My Sister and I – By Lillian Gish (November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”)

My Sister and I

Celebrity of the Screen Pays a Remarkable and Touching Tribute to Her Chum Relative – Dorothy

By Lillian Gish

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

*** This story was included in Miss Gish’s autobiography ”The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me” with the mention ”During this period, Dorothy and I wrote character sketches of each other for Stage magazine. I wrote of her:”

She is a criticism of all the things I am not. When I look at her, I always miss in myself the qualities that I was born without and that, I daresay, I should have been much happier with. She is laughter, even on the cloudy days of life; nothing bothers her or saddens her or concerns her lastingly.

Trouble gives only an evanescent shadow to her eyes and is banished with a shrug of a shoulder. Work to her, however, is play. Had she been born a boy, she would, I feel certain, have smeared her face with brown butternut oil and gone ’round the world with a hurdy-gurdy, waking up sleepy old people behind closed windows. She takes nothing seriously but her mother, her meals and her dog.

I envy this dear darling Dorothy with all my heart, for she is the side of me that God left out. Her funny stories, her delight in sitting on men’s hats, her ability to interest herself in a hundred and one people in whom she has not the slightest interest, her talent for quick and warm friendships, her philosophy of silver linings—why was I denied these?

I surely take no pleasure in being the rather melancholy person I am. I, too, would like to believe in all the lovely rainbows in which Dorothy believes. I, too, would surely be happy to find some day that hard work was not hard work at all but just a charming pastime. Unfortunately for me, however, a Klieg light is just a Klieg light and not the English moon.

All my life I have wanted to play happily as she does, only to find myself bad at playing. As a little girl, I wasn’t much good at playing and I find that, try as I will, I don’t play very convincingly today.

When Dorothy goes in swimming, she splashes the ocean into a beautifully gala muss; I just go in swimming. When she dances, there is no tomorrow ; when I dance the trombone always stubbornly reminds me of a director in a bad mood. When she goes to a party, the party becomes a party; when I go to one, I’m afraid it very often stops being a party. And I don’t like it. I want to be like she is.

I am not unhappy. I simply am not gay. It must have rained on the evening I was born, and it seems arbitrarily to have kept on raining in my heart ever since. She, as I once heard a girl described in a play, is like “a bright flag flying in the breeze.”

The world to her is a big picnic with a great merry-goround and lots of popcorn and wonderful balloons. All music, even the worst, seems so beautiful to her. All people amuse her. She even has fun getting her feet wet. I have fun too, but it is only the joy I get out of apparently never-ending work—and what kind of fun, I’d like to ask, is that?

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine” Lillian Gish in ”The Wind”

And Dorothy wrote equally frankly of me:

The tradition which has grown up around Lillian seems to be that she is a shy helpless bit of fragility, drifting around in a sweet gentle daze. If she’s really like that, “maybe I’m wrong” as the Two Blackbirds are fond of saying.

It’s perfectly possible that I am wrong. I have a growing suspicion that two people can live for years in close proximity and never understand each other. I must confess that Lillian’s idea of me, revealed every now and then, certainly differs startlingly from my own idea of myself. Perhaps we’re both wrong—and right. As in the Pirandello play, “Right you are

—if you think you are.”

At any rate, the popular conception of Lillian as soft and dreamy makes me think a little of the “gag” used too often in the comic strips. A hat lies upon the sidewalk; some person kicks it enthusiastically and finds to his astonishment and pain that there is hidden inside it a brick or a flatiron.

Anyone who has tried kicking Lillian has discovered the solidity of that resistance. Life has stubbed its toe, often and often, trying to disorganize her stability. She remains steadfast, unshaken, imperturbable. How I envy her the singleness of purpose, the indefatigability,

the unabating seriousness which have taken her straight to the heights she has reached and will carry her on and on! Nothing really matters to her except her work and her career. She has little time or patience for anything or anybody unrelated to her work. Her eyes are fixed on her goal; her ears are attuned only to the voice of her duty. If she misses some of the beautiful shyer souls that require a patient search, of which the reward is only a flash, perhaps, of beauty—why, that is the sacrifice she must make and she makes it willingly, almost scornfully. That is why she is where she is today.

