Lillian Gish honored by fans she loves best – movie people
By Gene Siskel – movie critic
THE MOVIE is called “A Wedding,” but the scene Wednesday was “an affair,” an affair to celebrate the wonderful career of actress Lillian Gish, the silent film star who at age 80 is completing her 65th year in films.
Miss Gish worked three days this week in Lake Bluff in her role as a grandmother in “A Wedding,” reportedly her 100th film. Producer – director Robert Altman organized the surprise party to let Miss Gish know “it was such a thrill for us to work with you.”
The party was on the back lawn of the fabulous Lester Armour estate in Lake Bluff, where Altman is filming his comic tale of a mixed marriage between old and new money. Seated on folding chairs waiting to surprise Miss Gish were many of her costars in the film, including Carol Burnett, Mia Farrow, Dina Merrill, and Vittorio Gassman.
A few minutes earlier, Miss Gish had been filming her death scene inside the Armour house. Says the family doctor to her daughter after Gish’s character kicks the bucket, “I thought she was waving hello, when she really was waving good-bye.”
Miss Gish was lured outside for a supposed press party for the movie. She quickly realized it was her show, however, when she saw the cake and its inscription, “Lillian Gish – 100th film.”
“I DON’T DESERVE THAT,” she said looking at the cake as a dozen photographers and cameramen scrambled for position. One photographer got down on his knees and aimed his camera up at Miss Gish. Suddenly the surprise party became a photography lesson.
“Not up my nose,” she said. “No low angles. If God wanted people shot from low angles, he would’ve put your eyes at your bellybutton.”
The crowd roared at Miss Gish – ever conscious of how she looks – continued her impromptu lecture.
“Oh, no,” she said, noticing the bright sun, “an overhead light with no reflector!” What she wanted was the light to play on her eyes, because it is with one’s eyes, she said later, that people best reveal their emotions. “If people can’t see your eyes, how can you tell your story?”
The Lillian Gish film story dates to 1912, when she and her late sister, Dorothy, began making short films for D.W. Griffith, the pioneer filmmaker of “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East,” all of which starred Lillian Gish.
MISS GISH successfully lobbied for the United States postal stamp commemorating Griffith issued this year, the first such honor for a filmmaker. Miss Gish said she owns 500 Griffith stamps, in addition to one gold, 20 silver and 10 bronze medals commemorating Griffith.
For years Lillian Gish has sung the praises of Griffith through lectures. Her autobiography, published in 1969 is titled “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” a title that describes – in order – her life’s priorities.
Predictably, the next project for this remarkable woman also involves the movies. “Most of all I want to finish ‘Silver Story,’ a television special that tells the story of films from their very beginning up until 1928.”
The stars working with Miss Gish each have own stories about her. “When I first saw her on the set,” said Burnett, “she came to me and said, ‘You have so many faces. Which one are you going to use for this film?’ I was surprised she knew who I was,” Burnett said. “I guess I didn’t believe that someone so extraordinary would ever watch TV.”
“I had met her in the ‘40s when I was a little girl,” Merrill recalled, “and I couldn’t believe it, but she remembered. She walked up to me and said, ‘Do you remember when I met you at Mary Pickford’s house? I then asked her if she remembered my mother (the late socialite Marjorie Merrieweather Post).”
“’Of course I remember your mother,’ she said, ‘Who do you think I’m playing in this movie?’
“She is an exquisite, fragile creature,” Merrill said of Miss Gish. “She still has an ethereal beauty.”
After the cake cutting, Lillian Gish talked to reporters for 30 minutes. She answered each question precisely, displaying total recall of her career. When the question-and-answer session was over, the screen veteran said, “Now I’m the slowest eater in the world I must have 45 minutes to eat lunch.”
One suspects that Lillian Gish took exactly 45 minutes to eat lunch. Maybe a few minutes less, but, always a professional, not one minute more.
Yes it’s a cake and, yes, it’s also on the set of “A Wedding” in Lake Bluff, but the occasion is the 100th film of Lillian Gish (cutting cake). Director Robert Altman samples the pastry while actresses Amy Stryker (left) and Dina Merrill look on.
Chicago Tribune November 24 1973 Saturday Page 162
A charming 73, she is life’s genuine heroine
By Pat Colander
Can you do anything with this poor, tired face? inquired Lillian Gish from behind an impish grin. Of course the question is ridiculous. After 73 years of practicing her delightful brand of charm, she knows that anyone she meets is more than happy to do her bidding, even before she asks.
From the top of her faded blonde head to the tips of her tiny feet, Lillian Gish is a cornball prototype of the real-life, genuine heroine. Her beaming countenance recalls all the good things named traditional, just in case anybody she meets has forgotten how good it is to be free and own a television set.
