Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

Louise Brooks

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars

By Louise Brooks

Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England

Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing ” Women in Films”which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.

Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost starof the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.

THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan 2

But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

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1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.

The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!

Greta Garbo 1

At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.

Greta Garbo.

From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.

Greta Garbo Queen Christina 1933

Lillian Gish

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Lillian Gish – The Enigma of The Screen – article By James R. Quirk

Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”

With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”

In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”

Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg

Ramon Novarro - Greta Garbo - Mata Hari

In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.

Greta Garbo Ross Verlag Germany

Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.

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

With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.

Back in charge she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that MGM held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to· Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, MGM said, she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. MGM had let her go because she got 8,000 a week! And, he developed, without a blush, all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures.

Stigmatised, a grasping silly sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow – a world of shadows.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

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There is something fateful now in remembering that after Gish ran Costa Berling to look at Lars Hansen for The Scarlet Letter, she said that she had faith in Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Even less could she have guessed that uprooting her as a chaste reproach in the new paradise of sex films would become less imperative than getting her out of Garbo’s meditative sight. Before The Torrent started, while the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot (we’re paying you, aren’t we?) making publicity stills, she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence she had learned in Europe, Garbo saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production.

Greta Garbo Anna Karenina

The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying “I will be glad when I am a ‘beeg’ star like Lillian Gish. Then I will not need publicity and to have ‘peectures’ taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” But no amount of the studio’s calculated ‘dumb Swede’ publicity could alter the fact that Garbo could read the box-office figures in Variety and get exactly the same answers Louis B. Mayer got. La Boheme and The Torrent opened the same week in February, 1926, on Broadway. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got $400,000 a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got 16,000 a year.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

After The Temptress, when Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” Quirk was compelled to write in his December editorial: “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week. Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after signing a new MGM contract in May, 1927. After the long hold-out off salary, her business triumph over the studio was collecting with stunning impact on seven months of nation-wide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on defeat and its consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation had rocked all Hollywood. In the fury of the battle, Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay: “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June.” The revelation of this pressure was later masked by the invention of the “I ‘tank’ I go home” gag. Because, if Garbo had really wanted to go home, she would have gotten her 7,500 a week – and double. But she dared not risk even a scheming departure. For two years she had worked at MGM in that climate of worship and service which had secured the purity of her art. And, as well as she knew that she was Queen of all movie stars then and forever – she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering tarnished star like all the rest.

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

How well she knew her genius was revealed to me when I met her one Sunday in the summer of 1928 at the house of the writer Benjamin Glazer. His wife, Alice, was a witty, outrageous woman perfectly suited to Garbo’s shyness and my sulky discontent. Apart from the other guests clattering through lunch in the patio, Garbo and I sat with Alice drinking coffee in a little breakfast room. The subject of the conversation, of course, was Alice’s and therefore personal. I had divorced Eddie Sutherland in June, and while Alice poked into my private life with ribald questions and the worst possible assumptions, Garbo and I sat laughing and looking at each other. And it was then in that free and happy moment that Garbo seemed to condense, as it were, into a crystal of gracious joy in herself. Remembering the distillation of the whole of her beauty and art in that lovely moment, makes me wonder at the meanness of the human mind which still believes the most obviously ridiculous of all Garbo myths. Photoplay gave it birth in the same April article that carried the deportation threat. “Metro wanted Stiller, and Miss Garbo, his find, was signed reluctantly at a sliding scale of 400, 600 an $750 a week for three years, more to please him than anything else.” Metro wanted Stiller? He never made a single picture there. Knowing his temper, the studio let him play interpreter and assistant director for his find until, engulfed with rage, he settled his contract and fled. Mayer wanted to please Stiller? They hated each other from the day they met – Stiller because he knew Mayer viewed his work with indifference, Mayer because of the coarse indignities Stiller inflicted upon his majesty. As for Garbo’s salary; in 1925, any time an untried actress got more than $300 a week the studio was really yearning for her. And nobody seems to remember how, after her arrival, Mayer kept Garbo in isolation in New York for three months trying unsuccessfully to force her to substitute a new contract for the Berlin agreement which would not hold up in American courts.

