Star Wagon – Lillian Gish (Stage Magazine 1938)

Because …

Because the first real event of the season – a tender, nostalgic play by Maxwell Anderson, ‘’The Star-Wagon’’ – took us back to the turn of the century on a time-machine, renewed our faith in beautiful dialogue and the fortunate destiny of love. Because it brought us, among other things, an excellent company of actors. Because it brought us Lillian Gish, who, by some acting-magic known only to the gods, grew old and young and then old again as quietly as the passing of a shadow across the face of the sun. (Photo: Alfredo Valente)

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The Gallant Gish Girls (Life Magazine 1951) By Richard L. Williams (PDF)

The Gallant Gish Girls

ON TV, STAGE AND SCREEN THEY ARE ADDING LUSTER TO THEIR CAREERS

By RICHARD L. WILLIAMS

WITH the unlikely exceptions of Mata Hari, the lady spy, or Osa Johnson, the lady explorer, the Misses Lillian and Dorothy Gish have probably lived more dangerously than any women of their time. The Gish sisters are actresses, in the traditional, uncorrupted and perhaps obsolescent sense, and to find the period in which they did their dangerous living you have to go back beyond television, even beyond radio to the practically prehistoric heyday of the silent film. The Gishes—and one generation has to take another’s word for it—were among the first, finest and most fearless stars of that forgotten medium. For 18 years they regularly risked their lives, limbs and nervous systems before cranking cameras whose operators wore their caps backward. All in a day’s work the sisters rode careening coaches, jumped from runaway horses and worked under live shellfire. They floated down ice-choked rivers and staggered through 90-mph blizzards without any thought of letting doubles or stunt girls do it in their stead. All these and countless other risks they took in an era of cinematographic realism when the movies had not yet learned how to fake their thrills, and when many of today’s stars, who regard it as a supreme sacrifice to get up at a decent hour to go to work, were not yet born. Impressive as it was, their arduous excursion into silent movie-making is not what makes the Gishes’ careers unique. What does is their incredible durability. Years before there was a Hollywood they were accomplished legitimate actresses with scrapbooks full of notices attesting their fine performances all over the country.

Actress, Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish, sitting with two dogs in an apartment in New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

TODAY THEY ARE STILL LOVELY AND HARD AT WORK

 Today, with most contemporaries of those days long since dead or retired, they still are accomplished actresses whose capacity for hard, perfectionist work carries them through assignments on TV and the stage with more zest, and naturally with far more understanding, than most players half their age. Lillian starred in one play last season (The Curious Savage) and is touring the straw-hat theaters in another (R. C. Sherriff’s Miss Mabel). Dorothy starred in The Man on Broadway, and is appearing to advantage in the new Louis de Rochemont picture, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. And both sisters expect to keep it up for many seasons to come. Thus length, pace and quality stamp their careers as unequaled and seemingly indestructible. If their lives prove anything it is that one can—given enough sense and character—survive a period of fantastic income (say $10,000 a week) and fabulous adulation (say 6.000 fan letters a week), save one’s money, get out and find other satisfactory goals for which to live. The Gishes’ busy existence is unperturbed by the fact that millions of mature movie fans never think of them and millions of immature ones never heard of them. This failing (theirs, not the fans’) is in clear violation of the contemporary Hollywood code according to which, as explicitly set forth in Sunset Boulevard, a retired silent star is defined as one who, being long out of sight, must be out of her mind. Upon seeing Sunset Boulevard, Dorothy Gish, who is 53, remarked charitably, “Certainly a fine job by Gloria Swanson.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Lillian, who is 57 remarked shortly “And a fine example of Hollywood fouling its own nest.” Then they had a couple of ice-cream sodas and went home, secure in their own self respect but wishing Hollywood had more. The closest the Gishes come to eccentricity is to let their long-thwarted instinct for self-preservation fully reassert itself. In the years since they switched from screen to stage they have stopped pushing their luck, if only out of tardy respect for the actuarial tables. As religiously as they used to court sudden death, they now devote time, ingenuity and their well-earned cash to the pursuit of good health and longevity. Their otherwise well-appointed apartments are littered with the trophies of this quest. The most spectacular of these when in use, is a pair of “upside-down boards’ on which they recline, head down at an angle of 30°, to do their morning telephoning, letter writing and thinking. Like many of their aids to health this one was discovered by Lillian, the taller and longer-haired of the sisters. In her living room recently she was explaining to friends, from a conventional seated position, the therapeutic value of spending half an hour a day with one legs elevated above one’s head. “It’s wonderful for your circulation, it gives you a sense of well-being, and it takes a load off your feet. It isn’t just time that’s dragging us all into the grave, now, she added brightly. “It’s gravity, too.” At one time or another the sisters, on Lillian’s initiative, have become minor lay authorities on yoga, Couéism, astrology and dietetics. They have bravely downed the unentrancing health foods of Bengamin Gayelord Hauser, dietician to their friend Greta Garbo. They have gone overboard for a forbidding beverage called Pougue water; Lillian imported 24 cases from a Polish spa in 1948, not realizing it came 60 bottles to the case, and is still drinking it up.

Occasionally the grail of eternal health has lured Lillian into by-ways where Dorothy has flatly refused to follow. In the matter of foot-wear, for example, Lillian is a devoted disciple of one Alan Murray, whose custom-made “space shoes” are as sensible and functional as bear paws, which indeed they resemble. At $32.50 per shoe Lillian has invested in three pairs, Dorothy in none. In the field of advanced calisthenics, too, Lillian has had to go it alone. Determined workouts at push-ups, back-bends and body-rolls have helped keep her weight in the 110- to 117- pound range for 25 years. ‘She has one exercise that’s a dilly,’ Dorothy says. “She lies on the floor with her arms stretched straight, and raises up and touches her toes without pushing her hands forward—just uses her stomach muscles. Even Douglas Fairbanks couldn’t do that one. She bet him once at Pickfair, and he lay right down and tried and couldn’t make it.’ “Oh, I think he really could have,” Lillian protests. ““He was probably just being a gentleman.”

Dorothy and Lillian Gish in NY apartment 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Ladyfingers for lunch

SOME of the Gishes’ acquaintances think this giddy pursuit of eternal health is just an effort to make up for lost time. They point out that as child actresses, let alone as silent film stars, the sisters really lived quite precariously. While touring with hand-to-mouth road companies they often had to do their sleeping on the seats of drafty day coaches or on rural ticket counters, wedged between actors’ portmanteaus; their standard lunch for a long time was a nickel’s worth of ladyfingers dunked in a dime’s worth of ice cream. Other friends hold that the Gishes have simply refused to admit the supremacy of matter over mind since the tragic day in 1926 when their mother suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed and unable to speak for the last 22 years of her life. The Gishes themselves regard their health-consciousness as a prudent habit ingrained by their strenuous silent-movie days. “It wasn’t only the running, horseback riding and cliff-hanging,” Lillian observes. “Why, just to convey a few seconds’ worth of emotion in pantomime called for the use of your whole body.

