HENRY KING – Director From Silents to ‘Scope (1995)

HENRY KING – Director

From Silents to ‘Scope

Based on Interviews by David Shepard and Ted Perry

Copyright 1995 by Directors Guild of America, Inc.


Henry King, noted director, producer, actor, writer and editor of film.
Henry King – 1937 (Bettmann Collection) – noted director, producer, actor, writer and editor of film.

It is ironic in this day of home video and cable television, when we have virtually every existing motion picture within easy grasp, that we seem ever more in danger of allowing film history to fade away. Too many of the greatest artists of the medium are today nearly unknown. Twenty years ago the works of Griffith, Keaton, von Stroheim, Chaplin, Ford and Hawks were taught in college cinema courses as a matter of routine. Today you can throw a stone on any college campus without hitting a student who has even heard of Foolish Wives or True Heart Susie or Sherlock Jr. If the acknowledged masters of the cinema are in danger of being neglected, what of the brilliant craftsmen whose careers have cried out for rediscovery: Herbert Brenon, Marshall Neilan, Maurice Tourneur, Henry King? Of these, King is undoubtedly the best known, yet appraisal of his career has always seemed particularly problematic. In the Twenties, with acclaimed masterworks such as ToVable David (1921), The White Sister (1923) and Stella Dallas (1925) under his belt, King was considered among the pantheon of American directors, a worthy successor to Griffith. But his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox, beginning in 1930 and lasting until his retirement, muddied the waters a little. Still highly regarded critically, particularly for his serious dramas like Twelve O’clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950), King’s creative signature became so intertwined with the Fox aesthetic that, during his lifetime, he was regarded more as a supremely commercial filmmaker than an artist.

1925 - Alice Terry and director Henry King
1925 – Alice Terry and director Henry King

Rediscovery has seemed imminent at several points in the last two decades. Late in his life, King received tributes at film festivals and museums and a few articles were written about his oeuvre but, by and large, film scholars passed King by in favor of more “personal” artists. As historian William K. Everson wrote in his book American Silent Film, “For directors of the past to be rediscovered by contemporary critics, they usually have to have been off-beat, ahead of their time, or even abysmally bad but at the same time interesting in a bizarre way. But King fits into none of these categories. Far from being ahead of his time, he was exactly of his time.”

Henry King and Ronald Colman - MGM The Magic Flame
Henry King and Ronald Colman – MGM The Magic Flame

On Filmmaking

To me, motion pictures are less about art than about story telling. The moment I started making pictures, I started looking at pictures to see what they were all about because I hadn’t seen many before. D.W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914), with Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish, really stood out in my mind. The thing that impressed me about this one was that it definitely told its story better than any of the pictures that I had seen. I didn’t particularly notice the form or method Griffith used. The story stood out and he told it well. A motion picture director is a story teller. If he knows how to punctuate and accentuate, he knows the art of telling stories. One night in the Thirties at Twentieth Century-Fox, I was at a dinner at which Irwin Cobb was giving a talk. I don’t remember precisely what story he told — probably one of his “Judge Priest” tales — but the way he told it was just dynamic, it was very, very funny. There was an audience of about 150 people and when he finished his story, he got a standing ovation. About a month later I heard someone else tell the same story and it was the dullest thing I ever heard in my life. From that I learned that sometimes it’s the way you tell a story rather than the story itself that makes it effective. When I was filming The White Sister in Italy in 1923, I was in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Rome waiting for someone. I saw an Italian, who looked very much the part of a nobleman — so well dressed, so immaculate — go over to greet a beautiful lady who had just come down the stairs. He bowed and, very gallantly, he kissed her hand. Moments later an elderly man got off the elevator and came over to them. He took out his handkerchief and rubbed her hand off before he kissed it; he rubbed off the other man’s kiss. Later, when I was doing The Woman Disputed (1928) with Norma Talmadge, that incident popped into my mind, and I found a situation in which to use it. In the theater it got a terrific laugh, it was very, very funny. And it was real.

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

One day Charlie Duell asked me, “What would you think if we could bring Lillian Gish into the company?” I didn’t know that he was a little bit sweet on her. I said, “I think it’d be a great asset. But what’s she going to do?”

“That’s what I want to ask you,” Charlie said. Like a flash in my mind, I remembered an old play, The White Sister, that had come around when I was in stock. I hadn’t played in it, but I had read it. It was from Marion Crawford’s book and Viola Allen had played it on the stage to tremendous success. I said to Charlie, “The White Sister seems to me a great thing for Lillian Gish.”


The White Sister
The White Sister


[Lillian Gish plays Angela Chiaromonte, an Italian woman whose half sister usurps their late father’s estate. Angela joins a convent when her fiance Soverini (Ronald Colman) is reportedly killed in a war in Africa. Soverini (** Giovanni Severi – original film character) returns home alive, and tries in vain to convince Angela to renounce her vows. Soverini gives his life to save his townspeople from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.]

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The White Sister 1923 — with Lillian Gish.

I had used my free time on the Nearis to re-read The White Sister. In my little berth, I was reading it in bits and pieces. It wasn’t as good as I had remembered. When I met Charlie Duell and Lillian Gish in Boston, they had both read it and were just thrilled to death. They thought it was a good story. I said, “I think it’s terrible and I’ll tell you why.” We were in the Ritz Carlton Hotel and I started in telling them this awful story and about two-thirds of the way through I stopped. “It strikes me,” I said, “that I’m telling you a pretty good story.”

Lillian said, “That’s what I was thinking. If you’re telling us a bad story, we need more bad stories like it.”

I turned to Charlie. “Buy it,” I said. He bought the rights to the play for $16,000 and two weeks later William Randolph Hearst wanted to buy it for Marion Davies. The rights owners could have made a lot more from Hearst than from selling it to us. Charlie Whittaker wrote the first screen treatment of The White Sister, but I didn’t find it satisfactory. Then Eddie Goulding said to me, “I can do the greatest screenplay of this.” I said, “Go ahead.” He wrote it in ten days and when I read it I dropped it right in the waste paper basket. He had been writing these pictures for Robert Z. Leonard and Mae Murray [Broadway Rose, Fascination and Peacock Alley; all 1922] and had turned The White Sister into a pure Mae Murray, one of those flippant, fluttering little butterflies. So I threw it away. Eddie got so mad he didn’t know what to do and it sort of left me in the lurch. I had the story and Lillian Gish but I didn’t know exactly which way to go. I went over to the Lamb’s Club for lunch and saw George Hobart sitting there. I asked him to have lunch with me. George was a very capable man. He wrote the Follies for thirteen consecutive years and he wrote many of Lillian Russell’s plays like Wild Flower. I said, “George, how would you like to work with me on a screenplay?”

“I’ve seen very few pictures in my life,” George said.

“I don’t know, pictures never appealed to me.” I took him up to the Capitol Theater, to impress him. I said, “Theaters like this show motion pictures.” He didn’t know such things existed. The Follies always played at the New Amsterdam Theater, so he only knew the little theaters around 42nd Street; the Capitol was way uptown. He was awestruck. I asked George, “What will you take to work with me for a couple of weeks?”

“For $765,” he replied, “I’ll commit murder, if it isn’t too obvious. I’m in desperate straits right now.” They had just foreclosed on his house. I said, “I’ll give you $1,000 if you work with me this next week.” Went down to Atlantic City, where he lived, and started working. He had brilliant ideas. We worked from eight o’clock until noon, had lunch, took a walk on the boardwalk, went back and worked until about six thirty in the evening and he would go home. We did that every day for, I think, eight days. When I left, I had the entire story on twelve sheets of paper. And that was the script the way it was shot. We went to Italy to make a feature from twelve pages of script!

The White Sister
The White Sister (Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman)

When I was planning The White Sister I was desperate to get a man to play Giovanni. Everybody, in fact, was trying to help me cast the picture. Eddie Small called me and said, “I have a woman playing at the Empire Theatre [Ruth Chatterton in La Tendresse] who I think you should see to play Lillian Gish ‘s half-sister.” He said, “I’ll send over two tickets for you to see it tonight. And I’m sending two other tickets so that you can see her in the first act at the Empire, then go right around the corner to the 39th Street Theater. There’s a man that I want you to see for Giovanni’ My wife and I went to the Empire Theatre that night and watched the first act. I saw the woman I was supposed to see and when the act was over we got up and went out into the lobby. My wife said, “You know, I’ve seen the first acts or the last act of almost every show in New York. I haven’t seen one show all the way through. Why don’t we stay and see Act Two? You don’t want to get around there until the third act, anyway.”

