Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation” – By William K. Everson (1978)

American Silent Film

By William K. Everson (1978)

New York, Oxford University Press – 1978

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Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation”

Griffith’s Judith of Bethulia, made in 1913, is usually designated as the climax of his Biograph period. In fact, it is more properly a tentative beginning of his transference to the feature-length film. Because of Griffith’s eminence, film history has tended to magnify the importance of Judith of Bethulia. It has often been called the first American feature; it was neither that nor the longest American film to date. At four reels, it was still a transition film in terms of length, though admittedly, the silent speed of projection gave it a running time of about an hour.

Movies in America - Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)
Movies in America – Judith of Bethulia (Her Condoned Sin)

(This was still too long for the conservative Biograph Company, which, despite ample audience proof to the contrary, refused to believe it was commercially viable and held off its release for a year. Later, out-takes and additional titles were inserted to pad the length, and the film was reissued under the non-Biblical title The Unpardonable Sin, to cash in on the enhanced reputation of Griffith and its stars.)

As a climax to the Biograph films, Judith of Bethulia inevitably disappoints. The increasing subtleties and clarity of story-telling that had been apparent in Griffith’s last one- and two-reelers for Biograph appear to have been sacrificed almost entirely to a length that the film does not really need.

The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 b
The Battle at Elderbrush Gush Poster 1913 EU

Placed side by side with another 1913 Griffith Biograph, the two-reel The Battle of Elderhush Gulch, its inadequacies are especially apparent. Both films are in a way related, since they deal with one specific “military” engagement and its solution. But even allowing for Griffith’s greater affinity for the western, the two are miles apart in technique. The western is lean, clean-cut, and builds steadily to a climactic crescendo of excitement. The Biblical feature is confused and protracted, and since the climax is essentially a dramatic/ emotional one, the action scenes that follow it—no different from those that precede it—are merely anti-climactic. Admittedly, there are extenuating circumstances. The movie was not conceived as a feature, and Griffith’s decision to film it that way not only meant reshuffling and expanding a fairly tight continuity but working with an inadequate budget. Too, all of the exteriors were shot on drab Chatsworth locations, which gave Griffith no opportunities for dramatic use of landscape, let alone symbolic or lyrical treatment. Chatsworth has always been a convenience for Hollywood rather than an asset. Its close proximity to the studios has meant that production units could commute back and forth every day; its terrain may be dull, but it does encompass open plains, rocks, hills, trails, and a small lake. Quickie producers could shoot an entire film on its acreage without any problems. The nondescript quality of the scenery has allowed it to be used for the Old West and Old England, desolate terrain in some post-atomic age, the moon and various planets, Africa, Iron Curtain countries, and, of course, both prehistoric and Biblical terrain. From the 1950’s on, an increasing use of color spruced up the drabness somewhat, but it has always remained an uninteresting location which eventually found its true level as a background for half-hour television series. Its function, if any, was to enable good directors to film odd inserts or pickup shots that had been neglected on expensive location jaunts to more picturesque locales. It fulfilled this function for John Ford in many films, notably Stagecoach and Fort Apache.

D. W. Griffith's The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford's Straight Shooting
D. W. Griffith’s The Battle at Elderbush Gulch and John Ford’s Straight Shooting

Griffith, however, had neither color, other than toned stock, nor panchromatic film, so that to the drabness of rocky scrubland was added the gray, washed-out look of sky and horizon. The garb of the opposing armies was virtually indistinguishable, and the action scenes became Direction-less skirmishes in which identical extras were absorbed into a background of dust, rocks, and sun-dried grass and foliage. The Chatsworth location wasn’t all that was wrong with Judith of Bethulia, but it is signfficant that Griffith had rarely used it before ( and then for his prehistoric duo. Mans Genesis and Brute Force, where he obviously wanted a non-recognizably California locale) and never used it again on a major film. And just as the perfectly constructed The Battle of Elderbush Gulch might well have been spoiled had its length been doubled, so might Judith of Bethulia have been improved had its length been halved. However, it is not entirely without merit or interest. Griffith’s genius for using space and suggesting size is evident from the way a few very economical sets form a convincing walled city. Best of all is the acting—the dignified underplaying of Henry B. Walthall as Holofernes and the rich, often subtle, always passionate performance of Blanche Sweet, a performance which is valid today and deserves a better showcase but which must have seemed outstanding in its day. Judith of Bethulia certainly shows far less control and instinctive understanding of the medium than the best of Griffith’s Biograph films, but it was a useful transitional step, enabling Griffith to encounter the problems of feature length before he segued into fullscale feature production.

Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp - Biograph team
Lillian Gish Richard Barthelmess Dorothy Gish and Donald Crisp – Biograph team

With his Biograph ties severed, Griffith took G. W. Bitzer and the best of his Biograph acting troupe and moved to Hollywood, to join Reliance-Majestic. Without his leadership, the talent he attracted, and, of course, the quality of the Griffith-directed films, Biograph floundered.

They held on for a year or two by making imitation Sennett comedies and imitation Griffith melodramas—the latter often looking more like parodies—and by making a handful of films of genuine (if not particularly cinematic) interest that starred such Broadway personalities as Bert Williams. But Biograph, still refusing to explore beyond the boundaries of proven formulas, could not hope to survive indefinitely on a continuation of their one- and two-reelers. Within a year or so, the company that had once been considered the leader of the film industry became first obsolete and then extinct. Griffith’s arrival at Reliance-Majestic did not at once produce startling results.

J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith
J. Jiquel Lanoe, Dell Henderson, Charles Hill Mailes, Robert Harron, Mae Marsh and D.W. Griffith

His immediate aim was to keep the studio going and to meet the payrolls, and to do this he turned out a quartet of very presentable features utilizing Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, and Lillian Gish. All of them were better than Judith of Bethulia, and the best of them. The Avenging Conscience, a film that Seymour Stern once appropriately described as “an Edgar Allan Poe mosaic,” was quite remarkable in many ways. However, none of the four could be said to equal the best feature production of the day. Still, Griffith knew that he was marking time, and as features designed purely for commercial needs and to make an immediate profit. they were well above average standards. Perhaps of more interestnow, in retrospect, if not then—were the one- and two-reelers being produced by Griffith’s protege directors. So well did these men understand Griffith’s methods, and know what would meet with his approval, that the one-reelers seemed almost like polished extensions of the Biograph shorts, while some of the two-reelers even seemed a blueprint of elements in Griffith features yet to come. Today, it is difficult to know for sure exactly how much personal supervision on Griffith’s part was involved. If one can accept the similar period of Triangle in 1916 as a criterion, however, it is highly possible that, despite his busy schedule, Griffith did in fact find time not only to approve stories but also to involve himself in shooting and editing. It is also possible, however, that his directors were by now so skilled at making films in his image that Griffith had enough confidence in them to afford them relative autonomy, and even at times to benefit from their initiative and incorporate some of their ideas into his own work.