Lillian Gish – The Rebellion of Kitty Belle (1914)

The body had to be eloquent, it had to be under perfect control and it couldn’t stand the gaff unless you kept it healthy.’ Whatever the motive for their health crusade the result has been a peculiar reversal of the Gishes’ childhood roles. In youth Dorothy was the chubby, rosy-cheeked type, brimming with vitality, while Lillian was thin, wraithlike and looking not long for this world. ‘‘People used to say she’d just vanish some day,” recalls Mary Pickford. Accordingly in the public mind Dorothy was fixed as a hale and hearty comedienne, her sister as a frail and fragile tragedienne. The cliché has been out of order for years. Lillian, as Alexander Woollcott once remarked, is about as fragile as a daisy with a ten penny nail for a stem, while Dorothy has suffered lamentably poor health.  “When someone asks me if I’m well-adjusted,”’ Lillian says primly, I’ll say the only way I can tell is that I haven’t been really sick since I had Spanish flu in 1918.’ By that standard her little sister is about as poorly adjusted as ono can get. During the New York run of The Magnificent Yankee, Dorothy lived for ‘weeks at St. Lukes Hospital, undergoing treatment for ulcers and leaving her bed only to perform opposite Louis Calher as Mrs. Justice Holmes. ‘When we were touring a few years ago in Life With Father,’ Calhern says, “ I’d sometimes come to the end of a long speech, and it would be Dorothy’s cue to enter. ‘d look out in the wings for her and there would be Dorothy, lying flat on her stomach, her fingers gripping at the floor. The pain must have been unbelievable. I’d ad lib for a couple of minutes until she could get up, dust herself off and come on – and by then, she’d be so calm nobody would ever know  anything was wrong. Last year Dorothy got around to stomach surgery. I got a bonus,” she says ” When I woke up they told me they’d fixed up a couple of hernias, so I said, ‘Well, did you lift my face too?’’ The doctors didn’t, but they did lift her morale. “It’s not at all bad. You have only a third of your stomach,” she says – “I should have taken John Mason Brown seriously when he hollered at me across a theater lobby a few years ago. ‘Hey, Dorothy! he bawled, right in front of all the people. You MUST have your stomach out – it feels great!”

An actress Lillian Gish sitting next to her sister, Dorothy Gish at an apartment in New York City, New York, United States, May 1951.(The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Nina Leen )

They beg to differ

BETWEEN engagements in the theater or the hospital the well-to-do Gish sisters, who made all their money themselves, live prudently comfortable lives, much like two well-to-do widows whose husbands made it for them. Lillian dwells in New York’s expensive Sutton Place neighborhood in a cooperative apartment she bought for her mother some years ago. Dorothy lives seven blocks away in the Elysee Hotel, a high-class version of the theatrical boarding house. The Gish girls do not live together for the good reason that in too close proximity they tend to get on each other’s nerves. They are fairly self-sufficient women, with an interesting difference in their self-sufficiency (Lillian is admittedly the cool, managerial type who just needs someone to advise, while Dorothy is admittedly the warm, inefficient type who just needs someone to worry over. “I suppose I’m really Dorothy’s ulcer Lillian mourns” and I guess I’m just a snob,” Dorothy grimaces. It is probably logical that they should differ politically well as in most other ways. Dorothy has been a faithful Democrat for years while Lillian a staunch Republican, even followed some of her ultraconservative friends into America First for a period in 1941. They disagree even about television. Both appear in television plays, would rather stick to the stage.

“TV,” she complains “makes me look like a basset hound.” Lillian, a more conscientious sort, often eats dinner in front of her TV screen, studying the medium as craftily as a football coach casing a rival’s plays. She is equally absorbed about anything related to her work. Their mother used to fret: “Dorothy, what with Lil’s powers of concentration I just hope neither of us dies while she’s rehearsing a part. Why, we’d lie around this apartment unburied for days. The Gishes go out with men friends occasionally, but theirs is generally female society, and at one time was almost exclusively so. While their mother was alive the family was a Fifth Avenue fixture. They took daily outings there, Mrs. Gish in her wheelchair and sable lap-robe, flanked by her daughters, pushed by a nurse and carrying one or more of her Pekes, the only dogs that had entree to Hicks’s plush 57th Street ice-cream parlor. So ladylike was this existence that Laura McCullaugh, a close friend who lives with Dorothy when visiting from her home in Italy, says she used to feel sorry for the men who intruded into it. One was James Rennie, the actor, who was married to Dorothy for 15 years, and another was George Jean Nathan, the critic, who squired Lillian for eight years. “Whenever one of them would come around,” says Mrs. McCullaugh, “there’d be Mrs. Gish, and Lil, and Dorothy and me, and a couple of old character actresses who knew the girls when, and three female Pekes, all of us talking woman-talk. I used to scream, ‘For God’s sake can’t we get some more MEN around here?’ And Lillian would say, “Don’t forget we have John, the parrot. He’s a man.’ ” John, now deceased, is remembered for two unusual feats besides mimicking the Gishes. One day he fell out of the window, landed on a truck and was borne away, squawking like Bugs Bunny. And one day Lillian telephoned Laura McCullaugh and cried, ““This will be a shock. John just laid an egg.’

Today Dorothy supports two aged Pekes whose sex is unmistakable, and Lillian keeps an asthmatic 15-year-old West Highland terrier named Malcolm. The Pekes, Toots and Rover, were pups when Mary Pickford gave them to Mother Gish. “They’re more high-strung than Malcolm, just like I’m more high-strung than Lillian,” says Dorothy. “Rover played in The Man with me and became a real ham. And Toots … well, she’s just a 107-year-old nymphomaniac. My hotel doesn’t seem to care what kind of dogs it has around.’ All in all, the Gish girls lead a respectable life which is apparently founded on a most respectable tradition: “In a book I read once, says Lillian, “it said that no Gish had been in jail for 200 years. That kind of thing does inhibit you.” What the last Gish was in jail for the sisters do not know, but Dorothy likes to say that the first one to come to America, a De Guise, left France because he was wanted for sheep stealing. Their own father, James Gish, was a traveling sales-man from the Pennsylvania Dutch country. One season he stopped off in Urbana, Ill. to woo and wed a harness-maker’s daughter, May Robinson McConnell, whose family claimed President Zachary Taylor and Poetess Emily Ward as kinfolk. The Gishes later moved to Ohio; Lillian was born in Springfield, Oct. 14, 1893, and Dorothy in Dayton, March 11, 1898. The Gish sisters can thank the sins of their well-intentioned father for their theatrical careers. James Gish seems to have been a nice but shiftless fellow who drifted from town to town and from grocer to confectioner to not much of anything. One day in New York he walked out of his flat, leaving his 25-year-old wife, two daughters and some furniture which was soon repossessed because he hadn’t paid the installments. An actress boarder, Dolores Lorne, came to Mrs. Gish’s rescue. Dolores could get a job with an East Lynne road company, she said, it she could provide a child like Dorothy for the Little Willie part. And she had a friend who could go on the road in Convict Stripes if she could provide a little girl like Lillian. So at age 4, Dorothy Gish was soon making $15 a week as Little Willie, and her big sister, at $10 a week, was touring the Midwest. They sent most of the money home “But even at our poorest,” Dorothy brags, Mother always took care that we had lace on our underclothes.” About all the sisters really remember of that period is a montage of lurching trains, malodorous hash-houses and the fragrant bosoms of solicitous actresses who rocked them to sleep between one-night stands “And alleys,” sighs Lillian. “All our lives we’ve been walking down alleys to go to our work.” They remember more about Her First False Step, the melodrama in which they first appeared on the stage together;

