Henry B. Walthall, his impressions of Lillian Gish (By Myrtle Gebhart – Picture Play 1926)

Picture Play Magazine (August 1926)

The Unknown Quantity

Henry B. Walthall, a man whose taciturnity surrounds him with an air of mystery, has returned to the screen, and meeting Lillian Gish again after many years, is persuaded to give his impressions past and present, of that actress

By Myrtle Gebhart

WALLY, they told  me you were going to play with me in ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ ” said Lillian Gish to Henry B. Walthall, when they met again for the first time in eight years, “and now that you are here on the set, and are made up, I really believe you are.”

Henry B. Walthall
Henry B. Walthall

“They told me I was going to interview you, Mr. Walthall,” I remarked, when he and I eventually met for luncheon at Montmartre, “and now that you are actually here, I do believe it.” For, if you know Henry B. Walthall, you know that the observance of prescribed rules, such as punctuality, is not one of his traits. Yet, curiously, he seems always to be the toy of fate—circumstances leave him moving vaguely in the shadowy background of whatever event is transpiring; invariably, he has a logical excuse for being late, or for not accepting a role which others consider a fine opportunity for him, or for not following beaten paths. There is about him the uncertainty of an elusive personality which, because he does not believe in self revelation, must remain to the world something of an unknown quantity. Previous appointments for our interview had been broken, for perfectly understandable reasons. His publicity agent — though this genus is ordinarily a mint of more or less accurate information—had only vague reports to make concerning Mr. Walthall’s present engagement and recent work, with the explanation, “Well, I can’t get anything out of him—he won’t talk about himself.”

The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall

Aggravating, yes, but forgivable. So, with my fingers crossed, I waited, at Montmartre—I and the publicity agent, and there was food, so I would eat. If by any rare chance Mr. Walthall turned up, I would interview him—maybe. Forty minutes late, a drab, somber little figure shuffled in. His brown eyes, in a helpless way that verged on panic, darted from table to table, seeking us. Fashionably gowned stars brushed against him, elbowed past him. Like a lost little boat amid a regatta of sleek and shining yachts, he floundered and was turning in meek retreat when the aforementioned press agent rescued him and guided him safely through the reefs to port. With a sigh of relief, he sank into his chair. His brown hand shook mine gingerly, and he said apologetically, “I hope you will excuse me, ma’am, but I couldn’t help it. I was delayed.” Whereupon I delivered the remark in paragraph two, and the interview was more or less on. Where had Walthall been during these last few years, before this season’s wave had suddenly brought him back into the light? The Little Colonel of “The Birth of a Nation” has recently renewed his fame with appearances in successes of varied types—”The Barrier,” “Three Faces East,” “The LJnknown Soldier.” And now, in “The Scarlet Letter,” he is playing once more with Lillian Gish. There is usually a story that touches the heart in such years of oblivion. I wanted to know why he had dropped out, what transitions of thought and feeling and viewpoint he had passed through, during that self-imposed exile.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

Moreover, what changes had he found in Lillian, the little girl whom “The Birth of a Nation” had brought into prominence along with himself ? But before I could ask an explanation of the mystery which had surrounded his retirement. I noticed that a hubbub had been created in the cafe by the recognition of the little brown man beside me.

Henry B Walthall - The Scarlet Letter
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter

Lights were hastily brought in and cameras set up. The Montmartre luncheon crowd was to be photographed. The bustling, red-faced publicity kewpie of the cafe rushed over to inform us that Walthall’s unprecedented appearance had occasioned the excitement. Beauteous stars preened and primped, and put sweet smiles on their faces, but it was Walthall that the camera wanted. And it was Walthall that the camera did not get. At the very instant that the bulb was pressed, the flustered Walthall, suddenly conscious of the attention centered on him, and embarrassed thereby, bent down to tie his shoe lace! After that, they left him to my tender mercies. “Yes, ma’am, it’s good to be with Lillian again.”

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

For the sake of continuity, which makes easier reading, I shall quote his words as a steady flow, but I assure you they were fairly dragged out of him, by a persistence which, though rebuffed, was resilient. I had gone there to get an interview and to eat spaghetti. Having eaten the spaghetti, I was determined to have the rest of the bargain.

“Changed? Well—yes and no. She has grown. I used to be half a head taller, and now I have to look up to her. We met first in the old Biograph days. ‘Twas about twelve years ago we made ‘The Birth of a Nation.’

