Lillian Gish, who has criticized herself for living too much in “tomorrows,” enjoyed a yesterday that she said she would remember always. “This is a tremendous honor, Your Honor,” said, the actress of the silent screen, smiling at Mayor Lindsay as he awarded her the Handel Medallion for achievement in the arts.
“I’ve never enjoyed giving this medal more,” responded. Mayor Lindsay, who has bestowad the honor seven times this year. Addressing the small group that had accompanied Miss Gish to his office in City Hall for the ceremony, he read the inscription on the medal: “To Dorothy and Lillian Gish, for the joy they have given to generations of Americans.”
Miss Gish, who says she is “one decade older than the century,” looked delicate but vibrant and full of energy. “Oh, my beloved sister,” she said after hearing the inscription addressed to her and her late sister. “She was the talent in the family. I didn’t have her gift of comedy.”
BACK in the early 1920’s when Mamaroneck was a center of movie‐making, Joseph Rigano was an employee of D.W. Grif fith’s studio at Orienta. “I was atone mason and mechanic,” the energetic 80year‐old said as we toured on foot Edgewater Point, at the top of the Orienta Peninsula.
“After the studio was finally built, Mr. Griffith asked me to stay on as a set builder. Stone fireplaces were my specialty, but I worked on everything from Gothic walls to painted desert backdrops. The actors were almost always friendly, and I was getting $55 a week and drove a $1,200 Buick. What more could a young man desire?”
In those days the area was less the “East Coast Hollywood” than Hollywood was “the West Coast Mamaroneck.” The town boasted a distinction to which few communities could lay claim: a silent‐screen‐era movie studio. The studio built by Mr. Griffith, the most significant American director in pre‐sound films, attracted such stars as Carol Dempster, Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy and Lillian Gish.
Mr. Griffith himself lived on the studio site in a modest cottage, built in part by Mr. Rigano, and attended to by Japanese couple. Before Mr. Griffith took over the area for the complex, which was completed in 1919, it was part of the huge summer home of Henry Flagler, the railroad and hotel leader. Before finding the site, Mr. Griffith had been looking for an alternative to shooting exteriors on California locations, having long since fled his Biograph Studios on 19th Street in Manhattan. Mamaroneck seemed the perfect alternative.
The first movie shot on Edgewater Point, “Remodeling Her Husband,” was not directed by Mr. Griffith but by the young, multi‐talented actress, Lillian Gish. It starred Mae Marsh and Miss Gish’s sister, Dorothy. Mr. Griffith gave the elder of the two Gishes the assignment less to start her on a new career than to “test” the still incomplete facility while he supervised another production in Florida.
In her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me,” Miss Gish remembers the Flagler site as “a great peninsula of land jutting into Long Island Sound, and surrounded by a seawall of rocks and glorious old trees with branches chained together to withstand the sweeping winter winds. When I first worked there, it was late November and we had no heat. The weather turned so cold that we couldn’t photograph our actors without photographing their breaths. It looked as if they were smoking at each other. We hurriedly transferred to a small studio in New Rochelle while a furnace large enough to heat the large studio was installed.”
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
Orphans of The Storm Set DW Griffith
D.W. Griffith on filming set for Orphans of the Storm
Lillian Gish and Joseph Shildkraut – Orphans of the Storm – Promo
Lillian Gish wearing an “extras” costume, with Joseph Schildkraut (Chevalier de Vaudrey), “Orphans of the Storm”
The Gish sisters and their mother lived in a stone and shingle house, which is still standing, on the corner of Bleeker and Walton Avenues. The house was built in 1889 by Stanford White. “Every room had a fireplace,” Lillian Gish said. “There was a spacious porch and an acre of beautiful landscaping. We loved it. We who had used trolleys for so long now had three cars in the garage—a big Cadillac, Dorothy’s sports roadster, and a small Ford for the staff.”
Mamaroneck filming sets – Orphans of the Storm
About all that remains of the moviemaking complex is a pier where supply boats once tied up, some foundation supports for the studio restaurant, and legacy as rich as anything that came out of the early days of Hollywood. Much of the complex, which was plagued by maintenance costs and poor film grosses after the box‐office smashes “Way Down East” and “Orphans of the Storm,” was razed not long after its completion. Currently, about a dozen homes dot the restricted peninsula.
Mamaroneck filming sets – Way Down East
But despite the disappearance of the Mamaroneck studio, the peninsula still maintains much of its original splendor. Flanked on three sides by the Sound, it is not difficult to imagine a bustling crew of technicians and actors under the leadership of chain‐smoking D.W., shouting directions through his megaphone. Said Mr. Rigano: “In those days we’d get people like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin visiting. Even Mr. Rockefeller Sr., would come up from the city to see Mr. Griffith at the studio. I’m not fooling when I say Mamaroneck was more exciting than Hollywood back then.”
THE slender, ethereal woman with the rust-colored hair strode center stage of the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday afternoon. She wore a green suit, white gloves and a double strand of pearls around a patrician neck. A burst of applause greeted her. The woman was Lillian Gish, and she was there Woman to tell members of In the the Actors Fund of America how to raise funds to build a hospital for needy performers. The group was holding its 83d annual meeting. Miss Gish’s participation in the meeting was in keeping with her philosophy of at least one new horizon a day. Her suggestion that prominent performers produce a show for television and turn over the profits to the fund was warmly greeted. The actress, who looks dreamy, fragile and wistful, is always in the forefront of causes in behalf of the theater. She has long argued that a Minister of F.ine Arts should sit in the President’s Cabinet and that Government should help boost the arts. She once said that while in this country dogs get “blue ribbons” and heroes “iron crosses,” an American who writes a fine book goes to Scandinavia to get a prize. A long-time friend of the actress said yesterday: “I’m always puzzled by her. She’s completely independent and never burned up about her image.
“What’s the reason? I think she has no vanity. She’s a wonderful and loyal girl. She’s an American institution and no one would take a crack at her anymore than they would at Casey Stengle.” After six decades as an actress, Miss Gish hasn’t even a glimmer of thought about retirement. “Retire? If you want to die, retire and die of boredom,” she says. At 67, she is as trim as a lass, energetic and constantly on the move. “I haven’t altered my wearing apparel since the 20′ s,” she says. She expects to leave for Italy soon to complete her biography of D. W. Griffith, the pioneering motion-picture director.
Why Italy? ”There’s too much distraction here,” she explains. The book is scheduled to be published in the fall of 1967 by Prentice Hall. Miss Gish became an actress at the age of 6, not for love of theater, but for want of money. We were very poor and the job paid $10 a week,” she recalls. Now, she says, she is an actress not for survival, but for love of her art. She was born in Springfield Ohio, on Oct. 14, 1898 ***. She does not remember her debut at all. Her parents brought her and her younger sister Dorothy, to New York, where the father had a candy store. When the parents separated, her mother turned to acting to support the children. One day Mrs, Gish agreed to let Lillian. golden-haired and wide-eyed go on the road in a blood-and-thunder melodrama called ”Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time, Dorothy, then 4, was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy in “East Lynne.”
Eventually, the mother and the two girls were able to get work in the same touring show. We grew up this way, Miss Gish recalled, ”We learned to read and write in dressing rooms over the country.” Miss Gish has had no regrets about her early, uncertain days. She once noted: “From my mother we got great security-the security ot love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters.” As children Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith, who later changed her name to Mary Pickford. It was in a Mary Pickford movie that Lillian made her film debut and it was Miss Pickford who introduced her to Mr. Griffith.
From New York, Miss Gish followed Mr. Griffith to California, where she was a member of his company from 1913 to 1922. She emerged as a star from such films as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Hearts of the World,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East, and “Orphans of the Storm” In the nineteen twenties she appeared in such post-Griffith romances as “The White Sister,” “Romola,” “La Boheme,” ”The Scarlet Letter” and “The· Wind.”
She successfully returned to Broadway in “Uncle Vanya” and then went on to other memorable plays and performances in the theater – “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father.” She last was seen on Broadway in “Anya,” the musical version of the play “Anastasia”, last year.
Miss Gish, who never married, lives on East 57th Street. She is looking forward to more acting assignments, but her current preoccupation is finishing the Griffith book.
FOR those still squirming from the way movie veterans Hal Roach and Frank Capra were poorly handled during the Academy Award ceremonies last week, tonight’s ”American Salute to Lillian Gish,” on CBS-TV at 9 o’clock, shows how these things can be done with thoughtfulness and a measure of grace.
As a rule, veterans of any sort tend to be getting on in years, which may make it difficult for them to keep up with the standard razzle-dazzle of manufactured entertainment. Paying no attention to this simple fact of life, the Oscar ceremonies confronted Hal Roach, whose producing credits include the ”Our Gang” comedies, with Spanky McFarland, who completely discombobulated his old boss with a question about what Hollywood was really like in 1912. Later, Mr. Capra, whose eyesight is obviously not as sharp as it once was, fell victim to faulty technology as his recorded announcements for best-picture nominees suddenly went silent, leaving him fumbling at the podium with cue cards.
The American Film Institute affairs, having reached their 12th annual presentation, are planned more carefully. As the ”salutes” are bestowed for a lifelong career in film making, the recipients are automatically veterans, and the list includes such performers as Bette Davis and Fred Astaire and such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. A couple of years ago, the Life Achievement Award went to Mr. Capra.
The occasion – this year’s was taped on March 1 – takes place at a black-tie dinner in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom. While the guests, a great many of them instantly recognizable, sit at large dining tables, a small stage is set up with a podium and a large screen for sampling clips from the recipient’s work. With an appropriate fanfare and standing ovation, the guest of honor enters the room and sits at a special table to listen to friends and colleagues speak warmly of past accomplishments. The recipient offers a few words of appreciation at the end of the evening. Far from being just another silly orgy of star gazing, the event turns out to be a gathering of professionals taking justifiable pride in their work.
Lillian Gish, now somewhere vaguely around age 90, is a thoroughly deserving and delightful recipient. One of the biggest stars of silent films, she has always projected a certain physical fragility, but as this salute progresses it is clear that the lady is anything but fragile. She exudes a feisty spirit that clearly explains how she was one of the first film performers to command a hefty salary plus a percentage of profits, and to exercise creative control over her films. Lily Tomlin laughingly recalls how, after the premiere of ”9 to 5,” an enthusiastic Miss Gish ran up to her saying, ”Tell me you have a piece of it.”
The audience is reminded that Miss Gish’s career was hardly limited to silent movies. John Huston notes that she appeared with his father, Walter, in a 1902 stage production of ”In Convict’s Stripes.” She also did ”talking” movies, most notably, as Robert Mitchum points out, ”The Night of the Hunter.” And she has been active in television, appearing within the last year in ”Hobson’s Choice.” Her co-star, Richard Thomas, relates Miss Gish’s dissatisfaction with a low camera angle. ”Young man,” she told the cameraman, ”if God had wanted you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your bellybutton.”
But the silents, especially those associated with the legendary director D. W. Griffith, were the crown in Miss Gish’s career, and scenes are offered from four of her classics: ”The Birth of a Nation,” ”Orphans of the Storm,” ”The Wind” and ”Way Down East.” Special scoring by Carl Davis, the musical director, is played by an orchestra. The high-quality prints are run through special film projectors, lending urgency to the underlying theme of the evening: that old films must be preserved as artistic endeavors and as artifacts encompassing, in the words of an American Film Institute director, ”our collective memories, our dreams, our myths, our heritage.”
With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as elegant host, tributes are offered to Miss Gish by, among others, Jeanne Moreau, Sally Field, John Houseman, Mary Martin, Colleen Moore and Richard Widmark. Miss Gish herself, while conceding that there have been some good talkies (” ‘Tootsie’ was wonderful’), praises the power of the silents with their great music and their great themes. She concludes with the simple statement: ”Thank you for my life.” The broadcast was directed by Marty Pasetta who, incidentally, performed the same chore for the Academy Awards. George Stevens Jr., co-chairman, was the producer.
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”
‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’
Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.
Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.
Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.
Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”
Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.
“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.
As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.
Judith from Bethulia
Judith from Bethulia
To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .
Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.
I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.
A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.
After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.
“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”
“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”
“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)
The Wind – Saw dust and smokepots
circa 1922: Lillian Diana Gish, originally Lillian de Guiche (1893 – 1993), made her stage debut at the age of 5. She played a lot of waif type heroines during her silent film career but never quite made the successful transition to talking pictures. She returned to the stage in 1930. An Academy Award was presented to her in 1971.
Letty Mason burying Wirt Roddy (Lillian Gish – The Wind)
Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”
“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”
“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”
BY COMMON CONSENT the greatest actress of the silent era, Lillian Gish personified that remarkable epoch. Her integrity and dedication are among the proudest aspects of the period.
There can be few actresses in film history with so many distinguished pictures to their credit: ”The Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Hearts of the World,” ”Broken Blossoms,” ”Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm,” all directed by the man she called the Father of Film, D. W. Griffith. When she left Griffith and became an independent producer, she contributed further classics — ”The White Sister” and ”Romola” — and while at MGM she made, with Victor Seastrom, ”The Scarlet Letter” and ”The Wind.”
Hers was always the one voice to champion the cause of silent film and music, even into recent decades, when to articulate such an idea was to risk being thought senile. Besides which, Lillian Gish associated herself energetically with the cause of film in the United States, from campaigning for Oscars for Henri Langlois, maverick curator of the Cinematheque Francaise (she succeeded), and Abel Gance, creator of ”Napoleon” (she failed), to promoting the restored versions of ”Napoleon” and ”A Star Is Born.” And somehow she still found time to act.
Now comes the happy news that her archives from many decades of film history have been acquired by the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the equally happy news that the library, at Lincoln Center, is celebrating the acquisition with a series of free screenings and lectures. The program, ”Lillian Gish Remembered,” starts Thursday with the actress Irene Worth giving a one-woman performance of Gish moments.
Other evenings in the series, which will continue on Thursdays and Saturdays through June, will offer remembrances by friends and fellow actors. Among the Gish movies to be shown are ”The Scarlet Letter” (1926), ”Romola” (1924), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919) and ”The Wind” (1928), one of the last great silent films.
It was in connection with an earlier tribute that I met Lillian Gish in 1983. Spending time with her was exhilarating, not because she was so exquisite to look at — you didn’t mention things like that — but because, even in old age, she was so enthusiastic. My partner David Gill and I invited her to England to attend what were then called the Thames Silents — presentations of silent films with live orchestra sponsored by Thames Television. We had a huge West End theater at our disposal — the Dominion, on Tottenham Court Road — and during the London Film Festival we staged a tribute to Lillian Gish with two of her finest films, ”Broken Blossoms” and ”The Wind.”
At the airport, I scanned the arriving passengers. When I spotted a wheelchair, my morale plummeted. I rushed up and that most celebrated of faces emerged from the concealment of her hood and broke into a reassuring smile.
”We just thought a wheelchair was more sensible,” said her manager, James Frasher. She had twisted her ankle a day or so earlier, and he wanted to take all precautions.
A newspaper strike had wiped out all our publicity. I showed her the magazine articles that no one would see, including a long one in The Sunday Times with a photo by Lord Snowdon. Far from being dismayed, she took it as a challenge. ”We’ll do lots of radio,” she said. ”We’ve plenty of time before Thursday.”
At her suite at the Savoy Hotel, a mass of flowers from admirers awaited her. ”I first came here in 1917,” she said, looking out at the River Thames. ”Our suite was just like this, and Mr. Griffith” — she always called him that — ”held all our rehearsals here for ‘Hearts of the World.’ We were here when the Germans bombed the obelisk” Cleopatra’s Needle. ”There was no warning — just a sudden bang. We could hear the screaming, but they wouldn’t let us out. They had hit a tram. I believe 12 people were killed.”
During the first of her many television interviews, Gish was keenly aware of technique. I even heard her directing the lighting. ”Camera high, light low,” she said. She checked the result in a monitor; one could see how the light flattened out the lines in her face and enhanced the expression in her eyes.
Suddenly, the cameraman zoomed in. ”Don’t come so close,” she warned. ”You could come close to this old face years ago, but now you can’t.” They settled for what she wanted.
”Honestly,” said the interviewer, ”you have the most remarkable face. Whatever was there is still there.”
”I was born this way,” she said with a chuckle. ”I haven’t changed. I’ve got white in my hair, but it’s still a hundred different colors, you know — brown, black, white, blond. It’s still me.” She referred to the scene from ”The Wind,” which would be shown as part of the interview. ”But to match that face 60 years later! I did my best this morning with makeup. But you can’t perform miracles. You can help it with lights.”
”Only a little,” said the interviewer.
”Oh, it’s not for me — that’s vanity. It’s not to disappoint people who’ve seen me. They’d say ‘Oh, how awful!’ ”
She spoke eloquently about acting. ”This camera teaches you what not to do,” she said, gesturing at the lens. ”I used to hang a mirror on the side of the camera, because at first I was making faces. And then I found that you should start with the curtain down, your face in repose, and then whatever you had in mind, you thought it and the camera got it. If you were caught acting, they didn’t believe it.”
