Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present – Ally Acker (1991)

REEL WOMEN – Ally Acker

Reel women  pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present (1991)

we know about Griffith, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Scorcese. But what about Blache, eber, Dulac, Lupino, and von Trotta? These women were just as essential and transformative to the cinema and yet their story has remained untold — until now.

  • The first director to tell a story on the screen was a woman.
  • The highest paid director in the days of silent films was a woman.
  • Even Helen Keller produced and starred in her own film in 1919.
  • The first film editor to receive solo screen credit was a woman.
  • The pioneer of social consciousness in film was a woman.
Lillian Gish - Hoover Art Studios LA
Lillian Gish – Hoover Art Studios, Los Angeles


Lillian Gish (1896 – ……..)

“I never had a double or a stand-in,” Lillian Gish remarked to me proudly, “I did it all myself. The blizzard (in Way Down East [1920]—I was facing it. The wind on the peninsula was terrible. The snow as it came against my face melted, and on my eyelashes— icicles! And Griffith yelled at the cameraman, ‘Billy, Billy get that face!’ And he said, ‘I will if the oil in the camera hasn’t frozen,’ and he got that face!” And thus, is told the story behind how D. W. Griffith filmed his very first close-up. “But why did you do it if you knew you might have died?” I asked. Her look at me was one of kind impatience.

Lillian Gish in Way Down East
Lillian Gish in Way Down East

“Because the camera would know it!” she said as though it were self-evident. “That camera is more dissecting than anything that’s ever been invented. You stay in front of it long enough, and it tells, as John Barrymore said, what you had for breakfast. You can’t fool it! And had it been another person lying on that ice, you’d know it from the way they moved. It would tell on you.”Such characteristics mark the pioneer. Actions born out of necessity.

Lillian Gish (film director) 2 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 2 – Remodeling Her Husband

But aside from doing her own stunt work (something that wasn’t unusual for either women or men of the early silent era), Lillian Gish was put in the director’s seat by D. W. Griffith in 1920 with a picture called remodeling her husband (1920). The picture starred and was written by Lillian’s sister Dorothy. Griffith believed that, since Lillian and Dorothy were all but linked at the hip, Lillian would be able to extract a kind of able, insightful, comedic performance out of her sister that might elude even Griffith. “He confidently assured Lillian,” says Marjorie Rosen in Popcorn Venus, “that because she was a woman, she’d be in a better position to deal with financial and production hassles than he was.”

Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) - Remodeling Her Husband
Dorothy Gish and James Rennie (3) – Remodeling Her Husband

All lapses in such logic aside, he seemed to be right—especially when you consider Griffith’s well-publicized, poor reputation for handling finances. Gish brought the picture in on time and under budget. It cost $50,000 and saw a sweet return of $460,000. It ultimately became the second biggest money-maker of all of Dorothy Gish’s comedies. Given a totally free hand at their choice of material, they decided on a funny piece of business that Dorothy had spotted in a magazine. The story told of a husband who accuses his wife of being too dowdy. Says Marjorie Rosen: No more than an amusingly expanded one-liner, in the hands of a female director and star, this film evolved into a novel approach to handling masculine dissatisfaction and feminine pliability. . . . How many male directors would have permitted — or utilized—a story which, though light, mocked men and their eccentric notions of beauty? Although the picture was a moderate success, Lillian Gish said, “Directing is no career for a lady.”

Lillian Gish (film director) 3 - Remodeling Her Husband
Lillian Gish (film director) 3 – Remodeling Her Husband

Apparently, the  administrative hassles were more than she cared to handle. Yet don’t let this Victorian modesty fool you—for that’s exactly what it was. Griffith left a number of pictures in the able hands of Gish. She produced many of her own films after 1920, even if she didn’t always take the credit. After her official directorial debut, Gish then starred in several major films of minor companies that gave her control over scripts and choice of directors. She received the same privileges when she joined MGM in 1925 and chose King Vidor and Victor Seastrom to direct her in “La Boheme” [1926] and “The Scarlet Letter” [1926] respectively.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926
THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

When she was doing “Orphans of the Storm” (1922), she had to come down the steps from the guillotine, after she was released from a beheading, and she met her sister: “I hadn’t cared for the way Griffith had rehearsed and done it,” said Gish, “He used to tease me by calling me Miss ‘GEEESH.’

La fete from Orphans of The Storm - Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers ...
La fete from Orphans of The Storm – Henriette kidnapped by Marquise De Liniers …

“Apparently Miss ‘GEEESHE’ (she mimicks Griffith) doesn’t like what- we’re doing.” “Oh, it’s as good as a scene in any of your other films, Mr. Griffith. I just think more is expected of you.” He says, “If you’re so smart, get up there and do it better!” Well, I got down the steps and played it the way I felt it should be played. There were fifty to a hundred extras there. He got down on both knees and kissed my hand and said, “She’s always right!”

