Lillian Gish Shines in ‘All the Way Home,’ as She and Sister Have in Many Things – By Brooks Atkinson (New York Times, 1960)

The New York Times, December 27, 1960

Critic at Large

Lillian Gish Shines in ‘All the Way Home,’ as She and Sister Have in Many Things

By Brooks Atkinson

When the curtain goes up on the second act of “All The Way Home” at the Belasco Theatre, Lillian Gish is discovered sitting primly on a sofa, as the deaf and daft mother of a grown family. The audience applauds before she speaks a word.

The audience is applauding one of the pleasantest American legends. For the Gish girls – Lillian and Dorothy have been through the whole cycle of American show business from road companies in the first decade of the century and the silent films in the second to the theatre of today.

Lillian Gish Colleen Dewhurst All the Way Home Signed P

Both of them are about a foot wide and four inches thick, erect and cheerful. Both of them hop around America and Europe whenever anything interests them, and they let out little puffs of enthusiasm as they roll along. They see everything and know everyone. They are as much a part of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante and Harry S. Truman. Having been consistently modern for a half century, they give their country continuity.

As one of the players in the season’s most sensitively acted drama, Lillian is very busy now, changing in and out of wig and costume eight times a week; and, like the other actors, talking on the radio whenever she is bidden, “selling. the product,” to use her phrase. But if she were not acting a part or crusading for a cause, she would be busy about something else. Probably she would be putting the finishing touches on her book about D. W. Griffith.

1960's Close Up - Miss Lillian Gish

She has never been bored in her life. Years ago, when she was billed in the programs on the road as “Baby Alice” or  “Baby Ann,” she took her first curtain call on the shoulders of Walter Huston in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes” or another one called “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” she can’t remember which. In tow of her mother, May Barnard, an ingenue, she and her sister traipsed up and down the land. They learned how to count by watching the man in the box office, and how to read schoolbooks under their mother’s tutelage in dressing rooms and day coaches.

Since her mother had a passion for going through factories, both the Gish girls have a Iong background in factory culture, and to this day they never pass a factory without feeling that they ought to go through it.

Colleen Dewhurst ALL THE WAY HOME Lillian Gish 1960 Boston Panorama Magazine

When they were in their teens they grew “rather long in the leg” and it was time to make a change. That’s how they ventured into the world of the silent film eventually under the direction of Griffith. Together or individually they appeared in “The Birth of a Nation”, “Intolerance”, “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and “The Orphans of the Storm,” all of them regarded as film classics today. ***

Since there was no tradition in film acting, they had to invent one, and they did. For more than forty-five years later they are still known and recognized all over the world. When the Moscow Art Theatre undertook to visit America in 1920’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovitch-Dantchenko studied Griffith films in search of a pantomime style that would make the Russian actors intelligible in a foreign land, and they found a style that they could use.


When Russian actors and dancers come here today, they are inclined to study Lillian as if she were a monument. It is a little disconcerting a gay, incandescent lady who wants to talk and listen.

If she radiates generally goodwill, it is because she is without vanity. That simplifies her life. She does not have to worry about her dignity or about maintaining “public image.” She is less interested in herself than in other people, and she is therefore, still learning.

1961 Wire Photo Actor Lillian Gish Colleen Dewhurst Thomas Chalmers

Having had no formal education she has been a reader of all kinds of books since she first discovered the exciting world of culture in the Twenties. Being aware of the world around her, she has little patience with the introspective school of acting. It does not have enough interest in the audience, she thinks. What moves an actor is a matter of no importance in her view. What moves an audience is.

Final Curtain All The Way Home 61

As one member of a superb company that includes Colleen Dewhurst, Arthur Hill, Aline MacMahon and John Megna, Lillian treats the character she plays in “All The Way Home” as one figure in the delicate fabric of a family play. Everything she does on the stage she does for the play. The applause is for a woman who has always regarded the theatre as an enlightened and practical form of democracy.

The New York Times – Published December 27, 1960

*** Admin note: Dorothy Gish starred only in the last film presented above, (Orphans), she on the other hand was distributed in “Hearts of the World,” “Romola,” and “Remodeling a Husband”, the only movie Lillian Gish directed.

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – by Dick Moore (1984)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Copyright © 1984

by Dick Moore.

“but don’t have sex or take the car”

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the c
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – Cover


At eleven months, I landed my first job. Most of my peers were three or four years old. Others were jobless until eight or ten. Some of us were local kids. Others descended on Hollywood from Detroit or Cleveland or London or Atlanta. A number spent several years developing their talents before tackling Hollywood. Usually, they took their families with them. In the main, we were Depression kids who supported our families, frequently our studios, occasionally the entire movie industry, and at least once—according to President Franklin Roosevelt—the nation. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple,” FDR reportedly said, “we will be all right.” The 1930s and early 1940s in America were a throwback to the Dickensian era a century earlier, when children were perceived as little adults. Important to Hollywood’s economy and to the public’s need for escape, each of us was a representation, a cliche: Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were irrepressible little adults who could accomplish more than real adults, and solve their problems.

Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple
Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple

Jane Withers was the tough kid who broke the rules; Elizabeth Taylor, the symbol of beauty and serene perfection; Jackie Coogan, the little ragamuffin who broke your heart; Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew expressed intelligence and refinement; Stymie of “Our Gang” was the little “pickaninny,” the only black among us; Spanky, the fat boy of the Gang, was intended to be laughed at. I was Dickie Moore, innocent and pure, who specialized in reconciling wayward parents and bringing enlightenment to folks like Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood stars were the closest thing to royalty America produced. So as children we tasted a life immensely privileged, but laced with deprivation. All of us were extraordinary people at a very early age. All of us shared common lives and times, huge responsibilities, and salaries that shriveled fathers’ egos. Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car - Dickie Moore
Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car – Dickie Moore

Fade In

Crisis gripped the set. The scene called for the actors to give the crying infant a bottle filled with wine. Mother hadn’t been aware of that. “You’re not going to give my little Dickie wine,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” the director said. “It’s only Coca-Cola. We wouldn’t give wine to a baby.”

“You’re not going to give him Coca-Cola, either. He’s only eleven months old,” said Mother.

So production stopped, one hundred people stood around on salary. Paralysis, Hollywood’s most dread disease, suddenly quarantined the set because Mother was protecting my digestion.

John Barrymore, star of the film, who just happened to be on the set that day (he wasn’t in this scene), came over to see what the commotion was about. He peered into the crib at me, the kid with the big brown eyes, then announced majestically, “Jesus Christ, it’s an owl!”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 5
dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish

Our Pay and What Happened to It

Money was the only reason that Lillian and Dorothy Gish—two of the most celebrated actresses ever to appear in theater and films—began acting as children. Tiny, delicate, astonishingly beautiful at eighty-eight, Lillian Gish poured tea for me in her New York apartment as she reminisced about her life when Theodore Roosevelt was President. To support the girls, their mother, who had never worked, got a job in a department store. “She gave Papa the money to pay the man when he came for the furniture we were buying on the installment plan. But he didn’t pay it, so she said, ‘Well, look, I can support three people, but I can’t support four. You go out and get a job, and when you can support us, you come back.’ ” Miss Gish spoke precisely.

