1980 David Wark Griffith Awards (Films in Review – March 1981)

1980 DW Griffith Awards - Myrna Loy, Lillian Gish
1980 DW Griffith Awards – Myrna Loy, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson

Films in Review – March 1981

1980 David Wark Griffith Awards

The Second Presentation


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.

Lillian Gish, Sissy Spacek and Gloria Swanson exchanging greetings (DW Griffith Awards)
Lillian Gish, Sissy Spacek and Gloria Swanson exchanging greetings (DW Griffith Awards)

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.

Ron Schwary and Lillian Gish - 1980 (DW Griffith Awards)
Ron Schwary and Lillian Gish – 1980 (DW Griffith Awards)

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.

Sissy Spacek and Myrna Loy - 1980 (DW Griffith Awards)
Sissy Spacek and Myrna Loy – 1980 (DW Griffith Awards)

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”.

1980 DW Griffith Awards 1
1980 DW Griffith Awards – cover


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Lillian Gish chats with Merv Griffin (The Way It Was – CBS Thu. Jan. 14, 1970)

Lillian Gish chats with Merv Griffin

The Way It Was – CBS Thu. Jan. 14, 1970

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

  • CBS 39779-R1-2a-Full
  • 12/24/70
  • Subjects: Lillian Gish, Merv Griffin
  • Program: “The Merv Griffin Show”
  • On Air: Thursday, Jan. 14
  • 11:30 PM – 1:00 AM, Est
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 detail
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 detail

“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.

Runtime 1 hr (60 min)
Sound Mix Mono
Color Black and White | Color
Aspect Ratio 4:3
Negative Format Video (NTSC)
Printed Film Format Video (NTSC)
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 X
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970 X
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970
Lillian Gish at Merv Griffin Show Thu Jan 14 1970

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Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art – Edited by CORNELIA BUTLER and ALEXANDRA SCHWARTZ

Modern Women




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)

Lillian Gish cca 18 years old - theater scene

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

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East - Vanity Fair June 1920
Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

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).

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

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.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

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.

orphans of the storm - lillian gish is henriette girard - promo wb
orphans of the storm – lillian gish is henriette girard

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.”

Lillian Gish - The Wind (1928) - Nov 27 USA BX
Lillian Gish – The Wind (1928) – Nov 27 USA

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.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

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.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

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.

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

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).

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …

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.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4
Hester Prynne – Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter

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.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian - backstage The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind

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.

Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of The Hunter 1955 Laughton
Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of The Hunter 1955 Laughton

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.

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

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.

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.

first time on lecture platform 1932

Modern women : women artists at the Museum of Modern Art
Modern women : women artists at the Museum of Modern Art

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The Time of Laughter – By Corey Ford (1967)

The Time of Laughter

By Corey Ford (1967)

Foreword (by Frank Sullivan)

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.


Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East - Vanity Fair June 1920
Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

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.

The time of laughter - Frank Sullivan
The time of laughter – Frank Sullivan

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. . . .

Lillian Gish - Santa Monica - Vanity Fair June 1927
Lillian Gish – Santa Monica – Vanity Fair June 1927

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Seductive Cinema – The Art of Silent Film (By James Card – 1994)

Uncle Toms Cabin Truck

Seductive Cinema

The Art of Silent Film

By James Card – 1994


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.

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?”

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

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.

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.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

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.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

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.

Broken Blossoms

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.

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.

James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford 1957 press photo
James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford 1957 press photo

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.”

Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish 1957
Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish 1957

“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.

George Eastman house award 1955 Front Row Peverell Marley, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford Middle Row Josef Von Sternberg Arthur Edeson
George Eastman house award 1955 Front Row Peverell Marley, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford – Middle Row Josef Von Sternberg Arthur Edeson

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.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish 1955
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish 1955

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.

Seductive cinema
Seductive cinema – cover

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HOBSON’S CHOICE – By John J. O’Connor (The New York Times – Dec. 21, 1983)


By John J. O’Connor

The New York Times – Dec. 21, 1983

”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.

