Lillian Gish stands alone. She has many imitators – but no one of them has succeeded in giving the least suggestion of her art that is hers. The reason is this: They have not mastered the technique of screen acting, as Miss Gish has. They have not her keen intelligence; her understanding of human nature; her unsurpassed patience; her consuming desire to learn, learn, learn
By Harry Carr – Motion Picture Magazine (MP Publishing Co., December – 1924)
The reason Lillian Gish is a very great actress is that she is not a genius. In other words, she has an art which is finely tuned, delicately tempered weapon. She can make it do what she wishes it to do.
I have known … a girl whose heart could have been torn by a passionate sympathy – by a flood of artistic emotion so overwhelming that she couldn’t get it over to the public.
However, it doesn’t do for an orator to feel his subject too strongly. All he does is to blubber and rave and howl.
The convincing orator is the one who feels a cool and abiding conviction in the strength and truth of his position.
Just so Lillian Gish.
She feels her emotions strongly; but not too strongly. Never so strongly but what they remain always hers. She is never theirs.
In other words, Lillian is always shooting at an artistic mark.
Once when she had to die of heart trouble in a picture, she haunted the hospitals, studying “heart patients” in the wards.
When she died of a brutal beating in “Broken Blossoms,” she insisted upon having a police surgeon, who had treated many such victims, standing constantly by her camera.
When she played the part of the forsaken mother in “Way Down East,” she contrived to meet such a girl. Then for weeks she practically retired from the world and thought that girl’s thoughts in her seclusion.
In other words, Lillian Gish is the supreme technician of the screen.
There are two theories of acting. One theory is:
It doesn’t matter just what you do or how you do it. If you can fling yourself in a supreme emotion, that thrill will somehow transmit itself to the public.
The other theory is:
An emotion is always visibly exhibited by certain specific physical reactions.
Joy is exhibited by a contortion of the lips called a smile.
Anger is exhibited by a tense contraction of the brows called a frown.
If you can make these motions with sufficient skill, the effect of the emotion will be reborn in the mind of the spectator.
The art of Lillian Gish lies somewhere midway between these two. Or shall I say, instead, that it includes the two?
Mary Pickford reminisces about the early days when she first knew the screen’s greatest actress.
“Lillian’s main qualities are her sincerity and loyalty.”
Mary Pickford, sitting there in the golden afternoon beside placid Lake Chatsworth, was opening the book of the past, that I might read the pages of one of most beautiful friendships on record. Years ago Mary and Lillian Gish met, when Mary was six and Lillian a year or two younger, children who labored before their time, knowing poverty, knowing failure. Today they stand, both successful, both women who have won the love and respect of the world. And they are still friends. They have never had a quarrel.
“Yes, I know Lillian is very fond of me, and I treasure her affection.”
“When we were small, Dorothy Lottie and I used to play together with Lillian acting as a sort of Little Lady Mother to us scatter-brained youngsters. She was always correct, always just so. We used to stand and watch her, fearful any moment that she would fly to heaven – for her mother had said she was too angelic to live!”
“Dorothy and I were pals then, but now Lillian and I have more in common. Though, to be sure, Dorothy is much more serious and has a keener brain than she is given credit for – this frivolity of hers I think is a surface coating that hides the real Dorothy.”
“Our first meeting was a casual one, in Detroit, when I was playing ‘The Little Red Schoolhouse,’ a play written by Hal Reid, Wallace Reid’s father. Mother had insisted that I couldn’t go with the show alone, so they had given parts to her and to Lottie. Jack, of course, was a baby. Later, at Toronto, Lillian took my place, playing the role I had created. But it was when we were all in New York that we really became friends. I had been called there to replace Lillian in ‘The Child Wife,’ as she had been offered a better part in another play.
My mother had received a lucrative offer to go on the road, one that she couldn’t afford to refuse, so Mrs. Gish offered to take care of us children. Imagine having the three of us to look after, in addition to her own two! She was very patient and lovely to us, making our clothes and washing our ears! One of my happiest memories is of those months at Mrs. Gish’s house in New York. It was my first experience in the big city, and I envied Lillian her aplomb – with Mrs. Gish at one end and Lillian at the other, we would cross the crowded streets: all six of us holding hands for fear one of us would get lost!”
