Uncle Vanya 1930 – 1973; Milestones Marking a Legendary Stageography

Uncle Vanya 1930

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition.

Lillian Gish turns to the footlights – (Uncle Vanya 1930)

Lillian Gish Turns to the Footlights

“Years ago, when David Belasco starred Mary Pickford in the fanciful “A Good Little Devil,” Lillian Gish appeared in the minor role of a good fairy. The other day, however, Miss Gish returned to the speaking stage in New York. Her reception was remarkable.

Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

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.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married. Miss Gish is a rarely fascinating personality in the theater, moving consciously about; falling into unconsciously graceful poses; speaking in a gentle voice with modest expression; suggesting a little girl playing most intelligently at acting, but still a little girl.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Miss Gish has made an extremely happy return to the stage. Her sisters of the films who are now planning to descend upon the drama in swarms – Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and all the others who have issued their challenges to the playwrights – may well envy her. She is a perfect type for Checkhoff’s fragile, evasive Helena; she has had the coaching of Jed Harris, a master of stage direction; and she has made this new debut not as a star but as one of a group of cooperative artists. The production of “Uncle Vanya” was not a ballyhoo for Lillian Gish, but it has refreshed and renewed her reputation in a distinguished manner. She proves herself, by her admirable realization of Checkhoff’s heroine, a highly accomplished actress.

Lillian Gish and Mike NicholsUncle Vanya – 1973

Uncle Vanya – 1973

“Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.” – Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful part for the occasion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set everything right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)

Uncle Vanya – 1973

There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obviously the most important is this opportunity to compare, contrast and enjoy two major actors going about their business with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.

The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informality.

Lillian Gish in the dressing room – Uncle Vanya – 1973

And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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Stars of the Silents – By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT (1987)

  • Stars of the Silents
  • By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, NJ., & London 1987
  • Copyright © 1987 by Edward Wagenknecht
  • Manufactured in the United States of America

IN THE BEGINNING …

In the beginning there were no stars in the silent sky.

It was “the pictures” we went to see, pictures that moved. Nobody had ever seen a picture move before, but we could see people on the street every day. Sometimes, as with “Hale’s Tours,” which were travel pictures, photographed from a moving train, and better cinema, being better adapted to the medium, than many more pretentious productions afterwards, there were no people at all. When the films were foreign, as they often were in the days when Pathe dominated the world film trade, the people were there all right, but they were too remote from us in America to register as individuals, and in the comparatively long shots that then prevailed, they all looked pretty much alike anyway. I have myself recorded elsewhere how startled I was when watching Maurice Costello, one day as a small boy, I suddenly became aware that I had seen that face before, and I first encountered the (abbreviated) name of a film player in a hand-lettered sign before a nickelodeon which, having first given the name of the film, added, as an afterthought, in smaller type, “Miss Lawrence in the Leading Role.”

It seems to be the rule, in this craft, that picturesque charlatans shall have immediate recognition, while the few sincere and earnest artists struggle long with public neglect.

“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

The case of Lillian Gish is perfectly in point. Thanks to the popular success of such films as Way Down East and The White Sister, she is just now beginning to enter into her own. Yet she was a great actress in Enoch Arden ten years ago. Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Emily Fitzroy—it would be easy to multiply examples. Even Mr. Griffith has, in general, been most successful with his least significant pictures. The Birth of a Nation is only an apparent exception, for it owed its tremendous vogue to its bad melodrama, its appeal to prejudice and passion, rather than to some of the really superb things it contained. And it is undeniable that the first adequate appreciation of Charlie Chaplin came from the outside. To the producers he was, at the outset, simply a great clown, a happy accident, whose enormous popularity was to be joyfully—not thankfully—accepted, but need not, for any reason, be analyzed. So far as I recall, it was Mrs. Fiske who, in an article in The Independent, first dared suggest that Chaplin was an artist.

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

LILLIAN GISH

I first met Lillian Gish at the Blackstone Hotel in December 1920, when she came to Chicago for the local opening of Way Down East at the Woods Theater. I did not meet Dorothy until January 1922, when both she and Lillian came for the opening of Orphans of the Storm and occupied the box just behind mine at the Great Northern Theater. After I moved to New England we met more frequently, and my friendship with both sisters, which was extended to embrace my family as soon as I had acquired one has been a blessing for which I shall always be thankful. It chanced that when I came to New York in 1961 to work on The Movies in the Age of Innocence at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Dorothy was out of town, and she graciously placed her rooms in the Elysse Hotel at the disposal of my wife and myself.

The essay that follows first appeared in 1927 as Number Seven in the series of University of Washington Chapbooks edited by my late, lamented friend Glenn Hughes, who thereby became my first publisher. It was revised very slightly for its reappearance in The Movies in the Age of Innocence, and this version was reprinted in 1980 in the very handsome booklet which the Museum of Modern Art brought out to commemorate its Gish retrospective, on which occasion Charles Silver generously described it as “the classic critical appreciation of Miss Gish’s early work.” However this may be, it reappears here without further change.