Lillian Gish - The Great Love (1918)
Lillian Gish – The Great Love (1918)

Then, eight years ago, ‘The Great Love,’ for Griffith. Hadn’t seen her since. “Quite a reunion. Dorothy breezed in. Came West to see Lillian before she returned to Europe. Clever little girl, Dorothy. Never has seemed to hit her stride. It’s pretty hard to prove your talent under the glamour of a sister who’s a great artist. “Yes’m, that’s what I call Lillian—the most skilled technician the screen has ever had. I don’t place much confidence in actors who rely on feeling and emotion for expression. Inspiration is undependable. Our way, Lillian’s and mine, is Griffith’s method: to build systematically and tediously a structure complete in every detail that the mind can conceive and that tiresome repetition can perfect. Thoughtful analysis of a character and concentration on minute ways of expressing it produce a more logical and sustained interpretation.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

“Lillian gives the actor opposite her both less and more than any other actress does. Less emanation of a vital personality, less emotion to arouse you and draw you wholly into a scene. She is aloof and self sufficient, a clear-cut and matchless diamond of the acting art. Yet in another sense, her artistry magnetizes, with an appeal to your pride, a challenge to match her superb and flawless technique with your own.”

“Do you think Lillian is simply a mirror of Griffith?” I asked.

“Well, it’s hard to say. She still employs much of the Griffith method. You know the saying, ‘Griffith puts a smile on your face, carves it there, and it stays on.’ He bends your finger, so.” Walthall illustrated. ‘Unimportant actions, under his guidance, take on significance. “But Lillian shows more volition now, more spirit. That shy child of sixteen wouldn’t have dared to talk back to Griffith. It wouldn’t have occurred to any of us for that matter, for he was the master instructing us. It’s a shock, now, to hear her occasionally arguing with Victor Seastrom over scenes. But when he convinces her she is wrong, she gives in graciously. Often, though, she wins, on most logical reasons. She has developed from an untutored child into a practical young business woman, thoroughly versed in every angle of picture making.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish (Mother) cca 1930

Photo: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell Gish – “Mother”

“She lives altogether in her work, her only interests outside it being her mother and sister. For them she is now, as she used to be, solicitous in a little-mother way, Her entire life seems dedicated to them and to her career.”

It was a great proof of Lillian’s real ability, Walthall pointed out, for her to rise above the Griffith tradition, which makes of his actors mere automatons reflecting his masterly genius. Lillian used to be called Griffith’s screen mouthpiece, a puppet which he pulled on carefully trained strings for this or that effect. Her first independent efforts were not wholly successful.

Lillian Gish - Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

But gradually, she is learning to shake off many of the old Griffith conventions, retaining only those that prove adaptable to her new course. It has always been Griffith’s custom to devote weeks to painstaking rehearsals before the actual filming starts. Lillian tried that scheme on her first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture, but it didn’t work. The modern overhead won’t stand for such dilly-dallying, though Walthall insists that it proves eventually to be a saving of time.

“You grow with the story,” he says. “You know definitely why something is done at a certain point. No, ma’am, you don’t feel automatic and stereotyped. We don’t depend on inspiration, but we build. And the more carefully your foundation is laid, the more conscientious your attention to every detail, the more solid will be your edifice.”

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

Little by little, many times feeling myself beaten back by that indefinable but impenetrable wall beyond which Walthall lives in a mental recess all his own, I gleaned his impressions of Lillian. In their yesterdays together, she was a quaint, shy child, with a dreamlike delicacy, sitting quietly in corners poring over books, or else watching and studying, responding instantly to any call pertaining to her career, working doggedly, building gradually. A fragility that disclosed, bit by bit, a tenacity that, once it learned how, gently but stubbornly attained its goal. And now, he finds her a young lady of poise and infinite tact, of untiring patience, who knows what she wants and gets it, according as expediency dictates—sometimes by a long way around, again by a decisive short cut.

Italian postcard, no. 22. Publicity still for The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

“It’s funny I haven’t more definite opinions about Lillian,” the actor mused, roused out of his vague ambiguity by my insistence upon copy. “But remember that I haven’t known her during these past eight years. The fact that she shows no startling change, other than an outspoken expression of ideas which I can’t recall encountering in her in the old days, is indicative, I suppose, that the years have left her unmarked.

“On the screen, she is a quaint dream heroine, never a real personality. An impression of tragedy surrounds her, even in her lightsome moments. She seems doomed, from her first poetic scene. Because her metier is so different from most, you can’t judge her intangible elusiveness by ordinary standards. In a world of screen conventions, she lives alone in a bower of imaginative beauty. But the fact that she succeeds in creating illusion by most workmanlike methods—is that not a great achievement?”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

The role in “The Scarlet Letter,” of old, misshapen Prynne, the wizened, merciless scholar-husband of Hester, is likely to be one of Walthall’s finest characterizations. The Hawthorne novel is being faithfully translated to the screen, and upon the revenge which fills the soul of Hester’s husband, many somber scenes depend.

