“Uncle Vanya” 1930 – Program

Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”

Uncle Vanya Program – Cort Theatre NY

LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married.

Uncle Vanya Program – Cort Theatre NY

“Uncle Vanya” represents a perfectly balanced cast under consummate stage direction – and for play-goers who are immune to the subtle, brooding enchantment of Chekhoff. It offers a pretty lady whose name was a household word in the great days of David Wark Griffith and the silent silver screen. She, of course, is Lillian Gish, fair haired, slender, spirituelle – an actress who might have stepped out of Tennyson’s lyrics – “She has a lovely face, the Lady of Shalott.”

Uncle Vanya Program – Cort Theatre NY

Photo Gallery

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After 64 Years, Lillian Gish Gets Chance To Sing On Stage – By William Glover (Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1965)

  • Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 109, Number 275, 21 November 1965
  • After 64 Years, Lillian Gish Gets Chance To Sing On Stage
  • By William Glover – Associated Press Drama Writer

New York (AP) Lillian Gish is singing at last.

“Since I began business at age 5,” gently banters the thousand – role veteran, “I’ve wanted to be in a musical and a circus. I’d better be careful, or I’ll end up in the center ring.” Miss Gish ventures into modest melody during portrayal of the dowager empress of all the Russians in “Anya.” due November 29 at the Ziegfeld theater.

The production is based on “Anastasia,” a mildly successful drama a decade ago which investigated the purported survival by one imperial princess of the Bolshevik slaughter in 1917. For Slavic atmosphere, all the tunes are adapted from Sergei Rachmaninoff compositions.

Lillian Gish – Little Hands – Anya (musical)

Miss Gish’s special song is “Little Hands.” If she shows a measure of inner fear about doing the number, the 69-year-spry star has no qualms whatever about everything else in the musical.

“I’m doing it because I was asked by producer George Abbott it’s that simple.” she says. Rather ruefully, she recalls, she might have branched out earlier.

Constance Towers and Lillian Gish in the stage production Anya – Friedman Abeles Photo 1965

“I was the last pupil taken by Victor Maurel he was the great vocal teacher a half century ago. I was only 19 and I’m afraid I didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity.” There were later voice sessions with another eminent instructor, Margaret Carrington. “She taught Barrymore and I went to her off and on through the years.” Always there were plenty of screen and stage calls to keep Miss Gish busy, and in between she was always avid to dash off on further travels. “Going places and reading books are the two greatest things in my life,” she declares. “There are still so many places in the world I want to see.” Miss Gish is unequivocal about the current condition of Broadway.

“I won’t go to see straight plays anymore.” she says. “They are all brown plaxs about brown people in brown sets.” She feels much of the dull atmosphere crept in with elimination of footlights.

Close up Anya 1965 – Lillian Gish

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Ugliness in films disturbs Lillian Gish, 77 – By Bob Thomas (San Bernardino Sun, 1973)

  • San Bernardino Sun, 30 October 1973
  • Ugliness in films disturbs Lillian Gish, 77
  • By Bob Thomas

Actress Lillian Gish … wants a return to good taste

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish promoting book 1973

BOB THOMAS BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) “As an American, I am against censorship of any kind,” remarked Lillian Gish, one of the treat stars of the silent screen. She added wistfully, “But I do wish we could do something about taste.” Miss Gish, the fragile beauty of “Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms” and a host of other silent classics, was paying a return visit to the Hollywood she first saw exactly 60 years ago. She reminisced about the past, particularly her prideful association with D. W. Griffith, but she also talked about present day films. “Ugliness disturbs me,” she commented, “and much of what is shown on the screen is ugly. Not only in exposure of the human body. I also mean the ugliness of violence. To me, violence is just as offensive as nudity. “Although I do not approve of censorship, I wish there were some way to impose taste on the people who make films. It’s not that I mind the portrayal of sex in movies, but sex should be beautiful, an expression of human love. But too often it is made to seem ugly.” A youthful 77, Miss Gish is in the middle of a tour of 30 cities in seven weeks to call attention to her new book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish,” a S20 family album of the rich careers of the two sisters. She added a historical perspective on the film world’s flirtation with obscenity: “You know, I helped the Italian film industry get started. I went to Rome after the first World War and made the first American film there, ‘The White Sister.’ There was only one broken-down studio in Rome, and we rebuilt it. Then I went to Florence and made another movie, Romola.

