Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art – Edited by CORNELIA BUTLER and ALEXANDRA SCHWARTZ

Modern Women




Modern Women: Women Artists at The Museum of Modern Art represents the culmination of a five-year initiative known internally as the Modern Women’s Project. It is our ambition that this unprecedented, institution-wide effort will ultimately influence the narratives of modernism the Museum represents by arguing for a more complex understanding of the art of our time. The title of this volume, Modern Women, immediately maps the territory of its contents. This is not a history of feminist art or of feminist artists, although a number of the artists featured here claim feminism’s accomplishments or insist on a feminist discourse to contextualize their work. With some important exceptions, this is not a group of artists that coheres beyond the rubric of gender. And, certainly, it is only a sampling of the work by women artists in the Museum’s collection. This publication is, in a sense, a work in progress, an artifact of a continuous effort to research our collection and rethink the consensus of art history. (Glenn D. Lowry Director, The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lillian Gish cca 18 years old - theater scene

I would call “feminine” the moment of rupture and negativity which conditions the newness of any practice. —Julia Kristeval

I don’t believe in “feminist art”since art is a mysterious filtering process which requires the labyrinths of a single mind, the privacy of alchemy, the possibility of exception and unorthodoxy rather than rule. —Anne-Marie Sauzeau-Boetti

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East - Vanity Fair June 1920
Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

Early – Modern

LILLIAN GISH (American, 1893-1993)

Essay by JENNY HE

“A movie star since movies began,” actress Lillian Diana de Guiche was born the same year that Thomas Edison introduced the motion picture to the American public. This coincidence, however random, proved fateful for Gish, a defining artist of early film history. Known as the First Lady of the Silent Screen, Gish made her most significant cinematic contributions during the silent film era, but the prolific actress enjoyed a career that went five decades beyond her last silent film. Over a seventy-five-year career, Gish made more than one hundred films, almost half of which reside in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, including landmark works such as her first film, An Unseen Enemy (1912, no. 1), and her last silent picture, The Wind (1928, no. 2).

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

Gish spent her entire life acting—on screen, stage, and television. Her persona is one of Victorian womanhood—genteel, vulnerable, and innocent—often reflected in Madonna like characters (The Mothering Heart, The Battle at Elderbush Gulch, Intolerance, Way Down East, The Scarlet Letter). Her heroines are unadulterated in both innocence and madness, adversity and triumph, as they deflect wanton men hell-bent on defiling their virgin characters (The Birth of a Nation, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, The Wind). Cast often in melodramas, Gish played characters who tenaciously fought to gain redemption after the violation of their virtue.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

Gish’s doe eyes, button nose, and pixie smile belied a charisma and passion that materialized in front of the camera in her performances. Adept at both comedy and tragedy (often in the same film), Gish possessed an emotional range that could alternate between restrained (Broken Blossoms) and grand (Orphans), with everything from subtle facial nuances to frenzied body movements in full hysteria in her acting repertoire. In all her facets she personified endurance.

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

Her characters—put-upon women facing tribulations from the injustices of the French Revolution (Orphans), the persecution of Puritanical society (The Scarlet Letter), and the ravages of nature in the American West (The Wind)—endured in the face of betrayal, rape, death, and abandonment. Often characterized as a waif, Gish was a dichotomy of fragility and resilience. This was true of her life off screen as well as onscreen. Fellow female film pioneer Frances Marion knew her to be as “fragile as a steel rod.”

Lillian Gish - The Wind (1928) - Nov 27 USA BX
Lillian Gish – The Wind (1928) – Nov 27 USA

Gish was a woman holding her own in the early days of Hollywood, and she amassed enough clout and influence to call her own shots. As a vocal proponent of film preservation, she made it her lifelong mission to ensure that her work and the work of all film artists would survive. “Art is the most lasting product of a civilization,” Gish said, and “the only lasting aristocracy.” Gish contributed greatly to the aristocracy of her art, and her legacy as an iconic figure in film history will also endure.


After debuting in a production of In Convict’s Stripes in 1902, Gish began acting in touring troupes in New York City. Her tenure in New York and on Broadway led to a friendship with fellow actress Gladys Smith, who years later would change Gish’s life through a chance meeting with film director D. W. Griffith. Attending a nickelodeon showing of Lena and the Geese (1912), Gish immediately recognized the actress in the film as her old friend Gladys. Spurred by the star sighting, Gish, along with her sister, Dorothy, and their mother, Mary, decided to look up her friend by visiting the studio that filmed Lena, American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, located in Union Square.The visit not only reconnected the Gishes with Smith (now Mary Pickford) but also introduced them to Griffith, who was immediately struck by Lillian’s “exquisite ethereal beauty.” He ushered the sisters into a casting session for An Unseen Enemy, a one-reeler about two sisters fending off a larcenous maid and her safe-robbing accomplice. Impressed with their ability to respond to direction, Griffith recast the film with the Gishes, even though he had already begun rehearsals with other actresses, and began shooting Lillian’s first screen appearance the next day.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Gish became one of Biograph’s stock players and appeared in more than thirty Biograph films over the next two years, including significant shorts such as The Mothering Heart (1913) and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913). Griffith left Biograph in 1914, joined several other film companies—Reliance- Majestic,Triangle Film Corporation, Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), and United Artists—then eventually built his own studio in Mamaroneck, New York. Gish followed him, and under his tutelage she developed her acting talents and honed her screen persona. G. W. Bitzer, the director’s longtime cameraman, recalled that “Griffith conditioned [Gish] to the part she was to play, and once she had the action in mind, she wouldn’t forget or deviate by so much as a flicker of the eye.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

Her interpretation would be as directed, without waste of precious film.” Gish practiced something akin to Method acting (long before the phrase was coined) and studied dance choreography, but her ability to invent on the spot, born out of in-the-moment emotion, meshed perfectly with Griffith’s directorial style. The chemistry between director and actress resulted in some of Gish’s greatest performances, in silent cinema classics such as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919), and Way Down East (1920). Gish also matured professionally behind the camera. When Griffith was filming The Love Flower (1920) in Florida, he entrusted the care of his studio to Gish. He also encouraged her to make her own feature film, stating that Gish knew as much about making pictures as he did, and more about acting.

Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat ... Lillian Gish - Way Down East
Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East

Orphans of the Storm (1922, no. 3), the last of Gish’s collaborations with Griffith, marked a turning point in her career. She convinced Griffith to make the film, based on Adolphe d’Ennery’s play The Two Orphans (1874)— although he had intended his next project to be Goethe’s Faust—and to cast her sister as Louise (his first choice was Mae Marsh).

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …

During rehearsal for the climactic scene at the guillotine, in which Gish’s Henriette seems to be moments from certain death, Gish disagreed with Griffith’s direction and felt that the scene required a “greater depth of emotion.” After rehearsing the scene her way, Gish recalled, “Without a word, he walked up to me, sank to one knee and kissed my hand before the company. Thank you,’ he said.” In nine short years, she had evolved from ingenue to Hollywood powerhouse.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4
Hester Prynne – Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter

Gish pressured MGM to make The Scarlet Letter (1926), based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book, which had been blacklisted by the censorship office of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America due to outcry from church and women’s groups. Undaunted, she took it upon herself to secure clearance for the film. No roadblock was insurmountable for Gish if she believed in a project. For her swan song to the silent era she chose The Wind, based on a novel by Dorothy Scarborough.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian - backstage The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind

The actress hand-picked her director (Victor Sjostrom) and leading man (Lars Hanson) and was asked by MGM’s Irving Thalberg to produce. Gish’s career continued over the next sixty years— her sound work is represented in the Museum’s collection by films such as Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) and her last film, Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987)—but her legacy was long secured by her first sixteen years in film.

Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of The Hunter 1955 Laughton
Lillian Gish as Rachel Cooper in The Night of The Hunter 1955 Laughton

On June 25, 1935, The Museum of Modern Art presented to the public its Film Library (now the Department of Film), whose mission was “to preserve [and] exhibit… all types of films, so that the film may be studied and enjoyed as any other one of the arts is studied and enjoyed,” with Iris Barry as its inaugural curator. Gish’s relationship with MoMA’s Department of Film, like her relationship with film itself, began at its inception.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for 'The Whales of August'
Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

It was through Barry, in the mid-1930s, that Gish first heard of the nascent concept of film preservation. Inspired by Barry and her own belief in the value of film as an art form, Gish maintained frequent correspondence with the department throughout her life in their joint efforts toward film preservation.

As Eileen Bowser, a former curator in the Department of Film, noted, “Convinced of the power of film to change the world,” Gish was a “dedicated fighter for every cause associated with the art of the film.” Not only was the actress instrumental in the donation of scripts, films, and funds to the Museum, but she also valued the input of its film curators, with whom she discussed her projects and from whom she sought advice regarding film preservation.

