New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide – Richard Alleman (2005)

  • New York : the movie lover’s guide : the ultimate insider tour of movie New York
  • New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide
  • Richard Alleman (2005)
  • Broadway Books New York

An original trade paperback edition of this book was published in 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It is here reprinted by arrangement with Richard Alleman.

MoMA Museum of Modern Art


Believing that film was “the only great art peculiar to the twentieth century,” former MoMA director Alfred H. Barr Jr. established the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935, and immediately sent curator Iris Barry on a special mission to Hollywood to drum up support for his innovative undertaking. There, at a party given by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks at Pickfair, their lavish Beverly Hills estate, Miss Barry met industry heavyweights like Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Harry Warner, Harry Cohn, Ernst Lubitsch, Mervyn LeRoy, Walt Disney, Jesse Lasky, and Mack Sennett. Returning to New York with what the Los Angeles Times reported to be “more than a million feet” of film, Miss Barry had the beginnings of MoMA’s collection. But one old-timer who was not as forthcoming as many of his Hollywood colleagues was D. W. Griffith, who refused to donate his own films to the museum, reportedly saying that nothing could convince him that films had anything to do with art. Ultimately MoMA enlisted the aid of Griffith’s friend and former star actress, Lillian Gish, who eventually persuaded him to hand over to history his collection of films, music, still photographs, and papers. It seems, however, that it was the lure of the tax write-off that was really responsible for Griffith’s change of heart.

Sir John Gielgud with (left to right) Irene Worth, Mrs. (Blanchette) Rockefeller III, and Lillian Gish at Lillian Gish birthday party and celebration for Anita Loos at the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art)

For the movie lover, the best thing about MoMA’s film collection is that it is constantly on view. The museum has two theaters—one with 460 seats, the other with 217—which together are used to present some two dozen screenings a week. The Department of Film and Media-MoMA also cosponsors, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the New Directors/New Films festival, which is held every year in March/April. In addition to showing films, the Department of Film and Media-MoMA maintains a library of film books, screenplays, reviews, publicity material, and four million stills that is an important research center for students, authors, and historians.

ST. BARTHOLOMEW’S CHURCH – New York – 109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue


109 East 50th Street at Park Avenue

This exotic neo-Byzantine Episcopal house of worship—with a columned Romanesque entrance salvaged from the church’s former 24th Street location—strikes a handsome pose on Park Avenue. Indeed, even though it’s used only as background, it’s still easy to spot in such recent films as Maid in Manhattan (2003), Catch Me If You Can (2002), and Serendipity (2001). It plays much meatier roles in two earlier films, however. Ironically, each involves a wedding that doesn’t come off. In Arthur (1981), Dudley Moore jilts Jill Eikenberry at the St. Bart’s altar, whereas fifteen years later Steve Guttenberg does the same thing to bride- from-hell Jane Sibbett (featured on Friends as Ross’s ex-wife) in favor of Kirstie Alley in It Takes Two (1995).

Former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary.

Movie lovers may wish to make a special visit to pay their respects to silent-screen star and former St. Bart’s member Lillian Gish, whose ashes are buried here in a basement chapel alongside those of her actress sister, Dorothy, and stage mother, Mary. Lillian Gish, who died in 1993, also had an impressive stage and post-silent-film career, making her final screen appearance at the age of ninety-one (or ninety-four, if we are to believe the dates—1893-1993—incised on her crypt), opposite Bette Davis and Ann Sothern, in The Whales of August (1987). Today, an anonymous admirer sends flowers to the Gish crypt every year on her birthday, October 14.

Lillian Gish NY Apart Architectural Digest


For over half a century, this basic-brick Sutton Place apartment building was Lillian Gish’s Manhattan home. An extraordinary woman whose film career began in 1912 with D. W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, Lillian Gish appeared in such landmark silent pictures as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1922), and The Scarlet Letter (1925). When her film career slowed down in the 1930s, it was not, as it was for many of her contemporaries, on account of the talkies, but rather because Hollywood’s taste in heroines had changed, and virtuous virgins like Miss Gish were no longer in fashion. The actress dealt with this turn of events by concentrating on the Broadway stage, where she had a string of successes in classical roles.

Her film career was far from over, however, for she went on to triumph as a character actress in a number of films in the late 1940s and 1950s, from David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1947) and Portrait of Jennie (1948) to United Artists’ Night of the Hunter (1955). And La Gish went on and on. Witness her roles in A Wedding (1978), Sweet Liberty (1986), and The Whales of August (1987). The actress, who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-nine—although she only admitted to ninety-six—once said she liked living in the Sutton Place area because “it is like a village where everyone knows you.”



The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was the rather exotic name of one of the first motion-picture companies to mount a serious challenge to Thomas Edison’s monopolistic hold on the early film industry. Biograph produced initially a better-quality image (by using larger-sized film) and enjoyed the participation of W. K. L. Dickson, a former—and the most influential—player on the team that developed motion pictures at Edison. Biograph’s first studio was on the roof of the Hackett Carhart Building, a great Victorian fortress with ornate columns, pediments, and turrets that still stands on the northwest corner of Broadway and East 13th Street. Similar to the Black Maria studio that Dickson had built for Edison in West Orange, Biograph’s rooftop facility was mounted on tracks and revolved with the sun. The foundations of this primitive studio are still in place atop the restored Hackett Carhart Building.

