“The Star Wagon” came to the Chicago stage as welcome relief from the Lenten drougth in drama. It was the first new play, except for two WPA contributions of minor interest, to open here in four weeks, and its premiere was notable for cordiality of audience response. It brought an admirable cast, with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as co-stars; and it told a diverting and unusual story of American life with overtones of philosophic brooding over the mystery of life and time and destiny.
After adventures into the past with his “time machine,” the old inventor who is the central figure in the tale [acted with humor and quiet emotional touches by Mr. Meredith] brings down the curtain with the following speech, which expresses the spirit in which Maxwell Anderson approached his fantastic theme:
[After singing two stanzas of “The Holy City”]: “I never believed much in a golden city, back there in the choir. I don’t believe it now. But they were right about one thing, the old prophets – there is a holy city somewhere. A place we hunt for, and go forward, all of us trying and none of us finding it. Because our lives are like the bird, you remember, in the old reader that flew in from a dark night through a room lighted with candles, in by an open window, and out on the other side.
We come out of dark, and live for a moment where it is light, and then go back into the dark again. Some time we’ll know what’s out there in the black beyond the window where we came in, and what’s out there in the black on the other side, where it all seems to end.”
Bloomers and Trousers of 1902
The second act of “The Star Wagon” is a study in American small town manners in 1902, and as such it contains the exaggerations, tending toward caricature, which are generally found in theatrical reconstructions of the past. Miss Gish’s bloomer costume for bicycle riding has almost a “Hollywood” quality in the extremeness of its design. I can easily remember thousands of bloomer girls of 1902 or earlier, and none of them looked like that. Furthermore, in 1902, the nation had become blasé to bloomers and and they were rapidly going out of fashion.
The automobile of which Mr. Meredith was the proud creator is patterned after designs that were archaic in 1902. The men’s clothing is truer to the comic sketches of the period that to the suits, hats, neckties and collars actually worn by the average male at the time.
Songs used in plays of this type are often anachronisms. For example, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” used in the film in “Old Chicago,” was composed years after the date of the Chicago fire. Eager to fix such a “time machine” error on “The Star Wagon,” I dipped into the history of “The Holy City,” but lost my bet. This song was composed in 1892; music by Stephen Adams, words by F.E. Weatherly.
Walking along Sixth Avenue the other afternoon, we bumped into Guy Bolton, the playwright and a friend of long standing, and he suggested that we accompany him to a rehearsal of “Anya” – a musical version of “Anastasia,” the highly successful drama he wrote some years ago in collaboration with Marcelle Maurette. For the musical, he told us, he collaborated on the book with George Abbott, who is also directing the new production. “We’re putting it on at the Ziegfeld, and I’m rather happy about that, since I was the co-author of “Rio Rita,” the play that got the theatre going, on February 2, 1927,” he said. As a matter of fact, I directed the first rehearsal of the first play there, because John Harwood, the director of ‘Rio Rita,’ became so emotional over the death of his dog that he couldn’t handle the initial run-through. Incidentally, a portrait of my wife-to-be adorned the cover of the program of ‘Rio Rita,’ so both she and I feel pretty sentimental about the old stand. I’m sorry to say that after the run of “Anya” – a long one, I hope – the Ziegfeld won’t be with us anymore. Billy Rose, who owns the place, is going to have it torn down and replaced by an office building. Or so he told me. Maybe if ‘Anya’ goes on and on – permit me to dream – he’ll be tempted to maintain it as a theatre. You know, with all this building activity around New York, I sometimes think I should have stuck to architecture, which was my original profession – I had a hand in designing some houses on the East Side – but when I was nineteen I sold a story to the Smart Set, and it wasn’t long afterward that I decided to make writing my life work. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
“Ever since” is quite a while, for Mr. Bolton, a grave, sturdy, well-tailored, and handsome man who could readily be mistaken for a middle-aged diplomat, has just celebrated his eighty-first birthday. In his theatrical career, he has turned out a spate of plays and musicals, mostly in collaboration, although such independent creations as “Sally” and “Polly Preferred” were as popular as any of the works for which he shared the author’s credits. Of the men he has worked with, Mr. Bolton has found P. G. Woodehouse one of the most congenial, and as we strolled up the avenue he informed us that Mr. Woodehouse, who is a neighbor of his in Remsenburg, Long Island, sometimes shames him with his energy. “I don’t find it hard to work twelve hours a day, but Plum Woodehouse, who is older than I am, seems to be in perpetual literary motion” he said. “Still, he’s been that was as long as I’ve known him. I guess that’s why the Princess musicals, which we wrote together – ‘Oh, Boy,’ ‘Leave It to Jane,’ ‘Oh, Lady! Lady!,’ and so on – were turned out so speedily. George Abbott is another whirlwind of industry, but after all, he is only seventy-eight.”
