Icons of American Popular Culture [D.W. Griffith] – Robert C. Cottrell (2010)

  • Icons of American popular culture : from P.T. Barnum to Jennifer Lopez
  • Icons of American Popular Culture
  • Robert C. Cottrell
  • Copyright © 2010 by M.E. Sharpe, Inc.

A nation’s story can be captured in numerous ways. Historical accounts of economic developments, military conflicts, domestic debates, and natural disasters all help to shape images of a land and its people; but so too does an appreciation of the sublime and the ridiculous, the heroes and heroines, and fads and frivolities that make up the popular culture of a mass society. Popular culture in an advanced, industrialized country such as the United States reflects the intellectual, social, cultural, political, and demographic currents of the time. Using popular culture as a lens on history is enlivening and illuminating and recaptures something of the “lightning in the bottle” effect that characterizes particular individuals, events, and happenings. This is especially so with regard to the remarkable pantheon of American popular cultural figures, whose life stories, accomplishments, and difficulties often mirror those of the nation they represent. What follows is an admittedly abbreviated, subjective presentation of several of the most iconic individuals in American popular cultural history. Another historian undoubtedly would have chosen at least some other figures. This author reluctantly left out many personal favorites, including Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, Humphrey Bogart, Lucille Ball, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, Richard Pryor, Angelina Jolie, and Tiger Woods, to name a few.

D.W. Griffith

Lillian Gish termed him “the father of film” and stated he “was the movie industry. It had been born in his head.” Charlie Chaplin considered Griffith “the teacher of us all.” Cecil B. DeMille declared that Griffith “taught us how to photograph thought,” while Orson Welles praised Griffith as “the premier genius of our medium.”

As American cinema flourished in the early twentieth century, its pace, style, and tenor increasingly influenced other popular cultural venues, including literature. The director of The Birth of a Nation offered techniques that authors soon emphasized, including fade-ins, fade-outs, close-ups, and flashbacks, all of which, of course, were not entirely new literary devices.

On January 22, 1875, David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, the fourth son of Mary Perkins Oglesby Griffith and Jacob Wark Griffith, a former colonel in the Confederate army. Jacob practiced medicine, fought in the Mexican War, joined the Kentucky legislature, and became a hero to Confederate forces. Griffith began to refine American cinema, assisted by cameraman G.W. Bitzer. Following the lead of Porter, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, the director began offering close-ups, camera movements, switchbacks (later called flashbacks), and fade-outs, while presenting a smooth, extended story line. Social messages crept into several of his films in keeping with the era’s progressive movement, which sought to address some of the worst injustices associated with industrial capitalism. Griffith offered films like A Corner in Wheat, which, drawing from Frank Norris’s novel The Pit, dealt with class divisions in American society, and The Musketeers of Pig Alley, an examination of the Lower East Side. He also directed films such as The Redman and the Child and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch that cast Native Americans in a favorable light. But those films were the exception, as Robert Skylar notes, with other Griffith works celebrating the rich and vilifying Indians. Lillian Griffith, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron, and Henry B. Walthall appeared in his Biograph films, along with the previously undiscovered Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish. While Griffith employed a star system, Biograph proved unwilling to feature those performers or the director himself, to his mounting dismay. Partially shot in Biograph’s new studio on 175th Street in the Bronx, Judith of Bethulia, Griffith’s final film for the motion picture company, starred Sweet, Lillian Gish, and 2,000 actors or extras, and required four reels.

Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

Griffith was envisioning a new film that would transform American cinema by its scope, grandeur, and ability to appeal to Americans of all classes. The storyline hearkened back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, times of glory and ruin for the Griffith family. In conjunction with childhood memories of stories spun by his father, Griffith drew on a pair of novels by the Reverend Thomas E. Dixon from North Carolina, which focused on those traumatic developments. The books. The Clansman and The Leopard s Spots, afforded Griffith the plot line for his projected film, which was obviously intended as an affirmation of his father’s life and beliefs. Although Mutual appeared unlikely to provide the $50,000 financing Griffith considered necessary, Aitken guaranteed that level of support for the director’s newly formed Epoch Film Corporation. Griffith’s new film, featuring Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, George Siegmann, and seemingly innumerable extras and horses, cost over $100,000 and netted $5 million in profits. One-quarter of the actors were African-Americans, and Griffith, employing “military discipline, set up “a camp for the whites and a camp for the black,” along with a pair of commissaries.

Requiring twelve reels and running for an unprecedented two and a half hours. The Clansman opened in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915. Appearing in New York at the Rose Garden, located on Fifty-third Street, it soon boasted a new title. The Birth of a Nation. The ticket price was two dollars, the cost of admission to many Broadway shows. After the film opened at the Liberty in early March, the New York Times called Griffith’s effort “elaborate” and “ambitious,” offering “an impressive new illustration of the scope of the motion picture camera.” Griffith employed many of his now standard techniques, including crosscutting, flashbacks, close-ups, and fade-outs, but the film itself was a standard melodrama, complete with blackface. Reflecting on film as a whole following the completion of his latest masterwork, Griffith believed “there are no limits to its possibilities in artistic work. This is only child’s play.” Purportedly drawn from interviews with Civil War historians, the narrative centers on the trials endured by a Southern family and a Northern family as the nation divided. Griffith strove for authenticity in producing battle scenes, employing artillery, cavalry, and foot soldiers, and he erected a handful of Southern communities. The director presented burning towns, dying soldiers, mobs, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Much of the film highlights cross-sectional romances that suffered when the war broke out, while the conclusion resulted in the unfortunate developments associated with Reconstruction, as presented by Griffith. The New York Times review bemoaned the film’s inclusion of “inflammatory material” from Dixon’s novel and “the sorry story rendered by its plucking at old wounds.” Stock figures were aplenty, including uppity blacks, conniving carpetbaggers from the North, and Southern scalawags ready to sell out their home region. All but inevitably, innocent white womanhood in the film became imperiled, with rape looming, while determined Southerners began to fight back, led by the noble figures that joined the Ku Klux Klan. Writing in The New Republic, Harold Stearns discussed the film’s denouement when silhouetted Klansmen galloped on horseback. As that scene appeared on screen, “every audience spontaneously applauds.” After President Woodrow Wilson watched a special screening of The Birth of a Nation at the White House, he allegedly exclaimed, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Thomas Dixon, a classmate of Wilson’s at Princeton, acknowledged that his purpose in supporting the film adaptation of his novel “was to revolutionize Northern audiences . . . [to] transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in Birth of a Nation

The highly favorable treatment of the Klan, the denigrating depiction of African-Americans, and the casting of wooden images of the Reconstruction South enraged many, leading to riots in Boston and Philadelphia among other locales. Public officials in New York City insisted that various controversial scenes be removed. Jane Addams of Hull House fame proved “painfully exercised over the exhibition.” The Nation’s Oswald Garrison Villard decried the film’s “deliberate attempt to humiliate 10,000,000 American citizens and portray them as nothing but beasts.” The Illinois state legislature considered a measure to ban artwork that “tends to incite race riot, or race hatred.” The recently established National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sought injunctions to prevent the showing of The Birth of a Nation, which the organization decried as “vicious.” The Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) put out a lengthy pamphlet, Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation, condemning “the foul and loathsome misrepresentations of colored people and the glorification of the hideous and murderous band of the Ku Klux Klan.” The pamphlet underscored Thomas Dixon’s admission that he had hoped “to create a feeling of abhorrence in white people, especially white women, against colored men” and “to have all Negroes removed from the United States.” When asked if complaints might lead to the film’s suppression, Griffith responded, “I hope to God they stop it! Then you won’t be able to keep audiences away with clubs!”

Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith, who believed his presentation of The Birth of a Nation was “the truth,” was beset by considerable anxiety, $300,000 in legal fees, and numerous attacks on his reputation. He insisted that the film’s true villains were the carpetbaggers, not blacks, and pointed to the fact that he had grown up with African-Americans and been “nursed by a Negro mammy.” Griffith defended his movie during interviews, insisting that it offered a historical lesson. Then in a pamphlet, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America, he blasted calls for censorship, which confronted cinema in the United States from the outset. Institutions of higher learning opened their doors to only “the limited few,” Griffith wrote. Motion pictures by contrast could impart lessons about “mistakes of the past … to the entire world” at little cost while entertaining the masses. Consequently, efforts to censor cinema were wrongheaded, in addition to violating First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and the press. Censorship, that “malignant pygmy,” endangered “the growth of the art.” This had occurred although film afforded “a medium of expression as clean and decent as any mankind has ever discovered,” Griffith wrote.

