The Griffith Actresses
By ANTHONY SLIDE – 1973
About the Author
Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.
Oh, she was such fun. — Bessie Love
“She gives people the impression that she’s an awful tomboy,” her sister says with a sigh. “I can’t help it if I do,” the accused replies, “because I do like to climb trees, and I do like to take off my shoes and stockings and go wading, and I do like to swim, and go fishing, and bait my own hooks, and . . .
“Hush, dear, people will think you’re simply terrible and it won’t do any good for me to tell them what a perfect darling you are.” The last from Miss Lillian Gish to her sister Dorothy. “Mr. Griffith,” she remarked, “I’ve often wondered how the divine Sarah would have played this part.” Before Mr. Griffith could answer, Dorothy Gish spoke up: “You mean the great French actress?” she inquired ironically. “Ah yes! She’d do it this way.”
The foregoing apocryphal conversation, which appeared in a 1914 issue of Reel Life, suggests the essence of Dorothy Gish’s personality. Her sense of fun and wit was well-known and appreciated by her many friends. Herbert Wilcox recalls in his autobiography: “The wittiest woman I have met is undoubtedly Dorothy Gish. Whilst in New York I took her to the Pavilion, the smartest and darkest restaurant in the city. About that time a columnist who called herself Hortense was dishing out her daily column of poison. ‘Hortense’ was universally loathed, particularly by her pet target—film stars. Whilst eating, I thought I saw her at a far table, but in the low-key lighting was not certain. ‘Isn’t that Hortense over there?’ I asked. Dorothy looked and without a flicker of a smile answered: ‘She looks perfectly relaxed to me.’”
From the day she was born, on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy’s private life was always to be linked with that of her sister. In company with their mother, the two girls spent their early years touring in melodrama, Dorothy having made her stage debut at the age of four. Of her childhood she was to write: “People used to say Lillian would never live to get into her ’teens. She was so quiet and good. I wasn’t. I used to get into mischief, and get spanked, and then Lillian cried—so much and so pitifully that she used to make everyone round her do the same.” However, there was another side to Dorothy’s character, and Lillian recalled that she could be a very serious child, and at times became so serious that she was nicknamed “Grannie Gish.”
In 1929, Dorothy reminisced about the plays Lillian and she had worked in as children. “Remember, Lillian, the old Blaney melodrama we used to play in? Remember Her First False Step? That was the name of our first melodrama. I always thought it was misnamed. There were two of us; Lillian and I were the false steps. Lillian would run out dressed as a newsboy, and give me a lollypop and I would clap my hands and cry ‘Oh Goodie! Goodie!’ And Lillian would kneel beside her mother and say, ‘Oh mother, what are you doing out here in the cold and snow?’ And remember the snow, Lillian? How they used to sweep it up every night and use it again the next day, and we’d have nails and pieces of wood and sometimes dead mice hit us on the head when they threw it down?”
Then, one fateful day in Baltimore, Mrs. Gish took her two young daughters to see a moving picture; it was Lena and the Geese, featuring Gladys Smith, whose family was intimate friends of the Gishes. Thus it was that when the Gish family arrived in New York, they went along to the Biograph studios to renew acquaintances with the Smiths, and Gladys, now Mary Pickford, introduced them to D. W. Griffith.
Griffith gave the two girls work as extras at $5 a day, and shortly after the first meeting featured both of them in An Unseen Enemy, released September 9, 1912. However, before very long, it became apparent that it was Lillian in whom Griffith was most interested. Linda Arvidson described Dorothy as “a bit too perky to interest the big director.” And Griffith told Albert Bigelow Paine, “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal, and patiently sought to realise it.”
But it was Dorothy who was the more popular at the studio with the other players. Blanche Sweet recalled: “Dorothy was very close and very dear. We got to be excellent friends, and remained so until she died. Griffith asked me, ‘Which one do you like?’ And I said, ‘They’re both lovely, they’re both beautiful, but I like the younger one. There’s something, the expression of her face, it’s vivacious.’ Lillian was calmer and more placid. Dorothy had humor, of course, for which I have high regard.”
Griffith did, however, take Dorothy with him to Reliance-Majestic, perhaps only because Lillian would not have come without her. The director did not use her in either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, but Dorothy was featured in a vast number of Mutual releases directed by, among others, James Kirkwood, Christy Cabanne, and Donald Crisp* all under the nominal supervision of Griffith. Typical of such releases was the 1914 The Warning, directed by Donald Crisp.
Dorothy plays Betty, “the wilful, indolent country girl,” who likes nothing better than sitting in a hammock, reading popular fiction with doubtful titles such as The Marriage of Marie. She is attracted to a drummer from the city, whom she meets outside the local post office, and with whom she elopes. After a fake marriage, the girl rents a dingy tenement room, in which she tries to gas herself. However, the landlady arrives on the scene in time, and sends her home to her mother. But because of her behaviour, her mother tells her to leave. The girl, in abject misery, wanders to a bridge and throws herself into the river. The scene fades, and we see that Dorothy has in fact fallen out of her hammock—it was all a dream. She meets the drummer who had beguiled her with his city manners, tells him she never wants to see him again, and promises her mother that in the future she will be good.
