A Cannes Notebook – By Roger Ebert – 1987

Two Weeks in the Midday Sun

A Cannes Notebook By Roger Ebert – 1987

By evening, a certain controlled hysteria was growing in the press corps, as the Friday visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales drew closer. Every reporter in Cannes hoped to be included on the guest list, which was being selected by some sort of secret process involving the British delegation and the festival press office.

Charles and Diana were scheduled to arrive on Friday morning, accept the keys to the city at noon, take a guided tour of the marketplace displays (easily the tackiest and most depressing sight Cannes had to offer), and then be present in the evening at a dinner in honor of Sir Alec Guinness. I ran into Peter Noble, who repeated his claim that some of the London dailies were offering £1,000 for press credentials to the dinner. He also speculated that the royal couple had timed their arrival to come the day after the screening of the most prestigious British entry in this year’s festival, Prick Up Your Ears, the story of the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his homosexual lover.

“It’s not the sort of thing they want the royals connected with,” Noble explained.

“What will they be seeing?”

“ The Whales of August. Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Most eminently respectable. The dodgiest part of their whole visit will be when they go down into the Palais basement to visit the marketplace. I imagine they have an advance team mapping out a route to get them from Canada to Australia to New Zealand without passing any porno displays. ”

The movie was by Lindsay Anderson, the British director, whose elderly cast included Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Ann Southern. It takes place near the end of the season in the Maine cottage where Gish and Davis, sisters, have summered for years. Now they are facing a momentous question: Can Gish still find the strength to care for her blind sister? Price plays an indigent European count who explains, “I have spent my life as the guest of friends.” His latest friend has died, and now he is looking for a new home. Southern has her eye on him.

The movie is sort of an On Golden Pond about really old people (Gish is ninety-two). The actors and their characters are so old they they have passed beyond age and into a sort of status somewhere between survivors and saints. Anderson’s camera lovingly explores their faces, which are wrinkled and old but luminous. Davis, finally stripped of the mask of makeup she has adopted in her old age, looked especially beautiful.

Bette Davis Whales of August

Lillian Gish was in splendid form later in the afternoon, at her press conference in the Palais. She was A wearing a print dress and a floppy straw hat, and when the audience stood up and cheered her entrance, she looked as if she thought she deserved every moment of the ovation, which of course she did. This was the woman who starred in The Birth of a Nation, and whose presence at Cannes represented the whole life span of the feature film as an art form. Never married, rumored to still be carrying a torch for D.W. Griffith after all these years, Gish revealed some surprising memories, like the time Louis B. Mayer offered to boost her career by involving her in a scandal.

“Lillian,” she said Mayer told her one day in 1929, “you’re way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares. Let me knock you off. I know I can help your career—let me arrange a scandal for you. ”

Miss Gish paused for dramatic effect. “Well,” she remembered replying, “I’ve never had a scandal, Mr. Mayer. I ve never done anything that wasn’t public knowledge. The rest of the time, I spend with my mother and my sister Dorothy. ”

But Mayer was insistent, Gish said, and so she finally answered, “Give me three days. ” At the end of the three days she told Mayer she did not want to have her career helped by a scandal, and Mayer said, “I can ruin you! ” So, she said, she packed up and returned to Broadway—where she appeared on the stage for six years. Miss Gish nevertheless found time to make about 106 movies in a career that began with Griffith at the dawn of the feature film, and still continues, even though she lamented the fact that actresses seem to age faster than actors in Hollywood.

“When I was very young, I played the child of Lionel Barrymore. Some years later, I played the woman he loved. A few years after that, I played his wife. And I promise you, if Lionel Barrymore had lived long enough—I would have ‘ played his mother. ”

Nobody asked her what sort of scandal L.B. Mayer had in mind.

The press conference for Gish was an example of what has become an art form at Cannes, the ritualized confrontations between the stars, the directors, and the press. Most ofthe press conferences take place in the Salon du Presse, inside the Palais, but the biggest stars, like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, or James Stewart, are moved upstairs to the Ambassadeurs nightclub to accommodate the overflow.

