Glimpses of a Legend
By Kevin Brownlow
Sight and Sound – April, 1984 BFI England
Imagine it is 1930. The silent era has passed and you want to pay tribute to its greatest actress. Who would you choose? You would consider Garbo, but hers is a relatively new face. The actress you would have to select, an actress who has worked on the screen consistently since 1912, whose pictures include the cinema’s greatest classics, is Lillian Gish.
That such a tribute could still be staged in 1983 is astonishing. And those who were there, at the Thames Silents in the Dominion Theatre at the end of the London Film Festival will remember it for the rest of their lives.
For Lillian Gish was not only by common consent the greatest actress of the silent era, she personified it. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period. And there can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to her credit: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, all directed by the man she calls the Father of Film, David Wark Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics-The White Sister and Romola-and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, The Scarlet Letter and The Wind.
Hers has always been the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish has associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois (she succeeded) and Abel Gance (she failed) to helping to promote the reconstructed versions of Napoleon and A Star Is Born. And somehow she still finds time to act. Thames Television’s association with the silent era began with the Hollywood TV series. David Gill, director, Carl Davis, composer, and I had worked together on all thirteen programmes, and David and Carl wanted to celebrate transmission by staging a silent film in a West End theatre with live orchestra. They selected Broken Blossoms, but at the time no one at Thames thought it a good idea. So we had to wait until the new head of Thames, Bryan Cowgill, in an inspired moment, launched the first showing of the reconstructed Napoleon with orchestra. The success was unprecedented and David Gill has sustained the momentum, heading a small team which not only stages the films for the public but prepares them for Channel 4. When we first put the idea of the tribute to Lillian Gish, she was as enthusiastic as we had hoped. She promised that she would be there, ‘so long as my filming commitments permit.’ Ideas tend to generate themselves, and the Cinematheque Francaise decided to hold a Lillian Gish retrospective in Paris. Unhappily, Paris did not know of our plans, nor we of theirs, and they settled on early October, meaning Lillian Gish had to fly to Paris, return to New York, then fly back again at the end of November She had only recently finished acting in Hambone and Hillie, in California. She had endured a very demanding schedule. We wondered how she would stand up to another.
Saturday, 26 November 1983
The weather forecast was a litany of gale warnings. The Thames car hire people rang me to say the plane was due half an hour early; evidently the tailwinds were tremendous. A white Mercedes picked me up and whisked me to the airport. En route, the driver expressed great interest in Lillian Gish. He liked watching old films on TV. Had I seen a series called Hollywood? It had taught him that silent films were not accompanied by a piano, but in the big theatres by orchestras. I told him he could experience just such an event next weekend. I scanned the crowd of passengers emerging from customs. One stopped me, recognising me from a Barbican show of Napoleon. He was an off-duty immigration officer. When he heard who I was waiting for, he reached into a shoulder bag, pulled out a camera, and joined us on our side of the railings. I saw an official pushing a wheelchair. Whoever it was, I told myself, it wouldn’t be Lillian Gish. But then I recognised something about the colour of the clothes. My morale plummeted. I rushed up, and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.
‘We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,’ said her manager, James Frasher, following behind with a trolley piled high with suitcases. ‘We expected a golf cart,’ he whispered. ‘Lillian said, “This’ll scare them to death. They’ll think I’m an invalid.” ‘ As it happened, he added, she had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.
‘We read about the newspaper strike,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ I said. ‘We’ve lost our publicity campaign.’ And I showed her the magazines, which no one would see, of the Mail on Sunday big spread with photo-and the Sunday Times-a long article with a photo by Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ‘We’ll do lots of radio,’ she said. ‘We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.’
At the suite at the Savoy, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited Lillian Gish. ‘I first came here in 1917 ,’ she said, looking out at the view of the river. ‘Our suite was just like this, and Mr Griffith held all our rehearsals here for Hearts of the World. We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk [Cleopatra’s Needle]. There was no warning-just a sudden bang. Mother was doing her hair. Dorothy and I ran down. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe twelve people were killed.’ She looked at the porters who had brought up the luggage. ‘That was the First War. You don’t even remember the Second!’ I showed her the printed programme for the Tribute. She seemed delighted with it. ‘How is the music for Broken Blossoms?’ ‘It’s the original Louis Gottschalk score,’ I said, ‘which Carl Davis has adapted.’ ‘Tell them not to forget the Chinese gongs,’ she said. ‘They are very important to the meaning of the picture.’ For someone who should have been suffering from jet lag, Lillian Gish was remarkably ebullient. She examined the press coverage which had escaped the strike, and James Frasher skittishly showed her an item illustrated by three pictures-two of her and one of the vast female impersonator Divine. ‘I like this picture of you best,’ he said. Lillian Gish looked at him reproachfully. ‘Oh, Jim.’ Then she examined it again. ‘It looks as if I’d eaten a lot,’ she said.
Tuesday 29 November
The television monitor in the Thames Silents office was tuned in to A-Plus, which was setting up in the studio. I saw Lillian Gish, dressed in a striking pink suit, taking her seat, and almost at once heard her directing the lighting. ‘Camera high, light low,’ she explained. She checked the result on a nearby monitor. One could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes. ‘Eyes are so important,’ she told the cameraman. ‘I believe that’s why Dallas is such a success around the world … you can see their eyes so clearly. The story is just repetitive, but human beings love seeing themselves looking so attractive.’ Suddenly the cameraman zoomed in. Lillian Gish saw at once what he was doing. ‘Don’t come so close,’ she warned. ‘You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.’ They settled for what she wanted. ‘Honestly,’ said Mavis Nicholson, the presenter, ‘you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.’ ‘
I was born this way,’ said Lillian Gish, with a chuckle. ‘I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colours, you know-brown, black, white, blonde. It’s still me.’ The opening of the show, which had been pre-recorded, was run. It ended with a scene from The Wind. Lillian Gish said, ‘But to match that face sixty years later! I did my best this morning with make-up. But you can’t perform miracles. You have to help it with lights.’ ‘Only a little,’ said Mavis Nicholson.
‘Oh, it’s not for me-that’s vanity-it’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say, “Oh, how awful!” ‘
During the interview, Lillian Gish spoke about acting. She gestured at the lens. ‘This camera teaches you what not to do. I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in your mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.’ That evening, the Guardian lecture was held at the National Film Theatre. All the seats had been sold. Despite the cold, a crowd hovered at the entrance. When Lillian Gish arrived, in a black fur coat and black cap, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing and even a man with an old-fashioned cine camera trying vainly to get a steady shot of Lillian Gish as she was escorted through the foyer to the Green Room. After a brief extract from Broken Blossoms, Sheridan Morley came on stage and introduced ‘The first lady of the American cinema.’ And he asked: ‘Once you had settled in Hollywood in 1913, what were the films that first established you out there, that made you feel you were the beginnings of an industry?’
‘We didn’t know that,’ she answered. ‘We were too young. It was just something that we were working in to make a living until we were old enough to be accepted in the theatre as ingenues. At that time photography was so terrible that an old hag of eighteen was passe.
She was a character woman. They had to have young faces. Once we went in to the studio, and there was an audience scene, and under the lights-those Cooper Hewitt lights-they all looked as if they’d been dead for three weeks.’
At the end of the evening, questions were invited from the audience. Someone asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ‘Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,’ she said to laughter from the audience. ‘Seventy-five per cent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard.’ There was more laughter. ‘They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them “ga-ga babies”.’
Her humour was direct, her vitality extraordinary. At the end, she received a standing ovation. Outside, the crush was so severe it was hard to reach the Green Room, and by the time I got there it was like Groucho Marx’s cabin. Later, James Frasher organised a path through the crowd so that Lillian Gish could sign autographs. And then she was swept out through a barrage of flashbulbs to the white Mercedes, and as it drove away we all felt the cold again.
