A Short History of the Movies (III) By Gerald Mast – University of Chicago (1971)

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

Photo Gallery – “The Scarlet Letter”

As a producer reporting to, but given a free hand by, (Irving) Thalberg at MGM, Lillian Gish took on the challenge of filming Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a project that had been opposed by every women’s club in the country because its plot concerns adultery with a capital A, not to mention with a clergyman. (When MGM told her “it wasn’t allowed,” she said, “What do you mean it’s not allowed? It’s an American classic, and I’m an American and I want to make it!”) When Gish visited the women’s clubs and told them she would be in charge of the project, their respect for her good taste and judgment led them to drop all opposition. To direct The Scarlet Letter (1926), she brought Victor Sjostrom (who signed his American pictures Seastrom) to Hollywood from Sweden.

Photo Gallery – “La Boheme”

The picture was a great success—as were Gish’s other productions, including the 1926 La Boheme, a silent version of Puccini’s opera. But her greatest production, and the second film Sjostrom directed for her, was The Wind (1928), based closely on the 1925 novel by Dorothy Scarborough and shot in the Mojave Desert. In this film Gish gives one of her very finest performances—her best since Way Down East and until The Night of the Hunter (1955)—as a woman driven mad by the relentless, demonic, almost sexually charged wind that drives the sand across the Texas plains and through every crack in the shack she shares with her husband. Originally ending with the same powerful scene as the novel, in which the heroine—after killing and burying the man who assaulted her—walks into the oblivion of madness and blowing sand, The Wind was given a happy ending (in which she and her husband stand together at the open door, powerfully facing the wind) at the insistence of exhibitors.

Photo Gallery – “The Wind”

One of the greatest films of the 1950s was a study of values, a literary adaptation, and a compelling story realized in purely cinematic terms: The Night of the Hunter (1955). Scripted by James Agee from the novel by Davis Grubb, it was the only movie ever directed by actor Charles Laughton. This hauntingly photographed, lyrically evocative film tells of two children, on the run from a killer (Robert Mitchum), who find sanctuary in the home of a tough, practical, loving woman (Lillian Gish in her best sound-film performance). In place of money and horror, the film finds value in the enduring power of love, and it does so without the least trace of sentimentality.

Photo Gallery – “The Night of the Hunter”

Note: Illustrations used are not part of Mr. Mast’s book.

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A Short History of the Movies (Broken Blossoms) – Gerald Mast 1971

  • A short history of the movies
  • Gerald Mast, deceased
  • Formerly of the University of Chicago
  • © 1971, 1976, and 1981 by the Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.;
  • University of Colorado at Boulder
  • 1992 Macmillan Publishing Company New York
  • Maxwell Macmillan Canada Toronto

The way to improve film acting was not just to make the actors underplay but to let cinematic technique help the actors act. A camera can move in so close to an actor’s face that the blinking of an eye or the flicker of a smile can become a significant and sufficient gesture. Or the field of view can cut from the actor to the subject of the actor’s thoughts or attention, thereby revealing the emotion without requiring a grotesque, overstated thump on the chest. Film acting before Griffith—and before his greatest star, Lillian Gish—not only in the Film d’Art but in Melies and Porter and Hepworth as well, had been so bad precisely because the camera had not yet learned to help the actors.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms is Griffith’s most polished, most finished gem, a tight triangle story of one woman between two men. Out of this triangle come the film’s values, rather than from Griffith’s subtitles and allegorical visions. If the film is less weighty than the epics, it is also less pretentious. To shift terms, one could call The Birth of a Nation an epic, Intolerance a film essay or tract, and Broken Blossoms a lyric—an emotional poem made to be sung. Like so many Griffith films, Broken Blossoms is an adaptation of a work of fiction—Thomas Burke’s “The Chink and the Child,” from his collection Limehouse Nights. As with The Clansman, Griffith took another man’s work and made it his own, as the film’s metaphoric title so clearly shows (the cleaned-up subtitle, however, was “The Yellow Man and the Girl”).

Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan in Griffith’s Broken Blossoms

The film is Griffith’s gentlest, his most explicit and poetic hymn to gentleness. The typical Griffith film shows violence destroying gentleness; the focus of the films is usually on the violent disrupters: war, social upheaval, union protests, political chicanery, sexual debauches. In Broken Blossoms, the aura of ideal gentleness dominates the action, punctuated by the violent jabs of the real world. The gentle man in the film comes from the Orient to bring the message of the gentle Buddha to the vicious, violent men of the West. Once he arrives in London’s dockside slum, Limehouse, Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) runs into the “sordid realities of life”—gambling, whoring, opium smoking—that constitute life in the West. He virtually gives up.

Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

Then in the film’s second section, Griffith switches to the female figure of gentleness, Lucy (Lillian Gish). Raised by the prize fighter, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp), Lucy is an unloved child who spends her time wandering around the Limehouse district, trying to scrape up enough tin foil to buy herself a flower. Flowers are the primary visual metaphor for gentleness in the film, as the title indicates. Lucy’s gentleness, however, like Cheng Huan’s, runs into sordid realities. Her reality is her father, Burrows, a brute who uses Lucy as both slavish servant and defenseless punching bag. One of the most poignant touches in the film is Burrows’s insistence that Lucy smile for him, regardless of her real feelings. Since she is unable to summon a genuine smile, she uses two fingers to force one.

Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

The next section of the film necessarily brings the two gentle figures together. Cheng Huan is attracted by Lucy’s gentle purity, which he instantly perceives. They first meet, appropriately, over the purchase of a flower. She later collapses in his shop after a terrific beating by her father. Cheng Huan enthrones her in his room as a Princess of Flowers, and the two celebrate a brief but beautiful union of gentle love. Lucy even smiles without the aid of her fingers for the first time, and Cheng Huan’s one weak moment of animal lust (brilliantly communicated by a painfully tight close-up) is soon conquered by his realization of the ideal perfection of his guest and their relationship.

But the realities break in upon the ideal. Burrows finds her at Cheng Huan’s, trashes the place, drags her back to their slum room, and begins his inevitable attack. She retreats to a closet; he smashes it open with an axe, and Griffith creates one of the most accurate renditions of human frenzy in screen history as Lucy frantically starts rushing in a circle inside the closet—trapped, flustered, terrified. The death of all three characters is imminent. Lucy dies from this final beating, Cheng Huan shoots Burrows and then stabs himself. Blossoms, despite their loveliness, cannot survive for long in the soil of mortality.

Griffith suffuses the film with the atmosphere of dreams and haze. Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish have perfectly harmonious faces of inner calm and peace. Their acting is so restrained and so perfectly matched that the two feel like a single being. Griffith also succeeds in giving the abusive father both energy and credibility. Griffith makes the prize fighter walk, stand, sway, stagger like an animal in the ring. After Cheng Huan shoots Burrows, Griffith adds one of those observant touches that brilliantly makes the moment come to life. Burrows, reeling under the shot, instinctively puts up his dukes and begins dizzily jabbing at his opponent; after a few weak and faltering feints, Burrows collapses. This realistic yet symbolic, emblematic detail at the moment of death—for once Griffith gives his villain as much naturalistic attention as his heroes— parallels Lucy’s final living gesture in which she uses two fingers to poke her face into a last smile.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Griffith’s lighting also sustains the film’s mood; Broken Blossoms remains one of the most beautifully lit films in screen history, supported by the beautiful color tinting and toning of its original 35mm prints. The lighting of scenes in Cheng Huan’s shop and room is an atmo¬ spheric blend of beams of light and pools of shadow. Lillian Gish, as the Princess, becomes luminous, surrounded by the gray and black regions of her flowery kingdom. Griffith uses low-key lighting exclusively for these scenes. The lighting is not only atmospheric, it is also a precise visual translation of the film’s metaphoric contrast between gentleness and violence. While Lucy is enthroned in Cheng Huan’s room, Battling Burrows fights his title match. Griffith cross-cuts between the place of love—the room—and the place of hate—the ring. The boxing ring is harshly lit with bright, even white light; the room is suffused with shafts and shadows. Although Broken Blossoms asks a lot less of its audience than the earlier epics, it keeps its promises.

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Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (Whales of August) by Gavin Lambert – 2000

  • Mainly About Lindsay Anderson
  • Copyright © 2000 by Gavin Lambert

Lindsay Anderson was the most original British filmmaker and theatrical director of his generation. His films //. . . . Lucky Man!, and Britannia Hospital createda Human Comedy of life in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century and were witty, daring, and often prophetic. This Sporting Life and Lucky Man! made Richard Harris and Malcolm McDowell international stars; The Whales of August provided Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, and Ann Sothern the opportunity to give extraordinary farewell performances.

