The kindergarten of the movies : a history of the Fine Arts Company
Sold For Marriage – By Anthony Slide – 1980
Sold for Marriage is an interesting story of a Russian family emigrating to the United States and attempting to sell their daughter (Lillian Gish) to a wealthy, elderly suitor. The first two reels, set in the Russian steppes, are impressive in their detail, and in these reels there is at times a comic vein apparent, particularly in the titles and in Miss Gish’s looking her ugly and old suitor up and down before exclaiming, “Marry that beast!” Throughout much of the film, the actress has a pouting look on her face, but there is fine acting in the scene in which she grabs a pair of scissors and considers killing the suitor to whom she has been sold. Despite some beautiful early scenes in the snow and one brief shot of Lillian’s lover, Jim, played by Frank Bennett, on a train speeding from San Francisco to Los Angeles, Sold for Marriage is not a great film. Julian Johnson, writing in Photoplay (June, 1916) gives an accurate appraisal: “Lillian Gish puts a convincing touch on a play of Russian life which is not convincing in itself.” Oscar Cooper in Motion Picture News (April 15, 1916) also endorsed Miss Gish’s performance, noting “Her work here, as always, gives the impression that she is one of the very few who can justly be called screen stars.”
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · 10 January 1941, Friday · Page 17
Probably the last Christmas tree in Chicago to be taken down is that of Miss Lillian Gish, in her apartment at the Blackstone hotel. The tree, hung with ornaments and webbed in silver mist, the holly wreaths, the Christmas angels on the mantelpiece, and the Christmas candles go down today with the departure of Mrs. Gish for New York after a holiday visit with her daughter here in her long run of Life With Father.
Mrs. Gish, who with her dazzling white hair and deep blue eyes is reminiscent of a Dresden figurine, is an invalid as a result of shell shock in the world war, when she accompanied her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, to the war area, where they made propaganda pictures under the direction of David Wark Griffith. She lost 35 pounds during the stay in the war zone, and has been invalided ever since.
Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England on the first boat to cross the Atlantic after America had declared war, the St. Louis. Dorothy Gish sailed later on the Baltic, the same boat that carried Gen. Pershing and his staff overseas, and took 13 days to do it.
“Think of any one having the courage to face the movie camera,” the commander of the A.E.F. said to Miss Gish.
The Gishes were in London during two months of heavy bombardment. In September they sailed for France on a troop transport that started out twice and returned because of floating mines. Griffith had gone ahead to get into production, and when the two Gish girls arrived with their mother they went into the war area and made pictures in trenches and beyond the barbed wire. During their stay in Paris they lived with a French family in a bomb shelter, and learned to tell by the sound of the motors overhead what kind of plane and which country’s it was. The pictures made were Hearts of the World, The Greatest Thing in Life, and The Great Love. Remember?
Chicago Tribune – Monday, October 2, 1916 – Page 19
An interesting Picture Well Done
“Diane of the Follies”
Written by Granville Warwick
Produced by Fine Arts
Directed by Christy Cabanne
Released by Triangle
Diane …………………………………. Lillian Gish
Phillips Christy …………..…. Sam de Grasse
Dea Livingston ………………… Howard Gaye
Marcia Christy ………….….. Lillian Langdon
Jimmie Darcy ……………………… A. D. Sears
Theatrical manager ……….… Wilbur Higby
Butler …………………….…… William de Vaull
Bijou Christy ………. Wilhelmina Siegmann
Girls from the Follies – Adele Clifton, Clara Morris, Helen Walcott, Gracie Heins
By Kitty Kelly
It is curious to see the cameo faced Lillian Gish capering about as a dancer of the follies. Her general sedateness has faded far in “Diane of the Follies” and she is as tempestuous a whirlwind as Gaby Deslys at her palmist.
“Diane of the Follies” is a curious thing, too. It is rather embarrassed with ideas, but some of them got mixed up with themselves and didn’t come through to a finish, resulting in a certain illogicalness. They are the effect of environment and the husband’s lack of sympathy and his companionable neglect of his wife. The result is matrimonial shipwreck, but as the story seems to indicate, a much desired personal freedom.
