A Cannes Notebook – By Roger Ebert – 1987

Two Weeks in the Midday Sun

A Cannes Notebook By Roger Ebert – 1987

By evening, a certain controlled hysteria was growing in the press corps, as the Friday visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales drew closer. Every reporter in Cannes hoped to be included on the guest list, which was being selected by some sort of secret process involving the British delegation and the festival press office.

Charles and Diana were scheduled to arrive on Friday morning, accept the keys to the city at noon, take a guided tour of the marketplace displays (easily the tackiest and most depressing sight Cannes had to offer), and then be present in the evening at a dinner in honor of Sir Alec Guinness. I ran into Peter Noble, who repeated his claim that some of the London dailies were offering £1,000 for press credentials to the dinner. He also speculated that the royal couple had timed their arrival to come the day after the screening of the most prestigious British entry in this year’s festival, Prick Up Your Ears, the story of the murder of playwright Joe Orton by his homosexual lover.

“It’s not the sort of thing they want the royals connected with,” Noble explained.

“What will they be seeing?”

“ The Whales of August. Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Most eminently respectable. The dodgiest part of their whole visit will be when they go down into the Palais basement to visit the marketplace. I imagine they have an advance team mapping out a route to get them from Canada to Australia to New Zealand without passing any porno displays. ”

The movie was by Lindsay Anderson, the British director, whose elderly cast included Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price, and Ann Southern. It takes place near the end of the season in the Maine cottage where Gish and Davis, sisters, have summered for years. Now they are facing a momentous question: Can Gish still find the strength to care for her blind sister? Price plays an indigent European count who explains, “I have spent my life as the guest of friends.” His latest friend has died, and now he is looking for a new home. Southern has her eye on him.

The movie is sort of an On Golden Pond about really old people (Gish is ninety-two). The actors and their characters are so old they they have passed beyond age and into a sort of status somewhere between survivors and saints. Anderson’s camera lovingly explores their faces, which are wrinkled and old but luminous. Davis, finally stripped of the mask of makeup she has adopted in her old age, looked especially beautiful.

Bette Davis Whales of August

Lillian Gish was in splendid form later in the afternoon, at her press conference in the Palais. She was A wearing a print dress and a floppy straw hat, and when the audience stood up and cheered her entrance, she looked as if she thought she deserved every moment of the ovation, which of course she did. This was the woman who starred in The Birth of a Nation, and whose presence at Cannes represented the whole life span of the feature film as an art form. Never married, rumored to still be carrying a torch for D.W. Griffith after all these years, Gish revealed some surprising memories, like the time Louis B. Mayer offered to boost her career by involving her in a scandal.

“Lillian,” she said Mayer told her one day in 1929, “you’re way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares. Let me knock you off. I know I can help your career—let me arrange a scandal for you. ”

Miss Gish paused for dramatic effect. “Well,” she remembered replying, “I’ve never had a scandal, Mr. Mayer. I ve never done anything that wasn’t public knowledge. The rest of the time, I spend with my mother and my sister Dorothy. ”

But Mayer was insistent, Gish said, and so she finally answered, “Give me three days. ” At the end of the three days she told Mayer she did not want to have her career helped by a scandal, and Mayer said, “I can ruin you! ” So, she said, she packed up and returned to Broadway—where she appeared on the stage for six years. Miss Gish nevertheless found time to make about 106 movies in a career that began with Griffith at the dawn of the feature film, and still continues, even though she lamented the fact that actresses seem to age faster than actors in Hollywood.

“When I was very young, I played the child of Lionel Barrymore. Some years later, I played the woman he loved. A few years after that, I played his wife. And I promise you, if Lionel Barrymore had lived long enough—I would have ‘ played his mother. ”

Nobody asked her what sort of scandal L.B. Mayer had in mind.

The press conference for Gish was an example of what has become an art form at Cannes, the ritualized confrontations between the stars, the directors, and the press. Most ofthe press conferences take place in the Salon du Presse, inside the Palais, but the biggest stars, like Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, or James Stewart, are moved upstairs to the Ambassadeurs nightclub to accommodate the overflow.

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The Swashbucklers – 1976

The Swashbucklers

© Copyright 1976 James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke

  • Editor: T. Allen Taylor
  • Research Associates:
  • Earl Anderson, John Robert Cocchi
  • Michael R. Pitts, Florence Solomon

Introduction by Hal B. Wallis

Thankfully, movies have always been behind the times. Take military science. While aircraft carriers and machine guns were making the old ways of warfare obsolete, one doughty band of mounted swordsmen continued to flail away. These were the Swashbucklers—heroes of a thousand exciting films from silents to CinemaScope. Knighted by their king, embraced by their one true love, acclaimed by adoring peasants, they nevertheless worked their derring-do without proper recognition—until now. Entertainment historians James Robert Parish and Don E. Stanke searched the secret archives of Hollywood . . . viewed hundreds of movies. ..braved a thousand dangers—anything to bring you these men of daring, up close.

Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister – behind the scenes

Movie director Henry King and his star, Lillian Gish, were hunting for an actor to play the part of the Italian prince in The White Sister (Metro, 1923). Inspiration Pictures (headed by Charles H. Duell and Boyce Smith), the producing company, had booked passage to Italy where the film would be photographed. As the sailing date came closer, the search for a dark-haired actor became frantic. Then, photographer James Abbe told King that he had seen La Tendresse and that there was a young Englishman in the cast who would be perfect as the prince.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” (At a Portrait Exhibition)

After seeing the play, King and Miss Gish went backstage and asked Ronald if he would make a test for them the next morning. Miss Gish has said in her autobiography. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Prentice-Hall, 1969), “Once we had run the test we knew our search was over. Ronald Colman was perfect for the part.” Miss Gish sent Henry Miller, the star-producer of La Tendresse, a note begging him to release Ronald from the run-of-the-play contract, “and that gracious gentleman, knowing what an opportunity it was for Mr. Colman, let him sail with us forty-eight hours later.” Since The White Sister was the first of the big American films to be made in Italy, there was a paucity of adaptable studio facilities and equipment. Needed items had to be purchased and rushed from Germany, while the company sought locations. During this period, Ronald sent for his wife. She joined him in his quarters at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, but the move was a mistake. (Mrs. Colman was given a small part in the feature to keep her occupied.) Their marriage was never too successful and the squabbles that came with their reunion were either witnessed or heard about by the entire company. Miss Gish wrote in her book, “Once Thelma Colman ran down the hotel corridor crying, ‘He’s dead! He’s dead!’ Some of the company ran in to find Ronnie on the floor. When he came to, he said, ‘I must have fallen and hit my head.’ ” A short time later they had another fierce quarrel at a party that resulted in Thelma’s immediate departure for England.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish – The White Sister

For one scene in the film, Ronald, as the prince, was required to kidnap his love (Gish), who had become a nun after thinking that he had been killed in Africa. “To get him to play with the passion and abandon necessary for the kidnapping scene, Henry King plied him with whiskey. Ronnie actually said ‘damn’ during the scene. It was a great surprise to all of us.” They worked all night on the scene, but the next day Ronald was not able to remember what had happened. According to Miss Gish, “Ronnie looked like an aristocrat; he could make you believe that he was a prince. But he had all the reserve of an English gentleman.”

White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

The White Sister premiered at New York’s Forty-fourth Street Theatre on September 5, 1923. Its thirteen reels of 13,147 feet of film were cut to ten reels and 10,055 feet for its February, 1924 national release and was subsequently edited to nine reels and 9,361 feet for its general release.^ The critics were enthusiastic about the film and its cast. The New York Times rated Ronald “splendid,” but like many another viewer of the spectacular picture, wondered just why the script had to introduce the rather incongruous flood scenes, which led to Colman’s death by drowning. For many it seemed a very overtly artificial manner of providing a means for Lillian Gish’s nun to remain true to her vows.

Lillian Gish adn Ronald Colman – The White Sister – promotional

Ronald remained in Rome to take a bit part, without billing, in a Samuel Goldwyn presentation, The Eternal City (Associated First National, 1923), a film dealing with the current political struggle in Italy between the Communists and Mussolini’s Fascists. Meanwhile, with the release of The White Sister, he was hailed as a new Valentino, and was immediately signed by Inspiration Pictures for a key role in Romola (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), again with Henry King directing and Lillian Gish starring. This film was made in Florence, where an entire replica of the fifteenth-century city was reconstructed. Also in the cast were Dorothy Gish and William Powell. The latter appeared as the villain whose acting overshadowed Ronald’s more modulated performance as the overly virtuous sculptor who adores the heroine (Lillian Gish).

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

Before Romola was released, however, Samuel Goldwyn, who had recently formed his own company in Hollywood and had seen The White Sister, cabled Ronald with an offer of the male lead in a film opposite May McAvoy. Colman accepted, and, on returning to New York, found that he had just enough time to take a role in a Selznick comedy starring George Arliss, an actor whom he greatly admired. In $20 a Week (Selznick Distributing, 1924), Ronald was cast as Arliss’ son, who challenges the older man to a bet that he cannot live on twenty dollars a week. The father takes the wager by procuring a job in a steel plant which he saves from financial ruin by uncovering an inhouse embezzler. The father is taken into the firm as a partner while the son marries the daughter (Edith Roberts) of the plant’s owner (Taylor Holmes).

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HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

Close-up : the Hollywood director

HENRY KING by Jon Tuska (1978)

  • General Editor: Jon Tuska
  • Associate Editor: Vicki Piekarski
  • Research Editor: David Wilson
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J. & London 1978
Close-up : the Hollywood director – Henry King

Henry King is a man of slightly more than average height. He looks surprisingly good wearing a hat, even if it is only a straw fedora; and were it not for the fact that his hat shields his grayish, thinning hair, you would never be able to guess how old he is from his alert, observant blue eyes and his deeply tanned skin. He is chary of revealing his age, having been born on 24 January 1896 at Christiansburg, Virginia, but then his active interest in life belies his years, as much as the fact that he still flies his own airplane and enjoys playing golf. He lives in Amelia Earhart’s former house in North Hollywood, bordered in the rear by a golf course, verdant turf spread beneath majestic trees stretching quietly in the California sun.

While King was at work on FURY (First National, 1923), featuring Richard Barthelmess (their last picture together) and Tyrone Power, Sr. , Charles Duell was taken with the idea of making a film with Lillian Gish. FURY was a sea story and King had chartered a ship for sixteen days to get the sea episodes filmed. When he docked, Duell had Lillian Gish with him. Edmund Goulding, who had done the screen play for FURY, wanted a chance to write the scenario for the Gish picture, to be titled THE WHITE SISTER. Goulding claimed he could complete it in ten days. When King saw Goulding’s treatment, he threw it out. Fortunately, King bumped into George V. Hobart, a Broadway playwright, in a restaurant. King told Hobart he would pay $1,000 a week for a good screenwriter, somewhat a measure of his hardening opinion of Edmund Goulding’s abilities. Hobart joined King in a short trip to Atlantic City to talk about the storyline. A week later they had twelve pages of story and King liked it.

The White Sister – Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish

When King returned to New York, he encountered Edward Small, who was a talent agent in those days. Small said there was a good play on Broadway at the 39th Street Theatre and that King should take a look at the actor in the second act. The play was a starring vehicle for Ruth Chatterton. Ronald Colman was the actor Small had had in mind. King was impressed by him and arranged a meeting. He wanted him for the role of the male lead, Giovanni, in THE WHITE SISTER. Colman told King that he had come from England with the hope of appearing in films, but that he photographed poorly and having been given a role in the play, felt he couldn’t leave. King insisted on doing a screen test anyway. He slicked down Colman’s pompadour and drew a moustache on him. The four-hundred-foot test was shot three times. When Gish saw the rushes–THE WHITE SISTER had been inspired by her desire to play a nun; it was the first film she was signed to make after leaving D. W. Griffith– she was enthusiastic about Colman. The picture was to be filmed in Italy. Colman agreed to play in it. He was offered $450 a week. Gish was getting $1,000 a week.

The White Sister – Lillian Gish

By modem standards, THE WHITE SISTER is one of those curious clerical dramas of the silent era, with Gish in her customary role of a sainted and vestal heroine. According to the screenplay, she falls in love with Colman. Then, believing him killed in the Great War, she decides to enter a convent. Colman shows up after she has taken her vows, and, however waveringly, Gish successfully resists him.

This film, like DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (Paramount, 1923) with Richard Dix, requires today a suspension of the critical faculties, particularly in view of the presumed motivations prompting the actions of the principals. First National, which had been distributing Inspiration’s features, thought THE WHITE SISTER (Metro Pictures, 1923) held little box-office promise. The film was then offered to Nicholas Schenck, who was president of Loew’s, Inc., the theatre chain which owned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Schenck was willing to distribute. The picture proved a commercial success. It had cost only $300,000 to make in spite of its location shooting in Europe. King found the Italians easy to work with and not at all the difficult and lazy bunch they were according to Fred Niblo who was working in Italy on M-G-M’s BEN HUR.

Colman so liked working in pictures that he asked King if there was a part for him in King’s next project. King wanted to make ROMOLA (Metro-Goldwyn, 1924), based on the George Eliot novel. The location was again to be Italy.

Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola – behind the scenes

It was to be a costume drama, a much more expensive film to make with its fifteenth-century setting, once more with a religious motif, a romantic drama played against the ravings of the fanatic Savonarola. Lillian and Dorothy Gish were the heroines. William Powell and Ronald Colman were the male leads. ROMOLA bombed. But the picture did bring Ronald Colman to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn offered Colman a contract. Colman was undecided. He felt he should stay with Henry King. But with the failure of ROMOLA, Inspiration was in financial straits. King urged him to accept Goldwyn’s offer.

