Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe (Introduction by Lillian Gish) 1975

  • Stars of the Twenties – Observed by James Abbe
  • Introduction by Lillian Gish
  • Thames and Hudson – London 1975

In the early 1920s James Abbe had a highly successful studio in Tin Pan Alley, where his personal photographs of prominent people brought him a large clientele. Tin Pan Alley referred to the New York City block on 47th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues occupied by musicians, music publishers, instrument dealers, and others in the music profession. We met for the first time when he asked me to come to his studio to pose for him after the opening of ‘Broken Blossoms’ at the George M. Cohan Theatre. D.W. Griffith had moved his company East after buying the old Flagler estate on Orienta Point, a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound at Mamaroneck, New York.

When I went to see Mr. Abbe, I found him to be a charming Southern gentleman who shared my interest in photography. Abbe also believed that photographers, instead of using oils or watercolors to paint faces, could get the same effects by painting the face with lights. The hard work of manipulating and focusing his lighting equipment gave his photographs beauty and life. He was such a little man – he couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds – and he looked so undernourished that one’s first instinct was to take him out and buy him a substantial dinner. Instead, I almost drowned him.

After the completion  of the new studio, Mr. Griffith’s first picture there was ‘Way Down East.’ Abbe came out to shoot some of the still photographs. One day, during lunch hour, I was teaching myself how to swim. When I swallowed salt water I was inclined to panic, so I put a clothespin on my nose to make me breathe through my mouth. When Abbe swam around the far side of the pier and discovered this odd sight, he burst into sudden laughter, swallowed lots of salt water, and almost drowned.

My beloved sister Dorothy and I both posed for him at his New York studio while we were making what was to be our last picture for Mr. Griffith, ‘Orphans of the Storm.’ Dorothy then went to Cuba to film ‘The Bright Shawl’ with Richard Barthelmess and I, along with Henry King and twenty-two others, sailed for Europe to make the first American film in Italy, ‘The White Sister.’ To our great surprise Abbe accepted our offer at probably one-tenth of what he was earning to go with us. An addition to our company was Polly Shorrock, on an assignment from the Ladies’ Home Journal to write an article on the filming of this first modern religious story.

The fully equipped studio we were promised in Rome turned out to be an empty building unused since World War I, containing two little klieg lights, the only two in whole Italy. We put our electrician on the next night train to Berlin to get equipment. Abbe was amused by the fact that he was cast to play the small part of Lieutenant Rossini, but this did not keep him and his camera from taking full advantage of the overwhelming beauty of our new surroundings. We also shared the excitement of discovering with our cameraman, Roy Overbaugh, that the actinic rays of the sun in Italy were different from any that we had worked in, which led to new, subtle and amazing differences in our treatment of film. This began our experiments with panchromatic stock. Abbe built his darkroom in the corner of the studio, and out of it poured hundreds of arresting photographs that helped ‘The White Sister’ make millions of dollars around the world.

During this period, a romance blossomed between Abbe and Polly Shorrock. Instead of returning when he finished, she mailed her article back to New York and remained in Europe. After their marriage they joined Dorothy in England, where she was making films for Herbert Wilcox. Abbe’s pictures of her in Tip Toes with Will Rogers and Nelson Keys and of her in London are among the loveliest.

In the 1930s both Dorothy and I returned to the theater, while Abbe remained abroad. Our paths were not to cross until 1972, when a friend of mine who works for American Heritage sent me a copy of their magazine with an article on Abbe. One photograph labeled “Dorothy Gish” happened to be of me. When I pointed this out, shortly thereafter came an endearing letter from Abbe: “As I loved the Gishes equally, I could never tell them apart.”

In the fall of 1973 I was in San Francisco on a tour to help sell our book, Dorothy and Lillian Gish. I called Abbe, hoping we could lunch together, only to hear his voice, full of energy, complaining that he was confined to his bed, of which he did not approve. He promised that nothing would stand in his way for our meeting the next time I came West. He left us a few days later. We are grateful that the world seems a little better for his having lived in it, and now we have this book – his legacy of character and beauty.

