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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What Happened to Lillian Gish? By Frederick L. Collins – June 1933

The New Movie Magazine – June 1933

What Happened to Lillian Gish?

By Frederick L. Collins

TOO bad, isn’t it,” a Hollywood wise man said to me the other day, “about our old friend, Lillian Gish?” We were chatting casually after dinner. “What’s the matter? Is she dead?”

“Might just as well be,” was the laconic reply, “so far as pictures are concerned.” I admit I was shocked. I had been brought up in the Gish tradition. I had been taught that if anyone jumped on my bed in the middle of the night, grabbed me roughly by the Adam’s apple, shook me blankly back from bye-bye land, and asked me who was the greatest actress of the screen, I was to sit up politely, and answer:

“Lillian Gish.”

And why not?

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

Didn’t Max Reinhardt, creator of “The Miracle,” hail her as “the supreme emotional actress of the screen?” Didn’t Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “The Blue Bird,” say that “no other has so much talent”? Didn’t Joseph Hergesheimer choose her as his model for Cytherea because she was “like an April moon, a thing for all young men to dream about forever”? Didn’t John Barrymore call her “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life”?

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

And her pictures! Who doesn’t remember the moment in “Hearts of the World” when she began to go insane? In “Orphans of the Storm,” when she heard her blind sister singing in the street, and could not get to her? In “The White Sister,” when her cheek twitched as she heard the false news of Giovanni’s death? Of course, we remember! How could we forget?

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

WAS there ever a moment of utter terror equal to her closet scene in “Broken Blossoms”? Was there ever a vision of despairing young motherhood equal to her bathing of the baby in “‘Way Down East”? Was there ever a death scene equal to her Mimi’s in “La Boheme”?

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

And yet, here was a man whose opinion I was bound to respect—who knows more about Hollywood than Helen knew about Troy!—sitting calmly over an after-dinner cigar and telling me that “Lillian the Incomparable,” “Cinema Bernhardt,” “Duse in Celluloid,” “First Lady of the Screen,” was “all washed up” in pictures.

“Ask anybody,” he said.

And I did. Everybody. In studios, in executive offices, at luncheons, dinners, teas, cocktail parties — yes, they still follow that quaint custom in Hollywood ! — in box-offices, in theater lobbies, all along the boulevard. “Would any producer take a chance on Lillian Gish today?” I can’t say that the answer was a unanimous one. The most favorable ran something like this:

“Sure ! He’d be a fool not to—for one picture.” “Why one?” I asked. “Because that would be sure to make money, no matter what.” That wasn’t much of a “hand” for the woman who had held by almost unanimous consent—from that glamorous night when she emerged from the two-reel shadows of primitive pictureland into the glory of her Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” the premier position in the motion picture world.

Lillian Gish cca 1933 US Ship

But after I had cast up my totals, including those who said they had never heard of Lillian Gish, those who obviously recalled her name with difficulty or vagueness, those who confused her honestly enough with her sister Dorothy, those who could not remember a single part that she had played, and those who thought “that old Griffith crowd” was through, I wasn’t so sure even about that one picture! I called up the studio where she had made all but one of her last half dozen films to see if the films had paid. The first reaction of the studio executive to my question was more significant than any financial data he could give me.

“Lillian Gish? My God, that’s so far back I don’t know as we even have the records!”

Far back? Lillian Gish made her last picture on that man’s lot less than five years ago! At that time, his company was paying her $8,000 a week, $800,000 over a two-year stretch. And today, he not only couldn’t tell me whether the venture was a successful one —it was, as a matter of fact—but he had consigned it and her to the limbo of a forgotten past.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s candid

Yes, so far as Hollywood is concerned, the greatest actress of the screen might as well be dead! THE result of all this inquiry is no reflection on Miss Gish personally, or on her art. I daresay the same thing would have happened if I had substituted Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh. And if Mary Pickford doesn’t succeed with “Secrets” and get back on that screen in a big way. . . . You’re laughing at me? “Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps the picture public will never forget Mary. I hope it doesn’t. But if Mary is saved from the fate that has sooner or later overtaken every other member of the “old crowd” in pictures, it will be because she was more than a movie actress; she was a movie symbol; she was, to millions of people, a synonym for movies.

Lillian Gish cca 1933 US Ship 2

Lillian Gish, with all her artistry, was never that! Chaplin was, perhaps is, in Mary’s class. There are no others. Say “Douglas Fairbanks” to the average fan today, and he’ll think you are talking about Joan Crawford’s husband. Go see Fatty Arbuckle—give him a great big hand for his game attempt at a come-back—and then ask yourself, frankly, if the present day audience thinks he is funny. Laugh at Harold Lloyd—I hope I always will !—but even Harold, after three years’ absence from the screen, returned to find a public mildly grateful that Constance Cummings had found a new and “really very amusing” leading man TIME in Hollywood waits for no man—and for a woman, it doesn’t even hesitate!

Lillian Gish cca 1933s candid 2

This fact alone may be sufficient explanation of why the once great Lillian Gish is no longer in demand for pictures. At the height of her career — although acclaimed artistically above them all—she was never so widely popular as Fairbanks, never so generally loved as Arbuckle, never so big a draw as Lloyd.

It was to be expected, therefore, that the passage of time—say, four years’ absence from the screen—would have a more devastating effect on her boxoffice value than any of the others. But no such simple reasoning is a complete answer to the real mystery of Lillian Gish—not the mystery of how things are with her, but the mystery of how they got that way. Well, the answer most often heard in Hollywood is that Lillian, a creation of the great master, Griffith, was an instrument on which he, and he alone, could play; and that once he found herself far from the master’s guiding hand, she realized her limitations and quit before her public should realize them, too. This answer hardly holds water. She was a Griffith creation, just as Dorothy Gish was, and Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, and even Mary Pickford. It is true that he stood over these youngsters and told them just what to do at every turn of the camera. They were, for years, clay in his hands —and none more successfully so than Lillian. But since that time, she had abundantly proved her ability to work with a variety of directors. She did “The White Sister” and “Romola” with Henry King, “La Boheme” with King Vidor, “The Scarlet Letter” with Victor Seastrom, “Annie Laurie” with John S. Robertson. It would be difficult to name a quartet of first-string directors with more diverse methods. Yet Lillian had adapted herself with success to all of them. No! Hawkshaw in Hollywood must find something more authentic than this oft-jepeated Griffith canard to solve the mystery of the sudden disappearance from the screen of the screen’s great actress. There couldn’t have been any moral reason. Not with Lillian! One thing alone is lacking in her rich fabric of charm, and this is the element of sensual lure. The only newspaper case in which she had ever figured enhanced her reputation for character and decency and resulted in the indictment of her opponent for perjury.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

And surely she was not too old. She was less than thirty-two when she quit. She photographed eighteen. The only fault her admirers found in her work was that in some characterizations—for example, Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—she looked too young! Could it be that she was a talkie exile? No. She had shown in her one talking picture that she could act out loud as well as in pantomime. She had a good microphone voice. She had studied diction under one of the world’s masters. She had been a speaking actress long before she was a posing one. She is a speaking actress today. And she couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the treatment she was receiving from her employers. She exercized almost complete control over the choice of her stories. She had the pick of directors. She selected her own casts. She had everything most stars dream of having, and never get—plus $8,000 a week.

Lillian Gish 17 oct 1930

IN short, none of the stock Hollywood explanations for movie nose-dives applies in the case of Lillian Gish. Described in the heyday of her screen popularity as “elusive,” “baffling,” “mockingly mysterious,” she is all of these things—only more so—in the shadow of her retirement. On the surface, there is no reason, so far as her friends see, why she didn’t keep right on making pictures, why she shouldn’t be making them today.

“She hasn’t been ill,” they say. “She hasn’t dissipated. She hasn’t even been married!”

