Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies (Chicago Tribune – March 01, 1993)

Chicago Tribune – Monday, March 01, 1993 – Page 55

Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies

From Chicago Tribune wires

NEW YORK – Lillian Gish, the last of the great silent film stars who went on to perform for more than 85 years in movies, theater and television, has died at age 99. Her personal manager, James E. Frasher, said she died in her sleep Saturday evening of heart failure.

“She was the same age as film,” Frasher said. “They both cam into the world in 1893.”

Miss Gish still was performing as recently as the late 1980s. In 1986, she appeared as Alan Alda’s hilariously addled mother in “Sweet Liberty” and in 1987 she was praised for her sensitive portrayal of an indomitable old woman in “The Whales of August,” which co-starred another movie legend, Bette Davis.

Mike Kaplan and Lillian Gish during filming for ‘The Whales of August’

“To become an actress, one cannot begin too soon,” said Miss Gish, who made her acting debut at age 5. Under the guidance of director D.W. Griffith, Miss Gish was to become the pre-eminent actress in such classics as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Way Down East.”

Lillian Gish as Anna Moore – wearing her Wedding Dress – Way Down East

After performing in dozens of one and two-reel silent movies – with running times of 10 or 20 minutes – and then in the longer Griffith epics, Miss Gish made a successful transition into the “talkies” and later into television.

Between film and television roles, she also worked on the stage. In 1930, she starred as Helena in Jed Harris’ Broadway production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” and in 1973 she appeared as the nurse in Mike Nichols’ revival of the play. She made her last Broadway appearance in 1975, in “A Musical Jubilee.”

Lillian Gish and Mike NicholsUncle Vanya – 1973

Especially in her youth, Miss Gish evoked an aura of fragility, and hers was a vulnerable, waiflike beauty. The renowned theatrical impresario David Belasco pronounced her “the most beautiful blonde I have ever seen.”

Miss Gish, though not always in excellent health, was accustomed to hard work and took a no-nonsense view of her physical attributes.

“I didn’t care about being a beauty,” she said in an interview in 1975. “I wanted to be an actress. When I was in the movies, I didn’t care what I looked like, except for that image up there on the screen. I wanted to create beauty when it was necessary; that’s an inner thing. But if all you have is a façade, it isn’t interesting.”

Throughout her life, Miss Gish remained singularly devoted to her mother and her sister, Dorothy, who was younger, but became an actress about the same time Lillian did. Mrs. Gish died in 1948, after years as an invalid, and Dorothy Gish died in 1968.

Miss Gish never married and leaves no survivors. “I loved a lot of dear men, but luckily I never ruined their lives by marrying them,” she said. “What kind of a marriage would it have been to a wife who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week?”

FILE – This 1915 file photo shows actress Lillian Gish as she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s movie, “Birth of a Nation.” The film’s cast also included some of the greatest directors of the talking era, among them Raoul Walsh (who played John Wilkes Booth) and John Ford (who played a Klansman). (AP Photo)

The artistic collaboration between Miss Gish and Griffith lasted more than a decade. During that time, she appeared in dozens of Griffith’s short films and starred in most of his critically and economically successful longer ones.

Lillian Gish (Henriette Girard) “Orphans of the Storm”

In some films, she played bit parts; in others, she played several roles; in some, she was the star. All of Griffith’s actors did the same, and it was not until after the success of “The Birth of a Nation” that any received on-screen credit.

Hendrick Sartow, a still photographer who eventually became a cinematographer for Griffith, invented for Miss Gish the “Lillian Gish lens,” *** now called a soft-focus lens, which gives its photographed subject a warmly blurred appearance.

In the mid-1920’s, Miss Gish became embroiled in a long legal battle with Charles Duell, a socialite who had been her financial adviser (and, as she said in 1975, “sort of my Svengali”), over sums she allegedly owed him.

Lillian Gish and The Carrot syndrome 1925

During the trial, Miss Gish munched carrots, and newspaper photographs of her stirred a carrot-chomping fad across the country. Americans had become enchanted with the new artistic aristocracy – the movie stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Miss Gish.

Lucy’s smile … (Broken Blossoms)

Earlier, after Miss Gish pushed up the sides of her mouth with her fingers to demonstrate feigned happiness in a movie, the gesture became a much-copied fad.

One Romantic Night – The Swan

Miss Gish made the transition from silents to talkies in 1930 in “One Romantic Night,” with Rod LaRocque and Conrad Nagel. By that time, she had signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “My contract called for six pictures in two years, for which I was paid, I believe, a million dollars,” she wrote.

Lillian Gish as Ophelia and John Gielgud in Hamlet 1936

Miss Gish made a triumphant return to the stage in 1930 in “Uncle Vanya” on Broadway. In 1936, she played Ophelia to John Gielgud’s Hamlet and Judith Anderson’s Queen Gertrude, and, in 1941, she began a record-breaking 66-week run in “Life With Father” in Chicago. In 1960, she starred in “All the Way Home” on Broadway.

Life With Father – Lillian Gish and Percy Waram

When not before the cameras or an audience, Miss Gish toured the world, lecturing and showing Griffith’s classics.

Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized her work in 1970, *** presenting her an honorary Oscar, and the American Film Institute presented her its lifetime achievement award for 1984. In 1982, she received the Kennedy Center Honor.

1982 DC Ronald Reagan – Lillian Gish (Kennedy Center)

She said current movie-making methods had ruined the quality of acting.

“No one rehearses anymore, so how do you know what to do? They just do takes 100 times over. Now, distributors make more money on popcorn than on the film, and deservedly so.”

Admin note:

*** Billy Bitzer invented the “Lillian Gish” lens not Sartov

*** The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Lillian Gish’s work in 1971, not 1970.

Chicago Tribune – Monday, March 01, 1993 – Page 55 Lillian Gish, 99, enduring star spanning the history of movies From Chicago Tribune wires

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Famous Friends (1977)

Actresses Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes have tea in the Gish home in New York before an outing 1977

Famous Friends (1977)

1977 New York:

Actresses Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes have tea in the Gish home in New York before an outing. Asked about their long careers, they agreed that one should always have curiosity and vitality to carry it out. The two have appeared together only once – in a 1956 CBS-TV special, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Miss Gish is godmother to Miss Hayes’ son, actor James MacArthur, and to her grandson, Charles Macarthur. (August 19, 1977 UPI)

Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes in Central Park NY 1977 – cab horse

Still Just Horsing Around

Actresses Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes team up to share a horse laugh with another veteran entertainer – one of the few remaining cab horses in New York. The women, friends for 56 years, still continue acting.

Actresses Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes — and one of the few remaining cab horses in New York 1977
Actresses Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes with one of the few remaining cab horses in New York 1977
UPI – Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes have tea in the Gish home in New York before an outing 1977

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Body in The Barn (1964) Alfred Hitchcock

Body in The Barn (1964) Alfred Hitchcock

The great Lillian Gish, one of the legends of the silent screen, was a superlative actress throughout her life. This fantastic episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR from 1963 showcases Miss Lillian as good as anything she ever did in the sound film era. Miss Gish stars as a cranky, nosy old gal in ill health who has long feuded with her neighbor and blames her for the death of an elderly man who plummeted off a cliff thanks to a fence the neighbor put up. This fantastic mystery/suspense has echoes of REAR WINDOW – and HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, although the latter film hadn’t even been made yet – and Miss Gish is simply superb in this film, cast against type as a not always very likable woman. The whole cast is good but this is Lillian’s show. “Body in the Barn” is one of THE ALFRED HITCHOCK HOUR’s finest hours.


Joseph M. Newman


Harold Swanton, Margaret Manners


Alfred Hitchcock, Lillian Gish, Maggie McNamara
Body in The Barn (1964) Alfred Hitchcock

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My Life in Three Acts – Helen Hayes (1991)

  • My Life in Three Acts
  • Helen Hayes
  • Published by Simon & Schuster
  • First Touchstone Edition 1991

When Lillian Gish is visiting, she always comes to breakfast in a peignoir. She makes a very pretty picture with her hair flowing down her back. But deshabille doesn’t suit me; I can’t function that way. I have to be fully clothed, because once the day begins, it gets beyond me, out of control.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish attend at preview in New York Thursday of an exhibit entitled Anita Loos and Friends

Not long ago, my friend Lillian Gish and I discussed this problem. At the time we were both watching a TV miniseries about Peter the Great. We were excited, at first, because so many actors we knew and admired were in the cast. After the third installment I asked Lillian what she thought. “I’ve stopped watching,” she replied. “It was just a lot of actors dressed up for a costume party.” Exactly what I thought. Here were actors who had made Shakespeare’s words ring like golden bells mumbling their way through what was essentially no more than a series of tableaux vivants. It is hard to know where to place the blame: on actors who don’t consider their dialogue worth delivering well, or on writers who don’t bother writing literate dialogue when so few actors make an effort to speak well.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman – Anastasia

I had turned down the role of the Russian dowager empress in the film version of Anastasia. I didn’t think the part of a domineering Romanov suited me. But, then, I can’t remember ever playing a role that didn’t seem, at first, more suited to someone else. Even in the case of Victoria, despite my enthusiasm I thought an English actress would have been more appropriate. On stage the dowager empress had been played magnificently by Eugenie Leontovich and by my close friend Cathleen Nesbitt, and I didn’t think I’d be nearly as good as either of them. But friends kept urging me to get back to work. They all believed the wounded soldier had to return to action, never mind the bandages or the morphine. And the attitude in the theatre world has always been: “The show must go on,” whatever the personal cost to the actors. Josh Logan implored me to take the Anastasia role, saying it was my duty to use the talent God had given me. Anita Loos and Lillian Gish also encouraged me, Anita going so far as to say she would accompany me to London, where the film was to be shot. Eventually I gave in.

Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes – Anastasia

Lillian Gish is another old friend who has spent several Christmases with me in Cuernavaca. We first met in New York back in the early 1930s, after Lillian left Hollywood because she didn’t like the changes sound brought to moviemaking. She felt that the crude vocal reproduction of the early talkies distorted her voice, so she decided to give up filmmaking and return to the theatre, where she had worked before becoming D. W. Griffith’s leading lady in silent films. Around the time that Lillian came back to New York, Jed Harris was preparing a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and he chose Lillian for one of the two female leads. Jed was romantically involved with Ruth Gordon at the time, and Ruth met Lillian through him. I got to know Lillian through Ruth. This was somewhat ironic, as Ruth and Jed and I later became estranged, but Lillian and I are still close friends after fifty years.

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

We had only one bad patch. It happened a few years ago, when we were rehearsing for a TV production o{ Arsenic and Old Lace. We broke for lunch one afternoon well after 2 p.m., and Lillian and I headed for Longchamps, one of a chain of restaurants that offered good food and soft, flattering lighting. The latter, needless to say, was very popular with ladies of a certain vintage. As we waited for lunch, Lillian started talking about her latest obsession: rejuvenating treatments offered by a Rumanian doctor she knew. His elixir of youth was administered in injections of certain animal substances—lamb embryos, or something like that. This Dr. Feelyoung’s cure-all had been rejected by the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration on the grounds that it was pure quackery. Ignoring that verdict, Lillian had gone to Rumania every year for the doctor’s injections. Like too many stage and film people, she had fallen into a desperate struggle to retain her youth, and she believed the treatments worked. Why was the American medical establishment against the good doctor? It was just jealousy, she thought.

Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes

I listened quietly for a while, but finally I got fed up. There was a lot wrong with our system of medicine, I said as calmly as possible, and I was well aware of its shortcomings. But at least we were way ahead of other countries in protecting the naïve against the flummery of mountebanks. So far our voices had been modulated to match the soft lighting around us. But now Lillian became shrill. “Let me tell you what I think of American medicine,” she burst out. “My banker, who is in charge of all my affairs, has a letter stating that if I get too sick to make my wishes known, I am to be taken to Europe immediately.”

“To what country?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” said Lillian. “Anywhere except America!”

That really irritated me. “Lillian,” I exclaimed, “you’re a bubblehead!” Suddenly we were shouting, two gray-haired ladies yelling at each other while a group of waiters stood around nervously, probably fearful that we would soon start slinging china. What a tidbit that would make for the gossip columnists—Longchamps Brawl: Hayes vs. Gish.

But it wasn’t only Lillian’s strange fixation and the harm it might do her that bothered me. Her attitude toward American medicine offended me for a personal reason: I was deeply involved in working on behalf of a Nyack hospital that had been named for me. This may sound self-serving, but the truth is that I was gratified that the use of my name could help win support for a hospital that provided good care and sponsored important research. I suppose Lillian’s condemnation of all U.S. medicine struck me as an affront to my hospital and its dedicated staff, though of course she hadn’t meant it that way. We soon came to our senses. That was the only argument Lillian and I have ever had, and since then we have tacitly understood that medicine is a subject we have to avoid.

lillian-gish-james-macarthur-new-york-usa-19 jun 1960 detail

Lillian is full of surprises. Once, when she was visiting in Nyack, we took a long walk along an Indian trail on the cliffs above the Hudson. My three dogs were scampering beside us. We came to a point where the trail unexpectedly narrowed, and the dogs suddenly cowered at my feet. There was a washout a few steps ahead. I stood there frightened, the dogs practically clinging to me, as Lillian grabbed a tree limb and swung across the washout to safe ground on the other side.

“What are you doing, Lillian?” I gasped. “You’ll kill yourself!”

“Nonsense!” she said airily. “In the old days we used to do things like this in the movies. There weren’t any stunt people then.” She swung back and forth like Tarzan.

In Way Down East, a D. W. Griffith masterpiece made in 1920, Lillian had had to float down a river on an ice floe. The scene was shot in Mamaroneck, New York, in the dead of winter, and Lillian spent so many hours filming the sequence—in which she is rescued by Richard Barthelmess, playing the hero—that she came down with a serious case of chilblains.

Way Down East was a great success, and Griffith wanted to give Lillian a special present out of gratitude for her unstinting loyalty and courage. Her birthstone is the opal, and in Australia Griffith found a gem known as “the Great Opal,” which he purchased and had mounted in a cross designed by Tiffany.

Maybe he would have scouted for another great opal if he could have seen her performing the same kind of feat more than fifty years later.

james macarthur, lillian gish, joyce bulifant, charlie macarthur, helen hayes

The heroines Lillian played for Griffith were invariably spiritual and slightly otherworldly, and there are times when Lillian herself seems a trifle vague, so closely in tune with her own drummer that she misses the beat of what is going on around her. This trait can be startling, as it was at one event we both attended a few years ago. I asked Lillian to join me at the cardinal’s annual Christmas party in New York, a tradition initiated by Terrence Cardinal Cook and carried on by John Cardinal O’Connor. I’d been invited for more than twenty years, and I’d taken Lillian along once before. This time I was asked to bring her again—Cardinal O’Connor was a great fan of hers.

