Lillian Gish (1893-1993) was responsible for turning film acting into an art form. She appeared in such monumental works as Birth of a Nation, directed by the man who launched her career, D.W. Griffith. Gish became known as the "First Lady of the Silent Screen."
Lillian Diana Gish was born on October 14, 1893 (some sources say 1896), in Springfield, Ohio. She was the eldest of two daughters born to James Lee Gish and his wife, Mary Robinson McConnell. Gish's father was a candy salesman, who had previously worked in the grocery business. When his daughters were toddlers, he moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland, then deserted them and moved to New York City. Gish's mother soon relocated there as well. To support her daughters, Mary Gish worked at a candy stand in a department store and as a boardinghouse manager. Continuing poverty drove her to appear on stage in the theater. She did so under the name Mae Bernard because she was ashamed of the acting profession. At the time, actors were regarded with disdain by society.
Made Stage Debut
The boardinghouse that Mary Gish managed was frequented by theater people. Mary Gish and her daughters shared a room with a young actress named Gladys Smith and her mother, with whom they became close friends. Through boardinghouse connections, Gish was put to work on stage as well in order to help support her family. She made her acting debut in a touring production of In Convict Stripes, in 1901 or 1902, when she was younger than ten years old. Gish, billed as "Baby Lillian," was put in the care of an actress-friend of her mother's who also appeared in the play. This role led to others. In 1902, she appeared in The Little Red Schoolhouse. Gish received no training as an actress. She told Enid Nemy of The New York Times, "The only acting lesson we ever had was to speak loud and clear. We were told that if we didn't, 'they'll get another little girl,' and they would have."
Gish's burgeoning acting career meant that she often was separated from her mother and sister, and in the care of others. Occasionally, the family could find work in the same production. In 1903-04, for example, she toured with her mother and younger sister Dorothy in Her First False Step. Sometimes, however, Gish was taken by Elbridge Gery's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, until she was retrieved by her mother. Gish's education suffered. By the time she was 11 years old, she had only attended school for five months. However, she did manage to teach herself to read, and Gish's love of books lasted a lifetime.
Cast for Film by Griffith
In 1912, Gish and her sister visited New York City's Biograph Studios to see their old friend, Gladys Smith. Smith had become something of a star under the name Mary Pickford. Smith introduced her friends to director D.W. Griffith, who immediately gave them an unusual screen test. Without warning, he shot at them with a prop gun and then chased them around the room. Their reaction to the situation impressed Griffith enough to hire them at a salary of $5 per week. Gish and her sister made their screen debut that same year in his An Unseen Enemy. For the next nine years and 40 films, Griffith and Gish worked to legitimize film as an art form.
Gish primarily appeared in melodramas, often playing characters with innocence at their core. Griffith liked working with Gish because, though she had the look of an angel, there were complex feelings below the surface as well. To gain a better understanding of people, Griffith directed Gish to attend prizefights and visit insane asylums. To encourage emotional and physical responses in her acting, Gish also took lessons in voice, dancing, and fencing. Thus, when she appeared before the camera, Gish became a master at improvising meaningful small gestures. For example, in 1912's Muskateers of Pig Alley, she cradled her cheek with her hand. Gish also handled many of her own stunts.
Many of Gish's early films with Griffith were two-reel shorts. She usually appeared as a victimized character. For example in 1913's The Mother Heart, Gish played a 30-year-old woman whose baby had died. As Griffith's narratives grew longer and more intricate, Gish's acting ability bloomed. Though some critics said that she had a narrow emotional range, Gish's style was completely different than most actresses of the time. On stage and in film, the popular acting style emphasized exaggeration. Gish balanced restraint and dignity with unbridled passion.
Appeared in The Birth of a Nation
Gish made her best known and most artistically relevant films with Griffith after 1915. The Birth of a Nation (1915) was considered the first film of modern cinema. In Intolerance (1916), Gish played a small but key role as Mother Ages, who rocked the cradle of humanity. Gish's definitive turn as an angel-like waif came in 1919 when she played Lucy in Broken Blossoms. In the movie, Lucy's affectionate relationship with an Asian shopkeeper infuriates her Cockney father so much that he beats her to death. One of Gish's most memorable scenes as an actress was the death scene, as she twisted fitfully to avoid her father's blows. Another unforgettable Gish scene was found in Way Down West (1920). Gish floated down an icy river as she collapsed, with her hand and hair trailing in the frigid water. To get this shot, Gish laid for hours over a three-week period in the cold water in Long Island Sound. The stunt left her with permanent nerve damage in two of her fingers.
In 1920, Gish took on a new challenge when she directed her first and only film, Remodeling Her Husband. The movie starred her sister Dorothy, who had become a successful comedic actress in her own right. The sisters had written the script together. Gish also edited the film, a skill that she learned from Griffith. She also learned how to set up lighting and choose costumes. Griffith and Gish had a collaborative working relationship. He allowed his star to direct screen tests for him. Gish even oversaw construction of his new studio. Her loyalty to Griffith was far-reaching: she followed him from Biograph to Mutual to what later became Paramount. However, Griffith and Gish made their final film together in 1921, Orphans of the Storm. Some speculated that the break was caused by Griffith's jealousy, because Gish was often given credit for the success of his films. Gish claimed that they had argued over money.
