Miss Gish Star of an Exciting Drama in N.Y. – By John Chapman (New York News Drama Critic) 1953

Chicago Daily Tribune – Thursday, November 5th, 1953 Part 4 – Page 12

Miss Gish Star of an Exciting Drama in N.Y.

By John Chapman (New York News Drama Critic)

New York, Nov. 4 – Because if its unexpectedness it is surprising, and because of its excellence it is exciting to see sweet little Lillian Gish giving a big performance. But a big performance it is at Henry Miller’s theater, where Lillian Gish and an astonishing actress named Jo Van Fleet opened last evening in Horton Foote’s playlet, “The Trip to Bountiful.”

This piece is a sentimental sketch about an old lady who escapes from her son and daughter-in-law and flees to her girlhood home in Bountiful. The place is in Texas, so you pronounce it Bayountiful – because it is in the sayowth and evvebody in the play is suthin.

Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful (1953)
Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful (1953)

Author Foote is unabashed and unashamed as he pulls out the tremolo stops for his composition. Miss Gish is set upon and nagged beyond endurance. She has a couple of heart attacks and when she gets back home to Bountiful after 20 years she finds the old homestead a rotten ruin. But having had her little trip, she is happy once again and is willing to return peaceably to the insufferable nagging of her daughter-in-law, Miss Van Fleet.

As well as being unabashed and unashamed, Author Foote is admirably skillful as he sets forth his play. He has a fine sense of humor, a true eye for character, and a good ear for talk. In spite of its sentimentality and its tenuous story, “The Trip to Bountiful” is good theater.

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish - The Trip To Bountiful 1953
Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

The two main actresses make it good theater. Miss Gish, who flirted with playing an old lady a few seasons ago in “The Curious Savage,” goes at the job this time with all the will and skill of a really good player. In voice, in accent, and in make-up she is a pathetic little soul who lives under the domination of a hellion daughter-in-law and yearns for escape to the old homestead.

Miss Van Fleet, as the daughter-in-law, gives the saltiest, funniest, and most artful feminine characterization of the season. She is a shrill, nervous, cruel, and empty headed woman who has a mouse for a husband and another mouse for a mother-in-law, and she resents both. Last night’s first audience cheered both women before the play was over – something that doesn’t happen much any more.

trip to bountiful

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Experience – A rehearsal of “Anya” (The New Yorker – November 27, 1965)

The New Yorker – November 27, 1965

The Talk of The Town

 

Experience

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.”

Ziegfeld Theatre-Cabaret Premiere
Ziegfeld Theatre-Cabaret Premiere

“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.”

Ziegfeld Theatre New York
Ziegfeld Theatre New York

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.”

Ziegfeld Theatre NY
Ziegfeld Theatre NY

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.”

Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya
Sitting Composerlyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest- Standing Lillian Gish, director George Abbott, Constance Towers, and unidentified man during rehearsal for the stage production Anya

“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.

George Abbott anya
Lillian Gish and George Abbott – Anya

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.”

Above – “Anya” – scenes from the play

 

Ziegfeld Theatre 1927
Ziegfeld Theatre 1927

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Life Is Beautiful, Says Lillian Gish – By Aileen St. John Brennon (Picture Play – March, 1927)

Picture Play – March, 1927 Volume XXVI Number 1

Manhattan Medley

By Aileen St. John Brennon

Lillian Gish - Hartsook 3094a

Life Is Beautiful, Says Lillian Gish.

It would be a surprise, wouldn’t it, if you asked for “Diana Ward” at a hotel desk and had Lillian Gish, in person, answer the summons? In one of those shy, retiring moods characteristic of her, Miss Gish came to New York incognito—under the above name—for a change of atmosphere just before she essayed the role of Pauli in the film version of Channing Pollock’s stirring stage play, “The Enemy.”