The White Sister
The White Sister (Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman) – promotional

“Fine,” I said. “We’ll do that.” We walked back into the theater and the curtain went up on the second act. There was a knock at the door, the leading lady opened it — the play was about a clandestine affair — and in walked a man and he played through this act. When her husband returned, the adulterer went out the window and the curtain came down. My wife said, “Now there’s the man you’re looking for. Let’s stay and see the next act.” I agreed that he looked very good. I looked at the program and saw his name: Ronald Colman. We stayed and saw the last act, and he wasn’t in it at all — he was just in that one act. The next day there was an agent in my office and I asked him, “Do you know an actor named Ronald Colman?” He said, “Yes, I represent him.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d like to talk to him.” He brought Mr. Colman over to my office and Mr.

Colman was very appreciative and said that he had had a screen test in England and was told that he didn’t photo graph well. “I came to the United States on the recommendation of one of the directors from Paramount.”

I said, “I think we’ll just have you make a test.”

“I’d love to make a test’ he said, “but I hate to waste your time and money. Mr. [Gilbert] Miller put me in this show and I think I’d better stay where I belong — the theater.”

The White Sister
The White Sister (Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish)

I made a test. I just set the camera up and asked him embarrassing questions to take his mind off the camera, so he was only thinking about me. Soon, the real man was coming out. I asked him to answer me absolutely honestly — I can tell when anything is honest or when it’s a little bit strained — so he did some of his best acting in this scene. He was natural, he was himself, he answered sincerely, you believed everything he said. When we finished this first scene, I said, “Go out, do something with your hair.” He wore it in a kind of pompadour. We parted his hair, slicked it down and combed it and I made another 400 feet. He was going to play an Italian army officer, so I took a retouching pencil and put a little mustache on him. When we got finished with all these tests I said, “Mr. Colman, you are 90% on the way I don’t want to make any decisions until I actually see the film but, from my judgement, you’re the man I’m looking for.” I called Duell and said, “I think I have the man I want but I want you to see the film with me tomorrow morning. Let’s have Lillian Gish there, too, and see what she thinks of him. She has to work with him, after all.” At ten o’clock the next morning the three of us met in the projection room and it turned out exactly as I thought it would. You could see the development from the first test to the next — the hair, the mustache, that made him Giovanni. Lillian said, “The only objection I can think of is that he’s an Englishman and Englishmen are awfully stiff.”

I said, “I don’t think this one will be.”

I called his agent and signed him up for $450 a week plus expenses. There never was a man so surprised as Ronald Colman. He couldn’t believe it. He was able to get out of his contract with Gilbert Miller and ten days later we were on the ocean liner Providence, headed for Italy. All the time I was in Rome I was in touch with the Cardinal. He came to the hotel a couple of times to have tea. Lillian Gish invited him over a few times. Everybody at the hotel thought we were the greatest dignitaries in the world — Cardinals don’t run around with just anybody! From that time on, everyone at the hotel jumped to do our bidding because we knew the Cardinal.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

THE WHITE SISTER (1923) Inspiration/Metro Pictures. Presented by Charles H. Duell. Scenario: George V. Hobart and Charles E. Whittaker. Titles: Will M. Ritchey and Don Bartlett. Camera: Roy Overbaugh. Editor: Duncan Mansfield. Cast: Lillian Gish, Ronald Colman, Gail Kane, J. Barney Sherry, Charles Lane.


Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set
Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

ROMOLA (1925)

[Romola, based on an 1862 novel by George Eliot, re-teamed Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman in Italy, and also starred Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The story is about the daughter (Lillian Gish) of a blind scholar who marries an unscrupulous magistrate (Powell). After the magistrate betrays and angers the populace, a mob chases him to the river, where he drowns. Romola finds happiness with a sculptor (Colman).] I found the Italians to be tremendously serious in what they’re doing. They want things to be exactly right. They bend over backwards to have things exactly right and they know what they’re doing. We learned some of the most valuable things from them, especially when we were doing Romola.

Romola 1924 - scene from film - Lillian Gish
Romola 1924 – scene from film – Lillian Gish

In Romola we were trying to duplicate the Davanzati Palace, which is one of the great palaces of Florence — it stands there today. These people went down to the Davanzati Palace and plastered over it and made a cast. Then they took the cast off and nailed the stone up and it duplicated exactly all the detail in the world, like a mask. When Bob Haas and I came back to Hollywood we used that technique. We were the first people in the United States to use it and it’s been copied ever since. In Florence there was a studio that covered about forty acres. It had two small stages, nothing like the ones we had in Hollywood, but large enough for the interiors. They had just finished shooting some huge costume picture and the sets covered seventeen acres. Robert Haas was again my art director. He and I went up to see these standing sets and realized that all we had to do was peel off the fronts and change it to anything we wanted.

Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish
Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish

We rebuilt fifteenth century Florence on that back-lot. One building, the set for II Duomo, was 274 feet high. Our sets matched the real buildings perfectly, thanks to the Italian workmen. I made some scenes in front of the real Duomo and the real Campanile. They matched so well you couldn’t tell the difference. We needed galley ships for the picture and they were built for us at Livorno, a port south of Florence, by Tito Neri. He took the hulls of existing boats and put new superstructures on top so that they would look like authentic Italian ships of the period. We named the ships the Liliano and the Dorothea, after the Gish sisters. While filming The White Sister I had begun to take one-hour Italian lessons. I built up enough vocabulary to get along as long as you didn’t complicate things too much. The Italians have six forms of the verb “to be” and keeping track of those was enough to keep me busy. So on Romola I was beginning to speak a little Italian and that scoundrel Bill Powell — he went over without one word of Italian and within two months was speaking the language as fluently as he spoke English. When I was returning to Italy to film Romola, I called my friend Alfredo Berniggi and told him that there was an actor I wanted to meet in Rome. I said, “Get in touch with him and ask him to meet me at the Majestic Hotel.” The next morning, Alfredo picked me up and drove me to the Majestic. When we got within about a block of the hotel, there was a crowd of about a hundred and fifty people standing on the sidewalk.

“Are they here to see me?” I asked.

Alfredo grinned. “Yes, Mr. King.”

I said, “Alfredo, I wanted to see one actor. My God, you’ve got all the actors in Rome here!”

“Mr. King,” Alfredo said, “these people don’t want a job. All they want to do is just say, ‘Bon giorno, Signor King. They love you.” Well, I felt like a heel. As I got out of the car they formed a “V” and said together, “Bon giorno!” I thought, if they can do this for me, I can do the same for them. I started at the end of the line and called each one by name and shook hands with every one of them and said, “I’m glad to be back” or some other greeting in my little Italian. They applauded like everything. When I got into the hotel, Alfredo, a big husky man, was standing at the ban nister of the stairs, crying like a baby. He said, “Mr. King, any man in that group — you want somebody killed, he kill him for you.” That’s how much they loved me. They’d kill anybody for me.


ROMOLA (1925) Metro-Goldwyn. Scenario: Will M. Ritchey. Art Director: Robert M. Haas. Production Manager: Joseph C. Boyle. Shipbuilder: Tito Neri. Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William H. Powell, Ronald Colman, Charles Lane, Herbert Grimwood.


Henry King - Baja California 1965
Henry King – Baja California 1965



Henry King remained an active and creative man for the rest of his life. At 94, he passed a pilot’s physical, making him the oldest licensed pilot in the United States. He attended tributes to his remarkable career at the Telluride Film Festival in 1976 (he flew his own plane to the event), the British Film Institute in 1979, the Museum of Modern Art and UCLA, both in 1980. He also, in the last decade of his life, granted several in-depth interviews with film scholars, including those which form the basis for this book. He died on June 29, 1982 at his home in Toluca Lake, California at the age of 96.


Henry King, director : from silents to ʼscope
Henry King, director : from silents to ʼscope – cover

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HOLLYWOOD The Pioneers – by Kevin Brownlow, 1979

Hollywood, the pioneers - Hollywood in 1905
The pioneers – Hollywood in 1905

Hollywood in 1905, before the invasion. We are looking down on Hollywood Boulevard, which runs along the centre. The road on the right is Orange Drive, and the house with the oriental cupola became the home of Conway Tearle. More recently, it passed into the hands of the American Society of Cinematographers, who have carefully preserved it—the only building in the picture to survive. Apartment and office blocks now stretch to the horizon.



The Pioneers

by Kevin Brownlow


Talk to people who saw films for the first time when they were silent, and they will tell you the experience was magic. The silent film, with music, had extraordinary powers to draw an audience into the story, and an equally potent capacity to make their imagination work. They had to supply the voices and the sound effects, and because their minds were engaged, they appreciated the experience all the more. The audience was the final creative contributor to the process of making a film.

The films have gained a charm and other-worldliness with age but, inevitably, they have also lost something. The impression they made when there was no rival to the moving picture was more profound, more intense; compared to the easily accessible pictures of today, it was the blow of a two-handed axe, against the blunt scraping of a table-knife.

