Love in the Film – By William K. Everson (1979)

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Love in the Film

By William K. Everson (1979)

The two plot elements most common to all film are love and crime. Love is an emotion; crime a physical act. Between them, singly and more often jointly, they provide the motivation—and the linking narrative thrust—of most films, whether they be comedy, horror, science-fiction, or from any other genre. Even when history is put on the screen, its facts are often reemphasized (or totally rewritten, as in Suez) so that love is frequently the force which changes the destiny of nations. And political decisions, in actuality formed by expediency, economics or patriotism, are frequently diverted and debased, becoming the criminal acts of greedy individuals. There are films which contain neither love nor crime, but they are rare and if one were to make up a list of such films, one would probably find it heavily weighted in favor of the documentary —the only genre that might totally avoid both ingredients, although one might argue that the documentary is frequently utilized to protest “social crime,” and that that kind of injustice is as dramatic as straightforward lawbreaking.

If the word “love” is ambiguous, then the phrase “love story” as related to film (or play or novel) is more ambiguous still, and frequently overlaps into what one can only term the territory of the “romantic” film (or play or novel). A great love story is usually made “great” by the power of its theme or the passion of its playing; a great “romantic” film, however, depends far more on a welding of those elements with others—particularly the elegant stylistics of writing, directing and photography.

I suspect that the further evolution of love in film will be increasingly more clinical and correspondingly less romantic, and I shall be happy to leave the updating of this volume to other less sentimental hands.

Mary Pickford Blanche Sweet
Mary Pickford Blanche Sweet

The Teens

Two factors continued to work against the development of the genre at least until 1920. One of course was the Victorian sense of romance and melodrama that still pervaded the movies—and the phrase “Victorian” is meant not in a critical sense, but in a purely descriptive one, for the Victorian age had literally passed into history only a few years earlier. The movies, and the stories and novels on which they were frequently based, were still concerned with simple and well-defined virtues and vices. The virtuous heroine was juxtaposed with the dynamic and aggressive vamp; between them, they could offer pure love—or impure sex. But there was no shading, no mingling of the two extremes. This did not preclude the making of good movies, but it did rather shift the emphasis into the areas of romance, or straight drama. Mary Pick-ford’s Stella Man’s (1918) is both a very good and an incredible film—the latter because it chose to fly in the face of Pickford’s popularity, and present a decidedly grim story. It’s about wasted love and thwarted love rather than fulfilled love.

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

At the other end of the spectrum one finds a film like A Cumberland Romance (1920) starring Pickford’s leading rival, Mary Miles Minter. It’s appealing because of its very simplicity and “prettiness”—lovely outdoor locations, superb photography, and a magnificent use of tinted and toned stock. Between these two extremes, there were the Cinderella romances of Lillian Gish and Mae Marsh, the heavier romantic dramas of Norma Talmadge, and the frothy romantic comedies of her sister Constance. There was nothing wrong with these films. They were escapist and they were entertaining; they more than met the demands of fans and exhibitors; and because the industry was not yet geared to aggressive competition (it had no need to be, since it was the entertainment medium, with radio still in the future, and television but a science- fiction dream) the films deliberately cultivated a “sit-back-and-be-entertained” manner, and rarely came to grips with life in the way necessary to produce a really moving love story.

Then there was a second factor to be taken into consideration. The enormous success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 eased, and even encouraged, the segue into much longer films. But it also, unwittingly, dictated their shape too. Producers, impressed by the money it had made, and directors, in awe of Griffith’s filmmaking genius, used it as a pattern, and at least until 1920, the majority of films were made in its image. There were subplots to cut away from—and to; interwoven characters; flashbacks; spectacular climaxes that were built mathematically. This made for some extremely lively films, but it didn’t help the cause of good acting—or the creating of sustained characters, so essential in a love story. One of the reasons that Mary Pickford was such a reigning star in the teen years was that she was one of the few female stars big enough to control her own image and the construction of her own films. With all their variety (comedies, dramas, westerns, costume pieces, tragedy), she remained the point of focus throughout. She was able to build and sustain a characterization that was not fragmented by the demands of a narrative where editing and cross-cutting were the paramount concerns. True, the fast pacing of films in this period did not prevent great performances.

Love in the film - Mae Marsh (Intolerance - Modern Story)
Love in the film – Mae Marsh (Intolerance – Modern Story)
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Mae Marsh’s acting as the young wife and mother in Intolerance (1916) is both brilliant and moving; but it is even more so in the source film. The Mother and the Law (1914), which Griffith cut and reshaped and used as the centerpiece for Intolerance, surrounding it with French, Biblical and Babylonian stories. Griffith’s later Hearts of the World (1918) had all the potential for being a really tender love story as well as a war spectacle, in its depiction of a young love torn asunder by the war, during the course of which the young bride is driven to temporary insanity.

Lillian Gish’s performance was her subtlest and most mature to that point, but all too often, having reached peaks of emotion or hysterical intensity, the film just drops her, reverts to action and melodrama, and by the time it picks her up again, the momentum is lost. The movies’ pre-1920 years are by no means barren ones. The films of those years have youth, innocence, vitality and optimism—both in their plot content, and in their own style, for they are made by directors possessed of those same qualities, and excited by what they are discovering about film. But basically, the films of those years appeal to the senses rather than to the emotions. While the selection of only two films to illustrate this period is obviously arbitrary, it is perhaps significant that both are the result of the collaboration between two of the foremost artists of the period—D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

The Mothering Heart

  • American Biograph, 1913.
  • Directed by D. W. Griffith. Camera: G. W. Bitzer.
  • With: Lillian Gish, Walter Miller, Viola Barry, Charlie Murray, Kate Bruce.

It is not at all unusual to find exceptionally strong dramatic stories in the one- and two-reel pre-feature films of 1910 to 1913. The sheer number of them, and the need to maintain as much variety as possible, meant that some pretty offbeat material was offered, accepted and produced, merely because of the need to keep up a steady stream of production. Too, the star system was not realty established as yet, so that audiences would not be disappointed or dismayed if a favored player turned up in an unsympathetic role, or in a tragic one. Finally, the mass audience for movies was still an essentially working-class one, bolstered by the still very large waves of immigrants. While one might have assumed that this kind of audience was the one for which escapist entertainment would have been most in demand, at the same time the more progressive directors—and certainly D. W. Griffith headed the list—also felt that the audience would respond emotionally to problems and situations it knew and understood on its own merits.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

The Mothering Heart—a film that runs for only about sixteen minutes—is hardly a permanent classic. But in a comparative sense it is; for 1913 it is daring both in its content and in its faith in the ability of an audience to recognize all its subtleties. Griffith’s short films for Biograph between 1907 and 1913 can very roughly be divided into two groups: the chase films, melodramas, Civil War stories and Westerns which he made primarily to develop and polish new methods of editing and the staging of action, and those other films—ranging from Tolstoy’s Resurrection to Norris’s A Corner in Wheat—where theme was more important than technique. A number of the latter group had included quite strong little emotional stories, usually involving redemption in one form or another (particularly the reformation of the alcoholic), but there were relatively few bona fide love stories.

One exception was the the already mentioned 1912 The Mender of Nets, in which the hero (Charles West) loves the beautiful fisherman’s daughter (Mary Pickford) but in an earlier liaison has made another girl pregnant—this latter role played surprisingly well by Mabel Normand, her normal vivacity covered by nondescript clothing and makeup which makes her look plump and relatively plain. (The parallel with Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun is quite striking.) The wronged girl’s father tries to kill the erring lover, but is prevented from doing so by Pickford, who, sacrificing her own happiness, persuades the boy that his duty is to marry the other girl. The film concludes with a lovely close-up of Mary Pickford, sitting outside her hut atop a cliff, helping her father with his fishing nets and, with a sigh of wistful resignation, remarking that ‘”Somebody has to mend other people’s broken nets.” With its maximum use of rugged outdoor land- and seascapes, striking closeup images and dramatic editing, A Mender of Nets was one of Griffith’s most sophisticated films to 1912. It is a measure of the incredibly rapid strides he was making at that time that The Mothering Heart, made only the following year, seems infinitely more mature.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

It starred Lillian Gish and Walter Miller, a romantic duo that Griffith used in a number of films of the period (The Musketeers of Pig Alley and An Unseen Enemy were others). As in his later romantic teaming of Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, the feminine role was the stronger and more dramatic one. The male’s role was to be weak, passive, sometimes even unsympathetic.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

