by Dean Thompson

Directed by King Vidor

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer

Lillian Gish (Mimi), John Gilbert (Rodolphe), Renee Adoree (Musette). George Hassell (Schaunard), Roy D'Arcy (Vicomte Paul), Edward Everett Horton (Colline), Karl Dane (Benoit), Frank Currier (theatre manager), Mathilde Comont (Madame Benoit), Gino Corrado (Marcel), Gene Pouyet (Bernard), David Mir (Alexis), Catherine Vidor (Louise), Valentina Zimina (Phemie) Blanche Payson (factory supervisor)

Give yourself a treat: When you have a few minutes and are in the mood for chills, do a Youtube search for Lillian Gish Patrick Dupond, which will bring up a seven-minute clip of the ballet "Le Spectre de la Rose," part of the Celebration telecast from the Metropolitan Opera House on March 13, 1984. As the orchestral introduction begins, Gish in voiceover recalls attending a performance of "Le Spectre," starring the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, nearly seventy years before with her sister Dorothy and Charlie Chaplin. As Gish's biographer Charles Affron (in his Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life) beautifully delineates,

She [had been] astonished by Nijinsky, who "actually seemed to stay suspended in the air," and since then, she says, she has dreamed of being in the ballet. The curtain then opens and it is the audience's turn to be astonished, so much so that, after a moment's hesitation, it roars its ovation. There is nonagenarian Lillian in the role of the girl, in a white dress, asleep in a chair, a rose in her lap. The girl in the ballet has little to do other than recline gracefully, rapt in her dream of the specter of the rose. Patrick Dupond executes the famous Nijinsky leap through the window, dances around her, hovers near her face, and finally exits just as she stirs. With the rose in her hand, Lillian rises from her chair and moves across the stage as if searching for the specter that came to her in her dream. She opens her arms wide, smells the rose, and the curtain falls.

Now, Gish executes the concluding pantomime impeccably. But the lump-in-the-throat moment comes at the beginning, when the great Met curtains part. It's hard to say which is more moving: a particularly lovely pullback shot of Gish asleep in the chair, or the thirty-second roar that greets her appearance, an ovation reserved only for a legend (Gish's career stretched back further than the century itself) and an embodiment. I remember watching the telecast and being struck by the enduring beauty of The Face in repose: the perfect carving of the bones, the enormous eyes, and tiny bow of a mouth, all eliciting a feeling of protective tenderness even as one marveled at the strength of the spirit within.

But that response alone brings to mind what remains, after forty years, one of the finest summations of Gish's appeal and talent. The erudite David Shipman, in his The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, notes that Gish in her heyday was to cinema what Duse and Bernhardt were to theater and adds that

To most modern (i.e. film-society) audiences, she is at first resistible: a wraith-like heroine in raggedy-Ann clothes gazing passively and innocently at the world [that] is wronging her so cruelly. But she did admirably everything that was required of her by her directors and her plots, and the demands were heavy. Given the strong Victorian sentiment which inspired D. W. Griffith and some others among her directors, she reacted with a spirituality and charm which not only harmonized with it, but sometimes [infused] it with a sense of urgency; and while her frail body cowed under the blows inflicted on it in the cause of melodrama, the camera recorded a peculiar and very personal intensity.

We might keep Shipman's appraisal in mind as we consider one of Gish's most famous vehicles from her tenure at MGM, King Vidor's La Boheme (1926), for there are several caveat emptors to be acknowledged if we are to enjoy the film as an immediate pathway to Gish's art. The dupey print (at least that offered by Warner Archive Collection) badly needs restoration; too, it's projected a bit fast, at times making much of the cast look as if it had just tossed down a quart of espresso. And while every silent film has to be taken on its own terms, this one requires more acclimation than most. It's derived not from the beloved Puccini opera, but from Henry Murger's Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (1851), and the demands of nineteenth-century melodrama that Shipman mentions on occasion vie for center stage, with grandiose emotions, leering aristocratic lust, noble subterfuge, direct appeals to heaven, and passionate avowals appertaining thereto.

But brush aside the substandard print and ivy-crusted literary conventions: this La Boheme silences any cynicism. From the beautiful opening shots of a snow-covered 1830 Paris segueing to the cold garret in which our bohemians live, the familiar story of starving artists and friends eternally on the run from hunger and the invoice-waving landlord shines anew as we are introduced to Rodolphe (played by John Gilbert), Marcel, Musette, and Colline, and smile at the eternal search for inspiration, self-aggrandizing humor, and playfulness of youth, all beautifully conveyed through King Vidor's direction, keeping the tone light before we meet Gish's Mimi, "[o]rphaned, friendless, facing life with a glorious courage" as she warms her fingers while embroidering. Affron notes that "[p]erhaps it is the way the 1830 hairstyle frames her face---her initial close-up, lit with [cinematographer Henrik] Sartov's familiar sensitivity, is among the most beautiful in all of Lillian's films. Her star quality is at its most luminous here."