Lillian arrived all dolled up. All her clothes date from forty years back, but the dresses are still elegant, and she’s proud that they still fit. The luncheon was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and she sat beside His Eminence, who looked magnificent in his scarlet cape, biretta, sash, and gold cross. He was very courtly as they chatted, obviously so pleased to be next to Lillian that you could almost hear him saying to himself, “Imagine, here I am sitting beside Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

If this were a scene in a movie, it would be called “The Cardinal and the Star.” As the cardinal made a fuss over her, the star, too, was very animated. Then all at once she stared straight ahead, apparently puzzled. “Helen,” she asked me in a loud stage whisper, “what church is he from?”

As I grow older, I get forgetful too, but I haven’t reached that point yet. And neither had Lillian when it came to work. She’s sharp as a tack then, as I discovered when we appeared on TV together in Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a challenging production, shot live on a multilevel set that would have tested Edmund Hillary’s climbing ability.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic was one of several television and movie projects I took on in the mid-1970s. My role as Mrs. Quonsett in Airport launched a second career for me that got under way with three films for the Disney studios.

My life in three acts – Helen Hayes 1991

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Silent Players – Anthony Slide (2002)

  • A biographical and autobiographical study of 100 silent film actors and actresses
  • Silent Players – Anthony Slide
  • Copyright © 2002 by The University Press of Kentucky

Filled with little known facts and personal remembrances of the stars of the silent screen, Silent Players profiles the lives and careers of the hundred best, brightest, or most unusual silent film actors and actresses Anthony Slide shows that the unlikely plot twists in many silent films are nothing compared to the strange and often sad, lives led by many of the men and women whose images flickered onscreen.


There is a title that describes Lillian Gish’s title character in Romola (1925) as “learned of books but of the world untaught.” That probably provides the shortest, and best, word portrait of Lillian Gish as seen on screen and as she exists in the public psyche. She certainly loved books, and her apartment was crowded with titles, many first editions signed by their famous authors. The Gish characters were generally ethereal, unworldly and unsuspecting of the evils of society, of which they were often made abruptly and dangerously aware. Be it the mulatto Silas Lynch in The Birth of a Nation (1915), von Strohm, the Hunnish soldier in Hearts of the World (1918), a brutal father in Broken Blossoms (1920), the debauched Lennox Sanderson in Way Down East (1920), or the revolutionary mob in Orphans of the Storm (1922), Lillian Gish faced considerable danger on screen. She won out through a strength of character that is symbolic of Lillian Gish in real life. She was always strong, always a fighter, taking up causes as varied as the isolationist America First prior to World War Two, a commemorative stamp for her mentor D.W. Griffith, or the need to preserve America’s newsreels. As a child, Lillian had been told by her mother to project her voice in order that it might be heard in the theatre by those seated in the furthest row. She never ceased projecting her voice and her image as a legendary actress on screen and on stage.

Lillian was always the consummate professional. As a young actress, she faced horrific working conditions, extreme cold, and extreme heat in Why Down East (1920) and The Wind (1928) and never complained. At a time of scandal in the film industry, Gish told The Moving Picture World (March 4, 1922), “I have heard that there are terrible people in the movies, but I never see them. And there are terrible people everywhere for that matter. Why even the weather is not always what it should be.” In later life, she never openly groused about a location or work demand, at times to the irritation of younger actors and actresses, who saw no reasons to extend the harsh circumstances of early filmmaking through to the present. She was always on time, always knew her lines—just as mother taught her. “Speak clearly-and loudly otherwise another little girl will get the part,” said Gish’s mother, and I am sure that Lillian always worried about that other little girl waiting in the wings.

Lillian Gish – The Joyous Season

Jane Wyatt, who appeared with Lillian on Broadway in 1954 in Philip Barry’s The Joyous Season, told me, “I remember coming to the first rehearsal. We were all in awe of her, and she was so mysterious. She came in with a great coat to the floor and a hood. And she knew all her lines! Then she impressed me because she didn’t have a theatre maid, and everybody had a theatre maid.”

There is no question that even contemporary audiences could sometimes find a Lillian Gish performance irritating. “Lillian Gish weeps like a fish, wrote one disgruntled fan. “The mood in which to go to the theatre is one of naive vacuity, expecting nothing,” opined Robert Benchley in the old Life humor magazine. Try to look like a close-up of Lillian Gish.” In the December 1926 edition of Photoplay, editor and publisher James R. Quirk wrote a most outspoken attack on an actress, whose salary at MGM was at the time the highest paid to any performer and, in reality, over $7,000 a week:

“Lillian Gish continues to demonstrate that virtue can be its own reward to the tune of six thousand bucks every week. Even as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, she proves conclusively that babies are brought by storks. I d pay triple admission to see her play Madam Bovary.

1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

“In the last twelve years she has been saved just in the nick of time from the brutal attack of 4,000 German soldiers, 2,000 border ruffians and 999 conscienceless men about town. Some day I hope the American hero breaks a leg and fails to get there before the German soldier smashes in the door.”