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The Swashbucklers – 1976

The Swashbucklers

© Copyright 1976 James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke

  • Editor: T. Allen Taylor
  • Research Associates:
  • Earl Anderson, John Robert Cocchi
  • Michael R. Pitts, Florence Solomon

Introduction by Hal B. Wallis

Thankfully, movies have always been behind the times. Take military science. While aircraft carriers and machine guns were making the old ways of warfare obsolete, one doughty band of mounted swordsmen continued to flail away. These were the Swashbucklers—heroes of a thousand exciting films from silents to CinemaScope. Knighted by their king, embraced by their one true love, acclaimed by adoring peasants, they nevertheless worked their derring-do without proper recognition—until now. Entertainment historians James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke searched the secret archives of Hollywood . . . viewed hundreds of movies. ..braved a thousand dangers—anything to bring you these men of daring, up close.

Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister – behind the scenes

Movie director Henry King and his star, Lillian Gish, were hunting for an actor to play the part of the Italian prince in The White Sister (Metro, 1923). Inspiration Pictures (headed by Charles H. Duell and Boyce Smith), the producing company, had booked passage to Italy where the film would be photographed. As the sailing date came closer, the search for a dark-haired actor became frantic. Then, photographer James Abbe told King that he had seen La Tendresse and that there was a young Englishman in the cast who would be perfect as the prince.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” (At a Portrait Exhibition)

After seeing the play, King and Miss Gish went backstage and asked Ronald if he would make a test for them the next morning. Miss Gish has said in her autobiography. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice-Hall, 1969), “Once we had run the test we knew our search was over. Ronald Colman was perfect for the part.” Miss Gish sent Henry Miller, the star-producer of La Tendresse, a note begging him to release Ronald from the run-of-the-play contract, “and that gracious gentleman, knowing what an opportunity it was for Mr. Colman, let him sail with us forty-eight hours later.” Since The White Sister was the first of the big American films to be made in Italy, there was a paucity of adaptable studio facilities and equipment. Needed items had to be purchased and rushed from Germany, while the company sought locations. During this period, Ronald sent for his wife. She joined him in his quarters at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, but the move was a mistake. (Mrs. Colman was given a small part in the feature to keep her occupied.) Their marriage was never too successful and the squabbles that came with their reunion were either witnessed or heard about by the entire company. Miss Gish wrote in her book, “Once Thelma Colman ran down the hotel corridor crying, ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Some of the company ran in to find Ronnie on the floor. When he came to, he said, ‘I must have fallen and hit my head.’ ” A short time later they had another fierce quarrel at a party that resulted in Thelma’s immediate departure for England.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish – The White Sister

For one scene in the film, Ronald, as the prince, was required to kidnap his love (Gish), who had become a nun after thinking that he had been killed in Africa. “To get him to play with the passion and abandon necessary for the kidnapping scene, Henry King plied him with whiskey. Ronnie actually said ‘damn’ during the scene. It was a great surprise to all of us.” They worked all night on the scene, but the next day Ronald was not able to remember what had happened. According to Miss Gish, “Ronnie looked like an aristocrat; he could make you believe that he was a prince. But he had all the reserve of an English gentleman.”

White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

The White Sister premiered at New York’s Forty-fourth Street Theatre on September 5, 1923. Its thirteen reels of 13,147 feet of film were cut to ten reels and 10,055 feet for its February, 1924 national release and was subsequently edited to nine reels and 9,361 feet for its general release.^ The critics were enthusiastic about the film and its cast. The New York Times rated Ronald “splendid,” but like many another viewer of the spectacular picture, wondered just why the script had to introduce the rather incongruous flood scenes, which led to Colman’s death by drowning. For many it seemed a very overtly artificial manner of providing a means for Lillian Gish’s nun to remain true to her vows.

Lillian Gish adn Ronald Colman – The White Sister – promotional

Ronald remained in Rome to take a bit part, without billing, in a Samuel Goldwyn presentation, The Eternal City (Associated First National, 1923), a film dealing with the current political struggle in Italy between the Communists and Mussolini’s Fascists. Meanwhile, with the release of The White Sister, he was hailed as a new Valentino, and was immediately signed by Inspiration Pictures for a key role in Romola (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), again with Henry King directing and Lillian Gish starring. This film was made in Florence, where an entire replica of the fifteenth-century city was reconstructed. Also in the cast were Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The latter appeared as the villain whose acting overshadowed Ronald’s more modulated performance as the overly virtuous sculptor who adores the heroine (Lillian Gish).

