Picturing “La Boheme” – By John Gilbert (Screenland July 1926)

Screenland July 1926 “The Spirit of The Movies” Vol. XIII No.3

Books For Fans

Picturing “La Boheme”

By John Gilbert

Whenever an actor is given a book to read that he knows will be made into a picture in which he will play, he looks at it with different eyes, than if he were merely reading it for pleasure.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

I remember, when I was a kid I used to lie abed at night reading Murger’s “La Vie de Boheme”. The gay, carefree lives that these people led intrigued me immensely and I was heartily in sympathy with them. Rudolphe particularly fascinated me and it was my delight to dramatise bits from the book in which Rudolpe played the hero.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

It was just a few months ago that I was told here at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio that I was to play Rudolphe on the screen and that the adaptation was to be taken from Murger’s book, rather than from Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme”.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

Did you ever re-read a book that thrilled you when you were a child? It is strange how vague memories of that time when you first read the story come back to you and you experience something very akin to that first thrill over a fascinating novel.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)1

Many of those old emotions came back to me as I re-read “La Vie de Boheme”. But I always had to keep in mind the fact that these situations and incidents must be portrayed on the screen in terms of action. It is up to the actor to absorb as much of the atmosphere as he can. He must read the book, not for the story itself, but he must feel the thing that the author has in mind. He is then like an illustrator who must interpret in black and white and in length and breadth the thoughts of the man who has written the book.

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

That is why the reading of the book from which a picture is made is so essential to an actor. It is that book that gives him an inspiration that the script alone can never give. The scenario writer must interpret the author’s thoughts the way he sees them. The actor must also inject both his own and the author’s personality into the portrayal of a character.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

Rudolphe is a type. He is Bohemia itself and any book that dealt with the life lived in Paris in the Latin Quarter at that time would have been an inspiration for me to play the part. Because Murger had done his story so well and had put so much spirit and life and gayety into the pages of his book, that was all I needed to read. Everything was there.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)3

As I re-read the book I heard again the laughter of those carefree folk. I felt their disdain for authority. I realized how little it mattered whether they ate or not, so long as they lived.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play

During the making of the picture I read passages of the book again and again. I also read Du Maurier’s “Trilby”. He deals with Paris at another time, but he, also, portrays the spirit of the Latin Quarter. Strangely enough, we are most of us so saturated with contemporary literature, so many books that are written now, we forget these other stories that are so engrossing.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

I am very glad that a new popular priced edition of Murger’s “La Vie de Boheme” is being published. This will, no doubt, tempt many to read it who have neglected to do so before.

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Screenland (Jul 1926) La Boheme
Screenland (Jul 1926) La Boheme

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