On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.
“Any artist has just so much to give.
The important thing is to give it all.
Sometimes it’s more than you think.”
Lillian was just making another disappearance.
A Century of Dreams
On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.
“Any artist has just so much to give.
The important thing is to give it all.
Sometimes it’s more than you think.”
Lillian was just making another disappearance.
Colorful, lively, and moving memoir of a giant of the early screen, actress Lillian Gish. Her story is inseparable with the history of the movies, from the early days, when the pioneers of the industry worked long hours through hardship and cold, public criticism through the horrors of war, and the proverty of the Depression. She knew them all: Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Rudolh Valentino, Noel Coward, Erich Von Stroheim, and many more. She talks about the director of many of her films, D.W. Griffith (David Wark Griffith), whose consuming passion creating new ways to tell stories on celluloid. A long-time member of his company, she separates the man from the legend. She exposes the very personal, human side of this early Hollywood legend, warts and all.
In vivid anecdotes that are funny, heartbreaking, and remarkably evocative of that fascinating period, stage and screen star Lillian Gish tells the story of her childhood years in the American theater at the beginning of the 1900s.
From the perspective of nearly a century. Miss Gish recalls the kindness of her fellow actors during a Christmas spent on a train; hilarious—and sometimes frightening—slipups from many performances; the pain of separation from her mother and younger sister; and the thrill of being a professional actor.
For every child who has ever wondered about the glamour and excitement of being on the stage, about how and why a person becomes an actor, this remarkable childhood reminiscence offers a unique and lively insight, as well as a memorable piece of Americana.
LILLIAN GISH is truly a legend in her own time. As a young girl in the early days of movies, she became a star, the leading lady of such D.W. Griffith classics as Birth of a Nation (the first feature-length film), and her career continued successfully into the talkies. On Broadway, in the 1930s, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet. Most recently she appeared in Sweet Liberty with Alan Alda. To date, she has appeared in over a hundred films and fifty plays. In 1984, Miss Gish received the American Film Institute’s coveted Lifetime Service Award for her extraordinary contributions to the industry. But before all this, in 1902, when she was six, she began her distinguished acting career on a small, improvised stage in Risingsun, Ohio… where this charming, bittersweet childhood reminiscence of the actor’s life begins.
I am Lillian Diana Gish. I was named that by my parents. But sometimes I was called Florence Niles, Baby Alice, Baby Ann, and just plain Herself, for reasons that I will explain.
My sister Dorothy (who was nicknamed Doatsie) and I were lucky. We never lived in just one place or went to school like other children we knew. From the time I was six and Doatsie just four and a half, we were child actors. We belonged to traveling theatrical companies that performed plays in small towns and big cities all along the East Coast and in the Middle West.
There was no television, movies, or even radio at the beginning of this century when we began working. All over America, going to the theater was a popular evening entertainment. Most of the plays that Doatsie and I acted in were called melodramas.
I began life in Springfield, Ohio. I was born in my Grandmother Gish’s house in October 1896.
The nicest thing I remember about Mother and Father together is seeing them both standing at the foot of my bed one night, when I was still quite small. Mother was wearing a red satin dress with a long train and Father had on a dark, elegant suit. They must have been going to a party. They both looked so beautiful that the image has always stayed in my mind, clear as a photograph in a family album. Surely they were happy then.
When my sister Dorothy was just a baby. Father would sometimes take me for walks. I was not yet three, and we would stop to rest and have some refreshment. We never stopped at an ice-cream parlor, always at a saloon. I remember the wood walls, the sawdust on the floor and the strange bitter smell. Father loved to show me off. While he stood drinking beer, he would lift me up onto the bar, where I sat and ate my fill of the free lunch.
We looked on the movies only as a way of feeding and sheltering ourselves until we got back on the stage.
Griffith’s desire to make longer films was thwarted by Biograph. Determined to make the greatest movie ever produced, Griffith left Biograph in 1913 and soon set to work on a film version of Thomas Dixon’s novel of the Civil War, ‘The Clansman’. The result of his labors was The Birth of a Nation, which exploded on the screen in 1915. Filmed at a cost of one hundred thousand dollars, the three-hour epic was enormously popular and equally controversial; it is still regarded as one of the key films in cinema history. The film’s depiction of leering, bestial blacks created a furor throughout the country, and much to Griffith’s surprise and dismay the movie was roundly condemned by many fair-minded Americans. But although Griffith’s view of history and race relations was deplorable, his artistry was undeniable. It was, as critic Bosley Crowther has written, “as though a superb symphony had burst from the muck of primitive music within two decades after the invention of the horn. . . .
People were simply bowled over by its vivid pictorial sweep, its arrangements of personal involvements, its plunging of the viewer into a sea of boiling historical associations. . . .”
Any follow-up to The Birth of a Nation should have been anticlimactic, but Griffith’s next film, Intolerance was even more monumental. The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.
