Sophie Newsome padded off across the red velvet carpet of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with the violets and the card that said “Miss Lillian Gish.” “This is one fine Lady … always has been in the 50 years she’s been coming here…one fine lady.”
It was the same across Los Angeles as the movie city’s longest running star Lillian Gish, 82 made her comeback in her 100th film, Robert Altman’s “A Wedding.” When the satire on modern marriage mores premiered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an opening night crowd of 1,000 celebrities roared with applause as she came to the stage. They were still clapping when she moved out in front, held out her arms and said: “I’m really glad to be back this town and this business has been so good to me.” Gish is the only superstar from the silent era still working in major motion pictures. “When I first came here in 1913 it was on the old Sunset Limited…I can still remember that wave of perfume that hit me as the train left San Bernardino and headed into Los Angeles, there were the orange blossoms from row after row of groves…then as we got into Hollywood, there were the roses. I thought I was in paradise. “It’s been 10 years since I made my last film (The Comedians’) but it seems as if there were no break at all in the timing because I’ve been so busy on stage (‘Musical Jubilee’) and in working on my own filmed retrospective history of the movies, ‘Infinity In An Hour.'” Her role as the bedridden matriarch in “A Wedding” resulted from a visit Altman made to Gish’s apartment a year ago.
“I’d had lots of offers during the 10 years,” she said. “But nothing really appealed to me…I make it a point only to work with people I like, you know. “A press agent friend of mine brought Bob Altman over one afternoon and he stayed two or three hours, telling me the story. What caught my attention was the death scene. He said I would die but that it would be amusing. Now, I’ve died lots of times in films, but never was it amusing.” The night after the premiere, Gish made preliminary arrangements for a feature length Gothic production, “The Bat” to be filmed in London. The resurgence is hardly a surprise to old-timers: Gish has been carefully timing her entrances and exits since the silent era ushered out with her classic MGM film “The Wind” in 1928. “I’ve always picked my films and plays by picking people,” she said. “Integrity and Intelligence are what’s important. I’ve never picked money. “Film is the greatest power the world has ever known…nothing else can so move the minds and hearts of the world.” Two hours later, at a Beverly Hills party, Carol Burnett leaned over and asked Lillian Gish: “What must it feel to be a living legend?” Gish winked. “Stick around, kid, you’ll find out.”
Marysville Daily Appeal, Volume CXXII, Number 3, 5 January 1921
Lillian Gish Baffles Storm in “Way Down East” Picture
The backbone of February wan broken. But the winter of New England was still with us. February is a treacherous month, and so it was toward the end of last February that Lillian Gish was turned out into that New England snowstorm from the house of Squire Bartlett. And the greatest of all stage climaxes had begun with this frail yet strong heroine of ”Way Down East” as she was literally swept out in night’s highway by God’s elements. The directing low-commanding voice of Griffith could scarce be heard above the howl of wintry blasts and the blinding snow clogged the air like the veriest London fog. But out and on went Lillian Gish inspired with the staunch soul of Anna Moore within her own. So great was the upheaval of the elements that signals had to he used between Griffith and his brave little star. That magic word from the lips and voice of D. W. Grifith of Cameras pierced the howl of the winds and with an uplifted hand through the blinding snows came Lillian Gish staggering in her thin raiment of black. Little Anna was weak. She was homeless, deserted. In the walk one will see at the Atkins theater Friday and Saturday, January 14 and IS, there is registered in every tissue of that body and face what misery and cruelty can be wrought upon the human being in this world. She struggles against the wind, but the gales swirl her from her feet and she falls only to rise to try to move on to some undiscovered place where there might be surcease of strife from soul and body. What you will see upon the screen of the cinema art at the Atkins Theater of Lillian Gish as Anna Moore was no make-believe suffering. It had to be done, and Lillian did it that we might all realize it.
