Amazing Ohio – By Damaine Vonada (1989)
Illuminating Moments …
By Damaine Vonada
In 1987, when she had completed her 107th film, the producer said of actress Gish, “Inside the lace glove, there’s a hand of steel.” But only a woman of strength would have climbed onto an ice floe in the teeth of a blizzard and gambled that her celluloid hero would rescue her before she reached the falls. That footage from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East became, of course, the definitive scene of silent films, the theatrical touchstone for the twentieth century that Eliza’s perils on the Ohio River in Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been in the nineteenth.
At the tail end of that century, Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy were born in Ohio, where their down-on-her-luck mother put her pretty little girls to work on the popular melodrama circuit. In 1902, Gish made her stage debut on the shoulders of Walter Huston in the tiny Ohio crossroads of Rising Sun. The play was In Convict’s Stripes, and the six-year-old actress earned ten dollars a week. Director Griffith, who gave the new medium of motion pictures their “form and grammar,” needed young faces for work under the harsh lights, and at age thirteen, Gish became a leading lady for filmdom’s founding genius.
Griffith elevated movies to an art form, and Lillian, with her amazing grace and strength, earned her place as “The First Lady of the Screen” in such classics as The Birth of a Nation (1915), the first full-length motion picture. Dozens of roles in the legitimate theater, on Broadway, in the “talkies,” and even on television followed.
Lillian played Hester Prynne and Camille; she did comedy and drama, Coward and Chekhov; her 1953 teleplay The Trip to Bountiful ended up in the Museum of Modern Art. For more than eight decades now, Gish has practiced her craft, and as one critic noted, “has never failed either the author or the audience.”
“I’ve never known what to do except work; if you start acting when you’re five there isn’t a lot of point in trying to find something else to do when you’re 84. I expect I’ll still have a couple of days’ shooting to do when they bury me.”