Picture Play Magazine – February 1926 Vol. XXIII No.6
Looking On with an Extra Girl
Who, as one of the ensemble used in the filming of “La Boheme,” meets Lillian Gish for the first time, and follows her and John Gilbert through the successive scenes of that pathetic story.
By Margaret Reid
THE mantle of greatness is a curiously potent thing, lending a dazzling fascination to many figures that were otherwise most unobtrusive. Some wear it with regal ease, as if it were designed for them rather than they for it. Mary Pickford is one of these. She is unmistakably a great woman, a woman of achievements and power, and this as much outside her own sphere as in it.
On the other hand, probably heading the list of those in whom the rather awesome grandeur of supremacy seems incongruous, is Lillian Gish. Not when she is at work, of course. But outside the camera lines, the aspects of tremendous success are missing—one and all. Of course, the fanfare and trumpeting that preceded her arrival on the Coast led those of us who had never seen her to expect not only the usual in stars, but the unusual. Which latter we got, but in the opposite direction. At the time of Miss Gish’s break with Inspiration, the papers were full of rumors as to her future plans. Great film magnates struggled like urchins and cried like babies, trying to reach her with contracts proffering not only the moon but several acres of sky as well. Then the wires palpitated that Metro-Goldwvn-Mayer was a neck ahead. Breath was held. One pictured the Unholy Three—Hollywood’s pet name for Thalberg, Rapt, and Mayer—biting their nails while straining their ears over the private wire to New York.
Finally, one bright sunny morning—this is just for effect, since every one already knows there is nothing so viciously perpetual as the- California sun—a mammoth banner was strung at the studio entrance, from one side of the highway to the other. High above the road, it bragged to all and sundry, “M. G. M. signs Lillian Gish !” Rival bidders went home sulking and the charming services of the favorite actress of John Barrymore, Hergesheimer, and a few other people, were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s for the trifling sum of eight thousand dollars a week. I find it impossible to call up a mental picture of eight thousand dollars a week at all, and an attempt to conceive of that amount coming in every week throws me into a high fever. But I understand it is a pretty sum. And it would seem to indicate an equally vivid payee. We knew better, naturally, than to expect in the lyrical Gish the trappings of Swanson. But we did anticipate the definite markings of personality, the subconscious dominance, little things impossible to explain, but apparent in most great people.
Miss Gish arrived on the same day that the elaborate dressing-room suite designed for her was rushed to completion. The following morning found her at the studio, conferring on stories. After a polite but systematic search of the studio, discovered her on the lawn, talking to one of the heads, She wore a severely plain white coat and a close hat of pale rose felt, and carried a heavy black book in her arms. No make-up, not even powder, marred the healthy, translucent pallor of her perfect complexion. The famous tiny mouth showed only its own faintly pink color, her eyes were the clear light blue of a child’s. Purists might not call it a beautiful face, but the poignant, eerie sweetness of its frailly chiseled features is the very essence of loveliness. To realize that she is a lady of great attainments and infinite fame, and eight thousand dollars a week, is a weary task. Her timid, gentle manner, her air, not only of background, but of the cultivation of art and grace through generations, make her a figure that seems not only remote from the rigors and extremes of motion-picture success but from any contact with the present age. I have been told, at one time and another—mostly by gullible males — “Do notice So-and-so, she is so quaintly old-fashioned.” So-and-so usually proves to be either dumb or to be skillfully using a highly praised “method.” The only genuinely old-fashioned girl I have ever seen —and that means typical of a gentler and lovelier age than ours—is Lillian Gish. How she has remained so through the building and maintaining of a career that has meant battle and misery and heartache, is her secret. That she has managed to do it, is her triumph. It was some weeks before a story suitable for Miss Gish was found.