The acquisition of the D. W. Griffith Collection—one of the first major film collections to enter the Film Library—might not have occurred had it not been for Gish’s intervention. In the summer of 1935 Barry and her husband, John Abbott (then the Film Library’s director), visited Hollywood in an attempt to convince directors, actors, and studios to deposit films with the Museum. When they approached Griffith, he declined. In 1938, when D. W. Griffith, Inc., was in receivership and the director’s films were on the verge of being lost, Gish interceded and convinced Griffith to entrust his films and legacy to the Museum.

In 1954, when actor Charles Laughton set out to make his directorial debut, he prepared for The Night of the Hunter by screening Griffith films at MoMA. An admirer of Gish since Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, Laughton sought her out for the pivotal role of Rachel Cooper—an evolution of her silent film heroines—who protects two vulnerable yet resilient orphans from a soulless preacher intent on their destruction. Richard Griffith, then curator of the Film Library, acted as an intermediary between Gish and Laughton during their discussions surrounding the film.

From 1963 to 1980 Gish undertook an ambitious endeavor to tour universities, libraries, and museums throughout the world, lecturing on the art of film, concentrating on the period from 1900 to 1928. In preparation for these lectures, the actress engaged in constant dialogue with the Museum regarding film material and preservation methods. In exchange, Gish took her knowledge to the public and provided the Museum’s Film Preservation Program with resounding advocacy. It was fitting that when Gish became the fourteenth life member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on November 25, 1982, the ceremony was held at MoMA. The celebration of her devotion and contribution to the art of the motion picture took place at the institution that continues to collect, preserve, study, and exhibit her work.

first time on lecture platform 1932

Modern women : women artists at the Museum of Modern Art
Modern women : women artists at the Museum of Modern Art

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Seductive Cinema – The Art of Silent Film (By James Card – 1994)

Uncle Toms Cabin Truck

Seductive Cinema

The Art of Silent Film

By James Card – 1994


We have become an alarmingly endangered species, those of us who enjoyed silent films throughout the 1920s. We know that we are not alone in admiring the best of the surviving predialogue movies, but understandably, some misconceptions have crept into histories of the early period, written by those who were not around to see first-run prints of the acknowledged masterpieces, or could not have visited the resplendent palaces or the cozy neighborhood houses of more than half a century ago.

As there are today, there were those who took the existence of cinema very much for granted, saw only an occasional film because it was being discussed. And there were even a few (I never met one) who hated pictures. But there were some of us with an addiction, with fierce passion for the medium. We were militant and protective and we didn’t want it to change in any way. We loved its silence. We were devoted to the aspect ratio of the frame. As collectors, we were even enchanted by the unique scent of nitrate of cellulose. There are even fewer of us left who not only had this almost insane, passionate affection for film, but became involved in hands-on work with motion pictures, shooting, editing and screening as well as simply watching. When dialogue arrived and the silent film almost vanished, some of us were so infuriated that we actually refused, for many months, to even look at a talkie.

An Art Declasse

Silent movies? Before sound films nobody called motion pictures “silent movies.” In those days the term “talkies” was already in use, but it referred only to plays on the stage to differentiate them from photoplays. As Lillian Gish never tired of pointing out, the “silent” film was never silent. Even in the primitive period, there was a pianist or an organist putting music to the film. The big downtown theatres usually began continuous showings at 10:00 a.m. Until the two evening performances, the film would be accompanied by a skillful organist seated at the mighty Wurlitzer. The evening shows boasted full orchestral accompaniment. The musicians were fine, well-paid professionals led by experts who knew very much what they were about. The top Cleveland movie orchestra was conducted by Maurice Spitalny in gleaming full dress, his exquisitely prepared profile turned toward the audience and bathed in his own special spotlight as his orchestra played the overture before the film began. Maurice was one of three Russian-born Spitalnys, all musicians. Brother Phillip conducted a famous all-girl orchestra in Manhattan. He went to Cleveland often to see his brother, whose greeting to Phillip became a local catchphrase: “Hallo, Pheel! How you fill?”

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

In one area Griffith did seem to be ahead of his contemporaries: by either good luck or superior perception, he was able to recruit a cadre of fantastic players. With his theatre orientation, he had confidence in even the actresses who had been professionals from childhood, so that Mary Pickford, the Gish sisters and Blanche Sweet became Biograph stars. Experience in the theatre was cachet sufficient for Griffith to hire Lionel Barrymore, Tom Ince and Mack Sennett, all of whom graduated from Biograph to major film careers that endured for many years.

There were indeed some truly impressive Biographs. As early as 1909 Griffith had Pickford, Owen Moore and James Kirkwood acting in The Restoration, an involved psychological drama concerned with memory Loss.

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

Along with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms of 1919 is one of Griffith’s major efforts on which much of his fame rests. The original release print of the film was elaborately colored with the use of variously tinted base stock. The Museum of Modern Art Film Library people arranged to undertake the demanding and expensive project of copying the film and restoring the delicately colored version to something very much like the original.

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

In a significant departure from routine filmmaking, Griffith rehearsed the cast for weeks before the camera ever turned. His aim was to create a film that he thought would be as fine and important as a great play on the stage—his first love. However well intentioned his plan, his theatrical orientation lured him into a major aesthetic error that militates against one’s acceptance of the film today as a great work. Richard Barthelmess, cast as a Chinese in London’s Limehouse district, is made up as a stereotyped stage Chinaman, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, hands tucked into his sleeves and made to walk hunched over with teetering steps. All perfectly acceptable as a nineteenth-century theatrical cliche. But Griffith made the mistake of surrounding Barthelmess with real Chinese, none of whom looked anything like the chief protagonist.

Broken Blossoms

In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith was betrayed by this stagecraft into the same aesthetic error. His principal players cast as blacks are white actors and actresses, their faces smeared not too carefully with blackface makeup. Neither of his villains, George Siegmann and Walter Long, have negroid features. Well and good had he been producing a minstrel show, but again, extras in the film are real blacks bearing no resemblance to Tom Wilson, George Siegmann or Walter Long. The unfortunate effect for Broken Blossoms is that the film is neither realistic drama nor effective theatre make-believe. The famous performance of Lillian Gish’s almost rescues the film from being a grotesquerie rather than simply a very much dated melodrama with Donald Crisp as the savage child beater, shown in enormous close-ups, grimacing in a way to rival King Kong himself. Griffith considered himself to be a poet, a dramatist and, only some what reluctantly, a film director. For this project he also became a composer and is credited as the author of the love theme of the film, a piece he titled “White Blossom.” Composing the music for the other portions of the film was entrusted to none other than Louis Gottschalk. As a music composer, Griffith thus placed himself in prestigious company. Lillian Gish’s performance as the slow-witted, much abused Limehouse district waif is one of the most praised in all her career. It was also the most parodied. ZaSu Pitts made a whole career imitating the uncertain, desperate gestures that were so touching as Lillian Gish had done them.

The Festivals of Film Artists

The 1957 festival marked his first return to Rochester and the theatre he had known so well twenty-eight years before. Mamoulian’s wife came with him. She was a gorgeous, glamorous Hollywood type, and although the Mamoulians were only to stay overnight, she brought so much ponderous luggage that it couldn’t all be squeezed into the spartan room they were assigned in the Rochester Treadway Inn. Mrs. Mamoulian ordered an immediate transfer to a more commodious hotel. Other celebrity arrivals were also not without their own problems.

James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford 1957 press photo
James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford 1957 press photo

At Eastman House for the second Festival of Film Artists, in 1957: James Card, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor and Mary Pickford

In 1957 there were direct flights from Los Angeles to Rochester. It was in the good old days before hub airports. I was at the Rochester airport to meet a plane that carried more than any usual share of VIPs. On that flight were the director Frank Borzage, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who traveled with an entourage of no fewer than three comely female attendants. The plane arrived at 1:30 a.m., Rochester time. When I greeted the group, Chevalier let out a whoop and pumped Novarro’s hand. Ramon was astonished. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for years—ever since Ben-Hur.” Chevalier exulted. The two great stars not only had never met before, but had flown all the way from Los Angeles without recognizing each other. Also, they all let me know, they had had nothing to eat since before boarding the plane in California. First bit of business was to get them to food. Rochester is not known to be a swinging town after midnight. But there was a restaurant right on East Avenue, not far from the theatre itself, run by an ambitious restaurateur who thought of himself and his establishment as several cuts above the small-town reputation of Rochester. His boite he called the Five O’Clock Club, and its marquee boasted that it was “Just like New York.” I parked the car with its illustrious guests and rushed in to see if they had any food left. The owner was sitting with some friends at a booth near the door. I knew who he was—he was big in self-advertising. It was obvious at once that he didn’t know me. “We’re closed, Mac,” he snarled at me. “Can’t we just get a quick sandwich or something?” “I told you we’re closed. The chef’s gone.”

Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish 1957
Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish 1957

“Look, Leo, can’t you have a waiter go into the kitchen and fix three or four simple sandwiches? I have Maurice Chevalier and Ramon Novarro out here in the car. They haven’t had a thing to eat all day, and every place but yours is closed.”

