Screenland – June 1924 Vol IX No.3
The Mona Lisa of The Movies
By Delight Evans
Is it because Lillian Gish’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
If an intrepid producer today decided to do Cleopatra, who would you select as the most likely interpreter of the title role? Cleopatra, enchantress of the Nile; with Salome, holding the vamping championship of the ages; Egypt’s luscious queen called Cleo by the vulgar varieties and tin-pan alley. Nita Naldi? Barbara La Marr? Theda Bara—she made it once, you know. No.
Now that the uproar has subsided and the hoots and hisses have died in the distance, let me repeat: Lillian Gish. That same Lillian whose last name has come to be a verb among film followers. Famous as the Little Nell of the silent drama; the most persecuted heroine of all time; the victim of more unfortunate circumstances than any other girl who was ever cast out in a cape into the night that was forty below. In short, the sweet seducee of hundreds of celluloid chromos — what, she, Cleopatra? Exactly. Lillian Gish is the only logical candidate for the role. You may picture Cleopatra as a large and luscious lady; a voluptuous creature with black, black hair and sloe eyes; a mouth that looks always as if it has just been kissed. A combination of Naldi and Negri and La Marr with a dash of piquance a la Alma Rubens.
Cleo Was a Ingenue. Cleo could be classified, according to type, only as an ingenue. She was essence of ingenue, de luxe. She was very, very slender; she had wide, innocent eyes. Feminine, soft, soothing and sweet. She had her own way, but in her own way. She caressed and cajoled, as ingenues have always done. She would have fitted in beautifully in any gathering of the Ladies Aid of Alexandria. She was a little lady—and the most dangerous one of her day.
Oh, yes, Cleopatra was an ingenue. A devastating darling with an iron will and a fixed purpose. A slim, bright sword in a shimmering sheath. It was a noted archaeologist who said that her twentieth-century celluloid incarnation was none other than Lillian Gish. The girl who has been for years the screen symbol of female virtue, modesty, and meekness. He looked at her, so the story goes, and exclaimed: “Cleopatra!” “What?” said the surprised maestro, Mr. Griffith. “Miss Gish?” “Ah—she is the perfect type! She has everything any actress needs to play the part.” “But she’s an ingenue,” protested her great teacher.
“That may be,” smiled the authority on dead ages and living ladies. “Nevertheless, she has it—that inflexibility, that subtlety that Cleopatra exhibited, to the ultimate degree. If, my dear sir, you do not film Cleopatra with Lilian Gish in the leading role you will be overlooking an opportunity—a very great opportunity, indeed.”
Doubtless the showman side of D. W. G. foresaw the public’s inability or reluctance to view a re-creation of Cleopatra other than in the well-upholstered person of Nita Naldi. He smiled and said nothing. And Lillian Gish went her own way with her own company, and D. W. went his. Hence Cleopatra and Miss Gish have never gotten together.
Lillian, an Enigma
Lillian seems determined to confine herself to the portrayals of unvarnished virgins; to dedicate her art and her subtle smile to the perpetuation of many more Anna Moores. A pity. Because the screen has never reflected the Cleopatra complex in our most stainless heroine. Her adorers would shudder to see her in the arms of Antony; her littlegirl fans of all ages would stop sending her crocheted doilies if she ever enacted a person of adult passions and intelligence. The virgin queen of the screen is an enigma if there ever was one. Where is her Leonardo? Griffith, as her professional da Vinci, painted her as the Gioconda of the gelatines, as faithfully, perhaps, as anyone ever will. But the Griffith Gish was never half so baffling as the curiously quiet, gentle-voiced woman who is the real Lillian.
So many think they know her. Her hordes of girl interviewers swarm about her and come away worshipping, calling her by her first name and devoutly believing they have been admitted inside the shell. Her co-workers admire and often adore her—I know this is old stuff, but it’s fact this time. I remember Kate Bruce, who has played with her since Biograph days, when her eyes filled with tears as she said: “God bless her! She’s a wonderful girl. Always the same; always kind and patient. She works harder than any of us. That guillotine scene (they were making Orphans of the Storm) was done a dozen times, and she was better every time.” They used to stand on the sidelines out at the Griffith studios and watch her go through a scene. When she had wrung the hearts of the studio spectators and the camera had captured her tragic tears she would look around at the friendly circle as if surprised she could stir them so. Always, she was the calmest of them all.
