Lillian Gish asked me on the day following the world premiere of The White Sister. And so we drifted into a discussion of the concluding scenes of that photoplay, in which ” Sister Angela ” keeps her vows to the church, while her love for a man is annihilated.
It was late afternoon in the Vanderbilt Hotel, and the frail Lillian was lying on a couch, resting from the excitement and thrills of the night before, a night which concluded with a fifteen minute long distance telephone call to Mother Gish up in the mountains.
‘ It’s amusing,” Lillian remarked, “to read the remarks of one or two reviewers who believe that The White Sister has an unhappy ending. “For love means two things to a woman.
Above all it means happiness, and those of us who can find happiness in love for a man should cherish that love and hold it holy,” she told me. “To the other sort of woman, love means satisfaction. It means satisfaction of vanity for one thing. This sort of woman wants to possess a man, she wants to have the world know that she has the power of holding a man. And she wants the man for what he can give her in material goods, quite apart from happiness. There is a finer type woman, however, a rare type, who holds something beyond mere happiness and mere material satisfaction. Angela is of this type. Sensitive, with eyes uplifted from the earth, she first seeks happiness from a man. “Then this man is apparently wrested away from her by a fate stronger than any human power. Where can she renew her hope, her faith? To what can she turn?
” Because she is a Catholic she turns to the church. And when, later, her lover returns and she finds she has taken a step which turns her forever from him, she is met with a problem which is almost transcendental. She has the choice between love and honour. ” Love means nothing when you have no happiness, and what happiness could Angela have had if she had forsaken her vows? She would have been an outcast nun and her lover a broken officer of the army. She might have fled from Rome, she might have left Italy, and she might have begun life anew with him. But even if the world had forgotten that she had broken her vows, she herself could never have forgotten.
“So Angela, in the picture, takes the one and only path. The Japanese, you know, are reputed to be ready to commit harikari – (*harakiri) – if they feel their honour has been besmirched. Angela feels the same. When her lover takes her in his arms and kisses her, the lips that would have passionately met his own, are cold and lifeless, and she tears herself away from him and drives evil thoughts from her mind by telling the beads of her rosary.
” This is what love means to a woman of Angela’s type. Love means something different to every woman. To one it means a home, children, the thought that a loving being is near at every moment. To another love means the meeting of minds on an equal plane, the smoothing of life’s rough edges by a loving hand.
To another love means the sharing of great things, a mutual accord and helpfulness, the lifting of one’s life from the plane of every day living to a level of almost sublime joy.”
When Lillian has told you this interpretation of the character she plays in The White Sister, you begin to understand why she was able to give so realistic and so finely restrained a portrait of the Italian heroine of the tale. She had taken that character to her own heart and before giving screen life to Angela had thoroughly understood her. So, when you see The White Sister, recall that behind the mask of Lillian’s face beats the heart of a girl who held honour higher than anything else in the world, higher even than love.
” Love means something different to every woman,” says Lillian Gish. ” Those of us who can find happiness in love for a man, should cherish that love and hold it holy.”
Weekly kinema guide London suburban reviews and programmes – 1931
Kinema Guide – January 12th to 18th, 1931
ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT
THIS picture is played by an amazingly brilliant cast that includes Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Conrad Nagel, Marie Dressler and O. P. Heggie, which fact alone should appeal to many of our readers. The film is full of lavish spectacles, dramatic moments and romantic situations.
The story is an adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s play “The Swan,” seen on the stage in London, quite recently, at St. James Theatre and is “Ruritanian” in nature.
We all know what that means.
Romance built round handsome and beautiful princes and princesses with a virtuous commoner thrown in the whole liberally sprinkled with colonels and counts and served, if possible, with music.
Let it be understood that this galaxy of stars is by no means wasted in an inadequate play. The picture is a good one. as convincing as such a story can be, directed and played very well indeed.
Lillian Gish has a freshness that is not common among the goddesses of Hollywood. Conrad Nagel and Rod la Rocque look and play their parts excellently well. O. P. Heggie makes a splendid and knowing “Father Benedict” and Marie Dressler again gives of her genius.
Weekly kinema guide London suburban reviews and programmes cover
Weekly kinema guide London suburban reviews and programmes – THE SWAN
There is no question that “La Boheme” has everything to make it happy. It has King Vidor as director, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree, George Hassell, Roy d’Arcy, Karl Dane, Frank Currier, and Edward Everett Horton. And it has that great big heart throb, Lillian Gish. You would hardly think, then, that the fragile, blonde Miss Gish could weigh heavily on her end of that imposing seesaw. But she does. She takes the lilting sadness of “La Boheme,” and plays “Hearts and Flowers” instead.
I know that Miss Gish is supposed to have arrived. I know that she is considered a great actress. Joseph Hergesheimer and others have said so. She has flown in the face of tradition and played Mimi with her own blond hair. Heretofore. Mimi has been a brunette. Now it doesn’t matter in the least what color one’s hair may be, provided the actress herself isn’t always a blonde in spirit. I do not refer to those fine, dashing Lillian Russell blondes, but I do object to the beaten, quivering, whipped blondness of old-time ballads. “Consumption has no pity for blue eyes and golden hair,” as the old song says; and at the first glimpse of Miss Gish—cold, pale, shivering, and self-sacrificing—I knew she was gone from the start.