1930-128-115-Lillian Gish

There is, of course, the matter of dollars and cents. But it seems hardly probable that Lillian thought she was being paid too little. Eight thousand dollars a week salaries were rare in Hollywood even in boom times. It ispossible, however, that the roducers considering the hectic uncertainties of those first microphone days—did think she was being paid too much You could hardly blame them. No one, in 1928, knew whether the talking picture was an institution or merely a fad. All anybody knew was that nobody knew anything. And $800,000 contracts for five or six pictures from one star were just not being made. MOREOVER, there were other expenses to Lillian Gish pictures besides the star’s salary. Although brought up in a mass-production movie factory, although making her most satisfactory picture, “Broken Blossoms,” in only eighteen days, Miss Gish had acquired in the years of her prosperity and preeminence the habit of leisurely production. And sound stages on the Hollywood lots were too few, and too much in demand, during these first months, for leisurely productions. Miss Gish was a great artist, to be sure, and a nice girl; but the producers were fighting for their lives. The important thing at the time was to beat the other fellow to it with a picture — any picture—that talked. And there was some question as to whether Lillian Gish pictures could continue to make money under the new conditions. Her box-office strength, like that of all the old guard, was in the small towns—in the little picture houses, where the new stars like Garbo were still scarcely more than names —and the little theaters in the small towns in 1928 and 1929 were not wired for sound. It might have been possible to get Miss Gish to work for less; it might have been possible to get her to work faster; it might have been possible to get her to sacrifice elaborate production to speed. And even then, with her best public automatically cut off from her, it might not be possible to make money on her pictures. Of course, in just the right kind of story, another ” ‘Way Down East,” for instance, she might have got over financially. But show business waits vears for a clean-up like ” ‘Way Down East.” It was the hick “Ben Hur”—and first and last, it made almost as much money in the theater. But such stories are not made to order.

Lillian Gish cca 1933s portrait

MISS GISH, when urged by producers to do more ” ‘Way Down Easts,” might well have reminded them of the colloquy which took place between Lee Shubert and Augustus Thomas during the rehearsal of one of the latter’s plays. “What we need right there,” shouted Lee from the pit, “are two or three sure-fire comedy lines.”

“Yes?” replied Gus from the stage.

“For example?”

But the truth of the matter is tha’t Miss Gish probably wouldn’t have played a ” ‘Way Down East” again if it had walked up and tagged her on her shapely shoulder. She was through with such things forever. She had, in the Hollywood phrase, gone highbrow.


George Jean Nathan had said “the girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so.” And she had believed it. Here was where, movie-wise, the greatest actress of the screen made her greatest mistake. Here, and in the inevitable sequence, is to be found the real solution to the Mystery of Lillian Gish. The First Lady of the Screen had not ridden to the heights in a coach and four or in a padded limousine with sixteen cylinders to draw it. She had bumped along on the broad back of the donkey of melodrama. She had been helped over the rough places by the strong arm of hokum. Her master, Griffith, was master of both. He had never ventured into the untried fields of sophistication. But Lillian, taken up by Nathan, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Lewis, Cabell, and Mencken, rushed in where her former angel feared to tread. And what was the result? People who had loved her in the Griffith days went to see her in “The White Sister.” They sat in somewhat puzzled awe as they watched the frail, Dresden-china personality, which had stood out like a rare gem against the background of Griffth’s inspired crudities, sink almost into unrecognizability under the uniformed pagaentry in which she chose to deck Crawford’s simple, deathless story. They still went to see her—though fewer of them—in her uphill fight against a plethora of authentic Florentine settings and an engulfiing morass of George Eliot dullness in her even more ambitious “Romola.” THE faithful followed her—partly because of “The Big Parade” glamour that attached to the names of King Vidor, her director, and John Gilbert, her leading man—through the stormy mazes of “La Boheme.” The remnant remained to be shocked by “The Scarlet Letter.” Few but the critics cared one way or the other about “The Wind.” Fewer cared about “The Enemy.” Tastes were changing, too. Admirers had always spoken of Miss Gish’s work as poetic. “Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does.” But poetry, which had had its brief lyric fling right after the war, was going out. In fact, about the time Lillian began to lean most heavily on it, it disappeared completely as a salable commodity.

Lillian Gish and Bobby Harron 1920

Poetry hadn’t been a very salable quantity back in the old Biograph days, either. No one knew that better than Griffith. A Griffith picture, whether it ran to two reels or to sixteen, was a complete library. It contained poetry as all good libraries should—that was Lillian; but it contained humor—that was Dorothy; and drama—that was Walthall ; and homeyness—that was Mae Marsh; and appealing young manliness—that was Bobby Harron and Dick Barthlemess. The new slogan, “One will always stand out,” had not been invented. It was all for one and one for all. No Griffith picture in those days was a starring vehicle for Lillian Gish or for anyone else. No Griffith picture — and this is something which admirers of the old Griffith stars sometimes forget— was sold to the public on the popularity of any actor or actress who appeared in it. The popularity of Lillian Gish had only the vaguest relation to the huge box-office success of ” ‘Way Down East.” It had nothing to do with the success of “The Birth of a Nation.” In other words, nobody ever tried to sell a picture to the public on the strength of Miss Gish’s poetic personality until she tried it herself in a market where poetry had reached what was probably an “all-time low.” Another thing, critics were always writing about “the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing.” “The mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited in the theater—is simplynot for her.” . . . “She seems to float on the screen,”—this from her worshipper, the Northern professor, Edward Wagenknecht—”like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Well, if you recall the prevailing feminine costumes and behavior of the later Twenties, you will also recall that Botticelli, like poetry, was out, and sex appeal which Lillian admittedly never had, was in. “Give us Clara Bow!” the fans were crying.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish
Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

And they got her—while the first actress of the screen fled back to Broadway to do Chekhov’s gloomy Helena and Dumas’ still more gloomy Camille. The question naturally arises, in view of her precipitous flight, whether she was ever the great actress that she was supposed to be. Personally, I think she was and is. But it should be recorded in any attempt to solve The Great Gish Mystery that the best critical opinion, based on her recent stage appearance, seems to be quite up in the air on this point. After her Helena in “Uncle Vanya,” the learned Mr. Krutch declared that “we are no more sure than we were in the days when she was the particular star of the great Mr. Griffith whether she has real talents or merely certain odd deficiencies which a skilful director can utilize after the fashion of the marionette master and the character doll.”

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 5
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish, Central City; 1932; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1979.240.4

After her Camille, the equally erudite Mr. Woollcott asked: “Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? . . . I went to see ‘Camille’ with an open mind. It is still open.” She should succeed on the stage, and I believe she will. She should reach heights which she never could reach on the screen. And for the very reason that made critics acclaim her as the greatest of all film actresses. “The particular genius of Lillian Gish,” wrote George Jean Nathan, at the height of her screen success, “lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite.”

True. And this quality should be infinitely more valuable on the stage than on the screen.

“All of which,” said my friend, the Hollywood wise man, when I told him the result of my sleuthing, “does not alter the fact that Lillian Gish, so far as pictures are concerned, is dead.”

“I wonder!”

THERE suddenly came back to me a true story of Lillian’s first days on the Fine Arts lot, which illustrated more graphically than anything I could say that marvelous Gish spirit which might—if the Gish spirit ever willed it —still stage a picture comeback for the First Actress of the Screen. Lillian and a girl friend were out walking. They walked, and walked, and walked—until they were fairly dragging one foot after the other. Finally, the other girl said:

“I’m tired walking. Let’s sit down.”

“I’m tired walking, too,” said Lillian.

“But don’t let’s sit down. Let’s run!”

One Romantic Night promotional Lillian Gish last scene

Then I recalled to my friend that Winter, back in 1913, when Lillian Gish, threatened with pernicious anemia, took the long trek westward for the first time—and arrived in California, given up for dead. He remembered, as well as I did, how Lillian willed herself to stay alive, how she built up her strength on milk and sunshine, how she dieted and exercised until she could stand, as well as any of those other hardy youngsters, the rigors of even a Griffith rehearsal. My friend was ruminatingly silent as he went through the intricate process of clipping and lighting a fresh cigar.