In The Mothering Heart, Lillian Gish and Walter Miller are a young, happily married couple. On a visit to a nightclub, however, the husband attracts the attention of a flirtatious woman at a nearby table, and is infatuated with her. In the ensuing weeks, he deceives his wife and carries on an affair with the woman, totally under her spell, though to her he is merely a passing adventure. He is away from home so much that he is unaware that their young baby is ailing. The baby in fact dies, and in a most remarkable scene, Lillian Gish, as the distraught mother, wanders almost somnambulistically into their garden and then, in a frenzied paroxysm of destruction, seizes a hoe and hits out at all the plants and young trees, seeking to kill them.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Then, returning to her trancelike state, she returns to the house where the husband—chastened by the discovery of the death of his child, thrown over by the other woman who has gone on to another affair—is waiting for her. At first the wife is hard and unforgiving; then, unwittingly, she finds the dead child’s pacifier in the crib. There is a full screen closeup of her hand fondling the head of the pacifier—the borders of the screen blacked out to emphasize the action, which must be one of the first examples of explicit sexual symbolism on the screen. Then she almost thrusts the pacifier at her husband. The climax is thus not so much one of a happy reunion, but almost one of desperation, the wife suggesting that only via another child does their love, and their marriage, stand a chance of survival.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

As if fully understanding the psychological depth and importance of his story, Griffith gives The Mothering Heart quite surprisingly elaborate production values. The nightclub is exceptionally spacious, yet in keeping with the kind of enlarged roadhouse that it would have been in its suburban California setting. The details of decor and clothing (particularly in respect to the contrasting hats and dresses of the two women) are carefully thought out, and the bit players well chosen. The tall, handsome, muscular uniformed doorman of the nightclub seems to have been cast just for the effect of one scene towards the end. Initially, since he always opens the door for the straying husband and his new paramour, he seems to symbolize the glamour of the new lifestyle he has assumed. But when the husband is finally tossed aside by his temporary mistress, the action takes place outside the club doors. The husband’s shame is compounded by the contempt of the doorman, who smiles superciliously at this expected turn of events. Because he is a tall, striking figure—much taller than the husband —it is possible for that all-important smile of scorn to register without Griffith going into a closeup to underline it.

The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall

Subtle, underplayed acting was a trademark of the better Griffith Biographs; Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh and others had all, by this time, given performances which even today, hold up by virtue of their sensitivity and restraint and need no apologies or explanations. Even so, the three lead performances in The Mothering Heart are quite exceptional. Although only in her mid-teens, Lillian Gish is utterly convincing as the more mature mother—as convincing as she was as the naive teenager in True Heart Susie, which she was to make for Griffith some six years later. Moreover, she manages to downplay her own beauty, to make the mother serious, even a little dowdy, so that the husband’s straying to the exciting other woman becomes understandable. Walter Miller, as the husband, is likewise restrained and sincere, and suggests that he might well have become a major actor had not his striking good looks and virility sidetracked him into a career as a serial hero, where he developed a series of poses and mannerisms that stayed with him until the end of his career in the early 1940s.

Viola Barry (The Mothering Heart)
Viola Barry as The ‘Idle Woman’ / Outside Club (as Peggy Pearce)

But perhaps the most exciting performance of all is that of Viola Barry as the adventuress. She wasn’t the first screen vamp—Helen Gardner had beaten her to the punch—nor was she the most famous since, from 1914 on, Theda Bara assumed that role. But in 1913, she was certainly the best, and her interpretation so modern and subtle that it works even today. Facially, she had the finely-chiseled features of Mary Astor—but coupled to the voluptuous body of that twenties vamp, Nita Naldi. Her low cleavaged gown was worn with tremendous style, as though she was totally unaware of the effect it was having on her victims. Moreover, there was nothing obvious or “sinful” about her vamping approach. She was able to snare Walter Miller’s attention (and ours) with a glance. Her attraction was enhanced by the fact that Griffith did not see fit either to condemn her as an “evil woman” or to punish her. She merely goes on to another adventure at the end of the film; it is Miller, the husband, who has “sinned” and is punished. In the rather clear-cut separation between “good” woman and “bad” that characterized American movies of the teen years, Viola Barry would have had rather tough sledding. She was too healthily sexy to fit into the fashionable niche for screen heroines, yet too attractive to play vamps, who had to come off second-best to the virginal heroines. Fortunately, she was married to up-and- coming director Jack Conway, and a career was not uppermost in her mind—though her beauty, casual elegance and real acting style in this film suggest that her lack of ambition was a major loss to the silent screen.

In any event, whether one classifies The Mothering Heart as a love story, a romance, or an emotional drama, it is an almost Freudian film, and very probably the first American film that can make that claim.


True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

  • Paramount-Artcraft, 1919.
  • Directed by D. W. Griffith.
  • Scenario; Marian Fremont.
  • Camera: G. Bitzer.
  • With: Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, Loyola O’Connor, Walter Higby, George Fawcett, Clarine Seymour, Kate Bruce, Carol Dempster, Robert Cannon.

One of a group of films loosely referred to as “rural romances,” True Heart Susie came, in one sense, midway in Griffith’s career. The initial spectacles. The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and Hearts of the World, were behind him; the big spectacles of the 20s (America, Orphans of the Storm) lay ahead. At this particular time, Griffith was trying to retrench financially—his entrapment by bank loans and other debts had already begun—and also to put the war behind him, and deal with the people and the landscapes of his childhood in Kentucky in a series of less ambitious but often lyrical little films. True Heart Susie is one of the best of these, and certainly the most romantic, but one sees it today under a disadvantage. No original negative or prints appear to have survived, and all circulating copies in this country and elsewhere seem to derive from a copy held by the British Film Institute in London—itself far from a really good print. The interiors of the film now seem black and shadowy, and the exteriors lack the radiance of the sunshine. Fortunately, a similar if lesser Griffith film, 1920’s The Greatest Question, does survive in the form of one or two good prints made from the original negative, and by studying that, with its superb lighting and dramatic use of landscape, one can at least mentally project True Heart Susie with all the pictorial beauty it once had. It is quite a tribute to the film, and the sensitivity of the performances by Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, that it plays as well as it does despite the handicap of dark and lackluster prints several generations away from the original.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Griffith, ever the showman (though he often pretended not to be), was aware that after his earlier spectacles audiences expected something “Big” from him, constantly tried to add stature to these smaller films by portentous opening titles. True Heart Susie opens with a title claiming that every incident in it is taken from life, and goes on to dedicate itself to all the women of the world who wait for the great love that never comes. Actually, 1919 audiences might have been equally impressed had Griffith just leveled with them and admitted that True Heart Susie was an amalgamation of themes from Charles Dickens, the author whose influence (both structurally and thematically) was to dominate Griffith’s work. Most specifically, True Heart Susie derives from Great Expectations and the latter portions of David Copperfield.

Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)
Lillian Gish trying to kiss Robert Harron (True Heart Susie)


Its underlying theme is quite simple. Susie, very much in love with William—who only halfheartedly reciprocates—scrimps and saves to put him through college. He is unaware of her sacrifices, thinking his benefactor to be a stranger from the city who once passed through their rural community and promised to help. When he returns from college, ready to take a position as minister, Susie assumes that they’ll marry, and misinterprets several of his remarks as a confirmation of that. However, his attention goes to the gaudy Bettina—all paint, powder and silk stockings—and it is she that he marries.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

Bettina however, only wants the security of the marriage, and after the wedding is a poor wife, who looks slovenly about the house, won’t cook hot meals, and complains of boredom. Both Susie and William think wistfully of what might have been, but never confide their thoughts to each other—and when Susie realizes that Bettina is deceiving William, she keeps quiet about it. On one occasion, Bettina sneaks away to a wild party with her friends, on the way collecting a book that her husband needed. The party breaks up late, and Bettina is drenched in a torrential downpour. She contracts pneumonia, and William feels responsible, knowing nothing of the party and thinking that it was all brought about by her thoughtful act in collecting the book for him.

Lillian Gish and Clarine Seymour - True Heart Susie
Lillian Gish and Clarine Seymour – True Heart Susie

On her deathbed, Bettina is about to confess, but William prevents her and, to quote a rather lovely Griffith subtitle, “She dies as she lived—a little unfaithful.’’ Despite the previous emptiness of his marriage, William is so moved that he vows never to love or marry again, and Susie is too loyal to him to tell him the truth. Inadvertently however, the truth does come out, and, belatedly, William and Susie are married. It is a simple story, simply told, with no need for the subplots or intercutting of Griffith’s more ambitious works. (Actually, Griffith’s cutting in the post-intolerance period tended to remain innovative in conception, but to get increasingly slipshod in execution—and True Heart Susie offers early evidence of Griffith’s carelessness in this direction, although the non matching cuts are not as serious or as obvious as they would be in the following year’s Way Down East.)

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

The film really wins one over by its sincerity and by the strength of its performers. Its beginning is not too promising. Lillian Gish’s Susie seems so much the innocent trusting child that marriage to her would seem to offer very little. (Comedian Harry Langdon seems to have based many of his expressions and pantomimic gestures on Lillian Gish’s performance in this film, and occasionally— through no fault of hers—one has the uncanny feeling of watching Langdon rather than Gish, which also tends to downplay the romantic involvement.) Robert Harron is first seen as a rather gawky youth, and his metamorphosis into a far more mature man (aided by a moustache to which he calls attention by constantly preening it) shows again what a remarkably subtle actor Harron could be. But his slighting of Susie gains him little audience sympathy; one can hardly blame him for choosing the more exciting Bettina, and yet at the same time one feels that in a way they deserve each other.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

It is at this point that the film shifts gears, and stops telling its story only in terms of incident. From here on in there are far more close-ups of both Gish and Harron in which their sadness and isolation is conveyed by the subtlety of facial expression and Bitzer’s lighting. Perhaps too, in this latter portion of the film, there is more drawing upon the original plot construction of Dickens, who, quite unknowingly of course, manipulated people and details in a decidedly cinematic manner.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - With Robert (Bobby) Harron in True Heart Susie 1919 — with Lillian Gish and Bobbie Harron.

Whatever the reasons, the film becomes both touching and moving in its final third, and many of the apparent loose ends of the opening suddenly fall into place. Earlier it had been established that Susie and William never quite managed to kiss—even when he was going away to college. Both tried, sincerely but clumsily, and both withdrew before the kiss could be accomplished. This awkwardness is maintained until the penultimate scene, when William approaches Susie to admit his love and propose marriage. Even here, Griffith keeps them apart: Susie is seen at the window of her cottage, leaning out to water flowers; William is shown only as a hesitant shadow.

Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (Harron as a shadow on the wall)
Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (Harron as a shadow on the wall)

The final scene is a repeat of one of their years- earlier walks down a country lane, and a closing title hopes that they’ll be happy, and asks the audience to imagine their rekindling the love of their earlier, innocent years. There’s no doubt that it’s a happy ending—yet the sense of possible separation, and the shadow of the unhappy marriage to Bettina, is retained. It’s a subtle and mature ending to a minor Griffith classic which offers a great deal more sophistication and emotional depth than, might at first seem apparent.

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - True Heart Susie FF
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – True Heart Susie
Love in the film
Love in the film – cover

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Jed Harris The Curse of Genius – By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris The Curse of Genius

By Martin Gottfried (1984)

Jed Harris
Jed Harris (The Curse of Genius – Cover)

A genius for Making Enemies

The legend looked like an old man dressed up to not look seedy. His thin gray hair was parted in the middle and plastered down, without concession to current style. He wore a dark ascot inside his open shirt collar. The padding of his camel’s hair sports jacket overlapped his shoulders, too wide. He fidgeted with his hearing aid and coughed, trying vainly to clear his throat between draws on a cigarette. He’d just been released from the hospital and sipped a glass of water through an L-shaped straw he’d stolen on the way out.

In the Hollywood television studio, Pat Burroughs, his forty-year-old girlfriend, stood and watched beside one of the cameramen. The Dick Cavett Show was usually taped in New York, but when Jed Harris heard that Cavett was in Los Angeles, he telephoned. He had a book to publicize. He was penniless and ill and desperate for it to succeed.

Cavett introduced him as “legendary, the golden boy of our theater’s golden age,” and Harris peered up from beneath lids that, once notoriously hooded, now just seemed eighty years’ heavy. He said nothing. Cavett, stagestruck since childhood, was excited by a chance to interview the Jed Harris he’d heard so much about; the Jed Harris he had thought was dead. He arranged for a studio and crew and now Pat Burroughs looked on apprehensively. Beside the preppy production assistants she appeared gauche in her white orlon sweater and gray gabardine slacks, but she was more concerned with Harris’s hearing and alertness. The medication made him so groggy. He had been the subject of her doctoral thesis. They’d been together tor several years now. The relationship had never been placid, but this last stretch had been actively acrimonious.

They had stayed with her mother in Winston-Salem, the seventy-nineyear-old former golden boy not embarrassed to be dependent on his girlfriend’s sixty-five-year-old mother. Though he complained about everything else, he never complained about this final and ludicrous deposit. A lifetime earlier he had declared international celebrity something he put little stock by. Apparently he had meant it. Then, always fleeing somewhere, he told Pat they were going to California. She scraped up two thousand dollars, bought a used Thunderbird, and while he dozed she drove from one TraveLodge Motel to the next. They wound up in a sorry one-bedroom Malibu garden apartment. Now Cavett smiled smartlv at the camera and recited Harris’s credits as a theatrical producer and director. These were faded and spiritless references to forgotten glories. Cavett seemed to realize, as he spoke, that the play titles would mean little to most people and so he abbreviated the list in midstream. Yet he was awed, he said, by the presence of Harris and he kept using that word, “legend.”

Videotape made it possible to come back from the grave. Months after Harris died the interviews were broadcast. After thirty years of oblivion, he had five nights on television, more time than Cavett had ever offered anyone. Old enemies watched with contempt for Harris’s deviousness, his dishonesty, his malevolence to the end. Old friends watched with admiration for his courage in carrying off “The Jed Harris Show” just one last time, and in plain sight of death. Now, as they all watched, he was dead.

Jed Harris - the wolf of Broadway
Theater Producer Jed Harris “the wolf of Broadway”


Uncle Vanya

Ruth Gordon found a splendid apartment in New York. She always found splendid apartments. This one was at 36 West 59th Street overlooking Central Park. Although they were now more or less together, Jed kept his place at the Madison Hotel. That bothered Ruth, and she said so, but he had the upper hand. Strolling through Shubert Alley one day, she ran into Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan. The actress and the critic were secretly engaged. There was no reason for the secrecy other than Miss Gish’s feverish modesty. She hasn’t seen Ruth Gordon in a year. Of course nobody had. The two actresses scurried to each other, the sparrow and the hummingbird, and pecked one another’s cheek. Ruth said she’d been in Paris, drinking wine, and had tasted “some stuff called Clos Vougeot and it was sen-jo-tional.”

Nathan knew the wine. He said it was a superlative Burgundy but hard to find. “I’ve got a great idea,” Ruth said. “I know a guy who it’s his favorite wine too. He’s dying to meet you, Lillian, so I tell you what. The first one that finds a bottle of Clos Vougeot, let’s all have dinner together.”

Ruth was a woman of many combinations, none of them foolish. She knew that it wouldn’t hurt Jed to befriend a critic, but Lillian was even more important. Chekhov on Broadway needed a box office attraction and Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most glittering movie stars. Ruth found the bottle of wine first because she already had it. One evening not long after, they all met at her apartment. Nathan and Harris talked drama while the actresses listened respectfully, which probably was not an easy thing for Ruth Gordon to do.

“Until then,” Miss Gish remembered, “I had thought George knew more about the theater than anyone I’d ever met. You’d go to a play and there was a certain scene that you liked; he could tell you five or six other plays where they had the same idea and then say how they played that scene.

Theater Producer Jed Harris
Theater Producer Jed Harris

“Jed was beyond that. I never heard anyone talk about the theater with the intelligence and the excitement and the interest that that man had. When I got up to get my coat to leave I said to Ruth, I’d work for that man for nothing if he ever had anything for me.'”

Three weeks later she received the script of Uncle Vanya. She probably would have gotten it even faster but I farris had to rethink the play. The role he wanted Lillian to play, a heartless flirt, was hardly one with which she would have been immediately associated. “Elena,” he later wrote, “seemed to me a rather old-fashioned portrait of a ‘teaser.’ I decided to modify, to suggest a beautiful and desirable woman, chilled beyond hope of recovery by marriage to a withered windbag of a professor.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

It was a novel interpretation, even a radical one. In most productions of Uncle Vanya,  Elena is still played as a man-eater. Gish agreed to do it immediately. She wouldn’t discuss salary and there was no sense in it anyhow. Jed could hardly give her the ten thousand dollars a week she was paid by Griffith. Anything, she said, would do.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

He cast the other major roles with actors he’d worked with before. Walter Connolly, his old pal from the Applesauce days, “would make a perfect Vanya. And [Osgood] Perkins, even without the romantic beauty and distinguished style of Stanislavsky who created the part, might make an interesting thing of Dr. Astrov.”

Did he know what he was talking about?