The Doll House Mistery
The Doll House Mistery

A good example of work by a Griffith protege is The Doll House Mystery, an unusually expert little melodrama co-directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin. On the surface, it was almost a definitive Griffith two-reeler, building suspense steadily, opening up the chase in the final sequences to include a locomotive and an automobile, and climaxing with a shoot-out in a deserted cabin, its location allowing for extensive overhead panoramic shots. Yet, unlike similar Griffith shorts, the story was not just an excuse for an exercise in excitement and editing skill. It is important in its own right, and more time than usual is spent in establishing the story and its characters before the plot gets underway. The characters, particularly a socialite wife (played by Marguerite  Marsh, Mae’s sister) and the son of an ex-convict, well played by the child actor George Stone, are far more rounded than the average protagonists of the earlier Griffith Biographs. The final chase scenes even involve some locations and specific camera placements that Griffith copied precisely in the climax to the modern segment of Intolerance. Not many of the Reliance-Majestic shorts from this period survive, but those that do are indicative of a rapidly advancing sophistication. Even the comedies, despite the proven popular appeal of Mack Sennett’s frenzied slapstick, are relatively gentle, human, and even satiric. Cupid Versus Cigarettes is not only a pleasing little comedy on its own terms but also remarkably up-to-date on two counts—as a hard-hitting if genially presented attack on the physical harm of cigarette smoking and as a staunch advocate of equal rights for women. It would be quite fair to suggest that the short films made under Griffith’s supervision at Reliance, and directed by men like the Franklins, represent some of the most sophisticated technique on view in 1914, whereas the features directed by Griffith personally in that year must be considered less advanced than those of Maurice Tourneur or Cecil B. DeMille. On the other hand, Tourneur selectively and DeMille prolifically (he directed seven full features in 1914 and was to accelerate his pace to twelve in 1915) were working at the peak of their artistic capabilities for that time. Griffith, on the other hand, worked hurriedly, efficiently, but without marked artistic inspiration in the first half of 1914, so that he could devote his full energies to The Birth of a Nation.

Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)
Lillian Gish and Donald Crisp in The Battle of the Sexes (1914)

The Battle of the Sexes was followed by The Escape, for many years now an apparently lost film. Even if Griffith used this film to mark time, it is perhaps indicative of his faith in the medium and of his over-generous estimation of audience intelligence and taste that he would have selected this story—from a Paul Armstrong play—as having commercial potential. For The Escape, despite an ultimately happy ending for two of its protagonists, is an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death—the last including both a baby ( crushed to death by its drunken father ) and a kitten. If nothing else. The Escape might well qualify as the first feature-length film noir, just as Griffith’s 1909 one-reeler In the Watches of the Night might be considered the very first foray into what is generally regarded as a filmic style of the forties.

Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home, which followed The Escape, was an all-star film—Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper, Owen Moore, Blanche Sweet, and most of the other Griffith players. It was a naively symbolic tale, too consciously striving for “meaning” and artistic pretension, a weakness that was to mar such later Griffith films as Dream Street ( 1921 ) . However, audiences liked the film far more than The Escape, and critics were kindly disposed toward its somewhat over-wrought filmic poetry. In at least three ways, the film resembled elements of the later Intolerance. It was an episodic film, its separate stories linked by a none-too-sturdy device—a much exaggerated and even falsified account of the life of John Howard Payne, writer of the lyrics of the title song.

'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921) lobby card

( In Intolerance, the titular theme was the linking device, even though the film was only partially about intolerance.) And as in Intolerance, the Mae Marsh-Robert Harron-Miriam Cooper sequence was actually planned (and even released) as a separate entity, then recalled, reshaped, and inserted into the body of a more ambitious film. The last of Griffith’s 1914 quartet. The Avenging Conscience, is one of the most fascinating and bewildering of films, by turns innovative and mature, naive and listless. Some of the usage of Poe material is justified, other material pointlessly dragged in. The film does substitute psychological tension for physical action; the ghostly apparition that accompanies the killer’s guilt pangs is smoothly done; cross-cutting for emotional suspense rather than thrill is often quite creative ( especially in a Raskolnikov /Porfiri-like encounter between a detective and the man he is sure is a murderer ) ; and at times, the film has much of the doom-laden power of the celebrated German films of the twenties. Its dream ending is quite modern, too, and much in the manner of Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944); the nightmarish story is brought to a conclusion, with all the loose ends wrapped up. The revelation that it was all a dream—a less common device in 1914—provided an appropriate sense of relief but was in no way merely a convenient resolution of an otherwise insoluble plot dilemma (as was frequently the case in melodramas in the forties). The main problem with The Avenging Conscience is its lack of cohesion and general untidiness. One would like to think that the film’s strongest element, its brooding power, is there by design. But if so, then the shortcomings of the rest of the film are inexcusable. In any event, if it is not quite the milestone film that Griffith’s admirers would like it to be, its flaws at least throw into stark relief the enormous advances made by Griffith during the latter part of 1914.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

When The Avenging Conscience premiered in New York on August 2, 1914, Griffith, Bitzer, Lillian Gish, and Mae Marsh were already at work on The Birth of a Nation. It is virtually impossible today to appreciate fully the impact that The Birth of a Nation made on audiences, on film-makers, and on both the art and industry of movies when it premiered in February 1915. So controversial has it always been because of its racial content—a controversy often artificially created and sustained—that its artistic and innovative qualities have frequently been acknowledged almost grudgingly, as a lesser asset that did not compensate for the film’s inflammatory qualities. Yet no other single film in movie history has ever done what The Birth of a Nation did : established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight, and influenced the manner of narrative story-telling in American films for at least the next six years. Griffith’s methods were not new, but prior to The Birth of a Nation they were neither understood nor considered important enough to be worth copying. The incredible financial success of the film “justified” Griffith’s techniques, and at least through the end of 1920 the film was copied (lazily) by the lesser directors and instinctively—and out of a sense of homage—by the newer and more talented directors (John Ford, Henry King).

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Probably more acting and directorial talent was nurtured among the film’s cast and crew than that of any other film, with the possible exception of Griffith’s own subsequent Intolerance. The film established and justified the practice of raised admission prices, taking the motion picture forever out of the ten-cent category. It has almost certainly become the industry’s top-grossing box-office champion. While this claim is not necessarily a criterion of artistic achievement—many of the industry’s top grossers are of singularly negligible value artistically—it is an incredible achievement for a film that was made in 1915 and has been in constant exhibition, including commercial exhibition, ever since. Admittedly, it might be a hard claim to support in terms of dollars and cents. Existing financial records can only prove a minimum income from the film, since Griffith did not have national distribution in 1915 and sold the film on a state’s rights basis. This means that records exist only on the flat or percentage payments made to Griffith for distribution rights to given territories, not on the gross income from those territories. Nevertheless, existing figures do indicate a minimum return over the years of 50 million dollars. If it were no more than that, it would be an incredible profit for a film that was estimated to cost between $65,000 and $112,000. These two figures represent production cost and the final cost up to presentation, including a substantial sum for advertising and such added niceties as a full, live orchestral score.

Movies in America - Birth of a Nation
Movies in America – Birth of a Nation

Grosses in terms of dollars mean very little anymore, when contemporary grosses are invariably inflated by the casual use of the $5 admission charge. The only fair estimate of a film’s success, in the long run, should be the number of paid admissions, an unchanging guide to a film’s popularity. On that score, there can be no question of the leadership of The Birth of a Nation. In the first six months of its release, it was seen by more people than had attended all the plays presented in the United States in the previous few years! It was this obvious competition and commercial threat that caused the theatre to hit back by coining the phrase “the legitimate stage” as a deliberate insult to the medium of film. At twelve reels, or a running time of three hours, The Birth of a Nation was at least twice as long as that of the average American feature of the day. It represented the tremendous faith of GrifiBth, who was forced to subsidize the film by raising completion money himself, when the estimated budget was depleted. Part One ( slightly more than a third of the total film ) dramatizes the events leading up to the Civil War of 1861-65 and the war itself, including the surrender of Lee and the assassination of Lincoln.

The Birth of a Nation 1915 2

Also included in this section is a prologue depicting the introduction of slavery into America in the 17th century and the rise of the Abolitionist movement 150 years later. Despite the brilHant crescendo of cross-cutting in the climax of the second half, the first half is certainly better. It is here that Griffith’s ability to humanize history is seen at its best. His story is told through the interaction between two families, one Northern and one Southern, showing the heartbreak of the Civil War in personal as well as ideological terms. The head of the Northern family, Austin Stoneman ( played by Ralph Lewis ) , is actually a thinly disguised portrait of Thaddeus Stevens, a prominent Radical Republican Congressman proponent of harsh approach to Southern Reconstruction, while such key figures as Lincoln, Lee, Grant, John Wilkes Booth and Senator Charles Sumner naturally appear under their own names. So adept is the interweaving of factual and fictional characters that it would be quite possible to edit out most of the romantic and fictional elements of the film and still be left with a virtual documentary.

