Interviewing Miss Gish …

  • Where are you from? What’s your family like?
    I’m originally from Springfield, Ohio. I moved around a lot (Oderman 5). When I was five, just around the time my younger sister was born, my family moved to Dayton. Later we moved to Baltimore so my father could pursue business as a candy store owner. He wasn’t very happy there. He moved to New York, leaving my mother, sister, and I to fend for ourselves in Baltimore (Affron 20).
    My mother and I were very close. Whenever I was with her I felt safe and secure. This was not how I felt about my father. He was an alcoholic. He was in and out of the house from the time I was very six (Affron 21). My sister Dorothy, affectionately know as Doatsie, was my best friend. We loved to play together. (Gish/Lanes 2)

What events in your early life made you interested in the arts?
My family and I moved to New York in 1901 and my mother became an actress. My sister and I would stay in Mother’s dressing room on matinee days. She didn’t act because she loved the art, but for the purpose of supporting our little family because my father was not around. Because this was my mothers main source of income, my sister and I spent a lot of time in the theater. Her show ran three times daily at the Proctor Theater (Oderman 11).
Mother was approached by an actress named Dolores Lorne about Doatsie playing a role in the production East Lynne. Dolores boarded with my family. She got my mother into the acting business. I was surrounded by theater! At first my mother did not want Doatsie to be in the show because Mother’s extended family viewed acting as a bad way to make a living. “Respectable” people thought actors were scum, and believed acting was for the poor and unsophisticated. Mother eventually gave in because we needed the extra money. Soon after I was asked to perform too, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity (Oderman 12)

  • What role did mentors play in helping you develop the interests and talents you have as an artist?
    I always say my first and last acting lesson was while I was in the play Convict Stripes. I was very young at the time. However, I did have the wonderful mentoring of D.W. Griffith. Griffith was a well-respected very smart director at Biograph Studios. He taught me that going out and observing life was the best acting lesson. He was most definitely right (Affron 27)
    I became an observer. Griffith told me to view life in all situations (Oderman 26). I would watch the behavior of people at weddings, funerals, or the arrival of a baby. I went to hospitals, insane asylums, death prisons, and the houses of prisoners. I caught humanity off guard. Watching life taught me everything I know about acting (Oderman 27)

What was the world of acting like when you entered the art field?
I was born into the acting world on the stage. A few years after I made my debut, films became all the rage. At first no self-respecting actress or actor would be in a movie, but soon the steady income won us over. My family friend, Gladdis, made us aware of all the perks. She had a studio apartment, a chauffeur, and was getting payed 175 dollars a week! Though, in todays times, this is not much money but in the early 1900s this was an enormous amount.(Oderman 23)
After traveling around the country for several years for stage acting, I came back to New York. I heard from Gladdis about the Biograph, a filming company. Mother wanted us to try out the film life. We had hopes of meeting Mr. Griffith at the company, and we did. He told us that our prepared monologues did not matter, after all it was a silent film audition! He liked how Doatsie and I acted and decided to take a chance on us.

  • How did the major cultural, economic, and political situations of the time impact your work?
    My family was pressed for money. Father had left us and we were running out of options. My mother moved us to New York and decided to become an actress. Acting was considered a bit vulgar at the time, but we had no other choices. Doatsie and I started acting soon afterward (Wismer, Massilon History)
    Politically drama was affected immensely. I was in Birth of a Nation, which is an extremely political and controversial movie about the Civil War. Dramatic entertainment was often an escape from the world problems and issues. But in some cases audiences were thrust into reality with no choice otherwise. I, as an actress, had to study politics in the 1800s for my role (PBS, Lillian Gish).

What were your major accomplishments in acting? What methods did you use while performing?
I believe just being able to make a living in the movie business was an accomplishment. I directed and acted my heart out. I was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. I received and honorary Academy Award. I was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. These were all very honorable things to be awarded for, but I believe my whole life was an achievement because I lived it to the fullest ( The Official Website of Lillian Gish).
Acting is life. Do you use a method for life or living? I sure don’t. Acting should seem and become reality. Never get caught acting (BGSU, Gish Sisters)

  • What were the key opportunities you had that led you to turning point in your life and acting?
    Quite honestly, a really great opportunity arose from my father leaving. My mother, sister, and I had to become independent. We all became so through acting. If my family had not made it in the acting world my mother would have had to become a maid or a nanny for a rich family who wouldn’t pay her even close to enough to support our family. At first acting was just a money source, but it became so much more. It became the love of my life (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).
    I also received many opportunities from D.W. Griffith. He was my discoverer. Mr. Griffith put me in my first movie. I owe so much to him. Although I did eventually have to leave his production company, I still hold him dear in my heart. MGM brought me many new opportunities too. I was in my first talking movie there (Beaver, Lillian Gish).
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

