If Audrey Hepburn was the last virgin goddess of American films, Lillian Gish was the first. Often referred to at the time as “The First Lady of the Silent Screen,” she was indeed movies’ first truly great actress. From her debut at age 19 in founding father D.W. Griffith’s two-reel An Unseen Enemy (1912) in what I calculate as the initial year of film’s golden age (plus 25 other Griffith films in less than 24 months), to her final starring masterpiece, at age 35, in Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), Lillian Gish was the central player in many of the enduring treasures of cinema’s earliest flowering, that essential cornerstone of the art in its purest form. She is the key figure in most of Griffith’s major work, from The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919) to Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1922), not to mention such beautiful lesser-known gems as Hearts of the World (1918) and True Heart Susie (1919).
Besides Griffith and Sjostrom–who played the old professor in Ingmar Bergman’s memorable Wild Strawberries (1957) and with whom Gish also did the first version of The Scarlet Letter (1926)–the other classic director she chose to work with (she was accorded that privilege) was the brilliant King Vidor. Together they made one of her most popular films—and among the most moving–their 1926 adaptation of the same novel (Henry Murger’s Scenes de la Vie de Boheme) that Puccini had used for his immortal opera, and with the same title, La Boheme (available on DVD).
Among the Gish trademarks was the ease with which she could break your heart. By the end of La Boheme–a tale of starving artists in 19th-century Paris–she and Vidor manage to achieve silently what Puccini did with voices and orchestra. Because there is no more devastatingly poignant note in music history than the lover Rodolphe’s final cry of “Mimi!” after she has died, and no more deeply touching death scene than Lillian Gish’s here. Unless your heart is made of stone, some 85 years after she and King Vidor did the movie, you’ll still need plenty of Kleenex.
Rodolphe is played by dashing John Gilbert, who was then the biggest male star in pictures, and who had also just inherited (upon Valentino’s sudden death that same year) the mantle of film’s most romantic lover. The year before, Vidor and Gilbert had released a towering landmark with the World War I epic The Big Parade (1925) co-starring Renee Adoree, who appears with considerable charm as Musette in La Boheme. The following year, Gilbert was to star opposite Greta Garbo for the first (Flesh and the Devil) of three silents that made them movies’ most passionate couple; ironically, Garbo’s extraordinarily popular worldliness helped to date and to make unfashionable the Victorian innocence personified by Lillian Gish. Within two years, despite the huge success of La Boheme, her career as a star was over, and so was the glorious silent era.
There is a dreamlike intensity to good silent pictures that has never been equaled by talkies, which are by their nature too realistic to easily become transcendent in the way the silents could, with their hypnotic focus undistracted by irrelevant sounds or color. Also, the best silent work has a special kind of integrity, which was expressed most eloquently by Lillian Gish when I saw her speak briefly (in 1958) to a small audience at the Museum of the City of New York after a running of Way Down East.
This was the picture—during the famous climactic sequence shot on the actual ice-floe-covered Mamaroneck River—for which she insisted, while floating unconscious on the ice toward a cascading waterfall, on keeping part of one hand trailing in the freezing water; she never fully recovered all feeling in that hand. But she concluded her remarks about the making of the film (during that river sequence, two crewmen died) by saying that when they all worked together in those days, it wasn’t for fame or for money, and they “weren’t even making them for Mr. Griffith,” she said. “We were making them for that—!” and she turned slightly, sweeping her arm toward the screen behind her. For the art itself, she was saying–with a comment and gesture that seemed to sum up the fervent idealism of pictures’ early days–for that wondrous illusion created by the projection of shadows and light.