Cast & Crew
Mimi, a poor seamstress in the Latin Quarter, is unable to pay her rent and is about to be evicted, when Rodolphe, a struggling young playwright who admires her fragile beauty, takes her into his circle of bohemian friends. Her gratitude to Rodolphe develops into an idyllic love. As time passes, Rodolphe ekes out a meager existence writing for a newspaper while working on a play, inspired by Mimi. He is discharged, but Mimi keeps him in ignorance of the fact, pretending to deliver his articles and secretly sewing at night to support them both. Paul, a cynical boulevardier attracted to Mimi, is induced by her to take the play to a theater manager, and she accompanies him, in clothes borrowed from her friend, Musette. Rodolphe suspects her of infidelity, and she leaves him. Later, his play is successful, and, at the peak of his fame, Mimi returns to him desperately ill and dies in his arms.
Edward Everett Horton
La Boheme (1926)
After leaving her mentor, D.W. Griffith, Gish had scored hits with two European-shot films, The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), released through Metro-Goldwyn Pictures. Their success led Nicholas Schenck at the newly formed MGM to offer her a contract to star in six films for $800,000, making her the studio's highest paid actor. Among the projects she considered were Romeo and Juliet, rejected by exhibitors who didn't think Shakespeare would sell, and a Joan of Arc story, ultimately deemed too expensive. She finally settled on La Boheme, but with Puccini's opera still protected by copyright, and his estate tangled in legal problems, they officially billed it as an adaptation of his source material, a collection of stories with no unifying plot. She and her friend Madame de Gresac, outlined a storyline based more on the opera than the stories, with Gish starring as Mimi, the seamstress whose romance with a young playwright (John Gilbert) is destroyed by poverty.
Gish's contract gave her first choice of the studio's directors and stars, but her lengthy stay in Europe had left her with little knowledge of current Hollywood talent. Production chief Irving Thalberg arranged to screen some of the studio's recent work, including two reels of the still-in-production The Big Parade (1925). Gish was enthralled and asked for not only the film's director, King Vidor, but stars Gilbert and Renee Adoree as well.
But despite Vidor's growing reputation in Hollywood, particularly when The Big Parade became one of the new studio's first big hits, Gish truly reigned as the auteur of La Boheme. She insisted on rehearsing the entire film as she had done with Griffith, and Vidor went along, hoping to learn more of the legendary director's working methods. When he prepared skeletal sets for the rehearsals, however, Gish was appalled. She was used to working with nothing but a bare stage and asked that they move rehearsals outside. There she showed Vidor how Griffith had used rehearsals to iron out details of the screenplay and determine exactly how scenes would be played. But Vidor and her fellow players weren't interested in pantomiming all props and set pieces. Further, Vidor told her he could do a more efficient job of working out the production details on his own. After a few days, she allowed him to call off the rehearsals.
Gish also exercised a strong influence over the sets and costumes. When studio art directors presented her with plans for lavish quarters in which the film's penniless artists would live, she protested and insisted that her room clearly be an attic. Costume designer Erte, a legend for his work on stage, presented her with a clean, new gingham gown that she rejected as both too fashionable and too stiff for acting. Instead she coordinated her own clothes, choosing the kinds of worn silk gowns that Mimi would have worn in real life. Erte took out his frustrations with her in the press, however, telling one of the major film magazines that she rejected his costumes to dress her penniless seamstress in silk.
One battle Gish lost was over her desire to keep the film's lovers apart on screen. She had learned that trick from Griffith, who felt that preventing a film's lovers from kissing each other or even touching could make their romantic scenes even more intense. Vidor and Gilbert went along with Gish, although they had misgivings. The on-screen lack of contact mirrored their off-screen frustrations. Both men became enamored of their leading lady during production, but were put off by the fact that she resisted all of their efforts to get closer. Gish wouldn't even let them touch her hand casually in conversation. When Vidor had completed the film, he screened it for studio management, who immediately demanded that they re-shoot it and include some real love scenes. MGM was promoting Gilbert as a great lover, and the chaste love scenes did not supply what audiences had come to expect of his films.
Gish's greatest on-screen triumph was her death scene. In preparation, she visited a local hospital to observe patients in various stages of tuberculosis, the disease that claims Mimi's life. She also asked that Vidor give her several days' notice before filming the scene. He scheduled it for the last day of shooting, and when Gish showed up for the scene, he wasn't sure she would make it to the end. Gish had gone without food and drink for days and had even placed cotton balls in her mouth to soak up any saliva. Her strained physical condition affected the entire cast and crew, who approached the final scene with shocked whispers. At the moment of Mimi's death, Gish stopped breathing. Vidor was waiting for her to take a breath before calling, "Cut," but she didn't. Finally Gilbert leaned over and whispered her name, which brought the actress out of it. Vidor would later say, "The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish."
Studio head Louis B. Mayer wept real tears at the film's preview, and it received rave reviews from the New York critics. In Hollywood, however, the press was less kind. Possibly resenting Gish's extended time away from the film capital, the film magazines and trade papers called her work dated, comparing her unfavorably to contemporary favorites like Norma Talmadge. That hardly kept the fans away. The film earned profits of almost $400,000, and was particularly popular in Europe. In Germany, where it was titled Mimi, it played for over two years. In a way, however, the West Coast reviews proved prophetic. Gish's subtle depiction of Mimi as a childlike woman was indeed something of an anachronism. Even though she moved on to greater artistic triumphs in The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), Gish's films began losing money at the box office. Former fan Mayer suggested she could end the slump by getting involved in a juicy scandal, but Gish refused. She would only make five of her six contracted films at MGM before leaving the screen in 1933 to devote herself to stage work. In her place, the studio would promote more "contemporary" stars like Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Ray Doyle and Harry Behn
Based on Fred De Gresac's adaptation of the book The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter by Henri Murger
Cinematography: Hendrik Sartov
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie
Music: William Axt, David Mendoza
Cast: Lillian Gish (Mimi), John Gilbert (Rodolphe), Renee Adoree (Musette), Roy D'Arcy (Count Paul), Edward Everett Horton (Colline), Gino Corrado (Marcel), Karl Dane (Benoit).
by Frank Miller
La Boheme (1926)
For information on other films based on the Henri Murger story, as well as the Giacomo Puccini opera that was based on it, please consult the entry for the 1938 Cantabria prodction of La vida bohemia, directed by Josef Berne and starring Rosita Diaz and Gilbert Roland in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40.