Various notables of the stage acted as ushers, water boys, coat room girls, and what not at a benefit for destitute Russian artists given in New York recently by the Chauve-Souris players from the famous Bat theater in Moscow. The “house attendants” in the picture are from left to right: Nikita Balieff, founder of the Bat theater; Sam Bernard, Leon Errol, Marilyn Miller, Walter Catlett, Laurette Taylor, Al Jolson, Doris Keane, Lenore Ulric, Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish, and Morris Gest, who brought the Chauve-Souris players to America. In the rectangle below: Ed Wynn.
Photograph from White Studio
Benefit for destitute Russian artists given in New York Photo from “Dorothy and Lillian Gish” by Lillian Gish. To be noted Gish sisters costumes; Lillian and Dorothy Gish are wearing the famous gowns from “Orphans of the Storm.”
The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition.
Lillian Gish Turns to the Footlights
“Years ago, when David Belasco starred Mary Pickford in the fanciful “A Good Little Devil,” Lillian Gish appeared in the minor role of a good fairy. The other day, however, Miss Gish returned to the speaking stage in New York. Her reception was remarkable.
Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”
Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties.
LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married. Miss Gish is a rarely fascinating personality in the theater, moving consciously about; falling into unconsciously graceful poses; speaking in a gentle voice with modest expression; suggesting a little girl playing most intelligently at acting, but still a little girl.
Miss Gish has made an extremely happy return to the stage. Her sisters of the films who are now planning to descend upon the drama in swarms – Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and all the others who have issued their challenges to the playwrights – may well envy her. She is a perfect type for Checkhoff’s fragile, evasive Helena; she has had the coaching of Jed Harris, a master of stage direction; and she has made this new debut not as a star but as one of a group of cooperative artists. The production of “Uncle Vanya” was not a ballyhoo for Lillian Gish, but it has refreshed and renewed her reputation in a distinguished manner. She proves herself, by her admirable realization of Checkhoff’s heroine, a highly accomplished actress.
Uncle Vanya – 1973
“Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.” – Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful part for the occasion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set everything right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)
There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obviously the most important is this opportunity to compare, contrast and enjoy two major actors going about their business with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.
The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informality.
And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.
A nation’s story can be captured in numerous ways. Historical accounts of economic developments, military conflicts, domestic debates, and natural disasters all help to shape images of a land and its people; but so too does an appreciation of the sublime and the ridiculous, the heroes and heroines, and fads and frivolities that make up the popular culture of a mass society. Popular culture in an advanced, industrialized country such as the United States reflects the intellectual, social, cultural, political, and demographic currents of the time. Using popular culture as a lens on history is enlivening and illuminating and recaptures something of the “lightning in the bottle” effect that characterizes particular individuals, events, and happenings. This is especially so with regard to the remarkable pantheon of American popular cultural figures, whose life stories, accomplishments, and difficulties often mirror those of the nation they represent. What follows is an admittedly abbreviated, subjective presentation of several of the most iconic individuals in American popular cultural history. Another historian undoubtedly would have chosen at least some other figures. This author reluctantly left out many personal favorites, including Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor, Angelina Jolie, and Tiger Woods, to name a few.
Lillian Gish termed him “the father of film” and stated he “was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.” Charlie Chaplin considered Griffith “the teacher of us all.” Cecil B. DeMille declared that Griffith “taught us how to photograph thought,” while Orson Welles praised Griffith as “the premier genius of our medium.”
As American cinema flourished in the early twentieth century, its pace, style, and tenor increasingly influenced other popular cultural venues, including literature. The director of The Birth of a Nation offered techniques that authors soon emphasized, including fade-ins, fade-outs, close-ups, and flashbacks, all of which, of course, were not entirely new literary devices.
On January 22, 1875, David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, the fourth son of Mary Perkins Oglesby Griffith and Jacob Wark Griffith, a former colonel in the Confederate army. Jacob practiced medicine, fought in the Mexican War, joined the Kentucky legislature, and became a hero to Confederate forces. Griffith began to refine American cinema, assisted by cameraman G.W. Bitzer. Following the lead of Porter, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the director began offering close-ups, camera movements, switchbacks (later called flashbacks), and fade-outs, while presenting a smooth, extended story line. Social messages crept into several of his films in keeping with the era’s progressive movement, which sought to address some of the worst injustices associated with industrial capitalism. Griffith offered films like A Corner in Wheat, which, drawing from Frank Norris’s novel The Pit, dealt with class divisions in American society, and The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an examination of the Lower East Side. He also directed films such as The Redman and the Child and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch that cast Native Americans in a favorable light. But those films were the exception, as Robert Skylar notes, with other Griffith works celebrating the rich and vilifying Indians. Lillian Griffith, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron, and Henry B. Walthall appeared in his Biograph films, along with the previously undiscovered Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish. While Griffith employed a star system, Biograph proved unwilling to feature those performers or the director himself, to his mounting dismay. Partially shot in Biograph’s new studio on 175th Street in the Bronx, Judith of Bethulia, Griffith’s final film for the motion picture company, starred Sweet, Lillian Gish, and 2,000 actors or extras, and required four reels.
Griffith was envisioning a new film that would transform American cinema by its scope, grandeur, and ability to appeal to Americans of all classes. The storyline hearkened back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, times of glory and ruin for the Griffith family. In conjunction with childhood memories of stories spun by his father, Griffith drew on a pair of novels by the Reverend Thomas E. Dixon from North Carolina, which focused on those traumatic developments. The books. The Clansman and The Leopard s Spots, afforded Griffith the plot line for his projected film, which was obviously intended as an affirmation of his father’s life and beliefs. Although Mutual appeared unlikely to provide the $50,000 financing Griffith considered necessary, Aitken guaranteed that level of support for the director’s newly formed Epoch Film Corporation. Griffith’s new film, featuring Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, George Siegmann, and seemingly innumerable extras and horses, cost over $100,000 and netted $5 million in profits. One-quarter of the actors were African-Americans, and Griffith, employing “military discipline, set up “a camp for the whites and a camp for the black,” along with a pair of commissaries.
