Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis – By Charles Affron (1977)

Star Acting – Gish, Garbo, Davis

By Charles Affron (1977)

The women are goddesses, the men are matinee idols; they are all stars who command devotion and veneration. The reverential and celestial vocabulary has been consecrated by decades of usage and press agentry. The cliches’ first connotations effectively separate public from performer by an expanse of astral geography. The gods reign on high, the stars blink in solar systems light-years away, and we mere mortals, worshiping at their shrines in blissful ignorance, celebrate the distance. We join cults, we become fanatics, we endow the star system with mythologies of nostalgia by collecting the stars incarnations in roles X, Y, and Z and cherishing the relics of memorable and memorized bits. “Play it, Sam.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The Actress as Metaphor: Gish in Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith spring from the turn-of-the-century theatrical milieu. The traces of theatre in Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1922) are not disguised, and the last two are unabashedly drawn from popular melodramas of the period. Yet these creations also display a category of film rhetoric unrelated to naturalistic theatre and prose narative. When Griffith “opens up” a play he does so by searching out the reverberations of the saga, the painting, the still photograph, the lyric.

Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168
Lillian Gish (Lucy Burrows) Broken Blossoms backlighting (contour) shot MGM 13168

The patterns of Broken Blossoms are primarily those of poetry; Lillian Gish’s response to its demands reveals fundamental differences between acting as impersonation and acting governed by the fixed form of the movies. Broken Blossoms creates a tension between theatrical expectations for the stage and configurations pertinent only to the screen. It offers a field for understanding screen acting at its most specifically formal. The integrity of such acting to the cinematic text must be seen through the relationship between Gish and the film’s general structure. In Broken Blossoms the unity of performer and pattern exemplifies the metaphoric factor of screen acting. It elicits our perception of acting’s purely filmic quotient.

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

Intolerance
Intolerance – Babylon

Actress and director fit the medium in no film more completely than perhaps in Broken Blossoms. Histories tend to illustrate Griffith’s career with the epic and monumental; the battlefield and the ride of the Klansmen from The Birth of a Nation (1915), and the aerial shot of the Babylonian court in Intolerance (1916) are events of imagination and sweep quite characteristic of his style. The sense of spectacle in the obsessively intercut chase and/or rescue sequences and the fugal structure of Intolerance are grandiose gestures that literally stretch the theatre as far as the eye can see and brutally challenge the limits of our formal and temporal perceptions.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms appears to be a return to the stage. Most of the action is confined to two interior sets, the rooms of Battling Burrows and the Yellow Man. Griffith does nothing to trick the audience into believing that the world of these characters is broader than the space of these rooms. Indeed, he does everything to emphasize the delimiting walls and the entrapment of the characters within. The far-ranging camera of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is most glaringly absent, and whereas the earlier films taught our eyes to stretch telescopically, Broken Blossoms focuses down to the smallest detail and the minutest gesture.

These distinctions are somewhat misleading, for the memorable details of the epic films are as important as the concerted scenes. Lillian Gish and the admiring sentry in The Birth of a Nation, Mae Marsh’s acting in both films, the homecoming of Henry Walthall, “The Little Colonel,” and the wonderfully silly Babylonian lovebirds are only a few of the exquisite components we remember in Griffith’s mammoth compositions. (Indeed, miscalculated details in Way Down East and, to a lesser extent, in Orphans of the Storm are more disturbing than general structural weaknesses.) Yet, despite treasurable moments of intimacy that refine our perception, the principal design of these films belongs to the fresco, insistently calling upon the alertness of a roving glance. Broken Blossoms makes no such demands. The quality of concentration it summons fits the tauter connections and narrower limits of its frame. If the exhilaration of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance is sacrificed, consistency and density take its place and inexorably draw the viewer into the pattern to be trapped in the art as Lucy is trapped in her closet. Griffith deliberately restricts the scope of the camera and denies it its most obvious advantage over the proscenium, proving that movies needn’t move over wide expanses to expose their nature. Without being unfaithful either to movies or to literature, the director adjusts the freedom of the camera to the audience’s perception of the strictest of fixed forms—the poem.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

Griffith is repeatedly attracted to allegorical configurations. In the broadest sense Intolerance is an allegory, its episodes designed to represent, to dramatize the concept of intolerance through the ages. The film’s linking image of the hand rocking the cradle (Lillian Gish dimly lit) shows Griffith’s facile use of symbolic conventions. He prefers to draw generalities from character rather than to leave that task to the viewer. In as tired a vehicle as Way Down East a title proclaims that the heroine’s name is Anna, but she might just as well be called Woman.

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

The grandiloquence is unsuited to a film flawed by dubious bits of crowd-pleasing “down-East” humor and melodramatic ploys that were worn out long before Griffith used them. Anna’s interest as heroine is manifested only twice: the baptism of her dying baby and the snow storm/ice floe sequences. The rest of the film degrades a register of allegory worthy of Woman.

This is not the case in Broken Blossoms. Griffith envisions the film as a dynamics of idealism, innocence, and brutality The three protagonists—the Yellow Man; Lucy, the girl; and Battling Burrows—consistently enact their ascribed characteristics, and every element of the film sustains the purity of the conceptual byplay. The names contain allegorical clues—man, girl, battling. The minor characters, Evil Eye, and Spying One, along with the title, complete the pattern. The credits reveal Griffith’s risky intention. The risk is in the notion that the reality of filming can bear the strain of allegorical textures. If Broken Blossoms lacks obvious pictorial scope, its ambitions are great nonetheless. Much of its impetus seems unrelated to the particular strengths of the medium.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

After a brief prologue in which the Yellow Man (Richard Barthelmess) is introduced previous to leaving China “to take the glorious message of peace to the barbarous Anglo-Saxons, sons of turmoil and strife,” we see London’s Limehouse, the principal exterior set of the film. With this set Griffith establishes the motif of enclosure. Even outside we are inside; the space is radically – circumscribed by the opposing storefronts and the rear arches.

Broken Blossoms

The Yellow Man’s idealism has been deflated by the confines of this street, by the very bricks against which he huddles. This shot is a melancholy, reflective emblem, the straight lines and angles of which are drawn into the curved body. This linear tension draws the viewer into the Yellow Man’s reverie. The next is a closer shot, which lessens the distance and expressively uses the changed angle of the hero’s head, the chin tucking in the shoulder, to increase proximity and intimacy.

Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)
Lillian Gish in the Limehouse district (Broken Blosoms)

Griffith’s caricatural notions about Chinese posture perhaps have something to do with the hunched torso, but he uses it throughout the film when presenting Lillian Gish as well—pensive, cowering before her father.

Lillian Gish - FEAR - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – FEAR – Broken Blossoms
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919

Fear, thought, the frailty of the heroine and the habitual attitude of the hero are expressed in a single cast of body, a spatial indication of their nearness to an interior world—one they will briefly share. They both curl in on themselves, as they seek refuge from the hostile space around them, and direct our own feelings toward the small centers of these frames that are so often limited by the irising of Bitzer’s lens.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

The degree of introspection is then heightened; Barthelmess, leaning against the brick wall, is quite literally thinking about himself dreaming while smoking opium in a “scarlet house of sin.”

Again, the linear strength of the composition draws us to the center—arm, pipe and torso form a triangle at the apex of which the drug-hooded eyes reflect inward.

Broken Blossoms - Swedish Magazine promo - Lucy Burrows on the pier - Limehouse

The shots of Barthelmess leaning against the wall and smoking opium and of Gish seated on the wharf establish the film’s landscape, a conceptual and emotional one contained in the minds of the protagonists. The limited dimensions of the spatial correlatives repeatedly bring us back to the inner worlds of Lucy and the Yellow Man where the force of imagination, through the processes of metaphor, transcends their everyday prisons. If Griffith means them to be allegorical characters, they, in a real sense, use allegory to exist. They escape their intolerable reality by substituting symbols for things.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is a fifteen-year-old (Gish had grave reservations about assuming the part because of her age) and her inner life is much simpler than the Yellow Man’s, yet she accomplishes the film’s most vivid gesture of poetic transformation.