Sharon Gless Jack Warden Lillian Gish - Hobson's Choice 1983
Richard Thomas Sharon Gless Jack Warden Lillian Gish – Hobson’s Choice 1983

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.

Sharon Gless Jack Warden Lillian Gish - Hobson's Choice
Sharon Gless Jack Warden Lillian Gish – Hobson’s Choice

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.

1983 Richard Thomas Lillian Gish Hobsons Choice VINTAGE TV PHOTO 914A
1983 Richard Thomas Lillian Gish Hobsons Choice

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.

Hobson's Choice 1983 Advert
Hobson’s Choice 1983 Advert

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Hollywood Honors Miss Gish – By Aljean Harmetz (The New York Times – 1984)


By Aljean Harmetz

The New York Times – Thursday March 1, 1984

Sitting in a hotel room six floors above the ballroom where she is to be given the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tonight, Lillian Gish wears pearls and red lipstick. Her long forehead slopes down to amazingly bushy eyebrows, two thick crayon strokes in an unlined face.

The 90-year-old actress has started this day, as she does every day, with an hour of exercise, including sit-ups, although her collapsible slant board has been left behind in her New York apartment. Since 1940, she has fought gravity by lying upside down on the slant board each morning at 7 o’clock.

”Time is your friend; you get wiser,” she says. ”But gravity is your enemy. It sucks you into your grave. Everything important in your body is from here to here.” She puts one hand at her throat and another on the top of her head. ”Eyes, hearing, thought, smell, taste. If the heart were important, it wouldn’t be behind those two little ribs.”


Time has vainly tried to reduce Lillian Gish to mythology – the gilded icon of all that was lovely before movies had a voice: How, for her role in D. W. Griffth’s ”Way Down East” in 1920, she lay for hours on the ice of Long Island Sound with her hair and hand trailing in freezing water. How she denied herself anything to drink for three days before playing her death scene from consumption in King Vidor’s ”Boh eme” in 1926. How she stood under the African sun – 130 degrees and not even a tree for refuge – from dawn until dusk in 1967 for ”The Comedians,” and then, suitably dressed for elegant dining, spent the evening discussing African politics and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s novels. How her Victorian sense of duty made her choose to nurse her sick mother rather than take the role that Tennessee Williams had written for her, Blanche DuBois, in the play that was to become ”A Streetcar Named Desire.”


Outliving One’s Enemies

If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground.

One can put Lillian Gish’s career into perspective by observing that if she had stopped working a half-century ago, when she was 40 years old, her contributions to the American cinema would still be astonishing. The man she always called ”Mr. Griffith” used her as his paintbrush when he created the American cinema in films such as ”Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” She was the perfect Victorian heroine – fragile, virginal and poignant, alabaster pale with ash-blond hair cascading down her back.

Although the pale blond hair has faded to gray, it still cascades below her waist. ”I’ve never been to a hairdresser,” she says. ”I’ve never had my hair cut, nor have I ever plucked an eyebrow. I don’t wear glasses and I have all my own teeth.”

Her mind skips up and down the decades, stopping to pick up a fragment of memory here, a sprig of her askew Victorian childhood there.

In 1899, when boardinghouses really had signs refusing dogs and actors, her embarrassed aunt warned the 5-year-old actress not to talk about her profession. ”If people knew we were in the theater, their children wouldn’t be allowed to play with us,” Miss Gish recalls. Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, were expected to have good manners plus the discipline to go on stage night after night. And ”even when there was not enough money for food, mother embroidered lace on our panties.”

Around 1914, their mother dragged Lillian and Dorothy to see land on the western outskirts of Los Angeles that could be purchased for $300 down. Miss Gish laughs. ”It had been raining. We said, ‘Mother, we worked so hard for our money. Do you want us to spend it on all this mud?’ So we didn’t buy the Sunset Strip.”

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

Her words return to her beloved silent film. ”There was never such a thing as silent film. There was always music, even if the music was only a tinny, tiny piano. Silent film was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. When films learned to talk, we lost 95 percent of our audience, because only 5 percent of the world speaks English. The Roxy Theater in New York held 6,424 people and it was crowded from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning. Now, my little meat market on 59th Street has been turned into a theater that holds 200 people. It hurts my pride to go into those tiny theaters.”