Gish had a bad experience with her next two movies, made for Inspiration Pictures. In her unusual contract, she received 15% of the profits, perhaps because she was one of the company's financial backers. After appearing in The White Sister (1923) and Romola (1924), Gish had questions about the finances for the first film. Her inquires led Charles Duell, president of Inspiration Pictures, to claim that she had promised to be his bride. Gish sued and won, her reputation remaining intact. Free of Inspiration, Gish signed a six picture contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer worth about $800,000 to $1 million in 1925.
Asserted Creative Control
Gish's deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was unprecedented for a female star of the time. She had the power to choose projects, directors, and co-stars. Two of Gish's films were literary adaptations. She played Mimi in a 1926 version of La Boheme, with director King Vidor. Gish was so dedicated to the role that she fasted for three days in order to play Mimi's death scene. Also in 1926, Gish played Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. The film was not a financial success because its production costs were high. The only other film of significance that Gish made at MGM was The Wind (1928), her final silent film performance. The story focuses on a West Texas woman who goes insane after she is raped and kills her rapist. While the film was acclaimed in retrospect, studio executives found it too harsh and delayed its release.
MGM's reaction to The Wind was similar to its attitude towards Gish by 1928. Studio head Louis B. Mayer thought Gish's appeal was out of date. He wanted her to be involved in a scandal appropriate for the era of the flapper. When she refused, Mayer threatened to blacklist her and dropped her from MGM's payroll. Gish made two more films for other companies at the beginning of the sound era, One Romantic Night (1930) and His Double Life (1933), before returning to the stage.
Gish had appeared on stage intermittently while doing films with Griffith. Throughout the 1930s, she focused on her theatrical career and some radio appearances. Much of her work was critically acclaimed. She appeared in a Broadway production of Uncle Vanya in 1930, and of Camille in 1932. In 1936, she played Ophelia in Hamlet. In addition to national tours of certain plays, Gish appeared in the long-running comedy Life with Father on Broadway in 1939, and in Chicago for a 66 week run in 1941-42. Gish also made inroads into the literary circles of the day. She became friends with playwright Tennessee Williams, who wrote the role of Blanche DuBois for her in his play A Streetcar Named Desire. Gish was forced to turn down the role because she had to care for her ailing mother.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Gish did more film work, often playing supporting, character-type roles. In 1947, for example, she appeared in David O. Selznik's grandiose Duel in the Sun. In 1955, she appeared in The Night of the Hunter as a shotgun-carrying guardian of orphans. With the growth of commercial television in the late 1940s and 1950s, Gish found roles in the new medium, especially guest spots on episodic shows. She made her television debut in a 1948 episode of Philco Playhouse, "The Late Christopher Bean." Gish returned to Broadway in 1960 when she was cast in All the Way Home.
Despite her successful career, Gish never forgot her roots. In 1969, she began lecturing on college campuses about the beginnings of the American film industry and her work with Griffith entitled "Lillian Gish and the Movies: The Art of Film, 1900-28." Gish also became an advocate for film preservation, perhaps because her own directorial effort had been lost.
Gish continued to work until the late 1980s. In 1978, she appeared in Robert Altman's The Wedding, playing the family's matriarch who dies during a post-nuptial reception. In 1986, she appeared as a crazy mother in Alan Alda's Sweet Liberty. Gish earned an Academy Award nomination for her 105th film role opposite Bette Davis in The Whales of August (1987). In the last decades of her life, Gish was repeatedly honored for her accomplishments. She died of heart failure on February 27, 1993, at her home in New York City. Gish had never married, despite numerous proposals. She was never able to reconcile a career with a husband. In her will, Gish left funds to preserve the work of D.W. Griffith at The Museum of Modern Art.
Further Reading on Lillian Gish
American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Cassell Companion to Cinema, Cassell, 1997.
Great Lives from History: American Women Series, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1995.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-3: Actors and Actresses, 3rd ed., edited by Amy Unterburger, St. James Press, 1997.
Newsmakers: The People Behind Today's Headlines: 1993 Cumulation, edited by Louise Mooney, Gale Group, 1993.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
America, March 20, 1993, p. 14.
The Boston Globe, March 2, 1993, p. 55.
The Daily Telegraph, March 1, 1993, p. 21.
Journal of Popular Film and Television, Summer 1994, p. 50, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times, March 1, 1993.
The New York Times, December 31, 1982; May 1, 1984; May 11, 1986; March 1, 1993; March 12, 1993; March 2, 1997.
People Weekly, February 9, 1987, p. 70; December 14, 1987, p. 70; March 15, 1993, p. 87.
Time, March 15, 1993, p. 23.
Variety, March 8, 1993.