As the 20th century began to unfold, the American motion picture was in its infancy. Most of the subjects captured on film had been vignettes from real life, and fictional stories had rarely found their way to the screen, except in the magical curiosities produced by Melies in France that were imported by enterprising distributors in this country. Fiction was not to become a useful adjunct to the motion picture’s success until sufficient techniques were developed to adequately employ it and even Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1902) must be considered as an early documentary.
But with The Great Train Robbery in 1903, Porter introduced the use of a fictional story line; he even crammed a few simple subplots into the single reel and the movies came to life. While Porter was not the first to attempt this, his effort was by far the most successful and historians have found The Great Train Robbery to be a convenient starting point. For the next decade, the pioneer producers concentrated on story development without identifying cast members to the public, but concurrently, a star system was being created by the very popularity of certain players. During this decade producers learned the value of the screen heroine, and the emphasis on feminine roles reached its apex with the appearance of the first serials in 1913-14, which featured the heroine who could take care of herself.
By the time of World War I, motion pictures had become big business, and type casting of players had proven to be a most profitable arrangement by the production companies. An actor or actress who found financial success in a particular type of role was immediately rushed into another similar nicture — Theda Bara is an outstanding example. This did not lead to art.
Few will argue the contention that Lillian Gish stands virtually alone as the greatest of the silent screen’s heroines. A consummate actress, her cinematic performances were often artistic triumphs as well as fascinating screen entertainment; audiences seldom left a Gish picture without some new insight into the many facets of her talent. Possessing a native intuition which she brought to bear on each new role, Lillian Gish was able to succeed where other screen actresses failed. This quality, much desired by every serious actress, was a rarity given to only a few and its proper application remained an even greater rarity. Often compared by her contemporaries with Duse and Bernhardt, Miss Gish remains today as the Helen Hayes of the American screen, occupying a position in her art often sought but never attained by others. And yet it was not a great insight or artistic yearning which brought her to the screen; she and her sister Dorothy arrived at the old New York Biograph studio on East 14th Street in 1912 from simple economic necessity, as had so many others before them. The movies offered a certain security lacking in theatrical engagements — there were no slack seasons for those working in the youthful “flickers.” The fragile Gish features were heightened and emphasized on the large screen and Lillian’s delicate beauty soon became that of the archtypical Griffith heroine and her account of mastering the art of screen acting, as described in her recent autobiography (with Ann Pinchot) , The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, makes delightful reading.
Her early work for Griffith was briefly overshadowed by the presence of Mary Pickford, a friend from stage days who had invited the sisters to visit her at Biograph and whose immense popularity with audiences would rival Lillian’s artistic achievements in years to come, yet the commercial appeal of Pickford in no way detracted from Miss Gish’s accomplishments. Her films soon made their share of money, and with Mary’s final departure from (iriffith and Biograph, Lillian Gish came into her own in films like The Unseen Enemy, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, Battle of the Sexes and Home Sweet Home.
Attracted to Griffith’s abundant talent by training and temperament, Lillian remained with him through his years with Mutual and Triangle. While few of her roles during this period emphasized or even required much acting ability, she managed to turn in sensitive performances in spite of the slight material handed her. Her outstanding performance as Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation was Lillian’s last challenging role until Griffith left Triangle, and those years with Triangle left no particular impression on her career. Her Triangle Plays received reasonably good trade reviews at the time, but because of Triangle’s insistence that only contract theaters could play its films, her pictures were not widely distributed. But during these years, Lillian was undergoing a process of maturation in her acting and emerged a near-complete artist beginning with Hearts of the World in 1917.
She gave superb accounts of herself as the rural sweetheart in True Heart Susie and the battered waif of Broken Blossoms, two very different roles. By the time she made Way Down East in 1920, Lillian Gish had no peers on the screen. It was her performance alone that kept the hackneyed old melodrama believable. Miss Gish’s association with Griffith lasted until the completion of Orphans of the Storm in 1922; beyond that point, D. W. Griffith could contribute nothing further to her career. Her mastery of screen acting had surpassed his needs, but the parting was an amicable one and she has always keenly treasured their many years of collaboration.
After leaving Griffith her screen appearances during the twenties were much less frequent and more carefully chosen, allowing Lillian the opportunity to portray mature heroines in contrast to the saccharine sweetness and innocence of her Griffith years. Yet today, her reputation still rests heavily on the Griffith years—an interesting commentary on her career, for with Griffith, the story was the key. Few if any of his pictures could be considered as starring vehicles in the usual sense for one or two members of the cast, yet if Lillian Gish was featured in the picture, it is usually recalled as one of hers.
After completing The White Sister and Romola on location in Italy for Charles Duell, Lillian returned to the United States where in 1925 she signed a six-picture, $800,000 contract with M-G-M. Her first was a film version of Puccini’s opera La Boheme; an exceedingly fine picture in spite of the fact that it left costar John Gilbert slightly unnerved. The dashing romantic lead could not quite grasp Lillian’s conception of her role and was thus totally dismayed over her refusal to kiss him on-screen. So was Louis B. Mayer, who couldn’t see wasting Gilbert’s great talent (in view of the success of his previous picture, The Big Parade) and ordered a different ending shot.
The Scarlet Letter came next, despite Mayer’s objection to the advent of the adulteress Hester Prynne as an M-G-M heroine; it proved to be one of the finest pictures of 1926. These were followed by Annie Laurie and The Enemy, two good films but somewhat less popular than her first pair.
The M-G-M contract came to an end by mutual agreement after Lillian’s performance for Victor Seastrom (who also directed The Scarlet Letter) in The Wind, a most unusual and masterful but nevertheless depressing tale of life in the American Southwest. While Miss Gish had added a large degree of luster to the M-G-M heaven of stars, she had also become too “artistic” for its taste. Crew and cast admired and respected Miss Gish for her knowledge of their crafts and the unusually keen vigor with which she approached her work; even directors King Vidor and Seastrom were impressed with her integrity and creative interest, treating her with deference and accepting her suggestions. But in the case of The Wind, even the sales department was unsure of quite what to do with it or how it could best be marketed and as film sales were the foundation of a studio’s success, the sales people often won the day. While the film sat on the shelf awaiting some decision, sound made its appearance and finally sound effects were dubbed, a happy ending substituted for the original grim one and The Wind was released; Miss Gish had long since departed.
While Lillian worked occasionally in talkies, she regarded the addition of sound as the destruction of a universal language. Her devotion to the silent film led her back to the theatre, where she continued to amaze audiences with her powerful but sensitive portrayals.
Now and then, she is seen on television today and watching her at work, even in the small roles, is a genuine delight and pleasure for those of us who remember good acting, and an education for those brought up on the “method” and other eccentric schools of acting. As the silent film has slipped into the past forever, so eventually will Lillian Gish, yet it is safe to say that the greatness of both the actress and her medium will not be surpassed for a long time to come.
Kalton C Lahue (1971)