When MGM signed Lillian Gish to a contract in 1925, it was a coup for both the studio and the star. MGM had been formed the previous year and needed an actress of Gish’s stature to help bring money through the gates. The studio gave Gish the creative control she wanted, plus $800,000 a year, whether she was filming or not. The contract also guaranteed Gish wouldn’t have to make any personal appearances or promote her films and gave her the right to select her own stories, directors, and cast. These terms were almost unheard of in 1925, especially for a woman, but Gish was one of the most respected and popular actresses of her time. Also, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer owed part of his success to Gish. Mayer had secured the New England distribution rights to The Birth of a Nation (1915), which starred Gish, and it had been a huge hit, making him a wealthy man and setting him on the path to becoming one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.
Born October 14, 1896 (some sources say 1893), Gish began her stage career at age five. Lillian, her sister Dorothy and their actress mother Mary toured the country with various theatrical productions. In 1912, their friend Mary Pickford introduced the family to director D.W. Griffith. Griffith took an immediate liking to the Gish sisters and put them in his films, giving them increasingly larger parts. In 1915, Lillian played the lead in the groundbreaking and controversial The Birth of a Nation.
Working with Griffith made Gish famous, but she parted ways with him in 1921 and signed with Inspiration Pictures. Under the direction of Henry King, Gish starred in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), but ended up suing Inspiration for $120,000, which was due her under contract. She won, and Metro Pictures distributed both of her Inspiration films. When Metro merged with two other companies to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Gish signed on. At MGM, her first project was La Bohème (1926), based on the opera by Puccini and directed by King Vidor. The film was a big hit and helped justify her huge salary, which Gish herself feared could overwhelm her production’s budgets.
While making La Bohème, Gish suggested to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer that they film an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel. However, church and women’s groups considered the book (about an adulterous affair in Puritan New England) unsuitable for the movies. To accommodate their concerns, various writers had struggled to make the story acceptable, suggesting that the plot be altered to establish a relationship between Hester and the Reverend prior to their arrival in the New World, or by having Pearl, their love child, be the result of a secret marriage, or by dispensing with the letter “A” altogether, or even by creating a happy ending. Mayer finally agreed to let Gish make the film after she assured him that she could convince the church and women’s groups to lift their objections. She met with the leaders of many such organizations and invited them to read the script and tour the set. Her pristine reputation, combined with a tasteful script by the great Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion, caused them to change their minds and give the project their blessing.
For her director, Gish chose Victor Sjöström (the acclaimed Swedish actor and filmmaker whose name was Americanized to “Seastrom” for U.S. audiences) after seeing his film Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness (1921). Sjöström started acting in films in 1912, the same year as Gish. Soon he had moved behind the camera to become Sweden’s leading director. In 1924, he came to America to direct MGM’s He Who Gets Slapped, starring Lon Chaney.
To play Reverend Dimmesdale, Mayer suggested Lars Hanson, a newly arrived Swedish actor. Gish agreed after she saw his Swedish film The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), with a then-unknown Greta Garbo. “I have always believed that the Scandinavians are closer in feeling to New England Puritans than are present-day Americans,” Gish wrote in her memoirs. “I found Victor Sjöström’s direction an education in itself. The Italian school of acting was one of elaboration; the Swedish was one of repression.” Henry B. Walthall, Gish’s leading man in The Birth of a Nation, was cast as Hester’s husband Roger Prynne, a role he would later reprise in the 1934 sound version with Gish’s close friend, Colleen Moore.
The Scarlet Letter previewed in New York to more than 2,000 clergymen, women’s club leaders, and educators. They approved, and so did the critics. Life magazine’s Robert E. Sherwood wrote, “[Gish’s] performance of this role establishes her true worth as it has never been established before. ”
Despite her success, Gish became frustrated with the MGM “assembly line” method of making movies, with its emphasis on profit over art. When Gish and Sjöström reunited to bring The Wind (1928) to the screen, everyone at the studio, including production chief Irving Thalberg, agreed the film was a masterpiece. But Thalberg told Gish the exhibitors wanted a happy ending, replacing the final scene of the heroine disappearing into a storm with a reunion of hero and heroine. When Gish’s two-year MGM contract ended, she left to make a few films for United Artists, including her first talkie One Romantic Night (1930). Although Mayer and Thalberg respected Gish, they were not sorry to see her go. Their experience with her was one of the catalysts that propelled them to cultivate their own stars from the studio’s ranks, ensuring total control over their careers. It was the beginning of the star system, which lasted into the 1950s.
Victor Sjöström and Lars Hanson both returned to Sweden in 1928. Hanson continued making films into the 1950s and died in 1965. Sjöström directed a few more films before concentrating on acting, giving his best-known performance in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) at the age of 78. He died in 1960.
After appearing in His Double Life (1933) for United Artists, Gish left films for the stage, achieving great success with plays such as The Old Maid, Hamlet, and Life with Father. She returned to films in 1942’s Commandos Strike at Dawn. For the rest of her career she alternated between stage, film, and television. Her only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress, was for David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946).
In 1970, Gish received an honorary Oscar “for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.” Seventy-five years after her screen debut, she made her final film, The Whales of August (1987) with Bette Davis. Lillian Gish died in 1993, one of the pioneers of cinema and an artist who managed to keep her integrity intact during one of the longest and most illustrious careers in Hollywood history.
Presented at SFSFF 2005 with live music by Clark Wilson on the Mighty Wurlitzer