Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)

  • Mom in the movies : the iconic screen mothers you love (and a few you love to hate)
  • Mom in the Movies (TCM) by Richard Corliss (2014)
  • Copyright © 2014 by Simon & Schuster, Inc., and Turner Entertainment Networks, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

Turner Classic Movies and film historian Richard Corliss present Mom in the Movies, the definitive, fully illustrated guide to the many ways that Hollywood has celebrated, vilified and otherwise memorialized dear old Mom. Here, you will meet the Criminal Moms, like Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama, and the eccentric Showbiz Moms, including those from Gypsy and Postcards from the Edge. You’ll also find Great American Moms, as warm and nourishing as apple pie, in movies such as J Remember Mama and Places in the Heart, along with Surrogate Moms, like Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother, Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame, Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands and Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side. And who can forget the baddest mothers of all? No book on movie moms would be complete without Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. With a foreword written by Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher, and sidebar essays by Eva Marie Saint, Illeana Douglas, Jane Powell, Sam Robards and Tippi Hedren, this book is packed with an incredible collection of photographs and film stills. Mom in the Movies makes a great gift for any mom— and for anyone with a mother who oughta be, in pictures.

Lillian Gish as The Eternal Mother in Griffith’s “Intolerance”

Silent Moms

If Pickford was the great female star of silent Hollywood, Lillian Gish was its greatest actress. Another child of a deserted mother who saw the theater as a way to support her family, Lillian moved in 1912 from Ohio to New York City, where Pickford introduced Lillian and her younger sister, Dorothy, to Griffith. Both Gish girls became popular performers, appearing together in Grifhth’s Orphans of the Storm (1921), but Dorothy was more the saucy soubrette, Lillian the elfin tragedian. Her wispy frame and doll face, dominated by soulful blue eyes, made Lillian ideal for demure young women who rise to heroism to battle life’s disasters. She played the female lead in The Birth of a Nation (1915), though the men carried that Civil War story to its controversial climax in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. In Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), a film figure that interwove four stories across three millennia— think Cloud Atlas, but more wildly ambitious—Gish was the recurring figure of Eternal Motherhood, sitting next to a cradle, as Walt Whitman’s lines from Leaves of Grass (“Out of the cradle endlessly rocking . . . uniter of here and hereafter”) crept across the screen.

Richard Barthelmess and Lillian Gish – ice floe scenes (Way Down East)

Griffith’s Way Down East (1920) was famous for its climax: Richard Barthelmess running across the ice floes on a frozen river to save Gish (who spent so much time collapsed on the sheet of ice that her right hand never fully regained its feeling). But Gish is the real elemental sensation as the poor, saintly Anna, seduced into a fake marriage by the rich roué Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who abandons her when he learns she is pregnant. Scorned as a fallen woman at the moment her own loving mother has died, Anna is left alone to tend both the ailing baby and her social shame. “Maternity—Woman’s Gethsemane” reads one of the intertitles that link Anna’s plight with Jesus on the way to Calvary. As she realizes her infant son is dying, Anna pours a lifetime of devotion and desperation into her few moments of motherhood.

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

Like Pickford’s Tess, she baptizes the child (with the garishly ironic name Trust Lennox) and breathes on its cold hands in a futile fight to sustain its life. This is a performance of exquisitely balanced frenzy and subtlety; John Barrymore, the preeminent romantic classical actor of his day, called it “the most superlative exquisite and poignantly enchanting thing I have ever seen in my life.” Gish stayed with Griffith longer than his other top stars, leaving in 1921 for the company that would become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she continued to suffer triumphantly in The White Sister, La Bohéme and The Wind. She was able to make The Scarlet Letter (1926) only after convincing balky Protestant groups that the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, about a fiery Puritan minister who sires a child with a member of his congregation, would not give religious offense. Gish and Frances Marion, the eminent scenarist who wrote twenty Pickford films, solved or sidestepped this problem by focusing on Hester Prynne (Gish), not the Reverend Dimmesdale (Lars Hanson), and by making her another in the actress’s long line of wronged women.

Lillian’s Protegee The story of “The Scarlet Letter” gave Lillian Gish, as Hester Prynne, many scenes with little Joyce Coad, who plays Pearl. And Miss Gish believes that Joyce, who is the winner of a California baby contest, will win an esteemed place for herself on the screen. Photo Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1926-Jan 1927)

Marked with a scarlet “A” for “adulteress,” cursed and besmirched by the sanctimonious locals, Hester is every bit as unjustly ostracized as Anna was in Way Down East. This time, the love child, Pearl, gets a proper baptism—from her father the reverend—and grows into healthy girlhood. Eight years after Pearl’s birth, Hester wants to flee to Europe with her daughter and Dimmesdale; she tears off her embroidered “A” and removes her bonnet to let her long hair flow free as a signifier of her sexual liberation. But the minister must pay for his “sin.” He denounces himself before the congregation, revealing an “A” branded on his chest. In one of many Pieta images in Gish films, he dies in Hester’s arms, asking, “Is this not a better freedom than any we have dreamed of?” Well, no, but, under Victor Sjostrom’s acute directorial hand, the ending emphasizes the silent-film law that a lover’s survival is less important than a mother’s.

Photo: The Night of The Hunter (Die Nacht des Jägers), Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Sally Jane Bruce, Promotional – 1955

MOTHERS OF LOST CHILDREN

“It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) in The Night of the Hunter (1955), the miracle of mood, depredation and redemption directed by Charles Laughton and scripted by James Agee from Davis Grubb’s novel. In the West Virginia swamps of the 1930s, Rachel has no government approval, only a selfless impulse to collect unwanted children. John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), need her intervention.

lillian gish, cheryl callaway, bill chapin, mary ellen clemons, sally jane bruce – 1955 – the night of the hunter

Their father has been hanged, after first hiding his stolen money; their mother, Willa (Shelley Winters), has fallen for the Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), who wants that money and will threaten the children or marry Willa—and worse—to get it. As seductively malevolent as Powell is, with his baritone parables and the words L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles, so beatifically empowered is Rachel, describing herself as “a strong tree with branches for many birds.”

Lillian Gish and Gloria Castillo – The Night of the Hunter 1955

Back to Lillian Gish Home page