Despite Griffith’s ability to focus on intimate scenes in the midst of staggering spectacle, and despite his brilliant use of crosscutting to heighten tension and involvement, Intolerance was a commercial failure. Audiences found it confusing and unappealing. Griffith was both heartbroken and financially- ruined.
In 1915 Griffith had founded the Triangle Film Corporation, a partnership involving two other men who rank high among the innovators of early Hollywood.
While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.'” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.
Way Down East (1920), famous for its scenes of Gish and Barthelmess leaping from ice floe to ice floe just a few feet from the edge of a gigantic waterfall, and Orphans of the Storm (1922) were both popular melodramas. But from that point on Griffith pleased neither critics nor public. Unable to cope with the new financial realities of big-business Hollywood, he was also loathe to eschew the sentimentality that was so out of fashion. When, desperate for income, he attempted to pander to public tastes by aping the successes of others, the results were disastrous. He worked only sporadically in the late twenties, and his last film was made in 1931. He lived in a rented room in Hollywood for seventeen more years and died in 1948, a bitter old man largely forgotten by the industry he had helped to create.
Forgotten too, by then, were many of the major stars of the silents, their careers terminated by the arrival of sound movies. “We didn’t need voices,” says Gloria Swanson, playing a reminiscing silent screen star in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. “We had faces then.” Faces, and distinctive personalities, and talent, and enormous egos.
Norma Talmadge, leading lady of the First National studio, specialized in playing heroines who aged during a film’s progress. Married to producer Joseph Schenck, who nurtured her career, she is not well known today because many of her films have been lost. Nonetheless, she was one of Hollywood’s top stars. Her sister Constance, also popular in the twenties, played vibrant, comic roles, but Norma’s fans wanted to see her suffer—and suffer she did in such films as The Sacrifice of Kathleen, The Branded Woman, and Love’s Redemption.
Another pair of sisters, Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”
David Wark Griffith has tended to become in recent years, a figure in cinema history attributed with innovation in film technique; the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting have all appeared in connection with his name. And so it is that he is now in danger of achieving a widespread reputation merely as technician: an inventor of cinematography. This does justice neither to Griffith himself nor to his work. It may very well be that he did “invent” all these ideas of pictorial presentation – but there is much evidence to suggest that he did not – and if he did not, then he certainly developed their use to startling effect. But these ideas, these techniques were for him only a means towards an end; never the ultimate distinguishing factor of his pictures. Nor was he dependent on these techniques in order to produce a film which stood above all contemporary works. Many of his early pictures contain no close-ups, no flashbacks, no camera movement, no complicated editing techniques, and no innovations. But nevertheless they are indisputably films of high artistic quality. Many post-Intolerance films also contain few, if any, of the “innovations” attributed to Griffith, and yet they are outstanding works nonetheless.
It is unfortunate – indeed it could be tragic – that a man who strove so hard to perfect the cinema as a medium for the stimulation of ideas should also have been the one who recognized the real potential of an embryo art form. The fact remains that while the technical achievements of D.W. Griffith have become the main reason for his importance in film history, his purely artistic achievements, the very reason why he ever made films at all, have tended to become relatively obscured.
The work of an artist is a door to his soul; whatever we see written about the artist, we will never get closer to the man himself than through his work. David Wark Griffith produced a tremendous volume of work during the twenty-three years he spent making motion pictures. It is via these films – those that remain – that we can come to a real understanding of Griffith, because in these films he poured all his ideas.
In terms of cinema history, Griffith was the man who fired the starting-pistol. It was he who gave the medium what it required to develop and expand. There came a time when he inevitably appeared to have “left behind,” a “non-starter.” It was to happen that he would be attacked again and again for his refusal to participate in the race. “Your refusal to face the world,” wrote one critic, “is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal … your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you – and to pictures.” Thus wrote James Quirk in 1924, cruelly cutting down the man who had virtually furnished him with a job (inasmuch as Griffith had given to the movies what no other individual had ever come near to possessing). What Quirk failed to recognize was that Griffith was not a man to be swept along in the tide of fashion. Why should he follow others? How could he follow others, when in effect they were following his precepts? ***
It was Griffith’s longest picture since Intolerance, and ran for more than three hours. In terms of construction, it relies on finely interwoven detail rather than the more instantly recognizable cross-cutting that distinguished his early work. In the opening sequences for example, when Anna is tricked into an illegal marriage to Sanderson, the ceremony itself is full of visual commentary, with the ring falling to the floor, cutting to Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess) waking suddenly from a nightmare – and this before any knowledge on anyone’s part of their two fates and the way they will eventually come together.
