It is born, it breathes, it eats, it communicates,
It grows old
And like all things in our universe,
It eventually dies.
Each theatre even has its own distinct personality—some are friendly, some brooding, some cozy, some expansive, some formal, some flamboyant. Its personality is initially defined by the entrepreneur who envisions it, the architect who designs it and the artisans who build it.
It is further shaped by the people and productions that take temporary residence in the theatres heart. Together, over time, this fusion of wood, metal, plaster, stone, sound, ideas, artists and audiences shape its spirit. One might even say spirits.
In November 1960 a beautiful play came to the Belasco. Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, adapted from James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family, starred Arthur Hill, Lillian Gish, Colleen Dewhurst, and Aline MacMahon. It etched with feeling the impact of a young fathers death on his family. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as the best play of the season.
In April 1930 producer Jed Harris, known as the boy wonder, returned from London and produced and directed an acclaimed revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Mrs. Ben Hecht (Rose Caylor). Harris’s direction and the acting of his sterling cast, Lillian Gish, Osgood Perkins, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli Joanna Roos, and others, made the occasion a theatrical event. The end of 1930 brought a taut, cynical expose of scandal mongering newspapers called Five-Star Final. It starred Arthur Byron, Frances Fuller, and Berton Churchill, and featured Allen Jenkins. Theatre goers supported it for 176 showings.
After a series of unsuccessful plays in 1930 and 1931, the Longacre finally had a hit in Blessed Event (1932), starring Roger Pryor in a thinly disguised impersonation of the egotistical Broadway columnist Walter Winchell, with Isabel Jewell and Allen Jenkins in support. A dramatization of the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders, Nine Pine Street, had a fine performance by Lillian Gish as the neurotic killer, but it only ran a few weeks in 1933.
Hal Holbrook starred in Robert Anderson’s somber autobiographical drama / Never Sang for My Father (1968), also starring Teresa Wright (then Mrs. Robert Anderson) and Lillian Gish.
The National had a series of failures and quick bookings during 1932 and 1933 and was dark for more than a year during those gray Depression days. But on October 22, 1934, a distinguished drama opened at this theatre. It was Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates, directed by Melvyn Douglas and starring Lillian Gish as a prostitute, Bramwell Fletcher as a poet, and Moffat Johnston as a bishop. The play took place in London’s Hyde Park, and the very large cast represented the great variety of humanity who spent their days in the park. There was music, dancing, and philosophizing, and Brooks Atkinson in The Times pronounced: “Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays.”
Mr. Gielgud was in the National’s next production as well, Crime and Punishment, costarring Lillian Gish, but the adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel was not a success.
Stuart Erwin and Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore.
St James Theatre
Lillian Gish and John Gielgud in Hamlet, which moved to the St. James in 1937.
Circle in the Square Theatre
Lillian Gish, George C. Scott, Nicol Williamson, Barnard Hughes, and Julie Christie in Uncle Vanya.
The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J., & London 1980
THE PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE (subsequently displaced by The Goodyear Theatre and The Alcoa Hour)
“The Late Christopher Bean” [adapted from the Sidney Howard play] (2-6-49) Bert Lytell, Lillian Gish (her video debut)
“The Birth of the Movies” (4-22-51) John Newland, Jean Pearson; narrated by Lillian Gish
The Philco Television Playhouse: “The Trip to Bountiful” [by Horton Foote; the basis for his 1953 Broadway play] (3-1-53) Lillian Gish, John Beal
The Alcoa Hour: “Morning’s at Seven” [adapted by Robert Wallstens from the Paul Osborn play] (11-4-56) Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, David Wayne, June Lockhart, Dorothy Stickney
THE FORD THEATRE HOUR Sponsored by The Ford Motor Company.
“Outward Bound” [adapted from the Sutton Vane play] (3-13-49) Lillian Gish, Freddie Bartholomew, Mary Boland, Richard Hart
“I, Mrs. Bibb” [by Paul Crabtree] (10-19-55) Lillian Gish, Richard Ney
“Ladies in Retirement” [adapted from the Edward Percy and Reginald Denham story] (5-7-51) Lillian Gish, Una O’Connor, Betty Sinclair, Michael McAloney
1949 – 50 season
“The Quality of Mercy” (3-15-54) Lillian Gish
“The Joyous Season”‘ [adapted from the Philip Barry play] (12-26-51) Lillian Gish, Wesley Addy
1951 – 52 season
THE SCHLITZ PLAYHOUSE OF THE STARS 1951 – 52
Segments were syndicated under a variety of titles HERALD PLAYHOUSE and THE PLAYHOUSE among them.
“The Autobiography of Grandma Moses” (3-28-52) Lillian Gish, Jonathan Marlowe
1952 – 53 season
THE CAMPBELL TELEVISION SOUNDSTAGE 1952 – 53 season
“The Corner Druggist” (5-28-54) Richard Kiley, Lillian Gish
1955 – 56 season
THE FORD STAR JUBILEE
“The Day Lincoln Was Shot” [adapted by R. Denis Sanders and Terry Sanders from the Jim Bishop book] (2-1-56 Saturday 9:30-11:00 CBS) Jack Lemmon, Raymond Massey, Lillian Gish; Charles Laughton narrated.
A blaze of glory for the medium, what with Playwrights ’56 a superb addition to the dramatic anthology. Playwrights ’56: “The Sound and the Fury” [adapted by William F. Durkee from the “Dilsey” section of the William Faulkner novel; directed by Vincent J. Donahue and produced by Fred Coe] (12-6-55) Franchot Tone, Lillian Gish, Ethel Waters, Janice Rule, Valerie Bettis, Steven Hill
PREVIOUSLY NOT CHRONICLED 1959-1978
THE PLAY OF THE WEEK
“The Grass Harp” [adapted from the 1952 play by Truman Capote and Virgil Thomson; produced for television by Jack Kuney and directed by Word Baker, with an intermission feature by The Saturday Review drama critic Henry Hewes] (3-28-60) Lillian Gish, Carmen Mathews, Nick Hyams, Russell Collins
Photo gallery – chronological order
Note: Illustrations from photo gallery are not part of Mr. Gianakos’ book.
Chicago Tribune – Sunday, March 16, 1941 – Page 31
Young Red-Heads Are Models at Club Anniversary
The Chicago Woman’s club had a colorful 65th anniversary party recently when it introduced 11 south side red-heads to Miss Lillian Gish of the “Life With Father” company. The girls, who modeled in a fashion show which was the highlight of the program, were entertained afterward by Miss Gish at a matinee box party, as well as backstage. Sitting next to Miss Gish is Eileen Kilday, 1365 East 53d street. Standing (left to right) are Marylyn Schaefer, Josephine Cousgrove, Kay Brennen, Lucille Maloney, Elinor Eaton, Helen Geary, Marietta Fox, Alecia Byrne, Jeanne Marie Fox, and Jamie Fox.
Chicago Tribune – Thursday March 29, 1979 – Page 22
Recalling the early shots with Lillian Gish
Her own first stage appearance came in a little theater in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a melodrama called “In Convict’s Stripes,” with Walter Huston as its star.
“There was an explosion in a stone quarry as part of the play, and when I heard the noise, I ran down to the basement to hide. They came and got me, and I took my first big curtain call perched on Mr. Huston’s shoulder.”
The Gishes at that time were friends with Gladys Smith, another child actress who had appeared in “the flickers.” When they went to visit her at the Biograph studio in New York, nobody knew her, and when they said they were sure they had seen her in the Griffith film “Lena and the Geese,” they were told, “Oh, you must mean our Mary.” Gladys Smith had become Mary Pickford of the movies, and it was she who introduced them to Griffith.
“Mother and Dorothy and I each got $5 for taking of our hats, putting on a little makeup, and sitting in the audience as extras,” Miss Gish recalls. “That was $15 a day, a lot of money in that time, even if it was in the movies, and not in the legitimate theater.”
‘My pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of “The Scarlet Letter” on television and I swear every one of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today.’
