When England Woke (The Great Love) – Picture Play Magazine – Sep. 1918

Picture Play Magazine – Vol. IX September 1918 No.1

When England Woke

IT was in a base hospital in London that the idea came to D. W. Griffith out of which grew the big war story of the awakening of England’s social butterflies, soon to be released under the title, “The Great Love.”

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

“Here is the message American women need,” Griffith exclaimed, as he watched a titled Englishwoman ministering to a wounded soldier. Immediately he set to work to get the pictures of the society and noblewomen who have plunged themselves into war work. Both Queen Mary and the Dowager Queen Alexandra consented to pose for him, the latter appearing in the photograph, taken while on an errand of mercy and cheer to one of England’s fighters. In the picture below are Bettina Stuart-Wortley, Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, the most famous beauty in English society, and Violet Asquith, daughter of the ex-premier of England.

The cast of “The Great Love,” headed by Henry B. Walthall, includes Lillian Gish, George Fawcett, Robert Harron, George Seigmann, Mansfield Stanley, Rosemary Theby, Gloria Hope, and other players who appeared in “Hearts of the World.”

When England Woke - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918)
When England Woke – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918)
Griffith and the Great War 3
Griffith and the Great War 3
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
The Great Love, Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall
Lillian Gish - The Great Love (1918)
Lillian Gish – The Great Love (1918)

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How I Saw “Hearts of the World” – By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

Picture Play Magazine Vol. VIII July, 1918 No. 5

How I Saw “Hearts of the World”

Seated beside Lillian and Dorothy Gish, their guest for the evening, the writer witnessed the first public performance of the new Griffith masterpiece. This is an account of her impressions of that event.

By Marguerite Sheridan

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

GRIFFITH Night in Los Angeles! For months to come, “Hearts of the World,” the latest and mightiest work of this wizard of the cinematographic art, will continue to shine forth in all its wonder, its pathos, and its infinite charm, through the lenses of hundreds of projection machines in every city in the country, but in no place will it be the all – important event that was the premier showing in “The City of the “Angels.” Just as the master producer gave them “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” before even staid New York and the slightly less critical Chicago were allowed a peep, so was the first glimpse of this—”the sweetest love story ever told”—staged among the ruins of war torn France, accorded to his California friends. Before I tell you of this night of nights, let us go back a few days and journey out to the studio, where we will watch Griffith at work putting the finishing touches to “The Picture,” as it was called in an most awe-struck tone by everyone around the studio. Mrs. Gish, mother of the two lovely young girls who play the leading feminine roles in ‘Hearts of the World,” telephoned me that Lillian and Dorothy were at the studio that afternoon, and we would drive out about two o’clock. The exterior of the old Mutual – Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts studio, out on Sunset Boulevard, was a keen disappointment to me. Perhaps I was looking for a cross between the San Francisco Exposition and Lincoln Park. Anyway, the huge pile of shacks, with a few Babylonian towers silhouetted against the sky, was not my idea of the proper place for D. W. Griffith, Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Bobby Harron to perpetuate their art. The girls were in their dressing room, attired in their “Hearts of the World” costumes, Dorothy in her “Little Disturber” gown, and Lillian in one of her bomb shattered frocks.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

She had three copies of this same dress, each a little more dilapidated. Although they are quite unlike when you see them, still there’s a strong “family resemblance;” so Dorothy, who plays the part of a petite Parisienne, wears a short, curly black wig, while Lillian, the lovely, fragile fleur-de-lis, appears as her own beautiful blond self. I had long ago heard of David Belasco’s remark that Lillian Gish was the most perfect blonde he had ever seen; too, others have told me that none of her pictures, moving or otherwise, have done her justice; that she is far more beautiful. And I smiled and said nothing. One hears this sort of thing so often, and, anyway, I was entirely satisfied with the way Miss Gish looked on the screen—one could in the role of the Village Carpenter. A hardly ask for more. But it is true —for once the camera has failed to visualize certain facts. It is difficult to paint her exquisite daintiness, her ethereal loveliness, in cold black and white. I may be accused of rashness and all that sort of thing, but I want to go on record as saying that Lillian Gish is the most perfectly beautiful girl I have ever seen. And Dorothy – well, Dorothy is her mother’s own daughter in looks and speech and actions. She is very jolly, friendly, and clever — fairly bubbling over with fun, and her witty remarks kept us all laughing. She is very nervous, and kept chewing gum furiously—”to keep from chewing her nails,” as she expressed it. Their dressing room was very neat and pretty in black and white chintz. It is kept scrupulously clean by the “Madame,” the East Indian, who played a part in “The Birth of a Nation” – the negroes who spat and acted so dreadfully.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Hearts of The World 1918 — with Lillian Gish.

“Madame” fairly worships Mr. Griffith and calls him “her son.” The girls were waiting to do a scene or two, because Mr. Griffith had not liked the original. Retakes by the dozens he has done, so infinitely painstaking and careful is he always. Camera-Man Billy Bitzer appeared at the door and said that Mr. Griffith was calling for Miss Dorothy, and the scene was to be in the “lot,” so we went with her. This “lot” covers about two blocks of ground and is situated a block away from the studio. Out there all the exteriors, and ever so many “open interiors” such as the one Dorothy did, are taken. I spied Bobby Harron in his trench uniform, and then I looked around for the great Griffith. There was the illustrious gentleman, with his derby tilted on the side of his head and a long, black cigar in his mouth. Otherwise, he reminded me of a fine product of the old school of acting. Then I heard him speak. I have never heard such a compelling voice. It makes you think of people hurrying to obey whatever he might say. The scene was the staircase of “The Inn” in the little French village. They went over it countless times—it took an hour to get it finished, and it was the tiniest bit of action. Dorothy Gish looked as though she would drop from fatigue, but she was just as anxious as Mr. Griffith to have it perfect, so she went at it with all her might until he pronounced it satisfactory. When the scene was finished, a huge studio car rolled up and we all piled in. I had not met Mr. Griffith, and I was so impressed with being in his presence that I’m not quite sure what he said to me, except that he was very nice and cordial and wanted to know if this was my first experience and if I found it interesting. It was, and I did. Back to the studio, and this time it was an indoor set with Lillian and Robert Harron. “Mr. Griffith’s Boy ” as they call him, the hero of the play, is just the Robert Harron that you see on the screen—very serious, a little sad, quite “Griffith-like”—that’s the only word that properly describes him.

Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

We went into a dark, cold room, stumbled over lumber, cords attached to lights, people, and other impedimenta. Then I reached some sort of consciousness that lights were burning very brightly, directions were shouted, and I fell into a chair which one Mr. George Seigmann, Griffith’s right-hand man, pushed out for me. In the film, Mr. Seigmann sinks to the depths of portraying Von Strohm, German secret-service agent ; otherwise he’s a very nice man. It was very thrilling, watching Mr. Griffith direct at such close range. His methods are very simple ; he doesn’t rant and rave—I think it’s his voice that puts things over. And he’s immensely funny at times. Again the scene didn’t suit him. Down to the projection room he went to look at the scene immediately before it. Mr. Seigmann succeeded in getting the set arranged correctly. Ready! Camera ! Action ! And it was over. Mrs. Gish told me how they happened to go to Europe with Mr. Griffith. They were in New York, waiting for him to decide just what he was going to do with his contract with the British government. The government insisted on plain war stuff, and Mr. Griffith insisted just as firmly that he must have a story running through the scenes on the western front. It was finally arranged, and Mrs. Gish, Lillian, and Mr. Griffith went first. When they were three days out, they wired for Dorothy, Robert Harron, and William Bitzer, the Camera-man who has filmed all the Griffith photo plays. The latter trio went over on the ship with Pershing; and Dorothy told me that she was quite delighted with the famous general, and he told her that he knew her, too, very well ; when he was in Mexico, motion pictures were the soldiers’ chief diversions, and the Gishes entertained them frequently.

Clunes Auditorium L.A.
Clunes Auditorium L.A.

At last came the lovely spring night for which we were anxiously waiting, Clune’s Theater, an immense place, was packed to the doors before eight o’clock, and a disappointed throng was clamoring outside for admission. In the lobby were boys dressed as French poilus, British Tommies, and our own American boys. Beautiful flowers were there, too—gifts to Mr. Griffith and his players. Of course California is so full of wonderful flowers that they don’t make quite the impression they would in New York, but a floral piece to Mr. Griffith “From the Boys” made even the native sons hesitate a moment to admire. It was Dorothy Gish’s idea that they mingle with the crowd on the opening night instead of occupying the customary box.

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

“I couldn’t have all those people staring at me,” said this very democratic young miss. And it was fortunate, indeed, for me that they decided on seats on the first floor of the mezzanine floor and secured one for me, or otherwise I would have had to seek cold comfort that night at Grauman’s or the Kinema. Every seat was sold on the first day. Dear Mrs. Gish chaperoned the party, looking almost as young as her two lovely daughters in her handsome black-and-silver gown and a corsage bouquet of red roses. “The most adorable Lily” sat next to me. Her evening coat was white velvet, with a white fur collar that hung to her waist. Yards of misty white maline were draped around her golden hair, which was arranged very simply in coils around her head. She wore an orchid-colored gown veiled in silver, and her flowers were orchids. I could scarcely keep my eyes on the picture for looking at her. Which, in itself, is quite a compliment.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

Dorothy was very sweet and girlish in lavender taffeta. She hates fussy clothes. It is my opinion that if Mrs. Gish and Lillian didn’t attend to her wardrobe for her, this young lady would cling mostly to middy blouses and sport clothes. She had a birthday that week, however; so Lillian’s gift, a truly wonderful evening coat, was aired for the first time. It was a ravishing affair of lavender and gray chiffon, banded with flying squirrel, and, as Dorothy said : “I may freeze to death, but I’ll have to wear my new coat!” Robert Harron was there, looking very handsome and boyish in his evening clothes. Right next to Bobby was a vacant seat—behind a post. Oh, how I wished for one adoring Griffith satellite I knew—I am sure he would have gladly craned his neck around that post for a week just to see “The Hearts of the World.”

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

Just behind us was a seat reserved for Mr. Griffith, which he didn’t occupy. I’m not sure just where the master director watched the picture ; but he turned up later, so I knew he was around somewhere.

In her box on one side of the theater, Queen Mary Pickford held court, a very lovely Mary, with a dear smile on her face and many curls on top of her head. The entire picture-play colony turned out to do Mr. Griffith homage. I doubt if there has ever been such a brilliant assemblage under one roof. There was Howard Hickman with his wife, the lovely Bessie Barriscale; Mr. and Mrs. Robert McKim ; Mildred Harris ; Seena Owen, looking more than ever “The Princess Beloved ;” Alma Rubens, the beautiful brunette from the Triangle forces, in a stunning white evening gown ; Blanche Sweet in palest gray, a very sweet and flowerlike Blanche, whom all her friends greeted Warmly. It’s been many a day since we’ve seen her face on the screen. The Talmadge family was represented by Mrs. Talmadge, Constance, a very attractive young person in brown and Natalie, who looks very much like Norma. Promptly at eight fifteen the curtain rose, and “the play was the thing.” The action was so intense and stirring that it didn’t seem half an hour, although it was really almost three hours long. It is marvelous to think how the brains and genius of one man can sway such a vast throng—they were chilled and thrilled and dissolved in tears. It was superb.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“An Old-fashioned Play with a New-fashioned Theme,” the program calls it. Yes, it is an old, old story, but it is told in the newest and most wonderful way. And far above the din of battle, massing of troops, recapturing of villages, one can always hear the love note—the thing which Griffith shows is going to save the world. Whenever the battle scenes get just a little too horrible to endure comfortably, when the action is so realistic that one can almost feel the shrapnel flying around, we are taken back to the peaceful quiet of the little French village and our nerves allowed to rest for a brief space. All the lovely, human touches that have characterized the former Griffith spectacles are present in “The Hearts of the World.” To me they are the greatest marks of the Griffith genius. As far as personal successes are concerned, Lillian Gish as Marie Stephenson is startlingly superior to anything she has ever done. Pitifully lovely she has been before, but never really so fine as in this role. With her exquisite, poignant beauty, she is the real spirit of France. Robert Harron’s Douglas Gordon Hamilton is splendid and soldierly, and, oh, how we sorrow and rejoice with him in his love affair with “The Girl !” Into the midst of this Eden comes The Little Disturber, a strolling singer, charmingly played by Dorothy Gish, and she falls in love with young Hamilton. Of course it is of no avail, but the part gives Miss Dorothy a chance to show what a remarkably clever little comedienne she is. She makes the most of every foot of film she is given—and we can’t help wishing she had several hundred more. I must say just a word about the music that was especially arranged for the production. Never before, I think, have melodies been so deftly woven throughout a picture. The music is indeed part of it—not a mere background. It was arranged after the manner that Wagner wrote.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

THE presentation of D. W. Griffith’s love story of the Great War, “Hearts of the World,” makes it imperative that I open my remarks on recent screen offerings with a short discussion of the war picture. For there has never been anything like “Hearts of the World.” Griffith alone has been able to bring the bigness of the world conflict to the celluloid. It has overwhelmed all other directors and writers who have endeavored to touch upon it intimately. The usual product is a foolish melodrama. Neither hero nor heavy is human. But Griffith’s skill has resulted in the interweaving of a beautiful love story carried by human protagonists with the somber, relentless panorama of war in all its reality. The actual scenes he procured at the front are amazing, and the domestic scenes supplementing them even more so. The Gish sisters, Robert Harron, Robert Anderson, youthful Ben Alexander, and George Siegemann perform as they could only under the master director.