By this time, we had arrived at the Ziegfeld, and Mr. Bolton paused for a moment to survey the street outside the theatre, which has been boarded over because of some subway construction beneath the surface. “We’ve been assured that the roadbed will be back to normal before we open, but I’ve learned over the years never to be certain about anything,” he remarked. “I suppose I should have a tolerance for digging of any kind, since my father did a lot of it around Manhattan. He was a civil engineer, and his avocation was seeking Indian artifacts. He also made a hobby of collecting buttons that fell off soldiers’ uniforms during the Revolutionary campaigns hereabouts. He was intensely interested in this region, and was the author of “Indian Paths in the Great Metropolis,” among other things. I’ve never been able to concentrate on any region with his sort of enthusiasm, and I’m just as much at home in London as I am here, which is as it should be, since my roots in England go deep. Of my various ancestors, I’m proudest of Prior William Bolton, who is said to have designed the Chapel of Henry VII, in Westminster Abbey. But before I begin to sound as worshipful as a Chinese about bygone Boltons, let’s proceed to the rehearsal hall.”
The hall, it developed, adjoins the offices of Billy Rose, atop the Ziegfeld. It is an area almost as large as a basketball court, and when we visited it, was crowded with folding chairs, folding tables, an ancient upright piano, and the cast of “Anya,” which is also large. On a folding chair to the left of the door, as we entered, we saw Mr. Abbott, who looked tall and authoritative even while sitting down. Some of the actors were lost in reverie; others were bustling about, as was Hanya Holm, the gray-haired choreographer of “Anya,” who, at seventy or so, is still as agile as a ballerina. Among those seated along the wall to the right of us was noticed Lillian Gish, looking as winsome as she did when she was an orphan of the storm. We remarked on this to Mr. Bolton, and he said, “Lillian will soon be seventy, and she has skin that an ingénue would envy. She doesn’t sing in “Anya,” but she does a few recitatives against a musical background.”
“Quiet!” Mr. Abbott suddenly shouted, and he emphasized his command by clapping his hands and blowing a whistle. Miss Gish, who plays the last Dowager Empress of Russia in “Anya,” and Constance Towers, who plays her purported grand-child, took their places before Mr. Abbott and launched into a scene in which the grandchild tries to convince the Dowager Empress that she is indeed the surviving daughter of Nicholas II. The scene went along smoothly until Mr. Abbott gently interrupted Miss Gish in the middle of a speech.
“You jumped a line, Lillian,” Mr. Abbott pointed out.
“Oh, I’m dreadfully sorry,” Miss Gish said.
A prompted supplied the missing line, and the scene went to its conclusion. No sooner had Miss Gish and Miss Towers made their way to the sidelines that Mr. Abbott again called for quiet, clapped his hands, and blew his whistle. “Next scene!” he said.
Mr. Bolton told us, sotto-voce, that he was going to step outside. “I’ve got to think over a scene I want to discuss with George, and I want to think it over without distraction,” he said.
“Are the rehearsals always this untroubled?” we inquired as we accompanied him into the corridor.
“There’s a good deal of experience involved here, and that’s always a help,” Mr. Bolton replied. “And, just to keep that element of experience powerful, Robert Wright and George Forrest, who are collaborating on the music and lyrics, are basing their score on themes from Rachmaninoff. You know, I’ll be glad when “Anya” is on its way. I’ve got a novel I want to finish soon.”
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
James Agee’s elegiac and touching novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously by McDowell, Obolensky two years after his death from a heart attack in New York City on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-five. The novel, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, was adapted as a play in 1960 by Tad Mosel (George Ault Mosel, Jr.). Mosel won the Pulitzer Prize for his play in 1961, marking the first time in the forty-five-year-old history of the awards that a play adapted from a Pulitzer Prize novel was also the recipient of the award. The play opened to general critical acclaim but was ignored by the public. Three days after the opening, the closing notice went up. The author, producers, director and other personnel waived their royalties and salaries; the Shuberts reduced the theatre rental and the published announcement of the play’s clos¬ ing added public support. Again the closing notice went up for Saturday April 22, 1961, but on Tuesday, April 18 the play was given the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best Play of the Year and, again, survived. The flux of audience absenteeism and hopeful honorariums won the beleaguered play the synonym of “The Miracle on 44th Street.” In the superlative cast assembled for the play, Colleen Dewhurst (who won the “Tony” Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama), Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Aline Mac- Mahon, Art Smith and others, was an 81-year-old woman who played the role of Great-Great-Granmaw, Lylah Tiffany, who for eleven years supported herself by playing the accordian on the sidewalk out¬ side of Carnegie Hall. Miss Tiffany repeated her role of the 102- year-old Great-Great-Granmaw in the film version of the play.
