Sitting in a hotel room six floors above the ballroom where she is to be given the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award tonight, Lillian Gish wears pearls and red lipstick. Her long forehead slopes down to amazingly bushy eyebrows, two thick crayon strokes in an unlined face.
The 90-year-old actress has started this day, as she does every day, with an hour of exercise, including sit-ups, although her collapsible slant board has been left behind in her New York apartment. Since 1940, she has fought gravity by lying upside down on the slant board each morning at 7 o’clock.
”Time is your friend; you get wiser,” she says. ”But gravity is your enemy. It sucks you into your grave. Everything important in your body is from here to here.” She puts one hand at her throat and another on the top of her head. ”Eyes, hearing, thought, smell, taste. If the heart were important, it wouldn’t be behind those two little ribs.”
Time has vainly tried to reduce Lillian Gish to mythology – the gilded icon of all that was lovely before movies had a voice: How, for her role in D. W. Griffth’s ”Way Down East” in 1920, she lay for hours on the ice of Long Island Sound with her hair and hand trailing in freezing water. How she denied herself anything to drink for three days before playing her death scene from consumption in King Vidor’s ”Boh eme” in 1926. How she stood under the African sun – 130 degrees and not even a tree for refuge – from dawn until dusk in 1967 for ”The Comedians,” and then, suitably dressed for elegant dining, spent the evening discussing African politics and the religious aspects of Graham Greene’s novels. How her Victorian sense of duty made her choose to nurse her sick mother rather than take the role that Tennessee Williams had written for her, Blanche DuBois, in the play that was to become ”A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Outliving One’s Enemies
If Lillian Gish ever had any enemies, she has outlived them. Longevity has obscured her importance. It is subtly patronizing when one is given credit for simply managing to stay upright after all one’s contemporaries are underground.
One can put Lillian Gish’s career into perspective by observing that if she had stopped working a half-century ago, when she was 40 years old, her contributions to the American cinema would still be astonishing. The man she always called ”Mr. Griffith” used her as his paintbrush when he created the American cinema in films such as ”Birth of a Nation,” ”Intolerance,” ”Broken Blossoms” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” She was the perfect Victorian heroine – fragile, virginal and poignant, alabaster pale with ash-blond hair cascading down her back.
Although the pale blond hair has faded to gray, it still cascades below her waist. ”I’ve never been to a hairdresser,” she says. ”I’ve never had my hair cut, nor have I ever plucked an eyebrow. I don’t wear glasses and I have all my own teeth.”
Her mind skips up and down the decades, stopping to pick up a fragment of memory here, a sprig of her askew Victorian childhood there.
In 1899, when boardinghouses really had signs refusing dogs and actors, her embarrassed aunt warned the 5-year-old actress not to talk about her profession. ”If people knew we were in the theater, their children wouldn’t be allowed to play with us,” Miss Gish recalls. Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, were expected to have good manners plus the discipline to go on stage night after night. And ”even when there was not enough money for food, mother embroidered lace on our panties.”
Around 1914, their mother dragged Lillian and Dorothy to see land on the western outskirts of Los Angeles that could be purchased for $300 down. Miss Gish laughs. ”It had been raining. We said, ‘Mother, we worked so hard for our money. Do you want us to spend it on all this mud?’ So we didn’t buy the Sunset Strip.”
Her words return to her beloved silent film. ”There was never such a thing as silent film. There was always music, even if the music was only a tinny, tiny piano. Silent film was the greatest invention of the last 100 years. When films learned to talk, we lost 95 percent of our audience, because only 5 percent of the world speaks English. The Roxy Theater in New York held 6,424 people and it was crowded from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning. Now, my little meat market on 59th Street has been turned into a theater that holds 200 people. It hurts my pride to go into those tiny theaters.”
Lillian Gish is the 12th recipient of the institute’s award, given annually to someone ”whose work has stood the test of time.” She follows John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Frank Capra and John Huston. Tonight’s dinner will be filmed for television.
Miss Gish has acted in 50 plays and more than 100 movies, most of them one- and two-reelers at a time when David Wark Griffith was, in her words, ”giving film its form and grammar.” She made 11 movies in 1912, 20 movies in 1913. But she also made films when the silent era was at its peak, including ”The Wind” for the director Victor Seastrom in 1928.
Kevin Brownlow, the silent-film historian, has pointed out that while stage performances can safely be called great because they survive only in memory, film performances can be subjected to scrutiny. More than 50 years later, her performance as a spunky, resolute Virginia-bred girl in ”The Wind,” who is driven to madness by the raw, incessant Texas winds, still seems extraordinary in the delicacy of its nuances and in something that can best be described as strength shining through frailness.
In real life, her strength is legendary. ”I couldn’t ever be ill,” she says, as though good health were merely a matter of will. In all her years in the theater, she missed only one performance – when she stayed with her sister in the hospital because their mother could not be there.
Miss Gish describes many of the characters she played – including her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway – as ”ga-ga babies, innocent little virgins who were nice to look at for five minutes but how did you make them interesting for an hour?” She succeeded by giving most of them a spiritual strength that burned through the sentimental silliness of the plots in which they were embedded. The same radiant strength was there, in a more distilled form, in her roles as protector of two children in ”The Night of the Hunter” in 1955 and as a dying matriarch in ”A Wedding” in 1978.
Her newest movie, ”Hambone and Hillie,” will be released in the spring. She plays Hillie; Hambone is a mongrel dog. Brooks Atkinson wrote that, as a performer, she had no vanity. ”How can you have vanity if you look at yourself on the screen?” she asks.
But her lack of vanity stops at the stage door. ”In life, vanity is a virtue,” she says. ”How can you let yourself weigh 300 pounds? The human body is a wonderful thing and it’s the only house you get to live in.”
She reads Jung and William Blake and the morning papers. ”There’s never been a more exciting century,” she says. She is writing one book on religion – ”As I get older, I believe in what I can’t see and understand” – and another, for children, that recreates the Christmases of her childhood: ”How good and kind people in my world were to children who had good manners.”
Looking back at a life dedicated to work, she has no regrets. ”I loved dear men,” she says, ”beautiful men who offered me their names. But I’m so glad I didn’t ruin any of their lives by marrying them.”
“Do you realize that film is our only native art form?” said Lillian Gish. “There’s jazz, of course, but that came from Africa. Film is the most powerful medium of communication in the world today.” At the age of 69, after 64 years of trouping on stage, screen and television, the actress speaks authoritatively. The energetic Miss Gish, who has two new projects under way, was speaking in her East Side apartment. “There’s a force and immediacy; about film today,” she continued, “almost like a car wreck.” Last night she appeared on the stage of Columbia University’s McMillin Theater as commentator for “Lillian Gish and the Movies,” a new 90-minute program of screened excerpts from silent-film classics, Including highlights of her own career. Sponsored by the university’s School of the Arts, the event was a benefit for a scholarship fund commemorating D. W. Griffith, the pioneer director with whom Miss Gish was associated for nine years in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Way Down East.” She will tour with the program in the fall.
