ART DECO FASHION – by Suzanne Lussier (2003)

  • ART DECO FASHION
  • Suzanne Lussier
  • BULFINCH PRESS
  • AOL Time Warner Book Group
  • Copyright © 2003 by The Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The term Art Deco was employed for the first time in 1968 by the author Bevis Hillier. It identifies an aesthetic in vogue between 1909 and 1939 which was adopted in architecture, the decorative arts, textiles and fashion; it also influenced the fine arts, film and photography. Art Deco displayed stylized motifs and shapes borrowed from national traditions, folk art and ancient cultures, and was strongly influenced by the art of the avant-garde.

Art deco fashion_Tamara de Lempicka 1929

Art Deco emerged from a unique artistic conjunction. From 1905, avant-garde movements sprung up one after another throughout Europe: the Fauves and Cubists in Paris, the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia. Meanwhile the Ballets Russes were founded in Russia by Sergei Diaghilev who, wanting to rejuvenate ballet by introducing exotic themes, sets and costumes, employed artists and musicians from the international avant-garde. Too unconventional for the conservative Russian public, the Ballets Russes moved to an ecstatic reception in Paris in 1909, a moment which historians mark as the catalyst of the Art Deco period. Pivotal in the development of Art Deco, the Ballets Russes imbued fashion with its colourful and voluptuous aesthetic through the genius of fashion designer Paul Poiret; its influence in fashion would be felt well into the 1920s. Diaghilev s dance company would trigger a long-lasting vogue for exoticism in dress and the use of luxurious materials, a vogue strengthened by the arrival in Paris of Russian emigres like Natalia Goncharova, and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Natalia_Goncharova_Paris_ca_1915

Freedom was the motif in the emancipated climate of the post-war years. A huge increase in sport and leisure activities, new dances like the Charleston, greater opportunities to travel all ushered in designs adapted to greater flexibility of movement. Gabrielle Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet were quick to embrace these trends and create innovative new lines for the modern, liberated woman.

Madeleine Vionnet – carnival dress

Black-and-white films demanded sharpness in costume and coiffure, and this would establish new references in haute couture and mainstream fashion. American movie stars had a huge influence on fashion, and they helped to promote haute-couture designs. Most of the time, however, producers could only afford one or two hautecouture dresses, so some actresses bought their gowns directly from the designers and paid for them with their own money. Mary Pickford known to go to Paris regularly, and there buy 50 haute-couture designs which she would wear indiscriminately in movies and in real life. American actresses were the first to create a style of their own: Lillian Gish with her pastel muslin dresses, Mary Pickford in ‘little girl’ dresses and Joan Crawford in garments by American fashion designers. Greta Garbo, with her cape and deep cloche, became the epitome of the late 1 920s fashion in American cinema. Period movies and movies set in faraway locations played a major part in promoting exotic outfits.

Renee Adoree and John Gilbert – La Boheme – Musette and Rodophe

*** For her part as Musette in “La Boheme, ” Erte designed a gorgeous frock of huge puffed sleeves, voluminous skirts ami wasp-like bodice. (Incidentally, you fashion devotees, Erte is an arch enemy of that confining mode. It destroys the grace of line, he says, and will never be reinstated in the style world.) ” The first day she looked exquisite—like a doll. But on the second day she insisted that she could not wear corsets and eat —and eat she must, so off came her corsets. She looked like a balloon!” Two sensitive hands made an airy outline of her appearance. But to say a lady looks like a balloon! It simply isn’t done in Hollywood, you know. Not even at ‘”cat parties.”

Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)

*** And then there was Lillian Gish.

“I designed a pretty costume for her as Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’ Mimi is a poor girl whose poverty is shown in her clothes. Of inexpensive materials I fashioned the dress—of wools and cottons.

” ‘ But no!’ says Miss Gish, ‘I do not wear harsh fabrics next to my skin. They must be of sheerest silk.’

“Silks! Can you imagine silks for a girl who lives simply and whose marriage dowry is a mere tritle!

“So I told Miss Gish she may have the designs—is very welcome to them—but she is never to enter my studio door again. Let her make the costumes herself!”

The French illustrators Paul Iribe and Erte were amongst the first costume designers to work in Hollywood, but their sketches, magnificent on paper, did not translate well to the human body. In 1930, Chanel was offered one million dollars to dress Gloria Swanson, for her role in Tonight or Never, and off-screen as well. Her designs were judged ‘not glamorous enough’ for Hollywood, however, and seemed dated by the time the movie came out.

