Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star – by Dick Moore (1984)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Copyright © 1984

by Dick Moore.

“but don’t have sex or take the car”

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the c
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – Cover

Foreword

At eleven months, I landed my first job. Most of my peers were three or four years old. Others were jobless until eight or ten. Some of us were local kids. Others descended on Hollywood from Detroit or Cleveland or London or Atlanta. A number spent several years developing their talents before tackling Hollywood. Usually, they took their families with them. In the main, we were Depression kids who supported our families, frequently our studios, occasionally the entire movie industry, and at least once—according to President Franklin Roosevelt—the nation. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple,” FDR reportedly said, “we will be all right.” The 1930s and early 1940s in America were a throwback to the Dickensian era a century earlier, when children were perceived as little adults. Important to Hollywood’s economy and to the public’s need for escape, each of us was a representation, a cliche: Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were irrepressible little adults who could accomplish more than real adults, and solve their problems.

Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple
Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple

Jane Withers was the tough kid who broke the rules; Elizabeth Taylor, the symbol of beauty and serene perfection; Jackie Coogan, the little ragamuffin who broke your heart; Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew expressed intelligence and refinement; Stymie of “Our Gang” was the little “pickaninny,” the only black among us; Spanky, the fat boy of the Gang, was intended to be laughed at. I was Dickie Moore, innocent and pure, who specialized in reconciling wayward parents and bringing enlightenment to folks like Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood stars were the closest thing to royalty America produced. So as children we tasted a life immensely privileged, but laced with deprivation. All of us were extraordinary people at a very early age. All of us shared common lives and times, huge responsibilities, and salaries that shriveled fathers’ egos. Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car - Dickie Moore
Twinkle, twinkle, little star but dont have sex or take the car – Dickie Moore

Fade In

Crisis gripped the set. The scene called for the actors to give the crying infant a bottle filled with wine. Mother hadn’t been aware of that. “You’re not going to give my little Dickie wine,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” the director said. “It’s only Coca-Cola. We wouldn’t give wine to a baby.”

“You’re not going to give him Coca-Cola, either. He’s only eleven months old,” said Mother.

So production stopped, one hundred people stood around on salary. Paralysis, Hollywood’s most dread disease, suddenly quarantined the set because Mother was protecting my digestion.

John Barrymore, star of the film, who just happened to be on the set that day (he wasn’t in this scene), came over to see what the commotion was about. He peered into the crib at me, the kid with the big brown eyes, then announced majestically, “Jesus Christ, it’s an owl!”

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 5
dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish

Our Pay and What Happened to It

Money was the only reason that Lillian and Dorothy Gish—two of the most celebrated actresses ever to appear in theater and films—began acting as children. Tiny, delicate, astonishingly beautiful at eighty-eight, Lillian Gish poured tea for me in her New York apartment as she reminisced about her life when Theodore Roosevelt was President. To support the girls, their mother, who had never worked, got a job in a department store. “She gave Papa the money to pay the man when he came for the furniture we were buying on the installment plan. But he didn’t pay it, so she said, ‘Well, look, I can support three people, but I can’t support four. You go out and get a job, and when you can support us, you come back.’ ” Miss Gish spoke precisely.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

To supplement her earnings, her mother rented out the girls’ bedroom to two actresses, who encouraged her to try the stage. The Proctor’s Stock Company hired her as leading ingenue. An actress with a company that needed a four-year-old girl took Lillian with her on the road. Another actress took Dorothy. Each girl earned ten dollars a week; their mother, fifteen dollars. They saved enough to get them through the summer, when theaters closed; air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Came summer, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother visited Aunt Emily in Ohio: In Ohio, hotels had signs saying: “No actors or dogs allowed.” We asked Mother why. We thought actors were such nice people. Mother said it was because actors often got stranded and had no money to pay their hotel bills, so they slid down the water pipe at night and left without paying their bills.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

After I went into the movies, Griffith [D. W. Griffith, in whose films the Gish girls starred] ran out of money while we were filming Birth of a Nation. He had only fifty thousand dollars and the picture cost sixty-one thousand. We all worked without salary because we knew he was honest, and we wanted to help. Mother had saved three hundred, which was a fortune for us, and she went to Mr. Griffith and offered to put it into the picture. But he said, “No, I won’t take it. You might lose it all.” I earned a thousand a week in the movies. Mother said, “You think you’re getting a thousand a week? You’re getting fifty dollars, five percent. See that you live on that.” Mother put the rest away for us.

Jane Powell close up
Jane Powell close up

Sex Can Wait?

Marriage was a way for us to prove that we had grown up. Children don’t get married, right?

Wrong! But we didn’t know it then. Not surprisingly, nearly all of us entered into at least one marriage that failed: Jane Powell, Donald O’Connor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Gene Reynolds, Peggy Ann Garner, Bobs and Delmar Watson, Cora Sue Collins, Gloria Jean, Sidney Miller, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Stymie, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Kathleen Nolan, Ann Rutherford, Darryl Hickman, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Dean Stockwell, Spanky McFarland, Diana Cary, me. Mickey Rooney was married the first time when he was twentyone, to Ava Gardner. “I needed to be married like you need to paint Shea Stadium at midnight,” Mickey told me. “But I’m happy I did it, because it was part of growing up.” Lillian Gish is among a handful of former child stars who were never divorced. Miss Gish believes that “an actress shouldn’t ruin a good man’s life by marrying him,” so she never married anybody.

Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan
Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan

Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs. It was not that way for us. Homeroom was a clutch of tiny, sometimes solo classes strewn from Culver City to Burbank. Spelling and arithmetic spanned whole careers. Our lives touched each other’s, drew apart, touched again, receded—waves hissing on a beach. From Lillian Gish to Margaret O’Brien, ours was a class of intimate strangers bound by the common experience of being child stars.

Baby Peggy
Baby Peggy

Baby Peggy (her real name was Diana Cary) was, in the early 1920s, Hollywood’s first four-year-old self-made millionaire. Her parents probably hold the distinction of running through her money fastest. She was broke at six.