When the final decision fell upon “La Boheme.” there was still a long interval before the scenario, sets, costumes, and all the thousand and one plans, were ready to be put into action. And then, for two weeks, a small space on one of the stages was tightly canvassed in and jealously guarded against intruders. In this sanctum was observed the old Griffith custom of detailed rehearsal before any camera work whatsoever. At the end of the fortnight, the company gathered, en masse, on stage 3. This exclusive place is always given to the most impressive company in action at the time. It is hidden from casual visitors behind trees and shrubs beyond a wild little garden in a corner of the lot. We had not been long at work before various of the ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble were instructed to come out and be fitted for attire of the year 1830. I happened to be among the fortunates and was soon gowned in a lovely costume of hideous brown serge and a gray flannel cape. The keepers of the M. G. M. wardrobe are the nicest wardrobe women in Hollywood, but even their elastic patience is tried on days when the picture and scene require a mediocre costuming of extras.
Their sympathetic ears are deafened with cries of “But, Mother Coulter, I can’t wear this—why it’s awful !” “Can’t I at least have a pretty cape to cover up this horror?” “Mrs. Piper, you wouldn’t make me actually wear such an ugly dress!” Each feels that anything less than the very best is not her type. But to-day we were Parisians of precarious means, offering up the old wedding ring and grandfather’s stickpin in a dingy little pawnshop in the Latin Quarter. The sunlight struggling in through the grimy, cracked windows was being repaired, a carbon stick having fallen out of one of its rays, so we waited in a decorous row behind the scenes. The magician Sartov, Miss Gish’s special camera man, sat on his high stool by the camera, pulling placidly at his meerschaum pipe. The last touches were being applied to the dreary little set. The orchestra drifted into one of Mimi’s first songs, melancholy and wistful. It was almost like, but rather nicer than, waiting for the gong on the first act of the opera.
King Vidor, a young man who recently made a picture called “The Big Parade,” which is said to be quite a skit, donned a rakish smock hanging on the directorial chair. These smocks were the uniform for all the company during the picturing of the bohemian Mimi and Rodolphe, a sort of atmospheric sympathy for the locale and theme. Each smock was decorated with symbols representing the wearer’s official capacity. Now, there are directors and directors, many of them very fine fellows and clever, but if there is one thing an extra lady likes more than a courteous and considerate director, it is one who is good looking as well. Girls—stop me if you’ve heard this before—will be girls. And Mr. Vidor is an extremely personable young man with a tanned complexion, thick black hair, gray eyes, and a slow, infectious smile. Which is all every well-cast director should be. More of this paragon anon, but while we are on the subject, I might mention his brilliant young scenario writer, Harry Behn, who is also exceptionally well cast. Not only this, but his assistant director, one Dave Howard, is the extra girl’s dream of what all assistants will be when Will Hays really takes hold. And then, of course, there was Mimi’s Rodolphe—a gay, moody romantic of wicked charm.
Now he paced the floor in breathless enthusiasm, now he sat hunched over in a chair, brooding and despondent. He was very handsome. And so, amid ideal surroundings, the picture progressed. When the sunlight had been arranged to the satisfaction of Sartov, Miss Gish was called and we made our first acquaintance with Mimi. Such a sad and threadbare little Mimi, before her whirlwind rescue by Rodolphe. Faint shadows hollowed her cheeks and her eyes were haggard with fatigue and hunger. In her arms was clasped a ragged bundle which she timidly offered up. The coin thrust at her was too small, and with tears in her eyes and quivering lips, she tenderly placed her shabby, moth-eaten little muff on the counter. The orchestra breathed faintly one of Mimi’s gentle laments—oh! the pitiful little Mimi! I fumbled blindly for a handkerchief, feeling I couldn’t stand it any longer without doing something about it—anything to allay the misery of that wistful face. When the camera stopped, she peeped round it, with a birdlike gesture, the tears still shining on her eyelashes.
“‘Was that one all right, Mr. Vidor? Or shall we try it again?”
“Well, let’s try it this way, too, and see how it looks” —in Mr. Vidor’s soft, lazy Southern accent.
So Mimi is unhappy this way and that way and several other ways, until she receives her scanty loan and turns slowly away and goes out the door. That was all of Mimi for that time.
When next we saw her. it was at a picnic in the woods of Ville D’Avray, near Paris. A rural frolic. of citizens of the Ouartier Latin—artists and their ladies. The costumes for this were charming—bright organdies and taffetas of one of the quaintest of periods. The preliminary details of this picnic one must omit as being too unfestive—the two journeys to the studio at six on successive mornings only to find the call canceled, and the old man on the outskirts of the crowd who turned away with weak tears in his discouraged eyes.
