The Griffith Actresses – By Anthony Slide – 1973 (Blanche Sweet, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish)

The Griffith Actresses

By Anthony Slide – 1973

And we may believe they walk again, as they did long years ago.

—Final title in True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

What Made a Griffith Girl?

David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, on January 22, 1875; he was the fourth son of Jacob Wark Griffith, a onetime Confederate colonel. In 1908 he joined the American Biograph Company as an actor, after having been previously employed in the same capacity by the Edison Company. On July 14, 1908, his first film as a director, The Adventures of Dollie, was released. His last production, The Struggle, was released on December 10, 1931. He died in Hollywood on July 23, 1948.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

That, in one cold precise paragraph, sums up the career of D. W. Griffith, the man who not only invented screen syntax, but also—and more importantly—gave the cinema the most precious gift of all, beauty. That beauty he presented to film audiences to a large extent through the actresses whom he used in his productions, actresses who studied individually might appear to have little in common but who together had one major common denominator: they were all Griffith Girls.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

What made a Griffith girl? Physically, they were all small, slim, and young, the last attribute perhaps being the most important. “We pick the little women because the world loves youth, and all its wistful sweetness. . . . Youth with its dreams and sweetness, youth with its romance and adventure! For in the theater, as in our families, we look to youth for beauty and often for example. We sit in the twilight of the theater and in terms of youth, upon faces enlarged, we see thoughts that are personal to us, with the privilege of Supplying our own words and messages as they may fit our individual experiences in life.”

All the Griffith girls (excluding, of course, the character actresses) were less than twenty years of age when they came under his direction; Blanche Sweet was not yet fourteen when she joined Biograph, and Carol Dempster was eighteen when she made True Heart Susie, as was Miriam Cooper when she made Intolerance.

Miriam_Cooper_from_Stars_of_the_Photoplay

It is often said, foolishly, that the Griffith heroine was always ethereal. Which other Griffith actress, aside from Lillian Gish, can be described as ethereal? Certainly not Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh or Clarine Seymour. As “The Little Disturber” in Hearts of the World, Dorothy Gish was anything but ethereal, and Carol Dempster was only ethereal in as much as she was trying to emulate Lillian Gish. If anything a Griffith heroine had many masculine traits, in that she would fight for what she desired, and if she did not get it, it was not through want of trying.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

The quality which made these actresses so special, the quality which Griffith saw in each of them—perhaps not instantly, but very soon after the first meeting—was, I believe, “soul.” By “soul” I mean emotion, an inner quality that could be brought to the surface and exposed before the camera: an inner quality that might remain dormant until its possessor came into contact with a mesmerist, a Svengali, a D. W. Griffith.

“Soul” was an expression Griffith often referred to when discussing film acting: “The actor with the Soul enters into the work with all the ardor there is in him. He feels his part, he is living his part, and the result is a good picture. . . . For principals I must have people with souls, people who know and feel their parts, and who express every single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles. … It isn’t what you do with your face or your hands, it’s the light within. If you have that light, it doesn’t matter just what you do before the camera.”

Judith from Bethulia 7
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith’s choice of actresses seldom faltered. He always seemed to know who had that “light within,” although it wasn’t always apparent the first time he worked with a particular actress. Linda Arvidson comments, regarding Blanche Sweet, that when she first applied for work at American Biograph, he was “as yet unwilling to grant that she had any soul or feeling in her work.” Occasionally he failed to spot that light at all, as with Florence Lawrence, whom he allowed without demur to leave American Biograph and join Carl Laemmle.

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

All these players remained loyal to Griffith; their devotion was absolute. Lillian Gish has shown her devotion not only in the title of her autobiography, but in one of her acknowledgements therein: “To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.” Lionel Barrymore wrote, “Bless him, he always tried to make one feel his contribution was great even though it might have been piffle.” All of his players have protected his good name throughout the years. It is almost impossible to find anyone who has ever worked for Griffith who has one word of criticism of him. (One almost feels obligated to use a capital “H” for his or him.) The general feeling about the man by all who knew him was summed up by Blanche Sweet, when we discussed his funeral.

