After ‘Life With Father’ Lillian Gish Owns the (Chicago) Town – By Lloyd Lewis (New York Times, 1941)

The New York Times June 1, 1941


After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Town

By LLOYD LEWIS – Chicago

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

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

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

But it was by automobile that the great bulk of out-of-towners came to see Miss Gish and the comedy which on May 24 ended its run after setting a new longevity mark for dramas in Chicago. Sedans carrying four or five people arrived constantly from everywhere within a radius of 400 miles. Hitchhikers were found during the year to have come 200 miles just to see the play. One woman in Chicago went thirty-five times. Hundreds are known to have seen it four and five times. What was common was for men to attend during a trip to Chicago and then return some weeks later with their entire families, one of the standard sights in the audiences being that of a father sitting with his home folks and watching, from the corner of his eye, their faces as, on the stage, they saw him satirized, portrayed, “taken off.”

Miss Gish, to the people of the interior, was still a shimmering memory from the silent screen when she arrived in Chicago with the Crouse-Lindsay comedy in the Spring of 1940. She had made brief appearances in spoken dramas during the past decade, but the plays had never been smash hits nor tarried long in the few large cities which they had visited. Her Ophelia opposite John Gielgud had never come West. Most of her stage fame was purely Broadway.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

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

Life with f lill 58

Midlanders talk about her now as though she had never been a fabulous, distant, legendary creature of D.W. Griffith’s filmdom at all. She is now somebody everybody knows-and loves, and if she chooses, she can tour the midlands for years in this comedy, building for herself a reputation approaching that of Joe Jefferson in “Rip Van Winkle.” It would take years, of course, and it is not likely she will undertake it, for on May 24 she had acted Vinnie Day for seventy-two consecutive weeks without missing a performance or a rehearsal. Some of those weeks were, indeed, rehearsals, but they meant daily work longer and harder than actual performances and must be added to the span of her toil.

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

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

After a Summer’s rest, Miss Gish will decide whether to appear in another play or to return to further tours in “Life With Father.” It was from a balcony seat at the Empire Theatre in New York soon after the original company was launched that she first saw the play. After the first two acts she went to the business office of the theatre downstairs and congratulated the management. One of owner Oscar Serlin’s lieutenants then and there asked her why she didn’t head a second company. Surprised, she retired to the balcony with the statement that if the third act held up she’d see. It did, she saw, and within a few weeks she was rehearsing with the second company.

During the historic Chicago run, which bettered by one week the record set by Frank Bacon in “Lightnin’” in 1921-22. Miss Gish has done herculean work for the play outside as well as in the theatre. She has become a very impressive speaker due to the endless Kiwanis and women’s club luncheons she has addressed. She has been photographed with Mayors, water lilies, new automobiles, 4-H club youngsters. She has posed buying tickets to charities.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

In her, Chicago has seen what D.W. Griffith saw when, at the height of her career as a fragile, ultra-feminine, wraith-like spirit in films, he said “she has the brain of a man.” For the Griffith films she worked daily, every day, across nine years. When she was not acting she was writing subtitles, picking locations, coining advertising catch lines. She learned all about billposting, and bargained for one-sheets, twenty-four sheets, snipes. She coined the title for “The Greatest Thing in Life,” and once in the early 1920’s she directed for Paramount a picture called “Remodeling Her Husband,” with her sister Dorothy as star and an unknown girl-friend named Dorothy Parker supplying the subtitles.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

Not without pride Miss Gish recalls, today, that this film cost $28.000 and grossed $300.000. And she takes satisfaction in the success of “White Sister,” a film for which she raised the money, supervised the scenario, the direction, the acting, and made the releasing deals when major companies refused to handle the film because it was “non-commercial.” It was she who wrote into the script the scene that assured the picture’s success, the ceremonial at which the heroine became a nun; the scene had not been contained in either the novel or drama. Her discovery of Ronald Colman, an obscure stage actor, as a film possibility and her employment of him as the hero of “White Sister” was also a businesslike item in the story of that film. Costing $270.000 it was eventually took in $4.000.000.

So wholly did Hollywood come to agree with Griffith’s verdict that she owned the brain of a man that she had, several years ago, standing offers from companies to come back and direct whenever she wished. But stage acting has been more important to her, obviously giving her mind more nourishment than Hollywood could ever give.

Thinking back across her career, it was not the nine vacationless years with Griffith, nor the seventy-two consecutive weeks of “Life With Father” that have taxed her as much as in the long run as Ophelia in “Hamlet” with John Gielgud.

“And it wasn’t the work that did that,” she says, “it was the emotional strain of Gielgud’s Hamlet. Every night his performance was as emotionally exhausting to me as to the spectators. His was truly great acting.”

Hamlet 1936
Hamlet 1936

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

After 'Life With Father' the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941
After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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


Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Scarlet Letter – By Nathaniel Hawthorne (Screenland – May 1926)

Screenland – May 1926

The Scarlet Letter

By Nathaniel Hawthorne

This masterpiece of literature contains a number of passages so great and complete that a thrilling short story in Hawthorne’s own words is made by their narration, A few connecting explanations are added.

The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of inhabitants of Boston; all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. . . .

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_02
17th February 1926: Lillian Gish (1893 – 1993) is punished for bearing a child out of wedlock in the film ‘The Scarlet Letter’, a 17th century melodrama directed by Victor Sjostrom.

The door of the jail being flung open from within, there appeared, in the first place, like a black shadow emerging into sunshine, the grim and grisly presence of the town-beadle, with a sword by his side, and his staff of office in his hand. . . . Stretching forth the official staff in his left hand, he laid his right upon the shoulder of a young woman, whom he thus drew forward; until, on the threshold of the prison-door, she repelled him, by an action marked with natural dignity and force of character, and stepped into the open air, as if by her own free will. She bore in her arms a child, a baby of some three months old, who winked and turned aside its little face from the too vivid light of day; because its existence, heretofore, had brought it acquainted only with the gray twilight of a dungeon, or other darksome apartment of the prison. . .

Lillian Gish (Scarlet Letter, HiRes)_01

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days. . . . And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike. . . . than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. . . . Her attire, which, indeed, she had wrought for the occasion, in prison, and had modeled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer. . . . was the Scarlet Letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and inclosing her in a sphere by herself. . . .

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 2

The grim beadle now made a gesture with his staff. “Make way, good people, make way, in the King’s name!” cried he. “Open a passage; and, I promise ye, Mistress Prynne shall be set where man, woman, and child may have a fair sight of her ‘ brave apparel, from this time till an hour past meridian. A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine! Come along, Madam Hester, and show your scarlet letter in the market-place!”

So, in one of the most moving passages of all literature, Hawthorne introduces us to the young matron Hester Prynne who, having left her aged husband in England some two years before and come to the New World, stood now upon the scaffold of the marketplace, with her nameless baby girl in her arms and on her breast the significant scarlet “A” which proclaimed her shame to all beholders.

The curious throng of neighbors and former friends gathered around as Hester took her place there, with little Pearl in her arms, pressed closer as that eminent divine, the Rev. John Wilson, the oldest minister of Boston, exhorted her to reveal the name of the sharer of her guilt. But Hester was silent under Mr. Wilson s pleading; silent under the gentler exhortation of her own clergyman, the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale. She would not purchase permission to remove that letter from her breast by revealing the identity of him for whose sake she bore it; and at last, the duration of her punishment in the market-place being over, the young woman who was henceforth to walk as an outcast among her kind, was allowed to return to the prison; the crowd dispersed and life in that stern Puritan community resumed its accustomed course.

There were, however, two hearts — in addition to the sorely troubled heart that beat beneath the scarlet letter in which the events of the day had left a deep impression.

Henry B Walthall - The Scarlet Letter
Henry B Walthall – The Scarlet Letter

Hester’s husband, arriving in the colony in time to witness that scene in the marketplace, had not seen fit to claim his wife before the crowd, but followed her to the prison and gained admission to her as Roger Chillingworth, a physician, whose skill would be of assistance to her in her present state of nervous collapse and exhaustion. “Hester,” said he, “I ask not wherefore, or how, thou hast fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy, on which I found thee. The reason is not far to seek. It was my folly, and thy weakness. I — a man of thought — the book-worm of great libraries — a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge — what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own! Misshapen from my birth-hour, how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! Men call me wise. If sages were ever wise in their own behoof, I might have forseen all this. I might have known that, as I came out of the vast and dismal forest, and entered this settlement of Christian men, the very first object to meet my eyes would be thyself, Hester Prynne, standing up, a statue of ignominy, before the people. Nay, from the moment when we came down the old church steps together, a married pair, I might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!”

“Thou knowest,” said Hester — for, depressed as she was, she could not endure —this last quiet stab at the token of her shame “thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any.”

“True,” replied he. “It was my folly! I have said it. . . .”

“I have greatly wronged thee,” murmured Hester.

“We have wronged each other,” answered he. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay. Therefore, as a man who has not thought and philosophised in vain, I seek no vengeance, plot no evil against thee. Between thee and me, the scale hangs fairly balanced. But, Hester, the man lives who has wronged us both! Who is he?”

“Ask me not!” replied Hester Prynne, looking firmly into his face. “That thou shalt never know!”