A Pair of Projects
On Sunday Miss Gish is to leave on a cross-country promotional tour for her autobiography, “The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me,” which Prentice-Hall is publishing Monday. At the McMillin Theater at Broadway and 16th Street last night, more than 1,200 people saw and heard Miss Gish and her film compilation. Unruffled anticipation stood in contrast to the events at the adjacent Philosophy Hall, where rebel students had taken over the premises. In even further contrast were the spring-like, bower appointments in another nearby school building where a reception was being prepared for Miss Gish. The McMillin assembly included many young people as well as older spectators, among them Katharine Hepburn, Anita Loos, Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley, Lauren Bacall, Truman Capote and Brooks Atkinson.
A Standing Ovation
Davidson Taylor, director of the School of the Arts, introduced Miss Gish, after noting that Columbia was the first American university to offer a course in film. “We are here tonight because we love Lillian Gish,” he said. To a standing ovation, the actress appeared on the stage. Clad in a white, long-sleeved evening gown, she sat at a stage-left lectern and conversationally read a commentary on the screen cavalcade that flickered a few feet away, spanning 1900-1928, to a muted musical recording.
Miss Gish’s comments were informal, enlightening, witty and knowledgeable, and the responsive audience was entirely hers. Most of the segments, and the array of familiar faces from the past, drew applause, and often hearty chuckles, with the actress joining in. Of a bit from the primeval “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” when a bloodhound repeatedly whisked past, Miss Gish said, “Three cuts of the same dog not much imagination there” and the audience laughed delightedly. She spoke fondly of her childhood friend Mary Pickford, shown angelically in “Mender of Nets,” and indicated the technical development of her mentor, D. W. Griffith, as an actor and in “Birth of a Nation” and “Way Pown East.”
These two lengthy excerpts, with the famous battle scenes and the homecoming sequence from the first, and Miss Gish’s sequence with a baby and her famous rescue from an icy river by Richard Barthelmess in the second picture, stole the show.
Like her audience, Miss Gish was carried away a bit with the realism of “Way Down East” as she hurtled toward the waterfall on an ice floe.
“Oh look,” she said, pointing, “there I am-that dark spot over there.”
After the applauded fadeout, she said, “I don’t know how Dick ever rescued me.”
Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)
“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Way Down East)
Lillian Gish on the ice floe – Way Down East
Way Down East – Vermont
More applause greeted Rudolph Valentino and Nita Naldi in a scene from “Blood and Sand.” The siren gripped the bullfighter’s “arm of iron” and the actor rolled his eyes to the audience’s uncontrollable laughter, including that of Miss Gish. The auditorium lights brightened and Miss Gish drew another standing ovation from an audience that obviously wanted still more.
The Formative Years
At her apartment the other day, Miss Gish elaborated on her new activities: “The program at Columbia, which we’ve already tried out unofficially in several places, represents the industry as I knew it during those formative years when Griffith gave it form and grammar and punctuation,” she explained.
Near the actress in the elegant book-lined living room hung a huge oil painting ot the late, invalid mother she idolized. Miss Gish’s younger sister, Dorothy, with whom she rose to world renown in the Griffith features, died last vear .
Miss Gish, with her soft auburn hair, firm mouth and alert, friendly manner, is very much of the present.
“I have in there two letters I got today from two youngsters, 13 and 14, wanting to know how to get certain old films,” she said. “Today it’s the youngsters that are actually buying these old prints so they can study them-not just show ’em.
“They’re also making their own movies. Isn’t that marvelous? They’re the ones who realize the lasting value of what people like Griffith and Chaplin and Keaton were doing. At first the kids used to follow me for autographs. Now it’s for information,” she beamed, her unlined face, with its pink complexion, remarkably the same as when it lighted the early screen with a girlish glow.
Director at the Center
Her book started 12 years ago with an idea proposed by Reader’s Digest then expanded under Miss Gish’s own pen during three Swiss vacations (“the same hotel, where nobody else spoke English”) and culminated in a collaboration with a professional writer, Ann Pinchot.
“It’s my own story,” she continued, “but Griffith is the center of it-with his innovative techniques of the camera, and all the heart, taste and feeling you don’t see in films today. I didn’t want the book to be just another exploitation book. I’ve read some of those,” she added wryly. “Colleen Moore’s is a delightful exception.”
Like many others, she concedes that movies today are primarily a director’s medium. “But back then they belonged to everybody involved. We were in everything-the writing, costumes, photography, even the editing,” said the actress who personally edited “The White Sister” in 1923.
“At one time I also directed, wrote scripts and even built my studio. It’s in the book,” she added, twinkling. “Today it’s all packaged impersonally.” “True,” she continued, “it’s a business like everything else. Maybe real beauty has gone out of the world. Disney’s gone, of course, but there are men of vision-like Satyajit Ray of India, those beautiful Japanese pictures, and Fellini and Zeffirelli with his ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Men like these convey the human spirit, something I’ve always believed in with my Lutheran Episcopal background.”
She smiled bleakly. “But what do we get today? All this filth, nudity and violence. Yes, I go; but I can’t believe it’s so popular. The other afternoon I went to one – never mind which – with only 12 or 13 people in the audience and this man dropping In front of me then falling sound asleep. I thought, $2.50-to nap?”
James Agee’s elegiac and touching novel A Death in the Family was published posthumously by McDowell, Obolensky two years after his death from a heart attack in New York City on May 16, 1955, at the age of forty-five. The novel, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, was adapted as a play in 1960 by Tad Mosel (George Ault Mosel, Jr.). Mosel won the Pulitzer Prize for his play in 1961, marking the first time in the forty-five-year-old history of the awards that a play adapted from a Pulitzer Prize novel was also the recipient of the award. The play opened to general critical acclaim but was ignored by the public. Three days after the opening, the closing notice went up. The author, producers, director and other personnel waived their royalties and salaries; the Shuberts reduced the theatre rental and the published announcement of the play’s clos¬ ing added public support. Again the closing notice went up for Saturday April 22, 1961, but on Tuesday, April 18 the play was given the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the Best Play of the Year and, again, survived. The flux of audience absenteeism and hopeful honorariums won the beleaguered play the synonym of “The Miracle on 44th Street.” In the superlative cast assembled for the play, Colleen Dewhurst (who won the “Tony” Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama), Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Aline Mac- Mahon, Art Smith and others, was an 81-year-old woman who played the role of Great-Great-Granmaw, Lylah Tiffany, who for eleven years supported herself by playing the accordian on the sidewalk out¬ side of Carnegie Hall. Miss Tiffany repeated her role of the 102- year-old Great-Great-Granmaw in the film version of the play.