Edward Steichen – Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936

The meeting in Chicago referred to at the end of my discussion occurred, again at the Blackstone and later at the railroad station, when Lillian and her mother stopped off between trains when she was on her way to the Coast to take up her M-G-M contract. It is interesting to reflect that of the roles I mention in my penultimate paragraph as being naturals for her, Ophelia is the only one she ever had a chance to play. This was in the famous 1936 New York stage production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, in which John Gielgud was the Hamlet and Judith Anderson the Queen. As early as 1936 however, Edward Steichen had taken a marvelous portrait of her as Ophelia, which is handsomely reproduced as #116 in his autobiography, A Life in Photography (Doubleday, 1963), where it is strangely mislabeled “Romola.” The news about the film of that title, to which I refer at some length, is better however. Long considered a lost film, it has now been recovered and is currently (1986) available in casette form for the VCR.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen

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Dorothy Gish Tires of Sunny California – By Kitty Kelly (Chicago Tribune – 1915)

Chicago Tribune – Saturday April 17, 1915 – Page 17

Flickerings from Flickers

  • By Kitty Kelly
  • Dorothy Gish Tires of Sunny California

Los Angeles, California, April 16 – When big sister’s away, then little sister chatters, is the modern version of the standard jingle, as adapted by Miss Dorothy Gish, which I plucked out of her picture, on the Majestic stage, when the sun retreated coyly behind a special gray cloud veil.

Miss Lillian Gish, with her mother, has gone back for a visit in Ohio, and Miss Dorothy is living all alone in their apartment endeavoring to learn to be self-reliant.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

“You see, mother has always taken so much care of me, even more than she has of Lillian because she was the oldest, that I have never had to do things on my own responsibility, so I think this is a very good experience for me – but I don’t like it specially.

“Oh, I’m so tired of this country. I want to go back to New York, but I suppose we’ll always stay out here. We’ve been here fourteen months now.”

Dorothy Gish

“Miss Gish, into the scene,” called Director Paul Powell, and Dorothy scurlled back to her counter in the store to be flirted at by the bold, bad drummer. But she came back, for the sun was fickle, though the weather carefully refrained from really raining. After some spasmodic efforts at conversation, continually interrupted by Mr. Powell’s parrot call, “Miss Gish into the scene,” Miss Gish took me off to her dressing room, though she assured me in advance that she hated to do it, for it looked “awful.” But I didn’t think so. It is one of the cheeriest, roomiest dressing rooms I have been in, and is, by the way, the best one at the Majestic studio. Dorothy and Lillian share it, and Dorothy has regular householding ideas about improving its appearance, decoratively speaking. In it are two couches, two windows, running water, hidden behind a bug burlap screen, a long dressing table under one window, a drapery hung wardrobe in one corner, a cupboard built into the wall, a pier glass, and some wicker chairs. That is about twice as much as in any dressing room I have seen – and I’ve seen dozen – and it is about twice as large as any.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); Dorothy Gish; ca. 1930’s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.239

“I’m going to have all the woodwork painted white,” she explained. “See, I tried to do those window frames myself, but I got tired of it, for it was a lot harder work than I expected. Then I’m going to get some fresh hangings and have it all foxed when Lillian gets back and surprise her.”

I wish I had been a phonograph record so I could have gotten all of Dorothy down, for she said an amazing lot of things in the hour we visited, and she said them delightfully. She is a dear child, exactly like any schoolgirl, a bit more ripened in experience, perhaps, but perfectly fresh and unspoiled.

“We’ve been in pictures three years. We had just finished school and were thinking about stage engagements,” explained Dorothy. “Why, we never thought of pictures, but we knew Mary and she asked us to come over to the Biograph, where she was working, and we did, and Mr. Griffith saw us there and had us pose.

“It was the funniest thing. We didn’t understand Mr. Griffith’s name when he was introduced to us, and he was flying around so busy and important that we called him Mr. Biograph, because we knew it was the Biograph company and he acted as though he was the whole thing. And so, then, we’ve been working with him ever since.

dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish

“I started on the stage when I was 4 years old. There was a friend we had whom we called aunt, and she had a chance to play in ‘East Lynne’ if she could get a child to play with her.

“Well, she asked mother for me, and of course at first mother thought, ‘O, it’s perfectly dreadful,’ you know how that is, and wouldn’t let me, but finally she did, and I went and played little Willie.

“ And how I hated to wear the boy clothes. I used to pick the hems cut of my dresses so they’d come down as far as possible, and once I was naughty and Aunt Laurie made me wear them home. Of course they didn’t show under my coat, but I was sick because I knew they were there.

“I don’t want to do boy parts now. Of course you have to do what you are told, but I’m too fat anyway. I weigh 115 pounds. But I’ve done everything. I played extra for a year and I was Indians and colored people and maids and everything.

“O, I used to think if only I could be 18, because Mr. Griffith would always try me out in parts and then he’d say ‘No, you’re too young.’ O, I wanted to run the world then and be like Sarah Bernhardt. Now I want to be 21, but I don’t know about running the world either.

Actress, Dorothy Gish, wearing a long-sleeved white dress with tiered skirt, standing in a bed of flowers, holding a small basket full of flowers, from the film The Streets of New York. (Photo by Edward Steichen)

“I like to work in pictures, O, ever so much. They seem to me so much more real than the stage. And then Lillian and I can be together, and we have been separated so much that, that is lovely. It was just about impossible to get stage engagements together.”

I managed to suggest that sometime they might be separated, when they went and fell in love and were married. Dorothy laughed with girlish skepticism: “O, there’s not much danger of that.”

Then she turned sober. “You see we have seen so many unhappy marriages all about and among stage people that we feel seriously about marriage. The trouble is that people go into it so unthinkingly. They only know each other for a little while and don’t have a chance to know what they are really like and what faults they have, and all that, and then they rush off and get married, and after that they find out soon enough how little they were acquainted. I think if people would be more thoughtful and get to know each other better there would be many less unhappy marriages.”

Someone stuck his head in to “how-do-you-do” then and we lost that thread of thought. But Dorothy was ready with a whole loomful of other ones.

“I don’t care much about dancing, but I just love to go to picture shows. I think Chaplin is the most fun. Of course he does lots of vulgar little things that I wish he wouldn’t, and I don’t think he does quite so much now, but he has real comedy in him. I think he is just rich. He and Mary – that sounds funny to put them together when they are so different – are really the best drawing cards in pictures.”

Miss Gish always means Mary Pickford, of course, when she says “Mary.” There was a deal more said, but space is a tangible quantity with barriers, and I hit them so often with damaging results that I shall try to avoid them.

Dorothy Gish – one feels exactly like calling her Dorothy – is a refreshing experience and I’d relayed her remarks through in short paragraphs.

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Baby Camille of Lillian Gish Arouses Critic – By Burns Mantle (Chicago Tribune – 1932)

  • Chicago Tribune – Sunday November 13, 1932 – Page 51
  • Baby Camille of Lillian Gish Arouses Critic

Too Ethereal for New York

By Burns Mantle

New York – Special – The Lillian Gish “Camille” which has been brought down from the Colorado mountains by the Delos Chappels to show these dull easterners what Dumas really had in mind when, eighty years ago, he wrote the story of Marguerite Gautier and titled it “The Lady of the Camellias” – the Lillian Gish “Camille” is at least 99 per cent pure and floats more successfully than any of them. Of course, if Lillian is right and Robert Edmond Jones is right in his direction of her, then it must follow that fifty million Frenchmen have been wrong for eighty years at least. For nothing so etherealized in the way of Camilles has ever been exhibited on any stage in any country since the play became an emotional actress favorite bronchial and abdominal exercise.

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

It is Mr. Jones’ contention that Dumas, in fact has literally been this wrong. His heroine, says Robert, though “one of the most famous of all Parisian courtesans, who died and was deeply mourned at the age of 24, was no middle-aged sophisticate, taking quick profit of her life. Instead, she was a young girl who, governed solely by her great heart, rose at last to spiritual heights which have immortalized her.”

Well, there is agreement on a few points. Marguerite was a courtesan, and she was 24. She had had numerous lovers. She had lived hectically. Her pleasant dissipations had undermined her health and she was, it is fair to assume, at least a 24 year old sophisticate.

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

A Book and a Play are keeping Lillian Gish for the Public Eye – By Karen Hollis (Picture Play 1933)

“It isn’t the Paris courtesan that she is playing. What she really is playing is Marguerite’s pathos itself, the sadness of the irrevocable of all those memories evoked by the yellowed lace of old hall dresses, by pressed roses found in a book, by the tinkle of dance music played on a harpsichord; the tragedy of fleeting beauty, of love lost, of fragile youth so soon to yield to death.” (Arthur Ruhl)

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish as Camille. Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.309

BROADWAYITES have finally had an opportunity to see Lillian Gish as Camille, and she is assured a place in arguments about illusion in the theater for years to come. Not every one approved her delineation of the role, but every one found some evanescent magic in it. There were harsh words said about her playing the fabulous courtesan as a chaste spinster. There was some confusion over the play being presented in the manner of fifty years ago with quaint lighting, soliloquies, and exrated posturings.

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Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies (Chicago Tribune – March 01, 1993)

Chicago Tribune – Monday, March 01, 1993 – Page 55

Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies

From Chicago Tribune wires

NEW YORK – Lillian Gish, the last of the great silent film stars who went on to perform for more than 85 years in movies, theater and television, has died at age 99. Her personal manager, James E. Frasher, said she died in her sleep Saturday evening of heart failure.

“She was the same age as film,” Frasher said. “They both cam into the world in 1893.”

Miss Gish still was performing as recently as the late 1980s. In 1986, she appeared as Alan Alda’s hilariously addled mother in “Sweet Liberty” and in 1987 she was praised for her sensitive portrayal of an indomitable old woman in “The Whales of August,” which co-starred another movie legend, Bette Davis.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

“To become an actress, one cannot begin too soon,” said Miss Gish, who made her acting debut at age 5. Under the guidance of director D.W. Griffith, Miss Gish was to become the pre-eminent actress in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East.”

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – wearing her Wedding Dress – Way Down East

After performing in dozens of one and two-reel silent movies – with running times of 10 or 20 minutes – and then in the longer Griffith epics, Miss Gish made a successful transition into the “talkies” and later into television.

Between film and television roles, she also worked on the stage. In 1930, she starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ Broadway production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and in 1973 she appeared as the nurse in Mike Nichols’ revival of the play. She made her last Broadway appearance in 1975, in “A Musical Jubilee.”

Lillian Gish and Mike NicholsUncle Vanya – 1973

Especially in her youth, Miss Gish evoked an aura of fragility, and hers was a vulnerable, waiflike beauty. The renowned theatrical impresario David Belasco pronounced her “the most beautiful blonde I have ever seen.”

Miss Gish, though not always in excellent health, was accustomed to hard work and took a no-nonsense view of her physical attributes.

“I didn’t care about being a beauty,” she said in an interview in 1975. “I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn’t care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that’s an inner thing. But if all you have is a façade, it isn’t interesting.”

Throughout her life, Miss Gish remained singularly devoted to her mother and her sister, Dorothy, who was younger, but became an actress about the same time Lillian did. Mrs. Gish died in 1948, after years as an invalid, and Dorothy Gish died in 1968.

Miss Gish never married and leaves no survivors. “I loved a lot of dear men, but luckily I never ruined their lives by marrying them,” she said. “What kind of a marriage would it have been to a wife who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week?”

FILE – This 1915 file photo shows actress Lillian Gish as she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation.” The film’s cast also included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman). (AP Photo)

The artistic collaboration between Miss Gish and Griffith lasted more than a decade. During that time, she appeared in dozens of Griffith’s short films and starred in most of his critically and economically successful longer ones.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”

In some films, she played bit parts; in others, she played several roles; in some, she was the star. All of Griffith’s actors did the same, and it was not until after the success of “The Birth of a Nation” that any received on-screen credit.

Hendrick Sartow, a still photographer who eventually became a cinematographer for Griffith, invented for Miss Gish the “Lillian Gish lens,” *** now called a soft-focus lens, which gives its photographed subject a warmly blurred appearance.

In the mid-1920’s, Miss Gish became embroiled in a long legal battle with Charles Duell, a socialite who had been her financial adviser (and, as she said in 1975, “sort of my Svengali”), over sums she allegedly owed him.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

During the trial, Miss Gish munched carrots, and newspaper photographs of her stirred a carrot-chomping fad across the country. Americans had become enchanted with the new artistic aristocracy – the movie stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Miss Gish.

Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

Earlier, after Miss Gish pushed up the sides of her mouth with her fingers to demonstrate feigned happiness in a movie, the gesture became a much-copied fad.

One Romantic Night – The Swan

Miss Gish made the transition from silents to talkies in 1930 in “One Romantic Night,” with Rod LaRocque and Conrad Nagel. By that time, she had signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “My contract called for six pictures in two years, for which I was paid, I believe, a million dollars,” she wrote.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

Miss Gish made a triumphant return to the stage in 1930 in “Uncle Vanya” on Broadway. In 1936, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Judith Anderson’s Queen Gertrude, and, in 1941, she began a record-breaking 66-week run in “Life With Father” in Chicago. In 1960, she starred in “All the Way Home” on Broadway.

Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

When not before the cameras or an audience, Miss Gish toured the world, lecturing and showing Griffith’s classics.

Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized her work in 1970, *** presenting her an honorary Oscar, and the American Film Institute presented her its lifetime achievement award for 1984. In 1982, she received the Kennedy Center Honor.

1982 DC Ronald Reagan – Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)

She said current movie-making methods had ruined the quality of acting.

“No one rehearses anymore, so how do you know what to do? They just do takes 100 times over. Now, distributors make more money on popcorn than on the film, and deservedly so.”

Admin note:

*** Billy Bitzer invented the “Lillian Gish” lens not Sartov

*** The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Lillian Gish’s work in 1971, not 1970.

Chicago Tribune – Monday, March 01, 1993 – Page 55 Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies From Chicago Tribune wires

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The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant

  • THE CELLULOID MISTRESS
  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

Dorothy and Lillian – Unbroken Blossoms

I went to tea with Lillian and Dorothy the following afternoon. Their New York apartment was charming and they had a Southern butler, straight out of “Gone with the Wind” who appeared to have been with them for years. From the elegance and richness of the furnishings, it was obvious that Lillian and Dorothy had not squandered their money like so many of the early silent stars; having known what poverty was from their youth, they had, in fact, sensibly invested in real estate.

I was shown into the drawing-room where the sisters introduced me to their mother, a beautiful, exquisitely dressed, white-haired old lady whom they obviously adored. This was the actress who had instilled into Lillian her love of the theatre and whose own career had come to a tragic end. In 1925, Lillian, who was starring in ” The Scarlet Letter ” in Hollywood, heard that her mother was seriously ill in New York. Greatly distressed, she told the director, Victor Seastrom, that she must go to New York at once: he understandingly agreed. When she arrived, Lillian found that her mother had had a stroke which had totally deprived her of the power of speech. Ever since then, Lillian and Dorothy had looked after her; she lived with them, met their guests, was present at all their dinner parties-a gracious, fragile, silent and infinitely touching figure.

On that first visit, while we were taking tea, there seemed to be a mad cocktail party going on in the adjoining dining-room, the door to which was not quite closed. Through the small gap came a babble as of a coven of witches gossiping, with malevolent chuckles and shrieks of eldritch laughter; then one cackling voice could be heard with disconcerting clarity saying, ” That Dorothy Gish-she thinks she’s an actress ! Hee-hee-hee ! She’s no actress-that Dorothy Gish!” I coughed and rattled my teacup on its saucer and made conversation in a loud voice to drown the flow of disparagement from next door. Nobody else took the slightest notice of it and eventually the sounds died away; I assumed that the cocktail-takers had drunk themselves into a coma.

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

One of them, it seemed, came to just as I was leaving. I had telephoned for a cab and when the porter rang back to say he had one waiting for me I said, ” I’ll be right down.” From the next room a horrid, mocking voice echoed, ” I’ll be right DOWN ! ” ” Who was that? ” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Oh, that’s our parrot,” said Lillian, ” you must meet her next time you come. She’s very lively for her age-we’re told she’s well over a hundred-and really a lovely person.” Dorothy, who had just entranced me by announcing, “I’ll go along with Rodney-I’m meeting Zasu and Gloria,” made no comment on the bird; it was conceivable that her affection for the garrulous ancient was more restrained than Lillian’s.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

At our subsequent meetings, Lillian, probably realizing that my love for the cinema was incurable, allowed herself to be lured into talking of early Hollywood days. I wanted to know how Griffith had got that wonderful close-up of her with frozen eyelashes in the blizzard scene of ” Way Down East “; had it been faked? Lillian was indignant. Certainly it had not been faked; the scene had actually been shoL in a blizzard, for which they had waited weeks, and not only her eyelashes but all of her had been frozen. ” I thought I would die of cold,” she said, ” but Griffith just kept shouting, ‘Give her some more hot tea and carry on.’ “

How, I asked, had she done that terrifying scene, in the same picture, where she was on an ice-floe when the ice broke up?

“Why, I just did it,” said Lillian, looking mildly surprised at the question. ‘We all did things in those days.” Recalling the wide use to-day of stand-ins and stunt-men, it seemed to me the modem actor was somewhat lacking in spirit. ” But, I said to Lillian, gazing at her with awe, ” surely you were risking your life? “

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

”Oh, yes, I suppose so,” said she: “as a matter of fact, I was in hospital for six months after that film.” One of Griffith’s most promising women players, Lillian told me, had actually died in the blizzard scene; Griffith re-cast the part and went on shooting.

Reminiscing about “Birth of a Nation,” she told me, with amusement, how one scene, which is still regarded as an outstanding example of screen art, came to be shot. The scene is that which shows the Southemer Colonel Cameron, returning from the Civil War to his ravaged home : he looks like a man who has been through hell. Griffith, it appears, was all set to shoot the scene of the colonel, full of high hopes and patriotic zeal, going off to the Civil War-but Henry B. Walthall, who was playing Cameron, had been on a terrific bat the night before and turned up at the studio looking ghastly and suffering from an imperial hangover.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Griffith immediately changed his plans : ” We can’t shoot him like that setting out,” he said. “We’ll shoot him coming back.” And it was done.

“Everything was so different in the old days,” said Lillian. ” There were no strict union rules then, of course, and everybody was adaptable; we all worked together to make a good film-and we took pride in working together. Films lost so much when talkies came in, I just felt I must leave Hollywood. So in 1930 I crone to New York-and played in Jed Harris’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya.'”

” But surely you did make one talking picture? ” I asked.

“Wasn’t it ‘ One Romantic Night,’ with Rod la Rocque, directed by Paul Stein? ,,

One Romantic Night – The Swan

At the mention of that name, Lillian’s face became (as Edmund Pearson described her ‘Lizzie Borden ” face in the play ” Nine, Pine St.”) .. as venomous and implacable as that of the great murderous queen in ‘ Agamemnon.’ ” ” I can’t bear to think of it,” she said. We agreed that it was the only stinker she had ever appeared in. She had, of course, not yet made ” Duel in the Sun.”

The White Sister

Lillian recalled her experiences with Ronald Colman, whom she had discovered as a small-part stage actor. In 1923 she formed her own film company with Henry King and (which may surprise those who think the current fashion to film in Italy is something new), took Colman to Italy to appear with her in her film of “The White Sister ” which she made there. In one scene, Colman, cast as the impetuous Italian lover, had to display burning passion as he tried to persuade Lillian, the nun of the title role, to break her vows. The scene was rehearsed over and over again. Mr. Colman’s display of passion was not even lukewarm. It seemed as if his inner self, clad in white flannels and brandishing an embarrassed tennis racquet, held him back, murmuring, ‘Oh,. I say, old man-look here ! That sort of thing’s all right for foreigners, but I mean to say …. ! ” In desperation, Lillian poured him half-a-tumblerful of brandy; in desperation, Mr. Colman drank it down, neat and in one gulp. A few minutes later, positively incandescent with passion and alcohol, he gave a performance so scorching that, when it reached the screen, women in the audience glowed with responsive rapture and swooned away. Out of the glass of brandy a star was born.

One of the reasons I stayed on in New York (apart from the delight I took in Lillian’s company) was that I was trying to get somebody to present my play of ‘Crime and Punishment ” there. The New York Theatre Guild took an option on it and we at once began to discuss casting. I wanted Lillian to play Katerina Ivanovna-the part Edith Evans had played in London-but could not think of an actor to play Raskolnikov. Lillian suggested Burgess Meredith, who was then appearing in “The Playboy of the Western World.”

There was a charming story going the rounds at the time. The New York Irish took as great exception to the play as the Irish in Ireland had done when it was first presented, and one night a crowd of Irish toughs gathered at the stage door and mobbed Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, as they sat in their limousine. The finger of scorn was pointed at Miss Goddard and Mr. Meredith was challenged to ” get out and foight.” ” Don’t you do it, Buzz,” cried Paulette. “Just open the window and let me hit them with my diamond necklace.”

Lillian and I went to see Burgess to ask if there was any possibility of his being able to play in” Crime and Punishment.” For the time being, there was none : he planned to go to Dublin when the run of ” The Playboy ” ended, to appear there with Paulette in” Winterset.”

He did go to Dublin-and when I met him a year later he told me the play had not been very enthusiastically received. On the morning following the first night, a chambermaid entered their hotel bedroom bearing a breakfast tray and a bundle of newspapers. She put the newspapers at the foot of the bed and set down the breakfast tray. “There y’are now,” she said cosily. “Eat up yer breakfast before ye desthroy yerselves reading the notices.”

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith – promotional for ‘The Star-Wagon’

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THE CELLULOID MISTRESS – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant (1954)

  • THE CELLULOID MISTRESS
  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS

” There were two sisters sat in a bower .. “

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

I had told Bill Gillette I was going to America to see Korda but the moment I arrived in New York I had to confess to myself that there was somebody else I simply must see, somebody I really looked forward to seeing-and before I telephoned the film magnate who had, as I thought, caused me so much trouble, I telephoned the star who had, from my boyhood days, given me so much pleasure and inspiration : Lillian Gish.

Nine years before, I had been sitting in my room in the Albany flat when Arthur Boys, who had been dining with friends of ours, came in and said casually, “Who do you think is staying with the Parkers?” “I’ve no idea at all,” I said. “Well, guess! ” urged Arthur, “Hitler?” I suggested. “No,” said Arthur, ” Lillian Gish.” I sprang up in the greatest excitement, ” It can’t be! ” “But it is,” insisted Arthur, pleased at being the bearer of such sensational news. If he had not been adamant in refusing to disturb his host and hostess at half-past midnight, I would have forced him to telephone the Parkers then and there to ask if I might meet their distinguished visitor. He spoke to them next morning and they amiably invited me to dine the following evening. I arrived in a state of awe and on being introduced to Lillian Gish became completely tongue-tied-as I usually do when confronted with one of my idols. (Had Tchekov lived in my time and I had met him, I’ve no doubt I should be dumb-struck to this day.) I could only gaze at Miss Gish. It was incredible : she looked exactly the same as she did in the old days-except for two fine lines under her eyes. Her face was so young, it seemed to me; she must have drawn those lines on, in order to play a character part. I sat beside her at dinner, my mind full of memories. When had I first met Lillian Gish on the screen? Was it in 11 The Angel of the Settlement,” a two-reeler in which she had saved George Walsh from being lynched? I recalled seeing that with my sister Kay; it had been a gala day for us at the Grand Theatre, Fulham-for Lillian Gish was my favourite star and George Walsh was Kay’s best-loved actor, and the other film in the bill had been ” The Voice from the Minaret,” with Nonna Talmadge. Suddenly I became aware that some contribution to the conversation was expected from me. ” Oh, Miss Gish,” I said nervously to her, ” there’s something I remember about one of your earlier films which apparently nobody else does : you were once on a horse rushing to someone else’s rescue.” Miss Gish looked at me as though I must be out of my mind. ” I was on a horse . . . rushing to rescue somebody? ” she said, incredulously.

” Yes,” I asserted, ” it was called ‘ The Angel of the Settlement.’ ” Miss Gish shook her head and said in a gentle but firm voice :

“No, no. You must be mistaken. I can’t remember any such film or incident.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

I was surprised and abashed. I hadn’t at that time learned that film stars who have appeared in a great many films always forget the early ones. I did not, in fact, realize this until Robert Helpmann, long afterwards, told me he was afraid he had off ended Bebe Daniels : he had said to her, ” I remember you, dressed as a moth, dancing on a table in’ Singed Wings.'” Miss Daniels had not remembered having done anything so ” idiotic.” She had genuinely forgotten the f:tlm-and one must hope it is never unearthed and shown on TV as it might rock the millions who enjoy that cosy” Life with the Lyons.” Though my first meeting with Lillian Gish had opened somewhat inauspiciously, it led to her becoming a dear friend of mine. We met a number of times during her stay in London-and I discovered that though I had always thought of her as a film star, she regarded herself as essentially a stage actress. Her mother had been an actress in a touring company and Lillian and her sister Dorothy, as children, had travelled abbut with her; it was not a very successful touring company and they often went hungry to bed in the stuffy dressing-rooms of fifth-rate theatres because there was not money enough to pay for a meal or lodgings. The vicissitudes of her childhood had not destroyed Lillian’s born love of the theatre. The years she had spent making films in Hollywood (from 1910 to I930, I believe) represented to her no more than a temporary break in her stage career.

Naturally, during our meetings I argued fervently in favour of the cinema and told her it was my ambition, my dream, to become a film director. She used to smile at me as if I were being rather foolish-but one day she spoke very seriously. Since I had last visited her, she had been to see “After October ” and had read several of my other plays. “Rodney,” she said,” I beg of you don’t waste your time pursuing that dream of yours. You are a playwright-why do you want to be a film director instead of writing plays-plays that nobody else could write? There are hundreds of competent film directors and to get to the top in that profession you must be ruthless-you must be tough enough to take hard knocks and keep fighting and fighting. It is not worth it for you; you have better things to do-you have your plays to write. Think of the number of plays you could have written in all this time you’ve been messing about with films ! Don’t you see?”

Within The Gates – Edward Steichen (Estate) credits – Harvard Art Museums – Fogg Museum copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – detail1

I saw that she spoke in earnest and I loved her for it. I was, in fact, deeply moved : I muttered out inadequate thanks for her kindness. “Well, think about it, anyway,” she said-and then, to put the conversation on a less emotional level, changed the subject. “I should love to play in a London theatre” she sighed. I asked what she had been doing before she came over here. “I was playing in New York in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Within the Gates.’ The front-of “house people told me they used to hear dear old ladies coming into the theatre at matinees saying, ‘ Oh, I always like Lillian Gish, she’s so sweet, always so refined . .. ‘-and then, when the poor things sat down and opened their programmes a gasp would go through the whole auditorium. You see, I was down as ‘ Lillian Gish-The Young Whore.’ “

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

When I telephoned her in New York, Lillian suggested that as Mary Pickford was giving a little party for a few friends at the Waldorf Astoria that day, I should meet her there at six o’clock.

That, I thought, would be charming. Having just arrived from the wilds of Canada, I felt, though, my wardrobe, designed for roughing. it in the wild North-West, was scarcely suitable for a party, however small, at the Waldorf Astoria. I couldn’t afford to buy very much, having only my dollar allowance, and anyway I hadn’t the time, as it was already half-past four. I would let my one good suit to be pressed by the hotel valet service and meantime could slip out in my rumpled tweeds and at least get a new shirt. No haberdasher in the vicinity of the hotel seemed to understand what I wanted so I journeyed to Fifth Avenue. Here, having browsed luxuriously through a variety of shirtings such as had not been seen in England since before the war, I discovered suddenly that it was later than I had thought. I hastily bought a shirt and, clutching it under my arm, emerged from the shop into the inconceivable chaos of New York’s rush hour.

The sidewalk seethed with hot, harassed people, scurrying in all directions, pushing and elbowing each other fiercely and showing such a frenzied determination to escape from Fifth Avenue as quickly as possible that one would have thought an outbreak of bubonic plague in the area had just been announced. There were no taxis to be had-no buses. One stream of fugitives bore me up Fifth Avenue, another swept me clown-and it was nearly six o’clock. There was no time to return to my hotel. I would have to forego the freshly pressed suit and fight my way to the Waldorf Astoria as I was. Arriving, panting and more rumpled than ever, I plunged into the gentleman’s cloakroom, had a quick wash and changed into my new shirt; to my chagrin, it had the kind of cuffs that demand links, and I was linldess. The friendly attendant comforted me with the information that I could buy a IC cheap pair-just junk” at a kiosk in the foyer. With the cheapest pair I could find holding my Cliffs decently together, I asked to be conducted to Miss Mary Pickford’s party.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish – feature photo

A supercilious page flung open a door-revealing thousands and thousands of people, as resplendent and as raucous as macaws, milling about in the ballroom beyond. Dazed and almost deafened, I stood by the doorway feeling lost and hoping that Lillian Gish would find me. At last, looking herself slightly dazed, she did and as we fell on each other’s necks she said in my ear, IC But I promise you, Mary did say just a few friends.” I was fascinated to meet Mary Pickford, though I did not exchange more than a couple of words with her-not, on this occasion, because I was tongue-tied but because she was so busy receiving the hordes of guests who continued to arrive. Her circle of friends was apparently infinite. Unlike Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford had changed a great deal since the old days; she bore no resemblance at all to the ringletted darling who was the world’s sweetheart.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

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American film acting : the Stanislavski heritage – by Richard A. Blum (1984)

  • American Film Acting
  • The Stanislavski Heritage
  • by Richard A. Blum
  • Copyright © 1984 Richard Arthur Blum All rights reserved
  • Produced and distributed by UMl Research Press an imprint of University Microfilms Inc. Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106

A time will come when the evolution of art shall have completed its predestined circle and nature itself will teach us methods and techniques for the interpretation of the sharpness of the new life.

—C. Stanislavski, My Life in Art

The intimacy of acting of the Stanislavski school… is inevitably and remarkably developed in the cinema.

—V.l. Pudovkin, Film Acting: A Course of Lectures Delivered at the State Institute of Cinematography, Moscow

[Method] actors made a powerful impression and showed a remarkable ability to bridge the gap between stage, screen, and television to an extent that aroused excitement and interest in the rest of the world.

—Lee Strasberg, “Acting,” in the New Encyclopaedia Britannica

Lillian Gish – Hearts of The World

The impetus for emotional realism—or inner truth—was pronounced, and Griffith actors delved seriously into character traits, motivational behavior, and the given environment. Like M.A.T. players, they would study other people in every environment to develop their capacity for observation and identification. Lillian Gish was asked to visit a psychiatric institution to study the inmates and to visit the scene of a bombing to study the victims and their families.’’ Griffith felt this kind of observation was essential for learning about human nature and developing empathy.” Stanislavski also advocated observing human nature for building emotional empathy:

We use not only our past emotions as creative material, but we use feelings that we have had in sympathizing with the emotions of others…. so we must study other people, and get as close to them emotionally as we can, until sympathy for them is transformed into feelings of our own.’

Lillian Gish – Hearts of The World

Griffith’s search for a natural style of acting led to a carefully orchestrated rehearsal, with the full use of improvisational technique; much like the practice of the First Studio in Moscow.

At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden chair, the actors fanning out in front of him, and, as he called out the plot, they would react, supplying in their own words whatever was appropriate for the scene…. By the time that we had run through the story several times, he had viewed the action from every conceivable camera angle. Then he would begin to concentrate on characterization. Often he would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect.”

He also used sense-memory technique in rehearsals, similar to the sense- memory exercises derived from Stanislavski’s teachings.” Lillian Gish recalled: “In rehearsals we were expected to visualize the props—furniture where none stood, windows in blank walls, doors where there was only space. Our physical movements became automatic and our emotions completely involved.’’

The Mothering Heart – 1913

Stanislavski’s “magic If’ was used to strengthen imagination and spontaneity, calling upon the actor to envision what he would do ifhe were in the given circumstances of the character. Stanislavski explained: “I call if jokingly a ‘magic’ word because it does much to help an actor get into action. Griffith used a similar technique, supplying the given circumstances and imaginative action through side-coaching technique. A most telling narrative was offered by Lillian Gish, in preparation for her role in The Mothering Heart’.

As I rehearsed the scene, Mr. Griffith fed me the reactions of the injured wife: “You feel that you’ve been humiliated by your husband in public. You think that he doesn’t love you any longer because you’re carrying his child. You’re afraid that he wants to get rid of you.” With his intense voice coaching me, I felt the heroine’s agony….

After leaving her husband, the wife bears her child alone in a cottage. The infant dies. In her grief she wanders into the garden, picks up a stick, and beats the rose bushes until they are stripped bare. This was Griffith’s idea. He was justly famous for the bits of “business’’ that he injected into his films. Even when they were not really essential to the basic plot, they communicated emotions that he wanted to project. If an actor devised a good piece of business during rehearsals, Mr. Griffith would keep it in.”

The Mothering Heart – 1913

The “bits of business’’ which communicated emotions are directly analogous to Stanislavski’s later emphasis on the logic of physical actions. The dramatic action is tied directly to the emotional impact of the scene’s reality.

Griffith also stressed the importance of analyzing the story and character in preparation for a part. Mae Marsh outlined that technique:

[In approaching a part] we first look to the plot and theme of the story. We want to know what the author is telling and how he is trying to tell it. We find the big situations and the action that preceded them. More important, we locate the “why” of it.”

Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms

One can see the conventionalized realism in any number of Griffith films, beginning with his own acting chores in Rescued From An Eagle’s Nest for Edison Studio, through his directorial efforts in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920).” The melodramatic tone is strong and is evident in the performances of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Nonetheless, Griffith actors were generally more aware of the need to underplay their parts, and to approach their roles from the perspective of human nature. Even outside the Griffith stable, certain actors approached their roles from a realistic standpoint. Charlie Chaplin based his characterizations on the realism of human nature’ and was considered “one of the great actors of all time in any medium” by Lee Strasberg.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

One of Griffith’s actresses, Lillian Gish, received a letter of commendation from Nemirovich-Danchenko, who cofounded the M.A.T. with Stanislavski:

I want once more to tell you of my admiration of your genius. In that picture “The Wind” the power and expressiveness of your betrayal began real tragedy. A combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance and unvarying charm places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world…. It is quite possible that I shall write [of it] again to Russia, where you are the object of great interest and admiration by the people.”

Clearly, D. W. Griffith was an important figure in establishing realistic acting standards for American film, just as Belasco popularized realistic detail and understatement in commercial theatre.

American film acting : the Stanislavski heritage – cover

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