Hollywood, the pioneers - Rooftop Studios
Hollywood, the pioneers – Rooftop Studios

The films belong to an era considered simpler and more desirable than our own. But nostalgia should not be allowed to cast a Portobello Road quaintness over the past, for it obliges us to edit from our mind the worst aspects of a period and embrace only those elements we admire. The silent period may be known as ‘The Age of Innocence’ but it included years unrivalled for their dedicated viciousness. In Europe, between 1914 and 1918 more men were killed to less purpose than at any other time in history. In America, men who stood out from the herd—pacifists, anarchists, socialists —were rounded up and deported in 1919, and were lucky to avoid being lynched. The miseries of war culminated in the miseries of disease when the Spanish flu swept Europe and America and killed more civilians than the war had killed soldiers. With peace came the Versailles treaty—collapse and starvation in Central Europe—the idealism of Prohibition—gangsterism in America.

Hollywood, the pioneers

The benefit of the moving picture to a care-worn populace was inestimable, but the sentimentality and charm, the easily understandable, black-and-white issues were not so much a reflection of everyday life as a means of escape from it. Again and again, in the publications of the time, one reads horrified reactions against films showing ‘life as it is’.

Pioneers are people of exceptional energy—-a quality that sets them apart. An example of this occurred at the Sun Valley Western Conference in 1976, which David Gill and I attended. We encountered the director, Henry King, who had once been a pilot. He was known as the Flying Director.

Hollywood, the pioneers

I asked him if he still flew from time to time. “I flew in this morning,” he said. “Oh, I realise that,” I said, thinking of the twin-engined boneshaker which had transported us all across the mountains. “But do you ever fly your own plane?”

“I flew in my own plane this morning,” he replied. We could only blink in astonished admiration—for King’s career goes back almost as far as powered flight.

“I’m a pioneer,” said fellow-director King Vidor, when I told him this story, “I’ve been in this business for years.

But even when I first got to Hollywood, Henry King was going strong.”

It is impossible to listen to these people without marvelling; they are so extraordinary in their old age… what must Hollywood have been like when they were all young? (Kevin Brownlow)


DW Griffith in 1943
DW Griffith in 1943

The Mesmeriser

Griffith’s Masterpieces


IN other arts, millions are expended to preserve a work in its original state. In the movies, the money is spent to prevent the film remaining in its original state, because that state is highly dangerous. It is therefore hard to judge the true value of the films of the silent era, since copies are generally travesties. This is particularly true in the case of D. W. Griffith. Not only has the delicate quality of the photography been debased; Griffith s own attitudes have become so archaic that his work is greeted today as much by laughter as applause.

Hollywood, the pioneers - Griffith and Bitzer 1912
A rare picture of D. W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location for Biograph around 1912. Bitzer is lining up a shot through ground glass, which he has inserted into the gate—for there was no viewfinder on the Mutograph camera. This vast machine, which punched its own sprocket holes, was smaller and more portable than Biograph’s first cameras. Negatives made with it are still providing superb quality prints. Karl Malkames—whose father, Don, once worked with Bitzer—has converted a Mutograph camera to printer and has rescued scores of original Biograph negatives.

Nevertheless, it is a tribute to his genius that seventy years after he began work as a director, his major films are still regarded as masterpieces. Griffith himself is still regarded as the innovator of the language of film. So much has been written about him, however, that his work has been submerged by praise, and the expectation of an audience for a Griffith film is thus unnaturally high. Few artists, however talented, can retain their reputation through generation after generation—and in an art subject to such violent change as the motion picture, the mortality rate for genius is high.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

To appreciate what Griffith did without romanticising his achievements, it is necessary to strip some of the legends away. Like Edison, Griffith was blessed (or cursed) by the talent of top-flight press agents. They conducted their campaigns in a curious manner, treating their subject with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the deceased. They poured into their advertisements quotations one might see carved on a statue: “The most sane and imaginative American who ever revolutionized the theatre when it needed an emancipator.” . . . “He has far exceeded the power of the written word. It would be impossible for the greatest master of language to picture the emotions as Griffith has perpetuated them.” . . . “D. W. Griffith is the Creator of the Eighth Art of the World!”

W.G. Billy Bitzer and D.w. Griffith (1875-1948)

The campaign was mounted when Griffith left the Biograph Company, with the publication in the New York. Dramatic Mirror of a celebrated advertisement: “D. W. Griffith, producer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing the Motion Picture Drama, and founding the modern techniques of the art. Included in the innovations which he introduced and which are now generally followed by the most advanced producers are: the use of large closeup figures, distant views, as reproduced first in ‘Ramona’, the ‘switchback’, sustained suspense, the fade-out’ and restraint in expression, raising motion picture acting which has won for it recognition as a genuine art.

Billy Bitzer Josephine Crowell and DW Griffith
Billy Bitzer, Josephine Crowell (Catherine De Medici of “Intolerance”) and D.W. Griffith

Although the word ‘introduce’ is marginally less arrogant than ‘invent’, Griffith was not responsible for the close-up or the fade-out nor would it have made the slightest difference if he had been. What counted was how such devices were used. Griffith used them efficiently, sometimes brilliantly, and the tendency is to credit him with everything possible in the cinema. The trouble is, that by piling all these offerings on Griffith’s altar, one obscures the true object for admiration : the quality of Griffith’s direction.

Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film - editing
Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith analyzing film – editing

The travelling shots, the dynamic editing and the colossal sets are all incidental beside this element. It is not always apparent. Some of Griffith’s films—Home Sweet Home (1914), Dream Street (1921)— are completely lacking in any sign of outstanding direction. But take the scene in Orphans of the Storm (1921), when Lillian Gish hears the distant voice of her long-lost sister, begging in the street below. Griffith holds Lillian Gish’s ethereal face in close-up; her blonde hair is illumined by a halo of light. The electricity between Griffith and Lillian Gish is so hypnotic that the audience finds itself straining to catch the merest movement of an eyelash. Miss Gish hesitates, moves her head slightly—“no” . . . one can see her dismiss the thought. . . “that cannot be my sister ”. But the voice reaches her again. Her eyes flash with wild hope, then the lustre fades as she attributes the sound to her imagination. When the voice recurs, and she realises she is not mistaken, the tears well in her eyes—and in ours. One reaches the climax of the scene sharing with Lillian Gish a sense of love and desperation instilled by direction of brilliance.

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set – D.W. Griffith

All his other achievements are overshadowed by this ability to transfer to a length of celluloid the most poignant degree of emotion. Here is something which can survive the centuries. However skilful the other early directors might have been, none of them knew how to project anything but the most basic emotions until Griffith showed them. And it was emotion, rather than close-ups and fade-outs, that made the people of the world fall in love with the moving picture.



Birth of a Nation Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Battle – Henry B Walthall

The Birth of a Nation

Lillian Gish had suggested to Griffith during production that the scenes with the Klan, and the explicit racial elements, might cause the picture to be stopped. “I hope to God they do stop it,” replied Griffith. “Then you won’t be able to keep the audiences away with clubs!” He undoubtedly recalled that Dixon’s play had sparked riots in 1908.

Despite this brutal remark, Griffith was probably as surprised as anyone at the power of his film. “The fact that the showing of The Clansman started riots and put blood on the streets,” said Karl Brown, “was proof beyond proof that it was a great and powerful picture. Regardless of what any critic might have to say about it, the proof was there.”





Griffith sent his assistant Joseph Henabery to persuade the workmen to join the company. By this time the Exposition was over, and the people who had built it had left. But Henabery rounded up three of the craftsmen who had worked on the intricate Italian section. Griffith s associates have steadfastly insisted there was no art director; Griffith showed pictures to his boss carpenter, Frank Huck Wortman, and the sets were built accordingly. But Karl Brown remembered Walter L. Hall, an English theatrical designer, who translated Griffith’s vision into reality. Once Babylon towered over Sunset Boulevard, Griffith had to work out how to shoot it. A tall camera tower was an obvious answer, but Griffith had been impressed by those subtle camera movements in Cabiria. Could he make the camera move from that height?

Griffith - On Set (Intolerance)

A balloon was tried, but it made Bitzer sick and was not a stable camera platform. Griffith asked Allan Dwan, an engineer albeit an electrical one, and he suggested a mobile tower with an elevator. It was constructed to move on mining rails. No photograph of this monster is known to exist but the scenes that it filmed are so full of mystery and magic that perhaps it’s as well to preserve that mystery. The eye of the audience is guided softly out of the clouds above Babylon and down to examine the Bacchanalian feast below. At a certain season of the year,” said Karl Brown, “Southern California is visited by a windstorm, a Santa Ana. This wind, blowing out of a cloudless sky, comes in off the San Fernando Valley, which at that time was raw desert. Clouds of dust come over the mountains and through the valley, and a strong wind which would reach forty or fifty knots, so much so that it was hard to walk against.

