FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – “The Scarlet Letter” Louis Giannetti/Scott Eyman 1986

  • FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – “The Scarlet Letter”
  • LOUIS GIANNETTI (Case Western Reserve University)
  • © 1996, 1991, 1986 by Prentice-Hall. Inc. Simon & Schuster / A Viacom Company Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632

If the standard truism about america being a nation of immigrants is even close to the truth, it was never more so than in the years before World War I. In Europe, royalty was living out the last moments of what social historian Frederic Morton called “A Nervous Splendor.” In America, the upper and middle classes alike were enjoying what Mark Twain had rightly called “The Gilded Age.” Under a succession of presidents frankly power brokered by kingmakers like Marcus Hanna, American industry and its gospel of the dollar began to spread across the world, even as the country fell into an aesthetic trough. The theater was moribund, subsisting on threadbare melodramas as vacuous as they were popular, marking time until Eugene O’Neill’s poetically morbid meditations on human frailty made later writers like Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee possible.

Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter 1972

The Scarlet Letter (VS.A., 1926), with Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, directed by Victor Seastrom. By the time she made “The Scarlet Letter” time and tide were both running against Lillian Gish, for it was the era of the flapper, of the carefree Clara Bow. At Gish’s own studio, the exotic Greta Garbo was the new sensation. At the age of thirty-two, Lillian Gish was about to be fobbed off as a prissy antique, in spite of the tact that she was doing some of her finest work. Gish insisted on the Swedish emigre Seastrom as director because she believed his Scandinavian temperament was aptly suited to Hawthorne’s powerful morality tale of Puritan repression. Gish proved to be as astute a production executive as she was an actress. (Metro Goldwyn Mayer) ***

A genius of innuendo, a crafty careerist, Lubitsch immediately assumed the role he instinctively felt Americans expected of a European, the naughty sophisticate. In a series of social comedies for Warner Brothers, most of which took their blase attitude from C’haplin’s A Woman of Paris, Lubitsch satirized sex, fidelity, and bad faith in intimate relations. Mostly, Lubitsch appreciated elegant manners.

The Swedish cinema was very nearly decimated by the departure of art director Sven Gade, directors Victor Seastrom (1879-1960) and Mauritz Stiller (1883-1928), and leading man Lars Hanson (1887-1965). When Stiller set sail for America, he was accompanied by his protegee and leading lady, a tall, somewhat horsy young actress who photographed like a goddess from Olympus—Greta Garbo, nee Gustafson. Stiller’s protegee did better than he did. Driven, high-strung, he was fired by MGM after ten days’ shooting on his first picture. He went over to Paramount and made the intense Hotel Imperial (1927) with Pola Negri. Stiller made one more film in the town that he felt had betrayed him. Then, a sick, defeated man, he went back to Sweden to die.

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

Of the Swedish enclave, it was Seastrom who seemed to acclimate himself most comfortably, successfully directing stars as varied as Lon Chaney, Garbo, and Lillian Gish. Seastrom’s films were notable for their unrelenting psychological intensity and painstaking character development that never became mere clinical observation (3—12). This avuncular, well-liked man appears to have been one of those lucky people who could achieve success at whatever they turned their hand to. Shortly before his death, Seastrom starred in Wild Strawberries (1957) for his friend and idolater Ingmar Bergman. The undemonstrative but palpable humanity that Seastrom achieved in his directing was revealed to be a function of his own personality, as he provided the vital spark for one of the normally dour Bergman’s warmest works.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman John Arnold and Lillian – backstage The Wind

*** Admin Note: By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)

Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

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FLASHBACK – A Brief History of Film – third edition

  • LOUIS GIANNETTI (Case Western Reserve University) /SCOTT EYMAN
  • © 1996, 1991, 1986 by Prentice-Hall. Inc. Simon & Schuster / A Viacom Company
  • Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632

The nickelodeon era—an art for the masses. Cinema’s first genius: D. W. Griffith. Griffith’s Biograph shorts: 1908-1913. Evolving a film grammar: the art of editing. The Griffith stable of actors and technicians. Lillian Gish: the screen’s first great actress. Attempt by the Patents Company to monopolize motion picture production. The first moguls: Carl Laemmie, William Fox, and Adolph Zukor. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the screen’s first feature film masterpiece. Racial controversy. Griffith’s monumental Intolerance (1916) introduces thematic editing. The westerns of William S. Hart. Thomas Ince, the founder of the American studio system. Early works of Cecil B. De Mille, showman. Mack Sennett establishes the Keystone Studio, specializing in slapstick comedies. Early screen clowns: (Mabel Normand and Fatty Arbuckle.

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

After Lillian Gish, Marsh was Griffith’s most txpressive actress. Where Gish worked with her entire body. Marsh’s main instruments were her eyes and hands. Where Gish seemed an ageless young woman, Marsh’s pixie features seemed to categorize her as an adolescent. Where Gish had a core of strength. Marsh had a quality of worn desperation. Perhaps her finest performance is in the modern story from Intolerance (1916), which Griffith released in an expanded version three years later as The Mother and the Law.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Griffith’s achievements in these years were not merely technical. Rather, technique served his passion for the gesture, the moment that would reveal a human soul. In The Mothering Heart (1913), Lillian Gish plays a young wife whose child has just died because of the neglect of her husband. Stunned to the point of catatonia, she wanders alone in a garden. Suddenly, she picks up a dead branch and begins thrashing madly at the foliage around her, the explosion of motion betraying the sublimated, seething emotion, a woman overcome by death trying to destroy the strong green life around her.

Lillian Gish in – The Mothering Heart – 1913

Piquant, often playful, always persecuted but with undreamt of reserves of strength, Gish (1893-1993) was Our Lady of Constant Sorrow to a generation of filmgoers. Among silent screen leading ladies, she was the only one who could legitimately claim to the title great actress. A relation ship of ambiguous intensity with her mentor, Griffith, made her the perfect transmitting medium for his view of femininity—and, for Griffith, his view of woman was his view of the world. It was a partnership whose revelations of dignity truth, and inescapable pain would not be matched for over forty years, until the partnership of Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann. (United Artists)

Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

One of Griffith’s most astonishing gifts was his ability to make intimate epics. Battle scenes aside, the moments one remembers in The Birth of a Nation are the small ones: Lillian Gish emerging from a hospital visit where a sentry, gasping at her in unalloyed ecstasy, sighs in doglike devotion; a title proclaiming “War’s Peace,” followed by a medium closeup of a dead soldier, young, unshaven, and as terribly still as one of the dead in the war photographs of Brady or Gardner.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Or, most movingly, the oft-cited scene in which Henry Walthall, in one of the delicate, understated performances that Griffith habitually coaxed from his male leads, returns home to the South after Appomattox. He finds a devastated house. His younger sister runs out to meet him. They look at each other for what seems forever. She notes his tattered uniform; he notes her use of cotton wool to imitate ermine. She begins to cry and he holds her, kissing her hair, a mournful, faraway look in his eyes. The shot changes and Walthall and his sister walk up the steps to the house as two arms reach out from behind the door, the unseen mother enfolding her children, welcoming the hunter home from the hill.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance

With financiers waving money at him, Griffith made what was probably a psychological error: He tried to top himself He surrounded The Mother and the Law with three other stories—the massacre of the Huguenots by the Catholics in sixteenth – century France, the fall of Belshazzar’s Babylon, and, just for good measure, the story of Christ. All four stories were partially linked by titles and, more importantly, by the symbolic image of Lillian Gish gently rocking a cradle, an image Griffith took from Whitman: “… out of the cradle, endlessly rocking, Uniter of here and Hereafter.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

To this fragile, grim fairy tale, Griffith imparted a remarkable sense of mood and visual poetry and mixed in two performances of purity and the most delicate sincerity from Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Except for some atmospheric shots of Chinese jonks crossing a river in the moonlight and some breathtaking shots of the Limehouse slums cloaked in a shifting river mist, the film is entirely a studio product, and as such it deeply influenced a generation of European and domestic filmmakers.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

After Broken Blossoms, Griffith’s only critical and popular success was Way Down East (1920), a ridiculous old play made less ridiculous by a superior performance by the redoubtable Gish and some of Griffith’s most spectacular cutting. In the film’s climax, Gish, marooned on an ice floe that’s drifting toward the edge of a waterfall, is rescued by Barthelmess even as they are going over the precipice.

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

The close relationship between Griffith and Gish extended past that of director and actress at least to the realm of confidants, the director relying on her opinions and invariable good judgment. In 1920, awash in plans to open his own studio at Mamaroneck, New York, but still responsible for the supervision of a slate of program pictures, Griffith asked Gish to direct Remodeling Her Husband, a light comedy vehicle for her sister Dorothy that is, unfortunately, no longer extant. Although modestly successful, it was an experience the elder sister had no desire to repeat. For one thing, the film caused stress between the two sisters; for another, as she explained it, “directing is no job for a lady.”

Orphans of the Storm

In Mamaroneck, where he had also made Way Down East, Griffith made the almost entirely satisfactory Orphans of the Storm (1921), very much the mixture as before but energized with undiminished vitality and brio. The story was a Dickensian saga of the French Revolution with a patented ride to the rescue by Danton himself. As in many of his major films, Griffith experimented with the frame size of the image itself, masking off the top and bottom of the frame in several shots, leaving the center section in a ratio identical to that of CinemaScope. Griffith’s experiments were almost certainly the genesis for Abel Gance’s Polyvision of a few years later. In scenes depicting the Revolution, Griffith took one shot from a balcony, with a hat and coat casually thrown on a settee in the foreground of the shot, as if the occupant of the balcony had just left the frame because of the street riot raging in the background. The effect is of a startling immediacy, history observed.

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

More than he probably wished to admit, Griffith had been hurt by allowing—encouraging actually—Lillian Gish to leave his stewardship. He replaced her with Carol Dempster, whose talent was elusive and whose appeal was nonexistent. A few unsuccessful, indifferent pictures later, Griffith was back at United Artists, but under very different circumstances than eight years before, when he had been a founding partner. This time he was an employee making an employee’s films.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

Sound didn’t really seem to faze him. His first talkie, Abraham Lincoln (1930), contains fine things, kinetic and deeply felt moments. Nobody with a feeling for motion picture history can fail to be moved by the presence of old Griffith actors like Henry B. Walthall, once again called upon to play a gracious Southern officer. But one disastrous film later, Griffith entered an embittered, often alcoholic exile from which he never escaped. He died in 1948, a gray ghost on the edges of a town that could never have been built without him.

Naive? Yes. Pretentious? Certainly. But magnificently audacious as well. This was no small man. Lillian Gish said it best: “To us, Mr. Griffith was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.”

DW Griffith in 1943

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A Short History of the Movies (III) By Gerald Mast – University of Chicago (1971)

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

Photo Gallery – “The Scarlet Letter”

As a producer reporting to, but given a free hand by, (Irving) Thalberg at MGM, Lillian Gish took on the challenge of filming Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a project that had been opposed by every women’s club in the country because its plot concerns adultery with a capital A, not to mention with a clergyman. (When MGM told her “it wasn’t allowed,” she said, “What do you mean it’s not allowed? It’s an American classic, and I’m an American and I want to make it!”) When Gish visited the women’s clubs and told them she would be in charge of the project, their respect for her good taste and judgment led them to drop all opposition. To direct The Scarlet Letter (1926), she brought Victor Sjostrom (who signed his American pictures Seastrom) to Hollywood from Sweden.

