Lillian Gish stands alone. She has many imitators – but no one of them has succeeded in giving the least suggestion of her art that is hers. The reason is this: They have not mastered the technique of screen acting, as Miss Gish has. They have not her keen intelligence; her understanding of human nature; her unsurpassed patience; her consuming desire to learn, learn, learn
By Harry Carr – Motion Picture Magazine (MP Publishing Co., December – 1924)
The reason Lillian Gish is a very great actress is that she is not a genius. In other words, she has an art which is finely tuned, delicately tempered weapon. She can make it do what she wishes it to do.
I have known … a girl whose heart could have been torn by a passionate sympathy – by a flood of artistic emotion so overwhelming that she couldn’t get it over to the public.
However, it doesn’t do for an orator to feel his subject too strongly. All he does is to blubber and rave and howl.
The convincing orator is the one who feels a cool and abiding conviction in the strength and truth of his position.
Just so Lillian Gish.
She feels her emotions strongly; but not too strongly. Never so strongly but what they remain always hers. She is never theirs.
In other words, Lillian is always shooting at an artistic mark.
Once when she had to die of heart trouble in a picture, she haunted the hospitals, studying “heart patients” in the wards.
When she died of a brutal beating in “Broken Blossoms,” she insisted upon having a police surgeon, who had treated many such victims, standing constantly by her camera.
When she played the part of the forsaken mother in “Way Down East,” she contrived to meet such a girl. Then for weeks she practically retired from the world and thought that girl’s thoughts in her seclusion.
In other words, Lillian Gish is the supreme technician of the screen.
There are two theories of acting. One theory is:
It doesn’t matter just what you do or how you do it. If you can fling yourself in a supreme emotion, that thrill will somehow transmit itself to the public.
The other theory is:
An emotion is always visibly exhibited by certain specific physical reactions.
Joy is exhibited by a contortion of the lips called a smile.
Anger is exhibited by a tense contraction of the brows called a frown.
If you can make these motions with sufficient skill, the effect of the emotion will be reborn in the mind of the spectator.
The art of Lillian Gish lies somewhere midway between these two. Or shall I say, instead, that it includes the two?
Mary Pickford reminisces about the early days when she first knew the screen’s greatest actress.
“Lillian’s main qualities are her sincerity and loyalty.”
Mary Pickford, sitting there in the golden afternoon beside placid Lake Chatsworth, was opening the book of the past, that I might read the pages of one of most beautiful friendships on record. Years ago Mary and Lillian Gish met, when Mary was six and Lillian a year or two younger, children who labored before their time, knowing poverty, knowing failure. Today they stand, both successful, both women who have won the love and respect of the world. And they are still friends. They have never had a quarrel.
“Yes, I know Lillian is very fond of me, and I treasure her affection.”
“When we were small, Dorothy Lottie and I used to play together with Lillian acting as a sort of Little Lady Mother to us scatter-brained youngsters. She was always correct, always just so. We used to stand and watch her, fearful any moment that she would fly to heaven – for her mother had said she was too angelic to live!”
“Dorothy and I were pals then, but now Lillian and I have more in common. Though, to be sure, Dorothy is much more serious and has a keener brain than she is given credit for – this frivolity of hers I think is a surface coating that hides the real Dorothy.”
“Our first meeting was a casual one, in Detroit, when I was playing ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse,’ a play written by Hal Reid, Wallace Reid’s father. Mother had insisted that I couldn’t go with the show alone, so they had given parts to her and to Lottie. Jack, of course, was a baby. Later, at Toronto, Lillian took my place, playing the role I had created. But it was when we were all in New York that we really became friends. I had been called there to replace Lillian in ‘The Child Wife,’ as she had been offered a better part in another play.