“She might come back,” he said, at last. “It all depends—” “Yes,” I said, “it all depends on Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

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WITHIN THE GATES, Pretentious rubbish, or A very Christian Play …

  • FLETCHER, Bramwell – Supporter actor in the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • GISH, Lillian – Leading actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • KELLEY, Harry – Leading actor of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • MORRIS, Mary – Supporting actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • O’CASEY, Sean – Irish Playwright of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.


Within The Gates (Stuart Oderman)

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Sean O’Casey’s writing was a blend of “downright humor and unrestrained horror.” O’Casey, not a devotee of “contrived theatricality’s” or the formal techniques of dramaturgy, believed in scenes from the streets and their ability to be shown on the stage via good observation. Within the Gates, set in London’s Hyde Park, was a combination of realism and abstraction. Lillian played the role of a nameless character described as “Young Whore.” It would cause problems in the minds of some New York theatregoers when they read the names of the characters in their Play bill. Within the Gates did not come to New York without its pre-opening night gossip and raised eyebrows.


Photo: Lillian Gish’s costume sketch, designed for Within The Gates

The original London production had lasted one week. The British reviews called Within the Gates “anti-moral and antiChristian, with cheap irony for making the Bishop and father of the woman” (Lillian’s character). Within the Gates was dismissed as “pretentious rubbish,” and “O’Casey’s charade.” In its defense, Within the Gates was also called a very Christian play, as it attacked celibacy in the ministry, which did not exist for the first three centuries. What O’Casey was doing was “attacking a church that was unable to relate to natural, sexual energies.” Within the Gates marked a radical departure from the realism of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which concerned itself with the uprising during Easter Week 1916 and its effect on the residents living in the tenements of Dublin. Within the Gates centered on people from the city streets, but the setting of the play was the Hyde Park section of London. The characters served as a representation, a microcosm of society: a Dreamer representing the idealists, a Bishop who is confused by some of the church’s teachings, and a Young Whore who pleads for the more vulnerable. By themselves and in groups they gravitate to the park to express themselves. There are debates and discussions about the existence or non -existence of God, and a yearning for fulfillment in religion. It all comes to an end when the Young Whore dies in her father’s (the Bishop’s) arms. O’Casey, who came to New York for the rehearsals and stayed at the Royalton Hotel (where George Jean Nathan lived in two dingy, book-cluttered, rarely cleaned rooms), often sought shelter from questions about the play in Lillian Gish’s dressing room. Often he would answer that he didn’t know what to say. He had no answer about the “plot” of the “story” of the play. The play Within the Gates, he would say, “simply is.”


While Lillian and O’Casey acknowledged that the play would not have been produced in New York if not for the efforts of George Jean Nathan, Lillian would also add that George was not the reason she was cast in the play. She had landed the part herself.


Within the Gates opened at New York’s National Theatre on October 22, 1934. It was received with respect by a divided press,32 but a press that was generally kinder and more tolerant than the original London reviewers. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, perhaps in anticipation of a public who might attack the play on grounds without ever having seen it, opened his review by announcing his intention in the first sentence: “Let us face this thing boldly. Sean O’Casey has written a great play.”


No mention was made of the play’s problems since its inception, or the controversy and discussions that had taken place in London prior to the New York production starring Lillian. Within the Gates … [is] a testament to Mr. O’Caseys abiding faith in life. Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays …. This is a great play. There is iron in its bones and blood in its veins and lustre in its flesh, and its feet rest on the good brown earth. In fact it is a humbling job to write about a dynamic drama like Within the Gates.


Lillian came in for special praise: As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish give the performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.

It was a dream review for the actress Lillian Gish and the playwright Sean O’Casey. Yet the prospects of a successful touring production were bleak. Early reactions centering on the handling of the relationship between the Bishop and the Young Whore, and the alleged anti-Catholic bias, made the likelihood of audience acceptance in less cosmopolitan cities very remote. That the play was banned in Boston was a fait accompli, and perhaps a portent of things to come. Recalled Lillian about the Boston mayor’s action: Theatre people used to say when a play was banned in Boston before it came to New York it meant that producers had a possible hit on their hands because the newspapers would give it free publicity, and some nontheatregoers might want to see it out of curiosity.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

To ban a play in Boston after it had been in New York for over 100 performances sometimes had an adverse effect. Plays on the road sometimes could recoup the losses in New York. In the case of Within the Gates, it might not attract a Boston audience willing to go into the suburbs. We didn’t want to lose money. Strange Interlude was banned, but it found an audience because of its notoriety. It was different. It was a novelty because of the dinner hour intermission. Within the Gates had a conventional length, but it had other problems because of the portrayal of the Bishop. If any member of the clergy were depicted as anything but sacrosanct and inviolable, there were grounds for demonstrations and protests. The Bishop in Within the Gates fathered an illegitimate child.


American literature certainly wasn’t without its book-banning and even book-burning in some areas the United States. Hawthorne’s [The] Scarlet Letter had it problems. Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware [1896] was considered immoral. Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry was denounced from the pulpits. Those ministers and preachers were Protestant! The Bishop in O’Casey’s Within the Gates was an Irish Catholic! Boston had a significant Irish Catholic population and Within the Gates was a very Catholic play. Attacking or questioning or challenging the legitimacy or validity of the policies within the Catholic Church wasn’t permitted or even tolerated. The Church was infallible. That O’Casey would even hint or suggest that anything in the Church was immoral was out of the question. Did O’Casey think this kind of questioning would be tolerated in the United States? Had anybody in Boston known Sean O’Casey wasn’t a Catholic, but and Irish Protestant and a Communist … ? The playwright’s wife, Eileen O’Casey, believed the play might have been accepted in Boston if the Mayor had seen the Bishop the was Sean O’Casey had created him: a symbol, and part of the fantasy of the play. Within the Gates, after a Philadelphia engagement, returned to New York for an additional 40 performances, making a total run 141 performances. Its success was more artistic than commercial.

Chapter – Back on The Boards

Lillian Gish, A Life on Stage and Screen – By Stuart Oderman

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Charles Affron)

Before rehearsals of The Joyous Season began, George Jean Nathan had asked Lillian to read Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates. O’Casey’s New York champion, Nathan was actively involved in the play’s production. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, which had established O’Casey’s reputation in New York in the 1920s, had nevertheless not won him a wide audience. A failure in its London engagement, the expressionistic and symbolic Within the Gates would have had even less chance of commercial success had it not become something of a scandal. The principal female character is known only as The Young Whore. Down on her luck, dying of a heart ailment, she is the illegitimate daughter of the Bishop, who struggles with the Dreamer for possession of her soul. As O’Casey describes her, “You have read a little, but not enough; you have thought a little, but not enough; you are deficient in self-assurance, and are too generous and sensitive to be a clever whore, and your heart is not in the business.” The New York papers had trouble even mentioning “The Young Whore.” Some called her “harlot.” The Herald Tribune removed the character’s name from the cast but left the star’s name in first position, billing it “with Miss Lillian Gish as the leading player.” The New York American referred to her as “A Young Girl Who Has Gone Astray.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