Lillian was going to be a challenge. Her last theatrical experience had been as an adolescent, seventeen years earlier. Her voice had never been a powerful instrument. George was of no help, in fact he was antagonistic to the project. He told Lillian a bit of period stage nonsense—that it was essential for a star to have the last speech in a play. The last speech in Uncle Vanya was not Elena’s but Sonya’s. If she did the play, he warned, she might never have another job in the theater or even in the movies.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish knew why her fiance was so negative. Jed was planning to open Uncle Vanya in April, and she had promised to go to Europe with George in June. And, Nathan was an insecure man, jealous of Jed’s magnetism, jealous even of Lillian’s concern for her ailing mother. Acceding to these pressures but embarrassed to tell Harris the truth, Lillian said only that she would have to leave the production after six weeks in order to take her mother to a spa in Germany. He calculated the time it would take to recover the production cost and, presuming that Lillian would be a sell-out attraction, agreed to her limited engagement. Harris wrote:

. . . she came to rehearsal in a palpable state of fright. As she had not been on the stage since early childhood, this was not altogether unnatural. “All these people in the company are so wonderful,” she said mournfully after the first session. “I really don’t think I’m good enough to be on the same stage with them.” I laughed. “They’re not that wonderful,” I said. And I told her that Helen Hayes was so nervous during the first week she rehearsed Coquette that she broke out in a painful rash. “And Helen,” I added, “hasn’t been off the stage since she learned to walk.” If this was meant to reassure Miss Gish, it failed utterly. Her eyes clouded over with compassion, she murmured, “Oh that poor, poor girl.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Miss Gish recalled an early rehearsal at which Harris rose from his aisle seat and strolled to the stage. “Lillian,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean over the footlights to hear him. “Just do this as if you were in a movie. Don’t worry about projection. Don’t worry about the size of performance.

My only advice is: the woman you’re playing is the pivotal figure in the play. If they believe her, everything else will be believed. And remember, she isn’t merely a woman. You’re playing every man’s idea of a woman. Try and keep that in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it. You’re going to be wonderful.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

As rehearsal proceeded, some were less than convinced of that. Harris let his assistant, Worthington Miner, assume more responsibilities. Some days, he didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. Osgood Perkins suspected that Jed might be having trouble with his hearing, but nobody paid much attention to that.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Photo: Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish

When the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 15, 1930, it was triumphant. The reviews were gaudy. Jed recovered his nine-thousand-dollar investment in six weeks—almost to the day Gish left the company—and the production ran another three weeks on momentum, giving him a small profit on the risky presentation of a classic on Broadway.

These were fine rewards, but none to compare with the observations that critic Stark Young made about the production in The New Republic. Stark Young was the most intellectual critic of the era. Few among those who have practiced the profession of drama criticism have been better equipped for it, or better at it, than he. And Chekhov was Stark Young’s specialty. Soon after this production of Uncle Vanya he would publish his own translations of the playwright’s works, and they would for many years remain the standard versions.

Observing the directorial debut of Jed Harris, Mr. Young wrote, “Writing criticism about a production so careful and intelligent is a pleasure and a form of cooperation with the producer. . . . The whole directing is felt out with naturalness, brains and confidence.”

It was almost miraculous that Harris could have accomplished such a feat with so little preparation. His natural gift had to have been astonishing. Pity he would, in his career, do only two other classics and neither of them in a league with Uncle Vanya. They would be Gogol’s The Inspector General and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He would never attempt Shakespeare, or even his beloved Shaw.

His return to Broadway, then, was a glittering one. It had even enhanced his image: quality, intellect and art had been added to the reputation for commercial infallibility. The dust from the Wall Street crash had cleared and The Meteor had survived.

Not so the romance of George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish. They returned from Europe to learn that his mother was mortally ill. Lillian visited her in the hospital. On the way home she asked George whether he was Jewish. He repeated what he had told her before: that he was from a Main Line and decidedly Episcopalian Philadelphia family. The mother Lillian had seen in the hospital had not struck her as a society Christian. She asked George’s sister-in-law about it, and Marguerite roared.

“If George’s brother is Jewish,” she said, “I might suppose he would be too.” Lillian was disgusted. She hardly cared who was Jewish. Practically everyone in Hollywood was. But she did care—or rather, did not care — about people who denied what they were. That was the end of her secret engagement to George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922
Jed Harris, the curse of genius
Jed Harris, the curse of genius – cover

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Empire of Dreams (The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille) – By Scott Eyman (2010)

Empire of Dreams

The Epic Life of CECIL B. DEMILLE

By Scott Eyman (2010)

Best known as the director of such spectacular films as The Ten Commandments and KingOf Kings, Cecil B. DeMille lived a life as epic as any of is cinematic masterpieces. As a child DeMille learned the Bible from his father, a theology student and playwright who introducedCecil and his older brother, William, to the theater. Tutored by impresario David Belasco,DeMille discovered how audiences responded to showmanship: sets, lights, costumes, etc. He took this knowledge with him to Los Angeles in 1913, where he became one of the movie pioneers, in partnership with Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). Working out of a barn on streets fragrant with orange blossom and pepper trees, the Lasky company turned out a string of successful silents, most of them directed by DeMille, who became one of the biggest names of the silent era. With films such as The Squaw Man,Brewster’s Millions, Joan the Woman, and Don’t Change Your Husband, he was the creative backbone of what would become Paramount Studios. In 1923 he filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments and later a second biblical epic, King of Kings, both enormous box-office successes. Although his reputation rests largely on the biblical epics he made, DeMille’s personal life was no morality tale. He remained married to his wife, Constance, for more than fifty years, but for most of the marriage he had three mistresses simultaneously, all of whom worked for him. He showed great loyalty to a small group of actors who knew his style, but he also discovered some major stars, among them Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, and later, Charlton Heston. DeMille was one of the few silent-era directors who made a completely successful transition to sound. In 1952 he won the Academy Award for Best Picture with The Greatest Show on Earth. When he remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, it was an even bigger hit than the silent version. He could act, too: in Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard, DeMille memorably played himself. In the 1930s and 1940s DeMille became a household name thanks to the Luce Radio Theater, which he hosted. But after falling out with a union, he gave up the program, and his politics shifted to the right as he championed loyalty oaths and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. As Scott Eyman brilliantly demonstrates in this superbly researched biography, which draws on a massive cache of DeMille family papers not available to previous biographers, DeMille was much more than his cliched image. A gifted director who worked in many genres; a devoted family man and loyal friend with a highly unconventional personal life; a pioneering filmmaker: DeMille comes alive in these pages, a legend whose spectacular career defined an era.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille

In the years after World War I, propriety was less attractive than the promise of freedom. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would inevitably give way to Clara Bow and Louise Brooks — a transition anticipated by DeMille. The DeMille films manage to have it both ways — they confront the anxieties implicit in abandoning old behavior patterns, but they tend to reaffirm the original marital transaction. At the same time, they’re problem pictures in which the premise carries more weight than the characters; DeMille doesn’t give his women the room for authentic emotion as would directors who came out of a different cultural tradition such as Lubitsch or Josef von Sternberg.

American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille - 16 dec 1958
American Academy of Dramatic Arts Honor New-York USA Cecil B Demille – 16 dec 1958 (Lillian Gish first from the left)

Ramping up a studio from a standing start entails a vast amount of work and money, especially when it comes to story material. “Do you want to buy best sellers by popular authors or cheaper originals and older stories?” inquired Ella Adams. DeMille would have preferred gilt-edged properties, but there were money issues. “We are short on material for women,” he wrote back. “We need eight feminine vehicles and we only have four.”

Then there was the problem of stars. Lillian Gish wired DeMille to say that she had been told he was interested in her: have YOU A representative here in new YORK THAT I COULD TALK WITH OR COULD YOU WIRE ME ABOUT ANY PLANS YOU MIGHT HAVE AFFECTING MY FUTURE WHICH IS STILL UNSETTLED?

DeMille responded with a flurry of telegrams: I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH TO HAVE YOU AS A MEMBER OF MY NEW COMPANY AS I BELIEVE I CAN DO MORE FOR YOU THAN ANYONE AT present IN the field. He told his New York man to “call upon Gish immediately, tell her I would like [to] make four pictures a year with her that I will personally supervise and in which she would be starred. Or possibly three starring pictures and have her appear in one of my personally directed productions each year. . . .

If she mentions [Gish’s lover, the drama critic] George Jean Nathan you can say that I have the highest regard for Mr. Nathan and would be glad to associate him in some way with her pictures. That at the same time if she is to have the benefit of my direction and supervision naturally the choice of stories and matters of that sort must be left in my hands.”