That evening, the lecture at the National Film Theater was sold out. Despite the December cold, a crowd lingered at the entrance. When Gish arrived, in black fur, it was like a Hollywood premiere, with flashbulbs firing. She was introduced as ”the first lady of American cinema” by Sheridan Morley, the celebrated critic and son of Robert Morley.
Someone in the audience asked if she had ever wanted to stop playing heroines. ”Oh, I’d have loved to have played a vamp,” she said. ”Seventy-five percent of your work is done for you if you play a vamp. When you play those innocent little virgins, that’s when you have to work hard. They’re all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them ‘gaga babies.’ ”
Our first presentation, which opened with the film in which she and her sister, Dorothy, first appeared, ”An Unseen Enemy” (1912), followed by ”Broken Blossoms,” was a tremendous success.
”I have been going to the cinema for 50 years.” a man said to me in the foyer. ”This has been my greatest evening.”
But ”Broken Blossoms,” a romance of Dickensian violence with Gish as the waif, had long been celebrated as a classic; ”The Wind,” the story of a girl from Virginia who goes to live on a cousin’s ranch in a barren part of Texas, was almost unknown to British audiences. People were so anxious to see ”The Wind,” with its astonishing, climactic sandstorm — and to see Gish — that several flew in from France and the United States. ”The Wind,” for all its bleakness, has a certain amount of comic relief and this received a lot of laughter. Once again, the music exercised its power.
Carl Davis had composed a sophisticated score that precisely suited the film, which was full of psychological nuance and depended heavily on Gish’s brilliant, deeply felt performance.
Miss Lillian Gish – still frame (The Wind)
The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) digging the grave for Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love)
Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) got mad alone in the house, watching Wirt Roddy’s grave – The Wind
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish – The Wind
Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish (Rear) – The Wind
Lars Hanson (Lige Hightower) and Lillian Gish (Letty Mason) – The Wind
The Wind – Saw dust and smokepots
With the storm scene, the percussion rose almost to the threshold of pain, and a tornado seemed to batter the walls of the theater, driving one, whether one liked it or not, into the same mental state as the terrified girl. This musical storm combined with the terror on her face, transformed the show into a happening. As the storm died away, one could hear the communal sigh of an audience that had held its breath for more than half a reel.
”The most terrifying cinematic moment of the year,” said The Times of London. ”No one could ask for a greater instance of the cinema’s power to shake one’s being.”
Gish was greeted by a standing ovation. She told the audience that she had chosen Seastrom to direct her film. ”We worked out in the Mojave Desert in temperatures which were seldom under 120 degrees,” she said from the stage. ”There were eight airplane engines to create even more wind than we had already and to blow sand at us, together with smoke pots which burned little holes in my dress but luckily not in my eyes. I was the only woman in the troupe . . . so I had no double. I did all my own stunts, like falling off the horse.”
This was nothing compared with the stunts she had done for Griffith, including floating down a river on an ice floe, her hand trailing in the water. ”Cold I can stand, but not heat,” she said, ”so ‘The Wind’ was my most uncomfortable experience in pictures.” She closed by praising the 40-piece orchestra: ”The music was 75 percent of the excitement you have just experienced.”
For a woman of 83, her energy and enthusiasm seemed amazing — later, we discovered she had drawn a veil over her real age. She was actually 90. (She died in 1993, only months short of her 100th birthday.)
Lillian Gish may have needed the toughness of a pioneer to get through all those pictures, but there was a quality the audience saw that night that can only be described as sweetness, a sweetness that transcended any role she ever played.
ABOUT A DOZEN films starring Lillian Gish are available on videotape, the earliest of them dating to her days with Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith at the American Biograph Company in New York. Here are the more interesting ones, some of which will be shown as part of the series at Lincoln Center.
* ”The Birth of a Nation,” 1915. Gish stars with Mae Marsh in Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic.
* ”Hearts of the World,” 1916. A young boy struggles through World War I, as do Lillian and her sister Dorothy Gish on the homefront.
* ”Intolerance,” 1916. Gish again stars with Marsh in the silent classic with settings from Babylon to Paris.
* ”Broken Blossoms,” 1919. Gish is an abused daughter in London’s unsavory Limehouse District and Richard Barthelmess is the Chinese man who tries to save her in Griffith’s film, which, on video, comes with an introduction by Gish.
* ”Way Down East,” 1920. That’s Lillian out on that ice floe, a country girl tricked into a fake marriage by a slick playboy.
* ”Orphans of the Storm,” 1921. The French Revolution doesn’t help Lillian in her search for her sister (Dorothy).
* ”The White Sister,” 1923. In Henry King’s film, Lillian is an Italian aristocrat who is driven from her home and into a convent.
* ”Romola,” 1924. Lillian was supposed to drown in this pirate tale, but during filming she wouldn’t sink, resulting in a retake.
* ”The Wind,” 1928. In one of the last great silents, Lillian goes west, marries a cowpoke, is raped in a frontier town and endures a ferocious storm.
AT 6, Lillian Gish became an actress, not out of love, but out of necessity. “We were very poor,” she says,” and the job paid $10 a week.” Today at 61, Miss Gish is still an actress, not out of necessity, but out of love.
