NEW YORK (AP) – “We shot it in one day and got $5 for it,” Lillian Gish said yesterday, recalling one of the movies she made with D. W. Griffith, the film pioneer regarded as the father of the movies. “Now that’s a story in itself!” she quipped. It was in 1912 that Griffith -being honored at the Museum of Modern Art here on the 100th anniversary of his birth gathered his film crew on 14th Street and cranked out “An Unseen Enemy,” the movie that helped catapult Miss Gish to stardom. “At last we are giving some recognition to it,” Miss Gish told the crowd of illuminaires that gathered in the museum’s auditorium for the ceremony. Eagerly listening to her praise for Griffith were a room full of celebrities which included Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III, movie and stage stars Cyril Ritchard and Geraldine Page, and a host of other notables including Cornelia Otis Skinner, Ilka Chase and Anita Loos.
Bay Area Reporter, Volume 22, Number 38, 17 September 1992
by Daniel Mangin
We’re in for a weekend of splendid excess with two widely divergent retrospective programs centering on virtue under assault. The Pacific Film Archive presents the restored, tinted print of D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East at the Castro Sept. 18. The master’s plot is as overblown as cinema gets: an upper-class lout tricks damsel in distress Lillian Gish out of her innocence by faking marriage; gets her pregnant; and then abandons her. Next, the baby dies. (And that’s just the first part of this 21/2-hour opus.) Griffith’s fame derives from his creation of a coherent language out of the cinema’s basic elements, but his sense of what the medium could accomplish went beyond aesthetics. He saw film as a vehicle to elevate the morals of the masses, which to him meant the restoration of Victorian values (even if he wasn’t always able to live by them himself). The overriding moral of Way Down East, stated in the prologue and reiterated throughout, is that men should be more respectful — and less diabolical — toward women. The tone leans toward the patronizing: although Gish is a pillar of strength, surviving poverty, shame and a blizzard, she is rescued by the “love of a good man.” Griffith’s morality play was out of date the day he acquired the rights (“We all thought privately that Mr. Griffith had lost his mind,” wrote Gish in her autobiography). Even aesthetically Way Down East represents more of a consolidation of everything the director had learned about the cinema than a breakthrough. It nevertheless remains a spellbinding work.
The film’s renowned ice floe rescue scene is a master piece of crosscutting to create tension, but the sequence preceding it deserves mention as well. For 20-plus minutes Griffith builds suspense — through shot selection, editing and varying compositions—as town gossip Martha Perkins spreads the news that Gish’s character, Anna, has had a child out of wedlock. Pure melodrama, but the visual rhythm leading up to Anna’s climactic exposure of her baby’s father and her banishment from her home is beyond compare. The original score, adapted for the Castro’s Wurlitzer, is as ﬂorid as the film’s plot. The tireless Dennis James performs it with appropriate gusto.
Way Down East Castro Theatre, Sept. 18. 8 p.m. 621-6120
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 125, Number 39, 17 February 1981
Silent Star Says Movies ‘Still in Their Babyhood’
By Ed Blanche
London (AP) – Lillian Gish, one of the original silent Hollywood stars and still working at 84. says movies “are still in their babyhood. We’re still crawling on our hands and knees.” Movies these days, she said in an interview in her suite at London’s Ritz Hotel, are all about ear-chases and “girls who look like they’ve failed an audition for Charlie’s Angels.’ “They’ve lost the concept of beauty that D.W. Griffith handed them on a plate. He gave them form and grammar.” Miss Gish, grabbed at age 12 by the legendary Griffith and later made star of his classic “Birth of a Nation,” said the only people who make good movies anymore are the Russians, because they understand the power of film. “They’re the only ones who take film seriously,” she explained. “Although we don’t always like their politics, they do understand the power of film.” Hollywood these days churns out movies that “technically have gone forward, but intellectually and spiritually have gone backwards.” she said. Miss Gish said she has little time for the realism of the 70s, the explicit sex, the dalliance with drugs and promiscuity, the exploitation and the morose downer concepts of the nuclear age. She said she craves innocence and beauty and a return to the pristine eloquence pioneered by Griffith in the early years of the century.