Picture-Play Magazine (July 1918) Hearts of the World
Picture-Play Magazine (July 1918) Hearts of the World
Hearts of The World Program
Hearts of The World Program

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Films That Made Them Famous – By May Herschel Clarke (Picture Show Annual – 1926)

Picture Show Annual – 1926

Films That Made Them Famous

By May Herschel Clarke

How Some Screen Stars of To-day First Began to Shine

SUPPOSE it’s a shocking confession to make, but not till – some years after it was first released did I see “ The Birth of a Nation.” In a way. I’m glad it was so, for thus I was enabled to compare that early Griffith masterpiece with the “ super ” productions of the present time. Somewhat, I must own, to the detriment of the latter. For if ” The Birth of a Nation ” proved one thing more than another, it was that it is acting, and not settings costing thousands upon thousands of pounds, that lifts a film a long way above its fellows. By this I do not mean to suggest that no fine screen acting is to be seen to-day. What I do mean is that, with all its lavishness and technical development, the modern photoplay rarely treats us to an exhibition of dramatic art which can truthfully be said to conform to so high a standard as that displayed in “ The Birth of a Nation.”

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

The Triumph of Walthall and Mae Marsh

In this amazing picture it was not a question of one outstanding performance, but of several. Think of the people who were in it ! Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Lillian Gish, Wallace Reid, Walter Long—these immediately come to mind. As the young blacksmith Reid got his first real chance, though I suppose we must say that his first great hit was made in ” Carmen,” with Geraldine Farrar. His love scenes with the great prima donna and film star are talked about to this day. Lillian Gish gave a very tender performance in ‘ The Birth of a Nation,” while the reverse of tenderness was so powerfully portrayed by Walter Long that his Gus immediately brought him into the front rank of screen villains of the deepest dye ! But the two people whose work stood out above that of everyone else were Walthall and Mae Marsh. The former’s Little Colonel at once stamped its creator as one of the greatest actors, if not the greatest, on the screen, while the heartrending pathos of Mae Marsh’s performance as the Little Sister won her universal recognition as an actress of genius.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh - Reunion 2 - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

The Gish Sisters

Most people, I suppose, consider that Lillian Gish scored her most sensational triumph in “ Broken Blossoms ”—the picture, by the way, which recorded smashing successes by Richard Barthelmess and Donald Crisp—but, of course, Lillian was already known as a remarkable actress through her work in “ The Birth of a Nation,” “ Intolerance,” and “ Hearts of the World.” Like Mary Pickford, through whose kind offices she and Dorothy obtained their introduction to the screen, Lillian has done so much marvelous work, and can trace that work back to such early Griffith times, that It Is a little difficult to put one’s finger on the exact spot where Fame marked her for its own.

 

Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World

 

The problem is much simpler in the case of Dorothy Gish, who, as most people are aware, came into her own as a comedienne in the role of “The Little Disturber“ in “Hearts of the World.” Prior to that picture, Dorothy had been jogging along as a serious actress, without much prospect of getting anywhere in particular. Griffith’s decision to give her a comedy part proved her film salvation.

A Glimpse of Genius

Erich von Stroheim - film Foolish Wives - Universal (1922)
Erich von Stroheim – Foolish Wives – Universal (1922)

It Is interesting to recall that It was in ” Hearts of the World ” that Erich von Stroheim, the great actor-director, gave a glimpse of the genius which later was to dazzle the whole film world. His brilliant “ bit ” was registered in the scene in which he entered the cellar with the French refugee woman, to conduct a roll-call of those who were to be deported. His famous Teutonic bow and his equally famous look of mockery even then were in evidence. In this picture little Ben Alexander rose to fame on the strength of the scene in which he cried by his screen mother’s grave.

Lillian in the hands of a German - Hearts of The World
Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

British Successes in American Productions

Two of the biggest hits recently made in filmdom were achieved by British players. Ronald Colman (who, unless I am much mistaken, used to be with Broadwest) became famous overnight through his splendid work as Captain Severi, in “ The White Sister ” with Lillian Gish. Dorothy Mackaill, who used to be on the stage over here, and who has done very well in America in a couple of pictures with Richard Barthelmess and in Sam Wood’s production of “ His Children’s Children,” among other films, hit the bull’s – eye with a remarkable portrayal of a drug addict in “ The Man Who Came Back,” a Fox production made by Emmett Flynn. Vera Reynolds, who made so favourable an impression as the flapper sister of Gloria Swanson in “ Prodigal Daughters,” is another young player who seems destined to go far. As for Betty Bronson, whose luck in being chosen by Sir James Barrie to portray Peter Pan—well, there seems little doubt about the film that will make her famous! (May Herschel Clarke – Picture Show Annual – 1926)

The White Sister
Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister
Picture Show Annual (1926)
Picture Show Annual (1926) – cover

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The Great War Propaganda – By Louella O. Parsons (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay – Vol. XIV September 1918 No. 4

Propaganda!

An earnest consideration of the inestimable part being played by the Motion Picture in the Great War.

By Louella O. Parsons (Excerpts)

If German vandalism could reach overseas, the Kaiser would order every moving picture studio crushed to dust, and every theatre blown to atoms. There has been no more effective ammunition aimed at the Prussian empire than these picture stories of Germany’s atrocities.

Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 2

First because the moving picture reaches such an enormous audience. Where the novel eight times out of ten presents a more logical discussion of the cause, and the stirring patriotic play has more claim to pur attention it only reaches the thousands, where the film is seen and absorbed by millions. Moving pictures encircle the globe in every inhabited city, and are shown at a price which makes it possible for everyone to see them. These followers of the cinema have seen with their own eyes how German militarism is waged against civilization.

They have seen the rape of Belgium, the devastation of France and the evil designs against America, Italy and France. They have lived over with these unfortunates this tragedy against helpless women and children, and with tears in their eyes and horror in their hearts have cried aloud for vengeance against this soulless nation. And while these film plays have been raising the temperature of the Allies’ patriotism to blood heat, Germany has been gnashing its teeth. The natural question, Why doesn’t Germany meet these attacks with similar moving pictures? brings back an answer attacking one place where Germany’s widely touted efficiency is at fault. We do not doubt for the minute that Germany is making a strong attempt to come back at us with its own moving picture propaganda, but we who have studied the film situation since long before the war know that the kaiser’s domain is not equipped to circulate any such productions as we have been viewing the last twelve months. And if it were it would not have an American audience to reach. We with our cosmopolitan population of mixed races are able to reach the very people Germany ‘is struggling to get into its clutches.

Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 5

And again, if it had studio facilities, there is no story it could tell to gain sympathy. The allies have never invaded a Belgium, nor destroyed a France, nor waged any unholy war against defenseless women and children. The powers at Washington realized what a factor the screen would be in the war against William Hohenzollern. The declaration of war was not a week old when President Wilson sent for W. A. Brady to co-operate with him in getting the moving picture industry in line. What the fifth estate did in the way of starting the ball rolling with its four-minute men, its patriotic strips of film and with the active assistance of the three Liberty Loan Campaigns is too well known to need further comment. But the big thing the film producer has done was to create within the year over sixty pictorial propagandas, or more than one a week. Not all of these moving pictures have been intelligently constructed. Some of them have been absurd and impossible; others have been written too obviously for financial gain, but the strong argument is, that they have all sent people home thinking and planning of some way to be of service to the government. The government too, has been able to use the screen as a school of instruction, a sort of military text book. By following the weekly films, the mothers at home, the fathers and the younger children have been able to get a very fair idea of what the sailors and soldiers are doing in the military training camps. Every open phase of military life has been narrated in a most entertaining fashion on the screen. England and France have not been slow to realize the value of following America by presenting their righteous cause in a pictured story.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

An invitation was sent to David Wark Griffith to come to the fighting fronts and make a moving picture of the conflict for the English government. Mr. Griffith was asked to give a cinematic argument of why German militarism, like a cancerous growth, should be cut away before it further menaces civilization by its malignant presence. The adventures of David Griffith on those foreign shores are like a wonder tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp. If I had not heard the story from Mr. Griffith’s own lips I might have accused someone of flirting with the truth. Conservative England received him as they might have received a visiting potentate. Lloyd George personally appeared before the camera with him; Queen Alexandria expressed a desire to meet the American whose magic would bring the war home to so many indifferent hearts, and social England, devoted to the war stricken country, helped by facing the camera. Such women as Lady Diana Manners, Mrs. Buller, Elizabeth Asquith, and the Duchess of Beaufort turned moving picture actress to have a part in the British war film. Government aid and official escort did not make the filming of this picture as simple as it sounds. To get the great panorama of battle in action, the moving picture camera had to be carried into the front line trenches. Shot and shell and gas explosions became a part of the daily Griffith menu. After the camera was blown to bits on one occasion, care was taken to make a facsimile of every battle scene filmed, so a retake could be made in the California studios if it should be necessary.

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918
DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

The last time I talked with Mr. Griffith, he was greatly upset at the reports that the Germans were planning to invade Ham, Amiens, Ypres and Chalnes. “Some of those villages,” he said, “are the very spots in which I established my temporary studios. The villagers were deeply interested in the moving picture which was to carry a message to the outside world. Old men., women and children left at home gave freely of their hospitality. This eighteen months’ work in France and England resulted in a combination romance and history. The bleak desolation of “No Man’s Land” with the grim, smoke-stained soldiers are the “supers,” who played in this picture as earnestly as they “play” “over there” in the big war drama for your freedom and for mine. The great stretch of devastated territory, with its accoutrements of war, its trenches and barbed wire fences, are all pictured as accurately as though we were standing there, gazing at the tangible result of German kultur.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 1
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France

It is difficult to discriminate and say which film has done the most to aid the fight. Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s ‘Mothers of France,” which should have been titled “Mothers of the World,” has probably called forth the most tears. Madame Bernhardt, with a brave spark burning in her feeble body, stood knee deep in the trenches and offered herself a living sacrifice to her beloved France. The tears are not only for the bereaved mothers, but also for the pathetic old woman, lame and sick, who forgot her own discomfort to try and stir the other women of the world to action. The motive of this picture glorifies it. No one who ever saw Bernhardt and her silent plea that we give our loved ones gladly and proudly to the cause will ever forget her message. Herbert Brenon made a stepchild to the war films in a screen play featuring Rasputin and the downfall of the Romanoff dynasty. This and his English birth brought forth an invitation from the English government for him to make an historical film record for the British archives. Mr. Brenon is now in England working on this mission. There have been many official war films, some of them actually photographed at battles which have now gone down in history as decisive moments in the great world’s war. Among those which have occupied the screen during the past year are: “The Retreat of the Germans at the Battle of Arras,” “The Italian Battlefronts,” “The Battle of the Ancre,” and “Heroic France and the German Curse in Russia.” The last named is more of a pictorial discussion of the Russian situation than a moving picture of any specific battle scene. All of these war time pictures have been received with enthusiasm with the exception of a few which had been better left unfilmed. These are hectic dramas using the war as a reason for their existing, and made with no high patriotic purpose, but with a thinly veiled camouflage to make money. They have offended both the individual patriot and the government. The very fact that some of the producers have taken advantage of war time has induced the government to put every patriotic picture released under strict surveillance, with a trained corps of men to pass upon their fitness to serve as propaganda.

Sarah Bernhardt - Mothers of France 3
Sarah Bernhardt – Mothers of France 3

Some of these features, while harmless enough, are so badly done, that even the heavy Teutonic nature must have found them amusing. But the good done by the screen has far outweighed any evil effects of these ridiculous war films. The President has congratulated the moving picture industry on the help it has given the nation at this time, and he and the other men now at the helm in Washington have gone on record as saying these pictorial propagandas are among the most valuable war-time assets United States owns.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

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(Ronald Colman) – A Ladies Man (Photoplay 1924)

A Ladies’ Man Who Is Regular

By Arthur Brenton

Photoplay December 1924, Vol. XXVII Number One

 

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

All the girls in Hollywood are mad about him. He is besieged at dances by the most alluring beauties of the screen. At “cat parties” his name ranks with reducing and bobbed hair as the chief topic of conversation. Ingenues and famous scenario writers alike grow ecstatic about his technique at love making and his irresistible way of holding a lady’s hand and his good looks. And yet—The men like him. And when men like a man in spite of the above mentioned handicaps, he is bound to be regular.

It was such a happy combination that gave Wallace Reid his amazing and lasting hold upon the affection of the public, that have combined to make Tommy Meighan the best loved and highest salaried star of today, and that now seems likely to add to the list the name of Ronald Colman, leading man for Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” and “Romola” and in George Fitzmaurice’s latest hit, “Tarnish.”

Ronald Colman and Marie Prevost - Tarnish 1924
Ronald Colman and Marie Prevost – Tarnish 1924

It doesn’t always follow that a man who is a success with the feminine fans is likewise a riot in his own country of Hollywood. Many a famous screen lover has languished as a wallflower among the feminine portion of the film colony. And the oldest living resident cannot remember when any man has had such an instantaneous personal triumph among them as young Colman.

