After ‘Life With Father’ Lillian Gish Owns the (Chicago) Town – By Lloyd Lewis (New York Times, 1941)

The New York Times June 1, 1941


After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Town

By LLOYD LEWIS – Chicago

Lillian Gish, by virtue of sixty-six weeks in “Life With Father” at Chicago Blackstone Theatre, now takes her place beside the Lunts, Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell as a truly national star.

She has achieved this position by merely spending well over a year at the crossroads of America, the railroad center, whereas the others have had to tour arduously from Tulsa to Des Moines to Seattle to Atlanta. An amazing number of transcontinental travelers stopped off in Chicago long enough to see this Chicago company of “Life With Father,” and the Pullman people say the show did a lot for midnight bookings.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

But it was by automobile that the great bulk of out-of-towners came to see Miss Gish and the comedy which on May 24 ended its run after setting a new longevity mark for dramas in Chicago. Sedans carrying four or five people arrived constantly from everywhere within a radius of 400 miles. Hitchhikers were found during the year to have come 200 miles just to see the play. One woman in Chicago went thirty-five times. Hundreds are known to have seen it four and five times. What was common was for men to attend during a trip to Chicago and then return some weeks later with their entire families, one of the standard sights in the audiences being that of a father sitting with his home folks and watching, from the corner of his eye, their faces as, on the stage, they saw him satirized, portrayed, “taken off.”

Miss Gish, to the people of the interior, was still a shimmering memory from the silent screen when she arrived in Chicago with the Crouse-Lindsay comedy in the Spring of 1940. She had made brief appearances in spoken dramas during the past decade, but the plays had never been smash hits nor tarried long in the few large cities which they had visited. Her Ophelia opposite John Gielgud had never come West. Most of her stage fame was purely Broadway.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia in Hamlet 1936
Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

But in “Life With Father” she has made herself an entirely new fame in the midlands. The Lily Maid of Astolat is no longer a dream creature in an ivory belfry nor a flower-decked vision on a dark barge. She is now Mrs. Day, mother, wife and housekeeper. Lillian Gish has come from the unreal to the real. She has made people laugh, she has made people adore her for the simplicity and humor as well with the truly great charm with which she has worn the manners and costumes of the past century. She has identified herself with a character, a scene and a play wholly American, wholly practical and realistic so far as atmosphere is concerned.

Life with f lill 58

Midlanders talk about her now as though she had never been a fabulous, distant, legendary creature of D.W. Griffith’s filmdom at all. She is now somebody everybody knows-and loves, and if she chooses, she can tour the midlands for years in this comedy, building for herself a reputation approaching that of Joe Jefferson in “Rip Van Winkle.” It would take years, of course, and it is not likely she will undertake it, for on May 24 she had acted Vinnie Day for seventy-two consecutive weeks without missing a performance or a rehearsal. Some of those weeks were, indeed, rehearsals, but they meant daily work longer and harder than actual performances and must be added to the span of her toil.

“I don’t know,” says she, “if I should play ‘Life With Father’ any longer; Helen Hayes tells me seventy-two weeks straight is too long for an actress. Other theatrical people tell me that I have thus set a new American record for an actress playing a principal role. I don’t know about this. I do know that I grew weary toward the end and only the enthusiasm of those crowds kept me going. I felt, too, that is was good for the theatre, especially in the midlands, to have a play run in one house for more than a year. That could mean the education of new thousands to the value of the drama.”

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

After a Summer’s rest, Miss Gish will decide whether to appear in another play or to return to further tours in “Life With Father.” It was from a balcony seat at the Empire Theatre in New York soon after the original company was launched that she first saw the play. After the first two acts she went to the business office of the theatre downstairs and congratulated the management. One of owner Oscar Serlin’s lieutenants then and there asked her why she didn’t head a second company. Surprised, she retired to the balcony with the statement that if the third act held up she’d see. It did, she saw, and within a few weeks she was rehearsing with the second company.

During the historic Chicago run, which bettered by one week the record set by Frank Bacon in “Lightnin’” in 1921-22. Miss Gish has done herculean work for the play outside as well as in the theatre. She has become a very impressive speaker due to the endless Kiwanis and women’s club luncheons she has addressed. She has been photographed with Mayors, water lilies, new automobiles, 4-H club youngsters. She has posed buying tickets to charities.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

In her, Chicago has seen what D.W. Griffith saw when, at the height of her career as a fragile, ultra-feminine, wraith-like spirit in films, he said “she has the brain of a man.” For the Griffith films she worked daily, every day, across nine years. When she was not acting she was writing subtitles, picking locations, coining advertising catch lines. She learned all about billposting, and bargained for one-sheets, twenty-four sheets, snipes. She coined the title for “The Greatest Thing in Life,” and once in the early 1920’s she directed for Paramount a picture called “Remodeling Her Husband,” with her sister Dorothy as star and an unknown girl-friend named Dorothy Parker supplying the subtitles.

Life With Father - Lillian Gish
Life With Father – Lillian Gish

Not without pride Miss Gish recalls, today, that this film cost $28.000 and grossed $300.000. And she takes satisfaction in the success of “White Sister,” a film for which she raised the money, supervised the scenario, the direction, the acting, and made the releasing deals when major companies refused to handle the film because it was “non-commercial.” It was she who wrote into the script the scene that assured the picture’s success, the ceremonial at which the heroine became a nun; the scene had not been contained in either the novel or drama. Her discovery of Ronald Colman, an obscure stage actor, as a film possibility and her employment of him as the hero of “White Sister” was also a businesslike item in the story of that film. Costing $270.000 it was eventually took in $4.000.000.

So wholly did Hollywood come to agree with Griffith’s verdict that she owned the brain of a man that she had, several years ago, standing offers from companies to come back and direct whenever she wished. But stage acting has been more important to her, obviously giving her mind more nourishment than Hollywood could ever give.

Thinking back across her career, it was not the nine vacationless years with Griffith, nor the seventy-two consecutive weeks of “Life With Father” that have taxed her as much as in the long run as Ophelia in “Hamlet” with John Gielgud.

“And it wasn’t the work that did that,” she says, “it was the emotional strain of Gielgud’s Hamlet. Every night his performance was as emotionally exhausting to me as to the spectators. His was truly great acting.”

Hamlet 1936
Hamlet 1936

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After 'Life With Father' the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941
After ‘Life With Father’ the Actress Almost Owns the Chicago Town NY Times Sun 1 1941

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Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941
Life With Father Blackstone Theatre Chicago postcard ca 1941


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Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper – By ANITA LOOS (The New York Times – September 14, 1980)

1945 Lionel Barrymore Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Anita Loos Press Photo - Duel in The Sun

The New York Times – September 14, 1980

Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper


Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”

Anita Loos and Lillian Gish - Griffith Stamp ceremony
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish – Griffith Stamp ceremony

‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’

Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.

Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.

Robert Altman 100 film 76

Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”

ap wire press photo actress lillian gish housing secretary moon landrieu 1980

Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.

1919 - Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC - Gerald Carpenter
1919 – Gish Sisters and Mother Mary Robinson McConnell XC – Gerald Carpenter

“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.

Griffith and Bitzer on set filming a scene 1919
Griffith and Bitzer on set in action

As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.

To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke
Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.

orphans of the storm - lillian gish is henriette girard - promo wb

I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.

A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.

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

After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.

“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”

“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”

“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.

Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”

“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”

“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”

NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-1
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 - Tribute to a trooper - Anita Loos-2
NYTimes Sep 14 1980 – Tribute to a trooper – Anita Loos-2
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction
Anita Loos rediscovered : film treatments and fiction

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Young Boswell Interviews Lillian Gish (New York Tribune, 1922)

Young Boswell Interviews Lillian Gish

New York Tribune, Friday, November 24, 1922

Because she is a tragedienne of motion pictures, she best understands the pushed-off-in-a-corner woman. Her beauty is fragile and her emotional appeal subtle. “Broken Blossoms,” though a tragedy, was the finest film, artistically yet produced.

She has created a “movie” technique apart from the stage technique, she has sailed to Italy to produce a new masterpiece.

print of a scene from D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan
print of a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) with Lillian Gish as Lucy Burrows and Richard Barthelmess as the Chinaman Cheng Huan

The entire passenger list of the Providence followed LILLIAN GISH to the boat deck, where photographers swarmed to snap her while she checked her trunks, which had already been checked, and said premature goodbyes to her sister Dorothy and Mary Pickford, who had come to see her off.

“She really is lovely looking” remarked one lady through her lorgnette. “And those orchids are just the right flowers for her,” “I like that gray suit with the fur collar,” commented her daughter. “And mother, I want a little black hat like hers, with a lace veil.”

Young Boswell drew Miss Gish away from the photographers to a quiet corner behind a bow ventilator.

Young Boswell: What are you doing in Italy?

Lillian Gish: We are going over to do “The White Sister,” by Marion Crawford.

Young Boswell: Oh, yes. I drove out to this villa in Sorrento. Beautiful view of the Bay of Naples from there.

Lillian Gish: You know he wrote perfect continuity. He built his stories up to the sort of climax which the scenario has to have. He used our technique. My only regret is that he isn’t alive to see his work produced. “The White Sister” is set in Naples and Rome, and we are going to do several scenes on the island of Capri. I hope it will be a good picture. It’s a tragedy like “Broken Blossoms.”

A belated photographer pushed Young Boswell aside, to run a few feet of film for the weeklies.

Young Boswell: Don’t you ever get tired of being photographed?

Lillian Gish: No, I really love it. Did you see “Hamlet” last night?

Young Boswell: I couldn’t get in.

Lillian Gish: Well, one of the critics called John Barrymore the best Hamlet of his generation. I can’t imagine a better Hamlet of any generation. It was an extraordinary performance. I hope it’s still running when I come back. I should like to see it again. I’m coming back in about four months.

And then the foghorn blew a deep blast. Lillian Gish clung to her sister Dorothy, and began to cry. Mary Pickford tried to comfort her.

"Parting of Ways" finally a high resolution - From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s
“Parting of Ways” finally a high resolution – From left Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish aboard cruise ship, on their way to Europe, 1920s

Lillian Gish: I really ought to be happy going abroad. I was when I went over before, during the war.

She looked out into the mist settling over the harbor, veiling the passing tugs and ferries, and the gray water below. “I guess it must be a gloomy day,” she said. The whistle blew again. “Good bye Dorothy; good bye Mary. Good bye Young Boswell.”

When Young Boswell was wandering toward the nearest subway he thought of the stateroom she was to occupy – not large and luxurious and decorated like a florist’s, as one would expect – and of what she had said when asked to explain the pushed-off-in-a-corner woman. “All of us are like that. Struggling and defeated and trying to make good. We are all Saint Peters in our minds.”

“No,” thought Young Boswell as he dropped his nickel in the slot, “she isn’t a typical ‘movie’ actress. She is a very real person, a sincere artist.”

Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)
Lillian Gish – Returning from Rome (White Sister) after visiting the HH Pope (International Newsreel)

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Dorothy Gish – By ANTHONY SLIDE – 1973

The Griffith Actresses


About the Author

Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Slide was born and educated in Birmingham, England. In 1968, he co-founded The Silent Picture, the only serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film. In 1970 he organized Britain’s first silent film festival, an eighteen-day event at London’s National Film Theatre, and he has also arranged seasons there on British Cinema in the Twenties and British Music Hall Comedians on Film. From 1971 to 1972, he was a Louis B. Mayer Research Associate at the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Studies in Beverly Hills, and he now works for the A.F.I. on the American Film Institute Catalog. Slide’s previous book, Early American Cinema, was also published by A. S. Barnes. He is currently at work on a history of the Vitagraph Company of America and a study of the silent cinema in Ireland.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 16
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Portrait of Dorothy Gish view 8]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3555

Dorothy Gish

Oh, she was such fun. — Bessie Love

“She gives people the impression that she’s an awful tomboy,” her sister says with a sigh. “I can’t help it if I do,” the accused replies, “because I do like to climb trees, and I do like to take off my shoes and stockings and go wading, and I do like to swim, and go fishing, and bait my own hooks, and . . .

“Hush, dear, people will think you’re simply terrible and it won’t do any good for me to tell them what a perfect darling you are.” The last from Miss Lillian Gish to her sister Dorothy. “Mr. Griffith,” she remarked, “I’ve often wondered how the divine Sarah would have played this part.” Before Mr. Griffith could answer, Dorothy Gish spoke up: “You mean the great French actress?” she inquired ironically. “Ah yes! She’d do it this way.”

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

The foregoing apocryphal conversation, which appeared in a 1914 issue of Reel Life, suggests the essence of Dorothy Gish’s personality. Her sense of fun and wit was well-known and appreciated by her many friends. Herbert Wilcox recalls in his autobiography: “The wittiest woman I have met is undoubtedly Dorothy Gish. Whilst in New York I took her to the Pavilion, the smartest and darkest restaurant in the city. About that time a columnist who called herself Hortense was dishing out her daily column of poison. ‘Hortense’ was universally loathed, particularly by her pet target—film stars. Whilst eating, I thought I saw her at a far table, but in the low-key lighting was not certain. ‘Isn’t that Hortense over there?’ I asked. Dorothy looked and without a flicker of a smile answered: ‘She looks perfectly relaxed to me.’”