Jackie Coogan
Jackie Coogan

Then came Jackie Coogan, who shares with Shirley Temple the greatest, most enduring fame ever achieved by a child at any age at any time. He was the first child to be merchandised on a national scale. There were Jackie Coogan clothes, Jackie Coogan candy bars, toys—even a Jackie Coogan haircut, which, while copied around the world, could not command a royalty.

Shirley Temple
Shirley Temple

Shirley was the first child to carry the full weight of a talking, full-length, “A” picture on her small but willing shoulders. Her every motion picture was a “Shirley Temple picture.” It wasn’t just a film in which Shirley Temple starred. When I bestowed her first screen kiss, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world was watching—literally. The event was recorded on the front page of every major newspaper. My timid peck on her cheek was the symbolic loss of the world’s most beloved and famous child, the little girl whose energy, pluck, and irrepressible good cheer allowed folks to forget the Great Depression—at least for ninety minutes. There will never be another Shirley Temple. Today, there are kids who make a splash, but they will never command the lifelong recognition we still have. Their films are not rerun on television. The continuity of product isn’t there. And, in Jackie Coogan’s words, “There’s nothing charming about children anymore.” Our group is still around. Try today to track the people you shared first grade with. Most have evaporated, raindrops in a desert.

Perennially visible, we have no place to hide.

Shirley Temple Postcard
Shirley Temple Postcard

Fade Out

Life on the fast track is the seven o’clock news. When you’re the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another story breaks, you might as well be dead. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with you. Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so indispensable, until the director yells, “Cut!” and I am whisked into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?

Even on the set when two or three years old, I must somehow have been aware that this shattering contrast between darkness and spotlights was unnatural. But you can’t handle such emotions at so early an age. So, belatedly, I found myself fighting back the tears.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don't have sex or take the car
Twinkle, twinkle, little star : but don’t have sex or take the car – back cover

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Brief Reviews – LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH (The New York Times – October 30, 1932)

Miscellaneous Brief Reviews

The New York Times – October 30, 1932, Section BR, Page 20

LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH.

By Albert Bigelow Paine. Illustrated. 303 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

LILLIAN GISH had her first dramatic try-out, made her first triumphant entrance upon any stage, at the age of 3 in Baltimore on the shoulder of Nat Goodwin. He was serving as Santa Claus for a big Christmas tree on the stage of Ford’s Theatre, and needing a particularly angelic-looking child to perch on his shoulder and distribute the gifts, little Lillian Gish was chosen. Three years later she bad become, under stress of economic necessity, a little trouper playing in a barnstorming company which was presenting melodrama in one-night stands. Through several seasons she traveled with this and other companies, economizing on food to the edge of hunger, sleeping on telegraphic desks in cold stations, riding all night in day coaches, rarely having rest in a real bed.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

During the Summers her mother had a candy and popcorn stand at the Fort George amusement grounds in New York City, and Lillian, in a timorous little voice, would try to help sales by saying gently to the passers–by. “Wouldn’t you like to buy some popcorn?” But her sister Dorothy stood on the counter and joyfully did “ballyhoo” for the enterprise by calling “out, “This way for the best taffy and popcorn in New York” The Smith family, mother, two daughters and son, afterward to become famous as the Pickfords, were living with Mrs. Gish and her little girls in her apartment, and then and afterward the two families were very close in friendship and work.

Lillian Gish at Six

The narrative of Lillian Gish’s life reads like a fairy story. American biographical literature is full of marvelous tales of material success wherein poor boys starting out with nothing but good heads, willing hands and determined wills win through to high achievement and heaps of gold. But heretofore not many of them have been about women. And among these few there has been none so wonderfully fairylike in material and texture and denouement as the story of Lillian Gish. Albert Bigelow Paine, veteran author and man of letters, with perhaps two score of books of varied kinds to his credit, tells the story with a sensitiveness to its peculiar quality and a sympathetic response to its heroine’s appeal to eye and heart and mind that intensify the likeness. He tells it in straight narrative form that deals almost wholly with environment and conditions of life and Lillian’s share in them, with privations and struggle and hard work and dazzling achievements. But throughout he does enable the reader to envisage her “ln the round” whether as child trouper, young girl dashing on horseback over Oklahoman plains with an Indian girl playmate and trying hard to get an education in the intervals of work on the stage, successful movie actress, gaining world-wide fame on both screen and stage.

It is a complete story from her birth in 1896 to the present time, and although it does deal mainly with the outward aspects ot its heroine’s life, Mr. Paine endeavors to portray the outlines of her character and give the reader some understanding of her aloofness, her quiet serenity under all conditions, her orderly mental processes, her sense of duty. The book is the outcome of long talks with Miss Gish in which she went over with him her recollections of her life from her earliest years and of information obtained from her family and friends. Mary Pickford has made many contributions to the story of the period in which they were much together in their home and in their movie work. It was Miss Pickford who opened the doors for her entrance into the film world.

The biography is written in the romantic temper and in the spirit of a connoisseur of beautiful things who holds in his hand some piece of glass or gold or cloisonne and regards its exquisite loveliness with admiration and reverence. His feeling is not only for the nunlike, elusive beauty of her countenance, but also for the artistic qualities and the impressive, haunting beauty of her characterizations. Toward the end of the book there are some attempts to estimate the value of Lillian Gish’s contribution to dramatic art and some quotations from her conversations with him disclosing her ideas about the comparative values of the silent and the sound film, and the film and the stage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

Kindly access the link below to download the PDF format of “Life and Lillian Gish” book, by Albert Bigelow Paine – Macmillan,1932

Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine 1932 – entire book in PDF format

Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish (New York Times – June 11, 1966)

Theater’s Loyal Star Lillian Gish

New York Times – June 11, 1966

THE slender, ethereal woman with the rust-colored hair strode center stage of the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday afternoon. She wore a green suit, white gloves and a double strand of pearls around a patrician neck. A burst of applause greeted her. The woman was Lillian Gish, and she was there Woman to tell members of In the the Actors Fund of America how to raise funds to build a hospital for needy performers. The group was holding its 83d annual meeting. Miss Gish’s participation in the meeting was in keeping with her philosophy of at least one new horizon a day. Her suggestion that prominent performers produce a show for television and turn over the profits to the fund was warmly greeted. The actress, who looks dreamy, fragile and wistful, is always in the forefront of causes in behalf of the theater. She has long argued that a Minister of F.ine Arts should sit in the President’s Cabinet and that Government should help boost the arts. She once said that while in this country dogs get “blue ribbons” and heroes “iron crosses,” an American who writes a fine book goes to Scandinavia to get a prize. A long-time friend of the actress said yesterday: “I’m always puzzled by her. She’s completely independent and never burned up about her image.

