Lillian Gish’s Protest against Racism in US – Chicago Tribune, Apr. 28, 1940

Contralto Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939
Contralto Marian Anderson – Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American singer of classical music and spirituals. Music critic Alan Blyth said: “Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto. Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States. On 9 April 1939, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. A crowd of 75,000 listened to her, and millions more tuned in on the radio. She sang where she did because she had been refused the use Constitution Hall by its owners. Marian was black, and the owners had a white-artists-only clause.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)28 Apr 1940, SunPage 58 - New
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 28 Apr 1940, Sun Page 58

Lillian Gish, of “Life With Father,” resigned from the D.A.R.. along with her mother and sister, when Marian Anderson, the great Negro contralto, was not permitted to appear in Constitution Hall, the D.A.R. auditorium in Washington, D.C. Miss Gish explains her resignation with a beautifully classic turn: “I don’t quite know what we were doing in the organization in the first place.”

1lillian-gish-8x10-lab-photo-1940s-polka-dot

This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who starred in Birth of A Nation (as Elsie Stoneman – a nurse) when she was 22 years old. An actress who supported her mother and sister when their father left them, in a time when film was considered cheap amusement meant for entertaining a county fair crowd. Theatre actors were ashamed then to act in “flicker shows.”

This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who fought against war (any war), to spare American lives and to protect American families from destruction.

Gish Film Theater Plaque

And THIS IS THE NAME – so called “Task Force” decided to remove from the Film Theater at Bowling Green University Ohio (BGSU). I sincerely wish that their “management” will read this article written by an European based 10.000 miles away from United States.

Kindly access the link below to read the whole Gish Film Theater saga. In the left column there is the whole story composed from selected articles written by David Dupont, and in the right column there are all the declarations, letters and desperate appeals made then by the brave few who tried to defend Lillian Gish’s memory. I wish to emphasize that all these declarations and letters to BGSU management were written long before James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Malcolm McDowell and Lauren Hutton’s protest against dishonoring Lillian Gish’s name.

 

Ditch The Gish (The sad story of Gish Film Theater)

 

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In the Cyclone Belt – By Norbert Lusk (Picture Play 1929)

Picture Play February 1929 Volume XXIX Number 6

The Screen in Review

By Norbert Lusk

Lillian Gish, and the troubles of the Metro-Goldwyn sales force in disposing of her last picture. They tried to sell it by leaving out all mention of her name and boosting it as a rip-roaring Western.

Orlamond-Hanson-Gish-The-Wind

In the Cyclone Belt.

Gloomy and even morbid, “The Wind,” Lillian Gish’s final picture for Metro-Goldwyn, is nevertheless a fine and dignified achievement. Its lack of lightness will stand in the way of its success with the many, but the enjoyment of the – few — presuming that serious moviegoers are in the minority — is assured.

Lillian-Gish-8X10-Studio-The-Wind-Montagu-Love-Train-arrival-scene
Lillian-Gish-The-Wind-Montagu-Love-Train-arrival-scene

It is a study of the dramatic effect of climate on character, better portrayed than in “Sadie Thompson,” as a matter of fact ; but there the comparison ends. Miss Gish’s heroine is no flamboyant creature, but a timid girl from Virginia, who comes to live on her cousin’s ranch in Texas, which she fondly believes to be another Garden of Eden. Instead Letty finds herself in a barren, sand-swept country, where human existence is forever at the mercy of the devouring elements. When life is not imperiled by the violence of the wind, morale is undermined and sanity threatened by the monotony of it. This is portrayed as only the screen can portray an atmospheric condition.

Lillian Gish in The Wind

Letty incurs the jealousy of her cousin’s wife through the fondness of the children for her, and is driven from the ranch. In desperation she accepts marriage with Lige a well-meaning boor, in preference to death in the storm. She cannot disguise the repulsion she feels for the fellow, but he proves his decency by leaving her to earn enough money to send her back to Virginia. In Lige’s absence the villainous intrusion of Roddy causes her to shoot him and hurl the body into the rapidfy shifting sand, where it is quickly buried.

Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish - The Wind)
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)

With such a tragic beginning, it really doesn’t matter whether the ending is happy or not. so I shall leave you to find out. But whether Letty and Lige are reunited is, after all unimportant in estimating the skill of the director, Victor Seastrom —also responsible for “The Scarlet Letter,” you remember—or the sensitive dynamics of Miss Gish’s acting.

Miss Lillian Gish - still frame (The Wind)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)

Or, for that matter, the superb performance of Lige by Lars Hanson, who regretably has shaken the dust of Hollywood from his feet and returned to Sweden.

Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower) and Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) - The Wind
Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower) and Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) – The Wind

Unrelieved by the ghost of a smile, the picture is a somber cross-section of a life that is little known to those who prefer to see conventional heroines in the routine of familiar romances.

But its relentlessness is gripping. Sound effects are justified here, for they are concerned with the wind, which dominates the picture and every character in it. Montagu Love, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, and William Orlamond are fully equal to the distinguished occasion. (Norbert Lusk)

 

*** The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. Nothing new under the sun … History (always written by the victors) repeats itself. After Lillian Gish filmed “His Double Life” (1933), she didn’t make another film for ten years. When she did return in 1943, she played in two big-budget pictures, Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) and Top Man (1943). The Cobweb (1955) marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.

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“Do They Criticize Me?’ – By Madeline Glass (Picture Play Magazine – November 1926)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1926 Vol. XXV No.3

“Do They Criticize Me?’

So questions Lillian Gish, gently, when given an opportunity to explain her interpretation of Mimi in La Boheme

By Madeline Glass

IS Lillian Gish a great actress or merely a mechanical technician ? Is she unable to act for any one except D. W. Griffith ? Is she a genius too subtle for general appreciation? ***

These questions have for several years been hotly debated by fans and critics wherever motion pictures flourish. No actress on the screen provokes such widely differing opinions as Lillian Gish. Men like George Jean Nathan, Joseph Hergesheimer and John Barrymore have extolled her histrionic qualities, yet others whose names are less imposing but whose judgment is, perhaps, more reliable, scoff at her alleged genius and her tacit acceptance of the name bestowed upon her by her admirers—”the Bernhardt of the screen.”