Art deco fashion – Cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father -- 1940

The Real Lillian Gish – By Eleanor Nangle (Chicago Tribune – 1940)

Chicago Tribune – Sunday, April 7, 1940 – Page 124

The Real Lillian Gish

Cloak of Frail Femininity Covers Strong Character

By Eleanor Nangle

We had thought until we met Lillian Gish, that Mrs. Clarence Day, as portrayed in “Life With Father,” represented the ultimate in feminine wisdom and winsomeness. But there is curious, happy similarity between the woman and the character she plays. Which is probably one of the reasons Miss Gish is such a superlative success in her role of Vinnie Day.

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father - Chicago Tribune - 1940

Miss Gish, like Vinnie Day, has o totally deceptive cloak of helpless femininity. She looks physically frail, and one always thinks of her as tiny. As a matter of fact she enjoys superb health, weighs a solid 112 pounds, and is 5 feet 6 inches tall. The day we talked to her she was wearing, in the restful privacy of her hours of leisure at home, tailored slacks piped in white – the kind of costume that would make the average woman look taller. But she still seemed tiny to us, which shows you what illusion can be created by manner, fine bones, and a sweet, small face.

Lillian Gish - as Vinnie in Life With Father - Chicago Tribune 1940

She looks one of the least athletic persons in the world. But she’s an unusually good fencer. If she had the time to devote to this, her favorite exercise, she has her instructor’s word that she’d be good enough to go into the Olympics. She thinks fencing the ideal sport, with a favorable effect on the mind as well as the body. It seems a little incongruous, this, coming from a gentle, quiet little person seated demurely behind a low bowl filled with at least a dozen bunches of wood violets!

And, like Vinnie again, Miss Gish is a marvelous listener. Her interested eyes pay flattering tribute to the speaker. For one who has a unique intelligence and a vast breadth of interests she suffers fools graciously. Fundamentally she’s a surprisingly serious person who thinks things thru and has a perfect sense of values.

 

 

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father - Chicago Tribune 1940

She finds it rather wonderful to hear the laughter that rocks the “Life With Father” audiences, because she is more sensitive than most to the fact that these are tragic times. Tho she seems the sort of person who should think of nothing heavier than the flavor of the next piece of candy her small fingers will draw from the box on her lap, she is actually intelligently absorbed in European affairs. There is no fiction in sight; all clippings stacked around her room are concerned with things international. She’ll tell you very gently that this is due to the fact that since she walked out  on the movies she’s lived a lot in Europe and gotten rather fond of it. That isn’t the real reason at all; she’s just a serious student.

She dresses well but unostentatiously. She’s dressed by a woman in New York who has her measurements and sends things as they are needed. No clothes splurges. But she’s completely feminine about perfumes and bath trimmings. She adores them.

And she loves to wear costumes, taking almost as much delight as the audience in the be-bustled gowns Vinnie wears. She assumes a posture for them, you might be interested to know, slanting her body forward, keeping her elbows at her sides, and assuming a walk entirely unlike her own natural, easy gait. She makes it look easy, but it isn’t. Almost her favorite episode in “Life With Father” is the scene she isn’t in. Those five minutes when she is ill upstairs are the only rest period she gets in the whole show. But she’s such a marvelous actress that only she is conscious of the physical strain of running up and down stairs 21 times in an evening’s performance!

There’s much more than meets the eye to Lillian Gish. Like the adorable Vinnie, she’s full of surprises.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 07 Apr 1940, Sun Page 124 -

Photo Gallery – “Life With Father”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish Plays Hawthorne Heroine – By Mae Tinee (Chicago Tribune – 1927)

Chicago Tribune – Sunday, March 20, 1927 – Page 43

Lillian Gish Plays Hawthorne Heroine

“The Scarlet Letter”

Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Victor Seastrom. Presented at the Chicago theater TOMORROW.