Birth of a Nation Final Battle - Henry B Walthall
Birth of a Nation Final Battle – Henry B Walthall

Many of the most striking images occur in the first half: the tragedy of war is as poignantly portrayed by a single shot of a dead soldier, half curled up as if in sleep, and preceded by the subtitle “War’s Peace,” as it was to be later by that bravura crane-shot pullback of the entire Atlanta square filled with the dead and dying in Gone With the Wind. One of the first outstanding examples of “painting with light” in film can be seen in the brief sequence of Sherman’s march to the sea. A small group of refugees ( probably a family whose home has been burned) huddle at the left of the screen in a stylized and partially painted set suggesting the wreckage of a house. The camera moves across to a panoramic overhead long shot of Sherman’s troops marching away from the camera, past a burning building. There is an insert to a closer view, then a cut back to the end position of the previous pan, and the camera retraces its move back to the pathetic refugees. Within a few seconds, apart from the narrative point made by the poignant scene, one sees the welding of stylized and harshly documentarian styles, close-shot and extreme long shot separated by two kinds of lighting and composition, yet linked emotionally by a cause-and-effect motif and physically by a camera movement.

Another superb moment in Part One is the homecoming of Colonel Cameron (Henry B. Walthall) to his mother (Josephine Crowell) and sister (Mae Marsh) after capture, imprisonment, and a sojourn in a military hospital. In the scenes immediately prior to the reunion, Griffith creates a mood that is first joyful (the happy preparations for his return) and then sad (the realization of the poverty thrust on them by the South’s defeat).

the-birth-of-a-nation-1915-uk-programme
The Birth of a Nation – 1915 UK Programme

The reunion itself, starting with a long shot of the tattered soldier entering the frame at the end of the street and climaxing with his embrace of his sister at the door, and then being drawn into the house by the arms of his mother ( who is otherwise not shown) is a beautifully tender and underplayed scene. Further, it indicates a great respect for the audience’s ability to inject its own emotions into a scene, to accept suggestion rather than outright statement, and to imagine actions ( and the conclusion of the scene ) taking place off screen. Although this scene has been imitated (knowingly and otherwise) many times, perhaps most effectively by John Ford in a 1933 talkie, Pilgrimage, the original has somehow never been surpassed; even out of context, as a film “clip,” it still has the power to be intensely moving. Incredibly, the superb underplaying and meticulous timing of this sequence were achieved through careful rehearsals designed not so much to perfect the actors’ performances as to get the scene completed within a specific time. This occurred partly because, even while shooting, Griffith could envision the rhythm of the completed film, and partly because of economics; he could not afford the luxury of reshooting.

The Birth of a Nation - Massive troop movements wide shot D. W. Griffith, American film master
The Birth of a Nation – Massive troop movements wide shot

Towering over all else in Part One of The Birth of a Nation were the monumental battle scenes (shot in the area now totally covered by Universal Studios ) , which may since have been surpassed in terms of sheer size but have certainly never been equalled in terms of realism or excitement. Deliberately patterned after Matthew Brady photographs, subdirected by a group of unit directors who were able to turn the “huge” armies into masses of individuals rather than tableau-like mobs, these battle scenes, staged with extreme camera mobility and the usual Griffith juxtaposition of close detail shots with panoramic long shots, have vitality, savagery, and an incredible sense of spontaneity. No matter how many times one has seen these sequences, one tends to jump along with the extra, who is clearly surprised when a mortar bomb explodes behind his back, or to be moved by the destruction of a tree hit by a shell. (Griffith had an astonishing ability to crystallise the awful, massive destruction of war into shots of simple symbolism or metaphor. Despite the grimness of the often authentic war scenes in his World War I film Hearts of the World, its most moving single shot is of a brace of swans, with their cygnets, swimming away from the ripples in their pond caused by falling dirt from a bomb explosion.)

The Birth of a Nation 1915 1

Part Two of The Birth of a Nation traces the exploitation of the newly emancipated Southern Negroes by Northern bankers and industrialists (carpetbaggers) and by political fanatics of both North and South ( scalawags ) . It dramatizes the struggle against, and ultimate defeat of, a vengeful movement by these elements to “crush the White South under the heel of the Black South” (quoting from Woodrow Wilson) and to rule the defeated South through a Northern-controlled economic, political, and racial dictatorship. It was this second portion of the film, with its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan of that period, that has caused most of the film’s problems. Not only does this section of the film draw heavily on the writings of Thomas Dixon but because of the elimination of most of the authentic historical characters, and the involvement of the Thaddeus Stevens parallel in much of the fictional melodrama, it is more open to questions of historical distortion.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)
Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman (Birth of A Nation)

It was, of course, the dynamic quality of The Birth of a Nation that caused—and still causes—the film problems on racial grounds. No movie with such imagination and persuasive power had ever been seen before. With no disrespect to the remarkable early films of Tourneur and others, it was as if an audience familiar only with comic strips had suddenly been introduced to the works of Tolstoy, and in a way that they could understand. Yet audiences were, understandably, not yet sophisticated enough to understand film technique, or how it was manipulating them. It is extremely unlikely that even Griffith fully understood the awesome power of the film medium. In Griffith’s eyes, The Birth of a Nation did tell the truth; however, it was only one side of a truth. The assertive style of the film left no option for another side.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation
Lillian Gish as Elsie Sroneman in Birth of a Nation

Audiences, confronted with an overpowering flow of images, often connected by fully documented and undeniably accurate titles, had no way of knowing how the linkage and arrangement of shots could lead the spectator to the film-maker’s point of view. Thus, Griffith introduces a sequence, backed up by historical references, showing the passage of a bill permitting the inter-marriage of blacks and whites. But he follows it with a quick shot of a young black looking up lecherously, and then a shot of a white girl and her companions ( presumably parents ) shuddering and drawing back as they watch the proceedings from a balcony. There is nothing in the film to prove that the black man is looking at the white girl, yet from the arrangement of shots, the implication is obvious. Here, historical reconstruction slides unobtrusively into pure editorializing.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman rescued

At another point in the film, the mulatto villain Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann ) confronts Colonel Cameron on the street and tells him, “The sidewalk belongs to us as much as to you, ‘Colonel’ Cameron.” There is nothing unreasonable in his statement or even in his manner, but the insertion of the quotes around the word “Colonel” in the title immediately injects a note of insulting derision. Ironically, the use of the same filmic method that Griffith evolved to tell his story has been in part responsible for the effectiveness of the campaign against the film ever since. A David Wolper television documentary of the 1960’s, Hollywood, The Golden Years, told the history of the silent period in superficial but generally acceptable terms, considering the non-scholastic mass audience it was aimed at. However, it sustained and enlarged on the myth of the riots that were supposed to have greeted The Birth of a Nation on its initial showing in Boston.

the birth of a nation - lillian gish - elsie stoneman trapped

(There were protests and demonstrations, but of a small-scale and well controlled nature.) After the narrator set up the “massive” nature of the protests, the screen was filled with montages of newspaper headlines, some of which may even have been authentic, but superimposed over unidentifiable shots of huge rioting mobs sweeping through city streets which definitely had no connection whatsoever with the opening of the film in Boston. Yet, quite logically, audiences assumed it to be a bit of “truthful” reportage. Through the years, The Birth of a Nation has constantly been harassed by the NAACP, which has bombarded announced showings of the film with masses of “protest” letters, evenly divided into three different and always word-for-word styles, indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.