What roadblocks or hardships did you have to overcome to be an artist?
My mother struggled to support us and often had to leave Doatsie and I with her actress friends. I learned a lot from them but I always missed my mother. At a young age I had to grow up very fast and get a job. I would often travel in a show without a guardian. I put away childish things to help support my family and to find out that I truly loved acting (Gish Film/Theater Collection).
Later in my life, after I’d had success in silent films, I went back to the theater. Talkies had become popular with everyone except me. I believed it would be the end of elegance in the movie world. Many believed I wouldn’t be a good theater actress. They admired my work in silent films but doubted that my on stage talent was quite as good. Boy, did I prove them wrong! (Extravagant Crowd, Lillian Gish).

  • Who are the people you admire in the arts and beyond? Why do they inspire you?
    I admire my mother more than she ever knew. She is a strong, independent woman who never gave up. She taught me that I didn’t need a man, or anybody for that matter, to succeed. She raised Doatsie and me, and I’m forever grateful. She also brought me into the acting business. I wouldn’t have such a successful career without her. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)
    My dear sister, Doatsie, has always inspired me. She is strong, funny, and never took no for an answer. I love her dearly. D.W. Griffith inspires me, too. He is an amazing director. He put Doatsie and me in our first movie. He is a good teacher, mentor, and friend. (Golden Silents, Lillian Gish)

What anecdotes best illustrate how you became successful in the arts?
The stage manager in my first show once told me “Speak loud and clear, or they’ll get another little girl.” I did just that, and look how far I’ve come! I am grateful to that stage manager, because he may have helped me jump-start my career. You should always listen to the comments and critiques of stage managers, they really know what they are talking about. (Affron, 27)
My first audition for a film was with D.W. Griffith. My sister and I had prepared monologues, but he told us to forget about them. He told us to sit and talk to each other. He then proceeded to pull out a gun. He chased us around the audition room, and the whole time Doatsie and I were screaming. After a while he put the gun away looking satisfied, and told us we got the parts! (Oderman, 26)

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Sources:

Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner, 2001. Print.
“Gish Film Theater Collection.” BGSU, 2003. Web. 26 February, 2012.
Gish, Lillian. Lanes, Selma. An Actors Life for Me. New York: Viking Kestrel, 1987. Print.
“Gish Sisters.” BGSU. 2003. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: About Lillian Gish.” PBS Online, 2001. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish: Actress.” Extravagant Crowd, 2007. Web. 27 February, 2012.
“Lillian Gish (1893-1993).” Golden Silents, 2010. Web. 29 February, 2012.
“News.” The Official Website of Lillian Gish, 2006 Web. 28 February, 2012.
Oderman, Stuart. Lillian Gish: A Life on Stage and Screen. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.
“Talking About Movies: Lillian Gish.” University of Michigan, 2011. Web. 28 February, 2012.
Wismer, Amanda. “Lillian Gish” Massillon Museum of Art. 2006.Web. 29 February, 2012.

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Interviewing-Lillian-Gish
Interviewing-Lillian-Gish

The First Lady of The Silent Screen …

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Photo: Actress Lillian Gish attends 12th Annual American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Awards Honoring Lillian Gish on March 1, 1984 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (WireImage)

“What we tend to forget today is that Gish, like Griffith, was considered out-of-fashion more than 60 years ago. First, the flappers were supposed to have made her Victorian virgin obsolete, and then Garbo’s erotically angled features were supposed to have supplanted Gish’s wholesomely rounded countenance as the standard of female beauty. That Gish has outlived the winds of fashion to become an emblem of eternity itself should not blind us to the fact that both the Motion Picture Academy and the American Film Institute have been grotesquely slow to honor her. Everyone seems to have taken her for granted as an inexorable force of nature. Better late than never, of course, as Victor Hugo is said to have remarked after Britain finally erected a statue to Shakespeare a couple of centuries after the Bard’s demise.” (Andrew Sarris, film historian and critic)

  • Miss Lillian Diana Gish – Awards

1947 – Academy Awards, USA – Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Duel in the Sun (1946)

1955 – Lillian was awarded the George Eastman Award, for distinguished contribution to the art of film, at the George Eastman Museum’s (then George Eastman House’s) inaugural Festival of Film Artists

1960 – Walk of Fame – Motion Picture
On 8 February 1960. At 1720 Vine Street. A star on The Walk Of Fame

1968 – Golden Globes, USA – Nominee for Best Supporting Actress
The Comedians (1967)

1971 – Academy Awards, USA – Honorary Award – For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.