I first met Lillian Gish on August 30, 1969. She was in London to present her one-woman show, Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr Griffith and Me, and I had prepared the printed program handed out to the audience. We meet at the Connaught Hotel, where Lillian always stayed when in England, and she inscribed for me a copy of her autobiography, which has the same title as her show. She also spent a couple of hours talking about various aspects of her career, an interview in which she was surprisingly frank in view of our never having previously met, and one which is often quoted by other authors.

The Lillian Gish career scarcely needs recording here. There can be few who are not aware of her devastating performances for D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, Hearts of the World, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. Griffith must have first become aware of the unique quality of her acting when he directed her at American Biograph. Lillian and younger sister Dorothy made their debut there in The Unseen Enemy, released on September 9, 1912, a one-reel suspense drama featuring the pair. The Mothering Heart, a two-reeler, released on June 21, 1913, first demonstrated the emotional intensity of which Lillian was capable. As a wife who has discovered her husband’s infidelity, and, later, lost her baby, Lillian’s anguish is almost unbearable to watch as she walks in the garden, destroying all the flowers and plants around her. As she and husband (Walter Miller) are reunited, a title asks, “Forgiveness—Is there any greater act?” It would appear not from a viewing of this, arguably the most moving of the American Biograph shorts.

After leaving Griffith, Lillian continued as a major star of the silent screen, appearing in The White Sister (1923), Romola (1925), La Boheme (1926), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), and others. With the coming of sound, her importance in the industry dwindled. She is good in His Double Life (1932), but not as good as Grade Fields is as the same character in the 1943 remake, Holy Matrimony. Gish’s comeback role in Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) is hardly worthy of consideration, and many of her later films were not really worth the effort. In a way, she returned triumphantly to the screen not in the 1940s but in 1955 under Charles Laughton s direction in The Night of the Hunter. Here, Lillian is the mother figure, suffering the little children to come unto her, harsh at times, sometimes angry, but always loving and forgiving. Sensibly Laughton chooses to end the film with Lillian, symbolic of her burgeoning status as a legend, a link not only with the past in which the film is set but also the past as represented by a directorial and pictorial style heavily influenced by both D.W. Griffith and German expressionism.

Lillian, of course, was never a mother, and, as one perceptive female viewer pointed out to me, she was obviously uncomfortable with infants. In Way Down East, in which she baptizes her dying child, the actress has no idea how to hold the baby.

Alan Alda – Lillian Gish

Followers of the Gish screen career might be concerned as to how it would end after watching her playing worthless roles in worthless films such as Hambone and Hillie (1984) and Sweet Liberty (1986). When in 1987 it was announced that she was to co-star with Bette Davis in Mike Kaplan’s production of The Whales of August, enthusiasm was mingled with anxiety when Lindsay Anderson was hired as the director. How could the man responsible for such raw, naked drama as This Sporting Life and If… handle Lillian Gish? Surprisingly well. He controlled whatever troubling mannerisms Gish and Davis might have adopted during their long careers, kept both under control, and gave Lillian one last great movie scene. On the 46th wedding anniversary of her character, Sarah, she sits at a table, with a white rose “for truth’’ and a red rose “for passion,’’ and with a glass of wine in hand talks to her long dead husband of the day’s happenings. It is a screen moment as intense in its dramatic simplicity as anything D.W. Griffith could have contemplated.

Hambone and Hillie (promo) Lillian Gish

Despite the paucity of great film roles in the sound era, Lillian Gish was able to continue her career and endure on stage. Also, with surprising speed, she gained legendary status, something that the actress most carefully nurtured. She was always someone special; as early as 1925, one fan magazine writer commented that to interview Lillian Gish was a privilege and a pleasure. Lillian played with the truth, even changing the year of her birth in Springfield, Ohio, on October 14, from 1893 to 1896. She would recount stories of the making of her films that were not perhaps always completely accurate but which entertained and enthralled her audience. She behaved in the manner of a legend but at the same time never lost personal touch with her fans. Lillian was always overly gracious in responding to fan mail, and after a performance of her one-woman show, she would never leave the auditorium until requests for autographs from every member of the audience had been granted.

Lillian Gish always knew what to say to make one feel special. I recall she and James Frasher, her longtime manager, friend, and companion, coming to my house to pick me up. Lillian’s first words upon seeing my somewhat humble abode were, “Truly you live in beauty.” I was completely entranced but later somewhat nonplussed to discover that she said exactly the same thing upon seeing where anyone lived.

“Way Down East” – Lillian Gish (rescued) and all cast except Lowell Sherman (Lennox Sanderson)

Thanks in large part to Jim Frasher, it has been my good fortune to be with Lillian on a number of special occasions. Our mutual, close friend was Herb Sterne, who double-dated with Lillian, Griffith, and Griffith’s wife Evelyn in the 1940s. Lillian and Herb corresponded on a regular basis, with most of the former’s comments directed to Herb’s cat, Squire Bartlett, and signed Anna Moore. (Way Down East was Herb’s favorite film.) When Lillian did the Blackglama advertisement, “What Becomes a Legend Most?,” she sent a copy to Squire with the inscription, “My fur vs. yours. How’s this for the cat’s meow?” It was that sort of relationship that Herb enjoyed with Lillian.