Lillian Gish and director Henry King – Romola candid on set

“I spent two years in Italy, and I had time to learn all about their art. The Italians in the Renaissance went through what our film makers seem to be going through today. Nudity had not been seen before, and at first they exploited it. But then they learned to portray the human body with beauty. “I say to today’s movie makers: Do what you will but do it beautifully.” Lillian Gish conveyed an air of fragility on the screen, but she is in reality the most resilient of ladies. She has proved that by crossing the country 11′ times in the last four years, lecturing to colleges and other audiences on “The Art of the Film.” “I’ve lectured in 41 states only nine to go,” she announced proudly. The barnstorming is a throwback to her childhood, when she and Dorothy toured the country in melodramas. The Gishes made their movie debuts in 1912 in “An Unseen Enemy,” starring a stage chum they had known as Gladys Smith now she calls herself Mary Pickford. The director was D. W. Griffith. It was the start of Lillian’s long, distinguished association with the greatest of the silent film makers. She recalled her arrival in California in 1913: “There was nothing but citrus groves, all the way from San Bernardino. I remember passing a little Santa Fe station named Gish; I never saw it again or learned why it was so named. Our first studio was in a car barn on Pico Boulevard, and they put rugs over the tracks when we were filming. We worked only in the daytime, of course, because we couldn’t shoot when the light failed.” She recalled Hollywood as “a village full of churches and a white hotel with a verandah where old ladies in California for the winter sat in rocking chairs.” Throughout her career, Miss Gish only lived here when she was working. Her home was, and still is, New York “an awful, dirty, noisy, filthy city, but still the most exciting place in the world.” She recently ended a run in a play there, “Uncle Vanya,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring George C. Scott and Julie Christie. After touring the United States and England for her book, she may do the film version. After that? “I don’t know. Things just happen to me. I never plan.”

Uncle Vanya – 1973 (slideshow)

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George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish – by Thomas Quinn Curtiss (1988)

An Applause Original THE SMART SET:

George Jean Nathan & H.L.Mencken

  • by Thomas Quinn Curtiss
  • Copyright © 1998 by Thomas Quinn Curtiss

Nathan had been denouncing the movies as a menace to the arts for many years, but the screen appearance of Miss Gish bewitched him. A year earlier he had published a rapturous essay about her in Vanity Fair, attempting to explain the spell her celluloid image cast. That she is one of the few real actresses that the films have brought forth, either here or abroad, is pretty well agreed upon by the majority of critics. But it seems to me that, though the fact is taken for granted, the reasons for her eminence have in but small and misty part been set down in print.

Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan — Chateau Du Plessis France

“The girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so. Her genius lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite. Her technique consists in thinking out a characterization directly and concretely and then executing it in terms of semi-vague suggestion. The smile of the Gish girl is a bit of happiness trembling on a bed of death; the tears of the Gish girl are the tears that old Johann Strauss wrote into the rosemary of his waltzes. The whole secret of the young woman’s remarkably effective acting rests as I have observed, in her carefully devised and skilfully negotiated technique of playing always, as it were, behind a veil of silver chiffon. She always dominates the scene, yet one feels somehow that she is ever just out of sight. There is ever something pleasantly, alluringly, missing, as there always is in the case of women who are truly ‘acting artists.’

Nathan proposed that Hergesheimer profile Lillian Gish and the novelist complied with an essay that ran in the August 1924 Mercury and is considered one of the memorable contributions to the magazine. The critic also told Hergesheimer that he would very much like to meet Miss Gish, but just then she was away filming in Italy. In November 1924, back from Italy, Miss Gish was on her way to spend a weekend at Joe Hergeshiemer’s home in Pennsylvania when, on the train to Philadelphia, a man introduced himself to her. She remembered him as being handsome and charming. She was suprised to find that he was George Jean Nathan, as she had imagined him to be a much older and ruder fellow, in keeping with his destructive humor. He, too, probably by pre-arrangement, was to be a guest at the Hergesheimers, and they chatted away the two hours of railroad journey. He was immediately and utterly enchanted. Miss Gish, however, was not entirely at ease with her new admirer. Once back in her New York apartment she was reluctant to accept Nathan’s frequent telephone calls. When he caught her on the line she would disguise her voice and, pretending to be her maid, would say that her mistress was out. Eventually, though, she began to accept Nathan’s phone calls and his invitations to first nights and dinners.