A striking photograph by Edward Steichen shows Lillian in character, sprawled on the ground, her stockings ripped, her hair disheveled, her hat awry, looking anxiously over her shoulder. But, lest her public forget her true nature, Lillian interrupted her stint as The Young Whore by making a guest appearance, pantomiming The Queen of Heaven in a holiday staging of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Within the Gates opened on October 22, 1934, and its run of one hundred performances far exceeded that of any other O’Casey play in New York. The success was such that a tour was planned, from Philadelphia to Chicago, Toronto, and Boston. The play received an enormous boost in publicity when it was banned in Boston and Toronto. Bostonians wishing to see the play in New York could profit from a special weekend trip that included train fare, hotel accommodations, and an orchestra seat. Forty-four of them, including the Boston critics, took advantage of the deal. “Mr. Melvin of the Transcript, thought it ‘a very intersting play.’ Mr. Gaffney of the Advertiser, saw ‘nothing irreligious or immoral about it.’ Miss Hughes, of the Herald, called it ‘very different and extremely interesting.’ Mr. Cook, of the Harvard Dramatic Club, was ‘very much moved by it.’ ” On the strength of the notoriety, after an abbreviated tour, Within the Gates returned to New York for forty additional performances.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Even those reviewers critical of O’Casey’s play were enthusiastic about its star. She finally converted her nemesis Richard Lockridge. “The Lillian Gish of the old, over-praised days would have had not the faintest idea how to begin; the playing of today’s Miss Gish is the one certain satisfaction of the play.” John Mason Brown asserted that she brought “a new strength—yes, a new and much deeper voice—to a part that abounds in difficulties.” Bosley Crowther rhapsodized: “Let us face this thing boldly, Sean O’Casey has written a great play in Within the Gates. … As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish gives a performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.” The direction of Within the Gates was entrusted to actor Melvyn Douglas, who would, soon thereafter resume his career in Hollywood (he had already costarred with Garbo and would again in her last two movies), where he became a popular leading man, in addition to being a superb actor.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Douglas clashed with Nathan over the staging of Within the Gates. “In retrospect Nathan probably was concerned about striking a safe, commercial note, a consideration I later concluded was rarely far from his consciousness.” Douglas’s only “problem with Miss Gish was trying to get her to be heard beyond the second row. The two of us had many talks about it, and I kept sitting farther and farther back in the auditorium saying, T can’t hear you, Miss Gish. I can’t hear you/ On opening night she was suddenly as clear as a bell and could easily be heard at the back of the house. She fully deserved her excellent notices.” Within the Gates marked the beginning of Lillian’s long friendship with Sean O’Casey. When she met O’Casey during rehearsals, on November 18, 1934, she thought him “a god-like man.” Their lively correspondence lasted until the playwright’s death in 1964.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life (By Charles Affron)

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Lillian Gish)

George Jean Nathan considered Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill the greatest playwrights in the world. George wrote a great deal about O’Casey and was disappointed when his play Within the Gates closed after a week’s run in London. But he helped to bring the play over to the United States. I was grateful to George for doing this, although he was not responsible for my getting the role of the Young Whore in the production. O’Casey came to this country for the rehearsals. During the first few months of production, he spent most of his time in my dressing room. “I can’t stay out there,” he would say, gesturing toward the lobby, his eyes twinkling behind their heavy glasses. “They keep asking me what my play is about, and I don’t know what to tell them.”


George arranged for him to stay at the Royalton Hotel, his own headquarters. O’Casey brought so few possessions—a few shirts, socks, and underwear—that he would put one sock in one drawer and its partner in another drawer. He seemed to own only the brown suit and cap that he wore. He spoke with an Irish lilt, and it was a joy to listen to the poetry in his speech. He was fascinated by electric gadgets, amazed by the different ways in which one could switch on a light—push, pull, twist, turn. He would go about, trying them all like a child. His poetic turn of mind evidently appealed to our audiences, for the play ran in New York for six months. When we left to go on tour, word came to us in Philadelphia that the play had been banned in Boston.

A short time later O’Casey wrote me:

The last performance must have been a strange experience and I should have given a lot to be there, though not so much as I should have given to be present when the ban was declared in Boston. I got a whole pile of correspondence about it, and a lot of press-cuttings, but these couldn’t give the thrill I’d have got from standing and hitting out in the center of the fight. Though the ban caused some excitement and a lot of talk, I should have preferred the tour and it is a pity that the Jesuits of Boston were able to stop it.

He added:

Let me thank you, Lillian, for a grand and a great performance; for your gentle patience throughout the rehearsals, and for the grand way you dived into the long and strenuous part of “The Young Whore.”

The beautifully bound copy of Within the Gates that rests in my library has this inscription:

In Remembrance of Things Past, of this play’s production and performance When we all, at least, battled together for the return of some of the great things that belong to Drama A bad thing well done can never feel success; A good thing well done can never feel failure.

With love,

Sean O’Casey

(Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

The Play of The Week - Within The Gates
The Play of The Week – Within The Gates

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Lillian Gish - study


By William Saroyan – 1976

Here is William Saroyan’s passionate memoir: Saroyan writing about Saroyan and the people he remembers— lightly, politely, and impolitely. Sons Come and Go, Mothers Hang In Forever is a love letter, written with a pen dipped in acid, to all the unknown and well-known stars in the writer’s life. The people, both loved and hated, range from Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway, Louis B. Mayer, and Katharine Hepburn to relatives and childhood companions at the Fred Finch Orphanage— the vast, universal family of man:

“What a fool I’ve been all my life, and how right it has been for me, what a blessing in disguise, as the saying is, always unable not to defy the odds. Unable not to insist that God is on my side, the mystery is with me…”

“The cowboy bogus-boob Will Rogers enjoyed a lot of sickening fame for his coy head-down chewing-gum pronouncements about human politics, looking up at the world like an Arab girl to her betrothed.”

“Charlie Chaplin had a real talent for cleaning the fingernails at table (alone) without offending God, and an ability to kick a cop and run that was never matched by anybody else in reality or imagination.”

“Gypsy Rose Lee was a tall girl who spoke with a slight lisp, possibly the consequence of an overbite…”

Lillian Gish embroidering 1916

Lillian Gish and Kitty Duval

At the Liberty Theater in Fresno I had seen Lillian Gish in some of the nicest silent movies ever made, one of them by the great innovator David Wark Griffith: Way Down East.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish promotional

I had also seen her in ToVable David, with the title role played by that fine American lad of legend and lore Richard Barthelmess. But most unforgettable in the movie was Ernest Torrence, the supreme villain of movie dreamland, and yet even to a nine-year-old kid a grand member of the real human family. He was always in need of a shave, he looked out of his eyes with deep suspicion, which had clearly come from knowing himself, knowing what he had done and would do again at the first opportunity. He was just right in a movie containing so much tender love. With her older sister Dorothy, Lillian Gish was a sweet and appropriate evocation of the innocence of American fantasy after the turn of the century.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

And then instead of falling away and disappearing as so many others had done, as Theda Bara, and Clara Kimball Young had fallen away, for instance, Lillian Gish went right on being both a real person in the world, and a great actress, in films and plays. Early in 1939 George Jean Nathan saw my first play, My Heart’s in the Highlands. Now and then he’d phone me at the Great Northern Hotel, and say something like, “I’m going to my table at 21, why don’t you come by for one drink, that’s all, because I’ve got to go back to work on my Encyclopedia of the Theatre.” And so I would walk over to 21 West 52 nd Street and be greeted by Red on the sidewalk, and by Harry standing at the door, and by Don taking hats, and by iMac Kriendler, and by Gus the bartender, and I would go straight to the table in the corner and sit down, and George Jean Nathan would start the conversation by saying,  Girls—in all the world, is anything more amazing than girls?” Van the corner waiter would quickly bring a big Scotch and water, which was the drink of those days, and I would take a gulp and say, “Well, they’re the other half of us, at any rate.” “Not at all,” Nathan would reply with his quavering voice, “they are far more than the other half of us, show me a man who is anything, and I’ll show you at least three women who did it—his wife, his mother, and his daughter.”