Whenever she was in town, Lillian would have lunch with Herb, and I was also lucky enough to be invited. Herb was a resident of the Motion Picture Country House and another resident, Mary Astor, also joined us on at least one occasion. At the time she directed her only feature film, Remodeling Her Husband (1920), starring sister Dorothy and her husband James Rennie, Lillian also devoted an entire Sunday to directing Mary Astor’s screen test.

Lillian Gish (film director) – Remodeling Her Husband

Mary Astor was one of the few film performers with whom Lillian was close. She really did not know many of her contemporaries. Once we stood talking in the parking lot at the Motion Picture Country House, and Mary Brian and Harriet Nelson came by. Knowing them both, I introduced them to Lillian, who obviously had no idea who they were. Lillian also had an inability to understand that other actresses were not like her. Herb Sterne remembered that once at Pickfair, Gish chastised Mary Pickford for giving a pension to an American Biograph actress. “She had the same opportunities as us,” argued Lillian. “No, we had talent,” responded Pickford.

I have a tenuous link to Lillian’s last and seldom noted contribution to film. In 1988, I was commissioned by Boss Film Corporation to write a treatment for a ten-minute epilogue to Intolerance, which was to be filmed in 70 mm and screened after a Japanese presentation of the feature. The music for the epilogue was played live by a symphony orchestra, and the only recorded words heard were those of Lillian Gish. The comments were “lifted” from various interviews, but there were a couple of potential quotes that could not be found in such sources. I wrote these in the style of Lillian Gish, as represented in her autobiography, and she recorded them in her New York apartment. A year after making The Whales of August and five years prior to her death on February 27, 1993, Lillian sounds old, but there is still strength to her voice, and, I have to admit, she did choose to add a couple of words of her own to my dialogue. What becomes a legend most asked the Blackglama advertisement. Immortality. And Lillian has certainly earned that.

Note: Lillian Gish’s papers are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.

Lillian Gish – The Whales of August

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Lillian Gish Television drama series 1947-1959 by Larry James Gianakos (1980)

  • A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1947-1959
  • by Larry James Gianakos
  • The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J., & London 1980

1948-49 season

THE PHILCO TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE (subsequently displaced by The Goodyear Theatre and The Alcoa Hour)

“The Late Christopher Bean” [adapted from the Sidney Howard play] (2-6-49) Bert Lytell, Lillian Gish (her video debut)

“The Birth of the Movies” (4-22-51) John Newland, Jean Pearson; narrated by Lillian Gish

The Philco Television Playhouse: “The Trip to Bountiful” [by Horton Foote; the basis for his 1953 Broadway play] (3-1-53) Lillian Gish, John Beal

The Alcoa Hour: “Morning’s at Seven” [adapted by Robert Wallstens from the Paul Osborn play] (11-4-56) Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, David Wayne, June Lockhart, Dorothy Stickney

THE FORD THEATRE HOUR Sponsored by The Ford Motor Company.

“Outward Bound” [adapted from the Sutton Vane play] (3-13-49) Lillian Gish, Freddie Bartholomew, Mary Boland, Richard Hart

“I, Mrs. Bibb” [by Paul Crabtree] (10-19-55) Lillian Gish, Richard Ney

“Ladies in Retirement” [adapted from the Edward Percy and Reginald Denham story] (5-7-51) Lillian Gish, Una O’Connor, Betty Sinclair, Michael McAloney

1949 – 50 season

“The Quality of Mercy” (3-15-54) Lillian Gish

“The Joyous Season”‘ [adapted from the Philip Barry play] (12-26-51) Lillian Gish, Wesley Addy

1951 – 52 season


Segments were syndicated under a variety of titles HERALD PLAYHOUSE and THE PLAYHOUSE among them.

“The Autobiography of Grandma Moses” (3-28-52) Lillian Gish, Jonathan Marlowe

1952 – 53 season


“The Corner Druggist” (5-28-54) Richard Kiley, Lillian Gish

1955 – 56 season


“The Day Lincoln Was Shot” [adapted by R. Denis Sanders and Terry Sanders from the Jim Bishop book] (2-1-56 Saturday 9:30-11:00 CBS) Jack Lemmon, Raymond Massey, Lillian Gish; Charles Laughton narrated.

A blaze of glory for the medium, what with Playwrights ’56 a superb addition to the dramatic anthology. Playwrights ’56: “The Sound and the Fury” [adapted by William F. Durkee from the “Dilsey” section of the William Faulkner novel; directed by Vincent J. Donahue and produced by Fred Coe] (12-6-55) Franchot Tone, Lillian Gish, Ethel Waters, Janice Rule, Valerie Bettis, Steven Hill



“The Grass Harp” [adapted from the 1952 play by Truman Capote and Virgil Thomson; produced for television by Jack Kuney and directed by Word Baker, with an intermission feature by The Saturday Review drama critic Henry Hewes] (3-28-60) Lillian Gish, Carmen Mathews, Nick Hyams, Russell Collins

Photo gallery – chronological order

Note: Illustrations from photo gallery are not part of Mr. Gianakos’ book.

