Camille – 1932 (A Life on Stage and Screen By Stuart Oderman)

Camille (La Dame aux Camelias) opened in New York on November 1, 1932. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times reviewed the production:

“The Camille in which Lillian Gish is acting has a strange, quaint sort of magic …. If it is not Camille, it is Lillian Gish who remains one of the unworldly mysteries …. Miss Gish moves delicately and quietly through the part. She is frail and her features are exquisitely modeled. Her voice is as innocent as a star of the evening. In the death scene her voice is pathetically childish. Her gestures are limp. Throughout her performance her miniature chaste little Camille seems quite unaware of a courtesan’s perquisites, duties, and prerogatives. She is as detached from worldly turmoils as a vagrant wisp of cloud. And yet when you have noticed all of these aspects of Camille you still have the idealized spirit of Miss Gish to contend with. Even in the part to which she is unsuited, she can still silence a first night audience. Her company is of no great assistance. Some of them overact to the point of burlesque. Some of the make-ups are bad. Camille has a sort of distant charm…. And Miss Gish has reminded us that the tenuous quality of her acting is not to be imprisoned in a midnight review.”

Brooks Atkinson – New York Times (1932)

Lillian Gish in Camille by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum 3
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.149

“The critics weren’t as ecstatic as they had been in Colorado, but those Colorado people were also praising the restoration of the theatre to its former days of glory in the 1860s when they had some touring company pass through. The Colorado engagement was a double package: the restoration of the theatre, and then the play. Lillian’s Camille was a real “ticket printer” as they used to call a success. A real “ticket printer.” I don’t think anybody would consider the play in the same league as a Eugene O’Neill evening. That would be impossible. The pre-New York reviews contained words we had anticipated: oldfashioned, which it was; melodrama, which it was; creaky, it was; and the phrase that spelled doom – showing its age. The older reviewers called it solid theatre. Everyone praised Lillian’s performance. What New York audiences were going to see was grand old theatre, the kind of theatre our grandparents saw. Of course, by modern standards, it wasn’t sophisticated. Dumas, like any writer, was writing for the audiences of his generation. That the play survived his generation, and spoke to generations afterward was the reason the play became a classic. Nothing becomes a classic if it only has limited appeal.”

Blanche Sweet

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian, and Raymond Hackett] [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.176

Amongst the supporting cast she had auditioned and chosen was Raymond Hackett, as Armand Duval, Marguerite’s lover. Hackett was the husband of Lillian’s long-time friend, actress Blanche Sweet, who reminisced about the production in Colorado:

“Robert Edmond Jones, an important set designer, found enough standing of the Central City Opera House, built in 1860, to want to restore it, thinking it would be a nice place to present plays and develop a regular theatregoing audience, as well as a tourist trade. He presented his idea to some sort of council, and they went for it. Immediately all of the citizens in the area went digging in their cellars and attics, looking for anything they could contribute, when they heard the first production was going to star Lillian Gish. Everybody knew Camille. It was a very popular melodrama. Sarah Bernhardt had toured in it for years. She also filmed it. That theatre was loaded with things people were glad to get rid of: furniture, rugs, lamps, little insignificant things like old antimacassars that must have covered the arms of their grandmother’s sofa. What was finally chosen for the sets became a matter oflocal pride. It certainly brought in people who must have attended just to see their furniture come to life on that stage. That sofa Miss Gish is sitting on belonged to our aunt, sort of thing.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett - Laura Gilpin 2 - Camille
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille Central City, Colorado; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.308

By the dress rehearsal, when everything had been assembled, we didn’t believe that anything had been recreated. What we saw on that stage had simply been maintained and dusted before they rang up the curtain. That’s how authentic it looked. You only had to look at that set and you yourself were back in 1860, and it was the current day! People came from miles away to attend the opening: on horseback, in haywagons, stagecoaches. And they were dressed in the clothing of the day! Even with all of the help, we were told the cost of the restoration was over $200,000. A hefty sum for those days.

Lillian Gish and Raymond Hackett in Camille, Central City, Colorado. First Production in the Old Opera House
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); Camille–Gish, Lillian, [And] Raymond Hackett [Made at Chappell Home, Denver]; 1932; Platinum print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.193

What better choice for a Marguerite Gautier than Lillian Gish? Who could be better? Lillian certainly knew how to play a death scene. Everybody always said Broken Blossoms after her name was announced. That’s how she had fixed herself in everyone’s mind out there. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, that opening night – or during any of the performances that followed. Even the ushers wept. You saw them at the beginning of the play, and then they came back for the last minutes, just to watch that death scene. Marguerite was a role Lillian was born to play. I wish I had the handkerchief concession!”

Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen


Lillian Gish in Camille, Central City, Colorado 2
Laura Gilpin (1891-1979); [Camille–Gish, Lillian] [Central City, Colorado]; 1932; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth, Texas; Bequest of the Artist; P1979.140.157

Central City Opera House Reopening on July 16, 1932

Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932
Camille Cast with R.E. Jones and Lillian Gish in Chappel Garden by Laura Gilpin Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas 1932

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Sweetheart – The Story of Mary Pickford 1973


Sweetheart – The Story of Mary Pickford

By Robert Windeler – 1973

… However, Reid sold the producing rights to The Little Red Schoolhouse, and forgot the Smiths. A young girl named Lillian Gish won the role of Mabel Payne and went with the play on tour. In Buffalo, Lillian’s chaperone got sick and she and Lillian had to return to New York. Somebody remembered Gladys Smith and sent to Toronto for her. Charlotte wired back that her only interest was in a package deal, and the producers were desperate enough to hire the four Smiths—at $20 a week—for the play.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford
Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

It was 1906, and Gladys Smith announced: ‘I’m thirteen and at the crossroads ofmy life.’ She made a firm decision to ‘land on Broadway or give up the theater for good’. Lillian Gish inherited her role in In Convict’s Stripes, and Gladys, her family still in Canada, attempted in any way she could to meet David Belasco, the playwright who had become the top producer on Broadway.

