Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fandor: Lillian Gish

From "Four Times Truer Than Life," the Siren's post about the very great Lillian Gish, at Fandor. The piece can be read in its entirety at Fandor's Keyframe blog. Please do comment at Fandor, too.

3. “Richard Schickel…thought The Wind verged ‘on the ludicrous’ and continued by saying that Gish failed the ‘basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy.’ Whereupon, Louise Brooks rolled over in her gin-soaked grave.” –Dan Callahan, “Blossom in the Dust,” Bright Lights Film Journal

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that Gish isn’t sexy, considering that she spent her entire silent career playing women (and, in Broken Blossoms, a child) who are desired by men, and often wind up seduced and abandoned. It’s no harder to get past Gish’s thin lips and flowing hair to her beauty, than it is to overlook Garbo’s eyebrows or Clara Bow’s oddly drawn mouth. Do those who find Gish a “silly, sexless antique” (Louise Brooks’ sarcastic phrasing of such criticisms) wonder what the male characters are after? Nowadays, are innocence and purity so despised, or so transient, that no trace of their appeal remains? Surely not. Perhaps in our day, those qualities are so firmly relegated to childhood that modern audiences aren’t comfortable with an erotic attraction to innocence–or, in The Wind, with how a young virgin’s terror of sex can coexist with an equally primal yearning for it.

At this point it really may seem as though I am picking on Mr. Schickel, but hey, Dan started it this time. Do read Dan's entire piece on Gish; it is beautifully written and argued, as always, even though I don't agree with him at all on Griffith.

Also, here is a lovely post by Robert Avrech, about Gish's meticulous preparation for her roles. The silent cinema has no more appreciative, sharp-eyed and passionate advocate on the Web than Robert.

Adding: Sheila O'Malley takes on The Birth of a Nation without fear or favor.


Rachel said...

"...she failed the most basic obligation of stardom, which is to be sexy."

I'm looking at Schickel's review right now and even in its context, it's a ludicrous reduction of Gish. And Victorians for that matter.

Now all I want to do is read Sheila's piece on Birth of a Nation again. Well that, and reread The Woman in White as I think about those sexy, sexy Victorians.

Vanwall said...

Gish was a dish, no doubt, for my dough. She was a huge reason films are like they are today - melodrama lives, because she, and others in the dawning, simply ACTED. Great piece, Siren!

X. Trapnel said...

Welcome back, Siren, and what a present you've brought us, another chance to pile on Richard Schickel!

Yes, the man knows a lot about movies, but he has a coarse sensibility. The femme fragile (neither weak nor passive nor insipid)is one of the many forms of femininity that films (and literature and painting) offer for our admiration. As the great protoype (of course, she's more than that) Gish's film daughters include Joan Fontaine, Cathy O'Donnell, all of Truffaut's "nice girls" (Claud Jade preeminently), even Chere Danielle who did a line of orphans and waifs in her early French films often with a comic spin. I suspect Richard Schickel lacks erotic imagination and probably thinks "Marilyn" is very sexy indeed.

The Siren said...

Rachel, thank you so much for reminding me of Sheila's grappling with BoaN. Such a good post, as always--no apologetics, just appreciation of the visuals and acting and a refusal to look away from the politics. I'll add the link to my post.

Vanwall, thank you. I was surprised to go back and discover that aside from an old, rather cursory glance at Orphans of the Storm I had barely written about Gish.

X Trapnel, what a good phrase, the femme fragile--and yes, some people don't find it sexy at all. I don't bash people for what turns them on (as long it's, you know, legal & consenting etc) and it isn't unappealing to me for a man to be primarily attracted to more obvious effects like Marilyn. Overall, though, in this as in other matters, I admire people more when they can appreciate variety--Gish, AND Garbo, AND Goddard AND Gardner. Knowwhatimean?