When her close friend Mary Pickford phoned her recently, Miss Gish told her she had been working very hard “I was on television, doing ‘The Grass Harp’ for ‘The Play of the Week, ‘” Miss Gish said. We had twelve days to learn it and do it. The last day we worked twenty-two hours.” A note of pride entered her voice. “I’m still the iron horse if I can work twenty two hours.” The “iron horse,’ looked slender, dreamy, fragile and wistful in “The Grass Harp” and was cheered by TV critics like some new acting discovery. But the sweet, gentle, innocent maiden lady Miss Gish portrayed on TV was, to some viewers, only a mature rendering of the characterization that made her one of the immortals of the movies in the great silent days, thirty to forty-five years ago.
LILLIAN GISH and Carmen Mathews – The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Gish image first emerged in the films of the pioneering director D. W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation,” Hearts of the World,” Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm”-and then took on –a dazzling, starry glitter in such post … Griffith romances of the Twenties as .. The White Sister,” Romola,” “La Boheme,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and The Wind.”
The images tell you what we tried for.” Miss Gish said recently in her quietly elegant living room on East Fifty-seventh Street. “The essence of femininity. Mostly, in those movies, I was a virgin. We tried for virginity, in mind, in looks, in body, in movement. “Not that I enjoyed this-to attract and hold the interest of an audience with nothing but goodness is difficult; goodness becomes dull so quickly. It’s so much easier to win an audience with a little wickedness.
Within The Gates – Edward Steichen (Estate) credits – Harvard Art Museums – Fogg Museum copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – detail1
I was lucky with Sean O’Casey. When I did his ‘Within the Gates’ on the stage in 1934, I didn’t have to work half so hard as I used to in movies. I was The Young Whore and the audience was interested before the curtain even went up …
“That virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” Miss Gish observed matter of-factly. Yet it appealed to, and deeply touched, millions of Americans, Europeans, Asians-and possibly some Eskimos and Hottentots -as few portrayals have since movies began.
THE pretty, helpless, virtuous and spiritual girl tossed about by a cruel world, was a triumphant creation, so eloquent as to make language almost unnecessary. And how cruel the world was: constantly in her movies MissGish suffered and was buffeted about by outrageous fortune. She was beaten to death, or ravaged by consumption, or driven out into a blizzard or persecuted by a narrow minded community. She might find love, but only to lose it.
All this anguish brought tears and sympathy from the most hardened audiences. When one saw a Gish movie, the highest praise he could bestow was, .. Gee, did I cry!”
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Miss Gish does not remember becoming an actress six years later, nor even wanting to become one. “It all happened before my memory,” she said. Her father and mother brought her and her younger sister Dorothy to New York by way of Dayton, and Baltimore, Md., where the father had a small candy store. In New York her parents separated and to support herself and her two small girls, Mrs. Gish got a job acting with a Twenty third Street stock company.
“Mother was getting $15 a week and we were living on it, Miss Gish said. “We had one room, on Eighth Avenue around Twenty-first Street. At night she’d put us to sleep and go to the theatre. Baby sitters? Oh, no, she’d just leave us, there wasn’t anything else to do..
“Matinee days she’d take us with her, and one day an actress who was going out on the road stopped in at the dressing room, saw me, and said to mother, ‘If you’d let me have her. -‘ They needed a child in her company, and I looked right for it.”
LILLIAN. golden – haired and wide eyed, went traveling in a typical blood-and-thunder melodrama of the day, In Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time Dorothy, who was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy, in ‘East Lynne.” Each child earned $10 a week . .
The next year, 1905, mother and daughters were able to get roles together in one touring show. “We grew up this way,” Miss Gish said. “all around the country. At first mother had to teach us our parts but then she taught us to read and to write-in our dressing rooms.
We were educated this way: if we went to a town, say Detroit, mother took us to an auto factory, to see how it was all done. If we were playing in the South, she took us on a street car out of the city to cotton fields, to pick a little cotton, to watch a cotton gin. At Gettysburg she took us out to the battlefield with her history book in her hand and we had our history lesson right on the spot.” we had a wonderful mother,” Miss Gish went on. “From my mother we got great security-the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was the more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters, to make them know responsibility and meet the world head-on. ‘I didn’t use to feel this way. But an earIy insecurity and learning what to do with it and conquering it-this can bring maturity and contentment later on.” As children, Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith. In summers, between road tours, the Gishes and the Smiths-Gladys, her mother, sister and brother-sometimes shared an apartment in New York to save on rent. In 1912, returning from the road, Lillian and Dorothy went to look up Gladys at the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. It was with some difficulty that they found their friend. She had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A fantastic new world – movies was opening up to Mary under the guidance of D.W. Griffith. Lillian made her screen debut as an extra in a Mary Pickford movie. The next year David Belasco engaged Lillian for her first Broadway play, “A Good Little Devil,’ in which Miss Pickford again had the lead. From Broadway, Miss Gish followed D. W. Griffith to California, to become the very symbol of pure womanhood in his movies. She shared with him the excitement of discovering and shaping a new art form, of seeing it grow, of experimenting with ideas, stories, techniques.
We worked wild hours, Saturdays, Sundays. There wasn’t any place as interesting as the studio, Miss Gish said. Everyone just lived for those pictures.” Miss Gish was a member of the Griffith company from 1913 to 1922. In time an awareness that the public had made a star of her came upon Griffith. “He told me to go out,” she said. “He said, ‘You know about as much as I do. I can’t pay you the money you’re worth, you go out and get it.
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
Late in 1922 Miss Gish helped organize the first American company to shoot a movie in Italy. The movie was “The White Sister.” It cost $270,000, eventually took in $4,000,000-and Miss Gish had a financial, aswell as artistic, stake in it. , Through the Twenties her career flourished. Gish, Garbo and Mary Pickford-some historians regard these as the three great women’s names of the decade. Miss Gish ultimately undertook her first talking picture. “One Romantic Night” was a light, sophisticated comedy from a Molnar play, “The Swan.” Cast as a cold princess Miss Gish must have surprised that multitude which cherished her as a helpless, beaten-down poor innocent. It was 1930, a troubled year in the United States. The movie did not succeed. Perhaps the age of innocence had passed for both America and Miss Gish.
