The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition.
Lillian Gish Turns to the Footlights
“Years ago, when David Belasco starred Mary Pickford in the fanciful “A Good Little Devil,” Lillian Gish appeared in the minor role of a good fairy. The other day, however, Miss Gish returned to the speaking stage in New York. Her reception was remarkable.
Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”
Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties.
LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married. Miss Gish is a rarely fascinating personality in the theater, moving consciously about; falling into unconsciously graceful poses; speaking in a gentle voice with modest expression; suggesting a little girl playing most intelligently at acting, but still a little girl.
Miss Gish has made an extremely happy return to the stage. Her sisters of the films who are now planning to descend upon the drama in swarms – Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and all the others who have issued their challenges to the playwrights – may well envy her. She is a perfect type for Checkhoff’s fragile, evasive Helena; she has had the coaching of Jed Harris, a master of stage direction; and she has made this new debut not as a star but as one of a group of cooperative artists. The production of “Uncle Vanya” was not a ballyhoo for Lillian Gish, but it has refreshed and renewed her reputation in a distinguished manner. She proves herself, by her admirable realization of Checkhoff’s heroine, a highly accomplished actress.
Uncle Vanya – 1973
“Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.” – Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful part for the occasion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set everything right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)
There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obviously the most important is this opportunity to compare, contrast and enjoy two major actors going about their business with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.
The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informality.
And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.
Just what it is that makes a fine artist in the theater is a subject on which probably no final decision will ever be reached, but at least it is now clear that the popular impression of the great actor as a chameleon-like creature who wholly sinks his own individuality in the role that he plays, who nightly reduces himself to putty and then proceeds to construct a new and alien character from its foundations, is an excellent definition of what such an artist is not. Without great personality, great art simply cannot exist, and this truth has long been recognized in connection with the other arts. The individuality of the great painter is evident in all his canvases: a Corot cannot be mistaken for a Millet or a Van Dyck for a Frans Hals. In literature too it is only the second- and third-rate stuff that might have been written by anybody: Chaucer and Fielding and Conrad are “there,” visibly and incontrovertibly “there,” in every line that they wrote. It is so also in the theater, for the creative process is essentially one in all the arts. An actor may, according as his experience of life has been wide or narrow, according as he himself is simple or complex, single-or many-sided, work in a wide field or he may specialize within a comparatively narrow range. What is worth remembering, however, of a really versatile player like David Garrick, as against the limited portrayer of a type, is not that Garrick has submerged his personality, but rather that, through sympathetic comprehension and intelligence, he has enlarged it to embrace a much wider segment of life. Zola conceived of art as a corner of nature seen through a personality. If acting is in any sense among the arts, why should we not grant to the actor this same privilege—to re-character his material in terms of his own personality—which we impose upon the poet as a duty? We may grant it or not as we choose; we may even justify our obtuseness by the cant that acting is not “creative” but merely “interpretative.” Still the actor will continue to do it, as he has always done it, because it creates the only condition under which acting can exist at all.
I admit that this is dangerous doctrine, but I do not happen to know any true doctrine that is not dangerous. I am not trying to absolve the actor from “faithfulness” to the author whose plays he presents; I am simply suggesting that in acting itself there is a larger creative element than is commonly supposed. The plain truth of the matter is that unless a play is purely a “closet-drama”—and therefore devoid of all essential dramatic quality—it is not finished at the time it is printed: it does not really come alive until some man or woman of genius makes it live upon the stage. The very great plays—Hamlet, for example—are never completed. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s exclusively but the world’s, and it will not be really finished until the last great actor has presented his conception of it.
In short, I believe that the actor, like the poet, cannot possibly create anything greater than his own soul. It is precisely this experiential quality that marks the difference between mere vulgar impersonation—which is of no significance—and genuine portrayal of character—which is of value because it assists in the understanding of life. That which the actor does not understand, and which has not been passed through his own alembic, may indeed startle for the moment through technical brilliance; but in the long run it is ineffective, like the famous legendary sermon which the devil once delivered with great energy against all the hosts of darkness, and which won no converts, simply because the preacher himself did not believe in it.
The bearing of all this upon my subject is, I trust, fairly obvious. Miss Gish is not, in the usual sense, a versatile actress. Her temperament is not naturally and obviously “dramatic,” and she always claims the right to make her roles over to suit Lillian Gish. Yet she has come to be accepted as the outstanding serious artist of the screen, the authentic, incomparable interpreter of the drama of the shadows. As far back as 1920, John Barrymore called her an American artist worthy to rank with Duse and Bernhardt, an American girl who had equaled if not surpassed the finest traditions of the theater.