Intolerance – Babylon

Responding to continued criticisms that came his way, Griffith abandoned his original intention to produce a film about labor relations and chose to make another epic that he called Intolerance. Determined to present a panoramic look at bigotry and prejudice over the generations, Griffith initially intended this to be his final motion picture. He worried that “the story for Truth … has become barred from” movies, in contrast to the theater, where “freedom of expression” might still be found. Griffith maintained sixteen-to twenty-hour workdays in making Intolerance. Many critics thought he succeeded spectacularly with his latest offering. Current Opinion indicated that “the superman of the American movies” had pulled off his “greatest achievement.” Writing in Life, James S. Metcalfe claimed, “He has carried the picture play to the limit of its possibilities so far as doing everything that can be done with the motion picture.” Film Daily affirmed that “as a spectacle Intolerance is the greatest offering ever staged.” In viewing the three-hour-long epic—which demanded the construction of elaborate sets, featured thousands of extras along with stars Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, and Robert Harron, required thirteen reels, and cost $1.9 million—critics appeared particularly taken with Griffith’s depiction of ancient Babylon.


They were somewhat less impressed with his presentation of the life and death of Jesus and the massacre of French Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, which occurred late in the sixteenth century. The film opened at the Liberty Theatre in Manhattan on September 5, 1916, and led to a decidedly mixed review from the New York Times. The paper termed Griffith “a real wizard of lens and screen” but pointed to his latest film’s “utter incoherence, the questionable taste of some of its scenes, and the cheap banalities into which it sometimes lapses.” The Times did applaud “the stupendousness of its panoramas, the grouping and handling of its great masses of players,” which “make it an impressive spectacle.” Audiences responded in an equally ambivalent fashion to Intolerance, undoubtedly wowed by its glorious sweep but confused by the separate episodes, which hardly presented a seamless thread. The scenes of nudity or near-nudity, along with the condemnations of both battlefields and prisons, proved disturbing to many viewers. Despite experiencing early record attendance figures, the film soon bottomed out, to Griffith’s chagrin. The result was a commercial failure that subsumed even the large profits earned by The Birth of a Nation. It also led to the dissolving of his business relationship with Aitken and Griffith’s moving over to Artcraft Pictures (later, Paramount Studios).

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Hoping that Intolerance would receive a better reception abroad, Griffith sailed to London in mid-March 1917 as the third full year of hostilities in Europe approached. Griffith also was responding to a request that he produce a propaganda film for the British government. On the very day Intolerance premiered in London, Griffith received word that the United States had entered the war. He proceeded to offer a showing of Intolerance for the royal family and met Prime Minister Lloyd George, who repeated the call for Griffith to deliver a film for propaganda purposes. In preparation for his latest work, the director toured battlefields in France where he witnessed actual combat for the first time. Griffith later revealed that he experienced “something of the stir and thrill of the movie battle. Artillery is in motion, ambulances come tearing down the roads with the dying screaming as they take their last ride. Streams of prisoners are marching in tatters and dejection back to the bases; wounded soldiers are making their own way. Motor-cyclists are speeding to and from.” At the same time he realized that the trenches contained “nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are sometimes almost up to their hips in ice-cold mud. The dash and thrill of wars of other days are no longer there.”

Griffith and the Great War 2

The returning soldiers would recall trenches, replete with lice and “reeking vile odors . . . horrible with filth and mud,” Griffith predicted. First appearing in New York on April 4, 1918, Hearts of the World starred Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Erich von Stroheim. The New York Times indicated that the film—three-quarters of which was shot back in Hollywood—strove “to make the war a big reality” and apparently succeeded in that regard, as evidenced by the audience reaction. The Times declared, “Sometimes one does not know whether what he is seeing is a real war or screen make-believe” thanks to “the pictures of hand to hand fighting in the trenches, the bursting of shells from big guns, and demolition of buildings, the scouting trips and raids into enemy trenches.” Elected to head the Motion Picture War Service Association, Griffith also called for the purchase of Liberty bonds to support the Allied cause.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

Griffith presented a series of films in 1918 and 1919, including The Great Love, The Greatest Thing in Life, A Romance ofHappy Valley, The Girl Who Stayed at Home, True Heart Susie, Scarlet Days, Broken Blossoms, and The Greatest Question. Particularly celebrated was Broken Blossoms, the first Griffith film to appear under the auspices of United Artists. A relatively low- budget affair costing less than $90,000, Broken Blossoms presents the story of a Chinese Buddhist who in the midst of World War I ventures to London to foster support for nonviolence. Played by Richard Barthelmess, Cheng Huan falls in love with the Lillian Gish character, Lucy Burrows, who has been abused by her father. The film’s dark quality turned off Adolph Zukor of Artcraft. After viewing Broken Blossoms, Zukor exploded: “You bring me a picture like this and want money for it? You may as well put your hand in my pocket and steal it. Everybody in it dies. It isn’t commercial.” Zukor proved wrongheaded about that. He allowed Griffith to purchase the film back from Artcraft for $250,000, and eventually Broken Blossoms resulted in profits of $700,000 for United Artists. It also received glowing reviews, with Film Daily offering, “This film is a poetic tragedy given a masterly production; it is a masterpiece of its kind.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

His battles with movie moguls convinced Griffith of the need for greater artistic freedom, which he believed required commercial independence. That sensibility had led Griffith to join with three of the greatest stars in Hollywood’s early days—Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks—in creating their own production company: United Artists. Demanding still more autonomy, Griffith left Hollywood for Mamaroneck, New York, where he set up his new studio. There he completed The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, in addition to filming Way Down East, which came out in 1920, cost just over $1 million, and proved highly profitable. Again starring Barthelmess and Lillian Gish, the melodramatic Way Down East features an ill-treated young woman who gives birth to an illegitimate child who dies. Played by Gish, Anna meets a stolid farmer who loves her and saves her from an ice storm.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie “Way Down East” (Photo by Donaldson Collection) – cover

Griffith had received international acclaim in the period since the release of The Birth of a Nation. Erich von Stroheim, Raoul Walsh, and Sergei M. Einstein were among the many filmmakers who drew from his work. The April 1921 issue of The American Magazine delivered a lengthy article titled “The Greatest Moving Picture Producer in the World,” in which the master director indicated that “making a moving picture is like painting with lights.” He remained a workaholic, even toiling around the clock on occasion. In The Mentor, Griffith wrote a piece called “Motion Pictures: The Miracle of Modern Photography,” recalling that he had directed 500 pictures during a thirteen-year period. He indicated that “great motion pictures” required “good audiences, too.”

Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set

Griffith followed up Way Down East with the well-liked Orphans of the Storm (1921), One Exciting Night (1922), The White Rose (1923), America (1924), the acclaimed Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924), and The Joyless Street (1925), the last film that he produced independently. Over the course of the next several years, Griffith made a series of motion pictures for United Artists but had seemingly lost his touch. Still, according to an article in the May 1928 issue of Overland, Griffith’s associates considered him “their ‘Master,’” one who possessed “almost hypnotic power.” In 1930 Griffith sought to produce another epic, Abraham Lincoln, a talkie starring Walter Huston. The reviews by critics proved mixed, at best, and audiences also responded tepidly.

A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)

A harsher fate still awaited his final film, The Struggle, which came out in 1931. Griffith was soon reduced to a weekly radio program that lasted less than a year. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an honorary Oscar to Griffith in 1936, with the citation stating, “For his distinguished creative achievements as director and producer and his invaluable initiative and lasting contributions to the progress of the motion picture arts.” That same year he showed up at the set where his former assistant W.S. Van Dyke was shooting in San Francisco. Van Dyke asserted, “All I know I learned from you, Mr. Griffith.” In 1936 Griffith married Evelyn Baldwin, a young woman who had appeared in his movie The Struggle, although that marriage also would end in divorce. In 1938 he became an Honorary Life Member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA). He spent much of his time at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood. The Museum of Modern Art published D. W. Griffith: American Film Master in 1940; the volume proclaimed Griffith “one of the greatest and most original artists of our time.”

The Struggle – D.W. Griffith

Notwithstanding some aborted efforts, Griffith’s name never again appeared on the silver screen as director of a motion picture. On July 23, 1948, the day after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he died. Actor Lionel Barrymore referred to Griffith as “Hollywood’s greatest,” while others bemoaned the fact that the film industry had closed its doors to him. Griffith received accolades from James Agee, the author, screenwriter, and film critic who wrote, “He achieved what no other known man has ever achieved. To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel, the emergence, coordination, and first eloquence of language, the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” The French film director Rene Clair asserted, “Nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since Griffith.” The famed Austrian director and actor Erich von Stroheim claimed that Griffith “fully realized the education values of the film and felt personally responsible for the authenticity of everything in them.” In addition “it was Griffith who … put the motion picture on the same level with the best productions of the legitimate stage.” Von Stroheim termed Griffith “the greatest man the cinema had, or will ever have,” praised his generosity, and deemed him the master. Five years after Griffith’s death, the Directors Guild of America established the D.W. Griffith Award, its most prestigious honor. Honorees included Cecil B. DeMille, John Huston, John Ford, and Stanley Kubrick. In late 1999 the DGA discarded Griffith’s name, with its president explaining, “There is no question that D.W. Griffith was a brilliant pioneer filmmaker whose innovations as a visionary film artist led the way for generations of directors. However, it is also true that he helped foster intolerable racial stereotypes.”