Mary Pickford - Cca 1905
Mary Pickford – Cca 1905

Even worse off in pay and status were child actors. While child labor laws were only then haphazardly applied to youngsters in the theater, and truant officers scarcely bothered, there were some do-gooding agencies with great moral force behind them condemning the exploitation of children and attempting to get them back to school. Two of the first things a child ever learned were to lie about his age and a whole lot of other things, and to hide when the Gerry Society came around. By the early 1900s, this group, founded originally as The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, had become active in theater ‘sweatshops’—and renamed for reformer Elbridge Thomas Gerry. Lillian Gish recalled how the girls were taught to wear makeup and high heels at the age ofnine or ten so as to look sixteen if they had to appear in court. Mary had long since found her own way around the rules. ‘The Gerry Society insisted that there be two children for one character and they were supposed to alternate,’ she said. ‘My sister Lottie was often my understudy, but as a matter of fact I never allowed her to play the part.’ ‘Flickers’ then were even a step down from the sordid life of the theater.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Griffith went on to make at least two short films a week and had made over no ofthem when Mary Pickford started working for him. He was in charge of all production for Biograph and Billy Bitzer had replaced Arthur Marvin as his principal cameraman. Bitzer and Griffith were already, in 1909, experimenting with camera and lighting techniques. With Bitzer’s help Griffith in subsequent years invented or developed the close-up, the dissolve, flashback, cross-cutting, pan shot, high and low angle shots, soft focus, back lighting, moving shots and the hazy photography effected by putting layers of chiffon over the camera lens to make the face and hair of his angelic young leading ladies, even more angelic. ‘What Griffith’s mind saw, Billy Bitzer was able to get on film,’ said Lillian Gish.

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

One of Mary’s last films for Biograph was called The Informer, a Civil War story in which the women of a Southern household are trapped in an old smoke-house. Mary managed to hold off a group of Yankee soldiers ‘till the Confederate cavalry, summoned by the faithful Negro boy Leviticus, played by my brother Jack, dashed gallantly to the rescue and the war was somehow soon over and the lovers reunited’. Particularly with Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall, the stars of The Birth of a Nation, in the cast of The Informer, it was a kind of forerunner of Griffith’s epic. Mary was going to make good her threats to go back to the stage for Belasco, and in October 1912 she interrupted a rehearsal, something that was never done, and told a tearful Griffith goodbye. ‘Well, Pickford, God bless you,’ he said. ‘Be good. Be a good actress.’

The play went into rehearsal around 1 November 1912, and Mary’s salary was $200 a week. It tried out in Philadelphia in December and Griffith and a group from Biograph came down from New York for the opening night. Griffith himself followed the play to Baltimore, where it opened at Ford’s theater two days before Christmas, 1912. He was more nervous about it than Mary. The cast also included Ernest Truex and Lillian Gish, who had left Biograph temporarily to go back to her first love, the theater. A Good Little Devil opened at the Republic Theater in New York on 8 January 1913, to great acclaim for Mary Pickford. ‘Her success in the difficult role was phenomenal,’ Belasco wrote. ‘Nothing like her remarkable performance of a child’s part had been seen in New York or elsewhere.’ But Lillian Gish termed the play a ‘good little failure’ and she left it in time to rejoin Biograph for winter filming in California. The play ran until 3 May 1913, but was not the box-office success that The Warrens of Virginia had been.

Despite his success with The Birth of a Nation, his three partners were bigger box-office names and Griffith felt he had to compete with blockbusting hits. Fortunately his first three films for United Artists were just that: Broken Blossoms, Way Down East—which had the first motion picture budget of $1 million, of which only $175 went for the story, nevertheless breaking the record set by Ramona, and $3,000 for the screenplay, Griffith’s first to be all written down—and Orphans of the Storm. All three starred Griffith’s beloved Lillian Gish, and her sister Dorothy joined her in Orphans.

Mrs Morgan Belmont of New York’s 400 played a society matron in Way Down East, giving the movies a new kind of social cachet. Way Down East was the hugest success of the three and Griffith was temporarily back on top. In 1919, from the Griffith studio came yet another innovation, and one that kept Pickford and her sister stars, now solidly in their twenties, still able to play heroines of even twelve. The technique was first tried with Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms. Miss Gish was then twenty-two but Billy Bitzer had made her look ten years younger by filming her through black maline, a fine silk net that covered the regular camera lens and acted as a retouching lens. The results were extraordinary and cameramen began to experiment with netting of a variety of colors and coarseness, eventually developing the diffusion lens, with the softening factor built into the glass.