George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

A calamity brought Lillian Gish from Hollywood on a lighten-ing visit in the summer of 1926. Her mother, who had gone to London where her daughter Dorothy was filming Nell Gwyn had suddenly suffered a severe stroke. Lillian was in the last week of shooting The Scarlet Letter. She learned that by leaving Los Angeles in three days she could catch the liner, Majestic, leaving New York for England. The last week of filming was compressed into the three days available and she was rushed to the Los Angeles depot with a police escort. Nathan saw her off on the Majestic and continued to write to her:

“Darling, I hope for all time: I tell you again what I have told you daily for the last solid year; that you are the only girl who can ever figure in my life, that you are the only one I can ever really and deeply love, and that I wish you would feel the same way about me as I do about you. “

The Gish girls nursed their mother in London and in a few weeks she was sufficiently improved to be transported to New York. There they broke the journey, preparing for the five-day train trip back to California. Nathan was most attentive during their New York stay. He gave Lillian a wirehaired terrier which she named Georgie, a playful puppy who cut his teeth on all the best chairs of the hotel drawing room. Nathan also presented the actress with a ring on which his profile was engraved. She wore it often and it attracted the attention of interviewers who asked whether it represented her engagement. To this she would evasively reply, “Mr. Nathan is a very brilliant man and my friend.” After Lillian went back to California, Nathan sailed for an inspection of the London theatres. While there, he visited A.B. Walkley, the British drama critic. During a day spent with Walkley at his seaside home, Nathan asked his host—who showed little partiality to Americans in general—how he explained the affinity that made his host and he friends. “You are the only American I have ever met who when you speak does not make me fear that all the dishes on the table will crash to the floor,” replied the advocate of Artistotelian reasoning.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Nathan kept encouraging Lillian Gish to pursue the theatre in her career. She eventually did decide to enact mature drama as well as motion pictures. She gave her initial Broadway performance as Helena in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya on April 15, 1930. Jed Harris, a flamboyant producer, led the moving measure of the company and the excited public.

Her next three plays were Camille by Alexandre Dumas fils, Sean O’Casey’s tragedy about a prostitute, Within the Gates, and John Gielgud’s Hamlet, she playing Ophelia.  Shortly after the death of George Jean Nathan on April 8, 1958, after he was stricken with arteriosclerosis in 1956, Lillian Gish came to see me. She spoke of the letters she had owned since 1924. Most of her friends believed that he wanted to marry her. But in 1933 she wrote him that she had no more love for him. He replied that he was ready to commit suicide. She persuaded him to survive and he swallowed the bitter experience.

Lillian Gish 1930’s

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Life With Father – Booklet (Chicago)

When Life with Father opened in New York in November 1939, no one could have predicted that it would become the longest-running nonmusical play in Broadway’s history—3,224 performances in more than six years. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s family comedy meant to raise no earthshaking issues. At a time when war news was crowding the daily press, its depiction of the life of an affluent New York family in the “gilded” 1880s delighted audiences nostalgic for crises no larger than those touched off by the irascible but good-natured ” Father.

Lindsay and Crouse urged Lillian not to sign a run-of-the-play contract since they were about to produce a vehicle that would be ideal for the two sisters. The Gishes did not heed their advice and lost out on the chance to create the hit Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. Life with Father kept them gainfully employed for far longer than they had anticipated.

Lillian’s company opened in Chicago on February 19, 1940, where it stayed, with her, for a record-breaking sixty-six weeks. “Mother” Vinnie Day suited Lillian in many ways. She had no trouble passing for “a charming, lovable, and spirited woman of forty.” She certainly had Vinnie’s “lively mind,” even if hers did not dart “quickly away from any practical matter.” There was also the “bustled” era of the play, when women comported themselves with a gentility and grace that Lillian enacted with ease. She knew something of that world, and she loved it. She also shared Vinnie’s strong religious convictions.