Thursday, 1 December
Rehearsal this afternoon for Broken Blossoms at the Dominion. Contemporary reports of the film’s premiere all referred to the elaborate Chinese decoration of the theatre. In particular, they described ‘an unearthly mauve light’. Griffith discovered a lighting system by accident, when he projected the film with the theatre lights still burning from the prologue and saw the flattering effect on the screen. He used it extensively during the first run and later patented the device. David Gill, in charge of staging these events, felt that we should pay lip service to the idea. Pat Downing, head of Thames Design, contrived . a set of Chinese panels to fit either side of the screen, and a lighting display was organized by Lou Bottone to accompany the overture. It was no more than a hint of Griffith’s Grand Plan, but the print, from the collection of Raymond Rohauer, was lavishly and richly toned and any attempt to play light on the screen during projection would have been superfluous. Lillian Gish dropped in for a few minutes during the rehearsal. As she arrived, the sequence on the screen-Cheng Huan discovering Lucy-was toned a rich brown. ‘I don’t like that sepia print they’ve sent,’ she said. ‘It was a black and white film.’ I was flabbergasted. The print had been produced at colossal expense from a toned nitrate original. And even allowing for the print at the premiere being black and white, Griffith’s lighting scheme would have added colour. ‘My scenes were black and white, because I was meant to look pale and ill. The tinting makes me look sunburnt.’ Yet Broken Blossoms was renowned for its colour effects, so I confess I was bewildered, not to mention downcast. It did not bode well for the big show. ‘By the way,’ she added, as she was climbing into the white Mercedes, ‘you won’t forget the gongs, will you?’
We did not, but at rehearsal the gong had sounded like a saucepan. ‘Where are we going to find a replacement?’ asked Carl Davis. I suggested Chinatown-Gerrard Street, Soho-and Colin Matthews remembered a Chinese instrument shop at Cambridge Circus, so we raced out to find it. Through the door we saw an assistant playing an amber flute, just like Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms. We explained our predicament and were shown a gong which sounded superb. ‘It’s £1,000-you could hire it at £100 a day plus VAT.’ We settled for a much cheaper version, and handed out free tickets for the evening show … which was now almost upon us.
At the Dominion, a flurry of excitement as silent star Bessie Love arrived, signing the statutory autographs and posing for pictures. She was followed by John Gielgud … Anna Neagle … Emlyn Williams, who had played the Barthelmess part in the 1934 remake of Broken Blossoms, and as it filled up the theatre (built in 1929) began to look more and more like a picture palace. Nevertheless, David and I were extremely apprehensive. How would the audience take to this strange, poetic fable from another age? They laughed in places at An Unseen Enemy, the 1912 nickelodeon film, in which the Gish sisters made their debut. The atmosphere changed as soon as Lillian Gish herself appeared on stage to introduce the main film, and explain the background. (Luckily, she didn’t refer to the tinting!) It was astonishing to see an actress on film in 1912, then to see her walk-on the stage in 1983. A hush descended as the richly coloured lights played on the screen and the orchestra began to play the overture. I sat next to Lillian Gish. The atmosphere grew stronger, and on to the screen came the first shot of the gong. The musician spotted his cue too late. The gongs were mute. ‘Where’s the gong?’ asked Lillian Gish. ‘That’s the essence of the meaning of the film.’ I explained that the cue had been missed, but I recalled in acute embarrassment the number of times she had reminded us. Fortunately, at each of its later appearances, the gong was loud and clear. And Carl’s adaptation of the original 1919 score, orchestrated by Dave Cullen, was surprisingly touching.
The experience of watching the film was transformed by the music (and, of course, the presence of a large and receptive audience). I had seen 16mm prints of dismal quality of Broken Blossoms, sometimes silent, sometimes with a piano, and the emotion had remained buried, like a flower beneath the snow. I had often wondered at the film’s high reputation, and looked upon it myself somewhat patronisingly, as the cinematic equivalent of a Victorian sampler. As soon as the music began, the picture took on a new life. The Gottschalk score was of no great merit in itself, but it was intelligent. It had been supervised by Griffith himself (who composed the ‘White Blossom’ theme for Lillian Gish). It thus belonged intrinsically to the film. The fusion of music and picture, like carbon arcs coming together, created an effect of extraordinary intensity. Gestures and expressions gained fresh significance; when Cheng Huan (Barthelmess) finds his home destroyed and Lucy gone, he cries out and collapses to the floor. Slightly risible when seen silent, this gesture gained great poignancy with the music. Even the performance of Donald Crisp, perhaps the most overacted villain in all silent films, assumed an operatic stature with the Wagner theme. As for Lillian Gish, her part seemed exceptional even when viewed under the worst film society conditions. Now her performance radiated the same electricity as it had in 1919, and it reduced many to tears. ‘I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,’ a man said to me in the foyer. ‘This has been my greatest evening.’
