My Sister and I – By Lillian Gish (November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”)

My Sister and I

Celebrity of the Screen Pays a Remarkable and Touching Tribute to Her Chum Relative – Dorothy

By Lillian Gish

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

*** This story was included in Miss Gish’s autobiography ”The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me” with the mention ”During this period, Dorothy and I wrote character sketches of each other for Stage magazine. I wrote of her:”

She is a criticism of all the things I am not. When I look at her, I always miss in myself the qualities that I was born without and that, I daresay, I should have been much happier with. She is laughter, even on the cloudy days of life; nothing bothers her or saddens her or concerns her lastingly.

Trouble gives only an evanescent shadow to her eyes and is banished with a shrug of a shoulder. Work to her, however, is play. Had she been born a boy, she would, I feel certain, have smeared her face with brown butternut oil and gone ’round the world with a hurdy-gurdy, waking up sleepy old people behind closed windows. She takes nothing seriously but her mother, her meals and her dog.

I envy this dear darling Dorothy with all my heart, for she is the side of me that God left out. Her funny stories, her delight in sitting on men’s hats, her ability to interest herself in a hundred and one people in whom she has not the slightest interest, her talent for quick and warm friendships, her philosophy of silver linings—why was I denied these?

I surely take no pleasure in being the rather melancholy person I am. I, too, would like to believe in all the lovely rainbows in which Dorothy believes. I, too, would surely be happy to find some day that hard work was not hard work at all but just a charming pastime. Unfortunately for me, however, a Klieg light is just a Klieg light and not the English moon.

All my life I have wanted to play happily as she does, only to find myself bad at playing. As a little girl, I wasn’t much good at playing and I find that, try as I will, I don’t play very convincingly today.

When Dorothy goes in swimming, she splashes the ocean into a beautifully gala muss; I just go in swimming. When she dances, there is no tomorrow ; when I dance the trombone always stubbornly reminds me of a director in a bad mood. When she goes to a party, the party becomes a party; when I go to one, I’m afraid it very often stops being a party. And I don’t like it. I want to be like she is.

I am not unhappy. I simply am not gay. It must have rained on the evening I was born, and it seems arbitrarily to have kept on raining in my heart ever since. She, as I once heard a girl described in a play, is like “a bright flag flying in the breeze.”

The world to her is a big picnic with a great merry-goround and lots of popcorn and wonderful balloons. All music, even the worst, seems so beautiful to her. All people amuse her. She even has fun getting her feet wet. I have fun too, but it is only the joy I get out of apparently never-ending work—and what kind of fun, I’d like to ask, is that?

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine” Lillian Gish in ”The Wind”

And Dorothy wrote equally frankly of me:

The tradition which has grown up around Lillian seems to be that she is a shy helpless bit of fragility, drifting around in a sweet gentle daze. If she’s really like that, “maybe I’m wrong” as the Two Blackbirds are fond of saying.

It’s perfectly possible that I am wrong. I have a growing suspicion that two people can live for years in close proximity and never understand each other. I must confess that Lillian’s idea of me, revealed every now and then, certainly differs startlingly from my own idea of myself. Perhaps we’re both wrong—and right. As in the Pirandello play, “Right you are

—if you think you are.”

At any rate, the popular conception of Lillian as soft and dreamy makes me think a little of the “gag” used too often in the comic strips. A hat lies upon the sidewalk; some person kicks it enthusiastically and finds to his astonishment and pain that there is hidden inside it a brick or a flatiron.

Anyone who has tried kicking Lillian has discovered the solidity of that resistance. Life has stubbed its toe, often and often, trying to disorganize her stability. She remains steadfast, unshaken, imperturbable. How I envy her the singleness of purpose, the indefatigability,

the unabating seriousness which have taken her straight to the heights she has reached and will carry her on and on! Nothing really matters to her except her work and her career. She has little time or patience for anything or anybody unrelated to her work. Her eyes are fixed on her goal; her ears are attuned only to the voice of her duty. If she misses some of the beautiful shyer souls that require a patient search, of which the reward is only a flash, perhaps, of beauty—why, that is the sacrifice she must make and she makes it willingly, almost scornfully. That is why she is where she is today.