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford

Mary and Doug maintained theirownseparate production companies within the United Artists framework. He paid himself $10,000 weekly and she paid herself the same, both adding a percentage of the profits to this sum. In 1922 they built the Pickford-Fairbanks studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Mary ordered a six-room bungalow, which she furnished with three cages full of canaries. Douglas had a dressing room, pool, gymnasium and steam bath added onto his offices. A permanent masseur was in residence and Doug’s eclectic group of friends were frequently entertained in this set-up at the end of a day’s shooting. The athletes of the world, whatever their particular sport, also congregated in the movie hero’s gym. He enjoyed their success and learning from them. They enjoyed his success and having their pictures taken with him. ‘Fairbanks was a dynamic person who lived for good health,’ said Lillian Gish. ‘He drank about two glasses of champagne a year. He and Chaplin trained themselves to stay fit. In those days we were really all health-minded.’

Sweetheart : the story of Mary Pickford

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

The Singing Empress (Stuart Oderman)

lillian gish hal holbrook i never sang for my father by r. anderson w playbill 3a

The Singing Empress (Stuart Oderman)

Lillian had returned to the Broadway theatre after a 3 year absence to appear in Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father, which concerned itself with the animosity between a father and son, and the son’s lack of feeling as the father dies alone, wheelchair-ridden and filled with hate. The play opened in New York on January 25, 1968, after having done good business during its pre-Broadway engagement in Boston. Lillian told an interviewer from The Boston Herald Traveler how she prepares:


When I work on a part, I don’t have a pat formula. I wait for the director to tell me what he wants – then I do it. A strong director like Alan [Schneider] pulls all the performances together. In any medium you need a Boss Man, whether it’s films or theatre or on TY. I learned that early with Griffith.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 8
Lillian Gish and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Clive Barnes, reviewing I Never Sang for My Father for The New York Times, slaughtered any potential the play might have had for a successful run with his opening line: “A soap opera is a soap opera whichever way you slice the soap.” While citing the acting as often  admirable, and acknowledging the believable poignancy of the situation, Barnes complained that the playwright’s intentions were “betrayed by its over obviousness.” Lillian’s performance was singled out for special mention: Lillian Gish’s delicately fluttering mother, warm and attractive, is another performance worthy of a more productive cause. Lillian spoke to this biographer during the first week of the play’s 124-performance run. I Never Sang for My Father, like All the Way Home, is a work with autobiographical overtones. Both plays aren’t what you would call happy Saturday night fare. The lack of communication between father and son is a mighty theme that will forever be constantly explored.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 7
Lillian Gish (R), Alan Webb (2L) and Hal Holbrook (2R) in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Many things in I Never Sang were stated, as if that should be enough. This is not an Arthur Miller play with a lot of shrieking and fingerpointing accusations and somebody not being there during hard times. Robert Anderson is obviously not a New York thirties protest writer. He writes with restraint and grace and he doesn’t skirt the issues. It took courage to mount this play in a Broadway theatre instead of an off-Broadway house.

the movies mr. griffith and me (03 1969) - hal holbrook and lillian in robert anderson's 1967 play i never sang for my father— with lillian gish.
the movies mr. griffith and me (03 1969) – hal holbrook and lillian in robert anderson’s 1967 play i never sang for my father— with lillian gish.

Hal Holbrook, playing the son who doubles as narrator, does a splendid job of holding everything together, like the Stage Manager did in Our Town. I always felt, when I read the script for the first time, that Anderson’s play should have been a novel, too. So much of the narration plays like prose. I think the play would have a larger audience. Although the play kept Lillian living and working in New York while Dorothy was in Rapollo, Italy, there were weekly visits.

Lillian Gish, Alan Webb and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play I Never Sang For My Father 10
Lillian Gish and Hal Holbrook in a scene from the Broadway production of the play “I Never Sang For My Father”.

Lillian’s understudy, former silent film actress Lois Wilson, who had starred in Miss Lulu Bett, The Covered Wagon, and The Great Gatsby, recalled Lillian’s often repeated pattern after the Sunday matinee:

We were playing 3 mats a weekWednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. As soon as the curtain comes down: boom! Lillian dashes down the stairs and right into the taxi waiting to scoot her to Kennedy for a flight to Rome. She’d arrive early the next day, get to Rapollo and stay a day with Dorothy, and then fly back here. Somehow she’d grab a few hours of sleep on the cot in her dressing room and manage to do her show. Thank God for time zones.

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)
Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

Playing eight shows a week were demanding in themselves, but the visits to Dorothy were beginning to sap her strength. During one of her visits to Rapollo, Lillian was invited to co-star with her longtime friend, actress Helen Hayes, in a television production of Joseph Kesselring’s hit homicidal comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. Lillian and Helen would be playing two sweet, elderly ladies, sisters, who murder lonely old men after extending an invitation to them to visit and sample their special elderberry wine. Helen Hayes jokingly told this author at their first meeting that she and Lillian had known each other forever.41 In actuality, their friendship, according to close friends, started around 1930. When Lillian had become frustrated with Hollywood after her sound debut in One Romantic Night and decided to return to New York, stage star Helen Hayes had just signed a film contract and was on her way to the coast to begin shooting what was later released as The Sin of Madeline Claudet.

Helen Hayes said: Lillian and I both came up the same way: touring in shows when we were children. Lillian went into films, and I kept on doing stage work.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Lillian came back to work for Jed Harris in Uncle Vanya, which was her Broadway debut, although she had done stage work many years earlier. She said her voice didn’t record right [on film], and not to expect very much. In those early days of sound, if the studio felt your voice didn’t match your look, you had no future, no chance. Luckily, I came from the stage, and I have no previous silent film career. There were no preconceptions on the part of any producer regarding how I sound on film. I knew that stage people were in demand, and they took us as we were. I spoke 8 shows a week. No amplification. If producers or their scouts could hear us in the last row of the balcony, we were approached with a contract.

