The Cinematic Century – By Harry Haun (2000)

  • The Cinematic Century
  • By Harry Haun
  • Copyright ® 2000 Applause Books

An Intimate Diary of America’s Affair with the Movies

1920: Filmed amid much wintry hardship at White River Junction, VT, Way Down East premieres on this day at New York’s 44th Street Theater—and the dark clouds that plagued the production have not lifted: Bobby Harron, 26, the Biograph office-boy who became D.W. Griffith’s top juvenile actor but somehow got left out of this film (supplanted, pointedly, by Richard Barthelmess)—shot himself to death the night before the big launch. Then, there was the mysterious location death of Clarine Seymour, 21, who was playing Barthelmess’ intended and had to be replaced by Mary Hay. Death was, however, breathlessly averted once—and the cameras caught it, the genuine heroics of Barthelmess, snatching Lillian Gish to safety just as the ice floe they were riding on went over a waterfall. Gish did not escape entirely unharmed, though. The hand she dangled so long in the icy river suffered permanent damage.

Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur-1925 – chariot-race

1925: At MGM’s “Circus Maximus” in Culver City, 48 horses and a dozen chariots driven by Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman and 10 stuntmen begin the chariot race in Ben-Hur. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Lillian Gish and the Barrymore brothers bopped by for the long-delayed event, lorded over by Fred Niblo and his 60 assistant directors. One toga-clad A.D. would command Ben-Hur’s next day at the races 33 years later: William Wyler. On his first day in the stadium built at Rome’s Cinecitta, Wyler addressed the 6,000 extras in the stands and, indicating the dozens of A.D.s on the track, “Which one of these guys is going to direct the next Ben-Hur?” Of course, the crowd roared.

1986: The Wails of August (as Vincent Price tagged it] starts subsiding on this day as The Whales of August finishes filming. Not a happy shoot, this—due to Bette Davis’ chronic crankiness over the TLC accorded co-star Lillian Gish. When director Lindsay Anderson complimented Gish on “a lovely closeup,” Davis was heard crabbing, “She ought to know about closeups. Jesus, she was around when they invented them!” Indeed, Gish was. For this swan song performance, The Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats calls Gish “the oldest actress to have played a major role in a movie.” The movie bowed in New York on Gish’s 93rd birthday, which could explain Davis’ absence. Davis skipped the L.A. launch because she learned the gala sponsors, Women in Film, were giving her its newly established Lillian Gish award.

Lillian Gish in “The Whales of August” (1987)

1993: Lillian Gish dies at 99—”the same age as film,” her manager, James E. Frasher, noted: “They both came into the world in 1893.” Gish began acting on stage, at 5, as “Baby Lillian” with her sister, Dorothy; they film-debuted together as extras in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 An Unseen Enemy and eventually became his Orphans of the Storm—but Lillian toiled too for modern directors like Robert Altman (1978’s A Wedding) and Lindsay Anderson (1987’s The Whales of August). When a reporter reminded her in her dotage that her 75-year career got her Guinness’ title as “most enduring actress of the large screen,” she paused a thoughtful beat, then said, “I made a movie with him once”—and the interview careened to West Africa, Sir Alec and The Comedians.

Vincent Price and Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

Back to Lillian Gish Home page