She is blessed with a constitution that can respond to any demand. Long after I am ready to be hauled off on a shutter, she, apparently so frail, can go on tirelessly, unruffled, cool and calm. That exquisite complexion of hers, that lovely lineless face—these she owes to her serenity, her unfailing poise. What a priceless combination for an artist! Unswerving ambition, deep seriousness of purpose, and not a nerve in her body!

I wish with all my heart that I could see my life so clearly, so wholly, so free from confusion and march with such firm vigor toward achievement. Mother and I tease her at times about her remorseless activity. One of our pet names for her is The Iron Horse. A favorite family joke of ours is to theeffect that “we hope neither of us dies while Lillian is doing a picture.” We laugh—but we admire.

Don’t think she has no lighter moments. There are a number of persons whose minds or personalities she respects, and she finds great happiness in their company. In literature and the theater, she demands the best, and gets it. She will not spare a moment for a book or a play until she has made sure it is worthy, and thus she eliminates all waste motion. She is to me a never-ending source of astonishment and admiration. And I never cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who, more than any other woman in America, possesses all the qualities of true greatness.

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

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Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe (Introduction by Lillian Gish) 1975

  • Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe
  • Introduction by Lillian Gish
  • Thames and Hudson – London 1975

In the early 1920s James Abbe had a highly successful studio in Tin Pan Alley, where his personal photographs of prominent people brought him a large clientele. Tin Pan Alley referred to the New York City block on 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues occupied by musicians, music publishers, instrument dealers, and others in the music profession. We met for the first time when he asked me to come to his studio to pose for him after the opening of ‘Broken Blossoms’ at the George M. Cohan Theatre. D.W. Griffith had moved his company East after buying the old Flagler estate on Orienta Point, a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound at Mamaroneck, New York.

When I went to see Mr. Abbe, I found him to be a charming Southern gentleman who shared my interest in photography. Abbe also believed that photographers, instead of using oils or watercolors to paint faces, could get the same effects by painting the face with lights. The hard work of manipulating and focusing his lighting equipment gave his photographs beauty and life. He was such a little man – he couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds – and he looked so undernourished that one’s first instinct was to take him out and buy him a substantial dinner. Instead, I almost drowned him.

After the completion  of the new studio, Mr. Griffith’s first picture there was ‘Way Down East.’ Abbe came out to shoot some of the still photographs. One day, during lunch hour, I was teaching myself how to swim. When I swallowed salt water I was inclined to panic, so I put a clothespin on my nose to make me breathe through my mouth. When Abbe swam around the far side of the pier and discovered this odd sight, he burst into sudden laughter, swallowed lots of salt water, and almost drowned.

My beloved sister Dorothy and I both posed for him at his New York studio while we were making what was to be our last picture for Mr. Griffith, ‘Orphans of the Storm.’ Dorothy then went to Cuba to film ‘The Bright Shawl’ with Richard Barthelmess and I, along with Henry King and twenty-two others, sailed for Europe to make the first American film in Italy, ‘The White Sister.’ To our great surprise Abbe accepted our offer at probably one-tenth of what he was earning to go with us. An addition to our company was Polly Shorrock, on an assignment from the Ladies’ Home Journal to write an article on the filming of this first modern religious story.

The fully equipped studio we were promised in Rome turned out to be an empty building unused since World War I, containing two little klieg lights, the only two in whole Italy. We put our electrician on the next night train to Berlin to get equipment. Abbe was amused by the fact that he was cast to play the small part of Lieutenant Rossini, but this did not keep him and his camera from taking full advantage of the overwhelming beauty of our new surroundings. We also shared the excitement of discovering with our cameraman, Roy Overbaugh, that the actinic rays of the sun in Italy were different from any that we had worked in, which led to new, subtle and amazing differences in our treatment of film. This began our experiments with panchromatic stock. Abbe built his darkroom in the corner of the studio, and out of it poured hundreds of arresting photographs that helped ‘The White Sister’ make millions of dollars around the world.

During this period, a romance blossomed between Abbe and Polly Shorrock. Instead of returning when he finished, she mailed her article back to New York and remained in Europe. After their marriage they joined Dorothy in England, where she was making films for Herbert Wilcox. Abbe’s pictures of her in Tip Toes with Will Rogers and Nelson Keys and of her in London are among the loveliest.