Lucy's smile ... (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

A desperate defense against her father’s brutal domination, her finger-induced smile is a bit of “business” whose ambiguities of sentiment are extensions of its ambiguous position between the realm of representational acting and that realm of the film in which the actor becomes metaphor itself. It represents the way symbols are manipulated, the function of mask, the very root of artifice. Lucy is in constant terror of her father. This is the prevailing attitude in which the physical changes are wrought; it is a limited field upon which the richness of Gish’s invention is displayed. When Lucy sees Daddy the tiny twisted mouth echoes her hands twisting her shawl.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Gish plays a fifteen-year-old in mortal fear of her brutalizing father, and the actress never overreaches the character’s age and experience. The restrictions of chronology control a degree of stylization appropriate to this extraordinary mixture of face and mask. The pained eyes burn through the pitiful, forced smile; the actress unites expression and emblem. She forces our attention to that line where art is hinged on its artificial conventions and its verisimilitude. The distance between mouth and eyes helps us apprehend the link between Lucy’s specific plight and the universal burden Griffith has thrust upon her, the eternal victim.

First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
First time he sees her (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)
Child with tear-aged face (Broken Blossoms)

The first encounter between Gish and Barthelmess sustains the pattern of contemplation initiated at the film’s beginning, and, again, framing devices locate and organize our simultaneous perception of event and style. We see Gish while she is being seen by Barthelmess; the window separates, connects, and delimits, and provides a spatial referent for the process of observation.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The back-lit, soft-focus, Hendrick Sartov close-up of Gish, a lovely but facile device for idealizing the heroine, was to become a cliche. But it was in Broken Blossoms that it first achieved consistency as a significant element of the vocabulary used to photograph Gish. One of the film’s tensions is in the duality of the presentation of the heroine—Lucy, as tangible victim of her father’s whip and hammering fists, and as angelic vision in the eyes of the Yellow Man. The latter kind of shot disembodies her, deemphasizing her physicality by turning her into a chiaroscuro pattern, an abstraction that favors the film’s allegorical penchant.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919 b
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

Griffith opposes this to the stark, clear photography of the violent scenes Gish plays with Donald Crisp as Battling. The camera underlines the dialectic between phenomenon and ideal—the palpable and the transcendental—demonstrating its versatility as it shifts between the two modes, truly catching these actors as they pass from the realm of nature into that of allegory. Griffith abuses this technique in subsequent films with Gish, when the idealized heroine is denied the supporting apparatus of Broken Blossoms style. Through the twenties to her last starring film at MGM, the vision retains its aura of beatitude and in La Boheme (1926) provides for some particularly cherishable shots, although it never again finds a context as congenial as Broken Blossoms.

Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish The terrible accident (Broken Blossoms)

The physical register is signaled when Lucy, returning to serve her father a meal, quickly fixes a “smile” on her face. Then “the terrible accident”: she spills something on Burrows’s hand. Gish’s performance, to this point based on pent-up terror and control, now bursts forth in a frenzy that is one of her specialties. Her loss of restraint and her willingness to decompose the harmony of her being set a standard for the portrayal of hysteria that only she herself will match. (Griffith gives her repeated opportunities to do so in The Greatest Question, 1919, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm where her tremblings are no less unsettling for their familiarity.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The reiterated and almost unvaried master shot postulates the integrity of the space and the necessity of Lucy’s suffering within it. The same is true of the master shot of the Yellow Mans room. What is, I expect, a shooting expedient conspires to the fihii’s advantage by furnishing constants in the poetic pattern, akin to rhyme, meter, and recurrent imagery. Even the transitions recall the constancy of the setups. Lucy struggles to her feet, drags herself through the streets to the wharf (an often repeated locale), and finally she arrives at the Yellow Man’s shop.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

Here, the framing shafts of light provide a variation for our recognition of a set that belongs to the film’s strong series of limitations. The blossoms of the title, fragrant and so perishable, have a dual meaning. They refer to the name the Yellow Man bestows on Lucy, White Blossom, and they suggest the allegorical tradition of Renaissance love poetry that turns the beloved into a flower. They establish the stylistic linkage between the film’s hero and heroine. Conventional role-playing is altered by the fact that Lillian Gish, in her twenties, is playing a fifteen-year-old, and Richard Barthelmess, an American type to the point of caricature as later shown in Way Down East and Tolable David (1921), has assumed the role of a Chinese. The Yellow Man creates the love poem by providing the regalia and the rhetoric, but he is also within the poem as object, rendered so by Barthelmess’s version of lover. He is a blossom as well as Lucy. Actor and actress are profoundly alien to their roles; the characters are alien to their environments, and they create a space for themselves at the center of this film.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop (Broken Blossoms)

The meeting of Lucy and the Yellow Man evokes responses in Gish, Barthelmess, and Grifiith that guarantee the blossoms’ integrity. Nothing jars the internal structure of the poem. Lucy has fainted on the floor of the shop and the Yellow Man finally sees her.

Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan's shop close up (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish fainted in Cheng Huan’s shop close up (Broken Blossoms)

Gish casts her eves down and Barthelmess averts his face, both momentarily withdrawing into themselves before crossing the barrier to become intimate object and referent in a metaphoric relationship. Then their inwardness will be mutually inclusive.

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

The Yellow Man makes his room over into a temple for Lucy, and he garbs her as befits a goddess, adorning her hair with combs, offering her incense (which with childish finickiness she refuses). She admires her own transformation in a hand mirror—a reaction of superbly in-character, coquettish delight—and expresses gratitude for a small vase of flowers. It had been her wish for a flower that brought them together on the street earlier in the film. Flowers are more apt for these characters than theatrics.

The film’s motifs and attitudes prepare its most courageous scene, one in which actor and director fully meld the dictions of drama and lyric poetry. The intertitle proclaims the worst in Grriffith’s taste, his bent for overstatement, his belaboring the point the image so completely transmits without words: “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon, and places them on her hair; and all night long, he crouches, holding one grubby little hand.” Barthelmess seems to be praying at Gish’s bedside while she sleeps.

Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)
Rays from the moon (Broken Blossoms)

The moment is privileged, an epiphany  linking the Yellow Man’s religious ideals to his dream of love. What then occurs is a schema for the use of metaphor, its creation, and its power to fix the epiphany in time, to render it tangible through its correlatives. Barthelmess quite literally catches the moonlight in his hands, carries it across the room and showers it on Gish.

Griffith’s prose is inadequate to the flow and grace of the shot, the quality of belief shaped by a flexible actor and sustained by a patient camera. A pattern of circular arm movements that involve the whole room is followed by a third frame enlargement of Barthelmess’s hands close to his face in an ambiguous reminder of the prayer stance. Then, even at that instant when the light is released, a slight hunch of his shoulders preserves some aspect of character during his most total transport. Kneeling by the bed at the foot of his shrine, he once again projects qualities of religious and sexual ecstasy, sublimely confusing the two just as lyric poets did from the early Italian Renaissance to the English pre-Raphaelite period.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

The transition from the first frame to the second, from contemplation to prayer culminates in touch, the contact of face and hands. The whole sequence is a rapid shift of emphasis—from his hands circling to hers, and from her face bathed in the light he bestows to his own beatified by her hand. The light, which is the linking factor of these exchanges, is explicitly part of the scene’s theatrical content, and its value accrues through scarcity. Light alone, the light of a very special and personal moon cornered by the Yellow Man, breathes life into these characters. Metaphor is their only means of sustenance.