The Cast:

  • Hester ……………………..…..…………. Lillian Gish
  • Reverend Dimmesdale …………… Lars Hanson
  • Roger Prynne …….………….. Henry B. Walthall
  • Giles …………………………..………..…… Karl Dane
  • Governor ………………………. William H. Tooker
  • Mistress Hibbins ……….…….. Marcelle Corday
  • Jailer ………………..…………….…….. Fred Herzog
  • Beadle ……………………….…………. Jules Cowles
  • Patience ……………………..………… Mary Hawes
  • Pearl ……………………………………….. Joyce Coad
  • French Sea Captain ……….…. James A. Marcus

By Mae Tinee

Good Morning; Lillian Gish looks like a saint and Lars Hanson looks like Paul Ash in this much “adapted” version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story. And I reckon why the film isn’t being presented at the Oriental is because Messrs. Balaban and Katz know the Oriental fans could never bear to see Paul suffer. SO – because Mr. Hanson, who looks like Mr. Ash, has so much to endure as Rev. Dimmesdale – he’s at the Chicago. (Maybe.)

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

Those of you who haven’t read the book may find the film version of “The Scarlet Letter” to your liking. But if you are familiar with the story of Hester Prynne, I’m afraid you’re going to be up on your ear over the liberties that have been taken. The screen production is a life sized portrait of a movie magnate showing Nathaniel Hawthorne how.

There has been much bristling officiousness and the result is the most ordinary sort of melodrama instead of a picture of power and subtlety. “The Scarlet Letter” SHOULD have been one of the great pictures of the day.

Though Lillian Gish is truly beautiful in her doctored role and gives a thoughtful and finished performance, she is as different as possible from the author’s conception of his heroine who was – “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes … characterized by a certain state of dignity.

A Story of Old Salem

Hester Prynne was a seamstress in Salem, a New England settlement of early Puritan days. The place, you know, where they burned the witches and made Sunday such a bugaboo that no descendant of a Puritan father has to this day entirely shaken off the influence of those Sunday Morning Blues to which his forefolks clumped their mournful way to meeting along around the close of the seventeenth century.

She bore a child out of wedlock, refusing to name the father, who, the picture almost immediately shows you, was the young, earnest, and greatly beloved minister of the community. For her sin she was ordered by the town fathers to wear always and forever on the bosom of her meek and proper dress the scarlet letter “A,” which should stamp her for all beholders to see as a woman taken in adultery.

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_02
17th February 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) is punished for bearing a child out of wedlock in the film ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a 17th century melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom.

(I’m going to write in the present tense if you don’t mind. It’s easier, somehow or other.)

The minister, who loves her deeply, begs to be allowed to declare his own guilt and share her shame. This, Hester steadfastly refuses to let him do, declaring that her greatest punishment would be to know that she had interfered with his work and destroyed his influence. Besides, she is aware of what he is not, that the man to whom she had been married in England – an old surgeon – but whose wife she had never been, has arrived in Salem and, under an assumed name, is hovering about them like a black and leisurely vulture, biding his time to pounce.

This sinister, implacable, waiting man is present through the entire original story. In the picture he appears near the end providing a “WHO-IS-THIS-MAN!”, “STOP-HE-IS-MY-HUSBAND!” scene. That poor Yorick of the melodramas which you know so well.

Henry B Walthall - The Scarlet Letter
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter

Little Pearl, the Only Bright Spot

The tragedy develops amid the stern, monotonous, petty routine of the Blue Law ridden settlement, the only bright spot in the lives of these three actively unhappy people being little Pearl, that “child of sin,” who, by some strange rank of Fate is a joyous madcap, utterly uncowed by the outcast condition of her mother and herself.

The denouement, as you can imagine, is a dramatic one. The picture ends sadly where the book does not – which amazes me – for the author provides a comparatively happy ending, and WHEN before have the movie makers rejected a happy ending? As a rule they will make one for themselves if the story writer has not been so considerate as to provide a fadeout that will send audiences forth smiling.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish
Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

In the novel little Pearl, it is told, becomes one of the richest heiresses in England and Hester Prynne, having seen her darling cared for, returns to the scene of her shame and becomes a woman generally beloved. In the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s bitterness and became a type of something to be sorrowed over and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence, too. And as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities and besought her counsel as one who herself had gone through a mighty trouble.

Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter - Lillian Gish - Scarlet Letter
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter

Passing Up Some Fine Chances

To this “tall woman in a gray robe” there came from England letters with armorial seals … “and once Hester was seen embroidering a baby garment with such a lavish richness of golden fancy as would have raised a public tumult had any infant thus appareled been shown to our sober-hued community.” …

Can you FEATURE how any movie maker ever passed up the chances offered in those last three paragraphs? Mi-gosh, I can’t.

