In the 1920s Jed Harris was the boy wonder of Broadway. Every play he produced was a great success. I met him indirectly through George Jean Nathan. George introduced me to Ruth Gordon, an actress whom I greatly admired. He invited the two of us to lunch, and we took an immediate liking to each other. We were both Francophiles, and we both liked a special wine, Clos Vougeot. Ruth said that she had a friend, Jed Harris, who shared our taste for this wine, and it was agreed that each of us would try to find a bottle and that whoever found it first would give a dinner and invite Jed Harris. Not long after I met him at dinner in Ruth’s apartment.
George Jean Nathan was an articulate man, and I had learned much about the theater from him. He knew the drama better than anyone I had ever met. He could take any given scene and tell you in detail how twenty different dramatists had treated it, so prodigious was his memory. But that night, I was even more enthralled listening to Jed Harris. He glowed with love of the theater. When I said goodnight to Ruth, I whispered: “He’s wonderful! I’d work for that man for nothing.” Three weeks later he called and asked me to play Helena in Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.
For Uncle Vanya Jed, with his fine instinct, had gathered a superb cast. Walter Connolly was the weary, disillusioned Vanya; Osgood Perkins, father of Tony Perkins, was Astroff, the hard-drinking, disillusioned doctor; Eugene Power played the ailing city professor; Joanna Roos was Sonia, his unhappy daughter; Kate Mayhew was Nurse Marina; and Isabel Irving, Eduardo Ciannelli, and Harold Johnsrud played the other roles. Rose Caylor—Mrs. Ben Hecht and herself Russian—did the translation, with Jed working on the adaptation. George read the acts as they were completed. He read the first act and approved of it. He read the second act and was enthusiastic. When he finished the third act, however, he said, “Lillian, you cannot do this play.”
We had been in rehearsal for two weeks before the third act was completed. His statement was so contradictory to what he had said before that I was astounded.
“You will have to get out of this play,” he repeated.
“How can I? We open in less than two weeks.”
“That’s immaterial,” he persisted. “You get out of it, get sick, go out of town. You can’t hold your own against that last great speech they’ve given Sonia. She will wipe up the floor with you.”
“That’s too bad,” I said, “but I promised to do the play, and I shall do it.”
“That doesn’t mean a thing; you haven’t signed a contract.”
“My word is my contract.”
“Well, if you don’t step out now, you’ll never get another job in the theater as long as you live.”
His judgment, which I valued, made me dread opening night. Worthington Miner, Jed’s assistant, was in charge of many rehearsals, but neither he nor Jed gave me much direction. When my scenes came up, Jed would say: “You’ve directed a movie. Take this scene, and do it as you would in films.” I was too frightened to protest, only hurt that he helped everyone but me, who needed it most. My character represented that quality that all men search for and is always just beyond their reach, and it was not an easy assignment. I wondered if he was sorry that he had chosen me. I asked him years later why he had neglected me when I had needed guidance so badly. “I felt that I had a frightened bird in my hand, and if I gave it direction it would fly away,” he said.
I never had a contract with him; I had said that I would work for nothing for the chance to make such a distinguished re-entry into the theater, and I meant it. I was surprised when an envelope was handed to me at the end of the first week with a large sum of money. I heard later that Jed’s staff was worried for fear that I would walk out. But apparently Jed counted on my professionalism and knew that I would carry on.
In that period there was enmity between films and the theater, and, as I had long acted in films, I was anxious about the critics’ reactions. I wanted to slip quietly back into the theater. I asked Jed not to use my name on the marquee. Richard Maney, Jed’s press agent, told me afterward that it took him three days to get up the courage to ask me if they could use my name on the road. When we took Uncle Vanya to Boston, Maestro Serge Koussevitsky came to see the play, and later he and his wife had dinner with us at the Ritz. The Maestro had been a friend of Chekhov’s; he had seen the first performance of Uncle Vanya in Moscow. He related the story of the performance and the audience’s reactions, and we sat listening until dawn. Where American audiences laughed, the Russians had wept; their laughter was matched by our tears. He could not have been more flattering to us when he compared the two renditions. We were very taken with the Maestro. His eyes had that look of wonder that is common among children but that most of us lose with maturity. He made us feel personally involved in the Boston Symphony, then a little world of its own, and we were allowed to come to rehearsals, which were always more interesting to us than the finished concerts.
The cast of Uncle Vanya was inspiring, particularly Kate Mayhew. Kate was in her eighties and still a joyous woman. To be associated with her was to relive American theatrical history, for she had come to the theater as a child. She had once been the understudy of Lotta Crabtree. She and her sister had no money; they had given all their valuables to their friends before they had grown old. Some years later, Jed said to me: “Remember Kate Mayhew in Vanya? She was so right—the pivot—around her everything else fell into place.”
Not wanting to see the bad news in print, I resolved not to read the notices until the play closed. If they said I was terrible I would despair. If they were good I would wonder what I had done that night that was right, looking backward instead of forward. Later I read that Percy Hammond of the Herald Tribune had written, “In the future when I am told that association with the films is a destructive influence, I shall cite Miss Gish’s appearance in Uncle Vanya to prove the contention wrong.”
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
The night that Uncle Vanya ended its engagement at the Biltmore on November 29, 1930, D. W. Griffith came backstage to congratulate me. I hadn’t seen him in quite some time. It was more than eighteen years since that midsummer day when Mother, Dorothy, and I had entered the old Biograph Studio. He made no mention of his plans; his departure from the payroll of United Artists had made his future a question mark. He talked mainly about the D. W. Griffith Corporation, which had been set up in his name in 1920 to sell stock to the public. He told me: “These are people who saw and loved my pictures and because they believed in them, they have invested all their savings. Hard-working men. Widows with children. How can I let them down? It keeps me awake at night, trying to figure out which story will make money.”
Lillian Gish, signing her book “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me” photographed by Peter Warrack
The legend looked like an old man dressed up to not look seedy. His thin gray hair was parted in the middle and plastered down, without concession to current style. He wore a dark ascot inside his open shirt collar. The padding of his camel’s hair sports jacket overlapped his shoulders, too wide. He fidgeted with his hearing aid and coughed, trying vainly to clear his throat between draws on a cigarette. He’d just been released from the hospital and sipped a glass of water through an L-shaped straw he’d stolen on the way out.
In the Hollywood television studio, Pat Burroughs, his forty-year-old girlfriend, stood and watched beside one of the cameramen. The Dick Cavett Show was usually taped in New York, but when Jed Harris heard that Cavett was in Los Angeles, he telephoned. He had a book to publicize. He was penniless and ill and desperate for it to succeed.
Cavett introduced him as “legendary, the golden boy of our theater’s golden age,” and Harris peered up from beneath lids that, once notoriously hooded, now just seemed eighty years’ heavy. He said nothing. Cavett, stagestruck since childhood, was excited by a chance to interview the Jed Harris he’d heard so much about; the Jed Harris he had thought was dead. He arranged for a studio and crew and now Pat Burroughs looked on apprehensively. Beside the preppy production assistants she appeared gauche in her white orlon sweater and gray gabardine slacks, but she was more concerned with Harris’s hearing and alertness. The medication made him so groggy. He had been the subject of her doctoral thesis. They’d been together tor several years now. The relationship had never been placid, but this last stretch had been actively acrimonious.
They had stayed with her mother in Winston-Salem, the seventy-nineyear-old former golden boy not embarrassed to be dependent on his girlfriend’s sixty-five-year-old mother. Though he complained about everything else, he never complained about this final and ludicrous deposit. A lifetime earlier he had declared international celebrity something he put little stock by. Apparently he had meant it. Then, always fleeing somewhere, he told Pat they were going to California. She scraped up two thousand dollars, bought a used Thunderbird, and while he dozed she drove from one TraveLodge Motel to the next. They wound up in a sorry one-bedroom Malibu garden apartment. Now Cavett smiled smartlv at the camera and recited Harris’s credits as a theatrical producer and director. These were faded and spiritless references to forgotten glories. Cavett seemed to realize, as he spoke, that the play titles would mean little to most people and so he abbreviated the list in midstream. Yet he was awed, he said, by the presence of Harris and he kept using that word, “legend.”
