Film pioneer and Oscar-winning actress Lillian Gish proudly hung a painting of her cousin President Zachary Taylor in her living room to commemorate her relationship to the hero of the Mexican War, without whom the United States wouldn’t have California or Hollywood.
Zachary Taylor almost didn’t accept the nomination to be president while he was fighting in Mexico, because the letter sent to notify him arrived postage due, and he refused to accept it!
Incumbent President James Polk, alarmed that he would lose the election to Taylor (who was winning battle after battle in Mexico), used dirty tricks that would make Nixon look like a choirboy. He reduced the size of Taylor’s army, hoping he would be defeated in battle. However, Taylor still managed, although greatly outnumbered, to soundly defeat the Mexican general Santa Anna at the Battle of Buena Vista, and that victory swept him into the White House. As a point of interest, a street in Los Angeles named after that battle later became the home of Walt Disney Studios, and today various subdivisions of the company bear the name Buena Vista.
Noteworthy: Lillian Gish’s ancestor, the Reverend Benjamin Gish, went west with the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, the grandfather of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and settled in Abilene, Texas.
“Sometimes Mother took us to the national cemeteries, and we looked for the names of our ancestors on tombstones. Among Mother’s ancestors were English who came to America in 1632; the head of the family, Francis Barnard, decided to settle in Hadley, Massachusetts. His descendants intermarried with Scots, Frenchmen, and Irishmen. By the time Mother was born, the McConnells had migrated to Ohio. Mother’s maternal grandfather was Samuel Robinson, a state senator and influential Ohio politician.
Our father was James Leigh Gish. When we were older, we learned that Professor J. I. Hamaker, who taught biology at Randolph-Macon College and whose mother was a Gish, was writing a book, Mathjas Gish of White Oaks. The Professor traced the family back to 1733, when Mathias first settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When I asked him once if we had lowered the family standards by becoming actresses, he replied: “Oh, that’s all right.
I’m only bringing it up to the time of your grandmother, Diana Waltz Gish.”
There were so many family names to remember: McConnell, Ward, Robinson, Taylor, Nims, Barnard, Waltz. Our Great-Aunt Carrie Robinson was always interested in the past, and she told us about our ancestor Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President of the United States. All those names were sometimes confusing.
Mother, for instance, was originally Mary Robinson McConnell, later Mrs. James Leigh Gish. When she first went on the stage, she did not want to disgrace her family by using their real names, so she took the name of Mae Barnard. Dorothy and I were usually billed as “Baby” Something or even as “Herself,” much as a dog or cat would be identified on the program.
But the little girl whose face looked back at me from the train window knew who she was.
She was Lillian Diana Gish.
Mother and her sister, our Aunt Emily, were left motherless quite young. Their Aunt Carrie and Uncle Homer took Emily, and Mother remained with Grandfather McConnell. She was feminine and pretty, with a high, rounded forehead and delicate features. She was sensitive and took after her grandmother Emily Ward, the poet. Our father, James Leigh Gish, clerked for a wholesale grocery firm in Springfield, Ohio. On a business trip to Urbana, he met Mother. He was handsome, his features regular, his eyes blue, his skin and hair even fairer than Mother’s were. They were immediately attracted to each other and were married soon after. He was only twenty, and she was eighteen.
Father left his job and with his savings bought a small confectionery business in Springfield. The young couple was living with Grandmother Gish at the time of my birth, a little more than a year later. I was born with a caul, which Grandmother Gish said would bring me luck. My life did not begin with much promise, however; at three weeks I had an attack of membrane croup. When I was about a year old, Father decided that he would do better in the candy business in Dayton, and it was there that Dorothy was born. If Mother was anxious about my health, she must have been considerably cheered by her second born, who was, in the words of her adoring family, “a dimpled darling.” Relatives who remembered us as babies have told me that I had ash blond hair, very pale skin, and a fragile body.
Dorothy’s curls were reddish blonde, and, although her skin was pale, she did not freckle as I did. Memories of Mother and Father together are few. I do remember waking up one night to see them standing over my bed. They were evidently going to a party. Mother was in red satin with a long train. Father in a dark suit. They looked so beautiful that the image has not entirely faded from my memory even now. Father was gay and lively; he loved people and gatherings. Mother, with her taste and beauty, charmed everyone who met her. I believe they were happy then. While we were still living with Grandmother Gish, I developed a habit that annoyed my father. Whenever a grownup left his chair. Father could never stay in one place for very long. Whether this restlessness was caused by a gypsy temperament or by a fear of being unable to fulfill his responsibilities was not clear to Mother. We moved from Dayton to Baltimore, where he went into partnership with a Mr. Edward Meixner, again in the candy business. But after two years of Baltimore Father again yearned for fresh horizons. Selling his share of the business to his partner, he set out to find the better life in New York City. Mother remained behind, working for Mr. Meixner. She had a flair for packaging, but unfortunately profits were not enough to support two families. Father sent her money but not enough. She decided to go to New York.
In New York Mother rented a flat on West Thirty-Ninth Street near Pennsylvania Station. She found a job as a demonstrator in a Brooklyn department store, bought furniture “on time,” and rented a room to two young actresses. I cannot recall Father being with us immediately, but he was there for a time. I still remember his fair hair and golden beard. He had evidently lost his job, yet Mother managed. I marvel now at her strength. She was not twenty-five, yet she worked to support us, laundered and mended our clothes, and sewed until late in the night—all the while creating an atmosphere of serenity and love. She made all the clothes we wore. Dorothy and I played on the streets, sometimes joining other children, other times watching the organ grinder and his fascinating monkey. Mother had bought some rather shoddy maple bedroom furniture, obligating herself to pay the furniture company $3 a week. A darkbrowed individual known to us as “the Collector” appeared each week to pick up the money, which Mother left with Father. One day, when Dorothy and I were cutting out paper dolls in the dining room, a couple of men arrived and repossessed the bedroom pieces. Father had evidently taken the money and put it to other uses. He disappeared from our lives shortly afterward, although for the next few years he did appear at various times and places when we were on the road. Once, I remember, he was wearing a Van Dyke beard, a cape, and a flowing tie. Perhaps he thought that this theatrical attire would appeal to Mother. He would talk about coming back so that we could be a complete family again, but she would reply that she had tried it too many times to be fooled again. Sometimes he would threaten to take one or both of us with him. Our greatest fear was of being taken away from Mother. She gave us security, Father insecurity. As I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God. Somehow, through exposure to insecurity, you learn to do for yourself and not to count on the other fellow to do it for you. Wherever Mother was there was love, peace, and sympathy, yet without insecurity the blessings Mother offered might have left our characters weak and helpless.