A demure little figure in her black furs and conservative toque, she might have passed for any of a dozen inconspicuous Miss Wards had it not been for her large solemn eyes and delicately modeled hands. Miss Gish, the mature young woman of to-day, is a well-poised, well-balanced being, with a becoming dignity and reserve found only in combination with intelligence, sureness and a sense of the fitness of things.

In contrast with the earthy Jack Gilbert, Miss Gish tells you that her one aim in molding a characterization is But let her tell it in her own words.

“When I am looking for material for myself, there is one desire uppermost. I want a story that has in it at least one or two moments of great beauty. I wanted ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ for example, because of that beautiful love scene played over the heads of the people.” The Reverend Dimmesdale, if you remember, and Hester Prynne, so exquisitely portrayed by Miss Gish, pour out their souls to each other on the scaffolding in the square before crowds of derisive Puritans.

“And ‘The White Sister’ appealed to me because of the spiritual beauty of the ceremonial when the young nun takes her vow. And in ‘La Boheme’ I hoped we would capture for a little the elusive beauty to be found in the Puccini opera.”

Jeanne d’Arc is a character whom Miss Gish hopes some day to portray, when the time, the gods, and the powers that be are propitious. “But my Jeanne must be perfect,” she said. “I have read hundreds of books about her. I know her from the conceptions of dozens of different authors and commentators. To me she is a most delicate girl with amazing faith and perception. You know, she pleaded her own breach-of-promise suit, and that takes brains and stamina. And much as I love and admire Jeanne, I shall never play her until the picture can be made in France and a year can be spent in its preparation. Jeanne’s whole life was beautiful in its faith, and we must present it perfectly or leave it undone.”

Lil Dorothy tennis

Miss Gish feels that the outdoor sports of the day are bound to produce an unfavorable result for films. “For,” she. said, “how can the movies compete with the great out-of-doors, once people learn to appreciate and love the open air? It is all an evidence of the vitality of America that, throughout the country, every  one is determined these days to get into knickerbockers and tweeds and romp about playing games. I am afraid the movie theaters will suffer terribly by comparison.” A few days, stolen from her mother’s bedside, were all Miss Gish could spare to spend in the great seething metropolis of the East. But Mrs. Gish, she reported, was recovering slowly from the stroke which had laid her low, and the Gish girls, who are devoted to their mother, feel they have every reason to rejoice. “Dorothy calls England ‘home’ now,” said Lillian, “but we intend to win her back.”

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke
Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

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Tea with Lillian Gish (Picture – Play Magazine March 1921)

Picture – Play Magazine March 1921

A Girl’s Adventures in Movieland

The writer, a fan who knew the movies only through reading and through attending the seaters in her home town of Plainfield New Jersey, was selected from among the many persons who have written letters to this magazine – on account of her intense enthusiasm for motion pictures and her keen observation – to make a trip through the Eastern studios and to write her impressions to our readers.

 

SHE SCARCELY RECOGNIZED HERSELF!

“I was like the old lady in the Mother Goose rhyme—I couldn’t believe it was I! The person on the screen seemed familiar, and yet a stranger.

“Then my heart began to sink. Why had I grinned in that strange way? If I could only do it over again, how differently I would act.” That was the writer’s impression on first seeing herself on the screen.

 

Tea with Lillian Gish in Times Square - Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1921)
Tea with Lillian Gish in Times Square – Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1921)

Tea with Lillian Gish

That afternoon I had another quite different and wonderfully pleasant experience. I had tea at the Claridge. I had read many times, of course, of having lunch or tea at the Claridge—so many stars seem to be interviewed there. But what made this doubly exciting was the fact that I was to meet Lillian Gish. It was beginning to get dark as we went up Broadway toward Times Square, which is tine center of motion – picture life in New York City. Crowds of holiday people were pouring out of the theaters—for it was matinee day. The famous electric signs were just beginning to glow through the twilight, high in the air above us. Everything seemed so exciting and wonderful—I felt sort of prickly all over. We went up to the offices of the company which is starring her, and in the elevator with us there were two girls who were on their way to the same offices, to see about applying for a part in some picture. They powdered their noses before the mirror and rouged their lips, and talked about this picture they’d been in and that one—just extras, evidently.