“I always think of movies as the big screen and television as the little screen,” she chirped. “Of course, both are forms of the greatest power that the world has ever seen.” Miss Gish equates the film industry with Shakespeare and the Bible.
BUT EVEN this movie proponent will admit that something’s rotten in Hollywood. “I wish we could bring back good taste and beauty,” she moaned. “I think we’ve lost it.” Lillian Gish shakes her head, there have been roles that she’s had to turn down. “I wouldn’t be a part of what the movie had to say. I believe in the influence of a film,” she added “and I don’t like the wicked man winning out over the good man.”
The recent Supreme Court ruling on pornography isn’t the answer however. “Censorship isn’t the American way,” Miss Gish said. We ought to be able to control ourselves by not going to those movies that are bad. Don’t you agree?”
She dismisses modern political scandals with theatrical boredom. Her ideology has become hardened in the face of many social upheavals she’s watched pass by. “Those things have been going on all my life,” she smiled some more, “only we called it Democrat and Republican. Certainly our country’s never been better. More people have more things and are more prosperous.”
THE THING she does feel that she knows about is the college crowd, after lecturing on the nostalgia circuit during the last few years. She defends the Pepsi generation with the characteristic line, “We just don’t hear about affirmation and the really good people on the campuses.”
Personally, Lillian Gish had little use for higher or lower education. Her star-crossed career began at 4 when Lillian and her little sister Dorothy hit the Broadway footlights. “We always felt lucky that we didn’t have to stay in one town and go to school,” she chuckled. “We were educated as we went thru the country.”
“I used to have an inferiority complex,” she moaned, but justified her lack of formal schooling with the deeper curiosity that developed as a result. “The future of education lies in television. Some man or woman will come along and harness it.”
Lillian Gish isn’t happy with the current form of educational broadcasting. “You know, in England they don’t approve of Sesame Street.”
CHICAGO IS an indelibly etched chapter in Lillian Gish’s new memory book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish” [Charles Scribner’s Sons, $19.95], a picture album sketching her lenghty career. “Chicago has more civic pride than any other city,” she said. “They pushed the city back and built it around a lake.”
The Windy City topic opened a pandora’s box of anecdotes. “I had a favorite taxi driver here when playing the Blackstone Theater,” she remembered. “When there was someplace that I couldn’t take my little dog Malcolm, Mr. Marcus would take care of him. Actually, I think he liked Malcolm and put up with me.”
Altho this little bundle of ancient energy has just closed in Mike Nichol’s New York production of “Uncle Vanya,” and by mid-afternoon has been doing interviews since 6 a.m., she thinks it would be thrilling to go dancing in the evening. After all, the this-is-the-first-day-of-the-rest-of-your-life philosophy by now comes out sounding like a Lillian Gish original.
Monday afternoon, January 26th, the National Board of Review and Films in Review, its membership publication, presented the Second Annual David Wark Griffith Awards at Luchow’s on Fourteenth Street in New York City, a few steps from where Griffith had his Biograph Studio and where he frequently dined. Lillian Gish and NBA Director, Blanche Sweet, who were Griffith stars, were some of the glittering stars of motion pictures and television who were a part of the Awards Ceremony.
Robert Giroux, President of the National Board, told how the NBA began in 1909 to fight censorship … “We fought that good fight, and we won it. Today we are fighting for a more elusive cause, the cause of quality – professional excellence, the one thing every intelligent audience, and certainly every real artist, wants … the one thing we never get enough of, neither on television screens nor in movie theatres.” He then introduced Dina Merrill who charmingly directed the short ceremony. Governor Hugh Carey sent a message to the winners and to Gloria Swanson through his Director of the New York State Office of Motion Picture and Television Development, Mrs. Elizabeth Forsling Harris.
New York City Mayor Edward Koch sent similar messages through his Director, Nancy Littlefield. When Miss Merrill introduced Lillian Gish, the star-studded audience rose to greet her, as the television cameras of both NBC and CBS recorded the event for later broadcast.
Miss Gish reminded the group that when she first started with Griffith, there were signs in the hotels reading “No Dogs or Actors Allowed”. But, she noted, ” progress has indeed been made … Princess Grace in Monaco and now, we have a President”. In Robert Redford’s absence, Ron Schwary, producer of Ordinary People, accepted Mr. Redford’s awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
Myrna Loy prefaced her introduction of Sissy Spacek, Best Actress for Coal Miner’s Daughter, with the note that her Career Achievement Award last year, was ” one of the few awards that really touched me and I thank you”. After which she read a congratulatory telegram to Sissy Spacek from Loretta Lynn. In accepting her plaque, Miss Spacek whispered, ” I’ve forgotten everything I was going to say, but the icing on the cake is being in the company of Miss Loy, Miss Swanson and Miss Gish; it makes me proud to be an actress”.