DW Griffith in 1943

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  • Copyright © 1987 by Edward Wagenknecht
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Just what it is that makes a fine artist in the theater is a subject on which probably no final decision will ever be reached, but at least it is now clear that the popular impression of the great actor as a chameleon-like creature who wholly sinks his own individuality in the role that he plays, who nightly reduces himself to putty and then proceeds to construct a new and alien character from its foundations, is an excellent definition of what such an artist is not. Without great personality, great art simply cannot exist, and this truth has long been recognized in connection with the other arts. The individuality of the great painter is evident in all his canvases: a Corot cannot be mistaken for a Millet or a Van Dyck for a Frans Hals. In literature too it is only the second- and third-rate stuff that might have been written by anybody: Chaucer and Fielding and Conrad are “there,” visibly and incontrovertibly “there,” in every line that they wrote. It is so also in the theater, for the creative process is essentially one in all the arts. An actor may, according as his experience of life has been wide or narrow, according as he himself is simple or complex, single-or many-sided, work in a wide field or he may specialize within a comparatively narrow range. What is worth remembering, however, of a really versatile player like David Garrick, as against the limited portrayer of a type, is not that Garrick has submerged his personality, but rather that, through sympathetic comprehension and intelligence, he has enlarged it to embrace a much wider segment of life. Zola conceived of art as a corner of nature seen through a personality. If acting is in any sense among the arts, why should we not grant to the actor this same privilege—to re-character his material in terms of his own personality—which we impose upon the poet as a duty? We may grant it or not as we choose; we may even justify our obtuseness by the cant that acting is not “creative” but merely “interpretative.” Still the actor will continue to do it, as he has always done it, because it creates the only condition under which acting can exist at all.

Lillian Gish photo by Witzel L.A. – 1920

I admit that this is dangerous doctrine, but I do not happen to know any true doctrine that is not dangerous. I am not trying to absolve the actor from “faithfulness” to the author whose plays he presents; I am simply suggesting that in acting itself there is a larger creative element than is commonly supposed. The plain truth of the matter is that unless a play is purely a “closet-drama”—and therefore devoid of all essential dramatic quality—it is not finished at the time it is printed: it does not really come alive until some man or woman of genius makes it live upon the stage. The very great plays—Hamlet, for example—are never completed. Hamlet is no longer Shakespeare’s exclusively but the world’s, and it will not be really finished until the last great actor has presented his conception of it.

Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms

In short, I believe that the actor, like the poet, cannot possibly create anything greater than his own soul. It is precisely this experiential quality that marks the difference between mere vulgar impersonation—which is of no significance—and genuine portrayal of character—which is of value because it assists in the understanding of life. That which the actor does not understand, and which has not been passed through his own alembic, may indeed startle for the moment through technical brilliance; but in the long run it is ineffective, like the famous legendary sermon which the devil once delivered with great energy against all the hosts of darkness, and which won no converts, simply because the preacher himself did not believe in it.

The bearing of all this upon my subject is, I trust, fairly obvious. Miss Gish is not, in the usual sense, a versatile actress. Her temperament is not naturally and obviously “dramatic,” and she always claims the right to make her roles over to suit Lillian Gish. Yet she has come to be accepted as the outstanding serious artist of the screen, the authentic, incomparable interpreter of the drama of the shadows. As far back as 1920, John Barrymore called her an American artist worthy to rank with Duse and Bernhardt, an American girl who had equaled if not surpassed the finest traditions of the theater.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

I hope I may not be misunderstood. I am not saying what the unenlightened so often say: that “Lillian Gish is always the same.” Each of her portraits is an individual achievement: he who feels or who pretends to feel that her Mimi and her Hester Prynne are the same person, or that her Angela Chiaromonte is not an essentially different girl from her Henriette Girard, is surely completely blind to other than very elementary and wholly obvious distinctions: fine shadings in art are not for him. Versatility, in the usual sense, is comparatively easy for the character actor: he presents, one after another, wholly different types, and he has all the resources of makeup to sustain the illusion. But Miss Gish is not a character actress. She has played only sensitive young women, most of them about the same age, many of them facing not wholly dissimilar problems.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

The business of differentiation for such a player is ten thousand times more difficult than it is for the character actor; I think hardly any careful student of acting will deny that she has triumphantly met the test.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”

But what is more to the point for my argument is that in and through all her carefully differentiated characterizations , she has expressed also her own point of view, a distinctive something which is Lillian Gish and nobody else on earth. Her Hester Prynne is not precisely Hawthorne’s Hester: she is Lillian’s Hester. This point has sometimes been cited against her; as a matter of fact, it is the highest praise that could be given. Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne exists in Hawthorne’s pages: why should Lillian Gish seek to create her over again? Is it not better to begin under Hawthorne’s spell but to go on from there independently to work out her own conception as he did his?—a conception which, precisely because it does represent the reaction of another individuality, will help us better to understand not only Hawthorne but the life experience which both artists, and which all artists, seek to interpret?

Lillian Gish before the trial – Hester Prynne – The Scarlet Letter

This, I believe, is the essentially “poetic” note in the work of Lillian Gish—a thing to which so many have referred but which hardly anybody has understood. The girl’s work seems “poetic” because she is a poet, that is because she is a creator. She is like the poets in that there is something distinctive in the way she apprehends life, and she uses her roles as the poet uses words and the musician tones—not to reproduce what somebody else has done but to express directly her own authentic impression. Hence also the marvelous sense of completeness, of perfection that she gives you. The part and the actress are one: there is nothing extraneous. In a very deep and very true sense, she is the profoundest kind of actress: that is to say she does not “act” at all; she is.

Lillian Gish – The White Sister

This is not of course what most people mean when they refer to Lillian as “poetic.” Usually, I am afraid, they mean that she is pretty. Sometimes—God forgive them!—they are even trying to say that she is weak. The novelist Joseph Hergesheimer was one of Lillian’s most ardent admirerers, yet he would seem to have been blind to some of her most important qualities. Hergesheimer objected strenuously to The White Sister, for example, which he claimed he never went to see. “I had no wish to see Lillian’s pale charm against the rigid whiteness of a nun’s headdress.” But it was precisely the qualities which repelled Hergesheimer in The White Sister that attracted Lillian: she wanted to do the story, as she once told me, most of all for the privilege of filming the assumption of the veil, a ritual which she considered one of the most beautiful things in modern civilization.

Lillian Gish – An Innocent Magdalene

I do not, however, wish to convey the impression that I am in any sense unmoved by Lillian’s beauty. She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name. The affinity between her given name and her spirit is a commonplace; if there were only one thing in the world by which to symbolize her, one would instinctively choose the lily. To most persons I suppose her surname means nothing, but this is their misfortune. It should mean romance, the pathos of distance and of faraway perfect things; it should carry them back to buried Babylon, to the Gilgamesh epic and the marvelous adventures of Gish.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

Lillian’s physical frailness–her Dresden china quality- connects here, and it is this which is commonly regarded as her most serious limitation. Actually it is nothing of the kind. It is true that it bars her from playing coarse types— which make up the most of life—and that it limits her capacity for heroic expression. It is hardly conceivable that any other producer than D. W. Griffith could have discerned her gifts at the time she entered pictures: to anyone else, the pale child she was then must have seemed, as a dramatic actress, the world’s worst bet. Griffith, with his passion for delicacy and his uncanny knowledge of his craft, perceived at once that what might have handicapped her on the stage was precisely what would make her on the screen. In a large auditorium, physical coarseness of feature is no handicap; it may even be an advantage. But the merciless camera, with its magnified features and its enormous close- ups, brings the actor almost on top of his audience, registering every movement, showing up inevitably the most trifling defect. Except Mary Pickford, there is nobody whose contour quite suits the camera, quite stands the test, as does Lillian’s. And it would be difficult to find two actresses who appear in more radically different lights. Mary photographs always with cameolike precision: she stands out against her backgrounds with crystal clarity, like Lucrezia Bori at the opera. Lillian’s outlines, on the other hand, are dreamlike, subdued; she seems to float on the screen like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.

Lillian Gish in 1922 – Photograph by Pach Bros.

This lyrical coloring in Lillian seems immensely precious: doubly so because she lives in an age when most girls have definitely outlawed overtones, when everything must be frank and open, everything ruthlessly displayed, no matter how ugly it may be. Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does, glorifies it with the interpenetrating quality of the imagination, makes it impossible for her to be drably realistic, no matter what her role. Frequently she plays what are called in the movies “cotton stocking” parts. But what she gives you of poverty in these instances is never its drabness and hardness but only its singleness and sweet humility.

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

The star example is the scene in Way Down East in which Anna Moore, her mind oppressed by the dread dogma of infant damnation, herself baptized her dying child. Miss Gish played the scene with utter realism—her walk, her expressions, the very arrangement of her clothes all suggesting the strain of recent childbirth. Many an actress could have done that, but I do not know who could have followed her in the next step she took, who could have lifted the whole scene, as she did, away from squalor, beyond the physical, who could so beautifully have suggested the age-old miracle of the girl become mother.