Times Square New York 1921
Times Square New York 1921

And I could see that they felt awfully superior to me. But—you should have seen them when, while they sat on the bench just inside the office door and waited for some assistant to somebody to talk to them, Lillian Gish came out of an inside office and right over to us, and was as sweet and charming as if we’d been her oldest and dearest friends! Their eyes nearly dropped out of their heads. We started out for the Claridge then—quite a party of us, for Jerome Storm, the director who helped make Charlie Ray famous, and Herbert Howe, who writes for Picture-Play, went with us. What seemed queer to me was that, as we walked along the street, hardly any one recognized Miss Gish. I had supposed that a star as well known as she is couldn’t stir a step without having people crowd around her—judging by the mobs I’ve been part of when stars made personal appearances at theaters back home, I’d expected that the police would have to be called out to keep order.

Times Square 1921 center
Times Square 1921 center

And I must confess that I was rather sorry that people didn’t know her; I was so proud of being with her that I’d have liked to have all New York know about it. Probably her hat was largely responsible for people not recognizing her. It was a small black satin one, with a lace veil that reached to her nose, quite concealing her eyes. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t dressed at all as I’d supposed an actress would be for the street. The coat of her suit was sort of a French blue, with a border of gray fur, and buttoned right up to her throat, and her skirt was black. She wore black slippers with straps—not those very exaggerated French ones that so many girls wear now. She looked awfully well dressed, but nothing startling—I know lots of girls whose mothers would be perfectly happy if their daughters would dress as simply and sensibly as Lillian Gish did. It was just a few minutes walk to the Claridge, which is the hotel where theatrical people congregate.

Lilly From Ohio (1921) - Kenneth Alexander - Detail
Lilly From Ohio (1921) – Kenneth Alexander – Detail

I didn’t wonder that they like to stay there. Really, it is sumptuous. Thick, soft carpets, glittering chandeliers, an atmosphere that is quiet and luxurious, in spite of the fact that so many people are sauntering about. There were so many beautiful women, so many men, who might have fitted into a picture, that I almost expected to hear a camera clicking. It is a grand, pretentious sort of place, yet Mr. Storm, who lives there when he is in New York, said to the head waiter, “I want that little corner,” and immediately we were installed in such a cozy spot that I felt perfectly at home. Just outside the windows Broadway roared—the clang of street cars, the honking of automobile horns, the shouting of newsboys, with the traffic policeman’s shrill whistle piercing them all, makes a sound that you can never forget. Cushioned seats are built in around the sides of the dining room, which at first seems like sort of a funny thing—I mean, to be at a table and not have to sit up straight in a chair. I wish that they built dining rooms in homes that way—it is much more comfortable than stiff chairs. I felt just as if I were in a play — sort of lounging there in that great black-and-gold room, with music floating down from a balcony, and lovely Lillian Gish sitting there beside me. And she is lovely. That word was made for her. Her skin is very white, her eyes are a wonderful, deep blue, and her hair the same pure blond that you’d imagine it to be. She looks very fragile and delicate —almost too good to be true. Yet when she shakes hands with you she takes hold of your hand so firmly, and she speaks rather briskly, definitely, as if she knew exactly what she wanted to say and why she wanted to say it. There’s nothing hazy or dreamlike about her, though she’s so ethereal on the screen. I wish you could have heard her talk with Mr. Storm. He is directing her first starring picture, “World Shadows,” you know. He looks just like a successful business man ; I mean, not the way the fans usually think movie people do. He is awfully interesting, and I imagine is lots of fun to know. Mr. Howe called him “Jerry,” but Miss Gish called him “Mr. Storm,” and she spoke of “Mr. Griffith” and “Mr. Fairbanks”—no familiarity at all with people you’d expect her to talk about the way the fans do, who’ve never seen them. To hear her say “Mary and Mr. Fairbanks” sounded so funny. Then she and Mr. Storm started talking about directing pictures, and he gave her lots of advice that would help her if she ever directed another. My, the way they carelessly mentioned thousands for this and thousands for that just made my head spin. Even though the conversation was so interesting, I found time to watch two girls who sat at a neighboring table. They looked just as you’d expect the girls in a big metropolitan hotel to—very smartly dressed, with lots of make-up on, and smoking cigarettes with such a blasé, sophisticated air. I’d always imagined that motion-picture stars were like that, but, judging by those I’ve met, I’ve changed my mind. Miss Gish had with her a little round basket with a cover and a handle, which, she explained, was for all the papers and things she has to carry about with her.