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

Before Romola was released, however, Samuel Goldwyn, who had recently formed his own company in Hollywood and had seen The White Sister, cabled Ronald with an offer of the male lead in a film opposite May McAvoy. Colman accepted, and, on returning to New York, found that he had just enough time to take a role in a Selznick comedy starring George Arliss, an actor whom he greatly admired. In $20 a Week (Selznick Distributing, 1924), Ronald was cast as Arliss’ son, who challenges the older man to a bet that he cannot live on twenty dollars a week. The father takes the wager by procuring a job in a steel plant which he saves from financial ruin by uncovering an inhouse embezzler. The father is taken into the firm as a partner while the son marries the daughter (Edith Roberts) of the plant’s owner (Taylor Holmes).

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HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

Close-up : the Hollywood director

HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

  • General Editor: Jon Tuska
  • Associate Editor: Vicki Piekarski
  • Research Editor: David Wilson
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J. & London 1978
Close-up : the Hollywood director – Henry King

Henry King is a man of slightly more than average height. He looks surprisingly good wearing a hat, even if it is only a straw fedora; and were it not for the fact that his hat shields his grayish, thinning hair, you would never be able to guess how old he is from his alert, observant blue eyes and his deeply tanned skin. He is chary of revealing his age, having been born on 24 January 1896 at Christiansburg, Virginia, but then his active interest in life belies his years, as much as the fact that he still flies his own airplane and enjoys playing golf. He lives in Amelia Earhart’s former house in North Hollywood, bordered in the rear by a golf course, verdant turf spread beneath majestic trees stretching quietly in the California sun.

While King was at work on FURY (First National, 1923), featuring Richard Barthelmess (their last picture together) and Tyrone Power, Sr. , Charles Duell was taken with the idea of making a film with Lillian Gish. FURY was a sea story and King had chartered a ship for sixteen days to get the sea episodes filmed. When he docked, Duell had Lillian Gish with him. Edmund Goulding, who had done the screen play for FURY, wanted a chance to write the scenario for the Gish picture, to be titled THE WHITE SISTER. Goulding claimed he could complete it in ten days. When King saw Goulding’s treatment, he threw it out. Fortunately, King bumped into George V. Hobart, a Broadway playwright, in a restaurant. King told Hobart he would pay $1,000 a week for a good screenwriter, somewhat a measure of his hardening opinion of Edmund Goulding’s abilities. Hobart joined King in a short trip to Atlantic City to talk about the storyline. A week later they had twelve pages of story and King liked it.

The White Sister – Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish

When King returned to New York, he encountered Edward Small, who was a talent agent in those days. Small said there was a good play on Broadway at the 39th Street Theatre and that King should take a look at the actor in the second act. The play was a starring vehicle for Ruth Chatterton. Ronald Colman was the actor Small had had in mind. King was impressed by him and arranged a meeting. He wanted him for the role of the male lead, Giovanni, in THE WHITE SISTER. Colman told King that he had come from England with the hope of appearing in films, but that he photographed poorly and having been given a role in the play, felt he couldn’t leave. King insisted on doing a screen test anyway. He slicked down Colman’s pompadour and drew a moustache on him. The four-hundred-foot test was shot three times. When Gish saw the rushes–THE WHITE SISTER had been inspired by her desire to play a nun; it was the first film she was signed to make after leaving D. W. Griffith– she was enthusiastic about Colman. The picture was to be filmed in Italy. Colman agreed to play in it. He was offered $450 a week. Gish was getting $1,000 a week.

The White Sister – Lillian Gish

By modem standards, THE WHITE SISTER is one of those curious clerical dramas of the silent era, with Gish in her customary role of a sainted and vestal heroine. According to the screenplay, she falls in love with Colman. Then, believing him killed in the Great War, she decides to enter a convent. Colman shows up after she has taken her vows, and, however waveringly, Gish successfully resists him.

This film, like DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1923) with Richard Dix, requires today a suspension of the critical faculties, particularly in view of the presumed motivations prompting the actions of the principals. First National, which had been distributing Inspiration’s features, thought THE WHITE SISTER (Metro Pictures, 1923) held little box-office promise. The film was then offered to Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loew’s, Inc., the theatre chain which owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schenck was willing to distribute. The picture proved a commercial success. It had cost only $300,000 to make in spite of its location shooting in Europe. King found the Italians easy to work with and not at all the difficult and lazy bunch they were according to Fred Niblo who was working in Italy on M-G-M’s BEN HUR.

