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

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

UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS

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

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

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

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

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

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

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

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

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

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

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish – feature photo

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

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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

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

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

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

Duel in the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Vidor in 1931

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976)

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

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

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

A Demonic Landscape

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

La Boheme

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

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s

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

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

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

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan (Charles Affron)

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

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

George-Jean-Nathan-1928

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

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

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

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan — Chateau Du Plessis France

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

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

George-Jean-Nathan

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

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

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

“a today without you is to me always a yesterday that INCLUDED YOU I MEANT EVERY WORD I SAID LAST NIGHT AND HOPE YOU ONLY MEANT EVERY OTHER WILL TELEPHONE AT NOON SUNDAY LOVE GEORGE.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

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

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Great names and how they are made – By THODA COCROFT (1941)

  • Great Names
  • AND HOW THEY ARE MADE
  • By THODA COCROFT
  • Copyright 1941
  • The United States, Canada and Great Britain by Thoda Cocroft
  • Printed in the United States of America

The writing of Lillian Gish shows a mental type with delicate sensibilities, whimsical humor, modest tastes, temperate habits, thought for others, surprising firmness. Power of concentration, above the average.

VIII

Blondes Are Volcanoes, Huh?

The third blonde was Lillian Gish.

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

Shortly after “Topspeed” opened in New York, Richard Maney resigned from the Warner Brothers publicity staff and returned to Jed Harris’ office where he had formerly been associated. I left when he did. Later I went out in advance of Jed Harris’ production of “Uncle Vanya,” in which Lillian Gish played the leading role.

The company was rehearsing at the theatre when Maney took me there to meet her. Unlike most first impressions which shift and rebuild themselves, exhibiting irritating angles under the changing focus of close acquaintance, my first mental picture of Lillian has remained unchanged.

She instantly reminded me of a particular rose in my mother’s California garden called “cloth of gold,” with dull yellow outer petals of the same pale shade as her long hair. She was reminiscent of the rose, too, in her grace and slenderness. So fragant was her personality that talking to her was very much like standing against a sunny wall and sniffing the sweetness of that especial yellow flower. I had expected her to be more guarded, less cordial. And it was remarkable to find that the impact of her cinema fame, the push and strain of the hundreds of letters which she still received from picture fans, had not injured her charm nor imposed that expression of suspicion common to many of the widely publicized people of the screen.

Yet in the same capacity of press agent, when I noted wariness in Katharine Hepburn’s eyes and distrust in her face, I had wondered what she was afraid of. A friend of Hepburn’s had explained it in the Broadway idiom: “Aw, she thinks ya wanta put the bee on her.”

1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena

Apparently Lillian Gish had abundant resources to meet any such impertinences and did not have to erect ugly screens of misgiving. To be sure, certain protections from the public were necessary and one of the things she asked me in that early conversation was that I make her reservations in Boston and other cities under a different name than that of Lillian Gish.

I eyed her inquisitively that day, searching for the blonde tattoos of superheat but could discover none of them. She seemed to be functioning on a mental rather than an emotional plane. We talked about Chekov and “Uncle Vanya,” of how the atmospheric accompaniment of his plays exceeded the plot action in importance, and of how this mood had been created by the rubbing of one character against another. Lillian was thoughtful in her analysis. It was clear she had studied the Russian dramatist and had read a great deal more than I had on the subject. I had not seen her performance then, although I had read a sheaf of enthusiastic New York reviews of it.

Jed Harris was in New Haven when I left New York for Boston for the try-out performance of Liam O’Flaherty’s “Mr. Gilhooley,” in which Helen Hayes and Arthur Sinclair were playing the leading roles. I stopped off there for a couple of hours to see him.

Several years previous to this, when I had lived in Greenwich Village, I had known Jed Harris. He was a theatrical press agent in those days himself, at least whenever he could get an advance agent’s job. Occasionally he came to my apartment and talked of the plays he planned some day to produce. We called him “the infant Belasco” and Jed accepted the title seriously, although he sometimes protested the limitation of a mere Belasco contribution to the theatre.

“I will be the most cultured producer in America,” he declared earnestly. “Belasco,” he shrugged, “is out of date. I will be better than he is, better than the Theatre Guild.”

I laughed at this heresy and at his egotism.

Theater Producer Jed Harris

That day in New Haven I found Jed at the Shubert Theatre watching the “Mr. Gilhooley” rehearsal. It was at this theatre that he had first ushered as a boy. His father had emigrated from Russia and, after a struggle, had established a tailor shop in the Connecticut town. During his early years Jed had known what it was to be penniless and to go hungry. The protective layers of self-esteem he had built up against the hurt and misery of those early days had left him arrogant, cocksure, utterly and entirely ruthless. In appearance he was tall, bony, the black-faced Semitic type. Even when he was freshly shaven the blue-black line of stubble showed through on the skin of his cheeks. He had bold, black, penetrating eyes, a long, prominent nose, and a shrewd mouth.