Yet if Broken Blossoms has the cast of lyric poetry, it is lyric poetry dramatized by the intrusion of other modes. Griffith creates a tension of manner that constantly places the idyll in jeopardy, forcing a confrontation between the interior, private world and the harshness of the exterior, physical one. His obsessive opposition of idealism and necessity appears in contexts ranging from the plight of his virginal heroines in Biograph one-reelers to Belshazzar’s flamboyant paradise destroyed by the barbarous Persians in Intolerance. The configurations of Broken Blossoms are particularly successful in animating conflict with paradox.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

The Yellow Man gives Lucy the doll she admired in his shop window. Gish is at her prettiest here. She passes from childish delight to maternal tranquillity, expressing love for the doll surrogate that cannot be directed to the Yellow Man. The gesture with the doll’s hand on her cheek is a. structural link between this scene and the finger-smile sequences. Instead of a tortured smile, the doll’s hand induces a rapture that extends the characterization. In this shot Gish combines emblems of little-girlhood and womanhood to sustain the allegerical pattern of the film. We and the Yellow Man perceive an essence of femininity, granted shape and scope by the stylization of a woman playing a fifteen-year-old who plays at being a woman.

If in the moon sequence Barthelmess enacts the proximity of spiritual and physical love, it is now reiterated in a different, more strident key. He corrupts Gish’s child/woman portrait with a terrifying close-up of menacing lust.

Cheng Huan's temptation (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s temptation (Broken Blossoms)

The poles of the film are disturbingly close in this sequence, providing an ambiguous current for Griffith’s abstractive characters. One of the triumphs of Gish and Barthehiiess is the pulse they make throb beneath the conceptual surface Griffith imposes on Lucy and The Yellow Man. Broken Blossoms is most emphatically an acted poetic allegory.

Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows in Broken Blossoms

The sexual ambiguity of the Yellow Man’s gestures toward Lucy is further complicated when Battling Burrows discovers his daughter at the shop. Griffith uses precisely the same kind of terrifying close-up to express the father’s rage. By treating lust and fury similarly, Griffith throws awry the pat polarization of characters and concepts: Yellow Man/peace and Battling Burrows/war. The disorientation of these values will be finally accomplished when Barthelmess— who was to bring Buddha’s message to the West; who enshrined poor Lillian Gish in his personal temple—standing next to an illustration of prizefighters, faces down and shoots Donald Crisp.

Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919

The hunched stance is apt for expression of both irony and menace. Up to the film’s last minutes, Griffith generates a crescendo of terror, pain, and violence following Burrows’s entrance into the love nest. The precious enclosure and the hermetic lovers are rent asunder; the words of the lyric poem are disarranged and strewn across the now familiar areas of the film. If the audience feels panic during the denouement of Broken Blossoms, it is because the elegiac rhythm and the idealized surface have been so radically altered. The stillness of epiphany is shattered by extremes of theatricality, modes borrowed from melodrama that test the integrity of the poem with the purity of their excess. Broken Blossoms is as much a clash of literary styles and shapes as a clash of ideologies.

At this point in the film the particular strengths of Lillian Gish are given their greatest and most fulfilling challenge. Torn from her bed and thrown to the floor, she witnesses her father’s destruction of the room with only a hint of the expression of fear that she will eventually summon.

Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish dragged back home (Broken Blossoms)

Still clutching the doll, she is dragged down those familiar streets, home through the fog. Then Crilfith cuts back to Barthelmess and his discovery of the wreckage and her absence.

Barthelmess’s despair and anguish, his sell-abandonment, prepare for Gish’s great scene. All of their acting in miniature, in repose—acting that aimed toward the private center of their poetic existence— is now reversed, and the walls no longer seem adequate to contain their performances. As the world breaks in upon them, each responds with frantic extensions of their beings into the physical universe. Barthelmess’s hysteria is stylized Chinese; Gish’s version goes beyond recognizable style.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A particularly inspired invention locates her explosion of hysteria in a closet, the film’s smallest space. The general pattern of containment is both respected and supremely violated, This most circumscribed area, suited to the interiority of the lyric poem, provides a frame for the screen’s rawest manifestation of unchecked emotion and frenzy . Gish presses herself to the closet wall. Then begins a confrontation between actress and closet, and an assault on our collective claustrophobia that set a standard for any subsequent scene of enclosure. The space is delimited by body, hands, eyes, and face.

A sense of duration unfortunately is not conveyed by the frame enlargements. The camera relentlessly records Gish, and she spares the audience nothing, forcing it to share the plenitude of her suffering. The sequence is finally modulated; Gish reassumes the crouching position, drawing herself into a corner, while Crisp hacks at the door. When he reaches through the opening he has made, the conflict between their worlds is conveyed in purely spatial terms.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

All the confines are breached as Lucy is pulled through that same opening, her spirit raped as she passes from one realm into another. Griffith is fiendishly inventive in scenes of menace, as Broken Blossoms demonstrates. The final beating features a tapping motion with the phallic whip handle, a disquieting prelude to the fatal strokes that we do not see.

Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)
Her Last Smile (Broken Blossoms)

Lucy is left alone to die. Isolated now by her pillow, she still clutches the doll that links her to the Yellow Man, but also veyr much her father’s daughter, she composes her final “smile.”

Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy is dying (Broken Blossoms)

In a shot that seems to be held forever, her death connects the various attitudes and spaces of Broken Blossoms: the peace of the Yellow Man’s room, the agonizing smile-poem, and the bruises inflicted by Battling Burrows.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in "Broken Blossoms"
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”

The stillness is interrupted by the confrontation of the Yellow Man with Burrows, but it is resumed in the final sequence by an ineffable cadence of echoes of posture and placement. Lucy is returned to her altar to be venerated along with the other icons, and her death is consecrated through the joy and passion of Barthelmess’s suicide.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Peace is restored and the pattern is completed by the sublime tilt of the head, which forms the proper closure of the poem that was begun when the Yellow Man first leaned against the brick wall. Between these wedded images Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess act out the impossible, escaping from themselves through a refinement of gesture and stance to incarnate a totality of being that ranges from the most exquisite presence of flesh and pain to the airy reaches of aureoles and karma. That is the scope of Broken Blossoms.

Cheng Huan's suicide (Broken Blossoms)
Cheng Huan’s suicide (Broken Blossoms)

Gish was always Griffith’s little girl/very young lady. Her vulnerability to menace was sublimely appropriate to the complex of reverence and sadism that qualified Woman in his imagination.

Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover
Star Acting Gish Garbo Davis 1977 cover

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ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT – Kinema Guide – January 12th to 18th, 1931 (London)

Weekly kinema guide London suburban reviews and programmes – 1931

Kinema Guide – January 12th to 18th, 1931

ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

THIS picture is played by an amazingly brilliant cast that includes Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Conrad Nagel, Marie Dressler and O. P. Heggie, which fact alone should appeal to many of our readers. The film is full of lavish spectacles, dramatic moments and romantic situations.

Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan

The story is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play “The Swan,” seen on the stage in London, quite recently, at St. James Theatre and is “Ruritanian” in nature.

We all know what that means.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Romance built round handsome and beautiful princes and princesses with a virtuous commoner thrown in the whole liberally sprinkled with colonels and counts and served, if possible, with music.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

Let it be understood that this galaxy of stars is by no means wasted in an inadequate play. The picture is a good one. as convincing as such a story can be, directed and played very well indeed.

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan

Lillian Gish has a freshness that is not common among the goddesses of Hollywood. Conrad Nagel and Rod la Rocque look and play their parts excellently well. O. P. Heggie makes a splendid and knowing “Father Benedict” and Marie Dressler again gives of her genius.

One Romantic Night - The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan

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Dorothy Gish—Her Story By Marguerite Sheridan (Picture Play Magazine 1918)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1918

Dorothy Gish—Her Story

Told as it could be only by a friend and admirer.