As Dickens said, “Marley was dead to begin with.” The story is an old one, and a charming one. Rodolphe, a starving young playwright, and Mimi, a more starving little seamstress, live next to each other in a cold, badly furnished pension in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Mimi is about to be evicted for not having paid her rent when Rodolphc and his gay friends come to her rescue. She is adopted by them, and things seem to be going a little better. Then Mimi finds out that she is seriously ill, and rather than stand in Rodolphc ‘s way to success, she runs away. He does write a successful play, and on the night of his success, Mimi crawls back to him to die.
Not much of a story for a picture, you will admit, but Mr. Vidor has done wonders with it. He has caught a little bit of Paris and put it in his studio. John Gilbert makes a romantic young Frenchman. He is careful with his gestures, his walk’, his expressions, and he has really tried to enter into things.
Miss Gish alone just wouldn’t play. A little French dressmaker may be a sensitive, hurt child, and capture the romantic fancy of an ardent young man, but she should have just the faintest showing of coquetry and one or two slight vanities. Miss Gish is as subdued and fidgety as a New England schoolma’am. Her shoes are heelless, her bonnets Quakerish. She is still the little white flower of D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms.” I cried throughout a greater portion of this picture, in spite of my harsh comments. And I knew, as I sobbed, that my emotions were being worked on deliberately.
The film is very well monopolized by Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert. Renee Adoree is barely visible. There is a fleeting glimpse of Karl Dane. Now that I have written this, I feel a little as though a not-very-well-liked acquaintance had gone out and committed suicide—even though I didn’t like him very much, I might have been nicer to him, and spoken more kindly of him. Now it’s too late.
There was a moon. It shone upon the women in their high white wigs and their widespread skirts of silk or satin and their shining shoulders; upon the men in their gorgeous brocaded coats and curled wigs. It shone upon the three silvery fountains, and the marble statues, and upon the trees, which were after Corot. To the tinkling strains of an old minuet, they danced.
It was France, of the last Louis. They were curtsying and bowing, their tiny toes twinkling and the silver buckles on their slippers gleaming — “Just a little more life, boys and girls,” came a voice from somewhere. “Just a little more life, children!” It was Mr. Griffith speaking.
He was on top of a very high platform, with a megaphone—yes, they do use them once in a while—and three cameramen and six assistants. He was enjoying himself. He was watching the lovely, lighted scene witli as much pleasure as though he hadn’t directed it all himself.
In fact, Griffith is going to do it again. He is. Once more, making a costume picture. And if he doesn’t beat the Germans at their own game—making old-time romance live again—quite a few people will be very much surprised. He is resurrecting that noble old story “The Two Orphans,” by Adolphe d’Ennery, with a cast that includes Lillian and Dorothy Gish as Henriette and Louise, the title roles; Joseph Schildkraut. the great young European actor, as the Chevalier Maurice de Vaudrey; Creighton Hale as Picard; Lucille LaVerne as Madame Frochard; Sheldon Lewis as Jacques; and Frank Puglia as Pierre. It ought to make a pretty good picture!
And Theda Bara.
Yes. Theda was there to see “The Two Orphans” being done right. You know she did it for Fox some time ago. And she asked to meet Lillian Gish, who was an adorable Little Orphan in a rose-and-lavender costume — one of those demure things that only Lillian can wear and she asked Lillian how on earth she ever made up that way.
You see Miss Gish uses very little makeup. Theda couldn’t understand it. because she always, if you remember, blacks her eyes and—oh, well, you remember. They say that Dorothy Gish is doing her finest work as Louise, the little blind girl. Everybody is glad that she has left her black-wig comedies and is playing a part that will give her an opportunity to do something besides pout. And she’s doing it. Hers is really the fat part of the picture, and nobody feels better about it than Lillian.
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Henriette and Louise (Orphans of The Storm)
THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.
The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!
I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.
Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.
It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.
Dorothy as “The Little Disturber”
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.
Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Donald Crisp and Dorothy Gish in The Mountain Rat (1914)
Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.
When not working at the studio, Lillian and Dorothy seek characteristic amusements. Perhaps Lillian will adorn her ivory-and-blue brocade chaiselongue while she reads. No chaiselongue for Miss Dorothy. It’s a linen skirt and smock, large shady hat and canvas shoes, and several vigorous games of tennis with some of her athletic friends on her own court, which adjoins the beautiful white stucco Gish home on Serrano Avenue.
The Fine Arts Studio, where the girls are now working, is five miles from their home. Lillian walked it one day, and Dorothy says she will take her word for the distance. So, instead of lunching at home, they cruise across Sunset Boulevard to a now famous little lunch stand, forever glorified in the D. Gish eyes by the never-failing supply of lemon cream pies. Every time I see a pie of that persuasion, I think of Dorothy Gish. It’s her greatest weakness in the gastronomic line, and she has been known to lunch exclusively on this delicacy for many days in succession.