“One of the first nights out, I really fixed up the big love scene good,” says Dorothy. “It fascinated me, and I sat right down on the artificial coals in the fireplace, put my chin in my hands and drank in the dialog. The audience started to giggle, Helen Ray looked to see if she was unhooked, her leading man looked to see if his pants were unbuttoned, and then they saw me. I got yanked out of there fast. ‘And in Helen Ray’s longest speech,” says Lillian, “she finally had to wave jelly beans in front of you every night to keep you from staring out at ‘the audience. “I wasn’t just staring,’ Dorothy retorts. “I was counting the house.” The big snow scene in Her First False Step was always good for sobs, when Helen Ray and the Gishes (“we actually represented her two false steps”) sank to the stage to shiver and snivel in the cold. “But they had to sweep up the snow every night to use it again,” Dorothy shudders. ‘Along with paper snowflakes it was always snowing buttons, nails, cigarette butts and now and then a dead mouse.” Recently, gazing at a snow scene in I Remember Mama on TV, Lillian murmured, ‘“My, they do snow so well now! For two summers between road trips the Gishes had another stage family, Gladys, Lottie and Jack Smith (later Mary, Lottie and Jack Pickford) and their mother as house guests in New York.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

Energetic Mrs. Gish had a taffy concession at the old Fort George amusement park, and all five children helped pull and hawk the taffy. “We were always wandering off ‘down the line,’ ’” Dorothy remembers, “and one day when Mother caught up with us I was posing in front of a tent with snakes twined around me.” One of the hazards of the sisters’ life on the road was the Gerry Society, whose zealous agents were on the lookout for child laborers whom they considered it their duty to snatch from cruel exploiters and re-turn to hearth and home. By dressing older than their years the Gishes, teetering prematurely on high heels, managed to escape the Gerry people and all but a minimum of formal education as well. Lillian got in the longest stretch of schooling, a year in a St. Louis convent. “Naturally,” she says, “I scraped the labels off my luggage before I entered, and never said a word about my past.” May Gish saw to it that her daughters never got impressed with being celebrities. “When I told her I’d actually been recognized on the street one day,” says Dorothy, “she just said, “Yes, and remember people would notice you if you had a ring in your nose, too.’ ” ’ Dorothy retorts.

Dorothy Gish in Lillian’s apartment NY 1951 – John Vachon – Look Magazine

Screen test with sound effects

In the summer of 1912 the Gish girls, 18 and 14, saw a one-reel Biograph motion picture, Lena and the Geese. In its flickering scenes they were shocked to recognize their curly-locked friend Gladys Smith. A few days later, in white piqué dresses and hats, Lillian and Dorothy called on Gladys at the old Biograph Studio on East 14th Street in New York to see whatever had tempted her to fall so low. Inside the old brownstone Gladys embraced them, then introduced them to a hawk-nosed man who called her Mary. He looked them up and down with calculating eye and sneered, ‘Miss Pickford, aren’t you afraid to bring such pretty girls around here? You might lose your job.’ ‘And. if I lose it,” she snapped in her fiercest Irish brogue, “then I won’t have it to worry about, will I?” The first thing the Gish girls knew, the big hawk-nosed man was chasing them around a table, wildly ring a pistol loaded with blanks. When he ran out of cartridges the madman stared at them, panting, while they cowered in a corner, saucer-eyed but defiant. Then he announced that the “they would do, and red them on the spot at $5 a day a piece. “And that,” snickers Dorothy, “was David Wark Griffith’s version of the screen test. To tell us apart put a pink hair ribbon on Lil and a blue one on me. We ran home to tell Mother that maybe we’d done a terrible thing, but we asked her to please think of the money. Gladys’ new profession mightn’t be quite respectable, but after all she was making $175 a week and riding around in an automobile of her own.” Before long the Gish girls were too. “By today’s standards,” Lillian reflects, “we were working for nothing. Well, we would have, willingly. Mr. Griffith convinced us that we were all pioneers in an exciting new medium.

Lillian Gish – Broken Blossoms

He told us that the camera spoke a universal language, that it could express ideas like those of peace and tolerance so that all peoples could understand them. Eventually he wanted to do pictures without any subtitles at all. And as for technique—well, the only person to advance it since Mr. Griffith’s time has been Walt Disney. Mr. Griffith invented the flash-back, he perfected the close-up and the long shot. Before him, they’d done every-thing on a flat plane, with full-length figures as on the stage. And he and Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, gave the camera a mind of its own that could move forward and back in time as well as in space. Mr. Griffith was dictatorial, of course; he even used to insist that your mouth shouldn’t be made up to be any bigger than your eye. But except for sound— which we never thought was much of a step forward—he was responsible for practically everything good the movies we have done.” “Oh, not quite everything, Lil,” Dorothy demurs. “And Griffith did make some awful ones.” “Well, he had to grind out some potboilers to get money to make his good pictures,”’ Lillian concedes. “But he was a genius, and a genius has a right to his bad ones as well as his successes. The sisters had a share in both. In the crowded decade between his primitive two-reeler, The Unseen Enemy (1912), and his ambitious picture-story of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1922), they appeared in dozens of Griffith productions, at a top salary never above $1,000 a week each. To make the pictures—most of them without artificial light—Griffith and his company followed the sun between Mamaroneck, N.Y. and Hollywood, with a detour to England and France to make the World War I propaganda film, Hearts of the World. The picture, shot during actual fighting, was the movie debut of a young extra, Noel Coward, with whom the Gishes later became well acquainted. That was the era when Griffith was at his peak, when he gathered around him Mae Marsh, the girl with the bee-stung lips; Bobby Harron, the bright young actor whom Dorothy nearly married; Henry B. Walthall, Blanche Sweet and dozens of others whom the Gishes were to outlast. In the greatest Griffith picture, the Civil war and reconstruction epic, Birth of a Nation (1915), Dorothy did not appear.

Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman – Birth of A Nation

Lillian had a winsome but undemanding part as Elsie Stoneman, a Northern girl with a Southern lover. (‘Anybody who thinks Griffith wasn’t a great showman,” Lillian points out, “might remember that The Birth cost $91,000 and has grossed over $18 million so far, one of the top money-earners ever made.”’) As a Limehouse waif in Broken Blossoms (1918), Lillian turned in the greatest acting performance that had ever been seen on the screen. Griffith, his camera crew, the critics and the public were all overwhelmed by the “mad scene” in which she fluttered around in a tiny closet, while her drunken father, Donald Crisp, chopped down the door to beat her to death. And as Anna Moore, the unwed mother of Way Down East (1920), “La Geesh,” as Griffith called her, set the industry’s all-time record for death-defying endurance. After floundering through a blizzard that froze the tears on her cheeks, she floated down the Connecticut River on an ice floe, one hand and her long blond hair trailing in the water, while Richard Barthelmess crossed the ice to rescue her on the brink of the falls—for 22 takes. Barthelmess, long since retired to the less hazardous field of real estate, is still baffled by her stamina. “I darn near froze and I was in a raccoon coat,’ he says. “I don’t think Lillian’s feet even got cold.” On top of all this, says Lillian, the Gishes had to be talent scouts. “I found Barthelmess and Francis Lederer, and you, Dorothy, found Valentino, among others. ‘Yes, and Griffith said, “He’s too foreign looking; the girls won’t like him.’ But he kept Valentino around at $5 a day to teach people to dance. I can’t think of him as the great lover with flaring nostrils,” Dorothy reflects. ““To me he was just the real domestic type, a gardener by trade, who designed our riding habits for $35 apiece.” The Gishes finally left Griffith because, as he urged, they could make more money elsewhere. “Besides,” says Lillian, who was once reported ready to marry him, “I believe he was tired of seeing us around. But while we went on to make successful pictures for other people, he went into a decline. I think because there was nobody else who dared to cross him or give him good, discreet advice. People used to say he and I had a Svengali-Trilby relationship, but if you ask me, I was the Svengali.” The sisters went to Italy, where Lillian made The White Sister with Ronald Colman, over Hollywood’s all-but-dead body. The movie moguls would neither underwrite nor distribute the picture for fear the churches would object to its theme, the conflict between earthly and divine love. “I was sure they wouldn’t object,” she says, “and I got some prominent churchmen to put their blessing on the thing in advance. We got independent financing and distribution, and produced a fine success.”’ As a matter of fact it grossed a fine $1,300,000, and since Lillian had reserved a 15% interest in the profits for herself, it assured her a fine nest egg. The sisters next played in Romola together, after which Dorothy went to England to make pictures for $5,000 a week.