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The Great American Playwrights on The Screen – Jerry Roberts (2003)

The Great American Playwrights on The Screen

A Critical Guide to Film, Video and DVD

Jerry Roberts 2003

Some of the greatest plays in the history of the American theatre have also made some of the most provocative and rewarding movies and television shows of all time, from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Front Page to The Miracle Worker; Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, Picnic, The Iceman Cometh, The Little Foxes, A Raisin in the Sun… These productions on film and tape represent a treasure trove of great drama, much of it available to the public for home viewing, some of it languishing in vaults. Some titles also represent Oscar and Emmy award-winning history. Some are great teaching tools for theatre and film and television production courses. Some are pinnacles of success for the greatest star actors of their generations—Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Robert Duvall, Kevin Spacey. This book is the collation of these time-honored works by playwrights—from Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams, to Beth Henley and David Rabe, to Wendy Wasserstein and A.R. Gurney—with historical perspective and contemporary and retrospective criticism. Playwrights reach their widest audiences whenever their plays are filmed or made for television, sometimes as letter-faithful productions literally filmed on the stage, oftentimes as severely altered visions earning the ire of the authors. The book solely concerns plays written by American playwrights, produced on film or tape in the English language. It covers only productions that were adapted from plays that were seen first on the stage. TV dramas that began their performance life as TV shows, and are invariably called “plays” by their authors and others, are not included here. For instances, two of Horton Foote’s dramas, The Trip to Bountiful, an original, and Tomorrow, based on a William Faulkner story, began their performance lives as TV presentations, the former with Lillian Gish in 1953 on Philco Television Playhouse, the latter with Richard Boone on Playhouse 90 in 1960. Both then became plays, then movies. The movies are detailed with break-out studies here, but the TV shows are not. Had the works begun as plays, then became movies and TV presentations, any and all movies or TV productions would be considered with individual studies.

Lillian Gish and Burgess Meredith – The Star-Wagon

Maxwell Anderson

The Star Wagon, about a poor and eccentric inventor who escapes his wife’s crankiness via his titular time machine, first played on Broadway in 1937 with Burgess Meredith and Lillian Gish. The inventor escapes to his youth, at a time when he feels he should have married a pretty rich girl rather than his wife. The evergreen theme is that if you could live your life over again, would you have made a better choice?

The Joyous Season

Philip Barry

The Joyous Season aired in 1951 on ABC’s Celanese Theatre with Alex Segal directing Lillian Gish and Wesley Addy. The 1934 play, starring Gish and featuring Jane Wyatt and Alan Campbell, concerns a Catholic nun who is asked to consult on her recently deceased father’s will after the family leaves the farm for Boston’s fashionable Beacon Street.

Sidney Howard

The Late Christopher Bean (1949, NBC, 60m/bw) Philco Television Playhouse ☆☆☆1/2 D/P: Fred Coe. Cast: Lillian Gish, Bert Lytell, Helen Carew, Clarence Derwent, Philip Coolidge, Louis Sorin, Ellen Cobb Hill, Perry Wilson. “A gifted young man, Fred Coe…sent me a script…” Gish wrote in her autobiography. “I have always been eager to try some¬ thing new so I agreed to meet him, and soon I was playing in a vital new medium very much like the early movies. The main difference was that the performance was ‘live’; you had only one chance and no one could prompt or help you.”

• “Lillian Gish made her television debut Sunday night with an excellent portrayal of the harassed housemaid, Abby…an entertaining hour.. .Sidney Howard’s amicable little play engendered the same charm the original Broadway production had.. .Miss Gish was extremely appealing…” (Variety)

Tad Mosel

All the Way Home was based by Mosel on James Agee’s 1958 posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, which explored early century coming’o Tage and family crisis issues in Knoxville, Tennessee. Producer Fred Coe planned to have it adapted for airing on CBS’s Playhouse 90, then approached Mosel, who couldn’t imagine Agee’s poetic prose being broken up by commercials. They then decided to adapt it into a play instead. It had an out-of-town run in New Haven and Boston, then opened on Broadway in 1960 at the Belasco Theatre to great reviews and no business. Coe was going to close the play after a few nights when Ed Sullivan raved about the play in his New York Daily News column, then brought the cast onto an installment of TV’s The Ed Sullivan Show. The move captured the public’s attention in a huge way; the play ran for 334 performances and the story won its second Pulitzer Prize, this time for Drama. Arthur Penn directed the stage version starring Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurst, and Lillian Gish.