George Abbott anya
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya

“What’s the reason? I think she has no vanity. She’s a wonderful and loyal girl. She’s an American institution and no one would take a crack at her anymore than they would at Casey Stengle.” After six decades as an actress, Miss Gish hasn’t even a glimmer of thought about retirement. “Retire? If you want to die, retire and die of boredom,” she says. At 67, she is as trim as a lass, energetic and constantly on the move. “I haven’t altered my wearing apparel since the 20′ s,” she says. She expects to leave for Italy soon to complete her biography of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering motion-picture director.

Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya
Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya

Why Italy? ”There’s too much distraction here,” she explains. The book is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1967 by Prentice Hall. Miss Gish became an actress at the age of 6, not for love of theater, but for want of money. We were very poor and the job paid $10 a week,” she recalls. Now, she says, she is an actress not for survival, but for love of her art. She was born in Springfield Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1898 ***. She does not remember her debut at all. Her parents brought her and her younger sister Dorothy, to New York, where the father had a candy store. When the parents separated, her mother turned to acting to support the children. One day Mrs, Gish agreed to let Lillian. golden-haired and wide-eyed go on the road in a blood-and-thunder melodrama called ”Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time, Dorothy,  then 4, was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy in “East Lynne.”

Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65

Eventually, the mother and the two girls were able to get work in the same touring show. We grew up this way, Miss Gish recalled, ”We learned to read and write in dressing rooms over the country.” Miss Gish has had no regrets about her early, uncertain days. She once noted: “From my mother we got great security-the security ot love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters.” As children Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith, who later changed her name to Mary Pickford. It was in a Mary Pickford movie that Lillian made her film debut and it was Miss Pickford who introduced her to Mr. Griffith.

From New York, Miss Gish followed Mr. Griffith to California, where she was a member of his company from 1913 to 1922. She emerged as a star from such films as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Hearts of the World,” “Broken Blossoms,”  “Way Down East, and “Orphans of the Storm” In the nineteen twenties she appeared in such post-Griffith romances as “The White Sister,” “Romola,” “La Boheme,” ”The Scarlet Letter” and “The· Wind.”

She successfully returned to Broadway in “Uncle Vanya” and then went on to other memorable plays and performances in the theater – “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father.” She last was seen on Broadway in “Anya,” the musical version of the play “Anastasia”, last year.

lillian-gish-on-broadway-anya-new-york-usa
lillian-gish-on-broadway-anya-new-york-usa

Miss Gish, who never married, lives on East 57th Street. She is looking forward to more acting assignments, but her current preoccupation is finishing the Griffith book.

Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish - NYTimes June 11 1966
Theaters Loyal Star Lillian Gish – NYTimes June 11 1966
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack
Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – candids by Peter Warrack

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Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper – By ANITA LOOS (The New York Times – September 14, 1980)

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

The New York Times – September 14, 1980

Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper

By ANITA LOOS

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’

Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.

Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.

Robert Altman 100 film 76

Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish housing secretary moon landrieu 1980

Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.

To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke
Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.

orphans of the storm - lillian gish is henriette girard - promo wb

I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.

A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.

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

After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.

“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”

“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”

“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.

Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”

“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”

“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”

NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-2
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-2
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction

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Doug and Mary and Others – A book by Allene Talmey (1927)

Doug and Mary and Others

A book by Allene Talmey

Woodcut portraits by Bertrand Zadig

New York – 1927

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford

MARY and Doug, driving tandem, are hitched to the same star. With resulting great financial reward, Douglas Fairbanks brought to the movies the precepts of the Y. M. C. A., glorifying physical strength. For almost twenty years Mary has delightedly demonstrated the charm of keeping one’s skirts up and one’s hair down. The screen has had athletes and romantic actors, has had its child impersonators; but only in Fairbanks has romance been so completely welded to athlete, only in Pickford has childhood eternally flourished. Out of the thrilling grace of a balcony jump, out of a zooming slide down windblown sails, Douglas Fairbanks built himself his throne. He has showmanship, aesthetics, and knowledge. And by his side sits Little Mary. Both wear halos, cut for them by a devoted public, halos a trifle binding, a fraction cocked, which Douglas industriously keeps shining brightly. To preserve that glitter, Fairbanks exercises several wise gestures.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Mary does nothing. She is sanity. Hers is a soft low snicker of sense in the midst of treble hysteria. In a business where all, including her husband, collect eccentricities as though they were pearls of great price, Mary stands alone, unadorned, simple. She is dowdy, old-fashioned, her skirts too long, and her hair still piled in those golden unconvincing curls which were so admired in 1915 when Biograph’s “Little Mary” was growing into “America’s Sweetheart”. A comfortable soul who forgets rouge and lipstick, Mary sloshes about on rainy days in rubbers a size too large, a big umbrella over her head.

