Griffith and Gish Lost at Sea

As an unabashed fan of movie stars from all eras, I am enjoying TCM’s marvelous lineup for this year’s Summer Under the Stars. And, no screen actor could be more deserving of a day than Lillian Gish, who is spotlighted on Wednesday, August 15.  Gish , whose screen career began with An Unseen Enemy in 1912 and ended with The Whales of August in 1987, helped develop the art of screen acting while under the guidance of D.W. Griffith.  It is a testament to her talent that she acted steadily throughout the silent era, survived the coming of sound to become a character actress during the Golden Age, costarred in one the 1950s most revered films, The Night of the Hunter, and then continued to work after the upheavals of the Film School Generation. Her career ended in what is generally considered to be the early modern era—quite a run for someone known as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen.”

Three of the films scheduled for Wednesday—Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm—were directed by D.W. Griffith, who was Gish’s mentor, colleague, and close friend.  During their years together, Gish learned a great deal about filmmaking, and in 1919, he urged her to try her hand at directing. Griffith had just purchased the huge Henry Flagler mansion in Mamaroneck, New York, and was in the process of converting it into a movie studio.  He wanted to keep his stock company of faithful actors and crew members happily occupied while developing new talent. Gish opted to direct sister Dorothy in a lighthearted romance titled Remodeling Her Husband. Gish’s little comedy became the first feature shot at Mamaroneck, because Griffith was busy shooting The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower on location in Florida. In addition to directing, Gish was also put in charge of the final renovations for the studio.

‘REMODELING HER HUSBAND,’ LILLIAN GISH’S ONLY DIRECTORIAL EFFORT, WAS SERIALIZED IN PRINT. SISTER DOROTHY WAS THE STAR.

In November 1919, Gish took a break from her duties to join a group that included Griffith, cameraman Billy Bitzer, matinee idol Neil Hamilton, and Griffith discovery Carol Dempster on a Florida boating excursion. Gish arrived in Ft. Lauderdale via the Florida Special and headed straight for the Grey Duck, a yacht Griffith had chartered for the occasion. If Gish thought she was in for a quiet break from the stresses of the studio, she was mistaken, because the trip turned into a nightmare that made headlines around the country. Later, the adventure became one of those strange bits of movie lore in which the truth was buried in half-baked accounts and glossed-over retellings.

Reasons given for the boating excursion vary. In the most credible version of events, Griffith chartered the yacht to travel to Nassau to shoot additional footage for The Idol Dancer, which was set in the South Seas. Supposedly, the captain of the yacht planned to use Griffith’s charter money to buy the boat from its owner and turn it into a rum-runner. In less credible versions of the story, the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale, seeking to impress the movie folk, invited them for a day cruise aboard the Grey Duck. Once out to sea, a late-season hurricane blew out of the Caribbean, and the yacht and its famous passengers abruptly disappeared.

GRIFFITH DIRECTS ‘THE LOVE FLOWER’ NEAR FT. LAUDERDALE. BILLY BITZER WAS HIS CAMERAMAN.

Authorities soon realized that the Grey Duck was directly in the path of the storm, and both the Navy and the Coast Guard sent boats and ships to look for the yacht. Richard Barthelmess, who was the male lead in The Idol Dancer, grew alarmed and joined the search along with his mother and actress Kate Bruce. They chartered an old minesweeper and set out to sea, but the winds and waves were too dangerous, and the captain stopped the search and headed directly to Nassau.

The story took a strange turn when William Randolph Hearst decided to track the disappearance in his newspapers.  He churned out extra editions to keep readers informed of events and to speculate on the fates of Griffith, Gish, and the other stars.  Hearst reporters dug up the mystery of the Marie Celeste, a ship that was discovered in the Atlantic in 1872 with no crew or passengers aboard, and the reporters drew eerie parallels to the Grey Duck’s disappearance. To keep the story fresh, Hearst hired spiritualists to make paranormal contact with the missing celebrities to determine if they had perished in the storm.

When the hurricane subsided, and the weather calmed, the Grey Duck sailed into Nassau’s harbor, much to the relief of Barthelmess , Dorothy Gish, and Griffith’s stock company back at Mamaroneck. The Hearst papers rejoiced momentarily, but when cynical industry insiders noted that Griffith’s soon-to-be-released film, The Greatest Question, not only dealt with life after death but also included attempts by spiritualists to contact the dead, accusations flew that the disappearance had all been a publicity stunt. Particularly suspect was the fact that Gish, who was the star of The Greatest Question, had traveled to Florida specifically to take the cruise. Despite having exploited the disappearance to sell papers, Hearst was angered by the accusations and ordered his editors to cease further articles about the incident.