Requiring twelve reels and running for an unprecedented two and a half hours. The Clansman opened in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. Appearing in New York at the Rose Garden, located on Fifty-third Street, it soon boasted a new title. The Birth of a Nation. The ticket price was two dollars, the cost of admission to many Broadway shows. After the film opened at the Liberty in early March, the New York Times called Griffith’s effort “elaborate” and “ambitious,” offering “an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.” Griffith employed many of his now standard techniques, including crosscutting, flashbacks, close-ups, and fade-outs, but the film itself was a standard melodrama, complete with blackface. Reflecting on film as a whole following the completion of his latest masterwork, Griffith believed “there are no limits to its possibilities in artistic work. This is only child’s play.” Purportedly drawn from interviews with Civil War historians, the narrative centers on the trials endured by a Southern family and a Northern family as the nation divided. Griffith strove for authenticity in producing battle scenes, employing artillery, cavalry, and foot soldiers, and he erected a handful of Southern communities. The director presented burning towns, dying soldiers, mobs, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Much of the film highlights cross-sectional romances that suffered when the war broke out, while the conclusion resulted in the unfortunate developments associated with Reconstruction, as presented by Griffith. The New York Times review bemoaned the film’s inclusion of “inflammatory material” from Dixon’s novel and “the sorry story rendered by its plucking at old wounds.” Stock figures were aplenty, including uppity blacks, conniving carpetbaggers from the North, and Southern scalawags ready to sell out their home region. All but inevitably, innocent white womanhood in the film became imperiled, with rape looming, while determined Southerners began to fight back, led by the noble figures that joined the Ku Klux Klan. Writing in The New Republic, Harold Stearns discussed the film’s denouement when silhouetted Klansmen galloped on horseback. As that scene appeared on screen, “every audience spontaneously applauds.” After President Woodrow Wilson watched a special screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House, he allegedly exclaimed, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Thomas Dixon, a classmate of Wilson’s at Princeton, acknowledged that his purpose in supporting the film adaptation of his novel “was to revolutionize Northern audiences . . . [to] transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”.
The highly favorable treatment of the Klan, the denigrating depiction of African-Americans, and the casting of wooden images of the Reconstruction South enraged many, leading to riots in Boston and Philadelphia among other locales. Public officials in New York City insisted that various controversial scenes be removed. Jane Addams of Hull House fame proved “painfully exercised over the exhibition.” The Nation’s Oswald Garrison Villard decried the film’s “deliberate attempt to humiliate 10,000,000 American citizens and portray them as nothing but beasts.” The Illinois state legislature considered a measure to ban artwork that “tends to incite race riot, or race hatred.” The recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sought injunctions to prevent the showing of The Birth of a Nation, which the organization decried as “vicious.” The Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put out a lengthy pamphlet, Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation, condemning “the foul and loathsome misrepresentations of colored people and the glorification of the hideous and murderous band of the Ku Klux Klan.” The pamphlet underscored Thomas Dixon’s admission that he had hoped “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men” and “to have all Negroes removed from the United States.” When asked if complaints might lead to the film’s suppression, Griffith responded, “I hope to God they stop it! Then you won’t be able to keep audiences away with clubs!”
Griffith, who believed his presentation of The Birth of a Nation was “the truth,” was beset by considerable anxiety, $300,000 in legal fees, and numerous attacks on his reputation. He insisted that the film’s true villains were the carpetbaggers, not blacks, and pointed to the fact that he had grown up with African-Americans and been “nursed by a Negro mammy.” Griffith defended his movie during interviews, insisting that it offered a historical lesson. Then in a pamphlet, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he blasted calls for censorship, which confronted cinema in the United States from the outset. Institutions of higher learning opened their doors to only “the limited few,” Griffith wrote. Motion pictures by contrast could impart lessons about “mistakes of the past … to the entire world” at little cost while entertaining the masses. Consequently, efforts to censor cinema were wrongheaded, in addition to violating First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and the press. Censorship, that “malignant pygmy,” endangered “the growth of the art.” This had occurred although film afforded “a medium of expression as clean and decent as any mankind has ever discovered,” Griffith wrote.
Responding to continued criticisms that came his way, Griffith abandoned his original intention to produce a film about labor relations and chose to make another epic that he called Intolerance. Determined to present a panoramic look at bigotry and prejudice over the generations, Griffith initially intended this to be his final motion picture. He worried that “the story for Truth … has become barred from” movies, in contrast to the theater, where “freedom of expression” might still be found. Griffith maintained sixteen-to twenty-hour workdays in making Intolerance. Many critics thought he succeeded spectacularly with his latest offering. Current Opinion indicated that “the superman of the American movies” had pulled off his “greatest achievement.” Writing in Life, James S. Metcalfe claimed, “He has carried the picture play to the limit of its possibilities so far as doing everything that can be done with the motion picture.” Film Daily affirmed that “as a spectacle Intolerance is the greatest offering ever staged.” In viewing the three-hour-long epic—which demanded the construction of elaborate sets, featured thousands of extras along with stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, and Robert Harron, required thirteen reels, and cost $1.9 million—critics appeared particularly taken with Griffith’s depiction of ancient Babylon.
They were somewhat less impressed with his presentation of the life and death of Jesus and the massacre of French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, which occurred late in the sixteenth century. The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in Manhattan on September 5, 1916, and led to a decidedly mixed review from the New York Times. The paper termed Griffith “a real wizard of lens and screen” but pointed to his latest film’s “utter incoherence, the questionable taste of some of its scenes, and the cheap banalities into which it sometimes lapses.” The Times did applaud “the stupendousness of its panoramas, the grouping and handling of its great masses of players,” which “make it an impressive spectacle.” Audiences responded in an equally ambivalent fashion to Intolerance, undoubtedly wowed by its glorious sweep but confused by the separate episodes, which hardly presented a seamless thread. The scenes of nudity or near-nudity, along with the condemnations of both battlefields and prisons, proved disturbing to many viewers. Despite experiencing early record attendance figures, the film soon bottomed out, to Griffith’s chagrin. The result was a commercial failure that subsumed even the large profits earned by The Birth of a Nation. It also led to the dissolving of his business relationship with Aitken and Griffith’s moving over to Artcraft Pictures (later, Paramount Studios).
Hoping that Intolerance would receive a better reception abroad, Griffith sailed to London in mid-March 1917 as the third full year of hostilities in Europe approached. Griffith also was responding to a request that he produce a propaganda film for the British government. On the very day Intolerance premiered in London, Griffith received word that the United States had entered the war. He proceeded to offer a showing of Intolerance for the royal family and met Prime Minister Lloyd George, who repeated the call for Griffith to deliver a film for propaganda purposes. In preparation for his latest work, the director toured battlefields in France where he witnessed actual combat for the first time. Griffith later revealed that he experienced “something of the stir and thrill of the movie battle. Artillery is in motion, ambulances come tearing down the roads with the dying screaming as they take their last ride. Streams of prisoners are marching in tatters and dejection back to the bases; wounded soldiers are making their own way. Motor-cyclists are speeding to and from.” At the same time he realized that the trenches contained “nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are sometimes almost up to their hips in ice-cold mud. The dash and thrill of wars of other days are no longer there.”