“Yes, Lillian is very remote. Even I who have known her since childhood I admit I am baffled at times. She is very elusive. Often I have an intangible feeling that I haven’t quite grasped her. She is remarkably subtle and fine in sensitiveness of thought.”
“She is so frail to have endured those years of hardships,” I suggested, alternating with Mary in petting Zorro her time-clock dog who howls regularly at quitting time, twelve-thirty and four-thirty every day. “So ethereal. That is the impression she gives every one.”
“And it isn’t so!” Mary exclaimed, a gleam in her hazel eyes. “Lillian is very slim but has an amazing endurance. Mr. Griffith works his people very hard, exacts every particle of self that they have to give to their work. Had Lillian been as frail as she seems, she could never have lived through these nine years of constant, nerve-racking work. In making the ice scenes for ‘Way Down East,’ she had to remain on that cake of ice near the rapids until actually numb.”
For a moment Mary was silent except for the tremulous quivering of her chin-a little way she has when excited. Always tranquil, having schooled herself through the years to absolute control, you can always gauge Mary’s emotions now by that little, almost invisible, quiver of her chin.
“Do you call this hot?” indicating that the sun melting in long, gleaming slants into the blue lake shimmering under its golden haze, the glare washing back from the sides of the high hills in the lap of which the lake is splashed, the perspiring actors resting under the trees. “I remember, in the old days, down in Arizona. We were making a picture for Mr. Griffith. They had to follow us about with umbrellas. It was 110 in the shade and no shade around. We could have fried eggs on the rocks. There were times when I thought I couldn’t endure another moment – until I looked at Lillian, so white and composed and tranquil. And I grew ashamed. She has a way of encouraging people, forcing them to greater effort.”
“Frail looking, yes. Her skin is milk-white, almost translucent, that finely veined kind, delicate as a petal.”
The Lily Maid From Ohio by Frederick James Smith – Motion Picture Classic Magazine (Brewster, 1921)
Only the other day we were talking to three very varied observers of the screen – Theda Bara, Olga Petrova and an exceedingly cynical student of things cinematic – and with one voice they all agreed upon the foremost player of the films. And we were surprised to note that their choice accorded with our own. For the unanimous vote went to Lillian Gish.
We hope that our more or less gentle readers will appreciate our honesty in making this confession. We have much more to lose by making it than Miss Bara, Madame Petrova or the aforementioned student. At least six stars will drop us from their luncheon lists. Still, we must be truthful.
You will be interested in the points given Miss Gish. ”She is tremendously varied,” they said in substance. “Unlike the most of our screen players, she is never Lillian Gish. Her frail pathetic waif of Limehouse in ‘Broken Blossoms’ was a marvelous piece of emotionalism. Her struggling Annie Moore of ‘Way Down East’ was equally fine, yet it sounded a distinctly different emphatic note. Both were as differentiated, as clear cut, as only superb playing could make them.” These particular comments, we add, are those of the critical trivia, not our own. With menu-less days staring us in the eyes, we cannot commit ourselves further.
Lillian Gish is our foremost player of the films, at least in the opinion of many screen authorities. Her Limehouse waif in “Broken Blossoms” and her heroine of “Way Down East” stand as dramatic milestones. Above, Miss Gish appears as Henriette in “The Two Orphans”
Seriously however, we have talked to Miss Gish under many conditions. We remember our first meeting in a Manhattan hotel, when the almost medieval spirituelle so clearly caught by the motion picture camera left us nearly breathless. It was like colliding with the Lily Maid of Astolat at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway.
Later we watched Miss Gish at the time she directed her sister, Dorothy, for a single comedy. Here, her direct business-like methods, her uncanny poise and placidity, impressed us despite the fact that the studio at the moment was several degrees below zero. Miss Gish was spirituelle but she was also very sane. We readjusted our view-point as well as our overcoat. Here was Elaine modernized, gone to business school and highly efficient.
Later we observed her during the making of “Way Down East”. Her amazing vitality left us aghast, for Miss Gish is seemingly of brittle fragility. Yet she could spend hours before the camera with no seeming effects of tiredness or boredom. Elaine again, but this time with the endurance of Jack Dempsey and the poise of the first reader of a Christian Science Church.