“There have been only two great geniuses in movies – Mr. Griffith and Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith dealt with the human equation, with people. It’s time we got back to putting beauty on film. The Russians are the only ones doing it now they even transform Siberia into a poem in white.” Modern directors are making a “great mistake they’re playing down to audiences. Mr. Griffith once said that to do that was the end. Movies should uplift and inspire,” Miss Gish continued. “We’re in the first century to bequeath a living, moving history behind us. Just think of actors 100 years from now they won’t have to go back to books. They’ll have it all on film, how we lived, what we did, what we thought. Film is far more important than the invention of the printing press.” Miss Gish, looking petite and fragile in a plain pink, floor-length gown, belies her age. It seems astounding that she has made more than 100 movies, spanning in her lifetime the history of the movies from Griffith’s two-reel silent masterpieces to Robert Altman’s caustic social commentaries. She flew to London on Concorde for the opening of a new musical. “The Biograph Girl,” a triple-history of Griffith, herself and Mary Pickford in the early pioneering years when Hollywood was still a ramshackle adjunct of Los Angeles. “It’s a beautiful show,” she gushed.
“But I thought you had to be dead before they did this sort of thing. I’m sure it will go to Broadway and become a movie and be a big success.” Miss Gish, whose wrinkles cannot mask the sweetness of the face that glowed and shone under Griffith’s direction, is a living history of Hollywood. When she went into movies she was already a showbiz veteran with five years’ stage experience playing in Victorian melodramas, and even appeared with the legendary Sarah Bernhardt on Broadway. She was billed as “Baby Lillian.” But Mary Pickford introduced her to Griffith who promptly added the original “Mizz Lillian” and her sister Dorothy to his cast of Biograph players.
Altogether, she made 43 movies between 1912 and 1922, including Griffith’s “Way Down East” in which she clung to an ice floe for a week waiting to be rescued by heart-throb Richard Barthlemess. Four actors died in the ice on that movie. She was one of the few stars to make the transition to talkies, but eventually got the push from Louis B. Mayer in the 1930s because “I’d been on the great silent pedestal for too long.” But she continued to work, mainly in New York where she still lives. The work was mainly stage plays, but she continued to make movies, including “Duel In The Sun” in 1947 and “The Unforgiven” in 1960. Her 100th movie was Altman’s “The Wedding” two years ago.
Actress Lillian Gish … wants a return to good taste
BOB THOMAS BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) “As an American, I am against censorship of any kind,” remarked Lillian Gish, one of the treat stars of the silent screen. She added wistfully, “But I do wish we could do something about taste.” Miss Gish, the fragile beauty of “Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms” and a host of other silent classics, was paying a return visit to the Hollywood she first saw exactly 60 years ago. She reminisced about the past, particularly her prideful association with D. W. Griffith, but she also talked about present day films. “Ugliness disturbs me,” she commented, “and much of what is shown on the screen is ugly. Not only in exposure of the human body. I also mean the ugliness of violence. To me, violence is just as offensive as nudity. “Although I do not approve of censorship, I wish there were some way to impose taste on the people who make films. It’s not that I mind the portrayal of sex in movies, but sex should be beautiful, an expression of human love. But too often it is made to seem ugly.” A youthful 77, Miss Gish is in the middle of a tour of 30 cities in seven weeks to call attention to her new book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish,” a S20 family album of the rich careers of the two sisters. She added a historical perspective on the film world’s flirtation with obscenity: “You know, I helped the Italian film industry get started. I went to Rome after the first World War and made the first American film there, ‘The White Sister.’ There was only one broken-down studio in Rome, and we rebuilt it. Then I went to Florence and made another movie, Romola.