The returning soldiers would recall trenches, replete with lice and “reeking vile odors . . . horrible with filth and mud,” Griffith predicted. First appearing in New York on April 4, 1918, Hearts of the World starred Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Erich von Stroheim. The New York Times indicated that the film—three-quarters of which was shot back in Hollywood—strove “to make the war a big reality” and apparently succeeded in that regard, as evidenced by the audience reaction. The Times declared, “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe” thanks to “the pictures of hand to hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, and demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches.” Elected to head the Motion Picture War Service Association, Griffith also called for the purchase of Liberty bonds to support the Allied cause.
Griffith presented a series of films in 1918 and 1919, including The Great Love, The Greatest Thing in Life, A Romance ofHappy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, True Heart Susie, Scarlet Days, Broken Blossoms, and The Greatest Question. Particularly celebrated was Broken Blossoms, the first Griffith film to appear under the auspices of United Artists. A relatively low- budget affair costing less than $90,000, Broken Blossoms presents the story of a Chinese Buddhist who in the midst of World War I ventures to London to foster support for nonviolence. Played by Richard Barthelmess, Cheng Huan falls in love with the Lillian Gish character, Lucy Burrows, who has been abused by her father. The film’s dark quality turned off Adolph Zukor of Artcraft. After viewing Broken Blossoms, Zukor exploded: “You bring me a picture like this and want money for it? You may as well put your hand in my pocket and steal it. Everybody in it dies. It isn’t commercial.” Zukor proved wrongheaded about that. He allowed Griffith to purchase the film back from Artcraft for $250,000, and eventually Broken Blossoms resulted in profits of $700,000 for United Artists. It also received glowing reviews, with Film Daily offering, “This film is a poetic tragedy given a masterly production; it is a masterpiece of its kind.”
His battles with movie moguls convinced Griffith of the need for greater artistic freedom, which he believed required commercial independence. That sensibility had led Griffith to join with three of the greatest stars in Hollywood’s early days—Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks—in creating their own production company: United Artists. Demanding still more autonomy, Griffith left Hollywood for Mamaroneck, New York, where he set up his new studio. There he completed The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, in addition to filming Way Down East, which came out in 1920, cost just over $1 million, and proved highly profitable. Again starring Barthelmess and Lillian Gish, the melodramatic Way Down East features an ill-treated young woman who gives birth to an illegitimate child who dies. Played by Gish, Anna meets a stolid farmer who loves her and saves her from an ice storm.
Griffith had received international acclaim in the period since the release of The Birth of a Nation. Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, and Sergei M. Einstein were among the many filmmakers who drew from his work. The April 1921 issue of The American Magazine delivered a lengthy article titled “The Greatest Moving Picture Producer in the World,” in which the master director indicated that “making a moving picture is like painting with lights.” He remained a workaholic, even toiling around the clock on occasion. In The Mentor, Griffith wrote a piece called “Motion Pictures: The Miracle of Modern Photography,” recalling that he had directed 500 pictures during a thirteen-year period. He indicated that “great motion pictures” required “good audiences, too.”
Griffith followed up Way Down East with the well-liked Orphans of the Storm (1921), One Exciting Night (1922), The White Rose (1923), America (1924), the acclaimed Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), and The Joyless Street (1925), the last film that he produced independently. Over the course of the next several years, Griffith made a series of motion pictures for United Artists but had seemingly lost his touch. Still, according to an article in the May 1928 issue of Overland, Griffith’s associates considered him “their ‘Master,’” one who possessed “almost hypnotic power.” In 1930 Griffith sought to produce another epic, Abraham Lincoln, a talkie starring Walter Huston. The reviews by critics proved mixed, at best, and audiences also responded tepidly.
A harsher fate still awaited his final film, The Struggle, which came out in 1931. Griffith was soon reduced to a weekly radio program that lasted less than a year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an honorary Oscar to Griffith in 1936, with the citation stating, “For his distinguished creative achievements as director and producer and his invaluable initiative and lasting contributions to the progress of the motion picture arts.” That same year he showed up at the set where his former assistant W.S. Van Dyke was shooting in San Francisco. Van Dyke asserted, “All I know I learned from you, Mr. Griffith.” In 1936 Griffith married Evelyn Baldwin, a young woman who had appeared in his movie The Struggle, although that marriage also would end in divorce. In 1938 he became an Honorary Life Member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA). He spent much of his time at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. The Museum of Modern Art published D. W. Griffith: American Film Master in 1940; the volume proclaimed Griffith “one of the greatest and most original artists of our time.”
Notwithstanding some aborted efforts, Griffith’s name never again appeared on the silver screen as director of a motion picture. On July 23, 1948, the day after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died. Actor Lionel Barrymore referred to Griffith as “Hollywood’s greatest,” while others bemoaned the fact that the film industry had closed its doors to him. Griffith received accolades from James Agee, the author, screenwriter, and film critic who wrote, “He achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel, the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language, the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” The French film director Rene Clair asserted, “Nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since Griffith.” The famed Austrian director and actor Erich von Stroheim claimed that Griffith “fully realized the education values of the film and felt personally responsible for the authenticity of everything in them.” In addition “it was Griffith who … put the motion picture on the same level with the best productions of the legitimate stage.” Von Stroheim termed Griffith “the greatest man the cinema had, or will ever have,” praised his generosity, and deemed him the master. Five years after Griffith’s death, the Directors Guild of America established the D.W. Griffith Award, its most prestigious honor. Honorees included Cecil B. DeMille, John Huston, John Ford, and Stanley Kubrick. In late 1999 the DGA discarded Griffith’s name, with its president explaining, “There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.”
Just what it is that makes a fine artist in the theater is a subject on which probably no final decision will ever be reached, but at least it is now clear that the popular impression of the great actor as a chameleon-like creature who wholly sinks his own individuality in the role that he plays, who nightly reduces himself to putty and then proceeds to construct a new and alien character from its foundations, is an excellent definition of what such an artist is not. Without great personality, great art simply cannot exist, and this truth has long been recognized in connection with the other arts. The individuality of the great painter is evident in all his canvases: a Corot cannot be mistaken for a Millet or a Van Dyck for a Frans Hals. In literature too it is only the second- and third-rate stuff that might have been written by anybody: Chaucer and Fielding and Conrad are “there,” visibly and incontrovertibly “there,” in every line that they wrote. It is so also in the theater, for the creative process is essentially one in all the arts. An actor may, according as his experience of life has been wide or narrow, according as he himself is simple or complex, single-or many-sided, work in a wide field or he may specialize within a comparatively narrow range. What is worth remembering, however, of a really versatile player like David Garrick, as against the limited portrayer of a type, is not that Garrick has submerged his personality, but rather that, through sympathetic comprehension and intelligence, he has enlarged it to embrace a much wider segment of life. Zola conceived of art as a corner of nature seen through a personality. If acting is in any sense among the arts, why should we not grant to the actor this same privilege—to re-character his material in terms of his own personality—which we impose upon the poet as a duty? We may grant it or not as we choose; we may even justify our obtuseness by the cant that acting is not “creative” but merely “interpretative.” Still the actor will continue to do it, as he has always done it, because it creates the only condition under which acting can exist at all.
I admit that this is dangerous doctrine, but I do not happen to know any true doctrine that is not dangerous. I am not trying to absolve the actor from “faithfulness” to the author whose plays he presents; I am simply suggesting that in acting itself there is a larger creative element than is commonly supposed. The plain truth of the matter is that unless a play is purely a “closet-drama”—and therefore devoid of all essential dramatic quality—it is not finished at the time it is printed: it does not really come alive until some man or woman of genius makes it live upon the stage. The very great plays—Hamlet, for example—are never completed. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s exclusively but the world’s, and it will not be really finished until the last great actor has presented his conception of it.
In short, I believe that the actor, like the poet, cannot possibly create anything greater than his own soul. It is precisely this experiential quality that marks the difference between mere vulgar impersonation—which is of no significance—and genuine portrayal of character—which is of value because it assists in the understanding of life. That which the actor does not understand, and which has not been passed through his own alembic, may indeed startle for the moment through technical brilliance; but in the long run it is ineffective, like the famous legendary sermon which the devil once delivered with great energy against all the hosts of darkness, and which won no converts, simply because the preacher himself did not believe in it.
The bearing of all this upon my subject is, I trust, fairly obvious. Miss Gish is not, in the usual sense, a versatile actress. Her temperament is not naturally and obviously “dramatic,” and she always claims the right to make her roles over to suit Lillian Gish. Yet she has come to be accepted as the outstanding serious artist of the screen, the authentic, incomparable interpreter of the drama of the shadows. As far back as 1920, John Barrymore called her an American artist worthy to rank with Duse and Bernhardt, an American girl who had equaled if not surpassed the finest traditions of the theater.
I hope I may not be misunderstood. I am not saying what the unenlightened so often say: that “Lillian Gish is always the same.” Each of her portraits is an individual achievement: he who feels or who pretends to feel that her Mimi and her Hester Prynne are the same person, or that her Angela Chiaromonte is not an essentially different girl from her Henriette Girard, is surely completely blind to other than very elementary and wholly obvious distinctions: fine shadings in art are not for him. Versatility, in the usual sense, is comparatively easy for the character actor: he presents, one after another, wholly different types, and he has all the resources of makeup to sustain the illusion. But Miss Gish is not a character actress. She has played only sensitive young women, most of them about the same age, many of them facing not wholly dissimilar problems.
The business of differentiation for such a player is ten thousand times more difficult than it is for the character actor; I think hardly any careful student of acting will deny that she has triumphantly met the test.
But what is more to the point for my argument is that in and through all her carefully differentiated characterizations , she has expressed also her own point of view, a distinctive something which is Lillian Gish and nobody else on earth. Her Hester Prynne is not precisely Hawthorne’s Hester: she is Lillian’s Hester. This point has sometimes been cited against her; as a matter of fact, it is the highest praise that could be given. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne exists in Hawthorne’s pages: why should Lillian Gish seek to create her over again? Is it not better to begin under Hawthorne’s spell but to go on from there independently to work out her own conception as he did his?—a conception which, precisely because it does represent the reaction of another individuality, will help us better to understand not only Hawthorne but the life experience which both artists, and which all artists, seek to interpret?
This, I believe, is the essentially “poetic” note in the work of Lillian Gish—a thing to which so many have referred but which hardly anybody has understood. The girl’s work seems “poetic” because she is a poet, that is because she is a creator. She is like the poets in that there is something distinctive in the way she apprehends life, and she uses her roles as the poet uses words and the musician tones—not to reproduce what somebody else has done but to express directly her own authentic impression. Hence also the marvelous sense of completeness, of perfection that she gives you. The part and the actress are one: there is nothing extraneous. In a very deep and very true sense, she is the profoundest kind of actress: that is to say she does not “act” at all; she is.
This is not of course what most people mean when they refer to Lillian as “poetic.” Usually, I am afraid, they mean that she is pretty. Sometimes—God forgive them!—they are even trying to say that she is weak. The novelist Joseph Hergesheimer was one of Lillian’s most ardent admirerers, yet he would seem to have been blind to some of her most important qualities. Hergesheimer objected strenuously to The White Sister, for example, which he claimed he never went to see. “I had no wish to see Lillian’s pale charm against the rigid whiteness of a nun’s headdress.” But it was precisely the qualities which repelled Hergesheimer in The White Sister that attracted Lillian: she wanted to do the story, as she once told me, most of all for the privilege of filming the assumption of the veil, a ritual which she considered one of the most beautiful things in modern civilization.
I do not, however, wish to convey the impression that I am in any sense unmoved by Lillian’s beauty. She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name. The affinity between her given name and her spirit is a commonplace; if there were only one thing in the world by which to symbolize her, one would instinctively choose the lily. To most persons I suppose her surname means nothing, but this is their misfortune. It should mean romance, the pathos of distance and of faraway perfect things; it should carry them back to buried Babylon, to the Gilgamesh epic and the marvelous adventures of Gish.
Lillian’s physical frailness–her Dresden china quality- connects here, and it is this which is commonly regarded as her most serious limitation. Actually it is nothing of the kind. It is true that it bars her from playing coarse types— which make up the most of life—and that it limits her capacity for heroic expression. It is hardly conceivable that any other producer than D. W. Griffith could have discerned her gifts at the time she entered pictures: to anyone else, the pale child she was then must have seemed, as a dramatic actress, the world’s worst bet. Griffith, with his passion for delicacy and his uncanny knowledge of his craft, perceived at once that what might have handicapped her on the stage was precisely what would make her on the screen. In a large auditorium, physical coarseness of feature is no handicap; it may even be an advantage. But the merciless camera, with its magnified features and its enormous close- ups, brings the actor almost on top of his audience, registering every movement, showing up inevitably the most trifling defect. Except Mary Pickford, there is nobody whose contour quite suits the camera, quite stands the test, as does Lillian’s. And it would be difficult to find two actresses who appear in more radically different lights. Mary photographs always with cameolike precision: she stands out against her backgrounds with crystal clarity, like Lucrezia Bori at the opera. Lillian’s outlines, on the other hand, are dreamlike, subdued; she seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.