Saturday, 3 December
A telephone call from James Frasher. Lillian Gish had hurt her ankle again and would not be able to introduce the last show of The Wind this evening. But she would try to be there for the end. This added suspense to the proceedings, and a sense of drama which, I must admit, was not unwelcome. (Fortunately, she had seen the first performance yesterday.) I remember seeing The Wind for the first time many years ago at the old NFT, and there were seven in the audience. This time, we had 1,362 and the house was nearly full. But as I said to David, how good a picture do we have to show, how great an actress do we have to bring over, and how long must she have worked in the cinema, before we fill the house? The BFI has over 30,000 members who profess an interest in the cinema-where are they when we need them? Foreigners put the British to shame on these occasions. Historian J. B. Kaufman had flown in from Kansas, a large group had come from Paris, including King Vidor’s daughter, and an actor from Napoleon, Harry-Krimer, who had seen Broken Blossoms sixty-four years ago, had travelled by Hovercraft from France.
The audience reaction was noticeably different from that to Broken Blossoms. The Wind, for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comedy relief, and this received a lot more laughter than I anticipated. I suspected that some did not realise it was supposed to be funny; one or two people tittered at dramatic moments. Again, the music exercised its power. Soon, the laughter ceased altogether. The score, composed by Carl Davis himself, was of a more sophisticated order than the one for Broken Blossoms. So was the film. The story of a young girl from Virginia who comes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas was full of psychological nuance, and depended heavily on Lillian Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance. But however effective the film might be seen silent-and there can be no doubt that it is effective-the addition of music provided far more than mere accompaniment. The girl’s dilemma suddenly becomes much more vivid. One not only feels for her, one feels profound sympathy for the well-meaning clod of a cowboy she has been forced to marry. And one feels much more strongly the pressures of her new life, and the emotional tug of her memories of Virginia. With the storm scene, the score reverted entirely to percussion, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theatre, a sound so loud it was almost painful, dragging one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the girl-one seemed to be inside her head. This musique tempete climax, orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, and with it the pounding of the orchestra, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience which had apparently held its breath for more than half a reel. ‘The most terrifying cinematic moment of 1983,’ wrote Geoff Brown in The Times. ‘No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.’
After taking several curtain calls, to tremendous applause, Carl Davis returned and announced, ‘If you’ll give us a few minutes, Miss Gish will be with us.’ A very few minutes later, Lillian Gish stepped into the spotlight with scarcely a sign of a limp. She was greeted by a standing ovation. Like the trouper she has always been, she insisted on giving the audience full value. ‘We worked out in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, in temperatures which were seldom under 120°. I was the only woman in the troupe, except for the wife of the assistant, who was very large. So I had no double. I did . all my own stunts, like falling off the horse. And there were eight [she actually said eighteen, but it was an emotional evening!] airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress, but luckily not in my eyes. Cold I can stand, but not heat, so The Wind was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures. I hope you enjoyed it, and let me say how wonderful I thought the orchestra was. The music was 75 per cent of the excitement you have just experienced.’ Later, at a reception, she toasted everyone who had a hand in the 1983 Thames Silents, and said ‘May this be our unhappiest moment.’ The reactions to The Wind could not have been more positive-some people thought it even more powerful than Napoleon. We transmitted these reactions when we said farewell to Lillian Gish at the hotel. She and James Frasher were busy packing. She wore a white flowered dressing-gown, and her long blonde hair hung loose to the waist. The soft lights glowed on her skin and hair and I have never seen her look more beautiful. The rest of us were exhausted; she was suffering no obvious effects from a schedule which had included endless interviews and an appearance at every performance. Over tea, she acknowledged that the tinted Broken Blossoms had looked better at the performance. ‘You must have put more light behind it,’ she said. But she insisted that it had originally been black and white. We left her in her suite, which was full of flowers and fan mail. ‘When I get back to New York,’ she said, ‘I’m going to bed and I won’t wake up until 1984. So when you think of me, think of me horizontal.’
When we think of Lillian Gish from now on, the great actress will come second to the enchanting woman herself. She may have the stubbornness of a pioneer, but there is a quality one can only describe as sweetness which transcends any role she ever played.