But Lillian’s lyricism could never have served to win her present place for her had it not been coupled with a dramatic intensity all the more striking because the body through which she expresses it seems so frail. The effect is virtually to blot out the flesh: when she really lets herself go, she is like nothing so much as a pure white flame.

Though she has done finer things since, her closet scene in Broken Blossoms, the helpless child’s pitiful terror of the brutal father who was hammering against the door, trying to get in and kill her, will remain in the memory of all her audiences as the best single expression of her wonderful capacity for utter surrender to emotion. It was hysterics photographed, yet it was fine art; hysterics are not naturally beautiful.

I have already touched on the exaltation, the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing. Even her beauty is not a thing in itself: you never think of her as a “beauty” in the sense in which you think thus of many women of the theater. She is essentially the Puritan in art: there are many phases of experience that she does not care to touch. It is indeed because of her own sensitiveness, because through all these years in the theater she has, in a sense, kept herself in a world apart, that she has become so incomparable an interpreter of the experience of sensitive women. In the ordinary, vulgar sense of the term, there is no more sex in her screen manifestations than there was for Dante in the Beatrice of the Commedia.

Miss Gish’s work on the screen is pure emotion: there is no suggestion of mind in it, and here, as always, she is profoundly right, for the visible presence of intellect in acting can only rob it of spontaneity, make it labored and self-conscious. But all who have watched Lillian’s development know that the mind is there notwithstanding: nothing could be farther from the truth than to imagine that the lovely things she has created came into being spontaneously, as mere emanations of herself. And she is still growing, for each appearance marks, in some respect, an advance. Twelve years ago, in The Birth of a Nation, I did not indeed find her extraordinarily effective; of all her more important characterizations, this of Elsie Stoneman seems to me the least. But as Annie Lee in Enoch Arden, released that same year, she did immensely fine work, running the whole gamut from youth to age, and doing it with splendid sincerity and with poignant, touching sweetness. As the French girl Marie in Hearts of the World she went even deeper, and after I saw her in Broken Blossoms in 1919, I told her, out of my ignorance, that I did not see how she could ever equal the performance she had given here. Yet Lillian has gone far, far beyond what then seemed unutterable perfection.

In four of her recent pictures, Miss Gish has been engaged in a profound and beautiful study—the study of woman’s attitude toward her love. In La Boheme it was the love which gives blindly, eagerly, in answer to desire. In Romola it was the austere love which, precisely because it loves, will accept nothing from the beloved except the best. In The White Sister love and God were in conflict, and God won.

And in The Scarlet Letter the love was tainted with sin and worked its way out, through suffering, to salvation.

Lillian Gish in “Hearts of the World”

Of these four characterizations, it is difficult to make a choice, but I think the one which moved me most was precisely the one which has been the least popular—Romola. This film surely did not earn very much money for its sponsors, for it was enormously expensive, and it wholly lacked the melodramatic appeal which a great costume film must have if it is to capture the movie public. Lillian’s own role, too, was not essentially dramatic, there was no furniture broken, and the general public could not do other than remain comparatively indifferent to her quiet, gently incisive baring of a woman’s soul. Lillian herself—the artist’s divine dissatisfaction upon her—did not quite share my enthusiasm for this picture. “I hope you will like Romola when you see it,” she had written me. “It caused me so much trouble and there are so many things in it that I would have different from what they are that I can never think of it now without a great feeling of sadness for what we might have done with that beautiful story.” Nevertheless, it is here that she has given us a characterization worthy, in its perfections, to rank with Mary Garden’s portrait of Melisande in Debussy’s ultimate opera. For the first time, as I watched Romola, I felt that I was really beginning to understand what supreme devotion, what never-failing effort it must have cost Lillian Gish to develop her art to the point to which she had brought it here. The old-time violence, the occasionally hysteric quality that was the hangover from her Griffith days, was gone, but the dramatic intenseness that had accompanied it and saved it and made it beautiful remained—repressed, quivering with life. A twitch of her expressive mouth, a shift of expression in her eyes, and she had accomplished what in the old days it took all the resources of her body to achieve less perfectly. The finest example of all this in Romola comes at that moment in the house of Tessa when Romola first realizes that Tito has been unfaithful to her. Actually Lillian did nothing in that moment save look at Tito and then back at Tessa’s baby which she was holding in her arms. Slowly the realization dawned that her husband was the father of this child, and the tears welled up in her eyes, but they did not overflow. Amazement, incredulous wonder, wounded pride, and the pure woman’s instinctive recoil from an unchaste man—they were all there in that look; yet beneath and above them all were love and pity—for Tito, and for Tessa, and for the child.

Lillian Gish – Romola (mid)

In Romola, Lillian appeared to be turning inward—more self-contained than she used to be—an entity complete. In a measure this may have been due to the accident of material. But in a deeper sense I do not believe it was, for Lillian is growing daily, broadening, developing, shifting the stream of her life to deeper channels. If this tendency continues she will in the future be less of an “actress” than now; she will be rather a symbolist, an “essentialist”—if there is such a word—and her screen images will be not so much characterizations as projections, pictures, embodiments (I know not how to name them) of the varied aspects of the spiritual life. One shudders to think what effect such a process might have upon Lillian’s box-office popularity, but what a sense of wonder she could bring to our souls, what deepening and beautifying of this amazing mystery we call life. And Lillian could do it if her managers would give her the chance, could leave behind her “pictures of the floating world” which might well live as long in the imaginations of men as Homer’s portrait of Nausicaa.

Photographer Vandamm – NYPL Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Guthrie McClintic’s Hamlet 1936 – detail

Indeed, I believe Miss Gish to be capable of much greater roles than any she has yet played. She has etched a precious number of lyrical and dramatic moments, but frequently the ‘stuff from which she has wrought has been the veriest melodrama. Imagine what she might be in Lancelot and Elaine or as Melisande or Francesca da Rimini. Imagine what she might do with Ophelia or with any of the later spiritualized heroines of Shakespeare with Miranda or Perdita, for example. She is not easy to fit with roles that shall be at once adaptable to the screen and suited to her genius. for the mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited by “emotional” actresses—is simply not for her.

Sometimes I am inclined to be a little impatient about these things: I suppose everybody, now and then, feels that the careers of his favorite artists are being less intelligently managed than he himself could manage them. Yet the last time I saw Lillian, one night in Chicago, when she and her delightful mother left for California, it came over me suddenly that all such fretting was futile. What difference does it make what Lillian plays so long as she is Lillian? That at least no casting director can ever take away from us. Here is the source of the impression she makes, for she herself is among the poets. She may bring us art and literature from the treasure houses of Europe, or she may float on an ice cake down some river of her native land. Whatever she does, she will always be beauty—emotionalized beauty, through which one catches sudden, radiant glimmerings of the wonder of life.

*Copyright © 1927 by Edward Wagenknecht, copyright renewed by Edward Wagenknecht, 1955.

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Stars of the Silents – By EDWARD WAGENKNECHT (1987)

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


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

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920


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

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

Edward Steichen – Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936

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

Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen

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The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant

  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

Dorothy and Lillian – Unbroken Blossoms

I went to tea with Lillian and Dorothy the following afternoon. Their New York apartment was charming and they had a Southern butler, straight out of “Gone with the Wind” who appeared to have been with them for years. From the elegance and richness of the furnishings, it was obvious that Lillian and Dorothy had not squandered their money like so many of the early silent stars; having known what poverty was from their youth, they had, in fact, sensibly invested in real estate.

I was shown into the drawing-room where the sisters introduced me to their mother, a beautiful, exquisitely dressed, white-haired old lady whom they obviously adored. This was the actress who had instilled into Lillian her love of the theatre and whose own career had come to a tragic end. In 1925, Lillian, who was starring in ” The Scarlet Letter ” in Hollywood, heard that her mother was seriously ill in New York. Greatly distressed, she told the director, Victor Seastrom, that she must go to New York at once: he understandingly agreed. When she arrived, Lillian found that her mother had had a stroke which had totally deprived her of the power of speech. Ever since then, Lillian and Dorothy had looked after her; she lived with them, met their guests, was present at all their dinner parties-a gracious, fragile, silent and infinitely touching figure.

On that first visit, while we were taking tea, there seemed to be a mad cocktail party going on in the adjoining dining-room, the door to which was not quite closed. Through the small gap came a babble as of a coven of witches gossiping, with malevolent chuckles and shrieks of eldritch laughter; then one cackling voice could be heard with disconcerting clarity saying, ” That Dorothy Gish-she thinks she’s an actress ! Hee-hee-hee ! She’s no actress-that Dorothy Gish!” I coughed and rattled my teacup on its saucer and made conversation in a loud voice to drown the flow of disparagement from next door. Nobody else took the slightest notice of it and eventually the sounds died away; I assumed that the cocktail-takers had drunk themselves into a coma.

