Tuesday, 1 September 2015

16 more things I learned about Lillian Gish

Last month, I read the autobiography of famed silent star Lillian Gish, and suggested that it smelt a little like someone curating their own legacy. Charles Affron's 2001 biography, Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life, essentially attempts to unpick the meticulous framework of untruths that Gish constructed around her existence, whilst giving the actress the due that was very much hers. At first, Affron's exertions are frankly annoying − the early parts of the book are needlessly pernickety and sometimes weirdly nasty − but the further we get into it, the more he draws on varied extracts from her personal papers and the more he examines Gish's peerless art, the dizzying highs, declining fortunes and minor later triumphs, presenting a fine portrait of her as a performer, if a rather incomplete one of her as a woman. The major problem with the book, compared to the best of its type, is that Affron hasn't bothered to interview anyone, which given that Gish was still alive, well, fully compos mentis and happy to talk to everyone who asked until 1993, is something of an incredibly large oversight. It is, however, the best book yet written on her work, and taught me exactly 16 fascinating new things about the greatest screen actress who ever lived:

1. When Gish's mentor, D. W. Griffith, was making Hearts of the World, a WWI propaganda film bankrolled by the British government, Prime Minister David Lloyd George tried to get him to use scenes written by Winston Churchill. The credited scriptwriters, their names designed to endow the film with credibility, were Gaston de Tolignac and Captain Victor Marier. Neither man existed, both being pseudonyms for Griffith. Tolignac was revived for the director's 1921 film, Orphans of the Storm, which dealt with the French Revolution.

2. Broken Blossoms was Gish's favourite of her films. The anecdote about passers-by outside the studio thinking she was being attacked (which I speculated might be nonsense) stems from that shoot, and is apparently from Kevin Brownlow's book, The Parade's Gone By, so is almost certainly true.

3. A pioneering proto-feminist, Gish was heavily involved in every aspect of Griffith's filmmaking. After she left him, she and director Henry King wrote, cast and assembled her 1923 vehicle, The White Sister, together. The final cut was edited single-handedly by Gish. She was also a director, filming Remodeling Her Husband (starring her sister Dorothy) in 1920. Despite such progressive virtuosity, she wasn't as forthright about gender roles as she might have been, saying: "I doubt if any woman is strong enough [to direct films]", though adding as a caveat, "what is more, there are very few men that have the vigour and imagination to be directors."

4. A workaholic, she said that when being absorbed in shooting one of Griffith's pictures "I underwent a period of creative fervour that to me was intense happiness. At the time, I hadn't enough insight to know that I was using hard work as a smoke screen to cover my almost complete retreat from my life."

5. After breaking with Gish and replacing her with the unloved Carol Dempster, director Griffith lamented to reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns that he had "chucked her out for that mediocre girl... She was my luck, she was my light − I never had either after I lost her. Oh God − man can be his own worst enemy, can he not?"

6. She became an "honorary member of the Fascisti" in 1923, joining the repugnant ranks of Mussolini's blackshirts while shooting The White Sister near Rome. I'm more of a fan of Gish's acting than her politics.

7. When Gish signed with Nicholas Schenck at MGM in 1925, it wasn't her first dealing with his family: Nick and his brother Joe (chairman of United Artists) had, like many other movie moguls, come up from the amusement park game, running Fort George in Upper Manhattan, where Gish's mother Mary had managed a candy stand and Lillian had learned to ride a horse.

8. Gish's first choice project upon joining MGM, Romeo and Juliet, was vetoed by theatre owners, more than half of whom said they'd refuse to buy a Shakespeare adaptation. Her second, Joan of Arc, was kiboshed due to expense. Other suggestions included Jane Eyre, Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara (which would have been wondrous to behold), and works by Goethe, Euripides, Thomas Hardy and Gabriele D'Annunzio.

9. Lillian claimed that her mother's ill-health had been caused by shellshock sustained during a trip to London in WWI. Actually, a careless gynaecologist had accidentally forgotten to retrieve his sponge.

10. The only MGM film that lost more money during the 1927-8 season than Gish's Annie Laurie (an attempt to sex up her image) was Lubitsch's silent masterwork, The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg.

11. This is the big one: there was no alternate ending to Gish's greatest film, the incomparable silent Western, The Wind. According to the star in her oft-screened introduction to the film, preview audiences were shocked by a tragic finale in which Gish's Letty wandered off into the desert to die, and studio bean-counters decided that she'd met her maker too often on screen lately, and ought to survive. (I fell for this myself: look.) In fact, the ending that we see was in the fourth draft of the script − completed two months before shooting began − with the exception that the original climax included some additional business for the abysmal comic character, 'Sourdough'! Her mythmaking was designed to cast her in the role of a crusading artist sold out by greedy studio heads: a convenient fiction to explain her unhappy departure from MGM. Bad Gish.

12. The hostility towards Gish from Photoplay Magazine, which launched an almost unstinting vendetta against the star from 1924 onwards, appears to have resulted from her polite refusal to be included on a set of collectible movie star spoons that the publication launched shortly beforehand.

13. After the failure of The Wind, Gish spent months working on an unrealised project called The Miracle Woman, with German theatrical maestro, Max Reinhardt, for much of that time even living in his house, the Schloss Leopoldskron. After reading the story, Joe Schenck gave Gish his hilariously blunt assessment of what would happen if they made the film: "I will lose my money and you will lose your last chance to become popular again." Her next role would have been Nina in Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude, but United Artists pulled out after the playwright was sued for plagiarism (a claim later dismissed at trial).

14. Gish would have played the role of Birdie in William Wyler's breathtaking version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (review of that film in my next post), had she not been held to her contract for the play, Life with Father, another of the major 'what if's in her career. The answer to all of them: it would have been amazing. In later years, she was pitched to John Ford for his swansong, Seven Women, and to Hitchcock for Family Plot, while John Gielgud − to whose Hamlet she had been Ophelia in 1936 − was originally cast in the Vincent Price role in Gish's last film, The Whales of August.

15. Among the famous stage roles written for Gish, but never played by her, were Lavinia in O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Elektra and the young prostitute in William Saroyan's Time of Your Life. She did finally get to play another part penned with her in mind, the rough draft of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' Portrait of a Madonna (the play that became A Streetcar Named Desire), at a one-off event in Berlin in 1957.

16. In 1991, she turned down the chance to play her first nude scene, aged 98.

... and here's the last word from Affron on Gish's consummate artistry, discussing Orphans of the Storm (spoilers):


  1. Yes, Lillian was often THE stumbling block that got into her own personal and professional way.s During my late teen/early 20s years, I actually got to meet her a few times. She would always meet me at MoMA, we would have lunch, and I would be required (:-D ) to listen. I still have a note or two from her as well as a personally autographed photo. Yes, she was a bit stand-offish, but nice 'formal' person. Meanwhile, I also knew Blanche Sweet. She was a bit more down to earth and fun. From her I have a few recordings during conversations we had. We particularly spoke about Robert Harron (I lectured on him at MoMA for his 100th B'day in 1993). Really appreciate this posting that you set up about dear ole' Lillian. Made me go back and think about those things and people I contacted with 'back in the days' from NYC. Appreciate your Site. Thanks!

  2. Hi Joseph. What a wonderful contribution, thanks so much sharing (and for your kind words about the blog).