DeMille’s agent reported back that three or four companies were bidding for Gish’s services, for what he thought was a minimum of $5,000 a week, and she wanted a definite offer. A couple of days later, he asked DeMille, “would you take Nathan if signing Gish depended on it?” The negotiations with Gish went no further; she signed with MGM. That wasn’t the only disappointment. DeMille was anxious to sign the silk hat comedian Raymond Griffith, and was willing to trade Bebe Daniels, with whom he had worked out a contract memo. But Daniels changed her mind about working for DeMille because her boyfriend was going to be working in the East and she wanted to follow him there. This left DeMille with nothing to offer of comparable value for Griffith.

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

On July 27, 1948, DeMille had attended the funeral of the largely forgotten, alcoholic D. W. Griffith. Lillian Gish remembered that only six people came to the funeral home the night before the funeral; one was DeMille, another was John Ford. For the funeral itself, where there were sure to be cameras, there was a crowd.

Sitting there, DeMille must have thought about the meaning of Griffith’s life, and the circumstances of his death, about roads not taken, and why he, alone of all the directors of his generation, maintained a preeminent position in the industry.

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford, Evelyn Baldwin Griffith and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

Martin Scorsese once wrote that what moved him about DeMille was his sense of wonder. “DeMille presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life. The marvelous superseded the sacred. What I remember most are the tableaux vivants, the colors, the dreamlike quality of the imagery, and of course the special effects. . . .

“DeMille’s legacy is . . . putting on a giant show for people who were working class people, who don’t have much money to go and see a film in a theater. They are told it’s a spectacle and they really do see a spectacle. He wouldn’t let the audience down at all, and it always paid off in that beautiful flow of poetic and dream-like images.”

Alone among the survivors of a bygone era, DeMille persisted in constructing vast pieces of silent music: Pre-Raphaelite, pre-Freudian images that rendered dialogue irrelevant. His silent films have maintained DeMille’s reputation as a great director by those lucky enough to see them, and the enormous spectacles have kept his name alive for audiences more than fifty years after his death. Years after DeMille’s death, Gloria Swanson visited Palm Springs, where William Holden was living. Holden was in Africa, so Swanson left a note for him on a toilet seat.

“Dear Joe,” [his character’s name in Sunset Boulevard]

I’m leaving this note where I know you’ll find it.

“Where is Max? Where is DeMille? Where is Hedda? Where has everybody gone?

“Love, Norma Desmond.”

Once, when DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia was a little girl, she asked him what he did for a living. He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “I tell stories,” he said.

Empire of dreams - Cecil B DeMille - cover
Empire of dreams – Cecil B DeMille – cover

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Playing to the Camera – 1998 (Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Playing to the Camera – 1998

(Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)

Edited by Bert Cardullo, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, and Leigh Woods

If the film is the director’s work, then, when we think ofgood films, why do we think of actors as often as of directors? When I remember Way Down East, certainly I recall Griffith’s mastery, but equally I think of Lillian Gish’s body language as her life and status change.

The Silent Performance

Griffith’s authoritarian qualities were doubtless strengthened by his fondness for hiring, and then molding, actresses sometimes even younger and less experienced than Marsh. One of these was Lillian Gish, who began working with him while still a young girl and whose exposure to him influenced the rest of her career. In capturing Griffith’s passion for demonstrating effects, Gish makes it clear in her narrative that he possessed a highly developed narrative sense, which he drilled into novices and seasoned professionals alike. By doing so, he helped her and others generate a full – bodied style, capable of expressing emotion without making it seem grotesque. This style, at its best, distinguishes acting in silent films from the acting in films with sound, which was typified by greater restraint.

Stanley Kauffmann

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

Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me

Excerpt from Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 84-86, 96-102, 279. Copyright © 1969 Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot.

Before a movie was filmed a player would often get a chance to rehearse each part in the film under [D. W. Griffith’s] supervision. As casting was not decided on until shortly before filming, we were obliged to be familiar with all the roles we had rehearsed. This system taught us range and flexibility. . . .

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Once the parts were awarded, the real work would begin. At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden kitchen chair, the actors fanning out in front of him, and, as he called out the plot, they would react, supplying in their own words whatever was appropriate for the scene. As rehearsals continued, Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in the ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time that we had run through the story several times, he had viewed the action from every conceivable camera angle. Then he would begin to concentrate on characterization. Often we would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect. If we still failed, he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later moderate in us. . . .

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

In rehearsals we were expected to visualize the props—furniture where none stood, windows in blank walls, doors where there was only space. Our physical movements became automatic and our emotions completely involved. Most rehearsals were open—that is, the whole staff, actors, workmen, and the men from the laboratory were free to come and watch. Often there would be visitors on the set. Mr. Griffith loved the presence of an audience while his company rehearsed—and rehearsed so effectively that at the end of the scene, the onlookers would be in tears. Later, we learned to withhold, not to give as much as we would if the camera were operating. Film was expensive, and a scene was shot only once, so we conserved our strength for that one take. . . .

d.w. griffith and robert harron taking a lunch break during the filming of the birth of a nation

During lunch he would help those who happened to be eating with him. If an actor did not know what to do with a character, if he was baffled and could not get insight, Mr. Griffith would say: “Well, haven’t you seen someone like this in your life? Go find him. Go get an idea from someone, and bring it back to me, and let me see if it’s any good. I can’t think of everything! I’m writing the whole story. You have only one character to worry about, so you try to round it out and make it real and whole!” . . .

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

I would often be called in to rehearse parts for the more experienced actresses, who would sit by and watch me to see how the story unfolded. They thus gained perspective on their roles. Afterward I was allowed to stay while the more experienced players took over. Changing places in this way proved to be beneficial both to the craftsman and the novice. I often saw the scene again in the darkroom, thus learning how to correct my mistakes and profiting bv the skill of the others. . . . I won the role in The Mothering Heart, ancl it turned out to be a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction. During the filming I worried that I was overplaying. But when I looked at the rushes during a lunch break, I asked Mr. Griffith why none of it showed on the screen. He explained: “The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time—so half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normally to come over with full effect to your audience.” He taught us that false emotions never move an audience, that you cannot make viewers cry with make-believe tears. “The first thing an actor needs is soul,” he said. “The actor with soul feels his part, he is living his role, and the result is a good picture.” . . .

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette

He made it clear to us that acting required study. “No matter where you are, watch people,” he told us. “Watch how they walk, how they move, how they turn around. If you’re in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.” Whenever he saw some behavior pattern that intrigued him, he would use it at an appropriate moment in one of his pictures. “Catch people off guard,” he reminded us continually. Sometimes, at the end of a shooting session, he would talk with those of us who remained to watch the rushes. “Too many of us walk through life with blinders on our eyes. We see only what concerns us, instead ofwhat goes on around us. Let’s take a scene that is played again and again every day—one that we see and yet do not see. Let us imagine ourselves standing on a street corner. A pretty girl is waiting at the curb for a bus. A commonplace, undramatic event. Nearly every corner has a pretty girl waiting for a bus. But suppose we already know one fact—if the girl misses her bus, she’ll be late for work. If she’s late, she’ll be fired. Let us begin then in the morning, when she comes awake abruptly in her room. We close in on the face of the clock to see the time. We watch her dressing with frantic haste. We see her drinking coffee. We show the hand holding the cup. It is trembling. We are becoming involved in the multitude of details which clothe every human event. When the girl leaves the house it is raining; she rushes back for an umbrella. Then we see her last-minute dash through the rain puddles for the bus. All of this, mind you, set against a montage of the hands of the clock moving and a backdrop of the office she is trying to reach. If we saw all this, we would be reliving our own tensions in similar circumstances, simply because we have been made to see it in all of its parts.” And he would repeat the familiar cry, “I am trying to make you see!” To learn about human nature and to build our characterizations, we visited institutions normally closed to young people. At insane asylums, for example, we were escorted through wards by nurses or the doctors themselves. . . .

Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes
Lillian Gish Battle of The Sexes

I sympathized deeply with all the patients. They may have been aware of my compassion, for one day when the nurse left the ward for a moment a young woman shuffled over to me. She whispered: “I’m no more insane than you are. My relative put me in here for a purpose. Here’s my mother’s telephone number. Call her and tell her to come and get me. I’m unjustly confined.” She sounded completely rational. Her appeal touched me, and I took the number. Just then the doctor entered and looked at her shrewdly. “Mary, why did you break the window this morning,” he asked, “and then take the glass and cut your leg?” She regarded him innocently. “But I had no pen. And I had to write with something.” Later, when I was faced in a film with a scene that required knowledge of insanity, I had seen enough of its physical manifestations to convey the necessary range of emotions. During the filming of The White Sister many years afterward, I drew on my knowledge of epilepsy for one scene; it proved an effective way to register shock. Whenever I had doubts about the appropriate reactions to certain situations, I would consult an expert on the subject.