From the day she was born, on March 11, 1898, in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy’s private life was always to be linked with that of her sister. In company with their mother, the two girls spent their early years touring in melodrama, Dorothy having made her stage debut at the age of four. Of her childhood she was to write: “People used to say Lillian would never live to get into her ’teens. She was so quiet and good. I wasn’t. I used to get into mischief, and get spanked, and then Lillian cried—so much and so pitifully that she used to make everyone round her do the same.” However, there was another side to Dorothy’s character, and Lillian recalled that she could be a very serious child, and at times became so serious that she was nicknamed “Grannie Gish.”


In 1929, Dorothy reminisced about the plays Lillian and she had worked in as children. “Remember, Lillian, the old Blaney melodrama we used to play in? Remember Her First False Step? That was the name of our first melodrama. I always thought it was misnamed. There were two of us; Lillian and I were the false steps. Lillian would run out dressed as a newsboy, and give me a lollypop and I would clap my hands and cry ‘Oh Goodie! Goodie!’ And Lillian would kneel beside her mother and say, ‘Oh mother, what are you doing out here in the cold and snow?’ And remember the snow, Lillian? How they used to sweep it up every night and use it again the next day, and we’d have nails and pieces of wood and sometimes dead mice hit us on the head when they threw it down?”

Dorothy Gish early role on stage
Dorothy Gish early role on stage

Then, one fateful day in Baltimore, Mrs. Gish took her two young daughters to see a moving picture; it was Lena and the Geese, featuring Gladys Smith, whose family was intimate friends of the Gishes. Thus it was that when the Gish family arrived in New York, they went along to the Biograph studios to renew acquaintances with the Smiths, and Gladys, now Mary Pickford, introduced them to D. W. Griffith.

Griffith gave the two girls work as extras at $5 a day, and shortly after the first meeting featured both of them in An Unseen Enemy, released September 9, 1912. However, before very long, it became apparent that it was Lillian in whom Griffith was most interested. Linda Arvidson described Dorothy as “a bit too perky to interest the big director.” And Griffith told Albert Bigelow Paine, “Dorothy was more apt at getting the director’s idea than Lillian, quicker to follow it, more easily satisfied with the result. Lillian conceived an ideal, and patiently sought to realise it.”

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 3
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Girl seated with book on lap]; nitrate negative; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth TX; P1990.47.3479

But it was Dorothy who was the more popular at the studio with the other players. Blanche Sweet recalled: “Dorothy was very close and very dear. We got to be excellent friends, and remained so until she died. Griffith asked me, ‘Which one do you like?’ And I said, ‘They’re both lovely, they’re both beautiful, but I like the younger one. There’s something, the expression of her face, it’s vivacious.’ Lillian was calmer and more placid. Dorothy had humor, of course, for which I have high regard.”

Griffith did, however, take Dorothy with him to Reliance-Majestic, perhaps only because Lillian would not have come without her. The director did not use her in either The Birth of a Nation or Intolerance, but Dorothy was featured in a vast number of Mutual releases directed by, among others, James Kirkwood, Christy Cabanne, and Donald Crisp* all under the nominal supervision of Griffith. Typical of such releases was the 1914 The Warning, directed by Donald Crisp.

dorothy gish - as photographed for - dorothy and lillian gish - by lillian gish 17
Donald Crisp and Dorothy Gish in The Mountain Rat (1914)

Dorothy plays Betty, “the wilful, indolent country girl,” who likes nothing better than sitting in a hammock, reading popular fiction with doubtful titles such as The Marriage of Marie. She is attracted to a drummer from the city, whom she meets outside the local post office, and with whom she elopes. After a fake marriage, the girl rents a dingy tenement room, in which she tries to gas herself. However, the landlady arrives on the scene in time, and sends her home to her mother. But because of her behaviour, her mother tells her to leave. The girl, in abject misery, wanders to a bridge and throws herself into the river. The scene fades, and we see that Dorothy has in fact fallen out of her hammock—it was all a dream. She meets the drummer who had beguiled her with his city manners, tells him she never wants to see him again, and promises her mother that in the future she will be good.

This one-reeler is a delight to watch, and makes one wish that more of Dorothy’s pictures from this early period were available for viewing. The range of her acting at such an early date in her career is quite remarkable. It hardly seems believable that comic little Dorothy could play tragedy as finely as she does in the scene of attempted suicide. She stands looking at the gas mantle, turns the gas on, and moves out of frame. All we glimpse is a harrowed, pitiful face, reflected in a mirror by the side of the mantle.

Linda Arvidson at least was aware of her abilities. For she wrote that, while Lillian was watching Dorothy on the set of The Wife, released in 1914, the elder sister commented, “Why, Dorothy is good; she’s almost as good as I am.”* Linda Arvidson continued, “Many more than myself thought Dorothy was better.”

It was Griffith, however, who gave Dorothy her really big chance, when he decided to film Hearts of the World. Lillian had already been cast as the heroine, and the role of “The Little Disturber” it was thought would go to Constance Talmadge. However, Lillian

realised that her sister would be ideal for the role, and eventually Griffith was brought around to her way of thinking. Lillian and Mrs. Gish sailed for England in April, 1917, and Dorothy followed two weeks later. Only on her arrival in England—many scenes were shot on location in war-torn France—did Dorothy discover that the role was hers.

Anyone who has seen Hearts of the World will remember Dorothy’s walk in the picture, and Lillian recalled for me how that walk was discovered. “I was walking with Mr. Griffith in Whitechapel, and we found this girl walking like this, and he said, ‘Look at that walk!’ And we followed her until she went into a building, and we couldn’t any more. And we rushed back. He said, ‘Where’s your sister? This is a perfect walk for her in this part.’ And then we rushed back to the Savoy, and got her, and both of us showed her this walk. And out of that came ‘The Little Disturber.’ Those little things that you or he or somebody found that would give the key to the character. They have the idea that he sat and told you everything to do. Well,  he didn’t. He gave you the basis of the idea, and if you were overdoing it, he’d say, ‘Too much—don’t do so much. Be, don’t act. Be it.’ You didn’t want to get caught acting. You wanted to persuade people, whatever it was, that this was happening and this was real.”

Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron - Hearts of the World
Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish and Riobert Harron – Hearts of the World

One can’t help wondering if Lillian didn’t regret that she had pushed so much to have Dorothy in the film. For Hearts of the World is entirely Dorothy’s picture. She is utterly delightful as the street singer trying to make herself as attractive as possible to Robert Harron with “perseverance and perfume,” and shrugging her shoulders when she realises Harron’s love belongs elsewhere, secure in her philosophy, “If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.”