So much for the stories – Mr. Hawthorne’s and Mr. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s.

The acting throughout is splendid. I foretell great popularity for the Ash-en Mr. Hanson. Sets and costumes are picturesque and of the period. Such scenery as there is lovely and the photography is everything in the world it should be. Also there are some comedy situations which I sincerely hope you may enjoy.

In closing, fans dear, may I remark regarding this film that

“If with joy you’d on it look,

Prithee, do not read the book!”

See you tomorrow!

The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926
The Scarlet Letter Hvar 8 Dag Swedish Mag 1926

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“Star Wagon” Dreams About Life and Time – By Charles Collins (Chicago Tribune 1938)

Chicago Tribune – Sunday 17, April 1938 Page 80

“Star Wagon”

Dreams About Life and Time

By Charles Collins

“The Star Wagon” came to the Chicago stage as welcome relief from the Lenten drougth in drama. It was the first new play, except for two WPA contributions of minor interest, to open here in four weeks, and its premiere was notable for cordiality of audience response. It brought an admirable cast, with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as co-stars; and it told a diverting and unusual story of American life with overtones of philosophic brooding over the mystery of life and time and destiny.

The Star Wagon 4

After adventures into the past with his “time machine,” the old inventor who is the central figure in the tale [acted with humor and quiet emotional touches by Mr. Meredith] brings down the curtain with the following speech, which expresses the spirit in which Maxwell Anderson approached his fantastic theme:

[After singing two stanzas of “The Holy City”]: “I never believed much in a golden city, back there in the choir. I don’t believe it now. But they were right about one thing, the old prophets – there is a holy city somewhere. A place we hunt for, and go forward, all of us trying and none of us finding it. Because our lives are like the bird, you remember, in the old reader that flew in from a dark night through a room lighted with candles, in by an open window, and out on the other side.

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith in fantasy play The Star Wagon

We come out of dark, and live for a moment where it is light, and then go back into the dark again. Some time we’ll know what’s out there in the black beyond the window where we came in, and what’s out there in the black on the other side, where it all seems to end.”

The Star Wagon 1

Bloomers and Trousers of 1902

The second act of “The Star Wagon” is a study in American small town manners in 1902, and as such it contains the exaggerations, tending toward caricature, which are generally found in theatrical reconstructions of the past. Miss Gish’s bloomer costume for bicycle riding has almost a “Hollywood” quality in the extremeness of its design. I can easily remember thousands of bloomer girls of 1902 or earlier, and none of them looked like that. Furthermore, in 1902, the nation had become blasé to bloomers and and they were rapidly going out of fashion.

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith promo for fantasy play The Star Wagon

The automobile of which Mr. Meredith was the proud creator is patterned after designs that were archaic in 1902. The men’s clothing is truer to the comic sketches of the period that to the suits, hats, neckties and collars actually worn by the average male at the time.

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith singing in fantasy play The Star Wagon

Songs used in plays of this type are often anachronisms. For example, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” used in the film in “Old Chicago,” was composed years after the date of the Chicago fire. Eager to fix such a “time machine” error on “The Star Wagon,” I dipped into the history of “The Holy City,” but lost my bet. This song was composed in 1892; music by Stephen Adams, words by F.E. Weatherly.

Lillian Gish in - Star Wagon - alfredo valente photo
Lillian Gish in – Star Wagon – alfredo valente photo

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Leaves For West (Chicago Tribune – 1943)

Chicago Tribune – Monday November 22 1943 Page 10

Leaves For West

Lillian Gish Press Photo 1940s
Lillian Gish Press Photo 1940s

Lillian Gish as she prepared to board the Santa Fe Chief yesterday.

Miss Lillian Gish, star of the silent screen, left Chicago yesterday aboard the Santa Fe for a lecture tour. The attractive actress, huddled in a raccoon coat with a matching snood, said she hadn’t realized Chicago became so frigid in November.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 22 Nov 1943, Mon Page 10 - N
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 22 Nov 1943, Mon Page 10 – N

 

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“Star – Wagon” (Chicago Tribune – Wednesday April 13, 1938)

Chicago Tribune – Wednesday April 13, 1938 Page 23

“Star – Wagon”

Human Fantasy of Old School

The Star Wagon 3

“The Star Wagon”

A play by Maxwell Anderson with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as co-stars; given at the Grand Opera house April 12, 1938, under the management of Guthrie McClintic.