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB)-19

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB) Burton - Bloom

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Lillian Gish Is Working in the Mojave Desert—Wind, the Menace (The New York Times July 3, 1927)

TRIALS OF AN ACTRESS

Lillian Gish Is Working in the Mojave Desert—Wind, the Menace

The New York Times July 3, 1927

A VOICE asked over the telephone in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer New York offices the other day:

”Could you tell me where Miss Lillian Gish is now?”

”Miss Gish is somewhere out in the Mojave desert making scenes for her new picture, ‘The Wind,’ ” was the reply.

And that question and answer, not unusual in form, resulted in a 230-mile motor jaunt into the Mojave desert on the off chance that just what Miss Gish was doing might make interesting reading. And the first glimpse that the visitor from Culver City, Cal., had of Miss Gish-a small, shabbily clad figure standing in front of a little shack while nine roaring airplane propellors drove sand at her. The sun poked the mercury in its shaded glass tube up to the number 120, making artificial illumination entirely unnecessary.

The Wind - Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)

“The Wind.”

The visitor was informed that the Wind, with a capital letter, is the villain of this particular film, just as it was of the novel of the same name by Dorothy Scarborough. It’s the Wind, howling, whistling, shrieking, yelling and caterwauling with never a pause for breath; the Wind slamming doors shut and banging them open; the Wind clawing with sandy fingers not only at the physical, but also at the psychical entity of the heroine, which drives her with awful and unescapable persistence from one unstable act to another-up to and including murder.

The Wind - Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)

So, Victor Seastrom, the director, who said, after doing „The Scarlet Letter” with her, that one of the greatest pleasures of his working life would be to do another picture with Miss Gish, took the star and the players, including Lars Hanson and Montague Love, to this particular spot in the desert where man’s thirst is raised for him, and any wind he might desire to raise couldn’t possibly bother any neighbors, unless rattlesnakes and such be included.

The little shack was built there, near a corral, penning thirty or forty head of cattle. The studio equipment was stuck roundabout.

Of course, there were the cameras, the generators, and all the rest of the studio equipment necessary-and the wind machines.

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand - The Wind
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

Miss Gish, the Toiler.

The creation of wind is rather the usual thing than otherwise in the films these days, from the tiny breath of air which lifts a leading lady’s curl, to the galloping gale that rips the roof from a house.

When Miss Gish was spied on this occasion scores of men were grouped in a circle out of camera range – workers and players not having anything to do at the moment. They all wore high boots (against snake bites) , wore grease on their faces (against sunburn), and goggles. Miss Gish. because she was acting, couldn’t wear anything except the low shoes and the dowdy clothes that the part calls for. Her job was to run through the sand, blown in to her face, in the shack, and then to run again out of the shack- all nine wind machines going all the time like nine mechanical devils.

Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish - The Wind
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish – The Wind

“It is without the slightest doubt the most unpleasant picture for me that I ever have made,” Miss Gish said in response to a question during a breathing spell. “It’s so uncomfortable.”

“I don’t mind the heat so much, but working before the wind machines all of the time is nerve-racking,” she continued. “It isn’t very hard for me to enter into the state of mind of the character I’m playing, I can assure you.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

“You see, out here the wind blows the sand all the time, but they didn’t think that was enough, so they added sawdust. And then that didn’t give quite the desired effect, so they added smoke pots to the mixture. I’m glad to report that none of the flying cinders have gotten into my eyes yet, although a few have burned my hands.”

Filming crew protecting their eyes against the sand - The Wind
Filming crew protecting their eyes against the sand – The Wind

It was mentioned that while Miss Gish was exposed, all of the workers were well protected. She said:

“That’s the lot of an actress”

Miss Lillian Gish - still frame (The Wind)
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)

They Live in Pullmans.

During the interlude of wind-the period from 11 A. M. till 1 P. M. Was for rest not because of the disconfort to human beings but because the glare was too much for the cameras – Miss Gish sipped iced lemonade and discussed general subjects-art, music, books, pictures, politics. The star of “The Wind” always surprises those who have just met her by her interest in so many subjects. She also surprised this particular visitor, it might be included, because of the stoic endurance she showed in the blasting heat and the wind, endlessly going through her performance for the whirring cameras.

On this occasion, Lars Hanson, who gained his first screen fame in his native Sweden, but who plays a Texas cowpuncher in this picture, and Montague Love, who was born in Calcutta, and who grew up in England, weren’t working before the camera. Neither were two rattlesnakes that had just been caught on location and put in a box.

Miss Gish, Mr. Seastrom and the entire company were living in Pullman cars a few miles away. The baggage car was the projection room, where the rushes or each day’s work were run off every night. All of the film had to be kept on ice-or at least, in humidors- to guard against its melting.

The Wind - Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) digging the grave for Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) digging the grave for Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love)

Last view of Miss Gish, the sun was still on the job, and so were the wind machines, and the sand and sawdust and the smoke pots. Miss Gish just then was busy piling sand over the body of the man she had killed. And the wind kept blowing away the sand, and it looked as It she never would be finished.

Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish - The Wind)
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)

When inquirers over the telephone ask just where film players are at the moment, and just what they are doing, they might be surprised sometimes if a truthful answer could be given. In many instances they aren’t swimming, or playing tennis, or yachting, or ordering new gowns, or dictating to secretaries, or signing new contracts. They’re just working.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian - backstage The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
Mojave Desert The Wind - NYTimes July 3 1927
Mojave Desert The Wind – NYTimes July 3 1927

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After ‘Life With Father’ Lillian Gish Owns the (Chicago) Town – By Lloyd Lewis (New York Times, 1941)

The New York Times June 1, 1941

LILLIAN GISH, TOAST OF CHICAGO AND THE WEST

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.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

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.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

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.

Life with f lill 58

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.”

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

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.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

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.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

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.

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.”

Hamlet 1936
Hamlet 1936

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After 'Life With Father' the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941
After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941

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Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941
Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941

 

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As Lillian Gish Views Art – Written By Lillian Gish (The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928)

The New York Times – Sunday July 1st, 1928

As Lillian Gish Views Art

“Are We Creating Art?” was the title chosen by Miss Lillian Gish for a special article on the film world which she wrote for Vossiche Zeitung the other day while in Berlin consulting with Max Reinhardt concerning the details of the film in which she will play under his direction. The Berlin newspaper headed the article by the American actress “The Most Moving Film Star on the Film.” Here it is:

“Perhaps the greatest evil afflicting the film at present is the over-enthusiasm of its champions. For they have made up their minds that the film must be ranked with the fine arts; and the film-regardless of how thankful it may be for this compliment – suffers heavily under the burden of the responsibility thus thrust upon it and suffers from the heroic endeavors it must make in order to show itself worthy of the good opinion of its champions.

Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish im Hotel Esplanade in Berlin 1928

“It seems to me that the word ‘Art’ is about the most misused in our language. Quality and beauty alone no longer satisfy the public. Some sort of big words must be attached to them; we are no longer satisfied simply to take things as they are, no matter how charming they may be, with their many-sided possibilities; we always feel the need of clothing them, as it were, to an ‘esthetic Legion of Honor.’

“How is the film art or not? We can just as easily cite evidence for it as against it. But I think such citing of evidence is useless, aside from the fact that human beings are inclined more or less to measure their own work with special yard-sticks and to attach greater importance to it than it really has.

“For what is art? Art is beauty idealized. And there are minutes – only minutes probably – when the film meets this requirement. And there are hours – unfortunately many hours – when it falls quite outside the borders of this requirement, just as do drama or painting, plastic art or music. If the film is not art because of the many thousands of trashy films that are turned out, then maybe painting isn’t art either because of the many thousands of ‘Greenwich Village’ trashy paintings and music isn’t art because of the thousands of ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ that are produced.