And, only recently we have been noting her Henrietta in “The Two Orphans,” now being made under the Griffith hand. Henrietta is a girl of those ornate valentine days of fur-belows and gold lace, immediately preceding the French Revolution. Miss Gish’s Henrietta might have stepped from a Watteau canvas.
It was while watching Miss Gish in the rainbow scenes of a garden fete of the roistering Eighteenth Century that we took stock of our observations. She reclined in a small sedan chair while Mr. Griffith developed the exact action of the huge scene-apparently half dozing in relaxation.
“What are you going to say of me this time?” she half smiled.
“That you have no temperament, as temperaments go.”
“Ah, ” sighed Miss Gish. “This is work, just like anything else.”
“Where do you get your poise?”
“Poise?” she laughed. “I haven’t any. Really. I just try to use common sense and take things as easily as I can.”
Yet there is a deeper basis in the success of this actress who drifted away from a tiny Ohio town to risk everything behind the stage footlights, with her mother and sister. Oddly, there is something of the sturdy pioneer hidden beneath this seeming frail physique. The spirituelle note? That is a rare quality. Miss Gish has somehow managed to keep her dreams almost intact and aloof from the hurrying world.
This picture may seem a pale and cloying lavender but there are other qualities, very human ones indeed. There is just a slender tinge of disillusionment. How could it be otherwise in rushing 1921? And a sense of humor, for instance. Also a keen, quick thinking brain. Likewise, a ready sympathy. Somehow, we rather think that Miss Gish can best be described as the girl back home – the one you enmeshed in a golden haze of illusions – come true.
All this may sound unduly sentimental. But we defy anyone to meet and write of Miss Gish otherwise. Altho we steeled ourselves at the outset, we find ourselves throwing menus and discretion to the winds as we progress. But we couldn’t sacrifice ourselves in a better literary cause!
Lillian Gish spirituelle note is a rare quality.
She has somehow managed to keep her dreams almost intact and aloof from the hurrying world. Miss Gish can best be described as the girl back home – the one you enmeshed in a golden haze of illusions – come true.
Nothing new under the sun … History (always written by the victors) repeats itself. After Lillian Gish filmed “His Double Life” (1933), she didn’t make another film for ten years. When she did return in 1943, she played in two big-budget pictures, Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) and Top Man (1943). The Cobweb (1955) marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.
Are the Stars Doomed? (Photoplay Magazine)
The case of Lillian Gish is significant. She was getting about $8000 a week from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her pictures did not bring in a return sufficient to justify a renewal of her contract. Today Lillian Gish doesn’t know where she’s going, but she is on her way to United Artists. Joe Schenck has offered her shelter under that program, but nothing more—no huge salary. Miss Gish must discover her own stories, select her own casts, provide her own director, risk her own money. The star is not enthralled by this idea, as Gloria Swanson was.
THE only director she wants — the Swedish Seastrom—is under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Lillian has already used up all her story ideas. “The White Sister ” was made at her suggestion. So, too, were “Romola,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “LaBoheme.” Remembering their box office results, Lillian is quite justified in the suspicion that she is not a good story picker. However, Metro – Goldwyn – Mayer alone was responsible for that prize flop, “Annie Laurie.”
There are many critics who regard Miss Gish as our greatest artist. Certainly she has a loyal and large following. She has been acting since she was six years old.
Yet here, midway in her career, she is forced into the role of producer if she is to continue to draw a huge salary. The answer to the headline question at the beginning of this tale of woe is that stars (outstanding personalities) will go on as long as the motion picture continues in its present form.
Great pictures can be made without stars, but stars cannot be made without great pictures.
Nothing new under the sun … History (always written by the victors) repeats itself. After Lillian Gish filmed “His Double Life” (1933), she didn’t make another film for ten years. When she did return in 1943, she played in two big-budget pictures, Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) and Top Man (1943). The Cobweb (1955) marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.
NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.
‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.
She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.
‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.
She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.
‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’
She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.
Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.
‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —
Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.
Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.
There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’
She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’
From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.
‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’
Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’
Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.
Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.
Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.
‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.
‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.
She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.
Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.
Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.
Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.
She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’
Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.
Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.
‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.
‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’
She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – Mimi and Rodolphe (La Boheme)
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in “La Boheme”
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – La Boheme
‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’
She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.
‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —
Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.
‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God.
Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’
‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.
‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.
‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —
It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.
Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.
She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’
‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’
Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.
‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’
Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.
Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.
‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”
Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.
‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’
Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).
‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’
Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.
‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’
She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.
Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —
Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’
Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.
‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’
Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.
‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.
‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —
‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’
Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.
Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.
Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.
In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (2) – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband
The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.
By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’
The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.
‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’
Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.
‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —
Gish has never had time to be lonely.
She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.
‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’
‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’
This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.
Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.
”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.
If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.
Lillian Gish and Sir John Gielgud in “Hamlet”
Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936
Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936 – detail
‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’
When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.
‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.
Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.
‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.
‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.
‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’
If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?
Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’
Out in the heart of the Hollywoods, beset by the dollar-snorting dragons of filmland, a blonde girl is fighting alone for her artistic honor. She is one of the most gallant spirits in the history of pictures.
She had more influence for good upon the dancing daguerreotypes than any dozen shinier stars.
And she is probably the most misunderstood and misrepresented public doll in the entire photoplay world.
Her name is Lillian Gish.
She has been for years the victim of as false a tradition as ever scuttled a stellar ship. Yet she is probably, at this moment, on the threshold of her greatest achievement in the film world. I whack the typewriter to paint the lights and shadows of the real Lillian Gish – not the Ice-Water Princess, The Mauled Anemone. The Slim White Virgin that the movie-going public thinks it knows.
As this is written she is on the gold coast, stubbornly and bravely fighting for the integrity of her next picture, on which she has focused her heart. At the expiration of her late Metro-Goldwyn contract Lillian cast about for the next move to keep her fame and fortune bright under the public sun.
Half-gods never satisfied La Gish, the girl who grew up under the wand of Ole Massa Griffith. Whole deities or none.
How about the most noted stage director in the world?
On her own Lillian went to Germany, and bearded Dr. Max Reinhardt, producer of “The Miracle”, in his own castle. On her own, she persuaded him to come to America and make “The Miracle Woman” with and for her. On her own, after months of preparation abroad, she and Reinhardt arrived in Hollywood – only to have the great man almost ignored, the prized and prepared story ditched and another handed them. But Lillian carries on – fights the good fight alone.
That’s the sort of mettle the frail and wistful Lillian is made of.
There are two Lillian Gishes.
The first is the one the public think it knows.
That Lillian – the false – is a frigid, bloodless creature, aloof, and about as spry and lively as a frozen cod-fish.
This is the old Gish curse – the Lillian tradition.
Because she has never marched her emotional life before the eyes of the world, or had it paraded by yellow newspapers, she has been denounced as inhumanly chill.
Because she has steamed up the interest of brilliant figures in the literary world, she is thought to be merely a glinting Mind, topped by yellow hair and held up by a couple of clothes poles.
Because she has never burned up Paris, bathed in a hotel fountain, bought a ten-carat diamond and divorced seven idiotic brokers she has been passed up for pretty numbskulls not fit to wind her wrist watch.
The whole tragic-comic story of the cruel, untrue Gish tradition was summed up by a Princeton boy a few years ago.
Referring to a non-petting, non-skid, four wheel braked damsel of his acquaintance, he said “She’s safe as a Gish!”
A smart crack, and it passed into common use.
That’s what the common world and it’s sweetie thought of Lillian Gish!
Well, what’s the real Lillian Gish?
Why, one of the most human, most charming and loveliest girls it is possible to meet in this most improbable of all worlds!
Is she just a great white Mind?
SHE has a dashing, vivid, ever-active sense of humor.
With people she likes she flames with warmth and charm.
Is she the Snow Girl of the Cinema?
She charms and captivates great writers and critics and has been known to smile a seven foot traffic cop out of passing a ticket when she has skipped past a red light on the Avenue.
Does she make a pose of keeping out of the spotlight?