The proprietor turned to his friends. “After all that trouble we had with that guy tonight, here’s another one—this one has Maurice Chevalier out in his car!”

I went back to our guests. Across the street was a White Tower hamburger place (forerunner of the MacDonald’s and Burger Kings to come). It was there that I had to take Borzage, Novarro and that noted French bon vivant and gourmet Maurice Chevalier for hamburgers. I noted that Maurice disguised his burger with a complete dousing of mustard. Without much shame, I confess to elation when, only a few months later, the Five O’Clock Club that was “Just like New York” went out of business.

George Eastman house award 1955 Front Row Peverell Marley, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford Middle Row Josef Von Sternberg Arthur Edeson
George Eastman house award 1955 Front Row Peverell Marley, Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor, Mary Pickford – Middle Row Josef Von Sternberg Arthur Edeson

Our cast on the stage of the Eastman Theatre almost made the event look like a rerun of 1955, for there, again, were Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, Frank Borzage, Dick Barthelmess and Charles Rosher, but with the added attractions of Gloria Swanson, Josef von Sternberg, Janet Gaynor, Ramon Novarro and Maurice Chevalier, who, of course, stole the show. Chevalier’s onstage technique was unforgettable. Offstage, standing or sitting surrounded by his personal entourage, he looked almost asleep, gloomy and brooding. But in the instant before he stepped on the stage, his face would light up as though he’d turned on a set of bulbs. His whole body seemed to have been electrified; his face was flushed with energy and breezy enthusiasm. When he stepped off the stage, the appearance of somnolence fell over him like a curtain. Chevalier’s off-and-on act reminded me of Buster Keaton at the first festival. Offstage, of course, he smiled—and often. He was a cheerful, friendly charmer. And everywhere he went, both amateur photographers and newspaper cameramen would try to ambush one of those smiles. But Buster teased them with an almost supernatural sense of timing: he could sense just the instant they were about to fire their cameras, the smile would snap off his face, and the trademark, solemn Keaton look would be all they’d catch.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish 1955
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish 1955

The second Festival of Film Artists was the last. Before we could do another, General Solbert died. As of this writing, every other actor, actress and director who won awards in those festivals has also departed. General Oscar Solbert was an exceptional individual. He exasperated me to the point ofmy resigning three times. Three times he tore up my letter of resignation. I miss him the way I miss my own father. Subsequent directors of Eastman House have tried to have festivals of film artists. But they miss the salient point of the two originals—that the artists chosen for the Georges were chosen entirely by their fellow film people. The later, spurious awards have been given to celebrities chosen by Rochester socialites.

Seductive cinema
Seductive cinema – cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Doug and Mary and Others – A book by Allene Talmey (1927)

Doug and Mary and Others

A book by Allene Talmey

Woodcut portraits by Bertrand Zadig

New York – 1927

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

MARY and Doug, driving tandem, are hitched to the same star. With resulting great financial reward, Douglas Fairbanks brought to the movies the precepts of the Y. M. C. A., glorifying physical strength. For almost twenty years Mary has delightedly demonstrated the charm of keeping one’s skirts up and one’s hair down. The screen has had athletes and romantic actors, has had its child impersonators; but only in Fairbanks has romance been so completely welded to athlete, only in Pickford has childhood eternally flourished. Out of the thrilling grace of a balcony jump, out of a zooming slide down windblown sails, Douglas Fairbanks built himself his throne. He has showmanship, aesthetics, and knowledge. And by his side sits Little Mary. Both wear halos, cut for them by a devoted public, halos a trifle binding, a fraction cocked, which Douglas industriously keeps shining brightly. To preserve that glitter, Fairbanks exercises several wise gestures.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Mary does nothing. She is sanity. Hers is a soft low snicker of sense in the midst of treble hysteria. In a business where all, including her husband, collect eccentricities as though they were pearls of great price, Mary stands alone, unadorned, simple. She is dowdy, old-fashioned, her skirts too long, and her hair still piled in those golden unconvincing curls which were so admired in 1915 when Biograph’s “Little Mary” was growing into “America’s Sweetheart”. A comfortable soul who forgets rouge and lipstick, Mary sloshes about on rainy days in rubbers a size too large, a big umbrella over her head.

Mary Pickford XSF
Mary Pickford

There is something untouched about this woman who has nourished her loveliness throughout her troubles, throughout the fight to eminence. Compared with her showman husband, alive with jokes, Mary, always by his side, fades a little. The showman has a dark brown face with a sharp straight blackness of brow and mustache, a block of white that is his smile, forever on view, keeping abreast of his enthusiasms. He boosts. He is the public-apostle of light, possessing a mental nimbleness as acrobatic as his body. Enthusiasm swings out from him, whirling ideas as on a pin wheel. So excited is his speech that the words are flung out in the irregular rhythm of a woman beating a rug. He loves phrases, full bosomed phrases to choke up a dribbling conversation. “I go to Europe to sit on the veranda of the world,” he told a reporter once, adding, “New York is all right to live in if you do not let it live in you.” In the gallery of his gestures rests a pleasant fallacy, publicly encouraged, that he has no head for business. Poor old Fairbanks, his attitude goes, what would he do without Mary and her cash register brain, mental arithmetic Mary.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Mary is acknowledged exceedingly smart in business, but Fairbanks refuses credit for any practicality. What he does not mention is that his fortunate business inability led him to invest much of his money in properties which immediately rose high in value, that it induced him to become a director in the Federal Trust and Savings Bank of Hollywood, that it led to the inveigling of Joseph Schenck into the chairmanship of United Artists. That weak head for finance also brought him so tremendous a fortune that the name of Douglas Fairbanks stood at the top of the movie list when the income tax reports were published several years ago. At the directors’ meetings of United Artists, at the lawyer conferences, Fairbanks quietly absorbs, apparently a blank at the table, perhaps asking a few questions. He goes for a short walk. On his return, the words straining against his larynx in a submerging flow of synonyms and explanatory phrases, Fairbanks offers a particularly acute suggestion. He loves to play dead because he makes such a smart ghost.

Doug and Mary - Pickfair
Doug and Mary – Pickfair

Doug and Mary are, of course, the King and Queen of Hollywood, providing the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain. Cornerstone layings, dinners, openings are duties; they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry. Loved and indispensable, Pickford and Fairbanks have constructive minds, actuated by a deep and earnest desire to aid the business in which they have won their name and fortune. Throughout their years of screen life, they have studied technique, and are now ready to turn to experimentation. As color photography interested Fairbanks, he produced “The Black Pirate”, a picture done in the mellowed old tones of a Rembrandt, with scenes apparently aged in the wood, yellowed with time. Experimentation meant the gathering of experts to aid him.

Dwight Franklin, an authority on buccaneer life and paintings, worked in one corner; in another Carl Oscar Borg, the Swedish artist, sketched settings. Anchored on the sidelines were the poet Robert Nichols, writers, thinkers, artistic persons of importance to whom Fairbanks talked and talked and talked. He wanted, for instance, a scene in which 120 soldiers with cutlass in mouth and swords at side would submerge a galley, swim in formation, and under water at a great depth, and then without breaking ranks rise to the surface in perfect order. The action of this episode was too dramatic to be eliminated merely because it seemed impossible to photograph. Fairbanks called a conference of the painters, the engineers, the chemists, and out of that came a method, devised to take that swimming scene without any water at all.

The preparations consisted in painting a background representing a cross section of the sea. From the top of the set, wisps of tissue paper were suspended giving the illusion of seaweed. A crane was brought in, and then the 120 extras in their dark green costumes were hung by 120 piano wires from the crane. In this midair position, lying on their backs, they went through the motions of the breast stroke as though they were 120 giant crabs struggling to turn themselves over. The crane carried them along. In printing the negative, the scene was reversed, and audiences marveled at soldiers swimming at the bottom of the sea, and once more Douglas Fairbanks had contributed to movie mechanics and aesthetics.

Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926
Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926

With a Rotarian instinct for slogans, Fairbanks reduces his ten or twelve reel movies to a ten word motto. All through “Don, Son of Zorro”, he tapped out “Truth crushed to earth will rise again, if you have the yeast to make it rise”. It was his delight to formulate “Happiness must be earned” for “The Thief of Bagdad”. Every one’s advice is asked about the mottoes. Fairbanks loves to theorize about the movies. His mind is like a cotton table cloth, the theories rubbing off as though they were lint. In the process Fairbanks snags new theories, all working beautifully toward a more glowing Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad

The decadence of the films is a source for constant discussion at Pickfair, where Doug and Mary have asked movie criticism from the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the Duchess of Sutherland, the King and Queen of Siam, Otto Kahn, Charles Schwab and Babe Ruth. Doug and Mary are the supreme social successes of the movies.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad

As a wit once remarked of them, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year”. The rotogravure editors can always fill a spare corner with a new picture of Fairbanks putting grand dukes and belted earls at their ease. When both were in Madrid, causing great demonstrations every time they stepped out of their hotel, the King of Spain requested their attendance at court. Under the chaperonage of the American ambassador Fairbanks went ready with one of his most graceful speeches. “How’s Fatty Arbuckle?” asked the King. Fairbanks spent hours anticipating the meeting, just as he always does, dramatizing the life and times of Douglas Fairbanks. Everything is a situation, and he plays for the big moment, then snaps the curtain. There are no third acts for him. Dressing in the morning is a situation. Tall, slim hipped, he wanders between his four closets, full of clothes, unable to decide which of the forty suits he will wear, which one of the dozens of ties, shirts and socks. Mary comes in for consultation. At last the decision is made, and, handsomely dressed, he goes to the studio where he immediately changes into his old white flannels and shirt. At the studio there are two more tremendous closets, bulging with suits, hats, boxing gloves, balls, canes, rackets, and it is his careless habit to leave the doors open, revealing the tangle. When important guests arrive, Mary runs ahead to shut away that spectacle, closing the door with an apologetic giggle. The guests are always shown his rare and lovely collection of perfumes, and then his elaborate equipment for keeping down the Fairbanks figure, the padded boards for massage, the exercising machines, the swimming pools, the showers, the steam baths. An ounce of fat means starvation for a week to him, but on the weekends he goes on food jags. It is his Sunday morning practice to take the unwary over the long hard trail behind his house, leading over the mountains.

Doug and Mary - outside Pickfair
Doug and Mary – outside Pickfair

At the end of that walk is a small house to which he sends by car his cook and butler and there breakfast in fabulous quantites is served; and so back to Pickfair. Pickfair is a luxurious home in which Douglas Fairbanks lived before his marriage to Mary. After the ceremony Mary moved in, bringing with her a few of her possessions. The place has the famous oyster shell shaped swimming pool to which only the friends of the pair come, for there, high on their hill, they receive, never going out except when the movie business demands its king and queen. Everybody comes to them, eager for a dinner party at Pickfair. Mary sits a quiet gracious woman whose adult mind looks with amusement upon the constant flow of Doug’s practical jokes. And after dinner the Fairbanks’ entertainment is a movie. Slumped in a deep chair, Doug, the king at ease, home from the studio, and Mary, the grave queen, home from a cornerstone laying, slip back their haloes, and chew peanut brittle.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Lillian Gish

The sturdiness of yellow kitchen crockery lies concealed in the tea cup delicacy of Lillian Gish. She is at once the oak and the vine. Courageously, gallantly, the oak has made of wistfulness a fortune itself. Through all the most outrageous incidents, the gentle Gish has most amazingly preserved her unique quality of facial innocence as fresh as “rain on cherry blossoms”. Above all the undertow of dirt, Lillian Gish has tranquilly swept the surface until she can now attend Hollywood parties, chastely charming, sweetly decorous in her primly flowing gown. “While others dance, she sits a picture of innocence and maiden purity, this sensible worldly woman whose deliberate front is aloofness and unbelievable virgin beauty. There never was so much concentrated innocence as in those pale blue eyes of hers, shaded by star pointed lashes, as in that little mouth posed as though repeating “prunes” and “prisms”. But Lillian Gish, the enigma of Hollywood, knows what is to be known. She has no illusions about the movies. Her fragility makes men protective, yet no woman in Hollywood needs or takes less protection.

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

Her interest travels beyond acting, direction, costuming, into the box office. The American Duse keeps a mild blue eye on the cash box. It is her own admission that the little hands have fluttered too often, but that the public loves the flutter of those pathetic white hands.

There are many who moan not only at the hand flutter, but at the other funny little screen habits which have aided in the formation of the pretty Gish tradition. They ache at those scenes in which she runs bewildered, frantic into the night, in which the little feet go pitter patter, in which she chases birds or butterflies around the sunlit rose bushes, aided by the glinting photography, the hidden studio lights touching up eye and hair and lip. One sickened critic asked plaintively if she ever expected to catch that bird. All these are set into her pictures, but once through, Miss Gish goes triumphantly on. For years she has been winning her way with whimpers. She has never resorted to the crudities of bawling. Her whimpers have been hushed for the most part, a suggestion of whimper. The crystal clarity of her face required only a breeze to whip into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons. It is all perhaps because Miss Gish, in those magnificent Griffith days, learned to act with her underlip, her eyes, her lashes.

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

By the very perfection of her performances, she bas proved and to her own dismay, the limited appeal of screen perfection. For although she has reduced her audiences to murmuring audibly, “That is wonderful acting”, she has not reduced them to the obviously greater state of uncomfortable dumbness. Miss Gish is too perfect for that. She commands the mind and eye, but the heart retains its placid beat; just another manifestation of the idea that emotion and analysis will not stride together; that you cannot continue to cry while wondering about the tear ducts. With never the pulling thrill of the sweep of turbines whirling in power houses she acts in the perfect but pleasant rhythm of watch wheels. That touch of perfection, that pleasant placidity follows into her private life. She is a solitary woman who has cloaked her solitude with a shawl of mystery, receding much like Duse and Maude Adams, those idols for whom she lights a taper. From Duse came her screen credo, from Maude Adams the example of completely divorcing public and private life.

Lillian Gish Diane of The Follies - mid shot C

Like Miss Adams, she refuses interviews, and has now begun experimenting with film itself. The private lives of Duse, Adams and Gish are not for public knowledge. Much has been squeezed out of that life until there remains only work and a series of great and sincere performances. The essentials of her life can be folded like an accordion into these few points. She started acting when she was just a golden haired child, chased by Chinamen through melodramas. From those classic scenes, she entered a convent school; but left there so early that the majority of her knowledge has been self gathered. A visit to her friend of the melodrama days, Mary Pickford, at the Fourteenth Street studio in 1912 led to those years of Griffith direction in “The Birth of a Nation”, “Hearts of the World”, “Broken Blossoms”, “Intolerance”.

When she slipped away from Griffith, it was believed that without his hypnosis she could do nothing. But the stubborn strength of Lillian Gish was mated with ability. After various connections, she settled down with Inspiration Pictures which led to the famous trial which she attended, sitting in the courtroom looking like one of Sir John Tenniel’s drawings of bewildered Alice in wonder land.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

The pale Lillian nibbled throughout on carrots, and ever since then the columns of the tabloids have known her simply as “Carrots” Gish. Then came the move to the studios of MetroGoldwyn-Mayer, and her performances as Hester Prynne, as Mimi, as Annie Laurie. None of that has touched her smothered existence.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

Working hard with long hours, Miss Gish lives with her beloved sick mother in a charming but not elaborate home managed by her secretary, once the secretary of Mrs. Oliver Belmont. In that home she spends her hours. She is an excellent horsewoman, a good swimmer, but she rides alone, swims alone, refusing to be known as an athletic woman. She does charitable work, being kind to animals, scene shifters and little extra girls. Tired, languid, taking no part in parties, Lillian Gish goes to bed early except on those nights when she entertains at small dinner parties for authors visiting Hollywood. Authors, in particular ;Joseph Rergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, Carl Van Vechten, F. Scott Fitzgerald, delight in this woman who looks like only a pretty blonde person, but who is serious, desires to be serious. Although they do not discover her with the Phaedras, Religio Medici or Rasselas, they do find her with Cabell, Shaw and Wells, the pages cut. She tells them bits about herself, that “all pretty young women like her, but that old ugly ones hate her”.

Ross Verlag 3424-1 - Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi - German Postcard MGM
Ross Verlag 3424/1 – Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi – German Postcard MGM

There is little nonsense about her, and just as she has suppressed all else about her, she represses her neat wit. If occasionally it breaks through in that quiet voice, it comes out as though she were exceedingly displeased with herself.

“Wit is for men”, says Lillian Gish. And while the life of Hollywood goes violently on, budding scandals, marriage, birth, deaths and divorces, up in her hill home Lillian Gish lives blandly in harmony with her face. Nothing can startle its subdued contours. She is good composition. Tranquilly, Lillian Gish sits, dressed in white organdie with her ash blonde hair down her back, relaxed on the window seat looking out for hours into the depths of the California night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?” Mrs. Gish has asked for years.

“Nothing, mother, just looking.”

And she continues gazing out into space, a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard, a white fingered maiden who has deliberately, harshly, washed her life with gray.

Lillian Gish at Six

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Young Boswell Interviews Lillian Gish (New York Tribune, 1922)

Young Boswell Interviews Lillian Gish

New York Tribune, Friday, November 24, 1922

Because she is a tragedienne of motion pictures, she best understands the pushed-off-in-a-corner woman. Her beauty is fragile and her emotional appeal subtle. “Broken Blossoms,” though a tragedy, was the finest film, artistically yet produced.

She has created a “movie” technique apart from the stage technique, she has sailed to Italy to produce a new masterpiece.