Diana is a young hypocrite, not so much intentionally as in effect. She is a product of the stage and her ruling characteristic is the chameleon quality of changing her personality to fit histrionically the environment in which she finds herself. The breath of life to her is the applause of approval which she gets in liberal measure from the other side of the footlights.
Naturally she is a shallow thing, but she has a good heart which might have been cultivated, but which the husband allows to lie fallow. She wishes to join to his intellectual pursuits; he shuts her out, but includes the elderly sister who has always kept his house for him. And furthermore he grows bored at Diane’s efforts to attract and please him. The marvel is that with her nature she stuck it out three years or more, arguing a character ballast undreamed of.
There comes a domestic crisis in which she flings off to the stage and glory. Then the baby, the only joy that came to her from the marriage died, thus breaking all ties. Diane goes forever to the life she loved and knew and leaves her respectable husband to his version of the same.
It is an extremely interesting picture, extremely well done. Sometimes Miss Gish’s Diane is just a little too temperamental and certain mannerisms are too obvious. Sometimes she jerks about altogether too much. But her characterization of the variously mooded Diane is quite an achievement on the whole. She makes her live and further, enlists our sympathies.
It isn’t the socially correct and outraged husband and sister whom one pities, though they did get ridden over rather roughly; it is poor thing trying, unappreciated, tempestuous tempered Diane. The husband might at least have tried to make something of her, but he seemed not to. The conclusion is that sympathy must be a factor in environment if the latter is to have any influence.
Here as ever in Fine Arts films, the little things are exquisitely done. They are too numerous and too small to receive attention in chronicling, but they are really, the mainstay of the picture. The natural human things the supporting players do provide an atmosphere of reality as background for the main thread of the story. For instance here, the quiet, well bred disgruntlement of the sister keys the whole affair into naturalness. Such bits abound.
A lot of people won’t like it because it has a queer heroine, but she is no queerer and a deal realer than the weird vampire things set forth so successfully. And a lot of people will like it because it is an interesting thing set forth skillfully.
One of the loveliest picture bits I’ve ever seen is that where Diane, leaving, remembers the baby in the nursery – but does not go to kiss him good-by.
“TRUE HEART SUSIE,” one of David W. Griffiths’ latest Artcraft pictures, will not injure this master wizard’s reputation any, for he has not failed to place the very visible earmarks of his directorial skill upon this production. It is a beautiful pastoral romance exerting an intense heart appeal, which is heightened in the manner of treatment and the careful attention to little details which always count so prodigiously in the aggregate. Lillian Gish, in the title role, takes one more long step towards proving that she is one of the greatest artists ever developed under the Griffiths banner, while Robert Harron again distinguishes himself in his support of her. The story unfolded in this excellent photoplay is well worth telling in some detail, and it follows:
Susie May Trueheart, a delightfully awkward, straight forward, true-hearted girl of Hoosier county, loves, with steadfast loyalty, William Jenkins, her boy neighbor across the way. At the little country school house she watches, adoringly, his every move, and suffers untold agonies when, because she is a better speller, she has to go above him. A small, live politician, looking after his fences as he passes through the town, calls William a bright lad, and half promises—in his desire to impress the simple country folk—to give the boy a start in life. Through the months that follow, William and Susie await the fulfillment of the promise that was not made to be kept, looking for the letter that never comes. At last Susie decides for herself that William must not be disappointed ; she determines that the man she is to marry must be educated; William is the man she is going to marry ; she herself will send him to school. She confides her plans to the spinster aunt with whom she lives. Auntie is quite unenthusiastic.
But since the farm and everything on it was left to Susie by her mother, the girl has her way. The accumulated butter and egg money, the small amounts saved for luxuries, finally the cow, go to swell the fund that is to give William his start. Of all these sacrifices, William knows nothing. When at last a letter arrives with money orders and a receipt from the nearby country college for a year’s tuition, he takes it for granted — through his transports of delight—that the gift is from the self-styled philanthropist of the year before.
