- San Bernardino Sun, 11 July 1988
- The history of movies is the history of Lillian Gish
- By Mike Hughes Gannett News Service
She was born in a quieter century, in a cozier part of the world. Risks were rare, expectations low. “We were from Ohio,” Lillian Gish says in a film to be broadcast a 9 tonight on KVCR. (American Masters) “Ladies had their name in print when they were born, when they got married and when they died but NEVER for anything else.” But fate intervened and her career has embraced most of the history of movies. Now it’s recalled in a masterful opener for the “American Masters” season. Here is a life that can be illustrated through 106 movies spread over 75 years. And here is someone interviewed at just the right time; at 93, Gish overflows with rich memories. Her quiet Ohio life was disrupted because her father couldn’t keep work. Her mother “the most perfect human being I ever knew” told him not to come back until he could. “He would follow us around and beg Mother to take him back,” she says in the film. “But he didn’t have a job.” So the Gishes turned to the stage for money. At the ages of 5 and 4, Lillian and her sister Dorothy became touring actresses, They were quite haughty about it, feeling sorry for their friend, Gladys Smith, who “had to go to the movies to make a living.” But Gladys did well, after changing her name to Mary Pickford. Pickford also introduced them to D.W. Griffith, Hollywood’s first great director. “He said, ‘Can you act?’ And Dorothy pulled herself up and said, ‘We are of the legitimate theater.’ And he said, ‘I don’t mean reading lines. Can you act’?”” They could.
Lillian Gish A long life and a lot of memories
Beginning in 1912, these teens and their incredibly expressive faces were being molded by a master. “Griffith got into films in 1908, and by the time I got (there), he had given films their form and grammar.” Gish was in the movie that made him famous “Birth of a ‘Nation,” released in 1915 and “Intolerance,” the one that destroyed him just a year later. “Theaters wouldn’t take it,” Gish says of the latter film’s original, marathon length. “And he cut it and ruined it. Because it still remains the greatest film ever made.” She bridles at the way he was treated after that. “He couldn’t take orders from business people. It was just not possible.” And other Hollywood attitudes grate on her. Once, movie mogul Louis Mayer suggested that Gish (who has never married) start a scandal to generate publicity. She also complains about the characters she was given (“I played those little virgins that after five minutes you got so sick of’) and the industry’s obsession with happy endings, Tonight’s “Masters” provides a vivid example of that the absurd new ending ordered by the studio for “The Wind,” in 1928. “Frances Marion, who did the script, never took anything in film seriously again, and I came back to the theater,” Gish remembers. She would retreat often to the stage, but certainly didn’t forget Hollywood and her life’s work: “I never doubted film was the mind and heartbeat of our century,” she says.
In recent summers, PBS’ Monday lineup has come as a vibrant surprise. “Masters” crafts portraits with intelligence and detail; “Alive From Off Center” is both deft and daft. And now both start their new seasons in appropriate style. “Off Center” (10 p.m. locally) has two mismatched films a witty and stylish satire of a high-tech ad agency and a pointless and (almost) endless segment from the movie “Aria.” And “Masters” (9 p.m.) is at its very best with the Gish profile.