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Lillian Gish White Sister Frame 2

“As I pressed my face against the train window, the rain seemed to cover it with tears…”

“I never approved of talkies. Silent movies were well on their way to developing an entirely new art form. It was not just pantomine, but something wonderfully expressive.”

“I don’t care for modern films–all crashing cars and close-ups of people’s feet.”

“I’m a believing person. I believe in God even though I can’t see him. You can’t see the air in this room, right? But take it away and you’re dead. And I believe there’s something for us after we die. The world isn’t wasteful.”

“I surely take no pleasure in being the rather melancholy person I am. I too, would like to believe in all the lovely rainbows in which Dorothy believes. I, too, would surely be happy to find some day that hard work was not hard work at all but just a charming pastime. Unfortunately for me, however, a Klieg light is just a Klieg light and not the English moon. As a little girl, I wasn’t much good at playing and I find that, try as I will, I don’t play very convincingly today. I am not unhappy. I simply am not gay. It must have rained in the evening I was born, and it seems arbitrarily to have kept on raining in my heart ever since.”

(The Movies, Mr.Griffith and Me).

Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East - Vanity Fair June 1920
Lillian Gish Tease Way Down East – Vanity Fair June 1920

She has sidestepped the horror-movie trap of the ’60s and ’70s that exploited other aging film heroines, including current co-star Bette Davis. Gish got her start on stage, in a 1902 road melodrama in the Midwest, but it was in 1912 that she made her first short film for David Wark (D.W.) Griffith, to whom she was introduced by girlhood friend Gladys Smith, soon to become Mary Pickford. Work in silent and later talking pictures consumed Gish’s energies for nearly 20 years of her early career, and when she returned to film in 1943 from a long stage interlude, she never again abandoned the screen. Gish made her acting debut, as Baby Lillian, with Huston in ‘The Convict’s Stripes’ in a barn-turned-theater in Rising Sun, Ohio. She was 5 at the time and the daughter of a struggling actress. You can safely say that about stage players, for their performances survive only in the memory. But Lillian Gish’s performances exist in films that have been subjected to scrutiny again and again. The verdict is always the same: Lillian Gish is astonishing.

Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles

Meeting her is an exhilarating experience,for her enthusiasm is undimmed. She has the ability to convey her memories as though relating them for the first time. To see that face—the most celebrated of the entire silent era. and so little changed—and to hear references to “Mr. Griffith”and “Mary Pickford” is to know you are at the heart of film history. She was discovered, if that is the right word, by D.W. Griffith. She credits him with giving her the finest education in the craft of film that anyone could receive. He created much of that craft himself, making up the rules as he went along. She calls him”the Father of Film.” And the pictures they made together read like a roll call of the classics of the cinema: The Birth of a Nation (1915). Intolerance (1916). Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms(1919). Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921). The films she made immediately after she left Griffith, when she had her choice of director, story, and cast, include more classics, such as La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), and The Wind(1928). In a later chapter of her career, she played in Duel in the Sun (1946), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Orders to Kill(1958), and A Wedding (1978).

The seriousness with which Lillian Gish took her work was undermined at MGM in 1927 when it was suggested that a scandal might improve her performance at the box office. “You are way up there on a pedestal and nobody cares.” said the producers. “If you were knocked off the pedestal, everyone would care.” Lillian Gish realized she would be expected to give a performance off screen as well as on. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just don’t have that much vitality.” Shortly afterward, she returned to her first love,the theater, and the cinema lost her for the better part of a decade.  What the film producers failed to comprehend was how much value for the money she gave them, for she was part of an older tradition. Griffith had imbued his players with the discipline and dedication of the nineteenth-century theater, and Lillian Gish carried these qualities to unprecedented lengths.

Screen legend Lillian Gish was 93 when she co-starred in “The Whales of August”, making her the oldest actress ever to feature in a leading role. In one scene, Lillian Gish and Ann Sothern are seen overlooking the ocean. Sothern’s character remarks that whales have scarcely been seen since the war due to submarines. In real life, Ann Sothern’s paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, was the inventor of the modern submarine. The film received its New York City premiere on October 14, 1987, Lillian Gish’s 94th birthday. It was first released in France nine weeks earlier.

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish visiting Universal Studios in July 1943

All we have in common is our mother,” said one of the most unlike sisters in the world. Lillian Gish spoke. The young tragedienne whom John Barrymore has called “The American Bernhardt” sat staidly in a chair according to the accepted relation of chairs and sitters. Fine Arts gave Dorothy Gish star roles in numerous five-reelers. She was featured in “Betty of Graystones,” “Little Meena’s Romance,” “Gretchen, the Greenhorn,” “The Little Schoolteacher,” “Jordan’s a Hard Road,” and was an adorable Little Katje with Wallace Reid in “Old Heidelberg.” The Little Disturber was the golden opportunity of her life, and she realized it. Very often the characters in Griffith photo plays seem to mirror the master director in every word and action, with small chance for showing their own individuality, but in the case of The Little Disturber, the original Dorothy Gish vivacity and tireless energy came to the surface every foot of the film.

Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater
Oct 9 1982 (BGSU) Lillian Gish in The Gish Film Theater

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