I hope I may not be misunderstood. I am not saying what the unenlightened so often say: that “Lillian Gish is always the same.” Each of her portraits is an individual achievement: he who feels or who pretends to feel that her Mimi and her Hester Prynne are the same person, or that her Angela Chiaromonte is not an essentially different girl from her Henriette Girard, is surely completely blind to other than very elementary and wholly obvious distinctions: fine shadings in art are not for him. Versatility, in the usual sense, is comparatively easy for the character actor: he presents, one after another, wholly different types, and he has all the resources of makeup to sustain the illusion. But Miss Gish is not a character actress. She has played only sensitive young women, most of them about the same age, many of them facing not wholly dissimilar problems.
The business of differentiation for such a player is ten thousand times more difficult than it is for the character actor; I think hardly any careful student of acting will deny that she has triumphantly met the test.
But what is more to the point for my argument is that in and through all her carefully differentiated characterizations , she has expressed also her own point of view, a distinctive something which is Lillian Gish and nobody else on earth. Her Hester Prynne is not precisely Hawthorne’s Hester: she is Lillian’s Hester. This point has sometimes been cited against her; as a matter of fact, it is the highest praise that could be given. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne exists in Hawthorne’s pages: why should Lillian Gish seek to create her over again? Is it not better to begin under Hawthorne’s spell but to go on from there independently to work out her own conception as he did his?—a conception which, precisely because it does represent the reaction of another individuality, will help us better to understand not only Hawthorne but the life experience which both artists, and which all artists, seek to interpret?
This, I believe, is the essentially “poetic” note in the work of Lillian Gish—a thing to which so many have referred but which hardly anybody has understood. The girl’s work seems “poetic” because she is a poet, that is because she is a creator. She is like the poets in that there is something distinctive in the way she apprehends life, and she uses her roles as the poet uses words and the musician tones—not to reproduce what somebody else has done but to express directly her own authentic impression. Hence also the marvelous sense of completeness, of perfection that she gives you. The part and the actress are one: there is nothing extraneous. In a very deep and very true sense, she is the profoundest kind of actress: that is to say she does not “act” at all; she is.
This is not of course what most people mean when they refer to Lillian as “poetic.” Usually, I am afraid, they mean that she is pretty. Sometimes—God forgive them!—they are even trying to say that she is weak. The novelist Joseph Hergesheimer was one of Lillian’s most ardent admirerers, yet he would seem to have been blind to some of her most important qualities. Hergesheimer objected strenuously to The White Sister, for example, which he claimed he never went to see. “I had no wish to see Lillian’s pale charm against the rigid whiteness of a nun’s headdress.” But it was precisely the qualities which repelled Hergesheimer in The White Sister that attracted Lillian: she wanted to do the story, as she once told me, most of all for the privilege of filming the assumption of the veil, a ritual which she considered one of the most beautiful things in modern civilization.
I do not, however, wish to convey the impression that I am in any sense unmoved by Lillian’s beauty. She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name. The affinity between her given name and her spirit is a commonplace; if there were only one thing in the world by which to symbolize her, one would instinctively choose the lily. To most persons I suppose her surname means nothing, but this is their misfortune. It should mean romance, the pathos of distance and of faraway perfect things; it should carry them back to buried Babylon, to the Gilgamesh epic and the marvelous adventures of Gish.
Lillian’s physical frailness–her Dresden china quality- connects here, and it is this which is commonly regarded as her most serious limitation. Actually it is nothing of the kind. It is true that it bars her from playing coarse types— which make up the most of life—and that it limits her capacity for heroic expression. It is hardly conceivable that any other producer than D. W. Griffith could have discerned her gifts at the time she entered pictures: to anyone else, the pale child she was then must have seemed, as a dramatic actress, the world’s worst bet. Griffith, with his passion for delicacy and his uncanny knowledge of his craft, perceived at once that what might have handicapped her on the stage was precisely what would make her on the screen. In a large auditorium, physical coarseness of feature is no handicap; it may even be an advantage. But the merciless camera, with its magnified features and its enormous close- ups, brings the actor almost on top of his audience, registering every movement, showing up inevitably the most trifling defect. Except Mary Pickford, there is nobody whose contour quite suits the camera, quite stands the test, as does Lillian’s. And it would be difficult to find two actresses who appear in more radically different lights. Mary photographs always with cameolike precision: she stands out against her backgrounds with crystal clarity, like Lucrezia Bori at the opera. Lillian’s outlines, on the other hand, are dreamlike, subdued; she seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.
This lyrical coloring in Lillian seems immensely precious: doubly so because she lives in an age when most girls have definitely outlawed overtones, when everything must be frank and open, everything ruthlessly displayed, no matter how ugly it may be. Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does, glorifies it with the interpenetrating quality of the imagination, makes it impossible for her to be drably realistic, no matter what her role. Frequently she plays what are called in the movies “cotton stocking” parts. But what she gives you of poverty in these instances is never its drabness and hardness but only its singleness and sweet humility.