After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Town (LLOYD LEWIS – Chicago)

Lillian Gish, by virtue of sixty-six weeks in “Life With Father” at Chicago Blackstone Theatre, now takes her place beside the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell as a truly national star.

She has achieved this position by merely spending well over a year at the crossroads of America, the railroad center, whereas the others have had to tour arduously from Tulsa to Des Moines to Seattle to Atlanta. An amazing number of transcontinental travelers stopped off in Chicago long enough to see this Chicago company of “Life With Father,” and the Pullman people say the show did a lot for midnight bookings.

The Lily Maid of Astolat is no longer a dream creature in an ivory belfry nor a flower-decked vision on a dark barge. She is now Mrs. Day, mother, wife and housekeeper. Lillian Gish has come from the unreal to the real. She has made people laugh, she has made people adore her for the simplicity and humor as well with the truly great charm with which she has worn the manners and costumes of the past century. She has identified herself with a character, a scene and a play wholly American, wholly practical and realistic so far as atmosphere is concerned.

“I don’t know, if I should play ‘Life With Father’ any longer; Helen Hayes tells me seventy-two weeks straight is too long for an actress. Other theatrical people tell me that I have thus set a new American record for an actress playing a principal role. I don’t know about this. I do know that I grew weary toward the end and only the enthusiasm of those crowds kept me going. I felt, too, that is was good for the theatre, especially in the midlands, to have a play run in one house for more than a year. That could mean the education of new thousands to the value of the drama.” – Lillian Gish

Life With Father – Lillian Gish

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Uncle Vanya 1930 – 1973; Milestones Marking a Legendary Stageography

Uncle Vanya 1930

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition.

Lillian Gish turns to the footlights – (Uncle Vanya 1930)

Lillian Gish Turns to the Footlights

“Years ago, when David Belasco starred Mary Pickford in the fanciful “A Good Little Devil,” Lillian Gish appeared in the minor role of a good fairy. The other day, however, Miss Gish returned to the speaking stage in New York. Her reception was remarkable.

Miss Gish came back in “Uncle Vanya,” a comedy by the Russian Chekhov. She had the role of Helena. Of her, Robert Litell said in The New York World: “She is not quite like any other actress I have ever seen, with a lovely repose and certainty, a combination of delicate shades and pastel dignity which make us realize how great the screen’s gain has been all these years, to our loss.”

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Jed Harris had selected a well-nigh perfect cast. With Walter Connolly in the title role, the tired, tearful, disillusioned Vanya; with Osgood Perkins, as Astroff, the hard-riding, hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; with Eugene Powers, as Serebrakoff, the ailing, fat-headed, city professor; with Lillian, as Helena, his young, beautiful, disillusioned wife; with Joanna Roos, as Sonia, his unhappy, love-lorn daughter; with Kate Mayhew, as Nurse Marina; with Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud—one must travel far to find a group of players better suited to a Chekhov play, or one more congenial to work with. Ruth Gordon was not in the cast, but she came to Lillian’s apartment and worked with her. So did Mr. Harris. They believed in her, and encouraged her to believe in herself. Going back to the stage had its difficulties.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

LILLIAN GISH returns to the stage in the Chekhov comedy after an absence of 17 years. She last appeared on a prosceniumed platform in New York in 1913, along with Ernest Truex and Mary Pickford, in “A Good Little Devil” at the Republic. Since “The Birth of a Nation” her fame in pictures has been secure. Among the notable films which she has illumined, are “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Orphans of the Storm,” “The White Sister,” “Hearts of the World,” “Romola” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Miss Gish made her stage debut at the age of six in a melodrama, “In Convict’s Stripes,” in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was born in Springfield, Ohio, and has never married. Miss Gish is a rarely fascinating personality in the theater, moving consciously about; falling into unconsciously graceful poses; speaking in a gentle voice with modest expression; suggesting a little girl playing most intelligently at acting, but still a little girl.

Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya – Steichen Santa Monica – Vanity Fair May 1930

Miss Gish has made an extremely happy return to the stage. Her sisters of the films who are now planning to descend upon the drama in swarms – Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, and all the others who have issued their challenges to the playwrights – may well envy her. She is a perfect type for Checkhoff’s fragile, evasive Helena; she has had the coaching of Jed Harris, a master of stage direction; and she has made this new debut not as a star but as one of a group of cooperative artists. The production of “Uncle Vanya” was not a ballyhoo for Lillian Gish, but it has refreshed and renewed her reputation in a distinguished manner. She proves herself, by her admirable realization of Checkhoff’s heroine, a highly accomplished actress.

Lillian Gish and Mike NicholsUncle Vanya – 1973

Uncle Vanya – 1973

“Having been lucky enough to return to the stage from films in the thirties under the unique genius of Jed Harris in “Uncle Vanya”, a second blessing came when I was asked to play Marina, the Nurse, under the direction of the brilliant Mike Nichols.” – Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish, adapting a delightful part for the occasion, is charming as a nurse prepared to set everything right with tea, vodka, God, and a smile. (Walter Kerr – NY Times)

Uncle Vanya – 1973

There are many splendid aspects of this production, which is probably the closest we have reached in years to a classic staging of national theater dimensions. Obviously the most important is this opportunity to compare, contrast and enjoy two major actors going about their business with such successfully differing skills. But Mr. Nichols has also done a good job with a somewhat unequal cast.

The translation, by Albert Todd and Mr. Nichols himself, is fresh and idiomatic. Some people may, in places, find it too idiomatic. I do not. To me it seems to be the privilege of the translator to update, subtly but seriously, a translation to make it more immediate to its audience. And Mr. Nichols’s staging has the same quality of slippered ease and well‐worn informality.

Lillian Gish in the dressing room – Uncle Vanya – 1973

And so, at last, the plowman, turning the furrows of life, comes to the boundary that divides the known from the unknown—the wilderness from the sown field. Whatever we may one day find beyond, is already there in every detail—only, I lack the clairvoyant gift, and turn for a brief backward glimpse. It is no vision of artistic triumph that comes to me tonight . . . not the memory of Chekhov’s radiant heroine . . . not the triste picture of that broken flower of the Limehouse . . . something even more real than these: a real child, trouping with wandering players, away from a mother’s care … a slim-legged little girl, who slept on station benches and telegraph tables, who running across a foot-bridge lost her poor possessions in the swift black water, who from a train or hotel window stared silently into the night.

“What are you looking at, Lillian?”

“Nothing, Aunt Alice, just looking.”

(Albert Bigelow Paine – Life and Lillian Gish)

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Baby Camille of Lillian Gish Arouses Critic – By Burns Mantle (Chicago Tribune – 1932)

  • Chicago Tribune – Sunday November 13, 1932 – Page 51
  • Baby Camille of Lillian Gish Arouses Critic

Too Ethereal for New York

By Burns Mantle

New York – Special – The Lillian Gish “Camille” which has been brought down from the Colorado mountains by the Delos Chappels to show these dull easterners what Dumas really had in mind when, eighty years ago, he wrote the story of Marguerite Gautier and titled it “The Lady of the Camellias” – the Lillian Gish “Camille” is at least 99 per cent pure and floats more successfully than any of them. Of course, if Lillian is right and Robert Edmond Jones is right in his direction of her, then it must follow that fifty million Frenchmen have been wrong for eighty years at least. For nothing so etherealized in the way of Camilles has ever been exhibited on any stage in any country since the play became an emotional actress favorite bronchial and abdominal exercise.

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian, [And] Raymond Hackett [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.193

It is Mr. Jones’ contention that Dumas, in fact has literally been this wrong. His heroine, says Robert, though “one of the most famous of all Parisian courtesans, who died and was deeply mourned at the age of 24, was no middle-aged sophisticate, taking quick profit of her life. Instead, she was a young girl who, governed solely by her great heart, rose at last to spiritual heights which have immortalized her.”

