Lillian Gish and MGM  aka “Heaven And Hell All Contained In Five Acres”

A performance off screen as well as on – was required …

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths. If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground. (Kevin Brownlow)

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Louise Brooks – Sight and Sound 1959

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

“What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? (excerpt)

Gilbert works on mood. Lillian would film a scene only after it had been rehearsed several times. When the time came that the scene was actually being photographed she knew exactly the effects she was going to create and when and where. Gilbert was loud in his praise of her. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method. During the first and second rehearsals of the scene his work would be magnificent. After the fifth or sixth repetition of it, he was stale. The term “technician” should not be disparaged, provided it is properly employed to signify one who gains effects mentally rather than emotionally. It is what the screen requires. The camera does not wait on heaven for moments of inspiration, and no human being could go on feeling his part through several rehearsals and a half-dozen “takes.” It has to be felt first over the script and then mathematically planned for effect if chances are not to be taken. Miss Gish is perhaps the greatest student among motion picture actresses. A humorous story is told of how she learned to swim. An instructor had told her that she should learn to float first if she wanted to be the best swimmer. Water terrified her, but she bravely clamped a clothes pin on her nose and went floating for days until she was proficient. Today she is a mermaid. That is Lillian Gish — thoroughness, conscientiousness, perseverance. Will she overcome all limitations, her own and those artificially imposed? Will she prove to be, as many believe she will, the greatest actress of an immortal screen? Personally I feel that she is going to be either one of the enduring great or a complete failure. A half-way position for her is impossible. (James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay)

Lillian Gish 1927 - Annie Laurie Promotional MGM
Lillian Gish 1927 – Annie Laurie Promotional MGM

Returning to Hollywood

Old Dr. Howe, of Rome and the Riviera, feels the pulse of the film colony, fills out a few prescriptions, and advises a little tincture of sense of humor for all hands

By Herbert Howe

Photoplay Magazine – May 1925 Vol. XXVII No.6

Lillian and Pola

German Ross Verlag No. 10341. Phoebus Film. Romola (Henry King, MGM 1924), shot on location in Italy

The Gishes have been in precarious position because of unhappy contracts. As soon as Lillian Gish is free she can just about make her own terms. I happen to have seen a few telegraphic bids for her services. Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star, but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an artist. The public is slow to appreciate great art. Duse at her best found no audience here. It was only when she had become a tradition—a celebrity whom it was fashionable to see—that she returned, a wraith of herself, to the acclaim of the multitudes. I predict a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.

 

Pola Negri 1931
29th January 1931: Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), born in Poland ‘Appolonis Chalupek’, the Hollywood film star and actress, probably the most exotic of the personalities of the silent days she thrived on femme fatale roles.

 

 

Pola Negri is another great actress, of magnetic personality, who has been handicapped because of a lack of understanding, both on her part and the company’s, as to the type of stories and direction she should have. Mr. Lasky is authority for saying that her box office rise has been phenomenal since ” Forbidden Paradise,” directed by Lubitsch.

Studio News & Gossip East and West

By Cal York

Photoplay – June 1925 Vol. XXVIII Number One

Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

THE abrupt ending of Charles H. Duell’s — suit against Lillian Gish proved once more that the man who tries to mix hearts and dollars—in an effort to win both—finds the answer to be Trouble. The judge dismissed the suit, ordered Duell to stand trial for perjury, and announced that the court would move to have him dismissed as a practicing attorney. In addition to the judge’s ruling, Miss Gish’s attorneys announced that she is to receive the sum of $120,000 from Inspiration Pictures.

Duell seems to be laboring under the illusion, and tried to prove, that he was engaged to the young star of Inspiration Pictures, but no one else knew it. Certainly not Lillian. At the time Duell was laying siege to Lillian’s hand he had a wife, Lillian Tucker, a former actress. Later Miss Tucker secured a divorce in the Paris courts. As soon as Lillian Gish’s contract with Charles Duell was declared null and void, every producer in the business sought her services.

