Miss Gish entertains a devoted fan
During his final illness, Charles Laughton was dictating to Bruce Zortman (1) what was meant to be an autobiography, but which remained unfinished due to Laughton's death. Elsa Lanchester reported how one day she entered in the room. Charles was asleep due to the medication, and Zortman showed the notes he had taken during that day. In Zortman's notebook there was just this one sentence: "I was in love with Lillian Gish".
The young Laughton was certainly impresed with Lillian Gish. He would say that, shortly after the 1918 armistice (2) he was struck by Miss Gish acting in "Broken Blossoms" , and would see the film "over and over again" (2). Years later, during the preparation of "The Night of the Hunter" he saw old silent films by David Wark Griffith, he would meet Miss Gish again, and he offered her the part of Rachel Cooper. Liking the script, she eventually agreed to play it, and the Silent film star and her fan would work together happily.
After the New York première, Laughton sent this affectionate letter to Lillian Gish (3):
Dear Little Iron Butterfly,
Even though I talked to you yesterday I feel compelled to write you a note to tell you further that I think you are the living end. The reviews in New York, as you have now discovered, were wonderful for you--
And from all over the country I keep getting wires and calls, and everyone is unanimous in their praise for you.
I am happy to have had another Gish experience, and as long as I shall live and be active I hope that my life, professionally as well as personally, shall have a lot of Gish in it.
So, you see, these are my roses and carnations -- and they are just as sweet as you are.
It is sad, in retrospect, not to feel sad when reading this letter, knowing what the future had in store for Charles' career as a director.
Shortly after the release of "The Night of the Hunter", Laughton and Gish would be briefly together in a TV programme produced by Paul Gregory, "The Day Lincoln Was Shot", in which some members of the cast and crew of "The Night of the Hunter" would be working as well. Laughton was the narrator of the story and Lillian Gish played Mary Todd (curiously, John Wilkes Booth was played by a young Jack Lemmon). This programme was an hiatus in the work which Laughton and the Sanders brothers were dpoing in the script of "The Naked And The Dead". This work was never resumed: in the meantime, "The Night of the Hunter" failed at the box-office. Laughton and Gregory split their partnership. Laughton would never directed again, would never have the chance of working again with Lillian Gish.
Dorothy and the Wolves
In between "Broken Blossoms" and "The Night of the Hunter", Charles was to have another Gish experience, more concretely, a Dorothy Gish experience! This was to be in "Wolves", a 1929 production (released in 1930), and one of the early British talkies. We know little of this film, apart from the fact that it was one of the "quota quickies", that is, one of the hastily produced films which were meant to cover the quota of British productions, established by the government as a protective measure for the local industry.
Lacking other sources, the picture below suggests that the young and upcoming actor must have been happy to work alongside Lillian's sister.
"Wolves": Charles Laughton, Dorothy Gish and director Albert de Courville, as seen in the Sunday Express (August 18th, 1929)
Short descriptions of the film coincide with the basic argument of the play "The Wolves", a French play by Georges G. Todouze, which was premiéred in an English version by John Protheroe in August 1929, so we imagine that the play was successful enough to suggest a near-simultaneous film version. Certainly most of the cast of the stage production is coincident with that of the film, with the exception of Sam Livesey and Olga Lindo, whose roles were played by Laughton and Dorothy Gish in the film.
The damsel in distress cleverly shields herself (Dorothy Gish, Charles Laughton)
The plot of the play goes as follows: in a settlement in the icy coast of Greenland, Job (Sam Livesey/Charles Laughton) is the leader of a gang of rough outlaws, a real group of human wolves, among them we have a Canadian, Pierre (Malcolm Green), who is also the only in the group to have a woman, an inuit girl named Naroutcha (Betty Bolton), who also acts as a servant of all the other men. Near the place a young girl, Kitty MacDonald ("Leila Macdonald" in the film. Olga Lindo/Dorothy Gish) is found, frozen and starving: her presence stirs the community, as they all want to possess her, and are ready to fight each other fiercely to accomplish so. Job organizes a lottery to see who will be Kitty's owner. He cheats and gets her, but not with the intention of having a woman himself, but with the aim of having the situation under control, which is not easy as, among other things, Kitty is the daughter of a Canadian fishery king, and Pierre says that it is because of Kitty that he commited the crimes for which he has looked for refuge in this distant place. Pierre not only wants revenge, he also has lusty intentions on poor Kitty, which makes Naroutchka jealous. Tension runs high and Job sees that the only way to ease it is help Kitty to flee from the place, but he will have to face his own men.