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 entire passenger list of the Providence followed LILLIAN GISH to the boat deck, where photographers swarmed to snap her while she checked her trunks, which had already been checked, and said premature goodbyes to her sister Dorothy and Mary Pickford, who had come to see her off.

“She really is lovely looking” remarked one lady through her lorgnette. “And those orchids are just the right flowers for her,” “I like that gray suit with the fur collar,” commented her daughter. “And mother, I want a little black hat like hers, with a lace veil.”

Mary Pickford serves as director for this shipboard news film of Lillian and Dorothy Gish as they leave for Europe in 1922
Mary Pickford serves as director for this shipboard news film of Lillian and Dorothy Gish as they leave for Europe in 1922

Young Boswell drew Miss Gish away from the photographers to a quiet corner behind a bow ventilator.

Young Boswell: What are you doing in Italy?

Lillian Gish: We are going over to do “The White Sister,” by Marion Crawford.

Young Boswell: Oh, yes. I drove out to this villa in Sorrento. Beautiful view of the Bay of Naples from there.

Lillian Gish: You know he wrote perfect continuity. He built his stories up to the sort of climax which the scenario has to have. He used our technique. My only regret is that he isn’t alive to see his work produced. “The White Sister” is set in Naples and Rome, and we are going to do several scenes on the island of Capri. I hope it will be a good picture. It’s a tragedy like “Broken Blossoms.”

A belated photographer pushed Young Boswell aside, to run a few feet of film for the weeklies.

Young Boswell: Don’t you ever get tired of being photographed?

Lillian Gish: No, I really love it. Did you see “Hamlet” last night?

Young Boswell: I couldn’t get in.

Lillian Gish: Well, one of the critics called John Barrymore the best Hamlet of his generation. I can’t imagine a better Hamlet of any generation. It was an extraordinary performance. I hope it’s still running when I come back. I should like to see it again. I’m coming back in about four months.

And then the foghorn blew a deep blast. Lillian Gish clung to her sister Dorothy, and began to cry. Mary Pickford tried to comfort her.

"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

Lillian Gish: I really ought to be happy going abroad. I was when I went over before, during the war.

She looked out into the mist settling over the harbor, veiling the passing tugs and ferries, and the gray water below. “I guess it must be a gloomy day,” she said. The whistle blew again. “Good bye Dorothy; good bye Mary. Good bye Young Boswell.”

When Young Boswell was wandering toward the nearest subway he thought of the stateroom she was to occupy – not large and luxurious and decorated like a florist’s, as one would expect – and of what she had said when asked to explain the pushed-off-in-a-corner woman. “All of us are like that. Struggling and defeated and trying to make good. We are all Saint Peters in our minds.”

“No,” thought Young Boswell as he dropped his nickel in the slot, “she isn’t a typical ‘movie’ actress. She is a very real person, a sincere artist.”

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish By Kevin Brownlow (San Francisco Cine – 1985)

San Francisco Cine – 1985

Lillian Gish

By Kevin Brownlow

If you read in a Victorian novel that an actress who began her career in the early 1800s was still going strong in 1884, you would dismiss it as absurd. But transfer the century to our own, and the dates correspond to the career of Lillian Gish. She made her first appearance on the stage in 1901 at the age of five—as Baby Lillian—acted in her first film in 1912. and recently finished a picture that will be released this year. Lillian Gish is no ordinary actress: by common consent, she is one of the greatest of this century – You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Meeting her is an exhilarating experience, for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed— and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith” and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history.

She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him “the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Ration (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Right of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill (1958), and A Wedding (1978). “We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”

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

It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.”

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)

Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance offscreen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.

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

In the film Hearts of the World she gives a heartbreaking performance as a shell-shocked girl who wanders the battlefield, in search of her lover, carrying her wedding dress. The film established her uncanny ability to portray terror and hysteria, and it established, too, the warmth and poignancy she could bring to love scenes. But Hearts of the World paled by comparison with the next major production of the partnership. Broken Blossoms (1919) had none of the usual Griffith trademarks—no cast of thousands, no epic sets. It was based on a story by Thomas Burke about the love of a Chinese man for a twelve-year-old girl. At first, Lillian Gish fought against playing the role. She offered to work with a child of the right age, but felt she couldn’t possibly play the part herself. Griffith insisted that only she could handle the emotional scenes. How right he was. Lillian Gish played the child (changed to a fifteen-year-old) with conviction. She invested the role with a quality so powerful and disturbing that a journalist—watching the filming of the scene where the girl hides in a closet as her father smashes the door with an ax—was overwhelmed: She pressed her body closer to the wall—hugged it, threw her arms high above her head, dug her fingers into the plaster. A trickle of dust fell from beneath her nails. She screamed, a high-pitched, terrifying sound, a cry of fear and anguish. Then she turned and faced the camera.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It was the real thing. Lillian Gish was there, not ten feet from the camera, but her mind was somewhere else —somewhere in a dark closet. Tears were streaming from her eyes. Her face twitched and worked in fear. . . . I have always considered myself hardboiled, but I sat there with my eyes popping out.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

Lillian Gish came into pictures by accident. In 1912, she and her sister, Dorothy, visited the Biograph Studios in New York because they heard that their friend Gladys Smith was working there. (Gladys Smith had changed her name to Mary Pickford.) In the lobby, the sisters met a hawk-faced young man who asked them if they could act. “I thought his name was Mr. Biograph. He seemed to be the owner of the place. Dorothy said, ‘Sir, we are of the legitimate theater.'”

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean reading lines, I mean, can you act?’ We didn’t know what he meant. He said, ‘Come upstairs.’ We went up there where all the actors were waiting and he rehearsed a story about two girls who are trapped by burglars, and the burglars are shooting at them. We watched the other actors to see what they were doing and we were smart enough to take our cues from them. Finally, at the climax, the man took a 22 revolver out of his pocket and started shooting at the ceiling and chasing us around the studio. We thought we were in a madhouse.” The young director was D.W. Griffith, and the film became An Unseen Enemy, the first of many one- and two-reelers to feature Lillian Gish. Thus her career began before the advent of the feature film. It was Griffith who helped to pioneer the feature film in the United States—and it was his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) that ensured its survival. I saw the rushes.” she said “Even at that early age. I was terribly interested in film, how it was made, what happened to it. I was in with the developing and printing of the film, the cutting of it, so I’d seen ‘The Clansman,’ as it was then called. The others hadn’t, and I was there that night the rest of the cast saw it for the first time.

I remember Henry B. Walthall, who played the Little Colonel: He just sat there, stunned by the effect of it. He and his sisters were from the South. Eventually they said, ‘It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen or ever imagined.'”

When Griffith visited England during the First World War, ostensibly to arrange for the premiere of his 1916 epic. Intolerance, he began to prepare for a huge propaganda film to support the Allied cause. He brought over Lillian and Dorothy Gish, traveling in the company of their mother, to play the leads. The journey across the Atlantic was dangerous enough, with constant peril from U-boats, and their stay at the Savoy Hotel in London was enlivened by German bombing raids. But Griffith decided to take them to France, and there they saw the devastation of war at first hand.

“In one of the villages on the way up front from Senlis,” said Lillian Gish, “we saw a house that had been destroyed: bits and pieces of furniture and an old coffeepot on its side. What pictures it brought up, because everyone there had been killed. As we drove up in this car to places where they wouldn’t send trained nurses—they were valuable, actresses were a dime a dozen—we saw the astonished look on the faces of all the soldiers. They couldn’t believe that these people in civilian clothes—we were dressed as we were in the film—would be up there. And we were within range of the long-distance guns.”

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

When she worked with the young King Vidor on La Boheme, she astonished him with her dedication. He was not accustomed to actresses who prepared themselves so thoroughly for their parts. She felt that research was part of the job. As Mimi, she had to die of tuberculosis, so she asked  priest to take her to a hospital to talk to those who were really dying of the disease. She arrived on the set with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and Vidor asked what she had done to herself. She replied that she had stopped drinking liquids for three days to give her lips the necessary dryness. When he shot the death scene, he decided to call “cut” only when he saw her gasp after holding her breath to simulate death.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

But nothing happened. She did not take a breath. “I began to be convinced that she was dying.” said Vidor. “I began to see the headlines in my mind: ‘Actress Plays Scene So Well She Actually Dies.’ I was afraid to cut the camera for a few moments. Finally, I did and I waited. Still no movement from Lillian John Gilbert bent over and whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. At last she look a deep breath, and I knew everything was all right. She had somehow managed to find a way to get along without breathing . . . visible breathing, anyway. We were all astounded and there was no one on the set whose eyes were dry.” Small wonder that Vidor said. “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”

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

The qualities in which Lillian Gish is famous were exemplified in D.W. Griffith’s production of Way Down East. The picture was based on an old theatrical melodrama so lurid that when she read the play, she could hardly keep from laughing. It tells of Anna Moore, a country girl who visits ihe city and is seduced by a wealthy playboy by means of a mock marriage. Abandoned and destitute, she gives birth to a baby that dies soon afterward.