For the film, Dorothy wore a black wig, which led to some amusing incidents later, as people failed to recognize her as the girl in the film. Dorothy told Adela Rogers St. Johns, “There was a woman sat next to mother and me one day at a matinee of Hearts of the World. The woman watched me on the screen for a few minutes and then she turned around to me and said, ‘I’ll bet that girl is a tough one. She couldn’t pull that stuff so well if she wasn’t.’ ”

As a result of her performance in Hearts of the World, Dorothy was offered a million-dollar contract by Paramount-Artcraft. She turned it down, preferring to remain with Griffith, an instance of the loyalty which crops up time and time again in recounting the careers of the Griffith actresses. After her decision to stay, Griffith supervised a series of seven Paramount-Artcraft comedies, directed by Elmer Clifton and starring Dorothy. These comedies, in fact, were so successful and popular that they helped to pay the cost of the building of Griffith’s new studios at Mamaroneck.

They were equally popular with the critics, as the following reviews from Wid’s Film Daily testify. I’ll Get Him Yet (reviewed May 25, 1919) : “Dorothy Gish has scored again. Individuality is marked in almost everything she does and the merest suggestion of a comic incident is frequently turned into a full-fledged laugh owing to her skill.” Nugget Nell (reviewed August 3, 1919) : “She knew just where to draw the line between seriousness and burlesque, with the result that time and time again she put a situation over with a bang. She was particularly bright in scoring in little things—the sort of things that made her efforts in the comedy line bring laughs merely because of her manner of doing them, and not always because of any inherent humor in the things themselves.”

Late in 1919, Lillian began work on her first and only film as a director, Remodelling Her Husband. As her stars she had Dorothy and James Rennie, whom Dorothy was to marry on December 20, 1920. “Griffith needed money as usual,” recalled Lillian, “and he wanted to go to Florida with his company and make the exteriors down there for two pictures quickly. And he said, ‘How would you like to direct a picture with your sister? I don’t want to break up a happy family, but I think you could do it. I think you know as much about movies as I do.’ Well, I went home, and talked it over with mother and Dorothy to see if they thought it was a good idea. Of course, there was no story. Dorothy thought it was all right, and we got a little piece of business Dorothy found out of a funny magazine, and wrote a whole story around that. I asked if I could have Dorothy Parker come and help me with the subtitles, because she’d never written for films, but I thought she was so witty and so bright— and I wanted it to be an all-woman picture too! Then Griffith left with everybody. He left Harry Carr—he was a brilliant man, the Los Angeles Times editorial writer—and me to do this film. I was taking scenes—it was December—and I’d have Dorothy and James Rennie playing the love scene, and it looked as if they were blowing smoke in one another’s faces, it was so cold. I had to go down to New Rochelle quickly and get all my scenery; I had to design all the scenery, there were no set designers. Dorothy helped with her costumes, but I had to see to all the furniture, everything. George Hill was the cameraman, and he had had shell shock and was hysterical. And I know I got my main set, the living room, so big and not high enough at the back, so that if he took the whole room in, he shot over the top. And he threw his hat in the air, stamped on it, and had hysterics about that. I had to keep him calm. And then I had to build the studio!

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

“When I moved down there, I had to see the furnace was put in, and that the heat was sufficient. I had only fifty thousand dollars to make this picture with. We had a scene of Fifth Avenue, and the day before we took it, I found you had to have a police permit, and if that happened, I had all my crew on salary over the Christmas holidays. I said, ‘I just can’t. It’s too far over the budget.’ And I asked the crew and company if they would take a chance of going to jail with me, because we were doing something illegal.

“Well, 57th Street and Fifth Avenue is the busiest section in New York, and I had to have a bus go by a taxi cab, the wife sitting on top of the bus seeing her husband with a woman in the taxi cab. And we had no permit! We had the cameras in the car ahead, and as we turned a policeman saw what was happening, and held up his hand. Then he looked up at me, and he looked again, and then he put his fingers to his mouth and forced a smile. I said, ‘Yes.’ He waved us on, and we got by. We finished fifty-eight thousand dollars, and it made, I think, ten times what it cost, which not many pictures do today.

“When Griffith came back, I asked him why he did that to me, had me get a studio ready and make a picture, when it was the first one and such an awful chore. He said, ‘Because I needed my studio built quickly, and I knew they’d work faster for a girl than they would for me. I’m no fool.’ And his studio was ready when he came back; he moved right in.”

After three pictures with other directors, Dorothy returned to Griffith, to appear with Lillian in what was to prove the sisters’ final film for the great director, Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have surprised many of his contemporaries by casting Dorothy not as Henriette, the more forceful of the two sisters, but as Louise, the blind girl, who is separated from her sister upon arrival in Paris, where they have come to find a surgeon who could cure the girl’s blindness. Yet again, Dorothy proved that she was far more than the comedienne many people remember. It is hard to believe that Lillian could have put more emotion into the scenes in which Dorothy is forced by Lucille La Verne to sing and beg for money in the streets. “This production is so colossal in conception and in execution; its great moments move one so much; its thrills are so stirring, it is difficult to pin it to paper,” commented Photoplay. “As for the acting—it is superb.”

In the next four years, Dorothy appeared in only seven productions, two of which, The Bright Shawl (1923) and Romola (1924), have become classics, classics which, unhappily, it is impossible to view today. Romola was shot by Henry King in Italy, and Harry Carr reported in Motion Picture Magazine on the return of the two sisters to Hollywood for the premiere of the film. “The Gish sisters came out on the stage together when the picture was over, and Lillian made a frightened but sincere little speech. They were dressed in quaint, lovely gowns that somehow gave the impression that they were not quite of this world. Out there, behind the footlights, they looked like two fragile and beautiful little flowers.”

Then, in 1926, Dorothy was invited to England by Herbert Wilcox to play the title role in Nell Gwyn. Dorothy gladly accepted, and came over to London with her husband, who appeared on the English stage in The Great Gatsby. (So impressed, in fact, by James Rennie was Wilcox—he described him to me as “a damned good actor”— that Rennie was given a role in Wilcox’s 1933 production of The Little Damozel.)

Dorothy was joined in the film by some of the best acting talent that England had to offer at that time, including Randle Ayrton as the king, and Sydney Fairbrother as her mother. The film was an instantaneous success, and may well be the best picture Dorothy ever made. As critic George Jean Nathan commented, “It took a British director and an English-made film to reveal how sexy Dorothy Gish can be.” And “sexy” indeed she is, displaying much of her very beautiful body, and obviously enjoying every minute of her seduction by the king. No wonder Photoplay pointed out, “Just for the grown-ups.”

Nell Gwyn has been revived in recent years, thanks to George Eastman House, and has delighted new generations of filmgoers. Blanche Sweet saw the film again at a three-day tribute to Dorothy at the Museum of Modern Art, and told me, “Really in Nell Gwyn she was so Ipvely, so funny and so good. It was just a pleasure to see the picture again. It hadn’t deteriorated; it was just as good as it always has been.”

Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 - A Paramount Release 3
Dorothy Gish in Tiptoes 1927 – A Paramount Release

Dorothy made four more films for Herbert Wilcox: London, Tip Toes, and Madame Pompadour, all released in 1927, and Wolves, which was released in 1930, and which Wilcox claims as the first English all-talkie. Only Madame Pompadour appears to have survived from this group, and I was able to arrange for its first screening in forty years at London’s National Film Theatre in the spring of 1971. The film proved to be a bitter disappointment. Dorothy’s acting was faultless, as was that of her leading man, Antonio Moreno, and that of the villainous Gibb McLaughlin, but they were no match for a weak story and direction which seems antiquated and without the brilliance one would expect from the man responsible for Nell Gwyn.

Like her sister, Dorothy returned to the stage with the coming of sound. Her theater work included Autumn Crocus (1932), Life with Father (1939), The Great Big Doorstep (1942), and The Magnificent Yankee (1946). Dorothy made her American talkie debut in 1944, as the wife of Otis Skinner in the charming Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. She made only three more films: Centennial Summer (1946), The Whistle at Eaton Falls (1951), and The Cardinal (1964).

Dorothy Gish died of a stroke at a sanatorium in Rapallo, Italy, on June 4, 1968. Lillian was at the bedside. Lillian had written of her sister in Theatre Magazine (November 1927), “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 the shrug of a shoulder. I envy this dear, darling Dorothy with all my heart, for she is the side of me that God left out.” That is how many, many filmgoers will remember Dorothy—as laughter.

The Griffith actresses - cover
The Griffith actresses – cover

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The Griffith Actresses – By Anthony Slide – 1973 (Blanche Sweet, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish)

The Griffith Actresses

By Anthony Slide – 1973

And we may believe they walk again, as they did long years ago.

—Final title in True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

What Made a Griffith Girl?

David Wark Griffith was born in Crestwood, Kentucky, on January 22, 1875; he was the fourth son of Jacob Wark Griffith, a onetime Confederate colonel. In 1908 he joined the American Biograph Company as an actor, after having been previously employed in the same capacity by the Edison Company. On July 14, 1908, his first film as a director, The Adventures of Dollie, was released. His last production, The Struggle, was released on December 10, 1931. He died in Hollywood on July 23, 1948.

D.W. Griffith on set
D.W. Griffith on set

That, in one cold precise paragraph, sums up the career of D. W. Griffith, the man who not only invented screen syntax, but also—and more importantly—gave the cinema the most precious gift of all, beauty. That beauty he presented to film audiences to a large extent through the actresses whom he used in his productions, actresses who studied individually might appear to have little in common but who together had one major common denominator: they were all Griffith Girls.

Carol Dempster in 'Dream Street' (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
Carol Dempster in ‘Dream Street’ (D.W. Griffith, 1921)

What made a Griffith girl? Physically, they were all small, slim, and young, the last attribute perhaps being the most important. “We pick the little women because the world loves youth, and all its wistful sweetness. . . . Youth with its dreams and sweetness, youth with its romance and adventure! For in the theater, as in our families, we look to youth for beauty and often for example. We sit in the twilight of the theater and in terms of youth, upon faces enlarged, we see thoughts that are personal to us, with the privilege of Supplying our own words and messages as they may fit our individual experiences in life.”

All the Griffith girls (excluding, of course, the character actresses) were less than twenty years of age when they came under his direction; Blanche Sweet was not yet fourteen when she joined Biograph, and Carol Dempster was eighteen when she made True Heart Susie, as was Miriam Cooper when she made Intolerance.


It is often said, foolishly, that the Griffith heroine was always ethereal. Which other Griffith actress, aside from Lillian Gish, can be described as ethereal? Certainly not Blanche Sweet or Mae Marsh or Clarine Seymour. As “The Little Disturber” in Hearts of the World, Dorothy Gish was anything but ethereal, and Carol Dempster was only ethereal in as much as she was trying to emulate Lillian Gish. If anything a Griffith heroine had many masculine traits, in that she would fight for what she desired, and if she did not get it, it was not through want of trying.

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

The quality which made these actresses so special, the quality which Griffith saw in each of them—perhaps not instantly, but very soon after the first meeting—was, I believe, “soul.” By “soul” I mean emotion, an inner quality that could be brought to the surface and exposed before the camera: an inner quality that might remain dormant until its possessor came into contact with a mesmerist, a Svengali, a D. W. Griffith.

“Soul” was an expression Griffith often referred to when discussing film acting: “The actor with the Soul enters into the work with all the ardor there is in him. He feels his part, he is living his part, and the result is a good picture. . . . For principals I must have people with souls, people who know and feel their parts, and who express every single feeling in the entire gamut of emotions with their muscles. … It isn’t what you do with your face or your hands, it’s the light within. If you have that light, it doesn’t matter just what you do before the camera.”

Judith from Bethulia 7
Judith from Bethulia

Griffith’s choice of actresses seldom faltered. He always seemed to know who had that “light within,” although it wasn’t always apparent the first time he worked with a particular actress. Linda Arvidson comments, regarding Blanche Sweet, that when she first applied for work at American Biograph, he was “as yet unwilling to grant that she had any soul or feeling in her work.” Occasionally he failed to spot that light at all, as with Florence Lawrence, whom he allowed without demur to leave American Biograph and join Carl Laemmle.

The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me
The Movies Mr.Griffith and Me

All these players remained loyal to Griffith; their devotion was absolute. Lillian Gish has shown her devotion not only in the title of her autobiography, but in one of her acknowledgements therein: “To D. W. Griffith who taught me it was more fun to work than to play.” Lionel Barrymore wrote, “Bless him, he always tried to make one feel his contribution was great even though it might have been piffle.” All of his players have protected his good name throughout the years. It is almost impossible to find anyone who has ever worked for Griffith who has one word of criticism of him. (One almost feels obligated to use a capital “H” for his or him.) The general feeling about the man by all who knew him was summed up by Blanche Sweet, when we discussed his funeral.

“I did go to his funeral, although I don’t believe in funerals. But I did go there, and felt very badly about it, because there were quite a lot of people there, but on the other hand, all of Hollywood should have been there standing. All of Hollywood, because without him, maybe someone else would have come along and done it, maybe, but maybe not. Anyway, he did it. And he contributed more, actually, to making motion pictures than anybody else. There have been a lot of people, men and women, who had done a great deal for films, contributed a lot, but nobody did quite as much as he did. And I really felt that everybody who ever worked in the films should have been there. Well, that s one reason why I don’t believe in funerals.”

Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith's Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950
Richard Barthelmess, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish at Griffith’s Memorial Lagrange Kentucky May 14, 1950

This volume chronicles lives and careers of several of the Griffith girls. Without him most, maybe all, would be unknown today, but I also like to think that his success owed much to their presence in his films. He brought out the best in them, and they responded by assuring his films through their acting—a place in the history of the cinema.

