Monday, 15 October 2012

The Lillian Gish method… La Bohème (1926)

It’s easy to be condescending in your reaction to silent film… but distance in time doesn’t disable the skill and audaciousness of its creators and all cliché is dismantled when you look hard enough...

Decades before de Niro, Christian Bale and others made an art form out of physical deprivation in support of their roles, Lillian Gish was doing the same. To prepare for the tragic ending of this story (c’mon it’s from the opera by Puccini, what do you expect?) she visited sanitaria to study tuberculosis patients in order to learn how to breath with minimal movement of the rib cage. Then she starved herself of food and water for the three days before she shot the ending…

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish
Director King Vidor, said that he feared that it might be the end of her life as well as her character’s and it is genuinely shocking to watch her frail last moments as she hauls herself across Paris to meet her lover for the last time. It could be horribly melodramatic but she transcends this with conviction and incredible physical bravery. Why was she doing this? I was reminded of Emil Janning’s physical transformation in The Last Laugh but that was just acting... the knowledge that she weakened herself -risking her health – shows a level of professional commitment way beyond the norm.

Maybe she felt the need to make a statement as in some quarters her characterisations were staring to be seen as old hat. Herbert Howe, for instance, wrote in Picture Play magazine that, “When Lillian Gish now appears you know she is due for a beating. . . A Society for the Prevention of Screen Cruelty to Lillian Gish should be organized."

Yet Gish's method acting ensures a suitably grand climax to this operatic tale. With no music to emphasis the tragedy, she had to make the images convey the full force and, everyone else, including John Gilbert, is simply in support.

Gish picked the best rising talent she could to make this film after seeing early cuts of King Vidor’s magnificent The Big Parade. Vidor was to direct with his stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée with the likeable Karl Dane also involved.

The story is set in 1830 and shows the lives and loves of a group of bohemians living in the service of their art in a tumbledown house in the Latin Quarter. Gilbert plays the would-be playwright, Rodolphe, who, in order to pay the rent writes stories about cats and dogs for a pet-fancier’s journal. His room mate is a struggling artist, Marcel (Gino Corrado) and their group is completed by down at heel musician Schaunard (George Hassell) and writer Colline (Edward Everett Horton).

Their landlord constantly chases them for rent but they just about make ends meet and their diet is enlivened by the occasional windfalls of Marcel’s girlfriend Musette (Renée Adorée) who lives downstairs in rather more salubrious circumstances… the source of her income is more than hinted at.
Renée Adorée and John Gilbert
Alongside the bohemian’s room is that of a lonely lace maker and embroiderer, Mimi (Gish) who has only her pet bird for company. It’s almost too pitiful but not in the hands of Gish who, even in her thirties could carry off “innocent battler”…she’s believable and not just dramatic.

The landlord wants her out and she is saved by the scheming Vicomte Paul (Roy D’Arcy, relishing the in the villainy) who has more than her fabric in mind… He starts to commission work form her just so he can stay close and work out a way of having his evil way…

Meanwhile Mimi meets Rodolphe and the two fall in love. Mimi encourages the writer to work on his first play and starts to sacrifice herself for him especially after he loses his work at the journal and she has to work nights to get the money to make him think he’s still employed… nothing must come in the way of his work.

Mimi and Rodolphe forget the food
We move from winter to spring and Vidor gives us another of his famous external sequences as the friends enjoy a day out in the countryside and Rodolphe and Mimi perform a wonderfully-shot dance amidst the trees. Nature boy and nature girl…

But this bucolic bliss cannot last and Rodolphe’s jealousy drives a wedge between him and Mimi. He forgives her when realising how ill she has become in supporting him, but as he races off for a doctor Mimi runs away. She doesn’t want him to care for her at the expense of his play.

Rodolphe searches frantically but cannot find his love. This drives him on to finish his play and, thanks to Mimi’s earlier networking on his behalf, it becomes a great success. As Rodolphe and the friends celebrate, Mimi is drawn back to him for one final farewell…

Opera libretto’s rarely a good film do make but Gish performs with such force that this one works... She is aided by the superb flowing direction of Vidor who also seems to have pretty much let her get on with it. Gilbert is engaging as the charming but slightly obtuse Rodolphe although he is less effective as the drama ramps up. Renée Adorée is under-used but has some good dramatic moments, especially towards the end.

It’s Gish’s film, as it was always going to be, giving a lie, yet again to Louise Meyer’s assertion that tragic endings do not great careers make. Hollywood caught up with her in the end but Gish ploughed her own furrow through her incredible long life.

La Bohème in available from Warner Archives in decent quality and with a sprightly new score.

Happy Birthday Lillian!


  1. Keep in mind that, while the Puccini opera made the plot famous, there was a book - Scenes from the Bohemian Life, by Henri Murger, which first set this story in motion (it's seen many incarnations since) along with the whole notion of a "bohemian life" to begin with. So it's not surprising the story ends up working without the music (although later they'd add the music back in to create Rent in the 90s).

    This Friday I'm actually going to be covering the 1990s film of the novel by Kaurismaki which weirdly updates some parts of the scenario but not others.

    I've seen the Gish/Vidor version and recall finding it entertaining - it tends to blur in my memory with The Seventh Heaven, even though that one takes place around WWI.

    1. I watched it with my teenage daughter who was reminded of Moulin Rouge - so the scenario has done the rounds. It still works as she was in tears at the end!

      I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't aware of the Henri Murger novel - sounds like he too lived and died for his art.