Belasco Theatre, New York, opened November 30, 1960. 334 performances. Produced by Fred Coe (in association with Arthur Can¬ tor); Director, Arthur Penn; Settings and lighting, David Hays; Cos¬ tumes, Raymond Sovey; Assistant director, Gene Lasko Arthur Hill (Jay Follet); Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet); Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch); Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch); Art Smith (Father Jackson); Lenka Peterson (Sally Follet); Clif¬ ton James (Ralph Follet); Edwin Wolfe (John Henry Follet); Thomas Chalmers (Joel Lynch); Tom Wheatley (Andrew Lynch); Georgia Simmons (Jessie Follet); Dorrit Kelton (Aunt Sadie Follet); Lylah Tiffany (Great-Great-Granmaw); John Megna (Rufus); Christopher Month (Jim-Wilson); Larry Provost, Jeff Conaway, Gary Morgan, Robert Ader (Boys)
ANYA, Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, opened November 29, 1965.
16 performances. Produced by Fred R. Fehlhaber; Director, George Abbott; Scenery, Robert Randolph; Costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting, Richard Casler; Dances and musical numbers, Hanya Holm; Book, (based on the play Anastasia), by George Abbott, Guy Bolton; Musical director, Harold Hastings; Orchestrations, Don Walker; Music (based on themes by Rachmaninoff), and lyrics, Robert Wright, George Forrest Constance Towers (Anya); Lillian Gish (Dowager Empress); John Michael King (Prince Paul); Ed Steffe (Petrovin); George S. Irving (Chernov); Michael Kermoyan (Bounine); Margaret Mullen (Baroness Livenbaum); Irra Petina (Katrina); Boris Aplon (Josef); Lawrence Brooks (Count Drivinitz); Adair McGowan (Count Dorn); Jack Dabdoub (Sergei); Walter Hook (Yegor); Karen Shepard (Genia, the Countess Hohenstadt); Laurie Franks (Olga); Rita Metzger (Masha); Lawrence Boyll (Sleigh Driver); Elizabeth Howell (Anouchka); Barbara Alexander (Tinka); Maggie Task (Mother); Michael Quinn (Father); Elizabeth Howell (Countess Drivinitz); Bernard Frank, Lawrence Boyll (Policemen); Howard Kahl (Police Sergeant); Patricia Hoffman (Nurse); Konstantin Pio- Ulsky (Balalaika player); Barbara Alexander, Ciya Challis, Patricia Drylie, Juliette Durand, Kip Andrews, Steven Boockvor, Randy Doney, Joseph Nelson (Dancers); Laurie Franks, Patricia Hoffman, Rita Metzger, Mia Powers, Lourette Raymon, Diane Tarleton, Maggie Task, Darrel Askey, Lawrence Boyll, Les Freed, Horace Guittard, Walter Hook, Howard Kahl, Adair McGowan, Richard Nieves, J. Vernon Oaks, Robert Sharp, John Taliaferro, Bernard Frank (Singers)
SONGS: Anya; A Song from Somewhere; Vodka, Vodka!; So Proud; Homeward; Snowflakes and Sweethearts; On That Day; Six Palaces; Hand in Hand; This Is My Kind of Love; That Prelude!; A Quiet Land; Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?; Leben Sie Wohl; If This Is Goodbye; Little Hands; All Hail the Empress
Arsenic and Old Lace
Ford Theatre’s telecast of the play on April 11, 1949, remains the best video production with Josephine Hull and Boris Karloff reprising their stage roles. Best of Broadway’s January 5, 1955 telecast of Arsenic and Old Lace, according to Variety, was excellent, “Miss Hayes was a complete delight. Karloff and Lorre made the perfect murderous pair, relishing every line. Bean added comedy-relief of his own in fine double-take fashion.” Hallmark Hall of Fame’s experiment with the comedy in 1962 was found wanting by Variety, The wit and fantasy of the Kesselring original were swamped by several earthbound actors.” Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick. as the administering spinsters, were considered too real to be fun while Tony Randall as Mortimer was excessively clownish. The American Broadcasting System produced a two-hour color-special of Arsenic and Old Lace on April 2, 1969. that Variety found “was still almost as good for laughs as it was 28 years ago. Acting was good and professional. But you’d expect that from a cast of pros headed by Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the murderous but well meaning little old Brewster sisters.” At the end of the telecast, eleven of& the thirteen “bodies” emerged from the cellar to take bows with the “live” cast–as had been done on the stage.