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

One of them, it seemed, came to just as I was leaving. I had telephoned for a cab and when the porter rang back to say he had one waiting for me I said, ” I’ll be right down.” From the next room a horrid, mocking voice echoed, ” I’ll be right DOWN ! ” ” Who was that? ” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Oh, that’s our parrot,” said Lillian, ” you must meet her next time you come. She’s very lively for her age-we’re told she’s well over a hundred-and really a lovely person.” Dorothy, who had just entranced me by announcing, “I’ll go along with Rodney-I’m meeting Zasu and Gloria,” made no comment on the bird; it was conceivable that her affection for the garrulous ancient was more restrained than Lillian’s.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

At our subsequent meetings, Lillian, probably realizing that my love for the cinema was incurable, allowed herself to be lured into talking of early Hollywood days. I wanted to know how Griffith had got that wonderful close-up of her with frozen eyelashes in the blizzard scene of ” Way Down East “; had it been faked? Lillian was indignant. Certainly it had not been faked; the scene had actually been shoL in a blizzard, for which they had waited weeks, and not only her eyelashes but all of her had been frozen. ” I thought I would die of cold,” she said, ” but Griffith just kept shouting, ‘Give her some more hot tea and carry on.’ “

How, I asked, had she done that terrifying scene, in the same picture, where she was on an ice-floe when the ice broke up?

“Why, I just did it,” said Lillian, looking mildly surprised at the question. ‘We all did things in those days.” Recalling the wide use to-day of stand-ins and stunt-men, it seemed to me the modem actor was somewhat lacking in spirit. ” But, I said to Lillian, gazing at her with awe, ” surely you were risking your life? “

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

”Oh, yes, I suppose so,” said she: “as a matter of fact, I was in hospital for six months after that film.” One of Griffith’s most promising women players, Lillian told me, had actually died in the blizzard scene; Griffith re-cast the part and went on shooting.

Reminiscing about “Birth of a Nation,” she told me, with amusement, how one scene, which is still regarded as an outstanding example of screen art, came to be shot. The scene is that which shows the Southemer Colonel Cameron, returning from the Civil War to his ravaged home : he looks like a man who has been through hell. Griffith, it appears, was all set to shoot the scene of the colonel, full of high hopes and patriotic zeal, going off to the Civil War-but Henry B. Walthall, who was playing Cameron, had been on a terrific bat the night before and turned up at the studio looking ghastly and suffering from an imperial hangover.

Henry B Walthall – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

Griffith immediately changed his plans : ” We can’t shoot him like that setting out,” he said. “We’ll shoot him coming back.” And it was done.

“Everything was so different in the old days,” said Lillian. ” There were no strict union rules then, of course, and everybody was adaptable; we all worked together to make a good film-and we took pride in working together. Films lost so much when talkies came in, I just felt I must leave Hollywood. So in 1930 I crone to New York-and played in Jed Harris’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya.'”

” But surely you did make one talking picture? ” I asked.

“Wasn’t it ‘ One Romantic Night,’ with Rod la Rocque, directed by Paul Stein? ,,

One Romantic Night – The Swan

At the mention of that name, Lillian’s face became (as Edmund Pearson described her ‘Lizzie Borden ” face in the play ” Nine, Pine St.”) .. as venomous and implacable as that of the great murderous queen in ‘ Agamemnon.’ ” ” I can’t bear to think of it,” she said. We agreed that it was the only stinker she had ever appeared in. She had, of course, not yet made ” Duel in the Sun.”

The White Sister

Lillian recalled her experiences with Ronald Colman, whom she had discovered as a small-part stage actor. In 1923 she formed her own film company with Henry King and (which may surprise those who think the current fashion to film in Italy is something new), took Colman to Italy to appear with her in her film of “The White Sister ” which she made there. In one scene, Colman, cast as the impetuous Italian lover, had to display burning passion as he tried to persuade Lillian, the nun of the title role, to break her vows. The scene was rehearsed over and over again. Mr. Colman’s display of passion was not even lukewarm. It seemed as if his inner self, clad in white flannels and brandishing an embarrassed tennis racquet, held him back, murmuring, ‘Oh,. I say, old man-look here ! That sort of thing’s all right for foreigners, but I mean to say …. ! ” In desperation, Lillian poured him half-a-tumblerful of brandy; in desperation, Mr. Colman drank it down, neat and in one gulp. A few minutes later, positively incandescent with passion and alcohol, he gave a performance so scorching that, when it reached the screen, women in the audience glowed with responsive rapture and swooned away. Out of the glass of brandy a star was born.

One of the reasons I stayed on in New York (apart from the delight I took in Lillian’s company) was that I was trying to get somebody to present my play of ‘Crime and Punishment ” there. The New York Theatre Guild took an option on it and we at once began to discuss casting. I wanted Lillian to play Katerina Ivanovna-the part Edith Evans had played in London-but could not think of an actor to play Raskolnikov. Lillian suggested Burgess Meredith, who was then appearing in “The Playboy of the Western World.”

There was a charming story going the rounds at the time. The New York Irish took as great exception to the play as the Irish in Ireland had done when it was first presented, and one night a crowd of Irish toughs gathered at the stage door and mobbed Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, as they sat in their limousine. The finger of scorn was pointed at Miss Goddard and Mr. Meredith was challenged to ” get out and foight.” ” Don’t you do it, Buzz,” cried Paulette. “Just open the window and let me hit them with my diamond necklace.”

Lillian and I went to see Burgess to ask if there was any possibility of his being able to play in” Crime and Punishment.” For the time being, there was none : he planned to go to Dublin when the run of ” The Playboy ” ended, to appear there with Paulette in” Winterset.”

He did go to Dublin-and when I met him a year later he told me the play had not been very enthusiastically received. On the morning following the first night, a chambermaid entered their hotel bedroom bearing a breakfast tray and a bundle of newspapers. She put the newspapers at the foot of the bed and set down the breakfast tray. “There y’are now,” she said cosily. “Eat up yer breakfast before ye desthroy yerselves reading the notices.”

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith – promotional for ‘The Star-Wagon’

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THE CELLULOID MISTRESS – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant (1954)

  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954


” There were two sisters sat in a bower .. “

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

I had told Bill Gillette I was going to America to see Korda but the moment I arrived in New York I had to confess to myself that there was somebody else I simply must see, somebody I really looked forward to seeing-and before I telephoned the film magnate who had, as I thought, caused me so much trouble, I telephoned the star who had, from my boyhood days, given me so much pleasure and inspiration : Lillian Gish.

Nine years before, I had been sitting in my room in the Albany flat when Arthur Boys, who had been dining with friends of ours, came in and said casually, “Who do you think is staying with the Parkers?” “I’ve no idea at all,” I said. “Well, guess! ” urged Arthur, “Hitler?” I suggested. “No,” said Arthur, ” Lillian Gish.” I sprang up in the greatest excitement, ” It can’t be! ” “But it is,” insisted Arthur, pleased at being the bearer of such sensational news. If he had not been adamant in refusing to disturb his host and hostess at half-past midnight, I would have forced him to telephone the Parkers then and there to ask if I might meet their distinguished visitor. He spoke to them next morning and they amiably invited me to dine the following evening. I arrived in a state of awe and on being introduced to Lillian Gish became completely tongue-tied-as I usually do when confronted with one of my idols. (Had Tchekov lived in my time and I had met him, I’ve no doubt I should be dumb-struck to this day.) I could only gaze at Miss Gish. It was incredible : she looked exactly the same as she did in the old days-except for two fine lines under her eyes. Her face was so young, it seemed to me; she must have drawn those lines on, in order to play a character part. I sat beside her at dinner, my mind full of memories. When had I first met Lillian Gish on the screen? Was it in 11 The Angel of the Settlement,” a two-reeler in which she had saved George Walsh from being lynched? I recalled seeing that with my sister Kay; it had been a gala day for us at the Grand Theatre, Fulham-for Lillian Gish was my favourite star and George Walsh was Kay’s best-loved actor, and the other film in the bill had been ” The Voice from the Minaret,” with Nonna Talmadge. Suddenly I became aware that some contribution to the conversation was expected from me. ” Oh, Miss Gish,” I said nervously to her, ” there’s something I remember about one of your earlier films which apparently nobody else does : you were once on a horse rushing to someone else’s rescue.” Miss Gish looked at me as though I must be out of my mind. ” I was on a horse . . . rushing to rescue somebody? ” she said, incredulously.

” Yes,” I asserted, ” it was called ‘ The Angel of the Settlement.’ ” Miss Gish shook her head and said in a gentle but firm voice :

“No, no. You must be mistaken. I can’t remember any such film or incident.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

I was surprised and abashed. I hadn’t at that time learned that film stars who have appeared in a great many films always forget the early ones. I did not, in fact, realize this until Robert Helpmann, long afterwards, told me he was afraid he had off ended Bebe Daniels : he had said to her, ” I remember you, dressed as a moth, dancing on a table in’ Singed Wings.'” Miss Daniels had not remembered having done anything so ” idiotic.” She had genuinely forgotten the f:tlm-and one must hope it is never unearthed and shown on TV as it might rock the millions who enjoy that cosy” Life with the Lyons.” Though my first meeting with Lillian Gish had opened somewhat inauspiciously, it led to her becoming a dear friend of mine. We met a number of times during her stay in London-and I discovered that though I had always thought of her as a film star, she regarded herself as essentially a stage actress. Her mother had been an actress in a touring company and Lillian and her sister Dorothy, as children, had travelled abbut with her; it was not a very successful touring company and they often went hungry to bed in the stuffy dressing-rooms of fifth-rate theatres because there was not money enough to pay for a meal or lodgings. The vicissitudes of her childhood had not destroyed Lillian’s born love of the theatre. The years she had spent making films in Hollywood (from 1910 to I930, I believe) represented to her no more than a temporary break in her stage career.