1930 Berlin Max Reinhardt

“It is generally said that the theatre is art and that the film isn’t. Apparently the film is not regarded as art because it lacks the human voice – the theatre’s auxiliary. But isn’t it possible to read dramas? And furthermore, aren’t some of the most gripping and profound moments experienced in the theatre just when not a word is spoken, those moments of silence when pain and joy, the torments or the deepest emotions of human beings, speak only through their facial expressions, through their gestures?

“On the other hand, suppose we wanted to put the drama upon the screen with absolute and clear faithfulness to the text? This is quite possible, although not customary. Then we have, or rather we would have, presented a drama with silent actors to a whole house of listeners, just as, in reading, it is presented to a single person by silent actors who appear upon the stage of the readers imagination. Besides, if the film lacks the third dimension, so does painting. If is has no spiritual content, then the theatre piece called the best in the world has no more. If children can find pleasure in films, they do the same with ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Mikado.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With Max Reinhardt in Salzburg Austria — with Lillian Gish.
Max Reinhardt mit Lillian Gish – Leopoldskron Salzburg 1928

“But let them call the film what they choose, the question is: How often, according to their own administration, does it awaken genuine feelings in the hearts and souls of sensitive persons? Not too often, I know. But you can’t judge a thing justly if you look at only its worst effects instead of its best. Finally, every mountain in the Alps isn’t a Matterhorn.

“We must remember that the first short film-like piece, “The Kiss,” appeared in 1896 and that the first real film of the sort we are acquainted with today, ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ was produced only twenty-three years ago. In these relatively few years the film has developed a hundred times more than, for example, architecture in its countless first, unoriginal centuries. So if the film cannot be called art as yet, isn’t it conceivable that it can be in the future? Isn’t a film like ‘The Last Man’ already a step along this road? Hasn’t it literal beauty, a powerful form and an impressive mental and spiritual content? Isn’t it played as well as the best theatre drama produced the same year? Isn’t it deeply rooted in human life?

Douglas Fairbanks, Max Reinhardt and Lillian Gish at train station - 1920s

“The film, like the theatre, is not a school for morals. Just as little as the drama, is it suppose to educate men and women; it ought only to make them think about things they know anyway; it ought to show them the difference between lofty and low thoughts and feelings. This is the goal of the best films, just as it is of the best theatre pieces. The battle for the film will not be easy, but I feel that there is courage and strength enough at hand to be able to venture it. There will be many difficulties; there will be many defeats; but I believe that some day the film will be victorious. It will not be victorious because somebody calls it art, or no art, but simply because it actually can work with the same means as the theatre. And besides we must remember that just now progress is being made with the talking films. And finally we must remember that if the film is at present dumb and consequently, in the opinion of many persons, cannot be called art, that Michelangelo’s ‘Moses’ is dumb, just as are Tintoretto’s ‘Miracle,’ his ‘Cathedral of Beauvais,’ and his ‘Lost Son,’ and Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘A Sunset on the Havel.’”

Lillian Gish

Max Reinhardt, Lillian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks
Max Reinhardt, Lillian Gish and Douglas Fairbanks

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Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish (New York Times – June 11, 1966)

Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish

New York Times – June 11, 1966

THE slender, ethereal woman with the rust-colored hair strode center stage of the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday afternoon. She wore a green suit, white gloves and a double strand of pearls around a patrician neck. A burst of applause greeted her. The woman was Lillian Gish, and she was there Woman to tell members of In the the Actors Fund of America how to raise funds to build a hospital for needy performers. The group was holding its 83d annual meeting. Miss Gish’s participation in the meeting was in keeping with her philosophy of at least one new horizon a day. Her suggestion that prominent performers produce a show for television and turn over the profits to the fund was warmly greeted. The actress, who looks dreamy, fragile and wistful, is always in the forefront of causes in behalf of the theater. She has long argued that a Minister of F.ine Arts should sit in the President’s Cabinet and that Government should help boost the arts. She once said that while in this country dogs get “blue ribbons” and heroes “iron crosses,” an American who writes a fine book goes to Scandinavia to get a prize. A long-time friend of the actress said yesterday: “I’m always puzzled by her. She’s completely independent and never burned up about her image.

