Lillian Gish, The Enigma of the Screen – By James R. Quirk (Photoplay 1926)

The Enigma of the Screen

What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Is she a Genius or Mechanic?

By James R. Quirk

Photoplay Magazine, March 1926

Numerous actresses of sirenic charm and inscrutable pasts have been paraded from time to time as “enigmas,” but the real enigma of the motion picture constellation is Lillian Gish. And the most baffling question of the hour is. What of her future?

Miss Gish is a screen pioneer, Commencing her career with Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and the Talmadges, yet she has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. We can estimate the popularity of Gloria Swanson, of Mary Pickford, of Norma Talmadge and Pola Negri almost to the decimal point. But Miss Gish’s remains a problem.

She has given great performances in great pictures, and yet curiously we regard each new endeavor as a test of her. She appears a wraith hovering on the borderland between oblivion and reality, a mystical creation whose power hypnotizes us momentarily and then leaves us wondering if it is not an illusion. How much of this fragile crystal figure has been created about Miss Gish by the Griffith tradition, so skillfully and deliberately worked?

Lillian Gish - Romola (mid)
Lillian Gish – Romola (mid)

I recently attended a dinner where a light wine was served. No one remarked its flavor until the hostess observed that it was forty years old and came from the cellars of a Russian palace. Immediately there were ecstatic exclamations as to its bouquet, its rare flavor and the mystic gold of its color. Stars in motion pictures seldom succeed alone. Behind them you invariably find certain guiding geniuses who infuse them with the power of their own genius. Is Miss Gish a genius or is she but the worthy student of the magic Griffith? An electrician watching her at work one day suddenly exclaimed “That girl ain’t an actress—she’s a mechanic.” He could give no explanation for his observation aside from a mumbled, “She knows her stuff.”

Examining Miss Gish’s characterizations you find that she achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion—namely, hysteria. And she knows precisely the method of it. “It is expressed by the arm from the elbow to the fingers,” she says scientifically “and depends entire on rhythm”  the gradual quickening of movement up to the point desired.” In other words, it is a physical lashing into frenzy. Every actress of the Griffith school has employed it. Miss Gish more skillfully than the rest. And it has been for each of them the most effective gesture, but it could not have been without Griffith’s skill in contriving a situation for it. Mr. Griffith has said that the greatest screen climax is not attained through the actors but through the forces of nature. Miss Gish is always the helpless, tossed victim of a stormy fate, an overwhelming brutal destiny.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

Her performances are not remembered for polished, symphonic continuity but for piercing moments of crescendo where emotion was expressed in physical terms of hysteria verging on madness. It has been said that great parts make great actors. Great situations have made Miss Gish. She depends more on material than any actress of the screen. Gloria Swanson can toss colored trifles in the air, play with them as with balloons and entertain solely by the charm of her gestures as a literary stylist charms with his play of words. Charlie Chaplin extracts the most interesting moments from trivialities. Pola Negri is not remembered for any single moment but, on the contrary, for the infinite variety of her moods. Lillian Gish has been termed the Duse of the screen, and yet she is utterly unlike Duse in method. The Italian genius was so quiet in her naturalness as to appear repressed, so highly sensitized that she responded poignantly to every mood and situation, as delicately and mysteriously attuned as a radio instrument.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A scene from “Broken Blossoms”. Note how Miss Gish uses her hands in this picture to work up a scene depicting hysteria

Miss Gish thus far has been lacking in range. From the moment she steps on the screen there is the feeling of inevitable doom. Too gentle for this world’s pain, her only hope of happiness appears in death or the cloister. And so obviously is this fate written in her every aspect that suspense is lessened The emotion she arouses in one is that of an infinite and poignant pity. Pity is akin to love but it can never be love, even though it is heart rending. Miss Gish is a student, she does not rely on inspiration. There is nothing spontaneous in her work. It is carefully motivated, studied and timed. This in no way detracts from her worth as an artist, or a possible genius. Leonardo da Vinci fashioned the smile on the face of Mona Lisa as mathematically as Lillian Gish has drawn a similar smile on her own likeness.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Like her, also, he was divinely detached and unemotional. He would follow a man to the gallows to catch the expression on his face that he might express the anguish later on his canvas. Miss Gish has that infinite capacity for taking pains that the greatest artists have had. Unfortunately she is not a free artist as is the painter, the sculptor or the writer who relies only on his implements. She works in a medium that requires collaboration. A film cutter can ruin utterly the finest masterpiece. A director or a scenario writer without understanding of her peculiar gift can fail in providing her with the proper sitting for it. A supervisor with a set commercial formula can, by applying it to her pictures, make of her a commercial failure. As a classic, Lillian Gish may be commercially successful, but as a regular commercial routine star, grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen.

More than any other star, Miss Gish must be her own producer. Whether or not she has the capacity remains to be seen, and whether or not she is permitted to be is still another matter. Her stellar power has been tried in but two pictures, “The White Sister” and “Romola,” a success and a failure.

Her performance in “The White Sister” was as fine as anything she ever gave the screen. Her story and her character were carefully devised. In ” Romola” she was but a figure on a moving tapestry, and as such she is no more effective than many other actresses. She was not as big as her reputation. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in “La Boheme” felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different.

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.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish retrouvaille, caleche, diligence, cocher, chevaux d'apres le roman de Henri Murger PMRCJN
(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish d’apres le roman de Henri Murger

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.

By James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay, March 1926

Photoplay (March 1926) Lillian Gish Enigma
Photoplay (March 1926) Lillian Gish Enigma

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