By Marguerite Sheridan

THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!

"Parting of Ways" finally a high resolution - From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s
“Parting of Ways” finally a high resolution – From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s

I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.

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

Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.

It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.

Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.

1920's DOROTHY GISH RPPC PHOTO POSTCARD

Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.

Lil Dorothy tennis

When not working at the studio, Lillian and Dorothy seek characteristic amusements. Perhaps Lillian will adorn her ivory-and-blue brocade chaiselongue while she reads. No chaiselongue for Miss Dorothy. It’s a linen skirt and smock, large shady hat and canvas shoes, and several vigorous games of tennis with some of her athletic friends on her own court, which adjoins the beautiful white stucco Gish home on Serrano Avenue.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

The Fine Arts Studio, where the girls are now working, is five miles from their home. Lillian walked it one day, and Dorothy says she will take her word for the distance. So, instead of lunching at home, they cruise across Sunset Boulevard to a now famous little lunch stand, forever glorified in the D. Gish eyes by the never-failing supply of lemon cream pies. Every time I see a pie of that persuasion, I think of Dorothy Gish. It’s her greatest weakness in the gastronomic line, and she has been known to lunch exclusively on this delicacy for many days in succession.

It is a real joy in this “common or garden variety” world to come across such a refreshing and original character as Dorothy Gish. She is a regular girl, without the slightest doubt, and abhors anything the least bit “stagy.”

pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car
pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car

“If any one ever calls me ‘Wistful’ again, I’ll retire !” she said, with as much vehemence possible in one so absolutely “gishy.” “I loathe the word !” No, I should never call Dorothy Gish “wistful.” She has a very positive character, doing nothing by halves. When she likes a person, she does it thoroughly, and I imagine she can dislike just as whole-heartedly. I love her well developed sense of humor. It has come to her rescue in many distressing moments. For instance, on her twentieth birthday, Mrs. Gish planned a party for her. Dinner was to be served at seven. At eight-thirty, the little hostess arrived home, too tired to move, and covered with the grime of an especially trying day’s work. A lump came into her throat when she thought of the dainty dinner gown made for this gala night—she felt like crying, and crying hard. But she didn’t. With a gay little jest, she sat down at the table, radiant with spring blossoms and Cluny lace, wearing her old studio clothes, and immediately became the life of the party. “It was quite the nicest birthday I ever had,” she announced afterward. Dorothy is to appear in a number of five-reel Paramount productions this season, which is as it should be. Griffith features take many months to make, and we need frequent, very frequent appearances of Dorothy Gish to make our shadow world complete.

Dorothy Gish Cca 1930 FSF

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“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” FULL OF BEAUTY By Edward Weitzel (May 31, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD)

May 31, 1919 THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD

“BROKEN BLOSSOMS” FULL OF BEAUTY

Fragrant with the Poetry of Pure Ideals and a Great Love That Endures Until Death, D. W. Griffith’s Latest Picture Marks the Highest Altitude of Screen Art

By Edward Weitzel

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

IDEALIZED realism, spiritual beauty springing up in the midst of sordid surroundings, the fragrance of a great love that endures until death—all are found in “Broken Blossoms,” D. W. Griffith’s latest picture. So well has the director wrought that his work marks the highest altitude yet reached in screen art and placei his photoplay on a plane with the masterpieces of painting, sculpture and music. The picture is a tragedy and it cleanses the soul of the onlooker as did the tragedies of the old Greeks, marching relentlessly to the death and destruction of those who defied the gods. In “Broken Blossoms” a father defies heaven in his treatment of his illegitimate child and ends by killing her. His punishment is swift and sure. Moving side by side through this grim tale is a revelation of supreme devotion, a holy flame of pity and adoration that beautifies the entire picture and fills it with sweet incense.

The manner of its making is also a revelation to those who are familiar with the creations of its maker. Much always is expected of D. W. Griffith; “Broken Blossoms” betters anticipation.

Broken Blossoms

A Missionary from the East.

Thomas Burke, whose book,. “Limehouse Nights,” contains a short story, “The Chink and the Child,” furnished the screen with a new theme; in bare outline a simple enough tale is told practically by three characters, but one that will cause the complacent and superior dweller in this Christian land to regard the almond-eyed followers of Confucius with new interest and to find much food for thought after the immediate effects of the picture have faded from his mind. There is a broad humanity running through the tale which consorts fittingly with the spirit of the times and the drawing together of men of many creeds for the moral advancement of the world. A treaty port in China steals slowly through a shimmering curtain of blue and the first scene of the picture transports the spectator to the Orient. The impression is complete. That curious sense of reality that reality alone can convey to the uninitiated is here in full. One important fact is brought out while the action continues in China : A young Chinese poet, learned in the wisdom of his land and the teachings of his faith, is anxious to go to a far country and share his knowledge with those who have never had his advantages. He is gentle, kindly and a dreamer who veils his feelings with the inscrutable repression of his race. The blessing of his god is besought for his mission, and the sound of temple bells is in his ears as he sails away.

The Limehouse Slums.

Contrast at once startling and repellent, ushered in through a curtain of sinister hue, a dull red that is in keeping with the reek and gloom of the region, is found in the next location of the story. The Limehouse district of London, that part of the mighty city near the docks where foreigners of the East touch elbows and yellow men predominate, is the place. Sandaled feet shuffle silently down narrow streets and disappear under distant arches. A place of foreboding, of mysterious happenings behind closed doors. And real in every brick in its walls and every stone that lines its gutters ! And the impression is complete !

Here the Chinese missionary is found. His dreams have been rudely shattered. No one will listen to him, so Cheng Huan has ceased trying to deliver his message. But he still broods over the good he might accomplish, as he leans against the wall outside his little curio-shop

Cheng Meets His Goddess.

One day – he finds a new mission in life: the dedication of his homage to a shrinking bit of humanity—a young girl, hardly more than a child, whose beauty of face and purity of soul cannot be hidden from his sj-mpathetic gaze, although slow starvation, cruel blows and vile language have done their best to efface both. Cheng is attracted to the girl when he sees one of his countrymen try to detain her as she leaves the shop where she has gone to purchase her father’s meal. He interferes in her behalf and she hurries oflf. It is the first act of kindness she has ever known and she cannot comprehend why such a thing should happen to her. The girl’s way home takes her through a narrow alley and along a dock where river craft are moored, and weatherbeaten sail-lofts face the Thames. Turning the corner of a building she enters fearsomely, and finds her father there. He is in a rage because his meal is not ready. Battling Burrows is the title he woii in the prize ring. A great hulking brute of a man without one decent instinct, he beats the girl and leaves her to starve while he spends his time drinking with some drab at a public house—another of the wrecks of womanhood to whose unholy ranks his child’s mother belonged. Why he ever kept the ill-starred mite when its mother left it in his lodgings just before she sought forgetfulness in the river must have puzzled the prizefighter himself. Now that the girl is able to slave for him and take her pay in blows, he suffers her to share his hovel. Here again is deep penetration into things as they are—stark realism that is terrible to behold, accompanied by fixed purposes and the presence of unseen forces that are guiding the seeming blind injustice of this child’s fate.

The Blossom is Broken.

While Burrows is busy training for a coming prize fight, the girl meets Cheng for the second time. She pauses to look into the window of his shop and sees him inside. He smiles at her. One night her father gives her a harder beating than ever before, and she staggers out into the street, wandering on until she reaches Cheng’s shop. He finds her in a dead faint on the floor when he returns. Gathering her slight form in his arms, he takes her to the room above. To him she is the incarnation-of all that is lovely and he is ready to worship her. He places her on a couch and when she is restored to consciousness and given his choicest food, he has her robe herself in a gorgeous garment from his native land and decorate her hair with flowers. The room itself he turns into a bower for his goddess and is rewarded by seeing a wan smile on her lips. All night he kneels at her side, holding her hand. She is too weak to leave the next day, and the strange delight of being tenderh- cared for holds her a willing captive. Events move rapidly from here on.