Well, there is agreement on a few points. Marguerite was a courtesan, and she was 24. She had had numerous lovers. She had lived hectically. Her pleasant dissipations had undermined her health and she was, it is fair to assume, at least a 24 year old sophisticate.

Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932

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)

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

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.

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THE CELLULOID MISTRESS – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant (1954)

  • THE CELLULOID MISTRESS
  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS

” There were two sisters sat in a bower .. “

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

I had told Bill Gillette I was going to America to see Korda but the moment I arrived in New York I had to confess to myself that there was somebody else I simply must see, somebody I really looked forward to seeing-and before I telephoned the film magnate who had, as I thought, caused me so much trouble, I telephoned the star who had, from my boyhood days, given me so much pleasure and inspiration : Lillian Gish.

Nine years before, I had been sitting in my room in the Albany flat when Arthur Boys, who had been dining with friends of ours, came in and said casually, “Who do you think is staying with the Parkers?” “I’ve no idea at all,” I said. “Well, guess! ” urged Arthur, “Hitler?” I suggested. “No,” said Arthur, ” Lillian Gish.” I sprang up in the greatest excitement, ” It can’t be! ” “But it is,” insisted Arthur, pleased at being the bearer of such sensational news. If he had not been adamant in refusing to disturb his host and hostess at half-past midnight, I would have forced him to telephone the Parkers then and there to ask if I might meet their distinguished visitor. He spoke to them next morning and they amiably invited me to dine the following evening. I arrived in a state of awe and on being introduced to Lillian Gish became completely tongue-tied-as I usually do when confronted with one of my idols. (Had Tchekov lived in my time and I had met him, I’ve no doubt I should be dumb-struck to this day.) I could only gaze at Miss Gish. It was incredible : she looked exactly the same as she did in the old days-except for two fine lines under her eyes. Her face was so young, it seemed to me; she must have drawn those lines on, in order to play a character part. I sat beside her at dinner, my mind full of memories. When had I first met Lillian Gish on the screen? Was it in 11 The Angel of the Settlement,” a two-reeler in which she had saved George Walsh from being lynched? I recalled seeing that with my sister Kay; it had been a gala day for us at the Grand Theatre, Fulham-for Lillian Gish was my favourite star and George Walsh was Kay’s best-loved actor, and the other film in the bill had been ” The Voice from the Minaret,” with Nonna Talmadge. Suddenly I became aware that some contribution to the conversation was expected from me. ” Oh, Miss Gish,” I said nervously to her, ” there’s something I remember about one of your earlier films which apparently nobody else does : you were once on a horse rushing to someone else’s rescue.” Miss Gish looked at me as though I must be out of my mind. ” I was on a horse . . . rushing to rescue somebody? ” she said, incredulously.

” Yes,” I asserted, ” it was called ‘ The Angel of the Settlement.’ ” Miss Gish shook her head and said in a gentle but firm voice :

“No, no. You must be mistaken. I can’t remember any such film or incident.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

I was surprised and abashed. I hadn’t at that time learned that film stars who have appeared in a great many films always forget the early ones. I did not, in fact, realize this until Robert Helpmann, long afterwards, told me he was afraid he had off ended Bebe Daniels : he had said to her, ” I remember you, dressed as a moth, dancing on a table in’ Singed Wings.'” Miss Daniels had not remembered having done anything so ” idiotic.” She had genuinely forgotten the f:tlm-and one must hope it is never unearthed and shown on TV as it might rock the millions who enjoy that cosy” Life with the Lyons.” Though my first meeting with Lillian Gish had opened somewhat inauspiciously, it led to her becoming a dear friend of mine. We met a number of times during her stay in London-and I discovered that though I had always thought of her as a film star, she regarded herself as essentially a stage actress. Her mother had been an actress in a touring company and Lillian and her sister Dorothy, as children, had travelled abbut with her; it was not a very successful touring company and they often went hungry to bed in the stuffy dressing-rooms of fifth-rate theatres because there was not money enough to pay for a meal or lodgings. The vicissitudes of her childhood had not destroyed Lillian’s born love of the theatre. The years she had spent making films in Hollywood (from 1910 to I930, I believe) represented to her no more than a temporary break in her stage career.