Photo Gallery – “La Boheme”

The picture was a great success—as were Gish’s other productions, including the 1926 La Boheme, a silent version of Puccini’s opera. But her greatest production, and the second film Sjostrom directed for her, was The Wind (1928), based closely on the 1925 novel by Dorothy Scarborough and shot in the Mojave Desert. In this film Gish gives one of her very finest performances—her best since Way Down East and until The Night of the Hunter (1955)—as a woman driven mad by the relentless, demonic, almost sexually charged wind that drives the sand across the Texas plains and through every crack in the shack she shares with her husband. Originally ending with the same powerful scene as the novel, in which the heroine—after killing and burying the man who assaulted her—walks into the oblivion of madness and blowing sand, The Wind was given a happy ending (in which she and her husband stand together at the open door, powerfully facing the wind) at the insistence of exhibitors.

Photo Gallery – “The Wind”

One of the greatest films of the 1950s was a study of values, a literary adaptation, and a compelling story realized in purely cinematic terms: The Night of the Hunter (1955). Scripted by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb, it was the only movie ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. This hauntingly photographed, lyrically evocative film tells of two children, on the run from a killer (Robert Mitchum), who find sanctuary in the home of a tough, practical, loving woman (Lillian Gish in her best sound-film performance). In place of money and horror, the film finds value in the enduring power of love, and it does so without the least trace of sentimentality.

Photo Gallery – “The Night of the Hunter”

Note: Illustrations used are not part of Mr. Mast’s book.

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Louis B. Mayer, Merchant of Dreams – by Charles Higham (1993)

Merchant of Dreams

Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood


  • Copyright © 1993 by Charles Higham
  • DONALD I. FINE, INC. New York

1914 – 1917

Mayer had discovered that his fellow Mason, D. W. Griffith, had created a masterpiece in his new motion picture The Birth of a Nation. He was determined to be its sole distributor in New England. The film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as avenging angels, treated blacks patronizingly and exhibited a simpleminded view of the issues of the Civil War. But it was a triumph of cinematic construction and execution, and it promised to make colossal sums of money. Just seven days after Metro was formed, the trade papers reviewed the picture in terms which could only be encouraging to any exhibitor.

Mayer contacted the film’s backers and made an across-the-board deal for regional distribution. With the lawyer David Stoneman, his old friend the rug merchant Colman Levin, jewelers and paper-bag manufacturers, and even his secretary, who gave her life savings of $1,000, he scraped up part of the money by selling (he told Lillian Gish years later) or pawning everything he owned, including Margaret’s jewelry, cleaning out his savings and borrowing from his brothers and sister. He made a down payment of $20,000 on a $50,000 guarantee against a remittance of ten percent of the net profits received from local bookings. It took chutzpah to embark on this venture; there were threats of demonstrations against the picture in New England, but Mayer knew that this controversy would further enhance people’s desire to see it. He was busy dealing with the NAACP, headed in Boston by Moorfield Storey, which was bombarding virtually every home and office in the city with pamphlets condemning the picture. He traveled restlessly between his home in Brookline, his new offices at 60 Church Street in Boston, his apartment at Riverside Drive and his offices on Times Square, trying to deal with a hundred matters at once.

Mayer made at least $500,000 on the film. By late summer of 1915, several stars were under contract to Metro, most notably Quality Pictures’ Francis X. Bushman, who had begun his career as a sculptor’s model. In March 1912, Motion Picture Story magazine had named Bushman, then twenty-eight, the most popular screen actor in America. Vain, extravagant, this Adonis rejoiced in driving hand-tooled touring cars with gold door handles, his monogram inscribed in gold plates on the doors. He owned Bush Manor, a thirty-room mansion on 115 acres of gardens in Maryland. He had racing stables, kennels and a large collection of birds.

1924 – 1925

April 14 was a day of celebration. Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian Gish, arguably the greatest screen actress of her day, was given a lavish welcome at the studio. Mayer arranged for her to be greeted with flags and multicolored bunting; he and the other executives, Thalberg, Harry Rapf, Eddie Mannix and a new addition, thirty-year-old supervisor Hunt Stromberg, personally welcomed her. Her contract called for a total of $800,000 to be paid to her. She would have the right to select directors, stories and script writers; if she disapproved of costumes, she was permitted to reject them.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1925

Such an arrangement was unique in Louis B. Mayer’s career, but, quite apart from Lillian Gish’s enormous power at the box office, he had never forgotten the fact that The Birth of a Nation, in which she had so admirably starred, had been the foundation of his personal fortune. Indeed, when she had visited Los Angeles the previous winter for the West Coast premiere of her film Romola, Mayer greeted her at the station with a reminder that she had played a crucial role in putting him on the motion picture map.