In the 1930s both Dorothy and I returned to the theater, while Abbe remained abroad. Our paths were not to cross until 1972, when a friend of mine who works for American Heritage sent me a copy of their magazine with an article on Abbe. One photograph labeled “Dorothy Gish” happened to be of me. When I pointed this out, shortly thereafter came an endearing letter from Abbe: “As I loved the Gishes equally, I could never tell them apart.”

In the fall of 1973 I was in San Francisco on a tour to help sell our book, Dorothy and Lillian Gish. I called Abbe, hoping we could lunch together, only to hear his voice, full of energy, complaining that he was confined to his bed, of which he did not approve. He promised that nothing would stand in his way for our meeting the next time I came West. He left us a few days later. We are grateful that the world seems a little better for his having lived in it, and now we have this book – his legacy of character and beauty.

Lillian Gish, New York City, 1974

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The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls

ON TV, STAGE AND SCREEN THEY ARE ADDING LUSTER TO THEIR CAREERS

By RICHARD L. WILLIAMS

WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

TODAY THEY ARE STILL LOVELY AND HARD AT WORK

 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

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

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

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

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

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

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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Movie Star – A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood – By Ethan Mordden (1983) PDF

Little Mary Pickford’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this.

Mary Pickford

It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did.

Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.

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Bulletin of The Art Institute of Chicago – 1925 (Romola)

  • Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 1925-11: Vol 19 Iss 8
  • BULLETIN OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO NOVEMBER NINETEEN TWENTY-FIVE VOLUME XIX Number 8

THIRTY-EIGHTH ANNUAL AMERICAN EXHIBITION

Thirty-eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture opens on October 29, to remain in the East Wing until December 13. This exhibition is always awaited and received with great interest, for it is index of the year’s achievements. Selected on a basis of individual excellence, it works as a group representative of the various tendencies and schools which determine the direction of American painting and sculpture. The present exhibition contains at least two works which will be hung in the permanent collections of the Art Institute, for there are shown for the first time a painting purchased for the museum by the Friends of American Art, William Glackens’ “Chez Mouquin,” and Nicholai Fechin’s portrait of Lillian Gish as Romola, purchased from the Goodman Fund. Mr Fechin, a Russian by birth, an American by adoption, will be remembered for his one-man show held in 1924, when he gave proof of a highly individual technique, linked with a national tradition. In the portrait of Lillian Gish, the Russian is subordinate to the individual, and we find a double feat, a painter’s appreciation of another artist’s interpretation of her. The pathos and grace which the actress brought to her part are retained, and this added an element lacking on the screen color. The lavender gown, heavy red books, and polychrome background are used for their full decorative possibilities. “Chez Mouquin” is an early work by William J. Glackens, definitely dated as to the decade it represents, and quite different in manner from the artist’s later more dashing style.

Romola – Nicolai Fechin 1925 – Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.

“During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. “ (Lillian Gish)

Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director

Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract. Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches. His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

*** Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.

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New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – Richard Alleman (2005)

  • New York : the movie lover’s guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York
  • New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide
  • Richard Alleman (2005)
  • Broadway Books New York

An original trade paperback edition of this book was published in 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It is here reprinted by arrangement with Richard Alleman.

MoMA Museum of Modern Art

THE ULTIMATE INSIDER TOUR OF MOVIE NEW YORK

Believing that film was “the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century,” former MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. established the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, and immediately sent curator Iris Barry on a special mission to Hollywood to drum up support for his innovative undertaking. There, at a party given by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair, their lavish Beverly Hills estate, Miss Barry met industry heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Walt Disney, Jesse Lasky, and Mack Sennett. Returning to New York with what the Los Angeles Times reported to be “more than a million feet” of film, Miss Barry had the beginnings of MoMA’s collection. But one old-timer who was not as forthcoming as many of his Hollywood colleagues was D. W. Griffith, who refused to donate his own films to the museum, reportedly saying that nothing could convince him that films had anything to do with art. Ultimately MoMA enlisted the aid of Griffith’s friend and former star actress, Lillian Gish, who eventually persuaded him to hand over to history his collection of films, music, still photographs, and papers. It seems, however, that it was the lure of the tax write-off that was really responsible for Griffith’s change of heart.

