Her Ambition.

IT is difficult to get Lillian to talk about herself. By way of greeting she will ask you if you have seen Dorothy in her latest picture. It is her ambition to see London, and as her friend Norma Talmadge told me, she was more than disappointed that she was unable to accompany her mother and Dorothy on their visit to Europe. However, she has promised herself a real holiday soon, during which she has planned a tour of Great Britain. So we may soon see her over here.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish

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The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary – By Julian Johnson (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay Magazine Vol. XIV No.3 – August 1918

The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary

Preconceived notions are invariably wrong – particularly so in Gish Case.

By Julian Johnson

Most people have a preconceived notion of Lillian Gish, just as they have of the Kaiser, business hours on a submarine, a big party in old Rome, summer at the North Pole, what a Chinaman is thinking about, the origin of the American Indian, Theda Bara’s private life, Mary Miles Minter’s real age, or Mr. Griffith’s next picture. Like the Hun philosopher’s idea of a camel—he never saw one, but evolved a picture from his inner consciousness—preconceived notions are almost invariably wrong. And never more so than in the Gish case.

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There is a growing suspicion that the word ”Gish” is an adjective rather than a proper name. In so far as it applies to Lillian. It must be admitted that there is ground for this suspicion.

It has been Lillian Gish’s privilege to rise to world-wide celebrity as a figurante of innocence, maidenhood and springtime love in the photoplays of D. W. Griffith—and, in one frock or another, out West or back East, down South or over in France, she has never played anything else. Lace and lavender, roses” in moonlight, gentle kisses, old tunes pianissimo, a mystic Rocking Cradle, flower-hung garden walls—these are the things you unconsciously associate with Lillian Gish. Fresh blood on new-fallen snow is a terrible thing to see, much more terrible than blood on ground. So Mr. Griffith makes Lillian Gish the snowy background for the blood of his battles: rapine coils at her feet, the bat wings of murder flap past her head, the red hands of atrocity and terror reach toward her out of the murk—and never quite touch her.

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That’s why the picture populace has considered and does consider Lillian a pale, perfumeless lily, off as well as on.

The yardstick on a woman’s brain is her sense of humor. Women are naturally a little more flexible than men, they are more facile and more adroit, and when they can give and take a joke they become the real sovereigns of the earth. Of course it is a popular tradition that no ingénue can possibly have a sense of the ridiculous—else she would laugh at herself and automatically go out of the ingénue business. Perhaps because she is one of the greatest professional ingenues in the world, Lillian Gish artfully locks her sense of humor up in her dressing room when called onto the set. In fact, knowing when not to laugh, and never laughing in the wrong place, is laughter’s Scottish Rite. So far, Lillian of the lillies has never untied so much as a wan smile—in public—which has not been of the sub-deb order.

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But on Serrano avenue in Los Angeles there is another sort of Lillian: an ingenue in appearance, still, but a rather suave and well-poised woman in reality, in spite of the fact that she is scarcely over the top of twenty years. She is the studious rather than athletic type of girl—she leaves the muscle stuff to the “Little Disturber” in the same household—a girl who despises the shams of society, a girl who is much more at home with Balzac and Thackeray and Dickens and Galsworthy than with Chambers or Owen Johnson, a girl who has just returned from Europe more intensely devoted to America than ever.

Lillian in the hands of a German - Hearts of The World
Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

To begin with, Lillian Gish is an enthusiast about the war. She is very much of an optimist, and she sees from the chaos of destruction the supreme reorganization of the world.

“I think this is a wonderful age to live in!” she declares. “It seems to me the world was going to sleep in selfishness—not a part, but all of it. America was quite sure that its inventions were the most wonderful things of history, England was all tied up in social traditions and class distinctions, and Germany, the supremely selfish thing of the Universe, was headed for a reincarnation of the old Roman Empire.

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

“When this is all over, the world is going to quit being provincial. We’ll be less citizens of the Loire, or Kent, or California, and we’ll be more citizens of the world. We’ll understand each other.

“You know, we’ve got into a terrible habit over here: we think that the first thing to do to win is to call the Kaiser all the names we can think of—and the rest will be easy. They’ve passed that stage in England and France. The French and English are giving the devil his due just to beat him at his own game! It was only when I had been there quite awhile that I began to see that this spirit of sizing up murderous German ambition and soulless German accomplishment in a cool, dispassionate way was just about the worst thing that could happen to the Germans. When people get angry they lose their heads and call names. When they’re perfectly calm, and patient even in suffering, and just quietly determined to win—then they’re awfully dangerous!”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

And Miss Gish has some right to be a war critic, for she has been in the battle line in France, and went through eight air raids in London. “Almost always,” she declares, “there were warnings—the aircraft guns in the distance, then nearer; finally, the deep, heavy boom of the falling bombs. Only once was our fright very sudden and intensely real. It had been a quiet evening, with no thought of an impending raid. We were living in the Hotel Cecil. Suddenly the biggest noise in the world came from the courtyard and street below. In the tremendous roar of the explosion the whole hotel rocked as though in an earthquake. I was flung from my chair, and in the dark—it is almost a criminal offense to turn on the lights in an air-raid—people rushed about like little ants in a hill you’ve just stepped on. The most dreadful part was the screams and groans of the wounded and dying in the street below, for the bomb had struck a party in carriages. One cannot venture into the street when the anti-aircraft guns are barking, for the spray of shrapnel is even more dangerous than German high explosive—and there they lay, begging for aid, for fifteen full minutes, under our windows! It seems hours. As soon as the guns ceased of course almost everyone in the hotel rushed to them . . . not many were living, then … I shall never forget it.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“Another thing, that I wish I could forget, was my visit to the homes of a lot of poor mothers after a school had been bombed by a German squadron at midday, flying at the great height of 18,000 feet. I saw one woman whose little brood of three had all been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.”

Mr. Griffith, it seems, was the bane of the party’s existence — he and Billy Bitzer, the cameraman, but Bitzer was not quite as venturesome. “Bobby Harron was fairly tractable,” says Lillian. “In other words, if there was a lot doing, he’d take us — or get us where we could see, if possible.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

But Mr. Griffith — ! He might be at dinner with a general, and if the air-guns began to sound he grabbed his hat like a little kid at the first shouts of a ball-game, and vanished. Lots of times he didn’t come home till the following day! He was always in the street — he actually chased the darned things, as if trying to make them drop a nice sample bomb on him! One of Mr. Griffith’s peculiar studies for future years was collected in a camouflaged camera-nest near the Opera, in Paris. Here, for an hour or so on a number of days, Bitzer ground steadily and unobserved on the countenances of passers-by: the soldier, the widow, the old man, the Englishman, the bride, the child, the American, the coquette, the poilu’s wife — he has a record of the unconscious war-face of every manner of human being in Paris. Lillian Gish, with Dorothy, started her acting career as a child in the melodramas of Blaney and Al Woods. Later on she attracted Belasco’s attention, and played principal fairy—or something like that — in ”The Good Little Devil,” with Mary Pickford. But she says that she was utterly unsuited to this role — hadn’t enough experience for it in any way.

March 18 1922 CCCS

Then she went to the Biograph, and under Mr. Griffith’s direction, where she has remained ever since. The sisters Gish — Lillian and Dorothy — have always lived with their mother, Mrs. Mae Gish, yet have not escaped the customary quart and a half of rumors of engagement and impending marriage — little Dorothy being perhaps an especial victim. So far, neither of them has any matrimonial intention in reality.

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Serrano avenue, and their home, is not twenty minutes ride from the old Fine Arts studio which has modestly draped the birth of numerous masterpieces. Lillian, in her odd moments of neither working nor reading, is essaying swimming, French and piano.

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Dorothy — when not hopping about the country in her new enclosed car — is swimming to beat the band. And Dorothy, being a selfish little sister, clips the end off her sister’s interview: “Want to know where the ‘Little Disturber’ character really came from? Well, she was a little cockney girl; she’s English, not French at all. Mr. Griffith saw her on the Strand one day, freshness, wig-wag walk and all. He followed her for hours — or rather, we did, and then I thought he was dreadful to make me play her. I couldn’t. Besides, I didn’t like her. I thought she was crazy! But Mr. Griffith insisted, and then I cried. He insisted some more, and — and I did. And I’m glad, now.”

Think you that Lillian brooked or cared for the Little Disturber’s interruption? She wound up the party herself after all. “When I’m thirty,” she announced, “I’m going back to the stage. I want to play real women—not impossible heroines, or namby-pamby girls. I should like to play Becky Sharp—just to let you know how I feel about parts!”

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Personally, I think Lillian Gish is going to play a lot of very real women before she leaves the screen — if she ever leaves it. She has the capability, the perception, and the intelligence.

By Julian Johnson, 1918

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A close-up of that illusive young star, Lillian Gish By Delight Evans (Photoplay 1921)

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The Girl on the Cover – Photoplay December 1921

A close-up of that illusive young star, Lillian Gish

By Delight Evans

LILLIAN GISH has won contemporary immortality as the heroine of David Wark Griffith’s best pictures. She is one of the symbols of the screen. Mary Pickford is eternal youth. Chaplin, comedy incarnate and incomparable. Fairbanks, athletic America. Hart, the West. And Lillian Gish—the Madonna of the Shadows.

Lillian Gish APEDA New York Photography cca 1921
Lillian Gish APEDA New York Photography cca 1921

She is the fair, frail, persecuted child. The lovely, languorous lily. She is frail and sweetly sad and imposed upon. She has a moonlight beauty; a soft and serious calm. She is the virgin queen of the screen. Most of you believe that Lillian—like most lovely illusory things—just grew. That she has always drifted through things with the superb ease that she displays in her film close-ups. In fact, it may be that many of you decline to give her screen credit for her own fame, her unique and enviable position in the silver sheet firmament. It’s Griffith’s direction. Or it’s a natural placidity easily photographed. Or it’s a fragile prettiness.

Lillian Gish filming - The Wind
The Wind – Lillian Gish

It’s anything but Lillian Gish. She is never seen in a bathing-suit or a riding habit; so that the conclusion is that she never swims and never rides. She is only seen sitting serenely among flowers: a cool, collected little blossom herself. Ethereal, aloof, and very beautiful—but hardly human.

Lillian Gish 1924 with horse and Mr.Gwyn

You are entirely wrong. She swims and rides more accurately and joyously than many advertised athletes. But .Mr. Griffith, like the late Charles Frohman, and the present David Belasco, does not believe in much publicity for his players. They must speak, or, in the case of Miss Gish of Griffith’s, act for themselves.

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So that, if you don’t read what I am going to say, you will go right on believing Lillian Gish to be a very fair and beautiful Topsy. Topsy, you remember, (or do you?), was the dark diminutive principal in a certain American play, who just grew. Lillian is fair; and her beauty is spiritually satisfying and artistically amazing, but she is hardly a Topsy. People watch Lillian in her exquisite costume as Henriette in “The Two Orphans,” performing, in her consummately quiet way, for an insert; and later they say to her: “Oh, Miss Gish—what fun you must have! Don’t you just love your work?”

Lillian will smile her inscrutable little smile. “Yes—I love it.”

And she does. But once she said to me: “How wonderful it would be to forget your work for a little while. Forget it—and follow spring around the world. “Acting is the most exacting work in the world. It takes all one’s energy, absorbs ambition, and is intolerant of age. Lotta, the famous actress, now a little old lady, looked me up in Boston while I was ‘personally appearing’ for ‘Way Down East.’ She said: ‘My child, work hard now—and save your money. Then, when your public forgets you—in those long lean years when you are no longer young—you will have something to show for your work.”

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She is one of the few celebrities who began when the movies did, who has very little today to show for her work. She has never, to use the patois, “cashed in” on her fame. As you and I rate good fortune, she is rich. But compared with the princely incomes of other screen stars, she is merely prosperous! She hasn’t a mansion in Manhattan and another in Beverly Hills. She lives, very quietly, with her mother and her sister and her sister’s husband in a house in New Rochelle, near New York. It isn’t a palace; it’s just a comfortable home. She has only one motor. Her own company, much to the surprise and sorrow of all the friends of the star, failed before it finished one picture. And yet—she has a dignity, a celebrity very much like Maude Adams, that cannot be expressed in money.

Gish Hupmobile Detail
Gish Hupmobile Detail

She says herself, in her quaint, old-fashioned way, “Perhaps it is all for the best. Too much money does queer things to people. You can never tell what it is going to do to you.” She is the best friend of Mary Pickford. Joseph Hergesheimer and Lillian Russell are two celebrities who, I strongly suspect, count her their favorite screen star. A European ambassador says she is the most interesting personage he has ever met, not excepting royalty and statesmen and singers. She is, more than any other actress, the favorite honor guest of women’s clubs and colleges. She says she never knows what to say; but she has spoken to a roomful of alumnae of an eastern college for an hour—and left them wildly enthusiastic. And yet she wishes she had had a college education! She has been on the stage ever since she was six. And she has worked ever since, with vacations of never more than one month and seldom that. Her life has always been and always will be just one poem, one symphony work.

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First, work in the small companies which made only the one-night stands. In such plays as “At Duty’s Call,” “The Coward,” “The Child Wife,” “The Truth Tellers,” she toured the country, playing babies and little girls and little boys. In some of these she played with her sister Dorothy, then exactly four. They “made” the tiniest towns. Mrs. Gish travelled with Dorothy when all three could not get an engagement in the same company. This charming gentlewoman, a widow with these two little girls, turned to the stage from Massillon, Ohio, because people told her that pretty little Dorothy and lovely Lillian would be successful, as most stage children were — and are still—blondes. When the mother could be with only one of her girls, it was Lillian, the older by two years, who would travel alone. She would always have an older woman in the same company—the soubrette, the feminine heavy—to look after her. “Sometimes,” says Lillian, fifteen years later, “sometimes I got ten dollars a week.

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I would share a room with one of the other actresses for fifty cents a day, or sometimes even a dollar. In the evenings, about ten o’clock, three or four of the other girls in the company would come ostensibly to call on us. They would remain to share our room. In that way it cost each of us very little; so that I could always put away a little of my salary.

“I have never really had to endure hardships. But it was hard for a girl of six to travel without her mother. I was often very lonely. The worst part of my early days on the stage was the fact that it was considered, then, a terrible thing to be an actress. When Dorothy and I would return to Massillon between engagements, we would never tell anyone we had been on the stage. In a small town it was then considered almost a disgrace.

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“I used to do stunts in the old thrillers. Once I completely upset a scene. As the little darling of the piece, I was to swing from a rope out of the scene. That is, my dummy was. I was to run from the stage. I forget the occasion for the swinging; but it must have been a fight of some sort, for a revolver shot was to be my cue to skip. The shot was never fired during rehearsals. So when I heard it that first night, I was so excited I forgot to leave the stage. My dummy swung off and I remained in full view of the audience. I remember the leading man brought me out for the curtain call on his shoulder.

“In another old play, I was to enter a cage with two lions. I was not particularly frightened, and went through with it many times. The lions, Jenny and Maude, were old and tame. I played with them a whole season. Just after the last performance, Jenny took a large bite out of her trainer’s arm. The next season, Dorothy was with me in the same show. I had advanced to another role, and she had to go into the lion’s den. I knew the trick; I knew that she had only to be with the animals a second, before she ran out, and I had never been a bit scared. But with Dorothy doing it, I used to be petrified with fear at every performance. The minute Dorothy went on for that scene, I ran up to our dressing room and buried my head in the trunk until it was safely over.”

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The Gishes and the Pickfords became friends in those days. The three little Pickfords: Mary, Lottie and Jack—and the two little Gishes often travelled with the same company. Mrs. Pickford sometimes took care of Lillian. Later, the older Gish— when she was eight—was with Sarah Bernhardt’s repertoire company. One night Lillian was standing in the wings when the Divine Sarah came up. She put her hand caressingly on Lillian’s golden curls, murmuring a word of admiration.

“Bernhardt’s company was the best one I was ever with,” she says. “We were mostly with the melodramas. We were only once with a good company. And then we never got our salaries; so we decided it was better to play in low-brow plays and live.”

German postcard by Ross-Verlag, no. 8441, 1925-1926. Photo Apeda (Alexander W. Dreyfoos), New York British-American-Films A.G. Bafag.

Later, she was in “Dion O’Dare,” “Mr. Blarney from Ireland,” “Her First False Step,” “The Volunteer Organist” and with Fiske O’Hara for three seasons. “Then I was getting about twenty-five dollars a week. I was in New York, playing in David Belasco’s ‘The Good Little Devil,’ with Mary Pickford. I lived in a hotel on Eighth Street. You probably know it—the favorite home of many very old, very respectable people. I didn’t know many people in New York, and I was lonely. I had a little stove. I used to cook my meals on it. I didn’t want to go out for meals because I hated to walk into a restaurant alone before so many strangers. Besides, I didn’t have enough money—I sent some home every week. So I lived, for some time, on beans and tea that I cooked on my little stove. And not much else.

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“Naturally, I began to get thin and wan. I was not very strong anyway, and it wasn’t long before I looked really ill. David Belasco noticed it. He knew me only as an actress in his company; my part was not very large. But he sent a doctor to see me and ordered that I be taken care of. I never knew until long after who had been so good to me. Mr. Belasco is the kindest and most considerate of men and managers. I did not see him for years—all the time I was in pictures in California—until, once when Mary was in New York, we met him at the theater—his own theater. He said he couldn’t believe I was the same girl who had apparently been trying to starve herself to death so long ago!”

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It was not really very long. The Gishes made their screen debut when they were so young they had to make up to look older! Today, Lillian Gish is generally recognized as the greatest emotional actress in the films. Dorothy has a popularity second to no film comedienne. Lillian has worked hard—but then so have many other screen stars. But she has kept her perspective. She is not an actress before she is a woman, a student, a thinker. On her reading table, in her dressing room at the Griffith studio in Mamaroneck, I saw these books: “The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci;” Romain Rolland’s ” Jean-Christophe;” Bernard Shaw’s “Back to Methuselah;” “Zuleika Dobson,” by Max Beerbohm; and Anatole France’s “Revolt of the Angels.” The pages of ail these books are cut. She has never been “educated”—thank heaven! “

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I spent exactly eight months in a convent at St. Louis, Mo. It was the happiest time of my life. At first I missed the excitement of theatrical life; but after a month I would have been glad to stay there all my life. I am not a Catholic—but I love the nuns. They are the most wonderful women in the world. “We had amateur theatricals dramatics, we called them, I had never told them, of course, I had been on the stage. I was entirely at home in our plays, and I played Bianca in ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’ After our performance, Sister— — came to me and said, ‘My dear child, I should never say this to you. But I feel it is my duty to. You should go on the stage. You are a born actress.” There are so many things one can tell about Lillian Gish—charming things. One of the nicest things I know is the story of the manicurist. She did Lillian’s nails for a long time, and one day shyly confessed her movie aspirations. Not long after, Lillian brought her to the Griffith studio in her own car, saw that she had screen tests made, and is doing everything she can to help her. It is now up to the pretty little manicurist. If she becomes established, she will have to thank Lillian Gish.

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A Great writer once said about her, “She is subtle without knowing it.”

A great actor said, “When she acts she doesn’t know what she does. Her art is intuitive and unconscious; all great art is.’,

One of her best friends says, ‘ ‘Her greatest charm is her simplicity.”

I am sure she is great. Not because celebrities have said so. Not because of her marvellous work in “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and “The Two Orphans.” Not because she does better work in each new picture. Not because several managers have begged her to go on the stage again. But because she has a very rare and fine spiritual quality about her—as Mary Pickford has—a childlike simplicity. And more because—like the Mona Lisa of Leonardo: that sweet and good and virtuous woman—she has all the pain, the wisdom, and the subtlety of the ages in her matchless smile.

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The Parade’s Gone By … Kevin Brownlow – 1968

Survivors of a golden age

talk about the movies

before the movies learned to talk…

The Parade’s Gone By … (Kevin Brownlow – 1968)

 

THEY SPEAK in this book—the pioneering directors Henry King, William Wellman, Josef von Sternberg, Clarence Brown, the stars and producer stars Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, the cameramen and script writers, the film editors, the stunt men and the creative giants of the silent screen.

With frames and photographs you’ve never seen before, with pungently alive first hand recollections, The Parade’s Gone By… recreates the earliest days of the movies, how the first moving pictures were actually shot, how the first film makers improvised, evolved— indeed invented— the techniques that we take for granted today and turned a crude, fumbling gimmick into an art.

Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf THE PARADE’S GONE By. .. is an indispensable book of film history, acclaimed by critics as the best book on its subject in forty years, a vivid, nostalgic, immediate portrait of the cinema’s golden age.

griffith david wark_737

D.W. Griffith

Griffith enacted each part for his players. An ex-actor himself, he enjoyed this immensely. He was a ham, but his overacting was an inspiration; with such an example the most timid player would feel I a surge of confidence. Katherine Albert, who played in The Greatest Question, recalled Griffith’s technique:

“I remember once he was doing the mother role and, his long, horselike face turned heavenwards, he called out, ‘My son, my son, can you hear me there in heaven? Say that you hear me—speak to me.'”We were spellbound, but I realize now that it was pretty bad, pretty melodramatic acting. As he finished, quite pleased with himself, he happened to glance at my mother. She has a grand sense of humor and she was amused at Griffith’s acting and showed it in her eyes.”Sensitive, quick to see any play of emotion, Griffith realized that she knew it was phony. He shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. ” ‘Well, something like that,’ he said, and sat down.”

The Greatest Question - cover Lillian Gish

The people who worked with Griffith all acknowledge the hypnotic power of his voice. It was as effective as a musical instrument in its molding of the emotions. The tone, the resonance, the sudden harshness, the softening—all this had a profound effect on the performance. Miss Albert recalled that during a rehearsal in the bare projection room, without costumes or props, she felt utterly wretched.

“I thought for a brief second that I should die right then, but I had read interviews about what being a trouper meant. Then, suddenly, a strange thing seemed to happen. Griffith’s voice, a rich, deep, very beautiful voice, droned on telling us what we were to do. ‘Now you stop by a tree. It’s an apple tree. You pick up an apple, Bobby, and hand it to her. Don’t forget you love her very much,’ etc., etc. And the projection room and all those people seemed to fade away and I found myself actually on a Kentucky road, actually under an apple tree, not acting a part, not being spoken to by the great Griffith but living, really being, the girl I was playing. Bobby Harron stooped and handed me the imaginary apple. He took an imaginary knife from his pocket and peeled it. I took the peelings from him and threw them over my left shoulder. Griffith suddenly stopped me; ‘What are you doing?’

” ‘Why, you see,’ I explained, ‘you throw the apple peeling over your left shoulder and it falls in the shape of an initial. That’s the initial of the man you’re going to marry,’ “Griffith smiled. He turned to Lillian Gish, who sat on his right, and said, ‘The kid’s got it.’

Such details pleased Griffith immensely. Dorothy Gish recalled that when in England for Hearts of the World, she and Griffith were walking in the Strand when they noticed a streetwalker sauntering along in front of them. “Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she had the damdest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.” Griffith constantly sought advice. He would ask for it from the actors, the assistants, the cutters, and even the property men and studio hands. Every member of his company felt they were contributing to the final result, and no one minded when they worked long hours or had to go without lunch. When shooting started, Griffith’s technique moved into its second stage. He blocked his scene in long-shot and mid-shot, much as a painter sketches an outline. The players, thoroughly rehearsed, generally found little difficulty in satisfying their director. The atmosphere was relaxed, and good-humored banter indicated the comparative lack of stress. If a scene went awry, Griffith would break the atmosphere. On one occasion, in the middle of a take, he began chatting to the actors about Lloyd George. He explained afterward that they were beginning to act—he wanted to confuse them, to jolt them out of the idea that they were doing something of importance.

“He knows just the instant an actor is spiritually reaching out for the life line,” wrote Harry Carr. “At that instant he will speak the lines for them. ‘Go to hell!’ he will yell, as the hero defying the villain. It is wonderful to see the effect of this on the actors. It is just like an experienced jockey letting a horse feel the touch of his hand on the rein.”

Stage three began in the projection room. Running the dailies, Griffith would work out, simply by intuition, by the feel of the scene, where the close-ups should go—and where he should hit emotional climaxes. The blocking-in process was over; the master now added the rich details. Emotional climaxes in Griffith’s films, even more than spectacular crowd shots, were known as “big scenes.” “Griffith approaches a big scene carefully,” said Frederick James Smith. “Mellowing preliminary—or ‘working up’—scenes are shot for days preceding. Then the day comes. Someone has said that a cathedral hush settles upon the studio. Griffith goes to his room and rests for an hour. The player goes to his or her room and rests. Then the moment arrives. Stage carpenters’ hammers are stilled. Griffith begins to talk to the player. He gives emotionally in direct ratio to the actor’s response. Lillian Gish could reach an emotional climax easily. When the Broken Blossoms scene in the closet—still the screen’s highest example of emotional hysteria—was shot in Los Angeles, the screams of Miss Gish, alternating with the cries of Griffith, could be heard in the streets outside. It required most of the studio staff to keep the curious from trying to invade the studio. “-

Carol Dempster was not so pliable. A brilliant actress, she unconsciously put up a resistance to Griffith’s hypnotic direction. It once took six solid hours’ work for Griffith to induce Miss Dempster to cry. Refusing to resort to glycerine, Griffith had to work on her until she had achieved real tears. Few people were allowed to witness the filming of these intense scenes. An actress being reduced to tears or hysteria does not enjoy being stared at by gaping bystanders, so Griffith would generally close the set. Harry Carr, however, was present when the scene with Lillian Gish and the dying baby was made for Way Down East:

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

“Griffith always gives me the feeling that it is his mind in the actor’s body that is doing the work. I was the only one there behind the little fenced-in place, except the cameraman. I could feel the tenseness of a strange force. Something I had never felt before. It was impossible to endure it for long. I had to leave. I could feel myself literally slipping away.”

During the troubles at Mamaroneck, Griffith was understandably less enthusiastic about his work, and his preoccupied manner unsettled his actors. Alfred Lunt, appearing in Sally of the Sawdust (1925), said that he had very little contact with Griffith, and practically no direction:

“He’d set up the scene and that was it. It was all ad lib and I never saw a script. It was quite paralyzing, to tell the truth—I’d come from the theater, where I’d been brought up in a different way. Griffith was very pleasant, but he just didn’t seem to bother. I remember in the grocery-store scene I said, ‘What do I say to the grocer?’ “And he said, ‘Oh, say anything—ashcans, tomato cans, ketchup. Just keep talking.'”

Sorrows of Satan 1926
Sorrows of Satan 1926

But in Sorrows of Satan (Paramount, 1926), Griffith returned to his former methods to induce some shattering scenes from Carol Dempster. Again and again, throughout the film, a long-held close-up of Miss Dempster plays havoc with the audience’s emotions. Seeing the film absolutely silent, with no music to help it, and just this lovely face in close-up on the screen, you can still feel something of the electricity that passed between director and actress and generated this extraordinary performance.

“I recall vividly making The Sorrows of Satan,” said Ricardo Cortez. “He took an awfully long time. I went to California for eight weeks and made Eagle of the Sea while he kept going with Lya de Putti, Adolphe Menjou, and Carol Dempster. “Griffith was a strange sort of man—very quiet. There seemed to be an invisible barrier around him. You couldn’t get near him. I was under the impression that he was a very lonely man—although I got to know him quite well. I felt terribly sorry for him and would visit him at his hotel—the Astor.

“He would go out for a walk, and end up at the Pennsylvania railroad station, where he’d sit on a bench and just watch people. “During the making of the picture, I was playing in one of the attic scenes. We’d been working for six weeks, not getting very far, and for just thirty seconds I lost my temper. “He had said, ‘If you knew anything about acting you wouldn’t do that.’ ” ‘I don’t know a thing about acting,’ I snapped, ‘which was why I wanted to be directed by you!'”

Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish - in the ruins of Babylon
Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish – in the ruins of Babylon

“I always think of him as Mr. Griffith,” said Dorothy Gish. “I get so shocked when anyone calls him by his first name; I never did and never can. When I grew up, directors used to ask me if I disliked them. ‘You never call me by my first name—it’s always mister,’ they used to say. “But I cannot think of Mr. Griffith as anything but Mr. Griffith. We all had such respect for him. Oh, he’d get mad—and you’d just go quietly away and stay out of the storm until it had blown over. He was just marvelous.”

Carmel Myers began her career at Triangle, with the Griffith apex. She was profoundly impressed by the care taken in setting up each production and felt that the rehearsals were one of Griffith’s prime contributions. “At Universal I missed the spirit of D. W. Griffith. He was the umbrella that shaded us all. A fantastic man.” Anita Loos regarded Griffith as a poet, one of the few able to extemporize with film. But in her view, there was only one person on the Triangle lot who was really dedicated to motion pictures—and that was not D. W. Griffith.

Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction

“He was always longing to go away and write plays,” she said. “No, I think the only person who could really be called dedicated at that time was Lillian Gish.” Lillian Gish agreed that writing plays was his real ambition. “His film career didn’t give him the happiness that it ought to have done. I suppose I was dedicated—I knew the financial burden he was carrying. The others didn’t. Griffith trusted me, I think, more than most. He wasn’t a very trusting man with his business affairs. “But it was a dedicated life then. You had no social life. You had to have lunch or dinner, but it was always spent talking over work if you were with anyone—talking over stories or cutting or subtitles or whatever.

“I don’t see how any human being worked the way he did. Never less than eighteen hours a day, seven days a week. They say he saw other people’s pictures, and took ideas from the Europeans. He never saw other pictures. He never had the time. If you insisted, he’d borrow a print of something outstanding, like The Last Laugh, and run it at the studio, but that was very rare. He didn’t have time to see pictures; he was too busy making them.” Nevertheless, one of the most profound influences on Griffith’s determination to make big pictures was the Italian epic Quo Vadis? “Mr. Griffith and I went over to the theater in New York to see it,” recalled Blanche Sweet—although Griffith always denied having seen it. “He was very impressed by the production and by its size. His attitude was, ‘We can make as big productions as they can!’ I’m sure that picture influenced him because it wasn’t long after that that he came up with the idea of Judith of Bethulia. We had never done as long or as large a picture, and at first the heads of the company turned him down cold. But he finally won.” And Owen Moore, interviewed in 19 19, remembered that Griffith had a deep admiration for French films. “Once he brought over a two-reel Coquelin film—a lovely little thing it was—an adaptation of La Tosca. He ran it off in the projection room for all of us as a model of pantomime. But when we began the next picture we were all trying to act like the French actors and the result was awful. Griffith never showed those films to us again. “

Griffith was well aware of his own contributions to motion pictures. He once said he loved Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, “and particularly loved the ideas he took from me.” While Griffith remained at the technical level he had evolved for himself by 1916, other directors took up his reins and swept onward. The 1920’s were years of frustration and anxiety. He was no longer the industry’s leader. Project after project was announced, then postponed or canceled. In 1922 he went to England, ostensibly for the premiere in London of Orphans of the Storm, but also to talk over with H. G. Wells a project for filming The Outline of History. The British government asked him to make a spectacular production in India, which they could use as an effective answer to Gandhi. Griffith announced plans for Faust with Lillian Gish, for The White Slave with Richard Barthelmess . . . When he went to Paramount, he was assigned An American Tragedy, a project that was later given to Eisenstein and several other directors before it was completed by Josef von Sternberg. He intended to do Show Boat, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Romance of Old Spain, and Sunny (with Constance Talmadge). He hoped to reissue Intolerance as a talkie with a new modem episode, and, in England, to remake Broken Blossoms. Despite frustrations, Griffith continued to make pictures. But most of his films of the twenties were modest in both theme and execution and have led historians to complain of an artistic decUne. Anything following Intolerance—still the biggest picture ever made—was liable to be anticlimactic. Griffith, saddled with debt, was forced to make smaller-scale, commercial productions. But he was still able to make pictures of the scale, and of the quality, of Hearts of the World and Orphans of the Storm. If America was a disaster, he fully compensated for it the same year when he took his company to Germany to make the exquisite and moving Isn’t Life Wonderful? And if Sally of the Sawdust meanders somewhat aimlessly, the rich, vigorous Sorrows of Satan is almost entirely rewarding. Griffith declined only in the sense that his opportunities decreased. In 1926, after his box-office disappointment with Sorrows of Satan, he retreated into writing his autobiography. (It was never completed.) “Writers are the only ones who can express their ego,” he said. “Directors can’t, because they have to please the majority. We can’t deal with opinions. All we can do is to weave a little romance as pleasantly as we know how.” The irony of this understatement makes a bitter contrast with the heroic statements of the old Griffith advertisements. It recalls the phrase of Louis Gardy: “It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them.” Our gratitude to D. W. Griffith will always be mingled with shame. For while his genius has gone, the spirit that destroyed him remains as strong as ever in our industry.

Sources:

  • “Motion Picture Magazine, May 192j, p. 116.
  • Photoplay, Oct. 1931, p. 37.
  • Dorothy Gish to author, New York, March 1964.
  • ‘Motion Picture Magazine, May 1923, p. 116.
  • Photoplay, May 1923, p. 34.
  • Motion Picture Magazine, May 1923, p. 116.
  • ”Alfred Lunt to author, London, April 1965.
  • ‘ Ricardo Cortez to author, London, Oct. 1965.
  •  Carmel Myers to author. New York, March 1964.
  • Anita Loos to author, New York, March 1964.
  • Lillian Gish to author. New York, March 1964.
  • ‘ Blanche Sweet to author, London, Sept. 1963.
  • ‘ Photoplay, Dec. 1919, p. 58.
  • Goodman: Decline and Fall, p. 10.
  • Photoplay, Dec. 1926, p. 30.
  • New York Call, quoted in WID’s Year Book, 1919, p. 151.
The parades gone by ... written by Kevin Brownlow
The Parade’s Gone by … written by Kevin Brownlow

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Henry B. Walthall, his impressions of Lillian Gish (By Myrtle Gebhart – Picture Play 1926)

Picture Play Magazine (August 1926)

The Unknown Quantity

Henry B. Walthall, a man whose taciturnity surrounds him with an air of mystery, has returned to the screen, and meeting Lillian Gish again after many years, is persuaded to give his impressions past and present, of that actress

By Myrtle Gebhart

WALLY, they told  me you were going to play with me in ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ ” said Lillian Gish to Henry B. Walthall, when they met again for the first time in eight years, “and now that you are here on the set, and are made up, I really believe you are.”