Videotape made it possible to come back from the grave. Months after Harris died the interviews were broadcast. After thirty years of oblivion, he had five nights on television, more time than Cavett had ever offered anyone. Old enemies watched with contempt for Harris’s deviousness, his dishonesty, his malevolence to the end. Old friends watched with admiration for his courage in carrying off “The Jed Harris Show” just one last time, and in plain sight of death. Now, as they all watched, he was dead.
Ruth Gordon found a splendid apartment in New York. She always found splendid apartments. This one was at 36 West 59th Street overlooking Central Park. Although they were now more or less together, Jed kept his place at the Madison Hotel. That bothered Ruth, and she said so, but he had the upper hand. Strolling through Shubert Alley one day, she ran into Lillian Gish and George Jean Nathan. The actress and the critic were secretly engaged. There was no reason for the secrecy other than Miss Gish’s feverish modesty. She hasn’t seen Ruth Gordon in a year. Of course nobody had. The two actresses scurried to each other, the sparrow and the hummingbird, and pecked one another’s cheek. Ruth said she’d been in Paris, drinking wine, and had tasted “some stuff called Clos Vougeot and it was sen-jo-tional.”
Nathan knew the wine. He said it was a superlative Burgundy but hard to find. “I’ve got a great idea,” Ruth said. “I know a guy who it’s his favorite wine too. He’s dying to meet you, Lillian, so I tell you what. The first one that finds a bottle of Clos Vougeot, let’s all have dinner together.”
Ruth was a woman of many combinations, none of them foolish. She knew that it wouldn’t hurt Jed to befriend a critic, but Lillian was even more important. Chekhov on Broadway needed a box office attraction and Lillian Gish was one of D. W. Griffith’s most glittering movie stars. Ruth found the bottle of wine first because she already had it. One evening not long after, they all met at her apartment. Nathan and Harris talked drama while the actresses listened respectfully, which probably was not an easy thing for Ruth Gordon to do.
“Until then,” Miss Gish remembered, “I had thought George knew more about the theater than anyone I’d ever met. You’d go to a play and there was a certain scene that you liked; he could tell you five or six other plays where they had the same idea and then say how they played that scene.
“Jed was beyond that. I never heard anyone talk about the theater with the intelligence and the excitement and the interest that that man had. When I got up to get my coat to leave I said to Ruth, I’d work for that man for nothing if he ever had anything for me.'”
Three weeks later she received the script of Uncle Vanya. She probably would have gotten it even faster but I farris had to rethink the play. The role he wanted Lillian to play, a heartless flirt, was hardly one with which she would have been immediately associated. “Elena,” he later wrote, “seemed to me a rather old-fashioned portrait of a ‘teaser.’ I decided to modify, to suggest a beautiful and desirable woman, chilled beyond hope of recovery by marriage to a withered windbag of a professor.”
It was a novel interpretation, even a radical one. In most productions of Uncle Vanya, Elena is still played as a man-eater. Gish agreed to do it immediately. She wouldn’t discuss salary and there was no sense in it anyhow. Jed could hardly give her the ten thousand dollars a week she was paid by Griffith. Anything, she said, would do.
He cast the other major roles with actors he’d worked with before. Walter Connolly, his old pal from the Applesauce days, “would make a perfect Vanya. And [Osgood] Perkins, even without the romantic beauty and distinguished style of Stanislavsky who created the part, might make an interesting thing of Dr. Astrov.”
Did he know what he was talking about?
Lillian was going to be a challenge. Her last theatrical experience had been as an adolescent, seventeen years earlier. Her voice had never been a powerful instrument. George was of no help, in fact he was antagonistic to the project. He told Lillian a bit of period stage nonsense—that it was essential for a star to have the last speech in a play. The last speech in Uncle Vanya was not Elena’s but Sonya’s. If she did the play, he warned, she might never have another job in the theater or even in the movies.
Miss Gish knew why her fiance was so negative. Jed was planning to open Uncle Vanya in April, and she had promised to go to Europe with George in June. And, Nathan was an insecure man, jealous of Jed’s magnetism, jealous even of Lillian’s concern for her ailing mother. Acceding to these pressures but embarrassed to tell Harris the truth, Lillian said only that she would have to leave the production after six weeks in order to take her mother to a spa in Germany. He calculated the time it would take to recover the production cost and, presuming that Lillian would be a sell-out attraction, agreed to her limited engagement. Harris wrote:
. . . she came to rehearsal in a palpable state of fright. As she had not been on the stage since early childhood, this was not altogether unnatural. “All these people in the company are so wonderful,” she said mournfully after the first session. “I really don’t think I’m good enough to be on the same stage with them.” I laughed. “They’re not that wonderful,” I said. And I told her that Helen Hayes was so nervous during the first week she rehearsed Coquette that she broke out in a painful rash. “And Helen,” I added, “hasn’t been off the stage since she learned to walk.” If this was meant to reassure Miss Gish, it failed utterly. Her eyes clouded over with compassion, she murmured, “Oh that poor, poor girl.”
Miss Gish recalled an early rehearsal at which Harris rose from his aisle seat and strolled to the stage. “Lillian,” he said, so quietly that she had to lean over the footlights to hear him. “Just do this as if you were in a movie. Don’t worry about projection. Don’t worry about the size of performance.
My only advice is: the woman you’re playing is the pivotal figure in the play. If they believe her, everything else will be believed. And remember, she isn’t merely a woman. You’re playing every man’s idea of a woman. Try and keep that in the back of your mind but don’t worry about it. You’re going to be wonderful.”
As rehearsal proceeded, some were less than convinced of that. Harris let his assistant, Worthington Miner, assume more responsibilities. Some days, he didn’t arrive until late in the afternoon. Osgood Perkins suspected that Jed might be having trouble with his hearing, but nobody paid much attention to that.
Photo: Osgood Perkins and Lillian Gish
When the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 15, 1930, it was triumphant. The reviews were gaudy. Jed recovered his nine-thousand-dollar investment in six weeks—almost to the day Gish left the company—and the production ran another three weeks on momentum, giving him a small profit on the risky presentation of a classic on Broadway.
These were fine rewards, but none to compare with the observations that critic Stark Young made about the production in The New Republic. Stark Young was the most intellectual critic of the era. Few among those who have practiced the profession of drama criticism have been better equipped for it, or better at it, than he. And Chekhov was Stark Young’s specialty. Soon after this production of Uncle Vanya he would publish his own translations of the playwright’s works, and they would for many years remain the standard versions.
1930 Uncle Vanya – Helena
circa 1921: 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.
Observing the directorial debut of Jed Harris, Mr. Young wrote, “Writing criticism about a production so careful and intelligent is a pleasure and a form of cooperation with the producer. . . . The whole directing is felt out with naturalness, brains and confidence.”
It was almost miraculous that Harris could have accomplished such a feat with so little preparation. His natural gift had to have been astonishing. Pity he would, in his career, do only two other classics and neither of them in a league with Uncle Vanya. They would be Gogol’s The Inspector General and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He would never attempt Shakespeare, or even his beloved Shaw.
His return to Broadway, then, was a glittering one. It had even enhanced his image: quality, intellect and art had been added to the reputation for commercial infallibility. The dust from the Wall Street crash had cleared and The Meteor had survived.
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya (Harris)
Not so the romance of George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish. They returned from Europe to learn that his mother was mortally ill. Lillian visited her in the hospital. On the way home she asked George whether he was Jewish. He repeated what he had told her before: that he was from a Main Line and decidedly Episcopalian Philadelphia family. The mother Lillian had seen in the hospital had not struck her as a society Christian. She asked George’s sister-in-law about it, and Marguerite roared.
“If George’s brother is Jewish,” she said, “I might suppose he would be too.” Lillian was disgusted. She hardly cared who was Jewish. Practically everyone in Hollywood was. But she did care—or rather, did not care — about people who denied what they were. That was the end of her secret engagement to George Jean Nathan.