Lillian Gish 1921 - The Girl Back Home
Lillian Gish 1921 – The Girl Back Home

“Dorothy brought me this beautiful thing from Paris,” she said, showing me the prettiest bead purse I ever saw, “but it’s so small that it would never hold all these things.” And she showed me the important looking documents that were in her basket. Now, what impressed me was this : She could have bought a beautiful big leather case for those papers, or, if she wanted a basket, she could have had the prettiest one in New York. Instead of that, she had a basket that anyone could have had; nothing at all pretentious or expensive. That’s exactly like her, it seems to me—just to do the natural thing in the very simplest way, instead of spending a lot of money and trying to have everything she does effective. Lillian Gish simply worships Dorothy; to hear her talk you’d think she herself didn’t amount to anything much, and Dorothy was the most wonderful person in the world.

“She’s just gone back home to Ohio, to the town where we were brought up—Massillon,” she said. “Can’t you imagine her in all her Paris clothes in a town of less than twenty thousand inhabitants? Oh, but it’s such fun to go back there, where you know everyone you meet on the street!” “I see by the papers that Dorothy’s engaged,” laughed Mr. Storm. “Oh, wasn’t that terrible? I don’t see who circulates those rumors. Dorothy called me up awfully early this morning, simply wild, to know if I’d seen the report. ‘It’s in the morning papers, and it sounds so official—they’ll have me married by the time they get out the evening editions,’ ” she said, and she was just about crying. Lillian paused to laugh about it, too. “She seemed to think that if the papers said it, it would be true.” I asked her about “Way Down East,” especially the rescue scene on the ice, and she laughed. “I still get excited about that.” She said. “I often go to the theater, to see how the audiences take my work, but when it comes to that part I find that I forget all about the audience and just watch the screen.” “Afraid that some time Dick Barthelmess won’t get there in time and rescue you?” asked Mr. Storm, laughing.

“Just about,” she answered. “And oh, you should have seen my mother the first time she saw that part of the picture—she hadn’t known it was so exciting, and—well, next time I go on location she’ll probably insist on going right along !” Well, I certainly didn’t blame her mother for feeling that way. It was getting late by that time, and she had to go back to the office with Mr. Storm to see about some business matters, so we went out to the sidewalk and then said good-by. I felt like Cinderella leaving the ball. And yet, somehow, Lillian Gish had been so friendly that I felt that always, after this, when I see her on the screen I’ll feel as if we had had a visit together.

Tea with Lillian Gish in Times Square - Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1921)
Tea with Lillian Gish in Times Square – Picture-Play Magazine (Mar 1921)
Times Square 1921
Times Square 1921

 

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Dorothy and Lillian Gish 1951 – Look Magazine (Pictorial)

Museum of The City Of New York – Collection

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in their apartment in New York, photographed in 1951

John Vachon – Look Magazine – New York

 

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 - John Vachon - Look Magazine1
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 - John Vachon - Look Magazine 6
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine
Dorothy Gish in Lillian's apartment NY 1951 - John Vachon - Look Magazine
Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 - John Vachon - Look Magazine 2
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 - John Vachon - Look Magazine 4
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

 

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Broken Blossoms – By Peter Milne (Picture Play Magazine – 1919)

Picture Play Magazine – August 1919 Vol. X No. 6

The Screen in Review

Criticism and comment on recent releases, by one of New York’s leading authorities on matters pertaining to the screen.

