THE CELLULOID MISTRESS – By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant (1954)

  • THE CELLULOID MISTRESS
  • Or The Custard Pie of Dr. Caligari
  • By Rodney Ackland & Elspeth Grant
  • LONDON – ALLAN WINGATE; November 1954

UNBROKEN BLOSSOMS

” There were two sisters sat in a bower .. “

Lillian and Dorothy Gish

I had told Bill Gillette I was going to America to see Korda but the moment I arrived in New York I had to confess to myself that there was somebody else I simply must see, somebody I really looked forward to seeing-and before I telephoned the film magnate who had, as I thought, caused me so much trouble, I telephoned the star who had, from my boyhood days, given me so much pleasure and inspiration : Lillian Gish.

Nine years before, I had been sitting in my room in the Albany flat when Arthur Boys, who had been dining with friends of ours, came in and said casually, “Who do you think is staying with the Parkers?” “I’ve no idea at all,” I said. “Well, guess! ” urged Arthur, “Hitler?” I suggested. “No,” said Arthur, ” Lillian Gish.” I sprang up in the greatest excitement, ” It can’t be! ” “But it is,” insisted Arthur, pleased at being the bearer of such sensational news. If he had not been adamant in refusing to disturb his host and hostess at half-past midnight, I would have forced him to telephone the Parkers then and there to ask if I might meet their distinguished visitor. He spoke to them next morning and they amiably invited me to dine the following evening. I arrived in a state of awe and on being introduced to Lillian Gish became completely tongue-tied-as I usually do when confronted with one of my idols. (Had Tchekov lived in my time and I had met him, I’ve no doubt I should be dumb-struck to this day.) I could only gaze at Miss Gish. It was incredible : she looked exactly the same as she did in the old days-except for two fine lines under her eyes. Her face was so young, it seemed to me; she must have drawn those lines on, in order to play a character part. I sat beside her at dinner, my mind full of memories. When had I first met Lillian Gish on the screen? Was it in 11 The Angel of the Settlement,” a two-reeler in which she had saved George Walsh from being lynched? I recalled seeing that with my sister Kay; it had been a gala day for us at the Grand Theatre, Fulham-for Lillian Gish was my favourite star and George Walsh was Kay’s best-loved actor, and the other film in the bill had been ” The Voice from the Minaret,” with Nonna Talmadge. Suddenly I became aware that some contribution to the conversation was expected from me. ” Oh, Miss Gish,” I said nervously to her, ” there’s something I remember about one of your earlier films which apparently nobody else does : you were once on a horse rushing to someone else’s rescue.” Miss Gish looked at me as though I must be out of my mind. ” I was on a horse . . . rushing to rescue somebody? ” she said, incredulously.

” Yes,” I asserted, ” it was called ‘ The Angel of the Settlement.’ ” Miss Gish shook her head and said in a gentle but firm voice :

“No, no. You must be mistaken. I can’t remember any such film or incident.”

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

I was surprised and abashed. I hadn’t at that time learned that film stars who have appeared in a great many films always forget the early ones. I did not, in fact, realize this until Robert Helpmann, long afterwards, told me he was afraid he had off ended Bebe Daniels : he had said to her, ” I remember you, dressed as a moth, dancing on a table in’ Singed Wings.'” Miss Daniels had not remembered having done anything so ” idiotic.” She had genuinely forgotten the f:tlm-and one must hope it is never unearthed and shown on TV as it might rock the millions who enjoy that cosy” Life with the Lyons.” Though my first meeting with Lillian Gish had opened somewhat inauspiciously, it led to her becoming a dear friend of mine. We met a number of times during her stay in London-and I discovered that though I had always thought of her as a film star, she regarded herself as essentially a stage actress. Her mother had been an actress in a touring company and Lillian and her sister Dorothy, as children, had travelled abbut with her; it was not a very successful touring company and they often went hungry to bed in the stuffy dressing-rooms of fifth-rate theatres because there was not money enough to pay for a meal or lodgings. The vicissitudes of her childhood had not destroyed Lillian’s born love of the theatre. The years she had spent making films in Hollywood (from 1910 to I930, I believe) represented to her no more than a temporary break in her stage career.

