Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.
“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”
Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”
“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”
I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?
“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”
It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.
First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.