Mary Pickford XSF
Mary Pickford

There is something untouched about this woman who has nourished her loveliness throughout her troubles, throughout the fight to eminence. Compared with her showman husband, alive with jokes, Mary, always by his side, fades a little. The showman has a dark brown face with a sharp straight blackness of brow and mustache, a block of white that is his smile, forever on view, keeping abreast of his enthusiasms. He boosts. He is the public-apostle of light, possessing a mental nimbleness as acrobatic as his body. Enthusiasm swings out from him, whirling ideas as on a pin wheel. So excited is his speech that the words are flung out in the irregular rhythm of a woman beating a rug. He loves phrases, full bosomed phrases to choke up a dribbling conversation. “I go to Europe to sit on the veranda of the world,” he told a reporter once, adding, “New York is all right to live in if you do not let it live in you.” In the gallery of his gestures rests a pleasant fallacy, publicly encouraged, that he has no head for business. Poor old Fairbanks, his attitude goes, what would he do without Mary and her cash register brain, mental arithmetic Mary.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Mary is acknowledged exceedingly smart in business, but Fairbanks refuses credit for any practicality. What he does not mention is that his fortunate business inability led him to invest much of his money in properties which immediately rose high in value, that it induced him to become a director in the Federal Trust and Savings Bank of Hollywood, that it led to the inveigling of Joseph Schenck into the chairmanship of United Artists. That weak head for finance also brought him so tremendous a fortune that the name of Douglas Fairbanks stood at the top of the movie list when the income tax reports were published several years ago. At the directors’ meetings of United Artists, at the lawyer conferences, Fairbanks quietly absorbs, apparently a blank at the table, perhaps asking a few questions. He goes for a short walk. On his return, the words straining against his larynx in a submerging flow of synonyms and explanatory phrases, Fairbanks offers a particularly acute suggestion. He loves to play dead because he makes such a smart ghost.

Doug and Mary - Pickfair
Doug and Mary – Pickfair

Doug and Mary are, of course, the King and Queen of Hollywood, providing the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain. Cornerstone layings, dinners, openings are duties; they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry. Loved and indispensable, Pickford and Fairbanks have constructive minds, actuated by a deep and earnest desire to aid the business in which they have won their name and fortune. Throughout their years of screen life, they have studied technique, and are now ready to turn to experimentation. As color photography interested Fairbanks, he produced “The Black Pirate”, a picture done in the mellowed old tones of a Rembrandt, with scenes apparently aged in the wood, yellowed with time. Experimentation meant the gathering of experts to aid him.

Dwight Franklin, an authority on buccaneer life and paintings, worked in one corner; in another Carl Oscar Borg, the Swedish artist, sketched settings. Anchored on the sidelines were the poet Robert Nichols, writers, thinkers, artistic persons of importance to whom Fairbanks talked and talked and talked. He wanted, for instance, a scene in which 120 soldiers with cutlass in mouth and swords at side would submerge a galley, swim in formation, and under water at a great depth, and then without breaking ranks rise to the surface in perfect order. The action of this episode was too dramatic to be eliminated merely because it seemed impossible to photograph. Fairbanks called a conference of the painters, the engineers, the chemists, and out of that came a method, devised to take that swimming scene without any water at all.

The preparations consisted in painting a background representing a cross section of the sea. From the top of the set, wisps of tissue paper were suspended giving the illusion of seaweed. A crane was brought in, and then the 120 extras in their dark green costumes were hung by 120 piano wires from the crane. In this midair position, lying on their backs, they went through the motions of the breast stroke as though they were 120 giant crabs struggling to turn themselves over. The crane carried them along. In printing the negative, the scene was reversed, and audiences marveled at soldiers swimming at the bottom of the sea, and once more Douglas Fairbanks had contributed to movie mechanics and aesthetics.

Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926
Douglas Fairbanks -The Black Pirate 1926

With a Rotarian instinct for slogans, Fairbanks reduces his ten or twelve reel movies to a ten word motto. All through “Don, Son of Zorro”, he tapped out “Truth crushed to earth will rise again, if you have the yeast to make it rise”. It was his delight to formulate “Happiness must be earned” for “The Thief of Bagdad”. Every one’s advice is asked about the mottoes. Fairbanks loves to theorize about the movies. His mind is like a cotton table cloth, the theories rubbing off as though they were lint. In the process Fairbanks snags new theories, all working beautifully toward a more glowing Hollywood.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief-of-Bagdad

The decadence of the films is a source for constant discussion at Pickfair, where Doug and Mary have asked movie criticism from the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the Duchess of Sutherland, the King and Queen of Siam, Otto Kahn, Charles Schwab and Babe Ruth. Doug and Mary are the supreme social successes of the movies.

Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad
Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad

As a wit once remarked of them, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year”. The rotogravure editors can always fill a spare corner with a new picture of Fairbanks putting grand dukes and belted earls at their ease. When both were in Madrid, causing great demonstrations every time they stepped out of their hotel, the King of Spain requested their attendance at court. Under the chaperonage of the American ambassador Fairbanks went ready with one of his most graceful speeches. “How’s Fatty Arbuckle?” asked the King. Fairbanks spent hours anticipating the meeting, just as he always does, dramatizing the life and times of Douglas Fairbanks. Everything is a situation, and he plays for the big moment, then snaps the curtain. There are no third acts for him. Dressing in the morning is a situation. Tall, slim hipped, he wanders between his four closets, full of clothes, unable to decide which of the forty suits he will wear, which one of the dozens of ties, shirts and socks. Mary comes in for consultation. At last the decision is made, and, handsomely dressed, he goes to the studio where he immediately changes into his old white flannels and shirt. At the studio there are two more tremendous closets, bulging with suits, hats, boxing gloves, balls, canes, rackets, and it is his careless habit to leave the doors open, revealing the tangle. When important guests arrive, Mary runs ahead to shut away that spectacle, closing the door with an apologetic giggle. The guests are always shown his rare and lovely collection of perfumes, and then his elaborate equipment for keeping down the Fairbanks figure, the padded boards for massage, the exercising machines, the swimming pools, the showers, the steam baths. An ounce of fat means starvation for a week to him, but on the weekends he goes on food jags. It is his Sunday morning practice to take the unwary over the long hard trail behind his house, leading over the mountains.