Lillian Gish as Anna has received much deserved praise for her work in this picture, especially for her superhuman feats among the ice-floes in the climatic sequences of the picture. The manner she receives the news of her false marriage, in the knowledge that she is pregnant, is yet another triumph for her ability under Griffith. The scene in which she baptizes her own child as it is dying also comes close to being one of Griffith’s supreme cinematic achievements. She also adds a sense of frightening realism to the scene in which she is told that her baby is dead. For a second or two she stares blankly into space, then slowly begins to shake her head from side to side. Suddenly, as if the news strikes her like some physical blow, she throws her head back, and, as if going into an epileptic fit, her whole body stiffens and she sits choking and screaming.
Anna eventually recovers and goes away to a town in which no one (she believes) can possibly be aware of her tragic situation, a situation which will also be regarded as shameful. She meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and he, like many other characters in Griffith pictures, is here identified with doves in one sequence. The truth will be out however, and especially in a small town. Unknown to Anna, Sanderson is to reappear, and her secret is to become common knowledge. Bartlett is undeterred, although the rest of the town immediately brand her an evil woman. The scene in which Anna is ordered out of the house by the Squire has been excused by some who explain that it needs dialogue for its effectiveness. On the contrary, this scene is of great emotional intensity, and this intensity is achieved simply by Griffith’s editing technique. Once again, he uses visual commentary on the basic situation to replace long sequences where there should be dialogue.
Anna is sent out into the blizzard, and David runs after her. There follows some really remarkable photography, shots in which Anna’s cape seems to vanish and reappear behind trees and snowdrifts, close-ups of Anna, whose eyelashes seem to have icicles on them, and this sequence leads directly to the chase on the ice-floes.
It appears, looking at Orphans of the Storm today, that once more Griffith was having to work within imposed conditions. However, as in the case of the Biographs, this does not make Orphans of the Storm an imperfect picture, and here again can be seen Griffith’s faultless gift for re-creating a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia and beyond.
The sequences that seem the most successful are those in which the poverty of the age is most obvious. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given in the perfect setting of course, and as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles … that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license.”
The familiar “Last Minute Rescue” towards the end of reel twelve is as exciting and as beautifully executed as we have by now come to expect from Griffith. Cutting between the guillotine and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Danton (Monte Blue) racing on horseback with her pardon, the sequence is a perfect example of “stretched action,” in which the time taken for Lillian Gish to walk three paces, for example, in the completed sequence, now intercut with other action, takes twice or maybe three times as long. This serves to build the suspense inasmuch as it creates an almost unbearable sense of impatience.
The crowd scenes have been likened to those of The Birth of a Nation, and the emotional effect they create is certainly valid.
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
Nathan had been denouncing the movies as a menace to the arts for many years, but the screen appearance of Miss Gish bewitched him. A year earlier he had published a rapturous essay about her in Vanity Fair, attempting to explain the spell her celluloid image cast. That she is one of the few real actresses that the films have brought forth, either here or abroad, is pretty well agreed upon by the majority of critics. But it seems to me that, though the fact is taken for granted, the reasons for her eminence have in but small and misty part been set down in print.
“The girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so. Her genius lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite. Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion. 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. The whole secret of the young woman’s remarkably effective acting rests as I have observed, in her carefully devised and skilfully negotiated technique of playing always, as it were, behind a veil of silver chiffon. She always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight. There is ever something pleasantly, alluringly, missing, as there always is in the case of women who are truly ‘acting artists.’
Nathan proposed that Hergesheimer profile Lillian Gish and the novelist complied with an essay that ran in the August 1924 Mercury and is considered one of the memorable contributions to the magazine. The critic also told Hergesheimer that he would very much like to meet Miss Gish, but just then she was away filming in Italy. In November 1924, back from Italy, Miss Gish was on her way to spend a weekend at Joe Hergeshiemer’s home in Pennsylvania when, on the train to Philadelphia, a man introduced himself to her. She remembered him as being handsome and charming. She was suprised to find that he was George Jean Nathan, as she had imagined him to be a much older and ruder fellow, in keeping with his destructive humor. He, too, probably by pre-arrangement, was to be a guest at the Hergesheimers, and they chatted away the two hours of railroad journey. He was immediately and utterly enchanted. Miss Gish, however, was not entirely at ease with her new admirer. Once back in her New York apartment she was reluctant to accept Nathan’s frequent telephone calls. When he caught her on the line she would disguise her voice and, pretending to be her maid, would say that her mistress was out. Eventually, though, she began to accept Nathan’s phone calls and his invitations to first nights and dinners.
