Lillian Gish, left an estate worth $10 million, to endow an annual award in the performing arts. – By Nadine Brozan (The New York Times – March 6, 1993)

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

CHRONICLE

Lillian Gish, left an estate worth $10 million, with most of it to endow an annual award in the performing arts.

By Nadine Brozan

The New York Times – March 6, 1993

Lillian Gish, who died last Saturday, left an estate worth $10 million, with most of it to endow an annual award in the performing arts, Reuters reported yesterday. Miss Gish was 99, and her career spanned virtually the entire history of movies, starting with silent films.

Her 19-page will, filed in Surrogates Court in Manhattan and dated Feb. 21, 1986, distributes about $1 million to 20 people, including relatives and friends, in bequests ranging from $5,000 to $250,000.

Helen Hayes was given opal jewelry, while Miss Gish left artworks by Grandma Moses to Miss Hayes’s sons, James and Charles MacArthur.

Miss Gish directed that the remaining funds be used to establish a prize named for herself and her sister Dorothy, the actress, who died in 1968. She specified that the prize go to an individual who makes “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life” through the performing arts.

Only the best : a celebration of gift giving in America - Lillian Gish and a gift painting from Grandma Moses
Only the best : a celebration of gift giving in America – Lillian Gish and a gift painting from Grandma Moses

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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)

Lillian Gisg close-up cca 1916 X

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Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood (Jack Foley’s Movie Digest – 1925)

Movie Digest – 1925

Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood

Jack Foley

CUPID has had a busy spring season in Hollywood. Being composed of so many beautiful women and handsome members of the sterner sex, it is but natural that many marriages and engagements would be announced among the movie colony. And being modern in every way, some of their matrimonial ships were bound to run aground

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

THE rumored engagement of Lillian Gish to George Jean Nathan, critic, writer and magazine editor, is of particular interest, coming, as it does, just after Lillian’s spectacular court victory over C. H. Duell, who said he was at one time “unofficially engaged” to Miss Gish. Mr. Nathan has been, to judge from his writings, one of the American woman’s severest critics. With such a lovely example as Miss Gish so close to his heart, it is quite possible that Mr. Nathan will now look at the American girl in a more appreciative and less critical light.

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

Hollywood Studio Magazine (November 1966)

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Hollywood Honors Miss Gish – By Aljean Harmetz (The New York Times – 1984)

HOLLYWOOD HONORS MISS GISH

By Aljean Harmetz

The New York Times – Thursday March 1, 1984

Sitting in a hotel room six floors above the ballroom where she is to be given the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tonight, Lillian Gish wears pearls and red lipstick. Her long forehead slopes down to amazingly bushy eyebrows, two thick crayon strokes in an unlined face.

The 90-year-old actress has started this day, as she does every day, with an hour of exercise, including sit-ups, although her collapsible slant board has been left behind in her New York apartment. Since 1940, she has fought gravity by lying upside down on the slant board each morning at 7 o’clock.

”Time is your friend; you get wiser,” she says. ”But gravity is your enemy. It sucks you into your grave. Everything important in your body is from here to here.” She puts one hand at her throat and another on the top of her head. ”Eyes, hearing, thought, smell, taste. If the heart were important, it wouldn’t be behind those two little ribs.”

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Time has vainly tried to reduce Lillian Gish to mythology – the gilded icon of all that was lovely before movies had a voice: How, for her role in D. W. Griffth’s ”Way Down East” in 1920, she lay for hours on the ice of Long Island Sound with her hair and hand trailing in freezing water. How she denied herself anything to drink for three days before playing her death scene from consumption in King Vidor’s ”Boh eme” in 1926. How she stood under the African sun – 130 degrees and not even a tree for refuge – from dawn until dusk in 1967 for ”The Comedians,” and then, suitably dressed for elegant dining, spent the evening discussing African politics and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s novels. How her Victorian sense of duty made her choose to nurse her sick mother rather than take the role that Tennessee Williams had written for her, Blanche DuBois, in the play that was to become ”A Streetcar Named Desire.”

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Outliving One’s Enemies

If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground.

One can put Lillian Gish’s career into perspective by observing that if she had stopped working a half-century ago, when she was 40 years old, her contributions to the American cinema would still be astonishing. The man she always called ”Mr. Griffith” used her as his paintbrush when he created the American cinema in films such as ”Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” She was the perfect Victorian heroine – fragile, virginal and poignant, alabaster pale with ash-blond hair cascading down her back.

Although the pale blond hair has faded to gray, it still cascades below her waist. ”I’ve never been to a hairdresser,” she says. ”I’ve never had my hair cut, nor have I ever plucked an eyebrow. I don’t wear glasses and I have all my own teeth.”

Her mind skips up and down the decades, stopping to pick up a fragment of memory here, a sprig of her askew Victorian childhood there.

In 1899, when boardinghouses really had signs refusing dogs and actors, her embarrassed aunt warned the 5-year-old actress not to talk about her profession. ”If people knew we were in the theater, their children wouldn’t be allowed to play with us,” Miss Gish recalls. Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, were expected to have good manners plus the discipline to go on stage night after night. And ”even when there was not enough money for food, mother embroidered lace on our panties.”

Around 1914, their mother dragged Lillian and Dorothy to see land on the western outskirts of Los Angeles that could be purchased for $300 down. Miss Gish laughs. ”It had been raining. We said, ‘Mother, we worked so hard for our money. Do you want us to spend it on all this mud?’ So we didn’t buy the Sunset Strip.”

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr - Photo - Globe
AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

Her words return to her beloved silent film. ”There was never such a thing as silent film. There was always music, even if the music was only a tinny, tiny piano. Silent film was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. When films learned to talk, we lost 95 percent of our audience, because only 5 percent of the world speaks English. The Roxy Theater in New York held 6,424 people and it was crowded from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning. Now, my little meat market on 59th Street has been turned into a theater that holds 200 people. It hurts my pride to go into those tiny theaters.”

Lillian Gish is the 12th recipient of the institute’s award, given annually to someone ”whose work has stood the test of time.” She follows John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra and John Huston. Tonight’s dinner will be filmed for television.

Miss Gish has acted in 50 plays and more than 100 movies, most of them one- and two-reelers at a time when David Wark Griffith was, in her words, ”giving film its form and grammar.” She made 11 movies in 1912, 20 movies in 1913. But she also made films when the silent era was at its peak, including ”The Wind” for the director Victor Seastrom in 1928.

Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film historian, has pointed out that while stage performances can safely be called great because they survive only in memory, film performances can be subjected to scrutiny. More than 50 years later, her performance as a spunky, resolute Virginia-bred girl in ”The Wind,” who is driven to madness by the raw, incessant Texas winds, still seems extraordinary in the delicacy of its nuances and in something that can best be described as strength shining through frailness.

In real life, her strength is legendary. ”I couldn’t ever be ill,” she says, as though good health were merely a matter of will. In all her years in the theater, she missed only one performance – when she stayed with her sister in the hospital because their mother could not be there.

The Night of The Hunter
The Night of The Hunter

Miss Gish describes many of the characters she played – including her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway – as ”ga-ga babies, innocent little virgins who were nice to look at for five minutes but how did you make them interesting for an hour?” She succeeded by giving most of them a spiritual strength that burned through the sentimental silliness of the plots in which they were embedded. The same radiant strength was there, in a more distilled form, in her roles as protector of two children in ”The Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and as a dying matriarch in ”A Wedding” in 1978.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish laughing
Hambone and Hillie (candid) Lillian Gish on set

Her newest movie, ”Hambone and Hillie,” will be released in the spring. She plays Hillie; Hambone is a mongrel dog. Brooks Atkinson wrote that, as a performer, she had no vanity. ”How can you have vanity if you look at yourself on the screen?” she asks.

But her lack of vanity stops at the stage door. ”In life, vanity is a virtue,” she says. ”How can you let yourself weigh 300 pounds? The human body is a wonderful thing and it’s the only house you get to live in.”

She reads Jung and William Blake and the morning papers. ”There’s never been a more exciting century,” she says. She is writing one book on religion – ”As I get older, I believe in what I can’t see and understand” – and another, for children, that recreates the Christmases of her childhood: ”How good and kind people in my world were to children who had good manners.”

Looking back at a life dedicated to work, she has no regrets. ”I loved dear men,” she says, ”beautiful men who offered me their names. But I’m so glad I didn’t ruin any of their lives by marrying them.”

HOLLYWOOD HONORS MISS GISH NY Times - March 1 1984
HOLLYWOOD HONORS MISS GISH NY Times – March 1 1984
Lillian Gish m2 - Nell Dorr 1930
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Lillian Gish with beads in hair and seated view 2]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3505

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Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Review by ARTHUR MAYER, New York Times, 1969)

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

Lillian Gish

The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. By Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot. Illustrated. 388 pp. Englewood Cliffs. N.J.: Prentice-Hall. $7.95.

Review by ARTHUR MAYER

Published: June 8, 1969

Miss Lillian Gish is, in Brooks Atkinson’s words, ”An American institution.” She is, as Peter Glenville says, “an impeccable, dedicated, disciplined actress.” and her new book is studded with similar tributes from such celebrities as Koussevitsky, Jed Harris, Scott Fitzgerald, Percy Hammond and King Vidor. She is, however, also a lady of admirable reticences-she once employed a publicity representative merely to keep her name out of the newspapers and she has little flair for the scholarly research or the self-revelation required by the triple demands of history, biography and autobiography implied by her book’s subtitle.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) With D.W.Griffith and his wife Evelyn in their West Coast home — with Lillian Gish and D. W. Griffith.

What she has to contribute about early movie annals has been often told before and is marred by many errors as well as guesses masquerading as facts. The method by which “The Birth of a Nation,, was distributed, for example, makes it impossible for anyone to assert that “in the first two years of its life it played to an audience of 25 million people.” “ Way Down East” never “had to pass the scrutiny of the censor board of every state. Only 27 states ever had, at one time or another, censorship boards and few of these were in existence in 1920 when it was released.

The biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” are similarly disappointing. They portray all the external facts of her life without ever disclosing its inner substance and quality. Everybody adores her and she reciprocates their affections-fellow actors, authors, musicians, dramatists, even the banker who managed her family finances. Indeed she seems to have a fondness for every variety of the human species except movie exhibitors who refused lo play the original eight hour version of “Intolerance” and picture co-executives who failed to realize that Griffith single-handed was creating for the film medium a new language and a new syntax. Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship. Nobody, however, who has waded through pages attesting to her mother’s “ wisdom,” “perfection,” “taste” and “beauty” and to Dorothy’s “pert, saucy ways” her “spritely nature,” her “rollicking spirit,”, her “gaiety and humor,, (the only concrete example of which was her penchant for sitting on men’s hats), can wholly blame Mr. Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron
George Jean Nathan, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Kommer at Leopoldskron

Although Miss Gish tells us little that is significant about the movies or herself, she is eminently well qualified to portray and interpret the singularly complex, gifted personality with whom she was closely associated in their most formative years. No one has a closer first-hand acquaintance with the techniques and innovations by which the great pioneer transformed what Edison had regarded as “a scientific curiosity,” of so little permanent value that it was not worth investing $150 to take out foreign patents, into the best loved of modem arts.

Her description of the mechanics of the rehearsal system on which his achievements were so largely based, and which his successors so ill-advisedly abandoned, deserves careful study by every film maker. His gifted, adoring young performers were given an opportunity to rehearse each part in a new film under his close supervision. “Once the parts were awarded the real work began. Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in a ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. By the time he had run through the story dozens of times he had viewed the action from every conceivable angle and achieved the desired effect.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

When the young girl who regarded movie jobs at $5 a day as a stopgap between stage appearances and the rising director who only a few years previously had jeered at the “galloping tin types” met first in the old Biograph Studios, they had much in common. “Mr. Griffith,” as she was to respectfully call him for the nine years they worked together, was immediately impressed by her “exquisite, ethereal beauty.” She, on her part, thought “he held himself like a king” with eyes that were “hooded and deep set.” They were both poor, ambitious, seeking their fulfillment in work rather than in love or play. He had a father fixation almost the equal of her attachment to her mother. Much of his misrepresentation of the Union cause was due to his adulation of “roaring Jake”‘Griffith who had been a colonel under Stonewall Jackson. That he unhesitatingly accepted the legends and traditions of the old South is understandable in view of his education and environment. When, however, Miss Gish rushes to his support, she demonstrates her unfailing loyalty to Griffith rather than her usual common sense. It is the conventional but fallacious response to charges of racism that a man cannot be prejudiced because he “had grown up with Negroes on the farm and, as a baby had had a Negro mammy,” or that “he always treated Negroes with great affection and they in turn, loved him.”