The star example is the scene in Way Down East in which Anna Moore, her mind oppressed by the dread dogma of infant damnation, herself baptized her dying child. Miss Gish played the scene with utter realism—her walk, her expressions, the very arrangement of her clothes all suggesting the strain of recent childbirth. Many an actress could have done that, but I do not know who could have followed her in the next step she took, who could have lifted the whole scene, as she did, away from squalor, beyond the physical, who could so beautifully have suggested the age-old miracle of the girl become mother.
But Lillian’s lyricism could never have served to win her present place for her had it not been coupled with a dramatic intensity all the more striking because the body through which she expresses it seems so frail. The effect is virtually to blot out the flesh: when she really lets herself go, she is like nothing so much as a pure white flame.
Though she has done finer things since, her closet scene in Broken Blossoms, the helpless child’s pitiful terror of the brutal father who was hammering against the door, trying to get in and kill her, will remain in the memory of all her audiences as the best single expression of her wonderful capacity for utter surrender to emotion. It was hysterics photographed, yet it was fine art; hysterics are not naturally beautiful.
I have already touched on the exaltation, the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing. Even her beauty is not a thing in itself: you never think of her as a “beauty” in the sense in which you think thus of many women of the theater. She is essentially the Puritan in art: there are many phases of experience that she does not care to touch. It is indeed because of her own sensitiveness, because through all these years in the theater she has, in a sense, kept herself in a world apart, that she has become so incomparable an interpreter of the experience of sensitive women. In the ordinary, vulgar sense of the term, there is no more sex in her screen manifestations than there was for Dante in the Beatrice of the Commedia.
Miss Gish’s work on the screen is pure emotion: there is no suggestion of mind in it, and here, as always, she is profoundly right, for the visible presence of intellect in acting can only rob it of spontaneity, make it labored and self-conscious. But all who have watched Lillian’s development know that the mind is there notwithstanding: nothing could be farther from the truth than to imagine that the lovely things she has created came into being spontaneously, as mere emanations of herself. And she is still growing, for each appearance marks, in some respect, an advance. Twelve years ago, in The Birth of a Nation, I did not indeed find her extraordinarily effective; of all her more important characterizations, this of Elsie Stoneman seems to me the least. But as Annie Lee in Enoch Arden, released that same year, she did immensely fine work, running the whole gamut from youth to age, and doing it with splendid sincerity and with poignant, touching sweetness. As the French girl Marie in Hearts of the World she went even deeper, and after I saw her in Broken Blossoms in 1919, I told her, out of my ignorance, that I did not see how she could ever equal the performance she had given here. Yet Lillian has gone far, far beyond what then seemed unutterable perfection.
In four of her recent pictures, Miss Gish has been engaged in a profound and beautiful study—the study of woman’s attitude toward her love. In La Boheme it was the love which gives blindly, eagerly, in answer to desire. In Romola it was the austere love which, precisely because it loves, will accept nothing from the beloved except the best. In The White Sister love and God were in conflict, and God won.
And in The Scarlet Letter the love was tainted with sin and worked its way out, through suffering, to salvation.
Of these four characterizations, it is difficult to make a choice, but I think the one which moved me most was precisely the one which has been the least popular—Romola. This film surely did not earn very much money for its sponsors, for it was enormously expensive, and it wholly lacked the melodramatic appeal which a great costume film must have if it is to capture the movie public. Lillian’s own role, too, was not essentially dramatic, there was no furniture broken, and the general public could not do other than remain comparatively indifferent to her quiet, gently incisive baring of a woman’s soul. Lillian herself—the artist’s divine dissatisfaction upon her—did not quite share my enthusiasm for this picture. “I hope you will like Romola when you see it,” she had written me. “It caused me so much trouble and there are so many things in it that I would have different from what they are that I can never think of it now without a great feeling of sadness for what we might have done with that beautiful story.” Nevertheless, it is here that she has given us a characterization worthy, in its perfections, to rank with Mary Garden’s portrait of Melisande in Debussy’s ultimate opera. For the first time, as I watched Romola, I felt that I was really beginning to understand what supreme devotion, what never-failing effort it must have cost Lillian Gish to develop her art to the point to which she had brought it here. The old-time violence, the occasionally hysteric quality that was the hangover from her Griffith days, was gone, but the dramatic intenseness that had accompanied it and saved it and made it beautiful remained—repressed, quivering with life. A twitch of her expressive mouth, a shift of expression in her eyes, and she had accomplished what in the old days it took all the resources of her body to achieve less perfectly. The finest example of all this in Romola comes at that moment in the house of Tessa when Romola first realizes that Tito has been unfaithful to her. Actually Lillian did nothing in that moment save look at Tito and then back at Tessa’s baby which she was holding in her arms. Slowly the realization dawned that her husband was the father of this child, and the tears welled up in her eyes, but they did not overflow. Amazement, incredulous wonder, wounded pride, and the pure woman’s instinctive recoil from an unchaste man—they were all there in that look; yet beneath and above them all were love and pity—for Tito, and for Tessa, and for the child.
