Lillian Gish Tribute at AFI Series – By Barbara Saltzman (L.A. Times – August 1979)

L.A. Times – Saturday August 11, 1979

Lillian Gish Tribute at AFI Series

By Barbara Saltzman

They came from throughout Southern California to pay tribute to actress Lillian Gish and the Wiltern Theater – Gish a living testament to the power and majesty of film from its earliest beginnings, the Wiltern a monument to the glory of yesterday’s movie palaces, just a breath away from demolition.

The Wiltern Theater in the thirties
The Wiltern Theater in the thirties

The occasion was the first in the American Film Institute’s “The Best Remaining Seats” series, which will criss-cross the Southland from Catalina Island to Santa Barbara through Oct. 18 to awaken interest in preserving some of the grandest remaining local movie houses with cinematic milestones that re-create their finest hours.

There was no question Thursday night that the hour belonged to Lillian Gish, who was born in 1896** and whose career has spanned the birth of film and the beginnings of communication by satellite.

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“We really made our living in those days,” she told the capacity audience of 2.300 who had just seen her pulled from the ice floes in clips from D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” (1920), rescued from the guillotine in Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm” (1922) and subjected to the relentless blowing sands of Victor Seastrom’s “The Wind” (1928), shown in ints entirety.

“We had no doubles,” the star said.

Lillian Gish filming - The Wind
The Wind – Lillian Gish

“That’s me all the time. Running … slipping on the ice … falling off a horse – I did them all.

“Dick (Barthelmess, her costar who picked her off the ice floe in “Way Down East”) said to me some years later, “You know we didn’t have any sense in those days.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

The turn-away audience fanning themselves in the close air of the slightly faded but still elegant Art Deco theater, which opened in 1931 as a showcase for Warner Brothers, applauded warmly.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

“It took three weeks to get those scenes. We got so cold that we couldn’t go in for lunch. The agony of coming in and going out again was too much.”

Of the three silents shown – to the accompaniment of Gaylord Carter on the Wiltern’s theater organ – Gish said “The Wind” was the most difficult and uncomfortable,” shot in suffocating 120 – degree heat near Bakersfield. “Eight propellers from airplanes were on me, with smudge pots, blowing the wind to give the effect of the storm.”

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand - The Wind
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

Both on film and in person, Gish, the actress who sweltered in the sun and shivered on the ice, revealed the power of film artistry to span the generations.

The audience, which included director George Cukor (a longtime friend for whom Gish never worked), was made up in large part by many who were not even born when the Wiltern was built. But they booed and hissed, cheered and applauded in “all the right spots, just as they did then,” said one delighted fan in his 70s.

The Wiltern main hall
The Wiltern main hall

Several dressed in ‘30s fashion to reflect the spirit of the evening. They called themselves film fans and fans of the city’s historic architecture, milling through the lobbies and balcony, sipping champagne bought for $1, eating hot dogs and popcorn from the candy counter, looking intently at the mostly worn Martini Olive-patterned Mohawk carpet lit by the still-original Art Deco chandeliers.

Gish, moved by the ovation given her, paid tribute herself to the directors she has worked with, among them the legendary Griffith, about whom she has written at length.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

“The main thing he taught us was that you must rehearse.” For “Way Down East,” the company rehearsed from early in the morning till late in the evening for eight weeks, she recalled. “It meant we didn’t have to leave things on the cutting room floor. We had no retakes. We knew what had to be done and we did it. Sometimes we would work for 25 hours straight.”

Gish said she has always had respect for the power of the camera. “We thought the camera was psychic then – and I still do.”

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme
John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme

The series continues Thursday at the Orpheum Theater, 842 S. Broadway, with “The Big Parade,” to be presented by King Vidor, who sent a telegram to Gish, reminding the audience that the actress “stands as a burning light … not one has ever achieved the eminence which you alone occupy.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish, american film institute gala 1979

Lillian Gish Tribute to the AFI Series - LA Times August 1979
Lillian Gish Tribute to the AFI Series – LA Times August 1979

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