Monday, November 15, 2010
lillian gish

I watched some of "Birth Of A Nation" the other night, on Turner Classic Movies.....They were showing it in conjunction with this on going 7 part original documentary series called "Moguls & Movie Stars: A History Of Hollywood".....So far they have shown Episode One & Two, (Episode 3 will be shown on Monday, Nov. 15th, and at other times during this week...).....It is a very interesting wonderfully informative documentary....The first Episode covered the years 1889 to 1907. Episode two covers 1907 to 1920.....There is some incredible archival footage from all the Pioneers of film, and some interviews with film historians as well as interviews with some living relatives of the men who started the film business. I am loving this series, needless to say.I have never seen "Birth of A Nation" (1915) all the way through...and I didn't make it all the way through the other night, either. There is much about it that is extraordinary---D.W. Griffiths most famous full length film, is over three hours long. But there is a lot about it that is terribly disturbing. It is a deeply racist one sided view of the History of our country, particularly in the south, and it was based on a book called "The Clansman", which should explain why it is so incredibly racist, along with some very graphic images. But, starring in this epoch film, among many others, is the young and beautiful Lillian Gish. And you can see from this film what a striking presence she is on the screen. Young and very beautiful, her acting was very real for those silent days. It was very different than most of the 'silent screen stars' in that she didn't over-act at all. She was wonderfully simple, and as I said, very natural...Lillian Gish and her younger sister Dorothy both had long stage and film careers...... And in fact, made a number of films together...including the silent film, "Orphans Of The Storm"......Both sisters came into my life many many years ago in a brief but memorable way....Dorothy Gish spoke at my small graduation from The Feagin School of Drama & Radio in New York City, back in 1952, and Lillian Gish was an important part of the summer of 1951. Seeing her the other night in "Birth Of A Nation" reminded me of the week I spent with her, working backstage, at The Sea Cliff Summer Theatre when I was an apprentice. Miss Gish was touring in a slight little play called "Miss Mabel". She came to Sea Cliff the third week of our Season---first there had been Veronica Lake in "The Curtain Rises". Next, Melvyn Douglas and Signe Hasso in "Glad Tidings".....and then came Miss Gish. (That is wonderful actor, Clarence Derwent in the picture with her below.....)She was incredibly gracious and was wonderful to all of the "apprenti" who worked 'the crew' that week, leaving us a gift of $30, which was a lot of money back then---like, $300 today. This was an incredibly generous thing to do. In the three years I worked at Sea Cliff, no other "Star" actually acknowledged the hard working non paid apprentices. Not one. We were all touched by her genorosity. (Below, the backstage crew of Apprentices for "Miss Mabel" with Miss Gish in the center. That is me in the lower left corner and my dear Sammy in the upper right in the white shirt......)And, we waited till the end of our 11 week season and had an End-Of-The-Summer-Season party right there on the stage at Sea Cliff and that $30 covered everything! All these years I have remembered how kind and caring and incredibly gracious she was, and I didn't know that she was a 'racist' and an anti-Semite. She had always defended "Birth Of A Nation", denying that it was racist in any way....I'm not sure why I didn't know about all that. But I think it was because I wasn't that well informed back then.....All I really knew about her back in 1951 was that she was a very important part of theatre and film history.In retrospect, I wonder if she had known that at least half the Apprentices at Sea Cliff were Jewish, would she have given us anything? I doubt it. She was fierce about her beliefs, and stuck by her guns. (She dropped the great great critic George Jean Nathan when she found out he was Jewish. Oy Vey!)But, as an actress and a "star" she was the consummate professional in every way, and, as I said, she was incredibly gracious and very generous to all of us underlings. What does it all mean? I don't know. I must admit reading about Lillian Gish' life in trying to pin down her actual Birth Date---which is still unclear, but was most likely 1893---was terribly depressing.To become aware of Miss Gish' racism and right wing "America-First" membership, made my heart sink. And it absolutely tainted my memories of her I am rather ashamed to admit, but, I have my beliefs too. At 20 years old I wasn't as clear or fierce about what I believed in as I am now. And in fact, I did not know what her convictions were back then. All I knew was, she was truly lovely to all of us that week, and never ever acted "The Star". And for those who may not even know her name---she was a very important part of the History of films and of the History of the Broadway Stage, as well. The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences gave her an Honorary Oscar in 1971.And her true importance in film was recognized and Honored by The American Film Institute, back in 1984, giving her their highest honor---The Life Achievement Award---she was only the second woman to receive this Award, and the only Silent Screen Star to ever be so Honored. But with this Award her place in Film History was secured, as it truly deserved to be. Lillian Gish was one of the few "stars" of Silent Films who went on to have a very long and fruitful career in "talkies". The Gish Sisters, achieved greatness, in a very fickle profession. And it is indeed a "Profession". Dorothy and Lillian Gish were both true "Professionals", and as sisters, they remained close to one another for all of their lives....... Lillian Gish was almost 100 years old when she died in 1993. I feel lucky to have experienced what little I did, in terms of her professionalism back in 1951. And I don't think I will ever be able to get through the over three hours of "Birth Of A Nation", though it too was a milestone in Film History. D.W. Griffith changed how films were made and viewed...He was a Cinematic Genius, but that is for a different post at another time....! And what does this quote say about Woodrow Wilson?