In Romola, Lillian appeared to be turning inward—more self-contained than she used to be—an entity complete. In a measure this may have been due to the accident of material. But in a deeper sense I do not believe it was, for Lillian is growing daily, broadening, developing, shifting the stream of her life to deeper channels. If this tendency continues she will in the future be less of an “actress” than now; she will be rather a symbolist, an “essentialist”—if there is such a word—and her screen images will be not so much characterizations as projections, pictures, embodiments (I know not how to name them) of the varied aspects of the spiritual life. One shudders to think what effect such a process might have upon Lillian’s box-office popularity, but what a sense of wonder she could bring to our souls, what deepening and beautifying of this amazing mystery we call life. And Lillian could do it if her managers would give her the chance, could leave behind her “pictures of the floating world” which might well live as long in the imaginations of men as Homer’s portrait of Nausicaa.
Indeed, I believe Miss Gish to be capable of much greater roles than any she has yet played. She has etched a precious number of lyrical and dramatic moments, but frequently the ‘stuff from which she has wrought has been the veriest melodrama. Imagine what she might be in Lancelot and Elaine or as Melisande or Francesca da Rimini. Imagine what she might do with Ophelia or with any of the later spiritualized heroines of Shakespeare with Miranda or Perdita, for example. She is not easy to fit with roles that shall be at once adaptable to the screen and suited to her genius. for the mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited by “emotional” actresses—is simply not for her.
Sometimes I am inclined to be a little impatient about these things: I suppose everybody, now and then, feels that the careers of his favorite artists are being less intelligently managed than he himself could manage them. Yet the last time I saw Lillian, one night in Chicago, when she and her delightful mother left for California, it came over me suddenly that all such fretting was futile. What difference does it make what Lillian plays so long as she is Lillian? That at least no casting director can ever take away from us. Here is the source of the impression she makes, for she herself is among the poets. She may bring us art and literature from the treasure houses of Europe, or she may float on an ice cake down some river of her native land. Whatever she does, she will always be beauty—emotionalized beauty, through which one catches sudden, radiant glimmerings of the wonder of life.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Movie Digest – 1925 Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood
CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground. THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.
For the first ten years of her career, Lillian Gish had been nearly impermeable to the most common sort of movie-star publicity—speculation about her love affairs. Only the rare mention of a possible relationship between D. W. Griffith and his leading lady challenged the notion that the object of Lillian’s affection, after her mother and sister, was the movies. The entanglement with Charles Duell had, of course, altered that perception.
And, at the same time, she was linked with another man, a writer and intellectual, the most influential drama critic of the period. There is no doubt that George Jean Nathan, champion of modernist, “serious” theatre, who flaunted a snobbish disdain for the movies and all other manifestations of popular culture, fell in love with Lillian Gish. Nor is there any question that for ten years, George was the most important man in Lillian’s life, perhaps the great love of her life. He also exerted a formative influence on her taste and her professional activities. Struck by her beauty and style, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell had included versions of Lillian Gish in their novels. But it was as George Jean Nathan’s female companion that Lillian secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters during the 1920s and 1930s.
They were from adjoining states, Ohio and Indiana, born eleven years apart, Nathan on February 14, 1882. In terms of affluence, religion, and schooling, their backgrounds and upbringings were dissimilar. George’s father, Charles Naret-Nathan, a Jew from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was well educated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan. His mother, Ella Nordlinger, was a native of Fort Wayne, George’s birthplace. Part Jewish, she attended a convent school and converted to Catholicism. As we know, Lillian attended school sporadically. While little Lillian was touring in melodramas, George was studying in Italy, France, and Germany, before his graduation from Cornell in 1904. Through the good offices of his uncle Charles Nordlinger, drama critic for the New York Herald, George found a job on the paper and was soon writing theatre reviews for Harper’s Weekly. Nathan’s name would often be associated with that of the Baltimore journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken. Six years after Nathan met Mencken in 1908 in the office of The Smart Set, the two men became this magazine’s coeditors and turned its pages into a forum for the cause of modern literature.
Nathan stewarded the first American publications of James Joyce, two stories from Dubliners; the young Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were given boosts by inclusion in The Smart Set where works by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser appeared as well. The Mencken-Nathan circle included Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, all of whom contributed to The Smart Set. In partnership with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Nathan and Mencken founded a more prestigious journal in 1924, The American Mercury. Its stated goal was “to offer a comprehensive picture, critically presented, of the entire American scene,” including the arts, politics, industrial and social relations, and science, all from the perspective of “the civilized minority.”