“I did go to his funeral, although I don’t believe in funerals. But I did go there, and felt very badly about it, because there were quite a lot of people there, but on the other hand, all of Hollywood should have been there standing. All of Hollywood, because without him, maybe someone else would have come along and done it, maybe, but maybe not. Anyway, he did it. And he contributed more, actually, to making motion pictures than anybody else. There have been a lot of people, men and women, who had done a great deal for films, contributed a lot, but nobody did quite as much as he did. And I really felt that everybody who ever worked in the films should have been there. Well, that s one reason why I don’t believe in funerals.”

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

This volume chronicles lives and careers of several of the Griffith girls. Without him most, maybe all, would be unknown today, but I also like to think that his success owed much to their presence in his films. He brought out the best in them, and they responded by assuring his films through their acting—a place in the history of the cinema.

In 1928, D. W. Griffith addressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the following words: “When motion pictures have created something to compare with the plays of Euripides, that have lasted two thousand years, or the works of Homer, or the plays of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, or Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ the music of Handel, Bach, and Wagner, then let us call our form of entertainment an art, but not before.” Griffith was not a modest man; I believe he knew when he made that speech that his films had equalled the works of Homer, Shakespeare, or Handel, that Broken Blossoms was comparable in beauty to “Ode to a Nightingale.” But, as in any great man’s work, it was the collaborators, the interpreters, who played their part as well. The Griffith girls were the Sarah Bernhardt and the Julia Marlowe to his Shakespeare, the Kirsten Flagsted to his Wagner. To them also should be given the praise and the glory. We shall not see David Wark Griffith’s like again; nor, I fear, shall we see theirs—the Griffith Girls’.

 

The Ladies of the Biograph

The children who tripped to fortune up the steps of 11 East 14th Street. —Iris Barry

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

The studios of the American Biograph Company at 11 East 14th Street were the finest training ground any silent film actress (or actor for that matter) could desire. It is doubtful that any other of the early companies, with the possible exception of Vitagraph, produced so many embryo stars. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Mabel Normand, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were all stars who served their apprenticeship with the American Biograph Company.

The Griffith actresses - Mabel Normand
The Griffith actresses – Mabel Normand

But there were also many fine actresses working at the studios who never became stars, but whose presence in films, usually in character roles, was something that was received with a sigh of appreciation and thanks. Kate Bruce, Florence Lawrence, Josephine Crowell, Marion Leonard, Claire McDowell, and Linda Arvidson were actresses whose faces, if not names, were known and loved by film- goers during the teens and twenties. They have all long since passed on, but the memory of their performances remains undimmed for all those who loved the silent cinema, and to them this chapter is dedicated.

The Griffith actresses - Kate Bruce
The Griffith actresses – Kate Bruce

Kate Bruce

The character actress whose name immediately springs to mind when one thinks of the D. W. Griffith stock company is Kate Bruce.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

“Fortunate Brucie,, as Linda Arvidson wrote, she seems never to have had to hunt a job since that long ago day when D. W. Griffith picked her as a member of the old Biograph Stock Company. Little bits or big parts mattered nothing to ‘Brucie’ as long as she was working with us.”  Blanche Sweet recalled her as “a dear person, very quiet, very calm. Rather shy, she never had much to say. She played a great many of the mothers, of course, always the sweeter, gentle characters—she was that.”