Director Lindsay Anderson and Lillian Gish at Cannes Festival – 1987

The Whales of August

As Lindsay grew older, the contradictions in the nature of the person became more extreme, and the next film he made reflected them. Its producer, Mike Kaplan, was a friend and admirer of Lillian Gish. During a visit to his family in Rhode Island in 1978, he had seen a play at the Trinity Square Repertory in Providence about two elderly sisters who shared a summerhouse on the coast of Maine. When The Whales of August was produced a few months later off-Broadway, Mike took Gish to see it; he explained that he hoped to secure Bette Davis for the other sister, and Gish agreed to do the film “if you can set it up.” But by the late 1970s the movie career of Bette Davis was winding down—she could only get work on TV—and no Hollywood studio expressed interest in Gish, with or without Davis. It was only in the mid-eighties, when a modestly budgeted movie could recoup its costs on the expanding TV and video market, that a company called Alive Films was willing to back the project. Mike, who began his movie career as a publicity director and oversaw the campaigns for 2001 and Bette Davis had turned down the other leading role, which was also rejected by Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn.

Lindsay Anderson directing Lillian Gish in The Whales of August

Then Davis changed her mind—and Gish withdrew. Seven years had passed since she’d seen the play with Mike, and she feared she no longer had the energy for another movie. Fortunately Mike persuaded her otherwise. “I’m affirmative,” she finally said, and so was Ann Sothern, cast in the important role of a neighbor. At the start of shooting, Gish was ninety-two, Bette Davis seventy eight, Ann Sothern seventy-seven, and Vincent Price (replacing John Gielgud, who had originally agreed to play the most substantial male role, but proved unavailable) the baby of the company at seventy-two. Their combined ages prompted Coral Browne, Price’s wife, to suggest that Alive Films should change its name to Barely Alive. In fact, the authentically “golden” years of the three actresses heightened the movie’s reality, as well as creating technical problems. Gish was fairly deaf, and had moments of vagueness; Davis had endured a mastectomy, two strokes, and an operation for hip replacement; and Ann Sothern had difficulty walking, the result of an accident many years earlier. She was playing in a summer stock theatre when a property tree fell on her, fracturing her spinal column and severely damaging the nerves in her legs.

Lillian Gish Ann Sothern Vincent Price and Bette Davis The Whales of August

In The Whales of August, the pace is adjusted to the slowed down, restricted movements of senior citizenry, and the dialogue scenes have a few hesitantly timed moments; but the result is a painstakingly and sometimes painfully truthful record of the resilience as well as the infirmities of old age. None of the actors attempts any kind of disguise or wears makeup to look younger or older, and in the last act of their careers, Gish and Ann Sothern in particular give performances of extraordinary vitality as well as skill. Lindsay recognized from the start that the material was “weak,” and needed a stronger ending. In David Berry’s play, the younger sister (Gish, actually fourteen years older than Bette) decides to leave her dependent but testy blind sibling and “live her own life.” He found this “too reminiscent of the current American cliche of women finding their own way,” and asked Berry to write a new scene that he described as “the only possible solution.” After years of quarreling and mutual resentment, Sarah and Libby finally reach a kind of accommodation, and begin to understand each other’s needs.

The Whales of August

Shot entirely on location in and around a house on an island off the coast of Maine, during September and October 1986, the movie opens with a prologue in black and white. A long shot of the ocean beyond the house is followed by a medium shot of a buoy with a clanging bell, and another of three adolescent girls in long white summer dresses as they run from the house to the edge of the promontory. While they wait for a glimpse of the whales that traditionally surface during August, the camera never moves close enough for their faces to become clearly recognizable. Another shot of the buoy is followed by a shot of it in color, then of Sarah, Libby, and their neighbor Tisha, sixty years later, standing exactly where we first saw them as young girls in the monochrome past.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

For all three, it soon becomes apparent, old age means physical decline and a sense of being marginalized. But although both sisters are widowed, Sarah (Gish) finds a degree of consolation and peace in the memory of her dead husband’s telling her, “Passion and truth, that’s all we need,” while Libby (Davis) withdraws into bitterness with “Life fools you, it always does.” At the heart of the film is a relationship between someone who’s come to terms with loneliness, and someone whose loneliness is all the greater because she resents it so fiercely.