George Abbott anya
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya

“What’s the reason? I think she has no vanity. She’s a wonderful and loyal girl. She’s an American institution and no one would take a crack at her anymore than they would at Casey Stengle.” After six decades as an actress, Miss Gish hasn’t even a glimmer of thought about retirement. “Retire? If you want to die, retire and die of boredom,” she says. At 67, she is as trim as a lass, energetic and constantly on the move. “I haven’t altered my wearing apparel since the 20′ s,” she says. She expects to leave for Italy soon to complete her biography of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering motion-picture director.

Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya
Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya

Why Italy? ”There’s too much distraction here,” she explains. The book is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1967 by Prentice Hall. Miss Gish became an actress at the age of 6, not for love of theater, but for want of money. We were very poor and the job paid $10 a week,” she recalls. Now, she says, she is an actress not for survival, but for love of her art. She was born in Springfield Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1898 ***. She does not remember her debut at all. Her parents brought her and her younger sister Dorothy, to New York, where the father had a candy store. When the parents separated, her mother turned to acting to support the children. One day Mrs, Gish agreed to let Lillian. golden-haired and wide-eyed go on the road in a blood-and-thunder melodrama called ”Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time, Dorothy,  then 4, was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy in “East Lynne.”

Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65

Eventually, the mother and the two girls were able to get work in the same touring show. We grew up this way, Miss Gish recalled, ”We learned to read and write in dressing rooms over the country.” Miss Gish has had no regrets about her early, uncertain days. She once noted: “From my mother we got great security-the security ot love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters.” As children Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith, who later changed her name to Mary Pickford. It was in a Mary Pickford movie that Lillian made her film debut and it was Miss Pickford who introduced her to Mr. Griffith.

From New York, Miss Gish followed Mr. Griffith to California, where she was a member of his company from 1913 to 1922. She emerged as a star from such films as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Hearts of the World,” “Broken Blossoms,”  “Way Down East, and “Orphans of the Storm” In the nineteen twenties she appeared in such post-Griffith romances as “The White Sister,” “Romola,” “La Boheme,” ”The Scarlet Letter” and “The· Wind.”

She successfully returned to Broadway in “Uncle Vanya” and then went on to other memorable plays and performances in the theater – “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father.” She last was seen on Broadway in “Anya,” the musical version of the play “Anastasia”, last year.

lillian-gish-on-broadway-anya-new-york-usa
lillian-gish-on-broadway-anya-new-york-usa

Miss Gish, who never married, lives on East 57th Street. She is looking forward to more acting assignments, but her current preoccupation is finishing the Griffith book.

Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish - NYTimes June 11 1966
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish – NYTimes June 11 1966
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – candids by Peter Warrack

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Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper – By ANITA LOOS (The New York Times – September 14, 1980)

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

The New York Times – September 14, 1980

Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper

By ANITA LOOS

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’

Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.

Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.

Robert Altman 100 film 76

Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish housing secretary moon landrieu 1980

Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.

To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke
Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.

orphans of the storm - lillian gish is henriette girard - promo wb

I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.

A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.

“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”

“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”

“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.

Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”

“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”

“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”

NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-2
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-2
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction

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Then and Now – Lillian Gish – By Seymour Peck (The New York Times 1960)

Then and Now – Lillian Gish

By Seymour Peck

The New York Times – Sunday, April 17, 1960

AT 6, Lillian Gish became an actress, not out of love, but out of necessity. “We were very poor,” she says,” and the job paid $10 a week.” Today at 61, Miss Gish is still an actress, not out of necessity, but out of love.