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

Unfortunately, the site of some of Biograph’s greatest cinematic triumphs—a brownstone studio at 11 East 14th Street to which it moved in 1906—was razed in the 1960s to make way for a big boring brick apartment building. It was at the Union Square studio that D. W. Griffith directed his first film, The Adventures of Dollie, in 1908. Griffith went on to become the studio’s top director and brought such talents as Mary Pickford, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Reid, Mabel Normand, Mae Marsh, Harry Carey, and Mack Sennett into the Biograph fold. When Griffith left the studio in 1913 for the Mutual Film Corporation, Biograph’s status fell quickly, and in 1915 the company was dissolved. Many of its films survive, however, thanks both to Griffith, who saved copies of all his productions, and to the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired Griffith’s collection in the mid-1950s for its then new film department.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

In 1975, a plaque was dedicated by former Biograph beauties Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet at the site of the historic town- house studio at 11 East 14th Street. The day after the ceremony, however, the plaque mysteriously disappeared, and there have been no further efforts to put up a new one. There should be. And while we’re talking about plaques, there also ought to be one at Biograph’s original studio site at 841 Broadway.

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

D. W. GRIFFITH STUDIO SITE Orienta Point, Mamaroneck

In 1919, D. W. Griffith was at the height of his wealth, his fame, his power—and his hubris. It was the year that Griffith had joined with Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks to form the revolutionary United Artists Corporation, which gave its star founders control over both the production and distribution of their films. It was also the year that Griffith decided to leave Hollywood and set up his own studio back east. The place Griffith chose for his operation was the former estate of Standard Oil/Florida real-estate millionaire Henry Flagler, which occupied a secluded spit of land jutting out into the Long Island Sound near Mamaroneck. Besides making films here, Griffith planned to live on the estate, too—a situation which many felt fulfilled the Southern-born director’s fantasies of being master of the plantation. Others who knew Griffith well also pointed out that the seclusion of Orienta Point would enable him to carry on his various romantic liaisons with young actresses far away from the prying New York press.

Griffith’s first major film at his grand Mamaroneck estate- studio was Way Down East (1920), which was a big hit. Other ventures, such as Dream Street (1921), in which Griffith pioneered synchronized sound some six years before Warners released its first Vitaphone picture, were less successful. As for Dream Street’s sound system, Griffith became its biggest critic and discontinued its use immediately after the picture opened. In fact, Griffith eventually became one of the industry’s most vocal anti-talkie spokesmen: “It puts us back to Babel,” he once told Lillian Gish. “Do you realize how few people in the world speak English? If we make pictures that talk, we can’t send them around the world. That’s suicide.”

Way Down East – Mamaroneck filming sets

Next to Way Down East, Griffith’s most important film from his Mamaroneck period was Orphans of the Storm. (1921). For this epic story of the French Revolution, enormous sets depicting eighteenth-century Paris were constructed at Mamaroneck—and Griffith deliberately scheduled the filming of major crowd scenes for weekends in order to use as many of the locals as extras as possible.

Orphans of the Storm – Mamaroneck filming sets

After Orphans of the Storm, however, it was all downhill for the great director, and by 1924 he was forced to abandon independent producing, signing on with Paramount to do pictures at Astoria. That same year, Griffith put his Mamaroneck estate up for sale, and in early 1925 a developer bought most of the property for the purpose of subdividing it.

Today all of the Griffith and Flagler buildings on Orienta Point are gone, and the property—once the site of the French Revolution—is now part of an exclusive, gated community.

Mamaroneck NY Griffith Studios – Orienta Point 1921

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GRIFFITH (Hearts of the World) – Kevin Brownlow 1979

  • The War The West and The Wilderness
  • Kevin Brownlow 1979
  • Alfred A. Knopf – New York


The center of Ypres by 1917 has been so heavily shelled that the cathedral-like Cloth Hall has been blasted to a slender Islamic minaret. The other buildings, too, have been knocked into such extraordinarily delicate fingers of stone that there seems no way for them to remain vertical. Into this chilling scene steps a tall, jaunty figure in a smart tweed suit of English cut, a bow tie—and a tin hat. It is David Wark Griffith, recorded by a British official cameraman on his tour of the front.

Griffith and the Great War 5

The sight of this elegant figure touring the scenes of the battle is like something out of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. Griffith, dressed for a grouse shoot, appears to be on a thoroughly pleasant afternoon outing in the midst of the bloodiest war in history. A group of French soldiers ambles past the camera, some of them turning round to give a surly glance at the lens; Mr. Griffith follows them into the picture. The camera pans as he inspects a half-completed trench. French soldiers are sweating away with shovels. Griffith peers down, grins, makes a little digging gesture, and wanders out of shot. Next, he visits a heavily shelled concrete dugout. He stumbles over the rubble, awkward in his polished shoes, descends into a crater, and disappears into the dugout. Moments later he reappears to signal to the cameraman to cut.

D.W. Griffith in the trenches on the western front

All the scenes have been carefully posed, and at the start of each shot, the participants wait for a moment before jerking into action, as though instructed by a director. Everyone plays the game but Griffith. As the party files through a reserve trench, they all duck their heads. Griffith, however, remains imperiously upright, spoiling a subtitle’s illusion that the enemy is but sixty yards away.

This trip to the front in May 1917 was a result of Griffith’s agreement to make a propaganda film for the British. It is perhaps ironic that Griffith should have traveled to England, ostensibly to attend the premiere of his great pacifist film Intolerance, but actually to make a film to promote the Allied cause. I owe to Russell Merritt the startling information that Griffith had already been approached by the British government before he left for England. Griffith’s own version has always been accepted as the truth: that he happened to be in England when a meeting of “the gifted men of Britain”-Barrie, Wells, Shaw, Bennett, Galsworthy, Chesterton—decided the most effective medium for the Allied nations was not a book or a play but “a drama of humanity, photographed in the battle area.”

