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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Guest Post: The Movies, Lillian Gish and Me

PART ONE: In Search of a Silent Screen Legend

By Russell Adams

For me the most eagerly awaited film of 1987 was Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August. I had long looked forward to the pairing of film greats Lillian Gish and Bette Davis, alongside horror favorite Vincent Price.

When the film, which received only a modest release, finally opened in Los Angeles, it played at the Rialto Theatre in Pasadena, an appropriately atmospheric venue designed in the style of old, with balconies and even a gargoyle! I was not disappointed; the picture was a total charmer.

In the days after seeing The Whales of August, a thought began to form, an obsession really. As mesmerized as I’d been seeing Davis and Price up on the big screen in their element, it was Lillian Gish who’d captured my imagination. She had been there in the very beginning of silent cinema, the Mother of the Movies and First Lady of Film, among other well-deserved appellations. After eight decades, she was still with us, a living connection to another time. I knew I had to make contact before the opportunity was lost forever.

Having spent a few decades working for the studios, I was no longer impressed by stars or celebrity, but I sat down to write only the second fan letter of my life. (The first one was to Captain Kangaroo, who never replied.) I spent much time trying to get my thoughts just right. I opened with my appreciation for The Whales of August, and I also explained to Miss Gish how I was a lifelong film lover and of silent movies, in particular. 

I wrote how I’d read everything I could check out from the library on the topic of silent movies, and since this was in the days before home video and classics were very difficult to see in Birmingham, Alabama, I used my paper route money to send away for super 8 prints from Blackhawk Films.

I closed, naturally, with an appeal for an autograph or signed photo. Nervously I sealed the envelope, and having found Miss Gish’s home address (easier than I’d thought), I dropped it in the mail. In doing so, I thought perhaps that would be the end of it, but another feeling inside me said not.


I didn’t have long to wait. After returning home from work one evening, I was going through my mail, and amidst the free pizza delivery and car wash coupons was a small manila envelope with a return address sticker reading, “Ms. L. Gish” and an NYC address. My heart leaped as I carefully opened it so as not to damage the contents. 

What I found inside was a 4x6 vintage black and white glamour photo of Lillian Gish with the inscription, “Dear Russell Adams, with every good wish, Lillian Gish,” written entirely in her own hand. Also enclosed was a note card thanking for my charming letter (!) and other gracious comments, closing with, “The picture comes to you with the hope that Hollywood will be good to you. Most gratefully, Lillian Gish.” My heart sang. I was determined that this would not be the end of the story.

PART TWO NEXT WEEK

This post is written by Russell Adams, a Los Angeles-based entertainment professional, writer and film reviewer. He had the good fortune to correspond with Lillian Gish and her longtime manager, Jim Frasher, over the course of many years.

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