REEL WOMEN – Ally Acker
Reel women pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present (1991)
we know about Griffith, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Scorcese. But what about Blache, eber, Dulac, Lupino, and von Trotta? These women were just as essential and transformative to the cinema and yet their story has remained untold — until now.
- The first director to tell a story on the screen was a woman.
- The highest paid director in the days of silent films was a woman.
- Even Helen Keller produced and starred in her own film in 1919.
- The first film editor to receive solo screen credit was a woman.
- The pioneer of social consciousness in film was a woman.
ACTRESSES TURNED DIRECTOR/ PRODUCER
Lillian Gish (1896 – ……..)
“I never had a double or a stand-in,” Lillian Gish remarked to me proudly, “I did it all myself. The blizzard (in Way Down East —I was facing it. The wind on the peninsula was terrible. The snow as it came against my face melted, and on my eyelashes— icicles! And Griffith yelled at the cameraman, ‘Billy, Billy get that face!’ And he said, ‘I will if the oil in the camera hasn’t frozen,’ and he got that face!” And thus, is told the story behind how D. W. Griffith filmed his very first close-up. “But why did you do it if you knew you might have died?” I asked. Her look at me was one of kind impatience.
“Because the camera would know it!” she said as though it were self-evident. “That camera is more dissecting than anything that’s ever been invented. You stay in front of it long enough, and it tells, as John Barrymore said, what you had for breakfast. You can’t fool it! And had it been another person lying on that ice, you’d know it from the way they moved. It would tell on you.”Such characteristics mark the pioneer. Actions born out of necessity.
But aside from doing her own stunt work (something that wasn’t unusual for either women or men of the early silent era), Lillian Gish was put in the director’s seat by D. W. Griffith in 1920 with a picture called remodeling her husband (1920). The picture starred and was written by Lillian’s sister Dorothy. Griffith believed that, since Lillian and Dorothy were all but linked at the hip, Lillian would be able to extract a kind of able, insightful, comedic performance out of her sister that might elude even Griffith. “He confidently assured Lillian,” says Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, “that because she was a woman, she’d be in a better position to deal with financial and production hassles than he was.”
All lapses in such logic aside, he seemed to be right—especially when you consider Griffith’s well-publicized, poor reputation for handling finances. Gish brought the picture in on time and under budget. It cost $50,000 and saw a sweet return of $460,000. It ultimately became the second biggest money-maker of all of Dorothy Gish’s comedies. Given a totally free hand at their choice of material, they decided on a funny piece of business that Dorothy had spotted in a magazine. The story told of a husband who accuses his wife of being too dowdy. Says Marjorie Rosen: No more than an amusingly expanded one-liner, in the hands of a female director and star, this film evolved into a novel approach to handling masculine dissatisfaction and feminine pliability. . . . How many male directors would have permitted — or utilized—a story which, though light, mocked men and their eccentric notions of beauty? Although the picture was a moderate success, Lillian Gish said, “Directing is no career for a lady.”
Apparently, the administrative hassles were more than she cared to handle. Yet don’t let this Victorian modesty fool you—for that’s exactly what it was. Griffith left a number of pictures in the able hands of Gish. She produced many of her own films after 1920, even if she didn’t always take the credit. After her official directorial debut, Gish then starred in several major films of minor companies that gave her control over scripts and choice of directors. She received the same privileges when she joined MGM in 1925 and chose King Vidor and Victor Seastrom to direct her in “La Boheme”  and “The Scarlet Letter”  respectively.
When she was doing “Orphans of the Storm” (1922), she had to come down the steps from the guillotine, after she was released from a beheading, and she met her sister: “I hadn’t cared for the way Griffith had rehearsed and done it,” said Gish, “He used to tease me by calling me Miss ‘GEEESH.’
“Apparently Miss ‘GEEESHE’ (she mimicks Griffith) doesn’t like what- we’re doing.” “Oh, it’s as good as a scene in any of your other films, Mr. Griffith. I just think more is expected of you.” He says, “If you’re so smart, get up there and do it better!” Well, I got down the steps and played it the way I felt it should be played. There were fifty to a hundred extras there. He got down on both knees and kissed my hand and said, “She’s always right!”
As his number one box-office attraction, Griffith would be foolish not to listen to what Gish had to say. He once remarked, “She is not only the best actress in her profession, but she has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”Fortunately, they respected each other mutually as artists and as people and were able to work out a collaboration that would benefit the entire world for generations to come. Although Gish was wed countless times on the screen, she never married in real life. The reaction to such independence and loyalty to her career was the rise of nasty rumors of an incestual relationship with her sister, Dorothy. Resolved to keep her private life private, she was nonetheless hounded, quite unsuccessfully, by one George Jean Nathan.
She later confessed: What kind of wife would I have made? A good wife is a seven day a week, twenty-four-hour-a-day job. I was devoted to the studio. I loved many beautiful men but I never ruined their lives. Not unlike women in other time-consuming lines of work, women in film seem to feel that marriage to your work precludes any other type of personal allegiances. Gish won a special Oscar for her cumulative work in 1970.
After a long screen absence, she returned for a special appearance in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978), and kept on going with her 104th film in “The Whales of August” (1987) with Bette Davis. At the time, Gish was ninety-one.
Above: “A Wedding” photo gallery, below – “The Whales of August” 1987
Ally Acker – 1991