“ROMOLA” Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932
Reports from “The White Sister” showed that it was going to make record runs—that returns from it would be very large. Catholics and Protestants alike approved it. Father Duffy, of the Fighting Irish 69th Regiment, of New York, wrote:
I wish to nominate “The White Sister” for a high place on the White List of dramatic performances…. It is religion struggling with human passions, as in real life, and gaining its victory after storm and stress. Chicago society deserted the opera on the opening night of “The White Sister,” and similar reports came from elsewhere. Lillian’s personal tribute—her “fan” mail—assumed mountainous proportions: offers of engagements, protection, marriage, requests for loans… what not?
Meantime, one must get on with the next picture. King was already in Italy, making a pirate ship scene. Lillian finished cutting down “The White Sister,” for road use, an arduous, delicate work, and with Mrs. Kratsch, sailed in November. Dorothy was to be in “Romola,” and with her mother had sailed a little earlier. To Genoa, then Florence, where they put up at the Grand Hotel on the Arno, with an outlook on the Ponte Vecchio, all that the heart could desire, if the weather had only been a little more encouraging. It began to rain, and it continued to rain—“about nineteen days out of twenty,” Dorothy said. Dorothy thought the rain not very wet rain—not at all like English and American rain—not so solid—light, like ether. But one evening, the rain stopped, and when they woke in the night, there was a strange silence. In the morning, there was another sound—also strange—strangely familiar. Dorothy looked over at Lillian.
“If we were in America, I should say they were shoveling snow.” They hopped out of bed, and to the window. It was shoveling, and it was snow. “Very unusual,” they were assured later. But then, winters in Southern Europe quite often are unusual. Even sunshiny ones. The picture of “Romola” follows the main incidents of George Eliot’s novel. Lillian, of course, had the part of Romola, Dorothy that of Tessa, Ronald Colman that of Carlo Bucelline. To William H. Powell was assigned the part of Tito; Herbert Grimwood was given the part of Savonarola, and looked so much like him that when he walked along the streets of Florence, children would point him out. Altogether, the cast was a fine one. They had expected to use a number of real scenes in Florence—the Duomo, the Piazza Signoria, etc., but found that modern innovations—telegraph wires and poles, street car tracks, and the like—made this impracticable. On their big lot in the outskirts of the city, they built an ancient Florence, a very beautiful Florence, of the days of Savonarola. They did use the Ponte Vecchio, the ancient bridge, though a second story had been added a generation later than the period of their picture.
And they used the Arno in several scenes. Rain or no rain, their lot became a busy place. They brought the “White Sister” equipment from Rome, and a small army of artisans and laborers began to work wonders. In a brief time, a quaint old street sprang up—along it shops of every sort, just as they might have been four hundred years before … real shops, in which were made every variety of paraphernalia required for the picture: costumes, harness, basketry, hats, footwear, furniture—everything needed to restore the semblance of a dead generation. They even set up a little restaurant, and ate their luncheons there. Animals—dogs and cats—walked about, or slept in the sun. Flocks of pigeons were in the air, or on the house-tops. During the brief visit of the year before, they had asked that these be raised on the lot. It was all realistic, and lovely. Wood-carvers were at work on the rich interiors, some of them more beautiful, even, than those of “The White Sister”: a great church interior, and a banquet hall, for Romola’s wedding. At one side of the lot were small buildings, where the distinguished artist, Robert Haas, with his staff, worked at the drawings. For the great wedding feast, they could not get period glasses in Florence, so sent a man to Venice, and had them specially blown. Lillian remembers the banquet hall as very rich, exquisite in detail—the scene as a whole, one of peculiar distinction.
“We had for it a lot of titled people of Florence, who were eager to be in the picture. We had very little trouble to get anything we needed in the way of extras. In some of the scenes, we had hundreds of them. “One thing we did not get so easily: For the wedding, we needed 15th Century priest robes. We heard of some up in the hills, but we could get them only on condition that we engage four detectives to guard them, two by day, two by night. “We had to guard ourselves, for that matter. Florence has many Americans, and they have not much to do. If we had let in all who called, we should have had a perpetual sequence of social events, with very little work. We had many invitations, but could not accept them. I think we went out just once, for dinner. When we had a little time in the afternoon, we liked to go to Doni’s, for tea, or to shop a little, for linens and laces. Whatever of such things we have now, Mother bought that winter In Florence.
“Every night we literally prayed that the next day would dawn clear and bright, so that we might make up our lost time. But no! Maybe, as Dorothy said, the Italian ‘dispenser of weather,’ didn’t understand English.
“One cannot too highly praise the Italian workmen. Over and over, ours would work on a set that it might be the exact replica of a 15th Century design. Italian workmen are willing to be told, and possess an astonishing ambition to do a thing exactly as it should be done.”
They began “shooting” the scenes. They had no regular scenario. They worked, as it were, inspirationally. They did not know very exactly what they were going to do when they began a scene, and they were not quite sure what they had done when they finished it. The element of accident sometimes produces happy results, but it is unsafe to count on it. “Romola” developed into a kind of panorama—a succession of lovely pictures, without very definite climaxes. They worked hard. For one thing, they were experimenting with a new film, the panchromatic, which had never been used for an entire picture, and they did their own developing. One of the chief beauties of “Romola” is the richness of its photography. What with the weather and all, the making of “Romola” was hardly what the French call “gai.” There were lighter moments: In the scene where Dorothy is supposed to drown in the Arno, she tried for an hour to sink in that greasy, unclean river. She couldn’t swim, so it had to be done in shallow water. She didn’t like to pop her head under, either, but they told her if she would fill her lungs with air and hold her breath, there would be no danger. She was plump, and her bones were small. Being filled with air made her still more buoyant. Also, she had on a little silk skirt that got air under it and ballooned on top of the water. Dorothy simply couldn’t drown. When she popped her head under, the little skirt stuck up in a point like the tail of a diving duck. Such an effect would never do for a picture like “Romola.” From their window in the Grand Hotel, Mrs. Gish and Lillian, watching through a glass, laughed hysterically at Dorothy’s efforts to drown. Dorothy finally struck: she could stand no more of the Arno water. The scene was finished one chilly day in America—in Long Island Sound. Dorothy had a cold at the time, and they thought she would contract pneumonia. But that was a poor guess. When she came out of the water, the cold was gone. Clean, salt water, Dorothy said. In the picture, Dorothy, as Tessa, has a baby.
They borrowed the cook’s baby, the youngest of nine, a fat, robust bambino, strapped to a board, Italian fashion; easy enough to carry, properly held, but not handy for cuddling. Juliana was her name, and as lovely as one of Raphael’s cherubs—lovely, even among Italian children, all of whom have little madonna faces, because for generations expectant mothers have knelt ardently before altars and wayside shrines. Lillian and Dorothy became fond of Juliana, took walks with her, carrying her, board and all—a burden which increased daily as Juliana got fatter and fatter. They wished Juliana would not grow quite so fast; there were scenes where they had to run with her. Italian babies are seldom warm, in winter. One day, Juliana broke out with a rash, which at first they thought was measles, but was only the result of the studio heat, heat from the great Klieg lights. Lillian had a maid named Anna, a large, lovely soul, but a menace. If one got an ache or a pain, Anna came running with an enormous Italian pill, the size of those on the Medici coat-of-arms. After a day at the studio, in the strained “Romola” poses, Lillian once mentioned having a back ache.
Anna commanded her to undress and lie down. A very little later she came bringing a bath towel, and a flat-iron, the latter quite definitely warm. Then, turning the world’s darling face down, she spread the towel on her back and proceeded to iron her. It was drastic, but beneficial. The ironings became a part of the daily program. Anna decided that her mistress needed blood, and cooked for her apples in red wine. They were delicious. “Romola” was finished near the end of May. The last scene was the burning of Savonarola, terribly realistic. Lillian got so near the fire that she was scorched. A few days later they saw the rushes and she was ready to go. The great Italian episode was over. It was unique, and remains so. Big companies do not go on foreign locations any more. They build Italy or any part of the universe on their lots in Hollywood. Lillian in America found that she had been chosen by Sir James Barrie for the picture version of “Peter Pan.” No one could have been better suited to the part, and it greatly appealed to her. But there were complications. Regretfully she put it aside. Pleasant things happened: Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski modeled busts of her; Nicolai Fechin did her portrait, as Romola. The last was given a special exhibition in the Grand Central Art Galleries, with a reception to Lillian and the artist under the patronage of Cecelia Beaux and New York’s social leaders. It was bought by the Chicago Art Institute and today hangs in the Goodman Theatre of that city.
“Romola,” released through the Metro-Goldwyn Company, had two great premières: at the George M. Cohan Theatre, New York, on Monday, December 1st, 1924, and at the Sid Grauman Theatre, Hollywood, on the following Saturday. Lillian and Dorothy, with their mother, managed to attend both. The Los Angeles opening was so much more a part of the “picture” world that we shall skip to it, forthwith.
It was unique. Manager Grauman had stirred up all Los Angeles and Hollywood over the return of the Gish girls with a new picture. They had anticipated no reception at the train. King was already in Los Angeles; he might be there … a few friends, maybe, not more. But when the train drew in, they noticed a great assembly of expectant people, most of them wearing badges—a rally of some sort, a convention. Lillian and Dorothy stepped to the train platform, and were greeted with a shower of rose-buds, thrown by gay little girls who had baskets of them; a vigorous and competent band struck up; a siren began to blow; everybody shouted and pushed forward; all those badges had on them the word GISH; all the battery of cameras that began to grind was turned on them; the rally was their rally—a welcome—welcome home to Los Angeles. Producers and directors were there. Irving Thalberg, handsome, youthful-looking, pressed forward. Mrs. Gish, thinking him from the hotel, handed him her checks, and a moment later was apologizing. But he said it was all right—he was always being taken for his own office boy. John Gilbert was there, and Norma Shearer, and Eleanor Boardman, and ever so many more. A crowd of students from the Military Academy rallied around; also, a swarm of “bathing beauties” from the Ambassador, and a fire engine came clanging up, for the Fire and Police Departments had been called out. A news notice says:
A squad of motorcycle policemen and fast cars of the Fire Department, made an escort for the automobile provided for Lillian Gish, Dorothy and their mother, through the downtown district. Sirens and bells added to the noise of welcome. Not much like the old days, when with Uncle High Herrick, they had landed with “Her First False Step” at a one-night stand. They drove to the Ambassador Hotel. Mary Pickford had not been at the train, but they found her standing in the middle of their “flower embowered drawing-room”—never more beautiful in all her life, Lillian thought. By and by, Mary, Lillian and Dorothy, motored out to the old Fine Arts Studio, where “The Birth of a Nation” and so many of Griffith’s other pictures, had been made. They found the old place hidden behind a brick building. “Intolerance” had been made there, and “Broken Blossoms.”
Douglas Fairbanks and many others had begun, there, their film careers. They recalled these things as they looked about a little sadly, at what had once been their film home.
Manager Sid Grauman had gone to all the expense and trouble he could think of to make this a record occasion. “Romola” was following Douglas Fairbanks’ “Thief of Bagdad.” It must not fall short.
“A première without a parallel. A night of all nights. The most gala festivity Hollywood has ever known. An opening beside which other far-famed Egyptian premières will pale into insignificance.” These are a few bits of Manager Grauman’s rhetoric, and he added: “Every star, director and producer, will be there to pay homage to Lillian and Dorothy Gish.” They were there. The broad entrance to the Egyptian was a blaze of light and gala dress parade. The crowds massed on both sides to see the greatest of filmland pass. Doug and Mary (who had already run “Romola” in their home theatre), Charlie, Jackie … never mind the list, they were all there. High above, the name of LILLIAN GISH blazed out in tall letters. When she arrived, and Dorothy, and their mother, their cars were fairly mobbed. Cameras were going, everybody had to pause a moment at the entrance for something special in that line.
Manager Grauman was photographed between the two stars of the evening, properly set off and by no means obliterated, small man though he was, by the resplendent gowns. After which, came the performance. Manager Grauman had fairly laid himself out on an introductory feature. There were ten numbers of it, each more astonishing than the preceding:
“Italian Tarantella,” “Harlequin and Columbine,” “The Eighteen Dance Wonders,” but why go on? It was a gorgeous show all in itself. After which, the beautiful processional effects of Romola’s story. There was no lack of enthusiasm in the audience. When the picture ended and the lights went on, and Lillian and Dorothy appeared before the curtain, the applause swelled to very great heights indeed. And when a speech was demanded, Lillian, in her quiet, casual way, said:
“Dear ladies and gentlemen, both Dorothy and I do so hope you have liked ‘Romola.’ If you have, then, dear, kind friends, you have made us very happy, very happy indeed … and you have made Mr. King, who directed ‘Romola,’ very happy, too.”
From the applause that followed, it was clear that there was no question as to the importance of the occasion—all the more so, had they known that, for Hollywood, at least, it was the last public appearance of these two together. The critics did not know what to make of “Romola”—did not quite dare to say what they thought they felt. To William Powell, as Tito, nearly all gave praise; some regretted that Ronald Colman did not have a better part. Dorothy, as Tessa, had given a good account of herself, they said, and Charles Lane, as Baldassare. Of Lillian’s spirituality and acting there was no question, but there were those who thought the part of Romola unequal to her gifts. As to the picture, one ventured to call it “top-heavy,” whatever he meant by that. One had courage enough to think it “a bit dull.” Another declared that it contained all the atmosphere and beauty of the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici. “Romola” was, in fact, exquisite tapestry, and the dramatic interest of tapestry is a mild one.
Life And Lillian Gish
Albert Bigelow Paine
New York, The Macmillan Company – 1932