Orphans of the Storm
Orphans of the Storm – Jacques Forget Not and Henriette

As his number one box-office attraction, Griffith would be foolish not to listen to what Gish had to say. He once remarked, “She is not only the best actress in her profession, but she has the best mind of any woman I have ever met.”Fortunately, they respected each other mutually as artists and as people and were able to work out a collaboration that would benefit the entire world for generations to come. Although Gish was wed countless times on the screen, she never married in real life. The reaction to such independence and loyalty to her career was the rise of nasty rumors of an incestual relationship with her sister, Dorothy. Resolved to keep her private life private, she was nonetheless hounded, quite unsuccessfully, by one George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22

She later confessed: What kind of wife would I have made? A good wife is a seven day a week, twenty-four-hour-a-day job. I was devoted to the studio. I loved many beautiful men but I never ruined their lives. Not unlike women in other time-consuming lines of work, women in film seem to feel that marriage to your work precludes any other type of personal allegiances. Gish won a special Oscar for her cumulative work in 1970.

After a long screen absence, she returned for a special appearance in Robert Altman’s “A Wedding” (1978), and kept on going with her 104th film in “The Whales of August” (1987) with Bette Davis. At the time, Gish was ninety-one.

Above: “A Wedding” photo gallery, below – “The Whales of August” 1987

Ally Acker  – 1991

Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present
Reel women : pioneers of the cinema, 1896 to the present

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Those Gish Girls, EACH IS MORE ALLURING Than the Other (1919)

Those Gish Girls


By Charles Frederick Carter

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books – May, June 1919


Both are fond of motoring and drive their own cars Both love music and while Lillian is a great reader, Dorothy, the famous Paramount Star, is a tennis devotee and lover of out-door sports.

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

DOROTHY GISH, the Paramount star whose latest starring vehicle, “I’ll Get Him Yet,” is announced, says she is everything a girl should not be. It is dreadfully impolite to contradict a lady, I know ; but such an outrageous calumny as this simply cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. Possibly she may have meant that she was not at all like her sister Lillian. If she did, why did she not say so and thus avoid needless controversy ? For it is undeniable that Dorothy Gish is not at all like Lillian Gish. Neither is Lillian like Dorothy. Both are as different from each other as—as—well, temperamentally, each sister is the antithesis of the other. Whatever admirable attributes you may discover in one you need not look for in the other.

Lil Dorothy tennis

Dorothy can, and when so disposed does, out-talk Bill Bryan ; Lillian speaks only when spoken to. Lillian is what Edmund Sparkler was wont to apostrophise as “A girl with no big godd nonsense about her”; Dorothy is full of the—er—you know who. Lillian is deep and demure ; Dorothy has a well developed bump of original humor and is as effervescent as a bottle of champagne, if it is permissible to mention the horrid stuff in these bone dry days.

Lillian reads and reads, and after that she reads some more ; Dorothy works off her surplus nervous energy in tennis and other outdoor sports and in entertaining visitors. Lillian is partial to a certain blue and ivory chaise lounge ; Dorothy has never yet been still long enough to find out what such an article of furniture was made for. Both girls are extremely fond of motoring. Both like to drive their own cars. When Lillian drives she bowls serenely along, affording the passengers ample time to view the scenery; when Dorothy is at the wheel it takes two men to see her go by ; one to say “here she comes,” the other to say “there she goes.”

Miss Lillian Gish - On Set - Cca 1915

Both are equally fond of music. Lillian has taken the trouble to become a good pianist ; Dorothy is an expert at changing talking machine records. The interesting thing about all this, the point on which the whole difficulty hinges, is that, according to Dorothy, Lillian Gish is the very most wonderful girl that ever lived ; and that, according to Lillian, Dorothy Gish is the very most wonderful girl that ever lived. Many a night these sisters have sat up to feel proud of each other. When it comes to appearances the sisters bear a marked family resemblance.

the sisters - 1914 — with dorothy gish. 4

Both are pronounced blondes, with blue eyes and a wealth of golden hair. Both have small mouths with Cupid’s bow lips and even white teeth. Not to dwell on details, they are both as pretty as a picture book. Lillian the elder, is 23 years old. She has a lithe, willowy figure, for she is 5 feet 6 inches and weighs but 117 pounds. Dorothy, two years younger, is two inches shorter than her sister, but weighs 130 pounds seven ounces, although she says she weighs 130 pounds and a half. Dorothy does exaggerate so! Possibly you might recognize Lillian if you were to meet her off the screen ; but you wouldn’t know Dorothy, never in the world. What!

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

That radiant blonde with the luxuriant golden tresses the swarthy, black haired disturber in “Hearts of the World”? Considering the bobbed off black tresses Dorothy wears in that and other pictures incredulity is pardonable. But the irrepressible Dorothy has contrived to achieve stellar honors in a series of Paramount pictures. If there ever has been anything so charmingly idyllic in all the history of the screen as the relation between D. W. Griffith and the Gish girls I have never heard of it. Griffith has been both the Cheeryble brothers in one to the Gish sisters ; also a father to them. They have requited him with an affectionate esteem, a loyal devotion to his interests only too rare in these sordid, selfish times.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); Dorothy Gish; ca. 1930’s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.239

Dorothy Gish, Famous Paramount Star, Returns to  Comedy in Delightful Picture, “I’ll Get Him Yet” As Heroine of Charming Story.

 She Becomes Head of a Railroad Corporation and Finds Happiness in the Fires of Love and Jealousy. TO avoid too much income tax, Susy’s fond papa has transferred the Standard Railroads Corporation into her name. To the consternation of all concerned, she insists upon running the works. Susy finds her job complicated with two gentlemen who wish to marry her, and with the troubles of Riviera, a town where the throughcars, by her orders, go whooping through without even hesitating. Among Susy’s lovers is Harold Packard, a wealthy young dilettante and her fat and solemn attorney, Hamilton, not to mention the superintendent of the road. She signs her orders “S. F. Jones,” later corrupted into “Skinflint Jones.” And oh, how Riviera hates S. F. Jones, the monster who will not let the through-cars stop.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (May-Jun 1919)

Packard cannot imagine how Susy could possibly overlook him and as he happens also to own a newspaper, he sends for the star reporter to tip him of? to his probable engagement. Susy comes across the copy of the premature notice of this engagement ; her heart freezes toward Packard, but she finds a sudden and glowing interest in the reporter. Their chance acquaintance blossoms into a love affair and the reporter, Scoop McCreedy, goes with faltering footsteps to see Father. He throws Scoop bodily out and calls him a fortune hunter. Scoop’s pride hurt, he tells Susy it is goodbye forever both to her and to all the other rich girls in the world. But Susy is a young woman of determination. She takes the love trail and fairly drags the offended young swain to the altar. She promises that she will ever touch a single cent of her father’s money, but neglects to mention that she happens to have a few millions of her own. They go to live in a honey-moon cottage. By the irony of fate, it is in Riviera where the cars won’t stop. She dares not reveal her connection with the railroad to her husband and has a terrible time struggling with the problem of getting along on his salary—especially as the revengeful Packard proceeds to fire him. Out of work, he is glad to accept the offer of the Riviera Board of Trade to start a paper roasting the wicked railroad. Finally they appoint a committee to go to the railroad and tell them what Riviera thinks of them all — particularly S. F. Jones—“Skinflint” as Scoop has dubbed him in his paper. Susy is asked to be one of the committee.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (May-Jun 1919)

She cannot find a way to wriggle out so she has to go with the delegation and make fiery speeches denouncing her own superintendent and S. F. Jones—which is herself. In the middle of her speech, in stalks Packard. Susy drags him into an inner office. The sight of his bride dragging out Packard fills Scoop with jealousy. The bewildered superintendent comes to the cottage the next day to find out what she really wants done about stopping the cars and Scoop all but catches him there. Susy sneaks the superintendent hastily out of the house and goes to meet him at the corner. Scoop follows and finds her talking with a strange man behind a sign board. Infuriated with jealousy he warns her that he is going to kill her, himself, and the strange men and everybody else. Then poor Susy’s complications really begin. Her lawyer conies to see her on business ; she hides him in a closet ; Packard comes on a love quest ; she pokes him in a closet ; the superintendent comes again ; she sticks him under a sofa. There they stay while she entertains the jealous hubby and assuages his suspicions. Her various callers come out of hiding just as Scoop unexpectedly returns with his gun prepared to clean out the whole outfit. It looks like a fine chance for a murder or a divorce or something worse. The upshot of the whole thing is that Susy humbly confesses that she is “Skinflint Jones” ; she owns the railroad, the newspaper (which she has gotten away from Packard) about half the town, and everything. Scoop finally decides to forgive his wife for having five or ten millions and true love is rewarded.

Paramount and Artcraft Press Books (May-Jun 1919)


The Cast

  • Susy Faraday Jones, alias Skinflint Jones                     Dorothy Gish
  • Bradford Warrington Jones, her father                       George Fawcett
  • Scoop McCreedy, a newspaper man                            Richard Barthelmess
  • Harold Packard, a rich young dilettante                      Ralph Graves
  • Robert E. Hamilton, Susy’s legal adviser                      Edward Peil
  • William R. Craig, Superintendent of Susy’s railroad Porter Strong

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Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 6
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3482

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Madera Tribune, 1926 “Romola”

Madera Tribune, Volume XXXVII, Number 100, 4 March 1926

Lillian Gish in “Romola” tonight

So many motion pictures are made each year that in the grist of a year’s film entertainment a production has to be superlatively good for it to stand out in bold relief. Such a production is “Romola,” Lillian Gish’s latest picture, which opens at the National theatre tonight for a run of two days. “Romola,” a film version of George Eliot’s immortal novel, is in fact a mile-stone of film progress. It surpasses anything heretofore seen in point of beauty. Never before have we seen such gorgeous settings, such use of shadows, such completeness of feeling for old world grandeur, such detail in the working out of art objects.

