“Do They Criticize Me?’ – By Madeline Glass (Picture Play Magazine – November 1926)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1926 Vol. XXV No.3

“Do They Criticize Me?’

So questions Lillian Gish, gently, when given an opportunity to explain her interpretation of Mimi in La Boheme

By Madeline Glass

IS Lillian Gish a great actress or merely a mechanical technician ? Is she unable to act for any one except D. W. Griffith ? Is she a genius too subtle for general appreciation? ***

These questions have for several years been hotly debated by fans and critics wherever motion pictures flourish. No actress on the screen provokes such widely differing opinions as Lillian Gish. Men like George Jean Nathan, Joseph Hergesheimer and John Barrymore have extolled her histrionic qualities, yet others whose names are less imposing but whose judgment is, perhaps, more reliable, scoff at her alleged genius and her tacit acceptance of the name bestowed upon her by her admirers—”the Bernhardt of the screen.”

Lillian Gish 1926
Lillian Gish 1926

A few years ago, Lillian was generally regarded as the finest actress in motion pictures. Her work in “Broken Blossoms” established her as a great tragedienne. Later she appeared to excellent advantage in “Way Down East.” Her characterization in that picture was superb, containing as it did exquisite interludes of pathos and several instances of towering emotionalism. At that time D. W. Griffith’s morbid predilection for depicting frail virtue at the mercy of brutal man kept Lillian continually playing persecuted heroines. After leaving Griffith’s guiding hand she made “The White Sister,” which was well received by the public, but which won only lukewarm praise from the press. Then came “Romola,” an expensive and highly pretentious picture, but a dismal failure financially and artistically. Such histrionic honors as it contained were captured by Lillian’s sister, Dorothy. And after the release of “La Boheme,” Miss Gish’s standing as an artist seemed to suffer a great deal. Critics dealt with her so harshly that I determined to seek her out and, if nothing else, offer condolence. I had read somewhere an article which quoted her as saying that she never allowed anything but finest silk to touch her skin. Which is all well and good. But, somehow, I vaguely resented it. It suggested ostentation. Then I remembered having seen her wear silk stockings while playing poor orphans and peasant girls. Could that delicate, angelic face possibly conceal a naughty nature ? Writers never tire of comparing Lillian’s beauty with virginal lilies and the Madonna, the assumption being that her character matches her face. Still, even a superficial analysis proves the fallacy of judging persons solely by the perfection of their features. We all meet at times fine, benevolent individuals who, if judged by their appearance, would be hanged without a trial. But, at any rate, Lillian has long been my favorite actress and when the studio clerk announced that she was ready to receive me I put all critical thoughts from my mind, and went forward eagerly. A few minutes’ walk through a labyrinth of hallways and miniature streets brought me to her dressing rooms. Before the maid could offer me a chair the silk curtains across the room opened and Lillian began to enter. I say began to enter advisedly. First came the lowered head bearing a graceful burden of bright, high-piled hair and a tall coronet of stiff gold lace. Then the pale face, with its large gray eyes and delicate chin, appeared. Next came the snugly dressed upper torso and arms, and last the enormous brocaded skirt which, once through the narrow door, spread about in gorgeous profusion, seeming to half fill the tiny room. Quickly the lovely figure stood erect and advanced, extending a white, blue-veined hand.

Annie Laurie crop1b

One’s first impression of Lillian Gish is her very definite air of gentle, nineteenth-century decorum. There is ladylike grace and precision in all her movements. When the usual greetings were over I remarked about the striking medieval costume. “This dress weighs fifteen pounds.” said she, in her nice, deliberate voice. “It is a seventeenth-century model. When I was in London recently I visited museums and studied dresses of that period. The material in them is much heavier than in this—they really stand alone.” “No wonder the houses in those days were built as large as the Mammoth Cave,” I observed. “The women must have required a lot of -room.” “Yes,” said Lillian. “It wasn’t necessary for them to take up outdoor sports. They got enough exercise carrying their clothes about.”

Lillian Gish - still frame2 - Annie Laurie
Lillian Gish – still frame – Annie Laurie

She spoke with delicate enthusiasm about her new picture, which is based on the famous song, “Annie Laurie.” Before our conversation had progressed very far she was wanted on the set, so the maid and I helped her gather up her trailing garments to depart. At the corner of one of the buildings Lillian and I halted while the maid went in search of a car. Presently Mae Murray came along and stopped to exclaim over Lillian’s costume. Mae, you know, is a recent bride and while she and Miss Gish engaged in brief discussion of real estate, Robert Leonard, Mae’s ex-husband, also recently remarried, walked by smiling pleasantly, and bowed to the three of us. In a few minutes Mae left us and a limousine rolled up for Lillian’s use. With the aid of every one present she got in, and made room for me. Dressed as she was, the heat must have been most unpleasant, yet she voiced no complaint. Every one on the set seemed cheerful. Courtesy and affability were constantly in evidence. Occasionally an actor or actress from one of the other stages dropped in for a brief call. Finally Ramon Novarro appeared, wearing an ill-fitting suit and a pleased expression. (He has discarded his mustache — thank Heaven !) After two hours I was beginning to grow uneasy. Lillian had been too busy to talk except for momentary intervals, and although I was enjoying myself immensely I did not forget the object of my visit. Lillian had been gone from the set for some time, but presently returned garbed in a less extreme dress and wearing a fetching blue cap which, with the golden curls, made her look very lovely. She led me away from the disturbing set to a property room near by. There were no chairs, but Lillian approached an iron bedstead and sitting down upon the springs spread her abundant skirts as a sort of makeshift cushion for me. After some preliminary small talk I mentioned, as tactfully as I knew how, the subject of criticism, both professional and “fanesque.” To my surprise, she did not seem particularly interested. So I tried again by bravely suggesting that her Mimi in “La Boheme” had not received as much praise as some of her other characterizations. She answered then—and I nearly fell off the bed.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

“Has some one been criticizing me?” she inquired. Under the circumstances her question was as astonishing as if she had looked at the Pacific Ocean and asked, “Is it wet?” Growing suddenly uncomfortable I wondered what explanation I could make. Perhaps I should not have mentioned the subject. When ignorance is bliss.

“What have they been saying about me ?” she insisted.

Hard pressed for an answer, I finally mentioned certain reputable critics who had found fault with her interpretation of Merger’s heroine.

“Yes, I remember reading those reviews,” said she. “A criticism,” she continued, “is merely one person’s opinion. For years I had wanted to play Mimi—not as Murger described her but as she is in Puccini’s opera. Our picture is based on the opera, not the story, and I feel that I portrayed Mimi very faithfully. Music lovers have praised the characterization highly. The heroine of Murger’s story was a promiscuous woman and I do not think a woman of that character could have inspired Rodolphe to write a great play. For that reason the Puccini version is the more logical of the two. We tried to depict an ideal romance, a great, spiritual love, and I think we succeeded. If I had wanted to play a naughty lady I would have chosen Camille” Her manifest lack of resentment toward ‘her critics confounded me. I wondered then I and I have wondered ever since whether her attitude is due to superb mental and emotional control or to polite disdain of the opinions of others. She sat quietly toying with the folds of her dress, betraying no sign of annoyance or concern. There was one other subject I felt I had to broach. For several years Miss Gish has been called by her admirers “the Bernhardt of the screen.” This lavish compliment has at last produced a discordant reaction. Even her fans are beginning to question the fitness of the sobriquet. Although Lillian has never publicly commented on the subject I felt that she might welcome an opportunity to clear up the delicate misunderstanding by denying any claim to Bernhardt’s mantle of glory. “Do you not think, Miss Gish,” I asked, “that your admirers have done you an unintentional injury by repeatedly calling you ‘the Bernhardt of the screen ?'” A profound silence ensued. Lillian merely regarded me with her lovely, questioning eyes as if she did not quite understand.

“Possibly,” I suggested, encouragingly, “some people resent the—ah—compliment ”

“Perhaps they do,” said Lillian, gently, and there the matter ended. I had hoped she would disclaim the honor or treat the matter as a jest, but as she did neither I was left to conclude that she accepted the tribute as her just desert. A fault often found with Miss Gish is her inability to play a variety of roles. It occurred to me that if she could put aside her excessive refinement long enough to submerge herself, mind, body, and soul (without the adornment of silk stockings), in a vigorous, rough-and-ready character, her versatility would be proven and her critics silenced. So I ventured to inquire if she had ever considered playing Sadie Thompson in “Rain.”

“That is a marvelous character,” said she. “Dorothy would just love to play her. But I can’t imagine any one playing her better than Jeanne Eagles.” She had not really answered my question, so I abandoned that subject and made some reference to censorship.

“Segregation is the only method of regulating screen plays,” said she. “It is hopeless, ruinous, to attempt to make every picture suitable for children. Mothers should select their children’s motion pictures the same as they select their reading matter. No one can successfully relieve them of this responsibility. My own mother would have considered it the height of impudence for any one to tell her what her children could or could not see.

“I seldom go to picture shows,” she remarked. “I am too tired to sit through the endless prologues. I hope the time will soon come when we will have theaters that show pictures exclusively. Then people who go to enjoy the film will not have to endure a series of stage presentations.” To which I heartily agreed. It was time for Lillian to return to the set, so the interview had to end. At parting she held my hand for a moment, saying rather apologetically, “I’m afraid I didn’t give you a very good story.” I assured her that she had and thanked her for the interview. She is a lovable girl in spite of her enigmatical qualities.

Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

*** Admin Note: Miss Madeline Glass (author of above interview) most definitely knew about James R. Quirk’s article published in March 1926 in Photoplay. MGM’s “hangman” wrote again pouring poison from his plume “Lillian Gish – The Enigma of the Screen,” where second and third headline were “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?” and “Is she a genius or a mechanic?”. Possibly Miss Gish was aware of Quirk’s attack, masking her discontent with icy cold indifference. Louise Brooks unveiled MGM’s blackmail policy in hers “Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars” (Sight and Sound London 1959). Brooks noticed as well James R. Quirk’s attacks targeting MGM Star “mutineers.”

Lillian Gish, The Enigma of the Screen – By James R. Quirk (Photoplay 1926)

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

 

Do they criticize me - Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)
Do they criticize me – Picture-Play Magazine (Nov 1926)

 

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The Paradoxical Ronald Colman – By Helen Klumph (Picture Play Magazine – 1926)

Ronald Colman - candid

Picture Play Magazine – Volume XXIII February 1926 No. 6

The Paradoxical Mr. Colman

It isn’t possible for an actor to succeed without the tricks or traits of a Barnum, wiseacres say, but Ronald Colman has done that very thing.

By Helen Klumph

ANY old stager can tell you what it is that sets a sensationally successful actor apart from his fellows—showmanship. “It’s like this,” the seasoned veteran told me who has seen them come and go. “You get a job by the grace of good luck, and the public finds out that you’re alive. From then on, you concentrate on never letting them forget it. The more different you can be from any one else in the game, the easier you’ll be to remember. You can raise trained seals in your opalescent swimming pool, cable to the royal tailor of Afghanistan for all your costumes, or always wear a good-luck charm presented to you by the dying Khedive of Egypt. You just can’t be normal. Write lurid love poems, wear the largest black pearl in the world, or always take vour pet horse everywhere with you, but don’t ever be inconspicuous. That’s death to an actor.” As his oratorical flight died down, I asked quietly, “But what about Ronald Colman ?”