Lillian Gish, one of the major film stars of the pre-talkie era, chats with Merv Griffin about the early days of motion pictures, in “A Salute to the Silent Screen,” a special edition of “The Merv Griffin Show,” Thursday, January 14 (11:30 PM – 1:00 AM, Est) in color on the CBS Television Network.
Photo Division CBS Television Network Press Information, 51 West 52 Street, New York 10019
Subjects: Lillian Gish, Merv Griffin
Program: “The Merv Griffin Show”
On Air: Thursday, Jan. 14
11:30 PM – 1:00 AM, Est
“A Special Salute to the Silent Screen”, with film clips of great pictures (including “Ben Hur” with Francis X. Bushman and “Way Down East” with Lillian Gish.)
Merv’s guests are Buddy Rogers, Betty Bronson, Jackie Coogan, Richard Arlen, Laura La Plante, Neil Hamilton, Chester Conklin, Ken Maynard, Minta Durfee Arbuckle, Babe London, Beverly Bayne, Betty Blythe, Viola Dana, Eddie Quillan, Dorothy Devore, Vivian Duncan and Carter deHaven.
Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art represents the culmination of a five-year initiative known internally as the Modern Women’s Project. It is our ambition that this unprecedented, institution-wide effort will ultimately influence the narratives of modernism the Museum represents by arguing for a more complex understanding of the art of our time. The title of this volume, Modern Women, immediately maps the territory of its contents. This is not a history of feminist art or of feminist artists, although a number of the artists featured here claim feminism’s accomplishments or insist on a feminist discourse to contextualize their work. With some important exceptions, this is not a group of artists that coheres beyond the rubric of gender. And, certainly, it is only a sampling of the work by women artists in the Museum’s collection. This publication is, in a sense, a work in progress, an artifact of a continuous effort to research our collection and rethink the consensus of art history. (Glenn D. Lowry Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York)
I would call “feminine” the moment of rupture and negativity which conditions the newness of any practice. —Julia Kristeval
I don’t believe in “feminist art”since art is a mysterious filtering process which requires the labyrinths of a single mind, the privacy of alchemy, the possibility of exception and unorthodoxy rather than rule. —Anne-Marie Sauzeau-Boetti
Early – Modern
LILLIAN GISH (American, 1893-1993)
Essay by JENNY HE
“A movie star since movies began,” actress Lillian Diana de Guiche was born the same year that Thomas Edison introduced the motion picture to the American public. This coincidence, however random, proved fateful for Gish, a defining artist of early film history. Known as the First Lady of the Silent Screen, Gish made her most significant cinematic contributions during the silent film era, but the prolific actress enjoyed a career that went five decades beyond her last silent film. Over a seventy-five-year career, Gish made more than one hundred films, almost half of which reside in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, including landmark works such as her first film, An Unseen Enemy (1912, no. 1), and her last silent picture, The Wind (1928, no. 2).
Gish spent her entire life acting—on screen, stage, and television. Her persona is one of Victorian womanhood—genteel, vulnerable, and innocent—often reflected in Madonna like characters (The Mothering Heart, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, Intolerance, Way Down East, The Scarlet Letter). Her heroines are unadulterated in both innocence and madness, adversity and triumph, as they deflect wanton men hell-bent on defiling their virgin characters (The Birth of a Nation, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Wind). Cast often in melodramas, Gish played characters who tenaciously fought to gain redemption after the violation of their virtue.
Gish’s doe eyes, button nose, and pixie smile belied a charisma and passion that materialized in front of the camera in her performances. Adept at both comedy and tragedy (often in the same film), Gish possessed an emotional range that could alternate between restrained (Broken Blossoms) and grand (Orphans), with everything from subtle facial nuances to frenzied body movements in full hysteria in her acting repertoire. In all her facets she personified endurance.
Her characters—put-upon women facing tribulations from the injustices of the French Revolution (Orphans), the persecution of Puritanical society (The Scarlet Letter), and the ravages of nature in the American West (The Wind)—endured in the face of betrayal, rape, death, and abandonment. Often characterized as a waif, Gish was a dichotomy of fragility and resilience. This was true of her life off screen as well as onscreen. Fellow female film pioneer Frances Marion knew her to be as “fragile as a steel rod.”
Gish was a woman holding her own in the early days of Hollywood, and she amassed enough clout and influence to call her own shots. As a vocal proponent of film preservation, she made it her lifelong mission to ensure that her work and the work of all film artists would survive. “Art is the most lasting product of a civilization,” Gish said, and “the only lasting aristocracy.” Gish contributed greatly to the aristocracy of her art, and her legacy as an iconic figure in film history will also endure.