Best known as the director of such spectacular films as The Ten Commandments and KingOf Kings, Cecil B. DeMille lived a life as epic as any of is cinematic masterpieces. As a child DeMille learned the Bible from his father, a theology student and playwright who introducedCecil and his older brother, William, to the theater. Tutored by impresario David Belasco,DeMille discovered how audiences responded to showmanship: sets, lights, costumes, etc. He took this knowledge with him to Los Angeles in 1913, where he became one of the movie pioneers, in partnership with Jesse Lasky and Lasky’s brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn). Working out of a barn on streets fragrant with orange blossom and pepper trees, the Lasky company turned out a string of successful silents, most of them directed by DeMille, who became one of the biggest names of the silent era. With films such as The Squaw Man,Brewster’s Millions, Joan the Woman, and Don’t Change Your Husband, he was the creative backbone of what would become Paramount Studios. In 1923 he filmed his first version of The Ten Commandments and later a second biblical epic, King of Kings, both enormous box-office successes. Although his reputation rests largely on the biblical epics he made, DeMille’s personal life was no morality tale. He remained married to his wife, Constance, for more than fifty years, but for most of the marriage he had three mistresses simultaneously, all of whom worked for him. He showed great loyalty to a small group of actors who knew his style, but he also discovered some major stars, among them Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, and later, Charlton Heston. DeMille was one of the few silent-era directors who made a completely successful transition to sound. In 1952 he won the Academy Award for Best Picture with The Greatest Show on Earth. When he remade The Ten Commandments in 1956, it was an even bigger hit than the silent version. He could act, too: in Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard, DeMille memorably played himself. In the 1930s and 1940s DeMille became a household name thanks to the Luce Radio Theater, which he hosted. But after falling out with a union, he gave up the program, and his politics shifted to the right as he championed loyalty oaths and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. As Scott Eyman brilliantly demonstrates in this superbly researched biography, which draws on a massive cache of DeMille family papers not available to previous biographers, DeMille was much more than his cliched image. A gifted director who worked in many genres; a devoted family man and loyal friend with a highly unconventional personal life; a pioneering filmmaker: DeMille comes alive in these pages, a legend whose spectacular career defined an era.
In the years after World War I, propriety was less attractive than the promise of freedom. Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would inevitably give way to Clara Bow and Louise Brooks — a transition anticipated by DeMille. The DeMille films manage to have it both ways — they confront the anxieties implicit in abandoning old behavior patterns, but they tend to reaffirm the original marital transaction. At the same time, they’re problem pictures in which the premise carries more weight than the characters; DeMille doesn’t give his women the room for authentic emotion as would directors who came out of a different cultural tradition such as Lubitsch or Josef von Sternberg.
Ramping up a studio from a standing start entails a vast amount of work and money, especially when it comes to story material. “Do you want to buy best sellers by popular authors or cheaper originals and older stories?” inquired Ella Adams. DeMille would have preferred gilt-edged properties, but there were money issues. “We are short on material for women,” he wrote back. “We need eight feminine vehicles and we only have four.”
Then there was the problem of stars. Lillian Gish wired DeMille to say that she had been told he was interested in her: have YOU A representative here in new YORK THAT I COULD TALK WITH OR COULD YOU WIRE ME ABOUT ANY PLANS YOU MIGHT HAVE AFFECTING MY FUTURE WHICH IS STILL UNSETTLED?
DeMille responded with a flurry of telegrams: I WOULD LIKE VERY MUCH TO HAVE YOU AS A MEMBER OF MY NEW COMPANY AS I BELIEVE I CAN DO MORE FOR YOU THAN ANYONE AT present IN the field. He told his New York man to “call upon Gish immediately, tell her I would like [to] make four pictures a year with her that I will personally supervise and in which she would be starred. Or possibly three starring pictures and have her appear in one of my personally directed productions each year. . . .
If she mentions [Gish’s lover, the drama critic] George Jean Nathan you can say that I have the highest regard for Mr. Nathan and would be glad to associate him in some way with her pictures. That at the same time if she is to have the benefit of my direction and supervision naturally the choice of stories and matters of that sort must be left in my hands.”
DeMille’s agent reported back that three or four companies were bidding for Gish’s services, for what he thought was a minimum of $5,000 a week, and she wanted a definite offer. A couple of days later, he asked DeMille, “would you take Nathan if signing Gish depended on it?” The negotiations with Gish went no further; she signed with MGM. That wasn’t the only disappointment. DeMille was anxious to sign the silk hat comedian Raymond Griffith, and was willing to trade Bebe Daniels, with whom he had worked out a contract memo. But Daniels changed her mind about working for DeMille because her boyfriend was going to be working in the East and she wanted to follow him there. This left DeMille with nothing to offer of comparable value for Griffith.
On July 27, 1948, DeMille had attended the funeral of the largely forgotten, alcoholic D. W. Griffith. Lillian Gish remembered that only six people came to the funeral home the night before the funeral; one was DeMille, another was John Ford. For the funeral itself, where there were sure to be cameras, there was a crowd.
Sitting there, DeMille must have thought about the meaning of Griffith’s life, and the circumstances of his death, about roads not taken, and why he, alone of all the directors of his generation, maintained a preeminent position in the industry.
Martin Scorsese once wrote that what moved him about DeMille was his sense of wonder. “DeMille presented such a sumptuous fantasy that if you saw his movies as a child, they stuck with you for life. The marvelous superseded the sacred. What I remember most are the tableaux vivants, the colors, the dreamlike quality of the imagery, and of course the special effects. . . .
“DeMille’s legacy is . . . putting on a giant show for people who were working class people, who don’t have much money to go and see a film in a theater. They are told it’s a spectacle and they really do see a spectacle. He wouldn’t let the audience down at all, and it always paid off in that beautiful flow of poetic and dream-like images.”
Alone among the survivors of a bygone era, DeMille persisted in constructing vast pieces of silent music: Pre-Raphaelite, pre-Freudian images that rendered dialogue irrelevant. His silent films have maintained DeMille’s reputation as a great director by those lucky enough to see them, and the enormous spectacles have kept his name alive for audiences more than fifty years after his death. Years after DeMille’s death, Gloria Swanson visited Palm Springs, where William Holden was living. Holden was in Africa, so Swanson left a note for him on a toilet seat.
“Dear Joe,” [his character’s name in Sunset Boulevard]
I’m leaving this note where I know you’ll find it.
“Where is Max? Where is DeMille? Where is Hedda? Where has everybody gone?
“Love, Norma Desmond.”
Once, when DeMille’s granddaughter Cecilia was a little girl, she asked him what he did for a living. He thought about it for a moment, then smiled. “I tell stories,” he said.
Is it because Lillian Gish’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
If an intrepid producer today decided to do Cleopatra, who would you select as the most likely interpreter of the title role? Cleopatra, enchantress of the Nile; with Salome, holding the vamping championship of the ages; Egypt’s luscious queen called Cleo by the vulgar varieties and tin-pan alley. Nita Naldi? Barbara La Marr? Theda Bara—she made it once, you know. No.
Now that the uproar has subsided and the hoots and hisses have died in the distance, let me repeat: Lillian Gish. That same Lillian whose last name has come to be a verb among film followers. Famous as the Little Nell of the silent drama; the most persecuted heroine of all time; the victim of more unfortunate circumstances than any other girl who was ever cast out in a cape into the night that was forty below. In short, the sweet seducee of hundreds of celluloid chromos — what, she, Cleopatra? Exactly. Lillian Gish is the only logical candidate for the role. You may picture Cleopatra as a large and luscious lady; a voluptuous creature with black, black hair and sloe eyes; a mouth that looks always as if it has just been kissed. A combination of Naldi and Negri and La Marr with a dash of piquance a la Alma Rubens.
Cleo Was a Ingenue. Cleo could be classified, according to type, only as an ingenue. She was essence of ingenue, de luxe. She was very, very slender; she had wide, innocent eyes. Feminine, soft, soothing and sweet. She had her own way, but in her own way. She caressed and cajoled, as ingenues have always done. She would have fitted in beautifully in any gathering of the Ladies Aid of Alexandria. She was a little lady—and the most dangerous one of her day.