Ronald Colman, William Powell and director Henry King while filming Romola

When Henry King returned to the United States, he signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. Both films were mediocre love stories, although the second one, ANY WOMAN (Paramount, 1925), made some feeble attempts at comedy.

WAY DOWN EAST (Fox, 1935) was Henry King’s last film for the old Fox regime. It was, of course, a remake of what remains perhaps D. W. Griffith’s best film after THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Epoch, 1915). King had always been impressed with Griffith’s film and he considered the remake a great challenge. Unfortunately, Fox was financially strapped. The Shirley Temple musicals, the Will Rogers pictures, and Charlie Chan were the only consistent money makers the studio was producing. King could not, as Griffith had, film the exteriors during the blizzard, crossing the river on the ice floats, on location; he was confined to the back lot at Fox’s Western Avenue studio. King wanted to simulate frozen eyelashes, such as Lillian Gish had had in the original. He couldn’t. Henry Fonda was able to jump around on the cakes of phony ice, but he was sweating when he did it.

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Dressed : a century of Hollywood costume design – By Deborah Nadoolman Landis (2007)

  • Dressed – A Century of Hollywood Costume Design
  • By Deborah Nadoolman Landis
  • Collins (Harper Collins Publishers) 2007

From the lavish productions of Hollywood’s Golden Age through the high-tech blockbusters of today, the most memorable movies all have one thing in common: they rely on the magical transformations rendered by the costume designer. Whether spectacular or subtle, elaborate or barely there, a movie costume must be more than merely a perfect fit. Each costume speaks a language all its own, communicating mood, personality, and setting, and propelling the action of the movie as much as a scripted line or synthetic clap of thunder. More than a few acting careers have been launched on the basis of an unforgettable costume, and many an era defined by the intuition of a costume designer—think curvy Mae West in I’m No Angel (Travis Banton, costume designer), Judy Garland in A Star Is Born (Jean Louis and Irene Sharaff, costume designers), Diane Keaton in Annie Nall (Ruth Morley, costume designer), or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Deborah Nadoolman Landis, costume designer). In Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, Academy Award®-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis showcases one hundred years of Hollywood’s most tantalizing costumes and the characters they helped bring to life. Drawing on years of extraordinary research, Landis has uncovered both a treasure trove of costume sketches and photographs— many of them previously unpublished—and a dazzling array of first-person anecdotes that inform and enhance the images. Along the way she also provides an eye opening, behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of the costume designer’s art, from its emergence as a key element of cinematic collaboration to its limitless future in the era of CGI. A lavish tribute that mingles words and images of equal luster, Dressed is one book no film and fashion lover should be without.

Lillian Gish as Little Mother in D.W. Griffith’s “Judith of Bethulia” later aka “Her Condoned Sin”

Early Years

We were struck by how closely the newest Hollywood anecdotes about costume design mirror the oldest. The testimony by actors and designers at the end of this volume, in the twenty-first century, echo those at the very beginning of the twentieth. Silent-film star Lillian Gish would be all too familiar with the anxieties of present-day indie actresses. Today’s compressed production schedules parallel the earliest days of shotgun moviemaking, when actresses arrived at the set dressed to impress or were clothed from secondhand (now vintage) shops or rental house hampers. It’s irrelevant whether a costume is a manufactured or found object; it need only be right for the shop girl, the princess, the gangster, or the boy next door.

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

Throughout the 1910s, motion picture attendance grew exponentially, with more theaters springing up around the country, creating an ever-increasing demand for more films. Studios began to standardize the way movies were made. The creation of specialized movie costume departments may be credited to D. W. Griffith, whose employment of film designers was just one of his many innovations in moviemaking. Prior to Griffith—the first filmmaker to commission costumes specifically for a single film, Judith of Bethulia—movies were costumed from a grab bag of sources. The extras in Bethulia continued to be responsible for their own costumes, wearing primitive beards created from crepe paper and cardboard. Two years later, for Griffith’s landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915), a number of the costumes were made by actress Lillian Gish’s mother. With no organized costume department yet created, there was no one to keep track of costumes. “In those days there was no one to keep track of what an actor was wearing from scene to scene,” said Gish, the film’s star. “He was obliged to remember for himself what he had worn and how his hair and makeup had looked in the previous scene. If he forgot, he was not used again.”

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation” promotional

Even in these early, haphazard days, actors understood that the primary purpose of costume was to help tell the story. As Lillian Gish remembered, “In Birth of a Nation, during the famous cliff scene I experimented with a half dozen dresses until I hit upon one whose plainness was a guarantee that it would not divert from my expression in that which was a very vital moment.”