ABC Color Special, televised April 2, 1969. ABC. 2 hours. Producer, Hubbell Robinson; Television adaptation, Luther Davis; Director, Robert Scheerer
Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster); Lillian Gish (Martha Brewster); David Wayne (Teddy Brewster); Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster); Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster); Sue Lyon (Elaine Harper); Bob Dishy (Officer Sampson); Jack Gilford (Dr. Einstein); Billy De Wolfe (Mr. Witherspoon); Victor Kilian (Mr. Gibbs); Frank Campanella (Officer Klein); Bernard West (Benner)
in 1882 playing The Lady of the Camelias. Abandoned after the surge of the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Robert Edmond Jones restored the acoustically perfect theatre and in July 1932 reopened the Central City Opera House on its fiftieth anniversary with Edna and Delos Chappell’s translation of Dumas’ play. Staged by Robert Edmond Jones, Camille starred Lillian Gish. The Colorado production was transferred to Broadway on November 1, 1932, at the Morosco Theatre for fifteen performances. Robert Garland (The New York World-Telegram) found Lillian Gish played the lady of the ca- melias “in just the proper key … a charmingly artificial resurrection of a charmingly artificial play, a museum piece from the half-forgotten eighties, staged by Robert Edmond Jones, who adores such things and acted in its leading role by an anachronistic lady who seemed somehow to belong.”
Morosco Theatre, New York, opened November 1, 1932. 15 performances. Produced by Delos Chappell, Inc. ; Directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones; Translation of play by Alexandre Dumas, Edna and Delos Chappell, Robert Edmond Jones; Music, Macklin Marrow
Lillian Gish (Marguerite Gautier); Raymond Hackett (Armand Duvall); Moffat Johnston (M. Georges Duval); Frederic Worlock (Baron de Varville); Cora Witherspoon (Prudence Duvernoy); Helen Freeman (Olympe); Robert Le Sueur (Saint-Gaudens); ’ian Van-Wolfe (Comte de Diray); Lewis Martin (Gaston Rieux); Mary Morris (Nanine); Leona Boytel (Nichette); Ian Van-Wolfe (Gustave)- Paul Stephenson (Arthur); Moffat Johnston (Doctor); Edna James (Anais); Harriett Ingersoll, Betty Upthegrove, Lillian Bronson, William James, Bartlett Robinson, Richard Kendrick (Guests Servants)
Crime and Punishment
The Rodney Ackland stage version opened in New York at the National Theatre on December 22, 1947, but survived only 64 performances. Time magazine felt Dostoievsky’s novel defied dramatization, a concept that was popular from the late eighteen-hundreds. While admiring John Gielgud’s “brilliantly mannered performance” the play was dismissed as a gloomy bore. Variety determined that Ackland’s adaptation lacked theatrical form without concept of set acts and scenes. Lillian Gish’s performance as Katerina was called “superb” and John Gielgud’s portrayal of Raskolnikoff judged as … “possibly the finest performance of his distinguished Broadway career…. ” Critic George Jean Nathan announced, “The present version by Mr. Ackland has its points, but, like all the others, is hardly satisfactory to respecters of the novel. The result is a play that, save in one or two scenes, merely skims some of the plot elements of the novel and leaves the cream of its body untouched. . .. Everything considered, I fear that the exhibit is best critically described, to borrow Dorothy Parker’s reply to the author of a drugstore murder novel who asked her to supply him with a title, as Crime and Punishment, Jr.”
National Theatre, New York, opened December 22, 1947. 64 performances. Produced by Robert Whitehead and Oliver Rea; Director, Theodore Komisarievsky; Associate director, Bea Lawrence; Setting, Paul Sherifi; Costumes, Lester Polakov; Production associate, Virginia Bolen John Gielgud (Rodion Romanitch Raskoinikofi); Dolly Haas (Sonia Marmeladoff); Lillian Gish (Katerina Ivanna); Vladimir Sokoloff (Porfiri Petrovitch); Alexander Scourby (Dmitri Prokovitch Raz¬ oumikhin); Sanford Meisner (Simon Zaharitch Marmeladoff); Alice John (Pulcheria Alexandrovna); Marian Seldes (Dounia); E. A. Krumschmidt (Casimir Stanislawowitch Looshinsky); Ben Morse (Lebeziatnikoff); Betty Lou Keim (Polya); Sherry Smith (Leda); Payton Price (Ivan); Elisabeth Neumann (Amalia); Galina Talva (Nastasia); Susan Steell (Daria); Howard Fischer (Street Vendor); Wauna Paul (Anyutka, his wife); Robert Donley (Street Vendor’s Assistant); Scott Moore (Lodger); Michael Arshansky (Ex-Soldier); Mary James (Lizavieta); Richard Purdy (Zametoff); Patrick McVey (Doctor); Harry Selby (Coachman); Robert Pastene (Priest); David Elliott (Government Clerk); Cecile Sherman (His Wife); Amy Douglass (Widow); Jeri Souvinet (Her Daughter); Eugenia Woods (Old Lady); Arthur Griffin (Old Gentleman); Richard Hayes (Fomitch); Mort Marshall (A Strange Man); Mary Diveny, Mary Stuart, Marjorie Tas, Niels Miller, Robert Pastene, Graham Ferguson, John Vicari, Theodore Tenley, James Matsagas, Wil¬ liam Beal (Lodgers, Policemen, Street Musicians, Delivery Boys, Passers-by)