Oh, yes, Cleopatra was an ingenue. A devastating darling with an iron will and a fixed purpose. A slim, bright sword in a shimmering sheath. It was a noted archaeologist who said that her twentieth-century celluloid incarnation was none other than Lillian Gish. The girl who has been for years the screen symbol of female virtue, modesty, and meekness. He looked at her, so the story goes, and exclaimed: “Cleopatra!” “What?” said the surprised maestro, Mr. Griffith. “Miss Gish?” “Ah—she is the perfect type! She has everything any actress needs to play the part.” “But she’s an ingenue,” protested her great teacher.
“That may be,” smiled the authority on dead ages and living ladies. “Nevertheless, she has it—that inflexibility, that subtlety that Cleopatra exhibited, to the ultimate degree. If, my dear sir, you do not film Cleopatra with Lilian Gish in the leading role you will be overlooking an opportunity—a very great opportunity, indeed.”
Doubtless the showman side of D. W. G. foresaw the public’s inability or reluctance to view a re-creation of Cleopatra other than in the well-upholstered person of Nita Naldi. He smiled and said nothing. And Lillian Gish went her own way with her own company, and D. W. went his. Hence Cleopatra and Miss Gish have never gotten together.
Lillian, an Enigma
Lillian seems determined to confine herself to the portrayals of unvarnished virgins; to dedicate her art and her subtle smile to the perpetuation of many more Anna Moores. A pity. Because the screen has never reflected the Cleopatra complex in our most stainless heroine. Her adorers would shudder to see her in the arms of Antony; her littlegirl fans of all ages would stop sending her crocheted doilies if she ever enacted a person of adult passions and intelligence. The virgin queen of the screen is an enigma if there ever was one. Where is her Leonardo? Griffith, as her professional da Vinci, painted her as the Gioconda of the gelatines, as faithfully, perhaps, as anyone ever will. But the Griffith Gish was never half so baffling as the curiously quiet, gentle-voiced woman who is the real Lillian.
So many think they know her. Her hordes of girl interviewers swarm about her and come away worshipping, calling her by her first name and devoutly believing they have been admitted inside the shell. Her co-workers admire and often adore her—I know this is old stuff, but it’s fact this time. I remember Kate Bruce, who has played with her since Biograph days, when her eyes filled with tears as she said: “God bless her! She’s a wonderful girl. Always the same; always kind and patient. She works harder than any of us. That guillotine scene (they were making Orphans of the Storm) was done a dozen times, and she was better every time.” They used to stand on the sidelines out at the Griffith studios and watch her go through a scene. When she had wrung the hearts of the studio spectators and the camera had captured her tragic tears she would look around at the friendly circle as if surprised she could stir them so. Always, she was the calmest of them all.
The Ingenue Grows Up
I’ve watched her grow up. Not from baby days. But from an ingenue leading woman to one of the three or four outstanding women of the silver-sheet. I saw her for the first time, in Chicago, about seven years ago. It was after Hearts of the World had been a triumph for Griffith and for the Gish sisters. It made Dorothy, the Little Disturber, a star. Lillian and Mrs. Gish wired me to meet them at the station where they had an hour before boarding an east-bound train. Lillian took my breath away. She was so ethereal I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in her earthliness when she ordered and ate an artichoke. She was carrying a tall cane really a wand—which she used for the exercises she performed faithfully every day. Always frail—but her indominable indominable courage has made her strong. For one old Griffith picture she learned to turn cartwheels. She taught herself to swim a few years ago. Work—work—work—that has been her whole life. She is absolutely selfless and sincere in it. Her inflexibility is incongruous with her smooth, suave surface. She is as delicate and as dainty a creature as you would want to see. Faint perfume; a soft “veil”; perfect gloves and all that sort of thing. A clever author once remarked to me that she was a great woman because she was so adaptable.
She is a chameleon. She is a lovely mirror in a quaint frame. In any salon, at any court in the world she would not be out of place. All the more remarkable when you consider that her youth was spent almost entirely on the stage, and not the New York stage. The stages of small towns’; the hard, relentless life of a trouper was hers until the movies, that fairy godmother of so many Cinderellas, lifted her from obscurity to fortune. Disillusioned by Hard Knocks There was one time of her career when she lived in a little hotel near Washington Square and cooked all her meals over a one-burner gas stove. When she actually did not get enough to eat. David Belasco told her afterwards he thought she was wasting away. There were times when she and her mother and Dorothy could not be together; when the exigencies of their uncertain profession called them apart. Her training was a stern school. She has known all the hard knocks, all the disappointments; and I have always thought her a little disillusioned. In the years I have known her I recall a glimpse here and there that interests me—for no particular reason except that it reveals something of the real Lillian—a creature as varied in mood and mind as anyone I have ever known. She has always seemed to me to be an unconsciously complex individual. Exteriorly, she is somewhat of a Pollyanna, with a respect for the good, wholesome, middle-western things.
I saw her after she and Dorothy and Mr. Griffith had lunched at the White House with the Hardings. She marvelled a bit that the President and his wife were so much like other human beings—just plain, simple folk like ourselves. It was apparent, too, a long time ago, when I went with her and her mother to see Broken Blossoms. The audience contained several representatives of the higher social order of Manhattan. We went to an ice cream emporuim afterwards and over our sundaes Lillian thrilled at the fact that the once-lowly movies could now attract the creme de la creme of the aristocracy. And yet she cannot help being the friendliest and most democratic of souls. Sympathy is within her and she has made up helpless little extras and taken under her wing pretty aspirants for screen honors. She is one of the few stars of importance who will go out of her way a little to help someone, without thought of return.
She is really old-fashioned. Her dressing-table drawers are neat and orderly. She used to keep piles of pretty silk underthings, and hundreds of handkerchiefs, and never wear them. Her sister and James Rennie once escorted her to a smart hotel where the youthful fashionables were wont to cavort. Lillian couldn’t believe young people really acted like that. Her visit to the suburban home of a famous novelist and his wife opened her wistful eyes still wider. “And they say that motion picture people are gay,” she exclaimed. “Why, I never saw anything like it in all the time I have been in pictures.” An eminent and elderly French artist asked her to pose for him. He did some charming things of her and called her his most entrancing subject. I heard him rave. He bent over her hand. He gave her a rose and asked her to pose for another head. Lillian thanked him prettily and told me later that she always took someone with her to the sittings. Her shyness and her modesty are genuine, not assumed. But I do not doubt that, if her role called for it, she would do a Lady Godiva without a murmur. When she is working she is impersonal. I spent a week-end with the Gishes when they lived in Mamaroneck. The family retired early. On Lillian’s bed-table was her prayer book with its “L. G.” on the cover. The next morning she was up at six and at the studio at six-thirty. It was Sunday. She was directing Dorothy in a comedy while Mr. Griffith was in the South. She made it a good comedy by sheer determination and desperately hard work. Everything happened to hinder her that can happen in a studio. The electrical apparatus wouldn’t work. It was a grind. In her severely simple suit, with a green shade over her eyes, and a huge megaphone, she was L. Gish, director, and a darned good one. Not a vestige of the girl the world knows. She was the most impersonal director I ever saw on a set. Her own sister might have been a casual acquaintance. Patient, tactful—yes. But business-like. She hardly had time or the inclination to pose for publicity stills. I have always handed it to her for her work with that comedy. It was an achievement entirely unassisted by personality.
A Good Sport
Then, the first time she left Griffith, the company that was to have starred her in a series of features fell through, she was a good little sport. She had made up her mind it was time for her to make money—compared to the salaries of other stars, her Griffith remuneration was small, indeed. But when her company failed she went- back and quietly became a part of the Griffith organization again. It must have been a keen and bitter disappointment; but if it hurt her nobody knew it. She played her parts in the Griffith pictures more exceptionally than ever before. She shared, more than any other Griffith player, the director’s triumphs. At one of the premiers, the audience called for Mr. Griffith; and after his speech, applauded thunderously for his heroine. Griffith smiled. “You are looking in the right direction,” he said, waving at her box. Somehow a Griffith first night has never seemed so colorful since she has left. Now she is an established star in her own right. She has made The White Sister and Romola in Italy. She shops in Paris and Rome. She has met and grown to know men and women of the world; the substantial things of life are hers. And has she changed? Of course, she has. She has taken on a new poise and a fresh charm. Her contact with another world—the bigger, polished existence outside a studio—has left its impression. She is mentally more alert—and more silent than before.