The Cast

  • Hanus Wicks ………………….. Russell Collins
  • Martha Minch ………………..…… Lillian Gish
  • Stephen Minch …..……… Burgess Meredith
  • Park ………………….……………… Josh Trelfall
  • Ripple ………………….……….. Alan Anderson
  • Apfel ……………………….…………. Ralph Riggs
  • Duffy ……………………..………….. Barry Kelley
  • 1st Thug ………………………….. Keenan Wynn
  • 2nd Thug …………..……….. Charles Forrester
  • Misty …………………………..….. John Philliber
  • Hallie Arlington ……….……. Jane Buchanan
  • Mr. Arlington ……………..… J. Arthur Young
  • Mrs. Rutledge …………….. Mildred Natwick
  • Paul Reiger ……………………… Victor Rankin
  • Christabel ……………..……….. Evelyn Abbott
  • Della …………………………….……. Edith Smith
  • Oglethorpe …………………… William Garner

The Star Wagon 2

By CHARLES COLLINS

Maxwell Anderson’s drama “The Star – Wagon,” which came to the Grand Opera House last night to improve the vacant aspect of the Chicago stage, is an engaging meditation, both emotional and humorous, on the familiar and popular theme, “If I had my life to live all over again.” Other authors have brought about such miracles by magic potions, supernatural invocations and fantastic dreams; but Mr. Maxwell turns the trick with a gadget that looks like a chromium plated radio cabinet.

The Star Wagon 1

Its dials are set to July 4, 1902, for time and to a bicycle repair shop in an Ohio town, for place; whereupon Burgess Meredith, as a doddering old inventor, and Lillian Gish, as his complaining wife, revert to the period of their courtship in that quaint old period of comic costumes which modern playwrights like to caricature.

New York critics have written about this play in terms of the fourth dimension, curved space and the Einstein theory, which makes it seem alarmingly profound and mystifying. The simple approach, however, makes it more enjoyable; for in essence “The Star – Wagon” is a sound, human, old school fantasy, which treats the eternal wish about living all over again with improvements in a hearty and appealing American style.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With Burgess Meredith in The Star Wagon — with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish.

 

In the first act Mr. Meredith, whose vibrant voice has a way of winning emotional sympathy, appears as a snuffy, absent minded, unsuccessful inventor, over 50 years old and earning only $27.50 a week. His talents have been exploited, it seems, by the hard hearted capitalists who pay his pittance, and his haggard wife is highly annoyed by his lack of worldly success. His troubles, which include losing his job, cause him to grab the handles of his recently completed “time machine,” with his faithful henchman by his side, and whisk himself back to the start of his career, determined to give it a different direction.

The Star Wagon 4

Then the audience sees the young Mr. Meredith, who has just invented a self-starting automobile, and the young Miss Gish, a belle in a new suit of bicycling boomers, and the manufacturer’s daughter, whom Mr. Meredith intends to marry, and their circle of small town friends. A church choir rehearsal, which forms the most effective scene in the play, gives Mr. Meredith a chance to sing “The Holy City” like the ardent choir boy he used to be before he started acting.

The Star Wagon 5

The life of a prosperous inventor and capitalist in which Mr. Meredith finds himself in his new career is harrowing to his soul. His male associates are crooked; their wives are wenches, and he himself has lost his sense of honor. In desperation, therefore, he and his satellite patch up the old “time machine” and flick themselves into the humble reality from which they have fled. Then the old inventor and his wife live happily ever afterward, and the benign spirit that watches over sentimental endings to plays even arranges for them to improve their income.

Photo Lillian Gish Star-Wagon 9 x 13 B

Mr. Meredith characterizes the inventor richly; Miss Gish acts the old wife vividly and truly, and the bicycle girl with the ethereal coyness of 1902. The other members of the cast contribute skillfully to a performance that is always interesting. Russell Collins, as the inventor’s eccentric henchman; Jane Buchanan, as a pretty old style husband hunter, and Mildred Natwick, as a prudish chaperon of Sunday school picnics must be mentioned for admirable behavior.

