Oscar History

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"An Unseen Enemy" & Immortal Sister Act

Silent Saturday! 

 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.

Lillian & Dorothy

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. 


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Reader Comments (9)

Thank you! I loved this.

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTW

LOL, Lars von Trier totally came to mind there. Um, James Cameron on a really bad day?!

November 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

Michael Bay!

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Nathaniel, I commented on this post earlier today and it seems to have disappeared. Same thing happened with another post a couple of days ago.

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I love Lillian Gish. For some strange reason, she seems so fresh and immediate. It's as if she communicates to that inner part of her audience that doesn't change with time. And what a no holds barred actress! I'm in awe. Those actresses that grew up touring American outposts in the dead of winter with inadequate money, sometimes getting stuck penniless in some winter boondocks when the manager ran off with the funds- they were tough. They make me understand why they fought for an actors union.

I've never seen a movie with Mary Pickford! But I admire her, for taking control of her professional life. She started her own studio, United Artists, with Chaplin, Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith. She made her money, she kept it, she never lost it.

I hear they are making a Pickford movie. I think maybe Saorse Ronan might make a good Lillian Gish, with that combination of soulful and steely. For a young Pickford, I'd go with Abigail Breslin, cute and curly, yet surprisingly in control.

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteradri

goran -- this makes me sad. sorry. not sure why that's happening.

adri -- since hollywood is so fond of biopics i really do wish they'd go for less usual suspects (no more drug addled musicians please. it's been done millions of times!) and it'd be awesome to see more really Old Hollywood efforts.My favorite thing about The Aviator was the 30s movie backdrop.

TW -- glad someone enjoyed. I knew a lot of people would be like why are you talking abotu this. But I need all eras in my movie viewing. my cinematic appetites require it.

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Thanks, Nathaniel! This post was so much fun.

I've always loved young Lillian Gish. In photos from the 1920s, my grandmother looked just like her. Her older sisters used to call her "the matinee idol," half mockingly, half in admiration.

November 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Lilian Gish is such a wonder of nature. She brought a no-nonsense attitude to every character she played. She excelled in the unfairly maligned Duel In the Sun, earning her only Oscar nom. Her spiritual nature came forth in Portrait of Jennie, another Jennifer Jones starrer. Her career longevity was unrivaled. Thanks for this enjoyable entry.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

That was amazing. Thanks for posting - I love Ms. Gish but probably would never have seen this otherwise. And I love that story, too. Mary Pickford was such an interesting woman.

November 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny
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