She wanders the countryside and finds a haven at a farm. But when her secret is discovered, she is turned out of the house. Staggering through a snowstorm, she collapses on the ice as it starts to break up, and is carried toward certain death over the falls. The farmer’s son, who loves her, races to the rescue, leaping from floe to floe and grasping her a split second before disaster. Griffith transformed this material into superb entertainment, and by her presence Lillian Gish gave the story a conviction and a poignancy no other actress could have provided.

“We filmed the baptism of Anna’s child at night,” she wrote in her autobiography, recently reissued, “in a corner of the studio, with the baby’s real father looking on. Anna is alone: the doctor has given up hope for her child. She resolves to baptize the infant herself. The baby was asleep, and. as we didn’t want to wake him, I barely whispered the words, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost …” as I touched the tiny temples. “There was only the sound of the turning camera. Then I heard a thud. The baby’s father had slumped to the floor in a faint. D.W. Griffith was crying. He waved his hand in front of his face to signify that he couldn’t talk. When he regained control of himself, he took me in his arms and said simply. ‘Thank you.'”

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

The film was made in and around Griffith’s Mamaroneck studio, on a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. The winter was so severe that the Sound reportedly, froze over. For one scene, shot during a blizzard, three men lay on the ground, gripping the legs of the tripod while Billy Bitzer ground the camera and Lillian Gish staggered into the teeth of the storm. “My face was caked with a crust of snow,” she said, “and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm Mr. Griffith shouted, ‘Billy, move in! Get that face.'”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

On top of this, she had to shoot the icefloe scenes. One of her ideas for this sequence was to allow her hand and hair to trail in the water as she lay on the floe. “I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them,” she wrote. “After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long.”

Motion picture history is compounded of generous helpings of legend, and some historians have wondered if Lillian Gish has exaggerated her feature.

Lee Smith in the December 1921 issue of American Cinematographer, a technical journal that has never resorted to press agentry, described how the ice-floe sequence was shot:

We had doubles for both Miss Gish and Mr. Richard Barthelmess, but never used them. . . . Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world. It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream, but she never complained nor seemed to fear. But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bareheaded and without a heavy outer coat, so that it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from cold, but she immediately reacted and never seemed lo suffer any great distress.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

“When you play virgins, you have to work hard. They’re all right for five minutes ; after that you have to work to hold the interest.” (Lillian Gish)

The films. Broken Blossom; and The Wind, were shown in a West End theater called the Dominion, built in 1929. Chaplin premiered City Lights there. The twenties decor is still intact, and, more important, there’s still a pit for the orchestra. I was very pessimistic about the size of the audience; I recalled seeing The Wind many years ago at the National Film Theatre with seven people. But our tribute averaged more than a thousand people at each of the four performances. As anyone who has tried to program silent films will agree, that is an astonishing turnout.

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

II was also gratifying to see Lillian Gish’s name in huge letters on a marquee again, and to see the crowds gathering before each show with autograph books. The first night. Broken Blossoms was attended by some of the most famous names in the English theater, not only John Gielgud, but also Emlyn Williams, who played Richard Barthelmess’s part in the remake of Broken Blossoms. Silent star Bessie Love came to see her old friend; they had both been in Intolerance. They posed for pictures with Dame Anna Neagle, whose husband Herbert Wilcox directed Dorothy Gish in the silent era. Lillian -Gish introduced the film and supplied some of the background. She also explained the importance of the music. Carl Davis had arranged the original Louis Gottschalk score of 1919 (the Gish character’s theme, “White Blossom,” was composed by D.W Griffith himself). The audience watched the beautiful tinted print with rapt attention. The occasion was unmarred by those titters that so often wreck showings of silent films. One could feel the emotion, and the applause afterward was tremendous. “I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,” said one man, “but this was my greatest evening.” I hope he was there the following evening, for it was even more impressive. In her introduction, Lillian Gish left no doubt that The Wind was physically the most uncomfortable picture she had ever made —even worse than Way Down East. “I can stand cold,” she explained, “but not heat.” The exteriors were photographed in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, where it was seldom under 120 degrees. “I remember having to fix my makeup and I went to the car and I left part of the skin of my hand on the door handle. It was like picking up a red-hot poker. To create the windstorm, they used eight airplane engines blowing sand, smoke, and sawdust at me.”

MGM/UA allowed us to provide a new score for The Wind (which will also replace the 1928 Movietone recording in the television version). Carl Davis and arrangers Colin and David Matthews created a storm sequence of earsplitting volume. As one critic said, it was as though they had brought the hurricane into the theater. The effect of the film and the music pulverized the audience. Lillian Gish said it was the most exciting presentation of The Wind she had seen in years. Some people compared the experience to seeing Napoleon, and several found it even more powerful. The critic of the Daily Telegraph compared Gish to Sarah Bernhardt and that of the Guardian thought the director of The Wind, Victor Seastrom, was now on a level with D.W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish received a standing ovation, and days later people were still talking of her astonishing performance in the film.

“It was the film event of the year,” said George Perry of the Sunday Times. “Carl Davis’s music was incredible. It felt as though the theater was collapsing. It made Sensurround seem a crude gimmick. Lillian Gish’s performance was absolutely wonderful.”

1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France - Henri Langlois)
1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France – Henri Langlois)

We said farewell to Miss Gish at her hotel while she was busy packing. Her hair was down, and I have seldom seen her look so beautiful. All of us connected with the event were exhausted, but Lillian Gish was as full of vitality as ever. “When I get back to New York,” she joked, “I shall go to bed and I won’t get up until 1984. When you think of me, think of me horizontal.” When we think of her, we will think of her striding onto the stage of the Dominion to receive the acclamation of an audience that, thanks to her, has rediscovered its faith in the cinema.

Kevin Brownlow is a filmmaker and film historian. His books include The Parade’s Gone By and “Napoleon”: Abel Gance’s Silent Classic.

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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“ROMOLA” by Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set

“ROMOLA” Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932

Reports from “The White Sister” showed that it was going to make record runs—that returns from it would be very large. Catholics and Protestants alike approved it. Father Duffy, of the Fighting Irish 69th Regiment, of New York, wrote:

I wish to nominate “The White Sister” for a high place on the White List of dramatic performances…. It is religion struggling with human passions, as in real life, and gaining its victory after storm and stress. Chicago society deserted the opera on the opening night of “The White Sister,” and similar reports came from elsewhere. Lillian’s personal tribute—her “fan” mail—assumed mountainous proportions: offers of engagements, protection, marriage, requests for loans… what not?

Vanity Fair Nov 1923 - Lillian Gish Romola
Vanity Fair Nov 1923 – Lillian Gish Romola

Meantime, one must get on with the next picture. King was already in Italy, making a pirate ship scene. Lillian finished cutting down “The White Sister,” for road use, an arduous, delicate work, and with Mrs. Kratsch, sailed in November. Dorothy was to be in “Romola,” and with her mother had sailed a little earlier. To Genoa, then Florence, where they put up at the Grand Hotel on the Arno, with an outlook on the Ponte Vecchio, all that the heart could desire, if the weather had only been a little more encouraging. It began to rain, and it continued to rain—“about nineteen days out of twenty,” Dorothy said. Dorothy thought the rain not very wet rain—not at all like English and American rain—not so solid—light, like ether. But one evening, the rain stopped, and when they woke in the night, there was a strange silence. In the morning, there was another sound—also strange—strangely familiar. Dorothy looked over at Lillian.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

“If we were in America, I should say they were shoveling snow.” They hopped out of bed, and to the window. It was shoveling, and it was snow. “Very unusual,” they were assured later. But then, winters in Southern Europe quite often are unusual. Even sunshiny ones. The picture of “Romola” follows the main incidents of George Eliot’s novel. Lillian, of course, had the part of Romola, Dorothy that of Tessa, Ronald Colman that of Carlo Bucelline. To William H. Powell was assigned the part of Tito; Herbert Grimwood was given the part of Savonarola, and looked so much like him that when he walked along the streets of Florence, children would point him out. Altogether, the cast was a fine one. They had expected to use a number of real scenes in Florence—the Duomo, the Piazza Signoria, etc., but found that modern innovations—telegraph wires and poles, street car tracks, and the like—made this impracticable. On their big lot in the outskirts of the city, they built an ancient Florence, a very beautiful Florence, of the days of Savonarola. They did use the Ponte Vecchio, the ancient bridge, though a second story had been added a generation later than the period of their picture.