Hollywood, the pioneers
Hollywood, the pioneers – Intolerance set

We had put up the walls of Babylon which were about 150 feet long and 90 feet high—that’s a considerable area to expose to a wind as any man knows who’s used to square-rigged vessels. When the Santa Ana hit that tremendous expanse, the walls were just moving in and out. We thought we d lost the entire set, but Huck Wortman, our master builder, said ‘Well, it ain’t no use looking at her, let’s get some line on her.’ So we did. The boys went aloft on that swinging structure and fastened hawsers, which were made fast and covered with what they called dead men. Those dead men saved our lives, because the hawsers held, the wind subsided and we went to work.”

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team



J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

A unique picture of Griffith at work in the Biograph Studios, New York, 1912. Griffith stands behind flowers. Another Biograph director, Dell Henderson, stands in shirtsleeves next to Bobby Harron (seated), with Mae Marsh next to him. In the background is Olive Fuller Golden. Charles Hill Mailes behind Harron, and, at far right, Christy Cabanne, a future director. Compare the faces of the actors with those of the technicians. Orthochromatic film registered skin tones much darker than they were in reality, and actors had to wear the heavy make-up which gives them, in stills, the look of the mortician’s parlour. Some directors dispensed with make-up altogether, but the habit was not relaxed until the general acceptance of panchromatic film in the late ’twenties, and the introduction of incandescent lights. To this day, male actors often wear make-up for colour film and television.

DW Griffith and Lillian Gish
DW Griffith and Lillian Gish

In Griffith’s autobiographical notes, he wrote: “I remember one day in the early summer going through the gloomy old hall of the Biograph studio, when suddenly all gloom seemed to disappear.

His eyes had fallen on two young girls, Lillian and Dorothy Gish.

He brought both to stardom, but while Dorothy proved a comedienne of great talent, Lillian became a great dramatic actress. Here is a rare photograph of Griffith together with his favourite star.

Lillian Gish writes: “I certainly look like a frump in that dress. Have no idea whether it was taken in New York or Hollywood, but could you burn my half of the photograph? And about those shoes . . . ???”.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (Anna Moore’s wedding dress)

Lillian Gish, at the time of Way Down East (1920). Her fragile beauty is apparent from this photograph, but you have to see such films as Orphans of the Storm and The Wind to appreciate her brilliance as an actress. She was able to convey intense emotion by little more than a quiver. D. W. Griffith trained Lillian, and her sister, Dorothy, an outstanding comedienne.

Hollywood, the pioneers - G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, with the Mutograph camera
G. W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, with the Mutograph camera lashed to the cowcatcher of a locomotive in Orange, N.J., making advertising films for a railroad company, around 1898. This is precisely the method by which the Hales Tour films were later to be made— the alternative being a shot from the observation car. Some of the Hales Tours were sponsored by railroad companies.


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Commandos Strike at Dawn – 1942 (Affron/ Oderman)

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (left), 1942
Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (left), 1942

Commandos Strike at Dawn – 1942 (Affron/ Oderman)

Once Lillian was free of her commitment to Serlin, Lester Cowan offered her a role in Commandos Strike at Dawn. After the close of Life with Father, Lillian’s work for the AFC intensified. She stayed with Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers, at Pickfair while making the rounds of the studios, returned to New York in September, saw all the new plays and the old friends, took a New England vacation, and was back in Los Angeles on December 4. Like millions of Americans, she heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. She wrote the word “War” three times on the page in her date book. In preparation for Commandos Strike at Dawn, a movie about the Norwegian resistance, she was at the Columbia studio the morning of December 8 for makeup tests, and the day after for her screen test. The picture was not scheduled to begin production until the following summer. In the meantime Lillian read scripts for plays and substituted briefly for the ailing Dorothy on the Life with Father tour. “Bertram” (Colonel McCormick) appears frequently in her date book.

Lillian Gish Promotional Photo for 1942 Commandos Strike at Dawn v
Lillian Gish Promotional Photo for 1942 Commandos Strike at Dawn

On July 27, 1942, Lillian noted, “Work for first time in 10 years before camera.” The work was excessively easy, both in the studio and on location in British Columbia. When she saw Commandos Strike at Dawn, she remarked, “It means nothing for me but gave me a nice vacation.” Lillian was correct in this assessment. Although billed just below the star, Paul Muni, her role was less important than that of two other women in the cast, Anna Lee and Rosemary DeCamp. She plays the wife of Bergeson (Ray Collins), a man arrested by the Germans after the Nazi invasion of Norway. For all that she contributed to the plot, Bergeson might just as well have been unmarried. Her brief interventions practically cease one-third of the way into the movie; we glimpse her for a second at the conclusion. None of this points to a noteworthy return to the screen. Her only gain from the venture was her $8,000 salary.

Lillian Gish - Mrs Bergesen - Commandos 1942


Kurt Frings, who was married to the author of Mr. Sycamore, tried to woo her away from the George Volck Agency. Frings was critical of the way Volck had handled her, particularly in allowing her to return to the screen in a role as weak as that of the wife in Commandos Strike at Dawn. Volck, who was serving in the armed forces, released Lillian in February 1943. Her letter of thanks reflects the warmth of their relationship and, as late as 1943, is categorical in her feelings about the war. “I will feel lost without you both [George and his wife, Helen], as I have felt now for well over a year, as I think George left the office in November 1941 Just another and a great big reason for me to hate everything about this war, and to pray fervently for an early end to it.” Kurt Frings needed a few months to find what he considered the right opportunity for Lillian. It turned out to be even less beneficial to her career than Commandos Strike at Dawn, which was, after all, a serious, well-made movie. (Charles Affron)


COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN – 1942: Lester Cowan Productions/ Columbia Pictures; d. John Farrow; p. Lester Cowan; s. Irwin Shaw, based on story by C. S. Forester; Paul Muni, Anna Lee, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ray Collins, Robert Coote, Rosemary DeCamp, Alexander Knox, Elisabeth Fraser, Richard Derr, Erville Alderson, Barbara Everest, Rod Cameron, Louis Jean Heydt, George Macready, Arthur Margetson, Ann Carter, Elsa Janssen, Ferdinand Munier, John Arthur Stockton


Lillian Gish and William Mellor on set - Commandos 1942
Lillian Gish and William Mellor on set – Commandos 1942

Lillian went back to New York. There was no work for her in Hollywood. In July, director John Farrow offered Lillian a small part in Commandos Strike at Dawn, an anti-Nazi film being shot on the coastline of Victoria, British Columbia, although the scene of the action was a Norwegian village. Eager to be seen in anything anti-Nazi, no matter how small the part, Lillian agreed, not knowing anything about the plot, or even the name of her leading man. When she learned her leading man was Paul Muni, she was thrilled.

Lillian Gish - promotional ADV - Commandos 1942

Mr. Muni, as he was called by his fellow professionals, was a perfectionist who stayed by himself between takes and didn’t socialize with anyone while he was on the set. Muni preferred to remain in character as much as possible. He would be playing a Norwegian patriot whose village was suffering under the invading Nazis. During the filming, Canadian troops would be utilized, as they always had to be on hand should there be any attacks from the real Germans! Commandos marked a return to the screen after a considerable absence for both Lillian Gish and Paul Muni. Happily, Lillian told The New York Times, her spoken dialogue was minimal. Working under tight wartime security during the summer of 1942 must have reminded Lillian of the risks she and Dorothy and their mother must have taken when they crossed the Atlantic on a ship fitted with black sails in 1917 to film Hearts of the World for D. W. Griffith. Lillian explained: Both Hearts of the World and Commandos Strike at Dawn were made during two different World Wars in countries open to air attacks. We never had a work schedule we could depend upon when we were shooting in Vancouver, as the Canadian troops were always on call to practice drills and maneuvers. Canada was open to the threat of constant attacks, which I am glad to say never occurred. We learned never to ask questions regarding their availability. Matters regarding wartime security were serious business. We knew why scenes we had rehearsed were suddenly dropped in favor of other scenes. Prior to the film’s January 14, 1943, New York opening, screenwriter Irwin Shaw announced that he “would not assume full responsibility for the film, as it had been tampered with by persons unknown.”

Lillian Gish in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942)
Lillian Gish and Paul Muni in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942)

Lillian, responding in the late 50s to Shaw’s remark, had no comment, except to state that Commandos had not been a critical success, but was one of many war films made quickly for audiences who wanted to see them. Film critic Bosley Crowther, covering the picture for The New York Times, noted that Lillian had a “few fleeting moments in which to look like a Norse housewife.” While not pleased with the critical reactions to her film, Lillian felt being in any anti-Nazi film had vindicated her honor and erased her former association with the misguided America First Committee. In November 1942, both she and Dorothy were back on the boards, opening in different plays within days of each other.