My mother had received a lucrative offer to go on the road, one that she couldn’t afford to refuse, so Mrs. Gish offered to take care of us children. Imagine having the three of us to look after, in addition to her own two! She was very patient and lovely to us, making our clothes and washing our ears! One of my happiest memories is of those months at Mrs. Gish’s house in New York. It was my first experience in the big city, and I envied Lillian her aplomb – with Mrs. Gish at one end and Lillian at the other, we would cross the crowded streets: all six of us holding hands for fear one of us would get lost!”
“Yes, Lillian is very remote. Even I who have known her since childhood I admit I am baffled at times. She is very elusive. Often I have an intangible feeling that I haven’t quite grasped her. She is remarkably subtle and fine in sensitiveness of thought.”
“She is so frail to have endured those years of hardships,” I suggested, alternating with Mary in petting Zorro her time-clock dog who howls regularly at quitting time, twelve-thirty and four-thirty every day. “So ethereal. That is the impression she gives every one.”
“And it isn’t so!” Mary exclaimed, a gleam in her hazel eyes. “Lillian is very slim but has an amazing endurance. Mr. Griffith works his people very hard, exacts every particle of self that they have to give to their work. Had Lillian been as frail as she seems, she could never have lived through these nine years of constant, nerve-racking work. In making the ice scenes for ‘Way Down East,’ she had to remain on that cake of ice near the rapids until actually numb.”
For a moment Mary was silent except for the tremulous quivering of her chin-a little way she has when excited. Always tranquil, having schooled herself through the years to absolute control, you can always gauge Mary’s emotions now by that little, almost invisible, quiver of her chin.
“Do you call this hot?” indicating that the sun melting in long, gleaming slants into the blue lake shimmering under its golden haze, the glare washing back from the sides of the high hills in the lap of which the lake is splashed, the perspiring actors resting under the trees. “I remember, in the old days, down in Arizona. We were making a picture for Mr. Griffith. They had to follow us about with umbrellas. It was 110 in the shade and no shade around. We could have fried eggs on the rocks. There were times when I thought I couldn’t endure another moment – until I looked at Lillian, so white and composed and tranquil. And I grew ashamed. She has a way of encouraging people, forcing them to greater effort.”
“Frail looking, yes. Her skin is milk-white, almost translucent, that finely veined kind, delicate as a petal.”
NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.
‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.
She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.
‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.
She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.
‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’
She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.
Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.
‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —
Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.
Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.
There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’
She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’
From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.
‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’
Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’
Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.
Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.
Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.
‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.
‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.
She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.
Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.
Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.
Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.
She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’
Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.
Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.
‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.
‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’
She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – Mimi and Rodolphe (La Boheme)
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in “La Boheme”
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – La Boheme
‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’
She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.
‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —
Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.
‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God.
Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’
‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.
‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.
‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —
It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.
Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.
She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’
‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’
Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.
‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’
Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.
Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.
‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”
Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.
‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’
Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).
‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’
Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.
‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’
She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.
Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —
Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’
Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.
‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’
Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.
‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.
‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —
‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’
Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.
Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.
Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.
In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (2) – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband
The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.
By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’
The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.
‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’
Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.
‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —
Gish has never had time to be lonely.
She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.
‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’
‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’
This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.
Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.
”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.
If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.
Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in “Hamlet”
Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936
Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936 – detail
‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’
When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.
‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.
Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.
‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.
‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.
‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’
If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?
Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’
Two-page interview from the July 7, 1913 edition of the “Massillon Evening Independent”–“A Massillon Girl, Movie Star, Risks Life for Pictures.”
“The earliest interview Lillian Gish and Dorothy as well ever gave”
“To the best of my present knowledge, this is the earliest interview Lillian Gish and Dorothy as well ever gave. Searching the collections of early motion picture trade publications and fan magazines as well as newspapers in general, I have not found any previous interviews with the Gish sisters.
Lillian gives a detailed account of one of her most hazardous experiences when she was rescued from a runaway wagon by Bobby Burns. She also relates this incident in her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me.” The title of the film was “During the Round-Up,” released on July 19, 1913, 12 days after this interview was published. Although some sources have credited Griffith as the director, most including Wikipedia and the IMDB say that this early Biograph Western was directed by Christy Cabanne with whom Lillian made a number of films during this period.