Colman so liked working in pictures that he asked King if there was a part for him in King’s next project. King wanted to make ROMOLA (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), based on the George Eliot novel. The location was again to be Italy.

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

It was to be a costume drama, a much more expensive film to make with its fifteenth-century setting, once more with a religious motif, a romantic drama played against the ravings of the fanatic Savonarola. Lillian and Dorothy Gish were the heroines. William Powell and Ronald Colman were the male leads. ROMOLA bombed. But the picture did bring Ronald Colman to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn offered Colman a contract. Colman was undecided. He felt he should stay with Henry King. But with the failure of ROMOLA, Inspiration was in financial straits. King urged him to accept Goldwyn’s offer.

Ronald Colman, William Powell and director Henry King while filming Romola

When Henry King returned to the United States, he signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. Both films were mediocre love stories, although the second one, ANY WOMAN (Paramount, 1925), made some feeble attempts at comedy.

WAY DOWN EAST (Fox, 1935) was Henry King’s last film for the old Fox regime. It was, of course, a remake of what remains perhaps D. W. Griffith’s best film after THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Epoch, 1915). King had always been impressed with Griffith’s film and he considered the remake a great challenge. Unfortunately, Fox was financially strapped. The Shirley Temple musicals, the Will Rogers pictures, and Charlie Chan were the only consistent money makers the studio was producing. King could not, as Griffith had, film the exteriors during the blizzard, crossing the river on the ice floats, on location; he was confined to the back lot at Fox’s Western Avenue studio. King wanted to simulate frozen eyelashes, such as Lillian Gish had had in the original. He couldn’t. Henry Fonda was able to jump around on the cakes of phony ice, but he was sweating when he did it.

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Mother of Miss Gish (Chicago Tribune 1941)

Mother of Miss Gish

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · 10 January 1941, Friday · Page 17

Probably the last Christmas tree in Chicago to be taken down is that of Miss Lillian Gish, in her apartment at the Blackstone hotel. The tree, hung with ornaments and webbed in silver mist, the holly wreaths, the Christmas angels on the mantelpiece, and the Christmas candles go down today with the departure of Mrs. Gish for New York after a holiday visit with her daughter here in her long run of Life With Father.

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Mrs. Gish, who with her dazzling white hair and deep blue eyes is reminiscent of a Dresden figurine, is an invalid as a result of shell shock in the world war, when she accompanied her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, to the war area, where they made propaganda pictures under the direction of David Wark Griffith. She lost 35 pounds during the stay in the war zone, and has been invalided ever since.

Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England on the first boat to cross the Atlantic after America had declared war, the St. Louis. Dorothy Gish sailed later on the Baltic, the same boat that carried Gen. Pershing and his staff overseas, and took 13 days to do it.

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

“Think of any one having the courage to face the movie camera,” the commander of the A.E.F. said to Miss Gish.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

The Gishes were in London during two months of heavy bombardment. In September they sailed for France on a troop transport that started out twice and returned because of floating mines. Griffith had gone ahead to get into production, and when the two Gish girls arrived with their mother they went into the war area and made pictures in trenches and beyond the barbed wire. During their stay in Paris they lived with a French family in a bomb shelter, and learned to tell by the sound of the motors overhead what kind of plane and which country’s it was. The pictures made were Hearts of the World, The Greatest Thing in Life, and The Great Love. Remember?

Hearts of the World program – Little Disturber

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Gish Sisters & Company – By Marjorie Wright (The Photoplay Journal for May, 1917)

The Photoplay Journal for May, 1917

Gish Sisters & Company

The Company Being Their Very Helpful Mother

By Marjorie Wright

A TRIO that means much to Triangle—Lillian and Dorothy Gish and their mother! Not only does this one-family constellation of stars mean much to Triangle, but it contributes much toward the perpetuity of the happiness of thousands of photoplay fans throughout filmdom. At the beautiful Ruth St. Denis home in Los Angeles this interesting little family lives the lives of cultured gentlewomen, devoting themselves to their profession and bringing to it the highest artistic endeavor. The result is that the Gish girls, though young in years, have long since become established as prime favorites. Lillian Gish is more of a student and a dreamer, being given to secluding herself while she thinks out her part and costumes it according to her own lines. She is of a delicate, almost ethereal style of beauty.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Dorothy Gish, the younger, is an outdoors girl, full of life and high spirits, she going in for all outdoor sports in which she excels. Both girls are devoted to their mother, and are her constant companions. To Mrs. Gish is due the credit of the successful artistic careers of her daughters, as she has personally instructed them since they were tiny girls.

