Silent Star Says Movies ‘Still in Their Babyhood’ – By Ed Blanche (Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1981)

  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 125, Number 39, 17 February 1981
  • Silent Star Says Movies ‘Still in Their Babyhood’
  • By Ed Blanche

London (AP) – Lillian Gish, one of the original silent Hollywood stars and still working at 84. says movies “are still in their babyhood. We’re still crawling on our hands and knees.” Movies these days, she said in an interview in her suite at London’s Ritz Hotel, are all about ear-chases and “girls who look like they’ve failed an audition for Charlie’s Angels.’ “They’ve lost the concept of beauty that D.W. Griffith handed them on a plate. He gave them form and grammar.” Miss Gish, grabbed at age 12 by the legendary Griffith and later made star of his classic “Birth of a Nation,” said the only people who make good movies anymore are the Russians, because they understand the power of film. “They’re the only ones who take film seriously,” she explained. “Although we don’t always like their politics, they do understand the power of film.” Hollywood these days churns out movies that “technically have gone forward, but intellectually and spiritually have gone backwards.” she said. Miss Gish said she has little time for the realism of the 70s, the explicit sex, the dalliance with drugs and promiscuity, the exploitation and the morose downer concepts of the nuclear age. She said she craves innocence and beauty and a return to the pristine eloquence pioneered by Griffith in the early years of the century.

“There have been only two great geniuses in movies – Mr. Griffith and Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith dealt with the human equation, with people. It’s time we got back to putting beauty on film. The Russians are the only ones doing it now they even transform Siberia into a poem in white.” Modern directors are making a “great mistake they’re playing down to audiences. Mr. Griffith once said that to do that was the end. Movies should uplift and inspire,” Miss Gish continued. “We’re in the first century to bequeath a living, moving history behind us. Just think of actors 100 years from now they won’t have to go back to books. They’ll have it all on film, how we lived, what we did, what we thought. Film is far more important than the invention of the printing press.” Miss Gish, looking petite and fragile in a plain pink, floor-length gown, belies her age. It seems astounding that she has made more than 100 movies, spanning in her lifetime the history of the movies from Griffith’s two-reel silent masterpieces to Robert Altman’s caustic social commentaries. She flew to London on Concorde for the opening of a new musical. “The Biograph Girl,” a triple-history of Griffith, herself and Mary Pickford in the early pioneering years when Hollywood was still a ramshackle adjunct of Los Angeles. “It’s a beautiful show,” she gushed.

with Kate Revill, who plays her in a new musical, The Biograph Girl, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, 19th November 1980

“But I thought you had to be dead before they did this sort of thing. I’m sure it will go to Broadway and become a movie and be a big success.” Miss Gish, whose wrinkles cannot mask the sweetness of the face that glowed and shone under Griffith’s direction, is a living history of Hollywood. When she went into movies she was already a showbiz veteran with five years’ stage experience playing in Victorian melodramas, and even appeared with the legendary Sarah Bernhardt on Broadway. She was billed as “Baby Lillian.” But Mary Pickford introduced her to Griffith who promptly added the original “Mizz Lillian” and her sister Dorothy to his cast of Biograph players.

Altogether, she made 43 movies between 1912 and 1922, including Griffith’s “Way Down East” in which she clung to an ice floe for a week waiting to be rescued by heart-throb Richard Barthlemess. Four actors died in the ice on that movie. She was one of the few stars to make the transition to talkies, but eventually got the push from Louis B. Mayer in the 1930s because “I’d been on the great silent pedestal for too long.” But she continued to work, mainly in New York where she still lives. The work was mainly stage plays, but she continued to make movies, including “Duel In The Sun” in 1947 and “The Unforgiven” in 1960. Her 100th movie was Altman’s “The Wedding” two years ago.

Lillian Gish in Unforgiven – Promotional Photo

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