A Trifle Tired
The thought has occurred to me about her that she is a trifle tired. She has accomplished so much in a few short years. Not yet thirty, she has been accorded a niche next to Duse. Her personal popularity is greater than Maude Adams’ ever was. John Barrymore has called her a truly great artiste. So have many others. With the illusion that she, a real actress, a conscientious, devoted artiste, loved and lived only for her work, I once said to her: “But, of course, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t always busy.” She turned to me, and her lovely eyes—the only eyes I have ever seen which could be called limpid—were a little weary.
“Oh, yes I could,” she said. “Do you think any of us would work if necessity didn’t demand it? I would love to have money enough and time enough just to follow spring around the world.”
Her earnings have been considerable. And the Gish family has never lived exorbitantly. Theirs has been the life of the usual prosperous home. But the long and serious illness of Mrs. Gish, with its heavy expenses—for nothing was spared that their beloved mother might be well and strong again—was a severe drain on the finances and the courage of the sisters. Speaking of courage, Lillian has it. Mrs. Gish lay ill in the hospital while Orphans of the Storm was being made. Lillian and Dorothy often dashed to town from the suburban studio for a moment’s visit. They did the greatest work of their careers while their hearts were heavy and their nerves at the breaking-point. Their mother has always ben their first consideration. Studio mamas have been kidded, and often with justice. But here is an exception. Mae Gish is one of the finest women whose fortunes have ever been associated with the films. Slight and pretty, with Lillian’s gentleness and Dorothy’s sense of humor, she has sympathy and savoir faire. Her son-inlaw adores her. What higher praise? She is well again and with her girls in Italy.
Lillian is Old-World
Somehow I think Lillian has always belonged there. She is old-world. I can imagine her among the ruins of the Renaissance; in those serene places where the lustrous ladies she rather resembles used to linger. I’d like to have her play Beatrice d’Este, that capricious child of Milan, with her dwarfs and her festivities and her gem-encrusted gowns. Lillian would rather play Isabella, I suppose! If she could only be persuaded that her dramatic future lies along different lines. She has played too long the passive part. Except in a few of the old Triangle films, such as Diana of the Follies, she has been the instrument of a cruel fate. If she would shake off the shackles of conventionality, she would be truly great. She has courage. Why not use it and play Cleopatra; or Mona Lisa, or Beatrice? Perhaps, like her friend Mary Pickford, she is bound by cinema traditions. Mary is firmly convinced that she dare not trifle with the public affection to the extent of portraying a human being; and so she keeps on playing her pretty, innocuous children. Does Lillian Gish dare to do a Cleopatra? I had hopes when I read the reports that she was at last to embark upon the high sea of real romance. The rumors of her engagement to Charles Duell, the president of her company, Inspiration Pictures, still persists despite cabled denials from Italy. And only the other day I heard that a young naval officer had given up his post to follow her to Rome and Florence, and that she was as enamoured of him as he of her. Again, denials. Let Lillian Gish allow herself to indulge in a little amour, away from the blinding studio lights and the ceaseless click of the camera; let her marry and even retire for a while—and the screen will be richer for her experience. Is it because Lillian’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
A young man in England used to send her poems, all nicely bound and expressive of his undying devotion. Lillian was pleased with them, and showed a little-girl eagerness for the next edition. Will life cheat her of the passions and perplexities she has never enacted before the camera? Will her own existence resolve itself into a repetition of the passive part she has played on the screen?
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish – Bridal Suite
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (Anna Moore’s wedding dress)
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”
Lillian Gish (Anna Moore) – Way Down East
Elaine The Lilly Maid Dreaming of Astolat … Lillian Gish – Way Down East
You may answer that in Way Down East; her Anna Moore suffered, and suffered, and suffered. I know she did. But Anna Moore was a dumb-bell. Almost without exception, the girls she has geen called upon to act have been dumb-bells. They suffer, but only physically. You feel that they have learned nothing from life. Lillian has absorbed. She has a receptive mind and a retentive memory; and, unlike her heroines, she has grown up, with the potentialities for honest emotion and drama. Lillian Gish is not a dumb-bell. She is a remarkable woman. And the sooner she proves it upon the screen the better.
Lillian Gish asked me on the day following the world premiere of The White Sister. And so we drifted into a discussion of the concluding scenes of that photoplay, in which ” Sister Angela ” keeps her vows to the church, while her love for a man is annihilated.
It was late afternoon in the Vanderbilt Hotel, and the frail Lillian was lying on a couch, resting from the excitement and thrills of the night before, a night which concluded with a fifteen minute long distance telephone call to Mother Gish up in the mountains.
‘ It’s amusing,” Lillian remarked, “to read the remarks of one or two reviewers who believe that The White Sister has an unhappy ending. “For love means two things to a woman.
Above all it means happiness, and those of us who can find happiness in love for a man should cherish that love and hold it holy,” she told me. “To the other sort of woman, love means satisfaction. It means satisfaction of vanity for one thing. This sort of woman wants to possess a man, she wants to have the world know that she has the power of holding a man. And she wants the man for what he can give her in material goods, quite apart from happiness. There is a finer type woman, however, a rare type, who holds something beyond mere happiness and mere material satisfaction. Angela is of this type. Sensitive, with eyes uplifted from the earth, she first seeks happiness from a man. “Then this man is apparently wrested away from her by a fate stronger than any human power. Where can she renew her hope, her faith? To what can she turn?
” Because she is a Catholic she turns to the church. And when, later, her lover returns and she finds she has taken a step which turns her forever from him, she is met with a problem which is almost transcendental. She has the choice between love and honour. ” Love means nothing when you have no happiness, and what happiness could Angela have had if she had forsaken her vows? She would have been an outcast nun and her lover a broken officer of the army. She might have fled from Rome, she might have left Italy, and she might have begun life anew with him. But even if the world had forgotten that she had broken her vows, she herself could never have forgotten.
“So Angela, in the picture, takes the one and only path. The Japanese, you know, are reputed to be ready to commit harikari – (*harakiri) – if they feel their honour has been besmirched. Angela feels the same. When her lover takes her in his arms and kisses her, the lips that would have passionately met his own, are cold and lifeless, and she tears herself away from him and drives evil thoughts from her mind by telling the beads of her rosary.
” This is what love means to a woman of Angela’s type. Love means something different to every woman. To one it means a home, children, the thought that a loving being is near at every moment. To another love means the meeting of minds on an equal plane, the smoothing of life’s rough edges by a loving hand.
To another love means the sharing of great things, a mutual accord and helpfulness, the lifting of one’s life from the plane of every day living to a level of almost sublime joy.”
When Lillian has told you this interpretation of the character she plays in The White Sister, you begin to understand why she was able to give so realistic and so finely restrained a portrait of the Italian heroine of the tale. She had taken that character to her own heart and before giving screen life to Angela had thoroughly understood her. So, when you see The White Sister, recall that behind the mask of Lillian’s face beats the heart of a girl who held honour higher than anything else in the world, higher even than love.
” Love means something different to every woman,” says Lillian Gish. ” Those of us who can find happiness in love for a man, should cherish that love and hold it holy.”
One of the longest journeys yet undertaken by an American cinema troupe is just ended by Miss Lillian Gish and her company. The film star, along with Henry King, her director, and a score of players, left six months ago for Italy where they made the views for a screen version of F. Marion Crawford’s old play. The scenario os by Edmund Goulding, George V. Hobart and others.
THIS is Dorothy Gish’s own story. But if, perchance, Lillian and mother Gish should occasionally pop in, you will know that it could not ,be otherwise. Dorothy wouldn’t let me write a story about her if I didn’t include the other members of her adored family.
The Gish sisters had always been fortunate in having contracts with the same motion-picture companies until the early spring of 1917, when Lillian went overseas to take part in “Hearts of the World.” Then arose the question as to whether mother Gish should go with Lillian or remain with her youngest daughter in New York. Dorothy unselfishly decided that Lillian needed mother most, and that she would stay. But it was a very sad little girl that bade them fare-well. Imagine her joy a few weeks later, when Mr. Griffith came to the conclusion that he needed someone to play “la petite gamine” of the Paris streets — The Little Disturber—and, with his unerring judgment, instantly visioned Dorothy Gish, plus a short, curly black wig, in this piquant role!