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – Way Down East

It was in the mid-’20s, somewhere between The White Sister and The Scarlet Letter, that U.S. intellectuals discovered that Lillian Gish, whom David Belasco had called “‘the most beautiful blond in the world,” was a great artist as well. Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell, H. L. Mencken and other men of letters rushed to pay her floral tribute in print and in person, comparing her aloof and wistful beauty to the lily, the rose and even (in Joseph Hergsheimer’s words) “a bouquet of all the flowers.” Critic George Jeain Nathan took it on himself to introduce the rather naive Lillian to worldly manners, old-worldly wines and the designer, Valentina. Portrait painters jostled to get Lillian to sit for them, and Mark Twain’s biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, dropped work on a treatise on the Rockefellers to write a saccharine book about her.

One day the late Irving Thalberg told Lillian, by then an $8,000. a-week M-G-M star, “You know, you’re ‘way up there on a pedestal where people can’t really care about you. Let me knock you off the pedestal so they’ll care. It would be awfully good for you. I mean, if you’d just let me arrange a little scandal for you. ’ She thought it over and told him no. “Little did he know,” she says, “that I didn’t need a little scandal—I had a big one brewing.” The man who lit the fire under it was Charles H. Duell, head of Inspiration Pictures Inc., which had backed The White Sister. Alleging breach of promise as well as breach of contract, he sued Lillian in many cities for many millions, creating quite a stir but winning none of his lawsuits.

The Gishes and the 20th Century just happened to be in their 20s at about the same time, but the only notorious thing that happened to the sisters in that roaring decade, besides Lillian’s litigation, was Dorothy’s madcap marriage.

Lillian Gish and her Mother (Duell Trial)

“And even that,” says Dorothy, “‘wasn’t my idea. It was Connie Talmadge’s. She was busting to marry a fellow named John Pialoglou, and they talked Jim Rennie and me into eloping to Greenwich with them. It was Sunday and I thought we probably couldn’t get a license anyway. But Connie had everything fixed, even the ring and the flowers.”’ She took her bridegroom home to Mother Gish and Lillian, and was quite upset a few weeks later when Mrs. Gish had the newlyweds’ things moved from the Savoy Hotel to Rennie’s apartment. The least Mr. Rennie deserved, she told her daughter “was not to have to live with his in-laws. Because of conflicts in their careers he rarely even got to live with his wife, although they did find time to play Young Love together in 1928 in Dorothy s first stage appearance since age 10.

Dorothy Gish, James Rennie and Lillian Gish

Fifteen years after the elopement, at her divorce hearing. Loyal Dorothy very nearly provoked the judge into refusing her decree. “She just wouldn’t say a bad word against Jim,”says Laura McCullaugh. “The judge finally had to ask her, ‘See here, do you want this divorce or don’t you?’”’ When pressed, Dorothy did recall that her husband once worried her into a six-day case of hiccoughs.

For all the years they spent in pictures, the Gishes never owned a home in Hollywood and never felt they belonged there. Lillian was sure of it when Hollywood spurned the great Max Reinhardt, whom she had imported from Germany to make The Miracle (no relation to the Roberto Rossellini Miracle which U.S. Catholics have been asked to boycott). At any rate, it was without much regret that the Gishes left California to go home to New York and the theater. Dorothy returned to the stage first, and if she was somewhat overshadowed by Lillian’s movie fame at the time, she has come out of the shadow since to shine in a long string of plays and keep long line of difficult leading men under control. As legitimate actresses the Gishes have proved themselves great troupers in the great tradition. Dorothy proved her fortitude many times by doing some of her finest acting while deathly ill. Lillian proved hers two years ago when their mother died while she was rehearsing Mrs. Carlyle with a University of Washington drama group in Seattle. Lillian flew east for the funeral, then returned at once to play the title role in the play for five weeks.

Over the years Lillian has played in everything from Camille and Uncle Vanya to Maxwell Anderson’s Star Wagon and the recent Curious Savage; Dorothy in everything from Young Love to The Magnificent Yankee, and the critics say they have played them all splendidly. Such men as Lawrence Langner, of the Theatre Guild, and Producer Kermit Bloomgarten rank Lillian and Dorothy among the finest American actresses, and the most reliable. In all their roles they have helped to keep the American theater, which has been dying as long as they have been living, alive and wonderful for hundreds of thousands of playgoers. It is too bad that another, equally wonderful contribution by the Gishes must be an unknown quantity for the infinitely larger movie public. For the silent film, which went out as the Depression came in, is now a lost art form, hardly remembered by anyone under 30. Except as museum pieces its best works are never revived; they lie beyond a talking silver screen that might as well be an iron curtain.

Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

There is little prospect that the new generation of moviegoers will ever witness the lovely choreography of the French court scene in Orphans of the Storm, or the pathetic poetry of Broken Blossoms, or the tender scene in which Anna Moore baptizes her own newborn child in Way Down East. Thus the question whether the Gishes gave finer performances as Henriette and Louise in Orphans on the screen, or as Vinnie in separate companies of Life With Father on the stage, is an abstract one that millions of people have no way of answering. One thing about them, however, is certain. Their most fabulous performance of all has been in their own half-century-old sister act—Odyssey of a Trouper, Lillian used to call it on the lecture circuit. It is a story that David Wark Griffith, if he were still around, would be impatient to start shooting on film right now. That is one thing, by the way, that the conservative Lillian and Dorothy Gish would never let the old master do.

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AT THIS THEATRE – Louis Botto (2002) – PDF Download

  • 100 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories and Stars
  • Louis Botto – 2002
  • edited by Robert Viagas
  • Copyright © 2002 by Playbill Incorporated

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.
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.
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.

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The Wind and Young Love – Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine (1928)

  • Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20
  • Time – The Weekly Newsmagazine Volume XII No. 20 November 12, 1928

TIME CINEMA

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

The Wind

-blows without stopping all year long across the bleak pocket of the prairie to which Lillian Gish comes in her first picture in a year and a half. Her cousin’s wife, a prairie woman whose hands are almost always bloody from cutting up steers, is jealous of the influence of the visiting Gish girl over her home, her husband, her tough, irritable children. When the girl is forced to marry a cattle-rustler to get away from her cousin’s house, a drama, familiar in its conflicts but brooding, powerful, works up in the clapboard house battered by sand and by the wind which, according to Indian legend, is a ghost horse gone crazy in the sky.

The Wind – Lillian Gish (Letty Mason)

Not a work of genius but far better than the average movie story, this picture gives Miss Gish the best and in fact the only opportunity she has had since Way Down East for exercising the talent which has made her famous. Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith met in Mary Pickford’s dressing-room in the old Biograph studio. Lillian Gish had left Massillon, Ohio, to go on the stage with her sister Dorothy. As a fairy in The Good Little Devil she was lifted across the stage by a wire which broke one night and dropped her on the floor. She burst into tears, later rewarded with a salary which gave each trembling drop the literal value of a pearl. Griffith made her an old woman—the pinchfaced mother in Judith of Bethulia, Intolerance; he made her an outcast girl in Way Down East, Colonel Cameron’s sweetheart in Birth of Nation. She went with him from Biograph to Reliance, Majestic, Fine Arts, Artcraft, First National, United Artists. Somehow, no matter how bad the scenario was, her intelligence brought to certain moments and situations that reality which is the definition of great acting and which Miss Gish’s famous frailty, her dimples, her soft, elliptical face, and her pale hair down to her waist could not keep people from recognizing. Now under contract to Metro- Goldwyn-Mayer, she is directed by Victor Seastrom.