Mr. Griffith always emphasized that the way to tell a story was with one’s body and facial expressions. “Expression without distortion,” he always said. He meant, “Frown without frowning.” Show disapproval without unsightly wrinkles. The only makeup he suggested was a golden tone, an idea he borrowed from Julia Marlowe, with whom he had acted and whom he admired tremendously. I learned from him to use my body and face quite impersonally to create effects, much as a painter uses paint on canvas. Later on, when I worked with other directors, I would hang a mirror at the side of the camera, so that in a closeup I could see what effect I was producing. Mr. Griffith kept constantly at his young players: “Let me see you walk with happiness. No, not gaiety, that’s something else. That’s better. Now, with sadness—not sorrow. Now—with comedy, tragedy, sickness, blindness. Now. let me see you run in all these ways. Some of you move like wooden Indians. Must I open a dancing school to teach you flexibility?” He and I used to have a constant argument on one point. When I played a young girl, he used to have me hop around as if I had St. Vitus Dance. “Young girls don’t do that,” I complained. “How else can I get the contrast between you and older people, ifyou don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” he asked. Then, imitating a young girl, he would get up and hop about, shaking his balding head as if it had a wig of curls. A stranger would have thought him mad. We were encouraged to train our bodies for acrobatic pantomime, which was particularly useful when the camera was shooting from a distance. We were also called upon to perform the most dangerous stunts. None of us ever objected; it did not occur to us to object. I studied fencing with a teacher named Aldo Nadi. He approved of my good eyesight and long legs and told me that in two years he could have me ready for the Olympics. But I was interested in fencing only as an adjunct to acting. I alsojoined the Denishawn Dancing School, studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, whose pupils—among them Martha Graham—have since won acclaim for their great talents. Their large living room had been converted into a studio with mirrors and practice bars, and later, while Miss Ruth and Mr. Ted were on tour, Mother rented it so that we could practice early in the morning and late at night. Within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or an athlete. Mr. Griffith also encouraged us to take voice lessons to develop strength and proper breath control. His studio was certainly no training camp for weaklings; the working hours were unlimited, the demands unpredictable. Under Mr. Griffith’s tutelage, some of the younger girls of the company also had a small, impromptu class. Strindberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — we read them all with earnest, patient concentration. We might not have absorbed all the ideas, but we tried awfully hard. I myself was seldom on the set without a book under my arm. During that time I developed an admiration for anyone who knew more than I did, and I must confess that the feeling is still part of me. We also were expected to search for possible story material, reading everything in the public domain. We would find promising stories, change the locales, and use the characters and situations in our films. Mr. Griffith urged us to mingle with audiences in movie theaters to observe their reactions. “It doesn’t matter how you feel when you’re playing,” he said. “I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what you make an audience feel. You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you’re not making the audience feel that way, you’re not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they’re held by what you’re doing, you’ve succeeded as an actress.” I have often sat in the balcony, staring at faces to measure the effect of a scene. More than once I’ve put my face directly in front of a spectator’s face; instead of being distracted, I found, he would move his head aside in order not to miss a second of what was happening on the screen. Then I would know that I had achieved what I was striving for. . . .

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

The essence of virginity—purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul, and body—is the stuff out of which, under [Mr. Griffith’s] prompting, I created heroines. He made me understand that only governments and boundaries change, that the human race remains the same. . . .

. . . Before Mr. Griffith would begin filming any production, he would rehearse the entire film from beginning to end. Other directors, I discovered, simply rehearsed each individual scene before it was filmed. I wanted full rehearsals on La Boheme; I had never worked without them. Through them an actor could develop his character, grow used to his partners, time his scenes, and set his tempo. This approach wasn’t known at M.G.M., nor was my method of rehearsing. It didn’t take me long to see that the other players were greatly amused by my actions—opening doors that weren’t there, going up and down stairs that didn’t exist. When they tried to imitate my actions, they simply became embarrassed. I could not impose my kind of rehearsal on the others, nor could I object when they wanted music for their scenes. I had never had music before, and I simply had to close my ears and continue working. The music was fine, of course, when I wasn’t trying to concentrate on a scene.

Playing to the camera : film actors discuss their craft
Playing to the camera film actors discuss their craft

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The Mona Lisa of The Movies – By Delight Evans (Screenland – June 1924)

Screenland – June 1924 Vol IX No.3

The Mona Lisa of The Movies

By Delight Evans

Is it because Lillian Gish’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?

If an intrepid producer today decided to do Cleopatra, who would you select as the most likely interpreter of the title role? Cleopatra, enchantress of the Nile; with Salome, holding the vamping championship of the ages; Egypt’s luscious queen called Cleo by the vulgar varieties and tin-pan alley. Nita Naldi? Barbara La Marr? Theda Bara—she made it once, you know. No.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish.

Now that the uproar has subsided and the hoots and hisses have died in the distance, let me repeat: Lillian Gish. That same Lillian whose last name has come to be a verb among film followers. Famous as the Little Nell of the silent drama; the most persecuted heroine of all time; the victim of more unfortunate circumstances than any other girl who was ever cast out in a cape into the night that was forty below. In short, the sweet seducee of hundreds of celluloid chromos — what, she, Cleopatra? Exactly. Lillian Gish is the only logical candidate for the role. You may picture Cleopatra as a large and luscious lady; a voluptuous creature with black, black hair and sloe eyes; a mouth that looks always as if it has just been kissed. A combination of Naldi and Negri and La Marr with a dash of piquance a la Alma Rubens.

Wrong again.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s portrait

Cleo Was a Ingenue. Cleo could be classified, according to type, only as an ingenue. She was essence of ingenue, de luxe. She was very, very slender; she had wide, innocent eyes. Feminine, soft, soothing and sweet. She had her own way, but in her own way. She caressed and cajoled, as ingenues have always done. She would have fitted in beautifully in any gathering of the Ladies Aid of Alexandria. She was a little lady—and the most dangerous one of her day.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Oh, yes, Cleopatra was an ingenue. A devastating darling with an iron will and a fixed purpose. A slim, bright sword in a shimmering sheath. It was a noted archaeologist who said that her twentieth-century celluloid incarnation was none other than Lillian Gish. The girl who has been for years the screen symbol of female virtue, modesty, and meekness. He looked at her, so the story goes, and exclaimed: “Cleopatra!” “What?” said the surprised maestro, Mr. Griffith. “Miss Gish?” “Ah—she is the perfect type! She has everything any actress needs to play the part.” “But she’s an ingenue,” protested her great teacher.

“That may be,” smiled the authority on dead ages and living ladies. “Nevertheless, she has it—that inflexibility, that subtlety that Cleopatra exhibited, to the ultimate degree. If, my dear sir, you do not film Cleopatra with Lilian Gish in the leading role you will be overlooking an opportunity—a very great opportunity, indeed.”

Doubtless the showman side of D. W. G. foresaw the public’s inability or reluctance to view a re-creation of Cleopatra other than in the well-upholstered person of Nita Naldi. He smiled and said nothing. And Lillian Gish went her own way with her own company, and D. W. went his. Hence Cleopatra and Miss Gish have never gotten together.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Lillian, an Enigma

Lillian seems determined to confine herself to the portrayals of unvarnished virgins; to dedicate her art and her subtle smile to the perpetuation of many more Anna Moores. A pity. Because the screen has never reflected the Cleopatra complex in our most stainless heroine. Her adorers would shudder to see her in the arms of Antony; her littlegirl fans of all ages would stop sending her crocheted doilies if she ever enacted a person of adult passions and intelligence. The virgin queen of the screen is an enigma if there ever was one. Where is her Leonardo? Griffith, as her professional da Vinci, painted her as the Gioconda of the gelatines, as faithfully, perhaps, as anyone ever will. But the Griffith Gish was never half so baffling as the curiously quiet, gentle-voiced woman who is the real Lillian.

