STARDOM – THE HOLLYWOOD PHENOMENON – By Alexander Walker – 1970 (All For Art – Lillian Gish)

STARDOM

THE HOLLYWOOD PHENOMENON

by ALEXANDER WALKER – 1970

Half a century ago, when a group of film stars started their own company called United Artists, Richard Rowland, the President of Metro Pictures Corporation, said, “So the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.” Films were said to be a director’s medium, but for nearly sixty years, the actor—whose personal following exceeded the public’s interest in the story he or she was acting in—seemed to rule not only Hollywood but the world of the motion picture. On and off the set, they led conspicuous lives; made more money more quickly than captains of the industry; made and broke fashion; became the celebrities of their age: Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Garbo, Valentino, John Gilbert, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bogart, Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Marilyn Monroe. Their names were known to the millions who could not name their own representatives in Congress. It’s been a long strip of celluloid. In 1910, the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence became the first publicized movie performer. Her successors today think of themselves as anti-stars who reject the life-styles of the traditional stars, who live not in Hollywood but where they want to, who don’t assign their careers to studios but let studios distribute the pictures they own, yet who, as they boast of their nakedness, may be discovering that all they have done is to alter the cut of a very old costume.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Griffith’s sentimental preferences were perfectly suited to the sophisticated equipment in use even at this early date. The camerawork, as has already been observed, had its origins in Victorian craft photography; and the lenses employed were as good as any the cinema was to develop for several decades. A face had to be youthful to withstand their scrutiny – Lillian Gish recalls that Griffith once had to return a baby which had been borrowed from an orphanage for a scene and ask for a younger looking one. He must have discovered very quickly how strongly filmgoers identified with the slips of girls in his pictures and the Victorian stories involving them. It is worth emphasizing that the sentimentality of the plots, which jars today, was then very much a fact of life for nickelodeon audiences from the back streets or immigrant ghettos where drunkenness bred brutish parents, long-lost offspring were the common price of having to leave one’s homeland, and the dying babies of melodrama had their statistical reality in the infant mortality rate.

Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms - The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene

The gratitude and devotion that Griffith’s stars later expressed for him were not unmixed by a tone of relief when they temporarily eluded his control or escaped from it for good. ‘You know that scene in the closet,’ said Lillian Gish in 1957, some thirty-eight years after she had played it in Broken Blossoms (1919) when I spin round and round in turn as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out for myself, and never told Griffith about what I was doing.’ (The secretive pride, slight guilt and rare omission of the respectful ‘Mr’ Griffith make such a confidence sound like a declaration of revolt.) ‘You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoiled it. It had to be spontaneous – the hysterical terror of a child.’ Griffith’s sensitive girls learned perfectionism, but sometimes at the expense of self expression.

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

All For Art – Lillian Gish

Silent stars have paid a heavy price for so many of their films being lost or in poor repair or simply being out of popular circulation for a long time. Those who have not gone out of memory have gone out of focus. They have become names by which to label a period, rather than strikingly individual identities. Their styles of acting have been confused. And stars who were simply close contemporaries are often spoken about as if they had been historical replicas.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish has suffered badly in this respect. She is invariably linked with Mary Pickford; but the resemblances in their careers, of which the chief was having D. W. Griffith as their mentor, are far less important than the differences. A principal one suggests itself right away. One can approach Mary Pickford’s art through any number of significant events in her life; but Lillian Gish seems to have had no life outside her art. Mary Pickford would have fitted well into a Dickens novel: one would have wished to reserve Lillian Gish for Henry James. Pickford had an early, immense and essentially popular success which drew its strength from the urban working classes whose daily load Mary’s screen pranks and resilient outlook invariably lightened. Gish was vastly successful, too, but hers was a more rarified and, as Griffith would say, spirituelle contact with her public. Pickford was the penny whistle that could sound cheerful in adversity; Gish was the flute that specialised in laments. Pickford was born to suffer and overcome in her films, Gish to suffer and be crushed. Pickford’s acting was a reaction to the world around her. Gish’s acting always seemed to be striving towards some ideal partly because the roles she played supremely well had their creative source in motherhood or chastity, both of which are ideal states.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Both stars of course were tough. Mary’s toughness showed in a self-reliant realism that lies never very far below the sentimental surface of her roles. Lillian’s toughness was marvellously at variance with the fragility of her looks, but it was there. And physically there, too, otherwise she would not have survived exposure in below-zero weather for the ice-floe rescue in Way Down East when Griffith considerately put an oil stove under his camera to stop it from freezing up but periodically had to halt the filming in order to defrost his star.

Way Down East - Vermont
Way Down East – Vermont

But besides dedication, Gish had a moral sternness towards her work that as she grew older drew her sympathies and some of her later roles close to the kind of pioneer stubbornness which expresses a lost American ideal. It is hard to think of another actress who could have turned on the Haitian police bullies when they assault her and her husband in The Comedians (1967) with the same force of hereditary indignation behind her – as if it was not just an outrage against her person, but against her patriotism. Not that Gish would have been confined by any role as narrow as, say, a Daughter of the American Revolution – not while the candidature for the Mother of the American Revolution remained unfilled.

The Comedians
The Comedians

It is easier to categorise Lillian Gish in the most recent stretches of her long career because the pale, frail, wistful protegee of Griffith’s day looks so insubstantial. The silent-film historian, Edward Wagenknecht, spoke the truth when he said that the effect Gish makes is ‘virtually to blot out the flesh’. To which one must immediately add that she knew the value of getting outside help in doing so. To photograph Broken Blossoms, for instance, she brought Henry Sartov to the Griffith studio – her contract gave her this power – and Sartov made use of the soft-focus photography which was still an impressive novelty in 1919. It is the effect he creates by filming her through a layer of gauze which adds an insubstantial dimension to her little London waif who is befriended by a Chinaman and beaten to death by her brutish step-father. What would have been cameo-sharp in a more corporeal conception now seems to be created out of Limehouse mist. Yet it retains uncanny clarity of pain and pity, because Gish is an artist to her literal fingertips. She works in the miniature emotions that go with the small bodies and delicate features of Griffith’s preferred type of actress. She works at the extremities of her physique, so that the child’s fluttering excitement in “broken blossoms as her fingers reach to touch the gorgeous Oriental robe the Chinaman is offering her is like that of a nervous butterfly.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

It comes as no surprise that Griffith’s advice to Lillian Gish on acting was to study small animals and birds. (To Pickford, his advice was, study small children.) Neither Freud nor Jung needs to be called in to interpret her performance: just watching her movements reveals the inner message. She has the same concentrated sense of presence that a small pet engenders in its cramped world of hutch or cage, where every eye-blink or feather-flick is a miniscule disturbance relaying an emotion to the outside world. If that world is filled with some impending catastrophe prepared by God or man, then the disparity between the scale of the peril and its effect on the victim becomes itself piteous – and this was generally the case in her films for Griffith.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Her looks assisted her enormously. She had very precisely defined lips, the upper one of which fit like a long lid over the much smaller lower one and increased the wistfulness of her features. Her eyes have always had the effect of a baby’s – they seem disproportionately large for the face they are set in. (They are large even by the ophthalmic effects obtained inadvertently in the silent movies where the studio’s Klieg lights made the players stare and often forced them to drop out for a few days with eye strain, though fortunately the result in front of the cameras was simply to expose the whites and make the sufferers look more soulful and romantic than migrainy.) Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy were unlike in temperament; but when the pair of them starred together as the sisters who are wrenched apart by the French Revolution in Orphans of the Storm (1921) they were so alike in looks that some filmgoers got a sensation of parallax vision. Now twin-like looks give a slightly mysterious air of ‘apartness’ to those who share them; and it was this which must have marked out the little Gishes when they sallied forth, dressed alike, with their mother to the Biograph Studios in 1912 in order to renew acquaintance with a childhood friend, Gladys Smith, whom they had seen in one of the company’s films, Gladys turned out to be ‘Mary Pickford’ – and she introduced them to Griffith. One can only guess at the favourable effect which two of his spirituelle types must have had on him when they appeared in duplicate. He engaged them and immediately tied a blue ribbon round Lillian and a red one round Dorothy so as to tell them apart.

Behind them lay several years in touring stock companies which their mother had joined at the suggestion of a theatrical lodger when her husband deserted her. She had found that the popular melodramas gave plenty of employment to children, too, who were often required to play identical roles to the ones in which life had stranded them. It is easy to underestimate the conviction brought to these catastrophe-laden chronicles, on both sides of the footlights.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson SFr Standing W

Griffith had his favourites at Biograph and could play them mischieviously against each other. But where acting was concerned, all that mattered was art; and his judgment was incorruptible. Dorothy Gish he described as apter at picking up his intention than Lillian, ‘quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result’. Lillian, though, ‘sought to realise an ideal’. And so, of course, did he. This was the inspirational bond between them from the very beginning; but there must have been others to produce those astonishing results on the screen. Love was one, though translated into respect and devotion. Literature was probably another. The values that both held dear had been shaped by the poetic strain in American letters, the tradition of Whitman, Longfellow, Greenleaf Whittier and Nathaniel Hawthorne. This was part of Griffith’s sentimental education and Lillian’s classroom one. She was much better read than Pickford or the Talmadges, Constance and Norma, whose choice of stories for filming when they eventually turned independent producers betrays an early shaping by Peg’s Own Paper. (Not that this was a handicap, just the contrary: their tastes were the same as their public’s.) Lillian’s retort is well known when Louis B. Mayer expressed doubt, in 1926, that the film censor would be agreeable to a screen version of The Scarlet Letter in which she wished to play Hester Prynne, the deserted wife who bears the child of a sinful pastor. ‘It is a classic in every American classroom,’ she declared warmly, putting Hawthorne’s literary status before her own purity rating although in fact it was the latter which won the censor’s approval for the project.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

Literature shaped Griffith’s film aspirations as well. The device for finking the four parallel plots in Intolerance apparently occurred to him in a flash of inspiration after reading Whitman’s fines ‘out of the cradle endlessly rocking, uniter of here and hereafter’. But it was the acute perception he had of Gish’s nature which caused him to cast her, in spite of other roles in the film open to her, as Whitman’s eternal mother, rocking the cradle of humanity, her face finking the stories, binding together the ages of intolerance. The posture of a mother with her child is not simply an emblematic one for Lillian Gish: it is a concept running through acting, even in the most maudlin plots, like a current of pure emotion.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

Part of her Limehouse waif’s loneliness in Broken Blossoms comes from her isolation from both motherhood and childhood. Her own mother in the film is dead. A child-ridden neighbour warns her against the burdens of marriage. The local prostitutes warn her against sex. In fact her age in the film is oddly indeterminate. Griffith’s own characteristically lachrymose subtitle refers to ‘the child with tear-stained face’, but her interpretation has more subtlety and ambiguity than this. First seen sidling along a wharf with a ragged shawl, holes in her stockings and a hat with an absurdly wide brim which enhances the woebegone effect, she creeps home with dread in her step and a stoop that makes her look all of 50 years old. It sounds like a compilation of tear-jerking tricks and tatters, but that is not how it looks. James Agate, who was no easy touch for any player trying to ape Sarah Bernhardt, expressed his astonishment that Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms ‘should give the world an exact image of the great actress in her far-off youth’.  Pickford in the same part might have felt the need to invent some comic business – like the scrubbing brushes she uses as skates in her own film Through the Back Door (1921) -to relieve the harshness of life. Gish, typically, uses gestures that accentuate it. And again and again she falls back on childhood for her emotional inspiration and technique. Ordered to smile by her bullying expugilist step-father, she inserts two fingers in her mouth, baby-like, to push her lips up into a temporary smile of strained wistfulness. This effect she devised herself, to Griffith’s intense delight, and it is repeated at the end of the film as the breath leaves her broken body. It is an emotional shorthand sign: it packs a world of pathos into a minute dimension. Gish anticipates, and brilliantly avoids, sentimental banality; so that when she takes to bed the doll that the ‘yellow man’, played by Richard Barthelmess, has given her, one of its sawdust-filled arms pushes into her cheek like the finger of an importunate baby. Again the effect is ‘arranged’, but the arrangement is the product of flawless instinct.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

