[caption id="attachment_110670" align="aligncenter" width="215" caption="Lillian Gish"]
The great twin tragedies of the fate of silent films in the modern era is indifference and ignorance. And for those who have
seen clips from silent films, they invariably view muddy, degraded prints projected at the wrong speed, hence the jerky motions that give the impression that all
silent films are bad slapstick.
Of course, we all owe a great debt to Robert Osborne and TCM for programming so many fine silent films. At last, film lovers have the opportunity to screen a varied selection of silent films and appreciate the great craft that was abruptly short-circuited with the advent of talkies. The best silent films were a universal language in which image, motion and emotion were paramount.
Silent movies were shot and duplicated on fragile nitrate stock. In the few original prints I've been fortunate enough to screen the images are just stunning. The screen glows with a liquid, silvery radiance that's impossible to duplicate on modern film or tape. The finest silent film players were geniuses who conveyed a world of emotion through the most subtle means.
The great director King Vidor
, (1894-1982) whose career spanned eight decades—from early silent movies right into the sound era—directed Lillian Gish
in a 1926 silent version of La Boheme
At this point in her career, Gish was so powerful that she had contractual approval over script and director. The intensity of her work ethic, the dedication to her craft simply awed Vidor as he noted so many years later in his excellent 1952 memoir, A Tree is a Tree.
The title is very funny, an insider Hollywood joke. It's a quote from a penny pinching studio executive who famously said: “A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park!” Hence, in early films, Los Angele's Griffith Park was used as a location for cowboy movies, Civil War movies, New York's Central Park, the Scottish Highlands, Versailles—you name it, Griffith Park served as a default location.
[caption id="attachment_110678" align="aligncenter" width="282" caption="Director King Vidor"]
Here, Vidor describes how Gish rigorously prepared for and played her dramatic death scene in La Boheme:
When she arrived on the set that fateful day, we saw her sunken eyes, her hollow cheeks, and we noticed that her lips had curled outward and were parched with dryness. What on earth had she done to herself? I ventured to ask about her lips and she said in syllables hardly audible that she had succeeded in removing all the saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquids for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums even in her sleep.
A pall began to settle over the entire company. People moved about the stage on tiptoe and spoke only in whispers. Finally came the scene where Rudolph carried the exhausted Mimi to her little bed and her Bohemian friends gathered around while Mimi breathed her last. I let the camera continue on her lifeless form and the tragic faces around her and decided to call “cut” only when I saw that Miss Gish was forced to inhale after holding her breath to simulate death. But the familiar movement of the chest didn't come. She neither inhaled nor exhaled. I began to fear she had played her part too well, and I could see that the other members of the cast and crew had the same fears as I. Too frightened to speak the one word that would halt the movement of the camera, I wondered how to bridge this fantastic moment back to the coldness of reality. The thought flashed through my mind, “What will the headlines say?” After what seemed many, many minutes, I waved my hand before the camera as a signal to stop. Still there was no movement from Lillian.
John Gilbert bent close, and softly whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. She permitted herself her first deep breath since the scene had started; for the past days she had trained herself, somehow or other, to get along without visible breathing. It was necessary to wet her lips before she could speak. By this time there was no one on the set whose eyes were dry. The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.
[caption id="attachment_110662" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Lillian Gish, on her deathbed in La Boheme."]
Miss Gish did not work with King Vidor again until 1946 when she played Mrs. McCanles in David O. Selznick's Duel in the Sun
. There's a lovely and touching moment in the film when Jennifer Jones
says to Gish: “I'll be a good girl—I want to be like you.”
Whenever I'm in production, working with actors, deep in my heart I too hope that they want, consciously or not, to be like Lillian Gish.
Copyright Robert J. Avrech