By Lillian Gish & Ann Pinchot (Englewood Cliffs, NJ Prentice-Hall, 1969)
Colorful, lively, and moving memoir of a giant of the early screen, actress Lillian Gish. Her story is inseparable with the history of the movies, from the early days, when the pioneers of the industry worked long hours through hardship and cold, public criticism through the horrors of war, and the proverty of the Depression. She knew them all: Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Rudolh Valentino, Noel Coward, Erich Von Stroheim, and many more. She talks about the director of many of her films, D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith), whose consuming passion creating new ways to tell stories on celluloid. A long-time member of his company, she separates the man from the legend. She exposes the very personal, human side of this early Hollywood legend, warts and all.
In vivid anecdotes that are funny, heartbreaking, and remarkably evocative of that fascinating period, stage and screen star Lillian Gish tells the story of her childhood years in the American theater at the beginning of the 1900s.
From the perspective of nearly a century. Miss Gish recalls the kindness of her fellow actors during a Christmas spent on a train; hilarious—and sometimes frightening—slipups from many performances; the pain of separation from her mother and younger sister; and the thrill of being a professional actor.
For every child who has ever wondered about the glamour and excitement of being on the stage, about how and why a person becomes an actor, this remarkable childhood reminiscence offers a unique and lively insight, as well as a memorable piece of Americana.
LILLIAN GISH is truly a legend in her own time. As a young girl in the early days of movies, she became a star, the leading lady of such D.W. Griffith classics as Birth of a Nation (the first feature-length film), and her career continued successfully into the talkies. On Broadway, in the 1930s, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet. Most recently she appeared in Sweet Liberty with Alan Alda. To date, she has appeared in over a hundred films and fifty plays. In 1984, Miss Gish received the American Film Institute’s coveted Lifetime Service Award for her extraordinary contributions to the industry. But before all this, in 1902, when she was six, she began her distinguished acting career on a small, improvised stage in Risingsun, Ohio… where this charming, bittersweet childhood reminiscence of the actor’s life begins.
I am Lillian Diana Gish. I was named that by my parents. But sometimes I was called Florence Niles, Baby Alice, Baby Ann, and just plain Herself, for reasons that I will explain.
My sister Dorothy (who was nicknamed Doatsie) and I were lucky. We never lived in just one place or went to school like other children we knew. From the time I was six and Doatsie just four and a half, we were child actors. We belonged to traveling theatrical companies that performed plays in small towns and big cities all along the East Coast and in the Middle West.
There was no television, movies, or even radio at the beginning of this century when we began working. All over America, going to the theater was a popular evening entertainment. Most of the plays that Doatsie and I acted in were called melodramas.
I began life in Springfield, Ohio. I was born in my Grandmother Gish’s house in October 1896.
The nicest thing I remember about Mother and Father together is seeing them both standing at the foot of my bed one night, when I was still quite small. Mother was wearing a red satin dress with a long train and Father had on a dark, elegant suit. They must have been going to a party. They both looked so beautiful that the image has always stayed in my mind, clear as a photograph in a family album. Surely they were happy then.
When my sister Dorothy was just a baby. Father would sometimes take me for walks. I was not yet three, and we would stop to rest and have some refreshment. We never stopped at an ice-cream parlor, always at a saloon. I remember the wood walls, the sawdust on the floor and the strange bitter smell. Father loved to show me off. While he stood drinking beer, he would lift me up onto the bar, where I sat and ate my fill of the free lunch.
We looked on the movies only as a way of feeding and sheltering ourselves until we got back on the stage.