1979 – Women in Film Crystal Awards – Winner, Crystal Award

1982 – Gish, an American icon, was also awarded in the Kennedy Center Honors.

1983 – Order of Arts and Letters, France – Winner Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters On 12 July, 1983.

1984 – American Film Institute, USA – Winner, Life Achievement Award

1987 – National Board of Review, USA – Winner NBR Award, Best Actress, The Whales of August (1987)

1987 – National Board of Review, USA, Winner, Career Achievement Award

1987 – London Critics Circle Film Awards, Winner Special Achievement Award

1988 – Film Independent Spirit Awards, Nominee Independent Spirit Award, Best Female Lead – The Whales of August (1987)

2009 – Online Film & Television Association, Winner, OFTA Film Hall of Fame for Acting

“Oh, all the charming ghosts I feel around me who should share this! It was our privilege for a little while to serve that beautiful thing, the film, and we never doubted for a moment that it was the most powerful thing, the mind and heartbeat of our technical century.”

Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner w
Lillian Gish, at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards, 1971 THA Herald-Examiner

Desert Sun, Number 50, 1 October 1983

Gish to get film award

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Veteran actress LillianGish is the American Film Institute’s choice for its 1984 Lifetime Achievement Award, institute chairman Richard Brandt announced Friday. The film society presents the award annually to an individual “whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the filmmaking art. . . and whose work has stood the test of time,” AFI spokeswoman Sue Donaghue said. Miss Gish, 84, is to accept the honor at a March 1 banquet. “From the dawn of filmmaking, when she first played in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms’ and Birth of a Nation,’ Lillian Gish has been a major artistic force,” said Brandt. “Her distinguished career is an inspiration to filmmakers the world over…”

 

Desert Sun, Number 181, 2 March 1984

Life achievement Lillian Gish saluted by movie industry

BEVERLY HILLS (AP) – “She was there at the birth of an art form,” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. said as the film world saluted Lillian Gish, last great star of the silent film era. Miss Gish, 90, was presented Thursday night with the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute, the second woman recipient in the 12 years of the honor. Bette Davis won the award in 1977. It was an evening for women achievers in the movie world, and Miss Gish presided at the table of honor in the Beverly Hilton ballroom with latter-day stars Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Jeanne Moreau, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Lily Tomlin and Cicely Tyson. “She is the symbol of eternal youth of America,” said Miss Moreau, who has filmed a documentary of Miss Gish’s life. “She had an air of serenity that made everybody calm,” said Robert Mitchum, who starred with Miss Gish in the 1955 film “The Night of the Hunter.” The silent film star was also saluted by co-workers and friends Richard Widmark, who appeared with her in “The Cobweb;” actress Colleen Moore, a friend since 1918; Eva Marie Saint, who appeared with Miss Gish in the TV drama and Broadway play, “A Trip To Bountiful;” Jennifer Jones of “Duel in the Sun” and “A Portrait of Jenny;” and Richard Thomas, who appeared in Miss Gish’s most recent film, the TV movie “Hobson’s Choice.” John Huston recalled how his father, Walter, held Lillian Gish on his shoulder for a 1902 play in Ohio, “In Convict’s Stripes.” John Houseman, who produced two films with Miss Gish, recalled that her MGM boss, Irving Thalberg, once offered to “arrange a scandal” to enliven her reputation as the eternal maiden. She declined, and shortly after talking films began she returned to the theater, making occasional film appearances over the years. Miss Gish, who starred in the pioneering classics of D.W. Griffith such as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Intolerance,” reiterated her familiar theme that the movies lost magic when they learned to talk. She urged a return to the silent film, but added: “Don’t give up talking pictures. We still make good ones like “Tootsie” and “Gandhi.”

