The Lizzie Borden Quarterly (2002)
— The Bibliographic Borden —
LizBits – Nine Pine Street
By Neilson Caplain (October, 2002)
She was dynamite at the box office, the greatest star in the early days of film-making. David Belasco called her the most beautiful blond in the world. John Barrymore paid her the ultimate compliment for an actor. He said she was the most exquisite, enchanting actress he had ever seen. And so it was with hushed anticipation that the audience awaited Lillian Gish’s appearance in the play Nine Pine Street.
The opening was on a balmy spring evening, May 31, 1933, at the Longacre Theater on Broadway in New York City. It was one of Miss Gish’s first performances in a live acting play. The authors were John Colton and Carlton Miles, based on a play by William Miles and Donald Blackwell.
Lillian took the part of a renamed Lizzie Borden, guilty of murdering her father because of the marriage to his second wife. The action took place in New Bedford, the city where Lizzie’s court appearance took place in real life. The time is set in the years 1886 to 1907. In addition to the star, there were fifteen supporting actors appearing in six scenes.
Unfortunately Nine Pine Street was not a smashing success. It ran for less than two months, only forty-nine performances. Nevertheless the critics acclaimed the acting by Miss Gish. One critic wrote, “when she comes down the stairs, after the first utterly noiseless murder, the sad-iron wrapped in her guilty apron, she is an appalling sight, wracked, and almost nauseated at her own deed … at the second slaying it is with an overwhelming sense of an inescapable fate. It is an extraordinary performance, taut, almost trance-like in its power, and oppressive, with a sort of sultry brilliance.”
It is interesting to note that the program booklet for Nine Pine Street highlighted four full-page advertisements for cigarettes. Each featured young ladies with cigarette in hand. In those days it was fashionable for women to smoke and the ads appealed to a growing market. The cover is adorned with a wistful picture of the star. She appears not unlike the real Lizzie. More than ten years later Gish was still thinking of a movie based on the play. Unfortunately, such plans were never brought to fruition.
Lillian Gish penned two autobiographies. Several others told the story of her life in published books. She was featured in magazine articles and numerous interviews. There is no dearth of information surrounding the career of this actress. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, October 4, 1893. Her sister, Dorothy, also a well-known actress of the day, was born five years later.
Their father was James Leigh DeGuiche, later changed to Gish. Their mother was Mary Robinson McDonnell.
Separated from his wife, James Gish suffered from alcoholism. He died in an institution for the insane when only 36 years of age. In the early days Mrs. Gish supported her two girls by acting and later by opening a candy store, and finally as a manager for a catering business. In return, for the rest of her life she received close, caring and loving attention from her two daughters. Lillian began her acting career as a youngster, barely nine years old.
Throughout her long professional life it is said she rarely missed a day because of illness or egomania. With her sister Dorothy she played the innocent waif buffeted by cruel circumstances. Around 1913 she went to Hollywood where her roles were frail and saintly victims in the one-reel melodramas that were very popular at the time. Having caught the eye of the noted director, D.W. Griffith she was given more important parts to play. In the year 1912 she acted in no less than thirteen movies, the following year in sixteen.
Her career had a jump-start with her part in Birth of a Nation. Despite its rampant racism, not unusual before the outbreak of the first World War, that film became an instant success. In 1915 it was brought to Broadway and ran an unprecedented forty-four weeks.
With Griffith she was launched to great stardom through the twenties and world-wide acclaim the rest of her life. Griffith was her mentor and her great love. She remained his friend and defender, even during his decline as a director in the nineteen thirties and his encroaching alcoholism. Under his aegis she played in a great many of his pictures.
In Intolerance, a movie bigger than any that preceded it, she acted as his assistant in designing sets, helping lighting and cutting, research and in writing advertisements.
In 1920 her sister Dorothy became a married woman by eloping with actor James Rennie, but Lillian considered marriage “straight-laced and domineering.”
In the years that followed Lillian’s career became even more triumphant. After playing the lead in Orphans of the Storm she was invited to the White House for lunch with President Warren G. Harding.
As her power at the box office waxed the career of Griffith waned. Lillian then affiliated with a company headed by Charles H. Duell where she became an executive, as well leading lady, with her own business office. She was the first American star to make a movie in Italy where she filmed The White Sister. The premiere in New York attracted such luminaries as the Governor of New York, Al Smith, and the socialite Vandebilts and Belmonts. The film ran for six months at special prices on Broadway, and even longer at popular prices.
In the mid-twenties there were rumors of a romance with Charles Duell. Lillian’s unblemished reputation was compromised by a front-page scandal that involved years of litigation. In the end she emerged victorious, wealthy, and her honor intact.
Already celebrated as a great actress, as a result of the trial’s intense publicity, Lilian now commanded even greater box office attraction.
Lillian fell in love with George Jean Nathan and it was as his companion that she secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters in the twenties and thirties.
In 1925 she negotiated an enviable contract with MGM at a salary of $800,000.00 for six pictures and under which she was permitted to exercise her own choice of director and cast. Ever intelligent and strong-willed she exerted considerable control over her films. Her first picture Boheme was a spectacular success and proved to be the most profitable of MGAfs releases in 1925 and 1926.
In the latter year Mary Gish, Lillian’s mother, suffered a stroke while in Europe. Lillian, always the loving and caring daughter hurried to the continent. Mary made a good recovery, and twenty years after she was still a beautiful lady. She died September 17, 1948.
Lillian considered silent movies the purest form of the art and was averse to accepting roles in the new “talkies.” She was the personification of the silent film, usually playing the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life. However, by 1927 sound film finally took over the industry.
Miss Gish’s first talking role was as the star in One Romantic Night. Although the movie proved to be a flop, The New York Times reported that because Lillian’s voice recorded so well “… it causes her screen work to be far more interesting than it was in silent productions.”
Lillian had a long and close association with George Jean Nathan. At about this time rumors were rife that they were about to be married. She put an end to the gossip with the statement that “Marriage is a career. I have preferred a stage career rather than amarriage career.” George’s name was the last to be romantically linked to that of Lillian Gish. She began her stage career with three appearances before acting in Nine Pine Street. Although the play could not be counted as a success, her portrayal of the Lizzie character, so different than her usual roles, united the critics in her praise, citing her strong, deep, commanding voice and facial expressions.
With Nine Pine Street Lillian Gish proved her ability to adjust to the demands of live theater. From that time onwards she went from success to success in play after play. In 1940 she accepted the lead in the Chicago company of Life With Father which ran for an unprecedented sixty-six weeks.
In 1949 she made her first appearance, followed by many others, on television. Her last appearance on the stage was in 1975, the last in motion pictures was in 1987 when she co-starred with Bette Davis in The Whales of August. Her first movie in Technicolor was Duel in the Sun (1946) in which she shared leads with such luminaries as Gregory Peck and Lionel Barrymore.
She had a longer life on the boards and on the silver screen than any other actress. Although considered less popular than Norma Talmadge or Mary Pickford, her claim for popularity depended entirely on her ability as an actress.
Lillian’s beloved sister, Dorothy, her constant companion, died in 1966 at a clinic in Rapallo, Italy. Her final years were sad, weak, and depressed. In life she was always the fun-loving sister as contrasted with Lillian’s dedication, and discipline.
With the passing years Lillian’s professional activities multiplied. She crisscrossed the country giving lectures. At one point she had seventeen engagements in the short space of six weeks, indefatigably doing her part in raising interest in the silent screen.
Her final bow to Broadway was a singing part in a musical review in 1986. In that year she was in fine health, despite two previous hip operations. At age 92 she had a small part in a movie by Alan Alda.
As a long-time Republican supporter Lillian exchanged birthday greetings with President Eisenhower. She visited Mamie at the White House and thereafter the two became fast friends. She supported the campaign of Richard Nixon, and was on a first name basis with Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
There is this that has to be said in assessing Lillian’s career and character: She joined the America First Committee, opposing America’s involvement in World War II. She thereby became associated with individuals tainted by expressions of racism and anti-Semitism, and support of fascism and Hitler’s Germany.
Previously many of her friends and associates had expressed derogatory sentiments, without affecting her friendship with them. But with it all the taint of racism was never publicly attributed to the actress.
Miss Gish was the recipient of many honors. She was awarded honorary degrees at three colleges. She received an Academy Award nomination in 1946 and an honorary Oscar in 1971. She was called “the first lady of the screen” when she was given the Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute in 1984. She was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1982.
The following year France bestowed on her the Medaille de Commandeur des Arts and Lettres. She won the Best Actress Award by the National Board of Review.
Miss Lillian Gish’s films …