Although Miss Gish gave the appearance of frailty, no task could daunt her. When she was on location for “Way Down East” the temperature never rose above zero, but at her own suggestion, she says, she lay on an ice floe drifting toward the falls with a hand and her hair trailing in the water. “My face was caked with a crust of ice and snow, and little spikes formed on my eyelashes, making it difficult to keep my eyes open.” Characteristically, Griffith shouted to his cameraman Bitzer above the howling storm, “Billy, move in! Get that face! Get it!” “l will,,. Billy answered, “if the oil doesn’t freeze in the camera.”

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

Working for other picture makers, however, she was occasionally prepared to admit weariness. One of her most revelatory stories (omitted for some unknown reason from her book) tells of an experience with Charles Laughton when he was directing “Night of the Hunter.” He required her to make at least a dozen takes. Finally she keyed her acting higher than she thought it ought to go and asked, “Is that what you want?” Laughton answered, “No, the first take was fine. I just wanted to see how many different ways you could do it.” “Well,” she answered, “if you want to waste your money on useless takes, that is all right with me, but I do get tired.”

Griffith’s dedication to his career and to the medium which he had so unexpectedly discovered to be his métier and his mission, matched her own. Although he married twice, no marriage to a man who habitually worked 16 hours a day, taking time off only to eat and sleep, could possibly prove successful. As for Miss Gish, she never even attempted it, though as Anita Loos once remarked, “Men were always marrying her in absentia.” She regarded matrimony as a “24-hour-a-day job.” Her films, she said, were her children.

Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S - Wedding - The Enemy
Lillian Gish, Ralph Forbes, Fritzi Ridgeway, John S – Wedding – The Enemy

What they shared, above all else, was their abiding faith in this “new uncorrupted art.'” Griffith would frequently say, “We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

A Wedding
Lillian Gish in Altman’s “A Wedding” 1978

Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, currently conducts film courses at Dartmouth and other colleges.

The New York Times Book Review

We all adore her, and the affection is returned Lillian Gish NYTimes June 8, 1969-2
We all adore her, and the affection is returned – Lillian Gish – NYTimes Book Review June 8, 1969 – page 2

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Admin note: Personal opinion – Mr. Mayer, a veteran of 50 years in the movie business, skilled writer, tends to forget that Miss Gish was an actress, not a novelist. Therefore her book was seen from the stage, blinded by Klieg lights. As an actress, Miss Gish wasn’t concerned – when was the Censor Board founded in all American states – she was not working in a statistical office. Bringing up the rehearsal (The Night of the Hunter) when she admits that she’s tired, I believe it’s childish to compare Way Down East (1920), with The Night of the Hunter (1955), when Miss Gish was 62 years old.

I am very grateful to Mr. Mayer for his statement, despite the fact he considered “the biographical portions of “The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me” – disappointing. The reason Miss Gish broke her “engagement” to Mr. Nathan was because “Her most absorbing passion, however, was for her mother and her sister Dorothy. She rejected her persistent suitor George Jean Nathan primarily because he seemed to resent” the intensity of this relationship.” 

“We are playing to the world. What we film tomorrow will stir the hearts of the world and they will understand what we’re saying. We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words, we’ve found a universal Ianguage – remember that when you stand in front of a camera.”

And Lillian Gish never forgot it.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 5

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Brief Reviews – LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH (The New York Times – October 30, 1932)

Miscellaneous Brief Reviews

The New York Times – October 30, 1932, Section BR, Page 20

LIFE AND LILLIAN GISH.

By Albert Bigelow Paine. Illustrated. 303 pp. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.50.

LILLIAN GISH had her first dramatic try-out, made her first triumphant entrance upon any stage, at the age of 3 in Baltimore on the shoulder of Nat Goodwin. He was serving as Santa Claus for a big Christmas tree on the stage of Ford’s Theatre, and needing a particularly angelic-looking child to perch on his shoulder and distribute the gifts, little Lillian Gish was chosen. Three years later she bad become, under stress of economic necessity, a little trouper playing in a barnstorming company which was presenting melodrama in one-night stands. Through several seasons she traveled with this and other companies, economizing on food to the edge of hunger, sleeping on telegraphic desks in cold stations, riding all night in day coaches, rarely having rest in a real bed.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 6

During the Summers her mother had a candy and popcorn stand at the Fort George amusement grounds in New York City, and Lillian, in a timorous little voice, would try to help sales by saying gently to the passers–by. “Wouldn’t you like to buy some popcorn?” But her sister Dorothy stood on the counter and joyfully did “ballyhoo” for the enterprise by calling “out, “This way for the best taffy and popcorn in New York” The Smith family, mother, two daughters and son, afterward to become famous as the Pickfords, were living with Mrs. Gish and her little girls in her apartment, and then and afterward the two families were very close in friendship and work.

Lillian Gish at Six

The narrative of Lillian Gish’s life reads like a fairy story. American biographical literature is full of marvelous tales of material success wherein poor boys starting out with nothing but good heads, willing hands and determined wills win through to high achievement and heaps of gold. But heretofore not many of them have been about women. And among these few there has been none so wonderfully fairylike in material and texture and denouement as the story of Lillian Gish. Albert Bigelow Paine, veteran author and man of letters, with perhaps two score of books of varied kinds to his credit, tells the story with a sensitiveness to its peculiar quality and a sympathetic response to its heroine’s appeal to eye and heart and mind that intensify the likeness. He tells it in straight narrative form that deals almost wholly with environment and conditions of life and Lillian’s share in them, with privations and struggle and hard work and dazzling achievements. But throughout he does enable the reader to envisage her “ln the round” whether as child trouper, young girl dashing on horseback over Oklahoman plains with an Indian girl playmate and trying hard to get an education in the intervals of work on the stage, successful movie actress, gaining world-wide fame on both screen and stage.

It is a complete story from her birth in 1896 to the present time, and although it does deal mainly with the outward aspects ot its heroine’s life, Mr. Paine endeavors to portray the outlines of her character and give the reader some understanding of her aloofness, her quiet serenity under all conditions, her orderly mental processes, her sense of duty. The book is the outcome of long talks with Miss Gish in which she went over with him her recollections of her life from her earliest years and of information obtained from her family and friends. Mary Pickford has made many contributions to the story of the period in which they were much together in their home and in their movie work. It was Miss Pickford who opened the doors for her entrance into the film world.