Organized Labor, Volume 37, Number 2, 11 January 1936
Lillian Gish Broadcasts on Peace
Lillian Gish, the charming and talented heroine of dozens of outstanding plays and movies has an unusual interest in the relation of her profession to peace. In a recent broadcast in which she spoke on the subject, “How Motion Pictures May Promote Peace,” Miss Gish emphasized how great a contribution the motion pictures can make toward understanding and friendship among nations. Miss Gish said: “Having grown up in motion pictures and believing in them to the extent almost of a new religion, I hope you will forgive the lack of humor in my earnest belief in their possibilities. Of all the arts, if it may be classified as one, the motion picture has in it perhaps more than any other the resources of universality. It is to help the people of the earth to know and understand each other that the universal engine that is the cinema can be made to serve this great cause.”
Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLII, Number 282, 25 September 1916
Diana of the Follies
With Lillian Gish as the Vivacious Star
A dramatic right-about-face, that has tested Miss Lillian Gish’s gifts as an actress to the utmost. The little star, who has been sweet, submissive and “sobby’’ so often, has suddenly become a dashing chorus girl in this, her newest and most startling vehicle. Of course Diana does not remain a chorus girl. That is where she is found when the story opens. A great many things happen in a surprising way, when she becomes the wife of a wealthy young man. The most elaborate production yet made for the Triangle program.
As the Vivacious Star …
Interesting to women are the marvelous gowns, 67 in number, which are worn by the women in the cast. Nineteen are worn by Miss Gish herself, which makes the play a wonderful fashion show as well as a dramatic entertainment. The Jewels worn by Lillian Gish were loaned by a jeweler of Los Angeles. She adorns herself with a pearl necklace worth $30,000.00, a coronet worth $20,000.00, rings worth $7,000.00 : and bracelet worth $3,000.00. in addition to her own jewelry valued at $l5, 000. The total is $75,000.
San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, Number 87, 21 June 1922
LILLIAN GISH FINDS IT NO PICNIC TO LIE IN GUILLOTINE
“You often mall advice to aspirants. don’t you?” remarked Lillian Gish to a well known motion picture editor, who was visiting Mamaroneck during the taking of the guillotine scene for D. W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm,” a United Artists Corporation release which is coming next week to the Elmo Theater. “Please tell them,” Miss Gish continued, “that it is no fun dying on the movie guillotine from 10 a. m. to 7 p. m. as I have done this day!” The property man who stood near by agreed with Miss Gish, and commented In the language that only a property man knows how to use. – “The strongest of us wouldn’t want to lay in that neck piece chocker a nine-hour day—takes, retakes, closeups, far shots, short bits of rest in between. In fact a thousand deaths in one,” was the way he put It.
And it was true. The fair Lillian had been dragged up the steps by two burly ruffians hurriedly strapped to the board that goes under the guillotine, then, the sharpened knife was raised high In the air and everything was In readiness to separate the gentle Lillian’s beautiful blond head from the lovely Lillian torso. Then just as the knife was about to fall, Danton the hero arrive on the scene after the mad gallop from the court house five miles away and again Lillian was saved. If this happened once It had happened a score of times during that day. No wonder Lillian Gish was tired.
Grauman Books Lillian Gish in “Romola” for Hollywood
ONE week after its world premiere at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York, the Lillian and Dorothy Gish special, “Romola,” will go into Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood, for a long run starting December 8.
Sid Grauman plans to give Henry King’s new Inspiration production, distributed by Metro-Goldwyn, the most elaborate prologue he has staged in the Egyptian Theatre. As the Egyptian prologues are famous for their lavish beauty, Mr. Grauman’s intention in regard to “Romola” indicates that the production is expected to achieve a record run there. With “Romola” playing at both ends of the country at the same time, the publicity from these two engagements is expected to “cover” the entire United States territory in which the picture will afterward play. “Romola” has an immense audience waiting for it, as the George Eliot novel on which the picture is based is one of the most famous standard books, and the reunion of Lillian and Dorothy Gish in the picture is counted on to prove a big draw. Dorothy has a featured role in the production in which Lillian is the star.