The White Sister
The White Sister

It seems to have been accomplished without any effort on his part. In fact, he’s just a little embarrassed and slightly annoyed about it and doesn’t always know just what to do. And this is one of the reasons the men like him, of course. Ronald Colman,—they called him ” Mustard” Colman in his school days because his last name is spelled the same as the manufacturer of the famous mustard itself—is an Englishman, with a slight trace of Scotch in his ancestry. He is the type of “black Englishman” not so familiar in this country—his hair is jet and he has the big, black eyes that we associate more with the Italian or Spanish type. But as to temperament, disposition, and tastes he is thoroughly British.

In fact, in spite of his romantic and impetuous good looks, he’s a serious, quiet chap, fond of books and a pipe and interested in politics and sports of all kinds. To him, his work is the first and most important thing on earth. He never takes an important step without a lot of thought. He has a fund of good, solid common sense, and a lot of business ability. Yet no less an authority than George Fitzmaurice declares he registers as much romance as any man on the screen. And in his love scenes his hands are almost as expressive as those of Zasu Pitts, which is saying a lot in Hollywood. Colman is a veteran of the war, though he’s just past thirty. As a boy of twenty just out of Hadleigh-Sussex College, he enlisted in the London-Scottish Regiment when war was declared and was among those who went with the first British Expeditionary Force. He was seriously wounded in the first battle of Ypres, and when he was discharged from the hospital after many months he was placed on detached service.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman, Lillian Gish – Romola

He began his career as an actor shortly after the close of the war, playing the Richard Bennett role in “Damaged Goods” in London. He made a big hit, followed by several others, including “The Misleading Lady” and “Little Brother.” When Lillian Gish offered him the leading role opposite her in “The White Sister” he accepted it eagerly. Pictures appealed to him. But when he came to America after completing “The White Sister” he couldn’t get a job on the screen so went back to the stage, supporting Ruth Chatterton in “La Tendresse ” and Fay Bainter in ” East is West.”

With the release of “The White Sister,” critics hailed young Colman with fervent and lengthy praise, and Miss Gish signed him again for the lead in “Romola.” Then George Fitzmaurice brought him to Hollywood to play opposite May McAvoy in “Tarnish.” His ambition in life is to be a director, not an actor, so that he can earn money faster and retire forever as a gentleman farmer. This seems a worthy ambition and has at least the merit of being different.

Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, and Marie Prevost in Tarnish (1924)
Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, and Marie Prevost in Tarnish (1924)
Photoplay (Dec 1924) Ronald Colman
Photoplay (Dec 1924) Ronald Colman

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NORMAN KERRY is the finest guy in Hollywood – By Ruth Waterbury (Photoplay 1927)

Hoot Mon! He’s the Best Guy in Hollywood

Everybody’s for him, including Minnie, the elephant

By Ruth Waterbury

NORMAN KERRY is the finest guy in Hollywood.

Photoplay August 1927

 

Norman Kerry - Evans LA Postcard
Norman Kerry – Evans LA Postcard

Ask anyone at any studio and they all make the same reply. They’re his buddies from studio messengers to Minnie, an elephant, who weighs two tons. Today Norman is one of the highest salaried leading men, which means he earns more than many a star. He has a big estate in Beverly Hills, walled off into elaborate sunken gardens and an awning-shaded swimming pool. He recently stole “Annie Laurie” from the $8,000-a-week Lillian Gish. But he’ll lend his money to anybody. He will if he can get the money away from Gus. Gus is a typical Kerry fixture. The two men have known each other for years. They started working, side by side, for Norman’s father, who was in the leather goods trade in New York City. They went together into the theatrical agency business. They invaded Hollywood together. When Norman got the break, Gus appointed himself bookkeeper, confidential adviser, official alibi and guardian angel. A few years ago Gus got worried about the money Norman was loaning and giving away. Whether he started out with five hundred dollars or only fifty cents, the result was always the same—he came home broke. So Gus asked his idol to enter into an arrangement whereby all checks had to be countersigned by the self-appointed manager before they could be cashed. Norman readily agreed and tied himself up so that now he has to go to Gus for every cent.

Norman Kerry - 1923
Norman Kerry – 1923

Gus arranges contracts and invests the savings. Norman never bothers to look at the books Gus keeps. He says his name alone is enough to make him an ideal manager. Gus’ surname is Messer. In such simple things he finds delight. Six feet two, broad-shouldered, extremely handsome, Kerry’s energy is practically limitless. Days are not long enough for him. He never rests.

Norman Kerry - 1925
Norman Kerry – 1925

When he gets home from the studio and a bell rings, Norman springs to action like a fire horse. He has so many friends, door bells and telephone bells ring constantly. As a result he averages about four hours’ sleep a night. Most people require at least eight. When Norman gets six hours’ sleep, he rides before sunrise to work off his excess pep. There is no sport at which he doesn’t excel. He rides perfectly. He swims perfectly. He is a tennis ace. At the parlor sport of wise cracks he is triumphant. The stories about him are multitude. One concerns his biting the dog. He had evidently read the newspaper rule that if a dog bites a man it is not news, but if a man bites a dog it is. It is told that Norman attended a party where a yapping poodle kept nipping at his ankles. Finally the actor could stand it no longer. He picked up the beast and bit it on the leg.

“Now that you have learned how disagreeable biting is,” Norman told the dog, “go and repent.” Probably he did it in the spirit of a father who spanks a child, for love of animals is his predominant trait. At his home, he has a heterogeneous collection of pets—birds, monkeys, dogs, and a cat that swims.

The Barrier 1926 - Norman Kerry & George Cooper
The Barrier 1926 – Norman Kerry & George Cooper

Norman insists it’s the only swimming cat in the world. Minnie, the elephant, to whom he is devoted, was just brought from vaudeville to play with him in “Lorraine of the Lions” and for weeks lie fed her peanuts, making friends with her before they began working on the picture. That was three years ago, but since then he has visited the pachyderm every week with gifts of peanuts and bananas. She will probably never appear in another film with him, but that makes no difference. He and Minnie are pals. He claims he can tame any animal. While playing in “The Acquittal” he tried to get chummy with a wolf at the Universal zoo. The animal bit him, sending him to the hospital with an infected hand. But as soon as he was released, Norman hurried back to the zoo, to talk to the wolf again. Now it has a dog-like affection for him.

THE LOVE THIEF - NORMAN KERRY (GLASSNER) 1926
THE LOVE THIEF – NORMAN KERRY (GLASSNER) 1926

Norman had proved he could pick screen material. He started main- players, including Rudy Valentino, on the road to success. He advised Richard Dix to take up the new motion pictures. He took a little of his own advice and headed for Hollywood. Landing he went down to the Universal studio to visit his friend, Art Acord. As he crossed the lot, he was spied by James Young, the director. Young declared he was just the type for the lead in a film then in the making. Norman had never seen a movie camera, much less faced one. But when he saw Young was not joking, he argued he was worth SI 25 a week, and got it. I le strolled into the dressing rooms and beheld Kenneth Harlan, a dancer, whom he had known on Broadway. “Make me up, Ken,” he ordered. “I’m this company’s new leading man.” That started him. Though he has occasionally made pictures for other companies, he has always remained loyal to Universal. “I hope to stay with them always,” he says. “When I get bored acting I can go play in the zoo and besides, they spoil me and let me have my own way.”