This lyrical coloring in Lillian seems immensely precious: doubly so because she lives in an age when most girls have definitely outlawed overtones, when everything must be frank and open, everything ruthlessly displayed, no matter how ugly it may be. Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does, glorifies it with the interpenetrating quality of the imagination, makes it impossible for her to be drably realistic, no matter what her role. Frequently she plays what are called in the movies “cotton stocking” parts. But what she gives you of poverty in these instances is never its drabness and hardness but only its singleness and sweet humility.
The star example is the scene in Way Down East in which Anna Moore, her mind oppressed by the dread dogma of infant damnation, herself baptized her dying child. Miss Gish played the scene with utter realism—her walk, her expressions, the very arrangement of her clothes all suggesting the strain of recent childbirth. Many an actress could have done that, but I do not know who could have followed her in the next step she took, who could have lifted the whole scene, as she did, away from squalor, beyond the physical, who could so beautifully have suggested the age-old miracle of the girl become mother.
But Lillian’s lyricism could never have served to win her present place for her had it not been coupled with a dramatic intensity all the more striking because the body through which she expresses it seems so frail. The effect is virtually to blot out the flesh: when she really lets herself go, she is like nothing so much as a pure white flame.
Though she has done finer things since, her closet scene in Broken Blossoms, the helpless child’s pitiful terror of the brutal father who was hammering against the door, trying to get in and kill her, will remain in the memory of all her audiences as the best single expression of her wonderful capacity for utter surrender to emotion. It was hysterics photographed, yet it was fine art; hysterics are not naturally beautiful.
I have already touched on the exaltation, the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing. Even her beauty is not a thing in itself: you never think of her as a “beauty” in the sense in which you think thus of many women of the theater. She is essentially the Puritan in art: there are many phases of experience that she does not care to touch. It is indeed because of her own sensitiveness, because through all these years in the theater she has, in a sense, kept herself in a world apart, that she has become so incomparable an interpreter of the experience of sensitive women. In the ordinary, vulgar sense of the term, there is no more sex in her screen manifestations than there was for Dante in the Beatrice of the Commedia.
Miss Gish’s work on the screen is pure emotion: there is no suggestion of mind in it, and here, as always, she is profoundly right, for the visible presence of intellect in acting can only rob it of spontaneity, make it labored and self-conscious. But all who have watched Lillian’s development know that the mind is there notwithstanding: nothing could be farther from the truth than to imagine that the lovely things she has created came into being spontaneously, as mere emanations of herself. And she is still growing, for each appearance marks, in some respect, an advance. Twelve years ago, in The Birth of a Nation, I did not indeed find her extraordinarily effective; of all her more important characterizations, this of Elsie Stoneman seems to me the least. But as Annie Lee in Enoch Arden, released that same year, she did immensely fine work, running the whole gamut from youth to age, and doing it with splendid sincerity and with poignant, touching sweetness. As the French girl Marie in Hearts of the World she went even deeper, and after I saw her in Broken Blossoms in 1919, I told her, out of my ignorance, that I did not see how she could ever equal the performance she had given here. Yet Lillian has gone far, far beyond what then seemed unutterable perfection.
In four of her recent pictures, Miss Gish has been engaged in a profound and beautiful study—the study of woman’s attitude toward her love. In La Boheme it was the love which gives blindly, eagerly, in answer to desire. In Romola it was the austere love which, precisely because it loves, will accept nothing from the beloved except the best. In The White Sister love and God were in conflict, and God won.
And in The Scarlet Letter the love was tainted with sin and worked its way out, through suffering, to salvation.
Of these four characterizations, it is difficult to make a choice, but I think the one which moved me most was precisely the one which has been the least popular—Romola. This film surely did not earn very much money for its sponsors, for it was enormously expensive, and it wholly lacked the melodramatic appeal which a great costume film must have if it is to capture the movie public. Lillian’s own role, too, was not essentially dramatic, there was no furniture broken, and the general public could not do other than remain comparatively indifferent to her quiet, gently incisive baring of a woman’s soul. Lillian herself—the artist’s divine dissatisfaction upon her—did not quite share my enthusiasm for this picture. “I hope you will like Romola when you see it,” she had written me. “It caused me so much trouble and there are so many things in it that I would have different from what they are that I can never think of it now without a great feeling of sadness for what we might have done with that beautiful story.” Nevertheless, it is here that she has given us a characterization worthy, in its perfections, to rank with Mary Garden’s portrait of Melisande in Debussy’s ultimate opera. For the first time, as I watched Romola, I felt that I was really beginning to understand what supreme devotion, what never-failing effort it must have cost Lillian Gish to develop her art to the point to which she had brought it here. The old-time violence, the occasionally hysteric quality that was the hangover from her Griffith days, was gone, but the dramatic intenseness that had accompanied it and saved it and made it beautiful remained—repressed, quivering with life. A twitch of her expressive mouth, a shift of expression in her eyes, and she had accomplished what in the old days it took all the resources of her body to achieve less perfectly. The finest example of all this in Romola comes at that moment in the house of Tessa when Romola first realizes that Tito has been unfaithful to her. Actually Lillian did nothing in that moment save look at Tito and then back at Tessa’s baby which she was holding in her arms. Slowly the realization dawned that her husband was the father of this child, and the tears welled up in her eyes, but they did not overflow. Amazement, incredulous wonder, wounded pride, and the pure woman’s instinctive recoil from an unchaste man—they were all there in that look; yet beneath and above them all were love and pity—for Tito, and for Tessa, and for the child.
In Romola, Lillian appeared to be turning inward—more self-contained than she used to be—an entity complete. In a measure this may have been due to the accident of material. But in a deeper sense I do not believe it was, for Lillian is growing daily, broadening, developing, shifting the stream of her life to deeper channels. If this tendency continues she will in the future be less of an “actress” than now; she will be rather a symbolist, an “essentialist”—if there is such a word—and her screen images will be not so much characterizations as projections, pictures, embodiments (I know not how to name them) of the varied aspects of the spiritual life. One shudders to think what effect such a process might have upon Lillian’s box-office popularity, but what a sense of wonder she could bring to our souls, what deepening and beautifying of this amazing mystery we call life. And Lillian could do it if her managers would give her the chance, could leave behind her “pictures of the floating world” which might well live as long in the imaginations of men as Homer’s portrait of Nausicaa.