Her father learns where his daughter is just as he is going into the ring. At the finish of the fight he rushes to the shop. Cheng has gone out. Burrows reaches the room above and smashes every breakable object and drags the child home. They have barely gone when Cheng returns. His mute anguish as he gazes at the ruin of his temple and its shattered altar and realizes his goddess is not there is one of the great moments of the story. Arming himself he rushes to the girl’s home. He is too late. Her dead form is stretched across a low cot. Her father has beaten her to death. The scene of the killing is carried out with uncompromising realism, but here also the hidden forces that are watching over the little victim give her death the beauty of martyrdom. Cheng’s vengeance is quick. He shoots down Burrows as the prizefighter picks up an axe, gathers the lifeless form of the girl in his arms and bears her back to his desecrated temple. The gorgeous robe is again wrapped about her and she is placed upon the couch. The shattered altar is picked up from the floor and Cheng goes through his service for the dead. A second later he buries a knife in his breast and his soul follows the child’s.

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

“Broken Blossoms” Shatters a Delusion.

A tragedy, compact and complete. A perfect action without distractions of any sort, it moves irresistibly forward without once looking backward or turning aside, and its whole history is burnt deep upon the memory, never to be forgotten. Vast panoramic themes crowded with characters and events are popularly supposed to afford the moving picture its freest and most profound expression. “Broken Blossoms” shatters this delusion. The screen, in the hartds of a true artist, can encompass all the tragedy of existence in a brief tale peopled by two men and a child, and give it overwhelming significance. Such a tale is “Broken Blossoms.” At no time is its subject beyond the skill of D. W. Griffith to interpret in pictures that glow with material truth and spiritual beauty. The color scheme of its illuminated subtitles is a piece of wizardry that sets a new standard for this important branch of picture making. Nothing draws the eye from the beautifully clear letters, which are thrown upon a background of interpretative color. The effect sought for by elaborate but obtrusive designs is here obtained by the only correct method.

Lillian Gish and Her Co-Stars.

The actors of the three characters, the girl, Cheng Huan and Burrows, are worthy the trust imposed in them. There is no higher form of praise. Lillian Gish as the victim of the prizefighter’s cruelty is a creature so crushed and broken that one’s heart aches for her. She has been so stunted in everything but a constant growth of suffering and terror her appeal is that of a little child’s. Her delight in the doll which Cheng gives her is that of a child and the horror of her pitiful death is the more distressing for the same reason. Never for an instant does she lose the character and she responds to its changes of feeling and the mounting frenzy of its dreadful crisis with ample power and admirable control. Richard Barthelmess shows surprising artistic progress as Cheng Huan. His past impersonations reach an excellent average but none of them approach the rounded perfection of his Chinese poet. Even under Griffith’s direction it is a remarkable achievement for so young a man. He breathes the very spirit of the gentle scholar of the East—a spirit hitherto never understood or portrayed on the stage or the screen.

Donald Crisp’s “Battling” Burrows is cast in all the character’s brutal realism. He is the reincarnation of Dickens’ Bill Sykes, proud of his strength and his ability to ill-treat those weaker than himself. The Crisp impersonation is rich in enlightening bits of sideplay and understanding of the nature of the prizefighter. His manner of death as he tries for a brief instant to fight off his conqueror in the only way he knows, and his final collapse—an ugly sprawl upon the floor—is one of the never-to-be-forgotten incidents of the picture.

Not quite enough tin foil ... (Broken Blossoms)
Not quite enough tin foil … (Broken Blossoms)

Edward Peil’s acting of Evil Eye makes it a companion portrait in the group, the calm indifference with which, after trying to do wrong to the girl, he purchases a flower and pauses to smell it, being a well emphasized point.

George Beranger as The Spying One deserves his place in the cast, and Norman Selby as “Battling” Burrows’ opponent in the prize ring, coupled with Donald Crisp’s skill with his hands, causes the fight to look like the real thing.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

A last word about the picture : “Broken Blossoms” is not to be measured by the height of its buildings, the number of its characters or the cost of its production. Rather should it be spoken of in terms that denote the mind and the soul of mankind and the splendid height that may be attained by the devotion of these attributes to the betterment of humanity.

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The Expressions Of Lillian Gish (Picture Show, 1920)

THE EXPRESSIONS OF LILLIAN GISH. (Exclusive to the “Picture Show”)

Picture Show, November 13th 1920

LILLIAN GISH

The Talented Screen Artist With the Heart of a Child

FROM the day that Lillian Gish, at the age of seven, played the part of little Willie in ” East Lynne,” her career was decided. Lillian naturally possesses a pathetic charm that is all her own, and the power to get rigflt to the hearts of her audience. The culminating point of her success was reached in her rendering of the girl in the now world-famous ” Broken Blossoms.” It was Mrs. Mary Gish, the mother of the two popular Gish girls, who paved the way for her two daughters to become the popular successes they are to-day. When only twenty-three years of age, Mrs. Gish was left a widow with two tiny girls to support.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Mary’s Part in Her Life Story.

A FRIEND procured for Mrs. Gish a walking-on part at the local theatre. In time she was advanced to better parts, and whilst touring round with her two little girls, they made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford. Mary was then herself playing child parts on the stage and Lillian and Dorothy were adding to the family income by playing small parts, when they were needed, in their mother’s company. Many children step from stage to the screen these days, but in the early days of the films, it was not an easy matter. The two little girls lived for six years in third-rate hotels, and moved from town to town, with the theatrical company without any hope of ever being anything more than just a member of that third-rate company.

Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish

Her First Screen Success.

THEN one day they visited a picture show, and recognised in the star no less a personage than the little girl with whom they had become so friendly on a previous tour, Mary Pickford. They had appeared together in one show, and the little girls had become very fond of each other. As soon as the company reached New York, the Gish girls called on their old friend, whom they had known when she was playing under her real name of Gladys Smith. Mary was genuinely glad to see them, and after getting Lillian an engagement for a small role as a fairy in ” A Good Little Devil,” in which Mary was playing an important part on the stage, she gave them an introduction to the great D. W. Griffith, and then and there he engaged Lillian to play a small part on the screen.

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A Lover of Simplicity.

FROM that day to this, Lillian has made rapid strides in her screen successes. Early plays in which you may remember her are, ” The Battle of the Sexes,” ” Home Sweet Home,” then in “The Birth of a Nation,” and ” Intolerance,” in which she took the part of the woman who rocks the cradle, ” The Greater Love.” Last but far from least is the part of the child in ” Broken Blossoms,” which is well known to every reader of the Picture Show. Lillian is just as simple in her tastes as in the characters she portrays so well on the screen. She says she owes much of her success to the simplicity of the frocks she wears. She is devoted to her library and her treasured books ; she sings a little, and one of her greatest treasures is a little ballad called “Broken Blossoms,” presented to her by the author. She says she finds genuine pleasure in singing it, and is delighted and proud that her picture is printed on the front cover.

Lillian Gish - Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)
Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

Must Learn How Not To Act.

LILLIAN has a very real admiration for D. W. Griffith, the world-famous producer. She tells how Mr. Griffith trains all his players how not to act. ‘That is the very first thing on which he insists,’she says. ” We must move through our parts just as we would in real life, there must be no artificial expressions and no posing. Mr. Griffith teaches that to express an emotion, you must feel it, then the expression will be real. He is a dreamer who makes his dreams come true, and his ideals of truth and beauty are contagious. It is more difficult not to understand him than it is to understand him. His very simplicity of method and his quiet direction make for complete harmony between his players and himself.”

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Born to Serve.

