Dorothy Gish – Beyond Hollywood’s grasp By Harry Waldman (1994)

  • Beyond Hollywood’s grasp : American filmmakers abroad, 1914-1945
  • By Harry Waldman
  • Copyright © 1994 by Harry Waldman
  • Manufactured in the United States of America

Dorothy Gish was invited to work in Britain in the 1920s. When she made Nell Gwyn in 1926, a different kind of screen persona came to the fore. She was out of the shadow of her more illustrious sister—and out of the glare of Hollywood. She did not return to America right away. The same could be said for Louise Brooks in Germany and France in the late 1920s, Gloria Swanson making her favorite film, Madame Sans-Gene, in France in 1925, and the Griffith actress Mae Marsh in Britain in the early 1920s. Finally, even D. W. Griffith went abroad. He did so once to make a contribution to the war effort in 1917 called Hearts of the World: a second time, ironically, in 1924 to make amends for that one-sided view of reality. That was something for Griffith to do, and others would do it too.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Woman with hands at neck] [Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3547

Dorothy Gish

A second Griffith actress soon followed Marsh abroad, and again it was Herbert Wilcox who acted as catalyst. By starring in his production of Nell Gwyn, released in 1926, 28-year-old Dorothy Gish would create one of England’s finest silent features and her personal best. For Herbert Wilcox, Nell Gwyn was “a perfect story,” he said, “but needing a great vivacious actress.” Wilcox had the solution. He cabled his lawyer in New York, asking, “Is Dorothy Gish available for British film?…wonderful part.” Gish, who was free since completing her part in Maurice Tourneur’s Clothes Make the Pirate (1925), soon queried her agent, “What sort of part?” Hearing what it was—and unconcerned about the terms or script—she said “You can forget Hollywood. I’m going to England.” The trip to Britain in mid-1925 was not her first trip abroad. In 1917, the 19-year-old Dorothy Gish had starred alongside her sister in Griffith’s pro-British war film Hearts of the World. In 1924, she acted, again with her sister, in the American production Romola, which was directed by Henry King in Florence, Italy. But this role was different. In this performance, she would come out of the shadow of her more illustrious sister, alongside whom she’d appeared in two Griffith features and a handful of shorts. In Nell Gwyn, she would star alone. She would also star for the first time as the natural blond that she was. Under D. W. Griffith, she had appeared as a brunette to avoid any collision of looks with her blond sister. Restricted and frustrated as a brunette and possibly overshadowed by her sister—called the greatest silent actress of them all—Dorothy Gish discovered in her first British role the scope for uninhibited expression as an actress. Wilcox said she “radiated with the joy of life. It was humor out of the top drawer and sex appeal to boot.” Her sex appeal was a revelation. Said one observer: “It took an Englishman to discover that Dorothy Gish had legs and extremely beautiful breasts.” Gish, too, called her part, “The first really sexy role I ever had, she was the King’s mistress.” Gish’s salary was also of the highest caliber: nearly $5,000 per week—a top figure in those days, here or abroad.

Dorothy Gish – Nell Gwyn

By paying Gish such an enormous sum, however, Wilcox had put his picture in jeopardy. He was soon short of cash. To make ends meet, he kept everyone else in Nell Gwyn waiting for payment. He managed to finish the film with literally his last penny and then; unable to pay for an editor, edited the film himself at home. The results were impressive. Herbert Wilcox and Dorothy Gish’s 82-minute Nell Gwyn opened in early 1926. Gish played the street gamin Eleanor Gwyn, born in 1650, who first gains stardom on the London stage. She soon wins the affection of King Charles II—outmaneuvering Lady Castlemaine—and dies in 1687, faithful to the monarch and her class. Nell Gwyn led many to believe, since Griffith had often clothed Gish in costumes and rags, that they had discovered a new Dorothy Gish. “That Nell was the mistress of the King,” wrote Variety, “is not left to the imagination, even though it is not expressed in so many words in a subtitle; but the action conveys the story completely.” Wilcox, the Irish-born producer-director-writer, showed that British cinema could be exciting—and nearly flawless. “As a matter of fact,” continued the review, “there isn’t a single fault to be found in the direction of the picture in any manner.” But the greatest acclaim went to Dorothy Gish. “Superb isn’t the word that fits her performance; tremendous would possibly more actually convey the work she does. She is at once Gish, Pickford, Negri, and Swanson.” Dorothy Gish did not return to Hollywood. The success of her role allowed Gish to sign a three-picture deal with British National Films, which had been formed to control the world rights to Nell Gwyn. In the United States, Adolf Zukor of Paramount bought the American rights and proceeded to give British National $1 million so that Gish would star in three other films abroad. Herbert Wilcox, as it turned out, would direct them all within the space of a year. Each was a short 60 minutes. The next Wilcox-Gish collaboration was called London. Based on an scenario by Thomas Burke, Gish’s second British work opened in late 1926. While it was a departure from Nell Gwyn, it was a return to the roles Gish had played in Hollywood under Griffith. She starred in a Cinderella tale: a ragamuffin sold into near bondage, she manages to escape her tormentor and get help from a gentle artist. She falls in love with him and he in turn performs a sort of miracle: her transforms her into a lady. Facing a return to her former existence, she eludes her grim fate and marries her prince charming.

