The kindergarten of the movies : a history of the Fine Arts Company
The Children Pay – By Anthony Slide – 1980
Far more impressive is The Children Pay, directed by Lloyd Ingraham and scripted by Frank Woods. It is a simple story, told in that simple, straightforward fashion which Griffith had perfected at Biograph, and was to use to advantage later in True Heart Susie and A Romance of Happy Valley. The early scenes give Lillian Gish a superb opportunity to play a tomboy, firing a catapult, driving a soap box derby-type car and fighting with a boy outside the church and thus breaking up the service. In all this, she is aided and abetted by the delightful Violet Wilkey, who played Mae Marsh as a child in The Birth of a Nation.
Of The Children Pay, Julian Johnson wrote in Photoplay (February 1917),
Here is the sanest, most humanly interesting five-reeler of the month, although in most of its episodes decidedly undramatic. It is such a story of drifting parents, an ever-widening domestic gulf, and the keen sorrows and quaint joys of a pair of little girls as you might expect from the pen of a young William Dean Howells. As a matter of fact, Frank E. Woods of Fine Arts wrote it, and there are deployed in its unrolling such redoubtable character persons as Ralph Lewis, Jennie Lee, Loyola O’Connor and Carl Stockdale. Miss O’Connor, as the demi-artist mother, provides a remarkable exhibit of self-satisfied selfishness, wholly different from the usual sympathetic vehicle accorded her. Lillian Gish plays Millicent, the oldest girl who is the focal center of all the activity. I have never seen Miss Gish draw a more real, interesting and believable young woman. She has literal pep and actual punch–two qualities which tradition says are extremely ungishy. There are those who say the final legal situation is impossible. I don’t know that the body of the play is a page of life, of which the screen shows far too little.
Chicago Tribune – Monday, February 4, 1929 – Page 35
Desert Wind Blows Drama Into This Movie
Gives Lillian Gish New Laurels, Too.
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Directed by Victor Seastrom
Presented at the Rialto theater
Letty ……………..…………… Lillian Gish
Lige ………………….……… Lars Hanson
Roddy ………………… Montague Love
Cora ……………… Dorothy Cummings
Beverly …………….…….. Edward Earle
Sourdough .….… William Orlamond
The Wind – Photo Gallery
By Mae Tinee
I don’t just see what “The Wind” is doing in a burlesque theater!
It’s a compelling thing and Lillian Gish never has done a finer piece of work than her portrayal of the flower-like southern girl who goes into the west to face brutality, terror, love – and the desert wind that blows and blows and never stops, but only gets wilder with the days, lashing itself into tornadoes and the occasional dread “norther” that makes strong men grave and brave women mad.
The story is a strange and thrilling one of the southwest of the early days. It is grim and full of incident, mostly gray and gritty as the blinding, blowing sands. It is one of those pictures that would be just too much to bear unless it had a happy ending.
Well – It has.
Miss Gish is supported by an able cast doing magnificent work. The direction is masterly. Photography – immense. The wind is so real it tears into your nerves.
“Choc’lit bars! ‘Sorted nuts ‘n’ raisins! Sundae with spoon service — !”
However DID “The Wind” get into a burlesque theater.”
Chicago Tribune – Monday, October 2, 1916 – Page 19
An interesting Picture Well Done
“Diane of the Follies”
Written by Granville Warwick
Produced by Fine Arts
Directed by Christy Cabanne
Released by Triangle
Diane …………………………………. Lillian Gish
Phillips Christy …………..…. Sam de Grasse
Dea Livingston ………………… Howard Gaye
Marcia Christy ………….….. Lillian Langdon
Jimmie Darcy ……………………… A. D. Sears
Theatrical manager ……….… Wilbur Higby
Butler …………………….…… William de Vaull
Bijou Christy ………. Wilhelmina Siegmann
Girls from the Follies – Adele Clifton, Clara Morris, Helen Walcott, Gracie Heins
By Kitty Kelly
It is curious to see the cameo faced Lillian Gish capering about as a dancer of the follies. Her general sedateness has faded far in “Diane of the Follies” and she is as tempestuous a whirlwind as Gaby Deslys at her palmist.