“Never, sayest thou?” rejoined he with a smile of dark and self-relying intelligence. “Never know him! Believe me, Hester, there are a few things — whether in the outward world, or, to a certain depth, in the invisible sphere of thought — few things hidden from the man who devotes himself earnestly and unreservedly to the solution of a mystery. … I shall seek this man, as I have sought truth in books; as I have sought gold in alchemy. There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him. I shall see him tremble. I shall feel myself shudder, suddenly and unawares. Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!” The eyes of the wrinkled scholar glowed so intensely upon her, that Hester Prynne clasped her hands over her heart, dreading lest he should read the secret there at once. “Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less he is mine,” resumed he, with a look of confidence, as if destiny were at once with him. “He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart. Yet fear not for him! Think not that I shall interfere with Heaven’s own method of retribution, or to my own loss, betray him to the gripe of human law. Neither do thou imagine that I shall contrive aught against his life: no, nor against his fame, if, as I judge, he be a man of fair repute. Let him live! Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!”

“Thy acts are like mercy,” said Hester, bewildered and appalled. “But thy words interpret thee as a terror!”

“One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,” continued the scholar. “Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine. There are none in this land that know me. Breathe not, to any human soul, that thou didst ever call me husband! Here, on this wild outskirt of the earth, I shall pitch my tent; for, elsewhere a wanderer, and isolated from human interests, I find here a woman, a man, a child, amongst whom and myself there exist the closest ligaments. No matter whether of love or hate; no matter whether of right or wrong! Thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me. My home is where thou art, and where he is. But betray me not!”

“Wherefore dost thou desire it?” inquired Hester, shrinking, she hardly knew why, from this secret bond. “Why not announce thyself openly, and cast me off at once?”

“It may be,” he replied, “because I will not encounter the dishonor that besmirches the husband of a faithless woman. It may be for other reasons. Enough, it is my purpose to live and die unknown. Let, therefore, thy husband be to the world as one already dead, and of whom no tidings shall ever come. Recognize me not, by word, by sign, by look! Breathe not the secret, above all, to the man thou wottest of. Shouldst thou fail me in this, beware! His fame, his position, his life, will be in my hands. Beware!”

“I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” said Hester.

“Swear it!” rejoined he. And she took the oath. Mercy or the most refined cruelty? No wonder Hester was perplexed at the old scholar’s attitude. But she had given her promise and would keep it. So, after her release from the jail, for seven years she went about the village with two secrets locked in her breast. Bitterness, at first, was hers, and suffering, as she watched her child grow, almost as the wild things of the forest, knowing no companionship other than her mother’s. Pearl became a pretty little girl, elfin and fairylike, but the great “A” which seemed to Hester to burn ever deeper into her very flesh, set Pearl apart from the normal life of the village as it set her mother apart from it. Yet, little by little, the attitude of those who had so bitterly condemned the mother changed. Accepting her ostracism as a means of atoning for her sin, Hester made no effort to regain her former social position. She went her way unobtrusively, gaining a livelihood for herself and child with her clever needlework, always ready to nurse the sick or prepare the dead for burial a self-appointed sister of mercy, winning, by her self-sacrificing devotion, the grudging admiration of the townspeople. But what of Roger Chillingworth — and that unknown other?

Chillingworth had attached himself to the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale seemed, indeed, greatly in need of a physician’s services. He had grown ever thinner and paler since the day when he had reluctantly added his exhortations to those of the Rev. John Wilson on the market-place scaffold, and he had contracted a habit of placing his hand over his heart as if some secret sorrow rankled there — as if, as in the case of Hester Prynne, some brand, though unseen by the eyes of men, burned ever deeper into his flesh. Chillingworth’s herbs seemed to have no effect upon his health. Chillingworth’s pleased that he discuss whatever was troubling him with his physician were as unavailing.

Then one day (in a scene so beautiful that it must be given in the master’s own words), the minister whom all his little world regarded as a saint and the woman who was visibly branded as a sinner, chanced to meet in the forest. Slowly as the minister walked, he had almost gone by, before Hester Prynne could gather enough voice to attract his observation.

Lillian Gish - Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter
Lillian Gish – Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter

At length she succeeded. “Arthur Dimmesdale!”’ she said, faintly at first; then louder, but hoarseley. “Arthur Dimmesdale!” “Who speaks?” answered the minister. . . Throwing his eyes anxiously in the direction of the voice, he distinctly beheld a form under the trees, clad in garments so somber, and so little relieved from the gray twilight into which the clouded sky and the heavy foliage had darkened the noontide, that he knew not whether it was a woman or a shadow. It may be, that his pathway through life was haunted thus, by a specter that had stolen out from among his thoughts. He made a step nearer, and discovered the scarlet letter.

“Hester! Hester Prynne!” said he. “Is it thou? Art thou in life?”

“Even so!” she answered. “In such lire as has been mine these seven years past! And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live?”

It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence, and even doubted of their own. So strangely did they meet, in the dim wood, that it was like the first encounter, in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood coldly shuddering, in mutual dread: as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. . . .

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Without a word more spoken — neither he nor she assuming the guidance, but with an unexpected consent — they glided back into the shadow of the woods, whence Hester had emerged, and sat down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl had before been sitting. When they found voice to speak, it was, at first, only to utter remarks and inquiries such as any two acquaintances might have made, about the gloomy sky, the threatening storm, and, next, the health of each. Thus they went onward, not boldly, but step by step, into the themes that were brooding deepest in their hearts. So long estranged by fate and circumstances, they needed something slight and casual to run before, and throw open the doors of intercourse, so that their real thoughts might be led across the threshold. After a while, the minister fixed his eyes on Hester Prynne’s.

“Hester,” said he, “hast thou found peace?”

She smiled drearily, looking down upon her bosom.

“Hast thou?” she asked.

“None ! — nothing but despair!” he answered. “What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine? Were I an atheist — a man devoid of conscience — a wretch of coarse and brutal instincts — I might have found peace, long ere now. Nay, I never should have lost it. But, as matters stand with my soul, whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God*s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!” Hester reminded him of the reverence with which the community regarded him —but this only increased his despair.

“You wrong yourself in this,” said Hester gently. “You have deeply and sorely repented.

Your sin is left behind you, in the days long past. Your present life is not less holy, in very truth, than it seems in people’s eyes. Is there no reality in the penitence thus sealed and witnessed by good works? And wherefore shall it not bring you peace?”

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 3

The unhappy man responded that of penance, self-inflicted, he had had enough, but this seemed to him unavailing. If he might have one friend with whom he might share his secret —a friend or even an enemy who knew the sin that he hid from the knowledge of those who trusted and revered him, lest the scandal of it do unutterable harm to the community.

Hester Prynne looked into his face, hesitated to speak. Yet, uttering his long restrained emotions so vehemently as he did. his words here offered her the very point of circumstances in which to interpose whatever she came to say. She conquered her fears, and spoke.

“Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for,” said she, “with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it!”—Again she hesitated, but brought out the words with an effort—”Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him, under the same roof!” The minister started to his feet, gasping for breath, and clutching at his heart, as if he would have torn it out of his bosom. “Oh, Arthur,” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity, save when thy good—thy life — thy fame—were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!—the physician!—he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!—he was my husband!”

The minister looked at her for an instant with all that violence of passion which intermixed, in more shapes than one, with his higher, purer, softer qualities—was, ir fact, the portion of him which the Devil claimed, and through which he sought to win the rest. Never was there a blacker and fiercer frown than Hester now encountered. For the brief space that it lasted it was a dark transfiguration. But his character had been so much enfeebled by suffering that even its lower energies were incapable of more than a temporary struggle. He sank down on the ground, and buried his face in his hands.

“I might have known it.” murmured he. “I did know it! Was not the secret told me in the natural recoil of my heart at the first sight of him, and as often as I have seen him since? Why did I not understand? O Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame! — the indelicacy! —the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this! I cannot forgive thee!”

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter

“Thou shalt forgive me!” cried Hester, flinging herself on the fallen leaves beside him. “Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!” With sudden and desperate tenderness ;he threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her — for seven long years it had frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrowstricken man was what Hester could not bear and live!

“Wilt thou yet forgive me!” she repeated over and over again. “Wilt thou frown? Wilt thou not forgive?”

“I do forgive you, Hester,” replied the minister, at length, with a deep utterance, out of an abyss of sadness, but no anger. “I freely forgive you now. May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. . . . That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!”

“Never, never!” whispered she. “What we did had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other! Hast thou forgotten it?”

“Hush, Hester!” said Arthur Dimmesdale, rising from the ground. “No; I have not forgotten!”

They sat down again, side by side, and hand clasped in hand, on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree. Life had never brought them a gloomier hour; it was the point whither their pathway had so long been tending, and darkening ever as it stole along —and yet it inclosed a charm that made them linger upon it, and claim another and another, and, after all, another moment. The forest was obscure around them, and creaked with a blast that was passing through it. The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads; while one solemn old tree groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath, or constrained to forbode evil to come. And yet they lingered. How dreary looked the forest-tract that led backward to the settlement, where Hester Prynne must take up again the burden of ignominy, and the minister the hollow mockery of his good name! So they lingered an instant longer. No golden light had ever been so precious as the gloom of this dark forest. Here, seen only by his eyes, the scarlet letter need not burn into the bosom of the fallen woman! Here, seen only by her eyes, Arthur Dimmesdale, false to God and man, might be for one moment true! He started at the thought that suddenly occurred to him.

“Hester,” cried he, “here is a new horror! Roger Chillingworth knows your purpose to reveal his true character. Will he continue, then, to keep our secret? What will now be the course of his revenge?”

