- A biographical and autobiographical study of 100 silent film actors and actresses
- Silent Players – Anthony Slide
- Copyright © 2002 by The University Press of Kentucky
Filled with little known facts and personal remembrances of the stars of the silent screen, Silent Players profiles the lives and careers of the hundred best, brightest, or most unusual silent film actors and actresses Anthony Slide shows that the unlikely plot twists in many silent films are nothing compared to the strange and often sad, lives led by many of the men and women whose images flickered onscreen.
There is a title that describes Lillian Gish’s title character in Romola (1925) as “learned of books but of the world untaught.” That probably provides the shortest, and best, word portrait of Lillian Gish as seen on screen and as she exists in the public psyche. She certainly loved books, and her apartment was crowded with titles, many first editions signed by their famous authors. The Gish characters were generally ethereal, unworldly and unsuspecting of the evils of society, of which they were often made abruptly and dangerously aware. Be it the mulatto Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation (1915), von Strohm, the Hunnish soldier in Hearts of the World (1918), a brutal father in Broken Blossoms (1920), the debauched Lennox Sanderson in Way Down East (1920), or the revolutionary mob in Orphans of the Storm (1922), Lillian Gish faced considerable danger on screen. She won out through a strength of character that is symbolic of Lillian Gish in real life. She was always strong, always a fighter, taking up causes as varied as the isolationist America First prior to World War Two, a commemorative stamp for her mentor D.W. Griffith, or the need to preserve America’s newsreels. As a child, Lillian had been told by her mother to project her voice in order that it might be heard in the theatre by those seated in the furthest row. She never ceased projecting her voice and her image as a legendary actress on screen and on stage.
Lillian was always the consummate professional. As a young actress, she faced horrific working conditions, extreme cold, and extreme heat in Why Down East (1920) and The Wind (1928) and never complained. At a time of scandal in the film industry, Gish told The Moving Picture World (March 4, 1922), “I have heard that there are terrible people in the movies, but I never see them. And there are terrible people everywhere for that matter. Why even the weather is not always what it should be.” In later life, she never openly groused about a location or work demand, at times to the irritation of younger actors and actresses, who saw no reasons to extend the harsh circumstances of early filmmaking through to the present. She was always on time, always knew her lines—just as mother taught her. “Speak clearly-and loudly otherwise another little girl will get the part,” said Gish’s mother, and I am sure that Lillian always worried about that other little girl waiting in the wings.
Jane Wyatt, who appeared with Lillian on Broadway in 1954 in Philip Barry’s The Joyous Season, told me, “I remember coming to the first rehearsal. We were all in awe of her, and she was so mysterious. She came in with a great coat to the floor and a hood. And she knew all her lines! Then she impressed me because she didn’t have a theatre maid, and everybody had a theatre maid.”
There is no question that even contemporary audiences could sometimes find a Lillian Gish performance irritating. “Lillian Gish weeps like a fish, wrote one disgruntled fan. “The mood in which to go to the theatre is one of naive vacuity, expecting nothing,” opined Robert Benchley in the old Life humor magazine. Try to look like a close-up of Lillian Gish.” In the December 1926 edition of Photoplay, editor and publisher James R. Quirk wrote a most outspoken attack on an actress, whose salary at MGM was at the time the highest paid to any performer and, in reality, over $7,000 a week:
“Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of six thousand bucks every week. Even as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, she proves conclusively that babies are brought by storks. I d pay triple admission to see her play Madam Bovary.
“In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attack of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians and 999 conscienceless men about town. Some day I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.”
I first met Lillian Gish on August 30, 1969. She was in London to present her one-woman show, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me, and I had prepared the printed program handed out to the audience. We meet at the Connaught Hotel, where Lillian always stayed when in England, and she inscribed for me a copy of her autobiography, which has the same title as her show. She also spent a couple of hours talking about various aspects of her career, an interview in which she was surprisingly frank in view of our never having previously met, and one which is often quoted by other authors.
The Lillian Gish career scarcely needs recording here. There can be few who are not aware of her devastating performances for D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have first become aware of the unique quality of her acting when he directed her at American Biograph. Lillian and younger sister Dorothy made their debut there in The Unseen Enemy, released on September 9, 1912, a one-reel suspense drama featuring the pair. The Mothering Heart, a two-reeler, released on June 21, 1913, first demonstrated the emotional intensity of which Lillian was capable. As a wife who has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and, later, lost her baby, Lillian’s anguish is almost unbearable to watch as she walks in the garden, destroying all the flowers and plants around her. As she and husband (Walter Miller) are reunited, a title asks, “Forgiveness—Is there any greater act?” It would appear not from a viewing of this, arguably the most moving of the American Biograph shorts.
