Lillian Gish and Film Preservation (AFI 1984)

The American Film Institute

1984 Achievement Award in honor of Lillian Gish

NEWS

Lillian Gish and Film Preservation

The first time Lillian Gish ever heard the words “film library” was when an English lady named Iris Barry asked her to use her influence to get D.W. Griffith to give her some of his films. At Lillian Gish’s suggestion, D.W. Griffith complied, and so began the film library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In a similar fashion, Ms. Gish convinced Mary Pickford of the importance of preserving her Biograph films, which Ms. Pickford subsequently donated to the Library of Congress collection.

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

It is our good fortune that these events transpired. Had they not, the collection of Biograph films which record such a vital segment of Lillian Gish’s career might have been gone the way of films made by such early studios as Lubin, Essanay, Vitagraph, Selig, and Thanhauser — and be lost forever.

As it is, a near-miraculous number of Lillian Gish’s silent films have been saved for future generations, — but not all of them. Gone forever are REMODELING HER HUSBAND, which Gish directed in 1920; ANNIE LAURIE, (1927); THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1914); and THE ANGEL OF CONTENTION (1914). For many years ROMOLA, a 1924 film in which Ms. Gish starred with William Powell, was effectively “lost,” until an 8 mm copy, made for home use, was discovered and transferred to 16 mm film.

American Film Institute D.W. Griffith Awards vtg 1984 Press Release

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Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish (Chicago Tribune 1979)

Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22

Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish

Tempo

Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.

“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”

The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.

“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”

‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’

By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”

“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”

She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”

In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”

“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.

“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”

She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish – Orphans – Vanity Fair November 1921

“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”

Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.

Lillian Gish, Cheryl Callaway, Bill Chapin, Mary Ellen Clemons, Sally Jane Bruce, 1955 The Night of The Hunter

“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.

Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’

When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.

“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”

Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”

A Wedding

“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”

I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?

“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”

It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.

First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.

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Salute to Lillian Gish rates salute, too – By Jon Anderson (TV writer) 1984

Chicago Tribune – Tuesday, April 17, 1984 – Page 37

Tempo

Salute to Lillian Gish rates salute, too

By Jon Anderson (TV writer)

Compared with the awkward, boring, tedious spectacle of the Academy Awards, last month’s American Film Institute salute to actress Lillian Gish was graceful, warm and human. In Hollywood, those qualities are so rare that John Houston, stunned, later rang up George Stevens Jr., producer of the show, and told him: “George, I’ve been around this town for 40 years and I saw something the other night I’ve never seen before in this community. Affection!”

In this tribute, to air at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS – Ch. 2, the stars [and there are lots of them] don’t seem stiff, stilted or ill-at-ease. When cameras catch their faces, they look like they’re having a good time. When they talk, they seem to mean what they say. There isn’t a wooden scripted, flat joke in the whole 90 minutes.

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

This didn’t just happen. “We really tried to make people comfortable and secure,” producer Stevens said in an interview. He barred Teleprompters, those cue-card projectors that make show-folk squint or, as in the case of Frank Sinatra at the Academy Awards, look over-served. Before the show, writers worked with the stars “to bring out their feelings,” go over what they wanted to say and suggest phrasings. Then stars did their bits the old-fashioned way; they memorized their speeches and, strange for TV, spoke them naturally.

The producers also sensibly avoided spinning graphics and other electronic nonsense. Instead, they hired a 37-piece orchestra, struck new prints of notable early Gish scenes and ran them at proper speeds, with musical accompaniment. [Silent cameras, cranked by hand, exposed anywhere from 16 to 22 frames a second compared with today’s standard of 24 frames a second. ***(1) That’s why silent movies, shown on modern equipment, speed up.]

Hambone and Hillie – Photo Gallery

Gish’s screen career began in 1913 ***(2) bloomed under director D.W. Griffith [“Birth of a Nation”], for whom she made 40 movies, and continues today. [She’ll star in the forthcoming film “Hambone and Hillie.”]

The clip that got the biggest hand [from “Way Down East”] showed her limp body on a slab of ice, headed towards the falls, with an anguished man in a fur coat leaping from berg to berg trying to rescue her. It was Gish’s idea to trail her hair and one hand in the icy waters, a stunt so chilling that, even today, Gish’s right hand aches when she is out in winter cold.