The biography is written in the romantic temper and in the spirit of a connoisseur of beautiful things who holds in his hand some piece of glass or gold or cloisonne and regards its exquisite loveliness with admiration and reverence. His feeling is not only for the nunlike, elusive beauty of her countenance, but also for the artistic qualities and the impressive, haunting beauty of her characterizations. Toward the end of the book there are some attempts to estimate the value of Lillian Gish’s contribution to dramatic art and some quotations from her conversations with him disclosing her ideas about the comparative values of the silent and the sound film, and the film and the stage.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

Kindly access the link below to download the PDF format of “Life and Lillian Gish” book, by Albert Bigelow Paine – Macmillan,1932

Life and Lillian Gish by Albert Bigelow Paine 1932 – entire book in PDF format

Lillian Gish by Laura Gilpin 1932 (As Camille) Sepia mid shot - Amon Carter Museum Forth Worth TX
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

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Unbreakable Blossom – By Richard Schickel (The New York Times – March 4, 2001)

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Promotional - Broken Blossoms — with Lillian Gish.

Unbreakable Blossom

By Richard Schickel

The New York Times – March 4, 2001

Overacting, fluttering feminity and D.W. Griffith went out of style, but Lillian Gish refused to go.

LILLIAN GISH

Her Legend, Her Life. By Charles Affron.

Illustrated. 445 pp. New York: A Lisa Drew Book/Scribner. $35.

CHARLES AFFRON admires Lillian Gish’s life, as who does not? It is in most respects admirable, even exemplary, particularly in her refusal to surrender to old age. She started acting in 1902 when she was 9 years old and continued, seemingly immune to all the vagaries of her profession — bad roles, bad reviews, public controversies and private disappointments — until she was, astonishingly, 94. She outlived most of her show business colleagues, outworked them all with the possible exception of John Gielgud and, always the uncomplaining trouper, rarely missed a day because of illness, not a minute because of egomania.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish — Anna Moore

It is her legend, self-created and self-propagated, that causes — justifiably, in my opinion — a steady murmur of discontent to arise from Affron’s judicious biography, ”Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life.” The problem, as he sees it, is Gish’s excessive — not to say slightly loopy — idealization of her discoverer and mentor, D. W. Griffith. She and her sister Dorothy entered the movies under his aegis in 1912, when Lillian was 18 — not 12, 14 or 16, as she variously suggested through the years. Affron, who teaches French at New York University, calls her to rather stern account on this question, but it is more to his point that it was for Griffith she did most of the work that permanently crystallized her rather curious image.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

She thought it necessary, beginning in the 1920’s, to exaggerate Griffith’s genius as a director, his vision of the movies as a force for world peace and brotherhood, the general superiority of silent movies over sound pictures because their pantomime made it easier for them to cross language barriers than dialogue pictures could. She was tireless — and not a little tiresome — in this matter because, as Affron puts it, ”The cult of Griffith was, after all, the path to her own artistic apotheosis. If Griffith’s legend were to die, so would her own. If his legacy was forgotten, she would lose her place in movie history.”

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

That Griffith — a father figure to many of the impressionable young actresses who worked for him, many of whom, like Gish, grew up without their actual fathers — was the great love of her life cannot be denied. Whether or not that included a sexual relationship is disputable. Affron rather thinks not; I rather think so. Whatever the case, Gish’s devotion to Griffith was willfully blind and vastly misleading. It is true that Griffith often expressed vaulting ambitions for his medium, but he was a bit of a humbug in the grandiose manner of 19th-century actor-managers, on whom he modeled the conduct of his own celebrity. His most enduring, endearing films are about life’s more quotidian dramas, and his pronouncements were rather like his taste for spectacle — forced, false, ultimately self-destructive.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 3

When you strip the big talk and the big scenes away, you come to a core obsession that was much less attractive — and completely unaddressed by Gish. It involved placing the virtue of young, blond, virginal women in peril at the hands of brutal, often rapacious, men. That was notoriously the case in ”The Birth of a Nation” (1915), in which Mae Marsh commits suicide rather than succumb to a stalking black man and Gish herself narrowly avoids rape at the hands of a mulatto. It is these scenes, even more than Griffith’s portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, that render the movie permanently offensive. And not just racially. Griffith tamped down (in public) his irredeemable racism, but he could never avoid his ruling sexual kink. Gish’s honor, life or both was under threat in ”Hearts of the World” (1918), ”Broken Blossoms” (1919), ”Way Down East” (1920) and ”Orphans of the Storm” (1921). Even in comedies like ”A Romance of Happy Valley” (1919) and ”True Heart Susie” (1919), Gish’s fate was patiently to await the attentions of men preoccupied by matters more pressing than her affections.

THE WIND, Lillian Gish, 1928 HC8WJ8

Eventually, that became her life strategy. Dropped by Griffith for the unattractive Carol Dempster, she remained his friend and defender, insisting that a crass industry was bent on destroying him (when, in fact, his heedless economic ways made him the auteur of his own misery). Meantime, their careers declined, his more disastrously than hers, but for related reasons. Griffith kept trapping his tremulous child-women in tight spaces with lumbering bruisers. Gish was never able to revise the image of imperiled innocence she and Griffith created. Until later in life, when she played spunky spinsters and widows, she essentially remained a sexual victim, appealingly brave in adversity — effectively so in ”The Scarlet Letter” (1926), less so in ”The Wind” (1928), the hysteria of which verges on the ludicrous.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 3

Genteel litterateurs like Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell gushed over her; many variations on Griffith’s description of her ”exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty” were offered. But the good-natured likes of Mabel Normand and Marion Davies began satirizing her, and MGM, which had expensive hopes for Gish, dropped her when it discovered Greta Garbo, whose movies depicted her as always paying the price for her adulteries but at least appearing to have a good, hotly romantic time before getting her comeuppance.

the-wind-1928-ballroom-montagu-love-detail

Gish, alas, remained hopelessly old-fashioned, wedded to a Victorian vision of anxiously fluttering femininity. She was good at it, but by the late 1920’s she had more than Garbo’s stylish sinning to contend with; there were also the careless flappers of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. Gish’s screen character became what it remains, a faintly risible antique. Another way of saying that is that she failed the most basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy. By the early 30’s, she was essentially a character actress, appearing in a few distinguished plays and few, if any, distinguished movies.

