Lillian Gish – (pictorial) Louis Giannetti – 1981

  • MASTERS OF THE AMERICAN CINEMA
  • Louis GiannettI
  • © 1981 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • A Division of Simon & Schuster
  • Englewood Cliffs, NJ 07632
Masters of the American cinema – Lillian Gish in Musketeers of Pig Alley

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), with Lillian Gish, produced by Biograph. Photographed in the slums of New York City, this movie has been called the first gangster film. Griffith’s vision of urban life was usually nightmarish—steeped in terror, crime, and poverty. The city is characteristically portrayed as a maelstrom of impersonal forces which suffocate the human spirit.

Masters of the American cinema – Lillian Gish as Elsie Stoneman 1915

A 1915 publicity photo of Lillian Gish at the age of nineteen. Critics, historians, and scholars are virtually unaminous in their agreement that Griffith’s greatest performer was Lillian Gish. John Barrymore compared her with Bernhardt and Duse. Critics rhapsodized over her “Dresden porcelain” beauty. She started with Griffith in 1912 at the age of sixteen and became his preeminent interpreter in such major works as The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm. See Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith & Me (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1969). Photo: Scott Eyman.

Masters of the American cinema – Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish in a scene from Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms (1919), with Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess, distributed by United Artists. This film allowed Griffith to reveal another side of his genius, one that’s often neglected by critics in favor of the editing virtuosity of his earlier works. The movie contains no flashy cutting, no thrilling last-minute rescue, and no happy ending. It was shot in a studio rather than on location, for Griffith wanted to create a poetic, dreamlike atmosphere. Griffith’s use of fog, smoke, and shimmering pools of light in this movie influenced the German studio films of the 1920s.

Masters of the American cinema – Lillian Gish as Susie Trueheart

True Heart Susie (1919), with Lillian Gish. Like many of his audiences, Griffith was born and raised in the country, and he emigrated to the city in search of fortune and wider opportunities. Though he eventually found—and lost—both, he almost invariably sentimentalized the virtues of rural life and minimized its shortcomings. His idyllic pastorals are filled with simple homely pleasures, caring families, and decent neighbors. Like his spiritual disciples Ford and Capra, Griffith’s values were conservative, Christian, and humanist—values rarely encountered in his cities of dreadful night.

Masters of the American cinema – Lillian Gish in Altman’s ‘A Wedding’

Publicity photo of Lillian Gish in A Wedding (1978), distributed by 20th Century-Fox. Altman’s conceptual premise in this movie is the forced coming together of forty-eight ill-matched people at a formal wedding, where they attempt to put up a front suitable to the loftiness of the occasion. The action takes place within one day, mostly on one location. The formal protocol of the wedding and reception is used to provide the movie with its sequential structure. The actors were given character sketches and encouraged to invent their own details and dialogue. Lillian Gish, no stranger to improvisation since her early years with Griffith, plays the matriarch of one of the families. In a wry allusion to her character in Birth of a Nation, Altman’s character is a genteel racist, decked out like an old little girl. Photo: Carmie Amata.

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