 

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

Broken Blossoms

By Peter Milne

“Broken Blossoms” marks a real advancement in the motion-picture art. Mr. Griffith has instituted something new in it at every angle from which a production usually is viewed. He brings a new style of photography which creates a more artistic effect than plain flat black-and-white work. He brings a new sort of drama, a new sort of production. “Broken Blossoms” is the simple tale of the lives of three people in London’s Chinatown.

Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)
Lucy Burrows on the Wharf (Broken Blossoms)

The girl, daughter of a brutal prize fighter, who beats her mercilessly whenever he is drunk —which is often—is protected by a Chinaman who has long loved her from afar. After one particularly severe beating she receives from her father the Chinaman finds her and takes her to his room, where he bathes the poor bruised body and dresses her in the finest silks. It is the only happiness that has ever come into her life, but its coming is the heralding of her death, for her father suddenly discovers that he has “parental” rights, and, his rage unbounded, he seeks her out and spoils her little moment of satisfaction.

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

Tragic as the entire picture is, it appeals to all our finer emotions, and, with the perfectly splendid production that Griffith has given it, it deserves to rank with the finest achievements of the screen. The scenes of London’s Chinatown are marvelous in their realism. Lillian Gish fairly lives the part of the girl, and expresses the tragedy of the empty life with a wonderful characterization. Richard Barthelmess, as the Chinaman, invests the part with a touch of the mystic, of the romantic, that establishes him as a hero far better than wavy hair and good clothes ever did a matinee idol. Donald Crisp returns to the screen from directing to play the fighter, and brings out the coarse brutality of the father to a degree.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

Photo Gallery:

Broken Blossoms – The Movie

 

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How “Way Down East” Was Filmed (By Charles Gatchell – The Picturegoer, September 1921)

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

The Picturegoer – September 1921

How “Way Down East” Was Filmed

By Charles Gatchell

D. W. Griffith’s melodramatic picture which reaches British screens this month will add fresh laurels to the producer’s crown. It cost over £100,000 to produce, and £35,000 was paid for the story alone ; but the resulting picture is well worth the expense. On the north shore of Long Island Sound, not far from New York City, there is an estate of sloping lawns shaded by giant elms, on which Henry M Flagler, the former Florida railroad magnate, once planned to have erected what he hoped would be the most beautiful country home in America. It was to have a monument to the success of a multi-millionaire. On this same estate, D. W. Griffith completed last year a film production which, I believe, will be, in its way, a monumental work, the last word in a certain phase through which motion pictures are passing ; a phase which is marked by the purchase, at fabulous price of the great stage success of former days, and of their transformation, by amazing expenditures of tune and care and money, into plays for the screen.

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

The play in question is ” Way Down East,” a vehicle well chosen for such an endeavour, for the record of its phenomenal run still stands unbeaten by any similar stage production, and the purchase price of £35.000 for the screen rights stands as the top figure for such a transaction. Impressive as this figure is, the story of its filming is even more impressive. I shall not attempt to tell the entire story of this undertaking, but I am going to endeavour to show something of the infinite pains with which the work was done by the impressions of a single day spent at the Griffith studio.

Griffith directing Way Down East
D. W. Griffith directing Lillian Gish in “Way Down East” (1920)

It was a day set for work on interior scenes which were filmed on the set representing the dining room and kitchen in the old New England home ol the Bartlett family. The set, which stood in the centre of the spacious studio, was, to all appearances, complete to the last finishing touch. Standing in place, ready for the long interior shots, were the two motion – picture cameras, manned by the camera-men and their assistants, while near by was stationed the ” still ” photographer with his big bellows camera. As a final indication that all was in readiness for action, D. W. Griffith, who was personally directing the production, had taken his position in the open space between the cameras and the front of the set – a distinctive figure – his rugged height accentuated by the short raincoat which hung, cape-wise, over his broad shoulders, and by the large derby hat which, tipped far back on his head, vaguely suggested the pictures of the Mad Hatter in ” Alice in Wonderland.”

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

But no command was given to the waiting camera-men. There was no expectant hush, as when a conductor mounts the dais before an orchestra. The members of the cast, fully costumed and made up, knowing the methods of their chief, stood or sat about in little groups as they had for several days, patiently waiting. The atmosphere of the entire studio was that of a highly trained organisation, ready to spring to instant action, but resigned to await the order, for ever, if need to be.

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - in a scene from Way Down East
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – in a scene from Way Down East

” I don’t quite like that door,” said Griffith, suddenly breaking the silence he had maintained for several minutes. He called for one of the decorators. ” It looks too new ” he explained.

” The edge of it, don’t you know, in a house like this, would be worn down, and the paint darkened near the knob by years of use.” The decorator nodded understandingly and started for his tools.

Be careful not to batter it up any,” Griffith called after him. ” I don’t want anything to look maltreated, but to have just the appearance of long years of careful use.

” Now, how about those chairs ? ” he went on, addressing the art director this time. He walked on to the set, seated himself in a rocker, rose, and returned. ” That chair’s comfortable enough, but it doesn’t look comfortable enough for the effect I want. I want this room to radiate from every last touch the feeling of being homelike—a home of comfort and welcome and cosiness. Let’s get some cushions for the backs of the chairs.”

Way Down East - Anna Moore Detail
Way Down East – Anna Moore Detail

The art director groaned.

” A hundred dollars’ more time to be charged up while we put them on,” he began. ” But we’ll do it,” he added hastily, as Griffith gave him a look that said, ” Huh—a lot I care about a hundred dollars’ worth of time, or ten hundred dollars’ worth, if I get the result I’m after.”

Now, let’s see,” he went on. ” There’s something lacking—something—I know. It’s flowers ! Oh, Miss Gish, how does the idea of having some flowers on the table or on the mantelpiece strike your feminine taste ? “

Lillian Gish, who has had some experience of her own as a director, looked thoughtful for a moment, and then voiced her approval. By this time several decorators were at work again on the set, making the changes that had been suggested. But Griffith was not yet satisfied. I am not going to attempt the tedious task of recounting in detail the suggestions that followed, but for the rest of the morning—the work had begun at about ten o’clock—one thing after another was criticised, discussed, and debated : Scarcely a detail of the set was overlooked. The floor, it was decided, was a shade too light, and the painters were set to work on it again. The bunches of seed corn were taken down from the ceiling beam on which they had hung, and were tried in almost every possible place from which they could be suspended. The pots in the broad fireplace were rearranged. The figured tablecloth was removed and replaced by a plain white one. And not until the technical staff had received enough instructions to last them until late into the afternoon did Griffith consent to consider the work as even temporarily completed.

DW Griffith - Mamaroneck NY - Way Down East
DW Griffith filming team – Mamaroneck NY – Way Down East

“While we’re waiting for the set I am going to hold a rehearsal, and if you care to see it —” Griffith said, with the courtesy and cordiality which is shared by the entire personnel of his studio.

A Griffith rehearsal was something which I had wanted to see for some time, and I followed him and the members of the cast into the old Flagler home, which would not be standing today had its former owner’s dream materialized. The rehearsal was but a variation of the Griffith method which I had previously seen applied to rearranging the details of the set in order to heighten the desired effect, or feeling. This time the action, which the players evidently had rehearsed many times before, was criticized and altered in as minute detail, with the same object in view. Each bit of business was done over time after time.