Even when one is well aware of Gish’s technique, her effects generally succeed brilliantly, because the intensity behind them is so genuinely experienced. The baptism of her dead baby in Way Down East was apparently so affecting that the real father of the infant who had been borrowed for the scene was overcome while watching her on the set. She could produce such moments en passant, too, not just as part of a set-piece. In The Scarlet Letter her baby falls ill and she goes for help. Casually yet touchingly, and without making it seem a conscious gesture, she moves two chairs with clothes hung on the backs of them between the baby in bed and the cottage door – to shield it from draughts while she is away. Gish has also instant recourse to motherhood in scenes to which it is not precisely applicable, yet is emotionally apposite. A love scene with Joseph Schildkraut in Orphans of the Storm leaves an afterglow of rapture. Then, abruptly, she turns to a rocking chair and, as she pushes it, her thoughts are clearly several leaps ahead of marriage and already on maternity. Gish tucks moments like these meticulously into scenes, like fuses, and primes them emotionally.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

It is right to emphasise such small moments in her art, for Gish’s performances under Griffith are usually remembered for the big ones of emotional crescendo. He matched her climaxes to the destructive power of man or nature. A master of screen counter point, he sensed the effect of making this frail-looking girl a victim of overwhelmingly cruel destiny from the minute she appears on the screen looking, ominously, too gentle for the world’s pain. It is on record that Gish knew precisely how to produce her trauma effect. ‘It is expressed,’ she once said clinically, ‘by the arm from the elbow to the fingers and depends entirely on rhythm-the gradual quickening of movement up to the pitch desired.’ But this merely proves she appreciated that, in screen acting, less is more. As Allene Talmey put it, ‘her face required only a breeze to whip it into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons’.

Yet when a dramatic typhoon does engulf Gish her carefully graduated loss of reason, the way she dissolves into hysteria or madness, never loses its human proportions, while the intensity expressed belies the effect of a time-and-motion study which her own dispassionate analysis of it suggests. When she shuts herself in a closet to escape from her step-father in Broken Blossoms she creates great eddies of claustrophobic panic not by pounding on the wall, but by the more disturbing means of whirling round and round. Just as a body immersed in water displaces its own volume of liquid, Gish uses space to displace her hysteria.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

Her features change alarmingly under stress like the moment in Hearts of the World (1918) when, in one uninterrupted shot, she loses her reason beside the dead body of her mother, a war victim. First she kisses her, tilts back her head with the mouth open in a silent shout of grief, then suddenly snaps her mouth shut, lets her facial spasms die away into a mask of immobile incomprehension, and finally stares unseeingly straight into the camera. The carry-over effect of dislocated sanity is shattering enough to lend conviction to a plot that calls on Lillian to wander distractedly through a battlefield bombardment clutching her bridal gown and to spend what was to have been her wedding night beside her badly wounded fiance whom she takes for dead. After witnessing such a pathetic demonstration of madness one understands why Tennessee Williams wrote Portrait ofa Madonna, an early draft of A. Streetcar Named Desire, especially for Lillian Gish. Her screen personality exhibits a lot of the same desperate lyricism as Blanche Dubois: insanity and the effect of blunt reality on too unprotected a sensibility is the fate that threatens both women.

