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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
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’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.
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.
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.
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Saw dust and smokepots
circa 1922: Lillian Diana Gish, originally Lillian de Guiche (1893 – 1993), made her stage debut at the age of 5. She played a lot of waif type heroines during her silent film career but never quite made the successful transition to talking pictures. She returned to the stage in 1930. An Academy Award was presented to her in 1971.
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)
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.”
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.
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.
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 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 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.
Douglas-Fairbanks-The Black Pirate 1926
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mildred Harris, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mary Robinson McConnell (Gish) and Dorothy Gish
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Mary Pickford – woodcut by Bertrand Zadig 1927
Douglas Fairbanks – woodcut by Bertrand Zadig 1927
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.
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.'”
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 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.
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.
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 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.'”
“‘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.
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”
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.
Griffith and the Great War 1
Griffith and the Great War 2
Griffith and the Great War 6
Griffith and the Great War 5
Griffith and the Great War 4
DW Griffith in France 1917
D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)
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.'”
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.'”
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.”
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Way Down East – Vermont
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.
“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.
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.”
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish – The Wind
Lillian Gish – burial scene – The Wind
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
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.
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish in the car)
The Wind – Behind the scenes (Lillian Gish)
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson rehearsing desert riding scenes – The Wind
Filming crew protecting their eyes against the sand – The Wind
Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in “Broken Blossoms”
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.
Dorothy Gish persists in annoying mother and Lillian with her strange comb noises which are music to her ears
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.
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.
In my short, but varied career, I have spent many a pleasant day, but never one like the time I called on the two Triangle favorites, Dorothy Gish and Mae Marsh. Without a doubt they are two of the sweetest, most unsophisticated girls it has ever been my good fortune to meet. They just bubble over with girlishness. And jealousy? The farthest thing from their minds: Mae insists that Dorothy is the greatest little actress on the screen, and “Dot” vice versa. And that is something new in the film world-I know, I’ve been acting and producing for a good many years. Hearing that these two charming children-for that’s what they are-were in New York, and remembering how they used to be the life of the Biograph Company in the good, old days-I phoned, making an appointment with them. Unfortunately Miss Marsh was sick in bed-only a cold, fortunately, but Dorothy, who was acting as her nurse, promised to overlook a point, and arranged that I should see her. What other actress would do a thing like that? Nine out of ten-yes, ninety-nine out of a hundred would tearfully tell a sad tale of Miss Marsh’s illness, and then corner me and tell me the wonderful story of their ‘own lives. Not so, Miss Gish. She tucked in sick little Mae nice and “comfy” and then led me into her room. Of all the pretty pictures I have ever seen that was the prettiest, just her cute little head peeking from under the covers. After the usual greetings-remember I hadn’t seen either of these girls for over a year-I started my cross-examination.
Miss Marsh was the first one questioned; yes, it was the details of the “where-and-when” of her arrival on this wicked old world of ours.
“I was born in Madrid–”
I looked at her in surprise, “Why, I thought you were one of the original ‘Maids of America’!”
She smiled, “Oh, I mean Madrid, New Mexico. And that was nineteen years ago. Yes, that is my right age. Reading through the photoplay magazines I find that I am anything from thirteen to thirty, but nineteen is my right age-really.”
“Really,” !; echoed Miss Gish from the other side of the room.
“Now, Dorothy,” continued Mae, tell the kind man where and when this same wonderful event happened in the Gish family.”
The girl demurred, “Oh, you won’t believe me when I tell you!” ,
I crossed my heart and promised that I would. “It was in 1898, March 11th to be exact, that the stork passed over the Gish home and dropped me in. That was–”
I interrupted her, “I always thought that the Spanish-American War wasn’t the only important happening of ’98; now I know it.”
She smiled, and continued, “That was in Dayton, Ohio, and–”
Another chance for an honest compliment came to me, and I made the most of it, making some gallant remark about the great people from Dayton, such as the Wright brothers and the Gish sisters. Dorothy blushed, and made me stop. I asked her when she first realized that she was beautiful and would make a success as an actress. Of course she denied her good looks-what famous beauty doesn’t? But Mae promptly came to her rescue and let me know just how beautiful Dorothy is. She didn’t have to tell me – I have eyes. For that matter, little Miss Marsh isn’t in the background. When the question of the beauty of the members of the “flicker world” comes in discussion you’ll always hear Mae’s name mentioned, and way-up near the top, too. “Well, if you must know,” blushed Dorothy, and when she blushes she’s adorable, “I’ll tell you, I was four years old at the time.” She laughed in triumph. “I certainly didn’t know then whether I was a scarecrow or an object of admiration. At that time I played ‘Little Willie’ in ‘East Lynne.’ Oh yes, I was in that awful melodrama, but my next play was even worse. Sister Lillian and I both were in that horrid show, ‘Her First False Step’!”