The Ingenue Grows Up
I’ve watched her grow up. Not from baby days. But from an ingenue leading woman to one of the three or four outstanding women of the silver-sheet. I saw her for the first time, in Chicago, about seven years ago. It was after Hearts of the World had been a triumph for Griffith and for the Gish sisters. It made Dorothy, the Little Disturber, a star. Lillian and Mrs. Gish wired me to meet them at the station where they had an hour before boarding an east-bound train. Lillian took my breath away. She was so ethereal I couldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes in her earthliness when she ordered and ate an artichoke. She was carrying a tall cane really a wand—which she used for the exercises she performed faithfully every day. Always frail—but her indominable indominable courage has made her strong. For one old Griffith picture she learned to turn cartwheels. She taught herself to swim a few years ago. Work—work—work—that has been her whole life. She is absolutely selfless and sincere in it. Her inflexibility is incongruous with her smooth, suave surface. She is as delicate and as dainty a creature as you would want to see. Faint perfume; a soft “veil”; perfect gloves and all that sort of thing. A clever author once remarked to me that she was a great woman because she was so adaptable.
She is a chameleon. She is a lovely mirror in a quaint frame. In any salon, at any court in the world she would not be out of place. All the more remarkable when you consider that her youth was spent almost entirely on the stage, and not the New York stage. The stages of small towns’; the hard, relentless life of a trouper was hers until the movies, that fairy godmother of so many Cinderellas, lifted her from obscurity to fortune. Disillusioned by Hard Knocks There was one time of her career when she lived in a little hotel near Washington Square and cooked all her meals over a one-burner gas stove. When she actually did not get enough to eat. David Belasco told her afterwards he thought she was wasting away. There were times when she and her mother and Dorothy could not be together; when the exigencies of their uncertain profession called them apart. Her training was a stern school. She has known all the hard knocks, all the disappointments; and I have always thought her a little disillusioned. In the years I have known her I recall a glimpse here and there that interests me—for no particular reason except that it reveals something of the real Lillian—a creature as varied in mood and mind as anyone I have ever known. She has always seemed to me to be an unconsciously complex individual. Exteriorly, she is somewhat of a Pollyanna, with a respect for the good, wholesome, middle-western things.
I saw her after she and Dorothy and Mr. Griffith had lunched at the White House with the Hardings. She marvelled a bit that the President and his wife were so much like other human beings—just plain, simple folk like ourselves. It was apparent, too, a long time ago, when I went with her and her mother to see Broken Blossoms. The audience contained several representatives of the higher social order of Manhattan. We went to an ice cream emporuim afterwards and over our sundaes Lillian thrilled at the fact that the once-lowly movies could now attract the creme de la creme of the aristocracy. And yet she cannot help being the friendliest and most democratic of souls. Sympathy is within her and she has made up helpless little extras and taken under her wing pretty aspirants for screen honors. She is one of the few stars of importance who will go out of her way a little to help someone, without thought of return.
She is really old-fashioned. Her dressing-table drawers are neat and orderly. She used to keep piles of pretty silk underthings, and hundreds of handkerchiefs, and never wear them. Her sister and James Rennie once escorted her to a smart hotel where the youthful fashionables were wont to cavort. Lillian couldn’t believe young people really acted like that. Her visit to the suburban home of a famous novelist and his wife opened her wistful eyes still wider. “And they say that motion picture people are gay,” she exclaimed. “Why, I never saw anything like it in all the time I have been in pictures.” An eminent and elderly French artist asked her to pose for him. He did some charming things of her and called her his most entrancing subject. I heard him rave. He bent over her hand. He gave her a rose and asked her to pose for another head. Lillian thanked him prettily and told me later that she always took someone with her to the sittings. Her shyness and her modesty are genuine, not assumed. But I do not doubt that, if her role called for it, she would do a Lady Godiva without a murmur. When she is working she is impersonal. I spent a week-end with the Gishes when they lived in Mamaroneck. The family retired early. On Lillian’s bed-table was her prayer book with its “L. G.” on the cover. The next morning she was up at six and at the studio at six-thirty. It was Sunday. She was directing Dorothy in a comedy while Mr. Griffith was in the South. She made it a good comedy by sheer determination and desperately hard work. Everything happened to hinder her that can happen in a studio. The electrical apparatus wouldn’t work. It was a grind. In her severely simple suit, with a green shade over her eyes, and a huge megaphone, she was L. Gish, director, and a darned good one. Not a vestige of the girl the world knows. She was the most impersonal director I ever saw on a set. Her own sister might have been a casual acquaintance. Patient, tactful—yes. But business-like. She hardly had time or the inclination to pose for publicity stills. I have always handed it to her for her work with that comedy. It was an achievement entirely unassisted by personality.