Lillian Gish 1926
Lillian Gish 1926

A few years ago, Lillian was generally regarded as the finest actress in motion pictures. Her work in “Broken Blossoms” established her as a great tragedienne. Later she appeared to excellent advantage in “Way Down East.” Her characterization in that picture was superb, containing as it did exquisite interludes of pathos and several instances of towering emotionalism. At that time D. W. Griffith’s morbid predilection for depicting frail virtue at the mercy of brutal man kept Lillian continually playing persecuted heroines. After leaving Griffith’s guiding hand she made “The White Sister,” which was well received by the public, but which won only lukewarm praise from the press. Then came “Romola,” an expensive and highly pretentious picture, but a dismal failure financially and artistically. Such histrionic honors as it contained were captured by Lillian’s sister, Dorothy. And after the release of “La Boheme,” Miss Gish’s standing as an artist seemed to suffer a great deal. Critics dealt with her so harshly that I determined to seek her out and, if nothing else, offer condolence. I had read somewhere an article which quoted her as saying that she never allowed anything but finest silk to touch her skin. Which is all well and good. But, somehow, I vaguely resented it. It suggested ostentation. Then I remembered having seen her wear silk stockings while playing poor orphans and peasant girls. Could that delicate, angelic face possibly conceal a naughty nature ? Writers never tire of comparing Lillian’s beauty with virginal lilies and the Madonna, the assumption being that her character matches her face. Still, even a superficial analysis proves the fallacy of judging persons solely by the perfection of their features. We all meet at times fine, benevolent individuals who, if judged by their appearance, would be hanged without a trial. But, at any rate, Lillian has long been my favorite actress and when the studio clerk announced that she was ready to receive me I put all critical thoughts from my mind, and went forward eagerly. A few minutes’ walk through a labyrinth of hallways and miniature streets brought me to her dressing rooms. Before the maid could offer me a chair the silk curtains across the room opened and Lillian began to enter. I say began to enter advisedly. First came the lowered head bearing a graceful burden of bright, high-piled hair and a tall coronet of stiff gold lace. Then the pale face, with its large gray eyes and delicate chin, appeared. Next came the snugly dressed upper torso and arms, and last the enormous brocaded skirt which, once through the narrow door, spread about in gorgeous profusion, seeming to half fill the tiny room. Quickly the lovely figure stood erect and advanced, extending a white, blue-veined hand.

Annie Laurie crop1b

One’s first impression of Lillian Gish is her very definite air of gentle, nineteenth-century decorum. There is ladylike grace and precision in all her movements. When the usual greetings were over I remarked about the striking medieval costume. “This dress weighs fifteen pounds.” said she, in her nice, deliberate voice. “It is a seventeenth-century model. When I was in London recently I visited museums and studied dresses of that period. The material in them is much heavier than in this—they really stand alone.” “No wonder the houses in those days were built as large as the Mammoth Cave,” I observed. “The women must have required a lot of -room.” “Yes,” said Lillian. “It wasn’t necessary for them to take up outdoor sports. They got enough exercise carrying their clothes about.”

Lillian Gish - still frame2 - Annie Laurie
Lillian Gish – still frame – Annie Laurie

She spoke with delicate enthusiasm about her new picture, which is based on the famous song, “Annie Laurie.” Before our conversation had progressed very far she was wanted on the set, so the maid and I helped her gather up her trailing garments to depart. At the corner of one of the buildings Lillian and I halted while the maid went in search of a car. Presently Mae Murray came along and stopped to exclaim over Lillian’s costume. Mae, you know, is a recent bride and while she and Miss Gish engaged in brief discussion of real estate, Robert Leonard, Mae’s ex-husband, also recently remarried, walked by smiling pleasantly, and bowed to the three of us. In a few minutes Mae left us and a limousine rolled up for Lillian’s use. With the aid of every one present she got in, and made room for me. Dressed as she was, the heat must have been most unpleasant, yet she voiced no complaint. Every one on the set seemed cheerful. Courtesy and affability were constantly in evidence. Occasionally an actor or actress from one of the other stages dropped in for a brief call. Finally Ramon Novarro appeared, wearing an ill-fitting suit and a pleased expression. (He has discarded his mustache — thank Heaven !) After two hours I was beginning to grow uneasy. Lillian had been too busy to talk except for momentary intervals, and although I was enjoying myself immensely I did not forget the object of my visit. Lillian had been gone from the set for some time, but presently returned garbed in a less extreme dress and wearing a fetching blue cap which, with the golden curls, made her look very lovely. She led me away from the disturbing set to a property room near by. There were no chairs, but Lillian approached an iron bedstead and sitting down upon the springs spread her abundant skirts as a sort of makeshift cushion for me. After some preliminary small talk I mentioned, as tactfully as I knew how, the subject of criticism, both professional and “fanesque.” To my surprise, she did not seem particularly interested. So I tried again by bravely suggesting that her Mimi in “La Boheme” had not received as much praise as some of her other characterizations. She answered then—and I nearly fell off the bed.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

“Has some one been criticizing me?” she inquired. Under the circumstances her question was as astonishing as if she had looked at the Pacific Ocean and asked, “Is it wet?” Growing suddenly uncomfortable I wondered what explanation I could make. Perhaps I should not have mentioned the subject. When ignorance is bliss.

“What have they been saying about me ?” she insisted.

Hard pressed for an answer, I finally mentioned certain reputable critics who had found fault with her interpretation of Merger’s heroine.

“Yes, I remember reading those reviews,” said she. “A criticism,” she continued, “is merely one person’s opinion. For years I had wanted to play Mimi—not as Murger described her but as she is in Puccini’s opera. Our picture is based on the opera, not the story, and I feel that I portrayed Mimi very faithfully. Music lovers have praised the characterization highly. The heroine of Murger’s story was a promiscuous woman and I do not think a woman of that character could have inspired Rodolphe to write a great play. For that reason the Puccini version is the more logical of the two. We tried to depict an ideal romance, a great, spiritual love, and I think we succeeded. If I had wanted to play a naughty lady I would have chosen Camille” Her manifest lack of resentment toward ‘her critics confounded me. I wondered then I and I have wondered ever since whether her attitude is due to superb mental and emotional control or to polite disdain of the opinions of others. She sat quietly toying with the folds of her dress, betraying no sign of annoyance or concern. There was one other subject I felt I had to broach. For several years Miss Gish has been called by her admirers “the Bernhardt of the screen.” This lavish compliment has at last produced a discordant reaction. Even her fans are beginning to question the fitness of the sobriquet. Although Lillian has never publicly commented on the subject I felt that she might welcome an opportunity to clear up the delicate misunderstanding by denying any claim to Bernhardt’s mantle of glory. “Do you not think, Miss Gish,” I asked, “that your admirers have done you an unintentional injury by repeatedly calling you ‘the Bernhardt of the screen ?'” A profound silence ensued. Lillian merely regarded me with her lovely, questioning eyes as if she did not quite understand.

“Possibly,” I suggested, encouragingly, “some people resent the—ah—compliment ”

“Perhaps they do,” said Lillian, gently, and there the matter ended. I had hoped she would disclaim the honor or treat the matter as a jest, but as she did neither I was left to conclude that she accepted the tribute as her just desert. A fault often found with Miss Gish is her inability to play a variety of roles. It occurred to me that if she could put aside her excessive refinement long enough to submerge herself, mind, body, and soul (without the adornment of silk stockings), in a vigorous, rough-and-ready character, her versatility would be proven and her critics silenced. So I ventured to inquire if she had ever considered playing Sadie Thompson in “Rain.”

“That is a marvelous character,” said she. “Dorothy would just love to play her. But I can’t imagine any one playing her better than Jeanne Eagles.” She had not really answered my question, so I abandoned that subject and made some reference to censorship.

“Segregation is the only method of regulating screen plays,” said she. “It is hopeless, ruinous, to attempt to make every picture suitable for children. Mothers should select their children’s motion pictures the same as they select their reading matter. No one can successfully relieve them of this responsibility. My own mother would have considered it the height of impudence for any one to tell her what her children could or could not see.