Griffith and the Great War 4

The new chairman of the War Office Cinematograph Committee was Lord Beaverbrook, and he had already instilled a more vigorous attitude to film-making among the Official Kinematographers. The idea of inviting Griffith to make a propaganda film was undoubtedly his, and the much-publicized meeting of the authors and playwrights probably a way of deflecting criticism from the fact that the “great director” was not British.

Griffith had left Triangle in March 1917, and a big special was part of his new contract with Adolph Zukor. By coincidence, one of the financiers of Triangle, and formerly of Mutual, was Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, who now moved to back Zukor. Otto Kahn was a close friend of Lord Beaverbrook, and despite being of German extraction, he was a naturalized British citizen who fervently supported the British war effort.

The New York Times leaked the news that Griffith’s plan was to make a motion picture history of the war—on a commission from the Allies that would take him to all the fronts—that would eventually be placed in the archives. This may have been a smoke screen for Beaverbrook’s true intention; he seems to have had a massive propaganda epic on the lines of The Birth of a Nation in mind.

Griffith and the Great War 6

The offer from the British government came at a moment when history had inspired Griffith with a sense of adventure. “In one way, this is indeed a great day to be alive,” he told reporters upon his arrival in Britain. “In another terrible. It is terrible when you see the things you must see and feel the things you must feel. It is the most terrific moment in the history of the world. We used to wish that we could have experienced the days of Caesar and Napoleon. And now incomparably greater times are taking place around us all.”

DW Griffith in France 1917

A special tour of the war zone was arranged for Griffith; he crossed the Channel in a Royal Navy destroyer and made a preliminary inspection of the front. Upon his return to England, he began to set up the production, and cabled to California for Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Robert Harron, and Billy Bitzer.

In London the company stayed at the Savoy Hotel. Billy Bitzer picked up film from Kodak—during an air raid-and then bumped into Lowell Thomas, who was on a similar mission. Thomas explained how hard it was to get film, and Bitzer told him to use his name. Thus the Griffith picture replenished the supplies of the Lowell Thomas operation, and when the two men met again, at a Press Association dinner at the Savoy, Thomas confirmed that the film was still coming through.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

The Gishes and Bobby Harron had raced up to the roof of the Savoy during the raid, and had seen the German planes returning, the pilots waving at the watchers on the roof. Lillian Gish suggested they go out to see the damage, and they discovered that a school in Whitechapel had received a direct hit. “Children and teachers were the victims,” wrote Bitzer. “When you hear the moans of the dying and see their mangled bodies, you realize what it is all about. We thought by getting to work immediately we might forget this scene. But we never did. Griffith, as a Southerner, was fascinated by the aristocracy of England. For a film concerned with the triumph of democracy, Hearts of the World was to have had a surprising amount of footage devoted to society beauties. But Griffith planned another film, Women and the War, to show how the idle rich had thrown themselves energetically behind the war effort.

Griffith introduced to Queen Alexandra 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

Dowager Queen Alexandra made an appearance and among the extras were such friends of Beaverbrook’s as Lady Lavery, Elizabeth Asquith, the Countess of Massarene, Princess Monaco, and Lady Diana Manners. The scenes were shot at Lady Ripon’s estate at Coombe Hill, Kingston, and the Army and Navy Hospital. Griffith sported his finest clothes; Bitzer was astounded at the gap between the classes, and wondered at the complacency of the working class in their support of the aristocracy. The material was eventually used in The Great Love.

Griffith and the Great War 1

Griffith was given facilities to film on Salisbury Plain, the British Army’s central maneuver area, and at Witley and Blackdown, near Aldershot. Official receipts refer to vast numbers of troops and explosives—some of which blew up by accident in storage and were the subject of an army enquiry. According to Griffith, he was also given the opportunity to return to France, with his cast. A somewhat confusing impression of the film’s production has grown up around this fact. Historians have stated that Hearts of the World was actually made at the front.

The front refers specifically to the battle area; the opposing trenches that zigzagged six hundred miles from the English Channel to Switzerland were known as the front lines. The only member of the company permitted to visit the front was Griffith himself, as the Ypres reels testify. Not even his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, was allowed near the place, although he flew to Le Bourget and filmed scenes in Montreuil. The fact that his full name was Johann Gottlieb Wilhelm Bitzer didn’t help, but the army refused to allow photographs to be taken in the war zone except by official cameramen. Griffith was assigned an Official Kinematographer at Ypres, Frank Bassill.

Griffith 50 yards from German trenches – The war, the West, and the wilderness

When he returned to France in October 1917, Griffith was based in Paris, and assigned a cameraman from the Section Cinematographique of the French Army. A great deal of conflicting information has been written about the adventure. Did anyone accompany Griffith? According to Lillian Gish, she, her sister and her mother, and Bobby Harron went over; the French trip was hair-raising, and over the months” the Gish family became highly nervous and lost weight. But Griffith was only in France for a matter of two weeks. Mrs. Gish suffered a serious case of shell shock—was this due to the bombardment in France or to the concussion of the air defense guns situated next to the Savoy Hotel in London? The main location was the village of Ham, near St. Quentin, on the River Somme; Griffith stated that by a strange and unpleasant coincidence, the first scenes of the second act were taken in the village of Ham, “which has only recently fallen again into the hands of the German invader.” Yet just a handful of shots in the surviving versions were taken in France, and only one of them shows a member of the cast (Lillian Gish entering a devastated house). Billy Bitzer states categorically, While it is true many scenes were taken at the battle front by cameramen, I did not go there, and neither did any other member of the company, with the exception of Mr. Griffith.” (However, the Bitzer book is very inaccurate.)