PERHAPS that is why Lillian has made such a wonderful cinema actress. She loves to be dominated; in fact, obedience is the chief trait of her character. Mrs. Gish says that both of her girls are wonderfully good, but Dorothy is wilful, and likes her own way, while Lillian can always be relied upon to do just what she is told. Lillian believes that some people are born to rule and some to serve, and she places herself among those who serve.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Her Ambition.

IT is difficult to get Lillian to talk about herself. By way of greeting she will ask you if you have seen Dorothy in her latest picture. It is her ambition to see London, and as her friend Norma Talmadge told me, she was more than disappointed that she was unable to accompany her mother and Dorothy on their visit to Europe. However, she has promised herself a real holiday soon, during which she has planned a tour of Great Britain. So we may soon see her over here.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard)
Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish
Picture Show (Nov 1920) Expressions Lillian Gish

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The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary – By Julian Johnson (Photoplay 1918)

Photoplay Magazine Vol. XIV No.3 – August 1918

The Real Lillian Gish Vs. The Imaginary

Preconceived notions are invariably wrong – particularly so in Gish Case.

By Julian Johnson

Most people have a preconceived notion of Lillian Gish, just as they have of the Kaiser, business hours on a submarine, a big party in old Rome, summer at the North Pole, what a Chinaman is thinking about, the origin of the American Indian, Theda Bara’s private life, Mary Miles Minter’s real age, or Mr. Griffith’s next picture. Like the Hun philosopher’s idea of a camel—he never saw one, but evolved a picture from his inner consciousness—preconceived notions are almost invariably wrong. And never more so than in the Gish case.

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There is a growing suspicion that the word ”Gish” is an adjective rather than a proper name. In so far as it applies to Lillian. It must be admitted that there is ground for this suspicion.

It has been Lillian Gish’s privilege to rise to world-wide celebrity as a figurante of innocence, maidenhood and springtime love in the photoplays of D. W. Griffith—and, in one frock or another, out West or back East, down South or over in France, she has never played anything else. Lace and lavender, roses” in moonlight, gentle kisses, old tunes pianissimo, a mystic Rocking Cradle, flower-hung garden walls—these are the things you unconsciously associate with Lillian Gish. Fresh blood on new-fallen snow is a terrible thing to see, much more terrible than blood on ground. So Mr. Griffith makes Lillian Gish the snowy background for the blood of his battles: rapine coils at her feet, the bat wings of murder flap past her head, the red hands of atrocity and terror reach toward her out of the murk—and never quite touch her.

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That’s why the picture populace has considered and does consider Lillian a pale, perfumeless lily, off as well as on.

The yardstick on a woman’s brain is her sense of humor. Women are naturally a little more flexible than men, they are more facile and more adroit, and when they can give and take a joke they become the real sovereigns of the earth. Of course it is a popular tradition that no ingénue can possibly have a sense of the ridiculous—else she would laugh at herself and automatically go out of the ingénue business. Perhaps because she is one of the greatest professional ingenues in the world, Lillian Gish artfully locks her sense of humor up in her dressing room when called onto the set. In fact, knowing when not to laugh, and never laughing in the wrong place, is laughter’s Scottish Rite. So far, Lillian of the lillies has never untied so much as a wan smile—in public—which has not been of the sub-deb order.

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But on Serrano avenue in Los Angeles there is another sort of Lillian: an ingenue in appearance, still, but a rather suave and well-poised woman in reality, in spite of the fact that she is scarcely over the top of twenty years. She is the studious rather than athletic type of girl—she leaves the muscle stuff to the “Little Disturber” in the same household—a girl who despises the shams of society, a girl who is much more at home with Balzac and Thackeray and Dickens and Galsworthy than with Chambers or Owen Johnson, a girl who has just returned from Europe more intensely devoted to America than ever.

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

To begin with, Lillian Gish is an enthusiast about the war. She is very much of an optimist, and she sees from the chaos of destruction the supreme reorganization of the world.

“I think this is a wonderful age to live in!” she declares. “It seems to me the world was going to sleep in selfishness—not a part, but all of it. America was quite sure that its inventions were the most wonderful things of history, England was all tied up in social traditions and class distinctions, and Germany, the supremely selfish thing of the Universe, was headed for a reincarnation of the old Roman Empire.

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

“When this is all over, the world is going to quit being provincial. We’ll be less citizens of the Loire, or Kent, or California, and we’ll be more citizens of the world. We’ll understand each other.

“You know, we’ve got into a terrible habit over here: we think that the first thing to do to win is to call the Kaiser all the names we can think of—and the rest will be easy. They’ve passed that stage in England and France. The French and English are giving the devil his due just to beat him at his own game! It was only when I had been there quite awhile that I began to see that this spirit of sizing up murderous German ambition and soulless German accomplishment in a cool, dispassionate way was just about the worst thing that could happen to the Germans. When people get angry they lose their heads and call names. When they’re perfectly calm, and patient even in suffering, and just quietly determined to win—then they’re awfully dangerous!”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

And Miss Gish has some right to be a war critic, for she has been in the battle line in France, and went through eight air raids in London. “Almost always,” she declares, “there were warnings—the aircraft guns in the distance, then nearer; finally, the deep, heavy boom of the falling bombs. Only once was our fright very sudden and intensely real. It had been a quiet evening, with no thought of an impending raid. We were living in the Hotel Cecil. Suddenly the biggest noise in the world came from the courtyard and street below. In the tremendous roar of the explosion the whole hotel rocked as though in an earthquake. I was flung from my chair, and in the dark—it is almost a criminal offense to turn on the lights in an air-raid—people rushed about like little ants in a hill you’ve just stepped on. The most dreadful part was the screams and groans of the wounded and dying in the street below, for the bomb had struck a party in carriages. One cannot venture into the street when the anti-aircraft guns are barking, for the spray of shrapnel is even more dangerous than German high explosive—and there they lay, begging for aid, for fifteen full minutes, under our windows! It seems hours. As soon as the guns ceased of course almost everyone in the hotel rushed to them . . . not many were living, then … I shall never forget it.

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“Another thing, that I wish I could forget, was my visit to the homes of a lot of poor mothers after a school had been bombed by a German squadron at midday, flying at the great height of 18,000 feet. I saw one woman whose little brood of three had all been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.”

Mr. Griffith, it seems, was the bane of the party’s existence — he and Billy Bitzer, the cameraman, but Bitzer was not quite as venturesome. “Bobby Harron was fairly tractable,” says Lillian. “In other words, if there was a lot doing, he’d take us — or get us where we could see, if possible.

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

But Mr. Griffith — ! He might be at dinner with a general, and if the air-guns began to sound he grabbed his hat like a little kid at the first shouts of a ball-game, and vanished. Lots of times he didn’t come home till the following day! He was always in the street — he actually chased the darned things, as if trying to make them drop a nice sample bomb on him! One of Mr. Griffith’s peculiar studies for future years was collected in a camouflaged camera-nest near the Opera, in Paris. Here, for an hour or so on a number of days, Bitzer ground steadily and unobserved on the countenances of passers-by: the soldier, the widow, the old man, the Englishman, the bride, the child, the American, the coquette, the poilu’s wife — he has a record of the unconscious war-face of every manner of human being in Paris. Lillian Gish, with Dorothy, started her acting career as a child in the melodramas of Blaney and Al Woods. Later on she attracted Belasco’s attention, and played principal fairy—or something like that — in ”The Good Little Devil,” with Mary Pickford. But she says that she was utterly unsuited to this role — hadn’t enough experience for it in any way.

March 18 1922 CCCS

Then she went to the Biograph, and under Mr. Griffith’s direction, where she has remained ever since. The sisters Gish — Lillian and Dorothy — have always lived with their mother, Mrs. Mae Gish, yet have not escaped the customary quart and a half of rumors of engagement and impending marriage — little Dorothy being perhaps an especial victim. So far, neither of them has any matrimonial intention in reality.