Nathan’s concerns were not so catholic, however. “What interests me in life is the surface of life: life’s music and color, its charm and ease, its humor and its loveliness. The great problems of the world—social, political, economic, and theological do not concern me in the slightest. I care not who writes the laws of the country so long as I may listen to its songs. I can live every bit as happily under a king, or even a Kaiser, as under a president.” With political views “slightly to the right of Marie Antoinette’s,” Nathan was a dandy who suffered from an excess of “noblesse oblige.” He was also a condescending racist who, without a trace of irony, urged his readers to save their tears for the African-American. According to this opinion-maker, the black man should be “happier by far than he ever was, which is more than his average white brother-democrat can say for himself.” After all, in recent years, Nathan proudly asserted, more whites had been lynched than blacks. And black men could even marry white women! Although Mencken was situated on the same side of the political spectrum as Nathan, the two men clashed over the focus of The American Mercury. Nathan almost immediately resigned his coeditorship but continued to contribute pieces on theatre for five more years.
Nathan and Mencken belonged to the same ” civilized minority” that treated the movies and their stars with unmasked contempt. The coterie made an exception of Lillian Gish. In fact, the fourth issue of The American Mercury featured an article by Joseph Hergesheimer entitled ” Lillian Gish.” Full of the usual condescension to the movie business, it recounted Hergesheimer’s meetings with Lillian to discuss his portrait of her in Cytherea and movie projects he wished her to consider. First, at her refusal of a drink and a cigarette, Hergesheimer was seduced by her public image and delighted in her prudishness: “It made flawless her quaint rigidity of bearing, her withdrawn grace.” From the little she said, he was struck by the passionate way she referred to her work: “It was her religion, since it had accomplished for her the offices of a religion—it had raised her from the earth to the sky.” Then came Hergesheimer’s attacks against petit bourgeois attachments to mother, patriotism, and home, along with his hope that Lillian’s mind might be “liberated from the tyranny of mob sentimentality.” Poor Lillian, of course, “was wholly superior,” but she “hadn’t associated with the people and ideas that would have given a clear and aesthetic form to her thoughts. She hadn’t the relative calm, the superiority, of an intelligent background.” Hergesheimer’s critique of the bourgeoisie was the party line of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. For his part, Nathan clearly took pleasure in heaping scorn upon the cinema, an enterprise emblematic of all that was wrong with the tasteless, materialistic society that produced and worshiped it. “Controlled in the overwhelming main by the most ignorant social outcasts … by hereditary toothpick suckers, soup coloraturos and six-day sockwearers, controlled in the mass by men of a complete anaesthesia to everything fine and everything earnest and everything dollarless, the moving pictures—the physic of the proletariat—have revealed themselves the most effective carriers of idiocy that the civilized world has known.” There is some irony in that the policy makers of these magazines, Mencken and Nathan, were particularly close to Lillian Gish, an actress who, in her Griffith films, incarnated some of the very notions that the intellectuals deplored. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the middle-class homilies Lillian enunciated in her letters to Nell through the early 1920s, but her long sojourns in Italy and her troubled relationship to Charles Duell had certainly changed her. At this point, Lillian seemed ready to continue the worldly education that would liberate her from the confines of home and hearth, and perhaps even from Griffith’s essentially prewar worldview. Although they denigrated the movies and, to some degree, patronized the poorly educated actress, Lillian Gish became the muse of some of the smartest men in America, attracting them with her charm, beauty, intelligence, and most flattering of all, her receptivity to their genius. Of all the Griffith actresses, Lillian had been the director’s most diligent student. She now turned her concentration to a richer curriculum. The genius central to Lillian’s life was George Jean Nathan. Although there is some dispute over when their initial encounter took place, it was probably with Mencken, in 1924, soon after her return from Italy following the completion of Romola and hard upon the end of her “unofficial” engagement to Duell. “The first time I met him was at lunch. I sat between them [Nathan and Mencken] after thanking them for printing Joseph Hergesheimer’s piece on me in their April issue of their new magazine, The American Mercury. They both started to talk at once, the subject poetry. Neither listened to the other, just a rapid fire of talk and jokes as was their custom.” Lillian, who knew Nathan by reputation, had expected an older man, “sixty, at least, white-haired, and probably paunchy,” but found him to be “dark and vigorous,” with a particularly attractive speaking voice. (Director Harold Clurman described him as “Latin-looking, very handsome.”)
Nathan and his friends represented a new world, a new way of thinking for Lillian. “I sat in the group of gay, facile conversationalists and found myself unversed but appreciative. With no hope of being one of them, I searched for anecdotes that might possibly be dropped in quietly and entertain them for a time. And George, all subtle attention, leaning toward me with ‘and what happened next?’ in his eyes. Things of that kind. If you looked for one special quality in George, you’d find that swift, definite courtesy. A good basis for friendship. He was the first man to show me that a smart hat was more becoming to me than a halo of blonde hair in soft-focus camera effect.” The opposition of the smart hat to the halo of blond hair must have been George’s way of extracting Lillian from her pervasive mind-set of moviemaking. He helped her see herself as part of a larger, more varied world than she had ever known.