“Br-r-r,” I shivered, “Give me the papers or the che-i-i-Id!”
“Now, you stop or I’ll get real mad,” she pouted. I was properly reprimanded and promised to be good.
“Oh, Mr. Rex,” Mae eagerly broke in, “I was having a terribly exciting time then. Tell him about it, Dorothy,”
“Why, you know it better than I do,” complained little Miss Gish.
“But you must remember I am a sick girl,” begged Mae. “Be good and tell him.”
Dorothy promised to be good and tell me. “You see, it was like this: Mae and all the rest of the little Marshes, including Mamma Marsh, were living in San Francisco when they had the awful earthquake”-she shuddered-“and before you could count ten the whole family was homeless. Wasn’t that awful?” I nodded agreement,
“But brave Mrs. Marsh didn’t even get frightened. She gathered up everyone of her halfa-dozen children, and got them to a place of safety, Just think, they lived in a tent for over a month!
Wasn’t that awfully exciting?” Again I nodded.
“Oh, and it was so hard for poor Mrs. Marsh to find food to fill all the hungry little mouths. One day she went to the supply tent, and told one of the soldiers what she wanted. He wouldn’t believe that she was the mother of so many children, and didn’t want to give her the food, But she persuaded him that she was telling the truth, and the sentry was kind enough to turn his back so that she could get what she wanted, Wasn’t he kind, and oh, wasn’t Mrs. Marsh plucky?”
Still a third time I nodded.
“And all the time poor Mae was having this bad luck I was playing in those horrid melodramas. Why couldn’t I have been out on the Coast helping her?”
“Why?” I agreed, never asking how she, who was only a baby, could have helped.
“How long did you play in ‘those horrid melodramas’?” I asked.
“Oh, not for long. You know Lillian and I soon left the stage and went to boarding school in Wheeling, West Virginia-the Allegheny Collegiate Institute. None of the girls there knew I was an actress-not even my room-mate! Wasn’t that funny?”
“Of course, you were a good girl in school?”
She looked at me in pained surprise. “Of course! Only, once I had to stay in after classes, and when I thought I had been there long enough, I started kicking away at the door, and the nasty old teacher just doubled my time. Now, wasn’t that mean?”
“Mean is no name for it,” I agreed.
She smiled approval of my remark, and then Miss Marsh spoke up. “When I was in school-the Convent of the Sacred Heart in California, I was always getting into trouble like that. Really, I was always innocent.” And she rolled her childish eyes.
“Be frank,” I insisted.
“Well, really I never did anything. Of course I was leader of the ‘gang,’ and put chewing gum in the teacher’s books, and threw black-board erasers at her, and forgot to study, and-oh, a lot of other things I’ve forgotten, but really I never did anything I shouldn’t!”
Miss Gish and I looked at each other and smiled.
“Oh, but that isn’t about moving pictures,” complained Dorothy, “tell him what you are doing now,”
“That doesn’t interest Mr. Rex,” was the reply, “does it?”
I said it did.
“Well, I’ve just finished playing in ‘The Mother and the Law’ under the direction of Mr. Griffith, and I’m taking a little vacation now. Just as soon as I go back to the Triangle Coast Studios, I will start rehearsals in a picture under Mr. Ingraham’s direction. I understand, though, that the actual production of the picture will be staged in New York. Now, Dorothy, you tell what you are doing now.”
Thus ordered, the pretty little actress could do naught but reply. “At present I am playing opposite Owen Moore in ‘Betsy, the Joyous.’ That’s the working title of the film, but I don’t know what the real name will, be. Mr. Dwan is producing the picture, which is for the Triangle programme, as is ‘Jordan Is a Hard Road,’ which I just finished on the Coast.”
“Now for ancient history,” I laughed. “What was your first picture, and how did you get in it?”
“Oh, ,do you want that old story!”-and she sighed. “Three and a half years ago I went to visit Mary Pickford at the Biograph Studio. You know Mrs. Pickford, and Mary and Lottie and Jack, Mother and Lillian and I lived together for a short time when we were very small children. I had heard of Mary’s great screen success and called to see a picture in the making. Lillian was with me. Mary introduced us to Mr. Griffith, and soon after he signed us up. We’ve both been with him ever since. The first picture I remember playing in for him was ‘An Unseen Enemy’ with Lillian. Bobby Harron had the male lead. Mae’s first big success was ‘The Sands 0′ Dee,’ and Bobby played lead in that, too,”
“Quite a boy, Bobby,” I remarked.
