Chicago Tribune – Tuesday, April 17, 1984 – Page 37
Salute to Lillian Gish rates salute, too
By Jon Anderson (TV writer)
Compared with the awkward, boring, tedious spectacle of the Academy Awards, last month’s American Film Institute salute to actress Lillian Gish was graceful, warm and human. In Hollywood, those qualities are so rare that John Houston, stunned, later rang up George Stevens Jr., producer of the show, and told him: “George, I’ve been around this town for 40 years and I saw something the other night I’ve never seen before in this community. Affection!”
In this tribute, to air at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS – Ch. 2, the stars [and there are lots of them] don’t seem stiff, stilted or ill-at-ease. When cameras catch their faces, they look like they’re having a good time. When they talk, they seem to mean what they say. There isn’t a wooden scripted, flat joke in the whole 90 minutes.
This didn’t just happen. “We really tried to make people comfortable and secure,” producer Stevens said in an interview. He barred Teleprompters, those cue-card projectors that make show-folk squint or, as in the case of Frank Sinatra at the Academy Awards, look over-served. Before the show, writers worked with the stars “to bring out their feelings,” go over what they wanted to say and suggest phrasings. Then stars did their bits the old-fashioned way; they memorized their speeches and, strange for TV, spoke them naturally.
The producers also sensibly avoided spinning graphics and other electronic nonsense. Instead, they hired a 37-piece orchestra, struck new prints of notable early Gish scenes and ran them at proper speeds, with musical accompaniment. [Silent cameras, cranked by hand, exposed anywhere from 16 to 22 frames a second compared with today’s standard of 24 frames a second. ***(1) That’s why silent movies, shown on modern equipment, speed up.]
Hambone and Hillie – Photo Gallery
Gish’s screen career began in 1913 ***(2) bloomed under director D.W. Griffith [“Birth of a Nation”], for whom she made 40 movies, and continues today. [She’ll star in the forthcoming film “Hambone and Hillie.”]
The clip that got the biggest hand [from “Way Down East”] showed her limp body on a slab of ice, headed towards the falls, with an anguished man in a fur coat leaping from berg to berg trying to rescue her. It was Gish’s idea to trail her hair and one hand in the icy waters, a stunt so chilling that, even today, Gish’s right hand aches when she is out in winter cold.
A fundraiser for the American Film Institute, best known for its work in preserving old movies, the gala black-tie dinner for 1,100 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in March was enlivened by speeches, waves and smiles from Sally Field, John Houseman, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Mary Steenburgen, Jennifer Jones, Mary Martin, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Eva Marie Saint, Richard Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Richard WIdmark and Chicago’s own tie to the glorious motion picture past, Colleen Moore Hargrave. She got a hug from the guest of honor.
Also remarkable was that so many veterans of a perilous craft, that of being a movie star, still looked so sparkling.
“Lillian Gish was there at the birth of an art form,” said the evening’s host, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 75. “I am kind of an emissary, a link, if you like, from those pioneers who were with her at the beginning, my father, my stepmother, Mary Pickford; Charlie Chaplin; and all the others whom Lillian refers to as those charming ghosts.”
Through it all, Gish was very much the center of what seemed, at times, like a family get-together, her face radiating what critic Alexander Woolcott once called “a strange mystic light not made by any electrician.”
Some praised her acting. [John Houseman described her Ophelia as “convincingly lunatic.”] Some, her canniness. [As Mary Steenburgen put it: “I figure an actress who’s been a star for 72 years must have a pretty good head for business.”]
By general agreement, at 87, Lillian Gish is also still a going concern – with a strong sense of camera angles.
Last December, she appeared in the CBS made-for-TV movie “Hobson’s Choice,” one friend recalled, and chewed out a cameraman for placing the camera too low. “Young man,” she said snappishly, “If God had meant you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your belly button.”*** (3)
***(1) Mr. Jon Anderson is referring probably to an older filming system, [and 24 fps theatre film projectors] pre-NTSC (29.95 fps) known being the fact that PAL (Phase Alternate by Line) used in Europe has a 25 fps standard using fields to compensate the difference from 30 fps of US-NTSC. Indeed in the 70’s there were still in use film cameras, not digital or streaming over network via satellite like today. So, in order to have news broadcast, every decent TV station had a huge laboratory for processing the film, cutting it old school style and converting it for TV broadcast in a post process.
Starting before CBS color even got on the air, the U.S. television industry, represented by the National Television System Committee, worked in 1950–1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black-and-white sets and would pass FCC quality standards, with RCA developing the hardware elements. The first publicly announced network demonstration of a program using the NTSC “compatible color” system was an episode of NBC’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953, although it was viewable in color only at the network’s headquarters. The first network broadcast to go out over the air in NTSC color was a performance of the opera Carmen on October 31, 1953.
***(2) Actually Lillian Gish’s career began in 1912 with “The Unseen Enemy”.
***(3) The famous “eyes in the belly button” remark was made by Lillian Gish while celebrating her 100th movie [A Wedding] during the party organized by director Robert Altman. And it was a photographer, not a cameraman. The incident was documented by Kevin Brownlow.