Up and down thru the centuries, thru a muck of blood and self-righteous guilt, stalks that murderous specter of envy and self-love-Intolerance. Apparently inspired by hatreds—religious, political or social underneath all its sickening pretense and sham lies the desire for advancement of self and lust of power.
Age after age has written, with a finger dipped in blood: “Sorrow and death to those who think not as we do.” And advancing time but furnishes us a repetition of history, for always there be with us “certain hypocrites among the Pharisees” who thank their God that they be not as other men. Emerson has described the scourge in his immortal words:
“If we would not be marplots with our miserable interferences, the work, the society, letters, arts, science, religion of men would go on far better than now, and the heaven predicted from the beginning of the world, and still predicted from the bottom of the heart, would organize itself, as do now the rose and the air and sun.” Yet, thru all the ages. Time, endlessly rocking its cradle, brings forth the same passions, the same hates and sorrows. Such is the power of the demon-Intolerance.
Nearly two thousand years ago there lived in Babylon a certain high priest of Bel, the god of the Assyrians. And of all the citizens of the world’s most powerful state, he was second in influence only to Belshazzar himself. How it happened that certain of the citizens set up altars to other gods within the city, and the fires of Bel burned without sacrifice, and the high priest was dismayed and feared his crown of power was slipping from his grasp. The people of Babylon worshiped most at the shrines of the goddess Ishtar, and the devotion was sanctioned by Belshazzar.
Thus, day by day, the high priest grew more jealous for Bel, but most of all for himself. Then suddenly – came Cyrus the Persian, storming at the gates of the city, for with her fall the world lay at his feet. For weeks the siege went on : the people sacrificed and prayed to Ishtar, while Belshazzar and his armies hurled down their enemies from the walls. At last the wearied Persian horde withdrew, and the city was delivered. Whereat there was great rejoyicing in Babylon, and the praise of Ishtar rose higher then before, and the altars of Bel were neglected.
Then the wily Cyrus secretly sent word to the high priest that should the city be given over to him, to Bel should be the honor, and worship of no other god tolerated. So the high priest opened the gates to the Persian hosts, while Belshazzar and his nobles sat feasting. And a great cry went thruout the world: “Babylon is fallen-is fallen !” Thus a great civilization fell, and a great people were treacherously sold into slavery by the grasping intolerance of a narrow mind.
Some half-century later there was a marriage in Cana of Judea, and a certain poor guest, a Nazarene, made a miracle, turning jugs of water into wine. Then some among the Pharisees, who were hypocrites, began to fear Him. They said that they held Him in contempt because He consorted with publicans and sinners, and yet they feared Him, and therefore persecuted Him. He went His way, preaching a doctrine of love and peace; so they said to one another : “Behold ! this man is threatening our power; his words shame us before the multitudes, for we cannot answer them. Let us set him from our path.” So they circulated lying tales of Him, and angered the people against Him so that later they took Him to a certain hill, and there He was crucified, for His thoughts were not their thoughts. Did it matter that. angry lightnings played about the cross? Did it matter that Calvary was shaken by an ominous thunder, or that future generations should rain condemnations on their act? The cry of the centuries rose from the throats of the groaning multitude : “Sorrow and death to those who think not as we!”
Yet again, in a later age, when that church which He died to hand down to posterity was divided within itself-when France, under Charles IX, was a hotbed of internal intrigue-that serpent of Florence, Catherine de Medici, used that same religion, founded on tenets of love and peace, as a cloak for the vilest, bloodiest wholesale murder that the world has ever known. The Huguenots were becoming too powerful as a political factor. Catherine and her aids hectored the half-crazed king until he signed an order for their massacre. On St. Bartholomew’s Eve the great bell of St. Germain tolled out the death-knell of the thousands of innocent Huguenots in Paris. Men, women and children were butchered in their beds.
Those who fled to the streets fell only on the pikes and swords of their ruthless assailants. The gutters ran with blood, and high above the screams and clamor came the solemn tolling of the great bell. The Due de Guise rode to the house of Coligny, and, standing up in his stirrups, cried: “Fling down the carrion ! I would see whether he be truly dead !” And all that was left of the great leader fell upon the upturned weapons of the mercenaries. He had wished to live in peace with his fellow men, but-he thought not as they.
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY
INTOLERANCE MODERN STORY
And now we see this same spirit in our own age–the age of the intolerance of wealth for poverty. Here we have a certain group of women who seek, under the pretense of social uplift and moral reform, prominence for themselves at the expense of the happiness of others. Organizing a powerful charitable foundation, they proceed to clean up a modern city, entering environments and dealing with conditions, altho they possess neither the mentality nor the experience to cope with them, and forcibly inflicting their opinions on a class which adjusts itself to its problems far better without their aid. Still, they get personal advertisement and prominence, which is really the desired result. Envious, self-seeking, narrow-minded, and only too eager to see evil in others, in spite of his disguise of civilization we see in them the latest phase of the blighting specter – Intolerance.
Lillian, who had not abandoned hope of returning to the big screen, was overjoyed at being considered for a role in Alfred Hitchcock’s A Family Plot. “My heart skipped a few beats at receiving such good news I am second to none in my admiration for your work. Nothing could give me more happiness than being a part of a film you are directing.,, Before she wrote the note to Hitchcock she had already lost the part to Cathleen Nesbitt. Two short religious films and four features would complete the Gish filmography. She would close her career in the medium that had first made her a star.
“I’m a believing person. I believe in God, even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful. It keeps going on and I think we do too.” True to her Episcopalian background, Lillian was a longtime parishioner of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue. Her schoolgirl fascination with the religious life had resurfaced in her fervent assumption of the leading roles of nuns in The White Sister and The Joyous Season. At one point, she expressed the desire to write a book about religion. When in June 1974, at the request of the Swedenborg Foundation, Lillian recorded Helen Keller’s My Religion for the blind, she was struck by Keller’s writing on Swedenborg.
Lillian agreed to appear as a Swedish matron who, while sitting for her portrait, tells of having witnessed one of Swedenborg’s visions, in a short 16mm film produced for the Swedenborg Foundation, Swedenborg: The Man Who Had to Know (1978). In this cameo role, she never moves from her chair. Johnny Appleseed and the Frontier Within (1981), another thirty-minute film sponsored by the organization, casts Lillian as “a charming woman of pioneer origins in the parlour of her 1871 Cincinnati home with her pompous nephew/’ She provides the frame for the story of Johnny Appleseed and his “reverence for the revelations of Emanuel Swedenborg in what appears to be an under-rehearsed, hastily shot scene, Lillian looks remarkably youthful but sounds like an old lady having difficulty with her lines. In Johnny Appleseed, however, she is not the only actor whose delivery is hesitant.
There is nothing halting about her acting in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978). Here was Lillian Gish at age eighty-five, as close as anyone had been, literally and metaphorically, to the creation of movie narrative, engaged by a director who had successfully defied narrative conventions with M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Nashville (1975). “It’s a new thing for me and I’m a pioneer at heart. I love new ventures and to arrive on the scene and not have a script and not have a word written that I’m supposed to speak is so new to me but like all new things I like it.” In fact, unlike much of the dialogue in Altman’s films, Lillian’s lines were scripted. And some of her habits could not be broken: “No matter how many times Altman said, ‘Call me Bob,’ the dignified leading lady of D. W. Griffith films insisted on calling him ‘Mr. Altman.'”
Lillian plays Nettie Sloan, the family matriarch, who, having orchestrated a complicated wedding, raises her eyes to the heavens, utters, “Thank you, God,” and dies without so much as a sigh or a movement of the head. The image of her peaceful face reappears a number of times during A Wedding.
The characters talk to her, some as if she were alive, others knowing that she is dead. The role’s few lines are spoken in the first ten minutes of the movie. After that, Lillian, her hair spread on the pillow as if she were a young girl, is a still, perfect image in a willfully chaotic narrative. As a contrast to the wayward family at the center of the plot, Lillian is the icon of good breeding. So much of an icon is Lillian that she is called upon to play dead through most of the film. For Altman it is a death specific to Lillian. “Nettie’s death is the death of a silent screen star.”
Would that she had played dead rather than accept the offer of Hambone and Hillie, a movie that gives her top billing and shows her to exceptionally poor advantage. In addition to the lure of financial gain (a guarantee of $20,000) and a starring role, the project may have appealed to Lillian’s love of animals. After Georgie, the wirehaired terrier, a gift from George Jean Nathan, there was a King Charles spaniel named Gwyn, the subject of a lawsuit in 1928. (Valued at $5,000, Gwyn was lost, then recovered by Charles Comora, a tailor. Mr. Comora was arrested for not returning the dog.) In Scotland for the tryout of The Old Maid, Lillian accepted Malcolm, a West Highland white terrier, a present from Sir Ian Malcolm. Passionate on the subject of dogs, Lillian, as usual, spoke up. Her 1952 address to the New York Women’s League for Animals about canine health recommended no more than two baths a year and a pinch of Epsom salts in the drinking water. Lillian also had a pet bird, Johnny Boy. At his death in 1950, she noted the burial of her “dear feathered friend” in the Bird Sanctuary. Lillian established her credentials among cat lovers by writing the foreword to theatre historian and curator George Freedley’s Mr. Cat: “How strange is the accident of birth and the gift of tongues. Speaking several languages, most of them poorly, I do pride myself on speaking cat and dog rather well, probably because of the patient training I have received from many fur friends.” (“Several” and “poorly” were somewhat generous assessments of Lillian’s skills in French and German, despite her many lessons.)
With its Lassie Come Home premise, Hambone and Hillie accidentally separates the beloved dog, Hambone, from his aged mistress, Hillie (Lillian). The action depicts the animal’s cross-continental adventures in search of her. Given the careless direction, which explains Lillian’s hesitant line readings, and her altogether inappropriate costumes (a bright red pants suit is perhaps the most egregious example), it is a blessing that most of her few scenes are brief. She had no trouble evaluating her contribution to Hambone and Hillie: “It’s all about four-legged actors, and I’m sorry to report they’re much better in the movie than the two-legged actors, because we two-legged actors didn’t have much to do. The dogs have all the good parts, and of course Hambone is the best. I’m going to proselyte for an Oscar for him.”
Lillian’s screen time was even shorter in Sweet Liberty (1986), written and directed by its star, Alan Alda. He plays a history professor and author of a best-seller about the Revolutionary War; Lillian is his aged mother. Entirely peripheral to the action, Lillian’s three short scenes are devoted to her portrayal of an adorable, eccentric old lady, a role she had played onstage (The Curious Savage, All the Way Home) and screen (Follow Me Boys!, Warning Shot).
Under the end credits, she is seen in a wheelchair, waving her arms with exaggerated enthusiasm, quite clearly out of control. Lillian was nearly ninety-two at the completion of Sweet Liberty. With that knowledge, viewers would have had every reason to think her as incapacitated and addled as the old woman she was impersonating. But any such notion would be dispelled by her next and final movie.
The Whales of August, conceived at least seven years before it went into production, originated in producer Mike Kaplan’s friendship with Lillian which dated from the late 1960s, when Kaplan worked as a publicist for The Comedians. Kaplan couldn’t understand why Lillian had been “hidden from movie audiences for many years.” He wanted to find a role that would present her as a star, not as a supporting actress. Among the various possibilities, Lillian was enthusiastic about Abraham Polonsky’s novel Xenia’s Way. Her profound political differences with the once blacklisted director-novelist presented no difficulty. In fact, she made known to Kaplan, decades after the fact, of course, her distaste for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunt, which had destroyed the career of Polonsky and many others. Mary Steenburgen was to play Lillian’s younger self in a story whose episodes were set in Europe during the Holocaust and later in a Palestinian camp in Israel. Kaplan remembers Lillian toasting the project with him and Polonsky in her New York apartment, sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The financing did not materialize and Xenia’s Way was shelved.
Kaplan saw David Berry’s play The Whales ofAugust during its world premiere engagement at the Trinity Square Playhouse in Providence, Rhode Island. He thought first of Lillian Gish and Bette Davis for the roles of the two elderly sisters. When Davis refused the offer, Kaplan approached Katharine Hepburn, then Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom declined. In the meantime, Davis suffered a stroke and underwent an operation for cancer. Very much weakened, she returned to work in a made-for-TV movie with Helen Hayes, then recovered some of her strength and changed her mind about The Whales of August, attracted by its setting in her beloved New England. Lucille Ball passed on the third woman’s role, which went to Ann Sothern. Lillian expected to be reunited with John Gielgud, who was under contract for the part of Mr. Maranov, but he had to be replaced by Vincent Price at the last moment when the production for television’s War and Remembrance went over schedule. Price was happy to act something different from the “mad doctors” that had so long been his specialty. Lillian was offered an advance of $75,000, with an equal amount deferred. Her five net points of the producer’s share earned her nothing since, as of June 1988, the film showed a loss of $2.5 million.
The Whales of August is about the relationship between two widowed, aged sisters, Sarah (Gish) and Libby (Davis). The action transpires in and near Sarah’s summer house, on a picturesque island off the coast of Maine. Twenty-four hours test the dynamics of dependence and independence of Sarah, still strong and optimistic, who cares for the blind, embittered, and domineering Libby. The crux of the action is Sarah’s desire to install a picture window so as to enhance the view. Libby, the affluent one, crankily refuses. Their old friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) offers Sarah a haven away from the ill tempered Libby and suggests that she sell the house; Maranov, a courtly Russian emigre, comes to dinner. The next morning, the sisters renew their commitment to each other. Sarah agrees to stay and Libby orders the picture window.
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lillian Gish and film director Lindsay Anderson
Lindsay Anderson directing Lillian Gish in The Whales of August
Lindsay Anderson, whose direction of This Sporting Life (1963) and If . . . (1969) had helped define Britain’s “angry young man” cinema, was not the most likely candidate for this nearly plotless, atmospheric piece, but he was a friend of Kaplan’s, had met Lillian, and was eager to work with her. He demanded, however, that David Berry alter the conclusion of The Whales of August. In the play, the sisters decide to separate. Their reconciliation in the movie gives extra dimension to the role of Libby, which must certainly have pleased Bette Davis.
Shot on Cliff Island in Casco Bay off the coast of Portland, Maine, in September and October 1986, the movie’s production conditions were difficult. When it was over, Lillian wrote, “Well, we are back alive from the very rough, tough shoot in Maine of The Whales of August and it was a long, hard haul with weather to and fro and the interior of the house so small that it took forever to move the camera and re-light but that part of the film is done.” Then there was the age and physical condition of the actresses, who had some difficulty negotiating the steep, uneven paths of the location. And for the final shot of the two sisters, standing on a point of land overlooking the ocean, the wind was so strong that Lillian’s manager, Jim Frasher, and an assistant director had to squat out of the camera’s view to anchor the feet of Lillian and Bette to the ground. As a result of a serious stage accident in which she had suffered a broken back, Ann Sothern walked with a heavy limp. Lillian’s medical certificate, signed on July 29, 1986, indicates that she was in fine health, five feet three inches tall (three inches shorter than when she was a young adult), weighing 115 pounds, had blood pressure at 140/90, and a pulse of 70. But even allowing for the birth date of October 14, 1899, which lopped six years off her life, she was still a very old woman whose hips had been replaced. Her costar, partially paralyzed from her stroke and painfully thin, had undergone a mastectomy. And for most of her career, Bette Davis, famous for her temper and sharp tongue, had been a demanding, often unpleasant colleague. Bette’ s enfeebled condition had not brought her to turn over a new leaf.
During the first, unfortunate working encounter between the costars, Lillian was sitting in the only available chair when Bette entered. She addressed her as “Bette”; Bette addressed Lillian as “Miss Gish.” Lillian offered the chair to Bette, fifteen years her junior. Bette was offended. From then on, a palpable tension settled between the two women. Ann Sothern speculated, “I think that she [Bette] felt intimidated by Lillian because Lillian is motion pictures. Who could ever criticize Lillian Gish? It’s like criticizing the Statue of Liberty!”
According to cast member Harry Carey Jr., “Lillian just closed her mind to Bette and went her own merry way; Bette had no effect on her.” Near the end of shooting, Jim Frasher made dinner for the stars, Lindsay Anderson, and Mike Kaplan. Bette made no secret of her displeasure when Kaplan, tending to production problems, arrived somewhat late.
Bette’s temperament and her talent thrived on contention and rivalry; for Lillian, diplomacy was the key to the negotiation of her life and her career. But Lillian would not have survived so long if she had been a pushover. When things were not going smoothly with Bette, diplomacy prompted Lillian to feign difficulty in hearing her costar’s lines, a problem miraculously solved as soon as the atmosphere changed for the better. The conflict between the two stars reflected the contrast between the sisters they were playing and certainly added much needed energy to the final product, for which both Lillian and Bette were thankful. They were, after all, great movie actresses, eager to do their best.
In one scene, Libby wakens from a nightmare and vents her desperation on Sarah. “Although Miss Davis’ dialogue was poignant, her grappling was vigorous. I couldn’t tell if Miss Gish was acting out her agitated reaction or simply responding to the force of Miss Davis’ energy. I only imagined Miss Gish’s upper arms covered with black and blue marks, or worse.” Lillian’s reaction: “I enjoyed playing that scene with Bette today.” Bette was able to overcome her animosity long enough to express her admiration of Lillian’s acting in the quarrel scene, one of the movie’s turning points. “After their last take together, Bette came forward, wincing a little, and there was an incredulous silence on the set as the embattled legends solemnly embraced. With dulcet insincerity, Lillian said, ‘We must do this again.’ And Bette replied: ‘Mm.’ “
The commercial failure of The Whales ofAugust and its brief run in Los Angeles probably robbed Lillian of the Oscar nomination that a combination of her talent and voter sentiment might have earned her. She did manage a tie with Holly Hunter (Broadcast News) for the Best Actress award from the National Board of Review.
Belying her ninety-three years, Lillian, as Sarah, is energetic throughout The Whales of August. If her step is not exactly sprightly, it is certainly firm, and thereby expressive of the core of her character as it is of the actress. Much to the annoyance of the blind and sedentary Libby, she hangs the clothes, sets the table, dusts, prepares meals. For the first half of the movie, Lillian is sweet and compliant in the “old lady” mode she had so often been obliged to adopt for her movie roles. But here there is something more. As protagonist and star, she has the opportunity to develop the character through time, to reveal layers of individuality beneath the conventional surface of the “good” sister.
Sarah’s strength emerges in the scene of the argument, when she defies Libby’s objection to inviting Maranov for dinner. During the rest of the film, Lillian deploys the reserves of emotional depth denied the movie screen for so many years. It had been a long time since The Wind. And while Duel in the Sun, The Comedians, and The Unforgiven, among Lillian’s talkies, had bravura moments, only The Night of the Hunter contained durations sufficiently long to reveal the character’s inner life, to follow the actress within herself. Lillian’s Sarah is particularly moving when she is alone with her memories and the movie camera, drawing us into the past as we plumb the image of the present. It is Sarah’s forty-sixth wedding anniversary.
Wearing a long blue dress, she sets the table with a glass of wine, a white rose “for truth,” a red one “for passion,” and her dead husband’s photograph. With Lillian’s customary directness, Sarah speaks to her absent beloved of the day’s events, then goes to an old Victrola and puts on the record of a tenor sweetly singing the sentimental World War I ballad “Roses of Picardy.” Here, Lillian somehow manages to connect the fullness of the memories with the vibrancy of her life. Perhaps she simply lets the moment speak for itself, the context providing the specific meanings required by the plot, while Lillian Gish, so much a representative of the past in the present, coats the situation with her generous sensibility.
