One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present
A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036
THE BEST CHOICE: Lillian Gish (The Wind)
Award-Worthy Runners-Up: Betty Compson (The Docks of New York), Marion Davies (Show People), Bessie Love (Broadway Melody)
Mary Pickford was happy to vote for Janet Gaynor as Best Actress for 1927-28, and didn’t even mind that her own terrific performance in My Best Girl went unnominated. But, as the story goes, she began to feel jealous that she didn’t have a statue herself. So when she was nominated in the second year of the Academy Awards for her performance in Coquette, her first talkie and first film without her famous curls, she got serious. No longer on the voting committee, she invited the current judges to Pickfair for tea, thereby qualifying as the first star to campaign for an Academy Award. And she defeated several respected, veteran actresses, including the late Jeanne Eagels, who had died of a drug overdose after making The Letter. It was hard for the Academy to justify her victory because the film was one of the worst received of her career; it was generally recognized that she had been miscast as the Southern flirt who ruins men’s lives, a part played by Helen Hayes on Broadway.
Surely, Lillian Gish was more deserving for her riveting performance in The Wind. And even if, as many contended, the award was given to Pickford as a tribute to a great career, Gish was still the better choice. Pickford may have been the most popular actress of the silent era, but Gish was the most talented. If Academy Awards had been given out in the silent era, Lillian Gish would have won a few, having given beautifully conceived performances in such features as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm for D. W. Griffith, and The White Sister, La Boheme, and The Scarlet Letter (MGM).
Gish made her reputation as an innocent, passive heroine who undergoes much suffering. As critic Arthur Lenning wrote of Broken Blossoms’ Lucy Burrows, Lillian represented “the innocent waif sacrificed in the moral and emotional slaughterhouse of the world.” Her parts were more adult after she left Griffith, but she still sought roles that were consistent with those she played for him.
Having played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Gish again played a heroine who is an outcast in her community’ in The Wind. As in her other films Gish is initially virtuous, but learns the ways of the hard, cruel world. She endures much pain, suffering, and humiliation. Unlike her roles in the Griffith films, however, her character does waver from the path of righteousness; she does not survive with honor intact. But when, in The Wind, she is attacked by a scoundrel and ravaged by nature, her part recalls the Griffith films. The scene in which she feels trapped in the small cabin while a storm rages outside reminds one of the harrowing scene in Broken Blossoms when the terrified Lucy Burrows is locked in a closet while her brutal father stalks outside. Her hysteria in the Griffith scene was so convincing that during the filming, several people on the set became ill watching her; she is just as believable in The Wind.
Gish is dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions. At first she is carefree, later apprehensive, finally tormented; she tries to suppress her paranoia, but ultimately allows madness to replace her terrible fears. As Gish was well aware, it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through.
We sense her paranoia the first time she watches the sand swirling toward the train windows (she realizes she isn’t strong); later we see absolute fear in those eyes; finally they are blurred and unfocused and we realize she has lost her senses. As it is with her hands and her body, Gish moves her eyes (usually preceding the movement of her head) only at those moments when she wants to convey a thought. No one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress.
Gish said working on The Wind was the most difficult experience of her career because of the blowing sand, which cut into her skin and shredded her garments, and the intense heat. It was even harder than doing twenty-two takes on an ice floe with her hand in the freezing water in Griffith’s Way Down East. So the lack of studio support for the film was a great disappointment. Because it failed at the box office, Louis B. Mayer told Gish that her career needed a boost. He said he was going to invent a scandal to soil her pristine image. When she refused to go along with his scheme, he suspended her. Undaunted, she went to New York to do theater. The Wind was Lillian Gish’s last silent picture.***
No one has ever been better at playing traumatic scenes than Lillian Gish, but she outdid herself as the lonely bride driven crazy by The Wind.
*** The Wind was MGM’s last silent production as well.
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Distributed by Random House, Inc., New York.
The House of Barrymore begins in the 1860s with Louisa, Mrs. John Drew, the greatest comedienne of her time, mother of the brilliant Georgiana (“Georgie”) Drew Barrymore, and mother-in-law of the vaudeville star and matinee idol Maurice Barrymore. But it is the children of Georgie and Maurice who are the heart of the book—Ethel, Lionel, and John, the most extraordinary members of an extraordinary family, the first great actors of the American stage to become, as well, great stars of American film.
