KERA Interview With Lillian Gish – 1973
Lillian Gish presents her latest book “Dorothy and Lillian Gish”. Miss Gish remembers the first steps of film, when the world was young.
A Century of Dreams
KERA Interview With Lillian Gish – 1973
Lillian Gish presents her latest book “Dorothy and Lillian Gish”. Miss Gish remembers the first steps of film, when the world was young.
WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.
Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”
Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.
Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”
SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.
The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health. “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”
BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.
“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’
Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;
“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.
Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.
In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.
He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.
Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.
It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.
One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.
The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.
“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.
Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.
For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.
Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.
There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.
Lillian Gish talks to Howard Lockhart about herself and the early days of the movies.
She has been called “the first lady of the silent screen,” and film director D.W. Griffith extolled her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She was Lillian Gish, the star of movies, television, radio, and the stage for nearly all of the 20th century.
A series in which you meet interesting and unusual people from all walks of life
BBC Radio 4 FM
19 November 1969 9.35
Critics, historians, and scholars are virtually unaminous in their agreement that Griffith’s greatest performer was Lillian Gish. John Barrymore compared her with Bernhardt and Duse. Critics rhapsodized over her “Dresden porcelain” beauty. She started with Griffith in 1912 at the age of sixteen and became his preeminent interpreter in such major works as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.
Lillian Gish, 1978 CBC Archives – TV capture VHS quality
First lady of the screen, Miss Lillian Gish in an interview filmed in 1978, presented by CBC as an episode in their “Retro-Bites” series.
*** Admin note: Featured photo of Lillian Gish was taken in 1978 indeed, but is a still frame from an interview at BBC Television London. The material above has a low VHS resolution (TV capture) thus any still frame will be affected by the poor footage quality. Thank you for your understanding.
“We got along all right on that one, I’d say. I did everything I could do to please her, of course. I don’t recall ever having had an actor or an actress with whom I couldn’t get along. I’ve never thought about my being first or second in the billing, and I never brought up the fact that my name should be used, above or below the title. If it wasn’t used it was better for me, I thought, because of my family. I just never had any big head about “me,” and I always felt that I was so lucky. Everyone was so good to me throughout my career, and I can say in all honesty that I don’t recall having had a quarrel with anyone ever.” (Lillian Gish – The Whales of August)
From the outset, Gish took her responsibility to this new medium very seriously, and as early as 1913, she was quoted as saying: “To play for the pictures is mostly a matter of the face and of learning to think inside.” Griffith himself, in 1914, stated modestly: “I did not ‘teach’ the players with whom my name is linked. We developed together; we found ourselves in a new art, and, as we discovered the possibilities of that art, we learned together.”
Gish remembers Selznick as a man of taste: “He was delightful for me to work with. He was charming and intelligent, and all the consideration he showed to Jennifer [his then wife, Jennifer Jones], he showed to me as well.” (Duel in the Sun)
Gish’s most important film role in recent years was as the grandmother in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978): “Robert Altman had no script but he came to see me and told me the story. It had so many characters I really couldn’t make head nor tails of it, but he told me I was to die with comedy. Well, that intrigued me. It was a challenge. I had died every way except that, and I accepted the part because it would be a new experience. I am very glad I did.” Interviewed upon completion of that film, Altman commented on Gish’s death scene: “She went out rather beautifully. . . . She had a smile on her face, that famous smile, lingering, fading like a candle being blown out.”
In “Broken Blossoms,” for instance, and in “Way Down East,” I had physical distress to help me out. My appeal was in a measure made for me. I always had something the matter with me. In one I was a poor, frail, half-living little thing and in the other a down-trodden, storm-tossed girl. As Henriette I was well taken care of, beloved by the dashing Chevalier, watched over by Danton. Of course, I had lost my sister, but I was not sure that she was not well cared for, too. I had to make the loss of my sister and my instinctive fear for her overshadow my own personal well-being. That made Henriette a more difficult role than any I have yet played. (Motion Picture Magazine 1922)
“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios. “After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.
San Bernardino Sun, Volume 72, 13 April 1966
By Bob Thomas
Hollywood (AP) – Lillian Gish neither looks nor acts like a museum piece. Her history would indicate that she should be put on display at some repository of movie history. After all, she appeared in her first film in 1912 and starred in D.W. Griffith classics: “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” etc.
Yet the soulful Gish eyes remain as alert as a teen-ager’s, and she has an outlook to match.