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
At the time Lillian and Dorothy gave this interview to a reporter in their home town, Massillon, which they visited en route from California to New York, Griffith’s fortunes and those of his company were in a state of flux. They had just been filming in California most of what was to be Griffith’s first full-length feature film, “Judith of Bethulia,” which Lillian refers to in the interview by its working title, “Judith and Holofernes.” While the Biograph Company was busy filming in Southern California in the first half of 1913, the studio management had abandoned the celebrated brownstone mansion on 11 East 14th Street in Manhattan that had been their main production facility since 1906. The new Biograph studio, which Lillian discusses in the interview, was located at 807 East 175th Street in the Bronx. Aside from some interior scenes for “Judith of Bethulia” which Lillian recalled were shot at the new studio, Griffith would never do any filming at the Biograph Bronx studio.
I find Lillian’s mention that she had just learned to drive an automobile while in California in preparation for a film that was to be made in New York to be of particular interest. It would appear that Griffith still had plans for some further productions at Biograph at this time until it became clear that the company’s management was opposed to any more full-length features like “Judith of Bethulia.” He then entered into negotiations with other companies, communications that would soon lead to his beginning his long career as an independent producer of his own feature-length films as head of Reliance-Majestic releasing through Mutual. The planned film in which Lillian was to drive a car, very likely intended to be a thrilling action picture like Griffith’s remarkable “A Beast at Bay” (1912) in which Mary Pickford daringly drove a touring car at full speed, was apparently never made. Lillian would later have the opportunity to drive a car specially designed by pioneer race driver Barney Oldfield in “The Children Pay,” a 1916 Triangle feature supervised by Griffith and directed by Lloyd Ingraham.
It’s been preserved in an archive and I very much look forward to seeing it. It should be noted that silent film actresses like Lillian and Dorothy who learned to drive cars at a time when many people still looked on that as a masculine activity were very much in the forefront of feminine emancipation in the early 20th century.
As for Dorothy’s own comments, I am not at present certain of the identity of the film in which she had the exciting experiences on a ship that she describes. I have, however, confirmed one of the scenarios that she said she was writing for the screen. This was “The Suffragette Minstrels,” a comedy short for Biograph directed by Dell Henderson and with a cast that included Sylvia Ashton, Gertrude Bambrick, and Lionel Barrymore as well as Dorothy herself. It was released on August 18, 1913. The article mentions that Dorothy had written four scenarios for the screen that had been accepted, but I have no idea what happened to the other three. Perhaps plans to film them were dropped after the Griffith company, including Lillian and Dorothy, left Biograph.”
When Lillian Gish died Feb. 28 in her New York apartment, seven months short of her 100th birthday, the movies lost their last and most vital link to their beginnings-an actress who was present when the medium first began to evolve into an art form, and who continued to defend her art, as a performer, author and lecturer, until her final days.
Her first film, a one-reeler made for D.W. Griffith called “An Unseen Enemy,” was shot in 1912; her last, Lindsay Anderson’s “The Whales of August,” was released in 1987.
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish
In terms of the intensely compressed time line of the movies, it was as if someone who had participated in the construction of the cathedral at Chartres had lived to see Philip Johnson’s post-modernist office towers, or if Geoffrey Chaucer were around to autograph paperbacks in Brentano’s window.
Miss Gish-it seems natural to call her that, just as she always referred to her mentor as “Mr. Griffith”-made relatively few feature films despite the prodigious length of her career, and fewer still of those films are likely to be known to the casual filmgoer.
“The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith’s watershed epic of 1915, will probably sound familiar, if only because of the anger its ancient, sad racism continues to provoke; perhaps some will remember the climactic sequence from “Way Down East,” in which Gish, unconscious and adrift on an ice floe, is propelled toward a torrential waterfall as a rescue party struggles to save her, all without the aid of special effects or doubles.