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
The actress came back to New York. One night she had dinner with George Jean Nathan, Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris. Out of that evening came an invitation from Harris to play Helena in a revival of “Uncle Vanya!’ By her own choice Miss Gish was not starred in the production, afraid that a theatre audience would look on her as another “Miss Hollywood and hurl things at me from across the footlights.”
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
But the Chekhov revival and its leading actress both came through extraordinarily well. Miss Gish went on to other fine plays and performances in the theatre. “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father,” which she played for more than a year to Chicago’s delight. Since the early Forties she has accepted occasional, interesting character roles in movies. Her television bow came early; she starred in “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1949. Miss Gish’s latest movie – John Huston’s Western ‘The Unforgiven’ in which she is a pioneer woman who raises a foundling, Audrey Hepburn, in Texas around 1885. Miss Gish was intrigued by a role that was different from the ethereal ones of the old days. “I tried to make the character a Grant Wood,” she said, strong in spirit, strong in body. She carries a gun and yet is maternal and tender just woman.” CURRENTLY Miss Gish is working on a biography of her movie mentor, D. W. Griffith. She lives alone. She has never married and says she does not regret it.
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and Dame Judith Anderson in Hamlet 1936
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936
Guthrie McClintic and Lillian Gish working on last details before Hamlet – 1936 (Lillian Gish signed the contract for Ophelia)
Lillian Gish as Ophelia in 1936 Hamlet G McClintic
Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936
“I think being a good wife is a twenty-four hour a day job. And certainly I haven’t lacked for male companionship in my life. I’ve had much more than I’ve deserved-wonderful, wonderful men and wonderful minds. I’m greatly indebted to George Jean Nathan, his great knowledge, his fine mind. Through him I knew Mencken and all the American writers of the Twenties as friends, and later on the writers of Europe.’
After fifty-six years as a performer, Miss Gish ponders future acting assignments with eagerness. “I’m always interested in new things,” she said … If it’s new and different, I want to know about it. I was born with a terrific curiosity.’
MARY and Doug, driving tandem, are hitched to the same star. With resulting great financial reward, Douglas Fairbanks brought to the movies the precepts of the Y. M. C. A., glorifying physical strength. For almost twenty years Mary has delightedly demonstrated the charm of keeping one’s skirts up and one’s hair down. The screen has had athletes and romantic actors, has had its child impersonators; but only in Fairbanks has romance been so completely welded to athlete, only in Pickford has childhood eternally flourished. Out of the thrilling grace of a balcony jump, out of a zooming slide down windblown sails, Douglas Fairbanks built himself his throne. He has showmanship, aesthetics, and knowledge. And by his side sits Little Mary. Both wear halos, cut for them by a devoted public, halos a trifle binding, a fraction cocked, which Douglas industriously keeps shining brightly. To preserve that glitter, Fairbanks exercises several wise gestures.
Mary does nothing. She is sanity. Hers is a soft low snicker of sense in the midst of treble hysteria. In a business where all, including her husband, collect eccentricities as though they were pearls of great price, Mary stands alone, unadorned, simple. She is dowdy, old-fashioned, her skirts too long, and her hair still piled in those golden unconvincing curls which were so admired in 1915 when Biograph’s “Little Mary” was growing into “America’s Sweetheart”. A comfortable soul who forgets rouge and lipstick, Mary sloshes about on rainy days in rubbers a size too large, a big umbrella over her head.
There is something untouched about this woman who has nourished her loveliness throughout her troubles, throughout the fight to eminence. Compared with her showman husband, alive with jokes, Mary, always by his side, fades a little. The showman has a dark brown face with a sharp straight blackness of brow and mustache, a block of white that is his smile, forever on view, keeping abreast of his enthusiasms. He boosts. He is the public-apostle of light, possessing a mental nimbleness as acrobatic as his body. Enthusiasm swings out from him, whirling ideas as on a pin wheel. So excited is his speech that the words are flung out in the irregular rhythm of a woman beating a rug. He loves phrases, full bosomed phrases to choke up a dribbling conversation. “I go to Europe to sit on the veranda of the world,” he told a reporter once, adding, “New York is all right to live in if you do not let it live in you.” In the gallery of his gestures rests a pleasant fallacy, publicly encouraged, that he has no head for business. Poor old Fairbanks, his attitude goes, what would he do without Mary and her cash register brain, mental arithmetic Mary.
Mary is acknowledged exceedingly smart in business, but Fairbanks refuses credit for any practicality. What he does not mention is that his fortunate business inability led him to invest much of his money in properties which immediately rose high in value, that it induced him to become a director in the Federal Trust and Savings Bank of Hollywood, that it led to the inveigling of Joseph Schenck into the chairmanship of United Artists. That weak head for finance also brought him so tremendous a fortune that the name of Douglas Fairbanks stood at the top of the movie list when the income tax reports were published several years ago. At the directors’ meetings of United Artists, at the lawyer conferences, Fairbanks quietly absorbs, apparently a blank at the table, perhaps asking a few questions. He goes for a short walk. On his return, the words straining against his larynx in a submerging flow of synonyms and explanatory phrases, Fairbanks offers a particularly acute suggestion. He loves to play dead because he makes such a smart ghost.