Indeed, I believe Miss Gish to be capable of much greater roles than any she has yet played. She has etched a precious number of lyrical and dramatic moments, but frequently the ‘stuff from which she has wrought has been the veriest melodrama. Imagine what she might be in Lancelot and Elaine or as Melisande or Francesca da Rimini. Imagine what she might do with Ophelia or with any of the later spiritualized heroines of Shakespeare with Miranda or Perdita, for example. She is not easy to fit with roles that shall be at once adaptable to the screen and suited to her genius. for the mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited by “emotional” actresses—is simply not for her.
Sometimes I am inclined to be a little impatient about these things: I suppose everybody, now and then, feels that the careers of his favorite artists are being less intelligently managed than he himself could manage them. Yet the last time I saw Lillian, one night in Chicago, when she and her delightful mother left for California, it came over me suddenly that all such fretting was futile. What difference does it make what Lillian plays so long as she is Lillian? That at least no casting director can ever take away from us. Here is the source of the impression she makes, for she herself is among the poets. She may bring us art and literature from the treasure houses of Europe, or she may float on an ice cake down some river of her native land. Whatever she does, she will always be beauty—emotionalized beauty, through which one catches sudden, radiant glimmerings of the wonder of life.
In the beginning there were no stars in the silent sky.
It was “the pictures” we went to see, pictures that moved. Nobody had ever seen a picture move before, but we could see people on the street every day. Sometimes, as with “Hale’s Tours,” which were travel pictures, photographed from a moving train, and better cinema, being better adapted to the medium, than many more pretentious productions afterwards, there were no people at all. When the films were foreign, as they often were in the days when Pathe dominated the world film trade, the people were there all right, but they were too remote from us in America to register as individuals, and in the comparatively long shots that then prevailed, they all looked pretty much alike anyway. I have myself recorded elsewhere how startled I was when watching Maurice Costello, one day as a small boy, I suddenly became aware that I had seen that face before, and I first encountered the (abbreviated) name of a film player in a hand-lettered sign before a nickelodeon which, having first given the name of the film, added, as an afterthought, in smaller type, “Miss Lawrence in the Leading Role.”
It seems to be the rule, in this craft, that picturesque charlatans shall have immediate recognition, while the few sincere and earnest artists struggle long with public neglect.
The case of Lillian Gish is perfectly in point. Thanks to the popular success of such films as Way Down East and The White Sister, she is just now beginning to enter into her own. Yet she was a great actress in Enoch Arden ten years ago. Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Emily Fitzroy—it would be easy to multiply examples. Even Mr. Griffith has, in general, been most successful with his least significant pictures. The Birth of a Nation is only an apparent exception, for it owed its tremendous vogue to its bad melodrama, its appeal to prejudice and passion, rather than to some of the really superb things it contained. And it is undeniable that the first adequate appreciation of Charlie Chaplin came from the outside. To the producers he was, at the outset, simply a great clown, a happy accident, whose enormous popularity was to be joyfully—not thankfully—accepted, but need not, for any reason, be analyzed. So far as I recall, it was Mrs. Fiske who, in an article in The Independent, first dared suggest that Chaplin was an artist.
I first met Lillian Gish at the Blackstone Hotel in December 1920, when she came to Chicago for the local opening of Way Down East at the Woods Theater. I did not meet Dorothy until January 1922, when both she and Lillian came for the opening of Orphans of the Storm and occupied the box just behind mine at the Great Northern Theater. After I moved to New England we met more frequently, and my friendship with both sisters, which was extended to embrace my family as soon as I had acquired one has been a blessing for which I shall always be thankful. It chanced that when I came to New York in 1961 to work on The Movies in the Age of Innocence at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Dorothy was out of town, and she graciously placed her rooms in the Elysse Hotel at the disposal of my wife and myself.
The essay that follows first appeared in 1927 as Number Seven in the series of University of Washington Chapbooks edited by my late, lamented friend Glenn Hughes, who thereby became my first publisher. It was revised very slightly for its reappearance in The Movies in the Age of Innocence, and this version was reprinted in 1980 in the very handsome booklet which the Museum of Modern Art brought out to commemorate its Gish retrospective, on which occasion Charles Silver generously described it as “the classic critical appreciation of Miss Gish’s early work.” However this may be, it reappears here without further change.
The meeting in Chicago referred to at the end of my discussion occurred, again at the Blackstone and later at the railroad station, when Lillian and her mother stopped off between trains when she was on her way to the Coast to take up her M-G-M contract. It is interesting to reflect that of the roles I mention in my penultimate paragraph as being naturals for her, Ophelia is the only one she ever had a chance to play. This was in the famous 1936 New York stage production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, in which John Gielgud was the Hamlet and Judith Anderson the Queen. As early as 1936 however, Edward Steichen had taken a marvelous portrait of her as Ophelia, which is handsomely reproduced as #116 in his autobiography, A Life in Photography (Doubleday, 1963), where it is strangely mislabeled “Romola.” The news about the film of that title, to which I refer at some length, is better however. Long considered a lost film, it has now been recovered and is currently (1986) available in casette form for the VCR.
Chicago Tribune – Saturday April 17, 1915 – Page 17
Flickerings from Flickers
By Kitty Kelly
Dorothy Gish Tires of Sunny California
Los Angeles, California, April 16 – When big sister’s away, then little sister chatters, is the modern version of the standard jingle, as adapted by Miss Dorothy Gish, which I plucked out of her picture, on the Majestic stage, when the sun retreated coyly behind a special gray cloud veil.
Miss Lillian Gish, with her mother, has gone back for a visit in Ohio, and Miss Dorothy is living all alone in their apartment endeavoring to learn to be self-reliant.
“You see, mother has always taken so much care of me, even more than she has of Lillian because she was the oldest, that I have never had to do things on my own responsibility, so I think this is a very good experience for me – but I don’t like it specially.
“Oh, I’m so tired of this country. I want to go back to New York, but I suppose we’ll always stay out here. We’ve been here fourteen months now.”