X. Trapnel said...

Perfectly ok if someone likes Marilyn (or whomsoever), its just that the (pop) cultural expression of sexuality has been homogenized and infantilized toward lowest common denominator obviousness for so many decades now starting with the marketing of Marilyn.

Oh, and I thoroughly agree abtout variety. Tough-as-nails, anything-but-frazheel Barbara Stanwyck is a HUGE favorite of mine.

Beth Ann said...

I think the Siren's right that Schickel is affected by and doesn't understand the sensuality/sexuality of Gish. I know Mary Pickford was called America's Sweetheart, but Gish was the representation of a certain era's girl you wanted to be next door, and if you see her charms they are potent, and her artistry is apparent.

Even in a film where she miscast herself like La Bohème(I don't think her persona fits Mimi; Mimi needs to be a more earthy than ethereal type), Gish gives us that amazing death scene, where she is fragile, pathetic, believable, and beautiful all at once.

Anyway, it is nice to read that you have been exploring silents. I took today off from work and will soon be heading over to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so this post was very timely reading for me.

You should come out some year! You'd love it. Every film is accompanied, and there are always silent film luminaries in attendance. Kevin Brownlow is back this year! Some of the Art Deco people even pull out the stops and dress in their favorite decade, so even the people watching is entertaining.

Robert Avrech said...


Thanks so much for the link and kind words.

Your work on behalf of the despised genre of “women's weepies” is not just honorable but courageous.

Welcome home. I will admit that I was a bit worried for your safety. Hizbullah and all that.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well Schickel's a douchenozzle. Like so many men of his genre he has no idea of the fact that "acting sexy" and sexual desoirability are two different things. He's like those cops who ask rape victims if they "did anything" to provoke their attacks -- meaning"acted sexy." It's Gish's passivity that makes her a target for prospective rapists.

gmoke said...

Gish's passivity? Lots of steel in that lady.

According to family lore, my mother and her cousin were "atmosphere" in "Orphans of the Storm."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Passivity doesn't obviate steel. Gish is the embodiment of intense resolve. You can see it in Griffith films as different as Broken Blossoms and True Heart Susie. And it's why Laughton knew she was perfect for The Night of The Hunter in which she plays the very essence of God fighting Robert Mitchum's very essence of Evil.

G said...

Since others seem to be doing OK blasting Schickel, I'll try taking on some of Callahan's uninformed comments on Griffith linked to in your lovely post about my favorite actor, Lillian Gish.

I actually share much of Callahan's distaste for certain aspects of Griffith, the racism (overt in Birth of a Nation and unintentional in "Blossoms"), and also the way he unconsciously seems to sexualize the delight of 4 year old girls by obsessively directing his pretty adult actresses to act this way.

HOWEVER - it may take someone with a deeper understanding than Mr. Callahan has of the early silent era to comprehend what a genius Griffith was. It amazes me that Callahan dismisses him because the "grammar" of his films look like any ordinary film of today and NOT understand that if NOT for Griffith modern-day films would probably not look like they do.

I don't think there is any ONE thing Griffith did that was unique to himself, what he DID do was take disparate innovations of others and have the VISION to synthesize them all into an 'invisible' language that runs in 'synch' to human perception, thought and memory.

Filmmakers of Griffith's era revered him because they understood his accomplishment, whereas today, it's not easy to find a lot of non-Griffith films from the 00's and the teens to gain at least some of that CONTEXT - but if Callahan wants to present himself in public as a cinematic 'expert' perhaps he should put in more time watching films that pre-date Griffiths.

I would add in addition to Griffith's accomplishment as (I would argue) the founder of a 'language', he and his cinematographer Billy Bitzer were also great visual poets. There such is a meticulousness to their lighting/framing that one could probably stop the film at any random moment and still have a beautiful image. Only filmmakers of great visual talent (Welles and Mizoguchi to name two others) are capable of this.

I guess I am lucky not to be a fan of Richard Wagner, because in many ways he was a terrible person with terrible views, but I do not use that as a cudgel to contemptuously try to diminish as his accomplishments and an innovator and artist.