I shuddered when I heard the Gish girls had gone to Europe. I hated to think of their golden heads as possible targets for the Boche’s bad humor as evidenced by frequent air raids on London, and I held up my thumbs for them against all “tin devilfish” and mal de mer.
Back in America, this little war veteran sometimes rubs her eyes and wonders if this European trip was not only a dream – if she ever went through air raids and submarine perils, and other unpleasant things. Los Angeles had never seemed quite so good before.
It was a little more than six years ago that Lillian and Dorothy Gish, then students in a Virginia boarding school, went up to New York to spend Easter vacation with their mother. Someone told them that Mary Pickford—they had known her since childhood—was playing in the then almost unheard of branch of art—motion pictures—so they called to see her one day at the old Biograph Studio. Mary was not there, but they were shown around the studio and introduced to D. W. Griffith. He evinced an interest in the pretty, blond girls, and when Mrs. Gish told him that they had had stage experience, offered to use them in a new picture he was commencing. Mrs. Gish consented for Lillian, but firmly insisted that Dorothy must return to school.
Dorothy as “The Little Disturber”
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Then and there The Little Disturber proved that she was a young person of much mettle. There were stormy tears and persuasions, and the controversy ended by the two Gish girls being listed on the Biograph pay roll. The identity of the Biograph players was shrouded in mystery in those days. Their names were never given to the public, and I have a vivid recollection of four “Biograph blondes” as we called them. One had long curls and a delicious pout—that was Mary Pickford.
Another had smooth, fair hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and wonderful dramatic ability—that was Blanche Sweet. Then there was an exquisitely beautiful girl with a face like a Madonna and the sweetest expression I have even seen—Lillian Gish ; and the fourth, a dear, chubby, round-faced child, with large, curious eyes, who proved to be her sister Dorothy. Dorothy has grown up since then, but her face is just as round, her eyes as large and blue, and her little mouth just as kissable, as the day when mother and Lillian took her to the Biograph Studio. She makes me think of apple blossoms in spring—all pink and white and fragrant. She brushes her golden hair back from her forehead with the same inimitable gesture you have seen so often on the screen, and when she smiles she puts one finger tip to her mouth in the roguish manner that is Dorothy Gish’s own. “When we were with Biograph, Mr. Griffith made ‘Judith of Bethulia,’ his first feature,” reminisced Dorothy. “It was in four reels, and took just nine days to make. We thought it was wonderful, and I was very proud when Mr. Griffith gave me a small part as a dancer in the king’s court. We all loved Blanche Sweet’s Judith. “We came to California with Mr. Griffith when he opened the Majestic Reliance Studio, and we’ve been here ever since.”
Donald Crisp and Dorothy Gish in The Mountain Rat (1914)
Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.
When not working at the studio, Lillian and Dorothy seek characteristic amusements. Perhaps Lillian will adorn her ivory-and-blue brocade chaiselongue while she reads. No chaiselongue for Miss Dorothy. It’s a linen skirt and smock, large shady hat and canvas shoes, and several vigorous games of tennis with some of her athletic friends on her own court, which adjoins the beautiful white stucco Gish home on Serrano Avenue.
The Fine Arts Studio, where the girls are now working, is five miles from their home. Lillian walked it one day, and Dorothy says she will take her word for the distance. So, instead of lunching at home, they cruise across Sunset Boulevard to a now famous little lunch stand, forever glorified in the D. Gish eyes by the never-failing supply of lemon cream pies. Every time I see a pie of that persuasion, I think of Dorothy Gish. It’s her greatest weakness in the gastronomic line, and she has been known to lunch exclusively on this delicacy for many days in succession.
It is a real joy in this “common or garden variety” world to come across such a refreshing and original character as Dorothy Gish. She is a regular girl, without the slightest doubt, and abhors anything the least bit “stagy.”
“If any one ever calls me ‘Wistful’ again, I’ll retire !” she said, with as much vehemence possible in one so absolutely “gishy.” “I loathe the word !” No, I should never call Dorothy Gish “wistful.” She has a very positive character, doing nothing by halves. When she likes a person, she does it thoroughly, and I imagine she can dislike just as whole-heartedly. I love her well developed sense of humor. It has come to her rescue in many distressing moments. For instance, on her twentieth birthday, Mrs. Gish planned a party for her. Dinner was to be served at seven. At eight-thirty, the little hostess arrived home, too tired to move, and covered with the grime of an especially trying day’s work. A lump came into her throat when she thought of the dainty dinner gown made for this gala night—she felt like crying, and crying hard. But she didn’t. With a gay little jest, she sat down at the table, radiant with spring blossoms and Cluny lace, wearing her old studio clothes, and immediately became the life of the party. “It was quite the nicest birthday I ever had,” she announced afterward. Dorothy is to appear in a number of five-reel Paramount productions this season, which is as it should be. Griffith features take many months to make, and we need frequent, very frequent appearances of Dorothy Gish to make our shadow world complete.
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 1
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 2
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 3
Picture-Play Magazine (Sep 1918-Feb 1919) Dorothy Her Story 4
TOO bad, isn’t it,” a Hollywood wise man said to me the other day, “about our old friend, Lillian Gish?” We were chatting casually after dinner. “What’s the matter? Is she dead?”
“Might just as well be,” was the laconic reply, “so far as pictures are concerned.” I admit I was shocked. I had been brought up in the Gish tradition. I had been taught that if anyone jumped on my bed in the middle of the night, grabbed me roughly by the Adam’s apple, shook me blankly back from bye-bye land, and asked me who was the greatest actress of the screen, I was to sit up politely, and answer:
And why not?
Didn’t Max Reinhardt, creator of “The Miracle,” hail her as “the supreme emotional actress of the screen?” Didn’t Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “The Blue Bird,” say that “no other has so much talent”? Didn’t Joseph Hergesheimer choose her as his model for Cytherea because she was “like an April moon, a thing for all young men to dream about forever”? Didn’t John Barrymore call her “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life”?
And her pictures! Who doesn’t remember the moment in “Hearts of the World” when she began to go insane? In “Orphans of the Storm,” when she heard her blind sister singing in the street, and could not get to her? In “The White Sister,” when her cheek twitched as she heard the false news of Giovanni’s death? Of course, we remember! How could we forget?
WAS there ever a moment of utter terror equal to her closet scene in “Broken Blossoms”? Was there ever a vision of despairing young motherhood equal to her bathing of the baby in “‘Way Down East”? Was there ever a death scene equal to her Mimi’s in “La Boheme”?
And yet, here was a man whose opinion I was bound to respect—who knows more about Hollywood than Helen knew about Troy!—sitting calmly over an after-dinner cigar and telling me that “Lillian the Incomparable,” “Cinema Bernhardt,” “Duse in Celluloid,” “First Lady of the Screen,” was “all washed up” in pictures.
“Ask anybody,” he said.
And I did. Everybody. In studios, in executive offices, at luncheons, dinners, teas, cocktail parties — yes, they still follow that quaint custom in Hollywood ! — in box-offices, in theater lobbies, all along the boulevard. “Would any producer take a chance on Lillian Gish today?” I can’t say that the answer was a unanimous one. The most favorable ran something like this:
“Sure ! He’d be a fool not to—for one picture.” “Why one?” I asked. “Because that would be sure to make money, no matter what.” That wasn’t much of a “hand” for the woman who had held by almost unanimous consent—from that glamorous night when she emerged from the two-reel shadows of primitive pictureland into the glory of her Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” the premier position in the motion picture world.
But after I had cast up my totals, including those who said they had never heard of Lillian Gish, those who obviously recalled her name with difficulty or vagueness, those who confused her honestly enough with her sister Dorothy, those who could not remember a single part that she had played, and those who thought “that old Griffith crowd” was through, I wasn’t so sure even about that one picture! I called up the studio where she had made all but one of her last half dozen films to see if the films had paid. The first reaction of the studio executive to my question was more significant than any financial data he could give me.
“Lillian Gish? My God, that’s so far back I don’t know as we even have the records!”