The history of movies is the history of Lillian Gish
By Mike Hughes Gannett News Service
She was born in a quieter century, in a cozier part of the world. Risks were rare, expectations low. “We were from Ohio,” Lillian Gish says in a film to be broadcast a 9 tonight on KVCR. (American Masters) “Ladies had their name in print when they were born, when they got married and when they died but NEVER for anything else.” But fate intervened and her career has embraced most of the history of movies. Now it’s recalled in a masterful opener for the “American Masters” season. Here is a life that can be illustrated through 106 movies spread over 75 years. And here is someone interviewed at just the right time; at 93, Gish overflows with rich memories. Her quiet Ohio life was disrupted because her father couldn’t keep work. Her mother “the most perfect human being I ever knew” told him not to come back until he could. “He would follow us around and beg Mother to take him back,” she says in the film. “But he didn’t have a job.” So the Gishes turned to the stage for money. At the ages of 5 and 4, Lillian and her sister Dorothy became touring actresses, They were quite haughty about it, feeling sorry for their friend, Gladys Smith, who “had to go to the movies to make a living.” But Gladys did well, after changing her name to Mary Pickford. Pickford also introduced them to D.W. Griffith, Hollywood’s first great director. “He said, ‘Can you act?’ And Dorothy pulled herself up and said, ‘We are of the legitimate theater.’ And he said, ‘I don’t mean reading lines. Can you act’?”” They could.
Lillian Gish A long life and a lot of memories
Beginning in 1912, these teens and their incredibly expressive faces were being molded by a master. “Griffith got into films in 1908, and by the time I got (there), he had given films their form and grammar.” Gish was in the movie that made him famous “Birth of a ‘Nation,” released in 1915 and “Intolerance,” the one that destroyed him just a year later. “Theaters wouldn’t take it,” Gish says of the latter film’s original, marathon length. “And he cut it and ruined it. Because it still remains the greatest film ever made.” She bridles at the way he was treated after that. “He couldn’t take orders from business people. It was just not possible.” And other Hollywood attitudes grate on her. Once, movie mogul Louis Mayer suggested that Gish (who has never married) start a scandal to generate publicity. She also complains about the characters she was given (“I played those little virgins that after five minutes you got so sick of’) and the industry’s obsession with happy endings, Tonight’s “Masters” provides a vivid example of that the absurd new ending ordered by the studio for “The Wind,” in 1928. “Frances Marion, who did the script, never took anything in film seriously again, and I came back to the theater,” Gish remembers. She would retreat often to the stage, but certainly didn’t forget Hollywood and her life’s work: “I never doubted film was the mind and heartbeat of our century,” she says.
In recent summers, PBS’ Monday lineup has come as a vibrant surprise. “Masters” crafts portraits with intelligence and detail; “Alive From Off Center” is both deft and daft. And now both start their new seasons in appropriate style. “Off Center” (10 p.m. locally) has two mismatched films a witty and stylish satire of a high-tech ad agency and a pointless and (almost) endless segment from the movie “Aria.” And “Masters” (9 p.m.) is at its very best with the Gish profile.
Griffith’s desire to make longer films was thwarted by Biograph. Determined to make the greatest movie ever produced, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and soon set to work on a film version of Thomas Dixon’s novel of the Civil War, ‘The Clansman’. The result of his labors was The Birth of a Nation, which exploded on the screen in 1915. Filmed at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars, the three-hour epic was enormously popular and equally controversial; it is still regarded as one of the key films in cinema history. The film’s depiction of leering, bestial blacks created a furor throughout the country, and much to Griffith’s surprise and dismay the movie was roundly condemned by many fair-minded Americans. But although Griffith’s view of history and race relations was deplorable, his artistry was undeniable. It was, as critic Bosley Crowther has written, “as though a superb symphony had burst from the muck of primitive music within two decades after the invention of the horn. . . .
People were simply bowled over by its vivid pictorial sweep, its arrangements of personal involvements, its plunging of the viewer into a sea of boiling historical associations. . . .”
Any follow-up to The Birth of a Nation should have been anticlimactic, but Griffith’s next film, Intolerance was even more monumental. The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.
Despite Griffith’s ability to focus on intimate scenes in the midst of staggering spectacle, and despite his brilliant use of crosscutting to heighten tension and involvement, Intolerance was a commercial failure. Audiences found it confusing and unappealing. Griffith was both heartbroken and financially- ruined.