Sir John Gielgud with (left to right) Irene Worth, Mrs. (Blanchette) Rockefeller III, and Lillian Gish at Lillian Gish birthday party and celebration for Anita Loos at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)

For the movie lover, the best thing about MoMA’s film collection is that it is constantly on view. The museum has two theaters—one with 460 seats, the other with 217—which together are used to present some two dozen screenings a week. The Department of Film and Media-MoMA also cosponsors, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New Directors/New Films festival, which is held every year in March/April. In addition to showing films, the Department of Film and Media-MoMA maintains a library of film books, screenplays, reviews, publicity material, and four million stills that is an important research center for students, authors, and historians.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH – New York – 109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH

109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

This exotic neo-Byzantine Episcopal house of worship—with a columned Romanesque entrance salvaged from the church’s former 24th Street location—strikes a handsome pose on Park Avenue. Indeed, even though it’s used only as background, it’s still easy to spot in such recent films as Maid in Manhattan (2003), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Serendipity (2001). It plays much meatier roles in two earlier films, however. Ironically, each involves a wedding that doesn’t come off. In Arthur (1981), Dudley Moore jilts Jill Eikenberry at the St. Bart’s altar, whereas fifteen years later Steve Guttenberg does the same thing to bride- from-hell Jane Sibbett (featured on Friends as Ross’s ex-wife) in favor of Kirstie Alley in It Takes Two (1995).

Former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary.

Movie lovers may wish to make a special visit to pay their respects to silent-screen star and former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary. Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, also had an impressive stage and post-silent-film career, making her final screen appearance at the age of ninety-one (or ninety-four, if we are to believe the dates—1893-1993—incised on her crypt), opposite Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in The Whales of August (1987). Today, an anonymous admirer sends flowers to the Gish crypt every year on her birthday, October 14.

Lillian Gish NY Apart Architectural Digest

LILLIAN GISH APARTMENT 430 East 57th Street

For over half a century, this basic-brick Sutton Place apartment building was Lillian Gish’s Manhattan home. An extraordinary woman whose film career began in 1912 with D. W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, Lillian Gish appeared in such landmark silent pictures as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and The Scarlet Letter (1925). When her film career slowed down in the 1930s, it was not, as it was for many of her contemporaries, on account of the talkies, but rather because Hollywood’s taste in heroines had changed, and virtuous virgins like Miss Gish were no longer in fashion. The actress dealt with this turn of events by concentrating on the Broadway stage, where she had a string of successes in classical roles.

Her film career was far from over, however, for she went on to triumph as a character actress in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, from David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) to United Artists’ Night of the Hunter (1955). And La Gish went on and on. Witness her roles in A Wedding (1978), Sweet Liberty (1986), and The Whales of August (1987). The actress, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine—although she only admitted to ninety-six—once said she liked living in the Sutton Place area because “it is like a village where everyone knows you.”

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

BIOGRAPH STUDIOS SITE 841 Broadway

The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was the rather exotic name of one of the first motion-picture companies to mount a serious challenge to Thomas Edison’s monopolistic hold on the early film industry. Biograph produced initially a better-quality image (by using larger-sized film) and enjoyed the participation of W. K. L. Dickson, a former—and the most influential—player on the team that developed motion pictures at Edison. Biograph’s first studio was on the roof of the Hackett Carhart Building, a great Victorian fortress with ornate columns, pediments, and turrets that still stands on the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. Similar to the Black Maria studio that Dickson had built for Edison in West Orange, Biograph’s rooftop facility was mounted on tracks and revolved with the sun. The foundations of this primitive studio are still in place atop the restored Hackett Carhart Building.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Unfortunately, the site of some of Biograph’s greatest cinematic triumphs—a brownstone studio at 11 East 14th Street to which it moved in 1906—was razed in the 1960s to make way for a big boring brick apartment building. It was at the Union Square studio that D. W. Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Griffith went on to become the studio’s top director and brought such talents as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, and Mack Sennett into the Biograph fold. When Griffith left the studio in 1913 for the Mutual Film Corporation, Biograph’s status fell quickly, and in 1915 the company was dissolved. Many of its films survive, however, thanks both to Griffith, who saved copies of all his productions, and to the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired Griffith’s collection in the mid-1950s for its then new film department.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

In 1975, a plaque was dedicated by former Biograph beauties Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet at the site of the historic town- house studio at 11 East 14th Street. The day after the ceremony, however, the plaque mysteriously disappeared, and there have been no further efforts to put up a new one. There should be. And while we’re talking about plaques, there also ought to be one at Biograph’s original studio site at 841 Broadway.

