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La Boheme

by Peter Bogdanovich
August 17, 2011 6:40 AM
10 Comments
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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.

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10 Comments

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  • Jesse L | August 20, 2011 5:51 AMReply

    With her wide-set soulful eyes and her small nose and mouth, Lillian Gish had delicacy and depth at the same time. She was beautiful and kept that beauty throughout her career (see Night of the Hunter). We shall not see her like again.

  • Christopher Stilley | August 19, 2011 10:49 AMReply

    If I were an actor,I'd be very intimidated by Lilian Gish..She always seems like someone who'll kick your ass..yet in a very rehabilitating ..its good for your soul".sort of way ;o)

  • Ty B. | August 19, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    I agree with MAK that Mary Pickford merits recognition as well.

    But a lovely piece nevertheless, Peter, and I share your passion for those early days of the medium. Your closing sentence actually reminds me of your own film, "Nickelodeon," which I think is your most underrated work. I know you yourself had misgivings about compromises you had to make on it, but I think it's a beautiful film. Of course it covers a period prior to what you refer to as "cinema’s earliest flowering," but the spirit of each is the same, I think. The sheer joy of filmmaking in an era when the rules and grammar of the medium had yet to be codified, and when the artists were still experimenting with the form and were still in the process of discovering what exactly the medium was supposed to be and what it was capable of. One gets the feeling that every film made in those days was an adventure. It's an endlessly fascinating era.

  • Terrence Ellsworth | August 18, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    Thank you for shining this light on Lillian Gish, a name that most filmgoers today have never heard of.

    There are a lot of possibilities for who is the greatest actress of the 30s and 40s -- Davis, Hepburn, Stanwyck -- but Lillian Gish has no rivals for greatest actress of the silent era. She was unchallenged. Swanson may have been the bigger star and Pickford more beloved but no one was as fine an actress as Gish which, I think, is why she is better remembered today than either of those two.

  • MAK | August 18, 2011 3:27 AMReply

    A wonderful film from Gish's amazing run of late silents.

    BTW - the two she made with Henry King in Italy before joining M-G-M, also deserve to be mentioned: THE WHITE SISTER/'23, which made Ronald Colman a huge star, and the seriously underrated ROMOLA/'24 which has the most extraordinary sets for its recreated historic Florence. (ROMOLA, in particular, needs the big screen to play to its full potential.)

    But without taking anything away from Gish, surely Mary Pickford should be considered a great film actress who precedes Gish, even if she tended to work in a lighter vein. (But not always, see STELLA MARIS/'18)

    And what of the great Asta Neilsen, one of the earliest international stars, who was making films as far back as 1910? And with film preservation such as it is, who knows what's been lost to us?

    http://www.maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • Dazed | August 17, 2011 5:43 AMReply

    Although it is a talkie. Don't forget her role in the criminally neglected Night of the Hunter. A movie which seems to maintain that 'dreamlike intensity' that silent films portrayed so well. It had a lot in common with silent films borrowing heavily from German expressionism. Poor Laughton :( it pains me to no end to think of the masterpieces he could have created if only that one film had succeeded. Gish is wonderful in the film.

    I've never seen this film. I'll have to check it out.

  • jerome p | August 17, 2011 4:02 AMReply

    i recorded this film off tcm. the music is absolutely beautiful . it keeps up with the film..is there a cd version of the music played on " La Boheme " ?

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