One evening during one of those periods when Father was not with us, Dolores Lome, a young actress, comforted Mother: “Mary, you work for so little money. With your looks, you should be on the stage. I bet Proctor’s could use you. With luck, you could do well—and educate your children properly.” That was how Mother became an actress. She found work as the ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company in New York for $15 a week. Evenings she tucked us into bed before going off to the theater. I can still vaguely see a small room with a table, chairs, and a mattress placed on the floor to protect us from bumps in case we fell out of bed. On matinee days she took us to her dressing room, where we played quietly while she was on stage.
Then one day an actress friend of hers, Alice Niles, came backstage and told Mother that she had been offered a good part in a touring company.
“The only hitch,” she said, “is that I must find a little girl to play with me. What about Lillian? She’s just the right age.” I was five years old at the time. Mother was reluctant at first, but Alice persisted. She pointed out that my salary would be $10 a week and that I could live on 3. The savings would certainly be enough to tide us over the summer when Proctor’s did not operate. Besides, she promised, she would personally look after me; I would be safe with “Aunt” Alice. Her arguments finally prevailed.
It was, oddly enough, a great period for children in the theater. In most melodramas the heroine had a child or two or perhaps a little sister. Not much was demanded of the children; few of the roles were speaking parts of any consequence. Not long after I went on the road with my first play, Dorothy found her first acting job. Mother wrote me that Dolores Lome had taken Dorothy to play Little Willie in East Lynne. The Gish sisters were on the road.
(Excerpts from “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” by Lillian Gish)
The first actors in my consciousness were movie stars. When I was a youngster growing up in St. Louis, grade school was little more than a week-long respite between movies. An ideal weekend meant being allowed to go to the movies Friday night, Saturday matinee, Saturday night and Sunday matinee. So many movies seen and since forgotten.
Because actors are storytellers foremost, what follows is a veritable cornucopia of stories … stories about naiveté and insecurity, about choices made and lessons learned. Stories lived and now shared.
So it is with actors. They don’t need me to rationalize their existence; let them speak for themselves. (Dennis Brown)
Read the “Lillian Gish” section from chapter five below:
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.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data 1985
Illustrated with photographs from the Film Stills Archives of The Museum of Modern Art, Bedside Hollywood adds up to an in-depth portrait of life in the movies. As new screen memoirs appear—nearly a dozen every year—perhaps the time has come for the film industry to establish a new category at the Academy Awards Ceremony: the Oscar for Best Autobiography. Until Oscar catches up, settle down with the cast of Bedside Hollywood and mingle with what would have been the previous winners.
Lillian Gish: The Birth of “The Birth of a Nation”
One afternoon during the spring of 1914, while we were still working in California, Mr. Griffith took me aside on the set and said in an undertone, “After the others leave tonight, would you please stay.”
Later, as some of the company drifted out, I realized that a simillar message had been given to a few others. This procedure was typical of Mr. Griffith when he was planning a new film. He observed us with a smile, amused perhaps by our curiosity over the mystery that he had created.
I suspected what the meeting was about. A few days before, we had been having lunch at The White Kitchen, and I had noticed that his pockets were crammed with papers and pamphlets. My curiosity was aroused, but it would have been presumptuous of me to ask about them. With Mr. Griffith one did not ask; one only answered. Besides, I had learned that if I waited long enough he would tell me.
“I’ve bought a book by Thomas Dixon, called The Clansman. I’m going to use it to tell the truth about the War between the States. It hasn’t been told accurately in history books. Only the winning side in a war ever gets to tell its story.” He paused, watching the cluster of actors: Henry Walthall, Spottiswoode Aiken, Bobby Harron, Mae Marsh, Miriam Cooper, Elmer Clifton, George Siegmann, Walter Long, and me.
“The story concerns two families—the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South.” He added significantly, “I know I can trust you.”
He swore us to secrecy, and to us his caution was understandable. Should his competitors learn of his new project, they would have films on the same subject completed before his work was released. He discussed his story plots freely only over lunch or dinner, often testing them out on me because I was close-mouthed and never repeated what anyone told me.
I heard later that “Daddy” Woods [Griffith’s scenario department head] had called Mr. Griffith’s attention to The Clansman. It had done well as a book and even better as a play, touring the country for five years. Mr. Griffith also drew on The Leopard’s Spots for additional material for the new movie. Thomas Dixon, the author of both works, was a southerner who had been a college classmate of Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Griffith paid a $2,500 option for The Clansman, and it was agreed that Dixon was to receive $10,000 in all for the story, but when it came time to pay him no more money was available. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to accept instead of cash a 25 per cent interest in the picture, which resulted in the largest sum any author ever received for a motion-picture story. Dixon earned several million dollars as his share.
Mr. Griffith didn’t need the Dixon book. His intention was to tell his version of the War between the States. But he evidently lacked the confidence to start production on a twelve-reel film without an established book as a basis for his story. After the film was completed and he had shown it to the so-called author, Dixon said: “This isn’t my book at all.” But Mr. Griffith was glad to use Dixon’s name on the film as author, for, as he told me, “The public hates you if it thinks you wrote, directed, and produced the entire film yourself. It’s the quickest way to make enemies.”
After the first rehearsal, the pace increased. Mr. Griffith worked, as usual, without a script. But this time his pockets bulged with books, maps, and pamphlets, which he read during meals and the rare breaks in his hectic schedule. I rehearsed whatever part Mr. Griffith wanted to see at the moment. My sister and I had been the last to join the company, and we naturally supposed that the major assignments would go to the older members of the group. For a while, it looked as if I would be no more than an extra. But during one rehearsal Blanche Sweet, who we suspected would play the romantic part of Elsie Stoneman, was missing. Mr. Griffith pointed to me.
“Come on, Miss Damnyankee, let’s see what you can do with Elsie.”
My thin figure was quite a contrast to Blanche’s ripe, full form. Mr. Griffith had us rehearse the near-rape scene between Elsie and Silas Lynch, the power-drunk mulatto in the film. George Siegmann was playing Lynch in blackface. In this scene Lynch proposes to Elsie and, when she rebuffs him, forces his attentions on her. During the hysterical chase around the room, the hairpins flew out of my hair, which tumbled below my waist as Lynch held my fainting body in his arms. I was very blonde and fragile-looking. The contrast with the dark man evidently pleased Mr. Griffith, for he said in front of everyone, “Maybe she would be more effective than the more mature figure I had in mind.”
He didn’t tell us then, but I think the role was mine from that moment. . . .
During his six years with Biograph, Mr. Griffith had taken strides toward his ultimate goal: filming his version of the Civil War. He had made a number of early pictures that touched on the War between the States. But it was soon obvious to everyone that this film was to be his most important statement yet. Billy Bitzer [Griffith’s master cameraman] wrote of that time: ‘The Birth of a Nation changed D. W Griffith’s personality entirely. Where heretofore he was wont to refer in starting on a new picture to ‘grinding out another sausage’ and go at it lightly, his attitude in beginning on this one was all eagerness. He acted like here we have something worthwhile.”
Although fact and legend were familiar to him, he did meticulous research for The Birth. The first half of The Birth, about the war itself, reflects his own point of view. I know that he also relied greatly on Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Mathew Brady’s Civil War Photographs: Confederate and Union Veterans—Eyewitnesses on Location; the Nicolay and Hay Abraham Lincoln: A History; and The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict 1861—1865. For the second half, about Reconstruction, he consulted Thomas Dixon, and A History of the American People by Woodrow Wilson. President Wilson had taught history before going into politics, and Mr. Griffith had great respect for his erudition. For Klan material, he drew on a book called Ku Klux Klan—Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment by John C. Lester and D. L. Wilson. But he did not use the uniform that is worn by Klan members today. Instead he used the costumes that, according to Thomas Dixon, were worn by the earlier Klans—white and scarlet flowing robes with hood and mask to hide the features of rider and horse.
Bradys photographs were constantly consulted, and Mr. Griffith restaged many moments of history with complete fidelity to them. The photographs were used as guides for such scenes as Lees surrender at Appomattox, the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Shermans march to the sea. He telegraphed a newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, for photographs of the interior of the state capitol, which held a majority of Negro representatives after the war, and constructed the legislative chamber according to the photographs.
The largest interior was Fords Theater, the setting of the assassination scene, which was done in one day on the lot. So great was Mr. Griffiths obsession with authenticity that he unearthed a copy of Our American Cousin, which had been performed at Fords Theater on the night of the assassination, and restaged parts of it. In the actual filming, as Raoul Walsh, gun ready, steals into the Presidential box, the lines being spoken on the replica of the stage are precisely those spoken at the fateful moment on the night of April 14, 1865. This fidelity to facts was an innovation in films.
Mr. Griffith knew the terrain of the battle fields, and he hired several Civil War veterans to scout locations similar to the original ones. After exploring the southern California country, they chose what later became the Universal lot for the countryside around Petersburg, Virginia, site of the last prolonged siege and final battle of the war.
He had studied maps of the major battles of the Civil War and, with the help of the veterans, laid out the battle fields. Trenches, breastworks, roads, brooks, and buildings were constructed to duplicate those of the actual battle fields. Troop movements were planned with the advice of the veterans and two men from Vest Point Military Academy. Civil War artillery was obtained from West Point and the Smithsonian Institution, for use when the camera was close.
Mr. Griffith also sent to the Smithsonian for historical records and then went over the documents with his advisers. But in the end he came to his own conclusions about historical facts. He would never take the opinion of only one man as final.
The street in Piedmont on which the Cameron house was located was complete with brick walls and hitching and lamp posts. A small set, it achieved scope from violated perspective—an old stage technique in which each successive house and street lamp is a little shorter, so that the setting seems to “recede” without actually taking up much space or requiring the use of expensive lumber.
We had no stage designer, only the modest genius of a carpenter, Frank Wortman, known as “Huck.” Huck, a short, rather heavyset man in his forties, with friendly blue eyes and a weakness for chewing tobacco, didn’t talk much, but listened intently to Mr. Griffith. Even before rehearsals started Mr. Griffith explained to him what he wanted in the way of sets. He would show Huck a photograph that he wanted copied, or point out changes to be made in the reproduction. They would decide how the sun would hit a particular building three, four, even five weeks from then.
Men during the Civil War era were rather small in stature (it was before the age of proper nutrition), so genuine uniforms could not be used by the later generation. Uniforms for The Birth were therefore made by a small struggling company, which has since become the famous Western Costume Company.
The Brady photographs also served as models for the soldiers’ hair styles.
To absorb the spirit of the film, we came down with a case of history nearly as intense as Mr. Griffith’s. At first, between making other films during the day and rehearsing The Birth at night, we had scant time for reading. But Mr. Griffith’s interest was contagious, and we began to read about the period. Soon it was the only subject we talked about. Mr. Griffith didn’t ask us to do this; it stemmed out of our own interest. We pored over photographs of the Civil War and Godeys Ladies’ Book, a periodical of the nineteenth century, for costumes, hair styles, and postures. We had to rehearse how to sit and how to move in the hoop skirts of the day.
My costumes were specially made. One of them had a tiny derby with a high plume. When I saw it, I rebelled.
But Mr. Griffith insisted that I wear it. He wanted the audience to be amused. “It’s a darb!” he said, smiling.
In filming the battles, Mr. Griffith organized the action like a general. He stood at the top of a forty-foot tower, the commander-in-chief of both armies, his powerful voice, like Roarin Jake’s, thundering commands through a megaphone to his staff of assistants. Meetings were called before each major filmed sequence and a chain of command was developed from Mr. Griffith through his directors and their assistants. The last-in-command might have only four or five extras under him. These men, wearing uniforms and taking their places among the extras, also played parts in the film.
Griffith s camera was high on the platform looking down on the battle field, so that he could obtain a grand sweep of the action. This camera took the long shots. Hidden under bushes or in back of trees were cameras for closeups.
When the din of cannons, galloping horses, and charging men grew too great, no human voice, not even Mr. Griffiths, was powerful enough to be heard. Some of the extras were stationed as far as two miles from the camera. So a series of magnifying mirrors was used to flash signals to those actors working a great distance away. Each group of men had its number—one flash of the mirror for the first group, two for the second group, and so on. As group one started action, the mirror would flash a go- ahead to group two.