British Cinema Art, London. George Neville, Edgar Nelson, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish, Lowell Sherman, Vivia Ogden, Creighton Hale, Mary Hay

Blanche Sweet

One of the greatest actresses of all time. —Herbert Wilcox

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet

Linda Arvidson wrote that Griffith “hardly expected her to set the world afire,” and that he was at first “unwilling to grant that she had any soul or feeling in her work.” Undoubtedly, she gave some brilliant performances in the Biograph and Mutual pictures she made for Griffith, particularly in The Painted Lady and Judith of Bethulia, both of which I shall discuss later, but she also proved that in her post-Griffith career, with not always the most helpful or intelligent of directors, she could more than equal her acting in those early dramatic roles. Her appalling performances in some Biograph one- reelers—I’m thinking particularly of The Battle—make me feel that her acting did not depend on Griffith’s direction, or on anyone else’s for that matter, but on her and her alone.

Sarah Blanche Sweet was born in Chicago on June 18, 1896; contrary to what many people believe, Sweet was her real name. She was brought up by her grandmother, Cora Blanche Alexander, to whom Blanche was devoted. It was Mrs. Alexander who introduced the young Blanche to the stage and, as Blanche recalls, “I had done a vaudeville sketch, which I’ve since learned was something from Dickens, and I loved it.” Blanche was also taking dancing lessons from Ruth St. Denis, lessons she was to put to good use later with Gertrude Hoffman.

Even in childhood, a mixture of pride and stubbornness, traits which were to be much in evidence during her film career, was apparent. “I was about four years old, I guess. My grandmother and I were in Cincinnati and Richard Mansfield was going to play there. As was the custom if the part was not large, if there were any children needed, they would get them from city to city. They have children, and pick from them—so I was picked, and I wouldn’t do it. And my grandmother and I—I don’t know if I knew it or not, it may be so—we both needed money to eat. And I wouldn’t play that part. I can remember my grandmother taking me around the backdrop, pleading with me to play the part—she should have hit me. And I said ‘No. I don’t like his face.’ ” Some years later, Harry Carr was to sum up her personality in an article in Motion Picture Magazine: “Blanche has a fierce, unconquerable heart and a tender, sensitive soul. It’s a terrible mixture … a sensitive, brooding soul with thoughts and impressions so sensitized and an emotion so deep that she dares not bare it to the world—nor to herself.”

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet /The Massacre
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet /The Massacre

In 1909, shortage of money persuaded Blanche and her grandmother to investigate films, and a friend suggested they try the Biograph Company. “So my grandmother and I went down, and in the outer foyer, which has been so much described, we made inquiries at a window, and they gave us a form, and we filled that out, and heard nothing. So that was the Biograph Company! Then we made our way up to the Edison Company, which was way uptown, and we had better luck there. They put me into a film the next day as an extra. All I remember about it was that it was raining, and I was under an umbrella. I don’t remember who directed it; I don’t remember who was in it; I don’t remember anything about it, except it was Edison. And then they gave me a picture after that—A Man with Three Wives.”

This film was copyrighted by the Edison Company on November 12, 1909. A comedy 440 feet in length, it concerned Jack Howard and his friend Ralph, who shared an artists’ studio in Greenwich Village. Jack had married against the wishes of his wealthy Uncle Peter, and the only way he could safeguard his interest in his uncle’s fortune was to pass off his wife as that of the already-married Ralph. Jack’s mother-in-law arrives on the scene, is horrified to discover a model in the studio, but mollified when Jack introduces her as Ralph’s wife. The film ends, seven minutes after it had begun, with Jack’s wife charming the uncle, who is attracted to the model, and the entire company dance around the irate mother-in-law. Blanche played one of the “wives,” but which one she does not recall, and unhappily neither the film itself nor any stills from it are known to have survived.

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet /Walthall
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet /Walthall

After this one featured role at Edison, Blanche, with her grandmother, decided to try the Biograph Company again. “The same person who said go down to Biograph said ‘Did you see Griffith?’ and we said ‘No, we just saw a window and a form.’ ‘Well, go down and see Griffith.’ So we did. We asked for Griffith, and he eventually came out and talked to me. And he said ‘Well, you can be in a film this afternoon.’ ”

And so Blanche Sweet made her first screen appearance with Biograph as an extra in A Corner in Wheat, released on December 13, 1909. Based on two works by Frank Norris, a novel The Octopus and a short story “A Deal in Wheat,” the film featured Biograph regulars Henry B. Walthall, James Kirkwood, Mack Sennett, and Kate Bruce.