The Siren said...

G, Dan is a good friend of mine and often swings by in comments here, and I'm sure he can eloquently defend his own views. I don't share his opinion of Griffith's place in the pantheon, as I said, but I assure you that Dan knows a great deal about film history and his viewing chops are formidable, and his knowledge most definitely includes the silent era.

I don't think he's arguing against Griffith's pioneering status, but rather saying that historical significance doesn't equal present-day worthiness. Beyond that, I can't really champion his points, because my reaction is either "well, no" or "yes, but". For one thing, I would argue for Griffith's phenomenal talent for crowd scenes, the way people jump in and out of focus without ever detracting from the momentum, as something that points away from Dan's contention that Griffith sees people as symbols and stereotypes, not individuals. In the midst of the throngs you still pick out the separate bits of humanity. You can see what I'm talking about even in a lesser Griffith outing like Orphans of the Storm.

In fact, when I watch a recent movie that has a big action set piece teeming with extras, and it's shot in a way that turns the events to gibberish and the actors into barely glimpsed bits of scenery, I slide down into my seat and mutter to the absent director, "Watch some goddamn D.W. Griffith, why don't you."

G said...

One of the luckiest days I have ever had was when my first film history professor threatened us kids that if he caught anyone laughing at the acting in the silent movies, he would automatically and without mercy knock that peson down a grade at the end of the semester.

This shut me (and everybody else) up, and stifling our laughs at first, we were forced to try to see and understand what this silent movie acting was all about.

Over time, I've come to the conclusion that late 19th century acting (at least) was all about capturing universal emotion. You were not playing an individual with a specific psychological profile, you were capturing the shame of ALL browbeaten men or embodying the overwhelming rush of emotion of ALL young girl's first loves.

There was a sort of gestural shorthand developed in theater to help make emotional points clear to the people in the rafters, and when movies came along many actors were still using this because its what they knew.

One of the things I love about Lillian Gish is the way she straddles the old era of 'presentational acting and the new one of what I'd say is psychology-driven acting.

In many ways, Gish, I think, retained the goal of encapsulating universal feeling and maintains a theatrical-inspired awareness of using her body & posture to create character, while getting rid of cliched theatrical gestures and searching deep within herself for something unique and true to herself (i.e, psychological). While I would never use the deeply flawed Broken Blossoms as a film to introduce people to silent films, Gish's scene in the closet is one of the most breathtaking piece of acting I have ever seen. At first she is that girl - then she is not, for (theoretically) in such situations are we not ALL robbed of our individual humanity and reduced to the primal terror of any trapped animal in fear for our life? What better example of Aristotle's calling for drama to evoke 'pity and terror'.

One thing I agree with Callahan about in the article you linked to is that "True Heart Susie" is Griffith's best film, and has (another) great Gish performance.

G said...


That's really interesting about crowd scenes, I have not noticed that but will be sure to look for examples of it the next time I see a Griffith film (I've been meaning to check out Orphan of the Storm again).

One image from Griffith that has always haunted me is that of the gangster in Musketeers of Pig Alley walking right up (then past?) the camera.

It's such a powerfully eerie, kind of frightening image which I can't remember seeing in any other film and I always wonder why nobody has 'stolen' it.

I have a similar feeling to just about every shot in The Passion of Joan of Arc (although I think Malick may have stolen the upside down camera thing from a crazy crowd scene in "Passion" for Tree of Life).

Dan Callahan said...

I think I went too far in criticizing Griffith in my Gish piece. At the time, I was just overwhelmed by the muddle-headedness of his views on race and sexuality, among many other problems. I had seen and grappled with his movies for years, and I was just fed up with him and the excuses made for him. "Dream Street" was a particular trial, and it sent me somewhat over the edge.

For most of the last century, Griffith was revered as an untouchable master, "The Father of Film," as Gish called him. And that reputation is somewhat tarnished at this point by some of the content of his movies. This is just unavoidable. I can only wish that "The Father of Film" hadn't been such a fearfully screwed up person. Ku Klux Klan membership shot up after the release of "The Birth of a Nation." For that alone, he would deserve some measure of condemnation.

"True Heart Susie" is lovely, and I think that "Isn't Life Wonderful?" is his best film. That's one movie where everything he wants to do as an artist comes through strongly and and his intentions finally get expressed without any of his weird or queasy impulses getting in the way; there's no hypocrisy there. In so much of his other work, he strikes me as someone who was totally helpless with his basest urges because he was so totally unaware of them.

If I printed this Gish piece again, I'm sure I would modify it and try to be fairer to his best work. But I would still have to reject a lot of his content, and content is finally what counts in any art form, not the fashioning or perfecting of technique. What I wrote about his status as a technical pioneer was harsh, and could have been expressed with more tact, but immersing myself in his mindset led to extreme revulsion at a certain point, and I was very tired of all the carefully qualified praise I was reading about him.

Of the filmmakers working in that time period, I much prefer Victor Sjostrom, and I much prefer the films he made with Gish, particularly "The Wind," which is so complex and so thrilling and such an answer, in many ways, to the confused flailing around about sex in her Griffith films.

DeMille also handled crowds masterfully. Like Griffith, his technique is unassailable. What he often did with this technique is another matter. I'd rather watch a Sjostrom film, or the Raoul Walsh of "Regeneration" (I wish so much of teen-era Walsh wasn't lost) than any more Griffith or DeMille.

G said...


In a flight of fancy, I might riff on the idea that Griffith was a deeply childish man, in one hand, this childishness held fast to racist sentiments which were a legacy of a southern boyhood, on the other hand, this childishness retained a child's sense of play which led him to take the 'toybox' of cinematic tools and ingeniously shape them into a coherent vision of a cinematic language.

Thus a double-edged sword, both deeply positive and deeply negative. It is an almost unbelievably ironic thing that arguably the most influential movie ever made was so heinously racist - I'm surprised Ken Burns has not yet made a documentary about it (or has he?)

While there is no question Griffith perpetrated a great disservice to this nation in promoting a racist view, there is just something so hapless about the guy I just cannot find it in me to hate him. I truly think he perceived as Broken Blossoms as a sort of 'apology' for advancing racist views, without realizing it itself was advancing ANOTHER type of racism (a subject which dovetails into Sirens latest post about the tricky subject of miscegenation and the exhibition of movies in the South).

Griffith was so deeply entrenched in his inner world he was finished as a commercial filmmaker by 20's as he was completely unable to adapt to the changing times. Although fate may have punished him for the 'wrong' thing' (being an 'old fogey as opposed to a racist) Griffith the man came to a pretty pitiful end.

It just frustrates me though, that its almost impossible to appreciate Griffith's major accomplishment without seeing a lot of early silent films - and to do THIS is not easy (for a long stretch of time I went to see ANY silent film I could shown at the Museum of Modern Art, but how many people have this kind of time, interest or opportunity?). It's much easier to see all the things that are obviously 'bad' in Griffith and to miss the beauty of invention aspect of his filmmaking.

I will allow Dan, that there are MANY other silent films I'd far prefer watching than most of Griffith's. I can say without question I unconditionally 'love' The Scarlet Letter', but for the most part watching Griffith films is almost never 'simple', the contradictions are ENDLESS: brutishness and humanism, pitiful naiveté and sensitivity, artfulness and infantile smarminess, its like being torn into dozens of directions at the same time. I guess I have a lot of tolerance for juggling contradictions but can appreciate how exhausting they might seem.

Then again, I rarely if ever see people blasting filmmakers of the past who participated in propping up the myth of the 'good old days' of the ante-bellum south (including, sadly, my beloved Buster Keaton), which was not as bad as Birth of a Nation's more direct racism, but not much better either.