William goes through college. He is ordained a minister. Through the years Susie waits for him, whole-heartedly, treasuring each of the few letters that he sends her, and finding crumbs of comfort in such non-committal phrases as : “So far, I haven’t met anybody I like better than the people at home.” It is after William’s return home that Susie’s life tragedy occurs. The young man, self consciously important as the newly appointed minister of the home church, falls head-over heels in love with Bettina Hopkins, a lightheaded little butterfly from the next town, and marries her. Hiding her heavy heart beneath a smile of sacrifice that illumines her serious little face, Susie carries flowers at the simple country wedding.
Following the marriage, matters at the parsonage do not progress smoothly. William finds that the girl of his dreams is a different being in real life. Curl papers take the place of curls, and interest in stories drives out interest in preparing meals. Vaguely, William realizes that he has made a mistake—that in Susie, and not Bettina, he might have found his true mate. But it is too late now. Sadly, when he finds Susie looking at some letters in a hidden nook, he asks her if she is thinking of getting married, and advises her to be sure and find the right man. He fails utterly to sense that the letters Susie is reading, are his own—letters from the only man she can ever love. Bettina sees occasionally, members of the little fast set of the near-by town, whom she knew before her marriage. She dances with a former beau, Sporty Malone, and receives his kisses. But when William returns unexpectedly, convinces him that he was entirely mistaken in what he thought he saw. Later, Bettina attends a dance with Sporty and is caught in the rain on the way home, only to find—drenched and shivering—that she has lost her key and cannot get back into the house unobserved. In desperation she goes to Susie and is taken in for the night.
Susie, torturing her own heart, keeps Bettina’s secret—and again William is deceived. But the cold proves serious. It settles in the girl-wife’s lungs, and dances poor Bettina down into the Shadowy Halls of death. With her last words she tries to confess to William, but is unable, even then, to tell him the truth, dying as she had lived, a little unfaithful. After she has passed away, William begins the mistaken task of enshrining her in his memory—to the exclusion of any other love. Then, in time, he learns the truth that Bettina was—what she was ; that Susie is—what she has always remained.
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.
“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”
Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”
“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”
I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?
“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”
It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.
First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.
Chicago Tribune – Tuesday, April 17, 1984 – Page 37
Salute to Lillian Gish rates salute, too
By Jon Anderson (TV writer)
Compared with the awkward, boring, tedious spectacle of the Academy Awards, last month’s American Film Institute salute to actress Lillian Gish was graceful, warm and human. In Hollywood, those qualities are so rare that John Houston, stunned, later rang up George Stevens Jr., producer of the show, and told him: “George, I’ve been around this town for 40 years and I saw something the other night I’ve never seen before in this community. Affection!”
In this tribute, to air at 8 p.m. Tuesday on CBS – Ch. 2, the stars [and there are lots of them] don’t seem stiff, stilted or ill-at-ease. When cameras catch their faces, they look like they’re having a good time. When they talk, they seem to mean what they say. There isn’t a wooden scripted, flat joke in the whole 90 minutes.
This didn’t just happen. “We really tried to make people comfortable and secure,” producer Stevens said in an interview. He barred Teleprompters, those cue-card projectors that make show-folk squint or, as in the case of Frank Sinatra at the Academy Awards, look over-served. Before the show, writers worked with the stars “to bring out their feelings,” go over what they wanted to say and suggest phrasings. Then stars did their bits the old-fashioned way; they memorized their speeches and, strange for TV, spoke them naturally.
The producers also sensibly avoided spinning graphics and other electronic nonsense. Instead, they hired a 37-piece orchestra, struck new prints of notable early Gish scenes and ran them at proper speeds, with musical accompaniment. [Silent cameras, cranked by hand, exposed anywhere from 16 to 22 frames a second compared with today’s standard of 24 frames a second. ***(1) That’s why silent movies, shown on modern equipment, speed up.]