She is blessed with a constitution that can respond to any demand. Long after I am ready to be hauled off on a shutter, she, apparently so frail, can go on tirelessly, unruffled, cool and calm. That exquisite complexion of hers, that lovely lineless face—these she owes to her serenity, her unfailing poise. What a priceless combination for an artist! Unswerving ambition, deep seriousness of purpose, and not a nerve in her body!

I wish with all my heart that I could see my life so clearly, so wholly, so free from confusion and march with such firm vigor toward achievement. Mother and I tease her at times about her remorseless activity. One of our pet names for her is The Iron Horse. A favorite family joke of ours is to theeffect that “we hope neither of us dies while Lillian is doing a picture.” We laugh—but we admire.

Don’t think she has no lighter moments. There are a number of persons whose minds or personalities she respects, and she finds great happiness in their company. In literature and the theater, she demands the best, and gets it. She will not spare a moment for a book or a play until she has made sure it is worthy, and thus she eliminates all waste motion. She is to me a never-ending source of astonishment and admiration. And I never cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who, more than any other woman in America, possesses all the qualities of true greatness.

November 1927, ”Theatre Magazine”

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Star Wagon – Lillian Gish (Stage Magazine 1938)

Because …

Because the first real event of the season – a tender, nostalgic play by Maxwell Anderson, ‘’The Star-Wagon’’ – took us back to the turn of the century on a time-machine, renewed our faith in beautiful dialogue and the fortunate destiny of love. Because it brought us, among other things, an excellent company of actors. Because it brought us Lillian Gish, who, by some acting-magic known only to the gods, grew old and young and then old again as quietly as the passing of a shadow across the face of the sun. (Photo: Alfredo Valente)

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The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls

ON TV, STAGE AND SCREEN THEY ARE ADDING LUSTER TO THEIR CAREERS

By RICHARD L. WILLIAMS

WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

TODAY THEY ARE STILL LOVELY AND HARD AT WORK

 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

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

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review) By Armond White – 2015

  • On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review)
  • By Armond White – February 18, 2015 5:00 AM

Why the smug critics of D. W. Grffith’s epic are doomed to repeat its faults.

One hundred years ago on this date, February 18, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation —​ the first movie epic — was shown at the White House. That screening occasioned President Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “It’s like writing history with lightning” — an accurate description of a problematic movie that is, upsettingly, full of hysterical historical fabrications. Wilson’s response to Griffith’s still-amazing innovations of cinematic storytelling was also an ideological endorsement of then-commonplace racial attitudes.Today, Wilson’s endorsement (not the darkest part of his own regrettable legacy) is scoffed at because of modern distaste for the film’s Civil War and Reconstruction drama — for its scurrilous depiction of black slaves while it lionizes the creation of the white-supremacist mob known as the Ku Klux Klan. The two myths, double-barreled offenses, have lived in the American consciousness partly through Griffith’s film — an indelible work of art and so an ongoing test.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

But in the decades since The Birth premiered, we should have learned more than that we are superior to it. That self-serving attitude has been the point of several recent articles recognizing the film’s centenary, as if the shameful or honorable social events (lynchings, legal reforms, and incremental civil-rights developments) that followed The Birth force single-minded dismissal of the film for its embarrassing and enraging faults.To approach this as a political as well as a cultural problem: Any attempt to erase The Birth —​ and rewrite movie history — also threatens our own presumably enlightened social standards. The trouble is, present-day smugness loses sight of The Birth’s aesthetic brilliance, which is the basis of its powerful challenge to our moral sense — not simply the necessary rejection of racist attitudes but the too-easy disavowal of the prejudiced reflexes and bigoted ideology still embedded in our national institutions and social habits.

*      *      *

Watching The Birth in 2015 (as on last week’s helpful C-SPAN broadcast) makes the movie more real than recent “not-me” renunciations allow; more real, in some ways, than current movies and TV dramas that boast “progressive” attitudes on race and American history. The Birth’s iconographic representation of timeless human experience is overwhelming for its glories and its insufficiencies: Griffith’s powerfully homiletic subtitle “War’s Peace” before a shot of dead bodies; the Little Colonel’s movingly discreet homecoming; the sexual frankness of Lillian Gish’s bedpost-stroking frustration (and the Altmanlike moment of a Union soldier eyeing her at a hospital); the startling battle scenes emulating Mathew Brady’s photographic realism but adding clouds of white and black smoke rolling kinetically across the battlefields; the combining of actual black bit players with white actors in blackface, following and flipping minstrel tradition; the intense expression of fear in the women’s barricade sequence; and, yes, the unsettling yet undeniably vibrant ride to the rescue by the Klan — a moment that sweeps you up in its fervor as all mob-related hysteria does even to this day. Think of it all as an epic — and dangerous — metaphor.

“As a film it’s astonishing, as a social history it’s still astonishing but in a different way,” Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress told C-SPAN. The Birth offers that unique quality vintage photography has of engaging your awe and fear, of past lives being made vivid alongside the simultaneous specter of mortality. But the film’s second half (its Reconstruction falsehoods, with lynch-mob scenes and Klan mythologizing) starts to pull away from you, offending basic sensitivities the same way as the caricature of criminal blacks in Liberty Heights (1999), or as Halle Berry’s degraded black mother in Monster’s Ball (2002), or as Precious and her mother’s being made into ghetto monsters in Precious (2007), or as the patronizing ghetto clichés in HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), among other post-Griffith examples of Hollywood defamation.

It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media, to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous — a way to fend off honest self-examination.

Few Birth detractors (call them anti-Birthers?) concede any validity to Griffith’s presentation of white American personality or admit that it’s more insightful than his neurotic caricature of blacks. Griffith includes an inadvertent (easily ignored) truth in the character of the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall); the “gallant” Southerner shown as inventing the Klan parallels the likable “good people” who harbor racist thoughts and actions. Almost Dickensian in sentiment as well as psychological and social ramification, Griffith is more authentic than the strictly moralizing, largely partisan ideas of good/bad behavior found in today’s “enlightened” media work, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, or The Help.

That self-flattering mainstream-media perspective was typified when The New Yorker claimed: “The worst thing about [The Birth] is how good it is.” That’s all wrong, an example of liberal sophistry wrought to distance and patronize white racism. The fact is: The best thing about The Birth is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea Intolerance (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist. To say otherwise is intellectual censorship. But as Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, advised C-SPAN: “We should not ban this film. We should not be afraid of this discourse.”

Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

Black Americans, well familiar with the calumnies the media use against them, are sometimes bemused even while recognizing the vile intent. For instance, one high point of The Birth’s racist hysteria has a young white girl (Mae Marsh) escape submitting to a lecherous black villain by jumping off a cliff. A subtitle proclaims: “We should not grieve that she found sweet the opal gates of death.” In my experience, both Black Panther and Columbia Graduate Film School colleagues found such absurdly racist sentimentality — including ludicrous scenes of free blacks’ buffoonery in the Reconstruction legislature — offensive and laughable, equally. It’s part of the process of getting accustomed to white racism and defying it — armoring oneself against it wherever and whenever possible.During film school, classmates and I laughed at a documentary where Lillian Gish insisted “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro.” At that time, I had a dream of being kidnapped by Griffith and forced to watch new footage he had recently filmed. Orson Welles burst into the dream to rescue me, but I resisted his tug, pointed at the screen, and urged him: ”Look! Look how beautiful it is!” Welles sat down and enjoyed the show.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

I have always felt it essential to reckon with the paradox of Griffith’s genius and his racism, just as a critic must reckon with the racism of lesser present-day filmmakers and do-gooder hypocrites, as when the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name from its annual awards in 2000, a misguided act of politically correct self-righteousness.

The beauty and ugliness, the truth and lies of The Birth of a Nation haunt all Americans. How it haunts us is valuable and should never be forgotten.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Lillian Gish – Handwritten inscription defending D.W. Griffith & “Intolerance”

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Bulletin of The Art Institute of Chicago – 1925 (Romola)

  • Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 1925-11: Vol 19 Iss 8
  • BULLETIN OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO NOVEMBER NINETEEN TWENTY-FIVE VOLUME XIX Number 8

THIRTY-EIGHTH ANNUAL AMERICAN EXHIBITION

Thirty-eighth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture opens on October 29, to remain in the East Wing until December 13. This exhibition is always awaited and received with great interest, for it is index of the year’s achievements. Selected on a basis of individual excellence, it works as a group representative of the various tendencies and schools which determine the direction of American painting and sculpture. The present exhibition contains at least two works which will be hung in the permanent collections of the Art Institute, for there are shown for the first time a painting purchased for the museum by the Friends of American Art, William Glackens’ “Chez Mouquin,” and Nicholai Fechin’s portrait of Lillian Gish as Romola, purchased from the Goodman Fund. Mr Fechin, a Russian by birth, an American by adoption, will be remembered for his one-man show held in 1924, when he gave proof of a highly individual technique, linked with a national tradition. In the portrait of Lillian Gish, the Russian is subordinate to the individual, and we find a double feat, a painter’s appreciation of another artist’s interpretation of her. The pathos and grace which the actress brought to her part are retained, and this added an element lacking on the screen color. The lavender gown, heavy red books, and polychrome background are used for their full decorative possibilities. “Chez Mouquin” is an early work by William J. Glackens, definitely dated as to the decade it represents, and quite different in manner from the artist’s later more dashing style.

Romola – Nicolai Fechin 1925 – Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.

“During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. “ (Lillian Gish)

Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director

Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract. Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches. His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

*** Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.

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Mayor of NY with Connie Towers and Lillian Gish – backstage in the opening night of “Anya”

Mayor of NY with Connie Towers and Lillian Gish – backstage in the opening night of “Anya” (December 1965)

Anya star Connie Towers is pictured backstage with Lillian Gish and Mayor of the New York City John Lindsey. In private life, Connie is Mrs. Eugene McGrath who often visits Miami. Her husband’s mother. Mrs. Harry Scheibla, lives in Miami. The McGraths have two small children, a son and a daughter.

Photo Friedman Abeles 351W 54St. N.Y.C. 19 Judson 6-3260

Constance Towers, Lillian Gish and John Lindsey (Mayor of NY) – Photo Anya Dec 5 1965
Constance Towers, Lillian Gish and John Lindsey (Mayor of NY) – Anya Dec 5 1965

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The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress – 1980

The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith

Fortunately for film historians, films, reviews, written reminiscences, and production records from the D. W. Griffith years have survived. This period is recalled in Erik Barnouw’s article on Arthur Sintzenich (“Snitch”), who was one of Griffith’s cameramen from 1923 to 1926, in Jean Tucker’s oral history of the early filmmaker based upon the observations of Lillian Gish and others who worked with him on Intolerance, and in Paul Spehr’s production study of the early years of the Biograph Company. Jean Renoir, in My Life and My Films, wrote that films are an emotional, not an intellectual experience. Griffith also expressed this nonverbal universality of films in his 1924 article, “The Movies 100 Years from Now”: It will never be possible to synchronize the voice with the pictures. This is true because the very nature of films foregoes not only the necessity but the propriety of the spoken voice. Music—fine music—will always be the voice of the silent drama. . . . In the year 2024 each motion picture theater will have symphonic orchestras of greater proportions than we now dream of employed for moods to fit the sublime and the grand. In a way this prediction has come true.

Hollywood, the pioneers – Griffith and Bitzer 1912

We do have the finest orchestras performing for films, only not in the theater pit. But what would Griffith have thought of Walt Disney’s Peter Pan and multiplane cameras and Fantasia and Fantasound and the magic that Disney’s musicians, animators, and technicians produced. Jon Newsom recounts, in his article on music for animated films, how this “magic” was created. The same technology for synchronizing sight and sound which was so finely applied to animation was handled less imaginatively in a series of 1930s films starring opera singers. David Parker, in his article on singerfilms, proves that certain film genre can survive despite, or possibly because of, their ridiculous plots, miscasting, and faulty production techniques. Based on another 1924 prediction, one would suspect that Griffith would have approved of Peter Pan’s “Flight to Neverland” on screen and Neil Armstrong’s moon walk on television in spite of the presence of “the spoken voice”: One hundred years hence, the airplane passenger lines will operate motion-picture shows on regular schedule. … Almost every home of good taste will have its private projection room where miniatures, perhaps of the greater films will be shown to the family. I close with my favorite Griffith prediction, hoping it was not his most fantastic. In the year 2024 the most important single thing which the cinema will have helped in a large way to accomplish will be that of eliminating from the face of the civilized world all armed conflict.

D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

Voices from the Silents

by Jean E. Tucker

The origins of the motion picture as an art form can be traced to the turn of the century. Since the late 1800s, motion pictures have drawn what they have needed from the other arts— music, literature, and the theater—and have attained an artistic maturity of their own in a relatively short period of time. The artistic attainment has been accompanied by a coincidental evolution of motion picture technology. The development of a historical record of the motion picture has not kept pace with the advancement of the art and technology, however. Indeed, the history of the motion picture, particularly silent film, was neglected until the mid- 1960s and the early 1970s. It is fortunate that film scholars are now beginning to pay attention to the historical development of the art and that more and more people who worked in silent pictures are writing memoirs and consenting to taped interviews, thus sharing their experiences and knowledge. As a consequence, the history of the silent movies is being more fully documented in the voices and words of living persons who were directly involved in devising, developing, and perfecting the acting and production techniques that have become the art of the motion picture. Oral history especially lends itself to the study of silent film. Taped interviews make it possible to record or reconstruct events which occurred during the silent film era of the motion picture. Interviews enable participants to tell their own particular story and include specific facts about the birth of an industry that might otherwise be lost. They can replace or supplement written documents and clarify differing views of the same event, revealing personality in ways which cannot be represented in written form. The quality of information revealed in interviews depends upon the analysis made of it. After comparing the information to other interviews and written sources, it can be elaborated, explained, and interpreted, so as to supplement and validate known information and create original documents.

D.W. Griffith directing “Intolerance”

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a silent film produced in 1916 by the Wark Producing Company, has been particularly neglected by film historians and critics since its release. No definitive work on the film has been published. No one directly involved with the production of the film has written more than a chapter or two about it. And, until the time I began a search for persons associated with the film, no one had recorded a collection of taped conversations with individuals who took part in its production. The inspiration for this search came from Lillian Gish. I first met and talked briefly with her at the Library of Congress in 1969 at a presentation of her film-lecture Lillian Gish and the Movies; the Art of Film, 1900-1928. She made a lasting impression. She seemed so interested and enthusiastic about everyone and everything around her. Her devotion to silent film and D. W. Griffith and her desire to tell his story were clearly genuine. After a second meeting nearly a year later, I wanted to learn more about the woman who seemed to epitomize the silent screen. I quickly discovered she had been sorely neglected by biographers and other writers. I read all I could find, looked at existing films in the collections of the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art, and eventually interviewed her. The Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress (now part of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division) accepted for its collections a copy of the tape of my conversation with her and expressed an interest in the tapes of interviews that I might record with other film personalities. I discovered there were at least four living persons in addition to Lillian Gish who had been involved directly in the production of D. W. Griffith’s film Jntolerance and that they would be willing to talk with me—not only about the film but about the development of the motion picture, acting and directing techniques, their early careers in silent film, and their relationship with D. W. Griffith.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

They were Karl Brown, cameraman; Miriam Cooper, actress; Joseph Henabery, actor, researcher, and director; and Anita Loos, who had written titles for the film.! Their stories were told within the framework of their own particular skills, experiences, and contributions. Some bias and differences of opinion were inevitable. The value of the oral history approach was to bring the differing views out in the open where they could be compared. Taken together, the accounts of the experiences of the interviewees present a clearer understanding of why and how the film Intolerance was made and assist in interpreting the silent film period. None of the interviewees knew the full story of the production of Intolerance as they evaluated the film from different production aspects and degress of intimacy with Griffith. If the success or failure of the film is judged on its technical and artistic merits, the interviewees agree it was a success. They also agree that the film would never have popular general audience appeal because it is tediously long. Film historians concur. Only film students flock to see it. The interviewees express a great depth of feeling toward D. W. Griffith. Their enthusiasm is open and genuine. They share a great sense of pride in their association with him and are all devoted and loyal. They feel close to Griffith even though none of their relationships—with the possible exception of Lillian Gish—were ever on a personal level.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

They had courted his pleasure and were deeply appreciative of the smallest of compliments from Griffith. They bore no resentment that he did not credit their work in his films. Griffith treated the women with dignity and courtesy and expected them to be ladies. He encouraged their creativity. In turn, they gave him their undivided loyalty and devotion and worked hard to please him. The men were equally as loyal although somewhat more willing to admit flaws in Griffith. The intense effect Griffith had on the interviewees is as complex and difficult to explain as the man himself. It can be attributed primarily to the combination of his maturity, father image, personal magnetism, and leadership qualities and his ability to inspire creativity and to generate excitement in the work and the films they produced together. During the silent film era, the interviewees did not recognize the significant contributions they were making to their craft and the industry. With the passage of time, however, they realized the magnitude of the art they helped create.

Fine Arts – Griffith Stars Back Row: Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge Middle Row: Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas Front Row: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association

They were proud of their role and wanted to talk about it. Theirs was a time of great experimentation and development. It is remarkable that except for technical equipment advances and sound, the basic filmmaking techniques they helped develop stand today. The interviewees were completely different in temperament and personality, but some common traits—such as pride in self and work, strength of character, tenacity, aggressiveness, desire to achieve, self-confidence, sense of humor, and a respect for one another—come out in the interviews. All had a natural talent for their work. They succeeded because they seldom considered failure. Lack of formal education did not deter them. They were in movies because they wanted to be. In order to stay there, they had to be the best. They were doing something that very few of their peers were able to do because it was a disgrace in many social circles to work in the movies. But they considered themselves very special people engaged in a very special craft. They all had great confidence in their abilities. They obviously were not well acquainted with one another when they worked with Griffith but grew to respect and admire one another in old age. They enjoyed being discovered by film historians, students, and others, and liked to share their experiences. They had a sense of history and were eager to get their life stories written or preserved on tape. Miriam Cooper, Joseph Henabery, Lillian Gish, and Anita Loos all arranged for their memorabilia to be deposited either in the Library of Congress or the Museum of Modern Art. Their films have not been as well preserved and many have been lost through deterioration or destruction. Still photographs are the only remaining source of information about many of the films they were involved in producing. The taped words and voices of the interviewees provide the means to experience more closely the period of the silent film.

DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

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Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – Reviewed by Frank O’Connor (1969)

The Objectivist 1969-11: Vol 8 Iss 11

Editor: Ayn Rand

Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me

Reviewed by Frank O’Connor

The audience watched in silence. There was no sound, except the music; the applause broke out only after the two girls had left. Then the people departed; they did not stay to see the flower show; neither did I. I think I was the last one to leave; I wanted to hold that image as long as possible. From then on, I always saw these two stars as I had seen them in person, in that garden, in reality – not as I saw them in the gray shadows of the screen.

Their names were Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

Now, fifty years later, Lillian Gish has written her autobiography. It is a remarkable document; it presents the story of the birth of American motion pictures.

Read the whole article accessing the link below:

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

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