Far back? Lillian Gish made her last picture on that man’s lot less than five years ago! At that time, his company was paying her $8,000 a week, $800,000 over a two-year stretch. And today, he not only couldn’t tell me whether the venture was a successful one —it was, as a matter of fact—but he had consigned it and her to the limbo of a forgotten past.
Yes, so far as Hollywood is concerned, the greatest actress of the screen might as well be dead! THE result of all this inquiry is no reflection on Miss Gish personally, or on her art. I daresay the same thing would have happened if I had substituted Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh. And if Mary Pickford doesn’t succeed with “Secrets” and get back on that screen in a big way. . . . You’re laughing at me? “Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps the picture public will never forget Mary. I hope it doesn’t. But if Mary is saved from the fate that has sooner or later overtaken every other member of the “old crowd” in pictures, it will be because she was more than a movie actress; she was a movie symbol; she was, to millions of people, a synonym for movies.
Lillian Gish, with all her artistry, was never that! Chaplin was, perhaps is, in Mary’s class. There are no others. Say “Douglas Fairbanks” to the average fan today, and he’ll think you are talking about Joan Crawford’s husband. Go see Fatty Arbuckle—give him a great big hand for his game attempt at a come-back—and then ask yourself, frankly, if the present day audience thinks he is funny. Laugh at Harold Lloyd—I hope I always will !—but even Harold, after three years’ absence from the screen, returned to find a public mildly grateful that Constance Cummings had found a new and “really very amusing” leading man TIME in Hollywood waits for no man—and for a woman, it doesn’t even hesitate!
This fact alone may be sufficient explanation of why the once great Lillian Gish is no longer in demand for pictures. At the height of her career — although acclaimed artistically above them all—she was never so widely popular as Fairbanks, never so generally loved as Arbuckle, never so big a draw as Lloyd.
It was to be expected, therefore, that the passage of time—say, four years’ absence from the screen—would have a more devastating effect on her boxoffice value than any of the others. But no such simple reasoning is a complete answer to the real mystery of Lillian Gish—not the mystery of how things are with her, but the mystery of how they got that way. Well, the answer most often heard in Hollywood is that Lillian, a creation of the great master, Griffith, was an instrument on which he, and he alone, could play; and that once he found herself far from the master’s guiding hand, she realized her limitations and quit before her public should realize them, too. This answer hardly holds water. She was a Griffith creation, just as Dorothy Gish was, and Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, and even Mary Pickford. It is true that he stood over these youngsters and told them just what to do at every turn of the camera. They were, for years, clay in his hands —and none more successfully so than Lillian. But since that time, she had abundantly proved her ability to work with a variety of directors. She did “The White Sister” and “Romola” with Henry King, “La Boheme” with King Vidor, “The Scarlet Letter” with Victor Seastrom, “Annie Laurie” with John S. Robertson. It would be difficult to name a quartet of first-string directors with more diverse methods. Yet Lillian had adapted herself with success to all of them. No! Hawkshaw in Hollywood must find something more authentic than this oft-jepeated Griffith canard to solve the mystery of the sudden disappearance from the screen of the screen’s great actress. There couldn’t have been any moral reason. Not with Lillian! One thing alone is lacking in her rich fabric of charm, and this is the element of sensual lure. The only newspaper case in which she had ever figured enhanced her reputation for character and decency and resulted in the indictment of her opponent for perjury.
And surely she was not too old. She was less than thirty-two when she quit. She photographed eighteen. The only fault her admirers found in her work was that in some characterizations—for example, Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—she looked too young! Could it be that she was a talkie exile? No. She had shown in her one talking picture that she could act out loud as well as in pantomime. She had a good microphone voice. She had studied diction under one of the world’s masters. She had been a speaking actress long before she was a posing one. She is a speaking actress today. And she couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the treatment she was receiving from her employers. She exercized almost complete control over the choice of her stories. She had the pick of directors. She selected her own casts. She had everything most stars dream of having, and never get—plus $8,000 a week.
IN short, none of the stock Hollywood explanations for movie nose-dives applies in the case of Lillian Gish. Described in the heyday of her screen popularity as “elusive,” “baffling,” “mockingly mysterious,” she is all of these things—only more so—in the shadow of her retirement. On the surface, there is no reason, so far as her friends see, why she didn’t keep right on making pictures, why she shouldn’t be making them today.
“She hasn’t been ill,” they say. “She hasn’t dissipated. She hasn’t even been married!”
There is, of course, the matter of dollars and cents. But it seems hardly probable that Lillian thought she was being paid too little. Eight thousand dollars a week salaries were rare in Hollywood even in boom times. It ispossible, however, that the roducers considering the hectic uncertainties of those first microphone days—did think she was being paid too much You could hardly blame them. No one, in 1928, knew whether the talking picture was an institution or merely a fad. All anybody knew was that nobody knew anything. And $800,000 contracts for five or six pictures from one star were just not being made. MOREOVER, there were other expenses to Lillian Gish pictures besides the star’s salary. Although brought up in a mass-production movie factory, although making her most satisfactory picture, “Broken Blossoms,” in only eighteen days, Miss Gish had acquired in the years of her prosperity and preeminence the habit of leisurely production. And sound stages on the Hollywood lots were too few, and too much in demand, during these first months, for leisurely productions. Miss Gish was a great artist, to be sure, and a nice girl; but the producers were fighting for their lives. The important thing at the time was to beat the other fellow to it with a picture — any picture—that talked. And there was some question as to whether Lillian Gish pictures could continue to make money under the new conditions. Her box-office strength, like that of all the old guard, was in the small towns—in the little picture houses, where the new stars like Garbo were still scarcely more than names —and the little theaters in the small towns in 1928 and 1929 were not wired for sound. It might have been possible to get Miss Gish to work for less; it might have been possible to get her to work faster; it might have been possible to get her to sacrifice elaborate production to speed. And even then, with her best public automatically cut off from her, it might not be possible to make money on her pictures. Of course, in just the right kind of story, another ” ‘Way Down East,” for instance, she might have got over financially. But show business waits vears for a clean-up like ” ‘Way Down East.” It was the hick “Ben Hur”—and first and last, it made almost as much money in the theater. But such stories are not made to order.
MISS GISH, when urged by producers to do more ” ‘Way Down Easts,” might well have reminded them of the colloquy which took place between Lee Shubert and Augustus Thomas during the rehearsal of one of the latter’s plays. “What we need right there,” shouted Lee from the pit, “are two or three sure-fire comedy lines.”
“Yes?” replied Gus from the stage.
But the truth of the matter is tha’t Miss Gish probably wouldn’t have played a ” ‘Way Down East” again if it had walked up and tagged her on her shapely shoulder. She was through with such things forever. She had, in the Hollywood phrase, gone highbrow.
George Jean Nathan had said “the girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so.” And she had believed it. Here was where, movie-wise, the greatest actress of the screen made her greatest mistake. Here, and in the inevitable sequence, is to be found the real solution to the Mystery of Lillian Gish. The First Lady of the Screen had not ridden to the heights in a coach and four or in a padded limousine with sixteen cylinders to draw it. She had bumped along on the broad back of the donkey of melodrama. She had been helped over the rough places by the strong arm of hokum. Her master, Griffith, was master of both. He had never ventured into the untried fields of sophistication. But Lillian, taken up by Nathan, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Lewis, Cabell, and Mencken, rushed in where her former angel feared to tread. And what was the result? People who had loved her in the Griffith days went to see her in “The White Sister.” They sat in somewhat puzzled awe as they watched the frail, Dresden-china personality, which had stood out like a rare gem against the background of Griffth’s inspired crudities, sink almost into unrecognizability under the uniformed pagaentry in which she chose to deck Crawford’s simple, deathless story. They still went to see her—though fewer of them—in her uphill fight against a plethora of authentic Florentine settings and an engulfiing morass of George Eliot dullness in her even more ambitious “Romola.” THE faithful followed her—partly because of “The Big Parade” glamour that attached to the names of King Vidor, her director, and John Gilbert, her leading man—through the stormy mazes of “La Boheme.” The remnant remained to be shocked by “The Scarlet Letter.” Few but the critics cared one way or the other about “The Wind.” Fewer cared about “The Enemy.” Tastes were changing, too. Admirers had always spoken of Miss Gish’s work as poetic. “Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does.” But poetry, which had had its brief lyric fling right after the war, was going out. In fact, about the time Lillian began to lean most heavily on it, it disappeared completely as a salable commodity.
