March 4, 2001

Unbreakable Blossom: Overacting, fluttering femininity and D. W. Griffith went out of style, but Lillian Gish refused to go.


Charles Affron admires Lillian Gish's life, as who does not? It is in most respects admirable, even exemplary, particularly in her refusal to surrender to old age. She started acting in 1902 when she was 9 years old and continued, seemingly immune to all the vagaries of her profession -- bad roles, bad reviews, public controversies and private disappointments -- until she was, astonishingly, 94. She outlived most of her show business colleagues, outworked them all with the possible exception of John Gielgud and, always the uncomplaining trouper, rarely missed a day because of illness, not a minute because of egomania.

It is her legend, self-created and self-propagated, that causes -- justifiably, in my opinion -- a steady murmur of discontent to arise from Affron's judicious biography, ''Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life.'' The problem, as he sees it, is Gish's excessive -- not to say slightly loopy -- idealization of her discoverer and mentor, D. W. Griffith. She and her sister Dorothy entered the movies under his aegis in 1912, when Lillian was 18 -- not 12, 14 or 16, as she variously suggested through the years. Affron, who teaches French at New York University, calls her to rather stern account on this question, but it is more to his point that it was for Griffith she did most of the work that permanently crystallized her rather curious image.

She thought it necessary, beginning in the 1920's, to exaggerate Griffith's genius as a director, his vision of the movies as a force for world peace and brotherhood, the general superiority of silent movies over sound pictures because their pantomime made it easier for them to cross language barriers than dialogue pictures could. She was tireless -- and not a little tiresome -- in this matter because, as Affron puts it, ''The cult of Griffith was, after all, the path to her own artistic apotheosis. If Griffith's legend were to die, so would her own. If his legacy was forgotten, she would lose her place in movie history.''

That Griffith -- a father figure to many of the impressionable young actresses who worked for him, many of whom, like Gish, grew up without their actual fathers -- was the great love of her life cannot be denied. Whether or not that included a sexual relationship is disputable. Affron rather thinks not; I rather think so. Whatever the case, Gish's devotion to Griffith was willfully blind and vastly misleading. It is true that Griffith often expressed vaulting ambitions for his medium, but he was a bit of a humbug in the grandiose manner of 19th-century actor-managers, on whom he modeled the conduct of his own celebrity. His most enduring, endearing films are about life's more quotidian dramas, and his pronouncements were rather like his taste for spectacle -- forced, false, ultimately self-destructive.

When you strip the big talk and the big scenes away, you come to a core obsession that was much less attractive -- and completely unaddressed by Gish. It involved placing the virtue of young, blond, virginal women in peril at the hands of brutal, often rapacious, men. That was notoriously the case in ''The Birth of a Nation'' (1915), in which Mae Marsh commits suicide rather than succumb to a stalking black man and Gish herself narrowly avoids rape at the hands of a mulatto. It is these scenes, even more than Griffith's portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes, that render the movie permanently offensive. And not just racially. Griffith tamped down (in public) his irredeemable racism, but he could never avoid his ruling sexual kink. Gish's honor, life or both was under threat in ''Hearts of the World'' (1918), ''Broken Blossoms'' (1919), ''Way Down East'' (1920) and ''Orphans of the Storm'' (1921). Even in comedies like ''A Romance of Happy Valley'' (1919) and ''True Heart Susie'' (1919), Gish's fate was patiently to await the attentions of men preoccupied by matters more pressing than her affections.

Eventually, that became her life strategy. Dropped by Griffith for the unattractive Carol Dempster, she remained his friend and defender, insisting that a crass industry was bent on destroying him (when, in fact, his heedless economic ways made him the auteur of his own misery). Meantime, their careers declined, his more disastrously than hers, but for related reasons. Griffith kept trapping his tremulous child-women in tight spaces with lumbering bruisers. Gish was never able to revise the image of imperiled innocence she and Griffith created. Until later in life, when she played spunky spinsters and widows, she essentially remained a sexual victim, appealingly brave in adversity -- effectively so in ''The Scarlet Letter'' (1926), less so in ''The Wind'' (1928), the hysteria of which verges on the ludicrous.

Genteel litterateurs like Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell gushed over her; many variations on Griffith's description of her ''exquisitely fragile, ethereal beauty'' were offered. But the good-natured likes of Mabel Normand and Marion Davies began satirizing her, and MGM, which had expensive hopes for Gish, dropped her when it discovered Greta Garbo, whose movies depicted her as always paying the price for her adulteries but at least appearing to have a good, hotly romantic time before getting her comeuppance.

Gish, alas, remained hopelessly old-fashioned, wedded to a Victorian vision of anxiously fluttering femininity. She was good at it, but by the late 1920's she had more than Garbo's stylish sinning to contend with; there were also the careless flappers of Clara Bow and Joan Crawford. Gish's screen character became what it remains, a faintly risible antique. Another way of saying that is that she failed the most basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy. By the early 30's, she was essentially a character actress, appearing in a few distinguished plays and few, if any, distinguished movies.

Her situation was akin to Griffith's. Compared to the great directors of the silent era -- Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, von Stroheim, Vidor -- his work was as stylistically dated as his sexual imaginings. This period, abruptly and cruelly halted by the arrival of sound, may have been the most innovative in cinema history, but Griffith was not part of it. His younger competitors are among the great modernists; he remained a 19th-century melodramatist.

They were all, of course, thrown off course by the talkies, visually poky at first and placing a premium on urban realism as opposed to the more poetic and expressionistic silents. In this new era Griffith wandered impotently, often alcoholically, on the margins of the business. Gish's situation was less dire. She took up with George Jean Nathan, the drama critic, kept working and, above all, tended to her mythmaking. There were biographies and autobiographies and an unending stream of interviews. Late in her life she toured in a one-woman show, playing film clips and reminiscing romantically about the silent era.

You could argue that she did no great harm with her fantasies. But Affron thinks otherwise. Bad history is, very simply, useless history. Gish's pose as the vestal virgin, guarding cinema's temple, was absurdly at odds with the raffish and often hugely entertaining improvisations by which early movie history was actually made. Worse, her insistence on Griffith's (plaster) saintliness distorted both his achievements and his failures, rendering both uninstructive to posterity. Finally, her vaporings had the effect of dehumanizing herself and Griffith, and of distancing us from a movie era that is difficult enough to recapture, given the differences between its conventions and those of later times.

One suspects that Affron began his book thinking his story was of idealism vulgarly betrayed, but found his research leading him in quite a different direction, toward analysis of a fiction in which the teller victimizes herself, her work, her beloved master in a simpering attempt to rewrite history as -- come to think of it -- something like a lesser Griffith work. Affron's chronology is occasionally confusing, but he politely, consistently refutes Gish's line, remaining unfailingly generous to his subject's art and indomitability, all the while fastidiously and expertly devastating the fairy tale in which she wrapped herself. If we are ever to rescue silent film from its status as a dwindling cult's enthusiasm and restore it as a vital part of our cultural heritage, we need more work of this balanced and balancing kind.

Richard Schickel reviews movies for Time and is the author of ''D. W. Griffith: An American Life.''

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