“I spent two years in Italy, and I had time to learn all about their art. The Italians in the Renaissance went through what our film makers seem to be going through today. Nudity had not been seen before, and at first they exploited it. But then they learned to portray the human body with beauty. “I say to today’s movie makers: Do what you will but do it beautifully.” Lillian Gish conveyed an air of fragility on the screen, but she is in reality the most resilient of ladies. She has proved that by crossing the country 11′ times in the last four years, lecturing to colleges and other audiences on “The Art of the Film.” “I’ve lectured in 41 states only nine to go,” she announced proudly. The barnstorming is a throwback to her childhood, when she and Dorothy toured the country in melodramas. The Gishes made their movie debuts in 1912 in “An Unseen Enemy,” starring a stage chum they had known as Gladys Smith now she calls herself Mary Pickford. The director was D. W. Griffith. It was the start of Lillian’s long, distinguished association with the greatest of the silent film makers. She recalled her arrival in California in 1913: “There was nothing but citrus groves, all the way from San Bernardino. I remember passing a little Santa Fe station named Gish; I never saw it again or learned why it was so named. Our first studio was in a car barn on Pico Boulevard, and they put rugs over the tracks when we were filming. We worked only in the daytime, of course, because we couldn’t shoot when the light failed.” She recalled Hollywood as “a village full of churches and a white hotel with a verandah where old ladies in California for the winter sat in rocking chairs.” Throughout her career, Miss Gish only lived here when she was working. Her home was, and still is, New York “an awful, dirty, noisy, filthy city, but still the most exciting place in the world.” She recently ended a run in a play there, “Uncle Vanya,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring George C. Scott and Julie Christie. After touring the United States and England for her book, she may do the film version. After that? “I don’t know. Things just happen to me. I never plan.”
Marysville Daily Appeal, Volume CXXII, Number 3, 5 January 1921
Lillian Gish Baffles Storm in “Way Down East” Picture
The backbone of February wan broken. But the winter of New England was still with us. February is a treacherous month, and so it was toward the end of last February that Lillian Gish was turned out into that New England snowstorm from the house of Squire Bartlett. And the greatest of all stage climaxes had begun with this frail yet strong heroine of ”Way Down East” as she was literally swept out in night’s highway by God’s elements. The directing low-commanding voice of Griffith could scarce be heard above the howl of wintry blasts and the blinding snow clogged the air like the veriest London fog. But out and on went Lillian Gish inspired with the staunch soul of Anna Moore within her own. So great was the upheaval of the elements that signals had to he used between Griffith and his brave little star. That magic word from the lips and voice of D. W. Grifith of Cameras pierced the howl of the winds and with an uplifted hand through the blinding snows came Lillian Gish staggering in her thin raiment of black. Little Anna was weak. She was homeless, deserted. In the walk one will see at the Atkins theater Friday and Saturday, January 14 and IS, there is registered in every tissue of that body and face what misery and cruelty can be wrought upon the human being in this world. She struggles against the wind, but the gales swirl her from her feet and she falls only to rise to try to move on to some undiscovered place where there might be surcease of strife from soul and body. What you will see upon the screen of the cinema art at the Atkins Theater of Lillian Gish as Anna Moore was no make-believe suffering. It had to be done, and Lillian did it that we might all realize it.
San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, Number 87, 21 June 1922
LILLIAN GISH FINDS IT NO PICNIC TO LIE IN GUILLOTINE
“You often mall advice to aspirants. don’t you?” remarked Lillian Gish to a well known motion picture editor, who was visiting Mamaroneck during the taking of the guillotine scene for D. W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm,” a United Artists Corporation release which is coming next week to the Elmo Theater. “Please tell them,” Miss Gish continued, “that it is no fun dying on the movie guillotine from 10 a. m. to 7 p. m. as I have done this day!” The property man who stood near by agreed with Miss Gish, and commented In the language that only a property man knows how to use. – “The strongest of us wouldn’t want to lay in that neck piece chocker a nine-hour day—takes, retakes, closeups, far shots, short bits of rest in between. In fact a thousand deaths in one,” was the way he put It.