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

Or something else just as final and just as unimportantly meaningless. And so, on and on the easy talk would go. In those days he spent quite a lot of time with the one American girl that I myself would have preferred had I had the good luck of having been given a choice, and one evening as we left 21, he said, “Walk with me up here a bit, I’m going to call on Lillian.” Thus, for the first time in my life, I met Lillian Gish in person, in her own apartment, which I still remember as having been like herself, a kind of self-portrait, as I suppose all places where people live are. And she was even more like a demure and shy flower than she had been in Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish Promotional - Broken Blossoms, Full Frame - James Abbe 1919 b
Lillian Gish Promotional – Broken Blossoms, Full Frame – James Abbe 1919 b

As George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish chatted, I kept thinking, I’ve got to write a play for Lillian Gish. And I did. I wrote the part of Kitty Duval in The Time of Your Life for her, only to realize that a twenty-year-old San Francisco streetwalker could not be performed in 1939 by a world-famous silent-movie actress of the early 1900s. I therefore decided I had better not tell anybody that Lillian Gish had given me the idea for the heroine of my first and only money-making play.

George Jean Nathan invited me to his corner table one afternoon and introduced me to Julie Hayden, a fragile and beautiful girl he told me he just might marry, and the next time we met I suggested that she was the ideal girl to play Kitty Duval, which pleased him, and of course indeed she was, and performed the part in the original production. But I hadn’t even met her when I wrote the part and the play. Now and then when I came upon Lillian Gish somewhere I thought I ought to tell her, but I never did. Finally, in 1969, I dedicated a book of plays to her, but the stupid, fly-by-night publisher spelled her name Lillian Gist. I couldn’t have felt more as if the situation was now totally and irrevocably hopeless, and I can only hope that this confession at last will in some small measure be the equivalent of “Lillian Gish, I love you, always have, and always will.”

Sons Come and Go - William Saroyan cover
Sons Come and Go – William Saroyan cover

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Uncle Vanya – Albert Bigelow Paine 1932

Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Uncle Vanya

It was at the end of May, 1930, at the Rivoli Theatre,New York City, that Lillian was presented in her first, probably her only, talking picture. For during those months since she had finished it, something had happened—something of epochal proportions: she had returned to the stage! A block down Broadway, in 48th Street, at the Cort Theatre, since April 15, she had been appearing six nights and two afternoons a week, as Helena, in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

It had all come about naturally enough. When it became known that Lillian Gish was closing her contract with the United Artists, proposals arrived plentifully. The distinguished Russian manager, director, author, Dantchenko, wrote that he had begun a story with her especially in mind; Basil Rathbone sent a manuscript and wrote: “I need not say how happy I should be to do a play with you, a privilege denied me even in my very own play, ‘The Swan.’ ” A cable from Germany stated that a motion picture company had been formed of those who believed in Reinhardt, and that Jannings and all the best of Germany’s artists had signed; that the first picture was to be “La Vie Parisienne,” by Offenbach—three versions to be made, French, English and German, Lillian to have the position of production manager. But then came an opportunity such as she had hoped for: One day, George Jean Nathan spoke to her of the actress Ruth Gordon, of how much Lillian would like her. “Couldn’t you arrange a meeting?” she asked. He could, and did. He asked them both to tea, at the Colony Restaurant. Lillian was not disappointed in Ruth Gordon. They had one love in common: France. They talked a great deal about that pleasant land, its beauties, its castles, its wines —especially its wines—one of which in particular, they both loved, Clos Veugeot. Ruth Gordon said:

“And I know a man who has the same taste: Jed Harris, the theatrical producer.” Someone proposed: “We must try to get a bottle. The first one of us who finds it, to give a dinner, and invite Mr. Harris.” Said Lillian, remembering:

“But of course no one could get a bottle of Clos Veugeot, any more. One day, Ruth telephoned that she had a bottle of Rhine wine, and that Mr. Harris loved that, too. So we had a small dinner in her apartment, with Rhine wine and strawberry ice-cream. For the first time, I heard Jed Harris talk. I thought I had never heard anyone like him. It seemed to me that he knew the theatre as no one I had ever met. Later, when I went with Ruth to get my hat, I said: ‘Ruth, he’s wonderful! I’d work for such a man for nothing.’ Ruth agreed. She had worked for him in ‘Serena Blandish,’ and told me how fine he had been. “A few weeks later, George Nathan called up to say that Jed Harris had a part for me: ‘That’s splendid,’ I said, ‘but do you think I could do it?’ “‘Of course. It’s Helena, in Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” ‘ “

“I said I would read it over at once, and see if I could do it. I adored Chekhov, and had a volume of his plays, but it didn’t contain ‘Vanya.’ I was very excited. For ten years—from the time of working with Victor Maurel, I had hoped to get back to the stage.”

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

She ran out to a bookshop, and presently was back, deep in the play. She thought Helena a hard part—wondered if she could do it. Her stage work lay far behind her — really counted for little, though for more, perhaps, than she realized. This was at the end of February, or early in March. Almost immediately, they went into rehearsal. Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties. For one thing, it had been seventeen years since she had appeared before an audience, and then had never played a leading part. The audience did not matter so much—she had never been audience conscious. But the rehearsing. In the pictures, the scene was shot, the film developed, and put on the screen for judgment, all within a brief time. If unsat isfactory, it could be made over, and over again. Furthermore, it could be “edited.” Now, it was all quite different. You could not see how well, or how badly, you had done a thing; you only knew what the director told you. She had moments of misgiving. Perhaps it would have been better, certainly safer, to remain in the pictures — even the talking pictures that had offended her as incongruous. They were new, crude—Arliss in his “Disraeli” had taken a long step towards something that, in the end, might mean, if not perfection, at least  something as near it as the silent film had reached. Oh, well . . . It was in New Haven, on the evening of April 6 (1930), that the curtain went up on Lillian’s first night in “Uncle Vanya.” She was nervous, after all. The moment came when Helena enters, merely to drift voicelessly across the stage. There was a burst of applause from the audience—she was not prepared for that, and was almost as frightened as on that long-ago night of the explosion at Risingsun. She quickened her step, quickened it still more—was almost running, at the exit. Jed Harris still gives amusing imitations of this first entrance across the threshold of her new-old career. Never mind—it was a success. The leading New Haven paper, which never before had given an editorial to a theatrical performance, gave one next morning, to “Vanya.” Professor William Lyon Phelps invited her to luncheon, and was full of enthusiasm. He had seen nothing, he declared, since Mary Anderson, to impress him so much as Lillian’s Helena. He wrote a letter to the “People’s Forum,” calling the public’s attention to the play.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

All very gratifying: To Lillian, however, one of the most satisfactory features of her new venture was the absence of the money element—always, after the Griffith days, a foremost consideration. The word “salary” had never been mentioned between her and Mr. Harris. She did not even know what she was to have until she got her envelope at the end of the week. It was a gray afternoon, in the little den which has become so much a part of our story, that Lillian recounted these things. She owed a heavy debt to Ruth Gordon, she insisted, and thought of Helena as “Ruth’s child.” And just here came one of those coincidences which are always being popped into plays and stories. In another room, the telephone rang. A maid appeared at the door. “Will you speak to Miss Gordon?” she said.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya


The New Haven Register, after commenting on the “superb piece of staging done by Jed Harris, and the quite indescribable beauty and magic of Lillian Gish’s performance as Helena,” spoke of “Uncle Vanya” as “surely one of the few really great plays in existence … a richly polyphonic drama, in which one watches the drift and flow of human life as one listens to the different voices in a Bach fugue.” True enough, though “Uncle Vanya” is hardly a play at all, but a succession of incidents with no more plot than a picture, which is precisely what it is—a tapestry of exquisite workmanship, a cartoon of human futility — in this case, on a Russian farm.

1930 Uncle Vanya - Helena
1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena

Mark Twain once wrote:

“God, who could have made every one of His children happy . . . yet never made a single happy one.”