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

But one area of life that Gish did not touch in her apprenticeship to Griffith, which lasted till 1921 when she followed the consequences of her stardom and went to work with other directors, was the sexual one. Perhaps it fitted Griffith’s temperament not to explore it with her, even though his unfortunate racist outlook, the product of his Kentucky upbringing, which made him equate colour with lust, imparted one highly disturbing moment to Broken Blossoms. Gish has run away from home and is sleeping in the house of the Chinaman who has offered her sanctuary. At this point Barthelmess’s eyes are shown in huge close-up as he draws near the girl’s bed, followed by a medium shot of his head craning forward in a more than fond contemplation of her body. Then, abruptly, he kisses the Oriental robe he has given her – and the subtitle, ‘His love remains pure’, clinches one’s relief.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

Two years later, when Griffith made Dream Street (1921), another London slum story, the Chinaman in it possessed a somewhat less pure passion. However the girl who rejects his offer of marriage and denounces him to the police with a smug, ‘After this, you leave white girls alone’, was played by Carol Dempster, a cooler protegee than Gish. Griffith’s sentimental romanticism also probably deterred him from the sexual realism that de Mille was exploring as early as 1917 in The Cheat where yet another Oriental makes a faithless white society woman part of his personal property by branding her. Fortunately Gish’s sensitivity is so complete that one never questions whether her Griffith heroines are at the age of sexual awareness or not. She interiorises love and in the process purifies it.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set

Nevertheless such abstention may have reinforced certain puritan aspects of her art that began to obtrude into the sentimental penumbra of films she made for other directors. The extent of her devotion to Griffith can be guessed at from the extent to which she had underpriced herself compared with what other stars were getting. She had made Orphans of the Storm for 1,000 dollars a week which Griffith ultimately found he could not afford to pay her. Once their ways parted, Gish assumed many of Griffith’s powers: the power to vet a director’s appointment, approve the script and rehearse the whole film in advance as Griffith’s training had taught her. Her betrayed wife in Romola (1924: directed by Henry King) and her nun in The White Sister (1924: also by King) whose ‘dead’ lover returns to try and claim her back from the convent, have passages where Gish’s emotional stress breaks prismatically across her face with the old Griffith magic; but it is not just the lack of her master’s voice which makes them appear slightly more self-regarding exercises. The latter film owes its warmth to Ronald Colman as the sailor lover. Gish’s rejection of worldly happiness with him in favour of the veil is meticulously played. But devoutness does not become her quite so well as defencelessness.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

King Vidor in his autobiography, A. Tree Is a Tree, has given perhaps the most authoritative and insight-filled version of what it was like to work with a Griffith protegee of Gish’s lustre. He pays a slightly mixed tribute to her insistence on exhaustively – and exhaustingly – rehearsing every scene in the film, in this case La Boheme (1926), on an empty set with imaginary doors, windows and dressing mirrors. Even more illuminatingly, he recounts the masochistic lengths she was prepared to go to for Mimi’s death scene, turning up to shoot it with ‘lips curled outwards . . . parched with dryness. . . . She said in syllables hardly audible that she had succeeded in removing all saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquid for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums in her sleep.’

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

Impressed though he was by such artistic commitment, Vidor was disconcerted by her conception of the love affair between Mimi and Rudolph, played by John Gilbert who was then near the peak of his romantic fame. ‘Miss Gish,’ Vidor writes, ‘. . . believed that the two lovers should never be shown in physical contact. She argued that if we photographed their lips coming together in a kiss, a great amount of suppressed emotion would be dissipated. She was convinced that if we avoided this moment a surge of suppressed romance would be built up.. . . She suggested love scenes in which the two lovers were always separated by space . . . Jack (Gilbert), of course, had been exploited as the ‘Great Lover’. How was he to live up to this reputation?’

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

Gish apparently carried this chaste conception into her off-screen hours, too, playing the unapproachable virgin to Vidor and Gilbert. It is all evidence of how thoroughly Griffith’s training made her immerse herself in a part; but the result was that parts of La Boheme had to be re-shot, on the orders of M-G-M’s production chief, Irving Thalberg, so as to ‘bridge the gap’ between Gish and Gilbert. The experience of acting with so pains taking a player was particularly frustrating to Gilbert. He worked on mood and spontaneity, Gish on rehearsal and repetition. He later described La Boheme as ‘artistic and delicate, but never believable’.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)6

