Remember The Silent Screen Sisters? (1975)

THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. – Saturday. November 8.1975

Remember The Silent Screen Sisters?

Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish ... having a (big) snack cca 1918
Dorothy Gish and Lillian Gish … having a (big) snack cca 1918

Away back in the era around 1920 when movies were probably the most popular form of entertainment, it was not unusual for several members of one family to be stars in their own right. That was the time when the ability of the cast and the quality of the pictures, not sensationalism, packed the movie theaters night after night. Two of the most famous sisters of that time were the Gish girls, Lillian and Dorothy.

Lillian Gish by Edward Steichen (Steichen, 27 January 1927). Half Tone Print
Lillian Gish by Edward Steichen (Steichen, 27 January 1927). Half Tone Print

Lillian was a fragile, wistful beauty whose acting could and did tug at your heart strings. Her forte was emotional drama, and she played in such pictures as “Broken Blossoms” which was a record-breaker for its time, “Way Down East” which had been adapted from the stage play, and those famous D.W. Griffith masterpieces, “The Birth of a Nation” which was the story of the Civil War and its aftermath, and “Hearts of the World,” a picture of World War I which did literally touch the hearts of the world.

Dorothy Gish cca 1930 - by Nell Dorr 2
Nell Dorr (1893-1988); [Dorothy Gish in costume]; ca. 1920s; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art; Fort Worth, Texas; Bequest of Nell Dorr; P1990.45.464

Dorothy Gish, Lillian’s younger sister, was a bright pixie with dancing eyes and an impish smile who always said she wanted to be a tragedian, but who was such a success as a comedian that she never had a chance to try to tragedy. Somehow, you just couldn’t picture her personality fitting into a sad part. But she was perfect in such lively plays as “Mary Ellen Comes to Town,” “Little Miss Rebellion” and “Remodeling a Husband.”

Then there were the Talmadge sisters, Norma and Constance. Norma was the dramatic actress, although she acted in an entirely different type of picture than Lillian Gish did.

Norma Talmadge
Norma Talmadge

Lillian Gish’s pictures might have been called sentimental if anyone else had played in them, but so great was Lillian’s acting ability that she only made them seem real. And besides, audiences liked a certain amount of sentiment in their movies in those days. It got the message across as sensationalism never could. On the other hand,

Norma Talmadge - La Colombe (postcard)
Norma Talmadge – La Colombe (postcard)

Norma Talmadge, whose flashing dark beauty was in direct contrast to Lillian’s blonde loveliness, played in what was known as heavy drama plays such as “The Passion Flower,’’ “The Branded Woman,” “She Loves and Lies” and “Isles of Conquest” titles which tell their own story.

Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl - Intolerance)
Constance Talmadge Publicity (Mountain Girl – Intolerance)

Constance was the comedian in the Talmadge family, but here again, her comedies were different than those of Dorothy Gish. Constance herself was more serious and the comedy was more likely to lie in the story. Titles were expressive in those days and such names as “The Love Expert,” “Good References,” “Dangerous Business” and “The Virtuous Vamp” give a pretty good idea of the type of pictures Constance played in. Another family pair was Viola Dana and Shirley Mason who used different last names but were nevertheless sisters.

Constance Talmadge 1920
Constance Talmadge 1920

Viola Dana was the elder and possibly the greater actress of the two. Perhaps her best-known picture was “The Willow Tree,” a Japanese story which made her famous. Some of her other pictures were “Cinderella’s Twin,” “Blackmail,” “Puppets of Fate” and “The Off Shore Pirate.”

Viola Dana (Virginia Flugrath, 1897-1987) in Vaudeville
Viola Dana (Virginia Flugrath, 1897-1987) in Vaudeville

While most of Viola Dana’s pictures were on the serious side they were not exactly heavy drama. Shirley Mason, on the other hand, usually starred in pictures of a lighter type which were not necessarily actual comedies pictures such as “Love’s Harvest,” “Treasure Island” and “Love Time.”

Shirley-Mason-and-sister-Viola-Dana-dressed-as-Rudolph-Valentino-and-Natasha-Rambova
Shirley Mason and sister Viola Dana dressed as Rudolph Valentino and Natasha Rambova
Constance Talmadge 1917
Constance Talmadge 1917
THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. - Saturday. November 8
THE DESERT SUN. Palm Springs. Calif. – Saturday. November 8

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