That day he had not shaved, an omission which became an affectation of his once he achieved the success category on Broadway. His shoulders stooped characteristically, as he paced around the theatre during the rehearsal waits.

He saw me and sat down to talk for a few minutes. Then the rehearsal started again and he changed his seat. Every three to five minutes after that he continued to change his seat, getting up frequently to walk back and ask me what I thought of the play before I had seen enough of the rehearsal to form any sort of judgment.

It was apparent that he was crazy with nervousness as well as distrustful of the play but could not put his finger on the sour spots. At that time his success with “The Front Page,” “Broadway,” “The Royal Family,” and “Coquette” was more like a fairy tale than any reality in the theatre. Crowning these big money-makers, his artistic triumph with “Uncle Vanya” indicated that, after all, the early prediction he had made for himself was no heresy. After “Uncle Vanya,” however, Broadway waited anxiously for the next astonishing chapter in the Jed Harris legend, while wiseacres in show business began to declare that this Arabian Nights episode was finished. His production “Our Town” nevertheless has indicated that another spectacular eruption of the Harris genius is not at all unlikely.

To reach Boston that evening I had to leave directly after the first act. I had an uneasy feeling, even with the little I had seen of the play, that “Mr. Gilhooley” was not in the lucky “hit” class. As it turned out later, the play was a failure.

, Lillian wrote and wired me friendly messages. Her letters were delightful, written in a fragile backhand that seemed exactly to typify her. And always she I thanked me for any routine service included in the course of my duties, as if I were doing her the greatest of favors. Later, at holiday time, her Christmas card written in her own delicate script said simply: “I think of you at Christmas time.”

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Lillian Gish standing and brushing her hair]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3506

In Chicago, Lillian rented an apartment at the Lake Shore Drive Hotel. I visited her there several times. One morning I arrived before she was dressed and found her in negligee, combing her long, pale hair. It was so long it put me in mind of the princess in the fairy story who let her golden tresses down over the castle wall for her knight to use as a ladder. Falling far below her waist, it was like a heavy shawl in its weight and thickness. In color, it was a natural rose-petal ash blonde. Was she the smouldering type?

But Lillian, at heart, nursed no white-hot fires. Or so I wrote the young director, thinking to put his ‘‘hot- mama’’ theories entirely to rout. In reply he called me “insensitive, unobservant, myopic. . . She’s in love with George Jean Nathan and madly jealous of him—as only a true blonde can be.”

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

With zipped-up interest I returned to my researches in blonde emotions. The George Jean Nathan rumor had been current for several years. Lillian had even admitted that a ring she wore had Nathan’s picture in it. “Friendship,” she had explained. Was it possible a volcano was erupting under my nose and that I was not even aware of it?

While I surreptitiously watched for symptoms the publicity wheels must keep moving. At the Chicago Art Institute I knew there was a portrait of Lillian Gish in the permanent collection, representing her in her motion picture role of Romola and painted by Nicholai Fechin. Purchased for the Institute by the Friends of Modern Art, it has been hung appropriately by the door of the studio theatre. Although it is not an unusual thing for an actress to have her portrait painted, no other portraits of stage people are in the Institute; Lillian Gish is the only living actress whose portrait has such unique distinction.

Passing through Chicago on former trips, Lillian had attempted to see her picture after it had been hung there. But she had not been able to find it on any of these trips and was far too shy to ask for it. I suggested that she make a pilgrimage there and allow newspaper photographers to take her picture viewing this painting of herself. She agreed, with the reservation that in case the photographs were poor they would not be used.

On the day of this scheduled picture she wore a smart black frock with a crisp white collar, white piping at her wrists, and a small black hat contrasting effectively with her blonde hair. The camera men had assembled when she arrived; then, immediately, the students ; poured out of the studio theatre to watch her. To hold back these nosey youngsters it was necessary to call for help from their instructors.

Lillian stood on a high bench to reach the portrait of herself and the camera men made their pictures of her standing there, in profile, viewing it. That night, in | her dressing room, I showed her the results and she was pleased. The next day they were used in Chicago papers and later in syndicates around the country.

Still there came the old chestnut of a question: “Is she engaged or really married to George Jean Nathan?”