“I seldom go to picture shows,” she remarked. “I am too tired to sit through the endless prologues. I hope the time will soon come when we will have theaters that show pictures exclusively. Then people who go to enjoy the film will not have to endure a series of stage presentations.” To which I heartily agreed. It was time for Lillian to return to the set, so the interview had to end. At parting she held my hand for a moment, saying rather apologetically, “I’m afraid I didn’t give you a very good story.” I assured her that she had and thanked her for the interview. She is a lovable girl in spite of her enigmatical qualities.

Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

*** Admin Note: Miss Madeline Glass (author of above interview) most definitely knew about James R. Quirk’s article published in March 1926 in Photoplay. MGM’s “hangman” wrote again pouring poison from his plume “Lillian Gish – The Enigma of the Screen,” where second and third headline were “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?” and “Is she a genius or a mechanic?”. Possibly Miss Gish was aware of Quirk’s attack, masking her discontent with icy cold indifference. Louise Brooks unveiled MGM’s blackmail policy in hers “Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars” (Sight and Sound London 1959). Brooks noticed as well James R. Quirk’s attacks targeting MGM Star “mutineers.”

Lillian Gish, The Enigma of the Screen – By James R. Quirk (Photoplay 1926)

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

 

Do they criticize me - Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)
Do they criticize me – Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)

 

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What Will Griffith Do Now? – By Gerrit Lloyd (Picture Play Magazine – September 1925)

Picture Play Magazine – September 1925 Vol. XXIII No.1

What Will Griffith Do Now?

After several years of experience as an independent producer, the great D. W. has joined Famous Players, and this important turning point in his career lends new interest to his future work.

By Gerrit Lloyd

Much Has Been Written about D. W. Griffith, but nothing we have ever read about “the big bull elephant” approaches in brilliance or interest this remarkable study of the characteristics of the master of all motion picture directors. The author of this article has been closely associated with Mr. Griffith for several years, and this close association has made it possible for him to write with a knowledge and authority that could never be attained by the casual interviewer.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

THE Big Bull Elephant of the Films has joined the herd again. After launching along strange leadings that twisted at times far from the box-office and the minds of man in frivolous mood, the untamed one has returned to the proven pastures. For Griffith the Bold is not unlike the big bull elephant. He seems to have an ancient and independent wisdom in piloting his personal career, uninfluenced by the school-book efficiencies of the minute. He scandalizes the newest accountants and shocks the most recent graduates from the efficiency seminaries, he puzzles and bewilders and exasperates those who would train him to roll their own little logs, and carry their own little pet freight. Great is the roaring and the turmoil when the big bull elephant starts forth alone ; the crash of barriers tossed aside, the splash of soft footing where the new way is insecure, the rumble and trumpet of intense bulk of purpose on its way. And when he has gone through, there may be no pretty boulevard all hedged and trimmed behind him, but there is a new way broken for others to come along in ease. Through this new land of motion pictures they have come : first, Griffith, the Elephant, sagacious, determined and courageous, with the vitality to make a vehicle of his curiosity. Then comes De Mille, the Royal Tiger, graceful, deft and decisive, stalking the public’s fancy with infallible thrift; and then shyly, with gorgeous smoothness, comes Ingram, the Deer, agile and speedy, with frail aggressiveness ; and Cruze, the Moose, forceful and merry, capering along inviting waterways, pulling forth lily pads of entertainment ; and Von Stroheim, the matchless Leopard, fiercely licking blood, and cynically snarling his contempt for the weaker stomachs. Perhaps no one but Barnum ever felt entirely at ease with a big bull elephant among his assets. And since the individual of yesterday is succeeded by the organization of to-day, probably Famous Players-Lasky has sewed into its vast canopy the mantle of Barnum, and welcomes Griffith back into the pasture again.

Feature photo Griffith

Griffith returns this time along a trail paved with mortgages. He is heavy laden with debts, with his services sold for a year to the welfare of his creditors. His savings from all his vast work are shrunk to the boundary posts of a small California ranch, which is yet undecided whether to take up the white man’s burden of becoming a toiling lemon ranch, or cling to the ease of a scenic spot primeval. A grand adventurer, this man, taking his food where he found it, and struggling on alone ; but now he is back again with a bench for himself at the biggest dinner table in filmland. Behind him there is the roar of money, louder than the snores of Midas. Before him there is a reservoir of trained talent, eager to serve as a thousand fingers to his able hand. For let this be remembered : No creative worker in great enterprise ever has worked so alone as has D. W. Griffith. While others of his trade have had splendidly trained staffs at their command, Griffith selected his own stories, generally without sufficient funds to buy other than those rejected by his competitors; he has written the scenarios ; cast the stories from talent not considered worthy of contract by the larger companies, except his leading man and woman ; financed the costs in grotesque and merciless scrambles with the money lenders ; selected his costumes ; laid out his sets, chosen his locations, supervised all construction; directed every inch of action in the films; edited it; titled it, and then worked out the presentation as to running time and music for delivery to the exhibitors. Yet he has regularly produced more pictures than any other director making comparable productions.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks - United Artists
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

D. W. Griffith knows the motion picture more thoroughly than any other person. His reputation for extravagance has girdled the gossip of the world, a legend founded on malicious exaggeration. At least twenty directors have spent more actual money on single pictures than Griffith ever dreamed of doing. But his reputation with money is established now, and nothing will ever change it. False it is, and false it can be proven, yet some day you will find it smugly recorded in his epitaph on the tomb of Filmdom. It began ancient of days, far away when he wished to raise the salary of Mary Pickford from thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars a week. His employers insisted on discharging Mary “because no girl is worth that much in pictures and besides, she has a large, square head that looks too big for her body.” The record, however, is that the salary of Mary Pickford was raised and that she continued in motion-picture work with some degree of success.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

The suspicion of extravagance was confirmed when “this wasting fool, Griffith,” insisted on hiring twentyfive horsemen instead of five in taking the first “long shot” of a line of cavalry. It must be admitted that the reputation rests on a very broad base in the studio census since nearly every player can convince you that Griffith is unscrupulously extravagant because he doesn’t hire that particular player, and because he does hire the players he uses ; and nearly every director can prove Griffith must be extravagant because he makes good pictures and only the waste of money could account for the difference between Griffith’s pictures and their own. When Griffith began making motion pictures, fifty dollars was the maximum to be spent on a film. Now, five hundred thousand dollars is the minimum for a big special. He spent an average of six hours in making his first films ; now he must spend six months. Though I do not speak with the sensitive accuracy of one who has supplied him with money, I do believe in the presence of more proof than any other person ever has had the opportunity of observing, that D. W. Griffith is the most frugal of all directors ; that he gets more into the film for every dollar used than any other director. In ten years, the only film he has made without raveled finance, is “Way Down East.” That work made Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess so popular that he immediately lost them to other producers. The first returns from this picture had to go toward repaying a loan, and this most extravagant of directors began his next picture with exactly seventeen thousand dollars to finance it ; although “Way Down East” ultimately earned more than four times its cost.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The picture born with the seventeen-thousand-dollar spoon in its mouth was “Dream Street.” With that money, he couldn’t well enter into very serious conversation with any stars ; so he tagged a most likable young hopeful named Ralph Graves for the leading male part. And Graves gave of his best, even to the premium of reading his Bible before the taking of every scene, to the most talkative disdain of an atheist who was an electrician on the set.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