Chekhov might have taken that as a text for any of his plays. In “Vanya,” no one of the characters is even passably happy, except Marina, the nurse, and Marina’s happiness lies in strong tea and hope in the hereafter. All the rest are actively unhappy, especially Vanya himself, who is hopelessly in love with Helena, wife of a querulous egotist twice her age—Helena being a little in love with “the Doctor,” who is drinking too much, himself heedless of the love of Sonia, who is too good for him, and breaking her heart for him, and is about the unhappiest of all. The late R. K. Munkittrick, of Puck, had a poem beginning: “All the house is full of sorrow, all the house is full of gloom”; the rest of it will not bear quotation, but in its entirety, it would make a typical Chekhovian chant. Chekhov’s houses all were full of sorrow—the pathetic gloom of thwarted human ambitions and desires, of blasted human ideals. Like any of us who happens to think about it, Chekhov did not at all know whether life was a tragedy or a comedy, so he called his plays comedies, and laughed them off on us, letting the tragedy take care of itself, and sink in, and add itself to our own, to make certain that we had our share. And in doing this, he created pictures of which, as the Register remarked, “one is forever thinking: ‘These things cannot have been written, they must have been lived.’ ” With the possible exception of “The Cherry Orchard,” “Uncle Vanya” is, I should think, the choicest of Chekhov’s tapestries, and the part of Helena, the subtlest example of his artistry. Certainly, no role could have been better suited to Lillian.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)

Helena’s beauty, her elusive, eerie personality, her mild, impersonal attitude toward much of what went on about her—it was as if the part had been created for her, or she for the part. It is the advent of Helena, and her gouty, insufferable husband, Serabrakoff, that is the catastrophe of the play—a calamity, in Astroff’s phrase, as definite as the ruin wrought by a herd of elephants—and misses being complete only because Vanya’s attempt to shoot Serabrakoff hurries them away. There is no special reason why sympathy should be with Helena, except that she is beautiful, and indifferent, and only passively to blame for the trouble she causes, and for the fact that she is bound for life to the bewhiskered Serabrakoff. Perhaps that is enough; perhaps the fact that Lillian played the part had something to do with it. The scene between the two, which opens the second act, is one of the high spots in the play.

The contrast between Lillian in a canary-colored dressinggown, her splendid hair loose, and her trumpery husband, reveals an entire epic, as tragical as any in the human story; and wherever the blame may lie interests the audience not at all, the chief desire being that the whining old human disaster may pass away as promptly as possible —overnight—leaving the lovely Helena and the doctor, or somebody, to live happy ever after. It was at the Cort Theatre, on the evening of April 15, that “Uncle Vanya” opened in New York City. It was the event of the Spring season. A first-night audience in New York is a different matter from one in New Haven. New Haven being a university town, a Chekhov first-night audience would be largely intellectual, with a good sprinkling of picture fans who had “adored Lillian on the screen.” In New York, there would be all the typical first-nighters, who get a thrill out of any first night, and especially where it is the first appearance of a comely lady, famous in a different, even if kindred, field. Also, there would be the professionals of stage and screen, each with a very special interest; and all the Chekhovians, some of them doubtful and critical, resolved not to be carried off their feet by any trick of beauty and spotlight, but to stand firm for art only; after these, an army of fans, who all the years had longed to see Lillian perform in the flesh, and, of course, there would be intellectuals, too—and critics—on the whole, I submit, except for the fans, a rather hard-boiled audience, one calculated to put fear into the troubled heart. . . . But then the curtain went up … on a Russian garden scene, and presently, across the stage, floated a vision of loveliness, and all the fans broke loose. And all the Chekhovians, and first-nighters, and professionals, and critics of high and low degree, forgot they were hardboiled, and broke loose, too, and pounded their hands together long after the vision had passed, as if they hoped it might return, if only to bow.

Lillian Gish as Helena in Uncle Vanya HiRes2
circa 1921: Lillian Diana Gish, originally Lillian de Guiche (1893 – 1993), made her stage debut at the age of 5. She played a lot of waif type heroines during her silent film career but never quite made the successful transition to talking pictures.

The Times next morning spoke of “the storminess of the greeting at her entrance,” and Charles Darnton, in his afternoon column, had this to say of it, and of the play as a whole:

The applause that greeted her at her appearance not only followed her every step of the way but into the wings. Even then it kept up warmly, strongly, insistently. For a moment I was seized with the sickening fear she might pop into view again, like a grand opera singer after an aria, to bow to the tribute. Evidently, the audience expected no less of her. But it might just as well have expected to call back the Ghost in “Hamlet.”

The event had its peculiar phase. Walter Connolly was playing the principal character, and playing it finely, whereas Lillian Gish was appearing in a minor role, or what would have been a minor role in the hands of an ordinary actress. Yet throughout the whole performance interest centered in Miss Gish.

This is said with every consideration for Mr. Connolly. He could not help himself. He was as powerless, and blameless, in the matter as though he had been playing with Duse. But I couldn’t help wondering how he felt about it. Not that I suspected him of professional jealousy. It was just that the gods, or Jed Harris, had set down an artist touched by genius, and there was nothing to be done about it. When Miss Gish again appeared, this time to stay and let us hear as well as see her, when the presence of her filled the stage like light flooding through a window into a room, she was so luminous that the others, including Mr. Connolly, faded into the background. Never before had I seen quite the same thing done in quite the same way.

Uncle Vanya
Uncle Vanya

Certainly, she is not a pushing person. Instead of crowding into the limelight, she seems always to be withdrawing from it. Yet wherever she goes her own radiance follows her and lights her up. Try as you may, you cannot get her out of your eye. Just what this rare thing is I hesitate to say. But a first-nighter did say to me, “She is sublime.” Whatever it may be, it is there in the eyes, the face, the hair, the voice, the form of Lillian Gish. True enough, but it was a qualification that in future would make it difficult for her to get a part in any play having more than one major role. Mr. Darnton says that he was assured by Mr. Harris that bringing Lillian Gish back to the stage was the finest thing he had been able to do in the theatre, adding: “I am convinced that her performance is one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.”

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish
Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

If there was any dissenting voice as to Lillian’s triumph, I have been unable to discover it. But I think there was none. She had everything demanded by the part: the personality,  the subtle understanding, the years of training which had equipped her for its perfect interpretation.

Percy Hammond, of the Herald Tribune, wrote:

“In future when I am told that association with the films is a destructive influence, I shall cite Miss Gish’s appearance in ‘Uncle Vanya’ to prove the contention wrong.”

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Camille – 1932 (A Life on Stage and Screen By Stuart Oderman)

Camille (La Dame aux Camelias) opened in New York on November 1, 1932. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the production:

“The Camille in which Lillian Gish is acting has a strange, quaint sort of magic …. If it is not Camille, it is Lillian Gish who remains one of the unworldly mysteries …. Miss Gish moves delicately and quietly through the part. She is frail and her features are exquisitely modeled. Her voice is as innocent as a star of the evening. In the death scene her voice is pathetically childish. Her gestures are limp. Throughout her performance her miniature chaste little Camille seems quite unaware of a courtesan’s perquisites, duties, and prerogatives. She is as detached from worldly turmoils as a vagrant wisp of cloud. And yet when you have noticed all of these aspects of Camille you still have the idealized spirit of Miss Gish to contend with. Even in the part to which she is unsuited, she can still silence a first night audience. Her company is of no great assistance. Some of them overact to the point of burlesque. Some of the make-ups are bad. Camille has a sort of distant charm…. And Miss Gish has reminded us that the tenuous quality of her acting is not to be imprisoned in a midnight review.”

Brooks Atkinson – New York Times (1932)

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 3
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.149

“The critics weren’t as ecstatic as they had been in Colorado, but those Colorado people were also praising the restoration of the theatre to its former days of glory in the 1860s when they had some touring company pass through. The Colorado engagement was a double package: the restoration of the theatre, and then the play. Lillian’s Camille was a real “ticket printer” as they used to call a success. A real “ticket printer.” I don’t think anybody would consider the play in the same league as a Eugene O’Neill evening. That would be impossible. The pre-New York reviews contained words we had anticipated: oldfashioned, which it was; melodrama, which it was; creaky, it was; and the phrase that spelled doom – showing its age. The older reviewers called it solid theatre. Everyone praised Lillian’s performance. What New York audiences were going to see was grand old theatre, the kind of theatre our grandparents saw. Of course, by modern standards, it wasn’t sophisticated. Dumas, like any writer, was writing for the audiences of his generation. That the play survived his generation, and spoke to generations afterward was the reason the play became a classic. Nothing becomes a classic if it only has limited appeal.”