About this time, the mid-1920s, Lillian Gish’s critics were starting to pick and scratch at her performances. ‘Griffith mannerisms’, is a reiterated phrase. ‘Gish is . . . a technician’, said James R. Quirk, whose editorial thunder in Photoplay, the most powerful of the film magazines, was dreaded by the stars. ‘Examining (her) characterisations, you find that she achieves greatness of effect through a single plane of emotion – namely, hysteria.’If Louise Brooks, a sharp observer of Hollywood politics from inside the stars’ compound, even believed there was a conspiracy between the fan magazines and M-G-M to bring down Gish’s prestige and market price – she was then getting, according to Quirk, 8,000 dollars a week. The truth is probably not that her skill was any less, but that her sensitive virgin type was looking outmoded against the social and moral freedoms of the 1920s and in comparison with the new screen image embodied by the up- and-coming Greta Garbo of the modern, neurotic woman whose sexual inclinations caused suffering wherever they led her, but whose own spiritual suffering went a long way to mitigate the disapproval of the screen’s official and lay censorship groups.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

It is against this background that Gish’s determination to film the censorship-prone theme of The Scarlet Letter has to be seen. She requested Victor Seastrom to direct it; and in this, too, showed her instincts were right. She felt that the Swedish-born director would have an affinity with Hawthorne’s colonial Puritans and their God-fearing, life-denying repression of sexuality. Many years later, though, she added another reason: ‘[Seastrom] was himself an excellent actor, the best who has ever directed me.’ This provides an important clue to her art. Gish was the type of star who makes acting into a ‘dialogue’ with her director. Not necessarily a spoken dialogue, though in the case of Griffith it was all of that, a matter of talking the performances out of the cast as they had evolved the film together in rehearsal and then encouraging them vocally to give something beyond the call of craftsmanship when in front of the camera. The radar that thus flowed between them was that of actors, even though one of the actors was now called a director. Seastrom had been an actor, too, an incomparably better one than Griffith would have made: see his majestic performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958), as the aged scientist whose boyhood memories humanise him and rejuvenate him, as if a spring had spouted out of a tombstone. Charles Laughton was another ‘excellent actor’ and Gish gave the best performance of her career in the Talkies when he directed her in The Night of the Hunter (1955) – and for the same reason. It was actor ‘talking’ to actor.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

And yet The Scarlet Letter, in spite of Seastrom, remains an obstinately Griffith-type movie. The Swede’s sympathy with the subject is plain to see in the tender pearliness of the woodland lighting when Gish and the pastor, played by Lars Hanson, come face to face; and the sense of budding passion is present in the couple’s discovery of their sexuality. But censorship reduced the sex to a shot of the knickers, which Gish has been washing when she meets the minister, now abandoned on a bush. And the theme of persecuted motherhood is obviously so congenial to Gish’s talents – and depicted by her so lovingly, in the manner of a practical Madonna – that one guesses the erotic would never have been prominent in the film anyhow.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter

But there is one astonishing moment which shows what might have been. Gish and the minister decide to face up to the community’s wrath and ripping the scarlet letter ‘A’ (for ‘Adultress’) off her dress and the constricting bonnet off her head, she lets a waterfall of long hair cascade over her face and is invested with a sudden, illicit intensity. A second later her child’s hand comes up into the frame and winsomely sticks the scarlet ‘A’ on to her bosom again – but one has glimpsed another of those vivid Gish transfigurations, from Puritan maid to Pre-Raphaelite siren.