Lillian Gish - Romola

The inspiration, of course, was present in that the story was laid in the Florence of the Renaissance, but nevertheless the director, Henry King, and his corps of technical experts are deserving of all the praise one can bestow. Just beauty, however, is only one feature of “Romola” it has also great drama and great players to interpret it. What a cast! Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Ronald Colman. William H. Powell, Chas Lane, Herbert Grimwood and a host of others not entirely distinguishable because they are Italian actors with the usual difficult nomenclature. The Gish sisters are together in this picture for the first time since ‘‘Orphans of the Storm,” and again they show that team-work is a fine art in itself.

Lillian Gish Profile Romola

Lillian, of course, is Romola, and Dorothy appears as Tessa, the little peasant girl who lives so happily until she falls in love with the wicked Tito, and then is swept into tragedy. Both of the girls look more radiantly beautiful than ever before, and it is a delight to see them together again. Ronald Colman, who was the hero in Miss Gish’s “The White Sister,” again demonstrates that he is an actor of fine bearing with a nice repression that is most pleasing, and rather flattering, to the audience.

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola

William H. Powell does the villain role with real suavity, and you rather like him after all; a fascinating performance. The story of Romola is especially adaptable for screen use, and while it might be called a costume picture, the characters are such that you have no trouble keeping their identity in mind, the chief fault with films that are laid in the period of silks and plumes. “Romola” takes place in 1492 and they didn’t wear plumes then to speak of.

4 March 1926

Lillian Gish and director Henry King - Romola candid on set

Madera Tribune 4 March 1926 (Romola)
Madera Tribune 4 March 1926 (Romola)
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin 1930 - French Press
Lillian Gish admiring Romola portrait by Nicolai Fechin cca 1925 (Oil on canvas painting) – French Press HiRes


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Hollywood – By BOB THOMAS – The Associated Press (1945)

San Pedro News Pilot, Volume 18, Number 202, 26 October 1945


By BOB THOMAS – The Associated Press

Hollywood—Movie making has not changed much in 30 years, says Dorothy Gish, and she ought to know. “Should I ask when you made your first picture?” I inquired cautiously. You know how touchy actresses are about their age. “Certainly you may ask,” she responded graciously

Dorothy Gish Television Show Behind the Scenes 5502156

“It was in 1912. In that year we made a one-reel drama for D. W. Griffith.” Miss Gish had made her stage debut at the age of four, as a “male impersonator,” playing Willie in “East Lynn.’ She swears to this day she has a reversion to wearing pants because of Hat role. During their early stage careers, Dorothy and Lillian became close friends with another girl actress, Gladys Smith. One day the sisters saw their friend in a movie and they called the film studio to talk to her. The studio declared there was no Gladys Smith there, but there was a star, Mary Pickford, who formerly bore that name. The girls figured if Gladys could do it, they could, and went to see D. W. Griffith. He put them right into a picture. “My sister and I played two girls whose brother left them in the cook’s care when he went to work,” she related. “But it turned out the cook was in cahoots with a robber and they threatened us. Finally we got to a telephone and our brother arrived just in time.’ Right now Miss Gish is acting in a somewhat more sophisticated picture called “Centennial Summer.” But she claims the art of making pictures has not changed much.

“You have the same long waits while the camera and lights are set up,” she said. “And acting has not changed much except that you can use your voice instead of relying merely on pantomime. “One thing about acting in pictures now—it is much easier. You don’t have to do a thing. You come in the morning and someone fixes your hair. Then someone else dresses you in your costume. All you have to do is act. “In the old days we did all that ourselves. Also I would often design my own costumes.

In fact, I knew nearly everything about film making. If there was a new cameraman on the picture, I could show him how to light my face to the best advantage.” As for the actual shooting of a picture, not much has been developed since the early silent days, she said. Even the boom shots which her director, Otto Preminger, is fond of are nothing new. She said D. W. Griffith took some of his spectacle shots in “Intolerance” from a moving wooden platform. It might be pertinent to add, however, that actors’ salaries have changed quite a bit since those days.