Doug and Mary - outside Pickfair
Doug and Mary – outside Pickfair

At the end of that walk is a small house to which he sends by car his cook and butler and there breakfast in fabulous quantites is served; and so back to Pickfair. Pickfair is a luxurious home in which Douglas Fairbanks lived before his marriage to Mary. After the ceremony Mary moved in, bringing with her a few of her possessions. The place has the famous oyster shell shaped swimming pool to which only the friends of the pair come, for there, high on their hill, they receive, never going out except when the movie business demands its king and queen. Everybody comes to them, eager for a dinner party at Pickfair. Mary sits a quiet gracious woman whose adult mind looks with amusement upon the constant flow of Doug’s practical jokes. And after dinner the Fairbanks’ entertainment is a movie. Slumped in a deep chair, Doug, the king at ease, home from the studio, and Mary, the grave queen, home from a cornerstone laying, slip back their haloes, and chew peanut brittle.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Lillian Gish

The sturdiness of yellow kitchen crockery lies concealed in the tea cup delicacy of Lillian Gish. She is at once the oak and the vine. Courageously, gallantly, the oak has made of wistfulness a fortune itself. Through all the most outrageous incidents, the gentle Gish has most amazingly preserved her unique quality of facial innocence as fresh as “rain on cherry blossoms”. Above all the undertow of dirt, Lillian Gish has tranquilly swept the surface until she can now attend Hollywood parties, chastely charming, sweetly decorous in her primly flowing gown. “While others dance, she sits a picture of innocence and maiden purity, this sensible worldly woman whose deliberate front is aloofness and unbelievable virgin beauty. There never was so much concentrated innocence as in those pale blue eyes of hers, shaded by star pointed lashes, as in that little mouth posed as though repeating “prunes” and “prisms”. But Lillian Gish, the enigma of Hollywood, knows what is to be known. She has no illusions about the movies. Her fragility makes men protective, yet no woman in Hollywood needs or takes less protection.

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

Her interest travels beyond acting, direction, costuming, into the box office. The American Duse keeps a mild blue eye on the cash box. It is her own admission that the little hands have fluttered too often, but that the public loves the flutter of those pathetic white hands.

There are many who moan not only at the hand flutter, but at the other funny little screen habits which have aided in the formation of the pretty Gish tradition. They ache at those scenes in which she runs bewildered, frantic into the night, in which the little feet go pitter patter, in which she chases birds or butterflies around the sunlit rose bushes, aided by the glinting photography, the hidden studio lights touching up eye and hair and lip. One sickened critic asked plaintively if she ever expected to catch that bird. All these are set into her pictures, but once through, Miss Gish goes triumphantly on. For years she has been winning her way with whimpers. She has never resorted to the crudities of bawling. Her whimpers have been hushed for the most part, a suggestion of whimper. The crystal clarity of her face required only a breeze to whip into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons. It is all perhaps because Miss Gish, in those magnificent Griffith days, learned to act with her underlip, her eyes, her lashes.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

By the very perfection of her performances, she bas proved and to her own dismay, the limited appeal of screen perfection. For although she has reduced her audiences to murmuring audibly, “That is wonderful acting”, she has not reduced them to the obviously greater state of uncomfortable dumbness. Miss Gish is too perfect for that. She commands the mind and eye, but the heart retains its placid beat; just another manifestation of the idea that emotion and analysis will not stride together; that you cannot continue to cry while wondering about the tear ducts. With never the pulling thrill of the sweep of turbines whirling in power houses she acts in the perfect but pleasant rhythm of watch wheels. That touch of perfection, that pleasant placidity follows into her private life. She is a solitary woman who has cloaked her solitude with a shawl of mystery, receding much like Duse and Maude Adams, those idols for whom she lights a taper. From Duse came her screen credo, from Maude Adams the example of completely divorcing public and private life.

Lillian Gish Diane of The Follies - mid shot C

Like Miss Adams, she refuses interviews, and has now begun experimenting with film itself. The private lives of Duse, Adams and Gish are not for public knowledge. Much has been squeezed out of that life until there remains only work and a series of great and sincere performances. The essentials of her life can be folded like an accordion into these few points. She started acting when she was just a golden haired child, chased by Chinamen through melodramas. From those classic scenes, she entered a convent school; but left there so early that the majority of her knowledge has been self gathered. A visit to her friend of the melodrama days, Mary Pickford, at the Fourteenth Street studio in 1912 led to those years of Griffith direction in “The Birth of a Nation”, “Hearts of the World”, “Broken Blossoms”, “Intolerance”.

When she slipped away from Griffith, it was believed that without his hypnosis she could do nothing. But the stubborn strength of Lillian Gish was mated with ability. After various connections, she settled down with Inspiration Pictures which led to the famous trial which she attended, sitting in the courtroom looking like one of Sir John Tenniel’s drawings of bewildered Alice in wonder land.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

The pale Lillian nibbled throughout on carrots, and ever since then the columns of the tabloids have known her simply as “Carrots” Gish. Then came the move to the studios of MetroGoldwyn-Mayer, and her performances as Hester Prynne, as Mimi, as Annie Laurie. None of that has touched her smothered existence.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

Working hard with long hours, Miss Gish lives with her beloved sick mother in a charming but not elaborate home managed by her secretary, once the secretary of Mrs. Oliver Belmont. In that home she spends her hours. She is an excellent horsewoman, a good swimmer, but she rides alone, swims alone, refusing to be known as an athletic woman. She does charitable work, being kind to animals, scene shifters and little extra girls. Tired, languid, taking no part in parties, Lillian Gish goes to bed early except on those nights when she entertains at small dinner parties for authors visiting Hollywood. Authors, in particular ;Joseph Rergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, Carl Van Vechten, F. Scott Fitzgerald, delight in this woman who looks like only a pretty blonde person, but who is serious, desires to be serious. Although they do not discover her with the Phaedras, Religio Medici or Rasselas, they do find her with Cabell, Shaw and Wells, the pages cut. She tells them bits about herself, that “all pretty young women like her, but that old ugly ones hate her”.

Ross Verlag 3424-1 - Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi - German Postcard MGM
Ross Verlag 3424/1 – Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi – German Postcard MGM

There is little nonsense about her, and just as she has suppressed all else about her, she represses her neat wit. If occasionally it breaks through in that quiet voice, it comes out as though she were exceedingly displeased with herself.