Care was taken to place the authentic old guns and the best horsemen in the first ranks. Other weapons, as well as poorer horsemen, were relegated to the background. Extras were painstakingly drilled in their parts until they knew when to charge, when to push cannons forward, when to fall.
Some of the artillery was loaded with real shells, and elaborate warnings were broadcast about their range of fire. Mr. GriflBth’s sense of order and control made it possible for the cast and extras to survive the broiling heat, pounding hoofs, naked bayonets, and exploding shells without a single injury. He was too thoughtful to the welfare of others to permit accidents.
In most war films it is difficult to distinguish between the enemies unless the film is in color and the two sides are wearing different-colored uniforms. But not in a Griffith movie. Mr. Griffith had the rare technical skill to keep each side distinct and clear cut. In The Birth, the Confederate army always entered from the left of the camera, the Union army from the right.
One day he said to Billy, “I want to show a whole army moving.”
“What do you mean, a whole army?” Bitzer asked.
“Everyone we can muster.”
“I’ll have to move them back to get them all in view,” Billy said. “They won’t look much bigger than jackrabbits.”
“That’s all right. The audience will supply the details. Let’s move up on this hill, Billy. Then we can shoot the whole valley and all the troops at once.”
They never talked much, but they always seemed to understand each other. People around Mr. Griffith didn’t bother him with idle talk.
When daylight disappeared, Mr. Griffith would order bonfires lit and film some amazing night scenes. Billy was pessimistic about the results; he kept insisting that they would be unsuccessful. But Mr. Griffith persisted. One big battle scene was filmed at night. The sub-title was to read, “It went on into the night.” Nothing like it had ever been seen before. Those of us who had time were there—the women to watch, the men to help.
Although everything was carefully organized, whenever he saw a spontaneous gesture that looked good—like the soldier’s leaning on his gun and looking at me during the hospital scene—he would call Billy over to film it.
In that scene, the wards were filled with wounded soldiers, and in the background nurses and orderlies attended their patients. In the doorway of the ward stood a Union sentry. As Elsie Stoneman, I was helping to entertain the wounded, singing and playing the banjo. The sentry watehed me lovingly as I sang and then, after I had finished and was passing him, raised his hang-dog head and heaved a deep, love sick sigh. The scene lasted only a minute, but it drew the biggest laugh of the film and became one of its best-remembered moments.
The scene came about in typical Griffith fashion. We players had no one to help us with our costumes. We had to carry our various changes to the set, as we could not afford the time to run back to our dressing rooms. Those period dresses, with their full skirts over hoops, were heavy. A kind young man who liked me helped me with my props and costumes. The young man, William Freeman, was playing the sentry, and he simply stood there, listening, as I sang. Seeing his expression, Mr. Griffith said to Bitzer, “Billy, get that picture on film right away.” He knew that it would bring a laugh, which was needed to break the dramatic tension.
Since the release of The Birth of a Nation, I have often been asked by fans what happened to the sentry in the hospital. After The Birth was finished, I didn’t see William Freeman again until the first World’s Fair in New York. It was the day of the Fair’s closing. I happened to be riding on a float for charity, and there, walking toward the float, was William Freeman. I recognized him immediately.
“My son is here,” he said after we had greeted each other. “I would like you to meet him.”
He disappeared into the crowd and returned shortly with a bright four-year-old, whom he proudly introduced to me. Then we said goodbye, and I haven’t seen him since. . . .
In going through Mr. Griffith’s papers recently, I came across some “facts” about The Birth of a Nation that read like most press releases of that day. Robert Edgar Long, in his soft-cover book David Wark Griffith: A Brief Sketch of His Career, published in 1920, suggests that professors of history from at least a half-dozen universities were called upon for facts and figures, so that no errors would mar the film’s authenticity. He says that Mr. Griffith had plans to shoot some 5,000 scenes; to use 18,000 men as soldiers; to make 18,000 Union and Confederate uniforms for these men; to hire 3,000 horses; to build entire cities and destroy them by fire; to buy real shells that cost $10 apiece in order to re-enact the greatest battle of the Civil War; and to select fragments from about 500 separate musical compositions to synchronize perfectly with various scenes. Many scenes, he says, were photographed from fifteen to twenty times before Mr. Griffith was pleased with the results. He adds that the scene of Lincoln’s assassination was rehearsed at least twenty times before it was actually filmed.
I know that in later years Mr. Griffith himself was prone to exaggerations that were a press agent’s dream. Perhaps he too believed that these gross overstatements and inaccuracies would enhance the film’s prestige.
It seems to me, however, that the truth is a much finer tribute to Mr. Griffith’s skill. In the battle scenes there were never more than 300 to 500 extras. By starting with a close-up and then moving the camera back from the scene, which gave the illusion of depth and distance, and by having the same soldiers run around quickly to make a second entrance, Mr. Griffith created the impression of big armies. In the battles, clouds of smoke rising from the thickets gave the illusion of many soldiers camouflaged by the woods, although in actuality there were only a few.
The scene of Sherman s march to the sea opened with an iris shot—a small area in the upper left-hand corner of a black screen—of a mother holding her weeping children amid the ruins of a burned-out house. Slowly the iris opened wider to reveal a great panorama troops, wagons, fires, apd beyond, in the distance, Atlanta burning. Atlanta was actually a model, superimposed on the film.
The entire industry, always intensely curious about Mr. Griffith, was speculating about this new film. What was that crazy man Griffith up to? He was using the full repertoire of his earlier experiments and adding new ones. He tinted film to achieve dramatic results and to create mood. In the battle scene at Petersburg, the shots of Union and Confederate troops rushing in to replace the dead and wounded are tinted red, and the subtitle reads “In the red lane of death others take their places.” And, at the climax of the film, there were the thrilling rides of the Klan. These riders were beautifully handled—first, the signal riders galloping to give warning; then, one by one and two by two, the galloping hordes merging into a white hooded mass, their peaked helmets and fiery crosses making them resemble knights of a crusade.