Belasco Theatre, New York, opened November 30, 1960. 334 performances. Produced by Fred Coe (in association with Arthur Can¬ tor); Director, Arthur Penn; Settings and lighting, David Hays; Cos¬ tumes, Raymond Sovey; Assistant director, Gene Lasko Arthur Hill (Jay Follet); Colleen Dewhurst (Mary Follet); Lillian Gish (Catherine Lynch); Aline MacMahon (Aunt Hannah Lynch); Art Smith (Father Jackson); Lenka Peterson (Sally Follet); Clif¬ ton James (Ralph Follet); Edwin Wolfe (John Henry Follet); Thomas Chalmers (Joel Lynch); Tom Wheatley (Andrew Lynch); Georgia Simmons (Jessie Follet); Dorrit Kelton (Aunt Sadie Follet); Lylah Tiffany (Great-Great-Granmaw); John Megna (Rufus); Christopher Month (Jim-Wilson); Larry Provost, Jeff Conaway, Gary Morgan, Robert Ader (Boys)
ANYA, Ziegfeld Theatre, New York, opened November 29, 1965.
16 performances. Produced by Fred R. Fehlhaber; Director, George Abbott; Scenery, Robert Randolph; Costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting, Richard Casler; Dances and musical numbers, Hanya Holm; Book, (based on the play Anastasia), by George Abbott, Guy Bolton; Musical director, Harold Hastings; Orchestrations, Don Walker; Music (based on themes by Rachmaninoff), and lyrics, Robert Wright, George Forrest Constance Towers (Anya); Lillian Gish (Dowager Empress); John Michael King (Prince Paul); Ed Steffe (Petrovin); George S. Irving (Chernov); Michael Kermoyan (Bounine); Margaret Mullen (Baroness Livenbaum); Irra Petina (Katrina); Boris Aplon (Josef); Lawrence Brooks (Count Drivinitz); Adair McGowan (Count Dorn); Jack Dabdoub (Sergei); Walter Hook (Yegor); Karen Shepard (Genia, the Countess Hohenstadt); Laurie Franks (Olga); Rita Metzger (Masha); Lawrence Boyll (Sleigh Driver); Elizabeth Howell (Anouchka); Barbara Alexander (Tinka); Maggie Task (Mother); Michael Quinn (Father); Elizabeth Howell (Countess Drivinitz); Bernard Frank, Lawrence Boyll (Policemen); Howard Kahl (Police Sergeant); Patricia Hoffman (Nurse); Konstantin Pio- Ulsky (Balalaika player); Barbara Alexander, Ciya Challis, Patricia Drylie, Juliette Durand, Kip Andrews, Steven Boockvor, Randy Doney, Joseph Nelson (Dancers); Laurie Franks, Patricia Hoffman, Rita Metzger, Mia Powers, Lourette Raymon, Diane Tarleton, Maggie Task, Darrel Askey, Lawrence Boyll, Les Freed, Horace Guittard, Walter Hook, Howard Kahl, Adair McGowan, Richard Nieves, J. Vernon Oaks, Robert Sharp, John Taliaferro, Bernard Frank (Singers)
SONGS: Anya; A Song from Somewhere; Vodka, Vodka!; So Proud; Homeward; Snowflakes and Sweethearts; On That Day; Six Palaces; Hand in Hand; This Is My Kind of Love; That Prelude!; A Quiet Land; Here Tonight, Tomorrow Where?; Leben Sie Wohl; If This Is Goodbye; Little Hands; All Hail the Empress
Arsenic and Old Lace
Ford Theatre’s telecast of the play on April 11, 1949, remains the best video production with Josephine Hull and Boris Karloff reprising their stage roles. Best of Broadway’s January 5, 1955 telecast of Arsenic and Old Lace, according to Variety, was excellent, “Miss Hayes was a complete delight. Karloff and Lorre made the perfect murderous pair, relishing every line. Bean added comedy-relief of his own in fine double-take fashion.” Hallmark Hall of Fame’s experiment with the comedy in 1962 was found wanting by Variety, The wit and fantasy of the Kesselring original were swamped by several earthbound actors.” Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick. as the administering spinsters, were considered too real to be fun while Tony Randall as Mortimer was excessively clownish. The American Broadcasting System produced a two-hour color-special of Arsenic and Old Lace on April 2, 1969. that Variety found “was still almost as good for laughs as it was 28 years ago. Acting was good and professional. But you’d expect that from a cast of pros headed by Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish as the murderous but well meaning little old Brewster sisters.” At the end of the telecast, eleven of& the thirteen “bodies” emerged from the cellar to take bows with the “live” cast–as had been done on the stage.
ABC Color Special, televised April 2, 1969. ABC. 2 hours. Producer, Hubbell Robinson; Television adaptation, Luther Davis; Director, Robert Scheerer
Helen Hayes (Abby Brewster); Lillian Gish (Martha Brewster); David Wayne (Teddy Brewster); Fred Gwynne (Jonathan Brewster); Bob Crane (Mortimer Brewster); Sue Lyon (Elaine Harper); Bob Dishy (Officer Sampson); Jack Gilford (Dr. Einstein); Billy De Wolfe (Mr. Witherspoon); Victor Kilian (Mr. Gibbs); Frank Campanella (Officer Klein); Bernard West (Benner)
in 1882 playing The Lady of the Camelias. Abandoned after the surge of the turn-of-the-century gold rush, Robert Edmond Jones restored the acoustically perfect theatre and in July 1932 reopened the Central City Opera House on its fiftieth anniversary with Edna and Delos Chappell’s translation of Dumas’ play. Staged by Robert Edmond Jones, Camille starred Lillian Gish. The Colorado production was transferred to Broadway on November 1, 1932, at the Morosco Theatre for fifteen performances. Robert Garland (The New York World-Telegram) found Lillian Gish played the lady of the ca- melias “in just the proper key … a charmingly artificial resurrection of a charmingly artificial play, a museum piece from the half-forgotten eighties, staged by Robert Edmond Jones, who adores such things and acted in its leading role by an anachronistic lady who seemed somehow to belong.”
Morosco Theatre, New York, opened November 1, 1932. 15 performances. Produced by Delos Chappell, Inc. ; Directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones; Translation of play by Alexandre Dumas, Edna and Delos Chappell, Robert Edmond Jones; Music, Macklin Marrow
Lillian Gish (Marguerite Gautier); Raymond Hackett (Armand Duvall); Moffat Johnston (M. Georges Duval); Frederic Worlock (Baron de Varville); Cora Witherspoon (Prudence Duvernoy); Helen Freeman (Olympe); Robert Le Sueur (Saint-Gaudens); ’ian Van-Wolfe (Comte de Diray); Lewis Martin (Gaston Rieux); Mary Morris (Nanine); Leona Boytel (Nichette); Ian Van-Wolfe (Gustave)- Paul Stephenson (Arthur); Moffat Johnston (Doctor); Edna James (Anais); Harriett Ingersoll, Betty Upthegrove, Lillian Bronson, William James, Bartlett Robinson, Richard Kendrick (Guests Servants)
Crime and Punishment
The Rodney Ackland stage version opened in New York at the National Theatre on December 22, 1947, but survived only 64 performances. Time magazine felt Dostoievsky’s novel defied dramatization, a concept that was popular from the late eighteen-hundreds. While admiring John Gielgud’s “brilliantly mannered performance” the play was dismissed as a gloomy bore. Variety determined that Ackland’s adaptation lacked theatrical form without concept of set acts and scenes. Lillian Gish’s performance as Katerina was called “superb” and John Gielgud’s portrayal of Raskolnikoff judged as … “possibly the finest performance of his distinguished Broadway career…. ” Critic George Jean Nathan announced, “The present version by Mr. Ackland has its points, but, like all the others, is hardly satisfactory to respecters of the novel. The result is a play that, save in one or two scenes, merely skims some of the plot elements of the novel and leaves the cream of its body untouched. . .. Everything considered, I fear that the exhibit is best critically described, to borrow Dorothy Parker’s reply to the author of a drugstore murder novel who asked her to supply him with a title, as Crime and Punishment, Jr.”