Lillian Gish cca 18 years old - theater scene

Lillian Gish

Like she really comes on like a star. It’s really too much; she gassed me.

I think I love her.

—Student at Toronto’s York University

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

In August of 1925, Motion Picture Magazine carried a photograph of Lillian and Dorothy Gish with their mother, which was captioned “The Proudest Little Mother in All the World.” One can well appreciate that title for Mrs. Gish, mother of two great film actresses, one of whom, Lillian, has become one of the cinema’s most endearing and enduring stars.

Lillian Gish must surely be the only film actress from the silent era to have become a legend in her own lifetime. It seems totally inexcusable to criticize anything that she may have said or done. As one reviewer, writing of her autobiography, pointed out, to criticize Lillian Gish is comparable to denying God, one’s mother, and one’s country in the same breath. Since that fateful day when she and her sister Dorothy were first introduced to Mr. Griffith at the Biograph studios, the legendary image of Lillian Gish has been growing. She might almost be said to have been nurturing that image from her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1896.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen
Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen

Writers today idolize her. Edward Wagenknecht has been one of her sincerely devoted admirers for probably longer than most people. In 1927 he wrote, “She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name.” Sewell Stokes, in a radio broadcast in January, 1958, commented, “My favourite heroine was a wistful girl with a rosebud mouth and large dreamy eyes. She was beautiful and had about her a frail, spiritual quality that set her apart from the others. From my earliest visits to the cinema I had been in love with her. I had worshiped her from afar; she was a goddess, set on a very high pedestal indeed. And her name was Lillian Gish.”

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Of course, during the silent era itself, Miss Gish was not quite as revered as she is today. Marion Davies in The Patsy gives a brilliantly cruel parody of a Lillian Gish portrayal. James R. Quirk wrote in Photoplay, “In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attacks of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians, and 999 conscienceless men about town. Someday I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.” The editor of another contemporary film magazine commented, “An optimist is a person who will go to the theater expecting to see a D. W. Griffith production in which Lillian Gish is not attacked by the villain in the fifth reel.” One newspaper critic even suggested the foundation of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith; the two names are synonymous. Lillian Gish has starred in more Griffith features than any other actress, and she has carried on the acting tradition that Griffith taught her into the present. She was the ethereal star, who to most people represented the D. W. Griffith school of acting, the helpless heroine menaced by the villainous thug, be it in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, or Broken Blossoms. Lillian Gish was—and is—the supreme Griffith actress.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Of her films at American Biograph, I feel The Mothering Heart, released on June 21, 1913, was probably Lillian’s best work. It contains the typical Griffith-Gish traits—the death of the baby, the vamp who lures the husband away—but it also contains a superb, adult performance from Miss Gish. Lillian has discovered her husband’s (Walter Miller) unfaithfulness by finding a glove belonging to the other woman (Viola Barry) in his jacket pocket. She leaves him and goes to her mother (Kate Bruce). After the death of their baby, Miller returns. Lillian finds him by the baby’s cot and tells him to go, but then she sees that he has the child’s pacifier in his hand, and realizes her continuing love for him. The film contains some surprisingly mature acting from Lillian (bearing in mind her age at this time), particularly a long, hard look directly into the camera after the death of her child, and a scene of savage, silent fury as she relieves all her pent-up emotions by beating a bush—each stroke a blow against those who have wronged her by taking away both her husband and her child.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

No one will ever know whether Griffith was aware then of the actress, the star, he had in Lillian Gish. Certainly, he took Lillian with him when he moved on to Reliance-Majestic, but he did not in any way favor her. He was obviously aware of her ethereal qualities when he cast her as John Howard Payne’s sweetheart in Home Sweet Home. It is to Lillian that Henry B. Walthall, as Payne, says “Till the end of the world and afterwards I shall wait for you,” which brings Lillian’s reply, “It will be happiness to wait for him.”

