Director: King Vidor
Writers: Fred De Gresac (screen play) Henri Murger (suggested by “Life in the Latin Quarter”)
13 March 1926 (USA)
In 1925 Lillian Gish signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: six pictures in two years for which she would be paid one million dollars. She was given complete control over director, story and cast. Miss Gish was the first established movie star to be signed by the studio. As she walked on the studio lot for the first time, banners festooned the place proclaiming that Lillian Gish was now an MGM star! Unfortunately though, no one seemed prepared for her arrival. There were no scripts for her to look at, no story outlines, not even any ideas about what her first project for the studio might be. Miss Gish relates,
“So I brought out my little chest of stories, among which was La Bohème.” The studio approved. Irving Thalberg then asked Miss Gish whom she would like as her director. As she had been in Italy for two years, she had seen few recent films. Thalberg screened several for her including two reels of the yet uncompleted The Big Parade. She was so smitten with what she saw she requested the services of that film’s director, King Vidor, as well as star John Gilbert, leading lady Renée Adorée, and comic sidekick Karl Dane.
She also asked for and got Hendrik Sartov as her cinematographer. Sartov had shot some of Gish’s later films for director D.W. Griffith including Orphans of the Storm (1921) and parts of Way Down East (1920). After a rehearsal period (something unheard of in studio film making of the day but part of Miss Gish’s contract) production began Artists struggle to survive in Paris, and a poor woman sacrifices herself to help a young playwright. This romantic drama reflects the sacrifice a woman often makes to help the career of a young man she loves. In modern civilization the quest to achieve success in the arts often requires years of personal sacrifices.
John Gilbert was infatuated with Lillian Gish, and would mess up his “love scenes” with her on purpose, so he could keep kissing her.
It was near the end of December, 1925, that “La Boheme” was finished, and it was two months later, February 24, at the Embassy Theatre, New York, that it had its first showing. Lillian was not present. To this day, she has never seen “La Boheme” given with its musical accompaniment—not the original Puccini score, the cost of which was prohibitive, but a very lovely adaptation expressing something of the feeling and mood.
“La Boheme,” a picture of much sorrow and little brightness, was sympathetically received and left a deep and lasting impression. Except, possibly, in “Broken Blossoms,” Lillian had never appeared so effectively—in a picture so suited to her gifts. It was a big night at the Embassy. Social New York “La Boheme” 221 was out in force, and all the picture people. The Post next day said:
“Every movie player in New York, and there are many here just now, was ‘among those present,’ for the infrequent appearance of Lillian Gish on the screen takes on the importance of an event. . . . The Gish can do no wrong, in the opinion of many who subscribe to the art of motion pictures. . . .”
Approval of Lillian’s Mimi, though wide, was not unanimous. Certain critics were inclined to hold her responsible for the departure from Murger’s original. There was hot debate among the fans. Lillian, already absorbed in another picture, gave slight attention to all this; much less than did the interviewers, one of whom found her “not particularly interested.” She merely asked absently:
“Has someone been criticizing me?” Which, declared Miss Glass, the interviewer, was as astonishing as if she had looked at the Pacific Ocean and asked: “Is it wet?” “Her manifest lack of resentment toward her critics confounded me. . . . She sat quietly toying with the folds of her dress, betraying no sign of annoyance or concern.” In itself, the Mimi of Madame de Gresac was a classic role. Not again in her screen life would Lillian find a part more perfectly suited to her personality and special gifts. Her portrayal of it warranted Pola Negri’s verdict:
“Lillian Gish is supreme. That was my opinion when I first saw her. It is still my opinion when I have seen all the other stars. She is sublime in her genre.”
The New York premiere was not the picture’s first showing. There had been a preview at Santa Monica, and one secured by Lillian for the employees of the Beverley Hills Hotel, where she lived. These latter sent her a joint acknowledgment, signed: “Thankfully your admirers, more than a hundred strong.” (Life and Lillian Gish – 1932)
When Lillian Gish was preparing for Mimi’s tragic end in La Boheme (1926), she visited a hospital to study lung disease, lost weight, and finally arrived at the studio so pale and emaciated that director King Vidor feared she might perish if he didn’t film the famous death scene at once. But when he came to shoot the scene, Gish played It so realistically that everyone on the set thought she had actually passed away. She had “completely stopped breathing – Vidor recalled, “and the movement of her eyes and eyelids was absolutely suspended.” When the cameras stopped rolling and she remained motionless, Vidor went fearfully over to her and touched her gently on the arm. To his—and everyone else’s—immense relief she turned her head slowly and smiled faintly. Gish’s performance, Vidor said later, was “the most realistic” he had ever seen. “I hope,” he added, “I shall never see a similar one quite so well done.”
- THE BEGINNING – SILENT FEATURES
- HOLLYWOOD ANECDOTES by Paul F. Boiler, Jr.
I was friendly with Lillian Gish, too, when she was a big star at MGM. I remember when [King] Vidor was making “La Boheme” with Lillian and Jack Gilbert, she came up to Vidor’s house one Sunday morning. She wanted to play a scene a certain way and Vidor wanted her to play it another way. She wanted it her way so she came up to the house by herself and offered Vidor a great big beautiful red polished apple as a peace offering.
- From the interview with Eleanor Boardman in “Speaking of Silents: First Ladies of the Screen” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1989 (page 48)
I wanted to be an actress from the time I was born, I guess, and I loved the movies. I remember getting into hysterics watching Lillian Gish running around looking for her lover all over France in “La Boheme.” I wasn’t crying. I was having hysterics. When it was all over and I went to get up, my foot had fallen asleep and I almost fell on my face. I thought, “Oh, I hope people don’t think I’ve been drinking or something.” I was only fifteen, you know. I couldn’t get my leg working but I finally got up. That’s the way she affected me. Oh, she was marvelous in this thing.
- From the interview with Anita Page in “At the Center of the Frame: Leading Ladies of the Twenties and Thirties” by William M. Drew, Vestal Press, 1999 (Page 152)