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Serrano avenue, and their home, is not twenty minutes ride from the old Fine Arts studio which has modestly draped the birth of numerous masterpieces. Lillian, in her odd moments of neither working nor reading, is essaying swimming, French and piano.

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Dorothy — when not hopping about the country in her new enclosed car — is swimming to beat the band. And Dorothy, being a selfish little sister, clips the end off her sister’s interview: “Want to know where the ‘Little Disturber’ character really came from? Well, she was a little cockney girl; she’s English, not French at all. Mr. Griffith saw her on the Strand one day, freshness, wig-wag walk and all. He followed her for hours — or rather, we did, and then I thought he was dreadful to make me play her. I couldn’t. Besides, I didn’t like her. I thought she was crazy! But Mr. Griffith insisted, and then I cried. He insisted some more, and — and I did. And I’m glad, now.”

Think you that Lillian brooked or cared for the Little Disturber’s interruption? She wound up the party herself after all. “When I’m thirty,” she announced, “I’m going back to the stage. I want to play real women—not impossible heroines, or namby-pamby girls. I should like to play Becky Sharp—just to let you know how I feel about parts!”

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

Personally, I think Lillian Gish is going to play a lot of very real women before she leaves the screen — if she ever leaves it. She has the capability, the perception, and the intelligence.

By Julian Johnson, 1918

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Griffith—and the Great War – By Paul H. Dowling (Picture-Play Magazine March 1918)

Picture-Play Magazine March 1918

Griffith—and the Great War

America’s foremost producer is preparing a film spectacle, based on the world contest, which is expected to eclipse his past masterpieces.

By Paul H. Dowling

Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish - in the ruins of Babylon
Griffith Lillian Dorothy and Mary Gish – in the ruins of Babylon

The massive walls of the lathand-plaster Babylon were crumbling away slowly or being razed to the ground by scores of workmen. A fighting tower, swayed by the combined strength of half a hundred arms, bearing away at tackles and pulleys, toppled and crumpled into bits on the brown field of stubble, raising into the dear air a cloud of dust and plaster and fine-chopped splinters. Babylon had fallen for the last time.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

In the shadow of a city wall, where men had fallen in the battles of ”Intolerance,” a small band of players were enacting a scene from a great drama. There were only a few in the group, and they—already hidden away as if in a corner of the ruins of some old Pompeii, were further protected from the gaze of the curious by canvas reflectors. There I found David W. Griffith, shortly after his return from Europe’s battlefields, directing a scene in the shadow of Babylon’s wall. With him were Lillian and Dorothy Gish, apparently none the worse in youthful sweetness, health, and charm for their experiences in bomb-frightened London and amid the shattered ruins of Belgium and France, and with them Bobby Harron, camera-genius Bitzer, George Siegemann, and others. It was just a small particle of a scene ; but the production of which it was a part is expected to be greater than the story of Babylon, greater than “The Birth of a Nation,” for it was a bit of Griffith’s forthcoming production based on the most stupendous drama of all history — the present war.

DW Griffith in France 1917 D. W. Griffith, American film master
DW Griffith in France 1917

After eight months spent at the front, after hours and days in the very frontline trenches, Mr. Griffith returned to Los Angeles a few weeks ago to complete his undertaking. He was a more rugged Griffith than the man who went over to London nearly two years ago to stage “Intolerance” there. He was more serious. Having done what he modestly calls his “bit,” Mr. Griffith came home, bringing with him the precious prize of eighty thousand feet of film, the only motion pictures taken at the fronts with the exception of the official war pictures taken by the allied governments and preserved for a permanent record of the events of the struggle. Mr. Griffith went to England to stage his “Intolerance’ with no thought of the work he finally undertook. It was at the request of titled personages who saw “Intolerance” and suggested that he might do something to aid in the world’s charity work that turned his attention from private business, and, armed with unheard of passports to the front, set forth on his greatest venture.

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

Not primarily for personal gain were those pictures taken. They will form the background of a great photo drama—or perhaps several photo dramas, a part of the proceeds of which are to be donated to the allied relief funds.

“The man who sees the war at first hand,” declared Mr. Griffith, “forgets that he ever had any petty ambitions of his own. He feels that this is the one great thing which is going on in the whole world. Beside that, nothing much matters now.”

It is, in fact, with great difficulty that one can get the noted film director to speak of his own work, in which he is now so engrossed. It developed, withal, that he was the first American to get into the first-line trenches in France.

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

“I was within fifty yards of the boches on the Ypres front at one time,” he said. “How did I feel? Well, I was so frightened I didn’t realize what was happening. Yes, I was actually under fire, and men were killed within a few feet of me. At one time we were inside a dugout with a big gun, and even as we were leaving the long range guns were trained on the spot, and the gun was shot to pieces in a few minutes. One of our own cameras, in fact, was standing in a position exposed to fire when a shell exploded, and—but that is a story which will be told later.

Griffith and the Great War 6
Griffith and the Great War 6

I wore the war helmet and the gas mask, for we were within reach of the poison-gas grenades of the enemy. We witnessed and barely missed personal contact with the horrors of liquid fire; we passed hours among bursting shells, and had on eight occasions experienced the dangers of German aerial raids in London. Four of these times we were caught in the street in great peril of the rain of fire. Only a few weeks ago I was on the firing line in Flanders, where the bloodiest of the recent furious fighting took place, and it will give you some idea of the intensity of the contest to know that in the short space of time since I left it is estimated that in the small sector where my headquarters were established there have been between sixty and a hundred thousand casualties.

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

“It is very difficult getting into the front-line trenches, not so much from physical as from official obstacles. But letters from the great ones in England to the great ones in France made our path comparatively smooth.”

Mr. Griffith had the honor of being summoned to appear before the King and Queen of England, but he was in the midst of operations in France at the time, and could not leave. On his return to England, however, he was presented to the queen. Mr. Griffith’s position in England was unusual. He was given the assistance of the British government in making his pictures, and he and his camera man were permitted in territory denied to all correspondents. In London, he had the cooperation of the most distinguished women of King George’s court, many of whom have played an active part in his big charity production. Such notables as Lady Diana Manners, daughter of the Duchess of Rutland ; Miss Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of the late prime minister, and the Princess of Monaco are all seen frequently in the film, their work gladly offered because the ultimate purpose of the film was for war relief funds. Mr. Griffith’s own perspective, after seeing so much of the actualities of war, includes both the awful elements and the hopeful significances which are to arise. But let him give his impressions of the throbbing march of events in his own words:

Griffith and the Great War 4
Griffith and the Great War 4

“Vimy Ridge in the spring, Ypres on that memorable September 19th, Arras —I saw those. What I saw in detail, I cannot tell, for my pledged word forbids. Without that restriction, I would not want to tell. “My ‘close-up’ of the war front is a blur of conflict, horrors, heroism, terror, sublimity — and promise. When you see the physically half dead, the mentally obscured thousands of men from the cities and slums who are shortly transformed into real men with real minds by the process of discipline and the implanting of the consuming lesson of devotion, courage, and true patriotism, you see that the war is not all unblessed. This war will, in many ways, liberate the world from itself—its worst self.

Hearts of the World
Hearts of the World

“Speaking of the salvage of war, we may consider the fact that the death rate is now five per cent. What then of the ninety-five per cent of the men who return home? These are the men who have been through the fusing process of the melting pot of trench life. We may expect these men to return to their homes and their governments demanding a more sensible world, and being big and strong enough to make their demands respected.”

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

In the film production which he has made in the past, Mr. Griffith has proven to be a master of dramatic technique, which includes the handling of that difficult attribute—suspense. It is extremely fitting, therefore, that he should realize the dramatic values of this, the greatest drama which has yet happened. “It is a drama at the front,” he said, “for suspense is the keynote of all dramas, and the suspense at the front makes it the drama of dramas.