Lillian’s predecessor in Nathan’s life was Fred Astaire’s sister and showbusiness partner, Adele. Nathan had dedicated The House ofSatan to Adele, who hoped to marry him. After offering various excuses for broken appointments, “he told her that the French ambassador, Paul Claudel, a famous poetdramatist, was in town and that he must confer with him. He found out that the French ambassador was Lillian Gish.’ ” Nathan was smitten with Lillian, and, it appears, she with him. Just two days prior to the New York premiere of Romola, Nathan sent a telegram to Lillian that testifies to their mutual affection:
“a today without you is to me always a yesterday that INCLUDED YOU I MEANT EVERY WORD I SAID LAST NIGHT AND HOPE YOU ONLY MEANT EVERY OTHER WILL TELEPHONE AT NOON SUNDAY LOVE GEORGE.”
In his adulatory article on her acting in the November 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, George all but declared his love for Lillian. Betraying his Germanophilia, George entitled the piece “Die Kino-Konigin: a Critical Appreciation of the First Lady of the Cinema.” Leave it to George to write a panegyric to the Queen of Cinema while decrying the movies as unworthy of her talents. But since he allows that “some of the most beautiful performances of Duse and Bernhardt were wrought out of dramatic rubbish, the beautiful performances of Lillian Gish have been wrought from rubbish, no less.” Along with the lyric flights of his pen, he offers some insight into the quality of her art. “Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion, . . . behind a veil of silver chiffon.” Nathan is particularly struck by the sense that she combines directness and simplicity with elusiveness. “She is always present, she always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight around the corner.” His deep feelings for her emerge in comparisons no less sincere for their lack of originality. “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl . . . are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”
Just a few months following the appearance of this article, and directly after Lillian’s exoneration in the Duell trial, word spread of her engagement and impending marriage to Nathan. “America’s most celebrated womanhater and a devastating critic of movies” was a dandy who, at first nights, reserved the adjoining seat “for his hat, stick and opera coat.” Lillian Gish was the new occupant of the seat. “It is reported that he will now write scenarios for his fiancee.” Speculation about engagement and marriage would continue for years, always to be denied by the couple. But a couple they were, and very much in the news. Long the chaste goddess with an edifying book in her hand, Lillian now attracted the measure of racy publicity that befit a star of the first magnitude.
Even before Lillian was freed from Duell’s injunction, other companies began to bid for her. Harry Carr telegraphed from London: “joe schenck [United Artists] WISHES TO know if you will do nothing definite with any other organisation until he returns to new york.” Mary Pickford, one of the partners in United Artists, urged her old friend to sign with the company. “I am sure Mr. Schenck could arrange for the financing of your pictures and releasing through our company, that is if you cared to be with our United Artists. I shall be very happy to suggest this to him when the time comes.” Once the trial reached its successful outcome for Lillian, Mary could afford to be insistent: “there is no question that this is where you should be.” Pickford lauded Joe Schenck, “the most progressive and capable manager in the business,” for his integrity. (Schenck must have been remarkably fair-minded, secure in his marriage, and thoroughly convinced of Lillian’s box-office appeal. His wife, the extremely popular, talented, and highly paid Norma Talmadge, had moved her production unit to United Artists. Talmadge and Gish, likely to be considered for the same kinds of roles, were the current front-runners in the ” great dramatic actress” sweepstakes.) According to Mary, United Artists would protect Lillian by not demanding “more pictures than are artistically possible to produce.” However, it was not Joe Schenck, chairman of the board at United Artists, who succeeded in putting Lillian under contract, but his brother, Nicholas, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Schenck brothers already had an indirect connection to the Gish sisters and their mother. Before entering the movie business, they had owned amusement parks, among them Fort George in Upper Manhattan, where Mary Gish had run a candy stand and her little girls had learned to ride horses.