A fundraiser for the American Film Institute, best known for its work in preserving old movies, the gala black-tie dinner for 1,100 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in March was enlivened by speeches, waves and smiles from Sally Field, John Houseman, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Mary Steenburgen, Jennifer Jones, Mary Martin, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Eva Marie Saint, Richard Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Richard WIdmark and Chicago’s own tie to the glorious motion picture past, Colleen Moore Hargrave. She got a hug from the guest of honor.

Life Achievement Award, Lillian Gish. 1984

Also remarkable was that so many veterans of a perilous craft, that of being a movie star, still looked so sparkling.

“Lillian Gish was there at the birth of an art form,” said the evening’s host, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 75. “I am kind of an emissary, a link, if you like, from those pioneers who were with her at the beginning, my father, my stepmother, Mary Pickford; Charlie Chaplin; and all the others whom Lillian refers to as those charming ghosts.”

Through it all, Gish was very much the center of what seemed, at times, like a family get-together, her face radiating what critic Alexander Woolcott once called “a strange mystic light not made by any electrician.”

Some praised her acting. [John Houseman described her Ophelia as “convincingly lunatic.”] Some, her canniness. [As Mary Steenburgen put it: “I figure an actress who’s been a star for 72 years must have a pretty good head for business.”]

By general agreement, at 87, Lillian Gish is also still a going concern – with a strong sense of camera angles.

Last December, she appeared in the CBS made-for-TV movie “Hobson’s Choice,” one friend recalled, and chewed out a cameraman for placing the camera too low. “Young man,” she said snappishly, “If God had meant you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your belly button.”*** (3)

***(1) Mr. Jon Anderson is referring probably to an older filming system, [and 24 fps theatre film projectors] pre-NTSC (29.95 fps) known being the fact that PAL (Phase Alternate by Line) used in Europe has a 25 fps standard using fields to compensate the difference from 30 fps of US-NTSC. Indeed in the 70’s there were still in use film cameras, not digital or streaming over network via satellite like today. So, in order to have news broadcast, every decent TV station had a huge laboratory for processing the film, cutting it old school style and converting it for TV broadcast in a post process.

Starting before CBS color even got on the air, the U.S. television industry, represented by the National Television System Committee, worked in 1950–1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black-and-white sets and would pass FCC quality standards, with RCA developing the hardware elements. The first publicly announced network demonstration of a program using the NTSC “compatible color” system was an episode of NBC’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953, although it was viewable in color only at the network’s headquarters. The first network broadcast to go out over the air in NTSC color was a performance of the opera Carmen on October 31, 1953.

***(2) Actually Lillian Gish’s career began in 1912 with “The Unseen Enemy”.

***(3) The famous “eyes in the belly button” remark was made by Lillian Gish while celebrating her 100th movie [A Wedding] during the party organized by director Robert Altman. And it was a photographer, not a cameraman. The incident was documented by Kevin Brownlow.

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Lauds TV Programs on Lincoln – By Larry Wolters (Chicago Tribune 1956)

Chicago Tribune – Monday February 13, 1956 – Page 70

Lauds TV Programs on Lincoln

By Larry Wolters

Lincoln: Every year television devotes more programs to Lincoln around February 12, and every year the equality of the Lincoln tribute seems to improve. Outstanding this season were two productions: “Good Friday, 1865,” written by John Lewellen of Glen Ellyn for the Robert Montgomery theater of last Monday, and “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” based on Jim Bishop’s best selling book and presented Saturday night on Ford’s Star Theater [quite different from Ford’s theater in Washington where Lincoln was shot]. Both plays were telecast in color as well as black and white.

“Good Friday,” as previously reviewed was a notable production. “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” was even more satisfactory. Produced with the lavish hand of Hollywood, the cast ran to 103 persons, with more than 50 reading lines. It was headed by such actors as Raymond Massey, who has come to be an almost legendary Lincoln; Jack Lemmon as Booth, Lillian Gish as Mrs. Lincoln, and Charles Laughton as narrator.

This combination, under expert direction by Delbert Mann, created a mounting sense of the oncoming tragedy, tracing hour by hour the various plot threads that were climaxed at 10:15 p.m. As the play proceeded, you felt an almost unbearable suspense. Lemmon, who usually plays comedy roles, proved a great Booth, handsome and sinister, a young firebird obsessed with carrying out a conspiracy which, except for the greatest of luck, could never have been executed.

Monolog: Booth was at his best in a monolog [or soliloquy] when, speaking of the future, he said: “You [Lincoln] know nothing of me but our names will be linked in all eternity. Lincoln and Booth, perhaps Booth and Lincoln.”