BOB THOMAS – The Associated Press

Intolerance - shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story) D. W. Griffith, American film master
Intolerance – shooting A Ride To The Rescue (Modern Story)


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Dorothy Gish, reveals how she happened – Los Angeles Herald 1919

Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLV, Number 6, 8 November 1919

That tomboy of the films Dorothy Gish, reveals how she happened

Dorothy Gish Cca 1930 FSF

Toss of coin tells which sister to interview …

 But Dorothy Talks Much of Lillian and So Dear Reader You Have ‘Em Both

There never were two sisters in all the history of the world better known than the celebrated Gish girls. Featured by that master producer and director, David Wark Griffith, their fame has girdled the earth and extended from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Many believe that they are twins, but this is not true. Today we have from her own lips the story of how Dorothy, the younger of the sister stars, achieved to fame:

By RAY W. FROHMAN Copyright. 1919, by Evening Herald Publishing Company

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 4
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3480


In the name of Steve Rodie, give me a chance to explain how I ‘‘took a chance.” Which starry sister of the Gish constellation should we have in our series? That was the question. The vivacious Comedienne? Or the ethereal tragedienne—whom even her sister says is “so beautiful”? “BOTH!” say you? Ah yes. But— Separately, ‘twould make this somewhat of a family party, wouldn’t it?

Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) - Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish and The Little Disturber (Dorothy) – Hearts of The World

And together—”How happy would I be with either. Were t’other dear charmer away.” Torn between two such “winners” in the same story, who could do justice to either? SO— I borrowed a coin from the boss and Rambled with myself: “Tails”—Lillian. “Heads”—Dorothy.

Dorothy as "The Little Disturber"
Dorothy as “The Little Disturber”


You, dear readers, who may not approve of my consulting the fickle goddess, had a “sure thing”! Both the Gishes are young. both are talented, and both are beautiful. YOU couldn’t lose! “Heads” won — and so you have today the story of DOROTHY Gish, that rollicking tomboy of the screen. Lillian, at least a thousand pardons! It’s tough on both of us to miss you, but Dorothy “slipped in” a lot about you—and It’s “all in the family” anyway. And now that everybody’s happy, let’s go.


 It may not be too much to say that Dorothy Gish is attaining the highest art, for she is acting HERSELF. As the Little Disturber in Griffith’s “Hearts of the World” some two years ago—that queer, saucy creature with the flexible hips and the mannish swagger, now making a moue, now kicking up a wicked heel—the maker of stars, the general public, first really “discovered” Dorothy Gish.

Ever since, much to her regret, she has been doomed to wear that heavy black wig, in hot weather, beneath powerful lights in interiors; and, much more to her regret, she has been the girl clown, as she was in “I’ll Get Him Yet,” “Nobody Home” and her other starring vehicles,

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 49


How does she do It? How Is It that this dainty cameo, this normal, slender, blue-eyed girl with the “humorous mouth,” can play the harlequin so well? Here’s the answer: She’s a mistress of screen “business,” True to the best clown traditions, Dorothy doesn’t hesitate to make herself homely to be funny. But a “close-up” of Dorothy In person, during and after rehearsal at the Griffith studio in Hollywood, and the yarn of how she got her start and how she “arrived,” as told by herself In delightfully natural fashion, reveals that not merely “getting the most out of” stage business but putting HER OWN SELF on the screen is what makes “Dot” Gish what she is today. For she is chic; she is piquant: she is “cute”; and she is not only as “cunning” as she can be, but as pretty as she can be —another living refutation of the popular  fallacy that it is the photographer’s art to which screen stars owe their loveliness.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 10
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3547


You’ll find this natural comedienne —the sort of practical joker which your family and every family has in it – rehearsing before ever it comes under the camera her own interpretation of the good old “simple country maid coming to the city to go on the stage” motif, under the wing of her director, Elmer Clifton, with good-looking young Ralph Graves, very-y villainous Charley Gerard and a vamp or two as fellow conspirators. She is wearing a simple, one-piece blue dress white shoes and stockings, and her own light brown hair in a pair of curls over each shoulder, with hair-ribbons that don’t match. Even her bangs are impromptu.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 67

Drag her out into the sunshine, perch her on a lucky soapbox, have anuzzer yourself, and she will tell you of her blighted life as follows:

“I was chased out of Dayton, Ohio, a few months after I was born. Mother inflicted me on New York. “A friend of hers said that she (the friend) could play the maid in ‘East Lynn” if she could get a child to carry on, and applied for me. Mother didn’t like it but we were rather hard up then and she let me go.


“So, at the age of 4, I got my start on the stage on the road as Little Willie in ‘East Lynn’ with Rebecca Warren. We opened somewhere in Pennsylvania

“I was in road shows till I was 10, playing child parts. (One season it was “Her First False Step” with  Lillian in it, too. Several years I was with Fiske O’Hara, the Irish tenor, and my last stage appearance was with him in “Deacon O’Dare.” Then the adorable Dorothy attended grammar school for three years at Massilon, Ohio, where she lived with her aunt, and one year at Allegheny Collegiate Institute, Alderson, W. Va., where the climate did such things to her that her mother and sister stopped and burst into tears at their next meeting. Reunited, the Gish trio went to Baltimore on a promised trip to New York for the girls, Lillian wanted to go on the stage again and Dorothy dittoing with all her might as she “had been on the stage so long.”