Instantly they both agreed. Lucky fellow, he, to have two such lovely girls to sing his praises. Why can’t we all be born so fortunate?
Both insist that Harron is one of our greatest actors, and I agree with them. In fact, all three of us have nearly the same opinion of the screen stars of today. Of course, modesty forbids my saying which actor they think is the greatest (?). Both girls are very fond of the work of Walthall and William S. Hart, while Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, the Talmadge girls, Bessie Barriscale attd Anita Stewart head the list of the actresses. Of the stage stars, both are of the opinion that no one can surpass Forbes, Robertson, and Jane Cowl and Mrs. Fiske came in for a lot of praise.
Going back to the Studio question, I asked Miss Marsh how she entered the film world.
“About four years ago my sister Lovey was playing for Mr. Griffith and after persuading Lovey for a long time she took me to the Studio one day. I was awfully lonesome and sat ‘way in the corner. Mr. Griffith must have wanted a woe-begone creature in one of his pictures for he soon gave me a job as extra, and then put me in stock. When he left Biograph to go with Majestic, I went with him. I played in hundreds of pictures, and love the work-especially my part in ‘The Birth of a Nation’,”
The conversation turned, and I asked the girls what their favorite hobbies were. Mae loves to sew, and read, and go driving in her big Chandler Six with Sister Lovey as chauffeur. Miss Gish told me that this car of Mae’s was a trick one. One day, she informed me, they were both coming from Mae’s house, when 10 and behold! the car started down the street, gracefully turned a corner, and then turned turtle in a vacant lot. Sounded to me almost like a Ford joke.
pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car
Dorothy spends most her spare time in the photoplay theatres, although she gambles a great dealplaying solitaire against herself. She, too, will soon be spinning around the roads in her machine, as she is about ready to buy a roadster. (Note to automobile salesmen: Miss Gish will let you know when she wants a car. You can’t persuade her to buy one till then!) It’s a wonder the girl isn’t afraid of the “gasoline buggies.” One of them injured her severely last Thanksgiving, and because of the accident one of her cute little toes has gone to the happy hunting grounds.
Changing the subject, we spoke of pets. “Mae has the’ cutest cat,” said Miss Dorothy, “and she has honored me by naming it after me. Oh, before. I forget it – she has a little pond in her back yard with gold fish swimming around. One day I saw Bobby Harron fishing in it, and–“
“Oh, Dorothy,” objected Miss Marsh, “you did not.
Don’t you believe her,” But Dorothy insisted, and as I cannot doubt the word of either girl I will leave it to you readers. A prize of a ticket to any movie show in town to the first person who will prove that Mr. Harron did or did not go goldfishing in Mae Marsh’s back yard, and why. Address this office and put sufficient postage on your letters.
Miss Gish’s pets are a cat, “Tippy,” and a canary, “Tippy, Jr.” Although the names are so similar, there is no family connection, although the cat would have it that way if possible. From accounts I hear of them, they are the real rulers of the pretty Gish home in Los Angeles, which place, incidentally, was formerly the residence of Ruth St. Denis, the dancer. Oh, yes, and I mustn’t forget that both these charming girls have bull-dogs of the same breed and the same name. I hate to tell you the name, it’s so much like mine! Just before I was leaving, Mrs. Marsh and Mrs. Gish came in. If I hadn’t met Mrs. Gish before I certainly would have taken her for a sister of Dorothy’s and Lillian’s, and Mrs. Marsh I did mistake for Mae’s older sister until I was introduced. Truly these are wonderful families, both the house of Marsh and of Gish.
Is it because Lillian Gish’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
If an intrepid producer today decided to do Cleopatra, who would you select as the most likely interpreter of the title role? Cleopatra, enchantress of the Nile; with Salome, holding the vamping championship of the ages; Egypt’s luscious queen called Cleo by the vulgar varieties and tin-pan alley. Nita Naldi? Barbara La Marr? Theda Bara—she made it once, you know. No.