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

” I want this scene to be played smoothly — smoothly — smoothly,” he said to Barthelmess and Miss Gish, as’ they were working over a tiny bit of action. And I felt that I was beginning to understand, better than I ever had before, how, through his shadow pictures, he is able so skilfully to play upon the emotions, the feelings, of an audience. Luncheon followed. After which we returned to the studio. But the alterations on the dining-room set were not nearly completed, so, after watching Dorothy Gish work in another part of the studio for a while, I came back and chatted with Lillian, who is as ethereal and appealing in person as she is in shadow.

 

Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) - Way Down East
Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) – Way Down East

” I hope,” she said, ” that the snow scenes will be worth the suffering they cost us. I don’t think I ever experienced anything so severe as what we went through. Some days it was so cold that the cameras froze.

She was interrupted by another call for the company to assemble. The workmen had finished the alterations. But the call did not include the camera-men. The scenes which had been worked over so painstakingly in the rehearsal room now were to be rehearsed again—a dress rehearsal, as it were. And, as a ‘bus was just leaving for the station, I thought it best to start back for New York.

 

 

There is something splendidly audacious about the big undertakings of Griffith, about every one ol them. He is a very canny combination of showman and artist ; He knows pretty well what type of thing will catch and hold the public interest at any given time, and I have a shrewd idea : that he had his hand on the pulse of the movie –going public when he chose this vehicle for the first of his new series, and decided to “go the limit ” on it. So, without having seen a foot of the finished film, I shall venture one more prophecy that Way Down East in its revival on the screen will repeat the wonderful record which it made on the stage two decades ago. (Charles Gatchell)

 

Picturegoer (Sep 1921) Filming Way Down East
Picturegoer (Sep 1921) Filming Way Down East

 

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A Book and a Play are keeping Lillian Gish for the Public Eye – By Karen Hollis (Picture Play 1933)

“It isn’t the Paris courtesan that she is playing. What she really is playing is Marguerite’s pathos itself, the sadness of the irrevocable of all those memories evoked by the yellowed lace of old hall dresses, by pressed roses found in a book, by the tinkle of dance music played on a harpsichord; the tragedy of fleeting beauty, of love lost, of fragile youth so soon to yield to death.” (Arthur Ruhl)

 

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 7
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish as Camille. Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.309

They Say in New York – By Karen Hollis

The stars, our first solvent citizens,

can make or break a play opening,

restaurant, hotel, or dress designer.

Picture Play Magazine, 1933

BROADWAYITES have finally had an opportunity to see Lillian Gish as Camille, and she is assured a place in arguments about illusion in the theater for years to come. Not every one approved her delineation of the role, but every one found some evanescent magic in it. There were harsh words said about her playing the fabulous courtesan as a chaste spinster. There was some confusion over the play being presented in the manner of fifty years ago with quaint lighting, soliloquies, and exrated posturings.

Picture Play Magazine (1933) Lillian Gish and Frederick Warlock in Camille
Picture Play Magazine (1933) Lillian Gish and Frederick Warlock in Camille

One commentator, however, described expertly what Miss — Gish accomplished. Arthur Ruhl of the New York Herald-Tribune said. “It isn’t the Paris courtesan that Lillian is playing. What she really is playing is Marguerite’s pathos itself, the sadness of the irrevocable of all those memories evoked by the yellowed lace of old hall dresses, by pressed roses found in a book, by the tinkle of dance music played on a harpsichord; the tragedy of fleeting beauty, of love lost, of fragile youth so soon to yield to death.”

Last month I set out to tell you about the book which Albert Bigelow Paine has written, called “Life and Lillian Gish,” but I tore up my remarks before they ever reached you. In my dissatisfaction over what seemed to me the most extravagant and moonstruck drivel, I attempted to set down a little of what I know and feel about Lillian Gish. Children, it was drool. So who am I to growl at the scholarly gentleman who wrote a book which preserves some lovely photographs at least? Since Lillian Gish bids fair to be the measuring rod by which all film players present and future are to be gauged, something ought to be done about this book. It perpetuates the legend that she is an exquisite sprite. Maybe that will be news to posterity. She would seem more convincing to them, however, if the author had known her well enough to round out the picture with some of the occasionally grim or casual contacts of her career.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925
Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

He is guilty of one flagrant omission. He skips over the tragic lawsuit with Charles Duell in one sentence, that front-paged episode when Lillian’s childlike love letters were read in court while she sat munching a raw carrot to calm her rasped nerves. Going through with that suit to free herself from a business contract took far more courage than anything demanded of her in making pictures. He ignores her visits to the Duell home at Newport. He never faces honestly that widespread, but now proved unfounded, legend that D. W. Griffith exerted hypnotic influence over her to make her act. Mr. Paine’s book is not a biography in any real sense. It is more of a press agent’s blurb or an enraptured admirer’s labor of love. Any of the fan-magazine writers who grew up with her could have done better.

Inez McCleary, who for more than a year some ten years ago wrote a daily syndicated newspaper article under the byline of Lillian Gish, revealed in them far more of her human qualities. This was no small feat since she was acting under orders from the Griffith office that Miss Gish was never to express a personal opinion about anything. Harry Carr, who was everybody’s right hand during the great and grim years of the Griffith company, could do the best book of any about Lillian. Norman Kerry and John Gilbert could contribute a companion portrait. They drew her out of her shell more than any other players who worked with her ever could ; they made her laugh gayly and look forward to seeing them. John even taught her to shoot craps and revel in winning.

Lillian Gish and her parrot

That the girl casts a magic spell over every one who knows her I would be the last to deny. But I don’t want strangers to see just this uncanny quality in her. I want them to see her hustling through a Chicago railway station with John, her parrot, under her arm in order to catch a glimpse of Geraldine Farrar. I want them to see her in a red bathing suit, chuckling to find that she could go on swimming with Gene Tunney after other girls in the party were exhausted.

I want them to see her primly going out to the kitchen of the Pen and Brush Club to shake hands with the cook, saying that she might be just a name to the guests in the parlor, but that workers looked on her as one of them. I should like them to be transported back to her dressing room at Mamaroneck to find Lillian washing out stockings and underwear while she explained that Mr. Griffith thought all women should love doing homely tasks like that. I want readers in future to know that she went two blocks out of her way to follow Corinne Griffith, whom she did not know, because she thought Corinne so beautiful. I want them to see her entertaining old friends at luncheon at Sherry’s so that she could show off the suit designed for her to wear when she lunched at the White House with the late President and Mrs. Harding. In short, I should like every one to know the lovely Lillian as a tangible and companionable person rather than as a misty angel.

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.85

FarewellBut I’m Staying …

Hollywood Is Piggish.—Not content with what is almost a monopoly on acting talent, Hollywood wants to grab Lillian Gish and Tallulah Bankhead back from the stage. They let them go without pangs and now they regret it. Lillian Gish will make one picture for RKO and then scurry back to the stage. The sultry Tallulah has gone West, just for a visit, she maintains, but she may relent and do one picture. They can’t keep her there, though, because she has promised to play “Jezebel” on the stage in October. Until RKO finds a story that suits her, Lillian Gish is living with sister Dorothy and her mother in a lovely old house at Wilson Point, in Norwalk, Connecticut. Nightly Lillian and Dorothy dash over to Westport where Dorothy is playing in the theater, and early morning finds Lillian diving into the Sound and swimming with long, sure strokes far, far out until she is just a dot in the distance. Neighbors never get over marveling at the strength behind her fragile appearance. Boys sit in their boats with oars poised to rush to the rescue, but they haven’t been needed yet and the little fiends are frankly disappointed.

Two Get New Start.—Just when we thought that Lillian Gish was forever through with pictures, comes the news that she has signed with RKO. She is to make one, possibly three films. The price for each is said to be $15,000, and expenses paid from Europe.

Miss Lillian Gish as Camille …

 

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