Bette Davis – The Whales of August

Tisha, also a widow, and able to walk only a short distance with the aid of a cane, is deeply humiliated when she’s no longer allowed to drive her car. But although fearful of the prospect of a housebound future, she refuses to despair, like the impoverished Russian exile (Vincent Price), who has nowhere to go when his hostess of many years suddenly dies.

Ann Sothern – The Whales of August

The same love that Lindsay brought to Gielgud and Ralph Richardson in Home is evident in his handling of Gish, Ann Sothern, and (as an actress, if not as a person) Bette Davis. He also brought a similar ironic-elegiac mood to The Whales of August, especially in two almost silent scenes where the sisters are alone with themselves and their past. Sarah has kept the telegram informing her of her husband’s death in action during World War II, and she likes to reread it aloud, then gaze at his photograph on her dressing table. Libby clings to a very different memento, and reacts very differently to it. She’s preserved a lock of her hair, cut when she was a young girl, which she passes longingly across her cheek. The touch of lost youth brings a look of terrible rancor to her face; and explains why Sarah, as she tells Trisha, is afraid that Libby has “given up on life.”

Vincent Price Whales of August

One of their recurrent disputes is over a picture window that Sarah wants to add to the living room. It will make the view even more spectacular, she says, but Libby insists that “we’re too old to be considering new things.” In a final scene, she unexpectedly changes her mind. She’ll never be able to see the view, but by imagining the pleasure it will give Sarah, she can break out of her self-imposed isolation. Although performances and direction avoid sentimentality here, they can’t quite achieve conviction in an underwritten scene. But the closing shots are consciously and effectively Fordian, a nod to the end of My Darling Clementine with its two solitary figures in an empty landscape, the schoolteacher watching Wyatt Earp ride off into the West. Arm in arm, the two sisters slowly cross the veranda, and the camera holds on an empty rocking chair after they leave the frame. It picks them up on their way through the overgrown garden to the edge of the promontory, where they stand gazing at the ocean, as we first saw them. The island location of the movie, coincidentally, is less than fifty miles offshore from Portland, the birthplace of John Ford.

Gish dominates The Whales of August with a performance of “passion and truth,” Ann Sothern is richly humorous and touching in a supporting role, but Bette Davis seems more studied and external in contrast, and did herself no favor by choosing to wear a profoundly unconvincing wig. Its long, silvery white hair, as Jocelyn Herbert commented, “looked as if it was made of nylon.” Ironically, the silent-movie star seems more contemporary in style than the star whose career began in talkies. In one of his postcards from Maine, Lindsay described Gish as “mysteriously spellbinding,” and part of the mystery is that, unlike Bette, she never allows you to see the actress at work.

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price – The Whales of August

Lindsay and Ann Sothern also saw the actress at work in other ways. Bette brought her own hairdresser and makeup man, whom she refused to share with Gish or Ann. “In fact poor Bette, who wasn’t well, was a holy terror, crabby and irascible,” Ann remembered. “She was terribly jealous of Lillian because she wanted to play her part.” And their relationship in the movie had its counterpart in Gish’s reaction to Bette’s meanness. “Lillian just shakes her head,” Lindsay noted. ” ‘Poor Bette,’ she says. ‘How she must be suffering. What an unhappy life she’s led.’ He also recorded another parallel with their roles: Lillian likes to repeat her mother’s advice on how best to make one’s way through life. ‘You can get on by being rude to people, but you’ll find things a good deal easier if you treat people well, with kindness and courtesy. ‘ Bette’s mother surely gave her no such counsel. Bette’s impulse is to treat the world and everyone in it with hostility.