Lillian Gish - Romola

And they used the Arno in several scenes. Rain or no rain, their lot became a busy place. They brought the “White Sister” equipment from Rome, and a small army of artisans and laborers began to work wonders. In a brief time, a quaint old street sprang up—along it shops of every sort, just as they might have been four hundred years before … real shops, in which were made every variety of paraphernalia required for the picture: costumes, harness, basketry, hats, footwear, furniture—everything needed to restore the semblance of a dead generation. They even set up a little restaurant, and ate their luncheons there. Animals—dogs and cats—walked about, or slept in the sun. Flocks of pigeons were in the air, or on the house-tops. During the brief visit of the year before, they had asked that these be raised on the lot. It was all realistic, and lovely. Wood-carvers were at work on the rich interiors, some of them more beautiful, even, than those of “The White Sister”: a great church interior, and a banquet hall, for Romola’s wedding. At one side of the lot were small buildings, where the distinguished artist, Robert Haas, with his staff, worked at the drawings. For the great wedding feast, they could not get period glasses in Florence, so sent a man to Venice, and had them specially blown. Lillian remembers the banquet hall as very rich, exquisite in detail—the scene as a whole, one of peculiar distinction.

Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish
Romola Motion Picture Magazine Page Lillian Gish

“We had for it a lot of titled people of Florence, who were eager to be in the picture. We had very little trouble to get anything we needed in the way of extras. In some of the scenes, we had hundreds of them. “One thing we did not get so easily: For the wedding, we needed 15th Century priest robes. We heard of some up in the hills, but we could get them only on condition that we engage four detectives to guard them, two by day, two by night. “We had to guard ourselves, for that matter. Florence has many Americans, and they have not much to do. If we had let in all who called, we should have had a perpetual sequence of social events, with very little work. We had many invitations, but could not accept them. I think we went out just once, for dinner. When we had a little time in the afternoon, we liked to go to Doni’s, for tea, or to shop a little, for linens and laces. Whatever of such things we have now, Mother bought that winter In Florence.

“Every night we literally prayed that the next day would dawn clear and bright, so that we might make up our lost time. But no! Maybe, as Dorothy said, the Italian ‘dispenser of weather,’ didn’t understand English.

“One cannot too highly praise the Italian workmen. Over and over, ours would work on a set that it might be the exact replica of a 15th Century design. Italian workmen are willing to be told, and possess an astonishing ambition to do a thing exactly as it should be done.”

Romola - Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish
Romola – Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish

They began “shooting” the scenes. They had no regular scenario. They worked, as it were, inspirationally. They did not know very exactly what they were going to do when they began a scene, and they were not quite sure what they had done when they finished it. The element of accident sometimes produces happy results, but it is unsafe to count on it. “Romola” developed into a kind of panorama—a succession of lovely pictures, without very definite climaxes. They worked hard. For one thing, they were experimenting with a new film, the panchromatic, which had never been used for an entire picture, and they did their own developing. One of the chief beauties of “Romola” is the richness of its photography. What with the weather and all, the making of “Romola” was hardly what the French call “gai.” There were lighter moments: In the scene where Dorothy is supposed to drown in the Arno, she tried for an hour to sink in that greasy, unclean river. She couldn’t swim, so it had to be done in shallow water. She didn’t like to pop her head under, either, but they told her if she would fill her lungs with air and hold her breath, there would be no danger. She was plump, and her bones were small. Being filled with air made her still more buoyant. Also, she had on a little silk skirt that got air under it and ballooned on top of the water. Dorothy simply couldn’t drown. When she popped her head under, the little skirt stuck up in a point like the tail of a diving duck. Such an effect would never do for a picture like “Romola.” From their window in the Grand Hotel, Mrs. Gish and Lillian, watching through a glass, laughed hysterically at Dorothy’s efforts to drown. Dorothy finally struck: she could stand no more of the Arno water. The scene was finished one chilly day in America—in Long Island Sound. Dorothy had a cold at the time, and they thought she would contract pneumonia. But that was a poor guess. When she came out of the water, the cold was gone. Clean, salt water, Dorothy said. In the picture, Dorothy, as Tessa, has a baby.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

They borrowed the cook’s baby, the youngest of nine, a fat, robust bambino, strapped to a board, Italian fashion; easy enough to carry, properly held, but not handy for cuddling. Juliana was her name, and as lovely as one of Raphael’s cherubs—lovely, even among Italian children, all of whom have little madonna faces, because for generations expectant mothers have knelt ardently before altars and wayside shrines. Lillian and Dorothy became fond of Juliana, took walks with her, carrying her, board and all—a burden which increased daily as Juliana got fatter and fatter. They wished Juliana would not grow quite so fast; there were scenes where they had to run with her. Italian babies are seldom warm, in winter. One day, Juliana broke out with a rash, which at first they thought was measles, but was only the result of the studio heat, heat from the great Klieg lights. Lillian had a maid named Anna, a large, lovely soul, but a menace. If one got an ache or a pain, Anna came running with an enormous Italian pill, the size of those on the Medici coat-of-arms. After a day at the studio, in the strained “Romola” poses, Lillian once mentioned having a back ache.

Anna commanded her to undress and lie down. A very little later she came bringing a bath towel, and a flat-iron, the latter quite definitely warm. Then, turning the world’s darling face down, she spread the towel on her back and proceeded to iron her. It was drastic, but beneficial. The ironings became a part of the daily program. Anna decided that her mistress needed blood, and cooked for her apples in red wine. They were delicious. “Romola” was finished near the end of May. The last scene was the burning of Savonarola, terribly realistic. Lillian got so near the fire that she was scorched. A few days later they saw the rushes and she was ready to go. The great Italian episode was over. It was unique, and remains so. Big companies do not go on foreign locations any more. They build Italy or any part of the universe on their lots in Hollywood. Lillian in America found that she had been chosen by Sir James Barrie for the picture version of “Peter Pan.” No one could have been better suited to the part, and it greatly appealed to her. But there were complications. Regretfully she put it aside. Pleasant things happened: Dimitri Dirujinski and Boris Lorski modeled busts of her; Nicolai Fechin did her portrait, as Romola. The last was given a special exhibition in the Grand Central Art Galleries, with a reception to Lillian and the artist under the patronage of Cecelia Beaux and New York’s social leaders. It was bought by the Chicago Art Institute and today hangs in the Goodman Theatre of that city.


“Romola,” released through the Metro-Goldwyn Company, had two great premières: at the George M. Cohan Theatre, New York, on Monday, December 1st, 1924, and at the Sid Grauman Theatre, Hollywood, on the following Saturday. Lillian and Dorothy, with their mother, managed to attend both. The Los Angeles opening was so much more a part of the “picture” world that we shall skip to it, forthwith.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian
Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

It was unique. Manager Grauman had stirred up all Los Angeles and Hollywood over the return of the Gish girls with a new picture. They had anticipated no reception at the train. King was already in Los Angeles; he might be there … a few friends, maybe, not more. But when the train drew in, they noticed a great assembly of expectant people, most of them wearing badges—a rally of some sort, a convention. Lillian and Dorothy stepped to the train platform, and were greeted with a shower of rose-buds, thrown by gay little girls who had baskets of them; a vigorous and competent band struck up; a siren began to blow; everybody shouted and pushed forward; all those badges had on them the word GISH; all the battery of cameras that began to grind was turned on them; the rally was their rally—a welcome—welcome home to Los Angeles. Producers and directors were there. Irving Thalberg, handsome, youthful-looking, pressed forward. Mrs. Gish, thinking him from the hotel, handed him her checks, and a moment later was apologizing. But he said it was all right—he was always being taken for his own office boy. John Gilbert was there, and Norma Shearer, and Eleanor Boardman, and ever so many more. A crowd of students from the Military Academy rallied around; also, a swarm of “bathing beauties” from the Ambassador, and a fire engine came clanging up, for the Fire and Police Departments had been called out. A news notice says:

A squad of motorcycle policemen and fast cars of the Fire Department, made an escort for the automobile provided for Lillian Gish, Dorothy and their mother, through the downtown district. Sirens and bells added to the noise of welcome. Not much like the old days, when with Uncle High Herrick, they had landed with “Her First False Step” at a one-night stand. They drove to the Ambassador Hotel. Mary Pickford had not been at the train, but they found her standing in the middle of their “flower embowered drawing-room”—never more beautiful in all her life, Lillian thought. By and by, Mary, Lillian and Dorothy, motored out to the old Fine Arts Studio, where “The Birth of a Nation” and so many of Griffith’s other pictures, had been made. They found the old place hidden behind a brick building. “Intolerance” had been made there, and “Broken Blossoms.”

Egyptian Theater -1922
Egyptian Theater -1922

Douglas Fairbanks and many others had begun, there, their film careers. They recalled these things as they looked about a little sadly, at what had once been their film home.

Manager Sid Grauman had gone to all the expense and trouble he could think of to make this a record occasion. “Romola” was following Douglas Fairbanks’ “Thief of Bagdad.” It must not fall short.