Intolerance – Babylon

For Intolerance (1916), Griffith had new costumes created for not just the lead actors but also the movie’s thousands of extras—another moviemaking first. Crowd control was an issue, as actress Bessie Love recalled, and the filmmakers devised a clever strategy to keep order on the set: “Half a dozen second assistant directors were made up in costume and mingled in shot with the crowds, inciting the mob and relaying the directions of Mr. Griffith.” After Griffith’s innovations, the restricted scale of the legitimate theater could never again compete with the depth of field and spectacle on screen.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in “Broken Blossoms”

Griffith’s commitment to costuming was legendary. His wife Linda Arvidson, often told the story of his “auditioning” practices: “I have no part for you, Miss Hart, but I can use your hat. I’ll give you five dollars if you will let Miss Pickford wear your hat for this picture.” The golden-haired Mary Pickford had been acting in a theatrical troupe since she was six years old. She had already formed the essence of her “Little Mary” character, the little girl with the long golden curls, by the time she started working with D. W. Griffith at Biograph. Pickford later recalled one of her first days in the movie business. “I played a ten-year-old girl in a picture titled Her First Biscuits … and to costume me for that one day’s work had cost all of $10.59. If I had had any doubt before, I had absolutely none now that the picture industry was mad.”

Lillian Gish as Mimi in MGM’s “La Boheme”

Determined to have the world’s best at the studio, Mayer wasted no time looking for star power to lead his costume department. In 1924, he employed renowned French stage designer Romain de Tirtoff, known as Erte. When Erte arrived in New York on February 25, 1925, the Morning Telegraph announced that his “advent into motion pictures is of special significance to the film industry as it is the first notable recognition paid to the importance of the costuming phase in motion picture production.” Erte was brought to MGM with all the fanfare afforded the biggest stars.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Renee Adoree, George Hassell, Gino Corrado – “La Boheme” MGM

Unfortunately, his tenure would not live up to the hype. Experienced with creating showy costumes for large stage revues such as the Folies Bergere, Erte brought his same sense of outsized drama to the screen. Though his fabulous showgirl costumes looked stunning from the back of a live theater, they looked awkward and ridiculous in black and white on a movie screen forty feet wide. Erte viewed actresses as mannequins for his gowns, rather than as characters in a story, and actresses in his designs appeared uncomfortable. For the tubercular seamstress played by Lillian Gish in La Boheme, Erte produced a collection of crisp calico dresses. The dresses were made of cheap fabric, and Gish argued that they would look too new on the screen. Star and designer steadfastly refused to compromise; Erte banished the star from his workshop, and Gish collaborated with Lucia Coulter, head of wardrobe at MGM, to replace Erte’s work with tattered garments of old silk that would look worn and cheap on screen. After just one year, Erte returned to Paris, brimming with nasty comments on the state of American taste.

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

Max Ree: “The designer of costumes should begin with a conception of the personality. He is at least as much an analyst as the actor who plays the part, for he must familiarize himself with the character so that the kind of thing the person in question would wear is immediately obvious.

“Changing an actress’s figure by means of her clothes came up when I designed the costumes for Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter. We wished to stress the pathos of Hester Prynne by making her small-almost immature. To give her the appearance of being shorter I broke the lines wherever possible. Across her circular skirt I put several rows of broad tucks. On her very short jacket were wide bands of black velvet edging the neck and the end. Her shoes and cap were round. All this tended to flatten her silhouette, and Miss Gish is sufficiently slender to stand the ordeal.”


Lillian Gish wearing an extras costume in “Orphans of the Storm”

Lillian Gish (actress): “For Orphans Mr. Griffith had a designer do the costumes, but for my taste they were too much in the fashion of the time. I went to Herman Tappe and told him my ideas and the two of us worked out Dorothy’s and my costumes for Orphans. All the other costumes were duplicates of those worn in the Revolutionary period.”