National Theatre, New York, opened December 22, 1947. 64 performances. Produced by Robert Whitehead and Oliver Rea; Director, Theodore Komisarievsky; Associate director, Bea Lawrence; Setting, Paul Sherifi; Costumes, Lester Polakov; Production associate, Virginia Bolen John Gielgud (Rodion Romanitch Raskoinikofi); Dolly Haas (Sonia Marmeladoff); Lillian Gish (Katerina Ivanna); Vladimir Sokoloff (Porfiri Petrovitch); Alexander Scourby (Dmitri Prokovitch Raz¬ oumikhin); Sanford Meisner (Simon Zaharitch Marmeladoff); Alice John (Pulcheria Alexandrovna); Marian Seldes (Dounia); E. A. Krumschmidt (Casimir Stanislawowitch Looshinsky); Ben Morse (Lebeziatnikoff); Betty Lou Keim (Polya); Sherry Smith (Leda); Payton Price (Ivan); Elisabeth Neumann (Amalia); Galina Talva (Nastasia); Susan Steell (Daria); Howard Fischer (Street Vendor); Wauna Paul (Anyutka, his wife); Robert Donley (Street Vendor’s Assistant); Scott Moore (Lodger); Michael Arshansky (Ex-Soldier); Mary James (Lizavieta); Richard Purdy (Zametoff); Patrick McVey (Doctor); Harry Selby (Coachman); Robert Pastene (Priest); David Elliott (Government Clerk); Cecile Sherman (His Wife); Amy Douglass (Widow); Jeri Souvinet (Her Daughter); Eugenia Woods (Old Lady); Arthur Griffin (Old Gentleman); Richard Hayes (Fomitch); Mort Marshall (A Strange Man); Mary Diveny, Mary Stuart, Marjorie Tas, Niels Miller, Robert Pastene, Graham Ferguson, John Vicari, Theodore Tenley, James Matsagas, Wil¬ liam Beal (Lodgers, Policemen, Street Musicians, Delivery Boys, Passers-by)
His Double Life
HIS DOUBLE LIFE, Paramount Pictures, released December 1933. Produced by Arthur Hopkins; Directors, William C. de Mille, Arthur Hopkins; Screenplay, Clara Beranger, Arthur Hopkins (based on Arnold Bennett’s novel Buried Alive and his play The Great Adventure); Camera, Arthur Edeson; Editor, Arthur Ellis
Roland Young (Priam Farell); Lillian Gish (Alice Challice /Hunter); Montagu Love (Duncan Farell); Lumsden Hare (Charles Oxford); Lucy Beaumont (Mrs. Leek); Charles Richman (Mr. Witt); Philip Tonge, Oliver Smith (Leek Twins); Roland Hogue (Henry Leek); Audrey Ridgewell (Helen)
SONGS: Someday, Sometime, Somewhere; Springtime in Old Granada (James Hanley, Karl Stark)
The Late Christopher Bean
Sidney Coe Howard’s successful adaptation of the French stage play Prenez Garde La Peinture was his twelfth play, and his fifth translation of a foreign play, the others being: S.S. Tenacity (1923); Marseilles (1932) from the French; Casanova (1923), from the Spanish and Sancho Panza (1923) from the Hungarian. The role of Abby, protectress of her lover’s paintings, was played on the stage by a succession of fine actresses: Pauline Lord, Edith Evans, Charlotte Greenwood, ZaSu Pitts, Shirley Booth; on the screen by Charlotte Clasis and Marie Dressier. Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Thelma Ritter gave the role stature on television.
“Mr. Howard has written a funny comedy with a hilarious conclusion; and Pauline Lord, as the faithful drudge of the country doc¬ tor’s family, acts a comedy role with admirable lightness of touch and luminous beauty. “–Brooks Atkinson (The New York Times).
Philco Playhouse’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean, shown on February 6, 1949, featured Lillian Gish as Abby. “Televersion of Sidney Howard’s amicable little play engenders the same charm as the original. Miss Gish was extremely appealing, ” reported Variety. Helen Hayes appeared as the bedeviled Abby in Pulitzer Prize Playhouse’s telecast of the play on October 27, 1950, and “scored a complete triumph as the maid. ” Twentieth Century-Fox’s television production of The Late Christopher Bean was aired on November 30, 1955, and released the following year abroad as a feature film starring Thelma Ritter where it was found to survive “quite tolerably as an anecdote in this abridged version. Treatment is flat and one-dimensional although Thelma Ritter brings her usual decisive assurance to the part of Abby. “
Philco Playhouse, televised February 6, 1949. NBC. 1 hour. Produced and directed by Fred Coe Lillian Gish (Abby); Bert Lytell (Dr. Haggett); Helen Carew (Mrs. Haggett); Ellen Cobb Hill (Susan Haggett); Clarence Derwent (Rosen); Perry Wilson (Warren Creamer); Philip Coolidge (Tallant); Louis Sorin (Davenport)
Life With Father
National Road Company (1939 – May 24, 1941). Produced by Oscar Serlin; Director, Bretaigne Windust; Setting and costumes, Stewart Chaney; Music arranger, Edmund Thiele Percy Waram (Father); Lillian Gish (Vinnie); O. Z. Whitehead (Clarence); Peter Jamerson (John); James Roland (Whitney); David Jeffries (Harlan); Clara Joel (Margaret); Margaret Randall (Annie); Virgilia Chew (Cora); Georgette McKee (Mary); George Le Soir (The Rev. Dr. Lloyd); Aubrey Hynes (Delia); Shirley De Me (Nora); Charles Walton (Dr. Sommers); Gertrude Beach (Maggie)
George Abbott, Lillian Gish, Benny Goodman, Gene Kelly and Eugene Ormandy were named today as the recipients of the 1982 Kennedy Center Honors for their contributions to the performing arts.
”I’m in such good company – that’s marvelous,” said Mr. Kelly when told the names of his co-winners. ”It’s a gang I feel very comfortable with.”
Mr. Kelly, who was cited in his award for his work as a dancer, choreographer and director, was reached by telephone near Nogales, Mexico, where he is vacationing with his family, and his designation will mean his second trip this year to the White House for a meeting with President Reagan, an old friend.
This year Mr. Kelly was the host for a nationally televised performance by young dancers at the White House.