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Dorothy Gish, the third name inscribed with that of Lillian, of Griffith, in the heart of the U. S. public was not the little girl who jumped over a cliff in Birth of a Nation. Many cinema fans, their memories bemused by thousands of flickering faces, have lost dollar bets on that fact. The girl who jumped over the cliff was Mae Marsh. Other bets have concerned the sisters’ ages. Lillian is 32. Dorothy is 30. Just as pretty as Lillian (5 ft. 4 in. tall, red-blonde hair), cleverer perhaps, certainly shrewder, Dorothy wanted romance to be concrete, loved while Lillian acted, married (James Rennie, dark-haired “legit” actor) while Lillian stayed single. In the many pictures in which the sisters have appeared together, Dorothy’s acting, always accurate, lacked the indefinable distinction of Lillian’s. Since leaving pictures in 1922 she has wanted to return to a medium where she could have the advantage of voice. Last week (see below) she appeared in Manhattan in “legit” drama.

Dorothy Gish – Time 1928-11-12: Vol 12 Iss 20

THEATRE

New Plays in Manhattan

Young Love.

She was the little girl | who got wet in Orphans of the Storm and wore an arresting white dress in Nell Gwyn. That has nothing to do with a play called Young Love which opened in Manhattan last week, except that Dorothy Gish, 30, is back on the stage playing opposite her husband, James Rennie, and Lillian Gish is still in the movies and still unmarried (see p. 44). Dorothy Gish is cast in Young Love as a tempestuous and idealistic latter-day maiden striving to assure marital congeniality by pre-nuptial experiment. In the first few lines, she and her fiancé ex-press satisfaction with last night’s trial. To make it doubly sure, they exchange partners with their unconsulted host and hostess. Miss Gish completes an affair with host, but fiancé quails before hostess. Then follow two acts of confessions, recriminations, door-slammings, to end with four-way felicity the way it should be (according to the movies). Despite such items as “I love him!” “Then that’s a very good reason not to marry him,” despite Miss Gish’s grotesque make-up and quaintly haphazard clothes, Young Love is adequate entertainment.

Dorothy Gish

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Mayor of NY with Connie Towers and Lillian Gish – backstage in the opening night of “Anya”

Mayor of NY with Connie Towers and Lillian Gish – backstage in the opening night of “Anya” (December 1965)

Anya star Connie Towers is pictured backstage with Lillian Gish and Mayor of the New York City John Lindsey. In private life, Connie is Mrs. Eugene McGrath who often visits Miami. Her husband’s mother. Mrs. Harry Scheibla, lives in Miami. The McGraths have two small children, a son and a daughter.

Photo Friedman Abeles 351W 54St. N.Y.C. 19 Judson 6-3260

Constance Towers, Lillian Gish and John Lindsey (Mayor of NY) – Photo Anya Dec 5 1965
Constance Towers, Lillian Gish and John Lindsey (Mayor of NY) – Anya Dec 5 1965

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The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL – 1974 (Life with Lillian)

  • The Rise and Fall of the MATINEE IDOL
  • Past deities of stage and screen, their roles, their magic, and their worshippers
  • EDITED By Anthony Curtis
  • Illustration consultants: Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson
  • St. Martin’s Press New York 1974
  • Copyright © 1974 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd.

After the First World War a new generation of idols emerged in the theatre. In this period Sandy Wilson traces the trajectory of that idol of the first magnitude, Ivor Novello, who is also, nostalgically remembered by Micheal MacLiammoir. Noel Coward’s career is discussed by Sheridan Morley, while Vivian Ellis reminds us of the importance of great impresarios such as C. B. Cochran and a host of idols from the world of musical comedy. The spotlight then turns, to Broadway where George Oppenheimer reveals the strength of the great dynasties of idols, such as the Barrymores and the Lunts, and O. Z. Whitehead recalls nostalgically life with Lillian Gish. Paris had its own way with idols and Roland Gant wanders along the boulevards in search of the cabotins, from Guitry to Arletty. Back in the West End of London, Philip Hope-Wallace looks back over a lifetime spent in the stalls and remembers many unforgettable peaks in performance.

Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish in ‘Camille’ [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.2

Life with Lillian

O. Z. Whitehead

During the fall of 1930 my first term at Harvard University, my cousin, George Greene, a senior student, came to see me at my rooms one night and said, ‘I have two tickets in the first row of the balcony to see Uncle Vanya’ Fortunately, I was free to go with him. I had never seen or read a play by Anton Chekhov before.

This remarkable production by Jed Harris of Uncle Vanya had been a great success in New York the season before. His direction and everyone in the cast had received enormous praise. I can see Lillian Gish now as Helena, Serebryakov’s young wife, looking radiantly beautiful, in her first entrance, as she walked silently with much grace from the garden into the house. I can remember, too, the appealing manner in which, at the end of the second act, she said to her husband’s daughter, ‘Sonya, I have a longing for music; I should like to play something,’ and then, with much disappointment, learns from Sonya that her father would object. Lillian played Helena with fine feeling and wonderful charm. I wondered why she was no longer in films.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

In the fall of 1937, three years after I had gone on the stage myself, I went to see John Gielgud in Hamlet at the Empire Theater. Lillian was playing Ophelia. After having seen her in three silent films and in one play I did not expect to see the kind of performance that she gave in this part. In her scenes before her madness she was quiet and modest, but after that she lost all reticence. She even went so far as to roll on the ground. Lillian made the madness of Ophelia certainly disturbing. She gave a most striking performance.

After the play was over I went backstage to see John Cromwell, a friend of mine since the time when we went to the Buckley School in New York. He was playing Rosencrantz and under-studying John Gielgud. As I was on my way downstairs I saw Lillian standing outside her dressing-room. Wearing an attractive dressing-gown she was saying goodbye to an old lady who had been visiting her. She spoke to this lady in a kind, gentle tone, ‘Be careful, honey, about going downstairs.’ I looked at Lillian carefully; I could see that she noticed this. I did not expect to meet her again.

In fact I met Lillian for the first time at a small lunch party that Mrs Charles Lindley, a friend of my family’s, gave at the Colony Club during the spring of 1939. At this first meeting she struck me as having unusual quiet charm. Becomingly dressed in pastel colours, she looked younger and even more attractive than she had when I had first seen her two years and a half before in the doorway of her dressing-room. I said to her, ‘You know an old friend of mine, John Cromwell.’ ‘Oh! yes,’ she said. ‘He is a very sensitive actor. We were in Hamlet together. I would like to have seen his Marchbanks in Candida with Cornelia Otis Skinner.’ I said to her ‘I thought that he was very good.’

Although extremely intelligent and not lacking in artistic perception Mrs Lindley did not understand how actors approached their work or what they went through in between jobs. She described a little how Michael Chekhov taught acting at a school in Connecticut that her friend, Beatrice Straight, was financing. What Mrs Lindley said about his method was very strange and complicated. I do not think that anyone has ever taught like that. Holding her fingers together as if in an attitude of prayer Lillian listened calmly. At the end of Mrs Lindley’s description Lillian smiled with amusement and said nothing. Mrs Lindley became more personal and asked her, ‘Are you working now?’ Lillian answered her with subtle humour. ‘Oh! yes, I’m working very hard, I’m moving.’