Hambone and Hillie – Photo Gallery
Gish’s screen career began in 1913 ***(2) bloomed under director D.W. Griffith [“Birth of a Nation”], for whom she made 40 movies, and continues today. [She’ll star in the forthcoming film “Hambone and Hillie.”]
The clip that got the biggest hand [from “Way Down East”] showed her limp body on a slab of ice, headed towards the falls, with an anguished man in a fur coat leaping from berg to berg trying to rescue her. It was Gish’s idea to trail her hair and one hand in the icy waters, a stunt so chilling that, even today, Gish’s right hand aches when she is out in winter cold.
A fundraiser for the American Film Institute, best known for its work in preserving old movies, the gala black-tie dinner for 1,100 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in March was enlivened by speeches, waves and smiles from Sally Field, John Houseman, Robert Mitchum, Jeanne Moreau, Mary Steenburgen, Jennifer Jones, Mary Martin, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Eva Marie Saint, Richard Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Richard WIdmark and Chicago’s own tie to the glorious motion picture past, Colleen Moore Hargrave. She got a hug from the guest of honor.
Also remarkable was that so many veterans of a perilous craft, that of being a movie star, still looked so sparkling.
“Lillian Gish was there at the birth of an art form,” said the evening’s host, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., 75. “I am kind of an emissary, a link, if you like, from those pioneers who were with her at the beginning, my father, my stepmother, Mary Pickford; Charlie Chaplin; and all the others whom Lillian refers to as those charming ghosts.”
Through it all, Gish was very much the center of what seemed, at times, like a family get-together, her face radiating what critic Alexander Woolcott once called “a strange mystic light not made by any electrician.”
Some praised her acting. [John Houseman described her Ophelia as “convincingly lunatic.”] Some, her canniness. [As Mary Steenburgen put it: “I figure an actress who’s been a star for 72 years must have a pretty good head for business.”]
By general agreement, at 87, Lillian Gish is also still a going concern – with a strong sense of camera angles.
Last December, she appeared in the CBS made-for-TV movie “Hobson’s Choice,” one friend recalled, and chewed out a cameraman for placing the camera too low. “Young man,” she said snappishly, “If God had meant you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your belly button.”*** (3)
***(1) Mr. Jon Anderson is referring probably to an older filming system, [and 24 fps theatre film projectors] pre-NTSC (29.95 fps) known being the fact that PAL (Phase Alternate by Line) used in Europe has a 25 fps standard using fields to compensate the difference from 30 fps of US-NTSC. Indeed in the 70’s there were still in use film cameras, not digital or streaming over network via satellite like today. So, in order to have news broadcast, every decent TV station had a huge laboratory for processing the film, cutting it old school style and converting it for TV broadcast in a post process.
Starting before CBS color even got on the air, the U.S. television industry, represented by the National Television System Committee, worked in 1950–1953 to develop a color system that was compatible with existing black-and-white sets and would pass FCC quality standards, with RCA developing the hardware elements. The first publicly announced network demonstration of a program using the NTSC “compatible color” system was an episode of NBC’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie on August 30, 1953, although it was viewable in color only at the network’s headquarters. The first network broadcast to go out over the air in NTSC color was a performance of the opera Carmen on October 31, 1953.
***(2) Actually Lillian Gish’s career began in 1912 with “The Unseen Enemy”.
***(3) The famous “eyes in the belly button” remark was made by Lillian Gish while celebrating her 100th movie [A Wedding] during the party organized by director Robert Altman. And it was a photographer, not a cameraman. The incident was documented by Kevin Brownlow.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, April 21, 1918 – Page 37
“Hearts of the World”
By Mae Tinee
This being Sunday, with everybody having a little leisure, may be as good a time as any other for me to answer the questions that come pouring in regarding the new Griffith picture, “Heart of the World,” which will have its premier showing on Wednesday night at the Olympic. Time: 8:15.
Where was the picture taken?
On the European battlefields.