When a newspaper woman columnist insisted they were married, I said there was no evidence except the “friendship” ring. Lillian, I explained, had worn the ring for a long time. The newspaper woman immediately played up the ring as a brand new bit of news and a few days later the old stories that “she was secretly | wed to the hard-boiled critic” were dusted off and printed in all the papers.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

I was once more ahead of the play, in another city, I when the story broke and so positive was the assertion of marriage that I did not realize the columnist alone was responsible but thought that Lillian herself had made a public statement. I wired back and asked her. She wrote in reply: “You may be sure I shall tell you if that ring should ever have a greater significance than it has at present. You may be sure if it ever does, it will be a long, long time.”

In the event the ring had the significance the press stories attributed to it, this was a very neat answer. But it was scarcely the retort of a woman keyed to emotional heats. Such a blonde, according to the young director, would have colored her reply with some inescapable shade of possessiveness, had jealousy smouldered in her heart.

“Your blonde theory is the bunk,” I wrote the director, although I was still in the dark about Lillian’s love affairs. To all outward appearances her life was happily organized around her work. And yet there continued to lurk the reminder that still waters flow emotionally deep, and that perhaps, after all, her long training as an actress masked unplumbed intensities of feeling.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

Not until “Uncle Vanya” reached the Harris Theatre in Chicago did I see the play itself. Besides Lillian’s Helena this production was the closest to perfection in its casting that I have ever seen approximated in the theatre. There were Walter Connolly, who had played in Margaret Anglin’s “Woman of Bronze”; Eugene Powers of the same cast; able Osgood Perkins and Kate Mayhew, the remarkable character woman; talented Zita Johann, and Eduardo Ciannelli, who distinguished himself in the screen version of “Winterset.” Such a combination was a tour de force that only the peculiar genius of Jed Harris could possibly assemble.

I felt then that the review of the New York World had not overstated the case when it said: “ ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the finest of Chekov’s plays. Chekov’s plays are the finest plays of the century. The Jed Harris production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ is the best Chekov that America has seen.”

I was enraptured with Lillian’s performance as she floated through the play, like a symbol of fugitive romance, escaping the clutching hands of idealizing men.

“If you know an art theatre when you see one, here it is,” wrote Charles Collins in the Chicago Tribune, proclaiming it better Chekov than what the Moscow Art Theatre had given us.

Seldom does an art theatre make an overwhelming demand at the box office, but considering the pall of the depression that was slowly squashing the theatre in its clammy hands, the receipts of that tour were remarkably good. Theatre managers and theatre public still optimistically believed that happy days were “just around the corner.” And not until three years later did they fully realize that the legitimate theatre’s road territory had been completely washed away and that a fourteen-thousand-dollar gross per week, such as “Uncle Vanya” had drawn at the Harris Theatre, was a figure gone with the chickens that in boom times filled every pot and with the two cars that basked in every garage.

Uncle Vanya

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

My Life in Three Acts – Helen Hayes (1991)

  • My Life in Three Acts
  • Helen Hayes
  • WITH KATHERINE HATCH
  • A TOUCHSTONE BOOK
  • Published by Simon & Schuster
  • First Touchstone Edition 1991

When Lillian Gish is visiting, she always comes to breakfast in a peignoir. She makes a very pretty picture with her hair flowing down her back. But deshabille doesn’t suit me; I can’t function that way. I have to be fully clothed, because once the day begins, it gets beyond me, out of control.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish attend at preview in New York Thursday of an exhibit entitled Anita Loos and Friends

Not long ago, my friend Lillian Gish and I discussed this problem. At the time we were both watching a TV miniseries about Peter the Great. We were excited, at first, because so many actors we knew and admired were in the cast. After the third installment I asked Lillian what she thought. “I’ve stopped watching,” she replied. “It was just a lot of actors dressed up for a costume party.” Exactly what I thought. Here were actors who had made Shakespeare’s words ring like golden bells mumbling their way through what was essentially no more than a series of tableaux vivants. It is hard to know where to place the blame: on actors who don’t consider their dialogue worth delivering well, or on writers who don’t bother writing literate dialogue when so few actors make an effort to speak well.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman – Anastasia

I had turned down the role of the Russian dowager empress in the film version of Anastasia. I didn’t think the part of a domineering Romanov suited me. But, then, I can’t remember ever playing a role that didn’t seem, at first, more suited to someone else. Even in the case of Victoria, despite my enthusiasm I thought an English actress would have been more appropriate. On stage the dowager empress had been played magnificently by Eugenie Leontovich and by my close friend Cathleen Nesbitt, and I didn’t think I’d be nearly as good as either of them. But friends kept urging me to get back to work. They all believed the wounded soldier had to return to action, never mind the bandages or the morphine. And the attitude in the theatre world has always been: “The show must go on,” whatever the personal cost to the actors. Josh Logan implored me to take the Anastasia role, saying it was my duty to use the talent God had given me. Anita Loos and Lillian Gish also encouraged me, Anita going so far as to say she would accompany me to London, where the film was to be shot. Eventually I gave in.

Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes – Anastasia

Lillian Gish is another old friend who has spent several Christmases with me in Cuernavaca. We first met in New York back in the early 1930s, after Lillian left Hollywood because she didn’t like the changes sound brought to moviemaking. She felt that the crude vocal reproduction of the early talkies distorted her voice, so she decided to give up filmmaking and return to the theatre, where she had worked before becoming D. W. Griffith’s leading lady in silent films. Around the time that Lillian came back to New York, Jed Harris was preparing a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and he chose Lillian for one of the two female leads. Jed was romantically involved with Ruth Gordon at the time, and Ruth met Lillian through him. I got to know Lillian through Ruth. This was somewhat ironic, as Ruth and Jed and I later became estranged, but Lillian and I are still close friends after fifty years.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

We had only one bad patch. It happened a few years ago, when we were rehearsing for a TV production o{ Arsenic and Old Lace. We broke for lunch one afternoon well after 2 p.m., and Lillian and I headed for Longchamps, one of a chain of restaurants that offered good food and soft, flattering lighting. The latter, needless to say, was very popular with ladies of a certain vintage. As we waited for lunch, Lillian started talking about her latest obsession: rejuvenating treatments offered by a Rumanian doctor she knew. His elixir of youth was administered in injections of certain animal substances—lamb embryos, or something like that. This Dr. Feelyoung’s cure-all had been rejected by the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration on the grounds that it was pure quackery. Ignoring that verdict, Lillian had gone to Rumania every year for the doctor’s injections. Like too many stage and film people, she had fallen into a desperate struggle to retain her youth, and she believed the treatments worked. Why was the American medical establishment against the good doctor? It was just jealousy, she thought.

Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes

I listened quietly for a while, but finally I got fed up. There was a lot wrong with our system of medicine, I said as calmly as possible, and I was well aware of its shortcomings. But at least we were way ahead of other countries in protecting the naïve against the flummery of mountebanks. So far our voices had been modulated to match the soft lighting around us. But now Lillian became shrill. “Let me tell you what I think of American medicine,” she burst out. “My banker, who is in charge of all my affairs, has a letter stating that if I get too sick to make my wishes known, I am to be taken to Europe immediately.”

“To what country?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” said Lillian. “Anywhere except America!”

That really irritated me. “Lillian,” I exclaimed, “you’re a bubblehead!” Suddenly we were shouting, two gray-haired ladies yelling at each other while a group of waiters stood around nervously, probably fearful that we would soon start slinging china. What a tidbit that would make for the gossip columnists—Longchamps Brawl: Hayes vs. Gish.

But it wasn’t only Lillian’s strange fixation and the harm it might do her that bothered me. Her attitude toward American medicine offended me for a personal reason: I was deeply involved in working on behalf of a Nyack hospital that had been named for me. This may sound self-serving, but the truth is that I was gratified that the use of my name could help win support for a hospital that provided good care and sponsored important research. I suppose Lillian’s condemnation of all U.S. medicine struck me as an affront to my hospital and its dedicated staff, though of course she hadn’t meant it that way. We soon came to our senses. That was the only argument Lillian and I have ever had, and since then we have tacitly understood that medicine is a subject we have to avoid.

lillian-gish-james-macarthur-new-york-usa-19 jun 1960 detail

Lillian is full of surprises. Once, when she was visiting in Nyack, we took a long walk along an Indian trail on the cliffs above the Hudson. My three dogs were scampering beside us. We came to a point where the trail unexpectedly narrowed, and the dogs suddenly cowered at my feet. There was a washout a few steps ahead. I stood there frightened, the dogs practically clinging to me, as Lillian grabbed a tree limb and swung across the washout to safe ground on the other side.

“What are you doing, Lillian?” I gasped. “You’ll kill yourself!”

“Nonsense!” she said airily. “In the old days we used to do things like this in the movies. There weren’t any stunt people then.” She swung back and forth like Tarzan.

In Way Down East, a D. W. Griffith masterpiece made in 1920, Lillian had had to float down a river on an ice floe. The scene was shot in Mamaroneck, New York, in the dead of winter, and Lillian spent so many hours filming the sequence—in which she is rescued by Richard Barthelmess, playing the hero—that she came down with a serious case of chilblains.

Way Down East was a great success, and Griffith wanted to give Lillian a special present out of gratitude for her unstinting loyalty and courage. Her birthstone is the opal, and in Australia Griffith found a gem known as “the Great Opal,” which he purchased and had mounted in a cross designed by Tiffany.