Though The Scarlet Letter was an immense popular success, it is far below the power and art of Gish’s second film with Seastrom – The Wind (1928). This is her finest film. It is among the greatest in the silent cinema. And it is the first in which Lillian Gish’s virginal heroine is shown facing up to the sexual realities of fife. She plays a girl from the lush green fields of Griffith’s Kentucky who arrives in the twilight region of barren Texas where a great wind constantly scours a landscape that is now definitely Seastrom’s country. (The whole film is thus a remarkable transitional metaphor for its actress.) The wind never lets up, not for a single scene and though unheard, it is always ‘there’. Intending only to visit a childhood friend, Gish is forced by the man’s careworn wife who is jealous of her girlish freshness into marriage with a rancher – Lars Hanson again. Seastrom turns Griffith’s familiar drama of the elements inside out, so that the wind becomes an interior, alien force in the characters’ lives. The newly-wed girl’s first night orchestrates her sexual apprehension with gritty billows rattling against the bedroom door; and when her frustrated husband bursts through it and embraces her she wipes his kiss off like a smear of dirt that the wind has blown in. But the bravura climax comes when Gish is left alone in the buffeted ranch and its walls take on a queasy, subjective roll and swell as she feels it, and her sanity, being shaken to pieces. A traveller man, resting there from an injury, attacks her. She flees out into the storm, but runs smack up against an invisible wall of wind. It hurls her back into her rapist’s arms. The bucking white stallion of Indian myth kicks up its heels in the clouds – a symbol of the unbridled libido. And Gish, in desperation, shoots her assailant. She buries him in the sand, but then with mounting derangement in her features sees the wind exposing the body till the man’s face lies on the top of the dune like a death mask.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Seastrom wanted a tragic ending, presumably Gish’s death. But M-G-M forced a happier one on him – husband and wife reunited and bravely facing windward. Fortunately it is pictorially bold enough to look like a fit conclusion and not a forced compromise. And Gish’s fearless stance presages the pioneer fortitude she later went in for in films like Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter and The Unforgiven (1959), the John Huston western in which she played a classical sonata on a concert grand in defiance of a redskin scalping party. It is as if by coming through the trauma of imperilled virginity in The Wind she had somehow braced her screen image. For by dealing exclusively with the girl’s sexual predicament the film forced Gish into an unflinching characterisation far more realistic and sustained than any she had ever attempted.

Lillian Gish in Unforgiven - Promotional Photo
Lillian Gish in Unforgiven – Promotional Photo

It is astonishing that the film did not make more of an impact at the time. Studio politics may be involved here. Louise Brooks has noted that although she was filming at the same time at M-G-M, she hardly heard of the remarkable picture in production next door. Perhaps M-G-M compared what Gish cost on the payroll with what Garbo was bringing in at the box-office – and knew which to let slide. Joseph Schenck placed Gish in 1925 in the second rank of stars rated by earning power along with Ramon Novarro, John Gilbert, Keaton, Norma Shearer and Corinne Griffith. This seems good company, but ‘her drawing power is equal to first-rank players’ – Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, Swanson and Norma Talmadge – ‘in big films, not in small ones.’ The very psychological profundity of The Wind which put it ahead of its time caused it to lack the box-office expansiveness which ‘big films’ had built into them. The wind, after all, was an invisible production value!

Gish successfully made the switch to sound movies, picking a version of Molnar’s play The Swan, about the cool princess who is thawed by love. After that the Broadway stage claimed more and more of her time and talent — one guesses that she found more seriousness towards acting here than in the Hollywood regime of the 1930s. For the truth is that Lillian Gish approached acting the way some other women approach the veil. It was a semi- mystical vocation that exacted total dedication.

Such a star does not usually acquire, much less seek out the amplifying dimension of scandal and sensation in her private life to dramatise her public image. The alleged breach of promise suit brought against Gish in the mid-1920s by an importunate producer who was himself married at the time is an odd episode and probably had to do with contracts other than the marriage one. It was so out of character that it neither blemished nor burnished her reputation. She has never married and she has never retired. ‘Perhaps much is lost in selecting an acting career,’ she once reflected. ‘[You must] not be swayed from the path which leads to your desired goal. You must live with the story you are going to appear in from the moment the scenario goes into the writing until the time it is completed, breathing with the character until you leave it.’

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

The echo one hears in this is Griffith. When he shaped Gish, the greatest of his stars, he showed the age he belonged to by putting duty and obedience high on the list of desirable virtues. Once learnt, these never left her. The stars who followed her had drive and determination which sprang from the will to succeed. But somehow, as if an era had begun and ended in Gish, these were never the same as her ideals. They sprang from the will to serve.

Stardom ; the Hollywood phenomenon
Stardom ; the Hollywood phenomenon

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