When her close friend Mary Pickford phoned her recently, Miss Gish told her she had been working very hard “I was on television, doing ‘The Grass Harp’ for ‘The Play of the Week, ‘” Miss Gish said. We had twelve days to learn it and do it. The last day we worked twenty-two hours.” A note of pride entered her voice. “I’m still the iron horse if I can work twenty two hours.” The “iron horse,’ looked slender, dreamy, fragile and wistful in “The Grass Harp” and was cheered by TV critics like some new acting discovery. But the sweet, gentle, innocent maiden lady Miss Gish portrayed on TV was, to some viewers, only a mature rendering of the characterization that made her one of the immortals of the movies in the great silent days, thirty to forty-five years ago.

The Gish image first emerged in the films of the pioneering director D. W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation,” Hearts of the World,” Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm”-and then took on –a dazzling, starry glitter in such post … Griffith romances of the Twenties as .. The White Sister,” Romola,” “La Boheme,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and The Wind.”

The images tell you what we tried for.” Miss Gish said recently in her quietly elegant living room on East Fifty-seventh Street. “The essence of femininity. Mostly, in those movies, I was a virgin. We tried for virginity, in mind, in looks, in body, in movement. “Not that I enjoyed this-to attract and hold the interest of an audience with nothing but goodness is difficult; goodness becomes dull so quickly. It’s so much easier to win an audience with a little wickedness.

I was lucky with Sean O’Casey. When I did his ‘Within the Gates’ on the stage in 1934, I didn’t have to work half so hard as I used to in movies. I was The Young Whore and the audience was interested before the curtain even went up …

“That  virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” Miss Gish observed matter of-factly. Yet it appealed to, and deeply touched, millions of Americans, Europeans, Asians-and possibly some Eskimos and Hottentots -as few portrayals have since movies began.

THE pretty, helpless, virtuous and spiritual girl tossed about by a cruel world, was a triumphant creation, so eloquent as to make language almost unnecessary. And how cruel the world was: constantly in her movies MissGish suffered and was buffeted about by outrageous fortune. She was beaten to death, or ravaged by consumption, or driven out into a blizzard or persecuted by a narrow minded community. She might find love, but only to lose it.

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

All this anguish brought tears and sympathy from the most hardened audiences. When one saw a Gish movie, the highest praise he could bestow was, .. Gee, did I cry!”

Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Miss Gish does not remember becoming an actress six years later, nor even wanting to become one. “It all happened before my memory,”  she said. Her father and mother brought her and her younger sister Dorothy to New York by way of Dayton, and Baltimore, Md., where the father had a small candy store. In New York her parents separated and to support herself and her two small girls, Mrs. Gish got a job acting with a Twenty third Street stock company.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

“Mother was getting $15 a week and we were living on it, Miss Gish said. “We had one room, on Eighth Avenue around Twenty-first Street. At night she’d put us to sleep and go to the theatre. Baby sitters? Oh, no, she’d just leave us, there wasn’t anything else to do..

“Matinee days she’d take us with her, and one day an actress who was going out on the road stopped in at the dressing room, saw me, and said to mother, ‘If you’d let me have her. -‘ They needed a child in her company, and I looked right for it.”

Lillian Gish 3707 cca 1915

LILLIAN. golden – haired and wide eyed, went traveling in a typical blood-and-thunder melodrama of the day, In Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time Dorothy, who was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy, in ‘East Lynne.” Each child earned $10 a week . .

The next year, 1905, mother and daughters were able to get roles together in one touring show. “We grew up this way,” Miss Gish said. “all around the country. At first mother had to teach us our parts but then she taught us to read and to write-in our dressing rooms.

