Photoplay September, 1926
The Real Sirens of the Screen
By Agnes Smith
The vamps get the publicity, but the Good Little Girls almost always get the nice contracts.
Read on—and learn about women from them
A SIREN, as any child or censor knows, is a lady with sex appeal. And sex appeal, according to the same authorities, is a quality made manifest by mascara-ed lashes, jet black hair, spangled gowns, rouged lips and a gift for holding in the clinches. Hence a legend of the screen : That all little girls born with black hair and snapping black eyes are little devils. And, conversely, that all little girls born with light hair and blue eyes are little angels. The Latins are the lovers; the Nordics the angels. And so if we were foolish enough to take a vote to find the most dangerous woman on the screen, the Pola Negris, the Nita Naldis, the Lya de Puttis and the Dagmar Godowskys would get all the ballots. For several years Barbara La Marr summed up in the public mind all that was most sirenic in femininity. Poor Barbara, who loved ’em and left ’em! Poor Barbara, who paid her own way in the world and paid so dearly! And, if we were even more foolish and started a national election to vote for the noblest specimens of womanhood on the screen, the Lillian Gishes, the Lois Wilsons and the Irene Riches would come out on top.
Lillian, undoubtedly, would poll the biggest vote as the actress who, above all others, stands for all that is spiritual, all that is ethereal and all that is removed from the mundane. Isn’t it well-known that directors must beg Lillian to allow herself to be kissed? Isn’t it true that Lillian lives for Art, and Art alone? Has anyone ever caught Lillian in a night-club? Or doing the Charleston? Or getting herself married and unmarried?
Lillian with sex appeal? Well, hardly. Lillian is a straight-up-and-down girl, inclined to be skinny. She wears long skirts and dresses cut high in the neck. Her wispy blonde hair is unbobbed and worn in a knot at the back of her neck. Her features are negative. Her eyes are light. There are none of the outward signs of lure about Lillian. And yet the two men who were, to all outward appearances, responsible for Lillian’s rise in the screen world are today flat broke. D. W. Griffith, who gave Lillian her first lessons in acting, who placed Lillian in the leading roles of his great pictures when Lillian’s name meant nothing, is, according to the words of Lillian herself, “As poor as a church mouse; as poor, in fact, as on the day when he started producing.”
Charles Duell, Lillian’s second producer, who pushed her into even further prominence when her drawing power was still doubtful, is also broke. And not only is he broke, but he is threatened with disbarment from the practice of law and no longer connected with the film business. His contract with Lillian caused the trouble.
But Lillian, the spiritual, the ethereal and the unmundane, is getting a salary of $5,ooo a week. Griffith, still again quoting the words of Miss Gish, is “making pot-boilers for the mob.” Lillian is selecting her own stories, her own casts, her own directors. Duell isn’t making any pictures at all. But Lillian is making specials for what she calls her “two dollar public.”
No sex appeal? If not, then, to paraphrase Anita Loos, the title of Lillian’s little history should be ” Stronger Than Sex.” No star on the screen has a story so picturesque as that of Lillian. In a business that demands superlatives, Lillian has forged ahead to the foremost rank without great beauty or radiant personality. Great Art? Perhaps—and why not? Lillian has worked only for the greatest directors; first Griffith, then Henry King, then King Vidor, now John Robertson. All her scripts have been tailored to suit her. The best cameramen have photographed her.
And all the little actresses who try to do their best in routine productions, uncongenial roles and scrambled and hurried program films, admit that Lillian is the greatest of them all. They admire her and envy her and sometimes wonder just why she is called the “Duse of the screen.” It couldn’t, of course, be sex appeal. Sex appeal is only a crude quality possessed by flappers and vamps. Nevertheless, of all the promising young actresses who started under the direction of Griffith, Lillian was the one who got the biggest roles in the biggest pictures and the biggest chance to shine. There was something about the aloof, the elusive and the child- Lillian that appealed to the imagination of the greatest director of them all.
