Monday, 26 September 2011

Lillian Gish – First amongst equals... Orphans of the Storm (1921)

I made the mistake of proffering a list of “great” silent actresses the other day and someone pointed out that they didn’t include Lillian Gish.

Now, my list wasn’t meant to be exhaustive or even definitive – just a selection of people who’s work I especially appreciate (we don’t aim to be definitive or prescriptive here at ithankyou …just enthusiastic, a bit gauche and amateurish in a positive way!). I suppose also that I was aiming to mix the obvious with a few over-looked names: Jenny Hasselquist, even Asta Nielsen and Eleanor Boardman are no longer widely known, whilst Garbo and Brooks are now icons almost beyond critical assessment. The last on the list, Brigitte Helm, could also be seen by some as a one trick robo-pony and not a committed and highly versatile young actress whose career was curtailed by the situation in post-Weimar Germany.

But the amongst the greatest of them was skipped by my subconscious...possibly left out because she was so obvious and because she was pretty much the first…and the longest lasting.

Lillian Gish’ career is without peer in American cinema. Starting out before the First World War in landmark shorts such as Griffith’s Musketeers of Pig Alley (in 1912, when she was 18), she was the undoubted star of Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and the other Griffith mammoth features that followed.
Watching her in Orphans of the Storm (1921), recently screened as part of the Story of Film series, she is extraordinary.

The film is classic Griffith, telling an epic historical tale with complexity and a relentless pace - providing a mix of melodramatic, comedic playing with a growing naturalism. It is possible that Griffith’s style was becoming slightly passé by this stage of the decade but it was still vastly popular.
No small part of this would have been down to the pulling power of Lillian Gish and in this instance, her sister Dorothy - no slouch either, but perhaps with more comedic talent and a little less of her elegant range?

The two play stepsisters tossed about by the revolutionary storm of France in the late Eighteenth Century. Henriette Girard, played by Lillian, is the daughter of common folk and looks after her blind “sister", Louise, a foundling of noble birth, who her father recovered after finding her abandoned at a church.

The two are close and travel together to Paris seeking a cure for Louise's blindness only to be separated. Henriette is taken by aristocrats and sees their horrific self-absorption at a decadent party from which she is rescued by the dashing Chevalier de Vaudrey. Louisa is even less fortunate and is abducted by a group of criminals who plan to use her for professional begging. The leader of this group is Mother Forchard (Lucille la Verne) who sports a handsome moustache and plays the role like a female pantomime dame!

Henriette meets Danton (“the Abraham Lincoln of France”) and does him a good turn which may eventually help to save her life. She is a good soul and the Viscount falls for her and in doing so realises that these peasants may be onto something after all.

The pre-revolutionary situation is not explained with the insight of someone like Alexis de Tocqueville (who’s L’Ancien Regime at la Revolution I once had to fully memorize in English in order to translate the original French…long story…longer book!) ...this is not an historical documentary but an entertainment.

Griffith draws the parallels with the American situation post war and there are a number of anachronous references to the “bolshevism” of the revolutionaries. There are also uncomfortable echoes of the worst aspects of Birth of a Nation in the mob rule of the revolution and the subsequent “Reign of Terror”…Griffith believed in a natural order and the girls find themselves living in seeming aristocratic splendour even after the establishment of the Republic.

But, it’s a melodrama, enlivened by lots of genuinely funny moments and a truly thrilling closing sequence when Henriette and her love face la guillotine! Will they be saved in time?!?
Throughout it all Lillian Gish anchors the action with her completely authentic emotion. She is a superb naturalistic actor, believable and never overaught. Her character has great clarity of purpose; she’s frail but pretty darned tough and no one’s push over. She was 28 when this film was made but looks much younger. Her eyes are the core of her appeal and we all of us fall for her in the end, not necessarily romantically but certainly "protectively". We're rootin' for her all the way... her model of innocence, honest ambition and her unyielding faith in love.

Lillian Gish may have put the "human" in human interest more than any other actor prior to the increased sophistication of 1920's Hollywood. She was a World star because she was such an effective communicator of common emotions and because she was truly authentic. She was also highly intelligent and technically very gifted - far in advance of the vast majority of her contemporaries.
Lillian outlived the age of melodrama and starred in Victor Sjöström’s classic The Wind in 1928. After that her film work was less frequent but she kept going in theatre, film and television for most of the rest of her long life.
She was an absolute stand out in Charles Laughton's stunningly unsettling The Night of the Hunter (1955), easily matching Robert Mitchum’s brilliant portrayal of the psychotic preacher and providing his undoing. I know little about her casting in this film but given its striking use of silent techniques (takes a bow Murnau) this is as much a tribute to her greatness - a viable leading actor even in her 60’s and in the sophisticated post-noir 1950s.

She was able to transcend fashion more than any other actor of her stature and position. No Norma Desmond she!

Her last film featured an amazing performance alongside Betty Davies in The Whales of August in 1987...she was 94! Now markedly frail, this was still recognisably the actress who shone so forcibly from the silent screen in the twenty years before sound.
Lillian Gish is one of the very first film stars and certainly one of the greatest technically. She was naturalistic even when all around her were cavorting in melodrama and mime. This is not to knock that style of expression but to show how her understated style was so compelling. She was amongst the most popular actors in all of film history, someone who caught the mood of the times and the need for genuine human cinematic connection for both male and female audiences alike.

Orphans of the Storm and the above mentioned titles are all still in them all and pay tribute to the mistress of film!

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