Lillian Gish, New York City, 1974

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The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls

ON TV, STAGE AND SCREEN THEY ARE ADDING LUSTER TO THEIR CAREERS

By RICHARD L. WILLIAMS

WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

TODAY THEY ARE STILL LOVELY AND HARD AT WORK

 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

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

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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CINEMA – by Kenneth W. Leish – 1974 (PDF)

  • CINEMA
  • by Kenneth W. Leish
  • Newsweek Books, New York

The two-million-dollar film told not one story but four. Ancient Babylon, Biblical Judea, sixteen-century France, and modern America were the scenes of its four tales of bigotry and intolerance, and Griffith cut back and forth from one story – to another with increasing rapidity as the film progressed. By the last reel, the crosscutting was almost frantic. Scenes of a girl rushing to warn the Babylonian king that he has been betrayed were intercut with sequences showing the lover of the French heroine running through the streets to save her from the anti-Huguenots, Christ carrying his cross to Calvary, and the modern heroine racing to obtain a pardon that will stop her husband’s execution.

D.W. Griffith and G.W. Bitzer filming “Intolerance”

While these and other directors were winning plaudits, the man to whom they all owed so much was experiencing a tragic decline in his fortunes. D. W. Griffith had enjoyed a huge success in 1919 with Broken Blossoms, starring Lillian Gish as a cruelly- mistreated waif and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinese man who loves her. It was, Lewis Jacobs notes, “a brilliant culmination for the ‘sweet and innocent’ era in American movies, already dying and being succeeded by the sophisticated, daring ‘triangle era.’” Way Down East, which marked the apogee of D.W. Griffith’s personal and professional fortunes, was released to universal acclaim in 1920. Filmed at considerable peril to both the director and his leading lady, Lillian Gish, this Victorian melodrama features a sequence in which Gish flees across an ice-clooked river.

Lillian and Dorothy – Gish, had achieved stardom in D. W. Griffith’s films. Dorothy was a charming comedienne; Lillian, an ethereally lovely – woman, was regarded as the finest of all screen actresses. Her performance in Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains an impressive piece of acting, even after half a century. Critic Pauline Kael wrote in 1968 that “her Hester Prynne is one of the most beautifully sustained performances in screen history—mercurial, delicate, passionate. There isn’t an actress on the screen today, and perhaps there never was, who can move like Lillian Gish; it’s as if no bones, no physical barriers, stood between her intuitive understanding of the role and her expression of it.”

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On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review) By Armond White – 2015

  • On The Birth of a Nation’s Centenary (National Review)
  • By Armond White – February 18, 2015 5:00 AM

Why the smug critics of D. W. Grffith’s epic are doomed to repeat its faults.

One hundred years ago on this date, February 18, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation —​ the first movie epic — was shown at the White House. That screening occasioned President Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “It’s like writing history with lightning” — an accurate description of a problematic movie that is, upsettingly, full of hysterical historical fabrications. Wilson’s response to Griffith’s still-amazing innovations of cinematic storytelling was also an ideological endorsement of then-commonplace racial attitudes.Today, Wilson’s endorsement (not the darkest part of his own regrettable legacy) is scoffed at because of modern distaste for the film’s Civil War and Reconstruction drama — for its scurrilous depiction of black slaves while it lionizes the creation of the white-supremacist mob known as the Ku Klux Klan. The two myths, double-barreled offenses, have lived in the American consciousness partly through Griffith’s film — an indelible work of art and so an ongoing test.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

But in the decades since The Birth premiered, we should have learned more than that we are superior to it. That self-serving attitude has been the point of several recent articles recognizing the film’s centenary, as if the shameful or honorable social events (lynchings, legal reforms, and incremental civil-rights developments) that followed The Birth force single-minded dismissal of the film for its embarrassing and enraging faults.To approach this as a political as well as a cultural problem: Any attempt to erase The Birth —​ and rewrite movie history — also threatens our own presumably enlightened social standards. The trouble is, present-day smugness loses sight of The Birth’s aesthetic brilliance, which is the basis of its powerful challenge to our moral sense — not simply the necessary rejection of racist attitudes but the too-easy disavowal of the prejudiced reflexes and bigoted ideology still embedded in our national institutions and social habits.