Fiske O'Hara, The Irish Tenor
Fiske O’Hara, The Irish Tenor


Whom should they discover on the screen in Baltimore, in a Biograph film “Lena and The Geese.” But Gladys Smith? The girlish Gishes had been in plays with the “three Picks” – Gladys, Lottie and Jack. Dorothy tells the rest of the story thusly:

“I called at the Biograph studio on Fourteenth street to see Gladys Smith. ‘I guess you must mean Mary Pickford,’ they said. Mr. Griffith said Gladys could bring her friends in – we were in the lobby, as you weren’t allowed to go in – and I was introduced to him.

“I thought he was Mr. Biograph, as he seemed to have the ‘say so,’ and I didn’t  catch the name. I thought there was a Mr. Vitagraph, too, as there was a Mr. Edison.

“Lillian and I were both engaged as extras.”

This was in 1912, when Dorothy was 14.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

“Mary (Gladys) was leaving there for Mr. Belasco’s ‘A good Little Devil.’ Belasco’s manager, Mr. Dean had been the manager of Rebecca Warren’s ‘East Lynn’ company when I was in it, and introduced me to Mr. Belasco.

“Among us then, ‘Belasco’ was a name to tremble at, a god! I was so fluttered and fussed! He told me later it was the funnies thing he ever saw – Lillian and I kept trying to get back of each other.

“’You don’t want to go on the stage, do you?’ he said to me. ‘You want to go back to school.’ I wanted to choke him – I thought I was so old. Lillian became a fairy in that show on the road. He ‘didn’t have any part young enough for me.’”


When Lillian left this company to go to the Pacific Coast to go into pictures, Dorothy, paying her own way, and their mother had preceded her. Lillian received a regular salary playing parts with the Biograph stock company. Dorothy led a busy life as an extra: in the morning an Indian (a blue-eyed indian) squaw, in the afternoon an Indian man registering a puff of smoke from his trusty rifle, later in the day a white lady in a sunbonnet.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 12

Then , at 15, she went back to New York, succeeded in convincing Griffith that she was worth $40 a week and first began to play ingénues.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 11

“My age was always against me – it was the worst thing I had to put up with,” explained the veteran of 21 summers from her throne on the soap box. “They’d always say: ‘You’re too young – you can’t act till you’re 35.’

“I wanted to be a tragedienne. I only wanted sad parts. When mother read the press notices when I was on the road, saying I was a ‘comedienne,’ the tears rolled down my cheeks. I thought comedians had to have black on their faces, or red beards, and weren’t nice.”

Dorothy had followed the Griffith banner ever since her Biograph days – into the Reliance and Majestic company, then into Triangle plays, where Lillian and Dorothy – still wanting to be a tragedienne – were “starred” in ingenue parts – and then out when he left.


Then Lillian, who had a contract with him, went to Europe with her mother. Later Dorothy was sent for. The result was “Hearts of the World.”

“I had starred before, and I’d had quite a few comic parts, but I wasn’t interested in them” said Dorothy – o’ – the – soapbox, discussing this turning point in her and her sister’s careers.

After this, including her present Paramount starring vehicles being supervised by Griffith, it was always comedienne and black wig for Dorothy – the latter, perhaps, to help differentiate her on the screen from Lillian.

Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World
Dorothy Gish in The Hearts of The World

“I used to ‘kid’ around at home,” continued Dorothy, “and everybody would say: ‘Why don’t you play YOURSELF?’

“’If you’d be yourself, instead of putting on all that heavy acting – ‘ Mr. Griffith said to me.

“It’s hard to do! I don’t know myself. I’m so young and self-conscious-though I’ve got over most of that. In all these seven Paramount pictures I HAVE been freer. I’d like to make people who see me in comic pantomime on the screen feel the way Mark Twain makes the readers feel.

“BUT” – and at this point the Mark Twain “fan” who goes to the other extreme and likes Victor Hugo; too, swallowed a couple of dashes – “they make me play myself, and I wanted to be an ACTRESS!”

By RAY W. FROHMAN – 1919

William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola
William Powell and Dorothy Gish Romola


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Remember The Silent Screen Sisters? (1975)

THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. – Saturday. November 8.1975

Remember The Silent Screen Sisters?

Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish ... having a (big) snack cca 1918
Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish … having a (big) snack cca 1918

Away back in the era around 1920 when movies were probably the most popular form of entertainment, it was not unusual for several members of one family to be stars in their own right. That was the time when the ability of the cast and the quality of the pictures, not sensationalism, packed the movie theaters night after night. Two of the most famous sisters of that time were the Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy.