Tod Browning's THE UNKNOWN (1927) Circus Strong Man Norman Kerry & His Admirers
Tod Browning’s THE UNKNOWN (1927) Circus Strong Man Norman Kerry & His Admirers

Kerry probably has less conceit than any living actor. While he enjoys the praise “Annie Laurie” is winning, he hasn’t seen it. He rarely sees any of his productions and never views rushes. He has no publicity agent. Neither does he read his press notices. Still, when Jack Pickford tried to tease him by saying he didn’t think his Scotchman in the Gish picture was half what it was said to be, Norman murmured, “No? And what have you been so good in lately?” Kerry is not a person who likes change.

Norman Kerry in Annie Laurie - 1927
Norman Kerry in Annie Laurie – 1927

He has stayed in California ever since he returned from the war. His wife goes to New York every few months, Norman never. He once loved Broadway. His people, whose name is Kaiser, are still there. But he never goes back. So many of the boys I knew there have died,” he explains. “That keeps me away. It’s the only thing I can’t face in life—the thought of death. It’s uncomfortable and I love life too well.” He has one ambition. He wants to do a story of the Vikings discovering America. “They were great people,” he declares, “people full of enthusiasm, daring, and they were beautiful two-handed drinkers. I’d enjoy doing such a characterization, particularly the latter part.”

Photoplay (Aug 1927) Norman Kerry
Photoplay (Aug 1927) Norman Kerry

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Seventy Years of Cinema (Orders to Kill) – By Peter Cowie – 1969

Seventy Years of Cinema

By Peter Cowie – 1969

Celluloid had been in existence since the 1860s. A French anatomist, Etienne-Jules Marey, developed the “fusil photographique,” an elongated, blunderbuss shaped antecedent of the movie camera of today. During the eighties, he also manufactured film strips.

Eadweard Muybridge, an Englishman resident in California, was fascinated by the movement at speed of animals and people, and he took thousands of closely linked photographs to analyze this. When projected in sequence, these obviously did (and still do) look like a stuttering motion picture film.

Between 1885 and 1887, Louis Aimi Augustin LePrince apparently projected moving pictures in a New York workshop, by means of a single-lens camera cum projector. A tablet in Leeds (England) commemorates him as making a camera and projector in 1888 and taking pictures in that year on Leeds Bridge. In October, 1889, Thomas Edison is said to have screened moving pictures in a New Jersey laboratory. Edison relied heavily on his assistant, William K. L. Dickson, and made no significant advances on his own.

Kinetoscope-2

But he was a skillful business man who knew how to exploit rights and patents. In August 1891 he was granted a patent for his perforated film camera, and in 1894 he patented his Kinetoscope, which employed celluloid for commercial purposes. Mention should also be made of Emile Reynaud, whose elaborate Praxinoscope attracted thousands of Parisians to the Musee Grivin during the nineties.

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Paul Massie MI

ORDERS TO KILL

Britain. Script: Paul Dehn, from an original story by Donald C. Downes. Direction: Anthony Asquith. Photographv: Desmond Dickinson. Editing: Gordon Hales. Music: Benjamin Frankel.

Art Direction: John Howell. Players: Paul Massie, Irene Worth, James Robertson-Justice. Eddie Albert, Lillian Gish, Leslie French. Production: Lynx Films (Anthony Havelock-Allan) . (111 mins.)

A war background and the problem of personal honor enter into Anthony Asquith’s masterpiece, Orders to Kill. The story concerns an ex-pilot (Paul Massie) who, sent to Paris in 1944 to kill a traitor, is mentally ruined by the ordeal. He turns to drink, and only regains his poise when he realizes that his is not such an individual guilt after all. “The two moral points that arise from the film,” says Asquith, “are that there is really no difference between dropping a bomb and killing an innocent man, and that you’re just as likely to kill an innocent person with a bomb as you are with vour hands.”

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Miki Iveria - missing scene

Orders to Kill is one of the most persuasive of British films. It is a thriller that contributes a portrait of its leading character as profound as M in Fritz Lang’s film or Johnny McQueen in Odd Man Out. Massie’s playing is excellent, veering from the youthful flippancy of his approach to training in England, to his impassioned remorse when he has killed his victim Laffitte. Irene Worth gives a bitter, gallant performance as the Resistance agent, and Eddie Albert is unexpectedly sensitive as the American commander. Asquith’s technical command, too often expended on whimsical and sentimental material in the past, brings to the film an enduring glitter and resolution. His compositions—the close-up of the bloodstained hand at the start, the terrifying illusions of “The Tunnel of Love” in which Massie has to kill dummy Nazis, the inspired shots of his hiding Laffitte’s money in the Montparnasse cemetery—are characteristic of the self-effacing talent first glimpsed in the twenties.

Orders to Kill - Lillian Gish and Paul Massie 2

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A White Star – By Richard Dyer (Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB)

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

A White Star

Shining in light, Lillian Gish represented the apotheosis of whiteness, femininity and virtue in films such as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms”

By Richard Dyer

Sight and Sound – Aug. 1993 BFI – GB

Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness. The word “star” has become so taken for granted as meaning anyone who’s a little bit famous in a little bit of the world that we’re apt to forget just how appropriate the term was for people who did seem to be aglow on stages and screens in darkened halls. And no star shone more brightly in that firmament than did Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

We may well mistake Lillian Gish’s importance in film history. In the silent period, other women stars were bigger – Mary Pickford especially, but also Theda Bara and names still less familiar now such as Blanche Sweet, Norma Talmadge, Clara Kimball Young and Anita Stewart, all of whom often eclipsed Gish’s place in the public imagination. It is partly because she was a star for so long that we now accord her such importance: she was still making it impossible for you to take your eyes off her in the 40s (Duel in the Sun. 1946), 50’s (The Night of the Hunter. 1955), 60’s The Unforgiven, 1959), 70’s (A Wedding, 1978) and 80’s The Whales of August, 1987) and she was always a wonderful interviewee who could bring early cinema to life. Our enthusiasm may also have to do with the face that her acting seems so minimalist compared to that of many of her contemporaries, closer to a later aesthetic of screen performance where nor betraying the fact that one is acting is deemed such a virtue.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

