Obituary: Lillian Gish

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The Independent Online
IT IS somehow appropriate that Lillian Gish's amazing life should end in winter, writes Kevin Brownlow (further to the obituary by Gilbert Adair, 1 March). For it was in the snow scenes of DW Griffith's Way Down East (1920) that she established the combination by which she is remembered; brilliant acting combined with great heroism. Griffith's elaboration of the old stage melodrama required Lillian to lie on an ice- floe and drift towards the falls.

While David Gill and I were making a Channel 4 documentary about Griffith, we visited the location near White River Junction, Vermont, where the film was shot. We experienced just how severe the cold was, merely by filming the break-up of the ice. And we met an old lady who had doubled for Lillian Gish, 70 years before. This shook us somewhat, because Lillian Gish was not supposed to have had a double. Apparently, Gish had done the scene so often her stamina had temporarily given out and she feared she would catch pneumonia. This girl took over and described vividly for us how awful it was. The worst part, she said, was trailing her hand in the water, which had been an idea of Gish's. She held out her arthritic hand and said she could still feel it. It turned out that she had doubled Gish for just one memorable day. Lillian had to repeat the scene day after day until Griffith was satisfied. She also had to stagger through an authentic blizzard, so severe that three men had to hold down the tripod legs of Billy Bitzer's camera. When Griffith saw the effect he called to Bitzer: 'Get that face]'

'I will,' said Bitzer, 'if the oil in the camera hasn't frozen.'

Meeting Lillian Gish was always an exhilarating experience. She was remarkably beautiful, even in old age, and she had what one can only describe as a spiritual quality. She was proud of her association with DW Griffith - whom she always referred to as 'Mr Griffith' - and her enthusiasm for the cinema was undimmed. To see that face, the most celebrated of the entire silent era and so little changed, and to hear her references to 'The Biograph' and 'Mary Pickford' was to know you were at the heart of film history.

She was discovered, if that is the right word, by DW Griffith. She and her sister Dorothy were at the Biograph studio to visit their friend Gladys Smith (Mary Pickford). Griffith saw them in the lobby, and immediately involved them. 'He rehearsed a story about two girls who were trapped by burglars,' said Lillian Gish. 'We watched the other actors to see what they were doing and were smart enough to take our cues from them. Finally, at the climax, Mr Griffith himself took a .22 revolver out of his pocket and started shooting at the ceiling and chasing us around. We thought we were in a madhouse.'

Lillian quickly learned about film acting. She credited Griffith with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. She called him 'The Father of Film'. And the pictures they made together read like a roll-call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921).

'We used to laugh about films in the early days,' she said. 'We used to call them flickers. Mr Griffith said: 'Don't you ever let me hear you use that word again. The film and its power are predicted in the Bible. There's to be a universal language making all men understand each other. We are taking the first baby steps in a power that could bring about the millennium. Remember that when you stand in front of the camera]' ' It was this ideal, this integrity, which made compromise so difficult for both of them. Gish, given choice of director, story and cast, and acting virtually as her own producer, made several classics at MGM, when she left Griffith, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928).

But her confidence was undermined when Louis B. Mayer suggested a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. 'You are way up there on a pedestal,' he said, 'and nobody cares. If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.' Lillian realised she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. 'I'm sorry,' she said, 'I just don't have that much vitality.' She returned to her first love, the theatre, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.

We are fortunate that, in the years since, directors of the calibre of King Vidor, John Huston and Lindsay Anderson brought her back to dignify the screen. Ten years ago, David Gill, Carl Davis and I staged a tribute to Lillian Gish as part of the Thames Silents series, with a screening of The Wind (1928), directed by Victor Seastrom, and Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919). No one had championed the cause of silent film and music more energetically than Lillian Gish. We were anxious she should make a personal appearance at the event but, aware of her hectic schedule, we were doubtful whether she would have the energy to travel to London. We underestimated her. Above all, Lillian Gish was a trouper. She said she would come and come she did.

There was a ripple of anticipation at the airport when her plane arrived. An off-duty immigration officer asked who we were waiting for, and when he heard the name, he produced a camera from his shoulder-bag and joined us by the railings. Our spirits soared when we caught our first glimpse of that exquisite face. Lillian Gish may have been an old woman - 89, although she took a few years off so she could keep working - but she was still astonishingly beautiful.

We broke the news to her and her manager, James Frasher, that a newspaper strike wiped out our publicity. 'We'll do a lot of radio,' she said. 'That'll help.'

Given one day in which to rest, she then plunged into a schedule that exhausted everyone but her. When she arrived for a lecture at the National Film Theatre, cameramen, professional and amateur, crowded round and it was all James Frasher could do to get her to the reception room. The theatre was packed and she delighted the audience with her enthusiastic recall and her humour.

'Is there any part you wished you'd played?' asked a member of the audience.

'A vamp,' she replied. 'Oh, I'd love to have played a vamp. Seventy-five per cent of your work is done for you. When you play those innocent little virgins, that's when you have to work hard. They're all right for five minutes, but after that you have to work to hold the interest. I always called them 'ga-ga babies'.'

During the next few days she embarked on a non-stop series of interviews for radio and television. It was gratifying to see Lillian Gish's name above a theatre again, and to see the crowds gathering before each show with autograph books. It was also uncanny to watch Lillian's performance in the 1912 Biograph An Unseen Enemy, her first film, and then to see her walk out on stage to introduce Broken Blossoms. She explained the importance of the music. Carl Davis had arranged the original Louis Gottschalk score of 1919 (the Gish character's theme 'White Blossom' was composed by DW Griffith himself). The audience watched the beautiful tinted print with rapt attention. The occasion was unmarred by those titters which so often wreck showings of silent films. One could feel the emotion, and the applause afterwards was tremendous. 'I have been going to the cinema for 50 years,' said one man, 'but this was my greatest evening.'

The following evening was even more impressive. In her introduction, Lillian left no doubt that The Wind was physically the most uncomfortable picture she had ever made - even worse than Way Down East. 'I can stand cold,' she said, 'but not heat.' For this story of a gently bred woman trying to cope with frontier life, the exteriors were photographed in the Mojave Desert, where it was seldom less than 120F.

'I remember having to fix my make-up and I went to the car and I left part of the skin of my hand on the door-handle. It was like picking up a red-hot poker. To create the windstorm, they used eight airplane engines blowing sand, smoke and sawdust at me.'

The effect of the film - and Carl Davis's original score - pulverised the audience. Lillian Gish, who received a standing ovation, said it was the most exciting presentation of The Wind she had seen for years. The critic of the Daily Telegraph compared Gish to Sarah Bernhardt and that of the Guardian thought Seastrom, the director of The Wind, was now on a level with DW Griffith.

We said farewell to Lillian Gish at her hotel, the Savoy, from where she had watched the German bombing raids in 1917, when she had come over with her sister to make Hearts of the World. Her hair was down and I had never seen her look so beautiful. It was late November 1983. All of us connected with the event were exhausted, but Lillian was as full of vitality as ever.

'When I get back to New York,' she said, 'I shall go to bed and I won't get up until 1984. When you think of me, think of me horizontal.'

A precious link with the origins of the cinema has been lost, just as Lillian Gish and the motion picture itself were about to celebrate their centenary.

(Photograph omitted)

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