Way Down East, Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
But even a glance at the photos on these pages is enough to suggest the nature and strength of Gish’s appeal. Hers was a face made to be photographed, with a high, smooth forehead, impeccable cheekbones and a small, straight mouth-all of which served as a frame to her huge, and hugely expressive, eyes.
Incapable of hiding anything, these eyes were bay windows to a soul, so clear and steady that they establish an immediate bond with whomever or whatever they brush. There is innocence and vulnerability in her gaze-Griffith made her the last of the Victorian child-women, in the line initiated by Lewis Carroll-but also willfulness and resolve. This is a woman who could be as pretty as a picture and as stubborn as a stoat.
Some of the obituaries that followed Gish’s death credited her with the invention of modern screen acting (“If Griffith was the father of the movies, Gish was the mother,” enthused one West Coast critic), which is a sentimental exaggeration.
As Roberta E. Pearson has documented in her scholarly study of acting in early films, “Eloquent Gestures” (California), Griffith’s transformation of performance style, from the histrionic exaggeration of stage melodrama to the intimate verisimilitude of the movies, had largely been completed by the time Lillian and her sister Dorothy arrived at the Biograph Studios in 1912.
But Gish seemed to grasp the implications of Griffith’s discoveries more completely than any of his other actresses.
If Mary Pickford went on to become a more popular star during the period, her performances have dated in a way Gish’s pared down, almost passive work has not.
She does not address the audience, but allows the camera to approach and observe her; the relationship she establishes with the spectator is at once surreptitious and intimate, open and unacknowledged. Pickford presents; Gish is seen.
This understanding is built into the basis of “Broken Blossoms,” the 1919 feature that was the summit of Griffith and Gish’s collaboration. Set in a bleak, Dickensian London, it is the story of a 15-year-old waif, Lucy, who is regularly beaten by her father, an alcoholic boxer (Donald Crisp). After one violent episode, she is taken in and protected by Cheng Huan, a young Chinese merchant (Richard Barthelmess), who dresses her in silk robes and jade jewelry, and watches her as she sleeps.
It is a platonic love, which means for Griffith a perfect one; he includes a disturbing scene in which thoughts of rape cross Cheng Huan’s mind (conveyed by an excruciatingly tight close-up) but subside to leave him calm and purified. Cheng is the perfect spectator, even the perfect director, costuming his actress and arranging her lighting and decor. If he has eyes only for Lucy, she has eyes only for the clothing and objects-notably, a baby doll-that he gives her.
Lucy is remote, insubstantial, impossibly delicate-a misty, unreal presence perfectly suited to this new misty, unreal medium. “Broken Blossoms”-the film is available on video, accompanied by a new recording of its original symphonic score-ends with the death of all of its major characters, as if Griffith had decided this world didn’t deserve them, that the movies were already too physical for Gish’s fragile nature.
`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase
Chicago Tribune archive, 1987 (trilogy)
February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.
Bette Davis and Lillian Gish were holding each other tightly as they stood on the edge of a treacherous Maine cliff, two frail figures at the mercy of the wintry, Atlantic wind, waiting once more for the movie cameras to roll. “Do you want to rest, or do it again?“ called director Lindsay Anderson, before taking a second shot.
“No, let`s get it over with,“ Davis called back.
“All the things we have done have prepared us well for this, haven`t they?“ Davis asked Gish.
“Oh, yes, we`ve been well prepared,“ Gish said softly, nodding her head in agreement, and adding. “There were no stunt men, and we worked quickly.“ “Yes, that`s the way it was in the early days of motion pictures,“ said Davis, before the second and final “take“ of the shot.
“You look at these women, and you see the whole history of motion pictures,“ said Anderson`s 24-year-old assistant, Marc Sigsworth, who was in awe of the pioneering film actresses.