She had not lost her talent for the high degree of disclosure that had always been her special gift. Old Sarah is not old Lillian, yet viewers familiar with the actress’s iconography must have had an eerie reaction to shots that placed Lillian with photographs of her family posing as Sarah’s: Mary Gish and Lillian as a baby, James Leigh Gish, and most unsettling of all, Lillian and Dorothy in the 1930s, the face of Bette Davis superimposed over Dorothy’s. Actors often lend their personal memorabilia in such occasions, a spectacular example being Sunset Boulevard, where photographs and a film clip contrast the young Gloria Swanson and the mature actress who plays Norma Desmond. There is, obviously, no hint of Dorothy’s character in Bette Davis’s portrayal of Libby. Nor is there any way to know that the fictional sibling relationship of a strong and healthy older sister who cares for a weak and ailing younger one had particular resonance for Lillian while she was making The Whales ofAugust. Certainly, few in the audience would have made the connection.
Whatever its source, Lillian drew a performance compelling for an actress of any age, let alone one ninety-three years old. Yet Lillian’s great age does raise some intriguing questions. Has anyone as venerably old ever sustained a leading role in a movie? Edith Evans, who was a mere seventy-eight when The Whisperers was released, went on for another nine years in character parts.
Lillian Gish Ann Sothern Vincent Price and Bette Davis The Whales of August
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August
Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August”
Lillian Gish – The Whales of August
Ann Sothern and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August
The Whales of August must have lulled filmmakers into thinking Lillian eternal. Claude Lelouch offered her a part in his Cache-Tampon (Hide and Seek), to be shot just outside Paris, starting in May 1989. But Lillian had already fulfilled her last professional commitment—an appearance at the world premiere of The Whales of August, in New York, on October 14, 1987, her ninety-fourth birthday.
In retirement, the once indefatigable traveler did not become a recluse. She was simply more and more homebound. The seven-room apartment, 13A, at 430 East Fifty-seventh Street, which she had occupied since 1948, had ” smallscale traditional furnishings” and the autographed books Lillian treasured. Movie and theatre memorabilia were absent. There were many photographs of family and close friends. Among the pictures in the gallery constituted by one wall were those of John Gielgud (signed “Hamlet John”) and George Jean Nathan; D. W. Griffith claimed the central spot. Lillian, who had paid close attention to her health for so long, was rewarded with relative serenity in her final years. Of course, a woman well on the far side of ninety could not expect every day to be perfect. Elizabeth Ross was saddened at her last visit, about 1990, when she found Lillian unaware of how much she had declined. “It wasn’t Lillian sitting there that day. It was not somebody who could conquer the world, or so she thought. . . . She needed care, and Lillian never needed care.” Eva Marie Saint last saw her in bed, after she had fractured her hip. But, until the end, Lillian was lucid, able to speak, even to read. James Frasher was at her side when she died, peacefully, in her own bed, at 7 p.m. on February 27, 1993. Fifty years previously, Lillian had left instructions that she wished to be cremated. She hoped Ruth Gordon would “say a few words and Paul Robeson recite the ‘Twenty-Third Psalm” She had outlived them both. At the “Celebration for the Life of Lillian Gish” held at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church two weeks after her death, there were tributes from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and her godson, James MacArthur, the son of Helen Hayes. Irene Worth read a selection from Milton’s A Pilgrim’s Progress. Her ashes were interred at St. Bart’s alongside those of Mary and Dorothy Gish.
Lillian’s considerable estate, largely composed of stocks and bonds, and property in Beverly Hills, was valued at more than $10 million. Her personal effects, paintings, and furniture had been appraised at $232,000 in 1980. Approximately $1 million was distributed among family and friends, with the largest of these bequests going to James Frasher. The bulk of Lillian’s fortune was placed in a trust whose income constitutes the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for excellence in the arts. Lillian stated the purpose of the prize in her will: “As an actress in films and on the stage and as a writer and lecturer on the subject of films, it has been my desire to contribute, through the performing arts, to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.” (As if to demonstrate that Lillian’s criteria give no particularly priority to the performing arts, the first recipient of the $250,000 award was architect Frank O. Gehry.) In her prescription for the awardee, Lillian might have been describing herself: “The recipient should by excelling in his or her field have served as a model and encouragement to all others who would follow in his or her path.” She, who had served the arts so faithfully throughout her long life, both as performer and proponent, found a way for her fervor to survive her death.
The parade of big pictures across New York screen goes on apace. It begins to look like a celluloid landslide and the season has hardly begun. Marion Davies and George Arliss have had their innings with “Little Old New York” and “The Green Goddess,” respectively, and now comes Mary Pickford in “Rosita,” Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” and Lon Chaney in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
The White Sister
There is a lyric quality to Lillian Gish’s acting in “The White Sister” (Inspiration) which has never been recognized before. In that respect Henry King who directed this tragic story of broken romance has brought forward a talent which Griffith neglected in order to create an emotional outburst, of pent-up floods of passions and fear. As the frail, tender misguided child of fate, Miss Gish makes poignant appeal. It is heart-rending to see this tormented soul taking her separation from her lover with such courage and when learning of his death, turning her back on the world and finding peace and sanctuary in the Church.
There is a splendid clash of emotions when the girl takes the veil – an unforgettable scene – and daring in its execution. Then when the lover returns to find his sweetheart a nun the story releases a deeper poignant note. Here is Lillian Gish of wistful charm and poise, suffering the anguish which comes from conflict in her heart.
There are some irrelevant touches and the climax is too orthodox to ring genuine. We have the play of elements from all sides – nature releasing its unbounded fury, and the human puppets are swept aside like so many toy figures. The finish is regulation movie stuff. But the picture earns respect because of its spiritual quality – its poignant touches – its sweep of passion.
It strikes deep with its conflict of distressed souls and one emerges from the theater with a feeling of exhaustion – the tensity of scene when the girl takes the veil and when her soldier-lover returns to claim her, holding one in a tight embrace.
A newcomer is Ronald Colman who plays the broken-hearted lover and he gives a performance of quiet force and dignity. He never seems to be acting, which makes his expression all the more natural and genuine.
The generic “thing” we think of as Hollywood likes to destroy and bury its past. Most traces of the original la-la-land are dead, buried, and gone. But now the maestro of entertainment history, David Wallace, has unearthed real treasures. Archaeology is a passion of mine. And so are the movies: the history of the movies, the making of movies, and the stars we have all known, loved, or hated. This book combines both of my passions, examining the priceless and fascinating past of Hollywoodland.