And it was true. The fair Lillian had been dragged up the steps by two burly ruffians hurriedly strapped to the board that goes under the guillotine, then, the sharpened knife was raised high In the air and everything was In readiness to separate the gentle Lillian’s beautiful blond head from the lovely Lillian torso. Then just as the knife was about to fall, Danton the hero arrive on the scene after the mad gallop from the court house five miles away and again Lillian was saved. If this happened once It had happened a score of times during that day. No wonder Lillian Gish was tired.
By Paul O’Dell (with the assistance of Anthony Slide)
First published in 1970
A.S. Barnes & Co. Inc. Castle Books – New York
David Wark Griffith has tended to become in recent years, a figure in cinema history attributed with innovation in film technique; the close-up, the flashback, cross-cutting have all appeared in connection with his name. And so it is that he is now in danger of achieving a widespread reputation merely as technician: an inventor of cinematography. This does justice neither to Griffith himself nor to his work. It may very well be that he did “invent” all these ideas of pictorial presentation – but there is much evidence to suggest that he did not – and if he did not, then he certainly developed their use to startling effect. But these ideas, these techniques were for him only a means towards an end; never the ultimate distinguishing factor of his pictures. Nor was he dependent on these techniques in order to produce a film which stood above all contemporary works. Many of his early pictures contain no close-ups, no flashbacks, no camera movement, no complicated editing techniques, and no innovations. But nevertheless they are indisputably films of high artistic quality. Many post-Intolerance films also contain few, if any, of the “innovations” attributed to Griffith, and yet they are outstanding works nonetheless.
It is unfortunate – indeed it could be tragic – that a man who strove so hard to perfect the cinema as a medium for the stimulation of ideas should also have been the one who recognized the real potential of an embryo art form. The fact remains that while the technical achievements of D.W. Griffith have become the main reason for his importance in film history, his purely artistic achievements, the very reason why he ever made films at all, have tended to become relatively obscured.
The work of an artist is a door to his soul; whatever we see written about the artist, we will never get closer to the man himself than through his work. David Wark Griffith produced a tremendous volume of work during the twenty-three years he spent making motion pictures. It is via these films – those that remain – that we can come to a real understanding of Griffith, because in these films he poured all his ideas.
6. Into the Twenties: Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm
In terms of cinema history, Griffith was the man who fired the starting-pistol. It was he who gave the medium what it required to develop and expand. There came a time when he inevitably appeared to have “left behind,” a “non-starter.” It was to happen that he would be attacked again and again for his refusal to participate in the race. “Your refusal to face the world,” wrote one critic, “is making you more and more a sentimentalist. You see passion in terms of cooing doves or the falling of a rose petal … your lack of contact with life makes you deficient in humor. In other words, your splendid unsophistication is a menace to you – and to pictures.” Thus wrote James Quirk in 1924, cruelly cutting down the man who had virtually furnished him with a job (inasmuch as Griffith had given to the movies what no other individual had ever come near to possessing). What Quirk failed to recognize was that Griffith was not a man to be swept along in the tide of fashion. Why should he follow others? How could he follow others, when in effect they were following his precepts? ***
Way Down East
It was Griffith’s longest picture since Intolerance, and ran for more than three hours. In terms of construction, it relies on finely interwoven detail rather than the more instantly recognizable cross-cutting that distinguished his early work. In the opening sequences for example, when Anna is tricked into an illegal marriage to Sanderson, the ceremony itself is full of visual commentary, with the ring falling to the floor, cutting to Bartlett (played by Richard Barthelmess) waking suddenly from a nightmare – and this before any knowledge on anyone’s part of their two fates and the way they will eventually come together.
Lillian Gish as Anna has received much deserved praise for her work in this picture, especially for her superhuman feats among the ice-floes in the climatic sequences of the picture. The manner she receives the news of her false marriage, in the knowledge that she is pregnant, is yet another triumph for her ability under Griffith. The scene in which she baptizes her own child as it is dying also comes close to being one of Griffith’s supreme cinematic achievements. She also adds a sense of frightening realism to the scene in which she is told that her baby is dead. For a second or two she stares blankly into space, then slowly begins to shake her head from side to side. Suddenly, as if the news strikes her like some physical blow, she throws her head back, and, as if going into an epileptic fit, her whole body stiffens and she sits choking and screaming.