“Wit is for men”, says Lillian Gish. And while the life of Hollywood goes violently on, budding scandals, marriage, birth, deaths and divorces, up in her hill home Lillian Gish lives blandly in harmony with her face. Nothing can startle its subdued contours. She is good composition. Tranquilly, Lillian Gish sits, dressed in white organdie with her ash blonde hair down her back, relaxed on the window seat looking out for hours into the depths of the California night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?” Mrs. Gish has asked for years.

“Nothing, mother, just looking.”

And she continues gazing out into space, a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard, a white fingered maiden who has deliberately, harshly, washed her life with gray.

Lillian Gish at Six

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Lillian Gish By Kevin Brownlow (San Francisco Cine – 1985)

San Francisco Cine – 1985

Lillian Gish

By Kevin Brownlow

If you read in a Victorian novel that an actress who began her career in the early 1800s was still going strong in 1884, you would dismiss it as absurd. But transfer the century to our own, and the dates correspond to the career of Lillian Gish. She made her first appearance on the stage in 1901 at the age of five—as Baby Lillian—acted in her first film in 1912. and recently finished a picture that will be released this year. Lillian Gish is no ordinary actress: by common consent, she is one of the greatest of this century – You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Meeting her is an exhilarating experience, for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed— and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith” and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history.

She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him “the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Ration (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind (1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Right of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill (1958), and A Wedding (1978). “We used to laugh about films in the early days,” she says. “We used to call them flickers. Mr. Griffith said, ‘Don’t you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There’s to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera.'”

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

It was this ideal, this integrity, that made compromise so difficult for both of them. The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.”

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)

Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance offscreen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love, the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade. What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

In the film Hearts of the World she gives a heartbreaking performance as a shell-shocked girl who wanders the battlefield, in search of her lover, carrying her wedding dress. The film established her uncanny ability to portray terror and hysteria, and it established, too, the warmth and poignancy she could bring to love scenes. But Hearts of the World paled by comparison with the next major production of the partnership. Broken Blossoms (1919) had none of the usual Griffith trademarks—no cast of thousands, no epic sets. It was based on a story by Thomas Burke about the love of a Chinese man for a twelve-year-old girl. At first, Lillian Gish fought against playing the role. She offered to work with a child of the right age, but felt she couldn’t possibly play the part herself. Griffith insisted that only she could handle the emotional scenes. How right he was. Lillian Gish played the child (changed to a fifteen-year-old) with conviction. She invested the role with a quality so powerful and disturbing that a journalist—watching the filming of the scene where the girl hides in a closet as her father smashes the door with an ax—was overwhelmed: She pressed her body closer to the wall—hugged it, threw her arms high above her head, dug her fingers into the plaster. A trickle of dust fell from beneath her nails. She screamed, a high-pitched, terrifying sound, a cry of fear and anguish. Then she turned and faced the camera.

Lillian Gish - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

It was the real thing. Lillian Gish was there, not ten feet from the camera, but her mind was somewhere else —somewhere in a dark closet. Tears were streaming from her eyes. Her face twitched and worked in fear. . . . I have always considered myself hardboiled, but I sat there with my eyes popping out.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

Lillian Gish came into pictures by accident. In 1912, she and her sister, Dorothy, visited the Biograph Studios in New York because they heard that their friend Gladys Smith was working there. (Gladys Smith had changed her name to Mary Pickford.) In the lobby, the sisters met a hawk-faced young man who asked them if they could act. “I thought his name was Mr. Biograph. He seemed to be the owner of the place. Dorothy said, ‘Sir, we are of the legitimate theater.'”

An Unseen Enemy - Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish
An Unseen Enemy – Lillian Gish Dorothy Gish

“‘Well,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean reading lines, I mean, can you act?’ We didn’t know what he meant. He said, ‘Come upstairs.’ We went up there where all the actors were waiting and he rehearsed a story about two girls who are trapped by burglars, and the burglars are shooting at them. We watched the other actors to see what they were doing and we were smart enough to take our cues from them. Finally, at the climax, the man took a 22 revolver out of his pocket and started shooting at the ceiling and chasing us around the studio. We thought we were in a madhouse.” The young director was D.W. Griffith, and the film became An Unseen Enemy, the first of many one- and two-reelers to feature Lillian Gish. Thus her career began before the advent of the feature film. It was Griffith who helped to pioneer the feature film in the United States—and it was his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) that ensured its survival. I saw the rushes.” she said “Even at that early age. I was terribly interested in film, how it was made, what happened to it. I was in with the developing and printing of the film, the cutting of it, so I’d seen ‘The Clansman,’ as it was then called. The others hadn’t, and I was there that night the rest of the cast saw it for the first time.

I remember Henry B. Walthall, who played the Little Colonel: He just sat there, stunned by the effect of it. He and his sisters were from the South. Eventually they said, ‘It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen or ever imagined.'”

When Griffith visited England during the First World War, ostensibly to arrange for the premiere of his 1916 epic. Intolerance, he began to prepare for a huge propaganda film to support the Allied cause. He brought over Lillian and Dorothy Gish, traveling in the company of their mother, to play the leads. The journey across the Atlantic was dangerous enough, with constant peril from U-boats, and their stay at the Savoy Hotel in London was enlivened by German bombing raids. But Griffith decided to take them to France, and there they saw the devastation of war at first hand.

“In one of the villages on the way up front from Senlis,” said Lillian Gish, “we saw a house that had been destroyed: bits and pieces of furniture and an old coffeepot on its side. What pictures it brought up, because everyone there had been killed. As we drove up in this car to places where they wouldn’t send trained nurses—they were valuable, actresses were a dime a dozen—we saw the astonished look on the faces of all the soldiers. They couldn’t believe that these people in civilian clothes—we were dressed as we were in the film—would be up there. And we were within range of the long-distance guns.”