The history of motion pictures was on many minds in the little community of Casco Bay, Me., during the recent shooting of “The Whales of August.“ In addition to Gish, whose career stretches from D.W. Griffith`s silents to this, her 105th film, and Davis, the film features veteran actors Ann Sothern and Vincent Price. The $3-million film, which is due to be released by Alive Films some time this year, wrapped after eight weeks` shooting on this rugged island location, a rough 45 minutes by boat from Portland, Me.
“It`s been a film buff`s dream,“ said Harry Carey Jr., the fifth and youngest member of the small cast, himself a 40-year veteran of films, including 57 Westerns. Carey`s father was a pioneering film actor and star of numerous films by John Ford, a native of Portland.
“The first day I worked, I walked into the room, and there was Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern and Vincent Price, and for a cowboy actor that`s quite a jolt,“ said Carey, enthusiastically.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because of the combination of extraordinary elements that have come together here,“ said Sigsworth, who, like Anderson, is British. “The history, personalities, and techniques of these actors are very different, and they also represent virtually every film genre: silents, melodrama, Westerns, musicals, comedy and horror films.“
The low-budget film, by first-time scriptwriter David Berry, from his own play, is set on a Maine island during a two-day period in 1954. It focuses on Gish`s character and the difficult, demanding blind sister for whom she cares, played by Davis. Sothern plays a good-natured, but lonely lifelong friend and island neighbor of the two sisters, and Price plays a ruthless, Russian emigre in search of home.
The conflict revolves around the characters` confrontations with timeless questions of old age and how to carry on. Anderson, director of such socially conscious films as “This Sporting Life“ and “If . . .,“ said the title refers to the whales that once visited the Maine coast. Their disappearance, due to modern development, is a symbol of change.
A new generation of actors has also been cast in “Whales.“ Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling appear in a flashback scene as the Gish, Davis, Sothern characters, respectively. Sterling is the daughter of Sothern and actor Robert Sterling.
“It`s a story of survival, and we are all survivors, by God, all of us,“ said Sothern, adding, “we have all been at it for a long time.
The extraordinary and long careers of all five actors were literally on display here with regularly scheduled on-island screenings of their films:
Gish`s “The Wind,`
` Davis` “All About Eve,`
` Sothern`s “Lady, Be Good,“
Price`s “The Raven`
` and Carey`s “Wagon Master.“
But most of the attention was focused on the three actresses. “Lillian and Bette are the royal queens of the cinema, and I guess I`m the royal princess,“ said Sothern, pointing out that, at 67, she is the youngest of the three women.
Members of the young film crew often spent their free evenings playing poker with the gregarious Sothern, who brought her own chips. Or, on the set, during breaks and camera setups, they could be found lounging in the sun browsing through a picture book about Davis, “Bette Davis: A Celebration,“
or through Gish`s autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me.“
Often, when the actresses were on the set and free for a few moments, members of the crew could be heard reminiscing with Davis about her Warner Bros. days, or seated reverently at Gish`s feet listening to her reminiscences of Griffith, Charles Chaplin, or other film history.
“You know, as a child I played with Sarah Bernhardt,“ she said, out of the blue, during one spontaneous session. “Of course, I couldn`t understand, because I couldn`t speak French . . .
“Who do you think is the best actor in the English-speaking world?“ she asked a rapt, silent young audience on another occasion. “Why, that`s easy,“ she answered for them. “Sir John Gielgud.“
`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase
February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.
“A lot of us on the crew have stuck this out because of the great respect we all have for these three women,“ said production coordinator Janice Reynolds, referring to the remote, no-frills location. “There have been difficulties, but (the actresses) haven`t been all that demanding and certainly not as demanding as some of the younger actors we`ve all worked with who have reached so-called stardom early and are already used to all the comforts and perks that come with it.
“These women are sitting here in their houses, with a companion, or sometimes alone, and every once in a while they call to ask us to bring something to them, usually something like decaffeinated coffee,“ said Reynolds.
