New York Times – April 18, 1969
Lillian Gish, the Author, Talks on D. W. Griffith
By HOWARD THOMPSON
“Do you realize that film is our only native art form?” said Lillian Gish. “There’s jazz, of course, but that came from Africa. Film is the most powerful medium of communication in the world today.” At the age of 69, after 64 years of trouping on stage, screen and television, the actress speaks authoritatively. The energetic Miss Gish, who has two new projects under way, was speaking in her East Side apartment. “There’s a force and immediacy; about film today,” she continued, “almost like a car wreck.” Last night she appeared on the stage of Columbia University’s McMillin Theater as commentator for “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a new 90-minute program of screened excerpts from silent-film classics, Including highlights of her own career. Sponsored by the university’s School of the Arts, the event was a benefit for a scholarship fund commemorating D. W. Griffith, the pioneer director with whom Miss Gish was associated for nine years in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Way Down East.” She will tour with the program in the fall.
A Pair of Projects
On Sunday Miss Gish is to leave on a cross-country promotional tour for her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” which Prentice-Hall is publishing Monday. At the McMillin Theater at Broadway and 16th Street last night, more than 1,200 people saw and heard Miss Gish and her film compilation. Unruffled anticipation stood in contrast to the events at the adjacent Philosophy Hall, where rebel students had taken over the premises. In even further contrast were the spring-like, bower appointments in another nearby school building where a reception was being prepared for Miss Gish. The McMillin assembly included many young people as well as older spectators, among them Katharine Hepburn, Anita Loos, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley, Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote and Brooks Atkinson.
A Standing Ovation
Davidson Taylor, director of the School of the Arts, introduced Miss Gish, after noting that Columbia was the first American university to offer a course in film. “We are here tonight because we love Lillian Gish,” he said. To a standing ovation, the actress appeared on the stage. Clad in a white, long-sleeved evening gown, she sat at a stage-left lectern and conversationally read a commentary on the screen cavalcade that flickered a few feet away, spanning 1900-1928, to a muted musical recording.
Miss Gish’s comments were informal, enlightening, witty and knowledgeable, and the responsive audience was entirely hers. Most of the segments, and the array of familiar faces from the past, drew applause, and often hearty chuckles, with the actress joining in. Of a bit from the primeval “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when a bloodhound repeatedly whisked past, Miss Gish said, “Three cuts of the same dog not much imagination there” and the audience laughed delightedly. She spoke fondly of her childhood friend Mary Pickford, shown angelically in “Mender of Nets,” and indicated the technical development of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, as an actor and in “Birth of a Nation” and “Way Pown East.”
These two lengthy excerpts, with the famous battle scenes and the homecoming sequence from the first, and Miss Gish’s sequence with a baby and her famous rescue from an icy river by Richard Barthelmess in the second picture, stole the show.
Like her audience, Miss Gish was carried away a bit with the realism of “Way Down East” as she hurtled toward the waterfall on an ice floe.
“Oh look,” she said, pointing, “there I am-that dark spot over there.”
After the applauded fadeout, she said, “I don’t know how Dick ever rescued me.”
More applause greeted Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in a scene from “Blood and Sand.” The siren gripped the bullfighter’s “arm of iron” and the actor rolled his eyes to the audience’s uncontrollable laughter, including that of Miss Gish. The auditorium lights brightened and Miss Gish drew another standing ovation from an audience that obviously wanted still more.
The Formative Years
At her apartment the other day, Miss Gish elaborated on her new activities: “The program at Columbia, which we’ve already tried out unofficially in several places, represents the industry as I knew it during those formative years when Griffith gave it form and grammar and punctuation,” she explained.
Near the actress in the elegant book-lined living room hung a huge oil painting ot the late, invalid mother she idolized. Miss Gish’s younger sister, Dorothy, with whom she rose to world renown in the Griffith features, died last vear .
Miss Gish, with her soft auburn hair, firm mouth and alert, friendly manner, is very much of the present.
“I have in there two letters I got today from two youngsters, 13 and 14, wanting to know how to get certain old films,” she said. “Today it’s the youngsters that are actually buying these old prints so they can study them-not just show ’em.
“They’re also making their own movies. Isn’t that marvelous? They’re the ones who realize the lasting value of what people like Griffith and Chaplin and Keaton were doing. At first the kids used to follow me for autographs. Now it’s for information,” she beamed, her unlined face, with its pink complexion, remarkably the same as when it lighted the early screen with a girlish glow.
Director at the Center
Her book started 12 years ago with an idea proposed by Reader’s Digest then expanded under Miss Gish’s own pen during three Swiss vacations (“the same hotel, where nobody else spoke English”) and culminated in a collaboration with a professional writer, Ann Pinchot.
“It’s my own story,” she continued, “but Griffith is the center of it-with his innovative techniques of the camera, and all the heart, taste and feeling you don’t see in films today. I didn’t want the book to be just another exploitation book. I’ve read some of those,” she added wryly. “Colleen Moore’s is a delightful exception.”
Like many others, she concedes that movies today are primarily a director’s medium. “But back then they belonged to everybody involved. We were in everything-the writing, costumes, photography, even the editing,” said the actress who personally edited “The White Sister” in 1923.
“At one time I also directed, wrote scripts and even built my studio. It’s in the book,” she added, twinkling. “Today it’s all packaged impersonally.” “True,” she continued, “it’s a business like everything else. Maybe real beauty has gone out of the world. Disney’s gone, of course, but there are men of vision-like Satyajit Ray of India, those beautiful Japanese pictures, and Fellini and Zeffirelli with his ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Men like these convey the human spirit, something I’ve always believed in with my Lutheran Episcopal background.”
She smiled bleakly. “But what do we get today? All this filth, nudity and violence. Yes, I go; but I can’t believe it’s so popular. The other afternoon I went to one – never mind which – with only 12 or 13 people in the audience and this man dropping In front of me then falling sound asleep. I thought, $2.50-to nap?”