Lillian Gish Remembers the Silent Era
Our Silent Stars are grouped in categories beginning with "The Women" on November 3 as we recall winsome heroine Mary Pickford (Poor Little Rich Girl, 1917), "It" girl Clara Bow (It, 1927), glamour star Gloria Swanson (Sadie Thompson, 1928), quintessential vamp Pola Negri (The Wildcat, 1921, TCM premiere), iconic beauty Louise Brooks (Pandora's Box, 1928), pioneering actress Lillian Gish (Way Down East, 1920), comic charmer Marion Davies (Show People, 1928), legendary "Swedish Sphinx" Greta Garbo (Torrent, 1926) and flamboyant drama queen Alla Nazimova (Camille, 1921).
"The Men" stepping into our spotlight on November 10 are Latin lover Rudolph Valentino (The Sheik, 1921), top swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks (The Thief of Bagdad, 1924), "Great Lover" John Gilbert (The Big Parade, 1925), soulful leading man Ramon Navarro (Ben-Hur, 1925), chameleonic character star Lon Chaney (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924) and romantic hero Ronald Colman (The Winning of Barbara Worth, 1926, TCM premiere).
November 17 sees Oscar winners Emil Jannings (The Last Command, 1928, TCM premiere) and Janet Gaynor (Sunrise, 1927); child stars Jackie Coogan (The Rag Man, 1925) and Baby Peggy (Captain January, 1924); and the celebrated sisters Norma Talmadge (KiKi, 1926) and Constance Talmadge (Her Night of Romance, 1924). November 24 is devoted to "The Clowns," including Charlie Chaplin (A Dog's Life, 1918), Buster Keaton (Seven Chances, 1925), Harold Lloyd (The Freshman, 1925), Charley Chase (Charley My Boy, 1926), Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand (Fatty and Mabel Adrift, 1916), Abbott and Costello (Putting Pants on Philip, 1927) and Our Gang (Fast Company, 1924).
LILLIAN GISH REMEMBERS THE SILENT ERA
By Roger Fristoe
Of all the silent stars, none was greater or had more influence on the art of screen acting than Lillian Gish, who starred for her mentor, director D.W. Griffith, in such classics as The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Her image, that of great delicacy combined with inner strength, was one of the most enduring of the silent era.
After a career in silents that encompassed more than 75 films, Gish worked on the stage for much of the 1930s, then returned to movies as a character actress in the '40s, winning an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Duel in the Sun (1946). She eventually worked television into her mix of live and filmed performances, and starred in her final feature, The Whales of August, in 1987.
On a rainy September afternoon in 1984, this writer sat down with Miss Gish in a hotel room in Louisville, Ky., for a far-ranging conversation about her life and career, with an emphasis on her work in the silent era. Then approaching her 91st birthday, she had just completed location work on a TV version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Maysville, Ky.
This great tragedienne of the screen smiled and nodded when, inspired by the weather, I quoted from her 1969 autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me: "It must have rained on the evening I was born, and it seems arbitrarily to have been raining in my heart ever since."
She was in a reflective and talkative mood, and as the afternoon progressed I was amazed at her generosity with her time, and the depth and clarity of her memory. As I was leaving I asked her to autograph a photograph from one of her films, and she wrote: "With every good wish and gratitude for listening to me talk for so long - most earnestly, Lillian Gish."
Here is a record of our conversation.
Roger Fristoe: You began acting at a young age and have been at it ever since. It's wonderful that you're still working.
Lillian Gish: Not many people work 79 years without stopping! Well, I'm here. It's a wonder I'm as well as I am because I've abused this poor little body. A week ago Monday, on Huckleberry Finn, I worked 17 hours straight.
RF: Can we go back to the very beginning?
LG: Well, I know my grandmother was there with my mother when I was born [in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1893, according to most sources, although she maintained that it was a few years later]. When my mother married, Papa took her home to Grandmother Gish's, and my sister Dorothy also was born there. Mother said, "It's not fair for your mother to support four of us - you must go out and work." My grandmother always told us that Papa was a good man, but not ready for the responsibility of four people. [An alcoholic, he would abandon the family before the girls were old enough to remember him.]
Dorothy was four and I was five when we started in the theater. I was in the theater with Belasco at 13, and I got pernicious anemia and had to go into films instead. Mother was out there [in California] with Dorothy, and when I got into films and out into the fresh air, I got over the anemia right away. I stayed in films 16 years, from 1913 to 1929. I grew up in films.
My mother was from Ohio, and she didn't want us to be actresses. One thing she liked about films at that time was that they didn't use names. We had never used our names in the theater. We were Baby Alice or Baby something else, or sometimes just Herself, like a dog or a cat! The best book about me was in 1932 by Albert Bigelow Paine, who was Mark Twain's biographer. When I want to go back to what happened to me in the early years, I read his book to find out - because so much has happened I can't remember it all.
RF: Dorothy was always the light-hearted one; no rain in her heart.
LG: Oh, yes. She was so witty. And she was the more talented of the two because she had the gift of comedy. Everything was turned into something witty with her. When I wrote my book I dedicated it to my mother, who gave me love; Dorothy, who taught me to laugh; my father, who gave me insecurity; and Mr. Griffith, who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.
RF: How did that sense of insecurity prove valuable to you?
LG: Oh, I was so happy that it worked out the way it did because I was out in the world - a woman of the world - at the age of five! Because I was the eldest and I wanted to take care of my dear mother. My mother made everything we wore except our shoes and stockings until we were grown women. All the underwear, all the coats, all the hats - everything. I would wake up in the night and over in the corner would be a light with a blanket on it so we wouldn't be bothered, and Mother would be under it, sewing. Oh, she was a beautiful character!
RF: It was Mary Pickford who introduced you to Mr. Griffith?
LG: Yes. She was a Smith, from Toronto, and Mother and Mrs. Smith took an apartment together one summer to save money. Mrs. Smith had three children, a boy and two girls including Mary, who was born with the name of Gladys. Mother got a job with Chauncey Olcott, who was a big star in the theater. She had to get another child to travel with us and - this was just like Mother - she thought Mrs. Smith would be perfect because she had three children. So she got her the job and that cemented their friendship for the rest of their lives.
Dorothy and I saw Mary in a film and we rushed home to tell Mother. And she said, "Oh, what misfortune could have befallen the Smiths that they had to go into the movies (or the 'flickers,' as they were called then) for a living? The next time we are in New York we must go and find out." Well, instead of finding out they were in a bad way, they were making, all four of them, $275 a week. The three of us were making $35 a week. So it seemed clear where the money was.
RF: You made so many great films with Mr. Griffith... Do you have a favorite among your performances for him?
LG: In films, you look at yourself and it robs you of all your vanity. I never made a film where I was right in every scene from beginning to end. Sometimes you get it for a moment and then you lose it, and then you get it again. It's the best school for acting there is, because you see the results. There's no other way you can see yourself walking away - even in a mirror you can't see a true image of yourself walking away.
RF: But can an actress ever really see herself objectively on the screen?
LG: You have to be objective! I watched the rushes. At first I thought I was doing too much, and I put a mirror on the side of the camera so I could see if I made a face. Because Griffith said, "If you get caught acting, nobody believes you." You have to be whatever the scene calls for, and that's not easy. And I said, "But I can see myself, and I seem to do so much. Then when I see myself on the screen, I'm not doing that much." And he said, "Don't you know the camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts? Half of everything you do is gone." Then you take away the voice - because we talked all the time when we were making silent films - and that much more is gone. So there's only a small part of what you do that's left on the screen. And you had to remember that.
RF: Silent films had - still have - such power.
LG: Oh, yes! In those days the theaters held thousands of people - the Roxy in New York held 64,000, and it wasn't the biggest - and they were full from 10 in the morning until 2 the next morning, until they introduced words. If they had only added music to the images... [Sighs.] We made the words. Charles Laughton said that when he went to the movies as a young man, "We sat like this. [Assumes an awe-struck pose.] Now they sit and eat popcorn. I want to make them sit up in their seats again!" And he did, when he directed The Night of the Hunter [1955, starring Gish and Robert Mitchum].
RF: You were famous for your dedication to realism, floating on the ice floe in Way Down East and so on. I just read today that for La Boheme you went three days without liquids so you could look like a tuberculosis victim. Is that true?
LG: No, that story isn't true - I ate my breakfast that morning! I knew I had a hard day's work ahead. But I had gone to the county hospital with a priest. I'm not a Catholic but I'd always get a priest to go with me, to see how people died with tuberculosis.
RF: You must have played more death scenes than any other actress.
LG: I died in every way! I even died dancing on the stage in Within the Gates, the Sean O'Casey play.
RF: You have predicted that the art of silent film will return. Do you still think it may?
LG: I'm working for it. When we made fun of the "flickers" and Mr. Griffith heard us use that word, he said, "Don't you dare ever let me hear you speak that word in this studio. Don't you know that you're working on something that was predicted in the Bible? There's to be a universal language to make all men brothers and bring about the millennium. You remember that the next time you face a camera!"
