Photoplay January 1932
The Unknown Hollywood I Know …
When Lillian Gish was a real vamp …
By Katherine Albert
This is the way Lillian Gish insisted upon acting in ”La Boheme.” She just would be coy in spite of all of Jack Gilbert’s ardent advances. “I’ll not have any kisses in this picture,” she said. But there were kisses. Read the story and you’ll discover why…
BIG, booming factories were the studios of six years ago, entirely different from the chummy, cozy workshops of the old Griffith and Metro days. Today they have taken on still another color. Nothing changes as suddenly and decisively as Hollywood.
When I started to work in the publicity department of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the word “talkies” was still un-coined, the sound picture practically un-thought of, and great stars of that studio were yet to be born professionally. The big shots of the lot were Jack Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Mae Murray, Marion Davies and Ramon Novarro.
Two of the most promising newcomers—players untried—were Joan Crawford and Billy Haines. And there was a Swedish girl who had just been brought over with a great director. None of us could see why they had given her a contract. She was too tall, too gawky and had none of the obvious requirements of a great actress. She just wandered about the lot and nobody paid her any attention. Her name was Greta Garbo.
No, we were concerned with the artists, Lillian Gish and that marvelous actor, Lars Hanson. And now who knows anything about Lars Hanson and where is Lillian Gish? While Garbo . . . well, if we had had sense enough to see what the girl had we wouldn’t have been working in the publicity department. But we were not alone in our disregard. Even the executives ignored her. Lillian Gish was the highest paid star on the lot. It was rumored that she received S8.000 a week (shades of Connie Bennett’s $30,000!) and everybody was a little jittery when the contract was signed. The great Gish was among us. Why, Hergesheimer had said she was the truest artiste of the cinema. So had Mencken. And George Jean Nathan. The problem for us was what to do with a person like that from a publicity standpoint. The best way we knew of getting stars pictures in the papers was to have them posed wearing fantastic garters, having their legs tattooed or their nails painted gold. Obviously, Gish was not the type. It was in dignified copy that we must “plug” the ladylike Lillian, so, because I’d known her in the old Griffith days, I was assigned the special task of “handling” her.
Reams and reams of copy had been written about her. She was a recluse, a saint upon a cinema hill. I Remember that there was a title writer on the lot who had been a hardboiled newspaper man. Girls like Gish, he boasted, were just a lot of first class bologna. The only real women were the kind who knew life. He had not met Miss Lillian when he made these statements but when he did, he assured us, he would not be a fool like the rest. And then he was given the job of writing titles for her picture “La Boheme.” He went to confer with her and came away from the interview with a mist before his eyes, his brain fogged by the cobwebs of beauty. The Little People had got him and when I asked him what he thought of Gish now, he stuttered, “Why she’s . . . why, she’s . . . she’s what men think women are before they know they have bodies.” That’s what Lillian Gish did to men. Frail, delicate, her pale blue eyes wan with suffering, her soft, blonde hair about her head like the radiance from a winter sun, her fragile hands traced with tiny blue veins and lying in her lap like spring flowers—she was the greatest siren in Hollywood. You can rave about your bold, voluptuous women, your brittle gold diggers, your glamorous ladies of leisure, your sex appeal kids from Brooklyn, but Lillian Gish could, in the matter of getting what she wanted from men, give them all a fifty-yard handicap and win in a walk.
Whether she knew her power or not I do not know. But she got what she wanted and all she had to do to secure the biggest salary from an executive, or a new cover for her dressing table from the prop boy, was to ask for it in her gentle voice. There was but one man who did not come under her spell. That was Jack Gilbert. He worked with her. Jack played the bounding, lusty Rudolph to Lillian’s wan Mimi in “La Boheme.” On the set these two personalities clashed like cymbals in a symphony orchestra. Jack is emotional. And he trusts his emotions entirely for his art’s sake. When he fails to listen to them he’s wrong. With rehearsals he had no patience. The first time he did a scene was always best. He chiseled out a character with a heavy mallet, he painted bold strokes upon the canvas of the silver screen. This is, of course, one of the reasons for his first failure in the talkies.
But Lillian is an artist, a craftsman. Her performance is like a fine Italian mosaic, each tiny piece of her art laid carefully by another tiny piece. She never trusts her emotions. Instead it is her intellect that guides her. In fact, even in those silent days when everybody employed music on the sets to “get in the mood,” Lillian refused the wail of an orchestra because it played upon her emotions and confused her so that she did not know when she was really giving to the camera or merely reacting, inside, to the music.
She loved to rehearse, and the thirty-sixth time she played a scene was thirty-six times better than the first—so craftily did she build her characters. So it is easy to see what an unhappy cinema union was Jack’s and Lillian’s. Jack was worn and cross by the fifth rehearsal, just as Lillian was beginning to get it. He would come off the set exhausted and throw himself prone upon his dressing-room couch. The picture was finished at last. It was previewed and, although it was a passionate love story, there was not a single kiss in it. This was Lillian’s wish. But a friend of hers, in whom she put much confidence, told her it was impossible to have an ethereal love between Rudolph and Mimi. There simply must be kisses! Grim and determined, Lillian walked on the set for retakes the next day. Grim and determined, she kissed the then great lover of the films. She kissed him again and again for the camera and left the set, still grim and determined, saying, “Ugh, I feel degraded.”
But I do not want you to get the impression that Lillian Gish was not human. In fact, that is one of the many misconceptions about her. Wither her sweetness nor the demure attitude she assumes is a pose. She is really that sort of person, a gentle, calm, ladylike creature, but withal a real person. It’s the look of her that sends people off into moronic ravings and makes those who come before her presence talk in platitudes. I remember that she used to ask me about the other players on the lot, from whom she shut off, not by herself but by their attitude toward her. I decided that if Miss Lillian and I were to be friends my only course was to act myself. She liked to hear the gossip of the studio—not the vicious scandal, perhaps, but certainly the chatty day’s news. And she always wanted to be like other people, which she really was when anybody gave her the chance.
She told me once that she was going on a trip to New York and in Chicago she would see a lot of newspaper people. Quite seriously she asked, ‘”Do you think I should serve them cocktails?” Although she, herself, did not drink she was perfectly willing to serve liquor if it were expected of her. She had no desire to shut herself off from the world. She simply got shut off because of her angelic face and dignified manner. Certainly she was not a ‘”jazz baby” nor did she fit into the lusty Hollywood scene. But, by the same token, she was not ‘”what men think women are before they know they have bodies.”
Some years after she left M-G-M, she came back to Hollywood on a visit and looked me up. She was stopping with her great friend, Mary Pickford, and she came for me in Mary’s Ford. It was the first of the new ones—remember when they came out? We drove to a little restaurant for tea and Lillian parked the car in front. When we came out a crowd had gathered around it, for it was the first one in town. So interested were the people in the Ford that they did not notice the obscure little person who climbed into the driver’s seat. Because of her un-actress-like appearance Lillian is seldom recognized.
She had trouble starting. The thing choked and wouldn’t budge. The people laughed and so did she. At last a man gave us a push and we started with a violent chug. Lillian waved and smiled and, in a cloud of dust, we drove away.
The duty of the publicity department, was to get pictures and copy about actors, and act into the papers and keep the scandal out. Pictures were considered the more valuable publicity and we did anything for “leg art,” as it was called. The newer girls were better for this, since they had more time and would do more things. Once I doped out the idea of saying that a silk stocking had been treated with some acid and been so highly sensitized that a photograph could be printed upon it. Of course, we didn’t really do it. It would have been too costly an experiment. We simply cut out a boy’s photograph, pasted it on Estelle Clark’s shinbone and pulled a silk stocking over it. It gave the same effect in the photograph. Estelle smiled into the camera and the “still” was used in hundreds of newspapers.