More To Come........

Links to this post:


had this to say:

It's a shame to hear that about Lillian Gish. We've been following the Hollywood history series and in fact had a talk after part 2 about being able to seperate the art from the artist. We cited Leni Riefenstahl and Roman Polanski along with Griffith.
I actually thought of you when we were watching when we learned that Bob Balaban was related to the cinema owners that introduced air conditioning to movie theaters. Did you already know that?

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 1:05:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

oy is right! I too feel her acting was just fantastic! And I even have the book she is holding in the one photo "Gish"!! It is very hard to be a fan of a person once you know "certain" things about them, but then, there are times when their talent wins out.. she is one of those times.

I still enjoy one of her last movies "The Whales of August" every now and then

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:54:00 AM PST 

Blogger Pat
had this to say:

I agree it is very sad to learn that. Especially when you had found her to be a gracious and kind gentlewoman. There is NO excuse for antisemitism and racism. None!
There was a lot of ignorance back then and it was much easier, I suppose, to accept the way things had been for generations.
One would have hoped that WW2 would have banished all dangers of antisemitism for ever. Sadly and shamefully that hasn't happened. I don't know what the answer is.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:28:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

That was a real eyeopener about Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish and Woodrow Wilson. Good grief.
That will probably keep me from watching that movie.
Sad to think at what a nice woman she was when race was removed from the equation.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 4:56:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

In the long term, I think it's better to discover our idols have feet of clay than to remain ignorant of their faults. The fact of the matter is, human beings are bound to disappoint us, in one way or another. The best we can do is be forgiving, but set ourselves on the correct path, knowing that we to will fail someone sometime and will need that forgiveness, as well.


Monday, November 15, 2010 at 6:45:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Oh! I am disappointed to know that...It's very sad...
I enjoy one of her last movies, "The Whales of August". Very moving film.

Have a nice week ahead, my dear Naomi!

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 12:29:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I've learnt in life that people are never all bad, in fact I was going to write a post about this. Sometimes a person can believe or do things that are completely alien to me, but there are other things they do that are wonderful.

Try and focus on the good rather than the bad. :) Good people do bad things.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:01:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I find discrimination rather distasteful---even when it took place long ago. I wonder if the times impacted her beliefs? Thanks for sharing another bit of history, Naomi.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 3:33:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I'd only heard of the name Lillian Gish, but did not know her contribution to film, and have never caught a silent film (wouldn't know where to...Netflix, maybe?). I feel like I'm missing out on something, so I will do the research. Thanks for sharing a bit of your time with her in 1951 with us. Sorry to hear she was a racist; I'm glad you didn't know that then.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 5:41:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I also have never seen Birth of a Nation other than clips. I think we have to understand people are so often a product of their times and their family views. It's sad as racism is such a huge limitation and really worse for the racist than those they seek to judge. They just don't know it.

Monday, November 15, 2010 at 8:29:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Yes, those were different times, racism, anti-semitism, Social Darwinism. Everyone believed they were superior to someone. Her kindness and professionalism just goes to show, everyone has a good side, it's how much of the good they put forward and how much of the ugly they control that really shows their true character. She was probably racist because that was the way she was raised. My mother to this day is very racist and no amount of correcting, educating or explaining will ever change that. I think some people use prejudice as a safety blanket for their own insecurities and fears. They tell themselves they are better, more popular, stronger, genetically superior, whatever, rather than face the cold hard truth that we're more the same in our genes than different and no one race is really superior to another. I personally find it very intellectually and culturally lazy to be racist rather than moving yourself forward out of the darkness of racism and ignorance.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 1:11:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I have not seen that movie, but I do know of Lillian Gish. It is too bad that your good memories of her have to be tainted by the knowledge that she was a racist and anti-semite. It would be interesting to know what precipitated that opinion.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 5:57:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Been there. I still meet people, admire them for some reason, then BOOM--the ugly comes out. It is hard...with most I say--good-bye. Actors, yes all about the art, and yet...
The hardest thing is family members. I love my aunt Vi, everyone loves aunt Vi but her ignorance and ism's are too much for me. I speak my mind, love the good parts and endure the ugly. History will expose and handle the ugly. (I did not know about Gish and I have always admired her work. As I began your post, I thought, "I must see that movie!" now---not so much.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:14:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

As for Wilson, well, that pretty much tells it all, except now the KKK wants to take all of America back. Cup of tea, anyone?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:17:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Thank you for the history lesson.
The black and white images are really impactful.

