Whatever role the silent screen has played in our social history—and I believe it was an important one—no one can underestimate the enormous pleasure the films of this era gave to audiences everywhere. It has been my thought in compiling this book to recall the varied and fascinating personalities and photoplays of the years from the earliest films to the advent of the sound screen, when stars were really stars, when the fashions and activities of the Hollywood greats echoed around the world and 100,000 people could gather in London and even in Moscow to greet Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on their triumphal tour of Europe. Here was an art peculiarly American and yet universal. Its essence was entertainment; its success, financial and otherwise, was stupendous. Perhaps today, in a more troubled age, we can look back on these people and their films not only with nostalgia but also with a sincere desire to learn what made glamor so glamorous and laughter so hearty, and the world a happier place to live in. It was a memorable age, and I hope I have captured some of its quality to preserve in this book.
Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.
- San Bernardino Sun, Volume 48, Number 90, 13 June 1918
- Last Showing at Opera House for “Hearts of the World”
Robert Harron, the Boy, and Lillian Gish, the Girl, have for this picture done the best work of their respective careers. As the daredevil American of the French troops, Robert Harron wins favor by his unostentatious bravery and Yankee pluck. He is the central figure in numerous hand-to-hand fights that for ferociousness are different from screen encounters heretofore shown.
There has been a very noticeably change in Miss Gish’s style of acting, and this is by far the greatest work she has ever done. Dorothy Gish, as the little disturber, a strolling singer, was applauded- almost every time she appeared on the screen, each time with more enthusiasm.
Dorothy Gish has been popular heretofore, but this play will make for her a niche in stardom few actresses have been successful in attaining. As the boy’s companions of the French company, Robert Anderson and George Fawcett were easily the other favorites of the male contingent of the big cast, while little Ben Alexander, age about four years, steps forth as an infant prodigy.
Those who saw “The Clansman” remember George Siegmann’s “Lynch,” and will find him giving a characterization equally as remarkable. His role is that of Von Strohm, the German secret service agent. Other former Griffith players seen to advantage in this most recent success are Josephine Crowell, Kate Bruce and Anna May Walthall.
Hearts of the World – Photo Gallery
The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me
By Lillian Gish & Ann Pinchot (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 1969)
Colorful, lively, and moving memoir of a giant of the early screen, actress Lillian Gish. Her story is inseparable with the history of the movies, from the early days, when the pioneers of the industry worked long hours through hardship and cold, public criticism through the horrors of war, and the proverty of the Depression. She knew them all: Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Rudolh Valentino, Noel Coward, Erich Von Stroheim, and many more. She talks about the director of many of her films, D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith), whose consuming passion creating new ways to tell stories on celluloid. A long-time member of his company, she separates the man from the legend. She exposes the very personal, human side of this early Hollywood legend, warts and all.
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- LILLIAN GISH
- An Actor’s Life for Me!
- AS TOLD TO SELMA G. LANES
- An actor’s life for me
- Text copyright © Lillian Gish and Selma Lanes, 1987
- Illustrations copyright © Patricia Henderson Lincoln, 1987
In vivid anecdotes that are funny, heartbreaking, and remarkably evocative of that fascinating period, stage and screen star Lillian Gish tells the story of her childhood years in the American theater at the beginning of the 1900s.
From the perspective of nearly a century. Miss Gish recalls the kindness of her fellow actors during a Christmas spent on a train; hilarious—and sometimes frightening—slipups from many performances; the pain of separation from her mother and younger sister; and the thrill of being a professional actor.
For every child who has ever wondered about the glamour and excitement of being on the stage, about how and why a person becomes an actor, this remarkable childhood reminiscence offers a unique and lively insight, as well as a memorable piece of Americana.
LILLIAN GISH is truly a legend in her own time. As a young girl in the early days of movies, she became a star, the leading lady of such D.W. Griffith classics as Birth of a Nation (the first feature-length film), and her career continued successfully into the talkies. On Broadway, in the 1930s, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet. Most recently she appeared in Sweet Liberty with Alan Alda. To date, she has appeared in over a hundred films and fifty plays. In 1984, Miss Gish received the American Film Institute’s coveted Lifetime Service Award for her extraordinary contributions to the industry. But before all this, in 1902, when she was six, she began her distinguished acting career on a small, improvised stage in Risingsun, Ohio… where this charming, bittersweet childhood reminiscence of the actor’s life begins.
I am Lillian Diana Gish. I was named that by my parents. But sometimes I was called Florence Niles, Baby Alice, Baby Ann, and just plain Herself, for reasons that I will explain.
My sister Dorothy (who was nicknamed Doatsie) and I were lucky. We never lived in just one place or went to school like other children we knew. From the time I was six and Doatsie just four and a half, we were child actors. We belonged to traveling theatrical companies that performed plays in small towns and big cities all along the East Coast and in the Middle West.