One Romantic Night promotional Lillian Gish last scene

Her situation was akin to Griffith’s. Compared to the great directors of the silent era — Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, von Stroheim, Vidor — his work was as stylistically dated as his sexual imaginings. This period, abruptly and cruelly halted by the arrival of sound, may have been the most innovative in cinema history, but Griffith was not part of it. His younger competitors are among the great modernists; he remained a 19th-century melodramatist.

Lillian Gish (promo - before Uncle Vanya)
Lillian Gish (promo – before Uncle Vanya)

They were all, of course, thrown off course by the talkies, visually poky at first and placing a premium on urban realism as opposed to the more poetic and expressionistic silents. In this new era Griffith wandered impotently, often alcoholically, on the margins of the business. Gish’s situation was less dire. She took up with George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, kept working and, above all, tended to her mythmaking. There were biographies and autobiographies and an unending stream of interviews. Late in her life she toured in a one-woman show, playing film clips and reminiscing romantically about the silent era.

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 3
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.149

You could argue that she did no great harm with her fantasies. But Affron thinks otherwise. Bad history is, very simply, useless history. Gish’s pose as the vestal virgin, guarding cinema’s temple, was absurdly at odds with the raffish and often hugely entertaining improvisations by which early movie history was actually made. Worse, her insistence on Griffith’s (plaster) saintliness distorted both his achievements and his failures, rendering both uninstructive to posterity. Finally, her vaporings had the effect of dehumanizing herself and Griffith, and of distancing us from a movie era that is difficult enough to recapture, given the differences between its conventions and those of later times.

Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.
Lillian Gish, 1916, I.V.

One suspects that Affron began his book thinking his story was of idealism vulgarly betrayed, but found his research leading him in quite a different direction, toward analysis of a fiction in which the teller victimizes herself, her work, her beloved master in a simpering attempt to rewrite history as — come to think of it — something like a lesser Griffith work. Affron’s chronology is occasionally confusing, but he politely, consistently refutes Gish’s line, remaining unfailingly generous to his subject’s art and indomitability, all the while fastidiously and expertly devastating the fairy tale in which she wrapped herself. If we are ever to rescue silent film from its status as a dwindling cult’s enthusiasm and restore it as a vital part of our cultural heritage, we need more work of this balanced and balancing kind.

Lillian Gish - Sold For Marriage 1916
Lillian Gish – Sold For Marriage 1916

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Lillian Gish Quits America First Group – The New York Times – Sept. 2, 1941

LILLIAN GISH QUITS AMERICA FIRST GROUP;

But Actress Won’t Say if Her Opinion on War Is Changed

The New York Times – Sept. 2, 1941

Lillian Gish, stage and screen actress, announced here yesterday that she had resigned as a member of the America First Committee, which is opposed to America’s intervention in the war. Miss Gish said she had informed General Robert E. Wood, acting national chairman of the America First Committee, of her resignation in a personal conversation with him in Chicago last Thursday. She declined to reveal the reason for her resignation, nor would she say whether she has changed her opinion on the international situation.

“I just resigned.” said the actress, who has spoken publicly for the committee in Chicago, Hollywood and San Francisco.

Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941
Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941

Recently, a Hollywood trade journal reported that Miss Gish might be called to Washington to testify before a Senate subcommittee appointed to investigate alleged pro-war “propaganda” in current films. The story said there was a rumor that Miss Gish could not get screen employment because of her America First activities. In the next issue of the journal. Miss Gish vigorously denied that she would be a witness, or that any discrimination had been employed against her.

“My position still is the same, she said yesterday. “I have nothing to tell the Senate committee, and I know nothing of any discrimination against me.”

Miss Gish. who recently closed a record run of ‘”Life with Father” in Chicago, is visiting her mother, Mrs. Mary R. Gish, here. Her sister, Dorothy Gish, who toured in the same play, also is here.

WWII Scribners COMMENTATOR Magazine 1941 War Propaganda
WWII Scribners COMMENTATOR Magazine 1941 War Propaganda

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Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars – By Louise Brooks (Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England)

Louise Brooks

Gish and Garbo – The Executive War on Stars

By Louise Brooks

Sight and Sound – January, 1959 – London, England

Hollywood and its stars are used to being written about, but it is not often that the stars themselves are prepared to discuss frankly the cinema as they see it. We here publish an extract from a book Louise Brooks is at present writing ” Women in Films”which promises to be a unique, intensely individual record of Hollywood thirty years ago.

Many of the films of Louise Brooks have disappeared from the screen, and Miss Brooks herself has been called the ‘lost starof the ‘twenties. After beginning her career as a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn at the age of fifteen, she was working for Ziegfeld when she was signed up by Hollywood and within a few years was a top star. She made two films with Pabst, “Pandora’s Box” and “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and among her other notable pictures were Howard Hawks’ “A Girl in Every Port,” Genina’s “Prix de Beaute,” and “The Canary Murder Case.” Meanwhile Louise Brooks herself has never been forgotten ; and in Paris she has recently been attending a special series of her films mounted by the Cinematheque Francaise.

THERE was a time when I began work on this book [Women in Films] that I had a great deal to say about the failure of the most powerful stars in maintaining the qualities of their uniqueness which had first made them the idols of the public. I found a great deal to condemn in their lack of judgment in accepting poor pictures. In the spring of 1958, looking at Lillian Gish in One Romantic Night (The Swan), I could not understand how she could have gone back to Hollywood in 1929 to play that ghostly part in that foolish picture made where, two years before, her spirit had gone forever- “forgotten by the place where it grew.”