The warm relationship that developed over eight weeks between the actresses and the crew was evidenced one day after Sothern`s last shots in the movie, when she made a spontaneous speech:
“I`ve done a lot of movies, but never with a more solicitous, dedicated crew than you guys. I`ve had a wonderful time, and I`ll never forget you,“ she said.
“And we`ll never forget you!“ responded Gish.
Said Sothern privately, on a more serious note, after she left the set:
“How do we know that this is not going to be the last hurrah for all of us?“
It was in 1981 when the film`s co-producer, Mike Kaplan, first saw Berry`s play at the Trinity Square Repertory Theater in Providence, R.I. He said he immediately saw it as a vehicle for Gish, whom he first met 18 years ago while working as a publicist on MGM`s “The Comedians,“ and possibly for Davis as well. Kaplan recounted the usual struggle to find interest and funding for the specialized film, which he was determined to make without the obligatory
“sure-fire box-office“ star. He said Gish committed to the film soon after he took her to see an Off-Broadway production of the play, and that Anderson agreed to direct shortly thereafter. He said Davis declined the first time she was offered the role, but had agreed by the time he made his last rounds to the major Hollywood studios, including MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.
Kaplan also said that Sothern was considered for her role early on and that John Gielgud was the actor first considered for the role now played by Price.
“All the studio people said they liked the film, but,“ recalled Kaplan, who said he got all the“classic reasons“ for rejections, such as the fact that “people don`t want to see a movie about old people,“ or the fact that there was no “Jane Fonda role,“ as in “On Golden Pond,“ to add a youthful point of view. But the project finally came together last spring with the formation of Alive Films (a result of the split-up of Island Alive Films). Kaplan is president of marketing for Alive and is co-producing this, his first film, with Alive`s co-chairman Carolyn Pfeiffer.
Gish, Davis and Sothern all credited Kaplan for keeping the film project going, and Alive Films for taking what Davis referred to as “a tremendous box-office gamble.“ They all expressed hope, but also great skepticism, that in today`s movie market, the film would be a success.
“I didn`t do it because it was a gamble, I don`t want to gamble anymore, I want to make money,“ Davis said candidly, adding “and frankly, I think there are enough movies with old people–sometimes I think there are too many–thank you very much. I did it because it was a good script and a good part. I don`t know why I changed my mind, I just did,“ she said. She also thought “it would be nice“ to make a theatrical film after an eight-year absence, during which she endured a stroke, a mastectomy and a major hip operation.
Gish declined to talk about the film in any detail. “I haven`t seen it, it isn`t finished, I don`t know what it`s like, and I won`t know until I do see it,“ said Gish, noting that she does not see daily rushes of her films, because “I think I`d look terrible and would be discouraged.“ She said she committed to the role because she liked the idea of the film and because she couldn`t say no to “a fine, dear face“ like Kaplan`s. “I never thought at all about the character.“
Gish had returned to her island quarters after a 12-hour, nearly non-stop day on the set, changed into a full-length, green velvet lounging gown and was rushing a visitor over to a picture window overlooking Casco Bay to catch the sunset.
“Now, if you want an interview, just ask me questions,“ said Gish, as if following an obligatory routine of her 81-year-long career, but with her mind and her voice still clear as crystal.
“I started working so young (at age 5) that I don`t know how to play,“ she said, when asked how she coped with the strenuous schedule demanded of a leading role.
`The Whales Of August` Is A Screen Survivors` Showcase
February 08, 1987|By Clarke Taylor.