Lillian Gish in Commandos Strike At Dawn - Last Scene
Lillian Gish in Commandos Strike At Dawn – Last Scene
Lillian Gish on set for the final scene - Commandos 1942
Lillian Gish on set for the final scene – Commandos 1942

Had Commandos Strike at Dawn been a success, perhaps Lillian might have been cast in 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, which utilized the talents of Commandos player Sir Cedric Hardwicke in another film about invading Nazis and Norwegian villages. Even Warner Bros. had their version of a Norwegian village under Nazi occupation in Edge of Darkness. In all of the aforementioned films, the Nazi and Norway theme didn’t totally succeed. Production offices at the three studios who made these films (Columbia, 20th Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.), believed audiences were becoming tired of pictures about war,31 particularly war films involving only the Norwegian aspect. Seeing the slightly declining grosses, musical films might be the solution to boost the morale of the military and promote patriotism. (Stuart Oderman)

Commandos Strike At Dawn Poster One Sheet

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Silent Star – By Colleen Moore (1968)


The Never Land

In 1915 Hollywood was a small town adjacent to—and a world apart from—the city of Los Angeles. Tucked between the towering Hollywood Hills and the Pacific Ocean, it had been developed some years earlier by three real estate operators who bought up farm land and laid out streets in the hope of attracting some of the Easterners coming out in increasing numbers every winter to bask in Southern California’s warm sunlight. Some Easterners came, but not to bask in the sun. To work in it. To write and act in and direct and produce a new art form that was changing the dreams of the world—motion pictures.

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X
Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish is one of the most wonderfully warm and generous women I have ever known, beautifully and unbelievably educated self-educated, because she never went beyond the third grade in school—a dedicated actress, strongly career-minded, yet feminine to her very soul. Lillian Gish was the real femme fatale in Hollywood. Not Jean Harlow or any of the other sex symbols on the screen. I think men were embarrassed when they went out with Harlow. I do know she never had any really big-time beaus. None of the sex symbols did—the Theda Baras, the Clara Bows, the Barbara Lamarrs. They sat home on Saturday night while girls like Lillian Gish and Janet Gaynor and Bessie Love and Norma Shearer had dates with all the big producers and directors and the wealthy and social Easterners. They were the kind of girls men wanted to be with and be seen with. The list of men whose hearts Lillian Gish captured is a long one. And an impressive one. Colonel Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune said she was the most fabulous woman he had ever known and asked her to marry him. George Jean Nathan spent an entire summer in Europe with Lillian begging her to marry him. Nathan’s co-editor of the American Mercury, Henry L. Mencken, was mad about her. Joseph Hergesheimer’s heroines were all Lillian Gish. He couldn’t have her, so he mooned over her on paper. Read Cytherea. The girl is Lillian. Jack Gilbert, when he was playing opposite her in La Boheme, said she was “the elusive dream girl.”

Lillian Gish Close Up - Mimi in La Boheme
Lillian Gish Close Up – Mimi in La Boheme

King Vidor, who directed the picture, said, “She represents the woman every man hopes to find.” Joseph Medill Patterson, Colonel McCormick’s cousin and owner of the New York Daily News, was enchanted with her. He said she was the most intelligent woman he ever knew, as well as the most romantic. There were more. And she wouldn’t marry any of them. Because of David Wark Griffith? I don’t know. I doubt that anyone ever will. There was much speculation in Hollywood my first years there about Lillian and Mr. Griffith. People said this was one of the greatest love stories in movie history. Yet they were very formal with each other on the set. He always called her Miss Gish, and she always addressed him as Mr. Griffith. Whenever they went on location, Lillian’s mother and sister Dorothy went along. So nobody really knew for sure how things stood between them.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

They did have between them a dedication to work that has seldom been equaled. Richard Barthelmess, who played opposite Lillian in Way Down East, told me years later that in the scenes where Lillian is floating on a piece of ice dangerously near the falls, Mr. Griffith let her do the scene without using a double. In another scene she insisted, in behalf of greater realism, on lying on the ice until her lips were blue and her face frosted with snow. Lillian told me once that Griffith asked her to marry him, but she would not say why she refused him—whether it was because she didn’t love him or because she had made up her mind that marriage and a career didn’t mix.

CArol Dempster 1922

Whatever happened between them, Griffith soon began courting a young woman named Carol Dempster, who had played a bit part in Intolerance and small parts in some of his other pictures. More significant in the long run, he began giving Carol Dempster starring roles—roles that should have gone to Lillian. No one, least of all the formula-loving movie public, could understand his interest in this new girl. She was not at all the soft, feminine, innocent-looking creature who was the Griffith type. She was nice-enough looking, but she had an angular body and a thin, sharp face. Her eyes were beautiful—big and brown—but not much expression showed in them on the screen.

Griffith became infatuated with her, lost his head over her. He lost his perspective as well. When anyone in public life, from politics to pictures, begins to believe his own press, his downfall is in the making. Griffith had read so much about his ability to discover talent, he became convinced he could make another Lillian Gish out of Carol Dempster. It was a fatal error. She couldn’t act, and he was unable to teach her to do so.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

Nor would the public accept her. In 1921 he starred her in a picture called Dream Street. The picture flopped. Against all advice he starred her in another picture the following year, One Exciting Night. It, too, was a failure at the box office. Meanwhile Lillian Gish, his greatest star—and a proven moneymaker—was ignored. Lillian, fed up with Griffith’s treatment of her, left his studio to sign with another at three times the amount Griffith had been paying her. The profits Griffith had made from his Gish spectaculars were used to finance the Dempster pictures. As each picture he made with her lost money, he soon went broke. He borrowed money to finance more films. When they, too, failed, he became bankrupt. He now had no alternative but to return to Hollywood to look for work (without Carol Dempster, who retired from the screen and married somebody else).

D.W. Griffith - Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)
D.W. Griffith – Photoplay 1924 (Photoplay Productions Ltd.)

There is an old saying still current in Hollywood that a director (or a star either, for that matter) is only as good as his last picture. No matter how many successes a director may have had, once he makes a bad film he’s on shaky ground. Two in a row can wreck his career. When Griffith arrived in Hollywood he found that the big companies were reluctant to hire him because of his recent failures.

United Artists finally let him shoot a film about the Civil War era so dear to his heart—a film called Abraham Lincoln, for which he himself had written the script. Abraham. Lincoln was a talking picture. It cost a lot of money, and money is always king in Hollywood. Critical reaction to Abraham Lincoln was mixed. Some critics said Griffith had surpassed himself, that he was reborn. Others said the parade had passed him by, that he couldn’t handle the new medium of talk. It was the reaction at the box office that really counted. The public wasn’t interested in the picture, and it was a financial failure.

Griffith made another picture called The Struggle. After its release it was found to be so bad it was recalled. Word got around that Griffith had lost his touch, that he was senile. The fact that he was drinking too much didn’t help counteract the rumors.

The Struggle - DW Griffith
The Struggle – DW Griffith

He wandered around like a lost soul. His whole life lay in making motion pictures, and nobody would let him make any. Producers refused to see him. When he called them on the phone, they were too busy to talk to him. People who knew him went out of their way to avoid him. Other people laughed at him. Laughed at D. W. Griffith, the man who had made all their swimming pools and their race horses possible!

scan-nop - dw griffith late
D.W. Griffith

Eventually the rumors and stories about him stopped, to be supplanted by something far more destructive. He was just plain forgotten. One day he was killing time walking down Hollywood Boulevard when he saw a crowd gathered in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. A young star was putting her hand- and footprints in the cement for posterity and the tourist trade. Mr. Griffith walked over to watch the ceremony. As the news cameras began rolling, he came closer and smiled at the girl. A policeman tapped him on the shoulder, saying, “Move on, buddy. No loitering.” Griffith, the man who was the father of it all, moved on.

There was one who stayed faithful. Lillian Gish. Incensed at the treatment given Griffith, she stormed the studios trying to shame them into giving Griffith a picture to direct. She never got anywhere, but she never stopped trying. Was it love for him—a making up on her part for the love she had once denied him? Or was it simply the unswerving loyalty of an old friend who believed in his genius as firmly now as she had in the bygone golden years? No one could say. No one knew. I don’t know that it matters. Whichever it was, it came to the same thing.

Charles Bickford visited by Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith on the set of MUTINY IN THE BIG HOUSE, 1939
Charles Bickford visited by Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith on the set of MUTINY IN THE BIG HOUSE, 1939

One night during this time Lillian asked me and a few other friends to dinner at her house. Griffith was to be there. I wanted to weep when I saw him. He was old. Not body old so much as soul old—old and empty, as if he had been beaten with discouragement until he had become devoid of any emotion whatever. Lillian must have seen him as the rest of us did, but she put on a great performance. She led him into conversation, getting him to reminisce until the light returned to his eyes, and for a brief time he became once again the strong, vibrant, imperial man he had been.

David Griffith Dies
David Griffith Dies

Mr. Griffith died in Hollywood in 1948 at the age of seventy-three. In the years since his death, he has been acclaimed everywhere as the Master. Honors are paid him. His films are shown in art museums around the world, where he is acknowledged to be the greatest film director who ever lived. In Hollywood there is talk of erecting a statue of him. Hollywood started acclaiming—and reclaiming—David Lewelyn Wark Griffith almost at once. Great crowds of people attended his funeral. All the big names in Hollywood were there. They were anxious to pay tribute to him. They could afford to. He was dead now. Safely dead.