*      *      *

Watching The Birth in 2015 (as on last week’s helpful C-SPAN broadcast) makes the movie more real than recent “not-me” renunciations allow; more real, in some ways, than current movies and TV dramas that boast “progressive” attitudes on race and American history. The Birth’s iconographic representation of timeless human experience is overwhelming for its glories and its insufficiencies: Griffith’s powerfully homiletic subtitle “War’s Peace” before a shot of dead bodies; the Little Colonel’s movingly discreet homecoming; the sexual frankness of Lillian Gish’s bedpost-stroking frustration (and the Altmanlike moment of a Union soldier eyeing her at a hospital); the startling battle scenes emulating Mathew Brady’s photographic realism but adding clouds of white and black smoke rolling kinetically across the battlefields; the combining of actual black bit players with white actors in blackface, following and flipping minstrel tradition; the intense expression of fear in the women’s barricade sequence; and, yes, the unsettling yet undeniably vibrant ride to the rescue by the Klan — a moment that sweeps you up in its fervor as all mob-related hysteria does even to this day. Think of it all as an epic — and dangerous — metaphor.

“As a film it’s astonishing, as a social history it’s still astonishing but in a different way,” Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress told C-SPAN. The Birth offers that unique quality vintage photography has of engaging your awe and fear, of past lives being made vivid alongside the simultaneous specter of mortality. But the film’s second half (its Reconstruction falsehoods, with lynch-mob scenes and Klan mythologizing) starts to pull away from you, offending basic sensitivities the same way as the caricature of criminal blacks in Liberty Heights (1999), or as Halle Berry’s degraded black mother in Monster’s Ball (2002), or as Precious and her mother’s being made into ghetto monsters in Precious (2007), or as the patronizing ghetto clichés in HBO’s The Wire (2002–2008), among other post-Griffith examples of Hollywood defamation.

It’s important to fully confront the history of our cinema and media, to measure their earliest falsehoods by their present racist lies and realize how we often mask and defend contemporary political presumptions. Otherwise, hindsight becomes duplicitous — a way to fend off honest self-examination.

Few Birth detractors (call them anti-Birthers?) concede any validity to Griffith’s presentation of white American personality or admit that it’s more insightful than his neurotic caricature of blacks. Griffith includes an inadvertent (easily ignored) truth in the character of the Little Colonel (Henry B. Walthall); the “gallant” Southerner shown as inventing the Klan parallels the likable “good people” who harbor racist thoughts and actions. Almost Dickensian in sentiment as well as psychological and social ramification, Griffith is more authentic than the strictly moralizing, largely partisan ideas of good/bad behavior found in today’s “enlightened” media work, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, or The Help.

That self-flattering mainstream-media perspective was typified when The New Yorker claimed: “The worst thing about [The Birth] is how good it is.” That’s all wrong, an example of liberal sophistry wrought to distance and patronize white racism. The fact is: The best thing about The Birth is how good it is, how its revolutionary techniques changed modern art — a forerunner to Griffith’s ultimate masterpiece and humanist plea Intolerance (1916). The worst thing is that such innovation was put to the service of racist ideology — and to the diminution of the sensitivity and aesthetic genius that made Griffith a great artist. To say otherwise is intellectual censorship. But as Hari Jones, assistant director of the African American Civil War Museum, advised C-SPAN: “We should not ban this film. We should not be afraid of this discourse.”

Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

Black Americans, well familiar with the calumnies the media use against them, are sometimes bemused even while recognizing the vile intent. For instance, one high point of The Birth’s racist hysteria has a young white girl (Mae Marsh) escape submitting to a lecherous black villain by jumping off a cliff. A subtitle proclaims: “We should not grieve that she found sweet the opal gates of death.” In my experience, both Black Panther and Columbia Graduate Film School colleagues found such absurdly racist sentimentality — including ludicrous scenes of free blacks’ buffoonery in the Reconstruction legislature — offensive and laughable, equally. It’s part of the process of getting accustomed to white racism and defying it — armoring oneself against it wherever and whenever possible.During film school, classmates and I laughed at a documentary where Lillian Gish insisted “But Mr. Griffith loved the Negro.” At that time, I had a dream of being kidnapped by Griffith and forced to watch new footage he had recently filmed. Orson Welles burst into the dream to rescue me, but I resisted his tug, pointed at the screen, and urged him: ”Look! Look how beautiful it is!” Welles sat down and enjoyed the show.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

I have always felt it essential to reckon with the paradox of Griffith’s genius and his racism, just as a critic must reckon with the racism of lesser present-day filmmakers and do-gooder hypocrites, as when the Directors Guild of America stripped Griffith’s name from its annual awards in 2000, a misguided act of politically correct self-righteousness.

The beauty and ugliness, the truth and lies of The Birth of a Nation haunt all Americans. How it haunts us is valuable and should never be forgotten.

— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.


Lillian Gish – Handwritten inscription defending D.W. Griffith & “Intolerance”

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D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry – 1965 (Electronic Format PDF)

  • D.W Griffith American Film Master by Iris Barry – 1965
  • With an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser
  • The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Film enthusiasts and scholars have come to regard this long out of print book as the chief source of information about a key figure in the development of the American film. It is now published in an edition that adds to the colorful observation of the original a wealth of illuminating factual data from Griffith’s personal and business papers.

D. W. Griffith: American Film Master first appeared in 1940 in conjunction with a pioneering retrospective exhibition of Griffith’s films at The Museum of Modern Art. As first curator of the Museum’s Film Library, Iris Barry had uncovered and re-examined the films Griffith made at the very beginning of his career, and it was she who first saw that in the four years following 1908 he had actually established all the principles on which the art of the motion picture as we now know it is based.

DW Griffith in 1943

At the time of the exhibition Griffith had been inactive for many years, and even his acknowledged masterpieces like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” seemed to belong to remote history. It was Iris Barry’s hope to restore the fading fame of the “enigmatic and somewhat tragic figure” and to overcome the prevalent opinion which saw Griffith’s later films as less than art because they were made at vast expense for a mass audience. The book that she produced was an intensely personal one based on exhaustive conversations with Griffith and imaginative research into his Kentucky origins. That it received something less than a warm reception is reflective of how remote Griffith and his era must have seemed in 1940—even to people who thought of themselves as cultivated. Outside a small circle of film scholars it provoked little comment, and an abundant supply of copies of D. W. Griffith: American Film Master remained on the Museum’s shelves for years.

Time has certainly given Griffith his revenge for this period of comparative obscurity, and Iris Barry’s book has long had the acclaim that it deserves. In conjunction with a large new exhibition of Griffiths’ work, the Museum is reissuing her study supplemented by an addendum that more than doubles the size of the original work. This new section, which was prepared by Eileen Bowser, provides detailed annotation for all of Griffith’s films and includes new information on his career from documents that have only recently become available for scholarly use. In addition to comment ing on how each of the films came to be made and what it contributed to the medium, Mrs. Bowser presents new and enlightening facts about the complicated business dealings that having once put Griffith at the top of the movie industry may ultimately have forced him from it.

  • The Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street
  • New York, New York 10019
  • Distributed by Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, N.Y.

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

Little Mary Pickford’s fans didn’t want Shakespeare in the first place, and they must have been thinking, Who needs this? Where’s our righter of wrongs? Where’s our comic? This is what went wrong with Little Mary’s four sound films: the contemporary Mary is not what her following wanted, and the few moments of the old fighting, comic Mary are wrong for the 1930s. And the oddest thing of all is: she knew this.

Mary Pickford

It’s the characters that mark the major changes, changes that were under way throughout the 1920s, when Little Mary was still the biggest thing in cinema and when Gish, through the presentation of her commitment, could play nun and harlot, then Renaissance dame and industrial-age slavey, and make us accept them all as variants on one all-basic vision of womanly wisdom and beauty and balance. Virtually behind their backs, movies turned around, as the culture did.

Gish went back to the stage, but Pickford stayed put at Pickfair. Her marriage to Fairbanks was ailing; from The Taming of the Shrew on, their ability to tolerate each other’s incompatible qualities was blunted, and at length Fairbanks’ affair with Lady Sylvia Ashley, much touted in the press, made reconciliation impossible. Pickford divorced Fairbanks and married Buddy Rogers, her co-star in My Best Girl and, all things considered, a better consort for America’s Sweetheart than Fairbanks. Rogers was America’s Boyfriend, Fairbanks America’s Big Man on Campus, his ego constantly chafing against the wide reaches of his girl’s celebrity. Mary and Buddy remained active in Hollywood doings, and in the mid- 1930s she proposed to try a radio show, Parties at Pickfair, in a variety format like that of Louella Parsons’ Hollywood Hotel. But Parsons discouraged great stars from appearing, and such was her power that this in effect canceled Pickford’s show. That was the new Hollywood: jackals owned it. No wonder Little Mary ended up a bedridden recluse sipping gin. Griffith, too, drank his wretched life away. But Gish, the most formidable of actresses, stayed so busy and vital that eventually Hollywood needed her all over again.

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Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide – PDF download

  • Selected Film Criticism (1912 – 1920) Anthony Slide

The extraordinary part of Griffith is that he has never ceased to be a pioneer. He continues to advance. He dares to present novelties of form and novelties of material. He does not always get away with it, but he keeps right on pioneering. He is a long ways from dead, and already the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy has crawled out of its narrow cell and taken a new form in the hexagonal debate as to who invented the close-up.

the tale (Broken Blossoms) runs as written except for the very finish, with Lucy dragging out her cowering little life by the London waterside, beaten into semi-imbecility by her accidental father, picked up, reverenced, honored and enthroned by the lonely opium- eater, and at length slain in a monstrous moment of mock-virtue by the insensate chunk that caused her to come into the world. Then the beast dies before the Chinaman’s gun, the Chinaman dies upon his own knife, and the cycle is finished. There is a satisfaction in the death of all three that is an unconscious verification of both its art and its truth. Burrows the battler should not survive the weak little thing he made and slew, and for the yellow man to go on living would have been a hideous hell.

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THE “I” OF THE CAMERA – William Rothman (1988)

  • The I of the camera : essays in film criticism, history, and aesthetics
  • Essays in Film Criticism, History, and Aesthetics
  • William Rothman
  • © Cambridge University Press – 1988

America’s experience of film is virtually unique in that in almost every other country, the impact of film cannot be separated from the process or at least the specter of Americanization, In America, film in no sense represents something external; it is simply American. But what is American about American film?

For a decade or so after the first film exhibitions in 1895, film shows presented a grab bag of travelogues, news films, filmed vaudeville acts, trick films, and gag films. The audience for film in America was disproportionately urban and was made up of recent immigrants, largely from eastern Europe. (The extent to which that was true is a subject of some contention among film historians.) In a sense, film has been involved, even in America, in a process of Americanization – “naturalizing” recent arrivals, teaching them how Americans live (and also breaking down regional differences, a process that television has taken over with a vengeance). However, following the sudden growth of nickelodeons in 1908, exhibitions were skewed to be more “upscale.” The theatrical narrative – especially adaptations of “legitimate” novels and stage plays – became the dominant form of film in America, as it has remained to this day. Griffith’s early films made for the Biograph Company were clearly intended for an audience of Americans who, like Griffith himself, could take for granted the fact, if not the meaning, of their Americanness.