By 1912, the Gish girls had been featured in Griffith’s early social melodrama, “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and in 1914, while still a teen-ager, Lillian was a leading lady in the epoch-making “The Birth of a Nation.”
“We had to be young then,” she says, “because the photography was so bad. Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because camera made everyone look so old. When I saw the film, I told Mr. Griffith, ‘Oh look, I have a mole on my face.’ Mr. Bitzer (Griffith’s cameraman) gave me a mole.’”
She learned everything about the movies from her beloved Mr. Griffith. Of her, “he always said, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and she has no brains, but 85 per cent of my audience is women, so I want to have her reactions.’ He made me look at all the rushes and pick the shots I liked best. I helped write the subtitles. I watched him rehearse the actors, shoot the scene, develop the film.”
In 1920, while Griffith was away filming, he entrusted her with the direction of a romantic comedy she and Dorothy had written, “Remodeling a Husband.”
“I always felt that Dorothy had such a wit and a great gift for comedy. She used to say such clever things,” Miss Gish recalls, “and it was this quality I wanted to capture, so I found a little magazine story I thought was right for her. It was about a girl who tells her husband that men really admired her looks, and to prove this, she walks down the street and sticks out her tongue at every man she meets to make sure they’ll look at her. Years later, they used the same device in that movie with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, ‘Easter Parade.’ So that’s where that came from. That movie was actually a success. We made it for $58,000 and it grossed $700,000.
“But I was too frightened to do it again. I was so young to be directing all those experienced actors, and in those days, you had to know everything about the movies, including the carpentry, to direct a film. Well, I didn’t even know what feet or inches were, so, I was always getting the dimensions for the scenery wrong.”
She made many films for Griffith – “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” “Intolerance,” and “Orphans of the Storm,” among others – but after “Orphans” was completed, Griffith gently told her it was time to leave the nest and earn the salary she could then demand.
“Mother thought Dorothy should be the one to leave,” Miss Gish remembers, “because I got along with him better, ‘Don’t tell me; show me,’ he always used to say; but Dorothy wanted to talk about it first, and he was too much in a hurry for that. When Dorothy did talk to Mr. Adolph Zukor, the producer, about making pictures for him, she came home and told us she had refused his offer of $1 million for a series of comedies. We wanted to know why on Earth she had turned him down, and she said, ‘All that money! It might ruin my character!’ I felt like telling her, ‘Give the money to Mother. I won’t ruin her character!”
Typically however, when Miss Gish did go off on her own, she made sure that she struck a deal in which, besides making money, she had approval of the pictures she was to make and the people with whom she was to make them.
“We always liked to work with the best people,” she says. “That’s something I learned from Mr. Griffith and I tell it to young people today: ‘Go with the people, not with the money, and you’ll be happy in your work.
Actresses had to be young then, because the photography was so bad. ‘Old hags of 18 were playing character parts because the camera made everyone look so old.’
When she went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, making a salary of $1,000 a week, “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was making all that money and not working regularly, so I went to Irving Thalberg, who ran the studio – oh, I adored him – and told him I had a couple of stories in my trunk that I wanted to make. These included “The Scarlet Letter.” But they told me I couldn’t do it because the women’s clubs and churches would object. I said, ‘Why should they object? It’s an American classic; they teach it in schools.’ So I wrote to women’s clubs and churches all over the country and said I wanted to make the movie, and I got enough good response to convince the MGM people that we could make the movie.
“It was my film from the beginning to the end. Lars Hanson was the leading man; Victor Seastrom was the director. I’m still very proud of it.”
Miss Gish made one other memorable film with Seastrom, “The Wind,” before she left MGM in the early 1930s and returned to work on the stage. She returned to films in 1940s, when she laughingly told friends that now she was playing “old ladies.” In 1955, she made an unforgettably gallant, indomitable “old lady” in “The Night of the Hunter,” the only film Charles Laughton directed. She has remained active on stage and screen ever since, completing her 100th film here in 1977 with director Robert Altman’s “The Wedding.”