“For all her trials and conflicts with Warner Brothers,” Lindsay’s diary continued, “Bette had no relish for freedom and yearned continually for Burbank.” She was not used to going out on location, as she reminded anyone who would listen, because “locations always used to come to me,” and seemed indifferent to “the beautiful seascapes visible without benefit of back projection” beyond the windows. Her most frequent response to any suggestion that Lindsay made was an emphatic “Rubbish!” Occasionally she agreed with a grudging nod, and once announced to the crew: “That’s twice I’ve given in to the director today. I must be slipping.” Finally she provoked Lindsay to say, “You’re not taking over this picture, Bette,” which provoked her to walk off the set and refuse to come back until he apologized. Work stopped for half an hour until, at Mike’s insistence, Lindsay made peace with her. By the sixth week of shooting, another postcard from Maine informed me, “Bette has gone full circle, from suspicion and hostility to paranoia to (proclaimed) friendship and admiration. I think she is essentially MAD.” Gish, by contrast, he found “simple and saintly,” their disagreements few and “unfailingly pleasant.” When they rehearsed her scene with the telegram, she noticed that Lindsay had angled the camera behind the dressing table, leaving her face in three-quarter profile. “You won’t catch the expression in my eyes,” she said.

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

“Mr. Griffith always told me, you have to show everything through the eyes.” Then Lindsay asked if she remembered Whistler’s portrait of his mother, and Gish nodded. “Well,” he explained, “Whistler painted her from exactly the same angle as I’m photographing you. And you can tell exactly what she’s feeling.”

Gish thought this over. “Maybe,” she said finally. “But the Mona Lisa’s more popular than Whistler’s Mother.” Then she played the scene as Lindsay directed, and in spite of Mr. Griffith, managed to show “everything.”

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Deafness was Gish’s major problem, as Ann Sothern recalled: “Lillian could remember lines okay, but she couldn’t hear. She worked with some hearing aid, could read lips, and Lindsay communicated with some kind of walkie-talkie mike, feeding her lines. It was difficult, as there was often a long space, which had to be fixed later in the cutting, before she picked up her cue.” And Jocelyn Herbert recalled that she sometimes confused a character in the movie with a character from her own life: “When I showed her the various photos we were going to put on her dressing table, Lillian looked at the face that was supposed to represent a sister who’d died many years earlier, and shook her head.

Final scene – real photographs of Lillian Gish’s relatives with some add ins suited for “The Whales of August”

‘That’s not Dorothy,’ she said.” On and off the set, the least problematic of the trio was Ann Sothern. Lindsay had always admired her, and wrote me that she was “great good fun as well.” They evidently relaxed each other, and when Ann discovered that Lindsay knew “just about every popular song ever written, we used to sing together a lot of the time. I’d brought my own cook to the location and he loved to come over and have dinner at my cottage.” She also found him “patient, kind and inspirational with actors. He thought of good things to give you to do.”

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

“Good or bad, I feel we are making movie history!” Lindsay wrote on his final postcard from Maine. He also fulfilled Mike Kaplan’s hope of producing a final tribute to Gish’s unique talent, and in various ways The Whales of August proved a landmark in the career of all three actresses. For Bette, “giving in” to Lindsay was an exercise in self restraint after years of self-indulgence, and her last completed movie did much to restore a declining reputation. (In 1988 she began filming Wicked Stepmother, but illness forced her to withdraw after two weeks. As she played a witch, a plot twist was added to turn her into either Barbara Carrera or a black cat for the rest of the story, and the film was eventually released on video.) But Ann Sothern’s talent was exceptionally unselfish as well as exceptional. In The Whales of August she had one of her best roles, and was as deservedly Oscar-nominated as Gish was undeservedly overlooked.

Lillian Gish and film director Lindsay Anderson

Realizing that Berry’s play was almost totally actor-dependent, and as a movie would need as much visual expressiveness as he could devise, Lindsay turned to two valued colleagues for help. Mike Fash, who gave Britannia Hospital its hard, primary-colored, TV-commercial look, photographed The Whales of August in muted and mellow tones, while Jocelyn Herbert’s art direction created an unobtrusively lived-in look for every room in the sisters’ house. She chose furniture and knickknacks that seemed to have been there for years, rugs that were subtly faded, and in a secondhand store she found an old cardigan sweater that Gish loved, wearing it for several scenes and wrapping herself in it like an element of her character.