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

When she worked with the young King Vidor on La Boheme, she astonished him with her dedication. He was not accustomed to actresses who prepared themselves so thoroughly for their parts. She felt that research was part of the job. As Mimi, she had to die of tuberculosis, so she asked  priest to take her to a hospital to talk to those who were really dying of the disease. She arrived on the set with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and Vidor asked what she had done to herself. She replied that she had stopped drinking liquids for three days to give her lips the necessary dryness. When he shot the death scene, he decided to call “cut” only when he saw her gasp after holding her breath to simulate death.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish 1926 Mimi passed away ... (the last scene)

But nothing happened. She did not take a breath. “I began to be convinced that she was dying.” said Vidor. “I began to see the headlines in my mind: ‘Actress Plays Scene So Well She Actually Dies.’ I was afraid to cut the camera for a few moments. Finally, I did and I waited. Still no movement from Lillian John Gilbert bent over and whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. At last she look a deep breath, and I knew everything was all right. She had somehow managed to find a way to get along without breathing . . . visible breathing, anyway. We were all astounded and there was no one on the set whose eyes were dry.” Small wonder that Vidor said. “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite

The qualities in which Lillian Gish is famous were exemplified in D.W. Griffith’s production of Way Down East. The picture was based on an old theatrical melodrama so lurid that when she read the play, she could hardly keep from laughing. It tells of Anna Moore, a country girl who visits ihe city and is seduced by a wealthy playboy by means of a mock marriage. Abandoned and destitute, she gives birth to a baby that dies soon afterward.

She wanders the countryside and finds a haven at a farm. But when her secret is discovered, she is turned out of the house. Staggering through a snowstorm, she collapses on the ice as it starts to break up, and is carried toward certain death over the falls. The farmer’s son, who loves her, races to the rescue, leaping from floe to floe and grasping her a split second before disaster. Griffith transformed this material into superb entertainment, and by her presence Lillian Gish gave the story a conviction and a poignancy no other actress could have provided.

“We filmed the baptism of Anna’s child at night,” she wrote in her autobiography, recently reissued, “in a corner of the studio, with the baby’s real father looking on. Anna is alone: the doctor has given up hope for her child. She resolves to baptize the infant herself. The baby was asleep, and. as we didn’t want to wake him, I barely whispered the words, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost …” as I touched the tiny temples. “There was only the sound of the turning camera. Then I heard a thud. The baby’s father had slumped to the floor in a faint. D.W. Griffith was crying. He waved his hand in front of his face to signify that he couldn’t talk. When he regained control of himself, he took me in his arms and said simply. ‘Thank you.'”

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

The film was made in and around Griffith’s Mamaroneck studio, on a peninsula jutting out into Long Island Sound. The winter was so severe that the Sound reportedly, froze over. For one scene, shot during a blizzard, three men lay on the ground, gripping the legs of the tripod while Billy Bitzer ground the camera and Lillian Gish staggered into the teeth of the storm. “My face was caked with a crust of snow,” she said, “and icicles like little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open. Above the howling storm Mr. Griffith shouted, ‘Billy, move in! Get that face.'”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

On top of this, she had to shoot the icefloe scenes. One of her ideas for this sequence was to allow her hand and hair to trail in the water as she lay on the floe. “I was always having bright ideas and suffering for them,” she wrote. “After a while, my hair froze, and I felt as if my hand were in a flame. To this day, it aches if I am out in the cold for very long.”

Motion picture history is compounded of generous helpings of legend, and some historians have wondered if Lillian Gish has exaggerated her feature.

Lee Smith in the December 1921 issue of American Cinematographer, a technical journal that has never resorted to press agentry, described how the ice-floe sequence was shot:

We had doubles for both Miss Gish and Mr. Richard Barthelmess, but never used them. . . . Miss Gish was the gamest little woman in the world. It was really pathetic to see the forlorn little creature huddled on a block of ice and the men pushing it off into the stream, but she never complained nor seemed to fear. But the cold was bitter and Miss Gish was bareheaded and without a heavy outer coat, so that it was necessary at intervals to bring her in and get her warm. Sometimes when the ice wouldn’t behave she was almost helpless from cold, but she immediately reacted and never seemed lo suffer any great distress.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

“When you play virgins, you have to work hard. They’re all right for five minutes ; after that you have to work to hold the interest.” (Lillian Gish)

The films. Broken Blossom; and The Wind, were shown in a West End theater called the Dominion, built in 1929. Chaplin premiered City Lights there. The twenties decor is still intact, and, more important, there’s still a pit for the orchestra. I was very pessimistic about the size of the audience; I recalled seeing The Wind many years ago at the National Film Theatre with seven people. But our tribute averaged more than a thousand people at each of the four performances. As anyone who has tried to program silent films will agree, that is an astonishing turnout.

Broken Blossoms - Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish

II was also gratifying to see Lillian Gish’s name in huge letters on a marquee again, and to see the crowds gathering before each show with autograph books. The first night. Broken Blossoms was attended by some of the most famous names in the English theater, not only John Gielgud, but also Emlyn Williams, who played Richard Barthelmess’s part in the remake of Broken Blossoms. Silent star Bessie Love came to see her old friend; they had both been in Intolerance. They posed for pictures with Dame Anna Neagle, whose husband Herbert Wilcox directed Dorothy Gish in the silent era. Lillian -Gish introduced the film and supplied some of the background. She also explained the importance of the music. Carl Davis had arranged the original Louis Gottschalk score of 1919 (the Gish character’s theme, “White Blossom,” was composed by D.W Griffith himself). The audience watched the beautiful tinted print with rapt attention. The occasion was unmarred by those titters that so often wreck showings of silent films. One could feel the emotion, and the applause afterward was tremendous. “I have been going to the cinema for fifty years,” said one man, “but this was my greatest evening.” I hope he was there the following evening, for it was even more impressive. In her introduction, Lillian Gish left no doubt that The Wind was physically the most uncomfortable picture she had ever made —even worse than Way Down East. “I can stand cold,” she explained, “but not heat.” The exteriors were photographed in the Mojave Desert, near Bakersfield, where it was seldom under 120 degrees. “I remember having to fix my makeup and I went to the car and I left part of the skin of my hand on the door handle. It was like picking up a red-hot poker. To create the windstorm, they used eight airplane engines blowing sand, smoke, and sawdust at me.”