It is a real joy in this “common or garden variety” world to come across such a refreshing and original character as Dorothy Gish. She is a regular girl, without the slightest doubt, and abhors anything the least bit “stagy.”
“If any one ever calls me ‘Wistful’ again, I’ll retire !” she said, with as much vehemence possible in one so absolutely “gishy.” “I loathe the word !” No, I should never call Dorothy Gish “wistful.” She has a very positive character, doing nothing by halves. When she likes a person, she does it thoroughly, and I imagine she can dislike just as whole-heartedly. I love her well developed sense of humor. It has come to her rescue in many distressing moments. For instance, on her twentieth birthday, Mrs. Gish planned a party for her. Dinner was to be served at seven. At eight-thirty, the little hostess arrived home, too tired to move, and covered with the grime of an especially trying day’s work. A lump came into her throat when she thought of the dainty dinner gown made for this gala night—she felt like crying, and crying hard. But she didn’t. With a gay little jest, she sat down at the table, radiant with spring blossoms and Cluny lace, wearing her old studio clothes, and immediately became the life of the party. “It was quite the nicest birthday I ever had,” she announced afterward. Dorothy is to appear in a number of five-reel Paramount productions this season, which is as it should be. Griffith features take many months to make, and we need frequent, very frequent appearances of Dorothy Gish to make our shadow world complete.
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 1
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 2
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 3
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 4
TOO bad, isn’t it,” a Hollywood wise man said to me the other day, “about our old friend, Lillian Gish?” We were chatting casually after dinner. “What’s the matter? Is she dead?”
“Might just as well be,” was the laconic reply, “so far as pictures are concerned.” I admit I was shocked. I had been brought up in the Gish tradition. I had been taught that if anyone jumped on my bed in the middle of the night, grabbed me roughly by the Adam’s apple, shook me blankly back from bye-bye land, and asked me who was the greatest actress of the screen, I was to sit up politely, and answer:
And why not?
Didn’t Max Reinhardt, creator of “The Miracle,” hail her as “the supreme emotional actress of the screen?” Didn’t Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “The Blue Bird,” say that “no other has so much talent”? Didn’t Joseph Hergesheimer choose her as his model for Cytherea because she was “like an April moon, a thing for all young men to dream about forever”? Didn’t John Barrymore call her “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life”?
And her pictures! Who doesn’t remember the moment in “Hearts of the World” when she began to go insane? In “Orphans of the Storm,” when she heard her blind sister singing in the street, and could not get to her? In “The White Sister,” when her cheek twitched as she heard the false news of Giovanni’s death? Of course, we remember! How could we forget?
WAS there ever a moment of utter terror equal to her closet scene in “Broken Blossoms”? Was there ever a vision of despairing young motherhood equal to her bathing of the baby in “‘Way Down East”? Was there ever a death scene equal to her Mimi’s in “La Boheme”?
And yet, here was a man whose opinion I was bound to respect—who knows more about Hollywood than Helen knew about Troy!—sitting calmly over an after-dinner cigar and telling me that “Lillian the Incomparable,” “Cinema Bernhardt,” “Duse in Celluloid,” “First Lady of the Screen,” was “all washed up” in pictures.
“Ask anybody,” he said.
And I did. Everybody. In studios, in executive offices, at luncheons, dinners, teas, cocktail parties — yes, they still follow that quaint custom in Hollywood ! — in box-offices, in theater lobbies, all along the boulevard. “Would any producer take a chance on Lillian Gish today?” I can’t say that the answer was a unanimous one. The most favorable ran something like this:
“Sure ! He’d be a fool not to—for one picture.” “Why one?” I asked. “Because that would be sure to make money, no matter what.” That wasn’t much of a “hand” for the woman who had held by almost unanimous consent—from that glamorous night when she emerged from the two-reel shadows of primitive pictureland into the glory of her Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” the premier position in the motion picture world.
But after I had cast up my totals, including those who said they had never heard of Lillian Gish, those who obviously recalled her name with difficulty or vagueness, those who confused her honestly enough with her sister Dorothy, those who could not remember a single part that she had played, and those who thought “that old Griffith crowd” was through, I wasn’t so sure even about that one picture! I called up the studio where she had made all but one of her last half dozen films to see if the films had paid. The first reaction of the studio executive to my question was more significant than any financial data he could give me.
“Lillian Gish? My God, that’s so far back I don’t know as we even have the records!”
Far back? Lillian Gish made her last picture on that man’s lot less than five years ago! At that time, his company was paying her $8,000 a week, $800,000 over a two-year stretch. And today, he not only couldn’t tell me whether the venture was a successful one —it was, as a matter of fact—but he had consigned it and her to the limbo of a forgotten past.