Lillian Gish is the 12th recipient of the institute’s award, given annually to someone ”whose work has stood the test of time.” She follows John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra and John Huston. Tonight’s dinner will be filmed for television.

Miss Gish has acted in 50 plays and more than 100 movies, most of them one- and two-reelers at a time when David Wark Griffith was, in her words, ”giving film its form and grammar.” She made 11 movies in 1912, 20 movies in 1913. But she also made films when the silent era was at its peak, including ”The Wind” for the director Victor Seastrom in 1928.

Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film historian, has pointed out that while stage performances can safely be called great because they survive only in memory, film performances can be subjected to scrutiny. More than 50 years later, her performance as a spunky, resolute Virginia-bred girl in ”The Wind,” who is driven to madness by the raw, incessant Texas winds, still seems extraordinary in the delicacy of its nuances and in something that can best be described as strength shining through frailness.

In real life, her strength is legendary. ”I couldn’t ever be ill,” she says, as though good health were merely a matter of will. In all her years in the theater, she missed only one performance – when she stayed with her sister in the hospital because their mother could not be there.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Miss Gish describes many of the characters she played – including her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway – as ”ga-ga babies, innocent little virgins who were nice to look at for five minutes but how did you make them interesting for an hour?” She succeeded by giving most of them a spiritual strength that burned through the sentimental silliness of the plots in which they were embedded. The same radiant strength was there, in a more distilled form, in her roles as protector of two children in ”The Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and as a dying matriarch in ”A Wedding” in 1978.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (candid) Lillian Gish on set

Her newest movie, ”Hambone and Hillie,” will be released in the spring. She plays Hillie; Hambone is a mongrel dog. Brooks Atkinson wrote that, as a performer, she had no vanity. ”How can you have vanity if you look at yourself on the screen?” she asks.

But her lack of vanity stops at the stage door. ”In life, vanity is a virtue,” she says. ”How can you let yourself weigh 300 pounds? The human body is a wonderful thing and it’s the only house you get to live in.”

She reads Jung and William Blake and the morning papers. ”There’s never been a more exciting century,” she says. She is writing one book on religion – ”As I get older, I believe in what I can’t see and understand” – and another, for children, that recreates the Christmases of her childhood: ”How good and kind people in my world were to children who had good manners.”

Looking back at a life dedicated to work, she has no regrets. ”I loved dear men,” she says, ”beautiful men who offered me their names. But I’m so glad I didn’t ruin any of their lives by marrying them.”

Lillian Gish m2 - Nell Dorr 1930
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish with beads in hair and seated view 2]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3505

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Conversation With Lillian Gish – Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

Sight and Sound – BFI – England, January 1958

Conversation With Lillian Gish

When Miss Lillian Gish came to London in August last year to play in Anthony Asquith s Orders to Kill (her first film in this country since she made Hearts of the World with Griffith), the most extraordinary thing about her was that she so strikingly and completely resembled-Lillian Gish. She may, as the reference books say, have played in In Convicts’ Stripes in 1902; but it is hard to believe, for she is still unmistakably ‘the Gish girl’-a little taller than we have always imagined, and certainly not so defenceless against the great steel world as the heroines she used to play, but still retaining all their calm and repose and dignity. She still clasps her hands together in front of her chin; or, in an uncertain moment, puts her right fore finger, quite unconsciously, to the corner of her mouth. Her stamina is remarkable, she has always interspersed her vigorous career on Broadway with marathon sea-trips by freighter (“the only way to travel, If you can stand it”). Following her work on Orders to Kilt she went straight to Berlin to rehearse two plays for a new arena theatre there-Wilder’s Wreck of the 5.25 and Tennessee Williams’ Portrait of a Madonna, an early draft of Streetcar Named Desire, written especially for Miss Gish. After this she returns to Broadway, where she hopes to play with her sister Dorothy in a new play written for them by Clare Boothe – The Little Dipper. In an interview with SIGHT AND SOUND she recollected some of her work in the silent cinema:

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


Miss Gish on D.W. Griffith

In all the eight or nine years I worked with Mr. Griffith, I never saw him with anything in writing-never anything like a script, not even on Intolerance. He just seemed to have everything in his head. The only person to make any notes was Jimmy Smith, the cutter, who had to make a record of everything Mr. Griffith shot and what he wanted to do with it, of course. It was always Mr. Griffith. Around 1940 I used to see him, and then, it’s true, I sometimes called him David. Even so, I might have said David, but I always thought Mr. Griffith. He was a born general. His voice was a vo:ce of command. It was resonant, deep and full. When he came to England in 1917, Mr. Lloyd George said to Mr. Griffith, I remember, “You have the most powerful medium for propaganda the world has ever known”. He was very amused, though, when they invited him to become the head of the department of film propaganda in the U.S.S.R. It was a very strange idea. Mr. Griffith was an aristocrat to the soles of his feet. He always claimed to be descended from the Kings of Wales, you know. . . ,

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

I always wanted to do a film biography of Mr. Griffith, but it never proved possible. I did it on television, though, for Philco. I played Lillian Gish. There was one scene where I went into a producer’s office and said: You have taken an art form that was a new approach to truth and beauty, and debased it for what you can get out of it. People warned Philco that they’d be put out of business if they dared broadcast such sentiments; but they didn’t cut out the scene, I’m glad to say. And they weren’t put out of business either. Mr. Griffith was a very great director-Eisenstein, you know, acknowledged his tremendous debt to him. Since Griffith, no-one has added anything new to the film-except Walt Disney. Griffith was even one of the first to make talking pictures. Dream Street, which he made in 1921, was a talkie.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance


(1916. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish) 

Intolerance is still one of the greatest pictures ever made. Griffith wanted it to run 3-or 4 hours, you know; but he had to cut it to please the exhibitors. That race apart-exhibitors!

Of course, he should never have given way. Right at the beginning he could be very firm indeed. Later, though, he couldn’t. . . . In the long run, though, Intolerance did a disservice to the industry. It set a fashion for expensive pictures. Everybody wanted his picture to cost more than the next man’s ….

Mr. Richard Griffith of the Museum of Modern Art wants me to re-edit Intolerance some day-to put it back to Griffith’s original idea. Of course, it would take a great deal of time.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Hearts of the World

(1918. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish, Robert Harron) 

When we were children in Hollywood, my sister Dorothy and I would cross the road to avoid meeting Mr. Erich von Stroheim. He had such scars. We’d never seen a man with such terrible scars. Then we came to rehearse Hearts of the World, and Mr. Griffith gave Mr. von Stroheim one of the leading parts to rehearse. Of course, we never knew whether we would finally play the parts we rehearsed in the actual picture–Mr. Griffith never told you what you were doing until the last moment. Anyway, when we came to make the picture, he didn’t give the part to Mr. von Stroheim. Mr. von Stroheim cried like a little child. He was inconsolable. Mr. Griffith told him that it was only because he was not the right height, and that he was to play another part. But it was no use; Mr. von Stroheim just cried and cried. We were most impressed. We’d seen ladies cry, of course, but never a man, not like that. And after that, we didn’t cross the road any more when we saw Mr. von Stroheim coming down the street. I never had any admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as a director, though, as I had for Mr. Lubitsch, for example.

Anyone could have shot Greed as he did, scene by scene and line by line from the book. But I shall always have the greatest admiration for Mr. von Stroheim as an actor.

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

Broken Blossoms

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous-the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned-spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and brought up his breakfast. …

The smile-where I just lift the corners of my mouth with my two fingers-that was all mine, too. I didn’t think it out; it was automatic, instinctive.

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

The Greatest Thing in Life

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

The Greatest Thing in Life was Mr. Griffith’s best film. You shouldn’t judge that man without seeing it. There’s one extraordinary scene, you know. A coloured soldier is dying; and there is a white boy with him-played by Robert Harron. The coloured boy is delirious, and calling for his mother-he wants her to kiss him. So to quieten him, the white boy bends down and kisses him, on the lips. As you know, this is a very brave thing to show in a film-two men, like that. It’s a very remarkable film.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie

(1919. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Robert Harron) 

That was Queen Alexandra’s favourite film …. It seems a strange film for a Queen to like. She was my idea of what a Queen should be, though.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

Remodelling Her Husband

(1920. Directed by Lillian Gish. With Dorothy Gish, James Rennie) 

This was the only film I ever directed myself. Oh, I’d never do it again. Mr. Griffith had moved East, you see, and left me to make the film. “I thought that men would work better for you than for me,” he said. I had no idea of practical things, like measurements; but when the workmen asked me how high I wanted the walls of the set I told them, Oh, eight feet (or whatever it was). Well, of course, they weren’t high enough, so that the cameraman George Hill could never photograph them properly.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

Way Down East

(1920. Directed by D. W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess) 

It was terrible doing the location shooting at Mamaroneck; four people lost their lives one way or another during the filming of Way Down East. I was the only one the insurance company passed as being completely fit; and I think I had to put up with more than anybody else during that dreadful winter. There was one day when I had been facing the blizzard practically the whole time; everyone else, of course, had their backs to the wind, and even then some of them had had to give up. My face was covered in icicles and I was frozen. “Get that face, Billy! Get that face!” Mr. Griffith yelled (to G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, the cameraman). Then I collapsed. They had to carry me back to the studio after the day’s shooting was finished. When we filmed the baptism of the dying child, no-one could speak. We had a real baby, you remember; and its father had brought it to the studio. Of course, during the scene, I had my back to the camera. I was half-way through the scene when I heard a thud. I couldn’t think what it was; afterwards I discovered the baby’s father had fainted. He just couldn’t take it.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

La Boheme

(1926. Directed by King Vidor. With Lillian Gish and John Gilbert) 

How I chose Mr. Vidor to direct that film was very simple. Mr. Thalberg and Mr. Mayer asked which director I would like. They showed me a number of new films, including just one reel from an uncompleted picture called The Big Parade. I decided at once, and took not only Vidor, but other people from that wonderful film-John Gilbert and Renee Adoree, for instance. When I finally came to the death scene, they were all terrified, all the people on the set. I just stopped breathing; and I was so still and pale and I stopped breathing for so long, they thought I really had died. Mr. Vidor describes it in his book. But there is one thing I cannot forgive him. He says I stuffed my cheeks with cotton wool. It’s quite untrue. I did no such thing. While I was studying the part, I used to go to a hospital for consumptives, to find out what it was like when they had their paroxysms of coughing, and how their necks went, and so on. I got the priest in charge to take me, and he explained to them why I was there. They were all terribly excited and interested. They would say: “Oh, so-and-so died this morning, and she was like this, and went like this .. . . ” Just as if they were giving you the recipe for their favourite cake or something.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

The Scarlet Letter

(1926. Directed by Victor Sjostrom. With Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson) 

I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: “Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It is an American classic, taught in all our schools”. Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom, who had arrived at M.G.M. some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

[Some years ago Miss Gish wrote: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . . The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression”.]

It was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before th~ camera, of course; and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we all were tremendously moved by it.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

The Film Actor

I think you can learn most from primitive things- from birds and animals- that was what Mr. Griffith advised us. You see, we silent actors had to be able to speak to an international audience-we had to be able to get over to Oriental peoples, for example, who didn’t know anything of our customs or conventions. And that gave our acting a great universality. We tried to perfect a kind of Esperanto of the arts, and we were on the verge of it when sound came …. The most perfect silent film, of course, was The Last Laugh, in which Murnau at last dispensed entirely with titles. My mother was my hardest critic and a great help to me. She only came to the studio once; and she was so horrified to see the things that were done to her daughters that she never came near again. . . . I remember once in our earliest days we rushed home, terribly pleased because people had recognised us and turned round to look at us in the street. “If you walked down the street with a ring in your nose, they’d turn and look at you just the same”, she said. I think the things that are necessary in my profession are these: Taste, Talent and Tenacity. I think I have had a little of all three.

Sight and Sound – Winter 1957 – 8

The Film Quarterly

Sight and Sound (1958-01)(BFI)(GB).pdf

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