It is a shame that Ms. Gish and President Wilson did not know better. I like to think that if they were born to a later generation, they would.

Cheers to some changes being for the better.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 8:46:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

the Woodrow Wilson quote sounds a lot like the words of today's Tea Party
they simply substitute white man with patriot
disturbing in so many ways

I didn't know much about Lillian Gish other than some TV appearances in her late years
she reminded me of a kind grandma
I guess we all have our demons

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 9:38:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Aren't people a strange mix of contradictions? From working backstage I know how appreciated such kindness and respect is from the stars and actors. I have worked with far too many who treated those who worked backstage as insignificant (and a fair proportion who were downright rude). It seems weird that such a thoughtful person would be so ignorant and bigoted. I really don't understand racism at all.

Thanks for sharing these memories of yours. Your recollections of these past starts and of the times you had in theatre are always fascinating!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 2:55:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Very insightful...I was intriqued because I grew up in Ohio and went to Bowling Green State University where the theatre is in her name; the Gish Theatre. She performed at The Little Red School House in Rising Sun, Ohio which is in close proximity to my hometown of Tiffin, Ohio.
What to do when a 'persona' disappoints? I have a difficult time with this reality and perhaps it is best to separate her talents from who she was as a person; is that possible?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 4:15:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Following your thoughts and insight, I just come to think about:
Why do I prefere TCM as my #1 Film Channel?
Am I too old for new productions or do I miss some quality in conversation and scenarios?
Or, am I thinking too much Theatre.

Well, the sound has been very much better since the craddle of movies. So have effects and brightness as well.
But, does these facts make a story better? Does it gives me better entertaiment? Something I will remember for years to come?

Well, I've asked some questions, and your blog is a good answere.
It has nothing to do with nostalgica, it has something to do with quality. I simply demand more than 90 minutes entertaiment, then next and next and next.
Instead I read and write blogs.

btw. The weekend to come we will see our grandson again. This time in Frankfurt, Germany. It's about time, since we have not seen him since August. Now he walks and talks;)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 9:46:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Hey there my friend.. how are things.. i have been absent way to long. wish I had more time to visit and chat with my friends.. but lately i have been struggling with time.. I wish i had more time to watch tv also. this sounds interesting.. glad to hear you go to know her a little.. Hope you have wonderful memories of your meeting her..

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 4:47:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Racism still blows my mind. I find it hard to understand how any one human being can believe they are any better than any other human being. But I think education is the key to wiping the world from this. And fear of losing what little you many uneducated people or simple people are so afraid they are going to lose something so they prefer to believe they are in some way superior because of their skin color. And then I find some racists and anti-semites to just be plain mean, stupid and crazy! If only we could all have loving hearts ♥

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 11:17:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Hi Naomi! I have heard of Lillian Gish but really didn't know anything about her. It sounds like she was very gracious and sweet back when you met her back in 1951 (before I was born!! Yikes!). Too bad about her dark side. I liked what R. Sherman said and agree with his comment.

Congratulations on your 40 years of no smoking! Can you imagine how much the habit would cost now? It's a very expensive habit these days. I'm so thankful I never took it up.

Hope you and Sweetie are doing well. xxoxx

Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 2:56:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

naomi, this was a fascinating read, a beautiful photo essay and all completely an introduction for me! my instinct is to recoil from the antisemitic info. but i do get what you're saying about separating the art from the artist. really interesting food for thought here!!

Friday, November 19, 2010 at 7:30:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Fasinating. Who knew? It really is mindboggling and hard for me to bring such contradictory parts of of a person together. Even the picture on the cover of Birth of a Nation looks like frightening propaganda.

Monday, November 22, 2010 at 5:54:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I think one can admire Miss Gish for her acting. She was great at her art but poor at her world views. I love you wondering if she would have given the 30 bucks if she knew that 50% was Jewish...LOL

Saturday, November 27, 2010 at 11:12:00 AM PST 

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