Blanche Sweet

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian, and Raymond Hackett] [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.176

Amongst the supporting cast she had auditioned and chosen was Raymond Hackett, as Armand Duval, Marguerite’s lover. Hackett was the husband of Lillian’s long-time friend, actress Blanche Sweet, who reminisced about the production in Colorado:

“Robert Edmond Jones, an important set designer, found enough standing of the Central City Opera House, built in 1860, to want to restore it, thinking it would be a nice place to present plays and develop a regular theatregoing audience, as well as a tourist trade. He presented his idea to some sort of council, and they went for it. Immediately all of the citizens in the area went digging in their cellars and attics, looking for anything they could contribute, when they heard the first production was going to star Lillian Gish. Everybody knew Camille. It was a very popular melodrama. Sarah Bernhardt had toured in it for years. She also filmed it. That theatre was loaded with things people were glad to get rid of: furniture, rugs, lamps, little insignificant things like old antimacassars that must have covered the arms of their grandmother’s sofa. What was finally chosen for the sets became a matter oflocal pride. It certainly brought in people who must have attended just to see their furniture come to life on that stage. That sofa Miss Gish is sitting on belonged to our aunt, sort of thing.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin 2 - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.308

By the dress rehearsal, when everything had been assembled, we didn’t believe that anything had been recreated. What we saw on that stage had simply been maintained and dusted before they rang up the curtain. That’s how authentic it looked. You only had to look at that set and you yourself were back in 1860, and it was the current day! People came from miles away to attend the opening: on horseback, in haywagons, stagecoaches. And they were dressed in the clothing of the day! Even with all of the help, we were told the cost of the restoration was over $200,000. A hefty sum for those days.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille, Central City, Colorado. First Production in the Old Opera House
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian, [And] Raymond Hackett [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.193

What better choice for a Marguerite Gautier than Lillian Gish? Who could be better? Lillian certainly knew how to play a death scene. Everybody always said Broken Blossoms after her name was announced. That’s how she had fixed herself in everyone’s mind out there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, that opening night – or during any of the performances that followed. Even the ushers wept. You saw them at the beginning of the play, and then they came back for the last minutes, just to watch that death scene. Marguerite was a role Lillian was born to play. I wish I had the handkerchief concession!”

Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen


Lillian Gish in Camille, Central City, Colorado 2
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

Central City Opera House Reopening on July 16, 1932

Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932
Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932

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Sweetheart – The Story of Mary Pickford 1973


Sweetheart – The Story of Mary Pickford

By Robert Windeler – 1973

… However, Reid sold the producing rights to The Little Red Schoolhouse, and forgot the Smiths. A young girl named Lillian Gish won the role of Mabel Payne and went with the play on tour. In Buffalo, Lillian’s chaperone got sick and she and Lillian had to return to New York. Somebody remembered Gladys Smith and sent to Toronto for her. Charlotte wired back that her only interest was in a package deal, and the producers were desperate enough to hire the four Smiths—at $20 a week—for the play.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

It was 1906, and Gladys Smith announced: ‘I’m thirteen and at the crossroads ofmy life.’ She made a firm decision to ‘land on Broadway or give up the theater for good’. Lillian Gish inherited her role in In Convict’s Stripes, and Gladys, her family still in Canada, attempted in any way she could to meet David Belasco, the playwright who had become the top producer on Broadway.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Even worse off in pay and status were child actors. While child labor laws were only then haphazardly applied to youngsters in the theater, and truant officers scarcely bothered, there were some do-gooding agencies with great moral force behind them condemning the exploitation of children and attempting to get them back to school. Two of the first things a child ever learned were to lie about his age and a whole lot of other things, and to hide when the Gerry Society came around. By the early 1900s, this group, founded originally as The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, had become active in theater ‘sweatshops’—and renamed for reformer Elbridge Thomas Gerry. Lillian Gish recalled how the girls were taught to wear makeup and high heels at the age ofnine or ten so as to look sixteen if they had to appear in court. Mary had long since found her own way around the rules. ‘The Gerry Society insisted that there be two children for one character and they were supposed to alternate,’ she said. ‘My sister Lottie was often my understudy, but as a matter of fact I never allowed her to play the part.’ ‘Flickers’ then were even a step down from the sordid life of the theater.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Griffith went on to make at least two short films a week and had made over no ofthem when Mary Pickford started working for him. He was in charge of all production for Biograph and Billy Bitzer had replaced Arthur Marvin as his principal cameraman. Bitzer and Griffith were already, in 1909, experimenting with camera and lighting techniques. With Bitzer’s help Griffith in subsequent years invented or developed the close-up, the dissolve, flashback, cross-cutting, pan shot, high and low angle shots, soft focus, back lighting, moving shots and the hazy photography effected by putting layers of chiffon over the camera lens to make the face and hair of his angelic young leading ladies, even more angelic. ‘What Griffith’s mind saw, Billy Bitzer was able to get on film,’ said Lillian Gish.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

One of Mary’s last films for Biograph was called The Informer, a Civil War story in which the women of a Southern household are trapped in an old smoke-house. Mary managed to hold off a group of Yankee soldiers ‘till the Confederate cavalry, summoned by the faithful Negro boy Leviticus, played by my brother Jack, dashed gallantly to the rescue and the war was somehow soon over and the lovers reunited’. Particularly with Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall, the stars of The Birth of a Nation, in the cast of The Informer, it was a kind of forerunner of Griffith’s epic. Mary was going to make good her threats to go back to the stage for Belasco, and in October 1912 she interrupted a rehearsal, something that was never done, and told a tearful Griffith goodbye. ‘Well, Pickford, God bless you,’ he said. ‘Be good. Be a good actress.’

The play went into rehearsal around 1 November 1912, and Mary’s salary was $200 a week. It tried out in Philadelphia in December and Griffith and a group from Biograph came down from New York for the opening night. Griffith himself followed the play to Baltimore, where it opened at Ford’s theater two days before Christmas, 1912. He was more nervous about it than Mary. The cast also included Ernest Truex and Lillian Gish, who had left Biograph temporarily to go back to her first love, the theater. A Good Little Devil opened at the Republic Theater in New York on 8 January 1913, to great acclaim for Mary Pickford. ‘Her success in the difficult role was phenomenal,’ Belasco wrote. ‘Nothing like her remarkable performance of a child’s part had been seen in New York or elsewhere.’ But Lillian Gish termed the play a ‘good little failure’ and she left it in time to rejoin Biograph for winter filming in California. The play ran until 3 May 1913, but was not the box-office success that The Warrens of Virginia had been.

Despite his success with The Birth of a Nation, his three partners were bigger box-office names and Griffith felt he had to compete with blockbusting hits. Fortunately his first three films for United Artists were just that: Broken Blossoms, Way Down East—which had the first motion picture budget of $1 million, of which only $175 went for the story, nevertheless breaking the record set by Ramona, and $3,000 for the screenplay, Griffith’s first to be all written down—and Orphans of the Storm. All three starred Griffith’s beloved Lillian Gish, and her sister Dorothy joined her in Orphans.

