‘My Dream Has Come to Life’
By Harold C. Schonberg
The New York Times – March 30, 1978
LILLIAN GISH was on stage again. The First Lady of the Cinema held court in Town Hall on Tuesday night. Seated across from Francis Robinson of the Metropolitan Opera. she had a brief informal discussion with him about her silent film version of “La Boheme.” Then the large audience settled back to watch Miss Gish, John Gilbert and some other luminaries in the 1926 film, which was directed by King Vidor.
By the time Mimi’s death scene was halfway through, women all over the house were sobbing and strong men whimpering. “La Boheme ” was never like this in the opera house.
In her folksy reminiscences before the showing, Miss Gish marveled that the film had been made at all. In those days, she said, producers had “a prejudice” about films with unhappy endings. Such films were considered box-office death, and also death on careers.
Miss Gish, beautiful as ever in looks and bearing, had ‘a special interest in this particular showing. When first presented, the film had original. background music by David Mendoza and others. That was because the publishing firm of Ricordi held the copyright to Puccini’s music and would not release it. But last Tuesday night M-G-M’s “La Boheme” for the very first time had Puccini’s music, which is now in the public domain, and also excerpts from Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme,” an opera . that Puccini’s infinitely more successful version wiped from the boards.
Richard Woitach, one of the conductors at the Metropolitan Opera, prepared the music, and also played it, silent‐film manner, the piano—all hour-and74-half of it. With one eye on the screen and the other on his manuscript; Mr. Woitach nobly swept through the music, making most silent film, pianists sound like the amateurs they are.
Puccini’s opera uses four scenes from Henri Murger’s “Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.” But there is more to Murger’s novel than that, and the film picks up other elements, also adding a few things dreamed up by the 1926 scriptwriters.
It comes off surprisingly well–King Vidor was, after all, one of the finest directors the screen has known. It also presents the difference between a wonderful period actor and a great artist. John Gilbert, improbably handsome, makes no secret about his emotions, and gives a new meaning to bulging eyeballs. But Miss Gish, With that aura of femininity, that lightness which allows her to walk ,,without apparently touching the ground,” that incredible beauty—Miss Gish was able to rise far above period and give us a touching portrait of the little French, seamstress.
The death scene is a tearjerker, of course. But Miss Gish had a big advantage over the famous sopranos of the century who have sung Mimi. She was young enough to look and live the part. Her acting, part instinct, part thorough professionalism, with a few adorable tricks of expression and gesture, makes poor, operatic sopranos, no matter how gifted vocally, look thick. Miss Gish was-is-a great artist.
Film buffs went wild during the presentation. In addition to Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert, there were Renee Adoree’s Musette; Roy D’Arcy (who, could give even John Gilbert eyeball lessons), Edward Everett Horton (yes, he was young once, too) and that fine comic, George Hassell. The audience, incidentally, came largely from the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which sponsored the event, and M-G-M’s “La Boheme” has never played to a more knowledgeable group.
After it was over, Miss Gish greeted admirers backstage. She locked radiant.
“My dream has come to life.” she said, and everybody applauded.
“Where was the film made?” somebody asked her. Some of the footage looked as though it had been filmed in Paris.
“In California, dear,” Miss Gish answered. “All of it in Hollywood.”
“Where were the costumes ‘made?” a lady wanted to know.
“Well,” said Miss Gish, “I made mine.”