- Lulu in Hollywood
- By Louise Brooks
- Copyright © 1974, 1982 by Louise Brooks
It should not come to us as a surprise that a film actress can write, but, so narrow are our expectations, it does. We are even more surprised when it turns out that the actress is one of the great beauties of all time. And we are out-and out astonished when we learn that many people think she possesses an erotic eloquence unmatched by that of any other woman ever to have appeared on the screen. It may well be that the number of beautiful, eloquently erotic film actresses who have been able to write is very, very small.
Gish and Garbo (Chapter Six)
There was a time when I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful film stars to maintain the quality of uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (an adaptation of Molnar’s The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made in the place from which, two years before, her spirit had gone forever—”forgotten by the place where it grew.” But now, after penetrating more deeply into the picture executives’ aims and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect, and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvelous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing a star and standardizing their product according to their own will and personal taste.
Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers, and business was conducted in a manner to prove them. As for the public, it was taught to sneer at old pictures. People had been accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more—the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or the same Pola Negri in Passion? But Hollywood feared and believed without question that what it said was true. Even Charlie Chaplin believed—he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith alone knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly, despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that So-and-So will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately.
Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favorites—who are still favorites.” But who cared what Griffith said?
The year 1925 was when two things happened that finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the star system. First, 1925 was the terrible year when the industry suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy up to then, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and had been encouraging them to spend $250 million a year on theatre construction. But now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and discovered the studio overhead a sum of money executives added to a film budget to later split among themselves), were receiving generous shares of the once private “golden harvest” of the producers. Then, finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet but the name of a star which drew a multi-million-dollar gross at the box office, bankers were beginning to object to the abuse of stars. Naturally, the producers did not so much as consider giving up the practice of cutting salaries and firing stars—their customary way of making up their losses and refreshing their prestige.
The solution was simply to use a subtler technique, to be confirmed by box office failure. Marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish. She was the obvious choice. Of all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and self-aggrandizement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr as well, being Hollywood’s radiant symbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star.
The year 1925 was also the year when Will Hays succeeded in killing censorship in twenty-four states. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered—meaning New York City, where Mr. Hays had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review. The Board was “opposed to legal censorship and in favor of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” and had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs of adult pictures of sexual realism: A Woman of Paris, Greed, and The Salvation Hunters. These pictures had been tolerated by the public, too. It had accepted the new hero, with the conscienceless sophistication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert—an acceptance based on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyway. Everything was set for the collection of the treasure at the box office, where the producers’ hearts lay, when they were pulled up short by the realization that they had no heroine with youth, beauty, and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be seen as beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag-showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold. The worldly-woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor, and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to interest the public. The passionate Pola Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds—draping Barbara LaMarr in a nun’s veil to make her sympathetic, and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy.
And then, in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in the Swedish picture Gosta Berling, in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his or anyone else’s imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pietd, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive her many affairs in The Torrent, Garbo’s first American picture. At last, marriage—the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure—could be done away with! At last, here was an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls!
As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two before the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of the advent of talking pictures provided a plausible reason to give the public for the disappearance of many favorites.
But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason. Greta Garbo. From the moment The Torrent went into production, no contemporary actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole M-G-M studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway, and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at M-G-M.
If, by chance, one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine?” and hurry on to a subject that created less despair. A name that was never mentioned in the endless shoptalk was that of Lillian Gish. The suspicion that M-G-M had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its history. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders. The Swedish director Victor Seastrom (born Sjostrom), in his direction, shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom and Gish were meant for each other. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask the curator of Eastman House, James Card, when and where it was made. He said that it had been made at M-G-M, in Hollywood, in 1927. “In Hollywood, in 1927, at M-G-M?” I said. “Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?”
Determined to solve the mystery of its obliteration, I went at once to the files of the magazine Photoplay. I was aware that its editor, James Quirk, had seemed to weep and rage, dance and exult, with every heartbeat of the M-G-M executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay showed Lillian Gish, until after she left the M-G-M studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October, 1924, issue. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I traced Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish as if I were Sherlock Holmes.
News of her unprecedented contract—eight hundred thousand dollars for six pictures in two years—was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before the first of these pictures, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial:
What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honor or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me [Quirk] of a girlish “Whistler’s mother.” While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity,
she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalize her screen personality with one of the largest salaries. . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one?
With the release of La Boheme, in March, 1926, Quirk put the question to his more than two million readers in a long piece, “The Enigma of the Screen.”
Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. She achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion —namely hysteria. … 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. . . . Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. 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.
A “Brief Review” of La Boheme in the June, 1926, Photoplay read, “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.” In October, The Scarlet Letter was reviewed, with “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish.
But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon.”
With Gish, it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So when she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie, which she returned to find all ready to shoot—sets, costumes, and the actor Norman Kerry. Back in charge, she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that M-G-M held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed, and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, M-G-M said; she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last, Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. M-G-M had let her go because she got eight thousand dollars a week!
And, without a blush, he developed the idea that all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures. Stigmatized at the age of thirty-one as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, but not a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow—a world of shadows.”
It seems fateful now to remember that after Gish saw a screening of Gosta Berling she said that she had faith in L. B. Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Before production on The Torrent started, the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot making publicity stills, and she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication, and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence that Garbo had learned in Europe, she saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours, and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production. The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying, “I vill be glad when I am a beeg star like Lillian Gish. Then I vill not need publicity and to have peectures taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” La Boheme and The Torrent opened on Broadway the same week in February, 1926. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got four hundred thousand dollars a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got sixteen thousand dollars a year.
After The Temptress, Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” and Quirk was moved to write in his December editorial, “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week.” Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after she had signed a new M-G-M contract in May, 1927. Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay. “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June,” he wrote. As well as she knew her genius, knew that she was queen of all movie stars—then and forever—she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering, tarnished star like all the rest. She did not really want to go home. After a long hold-out over salary, she signed, for seventy-five hundred dollars a week. Her business triumph over the studio was her collecting, with stunning impact, on seven months of nationwide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on its defeat and the consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation rocked all Hollywood.
Compared to Quirk’s polished mauling of Lillian Gish, M-G-M’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job, and it was not to achieve a slick finish till after the death of Irving Thalberg, in 1936, when Mayer began restocking his stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unaffordable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art, and popularity, were Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo herself. Sixteen years passed between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old-men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.