Classics of The Silent Screen – By Franklin Joe (1959)
Lillian Gish, more than any other star, has always symbolized the silent screen heroine. Of course, she was more than just a “heroine” and all that that hackneyed word implies. An actress of fragile beauty and astonishing sensitivity, she was not only the first lady of the screen, but one of the great actresses of all time.
John Barrymore, excited over her work in Way Down East, wrote to her that she had even surpassed the work of Duse. And Griffith (several years after Miss Gish had made her last film for him), when asked if he really thought that she was the screen’s foremost actress, shrugged his shoulders and replied:
“Who is greater?” Initially it seemed that Lillian Gish was more valuable to Griffith for her looks than for her acting ability. She had (and in fact still has) that ethereal, not-ofthis-world look, a birdlike fragility from which emerges sudden, unexpected strength.
She was the epitome of what Griffith wanted in a heroine visually. But, in the early Biograph days at least, and through the Triangle period (until 1917) it was Mae Marsh who was the better actress. Or at least, it was Mae who was given the roles that demanded acting ability rather than a beautifully wistful and expressive face.
In early one-reelers like The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), and The Mothering Heart, Lillian was exceptionally fine, but she really began to mature as an actress after 1917, in films like Hearts of the World (the scene in which she wanders through a war-torn battlefield, clutching her bridal veil, searching for the body of the boy who was to have been her husband, was heart-rending), and the lovely little rural romance True Heart Susie, one of the unsung classics of the American screen.
Then came Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, which, by 1920, quite firmly established her as the screen’s foremost actress. Strangely enough however, although she had learned so much -from Griffith, and was so devoted to him, some of her best work came after she left him. To Griffith, the story was the thing—and for him, it was the right way to work. His pictures justified his methods.
And those methods did not include “showcases” for virtuoso performances, although Way Down East, with a simpler story-line than usual, and more stress on the one character of Anna Moore (played by Miss Gish) came closest to being a star vehicle.
Lillian’s scenes with her dead baby are still among the most poignant moments to be found anywhere on the screen. Miss Gish of course had no complaints against Griffith’s methods, and went on to make Orphans of the Storm for him. But it was obvious that as an actress she could develop no further in Griffith’s films, and so the two, quite amicably, came to a parting of the ways. Miss Gish’s films thereafter were more infrequent, and more carefully selected.
Not all were wisely selected, and Romola, despite a huge budget and lengthy location work in Italy, was a cold and stodgy film, lovely to look at, but little else. Miss Gish’s role gave her little to do but look exquisitely lovely in Renaissance costumes. The earlier The White Sister had been an enormous popular success, of course. Moving to M-G-M, Miss Gish was more than just the highest-priced feminine star on the lot. She had very definite ideas about the art of the film, and managed to imprint these ideas quite positively into her films. King Vidor and others who directed her were impressed. Even when they sometimes disagreed, they respected her integrity and creativity. Most of all, they respected her devotion to the art of acting, and her endurance of hardship and discomfort in the interests of a finer performance. In his autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree, King Vidor describes at great length the rather appalling ordeal Miss Gish subjected herself to in order to simulate death so convincingly in La Boheme.
Miss Gish’s best M-G-M films, La Boheme, The Scarlet Letter, and The Wind presented her with strikingly mature roles, in contrast to the innocent and girlish roles which had fallen to her under Griffith. And yet, of course, so much of that innocent charm remained.
Who could resist Lillian sitting placidly and uncomplainingly in the stocks (in The Scarlet Letter), forcing a smile while her wide eyes were filling with tears, or entreating a pawnbroker (in La Boheme) to pay just a little more for her mittens, so that she can pay her rent?
( Of course, how anybody could refuse an unspoken plea from Lillian’s eyes, let alone be inhuman enough to be mean to her, is a point that often bothered me as I watched her suffering so beautifuly in so many silents!) Miss Gish was devoted to the silent screen, and felt that it had just about perfected a universal language of the arts when sound came along to destroy it. She has made many talkies and has always been superb. But now that the silent screen has gone, her main love is the theatre—and what a rare privilege it is to watch such an outstanding artist at work today! Styles and standards have changed, “The Method” and other modernizations have come and will probably go. Amid all the mumbling that passes for acting today, Lillian Gish’s power and sensitivity and force remains a vibrant and living link with an acting school that has never been surpassed—the school of silent cinema.