The New Movie Magazine – June 1933
What Happened to Lillian Gish?
By Frederick L. Collins
TOO bad, isn’t it,” a Hollywood wise man said to me the other day, “about our old friend, Lillian Gish?” We were chatting casually after dinner. “What’s the matter? Is she dead?”
“Might just as well be,” was the laconic reply, “so far as pictures are concerned.” I admit I was shocked. I had been brought up in the Gish tradition. I had been taught that if anyone jumped on my bed in the middle of the night, grabbed me roughly by the Adam’s apple, shook me blankly back from bye-bye land, and asked me who was the greatest actress of the screen, I was to sit up politely, and answer:
And why not?
Didn’t Max Reinhardt, creator of “The Miracle,” hail her as “the supreme emotional actress of the screen?” Didn’t Maurice Maeterlinck, author of “The Blue Bird,” say that “no other has so much talent”? Didn’t Joseph Hergesheimer choose her as his model for Cytherea because she was “like an April moon, a thing for all young men to dream about forever”? Didn’t John Barrymore call her “the most superlatively exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing that I have ever seen in my life”?
And her pictures! Who doesn’t remember the moment in “Hearts of the World” when she began to go insane? In “Orphans of the Storm,” when she heard her blind sister singing in the street, and could not get to her? In “The White Sister,” when her cheek twitched as she heard the false news of Giovanni’s death? Of course, we remember! How could we forget?
WAS there ever a moment of utter terror equal to her closet scene in “Broken Blossoms”? Was there ever a vision of despairing young motherhood equal to her bathing of the baby in “‘Way Down East”? Was there ever a death scene equal to her Mimi’s in “La Boheme”?
And yet, here was a man whose opinion I was bound to respect—who knows more about Hollywood than Helen knew about Troy!—sitting calmly over an after-dinner cigar and telling me that “Lillian the Incomparable,” “Cinema Bernhardt,” “Duse in Celluloid,” “First Lady of the Screen,” was “all washed up” in pictures.
“Ask anybody,” he said.
And I did. Everybody. In studios, in executive offices, at luncheons, dinners, teas, cocktail parties — yes, they still follow that quaint custom in Hollywood ! — in box-offices, in theater lobbies, all along the boulevard. “Would any producer take a chance on Lillian Gish today?” I can’t say that the answer was a unanimous one. The most favorable ran something like this:
“Sure ! He’d be a fool not to—for one picture.” “Why one?” I asked. “Because that would be sure to make money, no matter what.” That wasn’t much of a “hand” for the woman who had held by almost unanimous consent—from that glamorous night when she emerged from the two-reel shadows of primitive pictureland into the glory of her Elsie Stoneman in “The Birth of a Nation,” the premier position in the motion picture world.
But after I had cast up my totals, including those who said they had never heard of Lillian Gish, those who obviously recalled her name with difficulty or vagueness, those who confused her honestly enough with her sister Dorothy, those who could not remember a single part that she had played, and those who thought “that old Griffith crowd” was through, I wasn’t so sure even about that one picture! I called up the studio where she had made all but one of her last half dozen films to see if the films had paid. The first reaction of the studio executive to my question was more significant than any financial data he could give me.
“Lillian Gish? My God, that’s so far back I don’t know as we even have the records!”
Far back? Lillian Gish made her last picture on that man’s lot less than five years ago! At that time, his company was paying her $8,000 a week, $800,000 over a two-year stretch. And today, he not only couldn’t tell me whether the venture was a successful one —it was, as a matter of fact—but he had consigned it and her to the limbo of a forgotten past.
Yes, so far as Hollywood is concerned, the greatest actress of the screen might as well be dead! THE result of all this inquiry is no reflection on Miss Gish personally, or on her art. I daresay the same thing would have happened if I had substituted Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh. And if Mary Pickford doesn’t succeed with “Secrets” and get back on that screen in a big way. . . . You’re laughing at me? “Well, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps the picture public will never forget Mary. I hope it doesn’t. But if Mary is saved from the fate that has sooner or later overtaken every other member of the “old crowd” in pictures, it will be because she was more than a movie actress; she was a movie symbol; she was, to millions of people, a synonym for movies.
Lillian Gish, with all her artistry, was never that! Chaplin was, perhaps is, in Mary’s class. There are no others. Say “Douglas Fairbanks” to the average fan today, and he’ll think you are talking about Joan Crawford’s husband. Go see Fatty Arbuckle—give him a great big hand for his game attempt at a come-back—and then ask yourself, frankly, if the present day audience thinks he is funny. Laugh at Harold Lloyd—I hope I always will !—but even Harold, after three years’ absence from the screen, returned to find a public mildly grateful that Constance Cummings had found a new and “really very amusing” leading man TIME in Hollywood waits for no man—and for a woman, it doesn’t even hesitate!
This fact alone may be sufficient explanation of why the once great Lillian Gish is no longer in demand for pictures. At the height of her career — although acclaimed artistically above them all—she was never so widely popular as Fairbanks, never so generally loved as Arbuckle, never so big a draw as Lloyd.
It was to be expected, therefore, that the passage of time—say, four years’ absence from the screen—would have a more devastating effect on her boxoffice value than any of the others. But no such simple reasoning is a complete answer to the real mystery of Lillian Gish—not the mystery of how things are with her, but the mystery of how they got that way. Well, the answer most often heard in Hollywood is that Lillian, a creation of the great master, Griffith, was an instrument on which he, and he alone, could play; and that once he found herself far from the master’s guiding hand, she realized her limitations and quit before her public should realize them, too. This answer hardly holds water. She was a Griffith creation, just as Dorothy Gish was, and Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh, and even Mary Pickford. It is true that he stood over these youngsters and told them just what to do at every turn of the camera. They were, for years, clay in his hands —and none more successfully so than Lillian. But since that time, she had abundantly proved her ability to work with a variety of directors. She did “The White Sister” and “Romola” with Henry King, “La Boheme” with King Vidor, “The Scarlet Letter” with Victor Seastrom, “Annie Laurie” with John S. Robertson. It would be difficult to name a quartet of first-string directors with more diverse methods. Yet Lillian had adapted herself with success to all of them. No! Hawkshaw in Hollywood must find something more authentic than this oft-jepeated Griffith canard to solve the mystery of the sudden disappearance from the screen of the screen’s great actress. There couldn’t have been any moral reason. Not with Lillian! One thing alone is lacking in her rich fabric of charm, and this is the element of sensual lure. The only newspaper case in which she had ever figured enhanced her reputation for character and decency and resulted in the indictment of her opponent for perjury.
And surely she was not too old. She was less than thirty-two when she quit. She photographed eighteen. The only fault her admirers found in her work was that in some characterizations—for example, Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”—she looked too young! Could it be that she was a talkie exile? No. She had shown in her one talking picture that she could act out loud as well as in pantomime. She had a good microphone voice. She had studied diction under one of the world’s masters. She had been a speaking actress long before she was a posing one. She is a speaking actress today. And she couldn’t have been dissatisfied with the treatment she was receiving from her employers. She exercized almost complete control over the choice of her stories. She had the pick of directors. She selected her own casts. She had everything most stars dream of having, and never get—plus $8,000 a week.
IN short, none of the stock Hollywood explanations for movie nose-dives applies in the case of Lillian Gish. Described in the heyday of her screen popularity as “elusive,” “baffling,” “mockingly mysterious,” she is all of these things—only more so—in the shadow of her retirement. On the surface, there is no reason, so far as her friends see, why she didn’t keep right on making pictures, why she shouldn’t be making them today.
“She hasn’t been ill,” they say. “She hasn’t dissipated. She hasn’t even been married!”