But now there was no money for the rest of the cast, and no scenes could be taken without the presence of the second male part. So this mad waster of wealth, Griffith, solved that by hiring a property boy, raising his wages from thirty-five to fifty dollars a week, and creating for the films a very fine actor indeed—Charles Emmett Mack. So it went during the lean years while the big bull elephant was away from the herd. And now he is back standing with expectant feet, where the plot and money meet, in the powerful organization of Famous Players-Lasky ; trained as no other director is trained to make big films ; experienced in the resources of poverty, and now flooded with wealth in support of his talent; backed by the most perfect organization of its kind in the world.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh - Reunion 2 - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

What will he do now?

Three things he has in the superlative : Imagination, courage, and industry. When film characters were but far figures distinctively dressed, he conceived the audacity of showing their faces to reveal the emotional progress of the drama, though his camera man quit in protest at such lunacy and the first audiences hissed their reproach for being disturbed by something new. He recognized the fecundity of film language and bred it from a tight little roll of five hundred feet up to a group of twelve reels of one thousand feet each. He sensed that films should be freighted with a nobler treasure than novelty and fun and drama ; that the camera could lens the scenery of a nation’s soul ; and in black and white he photographed the first epic, known wherever there are human eyes, as “The Birth of a Nation.” It pictured the voiceless instincts of peoples more vividly than the stripes on a gingham dress. Then he confused and affronted this world which stands dreaming from a balcony and imagines itself thinking from a mountain top, by a comet-thrust of his imagination which reduced itself to the film title, “Intolerance.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

And he took the welts of as sound a drubbing as ever was given a bull elephant for wandering away from log rolling. It pinched his savings from a six-figure fortune to an I O U. That work frightened picturedom as Rockefeller’s fortune frightened a country bank. With imagination, he has courage. He dared to recognize the blood soldiers ever under arms in the veins of the people white and the people black in watchful feud at a time when every one was saying “Good little black man, good little white man, be nice together, for you are brothers ;” but he showed it as a stitch in a nation’s heartache and not as box-office bait.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

Again he showed a white soldier kissing a black one, in his film, “The Greatest Thing in Life.”

He made a Chinaman a hero when all the legends of the theater and films were that a Chinaman must always be a villain. Nor did he do it coweringly ; but with such a spring of passion as to irritate an editor into sewing his ideas with a Greenwich Village thimble and devoting a column to rebuking Griffith as a Sadist.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Incidentally, that film, a tragedy, called “Broken Blossoms,” started a sleek-haired young leading man in comedies into becoming a world-famous actor of authentic talent, known as Richard Barthelmess. Several directors have made one tragedy, and then have gone forever galloping after the black figures in the bank book. Griffith began years ago—even before his film, “Sands o’ Dee”—making them again and again ; even unto these recent days of his pernicious financial anaemia, when he told of the flat bellies and full hearts of some Germans in “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” with the beauty and pride of an artist who was speaking his impressions rather than the dividend-bitten formula: “Bust and leg and silken gown ; palatial sets, somewhere a clown; a naughty scheme, a lover’s cheat ; a knock-out scene, an ending sweet.” The big bull elephant was far from the log rolling that time ; and he certainly skewered his kosher with the exhibitors. Courage and imagination he has, and his industry is as plain as a pig’s knuckle. What will he do with them now?

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Report is he will make first “The Sorrows of Satan,” Marie Corelli’s opulent highway of emotionalism along which to crank a camera. To estimate the things Griffith will do, one must first know the things that are Griffith. To the clan that bagpipes through the highlands of picturedom, Griffith is a spiral mystery, up which they gaze with wonder or disdain to behold ever new turnings. A man of mystery, they call him! Yet where is there another man, in boots or under tomb, about whom it is so easy to be informed accurately? Around every celebrity, much is written, largely inaccurate perhaps, as succeeding generations of commentators cynically expose. In this regard, Napoleon has been most liberally attended. But greater than all the books on Napoleon, than the massed volumes discussing Shakespeare; greater even than the page-piled heights discussing Lincoln, is the library about the man Griffith—and one incorrigibly accurate. In it there are no myths, anecdotes, hearsay, questioned records or chance letters. It is one vast and true revelation of the man’s innermost tide of life stroke.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Here the man’s soul unpockets its whims, beliefs, ambitions, and experiences, its joys, its strengths and its agonies. It is the truest confession ever read; and read by hundreds of millions. This library is composed of the motion-picture films published under the design “D. W. G.,” numbering in all more than a thousand. The successful productive author may average perhaps thirty novels—a little grove compared to Griffith’s forest of expression. A poet may publish one hundred poems, mostly short, and generally rivered along one narrow channel. A painter may hang one hundred canvases, often a single character study in portrait, or a landscape, or a scene to high-light some definite phase of humanity. Griffith has told his opinions, his understandings and sympathies regarding thousands of characters. Over and over again he has twined the hearts of lovers, from the shy tremors of first love to the flood throws of passion. He has swaggered with the bold and the ambitious; jested with the lofty and sneered with the degenerate; schemed with the connivers and skulked with assassins ; bowed in prayer with the humble ; grieved with the unfortunate; sung with the happy ; wept with the sorrowful ; and died with heroes and cowards. Again and again, he has told it all. To the world he has flown aloft the strange banner of a human soul — a soul literally photographed.

Griffith Early Biograph career
Griffith Early Biograph career

And all as part of a hard day’s work. All of Griffith is in his pictures. And the films that are of Griffith, are directed by a barefooted boy of LaGrange, Kentucky. Who is he, this lad who has seized an empire in the world of shadows? His father was a bold, life-spending Confederate cavalryman, forever hot upon the hazards ; always ready for a toss, whatever the risk. He roused to war’s pageant, enjoyed its honors, and suffered its penalties. The material rewards were some fifty-four wounds which incapacitated him for active work; and the ruin of his finances. Colonel Jacob Wark Griffith was Irish and Welsh, and a Southern gentleman. His reputation given me by a stout old Scotchman is that he entertained and drank and danced with a grace and flourish that enslaved the countryside until the sexton stopped him for their material engagement. His mother was Scotch of the Scotch, of the family of Oglesby; with the sturdy practicality, vigor, and mystic and poetic ideals of that race. Her daughter says that her mother never stopped working, praying, and dreaming.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

There you have Griffith—a romantic warrior locked up in Scotch idealism with the patient, thrifty caution of a Scotch tradesman, and the picturesque gambling audacities of a Welsh-Irish cavalier. The Scotchman looks after his time and work ; the Irish-Welshman spends his money. Destiny punished David W. Griffith with the luxuries of a perfect motion-picture education. Since there were no motion pictures then, the conditions might not be considered luxuries by another standard. In his father’s house were many mansions ; such as the mansions of hospitality and good taste in social values that feed the decencies in life. Few were the books in the neighborhood ; and the few were the older classics. Every one worked while there was sun. Candles were an important item of expense. So the neighbors would gather in one household to benefit by the expenditure of a single candle. The elders exercised the privilege of reserving the chairs. The children were on the floor, often thriftily under the table when guests were numerous, as they always were. Then would the classics be read aloud.