His Double Life
HIS DOUBLE LIFE, Paramount Pictures, released December 1933. Produced by Arthur Hopkins; Directors, William C. de Mille, Arthur Hopkins; Screenplay, Clara Beranger, Arthur Hopkins (based on Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive and his play The Great Adventure); Camera, Arthur Edeson; Editor, Arthur Ellis
Roland Young (Priam Farell); Lillian Gish (Alice Challice /Hunter); Montagu Love (Duncan Farell); Lumsden Hare (Charles Oxford); Lucy Beaumont (Mrs. Leek); Charles Richman (Mr. Witt); Philip Tonge, Oliver Smith (Leek Twins); Roland Hogue (Henry Leek); Audrey Ridgewell (Helen)
SONGS: Someday, Sometime, Somewhere; Springtime in Old Granada (James Hanley, Karl Stark)
The Late Christopher Bean
Sidney Coe Howard’s successful adaptation of the French stage play Prenez Garde La Peinture was his twelfth play, and his fifth translation of a foreign play, the others being: S.S. Tenacity (1923); Marseilles (1932) from the French; Casanova (1923), from the Spanish and Sancho Panza (1923) from the Hungarian. The role of Abby, protectress of her lover’s paintings, was played on the stage by a succession of fine actresses: Pauline Lord, Edith Evans, Charlotte Greenwood, ZaSu Pitts, Shirley Booth; on the screen by Charlotte Clasis and Marie Dressier. Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Thelma Ritter gave the role stature on television.
“Mr. Howard has written a funny comedy with a hilarious conclusion; and Pauline Lord, as the faithful drudge of the country doc¬ tor’s family, acts a comedy role with admirable lightness of touch and luminous beauty. “–Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times).
Philco Playhouse’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean, shown on February 6, 1949, featured Lillian Gish as Abby. “Televersion of Sidney Howard’s amicable little play engenders the same charm as the original. Miss Gish was extremely appealing, ” reported Variety. Helen Hayes appeared as the bedeviled Abby in Pulitzer Prize Playhouse’s telecast of the play on October 27, 1950, and “scored a complete triumph as the maid. ” Twentieth Century-Fox’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean was aired on November 30, 1955, and released the following year abroad as a feature film starring Thelma Ritter where it was found to survive “quite tolerably as an anecdote in this abridged version. Treatment is flat and one-dimensional although Thelma Ritter brings her usual decisive assurance to the part of Abby. “
Philco Playhouse, televised February 6, 1949. NBC. 1 hour. Produced and directed by Fred Coe Lillian Gish (Abby); Bert Lytell (Dr. Haggett); Helen Carew (Mrs. Haggett); Ellen Cobb Hill (Susan Haggett); Clarence Derwent (Rosen); Perry Wilson (Warren Creamer); Philip Coolidge (Tallant); Louis Sorin (Davenport)
Life With Father
National Road Company (1939 – May 24, 1941). Produced by Oscar Serlin; Director, Bretaigne Windust; Setting and costumes, Stewart Chaney; Music arranger, Edmund Thiele Percy Waram (Father); Lillian Gish (Vinnie); O. Z. Whitehead (Clarence); Peter Jamerson (John); James Roland (Whitney); David Jeffries (Harlan); Clara Joel (Margaret); Margaret Randall (Annie); Virgilia Chew (Cora); Georgette McKee (Mary); George Le Soir (The Rev. Dr. Lloyd); Aubrey Hynes (Delia); Shirley De Me (Nora); Charles Walton (Dr. Sommers); Gertrude Beach (Maggie)
“You better wait until you hear me before you use the word ‘sing,'”, Lillian Gish said yesterday. She confirmed a report that she will be heard in song on Broadway for the first time in her career. As the dowager empress of Russia in „Anya,” the musical version of the play “Anastasia,” opening here Nov. 29, Miss Gish will sing a special number, „Little Hands.”
”George Abbott, the director, asked me.” she said. “I might be frightened in less professional hands than Mr. Abbott’s, but I’m excited instead.”
Miss Gish said she had not taken any voice lessons. “The time is too short and it might confuse me,” she explained. “I met Robert Wright and George Forrest, the show’s song writers. They heard me and·they said that it would be all right for me to do the song.