Now that the uproar has subsided and the hoots and hisses have died in the distance, let me repeat: Lillian Gish. That same Lillian whose last name has come to be a verb among film followers. Famous as the Little Nell of the silent drama; the most persecuted heroine of all time; the victim of more unfortunate circumstances than any other girl who was ever cast out in a cape into the night that was forty below. In short, the sweet seducee of hundreds of celluloid chromos — what, she, Cleopatra? Exactly. Lillian Gish is the only logical candidate for the role. You may picture Cleopatra as a large and luscious lady; a voluptuous creature with black, black hair and sloe eyes; a mouth that looks always as if it has just been kissed. A combination of Naldi and Negri and La Marr with a dash of piquance a la Alma Rubens.
Cleo Was a Ingenue. Cleo could be classified, according to type, only as an ingenue. She was essence of ingenue, de luxe. She was very, very slender; she had wide, innocent eyes. Feminine, soft, soothing and sweet. She had her own way, but in her own way. She caressed and cajoled, as ingenues have always done. She would have fitted in beautifully in any gathering of the Ladies Aid of Alexandria. She was a little lady—and the most dangerous one of her day.
Oh, yes, Cleopatra was an ingenue. A devastating darling with an iron will and a fixed purpose. A slim, bright sword in a shimmering sheath. It was a noted archaeologist who said that her twentieth-century celluloid incarnation was none other than Lillian Gish. The girl who has been for years the screen symbol of female virtue, modesty, and meekness. He looked at her, so the story goes, and exclaimed: “Cleopatra!” “What?” said the surprised maestro, Mr. Griffith. “Miss Gish?” “Ah—she is the perfect type! She has everything any actress needs to play the part.” “But she’s an ingenue,” protested her great teacher.
“That may be,” smiled the authority on dead ages and living ladies. “Nevertheless, she has it—that inflexibility, that subtlety that Cleopatra exhibited, to the ultimate degree. If, my dear sir, you do not film Cleopatra with Lilian Gish in the leading role you will be overlooking an opportunity—a very great opportunity, indeed.”
Doubtless the showman side of D. W. G. foresaw the public’s inability or reluctance to view a re-creation of Cleopatra other than in the well-upholstered person of Nita Naldi. He smiled and said nothing. And Lillian Gish went her own way with her own company, and D. W. went his. Hence Cleopatra and Miss Gish have never gotten together.
Lillian, an Enigma
Lillian seems determined to confine herself to the portrayals of unvarnished virgins; to dedicate her art and her subtle smile to the perpetuation of many more Anna Moores. A pity. Because the screen has never reflected the Cleopatra complex in our most stainless heroine. Her adorers would shudder to see her in the arms of Antony; her littlegirl fans of all ages would stop sending her crocheted doilies if she ever enacted a person of adult passions and intelligence. The virgin queen of the screen is an enigma if there ever was one. Where is her Leonardo? Griffith, as her professional da Vinci, painted her as the Gioconda of the gelatines, as faithfully, perhaps, as anyone ever will. But the Griffith Gish was never half so baffling as the curiously quiet, gentle-voiced woman who is the real Lillian.
So many think they know her. Her hordes of girl interviewers swarm about her and come away worshipping, calling her by her first name and devoutly believing they have been admitted inside the shell. Her co-workers admire and often adore her—I know this is old stuff, but it’s fact this time. I remember Kate Bruce, who has played with her since Biograph days, when her eyes filled with tears as she said: “God bless her! She’s a wonderful girl. Always the same; always kind and patient. She works harder than any of us. That guillotine scene (they were making Orphans of the Storm) was done a dozen times, and she was better every time.” They used to stand on the sidelines out at the Griffith studios and watch her go through a scene. When she had wrung the hearts of the studio spectators and the camera had captured her tragic tears she would look around at the friendly circle as if surprised she could stir them so. Always, she was the calmest of them all.
The Ingenue Grows Up
I’ve watched her grow up. Not from baby days. But from an ingenue leading woman to one of the three or four outstanding women of the silver-sheet. I saw her for the first time, in Chicago, about seven years ago. It was after Hearts of the World had been a triumph for Griffith and for the Gish sisters. It made Dorothy, the Little Disturber, a star. Lillian and Mrs. Gish wired me to meet them at the station where they had an hour before boarding an east-bound train. Lillian took my breath away. She was so ethereal I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in her earthliness when she ordered and ate an artichoke. She was carrying a tall cane really a wand—which she used for the exercises she performed faithfully every day. Always frail—but her indominable indominable courage has made her strong. For one old Griffith picture she learned to turn cartwheels. She taught herself to swim a few years ago. Work—work—work—that has been her whole life. She is absolutely selfless and sincere in it. Her inflexibility is incongruous with her smooth, suave surface. She is as delicate and as dainty a creature as you would want to see. Faint perfume; a soft “veil”; perfect gloves and all that sort of thing. A clever author once remarked to me that she was a great woman because she was so adaptable.
She is a chameleon. She is a lovely mirror in a quaint frame. In any salon, at any court in the world she would not be out of place. All the more remarkable when you consider that her youth was spent almost entirely on the stage, and not the New York stage. The stages of small towns’; the hard, relentless life of a trouper was hers until the movies, that fairy godmother of so many Cinderellas, lifted her from obscurity to fortune. Disillusioned by Hard Knocks There was one time of her career when she lived in a little hotel near Washington Square and cooked all her meals over a one-burner gas stove. When she actually did not get enough to eat. David Belasco told her afterwards he thought she was wasting away. There were times when she and her mother and Dorothy could not be together; when the exigencies of their uncertain profession called them apart. Her training was a stern school. She has known all the hard knocks, all the disappointments; and I have always thought her a little disillusioned. In the years I have known her I recall a glimpse here and there that interests me—for no particular reason except that it reveals something of the real Lillian—a creature as varied in mood and mind as anyone I have ever known. She has always seemed to me to be an unconsciously complex individual. Exteriorly, she is somewhat of a Pollyanna, with a respect for the good, wholesome, middle-western things.
I saw her after she and Dorothy and Mr. Griffith had lunched at the White House with the Hardings. She marvelled a bit that the President and his wife were so much like other human beings—just plain, simple folk like ourselves. It was apparent, too, a long time ago, when I went with her and her mother to see Broken Blossoms. The audience contained several representatives of the higher social order of Manhattan. We went to an ice cream emporuim afterwards and over our sundaes Lillian thrilled at the fact that the once-lowly movies could now attract the creme de la creme of the aristocracy. And yet she cannot help being the friendliest and most democratic of souls. Sympathy is within her and she has made up helpless little extras and taken under her wing pretty aspirants for screen honors. She is one of the few stars of importance who will go out of her way a little to help someone, without thought of return.
She is really old-fashioned. Her dressing-table drawers are neat and orderly. She used to keep piles of pretty silk underthings, and hundreds of handkerchiefs, and never wear them. Her sister and James Rennie once escorted her to a smart hotel where the youthful fashionables were wont to cavort. Lillian couldn’t believe young people really acted like that. Her visit to the suburban home of a famous novelist and his wife opened her wistful eyes still wider. “And they say that motion picture people are gay,” she exclaimed. “Why, I never saw anything like it in all the time I have been in pictures.” An eminent and elderly French artist asked her to pose for him. He did some charming things of her and called her his most entrancing subject. I heard him rave. He bent over her hand. He gave her a rose and asked her to pose for another head. Lillian thanked him prettily and told me later that she always took someone with her to the sittings. Her shyness and her modesty are genuine, not assumed. But I do not doubt that, if her role called for it, she would do a Lady Godiva without a murmur. When she is working she is impersonal. I spent a week-end with the Gishes when they lived in Mamaroneck. The family retired early. On Lillian’s bed-table was her prayer book with its “L. G.” on the cover. The next morning she was up at six and at the studio at six-thirty. It was Sunday. She was directing Dorothy in a comedy while Mr. Griffith was in the South. She made it a good comedy by sheer determination and desperately hard work. Everything happened to hinder her that can happen in a studio. The electrical apparatus wouldn’t work. It was a grind. In her severely simple suit, with a green shade over her eyes, and a huge megaphone, she was L. Gish, director, and a darned good one. Not a vestige of the girl the world knows. She was the most impersonal director I ever saw on a set. Her own sister might have been a casual acquaintance. Patient, tactful—yes. But business-like. She hardly had time or the inclination to pose for publicity stills. I have always handed it to her for her work with that comedy. It was an achievement entirely unassisted by personality.
A Good Sport
Then, the first time she left Griffith, the company that was to have starred her in a series of features fell through, she was a good little sport. She had made up her mind it was time for her to make money—compared to the salaries of other stars, her Griffith remuneration was small, indeed. But when her company failed she went- back and quietly became a part of the Griffith organization again. It must have been a keen and bitter disappointment; but if it hurt her nobody knew it. She played her parts in the Griffith pictures more exceptionally than ever before. She shared, more than any other Griffith player, the director’s triumphs. At one of the premiers, the audience called for Mr. Griffith; and after his speech, applauded thunderously for his heroine. Griffith smiled. “You are looking in the right direction,” he said, waving at her box. Somehow a Griffith first night has never seemed so colorful since she has left. Now she is an established star in her own right. She has made The White Sister and Romola in Italy. She shops in Paris and Rome. She has met and grown to know men and women of the world; the substantial things of life are hers. And has she changed? Of course, she has. She has taken on a new poise and a fresh charm. Her contact with another world—the bigger, polished existence outside a studio—has left its impression. She is mentally more alert—and more silent than before.