One knows what Affron means by star quality, yet Gish's Mimi, like much of the film, is couched in delicacy and understatement. When she pawns her possessions to raise money for rent, her eyes flicker with regret at each belonging as the pawnbroker whisks them away, one by one; it's almost a throwaway moment, yet unencumbered by dialogue, it evokes the crystalline suspension that belongs to silent film alone. Then, after Rodolphe and fellow bohemians invite her to dinner, her eyes, brimming with tears of loneliness, relief, and gratitude, say more than pages of dialogue could. There's an especially underplayed and utterly sweet moment about thirty-six minutes into the film, when Rodolphe stands on the ledge of Mimi's window, having executed Fairbanksian ingenuity to get there, and hangs his head in momentary abjection as he admits that the wealthy Vicomte Paul can give Mimi so much more than he himself ever could. Mimi looks in wonder at his luxuriant hair and touches one curl hesitantly before closing her window so that she can return to her embroidery. When Rodolphe protests, she presses her hand to the window for his kiss, teasingly shaking her head to his appeals for more attention. Were this moment to be played in a contemporary film, it probably would be laughed off the screen: restraint and deferral are hardly to current taste. Here, it's perfect, and perfectly charming.

The reserve and delay were the leading lady's wish, perhaps because both her director and co-star were hot in pursuit when the cameras weren't rolling. Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of Gilbert and his biographer, recounts an amusing anecdote in Dark Star:

One morning, [Gilbert and Vidor] went driving up the coast looking for a suitable location for an exterior shot. Every half hour or so, King would insist they stop at the next gas station, or Jack would dash into a country store for some trivial purchase. These stops went on all day. Finally each man realized that the other was sneaking off to telephone Miss Gish, who was resting alone that day in her cottage at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They laughed and called it quits on the way home when they realized that neither one of them was getting anywhere.

So is there a payoff in the film? Most certainly, when the story whisks us to spring and a country picnic, where lovers woo and birdies coo. Gish (looking particularly fetching in bouffant sleeves) and Gilbert play hide and seek among the trees before dancing under the sunlight; one doesn't associate either with Terpsichore, but they prove exhilaratingly nimble and synchronous before Gish runs away. When Gilbert catches her and demands an explanation, Gish's reply-"Because I love you"-is followed by her presenting Gilbert with their first kiss. The astonished Gilbert places his hand over his heart in disbelief before taking Gish in his arms and kissing her curls and then her face. One agrees with Affron that "At moments such as this we can appreciate the unusual power of pretalkie cinema, unfettered by the realism of speech, to build to an extraordinarily high degree of feeling, [melding] the new naturalism demanded by the camera and the high style of modes (mime and Romantic ballet, for instance) foreign to everyday life."

Like Gish's Mimi, John Gilbert's Rodolphe is invariably at his best in close-up; when the camera backs off, however, so does the veracity of his performance. Watch him when Mimi assures him that her relationship with Vicomte Paul has been strictly business: in two extended close-ups, Gilbert, his eyes registering relief and renewed love, is subdued and tender. Here again is what the best of silent film acting can be. Yet a minute later, his jealousy renewed, he looks absurd in long shot, waving his arms in high-voltage semaphore, calling to mind Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s wickedly accurate impersonation of him three years later in Our Modern Maidens. Yet the final close-up of his tear-stained face at the end of the film, as he recalls the halcyon days with Mimi, is beautifully subdued once more. His is an uneven performance in the end, theatrical at some points and spot on at others. The magnetism and grace of a star are there in abundance, occasionally augmented by ham.

And so we come to the passing of Mimi. The journey from her workhouse back to Rodolphe, literally dragged out, is razor's-edge melodrama, yet the astonishing close-ups of Gish, her thin and translucent face at once ravaged and beatific, keep one's heart in one's throat. (Vidor says that Gish prepared by refusing food and water for three days.) The death scene itself is merely an upward roll of the eyes and then absolute stillness before Musette (Renee Adoree, deeply affecting here as well) gently closes Mimi's eyes and mouth. Affron terms this scene "extraordinary," and I think it the most privileged moment of Gish on film, surpassing even the closet scene in Broken Blossoms and the scaffold scene in The Scarlet Letter. One understands anew the thirty-second ovation at the Met nearly sixty years later: respect for her acting genius, passed down through generations, ever retained an element of wonder at its largesse.

La Boheme is a sweet and finally wrenching film, here and there over the top but mostly spellbinding. In his blog at, Peter Bogdanovich asserts that "There is a dreamlike intensity to good silent pictures that has never been equaled by talkies, which are by their nature too realistic to easily become transcendent in the way the silents could, with their hypnotic focus undistracted by irrelevant sounds or color." La Boheme isn't for novitiates; it's now very much a film for those who will respect its dreamlike intensity. In the words of Rodolphe's toast to Mimi, it deserves "our friendship, our love-a share of everything we have."

Copyright 2013 by Dean Thompson. All rights reserved

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