In 1915 Griffith had founded the Triangle Film Corporation, a partnership involving two other men who rank high among the innovators of early Hollywood.
While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.'” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.
Way Down East (1920), famous for its scenes of Gish and Barthelmess leaping from ice floe to ice floe just a few feet from the edge of a gigantic waterfall, and Orphans of the Storm (1922) were both popular melodramas. But from that point on Griffith pleased neither critics nor public. Unable to cope with the new financial realities of big-business Hollywood, he was also loathe to eschew the sentimentality that was so out of fashion. When, desperate for income, he attempted to pander to public tastes by aping the successes of others, the results were disastrous. He worked only sporadically in the late twenties, and his last film was made in 1931. He lived in a rented room in Hollywood for seventeen more years and died in 1948, a bitter old man largely forgotten by the industry he had helped to create.
Forgotten too, by then, were many of the major stars of the silents, their careers terminated by the arrival of sound movies. “We didn’t need voices,” says Gloria Swanson, playing a reminiscing silent screen star in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces then.” Faces, and distinctive personalities, and talent, and enormous egos.
Norma Talmadge, leading lady of the First National studio, specialized in playing heroines who aged during a film’s progress. Married to producer Joseph Schenck, who nurtured her career, she is not well known today because many of her films have been lost. Nonetheless, she was one of Hollywood’s top stars. Her sister Constance, also popular in the twenties, played vibrant, comic roles, but Norma’s fans wanted to see her suffer—and suffer she did in such films as The Sacrifice of Kathleen, The Branded Woman, and Love’s Redemption.
Another pair of sisters, Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”
Hollywood was a dirt town when Lillian first saw it
As long as I can remember, the scent of orange blossoms has brought back to me my first day in Hollywood. It was a bright February day and I thought that we had actually come to a garden of Eden, for only a few days before we had left behind us the bitter winter blizzards of New York.
Hollywood was a sparsely settled village then. I remember a land agent tried to sell us a remote tract of ground for $300. We decided in favor of some pretty stock certificates, gold-trimmed and completely phony. Today that ground is the Sunset Strip, and parts of it would bring $300 a foot. But then it was wasteland. Hollywood didn’t even have a movie theater when we came. It had the Hollywood Hotel, a few churches and houses.
And D. W. Griffith. There I’ve said it all. Because Griffith was Hollywood. Through every memory I have comes his voice. He was the movie industry. It was conceived in his brain, developed there, and born to learn by trial and error. Griffith gave it all the devices that are still used. The fade-out and fade- in. The moving camera. And so many more. He wrote all his early stories as he went along, made them up or took them from the classics. He set scenes and called out plot as we rehearsed. He borrowed from Browning, Poe, and the Bible. He took much from Dickens. Sometimes he gave credit, but more often, not. Pippa Passes retained its own name. He switched the scene of David Copperfield to New England and called it True-heart Susie.
The greatest money-making picture in movie history was the Birth of a Nation. It cost $90,000 to make and brought in about $20,000,000. I was only a small part of it. I got the part Blanche Sweet was supposed to have because I had long blond hair that reached to my hips.
Back in those days, an “old hag” of eighteen was passe. Youth was an absolute necessity.
“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.” (Lillian Gish – The Whales of August)
From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for the pictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”
Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.” (Duel in the Sun)
Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”
In “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, and in “Way Down East,” I had physical distress to help me out. My appeal was in a measure made for me. I always had something the matter with me. In one I was a poor, frail, half-living little thing and in the other a down-trodden, storm-tossed girl. As Henriette I was well taken care of, beloved by the dashing Chevalier, watched over by Danton. Of course, I had lost my sister, but I was not sure that she was not well cared for, too. I had to make the loss of my sister and my instinctive fear for her overshadow my own personal well-being. That made Henriette a more difficult role than any I have yet played. (Motion Picture Magazine 1922)
“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios. “After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) – The most durable star in screen history has to be Lillian Gish, who starred in D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” and is still going strong in a new Walt Disney picture. The fragile beauty of the great actress remains evident in scenes for Disney’s “Follow Me. Boys” more than a half century after her first trip to Hollywood. Bright-eyed and young in heart, Miss Gish enacts her role as a small town dowager with the same enthusiasm that distinguished her ingenue characterizations in the flickering infant days of the film. And she loves every minute of it.