1912 – 1916
FIVE dollars!” said little Lillian Gish after making her first movie. “For doing so little!” Mary Pickford also agreed that movies were great between stage jobs: “I’m earning more than I ever have before—much more!” “I saw you in the picture play,” said Frohman to his star Marie Doro. “What a lot of money you make!” And there is no use pretending that movies meant much more than easy money to the actors who gravitated to the decaying brownstone where D. W. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer ground out the one-reelers that were making cinematographic history. Some of the Broadway actors who condescended to a few days’ work at the Biograph studio treated the whole business with contempt. “But from the moment he stalked through D.W.’s door,” said Mary Pickford of Lionel, “we liked him!” His very presence at Biograph reassured Lillian and Dorothy Gish: movies couldn’t be too sinister if a Barrymore was involved. Lionel made his first picture, The Battle, in 1911 with Blanche Sweet, then friends with Pickford in 1912. Despite studio opposition, Griffith had Bitzer move his camera in to shoot Mary waist-up, eliminating stereotyped posing and gesture but outraging the men who owned Biograph and didn’t care about art: they paid Mary $100 a week and they wanted every inch of what they paid for. Loathing them, Griffith went ahead, his way.
Griffith had a stable of performers chosen to portray the five standard ingredients of the one-reeler: Heart Interest, Drama, Danger, Comedy, Rescue. Blanche Sweet, Claire McDowell, Florence Lawrence, and Mae Marsh were Heart Interests, but Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford were more important because they photographed “young.” Henry B. Walthall, Owen Moore, and Bobby Harron were Heroes to the Rescue. Lionel, Harry Carey, Donald Crisp, and James Kirkwood provided Drama, Danger, and Comedy—though Lionel, said Lillian Gish, could play any part.
Griffith respected the legitimate stage and felt deeply the conflict between it and the motion picture, but he also recognized his calling. Overhearing an actress sneer at “flickers,” he exploded. She wasn’t working in some third-rate theatrical company now, he told her. “What we do here today will be seen tomorrow by people all over America—people all over the world! Just remember that the next time you go before the camera!” Lillian Gish was one of the performers Griffith could leave trembling; Lionel tried to comfort her. It wasn’t so long ago, he explained, that Griffith himself had talked scathingly of “flickers” and “galloping tin types.” But now he was convinced that he was pioneering in a new art. That was why he drove his players—and himself—so hard.
1924 – 1925
Movies offered less work and far more money. They also offered wider recognition to a man who could be disgusted when restaurant patrons did not recognize him. Once in New York he had fought through crowds to the Lyric Theatre to see Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood.
Though he was America’s greatest actor and no stranger to films, he found himself disconcertingly just one of the crowd. In front of the theatre he watched the limousines draw up: Valentino, Richard Barthelmess, and Lillian Gish had arrived. The crowd rushed toward them. “Sure, that’s him!” a female screamed in his ear. Had he been recognized at last.” No, she was jabbing her finger at the handsome Barthelmess. Hollywood would cure the recognition factor.
1935 – 1936
In England an important new actor had emerged, an actor who played not only Hamlet, but Romeo, Orlando, Richard II, Oberon, Hotspur, Macbeth, Prospero, and Lear. His theatrical lineage was impeccable: he was a Terry. As long as John Gielgud kept his Hamlet on the other side of the Atlantic, John’s went unchallenged. But in the autumn of 1936, Gielgud, supported by Lillian Gish as Ophelia and Judith Anderson as the Queen, opened on Broadway. The actor’s rich voice, his poetic delivery of Shakespeare’s verse, and the intellectual strength of his whole conception brought cries that here was the greatest Hamlet of them all. The run was extended again and again, until finally Gielgud with 132 performances achieved a new record for Shakespeare, for Hamlet, and for Broadway.
1945 – 1949
Toward his sixty-seven-year-old body Lionel displayed typical Barrymore contempt. He refused to discuss his health, became savage when anyone inquired after it. Except when he was in front of the camera, eating, or asleep, he had a cigarette between his lips. He ate enormously: potato salad, malts, hamburgers, cookies. He consumed barrels of beer. Although he told numerous people he had kicked his cocaine habit. Gene Fowler was present one fire-burning winter evening in Lionel’s den at Chatsworth when Lionel suddenly began rummaging through his desk drawers and pulled out a bag of cocaine. Propelling himself to the fireplace, he hurled the bag on the fire. “If I need this goddamned stuff to live,” he growled, “then I don’t give a goddamn about living!” Fowler, who knew a good scene when he saw one, suspected it was not the finale—and there are other stories about Lionel “discovering” bags of cocaine and dramatically renouncing the habit forever.
At the same time, he could drive himself to physical limits. Selznick signed him to play Senator McCanles, the hard-nosed cattle baron of Spanish Bit in an 1880s epic western meant to eclipse Gone With the Wind. Duel in the Sun featured “three really hot and really new personalities”—Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, and Joseph Cotten—as well as premier actors playing second string—Lionel, Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, and Charles Bickford: the worn-out illusion that an all-star cast and a huge budget (an unprecedented $7.5 million) will make a great movie.
Lionel played most of his scenes in a wheelchair and for long shots had a double, but McCanles’s face-off with the railroad officials demanded the real man on horseback. With the assistance of a ladder and extras, Lionel managed to hoist himself onto a white horse, then endure hours of shooting in 110-degree Arizona heat under a director. King Vidor, who was driving Selznick crazy with his ambling pace. Lionel declined to be removed at lunchtime: “No, I’ll stay on, because when I get off I’m going home.” At the end of the afternoon’s filming Vidor asked Lionel whether the next day he would be willing to let himself be dragged by the horse. “All right,” said Lionel, “but do it today. You won’t see me around here tomorrow.”
