The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me
by Lillian Gish with Ann Pinchot
by John Gregory Dunne
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $5.95)
For a long time, there have been rumors that Lillian Gish was writing an autobiography centered on D. W. Griffith. Ten years ago when I was in book publishing, I tried to get the manuscript and was told by Miss Gish that it did not yet exist. Now the book is published, and anyone with the smallest interest in films can be glad.
No one would reasonably expect it to be literature of any kind, and it isn't. Miss Gish has had a collaborator, which hasn't kept the style from being, at best, Newspaper Roman and, at worst, Subtitle Bold. ("The essence of virginity--purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul and body-is the stuff out of which, under his prompting, I created heroines.") Also, being not only human but an actress. Miss Gish has quoted some pretty enthusiastic comments about herself, including an article by her late sister which ends: "I never cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who, more than any other woman in America, possesses all the qualities of true greatness."
The wonder is not the presence of actress-ego but the small amount of it. She doesn't dueven mention that in 1932, Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain's biographer, published a book called Life and Lillian Gish. And although her book is an actress's autobiography, roughly two-thirds of it is devoted to someone else.
Miss Gish went into films in September 1912. (I got the date elsewhere; specific dates are hard to find in her early pages!) She and her sister, Dorothy, who were child actresses, went down to visit a girl friend of theirs who was making pictures for Biograph at 11 East 14th St. in New York. (There's a delicatessen on the spot now, a block from my home, and I refuse to buy pastrami anywhere else.) They found that their friend Gladys Smith was now called Little Mary (Pickford, of course). Griffith saw them, tested them at once--Lionel Barrymore played in their test--then put them to work the same day as extras and the next day in roles. Miss Gish and Griffith worked together until after Orphans of the Storm in 1921, when he told her he could not afford to pay her what she was worth and urged her to go out on her own.
The success of leading actors and actresses in films often has much to do with their correspondence to public preconceptions. This was probably even truer in silent films when the figure was more of an abstraction. (If pictures were still silent, Candice Bergen might be a big star.) Miss Gish's presence and personality fit perfectly the concept of pure maidenhood that had developed in the 19th-century popular theatre, so well described by David Grimsted in his book. Melodrama Unveiled, It was not only the passage of time but the arrival of sound that ended Miss Gish's career in that vein: her voice simply did not support the virginal persona. Since then, I've seen most of her performances on stage and screen, and, whatever their quality, I've always been struck by the fact that she was, in a sense, forced to become an actress after a successful career as the cherished embodiment of an ideal.
Her book reveals a humorous counterpoint in her. She is hugely practical. Early in her career she realized--as did Chaplin and other silent stars--that she had to learn everything about this medium, so she "got to know a film from the time it was raw stock until it was shown to an audience." She directed a picture for Griffith's company, with her sister in the lead, and later she edited her own picture Romola. Her narrative is filled with cash figures. (Including one beautifully blithe sentence: "My contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer called for six pictures in two years, for which I would be paid, I believe, a million dollars." I believe!) She picked plays and novels for screen adaptation with a canny eye. The reader can only relish her private hardheadedness as seen against her public ethereality, whichever happens to be in the foreground at the moment.
As for D. W. Griffith, she gives us the fullest portrait we have yet had of this titanic man. Trotsky's famous remark about Celine is that he "walked into great literature as other men walk into their homes." In aptness of genius, at least, the same can be said of Griffith and film. By now it's a commonplace that he gave- the new medium its grammar; he also gave it many of its aspirations. What we see, first and fundamentally, in Griffith is a change of mind toward film that epitomizes--precedes--a huge cultural shift. At first he was ashamed of being associated with "flickers"; he was a theatre actor and playwright, and he wanted to remain one. Within five years he had become oracular and evangelical on the subject of film.