Throughout the day, shooting a cramped kitchen scene with Sothern, Gish demonstrated that there was more to her work. She moved slowly, and found difficulty remembering and hearing her lines, and she seemed passive, almost indifferent as she sat silently awaiting the call to “action.“ But when the cameras rolled she seemed to switch on, too, speaking her lines in the right mood, and looking into the right light at just the right time, as though she knew exactly what to do–meticulously, professionally and effortlessly. At one moment, Sothern was overheard whispering to Gish, “It`s an honor to act with you, darling.“
“She is completely unique,“ said Anderson. “These are not just Hollywood stars,“ he said of the three actresses, “they are artists.“
Sothern, who has not made a feature film since 1976, when she suffered a severe back injury in a stage mishap, was the opposite of Gish on the set. Feisty, and appearing to move in a whirlwind, despite the fact that she actually moved very slowly and only with the aid of a cane, Sothern demonstrated her experience as an actor on stage and in 75 films, as well as a production executive on her long-running (nearly 200 episodes) TV series.
“It`s a dammed good thing we know what we`re doing,“ she growled, at the reminder of “too little rehearsal time. “I know about production. I know how to cut a film,“ she said, acknowledging that she and Anderson “have had it on a couple of times. “But it all comes down to respect. There have been no big ego clashes here,“ she said.
Everyone on location would not have said the same about Davis. “She is difficult,“ said one after another of those who worked closely with her, from the unit photographer, to British production designer Jocelyn Hebert, to Anderson. They also all called her “totally professional.“
Toward the end of a difficult day`s shooting, during which she gave what Anderson called “a brave and serious performance“ as the old, silver-haired blind woman, Davis agreed to put a reporter to her test. Earlier, she had put the entire company to the test, by declining to shoot a scene that had been planned and carefully set up for the day, because the wig she was to wear in a closeup shot did not suit her. She worked out a compromise shooting schedule with the crew, however, resulting in little waste of time or money. Said Kaplan: “She knows what we have to get done, maybe more than anybody does.“ Having changed from her dowdy costume into chic gray slacks and silk blouse, and draped in a full-length mink coat, Davis seemed strong and indomitable as ever as she sat alone with the reporter in a rustic room off the set and proceeded to take control of an interview. Chain-smoking, she brushed aside attempts to discuss the challenge of her latest role–“it`s not so tough, although I guess photographing me without my eyes is totally different“–and she also cooly cut off an attempt to discuss the history represented by the five actors on the location.
“You can`t talk about Miss Gish and me together,“ she snapped. “It`s all totally different. She`s 81 years an actress, starting in the silents. It`s fun that we`re working together, but there is nothing similar in our backgrounds . . . Well,“ she added, on second thought, “she did start in the theater, which I never knew until I read her book here, and her mother was a tremendous help to her, just as mine was to me. But we are totally, totally different actresses. At the risk of jeopardizing any rapport that had emerged, she was asked for her thoughts about being considered “difficult.“
“Well, if they hire me, and don`t know I can be difficult, it`s too bad,“ she said, quickly adding, “but it`s not a question of being difficult. Sometimes, there is a very important issue at stake. “Lately, if I feel that I am going to get into a big hassle on a film, I am apt to say to myself, `Forget it,` You get lazy. Then, I give myself a talking to and say, `No, you must say something, you owe it to the film.` “Today, for instance, my wig was not right. I thought to myself, `I am the one who is going to be seen up there (on screen),` and that gave me great insecurity. I agreed to do a big, wide shot of the scene, because they had it all set up. And I thought, now, I suppose I should let them go on and do the rest of it. And then I thought, no, it would not be right, I wouldn`t be secure and I wouldn`t play it as well. I thought, I`ve done the rest of the scene, and now we`ll pick this up tomorrow.
“It all boils down to professionalism, which also means accepting a responsibility for the film.“ she said, adding, “we`re much more professional, we older people who have been in this business for a long time.“
Outside in the encroaching cold of another sunset, Gish and Sothern, white from the cold and shivering, were preparing to shoot Sothern`s final scene. The crew was rushing to get the final moments of the day`s light, but Gish, apparently noting that the camera angle was not set correctly on her face, stopped everyone short by uncharacteristically speaking up.
“I`m looking up, not down, or else my eyes will look half closed,“ she said, suggesting with a slight nod the correct angle. “Look through the camera,“ she said to a skeptical but attentive and now dutiful camera crew. And with the adjustment made, she looked out at the Atlantic Ocean whitecaps as though she really could spot a whale. And the scene was quickly completed.