Voices were what landed the contract. Faces were what maintained them. Lillian’s voice didn’t register then or now as the sound of a damsel-in-distress, the type she played in those Griffith films. Lillian in those days was a face. I was never a face. I was a stage character.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish - Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace
Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

Lillian’s three weeks of rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace required that she rise before eight in the morning, report to the television studio at ten, rehearse until six, have something to eat, and get back to the theatre by seven, the required half-hour before the curtain went up. It was well after midnight when she would arrive home. With Sunday rehearsals, it meant she was working without a day off. Working straight through the week was nothing unusual for Lillian. A 7-day workweek was commonplace when she began acting in one-reelers for Mr. Griffith in 1912. A full day in a full week in 1968, more than half a century later, made Lillian realize she had come full circle. As long as work was available, she would take it! During rehearsals for Arsenic and Old Lace, Lillian preferred to dine at Longchamps because of their flattering lighting. Lillian had maintained her annual overseas trips for injections of lamb embryos in an effort to keep her looking young. Longchamps had low lights, which didn’t throw too much attention on anyone. Lillian was fearful of looking older and not being able to get any work.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Arsenic and Old Lace

Helen observed: Sometimes she [Lillian Gish] is so closely in tune with her own  drummer she misses the beat of what is going on around her…. All her clothes date from 40 years, but the dresses are still elegant … and they still fit. When it came to work, she’s still sharp as a tack.

Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Bob Crane - Arsenic and Old Lace
Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Bob Crane – Arsenic and Old Lace

For the final week of rehearsals, prior to the actual taping, Lillian was rising at five to be ready for makeup at seven. Because the taping went beyond the usual time, Lillian missed two performances of the play. Lois Wilson played them. I Never Sang for My Father ended its run on May 11. Shortly afterwards a telephone call from Rapollo informed Lillian that Dorothy had contracted bronchial pneumonia. Three hours later, Lillian was on a plane bound for Italy. With Lillian at her bedside, 70-yearold Dorothy died on June 5, 1968. Next to the passing of her mother, Lillian would regard Dorothy’s death as the second greatest tragedy of her life. Lillian had been raised by her mother to always look after Dorothy because she was younger and more playful. Now that Lillian was alone, she would only have to look after herself. Otherwise they’ll hire another little girl…

Lillian Gish – A Life on Stage and Screen by STUART 0DERMAN

Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919
Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish Signed full frame 1919

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

La Marquise – by Noel Coward, starring Lillian Gish

La Marquise by Noel Coward starring Lillian Gish

Ogunquit Playhouse Program presented By George Abbott

La Marquise Vechten X1
Lillian Gish by Carl Van Vechten (La Marquise – N.Coward)

Who’s who in the cast:

LILLIAN GISH (Marquise Eloise De Kestournel) has long been acknowledged one of the outstanding favorites of film and theatregoers.

Miss Gish made ·her initial appearance when six years old which she followed up with an appearance in one of Sarah Bernhardt’s productions at the age of seven.

Before beginning her motion picture career she played in “Good Little Devil” in support of Mary Pickford, directed by the late great David Belasco. Her film career remains unparalleled.


Among her brilliant portrayals are those in “Intolerance”, “Way Down East”, “Broken Blossoms” and the film classic, “Birth Of A Nation”.

Duel in The Sun, (behind the scenes) Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, on Set, 1946

She is being seen currently in the widely discussed “Duel In The Sun”.

Miss Gish returned to the stage in “Uncle Vanya”, followed by “Nine Pine Street”, and “Camille”.

Lillian Gish - Uncle Vanya
Lillian Gish – Uncle Vanya

Her Ophelia to John Gielgud’s “Hamlet” was the talk of the theatrical world.

Mary Sinclair
Mary Sinclair

MARY SINCLAIR (Adrienne) will be remembered by Playhouse patrons for her portrayal of Alexandra Giddens in “The Little Foxes”. Before coming to the New York stage Miss Sinclair studied with the late Max Reinhardt and appeared in many leading roles at the world-famous Pasadena Playhouse. Sought after by the major film companies, Miss Sinclair chose the legitimate theatre with its rigorous demands as the answer to an actress who wishes to develop her technique and emotional scope. A young actress with a happy future-Mary Sinclair.

Peggy Wood and Judson Laire (Mama)
Peggy Wood and Judson Laire (Mama)

JUDSON LAIRE (Esteban El Duco De Santaguano) is a veteran if Broadway where he appeared in a long series of successful productions including Sam Harris’ “First Lady”, George . Abbott’s “All That Glitters”, “Mr. Big”, “The Patriots”, and “Doctors Disagree”. He subsequently appeared in the role of John in “The Constant Wife”, in George Abbott’s “Best Foot Forward” and as Bunny in “Biography”. During the war Mr. Laire travelled with U. S. 0. Camp Shows,. “Over 21” and “Here Today”.

Mary MacArthur (Alice Sit By The Fire)
Mary MacArthur (Alice Sit By The Fire)

MARY MacARTHUR (Alice), promising young ingenue, was seen last summer in many summer theatres in support of Helen Hayes in “Alice Sit By The Fire”. Miss MacArthur has toured with Miss Gish in “The Marquise” and received plaudits from all quarters .