Miss Gish, viewing him with understandable reverence, gives us dozens of personal glimpses. The first time she saw him, he "entered." He came down the 14th Street stairs singing "La ci darem." Through her eyes, we see his rehearsals, his pranks, his pride of physique, his insights, his dignity. But, overshadowing all details is the sense of conjunction. The right man had come along at the right historical moment, and the result was a fury of creation that helped refashion the culture of the entire world.
There is no adequate book on Griffith. There are intensive studies of individual films. There is an atrocious book by Homer Croy called Star Maker (1959). There is a useful monograph by Iris Barry published by the
Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns the Griffith papers, including an uncompleted autobiography. (The new edition of the Barry book, 1965, contains a revised version of Beaumont Newhall's interview with Billy Bitzer, Griffith's cameraman, and Eileen Bowser's annotated list of Griffith films.) Kevin Brownlow's recent The Parade's Cone By contains, with other Griffith material, a good interview with Joseph Henabery, who was Lincoln in The Birth of a Nation. But Miss Gish's chronicle of her nine-year association with the director and her subsequent friendship with him is unique and invaluable. Full studies of Griffith will show, I think, that his unquestionable genius was seriously maimed by the tropes of the theatre that conditioned him; that, although he was certainly treated abominably by the film world of which he had been prime architect, at least some of his bitterness at the "decline" of film was a resentment of the twentieth century, which was gradually outmoding his rhetoric of virtue and villainy and his rather primitive meliorism. But any objective study will only show his true greatness more greatly; and Miss Gish, whose intent was not and could not have been objectivity, has blessed those future authors. As she has indebted present readers.
"The American film industry by now was passing out of the era of small enterprises and quick individual profits into that of high finance and corporate endeavor," says Miss Barry, writing of 1915. John Gregory Dunne has taken a look at some results of' that passage 52 years later. The Studio resembles earlier "documentaries" that have peered close at the pores of film people, but with two big differences. Most previous books and articles of this kind, like Lillian Ross's Picture, have followed the fate of one film; Dunne has sliced the matter laterally by following the activities of a studio (Twentieth Century-Fox) for a year, thus cutting across the fates of a number of pictures. And Dunne's account includes the studio's latter-day involvement with television.
His motives, as he describes them, are a bit factitious; he sounds as if he thought he had invented the idea of exploring Hollywood and its relation to our culture. But he observes shrewdly, listens sharply, and writes without fuss. We see various films at various stages: from proposal of ideas to world premieres. The sums of money that get mentioned at every stage are, to mortals, like astronaut distances compared with earth distances. (Not new in films. Griffith spent nearly $100,000 on an outdoor stage for an Al Jolson picture; Jolson took one look at his screen tests and fled.) The nerves, the sycophancy, the sense of technical proficiency and creative poverty, Dunne skewers them all.
The chief trouble with the book is that, although it is new, we feel we've read most of it before. Only some nouns and figures have been changed. The dialogue about revamping a scifi TV serial might have applied to Saturday-afternoon serial 30 years ago. The staff producer may be disappearing, as executives hire a producer along with his package; but the gavottes and fandangos within the production unit have not altered much.
One can always accuse a reporter like Dunne of looking for the seamy or ludicrous side, but, after all, he is writing about men who, with their magnificent offices and conferences and cables, came up in a year with such gems as Dr. Doolittle, The Boston Strangler, The Secret Life of an American Wife, and Star! Two highlights. Christopher Plummer got $300,000 not to be in Dr. Doolittle. Rex Harrison said yes, then he said no, which was when they signed Plummer, then Harrison said yes again, which was when they had to pay off Plummer. Second, out of all the quotable dialogue, one passage by a Hollywood agent lingers:
"You fail upward here. A guymakes a ten-million-dollar bomb,
the big thing is not that he's mad bomb, but that he put together
ten-million-dollar picture. Next time out, they give him a
Seems that one old adage needs to be changed: You're as good as your last picture's budget. If only it had been true in Griffith's day.
Stanley Kauffman is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffman