In 1926, when Lillian Gish went in search of a new contract, a bidding war ensued between MGM and United Artists. She was not a major moneymaker but having trained on the sets of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph, she had a reputation as a great actress. A veteran of Griffith’s stock company since 1912, Gish had embodied his wistful, innocent heroines but chafed under the pioneering director’s total control. Artistic differences during their last film together, Orphans of the Storm (1921), led to the end of their collaboration. Underneath her onscreen fragility was steel, and Gish was determined to take control of her own career. For the independent studio Inspiration Pictures, she made two films, The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), for which she was involved in all aspects of production, from casting and editing to approving the purchase of equipment.
MGM beat out UA’s offer with a two-year contract for six pictures at a salary of $800,000, making Gish the studio’s highest-paid star. The contract also stipulated for her input into stories, directors, and cast, although the studio kept the final decision. She was freed from any promotional obligations, including personal appearances; and there was no morals clause in her contract. The only thing she requested but did not get was a percentage of the profits.
For her first project, she chose Romeo and Juliet but, as she recalled in an unpublished 1937 memoir, a poll of exhibitors found that “over half of them refused to buy anything with Mr. Shakespeare’s name on it. Joan of Arc, my second choice, was too expensive. We compromised on La Bohème.” Gish brought her friend, French playwright Madame Frédérique de Grésac to Hollywood, where they worked on the screenplay together. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini had based his 1896 opera of the same name on Henri Murger’s 1851 collection of stories, Scènes de la vie de bohème, about starving artists living in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Puccini’s opera was still under copyright, so Grésac’s screenplay was credited to the original source, although the story and characters are based on the opera.
Because she had spent most of the previous two years in Europe and New York, Gish was unfamiliar with many of the current Hollywood actors and directors. MGM executive Irving Thalberg showed her some of studio’s recent films, including two reels of the as-yet unreleased The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor and starring the studio’s biggest male star, John Gilbert. Suitably impressed, Gish asked for Vidor as director and Gilbert to play Rodolphe to her Mimi. The Big Parade actors Renée Adorée, Roy D’Arcy, and Karl Dane also joined the La Bohème cast.
Gish asked for and got her Orphans of the Storm cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, who had invented a soft-focus lens that he called the “Lillian Gish.” She suggested to Irving Thalberg that the studio use the new, highly sensitive panchromatic film that had been used on her Inspiration Pictures films to ravishing effect. Thalberg said MGM’s laboratories could not process the film stock, but she insisted, proposing that he hire the same technician who had processed film for Inspiration. Thalberg grudgingly agreed. According to Gish, the studio was so pleased with the results that they converted their labs to use only panchromatic film.
Gish then turned her attention to wardrobe and sets. She clashed with the studio’s choice of Paris fashion designer Erté, known for his lavish theatrical costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies. She disliked the stiff dresses he designed for her La Bohème wardrobe, saying that Mimi was very poor and wouldn’t have new clothes, even if made from the cheap calico Erté had chosen. She felt that Mimi’s clothes should be old and worn, but made of good silk. “Imagine!” the outraged designer complained to Motion Picture magazine, “Miss Gish will not wear the dress of the poor La Bohème unless the rags are all silk-lined!” Gish tried unsuccessfully to enlist Renée Adorée in her Erté boycott, and Adorée should have listened. Her stiff, vulgar-looking dresses may have been appropriate for the character, but they overwhelm her petite figure and make her look dumpy. Gish also protested that the sets were too grand for the hovels of starving artists, and production executives agreed to let Mimi live in an attic—but a very large one.
King Vidor was one of the most successful and creative directors in Hollywood, but Gish was proving to be the true auteur of La Bohème. With Griffith, she had always rehearsed films from beginning to end, and she insisted on a rehearsal period for La Bohème. Vidor watched bemused while Gish mimed opening doors, picking up objects, and brushing her hair, ignoring the props he had set up for her. He went along with her demands, but she wrote in her memoirs that the other actors were uncomfortable with her rehearsal methods and she gave up. Another Griffith habit Gish tried to impose on La Bohème was chaste love scenes. She argued that the romantic tension between the lovers would be dissipated if they kissed. Both Vidor and Gilbert were skeptical but, once again, Gish convinced them to do it her way. However, the first preview audience for the film wasn’t buying it. They liked the movie, but they wanted love scenes, as did Mayer and Thalberg. On her way to the studio for reshoots, she told her chauffeur, “Oh dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.”
To prepare for her deathbed scene, Gish visited a local hospital to observe patients in the terminal stages of tuberculosis. According to Vidor, who embellished the tale every time he told it, Gish ate little and drank nothing for several days before the scene was shot. When Mimi drew her last breath, Gish actually seemed to stop breathing, frightening Vidor. After Gilbert softly whispered her name, she opened her eyes and drew a breath. In a 1984 interview, Gish dismissed Vidor’s story as “nonsense.”
La Bohème received excellent reviews from the New York critics. The Telegram said of Gish, “there is the light of clear purpose at last in the eyes of this star, so often hitherto a passive Madonna of the studios.” Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called it “a production that is virtually flawless.” The film was one of MGM’s top box office hits of the year. But an odd backlash was building against Gish. The Hollywood fan magazines seemed to resent her dedication, her power, her artistic aspirations, and lack of the common touch. Photoplay’s Adela Rogers St. Johns called her “the most over-rated actress on the screen.”
Gish’s subsequent MGM films included two artistic successes that were box office failures, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), as well as two now-forgotten failures from 1927, Annie Laurie and The Enemy. At the height of the flapper era, Gish’s innocent heroines seemed passé to audiences. To boost her audience appeal, Thalberg even offered to arrange a scandal for her. Gish was horrified, and when her two-year contract came to an end, she left MGM. She returned to the stage, making only occasional screen appearances for the remainder of her career. When Lillian Gish died in 1993 at the age of 99, her longtime manager James Frasher noted, “She was the same age as film. They both came into the world in 1893.”
Presented at Silent Winter 2011 with live music by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer