Stars of the Silents – By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT (1987)

  • Stars of the Silents
  • By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, NJ., & London 1987
  • Copyright © 1987 by Edward Wagenknecht
  • Manufactured in the United States of America

IN THE BEGINNING …

In the beginning there were no stars in the silent sky.

It was “the pictures” we went to see, pictures that moved. Nobody had ever seen a picture move before, but we could see people on the street every day. Sometimes, as with “Hale’s Tours,” which were travel pictures, photographed from a moving train, and better cinema, being better adapted to the medium, than many more pretentious productions afterwards, there were no people at all. When the films were foreign, as they often were in the days when Pathe dominated the world film trade, the people were there all right, but they were too remote from us in America to register as individuals, and in the comparatively long shots that then prevailed, they all looked pretty much alike anyway. I have myself recorded elsewhere how startled I was when watching Maurice Costello, one day as a small boy, I suddenly became aware that I had seen that face before, and I first encountered the (abbreviated) name of a film player in a hand-lettered sign before a nickelodeon which, having first given the name of the film, added, as an afterthought, in smaller type, “Miss Lawrence in the Leading Role.”

It seems to be the rule, in this craft, that picturesque charlatans shall have immediate recognition, while the few sincere and earnest artists struggle long with public neglect.

“Way Down East” – Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish and Lowell Sherman

The case of Lillian Gish is perfectly in point. Thanks to the popular success of such films as Way Down East and The White Sister, she is just now beginning to enter into her own. Yet she was a great actress in Enoch Arden ten years ago. Mae Marsh, Henry Walthall, Emily Fitzroy—it would be easy to multiply examples. Even Mr. Griffith has, in general, been most successful with his least significant pictures. The Birth of a Nation is only an apparent exception, for it owed its tremendous vogue to its bad melodrama, its appeal to prejudice and passion, rather than to some of the really superb things it contained. And it is undeniable that the first adequate appreciation of Charlie Chaplin came from the outside. To the producers he was, at the outset, simply a great clown, a happy accident, whose enormous popularity was to be joyfully—not thankfully—accepted, but need not, for any reason, be analyzed. So far as I recall, it was Mrs. Fiske who, in an article in The Independent, first dared suggest that Chaplin was an artist.

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

LILLIAN GISH

I first met Lillian Gish at the Blackstone Hotel in December 1920, when she came to Chicago for the local opening of Way Down East at the Woods Theater. I did not meet Dorothy until January 1922, when both she and Lillian came for the opening of Orphans of the Storm and occupied the box just behind mine at the Great Northern Theater. After I moved to New England we met more frequently, and my friendship with both sisters, which was extended to embrace my family as soon as I had acquired one has been a blessing for which I shall always be thankful. It chanced that when I came to New York in 1961 to work on The Movies in the Age of Innocence at the Museum of Modern Art Film Library, Dorothy was out of town, and she graciously placed her rooms in the Elysse Hotel at the disposal of my wife and myself.

The essay that follows first appeared in 1927 as Number Seven in the series of University of Washington Chapbooks edited by my late, lamented friend Glenn Hughes, who thereby became my first publisher. It was revised very slightly for its reappearance in The Movies in the Age of Innocence, and this version was reprinted in 1980 in the very handsome booklet which the Museum of Modern Art brought out to commemorate its Gish retrospective, on which occasion Charles Silver generously described it as “the classic critical appreciation of Miss Gish’s early work.” However this may be, it reappears here without further change.

Edward Steichen – Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936

The meeting in Chicago referred to at the end of my discussion occurred, again at the Blackstone and later at the railroad station, when Lillian and her mother stopped off between trains when she was on her way to the Coast to take up her M-G-M contract. It is interesting to reflect that of the roles I mention in my penultimate paragraph as being naturals for her, Ophelia is the only one she ever had a chance to play. This was in the famous 1936 New York stage production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, in which John Gielgud was the Hamlet and Judith Anderson the Queen. As early as 1936 however, Edward Steichen had taken a marvelous portrait of her as Ophelia, which is handsomely reproduced as #116 in his autobiography, A Life in Photography (Doubleday, 1963), where it is strangely mislabeled “Romola.” The news about the film of that title, to which I refer at some length, is better however. Long considered a lost film, it has now been recovered and is currently (1986) available in casette form for the VCR.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen

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