Vanity Fair – November 1924
A Critical Appreciation of the First Lady of the Cinema
GEORGE JEAN NATHAN
The scene was one of the two great metropolitan railroad terminals; the time was a few months ago. The huge central concourse was black with five thousand people and the walls rang to a wild and frantic cheering. Men and women, as if beset, piled against and over one another in their excited effort to get a better view of the object of their enthusiasm. Police were summoned to achieve some faint order. A brass band, its blare rising helplessly against the hysterical din, spent itself vainly upon the national anthem. Women, trampled upon, still managed to throw flowers in the direction of their divinity, and men’s hats followed suit. And Mary Pickford, blowing kisses right and left, descended gaily to the train that was to take her westward to California. Meanwhile, in a little drugstore on the upper level of the terminal, quite alone, unknown, unrecognized—and without even so much as a newsboy to pay her the tribute of a “Gee!”—the finest actress that the moving pictures have known, stood drinking a chocolate ice-cream soda.
OBVIOUSLY, I am once again at my old pastime of merchanting platitudes, for the artistic eminence on the screen of Miss Lillian Gish is surely not news. That she is one of the few real actresses that the films have brought forth, either here or abroad, is pretty well agreed upon by the majority of critics. But it seems to me that, though the fact is taken for granted, the reasons for her eminence have in but small and misty part been set into print. Mr. Hergesheimer has paid charming tribute to the young woman’s personal loveliness, and Mr. Cabell, too, has brought the magic of his words to her celebration—-even the venerable Dreiser, himself, has spoken his piece in regard of her—but beyond the fair and delicate creature that these see, as they see their Cythereas and their Dorothys la Desirees, there is a creature more permanent and infinitely more important, one that the rest of us more realistic and prosy fellows discern: a woman who is the surest artist, in her own particular field, of her generation. Of that field, as you may know, I do not hold a particularly high opinion; but in this instance, small matter. As a great sculptor works with mud, so a fine actress may work with mush. Some of the most beautiful performances of Duse and Bernhardt were wrought out of dramatic rubbish; the beautiful performances of Lillian Gish have been wrought from rubbish, no less.
The girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so. She may, for aught I know, be personally the April moon and Diana’s silver horn of Joe Hergesheimcr’s fancy, or a girl beyond the reach of any man’s inventiveness, in the fancy of James Cabell, or even, for that matter, the some baby of the ever fastidious Theodore’s paean—of such things, alas, my monastic soul wots not—but she is, professionally, unless I am unusually mistaken, the only actress in the unspeakable drama who knows her business thoroughly and who, knowing it, has in her the glory of converting it into something very alive, very impressive, and exceedingly beautiful.
The particular genius of Lillian Gish lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite. Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion. The acting of every other woman in the moving pictures is a thing of hard, set lines; the acting of Lillian Gish is a thing of a hundred shadings, hints and implications. The so-called wistful smile of the usual movie actress is a mere matter of drawing the lips coyly back from the gums; her tears are a mere matter of inhaling five times rapidly through the nose, blinking the eyes and letting a few drops of glycerine trickle down the left cheek.
THE smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl, in so far as they arc tears at all, are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes. The whole secret of the young woman’s remarkably effective acting rests, as I have observed, in her carefully devised and skilfully negotiated technique of playing always, as it were, behind a veil of silver chiffon. She attacks a role, not head-on and with full infantry, cavalry, artillery, bass drums and Y. M. C. A. milk chocolate, as do her sister actresses, but from ambush. She is always present, she always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight around the corner. One never feels that one is seeing her entirely. There is ever something pleasantly, alluringly missing, as there is always in the case of women who are truly “acting artists.”
Her characterizations arc built up of a hundred little things, in themselves largely unidentifiable. And when, at the end, we have in its composite form the character picture she would give us, we find that we have no picture at all, but just the idea and memory of a picture. We have been made to feel a character without ever having been privileged really to behold it. That is the girl’s legerdemain.