“There is a strange secrecy in his nature,” replied Hester thoughtfully; “and it has grown upon him by the hidden practices of his revenge. I deem it not likely that he will betray the secret. He will doubtless seek other means of satiating his dark passion.”

“And I!—how am I to live longer, breathing the same air with this deadly enemy?” exclaimed Arthur Dimmesdale, shrinking within himself, and pressing his hand nervously against his heart—a gesture that had grown involuntary with him. “Think for me, Hester! Thou art strong. Resolve for me!”

“Thou must dwell no longer with this man,” said Hester, slowly and firmly. “Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye.” “It were far worse than death!” replied the minister. “But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 5

“Is the world, then, so narrow?” exclaimed Hester Prynne, fixing her deep eyes on the minister’s, and instinctively exercising a magnetic power over a spirit so shattered and subdued that it could hardly hold itself erect. “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder town, which only a little time ago was but a leaf-strewn desert, as lonely as this around us? Whither leads yonder forest track? Backward to the settlement, thou sayest! Yes, but onward, too. Deeper it goes, and deeper, into the wilderness, less plainly to be seen at every step; until, some few miles hence, the yellow leaves will show no vestige of the white man’s tread. There thou art free! So brief a journey would bring thee from a world where thou hast been most wretched to one where thou mayest still be happy! Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of Roger Chillingworth?”

“Yes, Hester; but only under the fallen leaves!” replied the minister, with a sad smile.

“Then there is the broad pathway of the sea!” continued Hester. “It brought thee hither. If thou so choose, it will bear thee back again. In our native land, whether in some remote rural village or in vast London— or surely in Germany, in France, or in pleasant Italy—thou wouldst be beyond his power and knowledge! And what hast thou to do with all these iron men and their opinions? They have kept thy better part in bondage too long already!”

“It cannot be!” answered the minister, listening as if he were called upon to realise a dream. “I am powerless to go! Wretched and sinful as I am, I have had no other thought than to drag on my earthly existence in the sphere where Providence hath placed me. Lost as my own soul is, I would still do what I may for other human souls! I dare not quit my post, though an unfaithful sentinel, whose sure reward is death and dishonor, when his dreary watch shall come to an end!”

“Thou art crushed under this seven years’ weight of misery,” replied Hester, fervently resolved to buoy him up with her own- energy. “But thou shalt leave it all behind thee! . . . Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened. . . ‘. The future is yet full of trial and success. There is happiness to be enjoyed! There is good to be done! Exchange this false life of thine for a true one. Be, if thy spirit summon thee to such a mission, the teacher and apostle of the red men. Or—as it is more thy nature—be a scholar and a sage among the wisest and the most renowned of the cultivated world. Preach! Write! Act! Do anything save to lie down and die! Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another, and a high one, such as thou canst wear without fear or shame. Why shouldst thou tarry so much as one other day in the torments that have so gnawed into thy life!—that have made thee feeble to will and to do!—that will leave thee powerless even to repent! Up and away!”

“O Hester!” cried Arthur Dimmesdale, in whose eyes a fitful light, kindled by her enthusiasm, flashed up and died away, “thou tellest of running a race to a man whose

knees are tottering beneath him! I must die here! There is not strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world alone!” It was the last expression of the despondency of a broken spirit. He lacked energy to grasp the better fortune that seemed within his reach. He repeated the word. “Alone, Hester!”

“Thou shalt not go alone!” answered she in a deep whisper. Then all was spoken!

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish
Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

One strange loyalty to duty— one pathetic link of pride — delayed the young minister’s flight with Hester and little Pearl on the ship that even now awaited them in the harbor. He was to deliver the Election Sermon — an event of the year— and that task he resolved to perform before he left his flock forever. Before a rapt audience that filled the church and extended into the square before it, he delivered it. Never had he spoken so brilliantly. Never had his eloquence been so moving. “Thus,” (again in the author’s own words) there had come to the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale— as to most men, in their various spheres, though seldom recognized until they see it far behind them—an epoch of life more brilliant and full of triumph than any previous one, or than any which could thereafter be. He stood at this moment on the very proudest eminence of superiority to which the gifts of, intellect, rich lore, prevailing eloquence, and a reputation of whitest sanctity, could exalt a clergyman in New England’s earliest days, when the professional character was of itself a lofty pedestal. Such was the position which the minister occupied, as he bowed his head forward on the cushions of the pulpit, at the close of his Election Sermon. Meanwhile Hester Prynne was standing be,side the scaffold of the pillory, with the scarlet letter still burning on her breast! Now was heard again the clangor of the music, and the measured tramp of the military escort, issuing from the church door. The procession was to be marshaled thence to the town hall, where a solemn banquet would complete the ceremonies of the day.

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 4

But in that moment of his triumph, Arthur Dimmesdale’s tortured spirit had found itself unable to endure its burden longer. Suddenly, as the procession moved forward, he forced his way through the crowd to the foot of the Pearl. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter. “Come, Hester, come. Support me up yonder scaffold!” The crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity, who stood more immediately around the clergyman, were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw—unable to receive the explanation which most readily presented itself, or to imagine any other—that they remained silent and inactive spectators of the judgment which Providence seemed about to work. They beheld the minister, leaning on Hester’s shoulder, and supported by her arm around him, approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps; while still the little hand of the sin-born child was clasped in his. Old Roger Chillingworth followed, as one intimately connected with the drama of guilt and sorrow in which they had all been actors, and well entitled, therefore, to be present at its closing scene.

“Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,” said he, looking darkly at the clergy man, “there was no one place so secret — no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me—save on this very scaffold!”

“Thanks be to Him who hath led me hither!” answered the minister.

Yet he trembled, and turned to Hester with an expression of doubt and anxiety in his eyes, not the less evidently betrayed, that there was a feeble smile upon his lips.

“Is not this better,” murmured he, “than what we dreamed of in the forest?”

“I know not! I know not!” she hurriedly replied. “Better? Yea; so we may both die, and little Pearl die with us!” “For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order,” said the minister; “and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which he hath made plain before my sight. For, Hester, I am a dying man. So let me make haste to take my shame upon me!” Partly supported by Hester Prynne, and holding one hand of little Pearl’s, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale turned to the dignified and venerable rulers; to the holy ministers, who were his brethren; to the people, whose great heart was thoroughly appalled, yet overflowing with tearful sympathy, as knowing that some deep life matter—which, if full of sin, was full of anguish and repentance likewise—was now to be laid open to them. . . .

Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne's partner in adultery
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)

“People of New England!” cried he, with a voice that rose over them, high, solemn, and majestic—yet had always a tremor through it, and sometimes a. shriek, struggling up out of a fathomless depth of remorse and woe—-“ye, that have loved, me!

—ye, that have deemed me holy!—behold me here, the one sinner of the world! At last! —at last!—I stand upon the spot where, seven years since, I should have stood; here, with this- woman, whose arm, more than the little strength wherewith I have crept hitherward, sustains me, at this dreadful moment, from groveling down upon my face! Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears! Ye have all shuddered at it! Wherever her walk hath been —wherever, so miserably burdened, she may have hoped to find repose— it hath cast a lurid gleam of awe and horrible repugnance round about her. But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye have not shuddered!”

It seemed, at this point, as if the minister must leave the remainder of his secret undisclosed. But he fought back the bodily weakness—and, still more, the faintness of heart — that was striving for the mastery with him. … “It was on him!” he continued, with a kind of fierceness; so determined was he to speak out the whole. “God’s eye beheld it!

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well, and fretted it continually with the touch of his burning finger! But he hid it cunningly from men, and walked among you with the mein of a spirit, mournful, because so pure in a sinful world! —and sad, because he missed his heavenly kindred! Now, at the death hour, he stands up before you! He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! Stand any here that question God’s judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!” With a convulsive motion, he tore away the ministerial band from before his breast. It was revealed! But it were irreverent to describe that revelation. For an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was concentrated on the ghastly miracle; while the minister stood, with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory. Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom. Old Roger Chillingworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance, out of which the life seemed to have departed. “Thou hast escaped me!” he repeated more than once. “Thou hast escaped me!” “May God forgive thee!” said the minister.

“Thou, too, hast depely sinned!” He withdrew his dying eyes from the old man and fixed them on the woman and the child.

“My little Pearl,” said he feebly — and there was a sweet and gentle smile over his face, as of a spirit sinking into deep repose; nay, now that the burden was removed, it seemed almost as if he would be sportive with the child—-“dear little Pearl; wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not, yonder, in the forest! But now thou wilt?” Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies, and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Toward her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.

“Hester,” said the clergyman, “farewell!”

“Shall we not meet again?” whispered she, bending her face down close to his.

“Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe! Thou lookest far into eternity, with those bright, dying eyes! Then tell me what thou seest?”

“Hush, Hester, hush!” said he, with a tremulous solemnity. “The law we broke! —the sin here so awfully revealed!—let these alone be thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion. God knows; and he is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost forever!

Praised be His name! His will be done! Farewell!”

That final word came forth with the minister’s expiring breath. The multitude, silent till then, broke out in a strange, deep voice of awe and wonder, which could not as yet find utterance, save in this murmur that rolled so heavily after the departed spirit. So passed Arthur Dimmesdale.