Maybe he would have scouted for another great opal if he could have seen her performing the same kind of feat more than fifty years later.

james macarthur, lillian gish, joyce bulifant, charlie macarthur, helen hayes

The heroines Lillian played for Griffith were invariably spiritual and slightly otherworldly, and there are times when Lillian herself seems a trifle vague, so closely in tune with her own drummer that she misses the beat of what is going on around her. This trait can be startling, as it was at one event we both attended a few years ago. I asked Lillian to join me at the cardinal’s annual Christmas party in New York, a tradition initiated by Terrence Cardinal Cook and carried on by John Cardinal O’Connor. I’d been invited for more than twenty years, and I’d taken Lillian along once before. This time I was asked to bring her again—Cardinal O’Connor was a great fan of hers.

Lillian arrived all dolled up. All her clothes date from forty years back, but the dresses are still elegant, and she’s proud that they still fit. The luncheon was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and she sat beside His Eminence, who looked magnificent in his scarlet cape, biretta, sash, and gold cross. He was very courtly as they chatted, obviously so pleased to be next to Lillian that you could almost hear him saying to himself, “Imagine, here I am sitting beside Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

If this were a scene in a movie, it would be called “The Cardinal and the Star.” As the cardinal made a fuss over her, the star, too, was very animated. Then all at once she stared straight ahead, apparently puzzled. “Helen,” she asked me in a loud stage whisper, “what church is he from?”

As I grow older, I get forgetful too, but I haven’t reached that point yet. And neither had Lillian when it came to work. She’s sharp as a tack then, as I discovered when we appeared on TV together in Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a challenging production, shot live on a multilevel set that would have tested Edmund Hillary’s climbing ability.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic was one of several television and movie projects I took on in the mid-1970s. My role as Mrs. Quonsett in Airport launched a second career for me that got under way with three films for the Disney studios.

My life in three acts – Helen Hayes 1991

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Project Gutenberg “WAY DOWN EAST”

  • “WAY DOWN EAST”
  • The Project Gutenberg EBook of ‘Life and Lillian Gish’, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Griffith now began work on his greatest melodrama. “Way Down East” had been successful as a book and a play, and was precisely the sort of thing he could do best. From William A. Brady, for a large sum, he secured the picture rights, and plunged into production. There were to be two great outdoor scenes: a blizzard, in which the heroine, who has been inveigled into a mock marriage—and is, therefore, under the New England code, fallen and outcast—is lost; and the frozen river, which, blinded and desperate, she reaches, to be carried to the falls on a cake of ice. There was very little that was artificial about such scenes, in that day: the blizzard had to be a real one, the ice, real ice—most of it, at any rate. Griffith began rehearsing some scenes at Claridge’s Hotel, in New York, continuing steadily for eight weeks; but all the time there was an order that in case of a blizzard, night or day, all hands were to report at the Mamaroneck studio. Lillian had taken Stanford White’s house on Orienta Point. Reading the play, she knew it was going to be an endurance test, and went into training for it. Cold baths, walks in the cold against the wind, exercises … she had faith in her body being equal to any emergency, if prepared for it. In a magazine article, a few years later, she wrote:

The memorable day of March 6th arrived, and with it a snow-storm and a ninety-mile-an-hour gale. As I was living at Mamaroneck, near the studio, I quickly reported, and was made up as Anna Moore, ready but not eager for the work to be done. The scene to be taken was the one just after the irate Squire Bartlett turns Anna out of the house into the storm. Dazed and all but frozen, she wanders about through the snow, and finally to the river. The Griffith studio was on a point or arm well out in Long Island Sound. The wind swept this narrow strip with great fury. The cameras had their backs to the gale. She had to face it.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

She had been out only a short time when her face became caked with snow. Around her eyes this would melt—her lashes became small icicles. Griffith wanted this, and brought the cameras up close. Her lids were so heavy she could scarcely keep them open. No need of spectacular “falls.” The difficulty was to keep her feet. She was beaten back, flung about like a toy. Her face became drawn and twisted, almost out of human semblance. When she could stand no more, and was half-unconscious, they would pull her back to the studio on a little sled and give her hot tea. A brief rest and back to the gale. Griffith had invested a large sum in the picture, and she must make good. One could not count on another blizzard that season. Harry Carr writes:

That blizzard scene in “Way Down East” was real. It was taken in the most God-awful blizzard I ever saw. Three men lay flat to hold the legs of each camera. I went out four times, in order to be a hero, but sneaked back suffocated and half dead. Lillian stuck out there in front of the cameras. D. W. would ask her if she could stand it, and she would nod. The icicles hung from her lashes, and her face was blue. When the last shot was made, they had to  carry  her to the studio.  A week or two later, they were at White River Junction. Vermont, for the ice scenes. Griffith took a good many of his company, and they put up at an old-fashioned hotel, a place of hospitality and good food. White River Junction is at the confluence of the White and the Connecticut rivers. There is no fall there, but the current moves at the rate of six miles an hour, and the water is deep. The ice was from twelve to sixteen inches thick, and a good-sized piece of it made a fairly safe craft, but it was wet and slippery, and  very cold. It was frozen solid when they arrived; had to be sawed and dynamited, to get pieces for the floating scene. Lillian conceived the idea of letting her hand and hair drag in the water. It was effective, but her hand became frosted; the chances of pneumonia increased. To the writer, recently, Richard Barthelmess, who had the star part opposite Lillian, said:

“Not once, but twenty times a day, for two weeks, Lillian floated down on a cake of ice, and I made my way to her, stepping from one cake to another, to rescue her. I had on a heavy fur coat, and if I had slipped, or if one of the cakes had cracked and let me through, my chances would not have been good. As for Lillian, why she did not get pneumonia, I still can’t understand. She has a wonderful constitution. Before we started, Griffith had us insured against accident, and sickness.

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

Lillian, frail as she looked, was the only one of the company who passed one hundred percent perfect—condition and health.

“No accidents happened: The story that I missed a signal and did not reach Lillian in time, and that she came near going over the falls, would indicate that she made the float on the ice-cake but once. As I say, she made it numberless times, and there were no falls. Lillian was never nervous, and never afraid. I don’t think either of us thought of anything serious happening, though when I was carrying her, stepping from one ice-cake to another, we might easily have slipped in. I would not make that picture again for any money that a producer would be willing to pay for it.”

[Illustration: “ANNA MOORE”]

Lillian Gish – Ice Floe Scene – Way Down East

At the end of the ice scene, there is an instant when the cake, at the brink of a fall, seems to start over, just as Barthelmess, carrying Lillian, steps from it to another, and another, half slipping in before he reaches the bank.

The critical moment at the brink of the fall was made in summer-time, at Winchell Smith’s farm, near Farmington, Connecticut. The ice-cakes herewere painted blocks of wood, or boxes, and were attached to piano wire. There was a real fall of fifteen feet at this place, and once, a carpenter went over and was considerably damaged. In the picture, as shown, Niagara was blended into this fall, with startling effect. Barthelmess remembers that Lillian kept mostly to herself. She took her work very seriously—too much so, in the opinion of her associates. But once there was a barn-dance at the hotel, in which she joined; and once she and Barthelmess drove over to Dartmouth College, not far distant, with Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Clifton, to a dinner given them by Barthelmess’s fraternity. After dinner, they heard a great tramp, tramp, and someone said to Lillian: “It’s the college boys, coming to kidnap you.” They sometimes did such things, for a lark. But they only wanted to pay their respects. They gathered outside the window, which Mr. Clifton opened, and both Lillian and Barthelmess spoke to them through it.

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

The summer scenes of “Way Down East” were made at Farmington and at the Mamaroneck studio. Griffith had selected a fine cast, among them Lowell Sherman, the villain; Burr McIntosh, as Squire Bartlett; Kate Bruce, his wife; Mary Hay, their niece; and Vivia Ogden, the village gossip. The scene where Squire Bartlett drives Anna Moore from his home, was realistic in its harshness, and poor Burr McIntosh, a sweet soul who long before had played Taffy in “Trilby,” and who loved Lillian dearly, could never get over having been obliged to turn her out into the storm.

Often, in after years, he begged her to forgive him.

Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

A few minor incidents, connected with the making of “Way Down East,” may be recalled: Griffith had spent a great sum of money for the rights—$275,000, it is said—and was spending a great many more thousands producing it. He was naturally on a good deal of a tension. All were working to the limit of their strength, but they could not hold the pitch indefinitely. When Barthelmess, who is short, had to stand on a two-inch piece of board, to cope on terms of equality with Lowell Sherman, Sherman, who was a trained actor of the stage, could, and did, make invisible side remarks which made Barthelmess laugh. Whereupon, Griffith raged at the waste of time and film, and everybody was sorry, the villain penitent. “Stop that laughing! Turn around and face the camera,” were sharp admonitions perpetuated by a right-about-face in the picture to this day.

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

It was harsh in form, rather than by intention. They did not resent these scoldings. They believed in Griffith, knew something of his problems, wanted him to make good. There was one scene during which Griffith had no word to offer—the scene in which Anna Moore (Lillian) baptizes her dying child. Harry Carr writes:

The only time I ever saw a stage-hand cry was in the baptism scene in “Way Down East.” It was made in a boxed-off corner, with only D. W., Lillian, the camera-man, a stage-hand and myself there.