Youngest of the Five
”Nothing could have pleased me more than to have been selected,” Mr. Kelly said. ”I was very moved and touched when informed of it.” At the age of 70, Mr. Kelly, who has retired from dancing, is the youngest of this year’s recipients. The oldest is Mr. Abbott, who is 95.
Just a week ago Mr. Abbott announced that he would stage a revival in December at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts of ”On Your Toes,” a musical he wrote in 1936. His collaborator for the revival will be George Balanchine, who choreographed ”On Your Toes,” his first Broadway musical.
Mr. Abbott thus joins Mr. Balanchine as a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors; the choreographer was in the first group of winners in 1978.
Mr. Abbott’s other Broadway writing credits include ”Three Men on a Horse,” ”The Boys From Syracuse,” ”Where’s Charley?,” ”The Pajama Game” and ”Damn Yankees.” The plays he has directed include ”Sweet Charity,” ”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and ”Call Me Madam.”
Broadway and Hollywood
Mr. Kelly’s career includes movies as well as the stage. He appeared on Broadway in ”The Time of Your Life” and ”Pal Joey” and in such movies as ”Singin’ in the Rain” and ”An American in Paris.”
Miss Gish and Mr. Goodman will also be making their second Washington appearances in less than a year when they accept their awards. Miss Gish appeared at Wolf Trap recently at a screening of ”La Boheme,” the silent film classic in which she played. She spoke of her long career, which included such other silent movies as ”The Birth of a Nation” and ”Orphans of the Storm.” Her modern films include ”Duel in the Sun,” ”The Night of the Hunter” and ”The Wedding.”
In a Broadway production of ”Hamlet” she played Ophelia opposite John Gielgud.
Swing and Bartok, Too
Mr. Goodman, a clarinetist who is as comfortable with a concerto by Karl Maria von Weber as he is with a jazz composition by Fletcher Henderson, performed at a White House party this year.
His swing band was among the country’s most popular in the 1930’s and 40’s, and he formed a quartet with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa; at the same time he was commissioning works for the clarinet by Bela Bartok, Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith.
Mr. Ormandy, now conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was the Philadelphians’ music director for 44 years. During his long tenure, the orchestra developed its distinctive style and a specialization in late Romantic works, and it became the most recorded symphony orchetra in the United States.
Mr. Ormandy conducted the orchestra during its 1973 visit to China, the first appearance by an American symphony orchestra in China since Peking’s resumption of relations with the United States.
‘Rich Harvest’ Ahead
The five recipients are to receive their awards at a Kennedy Center ceremony next Dec. 4, and President and Mrs. Reagan will honor them at a White House reception the following night. After the reception a performance will be given in their honor at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. The performance will be be broadcast at a later date by CBS-TV.
Roger L. Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, said that the awards, now in their fifth year, were intended to demonstrate that ”this nation does recognize the intrinsic value of the arts.”
He added: ”There are still so many who deserve to be honored that the years ahead promise a rich harvest.” Previous winners of the Kennedy Center honors were: 1978 – Marian Anderson, Fred Astaire, Richard Rodgers, Arthur Rubinstein and Mr. Balanchine. 1979 – Ella Fitzgerald, Henry Fonda, Martha Graham, Tennessee Williams and Mr. Copland. 1980 – James Cagney, Leonard Bernstein, Agnes de Mille, Lynn Fontanne and Leontyne Price. 1981 – Count Basie, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Jerome Robbins and Rudolf Serkin.
Princess Grace of Monaco, Miss Lillian Gish and Al Pacino – 1982
FOR those still squirming from the way movie veterans Hal Roach and Frank Capra were poorly handled during the Academy Award ceremonies last week, tonight’s ”American Salute to Lillian Gish,” on CBS-TV at 9 o’clock, shows how these things can be done with thoughtfulness and a measure of grace.
As a rule, veterans of any sort tend to be getting on in years, which may make it difficult for them to keep up with the standard razzle-dazzle of manufactured entertainment. Paying no attention to this simple fact of life, the Oscar ceremonies confronted Hal Roach, whose producing credits include the ”Our Gang” comedies, with Spanky McFarland, who completely discombobulated his old boss with a question about what Hollywood was really like in 1912. Later, Mr. Capra, whose eyesight is obviously not as sharp as it once was, fell victim to faulty technology as his recorded announcements for best-picture nominees suddenly went silent, leaving him fumbling at the podium with cue cards.
The American Film Institute affairs, having reached their 12th annual presentation, are planned more carefully. As the ”salutes” are bestowed for a lifelong career in film making, the recipients are automatically veterans, and the list includes such performers as Bette Davis and Fred Astaire and such directors as Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston. A couple of years ago, the Life Achievement Award went to Mr. Capra.
The occasion – this year’s was taped on March 1 – takes place at a black-tie dinner in a Los Angeles hotel ballroom. While the guests, a great many of them instantly recognizable, sit at large dining tables, a small stage is set up with a podium and a large screen for sampling clips from the recipient’s work. With an appropriate fanfare and standing ovation, the guest of honor enters the room and sits at a special table to listen to friends and colleagues speak warmly of past accomplishments. The recipient offers a few words of appreciation at the end of the evening. Far from being just another silly orgy of star gazing, the event turns out to be a gathering of professionals taking justifiable pride in their work.
Lillian Gish, now somewhere vaguely around age 90, is a thoroughly deserving and delightful recipient. One of the biggest stars of silent films, she has always projected a certain physical fragility, but as this salute progresses it is clear that the lady is anything but fragile. She exudes a feisty spirit that clearly explains how she was one of the first film performers to command a hefty salary plus a percentage of profits, and to exercise creative control over her films. Lily Tomlin laughingly recalls how, after the premiere of ”9 to 5,” an enthusiastic Miss Gish ran up to her saying, ”Tell me you have a piece of it.”
The audience is reminded that Miss Gish’s career was hardly limited to silent movies. John Huston notes that she appeared with his father, Walter, in a 1902 stage production of ”In Convict’s Stripes.” She also did ”talking” movies, most notably, as Robert Mitchum points out, ”The Night of the Hunter.” And she has been active in television, appearing within the last year in ”Hobson’s Choice.” Her co-star, Richard Thomas, relates Miss Gish’s dissatisfaction with a low camera angle. ”Young man,” she told the cameraman, ”if God had wanted you to see me that way, he would have put your eyes in your bellybutton.”
But the silents, especially those associated with the legendary director D. W. Griffith, were the crown in Miss Gish’s career, and scenes are offered from four of her classics: ”The Birth of a Nation,” ”Orphans of the Storm,” ”The Wind” and ”Way Down East.” Special scoring by Carl Davis, the musical director, is played by an orchestra. The high-quality prints are run through special film projectors, lending urgency to the underlying theme of the evening: that old films must be preserved as artistic endeavors and as artifacts encompassing, in the words of an American Film Institute director, ”our collective memories, our dreams, our myths, our heritage.”