Lillian Gish and her lawyer Max Steuer – the Duell trial in 1925

She was much troubled at the time; an unscrupulous lawyer, Charles H. Duell, was suing her, claiming he had an exclusive contract for her services. On April 2, Judge Julian W. Mack of the Superior Court of New York had dismissed Duell’s claims following a harrowing court hearing, and had him arrested on a charge of perjury. The next few months would be marked by further hearings, which would seriously affect Miss Gish’s sense of well-being. But, made of finest steel under her delicate Victorian surface, Miss Gish, at last, would triumph.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme

Shortly before Miss Garbo arrived in Hollywood, Lillian Gish was hard at work on King Vidor’s next picture, La Boheme, based more on the stories by Henri Murger than on Puccini’s popular opera. There was trouble from the beginning. Miss Gish, who had selected Vidor as her director after seeing The Big Parade, insisted on principles of work that were quite foreign to the director. When she announced that she expected to rehearse the film in full, Vidor, puzzled, since he was not directing a stage play, mocked up some scenery with Cedric Gibbons for her to act against. She looked at it aghast and announced that she would only rehearse out of doors, on the studio lawn. With tourists, actors and personnel watching in astonishment, she mimed her way through the scenes, playing to invisible props, including a dressing table, a truckle bed, a window and a wall. Vidor was bewildered; he couldn’t understand what she was doing. Finally, he talked her into working indoors.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

Mayer and Thalberg backed him in this. They also supported him when he argued with her about the sort of portrait lighting she wanted, with long, static close-ups. Miss Gish also demanded the use of panchromatic film, which had never been handled by the studio before. She objected to Erte’s calico dresses for the impoverished heroine Mimi, insisting on using old, worn silk and running up the clothes herself at home. She clashed with Cedric Gibbons, demanding a sordid attic in place of the lavish house he had wanted for Mimi. The worst problem was John Gilbert, cast as Mimi’s lover in the picture. He began writing her love letters; he tried to kiss her behind the scenes, when she declined to allow kissing sequences in the film. Mayer overrode her decision; he added kissing scenes later. Locked in her court struggle with Duell, who was claiming, to be her fiance, Miss Gish did not want a scandal and refused to date Gilbert. To make matters more complicated, King Vidor also tried to seduce her, but she was unattainable always. Mayer was fascinated by Miss Gish’s devotion to her work. She made no complaint when, in one sequence, actors playing Paris street revelers tossed her over their heads like a rag doll. In order to give complete realism to her death scene, she starved herself for three days. She stuffed cotton in her mouth to give the impression of puffy, unhealthy cheeks; when she passed away, she seemed already to be a ghost. Mayer, who never applauded at a preview, wept and clapped and embraced Miss Gish when he saw the finished film in the screening room. Until the advent of Marie Dressier, she was his favorite actress: the embodiment of his dream of innocent, ideal womanhood.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish, 1926 – the last scene

Miss Gish was among the stars present on October 1, 1925, to see the long-delayed shooting of the Ben-Hur chariot race. For days before, J. J. Cohn and Eddie Mannix had tested the course by driving their own chariots around, almost turning them over as they negotiated the curves. Not only did virtually every player on the M.G.M. lot dress up in Roman costume to join the throng on the Cedric Gibbons set, but Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Mrs. Fred Niblo (Enid Bennett) and John and Lionel Barrymore were there.

1925 – 1926

Mayer was in many ways still a young boy at heart, for all his ruthless capacity to weed out weak sisters from the studio operation, and his temperamental inability to deal with unreliability, bad temper and bad manners. Because his emotions were open and untrammeled he could reach out to the hearts of his performers, and they could reach out to him. Actors like John Gilbert and Mae Murray were the prodigal children. Lillian Gish, of course, satisfied him, though she had less rapport with him than with Irving Thalberg, because of his well-lettered sensibility and middle-brow intellect. Following La Boheme, she had wanted to start immediately with a version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s controversial novel The Scarlet Letter, the story of a minister who commits adultery with a beautiful woman. Mayer informed her that the book was blacklisted by members of organizations protective of public decency.

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

Miss Gish, with her customary boldness, wrote to each and every organization he named, insisting that this classic work should be brought to the screen. They responded immediately, telling Miss Gish that they trusted her to handle the material. Mayer at once agreed, and allowed Miss Gish to import from Sweden Lars Hanson, who had costarred with Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Bjerling, for the leading role opposite her. Mayer agreed with Miss Gish that Victor Sjostrom should direct the film.

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

Just before the picture ended, Miss Gish’s mother suffered a stroke in London. Mayer was moved to tears, remembering his mother’s final illness and the desperate rush he had had to get to Canada in time. He agreed that Miss Gish should go, and the picture was completed in seventy-two hours of nonstop shooting. So tight was the schedule that Miss Gish had to catch the train, after an all-night shoot, still dressed as Hester Prynne. It is typical of Mayer’s extraordinary consideration for this great star that he insisted on seeing her off, with Thalberg and Harry Rapf, at the Pasadena station. Her mother recovered, and Miss Gish returned. Her protracted lawsuit with Charles Duell continued; Duell blackmailed Miss Gish and threatened her life, but she still managed to do pickup shots. When The Scarlet Letter opened in August, it was an immediate success, one of the finest pictures M.G.M. ever made.

ANNIE LAURIE, Norman Kerry (links), Lillian Gish (Mitte), Direktor John S. Robertson, am Set, 1927

There was also yet another argument involving Lillian Gish, who demanded that Norman Kerry should act opposite her in her new film, Annie Laurie. Mayer wanted an unknown youth called Peter Norris, just out of the University of Southern California, to play the role. Miss Gish was adamant that she would accept no one but Kerry, and she complained about the script, despite the fact that she herself had approved it. Finally, she won her point, and Kerry was cast. But the film was a failure, and she would never discuss it afterward.

1927 – 1928

There were setbacks during the shooting of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind in 120 degrees of heat in the Mojave Desert. Mayer was unable to visit the site; he sent Irving Thalberg in his place. Playing a pioneer woman, the star, Lillian Gish, was shown with the force of nine airplane propellers driving sand in her face and hair; Thalberg cruelly added sawdust. He insisted on smoke pots, the cinders of which burned off Miss Gish’s eyelashes and scarred her hands. Herself a perfectionist, the actress put up with everything. Mayer did not like the movie when he saw the daily rushes, predicting doom for it and for the star. He turned out to be correct commercially, because the movie was too depressing, but he was shortsighted artistically, because The Wind turned out to be one of the masterpieces of the screen.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
Merchant of dreams

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Hollywood and the Catholic Church – By Les and Barbara Keyser 1984

  • Hollywood and the Catholic Church
  • The image of Roman Catholicism in American movies
  • By Les and Barbara Keyser
  • Loyola University Press – Chicago
  • © 1984 Les J. Keyser
  • Printed in the United States of America.

