The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.
Review by ARTHUR MAYER
Published: June 8, 1969
Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.
What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.
The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.
Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.
Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”
When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with great affection and they in turn, loved him.”
Although Miss Gish gave the appearance of frailty, no task could daunt her. When she was on location for “Way Down East” the temperature never rose above zero, but at her own suggestion, she says, she lay on an ice floe drifting toward the falls with a hand and her hair trailing in the water. “My face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.” Characteristically, Griffith shouted to his cameraman Bitzer above the howling storm, “Billy, move in! Get that face! Get it!” “l will,,. Billy answered, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera.”
Working for other picture makers, however, she was occasionally prepared to admit weariness. One of her most revelatory stories (omitted for some unknown reason from her book) tells of an experience with Charles Laughton when he was directing “Night of the Hunter.” He required her to make at least a dozen takes. Finally she keyed her acting higher than she thought it ought to go and asked, “Is that what you want?” Laughton answered, “No, the first take was fine. I just wanted to see how many different ways you could do it.” “Well,” she answered, “if you want to waste your money on useless takes, that is all right with me, but I do get tired.”
Griffith’s dedication to his career and to the medium which he had so unexpectedly discovered to be his métier and his mission, matched her own. Although he married twice, no marriage to a man who habitually worked 16 hours a day, taking time off only to eat and sleep, could possibly prove successful. As for Miss Gish, she never even attempted it, though as Anita Loos once remarked, “Men were always marrying her in absentia.” She regarded matrimony as a “24-hour-a-day job.” Her films, she said, were her children.
What they shared, above all else, was their abiding faith in this “new uncorrupted art.'” Griffith would frequently say, “We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”
And Lillian Gish never forgot it.
Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, currently conducts film courses at Dartmouth and other colleges.
The New York Times Book Review
Admin note: Personal opinion – Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, skilled writer, tends to forget that Miss Gish was an actress, not a novelist. Therefore her book was seen from the stage, blinded by Klieg lights. As an actress, Miss Gish wasn’t concerned – when was the Censor Board founded in all American states – she was not working in a statistical office. Bringing up the rehearsal (The Night of the Hunter) when she admits that she’s tired, I believe it’s childish to compare Way Down East (1920), with The Night of the Hunter (1955), when Miss Gish was 62 years old.
I am very grateful to Mr. Mayer for his statement, despite the fact he considered “the biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” – disappointing. The reason Miss Gish broke her “engagement” to Mr. Nathan was because “Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship.”
“We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”
And Lillian Gish never forgot it.