It is good to know that that old superstition about only one really brilliant member of a family appearing in the same generation, is not true. Lillian and Dorothy Gish disprove it. Ever since they began work for the Triangle programme, they have been stars of equal magnitude. One of the most interesting facts about these two sisters, who have won so many admirers throughout the nation, is that off the screen they are precisely like any other sweet American girls untouched by fame. That, however, is where their resemblance to each other ceases. Temperamentally they are as unlike as any two respectable persons could be.

Lillian Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Lillian is a girl of the old-fashioned kind. She loves sewing and cooking, and can undertake general housekeeping if necessary, which, of course, it never will be. Dorothy is a woman of the future. Joyously impractical, her imagination is just one riot of poetic fancy. Dorothy is at once the delight and distraction of her sweet-faced mother and sister. All three are great chums ; and their evenings together, after work at the studio has been completed for the day, are sacred to them. One would no sooner think of breaking into that charmed circle than—than in walking on the grass when the sign says not to. Dorothy began her dramatic career at the age of four—she is not yet out of her teens—playing little Willie in “East Lynne.” She often has regretted in late seasons that she made so many persons cry through her portrayal of that famous role. After “East Lynne,” she appeared chiefly in melodrama, but presently she entered a school in Virginia, remaining there five years. Then she was engaged by D. W. Griffith, who took her with him through several motion picture companies to the Triangle programme. She has been seen there in “Old Heidelberg,” “Jordan is a Hard Road,” “Betty of Graystone,” “Little Meena’s Romance” and “Susan Rocks the Boat.”

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother

Lillian Gish, the elder sister, made her debut when only six years old, in a melodrama called “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” She then became a pupil in a Springfield dancing school, and her next engagement was as one of the fairy dancers with Sarah Bernhardt, who then was making one of her American tours. After two seasons with Mme, Bernhardt, Lillian went to New York to finish her dancing lessons. There she renewed her old acquaintance with Mary Pickford and went with her to visit a picture studio. There she was seen by D. W. Griffith, who was attracted by her natural poise and expression, and he placed her under contract at once. Since joining Triangle, she has appeared in “The Lily and the Rose,” “Daphne and the Pirate,” “Sold Marriage” and “An Innocent Magdalene.” This Miss Gish has two hobbies — collecting rare old books, mainly on ancient history, and playing golf. She is a keen student of literature, and she can discuss manner master. She always arranges her affairs each week so systematically as to permit of a certain number of hours to be devoted exclusively to reading. Needless to add, there are thousands of fine volumes in her library, and she prizes every one of them to the highest degree. She plays the piano delightfully and displays enough aptitude to make one wonder why she has never thought of achieving fame as a pianist. However, her sole idea in playing the piano is to add credibly to the entertainment in her own family circle.

Meanwhile Dorothy Gish has hobbies too. She loves motoring and drives her own car dexterously, and ’tis said often precariously in her zeal to have excitement. She is likewise an expert horsewoman, and she is ruled by an extreme kindness towards all dumb animals. When it comes to aquatic sports, she is immensely capable and she can stand a good endurance test in swimming at any time.

“We love our mother and our art, and we never worry,” Dorothy says. “I am sure as long as anyone remains in this sort of attitude happiness will be a permanent consort.”

“And I think the motion picture has been the cause of our greatest joz in life just as it has served the same purpose with thousands of other people,” Lillian supplements.

“My girls believe in rather a close corporation so far as family life is concerned, but they do derive unlimited pleasure from the realization that they are helping to lighten the burdens of humanity by their artistry on the screen,” Mrs, Gish chimes in pleasantly.

1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

Needless to add, there are thousands of ardent photoplay fans who swear by the Gish sisters, and they will all no doubt be glad to learn that mother counts for so much. Indeed, mankind always likes to have mother exert her potential and beneficial influence over the affairs of mankind. It is all in accordance with our most exalted ideals.

Finally, the future of the Gish sisters is replete with possibilities of greater accomplishments than their noteworthy past has brought and throughout their careers—while you are watching their delightful performances on the screen—just always remember that everything they do, both professionally and in private life, is more under the direction of their mother than under any picture director.

“To mother we owe everything, and her instruction is the supreme court with us,” Dorothy explains.

“And if either of us do good work in portraying characters, please give the full credit to mother,” Lillian adds.

All hail the successful firm of Gish Sisters & Company!

And, remember, photoplay fans, while you are watching these girls perform on a screen, you are seeing the results of a mother’s set ambition.

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Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish (Chicago Tribune 1979)

Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22

Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish

Tempo

Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.

“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”

The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.

“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”

‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’

By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”

“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”

She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”

In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”

“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.

“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”

She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – Orphans – Vanity Fair November 1921

“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”

Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.

Lillian Gish, Cheryl Callaway, Bill Chapin, Mary Ellen Clemons, Sally Jane Bruce, 1955 The Night of The Hunter

“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.

Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’

When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.

“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”

Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”

A Wedding

“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”

I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?

“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”

It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.

First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.

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Lillian Gish, taking her mother to hospital (Chicago Tribune – 1927)

Chicago Tribune – Tuesday, August 23, 1927 – Page 3

Lillian Gish, taking her mother to hospital

Lillian Gish, movie star, was in Chicago for an hour an forty minutes yesterday while she changed from the Chief limited from Los Angeles to the 20th Century for New York. She was taking her mother, Mrs. Mary Gish, to a New York hospital. Mrs. Gish is suffering from a blood clot on her brain which has made her speechless and her right side is paralyzed.

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Playgoers Await ‘Star-Wagon’ and Musical Shows – By Charles Collins (Chicago Tribune – 1938)

Chicago Tribune – April, Sunday 3, 1938 – Page 93

Playgoers Await ‘Star-Wagon’ and Musical Shows

By Charles Collins

The Chicago stage settled down into Lenten poverty with last night’s departure of Orson Welles’ staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as a parable of Fascism, and “Father Malachy’s Miracle.” “Room Service” keeps the spirit of merriment alive at the Selwyn theater, and Maurice Schwartz’s production of the Yiddish drama, “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” remains at the Studebaker for another week; but elsewhere there is vacancy, pending the renewal of activity, especially in musical shows, that the spring is expected to bring.

The first arrival of the spring theatrical season will be “The Star-Wagon,” a play by Maxwell Anderson with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as the leaders of the cast. This work has been one of the favorite items on the Broadway playbills since last fall, and it will come to the Grand Opera house immediately after the closing of its New York run. The premiere is scheduled for the Tuesday before Easter Sunday, or April 12.

This work is a fantastic comedy, dealing with an old inventor and his colleague who are given a supernatural opportunity to live their lives over again and correct their errors of judgement which had deprived them of material success. The content and meaning of the play are serious and reveal certain aspects of Maxwell Anderson’s philosophy, but there is said to be much humor in the treatment of the incidents.

Lillian Gish, who appears as the heroine, has an international reputation because of her participation in some of the most popular productions of the silent films. It is said that no movie in which she figured over a period of fifteen years netted less than $1,000,000. They included “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” and “The White Sister.”

Two years ago Miss Gish and her sister, Dorothy, also famous as a film actress in the pre-talkie era, were travelling through the Balkan states. They stopped at a hut on the Albanian frontier, a mountainous region miles away from any motion picture theater. The woman of the house was an ignorant, barefooted peasant, but she recognized Lillian Gish instantly. Years before, the priest of the parish had arranged for an exhibition of the film, “The White Sister,” strongly religious of sentiment, in his church, and she had seen it.

Miss Gish withdrew from the film studios when the talkies arrived and returned to the dramatic stage in 1930 in a distinguished production of Chekhoff’s “Uncle Vanya,” which was seen in Chicago. Since then she has acted in a revival of “Camille” both at Central City, Colo., and in New York; in Sean O’Casey’s “Within the Gates,” in Philip Barry’s “The Joyous Season,” and in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” She was the Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Prince of Denmark in New York last year.

“The Star-Wagon” gives Miss Gish a “protean role.” She acts a poor old household drudge, a winsome girl of 20, and a wealthy but unhappy wife of 55. These, of course, are phases of the same character.

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