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August, 1987

Bette, of course, refused to accept any suggestion from Jocelyn about her costumes. In spite of his admiration and fondness for Gish, according to Jocelyn, “in a way Lindsay found Bette more intriguing.” As she pointed out, they were both confrontational; and from another angle, Lindsay and Bette, like Lindsay and Gish, were mirror images of each other. At sixty-three, although looking older, Lindsay was on the cusp of old age when he directed a movie about old age, represented at its most generous and tolerant by Gish, at its most cantankerous by Bette. But from his diary notes on the filming and the postcards he wrote me, he never realized that they also represented two sides of himself. He invariably portrayed himself as Gish-like, a model of patience and equanimity, although Mike Kaplan recalled quite a few Bette Davis moments.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Apart from the two weeks when Lindsay had refused to take Mike’s calls, their relationship had been friendly. But when Lindsay arrived on the location, he “bristled with hostility. ‘This is your movie, not my movie,’ he said.” Bette, as Jocelyn remembered, “warned it to be her film,” and to Mike it seemed that the same grudge affected them in the same way: Lindsay was usually thoughtful and kind with the actors. But although Bette was fractious, he seemed to enjoy provoking her, and she threatened to quit several times. And with the others he was occasionally ruthless. He rewrote dialogue at the last moment, which he knew created difficulties for Gish, he kept Vincent Price waiting for several days to play his first scene, and he even upset the wonderfully genial Ann Sothern by refusing to block her first major scene with Gish. Then, typically, he relented and staged it brilliantly. Tension on the small, isolated island, Mike added, was often “extreme,” and seeing the dailies “provided the only relief from the hell of it.” Bette, “still the consummate if egomaniac professional,” was the only actor who came to see them, “and for all her animosity toward Gish as well as Lindsay, had to admit they were good.”

But Lindsay was partly right when he told Mike Kaplan that The Whales of August wasn’t “his” movie. There’s a good deal of Lindsay in it, but also a good deal of Lindsay that’s not in it: the dynamic vision and outrageous humor of his most personal work, and the fact, as Vincent Price said later, that “it’s a dear little story, but not really about anything.”

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis – The Whales of August (the last scene)

The movie was well received when it opened in New York in February 1988; and in the same week Lindsay’s production of Philip Barry’s Holiday opened (February 15) at the Old Vic in London. Another project that was not “his,” it offered Frank Grimes a promising role, that of the alcoholic brother created by Lew Ayres in Cukor’s classic 1938 film. Mary Steenburgen and Malcolm McDowell, who were married at the time, played the Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant roles, but only Steenburgen was well cast. And in spite of her humor and lightness, the production seemed heavy-handed, with Frank competent in the Lew Ayres part but lacking his charm, Malcolm not at his best, Lindsay no more at ease with the Park Avenue rich than with Chekhov’s landed gentry. At a time when Stallone and Schwarzenegger spelled commercial success, it was sad but not surprising that Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August spelled commercial failure. And not surprising that Lindsay had begun to feel time running out when he accepted an offer to direct a miniseries for Home Box Office in Toronto. “I honestly don’t know if I can do it—not my speed at all—and ever since Whales I have felt profoundly alienated from the whole business,” he wrote me. “So this is a real last crazy venture.”

Admin note: Illustrations are not part of Mr. Lambert’s book.

whales of august – bette davis and lillian gish 1987
Mainly about Lindsay Anderson – front cover

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Film Costume – Susan Perez Prichard (1981)

  • Film costume, an annotated bibliography
  • Susan Perez Prichard
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J., & London 1981

Millions of people in audiences all over the world have been dazzled by the work of the film-costume designer, captured “forever” on celluloid. Twentieth-century fashion, manipulated by skillful designers who tailored it to the camera’s eye, was influenced by the motion picture as by no other medium.

Because the techniques of theatrical and retail fashion design were often inappropriate for motion-picture needs, film-costume designers originated solutions to problems posed by the camera and by the industry itself as they evolved. The literature documents how greatly film costume affected, and was affected by, for example, changing silhouettes and hemlines, and the transition to pants in the 1920s through the 1970s. Technological innovations in fashion, such as mass-produced clothes, synthetic fabrics, and the zipper, also greatly influenced film–and in turn received much support through the designers’ endorsement. The film-costume designers also adapted well to such innovations as sound and color films.

Lillian Gish mentioned in press and books

Burroughs, Annette. “Erte Speaks His Mind.” Photoplay. 29 (3): 32-3, February 1926.

Erte, who found film actresses no more attractive or inspiring than other women, discusses designing for Renee Adoree in “The Big Parade” and Lillian Gish in “La Boheme. ” Both women, among other factors, were enough for him to quit gladly and return to Paris.

“Movies Inspire Designs for Living.” Hollywood Reporter’s 48th Annual, [1978], p. 119-22.