With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as elegant host, tributes are offered to Miss Gish by, among others, Jeanne Moreau, Sally Field, John Houseman, Mary Martin, Colleen Moore and Richard Widmark. Miss Gish herself, while conceding that there have been some good talkies (” ‘Tootsie’ was wonderful’), praises the power of the silents with their great music and their great themes. She concludes with the simple statement: ”Thank you for my life.” The broadcast was directed by Marty Pasetta who, incidentally, performed the same chore for the Academy Awards. George Stevens Jr., co-chairman, was the producer.
AT 6, Lillian Gish became an actress, not out of love, but out of necessity. “We were very poor,” she says,” and the job paid $10 a week.” Today at 61, Miss Gish is still an actress, not out of necessity, but out of love.
When her close friend Mary Pickford phoned her recently, Miss Gish told her she had been working very hard “I was on television, doing ‘The Grass Harp’ for ‘The Play of the Week, ‘” Miss Gish said. We had twelve days to learn it and do it. The last day we worked twenty-two hours.” A note of pride entered her voice. “I’m still the iron horse if I can work twenty two hours.” The “iron horse,’ looked slender, dreamy, fragile and wistful in “The Grass Harp” and was cheered by TV critics like some new acting discovery. But the sweet, gentle, innocent maiden lady Miss Gish portrayed on TV was, to some viewers, only a mature rendering of the characterization that made her one of the immortals of the movies in the great silent days, thirty to forty-five years ago.
LILLIAN GISH and Carmen Mathews – The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Grass Harp
The Gish image first emerged in the films of the pioneering director D. W. Griffith “The Birth of a Nation,” Hearts of the World,” Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East” and ”Orphans of the Storm”-and then took on –a dazzling, starry glitter in such post … Griffith romances of the Twenties as .. The White Sister,” Romola,” “La Boheme,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and The Wind.”
The images tell you what we tried for.” Miss Gish said recently in her quietly elegant living room on East Fifty-seventh Street. “The essence of femininity. Mostly, in those movies, I was a virgin. We tried for virginity, in mind, in looks, in body, in movement. “Not that I enjoyed this-to attract and hold the interest of an audience with nothing but goodness is difficult; goodness becomes dull so quickly. It’s so much easier to win an audience with a little wickedness.
Within The Gates – Edward Steichen (Estate) credits – Harvard Art Museums – Fogg Museum copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – detail1
I was lucky with Sean O’Casey. When I did his ‘Within the Gates’ on the stage in 1934, I didn’t have to work half so hard as I used to in movies. I was The Young Whore and the audience was interested before the curtain even went up …
“That virginal character hadn’t anything to do with me,” Miss Gish observed matter of-factly. Yet it appealed to, and deeply touched, millions of Americans, Europeans, Asians-and possibly some Eskimos and Hottentots -as few portrayals have since movies began.
THE pretty, helpless, virtuous and spiritual girl tossed about by a cruel world, was a triumphant creation, so eloquent as to make language almost unnecessary. And how cruel the world was: constantly in her movies MissGish suffered and was buffeted about by outrageous fortune. She was beaten to death, or ravaged by consumption, or driven out into a blizzard or persecuted by a narrow minded community. She might find love, but only to lose it.
All this anguish brought tears and sympathy from the most hardened audiences. When one saw a Gish movie, the highest praise he could bestow was, .. Gee, did I cry!”
Born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898, Miss Gish does not remember becoming an actress six years later, nor even wanting to become one. “It all happened before my memory,” she said. Her father and mother brought her and her younger sister Dorothy to New York by way of Dayton, and Baltimore, Md., where the father had a small candy store. In New York her parents separated and to support herself and her two small girls, Mrs. Gish got a job acting with a Twenty third Street stock company.
“Mother was getting $15 a week and we were living on it, Miss Gish said. “We had one room, on Eighth Avenue around Twenty-first Street. At night she’d put us to sleep and go to the theatre. Baby sitters? Oh, no, she’d just leave us, there wasn’t anything else to do..
“Matinee days she’d take us with her, and one day an actress who was going out on the road stopped in at the dressing room, saw me, and said to mother, ‘If you’d let me have her. -‘ They needed a child in her company, and I looked right for it.”
LILLIAN. golden – haired and wide eyed, went traveling in a typical blood-and-thunder melodrama of the day, In Convict’s Stripes.” At about the same time Dorothy, who was engaged to tour as Little Willie, a boy, in ‘East Lynne.” Each child earned $10 a week . .
The next year, 1905, mother and daughters were able to get roles together in one touring show. “We grew up this way,” Miss Gish said. “all around the country. At first mother had to teach us our parts but then she taught us to read and to write-in our dressing rooms.
We were educated this way: if we went to a town, say Detroit, mother took us to an auto factory, to see how it was all done. If we were playing in the South, she took us on a street car out of the city to cotton fields, to pick a little cotton, to watch a cotton gin. At Gettysburg she took us out to the battlefield with her history book in her hand and we had our history lesson right on the spot.” we had a wonderful mother,” Miss Gish went on. “From my mother we got great security-the security of love, of trust, of peace. From my father we got great insecurity and, as I grow older, I wonder which was the more valuable. It’s wonderful to give children insecurity early. It develops their characters, to make them know responsibility and meet the world head-on. ‘I didn’t use to feel this way. But an earIy insecurity and learning what to do with it and conquering it-this can bring maturity and contentment later on.” As children, Lillian and Dorothy became friendly with another juvenile player, Gladys Smith. In summers, between road tours, the Gishes and the Smiths-Gladys, her mother, sister and brother-sometimes shared an apartment in New York to save on rent. In 1912, returning from the road, Lillian and Dorothy went to look up Gladys at the Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. It was with some difficulty that they found their friend. She had changed her name to Mary Pickford. A fantastic new world – movies was opening up to Mary under the guidance of D.W. Griffith. Lillian made her screen debut as an extra in a Mary Pickford movie. The next year David Belasco engaged Lillian for her first Broadway play, “A Good Little Devil,’ in which Miss Pickford again had the lead. From Broadway, Miss Gish followed D. W. Griffith to California, to become the very symbol of pure womanhood in his movies. She shared with him the excitement of discovering and shaping a new art form, of seeing it grow, of experimenting with ideas, stories, techniques.
We worked wild hours, Saturdays, Sundays. There wasn’t any place as interesting as the studio, Miss Gish said. Everyone just lived for those pictures.” Miss Gish was a member of the Griffith company from 1913 to 1922. In time an awareness that the public had made a star of her came upon Griffith. “He told me to go out,” she said. “He said, ‘You know about as much as I do. I can’t pay you the money you’re worth, you go out and get it.
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
The White Sister
Late in 1922 Miss Gish helped organize the first American company to shoot a movie in Italy. The movie was “The White Sister.” It cost $270,000, eventually took in $4,000,000-and Miss Gish had a financial, aswell as artistic, stake in it. , Through the Twenties her career flourished. Gish, Garbo and Mary Pickford-some historians regard these as the three great women’s names of the decade. Miss Gish ultimately undertook her first talking picture. “One Romantic Night” was a light, sophisticated comedy from a Molnar play, “The Swan.” Cast as a cold princess Miss Gish must have surprised that multitude which cherished her as a helpless, beaten-down poor innocent. It was 1930, a troubled year in the United States. The movie did not succeed. Perhaps the age of innocence had passed for both America and Miss Gish.
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
One Romantic Night – The Swan
Conrad Nagel, Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, Direktor Paul L. Stein ermahnt, The Swan
The actress came back to New York. One night she had dinner with George Jean Nathan, Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris. Out of that evening came an invitation from Harris to play Helena in a revival of “Uncle Vanya!’ By her own choice Miss Gish was not starred in the production, afraid that a theatre audience would look on her as another “Miss Hollywood and hurl things at me from across the footlights.”
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya
But the Chekhov revival and its leading actress both came through extraordinarily well. Miss Gish went on to other fine plays and performances in the theatre. “Within the Gates,” Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet, Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” and “Life With Father,” which she played for more than a year to Chicago’s delight. Since the early Forties she has accepted occasional, interesting character roles in movies. Her television bow came early; she starred in “The Late Christopher Bean” in 1949. Miss Gish’s latest movie – John Huston’s Western ‘The Unforgiven’ in which she is a pioneer woman who raises a foundling, Audrey Hepburn, in Texas around 1885. Miss Gish was intrigued by a role that was different from the ethereal ones of the old days. “I tried to make the character a Grant Wood,” she said, strong in spirit, strong in body. She carries a gun and yet is maternal and tender just woman.” CURRENTLY Miss Gish is working on a biography of her movie mentor, D. W. Griffith. She lives alone. She has never married and says she does not regret it.
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and Dame Judith Anderson in Hamlet 1936
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936
Guthrie McClintic and Lillian Gish working on last details before Hamlet – 1936 (Lillian Gish signed the contract for Ophelia)
Lillian Gish as Ophelia in 1936 Hamlet G McClintic
Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936
“I think being a good wife is a twenty-four hour a day job. And certainly I haven’t lacked for male companionship in my life. I’ve had much more than I’ve deserved-wonderful, wonderful men and wonderful minds. I’m greatly indebted to George Jean Nathan, his great knowledge, his fine mind. Through him I knew Mencken and all the American writers of the Twenties as friends, and later on the writers of Europe.’
After fifty-six years as a performer, Miss Gish ponders future acting assignments with eagerness. “I’m always interested in new things,” she said … If it’s new and different, I want to know about it. I was born with a terrific curiosity.’
Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.
Oh, she was such fun. — Bessie Love
“She gives people the impression that she’s an awful tomboy,” her sister says with a sigh. “I can’t help it if I do,” the accused replies, “because I do like to climb trees, and I do like to take off my shoes and stockings and go wading, and I do like to swim, and go fishing, and bait my own hooks, and . . .
“Hush, dear, people will think you’re simply terrible and it won’t do any good for me to tell them what a perfect darling you are.” The last from Miss Lillian Gish to her sister Dorothy. “Mr. Griffith,” she remarked, “I’ve often wondered how the divine Sarah would have played this part.” Before Mr. Griffith could answer, Dorothy Gish spoke up: “You mean the great French actress?” she inquired ironically. “Ah yes! She’d do it this way.”
The foregoing apocryphal conversation, which appeared in a 1914 issue of Reel Life, suggests the essence of Dorothy Gish’s personality. Her sense of fun and wit was well-known and appreciated by her many friends. Herbert Wilcox recalls in his autobiography: “The wittiest woman I have met is undoubtedly Dorothy Gish. Whilst in New York I took her to the Pavilion, the smartest and darkest restaurant in the city. About that time a columnist who called herself Hortense was dishing out her daily column of poison. ‘Hortense’ was universally loathed, particularly by her pet target—film stars. Whilst eating, I thought I saw her at a far table, but in the low-key lighting was not certain. ‘Isn’t that Hortense over there?’ I asked. Dorothy looked and without a flicker of a smile answered: ‘She looks perfectly relaxed to me.’”
dorothy gish – as photographed for – dorothy and lillian gish – by lillian gish
From the day she was born, on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy’s private life was always to be linked with that of her sister. In company with their mother, the two girls spent their early years touring in melodrama, Dorothy having made her stage debut at the age of four. Of her childhood she was to write: “People used to say Lillian would never live to get into her ’teens. She was so quiet and good. I wasn’t. I used to get into mischief, and get spanked, and then Lillian cried—so much and so pitifully that she used to make everyone round her do the same.” However, there was another side to Dorothy’s character, and Lillian recalled that she could be a very serious child, and at times became so serious that she was nicknamed “Grannie Gish.”
In 1929, Dorothy reminisced about the plays Lillian and she had worked in as children. “Remember, Lillian, the old Blaney melodrama we used to play in? Remember Her First False Step? That was the name of our first melodrama. I always thought it was misnamed. There were two of us; Lillian and I were the false steps. Lillian would run out dressed as a newsboy, and give me a lollypop and I would clap my hands and cry ‘Oh Goodie! Goodie!’ And Lillian would kneel beside her mother and say, ‘Oh mother, what are you doing out here in the cold and snow?’ And remember the snow, Lillian? How they used to sweep it up every night and use it again the next day, and we’d have nails and pieces of wood and sometimes dead mice hit us on the head when they threw it down?”
Then, one fateful day in Baltimore, Mrs. Gish took her two young daughters to see a moving picture; it was Lena and the Geese, featuring Gladys Smith, whose family was intimate friends of the Gishes. Thus it was that when the Gish family arrived in New York, they went along to the Biograph studios to renew acquaintances with the Smiths, and Gladys, now Mary Pickford, introduced them to D. W. Griffith.
Griffith gave the two girls work as extras at $5 a day, and shortly after the first meeting featured both of them in An Unseen Enemy, released September 9, 1912. However, before very long, it became apparent that it was Lillian in whom Griffith was most interested. Linda Arvidson described Dorothy as “a bit too perky to interest the big director.” And Griffith told Albert Bigelow Paine, “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal, and patiently sought to realise it.”
But it was Dorothy who was the more popular at the studio with the other players. Blanche Sweet recalled: “Dorothy was very close and very dear. We got to be excellent friends, and remained so until she died. Griffith asked me, ‘Which one do you like?’ And I said, ‘They’re both lovely, they’re both beautiful, but I like the younger one. There’s something, the expression of her face, it’s vivacious.’ Lillian was calmer and more placid. Dorothy had humor, of course, for which I have high regard.”
Griffith did, however, take Dorothy with him to Reliance-Majestic, perhaps only because Lillian would not have come without her. The director did not use her in either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, but Dorothy was featured in a vast number of Mutual releases directed by, among others, James Kirkwood, Christy Cabanne, and Donald Crisp* all under the nominal supervision of Griffith. Typical of such releases was the 1914 The Warning, directed by Donald Crisp.