A calamity brought Lillian Gish from Hollywood on a lighten-ing visit in the summer of 1926. Her mother, who had gone to London where her daughter Dorothy was filming Nell Gwyn had suddenly suffered a severe stroke. Lillian was in the last week of shooting The Scarlet Letter. She learned that by leaving Los Angeles in three days she could catch the liner, Majestic, leaving New York for England. The last week of filming was compressed into the three days available and she was rushed to the Los Angeles depot with a police escort. Nathan saw her off on the Majestic and continued to write to her:
“Darling, I hope for all time: I tell you again what I have told you daily for the last solid year; that you are the only girl who can ever figure in my life, that you are the only one I can ever really and deeply love, and that I wish you would feel the same way about me as I do about you. “
The Gish girls nursed their mother in London and in a few weeks she was sufficiently improved to be transported to New York. There they broke the journey, preparing for the five-day train trip back to California. Nathan was most attentive during their New York stay. He gave Lillian a wirehaired terrier which she named Georgie, a playful puppy who cut his teeth on all the best chairs of the hotel drawing room. Nathan also presented the actress with a ring on which his profile was engraved. She wore it often and it attracted the attention of interviewers who asked whether it represented her engagement. To this she would evasively reply, “Mr. Nathan is a very brilliant man and my friend.” After Lillian went back to California, Nathan sailed for an inspection of the London theatres. While there, he visited A.B. Walkley, the British drama critic. During a day spent with Walkley at his seaside home, Nathan asked his host—who showed little partiality to Americans in general—how he explained the affinity that made his host and he friends. “You are the only American I have ever met who when you speak does not make me fear that all the dishes on the table will crash to the floor,” replied the advocate of Artistotelian reasoning.
Nathan kept encouraging Lillian Gish to pursue the theatre in her career. She eventually did decide to enact mature drama as well as motion pictures. She gave her initial Broadway performance as Helena in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya on April 15, 1930. Jed Harris, a flamboyant producer, led the moving measure of the company and the excited public.
Her next three plays were Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils, Sean O’Casey’s tragedy about a prostitute, Within the Gates, and John Gielgud’s Hamlet, she playing Ophelia. Shortly after the death of George Jean Nathan on April 8, 1958, after he was stricken with arteriosclerosis in 1956, Lillian Gish came to see me. She spoke of the letters she had owned since 1924. Most of her friends believed that he wanted to marry her. But in 1933 she wrote him that she had no more love for him. He replied that he was ready to commit suicide. She persuaded him to survive and he swallowed the bitter experience.
Photoplay Magazine – March 1928
I work in a branch library and, for two years, I have made a note of every film that was taken from a worthwhile book, and of the increase in requests for that book, as soon as the film was released. It seemed to me that practically no one ever read “The Scarlet Letter,” but when Lillian Gish starred in it, all the volumes immediately disappeared. And there were four fat volumes of “Resurrection” that I said “hello” to every morning, until the picture came out, when they all temporarily vanished. I am afraid that you will refuse to believe the number of people who had never heard’ of Barrie until “Peter Pan” was produced. But from “Peter,” it was only a step to introduce them to “Tommy,” and when “A Kiss for Cinderella” appeared, they all clamored for Barrie’s plays. (Ruth Gordon)
Lillian Gish’s performance in “The Scarlet Letter” recaptures all the praise ever bestowed on her, and by the same token should erase all memory of the shortcomings charged against her. For her Hester Prynne is shimmering perfection, and is completely her own. The scenario of “The Scarlet Letter” is not wholly, however, the story of Hawthorne’s novel, though the liberties taken with it could scarcely offend the most captious. As you see this beautiful picture on the screen it occurs to you that there was no need to have followed the letter of the book at all. What has come from it is fine and true.
The spirit of Puritan days has been preserved with reverence and, at times, humor, while Frances Marion’s story is a model of screen technique and skillful compromise with the censors. Behind the story of the ill-starred lovers is a sharply etched study of the habits, customs, and psychology of our forefathers, yet it is never merely a presentation of detail but takes its proper place in unfolding the story of the seamstress who loved the Reverend Dimmesdale and who sacrificed herself that the towns people might never lose their ideal of his goodness.
Out of the sin and the suffering of these characters—whether they actually lived or were only figments of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination — has been woven one of the greatest novels which the genius of America has ever produced.
She had recommended and won for the project the acclaimed Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (or “Seastrom” as he called himself while under contract at MGM in the 1920s). It was a good choice. Seastrom’s talent for creating an environmental mise en scene that underscored character emotion and psychology was evident in his pastoral rendering of a 17th-century New England landscape. Together Gish and Seastrom turned The Scarlet Letter into a critical and popular triumph for MGM.”
The scanned digitized edition of “Life and Lillian Gish” written by Albert Bigelow Paine has four missing pages. Kindly read below and/ or download PDF containing mentioned material.
“Sometimes the theatre was very poor, and the dressing rooms nearly always bad (even to this day they could be better). Some were worse than others. At a theatre in Chicago, a theatre of the second or third class, a good way out, the dressing-rooms were in a kind of cellar. There
was water on the floor-we had to walk on boards. I remember the big, black water bugs. Mother had co shake out our dresses, before we put them on.