“ I don’t believe I had more than two weeks off in the past year,” she remarked. “I did a season of Shakespeare up in Stratford, Conn. Then I came right out here for “Follow Me Boys” at the Disney Studios.
“After that, I went back to New York to begin rehearsals for ‘Anya,’ which George Abbott directed. It was a beautiful play which lasted only a month in New York because of three bad reviews. I think it will have the same fate as ‘Porgy and Bess,’ which did poor business because of reviews when it opened, then was reviewed to become an American classic.
Miss Gish flew here from an Italian vacation to appear in “The Warning Shot” with David Jannsen. During her stay here she will visit with old friends and coworkers. If there is any time left over, she may do some work on the memoir she us writing about her great mentor, Griffith.
“But that is terribly hard work for me,” she admitted, “and I usually have to hole up in a room in Switzerland to get anything written.”
Her schedule may seem remarkable for a 69-year-old, but it doesn’t seem so to Miss Gish. Fortunately for her, she is not required to maintain an income. During her heyday on the screen, from the age 12 to 30, she managed herself well. She never succumbed to the grand living that consumed the assets of many stars.
“I never even bought a home in California,” she explained. “New York was always my home and still is. The money I made went into the bank, not into acquisitions.”
I went to tea with Lillian and Dorothy the following afternoon. Their New York apartment was charming and they had a Southern butler, straight out of “Gone with the Wind” who appeared to have been with them for years. From the elegance and richness of the furnishings, it was obvious that Lillian and Dorothy had not squandered their money like so many of the early silent stars; having known what poverty was from their youth, they had, in fact, sensibly invested in real estate.
I was shown into the drawing-room where the sisters introduced me to their mother, a beautiful, exquisitely dressed, white-haired old lady whom they obviously adored. This was the actress who had instilled into Lillian her love of the theatre and whose own career had come to a tragic end. In 1925, Lillian, who was starring in ” The Scarlet Letter ” in Hollywood, heard that her mother was seriously ill in New York. Greatly distressed, she told the director, Victor Seastrom, that she must go to New York at once: he understandingly agreed. When she arrived, Lillian found that her mother had had a stroke which had totally deprived her of the power of speech. Ever since then, Lillian and Dorothy had looked after her; she lived with them, met their guests, was present at all their dinner parties-a gracious, fragile, silent and infinitely touching figure.
On that first visit, while we were taking tea, there seemed to be a mad cocktail party going on in the adjoining dining-room, the door to which was not quite closed. Through the small gap came a babble as of a coven of witches gossiping, with malevolent chuckles and shrieks of eldritch laughter; then one cackling voice could be heard with disconcerting clarity saying, ” That Dorothy Gish-she thinks she’s an actress ! Hee-hee-hee ! She’s no actress-that Dorothy Gish!” I coughed and rattled my teacup on its saucer and made conversation in a loud voice to drown the flow of disparagement from next door. Nobody else took the slightest notice of it and eventually the sounds died away; I assumed that the cocktail-takers had drunk themselves into a coma.
One of them, it seemed, came to just as I was leaving. I had telephoned for a cab and when the porter rang back to say he had one waiting for me I said, ” I’ll be right down.” From the next room a horrid, mocking voice echoed, ” I’ll be right DOWN ! ” ” Who was that? ” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity. Oh, that’s our parrot,” said Lillian, ” you must meet her next time you come. She’s very lively for her age-we’re told she’s well over a hundred-and really a lovely person.” Dorothy, who had just entranced me by announcing, “I’ll go along with Rodney-I’m meeting Zasu and Gloria,” made no comment on the bird; it was conceivable that her affection for the garrulous ancient was more restrained than Lillian’s.
At our subsequent meetings, Lillian, probably realizing that my love for the cinema was incurable, allowed herself to be lured into talking of early Hollywood days. I wanted to know how Griffith had got that wonderful close-up of her with frozen eyelashes in the blizzard scene of ” Way Down East “; had it been faked? Lillian was indignant. Certainly it had not been faked; the scene had actually been shoL in a blizzard, for which they had waited weeks, and not only her eyelashes but all of her had been frozen. ” I thought I would die of cold,” she said, ” but Griffith just kept shouting, ‘Give her some more hot tea and carry on.’ “
How, I asked, had she done that terrifying scene, in the same picture, where she was on an ice-floe when the ice broke up?
“Why, I just did it,” said Lillian, looking mildly surprised at the question. ‘We all did things in those days.” Recalling the wide use to-day of stand-ins and stunt-men, it seemed to me the modem actor was somewhat lacking in spirit. ” But, I said to Lillian, gazing at her with awe, ” surely you were risking your life? “
”Oh, yes, I suppose so,” said she: “as a matter of fact, I was in hospital for six months after that film.” One of Griffith’s most promising women players, Lillian told me, had actually died in the blizzard scene; Griffith re-cast the part and went on shooting.
Reminiscing about “Birth of a Nation,” she told me, with amusement, how one scene, which is still regarded as an outstanding example of screen art, came to be shot. The scene is that which shows the Southemer Colonel Cameron, returning from the Civil War to his ravaged home : he looks like a man who has been through hell. Griffith, it appears, was all set to shoot the scene of the colonel, full of high hopes and patriotic zeal, going off to the Civil War-but Henry B. Walthall, who was playing Cameron, had been on a terrific bat the night before and turned up at the studio looking ghastly and suffering from an imperial hangover.
Griffith immediately changed his plans : ” We can’t shoot him like that setting out,” he said. “We’ll shoot him coming back.” And it was done.
“Everything was so different in the old days,” said Lillian. ” There were no strict union rules then, of course, and everybody was adaptable; we all worked together to make a good film-and we took pride in working together. Films lost so much when talkies came in, I just felt I must leave Hollywood. So in 1930 I crone to New York-and played in Jed Harris’s production of ‘Uncle Vanya.'”
” But surely you did make one talking picture? ” I asked.
“Wasn’t it ‘ One Romantic Night,’ with Rod la Rocque, directed by Paul Stein? ,,
At the mention of that name, Lillian’s face became (as Edmund Pearson described her ‘Lizzie Borden ” face in the play ” Nine, Pine St.”) .. as venomous and implacable as that of the great murderous queen in ‘ Agamemnon.’ ” ” I can’t bear to think of it,” she said. We agreed that it was the only stinker she had ever appeared in. She had, of course, not yet made ” Duel in the Sun.”
Lillian recalled her experiences with Ronald Colman, whom she had discovered as a small-part stage actor. In 1923 she formed her own film company with Henry King and (which may surprise those who think the current fashion to film in Italy is something new), took Colman to Italy to appear with her in her film of “The White Sister ” which she made there. In one scene, Colman, cast as the impetuous Italian lover, had to display burning passion as he tried to persuade Lillian, the nun of the title role, to break her vows. The scene was rehearsed over and over again. Mr. Colman’s display of passion was not even lukewarm. It seemed as if his inner self, clad in white flannels and brandishing an embarrassed tennis racquet, held him back, murmuring, ‘Oh,. I say, old man-look here ! That sort of thing’s all right for foreigners, but I mean to say …. ! ” In desperation, Lillian poured him half-a-tumblerful of brandy; in desperation, Mr. Colman drank it down, neat and in one gulp. A few minutes later, positively incandescent with passion and alcohol, he gave a performance so scorching that, when it reached the screen, women in the audience glowed with responsive rapture and swooned away. Out of the glass of brandy a star was born.
One of the reasons I stayed on in New York (apart from the delight I took in Lillian’s company) was that I was trying to get somebody to present my play of ‘Crime and Punishment ” there. The New York Theatre Guild took an option on it and we at once began to discuss casting. I wanted Lillian to play Katerina Ivanovna-the part Edith Evans had played in London-but could not think of an actor to play Raskolnikov. Lillian suggested Burgess Meredith, who was then appearing in “The Playboy of the Western World.”
There was a charming story going the rounds at the time. The New York Irish took as great exception to the play as the Irish in Ireland had done when it was first presented, and one night a crowd of Irish toughs gathered at the stage door and mobbed Burgess Meredith and his wife, Paulette Goddard, as they sat in their limousine. The finger of scorn was pointed at Miss Goddard and Mr. Meredith was challenged to ” get out and foight.” ” Don’t you do it, Buzz,” cried Paulette. “Just open the window and let me hit them with my diamond necklace.”
Lillian and I went to see Burgess to ask if there was any possibility of his being able to play in” Crime and Punishment.” For the time being, there was none : he planned to go to Dublin when the run of ” The Playboy ” ended, to appear there with Paulette in” Winterset.”
He did go to Dublin-and when I met him a year later he told me the play had not been very enthusiastically received. On the morning following the first night, a chambermaid entered their hotel bedroom bearing a breakfast tray and a bundle of newspapers. She put the newspapers at the foot of the bed and set down the breakfast tray. “There y’are now,” she said cosily. “Eat up yer breakfast before ye desthroy yerselves reading the notices.”