All rights reserved. First Edition.

Hollywood has been called “the dream factory” and “tinsel-town,” but the name is also synonymous with American filmmaking and its powerful ability to create myths which have left an indelible stamp on the American consciousness. And from the birth of the film to the present day, Hollywood has been fascinated with the Catholic Church. For many Americans, the only priest or nun they have ever seen close-up, has been on the screen. The film is indeed a teacher; it is in a true sense the Hollywood catechism.

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance.

The Epic Film – Saints, sinners and spectacles

When (D.W.) Griffith turns to the history of Catholicism in his (Intolerance) Judean and French episodes, he raises the whole question of history and its treatment in film. Griffith was well aware, as he wrote in the Boston Journal in April of 1915, that “one man’s orthodoxy is another man’s heterodoxy” and that “one man’s judgment is another man’s prejudice.” For all his evocations of the past, Griffith plumbed the depths of libraries and frequently even footnoted sources in title cards. Yet the selection of details and their interpretation were always his; for all the authenticity of decor, there was still the necessity of a point of view in the narrative. A good example of this comes in his presentation of Catherine de Medici and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Intolerance.

In her autobiography, Lillian Gish details the far-reaching research that went into Intolerance. Although her role was brief, she was very involved in the film and frequently discussed characters with Griffith. She felt “too young and unworldly” to understand Catherine de Medici, so she asked the director about the best interpretation. Griffith told Gish: “Don’t judge. . . . Always remember this, Miss Lillian, circumstances make people what they are. Everyone is capable of the lowest and the highest. The same potentialities are in us all—only circumstances make the difference.” Yet in Intolerance Griffith has Josephine Crowell play Catherine as such a grotesque monster that most critics fault her performance. William Everson is quite correct when he asserts that “the fault is Griffith’s as much as hers.” The power-mad Catholic Catherine obviously was meant to balance the insanely jealous Miss Jenkins. Each uses morality as a cloak for her real motivations.

White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

A major theme in earlier war melodramas involves the choice between life in the world of heroes and battlefields and life in the cloister, a world of sacrifice and prayer. The various adaptations of Francis Marion Crawford’s immensely popular 1909 romance The White Sister suggest how important this theme was in American films of the twenties and thirties. Catholic mystic Henry King directed Lillian Gish in the best known, most widely acclaimed version of The White Sister, which was released at the peak of America’s disillusionment with World War I in 1923. The plot of The White Sister involves an Italian heiress Angela Chiaromonte, who thinks her betrothed, Captain Giovanni Severi (Ronald Colman in the 1923 version), has died in battle and dedicates her life to God by entering the convent. Her lover returns, however, and she must choose between God and man.

The White Sister

The White Sister represented a daring gamble on the part of both director King and star Gish, for the film was an independent production under the aegis of the aptly named Inspiration Pictures, and the feature’s heavy emphasis on the rubric of Roman Catholicism almost blocked its distribution, since exhibitors feared a Protestant backlash. Discussing the film in her memoir, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Miss Gish recalls that in the silent era, religious stories from the Bible were easily marketed, but exhibitors shied away from The White Sister, which she considered “the first modern story, based on Catholicism.” In Gish’s interpretation, the exhibitors’ motives for refusing to show The White Sister were more economic than sectarian; she remembers that “the big companies who owned the theaters said the public could get religion free on Sundays, so they’re not going to pay for it during the week.” (Miss Gish’s analysis suggests an interesting reversal of the earlier encounter between an impecunious exhibitor, Adolph Zukor, and a censorious priest who feared religion in the movies would challenge the Church’s hegemony.) To circumvent this impasse between Inspiration Pictures and the major exhibitors, producer Charles H. Duell, director Henry King, and star Lillian Gish opened The White Sister themselves at the George M. Cohan Theater in New York City. The premiere was a gala affair, which the reviewer for the New York Times, seemingly incognizant of the behind-the-scenes difficulties, described in great detail. In the critic’s words, the audience was “a most interesting assembly, which included persons prominent in society, distinguished politicians, well-known authors and writers, screen celebrities, and heads of the motion picture industry,” and this opening for The White Sister was an occasion, the journalist opined, which “revealed the standing of the films possibly more than any other photoplay presentation.” The White Sister, it seems, brought both American film and American Catholicism to a new social standing.

The White Sister

Within days, everyone recognized that The White Sister was box office magic in New York City, and Nicholas Schenk of Metro Pictures took over distribution. Even in its later national distribution, however. The White Sister was handled with special care because of its Catholic theme. Theater owners were instructed to inform local Protestant clergy about the film’s inspirational tone and its markedly Catholic orientation, in the hope that local ministers would encourage their congregations not to avoid the film just because of its unique religious orientation. The Exhibitors Trade Review for September 22, 1923, tried to assure theater owners that this story of a soldier desperately in love with a nun is one “that will stir the non-churchman,” and “to those who follow the creed of any denomination and, of course, the Catholics especially, the impress must be multiplied manyfold.”

The White Sister

Director King had actually increased the Catholic focus in The White Sister manyfold. On his way to Italy to shoot the film. King happened to meet the papal delegate to Washington; after a brief chat about the film’s treatment of the sister’s final vows, the papal delegate arranged for the head ceremonial director of the Vatican to show the company all the intricacies of an Italian nun’s traditional wedding with Christ. Lillian Gish recalls that the company was allowed to film a sacred ceremony “that had never been filmed before, with the bride in all her finery being married to the church . . . just before dawn.” Director Henry King assured Kevin Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By that everything in the sequence was authentic; he watched the papal adviser stage the ceremony and then “shot the entire thing while it was fresh in my mind, without a scene of it being written down.”

The White Sister

King did have one big problem in his script, however. In the original novel the lovers eventually marry. As Gish recalls the project, this was “an impossible situation for a successful film”: “You can’t care about a character you see taking solemn vows before God at eight o’clock and then by nine changing her mind.” This is especially true if the most interesting visuals in your film picture her eternal marriage to Christ. To resolve this dilemma, the film of The White Sister introduces an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which kills Captain Giovanni and thus frees Sister Angela of any qualms about her oath whatsoever.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

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A Short History of the Movies (Broken Blossoms) – Gerald Mast 1971

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The way to improve film acting was not just to make the actors underplay but to let cinematic technique help the actors act. A camera can move in so close to an actor’s face that the blinking of an eye or the flicker of a smile can become a significant and sufficient gesture. Or the field of view can cut from the actor to the subject of the actor’s thoughts or attention, thereby revealing the emotion without requiring a grotesque, overstated thump on the chest. Film acting before Griffith—and before his greatest star, Lillian Gish—not only in the Film d’Art but in Melies and Porter and Hepworth as well, had been so bad precisely because the camera had not yet learned to help the actors.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms is Griffith’s most polished, most finished gem, a tight triangle story of one woman between two men. Out of this triangle come the film’s values, rather than from Griffith’s subtitles and allegorical visions. If the film is less weighty than the epics, it is also less pretentious. To shift terms, one could call The Birth of a Nation an epic, Intolerance a film essay or tract, and Broken Blossoms a lyric—an emotional poem made to be sung. Like so many Griffith films, Broken Blossoms is an adaptation of a work of fiction—Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. As with The Clansman, Griffith took another man’s work and made it his own, as the film’s metaphoric title so clearly shows (the cleaned-up subtitle, however, was “The Yellow Man and the Girl”).

Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms

The film is Griffith’s gentlest, his most explicit and poetic hymn to gentleness. The typical Griffith film shows violence destroying gentleness; the focus of the films is usually on the violent disrupters: war, social upheaval, union protests, political chicanery, sexual debauches. In Broken Blossoms, the aura of ideal gentleness dominates the action, punctuated by the violent jabs of the real world. The gentle man in the film comes from the Orient to bring the message of the gentle Buddha to the vicious, violent men of the West. Once he arrives in London’s dockside slum, Limehouse, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) runs into the “sordid realities of life”—gambling, whoring, opium smoking—that constitute life in the West. He virtually gives up.

Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

Then in the film’s second section, Griffith switches to the female figure of gentleness, Lucy (Lillian Gish). Raised by the prize fighter, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), Lucy is an unloved child who spends her time wandering around the Limehouse district, trying to scrape up enough tin foil to buy herself a flower. Flowers are the primary visual metaphor for gentleness in the film, as the title indicates. Lucy’s gentleness, however, like Cheng Huan’s, runs into sordid realities. Her reality is her father, Burrows, a brute who uses Lucy as both slavish servant and defenseless punching bag. One of the most poignant touches in the film is Burrows’s insistence that Lucy smile for him, regardless of her real feelings. Since she is unable to summon a genuine smile, she uses two fingers to force one.

Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

The next section of the film necessarily brings the two gentle figures together. Cheng Huan is attracted by Lucy’s gentle purity, which he instantly perceives. They first meet, appropriately, over the purchase of a flower. She later collapses in his shop after a terrific beating by her father. Cheng Huan enthrones her in his room as a Princess of Flowers, and the two celebrate a brief but beautiful union of gentle love. Lucy even smiles without the aid of her fingers for the first time, and Cheng Huan’s one weak moment of animal lust (brilliantly communicated by a painfully tight close-up) is soon conquered by his realization of the ideal perfection of his guest and their relationship.

But the realities break in upon the ideal. Burrows finds her at Cheng Huan’s, trashes the place, drags her back to their slum room, and begins his inevitable attack. She retreats to a closet; he smashes it open with an axe, and Griffith creates one of the most accurate renditions of human frenzy in screen history as Lucy frantically starts rushing in a circle inside the closet—trapped, flustered, terrified. The death of all three characters is imminent. Lucy dies from this final beating, Cheng Huan shoots Burrows and then stabs himself. Blossoms, despite their loveliness, cannot survive for long in the soil of mortality.

Griffith suffuses the film with the atmosphere of dreams and haze. Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish have perfectly harmonious faces of inner calm and peace. Their acting is so restrained and so perfectly matched that the two feel like a single being. Griffith also succeeds in giving the abusive father both energy and credibility. Griffith makes the prize fighter walk, stand, sway, stagger like an animal in the ring. After Cheng Huan shoots Burrows, Griffith adds one of those observant touches that brilliantly makes the moment come to life. Burrows, reeling under the shot, instinctively puts up his dukes and begins dizzily jabbing at his opponent; after a few weak and faltering feints, Burrows collapses. This realistic yet symbolic, emblematic detail at the moment of death—for once Griffith gives his villain as much naturalistic attention as his heroes— parallels Lucy’s final living gesture in which she uses two fingers to poke her face into a last smile.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Griffith’s lighting also sustains the film’s mood; Broken Blossoms remains one of the most beautifully lit films in screen history, supported by the beautiful color tinting and toning of its original 35mm prints. The lighting of scenes in Cheng Huan’s shop and room is an atmo¬ spheric blend of beams of light and pools of shadow. Lillian Gish, as the Princess, becomes luminous, surrounded by the gray and black regions of her flowery kingdom. Griffith uses low-key lighting exclusively for these scenes. The lighting is not only atmospheric, it is also a precise visual translation of the film’s metaphoric contrast between gentleness and violence. While Lucy is enthroned in Cheng Huan’s room, Battling Burrows fights his title match. Griffith cross-cuts between the place of love—the room—and the place of hate—the ring. The boxing ring is harshly lit with bright, even white light; the room is suffused with shafts and shadows. Although Broken Blossoms asks a lot less of its audience than the earlier epics, it keeps its promises.

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Lillian Gish and Film Preservation (AFI 1984)

The American Film Institute

1984 Achievement Award in honor of Lillian Gish


Lillian Gish and Film Preservation

The first time Lillian Gish ever heard the words “film library” was when an English lady named Iris Barry asked her to use her influence to get D.W. Griffith to give her some of his films. At Lillian Gish’s suggestion, D.W. Griffith complied, and so began the film library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In a similar fashion, Ms. Gish convinced Mary Pickford of the importance of preserving her Biograph films, which Ms. Pickford subsequently donated to the Library of Congress collection.

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

It is our good fortune that these events transpired. Had they not, the collection of Biograph films which record such a vital segment of Lillian Gish’s career might have been gone the way of films made by such early studios as Lubin, Essanay, Vitagraph, Selig, and Thanhauser — and be lost forever.

As it is, a near-miraculous number of Lillian Gish’s silent films have been saved for future generations, — but not all of them. Gone forever are REMODELING HER HUSBAND, which Gish directed in 1920; ANNIE LAURIE, (1927); THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1914); and THE ANGEL OF CONTENTION (1914). For many years ROMOLA, a 1924 film in which Ms. Gish starred with William Powell, was effectively “lost,” until an 8 mm copy, made for home use, was discovered and transferred to 16 mm film.

American Film Institute D.W. Griffith Awards vtg 1984 Press Release

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The House of Barrymore (Duel in the Sun) – By Margot Peters (1990)

The House of Barrymore

By Margot Peters

  • Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1990
  • Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
  • Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.

The House of Barrymore begins in the 1860s with Louisa, Mrs. John Drew, the greatest comedienne of her time, mother of the brilliant Georgiana (“Georgie”) Drew Barrymore, and mother-in-law of the vaudeville star and matinee idol Maurice Barrymore. But it is the children of Georgie and Maurice who are the heart of the book—Ethel, Lionel, and John, the most extraordinary members of an extraordinary family, the first great actors of the American stage to become, as well, great stars of American film.

An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

1912 – 1916

FIVE dollars!” said little Lillian Gish after making her first movie. “For doing so little!” Mary Pickford also agreed that movies were great between stage jobs: “I’m earning more than I ever have before—much more!” “I saw you in the picture play,” said Frohman to his star Marie Doro. “What a lot of money you make!” And there is no use pretending that movies meant much more than easy money to the actors who gravitated to the decaying brownstone where D. W. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer ground out the one-reelers that were making cinematographic history. Some of the Broadway actors who condescended to a few days’ work at the Biograph studio treated the whole business with contempt. “But from the moment he stalked through D.W.’s door,” said Mary Pickford of Lionel, “we liked him!” His very presence at Biograph reassured Lillian and Dorothy Gish: movies couldn’t be too sinister if a Barrymore was involved. Lionel made his first picture, The Battle, in 1911 with Blanche Sweet, then friends with Pickford in 1912. Despite studio opposition, Griffith had Bitzer move his camera in to shoot Mary waist-up, eliminating stereotyped posing and gesture but outraging the men who owned Biograph and didn’t care about art: they paid Mary $100 a week and they wanted every inch of what they paid for. Loathing them, Griffith went ahead, his way.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

Griffith had a stable of performers chosen to portray the five standard ingredients of the one-reeler: Heart Interest, Drama, Danger, Comedy, Rescue. Blanche Sweet, Claire McDowell, Florence Lawrence, and Mae Marsh were Heart Interests, but Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford were more important because they photographed “young.” Henry B. Walthall, Owen Moore, and Bobby Harron were Heroes to the Rescue. Lionel, Harry Carey, Donald Crisp, and James Kirkwood provided Drama, Danger, and Comedy—though Lionel, said Lillian Gish, could play any part.

LILLIAN GISH in (BATTLE OF THE SEXES 1914) Donald Crisp Lillian Gish Robert Harron D W GRIFFITH (scenario)

Griffith respected the legitimate stage and felt deeply the conflict between it and the motion picture, but he also recognized his calling. Overhearing an actress sneer at “flickers,” he exploded. She wasn’t working in some third-rate theatrical company now, he told her. “What we do here today will be seen tomorrow by people all over America—people all over the world! Just remember that the next time you go before the camera!” Lillian Gish was one of the performers Griffith could leave trembling; Lionel tried to comfort her. It wasn’t so long ago, he explained, that Griffith himself had talked scathingly of “flickers” and “galloping tin types.” But now he was convinced that he was pioneering in a new art. That was why he drove his players—and himself—so hard.

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

1924 – 1925

Movies offered less work and far more money. They also offered wider recognition to a man who could be disgusted when restaurant patrons did not recognize him. Once in New York he had fought through crowds to the Lyric Theatre to see Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood.