Griffith on the ice floes - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
DW Griffith on the ice floes – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

Here was the ideal motion-picture school in session—the imaginative, dreamy boy lying in the dark comfortably on his back, listening to all the great deeds and emotions of man told with the splendor and force of the greatest masters. And the boy pictured them in his dreams, never reducing these immortals in their flights of love, adventure, and strife, to the pinched and squinty confines of inked type.

Henry B. Walthall in "The Birth of a Nation"
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

When the elders tired of reading, or the candle appropriated for the night was done, they would talk. With their thoughts still stiff from the saddles of the wars, they talked of battles. And lying in the dark, with the vivid mystery which darkness inspires, there flashed through the imagination of the little boy-director lying there, the deeds of battle, the rush and flare of gun-driven conflict. For him no mental bruise of reading the schoolbook- summary of war by clock in school. He saw the battles, heard the “thunder, and struggled in the hot strife. The belch of cannon were the footlights for his vast stage of dreams. The tale of a troop of weary cavalry onwarding under command grew in his vital dreams to a sky sewn with horsemen thundering with golden banners on to victory. Wise little director under the table in the dark ! Already he had been to the wars. Then were first given wing the visions that later were caught again in dramatic permanence as part of the film, “The Birth of a Nation.” They lived again in “Intolerance,” and were revised in “Hearts of the World.” The greatest battle scenes ever made have been done by Griffith, and they were created before he was ten years old. One night he shuddered to the local story of a drunken negro who had pursued a white girl ; and the “chilling” terror of that night later throbbed in scenes in “The Birth of a Nation” that shook Mae Marsh from freckled girlhood into screen immortality, if such there lie. His sister, Mattie, read and reread for him his favorites, the great love stories of the ages. The dreamy boy in denim, with a conqueror’s imagination, feasted upon these treasures of faithful hearts. He pictured these heroines apart from the neighbor girls he knew, something distant, shadowy, sublime, something less than angels, something beyond the flesh. And when he looked the first time upon the motion-picture screen in later years, he saw there the shadowland in which his dream heroines might live again. Always you find something of this dream girl in every Griffith heroine, the gentle, faithful, ideal of the little boy in Kentucky, who spoke poetry to her as he went through the woods in the twilight bringing home the cows from the pasture.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

When an ill-wind comes hissing from the box offices, scolding against sentiment in his heroines, the Scotch that is in Griffith will roll down her silk stockings, wave her hair, indeed style her to the rising ripple of the moment’s fad, but she is the same girl—sister to all those heroines of youthful dreams, Little Nell, Virginia, Marguerite, Ophelia, Ruth, and all those sweethearts of the masters old. Sometimes she is blonde, and the long-age dreams open like a fan into the screen personality that is Lillian Gish. Again she is dark, and the world knows her as Carol Dempster, vital, buoyant, and fascinating. A strange girl, this Griffith heroine ! She is the sweetheart’s signal song at twilight, the lover’s moon, the evening star, all spun into young womanhood, virgin shy, yet passionate as a puckered mouth, and practical in the progress of mating as a schatchen’s guide.

CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan - Photo 1926
CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan – Photo 1926

These Griffith heroines have fruited the greatest moments in all screen literature ; have made the smug and the callous tremble with sympathy and glow with tears. And this Griffith heroine is one definite and undeniable influence that changed the standard of womanly beauty in this country from the Oriental preference of opulent bust and matronly hips to the slender stature that is universally a favorite to-day. The exact date of the change in public taste is the time when the Griffith heroine made her first appearance in the films. The little Kentucky dreamer has done more to erase sensuality from the appearance of the American woman than a hundred years of preaching or a thousand edicts from the fashion makers. So the things that are Griffith include the imaginative genius of the boy who has never grown up ; the deft, perfected skill of a patient and ever-working craftsman, so expert in technique that for sheer deviltry in fingering his magic, he distilled suspense from potatoes ; these, and the showmanship of a successful and experienced ruler of audiences, who understands their wayward traits and frank simplicities. These make up the institution that is Griffith : the force that has become the big bull elephant of the films, now back with the herd again. What will he do? Once he wrote a subtitle. It was in “Hearts of the World.” It said: “If you can’t get what you want, then want what you can get.”

What Will Griffith do Now - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925)
What Will Griffith do Now – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925) Sketch drawn by K.R. Chamberlain

 

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“The White Sister”—Inspiration – Pros and Cons

“The White Sister”—Inspiration

Lillian Gish, away from the guiding hand of Griffith, proves to be as moving as ever. In an emotional race with Vesuvius in eruption she captures all the honors. In her support she has a tragic but uplifting story, real Italian scenery, and a charming new leading man named Ronald Colman.

Excerpts from – The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Signed Promotional Photo - Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman - The White Sister
Signed Promotional Photo – Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister

Some Souvenir Postal Cards.

Agnes Smith (Known MGM – professional hired – hater)

Lillian Gish went to Italy to make “The White Sister,” and the result is some beautiful scenes showing native life and some shots of that great dramatic star, Mount Vesuvius. Miss Gish’s error was, not in going to Italy, but in taking a scenario of F. Marion Crawford’s novel with her. Of all the aggravating and annoying plots in the world, “The White Sister” is the worst, except maybe a few by Hall Caine. Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies and by making a lot of fuss about the difference between worldly and spiritual love. And then he turned on the soft music of Italian scenery to ease the story over on the public.

Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out. Unless you handle it with care, the Catholics are apt to be offended while, on the other hand, a great many non-Catholics can get none too excited over the girl who takes the veil. I am not trying to imply that “The White Sister” will stir up feeling, I am only saying that there are certain rational aspects of the public mind that demand consideration from producers. Most fans are apt to look at “The White Sister” merely as florid and romantic melodrama. The postal card views of Italy have a certain charm and the unreal story works itself up into a good thrill climax. Dear old Vesuvius jumps into action and obligingly kills off some of the characters. However, the hero, in the midst of the eruption, for some strange reason goes and gets drowned. A dambursts and floods the city. It seemed an unnecessary trick to bring in the flood and a nasty crack at the destructive talents of Vesuvius besides. The incident was as foolish as though I should get mixed up in an earthquake and die of hay fever.

Miss Gish gives Vesuvius and the flood a winning race for the honors. The girl has a habit of breaking my heart. Once she gets that heart-broken, woebegone look on her face, I am simply overcome by emotion. Miss Gish has a perfect technique, combined with the face of an angel. She deserves more reliable material than “The White Sister.” Her new leading man, Ronald Colman, breaks all records by playing an Italian role without imitating Valentino. He gives a splendid, sincere and truly convincing performance, even though he is called upon to do all sorts of ridiculous things. A recruit from the stage, he is an addition to the screen. And he has such a way with him in love scenes that I suppose he’ll have to engage a secretary to answer his fan mail.