“When I first started making movies, we would shoot them in one or two days, and that was that. But we always rehearsed them carefully first. That’s why Mr. Griffith took only people who were experienced in theater or ballet or music. He wanted them to have the discipline of that training. Today, it takes months and millions of dollars to make a film, and they rarely rehearse anything. We never rehearsed with Altman; he doesn’t work that way.”
I asked her, finally, if she could tell, from her long experience, how and why some actresses endured as movie stars. Was it, after all, because they played well to the camera?
“It’s got to be more than that,” she said. “There’s something more basic. It’s research and study and rehearsal and preparation. Why, my pride is constantly hurt when I see some screen acting today. I watched a bit of a new version of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ they’re showing on television, and I swear that everyone of those people could just as well have been walking down 5th Avenue today. When we made movies, Mr. Griffith would say, ‘Don’t just study your character. Study the whole world around you.’ That’s the thing they don’t remember to do today.”
It was time then for her to get ready for the picture taking and for her appearance onstage at the Opera House, an appearance that was to be greeted with a standing ovation.
First, however, she wanted to fuss with her makeup a bit. She stood at the mirror in the little dressing room and took out a few pins so that her hair fell down. She turned to ask a question, and in that moment, with her braids now flowing down to her waist, she looked exactly as if she was ready to go before the cameras again, the lovely heroine of the silent screen who had somehow defied the years and survived with all her innocence and strength intact. It was another moment that will not be forgotten.
Chicago Tribune – Wednesday August 28 1940 – Page 20
Tips on Acting Given Singers by Lillian Gish
“If you ever saw a performance of ‘La Traviata’ forget it. If you ever saw Lillian Gish act, remember it.” The words were those of the Chicago Opera company’s new associate director, Martin Magner, yesterday to 45 young men and women of the opera’s chorus on the huge sceneless stage of the opera house.
Because opera has been described as too often good singing and poor acting, the Chicago company this season will stress dramatic as well as musical ability. It opens on Nov. 2.
Lillian Gish, movie veteran and stage star whose theatrical experience dates back to a stage trunk as a cradle, was present to give advice to the young men and women of the chorus who have concentrated on musical scores during the last six months. Her entrance was even a lesson in theatrical technique.
She was exactly 15 minutes late. The interlude heightened expectancy among her prospective pupils. Suddenly she appeared in the stage doorway dressed in deep blue and startling white. A fluffy white Scotty posed at her feet. She dimpled, as in the old days of “Orphans of the Storm,” and broke the silence which greeted her entrance.
“Opera is even a broader medium of expression than the legitimate theater,” she told the chorus members who crowded around her like a group of school children. “It should therefore permit a broader form of acting. Wagner wrote out of the passion of his day when he set down instructions for his actors.
“Too long have opera stars followed in this outmoded tradition. Modes of life are continually changing. If Wagner were alive today I think he would write a new set of instructions for his scores. Since he isn’t, it is up to the individual opera singer to give naturalness to Wagnerian actions or to those of any opera in any language.”
The chorus was selected from 600 singers in six auditions last February and March. Mr. Magner quietly explained their status to his guest. He added: “I’m glad of their youth and inexperience. Now I can mold them to the new opera, the opera that is as much the theater as it is the score.”
Chicago Tribune – February, Wednesday 21, 1940 – Page 16
W-G-N To Star Lillian Gish in Sunday Drama
Cast as Wife in Sheridan’s ‘School for Scandal’
By Larry Wolters
Lillian Gish, one of the brightest stars of the silent movie era and now a stage headliner, and Percy Waram, distinguished veteran of the theater, will be featured in a radio adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s classic comedy, “The School for Scandal,” on the Fifth Row Center production over W-G-N and the Mutual network at 5 p.m. Sunday.
The show will be presented before a studio audience. The musical setting will be provided by Harold Stokes and the W-G-N Dance orchestra. Miss Gish and Mr. Waram are appearing in Clarence Day’s comedy “Life With Father,” in the Blackstone theater.
Cast as Lady Teazle.
In “The School for Scandal” Miss Gish will portray the role of the mischievous Lady Teazle and Waram will play that of her blundering husband, Sir Peter Teazle.