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

While The Birth of a Nations immense power as entertainment was grasped immediately by the critics, not all of them were as enthusiastic over its innovations: a veritable textbook of cinematic grammar, style, and devices that would remain intact until the coming of sound, and even thereafter be of continuing influence. Some critics felt it absurd that the use of the moving camera in the battle and chase scenes placed the audience in the “confusing” position of being absorbed into the action, resolutely holding to the theory that the audience should remain firmly separated, as a spectator only, in the tradition of the theatre.

The-Birth-of-a-Nation-in-theatres
Theatres advertising “The Birth of a Nation”

The shaping of the screen into iris, vignette, and other forms—even the use of horizontal panels, anticipating the CinemaScope image—likewise confused those critics who still regarded the film as an alternative to the stage. But the basic construction of the film—a methodical beginning; the establishment of time, place, and characters; the building up to an initial climax; the relaxing of tempo to repeat the process and build up to a second, longer, greater climax; the mathematical precision of editing within that climax, even to throwing in a brief, seemingly unintended “joke” so that audiences could relax, release their pent-up tensions, and draw greater excitement from the remainder of the film’s climax—all of this became a model on which the structure of American film was to be based for the next half-decade. It was to reach its purely academic peak in Intolerance, a commercial failure. But so great and long-lasting was the commercial success of The Birth of a Nation that even the failure of Intolerance, considered an artistic indulgence, was over-ridden by the phenomenal box-office success and artistic influence of what is still one of cinema’s peaks: The Birth of a Nation.

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

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

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

Movie Digest – 1925

Engagements, Marriages and Divorces in Hollywood

Jack Foley

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

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

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

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

Hollywood Studio Magazine (November 1966)

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“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records – (Photoplay, July 1924)

Photoplay Magazine Volume XXVI, Number Two – July 1924

“Birth of a Nation” Breaks All Records

The Perfect Song - The Birth of a Nation

Seven years before the producer of “The Birth of a Nation,” then just Larry Griffith, an actor out of a job, found a chance to play a role in a little one-reel Edison drama for five dollars a day. Seven years since he sold his first script to Biograph for fifteen dollars.

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

“The Birth of a Nation” broke all manner of theater records in various world capitals and became, as it remains today, the world’s: greatest motion picture, if greatness is to be measured by fame. It has ever since continued to be an important box office success. Early in 1924 “The Birth of a Nation” played in the great Auditorium Theater in Chicago, surpassing any previous picture audience record for that house.

lillian gish - nacimiento-de-una-nación - the birth of a nation 6

“The Birth of a Nation” is nine years old.

No other dramatic screen product has lived so long, with the single and interesting exception of the little one-reel Sennett Keystone comedies featuring Charles Chaplin.

Here, perhaps, is a test of screen art. “The Birth of a Nation” was Griffith vindication for his flourishing departure from Biograph. Because of the halo that “The Birth of a Nation” has conferred upon them, some of the now famous names from the cast must be recalled: Henry Walthall, Mae Marsh, Elmer Clifton, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Joseph Henabery, Sam de Grasse, Donald Crisp and Jennie Lee.

Griffith’s attainment in “The Birth of a Nation” must be credited with a large influence in extending an acceptance and appreciation of the screen art into new, higher levels. Here was a picture that could not be ignored by any class. It also exerted a large, even if indirect, influence on the course of motion picture finance. Hundreds of thousands and million were now to become easy figures in the manipulation of the thought of the industry. “The Birth of a Nation” is said to have cost over a quarter of a million. It would have been cheap at a million. The public has paid 815,000,000, according to the estimate of J. P. McCarthy, who has put the picture on the screens of the world.

In this single picture, Griffith, above all others, forced an indifferent world to learn that the motion picture was great. In the next chapter we shall tell some untold tales of screen destiny, rich with personal drama and adventure, stories of Charles Chaplin, Pancho Villa. Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. a curious bypath story of the world war and Broadway, and the amazing truth of how one idea and one little girl, Mary Pickford, rocked the whole vast institution of the screen and set all of its invested millions a-tremble.

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

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… At 90, still making movies – F. M. Winship, 1986

Lillian Gish at 90, still making movies

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP, UPI Senior Editor

DEC. 14, 1986

NEW YORK — Lillian Gish has just made her 105th motion picture and she is looking forward to her 106th.

‘I’ve been working for 84 years. I don’t intend to stop now,’ says Gish, ethereal and almost prim in a pearl-buttoned rose Ultrasuede dress as she serves tea in the Manhattan apartment where she has lived alone for decades. She admits to 90 years, although two early theater reference books give her birthdate as 1893.

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She is the only living actress whose career in film and television has almost spanned the history of both 20th century mediums.

‘I created heroines that were the essence of virginity, purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body,’ says Gish, capturing her career in a single sentence.

She still exudes a sweet femininity. She wears Mary Jane strapped shoes. Her hair, ash blond turned mostly white, is pulled into a loose crown, a style seen in photographs of her in the ’20s.

(Original Caption) Former actress Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.
Lillian Gish in her New York apartment.

‘I never go to the beauty shop or the hairdresser,’ she says proudly, touching her hand to a face that displays a fine white complexion. ‘And I never use much makeup when I’m not acting.’

She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis.

Gish’s new picture, due for release late next year, is a wry comedy with the working title ‘The Whales of August.’ It was filmed this fall on a small island in Casco Bay, Maine. Gish and Davis co-star as widowed sisters who have lived together for 30 years and are facing an emotional crisis.

Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)
Lindsay Anderson rehearsing a scene with Lillian Gish (The Whales of August)

‘We had only met briefly in the past and we had never worked together,’ said Gish. ‘In spite of this, I think we got along very nicely.’ Gish, of course, is very much Davis’s senior in the film world and can afford to be generous. —

Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford.

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Griffith, head of Biograph Films, paid her $50 a week and became the lodestar of her actress life.

There is a lingering legend that the relationship with Griffith, who died in obscurity in 1948, was far more than that of master filmmaker to star. Gish steadfastly maintains it did not go beyond close friend and mentor, and she has spent the decades since his death in a successful effort to restore his reputation as ‘Father of Film.’

She even titled her 1969 autobiography ‘The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.’

Signing The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me - candids by Peter Warrack

From a book-laden coffee table, she produces a copy of the autobiography translated into Burmese, one of the dozen languages in which it was published. There is also a watercolor sketch sent by a fan that incorporates the U.S. postage stamp portraying Griffith. The stamp represents five years of campaigning by Gish.

‘Griffith was a man of warmth and good spirits,’ she said. ‘But there was an air about him that forebade intimacy. In all the years I worked with him, I never called him anything but Mr. Griffith, and he called me Miss Lillian or Miss Gish, until about 1939 when we went on a first-name basis.’

Lillian Gish in the 80's

Miss Lillian’s eyes are still large in a small, plump, pensive face that could express supplication in a way that became a trademark. Griffith recorded his impression of Gish on their first meeting as that of ‘exquisite, ethereal beauty.’

Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen.

Her 104th film was ‘Sweet Liberty,’ an Alan Alda comedy about the making of a movie that takes liberties with the American Revolution. It was less than a box-office smash.

sweet liberty, from left writer-director-actor alan alda, lillian gish, on set, 1986 universal detail

Gish played Alda’s cantankerous but lovably dotty old mother.

‘I thought they had mistaken me for my sister, Dorothy, who could be a very funny, whereas they always said I was about as funny as a baby’s open grave,’ she says, pouring tea into pink-and-white English china.

‘So I said ‘no’ four or five times, and then they sent Alan Alda to see me. Well, that did it.’ she says, lifting both hands in enthusiasm. The legendary, sweet Gish smile lights a face that is still girlish and without wrinkles.

She is delighted to have added Alda to her list of leading men — a list that started with Walter Huston, father of John and grandfather of Anjelica.

Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress.

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Then came Lionel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Ronald Colman, John Gilbert, Conrad Nagel, Roland Young, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Charles Boyer, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Fred MacMurray, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Sir Alec Guinness, Robert Preston and George C. Scott.

Proximity to such male glamor was not lost on her.

She says brightly, ‘Did you know that it was because of me that they changed the laws of New York so that a woman cannot be sued for breach of promise?’

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

Charges were brought against her by onetime manager and financial adviser Charles Duell, who wanted to marry her when she left Griffith in 1923 to star in ‘The White Sister’ for Inspiration-Metro Pictures.

Griffith could no longer afford the $1,000 a week that Gish could command, and Inspiration could. It was the first time she had ever earned a lot of money making films.

‘When Duell found out how much money I could make, he decided to marry me,’ she said, her voice echoing old indignation. ‘He wanted my share of the profits from ‘The White Sister.’ I had to get legal help, and he tried to ruin me in the press.

‘I was smuggled on board a train going to California to avoid papers he tried to serve on me. It was terrible, out of an old melodrama.’

She still likes to recall that she received a ‘most discreet proposal of marriage’ from John Gilbert, Hollywood’s ‘Great Lover,’ when he played Roldolphe to her Mimi in the silent version of ‘La Boheme.’

‘I fell in love for the first time at 9,’ she says ‘I was always in and out of love. More men wanted to marry me. But marriage is a 24 hour-a-day job and I have always been much too busy to be a good wife. My films are my children.’

She was also reluctant to part with her sister Dorothy and their mother. Theater critic George Jean Nathan, a longtime escort, proposed to her numerous times in the 1920s before marrying another actress, Julie Haydon. Gish still believes Nathan resented her family closeness.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

‘I never met anyone I liked better than mother or sister,’ she said. ‘I was really never happy away from them. I certainly wasn’t going to marry anyone who would take me away from my mother if I could help it.’ —

Mother, born Mary Robinson McConnell, was estranged from Gish’s father, James Leigh Gish, when Lillian and Dorothy were small. He was an Ohio confectioner, ever on the move to find ‘fresher horizons,’ as Gish puts it. Finally, Mary Gish moved herself and her children to New York where she found work as an ingenue in Proctor’s Stock Company for $15 a week.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

‘I grew up with love, not money,’ said Gish. ‘Mother gave us security. Father insecurity. As I grew older, I wondered which was more valuable to my growth. Insecurity was a great gift. I think it taught me to work as if everything depended on me and to pray as if everything depended on God.

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Gish became an actress when a friend of her mother’s got a job in a touring company that needed a little girl. Her salary was $10 a week. Not long after, Dorothy, two years younger, was taken on the road by another friend to play Little Willie in ‘East Lynne.’

‘Life on the road was incredibly hard for a child,’ Gish recalls. ‘There were oatmeal meals, hard benches and floors to sleep on, uncomfortable trains, and being stranded far from New York and friends. It was difficult to maintain friends. I never learned how to play with other children.

‘I never had an acting lesson. I was simply told, ‘Go out there and speak loud and clear or we’ll get another little girl.’ It was also drilled into us that when an audience pays to see a performance, it is entitled to the best performance you can give. Nothing in your personal life must interfere, neither fatigue, illness, nor anxiety.

‘There were no labor laws then to protect children in the theater from long hours and bad conditions and lack of schooling, and we were always on the run from the Gerry Society that did seek to protect children. I once outwitted a judge at 10 years old by wearing high heels, a long dress and hair done in a knot so I would appear the legal age of 16.’ —

It is the films made with Griffith that gave Gish lasting fame, recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a Special Oscar Award in 1971, and by the American Film Institute with a Life Achievement Award in 1984.

Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner w
Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner

Griffith had made 400 short films before Gish and Dorothy went to work for him, but it was his first full-length film, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ that won him and Lillian Gish national attention. In his greatest achievement, ‘Intolerance,’ she played a mother rocking a cradle that linked the four disparate sections of the film into historical perspective.

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

She is best remembered in such unblushing Griffith melodramas as ‘Broken Blossoms,’ ‘Way Down East,’ and ‘Orphans of the Storm,’ all achieved, she claims, ‘without ever seeing a script because Griffith only had an outline and it was up to you to find the character in repeated rehearsals.’

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The famous ice floe scene from The Way Down East — with Lillian Gish.

‘Look at my right hand,’ she said, raising it to show several misshapen fingers. ‘Those fingers are crooked because I froze my hand while being photographed on an ice floe on a river in Vermont about 20 times a day for three weeks in ‘Way Down East.’ We lost several members of our crew from pneumonia as a result of exposure.’

Later, she said, Hollywood gave up rehearsing scenes and expected actors who may not have met until that morning to be playing together with passion in the afternoon.

‘It’s a wonder films are as good as they are today using that technique. I always tried to find what the character is like and be that character, so rehearsals helped. When you get into a character, you do things you’d never do on your own.’

Gish may be best known to the present generation for TV appearances that began in 1949, in the Philco Playhouse production of ‘The Late Christopher Bean,’ and continued through ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ a PBS miniseries aired in February and March of this year in which she played Mrs. Loftus.

EM SAint The trip to bountiful

Her most famous TV role was that of Carrie Watts in Horton Foote’s ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ an original television drama produced by the Philco Playhouse in 1953. This is the same role that won Geraldine Page a Best Actress Oscar for the film version in March. Gish also played the role on Broadway when ‘Bountiful’ was transformed into a stage play.

‘It was the first television drama the Museum of Modern Art requested for its archives,’ she said. ‘Of course, Horton Foote deserves a lot of credit, and Geraldine gave it to him, but I want to put a word in for Fred Coe, the Philco Playhouse producer, who was really ‘The Father of Television,’ just as Griffith was ‘The Father of Film.”

trip to bountiful

Gish says she almost never goes to see films today, but does watch some television, especially the news.

‘Movies hurt my pride,’ she says. ‘They used to have love, sentiment, and tenderness, but in today’s lovemaking, they just swallow each other’s tonsils. Television had good drama in the early days. But now everything is too busy, too nervous, too unsure of itself.’

Gish prefers reading, especially history, literature, drama, art and religion (she is a devout Episcopalian).

‘Lillian would be equally at home with the Beatles and with the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ commented Peter Glenville, who directed her in ‘The Comedians,’ a 1967 film about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti. ‘And they would equally appreciate her.’

Because she was on the road for most of her childhood, she did not attend regular schools, except for a term spent at an Ursuline academy in Missouri while her actress mother made a brief try at running a candy store in East St. Louis.

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‘I used to feel inferior around my cousins, most of whom had gone to college, and I thought they knew a great deal more than I did,’ she says. ‘Now I realize that although I never went to school or received a diploma, I have kept right on learning. I never wanted to own anything but books and I have always been curious and had the energy to pursue my interests.’

She never really had a home either, spending most of her adult life in hotels until she and her mother took apartments in 1929 just off Sutton Place on New York’s smart East Side, a neighborhood in which she still lives.

Lillian Gish in the 80's 5

Sitting on a graceful French canape couch and pointing to the feminine Louis XV-style chairs and tables and the Venetian mirrors in her green-and-gold drawing room, she said, ‘These are all mother’s things. You see, I never really wanted a home.’ —

Gish stands 5-feet-6, erect, and is so healthy she has never had a regular doctor and hasn’t had a headache in 50 years. In fact, she is wary of doctors, observing that ‘My mother’s operation was a great success and she was dead two weeks later. I think if I ever had to go to the hospital, I’d die in the ambulance.’

Gish maintains her girlhood weight of 112 pounds and gives credit for her trimness to her ‘upside down board,’ a contraption given to her by a older male admirer years ago.