Though he was America’s greatest actor and no stranger to films, he found himself disconcertingly just one of the crowd. In front of the theatre he watched the limousines draw up: Valentino, Richard Barthelmess, and Lillian Gish had arrived. The crowd rushed toward them. “Sure, that’s him!” a female screamed in his ear. Had he been recognized at last.” No, she was jabbing her finger at the handsome Barthelmess. Hollywood would cure the recognition factor.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

1935 – 1936

In England an important new actor had emerged, an actor who played not only Hamlet, but Romeo, Orlando, Richard II, Oberon, Hotspur, Macbeth, Prospero, and Lear. His theatrical lineage was impeccable: he was a Terry. As long as John Gielgud kept his Hamlet on the other side of the Atlantic, John’s went unchallenged. But in the autumn of 1936, Gielgud, supported by Lillian Gish as Ophelia and Judith Anderson as the Queen, opened on Broadway. The actor’s rich voice, his poetic delivery of Shakespeare’s verse, and the intellectual strength of his whole conception brought cries that here was the greatest Hamlet of them all. The run was extended again and again, until finally Gielgud with 132 performances achieved a new record for Shakespeare, for Hamlet, and for Broadway.

Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish on set filming Duel in the Sun 1947

1945 – 1949

Toward his sixty-seven-year-old body Lionel displayed typical Barrymore contempt. He refused to discuss his health, became savage when anyone inquired after it. Except when he was in front of the camera, eating, or asleep, he had a cigarette between his lips. He ate enormously: potato salad, malts, hamburgers, cookies. He consumed barrels of beer. Although he told numerous people he had kicked his cocaine habit. Gene Fowler was present one fire-burning winter evening in Lionel’s den at Chatsworth when Lionel suddenly began rummaging through his desk drawers and pulled out a bag of cocaine. Propelling himself to the fireplace, he hurled the bag on the fire. “If I need this goddamned stuff to live,” he growled, “then I don’t give a goddamn about living!” Fowler, who knew a good scene when he saw one, suspected it was not the finale—and there are other stories about Lionel “discovering” bags of cocaine and dramatically renouncing the habit forever.

King Vidor, Lionel Barrymore, D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish on the sound stage of Duel in the Sun 1947 (The house of Barrymore)

At the same time, he could drive himself to physical limits. Selznick signed him to play Senator McCanles, the hard-nosed cattle baron of Spanish Bit in an 1880s epic western meant to eclipse Gone With the Wind. Duel in the Sun featured “three really hot and really new personalities”—Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten—as well as premier actors playing second string—Lionel, Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Charles Bickford: the worn-out illusion that an all-star cast and a huge budget (an unprecedented $7.5 million) will make a great movie.

Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Anita Loos and Lionel Barrymore – behind the scenes – Duel in the Sun 1947

Lionel played most of his scenes in a wheelchair and for long shots had a double, but McCanles’s face-off with the railroad officials demanded the real man on horseback. With the assistance of a ladder and extras, Lionel managed to hoist himself onto a white horse, then endure hours of shooting in 110-degree Arizona heat under a director. King Vidor, who was driving Selznick crazy with his ambling pace. Lionel declined to be removed at lunchtime: “No, I’ll stay on, because when I get off I’m going home.” At the end of the afternoon’s filming Vidor asked Lionel whether the next day he would be willing to let himself be dragged by the horse. “All right,” said Lionel, “but do it today. You won’t see me around here tomorrow.”

Joseph Cotten, Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore – Duel in the Sun 1947

They laid him down, roped his legs like a steer’s, then bounced him along the ground behind a car while the cameras ground. His grit drew cheers from the crew but, good to his word, Lionel disappeared for the next few days of shooting. His eyes gleaming slits, his mouth drawn down in discontent, Lionel is meaner in Duel in the Sun than MGM usually allowed, though naturally he turns out to have a heart in the end. Compared to his old Biograph co-player Lillian Gish, acting opposite him as his wife, Laura Belle, the years have dealt harshly with Lionel; he is crippled, bloated. When Vidor suggested that McCanles would not be the type to wear a wedding ring, Lionel’s gold band, buried in flesh, had to be surgically removed. With typical stoicism, he submitted silently to the violation of the sentimental symbol.

Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set – candid, Duel in the Sun 1947

Gish, Cotten, Huston, and Lionel turned in excellent performances, but in Selznick’s own words Duel in the Sun cost him “great loss of prestige with the trade and press and public.” Raw-sex westerns weren’t really Selznick’s metier. As the half-breed Pearl, Jennifer Jones tried embarrassingly hard to smolder; the lurid publicity surrounding the film’s release broke all Selznick’s rules of dignity. But violently negative reviews only meant that the film was a hit with the public.

Jennifer Jones, Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish – Duel in the Sun 1947

1949 – 1954

Lionel (Barrymore) was not invited to put his footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese. Never mind: there wasn’t the life-sized statue of D. W. Griffith on Vine that should have been there either—Griffith the master, whose very presence on the Duel in the Sun set had reduced both Lionel and Lillian Gish to nervous silence and whose funeral Lionel had reverently attended in 1948. Nor was his seventy-sixth birthday marked by any festivity: MGM was too embarrassed to note it and Lionel reported to the studio to rehearse “Hallmark Playhouse” as usual. He pretended not to care. “Barrymores don’t celebrate birthdays. I bet I don’t even get a phone call from Ethel.” Some Barrymores celebrated birthdays: Ethel’s seventy-fifth, hosted by George Cukor, was a poshly exclusive event with Ethel at the chief table between Cole Porter and David Selznick, and Elsie Mendl, Somerset Maugham, Lucille Watson, Orry-Kelly, Garbo, Hepburn, Elsa Lanchester, Zoe Akins, the Irving Berlins, and Constance Collier in attendance. Sammy was there too, and Lionel, seated between Hepburn and Ellin Berlin, an oddity in his high-button shoes.

The house of Barrymore cover

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