Anna eventually recovers and goes away to a town in which no one (she believes) can possibly be aware of her tragic situation, a situation which will also be regarded as shameful. She meets David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) and he, like many other characters in Griffith pictures, is here identified with doves in one sequence. The truth will be out however, and especially in a small town. Unknown to Anna, Sanderson is to reappear, and her secret is to become common knowledge. Bartlett is undeterred, although the rest of the town immediately brand her an evil woman. The scene in which Anna is ordered out of the house by the Squire has been excused by some who explain that it needs dialogue for its effectiveness. On the contrary, this scene is of great emotional intensity, and this intensity is achieved simply by Griffith’s editing technique. Once again, he uses visual commentary on the basic situation to replace long sequences where there should be dialogue.
Anna is sent out into the blizzard, and David runs after her. There follows some really remarkable photography, shots in which Anna’s cape seems to vanish and reappear behind trees and snowdrifts, close-ups of Anna, whose eyelashes seem to have icicles on them, and this sequence leads directly to the chase on the ice-floes.
Orphans of the Storm
It appears, looking at Orphans of the Storm today, that once more Griffith was having to work within imposed conditions. However, as in the case of the Biographs, this does not make Orphans of the Storm an imperfect picture, and here again can be seen Griffith’s faultless gift for re-creating a period, a gift that goes back to Judith of Bethulia and beyond.
The sequences that seem the most successful are those in which the poverty of the age is most obvious. Griffith’s sense of social justice is here given in the perfect setting of course, and as Wagenknecht observes, “like Dickens, Griffith approved of the French Revolution but deplored its excesses, and he could not resist telling us, in long subtitles … that while the French Revolution rightly overthrew a bad government, we must exercise care not to exchange our good government for “Bolshevism and license.”
The familiar “Last Minute Rescue” towards the end of reel twelve is as exciting and as beautifully executed as we have by now come to expect from Griffith. Cutting between the guillotine and Henriette (Lillian Gish) and Danton (Monte Blue) racing on horseback with her pardon, the sequence is a perfect example of “stretched action,” in which the time taken for Lillian Gish to walk three paces, for example, in the completed sequence, now intercut with other action, takes twice or maybe three times as long. This serves to build the suspense inasmuch as it creates an almost unbearable sense of impatience.
The crowd scenes have been likened to those of The Birth of a Nation, and the emotional effect they create is certainly valid.
*** “Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue. In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country. Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.” – “The Executive War on Stars” (Louise Brooks – 1959)
Probably motion picture exhibitors won’t have a chance to book “Way Down East” for at least a year, as it will be played as a regular road show during that time. But remember this: when you finally have the opportunity to book it—that it is one of the biggest things ever seen on the screen. It looks as if it would run “The Birth of a Nation” a close race for box office honors and when, some many years hence, all is said and done and counted, it won’t be at all surprising if it surpasses it. The biggest thing about “Way Down East” is that it is lasting. This has been proven by the famous old play, and this play never reached the public finished off as artistically and as powerfully as Griffith’s picture. It’s an entertainment that people have gone to see again and again. And they will continue to do so. Even beneath the surface of the purely melodramatic play rested elements that brought the crowds back whenever it was presented.
Way Down East – Lobby Cards
Lillian Gish undoubtedly does her best work to date as Anna Moore, the featured load. She combines subtly the simple-hearted childishness for which her characterizations have long been known with the hurt reserve that the spirit bruising knocks of a cruel world accomplish so quickly in dazed youth. There are few light touches in her offering, and it is much more effective so.
Lillian Gish lifts her eyes to heaven as she flees across the shifting ice floes. Her performance as Anna dramatized the shifting perception of women in the decade following passage of the women’s suffrage amendment.
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