Lillian Gish by Eric Pape 1937 Charcoal on Paper (Starwagon)
Lillian Gish by Eric Pape 1937 Charcoal on Paper (Starwagon)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish Still Favors Long Tresses – By Antoinette Donnelly (Chicago Tribune – 1938)

Chicago Tribune – Saturday, April 9, 1938 Page 9

Lillian Gish Still Favors Long Tresses

By Antoinette Donnelly

We talked backstage recently with Lillian Gish, player of the leading role in one of Broadway’s hits of the season, “Star Wagon”. We found her with her waist-length hair hanging, a sight that gladdens the eye unaccustomed to hair rarely even more than shoulder length. Miss Gish’s hair is a beautiful color, too. A silvery ash blonde that she claims has darkened as this type of hair usually does, but it still is, to us, a beautiful silvery ash tone.

Lillian Gish Portrait Promo the tventies detail

We asked Miss Gish how she managed to survive the temptation to cut the long locks, after she admitted never having succumbed once to the urge for short hair. She explained that her hair had been earning her living for her since she was a youngster and that now she has a superstition about cutting it.

Lillian Gish in The Wind - cropped detail close up

Incidentally, we had been at a smart hair showing previously and observed the coiffures built up high. Maybe they are coming in, after all the protest. Anyway, we saw a half dozen of them that afternoon and noted a something that won’t ever bother Miss Gish. The something was the stray wisps, reminiscent of another day when those stray wisps were the bane of our sex. Today’s wisps naturally are the result of hair cut too recently for the high up dressing, so that women who have weathered the scissors storm will be the best models for the high up coiffures.

Lillian Gish in The Enemy - still frame cropped detail

Miss Gish’s silhouette is slim as can be. She is one of those luckies who can eat all and sundry without watching a scale. She thinks, as a consequence, that fat is a matter of glands, not food, although some of the rest of us have good reason to suspect otherwise. No doubt the fact that Miss Gish has been a dancing school fan and attendant since she was a youngster has much to do with her slim figure. She does think dancing good for that, a good exercise for anything. But after taking up fencing her enthusiasms have swung over to it as the perfect exercise for women’s figures and also for the eye and mind alertness it encourages, or rather demands. More women are going in for the fencing, she reports, realizing it to be one grand all around exercise.

Lillian Gish portrait detail cca 1930

Speaking of dress and best dressed women, Miss Gish recalled a remark once made to her about certain women appearing to wear two or even three dresses in one because of the one frock being weighted down with trimming and other gewgaws. Her favorite dress designer is patronized by Miss Gish because of her great skill in turning out a frock completely shorn in those fatal extras.

One superb quality Miss Gish possesses is a great calm, a “quiet,” as we choose to call it, and nominate it top place in exposition of charm. Not an excess motion, a useless play of expression, or a distracting gesture.

 

Lillian Gish by Fred Hartsook detail portrait

Pictorial Star Wagon

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

“Do They Criticize Me?’ – By Madeline Glass (Picture Play Magazine – November 1926)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1926 Vol. XXV No.3

“Do They Criticize Me?’

So questions Lillian Gish, gently, when given an opportunity to explain her interpretation of Mimi in La Boheme

By Madeline Glass

IS Lillian Gish a great actress or merely a mechanical technician ? Is she unable to act for any one except D. W. Griffith ? Is she a genius too subtle for general appreciation? ***

These questions have for several years been hotly debated by fans and critics wherever motion pictures flourish. No actress on the screen provokes such widely differing opinions as Lillian Gish. Men like George Jean Nathan, Joseph Hergesheimer and John Barrymore have extolled her histrionic qualities, yet others whose names are less imposing but whose judgment is, perhaps, more reliable, scoff at her alleged genius and her tacit acceptance of the name bestowed upon her by her admirers—”the Bernhardt of the screen.”