Before the filming of this scene Mr. Griffith decided to try a new kind of shot. He had a hole dug in the road directly in the path of the horsemen. There he placed Billy and the camera, and obtained shots of the horses approaching and galloping right over the camera, so that the audience could see the pounding hoofs. This shot has since become standard, but then it was the first time it had been done, and the effect was spectacular. Billy came through safely, and so did his precious camera, as Mr. Griffith must have known it would. He would never have taken a chance with a camera; it was far too costly.
Among the obstacles that cropped up during the filming was a lack of muslin needed for Klan uniforms. There was also a shortage of horses for battle scenes. Both were war scarcities. When the war in Europe broke out, the Allies were rounding up horses and shipping them to France. Mr. Griffith found himself in competition with French, English, Russian, and Italian agents, all in search of horses. Acting as his own agent, he was obliged to rent horses at higher prices from a dealer in the West.
We had outstanding riders like the Bums Brothers, who led the Klan riders and supervised any scene involving horses. Henry Walthall was a superb horseman, as were some of the other actors. The cowboy and circus riders beneath the Ku Klux sheets did a superb job. In the mob scenes they reared their horses until clouds mushroomed, but not one of them was hurt.
What I liked most about working on The Birth was the horses. I could always borrow a horse from the set, and during my lunch hour I would canter off alone to the hills.
I saw everything that Mr. Griffith put on film. My role in The Birth required about three weeks’ work, but I was on call during the whole time that it was being filmed. I was in the studio every day—working on other films, being available for the next scene if needed, making myself useful in any way that was required.
My dressing room was just across the hall from the darkroom, where Jimmy Smith and Joe Aller worked. Whenever I had a few minutes I would join them, watching them develop the film and cut it. I would view the day’s rushes and tell Jimmy my reactions to them. I saw the effects that Mr. Griffith obtained with his views of marching men, the ride of the Klan, the horrors of war. Watching these snatches of film was like trying to read a book whose pages had been shuffled. There was neither order nor continuity. Here was a touching bit from a scene with Mae; there was a long shot of a battle. It made me realize the job that Mr. Griffith had ahead of him after the filming was done.
The shooting was completed in nine weeks, but Mr. Griffith spent more than three months on cutting, editing and working on the musical score. I still remember how hard he worked on other films during the day and then at night on The Birth. Of all his pictures up to that time, none was more beset with difficulties. Without his spirit and faith, it might never have been completed.
Lillian Gish talks to Howard Lockhart about herself and the early days of the movies.
She has been called “the first lady of the silent screen,” and film director D.W. Griffith extolled her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She was Lillian Gish, the star of movies, television, radio, and the stage for nearly all of the 20th century.
It Takes All Sorts
A series in which you meet interesting and unusual people from all walks of life
New York and South Brunswick: A. S. Barnes and Company London: The Tantivy Press
The true achievement of Hollywood is only now being acknowledged. For years the prodigious output of the major studios and producers was damned with faint praise by the pundits. But during the past decade a reassessment has taken place. Critics as well as thousands of film buffs are aware of the enormous influence Hollywood has exerted on the social fabric not only of the US, but of the world.
At its best — in the work of Lillian Gish or Garbo or Barthelmess or Keaton or in unpredictable flashes of brilliance in Valentino — screen acting for silent films had developed into an art, new and unique, which was lost when pictures spoke. Actors were obliged to develop new means of expression. The silent actors were serious about their work. Lillian Gish starved for days before she shot the fmal scene of La Bohéme. Mary Pickford studied to achieve the deportment of a girl who had spent her youth carrying smaller children about. Their methods of innervation, of working themselves into the mood and feeling of a role had all the intensity and sincerity of the Stanislavski studios. Mack Sennett re-called that Mabel Normand “‘insisted on working on a stage to the accompaniment of the loudest jazz syncopation the record library could provide.
A film of immense formative importance in the history of the cinema, Intolerance was never a commercial success; and Griffith spent many years painfully restoring debts the film had incurred. In 1917 he had gone to Europe to make Hearts of the World, a film intended originally to help bring America into the war, but which appeared only a few months before the Armistice in 1918. One more film, now entirely lost, The Great Love, about the galvanising of pre-war social butterflies into the war effort, completed his war-time activity. In the meantime he had become a successful producer of, among other films, the series of light comedies starring Dorothy Gish. It is worth recalling Griffith’s past career at this length in order to assess his stock at the end of the war. He had enjoyed an international prestige equalled by no one else in the cinema. He had created his own artistic medium — the paramount means of expression of the twentieth century. He had created the cinema’s first universally recognised masterpieces. At the same time he was no business man and he was burdened with the debts incurred by Intolerance (the Wark Producing Company was to go bankrupt in 1921). He was, at bottom, inseparably wedded to the nineteenth century — its literature, its drama, its tastes and its morals. He was on the verge of being overtaken by the cinema which he had done so much to create, by the post-war world in which at first he stood as a giant. His situation is summed up by Mrs. Eileen Bowser in her supplement to the Museum of Modern Art’s mono-graph: “Brought up in poverty and without adequate education, Griffith had aspirations to be a great writer, in particular a great playwright. Now he was hailed as the Shakespeare of the screen and he walked with the great of his time, the wealthy and the socially prominent. Although he knew that he had poured his heart into The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he must have been a bit bewildered to have achieved such success in the medium he had originally despised. His was an intuitive genius, and fame made him self-conscious. His deliberate striving for artistic excellence or for popularity in his later films led him at times to descend into mannerism. The financial failure of Intolerance made him painfully aware of the need to cater more to popular taste, yet he was never sure of what popular taste was.”
But for the moment he had confidence, prestige and a great actress, Lillian Gish. A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s first post-war release, was evidently a relaxation, a return to the simple anecdotes of Biograph days and to the Kentucky of his boyhood memory. Lillian Gish has said that it is impossible to evaluate Griffith without knowing his latter film (The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). The climactic scene in which a white boy kisses a dying negro soldier (on the lips, according to Miss Gish, though Mrs. Bowser says on the cheek) appears to have been unfailingly startling to all who saw it, and a striking refutation of ideas of Griffith’s racism. (The racist aspect of his work accords un-comfortably with other aspects of Griffith’s personality. It undeniably exists in The Birth of a Nation and in hints elsewhere in the work. At best it can be written off as being the effect of inherited habits of thought, innocently unquestioned, rather than positive and maliciously maintained opinion.)