The broad entrance to the Egyptian was a blaze of light and gala dress parade. The crowds massed on both sides to see the greatest of filmland pass. Doug and Mary (who had already run “Romola” in their home theatre), Charlie, Jackie . . . never mind the list, they were all there. High above, the name of LILLIAN GISH blazed out in tall letters. “When she arrived, and Dorothy, and their mother, their cars were fairly mobbed. Cameras were going, everybody had to pause a moment at the entrance for something special in that line. Manager Grauman was photographed between the two stars of the evening, properly set off and by no means obliterated, small man though he was, by the resplendent gowns. After which, came the performance. Manager Grauman had fairly laid himself out on an introductory feature. There were ten numbers of it, each more astonishing than the preceding: “Italian Tarantella,” “Harlequin and Columbine,” “The Eighteen Dance Wonders,” but why go on? It was a gorgeous show all in itself. After which, the beautiful processional effects of Romola’s story.
There was no lack of enthusiasm in the audience. When the picture ended and the lights went on, and Lillian and Dorothy appeared before the curtain, the applause swelled to very great heights indeed. And when a speech was demanded, Lillian, in her quiet, casual way, said:
“Dear ladies and gentlemen, both Dorothy and I do so hope you have liked ‘Romola.’ If you have, then, dear, kind friends, you have made us very happy, very happy indeed . . . and you have made Mr. King, who directed ‘Romola,’ very happy, too.”
From the applause that followed, it was clear that there was no question as to the importance of the occasion — all the more so, had they known that, for Hollywood, at least, it was the last public appearance of these two together.
By Paul O’Dell (with the assistance of Anthony Slide)
First published in 1970
A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. Castle Books – New York
David Wark Griffith has tended to become in recent years, a figure in cinema history attributed with innovation in film technique; the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting have all appeared in connection with his name. And so it is that he is now in danger of achieving a widespread reputation merely as technician: an inventor of cinematography. This does justice neither to Griffith himself nor to his work. It may very well be that he did “invent” all these ideas of pictorial presentation – but there is much evidence to suggest that he did not – and if he did not, then he certainly developed their use to startling effect. But these ideas, these techniques were for him only a means towards an end; never the ultimate distinguishing factor of his pictures. Nor was he dependent on these techniques in order to produce a film which stood above all contemporary works. Many of his early pictures contain no close-ups, no flashbacks, no camera movement, no complicated editing techniques, and no innovations. But nevertheless they are indisputably films of high artistic quality. Many post-Intolerance films also contain few, if any, of the “innovations” attributed to Griffith, and yet they are outstanding works nonetheless.
It is unfortunate – indeed it could be tragic – that a man who strove so hard to perfect the cinema as a medium for the stimulation of ideas should also have been the one who recognized the real potential of an embryo art form. The fact remains that while the technical achievements of D.W. Griffith have become the main reason for his importance in film history, his purely artistic achievements, the very reason why he ever made films at all, have tended to become relatively obscured.
The work of an artist is a door to his soul; whatever we see written about the artist, we will never get closer to the man himself than through his work. David Wark Griffith produced a tremendous volume of work during the twenty-three years he spent making motion pictures. It is via these films – those that remain – that we can come to a real understanding of Griffith, because in these films he poured all his ideas.
6. Into the Twenties: Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm
In terms of cinema history, Griffith was the man who fired the starting-pistol. It was he who gave the medium what it required to develop and expand. There came a time when he inevitably appeared to have “left behind,” a “non-starter.” It was to happen that he would be attacked again and again for his refusal to participate in the race. “Your refusal to face the world,” wrote one critic, “is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal … your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you – and to pictures.” Thus wrote James Quirk in 1924, cruelly cutting down the man who had virtually furnished him with a job (inasmuch as Griffith had given to the movies what no other individual had ever come near to possessing). What Quirk failed to recognize was that Griffith was not a man to be swept along in the tide of fashion. Why should he follow others? How could he follow others, when in effect they were following his precepts? ***
Way Down East
It was Griffith’s longest picture since Intolerance, and ran for more than three hours. In terms of construction, it relies on finely interwoven detail rather than the more instantly recognizable cross-cutting that distinguished his early work. In the opening sequences for example, when Anna is tricked into an illegal marriage to Sanderson, the ceremony itself is full of visual commentary, with the ring falling to the floor, cutting to Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess) waking suddenly from a nightmare – and this before any knowledge on anyone’s part of their two fates and the way they will eventually come together.