Roger Chillingworth, we are told, withered slowly to his death as if, with Hester’s secret known and the possibility of revenge taken out of his hands, he had no further interest in living. Hester lived on, respected but aloof, in the community that had witnessed her shame and her life-long atonement. Pearl, upon reaching young womanhood, married and went to live in a kindlier and more tolerant society. And out of the sin and the suffering of these characters—whether they actually lived or were only figments of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination — has been woven one of the greatest novels which the genius of America has ever produced.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Hester Prynne - Lillian Gish in the Scarlet Letter 2

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

What Love Means to Me – By Lillian Gish (Pictures and Picturegoer – October 1924)

Pictures and Picturegoer – October 1924

What Love Means to Me

By Lillian Gish

The White Sister
The White Sister

“What did you think of it?”

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.

The White Sister
The White Sister

‘ 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.

The White Sister
The White Sister

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?

The White Sister
The White Sister

” 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.

Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)
Lillian Gish in The White Sister (Angela Chiaromonte)

“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.

The White Sister
The White Sister

” 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.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in "The White Sister"
Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish in “The White Sister” (At a Portrait Exhibition)

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.

Paul Rochester

The White Sister
The White Sister

” 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.”

Pictures and the Picturegoer (Oct 1924) Lillian Gish Love
Pictures and the Picturegoer (Oct 1924)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Theatre Magazine, August 1923 – Page 35

Lillian Gish in “The White Sister”

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.

Theatre Magazine August 1923 - The White Sister
Theatre Magazine August 1923 – The White Sister

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

First New York Showing of “Broken Blossoms” Is a Great Artistic Triumph – By Edward Weitzel, 1919



First New York Showing of “Broken Blossoms” Is a Great Artistic Triumph for the Famous Director

By Edward Weitzel

Cohan Theatre Broadway-Times-Square-at-night-1911

George M. Cohan’s Theatre, Tuesday evening, May 13, D. W. Griffith set up another milestone on the moving picture’s road to full recognition as an art second to none.

He also established something new in the commercial standing of the screen by opening a repertory season during which three pictures will be shown in succession, each one affording a complete bill. “Broken Blossoms,” inaugurated the season. The showing was attended by representatives of the social and artistic life of the city and by nearly every prominent moving picture star, director and producer of the metropolis.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Hundreds of the general public were turned away. Inside the theatre the spectator was greeted with a Chinese atmoshphere in the decorations and the costumes of the ushers. The first note of the music, composed by Louis Gottschalk and D. W. Griffith, struck the same atmospheric theme and during the entire production kept to a high order of merit. The curtain went up on a full stage, seen dimly as grey draperies parted slowly and the weird Chinese wail of the orchestra kept up its subdued tones. Then followed a series of beautiful light effects that were novel and in harmony with the story to follow.

Broken Blossoms

A shrine to Buddha came slowly into view on the right; next, a couch upon which lay a young girl. At the back, a distant view of buildings that came and went as if by magic crept out of the darkness and as mysteriously crept back again. On the right, to the sound of Chinese musical instruments, a suggestion of the Orient made itself felt rather than seen. Most of the lighting came from tall candles that seemed never to glow and to die out as inexplicably as they appeared. The air of brooding mystery to the tableaux was a fitting prelude to the tragic story of “Broken Blossoms.”

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms

Of the feature itself but one opinion was heard as the spectators were leaving the theatre : “Broken Blossoms” marks the highest altitude ever achieved by a moving picture. Adapted from a story by Thomas Burke, “The Chink and the Child,” in his “Limehouse Nights” tales, it takes rank with the class of literature that endures because of its truth and its clear insight into the soul of its subject. It is a tragedy as profound and relentless as ever has been written, and D. W. Griffith’s direction gives it a wondrous beauty by showing the flame of pure passion that burns in the midst of evil surroundings and lifts a little starved and beaten girl and a gentle heathen above the power of suffering and sin.

Broken Blossoms - Lillian Gish
Broken Blossoms – Lillian Gish

The entire daily press of New York unite in this opinion.

The Times : “A screen tragedy—not a movie melodrama with an unhappy ending—but a sincere human tragedy—that is what D. W. Griffith has had the courage and the capacity to produce. . . . This bare narration of the story cannot hope even to suggest the power and truth of the tragedy that Mr. Griffith has pictured. All of his mastery of picture-making, the technique which is preeminently his by invention and control, the skill and subletly with which he can unfold a story—all of the Griffith ability has gone into the making of ‘Broken Blossoms.’ Many of the pictures surpass anything hitherto seen on the screen in beauty and dramatic force.”

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

The Mail: “All of the fine skill of Mr. Griffith’s technique, all of the subtlety of his art, have answered his commands in the building of his picture drama. His story moves forward with the force and suspense of a Greek tragedy. ‘Broken Blossoms’ is the art of the photoplay revealed at the hand of the master of that art. It is Mr. Griffith’s greatest triumph.”

Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in “Broken Blossoms” (Lucy Burrows and Cheng Huan “Chinky”)

Long continued applause brought the director in front o fthe curtain at the close of the showing. After thanking the spectators for their signs of approval he informed them that for the first time in their careers Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmass and Donald Crisp, the creators of the three leading characters, had come to New York to watch the premiere of a production in which they had taken part, and were out in front.

A detailed review of “Broken Blossoms” will be printed next week.


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

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

WITHIN THE GATES, Pretentious rubbish, or A very Christian Play …

  • FLETCHER, Bramwell – Supporter actor in the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • GISH, Lillian – Leading actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • KELLEY, Harry – Leading actor of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • MORRIS, Mary – Supporting actress of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.
  • O’CASEY, Sean – Irish Playwright of the Play of the Week, “WITHIN THE GATES”.


Within The Gates (Stuart Oderman)

Back on The Boards

Sean O’Casey’s writing was a blend of “downright humor and unrestrained horror.” O’Casey, not a devotee of “contrived theatricality’s” or the formal techniques of dramaturgy, believed in scenes from the streets and their ability to be shown on the stage via good observation. Within the Gates, set in London’s Hyde Park, was a combination of realism and abstraction. Lillian played the role of a nameless character described as “Young Whore.” It would cause problems in the minds of some New York theatregoers when they read the names of the characters in their Play bill. Within the Gates did not come to New York without its pre-opening night gossip and raised eyebrows.


Photo: Lillian Gish’s costume sketch, designed for Within The Gates

The original London production had lasted one week. The British reviews called Within the Gates “anti-moral and antiChristian, with cheap irony for making the Bishop and father of the woman” (Lillian’s character). Within the Gates was dismissed as “pretentious rubbish,” and “O’Casey’s charade.” In its defense, Within the Gates was also called a very Christian play, as it attacked celibacy in the ministry, which did not exist for the first three centuries. What O’Casey was doing was “attacking a church that was unable to relate to natural, sexual energies.” Within the Gates marked a radical departure from the realism of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, which concerned itself with the uprising during Easter Week 1916 and its effect on the residents living in the tenements of Dublin. Within the Gates centered on people from the city streets, but the setting of the play was the Hyde Park section of London. The characters served as a representation, a microcosm of society: a Dreamer representing the idealists, a Bishop who is confused by some of the church’s teachings, and a Young Whore who pleads for the more vulnerable. By themselves and in groups they gravitate to the park to express themselves. There are debates and discussions about the existence or non -existence of God, and a yearning for fulfillment in religion. It all comes to an end when the Young Whore dies in her father’s (the Bishop’s) arms. O’Casey, who came to New York for the rehearsals and stayed at the Royalton Hotel (where George Jean Nathan lived in two dingy, book-cluttered, rarely cleaned rooms), often sought shelter from questions about the play in Lillian Gish’s dressing room. Often he would answer that he didn’t know what to say. He had no answer about the “plot” of the “story” of the play. The play Within the Gates, he would say, “simply is.”


While Lillian and O’Casey acknowledged that the play would not have been produced in New York if not for the efforts of George Jean Nathan, Lillian would also add that George was not the reason she was cast in the play. She had landed the part herself.


Within the Gates opened at New York’s National Theatre on October 22, 1934. It was received with respect by a divided press,32 but a press that was generally kinder and more tolerant than the original London reviewers. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, perhaps in anticipation of a public who might attack the play on grounds without ever having seen it, opened his review by announcing his intention in the first sentence: “Let us face this thing boldly. Sean O’Casey has written a great play.”


No mention was made of the play’s problems since its inception, or the controversy and discussions that had taken place in London prior to the New York production starring Lillian. Within the Gates … [is] a testament to Mr. O’Caseys abiding faith in life. Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays …. This is a great play. There is iron in its bones and blood in its veins and lustre in its flesh, and its feet rest on the good brown earth. In fact it is a humbling job to write about a dynamic drama like Within the Gates.


Lillian came in for special praise: As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish give the performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.

It was a dream review for the actress Lillian Gish and the playwright Sean O’Casey. Yet the prospects of a successful touring production were bleak. Early reactions centering on the handling of the relationship between the Bishop and the Young Whore, and the alleged anti-Catholic bias, made the likelihood of audience acceptance in less cosmopolitan cities very remote. That the play was banned in Boston was a fait accompli, and perhaps a portent of things to come. Recalled Lillian about the Boston mayor’s action: Theatre people used to say when a play was banned in Boston before it came to New York it meant that producers had a possible hit on their hands because the newspapers would give it free publicity, and some nontheatregoers might want to see it out of curiosity.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

To ban a play in Boston after it had been in New York for over 100 performances sometimes had an adverse effect. Plays on the road sometimes could recoup the losses in New York. In the case of Within the Gates, it might not attract a Boston audience willing to go into the suburbs. We didn’t want to lose money. Strange Interlude was banned, but it found an audience because of its notoriety. It was different. It was a novelty because of the dinner hour intermission. Within the Gates had a conventional length, but it had other problems because of the portrayal of the Bishop. If any member of the clergy were depicted as anything but sacrosanct and inviolable, there were grounds for demonstrations and protests. The Bishop in Within the Gates fathered an illegitimate child.


