#ClassicFilmReading: The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me by Lillian Gish


I have to admit that I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish this summer’s Classic Film Reading Challenge and it was down to this book. I rallied and here we are, but I totally and completely did not enjoy Lillian Gish’s autobiography, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.

Let’s get it out of the way: there’s too much D.W. Griffith in this book. But Jess, you say, it’s in the title! You knew that going in! To that I say, I know Lillian’s legacy is entwined with Griffith’s, but she should’ve focused more on herself. Because this was painful in parts: the fawning, the excuses, it was just too much love for a complicated man with a complicated legacy.

So let’s get something else out of the way: The Birth of a Nation does come up. And Lillian knows that the subject is controversial, but my read was that ‘how dare anyone assume that Griffith would believe in this subject material?!’

I’ve seen the movie exactly once in my life, and it was one time too many. It was the silent feature chosen in my narratives of film class in university—God knows why it was chosen, since the focus was supposed to be on the narrative merits of film, not the art of filming, which is what people extoll when they ‘balance’ articles about The Birth of a Nation. I should have walked out, but I didn’t, and anyways. I too this course in 2009, by the way, and I have no doubt that, if the class is even offered anymore, it's probably no longer on the syllabus.

The movie has always been a problem—it was controversial even in 1915 despite Lillian’s vehement defence of Griffith—and there are people better equipped than me to tell you why, so here are a few links to press the point further.

Back to the overall book. There's something about the way Lillian tells her story that's just boring. Facts are spit out and shared with almost no feeling; when I tell you this is a minute detail of her life up until publication, believe me. I just couldn't get into it. At least the Mary Pickford biography I read earlier in the summer painted a picture of the woman and the time in an interesting way.

Lillian Gish was around for the dawn of silent films, starred in one of the, regrettably, most important films of the era and made a successful transition to sound when not a lot of others did. On paper, how can you argue with that kind of career? Wait until you read it from her. She tells it like she's waiting for the paint to dry and the only thing in the room with her is a typewriter and her diary.

From her early years in the thay-ah-tah to meeting Mary Pickford (then Gladys Smith), transitioning to film and becoming a muse to D.W. Griffith alongside younger sister Dorothy, and all travails in between, there are no stones unturned in The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me.

Here's another thing that's more interesting about this book than this book is: how I came to own it.

I borrowed it from the library the summer I was subletting a friend's apartment, packed it up in a box at the end of the summer, then when I moved into the apartment I lived in for five years, forgot to unpack it, lost it and had to pay the fine at the library. I found it when I moved again and when I took it to the library to rid myself of it, they wouldn't take it back. So is this book a cursed monkey’s paw? Maybe.

My favourite part of the entire book is when Lillian recounts her many meetings with Grace Kelly.

The first time she met Grace, Grace was still trying to break into television and Lillian was helping Fred Coe cast the part of Lillian Gish in Silver Glory. Lillian met with the soon-to-be starlet but didn’t cast her because, “She had arrived at my apartment looking so poised and beautiful; I had thought of the young Lillian, whom I remember as gauche and frightened, and I had asked myself, How can this radiant creature interpret that girl?”

The second time they met was in the MGM commissary after Grace had signed a contract. Howard Strickland went up to Lillian to introduce them, but Grace interrupted and explained how they knew each other and Lillian explained why she didn’t cast her.

The third time they met was in the late ‘60s, when Lillian was working on The Comedians in Nice and the Prince’s Palace rang her up to invite her to dinner with Princess Grace. Lillian ended up borrowing a Dior gown from Elizabeth Taylor, and then joined Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Sir Alec and Lady Merula Guiness for dinner.

Earlier in the year, Marion Davies was the TCM Star of the Month and I was so fascinated by her and by silent film I hadn't been up until that point. I really wanted to read Captain of Her Soul instead of this, but some winner took the last copy at the library and so I had to scour my collection. Next summer, Marion, we're having a rematch.


  1. Congrats on finishing the challenge! And I'm sorry that you had to power through what sounds like an awful book. The library not taking it back was definitely a sign!

  2. What a drag that the book was such a drag, Jess. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading your review, though. I was thoroughly entertained! And congratulations on finishing the challenge (I was a total flop this year!)


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