Lillian Gish 1926
Lillian Gish 1926

A few years ago, Lillian was generally regarded as the finest actress in motion pictures. Her work in “Broken Blossoms” established her as a great tragedienne. Later she appeared to excellent advantage in “Way Down East.” Her characterization in that picture was superb, containing as it did exquisite interludes of pathos and several instances of towering emotionalism. At that time D. W. Griffith’s morbid predilection for depicting frail virtue at the mercy of brutal man kept Lillian continually playing persecuted heroines. After leaving Griffith’s guiding hand she made “The White Sister,” which was well received by the public, but which won only lukewarm praise from the press. Then came “Romola,” an expensive and highly pretentious picture, but a dismal failure financially and artistically. Such histrionic honors as it contained were captured by Lillian’s sister, Dorothy. And after the release of “La Boheme,” Miss Gish’s standing as an artist seemed to suffer a great deal. Critics dealt with her so harshly that I determined to seek her out and, if nothing else, offer condolence. I had read somewhere an article which quoted her as saying that she never allowed anything but finest silk to touch her skin. Which is all well and good. But, somehow, I vaguely resented it. It suggested ostentation. Then I remembered having seen her wear silk stockings while playing poor orphans and peasant girls. Could that delicate, angelic face possibly conceal a naughty nature ? Writers never tire of comparing Lillian’s beauty with virginal lilies and the Madonna, the assumption being that her character matches her face. Still, even a superficial analysis proves the fallacy of judging persons solely by the perfection of their features. We all meet at times fine, benevolent individuals who, if judged by their appearance, would be hanged without a trial. But, at any rate, Lillian has long been my favorite actress and when the studio clerk announced that she was ready to receive me I put all critical thoughts from my mind, and went forward eagerly. A few minutes’ walk through a labyrinth of hallways and miniature streets brought me to her dressing rooms. Before the maid could offer me a chair the silk curtains across the room opened and Lillian began to enter. I say began to enter advisedly. First came the lowered head bearing a graceful burden of bright, high-piled hair and a tall coronet of stiff gold lace. Then the pale face, with its large gray eyes and delicate chin, appeared. Next came the snugly dressed upper torso and arms, and last the enormous brocaded skirt which, once through the narrow door, spread about in gorgeous profusion, seeming to half fill the tiny room. Quickly the lovely figure stood erect and advanced, extending a white, blue-veined hand.

Annie Laurie crop1b

One’s first impression of Lillian Gish is her very definite air of gentle, nineteenth-century decorum. There is ladylike grace and precision in all her movements. When the usual greetings were over I remarked about the striking medieval costume. “This dress weighs fifteen pounds.” said she, in her nice, deliberate voice. “It is a seventeenth-century model. When I was in London recently I visited museums and studied dresses of that period. The material in them is much heavier than in this—they really stand alone.” “No wonder the houses in those days were built as large as the Mammoth Cave,” I observed. “The women must have required a lot of -room.” “Yes,” said Lillian. “It wasn’t necessary for them to take up outdoor sports. They got enough exercise carrying their clothes about.”

Lillian Gish - still frame2 - Annie Laurie
Lillian Gish – still frame – Annie Laurie

She spoke with delicate enthusiasm about her new picture, which is based on the famous song, “Annie Laurie.” Before our conversation had progressed very far she was wanted on the set, so the maid and I helped her gather up her trailing garments to depart. At the corner of one of the buildings Lillian and I halted while the maid went in search of a car. Presently Mae Murray came along and stopped to exclaim over Lillian’s costume. Mae, you know, is a recent bride and while she and Miss Gish engaged in brief discussion of real estate, Robert Leonard, Mae’s ex-husband, also recently remarried, walked by smiling pleasantly, and bowed to the three of us. In a few minutes Mae left us and a limousine rolled up for Lillian’s use. With the aid of every one present she got in, and made room for me. Dressed as she was, the heat must have been most unpleasant, yet she voiced no complaint. Every one on the set seemed cheerful. Courtesy and affability were constantly in evidence. Occasionally an actor or actress from one of the other stages dropped in for a brief call. Finally Ramon Novarro appeared, wearing an ill-fitting suit and a pleased expression. (He has discarded his mustache — thank Heaven !) After two hours I was beginning to grow uneasy. Lillian had been too busy to talk except for momentary intervals, and although I was enjoying myself immensely I did not forget the object of my visit. Lillian had been gone from the set for some time, but presently returned garbed in a less extreme dress and wearing a fetching blue cap which, with the golden curls, made her look very lovely. She led me away from the disturbing set to a property room near by. There were no chairs, but Lillian approached an iron bedstead and sitting down upon the springs spread her abundant skirts as a sort of makeshift cushion for me. After some preliminary small talk I mentioned, as tactfully as I knew how, the subject of criticism, both professional and “fanesque.” To my surprise, she did not seem particularly interested. So I tried again by bravely suggesting that her Mimi in “La Boheme” had not received as much praise as some of her other characterizations. She answered then—and I nearly fell off the bed.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

“Has some one been criticizing me?” she inquired. Under the circumstances her question was as astonishing as if she had looked at the Pacific Ocean and asked, “Is it wet?” Growing suddenly uncomfortable I wondered what explanation I could make. Perhaps I should not have mentioned the subject. When ignorance is bliss.