Lillian finally signed with Metro-Goldwyn. She will receive five thousand dollars a week and twenty-five per cent of the profits. Which isn’t so bad for a girl who never has made any great effort to produce box-office pictures.

WHEN an irresistible star meets an immovable bachelor, what happens? Matrimony, of course. This means that all signs point toward a wedding in which Lillian Gish will play the leading role with George Jean Nathan as support.

 

Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose.jpg
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

SAMUEL GOLDWYN feverishly followed the developments of the suit between Lillian Gish and her former manager, Charles Duell. It was the big drama of Sam’s life because he made it no secret he wanted to star Lillian. Now Lillian is no business woman, but she knows human nature. Goldwyn was one of the first to call on her when she was freed from her contract. He painted a rosy picture of her career, her future, and her art as a star under his direction. He talked salary, stories, directors, and. above all. he tried to make the proposition attractive to a star of Miss Gish’s artistic ambitions.

After he had finished describing his vision, Lillian turned a glowing face toward him. “How lovely. Mr. Goldwyn! How tempting!” she exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make beautiful failures!” And that’s when Samuel’s enthusiasm went out like a light.

thalberg-irving-louis-b-mayer
Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg

Lillian felt a slight chill as the welcome became even more hysterical. ”Looking at it all, I said a silent prayer that they would be equally warm in farewell.” Her premonitions weren’t unfounded. While she was making La Boheme, a series of sinister threats were made against the actress, although they were kept hidden from her.Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power.

Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in La Bohème by Ruth Harriet Louise (MGM, 1926) Mimi and Rodolphe

The problem started with Lillian Gish, the star of stars in the monumental silent pictures of D. W. Griffith. She had been hired through a process that offered her MGM’s first million-dollar contract. Unfortunately, it guaranteed her approval of everything from the lace on her underwear to the use of her lips. When she arrived at the Culver City lot she found a banner soaring above MGM and across two streets, Lillian Gish is now an MGM star, said the banner under which paraded bands, a cart of roses, and lines of executives to greet her. Since it was her choice, she selected the tragic La Boheme for her first production, with the studio’s top-line director King Vidor to guide her. Lillian, pampered and convinced of her invincibility by D. W. Griffith, introduced a few bizarre practices to the lot—including full rehearsal. There were some grumbles until Vidor told Mayer that Lillian’s system was helping them bring in the picture under budget and ahead of schedule. Then “the affair of the kiss” began, almost bringing the picture down with it. As the lover of the doomed heroine, Mimi, MGM had of course provided the dashing John Gilbert, a man whose reputation was based on a sexy walk, a perfect body, languid eyes, and an ability to kiss equaled only by Valentino. Vidor was leisurely plotting an outdoor scene one afternoon when Lillian walked up with her script. ”Look at this, Mr. Vidor, there’s a kiss and an embrace planned during these scenes. Now that is simply not right. Rodolphe [Gilbert] will demonstrate the powerful love he bears for Mimi if he doesn’t embrace her at all—and he certainly shouldn’t kiss her.” Known as ”the great lover of the silent screen,” John Gilbert was incensed and ran to Mayer’s office. “This is a love story … a love story! Does she realize that?”

“What are you talking about?” Mayer asked.

“Lillian refuses to kiss me.”

“What?” Mayer yelled.

“You heard me. She says the audience will believe our love more poignantly if we don’t even touch,” Gilbert said.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

”Leave it to me,” said Mayer. Through a series of negotiations that would have strained a secretary of state, Mayer convinced Lillian that John Gilbert’s career might truly be hurt if he simply mooned around making eyes at Mimi. And after three days of love scenes, Vidor managed to coax the actress closer and closer to John’s embraces. He was achieving about one usable kiss every eight hours. On the way home, Lillian complained to her chauffeur: ”Oh, dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Protestations aside, Lillian must have been doing something right: John Gilbert proposed to her twice before they wrapped up filming. Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)

Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

Miss Lillian Gish’s Stageography

 

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya - Steichen Santa Monica - Vanity Fair May 1930
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Back to Lillian Gish Home page