Miss Gish made her stage debut in Ohio when she was 5 years old, in a melodrama with Walter Huston as the young leading man.
She had always wanted to be in a musical, she said, and even went so far as to take voice lessons from Victor Maurell, a teacher of half a century ago, and from Margaret Carrington.
I was only 19 then, and I’m afraid I did not fully appreciate the opportunity,” Miss Gish said wistfully. „But I’m sure I got some good from it.”
Although biographical data usually list in Miss Gish’s birth date as 1896, the energetic star says that she is actually only 65 years old.
„When we were little,” she! said – referring to herself and her sister Dorothy -„we would say that we were older because of the laws prohibiting youngsters from appearing on the stage.”
„Anya,”which deals with the purported survival of a Russian princess of the Bolshevik massacre in 1917, teams Miss Gish with Constance Towers, Michael Kermoyan and lrra Petina.
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya
Lillian Gish, Irra Petina, and Constance Towers during rehearsal for the stage production Anya 65
Lillian Gish (standing on platform) and company in the stage production Anya 1965
Robert Altman enthusiast – Lillian Gish remains eager and excited
HOLLYWOOD (NEA) – Robert Altman is one of the today generation of movie makers. D.W. Griffith was one of the great pioneers of movie-making. It is hard to imagine much of a link between the two, but there is at least one. Lillian Gish. She made a short for Griffith in 1912, 66 years ago and was one of the stars of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. And she is also one of the stars of Altman’s “A Wedding” in 1978, She is 82 years old now, but as eager and excited i about her current film as any of the younger actors in Altman’s brilliant cast.
Lillian Gish as Nellie Sloan in A Wedding
She talks often about the past, but it is not as though she were living in the past, as so many elderly people do. Hers is a healthy interest in the past, which is coupled with a similar healthy interest in the present. Her feeling about Altman and his particular brand of film is mixed. After she was cast she plays the groom’s grandmother, the matriarch of a wealthy family Altman arranged for her to see one of his earlier works, “Nashville.” “When I saw that picture,” she says, “at first my reaction was that Mr. Altman really didn’t like the human race.
And that bothered me, because I do like the human race. “But when I thought about it some more, and when I did this picture, ‘A Wedding,’ I came to the conclusion that all he is trying to do is show us our faults. Now that I know him, I realize that he does love the human race, because he is a very lovely and very kind person.”
Robert Altman – Lillian Gish (A Wedding)
Lillian Gish – A Wedding
She says that Altman let her do anything she wanted to do with her part, even let her wear whatever she wanted to wear. Miss Gish also said that Altman let her discuss how she wanted her face to be lit. “I told the cameraman what I have learned in my many years acting in films,” she says. “And that is that the most important thing in lighting is to light the eyes. If the eyes are lit, the rest of the face looks all right.” Her career began when she and her late sister, Dorothy, worked with their actress mother in plays throughout the Midwest. They began their film careers as teenagers in New York and they became D.W. Griffith’s favorites. Those were silent films, of course, but the Gish Sisters made the transition to talking pictures with ease, because they had had considerable stage training.
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
“When movies started to talk,” she says, “I made one ‘The Swan’ but I was unfortunate in the director. After that, I thought, ‘Oh, dear, if I’m going to use my voice. I’ll go back where I came from, instead of putting it in a tin can.’ So I went back to Broadway, and did ‘Uncle Vanya.’” Since then, she has made many movies and appeared in many plays, pretty much dividing her time between the two. Even as late as two years ago, she appeared on Broadway in “A Musical Jubilee” at 80, she sang and danced. That’s a sign of how modern Lillian Gish remains.
1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena
Uncle Vanya – 1973
She often lectures to audiences now, and goes on cruises where she talks about the early years of films. She says she is generally too busy, at home in New York, to see many movies. And she doesn’t watch television often “it’s just autos chasing each other and planes chasing each other; it’s just mechanics, not people” but she does listen to radio. “You have to sit still to watch TV,” she says, “but you can do other things while you listen to radio. And they speak English very well on radio, especially on WOR in New York.” She is always active, and her manager, James Frasher, says he has been with her for nine years now, “and she’s fine, but I’m pooped.” He says she loves working, and he believes it’s a good thing for her to do.