In 1928, D. W. Griffith addressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the following words: “When motion pictures have created something to compare with the plays of Euripides, that have lasted two thousand years, or the works of Homer, or the plays of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, or Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ the music of Handel, Bach, and Wagner, then let us call our form of entertainment an art, but not before.” Griffith was not a modest man; I believe he knew when he made that speech that his films had equalled the works of Homer, Shakespeare, or Handel, that Broken Blossoms was comparable in beauty to “Ode to a Nightingale.” But, as in any great man’s work, it was the collaborators, the interpreters, who played their part as well. The Griffith girls were the Sarah Bernhardt and the Julia Marlowe to his Shakespeare, the Kirsten Flagsted to his Wagner. To them also should be given the praise and the glory. We shall not see David Wark Griffith’s like again; nor, I fear, shall we see theirs—the Griffith Girls’.


The Ladies of the Biograph

The children who tripped to fortune up the steps of 11 East 14th Street. —Iris Barry

American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY
American Biograph Company 11 East 14th Street NY

The studios of the American Biograph Company at 11 East 14th Street were the finest training ground any silent film actress (or actor for that matter) could desire. It is doubtful that any other of the early companies, with the possible exception of Vitagraph, produced so many embryo stars. Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Mabel Normand, Lillian and Dorothy Gish were all stars who served their apprenticeship with the American Biograph Company.

The Griffith actresses - Mabel Normand
The Griffith actresses – Mabel Normand

But there were also many fine actresses working at the studios who never became stars, but whose presence in films, usually in character roles, was something that was received with a sigh of appreciation and thanks. Kate Bruce, Florence Lawrence, Josephine Crowell, Marion Leonard, Claire McDowell, and Linda Arvidson were actresses whose faces, if not names, were known and loved by film- goers during the teens and twenties. They have all long since passed on, but the memory of their performances remains undimmed for all those who loved the silent cinema, and to them this chapter is dedicated.

The Griffith actresses - Kate Bruce
The Griffith actresses – Kate Bruce

Kate Bruce

The character actress whose name immediately springs to mind when one thinks of the D. W. Griffith stock company is Kate Bruce.

Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scenne from the movie Way Down East
Actress Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith, Mrs. David Landau, Burr McIntosh, Lowell Sherman in a scene from the movie Way Down East

“Fortunate Brucie,, as Linda Arvidson wrote, she seems never to have had to hunt a job since that long ago day when D. W. Griffith picked her as a member of the old Biograph Stock Company. Little bits or big parts mattered nothing to ‘Brucie’ as long as she was working with us.”  Blanche Sweet recalled her as “a dear person, very quiet, very calm. Rather shy, she never had much to say. She played a great many of the mothers, of course, always the sweeter, gentle characters—she was that.”

British Cinema Art, London. George Neville, Edgar Nelson, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Richard Barthelmess, Lillian Gish, Lowell Sherman, Vivia Ogden, Creighton Hale, Mary Hay

Blanche Sweet

One of the greatest actresses of all time. —Herbert Wilcox

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet

Linda Arvidson wrote that Griffith “hardly expected her to set the world afire,” and that he was at first “unwilling to grant that she had any soul or feeling in her work.” Undoubtedly, she gave some brilliant performances in the Biograph and Mutual pictures she made for Griffith, particularly in The Painted Lady and Judith of Bethulia, both of which I shall discuss later, but she also proved that in her post-Griffith career, with not always the most helpful or intelligent of directors, she could more than equal her acting in those early dramatic roles. Her appalling performances in some Biograph one- reelers—I’m thinking particularly of The Battle—make me feel that her acting did not depend on Griffith’s direction, or on anyone else’s for that matter, but on her and her alone.

Sarah Blanche Sweet was born in Chicago on June 18, 1896; contrary to what many people believe, Sweet was her real name. She was brought up by her grandmother, Cora Blanche Alexander, to whom Blanche was devoted. It was Mrs. Alexander who introduced the young Blanche to the stage and, as Blanche recalls, “I had done a vaudeville sketch, which I’ve since learned was something from Dickens, and I loved it.” Blanche was also taking dancing lessons from Ruth St. Denis, lessons she was to put to good use later with Gertrude Hoffman.

Even in childhood, a mixture of pride and stubbornness, traits which were to be much in evidence during her film career, was apparent. “I was about four years old, I guess. My grandmother and I were in Cincinnati and Richard Mansfield was going to play there. As was the custom if the part was not large, if there were any children needed, they would get them from city to city. They have children, and pick from them—so I was picked, and I wouldn’t do it. And my grandmother and I—I don’t know if I knew it or not, it may be so—we both needed money to eat. And I wouldn’t play that part. I can remember my grandmother taking me around the backdrop, pleading with me to play the part—she should have hit me. And I said ‘No. I don’t like his face.’ ” Some years later, Harry Carr was to sum up her personality in an article in Motion Picture Magazine: “Blanche has a fierce, unconquerable heart and a tender, sensitive soul. It’s a terrible mixture … a sensitive, brooding soul with thoughts and impressions so sensitized and an emotion so deep that she dares not bare it to the world—nor to herself.”

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet /The Massacre
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet /The Massacre

In 1909, shortage of money persuaded Blanche and her grandmother to investigate films, and a friend suggested they try the Biograph Company. “So my grandmother and I went down, and in the outer foyer, which has been so much described, we made inquiries at a window, and they gave us a form, and we filled that out, and heard nothing. So that was the Biograph Company! Then we made our way up to the Edison Company, which was way uptown, and we had better luck there. They put me into a film the next day as an extra. All I remember about it was that it was raining, and I was under an umbrella. I don’t remember who directed it; I don’t remember who was in it; I don’t remember anything about it, except it was Edison. And then they gave me a picture after that—A Man with Three Wives.”

This film was copyrighted by the Edison Company on November 12, 1909. A comedy 440 feet in length, it concerned Jack Howard and his friend Ralph, who shared an artists’ studio in Greenwich Village. Jack had married against the wishes of his wealthy Uncle Peter, and the only way he could safeguard his interest in his uncle’s fortune was to pass off his wife as that of the already-married Ralph. Jack’s mother-in-law arrives on the scene, is horrified to discover a model in the studio, but mollified when Jack introduces her as Ralph’s wife. The film ends, seven minutes after it had begun, with Jack’s wife charming the uncle, who is attracted to the model, and the entire company dance around the irate mother-in-law. Blanche played one of the “wives,” but which one she does not recall, and unhappily neither the film itself nor any stills from it are known to have survived.

