Lillian Gish - First Lady Of The Silent ScreenMonday, March 15, 2010
First Lady of the Silent Screen
By John Lekich
Special to the Globe and Mail
Friday, October 24, 1986
At 90, Lillian Gish can’t seem to shake the habit of talking with her eyes. Some 75 years after making her silent film debut in D.W. Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, her eyes can still swell with a purity of emotion beyond speech. As the light from the window of the Meridian Hotel coffee shop sifts across her delicate Victorian features, it’s almost possible to believe that the slightest sound would be a pointless intrusion.
Gish recently attended the closing gala of the Vancouver International Film Festival, where Jeanne Moreau’s Portrait of Lillian Gish was screened. The woman dubbed “The First Lady of the Silent Screen” not only speaks plainly, but with impeccable diction that befits a former pupil of Toronto’s legendary Mrs. Carrington (the vocal coach who, as John Barrymore once confided to Lillian’s sister Dorothy, “saved me from being nothing more than a fifth-rate actor”).
Among the animated tones, there’s enough honest wisdom to explain the late Griffith’s contention that Lillian Gish “is not only the best actress in her profession, but has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”
Says Gish: “Oh, I have an awful memory. I could never lie because I would always forget what I said. So I had to tell the truth. And it worked out rather well. Because people tend to respect you if they know you’re just being yourself.”
Despite downplaying her memory, Gish, who once labeled Hollywood “an emotional Detroit,” vividly recalls a vast array of anecdotes that span several eras of show-business history.
A performer since the age of 5, she remembers dancing in a play opposite Sarah Bernhardt (“She was the woman who made it possible for children to work on the stage”), taking her first curtain call on the shoulders of Walter Huston (“I was so scared that I tried to run downstairs and hide behind some boxes”) and portraying Alan Alda’s “slightly off-centre” mother in his recent Sweet Liberty ( “I turned down the part five times because I thought he looked much too young to be any son of mine. But after a few minutes of looking into that beautiful face, I thought: ‘I’d work for this man for nothing’”).
“I never chose money,” she says. “I always chose people. I wanted to be around people who knew more than I did. I think that’s why I never fell in love with an actor. They never seemed to know any more than I did. I wanted to be with writers…My idea of a dream man was Thornton Wilder.”
Describing herself as “endlessly curious,” she’s resisted matrimony (“I’ve always love men. But I would never ruing their lives by marrying one”), traveled extensively (“I’ve been everywhere except China because I know I’d end up walking too much for my own good”) and sampled life on the other side of the camera (“In 1920I directed Dorothy in a film called Remodeling Her Husband. That’s when I discovered that directors don’t sleep well at night”).
Yet, curiosity had little to do with the Gish sisters’ initial involvement in silent pictures. Born a year apart, the girls had more pragmatic reasons for working in movies.
“We were hungry many times,” Gish says of a childhood that included a wandering father who refused to support the family and a struggling mother who “was as near to God as I would ever get.”
“The only place that would have us was the movies,” she adds. “And in those days, that was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Our biggest fear was that someone from our home town in Ohio would see our name in the paper. In the Midwest, a proper girl got her name in the paper three times. When she was born, when she got married and when she died. Otherwise you were a loose woman.”
In 1912, neither Lillian nor Dorothy realized that, by simply entering the offices of Manhattan’s American Biograph Company after seeing neighborhood friend Mary Pickford in the movies, they’d end up changing the face of the silent screen.
In a time of crude photography, “where you were a character actor by the time you were 8,” Griffith put the two teenaged sisters to work immediately. Tying different colored ribbons in their hair so he could tell them apart (“He would shout: ‘Blue over here! Red over there!’) they began a relationship that would see Dorothy grow into a skilled comedienne, while Lillian became the era’s foremost dramatic actress through such Griffith classics as Broken Blossoms, Orphans of the Storm and his 12-reel epic, Birth of a Nation.
Gish has high praise for Griffith, the man credited with virtually inventing the language of filmmaking. Recalling his pioneering use of the close-up, she says: “The people in the front office got very upset. They came down and said: “The public doesn’t pay for the head or the arms or the shoulders of the actor. They want the whole body. Let’s give them their money’s worth.’
“Griffith stood very close to them and said: ‘Can you see my feet?’ When they said no, he replied: ‘That’s what I’m doing. I am using what the eyes can see.’ ”
Gish also helps to explain why his improvisational methods proved impractical with the advent of sound.
“The only writing you saw on a Griffith picture was his signature on your cheque each week, “she says. “There was never any script. You never knew what the plot was in advance. He would stand at the back of the room and call out the story as you walked through it a couple of times. Finally, freely and without thinking, you said whatever lines you felt the character might say in that situation. That was the direction. That was the way I worked for nine years.”
The same creative faith often overlapped into instances where she would risk life and limb. Nowhere is this more evident that in the 1920’s Way Down East. In one of the screen’s most unforgettable moments, the climax finds Gish lying on a huge ice floe, her long, flowing hair and the fingers of on hand trailing across the frigid water as she heads for the falls.
Holding up her right hand she exhibits a couple of bent fingers. “It was my idea to put my hand and hair in the water, she says. “The water was so cold that it burned. I had no idea it was going to hurt so much. Of course, you can’t blame anybody but me for that.”