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Director Wilcox opened the film with views of London’s slums, establishing the environment. Later there were scenes of a better life: the Henley regatta and the Paul Whiteman band at the Kit Kat Club. Gish’s character even brought some levity into her role. Having learned the finer points of life, at one point she does a particularly trim Charleston. But even more comedy would have helped, “had it been brought out,” wrote one critic. So Gish and Wilcox tried to make their next film a humorous one. To do that, Wilcox brought in Will Rogers. The film was called Tiptoes. Gish, Rogers, and Nelson Keys, all American song-and-dance vaudevillians, find themselves down and out in Liverpool and London. They devise a get-rich-quick scheme, acting as socialites in order to meet members of the British aristocracy. Gish, playing an American heiress, attempts to gain the attention of a wealthy lord with an eye toward marrying him. Tiptoes, which opened in June 1927, garnered little attention, mainly because Rogers did not do enough screen comedy. He was a man who had to be seen talking, not acting. Gish was found to look “nice at times and other times may be blamed upon the English.” So Wilcox and Gish responded by quickly putting out Madame Pompadour. Their fourth collaboration, out two months after Tiptoes, was a hit. Madame Pompadour was a return to the formula of Nell Gwyn. Giving a dignified and softened performance, Gish played the mistress of eighteen-century monarch Louis XV. However, she soon turns her atten-tion elsewhere. She falls in love, and then elopes, with the young radical artist René Laval, played by Antonio Moreno. When they are caught by the men of the jealous King, they face certain death. But Madame Pompadour saves their lives through a ruse that has a tragic catch: she must separate from her new lover forever. Wilcox used period costumes to great pictorial effect. He introduced a lavishness into the last, dramatic 15 minutes, and his directorial touches heightened the dramatic moods of the film. The result was that Madame Pompadour was called “a good one” by U.S. critics. “Almost sure-fire box-office… The Wilcox production is above British par—judging from other importations.” Once reason was that the film was supervised by the talented E. A. Dupont, the director of the smash German import Variety. In 1928, when her contract to work with Wilcox was completed, Gish left films.

Portrait of actress Dorothy Gish wearing a satin dress, circa 1920-1930. (Photo by American Stock Archive/Moviepix/Getty Images)

“They’re kind of crazy, the things I did,” she said of her films abroad. Her four films had helped break the typecasting for which Griffith had been responsible. She stayed away from Hollywood; even the introduction of sound failed to lure her back to American films. Instead, Gish turned to the theater, dividing her time between the Broadway stage and that in London, where she joined her husband, James Rennie. In 1930, Herbert Wilcox decided to direct and produce the first British all-talking film. Around the same time, Alfred Hitchcock was making Blackmail, but that film was a silent that would be‘converted at the last minute to sound. Wilcox’s film, on the other hand, was planned as a sound film from the start, and thus he had the field to himself for a while. His first talkie was also distinguished for two other reasons. The director had lured Dorothy Gish into the age of sound, and the film costarred Charles Laughton, who was making the first full-length film of his career. The Gish-Wilcox one-hour production—its length was a trademark of theirs— was Called Wolves. The title was apt. Gish played Leila McDonald, a woman trapped in the frozen north with a group of unsavory types. The men scheme to draw lots to see who will get her. Laughton played her savior, Captain Job, who dies rescuing the heroine from an unwholesome fate. Laughton had gained the role because another actor rejected the part. With his first words, Laughton would soon earn acclaim. Ironically, he became famous for his despising of words, considering them merely appendages to his acting. Yet when it came to speaking, there were few actors who could match him. For her part, Gish performed in a stylized fashion more suitable to her silent films. Wolves did not appear in the United States until 1936, and then only in a trimmed, 35-minute version called Wanted Men. Gish, along with Laughton, ignored the American “premiere.” But an actor named Jack Osterman, playing a secondary role in the film, had a more immediate interest in Wanted Men. Having since made a name for himself on Broadway, he did not want this ghost from the past reappearing. He arranged to buy the early talkie before it opened, but on the way to pick up the film, he was mugged on the streets of New York, so Gish’s first, albeit shortened, sound film survived. Gish, who lived until 1968, made 100 films in her career. Except for her five sound films—her four American talkies debuted between 1944 and 1963—nearly all the rest are lost.

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