After debuting in a production of In Convict’s Stripes in 1902, Gish began acting in touring troupes in New York City. Her tenure in New York and on Broadway led to a friendship with fellow actress Gladys Smith, who years later would change Gish’s life through a chance meeting with film director D. W. Griffith. Attending a nickelodeon showing of Lena and the Geese (1912), Gish immediately recognized the actress in the film as her old friend Gladys. Spurred by the star sighting, Gish, along with her sister, Dorothy, and their mother, Mary, decided to look up her friend by visiting the studio that filmed Lena, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, located in Union Square.The visit not only reconnected the Gishes with Smith (now Mary Pickford) but also introduced them to Griffith, who was immediately struck by Lillian’s “exquisite ethereal beauty.” He ushered the sisters into a casting session for An Unseen Enemy, a one-reeler about two sisters fending off a larcenous maid and her safe-robbing accomplice. Impressed with their ability to respond to direction, Griffith recast the film with the Gishes, even though he had already begun rehearsals with other actresses, and began shooting Lillian’s first screen appearance the next day.
Gish became one of Biograph’s stock players and appeared in more than thirty Biograph films over the next two years, including significant shorts such as The Mothering Heart (1913) and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913). Griffith left Biograph in 1914, joined several other film companies—Reliance- Majestic,Triangle Film Corporation, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), and United Artists—then eventually built his own studio in Mamaroneck, New York. Gish followed him, and under his tutelage she developed her acting talents and honed her screen persona. G. W. Bitzer, the director’s longtime cameraman, recalled that “Griffith conditioned [Gish] to the part she was to play, and once she had the action in mind, she wouldn’t forget or deviate by so much as a flicker of the eye.
Her interpretation would be as directed, without waste of precious film.” Gish practiced something akin to Method acting (long before the phrase was coined) and studied dance choreography, but her ability to invent on the spot, born out of in-the-moment emotion, meshed perfectly with Griffith’s directorial style. The chemistry between director and actress resulted in some of Gish’s greatest performances, in silent cinema classics such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920). Gish also matured professionally behind the camera. When Griffith was filming The Love Flower (1920) in Florida, he entrusted the care of his studio to Gish. He also encouraged her to make her own feature film, stating that Gish knew as much about making pictures as he did, and more about acting.
Orphans of the Storm (1922, no. 3), the last of Gish’s collaborations with Griffith, marked a turning point in her career. She convinced Griffith to make the film, based on Adolphe d’Ennery’s play The Two Orphans (1874)— although he had intended his next project to be Goethe’s Faust—and to cast her sister as Louise (his first choice was Mae Marsh).
During rehearsal for the climactic scene at the guillotine, in which Gish’s Henriette seems to be moments from certain death, Gish disagreed with Griffith’s direction and felt that the scene required a “greater depth of emotion.” After rehearsing the scene her way, Gish recalled, “Without a word, he walked up to me, sank to one knee and kissed my hand before the company. Thank you,’ he said.” In nine short years, she had evolved from ingenue to Hollywood powerhouse.
Gish pressured MGM to make The Scarlet Letter (1926), based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, which had been blacklisted by the censorship office of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America due to outcry from church and women’s groups. Undaunted, she took it upon herself to secure clearance for the film. No roadblock was insurmountable for Gish if she believed in a project. For her swan song to the silent era she chose The Wind, based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough.
The actress hand-picked her director (Victor Sjostrom) and leading man (Lars Hanson) and was asked by MGM’s Irving Thalberg to produce. Gish’s career continued over the next sixty years— her sound work is represented in the Museum’s collection by films such as Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) and her last film, Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987)—but her legacy was long secured by her first sixteen years in film.
On June 25, 1935, The Museum of Modern Art presented to the public its Film Library (now the Department of Film), whose mission was “to preserve [and] exhibit… all types of films, so that the film may be studied and enjoyed as any other one of the arts is studied and enjoyed,” with Iris Barry as its inaugural curator. Gish’s relationship with MoMA’s Department of Film, like her relationship with film itself, began at its inception.
It was through Barry, in the mid-1930s, that Gish first heard of the nascent concept of film preservation. Inspired by Barry and her own belief in the value of film as an art form, Gish maintained frequent correspondence with the department throughout her life in their joint efforts toward film preservation.
As Eileen Bowser, a former curator in the Department of Film, noted, “Convinced of the power of film to change the world,” Gish was a “dedicated fighter for every cause associated with the art of the film.” Not only was the actress instrumental in the donation of scripts, films, and funds to the Museum, but she also valued the input of its film curators, with whom she discussed her projects and from whom she sought advice regarding film preservation.