Silent star - by Colleen Moore (photo - as a teenager)
Silent star – by Colleen Moore (photo – as a teenager)
Silent star - by Colleen Moore (photo - Ella Cinders)
Silent star – by Colleen Moore (photo – Ella Cinders)
Colleen Moore and Lillian Gish '50s
Colleen Moore and Lillian Gish ’50s
Old Friends - Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore and Helen Hayes
Old Friends – Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore and Helen Hayes

Colleen Moore


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Romola – Praised for Unusual Visual Splendor

Lillian Gish - Romola

There were endorsements from museum directors dithyrambic over the accuracy of historical detail, and no less an artistic luminary than painter Pierre Bonnard asserted, “It will awaken longings for the glorious past and enthuse all souls that follow ideals.” The concept central to publicity for Romola was Lillian Gish, the incarnation of the Renaissance woman. Nicolai Fechin’s portrait of her as the character was eventually bought by the Art Institute of Chicago; sculptor Gleb Derujinsky’s bust of her Romola is now in the collection of Washington’s National Portrait Gallery. French press materials, for instance, accentuated the Renaissance connection, even featuring side-by-side photographs of the Mona Lisa and a rather peculiar version of the portrait with Lillian’s face superimposed on it. The writer was quick to advise viewers that since Lillian was “as pure as she was good,” her eyes harbored none of the “devil” hidden in the subject of da Vinci’s painting.

Testimonials to her beauty were probably insufficient solace to Lillian, who, not especially enthusiastic about Romola at the outset, was decidedly unsatisfied with the finished product. “I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds.” (Charles Affron)

Romola - Nicolai Fechin 1925 Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.
Romola – Nicolai Fechin 1925 – Painting Oil on canvas tacked over board, 125.1 x 114.9 cm. Private collection as of 2006.

Although Romola did well, I never thought the drama matched the splendor of its fifteenth-century backgrounds. Douglas Fairbanks maintained that it was the most beautiful picture ever made, but I found it too slow-paced. Giavonni Poggi, then director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, said of it: “In the film Romola the costumes, the principals and the ensembles seem to have been studied with the greatest possible care. Bravo for the beautiful work of Inspiration Pictures.” And Firmin Gemier, director of the Odeon National Theater, Paris, wrote: “I must tell you how marvelous I think Romola is. Your reconstruction of the golden age of Florence gave me one of the greatest surprises of my life. It is a glorious moment from an epoch in which all true artists, all people of culture, all those who have loved and thought passionately, would like to have lived.”

Lillian Gish and Gleb Derujinsky’s sculpture – Romola

During that time, two sculptors, Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski, modeled busts of me. Nicolai Fechin did a portrait of me as Romola that was bought by the Chicago Art Institute. When I was in that city playing in Life With Father, it was hanging in the Goodman Theater. (Lillian Gish)

Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director
Nicolai Fechin and Alexandra Fechin with actress Lillian Gish and Erwin S. Barrie, director

Nicolai Fechin (1881 – 1955) also known as “The Tartar Painter”, was highly influential student of Russian master Ilya Repin. Fechin, along with John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, and Anders Zorn are the perhaps the most frequently cited influences on contemporary impressionists. But it is Fechin’s technique and approach that made his paintings stand out. Masterful with color and palette knife, Fechin used whatever he could, including saliva and his thumb, to achieve the effects he was seeking. Fechin would start with an abstract and bring it back to realism in select areas such as the face and hands, but his compositions, especially anything other than the center of interest, were generally abstract.Began paintings on plain, double weave Belgian linen, which was often attached to stretchers which he had made. He generally prepared his own canvases and seldom made preliminary sketches.His ground varied, not only from painting to painting, but upon a single canvas. In some areas he might use rabbit skin glue; in others, cottage cheese. The absorbency differences in the various sections of ground resulted in areas of high gloss and areas of matte finish in his completed painting. This was the effect he sought, and he therefore did not varnish his paintings.

Fechin painted Lillian Gish as Romola in 1925 (oil on canvas tacked over board) 49¼ x 45¼ in. (125.1 x 114.9 cm.). Estimate $150.000, portrait was finally sold for $464.000 and is part of a private collection since 2006.

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes

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The Cobweb (1955) – Affron /Oderman

The Cobweb (1955)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Writers: John Paxton (screenplay) William Gibson (additional dialogue)

Marks the return of Lillian Gish to MGM after a 22-year absence.

With barely a pause, Lillian went to work in yet another picture, this time at her old studio, M-G-M. That her stock had risen is clear in the appearance of her name, occupying an entire screen, above the title of The Cobweb, albeit the last after the more important actors, Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Gloria Grahame. Vincente Minnelli directed this high-powered cast that included newcomers John Kerr and Susan Strasberg, in the story of doctors, staff, and patients in the Castle House Clinic for Nervous Disorders.

Described in the script as “a woman in her fifties, thin and fierce,” Lillian plays Victoria Inch’s ferocity to the hilt in a one-note performance whose overwrought mode is shared by a number of other actors, including Grahame and Widmark. The screen time allotted to the officious Miss Inch is limited, but Lillian makes a strong impression nonetheless with pursed lips, rapid-fire line deliveries, purposeful gait, and nearly unrelieved anger. This impatient, nasty spinster was exceptional for Lillian and might have given a new direction to her movie career. At last permitted to doff her angelic halo, this was her first unsympathetic role. It led, however, to no others, and in fact, three years passed before she was again engaged for the movies.

Lillian Gish as Vicky Inch in The Cobweb 1955 - Promotional MGM
Lillian Gish as Vicky Inch in The Cobweb 1955 – Promotional MGM

Lillian was, however, considered for a number of important roles in the 1950s. For Cary Grant’s French grandmother in An Affair to Remember, director Leo McCarey said he preferred someone with a strong foreign accent and then, unaccountably, chose an Englishwoman, Cathleen Nesbitt, who had to fake one. William Wyler discussed Lillian for the mother of Ben-Hur. Director Peter Glenville suggested a St. Teresa of Avila project, with Frank Sinatra as St. John of the Cross. Her new agent, Lucy Kroll, pitched her for the role of Rita Hayworth’s mother in Clifford Odets’s The Story on Page One, and later, as one of John Ford’s 7 Women, both of which were excellent opportunities that went to other actresses. (Charles Affron)

Lillian Gish on set (Victoria Inch) starring in Cobweb
Lillian Gish on set (Victoria Inch) Cobweb

Producer and friend John Houseman (who always maintained that Hollywood never used Lillian’s talents correctly since the demise of the silent film era) put forth Lillian’s name for the role of Victoria Inch, an autocratic hospital administrator, in MGM’s The Cobweb, a dramatic film based on playwright William Gibson’s first and only novel (inspired by his wife’s long stay working with the Menninger Clinic staff). The studio acquired the rights for $54,000 after the book’s 1954 publication. Big plans were made to utilize color and the Cinemascope process for this non -musical. Directing this ambitious all-star film, whose cast would include (in addition to Lillian) Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, Lauren Bacall, Charles Boyer, and Broadway newcomer John Kerr, was veteran Vincent Minnelli. Houseman’s previous suggestion to utilize Lillian in Miss Susie Slagle’s (produced at Paramount in 1945) resulted in a pleasant enough programmer, but it failed to eradicate Lillian’s Griffith/ice floe image and make her an American Mrs. Chips. Filming The Cobweb would begin in early December and would last for approximately seven weeks. Set on the grounds of The Castle, a private psychiatric hospital based on the Austin Riggs Center in the Berkshires, The Cobweb was a “Grand Hotel in a loony bin,” where the patients were encouraged to pursue their individual creative dispositions, and were of sounder minds than the doctors and other members of the administrative staff.

The Cobweb behind the scenes (Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish)
The Cobweb behind the scenes (Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish)

The film’s drama centered on two dallying head doctors (Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall) and the problems of choosing suitable new drapes for the library. Indeed, the disturbed were looking after the disturbed.

The Cobweb, Lillian would tell Anita Loos, was her “comeback” to the studio where she had last worked in 1928 and, by mutual agreement, had terminated her contract at the end of the silent era. That she was returning, almost three decades later, represented a personal victory. She had triumphed over the then reigning executives who thought her box-office appeal could be increased if a studio arranged scandal could coincide with the releases of The Enemy and The Wind, which didn’t receive good reviews. Metro Goldwyn Mayer wasn’t the same studio in 1954 that it had been in 1928. True, it still occupied 167 acres in Culver City, and still had executive buildings, star bungalows, a private zoo, schoolhouse, hospital, and park, but the era had changed. After Lillian had gone, they had lost Garbo. Thalberg had died. And Louis B. Mayer, the last of the old guard, would soon be deemed useless, and phased out.