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936

Eventually, I became an actor myself. Early in January of 1940 about six weeks after I had finished playing a part in John Ford’s now classic film The Grapes of Wrath from the book of the same name by John Steinbeck, Oscar Serlin, the producer, asked me to play Clarence Day Junior in a company of Life with Father that, after a week in Baltimore starting on 12 February, was to open in Chicago at the Blackstone Theatre for an unlimited engagement. The original company with Howard Lindsay as father and Dorothy Stickney as mother had already opened with enormous success almost three months before at the Empire Theater in New York. This play was adapted by Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse from two books of sketches, God and My Father and Life With Father, written by Clarence Day about his childhood. Before making up two books all of the sketches had appeared in The New Yorker. Although I had never read any of the sketches I had certainly heard a great deal about them.

Four days before the first rehearsal Oscar Serlin gave me a script. I had been taking lessons from a great teacher, Boris Marshalov, for more than two years and a half. I began to work with him on my part without delay. Our first rehearsal took place on the stage of the Empire Theater on the set that the company in New York was using.

Lillian arrived at rehearsal just a little while after I did. She wore a becoming hat and an attractive sweatered dress. As always extremely beautiful, she still looked a little pale. Although I naturally felt nervous at the prospect of a first rehearsal, I could not believe that an actress of her vast experience felt the same way. She shook hands with me in such a manner as to make me think that she was glad that I was in the cast. Oscar Serlin asked Bretaigne Windhurst, the director, and the cast composed of sixteen, to sit around the diningroom table used in the play. Oscar had with him a copy of the current issue of Life magazine. He said to us ‘This issue contains an article about The Birth of a Nation.’ Lillian said with enthusiasm, ‘Oh! yes, there’s a story about it and many photographs.’ Oscar said agreeably, ‘That is very nice.’

Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father -- 1940
Lillian Gish as Vinnie in Life With Father — 1940

On this first morning of rehearsal we read through the play. Our director did not believe in giving his cast much time for lunch. I think that Lillian’s consisted of a chocolate ice cream soda. The first days of rehearsal went smoothly. Percy Waram, who had obviously done a great deal of work on his part beforehand, already seemed to be just right as my father, Clarence Day Senior. The rest of us were gradually trying to understand our parts and at the same time to learn our lines and positions.

One night after rehearsal as I was crossing Sixth Avenue on the way to Fifth I met Lillian walking up Sixth Avenue with Malcolm, her West Highland white terrier.

‘Hello, John,’ she said in a rather tired, absent-minded tone.

‘You are thinking of my friend, John Cromwell,’ I said.

‘How is he?’ she asked.

‘He was very successful last year,’ I said. ‘Now he is looking for a part again. My name is Zebby,’ I added.

‘Oh! yes, dear,’ she said.

When I came close to Lillian I could see large circles under her eyes. We walked cross town together and stopped every once in a while because of Malcolm.

‘Were you out late last night?’ I asked her.

‘Yes, I went out dancing, but don’t tell on me.’

As we continued walking down the street she became a little more lively.

‘Are you looking forward to going to Chicago?’ I asked her.

‘In this play, yes.’

‘When did you decide to do it? I asked her.

‘Oh, I went to see this play during the first week that it opened and I thought that it was the darlingest play that I had ever seen. I said to myself I could be in this play, and then I went to see it again to make sure that I was right. My second visit confirmed me in my opinion. I made an appointment to see Oscar Serlin and asked him to let me tour in this play. I met Mrs Clarence Day, Howard Lindsey, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst. The next day Oscar Serlin telephoned me and offered me the part in the company going to Chicago, but I wasn’t really sure that I was going to be in it until I went into rehearsal on Monday.’ ‘When I get home,’ she added, ‘I’ll have to get hold of my sister and have her come over to mother’s apartment and cue me.’

I left Lillian at the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th Street. She walked by herself to the apartment at 430 East 52nd Street that she and her sister, Dorothy, provided for her mother and where for the time being Lillian was also living.

Lillian Gish and Malcolm

On the afternoon of the third Monday after the company had started to rehearse, Bretaigne Windhurst said rather casually, ‘I want you to run through the whole play today without stopping. Whatever goes wrong – just go ahead with it as if nothing was the matter.’

I do not think that much character, humour or real vitality emerged from this rough rehearsal. No one seemed certain of what they were doing. At the end, after a chilling silence, a man stood up in the back of the balcony. He walked forward to the front row and looked down at us. I heard someone say, ‘It’s Howard Lindsey.’ Bretaigne Windhurst, seated in the front row of the orchestra, made no comment. The rest of us, with much concern, waited for Howard Lindsey to come up on the stage and say what he thought of us.

He criticized each member of the cast with dry humour and great severity. I feel sure that we all deserved his disapproval. After he had at last finished Lillian asked him gently, referring to his wife, Dorothy Stickney, ‘Where is Dorothy? I want her to help me on make-up.’ He replied, ‘She is resting quietly at home in preparation for the evening’s performance.’

During the last week of rehearsals in New York we gave a performance on two successive afternoons before invited audiences at the Empire Theater. Howard Lindsey, attending both of them, showed sincere satisfaction at our general improvement. Lillian said, ‘I will have to get one day in which to do business before we leave for Baltimore.’ I do not think that she managed to get more than half a day.

On Saturday morning, 10 February, two days before the opening in Baltimore, the company took the train for there. Dorothy Gish came along too. This was the first time that I had met her. She looked very tired as if she had been up late on the night before. Her bright, blonde hair made her face look like a masque. Lillian looked young and fresh beside her. Dorothy offered everyone chocolates out of a big, fine box. On Sunday night after the dress rehearsal I walked part of the way back to the hotel with Lillian and her dog. With no lack of confidence, but a little tensely, she said, ‘Now that we’ve finished rehearsing we should be ready to play it.’

The audience as well as Oscar Serlin, Mrs Clarence Day, Russell Crouse and Bretaigne Windhurst, seemed pleased with the opening night’s performance. Ruth Gordon, a great friend of Lillian’s came down from New York to see it. This enormously gifted actress, talented writer and extraordinary woman, said to Oscar Serlin, ‘Thank you, it was a great treat.’ With much enthusiasm she walked on to the stage and carefully examined the set with its interesting old Victorian furniture.

During the week in Baltimore the Gish sisters spent some time with their old friend, the distinguished journalist, H. L. Mencken, whose home was in that city.

Lillian and Dorothy Gish – 1943

The sisters and I were staying in the same hotel. After the Wednesday matinee Lillian knocked on my door and asked me to join them for dinner. Still suffering from a cold that I had caught on the day after Howard Lindsey had come unexpectedly to the unfortunate rehearsal I have already referred to, I was looking forward to taking a rest and having dinner alone in my room. Despite this I could not refrain from accepting her invitation. I had so far only talked to Lillian a little and to Dorothy not at all. What were they going to be like? I tried to forget my still tired feeling and stuffed up nose in happy anticipation of finding out.

Their suite consisted of a sitting-room and two bedrooms. Lillian had not taken off her make-up. Rested by now, Dorothy looked very bright and attractive. After they had made sure that I was comfortable the sisters sat down opposite me, Lillian on a small sofa, and Dorothy on an easy chair.

What struck me most strongly at this my first meeting with them both, apart from their rare charm and feminine appeal, was their admiration and love for each other. There seemed to be no real conflict between them. Lillian obviously found whatever Dorothy said amusing and seemed content just to listen to her. Dorothy had come to Baltimore to help Lillian over what is always a trying period for an actor or actress, the opening week of a play. Enormously pleased with her sister’s performance as Vinnie Day, Dorothy certainly showed no envy that she was not playing her, only happiness at what she now felt was going to be a great success for her sister in Chicago.