“Miss Gish, into the scene,” called Director Paul Powell, and Dorothy scurlled back to her counter in the store to be flirted at by the bold, bad drummer. But she came back, for the sun was fickle, though the weather carefully refrained from really raining. After some spasmodic efforts at conversation, continually interrupted by Mr. Powell’s parrot call, “Miss Gish into the scene,” Miss Gish took me off to her dressing room, though she assured me in advance that she hated to do it, for it looked “awful.” But I didn’t think so. It is one of the cheeriest, roomiest dressing rooms I have been in, and is, by the way, the best one at the Majestic studio. Dorothy and Lillian share it, and Dorothy has regular householding ideas about improving its appearance, decoratively speaking. In it are two couches, two windows, running water, hidden behind a bug burlap screen, a long dressing table under one window, a drapery hung wardrobe in one corner, a cupboard built into the wall, a pier glass, and some wicker chairs. That is about twice as much as in any dressing room I have seen – and I’ve seen dozen – and it is about twice as large as any.
“I’m going to have all the woodwork painted white,” she explained. “See, I tried to do those window frames myself, but I got tired of it, for it was a lot harder work than I expected. Then I’m going to get some fresh hangings and have it all foxed when Lillian gets back and surprise her.”
I wish I had been a phonograph record so I could have gotten all of Dorothy down, for she said an amazing lot of things in the hour we visited, and she said them delightfully. She is a dear child, exactly like any schoolgirl, a bit more ripened in experience, perhaps, but perfectly fresh and unspoiled.
“We’ve been in pictures three years. We had just finished school and were thinking about stage engagements,” explained Dorothy. “Why, we never thought of pictures, but we knew Mary and she asked us to come over to the Biograph, where she was working, and we did, and Mr. Griffith saw us there and had us pose.
“It was the funniest thing. We didn’t understand Mr. Griffith’s name when he was introduced to us, and he was flying around so busy and important that we called him Mr. Biograph, because we knew it was the Biograph company and he acted as though he was the whole thing. And so, then, we’ve been working with him ever since.
“I started on the stage when I was 4 years old. There was a friend we had whom we called aunt, and she had a chance to play in ‘East Lynne’ if she could get a child to play with her.
“Well, she asked mother for me, and of course at first mother thought, ‘O, it’s perfectly dreadful,’ you know how that is, and wouldn’t let me, but finally she did, and I went and played little Willie.
“ And how I hated to wear the boy clothes. I used to pick the hems cut of my dresses so they’d come down as far as possible, and once I was naughty and Aunt Laurie made me wear them home. Of course they didn’t show under my coat, but I was sick because I knew they were there.
“I don’t want to do boy parts now. Of course you have to do what you are told, but I’m too fat anyway. I weigh 115 pounds. But I’ve done everything. I played extra for a year and I was Indians and colored people and maids and everything.
“O, I used to think if only I could be 18, because Mr. Griffith would always try me out in parts and then he’d say ‘No, you’re too young.’ O, I wanted to run the world then and be like Sarah Bernhardt. Now I want to be 21, but I don’t know about running the world either.
“I like to work in pictures, O, ever so much. They seem to me so much more real than the stage. And then Lillian and I can be together, and we have been separated so much that, that is lovely. It was just about impossible to get stage engagements together.”
I managed to suggest that sometime they might be separated, when they went and fell in love and were married. Dorothy laughed with girlish skepticism: “O, there’s not much danger of that.”
Then she turned sober. “You see we have seen so many unhappy marriages all about and among stage people that we feel seriously about marriage. The trouble is that people go into it so unthinkingly. They only know each other for a little while and don’t have a chance to know what they are really like and what faults they have, and all that, and then they rush off and get married, and after that they find out soon enough how little they were acquainted. I think if people would be more thoughtful and get to know each other better there would be many less unhappy marriages.”
Someone stuck his head in to “how-do-you-do” then and we lost that thread of thought. But Dorothy was ready with a whole loomful of other ones.
“I don’t care much about dancing, but I just love to go to picture shows. I think Chaplin is the most fun. Of course he does lots of vulgar little things that I wish he wouldn’t, and I don’t think he does quite so much now, but he has real comedy in him. I think he is just rich. He and Mary – that sounds funny to put them together when they are so different – are really the best drawing cards in pictures.”
Miss Gish always means Mary Pickford, of course, when she says “Mary.” There was a deal more said, but space is a tangible quantity with barriers, and I hit them so often with damaging results that I shall try to avoid them.
Dorothy Gish – one feels exactly like calling her Dorothy – is a refreshing experience and I’d relayed her remarks through in short paragraphs.
Chicago Tribune – Monday, March 01, 1993 – Page 55
Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies
From Chicago Tribune wires
NEW YORK – Lillian Gish, the last of the great silent film stars who went on to perform for more than 85 years in movies, theater and television, has died at age 99. Her personal manager, James E. Frasher, said she died in her sleep Saturday evening of heart failure.
“She was the same age as film,” Frasher said. “They both cam into the world in 1893.”
Miss Gish still was performing as recently as the late 1980s. In 1986, she appeared as Alan Alda’s hilariously addled mother in “Sweet Liberty” and in 1987 she was praised for her sensitive portrayal of an indomitable old woman in “The Whales of August,” which co-starred another movie legend, Bette Davis.
“To become an actress, one cannot begin too soon,” said Miss Gish, who made her acting debut at age 5. Under the guidance of director D.W. Griffith, Miss Gish was to become the pre-eminent actress in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East.”
After performing in dozens of one and two-reel silent movies – with running times of 10 or 20 minutes – and then in the longer Griffith epics, Miss Gish made a successful transition into the “talkies” and later into television.
Between film and television roles, she also worked on the stage. In 1930, she starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ Broadway production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and in 1973 she appeared as the nurse in Mike Nichols’ revival of the play. She made her last Broadway appearance in 1975, in “A Musical Jubilee.”
Especially in her youth, Miss Gish evoked an aura of fragility, and hers was a vulnerable, waiflike beauty. The renowned theatrical impresario David Belasco pronounced her “the most beautiful blonde I have ever seen.”
Miss Gish, though not always in excellent health, was accustomed to hard work and took a no-nonsense view of her physical attributes.
“I didn’t care about being a beauty,” she said in an interview in 1975. “I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn’t care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that’s an inner thing. But if all you have is a façade, it isn’t interesting.”
Throughout her life, Miss Gish remained singularly devoted to her mother and her sister, Dorothy, who was younger, but became an actress about the same time Lillian did. Mrs. Gish died in 1948, after years as an invalid, and Dorothy Gish died in 1968.
Miss Gish never married and leaves no survivors. “I loved a lot of dear men, but luckily I never ruined their lives by marrying them,” she said. “What kind of a marriage would it have been to a wife who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week?”
The artistic collaboration between Miss Gish and Griffith lasted more than a decade. During that time, she appeared in dozens of Griffith’s short films and starred in most of his critically and economically successful longer ones.