Naturally, during our meetings I argued fervently in favour of the cinema and told her it was my ambition, my dream, to become a film director. She used to smile at me as if I were being rather foolish-but one day she spoke very seriously. Since I had last visited her, she had been to see “After October ” and had read several of my other plays. “Rodney,” she said,” I beg of you don’t waste your time pursuing that dream of yours. You are a playwright-why do you want to be a film director instead of writing plays-plays that nobody else could write? There are hundreds of competent film directors and to get to the top in that profession you must be ruthless-you must be tough enough to take hard knocks and keep fighting and fighting. It is not worth it for you; you have better things to do-you have your plays to write. Think of the number of plays you could have written in all this time you’ve been messing about with films ! Don’t you see?”

Within The Gates – Edward Steichen (Estate) credits – Harvard Art Museums – Fogg Museum copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – detail1

I saw that she spoke in earnest and I loved her for it. I was, in fact, deeply moved : I muttered out inadequate thanks for her kindness. “Well, think about it, anyway,” she said-and then, to put the conversation on a less emotional level, changed the subject. “I should love to play in a London theatre” she sighed. I asked what she had been doing before she came over here. “I was playing in New York in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Within the Gates.’ The front-of “house people told me they used to hear dear old ladies coming into the theatre at matinees saying, ‘ Oh, I always like Lillian Gish, she’s so sweet, always so refined . .. ‘-and then, when the poor things sat down and opened their programmes a gasp would go through the whole auditorium. You see, I was down as ‘ Lillian Gish-The Young Whore.’ “

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

When I telephoned her in New York, Lillian suggested that as Mary Pickford was giving a little party for a few friends at the Waldorf Astoria that day, I should meet her there at six o’clock.

That, I thought, would be charming. Having just arrived from the wilds of Canada, I felt, though, my wardrobe, designed for roughing. it in the wild North-West, was scarcely suitable for a party, however small, at the Waldorf Astoria. I couldn’t afford to buy very much, having only my dollar allowance, and anyway I hadn’t the time, as it was already half-past four. I would let my one good suit to be pressed by the hotel valet service and meantime could slip out in my rumpled tweeds and at least get a new shirt. No haberdasher in the vicinity of the hotel seemed to understand what I wanted so I journeyed to Fifth Avenue. Here, having browsed luxuriously through a variety of shirtings such as had not been seen in England since before the war, I discovered suddenly that it was later than I had thought. I hastily bought a shirt and, clutching it under my arm, emerged from the shop into the inconceivable chaos of New York’s rush hour.

The sidewalk seethed with hot, harassed people, scurrying in all directions, pushing and elbowing each other fiercely and showing such a frenzied determination to escape from Fifth Avenue as quickly as possible that one would have thought an outbreak of bubonic plague in the area had just been announced. There were no taxis to be had-no buses. One stream of fugitives bore me up Fifth Avenue, another swept me clown-and it was nearly six o’clock. There was no time to return to my hotel. I would have to forego the freshly pressed suit and fight my way to the Waldorf Astoria as I was. Arriving, panting and more rumpled than ever, I plunged into the gentleman’s cloakroom, had a quick wash and changed into my new shirt; to my chagrin, it had the kind of cuffs that demand links, and I was linldess. The friendly attendant comforted me with the information that I could buy a IC cheap pair-just junk” at a kiosk in the foyer. With the cheapest pair I could find holding my Cliffs decently together, I asked to be conducted to Miss Mary Pickford’s party.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish – feature photo

A supercilious page flung open a door-revealing thousands and thousands of people, as resplendent and as raucous as macaws, milling about in the ballroom beyond. Dazed and almost deafened, I stood by the doorway feeling lost and hoping that Lillian Gish would find me. At last, looking herself slightly dazed, she did and as we fell on each other’s necks she said in my ear, IC But I promise you, Mary did say just a few friends.” I was fascinated to meet Mary Pickford, though I did not exchange more than a couple of words with her-not, on this occasion, because I was tongue-tied but because she was so busy receiving the hordes of guests who continued to arrive. Her circle of friends was apparently infinite. Unlike Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford had changed a great deal since the old days; she bore no resemblance at all to the ringletted darling who was the world’s sweetheart.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

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King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976) – Duel in the Sun

  • King Vidor
  • Copyright © 1976 by SIMON & SCHUSTER, Inc.
  • Published by MONARCH PRESS
  • a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 1 West 39th Street New York, N.Y. 10018

It is to this family of filmmakers — the clan of Griffith, Walsh and Ford — that King Vidor belongs. In a long and active career he has preserved his personal style from commercial erosion and retained well into the sixties the sense of American landscape which distinguishes his best films. What sets Vidor apart from his contemporaries in this gentle field is, however, a dark, almost demonic view of the land.

Hard riding and soft religion don’t mix, so get goin’. — Title in Vidor’s “The Sky Pilot.”

Duel in the Sun

That Vidor may have seen himself in the same light as these mythical characters is suggested by his frequent confrontations with Hollywood’s most domineering moguls, men with whom no director could hope to work except with a maximum of friction. Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and David Selznick totally opposed Vidor on three matters closest to his heart, Goldwyn in the creation of screenplays, Thalberg in his subservience to popular appeal, Selznick in the choice of locations. Yet it was for these three men that Vidor created his best work. “One often has to make films just to keep one’s name in the public eye,” he remarks, but the rationalization is thin. It is far more likely that only while working with such men was he pressured to do his best.

The hand of Selznick lies heavily but not without a sureness of touch on Duel in the Sun (1946), perhaps the greatest outdoor film of the forties. Niven Busch’s novel had all Vidor’s preoccupations, in particular a conflict between Man, in the person of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), a crippled monument in a wheelchair, and Nature, dramatized by his vast ranch, Spanish Bit. Industry — in this case the railroad — invades this empire, helped by McCanles’s gentle son Jess (Joseph Cotten) but opposed, in imitation of his father, by the libidinous and violent Lewt (Gregory Peck). The innocently erotic Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), an orphan half-caste billeted with the family after the execution of her father for her mother’s murder, is flung from the protective Mrs. McCanles, played with a sense of gossamer and steel by Lillian Gish, to the affection of Jess and (her own preference) the satyriasis of Lewt, with whom she perishes in a demon tryst high in the mountains, both of them shot and dying together.

It is impossible not to be exhilarated by Duel in the Sun, in which Selznick tried with typical single-mindedness to recapture the scope and vivacity of Cone With the Wind. The interference of which Vidor complained added significantly to the film’s success, but Vidor found the constant presence of Selznick on the set galling and walked out when the film was not quite completed.

Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set – candid, duel in the sun

Selznick directed some remaining scenes, William Dieterle handled a Reinhardtesque sequence in the vast bar which opens the film, and second-unit director Otto Brower the train wreck from which Lewt rides away singing, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Even Josef von Sternberg, hired by Selznick to supervise the costume tests and, hopefully, give Jennifer Jones some of the photographic glamour of Marlene Dietrich — Vidor used him as an assistant, having him douse the star with water in scenes requiring the appearance of sweat — directed one brief scene of a posse searching the McCanles house. So acute was Selznick’s obsession with his star that his visits to the set became embarrassing, the microphone picking up his heavy breathing as he watched her. Equally upsetting was a brief visit by D. W. Griffith. “Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish were incapable of speaking their script, especially Barrymore. After a moment I had to ask Mr. Griffith, ‘Would you mind leaving the set or going behind the decor?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been here too long anyway, I apologize.’ And he left very politely.”

After Duel in the Sun, Vidor had a long spell of inactivity, briefly broken by the sketch film A Miracle Can Happen (1948), also known as On Our Merry Way. Its personnel is a catalogue of renegades.

King Vidor in 1931

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King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976)

  • King Vidor
  • Copyright © 1976 by SIMON & SCHUSTER, Inc.
  • Published by
  • a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 1 West 39th Street New York, N.Y. 10018

JOHN BAXTER is the author of numerous books on film, including The Cinema of John Ford, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell, and Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stunt Men. He contributes regularly to the London Times and Sunday Times Magazine.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish d’apres le roman de Henri Murger

A Demonic Landscape

There is a sense in which all American film is geographic. No national cinema places more emphasis on the outdoors, or more intimately relates the attitudes and preoccupations of its characters to the shape and symbology of the land. Almost every major work of American silent cinema has its component of landscape, and classics abound in which nature assumes a power and mystical significance: Way Down East, Greed, The Wind, The Iron Horse, The Salvation Hunters, The Cold Rush, The General and Sunrise are obvious examples.