After Lillian had ordered dinner for us, Dorothy said to her, ‘I wonder how mother is?’ Lillian said, ‘We can telephone to New York now and see.’ While the operator was getting her number, Lillian explained to me, ‘Mother came to the trenches in France during the First World War, while Dorothy and I were making propaganda films for the English War Department, to encourage the war effort of this country. She has been an invalid ever since.’ Dorothy added, ‘She has done so much for us that we can never do enough for her.’ Their mother could only speak a few words, and never over the telephone.

Lillian, Dorothy and Mother (Mary Robinson McConnell) – 1930’s

Miss Fairborn who had been taking care of Mrs Gish for many years, assured the sisters that their mother was fine.

Much to my concern we started back to the theatre a little late. As we were getting out of the taxi at the stage door a middle aged woman came up to us and said to the sisters, ‘You are Lillian and Dorothy Gish, aren’t you?’ They quickly admitted, ‘We are.’ She said with much enthusiasm, ‘I have admired you both all my life.’ The sisters acknowledged her remark politely.

On Saturday evening after the performance the cast and everyone connected with the production took the train to Chicago and arrived there late on Sunday afternoon. The Blackstone Hotel was situated at the comer of the impressive Michigan Avenue that faced the lake. Lillian had engaged a suite and Percy Waram a room at this hotel for as long as the play should run. Dorothy decided to live there for the two weeks that she planned to stay in Chicago. Because this hotel was very expensive I only took a room there temporarily. The Blackstone Theater where the play was going to open on the following evening was situated down a side street only a few doors from this hotel.

I did not see either of the sisters on Sunday evening. I think that they were resting like myself. A short rehearsal was called on Monday afternoon to which all the company came. Bretaigne Windhurst gave the cast a few notes.

Most actors are naturally nervous on opening nights. On this one Lillian appeared very calm. When I came downstairs ready to go on, she said brightly, ‘How do you feel, dear?’ I said, ‘All right.’ She then made some small sugges¬ tion to improve my make-up. I had plenty of time to fix it.

About five minutes before the rise of the curtain Lillian, most becomingly as Vinnie Day, a lady of New York in the 1880s, stood off stage on the landing waiting to go downstairs into the main room of the house belonging to her husband Clarence and herself. I, as their eldest son, meant to be seventeen years old, waited directly behind her and the three boys playing my younger brothers waited behind me.

As soon as the curtain had gone up on an empty stage, in a very dignified manner well suited to the character that she was playing, Lillian walked downstairs. The audience applauded her entrance with considerable enthusiasm. I could hear her first remarks in the play to Annie, the maid. Clear and distinct, her voice showed no signs of nervousness. When I followed her on the stage to greet my mother before breakfast I could quickly feel her complete assurance.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish and Percy Waram
Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

Perhaps because the distinguished actor, Percy Waram, who played Father spoke rather too loudly, which threw his performance somewhat off balance in relation to Lillian’s and the rest of the company’s, I do not think that the play went as well as it had in Baltimore. For this reason and because I was not satisfied with myself I did not feel happy after the play was over.

On my return to the hotel I saw Lillian standing in the lobby. She looked rather tired, and very serious.

‘Hello, Zebby,’ she said from a little distance. ‘I am going to a party.

Glad to be under no obligation for the evening I went by myself downstairs into the grill room and ordered scrambled eggs, toast and milk. Dorothy Gish was seated at a table nearby with a distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair whom I did not know. Deeply engrossed in her conversation, Dorothy at first did not seem to notice me. After a while, however, when she saw that I was alone, she called my name and said, ‘Come over here and sit with us.’ After I had reached her table she said ‘This is Mr H. L. Mencken. He half stood up and said warmly as if he meant it, ‘I saw your play again tonight. I thought that you were all very good. He then spoke with much enthusiasm about Lillian’s performance. ‘I think that it will be a great success here, he said. ‘That will be a relief to me,’ I said. ‘I have acted in several failures. I mentioned one that I had been in during the winter of nineteen thirty seven Oh Evening Star by Zoe Atkins, which lasted five performances at the Empire Theater.

He explained to Dorothy and me: ‘Zoe Atkins was at one time a serious writer. She even wrote beautiful verse. She was very poor. The opening of her play Declassee, starring Ethel Barrymore, was an obvious success. The evening afterwards when I was sitting in The Algonquin, Zoe walked in wearing a plumed hat and an expensive fur coat. I said to her “Zoe you look so different.” She said, “Can’t one dress up when one is opulent?” ’ Mr Mencken did not want us to leave him until he had finished all that he had to tell us. I could have listened to him indefinitely.

Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy and Lillian Gish standing at railing view 3]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3518

The next morning I hastened to buy all the newspapers as they came out. Each critic, Robert Poliak, Lloyd Lewis, Claudia Cassidy, Ashton Stevens and Cecil Smith, gave the play most excellent notices and the performances too, with one reservation about Lillian’s and two about Percy Waram’s. Although happy and relieved to read the notices and pleased too at what the critics had said about me, I still felt that all of us could have been much better.

In the afternoon I met Dorothy walking with Malcolm on Michigan Avenue. ‘How is Lillian today?’ I said. ‘Ah! fine. You should both be happy about the notices/ ‘Do you want to go into Woods and have ice-cream?’ I asked her. ‘Certainly,’ she said.

With no apparent sadness in her tone, Dorothy spoke about how little she had been working lately. Although people had offered her many plays she had felt compelled to turn them down either because she did not like the plays or because she did not think that the parts were right for her. During over six years and a half since my first appearance on the stage I had spent a great deal of time either in looking for parts or in waiting for one. Because of this I could well understand how Dorothy must be feeling.

Before the second night’s performance Oscar Berlin, his face temporarily twisted from nervous tension, came backstage. Waving his hands in the air, he said to the cast, ‘We’re in all right. We’re in.’

Shortly before it was time for the curtain to go up I walked out on the stage to join Lillian. Looking very relaxed and rested, she came up to me and said lightly, ‘Where did you and Dorothy go?’ She added, ‘I had to do my mail all alone.’

Although Lillian would have liked her to stay longer, Dorothy returned to New York on the second Saturday after we had opened.

I often called for Lillian at her suite on Sundays. The first time that we went out together she was dressed most becomingly in a blue sweatered suit, hat and veil, both of the same colour, the last just slightly over her forehead. She looked very fresh and young, hardly old enough to be playing Vinnie Day, supposedly the mother of four children, the oldest being seventeen. As we walked down Michigan Avenue towards The Auditorium to attend a concert, she said, ‘I want to see all of the United States in this play. Maybe we will run here for three months and then start to tour in June. Wouldn’t you like that?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t want to stay in this play for too long. I want to act in films.’

‘Ah!’, she said, ‘but one’s work in a film is quickly over. A play like this is very hard to find. Films are not so hard to come by.’

‘I should think that if one toured in a play for too long one would be almost forgotten.’

‘To work in a successful play like this is a career in itself, dear. I’ve waited a long time to find it.’

She looked up at me for a moment. ‘When we started to rehearse your colour was very bad, almost green,’ she said. ‘You’re looking much better now since you have been working.’

‘I have never been very strong,’ I said.

‘You must take care of yourself, dear, and become stronger,’ she said warmly. ‘Regular work will be good for you.’

One Sunday evening a few weeks after we had been in Chicago I took Lillian to see John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath in which, as I mentioned before I played. Lillian liked this film. She said, ‘Mr Ford directed films in the silent days. He learned how to tell a story with plenty of movement and without the constant use of dialogue. Most of the directors nowadays make the actors talk all the time.’

Mary Pickford (center ) has a party to celebrate Lillian Gish (right) signing to appear in COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN for producer Lester Cowan (left), 1942

After the film during dinner I asked her, ‘Lillian, why don’t you consider seriously going back into films?’ A fiery expression came into her eyes. She said, ‘I was the little pet out there once. Everyone did as I said. I did fine pictures that I liked and they always made money. I never did a story just because I thought that it would make money. The people out there now wouldn’t understand that kind of thinking. I would have to do just what they said and I wouldn’t want to do pictures that way.’ I asked her, ‘Couldn’t you produce with your friend, Mary Pickford?’

‘Oh! no, dear, Mary and I have very different ideas about doing films. She always did stories that she thought people would go to see, not necessarily what she liked. I am more selfish than that. Mary and I could never do pictures together. To try might end a life-long friendship.’ I understood what Lillian meant. ‘Couldn’t you produce them alone?’ I asked. ‘Not any more. No one would listen to me. Everything that you do has to get past the exhibitors and their taste is not mine.’ Despite my enthusiasm I could think of no further questions to ask on this subject.

During the first few weeks of the run in Chicago many people said that they thought our company was better than the one in New York. Although I am not sure how many members of our company agreed with this opinion still none of us failed to appreciate the compliments that most people gave us. Some said to Lillian, ‘We like your Vinnie Day even better than Dorothy Stickney’s.’ Lillian said graciously, ‘I should be better. I have been on the stage much longer than she has, thirty-five years since childhood.’

Because of quick changes that she often had to make during the play, Lillian used an improvised dressing-room hidden from the audience at the top of the set’s staircase. During moments of waiting which she experienced once in a while, she often wrote letters. Sometimes she would just lie down, with her feet high up on a chair.

The anniversary performance of our show celebrating a year’s run which took place on the evening of February 1941, was a great success. Many people who had seen the play before came again. Lillian seemed happy about it, like the rest of us.

One day, soon afterwards, I read in the newspaper that the Museum of Art was going to have a special showing of Broken Blossoms on the following afternoon. That evening at the theatre I suggested to Lillian that we go to see it. ‘Well, I might,’ she said, ‘if it’s the first time for you.’

D. W. Griffith had directed this remarkable film in 1918. I had seen it about three years later when I was around ten. Some of the scenes had stuck vividly in my memory. The next afternoon at four o’clock, Lillian and I arrived at the small auditorium of the Museum, mostly filled with women.

Lillian’s performance as the twelve-year-old girl living in London’s Chinatown with her brutal father was deeply moving. Richard Barthelmass played beautifully the pure-hearted Chinaman who tried to rescue her. Donald Crisp acted the father with much effectiveness. Lillian’s death scene with Richard Barthelmass was unforgettable.

Simple, unpretentious, in no way sordid, without a trace of vulgarity, and obviously directed by a master, the film had a fine sense of tragedy. I thought that it was a masterpiece. At the end of the showing, after a moment’s silence, the audience broke into applause. Someone asked Lillian to say a few words. She stood in front of the audience and said modestly,

‘I hope that it moved you. It did me a little.’

Lillian Gish – Lucy, the girl (Broken Blossoms)

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The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Vol. 37 1980 – Lillian Gish

  • The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress Summer-Fall 1980: Vol 37 Iss 3-4
  • Lillian Gish

Lillian Gish’s acting career has spanned more than seventy years and includes over ninety films, numerous stage plays, and radio and television appearances. Born on October 14, 1896, in Springfield, Ohio, she began acting at the age of five years in Rising Sun, Ohio, in a traveling stage company melodrama. Her mother and her younger sister, Dorothy, also turned to acting with various touring companies, and thus the family supported itself. In 1912, through an introduction to D. W. Griffith by their friend Mary Pickford at the Biograph Company studios at 11 East Fourteenth Street in New York, Lillian and Dorothy were launched on film careers. They quickly became regular performers for the Biograph Company under D. W. Griffith’s direction.

“A Good Little Devil” – Lillian Gish (first from the left)

Lillian Gish left Griffith briefly late that year to perform in David Belasco’s stage play A Good Little Devil but returned to Biograph in 1913 and appeared in numerous films, among them The Mothering Heart and Griffith’s western The Battle of Elderbush Gulch. When Griffith left Biograph to join the Mutual Film Corporation, Lillian and Dorothy moved with him. Established as a star in the part of Elsie Stoneman in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Lillian Gish played a small but key role in Intolerance (1916) as the woman whose rocking of a cradle ties the four stories together. Thereafter, she appeared only in parts tailored to her talents. During World War I, she, her mother, and Dorothy traveled to England and France with D. W. Griffith to make a war film, Hearts of the World (1917). In 1918 she appeared in a Liberty Bond short and two more war pictures, The Great Love and The Greatest Question. Still under Griffith’s direction, she appeared in 1919 in two romantic dramas, A Romance of Happy Valley and True Heart Susie, before portraying Lucy in Broken Blossoms, in what has been considered her best performance.

After directing a movie on her own, Remodeling Her Husband (1919), and appearing in the celebrated Way Down East (1920), she left Griffith for a time. She returned in 1921 when they did their last film together, The Two Orphans. Under contract with Inspiration Pictures, she starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924). In 1925 she signed a contract with MGM to make six films in two years, of which five were completed. Notable were The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Seastrom. Her first talkie was One Romantic Night, released in 1930 as part of a contract with United Artists for three talking films to be chosen by her. Disappointed by the first film, she asked to be released from her contract and returned to the stage in Jed Harris’s revival of Uncle Vanya.

Universal Images Group 1930 Uncle Vanya (Helena) Lillian Gish

She never returned to full-time film acting but has devoted her talents primarily to the stage and some radio and television work. She has appeared in fewer than fifteen films since 1930, among them His Double Life (Paramount, 1933), Miss Susie Slagle’s (Paramount, 1946), Duel in the Sun (Selznick- United Artists, 1947), Night of the Hunter (United Artists, 1955), Orders to Kill (UMPO, 1958), and The Comedians (MGM, 1967).

Lillian Gish was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in Duel in the Sun. His Double Life was selected by the New York Times as one of the Best Ten films of that year, and All the Way Home, a stage play in which she appeared in 1960, won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Drama Critics’ Award. She has been awarded honorary degrees from Rollins College and Mount Holyoke College. She collaborated with Albert Paine Bigelow on Life and Lillian Gish, a book published in 1932. In 1969, with Anne Pinchot, she wrote Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith & Me. This was followed in 1973 by Dorothy and Lillian Gish.

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
Dorothy And Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish (Scribners) Sleeve – Cover

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Central City Opera House – Now and Then – HDV 720p 29.97 fps

In 1877, the citizens of Central City organized a fundraising drive for a grand new opera house befitting the gold mining town’s reputation as “the richest square mile on earth.” Many of the town’s residents were Welsh and Cornish miners, who brought with them a rich tradition of music from their homeland. Prominent Denver architect Robert S. Roeschlaub provided an elegant, understated design for the stone structure, and San Francisco artist John C. Massman added elaborate trompe l’oeil murals to the interior.

Her early glory years following the 1878 grand opening were short-lived. When the Central City mines were played out, the Opera House fell into disrepair. Fortunately, a volunteer-driven effort led by Ida Kruse McFarlane, Edna Chappell and Anne Evans led to an extensive restoration of the Opera House in 1932. That summer, the legendary actress Lillian Gish opened the newly restored opera house with Camille, launching an annual tradition of summer festivals in Central City.

Central City Opera House – Now and Then – HDV 720p 29

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