In some films, she played bit parts; in others, she played several roles; in some, she was the star. All of Griffith’s actors did the same, and it was not until after the success of “The Birth of a Nation” that any received on-screen credit.
Hendrick Sartow, a still photographer who eventually became a cinematographer for Griffith, invented for Miss Gish the “Lillian Gish lens,” *** now called a soft-focus lens, which gives its photographed subject a warmly blurred appearance.
In the mid-1920’s, Miss Gish became embroiled in a long legal battle with Charles Duell, a socialite who had been her financial adviser (and, as she said in 1975, “sort of my Svengali”), over sums she allegedly owed him.
During the trial, Miss Gish munched carrots, and newspaper photographs of her stirred a carrot-chomping fad across the country. Americans had become enchanted with the new artistic aristocracy – the movie stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Miss Gish.
Earlier, after Miss Gish pushed up the sides of her mouth with her fingers to demonstrate feigned happiness in a movie, the gesture became a much-copied fad.
Miss Gish made the transition from silents to talkies in 1930 in “One Romantic Night,” with Rod LaRocque and Conrad Nagel. By that time, she had signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “My contract called for six pictures in two years, for which I was paid, I believe, a million dollars,” she wrote.
Miss Gish made a triumphant return to the stage in 1930 in “Uncle Vanya” on Broadway. In 1936, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Judith Anderson’s Queen Gertrude, and, in 1941, she began a record-breaking 66-week run in “Life With Father” in Chicago. In 1960, she starred in “All the Way Home” on Broadway.
When not before the cameras or an audience, Miss Gish toured the world, lecturing and showing Griffith’s classics.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized her work in 1970, *** presenting her an honorary Oscar, and the American Film Institute presented her its lifetime achievement award for 1984. In 1982, she received the Kennedy Center Honor.
She said current movie-making methods had ruined the quality of acting.
“No one rehearses anymore, so how do you know what to do? They just do takes 100 times over. Now, distributors make more money on popcorn than on the film, and deservedly so.”
*** Billy Bitzer invented the “Lillian Gish” lens not Sartov
*** The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Lillian Gish’s work in 1971, not 1970.
Chicago – Tribune Wednesday September 03, 1952 – Page 23
From Under My Hat
Hedda Hopper’s Memories of Early Movies and D.W. Griffith
By Hedda Hopper
When D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” hit the screen it gained many converts and fans for the movies from the legitimate theatre stars, who, up till then, had looked upon motion pictures as a not quite bright member of the entertainment family who should be kept out of sight when the aristocracy of the stage came to call.
So when Douglas Fairbanks was approached by D.W. Griffith to come to Hollywood and star in “The Lamb,” he quickly said yes. Wolfie, like the others, had an offer for a year in Hollywood with options. The offer came over the telephone, but he insisted that the man bring the contract to Siasconset for his signature. He and the fellow players who signed along with him entered on a period of having their eyes opened. Wolfie’s chief asset was his voice, but unfortunately the pictures were silent.
Doug Fairbanks’ first wife, Beth, found a home for us in Hollywood and engaged a Japanese couple to run it. The Fairbankses also had a Japanese couple, so when either of us entertained we pooled servants. And such a service! Doug, dispensing with a chauffeur, drove his own car. It was several years before he started to make real money.
There were three major studios then: D.W. Griffith’s, Thomas Ince’s and Mack Sennett’s, but few independents. The Christie boys were still making two reelers. There were rivalries but no rapier jealousies like those of today. Feuds weren’t as much fun then. You were in the same business, the studios were close together, and sometimes you were in the same pictures. You kept running into your rival each day. If you went to a party, there he was, and you couldn’t avoid speaking. I’ve remedied that situation today. I can look right thru ‘em and not see ‘em. But in the early days no false fin lines were drawn; no social hoop-de-do, and no better than Wrestler Bull Montana.
D.W. Griffith was the father of our industry. Many men have tried to claim that title since, but it was due to Griffith that Hollywood grew great. He was one of the great pioneers of the business in developing screen technique, but his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, and not Griffith, as is so widely supposed, invented the close-up.
After giving us “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” and “Broken Blossoms,” Griffith started to grow old, and upstart producers said his usefulness was at the end. In his latter years he lived at the Knickerbocker hotel. Griffith didn’t need money; he needed a job to uphold his pride. There was nothing left for him to do in the art form he had largely perfected. He wandered around Beverly Hills and Hollywood, drinking in one tavern, then going on to the next bar.
I went to several bigwigs in the business. “You must find something for that man to do; give him back his faith in life.” “What could we do?” they asked me. They had the face to ask that question! “The industry has passed him by!” Passed by the man who made it possible for every one of them to be where they were! In Hollywood gratitude is Public Enemy No.1.
I also talked to the executives of the Motion Picture Relief Fund Country home. “Give him a job,” I begged. “Let him go over the lists of applicants – he will give understanding to people who, like himself, have grown old in this business and are now on the shelf. Make the money nominal – $50 a week – D.W. doesn’t want or need charity; but give him back his sense of belonging.” Well, they didn’t quite see how it could be done.
Finally, on June 23, 1948, Griffith died. Could it be because he no longer had the will to live, and just loosed his grasp, opened his hand and let life fall away from him?
It was a fine funeral. The flowers were abundant. Why not, when the studio controllers could O.K. the bills as necessary business expense! I made it my business to arrive early for the services, and took a front seat where I could see everyone and they could all see me. All the big brass was there. I had a little list and checked them off as they walked past. Then I stared at them until they were forced to look me in the eye. A more sheepish looking crowd I never expect to see in Hollywood.
Charles Brackett, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who never knew Griffith personally, read the eulogy. Among other things, he said: “There was no solution for Griffith but a kind of frenzied beating on the barred doors of one day after another. Fortunately, such miseries do not endure indefinitely. When all the honors a man can have are past honors, past honors take on their just proportion. The laurels are fresh again and the applause loud. He lies here, the embittered years forgotten, David Wark Griffith, the Great.”
A few months after Griffith’s death I had occasion to lunch with Eric Johnston, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who was very pleased with himself.
“Hedda,” he said, “You’ll be happy to know that the producers are going to build a great monument to D.W. Griffith over his grave in Kentucky.”
I looked at him. “Are they out of their minds? The men who would do nothing for him while he lived are now to show their generosity by buying a shaft of granite to mark his resting place?”
In May 1950 three famous stars of the silent screen – Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – went to La Grange, Ky., and dedicated a dignified and honest memorial to the man they loved. It’s a simply inscribed seven foot Georgia marble memorial. Near the cemetery is the white frame church where Griffith attended Sunday school.