"She wanted to know well in advance when we would film her death scene in "La Boheme." She wanted to get into the mood and stay in it. This caused me some alarm. Perhaps as a precautionary measure, I decided I had better schedule it on the last day of shooting. She asked for three days notice. John Gilbert, her co-star, and I watched Lillian grow paler and paler, thinner and thinner.
When she arrived on set that fateful day, we saw her sunken eyes, her hollow cheeks, and we noticed that her lips had curled outward and were parched with dryness. What on earth had she done to herself? I ventured to ask her about her lips and she said in syllables hardly audible that she had succeeded in removing all saliva from her mouth by not drinking any liquids for three days, and by keeping cotton pads between her teeth and gums even in her sleep.
A pall began to settle over the entire company. People moved about the stage on tiptoe and spoke only in whispers. Finally the scene came in which Rudolph carries the exhausted Mimi to her little bed and her Bohemian friends gather around while she dies.
I let the camera continue on her lifeless form and the tragic faces around her and decided to call ‘cut’ only when Miss Gish would be forced to inhale after holding her breath to simulate death. But the familiar movement of the chest didn’t come. She neither inhaled nor exhaled. I began to fear she had played her part too well, and I could see that the other members of the cat and crew had the same fears as I. Too stunned to speak the one word that would halt the movement of the camera, I wondered how to bridge this fantastic moment back to the coldness of reality. The thought flashed through my mind. ‘What if she is dead? What will the headlines say?’ After what seemed many, many minutes, I waved my hand before the camera as a signal to stop. Still there was no movement from Lillian.
John Gilbert bent close, and softly whispered her name. Her eyes slowly opened. She permitted herself her first deep breath since the scene had started: for the past days she had trained herself, somehow or other, to get along without visible breathing.”
- King Vidor on directing Lillian Gish