La marquise 1947 stage


Now, with only one week of the season left, the management of the Ogunquit Playhouse pauses to first review the season and then to look ahead. It is always interesting and sometimes gratifying to measure what has been accomplished with what was intended. To begin with, Mr. Abbott felt that much might be gained by engaging a succession of the most brilliant and distinguished stars to appear during the course of the season. He initiated this policy opening week in presenting a pair of Ogunquit’s long-standing favorites, Daisy Atherton and Francis Compton. The following week brought Ruth Chatterton who characteristically broke all attendance records established in fourteen years with a superb performance.

She broke another established precedent, incidentally, by returning last week to appear in “Caprice” in answer to earnest requests from all quarters. Since Miss Chatterton’s debut in Ogunquit, Zasu Pitts, Faye Emerson, Judith Evelyn, Richard Widmark and Jane Cowl have contributed to making this what we consider a most successful season.

This week we are privileged to introduce Lillian Gish and next week, Peggy Wood. Mr. Abbott also wished to choose a series of plays which would insure a schedule of many faceted interest. He and Robert Fryer, compiled a versatile program choosing proven favorites “TheLate Christopher Bean”, “The Little Foxes”) as well as recent hits (“Years Ago”, “State Of The Union”, “The Fatal Weakness”). All types of theatre entertainment were represented from the political satire to the drawing room comedy, drama, and musical comedy. The plays themselves have been the products of playwrights of credited excellence. Ruth Gordon’s “Year’s Ago”, Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes”, the Lindsay-Crouse Pulitzer prize play “State Of The Union”, Maxwell Anderson’s “Joan Of Lorraine”, St. John Ervine’ s “The First Mrs. Fraser”, Noel Coward’s “The Marquise” and next week George Kelly’s “The Fatal Weakness” all evidence a competent authorship to which we have tried to do justice in execution.

Mr. Abbott had further expected the Playhouse to function as a proving-ground for new talent which he will want to use in his New York productions. He has not only found this new talent, both technicians and actors, but has provided an opportunity for it to come to public notice.

In conclusion, this has been a season successful in many respects. We have tackled a new thing and have come to feel that our patrons share a bit of our enthusiasm.

The close of this season will be the starting-point for plans and new objectives which we shall look forward to attaining next year. We thank you for your patronage, your interest, and, your suggestions.













The action of the play passes in the main “living-room of Chateau de Vriaac, a few hours from Paris.

PERIOD: Eighteenth Century TIME: Autumn

Lillian Gish - Ogunquit - La Marquise Program 1
Lillian Gish – Ogunquit – La Marquise Program

The Rodney Ackland dramatization of “Crime And Punishment” was set for a December 1947 opening. Boris Marshalove would be working with Lillian at the end of the summer.
To provide summer income, Lillian signed an engagement to play in stock house. Touring with her was Mary MacArthur, the teen-aged daughter of actress Helen Hayes. The vehicle was Noel Coward’s The Marquise (La Marquise), which was set in eighteenth century France and offered good roles for an older woman and a young girl.
The play had but two productions on record: the original London production starring Marie Tempest (for whom the play was written), and an American production the following year.

Stuart Oderman /Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Tasteless Film Sex Disturbs Lillian Gish

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 118, Number 256, 31 October 1973

Tasteless Film Sex Disturbs Lillian Gish

BEVERLY HILLS. Calif. (AP) “As an American, I am against censorship of any kind.” remarked Lillian Gish, one of the great stars of the silent screen. She added wistfully, “But I do wish we could do something about taste.” Miss Gish, the fragile beauty of “Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms” and a host of other silent classics, was paying a return visit to the Hollywood she first saw exactly 60 years ago. She reminisced about the past, particularly her prideful association with D.W. Griffith, but she also talked about present-day films. “Ugliness disturbs me,” she commented, “and much of what is shown on the screen is ugly. Not only in exposure of the human body. I also mean the ugliness of violence. To me, violence is just as offensive as nudity. “Although I do not approve of censorship,

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times B
1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish Nov 6 1973 Sun Times

I wish there were some way to impose taste on the people who make films. It’s not that I mind the portrayal of sex in movies, but sex should be beautiful, an expression of human love. But too often it is made to seem ugly.” A youthful 77, Miss Gish is in the middle of a tour of 30 cities in seven weeks to call attention to her new book. “Dorothy and Lillian Gish,” a $20 family album of the rich careers of the two sisters. She added a historical perspective on the film world’s flirtation with obscenity: “You know. I helped the Italian film industry get started. I went to Rome after the first World War and made the first American film there -The White Sister.’ There was only one broken-down studio in Rome, and we rebuilt it. Then I went to Florence and made another movie, “Romola.”

“I spent two years in Italy, and I had time to learn all about their art. The Italians in the Renaissance went through what our film makers seem to be going through today. Nudity had not been seen before, and at first they exploited it. But then they learned to portray the human body with beauty. “I say to today’s movie makers: Do what you will but do it beautifully.” LillianGish conveyed an air of fragility on the screen, but she is in reality the most resilient of ladies. She has proved that by crossing the country 11 times in the last four years, lecturing to colleges and other audiences on “The Art of the Film.” “I’ve lectured in 41 states only nine to go,” she announced proudly. The barnstorming is a throwback to her childhood, when she and Dorothy toured the country in melodramas.

Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford
Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish and Mary Pickford

The Gishes made their movie debuts in 1912 in “An Unseen Enemy,” starring a stage chum they had known as Gladys Smith now she calls herself Mary Pickford. The director was D.W. Griffith. It was the start of Lillian’s long, distinguished association with the greatest of the silent film makers. She recalled her arrival in California in 1913: “There was nothing but citrus groves, all the way from San Bernardino. I remember passing a little Santa Fe station named Gish; I never saw it again or learned why it was so named.

1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish promoting book 1973
1973 Press Photo Lillian Gish promoting book 1973

“Our first studio was in a car barn on Pico Boulevard, and they put rugs over the tracks when we were filming. We worked only in the daytime, of course, because we couldn’t shoot when the light failed.” She recalled Hollywood as “a village full of churches and a white hotel with a verandah where old ladies in California for the winter sat in rocking chairs.” Throughout her career, Miss Gish only lived here when she was working.

Her home was, and still is, New York “an awful, dirty, noisy, filthy city, but still the most exciting place in the world.” She recently ended a run in a play there, “Uncle Vanya,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring George C. Scott and Julie Christie. After touring the United States and England for her book, she may do the film version. After that? “I don’t know. Things just happen to me. I never plan.”

Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 118, Number 256, 31 October 1973
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Volume 118, Number 256, 31 October 1973

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Robert Altman enthusiast – Lillian Gish remains eager and excited (1978)

Desert Sun, 7 November 1978

Robert Altman enthusiast – Lillian Gish remains eager and excited

HOLLYWOOD (NEA) – Robert Altman is one of the today generation of movie makers. D.W. Griffith was one of the great pioneers of movie-making. It is hard to imagine much of a link between the two, but there is at least one. Lillian Gish. She made a short for Griffith in 1912, 66 years ago and was one of the stars of “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. And she is also one of the stars of Altman’s “A Wedding” in 1978, She is 82 years old now, but as eager and excited i about her current film as any of the younger actors in Altman’s brilliant cast.

She talks often about the past, but it is not as though she were living in the past, as so many elderly people do. Hers is a healthy interest in the past, which is coupled with a similar healthy interest in the present. Her feeling about Altman and his particular brand of film is mixed. After she was cast she plays the groom’s grandmother, the matriarch of a wealthy family Altman arranged for her to see one of his earlier works, “Nashville.” “When I saw that picture,” she says, “at first my reaction was that Mr. Altman really didn’t like the human race.

Robert Altman's Nashville 1975
Robert Altman’s Nashville 1975

And that bothered me, because I do like the human race. “But when I thought about it some more, and when I did this picture, ‘A Wedding,’ I came to the conclusion that all he is trying to do is show us our faults. Now that I know him, I realize that he does love the human race, because he is a very lovely and very kind person.”

She says that Altman let her do anything she wanted to do with her part, even let her wear whatever she wanted to wear. Miss Gish also said that Altman let her discuss how she wanted her face to be lit. “I told the cameraman what I have learned in my many years acting in films,” she says. “And that is that the most important thing in lighting is to light the eyes. If the eyes are lit, the rest of the face looks all right.” Her career began when she and her late sister, Dorothy, worked with their actress mother in plays throughout the Midwest. They began their film careers as teenagers in New York and they became D.W. Griffith’s favorites. Those were silent films, of course, but the Gish Sisters made the transition to talking pictures with ease, because they had had considerable stage training.

“When movies started to talk,” she says, “I made one ‘The Swan’ but I was unfortunate in the director. After that, I thought, ‘Oh, dear, if I’m going to use my voice. I’ll go back where I came from, instead of putting it in a tin can.’ So I went back to Broadway, and did ‘Uncle Vanya.’” Since then, she has made many movies and appeared in many plays, pretty much dividing her time between the two. Even as late as two years ago, she appeared on Broadway in “A Musical Jubilee” at 80, she sang and danced. That’s a sign of how modern Lillian Gish remains.

She often lectures to audiences now, and goes on cruises where she talks about the early years of films. She says she is generally too busy, at home in New York, to see many movies. And she doesn’t watch television often “it’s just autos chasing each other and planes chasing each other; it’s just mechanics, not people” but she does listen to radio. “You have to sit still to watch TV,” she says, “but you can do other things while you listen to radio. And they speak English very well on radio, especially on WOR in New York.” She is always active, and her manager, James Frasher, says he has been with her for nine years now, “and she’s fine, but I’m pooped.” He says she loves working, and he believes it’s a good thing for her to do.

Way Down East - "I baptize thee Trust Lennox ..."
Way Down East – “I baptize thee Trust Lennox …”

She is endlessly curious about the world of today, and, in fact, believes curiosity is a great quality. “If I had a child,” she says, “and could give her one gift, it would be the gift of curiosity. And that’s especially true today, because today there is so much to see. I don’t understand how anybody could be bored today.” She has some reservations about today’s world and today’s culture, however. “I turn down a great many scripts offered to me,” she says. “Even though the character they want me to play may be all right, the overall theme of the piece is often something I don’t want to do. “I never heard bad language. I grew up in the theater with ladies and gentlemen, and I’m still offended when I hear bad language.” Her next project is a pet of her own. She has assembled a sort of film history she calls “Infinity In An Hour,” covering the period from the beginning of the industry until 1928 “That is the period when we in America ruled the world of film, when we built the movie cathedrals around the world.” But even though that project deals with the past, she has one eye on the future. She says she enjoyed working with Altman and, apparently, the feeling was mutual.

Lillian Gish at Six

LILLIAN GISH: “If I had a child, and could give her one gift,

it would be the gift of curiosity.”

Desert Sun 7 November 1978
Desert Sun 7 November 1978

Back to Lillian Gish Home page



A Life on Stage and Screen – by STUART ODERMAN

Lillian Gish

A Life on Stage and Screen


Lillian Gish - Life With Father (Stuart Oderman - book cover)
Lillian Gish – Life With Father (Stuart Oderman – book cover)


New York City: March 12, 1993. There were 700 mourners in attendance at St. Bartholomew’s. The pews were already filled before the start of the eleven o’clock memorial service.1 Even before it was announced in the newspapers and on radio and television, many knew that Lillian Gish had passed away in her sleep at her East 57th Street apartment, where she had lived alone for many years.
“It was what she had wanted,” James Frasher, her longtime personal manager, told the press.2 “She died at 7:03 p.m. on February 27 in her own bed. She was film. Film started in 1893, and so did she.” Film, in the days of its infancy, meant a quickly cranked black-and-white onereeler exhibited in nickelodeons for an audience of poor people, immigrants eager to plunk down their nickels for a new minutes of escapism from the factories, tenements, and drudgeries of the day. In her silent film years, Lillian had risen from a $5-a-day player hired off the street for the Biograph Company in 1912 by D.W. Griffith to co-star with her sister Dorothy in a one-reel melodrama, An Unseen Enemy, to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer leading lady who, in 1927, could command a salary of $400,000, along with her choice of director, script and cast approval, and the added luxury of extra rehearsal time. She had lived long enough to see the “flickers” become “talkies,” which became multi-million dollar color extravaganzas that commanded high ticket prices, sometimes required reserved seats, and caused traffic jams.


Father, Dear Father

The Springfield, Ohio, where Lillian Diana Gish was born to James Leigh and Mary (McConnell) Robinson Gish on October 14, 1893, wasn’t very far removed from the wilderness of an earlier time.

Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street
Springfield, Ohio, Limestone Street

If one wanted to learn of the latest births or deaths or new arrivals settling down, or attempt an honorable courtship, the church was of central importance as a proper meeting place. In Springfield and the surrounding areas, there were small churches of different denominations. To attract and maintain new and established congregants, “dinner on the ground” (a link to a time when churches were hard to find – and preachers harder) became very popular.  It was a common sight to see pioneer wives with food baskets coming to worship in the morning and then staying for the afternoon service.

Springfield Ohio - Downtown
Springfield Ohio – Downtown

Always an active theatre state, Ohio was home to touring companies featuring the likes of Jane Cowl, Maude Adams, and playwright Eugene O’Neill’s father, James, who left the security of a tailor’s job in Cincinnati to join a touring company.

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Lillian and her mother — with Mary Robinson McConnell and Lillian Gish early 1896

To this nomadic life, with its frustration and heartbreak, Mary Robinson Gish would have to surrender herself and her daughters if they wished to survive. The origins of James Leigh Gish were not known or easily traceable. Everyone knew that Lillian’s mother, once known as “pretty May McConnell,” could trace her solid American ancestry back to President Zachary Taylor, a poetess named Emily Ward, and an Ohio state Senator, who was their Grandfather McConnell. Even in an era when townspeople discussed their kith and kin with unabashed alacrity, nobody could speak a complete paragraph about Mary Gish’s husband. James often described himself as a travelling salesman, a “drummer.” Although the most skilled drummers (which James wasn’t) could charm their way through town after town, changing their stories and lines of patter as the occasion required, the only James Gish story about which there was complete agreement was his courtship of young, pretty May McConnell. They had met in May’s hometown, Urbana,  and were married very quickly. Thanks to Mary McConnell’s father, James was able to get a job in a grocery store with the hope that one day he and his wife would have saved enough money to open a confectionery business of their own.

Mary Robinson McConnell
Mary Robinson McConnell

Mary never criticized her husband or his ideas in front of Lillian or her younger sister, Dorothy. Lillian’s retelling of what had been said to her was greeted with a stony silence. It was bad enough to subject other townspeople to drunken reveries in the subdued light of a local tavern, but to put these wandering notions into the mind of an innocent little girl? Where did he get his upbringing? When would he assume the responsibilities of a Christian, God fearing father and stop playing the role of a feckless ne’er-do-well?

Without James’ knowledge, she and her daughter joined the Episcopal church and were regular worshipers, maintaining the tradition that had begun in Springfield. Perhaps if Mary’s thoughts were spoken in proper prayer and constant Sunday devotion, there might be salvation for James. Indeed, for everyone. We must bear and forbear. Amen.

James Leigh Gish

Before the summer ended, James left his family in search of business opportunities in other cities, tightening the bond between Mary and her daughters. Lillian, somehow becoming aware of James’ erratic behavior patterns, knew not to upset her mother with painful questions. Everything Lillian wanted she had found on her Aunt Emily’s farm: chickens, a cat who was always asleep, and a friendly dog. There was no need to think about an absentee alcoholic father who made her mother cry and wasted money on drink.

James Leigh Gish
James Leigh Gish


The Road to Biograph and Mr. Griffith

At the end of the engagement, Mrs. Gish took her daughters to East St. Louis, where she managed an ice cream parlor, assisting the wife of her recently deceased brother. The workday was long, sometimes twelve to fourteen hours. It left her little time to spend with Dorothy or Lillian. Lillian, never an outgoing person, especially needed to be helped. She had been maturing into a young lady and hadn’t received the benefits of an education or childhood experiences. When not acting on stage, she preferred to be alone, spending those quiet hours looking out of the window or curled in a chair, reading books. Sometimes she helped her mother.