Discussion of the impact of film makeup, settings, and ideas on American lifestyles. The influence of film costume on American fashion is mentioned in quotes from Gloria Vanderbilt on jeans and on “Annie Hall,” which brought about renewed film-fashion influence; from Andy Warhol, on John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”; and from Erte, on freedom and happiness in Hollywood (he mentions that Lillian Gish would wear only silks due to allegedly delicate skin).

Things I Remember: An Autobiography. New York: Quadrangle/New York Times, 1975.

Erte was commissioned to design the costumes for Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Prodigal Son, ” but William Randolph Hearst learned of it and signed him to a three-year contract; he was already under contract to Hearst to design the Harper’s Bazaar covers and write fashion articles. He designed the costumes for Marion Davies and others in the ball sequence of “Restless Sex, ” but no others during the contract. He discusses at length, with frequent illustrations, his costumes for MGM (with which Hearst’s studio had merged) films starring Carmel Myers in “Ben Hur,” Aileen Pringle in “The Mystic” and “Dance Madness, ” Theodore Kozloff (or Kosloff) in “Time the Comedian, ” “Paris,” and for Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in “La Boheme, ” with his version of the problems with the two actresses. Erte was provided with his own wardrobe department, where Mme. Van Horn executed his costumes.

Lillian Gish – Captain Macklin 1915

Gish, Lillian. Dorothy and Lillian Gish. Edited by James E. Frasher. New York: Scribner’s, 1973.

Original stills include Lillian Gish in a gown worn in “Captain Macklin,” made by Madame Frances; she wore her best gowns in her films, and, as with this gown, she and other actresses were not paid by the studio for providing their own. D. W. Griffith conceived the costumes of “Intolerance. ” Rudolph Valentino was so concerned with his appearance in “Out of Luck” that he held up the shooting schedule. Gish selected the costumes for sister Dorothy Gish in “Remodeling Her Husband” (1920) since “we had no designers then.” She “dressed” two cousins for “Orphans of the Storm” in the style of Gainsborough and Greuze; the costumes were heavy enough to cause Dorothy to faint. Concerning her feud with Erte, she felt that worn-out silks rags would look and move better than the new calico fabrics he wanted for “La Boheme”; she wore only one of his costumes for the film, a small photo of which is included, and designed the rest with Mother Coulter. Renee Adoree did wear Erte’s costumes, which Gish still considers unattractive. Many of their films are well illustrated, as with two gowns worn by Lillian in “Way Down East,” from Henri Bendel’s, and six vamp gowns worn in “Diane of the Follies.” Dorothy Gish models a $25,000 Cuban shawl from “The Bright Shawl. “

Diane of The Follies – Lillian Gish

with Ann Pinchot. The Movies. Mr. Griffith, and Me. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.

Lillian Gish discusses her costumes, and often the research required, for “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance,” many of which were designed by D.W. Griffith; “Hearts of the World”; “The Chink and the Child,” by wardrobe mistress Mrs. Jones; “Way Down East,” with one gown by Henri Bendel; and “The Two Orphans,” designed with the help of Herman Tappe. She notes erroneously that Ert£ was brought over from Paris to design the costumes for “La Boheme, ” discusses their feud, which led her to redesign the costumes with Mother Coulter, and notes that she could not talk Renee Adorle out of wearing Erte’s costumes. Genuine uniforms from the Civil War could not be worn by the men of “The Birth of a Nation” because of the difference in body sizes, so they were provided by the company that became Western Costume Company. Mrs. Morgan Belmont wore gowns by Lucile in “Way Down East. “

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

as told to Carolyn Van Wyck. “Individuality in Dress.” Photoplay. 22 (1): 56-7, June 1922.

Lillian Gish does not select her film costumes for their appearance since she is usually limited to poor-girl roles, as in “Broken Blossoms, ” “Way Down East, ” and “Orphans of the Storm. “

In Fashion: Dress in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 67-83, passim.