“Inevitably, some of the poetry and unduplicatable intimacy of Mr. Agee’s particular expression was lost in this radical switch [to the stage]…in moving the play of Mr. Mosel into the medium of the screen. And this [refraction] is the one that}s all but done for the quality of Mr. Agee’s book and twisted it into a moist-eyed ogle that has a standard cinematic character…. in completing the transfer of some very special sentiments to the screen, Philip Reisman Jr., the film’s playwright, and Alex Segal, the director, have drained them completely of specialness. Their film.. .has no sharp cinematic characteristic, no inside-looking-out point of view (which is one of the most important and distinctive things the Agee novel has).” (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times)

Gene Lyons and Lillian Gish – The Trip To Bountiful 1953

Horton Foote

Another four-part cycle of Foote’s Southern family mood plays became jewels of the live-TV era, even though their connections weren’t apparent to viewers: The Trip to Bountiful with Lillian Gish and The Midnight Caller with Catherine Doucet, both in 1953 on Kraft Television Playhouse, and two with Kim Stanley, Tears of My Sister in 1953 on First Person Playhouse and Flight three years later on Playwrights ‘56.

Mornings at 7 – Lillian and Dorothy Gish

Paul Osborn

Morning’s at Seven was a popular and much revived comedy of Midwestern family manners and mores originally staged on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre in 1939 by Joshua Logan, starring Jean Adair, Dorothy Gish, and Thomas Chalmers. It was produced on TV on Celanese Theatre in 1952 with Aline MacMahon and Patricia Collinge; on The Alcoa Hour in 1956 with Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Evelyn Varden, David Wayne, June Lockhart, and Dorothy Stickney; and was restaged—using the same Alcoa teleplay by Robert Wallsten—in 1960 on public television’s The Play of the Week with a cast featuring Beulah Bondi, Chester Morris, Dorothy Gish, and Eileen Heckhart.

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

Joseph Kesselring

Arsenic and Old Lace (1969, ABC Special, 120m/c) ☆☆☆ Tp: Luther Davis. D: Robert Scheerer. P: Hubbell Robinson. Cast: Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Fred Gwynn, David Wayne, Bob Crane, Jack Gilford, Sue Lyon, Billy De Wolfe, Frank Campanella, Bob Dishy, Victor Killian, Bernard West. The play was filmed before a live audience, which is seen at the outset and at the curtain call. Theatrical connoisseurs relished the chance to see Gish and Hayes together.

• “…still almost as good for laughs as it was 28 years ago when Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse brought it to the Fulton Theatre back in 1941. Changes in the original script were limited to the necessary updating of a few topical gags to jive with the times plus turning the lead (Bob Crane) into a television critic and his fiancée into a TV actress. Acting was good and professional.” (Variety)

Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Vincent Price and Ann Sothern – The Whales of August, 1987

David Berry

The Whales of August (1987, Circle, 90m/c, VHS) ☆☆☆1/2 Sc: David Berry. D: Lindsay Anderson. P: Carolyn Pfeiffer, Mike Kaplan. Cam: Mike Fash. Cast: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Ann Sothern, Vincent Price, Harry Carey, Jr., Mary Steenburgen, Tisha Sterling, Margaret Ladd, Frank Grimes, Frank Pitkin, Mike Bush. Elderly widowed sisters Libby and Sarah reconvene for the summer at a seaside Maine cottage, the same one they have been coming to for generations.

• “With its two beautiful, very different, very characteristic performances by Miss Gish and Miss Davis, who, together, exemplify American films from 1914 to the present, Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August is a cinema event.. .It’s as moving for all of the history it recalls as for anything that happens on the screen.. .In its way, The Whales of August is tough, but it has a major flaw that David Berry’s adaptation of his stage play isn’t strong enough for the treatment it receives from the director and his extraordinary actors…Mr. Berry is no American Chekhov. Though minutely observed, the lives of Libby and Sarah evoke no landscape larger than this tiny Maine island to which they’ve been returning every summer.. .There are references to lost childhoods, dead husbands, wars survived and estranged children, but the references are more obligatory than enriching. There’s nothing really at stake in the course of the day.” (Vincent Canby, The New York Times)

The Great American playwrights on the screen – cover

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Lillian Gish and Film Preservation (AFI 1984)

The American Film Institute

1984 Achievement Award in honor of Lillian Gish


Lillian Gish and Film Preservation

The first time Lillian Gish ever heard the words “film library” was when an English lady named Iris Barry asked her to use her influence to get D.W. Griffith to give her some of his films. At Lillian Gish’s suggestion, D.W. Griffith complied, and so began the film library at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

In a similar fashion, Ms. Gish convinced Mary Pickford of the importance of preserving her Biograph films, which Ms. Pickford subsequently donated to the Library of Congress collection.

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

It is our good fortune that these events transpired. Had they not, the collection of Biograph films which record such a vital segment of Lillian Gish’s career might have been gone the way of films made by such early studios as Lubin, Essanay, Vitagraph, Selig, and Thanhauser — and be lost forever.

As it is, a near-miraculous number of Lillian Gish’s silent films have been saved for future generations, — but not all of them. Gone forever are REMODELING HER HUSBAND, which Gish directed in 1920; ANNIE LAURIE, (1927); THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES (1914); and THE ANGEL OF CONTENTION (1914). For many years ROMOLA, a 1924 film in which Ms. Gish starred with William Powell, was effectively “lost,” until an 8 mm copy, made for home use, was discovered and transferred to 16 mm film.

American Film Institute D.W. Griffith Awards vtg 1984 Press Release

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