Henry B. Walthall
Henry B. Walthall

“They told me I was going to interview you, Mr. Walthall,” I remarked, when he and I eventually met for luncheon at Montmartre, “and now that you are actually here, I do believe it.” For, if you know Henry B. Walthall, you know that the observance of prescribed rules, such as punctuality, is not one of his traits. Yet, curiously, he seems always to be the toy of fate—circumstances leave him moving vaguely in the shadowy background of whatever event is transpiring; invariably, he has a logical excuse for being late, or for not accepting a role which others consider a fine opportunity for him, or for not following beaten paths. There is about him the uncertainty of an elusive personality which, because he does not believe in self revelation, must remain to the world something of an unknown quantity. Previous appointments for our interview had been broken, for perfectly understandable reasons. His publicity agent — though this genus is ordinarily a mint of more or less accurate information—had only vague reports to make concerning Mr. Walthall’s present engagement and recent work, with the explanation, “Well, I can’t get anything out of him—he won’t talk about himself.”

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

Aggravating, yes, but forgivable. So, with my fingers crossed, I waited, at Montmartre—I and the publicity agent, and there was food, so I would eat. If by any rare chance Mr. Walthall turned up, I would interview him—maybe. Forty minutes late, a drab, somber little figure shuffled in. His brown eyes, in a helpless way that verged on panic, darted from table to table, seeking us. Fashionably gowned stars brushed against him, elbowed past him. Like a lost little boat amid a regatta of sleek and shining yachts, he floundered and was turning in meek retreat when the aforementioned press agent rescued him and guided him safely through the reefs to port. With a sigh of relief, he sank into his chair. His brown hand shook mine gingerly, and he said apologetically, “I hope you will excuse me, ma’am, but I couldn’t help it. I was delayed.” Whereupon I delivered the remark in paragraph two, and the interview was more or less on. Where had Walthall been during these last few years, before this season’s wave had suddenly brought him back into the light? The Little Colonel of “The Birth of a Nation” has recently renewed his fame with appearances in successes of varied types—”The Barrier,” “Three Faces East,” “The LJnknown Soldier.” And now, in “The Scarlet Letter,” he is playing once more with Lillian Gish. There is usually a story that touches the heart in such years of oblivion. I wanted to know why he had dropped out, what transitions of thought and feeling and viewpoint he had passed through, during that self-imposed exile.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

Moreover, what changes had he found in Lillian, the little girl whom “The Birth of a Nation” had brought into prominence along with himself ? But before I could ask an explanation of the mystery which had surrounded his retirement. I noticed that a hubbub had been created in the cafe by the recognition of the little brown man beside me.

Henry B Walthall - The Scarlet Letter
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter

Lights were hastily brought in and cameras set up. The Montmartre luncheon crowd was to be photographed. The bustling, red-faced publicity kewpie of the cafe rushed over to inform us that Walthall’s unprecedented appearance had occasioned the excitement. Beauteous stars preened and primped, and put sweet smiles on their faces, but it was Walthall that the camera wanted. And it was Walthall that the camera did not get. At the very instant that the bulb was pressed, the flustered Walthall, suddenly conscious of the attention centered on him, and embarrassed thereby, bent down to tie his shoe lace! After that, they left him to my tender mercies. “Yes, ma’am, it’s good to be with Lillian again.”

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

For the sake of continuity, which makes easier reading, I shall quote his words as a steady flow, but I assure you they were fairly dragged out of him, by a persistence which, though rebuffed, was resilient. I had gone there to get an interview and to eat spaghetti. Having eaten the spaghetti, I was determined to have the rest of the bargain.

“Changed? Well—yes and no. She has grown. I used to be half a head taller, and now I have to look up to her. We met first in the old Biograph days. ‘Twas about twelve years ago we made ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

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

Then, eight years ago, ‘The Great Love,’ for Griffith. Hadn’t seen her since. “Quite a reunion. Dorothy breezed in. Came West to see Lillian before she returned to Europe. Clever little girl, Dorothy. Never has seemed to hit her stride. It’s pretty hard to prove your talent under the glamour of a sister who’s a great artist. “Yes’m, that’s what I call Lillian—the most skilled technician the screen has ever had. I don’t place much confidence in actors who rely on feeling and emotion for expression. Inspiration is undependable. Our way, Lillian’s and mine, is Griffith’s method: to build systematically and tediously a structure complete in every detail that the mind can conceive and that tiresome repetition can perfect. Thoughtful analysis of a character and concentration on minute ways of expressing it produce a more logical and sustained interpretation.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

“Lillian gives the actor opposite her both less and more than any other actress does. Less emanation of a vital personality, less emotion to arouse you and draw you wholly into a scene. She is aloof and self sufficient, a clear-cut and matchless diamond of the acting art. Yet in another sense, her artistry magnetizes, with an appeal to your pride, a challenge to match her superb and flawless technique with your own.”

“Do you think Lillian is simply a mirror of Griffith?” I asked.

“Well, it’s hard to say. She still employs much of the Griffith method. You know the saying, ‘Griffith puts a smile on your face, carves it there, and it stays on.’ He bends your finger, so.” Walthall illustrated. ‘Unimportant actions, under his guidance, take on significance. “But Lillian shows more volition now, more spirit. That shy child of sixteen wouldn’t have dared to talk back to Griffith. It wouldn’t have occurred to any of us for that matter, for he was the master instructing us. It’s a shock, now, to hear her occasionally arguing with Victor Seastrom over scenes. But when he convinces her she is wrong, she gives in graciously. Often, though, she wins, on most logical reasons. She has developed from an untutored child into a practical young business woman, thoroughly versed in every angle of picture making.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish (Mother) cca 1930

Photo: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish – “Mother”

“She lives altogether in her work, her only interests outside it being her mother and sister. For them she is now, as she used to be, solicitous in a little-mother way, Her entire life seems dedicated to them and to her career.”

It was a great proof of Lillian’s real ability, Walthall pointed out, for her to rise above the Griffith tradition, which makes of his actors mere automatons reflecting his masterly genius. Lillian used to be called Griffith’s screen mouthpiece, a puppet which he pulled on carefully trained strings for this or that effect. Her first independent efforts were not wholly successful.

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

But gradually, she is learning to shake off many of the old Griffith conventions, retaining only those that prove adaptable to her new course. It has always been Griffith’s custom to devote weeks to painstaking rehearsals before the actual filming starts. Lillian tried that scheme on her first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture, but it didn’t work. The modern overhead won’t stand for such dilly-dallying, though Walthall insists that it proves eventually to be a saving of time.

“You grow with the story,” he says. “You know definitely why something is done at a certain point. No, ma’am, you don’t feel automatic and stereotyped. We don’t depend on inspiration, but we build. And the more carefully your foundation is laid, the more conscientious your attention to every detail, the more solid will be your edifice.”