They laid him down, roped his legs like a steer’s, then bounced him along the ground behind a car while the cameras ground. His grit drew cheers from the crew but, good to his word, Lionel disappeared for the next few days of shooting. His eyes gleaming slits, his mouth drawn down in discontent, Lionel is meaner in Duel in the Sun than MGM usually allowed, though naturally he turns out to have a heart in the end. Compared to his old Biograph co-player Lillian Gish, acting opposite him as his wife, Laura Belle, the years have dealt harshly with Lionel; he is crippled, bloated. When Vidor suggested that McCanles would not be the type to wear a wedding ring, Lionel’s gold band, buried in flesh, had to be surgically removed. With typical stoicism, he submitted silently to the violation of the sentimental symbol.
Gish, Cotten, Huston, and Lionel turned in excellent performances, but in Selznick’s own words Duel in the Sun cost him “great loss of prestige with the trade and press and public.” Raw-sex westerns weren’t really Selznick’s metier. As the half-breed Pearl, Jennifer Jones tried embarrassingly hard to smolder; the lurid publicity surrounding the film’s release broke all Selznick’s rules of dignity. But violently negative reviews only meant that the film was a hit with the public.
1949 – 1954
Lionel (Barrymore) was not invited to put his footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese. Never mind: there wasn’t the life-sized statue of D. W. Griffith on Vine that should have been there either—Griffith the master, whose very presence on the Duel in the Sun set had reduced both Lionel and Lillian Gish to nervous silence and whose funeral Lionel had reverently attended in 1948. Nor was his seventy-sixth birthday marked by any festivity: MGM was too embarrassed to note it and Lionel reported to the studio to rehearse “Hallmark Playhouse” as usual. He pretended not to care. “Barrymores don’t celebrate birthdays. I bet I don’t even get a phone call from Ethel.” Some Barrymores celebrated birthdays: Ethel’s seventy-fifth, hosted by George Cukor, was a poshly exclusive event with Ethel at the chief table between Cole Porter and David Selznick, and Elsie Mendl, Somerset Maugham, Lucille Watson, Orry-Kelly, Garbo, Hepburn, Elsa Lanchester, Zoe Akins, the Irving Berlins, and Constance Collier in attendance. Sammy was there too, and Lionel, seated between Hepburn and Ellin Berlin, an oddity in his high-button shoes.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, March 16, 1941 – Page 31
Young Red-Heads Are Models at Club Anniversary
The Chicago Woman’s club had a colorful 65th anniversary party recently when it introduced 11 south side red-heads to Miss Lillian Gish of the “Life With Father” company. The girls, who modeled in a fashion show which was the highlight of the program, were entertained afterward by Miss Gish at a matinee box party, as well as backstage. Sitting next to Miss Gish is Eileen Kilday, 1365 East 53d street. Standing (left to right) are Marylyn Schaefer, Josephine Cousgrove, Kay Brennen, Lucille Maloney, Elinor Eaton, Helen Geary, Marietta Fox, Alecia Byrne, Jeanne Marie Fox, and Jamie Fox.
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · 10 January 1941, Friday · Page 17
Probably the last Christmas tree in Chicago to be taken down is that of Miss Lillian Gish, in her apartment at the Blackstone hotel. The tree, hung with ornaments and webbed in silver mist, the holly wreaths, the Christmas angels on the mantelpiece, and the Christmas candles go down today with the departure of Mrs. Gish for New York after a holiday visit with her daughter here in her long run of Life With Father.
Mrs. Gish, who with her dazzling white hair and deep blue eyes is reminiscent of a Dresden figurine, is an invalid as a result of shell shock in the world war, when she accompanied her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, to the war area, where they made propaganda pictures under the direction of David Wark Griffith. She lost 35 pounds during the stay in the war zone, and has been invalided ever since.
Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England on the first boat to cross the Atlantic after America had declared war, the St. Louis. Dorothy Gish sailed later on the Baltic, the same boat that carried Gen. Pershing and his staff overseas, and took 13 days to do it.
“Think of any one having the courage to face the movie camera,” the commander of the A.E.F. said to Miss Gish.
The Gishes were in London during two months of heavy bombardment. In September they sailed for France on a troop transport that started out twice and returned because of floating mines. Griffith had gone ahead to get into production, and when the two Gish girls arrived with their mother they went into the war area and made pictures in trenches and beyond the barbed wire. During their stay in Paris they lived with a French family in a bomb shelter, and learned to tell by the sound of the motors overhead what kind of plane and which country’s it was. The pictures made were Hearts of the World, The Greatest Thing in Life, and The Great Love. Remember?
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.