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

guest of honor at reception hosted by Frank H. Ricketson Jr. center. She is greeted by Charles M. Schayer, member of Central City Opera House Association - Denver Post
guest of honor at reception hosted by Frank H. Ricketson Jr. center. She is greeted by Charles M. Schayer, member of Central City Opera House Association – Denver Post
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

“There’s no question that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience.” (Miss Lillian Gish)

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A selection made from few of Miss Lillian Gish’s silent films

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Miss Lillian Gish’s Quotes presented along with scenes from her movies

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Miss Lillian Gish’s Awards

“Oh, all the charming ghosts I feel around me who should share this! It was our privilege for a little while to serve that beautiful thing, the film, and we never doubted for a moment that it was the most powerful thing, the mind and heartbeat of our technical century.”

guest of honor at reception hosted by Frank H. Ricketson Jr. center. She is greeted by Charles M. Schayer, member of Central City Opera House Association - Denver Post
guest of honor at reception hosted by Frank H. Ricketson Jr. center. She is greeted by Charles M. Schayer, member of Central City Opera House Association – Denver Post

“What we tend to forget today is that Gish, like Griffith, was considered out-of-fashion more than 60 years ago. First, the flappers were supposed to have made her Victorian virgin obsolete, and then Garbo’s erotically angled features were supposed to have supplanted Gish’s wholesomely rounded countenance as the standard of female beauty. That Gish has outlived the winds of fashion to become an emblem of eternity itself should not blind us to the fact that both the Motion Picture Academy and the American Film Institute have been grotesquely slow to honor her. Everyone seems to have taken her for granted as an inexorable force of nature. Better late than never, of course, as Victor Hugo is said to have remarked after Britain finally erected a statue to Shakespeare a couple of centuries after the Bard’s demise.” (Andrew Sarris, film historian and critic)

Miss Lillian Diana Gish – Awards

1947 – Academy Awards, USA – Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Duel in the Sun (1946)

1955 – Lillian was awarded the George Eastman Award, for distinguished contribution to the art of film, at the George Eastman Museum’s (then George Eastman House’s) inaugural Festival of Film Artists

1960 – Walk of Fame – Motion Picture
On 8 February 1960. At 1720 Vine Street. A star on The Walk Of Fame

1968 – Golden Globes, USA – Nominee for Best Supporting Actress
The Comedians (1967)

1971 – Academy Awards, USA – Honorary Award – For superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures.

1979 – Women in Film Crystal Awards – Winner, Crystal Award

1982 – Gish, an American icon, was also awarded in the Kennedy Center Honors.

1983 – Order of Arts and Letters, France – Winner Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters On 12 July, 1983.

1984 – American Film Institute, USA – Winner, Life Achievement Award

1987 – National Board of Review, USA – Winner NBR Award, Best Actress, The Whales of August (1987)

1987 – National Board of Review, USA, Winner, Career Achievement Award

1987 – London Critics Circle Film Awards, Winner Special Achievement Award

1988 – Film Independent Spirit Awards, Nominee Independent Spirit Award, Best Female Lead – The Whales of August (1987)

 

2009 – Online Film & Television Association, Winner, OFTA Film Hall of Fame for Acting

lillian-gish-melvyn-douglas-at-the-43rd-annual-academy-awards-1971_B
Lillian Gish and Melvyn Douglas at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards -1971
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)
Lillian Gish holding her Honorary Oscar at the 43rd Academy Awards, April 15th 1971. (Photo by Pictorial Parade Archive Photos)

Actress Lillian Gish attends 12th Annual American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Awards Honoring Lillian Gish on March 1, 1984 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

AFI Life Achievement Award A Tribute to Lillian Gish (1984) with AFI founder George Stevens Jr – Photo – Globe

Miss Lillian Gish – -1984 – CBS TV (MOMA) Museum Of Modern Art

Miss Lillian Gish – -1984 – CBS TV (MOMA) Museum Of Modern Art

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION – Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet – Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

Comedienne Phyllis Diller, left, and veteran film star Lillian Gish talk with Gov. James Rhodes before they were inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in 1979 B

Comedienne Phyllis Diller, left, and veteran film star Lillian Gish talk with Gov. James Rhodes before they were inducted into the Ohio Senior Citizens Hall of Fame in 1979.