Hollywoodland was the original lettering of the famous sign that hovers, iconlike above the Hollywood Hills. Today it exists simply as “Hollywood,” but what a tale Wallace has to tell of how this great symbol fell into disrepair and was almost obliterated altogether.
Here we get the foibles, follies, houses, yachts, cars, studios, and restaurants of the glorious and glamorous yesterdays when stars really caught the public s imagination. This was America s beginning love affair with the cult of celebrity. These were the early silent years when flicks were the opium of the masses and audiences believed every word written in Photoplay and Modern Screen. There was the invention of sound and every other technical achievement one could dream of. But chiefly there were stars and star makers. Can you think of anyone famous today who would lure ten thousand people to a funeral? Princess Diana comes to mind, but in the early screen days William Desmond Taylor lured them because he had been murdered. The silent-screen beauty Mary Miles Minter was implicated in this still unsolved death, and she fainted at his funeral. Lost Hollywood is crammed with such stories.
In film, images (ghosts) of people we love or hate do the things we fantasize about or recoil from in stories and settings equally phantasmal.
The ghosts of Hollywood embody and animate our collective and individual consciences, our ethics, our relationships, our dreams, and our darkest sides. The stories that flicker on the silver screen, and the people who bring them to life—the actors, producers, directors, crews, and publicists—have shaped the way we live. It has been said that the real challenge for a storyteller in relating a pre-Christian tale is to remove Christian values from the characters’ motivations and actions. I believe that for a storyteller a few centuries down the way, it will be even harder to remove values of the movie era from today’s civilization. Film, in its century, has changed civilization as profoundly as Christianity shaped Western culture in the previous nineteen centuries.
Art, architecture, fashion, design, literature, music, dance, social behaviors—even religion itself—have all been consumed by him and changed. Gods and goddesses far more dynamic and powerful than any in ancient mythology have been raised up and cast down.
It was all an accident; Hollywood, that is. The town that would become so proficient at creating fake accidents to amuse, fascinate, or terrify a future audience numbering in the billions was itself a serendipitous product of the right timing and the right location. It was neither a transportation nexus like the river town of Pittsburgh nor a harbor city like San Francisco (or Hollywood’s neighbor, the Los Angeles harbor city of San Pedro) nor a railroad town like Omaha or even nearby San Bernardino. In the beginning, it was nothing.
Nothing, that is, except a place of gentle hills rolling southward below a number of canyons that carried winter runoff from the slopes of the yet-to-be named Santa Monica Mountains near a wide pass that led to the also unnamed San Fernando Valley.
Griffith died on July 24, 1948, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in that lonely room where, to keep them cool, he often stored apples and sodas on the sill of the window from which he could see his past. (Not far from Griffith’s room Elvis Presley later lived and was inspired to write “Heartbreak Hotel.”)
The only celebrity who visited the funeral home was a director whose fame also stemmed from creating popular epics: Cecil B. DeMille. A few more of Hollywood’s famous, some of whom, like Lionel Barrymore and Mack Sennett, owed their film-career starts to him, showed up for the funeral in the half-filled Masonic Temple. Some, like Mary Pickford, whose career was launched by Griffith when she was sixteen, didn’t show up at all. Many of the funeral guests shunned honorary pallbearers like Louis B. Mayer (who, after his career change from junk dealer to film exhibitor, made a fortune from The Birth of a Nation) and Samuel Goldwyn, both of whom could have given Griffith work in his later years but didn’t.
When he was laid to rest in a tiny, rural graveyard in his native Kentucky, next to his father who first entranced him with the tales of Confederate derring-do that would inspire much of The Birth of a Nation, only one star of the many who owed their careers to him was there: Lillian Gish.
It was a four-hanky story Griffith would have loved filming.
D.W. Griffith was born on January 22, 1875, in La Grange, Kentucky. His father, Jacob, died when David was ten, after a life spent as a sometime politician, full-time farmer, and passionate Confederate loyalist. Davids mother, Mary, was the quiet, affectionate anchor of the family.
Griffith wanted to be an actor from an early age, and for a number of years trod the boards in Louisville and on the road. In 1905, he first visited Los Angeles, cast as an Indian in a stage adaptation of Helen Hunt Jacksons then-popular novel Ramona (Griffith would later use it for a him). The following year he married a fellow actor, Linda Arvidson, and moved to New York City where he tried his hand unsuccessfully as a playwright and looked for acting work. At the suggestion of a friend he ran into in the old Forty-second Street Automat, Griffith decided to look into films—not as an actor but as a scenario writer—to tide himself and Linda over the winter. (Before scripts, demanded by sound, writers wrote scenarios.) It was as an actor that he was hired, first by Edwin Porter (who four years earlier had made The Great Train Robbery) to play the lead in a forgettable him, and then, at age thirty-three, by the Biograph Company as both scenarist and actor. The job changed his life.
Biograph was by 1907 already the best of the early film makers, but like most, it was a small, informal community of largely anonymous talent grinding out two one-reelers a week from its studio in an East Fourteenth Street brownstone. Among those talents was cameraman Billy Bitzer, who, when Griffith’s stage-trained acting proved too overdone for the intimacy of him, suggested that Griffith step in for a sick director. It was also Bitzer who explained to the rookie director how to make his first film, laying out the scenario on a piece of laundry shirt-cardboard. Never, even in the glory days to come when Bitzer and Griffith would essentially write filmmaking’s first grammar, would Griffith work from a written scenario.
And what days they were as commercial success made taking chances possible. Most of Griffith’s hundreds of films for Biograph (141 in 1909 alone!) made a lot of money, largely because he somehow knew what the relatively unsophisticated audience of the time wanted and how to deliver it.
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
One thing Griffith believed was that audiences wanted longer films, films that told a more complete story. So in 1913, spurred by the example of the large-scale films being turned out in Italy, and permanently settled into making movies in the Southern California sun, he made Judith of Bethulia near the present Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley. It was a four-reel biblical epic and one of the first to star the talent who would become Griffith’s most famous discovery; Lillian Gish. It also went overbudget by 100 percent, causing such a row between Griffith and the Biograph management that he formed his own company—and took many of Biograph’s leading talents along with him. Announcing his new company in a now famous advertisement, he took credit for introducing the fade-out (apparently true, although some him historians differ), the close-up, the long shot, crosscutting, and something called “restraint in expression,” certainly related to his earlier troubles toning down his stage gestures for him.
Movies in America – Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot
An amazing series of pictures followed that would make D. W. Griffith the most famous director in the world: The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. The most famous, because it was the most infamous as well, was The Birth of a Nation.
Based on a racist jeremiad of a book and play by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman, the saga of a Southern family torn by the Civil War, appealed to Griffith as a chance to write history from the loser’s point of view. It was unquestionably also an emotional response based on memories of the heroic reminiscences of his father, a twice-wounded Confederate colonel. The movie was made in locations in and around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, the pine forest near Big Bear Lake, and the countryside near Whittier where the movie’s climactic ride of the Klansmen was filmed. One of the extras in that scene was John Ford, whose future career as a director nearly ended that day when, blinded by his Klan bedsheet, he was knocked from his horse by an overhanging branch; Griffith himself revived him with a shot of brandy.
The Clansman, as it was called in its early release, cost a then-astronomical one hundred thousand dollars to make and promote. Driven by notoriety (including a failed effort by the NAACP to suppress the film entirely), it would make a fortune. How much? No one will ever know exactly because of the standard financial shenanigans employed by exhibitors of the era. The best estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that would be around nine hundred million of today’s dollars, making The Birth ofa Nation one of the all-time most successful movies ever made.
Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance – set
Griffith s next film was in many ways both his greatest and his clumsiest. Before the premiere of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith had made a small movie based on a Dickension story of a young couple whose lives are destroyed by a strike. Called The Mother and the Law, it was never released, and the name was assigned to two new stories of injustice Griffith planned to film. Coincidently, he saw Cabiria, one of the hugely successful historical epics then being made in Italy. He was impressed by the ambitious scope of the film, which combined the intimacy of close-up shots with the panoramic grandeur of the burning of the Roman fleet and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with seemingly thousands of extras and live elephants. Somehow the idea occurred to Griffith of filming a sort of cinematic sermon condemning intolerance by intercutting four stories: the heroic resistance of the Babylonians to the Persian invaders, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre of the French Huguenots, the original story of the young couple torn asunder by social violence, and three tableaux from the life of Christ. Working as always without a script, Griffith quite literally had no idea when to stop or start on this gargantuan project. He just kept filming, shooting more than a hundred miles of film, which eventually was edited down to three hours and fifteen minutes. Then and for years afterward, Intolerance was the longest film ever made.
Griffith’s colleagues couldn’t figure it out, and neither could audiences, after the effect of the stupendous visuals wore off. But, the film will live as a benchmark in film history, not for the stories it tried to tell, but for the way Griffith told them. Audiences were especially stunned by the sets for the fall of Babylon, with its thirty-foot-high elephants (a direct steal from Cabiria) and its images based on familiar biblical paintings. Few who ever saw Intolerance can forget the scene where the crowded steps of Babylon are first glimpsed from a great distance, then come closer and closer as the camera descends in a gigantically long tracking shot, down and down and down, ending atop Belshazzar’s bacchanal. That sort of shot is done all the time these days with a camera crane, but when Griffith did it in 1914, they didn’t exist. How did he do it?
Griffith and cameraman Bitzer first tried a balloon for the camera and cameraman, but it proved too unstable. Then engineer Allen Dwan, later a director himself, suggested mounting the camera on an open elevator that was itself mounted on a narrow-gauge flatcar on tracks leading to the three-hundred-foot-deep set. So as the elevator was slowly lowered, workmen pushed the flatcar forward. It was the movies’ first crane shot and even today one of the most memorable.
Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1918) Griffith and the Great War 4
Griffith and the Great War 4
Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 6
DW Griffith in France 1917
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
By now World War I was on in all its fury, and because Griffith was easily the most famous film director alive, the British invited him to visit and film footage for use in propaganda pictures. He was the only American filmmaker to visit the front. For Griffith, however, story telling on celluloid was by then becoming more real than the real thing; he would subsequently film frontline action on the Salisbury Plain in England and back home in Hollywood.
Some of that war footage found its way into his next feature, Hearts of the World, a melodramatic look at four war-torn years in a French family’s life. The story, a pastiche of lost and found love, is mostly memorable for Lillian Gish’s wonderful mad scene as she wanders through a battlefield searching for her lover, and the terrific patriotic ending as rank after rank of American soldiers march across the screen. (One side note: In Hearts of the World, Gish’s child was played by Ben Alexander, who would become familiar to a later generation as Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick on Dragnet.)
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Griffith’s next film, Broken Blosssoms, was something altogether different; for all intents and purposes it was the first film noir. The intimacy of its story about an abused girl (Lillian Gish) and the Chinaman who tries to rescue her with tragic consequences (Richard Barthelmess) was thrown into high relief by the epic splendor of the films that came before and after.
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists
United Artists Corporation – Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, David Wark Griffith
In early 1919, Griffith joined Mary Pickford, her fiance Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin in forming United Artists to control the distribution of their films. For Fairbanks, Pickford, and Chaplin it was a great success, not for Griffith, who had nothing to distribute that wasn’t previously contracted. He also decided to open the only studio he ever owned—a mistake in hindsight—in New York’s Westchester County, far away from Hollywood, which since the war had left Europe’s industries in ruins was now the world’s cinema capital.
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East
Shooting a scene from Way Down East, Griffith seated below the camera
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (cast and crew)
Way Down East – Vermont
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East
For a while it still appeared that Griffith could do no wrong, especially when the first film made in his new studio was released in 1920. It was far grander than Broken Blossoms and hugely profitable. Way Down East is a creaky story of a wronged woman (Lillian Gish again) who overcomes social prejudice and near death to find true love (Richard Barthelmess again). The films final sequence, a tremendously long chase through a blizzard and across an ice-jammed river as Barthelmess races to rescue Gish, unconscious on an ice floe, was challenging to make (Gish claimed she was on the ice twenty times a day for three weeks and that once her hair froze solid). It was, and still is, breathtaking to watch, and in the opinion of many him scholars it still stands as one of cinemas greatest climaxes.
For all the technical innovations, for all the spectacle and the exciting climaxes, probably the one thing that separated D. W. Griffith from everyone else—and still does—was his uncanny ability to create emotional intimacy, the genius to deliver stunning, flashing moments that bind each individual in an audience to the story on the screen. That happens in the last of his great films. It wasn’t the last him he made, for Griffith’s career was to continue for a number of years before finally petering out in the 1930s, but it was one of the best. Orphans of the Storm was less what it appeared to be (a convoluted history of the French Revolution) than a human drama, the story of a pair of sisters, one blind (Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, who played the blind sibling), separated by circumstances and the turmoil of the time.
Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue
Orphans of the Storm – the trial
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …
Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …
Despite the formulistic drama (including a Griffith signature rescue chase, an improbably happy ending, and, of course, the restoration of Dorothy Gish’s sight), there is one scene when Griffith, the one-time stage actor—and, of course, Lillian Gish—incontestably proved to the world that great acting can happen in movies too. It happens when Gish’s character thinks she hears the voice of her long-lost sister begging in the street below her room. Griffith films it with one of his trademark backlit, intimate close-ups, the camera frozen as Gish first dismisses the idea and then, as her sister’s voice continues, realizes that a miracle has indeed happened. The intensity is so palpable one hardly breathes.