When Lillian Gish joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the major forces in the movie industry were Paramount Pictures, in business since 1914, and First National, founded in 1917. Warner Bros., Fox, and Universal were other strong studios. United Artists, established in 1919, merged the huge boxoffice appeal of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W Griffith, and produced excellent movies, though not very many of them. At the time of its formation in 1924, M-G-M was obviously the newest studio on the block, but it was far from the weakest. Loew’s, Inc., Metro Pictures Incorporated, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (without its founder, Samuel Goldwyn), and Louis B. Mayer pooled their energies and resources to create a studio that immediately joined the first rank. In its initial year of business, M-G-M realized a profit of more than $4.7 million, trailing Paramount alone in this regard. The former Goldwyn lot in Culver City was equipped to produce a steady stream of movies designed to satisfy the extensive Loew’s theatre chain. Among the studio’s proven stars were Lon Chaney, Alice Terry, Buster Keaton, Mae Murray, Blanche Sweet, John Gilbert, and Marion Davies. Its roster of directors included Fred Niblo, Rex Ingram, King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. The dynamic chief, Louis B. Mayer, and his head of production, the young and creative Irving Thalberg, supervised the vast operation that was M-G-M, a studio destined to become, under their leadership, the most potent and prosperous in the history of the movies. Mayer undoubtedly believed that the Gish name would sell movie tickets. But he also had a fond memory of how much The Birth ofa Nation had meant to his initial success in the movie business. He had made a fortune on his down payment of $20,000 for the New England rights to exhibit Griffith’s landmark film. Mayer, Thalberg, and Nicholas Schenck were so eager to bring Lillian to M-G-M that she was able negotiate an enviable contract, signed on May 12, 1925. Although lacking her much-desired provision for a percentage of the profits, in every other way it showed how highly the studio valued Lillian’s services, which became theirs exclusively for two years. Her salary of $800,000 was posited on making six pictures, with the possibility of a seventh. Several clauses in the contract indicate the degree of respect Lillian commanded. She was not required to make personal appearances or do any promotional work. (This clause came in handy when she was able to refuse the studio’s request to put her name on candy boxes.) Even more surprising, she was guaranteed consultation on the selection of her stories, directors, and cast. Although the studio reserved for itself the final decision, this degree of star power and input was unusual. And despite Lillian’s recent notoriety, there was no morals clause in the contract.
Lillian was apprehensive about the burden the contract placed on her. With the memory of Romola’s excessive production cost fresh in her mind, she feared that her high salary would inflate the budgets of her M-G-M movies, thereby inhibiting their profitability. And despite the claims of star status Lillian’s attorney made in the Duell trial, this practical, clear-eyed woman must have known that she was far less popular than Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford. Others certainly knew it: “Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an actress. The public is slow to appreciate great art. She must have been heartened when the writer went on to predict “a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.” Neither he nor Lillian could have dreamed how prescient he in fact was.
Excerpt from “Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life” by Charles Affron
Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary is a reference book designed primarily for use by students, historians, film critics, and film enthusiasts. The entries are arranged alphabetically and include biographical information, critical essay, selected filmography, and selected bibliographic information. Filmmakers were chosen on the basis of availability of information.
GISH, LILLIAN (1896-1993). United States. Lillian Gish is well known as an early screen actress who worked closely in collaboration with D. W. Griffith. Born in Springfield, Ohio, Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy Gish, are perhaps the best-known screen actresses from the silent film period. Lillian Gish usually played the victimized heroine in early Griffith films, the embodiment of Victorian notions of feminine sexual purity and, as Richard Dyer notes, the essence of “whiteness.” Gish starred in The Mothering Heart (1913), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), and many more films until 1987, when she acted in The Whales of August. Gish may have been passive in front of the camera in her early roles, but she was active behind the camera and behind the scenes on many of her films. She not only was active as a producer and collaborator but also directed one film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920).
D. W. Griffith was initially slated to direct Remodeling Her Husband, starring Dorothy Gish, but at the last moment, for reasons that are still obscure, Griffith turned the direction of the film over to Lillian Gish. Dorothy Gish herself chose the story for the film, which was based on a cartoon in a magazine depicting a husband’s dissatisfaction with his wife’s appearance. Dorothy Parker wrote the comic subtitles for the film, which was her first Hollywood writing job. Unfortunately, Remodeling Her Husband appears to be a lost film, but if the plotline of the cartoon upon which the film is based is any indication, Remodeling Her Husband is a feminist critique of patriarchal gender expectations. The idea of making such a film must have attracted the Gish sisters, who were well aware of their iconic status as the quintessentially objectified women of the silent cinema. Remodeling Her Husband is a clever comedic subversion of male and female codes of beauty, which includes a scene of the leading man’s having his nails filed at a barbershop. Dorothy Parker’s subtitle for the scene reads, The divinity that shapes our ends,” a typical Parkeresque jab at masculine pomposity.
Remodeling Her Husband depicts an unfaithful husband whose wife goes to work to punish him for his actions. It seems appropriate that the Gish sisters, the penultimate screen “beauties,” irreverently mocked male attitudes so blatantly in Remodeling Her Husband. The film was a critical and box-office success. Budgeted at $50,000, the film made over $460,000 and was one of Gish’s most successful comedies. Despite this acclaim, after Remodeling Her Husband, Gish said she “never wanted to direct another film” (Gish, 226).