“Nobody needs to tell her how to do it,“ whispered one young member of the crew to another.
Lillian Gish is the unalloyed joy of interviewers because in real life she lives up to the promise held out in her screen characterisations.
Until I met Lillian Gish I used to clean interviewing as “the process of shattering illusions”. Not that I was always disappointed in the people I interviewed – I was just surprised. There was an exotic screen siren, for instance, who when bereft of the beads of her calling proved to be a dumpy little woman interested in child welfare. There was a hero of wild Westerns who used perfume. There was a childish ingénue in whose apartment there were as many mysterious door slamming’s an in any French farce. And drifting from the field of movies, there was an admiral of a foreign fleet who could have doubled for Ben Turpin.
But Lillian is always flower-like, fragile, and as haunting as the melody of “Salut d’amour”. In life she has that same gripping tenderness that she has on the screen. The bridge of sympathy that is established with her audience the instant she comes on the screen holds you likewise in real life. Her screen portrayals are all sharply etched highly individual characterizations, but there is the same spirituality the same illusion about all of them. And that steadfast illusion, that overtone, is Lillian’s own personality.
She is the most flattering person I know. After being abroad for seven months she returns and easily continues an argument broken off at your last meeting. She remembers quite inconsequential things – what you like for luncheon, the sort of books you read, the people you like. At first I used to marvel at her almost childlike faith in people, but now I begin to understand it. People instinctively are on their best behavior when they are with her.
When I told Dorothy that I was writing my impressions of Lillian she said: “Remember to tell about her faults. What you and I really know about her is too good to be true.”
In response to Dorothy’s challenge I really ought to tell you some sinister secret that Lillian has succeeded so far in concealing from the public. But there isn’t any. She is just an amazingly sweet and gracious young person who has worked hard and been pursued by hard luck until recently.
After she made “Way Down East” she could have signed contracts with any of several companies at a large salary. But the prospect of being made to suffer through vehicles as alike though they had been made from rubber stamps did not appeal to her.
She waited until she was offered a company over whose activities she would have control. She knows a great deal about making motion pictures – you may recall she directed Dorothy in a comedy a few years ago – and about cutting them. Curiously enough, this extraordinary technical knowledge has not made her critical of other people’s efforts. She is the perfect audience. Knowing how much hard work goes into the making of even a poor picture, she is sympathetic.
Except for the people who have played in her pictures, very few players know Lillian Gish. Mary Pickford is her one intimate friend. With every one else she is interested but a trifle aloof.
She is often called the Bernhardt of the screen.
In an industry that manufactures slogans and catch phrases and advertises quite commonplace performers as “The Girl You Can’t Forget” or “The Empress of Fiery Emotions” that title wouldn’t mean much if it weren’t for the fact that it was not bestowed by an advertising man but by the very people who would be the last to admit any artistry in the work of a motion picture actress.
That is the unique phase of Lillian’s career. She has won the highest praise from people who were supercilious toward motion pictures and at the same time endeared herself to motion picture fans. Of the two publics I am sure that she really loves the fans most, for they are the ones who supported her during the struggling years when she was just having the foundations of her career. It was they whose letters, childish ones sometimes, cheered her on to one more effort in the days when she had to get up soon after dawn and go by street car, ferry and train to the location in New Jersey, when she was working.
Whenever I hear her called the Bernhardt of the screen, I think of her account in the time when she played in Madame Bernhardt’s company. It was during a New York engagement and Lillian was borrowed from another company to appear in just one play of the Bernhardt repertoire. She says that she was quite overawed by the grandeur of such a company – she was unused to have a maid and playing in such a clean and well-equipped theater. The luxurious surroundings in fact, made such impression on her that she hardly noticed the divine Sarah. That august personage was to her only a foreign lady who was standing in the wings.