Everybody cried. It never made the same impression on the screen, because it was necessary to interrupt the action with the sub-titles. You saw her dripping the water on the baby’s head; then a sub-title flashed on, saying: “In the Name of the Father, etc.,” and the spell was broken.

Carr, Lillian and Griffith would sit far into the night, watching rushes from the scenes made the day before. It was a drowsy occupation—so many of the same thing—and after a day in the open, it was not surprising that Carr should nod. Across a misty plain of sleep, Griffith’s voice would come to him: “Which shot do you like best, Carr?”

It is noticeable in the baptism scene, that Lillian sits relaxed, her knees apart; that when she leaves the house, she walks with a dragging step, as one who had recently experienced the struggle and agonies of child-birth. It has been suggested that she had visited a maternity hospital for these details. When asked, she said:

“No, I did not do that. There was an old woman connected with the studio, who had borne a number of children. She told me all that I needed to know. I learned something, too, from pictures of the Madonna, by old masters. I noticed in all of them that the Madonna sat with her knees apart. I felt that there must be a good reason for painting her in that way.”

She had studied out every detail of the scenes she was to play. Many actors, even among the best, work by another method. They absorb the feeling of the plot, fling themselves into a scene, depending upon an angel to kindle the divine fire. This method never was Lillian’s. To her, the bush never of itself became a burning bush. She lit the fire and tended it. She knew the effect she wanted to produce, and found no research too tedious, no rehearsal too long—no effort too great, to achieve her end.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)

“Way Down East” was shown in October. Griffith, with Lillian and Barthelmess, were present in person, in the larger cities. It was like a triumphal tour. To present the “world’s darling” in scenes of actual danger, on the screen, and then have her appear in person, was to invite something in the nature of a riot. Reporters indulged in the most extravagant language. And there was a freshet of poetry, and of letters—love-letters, many of them, but letters, also, from persons distinctly worthwhile. David Belasco, whose “most beautiful blonde” verdict had long since gone into the discard, démodé, wrote:

_Dear Lillian Gish_,

It was a revelation to see the little girl who was with me only a few years ago, moving through the pictured version of “Way Down East” with such perfect acting. In this play, you reach the very highest point in action, charm and delightful expression. It made me happy, too, to see how you and your name appeal to the public. Congratulations on a splendid piece of work, and good wishes for your continued success.

Faithfully,

DAVID BELASCO

Way Down East – Anna Moore Detail

John Barrymore went even further, when he wrote:

_My dear Mr. Griffith_:

I have for the second time seen your picture of “Way Down East.” Any personal praise of yourself or your genius regarding the picture I would naturally consider redundant and a little like carrying coals to Newcastle….

I have not the honor of knowing Miss Gish personally and I am afraid that any expression of feeling addressed to her she might consider impertinent. I merely wish to tell you that her performance seems to me to be the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchaining thing that I have ever seen in my life. I remember seeing Duse in this country many years ago, when I imagine she must have been at the height of her powers—also Madame Bernhardt—and for sheer technical brilliancy and great emotional projection, done with an almost uncanny simplicity and sincerity of method, it is great fun and a great stimulant to see an American artist equal, if not surpass, the finest traditions of the theatre.

I wonder if you would be good enough to thank Miss Gish from all of us who are trying to do the best we know how in the theatre.

Believe me,

Yours very sincerely,

JOHN BARRYMORE

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

Mrs. Gish, who was not a motion-picture enthusiast, made a single comment:

“Well, young lady,” she said, “you’ve set quite a high mark for yourself. How are you going to live up to it?”

[Illustration: THE RIVER SCENE IN “WAY DOWN EAST”]

Way Down East – Vermont

“Way Down East” was one of the most popular and profitable pictures ever made. Net returns from it ran into the millions. It has had several revivals, and at the present writing (Winter, 1931), is being shown at the Cameo Theatre, New York, “with sound.” Its day, however, is over. Taste has changed—has become what an older generation might regard as unduly sophisticated, depraved. This, with mechanical advancement—the talking feature, for instance—tells the story. A picture of even ten years ago—five years ago—is without a public.

“Way Down East” is a melodrama, but one that at moments rises to considerable heights. Putting aside the spectacular features of the picture—the blizzard and the ice-drift, where melodrama is raised to tenth degree—the scene where the villain reveals to his victim that their marriage was a mockery, the scene where Anna Moore, about to be turned out into the storm, denounces her betrayer, and the baptismal scene, already mentioned, are drama, and, as Lillian Gish gave them, worthy. And, after all, what is, and is not, melodrama—and cheap. Cheap—because it is human. That is why we have invented for ourselves a hereafter—a place away from it all—of rest by green fields and running brooks. Very well, let us agree that the play was cheap, especially the comedy, which was low comedy and about the record in that direction. But if Lillian’s acting was cheap, and poor, then there is very little to be said for any acting, which, God knows, may be true enough, after all!