Photo: Gish, Lemmon and Massey in – “The Day Lincoln Was Shot”

Massey and Miss Gish were indeed Abe and Mary Lincoln except that the actor has put on a little too much weight and no longer looks too much like the Civil war President and Miss Gish has too small a face. Furthermore her blonde hair should have been converted to black to match Mary Todd Lincoln’s.

Photo: Lillian Gish in – The Day Lincoln Was Shot – promotional

Intrusion: The Ford theater reconstruction was especially effective in color. Viewers were able to understand the whole layout, with the Presidential box overhanging the stage. The scene or two from the play, “Our American Cousin,” provided a change of pace. This was comedy at its corniest, reminiscent of the Abbotts and Costellos of today. There was one break of pace we were not prepared for. As the tension mounted there came a sudden intrusion by Bing Crosby plugging Thunder-Birds an also a promise from the sponsor that Bing would be in great form for ”High Tor” four weeks hence.

Raymond Massey – Lincoln

Then the action shifted back to the assassination, Booth’s escape and the long confusing night in Peterson house, with Secy. Stanton playing the role of dictator for eight hours before he got to the fateful: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

This fantastic yet true story of a tragic day in American history gave television 91 years later just about its finest hour.

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Grandma Moses Life To Be Told Friday On TV (Chicago Tribune – 1952)

Chicago Tribune – March, Sunday 23 1952 – Page 67

Grandma Moses Life To Be Told Friday On TV

Lillian Gish will star in the title role of “Grandma Moses” when the biography of the American Artist is presented on Playhouse of Stars over WBKB at 8 p.m. Friday. The television play will highlight episodes in the life of the painter which reveal how she happened to undertake her work at the age of 80. In addition to Miss Gish, three other actresses will portray Grandma Moses – in scenes depicting her early years. Denise and Jane Alexander, sisters, will play the painter at the ages of 12 and 5 respectively and Georgianne Johnson will have the role of Grandma Moses at 26. Sidney Smith will portray Otto Kallir, art connoisseur who discovered the artist.

Adapted by David Shaw from Mrs. Moses’ recently-published autobiography, the play had Lillian Gish in the title role spinning tales to her grandchildren on her early life and how she won recognition with her colorful American primitives after she had passed 80. Story flashed back from camera shots of Grandma Moses paintings to the related incidents in her life, which was a clever technique. This was one spot, though, where color TV was urgently needed.

With Miss Gish etching a warmly human characterization of the nice old lady who was as eager to receive compliments for her strawberry preserves as for her life on a farm dating back to the days when Abraham Lincoln was President. Sisters Denise and Jane Alexander were competent as the artist at the ages of five and 12, respectively, and Georgianne Johnson turned in a sympathetic portrayal of Mrs. Moses at age 26. Russell Hardie was good as her husband, and Sidney Smith limned an okay role as the art connoisseur who discovered her artistic talents.

Joseph Scibetta reined both the actors and the cameras through their paces in fine style. Sets and other production mountings were standout. Durward Kirby again handled the Schlitz commercials, tying them cleverly with the sets of the play.

Illustration below: Lillian Gish with Grandma Moses painting, a gift from the artist to Miss Gish

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Performance of Lillian Gish on Broadway Found Stirring – By Hedda Hopper (Chicago Tribune – 1953)

Lillian Gish by Forbes - Advertising the new version of - The Trip To Bountiful - play - Stars in Goodyear TV Playhouse ...
Lillian Gish by Forbes, Advertising the new version of “The Trip To Bountiful” play – Stars in Goodyear Television Playhouse …

Chicago Tribune – Saturday, November 21, 1953 – Page 14

Looking at Hollywood

Performance of Lillian Gish on Broadway Found Stirring

By Hedda Hopper

New York, Nov. 20 – Lillian Gish put a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat during her performance in the play “The Trip To Bountiful.” She literally breaks your heart into little pieces. You want to choke her daughter-in-law, played brilliantly by Jo Van Fleet. The entire cast is star studded.

Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)
Jo Van Fleet, Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish (The Trip To Bountiful)

… After the play, I met the author Horton Foote, and his wife, who was named for Lillian. What’s more, her sister’s name is Dorothy. When Lillian was our top picture star, many babies were named for her. She kept a supply of gold christening rings, and when she heard about each child she sent a ring. I’ll never forget how Lillian fought for a place in the movies for her friend, the late D.W. Griffith, the last time she was in Hollywood …

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful 1953
Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

I’m always appalled at stars’ dressing rooms in New York theaters. Compared to ours in the movie world, they’re little better than lean-tos. I guess that’s why stage actors are so hardy and have so much steel in their backbones.

Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful (1953)
Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful (1953)

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Lillian Gish Still Devoted to Career – By Hedda Hopper (Chicago Tribune – 1963)

Chicago Tribune – Monday, September 2nd, 1963 – Page 39

Looking at Hollywood

Lillian Gish Still Devoted to Career

By Hedda Hopper

Hollywood, Sept. 1 – When actors complain about their short span of earning years, I think of Lillian Gish who began her career at 4, never went to school, was a D.W. Griffith star in such famous silents as “Birth of a Nation,” and “Broken Blossoms.” In June she completed a Broadway run with an all-star company in G.B. Shaw’s “Too True to be Good.” I saw her recently when she came here to do a segment for a “Mr. Novak” TV at M-G-M. Thruout her entire life she’s worked continuously contributing unforgettable characterizations in all acting mediums … We shared a pint of ice cream at my desk in lieu of lunch while she told me how Bob Preston, Glynis Johns, David Wayne, Cyril Ritchard, Eileen Heckart, Ray Middleton, Cedric Hardwicke and herself all worked for cut salaries in the Shaw play because they wanted to do it.

Photo - Eileen Heckart - Lillian Gish - Robert Preston - Glynis Johns
Photo – Eileen Heckart – Lillian Gish – Robert Preston – Glynis Johns

“The theater is sick today, but actors like to act and this was the only way we could put it on with such a cast. We signed for a limited run, March to June, because we were in the big 54th Street theater which holds 1,500, a house for musicals and far too large for a little comedy with a cast of eight. They call it the ‘Penalty Theater’ because a nonmusical play like ours has to pay salaries to four musicians for sake of unions.”

Cedric Hardwicke, Cyril Ritchard, Glynis Johns, Ray Middleton, David Wayne, Eileen Heckart, Robert Preston and Lillian Gish. Too Good To Be True 1963
Cedric Hardwicke, Cyril Ritchard, Glynis Johns, Ray Middleton, David Wayne, Eileen Heckart, Robert Preston and Lillian Gish. Too Good To Be True 1963

“We talked about bringing in actors to replace those who had to leave and considered moving to a smaller theater,” she continued. “It was prohibitive, would have cost between $15,000 and $20,000 … After opening night we met the backers of our play at a party; I’ve never seen such young-looking angels. Most appeared to be barely out of their teens. Hardwicke, who was in and out of the hospital here last summer and had an operation for asthma, never missed a performance; neither Bob Preston. He fell on the ice at his country place breaking three ribs, and must have suffered great pain, because his part called for him to be thrown all over the stage. But these are true pros. Glynis Johns had a yelling part and almost lost her voice; we used to hold our breath on Saturday night before that first shout, we were so worried, wondering if she’d have voice enough left to make the whole show.

GB_Shaw_Too_True_To_Be_Good_2D

Lillian lived in Hollywood nine years when she was with D.W. Griffith’s company, and never had a contract. She finds movieland very changed. “As I came up here, I found some of the streets ugly, and I found myself resenting that it was no longer beautiful. You used to smell orange blossoms when you stepped off the train, and at night, if there was a fog, the flower fragrances were held down to earth.” She spoke of Griffith’s widow, Evelyn, whom she’d seen before leaving the east coast: “She’s remarried to a Swedish-German, and they went to Europe this summer, her first trip there.”

GB_Shaw_Too_True_To_Be_Good_7

 

GB_Shaw_Too_True_To_Be_Good_8

Playbill 1963 Robert Preston, Lillian Gish
Too True To Be Good 1963

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Lillian Gish honored by fans she loves best – movie people – By Gene Siskel (Chicago Tribune – 1977)

Chicago Tribune – June 23 1977 Thursday, Page 21

Tempo People

Lillian Gish honored by fans she loves best – movie people

By Gene Siskel – movie critic

signed promotional full cast photo - a wedding

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.

Lillian Gish - A Wedding
Lillian Gish – A Wedding

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.”

Robert Altman - Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)

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?”

A Wedding
Robert Altman helping Lillian Gish to cut the cake made especially to mark her 100th movie anniversary – A Wedding

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.

A Wedding
Carol Burnett, Lillian Gish and Mia Farrow – A Wedding

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.”

A Wedding
Lillian Gish and Geraldine Chaplin – A Wedding

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.

Illustration

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 (Chicago, Illinois) 23 Jun 1977, Thu Page 21
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 23 Jun 1977, Thu Page 21 (A Wedding cast celebrating 100th Gish film)

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