Ronald Colman and Marie Prevost - Tarnish 1924
Ronald Colman and Marie Prevost – Tarnish 1924

For a moment he was baffled, but the old stager can explain anything. “Either that boy’s smart, or he’s a fool for luck,” he assured me. “He probably knows that the most surprising thing in the world is an actor who isn’t surprising. He’s got everybody interested by not doing any of the fool things other actors have done.” That’s his explanation, but I prefer my own. Ronald Colman has never indulged in any of the tricks of a Barnum to bring himself before the public because such a course would never occur to him. He happens to have been born a gentleman. That his appearances on the screen have developed a huge fan following, made up in part of highly sentimental women, is an accident that he himself does not seem to understand. Other actors have put up an argument when talking to me. They have told me that the whole machinery of public life was distasteful to them, but necessary. They must feel a little hagrined to see Ronald Colman rising to almost unparalleled success on the screen without ever having departed from his quiet mode of life. He isn’t a star athlete—he doesn’t implore the public to give him their sympathy and understanding on the plea that it is the very breath of life to him—he doesn’t even give out interviews telling about his ideal woman or the psychology of love.

Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, and Marie Prevost in Tarnish (1924)
Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, and Marie Prevost in Tarnish (1924)

“Haven’t you ever suffered for your art?” I asked him, knowing well that the question would make him squirm. I had finally cornered him f or an interview after some two years of trying.

“I’m suffering now,” he told me, with entire conviction. “You’re trying so hard to make this a businesslike interview when I had looked forward to a pleasant luncheon.” Don’t think that my two years of effort were wasted on broken appointments and futile seeking. I had met Mr. Colman many times, for he is courteous and punctilious about anything connected with his work—or with anything else I dare say. I just hadn’t been able to drive him into any admissions about himself. And so, I am going to foreet for the moment that Ronaid Colman is an actor who should have some burning message to give to the public. I want to tell you about the Ronald Colman I know—a charming, companionable young man who seems wholeheartedly interested in life and amused by it. The first time I met him was just after he had made “The White Sister” in Italy with Lillian Gish.

He confided to me then that if he had a lot of money he would get a little house in Italy and live there pleasantly and indolently. “Life is so beautiful and complete there,” he said, “that it never occurs to yon that you should be useful. Italy is perfect—you can’t add anything to it.” The next time was in Hollywood where he had acquired something of the insouciant, playtime air of the studio. When some fifty or more clubwomen visited the studio, eager for a glimpse of the romantic and intense young actor who had entranced not a few of them, he busied himself with the lights and was passed by as just one more electrician. Asked by one of them where she could find Mr. Colman, he looked bewildered and assured her he had never heard of him. Little things do not disturb his poise. When Florence Vidor and I developed a passion for riding on scenic railways, he went with us and endured our hilarious shrieks as we alternately soared and plunged. He even seemed to enjoy it. Later, in a nickel dance hall at an amusement park, we kidded him about his dignity until he vowed that he would make the bouncer throw him out. But the most obstreperous dance steps he could invent failed to attract that individual’s attention. Recognizing the screen star, he merely became a little more pompous, as though impressed with the swell trade his establishment had attracted. It was after he had made “Stella Dallas” and “Mrs. Windermere’s Fan”—just at the time when “The Dark Angel” was drawing enthusiastic crowds to a Broadway theater—that he came to New York for a brief holiday and I saw him again. He chatted pleasantly about Henrv King and George Fitzmaurice and Ernst Lubitsch, his most recent directors. He is an actor without a grievance. He likes the people he has worked for and always wants to go back to work for them again.

Ronald Colman promo portrait '20

“Mr. Goldwyn thinks I’m crazy,” he observed. “I went and asked him for the part of Perlmutter in the new ‘Potash and Perlmutter’ picture. He took me seriously. “When he put the clause in Lois Moran’s contract that she should remain ‘unmodernized and unsophisticated,’ I demanded that he put in mine that I could remain in his employ only so long as I remained modern and sophisticated.” But to my plea that he explain just what his sophistication consists of, he was deaf. So I decided on an old trick, one that rarely fails to make an actor talk about himself.

“Who is that woman over there? She has been staring at you ever since you came in,” I remarked.

“She thinks I’m Jack Gilbert,” he assured me guilelessly, switching the conversation a moment later to Shaw’s plays, his screen idol Felix the Cat, and the beautiful photography of “The Dark Angel.” Now that he is an idol, Ronald Colman finds that he likes being one—that is, he likes the generous salary and the comfort his position brings. But he did not become an actor or go into the movies by choice. He was literally shot in. Invalided home to England after the Battle of Ypres, he urged an uncle who was connected with the British Foreign Office to get him an appointment in the Orient. While waiting for this, he was offered an engagement in vaudeville in a sketch with Lena Ashwell. Before the war, he had had some success in amateur theatricals, so he took the engagement as a lark. Miss Ashwell was so delighted with his work that she introduced him to all the managers she knew and was influential in getting him some excellent stage offers. The diplomatic service moves slowly, so Colman was well established on the stage by the time his appointment to the Orient was secured. In London, he played the same role in “Damaged Goods” that Richard Bennett played in this country, and he was a great success. His interest in diplomacy faded. “The first success goes to your head terribly,” Ronald told me reminiscently. “That’s why the second goes only to your pocketbook. You realize how ephemeral and meaningless other success is.”

Ronald Colman Picturegoer 1930

At the height of his success, he came to the United States to try his fortune and had four failures, one right after another. The plays never even reached Broadway. So after a long period of waiting for another opportunity, he went on the road with Fay Bainter in an old Broadway success and played for nearly a year. When the troupe got to Hollywood, he tried to break into motion pictures. A test was made of him, but nothing ever came of it. That was in 1920, the year of the great slump in motion pictures, and no one was looking for new talent. They were too busy finding engagements for the actors already under contract. He was playing in “La Tendresse” with Henry Miller and Ruth Chatterton when the opportunity came to make “The White Sister” with Lillian Gish. Colman was not in the least interested. He thought the movies a crazy, unstable business, judging from what he had seen of the 1920 slump. But his manager persuaded him to make the one picture, and after that, Colman’s love for the stage dwindled. After his second picture, the astute Sam Goldwyn offered him a contract that guaranteed him the best stories and best directors that could be had. He recognized, just as the public did. that a new idol—a brand new type of idol—had come to the screen. Ronald Colman is too much interested in his work, however, to insist upon posing before the public only as a handsome hero. An instance of this was his acceptance of the part he played in “Stella Dallas.” For a voung man just become popular as a romantic lover, it was not a particularly pleasant part, this role of a matter-of-fact father who was beginning to gray at the temples. But Colman’s willingness to play it, or anything else that may offer, proves him to be a real actor, and one who will find .a much more permanent place in the movies than if he refused to take anything but the most attractive roles.

The White Sister
Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – promo – The White Sister

“Just as long as they will have me. I shall go on making pictures,” he says. “And all I ask is that some day I’ll have another part as strong and sympathetic as the one in ‘The Dark Angel.” I even liked that duffer myself.” No need to tell you that he is handsome and magnetic and gracious—his every appearance on the screen shows that. But it is remarkable that, in spite of all that, men like him whole-heartedly. Those girls who live in Hackensack or Walla Walla can take what comfort they can from the fact that they know Ronald Colman almost as well as his fellow players do; he reveals himself much more completely and more intensely in pictures than he does in person. And the sentimental yearnings of those in the audience are shared by many a girl in Hollywood. Don’t I know! Just because I sat next to him at some dinner parties in Hollywood, several well-known screen ingenues have assured me of their undying enmity. There are actors who can make me forget momentarily that I am watching a performance in a theater; there are actors who can flatter me into thinking for the moment that my opinions are of importance to them; but there is onlv one actor who impresses me as always being entirely sincere and never acting when he is away from the camera. That is Ronald Colman. On or off the screen. I like him the best of any actor I know.

Ronalcd Colman - Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)
Ronalcd Colman – Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)

The Terribly Honest Mr. Colman.

By Dorothy Manners

Ronald Colman said he felt sorry for me. He said he felt sorry for any one who interviewed him, because he “never said anything.” “I’ll not be a bit of help to you,” he apologized. “Now, if I had met you at dinner, or tea, or a dance I could think of all sorts of things to say.” But unfortunately, the occasion was not a tea, a dinner, nor yet a dance. A press agent, Mr. Colman and I met in Henry King’s office of the Samuel Goldwyn production building. We had come to dedicate a portion of the morning to discussing the movies, and particularly Mr. Colman’s relation to them. I have a vague hunch Mr. Colman had requested the presence of the press agent in case he ran out of small talk. Maybe he hadn’t. But I think he had. He lived to regret it. Not that that particular p. a. isn’t one of the finest and so on, but—We will take that up in more detail in a few paragraphs.

He is of medium height and darkish, this Mr. Colman. Undeniably he has a way with the ladies. I like him immensely, and I don’t like all actors. They are always nice and, for the most part, complimentary to lady interviewers, but in nine cases out of ten, the compliments don’t ring true. Having been said too often, they are like a much-thumbed book—a little frayed at the edges. Mr. Colman didn’t once tell me that he thought it was perfectly splendid I was self-expressing myself. Yet without the aid of stilted phrases, he managed to convey deference, courtesy, and flattering attention. Oh, very undeniably, he has a way with the ladies. We dallied around with the weather without getting anywhere with it, when somehow or other Valentino came into the conversation. Mr. Colman said he was a splendid actor.

The White Sister
Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister”

I said he was in a precarious position. Then the p. a. said he attributed Valentino’s slip to the fact that men didn’t particularly care for him. “Now,” he went on, with a proud papa inclination of the head toward Mr. Colman, “Mr. Colman here has a very large following among men.” Mr. Colman squirmed uncomfortably in Henry King’s swivel chair. Right there is where I think he wished the p. a. had been called to the phone. “Yes,” went on the p. a., “he a lot of mail from men and boys. The swivel chair squeaked nervously. “Do you get more letters from men than women?” I asked. “No, I don’t,” said Mr. Colman, completely wrecking that man-from-the-open-spaces effect, for which I liked him all the better.

Later it came out that in his latest picture, “Stella Dallas,” he had played the father of a sixteen-year-old girl. Most actors tell me they live for characterizations. I asked him if that had been his favorite role. He said, “Not by a long way. I liked playing in ‘The Dark Angel’ and ‘The White Sister’ much better.” I could have cheered at this. Instead, I gave him another hurdle. I asked him if he didn’t get tired of the monotony of pictures—if he didn’t often long to be back on the stage. The terribly honest Mr. Colman smiled. “No, I don’t,” he answered; “not with everything’ so rosy in pictures.” Now there is no getting away from it : a press agent can’t do anything with a man like that, but I could have decorated him. May he cross my path often.

The Paradoxical Mr. Colman - Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)
The Paradoxical Mr. Colman – Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)

Ronald Colman - Life Magazine Cover

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Lillian Gish Tribute at AFI Series – By Barbara Saltzman (L.A. Times – August 1979)

L.A. Times – Saturday August 11, 1979

Lillian Gish Tribute at AFI Series

By Barbara Saltzman

They came from throughout Southern California to pay tribute to actress Lillian Gish and the Wiltern Theater – Gish a living testament to the power and majesty of film from its earliest beginnings, the Wiltern a monument to the glory of yesterday’s movie palaces, just a breath away from demolition.