The White Sister - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)
The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)

THE production of “The White Sister” on which Lillian Gish worked for seven months in and near Rome, will not be released until fall. So, for consolation, Picture-Play offers in the meantime, this exquisite photograph of her in the role.

The White Sister 2 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 2 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

This glimpse of one of the early scenes in “The White Sister,” Lillian Gish’s first picture for the Inspiration company, holds rare promise of beauty, for it seems to haye caught in its very backgrounds her ephemeral charm.

The White Sister 3 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 3 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Only in Italy could be found such exquisite and time-worn walls as those which provide settings for some of the scenes in ”The White Sister.” Of all her portraits, the one above is Lillian Gish’s favorite. In this famous old Italian garden which has been visited hy scores of Americans traveling abroad, “The White Sister” meditates upon the spiritual life and seeks to crowd out of her consciousness the tragedy that sent her to seek the solace of the convent.

The White Sister 4 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 4 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Ever since the first announcement almost a year ago that Lillian Gish was going to play this widely known heroine of F. Marion Crawford’s there has been keen interest in this production. For such quiet power and spiritual beauty as hers suits the character of the little romantic girl who enters a convent when her sweetheart disappears. In ‘ the scene shown above, the three nuns are played by three old and famous character actresses of the Italian stage.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Concerning “The White Sister.”

The most interesting feature of your magazine to me is the review department by Agnes Smith. I always read the reviews first and usually find that I not only agree with Miss Smith, but wish that I might have thought of expressing my judgment in her delightful way. Naturally, I was eager to see her review of “The White Sister,” for Lillian Gish, it seems to me, is by far the most important person on the screen. Miss Smith’s flippant and disparaging remarks were a distinct shock. I cannot understand her point of view when she says “Most fans are apt to look on ‘The White Sister’ merely as florid and romantic melodrama.”

I do not know on what Miss Smith bases her opinion on what the fans are going to think. I only know that both times I saw the picture the strangers all about me were sincerely and deeply moved. Two women, sitting near me, who looked as though they could ill afford the price of the tickets, murmured several times during the course of the picture that they had never seen anything so exquisitely beautiful.’ The people were so real that they forgot it was a plot and not life that they were watching. Now, if you will permit me the space, I would like to comment on a few points that Miss Smith raised. She says, “Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies.”

Mr. Crawford may have shown poor taste and been artificial sometimes in his writings, but I am not so sure that the sentiment he aroused was artificial. I think that it was sincere just as the sentiment aroused by George Cohan’s flag-waving and other bits of hokum is sincere. “The difference between worldly and spiritual love” will, I believe, continue to be one of the most engrossing themes in all literature in spite of Miss Smith’s disapproval.’

“Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out,” she continues. When the world ceases to be interested in faith, it has ceased to be interested in the most vital and important factor in human life. The faith of “The White Sister” may not be mifaith ; in fact, I was enraged by her insistence that her vows to her church were more binding than her promise to the man she loved. But, any sincere and convincing presentation of another person’s beliefs commands my respect, at least. It was reassuring to find that even though she was thoroughly out of sympathy with the story, Miss Smith was deeply moved by the work of the star and Ronald Colman, the gifted and magnetic young leading man. I do wish, though, that her review, which is sure to influence many people, had not shown such a strong personal bias. – Joice Marie Sidman – Ansonia Hotel, New York City.

The White Sister
The White Sister

 

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Romola Recommended as An Antidote. (Picture Play Magazine 1925)

Picture Play Magazine, March 1925

The Screen in Review

Critical Comment on Current Releases

By Agnes Smith

Caricature by John Decker

Romola 1924 - scene from film - Lillian Gish
Romola 1924 – scene from film – Lillian Gish

Recommended as An Antidote.

“Romola” came to New York about the same time that “Greed” opened. It is Lillian Gish’s latest picture but it is Miss Gish’s picture in name only. The movies are a foolish business and “Romola” proves it. Here we have a girl who is rightly considered one of the greatest actresses on the screen. Instead of choosing a story that gives her an opportunity for all of us to enjoy her great gifts, her advisers drag out a slice of insomnia by George Eliot which gives Miss Gish nothing to do but dress in a fifteenth century Florentine gown and lug great big heavy books around a handsome set. It seems plain foolishness to me and all the more incredible because it must have been consummated with the consent of Miss Gish herself.

Lillian Gish - Romola (detail)
Lillian Gish – Romola (detail)

As George Jean Nathan has told the world, Miss Gish is hot stuff at suggesting emotions rather than acting them out. The trouble with “Romola” is that she has no emotions to suggest. She has a few scenes of great acting but most of these scenes are done without the aid of any close-ups. It is great art but it is awfully rough on literal-minded audiences. They feel cheated, baffled, and enraged. “Romola” is the story of a girl of a noble Florentine house who is married by her father to a handsome young adventurer who has wormed his way into the blind man’s affections. The father dies and the husband becomes involved in Florentine politics, which were as shady then as they are now. The girl is neglected and the husband sets up a left-hand household with a pretty little half-wit.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

The little half-wit is played by Dorothy Gish, who gives a performance that is sometimes excellent and occasionally perfectly trite. The main glory of the acting goes to William Powell, who has the only real part in the picture. Mr. Powell plays the role of the unscrupulous scoundrel but he plays it so lightly, so easily, and so zestfully that he runs away with all your interest and most of your sympathy. Ronald Colman is the hero who has nothing to do but sit in a corner and wait for Fate to kill off the villain. Mr. Colman grew a lovely head of bobbed hair for the part, while Mr. Powell wears a very obvious wig.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Behind the scenes – Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola

Nevertheless, Mr. Colman doesn’t even ‘get a chance to wave his hair in the breezes, so Mr. Powell romps off with the glory, wig or no wig. The direction by Henry King has moments of being great but the story is clumsily told and the characters rather muddled. However, much of this can be blamed on the difficulties of making pictures in Italy and on the hash that was wrought in this country when the right place.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set
Romola, an antidote - Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1925)
Romola, an antidote – Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1925)

 

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Blackmail, Blacklist, and Injustice for all …

Louis B. Mayer had a talent for taking hopeful young actresses and turning them into the glamorous movie queens that audiences associated with his MGM studios. Few in those audiences realized that those carefully created, pampered stars were the most bullied women in Hollywood. The MGM Girls raised the velvet curtain and revealed the real story of life on the movie lot that Hedy Lamarr called “heaven and hell all contained in five acres.”

The Executive War on Stars (Louise Brooks – 1959)

Louis B Mayer cca 1930
Louis B Mayer cca 1930

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country. (Louise Brooks)

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

“Mr. Mayer wants you right now!”

“But I’m not through here,” Lillian protested.

“He said right now!”

Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power. (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown – 1983)

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain

Interviewing for Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown book began in the fall of 1978 with a wide ranging session with one of the earliest MGM Girls, Lillian Gish. Interviews followed with Debbie Reynolds, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, the late Dore Schary (the former MGM production chief, who submitted to eight hours of interviews), Jane Powell, George Gukor, silent film expert and author Kevin Brownlow, Kathryn Grayson, MGM archivist Dore Freeman, Henry Rogers (founder and head of the large Rogers and Gowan public relations network), John Springer (former publicist for Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Grawford), former MGM publicist Esme Ghandlee, Harriet Parsons (daughter of Hollywood’s foremost gossip columnist, Louella Parsons), columnists Dorothy Manners and Dorothy Treloar, Vincent Minnelli, Gonnie Francis, and Lana Turner. Of particular help were the interviews conducted by Los Angeles Times arts editor Gharles Ghamplin as part of his cable show, ”Gharles Ghamplin On the Film Scene.”

Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

Lillian Gish – Stageography

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

Unhappy Critics or Paid Assassins?

Public Execution of Lillian Gish and Attacks Targeting Her Theatre Career long after she left MGM.

The Enigma of the Screen

What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Is she a Genius or Mechanic?

By James R. Quirk

Photoplay Magazine, March 1926

Numerous actresses of sirenic charm and inscrutable pasts have been paraded from time to time as “enigmas,” but the real enigma of the motion picture constellation is Lillian Gish. And the most baffling question of the hour is. What of her future?

Miss Gish is a screen pioneer, Commencing her career with Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and the Talmadges, yet she has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. We can estimate the popularity of Gloria Swanson, of Mary Pickford, of Norma Talmadge and Pola Negri almost to the decimal point. But Miss Gish’s remains a problem.

She has given great performances in great pictures, and yet curiously we regard each new endeavor as a test of her. She appears a wraith hovering on the borderland between oblivion and reality, a mystical creation whose power hypnotizes us momentarily and then leaves us wondering if it is not an illusion. How much of this fragile crystal figure has been created about Miss Gish by the Griffith tradition, so skillfully and deliberately worked?

I recently attended a dinner where a light wine was served. No one remarked its flavor until the hostess observed that it was forty years old and came from the cellars of a Russian palace. Immediately there were ecstatic exclamations as to its bouquet, its rare flavor and the mystic gold of its color. Stars in motion pictures seldom succeed alone. Behind them you invariably find certain guiding geniuses who infuse them with the power of their own genius. Is Miss Gish a genius or is she but the worthy student of the magic Griffith? An electrician watching her at work one day suddenly exclaimed “That girl ain’t an actress—she’s a mechanic.” He could give no explanation for his observation aside from a mumbled, “She knows her stuff.”

Examining Miss Gish’s characterizations you find that she achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion—namely, hysteria. And she knows precisely the method of it. “It is expressed by the arm from the elbow to the fingers,” she says scientifically “and depends entire on rhythm”  the gradual quickening of movement up to the point desired.” In other words, it is a physical lashing into frenzy. Every actress of the Griffith school has employed it. Miss Gish more skillfully than the rest. And it has been for each of them the most effective gesture, but it could not have been without Griffith’s skill in contriving a situation for it. Mr. Griffith has said that the greatest screen climax is not attained through the actors but through the forces of nature. Miss Gish is always the helpless, tossed victim of a stormy fate, an overwhelming brutal destiny.

Her performances are not remembered for polished, symphonic continuity but for piercing moments of crescendo where emotion was expressed in physical terms of hysteria verging on madness. It has been said that great parts make great actors. Great situations have made Miss Gish. She depends more on material than any actress of the screen. Gloria Swanson can toss colored trifles in the air, play with them as with balloons and entertain solely by the charm of her gestures as a literary stylist charms with his play of words. Charlie Chaplin extracts the most interesting moments from trivialities. Pola Negri is not remembered for any single moment but, on the contrary, for the infinite variety of her moods. Lillian Gish has been termed the Duse of the screen, and yet she is utterly unlike Duse in method. The Italian genius was so quiet in her naturalness as to appear repressed, so highly sensitized that she responded poignantly to every mood and situation, as delicately and mysteriously attuned as a radio instrument.

Miss Gish thus far has been lacking in range. From the moment she steps on the screen there is the feeling of inevitable doom. Too gentle for this world’s pain, her only hope of happiness appears in death or the cloister. And so obviously is this fate written in her every aspect that suspense is lessened The emotion she arouses in one is that of an infinite and poignant pity. Pity is akin to love but it can never be love, even though it is heart rending. Miss Gish is a student, she does not rely on inspiration. There is nothing spontaneous in her work. It is carefully motivated, studied and timed. This in no way detracts from her worth as an artist, or a possible genius. Leonardo da Vinci fashioned the smile on the face of Mona Lisa as mathematically as Lillian Gish has drawn a similar smile on her own likeness.

Like her, also, he was divinely detached and unemotional. He would follow a man to the gallows to catch the expression on his face that he might express the anguish later on his canvas. Miss Gish has that infinite capacity for taking pains that the greatest artists have had. Unfortunately she is not a free artist as is the painter, the sculptor or the writer who relies only on his implements. She works in a medium that requires collaboration. A film cutter can ruin utterly the finest masterpiece. A director or a scenario writer without understanding of her peculiar gift can fail in providing her with the proper sitting for it. A supervisor with a set commercial formula can, by applying it to her pictures, make of her a commercial failure. As a classic, Lillian Gish may be commercially successful, but as a regular commercial routine star, grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen.

More than any other star, Miss Gish must be her own producer. Whether or not she has the capacity remains to be seen, and whether or not she is permitted to be is still another matter. Her stellar power has been tried in but two pictures, “The White Sister” and “Romola,” a success and a failure.

Her performance in “The White Sister” was as fine as anything she ever gave the screen. Her story and her character were carefully devised. In ” Romola” she was but a figure on a moving tapestry, and as such she is no more effective than many other actresses. She was not as big as her reputation. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in “La Boheme” felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different.

Gilbert works on mood. Lillian would film a scene only after it had been rehearsed several times. When the time came that the scene was actually being photographed she knew exactly the effects she was going to create and when and where. Gilbert was loud in his praise of her. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method. During the first and second rehearsals of the scene his work would be magnificent. After the fifth or sixth repetition of it, he was stale. The term “technician” should not be disparaged, provided it is properly employed to signify one who gains effects mentally rather than emotionally. It is what the screen requires.

The camera does not wait on heaven for moments of inspiration, and no human being could go on feeling his part through several rehearsals and a half-dozen “takes.” It has to be felt first over the script and then mathematically planned for effect if chances are not to be taken. Miss Gish is perhaps the greatest student among motion picture actresses. A humorous story is told of how she learned to swim. An instructor had told her that she should learn to float first if she wanted to be the best swimmer. Water terrified her, but she bravely clamped a clothes pin on her nose and went floating for days until she was proficient. Today she is a mermaid. That is Lillian Gish — thoroughness, conscientiousness, perseverance. Will she overcome all limitations, her own and those artificially imposed? Will she prove to be, as many believe she will, the greatest actress of an immortal screen? Personally I feel that she is going to be either one of the enduring great or a complete failure. A half-way position for her is impossible.