Griffith Directing Battle of the Sexes

But then again, virtually all Americans either are born as non-Americans or are recent descendants of non-Americans. One might think that there could be no such thing as a specifically American culture, but that is not the case. In the nineteenth century, for example, what is called transcendentalism — the philosophy of Emerson and Thoreau, the stories and novels of Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, and Henry James, the poetry of Whitman — is quintessentially American. However, this example underscores a distinctive feature of American intellectual and cultural life. There was no nineteenth-century French philosopher approaching Emerson’s stature, but had there been, young French men and women today, as part of the experience of growing up French, would be taught his or her words by heart and learn to take them to heart. But in the process of growing up American, young men and women are not taught and do not in this way learn Emerson’s words or the value of those words. Americans, as compared with the English or French or Chinese or Japanese, are unconscious of the history of thought and artistic creation in their own country – unconscious of the sources, American and foreign, of their own ideas.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

The American and foreign roots of nineteenth-century American philosophy and literature cannot be disentangled: This is part of what makes that work so American, as is the fact that it takes the identity of America to be a central subject. What America is, where it has come from, and what its destiny may be are central themes through which American culture has continually defined itself. In the crucial period from 1908 to the country’s entrance into World War I, the period when narrative film was taking root, American film took up this question of America’s identity, culminating in The Birth of a Nation, the film that definitively demonstrated to the American public the awesome power that movies could manifest. Indeed, in the work of D. W. Griffith, the dominant figure of American film during those years, America’s destiny and the destiny of film were fatefully joined.

Griffith started out with an idealistic vision: America’s destiny was to save the world, and film’s destiny was to save America. By the time of The Birth of a Nation, however, he had drawn closer to the more ambiguous, darker vision of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. He had made the disquieting discovery that in affirming innocence, the camera violates innocence; however idealistic their intention, movies touch what is base as well as what is noble in our souls. This knowledge, with which he struggled his entire career, is Griffith’s most abiding — if least recognized – legacy to American film.

The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

Griffith’s attitude toward modern ideas, especially concerning the role of women, was ambivalent. That ambivalence was most pointedly expressed in the tension between his flowery, moralistic intertitles and the dark mysteries he conjured with his camera. Griffith combined a Victorian conviction that it was proper for women to be submissive with a profound respect for the intelligence, imagination, and strength of the women in his films. And what remarkable women he had the intuition to film! As I ponder Griffith’s spellbinding visions of Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, and others, I am struck equally by the voraciousness of his desire for women and his uncanny capacity to identify with them.

After the war, the American film industry grew to international dominance. The postwar Hollywood in which Griffith struggled fruitlessly to reclaim his preeminence clearly allied itself with the libertarian spirit of the “Jazz Age.” But with all their glamor and spectacle, their Latin lovers, flappers, and “It” girls, Hollywood films of the twenties never really made clear what that spirit was, nor its sources, nor the grounds of its opposition to orthodox ideas, nor the identity of the orthodoxy it was opposing. Following the withdrawal or repression of Griffith’s seriousness of purpose, the years from the end of the war to the late twenties are the obscurest period in the history of American film.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

We are taught that that was the “Golden Age of Silent Film,” the age when film became a glorious international art and language. Yet those were also the years when Hollywood’s power over the world’s film production, and its hold on the world’s film audiences, came closest to being absolute. Strangely, except for the occasional cause celebre, such as von Stroheim’s Greed, the magnificent comedies of Chaplin and Keaton, and Murnau’s Sunrise (which, together with Chaplin’s City Lights, provided the swan song for that era), no American film of that period still has an audience (beyond a core of hardened film buffs), even among film students.

Coming at a time of creative crisis, the simultaneous traumas of the new sound technology and the Great Depression (which brought about changes in studio organization and ownership) disrupted the continuity of American film history. There was an influx of personnel — directors, actors, writers, producers – from the New York stage (and, increasingly, from abroad, as political conditions worsened in Europe). By and large, the Broadway imports (unlike the Europeans) were unlettered in film. They approached the new medium with ideas whose sources were to be found elsewhere than in the history of earlier film achievements. Then again, “the talkies” were a new medium for everyone, even for movie veterans for whom filmmaking had been their education.

When Hollywood movies began to speak, no one could foresee the new genres that would emerge. It took several years of experimentation, of testing the limits, before a new system of production was securely in place and a stable new landscape of genres and stars became discernible.

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