Dorothy plays Betty, “the wilful, indolent country girl,” who likes nothing better than sitting in a hammock, reading popular fiction with doubtful titles such as The Marriage of Marie. She is attracted to a drummer from the city, whom she meets outside the local post office, and with whom she elopes. After a fake marriage, the girl rents a dingy tenement room, in which she tries to gas herself. However, the landlady arrives on the scene in time, and sends her home to her mother. But because of her behaviour, her mother tells her to leave. The girl, in abject misery, wanders to a bridge and throws herself into the river. The scene fades, and we see that Dorothy has in fact fallen out of her hammock—it was all a dream. She meets the drummer who had beguiled her with his city manners, tells him she never wants to see him again, and promises her mother that in the future she will be good.
This one-reeler is a delight to watch, and makes one wish that more of Dorothy’s pictures from this early period were available for viewing. The range of her acting at such an early date in her career is quite remarkable. It hardly seems believable that comic little Dorothy could play tragedy as finely as she does in the scene of attempted suicide. She stands looking at the gas mantle, turns the gas on, and moves out of frame. All we glimpse is a harrowed, pitiful face, reflected in a mirror by the side of the mantle.
Linda Arvidson at least was aware of her abilities. For she wrote that, while Lillian was watching Dorothy on the set of The Wife, released in 1914, the elder sister commented, “Why, Dorothy is good; she’s almost as good as I am.”* Linda Arvidson continued, “Many more than myself thought Dorothy was better.”
It was Griffith, however, who gave Dorothy her really big chance, when he decided to film Hearts of the World. Lillian had already been cast as the heroine, and the role of “The Little Disturber” it was thought would go to Constance Talmadge. However, Lillian
Dorothy as “The Little Disturber”
Dorothy Gish as The Little Disturber in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
realised that her sister would be ideal for the role, and eventually Griffith was brought around to her way of thinking. Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England in April, 1917, and Dorothy followed two weeks later. Only on her arrival in England—many scenes were shot on location in war-torn France—did Dorothy discover that the role was hers.
Anyone who has seen Hearts of the World will remember Dorothy’s walk in the picture, and Lillian recalled for me how that walk was discovered. “I was walking with Mr. Griffith in Whitechapel, and we found this girl walking like this, and he said, ‘Look at that walk!’ And we followed her until she went into a building, and we couldn’t any more. And we rushed back. He said, ‘Where’s your sister? This is a perfect walk for her in this part.’ And then we rushed back to the Savoy, and got her, and both of us showed her this walk. And out of that came ‘The Little Disturber.’ Those little things that you or he or somebody found that would give the key to the character. They have the idea that he sat and told you everything to do. Well, he didn’t. He gave you the basis of the idea, and if you were overdoing it, he’d say, ‘Too much—don’t do so much. Be, don’t act. Be it.’ You didn’t want to get caught acting. You wanted to persuade people, whatever it was, that this was happening and this was real.”
One can’t help wondering if Lillian didn’t regret that she had pushed so much to have Dorothy in the film. For Hearts of the World is entirely Dorothy’s picture. She is utterly delightful as the street singer trying to make herself as attractive as possible to Robert Harron with “perseverance and perfume,” and shrugging her shoulders when she realises Harron’s love belongs elsewhere, secure in her philosophy, “If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.”
For the film, Dorothy wore a black wig, which led to some amusing incidents later, as people failed to recognize her as the girl in the film. Dorothy told Adela Rogers St. Johns, “There was a woman sat next to mother and me one day at a matinee of Hearts of the World. The woman watched me on the screen for a few minutes and then she turned around to me and said, ‘I’ll bet that girl is a tough one. She couldn’t pull that stuff so well if she wasn’t.’ ”
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release
Dorothy Gish 1926 – Nell Gwyn
Dorothy Gish – Nell Gwyn
As a result of her performance in Hearts of the World, Dorothy was offered a million-dollar contract by Paramount-Artcraft. She turned it down, preferring to remain with Griffith, an instance of the loyalty which crops up time and time again in recounting the careers of the Griffith actresses. After her decision to stay, Griffith supervised a series of seven Paramount-Artcraft comedies, directed by Elmer Clifton and starring Dorothy. These comedies, in fact, were so successful and popular that they helped to pay the cost of the building of Griffith’s new studios at Mamaroneck.
They were equally popular with the critics, as the following reviews from Wid’s Film Daily testify. I’ll Get Him Yet (reviewed May 25, 1919) : “Dorothy Gish has scored again. Individuality is marked in almost everything she does and the merest suggestion of a comic incident is frequently turned into a full-fledged laugh owing to her skill.” Nugget Nell (reviewed August 3, 1919) : “She knew just where to draw the line between seriousness and burlesque, with the result that time and time again she put a situation over with a bang. She was particularly bright in scoring in little things—the sort of things that made her efforts in the comedy line bring laughs merely because of her manner of doing them, and not always because of any inherent humor in the things themselves.”
Dorothy Gish – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (2) – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish) – Remodeling Her Husband
Late in 1919, Lillian began work on her first and only film as a director, Remodelling Her Husband. As her stars she had Dorothy and James Rennie, whom Dorothy was to marry on December 20, 1920. “Griffith needed money as usual,” recalled Lillian, “and he wanted to go to Florida with his company and make the exteriors down there for two pictures quickly. And he said, ‘How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.’ Well, I went home, and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course, there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the subtitles, because she’d never written for films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright— and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too! Then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was a brilliant man, the Los Angeles Times editorial writer—and me to do this film. I was taking scenes—it was December—and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I had to go down to New Rochelle quickly and get all my scenery; I had to design all the scenery, there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the furniture, everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he had had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set, the living room, so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. And he threw his hat in the air, stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. And then I had to build the studio!
“When I moved down there, I had to see the furnace was put in, and that the heat was sufficient. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene of Fifth Avenue, and the day before we took it, I found you had to have a police permit, and if that happened, I had all my crew on salary over the Christmas holidays. I said, ‘I just can’t. It’s too far over the budget.’ And I asked the crew and company if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal.
“Well, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus seeing her husband with a woman in the taxi cab. And we had no permit! We had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned a policeman saw what was happening, and held up his hand. Then he looked up at me, and he looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile. I said, ‘Yes.’ He waved us on, and we got by. We finished fifty-eight thousand dollars, and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many pictures do today.
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464
“When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture, when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, ‘Because I needed my studio built quickly, and I knew they’d work faster for a girl than they would for me. I’m no fool.’ And his studio was ready when he came back; he moved right in.”
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in “Orphans of the Storm” (1921)
Dorothy and Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm (United Artists, 1921). Autographed Photo
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish (Promo for Orphans of The Storm)
gish-sisters-in-orphans-of-the-storm Picture Show may-1922-part-3
After three pictures with other directors, Dorothy returned to Griffith, to appear with Lillian in what was to prove the sisters’ final film for the great director, Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have surprised many of his contemporaries by casting Dorothy not as Henriette, the more forceful of the two sisters, but as Louise, the blind girl, who is separated from her sister upon arrival in Paris, where they have come to find a surgeon who could cure the girl’s blindness. Yet again, Dorothy proved that she was far more than the comedienne many people remember. It is hard to believe that Lillian could have put more emotion into the scenes in which Dorothy is forced by Lucille La Verne to sing and beg for money in the streets. “This production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper,” commented Photoplay. “As for the acting—it is superb.”