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

In 1919, D. W. Griffith was at the height of his wealth, his fame, his power—and his hubris. It was the year that Griffith had joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form the revolutionary United Artists Corporation, which gave its star founders control over both the production and distribution of their films. It was also the year that Griffith decided to leave Hollywood and set up his own studio back east. The place Griffith chose for his operation was the former estate of Standard Oil/Florida real-estate millionaire Henry Flagler, which occupied a secluded spit of land jutting out into the Long Island Sound near Mamaroneck. Besides making films here, Griffith planned to live on the estate, too—a situation which many felt fulfilled the Southern-born director’s fantasies of being master of the plantation. Others who knew Griffith well also pointed out that the seclusion of Orienta Point would enable him to carry on his various romantic liaisons with young actresses far away from the prying New York press.

Griffith’s first major film at his grand Mamaroneck estate- studio was Way Down East (1920), which was a big hit. Other ventures, such as Dream Street (1921), in which Griffith pioneered synchronized sound some six years before Warners released its first Vitaphone picture, were less successful. As for Dream Street’s sound system, Griffith became its biggest critic and discontinued its use immediately after the picture opened. In fact, Griffith eventually became one of the industry’s most vocal anti-talkie spokesmen: “It puts us back to Babel,” he once told Lillian Gish. “Do you realize how few people in the world speak English? If we make pictures that talk, we can’t send them around the world. That’s suicide.”

Way Down East – Mamaroneck filming sets

Next to Way Down East, Griffith’s most important film from his Mamaroneck period was Orphans of the Storm. (1921). For this epic story of the French Revolution, enormous sets depicting eighteenth-century Paris were constructed at Mamaroneck—and Griffith deliberately scheduled the filming of major crowd scenes for weekends in order to use as many of the locals as extras as possible.

Orphans of the Storm – Mamaroneck filming sets

After Orphans of the Storm, however, it was all downhill for the great director, and by 1924 he was forced to abandon independent producing, signing on with Paramount to do pictures at Astoria. That same year, Griffith put his Mamaroneck estate up for sale, and in early 1925 a developer bought most of the property for the purpose of subdividing it.

Today all of the Griffith and Flagler buildings on Orienta Point are gone, and the property—once the site of the French Revolution—is now part of an exclusive, gated community.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

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Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression – By Gene Brown (1993)

  • Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression : World War I (1914-1940)
  • By Gene Brown
  • ©1993 by Blackbirch Graphics, Inc. First Edition
  • Twenty-First Century Books A Division of Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
  • 115 West 18th Street New York, New York 10011
Unemployment Depression Crisis USA 1921

The Growth of Mass Media and Mass Culture

Movies Become an American Industry

It was between the beginning of World War I and the eve of World War II that modern America was born. American society went through major changes, not only in politics and economics, but also in the way people led their daily lives.

The Americans who elected Woodrow Wilson still thought of themselves as distant from their quarreling neighbors in Europe. And when U.S. soldiers were sent to France to fight in World War I, most Americans saw it merely as a temporary change in foreign policy. The troops would come home when the fighting stopped, many believed, and life would go back to normal.

The country that the soldiers returned to was just reaching the point where more people lived in cities than in rural areas. Statistically, people who lived in the country were just as likely not to have electricity as have it, and indoor plumbing was for many still a luxury. Washing machines and vacuum cleaners had still not appeared in large numbers, even in big cities.

When it came time to relax, Americans were more likely to play ball than go to a ballpark to watch a game. They were also more likely to play an instrument—especially a piano—or sing in groups, than listen to records. The phonograph, however, was rapidly becoming popular. Feature-length movies were new, as was the practice of following the careers and lives of particular “stars.”

Today, famous movie stars are usually in control of their careers. They know that their name on a film can often mean millions of extra tickets sold. The movie companies know it as well. But this wasn’t always the case.