What made Mr. Griffith think of taking it?
It happened this way: He went to Europe to procure scenes for six Artcraft pictures which he was under contract to make. He was just about to start back, when Lord Beaverbrook of the British publicity bureau approached him with a request. He said that the government was about to make some official war films and the valuable experience of Mr. Griffith was desired. One thing led to another. It was finally decided to make the official films, but to weave them with a story of charm and power.
“A crowd of us used to get together,” Mr. Griffith said, “and discuss the subject. We all had our own ideas, but finally it was decided that Georges De Tolignac had the right one. M. De Tolignac is a close friend of J. M. Barry.
“He said, ‘Just let the story be a simple heart tale, like one of the many thousand which are being lived each day over here. A simple story about simple folk – such a story as all many understand.’ We told him to write it. He named it, too.
“First I didn’t care for the name. Now I think it’s the best one that could possibly have been chosen. It is a cry from ‘Hearts of the World’ to hearts of the world.”
What is the story about?
It is a romance of love and action with a setting of war stricken France and Belgium, and briefly is of the love affair between a young American artist (Robert Harron) and an American girl (Lillian Gish), who both reside in France. They are engaged to be married, and the date for the wedding set when war is declared and the Huns loom up with their hideous menace.
“Any country that’s good enough to live in is worth fighting for!” says the American boy, and he joins the French army. From then on the story, it is said, is one series of thrills after another until in the end the allies come to the rescue of the beleaguered girl and her townspeople and send the audience away with a smile on their lips.
How long was the picture in the taking?
Who gets the money from the film?
Half of the proceeds go to British charities.
You’re acquainted with the people in it. The leads will be taken by Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, George Seigman, George Fawcett and Josephine Crowell.
Prominent figures in the history of the day will be seen and the supers are none others than the real people suffering and living in Belgium and France today.
Chicago Tribune – Wednesday, October 1st, 1969 – Page 51
Lillian Gish Still Captivates Audiences
By Gene Siskel
AT THE Moscow Film festival this summer, one actress received an ovation larger than any other. Lillian Gish, whose credits are virtually endless and run the gamut from the largest grossing film [“Birth of a Nation”] to longest running Broadway play [“Life With Father”], was that actress.
She is in Chicago at the Goodman theater thru Saturday for five performances of “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a narrated look at the birth and triumph of the only art form created in the twentieth century – the movie.
Miss Gish is elegant in a long, white gown, and ebullient as she greets the audience in what she calls “my city.” Her warmth – which she was able to project on the silent screen – is more than evident in her greeting. “I’m a lucky, lucky woman.”
With the screen at center stage and her chair off to one side, Miss Gish takes us on a tour of great films from 1900 to 1928. Incredibly modest, she has included films from her own career as well as those of Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and many others.
Occasionally having trouble with her script, Miss Gish was the most captivating when she looked out at the audience and told the story of her harrowing performance on an ice floe in “Way Down East.” As we watched her leave her lover [Richard Barthelmess] and head for ice, she explained that stand-ins were never used. “And it was my foolish idea to hold my hand and my hair in the freezing water.”
Barthelmess chases his sweetheart, jumping from ice floe to ice floe, and suddenly we see a shot of Miss Gish approaching the falls. You have to shake yourself to realize that here was the era’s most popular screen star floating down a river about to be smashed to bits.
“I don’t know why we got so close to the edge. We couldn’t hear Mr. Griffith [the director] screaming at us.” In a dazzling scene that has the audience gasping and then cheering, the heroine is saved.
Much of the cinematic travelog is a paen to her close friend and pioneering director, David Wark Griffith. Miss Gish shows us portions of Griffith’s masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation,” and identifies the master’s contributions to the art.
In his preface to miss Gish’s autobiography, Brooks Atkinson wrote, “I know what makes her so magnificent. She has no vanity.” We got a sense of that last night, and only wish Miss Gish’s modesty wouldn’t keep her from talking more about her roles as they are shown on the screen. What information she did give was wonderful.