Lillian Gish Conrad Nagel 1930 Swan 2

But now, after deeper penetration into the picture executives’ aims ‘and methods, I can only wonder and rejoice at the power of personality, intellect and will that kept Lillian Gish a star for fifteen years. I can only be endlessly grateful that she was able to make so many marvellous pictures before the producers found the trick of curbing the stars and standardising their product according to their will and personal taste. And it was never their will, but the public’s which made them exploiters of great personalities and builders of enduring stars. It was never their taste, but that of certain writers and directors by which their product sometimes lost its passing value as entertainment and gained the enduring value of art. All the jumbled pieces of the picture puzzle began to fall in place one day while I was thinking about one of Hollywood’s foremost producers of the 1950’s, whom I used to know in New York when he worked in a department store. For that led me to the realization that as an actress I had been treated exactly as later I was treated as a salesgirl at the New York department store where I was accepted for work in 1946. They preferred young girls (I was 39) but otherwise I fitted nicely within the store’s policy. I got $30 a week. I was inexperienced and would not make too many sales. I would not stay too long. A few girls of exceptional ability there were who were allowed to stay, to build a following and collect a small percentage of their sales. But beyond this limited permission it was impossible for the selling of the merchandise ever to become dependent on the salesgirls. The customers were drawn by the name of the store and the merchandise. A great lot of dresses with mass appeal would be advertised with attractive snobbery in all the Sunday papers. On Monday they would sell themselves. At the end of the season, to clear the way for the new merchandise, old stuff was either reduced in price or sold as waste to anyone who could use it.

Movies in America - David Wark Griffith
Movies in America – David Wark Griffith

From this viewpoint, the successful leap of so many from the garment industry in New York to the picture industry in Hollywood was no longer remarkable. Except geographically, it never took place. The men from the garment district simply went on to run the studios, the theatres and the exchanges just as they had run the dress factories, the whole-sale houses and the department stores. They used the writers, directors and actors just as they had used the dress designers, tailors and sales people. And was it not reasonable to continue to love and exploit only what they possessed their names, their business and their product? What was more natural than to despise the old pictures that depressed the market? What was more sensible than ridding themselves of all but the negatives they were forced by law to keep in order to prove their property rights? Old pictures were bad pictures. Pictures were better than ever. An actor was only as good as his last picture. These three articles of faith were laid down by the producers and business conducted in a manner to prove them. As far as the public was concerned, it was an expensive grind of years – teaching it to sneer at old pictures. People were accustomed to seeing the same things over and over and loving them more and more – the same minstrel shows and vaudeville acts, the same Sothern and Marlowe in The Merchant of Venice. Why not the same Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame? the same Negri in Passion? As late as 1930, Photoplay magazine reported: “There was a deluge of ‘what-has-become-of’s’ this month. Fans would like to see some of the silent favourites – both stars and pictures – brought back.” But Hollywood feared and believed at once and without question. Even Charlie Chaplin believed, he whose supreme success depended chiefly on the continued showing of his old pictures. Among all the creative minds of the picture business, D. W. Griffith, alone, knew the lie. “The public isn’t fickle about its stars,” he said in 1926. “Stars do not slip quickly despite the theory to the contrary. You hear that so-and-so will die if he doesn’t get a good picture immediately. Consider how many weak pictures have been made by big favourites- who are still favourites.” But who cared what Griffith said? Like his plot of sin and punishment and violent sexual pleasure, he was dead. Late at night in the New York Paramount studio, I used to see him patrolling the dark sets of The Sorrows of Satan, like a man cut from a 1910 catalogue of Gentlemen’s Apparel.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Griffith demonstrating his rapport with animals — with D. W. Griffith.

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1925 was the year when two things happened which finally bound the producers together in a concerted war on the Star System. It was the terrible year when “the spoiled child of industry” suddenly found itself in subjection to Wall Street. Modestly declaring a hands-off policy, the bankers had been financing the producers in their effort to buy up the country’s 20,500 picture theatres and encouraging them to spend 250,000,000 a year on theatre construction. And now bankers were sitting in on board meetings and giving producers orders. Bankers, having penetrated the secrets of the picture corporations’ books and studio overhead, were sharing generously in the once private “golden harvest of the producers.” Finding that it wasn’t the name of a lion roaring on a title sheet, but the name of a star that drew that $750,000,000 gross at the box-office, bankers were objecting to the abuse of stars exemplified by Paramount’s ruthless blackballing of Valentino. (He got $2,000 for making The Sheik.) Naturally, the producers did not even consider giving upcutting salaries and firing stars in order to make up their losses and to refresh their prestige. It was simply a question of using a subtler technique to be confirmed by box-office failure. And marked first for destruction was Lillian Gish.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1926

She was the obvious choice. Among all the detestable stars who stood between the movie moguls and the full realization of their greed and elf-aggrandisement, it was Lillian Gish who most painfully imposed her picture knowledge and business acumen upon the producers. She was a timely martyr also, being Hollywood’s radiant ymbol of purity standing in the light of the new sex star. Because it was all of the glorious year when Will Hays had killed censorship in all but five state. Of these, New York was the only one that mattered – meaning New York City where Mr. Hay had thoughtfully set up the National Board of Review, “opposed to legal censorship and in favour of the constructive method of selecting the better pictures,” which had already put a passing mark on the producers’ test runs with adult pictures of sexual realism. A Woman of Paris, Greed and The Salvation Hunters had all been tolerated by the public. It had accepted the new hero with the conscienceless sophitication of Adolphe Menjou and the unbridled manliness of John Gilbert, mounted on the beloved proposition that practically all women are whores anyhow. Everything was set for the box-office treasure where the producers’ heart lay, when they were pulled up with the realisation that they had no heroine with youth, beauty and personality enough to make free love sympathetic. To be beautifully handled, a female star’s picture still had to have a tag showing marriage. Mae Murray, fighting for her virtue against von Stroheim’s direction in The Merry Widow, had proved the impossibility of transmuting established stars into the new gold.

The worldly woman type, given a whirl with Edna Purviance, Florence Vidor and Aileen Pringle, was too remote and mature to intrigue the public. The passionate Negri, after being worked over by Paramount for three years, was dead at the box-office. And the producers were driving actresses out of their minds – draping Barbara LaMarr in nun’s veils to make her sympathetic and sticking a rose between the teeth of Hollywood’s most celebrated screen virgin, Lois Wilson, to make her sexy. And then in the early spring of 1925, Louis B. Mayer found her! Looking at Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling in Berlin, he knew as sure as he was alive that he had found a sexual symbol beyond his imagining. Here was a face as purely beautiful as Michelangelo’s Mary of the Pieta, yet glowing with passion. The suffering of her soul was such that the American public would forgive all thirty-nine of her affairs in The Torrent. At last – marriage – the obstacle standing between sex and pleasure could be done away with!