The acquisition of the D. W. Griffith Collection—one of the first major film collections to enter the Film Library—might not have occurred had it not been for Gish’s intervention. In the summer of 1935 Barry and her husband, John Abbott (then the Film Library’s director), visited Hollywood in an attempt to convince directors, actors, and studios to deposit films with the Museum. When they approached Griffith, he declined. In 1938, when D. W. Griffith, Inc., was in receivership and the director’s films were on the verge of being lost, Gish interceded and convinced Griffith to entrust his films and legacy to the Museum.
The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter
At tea at the Algonquin Hotel (Night of The Hunter)
The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter
In 1954, when actor Charles Laughton set out to make his directorial debut, he prepared for The Night of the Hunter by screening Griffith films at MoMA. An admirer of Gish since Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, Laughton sought her out for the pivotal role of Rachel Cooper—an evolution of her silent film heroines—who protects two vulnerable yet resilient orphans from a soulless preacher intent on their destruction. Richard Griffith, then curator of the Film Library, acted as an intermediary between Gish and Laughton during their discussions surrounding the film.
From 1963 to 1980 Gish undertook an ambitious endeavor to tour universities, libraries, and museums throughout the world, lecturing on the art of film, concentrating on the period from 1900 to 1928. In preparation for these lectures, the actress engaged in constant dialogue with the Museum regarding film material and preservation methods. In exchange, Gish took her knowledge to the public and provided the Museum’s Film Preservation Program with resounding advocacy. It was fitting that when Gish became the fourteenth life member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on November 25, 1982, the ceremony was held at MoMA. The celebration of her devotion and contribution to the art of the motion picture took place at the institution that continues to collect, preserve, study, and exhibit her work.
THE TIME OF LAUGHTER. It is a proper title for Corey Ford’s account of New York and Hollywood in the Twenties and early Thirties, that lively era before the storm clouds gathered. Ford himself was a cause of a good deal of the laughter of that time. I can think of no American humorist who excelled him in the subtle art of parody. The parodies of the then current best sellers he wrote for Vanity Fair under the name of John Riddell are still fresh in the memory of readers they delighted. (They did not usually amuse the authors of the books he impaled.) I wish he were in a mood to take on some of the stark novels of today, the output of the solemn, humor-less emancipators of the four-letter words, so like little boys chalking dirty words on sidewalks.
Ford has done an entertaining job of recalling the years he has chosen to chronicle; the fun-makers and humorists of those days, and the world they moved in. I cannot think of an ornament of the period he has not placed in the proper niche and to whom he has not given proper appreciation. It was a pleasant time on the whole, full of agreeable souls who had a lot of fun along with their share of cares, and were not unduly given to self-pity. I doubt if Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern, or Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds at the Mitre, had any more fun or any more good fellowship than Mr. Benchley, Harold Ross, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, and their friends had at the Algonquin, Bleeck’s, Moriarty’s, and “21.”
Ford enjoyed his white elephant for a number of years, then tired of it and sold it at a sacrifice, and with some difficulty. He moved to the livelier and more congenial Hanover, to which to date he has not imported any trees, nor, as far as I know, any snow in January.
The syndicated philosophers tell us of the geriatric bloc not to dwell upon the past. Live for today, they urge. Well, a hell of a today to live for is all I can say. I plan to dwell on the past anytime I choose, especially the past Corey Ford recounts here, and I thank him for reviving a charming era so vividly, and bringing to life so many lively and dear people, with whom I have laughed and drunk and argued and in general made the welkin ring.
The welkins you hear ringing today sound flat to me.
This Side of Parodies
Vanity Fair prided itself on being a pioneer. It was the earliest magazine to recognize Negro artists, portrayed in Steichen’s lovely camera studies of Paul Robeson and Florence Mills, the popular torch singer of Bye, Bye, Blackbird, or in his dramatic photograph of the March to the Promised Land in The Green Pastures. It introduced modern painters like Marie Laurencin and Raoul Dufy, causing its advertisers to protest about the “decadent and distorted” art in the magazine. There were cartoons by Punch’s George Belcher, wax figurines by Hidalgo (who described himself, with a straight face, as a half Aztec sculptor), and full-color caricatures by William Cotton and Miguel Covarrubias.
Its pages, as you look back over them today, are a faithful record of the era. Among the pictured or cartooned celebrities of the theater and politics and sport (and so many of them have already retreated into the shadows) were Nazimova, Tilly Losch, Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, Lillian Gish, the Barrymores, the Lunts, the Astaires, the Sitwells; Katherine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Clarence Darrow, photographed by Steichen at the time of the Leopold-Loeb trial: George Bellows’s canvas of Dempsey being knocked out of the ring by Firpo; Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Max Schmehng, William T. Tilden, Amelia Earhart, and Aimee Semple Mc- Pherson, who was nominated for Oblivion along with Chic Sale, Raymond Duncan, Ursula (Ex-Wife) Parrott, Lou Tellegen, Belle Livingston, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Queen Marie of Rumania.