The magazine "Theatre World" (in its issue of October 1929) described "The Wolves" as a "vivid melodrama" which was "unusually good entertainment", and its critic referred to it in the following terms: "it is strong, crude stuff, and grips as much by the intensity of its passion as by the fitting fierceness of its language (...). Here primitive passions, fiery words and sinister actions are swiftly woven into a fabric which may be coarse in texture, but is surely more wholesome stuff than the fluffy frills and lascivious lingerie displayed ad nauseam elsewhere... This description of the play (the reviewer sure likes macho-macho stuff!) makes me imagine the film as a mixture of melodrama and early action movie. In fact, and according to the description of the imdb user reviewing the film, Job's hut is blown by an explosion at the end of the film. Since this doesn't happen in the play, where Kitty escapes while Job holds his men at bay and manages to subdue his men after killing the troublesome Pierre, I gather that "Wolves" might an early example of the recurrent solution when scriptwriters run short of ideas (you know, "if you don't know what to write in the next scene, put an explosion or two")
An anecdote of the film, told by Simon Callow (4), tells us that a young David Lean, who happened to see how Laughton was preparing himself for a fight scene, was quite impressed by both his thorough preparation of the scene andr his hability to fill the frame: many years later he would have his chance to direct Charles in "Hobson's Choice" (1954)
Also, of those who worked in the play but not in the film, two would have later connections with Laughton: Raymond Massey, the stage director of "The Wolves" would later in that year direct the first staging of Sean O'Casey's "The Silver Tassie", with Charles playing Harry Heegan (5), and Sam Livesey would appear with Charles in the successful production of Congreve's "Love for Love", staged during the 1933-34 Old Vic season.
The film would be released in the USA during the middle thirties, titled as "Wanted Men", when Charles had become one of the most successful film actors of the world, surely with the intention of milking some benefits out of Laughton's success. However, this version was heavily cut, and, if the original picture wasn't a hit, the edited version wasn't precisely an improvement.
The film seems to be lost, but I wonder if a copy was still around in existence. I'd be curious to see it: in the worst of cases it would be a toughening experience which would strenghten my character ;p
Some interesting links:
:: Lillian Gish's Official website
:: A Gish tribute by Dan Callahan at Bright Lights Film Journal
:: A lovely picture of the two collaborators at " If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats"
1) Zortman had collaborated with Laughton in the literary research and ellaboration of Laughton's anthology "The Fabulous Country".
2) As mentioned by Simon Callow's BFI book on "The NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Gotta comment about it some day in this blog: recommended reading!). Incidentally, imdb.com gives May 13th, 1919 as the date of the American premiere of "Broken Blossoms". The European release dates given by imdb -although not mentioning dates for France or Great Britain-, range from 1922 to 1923. So I wonder if the film which Laughton saw shortly after the armistice was another one by Griffith and with Gish, and then a few years later he was impressed by "Broken Blossoms" and the two experiences were merged in his memories. Either this or maybe the allied troops were privileged to see that film before its European Official première?... Or maybe the film was released in France and/or the UK almost at the same time it was released in the USA?
3) From the photographic reproduction of this letter, reproduced in Charles Tatum Jr.'s "La Nuit du Chasseur de Charles Laughton", published by Editions Yellow Now
4) In the seminal "Charles Laughton. A Difficult Actor"
5) This would be the first of many occasions in which Massey and Laughton would work together: they were both in the cast of James Whale's "The Old Dark House", and Laughton would in turn direct Massey on the stage years later in "John Brown's Body"... Massey appeared also in the day The Day Lincoln Was Shot" playing (if you hadn't guessed it already) Abraham Lincoln