La Boheme

Thalberg (Irving) confirmed MGM’s view of The Big Parade as a Gilbert vehicle by allocating the same star to Vidor for his next two films, a big budget version of La Boheme (1926) to star Gilbert and the studio’s newest acquisition, Lillian Gish, and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), in which he romped with unaccustomed panache in a story adapted from Rafael Sabatini. Little seen today, La Boheme has great and enduring merit, containing one of Lillian Gish’s most intense performances. With the honeymoon period of her contract still at its height, she could dictate terms to Thalberg. As a subject she asked for a version of Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme adapted by her friend Mme. Frederick de Gresac, and for her director, after seeing two reels of the still-uncompleted The Big Parade, King Vidor. Even Vidor’s reverence for Griffith flagged when Miss Gish demanded full rehearsals in The Master’s style, but like all her directors he could not fault her dedication. Preparing to play the frail seamstress Mimi who sacrifices herself so that her lover, the playwright Rodolphe, can write his masterpiece, she visited hospitals to study the symptoms of terminal tuberculosis, drank no fluids for three days before her death scene and dried her mouth with cotton pads. This sequence — actually quite routine in effect, though cast and crew found it traumatic—is merely the culmination of a performance disturbing in its sense of sickness. The feeling of cold as she huddles in her unfloored and empty flat, the blood-smeared mouth after her first seizure, her exhaustion as she drags herself like a sick cat across Paris, clinging to passing vehicles and to the vast city walls as Paris towers indifferently above her are components of a rich, moving characterization beside which Gilbert’s capering Rodolphe and the other bohemians, no matter how Vidor makes them dance, clown and pose to enliven the static script, become irrelevant.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s

La Boheme showed Gilbert in a poor light — literally, since Miss Gish brought in Hendrick Sartov to create glamorized, heavily gauzed close-ups that undermined his importance to the story. (Erte had also been hired to do the costumes; the star rejected his designs as too fancy.) Gilbert, according to Miss Gish, fell in love with her and proposed marriage when the film ended, so he may have been happy to give her the lioness’s share of the production. He was no better served by Bardelys the Magnificent. With Gilbert’s collusion and perhaps with covert encouragement from Mayer, who disliked his amoral life style and sensed that the era of the matinee idol was dying, Vidor used Sabatini’s story to show Gilbert in a new and unflattering light, that of an action star a la Douglas Fairbanks. Cutting a poor figure as a fencer and relying on stunt men for such spectacular coups as an escape from his own execution on a parachute improvised from an awning, Gilbert is comfortable only in the love scenes, particularly the much- quoted river sequence in which he and Eleanor Boardman glide under drooping willow boughs. Despite the efforts of many close friends, including Vidor, Gilbert destroyed himself with drink and melancholy, both the actor and the industry magnifying the problems of his light speaking voice into an obsession. “Jack died before his time,” said Vidor, “and death perhaps came as a great relief.”

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

For all their elegance and flair, La Boheme and Bardelys the Magnificent could have been the work of any top MCM staff director; Clarence Brown might well have extracted more from them than did Vidor. But Vidor, like Griffith, regarded himself as a thinker on film. Now established at Metro, he could enlarge on his personal ethic, exhort audiences to optimism and self-help, and offer cautionary tales on the perils of failure. One might have expected films which mined the same profitable vein as Frank Capra’s, but Vidor’s pragmatism, characteristic of one brought up in Christian Science, ensured that his parables were underlaid with a bleak doubt. While Ford and Capra knew that a good man who kept faith would always survive, Vidor believed that survival is subject to the caprice of a malevolent destiny. As Job meditates, the Lord giveth, but the Lord taketh away.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976)

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Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan (Charles Affron)

  • Movie Digest – 1925
    Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood
  • Jack Foley

CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground. THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.


For the first ten years of her career, Lillian Gish had been nearly impermeable to the most common sort of movie-star publicity—speculation about her love affairs. Only the rare mention of a possible relationship between D. W. Griffith and his leading lady challenged the notion that the object of Lillian’s affection, after her mother and sister, was the movies. The entanglement with Charles Duell had, of course, altered that perception.

And, at the same time, she was linked with another man, a writer and intellectual, the most influential drama critic of the period. There is no doubt that George Jean Nathan, champion of modernist, “serious” theatre, who flaunted a snobbish disdain for the movies and all other manifestations of popular culture, fell in love with Lillian Gish. Nor is there any question that for ten years, George was the most important man in Lillian’s life, perhaps the great love of her life. He also exerted a formative influence on her taste and her professional activities. Struck by her beauty and style, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell had included versions of Lillian Gish in their novels. But it was as George Jean Nathan’s female companion that Lillian secured her place among the elite of America’s arts and letters during the 1920s and 1930s.

They were from adjoining states, Ohio and Indiana, born eleven years apart, Nathan on February 14, 1882. In terms of affluence, religion, and schooling, their backgrounds and upbringings were dissimilar. George’s father, Charles Naret-Nathan, a Jew from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, was well educated, wealthy, and cosmopolitan. His mother, Ella Nordlinger, was a native of Fort Wayne, George’s birthplace. Part Jewish, she attended a convent school and converted to Catholicism. As we know, Lillian attended school sporadically. While little Lillian was touring in melodramas, George was studying in Italy, France, and Germany, before his graduation from Cornell in 1904. Through the good offices of his uncle Charles Nordlinger, drama critic for the New York Herald, George found a job on the paper and was soon writing theatre reviews for Harper’s Weekly. Nathan’s name would often be associated with that of the Baltimore journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken. Six years after Nathan met Mencken in 1908 in the office of The Smart Set, the two men became this magazine’s coeditors and turned its pages into a forum for the cause of modern literature.

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan — Chateau Du Plessis France

Nathan stewarded the first American publications of James Joyce, two stories from Dubliners; the young Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald were given boosts by inclusion in The Smart Set where works by Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Theodore Dreiser appeared as well. The Mencken-Nathan circle included Joseph Hergesheimer, James Branch Cabell, Sinclair Lewis, Carl Van Vechten, Sherwood Anderson, and Willa Cather, all of whom contributed to The Smart Set. In partnership with publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Nathan and Mencken founded a more prestigious journal in 1924, The American Mercury. Its stated goal was “to offer a comprehensive picture, critically presented, of the entire American scene,” including the arts, politics, industrial and social relations, and science, all from the perspective of “the civilized minority.”

Nathan’s concerns were not so catholic, however. “What interests me in life is the surface of life: life’s music and color, its charm and ease, its humor and its loveliness. The great problems of the world—social, political, economic, and theological do not concern me in the slightest. I care not who writes the laws of the country so long as I may listen to its songs. I can live every bit as happily under a king, or even a Kaiser, as under a president.” With political views “slightly to the right of Marie Antoinette’s,” Nathan was a dandy who suffered from an excess of “noblesse oblige.” He was also a condescending racist who, without a trace of irony, urged his readers to save their tears for the African-American. According to this opinion-maker, the black man should be “happier by far than he ever was, which is more than his average white brother-democrat can say for himself.” After all, in recent years, Nathan proudly asserted, more whites had been lynched than blacks. And black men could even marry white women! Although Mencken was situated on the same side of the political spectrum as Nathan, the two men clashed over the focus of The American Mercury. Nathan almost immediately resigned his coeditorship but continued to contribute pieces on theatre for five more years.