Lillian Gish describes the making of the film in detail in The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Not only was Gish responsible for directing Remodeling Her Husband in the winter of 1919, but Griffith also left her in charge of building a studio in his absence, while he went on location to shoot another film in Florida. Perhaps if Gish had not been saddled with the excess responsibility of overseeing construction on top of directing her first film, she may not have turned completely against the idea of film directing. Instead, Gish returned to acting and had one of the most famous and long-running careers in Hollywood. In 1970***, she earned the Academy Award for her Life Achievement in films. She was also awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984. Gish pioneered “naturalistic” acting and leaves a formidable legacy in motion picture history. It seems odd that Gish’s one feminist directorial effort is lost, given the fervor with which Griffith is obsessively archived by film historians. ***
Remodeling Her Husband (1920)
*** 1971 – Academy Awards, USA – Honorary Award – For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.
*** Kindly search this website with the key word “remodeling”. The results are conclusive.
“I am so glad of this opportunity to talk with all my fan friends,” laughed Lillian Gish. “I is a treat to tell you all of my real thoughts, and how I actually live, instead of having people judge me by my expression on the motion picture screen, I hope you’ll find that I am not the ‘tragic flower’ the magazines say I am. First of all, I am not frail.”
“My engagement for motion pictures was quite by accident. Years ago Mary Pickford and her mother, and Dorothy, Mother, and myself shared an apartment in New York City as a matter of economy. Mary secured an engagement with the Biograph Company and one day out of curiosity I went down to the studio to see her work. Mr. Griffith was directing a picture at the time. He saw both Dorothy and myself and evidently thought we might become successful screen players.”
She is a girl of nature, loves flowers, particularly roses, and can be seen almost any day trimming the vines and hedges or raking the grass about her home. She has been called the “delicate flower” in the Griffith tapestries, but she is probably one of the most self-sustaining bodies in filmdom. She needs no helping hand to change her costumes and house dresses.
“The Little Movie Mirror Books” featuring Lillian Gish.
Victor Seastrom’s eight American films are a remarkable showcase of Swedish temperament and extroverted puritanism. The best of them are so stark and austere that, if it weren’t for the presence of Lillian Gish, Garbo, and other Hollywood names, they could pass as Swedish imports. Many of them seem interrelated, particularly Name the Man (based on a Hall Caine novel of sin and perhaps excessive redemption) and the beautifully photographed and acted The Scarlet Letter (based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, which could be described in identical terms). Lars Hanson’s impressive but far too stylized acting (in The Scarlet Letter in particular, though also in The Wind, in both of which “grand manner” acting is in marked contrast to the subtle and graceful underplaying of Lillian Gish), further stresses the “non-American” quality of these films.
Nevertheless, on the whole, Seastrom’s American career can be considered a success. The Scarlet Letter ( 1926 ) was undoubtedly his masterpiece, an adaptation of the Hawthorne novel, in which the stark, puritanical fervor of the original novel was matched by the austere echoes of Scandinavian cinema. Even though the scenario somewhat muted and romanticized Hawthorne’s original, Lars Hanson’s extremely stylized playing and Hendrik Sartov’s superb camerawork, full of delicate pictorial symbolism, restored the balance. Lillian Gish’s mature and sensitive performance, in a role that was a far cry from the Victorian innocents that she had played for Griffith, was superb.
Gish, Hanson, and Seastrom were reunited by MGM for The Wind, a strange amalgamation of themes and elements from Greed, White Gold, and traditional westerns. A bizarre, shapeless affair, devoid of any real sense of period ( even Lillian Gish’s costuming seemed to exist in a vacuum ) , it was a monumental example of talent triumphing over scenario. Even changing the original tragic ending (in which the Gish character goes insane and wanders off into the desert) to a happy one (she kills the villain who has earlier raped her, buries his body in the desert, and is reunited with her previously estranged husband ) seemed not to affect the film, except perhaps for its commercial betterment. The plot, though based on a 1925 story, seemed too old-fashioned and erratic to be taken seriously, and the switch from tragedy to happiness hardly represented a box-office sellout. The atmospheric photography (John Arnold),
Seastrom’s beautifully underplayed direction (the killing scene was a brilliant essay in suggestion, the whole act of the body falling to the floor being conveyed by a shot of a dust-laden plate jarring, and resettling), and the superb control exercised by Lillian Gish over potentially flamboyant theatrics, all represented the silk purse of silent screen art at its peak, despite the sow’s ear on which it was squandered. Commercially, he was able to fall back on Hollywood stars (Gish, Chaney, Shearer, Gilbert, Garbo) to counteract his somewhat austere style. And in any case, while Swedish directorial styles (many of which derived from the German cinema) were not exactly emulated by other Hollywood directors, lesser imported directors like Sven Gade, and the use of Scandinavian-oriented material as vehicles for Swedish stars (Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil, from a Suderman story, starring Garbo, Gilbert, and Hanson, is a case in point), did tend to make the Swedish point of view, if not commonplace, then at least visible. Seastrom’s Hollywood career was certainly more successful than Stiller’s.
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.
“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”
Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”
“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”
I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?
“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”