Dressed : a century of Hollywood costume design – front cover

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Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer (1996)

  • Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer
  • 1996 by Princeton University Press
  • Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
  • In the United Kingdom: Princeton University Press, Chichester, West Sussex

Noting that filmmakers and critics have often used motherhood as a metaphor to describe film production and the cinematic apparatus, Lucy Fischer undertakes the first investigation of how the topic of motherhood presents itself throughout a wide range of film genres. Until now melodramas have figured most prominently in discussions of maternity; these films, along with musicals and screwball comedies, have traditionally been viewed as “women’s” cinema. Fischer, however, defies gender- based classifications to show how motherhood has played a fundamental role in the overall cinematic experience. She begins by arguing that motherhood is often treated as a site of crisis—for example, the theme of the mother being blamed for the ills afflicting her offspring—then shows the tendency of certain genres to specialize in representing a particular social or psychological dimension in the thematics of maternity.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Noxious Nannies

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a work whose four part historical structure is sutured by the maternal image of Lillian Gish and by quotations from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Like the poet’s words (which conjure a musical theme), Griffith’s poignant visual trope positions the innocent madonna outside the universe of political injustice. Wallace’s verse is of a more cynical tone, implicating motherhood in the system of corrupt power. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle “shuttles” (as Whitman would have it) between these two positions: one attached to the biological mother and the other assigned to her surrogate.

Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

Silent Melodrama



With your milk. Mother, I swallowed ice. And here I am now, my insides frozen. . . . My blood no longer circulates to my fect or my hands, or as far as my head. It is immobilized, thickened by the cold. Obstructed by icy chunks which resist its flow. (Luce Irigaray)

To state that Way Down East | 1920 i is a Him about the maternal body seems an exercise in cliche. For it recounts the familiar story of Anna Moore (Lillian Gish), a country girl seduced (in a mock marriage) by an urbane playboy, then left to bear his illegitimate child. While the film’s narrative connections to motherhood are abundantly clear, a maternal discourse reverberates on more submerged levels of the text, invoking its literary origins, its social context, its metaphoric structures, and its celluloid existence.

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

The Literary Body

[ Personally it is always pleasing to recognize . . . the fact that our cinema is not altogether without parents and without pedigree, without a past (Sergei Eisenstein)

Like many works of the silent era, D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East its creative “maternity” to literature. For Sergei Eisenstein, this “‘genetic’ line of descent” is a positive feature, lending cinema a prestigious “birth place”. Other critics have found this artistic lineage more problematic, with film configured as an “illegitimate” offspring. As Judith Mayne notes (in a passage reminiscent of Way Down East), “It has been stated over and over again, in condemnations of the cinema as an inferior art form, that if the cinema is heir to the novel it is a bastard child”. Retrospectively, even Eisenstein’s phrasing abounds with double meaning. His pride in a cinema “with a past” collides, in Way Down East, with the shame of a woman “with a past”—a notion that dogs the life of Anna Moore.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Way Down East was written in the mid- 1890s by dramatist Lottie Blair Parker. As he recounts in Showman, producer William A. Brady found her original text promising but flawed, and commissioned its “elaboration” by “play-doctor” Joseph R. Grismer. While the Manhattan premiere of the melodrama was financially disappointing, the play succeeded on the road. When the production returned to New York, it enjoyed a triumphant run. As Brady writes in “Drama in Homespun,” “The show was a repeater and it took twenty-one years to wear it out” . Ultimately, Grismer published a novelization of the play in 1900. It is this literary property that Griffith claimed (for $175,000), not from its “natural mother” (Parker), but from its “adoptive father” (Brady), who had shrewdly acquired the rights (Brady, Showman, Henderson, 215). Many were shocked by Griffith’s interest in this antique, “by-gosh” melodrama. Lillian Gish recalled that Hollywood “thought privately that [he] had lost his mind”. Griffith was to make considerable changes in the literary material. While Parker’s play begins after Anna’s tragic mistake (and slowly discloses the circumstances of her transgressive maternity), Griffith’s narrative starts with her seduction. While Parker’s play climaxes in the “sensation scene” of a winter snowstorm, Griffith concludes with Anna’s spectacular rescue from a waterfall and ice floe. Using a bodily (and Frankensteinian) metaphor for cinematic paternity, Martin Williams claims that “Griffith . . . breathe[d] new life into [the] old bones” of his literary prototype. Arthur Lennig deems this process the “birth” of Way Down East. Griffith’s faith in his source was well-founded. According to Gish, Way Down East played for more than a year on Broadway and “made more money than any other Griffith film except The Birth of a Nation.”” Significantly, his “bastard” cinematic progeny played for “legitimate” theater prices.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

The Actress -Body

All that winter, whenever Mr. Griffith saw an ice cake, he wasn’t satisfied till he had me on it. (Lillian Gish)

Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream. . . . But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bare-headed and bare-handed and without a heavy outer coat so it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from the cold. (Lee Smith)

It is not surprising that, in discussing Anna’s plight, Wexman makes reference to “Gish’s frail body,” for the production of Way Down East has become notorious in film history for its demands on its performers. Shooting the rescue sequence on location (at White River Junction, Vermont; Farmington, Connecticut; and Mamaroneck, New York), the cast and crew were subjected to harrowing winter conditions.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Gish recalls:

Again and again, I struggled through the storm. Once I fainted—and it wasn’t in the script. I was hauled to the studio on a sled; thawed out with hot tea, then brought back to the blizzard. … At one time my face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and icicles like spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm, she heard a calculating Griffith shouting to the cameraman: “Billy, move in! Get that face! that face — get that face.

Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East

Commenting on this extradiegetic melodrama, Robert Henderson wryly notes, “It must have seemed as though Griffith had turned into a Simon Legree with Lillian Gish . . . being pursued across the ice”. Griffith was all but obsessed with his snowstorm. A technical director remembers his eternally yelling, “More ice, more ice.” The crew produced some floes by dynamiting the frozen river or by cutting it with a saw (Lennig, 110). For others, he used wooden platforms or blocks of paraffin (112). When his synthetic ice was lost down the falls, he would shout, “How long would it take to build more ice?” (110-12). In addition to artificial ice, Griffith occasionally employed “simulacra” for his actors: either dummies or “doubles” for his principle players. Significantly, while Griffith was freezing Gish on the river’s ice, he was also (like Lennox Sanderson) giving her the “cold shoulder,” looking for her amorous “double.” As Wexman notes, Griffith’s condemnation of male inconstancy in the film “was especially ironic given the director’s personal situation, for he was then in the process of transferring his own affections from Lillian Gish … to Carol Dempster, whom he would star in future productions. Thus, if Gish had cause to suffer at that moment in history, it was Griffith himself who was to blame”.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Cinematernity – by Lucy Fischer 1996 – front cover

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Sold For Marriage – by Anthony Slide (1980)

The kindergarten of the movies : a history of the Fine Arts Company

Sold For Marriage – By Anthony Slide – 1980

Sold for Marriage is an interesting story of a Russian family emigrating to the United States and attempting to sell their daughter (Lillian Gish) to a wealthy, elderly suitor. The first two reels, set in the Russian steppes, are impressive in their detail, and in these reels there is at times a comic vein apparent, particularly in the titles and in Miss Gish’s looking her ugly and old suitor up and down before exclaiming, “Marry that beast!” Throughout much of the film, the actress has a pouting look on her face, but there is fine acting in the scene in which she grabs a pair of scissors and considers killing the suitor to whom she has been sold. Despite some beautiful early scenes in the snow and one brief shot of Lillian’s lover, Jim, played by Frank Bennett, on a train speeding from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Sold for Marriage is not a great film. Julian Johnson, writing in Photoplay (June, 1916) gives an accurate appraisal: “Lillian Gish puts a convincing touch on a play of Russian life which is not convincing in itself.” Oscar Cooper in Motion Picture News (April 15, 1916) also endorsed Miss Gish’s performance, noting “Her work here, as always, gives the impression that she is one of the very few who can justly be called screen stars.”

Excerpt from

  • A History of the Fine Arts Company by
  • Anthony Slide – 1980

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American Silent Film – European Influences (by William K. Everson – 1978)

American Silent Film – European Influences

by William K. Everson

1978 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

Victor Seastrom’s eight American films are a remarkable showcase of Swedish temperament and extroverted puritanism. The best of them are so stark and austere that, if it weren’t for the presence of Lillian Gish, Garbo, and other Hollywood names, they could pass as Swedish imports. Many of them seem interrelated, particularly Name the Man (based on a Hall Caine novel of sin and perhaps excessive redemption) and the beautifully photographed and acted The Scarlet Letter (based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, which could be described in identical terms). Lars Hanson’s impressive but far too stylized acting (in The Scarlet Letter in particular, though also in The Wind, in both of which “grand manner” acting is in marked contrast to the subtle and graceful underplaying of Lillian Gish), further stresses the “non-American” quality of these films.

Nevertheless, on the whole, Seastrom’s American career can be considered a success. The Scarlet Letter ( 1926 ) was undoubtedly his masterpiece, an adaptation of the Hawthorne novel, in which the stark, puritanical fervor of the original novel was matched by the austere echoes of Scandinavian cinema. Even though the scenario somewhat muted and romanticized Hawthorne’s original, Lars Hanson’s extremely stylized playing and Hendrik Sartov’s superb camerawork, full of delicate pictorial symbolism, restored the balance. Lillian Gish’s mature and sensitive performance, in a role that was a far cry from the Victorian innocents that she had played for Griffith, was superb.