By James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay, March 1926

 

Lillian Gish in Camille, Central City, Colorado
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.87

The New Yorker – October 22, 1932

Shouts and Murmurs

Camille at Yale

HERE are some program notes set down by one who is uneasily aware that he has already become an Old Playgoer. At least I feel a growing kinship with the aged banker who once wrote me that, beginning with Samuel Phelps at Clerkenwell, he had seen seventy-eight Macbeths and that, as I could well imagine, ‘Valter Hampden was the worst of the lot. There comes a time when such a one totters off to a fresh revival with the acquisitive eagerness of a maniacal philatelist in pursuit of a fugitive Nicaraguan. In short, he goes only to complete his set. Thus I suspect it was chiefly as an irrational collector of theatrical memorabilia that I hied me to New Haven one day last week to see the tear-stained relic which the young man who wrote it called “The Camellia Lady.” The audience was recruited to a considerable extent from the undergraduate body at Yale. Then Boardman Robinson was there because his son was playing a footman in Act One – a footman who, by Act Four, had joined the jeunesse doree and, unless my eyes deceived me, was dancing heartlessly in the gambling hell on the night of Marguerite’s great humiliation. Also present – in New Haven, that is, not in the gambling hell-was Thornton Wilder, there because he had never chanced to see the play before. But scattered throughout the theatre were enough of us incorrigible old-timers to have justified some such notice in the program as “Wheel-chairs at Eleven.”

IT would be a satisfaction, I thought, to see the lovelorn Marguerite played, for once in a way, by a young actress who, in her own person, would suggest the cool, sweet, fragile, phthisic courtesan that the younger Dumas had in mind when he wrote the play. That was Alphonsine Plessis who, doing business under the name of Marie Duplessis, was once, for a little time, the talk of Paris. Dumas, fils, had an affair with her which his father was able to break up without having to appeal to her better nature. He broke it up by the more prosaic device of treating his son to the expense of a trip to Spain. By the time the youth returned to Paris, his lady lay buried in Montmartre Cemetery where you can see her grave today. While he was busy covering it with camellias and himself with reproaches, the poor girl’s creditors were auctioning off the contents of her flat. Sundry agitated old gentlemen from the Faubourg St.-Germain bid high for such desks and cabinets as might conceivably shelter the letters they had been so careless as to write her. All this was noted with fine English disapproval by Mr. Dickens, who was in Paris at the time, and who, bless his heart, went off, buckety-buckety, to attend the sale.

The grief of the bereft Dumas took the form of a novel, and from that he made the play which was first acted in this country by Jean Davenport under the title of “Camille: or The Fate of a Coquette.” It was then successfully taken over by the lovely Matilda Heron, who translated her own version but still clung to the preposterous Davenport title, which has always bewildered the French. (Miss Heron’s grandson, by the way, has made a name for himself in the theatre, said name being Gilbert Miller.)

From the first, America delighted in “Camille,” and up to thirty years ago most of the actresses, foreign as well as native, played the part at one time or another—even Modjeska, despite William Winter’s plea to her that she not degrade her art by portraying a fallen woman, and despite the pitfalls of a Polish accent which necesitated her crying out “Armong, I loaf you !” The Marguerite Gautier of Dumas’s imagination was a wasted, waxen girl who died when she was twenty, but she was so often depicted in Nineteenth-Century America by robust actresses in full bloom that I suppose most people grew to think of her as one who had died of gluttony.

THEN I suspect I was drawn to the ticket booth of this latest revival by an incurable wonder about Lillian Gish. A mockingly elusive phenomenon, Miss Gish. Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? After seeing the pastel wraith which she substituted for the smouldering Helena of “Uncle Vanya,” I rather thought not. But she was so grotesquely miscast as the disastrous woman in that lovely play that I went to “Camille” with an open mind. It is still open. I do not envy the task of the reviewers who must try to make an intelligible report on that baffling performance. It will be easy enough to describe its obvious shortcomings, its emotional emptiness, the pinched little voice which reduces all her colloquies to an arid prattle. One has the illusion of watching “Camille” played by a small-town high-school girl. This is part of an abiding immaturity which one finds difficult to describe in such words as will distinguish it from arrested development. It is the immaturity of a pressed flower–sweet, cherishable, withered.

It has a gnomelike unrelation to the processes of life and death. It has the pathos of little bronze dancing boots, come upon suddenly in an old trunk. It is the ghost of something that has passed this way-the exquisite print of a fern in an immemorial rock. It is of a quality for which I can find no words. As you see.

Then, when one has said all that, how shall one find other words for certain moments of loveliness which, by sorcery, she does impart to this fond and foolish old play. All around her in the death scene there is a shining light which the puzzled electrician cannot account for. And when she retreats into the garden in Auteuil, there passes over her a shadow as delicate and fleeting as the reflection of a cloud in the mirror of a quiet lake. Or am I babbling? I really do not know how to translate into print the tantalizing mystery of Lillian Gish. I do wish America had never been wired for sound. Even so, I shall buy me a ticket when next she treads

the boards in our town in another play. Even after seeing “Camille.” Even after reading that astounding opus of Albert Bigelow Paine’s declining years, “Life and Lillian Gish,” which, insofar as I have had the strength to examine it, seems to me, in a quiet way, the most sickening book of our time. ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT.

Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932
Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932

Excerpts: Silent Star – By Colleen Moore (1968), Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (1959), The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain (1983), by Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country. (Louise Brooks)

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The Price They Paid for Stardom – By Myrtle West (Photoplay Nov. 1926)

Photoplay November 1926 Vol. XXX Number Six

The Price They Paid for Stardom

By Myrtle West

Do they profit by their popularity—or are they victims of fate?

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

 

Italian postcard, no. 22. Publicity still for The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

WouId you want to be a star—If you knew that you never could laugh?

If you had to go through life with cross-eyes?

If it cost you the love of your husband or wife ?

If you might have to pay for fame with your life ?

Oddly enough, Lillian Gish’s regime is like Mae Murray’s. Lillian has less real fun than any girl in the world. Although somewhere around the age of thirty, Lillian is constantly chaperoned. Lillian’s public demands a nun like idol. And Lillian lives up to this ideal with amazing consistency.

 

Lillian cannot marry. No one wants to think of her as a domestic little wife.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

Lillian cannot eat in public; she might spoil the illusion.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Lillian cannot wear gay clothes, flirt, dance, or lose her temper. Lillian’s life is divided between the studio and her home. At the studio she works hard and there is seldom any joking or laughing on her set.

Lillian Gish - with Hupmobile car
Lillian Gish – with Hupmobile car

When she goes home, she rides in a curtained limousine with her chaperon. At home, she reads stories and scripts and sits with her invalid mother.

1937-LILLIAN-GISH-Famed-Film-Actress-Mother

And all around her the lesser players of Hollywood dance, flirt, fall in love, have children and enjoy themselves.

Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter - Vanity Fair Magazine August 1926
Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter – Vanity Fair Magazine August 1926
Photoplay (Nov 1926) The Price they paid
Photoplay (Nov 1926) The Price they paid

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