My Ugly Roomer
Today Sullivan is the dean of living American humorists; his essays have been collected in half a dozen books (the title of one, Broccoli and Old Lace, was adapted by Lindsay and Crouse for their Broadway hit) and reprinted in countless anthologies; but never, for my taste, has he surpassed the dizzy heights of his “Interview with Lillian Gish,” written for the Sunday drama page of the World. Mr. Sullivan, it develops, has forced his way past the Gish butler by the ingenious device of tossing a wig of golden curls about his head and posing as Mary Pickford. He and Miss Gish embrace, and then she holds him at arm’s length, and studies him more closely. “But you’re not Mary Pickford,” she says after a moment of deliberation.
“I’m sorry,” Sullivan explains glibly. “I’m the President of the United States.’’
Miss Gish sneers. “Oh, you are, are you? Very well, then, perhaps you can explain who this gentleman is!” and she opens a curtain, and there in the conservatory stands President Coolidge.
“I made a mistake,” apologizes Sullivan. “I’m not the Presi- dent, of course. I’m really the Vice-President.”
“Is that so!” says the butler, and snatching off his side-whiskers he stands revealed as Vice-President Dawes.
Things are coming too fast for Sullivan. He decides to make a clean breast of it.
“My intentions were honest,” he tells them. “I was only trying to draw Miss Gish into an interview. I won’t lie to you anymore. I’m Frank Sullivan.”
They all start laughing, and President Coolidge says, “Is that so!” and opens a door, and there stands Frank Sullivan. . . .
We have become an alarmingly endangered species, those of us who enjoyed silent films throughout the 1920s. We know that we are not alone in admiring the best of the surviving predialogue movies, but understandably, some misconceptions have crept into histories of the early period, written by those who were not around to see first-run prints of the acknowledged masterpieces, or could not have visited the resplendent palaces or the cozy neighborhood houses of more than half a century ago.
As there are today, there were those who took the existence of cinema very much for granted, saw only an occasional film because it was being discussed. And there were even a few (I never met one) who hated pictures. But there were some of us with an addiction, with fierce passion for the medium. We were militant and protective and we didn’t want it to change in any way. We loved its silence. We were devoted to the aspect ratio of the frame. As collectors, we were even enchanted by the unique scent of nitrate of cellulose. There are even fewer of us left who not only had this almost insane, passionate affection for film, but became involved in hands-on work with motion pictures, shooting, editing and screening as well as simply watching. When dialogue arrived and the silent film almost vanished, some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie.
Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926
Lillian Gish – Steichen – Vanity Fair November 1924
Ronald Colman – Vanity Fair 1927
Renee Adoree – La Boheme – Musette
Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)
The Mender of Nets 1912 still frame
An Art Declasse
Silent movies? Before sound films nobody called motion pictures “silent movies.” In those days the term “talkies” was already in use, but it referred only to plays on the stage to differentiate them from photoplays. As Lillian Gish never tired of pointing out, the “silent” film was never silent. Even in the primitive period, there was a pianist or an organist putting music to the film. The big downtown theatres usually began continuous showings at 10:00 a.m. Until the two evening performances, the film would be accompanied by a skillful organist seated at the mighty Wurlitzer. The evening shows boasted full orchestral accompaniment. The musicians were fine, well-paid professionals led by experts who knew very much what they were about. The top Cleveland movie orchestra was conducted by Maurice Spitalny in gleaming full dress, his exquisitely prepared profile turned toward the audience and bathed in his own special spotlight as his orchestra played the overture before the film began. Maurice was one of three Russian-born Spitalnys, all musicians. Brother Phillip conducted a famous all-girl orchestra in Manhattan. He went to Cleveland often to see his brother, whose greeting to Phillip became a local catchphrase: “Hallo, Pheel! How you fill?”
In one area Griffith did seem to be ahead of his contemporaries: by either good luck or superior perception, he was able to recruit a cadre of fantastic players. With his theatre orientation, he had confidence in even the actresses who had been professionals from childhood, so that Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters and Blanche Sweet became Biograph stars. Experience in the theatre was cachet sufficient for Griffith to hire Lionel Barrymore, Tom Ince and Mack Sennett, all of whom graduated from Biograph to major film careers that endured for many years.
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio 2
There were indeed some truly impressive Biographs. As early as 1909 Griffith had Pickford, Owen Moore and James Kirkwood acting in The Restoration, an involved psychological drama concerned with memory Loss.
Along with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms of 1919 is one of Griffith’s major efforts on which much of his fame rests. The original release print of the film was elaborately colored with the use of variously tinted base stock. The Museum of Modern Art Film Library people arranged to undertake the demanding and expensive project of copying the film and restoring the delicately colored version to something very much like the original.