A future president confronts the evils of slavery in a lost scene from “Abraham Lincoln” (1930)
Abraham Lincoln – lobby card
Griffith would make a few more films, most notably a biography of Abraham Lincoln. But Way Down East was his last box-office success. The times had moved past him. Sound, which he never really understood, arrived along with a new generation of filmmakers who took his many technical advances and streamlined them. But none were ever to improve on the many moments when his emotional lightning struck the hearts of filmgoers.
Perhaps King’s greatest strength as a director is that constant ability to make us really believe that two people are in love. Hollywood romantic films have been common enough, heaven knows. How often, though, have the feeling and the emotion had to be taken on trust? In his work, there has been no doubt that Susan Hayward loved William Lundigan, that Nancy Kelly loved Tyrone Power, that Shirley Jones loved Gordon MacRae and that Jennifer Jones loved God. Typical also of the stories which, fortunately, he has been paid to put on film is the longevity of a romantic feeling, through tribulations and changing circumstances. Much of King’s long career has been dedicated to an idealistic but not fatuous celebration of chivalry and a form of romance as much akin to friendship as to passion. Is this approach “sentimental”? It is I think, an hottest sentiment, almost never sugary and committed to a human affirmation not easily achieved nor maintained in am facile manner. In 1923 and 1921 King and his crew went to Italy and filmed two expensive, expansive productions, The White Sister and Romola, both Inspiration Pictures in association with Metro. Lillian Gish starred in each and King gave a double well-taken opportunity to a virtually unknown British actor by giving him, twice in succession, such a shining lady. The actor’s name was Ronald Colman and he went on to appear in three of the Henry King-Sam Goldwyn movies which occupied the director (on a profit-sharing basis) until the upheaval of sound pictures towards the end of the decade. Stella Dallas (1925) paired Colman with the touching Belle Bennett, The Winning of Barbara Worth ( 1926 ) and The Magic Flame (1927) cast him opposite the more glamorous Vilma Banky.
As one of Hollywood’s supreme craftsmen, he also learned and appreciated the actual pictorial sheen and loveliness possible with star portraiture within his silent movies. He and his cameramen produced breathtaking likenesses oi Lillian Gish and Vilma Banky, later equalled (in other hands) only by close shots of Garbo and Dietrich. This understanding of portrait heads within a film became rapidly waning art in the sound era but the knowledge remained with Henry King.
The Henry King hero or heroine is lonely. Many of his leading characters share, as a common bond, some form of isolation from their fellow men. Sometimes this isolation is physical and may spring from the conditions of a life outside the law. In Kind’s vision, there are compensations and consolations for all sacrifice. His world is a generous place in which spiritual ache is relieved by love, friendship and, to some extent, sheer bustle. What we may term “King Country” has a lot of people in it. A weary protagonist can expect to be cheered by kind words from a supporting player or distracted from his own problems by the diversity and simple interest of life around him. Still, the loneliness remains a central theme. It presses hard on those whose service takes religious forms. (King became a Catholic some time after The White Sisters production.)
The circuit riding minister and his wife find some ignorance and suspicion mixed with their generally warm welcome into the Georgia hills. In The Song of Bernadette (a film of very restrained sentiment, incidentally, which many skeptical people like better than they expect to) Bernadette Soubirous is tormented by questions and jealousies and doubts after she has seen The Virgin Mary in a vision. And Lillian Gish becomes a nun in The White Sister.
There are many parallels between this film and The Song of Bernadette. Although twenty years separate them, the visual continuity in scenes of convent life is a remarkable gift from one picture to the other (and both may have influenced Fred Zinnemann with The Nuns Story ) . This is a context where the extreme visual blacks and whites contrast with an emotional tone of ambivalent grey.
The White Sister relies unusually heavily for King on atmosphere and nuance. A young woman of high family (Gish) falls deeply in love with a handsome and dashing suitor (Ronald Colman).
Believing him killed in the World War, she enters a convent as a novice and eventually becomes the gracious lady of the title. It transpires that Colman was captured in the war, not killed. He returns and tries to persuade Gish to renounce her vows. She refuses but is wavering when a natural disaster (the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) delays a romantic decision. Colman dies heroically and Gish returns to her chosen (?) world. This was a reasonable story for the time but growing sophistication and the added pitfalls of sentiment expressed in dialogue proved hazardous for the reception of a sound re-make in 1933 (starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable, directed by Victor Fleming).
THE WHITE SISTER (1923).
Romantic drama, shot on Italian locations. Sc: George V. Hobart, Charles E. Whittaker (novel by Francis Marion Crawford). Ph: Roy Overbaugh. Art dir: Robert M. Haas. Ed: Duncan Mansfield. With Lillian Gish (Angela Chiaromonte) , Ronald Colman (Capt. Giovanni Severi), Gail Kane (Marchesa di Mola), J. Barney Sherry (Monsignor Saracinesca) , Charles Lane (Prince Chiaromonte), Juliette La Violette (Madame Bernard), Signor Serena (Prof. Ugo Severi), Alfredo Bertone, Ramon Ibanez, Alfredo Martinelli, Carloni Talli, Giovanni Viccola, Antonio Barda, Giacomo D’Attino, Michele Gualdi, Giuseppe Pavoni, Francesco Socinus, Sheik Mahomet, James Abbe, Duncan Mansfield. Prod: Henry King for Inspiration Pictures ( Metro release).
Theatre Magazine August 1923 – The White Sister
Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” (At a Portrait Exhibition)
NOTES ON PEOPLE; Lillian Gish: a Winner Before and a Winner Again
By Albin Krebs and Robert Mcg. Thomas
April 8, 1981
While Lillian Gish, the legendary film actress, was serving as guest preacher at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Murray Hill, N.J., last Sunday, Lillian Gish, a 3-year old chestnut mare, was winning her first race.
This story had its beginning several months ago, when Jerry Brody, the restaurateur, who breeds race horses, was looking for a name for a filly whose dam was ”Birth of a Nation” and whose sire was ”Silent Screen.”
A friend suggested to Mr. Brody that he give the horse the obvious name, and he called Miss Gish to ask if she’d be offended.
”On the contrary,” she said yesterday. ”I’ve always loved horses, even learned to read with the help of the book ‘Black Beauty.’ By the time I was 6, I could ride bareback. And besides, with the horse’s parents names, it was only natural that she took mine.”
Lillian Gish, the horse, had come in second in one of her four previous races, but Sunday at Aqueduct she came in first, paying $3.40.