When she steps before the W-G-N microphone Miss Gish will be following in the footsteps of her sister Dorothy. Dorothy came from New York three years ago to play the leading role in the serial “The Couple Next Door,” on W-G-N. Harold Vermilyea was co-featuring with her.
Lillian Gish established herself as a theatrical performer in those trail blazing movie epics “The Birth of a Nation,” “Orphans of the Storm,” and “Intolerance.”
Stage Work Follows Movies.
Since her retirement from pictures she has proved her versatility as an actress in “Hamlet” with John Gielgud, Chekhoff’s “Uncle Vanya,” and Maxwell Anderson’s “The Star Wagon” with Burgess Meredith, in which she last appeared in Chicago.
English born Percy Waram’s most recent notable role was that of the stern father in “Pride and Prejudice.” He has distinguished himself in numerous Theater Guild productions, including “R.U.R.,” “Elizabeth the Queen,” and “Mary of Scotland.”
The Chicago stage settled down into Lenten poverty with last night’s departure of Orson Welles’ staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” as a parable of Fascism, and “Father Malachy’s Miracle.” “Room Service” keeps the spirit of merriment alive at the Selwyn theater, and Maurice Schwartz’s production of the Yiddish drama, “The Brothers Ashkenazi,” remains at the Studebaker for another week; but elsewhere there is vacancy, pending the renewal of activity, especially in musical shows, that the spring is expected to bring.
The first arrival of the spring theatrical season will be “The Star-Wagon,” a play by Maxwell Anderson with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish as the leaders of the cast. This work has been one of the favorite items on the Broadway playbills since last fall, and it will come to the Grand Opera house immediately after the closing of its New York run. The premiere is scheduled for the Tuesday before Easter Sunday, or April 12.
This work is a fantastic comedy, dealing with an old inventor and his colleague who are given a supernatural opportunity to live their lives over again and correct their errors of judgement which had deprived them of material success. The content and meaning of the play are serious and reveal certain aspects of Maxwell Anderson’s philosophy, but there is said to be much humor in the treatment of the incidents.
Lillian Gish, who appears as the heroine, has an international reputation because of her participation in some of the most popular productions of the silent films. It is said that no movie in which she figured over a period of fifteen years netted less than $1,000,000. They included “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” “Way Down East,” and “The White Sister.”
Two years ago Miss Gish and her sister, Dorothy, also famous as a film actress in the pre-talkie era, were travelling through the Balkan states. They stopped at a hut on the Albanian frontier, a mountainous region miles away from any motion picture theater. The woman of the house was an ignorant, barefooted peasant, but she recognized Lillian Gish instantly. Years before, the priest of the parish had arranged for an exhibition of the film, “The White Sister,” strongly religious of sentiment, in his church, and she had seen it.
Miss Gish withdrew from the film studios when the talkies arrived and returned to the dramatic stage in 1930 in a distinguished production of Chekhoff’s “Uncle Vanya,” which was seen in Chicago. Since then she has acted in a revival of “Camille” both at Central City, Colo., and in New York; in Sean O’Casey’s “Within the Gates,” in Philip Barry’s “The Joyous Season,” and in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” She was the Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Prince of Denmark in New York last year.
“The Star-Wagon” gives Miss Gish a “protean role.” She acts a poor old household drudge, a winsome girl of 20, and a wealthy but unhappy wife of 55. These, of course, are phases of the same character.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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?’
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.’
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – Mimi and Rodolphe (La Boheme)
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert in “La Boheme”
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926 s
John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (Rodolphe and Mimi) The last scene of La Boheme
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
LA BOHEME, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, 1926
Lillian Gish and John Gilbert – 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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.’
‘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.’
PHILCO Television Playhouse
PHILCO Television Playhouse
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.
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.”
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 Gish as Mrs Smith in The Comedians 1967
Lillian Gish and Paul Ford in ‘The Comedians’
Lillian Gish and Richard Burton – The Comedians
Lillian Gish and Richard Burton – The Comedians
‘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.
‘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.
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. —
‘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.
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.
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie – Remodeling Her Husband