CLARINE SEYMOUR STARRED IN ‘THE IDOL DANCER.’ SHE HAD APPEARED IN A FEW COMEDIES FOR OTHER DIRECTORS, BUT GRIFFITH PLANNED TO MAKE HER A LEADING LADY.

For years, Barthelmess, Gish, and Griffith denied that the disappearance had been a publicity stunt. They insisted in interviews, recollections, and memoirs that they had actually been in danger. And, yet, the passengers of the Grey Duck were not forthcoming with a complete version of their ordeal. At the time, Griffith shrugged off reporters with this simple statement:  “A storm came up.  The captain put in at the nearest island. We rode out the cyclone. We had plenty to eat and drink, and when it was over, we came back.” His simple explanation did not match the others’ accounts, and it was not the same tone he took with Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels. He told Daniels that it was a “distressing experience” and that he and the ship’s passengers “were in some peril.”

Details about the adventure aboard the Grey Duck are scarce, but apparently, the yacht put in at Whale Cay once the storm hit. Tiny Whale Cay, part of the Berry Island chain in the Bahamas, was inhabited by a few natives and sailors in the 1920s; a decade later it would be purchased by businessman Wallace Groves as his own private kingdom. During the first couple of nights of the storm, the passengers wallowed away the hours swilling the home-made alcohol of the crew. While the eye of the storm was passing over, they enjoyed a pleasant breakfast on deck in the sunlight, marveling at the experience. After the eye passed and the storm intensified, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Food and fresh water became quite scarce. Even the fish that were driven in from the sea by the stormy waters proved to be inedible. Most distressing was the lack of sanitation and the too-close quarters for sleeping. The captain tried to head out for Nassau on more than one occasion, but the sea was too rough. Finally after almost a week, the Grey Duck reached its destination.  Gish returned to New York, and Griffith quickly completed the location work for The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower.

HANDSOME RICHARD BARTHELMESS PLAYED A BEACH BUM IN ‘THE IDOL DANCER.’

Several reviews for The Idol Dancer mentioned Griffith’s misadventure at sea, though whether this publicity translated to box office success is difficult to determine. Looking at the newspaper ads for the film, I was struck at just how famous Griffith was in 1920. Instead of using photos of the stars, some ads featured a portrait of Griffith, proclaiming: “All Records Broken. D.W. Griffith’s romance of the South Seas, ‘The Idol Dancer,’ playing to capacity audiences at all performances.” Other ads boasted: “D.W. Griffith has completed his radiant, throbbing story of the South Seas; a story burning with primeval love, teeming with the hot passions of the jungle; a drama alive with the vigor and warmth of youth, abounding in wholesome romance and wild adventure.”Griffith was clearly the selling point for The Idol Dancer, not the stars or location work.

The Idol Dancer starred newcomer Clarine Seymour as White Almond Blossom, a free-spirited island girl who falls in love with beachcomber Richard Barthelmess. The Love Flower featured Carol Dempster—one of the passengers aboard the Grey Duck—as the daughter of a man who murdered his wife’s lover and escaped to the South Pacific. Seymour and Dempster were both Griffith discoveries who were being groomed as new additions to his stock company. Sadly, Seymour died of “strangulation of the intestines” a month after The Idol Dancer was released, while the moderately talented Dempster became Griffith’s paramour. Griffith’s other actresses, including the Gish sisters, did not care for Dempster whom they accused of copying their acting gestures and expressions instead of developing her own style. Gish would make only two more films for Griffith, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm, while the director lavished his attention on Dempster, who appeared in several of his films throughout the 1920s.

CAROL DEMPSTER OF ‘THE LOVE BLOSSOM’ BEGAN A ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIP WITH GRIFFITH.

I can’t help but wonder if the adventure aboard the Grey Duck—where Griffith and Dempster’s budding romance was in Gish’s face—changed the nature of Lillian and D.W.’s relationship and signaled the beginning of the end of their artistic collaboration.

0 Response Griffith and Gish Lost at Sea
Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : August 13, 2012 12:55 pm

I think there probably less to the lost at sea story than the Hearst papers would have us believe – they were always looking for scandal , so often blown out of proportion and seldom based on much reality. I wouldn’t be surprised though if Griffith’s relationship with Dempster prompted Gish’s withdrawal from his company, because she had such a close working relationship with him and it was probably difficult to observe his relationship with someone she couldn’t respect professionally. Great post!

Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : August 13, 2012 12:55 pm

I think there probably less to the lost at sea story than the Hearst papers would have us believe – they were always looking for scandal , so often blown out of proportion and seldom based on much reality. I wouldn’t be surprised though if Griffith’s relationship with Dempster prompted Gish’s withdrawal from his company, because she had such a close working relationship with him and it was probably difficult to observe his relationship with someone she couldn’t respect professionally. Great post!

Posted By Susan Doll : August 13, 2012 4:11 pm

Thanks, Margaret. I am sure you are right about the Hearst papers, especially considering they called in spiritualists to make contact with the lost party in case they might be dead!

Posted By Susan Doll : August 13, 2012 4:11 pm

Thanks, Margaret. I am sure you are right about the Hearst papers, especially considering they called in spiritualists to make contact with the lost party in case they might be dead!

Posted By JackFavell : August 13, 2012 4:18 pm

That’s Mary Pickford in the photo with the camera.

Posted By JackFavell : August 13, 2012 4:18 pm

That’s Mary Pickford in the photo with the camera.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 13, 2012 4:26 pm

JackFavell: You are so right. I thought there was something funny about this photo (labeled Lillian Gish on the website where I found it), and I could not put my finger on it. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to show a photo of a woman looking through the camera, so I went with it. I am going to change it out. Thank you for catching this. I hate perpetuating inaccuracies.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 13, 2012 4:26 pm

JackFavell: You are so right. I thought there was something funny about this photo (labeled Lillian Gish on the website where I found it), and I could not put my finger on it. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to show a photo of a woman looking through the camera, so I went with it. I am going to change it out. Thank you for catching this. I hate perpetuating inaccuracies.

Posted By JackFavell : August 13, 2012 4:47 pm

It happens to me all the time. Things get mislabeled on the net a lot, especially with silent film stars, who are sometimes hard to identify or the photos are unclear. You could just add “Like Mary Pickford,” to the beginning of the caption.

oops, I see you’ve already changed it!

Thanks for the article on Gish and Griffith, I hope you write more about silents and silent film stars and directors in future.

Posted By JackFavell : August 13, 2012 4:47 pm

It happens to me all the time. Things get mislabeled on the net a lot, especially with silent film stars, who are sometimes hard to identify or the photos are unclear. You could just add “Like Mary Pickford,” to the beginning of the caption.

oops, I see you’ve already changed it!

Thanks for the article on Gish and Griffith, I hope you write more about silents and silent film stars and directors in future.

Posted By michaelgloversmith : August 13, 2012 5:01 pm

Great post. I had never heard this story before. The ad proclaiming Idol Dancer to be a “throbbing story . . . burning with primeval love, teeming with the hot passions of the jungle” is outrageous.

While I agree Dempster is no Lillian Gish, my favorite Griffith movie ever might be the Dempster-starring Isn’t Life Wonderful?

Posted By michaelgloversmith : August 13, 2012 5:01 pm

Great post. I had never heard this story before. The ad proclaiming Idol Dancer to be a “throbbing story . . . burning with primeval love, teeming with the hot passions of the jungle” is outrageous.

While I agree Dempster is no Lillian Gish, my favorite Griffith movie ever might be the Dempster-starring Isn’t Life Wonderful?

Posted By NCEddie : August 13, 2012 7:49 pm

Thanks for telling us about the “Gray Duck” adventure. Happily Miss Gish was not reduced to a footnote in to the history of silent movies. According to Bette Davis, on working on “The Whales of August,” Miss Davis told the director,
Lindsay Anderson, on directing Miss Gish’s close-up, “You can’t tell her anything. She invented the close-up.”

Posted By NCEddie : August 13, 2012 7:49 pm

Thanks for telling us about the “Gray Duck” adventure. Happily Miss Gish was not reduced to a footnote in to the history of silent movies. According to Bette Davis, on working on “The Whales of August,” Miss Davis told the director,
Lindsay Anderson, on directing Miss Gish’s close-up, “You can’t tell her anything. She invented the close-up.”

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : August 14, 2012 6:19 pm

Seeing the picture of Demster, it’s hard to fault Griffith for falling for her.

Posted By John Maddox Roberts : August 14, 2012 6:19 pm

Seeing the picture of Demster, it’s hard to fault Griffith for falling for her.

Posted By idlemendacity : August 14, 2012 6:25 pm

The saga about what really happened aboard the Grey Duck (and if it was a stunt) would probably make a good movie. Somebody should call Peter Bogdanovich!

I love Lillian Gish maybe more than any other star (I’m still astonished by her last performance in Whales of August and amazed she didn’t get even an Oscar nomination) but when it comes D.W., Miss Gish was awfully protective of his memory. In her memoirs she clearly goes out of her way to “accentuate the positive” so to speak.