American literature certainly wasn’t without its book-banning and even book-burning in some areas the United States. Hawthorne’s [The] Scarlet Letter had it problems. Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware [1896] was considered immoral. Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry was denounced from the pulpits. Those ministers and preachers were Protestant! The Bishop in O’Casey’s Within the Gates was an Irish Catholic! Boston had a significant Irish Catholic population and Within the Gates was a very Catholic play. Attacking or questioning or challenging the legitimacy or validity of the policies within the Catholic Church wasn’t permitted or even tolerated. The Church was infallible. That O’Casey would even hint or suggest that anything in the Church was immoral was out of the question. Did O’Casey think this kind of questioning would be tolerated in the United States? Had anybody in Boston known Sean O’Casey wasn’t a Catholic, but and Irish Protestant and a Communist … ? The playwright’s wife, Eileen O’Casey, believed the play might have been accepted in Boston if the Mayor had seen the Bishop the was Sean O’Casey had created him: a symbol, and part of the fantasy of the play. Within the Gates, after a Philadelphia engagement, returned to New York for an additional 40 performances, making a total run 141 performances. Its success was more artistic than commercial.

Chapter – Back on The Boards

Lillian Gish, A Life on Stage and Screen – By Stuart Oderman

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Charles Affron)

Before rehearsals of The Joyous Season began, George Jean Nathan had asked Lillian to read Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates. O’Casey’s New York champion, Nathan was actively involved in the play’s production. Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, which had established O’Casey’s reputation in New York in the 1920s, had nevertheless not won him a wide audience. A failure in its London engagement, the expressionistic and symbolic Within the Gates would have had even less chance of commercial success had it not become something of a scandal. The principal female character is known only as The Young Whore. Down on her luck, dying of a heart ailment, she is the illegitimate daughter of the Bishop, who struggles with the Dreamer for possession of her soul. As O’Casey describes her, “You have read a little, but not enough; you have thought a little, but not enough; you are deficient in self-assurance, and are too generous and sensitive to be a clever whore, and your heart is not in the business.” The New York papers had trouble even mentioning “The Young Whore.” Some called her “harlot.” The Herald Tribune removed the character’s name from the cast but left the star’s name in first position, billing it “with Miss Lillian Gish as the leading player.” The New York American referred to her as “A Young Girl Who Has Gone Astray.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

A striking photograph by Edward Steichen shows Lillian in character, sprawled on the ground, her stockings ripped, her hair disheveled, her hat awry, looking anxiously over her shoulder. But, lest her public forget her true nature, Lillian interrupted her stint as The Young Whore by making a guest appearance, pantomiming The Queen of Heaven in a holiday staging of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Within the Gates opened on October 22, 1934, and its run of one hundred performances far exceeded that of any other O’Casey play in New York. The success was such that a tour was planned, from Philadelphia to Chicago, Toronto, and Boston. The play received an enormous boost in publicity when it was banned in Boston and Toronto. Bostonians wishing to see the play in New York could profit from a special weekend trip that included train fare, hotel accommodations, and an orchestra seat. Forty-four of them, including the Boston critics, took advantage of the deal. “Mr. Melvin of the Transcript, thought it ‘a very intersting play.’ Mr. Gaffney of the Advertiser, saw ‘nothing irreligious or immoral about it.’ Miss Hughes, of the Herald, called it ‘very different and extremely interesting.’ Mr. Cook, of the Harvard Dramatic Club, was ‘very much moved by it.’ ” On the strength of the notoriety, after an abbreviated tour, Within the Gates returned to New York for forty additional performances.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Even those reviewers critical of O’Casey’s play were enthusiastic about its star. She finally converted her nemesis Richard Lockridge. “The Lillian Gish of the old, over-praised days would have had not the faintest idea how to begin; the playing of today’s Miss Gish is the one certain satisfaction of the play.” John Mason Brown asserted that she brought “a new strength—yes, a new and much deeper voice—to a part that abounds in difficulties.” Bosley Crowther rhapsodized: “Let us face this thing boldly, Sean O’Casey has written a great play in Within the Gates. … As the tortured young woman, Lillian Gish gives a performance instinct with the spirit of the drama. Never did an actress play a part with more sincerity or deeper comprehension.” The direction of Within the Gates was entrusted to actor Melvyn Douglas, who would, soon thereafter resume his career in Hollywood (he had already costarred with Garbo and would again in her last two movies), where he became a popular leading man, in addition to being a superb actor.

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Douglas clashed with Nathan over the staging of Within the Gates. “In retrospect Nathan probably was concerned about striking a safe, commercial note, a consideration I later concluded was rarely far from his consciousness.” Douglas’s only “problem with Miss Gish was trying to get her to be heard beyond the second row. The two of us had many talks about it, and I kept sitting farther and farther back in the auditorium saying, T can’t hear you, Miss Gish. I can’t hear you/ On opening night she was suddenly as clear as a bell and could easily be heard at the back of the house. She fully deserved her excellent notices.” Within the Gates marked the beginning of Lillian’s long friendship with Sean O’Casey. When she met O’Casey during rehearsals, on November 18, 1934, she thought him “a god-like man.” Their lively correspondence lasted until the playwright’s death in 1964.

Lillian Gish – Her Legend, Her Life (By Charles Affron)

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

Within The Gates (Lillian Gish)

George Jean Nathan considered Sean O’Casey and Eugene O’Neill the greatest playwrights in the world. George wrote a great deal about O’Casey and was disappointed when his play Within the Gates closed after a week’s run in London. But he helped to bring the play over to the United States. I was grateful to George for doing this, although he was not responsible for my getting the role of the Young Whore in the production. O’Casey came to this country for the rehearsals. During the first few months of production, he spent most of his time in my dressing room. “I can’t stay out there,” he would say, gesturing toward the lobby, his eyes twinkling behind their heavy glasses. “They keep asking me what my play is about, and I don’t know what to tell them.”


George arranged for him to stay at the Royalton Hotel, his own headquarters. O’Casey brought so few possessions—a few shirts, socks, and underwear—that he would put one sock in one drawer and its partner in another drawer. He seemed to own only the brown suit and cap that he wore. He spoke with an Irish lilt, and it was a joy to listen to the poetry in his speech. He was fascinated by electric gadgets, amazed by the different ways in which one could switch on a light—push, pull, twist, turn. He would go about, trying them all like a child. His poetic turn of mind evidently appealed to our audiences, for the play ran in New York for six months. When we left to go on tour, word came to us in Philadelphia that the play had been banned in Boston.

A short time later O’Casey wrote me:

The last performance must have been a strange experience and I should have given a lot to be there, though not so much as I should have given to be present when the ban was declared in Boston. I got a whole pile of correspondence about it, and a lot of press-cuttings, but these couldn’t give the thrill I’d have got from standing and hitting out in the center of the fight. Though the ban caused some excitement and a lot of talk, I should have preferred the tour and it is a pity that the Jesuits of Boston were able to stop it.

He added:

Let me thank you, Lillian, for a grand and a great performance; for your gentle patience throughout the rehearsals, and for the grand way you dived into the long and strenuous part of “The Young Whore.”

The beautifully bound copy of Within the Gates that rests in my library has this inscription:

In Remembrance of Things Past, of this play’s production and performance When we all, at least, battled together for the return of some of the great things that belong to Drama A bad thing well done can never feel success; A good thing well done can never feel failure.

With love,

Sean O’Casey

(Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me)

The Play of The Week - Within The Gates
The Play of The Week – Within The Gates

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Will the Churches Defeat Censorship? By Frances Rule (Picture Play Magazine 1926)

Picture Play Magazine (August 1926)

Will the Churches Defeat Censorship?

Formerly hostile to the movies, many of them are changing their attitude, and the Federal Council of Churches is now actively cooperating with the producers, advising them how to handle certain difficult themes in a way that will meet with the approval of the churches.

By Frances Rule

The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer officials were in a quandary. In quest of a suitable starring- vehicle for Lillian Gish, they had been considering- “The Scarlet Letter.” As film material for Miss Gish, it seemed ideal—there was no question about that. Hawthorne’s poignant tale of the tragedy of Hester Prynne was peculiarly well suited to the “Bernhardt of the screen.” It had the added advantage of being a well-known and revered classic of American literature.


Last, and by no means least, it was a tale that Miss Gish had long wished to do on the screen. ” Yet the Metro-Goldwyn officials hesitated. For the story deals with adultery—and not in a way that might be glossed over. The breaking of the seventh commandment, and the terrible consequences thereof in a Puritanical community is the sole theme of the book. Hester, a young married woman, bears a child, which—as her husband has long been absent —is obviously illegitimate. She is punished by the Puritan authorities by being forced to wear a red letter “A” on the bosom of her gown for the remainder of of her life, and is scorned and shunned by her fellow townsfolk. She refuses to reveal the identity of the father of her child, and so the young clergyman who was her guilty lover is enabled to continue as the idol of his flock, suffering with her through the years, yet concealing his guilt because of his desire to continue hi- work in the parish. His identity as the father of the child is revealed only at his death, when there is found branded on his breast a letter A, similar to the one which Hester has been obliged to wear openly.


