Talk About Movies and Plays,
With The People Who Make Them
Lillian Gish (1963)
The quintessential heroine of D. W. Griffith films: frail, vulnerable and fair-skinned. She starred in, among others. Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms. At the time of this conversation, she was appearing in Passage to India, a dramatic adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel. She had, at one time, played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet.
I was in the theater when I was five years of age, playing children. That was about 1902, 1903. When I was eleven, twelve, I got to be awfully long-legged and long-armed. A tall child found it difficult getting roles. There were few demands for lanky children. Leading ladies in those days were short. In the films at that time, they needed young faces. So they dressed up the young ones in long skirts and they played heroines until they were eighteen. Then they were too old and went into character roles. An old hag of eighteen was passe as a heroine. The photography was so cruel and so prying. Their liability was an asset to me. Before I could read, I was taught my lines on the stage. I never knew anything else. I never had the choice of saying, “I want to be that”. Acting was all I knew. I would love to have been a librarian, because I like to read.
I was very envious of all my cousins, who went through universities, and I used to have a great inferiority complex. But I soon learned they couldn’t hold their own on many subjects that I knew about. I had been educated in films and in theater, on the spot, and my knowledge was quite different from theirs. I didn’t know arithmetic and geometry, but I knew lots of other things they didn’t know.
Think of the education of Intolerance. That was the greatest film ever made. All the different centuries of struggle. Mr. Griffith was sympathetic to the sufferings of the poor and all the injustices throughout history. So we had to know all about Babylon and all about the Crucifixion. When I visited the Holy Land, I thought, “Griffith built this.” Everything about it was so familiar that I expected him to call “camera!” any minute. When we came up to the French period, the Eve of St. Bartholomew, we had to know that. And then the modern period, the battle between capital and labor. So each film was an education. When we did the fifteenth-century Florentine time, we had to know not only the history of Florence and Italy, but the world around it. So this used to be a great education.
We were immersed in all those periods. You went around with those little books and if you had a minute, you were reading. You worked seven days a week. You never stayed at home because after all, it wasn’t as interesting. There was no social life whatsoever. There were no scriptwriters. Griffith did everything. Very often he changed his name. He would use a nom de plume because, he said, people wouldn’t like it if they thought you did everything. He had the courage of his ideas and was very strong on the side of the working man against the boss.
We worked for a medium we believed in. A lot of us took personal responsibility for what we said in the films. We were told we were much more influential than the press, the printed word. It weighed heavily on our conscience. What Griffith had was the way oftelling a story. He invented the film. He knew it had to be different from the stage. On the stage, we see people walk on stage and off. Everything was literal. He saw that the film can move as your mind moves. The camera has no proscenium arch. The sun, the moon, and the stars are the proscenium arch. There is no limit to the camera. So we had to learn a new form of acting.
When Charles Laughton took on the job of directing The Night of the Hunter—James Agee was doing the screenplay from Davis Grubb’s novel—he spent a great deal of his time at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Do you know why? He was running all the old Griffith films.
He called me one day and asked me over for tea. He said pictures today have lost the excitement they used to have. A certain spirit. That’s why he was studying these old Griffith films. He had them sent to the coast so he could study them again, while making his movie.
Charles was so frightened of directing. You would try to help. If you had a suggestion, he would say, “Oh, you don’t like what I’m doing.” “Oh, that isn’t good.” He was like a scared kid. We ended up by putting props under him, just saying, “Everything is wonderful, Charles.” He was so unsure. It was that he had such enormous respect for Griffith, the man he was trying to imitate.
The Russians did quite well imitating him. Look at Eisenstein. Perhaps the most celebrated shot in Birth of a Nation is that of a sad sentry, a droopy-faced Union soldier leaning against his gun.
He was a sailor out of work. He came to work as an extra in films. His name was Freeman. He helped carry our costumes, they were heavy. They were doing a scene at hospital, and this man. Freeman, was just tired, leaning against his gun. Griffith said to Billy Bitzer, his cameraman, “Look at that face, Billy. Get a picture of that.” That’s how pictures were made in those days. We improvised on the set. If we as actors had an idea, we were allowed to put it in. We were a creative people.
Author’s note: At one moment, I casually mentioned the overt racism of Birth of a Nation. She was clearly unsettled, ”He was from the South, you know.”