Naturally, during our meetings I argued fervently in favour of the cinema and told her it was my ambition, my dream, to become a film director. She used to smile at me as if I were being rather foolish-but one day she spoke very seriously. Since I had last visited her, she had been to see “After October ” and had read several of my other plays. “Rodney,” she said,” I beg of you don’t waste your time pursuing that dream of yours. You are a playwright-why do you want to be a film director instead of writing plays-plays that nobody else could write? There are hundreds of competent film directors and to get to the top in that profession you must be ruthless-you must be tough enough to take hard knocks and keep fighting and fighting. It is not worth it for you; you have better things to do-you have your plays to write. Think of the number of plays you could have written in all this time you’ve been messing about with films ! Don’t you see?”

Within The Gates – Edward Steichen (Estate) credits – Harvard Art Museums – Fogg Museum copyright The Estate of Edward Steichen Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York – detail1

I saw that she spoke in earnest and I loved her for it. I was, in fact, deeply moved : I muttered out inadequate thanks for her kindness. “Well, think about it, anyway,” she said-and then, to put the conversation on a less emotional level, changed the subject. “I should love to play in a London theatre” she sighed. I asked what she had been doing before she came over here. “I was playing in New York in Sean O’Casey’s ‘Within the Gates.’ The front-of “house people told me they used to hear dear old ladies coming into the theatre at matinees saying, ‘ Oh, I always like Lillian Gish, she’s so sweet, always so refined . .. ‘-and then, when the poor things sat down and opened their programmes a gasp would go through the whole auditorium. You see, I was down as ‘ Lillian Gish-The Young Whore.’ “

Lillian Gish in Within The Gates

When I telephoned her in New York, Lillian suggested that as Mary Pickford was giving a little party for a few friends at the Waldorf Astoria that day, I should meet her there at six o’clock.

That, I thought, would be charming. Having just arrived from the wilds of Canada, I felt, though, my wardrobe, designed for roughing. it in the wild North-West, was scarcely suitable for a party, however small, at the Waldorf Astoria. I couldn’t afford to buy very much, having only my dollar allowance, and anyway I hadn’t the time, as it was already half-past four. I would let my one good suit to be pressed by the hotel valet service and meantime could slip out in my rumpled tweeds and at least get a new shirt. No haberdasher in the vicinity of the hotel seemed to understand what I wanted so I journeyed to Fifth Avenue. Here, having browsed luxuriously through a variety of shirtings such as had not been seen in England since before the war, I discovered suddenly that it was later than I had thought. I hastily bought a shirt and, clutching it under my arm, emerged from the shop into the inconceivable chaos of New York’s rush hour.

The sidewalk seethed with hot, harassed people, scurrying in all directions, pushing and elbowing each other fiercely and showing such a frenzied determination to escape from Fifth Avenue as quickly as possible that one would have thought an outbreak of bubonic plague in the area had just been announced. There were no taxis to be had-no buses. One stream of fugitives bore me up Fifth Avenue, another swept me clown-and it was nearly six o’clock. There was no time to return to my hotel. I would have to forego the freshly pressed suit and fight my way to the Waldorf Astoria as I was. Arriving, panting and more rumpled than ever, I plunged into the gentleman’s cloakroom, had a quick wash and changed into my new shirt; to my chagrin, it had the kind of cuffs that demand links, and I was linldess. The friendly attendant comforted me with the information that I could buy a IC cheap pair-just junk” at a kiosk in the foyer. With the cheapest pair I could find holding my Cliffs decently together, I asked to be conducted to Miss Mary Pickford’s party.

Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish – feature photo

A supercilious page flung open a door-revealing thousands and thousands of people, as resplendent and as raucous as macaws, milling about in the ballroom beyond. Dazed and almost deafened, I stood by the doorway feeling lost and hoping that Lillian Gish would find me. At last, looking herself slightly dazed, she did and as we fell on each other’s necks she said in my ear, IC But I promise you, Mary did say just a few friends.” I was fascinated to meet Mary Pickford, though I did not exchange more than a couple of words with her-not, on this occasion, because I was tongue-tied but because she was so busy receiving the hordes of guests who continued to arrive. Her circle of friends was apparently infinite. Unlike Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford had changed a great deal since the old days; she bore no resemblance at all to the ringletted darling who was the world’s sweetheart.

Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford

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