She is endlessly curious about the world of today, and, in fact, believes curiosity is a great quality. “If I had a child,” she says, “and could give her one gift, it would be the gift of curiosity. And that’s especially true today, because today there is so much to see. I don’t understand how anybody could be bored today.” She has some reservations about today’s world and today’s culture, however. “I turn down a great many scripts offered to me,” she says. “Even though the character they want me to play may be all right, the overall theme of the piece is often something I don’t want to do. “I never heard bad language. I grew up in the theater with ladies and gentlemen, and I’m still offended when I hear bad language.” Her next project is a pet of her own. She has assembled a sort of film history she calls “Infinity In An Hour,” covering the period from the beginning of the industry until 1928 “That is the period when we in America ruled the world of film, when we built the movie cathedrals around the world.” But even though that project deals with the past, she has one eye on the future. She says she enjoyed working with Altman and, apparently, the feeling was mutual.
LILLIAN GISH: “If I had a child, and could give her one gift,
An Affectionate Look at American Women of the Twentieth Century
THE DEAR LITTLE WOMAN
“Humanity marches on into the new and glorious 20th century!” exults a daily paper in its first issue of 1901. “Come, oh century, child of hope!” begins a long poem on page one. Another column trills, “We are 20th century women … with the dower of privilege and responsibility which enriches women in this wonderful era!”
The quotations are from the Republican, of Columbus, Indiana, then the center of population of the United States. All across the country, journalists, preachers, and ordinary folk rejoiced with the same exuberance. The nation was rich and would grow richer! Railroads were faster and better every day, factories were busier, cities were larger, people were cleverer, life was more stimulating than ever before!
Of course a few evils remained to be righted: child labor, sweat- shops, epidemics—but the greatest country in the world would quickly set those right.
Americans believed in America.
Women were pleased with themselves. “Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers,” boasts the Republican, “were handicapped in girlhood by a thousand prejudices and cast-iron traditional rules from which we are emancipated.”
Among the new freedoms was the freedom to join clubs, if their papas or husbands permitted. Most of these were self-improvement clubs in which the ladies read works of Browning or Dante, enjoyed the hostess’s tea and cookies, and returned refreshed to their family duties.
The 1920s – CALL IT A SPADE
‘Behind a Veil of Silver Chiffon”
In a grim World War I story. Company K, author William March has a soldier in the muck and misery of the trenches draw a framed magazine picture of Lillian Gish from a pocket every night and every morning to study the sweet pictured face. Knowing that something pure and good still existed in the world was the talisman that preserved his sanity through the war.
Lillian Gish had a similar effect on millions who saw her in the movies. She was not only talented, she had a unique quality: pure, ethereal, elusive. As if she acted in whispers. As if in her hands, the definite blurred into the indefinite. It was drama critic George Jean Nathan who described her as being “behind a veil of silver chiffon.” He courted Lillian for years, but she eluded marriage.
She had two great loves: her sister Dorothy and her mother. Her father had deserted his family when the girls were babies. Mrs. Gish, a loving, gentle, sympathetic woman, was not the stereotype mother of actresses; she did not storm her way into producers’ offices or manage her children as if they were properties. She was simply there, warm- hearted and protective.
The bond between Lillian and Dorothy Gish never weakened. How different they were! Dorothy was mischievous, fun-loving, and irresponsible. She never reached such heights of stardom as Lillian, but she had her followers, who delighted in her gift of comedy. At the same time, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. “Miss Apprehension,’’ her sister and mother called her. Again and again she played major roles in successful plays, and at rehearsals was always her rowdy self, and the cast never guessed her hidden fears; but by each opening night her conviction of failure was so acute that she was nearly ill.
Lillian, who never had Dorothy’s skylarking, slapstick moods, was always grave and dignified. Fans often wrote asking why she smiled so seldom in her movies; yet she had a serenity denied the mercurial Dorothy. In early years, the three Gishes lived together whenever the girls’ engagements were in the same city; but in later life they gave up this practice. Dorothy was too riotously untidy for the fastidious Lillian.
Miriam Cooper, an actress who later married director Raoul Walsh, tells the story of an evening when she, Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, and other young members of a “Hens’ Club” held a meeting in Dorothy’s room. Lillian was not one of the group. Aloof and studious, she was considered too standoffish. On this evening, as the party became more and more high-spirited, the Hens acted on an impulse, ran across the hall to Lillian’s room, and threw open the door shouting, “Surprise!”
Then they stopped, abashed. Lillian lay on her bed in a filmy negligee, golden hair outspread on a pillow. She looked up from the Shakespeare she was reading, and annoyance flashed across her face. But with instant good manners she stood up, welcomed her guests, and talked cordially as long as they stayed—which wasn’t long. They backed out, discomforted by the difference between this room, which only Dorothy had seen before, and her sister’s room.
Dorothy’s room contained only three or four pieces of shabby Mission oak furniture, but Lillian’s had velvet draperies, gilt-framed mirrors, and lace-trimmed pillows. They were astonished too at the difference between this seductive woman and the sexless girl who walked around the studio with a book under her arm and was ignored by the men on the set.