Following “The Scarlet Letter,” Walthall will play an ancient of the Vienna boulevards in a Universal special production. Of the directors with whom he has recently worked, the taciturn Walthall makes only this comment. “I like Seastrom. He gives me a lot. He is methodical.”

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation

And what about those years when Walthall dropped into the shadows? His skill is as reliable as ever, for it is based on mental acting. His heart? Is it mellowed ? There are lines in his face, graven deeply. His eyes, brightening pleasantly, grow in an instant ambiguous, as though shades were drawn over them to hide any revelation. Illness, a general breakdown, the capitulation of shattered nerves, took him from the success which can be his whenever he wishes to claim it. Overnight he disappeared. Hollywood wondered, and never forgot him, regretting that Walthall was “through.” Reports began to sift down from the hills where he was fighting his battle. In a cabin, slung upon a ledge above June Lake, he lived, and cooked his meals on a little stove, and fished in the cool, crisp tang of the morning, and, muffled against the wind, tramped the wooded hills when the lake wore its mantle of ice and the clear, piercing scent of the pines filled his lungs. Ruth Clifford and her husband reported that Walthall would drop in unexpectedly at their cabin for a chat and then disappear again for weeks at a time ; others brought word of a big Walthall catch, of the little actor’s pride in his skill with rod and reel. And then one day, steady of nerve and as brown as a berry, he came back. As quietly as he had left, he slipped again onto the screen. Has he always, I wonder, been such an apologetic little man, emerging even- now and then from the shadowy, mental world in which I feel his real self lives, for a brief instant of decisiveness, only to drift back, somehow, into an inner realm where one cannot follow? Or is this merely my foolish fancy ?

Henry B Walthall - Birth of a Nation 2
Henry B Walthall – Birth of a Nation 2

He may be simply bashful and retiring, and I unskilled at drawing him out. Or—and instinct tells me that this is the true explanation of that vague elusiveness about him—those long months in the silence of the hills, with only the pines for company, may have taught him that words “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” are futile things. What did those months teach him? I want to know, being bluntly, untactfully curious. And I can’t find out. That noncommittal taciturnity blankets my inquisitiveness more thoroughly than sharp rebuffs could. He is a charming, but such an inarticulate little man. My title for him, “The Unknown Quantity,” refers not to his art as an actor, which is unquestioned, but to Walthall the personality. Seeking, by example, to draw him out, you soar into an oratorical flight that leaves you winded. He listens attentively, with his grave brown eyes upon you. Then he says, “Yes,” or he says “No,” often with a polite “ma’am” tacked on. And there you are; dropped back into a chasm, and feeling so ineffectual that you want to kick yourself. Curiously, you have no desire to kick him, though you may think in general that boiling in oil is insufficient punishment for the actor who fails to furnish you with your meat and bread—copy for the magazine. There is a lovable quality about him that, despite differences in age, makes you want to take him to your heart and mother him. An invisible cloud broods over him, a bleak fog separates him from the sunshine and gayety that surge all about him. The pulse of humanity drums beside him, and he shuts himself in from it. Has he found something finer and better, that he knows we light-hearted ones can’t share ? He hasn’t that washed-out look of one who is tired or who has forgotten how to feel. Rather, one senses an emotion that stops, baffled by some caution or some necessity for aloofness, like the dammed-up waters of a river. That mask is not one of blankness, nor futility, for through it are limned those deeply carved lines—marks of suffering, of feeling, of thought, of a rich and mellow life. Suddenly, some chance remark or a greeting from an old friend lights up his face with a sweet and human kindliness, but then the mask drops back into place. A waiter came up and bowed deferentially. Mr. Walthall’s wife had telephoned that she wanted him to come home immediately after lunch, if he could.

“About three hours from now,” I said to , the press agent, in a stage whisper pitched for the actor’s ear, “he’ll show up.” “Oh, I shall be right on time,” Walthall drawled, a slow smile softening the lines indented about his mouth, his eyes quietly rebuking our lack of confidence. “Unless I am delayed … or something turns up … ”

And so, “The Unknown Quantity” followed us down the stairs, smiled timorously, and shook hands. Unmindful of the eyes upon him, of a famous young ingenue’s awed whisper, “There’s Henry B. Walthall!” he ambled off down the Boulevard, a pathetic little brown figure, alone, somehow, in a world filled with color and brightness.

Henry_B._Walthall_1916
Henry_B._Walthall_1916

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