Lillian Gish by Edward Steichen (Steichen, 27 January 1927). Half Tone Print
Lillian Gish by Edward Steichen (Steichen, 27 January 1927). Half Tone Print

Lillian was a fragile, wistful beauty whose acting could and did tug at your heart strings. Her forte was emotional drama, and she played in such pictures as “Broken Blossoms” which was a record-breaker for its time, “Way Down East” which had been adapted from the stage play, and those famous D.W. Griffith masterpieces, “The Birth of a Nation” which was the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, and “Hearts of the World,” a picture of World War I which did literally touch the hearts of the world.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464

Dorothy Gish, Lillian’s younger sister, was a bright pixie with dancing eyes and an impish smile who always said she wanted to be a tragedian, but who was such a success as a comedian that she never had a chance to try to tragedy. Somehow, you just couldn’t picture her personality fitting into a sad part. But she was perfect in such lively plays as “Mary Ellen Comes to Town,” “Little Miss Rebellion” and “Remodeling a Husband.”

Then there were the Talmadge sisters, Norma and Constance. Norma was the dramatic actress, although she acted in an entirely different type of picture than Lillian Gish did.

Norma Talmadge
Norma Talmadge

Lillian Gish’s pictures might have been called sentimental if anyone else had played in them, but so great was Lillian’s acting ability that she only made them seem real. And besides, audiences liked a certain amount of sentiment in their movies in those days. It got the message across as sensationalism never could. On the other hand,

Norma Talmadge - La Colombe (postcard)
Norma Talmadge – La Colombe (postcard)

Norma Talmadge, whose flashing dark beauty was in direct contrast to Lillian’s blonde loveliness, played in what was known as heavy drama plays such as “The Passion Flower,’’ “The Branded Woman,” “She Loves and Lies” and “Isles of Conquest” titles which tell their own story.

Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl - Intolerance)
Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl – Intolerance)

Constance was the comedian in the Talmadge family, but here again, her comedies were different than those of Dorothy Gish. Constance herself was more serious and the comedy was more likely to lie in the story. Titles were expressive in those days and such names as “The Love Expert,” “Good References,” “Dangerous Business” and “The Virtuous Vamp” give a pretty good idea of the type of pictures Constance played in. Another family pair was Viola Dana and Shirley Mason who used different last names but were nevertheless sisters.

Constance Talmadge 1920
Constance Talmadge 1920

Viola Dana was the elder and possibly the greater actress of the two. Perhaps her best-known picture was “The Willow Tree,” a Japanese story which made her famous. Some of her other pictures were “Cinderella’s Twin,” “Blackmail,” “Puppets of Fate” and “The Off Shore Pirate.”

Viola Dana (Virginia Flugrath, 1897-1987) in Vaudeville
Viola Dana (Virginia Flugrath, 1897-1987) in Vaudeville

While most of Viola Dana’s pictures were on the serious side they were not exactly heavy drama. Shirley Mason, on the other hand, usually starred in pictures of a lighter type which were not necessarily actual comedies pictures such as “Love’s Harvest,” “Treasure Island” and “Love Time.”

Shirley Mason and sister Viola Dana dressed as Rudolph Valentino and Natasha Rambova
Constance Talmadge 1917
Constance Talmadge 1917
THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. - Saturday. November 8
THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. – Saturday. November 8

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Gish Sisters Christen New Hup – 1916 (L.A. Herald)

Los Angeles Herald, Volume XLII, Number 119, 18 March 1916



Christened with the rich golden Juice of a California orange, the first Victoria Hupmobile in the west appeared In Los Angeles this week. Surrounded by the beautiful flowers and crystal watered swimming pool of their Denishawn home, the distinctive motor car is the property of the Aliases Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Known from coast to coast as the loading- figures in such famous film plays us “The -Clansman,’’ “Old Heidelburg” and the “Lily and the Rose,” these two talented sisters are not only Orange day boosters but enthusiastic lovers of Southern California at all times of the year.

Lillian Gish - with Hupmobile car
Lillian Gish – with Hupmobile car (Source: Dorothy and Lillian Gish by Lillian Gish)

Originally the car was nothing more than a late model standard stock car, but upon selecting a Hupmobile as a result of extensive investigation and the added advice of Mrs. Gish, the young women immediately planned for something characteristically distinct. The details of the luxurious pleasure car, all of which are a result of the decorative genius of Miss Dorothy Gish, include tasteful seat covers, snow white wire wheels, rich maroon finish and a specially designed Victoria top.

pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car
pictureplay magazine Dorothy Gish driving her car, with Constance Talmadge and Mother Gish (Mary Robinson McConnell) in the back