Lillian was wax to mold and marble to retain. Sister Dorothy was a pretty little clown. Mae Marsh was a sharp-tongued Irish girl. Blanche Sweet was a temperamental romantic. Miriam Cooper was a sentimentalist. Lillian said nothing foolish. She said nothing at all. She did nothing foolish. She did nothing at all.
At an early age, Lillian learned that Art is Imagination. And it happens also that Sex – Appeal is much the same thing. The Griffith connection came to an end and Lillian, for the first time, was forced to face a cold, commercial business. She might have signed up at a fairly large salary to appear in program pictures but she had picked up the idea of her “two dollar public.” Lillian was in no hurry to rush into competition with other stars. She was out to create a safe and distant place of her own.
At the time that Lillian “went on her own,” a young, fairly good-looking and ambitious lawyer was entering the film field. He had a lot of money back of him—he was financed by Averill Harriman—and his company had just made a phenomenally successful picture, “Tol’able David.” And he was looking for new stars.
Richard Barthelmess suggested Lillian Gish. Of course, Lillian’s drawing power at the box office was doubtful. Nevertheless, she could act and, if properly managed, she could be turned into a winner. Charles Duell listened, met Miss Gish and signed her up. When Duell met Lillian he had been married less than a year—to another Lillian. He was ambitious, financially, socially and politically. He had known Roosevelt and had been active in the Republican party. He was a Yale man and a member of many prominent clubs. Mr. and Mrs. Duell were summering at Newport. They invited their new star to visit them. If Lillian made no great impressions at the Rhode Island Ice Plant, she at least broke on the front page of the newspapers. A movie star at Newport! It sounded nice, anyway.
At that time, Inspiration Pictures was making program films with Barthelmess. But no program films for Lillian. Miss Gish was sent to Italy to make “The White Sister” — a costly expedition consuming many months time and nearly all of Mr. Duell’s attention. But it was all in the interest of Art and Art is cruel. Most of the story of Mr. Duell’s various pilgrimages for Art has been told in court. For at the completion of “The White Sister” and “Romola”—both expensive films—Mr. Duell tried to hold Lillian to a contract with him at over $2,000 a week. Meanwhile there was an $8,ooo a week contract for Lillian waiting elsewhere. Mrs. Duell—that is, the other Lillian—was lost in the shuffle. The Duells separated after one of Charles’ trips to Italy. It was hinted in Court that Duell—rightly or wrongly believing himself engaged to marry Lillian—had selfishly built her up as a star, hoping to be her husband. But hopes or no hopes, “The White Sister” and “Romola” did help Lillian, although they did ruin Duell.
Not only did Duell lose his suit but he was held for perjury and when the perjury trial came up, the jury disagreed. Lillian was not called as a witness. Listen to what that able lawyer, Nathan Burkan, had to say at the close of the second trial: “Why was not Lillian Gish produced at the start? It is an insult to your intelligence. The only person who could prove the guilt of Duell was Lillian Gish and she was right here in New York City.” Burkan also declared that it was Duell and Duell’s money that made a star of Miss Gish, declaring “all she was getting before she came under Mr. Duell’s management was Si.ooo a week. Remember, if you (the jury) find him guilty, it will not only mean his imprisonment but his disbarment as an attorney and his disgrace.”
After the unfavorable publicity of the first trial, Lillian needed someone to set her right. She found the man in George Jean Nathan, a brilliant and difficult-to-please critic. Nathan was seen constantly in her company—so constantly that he was rumored as a possible husband. George Jean wrote pretty articles in her honor, acclaiming her as the only great actress on the screen. He had no great amount of money but he had a collection of wonderful adjectives. Lillian got all his best superlatives. Movie audiences always shed a tear for a frail little blonde alone in the world. The “vamps” know men and their ways. They can protect themselves. Barbara La Marr could protect herself so well that she kept a bookful of checks already signed to pass out as “loans” for anyone who could tell a hard luck tale. So let us all shed a tear for the helpless ingenue!
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