After leaving Griffith, Lillian continued as a major star of the silent screen, appearing in The White Sister (1923), Romola (1925), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), and others. With the coming of sound, her importance in the industry dwindled. She is good in His Double Life (1932), but not as good as Grade Fields is as the same character in the 1943 remake, Holy Matrimony. Gish’s comeback role in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) is hardly worthy of consideration, and many of her later films were not really worth the effort. In a way, she returned triumphantly to the screen not in the 1940s but in 1955 under Charles Laughton s direction in The Night of the Hunter. Here, Lillian is the mother figure, suffering the little children to come unto her, harsh at times, sometimes angry, but always loving and forgiving. Sensibly Laughton chooses to end the film with Lillian, symbolic of her burgeoning status as a legend, a link not only with the past in which the film is set but also the past as represented by a directorial and pictorial style heavily influenced by both D.W. Griffith and German expressionism.
Lillian, of course, was never a mother, and, as one perceptive female viewer pointed out to me, she was obviously uncomfortable with infants. In Way Down East, in which she baptizes her dying child, the actress has no idea how to hold the baby.
Followers of the Gish screen career might be concerned as to how it would end after watching her playing worthless roles in worthless films such as Hambone and Hillie (1984) and Sweet Liberty (1986). When in 1987 it was announced that she was to co-star with Bette Davis in Mike Kaplan’s production of The Whales of August, enthusiasm was mingled with anxiety when Lindsay Anderson was hired as the director. How could the man responsible for such raw, naked drama as This Sporting Life and If… handle Lillian Gish? Surprisingly well. He controlled whatever troubling mannerisms Gish and Davis might have adopted during their long careers, kept both under control, and gave Lillian one last great movie scene. On the 46th wedding anniversary of her character, Sarah, she sits at a table, with a white rose “for truth’’ and a red rose “for passion,’’ and with a glass of wine in hand talks to her long dead husband of the day’s happenings. It is a screen moment as intense in its dramatic simplicity as anything D.W. Griffith could have contemplated.
Despite the paucity of great film roles in the sound era, Lillian Gish was able to continue her career and endure on stage. Also, with surprising speed, she gained legendary status, something that the actress most carefully nurtured. She was always someone special; as early as 1925, one fan magazine writer commented that to interview Lillian Gish was a privilege and a pleasure. Lillian played with the truth, even changing the year of her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, from 1893 to 1896. She would recount stories of the making of her films that were not perhaps always completely accurate but which entertained and enthralled her audience. She behaved in the manner of a legend but at the same time never lost personal touch with her fans. Lillian was always overly gracious in responding to fan mail, and after a performance of her one-woman show, she would never leave the auditorium until requests for autographs from every member of the audience had been granted.
Lillian Gish always knew what to say to make one feel special. I recall she and James Frasher, her longtime manager, friend, and companion, coming to my house to pick me up. Lillian’s first words upon seeing my somewhat humble abode were, “Truly you live in beauty.” I was completely entranced but later somewhat nonplussed to discover that she said exactly the same thing upon seeing where anyone lived.
Thanks in large part to Jim Frasher, it has been my good fortune to be with Lillian on a number of special occasions. Our mutual, close friend was Herb Sterne, who double-dated with Lillian, Griffith, and Griffith’s wife Evelyn in the 1940s. Lillian and Herb corresponded on a regular basis, with most of the former’s comments directed to Herb’s cat, Squire Bartlett, and signed Anna Moore. (Way Down East was Herb’s favorite film.) When Lillian did the Blackglama advertisement, “What Becomes a Legend Most?,” she sent a copy to Squire with the inscription, “My fur vs. yours. How’s this for the cat’s meow?” It was that sort of relationship that Herb enjoyed with Lillian.
Whenever she was in town, Lillian would have lunch with Herb, and I was also lucky enough to be invited. Herb was a resident of the Motion Picture Country House and another resident, Mary Astor, also joined us on at least one occasion. At the time she directed her only feature film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), starring sister Dorothy and her husband James Rennie, Lillian also devoted an entire Sunday to directing Mary Astor’s screen test.
Mary Astor was one of the few film performers with whom Lillian was close. She really did not know many of her contemporaries. Once we stood talking in the parking lot at the Motion Picture Country House, and Mary Brian and Harriet Nelson came by. Knowing them both, I introduced them to Lillian, who obviously had no idea who they were. Lillian also had an inability to understand that other actresses were not like her. Herb Sterne remembered that once at Pickfair, Gish chastised Mary Pickford for giving a pension to an American Biograph actress. “She had the same opportunities as us,” argued Lillian. “No, we had talent,” responded Pickford.
I have a tenuous link to Lillian’s last and seldom noted contribution to film. In 1988, I was commissioned by Boss Film Corporation to write a treatment for a ten-minute epilogue to Intolerance, which was to be filmed in 70 mm and screened after a Japanese presentation of the feature. The music for the epilogue was played live by a symphony orchestra, and the only recorded words heard were those of Lillian Gish. The comments were “lifted” from various interviews, but there were a couple of potential quotes that could not be found in such sources. I wrote these in the style of Lillian Gish, as represented in her autobiography, and she recorded them in her New York apartment. A year after making The Whales of August and five years prior to her death on February 27, 1993, Lillian sounds old, but there is still strength to her voice, and, I have to admit, she did choose to add a couple of words of her own to my dialogue. What becomes a legend most asked the Blackglama advertisement. Immortality. And Lillian has certainly earned that.
Note: Lillian Gish’s papers are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.