Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter) – Lillian Gish (1984)

Hollywood Star Profiles (The Reporter)

General Editor: Marc Wanamaker (1984)

Lillian Gish, D.W. Griffith, R Harron CloseUp 1914 hjk

In 1913, Cecil B. De Mille took the westbound train to the end of the line, and found himself in Hollywood. It was not, at first sight, a cataclysmic discovery, merely a ranch that had grown into a small pastoral town in the Southern Californian desert. Where there was irrigation, there were groves of oranges and avocados. Where there wasn’t, there was sand. Hardly the place you would expect to become the headquarters of the world’s greatest dream factory. Yet, in seven short years, the major studios had established themselves in the wilderness and the production schedules ran to 800 films a year.

Lillian Gish 1916
Lillian Gish 1916

Lillian Gish

With a certain beauty, even in her eighties, gracious in an old fashioned way, but also tough and incredibly hard working, Lillian Gish has been described as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen” and “Lady” is an apt word for her.

Her father, a ne’er do well, died before he was 30 and part of a dedication in one of her books reads: “To my father who gave me insecurity”. Penniless, Gish’s mother overcame her deep shame at the very prospect and went on stage, her daughters Dorothy and Lillian following her—as Baby Dorothy and Baby Lillian. But always they were in plays that their mother deemed to be of a sufficiently high moral tone.

“We were good children,” Gish later said. “Mother taught us good manners, to think of others before ourselves. We never learnt to play, we got into the habit of work.”

Shameful profession

The Gish girls made friends with the Smiths, another hard-up theatrical family, but when Gladys Smith made her screen debut Mrs Gish was appalled: to her mind appearing in films was even more shameful than going on stage. “What terrible misfortune can have befallen Mrs Smith that Gladys should be in the movies?”

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

However, Gladys’s new film name was Mary Pickford, and not only was she destined to become a superstar herself, she introduced the Gish family to the same possibility. It was while waiting for her in the Biograph Studios that they were spotted by D.W. Griffith, who put Mrs Gish, Lillian and Dorothy into An Unseen Enemy (1912), labeling the girls with red and blue ribbons so that he could tell them apart.

Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook - The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)
Lillian Gish Promotional Hartsook – The Clansman (The Birth of a Nation)

From there, he took Dorothy and Lillian to Hollywood, making them stars in films like Birth ofa Nation (1915), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) which stand among the greatest achievements of silent Hollywood. Over the next decade Lillian Gish went on to feature in over fifty D.W. Griffith films.

Exciting footage

“It was hard work, working for Mr Griffith,” Gish has said with her characteristic mixture of understatement and politeness. Five of the cast died of exposure when they were making Way Down East. “Mr Griffith kept shouting ‘Look into the camera’ but I couldn’t —I had icicles on my eyelids.”

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

Gish herself was nearly killed when an ice-floe she was standing on unexpectedly broke away and sped down-river towards a waterfall, but she was rescued by Richard Barthelmess, the leading man. Griffith, typically, stood by—making sure that the cameras were still turning so that he could use the exciting footage.

Spaghetti with Valentino

The same rigorous standards applied on other films too. “Once, when I was filming in the desert sun, I went to a studio car to change. 1 touched the door handle—and left half the skin of my hand on it. It was dangerous. But we never questioned it. We would never use stand-ins,” Gish later said.

In Hollywood Gish was surrounded by admirers but kept herself aloof from the sordid scandal-mongering that was all around. She was friendly with Rudolph Valentino, the man for whom women killed themselves or spent their lives in mourning. “Rudi was a nice boy,” she once said. “He used to come up and cook spaghetti for Dorothy and me.”

She worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and has said that that is why she never married. “Somehow marriage seemed like a full time job and I never had that kind of time. I had a lot of good men friends, but I thought why ruin their lives by marrying them?

George Jean Nathan Chateau Du Plessis France 22
George Jean Nathan and Lillian Gish at Chateau Du Plessis – France 1922

I never wanted to possess anybody.”

Unlike some other silent performers whose voices proved unsuitable for the “talkies”, Gish was driven out of Hollywood by changing styles. Her almost ethereal beauty was too subtle for an age ready for the more overt sex appeal of heroines like Garbo and Dietrich. Lesser spirits might have given up, but the complex, stubborn and intelligent Gish returned to Broadway, in classic plays like Hamlet and Uncle Vanya. Broadway critic George Jean Nathan tried hard to persuade her to marry him, but she claimed that she was too busy for such a commitment.

Fighting back

She continued to work at a furious pace, touring the world with retrospectives of her work, writing (her book on Griffith is acknowledged as the best description of his methods and influence), and making films—notably Duel in the Sun (1946) and Night of the Hunter (1955). At 80 she appeared in a cameo role in Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978).

“I’ve never known what to do except work; if you start acting when you are five there isn’t a lot of point in trying to do something else when you’re 84,” she told an interviewer. “I expect I’ll still have a couple of days shooting to do when they bury me.”

Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish 1954
Donald Crisp, Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish
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