A Good Sport
Then, the first time she left Griffith, the company that was to have starred her in a series of features fell through, she was a good little sport. She had made up her mind it was time for her to make money—compared to the salaries of other stars, her Griffith remuneration was small, indeed. But when her company failed she went- back and quietly became a part of the Griffith organization again. It must have been a keen and bitter disappointment; but if it hurt her nobody knew it. She played her parts in the Griffith pictures more exceptionally than ever before. She shared, more than any other Griffith player, the director’s triumphs. At one of the premiers, the audience called for Mr. Griffith; and after his speech, applauded thunderously for his heroine. Griffith smiled. “You are looking in the right direction,” he said, waving at her box. Somehow a Griffith first night has never seemed so colorful since she has left. Now she is an established star in her own right. She has made The White Sister and Romola in Italy. She shops in Paris and Rome. She has met and grown to know men and women of the world; the substantial things of life are hers. And has she changed? Of course, she has. She has taken on a new poise and a fresh charm. Her contact with another world—the bigger, polished existence outside a studio—has left its impression. She is mentally more alert—and more silent than before.
A Trifle Tired
The thought has occurred to me about her that she is a trifle tired. She has accomplished so much in a few short years. Not yet thirty, she has been accorded a niche next to Duse. Her personal popularity is greater than Maude Adams’ ever was. John Barrymore has called her a truly great artiste. So have many others. With the illusion that she, a real actress, a conscientious, devoted artiste, loved and lived only for her work, I once said to her: “But, of course, you wouldn’t be happy if you weren’t always busy.” She turned to me, and her lovely eyes—the only eyes I have ever seen which could be called limpid—were a little weary.
“Oh, yes I could,” she said. “Do you think any of us would work if necessity didn’t demand it? I would love to have money enough and time enough just to follow spring around the world.”
Her earnings have been considerable. And the Gish family has never lived exorbitantly. Theirs has been the life of the usual prosperous home. But the long and serious illness of Mrs. Gish, with its heavy expenses—for nothing was spared that their beloved mother might be well and strong again—was a severe drain on the finances and the courage of the sisters. Speaking of courage, Lillian has it. Mrs. Gish lay ill in the hospital while Orphans of the Storm was being made. Lillian and Dorothy often dashed to town from the suburban studio for a moment’s visit. They did the greatest work of their careers while their hearts were heavy and their nerves at the breaking-point. Their mother has always ben their first consideration. Studio mamas have been kidded, and often with justice. But here is an exception. Mae Gish is one of the finest women whose fortunes have ever been associated with the films. Slight and pretty, with Lillian’s gentleness and Dorothy’s sense of humor, she has sympathy and savoir faire. Her son-inlaw adores her. What higher praise? She is well again and with her girls in Italy.
Lillian is Old-World
Somehow I think Lillian has always belonged there. She is old-world. I can imagine her among the ruins of the Renaissance; in those serene places where the lustrous ladies she rather resembles used to linger. I’d like to have her play Beatrice d’Este, that capricious child of Milan, with her dwarfs and her festivities and her gem-encrusted gowns. Lillian would rather play Isabella, I suppose! If she could only be persuaded that her dramatic future lies along different lines. She has played too long the passive part. Except in a few of the old Triangle films, such as Diana of the Follies, she has been the instrument of a cruel fate. If she would shake off the shackles of conventionality, she would be truly great. She has courage. Why not use it and play Cleopatra; or Mona Lisa, or Beatrice? Perhaps, like her friend Mary Pickford, she is bound by cinema traditions. Mary is firmly convinced that she dare not trifle with the public affection to the extent of portraying a human being; and so she keeps on playing her pretty, innocuous children. Does Lillian Gish dare to do a Cleopatra? I had hopes when I read the reports that she was at last to embark upon the high sea of real romance. The rumors of her engagement to Charles Duell, the president of her company, Inspiration Pictures, still persists despite cabled denials from Italy. And only the other day I heard that a young naval officer had given up his post to follow her to Rome and Florence, and that she was as enamoured of him as he of her. Again, denials. Let Lillian Gish allow herself to indulge in a little amour, away from the blinding studio lights and the ceaseless click of the camera; let her marry and even retire for a while—and the screen will be richer for her experience. Is it because Lillian’s life has been devoid of glamour that she shrinks from the uncertainties and perils of romance?
A young man in England used to send her poems, all nicely bound and expressive of his undying devotion. Lillian was pleased with them, and showed a little-girl eagerness for the next edition. Will life cheat her of the passions and perplexities she has never enacted before the camera? Will her own existence resolve itself into a repetition of the passive part she has played on the screen?
You may answer that in Way Down East; her Anna Moore suffered, and suffered, and suffered. I know she did. But Anna Moore was a dumb-bell. Almost without exception, the girls she has geen called upon to act have been dumb-bells. They suffer, but only physically. You feel that they have learned nothing from life. Lillian has absorbed. She has a receptive mind and a retentive memory; and, unlike her heroines, she has grown up, with the potentialities for honest emotion and drama. Lillian Gish is not a dumb-bell. She is a remarkable woman. And the sooner she proves it upon the screen the better.