Lauren Bacall and Lillian Gish (The Cobweb 1955)
Lauren Bacall and Lillian Gish (The Cobweb 1955)

Lillian was over 60. Her return brought no fanfare (such as there had been when she had begun her first employment at the studio in King Vidor’s La Boheme in 1926). Hollywood had changed, and her Hollywood had especially changed. She wouldn’t have script approval. She wouldn’t have cast approval. She wouldn’t have director approval. In 1954 she was just another studio player, which she had been at the time she began working for Griffith at Biograph in 1912. Now she was an older studio player. Her career had come full circle.

She smiled at the new younger executives who would be sitting and watching her dailies. Would they know who she was? It was a new regime, but she would always be the professional. If neither studio would send any pre-release publicity to the newspapers, she would create her own. In this instance she would be the product. (Stuart Oderman)

Richard Widmark and Lillian Gish (The Cobweb 1955)
Richard Widmark and Lillian Gish (The Cobweb 1955)


The Cobweb (1955)


The Cobweb 1955 Promotional Photo Vicky Inch (Lillian Gish)
The Cobweb 1955 Promotional Photo Vicky Inch (Lillian Gish)


  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Writers: John Paxton (screenplay) William Gibson (additional dialogue)


  • Richard Widmark … Dr. Stewart ‘Mac’ McIver
  • Lauren Bacall … Meg Faversen Rinehart
  • Charles Boyer … Dr. Douglas N. Devanal
  • Gloria Grahame … Karen McIver
  • Lillian Gish … Victoria Inch
  • John Kerr … Steven W. Holte
  • Susan Strasberg … Sue Brett
  • Oscar Levant … Mr. Capp
  • Paul Stewart … Dr. Otto Wolff
  • Jarma Lewis … Lois Y. Demuth
  • Adele Jergens … Miss Cobb
  • Edgar Stehli … Mr. Holcomb
  • Sandy Descher … Rosemary McIver
  • Bert Freed … Abe Irwin
  • Mabel Albertson … Regina Mitchell-Smyth





The Cobweb poster HiRes autographed (Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish)
The Cobweb poster HiRes autographed (Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish)

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Lillian Gish and MGM  aka “Heaven And Hell All Contained In Five Acres”

A performance off screen as well as on – was required …

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths. If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground. (Kevin Brownlow)

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

The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?” 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. Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Louise Brooks – Sight and Sound 1959

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

“What does the future hold for Lillian Gish? (excerpt)

Gilbert works on mood. Lillian would film a scene only after it had been rehearsed several times. When the time came that the scene was actually being photographed she knew exactly the effects she was going to create and when and where. Gilbert was loud in his praise of her. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method. During the first and second rehearsals of the scene his work would be magnificent. After the fifth or sixth repetition of it, he was stale. The term “technician” should not be disparaged, provided it is properly employed to signify one who gains effects mentally rather than emotionally. It is what the screen requires. The camera does not wait on heaven for moments of inspiration, and no human being could go on feeling his part through several rehearsals and a half-dozen “takes.” It has to be felt first over the script and then mathematically planned for effect if chances are not to be taken. Miss Gish is perhaps the greatest student among motion picture actresses. A humorous story is told of how she learned to swim. An instructor had told her that she should learn to float first if she wanted to be the best swimmer. Water terrified her, but she bravely clamped a clothes pin on her nose and went floating for days until she was proficient. Today she is a mermaid. That is Lillian Gish — thoroughness, conscientiousness, perseverance. Will she overcome all limitations, her own and those artificially imposed? Will she prove to be, as many believe she will, the greatest actress of an immortal screen? Personally I feel that she is going to be either one of the enduring great or a complete failure. A half-way position for her is impossible. (James R. Quirk – editor of Photoplay)

Lillian Gish 1927 - Annie Laurie Promotional MGM
Lillian Gish 1927 – Annie Laurie Promotional MGM

Returning to Hollywood

Old Dr. Howe, of Rome and the Riviera, feels the pulse of the film colony, fills out a few prescriptions, and advises a little tincture of sense of humor for all hands

By Herbert Howe

Photoplay Magazine – May 1925 Vol. XXVII No.6

Lillian and Pola

German Ross Verlag No. 10341. Phoebus Film. Romola (Henry King, MGM 1924), shot on location in Italy

The Gishes have been in precarious position because of unhappy contracts. As soon as Lillian Gish is free she can just about make her own terms. I happen to have seen a few telegraphic bids for her services. 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 artist. The public is slow to appreciate great art. Duse at her best found no audience here. It was only when she had become a tradition—a celebrity whom it was fashionable to see—that she returned, a wraith of herself, to the acclaim of the multitudes. I predict a longer screen life for Lillian Gish than for any other actress of today.


Pola Negri 1931
29th January 1931: Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), born in Poland ‘Appolonis Chalupek’, the Hollywood film star and actress, probably the most exotic of the personalities of the silent days she thrived on femme fatale roles.



Pola Negri is another great actress, of magnetic personality, who has been handicapped because of a lack of understanding, both on her part and the company’s, as to the type of stories and direction she should have. Mr. Lasky is authority for saying that her box office rise has been phenomenal since ” Forbidden Paradise,” directed by Lubitsch.

Studio News & Gossip East and West

By Cal York

Photoplay – June 1925 Vol. XXVIII Number One

Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

THE abrupt ending of Charles H. Duell’s — suit against Lillian Gish proved once more that the man who tries to mix hearts and dollars—in an effort to win both—finds the answer to be Trouble. The judge dismissed the suit, ordered Duell to stand trial for perjury, and announced that the court would move to have him dismissed as a practicing attorney. In addition to the judge’s ruling, Miss Gish’s attorneys announced that she is to receive the sum of $120,000 from Inspiration Pictures.

Duell seems to be laboring under the illusion, and tried to prove, that he was engaged to the young star of Inspiration Pictures, but no one else knew it. Certainly not Lillian. At the time Duell was laying siege to Lillian’s hand he had a wife, Lillian Tucker, a former actress. Later Miss Tucker secured a divorce in the Paris courts. As soon as Lillian Gish’s contract with Charles Duell was declared null and void, every producer in the business sought her services.

Lillian finally signed with Metro-Goldwyn. She will receive five thousand dollars a week and twenty-five per cent of the profits. Which isn’t so bad for a girl who never has made any great effort to produce box-office pictures.

WHEN an irresistible star meets an immovable bachelor, what happens? Matrimony, of course. This means that all signs point toward a wedding in which Lillian Gish will play the leading role with George Jean Nathan as support.


The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

SAMUEL GOLDWYN feverishly followed the developments of the suit between Lillian Gish and her former manager, Charles Duell. It was the big drama of Sam’s life because he made it no secret he wanted to star Lillian. Now Lillian is no business woman, but she knows human nature. Goldwyn was one of the first to call on her when she was freed from her contract. He painted a rosy picture of her career, her future, and her art as a star under his direction. He talked salary, stories, directors, and. above all. he tried to make the proposition attractive to a star of Miss Gish’s artistic ambitions.

After he had finished describing his vision, Lillian turned a glowing face toward him. “How lovely. Mr. Goldwyn! How tempting!” she exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make beautiful failures!” And that’s when Samuel’s enthusiasm went out like a light.

Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg

Lillian felt a slight chill as the welcome became even more hysterical. ”Looking at it all, I said a silent prayer that they would be equally warm in farewell.” Her premonitions weren’t unfounded. While she was making La Boheme, a series of sinister threats were made against the actress, although they were kept hidden from her.Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power.

Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in La Bohème by Ruth Harriet Louise (MGM, 1926) Mimi and Rodolphe

The problem started with Lillian Gish, the star of stars in the monumental silent pictures of D. W. Griffith. She had been hired through a process that offered her MGM’s first million-dollar contract. Unfortunately, it guaranteed her approval of everything from the lace on her underwear to the use of her lips. When she arrived at the Culver City lot she found a banner soaring above MGM and across two streets, Lillian Gish is now an MGM star, said the banner under which paraded bands, a cart of roses, and lines of executives to greet her. Since it was her choice, she selected the tragic La Boheme for her first production, with the studio’s top-line director King Vidor to guide her. Lillian, pampered and convinced of her invincibility by D. W. Griffith, introduced a few bizarre practices to the lot—including full rehearsal. There were some grumbles until Vidor told Mayer that Lillian’s system was helping them bring in the picture under budget and ahead of schedule. Then “the affair of the kiss” began, almost bringing the picture down with it. As the lover of the doomed heroine, Mimi, MGM had of course provided the dashing John Gilbert, a man whose reputation was based on a sexy walk, a perfect body, languid eyes, and an ability to kiss equaled only by Valentino. Vidor was leisurely plotting an outdoor scene one afternoon when Lillian walked up with her script. ”Look at this, Mr. Vidor, there’s a kiss and an embrace planned during these scenes. Now that is simply not right. Rodolphe [Gilbert] will demonstrate the powerful love he bears for Mimi if he doesn’t embrace her at all—and he certainly shouldn’t kiss her.” Known as ”the great lover of the silent screen,” John Gilbert was incensed and ran to Mayer’s office. “This is a love story … a love story! Does she realize that?”