Yes, so far as Hollywood is concerned, the greatest actress of the screen might as well be dead! THE result of all this inquiry is no reflection on Miss Gish personally, or on her art. I daresay the same thing would have happened if I had substituted Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh. And if Mary Pickford doesn’t succeed with “Secrets” and get back on that screen in a big way. . . . You’re laughing at me? “Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps the picture public will never forget Mary. I hope it doesn’t. But if Mary is saved from the fate that has sooner or later overtaken every other member of the “old crowd” in pictures, it will be because she was more than a movie actress; she was a movie symbol; she was, to millions of people, a synonym for movies.
Lillian Gish, with all her artistry, was never that! Chaplin was, perhaps is, in Mary’s class. There are no others. Say “Douglas Fairbanks” to the average fan today, and he’ll think you are talking about Joan Crawford’s husband. Go see Fatty Arbuckle—give him a great big hand for his game attempt at a come-back—and then ask yourself, frankly, if the present day audience thinks he is funny. Laugh at Harold Lloyd—I hope I always will !—but even Harold, after three years’ absence from the screen, returned to find a public mildly grateful that Constance Cummings had found a new and “really very amusing” leading man TIME in Hollywood waits for no man—and for a woman, it doesn’t even hesitate!
This fact alone may be sufficient explanation of why the once great Lillian Gish is no longer in demand for pictures. At the height of her career — although acclaimed artistically above them all—she was never so widely popular as Fairbanks, never so generally loved as Arbuckle, never so big a draw as Lloyd.
It was to be expected, therefore, that the passage of time—say, four years’ absence from the screen—would have a more devastating effect on her boxoffice value than any of the others. But no such simple reasoning is a complete answer to the real mystery of Lillian Gish—not the mystery of how things are with her, but the mystery of how they got that way. Well, the answer most often heard in Hollywood is that Lillian, a creation of the great master, Griffith, was an instrument on which he, and he alone, could play; and that once he found herself far from the master’s guiding hand, she realized her limitations and quit before her public should realize them, too. This answer hardly holds water. She was a Griffith creation, just as Dorothy Gish was, and Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, and even Mary Pickford. It is true that he stood over these youngsters and told them just what to do at every turn of the camera. They were, for years, clay in his hands —and none more successfully so than Lillian. But since that time, she had abundantly proved her ability to work with a variety of directors. She did “The White Sister” and “Romola” with Henry King, “La Boheme” with King Vidor, “The Scarlet Letter” with Victor Seastrom, “Annie Laurie” with John S. Robertson. It would be difficult to name a quartet of first-string directors with more diverse methods. Yet Lillian had adapted herself with success to all of them. No! Hawkshaw in Hollywood must find something more authentic than this oft-jepeated Griffith canard to solve the mystery of the sudden disappearance from the screen of the screen’s great actress. There couldn’t have been any moral reason. Not with Lillian! One thing alone is lacking in her rich fabric of charm, and this is the element of sensual lure. The only newspaper case in which she had ever figured enhanced her reputation for character and decency and resulted in the indictment of her opponent for perjury.
And surely she was not too old. She was less than thirty-two when she quit. She photographed eighteen. The only fault her admirers found in her work was that in some characterizations—for example, Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—she looked too young! Could it be that she was a talkie exile? No. She had shown in her one talking picture that she could act out loud as well as in pantomime. She had a good microphone voice. She had studied diction under one of the world’s masters. She had been a speaking actress long before she was a posing one. She is a speaking actress today. And she couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the treatment she was receiving from her employers. She exercized almost complete control over the choice of her stories. She had the pick of directors. She selected her own casts. She had everything most stars dream of having, and never get—plus $8,000 a week.
IN short, none of the stock Hollywood explanations for movie nose-dives applies in the case of Lillian Gish. Described in the heyday of her screen popularity as “elusive,” “baffling,” “mockingly mysterious,” she is all of these things—only more so—in the shadow of her retirement. On the surface, there is no reason, so far as her friends see, why she didn’t keep right on making pictures, why she shouldn’t be making them today.
“She hasn’t been ill,” they say. “She hasn’t dissipated. She hasn’t even been married!”
There is, of course, the matter of dollars and cents. But it seems hardly probable that Lillian thought she was being paid too little. Eight thousand dollars a week salaries were rare in Hollywood even in boom times. It ispossible, however, that the roducers considering the hectic uncertainties of those first microphone days—did think she was being paid too much You could hardly blame them. No one, in 1928, knew whether the talking picture was an institution or merely a fad. All anybody knew was that nobody knew anything. And $800,000 contracts for five or six pictures from one star were just not being made. MOREOVER, there were other expenses to Lillian Gish pictures besides the star’s salary. Although brought up in a mass-production movie factory, although making her most satisfactory picture, “Broken Blossoms,” in only eighteen days, Miss Gish had acquired in the years of her prosperity and preeminence the habit of leisurely production. And sound stages on the Hollywood lots were too few, and too much in demand, during these first months, for leisurely productions. Miss Gish was a great artist, to be sure, and a nice girl; but the producers were fighting for their lives. The important thing at the time was to beat the other fellow to it with a picture — any picture—that talked. And there was some question as to whether Lillian Gish pictures could continue to make money under the new conditions. Her box-office strength, like that of all the old guard, was in the small towns—in the little picture houses, where the new stars like Garbo were still scarcely more than names —and the little theaters in the small towns in 1928 and 1929 were not wired for sound. It might have been possible to get Miss Gish to work for less; it might have been possible to get her to work faster; it might have been possible to get her to sacrifice elaborate production to speed. And even then, with her best public automatically cut off from her, it might not be possible to make money on her pictures. Of course, in just the right kind of story, another ” ‘Way Down East,” for instance, she might have got over financially. But show business waits vears for a clean-up like ” ‘Way Down East.” It was the hick “Ben Hur”—and first and last, it made almost as much money in the theater. But such stories are not made to order.
MISS GISH, when urged by producers to do more ” ‘Way Down Easts,” might well have reminded them of the colloquy which took place between Lee Shubert and Augustus Thomas during the rehearsal of one of the latter’s plays. “What we need right there,” shouted Lee from the pit, “are two or three sure-fire comedy lines.”
“Yes?” replied Gus from the stage.
But the truth of the matter is tha’t Miss Gish probably wouldn’t have played a ” ‘Way Down East” again if it had walked up and tagged her on her shapely shoulder. She was through with such things forever. She had, in the Hollywood phrase, gone highbrow.
George Jean Nathan had said “the girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so.” And she had believed it. Here was where, movie-wise, the greatest actress of the screen made her greatest mistake. Here, and in the inevitable sequence, is to be found the real solution to the Mystery of Lillian Gish. The First Lady of the Screen had not ridden to the heights in a coach and four or in a padded limousine with sixteen cylinders to draw it. She had bumped along on the broad back of the donkey of melodrama. She had been helped over the rough places by the strong arm of hokum. Her master, Griffith, was master of both. He had never ventured into the untried fields of sophistication. But Lillian, taken up by Nathan, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Lewis, Cabell, and Mencken, rushed in where her former angel feared to tread. And what was the result? People who had loved her in the Griffith days went to see her in “The White Sister.” They sat in somewhat puzzled awe as they watched the frail, Dresden-china personality, which had stood out like a rare gem against the background of Griffth’s inspired crudities, sink almost into unrecognizability under the uniformed pagaentry in which she chose to deck Crawford’s simple, deathless story. They still went to see her—though fewer of them—in her uphill fight against a plethora of authentic Florentine settings and an engulfiing morass of George Eliot dullness in her even more ambitious “Romola.” THE faithful followed her—partly because of “The Big Parade” glamour that attached to the names of King Vidor, her director, and John Gilbert, her leading man—through the stormy mazes of “La Boheme.” The remnant remained to be shocked by “The Scarlet Letter.” Few but the critics cared one way or the other about “The Wind.” Fewer cared about “The Enemy.” Tastes were changing, too. Admirers had always spoken of Miss Gish’s work as poetic. “Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does.” But poetry, which had had its brief lyric fling right after the war, was going out. In fact, about the time Lillian began to lean most heavily on it, it disappeared completely as a salable commodity.
Poetry hadn’t been a very salable quantity back in the old Biograph days, either. No one knew that better than Griffith. A Griffith picture, whether it ran to two reels or to sixteen, was a complete library. It contained poetry as all good libraries should—that was Lillian; but it contained humor—that was Dorothy; and drama—that was Walthall ; and homeyness—that was Mae Marsh; and appealing young manliness—that was Bobby Harron and Dick Barthlemess. The new slogan, “One will always stand out,” had not been invented. It was all for one and one for all. No Griffith picture in those days was a starring vehicle for Lillian Gish or for anyone else. No Griffith picture — and this is something which admirers of the old Griffith stars sometimes forget— was sold to the public on the popularity of any actor or actress who appeared in it. The popularity of Lillian Gish had only the vaguest relation to the huge box-office success of ” ‘Way Down East.” It had nothing to do with the success of “The Birth of a Nation.” In other words, nobody ever tried to sell a picture to the public on the strength of Miss Gish’s poetic personality until she tried it herself in a market where poetry had reached what was probably an “all-time low.” Another thing, critics were always writing about “the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing.” “The mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited in the theater—is simplynot for her.” . . . “She seems to float on the screen,”—this from her worshipper, the Northern professor, Edward Wagenknecht—”like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Well, if you recall the prevailing feminine costumes and behavior of the later Twenties, you will also recall that Botticelli, like poetry, was out, and sex appeal which Lillian admittedly never had, was in. “Give us Clara Bow!” the fans were crying.
And they got her—while the first actress of the screen fled back to Broadway to do Chekhov’s gloomy Helena and Dumas’ still more gloomy Camille. The question naturally arises, in view of her precipitous flight, whether she was ever the great actress that she was supposed to be. Personally, I think she was and is. But it should be recorded in any attempt to solve The Great Gish Mystery that the best critical opinion, based on her recent stage appearance, seems to be quite up in the air on this point. After her Helena in “Uncle Vanya,” the learned Mr. Krutch declared that “we are no more sure than we were in the days when she was the particular star of the great Mr. Griffith whether she has real talents or merely certain odd deficiencies which a skilful director can utilize after the fashion of the marionette master and the character doll.”