Nathan and Mencken belonged to the same ” civilized minority” that treated the movies and their stars with unmasked contempt. The coterie made an exception of Lillian Gish. In fact, the fourth issue of The American Mercury featured an article by Joseph Hergesheimer entitled ” Lillian Gish.” Full of the usual condescension to the movie business, it recounted Hergesheimer’s meetings with Lillian to discuss his portrait of her in Cytherea and movie projects he wished her to consider. First, at her refusal of a drink and a cigarette, Hergesheimer was seduced by her public image and delighted in her prudishness: “It made flawless her quaint rigidity of bearing, her withdrawn grace.” From the little she said, he was struck by the passionate way she referred to her work: “It was her religion, since it had accomplished for her the offices of a religion—it had raised her from the earth to the sky.” Then came Hergesheimer’s attacks against petit bourgeois attachments to mother, patriotism, and home, along with his hope that Lillian’s mind might be “liberated from the tyranny of mob sentimentality.” Poor Lillian, of course, “was wholly superior,” but she “hadn’t associated with the people and ideas that would have given a clear and aesthetic form to her thoughts. She hadn’t the relative calm, the superiority, of an intelligent background.” Hergesheimer’s critique of the bourgeoisie was the party line of The Smart Set and The American Mercury. For his part, Nathan clearly took pleasure in heaping scorn upon the cinema, an enterprise emblematic of all that was wrong with the tasteless, materialistic society that produced and worshiped it. “Controlled in the overwhelming main by the most ignorant social outcasts … by hereditary toothpick suckers, soup coloraturos and six-day sockwearers, controlled in the mass by men of a complete anaesthesia to everything fine and everything earnest and everything dollarless, the moving pictures—the physic of the proletariat—have revealed themselves the most effective carriers of idiocy that the civilized world has known.” There is some irony in that the policy makers of these magazines, Mencken and Nathan, were particularly close to Lillian Gish, an actress who, in her Griffith films, incarnated some of the very notions that the intellectuals deplored. We have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the middle-class homilies Lillian enunciated in her letters to Nell through the early 1920s, but her long sojourns in Italy and her troubled relationship to Charles Duell had certainly changed her. At this point, Lillian seemed ready to continue the worldly education that would liberate her from the confines of home and hearth, and perhaps even from Griffith’s essentially prewar worldview. Although they denigrated the movies and, to some degree, patronized the poorly educated actress, Lillian Gish became the muse of some of the smartest men in America, attracting them with her charm, beauty, intelligence, and most flattering of all, her receptivity to their genius. Of all the Griffith actresses, Lillian had been the director’s most diligent student. She now turned her concentration to a richer curriculum. The genius central to Lillian’s life was George Jean Nathan. Although there is some dispute over when their initial encounter took place, it was probably with Mencken, in 1924, soon after her return from Italy following the completion of Romola and hard upon the end of her “unofficial” engagement to Duell. “The first time I met him was at lunch. I sat between them [Nathan and Mencken] after thanking them for printing Joseph Hergesheimer’s piece on me in their April issue of their new magazine, The American Mercury. They both started to talk at once, the subject poetry. Neither listened to the other, just a rapid fire of talk and jokes as was their custom.” Lillian, who knew Nathan by reputation, had expected an older man, “sixty, at least, white-haired, and probably paunchy,” but found him to be “dark and vigorous,” with a particularly attractive speaking voice. (Director Harold Clurman described him as “Latin-looking, very handsome.”)

Nathan and his friends represented a new world, a new way of thinking for Lillian. “I sat in the group of gay, facile conversationalists and found myself unversed but appreciative. With no hope of being one of them, I searched for anecdotes that might possibly be dropped in quietly and entertain them for a time. And George, all subtle attention, leaning toward me with ‘and what happened next?’ in his eyes. Things of that kind. If you looked for one special quality in George, you’d find that swift, definite courtesy. A good basis for friendship. He was the first man to show me that a smart hat was more becoming to me than a halo of blonde hair in soft-focus camera effect.” The opposition of the smart hat to the halo of blond hair must have been George’s way of extracting Lillian from her pervasive mind-set of moviemaking. He helped her see herself as part of a larger, more varied world than she had ever known.

Lillian’s predecessor in Nathan’s life was Fred Astaire’s sister and showbusiness partner, Adele. Nathan had dedicated The House ofSatan to Adele, who hoped to marry him. After offering various excuses for broken appointments, “he told her that the French ambassador, Paul Claudel, a famous poetdramatist, was in town and that he must confer with him. He found out that the French ambassador was Lillian Gish.’ ” Nathan was smitten with Lillian, and, it appears, she with him. Just two days prior to the New York premiere of Romola, Nathan sent a telegram to Lillian that testifies to their mutual affection:


In his adulatory article on her acting in the November 1924 issue of Vanity Fair, George all but declared his love for Lillian. Betraying his Germanophilia, George entitled the piece “Die Kino-Konigin: a Critical Appreciation of the First Lady of the Cinema.” Leave it to George to write a panegyric to the Queen of Cinema while decrying the movies as unworthy of her talents. But since he allows that “some of the most beautiful performances of Duse and Bernhardt were wrought out of dramatic rubbish, the beautiful performances of Lillian Gish have been wrought from rubbish, no less.” Along with the lyric flights of his pen, he offers some insight into the quality of her art. “Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion, . . . behind a veil of silver chiffon.” Nathan is particularly struck by the sense that she combines directness and simplicity with elusiveness. “She is always present, she always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight around the corner.” His deep feelings for her emerge in comparisons no less sincere for their lack of originality. “The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl . . . are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes.”

Just a few months following the appearance of this article, and directly after Lillian’s exoneration in the Duell trial, word spread of her engagement and impending marriage to Nathan. “America’s most celebrated womanhater and a devastating critic of movies” was a dandy who, at first nights, reserved the adjoining seat “for his hat, stick and opera coat.” Lillian Gish was the new occupant of the seat. “It is reported that he will now write scenarios for his fiancee.” Speculation about engagement and marriage would continue for years, always to be denied by the couple. But a couple they were, and very much in the news. Long the chaste goddess with an edifying book in her hand, Lillian now attracted the measure of racy publicity that befit a star of the first magnitude.

George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

Even before Lillian was freed from Duell’s injunction, other companies began to bid for her. Harry Carr telegraphed from London: “joe schenck [United Artists] WISHES TO know if you will do nothing definite with any other organisation until he returns to new york.” Mary Pickford, one of the partners in United Artists, urged her old friend to sign with the company. “I am sure Mr. Schenck could arrange for the financing of your pictures and releasing through our company, that is if you cared to be with our United Artists. I shall be very happy to suggest this to him when the time comes.” Once the trial reached its successful outcome for Lillian, Mary could afford to be insistent: “there is no question that this is where you should be.” Pickford lauded Joe Schenck, “the most progressive and capable manager in the business,” for his integrity. (Schenck must have been remarkably fair-minded, secure in his marriage, and thoroughly convinced of Lillian’s box-office appeal. His wife, the extremely popular, talented, and highly paid Norma Talmadge, had moved her production unit to United Artists. Talmadge and Gish, likely to be considered for the same kinds of roles, were the current front-runners in the ” great dramatic actress” sweepstakes.) According to Mary, United Artists would protect Lillian by not demanding “more pictures than are artistically possible to produce.” However, it was not Joe Schenck, chairman of the board at United Artists, who succeeded in putting Lillian under contract, but his brother, Nicholas, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The Schenck brothers already had an indirect connection to the Gish sisters and their mother. Before entering the movie business, they had owned amusement parks, among them Fort George in Upper Manhattan, where Mary Gish had run a candy stand and her little girls had learned to ride horses.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

When Lillian Gish joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the major forces in the movie industry were Paramount Pictures, in business since 1914, and First National, founded in 1917. Warner Bros., Fox, and Universal were other strong studios. United Artists, established in 1919, merged the huge boxoffice appeal of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W Griffith, and produced excellent movies, though not very many of them. At the time of its formation in 1924, M-G-M was obviously the newest studio on the block, but it was far from the weakest. Loew’s, Inc., Metro Pictures Incorporated, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (without its founder, Samuel Goldwyn), and Louis B. Mayer pooled their energies and resources to create a studio that immediately joined the first rank. In its initial year of business, M-G-M realized a profit of more than $4.7 million, trailing Paramount alone in this regard. The former Goldwyn lot in Culver City was equipped to produce a steady stream of movies designed to satisfy the extensive Loew’s theatre chain. Among the studio’s proven stars were Lon Chaney, Alice Terry, Buster Keaton, Mae Murray, Blanche Sweet, John Gilbert, and Marion Davies. Its roster of directors included Fred Niblo, Rex Ingram, King Vidor, and Erich von Stroheim. The dynamic chief, Louis B. Mayer, and his head of production, the young and creative Irving Thalberg, supervised the vast operation that was M-G-M, a studio destined to become, under their leadership, the most potent and prosperous in the history of the movies. Mayer undoubtedly believed that the Gish name would sell movie tickets. But he also had a fond memory of how much The Birth ofa Nation had meant to his initial success in the movie business. He had made a fortune on his down payment of $20,000 for the New England rights to exhibit Griffith’s landmark film. Mayer, Thalberg, and Nicholas Schenck were so eager to bring Lillian to M-G-M that she was able negotiate an enviable contract, signed on May 12, 1925. Although lacking her much-desired provision for a percentage of the profits, in every other way it showed how highly the studio valued Lillian’s services, which became theirs exclusively for two years. Her salary of $800,000 was posited on making six pictures, with the possibility of a seventh. Several clauses in the contract indicate the degree of respect Lillian commanded. She was not required to make personal appearances or do any promotional work. (This clause came in handy when she was able to refuse the studio’s request to put her name on candy boxes.) Even more surprising, she was guaranteed consultation on the selection of her stories, directors, and cast. Although the studio reserved for itself the final decision, this degree of star power and input was unusual. And despite Lillian’s recent notoriety, there was no morals clause in the contract.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Lillian was apprehensive about the burden the contract placed on her. With the memory of Romola’s excessive production cost fresh in her mind, she feared that her high salary would inflate the budgets of her M-G-M movies, thereby inhibiting their profitability. And despite the claims of star status Lillian’s attorney made in the Duell trial, this practical, clear-eyed woman must have known that she was far less popular than Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford. Others certainly knew it: “Miss Gish holds a peculiar position. She has never been a great box office star but she has gained tremendously in the last two years. Her claim for popularity rests entirely upon her ability as an actress. The public is slow to appreciate great art. She must have been heartened when the writer went on to predict “a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.” Neither he nor Lillian could have dreamed how prescient he in fact was.

Excerpt from “Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life” by Charles Affron

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