Of the handful of books that deal with twentieth-century fashion this is one of the few to cover film costume more than superficially: “… it is, naturally, the performed arts which most affect fashion. ” Writer Jacques Manuel has credited a costume by Louis Gasnier worn by Pearl White in an unnamed serial in 1916 as the “first specially created film costume. ” White appears in a photo in another costume created by Gasnier, from “Plunder, ” 1922-3; both of White’s costumes were copied and became virtual uniforms for working women. Like Erte, two other proteges of Paul Poiret (actually, Erte only briefly worked for Poiret) entered film designing: Georges Lepape designed the costumes of “Phantasmes” and Paul Iribe the costumes of “Male and Female. ” Of those who could not adjust to the studio system “the most famous failure is Erte, ” and though he was a “supreme illustrator,” his sketches did not translate well onto the human body. Notes also his feud with Lillian Gish. The wire-framed cantilevered bra, developed in 1946, helped bring international renown to Jane Russell in “The Outlaw. ” Brief mention of designers Norman Norell (incorrectly stated to have begun his designing in Hollywood — actually, the Paramount studio in Astoria, New York), Adrian (with mention of his “Letty Lynton” costumes for Joan Crawford), Howard Greer, Travis Banton, Walter Plunkett, Jean Louis, Helen Rose, Edith Head, and Irene Sharaff. The influence of film costume on fashion waned in the early 1960s when pop music replaced it as a fashion trendsetter. Includes also a comment by Mrs. D. W. Griffith, who once said that her husband turned down an actress but offered to pay her five dollars for her hat so that Mary Pickford could wear it in a film.

Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East

Gostelow, Mary. “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design

–The Costume Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ” Journal of the Costume Society, 9: 58, 1975. The oldest of the over 100 costumes displayed in the “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” exhibit was worn by Lillian Gish in “Way Down East. ” Brief mention of the psychological importance of a gown worn by Joan Crawford in “The Gorgeous Hussy” and of historical inaccuracies in costumes worn by Norma Shearer, Gladys George, and an unnamed actress in “Marie Antoinette,” all by Adrian. Fabrics discussed include a wedding gown by John Truscott worn by Vanessa Redgrave in “Camelot” and gowns by Travis Banton worn by Marlene Dietrich in “Angel” and by Bob Mackie worn by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Lady.”

The White Sister

“Lillian Gish Prefers American Clothes.” Screen News. 2 (44): 15, November 3, 1923.

Lillian Gish had her most important costumes for “The White Sister” and “Romola” made on Fifth Avenue because she felt that American designers were more skilled than Parisians. Both movies were filmed in Italy; the costumes required for minor roles were made in Europe.

Mount, Laura. “Designs on Hollywood.” Collier’s. 87 (14): 21, 60-1, April 4, 1931.

Coco Chanel, hired by Sam Goldwyn to visit Hollywood periodically and send designs from Paris, may go the way of Erte and Gilbert Clarke, both of whom quit when Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, respectively, refused to wear their costumes. Chanel will leave several of her fitters in Hollywood for permanent employment and will reorganize the studio dressmaking department. As one of the more demanding stars Chanel will design for, Gloria Swanson wore about 15 gowns in “What a Widow,” which she bought from a leading fashion salon in New York; though she changed the simple costumes drastically to suit herself. Brief mention of Carolyn Putnam being the designer for Paramount’s Long Island studio. Elsa Maxwell asked Paramount producer Walter Wanger if she should hire Jean Patou, Parisian couturier, when she heard that Goldwyn had hired Chanel; Wanger decided against it.

1924: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) plays the title role in the film ‘Romola’, adapted from a novel by George Eliot and directed by Henry King for MGM.

Robinson, David. “Showbiz Glamour.” Times (London), November 30, 1974, p. 9.

Discussion of film-costume design and history, with examples of costumes displayed in the “Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design” exhibit. Notes that a costume worn by Lillian Gish in “Romola” was made by the costumier of the Milan opera in Florence and that Travis Banton once worked with Madame Francine (Frances).

“Tirtoff-Erte Quits Movies.” New York Times, November 4, 1925, p. 31.

After seven months with MGM as a costume designer de Tirtoff- Erte (Erte) is returning to Paris. He found the actresses no more inspiring or attractive than his usual clients. He was offended by Lillian Gish because she wanted simple costumes for the role of a poor girl made of silks and elegant fabrics. Renee Adoree would not wear a corset for her 1830 costumes (both actresses in “La Boheme”). He had to design costumes for one film (“Paris”) four times, as it was constantly rewritten. He looked forward to being treated considerately in his return to Paris.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

Admin note: Photographs presented in this article are not part of Susan Perez Pritchard’s book.

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