In a significant departure from routine filmmaking, Griffith rehearsed the cast for weeks before the camera ever turned. His aim was to create a film that he thought would be as fine and important as a great play on the stage—his first love. However well intentioned his plan, his theatrical orientation lured him into a major aesthetic error that militates against one’s acceptance of the film today as a great work. Richard Barthelmess, cast as a Chinese in London’s Limehouse district, is made up as a stereotyped stage Chinaman, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps. All perfectly acceptable as a nineteenth-century theatrical cliche. But Griffith made the mistake of surrounding Barthelmess with real Chinese, none of whom looked anything like the chief protagonist.
In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was betrayed by this stagecraft into the same aesthetic error. His principal players cast as blacks are white actors and actresses, their faces smeared not too carefully with blackface makeup. Neither of his villains, George Siegmann and Walter Long, have negroid features. Well and good had he been producing a minstrel show, but again, extras in the film are real blacks bearing no resemblance to Tom Wilson, George Siegmann or Walter Long. The unfortunate effect for Broken Blossoms is that the film is neither realistic drama nor effective theatre make-believe. The famous performance of Lillian Gish’s almost rescues the film from being a grotesquerie rather than simply a very much dated melodrama with Donald Crisp as the savage child beater, shown in enormous close-ups, grimacing in a way to rival King Kong himself. Griffith considered himself to be a poet, a dramatist and, only some what reluctantly, a film director. For this project he also became a composer and is credited as the author of the love theme of the film, a piece he titled “White Blossom.” Composing the music for the other portions of the film was entrusted to none other than Louis Gottschalk. As a music composer, Griffith thus placed himself in prestigious company. Lillian Gish’s performance as the slow-witted, much abused Limehouse district waif is one of the most praised in all her career. It was also the most parodied. ZaSu Pitts made a whole career imitating the uncertain, desperate gestures that were so touching as Lillian Gish had done them.
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)
The Festivals of Film Artists
The 1957 festival marked his first return to Rochester and the theatre he had known so well twenty-eight years before. Mamoulian’s wife came with him. She was a gorgeous, glamorous Hollywood type, and although the Mamoulians were only to stay overnight, she brought so much ponderous luggage that it couldn’t all be squeezed into the spartan room they were assigned in the Rochester Treadway Inn. Mrs. Mamoulian ordered an immediate transfer to a more commodious hotel. Other celebrity arrivals were also not without their own problems.
At Eastman House for the second Festival of Film Artists, in 1957: James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor and Mary Pickford
In 1957 there were direct flights from Los Angeles to Rochester. It was in the good old days before hub airports. I was at the Rochester airport to meet a plane that carried more than any usual share of VIPs. On that flight were the director Frank Borzage, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who traveled with an entourage of no fewer than three comely female attendants. The plane arrived at 1:30 a.m., Rochester time. When I greeted the group, Chevalier let out a whoop and pumped Novarro’s hand. Ramon was astonished. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for years—ever since Ben-Hur.” Chevalier exulted. The two great stars not only had never met before, but had flown all the way from Los Angeles without recognizing each other. Also, they all let me know, they had had nothing to eat since before boarding the plane in California. First bit of business was to get them to food. Rochester is not known to be a swinging town after midnight. But there was a restaurant right on East Avenue, not far from the theatre itself, run by an ambitious restaurateur who thought of himself and his establishment as several cuts above the small-town reputation of Rochester. His boite he called the Five O’Clock Club, and its marquee boasted that it was “Just like New York.” I parked the car with its illustrious guests and rushed in to see if they had any food left. The owner was sitting with some friends at a booth near the door. I knew who he was—he was big in self-advertising. It was obvious at once that he didn’t know me. “We’re closed, Mac,” he snarled at me. “Can’t we just get a quick sandwich or something?” “I told you we’re closed. The chef’s gone.”
“Look, Leo, can’t you have a waiter go into the kitchen and fix three or four simple sandwiches? I have Maurice Chevalier and Ramon Novarro out here in the car. They haven’t had a thing to eat all day, and every place but yours is closed.”
The proprietor turned to his friends. “After all that trouble we had with that guy tonight, here’s another one—this one has Maurice Chevalier out in his car!”
I went back to our guests. Across the street was a White Tower hamburger place (forerunner of the MacDonald’s and Burger Kings to come). It was there that I had to take Borzage, Novarro and that noted French bon vivant and gourmet Maurice Chevalier for hamburgers. I noted that Maurice disguised his burger with a complete dousing of mustard. Without much shame, I confess to elation when, only a few months later, the Five O’Clock Club that was “Just like New York” went out of business.