Doug and Mary are, of course, the King and Queen of Hollywood, providing the necessary air of dignity, sobriety, and aristocracy. Gravely they attend movie openings, cornerstone layings, gravely sit at the head of the table at the long dinners in honor of the cinema great, Douglas making graceful speeches, Mary conducting herself with the self-abnegation of Queen Mary of Britain. Cornerstone layings, dinners, openings are duties; they understand thoroughly their obligation to be present, in the best interests of the motion picture industry. Loved and indispensable, Pickford and Fairbanks have constructive minds, actuated by a deep and earnest desire to aid the business in which they have won their name and fortune. Throughout their years of screen life, they have studied technique, and are now ready to turn to experimentation. As color photography interested Fairbanks, he produced “The Black Pirate”, a picture done in the mellowed old tones of a Rembrandt, with scenes apparently aged in the wood, yellowed with time. Experimentation meant the gathering of experts to aid him.
Douglas-Fairbanks-The Black Pirate 1926
Dwight Franklin, an authority on buccaneer life and paintings, worked in one corner; in another Carl Oscar Borg, the Swedish artist, sketched settings. Anchored on the sidelines were the poet Robert Nichols, writers, thinkers, artistic persons of importance to whom Fairbanks talked and talked and talked. He wanted, for instance, a scene in which 120 soldiers with cutlass in mouth and swords at side would submerge a galley, swim in formation, and under water at a great depth, and then without breaking ranks rise to the surface in perfect order. The action of this episode was too dramatic to be eliminated merely because it seemed impossible to photograph. Fairbanks called a conference of the painters, the engineers, the chemists, and out of that came a method, devised to take that swimming scene without any water at all.
The preparations consisted in painting a background representing a cross section of the sea. From the top of the set, wisps of tissue paper were suspended giving the illusion of seaweed. A crane was brought in, and then the 120 extras in their dark green costumes were hung by 120 piano wires from the crane. In this midair position, lying on their backs, they went through the motions of the breast stroke as though they were 120 giant crabs struggling to turn themselves over. The crane carried them along. In printing the negative, the scene was reversed, and audiences marveled at soldiers swimming at the bottom of the sea, and once more Douglas Fairbanks had contributed to movie mechanics and aesthetics.
With a Rotarian instinct for slogans, Fairbanks reduces his ten or twelve reel movies to a ten word motto. All through “Don, Son of Zorro”, he tapped out “Truth crushed to earth will rise again, if you have the yeast to make it rise”. It was his delight to formulate “Happiness must be earned” for “The Thief of Bagdad”. Every one’s advice is asked about the mottoes. Fairbanks loves to theorize about the movies. His mind is like a cotton table cloth, the theories rubbing off as though they were lint. In the process Fairbanks snags new theories, all working beautifully toward a more glowing Hollywood.
The decadence of the films is a source for constant discussion at Pickfair, where Doug and Mary have asked movie criticism from the Duke and Duchess of Alba, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, the Duchess of Sutherland, the King and Queen of Siam, Otto Kahn, Charles Schwab and Babe Ruth. Doug and Mary are the supreme social successes of the movies.
As a wit once remarked of them, “Doug goes to Europe each year to book his royal visitors for the coming year”. The rotogravure editors can always fill a spare corner with a new picture of Fairbanks putting grand dukes and belted earls at their ease. When both were in Madrid, causing great demonstrations every time they stepped out of their hotel, the King of Spain requested their attendance at court. Under the chaperonage of the American ambassador Fairbanks went ready with one of his most graceful speeches. “How’s Fatty Arbuckle?” asked the King. Fairbanks spent hours anticipating the meeting, just as he always does, dramatizing the life and times of Douglas Fairbanks. Everything is a situation, and he plays for the big moment, then snaps the curtain. There are no third acts for him. Dressing in the morning is a situation. Tall, slim hipped, he wanders between his four closets, full of clothes, unable to decide which of the forty suits he will wear, which one of the dozens of ties, shirts and socks. Mary comes in for consultation. At last the decision is made, and, handsomely dressed, he goes to the studio where he immediately changes into his old white flannels and shirt. At the studio there are two more tremendous closets, bulging with suits, hats, boxing gloves, balls, canes, rackets, and it is his careless habit to leave the doors open, revealing the tangle. When important guests arrive, Mary runs ahead to shut away that spectacle, closing the door with an apologetic giggle. The guests are always shown his rare and lovely collection of perfumes, and then his elaborate equipment for keeping down the Fairbanks figure, the padded boards for massage, the exercising machines, the swimming pools, the showers, the steam baths. An ounce of fat means starvation for a week to him, but on the weekends he goes on food jags. It is his Sunday morning practice to take the unwary over the long hard trail behind his house, leading over the mountains.
At the end of that walk is a small house to which he sends by car his cook and butler and there breakfast in fabulous quantites is served; and so back to Pickfair. Pickfair is a luxurious home in which Douglas Fairbanks lived before his marriage to Mary. After the ceremony Mary moved in, bringing with her a few of her possessions. The place has the famous oyster shell shaped swimming pool to which only the friends of the pair come, for there, high on their hill, they receive, never going out except when the movie business demands its king and queen. Everybody comes to them, eager for a dinner party at Pickfair. Mary sits a quiet gracious woman whose adult mind looks with amusement upon the constant flow of Doug’s practical jokes. And after dinner the Fairbanks’ entertainment is a movie. Slumped in a deep chair, Doug, the king at ease, home from the studio, and Mary, the grave queen, home from a cornerstone laying, slip back their haloes, and chew peanut brittle.
The sturdiness of yellow kitchen crockery lies concealed in the tea cup delicacy of Lillian Gish. She is at once the oak and the vine. Courageously, gallantly, the oak has made of wistfulness a fortune itself. Through all the most outrageous incidents, the gentle Gish has most amazingly preserved her unique quality of facial innocence as fresh as “rain on cherry blossoms”. Above all the undertow of dirt, Lillian Gish has tranquilly swept the surface until she can now attend Hollywood parties, chastely charming, sweetly decorous in her primly flowing gown. “While others dance, she sits a picture of innocence and maiden purity, this sensible worldly woman whose deliberate front is aloofness and unbelievable virgin beauty. There never was so much concentrated innocence as in those pale blue eyes of hers, shaded by star pointed lashes, as in that little mouth posed as though repeating “prunes” and “prisms”. But Lillian Gish, the enigma of Hollywood, knows what is to be known. She has no illusions about the movies. Her fragility makes men protective, yet no woman in Hollywood needs or takes less protection.