A Timely Interception - 2 Biograph
A Timely Interception – Biograph

So many think they know her. Her hordes of girl interviewers swarm about her and come away worshipping, calling her by her first name and devoutly believing they have been admitted inside the shell. Her co-workers admire and often adore her—I know this is old stuff, but it’s fact this time. I remember Kate Bruce, who has played with her since Biograph days, when her eyes filled with tears as she said: “God bless her! She’s a wonderful girl. Always the same; always kind and patient. She works harder than any of us. That guillotine scene (they were making Orphans of the Storm) was done a dozen times, and she was better every time.” They used to stand on the sidelines out at the Griffith studios and watch her go through a scene. When she had wrung the hearts of the studio spectators and the camera had captured her tragic tears she would look around at the friendly circle as if surprised she could stir them so. Always, she was the calmest of them all.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

The Ingenue Grows Up

I’ve watched her grow up. Not from baby days. But from an ingenue leading woman to one of the three or four outstanding women of the silver-sheet. I saw her for the first time, in Chicago, about seven years ago. It was after Hearts of the World had been a triumph for Griffith and for the Gish sisters. It made Dorothy, the Little Disturber, a star. Lillian and Mrs. Gish wired me to meet them at the station where they had an hour before boarding an east-bound train. Lillian took my breath away. She was so ethereal I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in her earthliness when she ordered and ate an artichoke. She was carrying a tall cane really a wand—which she used for the exercises she performed faithfully every day. Always frail—but her indominable indominable courage has made her strong. For one old Griffith picture she learned to turn cartwheels. She taught herself to swim a few years ago. Work—work—work—that has been her whole life. She is absolutely selfless and sincere in it. Her inflexibility is incongruous with her smooth, suave surface. She is as delicate and as dainty a creature as you would want to see. Faint perfume; a soft “veil”; perfect gloves and all that sort of thing. A clever author once remarked to me that she was a great woman because she was so adaptable.

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

She is a chameleon. She is a lovely mirror in a quaint frame. In any salon, at any court in the world she would not be out of place. All the more remarkable when you consider that her youth was spent almost entirely on the stage, and not the New York stage. The stages of small towns’; the hard, relentless life of a trouper was hers until the movies, that fairy godmother of so many Cinderellas, lifted her from obscurity to fortune. Disillusioned by Hard Knocks There was one time of her career when she lived in a little hotel near Washington Square and cooked all her meals over a one-burner gas stove. When she actually did not get enough to eat. David Belasco told her afterwards he thought she was wasting away. There were times when she and her mother and Dorothy could not be together; when the exigencies of their uncertain profession called them apart. Her training was a stern school. She has known all the hard knocks, all the disappointments; and I have always thought her a little disillusioned. In the years I have known her I recall a glimpse here and there that interests me—for no particular reason except that it reveals something of the real Lillian—a creature as varied in mood and mind as anyone I have ever known. She has always seemed to me to be an unconsciously complex individual. Exteriorly, she is somewhat of a Pollyanna, with a respect for the good, wholesome, middle-western things.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

I saw her after she and Dorothy and Mr. Griffith had lunched at the White House with the Hardings. She marvelled a bit that the President and his wife were so much like other human beings—just plain, simple folk like ourselves. It was apparent, too, a long time ago, when I went with her and her mother to see Broken Blossoms. The audience contained several representatives of the higher social order of Manhattan. We went to an ice cream emporuim afterwards and over our sundaes Lillian thrilled at the fact that the once-lowly movies could now attract the creme de la creme of the aristocracy. And yet she cannot help being the friendliest and most democratic of souls. Sympathy is within her and she has made up helpless little extras and taken under her wing pretty aspirants for screen honors. She is one of the few stars of importance who will go out of her way a little to help someone, without thought of return.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Really Old-Fashioned

She is really old-fashioned. Her dressing-table drawers are neat and orderly. She used to keep piles of pretty silk underthings, and hundreds of handkerchiefs, and never wear them. Her sister and James Rennie once escorted her to a smart hotel where the youthful fashionables were wont to cavort. Lillian couldn’t believe young people really acted like that. Her visit to the suburban home of a famous novelist and his wife opened her wistful eyes still wider. “And they say that motion picture people are gay,” she exclaimed. “Why, I never saw anything like it in all the time I have been in pictures.” An eminent and elderly French artist asked her to pose for him. He did some charming things of her and called her his most entrancing subject. I heard him rave. He bent over her hand. He gave her a rose and asked her to pose for another head. Lillian thanked him prettily and told me later that she always took someone with her to the sittings. Her shyness and her modesty are genuine, not assumed. But I do not doubt that, if her role called for it, she would do a Lady Godiva without a murmur. When she is working she is impersonal. I spent a week-end with the Gishes when they lived in Mamaroneck. The family retired early. On Lillian’s bed-table was her prayer book with its “L. G.” on the cover. The next morning she was up at six and at the studio at six-thirty. It was Sunday. She was directing Dorothy in a comedy while Mr. Griffith was in the South. She made it a good comedy by sheer determination and desperately hard work. Everything happened to hinder her that can happen in a studio. The electrical apparatus wouldn’t work. It was a grind. In her severely simple suit, with a green shade over her eyes, and a huge megaphone, she was L. Gish, director, and a darned good one. Not a vestige of the girl the world knows. She was the most impersonal director I ever saw on a set. Her own sister might have been a casual acquaintance. Patient, tactful—yes. But business-like. She hardly had time or the inclination to pose for publicity stills. I have always handed it to her for her work with that comedy. It was an achievement entirely unassisted by personality.

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

A Good Sport

Then, the first time she left Griffith, the company that was to have starred her in a series of features fell through, she was a good little sport. She had made up her mind it was time for her to make money—compared to the salaries of other stars, her Griffith remuneration was small, indeed. But when her company failed she went- back and quietly became a part of the Griffith organization again. It must have been a keen and bitter disappointment; but if it hurt her nobody knew it. She played her parts in the Griffith pictures more exceptionally than ever before. She shared, more than any other Griffith player, the director’s triumphs. At one of the premiers, the audience called for Mr. Griffith; and after his speech, applauded thunderously for his heroine. Griffith smiled. “You are looking in the right direction,” he said, waving at her box. Somehow a Griffith first night has never seemed so colorful since she has left. Now she is an established star in her own right. She has made The White Sister and Romola in Italy. She shops in Paris and Rome. She has met and grown to know men and women of the world; the substantial things of life are hers. And has she changed? Of course, she has. She has taken on a new poise and a fresh charm. Her contact with another world—the bigger, polished existence outside a studio—has left its impression. She is mentally more alert—and more silent than before.

German postcard. Ross Verlag No. 8442. British-American Film A.-G. (Bafag), Berlin. Lillian Gish in the film The White Sister (Henry King 1923), shot in Italy.

A Trifle Tired

The thought has occurred to me about her that she is a trifle tired. She has accomplished so much in a few short years. Not yet thirty, she has been accorded a niche next to Duse. Her personal popularity is greater than Maude Adams’ ever was. John Barrymore has called her a truly great artiste. So have many others. With the illusion that she, a real actress, a conscientious, devoted artiste, loved and lived only for her work, I once said to her: “But, of course, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t always busy.” She turned to me, and her lovely eyes—the only eyes I have ever seen which could be called limpid—were a little weary.

“Oh, yes I could,” she said. “Do you think any of us would work if necessity didn’t demand it? I would love to have money enough and time enough just to follow spring around the world.”

Alfred Cheney Johnston Lillian Gish 1922 Orphans outfit

Her earnings have been considerable. And the Gish family has never lived exorbitantly. Theirs has been the life of the usual prosperous home. But the long and serious illness of Mrs. Gish, with its heavy expenses—for nothing was spared that their beloved mother might be well and strong again—was a severe drain on the finances and the courage of the sisters. Speaking of courage, Lillian has it. Mrs. Gish lay ill in the hospital while Orphans of the Storm was being made. Lillian and Dorothy often dashed to town from the suburban studio for a moment’s visit. They did the greatest work of their careers while their hearts were heavy and their nerves at the breaking-point. Their mother has always ben their first consideration. Studio mamas have been kidded, and often with justice. But here is an exception. Mae Gish is one of the finest women whose fortunes have ever been associated with the films. Slight and pretty, with Lillian’s gentleness and Dorothy’s sense of humor, she has sympathy and savoir faire. Her son-inlaw adores her. What higher praise? She is well again and with her girls in Italy.

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo

Lillian is Old-World

Somehow I think Lillian has always belonged there. She is old-world. I can imagine her among the ruins of the Renaissance; in those serene places where the lustrous ladies she rather resembles used to linger. I’d like to have her play Beatrice d’Este, that capricious child of Milan, with her dwarfs and her festivities and her gem-encrusted gowns. Lillian would rather play Isabella, I suppose! If she could only be persuaded that her dramatic future lies along different lines. She has played too long the passive part. Except in a few of the old Triangle films, such as Diana of the Follies, she has been the instrument of a cruel fate. If she would shake off the shackles of conventionality, she would be truly great. She has courage. Why not use it and play Cleopatra; or Mona Lisa, or Beatrice? Perhaps, like her friend Mary Pickford, she is bound by cinema traditions. Mary is firmly convinced that she dare not trifle with the public affection to the extent of portraying a human being; and so she keeps on playing her pretty, innocuous children. Does Lillian Gish dare to do a Cleopatra? I had hopes when I read the reports that she was at last to embark upon the high sea of real romance. The rumors of her engagement to Charles Duell, the president of her company, Inspiration Pictures, still persists despite cabled denials from Italy. And only the other day I heard that a young naval officer had given up his post to follow her to Rome and Florence, and that she was as enamoured of him as he of her. Again, denials. Let Lillian Gish allow herself to indulge in a little amour, away from the blinding studio lights and the ceaseless click of the camera; let her marry and even retire for a while—and the screen will be richer for her experience. Is it because Lillian’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?