Had there not been so many excellent reasons for using this story, its subject matter might have prevented it from being considered. For producers appreciate the feelings and wishes of the conservative forces throughout the country. Not only was there the stumbling block of adultery in the story, but the ignoble part played by the minister was yet another deterring consideration, similar to the one which has prevented “Rain” from being filmed.


During one of the conferences when the story was being discussed by the men who wanted to produce it, it was suggested that the best possible way out of the difficulty would be to put the question directly before the Federal Council of Churches, and to abide by their decision. That’s just what was done, and with a most gratifying outcome. The Council and the producers were finally able to agree on a method of presentation satisfactory to both parties, and the result is that you will see the picture next season. Yet the agreement was not arrived at without disagreements and difficulties along the way. Doctor George Reid Andrews, head of the Council’s Committee on Drama, and his associates at first disapproved of the manner in which the film company wished to present the story. In fact, a deadlock was reached, and the conference was for the time being adjourned. At their next meeting, Doctor Andrews had gathered together not only the Council’s regular Committee on Drama, but also a group of the broadest-minded clergymen within the vicinity of New York, where the conferences were being held. The discussion was renewed. The producers again presented their ideas of how the story should be filmed. The church contingent again made criticisms. “But why shouldn’t it be treated as a sex story?” the film people insisted. “For that’s what it is.”


“Ah, but no,” said Doctor Andrews. “It is not a sex story—not as Hawthorne has written it. Bear in mind that when the tale opens, the child is already three months old, and only the barest hint is given of what has gone before. Hawthorne was interested, not so much in the motive of the act, nor in the act itself, but in the consequences of the act.”


“But when you tell a story in pictures,” said a Metro-Goldwyn official, “you have to use different methods from those used in writing a book or a play. You can’t, for instance, explain everything that has gone before just in subtitles—that would be flat—you must insert some scenes that present very graphically to your audiences just what has happened, so that they can appreciate the full meaning of the rest of the story. That’s why we think it’s necessary to open ‘The Scarlet Letter’ earlier than Hawthorne did, and to show the gradual development and final culmination of the love affair between Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale.”


The churchmen considered this and agreed that it was true that the movies were different from other mediums of expression, and were more dependent on graphic explanations of situations or conditions. “But,” they said, “there is no need to be lurid about it, nor to emphasize the sex element too strongly. Show a few explanatory love scenes, if you will, between Hester and the young minister, but do it gently and delicately, or you will mar the spirit and the dignity of the original story.”


And so, they finally came to an agreement as to just what the early scenes of the film should consist of, and just how Hester’s disgrace was to be explained. Then there arose other points to be discussed and decided upon. The producers wished, for instance, to change Hester’s character somewhat. As depicted by Hawthorne, she is a very emotional but very dignified and reserved woman. Metro-Goldwyn, in order to bring out a strong contrast between the stern Puritans and herself, and to make it seem that she really was out of place in such a strict community, wanted to make her, at the outset of the story, a very lively, jolly sort of girl, quite different, really, from Hawthorne’s idea of her.

Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne's partner in adultery
Gish, Hanson and Joyce Coad as Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Pearl in the 1926 motion picture The Scarlet Letter. In this scene Dimmesdale reveals himself to be Prynne’s partner in adultery in front of a crowd of vengeful puritans. (Photo by John Springer CollectionCORBIS)

And Doctor Andrews and his colleagues acquiesced to this. There was no harm that they could see in doing it, and if the change would make the movie more effective, let it be made. The outline for the complete scenario, as finally agreed upon by this joint conference of clergymen and movie producers, departs very little from Hawthorne’s story. There is the earlier opening, of course, and a few other changes were made, but most of them were minor. “But,” said Doctor Andrews, in reviewing the proceedings not long ago, “a few insignificant alterations here and there don’t make any difference. The main point is to preserve the spirit, the great spirit, of the story as a whole, and that, I believe, has been done—or at least, a sincere attempt has been made to do so. As I said before, it is not primarily a sex story—it is a beautiful love tale, a tale of two human beings struggling with a problem that has remained unsolved down through the ages.


And I believe that Lillian Gish is the very person to give to the role of Hester Prynne the spiritual treatment that it should be given.” After the scenario had been written, it was again submitted to the Council of Churches for approval. Then, and not till then, was the actual production of the film finally begun. And when it was completed, these representatives of the church were once more called upon to pass judgment, this time on the film itself. Now it is ready for release, in a form entirely sanctioned by a group of prominent churchmen of all denominations. It still has to face the censors—they have the power, if they want, to ban it, but are they likely to, under the circumstances ?

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Thus have the movies and the churches been getting together, and this is not the only case in which they have done it. Doctor Andrews and his Committee on Drama had a hand in the making of “The Vanishing American,” and of “Thank You,” and of numerous other prominent films. In -fact, they have been consulted on one production or another by every one of the big movie companies. And this unusual cooperation, which has been going on for well over a year, is as much to the advantage of the church as to the film producers. Take the case of “The Vanishing American,” for instance. As it was originally written by Zane Grey, a missionary among the Indians was the villain of the story—and a very wicked villain, at that. “But,” said Doctor Andrews, when Famous Players came to consult him as to how the story should be filmed, “missionaries as a whole are not of that type. There are, of course, rare cases of villains among them, but they are exceptional. So that if you filmed ‘The Vanishing American’ as it stands, you would be creating a false impression.” And so, at his instigation, the plot of “The Vanishing American” was so completely changed that the man who was a wicked missionary became a girl school-teacher who was the heroine of the film—-played, by the way, by Lois Wilson. Similarly, changes were made in “Thank You” and “What Happened to Jones” so as to give a more accurate picture of conditions in the church and among the ministry. The cooperation between the movies and the churches was carried on very quietly at first, while it was still uncertain just how it was going to work out, but the results thus far have been so highly satisfactory, and so beneficial to both sides, that there is now an informal agreement between the Will Hays organization and the Council of Churches that whenever a film is to be produced that involves a religious question, or affects the churches in the slightest way, the dramatic committee of the Council will be consulted by the producing company before ever the script is written—and afterward, too. With such harmonious relations established between the church and the movies, and growing ever more strongly cemented, what will become of censorship? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, when you go to the movies, it may be interesting to bear in mind that, just as likely as not, ministers have helped to give you the film that you are enjoying.

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

INTOLERANCE (Griffith Wark, 1916) Selected Film Criticism

Selected Film Criticism

INTOLERANCE (Griffith Wark, 1916)

  • Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 11, No. 1 (December 1916), pages 77-81.
  • Frederick James Smith in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 76, No. 1969 (September 16,1916), page 22.

The metropolitan critics who preceded me in learned discourse upon Mr. Griffith’s sun-play, Intolerance, shot away all the superlatives which were our common property. Thus deprived of the communal ammunition I must lay about me with a week-day set of words and present facts garnished neither with rhapsody nor raillery.

Intolerance is a collective story of the penalties paid through the centuries to those who do not believe as we believe.” It occupied its maker’s entire attention for at least a year and a half.

Intolerance (Triangle, 1916). Fine. Program 2

Both the notion and the generalship are his. Intolerance is more than the world’s biggest photoplay. In size and scope it is the biggest art-work of any description in a decade.

Here is a joy-ride through history; a Cook’s tour of the ages; a college education crammed into a night. It is the most incredible experiment in story-telling that has ever been tried. Its uniqueness lies not in a single yarn, but in the way its whole skein of yarns is plaited.

Its distinct periods are four: Babylon, at the end of the regency of Prince Belshazzar; Judea, in the time of Christ; France under the inquisitorial high tide of St. Bartholomew’s; and the American Now, with the intolerances of capital, labor, and the courts.

None of these tales runs straightaway. You stand in medieval France and slip on the banana-peel of retrogression to Chaldea. You are sure America has you — a wink has aviated you back to Palestine. It is much like listening to a quartette of excellent elocutionists simultaneously reading novels by Arnold Bennett, Victor Hugo, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Elinor Glyn.

Any of these carnivorous legends would fang you emotionally if you were left long enough in its cage. But just as it is about to bite, out you come, slam goes the door, and you are thrust among the raveners of another century.

There has never been such scenery, anywhere, as the edifices reared for the Babylonian episode.

Pictorially, the greatest filmings are the Judean scenes, perfect in composition, ideal in lighting, every one in effect a Tissot painting of the time of Christ.

The Chaldean visions will teach history to college professors.

Altogether, the accuracy and authority of Intolerance’s historic information is stupendous.

Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl - Intolerance)
Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl – Intolerance)

The finest individual acting accomplishments are Mae Marsh’s. The unique figure is Constance Talmadge, as The Mountain Girl; the most poignantly beautiful, Seena Owen, as Altarea, favorite of Belshazzar. But there are no male assumptions even approaching the chief portrayals in The Birth of a Nation.

Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith - Intolerance
Mae Marsh, Billy Bitzer and DW Griffith – Intolerance

Mr. Bitzer’s photography, devoid of anything sensational, flows like the transparent, limpid style of a finished writer. It is without tricks, and without imperfections.

An attempt to assimilate the mountainous lore of this sun-play at a sitting results in positive mental exhaustion. The universally- heard comment from the highbrow or no-brow who has tried to get it all in an evening: “I am so tired!”


Profoundest of symbols is the Rocking Cradle — “uniter of here and hereafter” — which joins the episodes. This mysterious ark of life, the stuff of a dream in the dimness of its great shadowed room, almost belongs to infinity. Lillian Gish is the brooding mother.

