Posted by Susan Doll on August 13, 2012
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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