Register Star, Rockford, Illinois, Sunday, August 7, 1983, Page 17
Lillian Gish breathed life into “ga-ga babies”
The Associated Press
Lillian Gish attended the 50th anniversary of Radio City Music Hall wearing the same Valentina gown she wore to its opening. Not only had she kept that garment 50 years but it still looked stylish and still fit her trim, petite figure.
She was also among the glittering presences when the Lincoln Center Film Society honored Lord Olivier and later that week she attended the off-Broadway opening of “Duet for One” starring Eva Marie Saint.
At 86, Lillian Gish who has always looked deceptively frail, is still doing what she has done since she was 5 – the best she can, in and for the theatrical profession.
Gish received one of the five Kennedy Center Honors last December. President Reagan called her the First Lady of the silent screen and said her enigmatic allure had never been equaled.
The Library of Congress has requested her papers. She says, “I’m the first actress they ever asked for papers. I asked, ‘What papers?’ They said everything but household bills.” The Museum of Modern Art showed 26 Lillian Gish films last fall. In October there’ll be a retrospective in Paris. Gish will attend.
She has worked hard and considers working an art. It distresses her that movies today aren’t rehearsed. “Everything is rehearsed in the world of arts except films,” she says. “Piano, violin, dancers. In movies, they just take it over and over agin. But how can you tell what holds the attention and what bores if you don’t rehearse the whole thing?”
“D.W. Griffith paid $165,000 for the story of Way Down East. As we young people thought he’d gone crazy. It was a silly, old-fashioned melodrama about a mock marriage. I had to make that believable. We rehearsed it eight weeks, night and day, until everyone knew how many feet of film they had for every scene and where the camera was.”
Gish still goes to the movies. She says, “I went a week or two ago in the afternoon. Two ladies were sitting in the middle of a row. I thought I’d better sit in back of them. When it was over, we were three people in the theater. That’s a blow to my pride. I think in time movie makers will come back to silent films. I won’t live to see it. It’s much harder to tell stories without words. But you can tell them. We proved that for 25 years, from 1905 to 1930.”
Lillian Gish, June 29,1921, Credit: Library of Congress
The actress is best known for her roles in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Broken Blossoms and Orphans of the Storm.
Her early start in movies came after her father left the family and her mother, Mary, took a job in Proctor’s Stock Company in New York to earn more money – $15 a week.
An actress at Proctor’s was offered a job in a touring company but she needed a little girl to play with her. Mrs. Gish said no to Lillian, but the $10 a week, of which Lillian could send home half, and the actress’s promise of close supervision persuaded her. Soon Lillian’s sister Dorothy got a similar job in East Lynne.
The Gishes – one time all three were touring in the same melodrama – became friendly with another theatrical touring family named Smith, parents, son and daughter.
Actress Mary Pickford aka Gladys Smith, Between 1910 and 1920, Credit: Library of Congress
Later, Dorothy and Lillian Gish saw their friend Gladys Smith in a nickelodeon “flicker.” When they got back to New York, they looked her up at the Biograph studio. They asked for Gladys Smith. No Gladys Smith. They described the girl in the flicker and the renamed Mary Pickford, that day acting in another flicker came out. She introduced them to Griffith, the director, who hired the Gish sisters that day.
“Dorothy was the better actress of the two of us and the more beautiful,” Gish says. She wishes it had been possible for her sister, who died in 1968, to have received the Kennedy Center honor.
Dorothy often played comedy and Lillian, with her lovely innocent face, played what Photoplay magazine in 1925 called “the frail girl battling helplessly for her honor or her happiness.”
“That wasn’t easy,” Gish says. “If you play a bad person, 75 percent of your work is done before you begin. But to make a virginal, almost child interesting for two hours – five minutes, yes. She’s nice to look at. After that, you had to work hard. I always called those parts, ga-ga babies. They were so hard to play.”
She was in 62 films for Griffith from 1912 to 1922. Then she was hired to make six pictures for MGM and Louis B. Mayer, who managed the West Coast.
Gish says, “I don’t think Mr. Mayer cared much about having me. They had nothing ready for me when I got to California.”
Her contract wasn’t renewed either. She recalls that Mayer called her in before her last picture and said, ‘You’re sitting on a pedestal and nobody cares about you. Let me arrange a scandal for you.’ I told him no. That would mean I’d have to give a performance both on screen and off. He said, ‘You know I can ruin you.’ I said I’d go back to the theater. He told me, ‘You’re lucky you’ve got a voice that photographs.’”
Gish returned to New York in 1930, where she has lived since. Jed Harris hired here for Uncle Vanya on Broadway. It was the first of her 30 stage and seven TV plays between 1930 and 1976.
Gish never married. She came closest with critic George Jean Nathan, but decided that she put too much time and energy into acting to be a good wife.
Flashback, an entertainment nostalgia column, appears in Playbill in the Sunday Register Star.
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