Greta Garbo 1

At last, an answer to young actresses who wanted to play good girls! Perfume the casting couch! Bring on the hair bleach, the eyebrow tweezers and the false eyelashes! As for the established women stars, it was only a question of a year or two until the powerful support of the studios would be withdrawn from all of them. The timely coincidence of talking pictures served as a plausible reason to the public for the disappearance of many favourites. But there wasn’t an actress in Hollywood who didn’t understand the true reason.

Greta Garbo.

From the moment The Torrent went into production, no actress was ever again to be quite happy in herself. The whole MGM studio, including Monta Bell, the director, watched the daily rushes with amazement as Garbo created out of the stalest, thinnest material the complex, enchanting shadow of a soul upon the screen. And it was such a gigantic shadow that people didn’t speak of it. At parties, two or three times a week, I would see Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Hunt Stromberg, Paul Bern, Jack Conway and Clarence Brown, all of whom worked at MGM. By chance, if one of the men was so inhumane as to speak of a Garbo picture, one of the girls would say, “Yes, isn’t she divine? ” and hurry on to a less despairing subject.

Greta Garbo Queen Christina 1933

Lillian Gish

Another name never mentioned in endless shop talk was that of Lillian Gish. The guilty, incredible suspicion that MGM had put her under contract at a spectacular salary in order methodically to destroy her might not have been forced upon me had I not seen The Wind at the Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s Eastman House one night in 1956. I had never heard of it! And I could find no clue to its making. Gish’s clothes were charmingly contrived from all periods, from no period. Millers had been making those dancing slipper since 1915. Her hair was either piled up in a dateless fashion on top of her head or swirling round her throat and shoulders, more tormenting than the wind. Victor Seastrom [Sjostrom], in his direction shared her art of escaping time and place. They were meant for each other- Seastrom and Gish – like the perfume and the rose. After the picture, I could hardly wait to ask Jim Card when and where it was made. “In Hollywood in 1927 at MGM? Why, I was there then, working at Paramount! How come I never heard a word about The Wind?Determined to solve this mystery of obliteration, I went at once to the files of Photoplay magazine. Its editor, James Quirk, seems to have wept and raged, danced and exulted, with every heartbeat of the MGM executives. And I found that the last kindness Photoplay howed Lillian Gish, until after she left the MGM studio, appeared in a caption under her photograph in the October 1924 issue.

Romola was “one of the highly promising things of the new film season.” From then on, I pursued Quirk’s fascinating operations on Gish like Sherlock Holmes. Her unprecedented contract ($800,000 for six pictures in two years) was belatedly tossed off on a back page in June, 1925. In September, even before her first picture, La Boheme, had gone into production, Photoplay became unaccountably worked up in an editorial reading: “What does the future hold for Lillian Gish?

Lillian Gish – The Enigma of The Screen – article By James R. Quirk

Criticism has its fads and fancies and it has in the past few years become fashionable. to laud her as the Duse of the screen, yet, since she left Mr. Griffith’s studios, nothing has appeared which should give her artistic preference over other actresses who have earned high places. She has always played the frail girl caught in the cruel maelstrom of life, battling helplessly for her honour or her happiness. She has a philosophy of life which she adheres to with a deliberateness that amounts almost to a religion, reminding me of a girlish ‘Whistler’s mother’. While she may not be the intellectual personality some writers are so fond of seeing in her because of her serenity, she has a soundness of business judgment which has enabled her to capitalise her screen personality with one of the largest salaries . . . Wouldn’t it be interesting to see Gish play a Barbara LaMarr role, for Duse was a versatile actress, if ever there was one.”

With the release of La Boheme, in March 1926, Quirk himself put the question to his more than·2,000,000 readers in a long piece, ‘The Enigma of the Screen’. ” Lillian Gish has never become definitely established in a place of public favour . She achieves greatness of effect through a ingle phase of emotion; namely, hysteria . . . As a regular commercial routine star grinding on schedule with whatever material is at hand, her fate at the box-office would be as tragic as it invariably is on the screen. Witnesses of the playing of scenes in La Boheme felt this strongly. The acting methods of John Gilbert and Miss Gish are entirely different. He expressed the opinion that she was the great artist of the screen and that she knew more technically than anyone else. Yet plainly his work was suffering under that method.” D. W. Griffith was involved in an interview printed in December. “Asked about Miss Gish, in view of her more recent film roles, he countered, ‘Who is greater?’.” The June 1926 Brief Review of La Boheme read: “A simple love story wonderfully directed by King Vidor and acted with much skill by John Gilbert. Lillian Gish is also in the cast.”

In October The Scarlet Letter was reviewed with: “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” The gossip pages were seeded with items like: “Who is your choice for Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Ours is Lillian Gish. But, failing to get Lillian, we suggest that Paramount borrow the services of Harry Langdon. In July, under a full page profile of Mae Murray, was tucked the line: “For here is a picture of Mae that makes her look just the way Lillian Gish would look if Lillian had IT.” In May, following a straightforward article by Peter B. Kyne about pictures being the reflection of the producers’ taste, not of the publics demand, the following paragraph was slapped on at the end: “Some months ago, Mr. Louis B. Mayer asked me to write a story to feature Miss Lillian Gish. I asked him what type of story he required for her and he said he didn’t know, but that it was certain she would have to suffer a lot. Alas, poor Louis! I know him well!”

Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg
Louis B Mayer, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg

Ramon Novarro - Greta Garbo - Mata Hari

In time I became such a good Quirk student that, after the completion of “The Temptress” when Garbo’s power and demands were beginning to tell on MGM, I predicted the beginning of her nasty publicity in the July 1926 issue. And sure enough, the first threat of the only thing Garbo feared – deportation- was conveyed to her in one of those “why don’t they go back where they came from” articles titled “The Foreign Legion in Hollywood.” Will Hays’ friends in the Department of Immigration were coming in handy for something besides getting the producers’ relations into the country.

Greta Garbo Ross Verlag Germany

Compared to Quirk’s finished mauling of Lillian Gish, MGM’s application of the dig-your-own-grave technique was a sloppy job which was not to achieve a slick finish till the time after the death of Irving Thalberg in 1936, when Mayer began restocking hi stables with actresses closer to his heart, working on that insoluble problem of how to make a box-office star without at the same time making her unattainable. Eased out with full approval, in the perfection of their beauty, art and popularity, were Jeannette MacDonald, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and finally Garbo.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

With Gish it was a question of how to get her to make a real stinker. Under her supervision, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter were fine pictures. So while she was called away to bring her sick mother home from London, the studio carefully framed a picture postcard called Annie Laurie which she returned to find all ready to shoot – sets, costumes and Norman Kerry.