There was no television, movies, or even radio at the beginning of this century when we began working. All over America, going to the theater was a popular evening entertainment. Most of the plays that Doatsie and I acted in were called melodramas.
I began life in Springfield, Ohio. I was born in my Grandmother Gish’s house in October 1896.
The nicest thing I remember about Mother and Father together is seeing them both standing at the foot of my bed one night, when I was still quite small. Mother was wearing a red satin dress with a long train and Father had on a dark, elegant suit. They must have been going to a party. They both looked so beautiful that the image has always stayed in my mind, clear as a photograph in a family album. Surely they were happy then.
When my sister Dorothy was just a baby. Father would sometimes take me for walks. I was not yet three, and we would stop to rest and have some refreshment. We never stopped at an ice-cream parlor, always at a saloon. I remember the wood walls, the sawdust on the floor and the strange bitter smell. Father loved to show me off. While he stood drinking beer, he would lift me up onto the bar, where I sat and ate my fill of the free lunch.
We looked on the movies only as a way of feeding and sheltering ourselves until we got back on the stage.
An actor’s life for me – LILLIAN GISH – An Actor’s Life for Me! (PDF)
- by Kenneth W. Leish
- Newsweek Books, New York
Griffith’s desire to make longer films was thwarted by Biograph. Determined to make the greatest movie ever produced, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and soon set to work on a film version of Thomas Dixon’s novel of the Civil War, ‘The Clansman’. The result of his labors was The Birth of a Nation, which exploded on the screen in 1915. Filmed at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars, the three-hour epic was enormously popular and equally controversial; it is still regarded as one of the key films in cinema history. The film’s depiction of leering, bestial blacks created a furor throughout the country, and much to Griffith’s surprise and dismay the movie was roundly condemned by many fair-minded Americans. But although Griffith’s view of history and race relations was deplorable, his artistry was undeniable. It was, as critic Bosley Crowther has written, “as though a superb symphony had burst from the muck of primitive music within two decades after the invention of the horn. . . .
People were simply bowled over by its vivid pictorial sweep, its arrangements of personal involvements, its plunging of the viewer into a sea of boiling historical associations. . . .”
Any follow-up to The Birth of a Nation should have been anticlimactic, but Griffith’s next film, Intolerance was even more monumental. The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.
Despite Griffith’s ability to focus on intimate scenes in the midst of staggering spectacle, and despite his brilliant use of crosscutting to heighten tension and involvement, Intolerance was a commercial failure. Audiences found it confusing and unappealing. Griffith was both heartbroken and financially- ruined.
In 1915 Griffith had founded the Triangle Film Corporation, a partnership involving two other men who rank high among the innovators of early Hollywood.
While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.'” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.
Way Down East (1920), famous for its scenes of Gish and Barthelmess leaping from ice floe to ice floe just a few feet from the edge of a gigantic waterfall, and Orphans of the Storm (1922) were both popular melodramas. But from that point on Griffith pleased neither critics nor public. Unable to cope with the new financial realities of big-business Hollywood, he was also loathe to eschew the sentimentality that was so out of fashion. When, desperate for income, he attempted to pander to public tastes by aping the successes of others, the results were disastrous. He worked only sporadically in the late twenties, and his last film was made in 1931. He lived in a rented room in Hollywood for seventeen more years and died in 1948, a bitter old man largely forgotten by the industry he had helped to create.
Forgotten too, by then, were many of the major stars of the silents, their careers terminated by the arrival of sound movies. “We didn’t need voices,” says Gloria Swanson, playing a reminiscing silent screen star in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces then.” Faces, and distinctive personalities, and talent, and enormous egos.
Norma Talmadge, leading lady of the First National studio, specialized in playing heroines who aged during a film’s progress. Married to producer Joseph Schenck, who nurtured her career, she is not well known today because many of her films have been lost. Nonetheless, she was one of Hollywood’s top stars. Her sister Constance, also popular in the twenties, played vibrant, comic roles, but Norma’s fans wanted to see her suffer—and suffer she did in such films as The Sacrifice of Kathleen, The Branded Woman, and Love’s Redemption.
Another pair of sisters, Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”
- San Bernardino Sun, 2 September 1986
- New Film for Lillian Gish
MINNEAPOLIS – Lillian Gish is about to embark on her 106th movie in a career that began 84 years ago at age 5. During a weekend appearance for a tribute to her late actress sister Dorothy, Gish showed little wear and tear and was gracious, witty and enthusiastic. “She’s the more talented of the two of us,” the actress said of her sister, who died in 1968. “And I’m here to prove it.” Gish starts on location in Maine on Sept. 8 for a new film with Bette Davis. She was the weekend guest of the Society for Cinephiles, an organization for fans of early film. “I was put to work at the age of 5,” Gish said. “I never went to school. We were poor. We went to bed hungry sometimes, but we loved each other. I had a happy life.” The Gish girls made their leap to fame through D.W. Griffith, who signed them in 1912. Gish starred in his 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.”
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