Chicago Tribune – Wednesday, October 1st, 1969 – Page 51
Lillian Gish Still Captivates Audiences
By Gene Siskel
AT THE Moscow Film festival this summer, one actress received an ovation larger than any other. Lillian Gish, whose credits are virtually endless and run the gamut from the largest grossing film [“Birth of a Nation”] to longest running Broadway play [“Life With Father”], was that actress.
She is in Chicago at the Goodman theater thru Saturday for five performances of “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a narrated look at the birth and triumph of the only art form created in the twentieth century – the movie.
Miss Gish is elegant in a long, white gown, and ebullient as she greets the audience in what she calls “my city.” Her warmth – which she was able to project on the silent screen – is more than evident in her greeting. “I’m a lucky, lucky woman.”
With the screen at center stage and her chair off to one side, Miss Gish takes us on a tour of great films from 1900 to 1928. Incredibly modest, she has included films from her own career as well as those of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and many others.
Occasionally having trouble with her script, Miss Gish was the most captivating when she looked out at the audience and told the story of her harrowing performance on an ice floe in “Way Down East.” As we watched her leave her lover [Richard Barthelmess] and head for ice, she explained that stand-ins were never used. “And it was my foolish idea to hold my hand and my hair in the freezing water.”
Barthelmess chases his sweetheart, jumping from ice floe to ice floe, and suddenly we see a shot of Miss Gish approaching the falls. You have to shake yourself to realize that here was the era’s most popular screen star floating down a river about to be smashed to bits.
“I don’t know why we got so close to the edge. We couldn’t hear Mr. Griffith [the director] screaming at us.” In a dazzling scene that has the audience gasping and then cheering, the heroine is saved.
Much of the cinematic travelog is a paen to her close friend and pioneering director, David Wark Griffith. Miss Gish shows us portions of Griffith’s masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation,” and identifies the master’s contributions to the art.
In his preface to miss Gish’s autobiography, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “I know what makes her so magnificent. She has no vanity.” We got a sense of that last night, and only wish Miss Gish’s modesty wouldn’t keep her from talking more about her roles as they are shown on the screen. What information she did give was wonderful.