MGM/UA allowed us to provide a new score for The Wind (which will also replace the 1928 Movietone recording in the television version). Carl Davis and arrangers Colin and David Matthews created a storm sequence of earsplitting volume. As one critic said, it was as though they had brought the hurricane into the theater. The effect of the film and the music pulverized the audience. Lillian Gish said it was the most exciting presentation of The Wind she had seen in years. Some people compared the experience to seeing Napoleon, and several found it even more powerful. The critic of the Daily Telegraph compared Gish to Sarah Bernhardt and that of the Guardian thought the director of The Wind, Victor Seastrom, was now on a level with D.W. Griffith.

Lillian Gish received a standing ovation, and days later people were still talking of her astonishing performance in the film.

“It was the film event of the year,” said George Perry of the Sunday Times. “Carl Davis’s music was incredible. It felt as though the theater was collapsing. It made Sensurround seem a crude gimmick. Lillian Gish’s performance was absolutely wonderful.”

1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France - Henri Langlois)
1969 candid Lillian Gish (possibly Paris, France – Henri Langlois)

We said farewell to Miss Gish at her hotel while she was busy packing. Her hair was down, and I have seldom seen her look so beautiful. All of us connected with the event were exhausted, but Lillian Gish was as full of vitality as ever. “When I get back to New York,” she joked, “I shall go to bed and I won’t get up until 1984. When you think of me, think of me horizontal.” When we think of her, we will think of her striding onto the stage of the Dominion to receive the acclamation of an audience that, thanks to her, has rediscovered its faith in the cinema.

Kevin Brownlow is a filmmaker and film historian. His books include The Parade’s Gone By and “Napoleon”: Abel Gance’s Silent Classic.

An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish
An Innocent Magdalene 1916 Lillian Gish

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Our Animated Monthly of Movie News and Views – By Sally Roberts (Motion Picture Magazine 1919)

Motion Picture Magazine – February 1919

Our Animated Monthly of Movie News and Views

By Sally Roberts

It was a notable day in Los Angeles when the flu ban was lifted. Music entered the cafes, motion pictures held sway everywhere, all the theaters were redecorated, fumigated and had expanded their orchestras, and the studios showed awakening from the Rip Van Winkle sleep of nearly two months. We noticed Monroe Salisbury coming out after the first show of “Hugon the Mighty,” which was a firstnighter at the Superba. He looked mighty handsome in a costly velour bonnet and wide, floppy brown coat, belted loosely, and his tall figure swayed over slightly as he got down to the level of a five-foot blonde who was vivaciously asking questions about his picture.

Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918

Right next door, Dorothy Gish’s “Battling Jane” filled the house, and while the character was overdrawn; nevertheless, peals of laughter showed the approval of the audience, and their delight at seeing a motion picture comedy once more. By the way, Dorothy has. been in a sanitarium for weeks and, as she had to sleep six hours daily, besides putting in all night on the hay, she certainly made up for the enforced rest-cure by devilling the life out of everybody during the other waking hours. Her friends smuggled chocolates onto her window-sill, because she was restricted to about three articles of diet and balked rebelliously. When friend nurse turned her back, Dorothy hopped out like a brisk little bird, scooped up the candy-boxes and hid ’em till she got a chance to eat. In spite of all this, she recovered. Her trouble was not serious, just a little nervous breakdown from over work and society doin’s. It was hard to imagine this disciple of perpetuum mobile lying on her back for 18 hours daily.

Dorothy Gish - Motion Picture Classic (Jan-Aug 1919)-60

MaryPickford has her studio on the old Griffith lot, so these friends of early Biograph days are nearby and can hobnob at studio luncheons. Blanche Sweet has been working there also, but just ran off for a little New York trip. Anyway, the whole collection of blondes for once was united.

Snooping around the enclosed stages, we found Lillian Gish dying to the tune of Chopin’s Funeral March, played on a wheezy accordeon. She’s doing a Chinese play in which Dick Barthelmess plays male lead and Donald Crisp does the heavy. The latter broke a couple of small bones in his one foot during a scene, but as his active scenes had all been shot, he’s not compelled to walk during the others which follow and can go onwith the work. By the time healing is complete they will need him for the shaking of the tootsies in a grand finishing skirmish.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

Dorothy Gish persists in annoying mother and Lillian with her strange comb noises which are music to her ears

Motion Picture Magazine (Feb 1919) Lillian Dorothy and Mother
Motion Picture Magazine (Feb 1919) Lillian Dorothy and Mother
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918 Film Poster
Dorothy Gish in Battling Jane 1918 Film Poster

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The House Built Upon Sand – Filmed in The Gish Home (J.C. Jessen – 1916)

Motion Picture News – Vol. 14 No. 26 – December 30, 1916

In and Out of West Coast Studios

By J.C. Jessen (Los Angeles, Dec. 12)

BELIEVING a better characterization of the role taken by Lillian Gish in ” The House Built Upon Sands,” it was arranged this week to have a number of scenes made at the home of the Fine Art actress. A corps of electricians installed artificial lighting system in the Gish home, and the hundred thousand dollar bed-room suite rented for scenes in this production were used there. The antique is owned by General H. G. Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times, and is known as the Madame Du-Barry suite. It is of French design and was brought to this city by the millionaire publisher.

A House Built Upon Sand

The entire Fine Arts studio is to be remade. Work was begun more than a week ago on the erection of a mammoth enclosed stage, and now Business Manager J. C. Epping gives out the statement that $50,000, are to be spent on improvements. The present enclosed stage will be converted into offices for the scenario department members, directors and heads of departments. A new paint shop, 30 by 50, scene dock 40 by 100 and other improvements are to be made.

A House Built Upon Sand

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