DW Griffith with war correspondents 1918 – France

Griffith later made a statement that, appearing out of context, makes him seem an obsessive, single-minded, and callous man: “Viewed as a drama, the war is in some ways disappointing.” Single-minded Griffith may have been’ but he was not callous. The quote comes from a Photoplay interview with his old friend Harry Carr, war correspondent and future Griffith press agent, and it goes on to say that everything he saw—troop trains moving away to the front, wives parting from husbands they were never to see again—precisely fitted his imagination. “All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them in the pictures for years and years that I found myself absently wondering who was staging the scene.” The front lines were lacking in visual impact. “Everyone is hidden away in ditches. As you look out over No-Man’s Land, there is literally nothing that meets the eye but an aching desolation of nothingness. At first you are horribly disappointed. There is nothing but filth and dirt and the most soul-sickening smells. The soldiers are standing sometimes almost to their hips in ice-cold mud.

Griffith – gas alarm 1918 – The war, the West, and the wilderness

“It is too colossal to be dramatic. No one can describe it. You might as well try to describe the ocean or the milky way. A very great writer could describe Waterloo. But who could describe the advance of Haig? No one saw it. No one saw a thousandth part of it.”

Griffith’s disappointment with the war reflected his inability to capture any more than a fleeting impression of it. By this point, artillery bombardments and mortar shelling occurred intermittently around the clock, but the kind of action Griffith hoped for—”the dash and thrill of wars of other days”—tended to take place at night.

Griffith and the Great War 2

This is pure conjecture, but so much mystery surrounds the film that I feel obliged to make a few assumptions. Once Griffith had realized the difficulty of shooting at the front, he abandoned interest in it. His remarks to Carr suggest that he was justifying to himself his work of reconstruction—the real thing, after all, had proved indistinguishable from his inspired guesswork. There was no respect for documentary per se in those days, therefore why should he not reconstruct all the action scenes at his leisure, when he could lavish his customary care on each scene?

The reason advanced by Griffith for returning to France was to make use of the devastation; yet Russell Merritt has found evidence that the War Office offered Griffith the kind of ruins he needed in England. So why the second trip to France?

DW Griffith shooting a scene from The Great Love 1918

If it was for authentic backgrounds, why did they not appear more often in the final film? Only a few brief shots were taken in France. A cable from Griffith to Zukor refers to $5,000 paid to the French for “facilities,” which may explain why Griffith did not shoot the entire film on the locations described in the story. I put forward the suggestion that the trip to France with the cast was the equivalent of the trip round the trenches; the idea of it gave the film a reputation for authenticity, and a veracity and dignity beyond all other war films. This is supported by the elaborate fiction given out by Griffith and his press agents, for example in a New York Times interview of 14 April 1918, which asserts that Bitzer, George Siegmann, George Fawcett, and the child, Ben Alexander, went to France, which they did not, and which describes the company sheltering from bombardment for four hours in a cellar and becoming the target of an air raid. Lillian Gish, in her book The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, gives as definitive an account of the trip as we are likely to have; she talks of shells falling “close enough to make us nervous.”

Hearts of the World

It is this lurid melodrama that acts as a barrier for modern audiences. George Siegmann’s attempt to rape Lillian Gish seems somewhat less important today than the mass slaughter raging outside. While Siegmann’s behavior would have aroused audiences of 1918 to a pitch of patriotic fury—and we must always remember that people reacted to films in those days far more intensely than we do today—sixty years later audiences are merely amused. But look at the scene. It is actually very cleverly directed. It begins as a game; Siegmann sees his opportunity, locks the door, and has a bit of fun with the girl. He leans back in a chair and traps her tiny figure with his legs. At this point, Siegmann plays the scene amusingly, and his jack- booted horseplay fits his character. He is transformed to door-battering fury not by his inability to rape Miss Gish, but by the more serious matter of enemy infiltration. Bobby Harron, a French soldier in German uniform, has penetrated the building, an officer has been killed, and Siegmann’s desperation is thus dramatically legitimate.

Lillian in the hands of a German … (Hearts of The World)

Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, according to Russell Merritt, was horrified by the scenes of German brutality, and she conveyed her feelings, which undoubtedly coincided with those of her husband, directly to Griffith. He sent a lengthy telegram: “Spent a sleepless night and troubled day, trying to think why the play has made such an effect on you.” He blamed his excesses on the fact that the public was “a very stolid, hard animal to move or impress. We must hit hard to touch them.” Nevertheless, he agreed to eliminate a couple of scenes so that his film would “hit the masses” but would not offend “the refined and sensitive spirits such as yourself. Otherwise I shall be a very disappointed, broken individual, for my hopes and my work and prayers have been so bound up in this that, unless it is pleasing in your household, I feel that everything has been in vain.” Mrs. Wilson’s criticism evidently led to the reshooting of the scene in which the German soldier whipped Lillian Gish.

Lillian Gish witnessing her mother’s death in the Hearts of The World

Griffith must have been particularly hurt by Mrs. Wilson’s reaction since he despised the pro-war propaganda pictures and was aiming at a much more elevated kind of film. Melodrama apart, the picture has some admirable scenes. Griffith never falls into the trap of romanticizing war. There are no false heroics, and the horrors of war are shown as powerfully as possible. “War’s gift to the common people” declares a title before scenes of panic and evacuation in the village. Lillian Gish’s old father refuses to leave his home. A shell explodes on the house. When Miss Gish rushes back to search for him, Griffith makes us flinch, even today, with a brief flash of the old man’s body-blown in half. And the audience has to share Lillian Gish’s agony at the death of her mother-a most moving performance- and her delirious state when she celebrates what should have been her wedding night. She finds out where Bobby Harron’s company has been fighting, and by the light of the moon, she runs out to join him. When she finds him, he is apparently dead. Wrapping herself in her wedding dress against the cold, she gently presses her body against his and joins him in sleep.