”I’ve never seen Lillian, but now she’s a star and I’ll have to pay my respects,” said the 83-year-old actress. ”My back elevator man has bet on her before, and if he didn’t bet to win Sunday, he’s going to have a fit. I’m ready to bet on her myself.”
After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Town
By LLOYD LEWIS – Chicago
Lillian Gish, by virtue of sixty-six weeks in “Life With Father” at Chicago Blackstone Theatre, now takes her place beside the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell as a truly national star.
She has achieved this position by merely spending well over a year at the crossroads of America, the railroad center, whereas the others have had to tour arduously from Tulsa to Des Moines to Seattle to Atlanta. An amazing number of transcontinental travelers stopped off in Chicago long enough to see this Chicago company of “Life With Father,” and the Pullman people say the show did a lot for midnight bookings.
But it was by automobile that the great bulk of out-of-towners came to see Miss Gish and the comedy which on May 24 ended its run after setting a new longevity mark for dramas in Chicago. Sedans carrying four or five people arrived constantly from everywhere within a radius of 400 miles. Hitchhikers were found during the year to have come 200 miles just to see the play. One woman in Chicago went thirty-five times. Hundreds are known to have seen it four and five times. What was common was for men to attend during a trip to Chicago and then return some weeks later with their entire families, one of the standard sights in the audiences being that of a father sitting with his home folks and watching, from the corner of his eye, their faces as, on the stage, they saw him satirized, portrayed, “taken off.”
Miss Gish, to the people of the interior, was still a shimmering memory from the silent screen when she arrived in Chicago with the Crouse-Lindsay comedy in the Spring of 1940. She had made brief appearances in spoken dramas during the past decade, but the plays had never been smash hits nor tarried long in the few large cities which they had visited. Her Ophelia opposite John Gielgud had never come West. Most of her stage fame was purely Broadway.
But in “Life With Father” she has made herself an entirely new fame in the midlands. The Lily Maid of Astolat is no longer a dream creature in an ivory belfry nor a flower-decked vision on a dark barge. She is now Mrs. Day, mother, wife and housekeeper. Lillian Gish has come from the unreal to the real. She has made people laugh, she has made people adore her for the simplicity and humor as well with the truly great charm with which she has worn the manners and costumes of the past century. She has identified herself with a character, a scene and a play wholly American, wholly practical and realistic so far as atmosphere is concerned.
Midlanders talk about her now as though she had never been a fabulous, distant, legendary creature of D.W. Griffith’s filmdom at all. She is now somebody everybody knows-and loves, and if she chooses, she can tour the midlands for years in this comedy, building for herself a reputation approaching that of Joe Jefferson in “Rip Van Winkle.” It would take years, of course, and it is not likely she will undertake it, for on May 24 she had acted Vinnie Day for seventy-two consecutive weeks without missing a performance or a rehearsal. Some of those weeks were, indeed, rehearsals, but they meant daily work longer and harder than actual performances and must be added to the span of her toil.
“I don’t know,” says she, “if I should play ‘Life With Father’ any longer; Helen Hayes tells me seventy-two weeks straight is too long for an actress. Other theatrical people tell me that I have thus set a new American record for an actress playing a principal role. I don’t know about this. I do know that I grew weary toward the end and only the enthusiasm of those crowds kept me going. I felt, too, that is was good for the theatre, especially in the midlands, to have a play run in one house for more than a year. That could mean the education of new thousands to the value of the drama.”
After a Summer’s rest, Miss Gish will decide whether to appear in another play or to return to further tours in “Life With Father.” It was from a balcony seat at the Empire Theatre in New York soon after the original company was launched that she first saw the play. After the first two acts she went to the business office of the theatre downstairs and congratulated the management. One of owner Oscar Serlin’s lieutenants then and there asked her why she didn’t head a second company. Surprised, she retired to the balcony with the statement that if the third act held up she’d see. It did, she saw, and within a few weeks she was rehearsing with the second company.
During the historic Chicago run, which bettered by one week the record set by Frank Bacon in “Lightnin’” in 1921-22. Miss Gish has done herculean work for the play outside as well as in the theatre. She has become a very impressive speaker due to the endless Kiwanis and women’s club luncheons she has addressed. She has been photographed with Mayors, water lilies, new automobiles, 4-H club youngsters. She has posed buying tickets to charities.
In her, Chicago has seen what D.W. Griffith saw when, at the height of her career as a fragile, ultra-feminine, wraith-like spirit in films, he said “she has the brain of a man.” For the Griffith films she worked daily, every day, across nine years. When she was not acting she was writing subtitles, picking locations, coining advertising catch lines. She learned all about billposting, and bargained for one-sheets, twenty-four sheets, snipes. She coined the title for “The Greatest Thing in Life,” and once in the early 1920’s she directed for Paramount a picture called “Remodeling Her Husband,” with her sister Dorothy as star and an unknown girl-friend named Dorothy Parker supplying the subtitles.
Not without pride Miss Gish recalls, today, that this film cost $28.000 and grossed $300.000. And she takes satisfaction in the success of “White Sister,” a film for which she raised the money, supervised the scenario, the direction, the acting, and made the releasing deals when major companies refused to handle the film because it was “non-commercial.” It was she who wrote into the script the scene that assured the picture’s success, the ceremonial at which the heroine became a nun; the scene had not been contained in either the novel or drama. Her discovery of Ronald Colman, an obscure stage actor, as a film possibility and her employment of him as the hero of “White Sister” was also a businesslike item in the story of that film. Costing $270.000 it was eventually took in $4.000.000.
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
So wholly did Hollywood come to agree with Griffith’s verdict that she owned the brain of a man that she had, several years ago, standing offers from companies to come back and direct whenever she wished. But stage acting has been more important to her, obviously giving her mind more nourishment than Hollywood could ever give.
Thinking back across her career, it was not the nine vacationless years with Griffith, nor the seventy-two consecutive weeks of “Life With Father” that have taxed her as much as in the long run as Ophelia in “Hamlet” with John Gielgud.
“And it wasn’t the work that did that,” she says, “it was the emotional strain of Gielgud’s Hamlet. Every night his performance was as emotionally exhausting to me as to the spectators. His was truly great acting.”
The Young English Actor, First Sponsored Here by Henry Miller, Has Become a Popular Screen Star
AFTER a brief apprenticeship on the London stage, Ronald Colman came to „ America some six years ago to act in the spoken drama and failed to make any impression whatever on New York playgoers. Appearing in a hit on the stage of the Empire Theatre with the late Henry Miller and Ruth Chatterton in Henri Bataille’s La Tendresse, he did not “take” the managers, the press, or the public.