Enoch Arden - Lillian Gish /Paget /Reid

Writing of that period in Harper’s Bazaar, Lillian recalled the lesson that Griffith always drilled into his actresses: “Griffith always told us there was no quick or easy way to stardom, and that being a star had nothing to do with having your name in the papers or up in lights over the marquees of theaters. You were a star only when you had won your way into the hearts of people. He claimed that this would take at least ten years, that we must make pictures so good that they would be worthy of the effort sometimes necessary to see them.”

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

It was not until The Birth of a Nation and Lillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman that the world really sat up and took notice. Lillian recalled for me that Blanche Sweet was originally slated for the part. “She was really, I think, to have had this part in The Birth of a Nation, but I rehearsed for her. If they were making another film, which no doubt she’d be doing with some other director, Griffith would want to rehearse The Birth, and whoever was free would rehearse any part, men and women. And one time I was rehearsing, and George Siegmann was playing the mulatto, and in my excitement at trying to be good and impress Mr. Griffith my hair came down—long, blonde hair to below my waist. I was very thin and unformed, and he picked me up, and my hair and feet almost touched the floor on both sides of him. And Griffith thought, well maybe he saw a full mature figure as Elsie Stoneman, maybe a frail figure with the hair and all would be more effective. I think that’s how I got the job. I didn’t think I was to play Elsie Stoneman; I wasn’t that far up in the company at that time. It was by rights Blanche Sweet’s part.”

intolerance-1916-lillian-gish-the-cradle-endlessly-rocking

After The Birth came Griffith’s greatest work, Intolerance. So much has—rightly—been written about this production that there seems little to add here. As Lillian commented, “The man had it all in his mind. He wrote every bit of it, he designed every set, he designed every costume, it was all his. That’s his monument. It is the greatest film ever made.” Lillian wrote in a letter to the widow of Howard Gaye, who portrayed The Christ in the film, “When Dorothy and I went to Jerusalem two years ago we felt it had been built by Mr. Griffith, and we expected to see your dear husband coming down the street any moment.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The series of Griffith productions that followed Intolerance served further to assert Lillian’s position as the silent screen’s greatest dramatic actress, to make her, in the words of Harry Carr, “the supreme technician of the screen.”

It is unfair to single out any individual film, but if I had to, then I would say Broken Blossoms, closely followed by True Heart Susie, was her finest achievement. Julian Johnson wrote of the former in Photoplay (August, 1919), “It is the finest genuine tragedy of the movies. The visualizing of this bitter-sweet story is, I have no hesitation in saying, the very finest expression of the screen so far. There seems to be no setting or accessory which is not correct in its finest details. The composition is a painter’s. The photography is not only perfect, but, with caution, is innovational, and approximates, in its larger lights and softnesses of close view, the details of bright and dark upon the finest canvases in the Louvres of the world.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish as the London waif beaten by a drunken father and idolized by the love-sick Chinaman is beauty personified. Every subtitle is almost a poem to her loveliness: “He breathed into an amber flute the alabaster cockney girl’s love name—White Blossom” or “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon and places them in her hair, and all night long he holds her grubby hand.” Through Lillian Gish’s portrayal, the spirit of beauty truly has broken her blossoms about our chambers. Julian Johnson, in his Photoplay review, said of her, “She has to be both Lillian Gish and the Mae Marsh of old rolled into one sorrowful little being, and her success in this strange combination of motives and beings is absolute.”

The closet scene, with Lillian whirling around and around in terror, is one of the most famous moments in silent film drama, as is the gesture of Lillian forcing her mouth into a smile with her fingers. “I know I was rehearsing the child in The Chink and the Child, that was called Broken Blossoms you know, and in rehearsal I just put the smile on my face. I hadn’t thought of it, but it just happened. And he [Griffith] jumped up, and he said, ‘Where did you get that gesture? How did you think of that? I’ve never seen that—that’s the most original gesture we ve had in the movie.’ And he then immediately put it all through the film. He grabs something quickly that he felt was good, and enlarges upon it and uses it.”