We were educated this way: if we went to a town, say Detroit, mother took us to an auto factory, to see how it was all done. If we were playing in the South, she took us on a street car out of the city to cotton fields, to pick a little cotton, to watch a cotton gin. At Gettysburg she took us out to the battlefield with her history book in her hand and we had our history lesson right on the spot.” we had a wonderful mother,” Miss Gish went on. “From my mother we got great security-the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was the more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters, to make them know responsibility and meet the world head-on. ‘I didn’t use to feel this way. But an earIy insecurity and learning what to do with it and conquering it-this can bring maturity and contentment later on.” As children, Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith. In summers, between road tours, the Gishes and the Smiths-Gladys, her mother, sister and brother-sometimes shared an apartment in New York to save on rent. In 1912, returning from the road, Lillian and Dorothy went to look up Gladys at the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. It was with some difficulty that they found their friend. She had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A fantastic new world – movies was opening up to Mary under the guidance of D.W. Griffith. Lillian made her screen debut as an extra in a Mary Pickford movie. The next year David Belasco engaged Lillian for her first Broadway play, “A Good Little Devil,’ in which Miss Pickford again had the lead. From Broadway, Miss Gish followed D. W. Griffith to California, to become the very symbol of pure womanhood in his movies. She shared with him the excitement of discovering and shaping a new art form, of seeing it grow, of experimenting with ideas, stories, techniques.

We worked wild hours, Saturdays, Sundays. There wasn’t any place as interesting as the studio, Miss Gish said. Everyone just lived for those pictures.” Miss Gish was a member of the Griffith company from 1913 to 1922. In time an awareness that the public had made a star of her came upon Griffith. “He told me to go out,” she said. “He said, ‘You know about as much as I do. I can’t pay you the money you’re worth, you go out and get it.

Late in 1922 Miss Gish helped organize the first American company to shoot a movie in Italy. The movie was “The White Sister.” It cost $270,000, eventually took in $4,000,000-and Miss Gish had a financial, aswell as artistic, stake in it. , Through the Twenties her career flourished. Gish, Garbo and Mary Pickford-some historians regard these as the three great women’s names of the decade. Miss Gish ultimately undertook her first talking picture. “One Romantic Night” was a light, sophisticated comedy from a Molnar play, “The Swan.” Cast as a cold princess Miss Gish must have surprised that multitude which cherished her as a helpless, beaten-down poor innocent. It was 1930, a troubled year in the United States. The movie did not succeed. Perhaps the age of innocence had passed for both America and Miss Gish.

The actress came back to New York. One night she had dinner with George Jean Nathan, Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris. Out of that evening came an invitation from Harris to play Helena in a revival of “Uncle Vanya!’ By her own choice Miss Gish was not starred in the production, afraid that a theatre audience would look on her as another “Miss Hollywood and hurl things at me from across the footlights.”

But the Chekhov revival and its leading actress both came through extraordinarily well. Miss Gish went on to other fine plays and performances in the theatre. “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father,” which she played for more than a year to Chicago’s delight. Since the early Forties she has accepted occasional, interesting character roles in movies. Her television bow came early; she starred in “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1949. Miss Gish’s latest movie – John Huston’s Western ‘The Unforgiven’ in which she is a pioneer woman who raises a foundling, Audrey Hepburn, in Texas around 1885. Miss Gish was intrigued by a role that was different from the ethereal ones of the old days. “I tried to make the character a Grant Wood,” she said, strong in spirit, strong in body. She carries a gun and yet is maternal and tender just woman.” CURRENTLY Miss Gish is working on a biography of her movie mentor, D. W. Griffith. She lives alone. She has never married and says she does not regret it.

“I think being a good wife is a twenty-four hour a day job. And certainly I haven’t lacked for male companionship in my life. I’ve had much more than I’ve deserved-wonderful, wonderful men and wonderful minds. I’m greatly indebted to George Jean Nathan, his great knowledge, his fine mind. Through him I knew Mencken and all the American writers of the Twenties as friends, and later on the writers of Europe.’

After fifty-six years as a performer, Miss Gish ponders future acting assignments with eagerness. “I’m always interested in new things,” she said … If it’s new and different, I want to know about it. I was born with a terrific curiosity.’

Published: April 17, 1960

Then and Now - Lillian Gish Sun Apr 17 1960-1

Then and Now - Lillian Gish Sun Apr 17 1960-2

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