And it is certainly because of her association with D. W. Griffith and the heroic place in the development of film that even the most revisionist histories accord him. Yet perhaps none of that would carry much weight if when you see her in the Griffith films or La Boheme (1926). The Scarlet Letter (1926) or The Wind (1928) she did not radiate the screen. She is the apotheosis of the metaphor of stardom, a light shining in the darkness.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

Starlight

There is a scene in True Heart Susie (1919) which encapsulates the relationship between stardom and light, a relationship at once technical, aesthetic and ethical. The film tells of a country girl, Susie (Gish), who puts ber true love William (Robert Harron) through college, only to have him marry a city girl, Bettina. Susie has to go to the party at which William announces his marriage: she knows that Bettina is also carrying on with a city boy, Sporty Malone. The establishing shot of the sequence has the party in full swing and Susie/Gish entering and sitting on a chair down screen right, where she remains throughout the sequence, looking at the party, at William and Bettina. The sequence cuts to other characters, to reactions to the wedding announcement, but keeps coming back to Susie/Gish, in close-up or in the original establishing set-up. This is lit from the front, with some extra fill and back light on Gish: she is more in the light. The light is firstly an adjunct to storytelling: it emphasises Gish’s narrative importance as the star and main character of the film: it enables us to see her better. The fill and back light create depth by making Gish stand out a little from the party further back in the image, while also placing her clearly in relation to what is unfolding. Fill and back light also beautify her, creating a subtle halo effect and bringing out the fairness of her hair: the use of make-up too gives her face a seamless white glow. This beauty is in turn a moral value, the aura of her true heart. There is in other words, a special relationship between light and Gish: she is more visible, she is aesthetically and morally superior, she looks on from a position of knowledge, of enlightenment – in short, if she is so much lit, she also appears to be the source of light.

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

Such treatment is the culmination of a history of light that has many strands. The association of whiteness and light – of white light – with moral values goes far back. In classical Greek art. female figures are paler than male, as befits those whose proper place is in the home, a notion taken to angelic extremes in Victorian domestic ideology and imagery. Christian art has long emphasised the radiance of the pure white bodies of Christ, the Virgin, the saints and angels. Enlightenment and post- Enlightenment philosophy stressed the intrinsic transcendent superiority of the colour white, notions that were grafted on to nineteenth century biological accounts of racial difference. The celebration of women in painting during the same period etherealised the body, drawing upon the translucent imagery of Madonnas, angels, nymphs and sprites.

Lillian Gish 1919 AX

Photography brought a special quality to such imagery – as images printed on white paper, photographs always show people as part transparent, as ghost-like, a characteristic readily capitalised upon in nineteenth-century portraiture and fairy set-pieces. Some of this imagery was found in the theatre too, in the romantic ballet, the feerie and pantomime. Here the star metaphor really begins to take hold. With the introduction of gas lighting, the difference between the auditorium and stage was emphasised, with all light in the latter. Developments in make-up, costume (notably the tutu) and directional lighting made it possible to make the female performer the focus of light, to be suffused with light or to reflect and thus apparently emanate it. Film took all of this and intensified it: the halls could be darker and the images on the screen were always of people with light shining through them. Provided they were white people.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art LA cca 1914
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art LA cca 1914

Film developed its own codes of lighting, with the female star as centre piece and Lillian Gish as a supreme yet typical example. By the 20’s the norm for correct lighting in Hollywood was what was known as ‘North’ lighting, light from the land of white people. The tendency for fair hair to look dark (too dark) in black-and-white photography was overcome by using back lighting, three-point lighting, soft light, gauzes and focus could all be employed co create the halos and glows of feminine portraiture.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

Even in contemporary cinema, if you look for it, and quite noticeably in silent cinema, there is often a change of lighting between a general shot of a scene and a close-up or two-shot within it. It is here particularly that the specialness of stardom, or of the experience of romance, is signalled. There is a scene in Way Down East (1920), for instance, where Anna (Gish) comes to the Bartlett family farm: she has been wandering the country, having been abandoned by the man who married her in a false ceremony and having lost her child at birth. She enters at the back of the set, which in the establishing shot is, in even, outdoor light. But when the film cuts to a dose-up of her, a gauze over the camera, side lighting and an iris all create the beauty of pathos. There is cross cutting between her and the Bartlett’s son (Richard Barthelmess), whom she will eventually marry. Both are gorgeous and treated to special, glamourising lighting – but he is shot against a dark background with a close black iris, leaving little light around him, whereas she is fully in the light against a light background and wearing a hat that suggests a halo. When she speaks to father Bartlett, who is suspicious of this waif, both stand in the full sunlight and wear hats of much the same size – but his casts his face in shadow, whereas her face, with some extra fill light no doubt, remains radiantly white, with the hat still a halo, not a shade.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

Many lighting set-ups were developed for the depiction of the heterosexual couple, frozen to perfection in production stills (a neglected factor in the construction of film-historical memory). There is the soft haze that envelops the couple, with often a subtle fill radiating the woman’s face so that the man appears to be wrapped up in her glow. Or there is the head-and-shoulders close-up, with the man darkly dressed, only his shirt collar and face white and light, and the woman lightly dressed, but even lighter around the face. He rears up out of the darkness, but she is already in the light. That light comes from behind his head, magically catching the top of his hair but falling full on her face, itself an unblemished surface of white make-up which sends the light back on to his face. Barthelmess and Gish in Way Down East, Harron and Gish in True Heart Susie, Lars Hanson and Gish in The Scarlet Letter: she is the angel of light who can redeem his more carnal yearning.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

Lillian Gish could be considered the supreme instance of the confluence of the aesthetic-moral equation of light, virtue and femininity with Hollywood’s development of glamour and spectacle. She may also be its turning point. Very soon the radiance of femininity came to be seen as a trap for men, not a source of redemption, – Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Even when it wasn’t that, its artifice, its materiality, its lack of spirituality have become more and more evident, taken to a post-modern apogee by the so artfully named Madonna. Lillian Gish, however, simply was a Madonna, as indeed Monte Blue observed: “She is the madonna woman, and greater praise no man can give.”

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Steeliness and simplicity

Gish’s place in this history of light is not, of course, mere chance. The weight of association and the careful assemblage oflight have to ‘take’ on the figure to which they are applied. One could throw all the light one wanted on any number of attractive and talented young white women and not come up with Lillian Gish. This does not mean that no one else could have held an equivalent place in the history, but that nonetheless there had to be qualities which could carry these light values.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Gish’s face and body have characteristics that suggest both the steeliness and the simplicity of virtue, which is to say that she embodies tbe values of feminine white light. Because having eyes larger than one’s mouth was a touchstone of female beauty, and because this was not the case with Gish, she purses her mouth, keeps it dosed, not intensely (which would suggest anxiety or neurosis) but poisedly, eliminating the lasciviousness of the opened mouth and suggesting primness or purity, according to taste (people found her both). Her carriage is erect, worthy of a ballet dancer, recalling the dictum of turn-of-the-century deportment (stand up straight, shoulders back) – to me a very New England look suggesting Quaker piety. Puritan simplicity. If it didn’t seem ungracious, I would compare her aesthetically to a Shaker chair.

Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)
Lillian Gish Photoplay September 1915 (Gish Collects rare books as a hobby)

Thus her appearance has a sinewy and unfrilly quality that has its own particular historical and cultural resonances. These ane carried equally by her performance style. She is thin and small, and sometimes that also means painfully frail, not least in Broken Blossoms (1919) as she cringes away from her abusive father or from the moment of lust that passes over the face of the Yellow Man before his own goodness reasserts itself. Yet her toughness is at least as legendary, braving the ice flows without a double in Way Down East, facing up to the remorseless sand blows of The Wind, facing down Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. Her body and face are mobile and flexible when necessary, an astonishing range of nuances may play over her face in a single shot, she can if need be let herself go to heights of joy, abjection or dementia – yet the formal means used remain small and uncomplicated. I want to put her alongside Willa Carther, Margot Fonteyn or Ella Fitzgerald, artists able to imply depths of feeling through spare, limpid means. With Gish, this toughness and limpidity, this steeliness and simplicity, is of a piece with the prevalent conceptions of light, virtue and femininity. Her body and performance can seem to emanate the same qualities the light is moulding. This is why all that white light took so breathtakingly, why she shines so compellingly in the dark.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 7

There is one film that acts like a hiccup in accounts of Lillian Gish’s career. It cannot be avoided – it makes a loud noise – but it is quickly passed over. This is The Birth of a Nation (1915). It certainly is not her finest hour – True Heart Susie, Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter or The Wind among her silent features may vie for that honour – but it does make explicit the concatenation of gender, race and light that is a key part of her stardom.

The ideal of his dreams

The Birth of a Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period through the intertwined stories of two families, the Southern Camerons and the Northern Stonemans. Gish plays Elsie Stoneman, who becomes the sweetheart of Ben Cameron (Henry B Walthall). It is tempting to create the relation between the history and the love story in terms of the former disrupting the latter, lovers torn apart by ideology and reunited by the triumph of right (in this case, white supremacy). In part this is undoubtedly correct. Elsie and Ben do not meet until after the war, but her father is a Northern congressman committed to civil liberties in the South; when she discovers Ben’s involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, she has to break off the relationship; it is only when the black population have been revealed to Elsie and her father in their true colours (as it were), and Ben and the KKK have routed the population, that the couple can be reconciled. Yet there is more to it than this. Gish as Elsie represents the white womanhood that must be won for the South, she incarnates the ideal that the South is presented as fighting to defend.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

What is most evidently at stake in The Birth of a Nation is not an economy based on slave labour or even hatred of black people, but an ideal of purity as embodied in the white woman.

Ben first sees Elsie in a miniature her brother Phil shows him. As an inter-title puts it, she is “the ideal of his dreams”; before she is a real person, she is an essence. When he meets her, she is in an iris shot which echoes the oval of the miniature. He shows her this, saying that he has carried her about with him “for a long, long time”. She figures for Ben, the representative of the South, as the embodiment of an ideal.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Her goodness is established for us before this, from the first shot of her in the film. She is with her father and is the very model of a dutiful daughter, tending to his needs, making him the centre of her attention. Stoneman represents white liberalism; in this most biological of films, he is therefore bald and lame and has a ‘weakness’ for a woman of mixed race. In the first shot of Elsie and him, most of her energy is put into fussing with his toupee, endlessly drawing attention to his lack of hair (and, by contemporary implication, of virility). There is something both comic and perverse about this image of filial devotion, this ministering to what the film constructs as crippled. When Elsie rides with Ben in the KKK parade at the end and in the final lovers’ tableau, she has passed from her father’s helpmeet to being her husband’s, which in part signifies that Ben (the South) has rescued her (purity) from the sickness of the North.

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

But he has also rescued her from something else, a fate worse than death: marriage to a man of mixed race (Silas Lynch). This itself can be seen as a producer of her father’s weakness, for he has promoted Lynch politically and even looks pleased when Lynch tells him he wants to marry a white woman – until he realises that the woman is his own daughter. He has created the conditions which put her in jeopardy and too late learns the error of his ideas. In the famous and thrilling climax, three elements are intercut: Lynch menacing Elsie into a forced marriage; the Cameron family besieged in a small log cabin by rebellious blacks; the gathering and riding of the Klan to the rescue. Elsie and the Camerons clearly symbolise the Southern ideals the Klan is about to redeem. The focus on Elsie, on the sexualisation of her plight in the race war, not only intensifies the drama – giving Ben, the leader, a personal investment in the situation – but also makes it dear that what the Klan stands for is the protection of white femininity.

The manipulation of light is less elaborated than in some of Gish’s later films, but she and Ben do get the enveloping romantic treatment and she is picked out in scenes and has altered lighting for close-ups. What is at first sight surprising is that it is she, a Northerner, who is so glorified and not either of the Cameron daughters. Margaret (Miriam Cooper), the elder of these, is dark and oddly (indeed interestingly) sour looking. The younger, Flora (Mae Marsh), is excitable and nervy. Neither has Elsie/Gish’s stillness and sureness, something brought out amusingly by her startled reaction to Flora’s excessively affectionate greeting when they meet for the first time. It is these qualities – Gish’s Northern steely simplicity of purity- that the film lauds, not the more debilitating forms of Southern femininity.

Lillian Gish - Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish – Birth of a Nation

Yet this is, in fact, crucial to the film’s project, which is, as we tend curiously to forget, to depict the birth, the coming into being, of a new entity, a nation. The fact that Elsie is a Northerner, quite apart from the association of the North with white light, is important in achieving a healing of the breach opened up by the Civil War. When she rides in the KKK parade, the nation is finally born, its unity assured under the banner of Southern values. She is the prize exhibit in the new white nation.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

White magic

Gish’s demeanour and style catch and reflect a way of seeing light that has deep roots in western tradition, roots distinguishable but not extricable from ways of seeing racial (and gender) difference. She is a great white star from a period when you had to be white to be a mass market star. Paul Robeson or Lena Horne, Whoopi Goldberg or Wesley Snipes are routinely referred to as black stars, yet I still feel I am going to be thought out of order when I start talking about Lillian Gish as a white star. What it suggests is that a white star’s magic is no less socially particular than a black star’s. Yes, indeed, and the sooner white people accept the particularity of their image ideals the better – but that doesn’t mean there’s no magic, white or black. It takes nothing away from Gish – not her talent and intelligence, not the spell of her shining up there in the dark – to say that her special glow is nonetheless a specifically white one.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
White Star - Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)
White Star – Sight and Sound (1993-08)(BFI)(GB)

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