A Trifle Tired
The thought has occurred to me about her that she is a trifle tired. She has accomplished so much in a few short years. Not yet thirty, she has been accorded a niche next to Duse. Her personal popularity is greater than Maude Adams’ ever was. John Barrymore has called her a truly great artiste. So have many others. With the illusion that she, a real actress, a conscientious, devoted artiste, loved and lived only for her work, I once said to her: “But, of course, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t always busy.” She turned to me, and her lovely eyes—the only eyes I have ever seen which could be called limpid—were a little weary.
“Oh, yes I could,” she said. “Do you think any of us would work if necessity didn’t demand it? I would love to have money enough and time enough just to follow spring around the world.”
Her earnings have been considerable. And the Gish family has never lived exorbitantly. Theirs has been the life of the usual prosperous home. But the long and serious illness of Mrs. Gish, with its heavy expenses—for nothing was spared that their beloved mother might be well and strong again—was a severe drain on the finances and the courage of the sisters. Speaking of courage, Lillian has it. Mrs. Gish lay ill in the hospital while Orphans of the Storm was being made. Lillian and Dorothy often dashed to town from the suburban studio for a moment’s visit. They did the greatest work of their careers while their hearts were heavy and their nerves at the breaking-point. Their mother has always ben their first consideration. Studio mamas have been kidded, and often with justice. But here is an exception. Mae Gish is one of the finest women whose fortunes have ever been associated with the films. Slight and pretty, with Lillian’s gentleness and Dorothy’s sense of humor, she has sympathy and savoir faire. Her son-inlaw adores her. What higher praise? She is well again and with her girls in Italy.
Lillian is Old-World
Somehow I think Lillian has always belonged there. She is old-world. I can imagine her among the ruins of the Renaissance; in those serene places where the lustrous ladies she rather resembles used to linger. I’d like to have her play Beatrice d’Este, that capricious child of Milan, with her dwarfs and her festivities and her gem-encrusted gowns. Lillian would rather play Isabella, I suppose! If she could only be persuaded that her dramatic future lies along different lines. She has played too long the passive part. Except in a few of the old Triangle films, such as Diana of the Follies, she has been the instrument of a cruel fate. If she would shake off the shackles of conventionality, she would be truly great. She has courage. Why not use it and play Cleopatra; or Mona Lisa, or Beatrice? Perhaps, like her friend Mary Pickford, she is bound by cinema traditions. Mary is firmly convinced that she dare not trifle with the public affection to the extent of portraying a human being; and so she keeps on playing her pretty, innocuous children. Does Lillian Gish dare to do a Cleopatra? I had hopes when I read the reports that she was at last to embark upon the high sea of real romance. The rumors of her engagement to Charles Duell, the president of her company, Inspiration Pictures, still persists despite cabled denials from Italy. And only the other day I heard that a young naval officer had given up his post to follow her to Rome and Florence, and that she was as enamoured of him as he of her. Again, denials. Let Lillian Gish allow herself to indulge in a little amour, away from the blinding studio lights and the ceaseless click of the camera; let her marry and even retire for a while—and the screen will be richer for her experience. Is it because Lillian’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
A young man in England used to send her poems, all nicely bound and expressive of his undying devotion. Lillian was pleased with them, and showed a little-girl eagerness for the next edition. Will life cheat her of the passions and perplexities she has never enacted before the camera? Will her own existence resolve itself into a repetition of the passive part she has played on the screen?
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (Anna Moore’s wedding dress)
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”
Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) – Way Down East
Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East
You may answer that in Way Down East; her Anna Moore suffered, and suffered, and suffered. I know she did. But Anna Moore was a dumb-bell. Almost without exception, the girls she has geen called upon to act have been dumb-bells. They suffer, but only physically. You feel that they have learned nothing from life. Lillian has absorbed. She has a receptive mind and a retentive memory; and, unlike her heroines, she has grown up, with the potentialities for honest emotion and drama. Lillian Gish is not a dumb-bell. She is a remarkable woman. And the sooner she proves it upon the screen the better.