Lillian Gish - Romola
Lillian Gish – Romola

“A première without a parallel. A night of all nights. The most gala festivity Hollywood has ever known. An opening beside which other far-famed Egyptian premières will pale into insignificance.” These are a few bits of Manager Grauman’s rhetoric, and he added: “Every star, director and producer, will be there to pay homage to Lillian and Dorothy Gish.” They were there. The broad entrance to the Egyptian was a blaze of light and gala dress parade. The crowds massed on both sides to see the greatest of filmland pass. Doug and Mary (who had already run “Romola” in their home theatre), Charlie, Jackie … never mind the list, they were all there. High above, the name of LILLIAN GISH blazed out in tall letters. When she arrived, and Dorothy, and their mother, their cars were fairly mobbed. Cameras were going, everybody had to pause a moment at the entrance for something special in that line.

Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian
Lillian Gish, Sid Grauman and Dorothy Gish at The Egyptian

Manager Grauman was photographed between the two stars of the evening, properly set off and by no means obliterated, small man though he was, by the resplendent gowns. After which, came the performance. Manager Grauman had fairly laid himself out on an introductory feature. There were ten numbers of it, each more astonishing than the preceding:

Lillian Gish Profile Romola

“Italian Tarantella,” “Harlequin and Columbine,” “The Eighteen Dance Wonders,” but why go on? It was a gorgeous show all in itself. After which, the beautiful processional effects of Romola’s story. There was no lack of enthusiasm in the audience. When the picture ended and the lights went on, and Lillian and Dorothy appeared before the curtain, the applause swelled to very great heights indeed. And when a speech was demanded, Lillian, in her quiet, casual way, said:

“Dear ladies and gentlemen, both Dorothy and I do so hope you have liked ‘Romola.’ If you have, then, dear, kind friends, you have made us very happy, very happy indeed … and you have made Mr. King, who directed ‘Romola,’ very happy, too.”

From the applause that followed, it was clear that there was no question as to the importance of the occasion—all the more so, had they known that, for Hollywood, at least, it was the last public appearance of these two together. The critics did not know what to make of “Romola”—did not quite dare to say what they thought they felt. To William Powell, as Tito, nearly all gave praise; some regretted that Ronald Colman did not have a better part. Dorothy, as Tessa, had given a good account of herself, they said, and Charles Lane, as Baldassare. Of Lillian’s spirituality and acting there was no question, but there were those who thought the part of Romola unequal to her gifts. As to the picture, one ventured to call it “top-heavy,” whatever he meant by that. One had courage enough to think it “a bit dull.” Another declared that it contained all the atmosphere and beauty of the Florence of Lorenzo de Medici. “Romola” was, in fact, exquisite tapestry, and the dramatic interest of tapestry is a mild one.

Life And Lillian Gish

Albert Bigelow Paine

New York, The Macmillan Company – 1932

Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes
Lillian Gish and Gleb Derujinsky’s sculpture – Romola

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Movie Star – A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood – By Ethan Mordden (1983)

The First Star and the Greatest Star

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish by Charles Albin Cca 1919

Hollywood in the 1920s was seething with inventive directors both American and foreign. Griffith had cast a spell of self-willing individuality: everyone wanted to do something special. But an actress pays for superb direction with her liberty, and this Pickford could not do. Even with Lubitsch, whom she admired (and disliked) and who was to become, as she foresaw, one of Hollywood’s unique talents, Pickford at one point had to take her director aside and point out that she owned the picture from script to rushes, that he was working not only with her but for her, and that in controversy she would cast the telling vote.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish

Pickford’s fellow Biograph player and lifelong friend Lillian Gish never had that problem. She stayed with Griffith to make some of the greatest films ever made in America, left him when their association had reached its natural end, worked with the brilliant Henry King on two foreign ventures, and became one of the biggest stars at the biggest studio, working with King Vidor and Victor Seastrom.

A Wedding
A Wedding

And while Pickford made her last film in 1933 and never acted again, Gish is still active, having played a key role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and made a presentation on the 1981 Academy Awards show. It is, without rival, the longest star career in history. It began like Pickford’s, with mother, fatherless sibling (Dorothy), and the regional stage. The Gishes met the Smiths on one of their tours and one day at the movies spotted Gladys in a Biograph, Lena and the Geese (1912). Eager to see their old friend, Lillian and Dorothy sought her out at Biograph, where Griffith beheld Lillian and saw in her all the conflicting romances of the Victorian gentleman—for mate, mother, and angel—made manifest. Blanche Sweet, another Biograph principal, observed that Griffith was so affected by Gish’s beauty that he had to struggle to keep his composure. What Gish felt for Griffith, besides an epic loyalty and admiration, has never been made clear. It was a unique collaboration, astonishingly concentrated. A generation later, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich would duplicate this interdependent eloquence, but their films are almost entirely about Dietrich’s image, whereas in his Gish films Griffith creates an entire world. Actually, he believed he was describing the world as it is, and to many he was: a world in which beastly men and gallant men vie with each other for the chance to debauch or protect women. Gish, with her rosebud mouth, tumbling locks, fragile body, and wide, seeing eyes, was the absolute Griffith heroine; but more: the ultimate Griffith star, for no other better suited his way of working.

The Gish sisters folded nimbly into the Biograph stock company, so that we find them in 1912 playing the leads in their first film, An Unseen Enemy, as two girls terrorized by burglars; and as extras later that year in The New York Hat, strolling merrily through a village scene. The New York Hat marked Mary Pickford’s farewell to Griffith, as a girl pilloried by gossips because the town minister (Lionel Barrymore) has made her the present of an expensive hat. At length it is revealed that the gift is a bequest of the girl’s mother, who died exhausted by a skinflint husband and wanted her daughter to enjoy a luxury. Griffith tacks on a marriage at the end for Pickford and Barrymore, but what he’s really after is a sense of smalltown life, with its misers and snoops as well as its goodness. Pickford had had enough of getting locked into these increasingly well-detailed friezes of American life—plus she wanted more money. But Gish found herself in her element helping Griffith open his camera upon the world, and money was not an issue with her. She enjoyed his lengthy rehearsals, preparing a film as if it were a play, perfecting the whole thing before taking a shot, and didn’t miss not having name billing. Indeed, Griffith couldn’t tell Lillian from Dorothy at first, and directed An Unseen Enemy by the color of their hair ribbons: “Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you’re scared, too. Look toward me, where the camera is.”

This appears to contradict Blanche Sweet’s report on Griffith’s obvious attraction to Lillian from minute one, but it is sure that at some point early in there Griffith and Lillian Gish locked eyes, and she figured heavily in his mythopoeia from then on. In a lead role in The Birth of a Nation (1915) Gish is already well on the way to defining the Griffith heroine* and already a surprising actress. At first you think, What’s all this stuff she’s doing? What’s this mannerism? Then, looking more closely, you recognize the “mannerism” as the gestures of life, and it’s all so natural that an actor who would get by quite nicely in some other film would look like something out of a home movie next to Gish. Certain of her bits in The Birth of a Nation are famous—her goodbye to her brothers as they leave to fight the Civil War on the northern side, when she worries and flirts and jokes all in a matter of a few seconds; the way she fidgets when,  ending her wounded southern beau in a hospital, his mother comes in; her habit of drawing back from men she likes, as if their sexual power is something she can feel and fear; or her imperious palm that breaks up hostilities between her beau and an unctuous carpetbagger.


Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Yet, again, Griffith is not featuring any one person but pulling the parts of a world together into a story. His actors must be this naturalistic, all of them, and this expressive, or he can’t pull it off. If we are to believe in his nobility, his villainy, his world where beauty dies in a day because the rats never stop coming, that world must seem to be the true world, at least while the film is running. You can rehearse for a year, but in the end you can’t act it: you must dwell in it. That was the Griffith training. That’s why, when films were shorts and only a few people attended them, his films were the best films, and that’s why, when he began to make full-length films, everyone in the country became a moviegoer. That’s also why Little Mary had enough of Griffith fast. She didn’t want to be a part of someone else’s world, nor did she regard film as morally as Griffith did. Typically, it was Gish who talked Pickford out of destroying her films. Pickford thought of them as timely art that would lose its effectiveness when fashions changed; Gish thought of them as an ageless force for community, a ritual like that of the old Greek stage. Griffith’s good guys will always be on the right side if you’re as good as they are, and his bad is always bad, no matter what current opinion maker is selling what particular brand of snake oil. Good is fairness. Bad is rape, stealing, murder, making business monopolies, fomenting civil disorder, and passing laws to invade other people’s lives. No wonder some people find Griffith so awesome. Can so moral a code survive a jazz age?

Even as early as 1919, when Griffith joined Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin in United Artists, many thought he was played out. But in Broken Blossoms (1919) he and Gish proved that their way was still vital—so much so that the entire film consists of a thread of story involving a helpless waif (Gish), her brutal father (Donald Crisp), and the Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) who chastely adores her. We don’t need a whole world this time. This is Griffith’s cameo tragedy, his little gem. Everybody dies. Crisp beats Gish to death, and Barthelmess avenges her and kills himself.