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

To supplement her earnings, her mother rented out the girls’ bedroom to two actresses, who encouraged her to try the stage. The Proctor’s Stock Company hired her as leading ingenue. An actress with a company that needed a four-year-old girl took Lillian with her on the road. Another actress took Dorothy. Each girl earned ten dollars a week; their mother, fifteen dollars. They saved enough to get them through the summer, when theaters closed; air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Came summer, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother visited Aunt Emily in Ohio: In Ohio, hotels had signs saying: “No actors or dogs allowed.” We asked Mother why. We thought actors were such nice people. Mother said it was because actors often got stranded and had no money to pay their hotel bills, so they slid down the water pipe at night and left without paying their bills.

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

After I went into the movies, Griffith [D. W. Griffith, in whose films the Gish girls starred] ran out of money while we were filming Birth of a Nation. He had only fifty thousand dollars and the picture cost sixty-one thousand. We all worked without salary because we knew he was honest, and we wanted to help. Mother had saved three hundred, which was a fortune for us, and she went to Mr. Griffith and offered to put it into the picture. But he said, “No, I won’t take it. You might lose it all.” I earned a thousand a week in the movies. Mother said, “You think you’re getting a thousand a week? You’re getting fifty dollars, five percent. See that you live on that.” Mother put the rest away for us.

Jane Powell close up
Jane Powell close up

Sex Can Wait?

Marriage was a way for us to prove that we had grown up. Children don’t get married, right?

Wrong! But we didn’t know it then. Not surprisingly, nearly all of us entered into at least one marriage that failed: Jane Powell, Donald O’Connor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Gene Reynolds, Peggy Ann Garner, Bobs and Delmar Watson, Cora Sue Collins, Gloria Jean, Sidney Miller, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Stymie, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Kathleen Nolan, Ann Rutherford, Darryl Hickman, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Dean Stockwell, Spanky McFarland, Diana Cary, me. Mickey Rooney was married the first time when he was twentyone, to Ava Gardner. “I needed to be married like you need to paint Shea Stadium at midnight,” Mickey told me. “But I’m happy I did it, because it was part of growing up.” Lillian Gish is among a handful of former child stars who were never divorced. Miss Gish believes that “an actress shouldn’t ruin a good man’s life by marrying him,” so she never married anybody.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs. It was not that way for us. Homeroom was a clutch of tiny, sometimes solo classes strewn from Culver City to Burbank. Spelling and arithmetic spanned whole careers. Our lives touched each other’s, drew apart, touched again, receded—waves hissing on a beach. From Lillian Gish to Margaret O’Brien, ours was a class of intimate strangers bound by the common experience of being child stars.

Baby Peggy
Baby Peggy

Baby Peggy (her real name was Diana Cary) was, in the early 1920s, Hollywood’s first four-year-old self-made millionaire. Her parents probably hold the distinction of running through her money fastest. She was broke at six.

Jackie Coogan
Jackie Coogan

Then came Jackie Coogan, who shares with Shirley Temple the greatest, most enduring fame ever achieved by a child at any age at any time. He was the first child to be merchandised on a national scale. There were Jackie Coogan clothes, Jackie Coogan candy bars, toys—even a Jackie Coogan haircut, which, while copied around the world, could not command a royalty.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple

Shirley was the first child to carry the full weight of a talking, full-length, “A” picture on her small but willing shoulders. Her every motion picture was a “Shirley Temple picture.” It wasn’t just a film in which Shirley Temple starred. When I bestowed her first screen kiss, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world was watching—literally. The event was recorded on the front page of every major newspaper. My timid peck on her cheek was the symbolic loss of the world’s most beloved and famous child, the little girl whose energy, pluck, and irrepressible good cheer allowed folks to forget the Great Depression—at least for ninety minutes. There will never be another Shirley Temple. Today, there are kids who make a splash, but they will never command the lifelong recognition we still have. Their films are not rerun on television. The continuity of product isn’t there. And, in Jackie Coogan’s words, “There’s nothing charming about children anymore.” Our group is still around. Try today to track the people you shared first grade with. Most have evaporated, raindrops in a desert.

Perennially visible, we have no place to hide.

Shirley Temple Postcard
Shirley Temple Postcard

Fade Out

Life on the fast track is the seven o’clock news. When you’re the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another story breaks, you might as well be dead. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with you. Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so indispensable, until the director yells, “Cut!” and I am whisked into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?

Even on the set when two or three years old, I must somehow have been aware that this shattering contrast between darkness and spotlights was unnatural. But you can’t handle such emotions at so early an age. So, belatedly, I found myself fighting back the tears.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the car
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – back cover

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Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith – By HOWARD THOMPSON (New York Times – April 18, 1969)

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

New York Times – April 18, 1969

Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith


“Do you realize that film is our only native art form?” said Lillian Gish. “There’s jazz, of course, but that came from Africa. Film is the most powerful medium of communication in the world today.” At the age of 69, after 64 years of trouping on stage, screen and television, the actress speaks authoritatively. The energetic Miss Gish, who has two new projects under way, was speaking in her East Side apartment. “There’s a force and immediacy; about film today,” she continued, “almost like a car wreck.” Last night she appeared on the stage of Columbia University’s McMillin Theater as commentator for “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a new 90-minute program of screened excerpts from silent-film classics, Including highlights of her own career. Sponsored by the university’s School of the Arts, the event was a benefit for a scholarship fund commemorating D. W. Griffith, the pioneer director with whom Miss Gish was associated for nine years in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Way Down East.” She will tour with the program in the fall.

first time on lecture platform 1932

A Pair of Projects

On Sunday Miss Gish is to leave on a cross-country promotional tour for her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” which Prentice-Hall is publishing Monday. At the McMillin Theater at Broadway and 16th Street last night, more than 1,200 people saw and heard Miss Gish and her film compilation. Unruffled anticipation stood in contrast to the events at the adjacent Philosophy Hall, where rebel students had taken over the premises. In even further contrast were the spring-like, bower appointments in another nearby school building where a reception was being prepared for Miss Gish. The McMillin assembly included many young people as well as older spectators, among them Katharine Hepburn, Anita Loos, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley, Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote and Brooks Atkinson.

Uncle Toms Cabin Truck

A Standing Ovation

Davidson Taylor, director of the School of the Arts, introduced Miss Gish, after noting that Columbia was the first American university to offer a course in film. “We are here tonight because we love Lillian Gish,” he said. To a standing ovation, the actress appeared on the stage. Clad in a white, long-sleeved evening gown, she sat at a stage-left lectern and conversationally read a commentary on the screen cavalcade that flickered a few feet away, spanning 1900-1928, to a muted musical recording.

Miss Gish’s comments were informal, enlightening, witty and knowledgeable, and the responsive audience was entirely hers. Most of the segments, and the array of familiar faces from the past, drew applause, and often hearty chuckles, with the actress joining in. Of a bit from the primeval “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when a bloodhound repeatedly whisked past, Miss Gish said, “Three cuts of the same dog not much imagination there” and the audience laughed delightedly. She spoke fondly of her childhood friend Mary Pickford, shown angelically in “Mender of Nets,” and indicated the technical development of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, as an actor and in “Birth of a Nation” and “Way Pown East.”

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

These two lengthy excerpts, with the famous battle scenes and the homecoming sequence from the first, and Miss Gish’s sequence with a baby and her famous rescue from an icy river by Richard Barthelmess in the second picture, stole the show.

Like her audience, Miss Gish was carried away a bit with the realism of “Way Down East” as she hurtled toward the waterfall on an ice floe.

“Oh look,” she said, pointing, “there I am-that dark spot over there.”

After the applauded fadeout, she said, “I don’t know how Dick ever rescued me.”

More applause greeted Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in a scene from “Blood and Sand.” The siren gripped the bullfighter’s “arm of iron” and the actor rolled his eyes to the audience’s uncontrollable laughter, including that of Miss Gish. The auditorium lights brightened and Miss Gish drew another standing ovation from an audience that obviously wanted still more.


The Formative Years

At her apartment the other day, Miss Gish elaborated on her new activities: “The program at Columbia, which we’ve already tried out unofficially in several places, represents the industry as I knew it during those formative years when Griffith gave it form and grammar and punctuation,” she explained.

Near the actress in the elegant book-lined living room hung a huge oil painting ot the late, invalid mother she idolized. Miss Gish’s younger sister, Dorothy, with whom she rose to world renown in the Griffith features, died last vear .

Miss Gish, with her soft auburn hair, firm mouth and alert, friendly manner, is very much of the present.

“I have in there two letters I got today from two youngsters, 13 and 14, wanting to know how to get certain old films,” she said. “Today it’s the youngsters that are actually buying these old prints so they can study them-not just show ’em.

miss lillian gish in her new york apartment, photographed in 1972 by allan warren

“They’re also making their own movies. Isn’t that marvelous? They’re the ones who realize the lasting value of what people like Griffith and Chaplin and Keaton were doing. At first the kids used to follow me for autographs. Now it’s for information,” she beamed, her unlined face, with its pink complexion, remarkably the same as when it lighted the early screen with a girlish glow.

Director at the Center

Her book started 12 years ago with an idea proposed by Reader’s Digest then expanded under Miss Gish’s own pen during three Swiss vacations (“the same hotel, where nobody else spoke English”) and culminated in a collaboration with a professional writer, Ann Pinchot.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - 1930 detail — with Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish.

“It’s my own story,” she continued, “but Griffith is the center of it-with his innovative techniques of the camera, and all the heart, taste and feeling you don’t see in films today. I didn’t want the book to be just another exploitation book. I’ve read some of those,” she added wryly. “Colleen Moore’s is a delightful exception.”

Like many others, she concedes that movies today are primarily a director’s medium. “But back then they belonged to everybody involved. We were in everything-the writing, costumes, photography, even the editing,” said the actress who personally edited “The White Sister” in 1923.

The White Sister
The White Sister

“At one time I also directed, wrote scripts and even built my studio. It’s in the book,” she added, twinkling. “Today it’s all packaged impersonally.” “True,” she continued, “it’s a business like everything else. Maybe real beauty has gone out of the world. Disney’s gone, of course, but there are men of vision-like Satyajit Ray of India, those beautiful Japanese pictures, and Fellini and Zeffirelli with his ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Men like these convey the human spirit, something I’ve always believed in with my Lutheran Episcopal background.”

Romeo and Juliet (1968) Directed by Franco Zeffirelli Shown on the set, at right: director Franco Zeffirelli

She smiled bleakly. “But what do we get today? All this filth, nudity and violence. Yes, I go; but I can’t believe it’s so popular. The other afternoon I went to one – never mind which – with only 12 or 13 people in the audience and this man dropping In front of me then falling sound asleep. I thought, $2.50-to nap?”

Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith NY Times Friday April 18 1969
Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith NY Times Friday April 18 1969

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May Hear Lillian Gish (The New York Times, June 2, 1929)

The New York Times, June 2, 1929

May Hear Lillian Gish

LILLIAN GISH believes that no Hollywood player on the screen has yet surpassed the performance of the dog star, Rin-Tin-Tin. She did not have her tongue in her check when  she said it. And next to animals as the supreme examples of naturalness in motion pictures she put negroes. ***

She was at the Hotel Elysee recently and had been in New York some three weeks. She has no plans. She came East to arrange “something” for herself to do soon. “The talkies? Why not?” She leaned against the needlepoint back of the chair. Her light brown hair seemed intentionally disordered, windblown against the sides of her face and the nape of her neck where it was gathered in a small knot. Her eyes were the unmistakable Gish eyes, set wide apart, quiet, peering. She pursed her lips ever so slightly so that there was a faint resemblance to the many caricatures ot the Gish sisters in which the mouth had been drawn as a tiny dot with a thin, horizontal line extending from each side.


She was mouse-like in her quiessence. Not timid, for the moment she became interested in what was said she leaned forward and spoke rapidly and with conviction. Unlike most moving picture stars, she has a viewpoint and tempers her conversation with it. She does not easily acquiesce; she argues and drives home her point.

“Amateurs are the white hopes of the cinema,” she said. “With little expense, a small apparatus and no interior sets to erect, as in the costly Hollywood productions, they will bring about a new technique. With a simple story, no overhead expense, and the wide world to take pictures in, their field is unlimited.

“In a city like New York such a picture could be ideally made. New York with its piles, its bridges stretching like muscular arms across the rivers, its architectural angles, its grandeur and sweep.

“The film could be like ‘Berlin’ which I saw abroad recently. Or better. Yes, much better. The real city is here.”

She arose from her chair to offer a huge, square box of chocolates, while she took a yellow mint from a glass jar. She wanted to hear about film developments abroad and anything new here. She asked about the Russians. She talked about Eisenstein, the Soviet director.

She picked up a snapshot from the table.

“This is a picture of my mother in Germany where she is taking a rest cure. She was fearfully ill at one time. I had to go to London to get her. I brought her back to America on a stretcher. Across the Atlantic that way and then across the United States to Hollywood. My sister, Dorothy sailed last week to see her.

“My sister? Oh, she says, she’ll never go back into films. She loves the stage and seems so happy.

“Yes, I think I shall make a talking picture. What else is there to make? I do not know yet what it will be. I have a story that I would like to do, but I am not at liberty to disclose it yet.”

There had been previous rumors that D. W. Griffith would make “The Birth of a Nation” into a talking film, with Miss Gish in the leading role. This was denied by Mr. Griffith on the grounds that the former players would not do at present tn their original roles.

Miss Gish is fond of O’Neill’s works. She expressed a wish to see some of his plays in motion pictures, especially “The Hairy Ape.”

“I suggested this to some of the producers in Hollywood,” she said, “but they must have said to themselves-yes, yes, here she is again with her suggestions.”

She threw up her hands in mock resignation.

“So you see that’s how it is in California.”

She was asked whether she would make a film with Professor Max Reinhardt directing her, as previoμsly announced before Professer Reinhardt left for Germany.

“It would be a good idea. Because there is a man who understands the use ot sound. Did you see his ‘Danton’s Tod?’ Do you remember the things he did in that? Did you see his ‘Everyman” in Germany? It was staged in the open in the public square of a little town. The actors were confined not merly within a stage space but spread over the city – in the distant hills-atop turrets. At the closee of day, when there was to be shouting from the people in the city, he was not content to let those directly in front of the audience lend the effect; he had performers from far out in the hills shouting, so that a sound depth was secured. Yes, l would like to do a picture with him. But now he is busy making German talking films.”

Miss Gish sat back in her armchair. She did not smoke any of the cigarettes she profferred. She seemed far removed from the inspired actress of her “Intolerance” role or the unsophisticated nun of “The White Sister.” One would hardly imagine her as the fluttering, emotion-streaked heroine of a dozen film plays – the Mimi of “La Boheme;” the outcast in “Way Down East.”

Once she was a mere auxiliary dancer in a stage play in which Mary Pickford appeared for David Belasco. Now she is said to be one of Miss Pickford’s closest friends.

She thinks Henry Ford a great man-a great artist. She believes that his work in manufacturing automobiles is an art and the finished products approach masterpieces. There was a knock on the door, and Miss Gish’s maid hesitated at the threshold.”

“Come in, Yosephine,” called Miss Gish, pronouncing the “J” as in German.

On the table beside lier were half a dozen books, including a copy of “Strange Interlude” and a book on “Simplified French Lessons.” She rose to escort the interviewer to the door. There was a moment of silence as she stood and shook hands with a small hand and a firm grip.

*** In the year of 1929, there were still in use some words /expressions that nowadays are offensive and regarded as racist, therefore avoided by editors. For the sake of keeping the original article as it was printed in NY Times, the text was left unchanged. Thank you for your understanding.

May Hear Lillian Gish - NYTimes June 2 1929
May Hear Lillian Gish – NYTimes June 2 1929

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Conversation With Lillian Gish – Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Conversation With Lillian Gish

When Miss Lillian Gish came to London in August last year to play in Anthony Asquith s Orders to Kill (her first film in this country since she made Hearts of the World with Griffith), the most extraordinary thing about her was that she so strikingly and completely resembled-Lillian Gish. She may, as the reference books say, have played in In Convicts’ Stripes in 1902; but it is hard to believe, for she is still unmistakably ‘the Gish girl’-a little taller than we have always imagined, and certainly not so defenceless against the great steel world as the heroines she used to play, but still retaining all their calm and repose and dignity. She still clasps her hands together in front of her chin; or, in an uncertain moment, puts her right fore finger, quite unconsciously, to the corner of her mouth. Her stamina is remarkable, she has always interspersed her vigorous career on Broadway with marathon sea-trips by freighter (“the only way to travel, If you can stand it”). Following her work on Orders to Kilt she went straight to Berlin to rehearse two plays for a new arena theatre there-Wilder’s Wreck of the 5.25 and Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna, an early draft of Streetcar Named Desire, written especially for Miss Gish. After this she returns to Broadway, where she hopes to play with her sister Dorothy in a new play written for them by Clare Boothe – The Little Dipper. In an interview with SIGHT AND SOUND she recollected some of her work in the silent cinema:

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East


Miss Gish on D.W. Griffith

In all the eight or nine years I worked with Mr. Griffith, I never saw him with anything in writing-never anything like a script, not even on Intolerance. He just seemed to have everything in his head. The only person to make any notes was Jimmy Smith, the cutter, who had to make a record of everything Mr. Griffith shot and what he wanted to do with it, of course. It was always Mr. Griffith. Around 1940 I used to see him, and then, it’s true, I sometimes called him David. Even so, I might have said David, but I always thought Mr. Griffith. He was a born general. His voice was a vo:ce of command. It was resonant, deep and full. When he came to England in 1917, Mr. Lloyd George said to Mr. Griffith, I remember, “You have the most powerful medium for propaganda the world has ever known”. He was very amused, though, when they invited him to become the head of the department of film propaganda in the U.S.S.R. It was a very strange idea. Mr. Griffith was an aristocrat to the soles of his feet. He always claimed to be descended from the Kings of Wales, you know. . . ,

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

I always wanted to do a film biography of Mr. Griffith, but it never proved possible. I did it on television, though, for Philco. I played Lillian Gish. There was one scene where I went into a producer’s office and said: You have taken an art form that was a new approach to truth and beauty, and debased it for what you can get out of it. People warned Philco that they’d be put out of business if they dared broadcast such sentiments; but they didn’t cut out the scene, I’m glad to say. And they weren’t put out of business either. Mr. Griffith was a very great director-Eisenstein, you know, acknowledged his tremendous debt to him. Since Griffith, no-one has added anything new to the film-except Walt Disney. Griffith was even one of the first to make talking pictures. Dream Street, which he made in 1921, was a talkie.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance


(1916. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish) 

Intolerance is still one of the greatest pictures ever made. Griffith wanted it to run 3-or 4 hours, you know; but he had to cut it to please the exhibitors. That race apart-exhibitors!

Of course, he should never have given way. Right at the beginning he could be very firm indeed. Later, though, he couldn’t. . . . In the long run, though, Intolerance did a disservice to the industry. It set a fashion for expensive pictures. Everybody wanted his picture to cost more than the next man’s ….

Mr. Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art wants me to re-edit Intolerance some day-to put it back to Griffith’s original idea. Of course, it would take a great deal of time.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Hearts of the World

(1918. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Robert Harron) 

When we were children in Hollywood, my sister Dorothy and I would cross the road to avoid meeting Mr. Erich von Stroheim. He had such scars. We’d never seen a man with such terrible scars. Then we came to rehearse Hearts of the World, and Mr. Griffith gave Mr. von Stroheim one of the leading parts to rehearse. Of course, we never knew whether we would finally play the parts we rehearsed in the actual picture–Mr. Griffith never told you what you were doing until the last moment. Anyway, when we came to make the picture, he didn’t give the part to Mr. von Stroheim. Mr. von Stroheim cried like a little child. He was inconsolable. Mr. Griffith told him that it was only because he was not the right height, and that he was to play another part. But it was no use; Mr. von Stroheim just cried and cried. We were most impressed. We’d seen ladies cry, of course, but never a man, not like that. And after that, we didn’t cross the road any more when we saw Mr. von Stroheim coming down the street. I never had any admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as a director, though, as I had for Mr. Lubitsch, for example.

Anyone could have shot Greed as he did, scene by scene and line by line from the book. But I shall always have the greatest admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as an actor.

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

Broken Blossoms

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous-the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned-spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and brought up his breakfast. …

The smile-where I just lift the corners of my mouth with my two fingers-that was all mine, too. I didn’t think it out; it was automatic, instinctive.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

The Greatest Thing in Life

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

The Greatest Thing in Life was Mr. Griffith’s best film. You shouldn’t judge that man without seeing it. There’s one extraordinary scene, you know. A coloured soldier is dying; and there is a white boy with him-played by Robert Harron. The coloured boy is delirious, and calling for his mother-he wants her to kiss him. So to quieten him, the white boy bends down and kisses him, on the lips. As you know, this is a very brave thing to show in a film-two men, like that. It’s a very remarkable film.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

That was Queen Alexandra’s favourite film …. It seems a strange film for a Queen to like. She was my idea of what a Queen should be, though.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

Remodelling Her Husband

(1920. Directed by Lillian Gish. With Dorothy Gish, James Rennie) 

This was the only film I ever directed myself. Oh, I’d never do it again. Mr. Griffith had moved East, you see, and left me to make the film. “I thought that men would work better for you than for me,” he said. I had no idea of practical things, like measurements; but when the workmen asked me how high I wanted the walls of the set I told them, Oh, eight feet (or whatever it was). Well, of course, they weren’t high enough, so that the cameraman George Hill could never photograph them properly.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

Way Down East

(1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

It was terrible doing the location shooting at Mamaroneck; four people lost their lives one way or another during the filming of Way Down East. I was the only one the insurance company passed as being completely fit; and I think I had to put up with more than anybody else during that dreadful winter. There was one day when I had been facing the blizzard practically the whole time; everyone else, of course, had their backs to the wind, and even then some of them had had to give up. My face was covered in icicles and I was frozen. “Get that face, Billy! Get that face!” Mr. Griffith yelled (to G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, the cameraman). Then I collapsed. They had to carry me back to the studio after the day’s shooting was finished. When we filmed the baptism of the dying child, no-one could speak. We had a real baby, you remember; and its father had brought it to the studio. Of course, during the scene, I had my back to the camera. I was half-way through the scene when I heard a thud. I couldn’t think what it was; afterwards I discovered the baby’s father had fainted. He just couldn’t take it.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

La Boheme

(1926. Directed by King Vidor. With Lillian Gish and John Gilbert) 

How I chose Mr. Vidor to direct that film was very simple. Mr. Thalberg and Mr. Mayer asked which director I would like. They showed me a number of new films, including just one reel from an uncompleted picture called The Big Parade. I decided at once, and took not only Vidor, but other people from that wonderful film-John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, for instance. When I finally came to the death scene, they were all terrified, all the people on the set. I just stopped breathing; and I was so still and pale and I stopped breathing for so long, they thought I really had died. Mr. Vidor describes it in his book. But there is one thing I cannot forgive him. He says I stuffed my cheeks with cotton wool. It’s quite untrue. I did no such thing. While I was studying the part, I used to go to a hospital for consumptives, to find out what it was like when they had their paroxysms of coughing, and how their necks went, and so on. I got the priest in charge to take me, and he explained to them why I was there. They were all terribly excited and interested. They would say: “Oh, so-and-so died this morning, and she was like this, and went like this .. . . ” Just as if they were giving you the recipe for their favourite cake or something.

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

The Scarlet Letter

(1926. Directed by Victor Sjostrom. With Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson) 

I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: “Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It is an American classic, taught in all our schools”. Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom, who had arrived at M.G.M. some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

[Some years ago Miss Gish wrote: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . . The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression”.]

It was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before th~ camera, of course; and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we all were tremendously moved by it.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

The Film Actor

I think you can learn most from primitive things- from birds and animals- that was what Mr. Griffith advised us. You see, we silent actors had to be able to speak to an international audience-we had to be able to get over to Oriental peoples, for example, who didn’t know anything of our customs or conventions. And that gave our acting a great universality. We tried to perfect a kind of Esperanto of the arts, and we were on the verge of it when sound came …. The most perfect silent film, of course, was The Last Laugh, in which Murnau at last dispensed entirely with titles. My mother was my hardest critic and a great help to me. She only came to the studio once; and she was so horrified to see the things that were done to her daughters that she never came near again. . . . I remember once in our earliest days we rushed home, terribly pleased because people had recognised us and turned round to look at us in the street. “If you walked down the street with a ring in your nose, they’d turn and look at you just the same”, she said. I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.

Sight and Sound – Winter 1957 – 8

The Film Quarterly

Sight and Sound (1958-01)(BFI)(GB).pdf

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America’s First Women Directors – Anthony Slide – Boston /London 1996

The Silent Feminists

America’s First Women Directors

Anthony Slide – Boston /London 1996

The concept of women as directors began in France in 1896, when Leon Gaumont permitted his secretary Alice Guy to direct La Fee aux Choux, arguably the first fictional film. In France, between 1896 and 1907, Alice Guy directed some 400 films. Subsequently, she married Englishman Herbert Blache, and the couple came to the United States, where Madame Blache directed or supervised the production of a further 354 films. In terms of quantity, it is doubtful any other director approached her output. In 1912, she became the first woman to build her own studios and the first American director of either sex to handle such an undertaking. Had it not been for an over-ambitious husband and the need to care for a young daughter, Alice Guy Blache might have continued directing well into the sound era, but she was forced into retirement in the early 1920s.

Women and the American Silent Film Industry

The First World War did generate at least one woman filmmaker in government service, and that was Catherine Short, who produced conservation films for the U.S. Food Administration, featuring such popular stars of the day as Marguerite Clark, Elsie Ferguson, and Mabel Normand. According to The Dramatic Mirror (May 11, 1918), Short’s productions showed “how to save the various commodities most needed by the Government at this time.” In the fall of 1919, D. W. Griffith set up his own studio complex at Mamaroneck, New York. As he was busy in Florida, working on The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, he suggested to his leading lady, Lillian Gish, that she should direct the first film at the new studio, a comedy titled Remodeling Her Husband, featuring Gish’s sister, Dorothy.

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Remodeling Her Husband

Lillian Gish recalled:

He [Griffith] said, “How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.” Well, I went home and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the sub-titles, because she’d never written for the films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright, and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too. So she did—and then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was with the Los Angeles Times, an editorial writer, a very brilliant man—and me to do this film I didn’t have anybody from the staff to get the studio ready. Well! I had to put in telegraph poles, because we couldn’t get enough electricity out on the point. I was taking scenes—it was December — and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie [the leading man who later married Dorothy] playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I then had quickly to go down to New Rochelle and get all my scenery. I had to design all my scenery; there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the other costumes, see to all the furniture in the sets—you had to do everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he was just back from the war, and he had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set—the living room—so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. He threw his hat in the air, and jumped and stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. Oh, it was terrible. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene on Fifth Avenue, and the day before we were to take it, I found you had to have police permit, and it took several days to get. If that happened, I had to have all my crew on salary over the holidays. I said, I just can’t; it’s too far over the budget. I asked the company and crew if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal. Well, 57th and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus, seeing her husband with a woman in a taxi cab. We had no permit, and we had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned, a policeman saw what was happening and held up his hand. Then, he looked at me, and looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile [in reference to Gish’s actions in her previous film Broken Blossoms J. I said, “Yes,” and he waved us on and we got by. We finished at 58 thousand dollars and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many films do today.

When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, “Because I needed my studio built quickly. I knew they’d work faster for a girl then they would for me. I’m no fool.” And his studio was ready when he came back. He moved right in, took all his interiors quickly, and released his pictures. One of the most eagerly sought after of “lost” films.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

Remodeling Her Husband was released on June 13, 1920 to mixed reviews. “If it were not for the inimitable comedy of Miss Gish the feature would be a sorry affair,” commented Variety (June 11, 1920). Exhibitor’s Trade Review (June 19, 1920) opined, “Lillian Gish’s directorial task is performed in a fashion which gains for her much of the credit attending the picture’s success. The continuity is good, the grouping skillful and smooth; swift action prevails throughout.” The most interesting comment was made by the distinguished critic Bums Mantle in Photoplay (September 1920):

This is a woman’s picture. A woman wrote it, a woman stars in it, a woman was its director. And women will enjoy it most. It does an unusual and daring thing; it presents the feminine point of view in plot, in captions, in sets and acting. Our worthy contemporaries of the various trade journals took a good crack at it. They have to take a good crack at something. But at the Rialto in New York, where this review was accomplished, the audience just sat back and howled—and there were men there, too. Lillian Gish has gone back to acting, but we’d like to tell her that she is almost as good a directress as she is an actress—and that’s going some. Little things count in this picture; details are not overlooked. Dorothy Gish is just—Dorothy Gish, which is enough for most people. There is no-one like her, and when she gets good stories she should lead her class. James Rennie, recruited from the legitimate, is a gratifying leading man.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

It is true that Lillian Gish did not direct another feature, but she was responsible for an important piece of film, and that was the original screen test of a young woman named Lucille Langhanke, who came out to Mamaroneck in the summer of 1920. A harried D. W. Griffith passed her over to Lillian Gish. “She herself directed the test,” the actress recalled, discussing lighting and angles with the cameraman, using reels of film, taking the whole afternoon. I recited bits of poetry, I stood and turned, I walked, I sat and talked to her off-camera. I was completely at ease and happy, for she kept saying, “That’s lovely — fine, turn a bit more, pretend I have a puppy in my lap—oh yes! that’s beautiful.”

Female performers dominated as stars in the silent era, and many headed their own production companies. Mary Pickford was as astute a businesswoman as she was an actress, and she was, of course, the only woman involved in the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. With Lillian Gish, Pickford remains one of the icons of the silent screen, a silent star who along with Garbo, Swanson, and a handful of others remains instantly recognizable and identifiable by her last name alone.

Mary Astor-1930s
Mary Astor-1930s

Mary Pickford never took credit as a director, but she was obviously heavily involved in the production of her own films, and her directors were hand-picked to follow her commands. At the insistence of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, Lillian Gish did direct one feature film in 1920, Remodeling Her Husband, starring sister Dorothy. When Mary Astor came out to the Griffith studios in 1920 to make a screen test, Lillian Gish directed her, thus starting one of the cinema’s finest light dramatic actresses on her road to fame.

The silent feminists - Anthony Slide 1996 Cover
The silent feminists – Anthony Slide 1996 Cover

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Dorothy Gish - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish – Remodeling Her Husband

Back to Lillian Gish Home page


Where She Danced – By Elizabeth Kendall – 1979

Where she danced

Where She Danced

By Elizabeth Kendall – 1979

Though it be as perfect in outline and ornament as classic taste can make it, as simple and serviceable as the most energetic worker can desire, a costume has not business to exist, is, indeed, an embodied crime, if it deforms or weakens or tortures the body it pretends to serve. For that should be sacred: it is Gods handiwork. He made it as he wished it to be; capable, by wonderful mechanisms, of swift and easy motion; shaped in contours which artists despair of reproducing; and so responsive to our will, so varied in its capacities, so lightly moved from place to place by its own powers, that in its perfect state the soul which inhabits it is almost unconscious of its existence, and knows it only as a source of help and pleasure. —from Dress Reform,


Diane of The Follies - Lillian Gish
Diane of The Follies – Lillian Gish


American theater of those days was anything but flat—David Belasco and his colleagues had generated astonishing amounts of motion within the proscenium’s boundaries: using actors, scenery, crowds, and massive music and lighting effects.

Griffith brought all that theatrical weaponry to the movies—as Ruth St. Denis did to dance. Griffith had toured with Nance O’Neil and Julia Marlowe, played Shakespeare and melodrama, and written a play himself; he understood rhythms like Belasco’s and Belasco’s staging: his private dramas played out against the movement of the crowd. But Griffith also brought some extra-theatrical concerns to movies similar to those the first dancers brought to their art. He loved literature as Isadora Duncan did, especially the Romantic poets Tennyson, Keats, Poe—and most of all he loved Walt Whitman. Griffith was a Whitman-esque soul like Isadora: he thrived on fresh air, action, and love of his fellow man, alias his audience. Like Whitman and like Isadora, Griffith’s convictions were wedded to his physical self—his gusts of feeling determined the form of this new art of movies without previous guidelines from inside it. He made his art out of his senses and his deepest convictions, as they had theirs. On the screen he translated the passion of a story, the elan, into a cadenced flow just as Whitman had poured his physicality into the vicissitudes of words and Isadora had shaped her body around the dynamics of music.

Where she danced

The American health and open-air movement of the time supported this experimental physicality; Griffith’s own senses had been educated by it. He was a physical-culture man; he believed in Theodore Roosevelt’s idea of fitness and in exercise fetishes. He could have been a Ralstoner with his theories—“a man should sweat at least once a day to stay healthy,” he liked to say. Obviously Griffith’s American delight in health and Nature fed his visual sense just as it had Isadora’s and that of such Pictorial photographers as Edward Steichen, Clarence White, Anne Brigman. Griffith reproduced their effects, whether consciously or unconsciously, in his films. He was the one who took the movies out of the studios into the outdoors where there was light and air. He filmed his actors in woods, in meadows; he caught the light on grasses and aureoles of light in girls’ hair. In 1910 he was one of the first directors to try out California as a location, and there he discovered desert weather; he plunged his actors into high winds and sandstorms, capturing the resonance for his age of a human figure in Nature, which photographers and dancers also understood. On the other hand Griffith was just as richly aware of rooms, closed spaces, corners, closets, and all interiors; these two extremes of environment marked his breadth as an artist of motion and space, of the  hanging symbolism of space, the stylization of space around an actor.

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet

His grasp of space shows up in a film like The Avenging Conscience (1915), the story of a young man (Henry Walthall) struggling between love for a girl (Blanche Sweet) and a desire to kill his uncle who opposes the match. The scenes between the young man and his uncle are pictured in one closed and darkened office while the scenes with the girl happen outdoors in fields, by streams, on paths by flower hedges; Griffith even poses the two against archaic stone benches and fountains—the domain of the “classic” dance. The characters’ states of mind are portrayed through the indoor and outdoor landscapes around them. And when the story of the movie ends happily (the murder was all a dream) Griffith summarizes in a little coda of dancing, with children in Greek garb peeking out from trees like cherubimic hamadryads, and one little boy dressed as Pan playing the pipes.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

Griffith’s relation to dance went beyond shared imagery; he had a keen sense of it as both a theatrical and a social art and of the place it played in people’s lives. Dance scenes appear in many of the 400-odd shorts he made for the Biograph company from 1908 to 1913. Also in these early films he began to invent his characters’ pantomimic language, which for the girls included impromptu dancing and skipping about. Some of his shorts took dance as a main subject and examined its human repercussions—something newspapers and novels of the time loved to do. Oil and Water (1912) starred Blanche Sweet as a dancer torn between career and home, and showed a dance performance which reminded the critic Vachel Lindsay of Isadora Duncan. Also in 1912, Griffith decided he needed a resident dance expert, so he lured a young dancer, Gertrude Bambrick, away from Gertrude Hoffmans Ballets Russes spectacle when it came through Los Angeles. Miss Bambrick’s first task on joining Griffith was to teach him to dance, and ragtime dancing became his favorite recreation. Next she was put to work on the dance scenes in The Mothering Heart (1912): “If nothing else it will teach cafe managers in the interior how to run a cafe,” said Griffith. She had a bigger project in 1912.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

In the four-reel feature Judith of Bethulia, she led the Assyrian dancing girls in two long Orientale dances she had arranged. Judith of Bethulia, released in 1913, was the very first American feature film, and a landmark. Although Griffith had known the script of the popular stage play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, he mounted his Judith completely in film terms—with the help of dance. The actors were the ensemble of very young people who had now worked with Griffith for four years and absorbed his monumental vision of what silent acting could mean: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words,” he told them. “We’ve found a universal language—a power that can make men brothers and end war forever. Remember that. Remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

Judith from Bethulia 7
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith, often accused of anachronisms and of being mired in the nineteenth century, did depend mostly on old theatrical plots. But he knew more clearly than Belasco or any theater director that those old stories were parables, and within their bounds he changed the medium of acting into a craft that was as stylized as dance, and as different as dance was from old-style stage acting. Moreover, Griffith knew how his style of acting was different; he saw that actors who came to him from the theater used “quick broad gestures,” whereas he wanted them to find a slower, more musical motion. He was trying to develop “realism” in pictures and “the values of deliberation and repose.” Realism to Griffith meant abolishing the static, pompous individual acting of bad theater in favor of lifelikeness, continuity, and the surprising rhythms of human emotions. He had a vision of ensemble acting like that of the new schools of European theater, of Eleonora Duse’s company or the Moscow Art Theater.

Judith from Bethulia 6
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia was the first completely American version of this new theatrical style—American because in the very progression of gestures it mixed the humble, the grand, the comic, and because its characters maintained a kind of fond distance from this material. None of the actors was really grown up; their gestures seemed like play-acting and so lightened the tragic legend of Judith of the Bible, who must kill the Persian king, Holofernes, to save her people. All the acting was a collage of current attitudes: some theatrical gestures, plus Salome-dancing, Delsarte-posing, Ballets Russes impersonations, along with the latest fashionable mannerisms. The mixture made it American. Judith (Blanche Sweet) prays to her Hebrew god, or anoints herself with ashes in the grand manner of Sarah Bernhardt or Mrs. Leslie Carter, yet she is so young the gestures look softened and not so serious—playful. In the seduction scene, wearing a shimmering sheath and peacock feathers, Judith rounds a shoulder and edges out of the tent like any young lady at a Tango Tea. Blanche Sweets Judith is a keen portrait of a young girl in a crisis trying on grown-up ways to move and act. All the characters are “playing” with more serious and “artistic” models. Opposite her Henry Walthall plays a sensuous king on the Ballets Russes model, while his eunuch, an actor named Jaquel Lanot, is madly miming the attitudes of a Russian Ballet slave, just like Mikhail Mordkin, Theodore or Alexis Kosloff (or Nijinsky, who hadn’t yet been seen in America) in Scheherazade.

Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911
Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911

Lanot’s favorite pose, or Griffith’s, is a decorative one of listening, with head cocked, foot pointed back, arms thrust down, and palms flexed. And in among the pantomime close-ups we see several ensemble scenes of Assyrian dancing led by Gertrude Bambrick—an orgy of Salome-Radha snake-charmer motions. The mime and the dancing blend rhythmically with the story’s narrative sweep—the martial Persians in chariots galloping through the dust toward the doomed Bethulia, the weakened Bethulians crowding the city streets in a plea for water. Dance and mime marked pauses in the narrative and provided just the “deliberation and repose” Griffith was after. Moreover, the dancing rituals thickened the atmosphere, and the dancelike clothing, Biblical drapes, and Persian finery commented perfectly on the new fluid manners and costumes that were part of modern-day society.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Most of Griffith’s feature films after Judith included a social dance scene or a glimpse of theater dance in the course of the story. And impromptu dancing was more than ever a keynote of his girl-characters’ self-revelations to their audience. His actresses found ways of “dancing” for every part—even the fussy heroine of True Heart Susie (1920), played by Lillian Gish, skips about jerkily to show her happiness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Dance training was crucial to Griffith’s whole idea of acting-and in fact, most of his actresses were dancers already. Blanche Sweet, born in 1896, came to Biograph in 1908 from Gertrude Hoffmans company of dancers, although she had begun in straight theater at age four with Chauncey Olcott and then turned to dance. Miss Sweet still considered herself a dancer in those first years of movies, sometimes taking time off from Griffith to tour with Gertrude Hoffman —and since Blanche Sweet appeared both in Hoffmans first burlesque of Salome and the “Spring Song” and in the first Biograph shorts, that means she was present at the American births of both dance and movies.

The other early actresses brought similar dancing-acting experience from a theater that expected all of its players, even the youngest children, to be physically agile, to sing, dance, speak monologues, and play to the ensemble. The Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy, born in 1896 and 1898, danced Highland flings in Sarah Bernhardt’s company and danced, sang, spoke, whatever was required, in many other companies. Mary Pickford, born in 1893, was a child ingenue on the touring circuit for ten years, then starred in David Belasco’s The Warrens of Virginia on Broadway just before she came to Griffith.

Mae Marsh, born in 1895, was the only one of Griffith’s first actresses who didn’t come from the theater but learned everything from Griffith himself. But Mae Marsh was the one who in 1921 wrote a book on film acting which reveals just how close were the dynamics of early dance and movies. She talks in the book about finding “character business,” fresh ways to sit, walk, gesture, dance, that will reveal the essence of the role. She discusses the constant rhythmic awareness of silent screen actors; how close-ups, for instance, were played with more pause and restraint than the more numerous three quarter shots. These concerns are part of all good acting, but they were the core of early film art—and also the kind of dance that was invented here. To find new rhythmic gestures for character roles was Ruth St. Denis’ motive when she made up Radha and The Cobrasy and it would remain the motive for the modern dancers who followed her. Miss Ruth, like Mae Marsh, was also a specialist in slowing down; by taking direct control of the pace inside of her own body she had made herself into a close-up of a Belasco play. Dance and movies, using different emphases, different equipment, but the same skills, were exploring theatrical time and theatrical behavior at the same moment.

Where she danced

In terms of the movies’ growth, 1915 was the perfect time for Ruth St. Denis to arrive in Los Angeles with a dance school. D. W. Griffith responded to Denishawn’s arrival by sending seven of his actresses including the Gish sisters over for lessons twice a week (said the New York Dramatic Mirror, May 13, 1916), and the connection between the school and Griffith’s studio grew. Griffith himself went to watch Denishawn classes; that is where he first saw the young Carol Dempster, who became his star of the late teens and twenties. It is striking how closely Griffith’s Babylon matched the look of Orientale discovered simultaneously in America by such figures as Ruth St. Denis and in Europe by people like Paul Poiret, and echoed and elaborated by Gertrude Hoffman in vaudeville and by the various Russian dancers on the concert stage. Babylon with its great towers also prefigured the mammoth Manhattan skyline of the twenties, and the gorgeous air of revelry that took over that city in its heyday.

Where she danced

However, if Griffith’s visual sense was modern and cosmopolitan in tone, his view of dancing was American, like Ted Shawn’s. He valued dance not for its choreographic patterns but for the rhythmic and sensual mood it evoked on the screen, a mood that carried an unbearable freshness for Americans.

Where she danced

To his vast dance sequences Griffith added close-ups in Intolerance of the “Babylonian Virgins of the Sacred Fire”; these emerged as a kind of adagio movement to the whole. According to history, certain Babylonian girls gave themselves ritualistically to men who came to the Temple of Ishtar to worship; they were pictured in Intolerance in beautiful slow-motion shots, sculpted in light and shadow and incense smoke. The wonderful vivacity of the whole Babylonian episode arose from Griffith’s profound imaginative belief in his own metaphor.


That these Virgins really had existed was important to him, but his Virgins were clearly American girls dressed up in antique array, meeting the camera with unobstructed innocence and sweetness. This appeal matched Denishawn’s; the pseudo-antique ceremonies served as frame for the revelation of the grave good will, the clean and unknowing sensuality, of the American girl. The Sacred Virgin sequences gave the audience repose in a bath of atmosphere and a long satisfying exchange with the performers, a precious glimpse of their inner beings, intimate but not pornographic. Lillian Gish described Griffith’s intentions in her 1969 book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me: Mr. Griffith wanted to show these young Virgins in costumes that would be seductive yet in no way offensive. All the young girls were dressed in floating chiffons and photographed in motion, not dancing but moving rhythmically and sensually to music. Some of the scenes were shot through veiling or fountain sprays to add to the erotic yet poetic effect.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget - Belshazzar
INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

Intolerance , though it wasn’t as popular as Griffith’s famous 1915 epic, Birth of a Nation, highlighted an era of grand antique spectacles whose premieres in big cities cost two dollars a seat—as much as theater openings. All of these, movies like Thomas Ince’s Civilization, Cecil DeMille’s ]oan the Woman (with Geraldine Farrar), and Fox Studio’s Daughter of the Gods (starring Annette Kellerman), included scenes of dancing girls and dancing orgies. They corresponded to the live pageants that seized the country’s imagination at the same time—of which Denishawn’s 1916 Egypt, Greece and India was the prime example. In the same way that Denishawn’s pageant echoed the spectacle-extravaganzas of the 1890s, movie spectacles also called forth old theatrical grandeur. The Vamp, for instance, was film’s rediscovery of the grand actress, for whom a full spectacle was required. Movie vamps were the heirs of Sarah Bernhardt and Mrs. Carter; Theda Bara at Fox in 1916—1917 remade a number of these actresses’ star roles for the screen— Cleopatra, Under Two Flags (a Belasco hit of 1902), Camille, Du Barry. Louise Glaum was the Vamp at Triangle Studios; she played in The Idolators, and for Sex (1917), she borrowed a peacock costume from Ruth St. Denis. Sex was one of the many spectacles that featured scenes with Denishawn dancers. (Some others were: The Lily and the Rose, 1915; The Victoria Cross, 1916; A Little Princess, Conscience, The Legion of Death, Joan the Woman, Cleopatra, all in 1917; Hidden Pearls, Wild Youth, Bound in Morocco, 1918; Pettigrew’s Girls and Backstage, 1919.)

Where she danced

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Dorothy Gish, Actress, Is Dead – The New York Times – June 6, 1968

Dorothy Gish, Actress, Is Dead

In Theater and Films 50 Years

Starred With Sister, Lillian, in Griffith Silent Classics — Many Broadway Roles

The New York Times – June 6, 1968

RAPALLO. Italy, June 5 (AP)

-Dorothy Gish, one of the two sisters. who entertained motion picture audiences and theatergoers for more than a half-century, died here last night. She was 70 years old. Her sister, Lillian, who has been making a movie in Rome, was at her bedside. Dorothy had been in a clinic here for nearly two years. She died of bronchial pneumonia. The United States consulate in Genoa said that Miss Gish’s body would be cremated and that the ashes would be returned to the United States.

Extra in Films in 1912

Although Dorothy and Lillian often worked together and had careers that were in many ways parallel, they were not a team. In the highly competitive world of acting, they remained a harmonious pair of sisters who admired each other.

The Gish sisters reached the peak of popularity during the silent screen days, but Dorothy was only 4 and Lillian 6 when they went on stage professionally.

They started in movies in 1912 under the wing of D.W. Griffith, the grandmaster of silent-screen films. They got their job through Mary Pickford, a friend whom they only knew by her real name, Gladys Smith, when they sought her out at Griffith’s Biograph Company at 11 East 14th Street in New York. They had seen Gladys in a movie and thought they would like to try the new medium.

Griffith started them as extras. In order to ten them apart at first, he had Lillian wear a blue ribbon and Dorothy, then 14, a red one. He was so impressed with their talents that he took them to California, for his customary West Coast fall season at $50 a week, a sound wage for those silent days.

‘Familiar With Tempo’

“Mr. Griffith spent months in rehearsing his players and plots before a camera turned,” Dorothy recalled years later.

“By the time a photoplay went into actual production, an actor was thoroughly familiar with his own part as well as the tempo, approach and reactions of other members of the cast.

“Most of Mr. Griffith’s films were shot without scripts and were improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte,” she continued. “Individual scenes were staged and re-staged until a maximum effect was realized and footage was closely checked with a stop watch. This saved large sums in raw film and time and kept production cost from soaring.”

During her years in films, Miss Gish appeared in “An Unseen Enemy,” “Hearts of the World,” “ The Orphans of the Storm,” “Tip-Toes,” ”London,” “Nell Gwynn,” “Romola,” and “Madame Pompadour.” Of all her screen roles, Miss Gish preferred playing the Little Disturber in “Hearts of the World,” which Griffith made in England and France during World War I.

In 1918, she worked for a while in New York with Paramount Pictures, making “Battling Jane,” “I’ll Get Him Yet” and “Remodeling Her Husband.” The last had Richard Barthelmess (***Not James Rennie?) as her leading man and her sister as director.

After 1928 and the advent of talkies, she made only three films, “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay,” (1944) “Centennial Summer” (1946) and “The Whistle at Eaton Falls” (1951).

As much as she was gratified by her film career, Miss Gish’s first love, as with many performers was the stage. Her string of credits through 1956, was long and respectable.

They included Fay Hilary in “Young Love,” (1928); Maria in “The Inspector General” (1930), Emily Dickinson in “Brittle Heaven” (1934), Fanny in “Autumn Crocus” (1932), Fanny Dixwell Holmes in “The Magnificent Yankee” (1946), and Mrs. Gillis in “The Man” (1950), her last Broadway role.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 69

She succeeded Dorothy Stickney for almost a year in the starring role of Vinnie, the patient mother, in the Broadway hit “Life With Father.” In 1956,she starred in “The Chalk Garden,” at The Spa in Saratoga N.Y.

Dorothy Gish was born March 11, 1898. She once told how she came to her stage career:

“Mother came up from Massillon, Ohio, where we were born, partly to look for our father, who had left us, and partly to try to earn a living for all three of us. We were practically destitute. She rented one of the old-fashioned railroad apartments, and advertised for ‘genteel lady roomers.’

One of the genteel ladies who rented a room was an actress, and after she had been with us a few weeks, she had an offer for a part in a road company production of ‘East Lynne,’ provided she could find a small child … to play the part of Little Willie.”

Mrs. Gish found someone – Dorothy. Four years later, in 1906, she made her debut at the Lincoln Square Theater with Fiske O’Hara in “Dion O’ Dare.”

She played juvenile parts until 1912 when she and Lillian went into the movies.

Miss Gish was once described, much later in life, by a writer who called her ”a deep-voiced woman … with an unabated zest for life, a faintly ribald sense of humor and an uncompromising faculty for self-appraisal.”