Hearts of The World – Lillian Gish with the girl’s most precious possession – her wedding dress

It is the sense of authenticity that makes the film so compelling, and yet there is very little that is authentic. The village is compounded of parts of Stanton, near Broadway, Worcestershire, and Shere, in Surrey, together with back-lot construction in Hollywood (on the old Intolerance set). The close-combat scenes resemble Gettsysburg more than Verdun. Worse still, the child, Benny Alexander, remains the same age throughout the entire four years of war. But for much of the film, it takes an expert to distinguish the reconstruction from the actuality material. Griffith included documentary scenes that are now beyond price. Almost shyly, he begins the film with a title begging the audience’s indulgence for his unusual prologue. “It has no possible interest except to vouch for the rather unusual event of an American producer being allowed to take pictures on an actual battlefield.” Griffith is shown in the trench at Cambrin, and at Number io Downing Street; Lloyd George shakes Griffith’s hand, wishing him “great success for his picture.” (He was actually saying goodbye on the day Griffith left for the United States!) “Apologies and thanks,” says a title. “The picture follows.”

Hearts Of The World Press Book – The Bride Gish – searching on the battlefield for her lover (Robert Harron)

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Louis B. Mayer, Merchant of Dreams – by Charles Higham (1993)

Merchant of Dreams

Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood


  • Copyright © 1993 by Charles Higham
  • DONALD I. FINE, INC. New York

1914 – 1917

Mayer had discovered that his fellow Mason, D. W. Griffith, had created a masterpiece in his new motion picture The Birth of a Nation. He was determined to be its sole distributor in New England. The film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as avenging angels, treated blacks patronizingly and exhibited a simpleminded view of the issues of the Civil War. But it was a triumph of cinematic construction and execution, and it promised to make colossal sums of money. Just seven days after Metro was formed, the trade papers reviewed the picture in terms which could only be encouraging to any exhibitor.

Mayer contacted the film’s backers and made an across-the-board deal for regional distribution. With the lawyer David Stoneman, his old friend the rug merchant Colman Levin, jewelers and paper-bag manufacturers, and even his secretary, who gave her life savings of $1,000, he scraped up part of the money by selling (he told Lillian Gish years later) or pawning everything he owned, including Margaret’s jewelry, cleaning out his savings and borrowing from his brothers and sister. He made a down payment of $20,000 on a $50,000 guarantee against a remittance of ten percent of the net profits received from local bookings. It took chutzpah to embark on this venture; there were threats of demonstrations against the picture in New England, but Mayer knew that this controversy would further enhance people’s desire to see it. He was busy dealing with the NAACP, headed in Boston by Moorfield Storey, which was bombarding virtually every home and office in the city with pamphlets condemning the picture. He traveled restlessly between his home in Brookline, his new offices at 60 Church Street in Boston, his apartment at Riverside Drive and his offices on Times Square, trying to deal with a hundred matters at once.

Mayer made at least $500,000 on the film. By late summer of 1915, several stars were under contract to Metro, most notably Quality Pictures’ Francis X. Bushman, who had begun his career as a sculptor’s model. In March 1912, Motion Picture Story magazine had named Bushman, then twenty-eight, the most popular screen actor in America. Vain, extravagant, this Adonis rejoiced in driving hand-tooled touring cars with gold door handles, his monogram inscribed in gold plates on the doors. He owned Bush Manor, a thirty-room mansion on 115 acres of gardens in Maryland. He had racing stables, kennels and a large collection of birds.

1924 – 1925

April 14 was a day of celebration. Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian Gish, arguably the greatest screen actress of her day, was given a lavish welcome at the studio. Mayer arranged for her to be greeted with flags and multicolored bunting; he and the other executives, Thalberg, Harry Rapf, Eddie Mannix and a new addition, thirty-year-old supervisor Hunt Stromberg, personally welcomed her. Her contract called for a total of $800,000 to be paid to her. She would have the right to select directors, stories and script writers; if she disapproved of costumes, she was permitted to reject them.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1925

Such an arrangement was unique in Louis B. Mayer’s career, but, quite apart from Lillian Gish’s enormous power at the box office, he had never forgotten the fact that The Birth of a Nation, in which she had so admirably starred, had been the foundation of his personal fortune. Indeed, when she had visited Los Angeles the previous winter for the West Coast premiere of her film Romola, Mayer greeted her at the station with a reminder that she had played a crucial role in putting him on the motion picture map.

Lillian Gish and her lawyer Max Steuer – the Duell trial in 1925

She was much troubled at the time; an unscrupulous lawyer, Charles H. Duell, was suing her, claiming he had an exclusive contract for her services. On April 2, Judge Julian W. Mack of the Superior Court of New York had dismissed Duell’s claims following a harrowing court hearing, and had him arrested on a charge of perjury. The next few months would be marked by further hearings, which would seriously affect Miss Gish’s sense of well-being. But, made of finest steel under her delicate Victorian surface, Miss Gish, at last, would triumph.

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

Shortly before Miss Garbo arrived in Hollywood, Lillian Gish was hard at work on King Vidor’s next picture, La Boheme, based more on the stories by Henri Murger than on Puccini’s popular opera. There was trouble from the beginning. Miss Gish, who had selected Vidor as her director after seeing The Big Parade, insisted on principles of work that were quite foreign to the director. When she announced that she expected to rehearse the film in full, Vidor, puzzled, since he was not directing a stage play, mocked up some scenery with Cedric Gibbons for her to act against. She looked at it aghast and announced that she would only rehearse out of doors, on the studio lawn. With tourists, actors and personnel watching in astonishment, she mimed her way through the scenes, playing to invisible props, including a dressing table, a truckle bed, a window and a wall. Vidor was bewildered; he couldn’t understand what she was doing. Finally, he talked her into working indoors.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

Mayer and Thalberg backed him in this. They also supported him when he argued with her about the sort of portrait lighting she wanted, with long, static close-ups. Miss Gish also demanded the use of panchromatic film, which had never been handled by the studio before. She objected to Erte’s calico dresses for the impoverished heroine Mimi, insisting on using old, worn silk and running up the clothes herself at home. She clashed with Cedric Gibbons, demanding a sordid attic in place of the lavish house he had wanted for Mimi. The worst problem was John Gilbert, cast as Mimi’s lover in the picture. He began writing her love letters; he tried to kiss her behind the scenes, when she declined to allow kissing sequences in the film. Mayer overrode her decision; he added kissing scenes later. Locked in her court struggle with Duell, who was claiming, to be her fiance, Miss Gish did not want a scandal and refused to date Gilbert. To make matters more complicated, King Vidor also tried to seduce her, but she was unattainable always. Mayer was fascinated by Miss Gish’s devotion to her work. She made no complaint when, in one sequence, actors playing Paris street revelers tossed her over their heads like a rag doll. In order to give complete realism to her death scene, she starved herself for three days. She stuffed cotton in her mouth to give the impression of puffy, unhealthy cheeks; when she passed away, she seemed already to be a ghost. Mayer, who never applauded at a preview, wept and clapped and embraced Miss Gish when he saw the finished film in the screening room. Until the advent of Marie Dressier, she was his favorite actress: the embodiment of his dream of innocent, ideal womanhood.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish, 1926 – the last scene

Miss Gish was among the stars present on October 1, 1925, to see the long-delayed shooting of the Ben-Hur chariot race. For days before, J. J. Cohn and Eddie Mannix had tested the course by driving their own chariots around, almost turning them over as they negotiated the curves. Not only did virtually every player on the M.G.M. lot dress up in Roman costume to join the throng on the Cedric Gibbons set, but Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Mrs. Fred Niblo (Enid Bennett) and John and Lionel Barrymore were there.

1925 – 1926

Mayer was in many ways still a young boy at heart, for all his ruthless capacity to weed out weak sisters from the studio operation, and his temperamental inability to deal with unreliability, bad temper and bad manners. Because his emotions were open and untrammeled he could reach out to the hearts of his performers, and they could reach out to him. Actors like John Gilbert and Mae Murray were the prodigal children. Lillian Gish, of course, satisfied him, though she had less rapport with him than with Irving Thalberg, because of his well-lettered sensibility and middle-brow intellect. Following La Boheme, she had wanted to start immediately with a version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s controversial novel The Scarlet Letter, the story of a minister who commits adultery with a beautiful woman. Mayer informed her that the book was blacklisted by members of organizations protective of public decency.

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

Miss Gish, with her customary boldness, wrote to each and every organization he named, insisting that this classic work should be brought to the screen. They responded immediately, telling Miss Gish that they trusted her to handle the material. Mayer at once agreed, and allowed Miss Gish to import from Sweden Lars Hanson, who had costarred with Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Bjerling, for the leading role opposite her. Mayer agreed with Miss Gish that Victor Sjostrom should direct the film.

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

Just before the picture ended, Miss Gish’s mother suffered a stroke in London. Mayer was moved to tears, remembering his mother’s final illness and the desperate rush he had had to get to Canada in time. He agreed that Miss Gish should go, and the picture was completed in seventy-two hours of nonstop shooting. So tight was the schedule that Miss Gish had to catch the train, after an all-night shoot, still dressed as Hester Prynne. It is typical of Mayer’s extraordinary consideration for this great star that he insisted on seeing her off, with Thalberg and Harry Rapf, at the Pasadena station. Her mother recovered, and Miss Gish returned. Her protracted lawsuit with Charles Duell continued; Duell blackmailed Miss Gish and threatened her life, but she still managed to do pickup shots. When The Scarlet Letter opened in August, it was an immediate success, one of the finest pictures M.G.M. ever made.

ANNIE LAURIE, Norman Kerry (links), Lillian Gish (Mitte), Direktor John S. Robertson, am Set, 1927

There was also yet another argument involving Lillian Gish, who demanded that Norman Kerry should act opposite her in her new film, Annie Laurie. Mayer wanted an unknown youth called Peter Norris, just out of the University of Southern California, to play the role. Miss Gish was adamant that she would accept no one but Kerry, and she complained about the script, despite the fact that she herself had approved it. Finally, she won her point, and Kerry was cast. But the film was a failure, and she would never discuss it afterward.

1927 – 1928

There were setbacks during the shooting of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind in 120 degrees of heat in the Mojave Desert. Mayer was unable to visit the site; he sent Irving Thalberg in his place. Playing a pioneer woman, the star, Lillian Gish, was shown with the force of nine airplane propellers driving sand in her face and hair; Thalberg cruelly added sawdust. He insisted on smoke pots, the cinders of which burned off Miss Gish’s eyelashes and scarred her hands. Herself a perfectionist, the actress put up with everything. Mayer did not like the movie when he saw the daily rushes, predicting doom for it and for the star. He turned out to be correct commercially, because the movie was too depressing, but he was shortsighted artistically, because The Wind turned out to be one of the masterpieces of the screen.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
Merchant of dreams

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Lillian Gish As She Is … (Ross 1920)

Lillian Gish As She Is To Those Who Know Her

Ross Publishing Co. NY 1920

“I am so glad of this opportunity to talk with all my fan friends,” laughed Lillian Gish. “I is a treat to tell you all of my real thoughts, and how I actually live, instead of having people judge me by my expression on the motion picture screen, I hope you’ll find that I am not the ‘tragic flower’ the magazines say I am. First of all, I am not frail.”

“My engagement for motion pictures was quite by accident. Years ago Mary Pickford and her mother, and Dorothy, Mother, and myself shared an apartment in New York City as a matter of economy. Mary secured an engagement with the Biograph Company and one day out of curiosity I went down to the studio to see her work. Mr. Griffith was directing a picture at the time. He saw both Dorothy and myself and evidently thought we might become successful screen players.”

She is a girl of nature, loves flowers, particularly roses, and can be seen almost any day trimming the vines and hedges or raking the grass about her home. She has been called the “delicate flower” in the Griffith tapestries, but she is probably one of the most self-sustaining bodies in filmdom. She needs no helping hand to change her costumes and house dresses.

  • “The Little Movie Mirror Books” featuring Lillian Gish.
  • NEW YORK 1920

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Mother of Miss Gish (Chicago Tribune 1941)

Mother of Miss Gish

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) · 10 January 1941, Friday · Page 17

Probably the last Christmas tree in Chicago to be taken down is that of Miss Lillian Gish, in her apartment at the Blackstone hotel. The tree, hung with ornaments and webbed in silver mist, the holly wreaths, the Christmas angels on the mantelpiece, and the Christmas candles go down today with the departure of Mrs. Gish for New York after a holiday visit with her daughter here in her long run of Life With Father.

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

Mrs. Gish, who with her dazzling white hair and deep blue eyes is reminiscent of a Dresden figurine, is an invalid as a result of shell shock in the world war, when she accompanied her daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, to the war area, where they made propaganda pictures under the direction of David Wark Griffith. She lost 35 pounds during the stay in the war zone, and has been invalided ever since.

Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England on the first boat to cross the Atlantic after America had declared war, the St. Louis. Dorothy Gish sailed later on the Baltic, the same boat that carried Gen. Pershing and his staff overseas, and took 13 days to do it.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

“Think of any one having the courage to face the movie camera,” the commander of the A.E.F. said to Miss Gish.

Lillian Gish – Hearts of the World

The Gishes were in London during two months of heavy bombardment. In September they sailed for France on a troop transport that started out twice and returned because of floating mines. Griffith had gone ahead to get into production, and when the two Gish girls arrived with their mother they went into the war area and made pictures in trenches and beyond the barbed wire. During their stay in Paris they lived with a French family in a bomb shelter, and learned to tell by the sound of the motors overhead what kind of plane and which country’s it was. The pictures made were Hearts of the World, The Greatest Thing in Life, and The Great Love. Remember?

Hearts of the World program – Little Disturber

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Gish Sisters & Company – By Marjorie Wright (The Photoplay Journal for May, 1917)

The Photoplay Journal for May, 1917

Gish Sisters & Company

The Company Being Their Very Helpful Mother

By Marjorie Wright

A TRIO that means much to Triangle—Lillian and Dorothy Gish and their mother! Not only does this one-family constellation of stars mean much to Triangle, but it contributes much toward the perpetuity of the happiness of thousands of photoplay fans throughout filmdom. At the beautiful Ruth St. Denis home in Los Angeles this interesting little family lives the lives of cultured gentlewomen, devoting themselves to their profession and bringing to it the highest artistic endeavor. The result is that the Gish girls, though young in years, have long since become established as prime favorites. Lillian Gish is more of a student and a dreamer, being given to secluding herself while she thinks out her part and costumes it according to her own lines. She is of a delicate, almost ethereal style of beauty.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Dorothy Gish, the younger, is an outdoors girl, full of life and high spirits, she going in for all outdoor sports in which she excels. Both girls are devoted to their mother, and are her constant companions. To Mrs. Gish is due the credit of the successful artistic careers of her daughters, as she has personally instructed them since they were tiny girls.

It is good to know that that old superstition about only one really brilliant member of a family appearing in the same generation, is not true. Lillian and Dorothy Gish disprove it. Ever since they began work for the Triangle programme, they have been stars of equal magnitude. One of the most interesting facts about these two sisters, who have won so many admirers throughout the nation, is that off the screen they are precisely like any other sweet American girls untouched by fame. That, however, is where their resemblance to each other ceases. Temperamentally they are as unlike as any two respectable persons could be.

Lillian Gish and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

Lillian is a girl of the old-fashioned kind. She loves sewing and cooking, and can undertake general housekeeping if necessary, which, of course, it never will be. Dorothy is a woman of the future. Joyously impractical, her imagination is just one riot of poetic fancy. Dorothy is at once the delight and distraction of her sweet-faced mother and sister. All three are great chums ; and their evenings together, after work at the studio has been completed for the day, are sacred to them. One would no sooner think of breaking into that charmed circle than—than in walking on the grass when the sign says not to. Dorothy began her dramatic career at the age of four—she is not yet out of her teens—playing little Willie in “East Lynne.” She often has regretted in late seasons that she made so many persons cry through her portrayal of that famous role. After “East Lynne,” she appeared chiefly in melodrama, but presently she entered a school in Virginia, remaining there five years. Then she was engaged by D. W. Griffith, who took her with him through several motion picture companies to the Triangle programme. She has been seen there in “Old Heidelberg,” “Jordan is a Hard Road,” “Betty of Graystone,” “Little Meena’s Romance” and “Susan Rocks the Boat.”