It gives you a dry, nervous choking; you are taut, strung tight with intricate emotions, your whole being involved at every move.”

Griffith and the Great War 1
Griffith and the Great War 1

The producer described with picturesque vividness an experience on one of the fronts where he had journeyed to take pictures : “There was a shell broken forest where we were to meet some men at the edge of the woods. We went by the sixteen-inch guns ; then the nine-inch, the six-inch, and the eighteen-pounders, the latter, of course, the nearest to the first line. Over our heads was a British plane, and the batteries were going like the furies of hell. As the day passed, we saw countless thousands of men spread over the fields as thick as the grass would have been had there been any grass. Suddenly where the men were there were no men ; they had disappeared in the trenches and communications. “We advanced to a position where there had been a crossroads and farm, but now all was obliterated in a mass of shell holes, bricks, and dust. As the shells fell, and we made slow time, there came an awful feeling of fear and a desire to go back. But no one went back, for that would have required even greater courage. On the other side of the wood, a party, including our friends, advanced. When the shells came faster, we broke for an old pill box. It was hit, and some of our party were hurt, but the shelter held. ”Then a shell broke back of the other group. A rain of shrapnel came down, and the little group divided for greater safety. We had a desire to shout at our friends to go back, but a shout could not be heard amid the awful scream of the shells. The men in the little party continued to advance. Half a dozen big shells broke, and suddenly men and battery were all obliterated. The rest was like a nightmare, with the awful sickening feeling of death near at hand. We mourned our two men. “When we had returned later to the rear, the discovery was made that our two men had been warned against going out with the party. An old war-worn captain exclaimed: I told you this morning that your people should not have gone into that wood. The boches do not like any one to walk in that wood “

Lillian Gish - Hearts of the World
Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

After Mr. Griffith had talked of the war, his party moved to a little house across the street from the “Intolerance” settings, where the producer, together with several Frenchmen, Austrians, and Germans, who of necessity are engaged in completing the war productions, pored over hundreds of war photographs taken by a Los Angeles correspondent who had spent much time in Germany, Poland, and Russia during the early periods of the war. This study of the enemy is of extreme importance, in view of the matter of costuming of accurate details of rank, and a thousand and one other things which must be taken into consideration in the completion of a tremendous spectacle of gripping realism such as the material of this conflict must furnish. Then the party again took up its work of making pictures, this time at a pretty little garden exterior, constructed on one of the gently sloping hills a few hundred yards back of the Babylonian elephants and tottering walls. A crew of carpenters and scenic artists were removing from the vast wreckage of the time-worn settings bits of plastered boards and canvas and fastening them up to complete the exterior of what might pass for a charming little country house in Belgium. Here Dorothy and Lillian Gish shortly appeared, to sit down on the sunburned slope of the hill and wait for their scenes, which were to match up with pictures made in a ruined city of Flanders. Dorothy sighed a sigh of complete peace and relaxation as she sat with her sister and the mother of the celebrated actresses, Mrs. M. R. Gish. ”Oh, isn’t it good to be back here again !” the little lady exclaimed, with a genuineness of expression which revealed her true feelings at being able to sit down, safe and sound, on a sunny hillside in California and never have to go back again to the terrifying air raids in London and the pitiful sights in the towns of Belgium and France.

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

“I want to settle down on a farm in southern California.” Was Dorothy’s heartfelt wish. Lillian spoke up and told of Dorothy’s fright during the air raids in London.

“We were on the third floor of a family hotel,” said Lillian, and every time there was an unusual commotion outside or in the hotel, the people in adjoining apartments declared they could hear Dorothy’s knees shaking above the din and clatter of the bombing.

“No book that I have read,” declared Lillian, “has portrayed the full horror of war. It would take a superhuman writer to picture it. “The English did nothing but three cheer the American boys who first arrived, from start to finish. Naturally, as we were among the few Americans in London at this time, we were wildly excited, but those English folks showed ever bit as much enthusiasm as we did. We were in London on the day of a “parade by the first contingent of American soldiers, and the feeling displayed by the English people disproved all that has ever been told of the staid and unsentimental English.”

Hearts of The World
Hearts of The World

“It was that way in Paris, too,” Mr. Griffith added. “While a year ago Paris was a gloomy place, filled with mourners, yet at the time of our later visit, the arrival of the American soldiers had had the effect of making every one cheerful again.”

”London displays considerably more of a war spirit than does Paris,” Lillian continued. “In both cities, however, it is considered rather poor taste to wear fine clothes, or to display luxury. We did not see a really well gowned woman throughout all our travels about Europe. In Paris, every third woman wears mourning, while in London nearly every man is in uniform. They are using men that you would think had passed the age for military service. These middle-aged men, of course, are not sent to the trenches. The only amusement in London is the theater. There are no dances or society dinners.”

Dorothy Gish described the return of their party on a camouflaged ship; one, she says,  ‘daubed with every color of paint you could think of. Several times on the return trip over the Atlantic we were ordered to dress and adjust life belts, but nothing happened in the way of a U-boat attack. Of course the very thought of submarines was terrible, but after going through the air raids in London nothing was as bad, even being within range of the guns, as it was in Belgium.”

Lillian Gish and Robert Harron - The Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and Robert Harron – The Hearts of The World

Lillian Gish, with a far-away and wistful look in her eyes, expressed her sympathy for the soldiers of America and the Allies who are now going into those shell-torn areas which she saw on the French and Belgian front. “I never thought or dreamed of the actuality of warfare, and I hold the hope so often expressed by the English people, that America’s entrance into the war spells an early victory.”

While the scenes were in preparation, Mr. Griffith moved about among the ruins of “Intolerance,” not unlike the devastated cities of Belgium and France, and again reflected over his experiencesof the past ten months.

”My most dangerous moment,” he said, “was at a time when I was under the guidance of a young British officer who was extremely proud of the lacquer on his boots. He wanted to avoid the mud in the trenches, so we walked outside, and ultimately had occasion to examine a map of the district we were in. This evidently attracted the attention of the Germans, who supposed we were deciding upon a site for a gun, for they at once began ‘strafing’ us. A ‘dud’—that is, a shell which doesn’t explode — dropped within five feet of us, and then the rattle of artillery came with deafening proximity until we found our way back to the trenches and rolled in, boots and all, glad to seek safety in the mud.”

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

Though Mr. Griffith did not disclose the exact nature of the films which are now being completed, it is evident that they will furnish a valuable record ; for they will contain views of every kind of mechanical device used in the present war. The spectator will know everything there is to know about the fighting devices of this war; aeroplanes, tanks, blimps, and trenches. Every position of danger, every vantage of attack, will be presented in the first production, which is to be for charity. A part of the proceeds, by the way, will go to blind soldiers and to sailors injured in the trawlers, who, Mr. Griffith declares, have one of the nastiest, meanest jobs of the whole war, taking their lives in their hands every time they venture half a mile from shore, and seldom receiving relief money for their wounded.

Griffith and the Great War 3
Griffith and the Great War 3

While the work of completing the film spectacles goes on at the romantic old spot where Babylon fell, the film producer walks among the ruins which recall those of the actual fighting front. And he is glad to have returned. But there is ever present a spirit of abstraction— a thought of what is going on over there, and a dream of what is going to come out of it all.

“There can be but one result,” he asserted, with intense earnestness. “It may be a long war. It promises to be a long war. But the Germans are defeated now, and will ultimately be conquered. It will be the beginning of the birth of a new world.”

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

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Selected Film Criticism – BROKEN BLOSSOMS (Anthony Slide)

Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (Griffith/United Artists, 1919)

  • Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 16, No. 3 (August 1919), pages 55-56.
  • Frederick James Smith in Motion Picture Classic, Vol. 8,
  • No. 6 (August 1919), pages 46- 47 and 60.
Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish