LA BOHEME (1926) B/W "silent" 95m dir: King Vidor

w/Lillian Gish, John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, George Hassell, Roy D'Arcy, Edward Everett Horton, Karl Dane, Mathilde Comont, Gino Corrado, Eugene Pouyet, Frank Currier, David Mir, Catherine Vidor, Valentina Zimina, Blanche Payson

Gish and Gilbert are at their best in this florid romantic vehicle that tells the classic story of a starving artist who falls in love with a sickly seamstress in 19th century Paris. This is the film that followed up Gilbert and Vidor's wildly successful film, THE BIG PARADE, and it's a worthy successor. To say that Gish is luminous in the role of Mimi would be like calling the Grand Canyon large: a gross understatement of an obvious fact.

Be forewarned: the following material contains specific story information you may not want to know before viewing the film:

From the Monarch Film Series book, King Vidor, written by John Baxter, who interviewed Vidor extensively about his films: "Little seen today, La Bohème has great and enduring merit, containing one of Lillian Gish's most intense performances. With the honeymoon period of her [MGM] contract still at its height, she could dictate terms to [production chief Irving] Thalberg. As a subject she asked for a version of Murger's Scenes de la vie de Bohème adapted by her friend Mme. Frederick de Gresac, and for her director, after seeing two reels of the still-uncompleted The Big Parade, King Vidor. Even Vidor's reverence for [Gish's former director, the great D.W.] Griffith flagged when Miss Gish demanded full rehearsals in The Master's style, but like all her directors he could not fault her dedication. Preparing to play the frail seamstress Mimi who sacrifices herself so that her lover, the playwright Rodolphe, can write his masterpiece, she visited hospitals to study the symptoms of terminal tuberculosis, drank no fluids for three days before her death scene and dried her mouth with cotton pads. This sequence --- actually quite routine in effect, though cast and crew found it traumatic --- is merely the culmination of a performance disturbing in its sense of sickness. The feeling of cold as she huddles in her unfloored and empty flat, the blood-smeared mouth after her first seizure, her exhaustion as she drags herself like a sick cat across Paris, clinging to passing vehicles and to the vast city walls as Paris towers indifferently above her are components of a rich, moving characterization beside which Gilbert's capering Rodolphe and the other bohemians, no matter how Vidor makes them dance, clown and pose to enliven the static script, become irrelevant.

"La Bohème showed Gilbert in a poor light --- literally, since Miss Gish brought in Hendrick Sartov to create glamorized, heavily gauzed close-ups that undermined his importance to the story. (Erté had also been hired to do the costumes; the star rejected his designs as too fancy.) Gilbert, according to Miss Gish, fell in love with her and proposed marriage when the film ended, so he may have been happy to give her the lioness's share of the production."

From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website (, this 2011 essay by Margarita Landazuri:

"In 1926, when Lillian Gish went in search of a new contract, a bidding war ensued between MGM and United Artists. She was not a major moneymaker but having trained on the sets of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph, she had a reputation as a great actress. A veteran of Griffith’s stock company since 1912, Gish had embodied his wistful, innocent heroines but chafed under the pioneering director’s total control. Artistic differences during their last film together, Orphans of the Storm (1921), led to the end of their collaboration. Underneath her onscreen fragility was steel, and Gish was determined to take control of her own career. For the independent studio Inspiration Pictures, she made two films, The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), for which she was involved in all aspects of production, from casting and editing to approving the purchase of equipment.

"MGM beat out UA’s offer with a two-year contract for six pictures at a salary of $800,000, making Gish the studio’s highest-paid star. The contract also stipulated for her input into stories, directors, and cast, although the studio kept the final decision. She was freed from any promotional obligations, including personal appearances; and there was no morals clause in her contract. The only thing she requested but did not get was a percentage of the profits.

"For her first project, she chose Romeo and Juliet but, as she recalled in an unpublished 1937 memoir, a poll of exhibitors found that 'over half of them refused to buy anything with Mr. Shakespeare’s name on it. Joan of Arc, my second choice, was too expensive. We compromised on La Boheme. She brought her friend, French playwright Madame Frederique de Gresac to Hollywood, where they worked on the screenplay together. Italian composer Giacomo Puccini had based his 1896 opera of the same name on Henri Murger’s 1851 collection of stories, Scenes de la vie de boheme, about starving artists living in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Puccini’s opera was still under copyright, so Gresac’s screenplay was credited to the original source, although the story and characters are based on the opera.