There is, of course, the matter of dollars and cents. But it seems hardly probable that Lillian thought she was being paid too little. Eight thousand dollars a week salaries were rare in Hollywood even in boom times. It ispossible, however, that the roducers considering the hectic uncertainties of those first microphone days—did think she was being paid too much You could hardly blame them. No one, in 1928, knew whether the talking picture was an institution or merely a fad. All anybody knew was that nobody knew anything. And $800,000 contracts for five or six pictures from one star were just not being made. MOREOVER, there were other expenses to Lillian Gish pictures besides the star’s salary. Although brought up in a mass-production movie factory, although making her most satisfactory picture, “Broken Blossoms,” in only eighteen days, Miss Gish had acquired in the years of her prosperity and preeminence the habit of leisurely production. And sound stages on the Hollywood lots were too few, and too much in demand, during these first months, for leisurely productions. Miss Gish was a great artist, to be sure, and a nice girl; but the producers were fighting for their lives. The important thing at the time was to beat the other fellow to it with a picture — any picture—that talked. And there was some question as to whether Lillian Gish pictures could continue to make money under the new conditions. Her box-office strength, like that of all the old guard, was in the small towns—in the little picture houses, where the new stars like Garbo were still scarcely more than names —and the little theaters in the small towns in 1928 and 1929 were not wired for sound. It might have been possible to get Miss Gish to work for less; it might have been possible to get her to work faster; it might have been possible to get her to sacrifice elaborate production to speed. And even then, with her best public automatically cut off from her, it might not be possible to make money on her pictures. Of course, in just the right kind of story, another ” ‘Way Down East,” for instance, she might have got over financially. But show business waits vears for a clean-up like ” ‘Way Down East.” It was the hick “Ben Hur”—and first and last, it made almost as much money in the theater. But such stories are not made to order.
MISS GISH, when urged by producers to do more ” ‘Way Down Easts,” might well have reminded them of the colloquy which took place between Lee Shubert and Augustus Thomas during the rehearsal of one of the latter’s plays. “What we need right there,” shouted Lee from the pit, “are two or three sure-fire comedy lines.”
“Yes?” replied Gus from the stage.
But the truth of the matter is tha’t Miss Gish probably wouldn’t have played a ” ‘Way Down East” again if it had walked up and tagged her on her shapely shoulder. She was through with such things forever. She had, in the Hollywood phrase, gone highbrow.
George Jean Nathan had said “the girl is superior to her medium, pathetically so.” And she had believed it. Here was where, movie-wise, the greatest actress of the screen made her greatest mistake. Here, and in the inevitable sequence, is to be found the real solution to the Mystery of Lillian Gish. The First Lady of the Screen had not ridden to the heights in a coach and four or in a padded limousine with sixteen cylinders to draw it. She had bumped along on the broad back of the donkey of melodrama. She had been helped over the rough places by the strong arm of hokum. Her master, Griffith, was master of both. He had never ventured into the untried fields of sophistication. But Lillian, taken up by Nathan, Dreiser, Hergesheimer, Lewis, Cabell, and Mencken, rushed in where her former angel feared to tread. And what was the result? People who had loved her in the Griffith days went to see her in “The White Sister.” They sat in somewhat puzzled awe as they watched the frail, Dresden-china personality, which had stood out like a rare gem against the background of Griffth’s inspired crudities, sink almost into unrecognizability under the uniformed pagaentry in which she chose to deck Crawford’s simple, deathless story. They still went to see her—though fewer of them—in her uphill fight against a plethora of authentic Florentine settings and an engulfiing morass of George Eliot dullness in her even more ambitious “Romola.” THE faithful followed her—partly because of “The Big Parade” glamour that attached to the names of King Vidor, her director, and John Gilbert, her leading man—through the stormy mazes of “La Boheme.” The remnant remained to be shocked by “The Scarlet Letter.” Few but the critics cared one way or the other about “The Wind.” Fewer cared about “The Enemy.” Tastes were changing, too. Admirers had always spoken of Miss Gish’s work as poetic. “Something of the lyrical goes into whatever she does.” But poetry, which had had its brief lyric fling right after the war, was going out. In fact, about the time Lillian began to lean most heavily on it, it disappeared completely as a salable commodity.
Poetry hadn’t been a very salable quantity back in the old Biograph days, either. No one knew that better than Griffith. A Griffith picture, whether it ran to two reels or to sixteen, was a complete library. It contained poetry as all good libraries should—that was Lillian; but it contained humor—that was Dorothy; and drama—that was Walthall ; and homeyness—that was Mae Marsh; and appealing young manliness—that was Bobby Harron and Dick Barthlemess. The new slogan, “One will always stand out,” had not been invented. It was all for one and one for all. No Griffith picture in those days was a starring vehicle for Lillian Gish or for anyone else. No Griffith picture — and this is something which admirers of the old Griffith stars sometimes forget— was sold to the public on the popularity of any actor or actress who appeared in it. The popularity of Lillian Gish had only the vaguest relation to the huge box-office success of ” ‘Way Down East.” It had nothing to do with the success of “The Birth of a Nation.” In other words, nobody ever tried to sell a picture to the public on the strength of Miss Gish’s poetic personality until she tried it herself in a market where poetry had reached what was probably an “all-time low.” Another thing, critics were always writing about “the profound mysticism of Miss Gish’s playing.” “The mere clash of earthly passion—the quality most frequently and most picturesquely exploited in the theater—is simplynot for her.” . . . “She seems to float on the screen,”—this from her worshipper, the Northern professor, Edward Wagenknecht—”like a remembered vision of Botticelli’s women.” Well, if you recall the prevailing feminine costumes and behavior of the later Twenties, you will also recall that Botticelli, like poetry, was out, and sex appeal which Lillian admittedly never had, was in. “Give us Clara Bow!” the fans were crying.
And they got her—while the first actress of the screen fled back to Broadway to do Chekhov’s gloomy Helena and Dumas’ still more gloomy Camille. The question naturally arises, in view of her precipitous flight, whether she was ever the great actress that she was supposed to be. Personally, I think she was and is. But it should be recorded in any attempt to solve The Great Gish Mystery that the best critical opinion, based on her recent stage appearance, seems to be quite up in the air on this point. After her Helena in “Uncle Vanya,” the learned Mr. Krutch declared that “we are no more sure than we were in the days when she was the particular star of the great Mr. Griffith whether she has real talents or merely certain odd deficiencies which a skilful director can utilize after the fashion of the marionette master and the character doll.”
After her Camille, the equally erudite Mr. Woollcott asked: “Was she a good actress? Was she an actress at all? . . . I went to see ‘Camille’ with an open mind. It is still open.” She should succeed on the stage, and I believe she will. She should reach heights which she never could reach on the screen. And for the very reason that made critics acclaim her as the greatest of all film actresses. “The particular genius of Lillian Gish,” wrote George Jean Nathan, at the height of her screen success, “lies in making the definite charmingly indefinite.”
True. And this quality should be infinitely more valuable on the stage than on the screen.
“All of which,” said my friend, the Hollywood wise man, when I told him the result of my sleuthing, “does not alter the fact that Lillian Gish, so far as pictures are concerned, is dead.”
THERE suddenly came back to me a true story of Lillian’s first days on the Fine Arts lot, which illustrated more graphically than anything I could say that marvelous Gish spirit which might—if the Gish spirit ever willed it —still stage a picture comeback for the First Actress of the Screen. Lillian and a girl friend were out walking. They walked, and walked, and walked—until they were fairly dragging one foot after the other. Finally, the other girl said:
“I’m tired walking. Let’s sit down.”
“I’m tired walking, too,” said Lillian.
“But don’t let’s sit down. Let’s run!”
Then I recalled to my friend that Winter, back in 1913, when Lillian Gish, threatened with pernicious anemia, took the long trek westward for the first time—and arrived in California, given up for dead. He remembered, as well as I did, how Lillian willed herself to stay alive, how she built up her strength on milk and sunshine, how she dieted and exercised until she could stand, as well as any of those other hardy youngsters, the rigors of even a Griffith rehearsal. My friend was ruminatingly silent as he went through the intricate process of clipping and lighting a fresh cigar.
“She might come back,” he said, at last. “It all depends—” “Yes,” I said, “it all depends on Lillian Gish!”