The Griffith actresses - Blanche Sweet /Walthall
The Griffith actresses – Blanche Sweet /Walthall

After this one featured role at Edison, Blanche, with her grandmother, decided to try the Biograph Company again. “The same person who said go down to Biograph said ‘Did you see Griffith?’ and we said ‘No, we just saw a window and a form.’ ‘Well, go down and see Griffith.’ So we did. We asked for Griffith, and he eventually came out and talked to me. And he said ‘Well, you can be in a film this afternoon.’ ”

And so Blanche Sweet made her first screen appearance with Biograph as an extra in A Corner in Wheat, released on December 13, 1909. Based on two works by Frank Norris, a novel The Octopus and a short story “A Deal in Wheat,” the film featured Biograph regulars Henry B. Walthall, James Kirkwood, Mack Sennett, and Kate Bruce.

Lillian Gish cca 18 years old - theater scene

Lillian Gish

Like she really comes on like a star. It’s really too much; she gassed me.

I think I love her.

—Student at Toronto’s York University

Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (mother)
Lillian Gish, Dorothy and Mary Robinson McConnell (Mother)

In August of 1925, Motion Picture Magazine carried a photograph of Lillian and Dorothy Gish with their mother, which was captioned “The Proudest Little Mother in All the World.” One can well appreciate that title for Mrs. Gish, mother of two great film actresses, one of whom, Lillian, has become one of the cinema’s most endearing and enduring stars.

Lillian Gish must surely be the only film actress from the silent era to have become a legend in her own lifetime. It seems totally inexcusable to criticize anything that she may have said or done. As one reviewer, writing of her autobiography, pointed out, to criticize Lillian Gish is comparable to denying God, one’s mother, and one’s country in the same breath. Since that fateful day when she and her sister Dorothy were first introduced to Mr. Griffith at the Biograph studios, the legendary image of Lillian Gish has been growing. She might almost be said to have been nurturing that image from her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, 1896.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen
Lillian Gish as Ophelia, 1936, by Edward Steichen

Writers today idolize her. Edward Wagenknecht has been one of her sincerely devoted admirers for probably longer than most people. In 1927 he wrote, “She is completely a being of lyric loveliness, even to her very name.” Sewell Stokes, in a radio broadcast in January, 1958, commented, “My favourite heroine was a wistful girl with a rosebud mouth and large dreamy eyes. She was beautiful and had about her a frail, spiritual quality that set her apart from the others. From my earliest visits to the cinema I had been in love with her. I had worshiped her from afar; she was a goddess, set on a very high pedestal indeed. And her name was Lillian Gish.”

Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World
Lillian Gish in Hearts of The World

Of course, during the silent era itself, Miss Gish was not quite as revered as she is today. Marion Davies in The Patsy gives a brilliantly cruel parody of a Lillian Gish portrayal. James R. Quirk wrote in Photoplay, “In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attacks of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians, and 999 conscienceless men about town. Someday I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.” The editor of another contemporary film magazine commented, “An optimist is a person who will go to the theater expecting to see a D. W. Griffith production in which Lillian Gish is not attacked by the villain in the fifth reel.” One newspaper critic even suggested the foundation of a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Lillian Gish.

The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2
The Birth of a Nation (David W. Griffith Corp., 1915). Herald2

Lillian Gish and David Wark Griffith; the two names are synonymous. Lillian Gish has starred in more Griffith features than any other actress, and she has carried on the acting tradition that Griffith taught her into the present. She was the ethereal star, who to most people represented the D. W. Griffith school of acting, the helpless heroine menaced by the villainous thug, be it in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, or Broken Blossoms. Lillian Gish was—and is—the supreme Griffith actress.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

Of her films at American Biograph, I feel The Mothering Heart, released on June 21, 1913, was probably Lillian’s best work. It contains the typical Griffith-Gish traits—the death of the baby, the vamp who lures the husband away—but it also contains a superb, adult performance from Miss Gish. Lillian has discovered her husband’s (Walter Miller) unfaithfulness by finding a glove belonging to the other woman (Viola Barry) in his jacket pocket. She leaves him and goes to her mother (Kate Bruce). After the death of their baby, Miller returns. Lillian finds him by the baby’s cot and tells him to go, but then she sees that he has the child’s pacifier in his hand, and realizes her continuing love for him. The film contains some surprisingly mature acting from Lillian (bearing in mind her age at this time), particularly a long, hard look directly into the camera after the death of her child, and a scene of savage, silent fury as she relieves all her pent-up emotions by beating a bush—each stroke a blow against those who have wronged her by taking away both her husband and her child.

The Mothering Heart - 1913
The Mothering Heart – 1913

No one will ever know whether Griffith was aware then of the actress, the star, he had in Lillian Gish. Certainly, he took Lillian with him when he moved on to Reliance-Majestic, but he did not in any way favor her. He was obviously aware of her ethereal qualities when he cast her as John Howard Payne’s sweetheart in Home Sweet Home. It is to Lillian that Henry B. Walthall, as Payne, says “Till the end of the world and afterwards I shall wait for you,” which brings Lillian’s reply, “It will be happiness to wait for him.”

Enoch Arden - Lillian Gish /Paget /Reid

Writing of that period in Harper’s Bazaar, Lillian recalled the lesson that Griffith always drilled into his actresses: “Griffith always told us there was no quick or easy way to stardom, and that being a star had nothing to do with having your name in the papers or up in lights over the marquees of theaters. You were a star only when you had won your way into the hearts of people. He claimed that this would take at least ten years, that we must make pictures so good that they would be worthy of the effort sometimes necessary to see them.”

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

It was not until The Birth of a Nation and Lillian’s role as Elsie Stoneman that the world really sat up and took notice. Lillian recalled for me that Blanche Sweet was originally slated for the part. “She was really, I think, to have had this part in The Birth of a Nation, but I rehearsed for her. If they were making another film, which no doubt she’d be doing with some other director, Griffith would want to rehearse The Birth, and whoever was free would rehearse any part, men and women. And one time I was rehearsing, and George Siegmann was playing the mulatto, and in my excitement at trying to be good and impress Mr. Griffith my hair came down—long, blonde hair to below my waist. I was very thin and unformed, and he picked me up, and my hair and feet almost touched the floor on both sides of him. And Griffith thought, well maybe he saw a full mature figure as Elsie Stoneman, maybe a frail figure with the hair and all would be more effective. I think that’s how I got the job. I didn’t think I was to play Elsie Stoneman; I wasn’t that far up in the company at that time. It was by rights Blanche Sweet’s part.”