But the third morning saw the jinx thwarted, and at eight o’clock the buses were loaded and speeding along the thirty miles through Los Angeles, past the great estates of Pasadena, to Arcadia—a little town of orange groves at the foot of mountains that reach straight up into lofty snow fields. In a grassy meadow, sheltered by oak trees, the picnic was spread. Miss Gish’s town car, with its shades drawn, was already parked at one side. Through the back window of an expensive coupe, a black head swathed in a towel indicated the transformation of John Gilbert into Rodolphe. In another car were Louise and Phemic. Phemic was played by a fiery Russian, Yalentina Zamina, late of the famous Battalion of Death. Between scenes she sang wild, strange songs of her native steppes, eyes half closed in recollection. Louise was none other than the director’s little sister, Catherine Vidor. Catherine is a charming child, shy and soft voiced, with lovely deepblue eyes. This was her first appearance before the camera, which alone was sufficient to prostrate her with excitement, even without the surrounding circumstances. You see, Catherine’s favorite actor, bar none, is Edward Everett Horton. “Oh, the Saturday afternoons I’ve spent in the front row center at the Majestic!”—which is the Los Angeles stock theater where Horton plays. “I just adore his acting, it is simply perfect.”
Now, Louise’s beau in “La Boheme” is Colline, and Collin e was being played by Edward Everett Horton. Thus we have all the elements of a truly dramatic situation, besides a most auspicious beginning for a budding career.
Mr. Horton is an inordinately quiet gentleman, emerging from the fastnesses of a book only for work. There is a sort of old-fashioned courtliness in his bearing, a throwback from the manners of the time of Colline himself. He has a humorous expression, and smiles quizzically and contagiously with his eyes alone. With Renee Adoree, the Musette of the picture, was her sister Mira who, like Renee, was originally a dancer but who has only recently turned to pictures. Also like Renee, she is an impish comique, although she lacks Renee’s wistfulness. Renee is a mischievous, gypsylike person, of chuckling, ready laughter. Her eyes are about the loveliest I have ever seen—large, beautifully shaped and violet blue, brilliant and long-lashed, equally eloquent in tears or flirtation.
Among the jollymakers were Loro Bara, the young blond sister of Theda ; a dear little couple whose adored son is George K. Arthur ; the now w. k. Harry Crocker —his delicious wit the riotous center of the assembly and Gloria Hellar, a charming discovery of Mr. Vidor’s, recently proclaimed one of the seven most beautiful unknowns in Hollywood. Which means that Gloria is somewhat of a knock-out and presages great things. When Miss Gish stepped out of her car and began work, it was like the arrival of a limpid, fragrant wood elf, so exquisite was her costume and so beautiful was she herself. No woman could resist its festive quaintness, and I could not help remarking, in particular, on the air, organdie sleeves.
“It is sweet, isn’t it?” Miss Gish said. “We took it from an old painting. And the sleeves are especially effective on the screen. Thev catch the light, and when Mimi runs, it looks as though she had wings, the wings of a moth.”
Her voice is a sharp surprise. You expect soft, throaty accents, but instead she speaks in clear, firmly pitched tones. A sort of healthy voice, pitched rather high, like a child’s. There is much about her that is reminiscent of extreme youth, besides the pure, cherubic contour of her face. She has, not just poise and courtesy, but manners. Careful, adorable politenesses that she is never too tired or worried to forget, even down to the unfailing, smiling “Thank you’s” for the little attentions continually showered upon her by the slavish electricians and prop boys. Much like a very wellbrought-up child she is, and utterly disarming.
“All right, Dave, let’s get started,” called Mr. Vidor in his impersonal way, as if nothing in particular were pending. If he has any conscious method of direction, it is his air of ease and pleasant dallying. He accomplishes a great amount of work, but this fact is never as apparent to his players as the casual, unhurried comfort of the way in which it is done. In particular, he has a skillful feeling for the charm a scene may contain, for the loveliness that may be put into a situation. This one sequence of the picnic is sure to stand out by itself in the picture, no matter how splendid the rest is. It is seldom that the full effect of an entire scene is at all understandable when seen in the making. The interruptions and waits and changes damage any impression one might get. But this seemed to hold continuity and sweep, despite the spasmodic way in which it was necessarily assembled. Like a bright little bird, Mimi flitted from group to group of the bohemians, laughing and exclaiming while administering to their needs. Then, when the drowsy background sprang to life at the music of rustic fiddlers, and every one else ran off to dance but the smoldering Rodolphe, she slipped away into the shadows of the woods, peeping back over her shoulder, coquetting and teasing.
