“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 …
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 – Lillian Gish, Gino Corrado and John Gilbert
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.”
“My first Broadway musical and I loved “Anya”. It is the story of a great legend of our century, the czar and his family and what happened to them.
We had Rachmaninoff’s music and it was so beautiful. We also had voices from Metropolitan Opera singing the music and we had Constance Towers who was a lovely “Anya”.
We played “Anya” previews in New York for three weeks (the production was too expensive to tour) and did sell-out business until we opened and the critics turned thumbs down on us. I don’t know why.”
(Dorothy and Lillian Gish – By Lillian Gish)
My career started in New York and I went back there after doing The Horse Soldiers, The Naked Kiss, and other films. I went there at the request of Edwin Lester, who was the director of the Civic Light Opera in Los Angeles. He thought I was right for the lead in the stage musical Anya, which was the play Anastasia set to the music of Rachmaninoff. I opened in it, but unfortunately there was a newspaper strike at the time and they were building the subway on Sixth Avenue near the Ziegfeld Theatre. So, we opened under a lot of problems at Christmas time. Frank Loesser, who was the producer of Anya, withdrew, so a golfing friend of George Abbott’s–the great Mr. Abbott, the director–took over as producer. So, the show lacked a certain amount of support, even though Hal Prince was sitting there during rehearsals, helping Mr. Abbott. We were open for just three weeks, but I was fortunate that Richard Rodgers saw Anya and took me under his wing and cast me in his production of Show Boat at Lincoln Center in New York that summer. I just had one of those great experiences playing Julie, which was the Helen Morgan role. I sang the song “Bill” and had standing ovations every night, which was a great thrill. I continued to work for Richard Rodgers. I probably did more of The Sound of Music around the country for Mr. Rodgers than I did The King and I. Anyway, when they were casting The King and I revival with Yul Brynner, Mr. Rodgers called and asked if I would play Mrs. Anna and, of course, I said yes.