After her Camille, the equally erudite Mr. Woollcott asked: “Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? . . . I went to see ‘Camille’ with an open mind. It is still open.” She should succeed on the stage, and I believe she will. She should reach heights which she never could reach on the screen. And for the very reason that made critics acclaim her as the greatest of all film actresses. “The particular genius of Lillian Gish,” wrote George Jean Nathan, at the height of her screen success, “lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite.”
True. And this quality should be infinitely more valuable on the stage than on the screen.
“All of which,” said my friend, the Hollywood wise man, when I told him the result of my sleuthing, “does not alter the fact that Lillian Gish, so far as pictures are concerned, is dead.”
THERE suddenly came back to me a true story of Lillian’s first days on the Fine Arts lot, which illustrated more graphically than anything I could say that marvelous Gish spirit which might—if the Gish spirit ever willed it —still stage a picture comeback for the First Actress of the Screen. Lillian and a girl friend were out walking. They walked, and walked, and walked—until they were fairly dragging one foot after the other. Finally, the other girl said:
“I’m tired walking. Let’s sit down.”
“I’m tired walking, too,” said Lillian.
“But don’t let’s sit down. Let’s run!”
Then I recalled to my friend that Winter, back in 1913, when Lillian Gish, threatened with pernicious anemia, took the long trek westward for the first time—and arrived in California, given up for dead. He remembered, as well as I did, how Lillian willed herself to stay alive, how she built up her strength on milk and sunshine, how she dieted and exercised until she could stand, as well as any of those other hardy youngsters, the rigors of even a Griffith rehearsal. My friend was ruminatingly silent as he went through the intricate process of clipping and lighting a fresh cigar.
“She might come back,” he said, at last. “It all depends—” “Yes,” I said, “it all depends on Lillian Gish!”
Fragrant with the Poetry of Pure Ideals and a Great Love That Endures Until Death, D. W. Griffith’s Latest Picture Marks the Highest Altitude of Screen Art
By Edward Weitzel
IDEALIZED realism, spiritual beauty springing up in the midst of sordid surroundings, the fragrance of a great love that endures until death—all are found in “Broken Blossoms,” D. W. Griffith’s latest picture. So well has the director wrought that his work marks the highest altitude yet reached in screen art and placei his photoplay on a plane with the masterpieces of painting, sculpture and music. The picture is a tragedy and it cleanses the soul of the onlooker as did the tragedies of the old Greeks, marching relentlessly to the death and destruction of those who defied the gods. In “Broken Blossoms” a father defies heaven in his treatment of his illegitimate child and ends by killing her. His punishment is swift and sure. Moving side by side through this grim tale is a revelation of supreme devotion, a holy flame of pity and adoration that beautifies the entire picture and fills it with sweet incense.
The manner of its making is also a revelation to those who are familiar with the creations of its maker. Much always is expected of D. W. Griffith; “Broken Blossoms” betters anticipation.
A Missionary from the East.
Thomas Burke, whose book,. “Limehouse Nights,” contains a short story, “The Chink and the Child,” furnished the screen with a new theme; in bare outline a simple enough tale is told practically by three characters, but one that will cause the complacent and superior dweller in this Christian land to regard the almond-eyed followers of Confucius with new interest and to find much food for thought after the immediate effects of the picture have faded from his mind. There is a broad humanity running through the tale which consorts fittingly with the spirit of the times and the drawing together of men of many creeds for the moral advancement of the world. A treaty port in China steals slowly through a shimmering curtain of blue and the first scene of the picture transports the spectator to the Orient. The impression is complete. That curious sense of reality that reality alone can convey to the uninitiated is here in full. One important fact is brought out while the action continues in China : A young Chinese poet, learned in the wisdom of his land and the teachings of his faith, is anxious to go to a far country and share his knowledge with those who have never had his advantages. He is gentle, kindly and a dreamer who veils his feelings with the inscrutable repression of his race. The blessing of his god is besought for his mission, and the sound of temple bells is in his ears as he sails away.
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish
The Limehouse Slums.
Contrast at once startling and repellent, ushered in through a curtain of sinister hue, a dull red that is in keeping with the reek and gloom of the region, is found in the next location of the story. The Limehouse district of London, that part of the mighty city near the docks where foreigners of the East touch elbows and yellow men predominate, is the place. Sandaled feet shuffle silently down narrow streets and disappear under distant arches. A place of foreboding, of mysterious happenings behind closed doors. And real in every brick in its walls and every stone that lines its gutters ! And the impression is complete !
Here the Chinese missionary is found. His dreams have been rudely shattered. No one will listen to him, so Cheng Huan has ceased trying to deliver his message. But he still broods over the good he might accomplish, as he leans against the wall outside his little curio-shop
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
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms
Cheng Meets His Goddess.
One day – he finds a new mission in life: the dedication of his homage to a shrinking bit of humanity—a young girl, hardly more than a child, whose beauty of face and purity of soul cannot be hidden from his sj-mpathetic gaze, although slow starvation, cruel blows and vile language have done their best to efface both. Cheng is attracted to the girl when he sees one of his countrymen try to detain her as she leaves the shop where she has gone to purchase her father’s meal. He interferes in her behalf and she hurries oflf. It is the first act of kindness she has ever known and she cannot comprehend why such a thing should happen to her. The girl’s way home takes her through a narrow alley and along a dock where river craft are moored, and weatherbeaten sail-lofts face the Thames. Turning the corner of a building she enters fearsomely, and finds her father there. He is in a rage because his meal is not ready. Battling Burrows is the title he woii in the prize ring. A great hulking brute of a man without one decent instinct, he beats the girl and leaves her to starve while he spends his time drinking with some drab at a public house—another of the wrecks of womanhood to whose unholy ranks his child’s mother belonged. Why he ever kept the ill-starred mite when its mother left it in his lodgings just before she sought forgetfulness in the river must have puzzled the prizefighter himself. Now that the girl is able to slave for him and take her pay in blows, he suffers her to share his hovel. Here again is deep penetration into things as they are—stark realism that is terrible to behold, accompanied by fixed purposes and the presence of unseen forces that are guiding the seeming blind injustice of this child’s fate.
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms – The Closet Scene
The Blossom is Broken.
While Burrows is busy training for a coming prize fight, the girl meets Cheng for the second time. She pauses to look into the window of his shop and sees him inside. He smiles at her. One night her father gives her a harder beating than ever before, and she staggers out into the street, wandering on until she reaches Cheng’s shop. He finds her in a dead faint on the floor when he returns. Gathering her slight form in his arms, he takes her to the room above. To him she is the incarnation-of all that is lovely and he is ready to worship her. He places her on a couch and when she is restored to consciousness and given his choicest food, he has her robe herself in a gorgeous garment from his native land and decorate her hair with flowers. The room itself he turns into a bower for his goddess and is rewarded by seeing a wan smile on her lips. All night he kneels at her side, holding her hand. She is too weak to leave the next day, and the strange delight of being tenderh- cared for holds her a willing captive. Events move rapidly from here on.
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”
Her father learns where his daughter is just as he is going into the ring. At the finish of the fight he rushes to the shop. Cheng has gone out. Burrows reaches the room above and smashes every breakable object and drags the child home. They have barely gone when Cheng returns. His mute anguish as he gazes at the ruin of his temple and its shattered altar and realizes his goddess is not there is one of the great moments of the story. Arming himself he rushes to the girl’s home. He is too late. Her dead form is stretched across a low cot. Her father has beaten her to death. The scene of the killing is carried out with uncompromising realism, but here also the hidden forces that are watching over the little victim give her death the beauty of martyrdom. Cheng’s vengeance is quick. He shoots down Burrows as the prizefighter picks up an axe, gathers the lifeless form of the girl in his arms and bears her back to his desecrated temple. The gorgeous robe is again wrapped about her and she is placed upon the couch. The shattered altar is picked up from the floor and Cheng goes through his service for the dead. A second later he buries a knife in his breast and his soul follows the child’s.
“Broken Blossoms” Shatters a Delusion.
A tragedy, compact and complete. A perfect action without distractions of any sort, it moves irresistibly forward without once looking backward or turning aside, and its whole history is burnt deep upon the memory, never to be forgotten. Vast panoramic themes crowded with characters and events are popularly supposed to afford the moving picture its freest and most profound expression. “Broken Blossoms” shatters this delusion. The screen, in the hartds of a true artist, can encompass all the tragedy of existence in a brief tale peopled by two men and a child, and give it overwhelming significance. Such a tale is “Broken Blossoms.” At no time is its subject beyond the skill of D. W. Griffith to interpret in pictures that glow with material truth and spiritual beauty. The color scheme of its illuminated subtitles is a piece of wizardry that sets a new standard for this important branch of picture making. Nothing draws the eye from the beautifully clear letters, which are thrown upon a background of interpretative color. The effect sought for by elaborate but obtrusive designs is here obtained by the only correct method.
Lillian Gish Promotional – Broken Blossoms, Full Frame – James Abbe 1919 a
Lillian Gish Promotional – Broken Blossoms, Full Frame – James Abbe 1919 c
Lillian Gish Promotional – Broken Blossoms, Full Frame – James Abbe 1919 b
Lillian Gish and Her Co-Stars.
The actors of the three characters, the girl, Cheng Huan and Burrows, are worthy the trust imposed in them. There is no higher form of praise. Lillian Gish as the victim of the prizefighter’s cruelty is a creature so crushed and broken that one’s heart aches for her. She has been so stunted in everything but a constant growth of suffering and terror her appeal is that of a little child’s. Her delight in the doll which Cheng gives her is that of a child and the horror of her pitiful death is the more distressing for the same reason. Never for an instant does she lose the character and she responds to its changes of feeling and the mounting frenzy of its dreadful crisis with ample power and admirable control. Richard Barthelmess shows surprising artistic progress as Cheng Huan. His past impersonations reach an excellent average but none of them approach the rounded perfection of his Chinese poet. Even under Griffith’s direction it is a remarkable achievement for so young a man. He breathes the very spirit of the gentle scholar of the East—a spirit hitherto never understood or portrayed on the stage or the screen.