After Griffith, the only man that I think added a dimension to film was Disney - he brought in animation and wildlife films, things of that sort. He did great things. Another artist that we don't appreciate properly is Charlie Chaplin. He wrote his stories, he directed them, he designed his sets, he was at the camera, he looked after the music. He did everything.
RF: I know you work very hard to make sure that Mr. Griffith's reputation endures and that he is given the respect he deserves. Because he lost that respect in the end.
LG: He did. They wouldn't give him a job for $50 a week in California. He walked the streets. But when he died he didn't owe anyone a penny. He paid off all his debts. He had no idea of business. If he had, Birth of a Nation alone would have made enough money for him for the rest of his life. All he needed was a good suit - two suits, because he was always well-dressed and clean. And he had to have a car, and a chauffeur because he couldn't drive, just a little car to take him where he had to go. And a room in a second-class hotel - he didn't like first class because he said they were "snooty."
RF: He was one of the first to understand the force of the movies. It's hard to overestimate the impact of Birth of a Nation, isn't it? LG: Oh, yes. When I went to work for MGM, Louis B. Mayer said, "I want to meet the girl who started me on my way to fame and fortune." And I thought, What do I have to do with him? I never met him before. And he said, "I had a little theater, and I was running Birth of a Nation. I got it for the town, and then for the county and then for the state. And that started me on my way to fame."
" Birth would go into cities and towns and play to three times the population because people came in from all over. It ran for two-and-a-half hours, so it was in legitimate theaters. There wasn't any other way. When it was first released in 1915, tickets were $2.50 [the top price for a live production at the time]. When we made Broken Blossoms, it was in the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York, and it played for $3.00. It ran for an hour and 20 minutes. Griffith would have a man and woman dance for 20 minutes, then a long intermission, and then he showed the film.
RF: What do you feel is his reputation today?
LG: I'm afraid they have forgotten him. If they remembered him they would study his early films and try and make films good again...
RF: You directed Dorothy in Remodeling Her Husband in 1920. That must have made you one of the first women to direct a film.
LG: Yes. In those days we wrote out our own stories, and Dorothy had found a funny thing in a magazine. A husband complained to his wife that she was so dowdy in her clothes that no one ever turned to look at her. That makes her mad, and she says, "You just follow me down the street and see." And as she walks ahead of him she makes a face at every man, and of course he looks around at her. [Judy Garland would borrow that idea for a scene in 1948's Easter Parade.] We made a five-reel story of that, the two of us.
At the same time Mr. Griffith was building that studio in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and he had two films that he needed exteriors for, so he left me to finish the building of the studio. I had to have telegraph poles and all the wiring put in. It was November, and the wind was so bad out that all the trees had iron things holding them together so that they wouldn't lose their branches.
We didn't have a scenic designer, and I had to have a carpenter build the set. I had to tell him how many feet the room was to be, how high the ceiling, all the baseboards, how many inches. And I didn't know inches from feet! I never went to school, and I didn't know about that kind of thing. I had to get the furniture, I had to cast the film, I had to do everything. I had $50,000 to do it, and four weeks. I brought it in at $38,000. It was a huge success and made nine or ten times what it cost.
RF: And you directed Mary Astor in her screen test. LG: I was allowed by Griffith, when young people came in that I thought had possibilities for film, to make a test of them, because he didn't have time, and he trusted me. Well, one day this girl came in - Lucile Langhanke was her name. Her mama and papa brought her in. She could recite anything from Shakespeare. I was just overwhelmed. I took a thousand feet of her. And Mr. Griffith said, "Who do you think you are, that you can use a thousand feet of film on every little thing that comes in?" And I said, "She's not every little thing, she's got some quality that you could use and you would like." And he said, "Yes, but every time I look at her father I hear a cash register ring." He could read character, because if you remember, after she became Mary Astor, her father sued her. I couldn't read character like that, but he could.
RF: Any regrets about not continuing your career as a director?
LG: Oh, no. After I had to build that studio, I was so exhausted I never wanted to hear the word "director" again!
RF: Mr. Griffith once said, "Lillian Gish is not only the best actress in her profession, but she has the best mind of any woman I have ever met."
LG: He used to say, "Well, I have to listen to her. She's got some brains in her head, and not many have that." I must say he was a darling. You know, when we were making Orphans of the Storm there is a scene where I am brought down from the guillotine after almost having my head cut off. I played it the way we had rehearsed it, but he could tell from my expression if I liked things or not. So, in front of 100 extras, he said, "Well, apparently Miss Gish isn't pleased." He didn't like that name. When we first came to him he said, "Gish, Fish, Pish - that's a terrible name for an actress!" And Dorothy said, "If it's good enough for our mother, it's good enough for us, Mr. Griffith." So we never changed it.
Anyway, I said, "Well, it's all right, Mr. Griffith, but I've seen scenes in other pictures that are just as good." And he said, "Well, if you're so smart, why don't you show me how it should be done." So they took me off the guillotine again, and I came down the way I thought that - after such an experience - a woman would behave. And in front of all those people, he got up, then got down on both knees, took my hands and kissed each one and said, "She's always right."
RF: Your performance in Way Down East has been called the greatest ever given by an actress in a silent film.
LG: Mr. Griffith paid $165,000 for the rights to what - in the young people's minds - was a ridiculous, old-fashioned melodrama. We thought, What has happened to his head, has he gone batty to pay that money for that silly story of a mock marriage? And I had to play the girl that was put over on. And I thought, How can I make them believe her?
RF: So how did you make it work?
LG: Well, we rehearsed very carefully and we never used doubles in the action scenes because we thought the camera was psychic. If that wasn't really you out there, even in the distance, the audience could tell. And I still think that. Now you see all these cars in flames with people in them and so on, and you don't get excited because you know it isn't real, and they have doubles and stuntmen.
RF: That sequence on the ice floe in Way Down East is one of your most unnerving moments onscreen.
LG: I knew I'd have to go through something on that ice. We went up to White River Junction, Vermont, where the White and the Connecticut flow side by side. Sometimes I'd faint with the cold, and they'd take me in and give me hot tea. In the blizzard, I was facing the wind and as the snow melted on my face, icicles formed on my eyelashes. I could hardly hold my eyes open, and Mr. Griffith saw this and yelled to the cameraman, "Get that face! Get that face!" And he said, "I will if the oil in the camera hasn't frozen!" People were lying on the ground holding the legs of the camera because the wind was so terrific.
RF: Did your health suffer because of the things you went through?
LG: Well, as I said - I'm here, but it's a wonder. I didn't tell Mother about these things, because I didn't want her to worry - because I knew she would. When she saw the picture on opening night she said, "Young lady, you can't treat your body like that. You're going to suffer for it someday." And I have. My right hip has bothered me because, when I was lying on that ice for three weeks, I didn't even put a newspaper under it or wear heavy clothes, because I thought that would make the person on the screen look unlike me. And you couldn't fake it because you can't fake ice.
RF: Tell me about filming the scene where the man saves you just as you're about to go over the edge of the waterfall.
LG: I was facing the falls, and he was in back of me and I couldn't see him, so I just started to say my prayers. I was sure it was too late and that he had fallen in or something. And just at the last minute he grabbed me, and he was so excited that he fell down with me.
RF: I saw that film with a live audience not long ago, and people still get excited by that scene because it's so nerve-wracking.
LG: You know, when it was first shown we had to keep a trained nurse in the ladies' room because so many women fainted over that scene and needed assistance. Griffith would have someone put them in a cab and send them home. He didn't want word to get out that it was that emotional for fear that people would stop buying tickets! I've never heard of anything like that in the theater or the opera or anywhere else in my life. That shows the power of film. Kevin Brownlow [the historian and documentarian] showed Broken Blossoms  and The Wind [1928, directed by Victor Sjöström] in December of this past year  in the Dominion Theatre in London, which is empty most of the time. It holds 2,000 or more, and it sold out at $25 a ticket. RF: And new musical scores were written for the films?
LG: Yes, with a 35- or 50-piece orchestra playing them. The audience response was unbelievable. Even I, during The Wind, forgot I was in it and just got caught up in the story and that music. I think that shows the power of film. You know why we have an audience today for fine music? You can thank the films. They put orchestras into those big movie theaters, and at first people just went for the film. They'd get up and go out when the orchestra played. But then they began to sit and listen, and they liked what they heard. And gradually they began coming to the theater for the music. And it's absolutely true, that's why we have a great audience for philharmonic orchestras and so on.
RF: Do you have any goals that you have yet to achieve?
LG: My ambition in life is to bring back the history of the world and the great people of the world, like Gandhi, through film and great music. We've never really told the story of our own country in film. We've never had a film on Jefferson or Thomas Payne, or the Adamses or most of our other great people. Now I don't expect to live to see that happen. [She would die in 1993, the year of her 100th birthday.] But I think it will happen - what do you think?
RF: With your determination, I think it will happen.