‘Older men have always helped me,’ she said. ‘They have given me valuable advice on my health. I find the human race is so dear that when you give them pleasure they want to help you.’

Gish keeps her tilt board by the fireplace just under two Grandma Moses paintings, one given her by Grandma herself when Gish portrayed her on television and the other a gift of Helen Hayes, Gish’s best friend. Gish is godmother to Hayes’ actor son, James MacArthur.

‘I use the board for 30 minutes every morning,’ she said. ‘It puts your feet above your head. Very good for the whole system. Some years ago I took it down the street to Hammacher Schlemmer’s store, which carries all sorts of health machines and they copied it and still stock it.

‘The human body is a miracle. I wish we taught children growing up how to treat it as one. The body is the only house you get to live in and you have to take care of it. —

Lillian Gish NY apartment

‘I have never had a special diet, having always eaten what I want to eat. Anyway, it would have made it difficult for other people if I had been on a diet. I love oysters and fish. I don’t eat beef anymore, however. It makes me think of how cows are slaughtered.’

Gish makes her own breakfast and skips lunch. Her friend-secretary-factotum of 18 years, Jim Frasher, a gifted cook, makes her dinner before he leaves for the day. Frasher, a former stage manager, helps her with correspondence, which averages 40 letters a day.

Her unoccupied maid’s room has been turned into a little gallery of mementoes, ranging from caricatures of Gish by theatrical cartoonist Al Hirschfeld to a Blackglama ad showing Gish, ‘a legend,’ swathed in mink.

Blackgama-Lilian-Gish

Oil portraits, some quite large, are scattered throughout the apartment. There is one of Gish’s mother in the entrance hall and one of Zachary Taylor, 12th president of the United States and a cousin of her mother’s, in the dining room. A costume portrait of Dorothy, who died in 1968, dominates the living room.

In her book, Gish said Dorothy, whose nickname was ‘Baby,’ never really grew up, had difficulty making decisions, was untidy and disorganized. Gish, a neat, organized person, could not bear to share an apartment with her. Dorothy married James Rennie, one of her leading men in films. They were divorced and Dorothy never remarried.

The precocious moppets of melodrama had parallel careers, starting together with Griffith on location in the Delaware Water Gap, then moving to California in 1913 because he preferred its warm climate and the longer hours of sunlight for shooting.

By 1914 Lillian was pronounced ‘The Most Popular Actress Before the American Public,’ a pinnacle Dorothy would never achieve, although she was a big star in her own right and had a creditable stage career in the 1930s and 1940s. But as drama critic Brooks Atkinson was to point out, they were always ‘the Gish sisters’ in the public mind, ‘as much of American folklore as Jack Dempsey, Jimmy Durante or Harry S Truman.’

The Gishes made the transition from silent to talking pictures without difficulty, probably due to their stage experience when they were young. Lillian’s voice is still strong and vibrant.

‘It helped to have been in the theater, and I also had lessons with Victor Maurel, the great French opera singer who lived in Hollywood. He taught me to speak from the diaphram to the mouth without using the throat. Very useful if you have a cold!’

Lillian and Dorothy Gish - Courtain, The Chalk Garden
Lillian and Dorothy Gish – Courtain, The Chalk Garden

Lillian and Dorothy last appeared together in a summer theater tour of Enid Bagnold’s play, ‘The Chalk Garden,’ in 1956.

‘We were much closer than most sisters,’ said Gish. ‘We were always concerned with each other’s welfare. Even when our work separated us, there was a kind of extra-sensory perception that bound us together. I like to think of the first words Hal Holbrook uttered in ‘I Never Sang for My Father,’ the Broadway play I was in just before Dorothy died – ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.” —

Gish has never had time to be lonely.

She has been in demand as an actress and an adornment for grand occasions marking anniversaries in the film and theater and honoring other stars. One of the most thrilling was the Metropolitan Opera’s centennial gala in 1983 when she appeared as the dreaming girl in ‘The Specter of the Rose’ with Paris Opera Ballet star Patrick Dupond.

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

‘The following year, they did a ballet in Paris based on my career and Dorothy’s,’ Gish said. ‘Can you imagine?’

‘Right now I’m waiting for the ‘Lillian Gish’ rose to have its first flowering, so they can officially call it that,’ she said. ‘It’s a hybrid, developed in the Midwest, and I’m very excited about it.’

This year she was guest of honor at the opening of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit titled ‘Hollywood: Legend and Reality,’ in Washington, D.C.

Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s
Lillian-Gish-Jeanne-Moreau 60s

Last summer, the Museum of the City of New York’s Theater Collection conferred its annual Star Award on Gish, and she went to Vancouver, Canada, for a screening at Expo ’86 of a documentary that French film star Jeanne Moreau made of her life. Moreau filmed Gish at home, on the streets of New York and at the upstate horse farm of restaurateur Jerry Brody, nuzzling the racehorse named for her.

”Lillian Gish’ has won two races at Aqueduct,’ Gish said proudly.

If Gish had her life to live over, she would like to have done more Shakespeare — certainly Juliet, which eluded her when she was young – because she has ‘always been a snob about my playwrights.

‘I played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway in 1936, a most remarkable experience. He didn’t play Hamlet. He WAS Hamlet. It was the only play I was ever in when stage hands stood in the wings to watch.’

When she did appear in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production in Stratford, Conn., she played Juliet’s elderly nurse.

Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet - 1965
Juliet (Maria Tucci) and The Nurse (Lillian Gish) in Romeo and Juliet – 1965

‘Most people do not connect me with Tennessee Williams, but he actually wrote the prototype of the Blanche DuBois role for me in a one-acter called ‘Portrait of a Madonna,’ which evolved in 1947 into the full-length ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,” Gish said.

Another aspect of Gish’s career that is rarely remembered is the major role she took in various aspects of Griffith’s productions, including film editing.

‘He seemed to have faith in my judgment,’ she said. ‘I’d go to the darkroom to pick up the rushes, then I’d fight to have more of me cut out of the film. I always thought an audience should be left wanting more, rather than being surfeited with my image.

‘In those days we worked closely with one another. Now the men who work on developing film are far away from the studios. Everything is different. What was once warm and personal is now mechanical. Film acting became largely a matter of doing what you are told and collecting your salary.

‘When I worked for Griffith, we worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week because we liked it. There was no place as interesting as the studio.’

If Gish could wish for anything in the world and have it come true, what would it be?

Without hesitation she responds: ‘To follow spring around the world.’

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

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LILLIAN GISH SUED by Charles H. Duell

In the mid-1920’s Miss Gish became embroiled in a long legal battle with Charles Duell, a socialite who had been her financial adviser (and, as she said in 1975, “sort of my Svengali”), over sums he claimed she owed him. Miss Gish munched carrots during the trial, and newspaper photographs of her stirred a carrot-chomping fad across the country. (New York Times)

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

New York Times – 1925 Headlines:

LILLIAN GISH SUED BY FILM PRODUCER; Charles H. Duell Seeks to Prevent Her From Acting Under Direction of Others. STAR CONDEMNS CONTRACT Her Attorneys Call It Tyrannical, and Say Story That She Is to Wed Duell Is Presumption.

Lillian Gish, star of the screen, was made defendant yesterday in a suit filed in Federal Court by Charles II. Duell, who seeks to prevent the star from making motion pictures except under the contract he has with her. (Jan 31, 1925)

Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

“to answer to the charge of perjury.”

A brief lawsuit in which Lillian was involved at this time added greatly to her prestige. In October (1924), for what she felt to be just cause, she had broken off relations with her producers. Suit for breach of contract followed. At the trial, held in a small, crowded room of the Woolworth Building, the chief executive of the picture corporation testified to a number of remarkable things, among them that Miss Gish had engaged herself to marry him, all of which notably failed to convince Judge Julian W. Mack, who, on the second or third morning of the trial, rose and summarily dismissed the case against Lillian, and after a few well-chosen words to her accuser, held him “to bail in the sum of $10,000” (I quote the minutes) “to answer to the charge of perjury.”