She has steadfastly refused to use a double throughout her career. “I’ve always felt you could tell the difference,” Gish says. “People move differently…Of course, in those days, everybody fell off everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been thrown off a horse.”
Working well before the development of unions also meant putting in 12 hours a day with not time for anything else but sleep. While she once worked 25 hours at a stretch before her bloodshot eyes prompted a disgruntled cinematographer to send her home for a restorative nap, the actress looks upon those early days with Griffith as among the best in her life.
“We were like a family,” she recalls, painting a picture far different from the Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor sex scandals that would later rock the infant industry. “With Griffith there were definite rules. We weren’t allowed to kiss anybody. If a scene called for it, you’d put your lips near the leading man and the camera made it look like they were touching. But we never actually did it.”
She remembers when the theatrically trained John Emerson was lent to the studio to direct the 16-year-old Dorothy in 1914’s Old Heidelberg. “They came to a scene where John said, ‘All right Dorothy, now you kiss so and so.’ Dorothy just looked at him and said: ‘Oh we don’t do that sort of thing in this studio!’ ’’
The issue of to kiss or not to kiss split the company in half, but “pretty soon,” Gish says, “The actor’s wife called our mother and explained that it was quite all right for Dorothy to kiss her husband. He had no diseases and it wouldn’t hurt her. So Dorothy had to do it. But, since neither of us had ever been kissed, she didn’t exactly relish the idea.”
In 1913, Gish migrated to Hollywood in search of weather that would allow Griffith’s company to use sunlight all year long.
“There was no Hollywood then,” she says. Griffith invented it. We worked out of a little shack on the outskirts of L.A. where the city used to store their streetcars. But I thought we’d found paradise. It was orange blossom time and the mockingbirds would sing you to sleep every night. It was so beautiful.”
But she would never forget Griffith warning her about the very thing he had helped to create. “He said, ‘Don’t let this place fool you. It’s very good for your body and very bad for your mind and soul.’ Of course, he was right, but somehow I managed to survive.”
Not that surviving Hollywood was easy. By mutual consent, she reluctantly left Griffith for a higher salary and greater creative control – eventually joining MGM in 1925. Stepping off the train from New York, she began a lifelong friendship with Irving Thalberg, the studio’s wonder boy, by mistaking him for the baggage clerk.
“He looked all of 18 years old,” Gish says of the man F. Scot Fitzgerald would later use as the model for The Last Tycoon. “He was a wonderful, brilliant man – consistently amused by the fact that people were always taking him for the office boy.”
Her relationship with Louis B. Mayer was far less pleasant. She credits Mayer- the only person she expresses even the vaguest dislike for – with putting a virtual halt to her film career throughout the thirties.
“He always insisted that any film with an unhappy ending would ruin your career,” says Gish, whose handpicked projects with MGM included King Vidor’s La Bohème and Victor Sjostrom’s Scarlet Letter. “L had seven unhappy endings.”
While such films proved successful, they worried the commercially conscious Mayer. “He called me into his office one day and said” ‘You’re sitting way up there in a pedestal and nobody cares. Let me knock you off and everybody will care.’
“He wanted to stimulate box office by creating a scandal for me the way he did for John Gilbert and Greta Garbo,” Gish says. “He said that they had Garbo now and they really didn’t need me. So if I refused to play along, he’d make sure I never got another job in the movies.
“I thought to myself: ‘I’m going to have to give a performance on screen and off screen if I am going to be a sex symbol. I went back and told him: ‘I’m sorry Mr. Mayer. But I don’t have that much energy.’ ”
Finding jobs scarce in Hollywood she returned to the stage, where Jed Harris offered her the role of Sonya in the U.S. premiere of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya (“Harris was like Griffith,” Gish says. “A genius. I got along well with genius.”) Subsequent roles included Ophelia opposite John Gilgud in a legendary performance of Hamlet (“Gilgud didn’t play Hamlet, “Gish says. “He was Hamlet”), and an 18-month run in Life With Father (“I spent a year and a half running upstairs. That’s a lot of exercise when you include matinees).
“I found that I truly loved the theatre,” she says, adding that her only regret was that a play prevented her from attending Griffith’s funeral in 1948. “But the best part of being on the stage was that I didn’t have to go back to that mean Mr. Mayer after he tried to ruin my career.”
Through it all her stipulation for accepting work has been the thought of trying something different with people she admires. (She accepted her role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding because “he said you die, but you die with comedy, I like that.”)
Gish characteristically refused to say anything negative about the current state of the movies. “I don’t see enough films to make a judgment,” she says, “although I laughed until I cried at Tootsie. And Gandhi was four hours that seemed to go by in four minutes.”
Still, she admits to missing silent films, and tours with her favorite, 1928’s Wind, every chance she gets. “At that time,” Gish says, “only about 5 per cent of the world could speak English. Silent pictures not only changed the world, they controlled it. Then with a smile that makes you wonder why they ever bothered to make talkies in the first place she adds: “Who knows? Maybe some day they’ll come back.”
Re-published by kind permission of the author.
The portraits here are not of Lillian Gish but of my granddaughter Rebecca Stewart who rose to the occasion when I suggested the project to her.