“What are you talking about?” Mayer asked.

“Lillian refuses to kiss me.”

“What?” Mayer yelled.

“You heard me. She says the audience will believe our love more poignantly if we don’t even touch,” Gilbert said.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

”Leave it to me,” said Mayer. Through a series of negotiations that would have strained a secretary of state, Mayer convinced Lillian that John Gilbert’s career might truly be hurt if he simply mooned around making eyes at Mimi. And after three days of love scenes, Vidor managed to coax the actress closer and closer to John’s embraces. He was achieving about one usable kiss every eight hours. On the way home, Lillian complained to her chauffeur: ”Oh, dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Protestations aside, Lillian must have been doing something right: John Gilbert proposed to her twice before they wrapped up filming. Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best. Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies. “No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.” (Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown)

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)

Mr. Goldfish /Goldwyn forgot his birth, “his” MGM built on “Birth of a Nation”. Ruling his empire as only a dictator would for years, as long as “his stars” did as Mayer wished, their own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated them by reminding them how often MGM had come to their “rescue.” Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. To enforce his domination, he had servants with sharp plumes ready to smear and tarnish any star reputation. Thus, Lillian Gish returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. She never left the footlights, even when she returned on filming sets again. Her impressive stageography can be studied, accessing the link below:

Miss Lillian Gish’s Stageography


Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya - Steichen Santa Monica - Vanity Fair May 1930
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

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The Hollywood Hallucination – by Parker Tyler (© 1944 – 1970)

The Hollywood Hallucination

by Parker Tyler (© 1944)


by Richard Schickel (© 1970)

What it comes to, in essence, is this: There is the conscious movie: the one the people who created it thought they were making and the one we thought we were paying our way in to see. Then there is the unconscious movie: the one neither makers nor viewers are consciously aware of, a movie that exposes the attitudes, neuroses, desires shared by both parties. This film, if not beyond good and evil, is certainly beyond the reach of “good” reviews or “bad” reviews, beyond favorable or unfavorable criticism. It is not, however, beyond contemplation of the sort Mr. Tyler practices.

And, it should be mentioned, his style is as unique as his subject matter. He has a way of warily circling his prey, surrounding it with speculation, until, weary and frightened by an astute hunter, it falls victim to one of his quick dashes to its most vulnerable point.

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

I said at the beginning that I am extremely vulnerable to the charm of daring critical huntsmen of Mr. Tyler’s sort, inclined to concede them their excesses of enthusiasm, their occasional lapses (even into incomprehensibility). Implicit in their enterprise is their own vulnerability to satirical and parodistical shots of the sort that people like Vidal, with their unquestioned ability to hit the broad side of a barn, can so easily make. Most of the best screen actors and screenplays, the ones we best and most lovingly remember, are similarly vulnerable, as is much of our best literature. In the end, work of this kind lingers in the mind precisely because it opens it up, leaves it speculating, trying to apply radical formulations to new phenomena as they appear.

dw griffith 8

It is possible, of course, that some of my affectionate regard for Mr. Tyler’s work stems from the fact that most of his examples are drawn from a period (the late Thirties and the Forties) that happened to be the most formative one for me as a watcher in the shadows. They may seem obscure or distant to people under thirty-fivish. Yet, most of the genres and performer types he discusses are still very much with us. And the processes by which they were created are still very much alive and well wherever people get together and make movies. Styles may change but the basics remain constant. Mr. Tyler may have written these books as the sound film passed through adolescence—age 14-18—but the bending of the twig was by then complete and its maturity was clearly prefigured. And even if the New American Film that one now sees taking shape should totally drive the traditional commercial product from the screen (which I doubt, some form of coexistence being a much better bet) The Hollywood Hallucination and Magic and Myth of the Movies would remain essential tools for understanding film history. Moreover, the mark they have made on at least some writers about film since they were published would remain indelible, even if, as is generally the case, unacknowledged.

Movies are, no matter what else they may from time to time claim to be, a mythopoetic form, and Mr. Tyler’s criticism has, appropriately enough, a poetic quality about it. The critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith has lately defined the poem as an entity which “allows us to know what we know, including our illusions and desires, by giving us the language in which to acknowledge it.” That, precisely, is what Mr. Tyler was trying to do when he wrote in his strange, compelling, uniquely rewarding way about films back in the days when we knew no better than to call them “the movies” and pretend their unimportance to us.

Richard Schickel

The Somnambules

The tradition of the somnambules in the movies is more conspicuous than those who put two and two together to make money may have noticed. It is only prudery, of course, that would prevent conceding the fact that the somnambule’s myth essentially signifies the “ritual” readying of woman for sex by depriving her of her conscious powers through hypnotism. But she does not have to get up from her bed and walk in her sleep to respond to intangible influences of desire and fear. In ordinary, “waking” terms, somnambulism in women is susceptibility to seduction by psychological tour de force.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

From a scientifically analytical viewpoint, the motions of fear closely resemble those of strong desire when the emotion is unrepressed. The peculiarly artificial style of Miss Gish’s femininity (I speak of her Griffith days only) must be considered a synthesis of fear and desire: fear in the sense of timidity and virginal propriety, and desire in the sense of flirtation, an impulse to be noticed by and to please the male. These counter emotions produced their refined hieroglyph of the Gish femininity under the Svengalism of Griffith, who conceived Miss Gish as a Trilby in whom pantomime was substituted for voice. It is worth noting here that both Trilby and Lillian are making love under the direction of their masters, and, moreover, making love professionally, one as a songstress, the other as a movie actress. Consequently the element of evil in the hypnotic males involved is forced to give way to a more or less impersonal element of good: both Griffith and Svengali were teachers and taught their charges to earn a living. It is important to bear in mind the economic element in the careers of those Hollywood somnambules whom I shall discuss later.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

The nervous somnambule of Lillian Gish is hard-working, although her type, considered with reference to society and to the characters she portrayed, is less competent than a very recent successor: Vivian Leigh. Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation overlap in many respects. Both had heroines victimized by the change the Civil War brought in its wake; both were brutally awakened from the feudal dream into a post-feudal reality. Both endured great physical rigors. But Scarlett O’Hara, prophetically, was much more a modern woman, a more complete psychological and social type. Miss Gish was incidental to the theme of her story, whereas the theme was incidental to the personal story of Scarlett. What is Scarlett but a feudal Eve who passed through the Lilith stage into a stage ruled over by Tallulah Bankhead as the termagant heroine of The Little Foxes? Scarlett learned to control her nerves; therefore she seems nothing but a Lillian who was initiated into a sophisticated personality by events. If Miss Gish had not been so active, she would roughly correspond to Scarlett’s counterfoil, Melanie. Miss Gish, however, was hardly more than a stylized dream, a somnambule with the jitters. Women who are ashamed of desire (and this is the generic, psychologic base of the Gish formula) cannot forever feign a pseudo-somnambulistic isolation—unless as actresses they should become figments of the romantic genre itself: dream characters, metaphysical symbols, heroines of Poe. As an artist in pantomime, Miss Gish could be as enchanting as anyone I have ever watched; her art was unimpeachable, her charm intense.

Vivien Leigh - Scarlett O'Hara (Gone with the Wind)
Vivien Leigh – Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind)

Her modern counterparts, strangely enough, are foreigners: Elizabeth Bergner and Luise Rainer. Yet in comparison with Miss Gish, these actresses are sophisticated and more human. The course of movie history dealt Miss Gish a harsh but poetical fate: her heroine of Broken Blossoms (the Gish-Griffith chef- d’oeuvre) was but the somnambule debunked—beaten rather than hypnotized into her “ideal” state of sexual readiness.

Phoenix-like, the somnambule’s myth arose from the frail, lifeless body in the Chinaman’s arms to dominate in several curious forms the sexual industry of Hollywood. Actresses from abroad have brought new styles subtly inflecting the Gish tremor and the Bara undulation of sex-consciousness.

Lillian Gish - Vanity Fair December 1929
Lillian Gish – Vanity Fair December 1929

The Human Mask

Before the talking movie appeared, American actors had a better chance to create their “human masks.” Not only did we get Chaplin then, but also Lillian Gish, as well as the romantic figures of Rudolph Valentino from Italy and John Barrymore from Broadway. Acting, with distinct but rare exceptions, was extremely bad in the first two decades of the movies. Of course, in Hollywood less was demanded of acting than on the stage. At the same time, because everything depended in those former times, so far as the actor went, on pantomime, the actor’s physical style had to be highly distinguishable, had to have some of the quality of the human mask. If nowadays we notice a relatively competent young actor, such as Robert Young, we see that physically he has no style whatsoever.

The Hollywood hallucination
The Hollywood hallucination – cover

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