After The Birth came Griffith’s greatest work, Intolerance. So much has—rightly—been written about this production that there seems little to add here. As Lillian commented, “The man had it all in his mind. He wrote every bit of it, he designed every set, he designed every costume, it was all his. That’s his monument. It is the greatest film ever made.” Lillian wrote in a letter to the widow of Howard Gaye, who portrayed The Christ in the film, “When Dorothy and I went to Jerusalem two years ago we felt it had been built by Mr. Griffith, and we expected to see your dear husband coming down the street any moment.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess - Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess – Broken Blossoms

The series of Griffith productions that followed Intolerance served further to assert Lillian’s position as the silent screen’s greatest dramatic actress, to make her, in the words of Harry Carr, “the supreme technician of the screen.”

It is unfair to single out any individual film, but if I had to, then I would say Broken Blossoms, closely followed by True Heart Susie, was her finest achievement. Julian Johnson wrote of the former in Photoplay (August, 1919), “It is the finest genuine tragedy of the movies. The visualizing of this bitter-sweet story is, I have no hesitation in saying, the very finest expression of the screen so far. There seems to be no setting or accessory which is not correct in its finest details. The composition is a painter’s. The photography is not only perfect, but, with caution, is innovational, and approximates, in its larger lights and softnesses of close view, the details of bright and dark upon the finest canvases in the Louvres of the world.”

Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms
Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess (Moon Scene) Broken Blossoms

Lillian Gish as the London waif beaten by a drunken father and idolized by the love-sick Chinaman is beauty personified. Every subtitle is almost a poem to her loveliness: “He breathed into an amber flute the alabaster cockney girl’s love name—White Blossom” or “There he brings rays stolen from the lyric moon and places them in her hair, and all night long he holds her grubby hand.” Through Lillian Gish’s portrayal, the spirit of beauty truly has broken her blossoms about our chambers. Julian Johnson, in his Photoplay review, said of her, “She has to be both Lillian Gish and the Mae Marsh of old rolled into one sorrowful little being, and her success in this strange combination of motives and beings is absolute.”

The closet scene, with Lillian whirling around and around in terror, is one of the most famous moments in silent film drama, as is the gesture of Lillian forcing her mouth into a smile with her fingers. “I know I was rehearsing the child in The Chink and the Child, that was called Broken Blossoms you know, and in rehearsal I just put the smile on my face. I hadn’t thought of it, but it just happened. And he [Griffith] jumped up, and he said, ‘Where did you get that gesture? How did you think of that? I’ve never seen that—that’s the most original gesture we ve had in the movie.’ And he then immediately put it all through the film. He grabs something quickly that he felt was good, and enlarges upon it and uses it.”

Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie
Robert Harron, Clarine Seymour and Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie

True Heart Susie was released prior to Broken Blossoms on June 1, 1919. Lillian portrays Susie, a country girl whose love for a local boy, Robert Harron, is responsible for her paying for him to go through college, enter the ministry, and, unexpectedly, marry another woman. The Gish characterization is not as easy to analyze as many people would believe. She is not the simple country girl of the written synopsis. Wid’s Film Daily’s, summing up of her philosophy is true enough: “Her philosophy of life is so simple and beautiful. She loves, and to her love means sacrifice and an abiding faith in the ultimate goodness of things.” But the Gish characterization hints not so much at a selfless sacrifice, but at a sacrifice for a purpose, a sacrifice that eventually will bring her the man she loves. When that sacrifice does not work out exactly as she had planned, and the man she loves marries another woman, then her spite may not be openly visible, but it is there nevertheless, only just beneath the surface. Watch Lillian’s eyes in True Heart Susie. They are not the eyes of a selfless, simple girl. They are the eyes of a devoted creature, until Harron meets Clarine Seymour, and then those eyes are filled with spite and hatred. You know Lillian will get her man, no matter how long she may have to wait.

True Heart Susie
True Heart Susie

At the time of its original release, True Heart Susie was not particularly well-received. Wid’s Film Daily (June 8, 1919) thought, “The trouble here is that there is not enough plot substance to balance properly a production of this length. At times the picture drags, not through any deficiencies on the part of the players, or any shortcomings in the direction, rather owing to a lack of variety in the action. The thinness of the plot makes necessary the too frequent repetition of scenes that in their meaning and expression of emotion are virtually the same. In more abbreviated form, True Heart Susie might easily have become a masterpiece of screen character fiction. At present it suggests an ideal short story expanded to novel length.”

In the twenties, Lillian made only two Griffith films, Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. Then Griffith allowed her to go her own way. Today, that hardly seems believable. How could a director bear to lose an actress of whom Photoplay, reviewing Orphans of the Storm, had written, “Each new Gish portrayal is finer than the one before. The actress works. With a rare beauty and personal charm, she is not content. Her Henriette is sublime.” Happily, Lillian Gish did not seem in any way to be lost without Griffith’s guiding hand. Indeed, many would say it was the director who suffered the loss, Lillian carried the techniques that she had learned under Griffith into the films of other directors, beginning with The White Sister, premiered on September 5, 1923 at New York’s 44th Street Theater. Lillian was—and still is—devoted to The White Sister and its theme.

“Richard Barthelmess had left us after Way Down East, and then he came back. Under his arm he had Tol’able David, and he ran it for us in the projection room one night. Well, we all wept, and Griffith wept, and we were so happy. Griffith hugged and kissed him and said, with the tears in his eyes, how proud he was of him, because he just loved his children to go out and make a success of their own. Then Dick said, why didn’t I come with Inspiration. Well, I found The White Sister, and worked on the script because I wanted it for a new scene that had never been seen on films—and that was the taking of the veil. And I somehow got hold of the ritual, which was a beautiful and sensuous poem. I’m not a Catholic, but I thought it was so dramatic to say ‘the bridegroom’ and flash to the crucifix. Henry King didn’t think much of the story, but he would have made the telephone book to get to Italy. It was just a sensational success. It was the first modern religious film ever made. Up until then, they had made Biblical stories, but this was the first modern religious film.”

Unhappily, aside from Lillian’s performance, the film does not stand up too well today. The direction lacks polish, and there is no excuse for Henry King shooting in the day for night shots, so that the sunlight is clearly visible streaming through the trees.

But it is to Lillian that one looks, and she does not let one down. Who else but Lillian Gish could have been the “ethereal child” of F. Marion Crawford’s novel? As Photoplay noted, “Her work is more evenly balanced and human. She is a woman, rather than a temperamentally high-strung girl.” The scenes in which Lillian takes the veil must be, as she has rightly pointed out, some of the most beautiful ever filmed. “Today you are at liberty to go into the world— tomorrow the doors will be closed forever,” says the Mother Superior to Lillian before the ceremony begins. “Clothed in bridal array for her marriage to the church,” the girl goes before the altar. Three old nuns watch her; the spectator knows that they are remembering the vows that they took so many years ago. As the ceremony progresses, there are only three titles: “Wedding Bells,” “The Bride,” and finally, with a cut to the figure of Christ on the cross above the altar, “The Bridegroom.” Lillian’s hair is cut. She is now the “spouse of Christ.”