“What have they been saying about me ?” she insisted.

Hard pressed for an answer, I finally mentioned certain reputable critics who had found fault with her interpretation of Merger’s heroine.

“Yes, I remember reading those reviews,” said she. “A criticism,” she continued, “is merely one person’s opinion. For years I had wanted to play Mimi—not as Murger described her but as she is in Puccini’s opera. Our picture is based on the opera, not the story, and I feel that I portrayed Mimi very faithfully. Music lovers have praised the characterization highly. The heroine of Murger’s story was a promiscuous woman and I do not think a woman of that character could have inspired Rodolphe to write a great play. For that reason the Puccini version is the more logical of the two. We tried to depict an ideal romance, a great, spiritual love, and I think we succeeded. If I had wanted to play a naughty lady I would have chosen Camille” Her manifest lack of resentment toward ‘her critics confounded me. I wondered then I and I have wondered ever since whether her attitude is due to superb mental and emotional control or to polite disdain of the opinions of others. She sat quietly toying with the folds of her dress, betraying no sign of annoyance or concern. There was one other subject I felt I had to broach. For several years Miss Gish has been called by her admirers “the Bernhardt of the screen.” This lavish compliment has at last produced a discordant reaction. Even her fans are beginning to question the fitness of the sobriquet. Although Lillian has never publicly commented on the subject I felt that she might welcome an opportunity to clear up the delicate misunderstanding by denying any claim to Bernhardt’s mantle of glory. “Do you not think, Miss Gish,” I asked, “that your admirers have done you an unintentional injury by repeatedly calling you ‘the Bernhardt of the screen ?'” A profound silence ensued. Lillian merely regarded me with her lovely, questioning eyes as if she did not quite understand.

“Possibly,” I suggested, encouragingly, “some people resent the—ah—compliment ”

“Perhaps they do,” said Lillian, gently, and there the matter ended. I had hoped she would disclaim the honor or treat the matter as a jest, but as she did neither I was left to conclude that she accepted the tribute as her just desert. A fault often found with Miss Gish is her inability to play a variety of roles. It occurred to me that if she could put aside her excessive refinement long enough to submerge herself, mind, body, and soul (without the adornment of silk stockings), in a vigorous, rough-and-ready character, her versatility would be proven and her critics silenced. So I ventured to inquire if she had ever considered playing Sadie Thompson in “Rain.”

“That is a marvelous character,” said she. “Dorothy would just love to play her. But I can’t imagine any one playing her better than Jeanne Eagles.” She had not really answered my question, so I abandoned that subject and made some reference to censorship.

“Segregation is the only method of regulating screen plays,” said she. “It is hopeless, ruinous, to attempt to make every picture suitable for children. Mothers should select their children’s motion pictures the same as they select their reading matter. No one can successfully relieve them of this responsibility. My own mother would have considered it the height of impudence for any one to tell her what her children could or could not see.

“I seldom go to picture shows,” she remarked. “I am too tired to sit through the endless prologues. I hope the time will soon come when we will have theaters that show pictures exclusively. Then people who go to enjoy the film will not have to endure a series of stage presentations.” To which I heartily agreed. It was time for Lillian to return to the set, so the interview had to end. At parting she held my hand for a moment, saying rather apologetically, “I’m afraid I didn’t give you a very good story.” I assured her that she had and thanked her for the interview. She is a lovable girl in spite of her enigmatical qualities.

Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

*** Admin Note: Miss Madeline Glass (author of above interview) most definitely knew about James R. Quirk’s article published in March 1926 in Photoplay. MGM’s “hangman” wrote again pouring poison from his plume “Lillian Gish – The Enigma of the Screen,” where second and third headline were “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?” and “Is she a genius or a mechanic?”. Possibly Miss Gish was aware of Quirk’s attack, masking her discontent with icy cold indifference. Louise Brooks unveiled MGM’s blackmail policy in hers “Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars” (Sight and Sound London 1959). Brooks noticed as well James R. Quirk’s attacks targeting MGM Star “mutineers.”

Lillian Gish, The Enigma of the Screen – By James R. Quirk (Photoplay 1926)

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

 

Do they criticize me - Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)
Do they criticize me – Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)

 

Back to Lillian Gish Home page