Cinema, our favorite artform, may have already celebrated its Centennial year but Movie Stars (our favorite part of the artform if we're being honest) were invented later. Lillian Gish, the honorary mother of screen acting if not quite "the first movie star", and her sister Dorothy Gish starred in their first D.W. Griffith short An Unseen Enemy a full one hundred years ago... or one hundred and one depending on where you get your silent film info.
Not all pictures are worth a thousand words but if you wanna double down, make sure to include pretty girls.
The one-reeler -- which thankfully survived when so many films of its day didn't -- is about two sisters (Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish) who are grieving the loss of their recently deceased father. Their brother liquidates their estate and suddenly the sisters are flush with cash -- boy does that wrap up their mourning process; they're giddy by the two minute mark! But mo money, mo problems. If someone has a lot of cash, someone else will want it and soon the cinema's first sibling darlings are under attack.
The short and an awesome Lillian Gish anecdote after the jump...
In her biography "The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me" Lillian recalls their terrifying audition for the role which consisted largely of a rehearsal with a group of young actors (including Lionel Barrymore) and the intimidating director D.W. Griffith, one of the giant pioneers of this new world.
He stared at us. "You're not twins are you? I can't tell you apart." He strode out of the room and returned with two ribbons, one red and the other blue:" "Take off your black bows, and tie these on." Blue for Lillian, red for Dorothy. Now, Red, you hear a strange noise. Run to your sister. Blue, you're scared, too. Look toward me, where the camera is. Show your fear! You hear something. What is it? You're two frightened children, trapped in a lonely house by these brutes. They're in the next room...
Tell the camera what you feel. Fear -- more fear! Look into the lens! Now you see a gun come through the hole as he knocks the stovepipe to the floor. Look scared, I tell you!"
It was not difficult to obey. We were practically paralyzed with fright.
"No, that's not enough! Girls, hold each other. Cower in the corner." Whereupon he pulled a real gun from his pocket and began chasing us around the room, shooting it off. We did not realize that he was aiming at the ceiling."
The sisters were immediately hired due to their "expressive bodies" and paid $45 for four days work (about $1000 in today's dollars). According to Lillian it was...
...more than we had ever made in the theater. We left our names, asking to be called whenever there was work for us.
'That Mr. Griffith,' Mother said, 'is such a nice man.'"
Money ends grief hilariously quickly in the film and it also apparently makes it okay to shoot guns at your daughters!
These are Gish's last amusing words on the film.
The day after we filmed An Unseen Enemy Mary Pickford telephoned to tell us that Mr. Griffith was pleased with the results. Being outspoken, she had evidently warned him that his manners were not understood by legitimate actresses. Thenceforth he called us Miss Lillian and Miss Dorothy, instead of Blue and Red, and he shot no more live ammunition over our heads."
I love that story!
Can you picture any contemporary director firing live ammunition to intimidate his actresses? I mean, besides Lars von Trier.