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie was released prior to Broken Blossoms on June 1, 1919. Lillian portrays Susie, a country girl whose love for a local boy, Robert Harron, is responsible for her paying for him to go through college, enter the ministry, and, unexpectedly, marry another woman. The Gish characterization is not as easy to analyze as many people would believe. She is not the simple country girl of the written synopsis. Wid’s Film Daily’s, summing up of her philosophy is true enough: “Her philosophy of life is so simple and beautiful. She loves, and to her love means sacrifice and an abiding faith in the ultimate goodness of things.” But the Gish characterization hints not so much at a selfless sacrifice, but at a sacrifice for a purpose, a sacrifice that eventually will bring her the man she loves. When that sacrifice does not work out exactly as she had planned, and the man she loves marries another woman, then her spite may not be openly visible, but it is there nevertheless, only just beneath the surface. Watch Lillian’s eyes in True Heart Susie. They are not the eyes of a selfless, simple girl. They are the eyes of a devoted creature, until Harron meets Clarine Seymour, and then those eyes are filled with spite and hatred. You know Lillian will get her man, no matter how long she may have to wait.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

At the time of its original release, True Heart Susie was not particularly well-received. Wid’s Film Daily (June 8, 1919) thought, “The trouble here is that there is not enough plot substance to balance properly a production of this length. At times the picture drags, not through any deficiencies on the part of the players, or any shortcomings in the direction, rather owing to a lack of variety in the action. The thinness of the plot makes necessary the too frequent repetition of scenes that in their meaning and expression of emotion are virtually the same. In more abbreviated form, True Heart Susie might easily have become a masterpiece of screen character fiction. At present it suggests an ideal short story expanded to novel length.”

In the twenties, Lillian made only two Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. Then Griffith allowed her to go her own way. Today, that hardly seems believable. How could a director bear to lose an actress of whom Photoplay, reviewing Orphans of the Storm, had written, “Each new Gish portrayal is finer than the one before. The actress works. With a rare beauty and personal charm, she is not content. Her Henriette is sublime.” Happily, Lillian Gish did not seem in any way to be lost without Griffith’s guiding hand. Indeed, many would say it was the director who suffered the loss, Lillian carried the techniques that she had learned under Griffith into the films of other directors, beginning with The White Sister, premiered on September 5, 1923 at New York’s 44th Street Theater. Lillian was—and still is—devoted to The White Sister and its theme.

“Richard Barthelmess had left us after Way Down East, and then he came back. Under his arm he had Tol’able David, and he ran it for us in the projection room one night. Well, we all wept, and Griffith wept, and we were so happy. Griffith hugged and kissed him and said, with the tears in his eyes, how proud he was of him, because he just loved his children to go out and make a success of their own. Then Dick said, why didn’t I come with Inspiration. Well, I found The White Sister, and worked on the script because I wanted it for a new scene that had never been seen on films—and that was the taking of the veil. And I somehow got hold of the ritual, which was a beautiful and sensuous poem. I’m not a Catholic, but I thought it was so dramatic to say ‘the bridegroom’ and flash to the crucifix. Henry King didn’t think much of the story, but he would have made the telephone book to get to Italy. It was just a sensational success. It was the first modern religious film ever made. Up until then, they had made Biblical stories, but this was the first modern religious film.”

Unhappily, aside from Lillian’s performance, the film does not stand up too well today. The direction lacks polish, and there is no excuse for Henry King shooting in the day for night shots, so that the sunlight is clearly visible streaming through the trees.