Back in charge she next made The Wind, which was so loaded with sex and violence that MGM held up its release until the first Academy Award had been safely dealt to· Janet Gaynor. And then Gish’s strength failed and she accepted a dreary studio property, The Enemy. She could go now, MGM said, she needn’t make the sixth picture. At last Quirk was able to set her up as an example and a warning to any actress who might presume beyond sex and beauty. MGM had let her go because she got 8,000 a week! And, he developed, without a blush, all the pictures made on her say-so were box-office failures.

Stigmatised, a grasping silly sexless antique, at the age of 31, the great Lillian Gish left Hollywood forever, without a head turned to mark her departure. “A shadow’s shadow – a world of shadows.”

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

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There is something fateful now in remembering that after Gish ran Costa Berling to look at Lars Hansen for The Scarlet Letter, she said that she had faith in Mayer because he had brought over Greta Garbo. Not possibly could she have guessed that this event would make Gish roles obsolete as fast as the studio could clean up her contract. Even less could she have guessed that uprooting her as a chaste reproach in the new paradise of sex films would become less imperative than getting her out of Garbo’s meditative sight. Before The Torrent started, while the studio kept Garbo hanging around the lot (we’re paying you, aren’t we?) making publicity stills, she was able to observe Gish at work on La Boheme. Watching the only American star whose integrity, dedication and will brought her work up to the standards of order and excellence she had learned in Europe, Garbo saw that the helpless actress being churned in a clabber of expedience, irresolution, unpredictable hours and horseplay was not necessarily the law of American film production.

Greta Garbo Anna Karenina

The May, 1926, Photoplay quoted Garbo as saying “I will be glad when I am a ‘beeg’ star like Lillian Gish. Then I will not need publicity and to have ‘peectures’ taken shaking hands with a prize fighter.” But no amount of the studio’s calculated ‘dumb Swede’ publicity could alter the fact that Garbo could read the box-office figures in Variety and get exactly the same answers Louis B. Mayer got. La Boheme and The Torrent opened the same week in February, 1926, on Broadway. La Boheme, a great story with a great director, King Vidor, and two great stars, Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, did average business at the Embassy Theatre. Lillian Gish got $400,000 a year. The Torrent, a senseless story with a fair director and Ricardo Cortez, a comic Valentino-type leading man, and an unknown actress, Garbo, did top business at the Capitol Theatre. Garbo got 16,000 a year.

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert

After The Temptress, when Garbo said, “I do not want to be a silly temptress. I cannot see any sense in getting dressed up and doing nothing but tempting men in pictures,” Quirk was compelled to write in his December editorial: “When you learn to speak English, gal, inquire how many beautiful and clever girls have been absolutely ruined by playing good women without ever a chance to show how bad they could be. Some actresses would give a year’s salary if they could once be permitted to play a hell-raising, double-crossing censor-teaser for six reels. There are exceptions, of course. Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of eight thousand bucks a week. Nevertheless, Anna Karenina, which had been announced in November as going into production with Lillian Gish, became Love with Greta Garbo. Love was Garbo’s first picture after signing a new MGM contract in May, 1927. After the long hold-out off salary, her business triumph over the studio was collecting with stunning impact on seven months of nation-wide publicity. The studio had not reckoned on defeat and its consequences. And the victory of one friendless girl in an alien land over the best brains of a great corporation had rocked all Hollywood. In the fury of the battle, Quirk had laid it on the line for Garbo in the April, 1927, Photoplay: “Metro is said to have told Garbo that, unless she signs, she will be deported at the end of her passport time limit, in June.” The revelation of this pressure was later masked by the invention of the “I ‘tank’ I go home” gag. Because, if Garbo had really wanted to go home, she would have gotten her 7,500 a week – and double. But she dared not risk even a scheming departure. For two years she had worked at MGM in that climate of worship and service which had secured the purity of her art. And, as well as she knew that she was Queen of all movie stars then and forever – she knew that to leave her kingdom was to become a wandering tarnished star like all the rest.

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

How well she knew her genius was revealed to me when I met her one Sunday in the summer of 1928 at the house of the writer Benjamin Glazer. His wife, Alice, was a witty, outrageous woman perfectly suited to Garbo’s shyness and my sulky discontent. Apart from the other guests clattering through lunch in the patio, Garbo and I sat with Alice drinking coffee in a little breakfast room. The subject of the conversation, of course, was Alice’s and therefore personal. I had divorced Eddie Sutherland in June, and while Alice poked into my private life with ribald questions and the worst possible assumptions, Garbo and I sat laughing and looking at each other. And it was then in that free and happy moment that Garbo seemed to condense, as it were, into a crystal of gracious joy in herself. Remembering the distillation of the whole of her beauty and art in that lovely moment, makes me wonder at the meanness of the human mind which still believes the most obviously ridiculous of all Garbo myths. Photoplay gave it birth in the same April article that carried the deportation threat. “Metro wanted Stiller, and Miss Garbo, his find, was signed reluctantly at a sliding scale of 400, 600 an $750 a week for three years, more to please him than anything else.” Metro wanted Stiller? He never made a single picture there. Knowing his temper, the studio let him play interpreter and assistant director for his find until, engulfed with rage, he settled his contract and fled. Mayer wanted to please Stiller? They hated each other from the day they met – Stiller because he knew Mayer viewed his work with indifference, Mayer because of the coarse indignities Stiller inflicted upon his majesty. As for Garbo’s salary; in 1925, any time an untried actress got more than $300 a week the studio was really yearning for her. And nobody seems to remember how, after her arrival, Mayer kept Garbo in isolation in New York for three months trying unsuccessfully to force her to substitute a new contract for the Berlin agreement which would not hold up in American courts.

Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo - on set for The Wind
Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo – on set for The Wind

Sixteen years were to pass between the public execution of Lillian Gish and the bloodless exile of Greta Garbo. Hollywood producers were left with their babes and a backwash of old men stars, watching the lights go out in one picture house after another across the country.

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB)-19

Sight and Sound (1959-01)(BFI)(GB) Burton - Bloom

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