Lillian Gish as Anna has received much deserved praise for her work in this picture, especially for her superhuman feats among the ice-floes in the climatic sequences of the picture. The manner she receives the news of her false marriage, in the knowledge that she is pregnant, is yet another triumph for her ability under Griffith. The scene in which she baptizes her own child as it is dying also comes close to being one of Griffith’s supreme cinematic achievements. She also adds a sense of frightening realism to the scene in which she is told that her baby is dead. For a second or two she stares blankly into space, then slowly begins to shake her head from side to side. Suddenly, as if the news strikes her like some physical blow, she throws her head back, and, as if going into an epileptic fit, her whole body stiffens and she sits choking and screaming.
Anna eventually recovers and goes away to a town in which no one (she believes) can possibly be aware of her tragic situation, a situation which will also be regarded as shameful. She meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and he, like many other characters in Griffith pictures, is here identified with doves in one sequence. The truth will be out however, and especially in a small town. Unknown to Anna, Sanderson is to reappear, and her secret is to become common knowledge. Bartlett is undeterred, although the rest of the town immediately brand her an evil woman. The scene in which Anna is ordered out of the house by the Squire has been excused by some who explain that it needs dialogue for its effectiveness. On the contrary, this scene is of great emotional intensity, and this intensity is achieved simply by Griffith’s editing technique. Once again, he uses visual commentary on the basic situation to replace long sequences where there should be dialogue.
Anna is sent out into the blizzard, and David runs after her. There follows some really remarkable photography, shots in which Anna’s cape seems to vanish and reappear behind trees and snowdrifts, close-ups of Anna, whose eyelashes seem to have icicles on them, and this sequence leads directly to the chase on the ice-floes.
Orphans of the Storm
It appears, looking at Orphans of the Storm today, that once more Griffith was having to work within imposed conditions. However, as in the case of the Biographs, this does not make Orphans of the Storm an imperfect picture, and here again can be seen Griffith’s faultless gift for re-creating a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia and beyond.
The sequences that seem the most successful are those in which the poverty of the age is most obvious. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given in the perfect setting of course, and as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles … that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license.”
The familiar “Last Minute Rescue” towards the end of reel twelve is as exciting and as beautifully executed as we have by now come to expect from Griffith. Cutting between the guillotine and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Danton (Monte Blue) racing on horseback with her pardon, the sequence is a perfect example of “stretched action,” in which the time taken for Lillian Gish to walk three paces, for example, in the completed sequence, now intercut with other action, takes twice or maybe three times as long. This serves to build the suspense inasmuch as it creates an almost unbearable sense of impatience.
The crowd scenes have been likened to those of The Birth of a Nation, and the emotional effect they create is certainly valid.
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
Probably motion picture exhibitors won’t have a chance to book “Way Down East” for at least a year, as it will be played as a regular road show during that time. But remember this: when you finally have the opportunity to book it—that it is one of the biggest things ever seen on the screen. It looks as if it would run “The Birth of a Nation” a close race for box office honors and when, some many years hence, all is said and done and counted, it won’t be at all surprising if it surpasses it. The biggest thing about “Way Down East” is that it is lasting. This has been proven by the famous old play, and this play never reached the public finished off as artistically and as powerfully as Griffith’s picture. It’s an entertainment that people have gone to see again and again. And they will continue to do so. Even beneath the surface of the purely melodramatic play rested elements that brought the crowds back whenever it was presented.
Way Down East – Lobby Cards
Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.
Lillian Gish lifts her eyes to heaven as she flees across the shifting ice floes. Her performance as Anna dramatized the shifting perception of women in the decade following passage of the women’s suffrage amendment.
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