“Diane of the Follies” is a curious thing, too. It is rather embarrassed with ideas, but some of them got mixed up with themselves and didn’t come through to a finish, resulting in a certain illogicalness. They are the effect of environment and the husband’s lack of sympathy and his companionable neglect of his wife. The result is matrimonial shipwreck, but as the story seems to indicate, a much desired personal freedom.
Diana is a young hypocrite, not so much intentionally as in effect. She is a product of the stage and her ruling characteristic is the chameleon quality of changing her personality to fit histrionically the environment in which she finds herself. The breath of life to her is the applause of approval which she gets in liberal measure from the other side of the footlights.
Naturally she is a shallow thing, but she has a good heart which might have been cultivated, but which the husband allows to lie fallow. She wishes to join to his intellectual pursuits; he shuts her out, but includes the elderly sister who has always kept his house for him. And furthermore he grows bored at Diane’s efforts to attract and please him. The marvel is that with her nature she stuck it out three years or more, arguing a character ballast undreamed of.
There comes a domestic crisis in which she flings off to the stage and glory. Then the baby, the only joy that came to her from the marriage died, thus breaking all ties. Diane goes forever to the life she loved and knew and leaves her respectable husband to his version of the same.
It is an extremely interesting picture, extremely well done. Sometimes Miss Gish’s Diane is just a little too temperamental and certain mannerisms are too obvious. Sometimes she jerks about altogether too much. But her characterization of the variously mooded Diane is quite an achievement on the whole. She makes her live and further, enlists our sympathies.
It isn’t the socially correct and outraged husband and sister whom one pities, though they did get ridden over rather roughly; it is poor thing trying, unappreciated, tempestuous tempered Diane. The husband might at least have tried to make something of her, but he seemed not to. The conclusion is that sympathy must be a factor in environment if the latter is to have any influence.
Here as ever in Fine Arts films, the little things are exquisitely done. They are too numerous and too small to receive attention in chronicling, but they are really, the mainstay of the picture. The natural human things the supporting players do provide an atmosphere of reality as background for the main thread of the story. For instance here, the quiet, well bred disgruntlement of the sister keys the whole affair into naturalness. Such bits abound.
A lot of people won’t like it because it has a queer heroine, but she is no queerer and a deal realer than the weird vampire things set forth so successfully. And a lot of people will like it because it is an interesting thing set forth skillfully.
One of the loveliest picture bits I’ve ever seen is that where Diane, leaving, remembers the baby in the nursery – but does not go to kiss him good-by.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, January 27 1927 – Page 94
Lillian Gish is Annie Laurie
Lillian Gish is the demure damsel before you, and she looks like this in “Annie Laurie,” in which picture she has the role of the Scottish Joan of Arc.
Lillian Gish literally is Annie Laurie. Those who imagined her as a myth or legend will be amazed at the actual woman; Miss Gish is a faithful portrayer of the real Annie Laurie, who lived centuries ago whose love and whose heroism turned the tide of Scottish history in a real life drama more powerful than any imagined by a scenarist; and whose romance has come down to the world in song of the ancient bard. “Annie Laurie” is a tremendous drama of history. It deals with the gigantic ferment and struggle in Scotland that culminated in the Glencoe Massacre.
It is all laid on actual fact. Miss Gish, as the historic daughter of Sir Robert Laurie, chief of Clan Campbell, approaches the genius of Bernhardt, but always coupled with her own ethereal charm, in the mighty drama, in which she enacts the Scottish Joan of Arc. Norman Kerry plays the hero as a chieftain of the enemy clan of MacDonald. The great battle scenes, with hordes of six foot wanders in tartans and plaids, battling with shield and claymore—the majesty of the ancient Scotch castles these all add glamor. But the charm of Lillian Gish pervades it all.
Annie Laurie – Photo Gallery
Admin note: Lillian, however, was riding on the top wave. An English company offered her the lead in “The Constant Nymph”; a great German company offered the part of Juliet: “Cannot tell you how delighted we should be, if the remotest possibility”; de la Falaise offered her the part of Joan of Arc, in a picture for which Pierre Champion, the great French authority on Joan, had prepared the scenario. To the last named, she replied that she had long been considering the part of Joan, and put the matter aside with real regret. And many wanted to write of her. Whatever she did, or was about to do, was news. A magazine, Liberty, sent a gifted young man, Sidney Sutherland, all the way to the Coast to see her. He had expected to do one, possibly two, articles, but his editors asked for more, and under the general title of “Lillian the Incomparable” continued his chapters —”reels” as he not inaptly termed them—through nine weekly instalments! On any excuse, and with no excuse at all, other than what it presented, and stood for, periodicals carried her picture. Vanity Fair published a full front-page portrait, by Steichen, nominating her “The First Lady of the Screen.”
Victor Seastrom’s eight American films are a remarkable showcase of Swedish temperament and extroverted puritanism. The best of them are so stark and austere that, if it weren’t for the presence of Lillian Gish, Garbo, and other Hollywood names, they could pass as Swedish imports. Many of them seem interrelated, particularly Name the Man (based on a Hall Caine novel of sin and perhaps excessive redemption) and the beautifully photographed and acted The Scarlet Letter (based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, which could be described in identical terms). Lars Hanson’s impressive but far too stylized acting (in The Scarlet Letter in particular, though also in The Wind, in both of which “grand manner” acting is in marked contrast to the subtle and graceful underplaying of Lillian Gish), further stresses the “non-American” quality of these films.
Nevertheless, on the whole, Seastrom’s American career can be considered a success. The Scarlet Letter ( 1926 ) was undoubtedly his masterpiece, an adaptation of the Hawthorne novel, in which the stark, puritanical fervor of the original novel was matched by the austere echoes of Scandinavian cinema. Even though the scenario somewhat muted and romanticized Hawthorne’s original, Lars Hanson’s extremely stylized playing and Hendrik Sartov’s superb camerawork, full of delicate pictorial symbolism, restored the balance. Lillian Gish’s mature and sensitive performance, in a role that was a far cry from the Victorian innocents that she had played for Griffith, was superb.
Gish, Hanson, and Seastrom were reunited by MGM for The Wind, a strange amalgamation of themes and elements from Greed, White Gold, and traditional westerns. A bizarre, shapeless affair, devoid of any real sense of period ( even Lillian Gish’s costuming seemed to exist in a vacuum ) , it was a monumental example of talent triumphing over scenario. Even changing the original tragic ending (in which the Gish character goes insane and wanders off into the desert) to a happy one (she kills the villain who has earlier raped her, buries his body in the desert, and is reunited with her previously estranged husband ) seemed not to affect the film, except perhaps for its commercial betterment. The plot, though based on a 1925 story, seemed too old-fashioned and erratic to be taken seriously, and the switch from tragedy to happiness hardly represented a box-office sellout. The atmospheric photography (John Arnold),
Seastrom’s beautifully underplayed direction (the killing scene was a brilliant essay in suggestion, the whole act of the body falling to the floor being conveyed by a shot of a dust-laden plate jarring, and resettling), and the superb control exercised by Lillian Gish over potentially flamboyant theatrics, all represented the silk purse of silent screen art at its peak, despite the sow’s ear on which it was squandered. Commercially, he was able to fall back on Hollywood stars (Gish, Chaney, Shearer, Gilbert, Garbo) to counteract his somewhat austere style. And in any case, while Swedish directorial styles (many of which derived from the German cinema) were not exactly emulated by other Hollywood directors, lesser imported directors like Sven Gade, and the use of Scandinavian-oriented material as vehicles for Swedish stars (Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil, from a Suderman story, starring Garbo, Gilbert, and Hanson, is a case in point), did tend to make the Swedish point of view, if not commonplace, then at least visible. Seastrom’s Hollywood career was certainly more successful than Stiller’s.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, April 22, 1928 – Page 91
Film Depicts War Minus the Glamour
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Directed by Fred Niblo, Presented at the Chicgo theater tomorrow.
Pauli Arndt …………..………… Lillian Gish
Carl Behrend ………………. Ralph Forbes
Bruce Gordon ………….. Ralph Emerson
Professor Arndt ……….…. Frank Currier
August Behrend ….….. George Fawcett
Mitzi Winkelmann …… Fritzi Ridgeway
Fritz Winkelmann ……… John S. Peters
Jan …………………….…………….. Karl Dane
Baruska …………….…………. Polly Moran
Kurt …………….………. Billy Kent Shaefer
By Mae Tinee
And now comes “The Enemy” to put its influence on the side of the outlawry of war. The picture, adapted from Channing Pollock’s play, does not have war outlawry as its subject, but it’s portrayal of Hate as “the enemy”; its argument that profiteering and not patriotism is, in the last analysis, the spirit behind the wars of nations, makes strong food for the thoughtful.
Again one sees gallant youth marching to death on bloody battlefields for “God and country.” So many boys! So many countries! Only one God, to whom all are praying for aid and vengeance! And safe and snug at home – the profiteers! – crooning exultant lullabies to their war babies. That is what “The Enemy” is about. The action takes place in Austria, before, during and after the world war. With the exception of a few instances in which the director became rather awkwardly entangled with his material, Mr. Niblo has made his picture a telling one that whams the author’s meaning home with force and pain.
The Story is Laid in Vienna.
The principal characters are Pauli, a gentle German maiden, daughter of an old university professor, dearly beloved by the student lads who come to Vienna to study from every other country in the world. A kindly philosopher is Prof. Arndt; a believer in all the powerfulness of love …
Pauli; the professor – then Carl Behrend, the German youth who has been Pauli’s sweetheart from babyhood; Bruce Gordon, an English student and Carl’s best friend, who also loves Pauli, and August Behrend, Carl’s father, the profiteer.
The other players are important asides, but the ones named bear the brunt of the story on their shoulders.
On the eve of the war the student body of the university at Vienna breaks class. There is an atmosphere of great good fellowship and later, at dinner at Pauli’s, the love of Pauli and Carl is wholeheartedly toasted and by none more cordially by Bruce Gordon who has accepted the fact that Pauli can never be his.
Into this gathering, like a bomb bursting in the air, comes the announcement that war has been declared. Bitter argument starts that ends in a fight between the students. Bruce leaves to serve his country.
Pauli and Carl are married – the music of their wedding march broken in upon by strains of martial music as the soldiers march to the front. And Pauli spends a sleepless wedding night, her anguished eyes on the clock that soon will strike the hour of five when her husband must leave her, perhaps forever.
War, as It Was Behind the Lines.
After that the picture shows war as it was at home while the guns on the battle front were taking their toll. Starvation. Suffering of all kinds.
Pauli’s father is dismissed from the university because of pacifist utterances, and the Arndts and their devoted maid, Baruska, know utter poverty. Behrend, the profiteer, offers money that is refused.
“It is stained with the blood of women and children. The price for a corner in wheat. And you call yourself a patriot!” says Arndt.
“It is war,” says Behrend, shrugging, and takes his departure.
I need to go no further into detail regarding events that cause Pauli to make a good woman’s ultimate sacrifice in order that her baby may have milk; her terrible joy when it dies; or the fighter incident of the parrot who cries, once too often “Hurrah for the glory of war!” at a time when something is needed to strengthen the soup.
Nor of course, do you care to know about the ending.
As Pauli, Miss Gish has (I believe) her first modern role. Her characters have always lived in the past – Hester Prynne, Mimi, Romola, Annie Laurie … Personally I prefer her in portrayals of femmes of an earlier day. She is fundamentally, the most unmodern person in the world and is no more to be brought up-to-date than a crinoline. Her Pauli was, to me, somewhat of a ghost lady, to be approved of and pitied in shadowy fashion. A ghost lady whose troubles chill the heart like a cold mist but are incapable of awakening that heart to strong, passionate, protesting response. She may affect you differently, but that’s how I felt about her. ***
Ralph Forbes you will find lovable and convincing, as is Ralph Emerson – great nephew, by the way, of the Emerson who has meant so much to so many of us.
Frank Currier is a dear as the professor, and George Fawcett a devil as the profiteer. Polly Moran and Polly the parrot contribute bits of needed mirth. And maybe you will care more for the others in the cast than I did.
Intelligent thought has been given stagings and the picture is excellently photographed. It is a production you will not lightly forget.
*** Admin note: Below are written some of the opinions of others, well known others, who indeed were affected by Miss Gish’s performance somewhat different than Miss Tinee here. Also if one cares to read more detailed and well documented reviews of above mentioned film, kindly access the home page and search for “The Enemy” (upper right corner)
“Although Miss Gish’s acting is on her own familiar lines, she has, as always, that valuable asset of restraint. Fred Niblo, who was responsible for the film version of “Ben Hur,” does not display in his direction any great imagination in the handling of the players nor in the continuity of action.” (Mordaunt Hall – NY Times)
“Lillian Gish ceases to be the ethereal goddess. She is an every-day woman who sacrifices her man, her child and finally her honor, for the necessity rather than glory of battle. As the Austrian bride of an Austrian soldier she proves that she is a really great actress. Her love scenes with Ralph Forbes are superb with genuine emotion; her sufferings as realistically tragic as though she had lived behind the German trenches.” (Photoplay – The Shadow Stage)
“Lillian Gish A Hit in her First Big Modern Role” (Loew’s Ohio Newsette UA 1928)
“Most of the interest goes to Lillian Gish, who never has done a more honest bit of acting. It is earnest, sincere, and save where the author grows over hysterical, convincing. It rises superior to her “Hester Prynne” and atones for “Annie Laurie.” (MOVING PICTURE WORLD December 31, 1927)
“The star is Lillian Gish and, as is her custom, she acts with fine poise and restraint and yet releases an admirable suggestion of pent-up emotions.” (Laurence Reid – Motion Picture News – December 31, 1927)
“Lillian Gish comes to the Strand theatre in her first modern role on the screen. Heretofore the famous star has always lived in the past, so far as her plays were concerned; in fact, it was often held that her type of wistful appeal could only be brought out in period plays and stories harking back to the days of long ago. But in “The Enemy,” she is even more effectively dramatic as a modern woman than even as a Romola or Mimi or Hester Prynne.” (San Pedro News Pilot, Volume I, Number 98, 27 June 1928)
“Beneath her frail exterior, Lillian Gish conceals an indomitable spirit and unshakable courage and willpower. Long ago, when she left D. W. Griffith’s direction, disaster was predicted. Few believed that she could stand alone, away from the man under whose guiding genius she had risen to the first rank of screen stars. But Lillian was no Trilby, to collapse when Svengali’s spell was removed. She determined to show a critical world that she had brains of her own and could use them. She made her first independent film, and to-day Lillian still ranks amongst the first-class stars.” (Picture Show Annual – 1929)
A TRIO that means much to Triangle—Lillian and Dorothy Gish and their mother! Not only does this one-family constellation of stars mean much to Triangle, but it contributes much toward the perpetuity of the happiness of thousands of photoplay fans throughout filmdom. At the beautiful Ruth St. Denis home in Los Angeles this interesting little family lives the lives of cultured gentlewomen, devoting themselves to their profession and bringing to it the highest artistic endeavor. The result is that the Gish girls, though young in years, have long since become established as prime favorites. Lillian Gish is more of a student and a dreamer, being given to secluding herself while she thinks out her part and costumes it according to her own lines. She is of a delicate, almost ethereal style of beauty.
Dorothy Gish, the younger, is an outdoors girl, full of life and high spirits, she going in for all outdoor sports in which she excels. Both girls are devoted to their mother, and are her constant companions. To Mrs. Gish is due the credit of the successful artistic careers of her daughters, as she has personally instructed them since they were tiny girls.
It is good to know that that old superstition about only one really brilliant member of a family appearing in the same generation, is not true. Lillian and Dorothy Gish disprove it. Ever since they began work for the Triangle programme, they have been stars of equal magnitude. One of the most interesting facts about these two sisters, who have won so many admirers throughout the nation, is that off the screen they are precisely like any other sweet American girls untouched by fame. That, however, is where their resemblance to each other ceases. Temperamentally they are as unlike as any two respectable persons could be.
Lillian is a girl of the old-fashioned kind. She loves sewing and cooking, and can undertake general housekeeping if necessary, which, of course, it never will be. Dorothy is a woman of the future. Joyously impractical, her imagination is just one riot of poetic fancy. Dorothy is at once the delight and distraction of her sweet-faced mother and sister. All three are great chums ; and their evenings together, after work at the studio has been completed for the day, are sacred to them. One would no sooner think of breaking into that charmed circle than—than in walking on the grass when the sign says not to. Dorothy began her dramatic career at the age of four—she is not yet out of her teens—playing little Willie in “East Lynne.” She often has regretted in late seasons that she made so many persons cry through her portrayal of that famous role. After “East Lynne,” she appeared chiefly in melodrama, but presently she entered a school in Virginia, remaining there five years. Then she was engaged by D. W. Griffith, who took her with him through several motion picture companies to the Triangle programme. She has been seen there in “Old Heidelberg,” “Jordan is a Hard Road,” “Betty of Graystone,” “Little Meena’s Romance” and “Susan Rocks the Boat.”
Lillian Gish, the elder sister, made her debut when only six years old, in a melodrama called “The Little Red Schoolhouse.” She then became a pupil in a Springfield dancing school, and her next engagement was as one of the fairy dancers with Sarah Bernhardt, who then was making one of her American tours. After two seasons with Mme, Bernhardt, Lillian went to New York to finish her dancing lessons. There she renewed her old acquaintance with Mary Pickford and went with her to visit a picture studio. There she was seen by D. W. Griffith, who was attracted by her natural poise and expression, and he placed her under contract at once. Since joining Triangle, she has appeared in “The Lily and the Rose,” “Daphne and the Pirate,” “Sold Marriage” and “An Innocent Magdalene.” This Miss Gish has two hobbies — collecting rare old books, mainly on ancient history, and playing golf. She is a keen student of literature, and she can discuss manner master. She always arranges her affairs each week so systematically as to permit of a certain number of hours to be devoted exclusively to reading. Needless to add, there are thousands of fine volumes in her library, and she prizes every one of them to the highest degree. She plays the piano delightfully and displays enough aptitude to make one wonder why she has never thought of achieving fame as a pianist. However, her sole idea in playing the piano is to add credibly to the entertainment in her own family circle.
Meanwhile Dorothy Gish has hobbies too. She loves motoring and drives her own car dexterously, and ’tis said often precariously in her zeal to have excitement. She is likewise an expert horsewoman, and she is ruled by an extreme kindness towards all dumb animals. When it comes to aquatic sports, she is immensely capable and she can stand a good endurance test in swimming at any time.
“We love our mother and our art, and we never worry,” Dorothy says. “I am sure as long as anyone remains in this sort of attitude happiness will be a permanent consort.”
“And I think the motion picture has been the cause of our greatest joz in life just as it has served the same purpose with thousands of other people,” Lillian supplements.
“My girls believe in rather a close corporation so far as family life is concerned, but they do derive unlimited pleasure from the realization that they are helping to lighten the burdens of humanity by their artistry on the screen,” Mrs, Gish chimes in pleasantly.
Needless to add, there are thousands of ardent photoplay fans who swear by the Gish sisters, and they will all no doubt be glad to learn that mother counts for so much. Indeed, mankind always likes to have mother exert her potential and beneficial influence over the affairs of mankind. It is all in accordance with our most exalted ideals.
Finally, the future of the Gish sisters is replete with possibilities of greater accomplishments than their noteworthy past has brought and throughout their careers—while you are watching their delightful performances on the screen—just always remember that everything they do, both professionally and in private life, is more under the direction of their mother than under any picture director.
“To mother we owe everything, and her instruction is the supreme court with us,” Dorothy explains.
“And if either of us do good work in portraying characters, please give the full credit to mother,” Lillian adds.
All hail the successful firm of Gish Sisters & Company!
And, remember, photoplay fans, while you are watching these girls perform on a screen, you are seeing the results of a mother’s set ambition.
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.