Naturally, during our meetings I argued fervently in favour of the cinema and told her it was my ambition, my dream, to become a film director. She used to smile at me as if I were being rather foolish-but one day she spoke very seriously. Since I had last visited her, she had been to see “After October ” and had read several of my other plays. “Rodney,” she said,” I beg of you don’t waste your time pursuing that dream of yours. You are a playwright-why do you want to be a film director instead of writing plays-plays that nobody else could write? There are hundreds of competent film directors and to get to the top in that profession you must be ruthless-you must be tough enough to take hard knocks and keep fighting and fighting. It is not worth it for you; you have better things to do-you have your plays to write. Think of the number of plays you could have written in all this time you’ve been messing about with films ! Don’t you see?”

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 saw that she spoke in earnest and I loved her for it. I was, in fact, deeply moved : I muttered out inadequate thanks for her kindness. “Well, think about it, anyway,” she said-and then, to put the conversation on a less emotional level, changed the subject. “I should love to play in a London theatre” she sighed. I asked what she had been doing before she came over here. “I was playing in New York in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Within the Gates.’ The front-of “house people told me they used to hear dear old ladies coming into the theatre at matinees saying, ‘ Oh, I always like Lillian Gish, she’s so sweet, always so refined . .. ‘-and then, when the poor things sat down and opened their programmes a gasp would go through the whole auditorium. You see, I was down as ‘ Lillian Gish-The Young Whore.’ “

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

When I telephoned her in New York, Lillian suggested that as Mary Pickford was giving a little party for a few friends at the Waldorf Astoria that day, I should meet her there at six o’clock.

That, I thought, would be charming. Having just arrived from the wilds of Canada, I felt, though, my wardrobe, designed for roughing. it in the wild North-West, was scarcely suitable for a party, however small, at the Waldorf Astoria. I couldn’t afford to buy very much, having only my dollar allowance, and anyway I hadn’t the time, as it was already half-past four. I would let my one good suit to be pressed by the hotel valet service and meantime could slip out in my rumpled tweeds and at least get a new shirt. No haberdasher in the vicinity of the hotel seemed to understand what I wanted so I journeyed to Fifth Avenue. Here, having browsed luxuriously through a variety of shirtings such as had not been seen in England since before the war, I discovered suddenly that it was later than I had thought. I hastily bought a shirt and, clutching it under my arm, emerged from the shop into the inconceivable chaos of New York’s rush hour.

The sidewalk seethed with hot, harassed people, scurrying in all directions, pushing and elbowing each other fiercely and showing such a frenzied determination to escape from Fifth Avenue as quickly as possible that one would have thought an outbreak of bubonic plague in the area had just been announced. There were no taxis to be had-no buses. One stream of fugitives bore me up Fifth Avenue, another swept me clown-and it was nearly six o’clock. There was no time to return to my hotel. I would have to forego the freshly pressed suit and fight my way to the Waldorf Astoria as I was. Arriving, panting and more rumpled than ever, I plunged into the gentleman’s cloakroom, had a quick wash and changed into my new shirt; to my chagrin, it had the kind of cuffs that demand links, and I was linldess. The friendly attendant comforted me with the information that I could buy a IC cheap pair-just junk” at a kiosk in the foyer. With the cheapest pair I could find holding my Cliffs decently together, I asked to be conducted to Miss Mary Pickford’s party.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish – feature photo

A supercilious page flung open a door-revealing thousands and thousands of people, as resplendent and as raucous as macaws, milling about in the ballroom beyond. Dazed and almost deafened, I stood by the doorway feeling lost and hoping that Lillian Gish would find me. At last, looking herself slightly dazed, she did and as we fell on each other’s necks she said in my ear, IC But I promise you, Mary did say just a few friends.” I was fascinated to meet Mary Pickford, though I did not exchange more than a couple of words with her-not, on this occasion, because I was tongue-tied but because she was so busy receiving the hordes of guests who continued to arrive. Her circle of friends was apparently infinite. Unlike Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford had changed a great deal since the old days; she bore no resemblance at all to the ringletted darling who was the world’s sweetheart.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

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