"Because she had spent most of the previous two years in Europe and New York, Gish was unfamiliar with many of the current Hollywood actors and directors. MGM executive Irving Thalberg showed her some of studio’s recent films, including two reels of the as-yet unreleased The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor and starring the studio’s biggest male star, John Gilbert. Suitably impressed, Gish asked for Vidor as director and Gilbert to play Rodolphe to her Mimi. The Big Parade actors Renee Adoree, Roy D’Arcy, and Karl Dane also joined the La Boheme cast.

"Gish asked for and got her Orphans of the Storm cinematographer Hendrik Sartov, who had invented a soft-focus lens that he called the 'Lillian Gish.' She suggested to Irving Thalberg that the studio use the new, highly sensitive panchromatic film that had been used on her Inspiration Pictures films to ravishing effect. Thalberg said MGM’s laboratories could not process the film stock, but she insisted, proposing that he hire the same technician who had processed film for Inspiration. Thalberg grudgingly agreed. According to Gish, the studio was so pleased with the results that they converted their labs to use only panchromatic film.

"Gish then turned her attention to wardrobe and sets. She clashed with the studio’s choice of Paris fashion designer Erte, known for his lavish theatrical costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies. She disliked the stiff dresses he designed for her La Boheme wardrobe, saying that Mimi was very poor and wouldn’t have new clothes, even if made from the cheap calico Erte had chosen. She felt that Mimi’s clothes should be old and worn, but made of good silk. 'Imagine!' the outraged designer complained to Motion Picture magazine, 'Miss Gish will not wear the dress of the poor La Boheme unless the rags are all silk-lined!' Gish tried unsuccessfully to enlist Renee Adoree in her Erte boycott, and Adoree should have listened. Her stiff, vulgar-looking dresses may have been appropriate for the character, but they overwhelm her petite figure and make her look dumpy. Gish also protested that the sets were too grand for the hovels of starving artists, and production executives agreed to let Mimi live in an attic --- but a very large one.

"King Vidor was one of the most successful and creative directors in Hollywood, but Gish was proving to be the true auteur of La Boheme. With Griffith, she had always rehearsed films from beginning to end, and she insisted on a rehearsal period for La Boheme. Vidor watched bemused while Gish mimed opening doors, picking up objects, and brushing her hair, ignoring the props he had set up for her. He went along with her demands, but she wrote in her memoirs that the other actors were uncomfortable with her rehearsal methods and she gave up. Another Griffith habit Gish tried to impose on La Boheme was chaste love scenes. She argued that the romantic tension between the lovers would be dissipated if they kissed. Both Vidor and Gilbert were skeptical but, once again, Gish convinced them to do it her way. However, the first preview audience for the film wasn’t buying it. They liked the movie, but they wanted love scenes, as did Mayer and Thalberg. On her way to the studio for reshoots, she told her chauffeur, 'Oh dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.'

"To prepare for her deathbed scene, Gish visited a local hospital to observe patients in the terminal stages of tuberculosis. According to Vidor, who embellished the tale every time he told it, Gish ate little and drank nothing for several days before the scene was shot. When Mimi drew her last breath, Gish actually seemed to stop breathing, frightening Vidor. After Gilbert softly whispered her name, she opened her eyes and drew a breath. In a 1984 interview, Gish dismissed Vidor’s story as 'nonsense.'

"La Boheme received excellent reviews from the New York critics. The Telegram said of Gish, 'there is the light of clear purpose at last in the eyes of this star, so often hitherto a passive Madonna of the studios.' Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called it 'a production that is virtually flawless.' The film was one of MGM’s top box office hits of the year. But an odd backlash was building against Gish. The Hollywood fan magazines seemed to resent her dedication, her power, her artistic aspirations, and lack of the common touch. Photoplay's Adela Rogers St. Johns called her 'the most over-rated actress on the screen.'

"Gish’s subsequent MGM films included two artistic successes that were box office failures, The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), as well as two now-forgotten failures from 1927, Annie Laurie and The Enemy. At the height of the flapper era, Gish’s innocent heroines seemed passe to audiences. To boost her audience appeal, Thalberg even offered to arrange a scandal for her. Gish was horrified, and when her two-year contract came to an end, she left MGM. She returned to the stage, making only occasional screen appearances for the remainder of her career. When Lillian Gish died in 1993 at the age of 99, her longtime manager James Frasher noted, 'She was the same age as film. They both came into the world in 1893.'"