Her interest travels beyond acting, direction, costuming, into the box office. The American Duse keeps a mild blue eye on the cash box. It is her own admission that the little hands have fluttered too often, but that the public loves the flutter of those pathetic white hands.
There are many who moan not only at the hand flutter, but at the other funny little screen habits which have aided in the formation of the pretty Gish tradition. They ache at those scenes in which she runs bewildered, frantic into the night, in which the little feet go pitter patter, in which she chases birds or butterflies around the sunlit rose bushes, aided by the glinting photography, the hidden studio lights touching up eye and hair and lip. One sickened critic asked plaintively if she ever expected to catch that bird. All these are set into her pictures, but once through, Miss Gish goes triumphantly on. For years she has been winning her way with whimpers. She has never resorted to the crudities of bawling. Her whimpers have been hushed for the most part, a suggestion of whimper. The crystal clarity of her face required only a breeze to whip into change whereas others of her craft dealt exclusively with typhoons. It is all perhaps because Miss Gish, in those magnificent Griffith days, learned to act with her underlip, her eyes, her lashes.
By the very perfection of her performances, she bas proved and to her own dismay, the limited appeal of screen perfection. For although she has reduced her audiences to murmuring audibly, “That is wonderful acting”, she has not reduced them to the obviously greater state of uncomfortable dumbness. Miss Gish is too perfect for that. She commands the mind and eye, but the heart retains its placid beat; just another manifestation of the idea that emotion and analysis will not stride together; that you cannot continue to cry while wondering about the tear ducts. With never the pulling thrill of the sweep of turbines whirling in power houses she acts in the perfect but pleasant rhythm of watch wheels. That touch of perfection, that pleasant placidity follows into her private life. She is a solitary woman who has cloaked her solitude with a shawl of mystery, receding much like Duse and Maude Adams, those idols for whom she lights a taper. From Duse came her screen credo, from Maude Adams the example of completely divorcing public and private life.
Like Miss Adams, she refuses interviews, and has now begun experimenting with film itself. The private lives of Duse, Adams and Gish are not for public knowledge. Much has been squeezed out of that life until there remains only work and a series of great and sincere performances. The essentials of her life can be folded like an accordion into these few points. She started acting when she was just a golden haired child, chased by Chinamen through melodramas. From those classic scenes, she entered a convent school; but left there so early that the majority of her knowledge has been self gathered. A visit to her friend of the melodrama days, Mary Pickford, at the Fourteenth Street studio in 1912 led to those years of Griffith direction in “The Birth of a Nation”, “Hearts of the World”, “Broken Blossoms”, “Intolerance”.
Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish
Mildred Harris, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Mary Robinson McConnell (Gish) and Dorothy Gish
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Mary, Dorothy, and Lillian Gish
When she slipped away from Griffith, it was believed that without his hypnosis she could do nothing. But the stubborn strength of Lillian Gish was mated with ability. After various connections, she settled down with Inspiration Pictures which led to the famous trial which she attended, sitting in the courtroom looking like one of Sir John Tenniel’s drawings of bewildered Alice in wonder land.
The pale Lillian nibbled throughout on carrots, and ever since then the columns of the tabloids have known her simply as “Carrots” Gish. Then came the move to the studios of MetroGoldwyn-Mayer, and her performances as Hester Prynne, as Mimi, as Annie Laurie. None of that has touched her smothered existence.
Working hard with long hours, Miss Gish lives with her beloved sick mother in a charming but not elaborate home managed by her secretary, once the secretary of Mrs. Oliver Belmont. In that home she spends her hours. She is an excellent horsewoman, a good swimmer, but she rides alone, swims alone, refusing to be known as an athletic woman. She does charitable work, being kind to animals, scene shifters and little extra girls. Tired, languid, taking no part in parties, Lillian Gish goes to bed early except on those nights when she entertains at small dinner parties for authors visiting Hollywood. Authors, in particular ;Joseph Rergesheimer, George Jean Nathan, Carl Van Vechten, F. Scott Fitzgerald, delight in this woman who looks like only a pretty blonde person, but who is serious, desires to be serious. Although they do not discover her with the Phaedras, Religio Medici or Rasselas, they do find her with Cabell, Shaw and Wells, the pages cut. She tells them bits about herself, that “all pretty young women like her, but that old ugly ones hate her”.
There is little nonsense about her, and just as she has suppressed all else about her, she represses her neat wit. If occasionally it breaks through in that quiet voice, it comes out as though she were exceedingly displeased with herself.
“Wit is for men”, says Lillian Gish. And while the life of Hollywood goes violently on, budding scandals, marriage, birth, deaths and divorces, up in her hill home Lillian Gish lives blandly in harmony with her face. Nothing can startle its subdued contours. She is good composition. Tranquilly, Lillian Gish sits, dressed in white organdie with her ash blonde hair down her back, relaxed on the window seat looking out for hours into the depths of the California night.
“What are you looking at, Lillian?” Mrs. Gish has asked for years.
“Nothing, mother, just looking.”
And she continues gazing out into space, a white fingered maiden with the fragility of a Fragonard, a white fingered maiden who has deliberately, harshly, washed her life with gray.
Mary Pickford – woodcut by Bertrand Zadig 1927
Douglas Fairbanks – woodcut by Bertrand Zadig 1927