Both The Greatest Thing in Life and The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919) seem to have been undertaken as government propaganda films. Griffith was at this time busy working off a contract with Zukor’s Artcraft Company, and his next two films were made quickly, though conscientiously. True Heart Susie (1919) was another sentimental retreat to rural America, with a sweet performance by Lillian Gish, but it was hopelessly outmoded in the year that saw the release of DeMille’s Don’t Change Your Husband. A Western, Scarlet Days (1919), starring Richard Barthelmess, sounds attractive, but all prints of it have disappeared. Even now Griffith had masterpieces in him. Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from a short story in Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, was, incredibly, made in eighteen days (though Griffith’s method called for a lot of prior rehearsal — a method which Miss Gish long maintained after she had left Griffith). However much the techniques which Griffith pioneered in this film were abused by later film-makers, his success in producing richly evocative and poetic atmosphere and imagery is undeniable. The soft-focus photography, the eerie studio-manufactured London fogs still work upon the spectator, and are a tribute to Billy Bitzer’s endlessly resourceful camerawork for Griffith.
The performances of Gish as the little slum girl, Donald Crisp as her brutal father and Richard Barthelmess as the spiritual Chinese boy who falls in love with her and tries to save her are still as compelling as any surviving silent screen performances. Griffith was working at full pressure to re-establish his commercial independence and to build his new studios at Mamaroneck. Broken Blossoms was released through United Artists, which had been founded in 1919; but The Greatest Question (1919), a drama about spiritualism, and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, both exotic melodramas, were made for First National. For the first time in these films, Griffith seems to have been repeating himself, working with a slackened enthusiasm and inspiration.
He recovered his forces completely however for Way Down East (1920) which is, perhaps, the masterpiece among the later films, still completely valid despite the anachronism of the subject — perhaps indeed by the very reason of Griffith’s fidelity to a period which was already past but which was essentially his own. His purchase of the rights of Lottie Blair Parker’s creaky old play at a cost of $175,000 was a matter of incredulity and ridicule at the time; but the film proved more popular than any Griffith work since The Birth of a Nation. At risk of the life and limb of every member of the unit (but particularly poor Lillian Gish who had to be defrosted constantly after exposure on the ice floes) Griffith shot the film with startling realism, the exteriors being filmed on the frozen Connecticut River. This, together with the integrity of the performances of Barthelmess and the incomparable Gish (the baptism of the dying child is still one of the most moving episodes in the history of the cinema) explain the lasting success of the film.
In Lillian Gish) Sjostrom found his ideal actress. The Scarlet Letter. (1926) was her suggestion: “I wanted to make a film of The Scarlet Letter and play Hester Prynne, but Mr. Mayer told me that the book was banned for the screen. I said: ‘Mr. Mayer, this cannot be. It’s an American classic, taught in all our schools.’ Anyway, we applied for permission to make the film, and it was granted on the sole condition that Lillian Gish and no-one else played the leading role. “I was asked which director I would like, and I chose Victor Sjostrom (actually in America Sjostrom was known as Seastrom), who had arrived at M-G-M some years earlier from Sweden. I felt that the Swedes were closer to the feeling of the New England puritans than modern Americans, and that even though it is an American book, Mr. Sjostrom was more suitable than any of our own directors. I always considered it a great privilege to work with Mr. Sjostrom. “Tt was Mr. Sjostrom’s idea, of course, to use Lars Hanson in the part of the priest. He is a wonderful actor. We used to improvise our spoken lines before the camera, of course, and Lars Hanson’s speech from the scaffold was so eloquent and affecting that we were all tremendously moved by it.” On another occasion Miss Gish wrote with characteristic perception: “His direction was a great education for me. In a sense I went through the Swedish school of acting. I had got rather close to the Italian school in Italy. . . (The Italian school is one of elaboration; the Swedish is one of repression.” a Again Sjostrom was able to exercise his power for lyricism and his feeling for landscape. Two years later he was able to work again with Gish on The Wind, a film unjustly neglected, and Sjostrom’s American masterpiece.
From Wine of Youth (1924) all Vidor’s silent films were made for M-G-M, where an early and trying experience was a collaboration with Elinor Glyn, on His Hour (1924). Vidor’s reputation was finally and firmly established with The Big Parade (1925), a massive, exemplary spectacle, at the centre of which was sensitively, if also sentimentally observed the experience and suffering of one, ordinary young man. It was a noble e indictment of war; and no less a great piece of mise-en scene with Vidor using the movement of troops and vehicles in a dramatic fashion hardly attempted, even by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. After this he was requested as the director of La Bohéme by its star, Lillian Gish, whose rehearsal methods, learned from Griffith, caused the director some embarrassments; but ‘‘as the making of the film got under way we found ourselves subjected to Lillian’s will.” Vidor was impressed by the star’s complete commitment to the role, by the terrifying realism of her death scene. One of the many M-G-M films that have not seen the light of day since their first release, this must be worth revival, for the sake of Gish alone.
It is worth recalling that Lillian Gish directed a film, Remodeling Her Husband, scripted by Dorothy Elizabeth Carter (Lillian Gish), and starring Dorothy Gish and James Rennie. Griffith persuaded her to do it, since he “thought that men would work better for you than for me’’. It was a pity that Miss Gish, with her high intelligence and sensitivity, never repeated the experiment, which in this case seemed to have been simply handicapped by technical inexperience.
The Gish girls have never retired, though after the arrival of talking pictures they returned to the stage, where their careers had begun. They were brought to Griffith in 1912, by Mary Pickford who had acted with them in theatres soon after the turn of the century. LILLIAN GISH was a heroine straight out of the romantic poets Griffith knew and loved so well. Her extraordinary fragility, her spiritual vibrance, her unique, strange beauty often uplifted the more commonplace concepts of Griffith’s Victorian sentiment. It is impossible to imagine Broken Blossoms or Way Down East without Gish: they would certainly not have survived as they have without her marvellous performances.
It is an interesting indication of Gish’s creative approach to her acting to learn that she herself devised the form of the closet scene in the former film: ‘“You know the scene in the closet, where I spin round and ‘round in terror as Donald Crisp is trying to open the door to beat me and kill me. I worked that out myself, and never told Griffith what I was going to do. You see, if I had told him, he’d have made me rehearse it over and over again; and that would have spoilt it. It had to be spontaneous, the hysterical terror of a child. Well, when I came to play the scene in front of the camera, I did it as I’d planned — spinning and screaming terribly (I was a good screamer; Mr. Griffith used to encourage me to scream at the top of my voice). When we finished, Mr. Griffith was very pale. There was a man from Variety at the studio, and Mr. Griffith called him in and made me go through the scene again for him. It was so horrific that the man from Variety went outside and threw up his breakfast . . .”’ (interview with the author, published in Sight and Sound).