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

Little by little, many times feeling myself beaten back by that indefinable but impenetrable wall beyond which Walthall lives in a mental recess all his own, I gleaned his impressions of Lillian. In their yesterdays together, she was a quaint, shy child, with a dreamlike delicacy, sitting quietly in corners poring over books, or else watching and studying, responding instantly to any call pertaining to her career, working doggedly, building gradually. A fragility that disclosed, bit by bit, a tenacity that, once it learned how, gently but stubbornly attained its goal. And now, he finds her a young lady of poise and infinite tact, of untiring patience, who knows what she wants and gets it, according as expediency dictates—sometimes by a long way around, again by a decisive short cut.

Italian postcard, no. 22. Publicity still for The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

“It’s funny I haven’t more definite opinions about Lillian,” the actor mused, roused out of his vague ambiguity by my insistence upon copy. “But remember that I haven’t known her during these past eight years. The fact that she shows no startling change, other than an outspoken expression of ideas which I can’t recall encountering in her in the old days, is indicative, I suppose, that the years have left her unmarked.

“On the screen, she is a quaint dream heroine, never a real personality. An impression of tragedy surrounds her, even in her lightsome moments. She seems doomed, from her first poetic scene. Because her metier is so different from most, you can’t judge her intangible elusiveness by ordinary standards. In a world of screen conventions, she lives alone in a bower of imaginative beauty. But the fact that she succeeds in creating illusion by most workmanlike methods—is that not a great achievement?”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

The role in “The Scarlet Letter,” of old, misshapen Prynne, the wizened, merciless scholar-husband of Hester, is likely to be one of Walthall’s finest characterizations. The Hawthorne novel is being faithfully translated to the screen, and upon the revenge which fills the soul of Hester’s husband, many somber scenes depend.

Following “The Scarlet Letter,” Walthall will play an ancient of the Vienna boulevards in a Universal special production. Of the directors with whom he has recently worked, the taciturn Walthall makes only this comment. “I like Seastrom. He gives me a lot. He is methodical.”

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation

And what about those years when Walthall dropped into the shadows? His skill is as reliable as ever, for it is based on mental acting. His heart? Is it mellowed ? There are lines in his face, graven deeply. His eyes, brightening pleasantly, grow in an instant ambiguous, as though shades were drawn over them to hide any revelation. Illness, a general breakdown, the capitulation of shattered nerves, took him from the success which can be his whenever he wishes to claim it. Overnight he disappeared. Hollywood wondered, and never forgot him, regretting that Walthall was “through.” Reports began to sift down from the hills where he was fighting his battle. In a cabin, slung upon a ledge above June Lake, he lived, and cooked his meals on a little stove, and fished in the cool, crisp tang of the morning, and, muffled against the wind, tramped the wooded hills when the lake wore its mantle of ice and the clear, piercing scent of the pines filled his lungs. Ruth Clifford and her husband reported that Walthall would drop in unexpectedly at their cabin for a chat and then disappear again for weeks at a time ; others brought word of a big Walthall catch, of the little actor’s pride in his skill with rod and reel. And then one day, steady of nerve and as brown as a berry, he came back. As quietly as he had left, he slipped again onto the screen. Has he always, I wonder, been such an apologetic little man, emerging even- now and then from the shadowy, mental world in which I feel his real self lives, for a brief instant of decisiveness, only to drift back, somehow, into an inner realm where one cannot follow? Or is this merely my foolish fancy ?

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation 2
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

He may be simply bashful and retiring, and I unskilled at drawing him out. Or—and instinct tells me that this is the true explanation of that vague elusiveness about him—those long months in the silence of the hills, with only the pines for company, may have taught him that words “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” are futile things. What did those months teach him? I want to know, being bluntly, untactfully curious. And I can’t find out. That noncommittal taciturnity blankets my inquisitiveness more thoroughly than sharp rebuffs could. He is a charming, but such an inarticulate little man. My title for him, “The Unknown Quantity,” refers not to his art as an actor, which is unquestioned, but to Walthall the personality. Seeking, by example, to draw him out, you soar into an oratorical flight that leaves you winded. He listens attentively, with his grave brown eyes upon you. Then he says, “Yes,” or he says “No,” often with a polite “ma’am” tacked on. And there you are; dropped back into a chasm, and feeling so ineffectual that you want to kick yourself. Curiously, you have no desire to kick him, though you may think in general that boiling in oil is insufficient punishment for the actor who fails to furnish you with your meat and bread—copy for the magazine. There is a lovable quality about him that, despite differences in age, makes you want to take him to your heart and mother him. An invisible cloud broods over him, a bleak fog separates him from the sunshine and gayety that surge all about him. The pulse of humanity drums beside him, and he shuts himself in from it. Has he found something finer and better, that he knows we light-hearted ones can’t share ? He hasn’t that washed-out look of one who is tired or who has forgotten how to feel. Rather, one senses an emotion that stops, baffled by some caution or some necessity for aloofness, like the dammed-up waters of a river. That mask is not one of blankness, nor futility, for through it are limned those deeply carved lines—marks of suffering, of feeling, of thought, of a rich and mellow life. Suddenly, some chance remark or a greeting from an old friend lights up his face with a sweet and human kindliness, but then the mask drops back into place. A waiter came up and bowed deferentially. Mr. Walthall’s wife had telephoned that she wanted him to come home immediately after lunch, if he could.

“About three hours from now,” I said to , the press agent, in a stage whisper pitched for the actor’s ear, “he’ll show up.” “Oh, I shall be right on time,” Walthall drawled, a slow smile softening the lines indented about his mouth, his eyes quietly rebuking our lack of confidence. “Unless I am delayed … or something turns up … ”

And so, “The Unknown Quantity” followed us down the stairs, smiled timorously, and shook hands. Unmindful of the eyes upon him, of a famous young ingenue’s awed whisper, “There’s Henry B. Walthall!” he ambled off down the Boulevard, a pathetic little brown figure, alone, somehow, in a world filled with color and brightness.

Henry_B._Walthall_1916
Henry_B._Walthall_1916

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How Griffith Picks His Leading Women – By Harry C. Carr (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay, December 1918

How Griffith Picks His Leading Women

By Harry C. Carr

If the myriad questions which Mr. Griffith’s public would like to ask him could be put to an individual vote, surely the winning candidate would take this one: “How do you pick your leading women?” And the questioners would doubtless be thinking of the dozen or so great actresses whom D. W. Griffith picked—among whom are those pictured in the two panels on this page.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

“Acting is not a matter of what one can do with face and hands and body” says he; “it’s the light within that puts characterization across.”

WHEN the editor of Photoplay asked me to write a story about the methods that lie behind the visible work of David Wark Griffith, and the reasons for those methods, I simply answered: “Why don’t you send me to Great General Headquarters behind the German lines for a nice little advance announcement of Ludendorff’s plans for next Spring? I feel that will be much easier to get than the Griffith stuff you want.”