He was indicted, but Lillian, with no wish, as she said, to send anyone to prison, declined to appear against him, and the case was dismissed.

Silver Nitrate White Sister Lobby Card Negative
White Sister Lobby Card (Inspiration Pictures)

Lillian’s following was now enormous … of the whole world, for in no obscure corner of it was her face unfamiliar, or unwelcomed. There was something almost magical about this universal homage. Men and women alike paid tribute. Reporters ransacked dictionaries for terms that would convey her elusive loveliness—likened it (one of them) to “the haunting sadness of an old Spanish song, heard as the light fades from the evening sky.” What heaps of letters! And if, as has been said, she was wanting in sex-appeal, why all the marriage proposals? Why so much poetry? Just one young man wrote eleven little volumes of poetry—pretty good poetry, if there is such a thing, even if not entirely sane (what poetry is?) —and it was printed by hand with the utmost care and beauty.

(Life and Lillian Gish – Albert Bigelow Paine – 1932)

Charles H. Duell’s name (Inspiration Pictures director) – was never mentioned in Paine’s book.

Lillian Gish will NOT marry Duell - Photoplay, Julne 1924
Lillian Gish will NOT marry Duell – Photoplay, Julne 1924
Charles H. Duell - Inspiration Pictures Director 2
Charles H. Duell – Inspiration Pictures Director

Duell asked me to assign my share of the profits from The White Sister to him. I realized that I was in trouble, but I did not know to whom I should turn. Not to D.W.Griffith; he was equally helpless when it came to legal matters. But the previous year in Rome I had met Senator Hiram Johnson, his wife and his son Jack. The Johnsons had treated me as an adopted daughter and had told me to call them if ever I needed help. I wrote to them of my troubles and they suggested a law firm to take care of my interests. Accordingly, I decided to go to Chadbourne, Stanchfield and Levy and to consult them about my predicament.

When I told Duell he said, “If you do that, I will ruin you.”

“How can you ruin me?”

“I can say whatever I wish about you, and they will believe me. You are only a motion-picture actress, while I am in the Social Register.”

If I had not been so startled by this treat, I would have thought it was something out of an old melodrama. In a letter written some time later, he suggested that I shouldn’t worry even if the percentages on The White Sister stopped briefly, as I would soon be getting my full salary on our next picture. He warned me that it would be to my advantage to agree without further fuss; otherwise, the consequences would be disastrous. The result of any conflict, he implied, would be to hurt us both in the industry.

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

The New York Morning Telegraph – January 31, 1925

A serious breach in the business relations of Lillian Gish and Charles Duell, her lawyer, trustee, adviser and employer, was forecast yesterday when Charles H. Duell Incorporated, filed a summons and complaint asking an injunction to restrain the star from appearing with any other company and asking that she be made to fulfill her contract with the Duell organization….

When questioned about the injunction proceedings brought by Charles H. Duell, Jr.’s personal company against Miss Lillian Gish, the latter’s attorney, Messrs. Chadbourne, Stanchfield and Levy said, “This latest move is part of a design to force Miss Gish to support Mr. Duell. The experiences of Richard Barthelmess and Henry King are only repeated in Miss Gish’s experience with Mr. Duell. Each of these outstanding artists has found it impossible to live under his business arrangements. Miss Gish’s situation discloses, in our opinion, the worst condition of the three.”

The New York Herald Tribune – February 14, 1925

… Max D. Steuer characterized Duell as a “deep-eyed scoundrel” for whom the actress would never work again even if it meant giving up her screen career …

… Steuer declared that Miss Gish’s contract was “grossly one-sided.”

Miss Gish appeared in court with her mother and listened intently to her lawyer’s argument. Holland S. Duell, brother of the plaintiff, testified in support of the producer’s complaint, declaring Miss Gish had already been stated in two successful pictures under the terms of the agreement which she wished to cancel. Steuer asserted that by five modifications of the contract, Miss Gish was defrauded of $120,000 by Duell …

“It was at that time that I became known as a vegetarian. Because I was nervous during the hearings, I took carrots with me to nibble on. The carrot fad thus began in the United States, with resulting world-wide publicity. Some friends took me to the Grand Street Follies to see a young actress impersonating me on the stage and eating a carrot”.

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

Finally, on April 2, 1925, extras were on the streets at noon carrying this headline:

“Duell Held as Perjurer; Lillian Gish Wins Suit”

“Lillian Gish – The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me – 1969”

DUELL ASKS TRIAL ON PERJURY CHARGE; Indictment Growing Out of Suit Against Lillian Gish, Pending Nearly a Year.

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Film Daily, April 26, 1928.
Film Daily, April 26, 1928.

The Los Angeles trial began on April 18, 1928; two days later all of the defendants were dismissed except for Lillian. Finally, on April 24, learning that she was exonerated once again, Lillian “smiled in almost an embarrassed fashion. ‘Why, I actually haven’t faced a camera since last August, and that’s years for anybody in motion pictures – she said. ‘I don’t know whether I remember how to behave when anybody takes a picture of me.’ ” But Lillian’s coy smile was premature. Duell was indefatigable in his attempts to recover money from her and to destroy her reputation, ever threatening to publish the story of their presumed affair. Lillian’s lawyer recommended that “we be prepared not to suppress any testimony which Duell may give of a scandalous nature, but to broadcast our version of the same, and in local newspapers and through the Associated Press paint Duell as a persecutor and blackmailer of this girl.” Lillian had beaten a man, Charles Duell, not the system. Duell had gone too far and had, in fact, detached Lillian from the studio system when he personally assumed her contract. The star’s contractual relationship to the studio was not successfully challenged until the early 1940s when Olivia De Havilland won her suit against Warner Bros.

In this legal saga of Dickensian proportions, Duell was unsuccessful in further suits against Lillian brought in 1930 and 1932, before he desisted at last. He never published his “tell-all” memoir. For ten years he had pursued her, first as would-be husband, then as litigant. He married Edith Brisbane in 1933, supervised the manufacture of a dispensing container invented by his wife, eventually practiced patent law in Washington and New York, and died in Alexandria, Virginia, on June 20, 1954. His entry in the Encyclopedia of American Biography makes no mention of his first wife, Elsie, or of Lillian Gish. In 1925, after Judge Mack’s decision, Charles Holland Duell Jr. was disgraced, disbarred, and insolvent. Lillian Gish emerged victorious from the trial, wealthy, her honor intact, her image perhaps enhanced.

"Way Down East" - Lillian Gish
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Just as in most of her movies, the victim had prevailed over life’s adversities. And Lillian had indeed been a victim of Duell’s financial machinations. But he, too, had suffered—from her prevarications over the engagement and her dissembling after it had been broken. Although the public considered her a paragon of probity, in her own defense she had resorted to dishonesty. Ironically, Lillian vanquished Duell with a name whose prestige he had helped increase. Already celebrated as a great actress, as a result of the trial publicity Lillian Gish now commanded even greater fame. A proven movie star who would have been a prize for any one of the big production companies, she was rewarded with a terrifically lucrative contract from the most promising studio in Hollywood.

(- Charles Affron -)

Gossip of All The Studios – By Cal York

LILLIAN GISH is back in New York after a long stay abroad, waiting to make “The Swan.” She’s living at a quiet little hotel on a side street—going to the theater now and again with George Jean Nathan, who seems as devoted as ever. Oddly enough, she came back on the same ship with her former boss, Charles H. Duell, who sues her for millions every now and then, and spent most of the trip avoiding him, to hear her tell it.

Her mother, Mrs. May Gish, is in London, carefully tended by Sister Dorothy. Mrs. Gish’s health is a little improved. She’s been an invalid now for some years, you remember.