Mrs Morgan Belmont of New York’s 400 played a society matron in Way Down East, giving the movies a new kind of social cachet. Way Down East was the hugest success of the three and Griffith was temporarily back on top. In 1919, from the Griffith studio came yet another innovation, and one that kept Pickford and her sister stars, now solidly in their twenties, still able to play heroines of even twelve. The technique was first tried with Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Miss Gish was then twenty-two but Billy Bitzer had made her look ten years younger by filming her through black maline, a fine silk net that covered the regular camera lens and acted as a retouching lens. The results were extraordinary and cameramen began to experiment with netting of a variety of colors and coarseness, eventually developing the diffusion lens, with the softening factor built into the glass.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Mary and Doug maintained theirownseparate production companies within the United Artists framework. He paid himself $10,000 weekly and she paid herself the same, both adding a percentage of the profits to this sum. In 1922 they built the Pickford-Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Mary ordered a six-room bungalow, which she furnished with three cages full of canaries. Douglas had a dressing room, pool, gymnasium and steam bath added onto his offices. A permanent masseur was in residence and Doug’s eclectic group of friends were frequently entertained in this set-up at the end of a day’s shooting. The athletes of the world, whatever their particular sport, also congregated in the movie hero’s gym. He enjoyed their success and learning from them. They enjoyed his success and having their pictures taken with him. ‘Fairbanks was a dynamic person who lived for good health,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘He drank about two glasses of champagne a year. He and Chaplin trained themselves to stay fit. In those days we were really all health-minded.’

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

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The Singing Empress (Stuart Oderman)

lillian gish hal holbrook i never sang for my father by r. anderson w playbill 3a

The Singing Empress (Stuart Oderman)

Lillian had returned to the Broadway theatre after a 3 year absence to appear in Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father, which concerned itself with the animosity between a father and son, and the son’s lack of feeling as the father dies alone, wheelchair-ridden and filled with hate. The play opened in New York on January 25, 1968, after having done good business during its pre-Broadway engagement in Boston. Lillian told an interviewer from The Boston Herald Traveler how she prepares:


When I work on a part, I don’t have a pat formula. I wait for the director to tell me what he wants – then I do it. A strong director like Alan [Schneider] pulls all the performances together. In any medium you need a Boss Man, whether it’s films or theatre or on TY. I learned that early with Griffith.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 8
Lillian Gish and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Clive Barnes, reviewing I Never Sang for My Father for The New York Times, slaughtered any potential the play might have had for a successful run with his opening line: “A soap opera is a soap opera whichever way you slice the soap.” While citing the acting as often  admirable, and acknowledging the believable poignancy of the situation, Barnes complained that the playwright’s intentions were “betrayed by its over obviousness.” Lillian’s performance was singled out for special mention: Lillian Gish’s delicately fluttering mother, warm and attractive, is another performance worthy of a more productive cause. Lillian spoke to this biographer during the first week of the play’s 124-performance run. I Never Sang for My Father, like All the Way Home, is a work with autobiographical overtones. Both plays aren’t what you would call happy Saturday night fare. The lack of communication between father and son is a mighty theme that will forever be constantly explored.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 7
Lillian Gish (R), Alan Webb (2L) and Hal Holbrook (2R) in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Many things in I Never Sang were stated, as if that should be enough. This is not an Arthur Miller play with a lot of shrieking and fingerpointing accusations and somebody not being there during hard times. Robert Anderson is obviously not a New York thirties protest writer. He writes with restraint and grace and he doesn’t skirt the issues. It took courage to mount this play in a Broadway theatre instead of an off-Broadway house.

the movies mr. griffith and me (03 1969) - hal holbrook and lillian in robert anderson's 1967 play i never sang for my father— with lillian gish.
the movies mr. griffith and me (03 1969) – hal holbrook and lillian in robert anderson’s 1967 play i never sang for my father— with lillian gish.

Hal Holbrook, playing the son who doubles as narrator, does a splendid job of holding everything together, like the Stage Manager did in Our Town. I always felt, when I read the script for the first time, that Anderson’s play should have been a novel, too. So much of the narration plays like prose. I think the play would have a larger audience. Although the play kept Lillian living and working in New York while Dorothy was in Rapollo, Italy, there were weekly visits.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 10
Lillian Gish and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Lillian’s understudy, former silent film actress Lois Wilson, who had starred in Miss Lulu Bett, The Covered Wagon, and The Great Gatsby, recalled Lillian’s often repeated pattern after the Sunday matinee:

We were playing 3 mats a weekWednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. As soon as the curtain comes down: boom! Lillian dashes down the stairs and right into the taxi waiting to scoot her to Kennedy for a flight to Rome. She’d arrive early the next day, get to Rapollo and stay a day with Dorothy, and then fly back here. Somehow she’d grab a few hours of sleep on the cot in her dressing room and manage to do her show. Thank God for time zones.

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)
Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

Playing eight shows a week were demanding in themselves, but the visits to Dorothy were beginning to sap her strength. During one of her visits to Rapollo, Lillian was invited to co-star with her longtime friend, actress Helen Hayes, in a television production of Joseph Kesselring’s hit homicidal comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. Lillian and Helen would be playing two sweet, elderly ladies, sisters, who murder lonely old men after extending an invitation to them to visit and sample their special elderberry wine. Helen Hayes jokingly told this author at their first meeting that she and Lillian had known each other forever.41 In actuality, their friendship, according to close friends, started around 1930. When Lillian had become frustrated with Hollywood after her sound debut in One Romantic Night and decided to return to New York, stage star Helen Hayes had just signed a film contract and was on her way to the coast to begin shooting what was later released as The Sin of Madeline Claudet.

Helen Hayes said: Lillian and I both came up the same way: touring in shows when we were children. Lillian went into films, and I kept on doing stage work.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Lillian came back to work for Jed Harris in Uncle Vanya, which was her Broadway debut, although she had done stage work many years earlier. She said her voice didn’t record right [on film], and not to expect very much. In those early days of sound, if the studio felt your voice didn’t match your look, you had no future, no chance. Luckily, I came from the stage, and I have no previous silent film career. There were no preconceptions on the part of any producer regarding how I sound on film. I knew that stage people were in demand, and they took us as we were. I spoke 8 shows a week. No amplification. If producers or their scouts could hear us in the last row of the balcony, we were approached with a contract.

Voices were what landed the contract. Faces were what maintained them. Lillian’s voice didn’t register then or now as the sound of a damsel-in-distress, the type she played in those Griffith films. Lillian in those days was a face. I was never a face. I was a stage character.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish - Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace
Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

Lillian’s three weeks of rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace required that she rise before eight in the morning, report to the television studio at ten, rehearse until six, have something to eat, and get back to the theatre by seven, the required half-hour before the curtain went up. It was well after midnight when she would arrive home. With Sunday rehearsals, it meant she was working without a day off. Working straight through the week was nothing unusual for Lillian. A 7-day workweek was commonplace when she began acting in one-reelers for Mr. Griffith in 1912. A full day in a full week in 1968, more than half a century later, made Lillian realize she had come full circle. As long as work was available, she would take it! During rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace, Lillian preferred to dine at Longchamps because of their flattering lighting. Lillian had maintained her annual overseas trips for injections of lamb embryos in an effort to keep her looking young. Longchamps had low lights, which didn’t throw too much attention on anyone. Lillian was fearful of looking older and not being able to get any work.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old Lace

Helen observed: Sometimes she [Lillian Gish] is so closely in tune with her own  drummer she misses the beat of what is going on around her…. All her clothes date from 40 years, but the dresses are still elegant … and they still fit. When it came to work, she’s still sharp as a tack.

Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Bob Crane - Arsenic and Old Lace
Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Bob Crane – Arsenic and Old Lace

For the final week of rehearsals, prior to the actual taping, Lillian was rising at five to be ready for makeup at seven. Because the taping went beyond the usual time, Lillian missed two performances of the play. Lois Wilson played them. I Never Sang for My Father ended its run on May 11. Shortly afterwards a telephone call from Rapollo informed Lillian that Dorothy had contracted bronchial pneumonia. Three hours later, Lillian was on a plane bound for Italy. With Lillian at her bedside, 70-yearold Dorothy died on June 5, 1968. Next to the passing of her mother, Lillian would regard Dorothy’s death as the second greatest tragedy of her life. Lillian had been raised by her mother to always look after Dorothy because she was younger and more playful. Now that Lillian was alone, she would only have to look after herself. Otherwise they’ll hire another little girl…

Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen by STUART 0DERMAN

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

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