Desert Sun, Number 50, 1 October 1983

Gish to get film award

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Veteran actress LillianGish is the American Film Institute’s choice for its 1984 Lifetime Achievement Award, institute chairman Richard Brandt announced Friday. The film society presents the award annually to an individual “whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the filmmaking art. . . and whose work has stood the test of time,” AFI spokeswoman Sue Donaghue said. Miss Gish, 84, is to accept the honor at a March 1 banquet. “From the dawn of filmmaking, when she first played in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms’ and Birth of a Nation,’ Lillian Gish has been a major artistic force,” said Brandt. “Her distinguished career is an inspiration to filmmakers the world over…”

 

Desert Sun, Number 181, 2 March 1984

Life achievement Lillian Gish saluted by movie industry

BEVERLY HILLS (AP) – “She was there at the birth of an art form,” Douglas Fairbanks Jr. said as the film world saluted Lillian Gish, last great star of the silent film era. Miss Gish, 90, was presented Thursday night with the Life Achievement Award of the American Film Institute, the second woman recipient in the 12 years of the honor. Bette Davis won the award in 1977. It was an evening for women achievers in the movie world, and Miss Gish presided at the table of honor in the Beverly Hilton ballroom with latter-day stars Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Jeanne Moreau, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Lily Tomlin and Cicely Tyson. “She is the symbol of eternal youth of America,” said Miss Moreau, who has filmed a documentary of Miss Gish’s life. “She had an air of serenity that made everybody calm,” said Robert Mitchum, who starred with Miss Gish in the 1955 film “The Night of the Hunter.” The silent film star was also saluted by co-workers and friends Richard Widmark, who appeared with her in “The Cobweb;” actress Colleen Moore, a friend since 1918; Eva Marie Saint, who appeared with Miss Gish in the TV drama and Broadway play, “A Trip To Bountiful;” Jennifer Jones of “Duel in the Sun” and “A Portrait of Jenny;” and Richard Thomas, who appeared in Miss Gish’s most recent film, the TV movie “Hobson’s Choice.” John Huston recalled how his father, Walter, held Lillian Gish on his shoulder for a 1902 play in Ohio, “In Convict’s Stripes.” John Houseman, who produced two films with Miss Gish, recalled that her MGM boss, Irving Thalberg, once offered to “arrange a scandal” to enliven her reputation as the eternal maiden. She declined, and shortly after talking films began she returned to the theater, making occasional film appearances over the years. Miss Gish, who starred in the pioneering classics of D.W. Griffith such as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Broken Blossoms,” and “Intolerance,” reiterated her familiar theme that the movies lost magic when they learned to talk. She urged a return to the silent film, but added: “Don’t give up talking pictures. We still make good ones like “Tootsie” and “Gandhi.”

lillian-gish-melvyn-douglas-at-the-43rd-annual-academy-awards-1971_A
Lillian Gish and Melvyn Douglas at the 43rd Annual Academy Awards -1971

“What we tend to forget today is that Gish, like Griffith, was considered out-of-fashion more than 60 years ago. First, the flappers were supposed to have made her Victorian virgin obsolete, and then Garbo’s erotically angled features were supposed to have supplanted Gish’s wholesomely rounded countenance as the standard of female beauty. That Gish has outlived the winds of fashion to become an emblem of eternity itself should not blind us to the fact that both the Motion Picture Academy and the American Film Institute have been grotesquely slow to honor her. Everyone seems to have taken her for granted as an inexorable force of nature. Better late than never, of course, as Victor Hugo is said to have remarked after Britain finally erected a statue to Shakespeare a couple of centuries after the Bard’s demise.”

(Andrew Sarris, film historian and critic)

 

Lillian won an honorary Oscar in 1971 and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1984, both tributes long overdue according to Andrew Sarris: “Everyone seems to have taken her for granted as an inexorable force of nature.” Her best chance for an Oscar was her performance as Letty in The Wind. Even if the movie had not failed so dismally, the year of eligibility, 1928-29, would have pitted Lillian against actresses in talking pictures. Mary Pickford won for her talking debut in Coquette; Lillian was not even nominated. More than forty years later, it was indeed high time that the Academy set matters right. Melvyn Douglas addressed Lillian as “the youngest human being in this theatre tonight—if youth be measured by zest, enthusiasm, and sheer physical strength.” He noted the “hard steel” beneath her deceptively fragile exterior.

Following the film clips and his remarks, Douglas called Lillian to the stage with, “Come and get your long, long overdue Oscar, Miss Gish, Miss Lillian Gish, Miss Lillian, Lillian,” thereby binding her to audiences, coworkers, and friends with varying and fitting degrees of respect and familiarity. She delivered a short speech of gratitude, all wonted directness and humility, acknowledging “the charming ghosts” with whom she shared the award, and the medium itself, “the mind and heartbeat of our technical century.”

— Charles Affron —

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

A selection made from few of Miss Lillian Gish’s silent films

Back to Lillian Gish Home page

Miss Lillian Gish’s Quotes presented along with scenes from her movies

Back to Lillian Gish Home page