SOME time ago, I delivered myself briefly in another place of this opinion that Lillian Gish was the only actress in motion pictures worth the powder to blow them up with. Whereupon, from the great municipality of Wilkes-Barre, in the sovereign state of Pennsylvania, there came to me a letter inscribed by an indignant gent to the net and explicit effect that I was, for so saying, cousin to the jackass. “What!” he cried. “If you half knew what you were talking about you’d know that the detail of her performances in different roles never changes one single iota: she always expresses elation in one way, sorrow in one way, horror in one way, and agony in one way. If she were the actress you are idiotic enough to say she is, you will surely agree that she would express the grief of a girl of Limehouse— Broken Blossoms—differently from the grief of an Italian girl—The White Sister—and the agony of an American country girl—Way Dozen East—differently from that of a French girl—Orphans of the Storm.
It is a well-known and widely recognized fact that it always pains me grievously to disagree with anyone, but I fear that I shall have to in this case. The roles that Lillian Gish has thus far played have always, proncrly enough, been those of young girls, and the expression of the major emotions on the part of young girls, whether English, French, American or Italian, is not materially different. A French girl’s anguish and an American girl’s anguish are much the same, as are an Italian girl’s happiness and that of a girl in the slums of London. Emotions are common to humanity; it is only bad actresses who have made them idiosyncratic personal property. If one may justly criticize La Gish’s manner of registering these various emotions, might one not criticize much more pointedly the late and incomparable Eleonora Duse, the greatest actress of our time? For Duse’s expression of grief as the Norwegian woman of Ghosts was not different from her expression of grief as the Italian woman of Cost Sia, nor was her expression of elation as the Italian woman of La Cittò Morta different from her expression of the same emotion as the Scandinavian woman of The Laris from the Sea. And so with Bernhardt. For the soul-racking cry of Sarah Bernhardt’s Izcyl was the soul-racking cry of Sarah Bernhardt’s Lady of the Cameras, as the palpitant eagerness of Sarah Bernhardt’s L’Aiglon was the palpitant eagerness of her Jeanne d’Arc. What is more, these two sets of roles are not of a fundamental piece; they are entirely dissimilar— the role of an old woman, of a middle-aged woman, of a young girl, of a young boy, and so on. Might it not therefore be urged, and relevantly and acutely, that the expression of certain emotions under the circumstances suffer something of a difference? It might. But that is for an essay other than the present one.
Lillian Gish does perfectly what she is called upon to do. It isn’t fair to criticize her for not doing something that thus far has not been demanded of her. It will be time enough for us to judge and appraise her anew when these heavier demands are made of her. As we get her today, she does superlatively well the task that has been set her to do and the task she has set herself to do. She is a young girl; she plays the roles of young girls; and she plays them with something that borders very closely upon histrionic genius. Her art is so confoundedly simple in its external appearance, her means are so adroitly concealed, her technique is so delicately crooned to rest in the corners of her little brain, that one is deceived into underestimation of her very rare, very tangible dramatic and mimetic equipment. The details of her pantomime are extraordinarily fashioned. There is more drama in her eyes, there is more drama in the fingers of her hands, than there is in all the bodies of all the other women in motion pictures. She can say more without moving a muscle than the rest of them can say with a hoochie-coochie dance, a fist fight with Wallace Beery and an automobile race with the Twentieth Century Limited combined. She has no comedy, but she has in her the essence of drama and pathos and tragedy and quiet exaltation as none other of our screen women has. Only the more mature Alma Rubens approaches her in conveying certain delicacies of pantomime; and Miss Rubens, though a skilful and allusive actress, is still far behind her. It is, in a word, the misfortune of Lillian Gish that her very beautiful art should, by the decree of a droll and ironical Fate, have been given to us through a medium artistically so childish and disreputable as the present day motion picture.
George Jean Nathan – 1924