There are innumerable similar anecdotes of the extraordinary intensity of Gish’s playing before the camera: how the baptism of the dying child in Way Down East was so real and affecting that the child’s real, off-screen father fainted; how Vidor and everyone else on the set of La Bohéme thought she really had died when they shot the death scene. Gish is by any standards a very great actress.) Seeing such a performance in The Wind, it is interesting, but bitter, to speculate what wonders she might have achieved if her career had carried on without interruption into the era of sound. But a new star eclipsed her at M-G-M which in 1925 had given her an $800,000 contract. After Garbo came, the studio put Miss Gish into routine chores, and then happily let her go before her contract was fulfilled. ‘‘Stigmatised as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure,”’ wrote Louise Brooks, not quite accurately, for in recent years Miss Gish has occasionally appeared in character roles in films, with notable distinction.
Duel in the Sun
Most of the action takes place on Spanish Bit, the Texas ranch of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Laurabelle (Lillian Gish). Their two sons, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) are a Western Cain and Abel: Lewt, amoral, attractive, seduces Pearl (Jennifer Jones), a halfbreed relative of Laurabelle’s. Eventually, to save the upright Jesse from Lewt’s murderous designs, Pearl shoots her lover during a protracted encounter in which she is also killed; they die in each other’s arms.
Large of gesture, florid and monumental, Duel in the Sun had an almost operatic quality, each bravura set-piece shot, edited and scored for maximum kinetic effect: Pearl’s runaway horse, exhilaratingly filmed as it canters unrestrained across the Texan landscape; the celebrated summoning of the station-hands, a tremendous montage of galloping horses and riders massing to the accompaniment of reverberating bells; the subsequent confrontation between Lionel Barrymore and Harry Carey at the barbed-wire fence, a mob of Chinese coolies trembling at the expectation of violent death; and the final duel, preceded by Jones’s desert trek, a wordless chorus accompanying her as the inescapable sun shines full into the camera. This was film-making in the grand manner, utterly self-confident and self-sufficient, its plastic splendour ultimately cancelling out its colossal lack of taste.
Although Vidor directed most of the picture, with some sequences done by Sidney Franklin and Otto Brower, William Dieterle was responsible for possibly its greatest scene, Tilly Losch’s dance: on a raised platform in the centre of the gigantic Presidio Saloon, Losch as a wanton Indian gyrated to throbbing drums and screeching brass, while all around her milled the pleasure-seekers of the West. Here, and throughout the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s pulsating score added immeasurably to the excitement: martial, sentimental or sensual, it was exotically orchestrated and played under the composer’s direction with impassioned intensity.
The Night of the Hunter
Old-fashioned elements were employed in a sophisticated manner for another of the maverick movies, The Night of the Hunter (1955), the first and only film directed by Charles Laughton. Robert Mitchum gave his finest performance as the insane preacher, lusting for money and also for vengeance against the sinful. The primitive situations were given metaphorical power by Laughton’s defiant use of throwback styles, including the “iris-out,” reminiscent of Griffith, and the strong black-and-white contrasts of light and shadow, a heritage of expressionist cinema. The floating hair of Shelley Winters, dead at the bottom of a river, and the lyrical yet terrorized flight of two children across a horizon viewed patiently by the preacher, were but two examples of Laughton’s relish for the image. And his major set piece, which haunts the memory, had Lillian Gish joining Mitchum in ironic religious duet (“Leaning—leaning—leaning on the everlasting arms”): she indoors with a shotgun at dead of night, wakefully protecting the children in her charge, while he sat in the open across the way, biding his time. It was sad that Laughton should have waited so long to show us that he could command the screen as a director, more powerfully than he had done at the peak of his career as an actor. For an actor to direct was regarded in Hollywood as a maverick activity in any case, although some actors persevered.
It should not come to us as a surprise that a film actress can write, but, so narrow are our expectations, it does. We are even more surprised when it turns out that the actress is one of the great beauties of all time. And we are out-and out astonished when we learn that many people think she possesses an erotic eloquence unmatched by that of any other woman ever to have appeared on the screen. It may well be that the number of beautiful, eloquently erotic film actresses who have been able to write is very, very small.
Gish and Garbo (Chapter Six)
There was a time when I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful film stars to maintain the quality of uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (an adaptation of Molnar’s The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made in the place from which, two years before, her spirit had gone forever—”forgotten by the place where it grew.” But now, after penetrating more deeply into the picture executives’ aims and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect, and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvelous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing a star and standardizing their product according to their own will and personal taste.
Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers, and business was conducted in a manner to prove them. As for the public, it was taught to sneer at old pictures. People had been accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more—the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Or the same Pola Negri in Passion? But Hollywood feared and believed without question that what it said was true. Even Charlie Chaplin believed—he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith alone knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly, despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that So-and-So will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately.
Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favorites—who are still favorites.” But who cared what Griffith said?
The year 1925 was when two things happened that finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the star system. First, 1925 was the terrible year when the industry suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy up to then, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and had been encouraging them to spend $250 million a year on theatre construction. But now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and discovered the studio overhead a sum of money executives added to a film budget to later split among themselves), were receiving generous shares of the once private “golden harvest” of the producers. Then, finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet but the name of a star which drew a multi-million-dollar gross at the box office, bankers were beginning to object to the abuse of stars. Naturally, the producers did not so much as consider giving up the practice of cutting salaries and firing stars—their customary way of making up their losses and refreshing their prestige.
The solution was simply to use a subtler technique, to be confirmed by box office failure. Marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish. She was the obvious choice. Of all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and self-aggrandizement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr as well, being Hollywood’s radiant symbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star.