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

ART DECO FASHION – by Suzanne Lussier (2003)

  • ART DECO FASHION
  • Suzanne Lussier
  • BULFINCH PRESS
  • AOL Time Warner Book Group
  • Copyright © 2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The term Art Deco was employed for the first time in 1968 by the author Bevis Hillier. It identifies an aesthetic in vogue between 1909 and 1939 which was adopted in architecture, the decorative arts, textiles and fashion; it also influenced the fine arts, film and photography. Art Deco displayed stylized motifs and shapes borrowed from national traditions, folk art and ancient cultures, and was strongly influenced by the art of the avant-garde.

Art deco fashion_Tamara de Lempicka 1929

Art Deco emerged from a unique artistic conjunction. From 1905, avant-garde movements sprung up one after another throughout Europe: the Fauves and Cubists in Paris, the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia. Meanwhile the Ballets Russes were founded in Russia by Sergei Diaghilev who, wanting to rejuvenate ballet by introducing exotic themes, sets and costumes, employed artists and musicians from the international avant-garde. Too unconventional for the conservative Russian public, the Ballets Russes moved to an ecstatic reception in Paris in 1909, a moment which historians mark as the catalyst of the Art Deco period. Pivotal in the development of Art Deco, the Ballets Russes imbued fashion with its colourful and voluptuous aesthetic through the genius of fashion designer Paul Poiret; its influence in fashion would be felt well into the 1920s. Diaghilev s dance company would trigger a long-lasting vogue for exoticism in dress and the use of luxurious materials, a vogue strengthened by the arrival in Paris of Russian emigres like Natalia Goncharova, and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Natalia_Goncharova_Paris_ca_1915

Freedom was the motif in the emancipated climate of the post-war years. A huge increase in sport and leisure activities, new dances like the Charleston, greater opportunities to travel all ushered in designs adapted to greater flexibility of movement. Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet were quick to embrace these trends and create innovative new lines for the modern, liberated woman.

Madeleine Vionnet – carnival dress

Black-and-white films demanded sharpness in costume and coiffure, and this would establish new references in haute couture and mainstream fashion. American movie stars had a huge influence on fashion, and they helped to promote haute-couture designs. Most of the time, however, producers could only afford one or two hautecouture dresses, so some actresses bought their gowns directly from the designers and paid for them with their own money. Mary Pickford known to go to Paris regularly, and there buy 50 haute-couture designs which she would wear indiscriminately in movies and in real life. American actresses were the first to create a style of their own: Lillian Gish with her pastel muslin dresses, Mary Pickford in ‘little girl’ dresses and Joan Crawford in garments by American fashion designers. Greta Garbo, with her cape and deep cloche, became the epitome of the late 1 920s fashion in American cinema. Period movies and movies set in faraway locations played a major part in promoting exotic outfits.

Renee Adoree and John Gilbert – La Boheme – Musette and Rodophe

*** For her part as Musette in “La Boheme, ” Erte designed a gorgeous frock of huge puffed sleeves, voluminous skirts ami wasp-like bodice. (Incidentally, you fashion devotees, Erte is an arch enemy of that confining mode. It destroys the grace of line, he says, and will never be reinstated in the style world.) ” The first day she looked exquisite—like a doll. But on the second day she insisted that she could not wear corsets and eat —and eat she must, so off came her corsets. She looked like a balloon!” Two sensitive hands made an airy outline of her appearance. But to say a lady looks like a balloon! It simply isn’t done in Hollywood, you know. Not even at ‘”cat parties.”

Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)

*** And then there was Lillian Gish.

“I designed a pretty costume for her as Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’ Mimi is a poor girl whose poverty is shown in her clothes. Of inexpensive materials I fashioned the dress—of wools and cottons.

” ‘ But no!’ says Miss Gish, ‘I do not wear harsh fabrics next to my skin. They must be of sheerest silk.’

“Silks! Can you imagine silks for a girl who lives simply and whose marriage dowry is a mere tritle!

“So I told Miss Gish she may have the designs—is very welcome to them—but she is never to enter my studio door again. Let her make the costumes herself!”

The French illustrators Paul Iribe and Erte were amongst the first costume designers to work in Hollywood, but their sketches, magnificent on paper, did not translate well to the human body. In 1930, Chanel was offered one million dollars to dress Gloria Swanson, for her role in Tonight or Never, and off-screen as well. Her designs were judged ‘not glamorous enough’ for Hollywood, however, and seemed dated by the time the movie came out.

Art deco fashion – Cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page