Clunes Auditorium L.A.

By the mid-1920s, the movies—which were silent then—were wildly popular. Along with cheap newspapers and radio, they were the beginning of what today is called the mass media. The ideas and values expressed in films, even the fashions worn in them, reached into every corner of America and touched the lives of nearly everyone. There was almost no sizeable town that didn’t have at least one movie house. The big cities had many, some of which were called “palaces” because they were so fancy.

The movies were very much a business, with facilities for producing, distributing, advertising, and retailing their product. The movie stars were an important part of this product. Stardom on a national scale was a new thing. Live theater produced some famous names, but almost none got the attention that movie fan magazines paid to movie actors.

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911

These stars were not just professional actors. They were “personalities” and celebrities, such as Mary Pickford (1893-1979), Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), and Lillian Gish (1893-1993). People wanted to know every detail of their lives. When few facts were available, fans imagined the rest.

The men who ran the movie studios knew how important this idea of stardom was. If there was not enough interesting information about the private life of a star, they might feel it necessary to “create” something, such as the “scandal” mentioned in the following selection. Scandal led to publicity and publicity meant more sales at the box office. Here were many of the public relations techniques developed by Edward Bernays in action.

The following account describes Lillian Gish’s dealings with MGM executives. At the time, Irving Thalberg (1899-1936) was chief of production at the studio, and “Mr. Mayer” was Louis B. Mayer (1885- 1957), vice-president and head of MGM. David W. Griffith (1875-1948), “Mr. Griffith,” was a movie director and worked with Lillian Gish.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

Lillian Gish: A Screen Star Remembers

During my talks with Irving Thalberg over Anna Karenina I was suddenly sent for by Mr. Mayer, who had some papers for me to sign. I explained that I had promised my lawyer not to sign anything without his approval. Mr. Mayer grew angry and said I ought to trust him. He explained that he wanted to take me off salary until they had a story ready for me. I had gone off salary while I was in England, but since then there had been ample time for them to prepare a script for me.

“If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you,” Mr. Mayer said.

It was the second time I had heard that threat. “I’m sure you can, but I gave my word,” I said. “I can’t break that; else how could you or anyone else ever trust me again?”

Irving spoke to me about renewing my contract. “We would like to have you stay with us,” he said, “but there is something we think would be wise to do.”

Hendrik Sartov (camera) King Vidor, Irving Thalberg and Lillian Gish – behind the scenes ”La Boheme” 1926

I knew Irving was my friend, so I listened.

“You see, you are way up there on a pedestal,” he explained, “and nobody cares. If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” He added earnestly, “Let me arrange a scandal for you.”

I was startled. The irony of the suggestion made me want to laugh. What kind of scandal did Irving want to arrange? I wondered. A romantic scandal, I decided—but for what? To sell pictures? Had the public changed so much? All my life I had been taught to keep my name clean. Mr. Griffith had always maintained that one touch of scandal would finish you in pictures. What had happened to change this? And, after the scandal had died down, they would be obliged to dream up another. Could I be on stage constantly—with a prearranged scandal before the release of each new picture?

My answer was a decisive No.

I told Irving my decision, knowing that my days at M.G.M. were numbered.

Conflict in Europe and the Great Depression : World War I (1914-1940)

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THE SELZNICK PLAYERS – Ronald Bowers (1976)

  • THE SELZNICK PLAYERS
  • Ronald Bowers (1976)
  • Editorial Assistant:
  • C. Leigh Hibbard Church
  • SOUTH BRUNSWICK AND NEW YORK: A. S. BARNES AND COMPANY LONDON: THOMAS YOSELOFF LTD
  • (C) 1976 by Ronald Bowers

In that elite circle of independent Hollywood producers, David O. Selznick was undoubtedly the most creative. He brought to his position an innate love of the motion-picture industry, a knowledge of all aspects of film making, a genius for promotion and publicity, a nose for discovering outstanding new talent, and an executive ability to hire the best technicians and oversee every aspect of his product. Selznick cannily made use of these attributes to create that unique mosaic that is the motion picture.
While much of the myth that surrounds Hollywood men such as Irving G. Thalberg and David O. Selznick is exaggeration, it cannot be denied that Selznick’s reputation as a brilliant independent producer is justified by the merits of Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, his two most accomplished productions. Selznick hated having Rebecca compared to Gone With the Wind, and once adamantly stated, “That makes me furious. I really am furious every time I hear that. And don’t think I haven’t heard it. At least fifty people have said it to me, and each time I go into a regular rage. There is nothing that infuriates me so much. It {Gone With the Wind) was such a stupendous undertaking. Anything else, no matter what we’ll ever make, will always seem insignificant after that.’’

