Dorothy Gish, like her sister Lilian, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, was a matinee idol in the golden era of American film making. She recently celebrated her sixtieth year as an actress and has had a distinguished stage career in addition to her movie credits. Her last visit to Boston was in 1940, when she was touring in Life With Father, and she is currently playing a character role in Otto Preminger's The Cardinal which is being filmed locally.
Miss Gish is most frequently remembered for her performance in Orphans of the Storm, made in 1921 in Mamaroneck, New York. This sentimental epic of the French Revolution was one of the last independent productions of David Wark Griffith, inventor of the "spectacular" and a pioneer of film direction in America. The actress recalls one scene that was particularly realistic as opposed to the stylized tradition of the time. In her role as a blind country girl, she had to grope along the wall of a cellar in which some revolutionaries had imprisoned her. Suddenly she drew back her outstretched hand; a rat from the woodwork had nibbled on her fingers. "Mr. Griffith was excited with the possibilities of a horde of rats, and photographed them covering me. But I guess the effect was too strong for a 'twenties' audience..." The sequence was one of the few Griffith had to revise before release.
Most present day productions lack the quality of the silent films, Miss Gish believes, because the enormous costs have destroyed the strong community feelings that existed among the people who made old-time movies. In the '20's, actors and crewmen could always make suggestions to directors, and often these suggestions were used. "Lillian and I made our own costumes for Orphans, and Griffith or Billy Bitzer [Griffith's favorite cameraman] would always listen to our ideas." With today's high-budget films, each day of shooting costs upwards of $5000. There is not time to have such consultations, and the proliferation of techniques insures that few actors get to know the staff workers.
According to Miss Gish the lack of heroic luster of the modern star system is due to type casting. Versatility is no longer appreciated, either by public or industry. "Clark Gable and Gary Cooper are two examples of type actors, who played the same part throughout their acting careers. The greatness of Alec Guinness, in her opinion the finest modern actor, lies in his ability to completely assume the role he is playing, and not expand the part to fit his own personality. Miss Gish thinks that such acting lightweights as Sandra Dee and Tuesday Weld are a group of mediocrities; "You can't tell them apart."
Griffith, for whom she played in Hearts of the World as well as Orphans, was Miss Gish's favorite director. A strict disciplinarian, he was a bad stage actor before he took up directing. "He was marvellous because he exaggerated movements in demonstrating the action. This exaggeration showed the mental attitude he wanted from the actor in every situation."
One of Griffith's greatest errors came during the shooting of a comedy in Mexico around 1920. Miss Gish and Richard Barthelmess were starred, and the part of a domestic was played by a minor actor. The domestic's part was done so well that Miss Gish approached Griffith with the suggestion that the unknown be put on a contract for future films. The director refused: "The fellow can act, but he looks too foreign, too Latin. I couldn't sell him to the American Public." The actor, on the verge of his part in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was Rudolph Valentino.