The Wiltern Theater in the thirties
The Wiltern Theater in the thirties

The occasion was the first in the American Film Institute’s “The Best Remaining Seats” series, which will criss-cross the Southland from Catalina Island to Santa Barbara through Oct. 18 to awaken interest in preserving some of the grandest remaining local movie houses with cinematic milestones that re-create their finest hours.

There was no question Thursday night that the hour belonged to Lillian Gish, who was born in 1896** and whose career has spanned the birth of film and the beginnings of communication by satellite.

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“We really made our living in those days,” she told the capacity audience of 2.300 who had just seen her pulled from the ice floes in clips from D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East” (1920), rescued from the guillotine in Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm” (1922) and subjected to the relentless blowing sands of Victor Seastrom’s “The Wind” (1928), shown in ints entirety.

“We had no doubles,” the star said.

Lillian Gish filming - The Wind
The Wind – Lillian Gish

“That’s me all the time. Running … slipping on the ice … falling off a horse – I did them all.

“Dick (Barthelmess, her costar who picked her off the ice floe in “Way Down East”) said to me some years later, “You know we didn’t have any sense in those days.”

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

The turn-away audience fanning themselves in the close air of the slightly faded but still elegant Art Deco theater, which opened in 1931 as a showcase for Warner Brothers, applauded warmly.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set (Vermont)

“It took three weeks to get those scenes. We got so cold that we couldn’t go in for lunch. The agony of coming in and going out again was too much.”

Of the three silents shown – to the accompaniment of Gaylord Carter on the Wiltern’s theater organ – Gish said “The Wind” was the most difficult and uncomfortable,” shot in suffocating 120 – degree heat near Bakersfield. “Eight propellers from airplanes were on me, with smudge pots, blowing the wind to give the effect of the storm.”

Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand - The Wind
Lillian Gish wearing pilot goggles and bandana to protect herself against the sand – The Wind

Both on film and in person, Gish, the actress who sweltered in the sun and shivered on the ice, revealed the power of film artistry to span the generations.

The audience, which included director George Cukor (a longtime friend for whom Gish never worked), was made up in large part by many who were not even born when the Wiltern was built. But they booed and hissed, cheered and applauded in “all the right spots, just as they did then,” said one delighted fan in his 70s.

The Wiltern main hall
The Wiltern main hall

Several dressed in ‘30s fashion to reflect the spirit of the evening. They called themselves film fans and fans of the city’s historic architecture, milling through the lobbies and balcony, sipping champagne bought for $1, eating hot dogs and popcorn from the candy counter, looking intently at the mostly worn Martini Olive-patterned Mohawk carpet lit by the still-original Art Deco chandeliers.

Gish, moved by the ovation given her, paid tribute herself to the directors she has worked with, among them the legendary Griffith, about whom she has written at length.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and D.W. Griffith on set

“The main thing he taught us was that you must rehearse.” For “Way Down East,” the company rehearsed from early in the morning till late in the evening for eight weeks, she recalled. “It meant we didn’t have to leave things on the cutting room floor. We had no retakes. We knew what had to be done and we did it. Sometimes we would work for 25 hours straight.”

Gish said she has always had respect for the power of the camera. “We thought the camera was psychic then – and I still do.”

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

The series continues Thursday at the Orpheum Theater, 842 S. Broadway, with “The Big Parade,” to be presented by King Vidor, who sent a telegram to Gish, reminding the audience that the actress “stands as a burning light … not one has ever achieved the eminence which you alone occupy.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish, american film institute gala 1979

Lillian Gish Tribute to the AFI Series - LA Times August 1979
Lillian Gish Tribute to the AFI Series – LA Times August 1979

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La Boheme with an Extra Girl – By Margaret Reid (Picture Play Magazine – February 1926)

Picture Play Magazine – February 1926 Vol. XXIII No.6

Looking On with an Extra Girl

Who, as one of the ensemble used in the filming of “La Boheme,” meets Lillian Gish for the first time, and follows her and John Gilbert through the successive scenes of that pathetic story.

By Margaret Reid

THE mantle of greatness is a curiously potent thing, lending a dazzling fascination to many figures that were otherwise most unobtrusive. Some wear it with regal ease, as if it were designed for them rather than they for it. Mary Pickford is one of these. She is unmistakably a great woman, a woman of achievements and power, and this as much outside her own sphere as in it.

MGM years (cca 1920) - (Irving Thalberg - MGM) - The Movies Mr Griffith and Me

On the other hand, probably heading the list of those in whom the rather awesome grandeur of supremacy seems incongruous, is Lillian Gish. Not when she is at work, of course. But outside the camera lines, the aspects of tremendous success are missing—one and all. Of course, the fanfare and trumpeting that preceded her arrival on the Coast led those of us who had never seen her to expect not only the usual in stars, but the unusual. Which latter we got, but in the opposite direction. At the time of Miss Gish’s break with Inspiration, the papers were full of rumors as to her future plans. Great film magnates struggled like urchins and cried like babies, trying to reach her with contracts proffering not only the moon but several acres of sky as well. Then the wires palpitated that Metro-Goldwvn-Mayer was a neck ahead. Breath was held. One pictured the Unholy Three—Hollywood’s pet name for Thalberg, Rapt, and Mayer—biting their nails while straining their ears over the private wire to New York.

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

Finally, one bright sunny morning—this is just for effect, since every one already knows there is nothing so viciously perpetual as the- California sun—a mammoth banner was strung at the studio entrance, from one side of the highway to the other. High above the road, it bragged to all and sundry, “M. G. M. signs Lillian Gish !” Rival bidders went home sulking and the charming services of the favorite actress of John Barrymore, Hergesheimer, and a few other people, were Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s for the trifling sum of eight thousand dollars a week. I find it impossible to call up a mental picture of eight thousand dollars a week at all, and an attempt to conceive of that amount coming in every week throws me into a high fever. But I understand it is a pretty sum. And it would seem to indicate an equally vivid payee. We knew better, naturally, than to expect in the lyrical Gish the trappings of Swanson. But we did anticipate the definite markings of personality, the subconscious dominance, little things impossible to explain, but apparent in most great people.

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

Miss Gish arrived on the same day that the elaborate dressing-room suite designed for her was rushed to completion. The following morning found her at the studio, conferring on stories. After a polite but systematic search of the studio, discovered her on the lawn, talking to one of the heads, She wore a severely plain white coat and a close hat of pale rose felt, and carried a heavy black book in her arms. No make-up, not even powder, marred the healthy, translucent pallor of her perfect complexion. The famous tiny mouth showed only its own faintly pink color, her eyes were the clear light blue of a child’s. Purists might not call it a beautiful face, but the poignant, eerie sweetness of its frailly chiseled features is the very essence of loveliness. To realize that she is a lady of great attainments and infinite fame, and eight thousand dollars a week, is a weary task. Her timid, gentle manner, her air, not only of background, but of the cultivation of art and grace through generations, make her a figure that seems not only remote from the rigors and extremes of motion-picture success but from any contact with the present age. I have been told, at one time and another—mostly by gullible males — “Do notice So-and-so, she is so quaintly old-fashioned.” So-and-so usually proves to be either dumb or to be skillfully using a highly praised “method.” The only genuinely old-fashioned girl I have ever seen —and that means typical of a gentler and lovelier age than ours—is Lillian Gish. How she has remained so through the building and maintaining of a career that has meant battle and misery and heartache, is her secret. That she has managed to do it, is her triumph. It was some weeks before a story suitable for Miss Gish was found.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)4

When the final decision fell upon “La Boheme.” there was still a long interval before the scenario, sets, costumes, and all the thousand and one plans, were ready to be put into action. And then, for two weeks, a small space on one of the stages was tightly canvassed in and jealously guarded against intruders. In this sanctum was observed the old Griffith custom of detailed rehearsal before any camera work whatsoever. At the end of the fortnight, the company gathered, en masse, on stage 3. This exclusive place is always given to the most impressive company in action at the time. It is hidden from casual visitors behind trees and shrubs beyond a wild little garden in a corner of the lot. We had not been long at work before various of the ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble were instructed to come out and be fitted for attire of the year 1830. I happened to be among the fortunates and was soon gowned in a lovely costume of hideous brown serge and a gray flannel cape. The keepers of the M. G. M. wardrobe are the nicest wardrobe women in Hollywood, but even their elastic patience is tried on days when the picture and scene require a mediocre costuming of extras.

La Boheme - Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert

Their sympathetic ears are deafened with cries of “But, Mother Coulter, I can’t wear this—why it’s awful !” “Can’t I at least have a pretty cape to cover up this horror?” “Mrs. Piper, you wouldn’t make me actually wear such an ugly dress!” Each feels that anything less than the very best is not her type. But to-day we were Parisians of precarious means, offering up the old wedding ring and grandfather’s stickpin in a dingy little pawnshop in the Latin Quarter. The sunlight struggling in through the grimy, cracked windows was being repaired, a carbon stick having fallen out of one of its rays, so we waited in a decorous row behind the scenes. The magician Sartov, Miss Gish’s special camera man, sat on his high stool by the camera, pulling placidly at his meerschaum pipe. The last touches were being applied to the dreary little set. The orchestra drifted into one of Mimi’s first songs, melancholy and wistful. It was almost like, but rather nicer than, waiting for the gong on the first act of the opera.

la_boheme_forum_p06

King Vidor, a young man who recently made a picture called “The Big Parade,” which is said to be quite a skit, donned a rakish smock hanging on the directorial chair. These smocks were the uniform for all the company during the picturing of the bohemian Mimi and Rodolphe, a sort of atmospheric sympathy for the locale and theme. Each smock was decorated with symbols representing the wearer’s official capacity. Now, there are directors and directors, many of them very fine fellows and clever, but if there is one thing an extra lady likes more than a courteous and considerate director, it is one who is good looking as well. Girls—stop me if you’ve heard this before—will be girls. And Mr. Vidor is an extremely personable young man with a tanned complexion, thick black hair, gray eyes, and a slow, infectious smile. Which is all every well-cast director should be. More of this paragon anon, but while we are on the subject, I might mention his brilliant young scenario writer, Harry Behn, who is also exceptionally well cast. Not only this, but his assistant director, one Dave Howard, is the extra girl’s dream of what all assistants will be when Will Hays really takes hold. And then, of course, there was Mimi’s Rodolphe—a gay, moody romantic of wicked charm.

Lillian Gish in La Boheme - Mimi at the pawnshop
Lillian Gish in La Boheme – Mimi at the pawnshop

Now he paced the floor in breathless enthusiasm, now he sat hunched over in a chair, brooding and despondent. He was very handsome. And so, amid ideal surroundings, the picture progressed. When the sunlight had been arranged to the satisfaction of Sartov, Miss Gish was called and we made our first acquaintance with Mimi. Such a sad and threadbare little Mimi, before her whirlwind rescue by Rodolphe. Faint shadows hollowed her cheeks and her eyes were haggard with fatigue and hunger. In her arms was clasped a ragged bundle which she timidly offered up. The coin thrust at her was too small, and with tears in her eyes and quivering lips, she tenderly placed her shabby, moth-eaten little muff on the counter. The orchestra breathed faintly one of Mimi’s gentle laments—oh! the pitiful little Mimi! I fumbled blindly for a handkerchief, feeling I couldn’t stand it any longer without doing something about it—anything to allay the misery of that wistful face. When the camera stopped, she peeped round it, with a birdlike gesture, the tears still shining on her eyelashes.

“‘Was that one all right, Mr. Vidor? Or shall we try it again?”

“Well, let’s try it this way, too, and see how it looks” —in Mr. Vidor’s soft, lazy Southern accent.

So Mimi is unhappy this way and that way and several other ways, until she receives her scanty loan and turns slowly away and goes out the door. That was all of Mimi for that time.

(LA BOHEME) de King Vidor 1926 USA avec John Gilbert et Lillian Gish retrouvaille, caleche, diligence, cocher, chevaux d'apres le roman de Henri Murger detail

When next we saw her. it was at a picnic in the woods of Ville D’Avray, near Paris. A rural frolic. of citizens of the Ouartier Latin—artists and their ladies. The costumes for this were charming—bright organdies and taffetas of one of the quaintest of periods. The preliminary details of this picnic one must omit as being too unfestive—the two journeys to the studio at six on successive mornings only to find the call canceled, and the old man on the outskirts of the crowd who turned away with weak tears in his discouraged eyes.

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

But the third morning saw the jinx thwarted, and at eight o’clock the buses were loaded and speeding along the thirty miles through Los Angeles, past the great estates of Pasadena, to Arcadia—a little town of orange groves at the foot of mountains that reach straight up into lofty snow fields. In a grassy meadow, sheltered by oak trees, the picnic was spread. Miss Gish’s town car, with its shades drawn, was already parked at one side. Through the back window of an expensive coupe, a black head swathed in a towel indicated the transformation of John Gilbert into Rodolphe. In another car were Louise and Phemic. Phemic was played by a fiery Russian, Yalentina Zamina, late of the famous Battalion of Death. Between scenes she sang wild, strange songs of her native steppes, eyes half closed in recollection. Louise was none other than the director’s little sister, Catherine Vidor. Catherine is a charming child, shy and soft voiced, with lovely deepblue eyes. This was her first appearance before the camera, which alone was sufficient to prostrate her with excitement, even without the surrounding circumstances. You see, Catherine’s favorite actor, bar none, is Edward Everett Horton. “Oh, the Saturday afternoons I’ve spent in the front row center at the Majestic!”—which is the Los Angeles stock theater where Horton plays. “I just adore his acting, it is simply perfect.”

La Boheme full cast and crew
La Boheme full cast and crew

Now, Louise’s beau in “La Boheme” is Colline, and Collin e was being played by Edward Everett Horton. Thus we have all the elements of a truly dramatic situation, besides a most auspicious beginning for a budding career.

Mr. Horton is an inordinately quiet gentleman, emerging from the fastnesses of a book only for work. There is a sort of old-fashioned courtliness in his bearing, a throwback from the manners of the time of Colline himself. He has a humorous expression, and smiles quizzically and contagiously with his eyes alone. With Renee Adoree, the Musette of the picture, was her sister Mira who, like Renee, was originally a dancer but who has only recently turned to pictures. Also like Renee, she is an impish comique, although she lacks Renee’s wistfulness. Renee is a mischievous, gypsylike person, of chuckling, ready laughter. Her eyes are about the loveliest I have ever seen—large, beautifully shaped and violet blue, brilliant and long-lashed, equally eloquent in tears or flirtation.

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

Among the jollymakers were Loro Bara, the young blond sister of Theda ; a dear little couple whose adored son is George K. Arthur ; the now w. k. Harry Crocker —his delicious wit the riotous center of the assembly and Gloria Hellar, a charming discovery of Mr. Vidor’s, recently proclaimed one of the seven most beautiful unknowns in Hollywood. Which means that Gloria is somewhat of a knock-out and presages great things. When Miss Gish stepped out of her car and began work, it was like the arrival of a limpid, fragrant wood elf, so exquisite was her costume and so beautiful was she herself. No woman could resist its festive quaintness, and I could not help remarking, in particular, on the air, organdie sleeves.

Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

“It is sweet, isn’t it?” Miss Gish said. “We took it from an old painting. And the sleeves are especially effective on the screen. Thev catch the light, and when Mimi runs, it looks as though she had wings, the wings of a moth.”

Her voice is a sharp surprise. You expect soft, throaty accents, but instead she speaks in clear, firmly pitched tones. A sort of healthy voice, pitched rather high, like a child’s. There is much about her that is reminiscent of extreme youth, besides the pure, cherubic contour of her face. She has, not just poise and courtesy, but manners. Careful, adorable politenesses that she is never too tired or worried to forget, even down to the unfailing, smiling “Thank you’s” for the little attentions continually showered upon her by the slavish electricians and prop boys. Much like a very wellbrought-up child she is, and utterly disarming.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

“All right, Dave, let’s get started,” called Mr. Vidor in his impersonal way, as if nothing in particular were pending. If he has any conscious method of direction, it is his air of ease and pleasant dallying. He accomplishes a great amount of work, but this fact is never as apparent to his players as the casual, unhurried comfort of the way in which it is done. In particular, he has a skillful feeling for the charm a scene may contain, for the loveliness that may be put into a situation. This one sequence of the picnic is sure to stand out by itself in the picture, no matter how splendid the rest is. It is seldom that the full effect of an entire scene is at all understandable when seen in the making. The interruptions and waits and changes damage any impression one might get. But this seemed to hold continuity and sweep, despite the spasmodic way in which it was necessarily assembled. Like a bright little bird, Mimi flitted from group to group of the bohemians, laughing and exclaiming while administering to their needs. Then, when the drowsy background sprang to life at the music of rustic fiddlers, and every one else ran off to dance but the smoldering Rodolphe, she slipped away into the shadows of the woods, peeping back over her shoulder, coquetting and teasing.

Lillian Gish Renee Adoree Catherine Vidor Valetina Zimina (La Boheme)
Lillian Gish Renee Adoree Catherine Vidor Valetina Zimina (La Boheme)

When the shots of our dance in the pavilion were done, we had leisure to follow Mimi and Rodolphe through the forest. As opposite as possible, in every way except talent, Miss Gish and Mr. Gilbert make a stunning picture. Though each seems to accentuate the individuality of the other, they are yet such perfect foils that no salient quality of either is dimmed.

1926 duotone rotogravure of an ad for La Boheme directed by King Vidor and starring Lillian Gish, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree and Roy D'Arcy
1926 duotone rotogravure of an ad for La Boheme directed by King Vidor and starring Lillian Gish, John Gilbert, Renee Adoree and Roy D’Arcy

Mr. Gilbert works with abandon, throwing self and surroundings to the winds when he enters a scene. My private opinion, held ever since “The Snob,” is that he is the screen’s greatest actor, without peer or rival. My friends, who have had it expounded to them rather often, would say it is not a very private opinion. And since seeing him work. I can think of several other choice points to add to my arguments. One is that he leaves lack Gilbert sitting in his canvas chair when he takes up the joys and sorrows of Rociulphc, or Danilo, or a doughboy, as the case may be. With boyish vigor, he charges into the heart of a character, bringing it forth to show to you. with sensitive, unerring artistry, and with supremely unconscious skill. Toward the end of the day, they set up the camera at the foot of a path that twisted up a hillside between the gnarled trunks of ancient trees. Up and down this path Mimi ran, hack and forth like an excited squirrel, pausing a moment to peep round at Rodolphe, then up the path again like an arrow. The company watched from behind the camera, laughing.

Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)
Renee Adoree and Lillian Gish in La Boheme (Musette and Mimi)

“Stop her!” Jack cried. “She’s gone mad. Mimi’s gone quite mad!” At the finish, she ran past the camera into the crowd, laughing and breathless.

“I hope I looked nice and French,” she said. “All the monkey business with the hands was supposed to be French.” (Lesson C: Only the greatest great can observe themselves in a humorous light, and not as God’s special Christmas gift to the world.)

When I start to write of Mimi as I last saw her, I am reminded of the sensations I had as a child, when mother used to tell me in vain that whatever I was reading was. only a play or a story. I was convinced that Eva actually did ascend, in a melancholy manner, to the angels, and that a little match girl really had heen found, cold and stiff, one Christmas morning. Thus I keep assuring myself that Miss Gish is a young lady who makes enough money to live on very comfortably, and that she has beauty, fame, and adoring friends. Yet there keeps recurring the picture of our last work in ”La Boheme,” and of the sobbing, dying Mimi struggling across Paris to Rodolphe. Her miserable clothes were in rags, and illness had carved deep hollows in her face. Clinging to the steps of a bus, fighting weakly through crowds, falling into the gutter and crawling on upon hands and knees, stumbling from a moving carriage, she slowly made her way, her long, pale-gold hair falling down over shoulders and back. Between shots, you might have thought Miss Gish was playing a bit in the picture, so unpretentious was her manner.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)3

If her skirt had to be dirty for a close shot, she did not hail a prop boy, but knelt on the cobblestones and made it grimy herself. She almost never looks into a mirror. Her skin is so lovely that her make-up seldom needs repairing, yet even in her elahorate costumes and make-up, she used to go through scene after scene without even touching her hair or powdering her nose, although I must say that she never seemed to need any improvements. Toward the end of the sequence, she was scratched and bruised from her numerous falls and tumbles, her clothes were ragged and mud-stained, her beautiful hair tangled and dusty, waited so patiently for the lights to be arranged on each shot, now standing on the rough, sharp cobbles, now collapsed on a step. As she sat in the gutter, waiting for Mr. Vidor’s signal, she smoothed her apron—a dirty, tattered piece of black cotton—with a delicate gesture.

“See my lovely apron”—she held it out for our inspection—”Mr. Erte created it for me.”

The preservation of an illusion through realitv is always a feat, an illusion being of such fragile, rarified substance. Usually, we learn to be satisfied with treasured remnants.

Thus, it is with pride in my good fortune and with gratitude to Lillian for being what she is, that I present to you an illusion, not only intact but even increased in value — Miss Gish.

Lillian Gish as Mimi in La Boheme
Lillian Gish as Mimi in La Boheme
Looking for an Extra Girl - Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)
Looking for an Extra Girl – Picture-Play Magazine (Feb 1926)

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What Will Griffith Do Now? – By Gerrit Lloyd (Picture Play Magazine – September 1925)

Picture Play Magazine – September 1925 Vol. XXIII No.1

What Will Griffith Do Now?

After several years of experience as an independent producer, the great D. W. has joined Famous Players, and this important turning point in his career lends new interest to his future work.

By Gerrit Lloyd

Much Has Been Written about D. W. Griffith, but nothing we have ever read about “the big bull elephant” approaches in brilliance or interest this remarkable study of the characteristics of the master of all motion picture directors. The author of this article has been closely associated with Mr. Griffith for several years, and this close association has made it possible for him to write with a knowledge and authority that could never be attained by the casual interviewer.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
D.W. Griffith and Billy Bitzer on location in Cuddebackville – NY, directing “The Squaw’s Love.”

THE Big Bull Elephant of the Films has joined the herd again. After launching along strange leadings that twisted at times far from the box-office and the minds of man in frivolous mood, the untamed one has returned to the proven pastures. For Griffith the Bold is not unlike the big bull elephant. He seems to have an ancient and independent wisdom in piloting his personal career, uninfluenced by the school-book efficiencies of the minute. He scandalizes the newest accountants and shocks the most recent graduates from the efficiency seminaries, he puzzles and bewilders and exasperates those who would train him to roll their own little logs, and carry their own little pet freight. Great is the roaring and the turmoil when the big bull elephant starts forth alone ; the crash of barriers tossed aside, the splash of soft footing where the new way is insecure, the rumble and trumpet of intense bulk of purpose on its way. And when he has gone through, there may be no pretty boulevard all hedged and trimmed behind him, but there is a new way broken for others to come along in ease. Through this new land of motion pictures they have come : first, Griffith, the Elephant, sagacious, determined and courageous, with the vitality to make a vehicle of his curiosity. Then comes De Mille, the Royal Tiger, graceful, deft and decisive, stalking the public’s fancy with infallible thrift; and then shyly, with gorgeous smoothness, comes Ingram, the Deer, agile and speedy, with frail aggressiveness ; and Cruze, the Moose, forceful and merry, capering along inviting waterways, pulling forth lily pads of entertainment ; and Von Stroheim, the matchless Leopard, fiercely licking blood, and cynically snarling his contempt for the weaker stomachs. Perhaps no one but Barnum ever felt entirely at ease with a big bull elephant among his assets. And since the individual of yesterday is succeeded by the organization of to-day, probably Famous Players-Lasky has sewed into its vast canopy the mantle of Barnum, and welcomes Griffith back into the pasture again.

Feature photo Griffith

Griffith returns this time along a trail paved with mortgages. He is heavy laden with debts, with his services sold for a year to the welfare of his creditors. His savings from all his vast work are shrunk to the boundary posts of a small California ranch, which is yet undecided whether to take up the white man’s burden of becoming a toiling lemon ranch, or cling to the ease of a scenic spot primeval. A grand adventurer, this man, taking his food where he found it, and struggling on alone ; but now he is back again with a bench for himself at the biggest dinner table in filmland. Behind him there is the roar of money, louder than the snores of Midas. Before him there is a reservoir of trained talent, eager to serve as a thousand fingers to his able hand. For let this be remembered : No creative worker in great enterprise ever has worked so alone as has D. W. Griffith. While others of his trade have had splendidly trained staffs at their command, Griffith selected his own stories, generally without sufficient funds to buy other than those rejected by his competitors; he has written the scenarios ; cast the stories from talent not considered worthy of contract by the larger companies, except his leading man and woman ; financed the costs in grotesque and merciless scrambles with the money lenders ; selected his costumes ; laid out his sets, chosen his locations, supervised all construction; directed every inch of action in the films; edited it; titled it, and then worked out the presentation as to running time and music for delivery to the exhibitors. Yet he has regularly produced more pictures than any other director making comparable productions.

Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks - United Artists
Pickford, Griffith, Chaplin, Fairbanks – United Artists

D. W. Griffith knows the motion picture more thoroughly than any other person. His reputation for extravagance has girdled the gossip of the world, a legend founded on malicious exaggeration. At least twenty directors have spent more actual money on single pictures than Griffith ever dreamed of doing. But his reputation with money is established now, and nothing will ever change it. False it is, and false it can be proven, yet some day you will find it smugly recorded in his epitaph on the tomb of Filmdom. It began ancient of days, far away when he wished to raise the salary of Mary Pickford from thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars a week. His employers insisted on discharging Mary “because no girl is worth that much in pictures and besides, she has a large, square head that looks too big for her body.” The record, however, is that the salary of Mary Pickford was raised and that she continued in motion-picture work with some degree of success.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

The suspicion of extravagance was confirmed when “this wasting fool, Griffith,” insisted on hiring twentyfive horsemen instead of five in taking the first “long shot” of a line of cavalry. It must be admitted that the reputation rests on a very broad base in the studio census since nearly every player can convince you that Griffith is unscrupulously extravagant because he doesn’t hire that particular player, and because he does hire the players he uses ; and nearly every director can prove Griffith must be extravagant because he makes good pictures and only the waste of money could account for the difference between Griffith’s pictures and their own. When Griffith began making motion pictures, fifty dollars was the maximum to be spent on a film. Now, five hundred thousand dollars is the minimum for a big special. He spent an average of six hours in making his first films ; now he must spend six months. Though I do not speak with the sensitive accuracy of one who has supplied him with money, I do believe in the presence of more proof than any other person ever has had the opportunity of observing, that D. W. Griffith is the most frugal of all directors ; that he gets more into the film for every dollar used than any other director. In ten years, the only film he has made without raveled finance, is “Way Down East.” That work made Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess so popular that he immediately lost them to other producers. The first returns from this picture had to go toward repaying a loan, and this most extravagant of directors began his next picture with exactly seventeen thousand dollars to finance it ; although “Way Down East” ultimately earned more than four times its cost.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

The picture born with the seventeen-thousand-dollar spoon in its mouth was “Dream Street.” With that money, he couldn’t well enter into very serious conversation with any stars ; so he tagged a most likable young hopeful named Ralph Graves for the leading male part. And Graves gave of his best, even to the premium of reading his Bible before the taking of every scene, to the most talkative disdain of an atheist who was an electrician on the set.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

But now there was no money for the rest of the cast, and no scenes could be taken without the presence of the second male part. So this mad waster of wealth, Griffith, solved that by hiring a property boy, raising his wages from thirty-five to fifty dollars a week, and creating for the films a very fine actor indeed—Charles Emmett Mack. So it went during the lean years while the big bull elephant was away from the herd. And now he is back standing with expectant feet, where the plot and money meet, in the powerful organization of Famous Players-Lasky ; trained as no other director is trained to make big films ; experienced in the resources of poverty, and now flooded with wealth in support of his talent; backed by the most perfect organization of its kind in the world.

Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh - Reunion 2 - Birth of a Nation
Henry B Walthall and Mae Marsh – Reunion – Birth of a Nation

What will he do now?

Three things he has in the superlative : Imagination, courage, and industry. When film characters were but far figures distinctively dressed, he conceived the audacity of showing their faces to reveal the emotional progress of the drama, though his camera man quit in protest at such lunacy and the first audiences hissed their reproach for being disturbed by something new. He recognized the fecundity of film language and bred it from a tight little roll of five hundred feet up to a group of twelve reels of one thousand feet each. He sensed that films should be freighted with a nobler treasure than novelty and fun and drama ; that the camera could lens the scenery of a nation’s soul ; and in black and white he photographed the first epic, known wherever there are human eyes, as “The Birth of a Nation.” It pictured the voiceless instincts of peoples more vividly than the stripes on a gingham dress. Then he confused and affronted this world which stands dreaming from a balcony and imagines itself thinking from a mountain top, by a comet-thrust of his imagination which reduced itself to the film title, “Intolerance.”

Intolerance
Intolerance

And he took the welts of as sound a drubbing as ever was given a bull elephant for wandering away from log rolling. It pinched his savings from a six-figure fortune to an I O U. That work frightened picturedom as Rockefeller’s fortune frightened a country bank. With imagination, he has courage. He dared to recognize the blood soldiers ever under arms in the veins of the people white and the people black in watchful feud at a time when every one was saying “Good little black man, good little white man, be nice together, for you are brothers ;” but he showed it as a stitch in a nation’s heartache and not as box-office bait.

Lillian Gish - The Greatest Thing in Life
The Greatest Thing in Life

Again he showed a white soldier kissing a black one, in his film, “The Greatest Thing in Life.”

He made a Chinaman a hero when all the legends of the theater and films were that a Chinaman must always be a villain. Nor did he do it coweringly ; but with such a spring of passion as to irritate an editor into sewing his ideas with a Greenwich Village thimble and devoting a column to rebuking Griffith as a Sadist.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in Broken Blossoms

Incidentally, that film, a tragedy, called “Broken Blossoms,” started a sleek-haired young leading man in comedies into becoming a world-famous actor of authentic talent, known as Richard Barthelmess. Several directors have made one tragedy, and then have gone forever galloping after the black figures in the bank book. Griffith began years ago—even before his film, “Sands o’ Dee”—making them again and again ; even unto these recent days of his pernicious financial anaemia, when he told of the flat bellies and full hearts of some Germans in “Isn’t Life Wonderful?” with the beauty and pride of an artist who was speaking his impressions rather than the dividend-bitten formula: “Bust and leg and silken gown ; palatial sets, somewhere a clown; a naughty scheme, a lover’s cheat ; a knock-out scene, an ending sweet.” The big bull elephant was far from the log rolling that time ; and he certainly skewered his kosher with the exhibitors. Courage and imagination he has, and his industry is as plain as a pig’s knuckle. What will he do with them now?

David Wark Griffith Isn't Life Wonderful 1924
David Wark Griffith Isn’t Life Wonderful 1924

Report is he will make first “The Sorrows of Satan,” Marie Corelli’s opulent highway of emotionalism along which to crank a camera. To estimate the things Griffith will do, one must first know the things that are Griffith. To the clan that bagpipes through the highlands of picturedom, Griffith is a spiral mystery, up which they gaze with wonder or disdain to behold ever new turnings. A man of mystery, they call him! Yet where is there another man, in boots or under tomb, about whom it is so easy to be informed accurately? Around every celebrity, much is written, largely inaccurate perhaps, as succeeding generations of commentators cynically expose. In this regard, Napoleon has been most liberally attended. But greater than all the books on Napoleon, than the massed volumes discussing Shakespeare; greater even than the page-piled heights discussing Lincoln, is the library about the man Griffith—and one incorrigibly accurate. In it there are no myths, anecdotes, hearsay, questioned records or chance letters. It is one vast and true revelation of the man’s innermost tide of life stroke.

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

Here the man’s soul unpockets its whims, beliefs, ambitions, and experiences, its joys, its strengths and its agonies. It is the truest confession ever read; and read by hundreds of millions. This library is composed of the motion-picture films published under the design “D. W. G.,” numbering in all more than a thousand. The successful productive author may average perhaps thirty novels—a little grove compared to Griffith’s forest of expression. A poet may publish one hundred poems, mostly short, and generally rivered along one narrow channel. A painter may hang one hundred canvases, often a single character study in portrait, or a landscape, or a scene to high-light some definite phase of humanity. Griffith has told his opinions, his understandings and sympathies regarding thousands of characters. Over and over again he has twined the hearts of lovers, from the shy tremors of first love to the flood throws of passion. He has swaggered with the bold and the ambitious; jested with the lofty and sneered with the degenerate; schemed with the connivers and skulked with assassins ; bowed in prayer with the humble ; grieved with the unfortunate; sung with the happy ; wept with the sorrowful ; and died with heroes and cowards. Again and again, he has told it all. To the world he has flown aloft the strange banner of a human soul — a soul literally photographed.

Griffith Early Biograph career
Griffith Early Biograph career

And all as part of a hard day’s work. All of Griffith is in his pictures. And the films that are of Griffith, are directed by a barefooted boy of LaGrange, Kentucky. Who is he, this lad who has seized an empire in the world of shadows? His father was a bold, life-spending Confederate cavalryman, forever hot upon the hazards ; always ready for a toss, whatever the risk. He roused to war’s pageant, enjoyed its honors, and suffered its penalties. The material rewards were some fifty-four wounds which incapacitated him for active work; and the ruin of his finances. Colonel Jacob Wark Griffith was Irish and Welsh, and a Southern gentleman. His reputation given me by a stout old Scotchman is that he entertained and drank and danced with a grace and flourish that enslaved the countryside until the sexton stopped him for their material engagement. His mother was Scotch of the Scotch, of the family of Oglesby; with the sturdy practicality, vigor, and mystic and poetic ideals of that race. Her daughter says that her mother never stopped working, praying, and dreaming.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

There you have Griffith—a romantic warrior locked up in Scotch idealism with the patient, thrifty caution of a Scotch tradesman, and the picturesque gambling audacities of a Welsh-Irish cavalier. The Scotchman looks after his time and work ; the Irish-Welshman spends his money. Destiny punished David W. Griffith with the luxuries of a perfect motion-picture education. Since there were no motion pictures then, the conditions might not be considered luxuries by another standard. In his father’s house were many mansions ; such as the mansions of hospitality and good taste in social values that feed the decencies in life. Few were the books in the neighborhood ; and the few were the older classics. Every one worked while there was sun. Candles were an important item of expense. So the neighbors would gather in one household to benefit by the expenditure of a single candle. The elders exercised the privilege of reserving the chairs. The children were on the floor, often thriftily under the table when guests were numerous, as they always were. Then would the classics be read aloud.

Griffith on the ice floes - Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)
DW Griffith on the ice floes – Picture-Play Magazine (Aug 1920)

Here was the ideal motion-picture school in session—the imaginative, dreamy boy lying in the dark comfortably on his back, listening to all the great deeds and emotions of man told with the splendor and force of the greatest masters. And the boy pictured them in his dreams, never reducing these immortals in their flights of love, adventure, and strife, to the pinched and squinty confines of inked type.

Henry B. Walthall in "The Birth of a Nation"
Henry B. Walthall in “The Birth of a Nation”

When the elders tired of reading, or the candle appropriated for the night was done, they would talk. With their thoughts still stiff from the saddles of the wars, they talked of battles. And lying in the dark, with the vivid mystery which darkness inspires, there flashed through the imagination of the little boy-director lying there, the deeds of battle, the rush and flare of gun-driven conflict. For him no mental bruise of reading the schoolbook- summary of war by clock in school. He saw the battles, heard the “thunder, and struggled in the hot strife. The belch of cannon were the footlights for his vast stage of dreams. The tale of a troop of weary cavalry onwarding under command grew in his vital dreams to a sky sewn with horsemen thundering with golden banners on to victory. Wise little director under the table in the dark ! Already he had been to the wars. Then were first given wing the visions that later were caught again in dramatic permanence as part of the film, “The Birth of a Nation.” They lived again in “Intolerance,” and were revised in “Hearts of the World.” The greatest battle scenes ever made have been done by Griffith, and they were created before he was ten years old. One night he shuddered to the local story of a drunken negro who had pursued a white girl ; and the “chilling” terror of that night later throbbed in scenes in “The Birth of a Nation” that shook Mae Marsh from freckled girlhood into screen immortality, if such there lie. His sister, Mattie, read and reread for him his favorites, the great love stories of the ages. The dreamy boy in denim, with a conqueror’s imagination, feasted upon these treasures of faithful hearts. He pictured these heroines apart from the neighbor girls he knew, something distant, shadowy, sublime, something less than angels, something beyond the flesh. And when he looked the first time upon the motion-picture screen in later years, he saw there the shadowland in which his dream heroines might live again. Always you find something of this dream girl in every Griffith heroine, the gentle, faithful, ideal of the little boy in Kentucky, who spoke poetry to her as he went through the woods in the twilight bringing home the cows from the pasture.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh
The Birth of a Nation (1915) Directed by D.W. Griffith Shown: Mae Marsh

When an ill-wind comes hissing from the box offices, scolding against sentiment in his heroines, the Scotch that is in Griffith will roll down her silk stockings, wave her hair, indeed style her to the rising ripple of the moment’s fad, but she is the same girl—sister to all those heroines of youthful dreams, Little Nell, Virginia, Marguerite, Ophelia, Ruth, and all those sweethearts of the masters old. Sometimes she is blonde, and the long-age dreams open like a fan into the screen personality that is Lillian Gish. Again she is dark, and the world knows her as Carol Dempster, vital, buoyant, and fascinating. A strange girl, this Griffith heroine ! She is the sweetheart’s signal song at twilight, the lover’s moon, the evening star, all spun into young womanhood, virgin shy, yet passionate as a puckered mouth, and practical in the progress of mating as a schatchen’s guide.

CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan - Photo 1926
CAROL DEMPSTER & RICARDO CORTEZ in The Sorrows of Satan – Photo 1926

These Griffith heroines have fruited the greatest moments in all screen literature ; have made the smug and the callous tremble with sympathy and glow with tears. And this Griffith heroine is one definite and undeniable influence that changed the standard of womanly beauty in this country from the Oriental preference of opulent bust and matronly hips to the slender stature that is universally a favorite to-day. The exact date of the change in public taste is the time when the Griffith heroine made her first appearance in the films. The little Kentucky dreamer has done more to erase sensuality from the appearance of the American woman than a hundred years of preaching or a thousand edicts from the fashion makers. So the things that are Griffith include the imaginative genius of the boy who has never grown up ; the deft, perfected skill of a patient and ever-working craftsman, so expert in technique that for sheer deviltry in fingering his magic, he distilled suspense from potatoes ; these, and the showmanship of a successful and experienced ruler of audiences, who understands their wayward traits and frank simplicities. These make up the institution that is Griffith : the force that has become the big bull elephant of the films, now back with the herd again. What will he do? Once he wrote a subtitle. It was in “Hearts of the World.” It said: “If you can’t get what you want, then want what you can get.”

What Will Griffith do Now - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925)
What Will Griffith do Now – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1925) Sketch drawn by K.R. Chamberlain

 

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“The White Sister”—Inspiration – Pros and Cons

“The White Sister”—Inspiration

Lillian Gish, away from the guiding hand of Griffith, proves to be as moving as ever. In an emotional race with Vesuvius in eruption she captures all the honors. In her support she has a tragic but uplifting story, real Italian scenery, and a charming new leading man named Ronald Colman.

Excerpts from – The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Signed Promotional Photo - Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman - The White Sister
Signed Promotional Photo – Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman – The White Sister

Some Souvenir Postal Cards.

Agnes Smith (Known MGM – professional hired – hater)

Lillian Gish went to Italy to make “The White Sister,” and the result is some beautiful scenes showing native life and some shots of that great dramatic star, Mount Vesuvius. Miss Gish’s error was, not in going to Italy, but in taking a scenario of F. Marion Crawford’s novel with her. Of all the aggravating and annoying plots in the world, “The White Sister” is the worst, except maybe a few by Hall Caine. Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies and by making a lot of fuss about the difference between worldly and spiritual love. And then he turned on the soft music of Italian scenery to ease the story over on the public.

Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out. Unless you handle it with care, the Catholics are apt to be offended while, on the other hand, a great many non-Catholics can get none too excited over the girl who takes the veil. I am not trying to imply that “The White Sister” will stir up feeling, I am only saying that there are certain rational aspects of the public mind that demand consideration from producers. Most fans are apt to look at “The White Sister” merely as florid and romantic melodrama. The postal card views of Italy have a certain charm and the unreal story works itself up into a good thrill climax. Dear old Vesuvius jumps into action and obligingly kills off some of the characters. However, the hero, in the midst of the eruption, for some strange reason goes and gets drowned. A dambursts and floods the city. It seemed an unnecessary trick to bring in the flood and a nasty crack at the destructive talents of Vesuvius besides. The incident was as foolish as though I should get mixed up in an earthquake and die of hay fever.

Miss Gish gives Vesuvius and the flood a winning race for the honors. The girl has a habit of breaking my heart. Once she gets that heart-broken, woebegone look on her face, I am simply overcome by emotion. Miss Gish has a perfect technique, combined with the face of an angel. She deserves more reliable material than “The White Sister.” Her new leading man, Ronald Colman, breaks all records by playing an Italian role without imitating Valentino. He gives a splendid, sincere and truly convincing performance, even though he is called upon to do all sorts of ridiculous things. A recruit from the stage, he is an addition to the screen. And he has such a way with him in love scenes that I suppose he’ll have to engage a secretary to answer his fan mail.

The White Sister - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)
The White Sister – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923)

THE production of “The White Sister” on which Lillian Gish worked for seven months in and near Rome, will not be released until fall. So, for consolation, Picture-Play offers in the meantime, this exquisite photograph of her in the role.

The White Sister 2 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 2 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

This glimpse of one of the early scenes in “The White Sister,” Lillian Gish’s first picture for the Inspiration company, holds rare promise of beauty, for it seems to haye caught in its very backgrounds her ephemeral charm.

The White Sister 3 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 3 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Only in Italy could be found such exquisite and time-worn walls as those which provide settings for some of the scenes in ”The White Sister.” Of all her portraits, the one above is Lillian Gish’s favorite. In this famous old Italian garden which has been visited hy scores of Americans traveling abroad, “The White Sister” meditates upon the spiritual life and seeks to crowd out of her consciousness the tragedy that sent her to seek the solace of the convent.

The White Sister 4 - Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)
The White Sister 4 – Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1923-Feb 1924)

Ever since the first announcement almost a year ago that Lillian Gish was going to play this widely known heroine of F. Marion Crawford’s there has been keen interest in this production. For such quiet power and spiritual beauty as hers suits the character of the little romantic girl who enters a convent when her sweetheart disappears. In ‘ the scene shown above, the three nuns are played by three old and famous character actresses of the Italian stage.

The White Sister
The White Sister

Concerning “The White Sister.”

The most interesting feature of your magazine to me is the review department by Agnes Smith. I always read the reviews first and usually find that I not only agree with Miss Smith, but wish that I might have thought of expressing my judgment in her delightful way. Naturally, I was eager to see her review of “The White Sister,” for Lillian Gish, it seems to me, is by far the most important person on the screen. Miss Smith’s flippant and disparaging remarks were a distinct shock. I cannot understand her point of view when she says “Most fans are apt to look on ‘The White Sister’ merely as florid and romantic melodrama.”

I do not know on what Miss Smith bases her opinion on what the fans are going to think. I only know that both times I saw the picture the strangers all about me were sincerely and deeply moved. Two women, sitting near me, who looked as though they could ill afford the price of the tickets, murmured several times during the course of the picture that they had never seen anything so exquisitely beautiful.’ The people were so real that they forgot it was a plot and not life that they were watching. Now, if you will permit me the space, I would like to comment on a few points that Miss Smith raised. She says, “Mr. Crawford lived in an age when it was popular to pump up artificial sentiment by playing strongly on religious young ladies.”

Mr. Crawford may have shown poor taste and been artificial sometimes in his writings, but I am not so sure that the sentiment he aroused was artificial. I think that it was sincere just as the sentiment aroused by George Cohan’s flag-waving and other bits of hokum is sincere. “The difference between worldly and spiritual love” will, I believe, continue to be one of the most engrossing themes in all literature in spite of Miss Smith’s disapproval.’

“Why any one in this period of the world’s history wants to film a religious story is more than I can figure out,” she continues. When the world ceases to be interested in faith, it has ceased to be interested in the most vital and important factor in human life. The faith of “The White Sister” may not be mifaith ; in fact, I was enraged by her insistence that her vows to her church were more binding than her promise to the man she loved. But, any sincere and convincing presentation of another person’s beliefs commands my respect, at least. It was reassuring to find that even though she was thoroughly out of sympathy with the story, Miss Smith was deeply moved by the work of the star and Ronald Colman, the gifted and magnetic young leading man. I do wish, though, that her review, which is sure to influence many people, had not shown such a strong personal bias. – Joice Marie Sidman – Ansonia Hotel, New York City.

The White Sister
The White Sister

 

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Flashing Back to Romance – By Malcolm H. Oettinger (Picture Play Magazine – November 1921)

Picture Play Magazine – November 1921 Vol. XV No.3

Flashing Back to Romance

In which you are taken to see D.W. Griffith’s next huge production, a screen adaptation of “The Two Orphans,” now in the making; and to meet an actor, new to the screen, who is likely to be the sensation of the coming season.

By Malcolm H. Oettinger

Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut - Orphans of the Storm - Promo V22
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo

TWO gleaming swords flashed in the golden sunlight as two nobles of the court of Louis XVI faced each other, the while courtiers and ladies clustered round in excitement. At the foot of the marble stairway they fenced, parrying and thrusting with fierce intensity, yet consummate grace. At one side a golden-haired country girl, beautiful as any of the towering belles of the court without a suggestion of their artificiality, watched the encounter with hope and anxiety staring from her wide eyes. “We shall see who receives the final rites, M’sieur’ Chevalier !” “Touche!”

Lillian Gish as Henriette at the aristocrats (Liniers) party Orphans of The Storm

A cry of approval goes up from the gayly costumed throng. A sea of white wigs nod in pantomimed conversation. The two nobles, proud in their gay, brocaded coats, their rich, silken breeches, their beribboned stockings, lunge at each other with quickened ardor. Blades clashing, eyes flashing, the men circle swiftly about, never looking anywhere but in each other’s eyes. Again they have started the wary circling, again—and the little Chevalier steps adroitly forward, feints, and with the speed of a tiger runs his glittering sword into his opponent’s breast. A shriek of horror, a general rush toward the swooning victim, a fantastical hubbub.

Joseph Schildkraut
Joseph Schildkraut

The slender, panting Chevalier has grasped the gentle blond girl’s hand, and together they dash up the marble steps. “All right, boys,” says a quiet, sonorities voice. “Let’s do it again. After you’ve stuck him, Mr. Schildkraut, I wish you’d remember to wait until he drops his sword before escaping with Miss Gish. He might be fooling you and stab you in the back.” With a soft chuckle D. W. Griffith resumed the camp chair, from which he had arisen to deliver his criticism. An energetic assistant herded the ladies and courtiers back to the side lines, whence they were to rush once the duel started again. The contestants leaned upon their swords and joked with one another. “Let me kill you this time,” suggested the unfortunate victim of fate and the scenario.

 

After the overwhelming success of ” ‘Way , Down East” it was not surprising that the master of the perpendicular platform should have turned to another tried and tested stage success for his next feature opus. And in turning, it was even less startling that he should have selected “The Two Orphans,” a universally popular romance of the days when knights were bold and women helpless, when feminism was as unheard of as Freudian complexes and Fordian Simplexes, when swords were sharper than words—Shaw had still to be born!—and when, in short, action was more to be desired than epigrams. A period obviously that writes itself dramatically. Of such colorful pattern is “The Two Orphans.” Sentiment, thrills, villainy, romance, and heroism, all are here, woven adeptly, slyly, into a splashy, effective entertainment, luscious meat, if ever there was any, for the movies. And clearly Grififith is relishing his task. In transposing the duel scene to the celluloid, he sat and rocked with chuckles of approbation, his sign, oddly enough, of complete satisfaction. During one of Miss Lillian Gish’s most tragic scenes, later in the day, he laughed happily throughout, a sympathetic laugh.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …

‘Tis a joy to do a thing that you are almost certain will be popular,” he said with a smile. “It was a joy, of course, to do ‘Blossoms,’ but then the joy faded. Not so with ‘ ‘Way Down East.’ And this, I think, is a story of equal power, and, in addition, considerably greater pictorial appeal.” He pointed silently to the slender, silvered trees with their crystal leaves, to the marble stairway gleaming in the sunlight, to the chaste statuary gracing the greensward here and there. A fountain tinkled softly behind us. Across its plashing surface the triumphant Chevalier was looking soul fully into the eyes of a red-lipped, alabaster- shouldered, blushing extra girl. She was smiling confusedly. “Le Chevalier stays in character,” I suggested. Lillian Gish, sitting beside the director, smiled. Her flowerlike hands fluttered amusedly. “The whole office force is wild about him,” she said. “Extra girls are just human, too. And the telephone operator—the first morning he came I met her dashing up to her office board with her eyes fairly shining. ‘Isn’t he simply—beautiful ?’ she gasped. And I agreed that he is.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

I think him about the most beautiful man I have ever seen.” Now the tete-a-tete ” across the fountain seemed to sweep to an end with the Chevalier bending low over the slim hand he held. A kiss, a flourish, and he was rounding the fountain. Then I met the latest of Griffith’s discoveries, in this case a discovery only of the screen, already a footlighted luminary, Joseph Schildkraut. Tragic black eyes, lustrous black hair, a sensitive, aquiline nose, a quivering mouth, and a lithe, straight body of no great height. A firm handclasp, a slight accent, noticeable chiefly because of his carefully precise pronunciation, and an ingenious self-assurance. Ideals, dreams, faith, and a selfconscious trick of suddenly widening eyes to emphasive a point. Foreign to his finger tips; with a dash of Lou Tellegen, a suggestion of Charles the Fifth, a vestige of that auteur that was the youthful Napoleon’s, a tinge of out-and-out showmanship. “I had no idea of doing pictures before Mr. Griffith approached me,” he said, lighting a cigarette and inhaling slowly. “He saw me in ‘Liliom,’ however, and asked me to try camera work, with a view to doing the Chevalier. I knew that it was the director of the world who was speaking, and naturally I consented.

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

“Doing pictures is far more wearing than acting upon the stage. Consider a moment yourself.” An expressive hand pointed a slender finger toward the platform on which he had been fencing. “I do this fencing scene not once or twice, but perhaps twenty times. Then I do the close-ups. Then I do the retakes. And then I am finished—with this one scene ! On the stage I go to the theater at eight, I act until ten forty-five, and I am through. The waiting, the repetition, the enforced—you call it loafing—is killing to an artist.”

Orphans of the Storm - Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey
Orphans of the Storm – Henriette and Chevalier de Vaudrey

A passing brunette, carrying in her hand a four-foot wig of dazzling vdiite, smiled alluringly. Schildkraut looked at me quickly, then dropped his eyes. “You will pardon me for a moment?” and hurried—rather strode than hurried, for he is a romantic figure, none of whom ever hurry —over to the lingering damosel. I raised an admiring eyebrow as I watched the young man’s technique in approaching and putting—putting, I should add, his lips upon her hand. Then his luminous eyes clashed with hers. Here was no Hollywood tyro in the gentle art, here no hero by Nick Carter out of Universal City; this was Lothario in the studio. Mr. Griffith was directing Morgan Wallace, the villain of the duel, in a series of close-ups. Like Lowell Sherman, Wallace is a bad man with a sense of humor, a wicked lion among the ladies—screenically—with a wicked line among the ladies. Griffith leaned forward in his chair and taunted Wallace, while the camera clicked on.

 

 

“Ha, you a fencer ! Voila, a thrust—I will kill you ! And there is another. And another. Bah ! You are poor, friend, very poor.” And Wallace parried and countered at the air, eyes blazing evilly, lips curled sardonically, snarls of laughter crowding out the curses. Suddenly he ceased his gyrations and tossed his sword down.

“What’s the matter, Wallace?” The debonair villain looked surprised. “Didn’t you say ‘Lunch?'” Griffith laughed heartily. “No, sir. I said ‘Lunge !’ Now please lunge!” Fifteen minutes later the command telescoped into the more welcome order to sword work of a different nature, and, prying the romantic Liliom from a new and utterly bewitching creature, I started with him toward the cafeteria that is justly termed a feature of the Griffith entourage. Once seated, and dallying with a tender steak, we again took up the problems of the world, with, happily, no idea of attempting to solve them.

“What do you think  of American women?” I asked him. He frowned. “Who cares?” “The public,” I replied.

And,” I added defensively, “I am merely a servant of the press that serves, in turn, the ‘public.” He did not deign to reply. “What are your ideas on love and marriage?” Again he frowned. ‘T does not concern the public whether or not I am a married man or a Mormon, a celibate, or a rounder. It is not their business whether I am middle-aged or old, whether I am stupid or intelligent. I am a public specimen only as an actor, and it is as an actor only that you have a right to consider me. If I am an artist all right. If not, too bad. But what I eat? What I drink? How much I drink? On that I have nothing to say.”

Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith

He turned upon his steak savagely. “The public over here is too inquisitive.” This closed the subject, and a moment later found him discussing his European training with Max Reinhardt, with Lubitsch in pictures, and with Pola Negri. “I have worked in all of the best Continental drama,” he said. “Molnar, Wedekind, Shaw, Hauptmann, Wilde. Bahr, Schnitzler ” “You played Anatol?” I interrupted. “Of course. Many times. Schnitzler himself directed our rehearsals. A second Anatol, by the way. A dandy, a beau among the ladies, a philanderer. And who,” he suddenly added, “who that can be is not?” At that precise moment the waitress was gazing at him in undisguised adoration. “Huckleberry pie or apple. Mr. Schildkraut ?” she cooed languishingly.

“Cofifee, Marie,-‘ he replied, and she flew off toward the kitchen with starlit eyes. He had remembered her name!

“No, I have no desire to star,” he admitted after a number of leading questions. “After coming over here from my European success, I did ‘Pagans,’ which, although a failure, brought me wonderful press notices. Belasco, Hopkins, and the Shuberts all offered immediately to star me, but it was the combination of having done ‘Liliom’ already in Vienna, and the Theater Guild —the most artistic producing group in America—that induced me to do ‘Liliom’ here. I have absolutely no wish to see my name in electrics. That means nothing to an artist.”

The Cast - Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922
The Cast – Orphans of The Storm Picture Show Art 1922

Since Schildkraut is to be so prominent in this next Griffith opus, I may tell you that he was born in Bucharest, Roumania, twenty-five years ago, and first appeared, at five, in Buenos Aires, in support of his father, Rudolph Schildkraut, famous actor of New York’s old Irving Place Theater. His father, incidentally, is his severest critic. Recently the old gentleman visited his son at Mamaroneck, and after watching him act proceeded to the main building on the old Flagler estate to see some “rushes” of the previous day’s work. Only father and son saw the projected film. They remained closeted in the projection room for a long hour. When they came out all traces of cockiness had fled from the youthful Joseph’s face. Traces of tears were apparent. “Papa says I’m rotten,” he murmured sadly. But in this case I would not “Ask dad.” The Griffith stamp of approval is reassuring.

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm

While we lunched, I spied Morgan Wallace and the good-looking Creighton Hale at a near-by table, with two charming young things whom I later found were cousins of the Gish sisters, getting their first chance to be movie queens in this huge spectacle play. The one cousin, a striking pippin, with dark hair and chiseled profile, confided to me that extra-girling il: was hard on one’s brogans. “We stand about so much,” she said. “But I’m going to stick to Mr. Griffith any time he will give me the chance. And I’ll have to finish high school first, too. Tell the world it’s wonderful, but awfully hard work.” She looked like a Gainsborough painting come to life, the costume having been an inspiration of the encouraging, sympathetic Lillian’s. I asked Lillian herself what chances she thought the beginner had. She thought for a few moments, then spoke haltingly, gently.

Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921
Orphans of The Storm Prog Herald 1921

“The beginner has a hard road to travel,” she said slowly. “I told the girls what a task it was to be an extra. I warned them. Now if they are anxious to stay in the pictures, I think they should turn out fairly well. They are eager to succeed surely. And that, coupled with beauty and grace, helps tremendously.” Recalling the flood of letters that I had seen in Picture-Play last month electing her one of the Eight Eye Fillers, I mentioned the fact to her.

Dropping her eyes, she smiled in embarrassment. “I never knew that I was a beauty. But it is wonderful to be appreciated. I don’t think any one realizes how I love the letters sent me. They mean so very much—especially now.” Her voice softened.

“Mother is in the hospital. Dorothy and I have been terribly worried about her, and these sweet letters and tokens of admiration have just kept me buoyed up sometimes when everything was bluest.” Sweet, ethereal, dainty, this emotional prima donna is lilylike, fragrant, slender, retiring, graceful—-a far cry from many of the screen heroines who become varnished disappointments off the screen. Her dreamy eyes, her tiny, round mouth, her clear white skin, all are symbolic of the girl herself—girl, I add, rather than woman, though in experience she is indeed no longer young. As we were chatting, Mr. Griffith strolled over to explain the action of the impending scene to the blond Duse.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Orphans of The Storm 1922 — with Lillian Gish2.

“And I wish you would disarrange your hair, Miss Gish,” concluded the gelatin genius, after the details had been covered. With a smile, the Annie Moore of the unforgettable ” ‘Way Down East” left us.

“This is the thing that the whole world loves,” said the creator of “The Birth,” as he calls it. “Romance! Excitement, thrills, love, and climaxes—not one, but many. When I make a picture I am making it for the world, not for myself. If I were making pictures for myself there would be more ‘Blossoms’ and fewer ‘Dream Streets,’ but”—gradually a smile appeared—”my business sense, poor though it is, tells me that ‘Dream Street’ is adjacent to Easy Street.

“I must attune my work to the masses as well as the classes. The man in the street must be fascinated just as much as the Wall Street broker and the Greenwich Village highbrow, so-called. And in ‘The Orphans’ I believe I have the universal story, with its romance, its comedy, its thrills, its heart interest, and, do not forget, far more opportunity for spreading beautiful sets than ever I have had before. Do you think that I will fail to take advantage of the opportunity?”

Dorothy Gish jumped from comedy to tragedy in this f eatvire, portraying the highly sympathetic character of the little blind girl. Creighton Hale will have the comedy moments, and, as we have already indicated, the fight for the final fade-out rests between Morgan Wallace and the talented, exotic Schildkraut. That reminds me that he told me Romeo will be his next role with the Theater Guild, opposite his present speaking-stage inamorata, Eva le Gallienne, an actress of no slight power. “What I want to do,” said Schildkraut, just before I entrained for the lights of Manhattan and a ringside seat at the Follies, “what I should love to do is Ibsen. He is the master mechanic, the complete playwright. He is so easy to do, you see, and yet one receives such extraordinary credit for doing him. Then there is always Schnitzler. And several of the English Maugham’s plays are masterly. It is my intention to stay here in America, dividing my time between the stage and screen—under the direction of the Guild in the one instance, and, of course, Mr. Griffith in the silent drama.”

On the way to the studio bus, Mr. Griffith showed me the village street in old France—Mamaroneck—complete in detail to the last cobblestone. Many of the mob scenes will be staged here, those spectacular mass effects that have placed D. W. second to none the world over. He told me that Lillian Gish was far and away the premiere actress of the silver sheet, that photography he considered second only to story, that “The Two Orphans” would take longer to make than anything he has ever done—with the possible exception of “Intolerance”—and, startling statement this, that any one can act who is not an “actor.” “Give me a plastic person who will let himself go, without thinking what he is going to look like on the screen, and I will make a real player of him. The hardest person to work with is the self-opinionated trouper with ‘ideas’ on everything from the death scene in ‘Camille’ to the off-stage shriek in ‘The Jest.’ One of the saddest losses the screen ever suffered was Clarine Seymour. Another was Bobbie Harron. Neither knew anything technical of stagecraft. They were simply born actors. And so few people are! “The born actor needs no stimulation—no music, for example. We use it very rarely. It serves only to confuse in most instances. In doing a romance like ‘The Orphans’ there’s something akin to a lyrical swing running through the whole thing—abroad, tender, appealing.” And if I were picking an artist to breathe reality into the romance of eighteenth-century France, I  should not hesitate in my selection of this same David Wark Griffith. The man is as big as his ideals. There was an enthusiasm in his voice and manner that argued well, it seemed to me, for the success of the picture, and I was told, confidentially, by one of his aids that Griffith has appeared to be much happier in the making of this picture than he has for some time. All of which has made me eager and impatient to see the finished production—a feeling which I am sure that countless thousands of Griffith’s followers will soon be sharing.

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

 

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Way Down East, a “b’gosh” Drama – By Peter Milne (Picture Play Magazine – 1920)

Picture Play Magazine – Volume XIII December 1920 No.4

The Screen in Review

By Peter Milne

DEEP-ROOTED in the traditions of the American stage is the “b’gosh” drama. This type of rural play, headed by such classics as “Way Down East,” and “The Old Homestead.” and runningdown the line to cruder copies of these, was prominently in vogue a decade or two ago. The term “b’gosh” was fastened on these plays rather condescendingly. It implied more than the mere expression of the amazed squire who exploded “b’gosh” at various moments throughout the play; it implied the squire’s false whiskers, the villain in riding boots, the simpleton hero, the barnyard scene with its painted backdrop, and the becurled ingenue whose manicured finger nails reflected the footlights. It never was great art, but it had a deep and abiding appeal. It has remained for the motion picture to eliminate some of the “b’gosh” element from the rural drama. Under the magic of the camera the squire’s whiskers have long since taken on an aspect of reality. The riding boots of the villain are not quite so obvious. Charles Ray and some few others have endowed the country heroes with a very sincere human note. The ingenue milks the cow in a real rural setting. The barnyard scene with its painted backdrop gives way to beautiful pastoral photographs. The camera reflects true rural life.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

“Way Down East” is a production in which D. W. Griffith has taken advantage of this refining influence of the camera on the rural melodrama. He has taken this old classic and turned out an astounding production, one which is already placed beside “The Birth of a Nation” in the elements of human interest, thrill, and spectacular effect. It is Griffith’s first “big” picture since “Hearts of the World.” By it he demonstrates his right to be placed above all others of his craft as the wizard who knows the hearts of the majority of picturegoers, a right which during the past two years might justly have been questioned. But though Griffith nods at times and perhaps dozes a bit his reawakenings are marked by such epics as “Way Down East.” So we can easily forgive him his little lapses.

Way Down East Wedding Salon Hotel

The first part of “Way Down East” concerns itself with the tragedy of the betrayal of Anna Moore by Lennox Sanderson, the city villain. It is melodramatic only in its fundamental situation. For the rest it is a brilliant characterization by Lillian Gish, who portrays the role of the girl. The persecuted heroine of the present production is by far the greatest role created by this actress. The heights to which she builds through her nervous, intensifying emotional ability are superb. Her romantic scenes, when she hears Sanderson’s false avowal of love, and believes the mock marriage ceremonial true, are touched with a beautiful appeal. Her sudden awakening, the realization that the man she held most dear has betrayed her, are terrific. The depths of despair to which she sinks after the death of her baby—pitifully baptized by its frenzied mother — sound a note of tragedy that is tremendously potent.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess

The second part of the story concerns itself with the development of Anna’s real romance with David, the squire’s son—a role played by Richard Barthelmess who is shown with Miss Gish’ in a scene from the play in the picture above. Here Griffith has trotted out many of the “b’gosh” incidents of the original play, and even exaggerated them. The comedy is rough and jars in its tremendous contrast with the beautifully done major action. There are plenty of genuine light scenes, pretty and amusing, but the horse play of Martha Perkins, Sterling, and Whipple strike discordant notes. But it is in this part of the picture also that the power of the camera over the theater stage asserts itself. The photography of the rural landscapes is wondrously beautiful.

Burr MackIntosh - Scene from Way Down East
Burr MackIntosh (Squire Bartlett) – Scene from Way Down East

Then comes the long sequence of climactic action—the greatest thrill ever shown. Anna’s past is revealed, and the wrath of the squire descends upon her. A brief moment of triumph is hers when she denounces Sanderson before the farmer folk who have held him a gentleman. This moment, incidentally, is Miss Gish’s triumph as well as the character’s. It is the rarest piece of acting that the screen has offered in all its years.

Anna, having denounced Sanderson, goes out into the driving snowstorm, toward the river and oblivion. At length she falls exhausted on the river ice. In the meantime David is wildly searching for her and finally comes to the river just as the great ice break begins! The ice cracks and swirls in the waters and starts its way down the current to the falls. Anna lies unconscious on a jagged piece which is soon caught in the current and hurled recklessly on.

Horrified, David begins his pursuit, leaping from one ice cake to another, nearing his goal, only to have the gap widened again the next moment by some eccentricity of the ice break, or the river current. But he keeps on, making dangerous leaps, sometimes slipping —once, indeed, he immersed himself in the water only to scramble on again in a mad frenzy to save the girl of his heart from destruction.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Final scene, rescued from the blizzard

And just as the ice bearing Anna touches the very brink of the falls, David, by one final, superhuman effort, reaches her side, snatches her from certain death, and then beats back against the ice floe to the shores of safety. Griffith is a wizard when it comes to the building of such a climax and in holding the suspense. The quick flashes from Anna to David, the numerous shots of the falls, the terrific struggle waged by David, despite his seemingly hopeless task, all bespeak the hand of a master craftsman. It is a thrill that equals anything else that even Griffith has done, not excepting the ride of the clansmen in “The Birth of a Nation” or the finale of “Hearts of the World,” in which the hero dashes to the rescue of the heroine. The ice floe is more relentless than the Hun.

Way Down East - filming the "Ice Floe Scene" (Lillian Gish)
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)

I think Griffith has gone too far in his realism on various occasions throughout “Way Down East.” The flash of Anna that suggests the tortures of childbirth might better be omitted. And it is hard to understand why an artist such as Griffith must needs introduce such minor vulgarities as the Sanderson orgy and the scene in the bedroom, in which the bed is the center of attention, just after the mock marriage of Anna and Sanderson. Realism with a capital “r” is unnecessary. But no minor exceptions can dim the praise that is Griffith’s for “Way Down East” as a whole. In his fine work he has been aided by Miss Gish’s wonderful performance, by the upright work of Richard Barthelmess as David, by the polished performance of Lowell Sherman as Sanderson, and by Burr Mcintosh’s characterization of Squire Bartlett.

Griffith in Way Down East - Picture-Play Magazine (Dec 1920)
Griffith in Way Down East – Picture-Play Magazine (Dec 1920)

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