Lillian was known as “Mr. Griffith’s girl,” because they often had dinner together—in public, of course. But as Mr. G. had prim, Victorian standards of behavior; and as his young ladies were strictly supervised; and as everyone on the lot watched everyone else closely, there was no chance for hanky-panky, and no evidence that the Gish-Griffith affair was other than platonic.
Like Maude Adams and other fine actresses, she was sternly disciplined, and no amount of rehearsal was too much to achieve perfection. She never spared herself hardships, be they heat, desert wind, or around-the-clock labor.
One of her early movies, made under D. W. Griffith’s direction, was the melodrama Way Down East The height of the action comes when Lillian’s inconsiderate employer, believing her to be a fallen woman, orders her out of the house into a blizzard. The silly girl doesn’t stop for hat or coat, but heads for the nearest river and begins walking the ice floes. By and by she faints and is carried downriver toward the neighborhood waterfall. Richard Barthelmess, the farmer’s son, likes the girl better than the old man does, and thinks it would be well to rescue her.
This was a genuine Vermont blizzard, for which the cast waited a month or more, because no flimsy studio snowstorm would satisfy Griffith. Rehearsing and shooting the river scene took three weeks.
Nobody had it easy. Mr. Griffith’s face froze. Several cameramen came down with pneumonia. To keep the camera upright during the gale, three men had to lie flat in the snow, gripping the tripod legs, and a small fire was kept going directly under the camera to keep its oil from freezing.
For her scene lying on the ice, Lillian Gish had thought up a piece of business that she was foolish enough to suggest to the director and then had to act upon. She let a few locks of hair and one hand trail through the water as she rocked her way downstream. It certainly added to the woe of the scene, but it also froze her hand, which forever after ached in cold weather. She lay on the ice about twenty times a day for those three weeks of rehearsal before the job was finished.
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East
Way Down East – filming the “Ice Floe Scene” (Lillian Gish)
Way Down East – Vermont
In the final take of the rescue scene, Richard Barthelmess got his. He wore a heavy raccoon coat, and in his cavorting from one ice floe to another he floundered onto one that was too small and tipped him into the water. He clambered out and that soggy coat must have weighed a ton, give or take a few pounds, but there was no time for a retake because now the rescue was for real. While he had fooled around under water, Lillian’s ice floe had jogged on, dangerously near the edge of that too-genuine waterfall. But he slogged on, scooped her up, and wrestled to shore with the poor girl pressed to that icy fur bosom.
Among the many fine movies that Lillian Gish made during the twenties was Orphans of the Storm, in which Dorothy Gish played the blind sister. To heighten the drama, Griffith had transposed a well-tried old plot to the time of the French Revolution. When the film was shown in France, it raised storms of fury. French pride was outraged because an American producer dared portray French history without its best dress on.
Orphans of the Storm – Lillian Gish and Monte Blue
Orphans of the Storm – the trial
Orphans of the Storm – La Guillotine …
Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette
Orphans of the Storm – Filming team on the set
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …
Orphans of the Storm
Next Lillian played in The White Sister. The whole cast went to Italy to film the story, the first American company ever to do so. Opposite Lillian Gish was a handsome new actor, Ronald Colman. When her lover is believed killed, the heroine becomes a nun, but after she has taken her solemn vows he returns, and a love scene of great power follows. An unhappy ending is arranged, however, that solves the girl’s dilemma, as he presently drowns in a flood. The White Sister was one of the great successes of the twenties.
After that Lillian Gish played in Romola also filmed in Italy; in La Boheme, opposite John Gilbert, and in The Scarlet Letter. To speak again of France, audiences there were mystified by all that fuss over the birth of an illegitimate baby.
Lillian Gish – Romola
Romola – Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish
Lillian Gish and William Powell – Romola
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
La Boheme – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in The Scarlet Letter1972
Hester Prynne worried for her ill daughter – Lillian Gish – Scarlet Letter
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926
In 1930 Lillian left Hollywood for Broadway and later appeared on TV. In that medium she played with Helen Hayes in the wonderfully funny Arsenic and Old Lace.
Even in old age, Lillian Gish never lost her special quality, that elusive enchantment of being afloat behind a veil of silver chiffon.
Originally appearing in a 1942 issue of SCRIPT MAGAZINE was this decidedly “pro” Lilian Gish (1893 – 1993) article concerning the silent film actress and her meteoric rise under the direction of D.W. Griffith, and her much appreciated march on Broadway.
“Lilian Gish is the damozel of Arthurian legend, tendered in terms of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Her heroines perpetually hover in filtered half-lights, linger in attitudes of romantical despair. They forever drift farther from reality than the dream, and no matter how humble their actual origins, the actress invariably weaves them of the dusk-blues, the dawn-golds of medieval tapestries.”