“In all my years and Lord knows how many pictures, I’ve worked with only two authentic geniuses Mr. Griffith and Mr. Disney,” she said in the studio commissary during the lunch break. “I’ve never lost interest in acting, and I’m still learning. How can anyone ever learn all about the human race?” Nearing 70, Miss Gish makes frequent visits to Hollywood for television appearances, only rarely working in pictures. But on her trips west she unfailingly contacts old friends, among them Donald Crisp who played her father in the ancient “Broken Blossoms” and Mae Marsh, one of her co-stars in “Birth of a Nation,” both of whom work occasionally in movies.
Always a resident of New York City where she is actively engaged in the theater, Miss Gish lives in an apartment house which she owns in Manhattan. Her sister Dorothy lives in a nearby hotel. Next month she will co-star in George Abbott’s new Broadway musical “Anya.” The thought of retirement never crosses her mind.
“I think back to the early days when movie makers were poor,” she smiled. “We’d complete one-reel pictures in a single day. Our only lighting was the California sunshine and our equipment consisted of a hand cranked camera on a wooden tripod.”
An actress since childhood, Miss Gish made her professional stage debut at age 5 in “In Convict Stripes.” But it wasn’t until her movies with Griffith, among them “Intolerance,” “Orphans of the Storm” and “Way Down East,” that she became an international star, one of the first. Thousands of glamour girls have come and gone in the intervening years, but Miss Gish endures. If you look closely, the reason is apparent. She emits a glowing inner beauty and love of life the years have left untarnished.
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 94, Number 72, 23 September 1936
A NEW YORKER AT LARGE!
By Jack Stinnett
NEW YORK – Among the “anticipations of the Broadway season” New Yorkers are listing well toward the top Lillian Gish’s soon-to-be-seen performance as Ophelia in the Guthrie McClintic production of “Hamlet.” In spite of her long experience on stage and screen, this is Miss Gish’s first venture in Shakespeare. She’s “very thrilled,” she told Lillian Gish us, but more than that she would say naught for it is not the Gish way to be talking of a thing before it is done.
On the subject of why she quit pictures she was far more articulate for that is a thing that is over and laid aside. . . . And a queen’s mantle it was too that Miss Gish put off when she turned away from the films to come back to the stage as Helena in “Uncle Vanya.” “It’s really quite simple,” she says. “I always loved the stage. I always felt that I was part of it. I started acting when I was six, you know. “Pictures used to be something you could give your whole heart to in the silent days. And I liked that. We often worked hard, very hard, often never knowing if we would be paid until the pictures proved successful and sometimes not being paid when they were not. “But silent pictures were wonderful. There was so very much to expressing yourself in action alone . . . such a thrill when you knew you had told your story without words. I have seen some of the old silent pictures recently and you would be I surprised how well they stand up. “Words need an audience and when it came to the business of speaking lines again, I had to return to the stage. I have never regretted it,” she says.
Somewhere in those years of experience that led from the stage to films to stage again, Miss Gish has discovered Ponce de Leon’s fountain. Don’t get us wrong. Miss Gish isn’t old. Her film star was high in the sky before she was 20. But she retains a miraculous youth … an unchangeableness that leaves her still the wistful young girl of “The Birth of a Nation,” and “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East”. Proof of it was seen in a story she told of her travels this summer. On a 6000-mile motor trip through Europe that carried her into Macedonia, she was recognized time after time by natives of little villages that boasted not a single movie house. Some years ago, Miss Gish made a picture which you may recall . . . “The White Sister.”‘ The picture was shown in the churches of numerous villages of southeastern Europe. In many instances, if was the only movie the people ever had seen and they had never forgotten the little “White Sister.”
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