This one-reeler is a delight to watch, and makes one wish that more of Dorothy’s pictures from this early period were available for viewing. The range of her acting at such an early date in her career is quite remarkable. It hardly seems believable that comic little Dorothy could play tragedy as finely as she does in the scene of attempted suicide. She stands looking at the gas mantle, turns the gas on, and moves out of frame. All we glimpse is a harrowed, pitiful face, reflected in a mirror by the side of the mantle.
Linda Arvidson at least was aware of her abilities. For she wrote that, while Lillian was watching Dorothy on the set of The Wife, released in 1914, the elder sister commented, “Why, Dorothy is good; she’s almost as good as I am.”* Linda Arvidson continued, “Many more than myself thought Dorothy was better.”
It was Griffith, however, who gave Dorothy her really big chance, when he decided to film Hearts of the World. Lillian had already been cast as the heroine, and the role of “The Little Disturber” it was thought would go to Constance Talmadge. However, Lillian
realised that her sister would be ideal for the role, and eventually Griffith was brought around to her way of thinking. Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England in April, 1917, and Dorothy followed two weeks later. Only on her arrival in England—many scenes were shot on location in war-torn France—did Dorothy discover that the role was hers.
Anyone who has seen Hearts of the World will remember Dorothy’s walk in the picture, and Lillian recalled for me how that walk was discovered. “I was walking with Mr. Griffith in Whitechapel, and we found this girl walking like this, and he said, ‘Look at that walk!’ And we followed her until she went into a building, and we couldn’t any more. And we rushed back. He said, ‘Where’s your sister? This is a perfect walk for her in this part.’ And then we rushed back to the Savoy, and got her, and both of us showed her this walk. And out of that came ‘The Little Disturber.’ Those little things that you or he or somebody found that would give the key to the character. They have the idea that he sat and told you everything to do. Well, he didn’t. He gave you the basis of the idea, and if you were overdoing it, he’d say, ‘Too much—don’t do so much. Be, don’t act. Be it.’ You didn’t want to get caught acting. You wanted to persuade people, whatever it was, that this was happening and this was real.”
One can’t help wondering if Lillian didn’t regret that she had pushed so much to have Dorothy in the film. For Hearts of the World is entirely Dorothy’s picture. She is utterly delightful as the street singer trying to make herself as attractive as possible to Robert Harron with “perseverance and perfume,” and shrugging her shoulders when she realises Harron’s love belongs elsewhere, secure in her philosophy, “If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.”
For the film, Dorothy wore a black wig, which led to some amusing incidents later, as people failed to recognize her as the girl in the film. Dorothy told Adela Rogers St. Johns, “There was a woman sat next to mother and me one day at a matinee of Hearts of the World. The woman watched me on the screen for a few minutes and then she turned around to me and said, ‘I’ll bet that girl is a tough one. She couldn’t pull that stuff so well if she wasn’t.’ ”
As a result of her performance in Hearts of the World, Dorothy was offered a million-dollar contract by Paramount-Artcraft. She turned it down, preferring to remain with Griffith, an instance of the loyalty which crops up time and time again in recounting the careers of the Griffith actresses. After her decision to stay, Griffith supervised a series of seven Paramount-Artcraft comedies, directed by Elmer Clifton and starring Dorothy. These comedies, in fact, were so successful and popular that they helped to pay the cost of the building of Griffith’s new studios at Mamaroneck.
They were equally popular with the critics, as the following reviews from Wid’s Film Daily testify. I’ll Get Him Yet (reviewed May 25, 1919) : “Dorothy Gish has scored again. Individuality is marked in almost everything she does and the merest suggestion of a comic incident is frequently turned into a full-fledged laugh owing to her skill.” Nugget Nell (reviewed August 3, 1919) : “She knew just where to draw the line between seriousness and burlesque, with the result that time and time again she put a situation over with a bang. She was particularly bright in scoring in little things—the sort of things that made her efforts in the comedy line bring laughs merely because of her manner of doing them, and not always because of any inherent humor in the things themselves.”
Late in 1919, Lillian began work on her first and only film as a director, Remodelling Her Husband. As her stars she had Dorothy and James Rennie, whom Dorothy was to marry on December 20, 1920. “Griffith needed money as usual,” recalled Lillian, “and he wanted to go to Florida with his company and make the exteriors down there for two pictures quickly. And he said, ‘How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.’ Well, I went home, and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course, there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the subtitles, because she’d never written for films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright— and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too! Then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was a brilliant man, the Los Angeles Times editorial writer—and me to do this film. I was taking scenes—it was December—and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I had to go down to New Rochelle quickly and get all my scenery; I had to design all the scenery, there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the furniture, everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he had had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set, the living room, so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. And he threw his hat in the air, stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. And then I had to build the studio!