The year 1925 was also the year when Will Hays succeeded in killing censorship in twenty-four states. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered—meaning New York City, where Mr. Hays had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review. The Board was “opposed to legal censorship and in favor of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” and had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs of adult pictures of sexual realism: A Woman of Paris, Greed, and The Salvation Hunters. These pictures had been tolerated by the public, too. It had accepted the new hero, with the conscienceless sophistication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert—an acceptance based on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyway. Everything was set for the collection of the treasure at the box office, where the producers’ hearts lay, when they were pulled up short by the realization that they had no heroine with youth, beauty, and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be seen as beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag-showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold. The worldly-woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor, and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to interest the public. The passionate Pola Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds—draping Barbara LaMarr in a nun’s veil to make her sympathetic, and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy.
And then, in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in the Swedish picture Gosta Berling, in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his or anyone else’s imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pietd, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive her many affairs in The Torrent, Garbo’s first American picture. At last, marriage—the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure—could be done away with! At last, here was an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls!
As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two before the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of the advent of talking pictures provided a plausible reason to give the public for the disappearance of many favorites.
But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason. Greta Garbo. From the moment The Torrent went into production, no contemporary actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole M-G-M studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway, and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at M-G-M.
If, by chance, one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine?” and hurry on to a subject that created less despair. A name that was never mentioned in the endless shoptalk was that of Lillian Gish. The suspicion that M-G-M had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its history. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders. The Swedish director Victor Seastrom (born Sjostrom), in his direction, shared her art of escaping time and place. Seastrom and Gish were meant for each other. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask the curator of Eastman House, James Card, when and where it was made. He said that it had been made at M-G-M, in Hollywood, in 1927. “In Hollywood, in 1927, at M-G-M?” I said. “Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?”
Determined to solve the mystery of its obliteration, I went at once to the files of the magazine Photoplay. I was aware that its editor, James Quirk, had seemed to weep and rage, dance and exult, with every heartbeat of the M-G-M executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay showed Lillian Gish, until after she left the M-G-M studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October, 1924, issue. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I traced Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish as if I were Sherlock Holmes.
News of her unprecedented contract—eight hundred thousand dollars for six pictures in two years—was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before the first of these pictures, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial:
What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honor or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me [Quirk] of a girlish “Whistler’s mother.” While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity,
she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalize her screen personality with one of the largest salaries. . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one?
With the release of La Boheme, in March, 1926, Quirk put the question to his more than two million readers in a long piece, “The Enigma of the Screen.”
Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favor. She achieves greatness of effect through a single phase of emotion —namely hysteria. … As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. . . . Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.
A “Brief Review” of La Boheme in the June, 1926, Photoplay read, “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.” In October, The Scarlet Letter was reviewed, with “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish.
But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon.”
With Gish, it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So when she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie, which she returned to find all ready to shoot—sets, costumes, and the actor Norman Kerry. Back in charge, she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that M-G-M held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed, and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, M-G-M said; she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last, Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. M-G-M had let her go because she got eight thousand dollars a week!
And, without a blush, he developed the idea that all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures. Stigmatized at the age of thirty-one as a grasping, silly, sexless antique, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, but not a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow—a world of shadows.”
It seems fateful now to remember that after Gish saw a screening of Gosta Berling she said that she had faith in L. B. Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Before production on The Torrent started, the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot making publicity stills, and she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication, and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence that Garbo had learned in Europe, she saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours, and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production. The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying, “I vill be glad when I am a beeg star like Lillian Gish. Then I vill not need publicity and to have peectures taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” La Boheme and The Torrent opened on Broadway the same week in February, 1926. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got four hundred thousand dollars a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got sixteen thousand dollars a year.
After The Temptress, Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” and Quirk was moved to write in his December editorial, “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week.” Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after she had signed a new M-G-M contract in May, 1927. Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay. “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June,” he wrote. As well as she knew her genius, knew that she was queen of all movie stars—then and forever—she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering, tarnished star like all the rest. She did not really want to go home. After a long hold-out over salary, she signed, for seventy-five hundred dollars a week. Her business triumph over the studio was her collecting, with stunning impact, on seven months of nationwide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on its defeat and the consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation rocked all Hollywood.
Compared to Quirk’s polished mauling of Lillian Gish, M-G-M’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job, and it was not to achieve a slick finish till after the death of Irving Thalberg, in 1936, when Mayer began restocking his stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unaffordable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art, and popularity, were Jeanette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo herself. Sixteen years passed between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old-men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.
Very few people know that Hollywood was largely dominated by women as filmmakers in the 1910s and 20s, there were more women producers and directors in powerful positions before 1920 than at any other time in the motion picture history. Their names were Lois Weber, Mary Pickford, Frances Marion, Alice Guy Blaché, Dorothy Arzner etc … Before the Big Crash women were creatively working in Hollywood at all levels. Unbelievable as it may seem, it took until 2010 for a woman – Kathryn Bigelow – to receive an Oscar for Best Director! Casting in the documentary includes the most successful women to date, Paula Wagner, producer and business partner of Tom Cruise, Robin Swicord, screenwriter and Lynda Obst, producer of, amongst others, Sleepless in Seattle, Contact and Flashdance. And Lillian Gish and Sherry Lansing (archives)
American actress Lillian Gish (1893-1993) makes her only foray into directing with Remodeling Her Husband. In an “all-woman” production, Gish co-writes the screenplay with her sister Dorothy, who also stars, and recruits the American writer Dorothy Parker to write the intertitles.
In 1919 Lillian Gish was one of Hollywood’s most respected performers and D. W. Griffith’s favorite actress. That year, confident that her knowledge of the movies was equal to his own, Griffith asked her to direct a movie starring her sister Dorothy for Paramount. Convinced that women had already proven to be proficient directors, Gish happily accepted the offer. Griffith gave her a $50,000 budget and total liberty in the production. He also asked, however, that she supervise the conversion of a recently acquired Long Island estate into a studio, which was far from properly equipped for film production. It proved to be an enormous task, but she completed both it and the film successfully.
The first talkie was directed by Alice Guy, the first color film was produced by Lois Weber, who directed more than 300 films over 10 years. Frances Marion wrote screenplays for the Hollywood Star Mary Pickford and won two Oscars, Dorothy Arzner was the most powerful film director in Hollywood. And what do all of them have in common? They are all women and they have all been forgotten. Incredibly, it also took until 2010 for the first woman, Kathryn Bigelow, to win the Oscar for Best Director. Even if underrepresented women have always played a big part in Hollywood and it is this part of the film history left untold that this documentary sets out to uncover.
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