The music is sadly inefficient–the most inefficient music a big picture ever had.

Thousands upon thousands of feet of this photoplay never will be seen by the public. In the taking, this story rambled in every direction, and D. W. G. relentlessly and recklessly pursued each ramble to its end. At least half a dozen complete minor stories were cut off before the picture was shown at all.


In all probability, Intolerance will never attain the popularity of The Birth of a Nation. It has not that drama’s single, sweeping story. It appeals more to the head, less to the heart.

Intolerance - set
Intolerance – set

Babylon is the foundation-stone, and seems to have been the original inspiration, of this visual Babel. Its mighty walls, its crowds, its army, have won many long-drawn “Ahs!” of sky-rocket admiration. But these were not essentially Griffith–anyone with money can pile up mobs and scenery. Mr. Griffith’s original talent appears in recreating the passions, the ambitions, the veritable daily life of a great people so remote that their every monument is dust, their every artwork lost, their very language forgotten. This is more than talent; it is genius.


You were taught that the Jewish Jehovah traced destruction’s warning in letters of fire on the wall of Belshazzar’s palace; and that Cyrus, to get in, drained the Euphrates river and walked on its bed under Babylon’s gates. See this picture and get the facts. Babylon was peacefully betrayed by the priests of Marduk long after it had successfully withstood as frenzied a siege as the Persian conqueror could bring.

Not content with rearing the vast barriers and marvelous gates you have seen illustratively reproduced in these pages, the California necromancer showed life as it ran its slender course among the poor more than twenty-five centuries ago. Always of this undercurrent is The Mountain Girl, a wild, wonderful little creature, to be followed from semi-slavery through the civic courts to the marriage market, where she is released by an impress from the roll-seal Belshazzar has strapped upon his wrist. Thereafter she is, to the death, a sweet Amazon in the service of her great Sar. The camp of Cyrus, with the “Institution” of the Medes and Persians, is as instructive as a West-Asiatic history. The attack upon Babylon, with its terrible towers, its demoniac “tank” of Greek fire– flaming prophecy of the Somme juggernauts!–its ferocious personal encounters, is unparalleled in battle spectacles. Behold the vivid though perhaps dubious realism of gushy close-ups on sword-thrusts. Heads literally fly off above shearing swords, hot lead sears, rocks crush, arrows pierce horridly–and withal there is the unconquerable animation and fury of ultimate conflict.

Otherwheres, the sensuous glory of the Chaldean court. No brush-master has painted more Oriental splendors than those boasted by the golden bungalow of Nabonidus, quaint father of the virile voluptuary, Belshazzar. Beauty blooms in wildest luxuriance in this New York of the Euphrates. The dances of Tammuz, god of springtime, flash forth in breath-taking nudity and rhythm as frank as meaningful. They are flashes, only; that is why they remain in the picture. One cannot imagine a more beautiful thing than Seena Owen as Attarea–veritable star of the East. The tiny battle-chariot with its cargo of a great white rose, drawn down the table to Altarea’s Belshazzar by two white doves, chances to remain the only untouched thing in the palace of death which Cyrus enters. There is pathos! Tully Marshall as the High Priest of Bel, Elmer Clifton as the Rhapsode, George Siegmann as Cyrus–three players who are especially redoubtable.


The magical David pounds his points home by contrast. From the solemn grandeur of Ishtar’s high altar, with its costly burnt offering of propitiation, he flashes to an aged widow offering her all to the same deity–three turnips and a carrot, covered with a little oil.

Intolerance the french story

The France which our film – etcher rears for the massacre of St. Bartholomew is as fine a France as Stanley Weyman pictured in words. Griffith spares neither exactness nor feeling. With delicate touches he builds up keen interest in the home of Brown Eyes — then slaughters the whole family. Wonderful characters here are Josephine Crowell’s Catherine de Medici; and Charles IX, as played by Frank Bennett.

Intolerance Massacre Medici

Much has been taken from the Judean scenes, but so much remains to hail as optic poetry that the loss is negligible. I can think of nothing finer in the handling of light, nor in the massing and moving of figures, than the “marriage in Cana.” More education! The complete wedding rite, with its odd observances according to Hebrew tradition, is a transcription from Minor Asia such as one cannot find outside the pages of Josephus. Stirringly dramatic, yet faithful to the letter of the gospels, is the scene in which Jesus faces those who would stone the woman taken in adultery. There is a scene of The Christ laughing, conversing, supping, interchanging views–a man among men. And there is the Via Dolorosa.

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)

The modern story is, among other things and preachments, an attack upon the arrogance of “Foundations, ” and that tyranny of some organized charities which makes their favored more victims than beneficiaries. In its essence, the modern tale seems to me a dull, commonplace movie melodrama. In it Mr. Griffith seems to lose his perspective of character. He makes commonplace types and personifications, not his usual creatures: thinking, feeling men and women.

Intolerance The Dear One

Mae Marsh and Robert Harron portray victims of poverty, lack of education and evil surrounding. Both are driven from the home town by strike participation. The boy turns cadet–eventually reforms to marry Mae. His underworld master, “The Musketeer of the Slums, ” frames him criminally for this desertion, and, in the language of the caption, he is “intolerated away for awhile.” In the interim, the Musketeer endeavors to “make” the boy’s wife, who has lost her baby to intolerant uplifters. In the grand encounter of Musketeer, Musketeer’s girl, boy and wife, the monster is shot, the boy is blamed though the mistress did it, and the capital sentence is carried out–nearly, but not quite–in the perfect gallows- technique of San Quentin penitentiary.

Mae Marsh Portrait

Best in the modern spectacle are not the dull details of thing that happen, but the lifelike performances of those to whom they happen. Mae Marsh’s flirtation in court with her husband as the jury deliberates his life away–she a scared, drab little figure of piteous noncomprehension–here is a twittering smile more tragic than the orotund despairs of Bernhardt. Miriam Cooper, as the Musketeer’s mistress, gives an overwhelming pastel of jealousy and remorse. All actresses who honestly provide for home and baby by the business of vamping and gunning, would do well to observe Miss Cooper’s expressions and gestures. Miss Cooper is police dock– she is blotter transcript. Her face is what you really see some nights under the green lamps. Harron is ideal as the boy, and Walter Long, as the Musketeer, approaches but does not equal his performance of Gus, in The Birth of a Nation.

Intolerance - Modern Story Set
Intolerance – Modern Story Set

Spades are not once termed garden implements in this sector nor are the kisses paternal or platonic.

In this stupendous chaos of history and romance the lack of a virile musical score is the chief tragedy. Proper melody would have bound the far provinces of this loose empire of mighty imagina tion into a strong, central kingdom.

I wish Mr. Griffith had worked out a whole evening of his great Babylonian story. Sticking to this alone, he would have added an art-product to literature as enduring as Flaubert’s Salammbo.

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

If I may predict: he will never again tell a story in this manner. Nor will anyone else. The blue sea is pretty much where it was when the sails of the Argonauts bellied tight in the winds of a morning world, and so are the people who live in the world. Still we wish to follow, undisturbed, the adventures of a single set of characters, or to thrill with a single pair of lovers. Verily, when the game is hearts two’s company, and the lovers of four ages an awful crowd.

–Julian Johnson in Photoplay, Vol. 11, No. 1 (December 1916), pages 77-81.

* * *

It is easy enough, as you catch your breath at the conclusion of Intolerance, to indulge in trite superlatives. Film reviewing has been over superlatived. But this new Griffith spectacle marks a milepost in the progress of the film. It reveals something of the future of the spectacle, something of its power to create pictures of tremendous and sweeping beauty, drama, and imagination. The future will come when the great writer unites with the great producer.

Intolerance Babylonian Set
Intolerance Babylonian Set

Intolerance, of course, instantly challenges comparison, by reason of its creator, with The Birth of a Nation. One is the dramatization of a novel, a gripping, even thrilling visualization of a story dealing with a theme of national interest–our own Civil War. On the other hand, Intolerance is the screening of an idea. That alone places it as an advance.

Intolerance – DW Griffith

The Screening of an Idea

Mr. Griffith sought a theme which has traced itself through history. He advances the proposition that humanity’s lack of tolerance of opinion and speech has brought about the world’s woes.

Taking four periods of history, he traces the working out of this idea. We have, perhaps, come to assume that our own age is one of singular meddling and busy-bodyism. But Mr. Griffith points out that the thing has been the same through the ages.

Intolerance - GOLGOTA
Intolerance – GOLGOTA

Briefly, the periods depicted revolve around the fall of Babylon in 538 B. C., the coming of the Nazarene and the birth of the Christian era, the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s day in France during the reign of Charles IX, and the present day. Mr. Griffith, of course, handles his four plots at one time. The threads are interwoven. The moments dealing with the life of Christ, it may be noted here, are brief, being in reality rich tableaux of the persecution of the Saviour. Griffith has endeavored to humanize Christ. These moments are handled with reverence, dignity, and beauty of picture. Indeed, there are moments worthy of Tissot. Once, oddly, the director attains a singular effect of a shadow cross upon the figure of Christ.

wg bitzaer and dw griffith -intolerance

DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)
DW Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Dorothy Gish (background left)

The modern theme of Intolerance has a Western town as its locale. The owner of a factory reduces wages that he may make extended–and widely heralded–contributions to charity. A strike devastates the town and the workers are forced to move away. The boy and the girl of the story, now married in the city, still remain the playthings of intolerance. The boy is sent to prison for a crime he never committed. In his absence the baby is taken away from the mother by a charitable society. The boy, on returning, becomes innocently involved in a murder and, through his criminal record, is convicted. The story finally races to a climax when, as the execution is about to take place, the wife, aided by a kindly policeman, hurries to the governor with the confession of the real murderer. They miss the executive, who has taken a train. The policeman commandeers a racing car and they speed after the express. The execution is stopped just as the death trap is to be sprung.

