The New York Times 1997
Lillian Gish, Maker of Memories
By Kevin Brownlow
March 2, 1997
BY COMMON CONSENT the greatest actress of the silent era, Lillian Gish personified that remarkable epoch. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period.
There can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to their credit: ”The Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Hearts of the World,” ”Broken Blossoms,” ”Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm,” all directed by the man she called the Father of Film, D. W. Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics — ”The White Sister” and ”Romola” — and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, ”The Scarlet Letter” and ”The Wind.”
Hers was always the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even into recent decades, when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois, maverick curator of the Cinematheque Francaise (she succeeded), and Abel Gance, creator of ”Napoleon” (she failed), to promoting the restored versions of ”Napoleon” and ”A Star Is Born.” And somehow she still found time to act.
Now comes the happy news that her archives from many decades of film history have been acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the equally happy news that the library, at Lincoln Center, is celebrating the acquisition with a series of free screenings and lectures. The program, ”Lillian Gish Remembered,” starts Thursday with the actress Irene Worth giving a one-woman performance of Gish moments.
Other evenings in the series, which will continue on Thursdays and Saturdays through June, will offer remembrances by friends and fellow actors. Among the Gish movies to be shown are ”The Scarlet Letter” (1926), ”Romola” (1924), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919) and ”The Wind” (1928), one of the last great silent films.
It was in connection with an earlier tribute that I met Lillian Gish in 1983. Spending time with her was exhilarating, not because she was so exquisite to look at — you didn’t mention things like that — but because, even in old age, she was so enthusiastic. My partner David Gill and I invited her to England to attend what were then called the Thames Silents — presentations of silent films with live orchestra sponsored by Thames Television. We had a huge West End theater at our disposal — the Dominion, on Tottenham Court Road — and during the London Film Festival we staged a tribute to Lillian Gish with two of her finest films, ”Broken Blossoms” and ”The Wind.”
At the airport, I scanned the arriving passengers. When I spotted a wheelchair, my morale plummeted. I rushed up and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.
”We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,” said her manager, James Frasher. She had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.
A newspaper strike had wiped out all our publicity. I showed her the magazine articles that no one would see, including a long one in The Sunday Times with a photo by Lord Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ”We’ll do lots of radio,” she said. ”We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.”
At her suite at the Savoy Hotel, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited her. ”I first came here in 1917,” she said, looking out at the River Thames. ”Our suite was just like this, and Mr. Griffith” — she always called him that — ”held all our rehearsals here for ‘Hearts of the World.’ We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk” Cleopatra’s Needle. ”There was no warning — just a sudden bang. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe 12 people were killed.”
During the first of her many television interviews, Gish was keenly aware of technique. I even heard her directing the lighting. ”Camera high, light low,” she said. She checked the result in a monitor; one could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes.
Suddenly, the cameraman zoomed in. ”Don’t come so close,” she warned. ”You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.” They settled for what she wanted.
”Honestly,” said the interviewer, ”you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.”
”I was born this way,” she said with a chuckle. ”I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colors, you know — brown, black, white, blond. It’s still me.” She referred to the scene from ”The Wind,” which would be shown as part of the interview. ”But to match that face 60 years later! I did my best this morning with makeup. But you can’t perform miracles. You can help it with lights.”
”Only a little,” said the interviewer.
”Oh, it’s not for me — that’s vanity. It’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say ‘Oh, how awful!’ ”
She spoke eloquently about acting. ”This camera teaches you what not to do,” she said, gesturing at the lens. ”I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.”
That evening, the lecture at the National Film Theater was sold out. Despite the December cold, a crowd lingered at the entrance. When Gish arrived, in black fur, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing. She was introduced as ”the first lady of American cinema” by Sheridan Morley, the celebrated critic and son of Robert Morley.
Someone in the audience asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ”Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,” she said. ”Seventy-five percent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard. They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them ‘gaga babies.’ ”
Our first presentation, which opened with the film in which she and her sister, Dorothy, first appeared, ”An Unseen Enemy” (1912), followed by ”Broken Blossoms,” was a tremendous success.
”I have been going to the cinema for 50 years.” a man said to me in the foyer. ”This has been my greatest evening.”
But ”Broken Blossoms,” a romance of Dickensian violence with Gish as the waif, had long been celebrated as a classic; ”The Wind,” the story of a girl from Virginia who goes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas, was almost unknown to British audiences. People were so anxious to see ”The Wind,” with its astonishing, climactic sandstorm — and to see Gish — that several flew in from France and the United States. ”The Wind,” for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comic relief and this received a lot of laughter. Once again, the music exercised its power.
Carl Davis had composed a sophisticated score that precisely suited the film, which was full of psychological nuance and depended heavily on Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance.
With the storm scene, the percussion rose almost to the threshold of pain, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theater, driving one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the terrified girl. This musical storm combined with the terror on her face, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience that had held its breath for more than half a reel.
”The most terrifying cinematic moment of the year,” said The Times of London. ”No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.”
Gish was greeted by a standing ovation. She told the audience that she had chosen Seastrom to direct her film. ”We worked out in the Mojave Desert in temperatures which were seldom under 120 degrees,” she said from the stage. ”There were eight airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress but luckily not in my eyes. I was the only woman in the troupe . . . so I had no double. I did all my own stunts, like falling off the horse.”
This was nothing compared with the stunts she had done for Griffith, including floating down a river on an ice floe, her hand trailing in the water. ”Cold I can stand, but not heat,” she said, ”so ‘The Wind’ was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures.” She closed by praising the 40-piece orchestra: ”The music was 75 percent of the excitement you have just experienced.”
For a woman of 83, her energy and enthusiasm seemed amazing — later, we discovered she had drawn a veil over her real age. She was actually 90. (She died in 1993, only months short of her 100th birthday.)
Lillian Gish may have needed the toughness of a pioneer to get through all those pictures, but there was a quality the audience saw that night that can only be described as sweetness, a sweetness that transcended any role she ever played.
ABOUT A DOZEN films starring Lillian Gish are available on videotape, the earliest of them dating to her days with Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith at the American Biograph Company in New York. Here are the more interesting ones, some of which will be shown as part of the series at Lincoln Center.
* ”The Birth of a Nation,” 1915. Gish stars with Mae Marsh in Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic.
* ”Hearts of the World,” 1916. A young boy struggles through World War I, as do Lillian and her sister Dorothy Gish on the homefront.
* ”Intolerance,” 1916. Gish again stars with Marsh in the silent classic with settings from Babylon to Paris.
* ”Broken Blossoms,” 1919. Gish is an abused daughter in London’s unsavory Limehouse District and Richard Barthelmess is the Chinese man who tries to save her in Griffith’s film, which, on video, comes with an introduction by Gish.
* ”Way Down East,” 1920. That’s Lillian out on that ice floe, a country girl tricked into a fake marriage by a slick playboy.
* ”Orphans of the Storm,” 1921. The French Revolution doesn’t help Lillian in her search for her sister (Dorothy).
* ”The White Sister,” 1923. In Henry King’s film, Lillian is an Italian aristocrat who is driven from her home and into a convent.
* ”Romola,” 1924. Lillian was supposed to drown in this pirate tale, but during filming she wouldn’t sink, resulting in a retake.
* ”The Wind,” 1928. In one of the last great silents, Lillian goes west, marries a cowpoke, is raped in a frontier town and endures a ferocious storm.