Seena Owen - Courtesy Cecil B DeMille
Seena Owen – Courtesy Cecil B DeMille

Nevertheless, both the subject and the difficulty of it were fascinating. Mr. Griffith is not only remarkable because he remains year after year the supreme creator of the motion picture business; he is about the only director in it who doesn’t accompany himself to work with a jazz band and a drum-major. He is not impolite to reporters. On the contrary, he is probably the most courteous host who ever welcomed one on a lot. But he has that adroitly irritating faculty of some captains of industry : when you are sent to Pierpont Broadanwall’s office to ask him why he put up New York Central as a stake in a poker game you are astounded to be greeted by the great man himself, you get a comfortable chair, a cigar, whatever you want to drink, a talk about the weather, three funny stories—and while you’re still laughing at the last one you wake up to find yourself on the asphalt without one grain of information. Hundreds of reporters interview Griffith and vote him a great fellow, as, indeed he is; but what have they gotten for their publics?

Miriam_Cooper_from_Stars_of_the_Photoplay

Photo: Miriam Cooper

Mr. Griffith says quite frankly that a man should be judged by his work; not by his own talk about it. Theoretically he is absolutely correct, but he doesn’t take into account the great human frailties of hero-worship and curiosity. When a man becomes as extraordinary in his kind as Mr. Griffith he is, in the public mind, a superman, and a superman has—to quote Mr. Cobb — no more privacy than a goldfish. If the myriad questions which Mr. Griffith’s public would like to ask him could be put to an individual vote, I Chink the winning candidate would be this one: “How do you pick your leading women?”

Mae Marsh 1912

Photo: Mae Marsh

It was this interrogative forlorn hope that I led out to the Sunset Boulevard studio on a bright September morning. I had already picked a soft place to fall, but I ventured to tell him that the man who had first upborne Mary Pickford, made Blanche Sweet great, discovered the forlorn pathos of Mae Marsh, unveiled the gentle melancholy of Miriam Cooper and the bright white beauty of Seena Owen, found Constance Talmadge and developed the shy elusive talents of the Gishes was to most women the most interesting man in the world; that while no one expected him to publish the formulas of his laboratory he might at least get acquainted . . . give them a general idea . . . speak at least a few words to people who had been imploring a word for many years.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

It was no talent of mine that made him talk. I think he spoke, rather, to defend himself from being flatulently acclaimed a genius of selection. He seemed to feel that impending.

“The art of acting is at once very simple—and altogether impossible,” he said.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 5
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of girl wearing short sleeves and head band view 2]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3481

Photo: Dorothy Gish

“It isn’t what you do with your face or your hands. It’s the light within.

“If you have that light, it doesn’t matter much just what you do before the camera. If you haven’t it—well, then it doesn’t matter just what you do, either.

“Before you give, you must have something to give. This applies to emotions as well as money.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

“All art is the same. The orator, the sculptor, the painter, the writer and the actor all deal with the same divine fluid. The only difference is the mechanical mould by which they express it. One pours it into one mould; one into another. “I am not sure but what the concrete expression of art is about the same, too. Athletes tell me that all games of physical skill depend on an instinctive knowledge of time and distance. The aviator, the boxer, the runner, the fencer, the baseball player — even the jockey — succeed or fail in exact proportion as they have this instinct. So I dare say that the successful artist is one in whom this strange instinct is combined with the inward illumination.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Photo: Lillian Gish

“Now, you have asked me about women:

“Certainly there are a few mechanical characteristics that have a certain importance. For instance, deep Knes on the face of a girl are almost fatal to good screening, for on – the screen her face is magnified twenty times, and every wrinkle assumes the proportions of the Panama Canal. It is important that her face have smooth, soft outline.

Lillian Gish portrait Close-up Cca 1925 Photographer Fred Hartsook - LA
Lillian Gish portrait Cca 1925 Photographer Fred Hartsook – LA

“So with the eyes. Every other physical characteristic is of insignificant importance compared with the eyes. If they are the windows of your soul, your soul must have a window it can see through. The farther motion picture art progresses the more important does this become. In the early days, screen actors put over effects with elaborate and exaggerated gestures. Every year the tendency is more subdued in this regard. Actors make less and less fuss with their hands, and tell more and more with their eyes.

Photo: Constance Talmadge

“But a good pair of eyes and a smooth face of proper contour will not suffice to make a motion picture actress. “There are plenty of horses with legs for derby winners who are pulling milk wagons. They have the legs, but they haven’t the fighting heart.

“In other words, they lack the inward illumination.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

“History has one very striking instance of a light that went out. Napoleon had an instinct for mathematics that made him a great artillery officer. He had the divine vision for strategy and logistics. But what made him the transcendent military genius of all time was the feeling within his heart that nothing could beat him. After his divorce from Josephine, and the Russian campaign, the light flickered and went out. He still had the same instinct for strategy, the same genius for artillery fire. But he became a second-rate general. When the time came in which he lost faith in himself his military science availed him nothing. His light had gone out.

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

Photo: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, D.W. Griffith

“I don’t pretend to know why it is, but you either have it, or you haven’t it. If you have it, you can polish up the tools and make them more effective; but if you haven’t it no amount of study will bring this queer illuminative elf to you. “Any director can squirt glycerine tears over a pretty face and tip over a few chairs, break up a table or two and have some sort of imitation tragedy. That isn’t real. Real tears aren’t always real, if you get my meaning. It is the feeling behind the tears that can open the beholder’s heart. “Now don’t understand me to say that a girl is born a heaven-sent genius or a predestined failure. Nothing could be a more ghastly untruth. “Remember what I said about having something to give, as a preliminary necessity for giving?

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

“The only woman with a real future is the woman who can think real thoughts. “Some get these thoughts by reading and study; others by instinct. Sometimes deep analytical thought seems born in one.”

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Presently we went onto the set, and Griffith went to work. His first subject was Ben Alexander, the tiny boy in “Hearts of the World.” They made him a bed of straw over in the corner of the little French dug-out. The lights were low, and the shadows were playing queer gaunt tricks as the wind caught the candle-flame. Outside there came a muffled roar of artillery that re-echoed dully against the studio walls.

The megaphone was at Gnffitn s lips. “Now, Baby,” he said, quietly.

Little Ben sat up rubbing his eyes.

“You’re frightened,” said D. W. Abject terror spread over the baby features, as though someone had lowered a dark curtain over his face. “Now sleepy again.” The terror faded. The little head dropped back to the straw. Griffith turned to the little group behind the camera. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the forgotten art of tragedy. You have just seen a very fine example of it.”

“But a good deal of it was not the baby, but Griffith,” I suggested.

“On the contrary,” resumed the director, “nobody told the baby what to do. I told him he was frightened, and that look of terror came into his eyes. When he grows up he may be able to add certain mechanical tricks, but he will never really do any better acting, at seven or seventy.

“I dare say our friends the theosophists would say that personalities like this baby have old souls that have been here on earth before, and are drawing upon the subconscious experiences of their previous lives.

“I don’t know anything about that. But I am sure that this little soul-light is usually born with the child. Some feed it into a lambent flame; others let it die into gray ashes.”

“The only woman with a real future is the woman who can think real thoughts. Some get these thoughts by reading and study; others, by instinct. Sometimes deep analytical thought seems born in one.”

“Every other physical characteristic is of insignificant importance compared with the eyes. If they are the windows of your soul, your soul must have a window it can see through. The farther motion picture art progresses the more important does this become. Every year actors make less fuss with their hands, and tell more and more with their eyes.”

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