Gish, Hanson, and Seastrom were reunited by MGM for The Wind, a strange amalgamation of themes and elements from Greed, White Gold, and traditional westerns. A bizarre, shapeless affair, devoid of any real sense of period ( even Lillian Gish’s costuming seemed to exist in a vacuum ) , it was a monumental example of talent triumphing over scenario. Even changing the original tragic ending (in which the Gish character goes insane and wanders off into the desert) to a happy one (she kills the villain who has earlier raped her, buries his body in the desert, and is reunited with her previously estranged husband ) seemed not to affect the film, except perhaps for its commercial betterment. The plot, though based on a 1925 story, seemed too old-fashioned and erratic to be taken seriously, and the switch from tragedy to happiness hardly represented a box-office sellout. The atmospheric photography (John Arnold),

Seastrom’s beautifully underplayed direction (the killing scene was a brilliant essay in suggestion, the whole act of the body falling to the floor being conveyed by a shot of a dust-laden plate jarring, and resettling), and the superb control exercised by Lillian Gish over potentially flamboyant theatrics, all represented the silk purse of silent screen art at its peak, despite the sow’s ear on which it was squandered. Commercially, he was able to fall back on Hollywood stars (Gish, Chaney, Shearer, Gilbert, Garbo) to counteract his somewhat austere style. And in any case, while Swedish directorial styles (many of which derived from the German cinema) were not exactly emulated by other Hollywood directors, lesser imported directors like Sven Gade, and the use of Scandinavian-oriented material as vehicles for Swedish stars (Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil, from a Suderman story, starring Garbo, Gilbert, and Hanson, is a case in point), did tend to make the Swedish point of view, if not commonplace, then at least visible. Seastrom’s Hollywood career was certainly more successful than Stiller’s.

Lillian Gish, Victor Sjostrom and Lars Hanson (front row) – Behind the scenes ‘The Scarlet Letter’
Scarlet Letter Ad – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1926-Feb 1927)
The Wind – Poster

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Lillian Gish Still Captivates Audiences – By Gene Siskel (Chicago Tribune – 1969)

Way Down East - filming the "Ice Floe Scene" (Lillian Gish)
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

Chicago Tribune – Wednesday, October 1st, 1969 – Page 51

Lillian Gish Still Captivates Audiences

By Gene Siskel

AT THE Moscow Film festival this summer, one actress received an ovation larger than any other. Lillian Gish, whose credits are virtually endless and run the gamut from the largest grossing film [“Birth of a Nation”] to longest running Broadway play [“Life With Father”], was that actress.

VI Moscow International Film Festival, July, 7–22 1969. Soviet director Grigory Alexandrov and Lillian Gish.
VI Moscow International Film Festival, July, 7–22 1969. Soviet director Grigory Alexandrov and Lillian Gish.

She is in Chicago at the Goodman theater thru Saturday for five performances of “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a narrated look at the birth and triumph of the only art form created in the twentieth century – the movie.

Miss Gish is elegant in a long, white gown, and ebullient as she greets the audience in what she calls “my city.” Her warmth – which she was able to project on the silent screen – is more than evident in her greeting. “I’m a lucky, lucky woman.”

Scene from D.W. Griffith's Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.
Scene from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, 1920, with Kate Bruce, Lowell Sherman, Lillian Gish, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale and Richard Barthelmess.

With the screen at center stage and her chair off to one side, Miss Gish takes us on a tour of great films from 1900 to 1928. Incredibly modest, she has included films from her own career as well as those of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and many others.

Occasionally having trouble with her script, Miss Gish was the most captivating when she looked out at the audience and told the story of her harrowing performance on an ice floe in “Way Down East.” As we watched her leave her lover [Richard Barthelmess] and head for ice, she explained that stand-ins were never used. “And it was my foolish idea to hold my hand and my hair in the freezing water.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

Barthelmess chases his sweetheart, jumping from ice floe to ice floe, and suddenly we see a shot of Miss Gish approaching the falls. You have to shake yourself to realize that here was the era’s most popular screen star floating down a river about to be smashed to bits.

“I don’t know why we got so close to the edge. We couldn’t hear Mr. Griffith [the director] screaming at us.” In a dazzling scene that has the audience gasping and then cheering, the heroine is saved.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish - ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Much of the cinematic travelog is a paen to her close friend and pioneering director, David Wark Griffith. Miss Gish shows us portions of Griffith’s masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation,” and identifies the master’s contributions to the art.

In his preface to miss Gish’s autobiography, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “I know what makes her so magnificent. She has no vanity.” We got a sense of that last night, and only wish Miss Gish’s modesty wouldn’t keep her from talking more about her roles as they are shown on the screen. What information she did give was wonderful.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 01 Oct 1969, Wed Page 51 - N

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The famous ice floe scene from The Way Down East — with Lillian Gish.

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