To provide a place for Lillian to play and receive a much wanted education, the Ursuline Academy would supply properly cooked meals, a room, and schooling for twenty dollars a month. It would be a financial burden, but Mary Gish acquiesced to Lillian’s please. With an education, she could play “serious, grown-up parts,” and perhaps read better for a director. Without the right education, she would always sound like a little girl. After the initial weeks of adjustment to convent life, Lillian welcomed the opportunity to be removed from the pressures of touring, the lack of constancy, and the nomadic existence of a stage player. The Ursuline Academy provided her with the first stability she had ever received.

St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)
St. Louis Streets in the Early 20th Century (2)

Something called “flickers” was beginning to affect the attendance at theatres. While some stage veterans might have viewed these primitive entertainments as the latest novelty for the lower classes and recent non-English speaking immigrants, it did not take producers long to realize that the nickel price for a program of short films and  newsreels, accompanied by a pianist whose melodies could soften the noise of the hand-cranked projector and underscore the action on the screen, was less than the dime needed for a seat in the upper gallery. Suddenly, “live” players didn’t mean that much. “Flickers” could be shown over and over, from the early morning until the very late evening. There would always be a steady stream of customers.

Cinema old

In 1903, a twelve minute one-reeler in fourteen scenes called The Great Train Robbery, filmed by the Thomas Edison Studios in West Orange, New Jersey, was causing a sensation -whether exhibited in formerly empty storerooms with hastily assembled screen and chairs or in specially built nickelodeon parlors. By 1908, the year of the release of D. W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie, 8 there were more than 10,000 nickelodeons across the United States.

griffith david wark_737

D. W. Griffith’s American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was a typical New York brownstone of the 1850s: four stories with a commercial basement that opened onto the street. Originally, the brownstone had been a private home prior to being tenanted by the Steck Piano Company. When Steck vacated the premises, the basement stores were rented, and the building was leased to Biograph for five thousand dollars. Because some stage actors had scruples about being recognized entering a place that manufactured such low entertainment, they reported to work through a basement store that served as a rented tailor’s shop. Their fear was not of being seen by the public, but by fellow stage professionals who might spread the scandalous news that they knew someone who had to resort to the “flickers” to pay their room rent or feed their (obviously destitute)  families.

the Biograph Bronx Studio
the Biograph Bronx Studio

From his first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908 ), Griffith proved he was the master showman. The Adventures of Dollie contained all of the elements of melodrama that would appeal to an audience: a child is kidnapped by villains, imprisoned in a barrel, and sent down the river, over the waterfalls, and rescued in the final minutes by a group of boys fishing in a stream.

An Unseen Enemy

  • continued the pattern set by The Adventures of Dollie. By constantly changing the point of view, the audience could not avoid being drawn into the plight of the Gish heroines. Like good storytelling worthy of his favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe, Griffith successfully utilized Poe’s short story techniques of presenting the main character and a particular problem, then adding further complications that leads to the climax and denouement. “Scare ’em,” and then “save ‘e m.”

Despite the successes of earlier Biograph arrivals Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet, Lillian in her first film, An Unseen Enemy, would prove to be Griffith’s romantic notion of the perfect heroine. Through film after film, she would maintain, no matter how great the danger, a vision of spiritual purity worthy of the respect one would show to one’s mother or sister. It was an innocence that did not yield to desire. You wanted nothing to happen to her. You wanted to save her, to cherish her, to protect her from corruption and the evils of the world she might encounter if she left the house. She would rise above any negative environment like an angel heaven-bound. Beneath her outer fragility was the undying strength of iron. Off screen, Lillian had the same aura, recalled Hearst journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who began her long newspaper career in 1913, one year after the arrival of the Gish sisters. Lillian knew how to present herself. She always created her own atmosphere. She had none of the features you would associate with the “vamps” or the bad girls. She had blonde hair and big blue eyes, which we would  associate with the fairy tale princess illustrations or the little dolls girls would play with. Lillian was always radiant, like the children you see in holy pictures: not of this earth, and very ethereal. Because she moved with such elegance and grace, like a trained ballet dancer, I think she intimidated men. She would look them directly in the eye and then turn away very demurely. Men loved it. They respected her. Respect for any lady in Hollywood was very rare. Yet Lillian inspired respect. Even in her Griffith days, in an era before women had the right to vote, men would stand up when she approached their table.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916


The Last Reel

On her birthday in October 1990, the Gish Film Theater at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, was rededicated after extensive repairs that included the installation of a 35 millimeter projector with surround sound, replaced floor and wall coverings, more Gish memorabilia in the gallery, new lighting, and plush red seats. Each seat had a name plate on the back, acknowledging Lillian’s and Dorothy’s friends and admirers who helped the theatre Lillian called “a little jewel” glitter with even more warmth.

The Gish Film Theater


On February 27, 1993, Lillian, like all good art, became eternal.



“Any artist has just so much to give.

The important thing is to give it all.

Sometimes it’s more than you think.”

Lillian was just making another disappearance.


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


  • Note: The original illustrations from Stuart Oderman’s book are placed in the photo gallery below:

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father
Lillian Gish and Stuart Oderman backstage I never sang for My Father


Back to Lillian Gish Home page

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


Back to Lillian Gish Home page