Savage Haiti of ‘Papa Doc’ Upstages Characterization in ‘Comedians’ – By Clifford Terry (Chicago Tribune 1967)

Chicago Tribune – Tuesday November 14, 1967 – Page 37

  • Savage Haiti of ‘Papa Doc’ Upstages Characterization in ‘Comedians’
  • By Clifford Terry
The Comedians 1967 lobby card

The savage stage upon which “The Comedians” strut and fret their pathetic parts is the island of Haiti, that harbor of hate stuck in the middle of Tourist Land and dominated by the sound and fury of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Ustinov in The Comedians 1967

Onto this set have been built the props, cemented in power and poverty: political purges, dungeons, blackouts, firing-squad reprisals, intimidation and murder, and 5,000 sunglass-concealed, strong-arm sadists known as the Tonton, the Carribean counterpart of the Gestapo. From offstage obscurity, enter the personae, fitted with the simplest of names, unknowingly cast as charade cogs absurdly and pitifully floundering in the midst of games tyrant play: Brown [Richard Burton], the wry, witty owner of a hand-me-down hotel in Port-au-Prince and an outspoken Duvalier detractor; Martha [Elizabeth Taylor], Brown’s lover and wife of a weak-willed diplomat [Peter Ustinov]; Jones [Alec Guiness], a shifty –British munitions profiteer who thrives on nostalgic war stories about how he won the Burma campaign; and Smith [Paul Ford], a candidate in the 1948 American Presidential election [on the Vegetarian ticket], and his surprisingly spunky wife [Lillian Gish].

Paul Ford and Lillian Gish – Still frame from ‘The Comedians’ 1967

As the film progresses, it becomes evident that circumstance has upstaged characterization [in spite of some rather tidily-packaged soul-searching], as Novelist-Script-Writer Graham Greene calls upon blood and brutality, violence and voodoo, to powerfully portray what’s up with Papa Doc.

Peter Glenville – The Comedians 1967

Altho dragging a bit in its last laps, the two-and-one-half-hour “Comedians” nonetheless is a good, solid film, showing the best side of Director Peter Glenville [“Becket”], who has erased the bad taste of his last attempt “Hotel Paradiso.” While the entire cast give fine performances, honors belong to Burton, who keeps on top of the most important role – the apparently strong, unbending Englishman who really is as insecure as his fellow fumblers, whose words about “no faith in faith” give way to reluctant action as he leads a quixotic coup against the despots.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on set – The Comedians 1967

Looking remarkably lovely and svelte [especially after her broad-beamed shots in “Virginia Woolf” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye”], and speaking with some kind of an accent which turns out to be German, Miss Taylor does quite well in spite of a part that is closer in challenge to “The V.I.P.’s” than her latest roles.

The Comedians 1967 poster MGM one sheet

As the Babbitty business man, Guiness is an excellent, transcending one of those illusion-into-reality character changes that has become extremely overworked. And in a bit of offbeat casting, Ustinov is remarkably weak and sensitive in portraying the cuckold’s laissez-faire lethargy.

Lillian Gish in “The Comedians” – Photo Gallery

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The Wind (1928) – USA – Entire Film

Desert Wind Blows Drama Into This Movie
Gives Lillian Gish New Laurels, Too.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Writers: Frances Marion (scenario) Dorothy Scarborough (from the novel by)

It was one of the last silent films released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and is considered one of the greatest silent films. Lillian Gish came up with the idea of making a film adaption of the novel of the same name. Irving Thalberg immediately gave her permission to do so. Gish recalled wanting Lars Hanson as her leading man, she also assigned Victor Sjöström as the director herself. Sjöström directed Gish before in the 1926 movie The Scarlet Letter. The Wind is considered to be a classic, and one of Gish’s most brilliant performances. It is the last silent film starring Gish, the last directed by Sjostrom, and the last major silent released by MGM.

“The Wind”
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Victor Seastrom
Presented at the Rialto theater

  • The Cast:
  • Letty ……………..…………… Lillian Gish
  • Lige ………………….……… Lars Hanson
  • Roddy ………………… Montague Love
  • Cora ……………… Dorothy Cummings
  • Beverly …………….…….. Edward Earle
  • Sourdough .….… William Orlamond

The story is a strange and thrilling one of the southwest of the early days. It is grim and full of incident, mostly gray and gritty as the blinding, blowing sands. It is one of those pictures that would be just too much to bear unless it had a happy ending.

Well – It has.

Miss Gish is supported by an able cast doing magnificent work. The direction is masterly. Photography – immense. The wind is so real it tears into your nerves.

The Wind – MGM 1928 – Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love, William Orlamond, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cummings

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“La Boheme” 1926 — Entire Film —

  • “La Boheme” 1926
  • Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
  • Directed by King Vidor
  • THE CAST
  • Mimi …………………..…….….. Lillian Gish
  • Rodolphe ………………………John Gilbert
  • Musette …………………….. Renee Adoree
  • Schaunard …………………George Hassell
  • Vicomte Paul ……………….…. Roy D’arcy
  • Colline ………… Edward Everett Horton
  • Benoit ………………….………….. Karl Dane
  • Theater Manager ….….. Frank Courrier
  • Madame Benoit ………. Matilde Comont
  • Marcel ……………….…..….. Gino Corrado
  • Bernard …………….…………. Gene Poujet
  • Alexis …………..……..………….. David Mir
  • Louise ……………………. Katherine Vidor
  • Phemie ………………….. Valentina Vinina

Miss Gish’s Mimi is a frail and exquisite darling. Her appeal is that of a beloved and wistful child. You are filled with a mighty desire to protect her. You yearn to do something – anything – to bring a smile to those eyes and lips, and when, toward the end, she becomes so wan and gray with suffering and weakness – it’s almost more than you can stand. The unhappy ending becomes, in a way, a happy one – for certainly the Mimi of Lillian Gish has no business on this mundane sphere. Her place is with the angels.

La Boheme 1926 – MGM

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The Scarlet Letter — Entire Film —

Victor Seastrom’s direction is that of a master, and the Scandinavian’s sympathy with the traditions of our rock-bound New England is strongly manifested in every scene. Seastrom’s talent for creating an environmental mise en scene that underscored character emotion and psychology was evident in his pastoral rendering of a 17th-century New England landscape. Together Gish and Seastrom turned The Scarlet Letter into a critical and popular triumph for MGM.
Lillian Gish’s performance in “The Scarlet Letter” recaptures all the praise ever bestowed on her, and by the same token should erase all memory of the shortcomings charged against her. For her Hester Prynne is shimmering perfection, and is completely her own. The scenario of “The Scarlet Letter” is not wholly, however, the story of Hawthorne’s novel, though the liberties taken with it could scarcely offend the most captious. As you see this beautiful picture on the screen it occurs to you that there was no need to have followed the letter of the book at all. What has come from it is fine and true.
Henry B. Walthall as Roger Prynne, Hester’s sinister husband, plays with repressed power, and Karl Dane and William H. Tooker offer lifelike characterizations.

Lillian Gish learned that her mother had had a stroke in London and her sister, Dorothy Gish, urged her to get there on the first available boat. When Lillian informed director Victor Sjöström of the need to finish the film quickly, he created a shooting schedule that crammed two weeks worth of shooting into three days of non-stop work. The crew worked without complaint so that she could finish the film early and catch the earliest possible train to New York.

Lillian Gish … Hester Prynne
Lars Hanson … The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale
Henry B. Walthall … Roger Prynne
Karl Dane … Giles
William H. Tooker … The Governor
Marcelle Corday … Mistress Hibbins
Fred Herzog … The Jailer
Jules Cowles … The Beadle
Mary Hawes … Patience
Joyce Coad … Pearl
James A. Marcus … A Sea Captain

By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method. (Scott Eyman)

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King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976) – Duel in the Sun

  • King Vidor
  • Copyright © 1976 by SIMON & SCHUSTER, Inc.
  • Published by MONARCH PRESS
  • a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 1 West 39th Street New York, N.Y. 10018

It is to this family of filmmakers — the clan of Griffith, Walsh and Ford — that King Vidor belongs. In a long and active career he has preserved his personal style from commercial erosion and retained well into the sixties the sense of American landscape which distinguishes his best films. What sets Vidor apart from his contemporaries in this gentle field is, however, a dark, almost demonic view of the land.

Hard riding and soft religion don’t mix, so get goin’. — Title in Vidor’s “The Sky Pilot.”