Poetry hadn’t been a very salable quantity back in the old Biograph days, either. No one knew that better than Griffith. A Griffith picture, whether it ran to two reels or to sixteen, was a complete library. It contained poetry as all good libraries should—that was Lillian; but it contained humor—that was Dorothy; and drama—that was Walthall ; and homeyness—that was Mae Marsh; and appealing young manliness—that was Bobby Harron and Dick Barthlemess. The new slogan, “One will always stand out,” had not been invented. It was all for one and one for all. No Griffith picture in those days was a starring vehicle for Lillian Gish or for anyone else. No Griffith picture — and this is something which admirers of the old Griffith stars sometimes forget— was sold to the public on the popularity of any actor or actress who appeared in it. The popularity of Lillian Gish had only the vaguest relation to the huge box-office success of ” ‘Way Down East.” It had nothing to do with the success of “The Birth of a Nation.” In other words, nobody ever tried to sell a picture to the public on the strength of Miss Gish’s poetic personality until she tried it herself in a market where poetry had reached what was probably an “all-time low.” Another thing, critics were always writing about “the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing.” “The mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited in the theater—is simplynot for her.” . . . “She seems to float on the screen,”—this from her worshipper, the Northern professor, Edward Wagenknecht—”like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Well, if you recall the prevailing feminine costumes and behavior of the later Twenties, you will also recall that Botticelli, like poetry, was out, and sex appeal which Lillian admittedly never had, was in. “Give us Clara Bow!” the fans were crying.
And they got her—while the first actress of the screen fled back to Broadway to do Chekhov’s gloomy Helena and Dumas’ still more gloomy Camille. The question naturally arises, in view of her precipitous flight, whether she was ever the great actress that she was supposed to be. Personally, I think she was and is. But it should be recorded in any attempt to solve The Great Gish Mystery that the best critical opinion, based on her recent stage appearance, seems to be quite up in the air on this point. After her Helena in “Uncle Vanya,” the learned Mr. Krutch declared that “we are no more sure than we were in the days when she was the particular star of the great Mr. Griffith whether she has real talents or merely certain odd deficiencies which a skilful director can utilize after the fashion of the marionette master and the character doll.”
After her Camille, the equally erudite Mr. Woollcott asked: “Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? . . . I went to see ‘Camille’ with an open mind. It is still open.” She should succeed on the stage, and I believe she will. She should reach heights which she never could reach on the screen. And for the very reason that made critics acclaim her as the greatest of all film actresses. “The particular genius of Lillian Gish,” wrote George Jean Nathan, at the height of her screen success, “lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite.”
True. And this quality should be infinitely more valuable on the stage than on the screen.
“All of which,” said my friend, the Hollywood wise man, when I told him the result of my sleuthing, “does not alter the fact that Lillian Gish, so far as pictures are concerned, is dead.”
THERE suddenly came back to me a true story of Lillian’s first days on the Fine Arts lot, which illustrated more graphically than anything I could say that marvelous Gish spirit which might—if the Gish spirit ever willed it —still stage a picture comeback for the First Actress of the Screen. Lillian and a girl friend were out walking. They walked, and walked, and walked—until they were fairly dragging one foot after the other. Finally, the other girl said:
“I’m tired walking. Let’s sit down.”
“I’m tired walking, too,” said Lillian.
“But don’t let’s sit down. Let’s run!”
Then I recalled to my friend that Winter, back in 1913, when Lillian Gish, threatened with pernicious anemia, took the long trek westward for the first time—and arrived in California, given up for dead. He remembered, as well as I did, how Lillian willed herself to stay alive, how she built up her strength on milk and sunshine, how she dieted and exercised until she could stand, as well as any of those other hardy youngsters, the rigors of even a Griffith rehearsal. My friend was ruminatingly silent as he went through the intricate process of clipping and lighting a fresh cigar.
“She might come back,” he said, at last. “It all depends—” “Yes,” I said, “it all depends on Lillian Gish!”
THE EXPRESSIONS OF LILLIAN GISH. (Exclusive to the “Picture Show”)
Picture Show, November 13th 1920
The Talented Screen Artist With the Heart of a Child
FROM the day that Lillian Gish, at the age of seven, played the part of little Willie in ” East Lynne,” her career was decided. Lillian naturally possesses a pathetic charm that is all her own, and the power to get rigflt to the hearts of her audience. The culminating point of her success was reached in her rendering of the girl in the now world-famous ” Broken Blossoms.” It was Mrs. Mary Gish, the mother of the two popular Gish girls, who paved the way for her two daughters to become the popular successes they are to-day. When only twenty-three years of age, Mrs. Gish was left a widow with two tiny girls to support.
Mary’s Part in Her Life Story.
A FRIEND procured for Mrs. Gish a walking-on part at the local theatre. In time she was advanced to better parts, and whilst touring round with her two little girls, they made the acquaintance of Mary Pickford. Mary was then herself playing child parts on the stage and Lillian and Dorothy were adding to the family income by playing small parts, when they were needed, in their mother’s company. Many children step from stage to the screen these days, but in the early days of the films, it was not an easy matter. The two little girls lived for six years in third-rate hotels, and moved from town to town, with the theatrical company without any hope of ever being anything more than just a member of that third-rate company.
Her First Screen Success.
THEN one day they visited a picture show, and recognised in the star no less a personage than the little girl with whom they had become so friendly on a previous tour, Mary Pickford. They had appeared together in one show, and the little girls had become very fond of each other. As soon as the company reached New York, the Gish girls called on their old friend, whom they had known when she was playing under her real name of Gladys Smith. Mary was genuinely glad to see them, and after getting Lillian an engagement for a small role as a fairy in ” A Good Little Devil,” in which Mary was playing an important part on the stage, she gave them an introduction to the great D. W. Griffith, and then and there he engaged Lillian to play a small part on the screen.
A Lover of Simplicity.
FROM that day to this, Lillian has made rapid strides in her screen successes. Early plays in which you may remember her are, ” The Battle of the Sexes,” ” Home Sweet Home,” then in “The Birth of a Nation,” and ” Intolerance,” in which she took the part of the woman who rocks the cradle, ” The Greater Love.” Last but far from least is the part of the child in ” Broken Blossoms,” which is well known to every reader of the Picture Show. Lillian is just as simple in her tastes as in the characters she portrays so well on the screen. She says she owes much of her success to the simplicity of the frocks she wears. She is devoted to her library and her treasured books ; she sings a little, and one of her greatest treasures is a little ballad called “Broken Blossoms,” presented to her by the author. She says she finds genuine pleasure in singing it, and is delighted and proud that her picture is printed on the front cover.
Must Learn How Not To Act.
LILLIAN has a very real admiration for D. W. Griffith, the world-famous producer. She tells how Mr. Griffith trains all his players how not to act. ‘That is the very first thing on which he insists,’she says. ” We must move through our parts just as we would in real life, there must be no artificial expressions and no posing. Mr. Griffith teaches that to express an emotion, you must feel it, then the expression will be real. He is a dreamer who makes his dreams come true, and his ideals of truth and beauty are contagious. It is more difficult not to understand him than it is to understand him. His very simplicity of method and his quiet direction make for complete harmony between his players and himself.”
Born to Serve.
PERHAPS that is why Lillian has made such a wonderful cinema actress. She loves to be dominated; in fact, obedience is the chief trait of her character. Mrs. Gish says that both of her girls are wonderfully good, but Dorothy is wilful, and likes her own way, while Lillian can always be relied upon to do just what she is told. Lillian believes that some people are born to rule and some to serve, and she places herself among those who serve.
IT is difficult to get Lillian to talk about herself. By way of greeting she will ask you if you have seen Dorothy in her latest picture. It is her ambition to see London, and as her friend Norma Talmadge told me, she was more than disappointed that she was unable to accompany her mother and Dorothy on their visit to Europe. However, she has promised herself a real holiday soon, during which she has planned a tour of Great Britain. So we may soon see her over here.