Our cast on the stage of the Eastman Theatre almost made the event look like a rerun of 1955, for there, again, were Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Frank Borzage, Dick Barthelmess and Charles Rosher, but with the added attractions of Gloria Swanson, Josef von Sternberg, Janet Gaynor, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who, of course, stole the show. Chevalier’s onstage technique was unforgettable. Offstage, standing or sitting surrounded by his personal entourage, he looked almost asleep, gloomy and brooding. But in the instant before he stepped on the stage, his face would light up as though he’d turned on a set of bulbs. His whole body seemed to have been electrified; his face was flushed with energy and breezy enthusiasm. When he stepped off the stage, the appearance of somnolence fell over him like a curtain. Chevalier’s off-and-on act reminded me of Buster Keaton at the first festival. Offstage, of course, he smiled—and often. He was a cheerful, friendly charmer. And everywhere he went, both amateur photographers and newspaper cameramen would try to ambush one of those smiles. But Buster teased them with an almost supernatural sense of timing: he could sense just the instant they were about to fire their cameras, the smile would snap off his face, and the trademark, solemn Keaton look would be all they’d catch.
The second Festival of Film Artists was the last. Before we could do another, General Solbert died. As of this writing, every other actor, actress and director who won awards in those festivals has also departed. General Oscar Solbert was an exceptional individual. He exasperated me to the point ofmy resigning three times. Three times he tore up my letter of resignation. I miss him the way I miss my own father. Subsequent directors of Eastman House have tried to have festivals of film artists. But they miss the salient point of the two originals—that the artists chosen for the Georges were chosen entirely by their fellow film people. The later, spurious awards have been given to celebrities chosen by Rochester socialites.
”HOBSON’S CHOICE” finally may have run out of gas. It started out as a three-act play, written in 1916 by Harold Brighouse and set in the Lancashire, England, of 1880. Then, in 1954, David Lean directed a film version starring Charles Laughton, John Mills and Brenda De Banzie. There was even a 1966 Broadway musical, called ”Walking Happy,” based on the play. Now, television has decided to adapt the story to its own special needs, and the disappointing result can be seen tonight at 9 on CBS.
Burt Prelutsky’s script transposes the setting to New Orleans, and the year, for whatever arbitrary reason, is 1914. Henry Horatio Hobson, owner of a successful shoe store, is still a carousing drunk, complaining about how fate has saddled him with three daughters. Maggie, his eldest, can barely conceal her contempt for daddy’s more outrageous ways, and she is determined to get out from under his domination. As her vehicle toward that end, she chooses Will, a gentle and illiterate master shoemaker working in Hobson’s basement.
Will is a bit dazed by Maggie’s overwhelming confidence but, in the end, he accepts her proposals for marriage and going into business together. As she puts it, ”Nobody can make shoes the way you can, and nobody can sell shoes the way I can.” The basic situation should work comfortably in this age of women’s liberation, but this film, directed by Gilbert Cates, is never quite as sharp, or even convincing, as it should be.
Much of the problem would seem to be rooted in the casting. Jack Warden is an accomplished actor but he is at his best in the big-city settings of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. He is not terribly persuasive as a New Orleans gentleman, albeit a drunken one. Sharon Gless is more successful with Maggie, giving the character an admirably unyielding integrity. But her performance doesn’t quite jibe with that of Richard Thomas as Will. There is an imbalance. Will is supposed to be timid, granted, but Mr. Thomas, a gifted actor who is not afraid of taking chances, miscalculates and turns him into a somewhat unsympathetic wimp.
This ”Hobson’s Choice” proceeds staunchly to an ending decidedly more upbeat than in the original, but the scenes don’t quite hang together. They seem suspended in an emotional void. One casting decision, though, is inspired. Miss Molly Winkle is played by the now legendary film star Lillian Gish, and she is twinklingly delightful as the rich old lady who takes a fancy to Will’s shoes. A no-nonsense paragon, Miss Winkle responds to a simple ”How do you do?” with the crisp observation, ”I do most things badly, others not at all.” Miss Gish handles her beautifully.
Tonight’s ”Live From the Met” presentation, on WNET, Channel 13, at 8, was recorded at a Metropolitan Opera matinee last Saturday. The fully edited tape was not available for review, but I did attend the Saturday performance, sitting not very far behind one of the television cameras on the edge of the orchestra pit, and can report that this was indeed a special occasion.
The opera is Verdi’s ”Ernani,” an early work and, in certain circles, not one of the composer’s more lauded efforts. The plot does indeed verge on the ludicrous but, after all, this is grand opera. This production, though, with acres of dramatic stairs designed by Pier Luigi Samaritani, offers countless opportunites for bravura singing, and the stellar cast, perhaps ”up” a notch or two extra for the television cameras, responds magnificently. Luciano Pavarotti is on hand as Ernani, Leona Mitchell as Elvira, Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo and Ruggero Raimondi as Silva. The Met has rarely sounded better.