But it is to Lillian that one looks, and she does not let one down. Who else but Lillian Gish could have been the “ethereal child” of F. Marion Crawford’s novel? As Photoplay noted, “Her work is more evenly balanced and human. She is a woman, rather than a temperamentally high-strung girl.” The scenes in which Lillian takes the veil must be, as she has rightly pointed out, some of the most beautiful ever filmed. “Today you are at liberty to go into the world— tomorrow the doors will be closed forever,” says the Mother Superior to Lillian before the ceremony begins. “Clothed in bridal array for her marriage to the church,” the girl goes before the altar. Three old nuns watch her; the spectator knows that they are remembering the vows that they took so many years ago. As the ceremony progresses, there are only three titles: “Wedding Bells,” “The Bride,” and finally, with a cut to the figure of Christ on the cross above the altar, “The Bridegroom.” Lillian’s hair is cut. She is now the “spouse of Christ.”

The White Sister
The White Sister

Lillian was not particularly happy, one suspects, working with Henry King, but for the majority of her other productions in the 1920s she chose her directors carefully. “Oh, I was so happy working with Mr. Seastrom and that great Swedish actor Lars Hanson— beautiful artists. I’d been away from Hollywood so long, I didn’t know the directors or actors, and I saw just two reels of an unfinished film called The Big Parade. And I said I’d like to have that director and those actors for my first film [at MGM], and they gave all of them to me. I don’t think they realised what a wonderful film at that time The Big Parade was, but I could tell in a rough cut this was something unusual and fine.”

King Vidor’s autobiography, A Tree Is a Tree, makes it obvious that the director had great respect for Miss Gish. Their mutual respect was undoubtedly responsible for making La Boheme the fine production that it is—although it was not the success it should have been.

La Boheme was taken from the same source as Puccini’s opera, Henri Murger’s Life in the Latin Quarter. Lillian is introduced as an embroideress, first seen sewing in the cold of her tiny, bare room, “facing life with a glorious courage,” The film contains perhaps the most harrowing of Gish sequences, certainly as disturbing as the final rescue from the ice floe in Way Down East; this is Mimi’s dying flight through the cobbled streets of Montmartre, roaming, it almost seems, endlessly through the streets, holding on to passing carriages. The film also contains a number of attempts by Lillian at comedy: shielding her eyes and crossing herself as John Gilbert crosses the roof from his apartment to her room, acting out an entire play— including a duel—for the Count, and looking through opera glasses from the wrong end.

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

Lillian did not work again with King Vidor until 1946 when she appeared as Mrs. McCanles in David Selznick’s production of Duel in the Sun. Lillian is one of the completely “good” people in the story; Jennifer Jones, in fact, says to her, “I’ll be a good girl—I want to be like you.” And it was this type of role that Lillian was to play in all of her sound pictures. One of the reasons why she has devoted herself more to the stage and less to the cinema since the coming of sound may very well have been the lack of variety in the parts that she has been offered.

Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set - candid, duel in the sun
Lillian Gish and DW Griffith on set – candid, duel in the sun

To my mind at least, her most pleasing performance in recent years, and one which carries on very much the tradition established by D. W. Griffith, was that of Hetty Seiber in Walt Disney’s Follow Me Boys, released in 1966.

The first time that Jennifer Jones, as Pearl Chavez, meets Lillian in Duel in the Sun, the elder iady talks of Jennifer Jones’s father, saying “I’m somewhat different than he remembered.” That statement cannot be applied to the actual Lillian Gish. For more than fifty years, she has remained one of the few stable things in the film industry. A Lillian Gish performance, one always knows, will be a good performance, whether it be in a film, in her autobiography, or in her stage presentation of Lillian Gish and the Movies.

At the end of her delightful autobiography, in writing of D. W. Griffith, Lillian makes her own evaluation of her life. “It seems to me that a happy life should be in balance, that one must live equally in the mind, body and spirit. I carry with me one of D. W.’s favorite quotations.

‘What you get is living. What you give is life.’

The Griffith actresses - cover
The Griffith actresses – cover

Back to Lillian Gish Home page