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

(Selznick Releasing Organization, 1948). Screenplay by Paul Osborn and Peter Bemeis from the novel by Robert Nathan. Directed by William Dieterle. Cast: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Gotten, Ethel Barrymore, Cecil Kellaway, David Wayne, Albert Sharpe, Florence Bates, Lillian Gish, Henry Hull, Esther Somers, Maude Simmons, Felix Bressart, John Farrell, Clem Bevans, Robert Dudley.

*** Portrait of Jennie is a 1948 fantasy film based on the novella by Robert Nathan. The film was directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. It stars Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, supporting cast Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. At the 21st Academy Awards, it won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects (Paul Eagler, Joseph McMillan Johnson, Russell Shearman and Clarence Slifer; Special Audible Effects: Charles L. Freeman and James G. Stewart). Joseph H. August was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography – Black and White.

*** Portrait of Jennie was highly unusual for its time in that it had no opening credits as such, except for the Selznick Studio logo. All the other credits appear at the end. Before the film proper begins, the title is announced by the narrator (after delivering a spoken prologue, he says, “And now, ‘Portrait of Jennie’”). The portrait of Jennie (Jennifer Jones) was painted by artist Robert Brackman. The painting became one of Selznick’s prized possessions, and it was displayed in his home after he married Jones in 1949.

Gregory Peck — Jennifer Jones – Duel in the Sun —

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Selznick’s next project for Jennifer Jones was his much publicised, expensive ($5,255,000) production of Duel in the Sun (1946), an opulent, unrelentingly brutal, grandiose Western that took over a year and a half to make and which has been called by some a Wagnerian horse opera and a Liehestod among the cactus. Like Since You Went Away, it was another exercise in Selznick’s obsession with surpassing Gone With the Wind, and he cast his prize actress-amour as Pearl Chavez, the tempestuous half-breed who comes between two brothers (Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck). The plot included prostitution, rape, suicide, attempted fratricide, and ended with a protracted gun duel between Pearl and the outlaw brother (Peck) in which both are killed. Duel in the Sun earned both Miss Jones and supporting actress Lillian Gish nominations for Academy Awards, and $11,300,000 at the box-office, despite its critical lambasting. Today it receives some of the critical attention it failed to garner at the time of its release when its merits were overshadowed by opposition to its violent content.

The picture’s director. King Vidor, observed that if he could talk Miss Jones into the mood of the part each day and keep her in that frame of mind all day long, the proper emotional reactions he needed in her performance registered clearly on her face. However, he was aware of her insecurities as an actress which at times caused her to do “strange tricks with her mouth.’’

Academy Award Nominations of David O. Selznick Productions

  • 1946 —Duel in the Sun
  • Best Actress — Jennifer Jones
  • Best Supporting Actress — Lillian Gish

*** Selznick directed some remaining scenes, William Dieterle handled a Reinhardtesque sequence in the vast bar which opens the film, and second-unit director Otto Brower the train wreck from which Lewt rides away singing, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Even Josef von Sternberg, hired by Selznick to supervise the costume tests and, hopefully, give Jennifer Jones some of the photographic glamour of Marlene Dietrich — Vidor used him as an assistant, having him douse the star with water in scenes requiring the appearance of sweat — directed one brief scene of a posse searching the McCanles house. So acute was Selznick’s obsession with his star that his visits to the set became embarrassing, the microphone picking up his heavy breathing as he watched her. Equally upsetting was a brief visit by D. W. Griffith. “Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish were incapable of speaking their script, especially Barrymore. After a moment I had to ask Mr. Griffith, ‘Would you mind leaving the set or going behind the decor?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been here too long anyway, I apologize.’ And he left very politely.”

Portrait of Jennie – Lillian Gish

Duel in the Sun – Lillian Gish

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