July 11, 1988|By Clifford Terry, TV/radio critic.
“American Masters,“ one of the most enjoyable series on PBS, kicks off its third season with “Lillian Gish: The Actor`s Life for Me,“ a breezily charming hour that will air at 9 p.m. Monday on WTTW-Ch. 11.
Produced and directed by Terry Sanders and narrated by Eva Marie Saint, the production skips through the career of “the First Lady of the Silent Screen,“ starting with her stage debut when, at age 5, she appeared with a traveling road company in Rising Sun, Ohio.
Gish, who has made about 100 films and acted in innumerable plays, talks about her mother`s assuming the role of sole provider because of a chronically unemployed husband who eventually deserted his family, and how she and her younger sister, Dorothy, along with Mary Pickford, started their Hollywood careers as extras for director D.W. Griffith.
The new medium fascinated her, she says, because “you could see how bad you were. You couldn`t have any vanity.“
She ended up starring as the heroine in some of the director`s best-known works, including “The Birth of a Nation“ (1915), “Broken Blossoms“ (1919), “Orphans of the Storm“ (1922) and “Way Down East“ (1920), filmed in the midst of real storms on a frozen river. (She refused a double.)
Displaying a remarkably fecund mind and still-sharp memory, the 91-year-old actress talks about how Griffith, under pressure from the studio, drastically cut his epic “Intolerance“-in which she had a relatively small role as a young woman rocking the cradle of humanity-and, in doing so, “ruined it.“
She also recalls that he had no business sense whatsoever and that his greatest strength was his booming, operatic baritone. (“Even the animals did what they were told.“)
Gish acted in more than 40 films for Griffith and in the mid-`20s moved on to MGM under Louis B. Mayer and boy-wonder Irving Thalberg (“He looked like the office boy“), starring in such productions as “La Boheme,“ “The Scarlet Letter“ and, what may be her best, “The Wind,“ in which she played a newlywed raped by a cattleman, whom she, in turn, kills.
But Mayer, she recalls, decided that she needed a shot of publicity, similar to that occasioned by the alleged Garbo/John Gilbert affair, and proposed that to change her image, Gish become involved in a concocted “scandal.“
When she declined, Mayer threatened to “ruin“ her, so she went back to the stage in vehicles ranging from “Uncle Vanya“ to “Life with Father.“
“I just loved to play vamps,“ she reveals, but often was assigned to portray virtuous Victorians or what she characterizes as “those little virgins. After five minutes you got so sick of them. And to make them interesting was hard work.“
She adds that when she was offered the part of Ophelia opposite John Gielgud`s Hamlet, she thought, “Oh, no, not another ga-ga baby.“ But then she discovered, much to her delight, that the director wanted her to play a “lewd“ Ophelia.
After World War II there were more films: “Duel in the Sun,“ “Portrait of Jennie,“ Charles Laughton`s exemplary “The Night of the Hunter,“ “The Unforgiven“ and last year`s “The Whales of August.“
Toward the end of the hour Gish, who never married, remarks, “I never fell in love with (actors) in my life because . . . (they) didn`t know any more than I did. I was a kind of snob. I wanted to be with writers and people who knew and could teach me. I was with (H.L.) Mencken a lot.“
As for her craft: “You must speak from the diaphragm to the lips in case something goes wrong with the throat.“ And: “I tried never to get caught acting.“
Subsequent works in the “American Masters“ series will include profiles of Duke Ellington (July 18 and 25), Aretha Franklin (Aug. 22) and Diego Rivera (Aug. 29), as well as a reprise of the wonderful, Academy Award-winning “The Ten-Year Lunch: The Wit and Legend of the Algonquin Round Table“(Aug. 15).
Emmy Award, Outstanding Prime-Time Informational Special
Opened PBS’s “American Masters” season
First Prize Blue Ribbon Award, American Film and Video Festival
Festival International du Film Sur L’Art, Montreal
CINE Golden Eagle
Belgrade International Film Festival