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp and Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp (Battling Burrows) in Broken Blossoms 1919
Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms 1919
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms – He can’t stand bad manners at the table …
Donald Crisp’s “Battling” Burrows is cast in all the character’s brutal realism. He is the reincarnation of Dickens’ Bill Sykes, proud of his strength and his ability to ill-treat those weaker than himself. The Crisp impersonation is rich in enlightening bits of sideplay and understanding of the nature of the prizefighter. His manner of death as he tries for a brief instant to fight off his conqueror in the only way he knows, and his final collapse—an ugly sprawl upon the floor—is one of the never-to-be-forgotten incidents of the picture.
Edward Peil’s acting of Evil Eye makes it a companion portrait in the group, the calm indifference with which, after trying to do wrong to the girl, he purchases a flower and pauses to smell it, being a well emphasized point.
George Beranger as The Spying One deserves his place in the cast, and Norman Selby as “Battling” Burrows’ opponent in the prize ring, coupled with Donald Crisp’s skill with his hands, causes the fight to look like the real thing.
A last word about the picture : “Broken Blossoms” is not to be measured by the height of its buildings, the number of its characters or the cost of its production. Rather should it be spoken of in terms that denote the mind and the soul of mankind and the splendid height that may be attained by the devotion of these attributes to the betterment of humanity.
First New York Showing of “Broken Blossoms” Is a Great Artistic Triumph for the Famous Director
By Edward Weitzel
George M. Cohan’s Theatre, Tuesday evening, May 13, D. W. Griffith set up another milestone on the moving picture’s road to full recognition as an art second to none.
He also established something new in the commercial standing of the screen by opening a repertory season during which three pictures will be shown in succession, each one affording a complete bill. “Broken Blossoms,” inaugurated the season. The showing was attended by representatives of the social and artistic life of the city and by nearly every prominent moving picture star, director and producer of the metropolis.
Hundreds of the general public were turned away. Inside the theatre the spectator was greeted with a Chinese atmoshphere in the decorations and the costumes of the ushers. The first note of the music, composed by Louis Gottschalk and D. W. Griffith, struck the same atmospheric theme and during the entire production kept to a high order of merit. The curtain went up on a full stage, seen dimly as grey draperies parted slowly and the weird Chinese wail of the orchestra kept up its subdued tones. Then followed a series of beautiful light effects that were novel and in harmony with the story to follow.
A shrine to Buddha came slowly into view on the right; next, a couch upon which lay a young girl. At the back, a distant view of buildings that came and went as if by magic crept out of the darkness and as mysteriously crept back again. On the right, to the sound of Chinese musical instruments, a suggestion of the Orient made itself felt rather than seen. Most of the lighting came from tall candles that seemed never to glow and to die out as inexplicably as they appeared. The air of brooding mystery to the tableaux was a fitting prelude to the tragic story of “Broken Blossoms.”
Of the feature itself but one opinion was heard as the spectators were leaving the theatre : “Broken Blossoms” marks the highest altitude ever achieved by a moving picture. Adapted from a story by Thomas Burke, “The Chink and the Child,” in his “Limehouse Nights” tales, it takes rank with the class of literature that endures because of its truth and its clear insight into the soul of its subject. It is a tragedy as profound and relentless as ever has been written, and D. W. Griffith’s direction gives it a wondrous beauty by showing the flame of pure passion that burns in the midst of evil surroundings and lifts a little starved and beaten girl and a gentle heathen above the power of suffering and sin.
The entire daily press of New York unite in this opinion.
The Times : “A screen tragedy—not a movie melodrama with an unhappy ending—but a sincere human tragedy—that is what D. W. Griffith has had the courage and the capacity to produce. . . . This bare narration of the story cannot hope even to suggest the power and truth of the tragedy that Mr. Griffith has pictured. All of his mastery of picture-making, the technique which is preeminently his by invention and control, the skill and subletly with which he can unfold a story—all of the Griffith ability has gone into the making of ‘Broken Blossoms.’ Many of the pictures surpass anything hitherto seen on the screen in beauty and dramatic force.”
The Mail: “All of the fine skill of Mr. Griffith’s technique, all of the subtlety of his art, have answered his commands in the building of his picture drama. His story moves forward with the force and suspense of a Greek tragedy. ‘Broken Blossoms’ is the art of the photoplay revealed at the hand of the master of that art. It is Mr. Griffith’s greatest triumph.”
Long continued applause brought the director in front o fthe curtain at the close of the showing. After thanking the spectators for their signs of approval he informed them that for the first time in their careers Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmass and Donald Crisp, the creators of the three leading characters, had come to New York to watch the premiere of a production in which they had taken part, and were out in front.
A detailed review of “Broken Blossoms” will be printed next week.