Why, Lovely Lil has been an actress since she has been able to stand alone on a stage and pipe a line. For 25 years she has been in, of and for the theater and the screen, Her life has been about as private as that of a popular head waiter.
Now she loves her friends and her home with a consuming fire. If she likes to take her case among them, preferring talk and tea to a ring-side table in a night-club lunatic asylum, is she being snootily aloof?
Look at her service record, studded with honors.
Belasco called her the most beautiful blonde in the world.
For years she was the chosen vessel by which Griffith, the star-maker, poured his genius across the screens of the world.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about her by ink-slingers great and small.
Film fans have been for her and against her.
But some have been heedlessly neutral.
Everything has been said about her, it seems to me, save that she is a beautiful, lovable human being with a fighting heart almost without parallel in the entertainment world.
Two-page interview from the July 7, 1913 edition of the “Massillon Evening Independent”–“A Massillon Girl, Movie Star, Risks Life for Pictures.”
“The earliest interview Lillian Gish and Dorothy as well ever gave”
“To the best of my present knowledge, this is the earliest interview Lillian Gish and Dorothy as well ever gave. Searching the collections of early motion picture trade publications and fan magazines as well as newspapers in general, I have not found any previous interviews with the Gish sisters.
Lillian gives a detailed account of one of her most hazardous experiences when she was rescued from a runaway wagon by Bobby Burns. She also relates this incident in her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me.” The title of the film was “During the Round-Up,” released on July 19, 1913, 12 days after this interview was published. Although some sources have credited Griffith as the director, most including Wikipedia and the IMDB say that this early Biograph Western was directed by Christy Cabanne with whom Lillian made a number of films during this period.
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
At the time Lillian and Dorothy gave this interview to a reporter in their home town, Massillon, which they visited en route from California to New York, Griffith’s fortunes and those of his company were in a state of flux. They had just been filming in California most of what was to be Griffith’s first full-length feature film, “Judith of Bethulia,” which Lillian refers to in the interview by its working title, “Judith and Holofernes.” While the Biograph Company was busy filming in Southern California in the first half of 1913, the studio management had abandoned the celebrated brownstone mansion on 11 East 14th Street in Manhattan that had been their main production facility since 1906. The new Biograph studio, which Lillian discusses in the interview, was located at 807 East 175th Street in the Bronx. Aside from some interior scenes for “Judith of Bethulia” which Lillian recalled were shot at the new studio, Griffith would never do any filming at the Biograph Bronx studio.
I find Lillian’s mention that she had just learned to drive an automobile while in California in preparation for a film that was to be made in New York to be of particular interest. It would appear that Griffith still had plans for some further productions at Biograph at this time until it became clear that the company’s management was opposed to any more full-length features like “Judith of Bethulia.” He then entered into negotiations with other companies, communications that would soon lead to his beginning his long career as an independent producer of his own feature-length films as head of Reliance-Majestic releasing through Mutual. The planned film in which Lillian was to drive a car, very likely intended to be a thrilling action picture like Griffith’s remarkable “A Beast at Bay” (1912) in which Mary Pickford daringly drove a touring car at full speed, was apparently never made. Lillian would later have the opportunity to drive a car specially designed by pioneer race driver Barney Oldfield in “The Children Pay,” a 1916 Triangle feature supervised by Griffith and directed by Lloyd Ingraham.
It’s been preserved in an archive and I very much look forward to seeing it. It should be noted that silent film actresses like Lillian and Dorothy who learned to drive cars at a time when many people still looked on that as a masculine activity were very much in the forefront of feminine emancipation in the early 20th century.
As for Dorothy’s own comments, I am not at present certain of the identity of the film in which she had the exciting experiences on a ship that she describes. I have, however, confirmed one of the scenarios that she said she was writing for the screen. This was “The Suffragette Minstrels,” a comedy short for Biograph directed by Dell Henderson and with a cast that included Sylvia Ashton, Gertrude Bambrick, and Lionel Barrymore as well as Dorothy herself. It was released on August 18, 1913. The article mentions that Dorothy had written four scenarios for the screen that had been accepted, but I have no idea what happened to the other three. Perhaps plans to film them were dropped after the Griffith company, including Lillian and Dorothy, left Biograph.”