Posted By idlemendacity : August 14, 2012 6:25 pm

The saga about what really happened aboard the Grey Duck (and if it was a stunt) would probably make a good movie. Somebody should call Peter Bogdanovich!

I love Lillian Gish maybe more than any other star (I’m still astonished by her last performance in Whales of August and amazed she didn’t get even an Oscar nomination) but when it comes D.W., Miss Gish was awfully protective of his memory. In her memoirs she clearly goes out of her way to “accentuate the positive” so to speak.

Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : August 14, 2012 6:28 pm

Here’s my article about how Gish and Griffith’s political conservatism was manifested in ORPHANS OF THE STORM:
http://thegreatkh.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/conservatism-in-revolution-gish-sisters.html

Posted By Margaret Perry Movies : August 14, 2012 6:28 pm

Here’s my article about how Gish and Griffith’s political conservatism was manifested in ORPHANS OF THE STORM:
http://thegreatkh.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/conservatism-in-revolution-gish-sisters.html

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2012 7:54 pm

idlemendacity- I thought of The Cat’s Meow right away too. I can totally see a movie of this in my head.

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2012 7:54 pm

idlemendacity- I thought of The Cat’s Meow right away too. I can totally see a movie of this in my head.

Posted By Robert Regan : August 14, 2012 9:49 pm

The lovely Carol Dempster has, I think, gotten a bum rap among film fans and historians. Griffith seemed to lock her into his beloved Victorian Maiden image. Only in his last true masterpiece Isn’t Life Wonderful was she able to play a modern woman, and she was superb.

Clarine Seymour was more fortunate, at least in her brief film career, by not having DWG emotionally involved with her. In True Heart Susie she comes close to stealing the film from Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, and in The Idol Dancer she IS the show. Her vitality, vivaciousness, and screen presence are still irresistible. But for her tragic demise in her early twenties, she might have been the first Flapper star.

Posted By Robert Regan : August 14, 2012 9:49 pm

The lovely Carol Dempster has, I think, gotten a bum rap among film fans and historians. Griffith seemed to lock her into his beloved Victorian Maiden image. Only in his last true masterpiece Isn’t Life Wonderful was she able to play a modern woman, and she was superb.

Clarine Seymour was more fortunate, at least in her brief film career, by not having DWG emotionally involved with her. In True Heart Susie she comes close to stealing the film from Lillian Gish and Robert Harron, and in The Idol Dancer she IS the show. Her vitality, vivaciousness, and screen presence are still irresistible. But for her tragic demise in her early twenties, she might have been the first Flapper star.

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2012 10:19 am

What exactly is “strangulation of the intestines”?

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2012 10:19 am

What exactly is “strangulation of the intestines”?

Posted By Susan Doll : August 15, 2012 4:28 pm

Rob: I have no idea what “strangulation of the intestines” is. That was how it was phrased in an article about her from the era. Though it is sad that Ms. Seymour died, I laughed out loud when I first read that.

However, Lillian Gish in her autobio claims she died from pneumonia after working in the cold and snow in Way Down East, though she does not appear in the final film.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 15, 2012 4:28 pm

Rob: I have no idea what “strangulation of the intestines” is. That was how it was phrased in an article about her from the era. Though it is sad that Ms. Seymour died, I laughed out loud when I first read that.

However, Lillian Gish in her autobio claims she died from pneumonia after working in the cold and snow in Way Down East, though she does not appear in the final film.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2012 5:09 pm

I was wondering that too, especially since they didn’t have Taco Bell back in those days.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2012 5:09 pm

I was wondering that too, especially since they didn’t have Taco Bell back in those days.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2012 5:15 pm

I’d also like to put in an appeal for the appearance, on TCM and elsewhere, of more Dorothy Gish films. Whether or not she’s a notch below her sister’s talents can be left up for debate, but she was an appealing presence in films on her own as well (I quite enjoyed the 35mm screening of Madame Pompadour I saw at Cinefest in Syracuse many years ago). It’s too bad her 1927 film Tip Toes co-starring Will Rogers is a lost title, I would think that would make for a very enjoyable pairing.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2012 5:15 pm

I’d also like to put in an appeal for the appearance, on TCM and elsewhere, of more Dorothy Gish films. Whether or not she’s a notch below her sister’s talents can be left up for debate, but she was an appealing presence in films on her own as well (I quite enjoyed the 35mm screening of Madame Pompadour I saw at Cinefest in Syracuse many years ago). It’s too bad her 1927 film Tip Toes co-starring Will Rogers is a lost title, I would think that would make for a very enjoyable pairing.

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