“When I moved down there, I had to see the furnace was put in, and that the heat was sufficient. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene of Fifth Avenue, and the day before we took it, I found you had to have a police permit, and if that happened, I had all my crew on salary over the Christmas holidays. I said, ‘I just can’t. It’s too far over the budget.’ And I asked the crew and company if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal.
“Well, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus seeing her husband with a woman in the taxi cab. And we had no permit! We had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned a policeman saw what was happening, and held up his hand. Then he looked up at me, and he looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile. I said, ‘Yes.’ He waved us on, and we got by. We finished fifty-eight thousand dollars, and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many pictures do today.
“When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture, when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, ‘Because I needed my studio built quickly, and I knew they’d work faster for a girl than they would for me. I’m no fool.’ And his studio was ready when he came back; he moved right in.”
After three pictures with other directors, Dorothy returned to Griffith, to appear with Lillian in what was to prove the sisters’ final film for the great director, Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have surprised many of his contemporaries by casting Dorothy not as Henriette, the more forceful of the two sisters, but as Louise, the blind girl, who is separated from her sister upon arrival in Paris, where they have come to find a surgeon who could cure the girl’s blindness. Yet again, Dorothy proved that she was far more than the comedienne many people remember. It is hard to believe that Lillian could have put more emotion into the scenes in which Dorothy is forced by Lucille La Verne to sing and beg for money in the streets. “This production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper,” commented Photoplay. “As for the acting—it is superb.”
In the next four years, Dorothy appeared in only seven productions, two of which, The Bright Shawl (1923) and Romola (1924), have become classics, classics which, unhappily, it is impossible to view today. Romola was shot by Henry King in Italy, and Harry Carr reported in Motion Picture Magazine on the return of the two sisters to Hollywood for the premiere of the film. “The Gish sisters came out on the stage together when the picture was over, and Lillian made a frightened but sincere little speech. They were dressed in quaint, lovely gowns that somehow gave the impression that they were not quite of this world. Out there, behind the footlights, they looked like two fragile and beautiful little flowers.”
Then, in 1926, Dorothy was invited to England by Herbert Wilcox to play the title role in Nell Gwyn. Dorothy gladly accepted, and came over to London with her husband, who appeared on the English stage in The Great Gatsby. (So impressed, in fact, by James Rennie was Wilcox—he described him to me as “a damned good actor”— that Rennie was given a role in Wilcox’s 1933 production of The Little Damozel.)
Dorothy was joined in the film by some of the best acting talent that England had to offer at that time, including Randle Ayrton as the king, and Sydney Fairbrother as her mother. The film was an instantaneous success, and may well be the best picture Dorothy ever made. As critic George Jean Nathan commented, “It took a British director and an English-made film to reveal how sexy Dorothy Gish can be.” And “sexy” indeed she is, displaying much of her very beautiful body, and obviously enjoying every minute of her seduction by the king. No wonder Photoplay pointed out, “Just for the grown-ups.”
Nell Gwyn has been revived in recent years, thanks to George Eastman House, and has delighted new generations of filmgoers. Blanche Sweet saw the film again at a three-day tribute to Dorothy at the Museum of Modern Art, and told me, “Really in Nell Gwyn she was so Ipvely, so funny and so good. It was just a pleasure to see the picture again. It hadn’t deteriorated; it was just as good as it always has been.”
Dorothy made four more films for Herbert Wilcox: London, Tip Toes, and Madame Pompadour, all released in 1927, and Wolves, which was released in 1930, and which Wilcox claims as the first English all-talkie. Only Madame Pompadour appears to have survived from this group, and I was able to arrange for its first screening in forty years at London’s National Film Theatre in the spring of 1971. The film proved to be a bitter disappointment. Dorothy’s acting was faultless, as was that of her leading man, Antonio Moreno, and that of the villainous Gibb McLaughlin, but they were no match for a weak story and direction which seems antiquated and without the brilliance one would expect from the man responsible for Nell Gwyn.
Like her sister, Dorothy returned to the stage with the coming of sound. Her theater work included Autumn Crocus (1932), Life with Father (1939), The Great Big Doorstep (1942), and The Magnificent Yankee (1946). Dorothy made her American talkie debut in 1944, as the wife of Otis Skinner in the charming Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. She made only three more films: Centennial Summer (1946), The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), and The Cardinal (1964).
Dorothy Gish died of a stroke at a sanatorium in Rapallo, Italy, on June 4, 1968. Lillian was at the bedside. Lillian had written of her sister in Theatre Magazine (November 1927), “She is laughter, even on the cloudy days of life; nothing bothers her or saddens her or concerns her lastingly. Trouble gives only an evanescent shadow to her eyes and is banished with the shrug of a shoulder. I envy this dear, darling Dorothy with all my heart, for she is the side of me that God left out.” That is how many, many filmgoers will remember Dorothy—as laughter.