When the shots of our dance in the pavilion were done, we had leisure to follow Mimi and Rodolphe through the forest. As opposite as possible, in every way except talent, Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert make a stunning picture. Though each seems to accentuate the individuality of the other, they are yet such perfect foils that no salient quality of either is dimmed.
Mr. Gilbert works with abandon, throwing self and surroundings to the winds when he enters a scene. My private opinion, held ever since “The Snob,” is that he is the screen’s greatest actor, without peer or rival. My friends, who have had it expounded to them rather often, would say it is not a very private opinion. And since seeing him work. I can think of several other choice points to add to my arguments. One is that he leaves lack Gilbert sitting in his canvas chair when he takes up the joys and sorrows of Rociulphc, or Danilo, or a doughboy, as the case may be. With boyish vigor, he charges into the heart of a character, bringing it forth to show to you. with sensitive, unerring artistry, and with supremely unconscious skill. Toward the end of the day, they set up the camera at the foot of a path that twisted up a hillside between the gnarled trunks of ancient trees. Up and down this path Mimi ran, hack and forth like an excited squirrel, pausing a moment to peep round at Rodolphe, then up the path again like an arrow. The company watched from behind the camera, laughing.
“Stop her!” Jack cried. “She’s gone mad. Mimi’s gone quite mad!” At the finish, she ran past the camera into the crowd, laughing and breathless.
“I hope I looked nice and French,” she said. “All the monkey business with the hands was supposed to be French.” (Lesson C: Only the greatest great can observe themselves in a humorous light, and not as God’s special Christmas gift to the world.)
When I start to write of Mimi as I last saw her, I am reminded of the sensations I had as a child, when mother used to tell me in vain that whatever I was reading was. only a play or a story. I was convinced that Eva actually did ascend, in a melancholy manner, to the angels, and that a little match girl really had heen found, cold and stiff, one Christmas morning. Thus I keep assuring myself that Miss Gish is a young lady who makes enough money to live on very comfortably, and that she has beauty, fame, and adoring friends. Yet there keeps recurring the picture of our last work in ”La Boheme,” and of the sobbing, dying Mimi struggling across Paris to Rodolphe. Her miserable clothes were in rags, and illness had carved deep hollows in her face. Clinging to the steps of a bus, fighting weakly through crowds, falling into the gutter and crawling on upon hands and knees, stumbling from a moving carriage, she slowly made her way, her long, pale-gold hair falling down over shoulders and back. Between shots, you might have thought Miss Gish was playing a bit in the picture, so unpretentious was her manner.
If her skirt had to be dirty for a close shot, she did not hail a prop boy, but knelt on the cobblestones and made it grimy herself. She almost never looks into a mirror. Her skin is so lovely that her make-up seldom needs repairing, yet even in her elahorate costumes and make-up, she used to go through scene after scene without even touching her hair or powdering her nose, although I must say that she never seemed to need any improvements. Toward the end of the sequence, she was scratched and bruised from her numerous falls and tumbles, her clothes were ragged and mud-stained, her beautiful hair tangled and dusty, waited so patiently for the lights to be arranged on each shot, now standing on the rough, sharp cobbles, now collapsed on a step. As she sat in the gutter, waiting for Mr. Vidor’s signal, she smoothed her apron—a dirty, tattered piece of black cotton—with a delicate gesture.
“See my lovely apron”—she held it out for our inspection—”Mr. Erte created it for me.”
The preservation of an illusion through realitv is always a feat, an illusion being of such fragile, rarified substance. Usually, we learn to be satisfied with treasured remnants.
Thus, it is with pride in my good fortune and with gratitude to Lillian for being what she is, that I present to you an illusion, not only intact but even increased in value — Miss Gish.