- Hollywood royalty : Hepburn, Davis, Stewart, and friends at the dinner party of the century
- HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY – HORS D’OEUVRES (1992)
- BY Gregory Speck
“I hope the food is half as delicious as the conversation in HOLLYWOOD ROYALTY, Bon appetit!”—Lillian Gish
So, this columnist was on the phone asking me about Bette, and I said, “Well, maybe they pushed her too hard. Maybe she came back too soon, I don’t know.” Do you know that that woman put it into her column that Helen Hayes said that Bette Davis came back too soon? Well, Bette called me in Mexico and said, “You have been very unkind to me. You have said unkind things about me.” I responded by asking her what I had said, since I had not seen the column or even heard about it. Well, I couldn’t stand there and tell her the circumstances, that I had been misquoted, that it was out of context, that the columnist had seen the film and said that Bette looked dreadful, for that would have heaped insult on top of injury. So, I just let it go, and there went that friendship.
Bette thought that I had done her in—but then, she thought that everyone had done her in. She thought that everyone was out to do her in. She was in the same state of mind with Lillian Gish too, when they made The Whales of August. She was horribly insulting to Lillian, who is as sweet a lady as I have ever met, and unable to defend herself verbally. Bette was just frightful to Lillian in the making of that picture. She really is something. Being a major movie star is a tough life, and she more than any other actress has just let the drive and ambition dominate her. She is not alone in this character trait, but she is probably the most remarkable example of it. The life and job are hard, and eventually they no longer have any outside life beyond the movies.
“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.”
The most incredible thing about Griffith was that he never had a script, in all the time that I was with him. I made a lot of pictures with him, and three of the biggest were Judith of Bethulia, The Birth of a Nation, and Intolerance, ail done between 1914 and 1916.
He would rehearse all of the actors in the different parts, depending upon who was available on a given day of shooting, and he had me try the leading role in The Birth of a Nation, Then he told me that he was going to film the scene. Well, I had thought that Blanche Sweet was going to play that part. The first time I had any idea that he wanted me for it, was when he told me to go and get measured for the costumes. All I could think of was “Why me? Blanche won’t like this!”
She had just played the leading role in Judith of Bethulia, which was about the ancient Israelites at war with the Assyrians, and I was very surprised to learn that I was to have the big role in Birth, which was about the forming of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War. But I had a face that could be photographed at any angle. Griffith used to say, “You can photograph her upside down, because it’s all even.” That’s really why I got the parts I did. For instance, Mary Pickford had a side of her face that was like a child’s, and the other side was that of a businesswoman’s. So she always had a certain angle from which she demanded to be photographed. I always looked the same, and that is the real reason that I got so many of the roles I did.
I think that Mr. Griffith was in love with my mother, too. He was her age, and once when he went away he asked Mother if she had a safe-deposit box. She said that she didn’t, so he told her to get one, to charge it to him, and to keep a big package wrapped up in newspapers for him. He was heading for Europe, and told her not to look at what he was entrusting her with.
So, that’s what she did, and when he returned she gave the package back to him, and he said to her, since he could see that she hadn’t opened it, “This is all the money I have in the world.” She knew then how much he trusted her, even though he had a family of his own elsewhere. His own brother was working with him in the film business, but he trusted Mother more than any of them, and I think it was because he loved her.
He wasn’t a businessman at all. He was a poet at heart. If he sold a poem he had written for ten dollars it made him happier than any big picture he ever directed. He had no sense at all for money. He was destroyed by the film business, even though he gave the motion picture medium its form and its grammar.
He went into the film business in 1908. It was about five years later when we met him, and about five years after that when Dorothy discovered Rudolph Valentino. She had been out one evening dancing, and there was this man out on the floor, dancing with the ladies. One member of Dorothy’s party knew him and brought him over to the table, where she asked him if he would be interested in getting into the movies. He immediately said that he would be very interested, so the next day she told Mr. Griffith about Valentino. She said that she had found a man whom all the women would like, photogenic and romantic looking. But when Valentino came in Mr. Griffith told him that he thought he wasn’t quite right. “I don’t think the girls will like him, because he’s too foreign looking,” Griffith told me. So, Mr. Griffith didn’t hire him, but Valentino went on to become one of the biggest stars of all time, and the women went crazy for him. Dorothy was right, for she had a better eye for actors than Griffith did.
Rudolph Valentino was a very shy man, but he would come to our house and cook dinner for us, usually spaghetti. The idea of being in the movies scared him, but Mother took an interest in him and tried to help him. He was a terribly nice man, but he died early, and that was from embarrassment. He just couldn’t take it all, with the constant attention and exposure and invasion of privacy. It killed him.
Lillian Gish, First Lady of the American Screen, holds court as she conducts the conversational flow from Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith to Rudolph Valentino, with all of whom she worked closely. Thus, it is only fitting that the actress who started out as a silent star and then lasted for forty years in the age of sound, Joan Crawford, should be the final subject of scrutiny by Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis, and their friends in this evening odyssey through Hollywood Royalty.
“My very dear friend Lillian Gish, godmother of my son as well as of my first grandson, had played The White Sister in the silent film version. It was the most moving and impressive picture when she made it, I have to say.”