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Mother

Lillian Gish, the elder sister, made her debut when only six years old, in a melodrama called “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” She then became a pupil in a Springfield dancing school, and her next engagement was as one of the fairy dancers with Sarah Bernhardt, who then was making one of her American tours. After two seasons with Mme, Bernhardt, Lillian went to New York to finish her dancing lessons. There she renewed her old acquaintance with Mary Pickford and went with her to visit a picture studio. There she was seen by D. W. Griffith, who was attracted by her natural poise and expression, and he placed her under contract at once. Since joining Triangle, she has appeared in “The Lily and the Rose,” “Daphne and the Pirate,” “Sold Marriage” and “An Innocent Magdalene.” This Miss Gish has two hobbies — collecting rare old books, mainly on ancient history, and playing golf. She is a keen student of literature, and she can discuss manner master. She always arranges her affairs each week so systematically as to permit of a certain number of hours to be devoted exclusively to reading. Needless to add, there are thousands of fine volumes in her library, and she prizes every one of them to the highest degree. She plays the piano delightfully and displays enough aptitude to make one wonder why she has never thought of achieving fame as a pianist. However, her sole idea in playing the piano is to add credibly to the entertainment in her own family circle.

Meanwhile Dorothy Gish has hobbies too. She loves motoring and drives her own car dexterously, and ’tis said often precariously in her zeal to have excitement. She is likewise an expert horsewoman, and she is ruled by an extreme kindness towards all dumb animals. When it comes to aquatic sports, she is immensely capable and she can stand a good endurance test in swimming at any time.

“We love our mother and our art, and we never worry,” Dorothy says. “I am sure as long as anyone remains in this sort of attitude happiness will be a permanent consort.”

“And I think the motion picture has been the cause of our greatest joz in life just as it has served the same purpose with thousands of other people,” Lillian supplements.

“My girls believe in rather a close corporation so far as family life is concerned, but they do derive unlimited pleasure from the realization that they are helping to lighten the burdens of humanity by their artistry on the screen,” Mrs, Gish chimes in pleasantly.

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

Needless to add, there are thousands of ardent photoplay fans who swear by the Gish sisters, and they will all no doubt be glad to learn that mother counts for so much. Indeed, mankind always likes to have mother exert her potential and beneficial influence over the affairs of mankind. It is all in accordance with our most exalted ideals.

Finally, the future of the Gish sisters is replete with possibilities of greater accomplishments than their noteworthy past has brought and throughout their careers—while you are watching their delightful performances on the screen—just always remember that everything they do, both professionally and in private life, is more under the direction of their mother than under any picture director.

“To mother we owe everything, and her instruction is the supreme court with us,” Dorothy explains.

“And if either of us do good work in portraying characters, please give the full credit to mother,” Lillian adds.

All hail the successful firm of Gish Sisters & Company!

And, remember, photoplay fans, while you are watching these girls perform on a screen, you are seeing the results of a mother’s set ambition.

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Lillian Gish, taking her mother to hospital (Chicago Tribune – 1927)

Chicago Tribune – Tuesday, August 23, 1927 – Page 3

Lillian Gish, taking her mother to hospital

Lillian Gish, movie star, was in Chicago for an hour an forty minutes yesterday while she changed from the Chief limited from Los Angeles to the 20th Century for New York. She was taking her mother, Mrs. Mary Gish, to a New York hospital. Mrs. Gish is suffering from a blood clot on her brain which has made her speechless and her right side is paralyzed.

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Lillian Gish’s Protest against Racism in US – Chicago Tribune, Apr. 28, 1940

Contralto Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939
Contralto Marian Anderson – Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939

Marian Anderson (February 27, 1897 – April 8, 1993) was an American singer of classical music and spirituals. Music critic Alan Blyth said: “Her voice was a rich, vibrant contralto. Anderson became an important figure in the struggle for black artists to overcome racial prejudice in the United States. On 9 April 1939, Marian Anderson stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”. A crowd of 75,000 listened to her, and millions more tuned in on the radio. She sang where she did because she had been refused the use Constitution Hall by its owners. Marian was black, and the owners had a white-artists-only clause.

Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois)28 Apr 1940, SunPage 58 - New
Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) 28 Apr 1940, Sun Page 58

Lillian Gish, of “Life With Father,” resigned from the D.A.R.. along with her mother and sister, when Marian Anderson, the great Negro contralto, was not permitted to appear in Constitution Hall, the D.A.R. auditorium in Washington, D.C. Miss Gish explains her resignation with a beautifully classic turn: “I don’t quite know what we were doing in the organization in the first place.”


This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who starred in Birth of A Nation (as Elsie Stoneman – a nurse) when she was 22 years old. An actress who supported her mother and sister when their father left them, in a time when film was considered cheap amusement meant for entertaining a county fair crowd. Theatre actors were ashamed then to act in “flicker shows.”

This was the real Lillian Gish. An artist who fought against war (any war), to spare American lives and to protect American families from destruction.

Gish Film Theater Plaque

And THIS IS THE NAME – so called “Task Force” decided to remove from the Film Theater at Bowling Green University Ohio (BGSU). I sincerely wish that their “management” will read this article written by an European based 10.000 miles away from United States.

Kindly access the link below to read the whole Gish Film Theater saga. In the left column there is the whole story composed from selected articles written by David Dupont, and in the right column there are all the declarations, letters and desperate appeals made then by the brave few who tried to defend Lillian Gish’s memory. I wish to emphasize that all these declarations and letters to BGSU management were written long before James Earl Jones, Helen Mirren, Martin Scorsese, Malcolm McDowell and Lauren Hutton’s protest against dishonoring Lillian Gish’s name.


Ditch The Gish (The sad story of Gish Film Theater)


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