IT WAS FUN WHILE IT LASTED (1973)
BY ARTHUR H. LEWIS
Hollywood is dead. Long live Hollywood! The City of Stars, for decades the fantasy capital of the world, has come to the Final Fade-Out, and no one knows what will appear on the screen next. The glory that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is now scattered from Culver City to Capetown, after a $ 1 3-million auction sale in which such mementos as Judy Garland’s dancing slippers and Esther Williams’ swimming pool were sold to the highest bidder. Housing developments nibble at the vast, vacant Paramount lot. And at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, there are now only a couple of chain shoe stores, a pharmacy, and a bank.
One of the most intelligent actresses I spoke to was Lillian Gish, a survivor of the silents, a great lady, a highly perceptive woman, and an erstwhile favorite subject of fan-mag writers. Shortly before my date to see Miss Gish in her Manhattan apartment, I came across an interview which appeared in the selfsame magazine only a few months before the “Beauty and Brains” contest was announced. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of paragraphs excerpted from that piece to provide an example of the dreary drivel avidly swallowed and accepted by millions of its readers.
Richard Willis wrote in the December 1914 issue of Photoplay:
Most people don’t like making calls, but I am one of those old-fashioned individuals who enjoy it. We had not met before, these delightful Gish girls and I, and there already existed between us the easy friendship of youth with middle-age, so it was with a light heart and a half-smile of pleased anticipation that I approached their house that sunny afternoon. Someone was playing the piano—not really playing, just strumming idly as though to fill a tedious interval when there was nothing to engage her attention. I rang the bell and the strumming stopped abruptly, quick steps crossed the hall, and the door was thrown hospitably open by the very tall, very fair girl, with her blonde hair hanging down her back, who is Dorothy.
“Why, Mr. Willis, how good of you to come to see us,” she cried, clasping my hand with the firm heartiness of a friendly boy. ”Lillian, oh, Lillian, here’s Mr. Willis,” she called, raising her voice a little. In response to her call there entered another very tall, very fair girl, with color in her cheeks, a little more vivid than her sister’s and with her very blonde hair piled high on her head.
“How do you do, Mr. Willis,” she cried gaily, sweeping me a little curtsy and then sitting down beside her sister on the broad couch before the west window. As for me, I simply sat and beamed at them for the moment. Certainly two sisters never made a prettier picture than did Lillian and Dorothy Gish there in the west window on that quaint brocaded couch, Lillian in a delicate pink frock with a turquoise brooch at her throat and Dorothy in a dress of filmy white, with the sunlight that streamed through the window turning their blonde hair to gold. Although Mr. Willis went on for several thousand words more, I rest my case. I didn’t expect Miss Gish, who’s now in her seventies, to remember an interview she granted when she was fourteen or thereabouts, but she seemed amused when I read that excerpt to her. I told her about the “Beauty and Brains” contest. She smiled.
“It wasn’t quite that easy then, and I don’t think it is now. I know I cannot recall a world in which I was not an actress, and that’s true for most of us who’ve survived. Mary Martin, Charlie Chaplin, both dear friends of mine; the theater’s been almost the whole of their existence. Hepburn is another great whose life’s been the stage. She was playing Juliet and somebody asked her how old she really was. ‘I’m fourteen,’ was her answer, and it was true. She was fourteen when she played Juliet. So it was with Charles Laughton and my sister,
Dorothy. It was hard work. “These were true artists, professionals with understanding and empathy and even for them to get ahead and stay ahead was never easy.”
She paused in thought.
“And sometimes their empathy led them into difficulties. I’m thinking of Charles Laughton, a man of enormous talents. I was doing Night of the Hunter which Mr. Laughton directed with Robert Mitchum. The film didn’t turn out as well as it might have because Mr. Laughton liked Mitchum and refused to let him be all bad, which the part required.
However, that’s beside the point, I suppose, although Mr. Laughton told me he wanted to make his audiences sit up instead of slouching in their seats. But he didn’t. That was all so long ago.”
Miss Gish sighed, then continued.
“I don’t think the current generation could be fooled easily, but then again you must remember the times. Today’s young men and young women are smarter, to be sure. I find them a most perceptive lot and I do hope I understand them. I think they see through sham now, but perhaps they would not have in 1914.”
What Miss Gish told me next has nothing to do with Photoplays talent search, but I’m including it anyway because I can’t think of another place in which to use it. The subject was “nudies” and sexploitation films, and I didn’t bring it up.
“I often go to the movies, matinees when the audience is small, to see dirty pictures,” said this fragile, gentle woman, who much of the time I was with her didn’t seem quite of this world. Her interest is not prurient. “Sex is beautiful and so is nudity, and I want to see what’s happening to both these days.”