Photoplay Magazine 1929

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24 Carrots Gold

Retain the name of The Gish Theater! Please sign the petition!

Follow this link to sign the petition

I strongly oppose the effort to rename Bowling Green State University’s Gish Film Theater honoring two talented native Ohioans, Lillian and Dorothy Gish.  Recently a similar petition was taken to the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. The Gish sisters made distinguished, unmatched contributions to the performing arts, including motion pictures, stage, radio, and television. The removal of the name of the Gish Film Theater would be a sad, ignorant, misinformed waste and an insult to these great women’s legacy. There are campus activists at BGSU who want the Gish Theater name removed because of Lillian Gish’s role in the controversial D.W.Griffith film, “The Birth of a Nation.” Miss Gish was not a producer, writer, or director  and therefore had no role in its content.  She was a twenty-one year old actress fulfilling her contractual obligations.

Regarded as THE PREMIER SILENT FILM ACTRESS, Lillian’s oeuvre encompasses roles that are anti-racist and pro-feminist including such classics as “Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East,” while Dorothy, who was one of the silent screen’s most popular actresses and did not appear in The Birth of a Nation, had a significant part in the anti-Klan film, “The Cardinal.” To remove these sisters’ names from the theater would be a blow to artistic expression and would not further the cause of racial justice and women’s contributions in film.To blacklist a performing artist simply for appearing in one film or play, as in the disrespectful phrase, “Ditch the Gish,” is outrageous, narrow-minded and sexist. It is clearly an embarrassment to the establishment from which it came, and the decision-makers should be cognizant of that, as well as Lillian Gish’s great legacy and trail-blazer as a successful woman in film who transitioned beautifully from the ‘silents’ to the ‘talkies.’ She was, and always will be, a fine example and credit to the film industry.

Instead of renouncing the well-deserved honor bestowed on these two great actresses with the establishment of the Gish Film Theater in 1976 there should be a ‘re-awakening’ celebration of the Gish sisters’ achievements instead, which could be accompanied by lectures on these women by well-known film historians and the showing of such anti-racist and pro-feminist movie classics as “The Cardinal,””Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East.” This could have such a beneficial ripple affect on the entire campus, even beyond the Film, Drama, and Women Studies Departments, which it would directly benefit. Retaining the name of the Gish Theater would also increase Bowling Green University’s respect and admiration as an institution, world-wide.

Ralph Wolfe and Eva Marie Saint Return to Bowling Green Fall 1976
Ralph Wolfe and Eva Marie Saint Return to Bowling Green – Fall 1976

I had the privilege of meeting Lillian Gish when I was a graduate student in painting at Bowling Green State University on October 14, 1979. It was her 80th birthday and she gave a warm, articulate lecture on “Way Down East” at the Gish Theater, a silent film in which she played the heroine.  Afterwards I asked if I could take her picture for my sister, Jane Gaines, now a published film historian who teaches at Columbia University.  She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s have a picture taken of the two of us for your sister. I had a sister once, and I miss her very much!”

These kind women’s legacy in film needs to be REMEMBERED and HONORED at Bowling Green State University and in their state of Ohio and the rest of the world, NOT ERASED!

Anne Gaines and Lillian Gish 1979

Follow this link to sign the petition

The Gish Film Theater Hanna Hall - View from the projection room
The Gish Film Theater Hanna Hall – View from the projection room

Reasons For Signing The Petition for retaining the name of The Gish Theater

 

“DITCH THE GISH” – Strategy

The Gish Theater Saga

 

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The REAL African people, members of Lillian Gish – Fan group

SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.

After “The Birth of A Nation” was released and criticized as being racist, D.W. Griffith was very hurt. He decided to make Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) as a follow-up, to show how damaging and dangerous people’s intolerance can be.

Years later, this same Babylon set was replicated as the central courtyard design for the new Hollywood & Highland complex in Hollywood, which opened in 2001. Included among the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”, edited by Steven Schneider.

The release of “The Birth” inspired many African-Americans to start making their own films in an attempt to counter this film’s depiction of them and to offer positive alternative images and stories of the African-American people.

Hollywood & Highland complex - Griffith's Babylon set replica
Hollywood & Highland complex – Griffith’s Babylon set replica

 D.W. Griffith had previously produced and directed Biograph’s The Rose of Kentucky (1911), which showed the Ku Klux Klan as villainous – a sharp contrast to “The Birth of A Nation”, made four years later, in which the KKK was portrayed in a favorable light.

The Rose of Kentucky – International Movie Database

The Rose of Kentucky - 1911
The Rose of Kentucky – 1911 – still frame

That fact proves that films were even then part of entertainment industry, nothing more than a business. Nothing like today, when the hate is to thick, one can almost feel it like a disturbing presence. Racist issues never ceased and with catalists like BSU, never will.

The BGSU website - Gish Theater description

Black Student Union on Twitter - Hashtag - DITCH THE GISH
Black Student Union on Twitter – Hashtag – DITCH THE GISH, upper left corner a logo (fist combined with the map of Africa, colors Red-Green-Yellow)

They don’t care. Her other achievements mean nothing to them. They are so focused on one movie. It makes me so sad. I agree about the hashtag “ditch the gish”. It does diminish their credibility. I was at the open forum and we were greatly outnumbered. The majority of the students were polite. The notice on the theater itself all but accuses Dorothy and Lillian of being racists. That makes me angry too. (Barbara Carr – Oregon)

The Birth is on sale again on all major online sites (Amazon, Ebay), that’s because , as it happens it was restored to full HD.

Birth of A Nation for sale online
Birth of A Nation for sale online

Also I wish to mention that on the other LILLIAN GISH group I have constantly requests for membership from Sudan, Ghana, Somalia, the REAL African citizens who are enjoying Lillian’s silent films because (She was right) those movies are interpreted in universal language of “dancing emotions”. But this fact is not in her favour either – I suppose. I have marked all Gish Theater articles as offensive, #spoiler and small group interest. All this chain of actions (part mentioned above) leads to one conclusion: Bottom line; all is part of a carefully elaborate plan that is deploying it’s final disgusting phases as I’m editing this text.

LILLIAN GISH Fan Group Members composed of African People
LILLIAN GISH Fan Group Members composed of African People and many other nationalities
African People - membership requests
African People – membership requests (approved)

The Gish Theater Saga

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Students attending to Black Issues Conference - Gish Theater
Students attending to Black Issues Conference – Gish Theater

The Gish Film Theater Saga

 

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We need to remember the long-suppressed history of women including their pioneering contributions to cinema.

SPOILER WARNING !!!, this material is related to the attack that targeted Miss Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy, their reputation and memory.

If the present period is one of heightened concerns about race, it is also one with a reawakened feminism, a fresh emphasis on the need to recover and remember a long-suppressed history of women including their pioneering contributions to cinema. In the age of the MeToo movement, one sure way to rebuild support for the Gish Film Theater is to remind people of the roles of Lillian and Dorothy as strong, emancipated women at a time when females were struggling to obtain the vote and define themselves as something other than the property of their husbands. The sexist overtones of the hashtag, “Ditch the Gish,” means that the Black Students Union have lost whatever moral high ground they thought they might have gained by harping on the Klan and the “Birth” controversy.The New Gish Theater BGSU Front

Please consider that all the material related with this above mentioned attack is marked on https://lilliangish1893.com/ as SPOILER. If interested only in the seventh art and theatre please do not read it.

Thank you kindly for visiting Miss Lillian Gish fan page.

Black Student Union on Twitter - Hashtag - DITCH THE GISH
Black Student Union on Twitter – Hashtag – DITCH THE GISH, upper left corner a logo (fist combined with the map of Africa, colors Red-Green-Yellow)

The Gish Theater Saga

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