The White Sister
The White Sister

A young man in England used to send her poems, all nicely bound and expressive of his undying devotion. Lillian was pleased with them, and showed a little-girl eagerness for the next edition. Will life cheat her of the passions and perplexities she has never enacted before the camera? Will her own existence resolve itself into a repetition of the passive part she has played on the screen?

You may answer that in Way Down East; her Anna Moore suffered, and suffered, and suffered. I know she did. But Anna Moore was a dumb-bell. Almost without exception, the girls she has geen called upon to act have been dumb-bells. They suffer, but only physically. You feel that they have learned nothing from life. Lillian has absorbed. She has a receptive mind and a retentive memory; and, unlike her heroines, she has grown up, with the potentialities for honest emotion and drama. Lillian Gish is not a dumb-bell. She is a remarkable woman. And the sooner she proves it upon the screen the better.

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D.W. Griffith might be the richest man – By Frederick J. Smith (Photoplay – Dec. 1926)

Photoplay Magazine December 1926

He Might Be the Richest Man in the World

By Frederick James Smith

If D.W. Griffith had thought of himself first he would be a millionaire today

David Wark Griffith
David Wark Griffith

Suppose D. W. Griffith had protected his pioneer screen devices with patents. Today the whole film business would be paying tribute. The fade-out and the soft focus would be bringing him a million dollars apiece each year. Suppose he had put his famous film finds under long term contracts. But he didn’t. So today Griffith lives quietly in a Broadway hotel. He hasn’t earned a cent for two years because he is paying old debts.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith

“I am not a bad business man,” says D. W. Griffith. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. When I both directed and managed, I got along all right”

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)
Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith inspect the negative (Los Angeles Herald)

Suppose the pioneer motion picture devices had been patented as everything has been patented in the more modern field of radio. David Wark Griffith would be one of the richest men in the world, and the empire of films would be turned topsy-turvy. “Suppose I had patented the fade-out,” Griffith told me sadly the other day. “I would be drawing at least a million a year in royalties. The dissolve-out is absolutely necessary to the smooth telling of a story. Try counting the number of times it is used in a single picture. “To eliminate it would make necessary the abrupt beginning and ending of scenes. It would jar and distort the whole observation of a film drama.

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

” Yes, I might have patented it. You can patent anything derived from a mechanical device. I just didn’t realize its significance then. We were all pioneers— and I wanted to help the business.

“I might have patented the shooting of scenes through gauze. Sometimes it is called soft focus. They used to call it ‘mist photography’ in the old times. That is another mechanical device.

Mary Pickford is one of D. W. Griffith’s most famous discoveries. She flashed across the screen when Griffith was laying the foundations of pictures at the old Biograph studio

“The revenue from the gauze appliance would have been good for another million easily each year. Only the other day I patented a new application of this device, so I know that I could have protected the original. “It wouldn’t have been possible to patent the flash-back or the close-up,” Griffith went on. “Those are ideas of technique. But, with the other two devices under patent, I wouldn’t have needed them. I would have my millions, anyway.”

D.W. Griffith - late 1930's
D.W. Griffith – late 1930’s

The man who laid the foundation of motion pictures looked about his hotel room. He has a little suite of living room and bedroom in a Times Square hotel. Its windows look across the west side tenements to the Hudson and to Fort Lee, the pioneer Jersey Hollywood of the films. The living room is piled high with books and manuscripts. The remainder of the Griffith records repose in the hotel basement.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios

“I’m not a bad business man,” Griffith continued. “Honestly, I’m not. I was never in difficulties until I turned my business over to others. In California in the old days, when I both directed and managed, I got along all right. It was only when I came to Mamaroneck and turned over my business handling to others that I became involved.

“Of course, the collapse of everything at Mamaroneck nearly broke my heart. We missed success so narrowly. Bad management and bad releasing contracts caused the destruction. But, when we failed, I made up my mind that the stockholders would be paid back. That’s why I took the contract at Famous Players—to earn enough to pay back every cent.

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

“Right at this moment I have earned enough to pay back 4 ½ of every 12 cents I owe each stockholder. I will have the whole thing paid in another year.

D. W. Griffith believes that Lillian Gish is the great actress of the screen. Even in view of her more recent films and their adverse criticism, he asks: “Who is greater?”

“I’m not earning a cent for myself. Actually, I’m working for nothing. Last year, in fact, I went behind fifteen thousand dollars. But I will be out of servitude in another twelve months.”


Another source of a possible fortune came up. Suppose Griffith had signed his various film discoveries to long term contracts, following the custom of today. Griffith found Mary Pickford, the Gishes, Constance Talmadge, Blanche Sweet, Richard Barthelmess and others. Suppose he had tied them up to lengthy contracts. “It couldn’t be done,” Griffith told me. “Did you ever try to work with an actor who is unhappy? Did you ever try to direct an actor who thought himself underpaid, who felt that he ought to be a star? I have. It’s a horrible experience. I wouldn’t have a restless player under contract for the world. I value my peace of mind too much.”

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

Sometime Griffith is going to write the story of his life. It will be after he finishes directing, if he ever does. Griffith wants to write. “Writers are the only ones who can express their ego,” he says. “Directors can’t, because pictures must be made to please the majority. We can’t deal with opinions. All we can do is to weave a little romance as pleasantly as we know how.”

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

Griffith naturally doesn’t like to express .comparisons. I did ask him to name the greatest actor he had ever directed.

Arthur V Johnson
Arthur V Johnson

He thought a while. “Arthur Johnson, I guess,” he said. “Yes, Arthur Johnson. Henry Walthall was excellent in romantic roles. Perhaps a little florid. Lionel Barrymore was vivid in those old Biograph days. But Johnson was matchless in everything — modern, romantic, comedy. He would have been a great film leader had he lived.”

Griffith did not commit himself so exactly about the greatest actress he had ever directed. He obviously seems to consider Lillian Gish and Carol Dempster the greatest. I asked him about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles. He countered. “Who is greater?”

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Griffith doesn’tbelieve that the public is fickle about its stars. “Stars do not slip quickly,” he says, “despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by the big favorites—who are still favorites. No, the public does not like to revise its estimates. It doesn’t want to go to the trouble of seeking new idols any more than the average man likes to seek a new object for his affections.” Griffith does not hold the German technique in awe.

“Motion pictures haven’t changed,” he declares. “The technique of telling your story varies with passing vogues, but the photoplay remains essentially the same. It has remained unchanged since the Biograph days.

“Yes, I know it has become the custom to say that the Germans are pioneers in a new technique. Why, they are doing the things that we discarded long ago. A certain primitive virility comes of that, but it is absurd to talk of a new technique. They do things long prohibited over here. Mugging, for instance. Long scenes played right at the camera. We did all that in the beginning. “The fact that this primitive stuff has been – dressed up with superb camera work has confused observers. The Germans have a fine mechanical mind. They have perfected the camera. In fact, after the war, we found that they had gone beyond us in cameras and camera equipment. In lighting, too. ” But this new German technique is all bosh.

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

We make better pictures in America. Sacha Guitry. the French playwright-producer, once said that the Biograph film drama revolutionized the stage. The effect of films upon the spoken drama must be obvious to everyone.

The Germans haven’t revolutionized our screen play—not yet, anyway.”

Griffith has been called a recluse. He was for a time, when collapse confronted him at Mamaroneck. He goes to many films but seldom to screen premieres. His amusement tastes are various. I have seen him dancing happily after the theater. I have seen him enjoying himself as a ringsider at big prize fights. But I have never seen him enjoy himself so completely as he does when he is directing. Griffith says he would like to spend his days in a sailboat on the Chesapeake. But I know he is kidding himself. He likes pictures too much.

Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding - Orphans of The Storm)
Dorothy & Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith (President Harding – Orphans of The Storm)

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Dorothy Gish—Her Story By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1918

Dorothy Gish—Her Story

Told as it could be only by a friend and admirer.

By Marguerite Sheridan

THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!

"Parting of Ways" finally a high resolution - From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s
“Parting of Ways” finally a high resolution – From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s

I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.

It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.

Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.


Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”