Duel in the Sun

That Vidor may have seen himself in the same light as these mythical characters is suggested by his frequent confrontations with Hollywood’s most domineering moguls, men with whom no director could hope to work except with a maximum of friction. Sam Goldwyn, Irving Thalberg and David Selznick totally opposed Vidor on three matters closest to his heart, Goldwyn in the creation of screenplays, Thalberg in his subservience to popular appeal, Selznick in the choice of locations. Yet it was for these three men that Vidor created his best work. “One often has to make films just to keep one’s name in the public eye,” he remarks, but the rationalization is thin. It is far more likely that only while working with such men was he pressured to do his best.

The hand of Selznick lies heavily but not without a sureness of touch on Duel in the Sun (1946), perhaps the greatest outdoor film of the forties. Niven Busch’s novel had all Vidor’s preoccupations, in particular a conflict between Man, in the person of Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), a crippled monument in a wheelchair, and Nature, dramatized by his vast ranch, Spanish Bit. Industry — in this case the railroad — invades this empire, helped by McCanles’s gentle son Jess (Joseph Cotten) but opposed, in imitation of his father, by the libidinous and violent Lewt (Gregory Peck). The innocently erotic Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), an orphan half-caste billeted with the family after the execution of her father for her mother’s murder, is flung from the protective Mrs. McCanles, played with a sense of gossamer and steel by Lillian Gish, to the affection of Jess and (her own preference) the satyriasis of Lewt, with whom she perishes in a demon tryst high in the mountains, both of them shot and dying together.

It is impossible not to be exhilarated by Duel in the Sun, in which Selznick tried with typical single-mindedness to recapture the scope and vivacity of Cone With the Wind. The interference of which Vidor complained added significantly to the film’s success, but Vidor found the constant presence of Selznick on the set galling and walked out when the film was not quite completed.

Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set – candid, duel in the sun

Selznick directed some remaining scenes, William Dieterle handled a Reinhardtesque sequence in the vast bar which opens the film, and second-unit director Otto Brower the train wreck from which Lewt rides away singing, “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” Even Josef von Sternberg, hired by Selznick to supervise the costume tests and, hopefully, give Jennifer Jones some of the photographic glamour of Marlene Dietrich — Vidor used him as an assistant, having him douse the star with water in scenes requiring the appearance of sweat — directed one brief scene of a posse searching the McCanles house. So acute was Selznick’s obsession with his star that his visits to the set became embarrassing, the microphone picking up his heavy breathing as he watched her. Equally upsetting was a brief visit by D. W. Griffith. “Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish were incapable of speaking their script, especially Barrymore. After a moment I had to ask Mr. Griffith, ‘Would you mind leaving the set or going behind the decor?’ and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been here too long anyway, I apologize.’ And he left very politely.”

After Duel in the Sun, Vidor had a long spell of inactivity, briefly broken by the sketch film A Miracle Can Happen (1948), also known as On Our Merry Way. Its personnel is a catalogue of renegades.

King Vidor in 1931

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King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976)

  • King Vidor
  • Copyright © 1976 by SIMON & SCHUSTER, Inc.
  • Published by
  • MONARCH PRESS
  • a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  • 1 West 39th Street New York, N.Y. 10018

JOHN BAXTER is the author of numerous books on film, including The Cinema of John Ford, An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell, and Stunt: The Story of the Great Movie Stunt Men. He contributes regularly to the London Times and Sunday Times Magazine.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish d’apres le roman de Henri Murger

A Demonic Landscape

There is a sense in which all American film is geographic. No national cinema places more emphasis on the outdoors, or more intimately relates the attitudes and preoccupations of its characters to the shape and symbology of the land. Almost every major work of American silent cinema has its component of landscape, and classics abound in which nature assumes a power and mystical significance: Way Down East, Greed, The Wind, The Iron Horse, The Salvation Hunters, The Cold Rush, The General and Sunrise are obvious examples.

La Boheme

Thalberg (Irving) confirmed MGM’s view of The Big Parade as a Gilbert vehicle by allocating the same star to Vidor for his next two films, a big budget version of La Boheme (1926) to star Gilbert and the studio’s newest acquisition, Lillian Gish, and Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), in which he romped with unaccustomed panache in a story adapted from Rafael Sabatini. Little seen today, La Boheme has great and enduring merit, containing one of Lillian Gish’s most intense performances. With the honeymoon period of her contract still at its height, she could dictate terms to Thalberg. As a subject she asked for a version of Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme adapted by her friend Mme. Frederick de Gresac, and for her director, after seeing two reels of the still-uncompleted The Big Parade, King Vidor. Even Vidor’s reverence for Griffith flagged when Miss Gish demanded full rehearsals in The Master’s style, but like all her directors he could not fault her dedication. Preparing to play the frail seamstress Mimi who sacrifices herself so that her lover, the playwright Rodolphe, can write his masterpiece, she visited hospitals to study the symptoms of terminal tuberculosis, drank no fluids for three days before her death scene and dried her mouth with cotton pads. This sequence — actually quite routine in effect, though cast and crew found it traumatic—is merely the culmination of a performance disturbing in its sense of sickness. The feeling of cold as she huddles in her unfloored and empty flat, the blood-smeared mouth after her first seizure, her exhaustion as she drags herself like a sick cat across Paris, clinging to passing vehicles and to the vast city walls as Paris towers indifferently above her are components of a rich, moving characterization beside which Gilbert’s capering Rodolphe and the other bohemians, no matter how Vidor makes them dance, clown and pose to enliven the static script, become irrelevant.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s

La Boheme showed Gilbert in a poor light — literally, since Miss Gish brought in Hendrick Sartov to create glamorized, heavily gauzed close-ups that undermined his importance to the story. (Erte had also been hired to do the costumes; the star rejected his designs as too fancy.) Gilbert, according to Miss Gish, fell in love with her and proposed marriage when the film ended, so he may have been happy to give her the lioness’s share of the production. He was no better served by Bardelys the Magnificent. With Gilbert’s collusion and perhaps with covert encouragement from Mayer, who disliked his amoral life style and sensed that the era of the matinee idol was dying, Vidor used Sabatini’s story to show Gilbert in a new and unflattering light, that of an action star a la Douglas Fairbanks. Cutting a poor figure as a fencer and relying on stunt men for such spectacular coups as an escape from his own execution on a parachute improvised from an awning, Gilbert is comfortable only in the love scenes, particularly the much- quoted river sequence in which he and Eleanor Boardman glide under drooping willow boughs. Despite the efforts of many close friends, including Vidor, Gilbert destroyed himself with drink and melancholy, both the actor and the industry magnifying the problems of his light speaking voice into an obsession. “Jack died before his time,” said Vidor, “and death perhaps came as a great relief.”

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

For all their elegance and flair, La Boheme and Bardelys the Magnificent could have been the work of any top MCM staff director; Clarence Brown might well have extracted more from them than did Vidor. But Vidor, like Griffith, regarded himself as a thinker on film. Now established at Metro, he could enlarge on his personal ethic, exhort audiences to optimism and self-help, and offer cautionary tales on the perils of failure. One might have expected films which mined the same profitable vein as Frank Capra’s, but Vidor’s pragmatism, characteristic of one brought up in Christian Science, ensured that his parables were underlaid with a bleak doubt. While Ford and Capra knew that a good man who kept faith would always survive, Vidor believed that survival is subject to the caprice of a malevolent destiny. As Job meditates, the Lord giveth, but the Lord taketh away.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor – by John Baxter (1976)

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King Vidor, American (La Boheme) – Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon (1988)

  • King Vidor, American
  • Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon
  • University of California Press Berkeley and Los Angeles, California
  • University of California Press, Ltd.
  • London, England
  • © 1988 by The Regents of the University of California

A congressional medal struck after John Wayne’s death has been jangling in our minds for some time. “John Wayne, American,” it reads—as if being a gutsy winner were certifiably the essence of the United States. Our title recasts the medal to honor diversity. Sure, King Vidor’s sweep honors the American dream, that sometimes ferocious religion, but it also ascends to its higher, more ambivalent, forms.

La Boheme (1926)

In a left-bank rooming house in the 1830s live aspiring playwright Rodolphe (John Gilbert) and three equally impoverished artists, who survive by ingenuity and the benevolence of Musette (Renee Adoree). Above them in a drafty loft, the seamstress Mimi (Lillian Gish) is failing to eke out the rent. Rodolphe and Mimi’s love blossoms with the spring. But her faith in his art provokes tragedy. To keep his inspiration unhindered, she toils nights to cover his editor’s rejection of his hack work. He finally catches on, vowing to abandon his play and devote himself to nursing her back to health. But she flees into the fatal anonymity of factory work. Out of his “bitter despair” comes a “great play.” On the night of his theatrical triumph, Mimi makes a heroic trek across the city, to die in her old room, near Rodolphe.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme

La Boheme has its defenders—and certainly its final reels are stunning—but it is hard to avoid a feeling that its plot sets Vidor a choice between two options—“bohemian” pretensions and Mimi’s self-sacrifice —neither of which he admires.

For copyright reasons, the film lists its source as Henri Murger’s Scenes de la vie de Boheme, though it switches between that, Murger’s own dramatization of it, and Puccini’s opera. Banished from the film is any hint of the teasing Mimi (in the novel) or of Rodolphe’s scheming uncle, who wants a rich match for his nephew (in the play). The result is an independent Mimi, but so self-deprecating that she’s half in love with death, a creature who (despite Vidor’s claims) is close to Puccini’s. If the playing is broad, perhaps influenced, after all, by something operatic, it needs only harsher light and angles to turn expressionist in the final sequences. A bright, low-angled light outlines the hook nose of an unconcerned doctor as he pinches snuff and pronounces that Mimi won’t live through the night. Perhaps overhearing, she pulls herself up for her last, dark journey across the city, dragging herself along by chains behind horse-drawn wagons (fig. 36b), and silhouetted struggling past featureless black spaces and De Chirico—angled high walls.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

No other Vidor film has so self-conscious a painterly influence. It’s a short history of fin de siecle French art: impressionism supplanted by expressionism. The spring picnic is a dejeuner sur I’herbe, with Mimi’s nervous vivacity disrupting the tableau vivant; ballet dancers are beheaded with Degas framing from the theater box of would-be seducer Vicomte Paul, a foppish caricature out of Daumier.

If John Gilbert, in stills, looks like your archetypal ladies’ man, his portrayals ripple with tensions between a certain likeable impishness, that soft-underbellied mother’s-boy sensuality, and a half-disguised threat of something more ruthless and cunning. In La Boheme, his cute incorrigibility with his editor becomes a willful misunderstanding of Mimi’s sacrifices—reinforced by his layabout friends (“These women! I never knew where Musette got her money either”). When his jealousy leads him to rip apart her carefully sewn finery and hit her across the face, the scene gets its power less from the stain of blood she coughs up onto rough floorboards than from Lillian Gish’s projection of a private fear. Thus her escape from the roommghouse looks half like animal panic. Gilbert connects so compellingly with Renee Adoree in The Big Parade (as his few moments here with her Musette remind one) because of something mutual in their openness, in their strength as survivors. (That all three actors themselves proved just the reverse as survivors may show more than that you have to watch the dance, not the dancer. For the camera, a certain recklessness may translate as openness.)

Perhaps it’s not that Vidor distrusts self-sacrifice as such, so much as its needlessness here, and the disproportion of a life for a play (even from “the next Victor Hugo”). When Vidor holds nothing back in Stella Dallas, the persuasiveness of self-sacrifice is awesome, as, in other ways, are the death clutches of those postwar lovers in Duel in the Sun and Ruby Gentry. Passion vindicates all in those films. Mimi, too, has her passion, but interior and solitary anxiety is Gish’s forte. Her fears of Rodolphe are justified, and make sense of her “generous deception.” But the film comes really to life only with Mimi’s dying struggle across town, a variation on Apperson’s panicky struggle up from his sickbed and his final limping run across the French fields. Frank Borzage, with his sympathy for characters too weak for their world, might have given La Boheme a more stable hand.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926

No doubt La Boheme is more coherent from the angle of Gish’s auteurism. In this, her first film for a major Hollywood studio, she supervised the script and overhauled costuming and rehearsal practices, much to the consternation of those used to the studio system. One need only place the film beside her second MGM project, The Scarlet Letter, directed by Victor Seastrom, to appreciate her control. Murger’s and Hawthorne’s novels have little in common but their completion in 1849. Murger’s is an episodic chain of light immoralities, opposite in structure and intensity to The Scarlet Letter’s unrelenting fable. But both films stand or fall by Gish’s conviction in her identical characterization: the self-sacrificial lover. The initial justifications for sacrifice in Rodolphe’s “great play” and Dimmesdale’s “good works” are forgotten next to the spectacle of Gish’s endurance, which brushes aside equally the frivolity of Murger’s Mimi and the passion of Hawthorne’s Hester. While Seastrom’s hard shadows and heavy playing are impossible to mistake for Vidor’s flat light and buoyancy here, the two films arrive at identical symbolism—embroidery as Mimi/Hester’s penance; woodland romp as their passion; caged birds as their emblems of fettered freedom.

LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 the dispute over the play

When it comes to the final choice between self-sacrifice and artistic posturing, Vidor gives the edge to the latter, since it survives by resourcefulness, by literal monkey business (“What a man can’t do, a monkey can,” the artists discover in letting an organ-grinder’s monkey hold out the beggar’s cup to which they would never stoop). They survive by an ingenuity and insouciance entirely missing from Mimi’s plodding all-nighters over the needle. Posturing is, at least, a joke among the artists themselves, as when the songwriter hits up Rodolphe for money by admiring his suffering eyes. Meanwhile, the rotund wife of the rooming-house superintendent takes Mimi in hand to advise the futility of her night work.

Lillian Gish and Roy D’Arcy in a scene from La Boheme

But commonsense solutions aren’t the business of tragedy. The plot combines with the star-vehicle style to clear away obstacles to Henrik Sartov’s soft-focus showcasing of Gish’s heroism. Vidor’s jackknife speed at times gears wonderfully with Gish’s softer, fluttery kind of elaboration. Mimi, forced to resort to a municipal pawn shop for her month’s rent, visually caresses each article of clothing with a little moment of hope, a smile, a half-attempt to speak its merit; then disappointment, resolution, and full circle back to hope for the next item—all with a gentleness undaunted by the faceless pawnbroker’s brutally routine hands. Vidor sets up a tightly crowded mise-en-scene, and the chain of changing ideas in Gish’s face constitutes, in Eisenstein’s profoundest sense, a montage of emotions. Charles Affron describes Gish warming herself near Rodolphe’s stove, “turning around, exploiting the opportunity with a commitment that never suggests telegraphy or semaphore. The sign is clear, yet with nuance and timing it is broken up and reconstituted—the hands, the nose and the body ceaselessly redefine the space and the object—stove.” Affron proceeds to eleven pages of admirable analysis of how Gish’s acting and Vidor’s continuity generate a series of surprises, contrasts, modulations.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme

Griffith pitted Gish against outside evil—brutish fathers and unfaithful seducers. La Boheme does have a Griffithian pay-up-or-out landlord, and continues with Vicomte Paul’s seducer complications, but the two are soon insignificant; and, with the play’s wicked uncle missing, Mimi’s fears can only turn inward to a sort of abstraction—Dostoyevski and class consciousness being too far away. Gish’s careful nuances often rattle around in MGM’s typically oversized and bright spaces (a problem Sartov overcame with Seastrom through spotlighting and shadowed backgrounds). Vidor’s impatience over Mimi’s sacrifice combines with MGM’s visual denial of economic explanations to make her seem pathologically skittish. In place of Mimi running off at the first bark from Rodolphe’s editor, it’s easy to imagine a scene where Rodolphe talks him round into letting him keep his job, as we’ve seen him do before. It ought to be paradoxical that Gish’s fluttery playing fits best with Seastrom’s Nordic style, but in practice they balance out—he fashions just the right prisons for her panicky tours de force. Seastrom’s The Wind becomes her masterpiece by shuttling her fears between a melodramatic seducer and pathologically projected phantoms. The Scarlet Letter suggests to us that La Boheme makes its best sense through an Americanized viewing of this Paris: Mimi’s all-night hard work and fatal self-sacrifice is the harshest puritanical way out. His puritan streak notwithstanding, Vidor was too transcendent an optimist to look on Mimi’s death without being irritated by its masochism.

Lillian Gish as Mimi in La Boheme
King Vidor, American – Front cover

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Alternate Oscars – By Danny Peary – 1993 (Why not Gish?)

One Critic’s Defiant Choices for Best Picture, Actor, and Actress—From 1927 to the Present

A Delta Book Published by Dell Publishing a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1540 Broadway New York, New York 10036

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

THE BEST CHOICE: Lillian Gish (The Wind)

Award-Worthy Runners-Up: Betty Compson (The Docks of New York), Marion Davies (Show People), Bessie Love (Broadway Melody)

Mary Pickford was happy to vote for Janet Gaynor as Best Actress for 1927-28, and didn’t even mind that her own terrific performance in My Best Girl went unnominated. But, as the story goes, she began to feel jealous that she didn’t have a statue herself. So when she was nominated in the second year of the Academy Awards for her performance in Coquette, her first talkie and first film without her famous curls, she got serious. No longer on the voting committee, she invited the current judges to Pickfair for tea, thereby qualifying as the first star to campaign for an Academy Award. And she defeated several respected, veteran actresses, including the late Jeanne Eagels, who had died of a drug overdose after making The Letter. It was hard for the Academy to justify her victory because the film was one of the worst received of her career; it was generally recognized that she had been miscast as the Southern flirt who ruins men’s lives, a part played by Helen Hayes on Broadway.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Surely, Lillian Gish was more deserving for her riveting performance in The Wind. And even if, as many contended, the award was given to Pickford as a tribute to a great career, Gish was still the better choice. Pickford may have been the most popular actress of the silent era, but Gish was the most talented. If Academy Awards had been given out in the silent era, Lillian Gish would have won a few, having given beautifully conceived performances in such features as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, True Heart Susie, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm for D. W. Griffith, and The White Sister, La Boheme, and The Scarlet Letter (MGM).

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

Gish made her reputation as an innocent, passive heroine who undergoes much suffering. As critic Arthur Lenning wrote of Broken Blossoms’ Lucy Burrows, Lillian represented “the innocent waif sacrificed in the moral and emotional slaughterhouse of the world.” Her parts were more adult after she left Griffith, but she still sought roles that were consistent with those she played for him.

Lillian Gish in Scarlet Letter

Having played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Gish again played a heroine who is an outcast in her community’ in The Wind. As in her other films Gish is initially virtuous, but learns the ways of the hard, cruel world. She endures much pain, suffering, and humiliation. Unlike her roles in the Griffith films, however, her character does waver from the path of righteousness; she does not survive with honor intact. But when, in The Wind, she is attacked by a scoundrel and ravaged by nature, her part recalls the Griffith films. The scene in which she feels trapped in the small cabin while a storm rages outside reminds one of the harrowing scene in Broken Blossoms when the terrified Lucy Burrows is locked in a closet while her brutal father stalks outside. Her hysteria in the Griffith scene was so convincing that during the filming, several people on the set became ill watching her; she is just as believable in The Wind.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Gish is dynamic in a role that lets her run the gamut of emotions. At first she is carefree, later apprehensive, finally tormented; she tries to suppress her paranoia, but ultimately allows madness to replace her terrible fears. As Gish was well aware, it is through her incredible eyes that we perceive the changes her character goes through.

We sense her paranoia the first time she watches the sand swirling toward the train windows (she realizes she isn’t strong); later we see absolute fear in those eyes; finally they are blurred and unfocused and we realize she has lost her senses. As it is with her hands and her body, Gish moves her eyes (usually preceding the movement of her head) only at those moments when she wants to convey a thought. No one was more aware of the camera than this shrewd actress.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Gish said working on The Wind was the most difficult experience of her career because of the blowing sand, which cut into her skin and shredded her garments, and the intense heat. It was even harder than doing twenty-two takes on an ice floe with her hand in the freezing water in Griffith’s Way Down East. So the lack of studio support for the film was a great disappointment. Because it failed at the box office, Louis B. Mayer told Gish that her career needed a boost. He said he was going to invent a scandal to soil her pristine image. When she refused to go along with his scheme, he suspended her. Undaunted, she went to New York to do theater. The Wind was Lillian Gish’s last silent picture.***

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

No one has ever been better at playing traumatic scenes than Lillian Gish, but she outdid herself as the lonely bride driven crazy by The Wind.

*** The Wind was MGM’s last silent production as well.

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