Spectacle’s Appeal Lies in Babylonian Story

The principal appeal of Intolerance, however, lies in the Babylonian story. Here we see Belshazzar ruling Babylon with his father, Nabonidus. He is a kindly, generous monarch–as kings in those days went–but the high priest of Bel resents his religious tolerance. So, when Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, attacks the walled city, the priest betrays Babylon. So the city falls, after a mighty battle such as never before had been conceived in mimicry.

Mr. Griffith has reconstructed the city of Babylon–according to authentic records and researches, we are told by the programme and we may well believe. The city, with its great walls, three hundred feet high and big enough on top for two war chariots to pass, its temples, its lofty halls, its slave marts, and its streets, lives again, seething with life. The attack upon Babylon is handled on a tremendous scale. We are shown Cyrus’s camp in the desert sands. Then we see his cohorts, his barbarians from distant lands, his war chariots, his elephants, his great moving towers, advance upon Babylon. Great catapults hurl rocks upon the defenders. Moulten lead is thrown from the walls. Showers of arrows fall.


One great siege tower, black with fighting men, is toppled over and goes crashing to the ground. Ladders, manned by warriors, are flung down. So the battle goes a day and a night. Treason finally gives over Babylon, in the midst of a great bacchanial feast of victory.

This theme is unfolded with Mr. Griffith’s fine skill in handling hundreds and thousands of men. There is a certain personal note in the spectacle. Belshazzar, his favorite, Attarea, the boisterous little mountain girl who loves the king from afar, and the crafty priest of Bel are finely humanized. The tremendous applause at Intolerance’s premiere, occasioned when Babylon first fought off the invaders, was a vital compliment to the skill of the producer.


One forgot that, with the fall of the city, fell the Semitic race, and that ever afterwards the Aryan people controlled the affairs of civilization.


Huguenot Theme Least Compelling

The final, and least compelling, theme deals with Catherine de Medici and her instigation of the massacre of the Huguenots in Paris in 1572 under the cloak of religion. The personal side of the story deals with two Huguenot lovers, victims of the cruel religious persecution. This theme has been carefully staged, in the bigness of its court interiors, the depth of its street scenes, and its handling of the ruthless massacre.

The defense of Babylon brings the first half of Intolerance to a big climax, while the last portion is largely given over to the climax of the modern plot thread. Finally, we are shown the idealistic future, with two armies racing to meet each other, only to throw down their arms and clasp hands. This is banal, of course, but Mr. Griffith intends it to weave the themes together and point to the future, when tolerance will make war and all evils impossible.

A certain symbolical note is touched by frequent, half shadowy, glimpses of a woman rocking a cradle. Mr. Griffith gives programme explanation of the symbolism: “Through all these ages Time brings forth the same passions, the same joys and sorrows, the same hopes and anxieties–symbolized by the cradle ‘endlessly rocking.’ “

Intolerance - The End Scene
Intolerance – The End Scene

The Construction of the Four Plot Threads

Intolerance, let us sum up once more, stands at the outpost of the cinema’s advance. It has an idea. It has a purpose. From a structural standpoint, the handling and weaving of four plots are revolutionary. There is never a moment’s lack of clarity. Each story sweeps to its climax. Since the interest is divided, it would be reasonable to assume that the dramatic interest might, too, be divided. But the grip of Intolerance, to our way of thinking, surpasses The Birth of a Nation. Power, punch, and real thrills are there–thrills to equal the preceding Griffith spectacle. Its themes are overtopped by spectacular trappings, dwarfing them in a meas¬ ure. The modern story, in its melodramatic present dayedness, seems a bit below the key of the historical divisions. It is lurid, even conventional, in its final working out. But, in its early moments, it points a caustic finger upon certain phases of modern charity, particularly upon the salaried uplifter. And it is the one vigorous story of the spectacle.

Griffith makes his point in Intolerance. There are obvious moments, moments a bit overdone, lapses to banality, but, on the whole, Intolerance is a mighty thing. Its spectacular appeal is certain.

Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) - The Cradle Endlessly Rocking
Lillian Gish in Intolerance (1916) – The Cradle Endlessly Rocking

The musical arrangement of Joseph Carl Breil has impressive moments. There is no strain, however, to equal the barbaric African theme, which ran through The Birth of a Nation.

The production has been awaited for new methods of plot handling and production. The mingling of four themes of different periods, told in parallel form, has not been tried before. It was a daring experiment. The method of blending the plots, switching from one to the other, is adroitly done. It will have its effect upon coming productions.

The Production

The spectacle, a number of times reveals close-ups of characters’ faces which occupy the whole screen. Sometimes these advance in the camera eye to full screen size. It is an effective way of driving home the dramatic mood of the scene.

We find Griffith making his usual frequent and effective use of detail, as in the flashes of the doves in the shadows of the house as Christ passes, the close-ups of the Hebrews in the Judean streets, the page boy half asleep in French court, and the modern girl tending her pitiful little geranium in her tenement room.

Skillful use is made of camera tricks in handling the seeming hurling of soldiers from the Babylonian walls. We apparently see them strike the ground in front of the camera.

Care has been taken with the sub-titles. The bombastic captions of The Birth of a Nation are absent. Some humor and much historical information are to be found in the sub-captions of Intolerance.

The camera work everywhere is beautifully artistic. We recall, for instance, nothing in screen production more striking than the episode of Christ and the woman taken in adultery.

Cast of Intolerance Long and Able

The cast of principals is long and able. Mae Marsh stands pre-eminent for her touching playing of the girl of the modern story. Seena Owen makes a striking and unforgettable figure as Attarea, the favorite of Belshazzar. She lends genuine appeal to the picturesque role. Constance Talmadge gives buoyancy and spirit to the mountain girl. Miriam Cooper sounds a certain poignant note as a modern girl wrecked on the wheel of sordid city life. Margery Wilson has opportunity to reveal little more than prettiness as the Huguenot heroine.

Robert Harron makes the most of his role of the boy of the modern story, almost a victim on the altar of modern intolerance.


Alfred Paget’s playing of Belshazzar has nobility and humanness. Tully Marshall makes the High Priest of Bel sinister and clean cut.

INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget - Belshazzar
INTOLERANCE Alfred Paget – Belshazzar

There are scores of slender roles well done. Prominent among these is the huge faithful warrior of Elmo Lincoln, who dies fighting for his king against hopeless odds. The kindly policeman of the modern story, done by Tom Wilson, stands out. Louis Romaine gives realism to the prison chaplain.

INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team
INTOLERANCE constructors and carpenters team

All in all, Intolerance is a stupendous production. It has the romance of four civilizations.

–Frederick James Smith in The New York Dramatic Mirror, Vol. 76, No. 1969 (September 16, 1916), page 22.

Intolerance advert2

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Motion Picture Classic 1926 – Letters to “King Dodo”

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish
Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Motion Picture Classic – June, 1926

Letters to “King Dodo” By Don Ryan and Frederick James Smith


Dear Majesty:

In my last epistle I had the honor to comment to Your Majesty upon the bizarre  practice in moviedom of altering the intention of a play in order to escape censorship. Better not make it, at all, you would think—but the producers believe they must have the play for its name. The Puritan thread which runs thru American life is evidently just as tough as it was in the days of the Salem witchcraft. There always has been, of course, plenty of opposition. But Your Majesty could never guess the quarter from which the latest anti-Puritan propaganda is coming. Lillian Gish is making “The Scarlet Letter” into a picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, acting on her own initiative. Her own ancestors were New England roundheads and she always wished to reproduce Hawthorne’s masterpiece as a movie.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Hester Prynne - The Scarlet Letter (Victor Seastrom) 1926 — with Lillian Gish4.

Securely hidden, I watched the frail Lillian making a scene for the picture—the scene in which Hester Prynne meets her husband after she has been decorated with the letter of shame. I never saw so much pains being taken with any scene—and I have watched Von Stroheim at work again and again. Lillian was rehearsing her own scene apparently without any direction from Victor Seastrom, who was just sitting on the side-lines.

Italian postcard, no. 22. Publicity still for The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

But the most pains were being taken with the lights. The lights were the invention of Lillian’s own camera wizard, the former Herr Professor Hendrik Sartov, of Rotterdam. This physicist, weaned from his university, but not from his long pipe and flowing tie, was putting one band of light over Lillian’s eyes while with another arrangement he was getting rid of her cheek-bones. He is undoubtedly a monumental asset.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926 HC5Y8H
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lars Hanson, Lillian Gish, 1926

Lillian and her friends are going to make “The Scarlet Letter” without softening the hard Puritan character, I was told. It will be a lesson for the long-hairs of today, the same lesson that Griffith attempted to convey in “Intolerance” and failed magnificently in the doing. This picture begins to look like another big success for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ; and with such a bright young man as Joseph Hergesheimer for her press-agent, I see a bright future for Lillian.

Motion Picture Classic (June 1926)
Motion Picture Classic (June 1926)

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Back to Lillian Gish Home page