Page 89 of the September 1916 issue of “Picture-Play Magazine” a photo of Dorothy Gish driving the Hupmobile with her mother, Mary Gish, and her friend, Constance Talmadge, seated in the back. The man seated next to Dorothy is Harry Sabata who was employed by the Gish family as a man-of-all work and occasional chauffeur although, as this picture indicates, more often either Dorothy or Lillian did the driving. I recall from Lillian’s book, “Dorothy and Lillian Gish,” her mentioning that their mother also drove. From the standpoint of feminine emancipation in the 1910s, the Gishes’ ability to drive a car in those days was yet another indication that they were very much New Women. This page with the photo from “Picture Play” is part of an article by Robert C. Duncan entitled “The Fine Arts Studio.” (William M. Drew)

Gish Hupmobile Detail
Gish Hupmobile Detail

Upon taking the new car the sisters immediately announced it would be used to combine pleasure with work and its very maiden trip was a whirl to the big Griffith studios, where it made its initial camera bow wth Lillian Gish at the wheel. In order to boost California Orange day they withheld their street appearance until today. Having spent a portion of yesterday at the Chapman orange ranch in Fullerton the popular screen artists returned home with enough golden fult in thefr Hupmobile to present « souvenir to each of the army of co-workers at the Hollywood studio today. “We have always wanted a distinctive motor car.” said Miss Lillian Gish, bright star of the “Clansman.” “But we wanted one that would harmonize with our work in the films, with the surroundings of Denishawn and with the wishes of mother. (Los Angeles Herald – 18 March, 1916)

Photoplay (Photoplay Publishing, July 1916). Magazine Lillian Gish and her Hupmobile car
Photoplay (Photoplay Publishing, July 1916). Magazine Lillian Gish and her Hupmobile car

The Victoria Hupmobile has measured up to every requirement and everybody is happy. “While we realize that there is nothing startling about a Victoria top in Southern California nor are wire wheels at all uncommon, yet the combination when embodied with the few graceful lines of this Hupmobile: present an artistic motor picture that has no rival. (Los Angeles Herald – 18 March, 1916)

Lillian Gish with a new Hupmobile
Lillian Gish with a new Hupmobile

Above are Lillian and Dorothy Gish with their new Victoria top Hupmobile. Lower picture shows Lillian Gish alighting from car, which has top extension in place.

Gish Sisters Christen Newhup – 1916 (L.A. Herald)

Los Angeles Herald – 18 March, 1916

Lillian Gish - with Hupmobile car
Lillian Gish – with Hupmobile car

“The lists of registered automobiles in California were regularly published as booklets from 1905 to 1922 by the state’s Motor Vehicle Division. In the March 1916 registered automobiles volume, I found the following listing: registration no., 141747; owner, Gish, Mrs. Mary; address, 6th and St. Paul sts., Los Angeles; make, Hupmobile Tour; engine no. and hp., 64968 22.

Gish Hupmobile Detail
Gish Hupmobile Detail (registration number)

 The 1916 Los Angeles City Directory lists Lillian, Dorothy and Mrs. Gish as photo players and gives the exact number of their address as 600 St. Paul Avenue. The home where the Gishes lived in 1916 has long since vanished and is today occupied by a large office building built in 1948.”

(William M. Drew)

600 St. PAUL Avenue from corner w
600 St. PAUL Avenue from corner w (L.A.)
Gish Hupmobile Detail
Gish Hupmobile Detail

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Lillian Gish with a new Hupmobile article

Photo Gallery:

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In Praise and Celebration of SISTERS – A HELEN EXLEY GIFTBOOK (1998)

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish visiting Universal Studios in July 1943



She is laughter, even on the cloudy days of life; nothing bothers her or saddens her or

concerns her lastingly. Trouble gives only an evanescent shadow to her eyes

and is banished with a shrug of a shoulder…

She is the side of me that God left out. Her funny stories, her delight in sitting on

mens hats, her ability to interest herself in a hundred and one people… her talent for

quick and warm friendships, her philosophy of silver linings….

When Dorothy goes in swimming, she splashes the ocean into a beautifully gala

muss; I just go in swimming. When she dances, there is no tomorrow; when I dance,

the trombone always stubbornly reminds me of a director in a bad mood…

The world to her is a big picnic with a great merry-go-round and lots

of popcorn and wonderful balloons.



How I envy her the singleness of purpose, the indefatigability the unabating

seriousness which have taken her straight to the heights she has reached

and will carry her on and on!

She is blessed with a constitution that can respond to any demand. Long after I

am ready to be hauled off on a shutter, she, apparently so frail, can go on tirelessly

unruffled, cool and calm…. What a priceless combination for an artist! Unswerving

ambition, deep seriousness of purpose, and not a nerve in her body!

She is to me a never-ending source of astonishment and admiration. And I never

cease to wonder at my luck in having for my sister the woman who possesses all the

qualities of greatness.


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